Coordinate a synchronised movement: Flocking behavior in groups May 2019: Defining Collaboration DNA

As we mentioned in a previous post on the murmurations of a collaborative sustainable economy, the basic models of flocking behaviour are controlled by three simple rules:

  • Cohesion – steer towards average position of neighbours
  • Separation – avoid crowding neighbours
  • Alignment – steer towards average heading of neighbours

There is nothing saying that the rules of a collaborative, sustainable economy will be any more complex. After all, really, all we need to do is coordinate a synchronised movement.

So, perhaps we might try to model a formula for organisational collaboration on three similar rules.

Steer towards a better place / a more sustainable / regenerative / collaborative future.
Head towards grace / the place you think everyone and everything will be better off…

Don’t get too close to others, you’ll bump wings and they won’t be able to fly. Don’t crowd anyone out, give them space to soar and glide freely.

Don’t get too far from others either. If you need to follow your own path and split from the group because you have your own idea about where everyone would be better off then that’s ok, some others might share your vision and flock with you. But don’t burn any bridges, or spend too long off on your own lost in the clouds; there’s safety in numbers and the magic of murmurations can only happen when you’re part of a group. It’s cool to diverge and follow your own trajectory, we need mavericks! Plus, it’s always exciting when a splinter group returns to the flock, and the impetus of a new direction sends ripples through the flock which rebounds and rejoices from the reunion.

Applying the formula to our organisations to create synergy

Collaboration is about experimentation and learning what works. So, if we’re going to test the hypothesis, and the formula, we need a pragmatic implementation which we can engage with right now, since the tide of time is not on our side.

The rules above are essentially about direction and communication. If we’re going to collaborate effectively to create astonishing emergent patterns that we could never conceive of on our own, and glorious collective impact, we need to find ways to broadcast our intentions and to communicate effectively to keep everyone else updated about our progress, and to have a clear view of each others’ trajectories.

One practical interpretation of this idea could be a simple protocol, or basic publishing format which organisations could follow if they wish to join the flock. Imagine if every organisation working on building the regenerative economy was to publish a simple web page, listing:

  • The organisations purpose (In just a sentence)
  • A list of freeform tags describing the scope of their work
  • A link to their RSS feed

These basic ingredients, especially if they were indexed somewhere, would provide the ability for anyone else to aggregate and display the cohesion and progress of any particular flock of interest.

So The Open Co-ops collaborative DNA page would look like this:

  • Purpose: To build a world-wide community of individuals and organisations committed to the creation of a collaborative, sustainable economy
  • Scope: #community building, #conferences, #systems change, #economy
  • RSS:

With open access to that basic information, from a number of organisations, any mid level techy could use a free online, or bespoke aggregator to give other people and organisation who were interested in, or working in, their field a holistic overview of the organisational murmurations in their sector.

There’s probably better, simpler, and / or more sophisticated interpretations of the collaborative DNA concept – this is just an initial idea. If you have feedback to help develop the idea please leave a comment below, contact us directly, or crack on and build it… Who knows, if it has wings perhaps it might fly?


Harmonious Working Patterns?

Rewriting the story of human collaboration! (Pt 2. — Analog)

These guys again… but musical!


Life is music, you don’t go to a concert to hear the last crash cymbal and leave, you go for the experience and enjoy a dance or you’ve missed the point¹. This is a proposal for scaling human organisation in swarms;² it is a non-prescriptive allegorical pattern that follows musical laws.³ Individuals are considered as notes in a scale and thus chords typically represent three person working groups. This is a basic premise upon which we can expand.

Punk rock on the left, Jazz on the right.


The basis for this proposal integrates number of sources, but the synthesis of it is largely non-linear.⁴⁵⁶ So that things are easier to follow and agreeable it’s suggested that we use the laws of harmonious vibration to guide organisational experimentation. If you prefer colour as a medium, your welcome to substitute colour for music theory, it’s probably all the same so long as it’s Pythagorean!⁷

Problem / Driver

Looks kinda natural, sounds kinda natural… naturally it should work!?

We need to scale and integrate causes in general for exponential value creation. We also need to shift global patterns from zero-sum games to reciprocal ones or face a planetary lose-lose scenario.⁸ Single organisations often have problems with alignment, let alone non-entitieswith theoretically infinite stakeholders. How do we create a metastable commons?

Working with others generally results in increased focus, information dispersion and output quality. This is by and large the point of organising as a group — to create positive sum returns! Admittedly this doesn’t always work out and group think can create situations that are to the detriment of an individual.

As organisations scale, they tend to slowly commit Seppuku by building up an arsenal of complicated processes. The intent is usually to handle a short term problem, but as time marches on they accumulate and the organisation eventually begins to self-suffocate on the bureaucracy… at the point it becomes critical many are already likely to have had enough.

As an alternative, we are looking for working patterns that are fluid, self-directing and actualising — while at the same time acknowledging the importance of connection, belonging and working together!

This might sound counter intuitive, but paradox it turns out is pretty damn common in nature! To illustrate I suggest trying to describe a fractal — does the opposite word also apply? Cool, so let’s find allegory in the natural to guide our collaboration and elaboration biomimetically!


The proposal is to base our working patterns in music. In an organisational context, chords become working groups consisting of notes or people that form around a purpose of achieving a shared goal, before disbanding again towards completion.

When forming the next chord (or working group) its internal makeup should probably retain a good deal of harmonic self-similarity — members ideally remaining related to the previous group but not completely identical. The musical example of this relationship is C major and A minor, who’s constituent notes are CEG and ACE — a single note or persons difference.

Paired programming in this regard can be considered a simple “power chord” or “dyad” where the fundamental note is mutually reinforced by its closest consonant relation or good friend the musical fifth. These notes are indeed mutually reinforcing but may tend to lack meaningful direction in a larger context; they are too similar! At this point we can obtain a gravitational centre simply by adding a third person or note to the mix, giving rise to major or minor directionality and enabling the emergence of a minimally coordinated or self-directing group (“triad’).⁹

Chords or groups of higher complexity have lower consonance or alignment initially, but because of the discord they can perhaps be used to navigate complex changes or create stronger resolutions (alignment) within an organisation.

