A systematic way to generate, evaluate, optimize and deploy the best ideas from all sources in an ongoing project of global improvement.
"Quite clearly, our task is...how to get all of humanity to educate itself swiftly enough to generate spontaneous social behaviors that will avoid extinction." ~ Buckminster Fuller
This proposal answers Fuller's identified need for a way to engage all of humanity in "spontaneous social behaviors that will avoid extinction." More than that, it has the potential to accelerate innovaton and improvements in organizations of all sorts and sizes and to help unite people worldwide on the same side, in contrast to the divided world we currently experience.
The basis of the proposal is a mechanism of collective intelligence, identified after decades of contemplating humanity's seemingly uncontrollable tendency to destroy one civilization after another.
In 2000 I had the insight that any civilization could be looked at as a collection of answers to such questions as "How can we feed ourselves?" "How can we defend ourselves?" "Who does what?" "How do we decide things?" "Who gets what?" and so on. The fundamental question is "How shall we live?"
Once the civilization becomes large enough the whole collection of answers becomee a massive, interlocked, self-maintaining status quo. The problem arises because in earlier times when the answers were unknown the questions were active, leading to answers that worked at that time.
Once they work, however, the answers become established and resist change even as circumstances change, which they do in any case, but the very success of the civilization produces changes that make the previous answers inadequate.
Growing populations demanded more food and more of everything. Wealth creates demands for more wealth as the number and aspirations of the wealthy grow. Competing military establishments make their own demands. With intense competition for survival and dominance there is no reward for sustainability. In this way civilizations are automatically self-eliminating.
With that depressing insight I looked for an alternative. The first thing I thought of was reversing the situation. If basing civilizations on answers led to self-destruction, what about basing them on questions?
This proved fruitful. It resulted in the insight that with shared questions any number of people can think together and produce increasingly good answers to the shared question. We do this naturally in small groups faced with problems, with everyone contributing possible solutions or partial solutions, which can combine into a better solution than any one person might have created.
The same thing can happen on a large scale and over time with the proper information infrastructure, illustrated below in the Core Question Cycle.
This set of insights creates the potential for spontaneous self-organization of humanity's enormous creative resources toward beneficial ends. In this is circumvents the political stagnation preventing forward movement by generating massive local action and a global constituency, which can focus on generating political will as one aspect of its action, and can integrate many who presently do not participate in the political process.
All the good ideas generated by this MIT CoLab competition would be considered under this proposal, tested, optimized, and the best identified. Doing the same with all other effective ideas and projects would develop a massive and growing body of increasingly good knowledge.
This mechanism is decentralized, inclusive, increasingly effective over time, and open ended in both struture and results. In what follows I describe this mechanism, apply it to the economy and to larger issues as well, and discuss how it would work.
Essentially I am proposing that there is a working model of collective intelligence, fully capable of operating on a global, massive scale, and that if properly directed it can solve the problem of providing for the world's population while taking into account climate and other environmental considerations.
Below is the generalized model. The Core Question can be virtually anything that yields to investigation, trial and error, experiment or the accumulation of experience.
In this model there is no need for support from anyone not interested, such as governments. Adequate participation and the capacity to communicate effectively are the only necessities. Once set in motion it will tend to continue and grow, similar to the way Wikipedia and open source projects do. It is in fact an open source approach to creating civilization that works.
The same model applies to the way science, technology and capitalism are structured as well, for they are actually open source projects, though not recognized as such until now.
By changing the core question in the diagram above the output changes.
The translation of this model into a readily available system used to develop what we need could accelerate human progress many-fold. For instance, core questions or subquestions could include:
►How can we sequester carbon most effectively? (possible answer: biochar)
►How can we supply the world's energy needs from renewables? (possible answers:
A Plan to Power 100 Percent of the Planet with Renewables from Scientific American
Joint statement by 11 of the world's largest engineering organizations that we could reduce GHG gas emissions 85% by 2050 with existing technology)
►How can urban agriculture be sustainably maximized, with environmental, economic and health benefits to the most people?
►What is the best way to design (anything, i.e., the smart grid, rural lighting, village water systems, etc.)? Define "best" as lowest lifetime energy/resource input with highest human/environmental benefit.
►What leads people to take action on information about climate change? How can such action be most effectively encouraged?
►How can all children worldwide have the best possible education?
Any of these questions fit into the model above as well as thousands more. All can be suited to local and global conditions, and en masse contribute to solving the global problem at all levels of detail.
Many questions and their solutions nest, so the whole project can be seen as one project with many subsidiary parts, as in the familiar model of science, where topics nest indefinitely but are all logically related to the core question of science: How does nature work?
Using this model to reframe the many strands of activity already in existence toward creating a better world as one project shows these many projects not as a splintered and inconsequential fring movement, but shows them as connected parts of one movement. With this visibility the potential for political effect grows dramatically.
If enough people participate, this self-organizing model can attain enough moral, political and economic power to change the marketplace, affect elections, generate political will to make the appropriate policies and investments, and change the priorities of businesses. At the same time it can invigorate and accelerate the rate of beneficial change worldwide.
The proposal first explores and identifies this underlying intellectual structure, then identifies its creation as a working tool as the critical task. Funding is also addressed, with the surprising conclusion that changing the world could be profitable.
Daimon Sweeney is the sole author at this point. He originated the idea of question-based systems of collective intelligence. He writes on this topic at http://www.MissionQuestion.com. Collaborators are invited.
What is the Aim of this Proposal?
The change we are looking for requires a change in thinking, from which will come changes in perception, choice and action. Change requires understanding our current patterns of thought and identifying preferable alternatives which are at least as practical and productive. This is what I propose to do, and then to show how to put the new pattern into action. There are three steps to this project:
1. Understand a new model of the workings of the global economy as it operates presently.
2. Articulate the change necessary to shift to an altered model producing the desired outcomes.
3. Create, promote and support this new model. Supporting it requires building the information infrastructure essential to its rapid success. This element represents the concrete project proposal.
