Note to visitors: These ideas have been developing for some years now. They represent a new way we could run civilization that would not have the rise and fall pattern of all previous (and likely present) civilizations, replacing that with a proven pattern that gets better over time. The same model would allow organizations to evolve without getting stuck in a rut.
There's nothing to buy here. If you want to sign up to learn how to run more efficient, engaged and productive meetings, you can do that along the way, but please read the page first to understand the question-based concept. Thanks ~ Daimon
Oh, and if you have comments, great. There's space at the the bottom.
How Can All Human Beings Have Satisfying Lives
While at the Same Time
Nature Becomes Increasingly Vibrant and Healthy?
Civilization as a System of Collective Intelligence
This is an exploration of systems of collective intelligence, a term I created to describe a natural form of human collective intelligence that accumulates results over time. Science, technology, and capitalism are examples of such systems. Their shared underlying structure accounts for their resilience, global nature, longevity and dynamic creativity.
Systems of collective intelligence are most fundamentally distinguished by the abiding question at the core of each one. In response to this core question and its subquestions, over time each system accumulates a set of increasingly effective working answers in an open-ended process testing possible answers, finding and incorporating better ones based on objective performance, and discarding less effective answers. Below I explain the structure of these systems, identify the core questions of several examples, and show how the same structure can be applied to any organization.
The enormous possibility is that we could create a global civilization on this core-question-based model of collective intelligence, self-optimizing over time toward a desired outcome. I call this possibility Civilization 3.0. It is emergent now, and we are well-positioned to bring it into being more deliberately.
The point of Civilization 3.0 is that it avoids the flaws of Civilization 2.0. That is the model we are following and is the same design that historical civilizations have followed. That model has collapse built into it, inherent in its design. I explain that feature in detail below.
A Civilization 3.0 framed as I suggest would self-optimize toward an increasingly sustainable and healthy global environment and an increasingly satisfying way of life for all human beings. As an evolutionary rather than a revolutionary transition, it would establish itself through competitive superiority, making deliberate use of collective intelligence on a massive, indeed global, scale, generating superior solutions preferred by more people.
Businesses and other organizations can also operate as systems of collective intelligence. The model is fractal and can similarly organize a meeting, a team, or a project of any size, maintaining a natural coherence throughout. Building this approach into an organizational culture would deliver powerful competitive advantages, including higher levels of performance through more internal coherence, better ideas, more resilience, and a faster rate of evolution.
A highly creative culture aligned with meaningful goals to which they could contribute would help attract and keep the best talent. For Civilization 3.0 to become the prevalent culture requires primarily a shift of understanding and some software. Competitive advantage can take it from there.
Is There A Better Way to Run A Civilization?
For decades I thought there had to be a better way of living in the world than having consumption and conflict as the overriding priorities of civilization, with increasing destruction of the global ecosystem as an ongoing result. It was obvious to me that this could not end well.
The Discovery of Systems of Collective Intelligence
Several years ago I set out on a walk. It was a fine afternoon in the summer. The temperature was perfect. I was thinking about how protecting the environment is so hard, and how even when protections seem established they are so often eroded or washed away.
Rather than examining details of how and why that happens, I decided to step back and take a broader view. Suddenly an image appeared. It was an old-fashioned steam locomotive furiously puffing away as it rapidly pulled a line of passenger cars across a vast plain. It was headed directly toward the edge of a high cliff.
Strangely, the tracks were being laid down just ahead of the engine, by something I could not see.
My view changed. Looking in the windows of one of the passenger cars, people were contentedly adjusting the curtains and fixing it up inside, apparently not knowing or caring that they were soon to go over the cliff.
Zooming up and back, I saw the tracks beginning to curve. The train followed, turning gradually to its left. The tracks continued being laid down in an enormous, gradual arc. The train followed until it was headed in exactly the opposite direction. The tracks then straightened out, running parallel to the previously laid track. The engine was puffing as strongly as ever, pulling the train away from the cliff just as rapidly as it had toward it. The image faded at that point.
Then the history of civilizations appeared. I saw that each had an origin, expansion and peak, then a dissipation, fall and collapse. One civilization after another followed the same pattern. These appeared somehow overlaid on a series of up and down waves on a graph. Rise and fall, rise and fall, one after another. The pattern was clear.
So I wondered, "How does that happen?" Another image appeared. This time several people were standing in a natural environment, figuring out how they could live. They had a lot of questions because there were no established ways. They found answers, such as what to grow and who would do what, and all the other things they had to do.
As if speeding through time, I saw their crops growing, their populations growing, their cities growing, their social complexity growing, the elaboration of the architecture and the elevation of their elites, the appearance of armies. I saw the demands on the land growing to support all this. Greater and greater efforts were put into cultivating, growing, mining, logging and transporting it all, in growing quantities. They reached out further and further.
I saw the growth of neighboring city/states. An arms race sprang up. Conquer or be conquered became the reality. Armies had to be created, expanded, maintained and equipped. The only reward for going slower was defeat, so maximum extraction and utilization of all available resources was the rule.
Then, always with a sense of surprise in the cities, they found that the supplies could no longer keep up with the demands. The system's needs were more than the environment could supply. Nothing could be done about the situation. The decline began and did not reverse. Everyone hung on as long as they could, but the end inevitably came.
Those who could, took their skills, their livestock, seeds and tools to virgin territory and began again, only to repeat the process. The rise and fall of civilizations became the biggest fact of history.
After seeing this cycle of rise and fall, I asked, "Why does that happen?" and this insight came: At the beginning they were asking questions. They found a collection of answers. The success of their answers led to growing demands on the environment.
Those growing demands changed the environment in which their answers originated, but the answers did not change. The mismatch between their fixed view and reality grew. As the environment continued changing as a result of using their answers, the answers became less and less matched to the real circumstances. As the answers became less effective, they were used more extensively and intensively. Increasing levels of demand exhausted the environment ever more quickly, until it, and the answers that depended on it, failed.
The key transition leading to that failure is that they stopped living by the questions and started living by the answers.
The key to that transition is that this is a shift we as human beings are wired to make. Our brains automate whatever is familiar or what we do repeatedly. As routines are established, other possibilities become difficult or impossible to imagine. We get stuck in the answers.
I saw that this was the inevitable path of civilizations, including our own, and that is was due to a quirk of human psychology that will not change.
That was pretty depressing. Looking for a way out of this trap I tried the first thing I could think of, which was turning the situation upside down. I asked, "If being answer-based doesn't work, what about being question-based?" I saw that it would work because the people would be continually adjusting their choices in real time, not operating on the basis of a past that no longer existed.
All this happened in the space of taking a few steps on that one afternoon. The rest has taken years.
As it turned out, question-based systems do work. As I explored what it would mean to have a question-based civilization, it kept making sense. Then the whole thing started sounding very familiar, and I realized it was the same pattern used by science. With those two examples, a hypothetical civilization and science as it is, I then saw that technology and capitalism use the same underlying question-based model, each with a different question.
With all those examples I could generalize the pattern. I saw it being used in many ways as our natural form of human collective intelligence. I realized that by understanding and using it deliberately we could gain access to an enormously creative power, the power to lay the tracks so they take us away from the cliff and toward whatever we choose.
Since then I've worked out many of the details of the general system and why it works. That is how systems of collective intelligence, as I now call them, came to be discovered.
Civilization 3.0: The Concept
The catalyst that pulls these ideas together is the concept and the possibility of Civilization 3.0. I have redefined the word "civilization" to mean the major way of life for humans on this planet in a given time period. What are these three levels of civilization?