Practically we might suggest that sounding or gathering all the notes of a given octave might be equivalent to other octaves which would be self-similar and thus a representative sample of the whole. Seven also happens to be the number of neighbours a murmurmering starling appears to follow¹⁰ and is often the limit of our own object tracking capabilities for things like phone numbers.¹¹

I don’t wish to prescribe anything, but perhaps that’s also the limit for making complex decisions?

Practical steps…

  • Take it upon oneself to form a power chord (duo) with a friend.
  • Decide on a third party who you think can add value to the group in either a major or minor direction. When necessary you may adopt suspensions and other alternate voices, but I’d suggest ideally only when up scaling or changing key.
  • As a trio decide on an activity you think is impactful towards a larger goal and commit to doing the work together.
  • When the task is complete, two parties continue with a related next step. At the end of group work decide who this should be but not what to do.
  • The two people/notes continuing the epic, should procure a new third party based on a “strange attractor” otherwise known as alignment to the previously completed work. From here the newly formed chord can decide on the direction of the next movement.
  • Scale infinitely.


The Giveth DAC, the team of people working on the DApp and many other Galaxy projects, is funded through the DApp. We depend on Givers like you: individuals who want to help us to make the World a Better Place. If our mission speaks to you, go to or contact any of the Unicorns on Riot, and tell us how you’d like to contribute. ❤


[1] Alan Watts Life and Music
[2] Scale-free correlations in starling flocks
[3] To be clear pythagorean tuning means that there is no quantisation of the octave which we force upon the instruments we have built with equally tempered tuning, thus octaves are fractal within themselves and do not repeat more than once. Here is a less quantised piano that closer abides to the constraints of this theory, though real perfection can only be found in nature (you lucky human!).
[4] Paul Biedler
[5] Tribal leadership
[6] Three body problem
[7] About Pythagorean tuning
[8] Which probably looks like the Mad Max now-now days… if we’re lucky
[9] This stack of three is also a primitive of many other interesting disciplines such as DAOist philosophy (subjective, objective, interrelated) or some of the other references on the previous page. How many examples can you find?
[10] Starling tracking
[11] The magic number 7


Hierarchy Is Not the Problem… …It’s the Power Dynamics

Drawing of 3 org charts: hierarchy, consensus, blah blah… they’re just shapes!

We hosted a workshop on decentralised organising for the Civicwise network in Modena last week.

At one point I said, “I don’t care about hierarchy, hierarchy is not the problem,” and immediately felt the temperature in the room drop by a few degrees.

I know I can be provocative with my overly-concise use of language, so I wanted to take some space here to explain more thoroughly. It will take me a few minutes to describe my understanding of hierarchy and power, making the argument that this focus on “hierarchy” is a dangerous misdirection. Then in part 2, I share 11 practical steps that you can take to improve the power dynamics at your workplace, whether you’re in a horizontal collective, decentralised company, hierarchical organisation, or a post-consensus social foam.

Hierarchy Is Just a Shape

For this argument, we need to set aside our emotional and political reactions to the word “hierarchy”. Let’s pretend for a few minutes that we’ve never seen the horrible coercive inefficient hierarchies of human organisations, and just treat the word as a neutral scientific term. I’m thinking of hierarchy purely as a taxonomy, a way to map a system into nested relationships.

Take language for instance. If you tell me you hate fruit, I know not to offer you an apple. It would be impossible to make sense of the world without these hierarchical relationships.

Many natural systems can be understood through a hierarchical metaphor: a tree has a trunk and branches and twigs and leaves. I have no issue with that hierarchy. I don’t think we need a revolution for leaves to overthrow their branches.

In this taxonomical view, hierarchy is an amoral metaphor, a map, a shape which allows me to efficiently explain that this is contained by that.

I don’t think it is inherently unjust to have an organisation with some hierarchical forms. You might have a communications department, alongside an engineering department, and they may both be contained by some coordinating function.

In the kind of “self-managing” “flat” “non-hierarchical” or “less-hierarchical” organisations we work with at The Hum, org charts are usually drawn with friendly circles instead of evil triangles.

Take Enspiral, for instance. We frequently use a circular metaphor to draw a map of our the different roles in the network. I know the circle has symbolic importance for us, but… isn’t it just a pyramid viewed from a different angle?

Roles at Enspiral: Members, Contributors, Friends

So What?

More than just an abstract semantic debate for word nerds, I believe that this fascination with “hierarchy” and “non-hierarchy” is a major problem. Focusing on “hierarchy” doesn’t just miss the point, it creates cover for extremely toxic behaviour.

I have encountered so many organisations who describe themselves as “non-hierarchical”, and wear that label as a badge of pride.

I’m guilty of this myself: having declared ourselves to be a “non-hierarchical” organisation, I’m unable to clearly see the un-just, un-accountable, un-inclusive, un-transparent, un-healthy dynamics that inevitably emerge in any human group. Calling ourselves “non-hierarchical” is like a free pass that gets in the way of our self-awareness.

Jo Freeman named this beautifully in The Tyranny of Structurelessness, where she argues that the informal hierarchies of a “structureless” group will always be less accountable and fair than a more formal organisation. It’s worth reading the essay in full, but I’ll pull out a couple paragraphs here to give you the flavour:

“Contrary to what we would like to believe, there is no such thing as a structureless group. Any group of people of whatever nature that comes together for any length of time for any purpose will inevitably structure itself in some fashion. The structure may be flexible; it may vary over time; it may evenly or unevenly distribute tasks, power and resources over the members of the group. But it will be formed regardless of the abilities, personalities, or intentions of the people involved. (…)

“This means that to strive for a structureless group is as useful, and as deceptive, as to aim at an “objective” news story, “value-free” social science, or a “free” economy. A “laissez faire” group is about as realistic as a “laissez faire” society; the idea becomes a smokescreen for the strong or the lucky to establish unquestioned hegemony over others. This hegemony can be so easily established because the idea of “structurelessness” does not prevent the formation of informal structures, only formal ones. Similarly “laissez faire” philosophy did not prevent the economically powerful from establishing control over wages, prices, and distribution of goods; it only prevented the government from doing so. Thus structurelessness becomes a way of masking power, (…) usually most strongly advocated by those who are the most powerful (whether they are conscious of their power or not). As long as the structure of the group is informal, the rules of how decisions are made are known only to a few and awareness of power is limited to those who know the rules. Those who do not know the rules and are not chosen for initiation must remain in confusion, or suffer from paranoid delusions that something is happening of which they are not quite aware.

