11 November 2001
Electrical Systems as a Guiding Metaphor for Stages of Group
- / -
This exploration is a development of the metaphor as outlined in Centered on
the Edge; mapping a feld of collective intelligence and spiritual wisdom
Institute, Kalamazoo MI, 2001) in an essay by Chris Strutt on Electricity and
The book was concerned with discovering through interviews with many many
dialogue and group practitioners 'how we can understand what helps magic
occur in groups' -- formalized as 'collective intelligence and spiritual
wisdom'. As originally outlined the electrical metaphor focuses on the
relationship between voltage (V), current (I), resistance (R) and wattage (W)
in which the key relationships are:
- current as V/R, indicating that flow in a system is inversely
proportional to resistance
- work as IxV, indicating work (or brightness) increasing with
decrease in resistance
The essay explored the possibility of a minimal level of resistance below which,
if reached, wisdom would flow freely in a group system. Four strategies for
achieving this were outlined.
In what follows, an effort is made to expand the relevance of the metaphor
as a way of indicating design constraints and possibilities that need to be
borne in mind to develop the potential of groups and networks of groups.
Stages of relevance of the electrical system metaphor
It is useful to reflect on the stages through which civilization came to an
understanding of electrical systems and to design ways of using them safely.
These stages may be understood as levels of insight into the design and operation
of networks of individuals and groups. The stages might be distinguished as
Stage I: Static electricity: This is the recognition of phenomena like
lightning and the sense of 'charge'. The difference of potential results
in interpersonal phenomena like 'a bolt from the blue', and certain
forms of transmission of insight -- and getting 'charged up'. It is
also associated to some degree with getting 'burnt out'. Some control
can be exerted on this process through providing lightning conductors to ground
any high powered flash -- and some people perform a well-recognized role of
this kind. What kinds of interesting insights can be obtained from the group
variation of a 'Faraday cage'?
Stage II: Circuit design: The first real step in mastery of flow in
energy flow in groups -- as tentatively outlined in the essay -- comes with
recognition of circuit design. People can be linked together, recognizing that
each individually provides a particular resistance to any such flow. But linking
people in parallel can lower the effective resistance -- although this may be
dangerous as in some crowd effects. However this stage also requires recognition
of the essential polarity of electrical circuits. Controlled systems require
some form of both positive and negative wiring. If there is only a single circuit
-- only sparks can flow! Circuits, like groups, have to be appropriately grounded
or earthed. The essay focuses on the need to reduce resistance to ensure flow.
But it is also important to use resistance appropriately in order to control
flow. It would be a mistake to label 'resistance' as 'bad'
and 'flow' as 'good' -- as anybody exposed to flooding will
have realized. To the extent that individuals are each a form of resistor, it
is also important to recognize that it is the flow of energy through that resistance
that engenders heat. This heat may be inefficient, unwanted 'ego heat',
but it may also be a source of the feeling of 'warmth' for the individual
in the group.
Stage III: Batteries and capacitance: An important early stage in development
of electrical systems was the discovery of batteries and the possibilities for
progressive improvement in their design. Batteries are based on generating potential
through chemistry. Some groups might indeed be understand to work like batteries.
Significantly the batteries have a positive and negative pole -- they are based
on an essential polarity inherent in the originating chemistry. Batteries can
store potential to be used when required in an electrical circuit. It is useful
to consider the way in which an individual can function as a battery that can
be connected with other batteries to empower a network of individuals or groups.
Stage IV: Control: It is important for groups to be able to choose when,
and to what degree, they use their energy. This implies not only a battery,
but some form of switch (perhaps to be understood as a 'decision')
or variable resistors to control how much energy is released at any one time.
Overloading a network of people can be as dangerous as overloading an electrical
network. Too much energy flow can burn out certain circuits. 'Shorts'
can be a major hazard unless the circuitry is appropriately insulated. In groups
this may mean that people at too great a potential difference from one another
should not communicate directly -- but only through intermediaries. It is also
useful to develop safety devices -- fuses -- as is the case in groups. A fuse
is essentially a resistance which burns out if it gets overheated through overload
of the system.