What I am proposing here is a specific and practical way of modifying how we think about existing financial and other systems which will result in their producing significantly different and better outcomes (if we define an increasingly robust natural environment with growing social stability and human well-being as better) on a global scale. This approach can be launched at any time, at low cost, it can grow virally, it has infinite capacity for its own evolution, and can produce unlimited results.
Shared Questions are Key
The fundamental idea is that we human beings have a natural form of collective intelligence so familiar that we have not recognized it. If we learn to master it we can do essentially whatever we decide to do.
My goal here is to articulate the workings of this form of collective intelligence along with how to use it to produce desired results. The danger is that this will seem so obvious or familiar as to be trivial, when it is in fact a fundamental shift of perspective enabling us to take control of our future.
While much is made of the fact that we humans share goals, such as “enough to eat,” our collective genius comes from translating that into a shared question. Shared questions are a distinctive mental form allowing us to think together, with everyone interested contributing ideas and other resources toward accomplishing the goal.
Here is an example of the workings of the process “in the wild.” Imagine a group of hunters lounging on some sun-warmed rocks on a hillside 30,000 years ago, observing a herd of mastodons in the valley below. They are discussing the best way to acquire one for dinner. Everyone puts in their best thoughts. They assess the terrain, review possible strategies, remember what worked or did not in the past, decide on a strategy, pick their target, and assign roles. When they have the best set of ideas they can find they go to work. If they cannot think of a way that seems to have a reasonable chance of success, they may pass on the opportunity.
That is collective intelligence in action. The goal is “enough to eat” but what makes this into collective intelligence is the shared question, “How can we kill a mastodon, safely and soon?” How normal and natural this seems to us, and so it is.
Our modern version is more likely to be “Which restaurant shall we go to?” The same principles apply. Everyone puts in their view or piece of knowledge: “That one’s too far.” “How about Lupito’s?” “I think it’s closed.” “A friend found this one she loved and it’s close by.” “OK, let’s go there.” In this completely natural way we use collective intelligence daily.
Shared Questions Can Operate Over Time
Some questions take longer to answer. That can result in a more structured, long-term response. By thinking together over time we can accumulate a growing and evolving set of answers and work toward answering a big question, which we can call core questions because they are at the core of a focused, ongoing activity.
Core questions typically subdivide into subquestions addressing different elements of the total situation.
For an example of how a core question works, when President Kennedy said to the US Congress on May 25, 1961,
I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to the Earth. No single space project in this period will be more impressive to mankind, or more important in the long-range exploration of space; and none will be so difficult or expensive to accomplish.
every engineer and many other people who heard or read that said to themselves something along the lines of “How are we going to do that?” It was not rhetorical in many cases, but a practical question which stayed unchanged, though the content of the answer changed continually, until success was achieved.
These people translated the goal into a project question or a mission question, “How can we put a man on the moon and bring him back safely within this decade?” In the model being presented here, this question became the central organizing element of the Apollo Mission, even though it was unarticulated and unrecognized, or simply taken for granted.
Decentralized Coordination Over Time
The “Apollo” question, to name it that, demonstrates basic features of a shared question. It provides a decentralized way of coordinating the creative efforts of any number of people, and can operate for extended times, in this case for a decade. Even operating outside of conscious articulation this question directed the inventiveness of up to 400,000 people (NASA employees) and 20,000 firms and universities toward accomplishing the goal. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Apollo_program).
Certainly everyone had specific tasks, but the core question held them all together and served as guide, inspiration and check on what they were doing. It was the North Star, so to speak, by which the project steered itself, with directives, orders, policies and instructions representing answers to the core question or its subquestions.
More than inspiration, the core question was a very strict and practical screen on the possible answers those people generated in response to the subquestions. Those includes such items as “Who should fly?” “How should they be trained?” “What propulsion system would work best?” “How will we communicate?” “How can we manage all this?” and so on. These possibilities were all sorted and selected by how well they ultimately contributed to answering the project question.
Stimulus and screen
The question acted as a stimulus, generating possible answers, and as a screen on those possible answers, selecting the best of what was available and identifying where better answers were needed. These central functions of the core question maintain intellectual coherence and rigor throughout the system while creating pressure for constant improvement at the same time.
Global Systems of Collective intelligence
A non-finite example of the same principles in action is science. The core question of science is “How does nature work?” All of science can be regarded as an extended and continually evolving set of answers to this question. While the answers change and evolve, and while the subquestions become more particular and more insightful, even as they all logically relate to and contribute to answering the core question, the core question itself does not change, and it is hard to imagine how it could change.
We have three major examples of this model, which perhaps not coincidentally happen to be three of the most powerful human systems in existence, each operating globally and bringing together people across all barriers of national boundaries, language, religion and political persuasion.
· Science operates on the core question, “How does nature work?”
· Technology operates on the core question, “How can we do this thing or do it better?”
· Capitalism operates on the core question, “How can I make more money?”
The question of capitalism may vary from person to person or economic class to class, but the essence is the same.
Capitalism is itself a working answer to the real core question, “How can we provide for ourselves?” This question has been asked in one way or another since our ancestors began living in groups. It has been answered in various ways through time. Hunting and gathering was the answer for millions of years, and is still for a few people. Gardening and farming communities have existed for many thousands of years. With the organizational complexity of civilization such forms as feudalism, colonialism, slavery and capitalism have emerged.
Because capitalism itself is a working answer to a core question we have lost sight of, asking the core question explicitly and examining the effectiveness of the current answer can give us a useful perspective.
Fundamental questions are immortal: “How can we provide for ourselves?” is the most fundamental question of human society and has never faded in importance. The questions of science and capitalism have persisted for centuries with no signs of slowing down, although the questionable assumptions on which capitalism has operated are making it wobbly at present. The question of technology has been front and center for millions of years, producing amazingly dynamic results which are only accelerating.
Fundamental questions are as fresh, engaging and compelling now as when they first arose. These fundamental questions will last as long as there are humans to think them. We think of answers as solid. But answers evolve with changing conditions, insights, availability of materials or other resources, with evolving technology, changing beliefs, climate change, and so on. Change is constant and answers are always changing.
