Phronesis and the Internet: the Process Revolution

I learned about the Aristotelean intellectual virtue of phronesis along with the related term episteme a few years back from Kathryn Montgomery in discussions about her book How Doctors Think. Episteme is the scientific rationality we are all quite familiar with. Phronesis is usually translated “practical wisdom” and is the kind of rational skill doctors and entrepreneurs have that is based on experiential knowledge and provides the ability to take the best action in particular circumstances. We are much less likely to have thought of this as a separate kind of rational capacity.
These terms came up again recently for me in the context of a collective intelligence discussion, which really set my mind going and has led me to some propositions and a conjecture:

Proposition: Whereas the printing press was an episteme engine, the Internet is a phronesis engine.
Alternative long phrasing: The printing press and the Internet are cognitive technologies that provide people and cultures with “mechanical advantage” or leverage for the development of the Aristotelean intellectual virtues of epistome and phronesis respectively.

It’s pretty easy to see how the printing press is responsible for the massive scaling of epistome into the general culture. It’s a bit harder to see how what the Internet is doing is the same for phronesis because our first viewing of the Internet (the web at least) has been that it’s just one giant sales brochure/advertising billboard/encyclopedia/etc, i.e. that it is a global source of knowledge. My proposition is that the key thing going on with the Internet is not access to knowledge, but rather access participation in knowledge processes. Three examples:

  1. Wikipedia. What really matters about it is not that we have access to a massive knowledge font, but rather that each of us can become encyclopedists and have to face the questions of ontological classification, neutral voice, objective/subjective reality, etc, that that entails.
  2. Blogs. A word perhaps for at least three information processes moved out mass culture: journalism, publishing, political analysis. Again the key shift is not that there is all this reporting/publishing/political analysis available for our consumption, but that that each of us can become journalists/publishers/political analysts.
  3. My own online-writing workshop. People come to the site thinking that they will get reviews of their writing which will improve it. They invariably discover that reviewing the work of others is how they end up learning to improve their own writing.

In each of these cases the key thing is the shift from access to static information, to active participation in an information process. The Internet is providing a “mechanical advantage” for putting people together in a place where they can jointly engage in the kind of information processes and processing that I think leads to the developing of phronesis.

Proposition: Economic revolutions occur when aspects of production are sufficiently amplified by cognitive technologies that new economic patterns of production come into being. Example: the printing press provided the intellectual infrastructure (a culture of epistome) for the expansion of the simple tools of production during the industrial revolution into what is called Capital in the classical economic sense.

Proposition: There is a new economic revolution under way, the Process Revolution, that is the result of the amplification of information and information processing by the cognitive technology of the Internet, and which is similarly bringing new economic patterns of production into being. These patterns are a new economic factor that can be called Information (capital I), which is defined (analogously to Capital) as the data plus the patterns and processes that use that data to organize production.

Proposition: New economic factors produce competing political systems that are answers to the question: who should own the new economic factor. Example: In the industrial revolution the question was: who should own Capital and the products produced by Capital. Communism proposes common ownership in the form of the State, and Capitalism proposes ownership by individuals.

Proposition: The new economic factor of Information is likewise producing competing approaches to answer who should own it. “Ownerism” which proposes the same answer as Capitalism (ownership by individuals, natural or corporate), and “Commonism” which proposes that its ownership be held in the commons (not by the State).

Proposition: Capitalism won out against Communism for three fundamental philosophical and systemic reasons:

  1. Capitalism was better at recognizing and building on individual dignity and potential.
  2. Capitalism is essentially decentralist because it pushes the intelligence out to the edges (see David Reed & Andrew Lippman’s paper on Viral Communication for details on this idea) where local information can be used to maximum advantage in decision making.
  3. Capitalism works with, not against people’s natural self-interest.

Conjecture: Commonism will win out over Ownersim because it shares with Capitalism the same first two properties as well as another property which is analogous to the third, namely that Commonism works with Information’s natural abundance and it’s tendency to flow everywhere, whereas Ownerism has to fight tooth and nail to keep it scarce and from getting out.

I’ve put together a more detailed presentation of these ideas (including their relation to money) in the form of a paper.

flow, Krafel, & google earth

This week I was given a copy of Paul Krafel’s mini-film The Upward Sprial. Which, despite, nay in part because of, some hoakyness, provides deep and powerful language and images for how to look at the world. He talks about flow, feedback spirals, and a “second solution” to the problem posed by the second law of thermodynamics. It is both philosphical and practical for those looking to change our broken world.

Just for fun I took this an opportunity to learn kml so that we could map the flow of the spread of Krafel’s ideas using google earth. If you want to play, go to a little site I created where you can add your location and then add to a network link into your google earth and see the location of all of those who have entered their locations to the map.