Freeman uses the word “structureless”, which is specific to the context of her 1960’s feminism. Today, you could swap “structureless” for “non-hierarchical” and get a very accurate diagnosis of a sickness that afflicts nearly every group that rejects hierarchical structures.

We’re coming up to the 50th anniversary of this essay, and still it seems the majority of radical organisations have missed the point.

So I repeat: I don’t care about hierarchy. It’s just a shape. I care about power dynamics.

Yes, when a hierarchical shape is applied to a human group, it tends to encourage coercive power dynamics. Usually the people at the top are given more importance than the rest. But the problem is the power, not the shape. So let’s focus on the problem.

More Feminists Talking About “Power”

“Power” is a complex, loaded word, so let’s slow down again and unpack it.

My understanding borrows a lot from Miki Kashtan and Starhawk, who in turn borrow from Mary Parker Follett(To follow this train of thought, read Kashtan’s Myths of Power-With series and Starhawk’s excellent short book The Empowerment Manual.)

Follett coined the terms “power-over” and “power-with” in 1924. Starhawk adds a third category “power-from-within”. These labels provide three useful lenses for analysing the power dynamics of an organisation. With apologies to the original authors, here’s my definitions:

  • power-from-within or empowerment — the creative force you feel when you’re making art, or speaking up for something you believe in
  • power-with or social power — influence, status, rank, or reputation that determines how much you are listened to in a group
  • power-over or coercion — power used by one person to control another

I think words like “non-hierarchical”, “self-managing” and “horizontal” are kind of vague codes, pointing to our intention to create healthy power relations. In the past, when I said “Enspiral is a non-hierarchical organisation”, what I really meant was “Enspiral is a non-coercive organisation”. That’s the important piece, we’re trying to work without coercion.

These days I have mostly removed “non-hierarchical” from my vocabulary. I still haven’t found a great replacement, but for now I say “decentralised”. But again, it’s not the shape that’s interesting, it’s the power dynamics.

Here are the power dynamics I’m striving for in a “decentralised organisation”:

  1. Maximise power-from-within: everyone feels empowered; they are confident to speak up, knowing their voice matters; good ideas can come from anywhere; people play to their strengths; creativity is celebrated; growth is encouraged; anyone can lead some of the time.
  2. Make power-with transparent: we’re honest about who has influence; pathways to social power are clearly signposted; influential roles are distributed and rotated; the formal org chart maps closely to the informal influence network.
  3. Minimise power-over: one person cannot force another to do something; we are sensitive to coercion; any restrictions on behaviour are developed with a collective mandate.

This sounds nice in theory, but how does it work in practice? I’ve been experimenting with these questions for years as a cofounder and a coach, so I have some practical suggestions for shifting power in each of the three dimensions.

You can read all about it in the second part of this essay: 11 Practical Steps Towards Healthy Power Dynamics at Work.

p.s. If you want to move your organisation towards healthier power dynamics, check or contact me for info about out trainings, retreats and coaching. We have public events coming up soon in Glasgow & Brussels.

p.p.s. Published by Richard D. Bartlett, with no rights reserved. You have my consent to reproduce without permission: different file formats are on my website


Warm Data, the relational information that integrates a complex system. It is in the mostly unspoken, un-measurable inter-steeping between contexts. 

Our contexts calibrate with and through us. How to know where the contexts end and the self begins? Systems change is not about fixing the system. It is about sense-making. The fixing will happen by happenchance, not direct correctives… but only when the interdependencies come into view.  That’s the warm data.

Eating Sand: Tasting Textures of Communication in Warm Data 

For years I have written about the systemic crises of our times in terms of tenderness, and rawness. I have exposed my inner world in its morphing potential. I have felt it important to offset the many graphs and articles that blaze facts of climate change, people trafficking, addiction, immigration crisis, racism and wealth gap as statistics baked and served in varying analysis. I wanted to feel it, and to share the language of that sensorial exploration. I have been on the outside of corporate trends of language. I have been eating sand; doing gritty work, reaching into the frequencies that people felt were too far out of reach to be communicable. I do not have a single thing that is sellable on the market of solutions. But the sand has been good, it was formed by the tempests of both wind and sea. Response to today’s complex emergencies requires multisensory familiarity with emergence.

It matters. The way we talk about the crises, from rape to refugees, to climate and wealth gap, from crooked politics to obsolete ways of living – the way we discuss what needs to be done now will shape what it is possible to do.

Finally, it is time to publically notice what has been unsayable. If the discourse is moored to the existing notions of logic, then that is what will be delivered. The need to get out of the rational, credible, authorized tones of dishwasher instructional manuals cannot be overstated — This is not a moment to fix a machine, this is a moment to compose new cultures. This is the time to allow the success stories of the past to find themselves rewritten as denouement. The failures of the past are suddenly as vital as ancient grains.

If the story is told in flatness, the “solutions” will be flat. If the work is done in sterile rooms with sterile power-points, the findings will not be imbued with the new frequencies necessary. The connection between the textures that the emergencies are described within and the way responses can emerge is non-trivial. Stale discourse produces stale responses. Linear discourse produces linear responses. What sort of response is hoped for?

