Integral Manifesto Pt V(3) The Shape of Human Action/ The Natural Units of Human Action

Like Max Plank reasons in Susskind’s imaginary narrative, I began to reason how the three domains of human action — geo-socio spatial, technological, and economic– could be conceptualized as “perfectly related natural units” of human action that could be dynamic operations in a complex system. I also realized that when natural units that are perfectly related are mapped as coordinates, they produce discrete shapes that morph dynamically, as variables are entered into their equation, as in cybernetic modeling. So, for example, the three sides of a right triangle are perfectly related, and therefore, as you vary one or two of the lengths of the sides, the other side(s) vary in a way that preserves the perfect equation: a(squared) times b(squared) = c(squared). I began to sample drawings that represented the shape of human action by scaling the three natural units in 3-dimensional coordinate space as in the following illustration:

shape of action

Questions flowed from envisioning the Shape of Human Action in this way.

  • What were the appropriate scales along the indivudal axes?
  • What is the meaning of increasing distance in the g direction?
  • What does increasing technological scale in the t direction represent?
  • What is happening in the “real” economy, with respect to the whole of human action, as it plots further along the e dimension?

Answering this question, meant assigning both values to the units, as well as meaning to a system whose purpose was to model real-world conditions and actual lived experience. I reaalized that the model had to map the kinds of distinctions and transformational dynamics that authors like Neil Brenner, Saskia Sassen and James Rosenau had written about the emerging epoch, as well as being able to contextualize the partial truths represented by other kinds of models like Spiral Dynamics. In other words, the natural units had to be multi-scalar, their values had to scale for fragmenting dynamics or discontinuities, as well as integrating dynamics or interconnectivities; these natural units had to provide for emerging identities, both upward and downward causalities, and the many worlds described by Rosenau, as well as the cultural levels– re-envisioned as speheres of influence– and their historical emergence as described by Spiral Dynamics. The solution was easy to see in their words; and so I define the natural units of the shape of human action as follows:

g-units scale “up” toward increasing discontinuity (less inter-connectivity)

e-units scale “up” toward increasing aggregation (greater inter-dependency)

t-units scale “up” toward incresing variability (more types, kinds, forms as well as greater reach)

In meaningful terms, increasing the value of g accounts for the opening of geosocial space, the emergence of new identities, the undoing of old connections and ties, the lossening of culturally embedded roles and expectations, the movement of peoples across previously impervious boundaries (both physical, social, and cultural), the shifting of power from the aggregated elites to the discontinuous and uncoordinated populous. From the standpoint of complexity theory, this is the condition for chaos and the emergence of novely. From a normative standing, increasing g-values represents the times when people feel uncertain and at risk of the unknown when more and more individuals “bump into” each other at the level of “raw” encounter, given that the old, familiar ways of characterizing and categorizing people are shattering. Society is perceived to be (and therefore reflexively, is) in a state of epochal flux and flow. In order for individuals to purposefully actualize or even reluctantly accomodate such shifting patterns of identity, the domain of g requires a capacity for forgetfulness and forgiveness, and the ability to begin anew.

On the other hand, increasing the value of e entails the aggregation of various human resources and capitals associated with labor and economies. The aggregation of human resources beginning, as Arendt claimed) with the division of labor inthe family, and the extension of hierachical laboring to communal laboring and finally collective labor, through the creating of inter-dependencies of all types along with powerful abstract mediators (currency, commoditites) that allow capital growth and accumulation at increasing hierarchical scales, from a share economy, to a barter system, to mafia-style commitments, and all levels of exchange economies– commodities, currency, securities. Along with increasing aggregation and interdependence, this domain of e requires a robust network of interconnections to function, so that proper amounts, value and order of exchanges can be adequately traced with sufficient guarantees for reciprocities and reliable “accounting” of events. The domain of e, in other words, requires sufficient capacity for memory and retribution.