Fundamental questions remain constant despite these changes. Fundamental questions can accept very different answers at different times without blinking an eye. Questions are more stable and powerful over time than answers. Founding human systems on fundamental questions is a solid plan, though that seems self-contradictory. Communicating that we already do this is one stage of this proposal. Proposing that we deliberately embrace and extend this methodology is another.
Regarding questions more central, stable and reliable than answers is a Copernican shift in point of view. From looking to answers (which are actually ephemeral) to be our central reference point we move to looking to questions as old as humanity, with their evolving sets of currently accepted and working answers, as our evolving central reference points.
This shift feels perhaps as wobbly as it might have felt for those who found themselves no longer standing on the center of the universe, or so Copernicus informed them, but on a rock flying around another celestial body, dependent on invisible forces for stability. It is no wonder his views were rejected by some.
Core or fundamental questions and their working answers operate not unlike solar systems. The core question is the massive center of gravity, the sun of this conceptual system, orbited by clouds of random ideas, possibilities, experiences, and bits of hard knowledge.
These are drawn to coalesce into working answers which may last for a longer or shorter time. They may become stable, as with mathematics, though still open to accretion and extension. Or they may break apart under the influence of new ideas, emergent facts and realities, other competing bodies with disruptive attractive power, internal contradictions and so on.
Some possible answers, such as the idea of phlogiston as what causes combustion (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Phlogiston_theory) leave the system except for their memory and consequences, if any. As with that example, even wrong ideas can lead to a better understanding and better answers. With an evolving system, the beginning point does not matter very much. The core question produces a self-organizing and evolutionary effect on all that surrounds it.
What is the mechanism of that self-organizing and evolutionary effect? It is quite simple, and more obvious than gravity.
The Core Question Cycle
A five-step cycle generates and selects for better solutions to a given core question, generally operating through its logically related subquestions. This core question cycle propels systems of collective intelligence to increasing coherence, elaboration, effectiveness and capacity, just as variation and selection act on the evolution of biological life. The steps are:
1. Ask the core question or a logically related subquestion
2. Generate possible answers
3. Objectively select the best available (if there is a viable answer)
4. Adopt the best available answer as the current working answer
This cycle is illustrated in the diagram near the beginning of the proposal. Each passage through this cycle adds to what is known (which may include that something does not work). Each new passage through the cycle thus occurs in an altered environment containing new possibilities. Each substantial system of collective intelligence (such as science, technology and capitalism, or “How can we provide for ourselves?”) has many such cycles happening at any given moment so the rate of generation of novel possibilities in these systems is high, creating a high potential for innovation and discovery, or in other words, rapid evolution.
Characteristics of Core Question Systems
This is not an exhaustive list.
1. Questions focus attention: This is the most fundamental feature of questions. If I ask you the color of your first bicycle your attention will go to that. If I ask what is behind you right now your attention will go there. Likewise if I ask you to name your favorite teacher or any other question.
We are somehow hardwired to respond to questions. The information, ignored until the moment of the question, appears from wherever it was. Many people have had the experience of being asked a question and answering with a clarity and eloquence they did not know they had. Questions produce answers.
The relationship is the very essence of legal testimony (“Where were you on the night of…?”) and wedding vows (“Do you take this…?). It is the structure of interviews (“When did you first realize you were a dog?”), in literature (“To be or not to be? That is the question.”), and so on. Yet the role of questions has been overlooked.
A question directs attention the way a spotlight does in a theater, highlighting objects for attention and implicitly rejecting others, which remain in the shadows or simply the relative dark. We tend to see only what we are paying attention to, and we tend to not see anything else.
Our questions shape the world. Questions identify possibilities. From the possibilities, one or some are selected for further examination. Choices result from consideration of these possibilities, and action ensues. Action changes the world. In that altered world the process repeats. Thus the question held by a person or group shapes the social and material world. Our collective questions and actions shape the world most powerfully.
2. Endless evolution: No ultimate answers are possible to the core questions of science and technology so their evolution can continue indefinitely. The same is true for any core question based on emergent reality or on an infinite pool of potential.
As a system based on the accumulation of human-created tokens of value rather than on the characteristics of nature, capitalism is a separate case, and is itself a working answer to a deeper question, “How can we provide for ourselves?” We will examine the effects of its core question in detail and can compare its effectiveness in answering the deeper question with alternatives, just as with any working answer.
Here we begin so see the advantage of this question-based point of view, for we no longer have to accept the status quo as a matter of faith but can apply objective measurement to it, and seek better answers based on what we know now.
3. Infinite capacity built in: A notable feature of a question-based organizational structure is its openness and flexibility. A new question can be asked at any point in the system, opening up a new space of inquiry which can in turn accommodate any number of further subquestions, observations, related data, and possible and working answers. This can happen any number of times and at all locations in the network, forming an intellectual structure of infinite capacity.
As well, any body of information can be connected to any question anywhere in the system without upsetting anything but preconceptions.
4. Positive feedback loops: Extending the previous point, an ongoing attempt to answer a core question generates a positive feedback loop of increasing results and capability for creating results in the world. Those engaged in the pursuit of a core question become continually more skilled and better equipped to pursue the line of development embodied in the core question, and this improvement continues and grows across generations.
5. Infrastructure develops: A notable consequence of extended efforts to answer a core question is the emergence of a supportive infrastructure. In science, technology and capitalism these include educational institutions and programs, professional associations, journals, conferences, prizes and awards, protocols, shared bodies of knowledge, tools and so on. Another layer of infrastructure is the collection of industries in each case devoted to creating and supplying all the infrastructure elements, such as manufacturing tools (both physical and digital), and support services such as gathering and supplying the latest relevant information.
6. Social cohesion: There are social effects to engaging with a shared question. Sharing a core question and participating in the social, institutional, intellectual and work-related context that grows up around each one creates a sense of community and connection among those in each system, which may extend worldwide. Patterns of thinking and valuing develop, along with a shared body of reference knowledge and meaning. These are powerful cultural elements we will reference later on.
