Challenges to Comprehension Implied by the Logo
of Laetus in Praesens
University of Earth Alternative view of segmented documents via Kairos


Dialogue Challenges towards the Year 3000

Comments on the Humanity 3000 Symposium

- / -

Organized (Seattle, August 2000) by the Foundation for the Future (FFF). The Humanity 3000 Symposium was preceded by two seminars in April and September 1999. The focus of these events was on the critical factors for the long-term survival of humanity, the current and proejected situation of these factors, as well as the problems and opportunities associated with these factors. The events have been extensively documented.


In his closing remarks, Walter Kistler, Presdident of the Foundation for the Future, discussed the challenge of 'management' of the response to any articulation of the challenge of the survival of humanity. It is indeed the case that our collective management ability towards this end is not of a kind to be reassuring. Nor are the prospects in this respect. But whilst I have my doubts on our ability to do better, it behooves us to test our ingenuity in seeking better responses that may prove more adequate or at least offer us insights into the possibility of responses that would be more adequate.

The following comments endeavour to reflect both on the Symposium as a laboratory experiment in social engineering and on what might be learnt from it as a contribution to the design of the next such experiment towards insightful management towards 3000. Given the links of the Foundation to the space industry and to the engineering world, a design preoccupation is a healthy one. Just as it takes sophisticated design to get a spacecraft into orbit, I would suggest that it will take an analogous degree of sophistication in design to get any collective management initiative together to be adequate to the planetary survival challenge. Old-style approaches will not necessarily work. We are all in an experimental mode to this end.

In what follows, a distinction is made between (a) the Foundation's legitimate concerns to promote the issues of long-term planetary future (and the necessary credibility of its own programs), and (b) the content, structure and process which may serve to enlighten our approach to the planetary challenge of the future. It is on the second of these that the focus is made.

A core challenge both for planetary society and for the Foundation is the management of the diversity of preoccupations and proposed strategies. There are several issues that emerged from the August Symposium experiment:

1. Collapsing complex systemic concerns into a subset of priorities

In structuring the Symposium, especially given room space and speaking time constraints, it is obviously necessary to isolate a limited set of themes for group discussion. During such discussions, many related issues emerge. There is a design challenge when there is an attempt to reduce either the full range of articulated issues, or the group themes, to a still smaller subset through a voting procedure designed to reduce 6 issues to 3, 3 to 2, and finally to vote between the two to get one consensus view. The launch and operation of a spacecraft necessitates complex coordination between a range of systems. Any implication that the space craft can be operated by using just one or two control systems is problematic.

In the real world of a Symposium there are real constraints on how to interweave a diversity of insights with appropriate checks and balances. Room availability and microphone time are difficult to design around. And yet this is part of the management challenge to be faced in operationalizing any new approach that has a chance of being adequate.

In principle most participants, as with most crew members, have valuable insights to offer, including valuable constraints on each others excesses and blind spots. It is therefore problematic when participants compete for air time (like kids in school) to make points perceived as unnecessary by some, or are obliged to compete for air time to get over a vital point, often denying airtime to others, and even discouraging them from attempting to intervene. The problem is compounded when facilitation is structured to create the appearance of participation under circumstances (including technical facilities) where this can only be partially successful. The question is always whether any design compromise is good enough to ensure that the spacecraft can function without vital signals that have been marginalized.

2. Managing disagreement

A key question is how disagreement is to be managed. One approach is to vote out minority views - effectively designing them out of the solution. Whilst this may work in a meeting, and be extolled as democracy in operation, it would be highly dangerous in a space craft where all systems must be held in readiness, which ever ones are currently needed as the focus of control - especially when none may be adequate and new ones may have to be improvised.

I would like to suggest that, having selected a respectable set of participants, the challenge is to configure their perspectives and concerns from one systemic perspective (or more) rather than to isolate particular perspectives, through some asystemic process, as being the most relevant. The point I am making is that it is necessary to distinguish between the value of the adversarial process in determining immediate priorities and its dangers in obscuring contextual issues that prove vital at some critical juncture. Polarization of critical dialogue undermines the ability to manage complex systems as reflected in the views of participants with different strengths and limitations.

