(On Kevin Kelly’s “The New Socialism,” Paul Ward’s Medea Hypothesis, Steven Shaviro’s “Against Self-Organization,” and more.)
Self-organizing adaptive systems and other networks are more than just the flavor of the philosophical month; they are a model increasingly used to make sense of the natural and cultural worlds. Generally it’s assumed that such distributed self-organization is a good thing and that our intelligence needs to mirror it as best as possible. This message is reiterated in books like Daniel Goleman’s Ecological Intelligence, a worthy recent entry onto the popular market by the psychologist who popularized the terms social intelligence and emotional intelligence. Summarizing the research of ecological economists and industrial ecologists, among others, Goleman argues that what we need is a “radical transparency” about the entire production and consumption cycle of the products we buy. I’ve only skimmed the book, but I imagine that this argument can be added to the social and emotional intelligence arguments he’s previously made, and perhaps to a “political intelligence” piece that may need to be better developed, so that what we’d get is a radical transparency about the ecological and social justice impacts of the things that make up our world.
Transparency and complexity would seem to go hand in hand, then: the more we are aware of the causal loops making up the increasingly complex systems of our uncertain world, the more capable we are of dealing with the results of those complex feedback loops. But there’s only so much knowing that can go around in a world that’s flooded with information, but in which that information comes primarily in the form of distraction. Both the distribution of knowledge and the economy of attention will be areas we’ll need to be concerned with more and more. On the latter, I highly recommend Sam Anderson’s New York Magazine piece “In Defense of Distraction,” an entertaining jaunt through the landscape of twenty-first century distraction, where attention is increasingly becoming a new currency, and attention aids, from neuroenhancement drugs to mindfulness training, will increasingly provide us with what we need to navigate the world (while remaining upwardly mobile).
To better map out the distributive politics of knowledge and of ecological (and other kinds of) intelligence, we may need to retrieve traditional ideological concepts like “socialism,” and also to examine our assumptions about the nature of the whole system (whether that be global capitalism, the biosphere, or the combination of the two). A couple of recent books and articles can help us think about the ethics and politics of globally distributed intelligence.
Back in the oh-so-long-ago 1990s, when capitalism reigned triumphant and cyberlibertarians like George Gilder and Newt Gingrich were celebrated by the emerging digerati at Wired magazine, one-time Whole Earth-er and Wired editor Kevin Kelly, in books like Out of Control: The New Biology of Machines, Social Systems, and the Economic World and New Rules for the New Economy, touted the then-’emerging paradigm’ of adaptive, distributive systems and complex, emergent networks as analogous to the spontaneous order arising from nature in, among other things, the workings of the capitalist free market. Now Wired’s “Senior Maverick,” Kelly seems to be finding that what’s natural is, actually, socialism. In a piece called The New Socialism: Global Collectivist Society Is Coming Online, Kelly argues that the open source movement is at the leading edge of a trend toward “a sort of socialism uniquely tuned for a networked world”:
“When masses of people who own the means of production work toward a common goal and share their products in common, when they contribute labor without wages and enjoy the fruits free of charge, it’s not unreasonable to call that socialism.”
Kelly compares open-source “socialism” with the “decentralized, socialized production methods of northern Italian and Basque industrial co-ops, in which employees are owners, selecting management and limiting profit distribution, independent of state control” — which finds him sharing common ground with post-Marxist left theorists like J. K. Gibson-Graham and William Connolly.
“But only since the arrival of low-cost, instantaneous, ubiquitous collaboration has it been possible to migrate the core of those ideas into diverse new realms, like writing enterprise software or reference books. The dream is to scale up this third way beyond local experiments.”
Scaling up these kinds of socialist experiments sounds to me a lot like, well, socialism these days.
But what happens when we scale things up to the global level? Deleuzian-Whiteheadian process philosopher and media/lit crit Steven Shaviro shares a thoughtful review of a new book by paleontologist Peter Ward which argues that self-organizing systems aren’t all they’re cracked up to be. Ward’s thesis in The Medea Hypothesis: Is Life on Earth Ultimately Self-Destructive? is that James Lovelock’s and Lynn Margulis’s “Gaia hypothesis” is all wrong, and that “life processes have destabilizing effects, rather than homeostatic ones, upon the very environment that they rely upon for survival.” The biosphere, in other words, is not Gaia, but Medea.
“This is largely because of the Malthusian basis of natural selection. Traits that give any organism a selective advantage over its rivals will spread through the gene pool, unless and until they overwhelm the environment and reach the limits of its carrying capacity. An organism that is too successful will ultimately suffer a crash from overpopulation, depletion of resources, and so on.”
