A Place Between

“Liminal Space” Helen Terry

I think “scale” is one of those concepts that has been repeated so often it has become a mantra. We accept it as something somehow so virtuous and obvious we no longer think about it.  

Scale as a Religion

People make good livings by billing themselves as “scale up experts” and “growth coaches” based on the mantra.

Politicians worship GDP figures as though perpetual growth is a virtue. Quantity has become a badge of status, whether it’s money we cannot possibly spend, or the number of likes we get on social media. It ties to a “greed is good” mentality, even though we wouldn’t describe it that way in polite society.

It started sensibly enough, based on the “theory of the firm” by Ronald Coase, itself part of the movement that gave rise to the practice of scientific management. It was a major breakthrough, and transformed economic performance in the second half of the twentieth century. 

It was however a creature of its time. The conditions that made it powerful have been dissolved in a couple of decades by technology. The friction it was meant to overcome no longer exists to anything like the same extent, but the mantra is so embedded, we scarcely think about it. 

It reminds me in a way of phlogiston theory, developed in the mid 1600’s. It was supposed that the process of combustion generated phlogiston, and in a confined space the build up of phlogiston extinguished the flame. As a theory, it sort of worked for the incurious, and it took the best part of 200 years for it to be debunked in favour of combustion in a closed space is extinguished by what it consumes, rather than what it generates.

I can’t help thinking our approach to growth is the same. Our pursuit of it is consuming what creates it. Left unchecked, it won’t end well.

Not only is the theory of growth questionable, but so is the way we measure it.  

 “GDP measures everything expect what is worthwhile”

Bobby Kennedy

And still we go on. The wrong thing measured in a flawed way. No self respecting scientist would do it like this. GDP in its current form was created as a measure in the same era as Coase’s theory of the firm, and even its creator warned it was a limited measure and should not be used as an indicator of welfare.

It did however suit economists as a theoretical measure, and capitalism as a motivating indicator and so here we are.

Rethinking Scale

Scale isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. One of the most iconic appraisals is E.F, Schumacher’s “Small is Beautiful” (Link below) and there are also are many common sense reasons to question it:

  • Scale is about volume, and volume thrives on commodity. Who wants to be a commodity?
  • Scale and democracy rarely work well together. Democracies at their best are small, unique and messy.
  • Scale likes stability, from stock markets to skyscrapers. Both are fragile to shock.
  • We cannot have meaningful relationships with any more than 150 people. What use are 2 million friends on facebook, other than ego?
  • The benefits of scale accrue to a few. The “Matthew Effect”. Not so good if you belong to the many.

Lessons from science

There is nothing either good or bad, other than thinking makes it so.

William Shakespeare

Scale is a feature of systems. It is neither good nor bad.

Ideas scale and viruses scale. Industries scale. The difference is that whilst there is an inexhaustible source of raw material for ideas and viruses, Industries consume very finite resources.

These resources may be natural; minerals, forests, coal, gas and the like. It has been estimated that would need several Earths  – four to six according to source – if we were all to consume like America. 

Or they may be the stuff of our humanity. Our attention, our potential, even our souls. We are encouraged to consume and compare our consumption against others. Its what our current economies depend on. A form of marginal dissatisfaction. An ever present need for more.

Science is showing us, from psychology on mental health to environmental science on climate change. The evidence is incontrovertible, and what it’s based on is what is already happening.

The impact of what might be, if we use imagination, should give us pause for thought.

Whilst we have had other pandemics, and other major disruptors, none  of them, not even world wars have dislocated the world in the way that Covid19 has.

It has exposed fragile supply chains for critical items and business models critically dependent on frivolous consumption – from coffee shops to cheap flights. 

It is emphasising the “froth” nature of our economy, and the fragility of its substantive base. Concepts of monetary value as more important than wellbeing, joy, fairness and meaning.

Like the proponents of phlogiston theory, we have our thinking unknowingly inverted. In the process of excessive consumption, we are not smothering our economies, we are starving them of fuel. Either way though we know the flame will go out unless we find a better theory to follow.

Lessons from Ancient Wisdoms

Whilst none of us can remember dislocation such as we are now experiencing, we have been experiencing major changes as individuals and small groups ever since we emerged as modern humans around 200 thousand years ago, and as larger groups in the 13 thousand or so years since we left the Savannah. 

