The Global Organism


Published May 2002

Who knows - maybe this is not what it's going to be like at all. Something entirely different could pop up, logics could shift, recession set in, moods can change and reality suddenly looks different. Perhaps some day in the future we will laugh and wonder why we couldn't see how our vision of the future - which seemed so inevitable to us then - was way off. The future is undecided - although we forget it at times. You're bound to be mistaken when you're writing about the future.

Still, it's worth giving it a spin, and try to guess what the coming years might hold. If you understand some of the mechanisms that shape the future your chances are much higher in trying to steer things in a positive direction. My mission in this book is to identify some of those rules of the game.The rules are not what they used to be. Many of the factors that determine our well being, our economic prosperity - even the survival of humanity - are completely new. The contexts we exist in are changing fundamentally. Our living conditions, the opportunities we have in life, even the definition of what it means to be "human" are challenged and changed. It's dramatic and it affects us all personally.

Our lives are being filled with new gadgets that will give us new kinds of experiences and change what we are capable of doing and sensing. Each one of us must adapt to the new ways of working and behaving that it takes to participate in society and to get money and access to goods.The ways in which we find our friends and family, the ways we socialize, the food we eat, our diseases and health - it's all very different compared to just a generation ago. And as far as I can see it's a development that is bound to continue and even accellerate in the coming years, bringing intoxicating gains as well as painfull losses.

Generally, it seems like the whole of humanity is shifting to a new phase in its evolution. We are no longer individual persons, each struggling alone to survive the whims of nature. Increasingly, we're rather like one global organism, all connected, and collectively developing ever more advanced technologies that enable us to transcend our original nature, becoming instead like we ourselves want us to be.We have become a new kind of creature; at one level we are independent individuals - yet simultaneously humanity behaves as a single system like never before. Increasingly, we share the same fate, we are mutually interdependent and aware of eachother, and we are weaving ourselves closer and tighter into this global community of humanity .

Man has become the master of the planet. We have wrestled control from the hands of God or coincidence, and here we stand, nervously, in charge of something we can't entirely grasp. The systems we have to manage these days and the technologies we use to do so are far more complex than before.Innumerable factors and elements interact in unpredictable patterns, all changing at electronic speed. We're interfering with the tiniest particles in nature with consequences that affect the entire planet. Increasingly, our creations are so complex that they are best described as "alive", because the ways they develop are more akin to what one might observe in biology than from lifeless, mechanical machines.

How we manage this is crucial. We have incredible possibilities to create comfort and knowledge for mankind - but it won't happen automatically. History is - also - the graveyard for all those civilizations, species and people that perished amidst mistakes, suffering and despair. There's no rule guaranteeing a happy ending. Especially because we are all connected in one system it's imperative that we face up to the risc that we might wreck it all.

This is where the rules of the games enter. We cannot go on like we're used to. We must try to understand the new conditions and mechanisms that shape the system that we're trying to remain in control of. First of all it requires us to be conscious and clear of what we want and don't want: What are we trying to achieve, where are we trying go?

Interestingly, hi-tech development seems to bring some quite fundamental values back in focus: Responsibility, commitment, creativity and love are likely to be among our highest held values. They are what we must insist on, rather than blind effeciency, egoism and economic growth.They are the core values that define us as human and distinguish us from animals. In the future, they will also be what makes us different from machines. When everything else changes, those core values are what we must hold on to.

If we read the ancient Greek philosophers, the bible or the fairy tales of Hans Christian Andersen we can still connect to the people who lived back then, and we can sense that they had the exact same considerations about love, power, desire, fear and beauty as we have today, so many years later.Hopefully, humans hundreds of years from now will be able to relate just as directly to those same feelings and thoughts - despite gene manipulation, artificial intelligence and what ever other revolutions will come to pass.