It is appropriate that natural/hard sciences should denigrate social sciences and vice versa in seeking to clarify their own perspective, but it is dangerous when both perspectives have a role to perform in a larger system - that neither is then able to recognize or improve from their particular perspectives.

Specifically I found it ironic that in the process of voting to 'decide' upon the most critical factors for the survival of humanity, the Symposium voted out the dimension most concerned with how diversity was to be taken into account - itself already collapsed under a term that did not reflect the content associated with the term during the group session that proposed it. The assumption was therefore made that critical factors could best be determined by classical voting procedures. Who would design a space craft control system by vote?

3. Understanding complexity

Many disciplines are faced with complexity and there are a number of approaches to dealing with it. It is the harder sciences, assisted by mathematics, that are providing new conceptual tools for doing so. It is ironic that whilst calls are made by some participants for the use of these tools for technological innovation and the pursuit of knowledge, there is a great reluctance to use these tools to manage the diversity of perspectives that are considered relevant for human survival. Hard scientists are quick to denigrate the intangibles to which social scientists give precedence, and the latter are quick to denigrate the former for their material preoccupations. And yet the harder sciences are happy to rely on the most abstruse mathematics, and the rarest of events to substantiate, their position but are unprepared to consider that the psycho-social system they hope to influence by their prerogatives may be of commensurate multi-dimensional complexity -- in the light of evidence that is equally elusive. After all it is the hard sciences that offer the paradox of wave and particle theories, the uncertainty principle, and multidimensional spaces as being rational, together with theories of distant cosmic phenomena (blackholes, big bangs) as being necessary features of reality.

The point I am making is that it is unlikely that solutions to the survival of humanity are to be found in the 2- and 3-dimensions of the communication space characterized by current approaches to meeting design, dialogue processes, and insight capture. Insights from the harder sciences are needed to provide a disciplined framework of adequate complexity within which to enable the co-existence and co-evolution of the extreme perspectives of respected participants. Is it not possible that such extremes are as different as the wave and particle theories of light (and as complementary) in any effort to understand the underlying design challenges? It is curious that those specializing in the study of complexity have not yet focused their attention on the practical challenges of handling diversity within dialogue - especially given the communication challenges amongst the practitioners of such disciplines.

Analyzing these phenomena and determining solutions may well prove interesting in a mathematical sense, rather than trivial as the practitioners tend to assume when they themselves enter into dialogue situations and trap themselves in a simplistic logical space. In extolling genetics and DNA structure as a focus for major implications for society, is there not a case for hypothesizing that the communication requirements necessary to manage such innovations may be of commensurate complexity (in the light of Ashby's Law in cybernetics)? In which case the polarities that emerge in dialogue might looks something like the bonds across the twisted strands of DNA - namely somewhat more complex than treatment of polarity in contemporary dialogue. Alternatively it might be useful to explore the possibility that any viable set of global ethics may need to function, and be understood, more as a strange attractor conditioning behaviours - rather than as a laundry list of legalese. Its integrity as a system may only be describable in a space of more than 3 dimensions.

The kinds of 'consensus' appropriate to management of complexity must necessarily be complex unless ways are found to violate Ashby's Law.

4. Multi-valued logics

Use of logic based on the excluded middle is readily made in dialogue and is a feature of polarized discussion. It is not necessarily adequate to the task of encompassing the complexity of navigating towards the Year 3000 in a multicultural society.

Asian cultures make extensive use of a 4-fold logic (cf Kinhide Mushakoji, Interparadigmatic Dialogue, see summary). This includes the 'both/and' possibility. It also includes a 'neither/nor' possibility that was articulated at an international congress of anarchists in the USA over the same period as the Symposium in the response of an organizer to a visiting journalist: 'Your are neither welcome, nor are you unwelcome'.