Sharing a culture does not mean people necessarily like or agree with each other. Structured disagreement and competition are indeed essential elements of the overall relationship within a system of collective intelligence, driving progress in the terms of each system.
Conflict is redirected, however, from individuals to ideas, methods or practices. This displacement of competitive energy works to the advantage generating better answers to the core question.
Core Question Characteristics
Here are some relevant characteristics of core questions. Compare these to the models described and see how they match up.
● A good core question is open-ended and therefore capable of producing an endless stream of new possible answers that build on each other.
● The core question of a system precisely determines its output. You get what you ask for.
● The point of highest leverage in a system of collective intelligence is changing the core question (more about this below).
● A good core question contains or allows objective evaluation of possible answers.
● Core questions embody, and through engagement spread, moral and other assumptions.
● Engagement with a core question also shapes perceptions, choices and actions.
● Core questions become operational through logically related subquestions addressing more specific subtopics. Subquestions likewise divide as many times as necessary to address still more specific elements, eventually reaching the action level.
Applying the Model to the Economy
How is the core question model working in economics right now? If we understand that we can look at how to alter the system, using the high leverage of the core question. We will explore this question and use the opportunity to explore more of the workings of systems of collective intelligence, with many of the observations applying to any such system.
In capitalism the pure core question is “How can I make more money?” Perhaps “raw” is a better term than pure. I will use “raw” to distinguish this capitalist question from other capitalist questions we will identify that could produce more desirable outcomes.
The only criterion contained in “How can I make more money?” is profit. While every legitimate business is included, and these provide a form of cover for all the rest, we can also see if we look at it logically that possible answers include anything at all that produces profit. The logic is clear and is not to be clouded with sentiment or assumptions about what people will or will not do.
Possible answers to the question include human exploitation up to and including slavery. They include “incidental” environmental destruction, the purchase of political influence, bribery, scams, pollution of the commons of air, water and land, and so on.
Organized crime is a coherent set of working answers to this core question. Drug cartels are a variant. Corruption, fraud and other financial crimes are answers. Kidnapping and piracy as profit-seeking enterprises are answers to the question, and spam is one we all encounter daily. Every institutional arrangement financially benefiting some at the expense of others is a working answer to this question.
In the higher and less populated financial strata the question morphs to “How can I/we maximize wealth and power?” This question is dear to those with massive resources available to them who are yet unsatisfied because there is more to be had.
How to maximize the wealth and power of those who already posses them is, unfortunately, a question shaping much of our political and economic thinking, directly or indirectly, even as it directly undermines consideration of the well-being of the whole. If one is asking how to accumulate more for one’s self, the possibilities that lead to greater well-being of the whole will not be highlighted or attractive, particularly in the context of an assumption that it is a win/lose world.
Some in political office do ask themselves how to benefit the whole population, while others ask how to maximize profits for those with the most influence already. In this dichotomy of core questions and their motivations we see the split in US national politics (if not globally). The outcome of course shapes the economic playing field, which is the point of the conflict.
The Inherent Flaw: "More" means "Infinite"
The logic of these versions of the raw core question of capitalism leads to a quest for what is, when one thinks about it, infinite wealth. For those most dedicated to pursuing wealth any success becomes simply a new baseline in an endless quest. “More” is by definition "more than what exists now." No amount of wealth or power can mark the end of this treadmill. When people ask of the wealthiest “When will they have enough?” the answer, with this understanding, is “Never.” Endless acquisitiveness is the outcome of adopting this question.
If there were some limit on competitive advantage this might work in the context of benefiting the whole, which is the rationale presented as the justification if this system. “Economic growth” is supposed to benefit everyone, but with increasing concentration of wealth is that happening?
A system where the aspiration for endless accomplishment does work for the good of the whole, athletes compete to see who can run, bike or swim the fastest, to take a few sports. The core question of such an athlete is something like, “How can I go faster?” which again has infinite aspiration built into it.
However, physical limits are also in play. Drugs are a temptation but prohibited as one of the efforts by sports organizations to level the playing field, so that each person’s resources are more or less equivalent in the competition. Men and women compete separately in another such effort to level resources into a fair and exciting competition, and in many competitive events there are age classes as well. These are all efforts to make the competition fair and beneficial to as many as possible. They make sports more inclusive and available to more people.
No such leveling is in effect in the world of finance. There are rules of engagement but the direction of change is for the rules to tile systematically toward favoring the wealthy. Advantages of any and every kind are used, including inherited wealth, privileged position, and all others. Those with wealth hire others to help them become wealthier, while no athlete can hire others to help throw them over the finish line at the last second, nor can they install catapults or high speed conveyer belts to fling them ahead. The strategies and tactics of gaining wealth at this level are the equivalent of drugs, bribery and coercion in sports, but they are regarded as acceptable.
The outcome of compounded leverage of advantages is increasingly concentrated wealth, creating at the same time structural and growing disadvantages for those in the unprivileged levels of society.
Such results are considered normal and while lamented by some are celebrated by others. In any case, serious proposals to alter the system fundamentally or even marginally through higher taxes on the wealthy are opposed by those with the most to lose, and are currently making little headway. This indicates the growing power of the financial elite in moving toward the objective of the raw capitalist core question, infinite accumulation, to whatever degree they can accomplish it.
Pointing out the fundamental nature of the core question system behind economics as it is practiced is necessary, but we must go more deeply into how this happens.
Psychological and Moral Effects of Core Questions
In the case of raw capitalism, the unstated assumption is that making more money is more important than any other objective.
The psychological effect of long concentration on any core question is that anything other than the object of the question becomes less important, even invisible, in the view of the person involved. If the core question is narrow, as this one is, the view of those engaged in it will be narrow, leading to disregard of systemic effects and of appeals to ”unrelated” values.
The power of a question to guide perceptions can be clearly seen in the case of, say, hunger. A hungry person will seek something to eat with growing single-mindedness. The physiologically driven core question becomes “How can I get something to eat?” Actions they would otherwise not engage in, such as theft, prostitution and so on, become logical and reasonable, despite moral qualms and potential negative effects. With habituation they become normal.