Civilization 1.0 is the first way humans and human ancestors lived, as hunter-gatherers. This way of life was stable for millions of years, counting the time all our ancestors lived this way. During this time our species spread across the planet. In naming this way of life Civilization 1.0, I discard the assumption that we have nothing to learn from our long, formative experience before sedentary agriculture became the norm, and that the important stuff only started happening later.
On the contrary, our bodies and brains were formed during Civilization 1.0 and we are wired to live that way. Understanding this is crucial to avoiding the trap that makes Civilization 2.0 so perniciously persistent. At the same time, we have much to learn from the wisdom that accumulated through those eons, and from those who carry that wisdom even now.
Civilization 2.0 runs from the beginning of what is usually considered civilization to now, some 10,000 years. This is a blink of time in the whole scheme of things. The term refers to all civilizations structured on the pattern described above, including ours. The current territory from which we are intensifying extraction includes the whole planet. We have no virgin territory to move to when this planet is exhausted, so that's a problem. Even if we did, we'd just do the same thing to that place.
Why the software version designations of Civilizations 1.0, 2.0, 3.0? The rise and fall of civilizations on the 2.0 model is so predictable we can think of them as running on faulty software that always fails in the end. It works great right out of the box in a new territory, on a new machine, so to speak. But over time it consumes so much of the machine's capacity with its complex elaborations and internal conflicts that problems develop. With continued use it eventually fails. Any mission-critical piece of software with that behavior would be rewritten.
Civilization 3.0 is a rewrite of that program. The premise is simple: Base civilization on the program design that powers the spectacularly successful and continually evolving human creations of science, technology and capitalism. These systems are self-optimizing, decentralized, open-ended, basically unstoppable, and directed toward specified ends. We could have a civilization that works the same way, generating universally beneficial outcomes, with a potentially unlimited lifetime and no upper limit on results.
A note on capitalism: Some people love capitalism and some hate it, so there may be objections to including it as one of the models. I definitely know capitalism is not perfect, yet the very failings are instructive. I point out how those failings work from the question-based point of view, and how by changing the core question the system can be upgraded to also become a wholly productive, positive force.
Content Overview: In what follows I make clear how the model of systems of collective intelligence works, point out ways to apply it in some detail, and share other insights that would go toward making Civilization 3.0 work.
In the order presented: I explain the whole system, including how science, technology and capitalism function as systems of collective intelligence. I address the important substrate of how questions affect awareness, and how core questions implicitly embody moral standards and assumptions. The operation of capitalism gets extra attention, with a focus on how slightly different core questions dramatically change the outcomes.
Then I apply the model to organizations, showing the advantages of designing organizations as systems of collective intelligence. I point out how that structure is fractal, applying to projects, teams and so on. You learn a way to easily remove a source of confusion and misunderstanding that can arise from the usual way of stating goals. In this section I include the question-based view of how the phenomenon of the status-quo works, why it is hard to change, how to change it anyway, and suggest mission questions rather than mission statements to infuse aliveness into any organization.
That is followed by a reprise of the characteristics and requirements of systems of collective intelligence. Then I discuss the information infrastructure Civilization 3.0 needs to thrive, which is the missing piece. Finally, as a sort of bonus, I propose a way this question-based approach might be useful in programming advanced forms of artificial intelligence.
There's a lot of information here, so I include a linked table of contents.
What Are Systems of Collective Intelligence?
Today's global civilization could not exist without science, technology and capitalism. These three are among the most influential, widespread and engaging of human creations. They operate globally across boundaries of language and culture, affecting every part of our personal and collective lives. They are decentralized, resilient, open-ended, and continually evolving.
Remarkably, they all share exactly the same underlying structure, which I will explain.
Each is what I call a "system of collective intelligence." Each uses our natural human form of collective intelligence, embodied in a specific underlying structure. A single major variable determines the unique output of each system.
Until now this underlying structure has not been understood. Here I explain the very simple, fractal model. The same model can be used to create self-optimizing, collectively intelligent organizations and interactions, even meetings, at all levels of human interaction.
Systems of collective intelligence continually adapt, grow and self-optimize. They do this over time and without limit. Such systems can transcend the "curse of civilization," the predictable rise and fall of civilizations that has been the case throughout history.
Technology is the clearest example. Technology has been evolving for millions of years, since our early ancestors first sharpened a stick. As a system of collective intelligence technology has taken us from sticks and stones to what we have now. The system of collective intelligence that is technology self-optimizes toward greater capabilities regardless of the rise and fall of civilizations.
This contrasts with the old model of civilizations, which I call Civilization 2.0. Like a defective piece of legacy software that inevitably crashes after massive investments of time, effort and resources, it needs to be rewritten. Civilization 3.0 is that rewrite, based on a proven model.
This model is already emergent on a global scale but has not been articulated. With an articulated model for Civilization 3.0, providing explicit choice points and screens on possible choices, we can incrementally, systematically, and synergistically make choices at every level to move toward optimizing the well-being of all humans and of the natural systems of the world.
Given the necessary conditions, a system of collective intelligence becomes an emergent, self-organizing phenomenon.
How Systems of Collective Intelligence Work: Part 1
Science, technology and capitalism are systems of collective intelligence. They are not the only ones, but as the most familiar and dominant ones, they will be our primary examples. Others will be mentioned as we go along.
These three share the same underlying structure. One primary difference distinguishes them from each another and accounts for their very different outcomes.
That primary difference, and the central organizing feature, is the core question at the heart of each one. This core question remains stable while a set of increasingly good working answers accumulates around it over time, with better answers replacing others, as they are found or created. The core question is the primary distinguishing feature. Like the system’s DNA, it directs the particular expression of each system.
A different question brings up different possible answers. Each system chooses among those answers by testing them. Those that work better are included in the set of working answers and those that fail are discarded. The particular method each system uses to test possible answers is different, and follows from the nature of the core question.
Here are the core questions for the three examples:
The Core Questions of Science, Technology and Capitalism
The core question of science is, “How does nature work?” All of science can be seen as an evolving set of working answers to that question and its subquestions. The testing process for possible answers is through replicable experimental results and survival of critiques. Any working answer can be replaced at any time by a better one.
The core question of technology is, “How can we do this thing or do it better?” The testing process is real world results. Does it work? Does it work better than anything else? The definition of “better” varies with the situation. This question has brought us from sticks and stones to what we have now, across all the Civilization 2.0 civilizations that have come and gone.
The core question of the base form of capitalism is, “How can I make more money?” The test is whether a particular activity results in more money.
The capitalist system of collective intelligence is different from the others in that money has evolved into a human construct operating by rules that are essentially independent of the natural world, but having consequences for that world, while science and technology have the natural world as their frame of reference.
The question, "How can I make more money?" invites all possibilities that result in more money. Those include everything from slavery and other forms of human exploitation to poaching and organized crime, to name only a few. These and all other such activities that are essentially perverse, because they reward damage to social and natural environments.
Wealth addiction: It is the behavior of those who follow this base form of the question who give capitalism its bad name. One source of that reputation is the destructive actions undertaken in its name, as described above. Another is endless greed, despite consequences. Some people wonder, for instance, why some extremely wealthy individuals continually pursue more wealth. "Don't they have enough?" they ask.
If the personal core question of those people is, "How can I acquire more wealth?" then no, they do not have enough and it will be impossible for them to ever have enough. No amount of wealth will suffice. However much there is, the question is how to acquire more. "More" automatically adjusts to whatever is already possessed, and then seeks more. It is in fact infinite demand. These people could be regarded as wealth addicts. Combine this with the shadow effect of questions described in the next section and the potential for unlimited harm is apparent.