There are debates among neo-Darwinist and post-Darwinist biologists about the level(s) at which natural selection occurs (the gene, the individual organism, the group or community, et al.), but to the extent that the genetically fixated neo-Darwinists remain dominant — and they seem to be, both in the scientific culture and in the popular press (though E. O. Wilson recently jumped ship) — Ward’s arguments don’t seem very far-fetched. All of this reminds me of the debates among environmental historians and science studies scholars over the social and ethical implications of ecological ideas. Several years ago, Donald Worster had argued that ecology was taking on an increasingly libertarian-individualist cast in the 1980s and 1990s as ideas from chaos and nonlinear dynamic systems theories were reshaping the ways ecologists thought of nature: ecosystems were no longer thought to be self-balancing and virtue-seeking, holistic and homeostatic systems; in fact, according to the (then) “new ecologists,” they might not exist at all outside of the nonlinear interactions of individual organisms doing whatever it is they do. Ward’s ideas follow this latter strain of thought, and they go against the grain of the popular intellectual “faith” in self-organization, a faith Shaviro describes well by elucidating its various support bases among scholars and activists:
“The anarchist left puts its faith in self-organizing movements of dissidence and protest, with the (non-)goal being a spontaneously self-organized cooperative society. Right wing libertarians, meanwhile, see the “free market” as the realm of emergent, spontaneous, self-organized solutions to all problems, and blame disasters like the Great Depression of the 1930s, and the current Depression as well, on government “interference” with the (allegedly otherwise self-equilibrating) market mechanism. Network theory, a hot new discipline where mathematics intersects with sociology, looks at the Internet and other complex networks as powerfully self-organizing systems, both generating and managing complexity out of a few simple rules. The brain is described, in connectionist accounts, as a self-organizing system emerging from chaos; today we try to build self-learning and self-organizing robots and artificial intelligences, instead of ones that are determined in advance by fixed rules. “Genetic algorithms” are used to make better software; Brian Eno devises algorithms for self-generating music. Maturana and Varela’s autopoiesis is taken by humanists and ecologists as the clear alternative to deterministic and mechanistic biology; but even the hardcore neodarwinists discover emergent properties in the interactions of multiple genes. Niklas Luhmann, in his turn, applies autopoiesis to human societies. This list could go on indefinitely.”
Shaviro does not argue that we should jettison that faith in the reality of self-organizing systsems, but he does suggest that we should temper our desire to see it always in positive terms. He writes:
“we need to give up the moralistic conviction that somehow self-organized outcomes are superior to ones arrived at by other means. We need to give up our superstitious reverence for results that seem to happen ‘by themselves,’ or to arrive ‘from below’ rather than ‘from above.’”
In the end, he opts for a Whiteheadian metaphysics that sees not spontaneous emergence but an element of decision in everything, such that what we need is “an aesthetics of decision, instead of our current metaphysics of emergence.”
I think that, fortunately, Whitehead, as well as Deleuze and other process-relational philosophers (such as the Madhyamika Buddhists, who I’ve cited here before), allow for both an aesthetics of decision (a term I like a lot) and a metaphysics of emergence. They describe a universe in which things emerge into novelty out of interconnected webs of causality, with that novelty being neither good nor bad in itself, just what it is. But at the same time, it is a universe in which our own situatedness within moment-to-moment becoming — Whitehead’s ‘actual occasions’ (his term for the most basic ontological building block) — beckons us to act in accordance with our ‘feel’ for what’s called for in a situation, and for what opens lines of connection to other feeling, sentient beings. Given that “decision” too often evokes the notion of a deciding rational agent, however, I would want to broaden Shaviro’s term to an “aesthetics of action”, maybe even an “aesthetics of enaction” (following Francesco Varela’s enactive cognitivism) to make clear that we’re talking about the enactment of relationality which occurs partly through the decisive action, but partly also through the cultivation of attitudes and responses, and thus through habituation, practice, what Varela calls ethical know-how, and through sheer osmosis, by virtue of living with others whose shaping influence we open ourselves up to.
The upshot, I think, is that systems, or systemic network interactions, are real; that as complex systems interact, they generate systems of ever greater complexity, which are not necessarily good nor homeostatic — i.e., they can crash, of their own internal contradictions, as Ward argues (though it also sounds like Marx to me); and that ‘we’ — glimpses of subjectivity who find ourselves swimming within complex relational networks with a moment to moment capacity for action — can act to ameliorate the system conditions for further emergence. Ecological intelligence, in this context, would mean an appropriate distribution of the knowledge of system relations, with “appropriate” meaning one in which useful knowledge, shared in visualizable and aesthetically communicable ways, is enacted in participatory institutions in which power relations are fair and ‘nested,’ adaptive and responsive, with built-in checks and balances, reliable information flow, and space for both individual extension (as in market relations) and participatory and cooperative governance (as in the responsive socialism that Kelly, Gibson-Graham and others describe). We could, in our moments of Shavirian ‘decision,’ choose to practice, and thereby cultivate, an open-hearted responsiveness in the direction of such an ‘open-source socialism’ — that is, a solidarity across the gaps that systems, no matter how open and emergent, never quite close.