New Public Thinking: Beyond the Individual, Beyond the Present

April 8th, 20113:58 pm @

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“We make our buildings, and then our buildings make and shape us.” (Winston Churchill)

I composed many of these thoughts while I was taking a very long walk through the forest last week, and I’ve left this post mostly as it was when I jotted it down on my return. I hope you think of it as a kind of walking lecture, that meanders through some things I thought were important. I was inspired by Andrew’s insistence that we should ‘re-narrate’ our experience, and this is one of the things that I hope public thinking can do.

I was really struck on my walk by the changes in the forest since the last time I’d been there – changes that were all the result of climate change – which is of course, only one of the complex problems that w are faced with at the moment. Climate change is hard because it requires us to consider the interests of people very unlike us, in a historical or geographical moment we can’t understand. So I started to think about the importance of public thinking as being linked to two things:

First: Thinking Beyond the Individual

Second: Thinking Beyond the Present


1. Thinking beyond the individual:

So many of our institutions and social conventions are constructed in order to establish individual gain. The competitive logic of capitalism is predicated on the idea that competing individuals create better outputs. Even the idea of the state is that it is a unitary entity, which acts on behalf of individuals. This is Hobbes’ idea of the Leviathan. We have now become accustomed to the idea of the state as responsible.

An alternative to this state is the conceive of thinking as happening in a network – this is the first notion of thinking beyond the individual.

In a network, each individual node is a unitary entity, but they are not arranged in hierarchy.

The network can scale and, because of its interconnections, develops value beyond the mere number of its nodes.

Peer to peer work can thus be an alternative to both the competitive logic of capitalism and to the idea that the unitary state has to act on behalf of the individuals it serves.

What if we thought about solving problems not as requiring competition between individuals but as leveraging the capacity of all of us? The advantage of thinking about a network is that it’s way more flexible than a state. It can adapt and amplify. Some networks become heterarchies, where a variety of power structures are in operation, and some remain horizontal. Networks can of course evolve into hierarchies, but once that happens we aren’t really using them to think beyond the individual anymore.

The other way of thinking beyond the individual is to think beyond the human.

We tend to essentialize things into categories. For example, we say “women are like this, men are like that. Nature is this kind of thing, and civilization is this other kind of thing.” There is an interesting tradition of philosophical thinking that unpacks this. It’s sometimes called cyborg feminism, and Donna Haraway has done most of the most challenging thinking in this area.
The idea behind cyborg feminism is that we have essentialized ideas about both feminity/masculinity and about nature and civilization. And we tend to connect feminitity with nature and masculinity with civilization. But what if we could break down these tendencies? Our current thinking is that we should use the products of civilization (often produced through individual competition) to somehow protect a pristine nature. We should develop more, so that we can afford to protect nature.

The problem with this is that there is no natural opposition between the machine of civilization and the garden. The machine is already in the garden, and has been there for some time (Leo Marx’s book The Machine in the Garden examines this trend in context with the history of American pastoralism). Donna Harway, the thinker who came up with the idea of cyborg feminism, suggested that we use the character of the cyborg to get past this false essentialism.

The cyborg is neither woman nor machine, neither natural nor technological. It has a particular view on the world – it’s not really totally in it or totally out of it. Haraway calls this ‘partial perspective’ and I think it’s a very useful stance for thinking outside of the individual.

What if we saw the world not as a contest between the pristine and the ruined? What if we though of it as an ecosystem? Here in the woods, humans are part of an ecosystem. They have dammed the river down below so they could build a road on it. They have changed where the sheep graze, and introduced some grazing cows as well. What would the cyborg think of this? Would the cyborg see more technology as a necessary good, or a necessary evil? Or something that is not quite both, or either.

So there are two ways of thinking past the individual. The first is to think in terms of networks to get past ideas that valorize either the individual, or the unitary state as the entity with responsibility to those it is meant to represent. The second is to think past the human, and specifically to think about humans and technologically driven civilization as not necessarily opposed to or essentially different from nature, but actually one and the same thing. From this perspective, we can start thinking about the major problems of our day, like making nuclear energy safe, feeding the world’s population, addressing major shifts in the climate, and protecting biodiversity, from a standpoint in which we are deeply embedded, but which we also acknowledge is situated, and partial.

This brings me to the second part of what I think public thinking is.

2. Thinking beyond the present.

Thinking past the present requires thinking past individual benefits. Differently put, we might think about thinking in this way as considering the public good. In the UK, we are apt to think of any action for the public good as being the responsibility of the state, but I think this is one of the core problems that need to be addressed in our current thinking – we don’t currently have a very good sense of public stewardship. Again, there is a tendency to think that progress will somehow fix the future – that if we think enough about making things productive in the present, the future will automatically be better. Of course, this isn’t about thinking into the future at all: it’s just fetishizing the progress of the present.

So how could we actually think into the future – think sustainably? This requires a mindfulness of the future with a sense that the whole reason of thinking beyond the present moment is a concern with unknown others in totally different situations. This is, to my mind, the basis of the notion of a public good or a public service. Think of the well-known aphorism that we should make decisions about the land “for the next seven generations.” The public good here is something that can be maintained and sustained over a long period of time. In this way the public good ceases to be something that the state or someone else is responsible for, in the short term, and becomes something that must be sustained over time.

The “seven generations” aphorism can be overwhelming. The obvious critique is – well, we have built systems of society. We aren’t nomads or small-scale cultivators. True, but this doesn’t mean we can’t think sustainably. In the field of information systems, sustainable systems are not perpetual motion machines, but are simply systems that can continue to function over the long term with a set of defined inputs.

So what about making the public good into a sustainable system that had to be maintained over a long time? And, if we take our first set of premises, what about making that sustainable system one that is not based on defining benefits for individuals or for states, and not based on benefits only for humans, but instead mindful of the ecosystems they are part of and that they build?

Methods

The final point I want to make about public thinking, and specifically about thinking past the present, is about how to do this. First of all, thinking about the network instead of the individual or the state gives a good sense of the scale we want to be working at: not the scale of the worldwide social network, in which we are all alienated individuals, but maybe instead the scale of the local community: some place where we can understand the ecological connections at work.

Second, I think that we need to start teaching and learning more about design, and less about analysis. Our analytic brains are well developed, but analytic work, which connects together facts and theories, is not very easy to align with the future. We could add to this some more design thinking, which is concerned with creating the conditions for innovation, for thinking into the future, about things that haven’t happened yet. This is quite different than analytical thinking, because in design thinking you’re looking at things that are jarring, that disprove your ideas, that are shocking, and follow them through. I’m convinced that the final part of public thinking – that is, thinking that is beyond the individual, that is in the public interest, that is thinking about creating sustainable systems in which nature and civilization are not irreconcilable opposites, is the ability to get to solutions in interesting ways. If you like – to remember what things feel like when they are new.

I’ll try to speak more about methods for thinking into the future next time I go for a walk. For now, I want to leave you with the sense that we should not throw our hands up in the air. All is not lost. It is not us versus the forests. Things are, as always, in flux. In his last post Dougald noted that many of the things that are part of the transformation might seem utopian, but are just part of an historical process. So let’s see how we can re-narrative that process to think beyond the individual and beyond the present.