How we came to be, why we are and where we are headed
The world is in a bit of a mess
To put it mildly. But you already know that, so let's not waste time on reiterating the issues and predicaments at hand. The question is "What can we actually do about it?"
We are a scrappy and resourceful species after all. We've been in tight spots before. Perhaps even tighter spots than the present one, and so far we've managed to muddle our way onward and upward, or at least forward. Or at least we are still here. And, unfortunately, making a bit of a mess of it all. To put it mildly and not make light of the situation.
But, on the other hand, we have made some pretty significant leaps forward, inventing and implementing tools on a daily basis that our ancestors could not have imagined. We have put humans on the moon, sent vessels beyond the outer planets of our solar system and are on the brink of our first colony on a different planet. These are things to celebrate, despite their costs.
And here we are, in the balance of our creativity and our destructive capacity, not entirely sure which way the scales will tip.
The point of tipping
How does one tip the scales? Well, it is safe to say talk is fine, and very affordable, a crowning invention for humanity in many ways, but talk is not enough. Talk writ into rules and agreements and laws are one way to go, but the thing with rules, agreements and laws are that they can so easily be broken. And thus are broken all the time. More importantly, if the conflict with human culture, or worse, human nature, both culture and nature will ultimately win.
Customs, or local cultures rooted in human nature, trumps external laws. Changing human culture is a slow process. Or at least it used to be a slow process. Not so much these days.
These days, culture seems to be changing so fast that most of us are left reeling and confused as to who we really are and what our purpose might be. And the reason our culture is changing so fast is because our tools are changing so fast. Because technology is exponential, and has reached the very rapid phase of its arc.
Tools over rules
The thing about technology is that it trumps culture, in the same way that culture trumps law. In the same way a law cannot be imposed on a culture with its own ingrained customs, at least not without a huge enforcement cost that can take generations, a culture cannot survive a new technology. Not for long. And not without great cost.
Taken to its logical conclusions, it is not philosophers that move the world but engineers. Sometimes philosopher engineers like Archimedes, who famously claimed that with a long enough lever he could indeed move the world, but this just emphasises the engineering argument. In as much as ideas spread to shape cultures, they do this riding on the galloping horse of technology. Or car. Or spaceship.
Nor is culture purely the victim of the whims of technology, shaped with no will of its own. It is a two way street, of sorts, even if technology tends to claim the right of way. But in the end, nature bats last. Technology that is incompatible with human nature will not survive. The only issue here is that it might well take humanity with it.
The self conscious toolmakers
If we are to draw this to its logical conclusion, then if we are to have any control over our future, its culture and its customs, we need to build technologies that not only allow such customs to flourish, but also incentivise, promote and nurture that which we wish to become.
Our societies exist because of the technologies we created, but few of these technologies were created with the primary idea to make society better. Certainly, many if not most inventions that caught on, such as the printing press, the steam engine, the light bulb, the infinite scroll etc were designed to improve life in some immediate way. This is necessary in order to run a profitable business, especially in the longer term. But the assumption that what might profit one will profit all is an erroneous one. The power of this particular meme, despite its externalities, the costs pushed onto someone else, either alive today or to future generations, is one that has gotten us into this mess we now must deal with. A case where philosophy indeed has had an impact, albeit an arguably detrimental one.
Could we, even if we tried, anticipate how a new technology might shape us, shape the social systems we are part of and that, in turn, shape us? And if so, could we weave this into the design of new technologies? Will it even be possible to do so as technology speeds up, or are will our intentional design mean little more than autumn leaves in a hearty wind?
Designing the futures we want
The only way to answer such questions is to try. The best way to predict the future is to create it, and the best way to leave the past behind is to create such a future that the tools of past become obsolete, to lean on the wisdom of both Lincoln and Fuller. To take a deep breath, look at human nature and, if such a thing exists, the purpose of humanity, and design tools that serve this purpose. Tools that encourage and reward such behaviour that we would like to see more of in ourselves and in others while limiting the scope and prevalence of such behaviour we would like to see less of.
This is the purpose of Social Systems Lab. This is our why, the reason we came to be. To explore the human algorithm and to design such tools that are aligned with it, that encourage cooperation and sharing, creativity and kindness. A few of the features of our human algorithm that we think are most likely to benefit us and our home planet, and help us transition to our next stop along the arc or our evolution.
If our WHY is to catalyse transformation of our social systems to be more supportive to the angels of our better nature, then our HOW is to contribute to the creation of the tools and infrastructure that make this possible.
We attempt to accomplish this in several ways. One way we do it is by hosting regular meetings, roundtables and workshops where we explore and seek to understand our own nature better, to help us connect more deeply with others and with ourselves.
Another way we do this is by prototyping and incubating open-source tools, with partners across the globe. Exploring philosophical concepts through the methods of the engineer. Trial and error. We build, it doesn't work, we redesign, it works a little better an so on. Incremental steps, but steps none the less. The only thing that works is the thing that works. Nature bats last, to use a sports metaphor.
A third way we explore this space is through supporting local projects that improve their communities in one way or another. We do this to understand what works and what doesn't with the aim to share the results of our research, the best practices, to ease the path of the next changemaker. Because we are all part of this human continuum, and it is on us to be the kind of ancestors to our decendents that our ancestors were for us.
The WHAT is where the rubber hits the road, the pudding proves itself, where philosophical musings turn into levers that might just move the world.
You can read more about our WHATs under the Project heading, but very briefly, we have three main offerings or projects and a number of smaller side hustles that have not quite congealed or consolidated into actual projects.
The most advanced project is Circles, and open-source, pro-social platform that any group, organisation or network can make use of. It has all the basic functions of traditional for-profit social networking tools, but with the added and fairly unique feature of a map-based interface. This allows you to see where other members and events are located, in space and time.
The second project we are supporting is co:do, a network for changemakers built on Circles. It is aimed to help people find each other and connect, match with volunteering opportunities around local projects, share resources, create proposals, discuss and vote and a host of other features. As it is the first network using Circles, it is also a testing ground for the platform, a scouting expedition aimed to make the underlying topography easier to navigate for those who come later.
Our third major project is the Altruistic Wallet, which is moving from the conceptual phase into early prototyping.
On the social front, we are part of the team curating the Connectathon, a biannual gathering that will happen on every solstice, where we come together to explore many of the topics that are held in our hearts and minds here at Social Systems Lab.
If you have a project or idea or dream you'd like to share, perhaps present at one of our regular meetings or if you would like to join us in any way, don't hesitate to reach out!
Does this story align with yours? Then please weave with us!
We are always keen to explore new ideas and potential opportunities to create together.