It is a bit weird that it is much more easy to write things in the unstructured and undemanding link stream i e my Tumblr feed, than to write things here. I will try to change that...

For some time I have been thinking about the role of destruction in change processes. That lead me e g to reread Asimov's Foundation, which I referred to some time ago in this blog.

One of the "natural laws" of civilizational collapse is that there seems to be a causal relation between a civilizational collapse and knowledge destruction. For example when Rome or the Mayan civilization fell, the whole people (which of course didn't die off and disappear) rather quickly also lost much of their knowledge and skills. Everything from mathematical, engineering and astronomical knowledge to a long row of artistic skills and more advanced farming skills seems to have quickly deteriorated and disappeared as a direct consequence of the fall a common organization.

It is obvious that there is a causal explanation that knowledge destruction could lead to societal collapse, but I am not asking that. My question concern the opposite direction of that causal link: why knowledge destruction follows societal collapse.

Maybe it is obvious to you, but to me this is really a riddle. Why does this happen and what mechanisms are in play here? Why can't e g a small group of people harbor key pieces of the knowledge and continue to develop it?

When watching a video of a recent and very interesting and insightful talk by Dr Anders Sandberg about Cloud Superintelligence, one possible piece of that puzzle suddenly fell into place. He showed in a clear way why many average people, connected to each other, can create extraordinary results even if there is quite a lot of noise in the system. He basically states that there is a direct relation between the number of individuals communicating to each other and collective group intelligence.

The purpose of his talk is to explain why the cloud is actually creating superintelligence, which we can see in e g wikipedia, but by going that path he also explains how and why communicating groups is achieving better results. And that there is a knee on the curve when the communicating groups are too small and don't achieve the same level of result.

To me this suggests that the major, and perhaps only, important factor for explaining the loss of knowledge due to societal collapse is that larger groups of people is being scattered into many smaller communicating groups, which, just because they consists of a smaller number of communicating individuals, is losing a lot of their collaborative group intelligence. As a consequence they probably take much worse collaborative decisions when it e g comes to electing leaders, who to collaborate with or how to use the available resources in the best way.

Watch Anders' talk for yourself and listen to his explanation:

Another consequence of this concerns, if it is true, not the past, but the future and not just that we are on our way to create a Collaborative Superintelligence: modern communication technology (read "the Internet") might for the first time in history provide us with a capacity to, even if our societies are structurally collapsing, continue communication in sufficiently large groups, which in turn most likely will let us maintain our knowledge and collaborative IQ.

I e IF we succeed in protecting our global communication infrastructure from the defenders of national security (which most often mean their own position of power)...

If anyone is interested in the theories why civilizations fall I can recommend the book Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed by Jared Diamond and of course the important book about group intelligence: Wisdom of Crowds by James Surowiecki.

Since we can trace the birth of many of our defining concept of this society back to the end of the middle ages, why not try to mirror what is happening today in how the world looked like then? Here is X things that I have collected which sometimes seems to be rewinded: Organizing The decline of the nation state as the dominant organizing principle Hierarchical structures are challenged by the open spaces and market way of organizing things - innovation Knowledge and world view Increasingly relativistic view of knowledge - broadcasting model is challenged and is losing it's politically and socially defining qualities The decline of the idea of a better future - the idea of progress The text-based knowledge society is challenged by a world of verbally told stories and images Breakdown of the quantitative perspective and re-emergence of a qualitative world view and geographical perspective - death of distance, valuing the people and the experience of a specific place without so much romancing about how far away it is from home' Re-emergence of the risk society - the world out there is a dangerous place and we need to be protected Value creation Re-emergence of a non money value exchange systems - open source, make, prosumtion Break down of the immaterial ownership logic, where   


To be able to say something about the future in turbulent and redefining times as we are now, you have to revisit history. Since we can trace the birth of many of our defining concept of this society back to the end of the middle ages, why not try to mirror what is happening today in what the world looked like then? Can we weave the threads back and forth in an intelligent way in order to create new knowledge??

Here are 9 things that I have collected, which to me seems to be rewinding our society (back to normal?) in one way or the other. Think of them as threads or aspects or images to be used as a foundation for (re?)framing a discussion about the future.


1 - The decline of the nation state as the dominant organizing principle is occuring on many levels. Historians date the nation state dominance back to 1648, a point in time when it became clear that almost all other organizations claiming power needed to relate to the nation. Since the fertile ground of the nation states have been so effective in providing testing grounds as well as long term investment opportunities many organizations have now outgrown the national borders. Another aspect is that new communication technology supports forming of networks and communities regardless of national borders. A third aspect is that many of today's challenges are to big for any single nation state to manage - global collaborative efforts and e perspective beyond borders are necessary ways of approaching these.

2 - Hierarchical structures are challenged by the emergences of networks, open spaces and market model of organizing things. In a time when a stable environment allowed for big, long term investments in repeatable tasks, the hierarchical model for organizing things became the dominant one. Since some time individuals have gained organizational powers for themselves which have made problem solving and value creation following more direct connections between people, often completely bypassing the hierarchies. Resilience and adaptivity have stepped up to be more important than productivity and efficiency which is creating deep challenges to most traditional organizations. Since some time it have become evident that innovation simply doesn't happen in stable, hierarchical organizations. It rather happens in spaces and markets where skills, knowledge areas and people meet in new ways.