In the domain of technology, increasing the value of t-units represents proliferation of technologies, with respect to both diversity of kind, and extent of reach– just as in the metaphor we assigned to technology previously, as the river both widening and branching at the same time. And just as the main channel of the river, current technologies tend to cut deep grooves of habit and stasis in the realm of human action; but also, like the ever-branching arms, technology continually breaks down old routes and breaks into new routes. Eventually arms can become major channels, drawing more and more “water” resulting in old channels drying up and becoming fossil evidence of bygone eras, or silt up until they are completely invisible.Unlike the other two domains, t can increase dynamics in both directions, through openings and the creation of new opportunities, as well as through the proliferation of old form to such extents as to create (temporary) closings. Because of its exploratory, inventive and uncertain nature, the domain of t requires sufficient capacity fo inquiry and exculpation. We can now begin to speak of the dynamics involved in the internal relations of these three domains. Whereas t relates to both  g and e through feedback and feed-forward loops, with the ability to increase and/or diminish momentum in the other domains, g and e themselves  alone might seem to be related as complimentaries , i.e. the more you have of one, the less you have of another– in which case it would make sense just to reduce them to one scale, with rising g-values representing movement in one direction, and rising e-values representing movement in the opposite direction. However, this would be too simplistic a model, since it may be the case (as I will argue in subsequent posts) that in the realm of human action, under certain conditions,  increasing g-values results in a geo-social “fabric” that can accomodate increasing e-values, and alternately, increasing e-values can result in conditions that allow for rapid increase in g-values. In other words, under certain condition, g-dynamics and e-dynamics may be nutually interferring, while under a different set of conditions they might in fact be mutually supporting. The difference in conditions might well turn out to be how technology is engaged as the third dynamic. We can represent these dynamics as a simple flow chart:

Flow Chart­_BG

It is important to recognize that the unit-values are performative, not ostensive units — in other words, the terms and their values represent not some thing but something going on: they are descriptive of activies such as adding or subtracting social ties, investing or liquidating money, connecting to a public utility grid or cutting the power line once and for all and high-tailing it to the backcountry. This willl become even more evident in the later posts on actor-network theory.

With this in mind, we can create logical formulations that represent the internal relations between the natural units as follows:

g=t/e     e=t/g      t=eg

The following are scenarios that give the reader a sense of the internal dynamics of this Sphere of Human Action:

  • As new openings in geo-social space emerge, and individual as sel as collectivies realize more degrees of freedom, technological innovation also increases with new kinds and forms of technologies being developed, and, as a result, economies become more distributed (e-units decrease). According to our formulations above, the conditions for this scenario would be where growth in technological scale lags behind growth in geo-social spatial scale, since for e to decrease where e=t/g, g-units would have to scale faster than t-units. In this case, there are counter-acting dynamics between g and e units.
  • A prolonged period of accumulation of capital in a global economy, along with a proliferation of technologies to support the globalization of finance, results in a “shrinking” worldspace, the hegemony of western economic values and techne, and the marginalization of indigenous peoples and subcultures. If g = t/e, then conditions for this scenario are when technological scale lags behind economic scale. Increasing the reach of technologies to individuals and subgroups, to an extent where t-units succeed in out-scaling e-units, allows for the proligerations of new geo-socio spaces, and the excelleration of new identities arriving onto and the propulsion of subcultures onto the global stage.
  • If t=eg, then the simultaneous growth and redistribution of capital resources (in its widest sense) creates a fertile condition for the exploration and invention of new ways (technes) of being. Alternately, envisioning new ways of being should create the condition in which both geo-social spaces and economic distribution can mutually support each other.

I believe the reader will find each of the above scenarios, accurate depictions of dynamics occuring in the world today.

Integral Manifesto Pt I(4): Three Cautionary Tales of Scale / Economies

Books Discussed in this Section

The IHDP working paper at

Elinor Ostrom (2005) Understanding Institutional Diversity. Princeton University Press


However outdated and irrelevant it may seem, Adam Smith’s metaphor of an “invisible hand” that shapes collective activity has become an embedded assumption in the notion of “individual agens” in the economic arena. These individual agents are assumed to be making decisions on very small scale bases — that of the idividual’s “enlightenend self interest” or perhaps the family group, for example– but in reality, the scope and scale of information that is available to people creates a feedback loop from the larger scale systems that inform and reshape their decision making processes. As the authors of the IHDP working paper write

… economics at its core tires to explain the various pathways through which millions of decisons made by individual human beings can give rise to emergent features of communities and societies. … however, … individual decisions at any given particular time period are affected by these emergent features (which in many instances are the result of individual decisions that happened very recently).