5. Subunderstanding and Subcomprehension

During the Symposium I referred to a concept articulated by Magoroh Maruyama, namely subunderstanding. This is the process whereby participants partially understand each other, whilst believing they fully understand each other - and then proceed to act mistakenly on the assumption that they do have that full understanding - possibly congratulating the originator for the insight presented. This is especially problematic in any effort to discuss complexity, notably for any conceptual innovator but also for a baffled and frustrated interlocutor. The best formal articulation of the social and communication implications of this phenomena is by the mathematician Ron Atkin author of a book Multidimensional Man: Can Man Live in 3-Dimensions? (see summary ). His work is currently used by the US Defense Department in simulating information warfare.

My argument is that not only is this phenomenon likely to undermine future dialogues convened by the Foundation (as it does at present), but also any effort to integrate efforts towards management of planetary survival. The formal mathematical arguments are however suggestive of windows of communication opportunity through which the enterprise may be more reliably launched into a sustainable communication space. As Erwin Laszlo pointed out the challenges of the intensive evolutionary phase include both communication and comprehension.

6. Failure of recognition

Those enthused by science and technology tend to bemoan the lack of understanding of the potentials offered by their disciplines for the coming millennium. The same is true in the case of the social sciences. Strangely, as successful participants in society, natural scientists tend to assume that their knowledge of preoccupations, concerns and enthusiasms of the softer sciences is perfectly adequate, forgetting that even the least educated 'knows' more about genetics than those in the relevant natural science disciplines.

At both extremes there is a rejection of the uncritical assumptions of the other extreme - treated as matters of uninformed opinion. This is healthy. It is however frustrating when considering that they have valuable insights to offer that are rejected for secondary reasons which happen to be taken as primary from the opposite extreme. This impoverished dialogue will continue as long as the communication space is reduced to the dimensions of 'me right - you wrong'. New frameworks are required within which the strengths and weaknesses of both arguments can be recognized without undermining the contribution of each.

7. Visualization and mapping

On the occasion of the August 1999 preliminary seminar I praised the Foundation for its use of visualization artists. I would repeat that praise with respect to the Symposium for I truly believe that insights of artists are extremely valuable in facilitating integrative understanding of complex realities. However I do not think that the approach currently used is adequate to the challenge. The task of the artist needs to be underpinned by new hardware and software technology commensurate with the challenges of launching a vehicle that has to traverse a complex communication space.

Insights need to be captured and interrelated more systematically with mappings into more than 2 dimensional space -- allowing them to be analyzed by a range of mathematical tools (available in off-the-shelf software). The task of the artist is to assist in the configuration of any mapping of insights - perhaps as alternative views of the same data for those whose understanding is reinforced in this way. Unfortunately at present, the visualization is as dissociated from the capture of linear text as is the soft science perspective from that of the harder sciences. This was reflected in the relative uninvolvement of participants in the visualization and the lack of reference to it during sessions. As a mapping exercise to assist in the navigational process, it was not the vital point of reference that it should be. The task of insight capture and display needs to be distinguished from the supplementary and more challenging task of the artist in creatively reconfiguring the data displayed into comprehensible patterns of meaning.

As a complement to visualization? I should also like to point to the potential of music for the 'harmonious' organization of knowledge. The 100-odd Leitmotivs used in Wagner's Ring Cycle suggest a way of encoding an array of dynamically related issues that need to be collectively comprehended - perhaps a kind of periodic table. Such a 'pattern language' is consistent with that developed by Christopher Alexander as a participative design too, and subsequently adapted as a guide for computer programming.

On the occasion of the Symposium it was clear that the good work reflected in the proceedings of the preceding Seminars could not be effectively presented as maps to guide discussion at the Symposium. This suggests a fundamental communication problem in the use of linear transcription. It is to be regretted that the huge investment in the preceding seminars could not be used effectively to focus and kick-start the dialogue of the Symposium - and provide a framework or platform for the emergence of further insight.