Fortunately, a core question can have variations. For example, in terms of this capitalist system of collective intelligence, core questions can vary by how inclusive they are of the well-being of other people and of the natural world. “How can I make more money?” is the least inclusive, referring only to the individual self.
The next step up would be, "How can I make more money legally?" While much better, this can be a low bar. Powerful industries and individual corporations have proven they can get laws passed that legalize or even subsidize their socially and environmentally destructive behaviors. This standard also invites dipping to the other side of the line when such actions are unlikely to be detected. If an illegal action is profitable enough it can be written off as a cost of business if necessary, such as inconsequential fines.
The next step up in inclusion may be, "How an I make more money according to my moral code?" This obviously depends on the moral code. It could be very good or not so good, so there's little to say about it.
"How can I make money while doing no harm?" is a high standard. There is one that is still higher, which we will get to with the civilizational core question.
Why Are Questions Central?
Questions are central to this model of collective intelligence. Questions have been with us forever, of course. Still, there are frequently overlooked aspects to how questions affect us that are very important. Some have been mentioned but it is worth naming a few more to make clear the power of using questions in a deliberate, informed way.
From my observations I believe the ways we relate to questions that I describe here are hardwired into us as humans, as a core part of how we process information. Questions affect us in several ways. The core question-based system of collective intelligence uses those effects, so we must understand them. Here are some of the important ones for this discussion.
Questions Focus Attention
The most basic function of questions is to direct attention. If I ask “What is behind you right now?” your attention goes there, does it not? You may resist or deflect your response, but first it happens, then you deflect or resist. I could ask you any number of questions and the same reflex would happen each time. What's under your feet, for instance?
Questions Retrieve Known Information
Our brains are organized to retrieve the relevant response to any question, within the limits of our memories. If I ask, “What color was your first bicycle?,” what happens? The answer probably came to mind, though it's unlikely you were thinking of the color of your first bicycle when I asked.
If you never had a bicycle or the question is irrelevant for another reason, then that information came up. This spontaneous response of bringing up the best available answer is why repeated questioning is so effective. An effort of will is required to resist the urge to reply with the correct answer, and willpower wears down faster than the reflex of bringing up the correct answer.
Questions Generate Answers
Questions held in mind over time can produce creative answers never before known. There are many stories of scientists and inventors having the answer to a deeply held question suddenly come to them, often in imagery of some sort. The experience I related at the beginning of this exploration is an example. I had held the question of a better way to live for decades. Fortunately, it doesn't always take that long.
Shared Questions Allow Shared Thinking
This is a key element of collective intelligence. When two or more people ask the same question and share what comes up, they are thinking together and enriching the whole process. They literally have the same thought, in the form of the question, retrieving information and generating new possibilities, so their two brains are in a sense acting as one. A question can obviously be shared by any number of people, multiplying the effect. Increasing the diversity of these people will again multiply the effect, generating a wider array of possibilities.
This principle applies to everyday things like deciding where to go to dinner, and to larger projects, as well. We use this ephemeral form of collective intelligence every day. Systems of collective intelligence organize this resource into something far more powerful.
The Shadow Effect of Questions
Questions illuminate the object of their inquiry, as when I asked for the color of your first bicycle. Simultaneously they blind us to things outside that circle of light. We could call this the shadow effect because questions put other topics in the shade, darkened to view, so to speak.
When I ask “What is the weather like where are right now?” you will think of that. However, with your attention so directed you will not be thinking of how refrigerators work. If I asked how refrigerators work your attention would go there. At that time, though, you would not be considering the position of the moon.
While the examples are fanciful, the effect is important. If I am thinking only of how I can acquire more money (a variation on “make more money”) then any harm inflicted on others becomes invisible to me, or at most irrelevant and meaningless.
The shadow effect is a way to explain how people can act so atrociously toward others. Their core questions make the effects of their behavior invisible or inconsequential.
A question like, “How can I acquire more money in a way that harms no one?” focuses attention in an entirely different way than simply, "How can I make more money?" The two questions produce different sets of possible answers and lead to different choices, actions, outcomes, and therefore to the creation of a different world.
In choosing questions to construct systems of collective intelligence we must be wary of the shadow effect. What does a given question implicitly define as unimportant, and therefore to be ignored?
Questions Embody Moral Standards
This is one of the most important and subtle aspects of core questions. Core questions embody assumptions about the world, about what is possible, and moral standards. For example, “How can we defeat our enemies?” assumes an “us" and a "them,” framed as enemies, and sees defeat as the desired outcome. Defeat for one side or the other, ongoing conflict, or stalemate are the only possible outcomes of this question.
That question directs attention to what it names and simultaneously, by the shadow effect, rules out many other possibilities. Other possibilities might include realizing that misunderstanding is the source of apparent conflict, potentials to collaborate or merge, examining one's own position, and consideration of higher order systemic effects of this behavior, which may be counterproductive or even self-destructive. Many questions, motivating a great deal of what goes on in the world, operate in way of assuming a limiting definition of the problem or situation.
The moral standard implicit in “How can I acquire more money?” is that harm does not come into the picture. This question motivates the cash and trash approach to the environment, regardless of all fine sounding justifications like shareholder value. Personal and societal core questions that seek narrow benefit while implicitly defining harm as acceptable or irrelevant are a leading cause of harm in the world.
You Get What You Ask For
Like the genie of fables, systems of collective intelligence produce exactly what you ask for, no more and no less. “Be careful what you ask for” is a profoundly true piece of advice. It doesn’t mean don’t ask, but it does mean consider well.
Automated Question/Answer Sequences Run Lives and Organizations
Your brain tries to automate everything it can. This takes the burden off your conscious awareness, which neuroscientists estimate at about 5% of your total capacity, or even less. The rest operates outside of conscious awareness, which is often a good thing. This mental/physical automation means you can walk, talk, tie your shoes and drive without having to figure it out every time, not to mention operate the incredible complexity of your body's digestion, immune system and so on.
As physical skills become automatic, so to thinking patterns. Imagine your automated thinking processes as question/selection/action sequences.
It works like this: A situation brings up the associated question. We mentally see a short list of possible answers, perhaps only one. We select one and act. That puts us in a new situation, which brings up the next question, we see a short list of possibilities, select one and act. The cycle repeats.
From the time we wake up until we go to bed we follow sequences of automated questions we have arrived at that get us through our lives.
You can observe this for yourself. See if this matches your experience. When you wake up you have a question in mind: It might be, "How bad to I have to pee?" or, "Is it time to get up?" Eventually the answer is yes and you get up. The next question is, "What shall I wear?", followed by, "What's for breakfast?" or perhaps, "Where's my coffee?" followed by, "Where are my keys?"
Driving is one long sequence of automated choices of when and how hard to step on the brake or gas, how fast and far to turn the steering wheel. Then at work you ask yourself, “What’s next?” or "Now what?" at every point of completion or at the end of a distraction. Is that pretty close to your experience?
Notice that these questions are very useful. They focus your attention on the next thing. You see the options, choose and act. This is the question/selection/action sequence. It is the stuff of habit. It will run your life if you let it. This is how many people live. This is the default state for humans: repeating the familiar. The habituated power of this automated sequencing is one of the reasons it's hard to bring about change.
Notice also the shadow effect. By having your attention automatically directed to familiar questions in a familiar sequence you are automatically not thinking of other, perhaps much more interesting or rewarding possibilities. You may even only think of possible answers that have negative outcomes when perfectly good possibilities also exist.
