Sep 15, 2011 - Podcast    2 Comments

The Evolution of Adhocracy

When the sun’s up, Emlyn O’Regan is a senior developer for an e-learning company. In the evenings Emlyn quietly chips away at his little corner of the internet, inventing prolifically, writing furiously on his blog and pondering what would happen if all humans had power over their own communication – to share with each other whatever, whenever and however they chose. He stepped off the edge to discuss crowdsourced credentialing, institutions delaminating and the evolution of adhocracy:

The adhoc, leaderless, tech and network powered organisations / events / revolutions / actions which taken together form a nascent world system, one which is challenging the old institutional/corporatist world system”.

Show Notes

  • How could crowdsourced credentialling work?
  • Are hierarchical institutions necessary?
  • Universities are an institutional consolidation of undergraduates, credentials and networks
  • How can we make all information efficiently accessible?
  • MIT Open Courseware (OCW) usage statistics
  • Can businesses adapt to the realities of a connected world with a coat of Internet paint?
  • “Institutions that try to adapt to the new realities of communication often fail. They fail because they try to take the things they do and put a lick of Internet paint on it and throw it out there. But there is this problem that they are predicated on things that are not right anymore. Their very existence is about a world that has passed so the products that they have, the things that they do or the way that they think as an organization stops them from properly or truly adapting to the new environment.”
  • Are institutions delaminating and what does that mean for the education system?
  • The impacts of geographic replication
  • Is the social / professional network LinkedIn already offering crowdsourced credentialling?
  • Where is your Google shadow? Co-ordination costs and privacy implications
  • The impact of time: Your diploma doesn’t change but your skills and knowledge do
  • “This idea of zero transaction costs means that rather than trying to get together money and then using money to do the things that we want to do, we can just do the things we want to do.”
  • Kevin Carson
  • Arab spring and leaderless IED warfare
  • Natural selection for memes
  • What memes do you represent?
  • Letting go of your ideas
  • Technologically mediated meme control
  • Philosophy of ideas and creativity as explained by Neil Kramer
  • Are we experiencing a global political awakening?
  • Are hypochondriacs making doctors better?
  • Who makes up the armies of mediocrity?
  • Who will collect the garbage?
  • World Systems – as defined by Immanuel Wallerstein
  • Minimizing the cold-faced toil of planetary life-supporting operations
  • Looking through the lens of capitalism
  • How technology multiplies the efforts of the few
  • Do we still need money?
  • Universal basic income and gift economies
  • The issues and impact of scaling
  • “We have lots and lots and lots and lots of little more special purpose systems for exchanging goods and doing things in a non-monetary way. I think that the answer is that the adhocracy is the emergence of all of these systems that push money back down into being a niche thing. Money is one way of doing things and there are all these other ways of doing things and a lot of those are going to win out because they are special purpose. They sit in little niches and they just work for that niche really well. Better than a global solution which is what money is.”
  • Why can’t rockstars direct scientists to do good work?
  • Stigmergic organization and collaboration
  • How compelling ideas draw in resources and people to grow
  • The increasingly vast and fast transition of resources from capitalism to adhocracy
  • Amanda F*cking Palmer connects with her fans and gives them a reason to buy
  • Kevin Kelly’s 1,000 true fans
  • Stats are for the people running the show not the people creating the art
  • You can no longer afford to be mediocre?
  • Increased adhocracy reduces duplication of effort
  • The power of passion and embracing your own idiosyncrasies
  • Niches of one vs world spanning communication networks

Music & Media

The Evolution of Adhocracy?
The following is a transcript of some philosophical waxings that I shared at the end of the podcast following the interview with Emlyn. We coverd so many societal-level scale implications there was just something that felt right about the concept of natural selection for memes.  I went with the actual title, The Evolution of Adhocracy, when I happened to pick  up a 2004 National Geographic magazine with a feature article on Charles Darwin and the theory of evolution. The cover art mashup for this episode cartoonishly explores the implications of memetic evolution with some reddit aliens bashing what I might call a meme-o-saurus rex. They’re all up on a mountan-top  near a Sylvador Dali inspired cave overlooking an atmospheric landscape where another broccoli mushroom cloud of creativity explodes in the distance.

The November 2004 National Geographic article is titled “No. The evidence for Evolution is overwhelming” as response to the sensationalized cover question “Was Darwin wrong?”. The article covered many important details about the evolution of the theory of evolution the key aspects of natural selection and the 4 categories of evidence on which Darwin based his theory:

  1. Biogeography
    The study of geographical distribution of living creatures or which species inhabit which parts of the planet and why.
  2. Paleontology
    The investigation of extinct life-forms, as revealed in the fossil record.
  3. Embryology
    The examination of the stages of development that embryos pass through before birth or hatching.
  4. Morphology
    The science of anatomical shape and design

I thought it might make for an interesting step off the edge to explore adhocracy and its’ world system ancestors through the lens of these evolutionary criteria. Just for context, I found several definitions for the word Adhocracy to compare to what Emlyn offered. The one which is most consistent with the context in which we were using it during this conversation comes from and states:

“Adhocracy is organizational philosophy or style characterized by adaptive, creative, integrative behavior which is flexible and non-permanent and which, therefore, can respond faster to a changing environment.”

The National Geographic article wrote about how diseases and plants are constantly mutating and adapting to the various antibiotics and pesticides we create. It suggested that, and I quote, “the human body is nothing but a speeded up and microscopic case of what Darwin saw in the Galapagos – except that the human body is an island, and the newly evolved forms aren’t so charming as finches or mockingbirds”. Scientist Stephen Palumbi is even quoted glumly in the article suggesting that “Humans may be the worlds’ dominant evolutionary force” for this very reason.

