A recent Runesoup opened with a well-known quote from Clay Shirky:
“Institutions will try to preserve the problem to which they are the solution.”
It isn’t just institutions, though. Organisms tend to operate on the same principle. When we talk about ecosystems, part of what makes them systemic is that the constituents of an ecosystem are acting in a way that tends to preserve the system to which they are adapted.
Gregory Bateson’s ideas about evolution being dialogic fall into the same spectrum. An adaptation isn’t simply a response but an assertion. Stable ecosystems, like stable institutions, are ones where long-standing patterns of assertion and response have reached a kind of homeostasis.
Which is part of what makes us humans so interesting. Our institutions are exceptionally active forms of adaptations that maximize what is already a very active form of adaptation. While the last few decades have seen some real breakthroughs in our appreciation of animal intelligence and tool use, it is hard to argue that animal tool use really compares to humans for sheer capacity for innovation and elaboration.
While we are wicked good endurance hunters, it is our dual capacity for tool innovation and social organization that explains our present influence on this planet, explains why we are talking more and more about an anthropocene era. Our capacity for social organization joins plasticity (as witnessed by the diversity of human cultures) and stability (as witnessed by the stability of most human cultures) that gives innovation direction and durability.
This makes us a species exceptionally well-suited to transforming the world. If you wanted to cultivate a planet in a certain way, the human organism might be a darn good means toward that end. When we look back at those stories of humans being created to serve the gods? Well, I wonder if part of what we are seeing there is the influence of spirits interested in taking a more direct hand in the unfolding of events on earth. Install culture, provide updates from time to time, and set them running. Life as probes exploring the material world.
When my mind follows those roads, I find myself chasing after Philip K. Dick pretty soon, wondering at the point at which this system went awry and got co-opted, but I don’t think this is the only avenue of consideration. Even if it has been co-opted, there is the question as to why this happened. One very real possibility is that this world is off-kilter, that the innovations developed in a way that diminished the feedback from the spiritual world, the constraints and updates that help maintain human activity in proper bounds. Maybe we have just thrown up too much noise and aren’t picking up the signal so easily? Maybe we just need to dig the signal out of the noise.
Or, failing that, find ways to inculcate a system inside the current one that provides clearer feedback on the institution-ecosystem interaction. Both options point to the importance of a deliberate slow-down so that we can take stock of the situation.
Not sure we will get that, but I can dream.