Organizations are made up of people, all of them operating on this pattern to some degree.
The Theater of Life Metaphor
Here’s an image capturing several of these functions. Imagine you are in a darkened theater, the Theater of Life. Someone is directing a spotlight. Your eyes and your attention instinctively follow what is illuminated. Things near the illuminated object are visible but less so, and anything further away is dark and essentially invisible.
What is the spotlight? The spotlight is whatever question is active in your mind at the moment. The rest is the shadow effect.
Take this one more step. Suppose this is a play that repeats daily. The spotlight operator will become skilled at pointing it in a certain pattern, with a certain timing.
Your brain is the spotlight operator, going through the routines it has learned, spotlighting one question after another for you, facilitating your experience of the play, of your day. You are typically barely aware of the questions, which is how the system is designed to operate.
Your automated questions act like subliminal cue cards, bringing up your next possibilities from a limited list of options, followed by the appropriate action.
If you take charge of your attention you can look for the operator, standing behind the spotlight in the balcony. As with the "getting up and off to work" sequence you can see the questions if you look for them. They are just outside of conscious awareness, but if you ask what they are you can shine the spotlight of your attention on them.
This is your play. You're the director and you can tell the operator (your brain) to point the light at whatever you choose. Just ask a different question and that's where your attention will go.
What are your personal core questions, the ones that direct your attention consistently over time?
Questions and Organizations
Organizations can be thought of as answers to questions. A hospital is one possible answer to the question of how to deal with injury and illness, for instance. To what question is your organization an answer?
What questions does your organization provide its people to ask? What are they asking themselves? The answers to these questions indicate where their attention is going.
Multiple Question Syndrome
If the questions being asked in an organization are not coherent with each other but lead in conflicting directions, the organization may be suffering from what I call Multiple Question Syndrome.
Another characteristic of questions relevant here is that each question acts like a chain of command, leading to possibilities and actions consistent with the question and making other possibilities relatively or completely invisible. Shared questions lead to concerted actions and coordinated outcomes. Conflicting questions lead to conflict. That can show up as misunderstanding at the least, wasting time and effort and generating unnecessary friction. More extreme consequences can be organizational paralysis or death.
If each person in an organization is asking themselves either how to maximize their turf and prestige or how to preserve their familiar status quo and resist change, to make an extreme example, they will be acting not in cooperation for the success of the organization but following their own divergent, conflicting core questions. How can an organization prosper in this situation? How can it even continue to exist? It cannot. It will fail. Such is the danger of Multiple Question Syndrome.
Adversarialism and Positionality
We've seen that questions have inherent ways of affecting us. So do answers. What are the options if someone presents an answer or a way of doing things, as in, "This is how it is." One can only agree, disagree, or abstain. With a question, however, it's natural to be interested or engaged because there's nothing to agree or disagree with, except perhaps whether it's the right question.
In other words, questions include and answers exclude. This difference can shed light on how conflicts are often structured.
Imagine for the sake of simplicity we have two parties to this conflict.
When an issue arises it's very common for both parties to move immediately to a preferred answer and take that up as their position. This position will usually be aligned with their status quo or with helping to answer their own core question. This pattern of taking and holding a position is what I call positionality.
Based on the familiar patterns of our culture, the parties to the conflict then engage as adversaries. This pattern is what I call adversarialism. This is what makes it a conflict. The relationship become one of "attack and defend" until one side "wins" and the other side loses, or the conflict may go on for generations or centuries.
Adversarialism is seductive because it appeals to the reptile brain. For many people, very little conscious awareness is needed to leap to a position and fight for it.
Doing so is in fact a celebrated cultural norm. It is embedded in our justice system, political system, educational system, in entertainment and sports, and in many other aspects of our culture. Adversarialism is part of the status quo, expected and normal behavior. It is the stuff of courtroom dramas and arguments, debates and contests of all kinds. We love it because it produces winners and losers, which is what we expect.
The question/selection/action sequence can be
- Question: "What do I do about this?"
- Selection: "Select a desired outcome."
- Action: "Fight for it."
Adversarialism can absorb any amount of resources, energy, time and attention. The original issue can become completely lost in the ongoing saga of who did what to whom, and how will we get them back or crush them. This can lead to massive escalation, even war.
The Question-Centric Alternative to Conflict Here's a question-centric approach. Anyone observing an adversarial engagement such as an argument or a positionality-based discussion can ask, "If both of your positions are possible answers to a question, what is that question?" This is a magical question. Of course, it helps if everyone has been trained in this approach beforehand so they have some neural networks in place with which to respond.
If the parties are not so far into their primitive brains that they can still hear and respond to the question (this is where training helps), they will step back, often physically. To respond to the question they must shift from adversarialism and positionality to shared inquiry, or in other words, to collective intelligence. Both are addressing the same question, so with one question they have transformed from adversaries to collaborators.
It's hard to be angry and curious at the same time. Go ahead and try. Curiosity and inquiry engage higher order thinking, which is in the frontal cortex, while fighting is a product of the reptile brain. If curiosity can be invoked, higher order thinking takes over and the reptile brain returns to its lair.
There are several possible outcomes from asking, "If both of your positions are possible answers to a question, what is that question? This list may not include them all:
Possible Outcome 1: They will identify a question they are both trying to address. Then they can inquire into it with collective intelligence, perhaps involving others, identify possible answers, examine them to see which is best, and adopt that one.
Possible Outcome 2: They discover they are responding to different questions. By analogy, one may have thought the question was, "What is 6x6?" while the other thought it was, "What is 6+6?" These appear to be very similar, involving the same objects and doing an operation with them, with a similar outcome (a number), and the indicator for that operation is even the same, only slightly rotated.
If the question was never explicitly stated it is easy to imagine that different people could get a slightly but crucially different version of it in their minds.
Each party may be entirely correct in insisting that the answer to the question they see is "12" or "36." No amount of argument can resolve this difference. One party may submit to the institutional or physical power of the other but the issue will not be resolved, only suppressed, there to simmer.
With the adversarial approach, the failure of each party to budge the other from their view could lead them to decide the other is stupid, uninformed, incompetent, stubborn, insane, irrational, power-tripping, or trying to manipulate the situation for some nefarious reason, when none of that is true. The outcome of this kind of conclusion can be permanent distrust, animosity, dismissal, disrespect, or the beginning of a larger case of adversarialism, when simply asking "What is the question to which you are responding?" might have instantly cleared up the problem.
If there is no antagonism involved, identifying the questions in play lets the people involved agree on which questions to address in what order. Clarity and peace can prevail.
Possible Outcome 3: They may be responding to different subquestions of a larger question. The solution is to identify them both, as well as the larger question if necessary, and agree on the order in which to address them.
- Example: A couples therapist I shared this idea with began using it with arguing couples. He would ask each one, "What question are you trying to get answered?" and get each person's reply. Two different questions would emerge. Then he would say, "Well, of course you can't agree. You're talking about two different questions. Now, what's something you'd both like to talk about?" He said it worked wonderfully.
Possible Outcome 4: They have truly incompatible questions, such as each one asking, "How can I own all this land?" or "How can I defeat the other?" In this case the only option aside from the conflict is to look for deeper meanings. What does that outcome do for you? What does it mean to you? Here we are getting into the realm of mediation, which looks for the interests behind the surface demands and seeks ways to satisfy those interests that are acceptable to everyone.
Why the Status Quo is Hard to Change
People who work together, or against each other for that matter, develop interconnected routines or scripts. These become deeply familiar and known. Anything else is by definition unknown, and therefore potentially dangerous.
