Rebuilding the operating system from the ground up

Our aim is to make sure life on this planet, and the human civilisation currently embedded in it, becomes self-sustaining and flourishing. Right now it is self-terminating, with increasing risks of catastrophe and extinction from the combination of powerful technologies and weak wisdom on how to wield them. Right now it is hegemonic, with simplifying and all-powerful cultural and technological structures preventing many humans and animals from living a full, fulfilling life.

This requires rewriting the human social code at every level, starting from the level each of us has the most power over – the individual.

Humans are highly social animals, so our next focus is small groups of 5 to 150 people, which, when wisely organised and cared for, give individuals the love, courage and motivation to make big and terrifying changes, and can accomplish many powerful things on their own. Families, work teams, classrooms, clubs, and parishes fit into this category.

The next level has two main components – countries and industries. One is the representation of power in a given physical location, and the way in which a group of citizens carry out their broader social contract. It is here that we can create collective cultural training (in schools), complex infrastructure networks for living (cities), healing (hospitals), discovery (science) and fighting (the military). The other component is industries or markets, groups that we participate in both through selling our labour and buying all sorts of goods. These two types of groups (which vary in size from around 1 million to 1 billion people) are the ways our society has created most of the experiences we associate with modernity – air travel, contract law and supermarkets, but also tax returns, divorce settlements, and spam emails.

The most all-encompassing level some call the world-system. This is the group that includes all humans, all markets, countries and groups, and the animals, plants, infrastructure and other matter that make up one giant ecosystem. It’s hard to even visualise something this big, but we can start by thinking about the relationships between the biggest other things – nations, industries and companies. At this level, many changes behave more like waves in an ocean than a group of people doing something or a bureaucratic organisation executing tasks. The flows of money in global finance, the flows of people in immigration, the in and out of different substances into the atmosphere and water, the weather systems that create storms, heatwaves and floods, the international treaties that countries abide by that let them cooperate on fighting cybercrime or sex trafficking – these are all phenomena that only really make sense to talk about on a global scale.

On this global scale we are facing increasing risks to humanity’s survival, almost all of which we have created on the country/industry scale and the global scale by creating sets of rules that reward doing too much of one thing and not enough of another. Too much weapons development, not enough collective disarmament. Too much pollution; not enough prudence and creative ways to use fewer resources. Too much competition, not enough care and protection of humanity as a whole.

There are new ways of acting, new sets of rules that we as one interconnected civilisation can put into place in order to take away the worst of these risks and improve our collective abilities to protect humanity from new risks that don’t even exist yet. But the current ways of doing things are powerful, and many peoples’ livelihoods have been built around defending those rulesets or profiting from them.

This doesn’t mean that it’s impossible to change them, just that in order to change them we must build communities, livelihoods and reward systems that can help people get the things they value from changing these systems for the better in order to outcompete the old ones. We need a big group of people, but probably smaller than we think. A group of 100,000 people, well-organised in many smaller groups, energised and focused, can probably tip the levers of enough of the systems at the lower levels to have a shot at tipping the levers in the big, world-system-level ones.

Tipping these levers is complex, because it involves two things:

– Changing the way things are done right now, in this context, well enough to avert or adapt to major catastrophes.
– Changing the way things change, so that as new problems come up, and people try to game the new systems, the system and the people who influence it are able to course correct and make the right changes to the right rulesets so that the system doesn’t veer off onto a dangerous course again.

This is a wickedly difficult quest, but in my opinion it’s the only thing worth seriously dedicating yourself to if you have the luck and privilege to be able to choose your course in life.

I mentioned the different levels earlier because we cannot fight to change the world system directly. Right now we are merely individuals, and it is too big and powerful for us to make any real difference. What we must do is take Gandhi’s timeless quote – ‘Be the change you wish to see in the world’ and expand it out, starting with ourselves.

We must turn ourselves into people capable of adapting; capable of healing rapidly, of building strong, loving connections with others, of changing our minds even when to do so strikes at the core of who we think we are. We must learn to train our attention, to decide what is meaningful, to do things that are hard and require courage. We must care for our physical bodies, root out and heal dysfunctional behaviours and thought patterns, and carve out space in our lives if they are too full to breathe, in order to make even more space, and to do meaningful work. We must build up financial savings so that we are no longer dependent on working in jobs that were created to serve the people and groups winning by the existing rules and defending them; we must build up friendships and loving relationships so we are resilient enough to endure terrible things and recover after loss and trauma. In the process of all this change we can learn the skill of change itself; we are born as self-changing organisms but some parts of us have forgotten that.

We must make ourselves whole again, and we must do this with others, and in doing so, rebuild the next layer of change.