Perhaps what is new is the never I suspect have all of us known what everybody else is going through at the same time. This is the biggest change we have shared as humanity in real time. 

We can not just learn from how those before us understood major transitions, we can access it. It is part of our heritage and DNA. We are here because out ancestors survived.

One of those wisdoms was how they dealt with transitions – of seasons, from child to adult, and as adults with death. Rites of Passage.

There were different traditions, all of which hold lessons for us. Generally, the experience had three parts – separation from what has been, liminality the “betwixt and between” of uncertainty, learning and insight and integration, emerging into the new holding the lessons of the past and finding new ways.

It feels to me like we entered a liminal phase in our economies and society a little while ago. It is time to take it seriously.

There are many communities who are deeply connected to these old ways. In age of “science” since the enlightenment it has been our habit to dismiss them. We shouldn’t.

Handling Liminality

In this period of uncertainty and widespread existential fear, we tend to run home to mama. We huddle with those of like mind. Scientists analyse the hell out of it. Coaches and Therapists huddle together sharing how they feel. The alienated share conspiracy theories. Hedge fund managers watch on and make bets. All of these groups believe they have the correct perspective, and cannot understand why the clearly uninformed “other” don’t listen.

It’s not good enough. We exist because of the commitment of those who came before us to enabling our time here. We owe no less to those who should follow us, and have a sacred duty to get our proverbial shit together.

Not just by listening to each other, but by admitting individually and as societies we just don’t know how to handle this. All of us have parts of the jigsaw. None of us have the picture on the box lid.

This is a time for unlike minds and an absence of ego. We need the brilliance of modern scientific puzzle solvers and the wisdom of the ancients brought together to synthesise the picture on the box lid.

It’s a challenge. These groups speak different languages, operate in different worlds, and often regard each other with at best scepticism, if not outright hostility.

We are in a precious time. All things are possible

The wisdom traditions, as well as modern quantum thinking understands we are part of a much larger system. We are not separate to the planet, or the universe. We are part of it. And under duress, the larger system will have its say. This is not Gaia’s revenge, it is her tough love.

We need a new form of old leadership. The ideals of the warrior philosopher, the perspective of the alchemists, and the generosity of spirit of the different wisdom traditions.

It’s a tough ask, but do we really want to go back to where we were and where that was taking us?

A place to start…

We need to find a common place, where science and mystery traditions can swap notes with curiosity, not exclude with contempt. 

Here’s a few places where they meet. 

Science and Spirituality

Heros Journey

Uncharted

Who do we choose to be?

Small is beautiful

Try one, or more. Engage with the possible. What’s currently increasingly certain under current rules is not looking to be a good option.

Originising

Maybe this decade really will be different

The fourth generation

The North American Indians say that we are all the 4th Generation – shaped by the three behind us and shaping the three that follow us.

If that’s true, we are at a significant turning point, with an awesome responsibility.

Even allowing for more recently arrived generations, the three behind us were shaped by a society created by the consequences of the industrial revolutions and two major, conventional wars. The three in front of us are being shaped by the digital technology, globalisation, connectivity, increasingly extreme inequality, the hangover from two hundred years of abusive extraction of the natural wealth of the planet, and the unknowns that will be generated by “combinatorial explosion” – the things that happen when complexities meet up.

The threats we face, whilst not certain, are scientifically and statistically robust. It’s not about the conscious button pushing choice of the cold war, and mutually assured destruction, it’s the opposite – destruction through neglect, hubris and complacency.

The industrial age was characterised by growth, albeit it interspersed with recessions / depressions. It required managing the economic model, not changing it.

Where we are now means challenging these choices, from how and how often we travel, our definition of growth, and reconciling the selfish pursuit of more with the fact that there is enough GDP on the planet to give every single on of us over $11,000 a year in income.

Whilst a logistical and political nightmare, poverty has become a societal choice.

Where we are now calls for something altogether different. 

Originising

A made up word. Creating something original out of what’s available to us that we’re not using.

In the industrial era, and its immediate aftermath, we have grown economies through the brilliant application of scientific principles, initially to manufacture and latterly to services. We  have become excellent at efficiency, systems, and optimisation. We teach the “right way” to do things, we celebrate case studies, and we educate our children based on these principles. She who gets the most qualifications generally gets the most financial reward. 