The processes used to co-ordinate human activity and resources in a capitalistic model were born in an age of many independent nation-states acting in their own self-interest with an underlying assumption that resources were near infinite. As the decades past for the generation of love their fertile minds recognized the impact of 7 billion people living in one finite earth. Some began to think about alternatives to political strategies that relied on assumptions about the market economy as the pinnacle of efficiency.

One could explore the various government policies and legal frameworks which existed in the 20th century as an equivalent form of study to biogeography on tribes as superorganisms. The goal being to catalogue the different ways in which local communities responded to similar societal pressures. Darwin wrote that “one must be struck by the mysterious clustering pattern among what he called ‘closely allied’ species – similar creatures sharing roughly the same body plan”. In this context, capitalism shares a number of striking similarities with other world systems defined in the same relative time-period like communism, socialism, Marxism, libertarianism and more.

But this episodes’ conversations focused more on the microorganisms which exist within adhocracy. The wikipedians who seek to share and cultivate knowledge, the social and professional networks which aspire to be your digital shadow, the open source movements which share the tools of their trade and Anonymous – a strong example of a truly adhocratic organization. Anonymous is a unique and special culture that many organizations thriving in the ancestral capitalist world system might view as a philosophical thorn in their side in much the same way science so often did for previously dominant religious cultures.

Studying history books, newspapers, stone tablets or cave art could be considered a  cultural equivalent to paleontology. One could investigate how and why the various cultural models of the past attempted to adapt to an evolving global competitive environment. Whereas the successful traits of a particular creature would evolve in response to environmental pressures over thousands of years in biological terms, we can see traits express themselves in societal evolution over increasingly short time-scales. That which became known as the generation of love was as unique from their parents in cultural terms as the change which transpired during entire reptile-to-mammal transitional sequence on an evolutionary scale. I made mention of how the technology we have created is multiplying both our capability to change the operating environment and the rate at which we must adapt to said environmental changes. Emlyn touched on this with the idea that the more successful world systems would the one which can scale its activities faster. Capitalism was particularly well-adapted to harness the initial benefits of technology thanks to its’ integrated intermediary:  money.

The initial discovery of the ability to extract cheap fossil fuels allowed capitalism and its’ intermediary of money to move such resources from areas of abundance to areas of high demand far more efficiently than the ancestral model of sharing. The result was its’ growth and bold ambitions to control of all the worlds’ resources. Yet when viewed from the time-scale of generations it becomes more obvious that sustainability has an equal impact on the long-term success of any superorganism. Nature confines everything into an artful balance – what we commonly call the cycle of life – where a species which quickly consumes or destroys  all of the resources of its’ local environment will die off just as fast.

When considered from that perspective, the inherent desire of capitalism to convert all resources into the fungible form of money does have significant downsides to it being the dominant world system. It is a very tall task to ask those who have evolved in a world where profit maximization was the key to all their evolutionary strategies to adapt their tactics to a world where profit and planet carry equal weight. I believe Emlyn rightly suggested that we are in the early days of transition out of the dominant world system or cultural narrative being capitalism. Our conversation might be one attempt to perform embryology on adhocracy as it goes through its birthing process. It has to compete with much larger, much older superorganisms. There are no guarantees that it will succeed or perhaps even should. History and natural selection have repeatedly demonstrated that there many factors to consider what is the best series of traits to combine to be successful in any given environment.

Darwin also wrote of the embryonic state that, “The embryo is the animal in its less modified state” and that state “reveals the structure of its progenitor”. What does it say of the emergent adhocracy world system that it can so quickly gather strength by harnessing the capabilities of existing technological infrastructures? One could see it as a parasitic action if they wanted. Or, it could be viewed like just like every other form of life – drawing in precious resources from its environment to help it grow and survive.

New business models will be explored that seem as foreign as feet to a fish

New business models will be explored that seem as foreign as feet to a fish

The National Geographic article indicated that Charles Darwin felt the 4th branch of biological science – morphology – was the ‘very soul’ of natural history. This science of anatomical shape and design offered an ability to sort creatures into a hierarchy of categories not just by species but also by which anatomical characteristics they do and don’t share. What I find most interesting about considering an adhocractic world system through the lens of evolution is that every characteristic you might evaluate it on could be considered to be self-adaptive. If jobs or providing labour for money are a dying trait no longer serving their intended purpose, people will seek out new methods of re-deploying the inputs available. If education through the model of universities has become antiquated in a world of near instantaneous access to knowledge, people will create new ways to demonstrate and document knowledge which the diploma used to represent. If the success of a business model is dependant on high transaction / communication costs, which we are quickly seeing drive towards zero, new models will be explored that seem as foreign as feet to a fish. Planet-wide hierarchical institutions too slow to adapt to new realities are replaced by a series of single purpose systems that can combined in unique ways efficiently.

Who will take out the garbage could be not a plea or justification that society has evolved far enough but a call to arms to leverage the tools and technology we have created to foster our own successes. A call to arms to discover yet more ways we can live in harmony with our habitat and all those who call it home and treat it with the reverence it so richly deserves. A call to arms to help intelligently design the evolution of adhocracy so that we all may yet continue to call earth home.

Or as Daniel Pinchbeck synchronistically shared in a timely tweet the moment  I was searching for just the right way to conclude my philosophical waxings:

When we realize human solidarity, we transmute into a supra-organism. Instead of a parasite on earth, we rapidly become her immune system.


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