On Being a Good Grain of Sand


A theory of almost everything in four-and-a-bit diagrams (with no apology to Ken Wilbur)

Today I gave a valedictory presentation to my friends at SmartCSOs.  Since the presentation consisted of a series of diagrams sketched at speed on a flipchart, I thought I'd translate it into blogspeak just in case.

Diagram 1

It looks like a hierarchy, but it is in fact a pile of sand.

Above the pile, obviously, is a grain of sand, falling in the direction of the arrow.

Mathematicians whose names regretfully escape me wanted to know if they could predict what would happen for any given grain of sand: would it cause some sort of landslide? And, if so, how big?

After no doubt thousands of hours of experiment, and a no doubt similar amount of time doing maths, they demonstrated conclusively that it is formally impossible to know what will happen: it is a partially chaotic, complex system.  All you can know - and this you can know with considerable certainty - is that, if you drop many grains of sand, over a long period of time there will be a LARGE number of small slides, and a SMALL number of big slides.  A bit like this:

Diagram 2

This hyperbolic curve, Mark Buchanan demonstrated in Ubiquity, is, well, ubiquitous.  Across a whole range of both physical and social systems one sees the same patterns - lots of small changes, and only a small number of big ones.

SmartCSOs, of course, is concerned with a big change.  A very big change.  It is concerned with nothing less than a 'great transition' in the entire global economy; indeed many involved with SmartCSOs are concerned with and/or working on a great transition in global consciousness, whereby we all finally become one.  (See the 1937 sci-fi novel 'Starmaker', by Olaf Stapledon for an explanation of how this works.)

The implication of the sandpile experiment for SmartCSOs - and, indeed, for anyone else working with the hope of producing a dramatic change in how things are -  is rather sobering: there is no way of knowing whether the efforts you are making will cause a big landslide or a tiny one.

HOWEVER one other thing you can be sure of is - there cannot be a landslide unless there is a pile.

Gandhi put it thus: "Whatever you do will be insignificant, but it is very important that you do it."

You may not be the one that causes the 'big one'; but unless you're in the pile, then there is no chance at all.

(My ambition these days, in light of this, is: be a good grain of sand.)

Diagram 3

This is what the landslide is up against.  It's a stylised network diagram with three dominant nodes.  (You could think of it either as a structure inside the sandpile, like a lattice holding the thing together; or perhaps as a netting, wrapped around the base; in either case, it's a crystal-like structure that holds the sand pile in place, enabling it to grow bigger or remain (apparently) stable for longer than would otherwise be the case.)

In this example, the diagram represents the world of economics - no, more accurately, the world of economists.  There is, I suggest, an inter-locking nexus of economists in locations A, B and C:

A - the Treasuries of major (and most minor) world governments

B - the world's fat financial institutions

C - a number of elite universities around the world that teach economics

The universities are in the business, of course, of supplying well-trained economists into the labour market, the demand for which comes almost exclusively from either A or B.  A and B engage with one another closely in running the economy, so it makes sense to have them able to communicate in the same language.  That language is orthodox neo-classical economics; and there we have it, a closed, self-reinforcing and ever-more-powerful sub-system with its own language, narratives and energy.

(Refinements such as OECD, IMF etc would all fit very neatly into the diagram, of course: they're the same people, trained the same way, speaking the same language, believing the same 'stories'.)

If you want a big landslide, this sub-system is in your way.

Diagram 4a

Here's your bog-standard S-curve, time along the bottom, quantity up the side, an almost-invariant pattern illustrating the uptake of a new thing-in-the-world (normally thought of as applying to products, because it's easiest to get the data, but applying just as fiercely to behaviours and beliefs - automatic washing machines, mobile phones, the internet, major world religions, you name it) (And here's a reference, just in case...)

Diagram 4b

It's easiest to think of the process as occurring in four stages:

A - initially the new thing (in the jargon, an 'innovation') is used or believed by a tiny number of people - the vanguard, the avant guard, the prospectors - the weirdoes

B - some stuff happens (the really important stuff, it turns out) and 'early adopters', normally 'cool' people that the rest of us admire, start to use or believe the thing

C - it goes mainstream, as everyone starts to copy the cool people and everyone starts to copy everyone else (conformance to social norms is either the single most powerful factor influencing our behaviours, or one of a very small number of such factors)

D - and by now it's simply 'normal'

But hang on just a moment...

Diagram 4c

There are two big, big issues.

Firstly - for how long might, or will, or could or should a new thing hang out in the A zone?  What if it's decades, or centuries?

Secondly - some magical stuff happens in the B zone.  This is the place where it is determined whether the new thing will go mainstream and provide us with the new normal D1; or whether the new thing will perish, vanish, peter out into the unrealised possible future and now perpetually marginal D2.  It is the place where the lattice-work of institutional resistance has its tightest knots, where those with anything to lose from a transition to D1 will inevitably focus their energy.  (They really don't mind if you hang out in the A zone; indeed, it can sometimes be helpful to them if you do, because then it doesn't look as if their stopping you...)

For something like SmartCSOs - or, indeed, any ambitious programme of change - it is imperative, in my view, to think long and hard about these two things.

If, as the data is increasingly showing and many increasingly believe, the environmental and human damage being inflicted by contemporary capitalism requires urgent action, then we simply can't afford to spend much time in the A zone.  Our introspections and our personal journeys; our favourite metaphors and our preferred 'models'; our fervent discussions and our thought-provoking blogs; all lovely.  But we really don't have much time.

And if we don't look very carefully indeed at what happens in the B-zone, and prepare accordingly, then even our finest deliberations may get us simply to the place of being treated as interesting and irrelevant by the cool people, and as a marginal distraction by the power-nexus.

As grains of sand, we can't guarantee anything of course; but if our aspirations to wisdom and ethics are to be of any value, then they oblige to at least maximise the odds of success.

Or something like that.


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