The logical solution, arrived at by a primitive part of the brain solely concerned with safety, is to avoid the unfamiliar. For this reason, and because changing a familiar routine is actual work that might (worst of all outcomes) also put one in danger, change is strongly resisted by most people, most of the time.
As a result, in many organizations a key (if unconscious) question is, “How can we maintain the status quo?” This is the default question for many because it feels safer. However, clinging to the status quo in a rapidly changing world is a recipe for unpleasant surprises, not for safety. Our instincts serve us badly in this situation.
This tendency to repeat the familiar is built into each of us. If we are to avoid the dangerous seduction of the status quo we must bring in new possibilities, new choices, and at least sometimes take control of the spotlight of our own attention from the hands of the lazy operator who, left to his or her own preference, will repeat the familiar.
Deliberately asking questions that consistently lead to new and better answers, based on the real nature of our evolving circumstances, is one way and perhaps the only way to keep individuals and organizations on an evolutionary path and relatively safe from falling into a rut, as status quo, which will be defended as the position of choice. The choice we have, as individuals and as organizations, is whether to change on purpose or by necessity, for change will come.
When people are engaged with a question that generates emergent answers, however, change becomes normal. In fact, change becomes the status quo, as paradoxical as that may sound.
Organizational Core Questions
For an organization, the most forward-looking stance is to identify a carefully considered core question, then articulate and share it throughout the organization so each unit and person knows how they fit into answering that core question and has a logically related subquestion as their own focus.
If the system is well-organized, all else will flow from what it takes to most effectively answer that core question. The organization will shape itself around the question and its evolving working answers. Each person’s activity will have a clear, logical link to the core question, perhaps through several subquestions, but still clear and logical. If that core question is inspiring it will attract the most committed people, who will be fully engaged.
Stability in Change
The result will be a resilient, rapidly adaptive, continually evolving organization. Paradoxically there will be more stability in some ways. As a body of proven methods, values, patterns of interactions and so on accrues it will take something better to replace them. An arbitrary decree from a new CEO will not suffice if the system and the organizational culture are strong. New insights and new inspirations will be welcome and may bring about rapid, profound change, but as with anyone else, the case will have to be made.
Just as a charismatic scientist or technologist cannot decree a change in the body of knowledge of science or engineering, say, but has to deliver real, testable insights and innovation, the same process can operate, in its own way, in organizations.
New insights, information or other contributions can come from anyone, by the way. A system that engages everyone in the organization will let talent shine from wherever it may be on the org chart, and will also identify dead spots. Personal questions like “How can I work the least?” “How can I maximize my turf?” and so on are obviously not well aligned with this kind of organization. In an environment highly attuned to which questions are being asked these sorts of misalignments will become obvious.
Engagement with the organization's core question can be a critical criterion for new hires. One the other side of that equation, the quality of an organization’s core question and working system can become a distinguishing criterion for attracting and keeping the best talent.
A New Role: Process Steward
An organization operating as a system of collective intelligence generates a new role, process steward. This person cultivates organizational culture through directing the focus and innovation processes of the organization. S/he thoroughly understands the question-based approach and makes sure it is working effectively, training people in its use, helping clarify core questions and subquestions, communicating them, managing the incoming ideas and other data, their testing, the results, and making sure newly identified best ways of thinking and doing are integrated into the whole system.
This person has to be close to the top because large changes may emanate from this role. They must also be in a position to counter the tendency on all parts, including top management, to revert to or stick with the familiar, even when that is dangerous.
Projects, Goals and Project Questions
Projects can be organized around answering a question. Indirectly and implicitly, they are in any case, because of the way minds work. Projects typically start with goal, perhaps, “We will put a man on the moon and bring him back alive by the end of this decade.”
That's the goal, but the Apollo Project was implicitly organized around the question, "How will we do that?" Perhaps nobody ever said that out loud, but that question had to be in the minds of those working on the project. They would also have had specific questions related to their particular part, "How will I/we do this? What is the best way to do it?" and so on.
The X Prizes, for another example, work because they inspire talented, capable people to ask themselves, “How can we do this?” Their work is in response to the question, which is a second step after the goal. This subtle step is often overlooked or assumed.
A goal has to be translated by each individual into a question to make it operational and to focus their own attention effectively (“How will we do that? What is my role in doing that? Where do we start?")
A way to take a project to another level of clarity and coordination is this: Approach it as a shared question and systematically bring out all the possibilities. Include everyone equally so each person is heard and respected. Not only will working relationship be better but better ideas are likely to be identified, particularly if the group is diverse. Even if their idea was not chosen, everyone will buy into the final decision because they were part of the process.
Mission Statements or Mission Questions?
Mission statements are well and good, but for how many people is a mission statement a living, daily motivation? A mission statement is just that, a statement. What response do you have to a statement? “OK,” or “That’s nice”, or “Ho hum” would be typical.
A question, however, is intrinsically engaging. “How can we put a man on the moon and bring him back alive?” “How does memory work?” “How can we provide the best user experience possible?” “What can we do that nobody else has done?” “How can we eliminate cancer?” “How can we provide a good education to everyone on earth?” Those immediately engage curiosity and can become the stuff of passion.
Questions produce answers. Repeatedly asking a mission question or related subquestions will produce answers. Doing so over time will produce more and better answers. Questions prime the brain to notice things and to put two and two together. A number of people doing this consistently together around a shared mission question is a powerful force for generating new and better answers.
Try translating your mission statement (do you have to look it up?) into a question. How does that feel? If it’s not interesting, what would make it so? Is it a question worthy of your engagement?
Question-based meetings are fewer, faster, more engaged and alive, more creative and productive. They have a built-in way to gracefully handle sidetracks and distractions, even from high status individuals. Question-based meetings are the best way to start exploring and benefiting from these ideas.
How Systems of Collective Intelligence Work: Part 2
Many of the features of a system of collective intelligence are apparent by this time, but here they are in another form, with some new aspects:
- There is a stable core question, the foundation of the system, that specifies what it produces.
- For an enterprise or global system like science, technology or capitalism (or a civilization) this will be an open ended question, with unlimited possibilities for innovation and discovery.
- The core question must be intrinsically interesting enough to engage a critical mass of people.
- For maximum growth, new participants will ideally find it very easy to engage, preferably just by asking themselves the core question or a version of it, then finding it easy to connect with useful information, other people, activities, etc., so they become involved.
- Projects can be organized directly around answering a question, rather than implicitly, as when a goal is stated. The goal is useful as a thing to focus on as the desired end state and a measurement of success. The actual work, however, will be done in response to the questions that arise from the goal statement.
- There must be a way for new information, ideas, and so on to enter the system easily, where they will be objectively evaluated and the best adopted, then propagated through the system.
- The integrity of the system requires objectivity and transparency in evaluating possible answers, along with consistency in adopting the best. Otherwise, the mere appearance of a system of collective intelligence becomes a front for the influence of other questions, typically about extending power and/or wealth or preserving a status quo. Science and democracy are both under such an attack at this time.
- With the question, the system and enough engagement, a system of collective intelligence can become a self-organizing, emergent phenomenon, self-powered and capable of endless self-optimization.
Civilizations Past, Present, and Future
Our personal meaning starts to become incoherent when it becomes fixed. The incoherence increases when past meaning is imposed on present situations. As this continues, yesterday's meaning becomes today's dogma, often losing much of its original meaningfulness in the process. When this happens collectively, societies become governed by shadows, hollowed out myths from the past applied as inviolate truths for the present. This leads to incoherence on a large scale, patterns of thinking and acting that separate people from one another and from the larger reality in which they are attempting to live. Unchecked incoherence grows into absurdity.