Right now, there is another form of communication beckoning, without which it will not be possible to make sense of the complexity we are within. Strangely, this new communication is not ABOUT complexity, it is within it. It is in the Warm Data, the relational information that integrates a complex system. It is in the mostly unspoken, un-measurable inter-steeping between contexts.

For example: a child’s behavior makes sense through cultural, familial, educational, emotional, intergenerational, technological, medicinal, economic influences coming together.

You cannot pull those contexts out of the child, nor can you pull the child from the contexts. The ways that kid goes into the world are always permeated with the world they perceive. You and me, we are that child, making sense, and behaving in infinite response to the contexts we are within. Our contexts calibrate with and through us. How to know where the contexts end and the self begins? Systems change is not about fixing the system. It is about sense-making. The fixing will happen by happenchance, not direct correctives… but only when the interdependencies come into view.

That’s the warm data.

And yet, the culture has produced professional institutions and parenting expectations that are premised on the idea that the child’s behavior can be isolated and fixed. Or, that the climate and refugee crises, wealth gap, and other emergencies can be isolated and fixed. It is as though there it is a given that the living world is somehow congruent to industry; each part fitted and assembled in another department. As such, the institutions are blind to context by design, receiving only specified veins of data to each one.

To widen the perception is risky as it requires first and foremost validating contextualization of the discourse, and mandating contextual response. This is radically outside of the mission of any of the institutions. But, to activate this contextual perception is to recognize that the fragmentary dismembered arrangement of the existing systems has failed to respect life. In many cases it is not even legal for information to cross contexts. Police info, health info, school info, are each locked up in separate boxes in a complicated right for privacy. And yet the child, and you and me, and the rest of the living world, we are all soaked through, there is no way to separate out my education from my emotion, from my instincts as a mother, from my microbiome, from my culture, from my language.

The institutions of education, law, health, politics, economy, media do not have the sense organs to take in information that includes the complexity of life. They are therefore devitalizing the world at all levels. The schools cannot include economic or cultural information in their testing, nor can they include the children’s innate ability to reject the reductionism that they are measured within. Health professionals are incapable of utilizing information about education, culture, and politics to treat patients whose suffering is tied to poverty, belief, and epistemological blockages. Law is riddled with binaries that are unable to account for contextual realities. Politics are locked to the last centuries, to profit, to jealousy, and to personal gain. The confusion generated by our institutions is a tornado of spinning consequences sucking up possibility for new responses. The blind spots are starting to scream.

The change is at the level of how the world is perceived, and then the values, morals, technology and governance will adjust as a consequence of perception shift. It is not the institutions job to stitch the world back together. The integrity that comes of integrating the many contexts of life is well beyond the reach of those organizations only capable of receiving one kind of information. Holistic coherence is invisible without contextual information and the necessary receptors. All else is contextually incoherent. The results of this incoherence are everywhere.

“All the kings horses and all the king’s men… could not put Humpty together again.” But probably the poets could.

Probably the rappers can.

Probably those who have been so betrayed by the existing systems as to lose faith in it can.

Ask the sand.

To recognize that the arrangement of existing systems has failed to respect life is a double bind. Survival of the existing systems is death, but destruction of the existing systems is also fatal. Even to mention this is a dangerous risk that could undermine all the goodness that our ancestors tried to achieve through ordered society. Damn. It was not enough. The change is at the level of what world is perceived, and then, only after that, the values, morals, technology and governance will shift as a consequence of that perception shift.

This is that moment, when the doctor says that without a drastic lifestyle change, your odds are not good. The old patterns, the logic, the history, have to be harmonized into what is possible. But that is only possible in the relation between the chords, the notes and the silences. It is only possible in the relationship between the self and the contexts, between the people and institutions, between my body and the environment I inhabit. All of that relationality is warm data, to be noticed, tended, and vitalized.

The numbness and distance of much of the discourse expressing all that needs to be addressed now both globally and personally scares me, almost more than the crises themselves. It scares me because it does not invite strangers and sand. I arrived unwanted, talking about the liminal spaces between the institutions, between generations, mixing things inconveniently. I have been scratching the skin of old language, watching it go red, feeling the itch and the sting.

No one really wants to question the stuff of deep belonging: things like the impermanence of current notions of ownership, material profit, citizenship, or even of the human species. But surely it is becoming difficult to deny that all of these are beginning to fray. Fundamentally, who am I without my things, my country, and my status (however dodgy)? Sensing into belongingness in a parallel set of interdependencies is disorienting. What matters? My financial status? Or my community in the biosphere. Remember, status is a relational pursuit that drives people to destroy other relationships. Is there a reorganizing of relational being that demands a new understanding of status beyond fame and fortune? What is status in relevance to the interdependencies of life?

Finding the other realms of self that can be rallied to meet this moment is urgent but not easy. The nuance is slippery to the language of emergency. This is not just about political outcry, or intellectual performance. This moment is about a weird and unshapely existential groping for who you and I might be in a world that is not yet formed. In-formation, information, inform-ation, what is formed forms. I am not being cute here, I am quite serious.

So I have gone off the trail, and into the forest, to get to new ways of attuning to and expressing the complexity of this moment. Sometimes people think I am being abstract, others may think it is because I do not know the theory, others may find it unfamiliar territory to mine the minutia of intimate sense-making moments. But this is how I find my way into the larger contexts, and how I keep my compass on the interdependency and avoid getting bogged in the existing scripts.

Talking about complexity is one thing. There are fat vocabulary words that impress some people and put-off others. There are models, math formulas, and definitions in the theory world that people tout like sports trivia. There are even cognitive development assessments to register those who can muster levels 4 and 5 of complex thinking. But then, there is life.

Life is of course complex. It always has been for every living organism. To be alive is to read and respond in some way to the contexts that one is within. Whether you are a child or a caterpillar, a politician or a babysitter you are already doing complexity, all day, every day. There is nothing impossible about it. The issue is the training to find causality in direct terms, name it and seek correctives at that level, which is never where it is.