With this view we can understand much destructive behavior in the world and much of the difficulty in creating social equity and adopting seemingly logical and environmentally benign practices. If we ask “How can people do those (seemingly illogical and destructive) things?” the core question model lets us see they are pursuing logical answers to their core questions. The actions of those holding certain core questions may not seem to make sense, or may not seem to embody human values. That is the result of holding a core question that does not have human values embedded in it.
Furthermore it becomes obvious that appeals to human values will carry little weight. They are simply not relevant. Doing so is like citing the rules of chess to rugby players. There is simply a different game in progress, and those who think they are playing chess in the middle of a rugby match are in for a shock when it turns out they are in the way.
It is also obvious from this point of view that any economic or government policy that would lead to less wealth or power for those most engaged in this core question will be opposed to the extent of their ability to do so. Those who hold wealth as the highest aim will be willing to do whatever they can to maintain and expand wealth. This explains much that we see in the world.
Alternative Core Questions for Capitalism
With that background we can ask a different and more selective core question which will alter the outcomes of the capitalist system without abandoning its virtues, which are its creative dynamism and its ability to organize and distribute activity and resources. At the same time, the appropriate core question can focus those capabilities on producing more desirable results.
One alternative: What are some possibilities for an improved core question for capitalism? One alternative is “How can I make more money legally?” This is a common screen on possible answers and for ordinary people it works well enough.
However, for those with the desire and resources to accomplish it, a way to pursue this standard, avoid the consequences of breaking the law, and still maximize wealth and power is to shape laws to allow them to pursue money-making and power-enhancing activities or conditions, however destructive. This approach is commonplace and effective in achieving its ends. When law is captive to private gain, law becomes not a protection but an instrument of oppression.
A second alternative: Another core question is “How can I make more money while adhering to my moral standards?” This may or may not be a more selective standard. It is in any case not one that can be systemically shared, as such standards largely derive from tradition and personal background.
A New Core Question for the Economy
A third alternative: Finally we can articulate a core question for capitalism that addresses the aims of this project. Anyone who wishes to can adopt it for themselves. That third alternative is “How can I make more money in a way that benefits all human beings and the global environment at the same time?” I shall call this the beneficial capitalist core question in distinction to the raw capitalist core question, “How can I make more money?”
As incentives to pursue that question, everyone who is not a producer of that particular item or service can adopt a collateral question to guide choices: “How can I/we encourage producers to act in ways that benefit all human beings and nature?”
Many answers exist already: preferential buying (cause related, green, etc.), transparency of supply chains, good labeling requirements, institutional rules mandating purchase of items meeting relevant standards, laws requiring manufacturers take back their old items, laws requiring easy recycling or reuse, and much more, can all derive from this question. They are all ways to pressure and/or provide incentive for producers to evolve toward inventing or developing increasingly benign or postiviely beneficial practices. With an articulated mass movement these can be ramped up to increase their effect dramatically.
Action 1: Personal
For those not pursuing more money the question can simply be that of right livelihood: “How can I live in a way that contributes to well-being and that does no harm?” This is hard enough to answer but as more people do try to answer it, and as they share what they discover, the answers will increasingly emerge. Thus asking this is a practical action. Assembling sets of working answers is another practical action. Raising the question with others is another practical action.
Supplying the answers to this question can be a major way those interested in making more money (or simply in living in a way that answers the question) can do so, with answers ranging from renewable energy systems to fair trade, organic bananas, to growing or helping establish local and organic gardens or other such services.
With these two complementary questions we have what it takes for any number of people to cooperate. An information infrastructure to connect and empower them would support the process.
Action 2: Building the Infrastructure is the Key to Success
With a proper information infrastructure built around these questions anyone interested can find the best currently available answers and contribute what they have found, either on a theoretical, global or regional level, or on a neighborhood level, connecting with neighbors and local groups.
Creating this infrastructure is the essential task to make these concepts practical on the scale necessary to alter the direction of business as usual on a national and global scale. There are many partial beginnings such as guides to green buying, Fair Trade and other certification services, the energy consumption labels on appliances and cars, and so on, but they are scattered and their force is diffuse. An online place for all of them to become more visible as part of an overarching intention and project will create an ecosystem supporting their growth and evolution.
Action 3: Social Cohesion = Power to Change
A feature of core questions already mentioned is their role as the central features of social networks. This role has not been used deliberately, to my knowledge, but is nonetheless present. Dating sites come close, with “Looking for someone?” a close and personalized analog of “How can people find others to have relationships with?” Facebook, Twitter and Google+ essentially ask “Who and what are you interested in?” They then provide means to express and connect.
Clearly articulated core questions that resonate with their own values and desires will allow people to find the system centered on those questions if it successfully enables them to express their own interests and to find others with similar interests. The meaningfulness of the project (the survival of civilization if not of humankind and the well-being of the planet) puts it in the same range of intensity as the drive to connect.
Those with such shared interests can find each other around them, making connections and developing bonds, sharing information and advice and collaborating. Developing how this would work is another action that can start at any point.
If pursued by enough people these questions can form a new center of gravity around which can orbit a growing collection of social actions, beliefs, values, standards, products, services and choices which can form into stable yet evolving patterns.
Action 4: Driving Organizational Responsiveness
Every company can be asked to state where is sits on the spectrum of attitudes running from a focus on profit only regardless of consequences to taking responsibility for the whole. Those that claim a higher position can be asked to prove it by naming their actions and the standards they enforce, with third party certification.
Refusal to answer is of course suspect in this sort of situation and can drive marketplace perception, so there is an intrinsic motivation to answer and to answer well. With the information produced in this way buyers can make their choices. Just as simply reporting the quantity of pollutants emitted annually, without other consequences but notoriety, has led factories to clean up their act, such a spotlight on global responsibility would have a similar effect, and particularly so if carried out globally.
The Civilizational Core Question
To place this in a still larger context, however, if we are truly interested in a world that works increasingly well, we can ask the “ultimate” question to which those of the economy are subquestions. I call this larger question the civilizational core question. That is “How can all human beings have satisfying lives while at the same time nature becomes increasingly vibrant and healthy?”
