11 November 2001

Electrical Systems as a Guiding Metaphor for Stages of Group Dialogue

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This exploration is a development of the metaphor as outlined in Centered on the Edge; mapping a feld of collective intelligence and spiritual wisdom (Fetzer Institute, Kalamazoo MI, 2001) in an essay by Chris Strutt on Electricity and Groups.


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 follows:

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 development.

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 preoccupations?

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: ?

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