The immigration laws won’t stop people from wanting cheap goods. Yet, every item produced through exploitation creates more desperation. Legal disavowment of the rights of migrants of won’t stop people who cannot feed their children from seeking new lives. The complexity is far beyond the reach of the law. Consequences of other sorts are however bound to emerge, like: humanitarian crimes, culture wars, political backlash, economic disruption, and intergenerational loss of faith in governance.

Knowing about complexity and systems theory is fun for me. The crunchy work my head has to do to play with the theoretical language is a delicious charge. This is my geek zone. Others have theirs in tech, history, mechanics, gardening, crafts, music or whatever. It is nice to have a niche, but ultimately insufficient. Finding the ways in which those theories and ideas have a place in my day, my body, my identity, my community, my microbiome — that is where the rigor goes into hyperspeed. In the intimacy of the tiniest of gestures is the multi-processed, multi-contextual, mutli-lingual, multi-everything-ed tissuing of what it is to be an animate, sensing learning, changing being. This is a portal into a sensitivity that is intensely personal and simultaneously universal.

The future is found in the logic of the affect. The salt is now desperately needed. The why of why an article is written in a particular tone, the who of who is verified by that tone, the when of when that tone is necessary to use. What is it not possible to say? Noticing that — is a revolution in itself. It used to be heresy to bring up aesthetics and tone, but now maybe its possible to bring this warm data to the boardrooms and parliaments. Remember, the opposite of aesthetic is anesthetic.

Each encounter, each conversation. Each action is an action in contextual processes saturated both into the detail of everyday life, intimately — as well as into the wider world. The texture and aesthetic of the way the crises of this time are discussed will become characteristic of the “solutions” generated. The warm data matters.


