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Peace: John Papworth - Social Empowerment

Zenji Natusch and I recently came across each other in the Group Jazz Forum. After reading the title of his weblog "The Slight of the Poonbilled Bornhack" and the tag line “If at first the idea is not absurd, then there is no hope for it.” [Albert Einstein] I then found his writing to be quite compelling. In his entry Was thinking just before about what I wrote in the last posting a variety of important issues emerge - the dynamics of power and authority, Peace Through Social Empowerment John Papworth, the value of master-apprentice relationships, and network learning environments. There's much to reflect upon here...

Taking my own cue from a range of other insightful people, one of the ideas I have pursued in my own work is that the creation, evolution and preservation of individual and collective narratives forms the underlying ground for learning - and idea that is not at all opposed to, but quite different from, learning being the mastery of knowledge, skills and attitudes (i.e. expertise). The stories of our individual and collective life experiences are the key to shaping our identity (who we think we are, why we think we got this way, how we think we got this way, etc.), and provide cohesion in our quest for knowledge. Without an ecology of identity, we all become anonymous living in the midst of massive power structures (economic, political, social, religious, educational, etc.) that drive our lives. Having knowledge in this environment, and believing that is some kind of path to power is a delusion. Knowledge isn't power. Without narrative, we lose our way in life.

Taking Zenji's cue, I went and had a look at John Papworth's Peace Through Social Empowerment - a title that is difficult to merely pass by. In the section Primary Causes I read:

It is simply this; that our primary problem is not war, or the environment, or population pressures, nor the squandering of the planet's finite resources, nor the alienation from life of many millions of people; THE PRIMARY PROBLEM IS THAT OF SIZE, size developed on such a scale as to disempower people and which makes their moral judgements irrelevant to the passage of events.

What I like about Papworth's line of inquiry is that he seeks the underlying ground of multiple problems by looking at the source, rather than the symptoms of a world ravaged by naive designers. This is an important and difficult direction to pursue, but is one that designers should be paying much more attention to. A great deal of our lives are caught up in reacting to symptoms of living rather than underlying causes. The essential link in Papworth's statement is that size disempowers people.

Oddly enough, a couple of days I was walking around a pond in a grassy area thinking about network marketing (ok - I know that's weird, give me a minute). If each blade of grass was a website or weblog, how would any single blade of grass gain attention? Grow taller? Try to change colour? Try to destroy the others around it? I don't want to start pushing this metaphor since it was just a passing fancy, but I am thankful that grass isn't competitive otherwise things would definitely get weird. Blades of grass aren't storytellers by design. We are.

How might size disempower people? It can cause psychological isolation - the feeling of being completely alone while immersed in a sea of people. It can create symptoms of anonymity - the loss of identity while immersed in a sea of activity. It can breed a sense of learned helplessness - simply giving up in the face of what appears to be insurmountable odds. It can create a sense of imprisonment - the feeling of being trapped in a society whose power structures and systems of authority are too big and amorphous to do anything about. It can breed obsession with Internet communication - the intense output of personal thoughts and ideas that represent a struggle to gain attention in vast oceans of thoughts and ideas. It can also inspire brilliant novels like Ken Harvery's The Town That Forgot How To Breathe

In general, it may be possible that size disempowers people by causing them to lose their own personal narrative (if indeed we ever had the good fortune to have one in the first place). Size confounds our sense of awareness, our sense of time, our sense of place and our sense of priorities in life. I think of the growing population of weblogs. These are an interesting vehicle of communication, but if we simply imagine that half of the population in the world started weblogging it isn't hard to see, RSS or not, that we'll all soon be swimming in a sea of weblogging. The sheer size of the collective website/weblogging communities may become a source of collective disempowerment - the opposite of how they are currently positioned. Even more unusual is the tendency for every site to become some kind of niche expertise as a means to build credibilty and identity, a process that will ultimately only lead to a greater sense of collective fragmentation.

Without a sense of the small and manageable in our networks, we become lost in a sea of bits and bytes. Without a keen sense of the local (all the stuff outside of the computer screen!) in our networks, we all become digital avatars. Without an ability to realign patterns in communication and expertise, we say new things along old lines.

Papworth goes on the say:

If we ignore that and simply focus our energies on particular abuses then, however commendable our objectives and our efforts, we are dealing with the effects of the abuses of power and ignoring their causes. It was Einstein who remarked 'You cannot solve a problem with the mindframe that has created it'. In saying as much he was pointing to the core of our problem; a 19th century mindframe which accepts, without question or challenge, giant centralised states and economic entrepreneurship global in its scope, which together have created a doomsday scenario for the human race...

We are not going to solve the problems of the 21st century with the mind-frame of the 19th. Social empowerment, involving the deliberate creation of an organic, multi-cellular structure and process of our political and economic institutions, is today the only realistic path to enduring peace and to any genuine social progress.

"The deliberate creation of an organic, multi-cellular structure and process..." is an important idea. Yet many of have been conditioned by and immersed in the effects of size. Perhaps what we are saying is that we need to build a new relationship with size, not make it go away (which, of course, we can't). Network learning environments, in my experience with them, have offered some very interesting possibilities along those lines. We do not need to think of global and local as opposite ideas, but perhaps the narratives embedded within them would benefit from Papworth's ideas about social empowerment.

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