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Saturday, March 28, 2009

Stumbling towards utopia

We are often asked to consider radical alternatives to the systems we have today. But I generally find that simple consideration of alternatives is not the most useful viewpoint, even for radical systems thinking.

Here's a simple example to start with. Carlos Gershenson asked what would happen if there was a single currency throughout the world? Who would benefit? Who would lose? Is it a sensible idea? Will it be worth the effort?

When asking whether a single world currency would be a better system than the one we have today, it is always necessary to add (as Carlos does) the supplementary question: Better for whom?

But I think there is a more important question: Is there any conceivable route that would get us to a sustainable world currency system from the current starting point, with its entrenched vested interests?

Change in complex systems is always a political process, finding a path through a sociopolitical space-time continuum. My preferred metaphor for this is a game of dungeons and dragons - you have to navigate a maze, win a series of battles, without losing too many lives.

A lot of radical political discourse is essentially imaginary - inventing fictional systems that are better than the systems we have today. But without a process for getting there this discourse is just utopian fantasy.

Meanwhile some revolutionaries have a fairly explicit programme for realizing their political vision, but this may involve extreme risk or hardship for other people. Of course this raises all sorts of ethical problems; revolutionaries typically try to justify hardship by appealing to such abstract notions as the historical inevitability of change or the greater good.

At the other extreme, there are reformists who focus exclusively on the processes of change - what stepwise improvements can be done today. Many reformists don't have a clear vision of where they are going, and a lot of their reforms can seem stupid or even counterproductive from a systems perspective.

Here's what I think. Complex systems thinking about change needs to involve both vision and process, both politics and ethics. As Erik Proper said to me this morning, "it starts with the question where do I want to position myself. Next question is how to realise this".



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