Gregory Bateson, 1968

Conscious Purpose versus Nature*
(*This lecture was given in August, 1968, to the London Conference on the Dialectics of Liberation, and is
here reprinted from Dialectics of Liberation by permission of the publisher, Penguin Books Inc.)
Our civilization, which is on the block here for investigation and evaluation, has its roots
in three main ancient civilizations: the Roman, the Hebrew and the Greek; and it would
Seem that many of our problems are related to the fact that we have an imperialist
civilization leavened or yeasted by a downtrodden, exploited colony in Palestine. In this
conference, we are again going to be fighting out the conflict between the Romans and
the Palestinians.
You will remember that St. Paul boasted, “I was born free.” What he meant was that he
was born Roman, and that this had certain legal advantages.
We can engage in that old battle either by backing the downtrodden or by backing the
imperialists. If you are going to fight that battle, you have to take sides in it. It’s that
On the other hand, of course, St. Paul’s ambition, and the ambition of the downtrodden, is
always to get on the side of the imperialists-to become middle-class imperialists
themselves-and it is doubtful whether creating more members of the civilization which
we are here criticizing is a solution to the problem.
There is, therefore, another more abstract problem. We need to understand the
pathologies and peculiarities of the whole Romano-Palestinian system. It is this that I am
interested in talking about. I do not care, here, about defending the Romans or defending
the Palestinians-the upper dogs or the underdogs. I want to consider the dynamics of the
whole traditional pathology in which we are caught, and in which we shall remain as long
as we continue to struggle within that old conflict. We just go round and round in terms
of the old premises.
Fortunately our civilization has a third root-in Greece. Of course Greece got caught up in
a rather similar mess, but still there was a lot of clean, cool thinking of a quite surprising
kind which was different.
Let me approach the bigger problem historically. From St. Thomas Aquinas to the
eighteenth century in Catholic countries, and to the Reformation among Protestants
(because we threw out a lot of Greek sophistication with the Reformation), the structure
of our religion was Greek. In mid-eighteenth century the biological world looked like
this: there was a supreme mind at the top of the ladder, which was the basic explanation
of everything downwards from that-the supreme mind being, in Christianity, God; and
having various attributes at various philosophic stages. The ladder of explanation went
downwards deductively from the Supreme to man to the apes, and so on, down to the
This hierarchy was a set of deductive steps from the most perfect to the most crude or
simple. And it was rigid. It was assumed that every species was unchanging.
Lamarck, probably the greatest biologist in history, turned that ladder’ of explanation
upside down. He was the man who said it starts with the infusoria and that there were
changes leading up to man. His turning the taxonomy upside down is one of the most
astonishing feats that has ever occurred. It was the equivalent in biology of the
Copernican revolution in astronomy.
The logical outcome of turning the taxonomy upside down was that the study of
evolution might provide an explanation of mind.
Up to Lamarck, mind was the explanation of the biological world. But, hey presto, the
question now arose: Is the biological world the explanation of mind? That which was the
explanation now became that which was to be explained. About three quarters of
Lamarck’s Philosophie Zoologique (1809) is an attempt, very crude, to build a
comparative psychology. He achieved and formulated a number of very modern ideas:
that you cannot attribute to any creature psychological capacities for which it has no
organs; that mental process must always have physical representation; and that the
complexity of the nervous system is related to the complexity of mind.
There the matter rested for 150 years, mainly because evolutionary theory was taken
over, not by a Catholic heresy but by a Protestant heresy, in the mid-nineteenth century.
Darwin’s opponents, you may remember, were not Aristotle and Aquinas, who had some
sophistication, but fundamentalist Christians whose sophistication stopped with the first
chapter of Genesis. The question of the nature of mind was something which the
nineteenth-century evolutionists tried to exclude from their theories, and the matter did
not come up again for serious consideration until after World War II. (I am doing some
injustice to some heretics along the road, notably to Samuel Butler-and others).
In World War II it was discovered what sort of complexity entails mind. And, since that
discovery, we know that: wherever in the Universe we encounter that sort of complexity,
we are dealing with mental phenomena. It’s as materialistic as that.
Let me try to describe for you that order of complexity, which is in some degree a
technical matter. Russel Wallace sent a famous essay to Darwin from Indonesia. In it he
announced his discovery of natural selection, which coincided with Darwin’s. Part of his
description of the struggle for existence is interesting:
“The action of this principle [the struggle for existence] is exactly like that of the
steam engine, which checks and corrects any irregularities almost before they
become evident; and in like manner no unbalanced deficiency in the animal
kingdom can ever reach any conspicuous magnitude, because it would make itself
felt at the very first step, by rendering existence difficult and extinction almost
sure to follow.”
The steam engine with a governor is simply a circular train of causal events, with
somewhere a link in that chain such that the more of something, the less of the next thing
in the circuit. The wider the balls of the governor diverge, the less the fuel supply. If
causal chains with that general characteristic are provided with energy, the result will be
(if you are lucky and things balance out) a self-corrective system.
Wallace, in fact, proposed the first cybernetic model.
Nowadays cybernetics deals with much more complex systems of this general kind; and
we know that when we talk about the processes of civilization, or evaluate human
behavior, human organization, or any biological system, we are concerned with selfcorrective systems. Basically these systems are always conservative of something. As in
the engine with a governor, the fuel supply is changed to conserve-to keep constant-the
speed of the flywheel, so always in such systems changes occur to conserve the truth of
some descriptive statement, some component of the status quo. Wallace saw the matter
correctly, and natural selection acts primarily to keep the species unvarying; but it may
act at higher levels to keep constant that complex variable which we call “survival.”
Dr. Laing noted that the obvious can be very difficult for people to see. That is because
people are self-corrective systems. They are self-corrective against disturbance, and if the
obvious is not of a kind that they can easily assimilate without internal disturbance, their
self-corrective mechanisms work to sidetrack it, to hide it, even to the extent of shutting
the eyes if necessary, or shutting off various parts of the process of perception. Disturbing
information can be framed like a pearl so that it doesn’t make a nuisance of itself; and this
will be done, according to the understanding of the system itself of what would be a
nuisance. This too-the premise regarding what would cause disturbance-is something
which is learned and then becomes perpetuated or conserved.
At this conference, fundamentally, we deal with three of these enormously complex
systems or arrangements of conservative loops. One is the human individual. Its
physiology and neurology conserve body temperature, blood chemistry, the length and
size and shape of organs during growth and embryology, and all the rest of the body’s
characteristics. This is a system which conserves descriptive statements about the human
being, body or soul. For the same is true of the psychology of the individual, where
learning occurs, to conserve the opinions and components of the status quo.
Second, we deal with the society in which that individual lives-and that society is again a
system of the same general kind.
And third, we deal with the ecosystem, the natural biological surroundings of these
human animals.
Let me start from the natural ecosystems around man. An English oak wood, or a tropical
forest, or a piece of desert, is a community of creatures. In the oak wood perhaps 1000
species, perhaps more; in the tropical forest perhaps ten times that number of species live
I may say that very few of you here have ever seen such an undisturbed system; there are
not many of them left; they’ve mostly been messed up by Homo sapiens who either
exterminated some species or introduced others which be, came weeds and pests, or
altered the water supply, etc etc. We are rapidly, of course, destroying all the natural
systems in the world, the balanced natural systems. We simply make them unbalancedbut still natural.
Be that as it may, those creatures and plants live together in a combination of competition
and mutual dependency, and it is that combination that is the important thing to consider.
Every species has a primary Malthusian capacity. Any species that does not, potentially,