Peter Senge, from the preface to On Dialogue, by David Bohm
Civilization 1.0 is the hunter-gatherer way of life: small, mobile, basically egalitarian groups. This mode could be regarded as operating inside of nature. Stable for countless millennia and still existing, it demonstrates that continuous human culture over long periods of time is possible. Hunters and gatherers invented what we normally call civilization and spread the human footprint over the entire world except Antarctica, surviving Ice Ages and much else with no modern conveniences. It was during this time that the model of collective intelligence developed as our ancestors discussed how to deal with the local saber-toothed tiger population or how to bring down a woolly mammoth for dinner. They and our heritage from that long, formative period deserve acknowledgment and respect. To pretend this doesn’t matter is to ignore an important resource, so I name it Civilization 1.0, our first way of life as humans.
Civilization 2.0 began with sedentary agriculture, continues now, and is what we usually think of as “civilization.” Maximizing extraction is the primary aim. The biggest fact of history is that such systems eventually fail. This mode could be regarded as the absurd attempt to live outside of nature.
Civilization 3.0 could be regarded as deliberately living in the context of natural systems and human nature, making skillful use of their attributes to maximize the well-being of the whole. Its major attribute is being a system of collective intelligence focused on that outcome. Civilization 3.0 is currently emerging. To prevail it requires primarily a shift of understanding and some software.
Why Do We Need A New Civilization? Because Answer-based Civilizations Fail
Why do civilizations as we know them consistently fail? That they do is so commonly known that we assume it, except for ourselves. There is no reason to think ours is different, however, so we have a dire prospect ahead of us if we do nothing.
We, however, are different in that we have choices that were not available previously, such as renewable energy and many others on the technical side, better information about the consequences of our choices, the ability to learn from a much wider pool of experience and communicate that learning, and now, an understanding of the potential to recreate civilization as a system of collective intelligence.
As we have seen with the three main examples of science, technology and capitalism, systems of collective intelligence continually evolve. They have no expiration date, and through the power of massively engaged collective intelligence they self-optimize toward their stated goal.
But how is it that civilizations rise and fall so consistently, when there are other systems that do not? There is a design flaw. If civilization were a mission-critical piece of software that had failed as many times as civilizations have, it would be rewritten from the ground up. My point in writing this is to suggest a way to approach that revision.
Answer-Based Civilizations Inevitably Fail
Here’s my model of how civilizations on the 2.0 model rise and fall. The short form is that they become answer-based in an environment that they themselves are changing through their own success, so they lose the ability to adapt to changes they themselves create. Their answers may have been perfect at the start but as their success leads to a growing population and growing demands on the environment, the answers become less and less effective. Eventually, the situation is so altered from the original one that the answers no longer work, and failure ensues.
The Longer Form: The Self-Eliminating Pattern of Civilization
Here’s my story of civilization: A bunch of people try to figure out how to live. They have questions: What will we eat? How will we organize ourselves? Who will do what? and many more. They find a set of answers that work, meaning that by using these answers they are able to live and multiply.
The answers become a status quo: This is how we do things. The same answers are repeated, extended, passed on, elaborated and thoroughly embedded into the social structure, the assumptions and the expectations of everyone involved. These answers may take on the status of moral imperatives. You are good if you follow them and bad if you don't. The people may not like everything about how it all works but they get to eat, it’s not all bad and there are some cool things.
Population grows and more land is cultivated. The social structure elaborates to accommodate priests, royalty, the aristocracy and a growing bureaucracy. Population continues to grow, distances grow, transportation of essential materials and food become more expensive as local resources are consumed. Demand continues to grow for materials and resources to build increasingly elaborate buildings, palaces, and fortifications, and to house and supply the growing number of people. Complexity grows and with it the expense of managing it. Armies have to be equipped, fed and paid. Wars of conquest are the proactive way to avoid being conquered, so there is an arms race. The rate of resource extraction is maximized. There are no rewards for restraint and potentially fatal consequences for falling behind.
The key is that all of this depends on extraction from the base of natural resources. The social and political ambitions and aspirations of the leaders become dissociated from the reality of what is actually available. The pace of extraction cannot be maintained. The resource base becomes exhausted, despite more effort and greater ingenuity in applying extraction methods.
The leaders, even if they realize what is happening and want to avoid the oncoming crash, can do nothing. If they try to change the whole structure of the society, which is what is causing the problem, they will be pushed back in line or ousted by those who want the party to continue as long as possible. It is, after all, the only thing they know. They fear change and will deny there is any danger until food stops showing up on their tables. Of course, then it is far too late for effective action, even if there were things that could have been done.
The civilization exhausts its resource base and collapses. There are variations. Perhaps a natural disaster such as a volcano shortcuts the process. Climate change may make agriculture less productive, which is another case of the familiar answers no longer working.
From the question-based point of view, they stopped asking “How can we live?” They became answer-based, repeating and extending the familiar, the status quo. The problem is that while they assumed the process they were in was simply repeating the known, it was not. In reality, change was taking place but so slowly as to be imperceptible. The posture of a growing or established civilization is to implicitly assume that essential conditions will not change. It assumes there is enough of everything to sustain the civilization for all time. Then it’s success exceeds the capacity of the environment to supply its needs, and the civilization fails.
The civilization’s very success is what causes the collapse, so this pattern could be called the self-limiting, or even self-eliminating, pattern of civilization.
Civilization 3.0: The Civilizational Question
Is there an alternative to the dismal fate of collapse, toward which we are rushing with all the energy the status quo can muster? There is, as you will not be surprised to hear. It is to apply the model of question-based systems of collective intelligence to civilization. This moves us from Civilization 2.0 to Civilization 3.0.
After all, civilization is not something outside of us. It is the result of our collective decisions, values, priorities and actions. As you know, the critical factor of a system of collective intelligence is its core question. Here is the one I suggest for Civilization 3.0. This is what I call the civilizational question:
How can all human being have satisfying lives,
while at the same time
nature becomes increasingly vibrant and healthy?
Let's look at this question in detail.
"How can" means "What are the specific ways?" rather than a general, theoretical answer, such as "Everyone be more loving and take care of each other." It is a practical question, on the order of "How can we avoid hitting those icebergs ahead of us?" The "how" includes theoretical knowledge from science, social theory, and every other useful source, but the point is finding practical ways and using them to create concrete results, in ways that build on each other over time.
"All human beings" puts everyone on the same side. Nobody is left out. Everyone who wants to participate can be a contributor, a learner, a colleague, partner and ally in this project. More effects of this stance include:
- First, reducing or eliminating conflict. If our commitment is to the well-being of all, there is no "other." This inclusiveness builds connection, mutual respect, and understanding into the system, rather than conflict. Conflict depends on the existence of a dangerous "other." If that does not exist, we need have no conflict. Global community is the only way we could have a world beyond war and this question assumes global community. We don't have to be stupid about it, of course. This is not an approach that ignores facts, but it includes even those who fight against it.
- Second, a serious commitment to the well-being of all human beings will invite a similar, shared commitment from others, and that can start thawing and transforming stereotypes, prejudice, and racism. This kind of commitment to our common humanity may be the only possible antidote to racism and other forms of corrosive division among people.
- Third, it should be obvious to any open-minded observer that on this planet we are part of one living system. It includes every person, living being, and all of nature. If we are ever to thrive as a species and as a planet we have to outgrow the idea that some parts can thrive while other parts starve and suffer.That means putting our resources into building healthy connections and well-being for all. This is not a sacrifice. It is a wise investment.
