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Global crisis of capitalism and the principle of selective variety, toward an adventures economy.

Professor Manuel Castells gave a talk about the global crisis of capitalism on 28 October 2009, the talk is online. The first hour of the talk is an interesting and detailed outline of the crisis, but not the reason I’m blogging about it. On the last 10 min he gives a vision of the new-new economy. Before the crises we where in a new-economy and now we are in something else. The reason I’m blogging is that we already know what the future is, as it has been around for a while, but the collective was blind to it.

When Manuel Castells gives his vision in the last 10 min, my direct impression was “hey, I know that ... I’m living it (or wanting to) !” Going form open innovation consortia, open source consortia, fare-trade consortia, creative commons, the green revolution and quality of live initiative (like happiness economics). My second impression went to my research, this is a good example of selective variety. The principle of selective variety has been defined by Francis Heylighen (1992) "Principles of Systems and Cybernetics: an evolutionary perspective”: The larger the variety of configurations a system undergoes, the larger the probability that at least one of these configurations will be selectively retained. A classic example (Francis explains), is the danger of monoculture with genetically similar or identical plants: a single disease or parasite invasion can be sufficient to destroy all crops. If there is variety, on the other hand, there will always be some crops that survive the invasion. Back to the topic in this blog, it is an economy that survives by selective variety.

Just like the dead of the dinosaurs was the rise for mammals, so will (hopefully) be the downfall of global imperial capitalism be the rise of global open business ecosystems. For the past 6 years, I’ve taken up the position that a radical future is not a long-term plan. The future is always here, mostly it is simply marginal. It may be technological premature (see disruptive technologies) or it may be a small subculture. Like most consortia mentioned above. Now with the dinosaurs dead, we do see these subcultures rise to new powers. At least it is currently getting recognition (f.e. Drupal). To have it grounded will probably take more time. Today many people loss there jobs and such radical change does require pragmatic actions, the thread of survival is a powerful force against the inherit resistance to change (listen to the last 10 min of the presentation to understand the motivation).

There is however one big flaw in the vision if you ask me. It does not take into account the changes of its own actions. As Bruno Latour (1999) puts it: “Actions are slightly overtaken by what they are acting upon”. We can only know it when it is overcoming us, but we can guess. One big question I’m having right know is why does it all need to be this painful? I hope one big lesson society takes out of this crisis is to avoid for once and for all such disruptive change. Not by surprising it, but by creating an institution for “requisite variety” to create a change demanding mentality (instead change aversive). Requisite variety was first introduced by Ashby (1958), but the version of Heylighen (in the same paper mentioned above) is a correction: The larger the variety of actions available to a control system, the larger the variety of perturbations it is able to compensate.. The way such an institution would allow a free flow of evolution is that it would create more variety to investigate alternatives. Again, marginal experiments have been all around us for a while, but recently they get taken more seriously. They are called “sandbox” in software development, “community initiative” in governmental development, “new markets” for business, “participatory action research” for science, etc.

Many of the elements we have been using comes from evolution, but it is frustration how often it is used as metaphor by people who know so little of dynamics of evolution. For example, the liberal principle is very ofter justified by “natural selection” as “the survival of the fittest”, which gets oversimplified to the survival of the strongest. Fit is not equal to strong ! A very good example is symbiosis (domestication) between aphids and ants. The ant soldier protects the aphids and farms the honeydew by tapping the aphids. This configuration is fit as both agents are more specialized in there work. In a similar way there is nothing strong on a free market, by that philosophy, you alway need to be afraid of loosing your investments. Do we want an economy of fear? (Sadly conservatives want this) I’m guessing every sensible person likes a fit economy. In a complex adaptive system, which we inhabit, it is needed to have fitness by specialization and regulation like the ant and the aphids. But unlike the ants, we are explores too ! So give us an adventures economy full with mystery and stories in a safety ensured environment. Notice, I’m not using “risk free”, we like to take risks as it leads to adventure, but we like to survive the adventures too. We need an adventures economy in a similar way as we have adventures vacations.