Sunday, October 26, 2008

The Promise of Collective Intelligence

I've been involved with a group of thinkers called Overlap who annually organizes a conference of just 50 individuals. When we gather we like to sit in a large circle so that the lines of communication can be readily drawn between all participants. We believe this to be better than the more traditional "one-to-many" method of communication when someone stands at a podium and delivers to a listening crowd. At the end of each of our conferences some of us wonder whether we have accomplished anything beyond encouraging a sense of community through stimulating conversations. Most of us believe that even this is enough to consider our gatherings to be a success.

Even with the circular seating arrangement and openly democratic structure of discussions we inevitably find that there will often be an imbalance of input between various participants. The conversation is usually steered by a handful of the bolder participants. We just accept this to be an inevitable imperfection of human interaction. Beyond the circular seating arrangement I find it ironic that Overlap gatherings are very minimally designed given their attendance and organization by some very gifted designers.

Buckminster Fuller discovered that in order to build the most efficient structures he needed to mimic nature's design tendencies. Nature tends to organize matter in a way that optimally balances the tensions within structures. This is how he came upon the geodesic dome as an example of maximum strength made with minimal materials and surface area. Tensegrity is the name given to this optimal balancing of tensions.

I recently went to a talk at the Rotman School of Management. The speaker from Syntegrity Group was describing how their consultancy uses the structure of the icosahedron to help their clients reach goals and solve problems. They claim to be able to overcome the imbalances of human groups by mimicking the perfection of Platonic solids. They employ a system of collaboration that allows a complex web of stakeholders to work together in the most efficient way possible. They start with 30 people and identify the twelve most important questions or goals to address.

Each person is assigned one of the 30 line edges on the solid. There are 12 vertices where 5 people meet to address one of the twelve issues. Without getting too deep into the process the thinking is that mimicking the ideal way in which the lines are organized in an icosahedron will allow us to get closer to perfection when organizing how people can meet, talk and work out the issues at hand. It's interesting to note that many viruses occur naturally in the shape of an icosahedron as it is the most efficient way of organizing identical repeated proteins.

Naturally I wondered if we shouldn't apply the Syntegrity structure to our Overlap gatherings so that our collection of gifted participants could start to tackle real world problems but I couldn't help wondering if it could also be applied to personal therapy. What if I was to gather a group of 30 or so people from my life; family, friends, people I've dated, hated or worked with. Maybe we could finally find a purpose for my life.

Thursday, October 23, 2008


The presentations which came to be called Greek Tragedies often coincided with the sacrifice of a goat. There were recitations of goat songs, and the people of the chorus in the drama often dressed as half-man, half-goat satyrs. The word Tragedy comes from the Greek tragōidiā or "goat song". Remember this the next time you hear something described as "tragic".

P.S. Aristotle and Nietzsche had some interesting things to say about tragedy.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Democratic Capitalism

George W. Bush recently made a point of stressing that Democratic Capitalism is still "the best system ever developed". This, despite the fact that his administration has recently engaged in some economic activities that even his party members have called "socialist" or even "communist". I don't often agree with this President but I found myself nodding in agreement but also chuckling a little bit when I heard him make this pronouncement. It seemed like he didn't want anyone to think he was going all pinko on us, he just needed to pull some pinko tricks to save the banking system and stave off the worst financial calamity since the great depression of the 1930's.

Democratic Capitalism while clearly not perfect is a reasonable and efficient means to the end of maximizing happiness. What we've seen championed by the recent White House has definitely been Capitalism, but Democratic?... Not so much. As long as the Democratic side of that characterization is prioritized then Capitalism can be employed to arrive at some excellent results. What happens sometimes, as it has recently in the Western financial system is that we've forgotten that Capitalism is a means towards the ends of Democracy, not something that should be pursued at the cost of Democratic priorities.

Just because Capitalism is an efficient means of arriving at economic results doesn't mean that the most extreme version of laissez-faire Capitalism will therefore be the best possible road to success. Why do we create wealth in the first place? If you think it is only for the purpose of lining your own pockets at the expense of anyone else living on Earth now or in the future, then you might want the most open system of unregulated markets, especially if you already happen to be someone of wealth to begin with. If you think that wealth should be created so that you and as many of the people on your planet as possible could also live happily then you might accept that Capitalism is an efficient way to arrive at this goal. With this in mind you wont mind that the system is regulated and occasionally tweaked to ensure that we keep our priorities in focus. Trickle-down economics only works to a limited degree. After certain high levels of wealth have been attained the trickle mostly stops.

Capitalism went too far recently and the resulting pendulum swing may destroy wealth faster than it created it in the first place. Why can't we learn that fundamentalism of any kind is a dangerous and doomed mindset to embrace? The free market capitalists that were pushing for the deregulation of markets and the decommissioning of government are just as dangerously fundamentalist as the extremists who wish to destroy them. The key to surviving any crisis is to try to avoid whip-lashing in the opposite direction. Just because Capitalism is flawed and has caused this current turmoil doesn't mean that a hyper-controlling style of government is therefore better. Let's try to keep our heads, remember our priorities and move toward our New Capitalism to meet those needs.