Autopoiesis and how hyper-connectivity is literally bringing the networks to life
When I started writing my book Living Networks in early 2002 I thought that it was important to demonstrate that the concept of 'living networks' was not just a metaphor, but a reality: we, together with the networks that connect us, are literally a new life form.
To show this I drew on the literature on autopoiesis, which was proposed as a new way of understanding the nature of life, and wrote a lengthy introduction to the book. My editor, very rightly, thought it was the wrong way to begin the book, and the introduction never saw the light of day.
This morning when someone mentioned living networks to me I remembered that this was a literal phrase that I had never explained, so here is the introduction, seen for the first time. We are indeed part of an emerging higher-order life form, and that is a wonderful thing...
Introduction: How Connectivity is Bringing Our World to Life:
We who are privileged to be alive today are participating in the birth of a new lifeform: the global networks. All the talk of the "new economy" in the late 1990s reflected many of the changes at play in our world. In truth they may well have underestimated the importance of the juncture we are at, which represents a complete change in the nature of society and business. Since the dawn of humanity people have been the dominant force on our planet, for better and—sometimes—for worse. Now people as individuals are being transcended by a higher-order lifeform, which is connecting and merging most of the people and all the digital devices on the planet into a single entity.
In some ways we have been moving towards this point for millenia. Just as amoeba or other single-celled organisms flowed and interacted in the primordial soup long before eventually coming together to form multi-celled organisms, individuals have been developing increasingly rich interaction over the years. The pace has accelerated, and now we are finally reaching the stage at which we must think of ourselves and the networks that connect us as an entity in its own right. This is happening on two levels. First, integrating humanity and the flow of information and ideas so closely it becomes as a single "global brain". And second, the computing and communication technologies themselves are forming a system with all the characteristics of life. As we shall see, these two concepts overlap strongly, as people and technology increasingly merge.
You might find this idea ridiculous, intriguing, far-fetched, amusing, perhaps all of these. I will argue in this book that once we adjust our understanding of life to the new world that we find ourselves in, that it is simply a fact. However this book is primarily a business book—it is intended for people who are managing organizations, working for themselves or others, trying to make a difference in the world, doing what it takes to achieve success in any domain. I certainly hope that as you read this book you come to believe and understand that we are living within networks that are themselves living. That isn't important, however—in any case you will see how it is useful to think of the networks as being alive, and the very practical business implications of a world in which information and ideas are flowing vastly faster, more broadly, and more richly than ever before. As such it is an examination of the apotheosis of the information economy.
Feel free to skip forward to the guts of the book, which gives detailed prescriptions on how to lead your organization and your own career within the living networks. However I think you'll find it both interesting and useful to understand how and why the networks are coming to life.
The idea of humanity as a whole being considered as a living entity is by no means a new one. Some of the early proponents include the nineteenth century evolutionary biologist Herbert Spencer, who coined the phrase “survival of the fittest” before Darwin used it, and science fiction writer H.G. Wells, who wrote a book “World Brain” outlining his vision for human minds coming together as one. The revolutionary mystic Pierre Teilhard de Chardin brought into our language the word noösphere, which means the global domain of mind. Over the last decade the “global brain” movement has gained momentum, however primarily as a discussion between academics on the social implications of the birth of a higher-order entity.
The word “superorganism” means an organism that is itself composed of other organisms. Plants and animals are made up of many living cells, however those cells cannot survive on their own. In contrast, bee hives and ant colonies are prime examples of superorganisms. Each insect has an independent existence, but often can only survive as part of the larger societies of which they are part. The behaviors of bee swarms or ant colonies emerge at the level of those societies, and cannot be predicted from studying the individual insects.
The idea of a superorganism is that it can be considered as an integrated whole. It is clear that a multi-celled organism such as a tree or a cat is an integral whole—messages and responses flow through the entire organism in a coordinated fashion. However while an ant colony consists of many ants that are alive in their own right, it can be thought of as an entity because of the complex signaling that enables distribution of labor and coordinated actions. These signals can be considered to be the nervous system of the lifeform, whether they are within a single multi-celled organism, or between the individual living entities that make up a superorganism.
Our shared nervous system comes to life
There are curious parallels between the human brain and human society. The 100 billion or so neurons that make up the brain are deeply connected—each neuron can trigger approximately 1000 other neurons. By firing other neurons in turn, any two neurons in the brain are separated by no more than four or five steps. All of our thought and behavior stems from the interactions and mutual triggering of these billions of neurons. If we now look at human society, there is a reasonable level of correspondence. The world's population is around 6 billion. The average person in the developed world knows around 300 other people. And any two people in the world are connected by no more than six steps.
