Monday, 30 May 2011

All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace BBC2

This thought provoking series by Adam Curtis on the BBC (watch it on iplayer) sets out to dismantle 'the great myths of our time'. Namely that self-organising human systems always end up as repressive, whether 70s communes or 2010s ukuncut networks. ( Google 'The Tyranny of Structurelessness' for a classic view of what goes wrong)

Curtis' mistake is trying to apply systems based organisational thinking to organisations which are not even quasi-systems but complex networks of relationships. You need to use complex responsive process thinking to understand them (see previous posts).

Using the term 'self-organising systems' to describe human organisation is a category error. You can use it with ants or bees or other non-sentient creatures but not humans with free will.

Many organisations looked like systems because hierarchical power forced the people in them to behave like automatons in a predictable and controllable system for the purpose of extracting value for the owners. So Curtis talks about feedback loops and cybernetics. And the first ideas about ecosystems which were systems based thinking.

Let's go back to thinkers who were,nt tainted by our prejudices and assumptions. Kant said that it was ok to view assemblages of things in the world 'as if' they were systems (ie that the 'whole' governs the constituent parts) but you could not prove they were. And you could never assume that human organisations were systems because humans have free will and can choose at any time to not obey rules. Therefore human organisations cannot be systems because systems require rules. No rules=no system.

All this old cybernetic stuff is now failed and discredited in relation to human organisation. It was those ideas which led to the horrors of soviet communism and fascist communes. Individuals didn’t matter, only the whole. Using systems based logic these 'systematic' organisations MUST result in repression, it's the only way they can work, logically, within systems theory. You have to have a 'controller' even if it is an elected dictatorship. And then the system tends towards autocracy.

The first computers permitted much more complicated systems management and hence more complicated systematic oppression of humans into limited choices. That was a quantitative change permitting multi-national capitalism to emerge. web2 is a qualitative change because it enables complex communication relationships not merely complicated broadcast and response communication relationships like web1.

The modern network 'connectives' as these new organisations are being called, are not based on systems thinking at all. They are based on communication and processes of relating.

We can now have this type of organisation because communications technology permits real time relating for large numbers of people, at a distance from each other and asynchronous (ie not present at the same time) for the first time in human history. So we don’t have to simplify human relationships to that of master and slaves, boss and employees or even executive leadership team and associates, anymore. In our work and political relationships, we can be as human as we are within our smaller family and friendship groups .

Which is why this is the age of cooperation and not capitalism (at least as we have known it).

Unfortunately while people are acting increasingly as complex relating humans in their public lives, they are still thinking like systems theory restricted automatons. The error made by Adam Curtis. But it's still a fascinating series. The film of Ayn Rand being medic wife said 'that woman is clearly psychotic' and she was Alan Greenspan's guru.


  1. Is there a co-op (or Cannell) critique of Tyranny of Structurelessness? Must confess to finding essay compelling reading when I read it a couple of years back.

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