Much of the research sustained around the decisions of individuals with respect to consequences that scale to larger groups concern CPRs– common pool resources. Game theory and their resulting research scenarios associated with CPRs and the “crises of the commons” often fail to include either an actual or potential feedback loop that functions at all the same scales as the shared and unshared consequences. Thus, for example, in the infamous “prisoner’s dilemma”, the individuals in play are artificially sequestered from each other, eliminating the crucial component of feedback information. It may be true, and possible to prove, that individuals do align around common concerns (shared consequences) whenever and wherever it is possible for them to do so. However, when such alignment is restructured such that the “invisible hand” is no longer a metaphor, but a player, such as a corrupt official, a multi-national corporation, a central bank– a player that operates at a scale to whom the individuals have no access, then the very possibility of alignment is defeated by that cut across scales– the individuals are literally “taken out of the loop.” As the IHDP paper argues, individuals need to be able to participate at second level and higher order dilemmas– in order to create sustainable public goods.

Given our current understanding of “economics” — is ther a way to conceptualize an individual emerging at higher level scales? Most of the research that goes into questions of this sort focus on institutional relations at higher order scales, forgoing the individual. In the field of economics, individuals are studied with respect to their collective behavior — and institutions are designed to guide (reward, punish, facilitate, obstruct) momentum of this collective field into preferred directions. Economic strategies are designed in most cases to optimize the function of society around economic goals such as GDP and growth rate. Therefore the intra-intitutional processes are designed to be balancing acts– mitigating the flow of certain behaviors and increasing the flow of others, as deemed  necessary. Because these strategies are designed based on looking past individuals through the lens of the swarm-like behavior of the economic collective, the feedback loops that govern the institutional transfer of resources are unavailable to individuals at any level– they are “decoupled from their own consequences, as it were– and this pertains to those individuals who themselve make decisions at the institutional levels. They are, in the words of the IHDP article, simultaneously affected by the emergent features that result from their higher-order individual as well as collective decisions. In these kinds of scenarios, no one escapes — both winners and losers share the consequences “equally”– when viewed from the higher order (macroeconomic) scale, since from there all we “see” is the relevant behavior of the collective swarm.

According to Elinor Ostrom, such models of human behavior may work well with provate property and therefore map nicely onto the conceptual framework of a privatized market, whose conviction is to capitalize common goods and resources for private gains, but they may be inappropriate models to explain collective behavior in non-market action situations.

Explaining the diversity of outcomes in social dilemma situations is a puzzle that is ripe for further development. … It is also an important question to pursue if one preseumes that humans are capable of developing, transsmitting, and learning norms of trust, trustworthiness, reciprocity, and equity as well as learning how to govern themselves. Without further progress in developing our theories and models of human valuation in social dilemma situations, those convinced that human behavior can be explained using rational egoist models will continue to recommend leviathan-like remedies for overcoming all social dilemmas. Hopefull, mcuh of what we learn from focusing on behavior in social dilemmas will be useful in other puzzling nonmarket situations.

Economists strategize under the assumption that higher-level systems constrain and/or direct lower level systems (the collective swarm) in ways that by-pass the lower-order decisions made bewtween and among individuals. Those lower order processes are irrelevant to economists, since there is no space of appearnace of the individual subject at the scale of their research and analysis.

Since individuals are seen as lower order parts in an optimizable higher-order feeedback and control system, new reserarch has turned to the work of ecologists who are beginning to challenge the notion of optimizability by integrating processes across scales. In addition, while economists, on the other hand, conventionally rely almost exclusively on absolute measures (monetary systems, GDP’s, growth rates and the like) these new researchers suggest thay they have ignored processes that contribute to revolution, transformation, and creative destruction, that the new ecologists see as necessary components of overall sustainability. This is most certainly the case where higher-order systems are deisgned to constrain or control (set rules and boundaries on) lower order levels. However, recent work from ecologists alsoe suggests that even systems that are conceptualized hierarchically must be construed to have discontinuous action levels, where the forces of optimization tend to be top-down, but the forces of revolution and transformation that are crucial to sustainability, tend to be bottom up. As the IHDP paper reports:

The central idea of hierarchy theory is that to understand any complex system depends on understanding the constraints prsent at the higher and lower levels of spatio-temporal resolution. It is assumed that levels lower than -1 [the level of the individual] producechanges that are either too small or too fast to be much more than background noise in measurements of processes at level 0 [the level of the collective swarm]. Similarly, levels above +1 [levels of institutions] are presumed to be too large and too slow to affect measurement and understanding at level 0. The levels immediately above and below the referent level provide … constraints. These constraints produce a constraint “envelope” in which the process or phenomenon must remain.