8. Using the assembled intellectual resources

The Foundation is to be congratulated on investing in the bringing together of such a diversity of people. It is a costly exercise. There must clearly be a concern with the performance of the 'assets' so assembled. The Foundation has emphasized the derivation of insights from them through a particular kind of procedure that might be loosely compared to a serial filtration system in which pressure is increased by reduction of variety (from N, via 6, to 1, as argued above) - supplemented by the cross-fertilization arising from the self-organizing initiatives of participants outside the formal sessions.

Given the investment in participants, a key question is whether particular individuals communicated fruitfully with others - whether in their own view, that of the organizers, or from a broader and more systemic perspective. Creating a framework for dialogue is no guarantee that the most fruitful dialogue takes place. Disaster-free completion of a scheduled program is no guarantee that best use was made of assembled resources, however positive the feedback. Experienced meeting participants are only too familiar with techniques of deriving benefit from attendance at a meeting whether or not they are in any way engaged by the content or processes of formal sessions as pre-defined and valued by organizers. It is perhaps fruitful to consider participants like different chemicals in a reactor -- whether and how they interact is a matter of design concern. Reactor design and catalyst quality for such reaction are a matter of continuing review. In this respect a key question is the challenge to facilitators and the extent to which their skills will need to be honed over the coming millennium. Whether the communication pattern within conventional gatherings can enhance the self-organizing capacity of the crew of a spacecraft traversing a complex space is an important question. Or are the skills of facilitation over a pre-mapped territory to be considered adequate to the challenge?

9. Database of accumulating insights

The Foundation is to be congratulated on its commitment to investment in recording and transcribing the series of formal sessions. However some participants find the resulting volumes difficult to penetrate in order to derive patterns of insight that might provide a platform from which to move forward. This undermines their value to subsequent gatherings of the Foundation. The possibility of developing a complementary database based on such material has been considered, as has the possibility of developing conceptual maps of the insights so captured - beyond those provided by artists.

Again a comparison might be usefully made with the instrumental needs of a space craft crew. Whilst a manual analogous to the symposium proceedings is desirable for certain purposes, more structured information is required in guiding and controlling the movement of the space craft and the variety of interventions of its crew. Particular crew members may in fact require different kinds of information from an integrated database, if they are to perform cognitive functions integrated with those of others having quite different responsibilities and preoccupations. It is absurd to design a system solely for the needs of those concerned with only a subset of the systems required to ensure the viability of the space craft. There is also the matter of the information required by the passengers in order to have confidence in the crew - a matter of considerable importance in the real world.

10. Extended participation

The Foundation is to be congratulated in extending participation to a wider circle of observers, including teachers and students. This process seems to have worked very well.

However the Foundation is to be specially congratulated for allowing the presence of a dog, Annie -- with her own participant badge. I know this can be difficult in the USA, where the presence of animals can be constrained by rules. The ability to bend such rules distinguishes a gathering and its organizers. How it might have worked with two dogs, or dogs plus children, is another matter.

11. Potential of higher intelligence: collective intelligence vs collective stupidity?

Whilst I have no objection to the importance attached by the Foundation to the potential of higher intelligence, it is vital to recognize the limitations of such intelligence in practice. The members of Mensa, for example, are not renowned for their capacity to manage situations of the degree of complexity with which the planet is faced, or even those of an organization or a community. Few proposals of any credibility for the solution of the problems of the planet appear to derive from those considered highly intelligent. As a centre of excellence, the Santa Fe Institute's work has not resulted in credible proposals to resolve current planetary crises despite its recognized insights into complexity.

Whilst intelligence may be a desirable quality, only too often it is combined with other attributes and qualities so as to undermine ability to handle cross-sectoral problems that typically challenge leaders in real world situations. It is highly probable that artificial intelligence will be similarly constrained until the attributes required for multi-sectoral management are better understood. It is worth remembering that higher intelligence may well be skilled in disguising its own defects and blind spots, of which it may well be unaware (or incapable of recognizing) within the worldview within which its skills reign supreme.

