I first met Peter Russell in May of 1980. He was even then decades ahead of his peers. This essay was delivered at meeting in Paris in 2000.
The Awakening Society
We saw earlier how the growth of computing, data banks, electronic networks and telecommunications, in short the global information revolution, is leading human society to link together in a manner very reminiscent of a “global brain”. But simply having a global nervous system in place is not sufficient to ensure that the world will begin to work together; the billions of neurons in a human brain may be all intact, and interconnected, but the person can still behave in insane ways and cause his own destruction. The important question we still have to answer concerns how we use the immense potential of our burgeoning information revolution.
Technology is, in essence, neutral. It is the ways in which it is used which is crucial. Any technology, whether it be nuclear, chemical, biological or information, can be used in ways which are for the overall benefit of humanity, or in ways which have questionable benefits and side-effects for society as a whole. Behind our actions are decisions, and behind decisions are values and motivations. Thus one crucial question we need to ask about information technology in particular concerns the uses to which it is put, and how can it be used in ways which are in the long term interest of humanity and the planet as a whole rather than the special interests of particular groups? How do we ensure that the perceived needs of an individual or group are in line with the overall needs of humanity as a whole?
The key issue is one of synergy. The word “synergy” comes from the Greek word “syn-ergos”, meaning “to act together”. And in information theory the word is used in the sense “common programming”. Synergy is a measure of the extent to which the elements of a system have common needs and goals. When applied to society, synergy is therefore the degree to which the needs of an individual, or particular group, and the needs of the society as a whole are in parallel.
To see what this means in practice, we might think of the synergy in a system we are all very familiar with – our own bodies. Indeed, the healthy human body is probably the best example there is of high synergy. A skin cell in my fingertip behaves as it is programmed to. It knows nothing of the needs of a skin cell in the toe, or of a liver cell, or a nerve cell. Yet, in following its own needs it does not come into conflict with the needs of these or any other cells in the body. It may not know what the other cells need, but nevertheless because of the “common programming” inherent in the genes, the need of a skin cell are in alignment with the needs of all the other cells and organs in the body. And it is because of this synergy that I actually exist as a human being – otherwise I would just be a pool of biological soup. Synergy therefore occurs when the elements of a system act for their own good and in doing so act for the good of the systen as a whole, without any coercion or higher control.
A good example of low synergy in the human body occurs with cancer. When a cell becomes malignant the genetic information which it shares with the rest of the body is disrupted in some way, and the cell can become a selfish rogue cell, looking after its own modified programming at the expense of the organism as a whole. And, if it is succesful, may end up destroying the very organism on which it is so dependent for its continued existence.
The total loss of synergy in the human body is what occurs at death. Every cell in your body is still alive at the moment you die, and maybe for several hours afterwards; but the synergy has gone; the cells no longer support the organism as a whole. And, as a result, the individual cells soon meet their demise.
One principal characteristic of low synergy is conflict. The individuals in a group, whether they be cells in a body or people in a society, find themsleves in conflict with each other, and with the overall needs of the system. We can see examples of this within the setting of a corporation. If the synergy is low, a situation may arise where the needs of the individuals come into conflict with the needs of the organisation as a whole – a conflict typically manifest as a conflict between unions and management. The representatives of the individuals may perceive their needs as that of higher wages, while the representatives of the organisation, looking at the needs of overall organisation may feel that this is undesirable.
At a global level we could similarly consider the synergy between a corporation and its larger context, the planet. A corporation may decide that it is in its own financial interests to exploit the timber potential of the Amazonian rain forests. Yet this is almost certainly not going to be in the long-term interest of humanity or the planet, and the result is a conflict between the representatives of the organisation and the represenatives of the environment.
Desirable as synergy may be, you cannot force it to it happen. You can certainly make the individuals in a system behave in a manner that supports the system as a whole, but this has not created synergy. The needs of the individual have not become aligned with the needs of the system, they have merely been subjugated in service of the system. Thus when we come to the issue of encouraging synergy amongst the peoples of this planet, it is not a question of supressing individualty and demanding that everybody wants the same thing, but of uncovering a deeper alignment; to find goals and activities that both support the various needs of the many indiviudals and the needs of humanity as whole.
So a key question facing humanity today is how do we create greater synergy, a greater alignment between the needs of the individual and the needs of the group? But before we can answer this question we first have to look at why such an alignment does not naturally exist? And that takes us into the whole question of our basic needs and values. And these in turn depend upon the even deeper issue of how we see ourselves: our self-image.