This can be a guide to operating a self-optimizing and continually improving global civilization. It is consciously creating civilization as a system of collective intelligence. What is the collection of practices that will produce this outcome? Notice that by focusing on the outcomes named in the question we put overwhelming private wealth in the secondary position, outside the spotlight. That is no longer the factor motivating the choices of those pursuing this civilizational question.
However, in light of the civilizational core question we can ask, which of the possible capitalist core questions leads to the best answers to the civilizational question?
From the possibilities identified (and there could be others), the beneficial core question is the best choice, not the raw question or the one based on individual morality (only because that is so variable – this is not to say that individual moral choices cannot be an adequate guide).
The beneficial capitalist core question is a logical subquestion of the civilizational core question. For that matter, the core questions of science and technology can be seen and reinterpreted the same way, with the civilizational core question guiding their research and development priorities rather than the raw capitalist question as is so often the case now.
From the raw capitalist view science and capitalism are seen this way: “How can science and technology be used to produce more money?” As could be expected, this often (not always) leads to unfortunate human and environmental consequences, including the suppression of good science, funding priorities that do not support what might be best for people and the planet, and the manipulation of results.
Even beloved Apple is a mighty polluter because the drive for profits precludes taking full responsibility for waste and byproducts, no less for them than for any other company. Under the raw capitalist question, which as the corporation with the highest value in the world as of this writing they have obviously mastered, they are logically bound to take positions destructive of the environment in which we all live.
On the other hand, in a shifted value environment, where the civilizational core question was the guide not only for conscience but for law, all that could be different. When environmental and human well-being drive the research and development priorities of science and technology and when economic rewards depend on furthering human and environmental well-being, all forces are aligned for a better world. Creating that situation is the real solution.
Under the civilizational core question, science and technology are regarded as paths toward living in a desirable way rather than as ends in themselves or simply as ways to generate profit, though that is far from excluded under the beneficial core question. Indeed, we need far more scientific and technological development directed toward answering the civilizational core question and giving those interested in the beneficial capitalist questions more things to do.
The shift is from “How can science and technology be used to produce more profit?” to “How can science and technology contribute to a world in which all human beings have satisfying lives while at the same time nature becomes increasingly vibrant and healthy?”
This research can be funded by governments that have adopted the core question of governance under this model, which would be “What laws, policies and resource allocations will be most effective in creating a world in which all human beings have satisfying lives while at the same time nature becomes increasingly vibrant and healthy?” Foundations, philanthropists and other donor organizations can likewise fund projects on this basis.
Synergy for Rapid Change
With the civilizational question as the umbrella, under which governance, science, technology, and capitalism harmonize as logically descended subquestions, we would have all social sectors pulling in the same direction.
In this way the collective intelligence of a growing portion of the planet could be directed toward creating real progress which could then be rapid, very possibly rapid enough to avert climate catastrophe. Methods to take carbon from the atmosphere, for instance can be accelerated and spread. These are both high tech and traditional, such as planting trees, mixing trees with agriculture (which can renew the land while increasing productivity), and building fertile topsoil through biochar and other methods. Technical means are being developed as well, based on chemical reactions, which need only a price signal to become profitable.
The ripple effects of each change make further changes easier as possibilities accumulate, individuals learn they can do more than they thought, social bonds and colalborations develop, as ideas spread and cross-pollinate, and as people learn a new way of organizing and acting.
With the political will that could be generated through bringing together all who desire a civilization that works we could shift policies to create a rapid transition to renewable resources and away from GHG emissions. Many partial solutions exist which only await development and propagation, and many more could be developed if doing so became a real priority.
Material or Non-material Growth?
Shifting to the beneficial capitalist question raises several questions. How can people get what they want under this new model? How could doing so change the fate of the planet? Isn’t it natural for people to be greedy and violent in getting what they want? These and more issues are important, and I will address a few of them here.
One of the most important is that material consumption is the Holy Grail. Some say that growing the economy (by which they usually mean business as usual but more of it) is essential to human happiness.
We have seen that this does not necessarily work, depending on the motives and how they are carried out. Presently some have the distribution of the growing pie in their hands, and somehow it does not get shared equally. When this situation is changed and distribution is fair and focused on the well-being of all, we may have arrived at a new understanding of what growing the economy means, more in line with increasing Gross National Happiness than Gross National Product, as in Bhutan.
The deepest error is the assumption in modern culture is that money equals happiness or satisfaction. This substitution is misleading.
In conditions of poverty or real material insufficiency, money (or its real-world equivalents) satisfy essential needs and can create a level of freedom. Happiness or satisfaction do increase to a point.
But research shows happiness fails to grow beyond a certain level of income. Money is therefore not really the goal if we seek happiness or satisfaction. In asking “How can I make more money?” we lose sight of the real goal and chase a chimerical goal with diminishing returns (The High Price of Materialism, Tim Kasser)
On a systemic level, we must consider whether our happiness or satisfaction is greater when we have abundance while others suffer, or whether we might actually feel better ourselves if everyone (including us) has what we need in a beautiful and healthy natural environment, one we know is steadily improving and which will be even better for coming generations. Which would you prefer?
“What is needed” would include care in old age, lifetime health care, full education, mobility, and all the other things that are good in society. If these were abundantly available to all the fear of lack, which is one driver of accumulation, would have no basis.
If we found ways to supply these human needs to all, which we could if we made them the priority over war and incredible private wealth, what would the world be like?
Ethnic conflict, terrorism and war would have major drivers cut from under them, since economic competitiveness and exploitation between groups would be far less, poverty would be less or gone, and with growing communication and education exposure to other cultures would be greater. Since this is an economic proposal, think of the resources lower levels of conflict and higher levels of collaboration would free up for more productive uses, such as universal education. Here we have a positive feedback loop of positive results.
Satisfaction or Happiness?
For use in a core question (i.e., “How can all people have satisfying lives while nature becomes increasingly vibrant and healthy?”) I prefer the word “satisfaction” to “happiness” because happiness is a product of the human mind but satisfaction can be measured objectively. Objective measurement is one of the necessary elements of a good core question.