It could be argued that it is integrative intelligence that characterizes a leader, even though dependent on insights from those of greater specialized intelligence. How integrative intelligence is to be recognized, encouraged and enhanced is another matter. Perhaps it is the tendency to measure intelligence along a single dimension that is problematic when what is required is measurement of a multiplicity of complementary factors that would better reflect integrative intelligence capacity.

It occurred to me that great attention is given to individual intelligence, with only implicit discussion of stupidity. The question that came to mind was whether intelligent people could also be stupid or whether intelligence was the reverse of stupidity. We have different associations to these terms. One might usefully explore cases of : (a) Intelligence OR stupidity; (b) Intelligence AND Stupidity; (c) NEITHER Intelligence NOR Stupidity. These cases, and the discussion, are much more interresting when applied to collective intelligence. Unfortunately there is no equivalent to IQ for collective inteligence. On this matter, it should be remembered that is not what is considered factual now which will necessarily be considered factual in the future -- up to the Year 3000. And the future (or an extraterrestial tribunal) is liable to judge the levels of intelligence and stupidity within humanity quite differently from the way in which interpret facts today.

In the continuing debates on Black IQ vs White IQ, it is conveniently forgotten that the IQ of the Whites, if superior according to some interpretations, will be set against the significant stupidity of the White races (despite such intelligence) as measured by criteria that the future may judge to be fundamental. Cases of White stupidity that may be presented at the door of White collective intelligence might include: slavery, colonialism depletion of natural resources, destruction of ecosystems, economic crimes against humanity (and incirtement thereto), institutionalized genocide, religious conflict, exacerbation of everykind of gap, financial speculation, world wars, nuclear arms race, radioactive waste, etc.

Maybe the Foundation for the Future could broaden the Evolution of Human Intelligence program of its Center for Human Evolution to include the evolution of collective intelligence.

12. Space colonization

Again my lack of enthusiasm for this 'backup' option derives from a recognition that those most enthusiastic about it have little interest in clarifying the psycho-social issues of communities of several thousand inhabitants. These issues lend themselves to relatively low-cost preliminary experiment in closed communities on Earth. Such experimentation is avoided and denigrated - and was excluded from Biosphere2. The dynamics of dialogue in meetings are also a form of experiment that calls for more attention. Any extended meeting resembles a space vessel in many ways -- except that it travels through a multidimensional communication space, in which (presumably) relatively effects are not insignificant.

It would be ironic if space colonies failed not because of technical reasons but as a result of failures in social systems that could not mature beyond organization principles based on military organization in which many parameters of society are regulated or excluded.

13. Synthesis

It seems to me that the Symposium faces some kind of challenge of synthesis, namely how the many relevant threads are to be woven meaningfully together as a basis for coherent action. This can be expressed through code words like 'consensus' but essentially it is a question of what is to be learnt from the initiative, how it enables the dialogue to move forward, and to what end. It is far from clear to me what exactly is this challenge or what should, or could, be done about it. It may simply be a generic problem of any gathering of that ambition.



The theme common to all the points made above is the need to move beyond single-factor explanations and polarized argumentation into a both/and logic that calls for more complex dialogue frameworks. As I see it, detecting and developing the conceptual and software scaffolding for such dialogue is the real challenge for the Foundation as it seeks to contribute to planetary survival. As a design challenge, this involves both mathematical and psycho-social dimensions of a uniquely exciting kind. The challenges of planetary survival can only be validly met beyond 3-dimensional space, whether in terms of energy sources, comprehension, or management of complexity.

I would argue that Foundation events, as with the best of modern meetings, are currently trapped in a 'conceptual gravity well' and need to learn from the design challenges of space launches in order to get the dialogues into orbit!

Whether this argument is correct or not, it suggests a hypothesis that may be worth exploring - if planetary survival is at stake. It is too early in the third millennium to assume that we know what we need to know to reach the Year 3000.


After-thoughts: Meta-design considerations for future initiatives

My question would be, given the problematic track record of the international community, how to set up a new approach and define criteria for its design.