Our success in process design and automation exact a cost. We no longer do mental arithmetic. We use GPS rather than maps. We no longer service our own cars. We don’t grow our own food. We’re in danger of forgetting important skills and automating ourselves out of our creativity.

Six Sigma thinking isolates outliers, and the pursuit of scale homogenises offerings. The average quality of what we make and do today has never been higher, nor the relative cost lower. It is really difficult to buy a bad new car, and equally difficult to spot meaningful differences between them. Cars, at anything other than an ego level, are a commodity. The same is true of most manufactured goods.

The commoditisation of services is taking longer, but is accelerating rapidly to catch up. There is no discernible difference between banks, insurance companies, energy companies and regrettably, political parties. We have already turned most MBA degrees into instructional based templates. We start assessing our children against obsolete criteria at age 2, at the same time that machine learning and AI is rapidly encroaching on the skills we are trying to teach them. We prize “solutions” over creativity, and safe conformity over radical experimentation.

We seem to be encouraging a race to the middle in pursuit of an unsustainable short term economic prize.

We need to step away for a moment.

Nature, which has after all been around a while, doesn’t do optimisation, or efficiency. It adapts, on a continual basis, with a simple goal. Survival.

Those who study his work insist that Darwin didn’t talk about the “survival of the fittest” (that was a convenient reinforcing translation for those who found themselves winning in impossibly short, temporary time frames), he talked those who fit best to the changing ecosystem. Those who fit best, rather than the fittest. Nature doesn’t stand still. It has different time horizons to us. Depending on which version you choose to take, there have been between 250,000 and 650,000 generations of human. Claiming success based on a handful of generations over the industrial era within our family, tribe or nation is probably a little premature.

Over that time however we have reached, or are getting pretty close to several peaks and a number of troughs. Peak extraction, Peak Population. Peak Stuff. A mental health trough, a sustainability trough, a social stability trough.

We are at a point of choice. We can continue to follow current orthodoxy, or we can recalibrate. Remember how to value those sources of insight and joy that link all generations. A work of art. Something beautifully made. The example of a life of purpose. The sense of peace to be found in an old building. A sense of place amongst the generations.

To be ourselves, not who others want us to be.

To Originise ourselves.

So far, so ideal. But how to start?

Start Small.

In a world characterised by scale, quick wins and short term wins it’s easy to end up adrift and almost out of sight of what’s important.

small is beautiful. Leverage the magic of compound interest. Small changes to important small things quickly add up, and when they link, things change.

Work in Increments.

Little things.  Turn and try swimming upstream, against the current for a while. Think independently, as only you can. Experiment. 

Remember Galileo

“you cannot teach a man (sic) anything, you can only enable him to learn from within himself”

Change some habits. 

All of us fall into habits that help us navigate our lives via the line of least resistance. They become almost invisible, but we know they are their. We are reluctant to change them, even though they bcome uncomfortable. We resist.

However, remember resistance is your friend, whether you’re working your body, mind, or business. Follow Steven Pressfield’s advice

Be yourself

In the words of Oscar Wilde.

“be yourself, everybody else is taken”. 

Good advice then, even better now. When we are encouraged to conform, to behave in ways convenient to others, we become unexceptional, or worse, exceptional in an area of little importance.  

We become increasingly undifferentiated in what we do from the technology that can (partially, but enough to matter) imitate us.

Each of us is a unique entity. There has never been one the same as us before, nor will there be in future. Each of us is a tiny part in a huge system, but with the possibility to make a difference – like the flap of a butterfly’s wing causing a hurricane. Most of us will not cause a hurricane, but we might cause a gust somewhere important.

Maybe this decade will be different.

We’re only a couple of months in, but even so I sense a difference. The power of scale, from politics to technology is faltering. With the drama of Brexit receding from theatre to uncomfortable reality, other issues are emerging, from dissent over post Brexit European budgets, to closure of borders due to corona virus, to disruption to supply chains, to a much belated start on meaningful local actions on climate change which will impact our accustomed habits such as travel, and food.

Scale and automation thrives on stability and continuity, and that is going to be in short supply for some time. Meaningful change seems much more likely to occur at local levels, driven by small groups in the context of their local needs.

If it’s true we become the verge of the five people we most associate with, now is a good time to choose.

Changing before we have to gives us more choice, and more time to practice.

If there’s a storm coming, remember when Noah built the Arc.

Before the rain.