Until recently it would have been ridiculous to extend this comparison, because each neuron in a human brain can trigger others in tiny fractions of a second in highly complex patterns. In contrast, since the dawn of time people around the world have been grouped in relatively small clusters called villages and cities, with extremely little and slow communication between those clusters, and in reality often within those clusters. When communication across states or nations—as recently as the 1980s—was mainly by mail and expensive telegrams and telephone calls, there was a tiny and very slow flow of information between people other than those in the same location.
If this is the nervous system of a living entity, it is one of an extremely slow-thinking and moving beast. Academics and thinkers around the world have always corresponded and shared ideas, but when these were by mail, literally on the slow boat, the sparks that flew were but dull glimmers. This is precisely why the networks are coming to life today. The emerging global communication networks are the new nervous system of humanity.
Over the centuries developing communication technologies such as bookprinting, telephone, and radio, have helped to connect people and allowed richer flows of information and ideas across the world. The digitization of communication media that has characterized the last two decades has brought consistent exponential growth in the power, speed, and breadth of communication capabilities. A massive blossoming in connectivity in the last five years, encompassing e-mail, the Internet, broadband, cell phones, and increasingly advanced human-machine interfaces has finally brought the depth and richness of connectivity between people and devices to a critical level. What were a set of individual minds with limited and sporadic communication between them are now connected so richly that we can indeed draw the analogy between a human brain and human society. Our connectivity is such that we are becoming as of one mind, a global superorganism.
The development of the infrastructure is the enabler—the global networks now have a nervous system. However the infrastructure itself is not the interesting part—it's the signals and messages that travel through our shared nervous system that is the essence of our life. The brain of a human is quite similar to that of a dolphin or chimpanzee. And the brain of a genius is often indistinguishable from that of an idiot. Yes, we can now say that the global networks now have a shared nervous system in our communications infrastructure, however what will make this useful, what will create a true single superorganism, is the quality and richness of the information and ideas that flow through it. That is why the focus of this book is on the flow of information and ideas through the networks, how it is changing as the networks come alive, and the implications for business.
Life and Networks
So what is life? A very good question that has been the subject of heated debate among biologists for centuries, with no signs of full agreement emerging. It’s one of those things that you recognize when you see it, but defies the ability to be defined. The many attempted definitions of life try to describe the characteristics of living things, without inadvertently encompassing things that aren’t alive. Because of the diversity of life and the wonder of the world we live in, it’s an incredibly difficult task. However scientists’ understanding of the nature of life has evolved considerably in the last decades. This helps us to understand how the global networks are coming to life.
Autopoiesis and living systems
In the early 1980s biologists Humberto Maturana and Francisco Varela spawned a revolution in the way scientists think about life. They felt that there were fundamental problems in our current understanding of life, and proposed the new concept of autopoiesis, coining a word from the Greek to mean “self-producing”. They defined an autopoietic system as a network of processes that produces its own components in a feedback loop, and is distinct from its environment. Let’s unpack this to see how it works.
A self-producing system is one in which its components participate in the processes that produce those same components. In a cell, the nucleic acids provide its genetic code and are translated into proteins, that in turn create and recreate all the constituents of the cell, including another copy of the cell’s DNA if it divides. In a similar way, the components of a multi-celled organism such as a human are its cells, and the human body as a whole continually creates itself by growing the new appropriate cells as required. In both cases this is literally a process of self-creation—it is defined by a feedback loop in which the elements of the living system end up by creating themselves. And both cells and humans have distinct boundaries—while organisms take in energy and food from outside and excrete waste, the self-organization that enables them to continually recreate themselves happens entirely within the boundaries of their cell walls or outer skin.
With this new understanding of the nature of life, we can view the global networks with a fresh eye. The world of information and ideas in fact precisely matches the definition of autopoiesis: it produces its own components through a network of processes involving feedback loops. Information and ideas are generated in the minds of people and the circuits of computers. They do not come from nowhere—they are created from the raw material of other information and ideas that have been read, heard, or received as input.
A reporter for the New York Times writes an article on media spending by pharmaceutical companies. The article is based on input from research firms, other media, interviews, and in no small part the past experience, reading, and thinking of the reporter. The article in turn is read by reporters at the Times and other publications, some of whom mark it as a reference for future articles. The Times’ readers learn something, and a few who find the article particularly interesting mention the article or its ideas to others. Someone who is interviewed by another newspaper on a similar topic the following week doesn’t mention the article, but his views have been influenced by what he read.