If someone is asked to define themself, they usually do so in terms of things they have or do. Thus I might describe myself in terms of my name, my nationality, my occupation, my physical characterisitcs, and the roles I play. But none of these are really what I am; they are only things I have or do, and from which I draw a certain sense of identity. I could, for example, change my name, or my nationality, or my occupation, or most of the other aspects I think of as me, but would the sense of “I- ness” have changed? Would that inner experience of existence which we refer to as “I” have changed? Beyond the surface descriptions of the self which we use both to define what we are, and to distinguish ourselves from others, is this thing called “I”. It is something we all know well, but it is also something which is very hard to grasp. Indeed if you ask people to define that simple word “I”, they can spend a whole day on the task and not get very far. The reason it is so hard to grasp the self is another story, and would take us into the mystical literature of the ages; but the conclusion of this exploration would show that our sense of “I-ness”, may well be the most intimate part of our lives, yet it is actually beyond definition – the very act of trying to define “I” makes it into a something – which it is not.
Nevertheless in everyday life we do indeed attempt to define ourselves, and usually in terms of things we have or do. And if we truly believe that these things are what we really are, then anything which threatens any of these aspects of our identity will be perceived as a threat to the sense of self. Thus this derived sense of identity needs to be continuously reaffirmed and supported. We create a whole series of needs, which we believe are necessary for our inner sense of well-being.
One perceived need which many of us have is the need for money, the gathering of financial wealth. Other needs which stem from this derived sense of identity are the need to gather possessions, the need to be seen to follow current fashion, or the need to have stimulating experiences. These are all examples of things that we may believe we need in order to feel content. However, none of these needs are physical needs, necessary for our biological survival; they are psychological needs, which we believe are neccesary if we are to survive psychologically, i.e. if our sense of who we are is to stay intact.
The net result is that most of us believe we need far more than we need physically. That would not be so bad were there not so many of us – about 4.5 billion at the last count, and the number is steadily increasing. And those of us who have their basic physical needs met, want more and more from the world in order to satisfy our perceived psychogical needs. Yet there are limits to what we can demand from our surroundings, or from other peoples. The net result is that we misuse the reources of the planet, gobbling them up in order to satisfy our need for yet more sources of internal satisfaction, and at the same time upsetting the delicate ecological balance of life on which we are so dependent. This is the essence of low synergy behaviour – the perceived needs of the individual being in conflict with those of the system as a whole – and is very reminiscent of cancer in an organism. We have become like rogue cells, consuming the environment on which we are so dependent in order to satisfy our own immediate ends.
Some commentators, observing the tragic behaviour of human beings have suggested that there may be something intrinsically wrong with human beings; that our selfishness stems from a basic error in the way our brains have evolved, and that only radical neurosurgery or drug treatment will correct the error. In computer terms, this is equivalent to saying that humanity has a hardware problem. But I would argue that the problem is essentially one of software. The source of our inappropriate selfishness lies not so much in the structure of the brain itself, but in the beliefs we have adopted as to what we need in order to feel satisfied. In short we have confused our wants with our real needs. A “want” is something that we believe will satisfy a need. A few days ago I was with someone who suddenly wanted a bar of chocolate. At least that was what she thought she wanted. On closer investigation it turned out what she really needed was sugar – her blood sugar had dropped, she was feeling low on energy. She could have satisfied this in many ways – any confectionery, ice cream, alcohol, glucose, fruit – but as a result of past experience she had locked on to the belief that what she needed was chocolate. A similar situation can often occur with that taboo subject of sex. People often believe that they want a sexual relationship with a certain person; but often what they are really wanting is love or nourishment, or power, or excitement. But because they have found that sex can sometimes satisfy these deeper needs, they believe that sex is what they need, and may not see other ways of satisfying the more basic need.
A “want” is, then, a belief we have about how to satisfy a need. But too often we confuse our wants with our needs. And the key to resolving an apparent conflict of interests is to look behind the wants to the real needs. We may think we want money, but the underlying need behind wanting financial wealth is very often the need for security. Accumulating money is simply a means through which we believe we can satisfy the need for security. Or we may feel that we need to engage in risk sports or live an exciting life, and here the underlying need is usually for stimulus. Or people may feel it is important to follow the latest fashion. In this case the underlying need is usually for approval and recognition.
In similar ways most apparent wants come down to just a few dozen basic needs; needs such as security, stimulus, approval and control. If these are our fundamental motivations we might well be justified in feeling that there is something essentially at fault with us. But I would question whether even these are our most fundamental needs. If these were indeed our most fundamental needs then satisfying them should lead to a state of fulfilment, and our “needing” should stop. But it doesn’t. Most of us have probably heard tales of the wealthy industrialist who had every form of material security he could wish for, only to find he was unhappy because he had no love in his life; or of the actress who had all the recogniton and fame she could ask for but found that she had lost her creativity and job satisfaction. Security, approval, control and excitement may appear to be basic needs which society tells us we should satsfy if we are to be fulfilled, but life seems to tell us something different. The key question we have to ask ourselves is “What is it I really need?” What is it I really need beyond the various wants I have; beyond the things society tells me I should want?