Knowledge and world view

3 - We are returning to a subjective and relativistic view of knowledge, which is more obviously socially constructed and culturally defined than we have admitted since the era of enlightenment. The driving forces behind this change lies in the increasing educational levels together with a revolution in communication technologies which have made the broadcasting model obsolete and therefore is losing it's politically and socially homogenizing powers. Together with that the knowledge explosion and the emergence of the modern man who is more critical and have a strong need to create and defend consistency in his own situation.

4 - The decline of the idea of progress and a better future. When we can't imagine a better future and everything is leveling or is pointing downwards we are returning to a world view based on what exists here and now and flocks around what we think is stable and fundamental truths in order to live our lives.

5 - The text-based knowledge society is challenged by a world of verbally told stories and images. Technology today, and increasingly in the future, provides us with tools and infrastructures that enable us to express ourselves and spread knowledge without learning to master reading or writing. Even if some of us already have basic literary skills it is often perceived to be so much more convenient (more natural?) to consume information in the form of images, video and audio form, that we seems to prefer this before books and articles. That these forms also allows multitasking, something increasingly more important in a more stressful society also adds to the equation.

6 - Qualitative and subjective aspects challenges quantitive and objective views of geography. If you look at medieval world maps, Mappa Mundi, they are usually geographically incorrect and rather mirror people's world views rather than what the world really looks like. Since the emergence of science and global business the quantitative qualities e g distance, terrain and relative location have since the exploration era of the early 1500:s become extremely dominant way of looking at the world. With the communication and transportation revolutions we got trains, TV, airplanes and now Internet which all have contributed to the death of distance, which rendered many of these geographical aspects less relevant. At least relatively. Today it is not as important where you produce things, where you live or go to vacation in a geographical sense, but rather from a qualitative perspective. We rather talk about if the oranges are tasting better if they are from Florida or if they are from Spain, how you experienced your trip to Bangkok or Mumbai and if the quality of the systems are better if they come from Silicon Valley than from Bangalore.

7 - Re-emergence of the risk society. After having lived in a relatively stable world where many of the earlier threats have been taken care of by the nation state we again regard the world out there as a dangerous place which we need to be protected from.

Value creation

8 - Re-emergence of value creating without changing money - since the middle ages and though the industrial revolution the society have increasingly been permeated with the concept of money. With dramatically lower transaction costs due to new communications technology, have suddenly been able to communicate, share ideas and information almost free. The result is that we have found that a long row of other values can compete with the pure monetary values. This have created a wide variety of value creating processes which almost not involve any money at all. Major examples are the popular open source/open content movements which today produce much more than just software, a vast array of global innovation, idea sharing and DIY communities, citizen journalism and the spontaneous emergence of catastrophic aid activities when people are in need.

9 - Immaterial ownership logic under siege. When knowledge and education increases, information and data can spread freely to virtually no cost, and almost everyone have the capacity to participate in the innovation and value creating processes the artificial construct of immaterial rights are becoming much less valid than before. Focus seems to gravitate back to more down-to-earth physical and service values which are expensive to produce and distribute.

Comments or ideas?

Many of you readers know that I am skeptical to to future of traditional hierarchies. I believe the huge change that is happening now (again) is that new communications technology is simply creating another playing field for the basic human capacity to organize and solve problems at hand. A field where the model of traditional hierarchic and static institutions is not the given answer for solving problems, as we have been assumed for some years (read "hundreds of years") now.

Maybe this thought is at last coming through in a more traditional context? Or am I just exaggerating what my mother recently pointed out to me in the latest issue of Time Magazine? On the question on the chaotic situation in the Japanese government Michael Elliott asks:

Yet on Japan serenely sails. It makes you wonder if most of us have still not figured out the question of 1962 [How do they do it?], or if the answer to it is so radical that we miss it. Could it be that an old society is leading us into a postmodern age, one where the world of politics, something that we have assumed for 200 years was the wellspring of national success or failure, is somehow just not that important?

[From The Moment -- Michael Elliott -- TIME]

I am aware of that there are (at least in theory) other angles of attack for questioning the relevance and impact of the national political governing system, but Elliott is pointing at an important issue here. We are assuming that the national political system still is a wellspring of national success or failure. I would say that it is much worse than that: we can't even use the word society today without bringing along a complete system of assumptions containing the dominance of the nation state model and it's constituting institutions. In all writing that I read, regardless if it is in an academic context or not, I can track these underlying and implicit assumptions. Assumptions that effectively clouds the discussion of how we should go about organizing the society of tomorrow. A society where the nation state may or may not be the fundamental organizing model.

Is publication of Michael Elliott's short essay a weak signal that this line of thought is on it's way to breach into the mainstream discussion? Is it just a call in the dark? Or am I filling in too many blanks myself?