Rebuilding the small group layer means re-prioritising local experiences over solitary, or global, or anonymous ones. For some this will mean seeking out your tribe; those you can truly, deeply show your soul to. Maybe this means moving cities or countries. For some this means reawakening sleeping relationships and pouring intention, vulnerability and love into them to bring them alive again. For some this means standing up in a group and simply announcing your intention to build deep, long-lasting commitments to one another, and asking people to join you. The configuration will look different for each of us, but the important thing is that we don’t just build up a series of individual friendships, but create and strengthen groups that all rely on one another and that celebrate, mourn, practice and pray together. In some cases this will revitalising existing traditions and in others it will involve prototyping new ones that better suit the real people who want to be a part of them. We need to practice building connections, protecting a community’s boundaries, values and its weakest members, and creating and performing rituals that turn a group into a single unit. The original purpose of the first part of a Catholic mass was to turn a congregation of individuals into the body of Christ; one unified body; and we need to re-learn practices and traditions for doing this. We also need to get good at accomplishing things in these groups, but with the thoughtfulness, wide viewpoint and care that is so often missing from our modern work communities. This means re-viewing the structures of our small communities keeping in mind how human relationships differ in groups of 3-7, 8-30, and 30-150, as well as experimenting with different styles of group decision-making that can adapt to new contexts and viewpoints, and that express the values the group wants to have.

Building groups of people who value making human civilisation self-sustaining is the perfect (and perhaps only) way to make inroads into rebuilding the systems at the next level up – the country/industry/market level. Many runaway problems and structural fragilities that appear at this level are actually maintained and reinforced at the world system level, but some can be adequately addressed one country or industry at a time, particularly when one or two of these groups are responsible for an entire given problem, or are early adopters that other countries or industries might follow. At this level building a powerful enough group within a country or industry to influence the way it changes is a difficult but not insurmountable problem. Part of the challenge at this level is that many of us currently depend on the very systems we would seek to dismantle or transform, and we are rarely able to act against our own interests like that without the buffer of resources and social support, and the small group culture of self-awareness that allows us to catch our self-serving patterns (both as individuals and as small groups) when they arise. Transforming a country to become self-adapting requires building connections in government, creating policy, shaping public opinion through media, and building simulations and prototypes to try out and persuade those who exist in positions of power. It may also involve being strategic about which countries are even possible to influence in this way. Changing industries involves similar strategies but also directing public pressure, starting influential companies, and developing social and machine technologies that make it easier for industries to make changes of their own accord.

In case it isn’t obvious by now, part of my strategy in setting this plan out is in the hopes that we will be able to seed groups that diversify; it is not only a nice idea for us to have some communities working on policymaking and some working on starting companies; it is completely necessary if we are to act with the speed necessary to outpace major disasters like algorithmically-induced social collapse and runaway climate change. Human civilisation, as a ship, has a certain inbuilt turning speed right now for correcting course; what we are doing is building much smaller scout boats and tugboats that can understand where we are better and pull the big hulking megalith onto a better course much faster than it could on its own. Because of this, speed, timing, strength, some distance from the dominant cultural stories we grew up in and a certain amount of risk-taking are necessary to do anything useful at all.

It is hard to see how we might upgrade the world-system from where we are standing as individuals right now. Once we have had some experience changing countries and industries and have created collective intelligence tools that help us know how and what to change, we might have a better idea of how to do it. There are some parts of the world system we can access already, like the algorithms and moods of social media, the cultural narratives of Hollywood and the global stock market. We can certainly do disaster preparation without much influence, and when done on a large enough scale that is an important component of an adaptive world-system. Creating global paradigm shifts is probably possible by changing the minds of many key individuals and communities, but there is still much to understand about how this works and what we might need to change about it.

As the people we are right now, with our stubborn beliefs and our fears and dependencies, we need to be wary of any speculative potshots lest we simply change course, but to another wrong direction. We don’t want to crash the operating system. But if we thoroughly become the people, communities, nations, industries and markets that can self-transform and are no longer driven by dangerously simple metrics, then we might have a chance of not only getting the leverage to make change but even knowing what to do once we get there.

One thought on “Rebuilding the operating system from the ground up

  1. There’s a simple, short word for everything you describe here: Religion.

    What you’re describing here is what religions of conscience ARE. We’ve tried a bunch. Results have been mixed – but the record without such religions (esp. last century) has been beyond abysmal. Even the worship of Tlaloc, a transactional deity with ritual human sacrifice, would constitute an improvement.

    Now, to the extent that different religions have failed, and usually in different ways, WHY?

    Because the answer to your problem isn’t the desired end-state. It’s the ability to handle the shadows that keep getting in the way of every other religious attempt’s similar-sounding desired end state.


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