When people take time to ponder this question at some length, challenging their ingrained expections and social conditioning, they frequently come up with answers such as to love, to be creative, to make a contribution, to experience inner well-being, to have peace of mind. Such needs, it appears, are our fundamental goals. These are the things we are really after in life. These are what bring us true fulfilment. Thus when we begin to consider our real needs we discover that they are very similar to everbody else’s real needs. Moreover, if you look at these fundmental motivations you will notice that they do not demand that other people behave or think in certain ways as the needs for security, control and approval do; they are all needs which are fulfilled through the actualisation of our own inner potentials. Thus we can fulfil these needs without coming into any conflict with other’s fundamental needs. This is the basis of a high synergy society.
We can see similar patterns applying at the level of a corporation. A corporation engages in various activities, and underlying these activities are various “wants”. It may want that the people who work for the organisation put in a full day’s work (or a full week’s or month’s work if the company works flexible hours); and that they work reasonably hard. It may also want to develop new products, hold a position in the market place, and beat the competition. But underlying these wants are some more fundamental needs – showing a profit, providing a satisfactory return to shareholders, and staying in business. These are some of the basic needs of a corporatation, and their “wants” are ways in which they believe they can satisfy those needs.
And we could apply the same principles to the global system. What is it that humanity, and the planet as a whole really needs? Here the fundamental needs would seem to be things like decisions which take the long-term welfare of the biosystem into account; strategies which are ecologically viable, that do not destroy the very fabric of life; attitudes which are essentially non-exploitative; activities which are generally supportive of the well being of the planet, and the survival of humanity and life in general. These are some of the basic the needs of the planetary system.
So the question of how to create synergy between individuals, organisations and humanity as a whole, is not so much one of how to reconcile different apparent wants and needs, how to force our goals into alignment; it’s more a question of discovering what the deeper needs are, and then choosing those activities that will satisfy these various basic needs. We need to find approaches that will satisfy the individual’s needs for love, creativity and peace of mind; and at the same time satisfy the coporation’s needs to stay in business and provide an adequate return to shareholders; and also satisfy the long term needs of humanity as a whole. By addressing the fundamental needs in this manner, not only is there no conflict between the different parts and different levels of a system, but the strategies can usually be discovered that fulfil the different needs simultaneously.
Most companies already pay considerable attention to satisfying the needs of their clients and customers – indeed the current approach to quality, which has become fashionable over the last few years is one of “conforming to requirements”. I believe that corporations must now expand this appproach downwards to include the needs of the individuals who work within the company, and upwards to include the needs of humanity as a whole.
A customer may see a company as high quality if its services and products conform to requirements. But what does it take for an employee to feel that he is working for a high quality company? For most people it means that working for the company satisfies the needs of an employee. On one level this may mean giving security, satisfactory wages, and a good working envirnoment; but it also means addressing the more fundamental needs related to inner well-being. A company which can satisfy these needs is going to find itself much more in alignement with its employees.
Moving in the other direction, what will it take for a company to be seen as a high quality organisation by the public at large, most of whom neither work for the company nor buy its products or services? I suggest that it entails attending to the long-term, overall needs of humanity as a whole. We have already seen several examples of companies which, in looking after their own needs to maximise profit, have followed policies which have run counter to what large sectors of the public have felt is desirable, and found themselves involved in large-scale boycotts or very costly legal actions. If an enterprise is to ensure its survival in the years ahead, it is going to have to take into account not only the requirements of the customer, and the deeper needs of the employee, but also the long-term interests of humanity as a whole. True quality then is equivalent to high synergy.
To achieve this is going to require a willingness to step back and explore our fundamental requirements. Over the last few centuries western society has made tremendous strides in external growth and development. But in terms of really understanding ourselves and what we really need, both individually and collectively, we have not really progressed much since the time of the Greeks. We now stand at a very important time in human development. We are becoming aware that inner exploration and development has now become as crucial, if not more, to our future welfare as outer development.
We are very much in a time of balance. It is a time both of crisis and of challenge. And it is the decisions that we make today that are going to determine the future. The quality of those decisions is going to depend upon the extent to which we really understand ourselves, understand what it is we really want, understand our deeper values, rather than just our apparent superficial needs. The more that we can begin to explore ourselves and open up to the inner potential, then the greater will be our chances of moving through the most exciting time in history.
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