We are coming to end of a 500 year or so period where we’ve engaged with Life as if it is a machine. The machine model is of distinct, definable components which when assembled in a regular, repeatable pattern produce a mechanism which produces stable, predictable outcomes.
That model was the foundation of the industrial and technological age. We used it to create ever more efficient tools to work with.
One problem with that model is that we went on to apply it to the world, and, indeed, to Life. From this perspective, the Earth is a storehouse of resources to be consumed, and Nature is something which human beings have to subdue and control. From this perspective disease is a malfunctioning part, and the application of an “evidence based” tool will fix it. From this perspective, organisations of humans, from communities, to factories, shops and offices, to whole societies can be controlled by applying a strong hierarchy. A ruling elite can control the cogs in the machine – the rest of the human beings in that organisation. With the “right” rules and processes, all organisations can be made to do whatever the planners, controllers and managers want it to do.
We’ve even squeezed our understanding of science into this model. The mechanistic view of science states this – science is a matter of “observation, description, explanation, prediction and control”. This might work with machines, but we are beginning to discover, it doesn’t work when dealing with Life, human beings, Nature, or what the rest of us might call reality.
So, what’s the new model which is going to help us to see things differently for the next 500 years? It’s the network model. Take a look at this
Quite simply, networks are nodes and links. Some nodes have many links, others have only one or two. The nature of the links in organisms is “non-linear” , and a connected network of non-linear links produces a “complex adaptive system”.
Here are a couple of characteristics of complex adaptive systems which change everything –
They develop “emergent” behaviours. That means that the parts combined create something new, a new form, a new behaviour which could not have been predicted from an analysis of either the parts or the links. Emergent behaviours are one of the keys to growth and evolution. They are the basis of adaptability. They are unpredictable. You’ve heard of the “butterfly effect”? Where a small change in the starting state of a system produces huge changes in the end state?
The economy is like this. It is not predictable. 2008 financial crash. Predictable? Controllable?
Nature is like this. Tsunamis and earthquakes. Predictable? Controllable?
Human beings are like this. Choices, illnesses, responses to treatments. Predictable? Controllable?
Life is like this. Every single living organism is a complex adaptive system embedded in higher and higher orders of complex systems, from families, to communities, to species, to ecosystems, to planets……Predictable? Controllable?
But here’s another characteristic of these systems –
Self-organisation. Organic, complex, adaptive systems have the capacity to self-organise, self-regulate, self-repair, and in the case of living organisms, to self-replicate and make themselves (autopoiesis)
So the organisations of the future will be networks, not hierarchies. We can see now that human beings are not separate from Nature, and that all of Life on planet Earth is co-dependant, connected, and co-evolves. There isn’t Nature out there to predict and control. There isn’t an Earth out there to be plundered and consumed with no consequences to Life.
We can see a different way to live coming down the track towards us. We’re only at the beginning of this one, but here it is – we live, not in giant machine, but as complex organisms inextricably connected in a finite, complex Earth.
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