The satisfactory satisfaction of hunger, thirst, safety, education, health and so on can be measured objectively, and in a way that scales to local reality. That is, increasing literacy by a certain amount may be a satisfactory goal at one point, with widespread higher education being a satisfactory goal at a later point, and universal education of a person’s choosing at a still later point.
Regarding the natural world, the well-being of natural systems and wildlife populations, the healthy or unhealthy state of air, water and soil can also be measured objectively. Again, satisfactory levels can be set, with rising standards over time. Thus as more and more aspects of life move into the satisfactory range, and as that range moves up from bare survival to higher levels of satisfaction, the question will be increasingly answered. In this way we have objective means to determine if we are moving toward the goal or not, we can determine where to prioritize efforts, and we can judge between alternative methods of creating more satisfaction, either by analysis beforehand or by testing and then analysis.
Unhappiness on the other hand can exist where there is great wealth, and happiness can be found in dire situations and poverty. Happiness is a product of how we relate to life. If we could quantify and determine the causes of happiness it might be a good objective, but that effort must be left to others.
Non-material Satisfaction and Material Consumption
Why does material as compared to non-material satisfaction matter in terms of economics and environmental well-being? I strongly suspect that seeking a truly satisfying life, which necessarily includes a healthy nonmaterial component of respect, connection, meaningful work, contribution and so on, will result in less material consumption. I am sure there is proof of this but do not have it at hand.
Why would this be so? We as humans have both material and nonmaterial needs. Currently our awareness of our nonmaterial needs and of how to fill them effectively and on a wide scale is not well developed.
Their lack produces an inner emptiness we seek to fill with material goods and services. While these can distract us from our nonmaterial emptiness they do not satisfy us. Not recognizing our nonmaterial needs or their importance, and seldom having good ways to satisfy them if we do recognize them, we tend to consume more in a never-ending cycle of overfeeding the material self and starving the inner self. We have a sort of cultural eating disorder, which may well be related to obesity and to a sense of meaninglessness reflected in high suicide rates among young people.
A core question focused on living satisfying lives will inevitably lead to examining and defining the terms of the question. What is a satisfying life? How do we know if we have one or not? How satisfying is my life right now? What are the components of a satisfying life? How can my life be more satisfying?
This new definition of “success” so to speak, and this sort of awareness in general, can seep into the culture and shift apparent endless greed for “more stuff” to a more balanced cultivation of what is truly humanly satisfying.
In summary at this point, we now understand how core questions drive a core question cycle to produce a systems of collective intelligence. We have identified a core question capable of guiding economic activity toward increasing global benefit, and under the civilizational core question all the major systems of collective intelligence (governance, economics, science and technology) are acting in concert toward creating an increasingly healthy world for all who live in it, for all time.
The remaining steps to making this proposal real are to familiarize enough people with the core question model and to provide the information infrastructure needed to facilitate initiating and furthering the core question cycle in as many areas of life as possible.
The Missing Piece: Information Infrastructure
The core question concept is not difficult to explain and can be conveyed perhaps more easily in action than in words. The most critical lack at this point is therefore the information infrastructure. Every effective system of collective intelligence – science, technology, capitalism, governance - has a strong information infrastructure. People sharing a core question (whether they share it consciously or not) find each other and collaborate. They take different roles and as they do the information infrastructure self-organizes, with individuals and groups seek and find productive ways to contribute, whether out of self-interest or for a larger purpose, or both at once.
While there is already a great deal of activity related to all these core questions (though not articulated in that way), the information infrastructure devoted to them is not as developed as fully as it could be, for reasons we can understand.
One reason is that the challenge of bringing together in one collaborative and synergistic concept the very diverse and seemingly divergent interests, cultures, understandings and approaches that would be required to weave a world that works for all beings has been beyond us. The core question model provides a way to do that.
Secondly, the raw capitalist question is very simple and can be easily grasped and adopted. Thus it has had a long run already and is well-established. We are only now technologically capable of launching a similarly scaled enterprise with an inclusive, systems-aware and humane view. The sheer complexity of coordinating the communication necessary has been too challenging, even had we known what to do. With the global Internet that task has become feasible.
A Rich Situation
Individuals, nonprofits and businesses worldwide have created a huge store of information, practical knowledge, skills and infrastructure of all kinds that can readily contribute to an articulated global enterprise of creating a world that works for all.
No sacrifice of autonomy or choice is asked or needed. Those who find this vision appealing can participate in whatever way they choose, and the entire project is emergent and self-organizing.
So we are in a rich situation. The core question concept can unite all the existing efforts to the degree that those involved choose to identify with it in one massively diverse, self-aware, self-directing and powerful tide in human development. As this begins to happen the increasingly visible and recognizable movement will become increasingly credible.
Many who may sympathize but do not see the potential for winning, and so do not take actions they could because of discouragement, hopelessness and cynicism, may see a way forward to a future they desire, and feel inspired to join in. A viable challenge to the business as usual model could galvanize growing participation and with that, growing influence and power in a positive feedback loop. We have all the pieces needed to unleash an uncontrollable force for good. All we have to do is put them together.
Where’s the Money?
The open source approach and crowd-funding (along with foundations and other sources) make the creation and operation of such a cloud-based information infrastructure financially practical as well, even without government funding. We are essentially talking about a database combined with a social platform, neither of which is a new idea. Organizationally, this is no different from any open source project.
Only the central focus and the diverging question structure, providing infinite capacity to grow and reconfigure, is new (and perhaps not even the latter).
Once in motion the communications infrastructure may well be able to support itself and its further development, if not more. CraigsList charges for certain high-value ads. Google Adwords would be a possibility, or better might be a dedicated network of ads similar to Google Adwords or Facebook ads but limited to relevant products and services. The audience would be those interested in living in a world that works socially and environmentally, which is an audience worth reaching for advertisers.
Given the very specific information breakdown these ads could be extremely targeted, such as design services for green roofs, solar installations in certain locations, fair trade everything, food preservation equipment, and so on, making them even more valuable. Large corporations might like to sponsor it to burnish their green credentials, acceptance of which would be a choice to be made by those managing the project.