produce more young than the number of the population of the parental generation is out.
They’re doomed. It is absolutely necessary for every species and for every such system
that its components have a potential positive gain in the population curve. But, if every
species has potential gain, it is then quite a trick to achieve equilibrium. All sorts of
interactive balances and dependencies come into play, and it is these processes that have
the sort of circuit structure that I have mentioned.
The Malthusian curve is exponential. It is the curve of population growth and it is not
inappropriate to call this the population explosion.
You may regret that organisms have this explosive characteristic, but you may as well
settle for it. The creatures that don’t are out.
On the other hand, in a balanced ecological system whose underpinnings are of this
nature, it is very clear that any monkeying with the system is likely to disrupt the
equilibrium. Then the exponential curves will start to appear. One plant will become a
weed, some creatures will be exterminated, and the system as a balanced system is likely
to fall to pieces.
What is true of the species that live together in a wood is also true of the groupings and
sorts of people in a society, who are similarly in an uneasy balance of dependency and
competition. And the same truth holds right inside you, where there is an uneasy
physiological competition and mutual dependency among the organs, tissues, cells, and
so on. Without this competition and dependency you would not be, because you cannot
do without any of the competing organs and parts. If any of the parts did not have the
expansive characteristics they would go out, and you would go out, too. So that even in
the body you have a liability. With improper disturbance of the system, the exponential
curves appear.
In a society, the same is true.
I think you have to assume that all important physiological or social change is in some
degree a slipping of the system at some point along an exponential curve. The slippage
may not go far, or it may go to disaster. But in principle if, say, you kill off the thrushes
in a wood, certain components of the balance will run along exponential curves to a new
stopping place.
In such slippage there is always danger-the possibility that some variable, e.g., population
density, may reach such a value that further slippage is controlled by factors which are
inherently harmful. If, for’ example, population is finally controlled by available food
supply, the surviving individuals will be half starved and the food supply overgrazed,
usually to a point of no return.
Now let me begin to talk about the individual organism. This entity is similar to the oak
wood and its controls are represented in the total mind, which is perhaps only a reflection
of the total body. But the system is segmented in various ways, so that the effects of
something in your food life, shall we say, do not totally alter your sex life, and things in
your sex life do not totally change your kinesic life, and so on. There is a certain amount
of compartmentalization, which is no doubt a necessary economy. There is one
compartmentalization which is in many ways mysterious but certainly of crucial
importance in man’s life. I refer to the “semipermeable” linkage between consciousness
and the remainder of the total mind. A certain limited amount of information about what’s
happening in this larger part of the mind seems to be relayed to what we may call the
screen of consciousness. But what gets to consciousness is selected; it is a systematic (not
random) sampling of the rest.
Of course, the whole of the mind could not be reported in a part of the mind. This follows
logically from the relationship between part and whole. The television screen does not
give you total coverage or report of the events which occur in the whole television
process; and this not merely because the viewers would not be interested in such a report,
but because to report on any extra part of the total process would require extra circuitry.
But to report on the events in this extra circuitry would require a still further addition of
more circuitry, and so on. Each additional step toward increased consciousness will take
the system farther from total consciousness. To add a report on events in a given part of
the machine will actually decrease the percentage of total events reported.
We therefore have to settle for very limited consciousness, and the question arises: How
is the selecting done? On what principles does your mind select that which “you” will be
aware of? And, while not much is known of these principles, something is known, though
the principles at work are often not themselves accessible to consciousness. First of all,
much of the input is consciously scanned, but only after it has been processed by the
totally unconscious process of perception. The sensory events are packaged into images
and these images are then “conscious.”
I, the conscious I, see an unconsciously edited version of a small percentage of what
affects my retina. I am guided in my perception by purposes. I see who is attending, who
is not, who is understanding, who is not, or at least I get a myth about this subject, which
may be quite correct. I am interested in getting that myth as I talk. It is relevant to my
purposes that you hear me.
What happens to the picture of a cybernetic system-an oak wood or an organism-when
that picture is selectively drawn to answer only questions of purpose?
Consider the state of medicine today. It’s called medical science. What happens is that
doctors think it would be nice to get rid of polio, or typhoid, or cancer. So they devote
research money and effort to focusing on these “problems,” or purposes. At a certain
point Dr. Salk and others “solve” the problem of polio. They discover a solution of bugs
which you can give to children so that they don’t get polio. This is the solution to the
problem of polio. At this point, they stop putting large quantities of effort and money into
the problem of polio and go on to the problem of cancer, or whatever it may be.
Medicine ends up, therefore, as a total science, whose structure is essentially that of a bag
of tricks. Within this science there is extraordinarily little knowledge of the sort of things
I’m talking about; that is, of the body as a systemically cybernetically organized selfcorrective system. Its internal interdependencies are minimally understood. What has
happened is that purpose has determined what will come under the inspection or
consciousness of medical science.
If you allow purpose to organize that which comes under your conscious inspection, what
you will get is a bag of tricks-some of them very valuable tricks. It is an extraordinary
achievement that these tricks have been discovered; all that I don’t argue. But still we do
not know two-penn’orth, really, about the total network system. Cannon wrote a book on
The Wisdom of the Body, but nobody has written a book on the wisdom of medical
science, because wisdom is precisely the thing which it lacks. Wisdom I take to be the
knowledge of the larger interactive system-that system which, if disturbed, is likely to
generate exponential curves of change.
Consciousness operates in the same way as medicine in its sampling of the events and
processes of the body and of what goes on in the total mind. It is organized in terms of
purpose. It is a short-cut device to enable you to get quickly at what you want; not to act
with maximum wisdom in order to live, but to follow the shortest logical or causal path to
get what you next want, which may be dinner; it may be a Beethoven sonata; it may be
sex. Above all, it may be money or power.
But you may say: “Yes, but we have lived that way for a million years.” Consciousness
and purpose have been characteristic of man for at least a million years, and may have
been with us a great deal longer than that. I am not prepared to say that dogs and cats are
not conscious, still less that porpoises are not conscious.
So you may say: “Why worry about that?”
But what worries me is the addition of modern technology to the old system. Today the
purposes of consciousness are implemented by more and more effective machinery,
transportation systems, airplanes, weaponry, medicine, pesticides, and so forth.
Conscious purpose is now empowered to upset, the balances of the body, of society, and
of the biological I world around us. A Pathology-a loss of balance-is threatened.
I think that much of what brings us here today is basically related to the thoughts that I
have been putting before you. On the one hand, we have the systemic nature of the
individual human being, the systemic nature of the culture in which he lives, and the
systemic nature of the biological, ecological system around him; and, on the other hand,
the curious twist in the systemic nature of the individual man whereby consciousness is,
almost of necessity, blinded to the systemic nature of the man himself. Purposive
consciousness pulls out, from the total mind, sequences which do not have the loop
structure which is characteristic of the whole systemic structure. If you follow the
“common-sense” dictates of consciousness you become, effectively, greedy and unwiseagain I use “wisdom” as a word for recognition of and guidance by a knowledge of the
total systemic creature.
Lack of systemic wisdom is always punished. We may say that the biological systems-the
individual, the culture, and the ecology-are partly living sustainers of their component
cells or organisms. But the systems are nonetheless punishing of any species unwise