Let’s see a few entrepreneurs in Silicon Valley get together over breakfast and bounce around some ideas on what’s hot in the technology market. One of them subsequently makes a presentation, incorporating some of the themes that the group chatted about. This sparks off someone in the audience, who instantly sees how one of the ideas can be modified to apply to the venture she’s starting, and she shifts her business model. Months later the same entrepreneurs have breakfast again and discuss the new start-up, totally unaware that they’ve contributed to the flow of ideas that helped form it.
Information and ideas beget information and ideas. They don’t spring from nothingness, but are based in turn on other information and ideas. This is the world we live in, in which information and ideas cycle through the system to create other information and ideas, ever faster, growing in a highly creative network of processes. This is exactly an autopoietic system. The world of information and ideas is, quite literally, alive. This living system encompasses all of the people and digital systems in the world; we are all integrated as one whole living system, bounded simply by the scope of our global civilization. The domain of this life is information and ideas, with people and digital systems forming the context in which this flow happens.
The eminent German sociologist Niklas Luhmann worked for two decades applying the concept of autopoiesis to social systems, and he too found that their central component is communication. A social system is made up of processes that recursively produce communication, which is the essence of a social system. It produces itself. And by means of the flow of information and ideas through our minds and digital systems, we all participate in a living system vastly greater than ourselves.
The Business Implications of Living Networks
So what are the implications of the birth of the living networks? What does it mean for the organizations and individuals that are meshed into a lifeform far greater than themselves? Those are the issues we will explore throughout this book, seeking wherever possible to find practical approaches to the key business drivers we confront every day. How does it affect the way we manage people and processes in organizations? How should we develop valuable relationships inside and outside our organizations? What is the impact of intellectual property issues on our life within the networks? What organizational strategies will be successful? As individuals, how can we live richer and more fulfilling lives?
The first thing we must understand is that the living networks form a whole. There are no true boundaries within the living networks—the flow of information and ideas that is at their heart respects no artificial borders, be it across nations or organizations. Most managers think at the level of the organization, about their company and how it interacts with its environment. This is dangerous, almost delusional. We must think first on the level of the flows of information and ideas, the flows of value, the global nature of the networks that in which we participate. Only from that perspective can we understand how our firms can create and extract value by integrating and combining with these rich flows. The way we approach all of our business relationships, including working with customers and suppliers, outsourcing, alliances, and collaboration, determine the success of the organization.
Information and ideas—and the relationships through which they flow—are all that matter in the economy today. To take just one flow of value in the economy, whether you are mining and refining copper, transporting it around the world, building and selling products from copper, or trading copper futures in the financial markets, the effectiveness of your business decisions is based on the relevance, accuracy, and timeliness of the information you have, and the quality of the ideas you apply to your processes. The critical importance of information and ideas in the economy is by no means new. However it is now predominant.
The only truly sustainable competitive advantage in a world of free flow of information and ideas is the ability to create and implement valuable new ideas, in other words to innovate. However the dynamics of innovation are changing dramatically. As technology becomes increasingly advanced, and thus specialized, no organization can claim to have the full spectrum of expertise required to innovate. We have no choice but to collaborate in order to keep ahead. And this creates a whole minefield of intellectual property issues. The concept of the living networks gives us powerful insights on both how we create intellectual property and how we extract value from it.
Something fundamental has changed. The connectivity and integration that the current round of technologies affords us are resulting in a virtually discontinuous shift in our world. The human race is moving from consisting of billions of individual minds, to becoming an integral whole comprising both people and the digital technologies that connect and complement us. Our new shared nervous system means that we as individuals are becoming like the neurons of a single global brain, so richly connected that the whole vastly transcends its components.
The future of business is one in which individuals and organizations create value primarily by rich participation in the flow and birth of information and ideas. We will do this by integrating closely with other organizations, forming networks and communities within and across organizations, truly acting as participants in a global lifeflow.
The networks are still very young, blinking at the world around them. As individuals, we can rejoice in being part of a lifeform of a higher order than ourselves. And in the coming years and decades we can wonder as the living networks evolve many dimensions beyond their awakening form. This is our future.
Ross Dawson is globally recognized as a leading futurist, entrepreneur, keynote speaker, strategy advisor, and bestselling author. He is Founding Chairman of the AHT group of companies. Ross travels the world speaking and consulting to major organizations on the future of business.
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