It is not clear how we as a global society should make decisions and set common goals to strengthen our human values - but untill we do so, the market forces and the technological development vil pursue their own goals and values.We're running the risc that the system we have created will transform the world into a place where humans feel homeless, jobless and meaningless.It may seem completely naïve to think that mankind should be able to set that kind of goals and pursue them in common. Never the less we have to. Fortunately, the increasing aknowledgement of human rights and the spreading of democracy show that large parts of the planet, given time, in fact are capable of agreeing on some universal values.

This book is my attempt to examine a number of the most significant developments shaping the future in a common context. It's an attempt to collect observations and rules from many different areas in order to create an overview of the situation we are in.It's a field littered with self contradictions, paradoxes and appearantly opposite trends - It's confusing, I know, but that's how the world IS. Sorry, I didn't make it that way.

For those who want a quick rundown of the book, I can tell that it contains four main theses:

Global connexity in one complex system
Humans, machines, companies, professions and industries that were hitherto separat - it's all being connected in new, ever closer contexts, and this is a proces that has picked up a lot of speed in our times. We are becoming more interdependent, and we are living in the same global now.This challenges us, culturally, economically and politically, and it requires us to live consciously aware of the fact that we are part of an interaction that reaches much further than we are used to thinking.

The coupling into one huge complex system suggests that we can apply some of the observations of how complex systems in general behave: Complex and dynamic system often have no single authority that rules from the top down; rather, many solutions emerge through "self-organization". In transitional phases even the tiniest perturbances can trigger enourmous changes, and monoculture - whether it is everyone growing the same crops or using the same e-mail program - makes a system vulnerable.

Greater freedom, greater responsibility 
We're living in a culture that worships the freedom of the individual and the possibility of consumers to have individualized goods and services. At the same time, we're bonding ever closer in a global system of mutual dependence and commitment. These two, seemingly contradictory, trends are highlighting the classic tension between the common good and the freedom of the individual.In many ways we are gaining much greater freedom, but also a much greater responsibility. Compared to the industrial age we can participate much more now in determining what we get - as consumers, at the job, and in relation to public services and welfare.But there's also a global dimension to freedom and responsibility. Our knowledge and our technology enables us to control and escape many of the conditions and constraints that were once ascribed to fate. Now, we can design ourselves or change the weather - but accordingly, we will have to take on the responsibility for those choices, too. It's as if mankind is growing up.

From finished products to continuous processes 
Industrialization gave os homogenous products. In the new economy, however, we will increasingly pay for access to processes. One reason being that many products change so fast now, that they are almost continually updated. Another reason is that the integration of computing and the ability to communicate into all kinds of traditional objects will make it possible to add a whole new layer of services to these products - and those services and processes will be our main economic activity and work effort in the future.

Take the telephone as an example: the sheer physical object is not what costs the most or creates the most employment to produce.The main economy activity is in conjunction to the processes and services that the phone lets you access. The original physical product thus becomes more like a platform on which you can run processes that are constantly adjusted and developed. The system is in constant flux - which is why our survival hinges on our ability to be flexible.Previously the relationship between buyer and seller was more or less limited to the instance where a transaction took place. When the goods that are exchanged in stead become continued processes, it implies that you can build longer lasting and deeper relations. Buyers and sellers become participants, and the consumer becomes involved in creating the process. One consequence is that the actions and preferences of a consumer are being watched and registered to a much higher degree. Another consequence is that ethics and aestethics will be much more important when the consumers choose what to buy and whom to buy from.

The biological world view.
The paradigm of the industrial age was the machine. The machine is mechanical, it's predictable, it doesn't change over time, and has been designed from a central point in order to control all details of its function.But today the world is so complex and changes happen so fast that it is more relevant and precise to use a biological metaphore in order to understand the interaction, dynamics and unpredictable, life-like way systems can behave.

Economic and social systems can be understood as ecosystems, and in many cases the most advanced technology mimics nature's mechanisms of evolution, genetics and self-organization. Another lesson from biology is the importance of holistic thinking and the realization that you can't fully understand the processes of a system by stopping it, and studying its individual components.