[tags]Krafel, flow, google earth,kml,feedback[/tags]

thoughts on a retreat

In March I participated in a retreat that is somewhat hard for me to describe. It’s hard because I fear being judged. So, to my more materialist friends I want to describe it as an experiment in developing the practices of collective intelligence and collective wisdom and stick to the intellectual content. To my more spiritually oriented friends I want to describe it as a re-inventing of the practices of Quaker corporate worship in the context of the post-post-modern, quantum/relativist, networked, Wilberized, self-conscious and what-else-have-you, world.
But this splitting into the mental and the spritual to appease my imagined world view of this or that friend, is a mistake. A huge mistake. So now I declare: go ahead and judge me!
Here’s a better description: I participated in a retreat where a small group of people together worked on integrating all levels of their awareness: physical, emotional, mental, and “soul,” into a single group awareness. I put soul in quotes because there is common agreement that parts of our conciousness are separately devoted to physical, emotional, mental awareness, and we have decent language to talk about those three types of perception, but we don’t have good language or terms to talk about “soul” perception, or even agreement that such a form of perception is even “real” (what ever that means!) and has a similar status as the other three. [And now I’m noticing that that last sentence is yet another caveat to try and prevent judgement.]
For those of you with a scientific/materialist bent I recommend reading Jean-François Noubel’s paper on collective intelligence. This paper mentions only in passing at the very end the need for personal transformation. But it was that part that is what the retreat was all about. The practicing of that transformation to begin to make possible the potential for real collective intelligence.
If you aren’t turned off by spiritual language, try the sacred circle web site.
Some things I learned: I am generally very unaware of my body, and what it has to offer me. If I change the way I sit, I change the way I perceive. I can tell when people are speaking from a place of fear. If I take my glasses off, I can’t see detial, but detail is not all there is to see. The things that I am naturally good at, that come easily to me, are my gifts to the world. If I toss them out as if they don’t matter, I disempower myself and those gifts at the same time. One of the key structural benefits of the open source world is that it requires the formation of human relationships. Because it’s free, i.e. the value it generates has not been monitized, you can’t rely on money to get you what you want, instead you have to either rely on yourself, or, prefereably, rely on relationships with others. I am afraid of esoteric, new-agey, airy-fairy, “stuff” and I have a hard time just being with it when it shows up. Taking on and accepting as true things that people say is very different from being with them and actually listening to what they have to say. There are many levels of listening, at least four of which are: from the past (where we try and understand what we hear based on what we already know); with an open mind (where we try and learn new things that we don’t know); with an open heart (where we try and put ourselves empathically in the position of the speaker and really listen to where they are coming from); and with an open will (which is harder to describe, but it is deeper than the other three, and is similar to the experience of listening for the sense-of-the-meeting when clerking a Quaker meeting for worship with a concern for business, where not only are you listening from all the three other levels, but you’re basic will, i.e. your desires, are left open and subject to modification). Quakers already know a ton about collective intelligence and the practial stuff about what is needed to move foward in this realm, but they suck at integrating body and emotion into mental and “soul” practice. If you get into this work, it will have ramifications on your “personal” relationships.
[tags]quakerism,collective intelligence,open source,FLOSS,Ken Wilber[/tags]

blogging and tech support

I’ve found that numerous times when I type into google a technical question, be it an error message that I’m seeing when installing some software package or some feature about a programming language, that where I often end up is in some person’s blog where they describe how they coped with exactly the same problem. This phenomenon seems to me a generalized solution to tech support, and also a wonderfully comunal and gift economy approach to problem solving. So I’ve decided to play the game too by creating a category for this blog called solutions, and, as often as I can, post my minor little breakthroughs in hopes that they will be helpful to someone else. And here’s my first:

I’ve been learning Smalltalk using squeak and I assumed that, like other object-oriented languages, there would be a constructor method that could take many parameters which would be used by the constructor to load up the values of instance variables. For example in perl a simplified constructure would look like:

sub new {
my $class = shift;
my $self = {};
bless $self, $class;
$self->{'FOO'} = shift; # save the constructor parameters into our data structure
$self->{'BAR'} = shift;
return $self;

which would be instantiated like this:

In Smalltalk, it appears, you don’t do that. Instead you just create settors for your parameters and chain them to the new call. So you would have two methods:

setFoo: fooVal
foo := fooVal
setBar: barVal
bar := barVal

and your call to instantiate an object is then just:
theObjectClassName new setFoo:'fish' setBar:'dog'

because the first two words create the object and the the second two are just messages that get to the object after it is created, one at a time.

I love the beautiful parsimony of notions in Smalltalk.