enough to quarrel with its ecology. Call the systemic forces “God” if you will.
Let me offer you a myth.
There was once a Garden. It contained many hundreds of species-probably in the sub
tropics-living in great fertility and balance, with plenty of humus, and so on. In that
garden, there were two anthropoids who were more intelligent than the other animals.
On one of the trees there was a fruit, very high up, which the two apes were unable to
reach: So they began to think. That was the mistake. They began to think purposively.
By and by, the he ape, whose name was Adam, went and got an empty box and put it
under the tree and stepped on it, but he found he still couldn’t reach the fruit. So he got
another box and put it on top of the first. Then he climbed up on the two boxes and
finally he got that apple.
Adam and Eve then became almost drunk with excitement. This was the way to do
things. Make a plan, ABC and you get D.
They then began to specialize in doing things the planned way. In effect, they cast out
from the Garden the concept of their own total systemic nature and of its total systemic
After they had cast God out of the Garden, they really went to work on this purposive
business, and pretty soon the topsoil disappeared. After that, several species of plants
became “weeds” and some of the animals became “pests”; and Adam found that
gardening was much harder work. He had to get his bread by the sweat of his brow and
he said, “It’s a vengeful God. I should never have eaten that apple.”
Moreover, there occurred a qualitative change in the relationship between Adam and Eve,
after they had discarded God from the Garden. Eve began to resent the business of sex
and reproduction. Whenever these rather basic phenomena intruded upon her now
purposive way of living, she was reminded of the larger life which had been kicked out of
the Garden. So Eve began to resent sex and reproduction, and when it came to parturition
she found this process very painful. She said this, too, was due to the vengeful nature of
God. She even heard a Voice say “In pain shalt thou bring forth” and “Thy desire shall be
unto thy husband, and he shall rule over thee.”
The biblical version of this story, from which I have borrowed extensively, does not
explain the extraordinary perversion of values, whereby the woman’s capacity for love
comes to seem a curse inflicted by the deity.
Be that as it may. Adam went on pursuing his purposes and finally invented the freeenterprise system. Eve was not, for a long time, allowed to participate in this because she
was a woman. But she joined a bridge club and there found an outlet for her hate.
In the next generation, they again had trouble with love. Cain, the inventor and innovator,
was told by God that “His [Abel’s] desire shall be unto thee and thou shalt rule over him.”
So he killed Abel.
A parable, of course, is not data about human behavior. It is only an explanatory device.
But I have built into it a phenomenon which seems to be almost universal when man
commits the error of purposive thinking and disregards the systemic nature of the world
with which he must deal. This phenomenon is called by the psychologists “projection.”
The man, after all, has acted according to what he thought was common sense and now
he finds himself in a mess. He does not quite know what caused the mess and he feels
that what has happened is somehow unfair. He still does not see himself as part of the
system in which the mess exists, and he either blames the rest of the system or he blames
himself. In my parable Adam combines two sorts of nonsense: the notion “I have sinned”
and the notion “God is vengeful” If you look at the real situations in our world where the
systemic nature of the world has been ignored in favor of purpose or common sense, you
will find a rather similar reaction. President Johnson is, no doubt, fully aware that he has
a mess on his hands, not only in Vietnam but in other parts of the national and
international ecosystems; and I am sure that from where he sits it appears that he
followed his purposes with common sense and that the mess must be due either to the
wickedness of others or to his own sin or to some combination of these, according to his
And the terrible thing about such situations is that inevitably they shorten the time span
of all planning. Emergency is present or only just around the corner; and long term
wisdom must therefore be sacrificed to expediency, even though there is a dim awareness
that expediency will never give a long-term solution.
Morever, since we are engaged in diagnosing the machinery of our own society, let me
add one point: our politicians-both those in a state of power and those in a state of protest
or hunger for power-are alike utterly ignorant of the matters which I have been
discussing. You can search the Congressional Record for speeches which show
awareness that the problems of government are biological problems, and you will find
very, very few that apply biological insight.
In general, governmental decisions are made by persons who are as ignorant of these
matters as pigeons. Like the famous Dr. Skinner, in The Way of All Flesh, they “combine
the wisdom of the dove with the harmlessness of the serpent.” But we are met here not
only for diagnosis of some of the world’s ills but also to think about remedies. I have
already suggested that no simple remedy to what I called the Romano-Palestinian
problem can be achieved by backing the Romans against the Palestinians or vice versa.
The problem is systemic and the solution must surely depend upon realizing this fact.
First, there is humility, and I propose this not as a moral principle, distasteful to a large
number of people, but simply as an item of a scientific philosophy. In the period of the
Industrial Revolution, perhaps the most important disaster was the enormous increase of
scientific arrogance. We had discovered how to make trains and other machines. We
knew how to put one box on top of the other to get that apple, and Occidental man saw
himself as an autocrat with complete power over a universe which was made of physics
and chemistry. And the biological phenomena were in the end to be controlled like
processes in a test tube. Evolution was the history of how organisms learned more tricks
for controlling the environment; and man had better tricks than any other creature.
But that arrogant scientific philosophy is now obsolete, and in its place there is the
discovery that man is only a part of larger systems and that the part can never control the
Goebbels thought that he could control public opinion in Germany with a vast
communication system, and our own public relations men are perhaps liable to similar
delusions. But in fact the would-be controller must always have his spies out to tell him
what the people are saying about his propaganda. He is therefore in the position of being
responsive to what they are saying. Therefore he cannot have a simple lineal control. We
do not live in the sort of universe in which simple lineal control is possible. Life is not
like that.
Similarly, in the field of psychiatry, the family is a cybernetic system of the sort which I
am discussing and usually when systemic pathology occurs, the members blame each
other, or sometimes themselves. But the truth of the matter is that both these alternatives
are fundamentally arrogant. Either alternative assumes that the individual human being
has total power over the system of which he or she is a part.
Even within the individual human being, control is limited. We can in some degree set
ourselves to learn even such abstract characteristics as arrogance or humility, but we are
not by any means the captains of our souls.
It is, however, possible that the remedy for ills of conscious purpose lies with the
individual. There is what Freud called the royal road to the unconscious. He was referring
to dreams, but I think we should lump together dreams and the creativity of art, or the
perception of art, and poetry and such things. And I would include with these the best of
religion. These are all activities in which the whole individual is involved. The artist may
have a conscious purpose to sell his picture, even perhaps a conscious purpose to make it.
But in the making he must necessarily relax that arrogance in favor of a creative
experience in which his conscious mind plays only a small part.
We might say that in creative art man must experience himself-his total self-as a
cybernetic model.
It is characteristic of the 1960s that a large number of people are looking to the
psychedelic drugs for some sort of wisdom or some sort of enlargement of consciousness,
and I think this symptom of our epoch probably arises as an attempt to compensate for
our excessive purposiveness. But I am not sure that wisdom can be got that way. What is
required is not simply a relaxation of consciousness to let the unconscious material gush
out. To do this is merely to exchange one partial view of the self for the other partial
view. I suspect that what is needed is the synthesis of the two views and this is more
My own slight experience of LSD led me to believe that Prospero was wrong when he
said, “We are such stuff as dreams are made on.” It seemed to me that pure dream was,
like pure purpose, rather trivial. It was not the stuff of which we are made, but only bits
and pieces of that stuff. Our conscious purposes, similarly, are only bits and pieces.
The systemic view is something else again.
(Excerpted from Steps to an Ecology of Mind by Gregory Bateson, The University of
Chicago Press, 1999.)