With all these potential sources of financial support this could be the way to change the world that generates a profit.
As a concentrated resource of good ideas and projects proposed or in motion, it could become a major crowd-funding center as well, and excess funds could go to supporting the highest leverage activities that could be identified.
Explaining Wikipedia and Open Source Projects
Notice how similar this is to Wikipedia. Wikipedia fits the model of a question-based system of collective intelligence. The core question is “What do we know about X?” Replace the X with your topic of interest, supply a way to provide, validate (or disqualify), improve and expand the information, including adding new questions and questioning or opening to discussion whatever has been done at any point in the process so far, all of which results in a body of working answers that grows in size and refinement, and you have the Wikipedia.
These are all the standard parts of a system of collective intelligence. As with any system of collective intelligence Wikipedia has its unique standards defining what is an acceptable answers, and it selects for better over worse answers according to these standards. I believe this theory and model explain the workings of Wikipedia, and more than that, all open source projects.
Open source projects in general are systems of collective intelligence with project questions. How can we create an efficient operating system with this piece of code as the core element? The result was Linux. A similar question applies to each open source project.
Requirements for the Information Infrastructure
Being an open source project, the idea of the global information infrastructure has to appeal to enough good programmers and attract a minimal amount of funding to start. It does not need the consent of any government.
I imagine a program reflecting the question-based information structure I have described, similar to a root system, a branching structure extending from the single, highest level, civilizational core question above through the subquestions of science, capitalism, technology and others, including government, to the finest detail describing, where relevant, how to do specific things in every particular neighborhood, with the people and resources actually at hand, or identifying what is needed and how to get it, if possible.
Supplying the state of the art for practical, hands-on information is one aspect. The other is pulling together all the research on particular relevant topics so someone wanting to know the state of the art in a field can find it, or a clear overview with appropriate links.
Examples might be the state of the art in reclaiming desert land for agriculture, or how to purify water in remote areas, or identifying the most environmentally benign building methods for residential and other buildings in every particular region of the world, with examples and links to suppliers. This information would evolve with new technologies, materials, and understanding, but remain the primary reference, leading to more detailed and specialized knowledge in other place.
Properly constructed, this infrastructure could become the central clearing house for information on how to run the planet.
As this body of knowledge builds it becomes a resource for those needing answers without having to reinvent the wheel or search the world for what is already known, just as Wikipedia has become such a resource. Each project undertaken and recorded adds to the base of knowledge.
Similar to the way Wikipedia operates, groups of editors could take it on themselves to sift areas of interest and identify or curate the best working answers as they emerge, creating what amounts to operating manuals for specific questions, and making the body or work far more useful to visitors seeking high level knowledge, while preserving the whole.
The entire system could be likened to building the nervous system of a whole and self-aware entity, able to detect pain (suboptimal function) or lack in any of its parts and mount an appropriate response.
In the past we humans relied on nature to handle everything we needed. Then we took over and have been too narrow in our awareness, ignoring the functions and necessity of the larger environment, continuing to assume it would serve us as always, even as we destroyed it.
Now we have the chance to widen our collective awareness to take in the true dimensions of the multiple complex systems within which we live, and to begin living in appropriate relationship to those systems. Doing so will of course be a learning experience but one we need to take on if we are to occupy this planet for a long time to come in a complex society. Creating this new level of relationship is our chance to grow up as a species.
Actions and Impacts
Because this project is about building global social coherence to be reflected in innovation of all kinds and in political will, if implemented properly we can predict that the plans of the world's engineers and scientists that are most productive of a viable world will be carried out, supported by the actions of communities and individuals to reduce their own impact while improving their lives in non-wasteful ways.
Thus we can predict greenhouse gas emissions to fall by 100% by 2080 at the latest, if this project is implemented soon, in line with multiple large assessments of the effect of using available technology for energy efficiency and prodution of renewable energy.
Advances in technology, such as continued lowering of the price of solar and financial innovations making home and business rooftop solar systems affordable by anyone, such as lease schemes with no upfront costs (and many other possibilities), may accelerate this progress significantly.
Further, under this approach we can predict falling levels of atmospheric GHGs through the soil sequestration using biochar and the cultivation of carbon-rich organic and low input soils, which have the economic and social effect of creating a more productive, locally-based agriculture system, supporting local farmers, which also leads to abundant, local, healthy food.
Continued planting of trees and reclamation of deserts and other destroyed land, and the removal of carbon dioxide by other means, such as cement that absorbs CO2 and "artificial trees," (more here) both of which extract CO2 from the air, can act as benign geo-engineering methods.
The ideal GHG level can be calculated and policies put in place to achieve and maintain it, possibly with the artificial trees and/or agricultural policy as fine-tuning instruments.
A Vision of the World
A group of programmers creates an open source project allowing core questions to be investigated effectively at any scale.
A growing number of people and groups interested in a world that works find each other and share their best ideas, collaborate to develop new and better ones, and spread them widely. A sense of optimism begins to spread as the power of this approach becomes visible.
An increasing flow of improving ideas, technologies, policies, political activity and local organization brings visible change and improvement to every community, making houses more comfortable and affordable, increasing local food production, creating green jobs and so on.
A tipping point comes as the viability and desirability of these solutions and of this entire direction become apparent. This leads to widespread action, stimulating massive improvements and implementation of green technologies and sustainable development. Politicians are elected based on their support of this direction, adn the hope of real change brings out millions of voters previously resigned to the status quo.
With global participation and continually evolving technology and other understanding, the world's population acquires education, health, safety and social well-being as greenhouse gases are reduced through energy efficency, use of renewable energy, phasing out of fossil fuels, soil and biochar development, planting, agroforestry, and many other means, known and yet to be discovered.
Civilization continues to build on this start, optimizing population through education and social stability, then raising the standard of living for all on an ongoing basis while building the vitality and health of the global ecosystem. A new way of life is established, focused on the well-being of all beings, which leads to a world superior in every way to the one based on maximizing the wealth of a few at the expense of all else.