Stage V: Work: It is one thing to have energy flowing in a circuit in
some way, but it is another to be able to ensure that it does appropriate work.
Typically a potential difference (between positive and negative) has to be applied
across some device. The device can be a resistor which would then be heated
to provide warmth -- a vital feature of many group processes. People need psychological
warmth as much as physical warmth. Appropriately constructed resistances (notably
in a vacuum, as in the case of a light bulb) can provide light in the process
of producing warmth. Again, as noted in the essay, such light is much to be
valued in group processes -- and may indeed be their prime purpose. Note that
whilst lightning does do 'work' and provides a lot of 'light',
this can be most problematic and destructive -- especially in the metaphorical
equivalent. However there is nothing to say that any work done through a network
of individuals will be 'positive' or that any 'light' will
be as insightful as many would hope. The potential of electricity can be applied
in various ways -- as is the case with networks of groups.
Stage VI: Generators and motors: Once the above principles had been
understood, electrical development moved on to the design of generators and
motors. The challenge was how to design a means of generating potential in a
consistent way for long periods -- beyond the constraints of batteries. At the
some time there was the challenge of how to put such potential to work in a
more effective way. The resulting generators and motors are to a large extent
mirror images of each other:
- A generator creates a potential difference by moving a carefully positioned
polarized element (a magnet) past a coil of wires. An individual could be
considered such a polarized element -- as could be some of the polarized issues
and dilemmas in society. The design question is what are the 'wires'
and how should they be 'coiled'? Powerful generators use many such
magnets and carefully designed circular wiring in complex patterns. The speed
of rotation is also very high.
- The same design principles apply in the design of motors. However in this
case it is the application of the potential to the coil that causes the polarized
elements to turn. The higher the potential, the faster (or more powerfully)
they can be made to turn.
In the case of both generators and motors, there is a fundamental question
as to whether the electricity is 'direct current' (DC) or 'alternating
current' (AC). Both systems may be used -- typically the USA uses DC and
Europe uses AC. Direct current is electric current that flows in a single direction.
Many simple devices, such as those that run on batteries, use direct current.
Alternating current, in contrast, is electric current that reverses its flow
direction at regular intervals. This is the type of electricity provided by
utilities and is required to run most modern appliances and electronic devices.
What is the significance of this difference for networks of individuals?
It is very interesting that the wiring design of generators and motors has
many parallels to that of mandalas -- notably one derived from the configuration
of hexagrams in the I Ching (see https://www.laetusinpraesens.org/docs/chingcot.php)
Stage VII: Transformers: In order to handle the transformation of energy
from AC to DC (or back), or to change the properties of the energy in the circuit,
transformers were then developed. Networks of individuals also need transformers
to shift from 'high energy' circuits to those requiring much lower
energy. Again these require carefully designed wiring and insulation -- as well
as extensive cooling. This stage saw the many less-publicized, innovative and
curious developments by Nikola Tesla that suggest many possibilities for group
Stage VIII: Multiphase operation: More sophisticated developments in
motors and generators resulted in the design of multi-phase devices. There is
a sense in which this too might be required of networks of individuals facing
more complex challenges.
Stage IX: Large generators and power distribution: Here the application
of the above principles is applied on a much larger scale at much higher energies
-- requiring sophisticated protective devices and control systems. How might
complex networks of individuals and groups be understood in these terms? Is
the United Nations the equivalent of such a generator?
Stage X: Radio and TV: The focus on electricity phased into a related
focus on telecommunications. This requires the design of more complex control
and amplification circuits in order to detect and make audible the faintest
of signals -- and to transmit signals in return. These have included valves
and transistors. What lessons are there for group and network design from such
Stage XI: Computer systems: A new phase of development has been through
the intricacies of the design of computers and computer networks. Here a major
issue has been ensuring compatibility between systems operating under different
principles -- some seven levels of compatibility have to be ensured for effective
communication. What lessons are there for compatibility within interpersonal
networks and for the means whereby communication between incompatible systems
can be ensured?
Stage XII: ?