In its openness to participation by all, this approach is like science, technology, and capitalism. Anyone can participate in any of those three just by deciding to and can pursue that participation as far as they want to go. Each of those systems benefits from global diversity and from the innovation coming from that diversity. Diversity is a real advantage in systems of collective intelligence.
Universally available education is moving from being a dream to being a reality, and would certainly be a strong foundation for Civilization 3.0. This is another instance of Civilization 3.0 as an emergent phenomenon.
Massive inclusion takes the moral high ground. Anyone opposing this part of the approach can be asked, "Who would you leave out?" It's an awkward question to have to face. The moral poverty of any other position becomes apparent, and the assumptions behind any argument that it is necessary to leave someone out can be identified and discussed.
Massive inclusion is a massive competitive advantage. A system of collective intelligence benefits from a wider range of input, ideas, and inspiration, from more testing of possibilities in more areas of interest. A wide range of numerous participants creates a large pool of autonomous talent that can apply itself to attractive projects. Many participants also generate collective financial and political power.
With the right system and with a large number of participants this diversity of experience, knowledge, creativity and insight can sidestep, outmaneuver, outnumber and simply overpower (financially, politically, and in other peaceful ways) existing structures that limit the well-being of people and/or are destructive to the natural environment, replacing those structures with versions that work for the benefit of all.
"Satisfying" I choose the word “satisfying” because it can be measured. “Happy” is often used but one can be happy in a slum and unhappy in a mansion, so that is more personal and subjective. Objective measurement is one of the essential elements of a system of collective intelligence so better and worse answers can be consistently and reliably distinguished.
Without an objective assessment system we are in the realm of opinion, which turns into a tug-of-war, which is the model of the power-based political systems we know so well. We resort to positionality and adversariality, which produce domination or stalemate.
“Satisfying” includes the basics, like good water and food, shelter, education, medical care, safety, the opportunity to grow and do meaningful work, a sense of community, autonomy, social connections and so on. These things can be measured and brought up to minimal levels where they are lacking, then improved. I do not leave the developed world out of this analysis. We have so much that could be improved.
Each national, regional and local culture may have its own way of doing many of these things, it's own expression of well-being. In this project there is no effort to force a “one size fits all” way of life on anyone. Each culture may, in fact, evolve more freely and creatively when freed of arbitrary limiting structures, so cultural diversity may well flourish.
Material and Non-Material Needs
This is a good time to make a crucial distinction that will help us escape a misconception that has plagued Civilization 2.0 and that is pushing it toward collapse. The distinction is between material and non-material needs. Non-material needs include connection, community, meaningfulness, confidence, respect, love and so on. As humans, we have both kinds of needs.
The key is that non-material needs must be fulfilled non-materially, and material needs must be fulfilled materially. Unfulfilled non-material needs create an empty feeling, such as loneliness, meaninglessness, lack of self-worth and so on. These are unpleasant. True fulfillment would come through connection, meaningful engagement, a healthy sense of self, and so on, which are also non-material.
Somehow a major preoccupation of Civilization 2.0 has been trying to fulfill non-material needs with material goods. This cannot work, but we try. We may try with food, shopping, entertainment, sex, gambling, drinking or drugs, working more or in many other ways, including dominating others politically or socially, but the empty feeling always returns. Still, the effort can be addictive because the pain feels less for a time. When the pain returns we repeat what seemed to work before, however briefly. This easily becomes our status quo and can be expressed in larger social and political relationships, not only in personal lives.
This mismatch is unfulfilling, unhealthy, and bad for the planet because of the destruction, pollution, and waste involved in all that material consumption.
What if we had a culture that was good at fulfilling nonmaterial needs? Fortunately, it costs nothing to produce any amount of non-material "goods." There is no pollution and no waste. The more there is, the more there is. With an abundant supply of non-material "goods" how much material consumption would fall away?
I believe it could be a great deal. We'd be happier, healthier, consume a lot less unnecessary stuff and avoid the destruction, waste, and pollution involved in creating it all. I'm not saying we all need to live like monks, but the people with the most self-awareness that I know, which I correlate with greater non-material fulfillment, don't seem to pursue material acquisition as obsessively as others.
"While at the same time" provides for a dual screen on possible answers. Any possibility has to pass both levels of consideration, or at least be a better answer than what currently exists.
"Nature" Some people wonder why the question separates human beings from nature, rightly pointing out that this dichotomy is a major source of our environmental problems. I agree that humans are in and part of nature, but one of the premises of Civilization 2.0 seems to be that this is not so. The attitude that humans are above and outside of nature is so prevalent that it seems necessary to make the dual consideration explicit.
"Increasingly" This word means we start where we are, at whatever condition exists, and make continual improvements. There is no upper limit to how vibrant and healthy nature could be.
"Vibrant" I include the word “vibrant” because while definitions of “healthy” could potentially be skewed toward “barely alive,” vibrancy cannot be mistaken.
"Healthy" is the objective measurement of the health of a given natural environment and of the whole.
Imagine what would result if we started making this question as the filter for decisions at all levels. Every decision would help create Civilization 3.0 and the outcomes at its core.
This civilizational question can act as an umbrella under which the major activities we have mentioned can arrange themselves as part of something larger
This would mean adapting their core questions. Business decisions could be made with this as a filter on possibilities. The core question of Civilization 3.0 capitalism, for those who choose it, could be, “How can I make more money by helping to create a world in which all human beings have satisfying lives, while at the same time nature becomes increasingly vibrant and healthy?” Would it not be inspiring to do business this way? Would such businesses not attract the brightest and most committed people?
Scientists could ask themselves “How can my research help create the knowledge needed to have a world in which all human beings have satisfying lives, while at the same time nature becomes increasingly vibrant and healthy?”
Those in technology can ask, “What technology do we need to create a world in which all human beings have satisfying lives, while at the same time nature becomes increasingly vibrant and healthy?”
The civilizational question, in other words, becomes the core question. The core questions of science, technology, and capitalism become subquestions, aligned toward answering the civilizational question.
This is not to say these things are not already happening. People intuit a world that works and enormous numbers of people are working toward it now. Massive energy, talent, and resources are flowing in this direction now in every sector of life. This is why I say Civilization 3.0 is emerging now. Here I am only trying to articulate the structure behind this movement so as to empower it further.
Is Civilization 3.0 Possible?
Is Civilization 3.0 an unachievable fantasy? I do not believe so, and here is why:
- The current system is headed toward disaster. This is obvious to millions of people. With established authority and credibility damaged, this is an opportune time for something new, logical and inspiring.
- When people hear the basic idea and core question of Civilization 3.0 you can see something light up - perhaps the realization that there could be a way out, actual hope. Providing ways to take action would let then identify with Civilization 3.0 and become advocates at every level.
- Setting a clear moral standard challenges those operating in destructive ways and makes those ways less acceptable in the eyes of the public. How could anyone credibly argue against finding ways that lead to well-being for all human beings in a world that becomes increasingly vibrant and healthy? Some will try, of course, just as they argued for slavery and for denying women the right to vote, but as in those cases, their position is weak despite their apparent hold on power.
- We know most of the technology needed to have an environmentally sustainable world, particularly renewable energy, which is taking over from fossil fuels on its own now. Efficient transportation, green buildings and cities, and the rest of what we need is coming along rapidly.