It is not as though we lack the conceptual tools, rather it is that they get assembled and applied through a system that is operating at a very high order of clunkiness -- something assembled in a junkyard by some rather curious people (with some very dysfunctional motivations and blindspots) in terms of the challenge. I despair of the current noble millennial effort by the UN and associates. It seems to based entirely on wishful thinking or, as Paul Werbos neatly said of positive thinking, positive but without the thinking. It exhibits a high order of denial of recent history and systematic avoidance of any constraints that might have been helpful in new design initiatives.

However this does not mean that I am arguing for a blue sky approach.

My question would be that if one were to take all the useful conceptual tools, and recognize all the many design constraints (including corruption, nepotism, stupidity, greed, etc -- which feature widely in any international programs, mirroring their presence at the national level), what could one come up with that would offer a better response to the challenges that are foreseen.

Intriguing however is that there are self-reflexive design problems in that those engaged in such an enterprise would neccesarily suffer from dysfunctional limitations for which corrections would be required. This is not something designed by angels, but something that can only be designed by people that recognize that they themselves are in "high wart" mode from some perspectives -- or are reminded of that fact whenever necessary.

Another feature of the meta-design challenge is that it is part of the nature of many of the designers to endeavour to ensure that their own memetic code dominates in the design. Fruitful ways of handling polarization and difference are therefore required. Furthermore it is a necessary part of the design that it be constantly subject to redesign by humanity in an evolving mode. So any design must allow for redesign -- rather than set something in concrete.

Another constraint is that such a design cannot be delivered as a turnkey application to receptive users. As with some high tech applications the users have to be part of the design process. An intriguing design challenge is that the world already has many highly dynamic strategies (some 35,000 in our database) in response to every range of issue (over 40,000 in our database) and the proponents (also myriad) are not about to stop in anticipation of some glorious new design. So any design initiative has to work with what is already in operation, perhaps at some meta-level, in order to reframe it in some insightful way. It may just be a matter of extra feedback loops and a more appropriate response to communication bottlenecks or gaps. Possibly it could be a questionn of using some very familiar social processes as carriers for new kinds of information -- using ball games in this way, as metaphors for how a point can get moved around a pattern, is one possible approach.

Intriguing in this respect is the public comment of a retiring director of a UK intelligence agency was that all they did was terminate certain relationships in society -- or ensure that they did not happen. Perhaps all that is required is the creation of certain relationships in society -- the question is how to determine which ones.

These meta-design issues suggest the need for a communication space that would allow for conceptual scaffolding (and prosthetics) to reconcile nascent insights (from learning participants) during the design. This communication space has to interface with an information society that is moving rapidly into knowledge (and opinion) overload mode.

But more intruiging is why an enterprise of this kind is not undertaken in ways that respond effectively to the long-term challenge. And who would make such judgements and on what criteria and how would they allow for their own conceptual constraints? It is therefore useful to understand how the various bodies that might claim to be engaged in this mode perform sub-optimally (perhaps necessarily) in terms of some of the design constraints. If the response is that they are all "complementary", to what extent is this a euphemism for dysfunctionality and to what extent do they truly constitute a knowledge ecosystem whose health is fundamental to the long-term challenge?

One of the hopes of the Foundation for the Future is that, through its space engineering context, it is imbued with design concerns. There is a potentially amusing irony to the use of DNA symbolism in its logo in that the kind of design that we need is not so much genetic as memetic -- but that the insights into genetic engineering may well be fundamental to recognizing the kinds of design thinking required in memetic engineering. Perhaps we are looking for a memetic form of DNA?

I would also argue that the design challenges of getting a space craft "into orbit" and creating viable "orbital colonies" provide interesting clues to the nature of the challenge of getting our communication together and ensuring the viability of the communication environments through which to respond to the long- term challenges. Any "positive" assumption that the challenge is akin to 'Plug 'n Play' hype or a Star Trek "beam me up" process has no sense whatsoever of the design challenges we need to face.

creative commons license
this work is licenced under a creative commons licence.