Within this kind of “constraint envelope” as the authors illustrate, level -1 is thelevel of reductionist compnents– corresponding to the reduction of the individuals to background noise; level 0 is the level of focus, that is the swarm itself; and level +1 are the institutional players that create and maintain constraints. Hierarchy theory of this type is conceptually appealing when the study is predisposed to a framework based on an absolute scale such as the standard economic measures, and the desire toward optmization. But optimization of what?

Again, from the IHDP paper:

While conceptually appealing, hierarchy theory demands a great deal of knowledge in order to be useful To characterize a constraint envelope accurately, the analust must (1) clearly identify the scale and level of the study and their appropriateness for the phenomenon, (2) know the important parameters impacting on the phenomeon at different scales and levels, (2) know when one is translating levels or scales and to recognize issues involved in top-down or bottom-up thinking, and (4) sample and experiment across scales and levels.

What the transdisciplanary analysts discovered is that a key issue related to scale in dynamic systems is the notion of resilience– “the speed in which a system returns to a stable equilibrium or a steady state upon being disturbed.” Furthermore, according to the IHDP paper, when the focus of the inquiry is changed from engineering solutions to maintaining a stable state, such asoptimizing economic goals within existing power structures, to notions of ecological resilience, they begin to “examine thepossibility of multible stable states and how systems transform from one to another of these states.” In these ecological-type systems, resilience entails the ability of the system to redefine its structures “by changing the variables and processes that control behavior.” In other words, the scalar relations conceptualized as robust dynamical systems are bi-directional — upper level structures that upon first anaysis are seen to control behavior at the lower levels are themselves subject to and products of activities at those lower levels that are responsible for them in the first place, and that continually shape, configure and transform them.

When viewed from a top-down analysis, the “controls” of systems are exclusively top-down and external to the system; whereas when viewed from an ecological analysis, the “controls” are internal to the system and are therefore relativized with respect to the system’s “story” — its temporal narrative or history. Quoting Buzz Holland, the IHDP paper suggests that the history of such processes involve four key processes or cycles: exploitation, conservation, release and reorganization:

In an exploitation process, species that are rapid colonizers move into recently disturbed aresas. In a conservation phase, energy is stored and there is a slow accumulation of species and material. When biomass and nutrient have become so tightl connected that they are highly susceptible to external disturbance … one can enter a release phase. Reorganization processes involve new restructuring of capital and elements into a new system. The time spent in each of these processes may vary dramatically. From exploitation to conservation may involve a long period of time with only small changes, but the shift from conservation to relase may be very rapid. Under some conditions, reorganization and exploitation may then take place rapidly.

The authors illustrate these dynamic cycles in ecological systems as follows:


However, if we look at these processes not in terms of ecological categories, but merely in terms of scalar relations, we can draw some general conclusions about complex dynamics involved. First, the direction of “stored capital” is in the direction of the emergence of higher-order organization and consolidation; while the lack of stored capital tends to favor the agentic aspect of the individual “opportunist or disturbance agent.” In other words, as capital increases we tend to “see” higher order systems emerge irrespective of individual agents, and when capital is scarce, we tend to “see” the latent of suppressed potencies of agents emerge. Secondly, this relationship between individual agency and higher-order consolidation, scales along with the perceived “connectedness” of the individuals and other units within the system, such that in the exploitation phase connections increase and therefore, presumably range of influence of individuals give way to collective (connected) outcomes, climaxing in the conservatin phase of consolidation; while connectivity within the system is shattered in the release phase, after which, presumably, entirely new connections arise to accomplish reorgnization.

This model and theory of resilience has important implications for designing governance for human action, and will be addressed in future posts.