- We are not starting from scratch. Millions of people worldwide share these values and are living in accord with them in one way or another. Paul Hawken calls this "the largest movement in the world," with more than one million groups worldwide as of publication of his book Blessed Unrest in 2007. Splintered across many concerns and objectives, and therefore unrecognized, if they can be seen as responding to the same core question they can become visible as a critical mass and that, plus their increased effectiveness, will accelerate the movement.
- As organizations become systems of collective intelligence their competitive advantage will inspire and force others to do the same to keep up. As exposure grows in this way, the concept will become familiar and increasingly easy to apply in all areas of life.
- With enough people comes political influence. This movement could start voting Civilization 3.0 into existence.
- The capability exists to create the information infrastructure needed to engage a global culture of collective intelligence.
This transition is about offering better solutions. Civilization 3.0 will come about because it works better and more people choose it.
I shared this idea with a colleague who has two kids in school. She immediately wanted to adapt the question to the school level and start advocating for its adoption by the school as a core activity. The version we arrived at is “How can our school embody these values for our students, staff, families and the environment?”
A network of schools asking themselves similar questions would find answers that worked. A compilation of what they find could be summarized, along with reference material and case studies, so other schools could start could model what's working. Replace “school” with any other sort of organization and it works the same.
For instance, landscape companies, to pick a random example, could together and with expert advice find ways to minimize harm and maximize environmental benefit, perhaps by encouraging the planting of pollinator-friendly plants, shifting to electric lawnmowers to reduce pollution, and so on. This sort of approach would provide them with a competitive advantage in certain areas, which would grow, I predict.
It may be that advertising revenue from member companies, all of whom have pledged support for Civilization 3.0 and provide documentation of their efforts, can help support the software project, which is coming up for discussion.
It is clear that our current system is in danger of crashing. People are looking for ways to get a grasp on creating change that matters. This approach provides gives a vision and a tool that can be applied in every situation to create objective progress toward a better world.
How will all these people and organizations find and engage with each other? A system of collective intelligence needs an information infrastructure. All the ones I've mentioned have such a system, which may have many components: journals, newsletters, databases, conferences, research and training facilities, professional associations and so on.
Just as science, technology, and capitalism have ways to share vital information, Civilization 3.0 needs an information infrastructure. What would it look like? This is where the software comes in.
The Missing Piece
While anyone can decide to adopt the core question of Civilization 3.0, adapt it to their own situation and start living according to those principles. However, having the information to empower decisions and to connect up with people, projects, organizations, the state of the art in any given field and so on, is the missing piece. With an acceptable version of this in place (it will evolve, of course) the whole system can start booting up.
Open source software programs are themselves examples of systems of collective intelligence, with Linux as the outstanding proof of the power of this approach. It would be particularly appropriate to empower a global system of collective intelligence with a system of collective intelligence focused on creating the software that would power it.
Its core question could be, “What software would best support the emergence and ongoing evolution of Civilization 3.0?” While I am unqualified to design software, I wonder if there is a possible design approach consistent with this whole model.
A feature of questions I have not mentioned is that any question can contain any number of subsidiary questions. This is how science is organized, for instance. We usually think of topics: Astronomy, Biology, Chemistry, etc. We could equally well name them by their core questions. The names are longer but more engaging:
- What can we know about the cosmos? (Astronomy)
- How does life work? (Biology)
- How do the substances of the world interact, and why do they do it that way? (Chemistry)
These are my versions. No doubt professionals in these fields would find other versions, but the principle holds.
Under each core question is a whole first set of subquestions. From each of those descends another collection of subquestions, and so on. Each subquestion, at any point in the chain, can expand into an enormous area of study and generate any number of subquestions of its own.
This question-based structure has infinite storage capacity and can expand in any direction without limit, as new questions and information appear.
Could the information infrastructure for Civilization 3.0 be structured this way, by following the relationships among the questions that are asked in the course of creating it? Perhaps anyone could open a new question, and add information and links. Questions of high interest will naturally develop more traffic and content, supporting organic, open-ended growth. The others, like unused neural networks, would not develop, or perhaps at a later time they would become relevant and blossom.
Another factor is that questions or their answers can become part of another path. Something from biology could easily become important in agriculture, for instance. The siloed and specialized nature of much information today is a major obstacle to seeing the whole, so it would be useful to find a way to make the whole more accessible. Nature itself is not divided into parts and it would be good to have an information infrastructure reflecting that integration.
One accomplishment would be to input the relevant information we already have in each question area. This would be a Wikipedia-like project.
Wikipedia, by the way, is also a system of collective intelligence, being an answer to the question, “What do we know about everything that matters?” and having its own explicit screens on what content is allowable and how information is to be replaced, with very easy access to potential participants.
One way to think about the situation might be to imagine how the information infrastructure for science might be designed, with the ideas above in mind, if that were being created for the first time.
I imagine anyone anywhere being able to put in a question about their situation, say reclaiming desert land, and finding the best information on that. More than a search engine, this system would sort what is presented by quality scores, citing the objective results each approach has produced and the level of complexity chosen by the person searching. Beginners or young people could get different information than those in the field, and scientists would get the highest level of detail and analysis.
The system might suggest other questions that would be either more detailed or relevant in other ways.
Perhaps those who want to contribute results at higher levels of credibility go through a training and are given standard forms in which to present their information. Mentors might be available, so education would come through engagement. Topics can link off into educational programs relevant to each area to further this integrated approach to life.
Subject matter expert teams would compile summaries of the state of the art in each area. With these, anyone could get up to speed easily and, of course, be able to access all the relevant information, cases, and networks. Together, these State of the Art Summaries would essentially comprise an operating manual for Civilization 3.0.
Question-based Artificial Intelligence
We have seen that the answer-based approach kills civilizations. The answer-based approach can also be understood as optimizing for particular outcomes, or a single particular outcome, while inadvertently neglecting subtle but crucial consequences. This is the fragility Nassim Nicholas Taleb writes about in his book Antifragile. Systems of collective intelligence are anti-fragile.
An answer-based approach to AI design, one that optimizes toward any particular value, is likely to involve similar dangers of overlooking something crucial. I have no faith that we are capable of identifying all relevant considerations in any complex situation, and any situation involving humans is complex.
Furthermore, whatever values we may consider most important now could change in time. Trying to choose particular outcomes that will be important in the future is an effort to create an answer-based system. I am convinced that too narrow a question, such as how to maximize any particular value, will become a source of problems.
Using the same question I propose for Civilization 3.0 as the foundation for an advanced AI system could potentially mitigate these dangers, as it does for designing a civilization. All the particular applications being developed, from medical diagnosis to self-driving vehicles to whatever else, would in this approach be in response to subquestions of the civilizational question.
In terms of the creation of Civilization 3.0, the terms of a core question have to be carefully defined. Building an AI system would help focus research on what well-being truly means, and on what is meant by a vibrant and healthy natural environment.
As the system learns what it is looking for it can sift the information in the database built by the software described above (and other resources) to find what works and bring that to the surface.
As experience and understanding grow, the parameters of what the AI system seeks can be tweaked. It is a learning system, and the civilizational core question and all its subquestions and topics can be the object of its learning.
Making an advanced AI into a learning system focused on this topic of the civilizational core question, tasked with finding better possibilities, would be one step. More steps would be having it analyze a particular situation and suggest good options, networking likely collaborators, and monitoring or to some degree managing projects that people decide to implement.
No doubt there is more but that would take us a long ways.
This is the end of this brief tour of the possibilities of Civilization 3.0 and of self-optimizing organizations. Of course, I am interested in your response. Please share your comments below.
If you would like to learn how to conduct question-based meetings, which are the easiest entry point to the whole system (and which have many advantages), click here.