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(5): Three Cautionary Tales of Scale/ Technologies

Books Discussed in this Section

Hannah Arendt (1958)  The Human Condition, The University of Chicago Press, Chicago

Bruno Latour (1999)Pandora’s Hope: Essays on the Reality of Science Studies, Harvard University Press


In the realm of human action, technology elevates it’s own power through two outstanding characteristics: unpredictability and endurance. This greatly worried Hannah Arendt

In this aspect of action– all important to the modern age, to its enormous enlargement of human capabilities as well as to its unprecedented concept and consciousness in history– processes are started whose outcome is unpredictable, so that uncertainty rather than frailty becomes thedecisive character of human affairs.

… the strength of the action process [techne] is never exhausted in a single deed, but, on the contrary, can grow while its consequences multiply … The reason why we are never able to foretell with certainty the outcomes andend of any action [techne] is simply that action has no end. The process of a single deed can quite literally endure throughout time until mankind itself has come to an end.

Even today, as our technologies bear down on planetary limits, they continue to journey “where no man has gone before”– into new outer spaces as well as new inner spaces. Nations co-conspire and collaborate on projects of massive physical scales and with enormously powerful potentials– as well as on projects of infinitesimal scales such as nanotechnology and genetic engineering– and continue to do so regardless  of our knowledge of, or lack of knowledge of, their unintended consequences. We know what we know, and we know what we don’t know– and sciences can only scratch the surfaces of these questions; whereas theoretical contemplation cannot even address the question of not knowing what we don’t know– but time and again, technology supplies the missing link; and so, in a sense, humans have always engaged technology to complete an epistemic circle. The switch from homo faber to homo techne occurs when the center of that circle is no longer the “who I am” but the “will to power” that lies within.

The tremendous power of technology is not only due to its ability to scale to enormous proportions, but also due to its capacity to overdetermine patterns of use that develop deep grooves or habits, traces in the way humans continue to act and employ certain technologies over long durations of time– even beyond the term of their usefulness. We have yet to experience the Brave New World where machines conspire to be completely independent of human control– no technology today can operate without a great deal of continual human support and interruption– but because of the way technologies become engrained into the fabric of society, we continue to support them even as their destructive consequences come to outweigh their social utility and human value.

These “deep grooves” are not only physical precedents, like ancient paths that have been made into local streets, and then remade into major thoroughfares– they can also be ritualistic or mimetic structures deeply embedded in cultural heritage and social consciousness. Moreso than ever before, these “grooves” are not merely large in scale and long in standing, but are increasingly complex and multi-dimensional. Today’s technologies are not merely aggregates of materials, man-power and the convenience of habit– rather they are complex networks of deep and extensively distributed processes that, in the lexicon of Bruno Latour, include “humans and non-humans alike.”

… the prime mover of an action becomes a new, distributed, and nested series of practices whose sum may be possible to add up but only if we respect the mediating role of all the actants [ entangled humans and non-human agents] mobilized in the series.

 Latour describes a technology as a collective of humans and non-humans wherein humans and non-humans are enfolded within each other. Take for example, his consideration of a man and a gun and their relative agencies. For Latour, it is insufficient to contend either that “guns kill people” or that “people do.” Rather, he contends that both the human and the non-human (person and the gun) are enfolded in such a way as to create a new kind of composite agent, referred to him as an actant.

You are a different person with a gun in your hand. This translation is wholly symmetrical. You are a different person with a gun in your hand; the gun is different with you holding it. You are another subject because you hold the gun; the gun is another object because it has entered a relationship with you. …When the propositions are articulated, they join in to a new proposition. They become “someone or something” else.

It is now possible to switch our attention to this “someone else” the hybrid actor comprising (for instance) the gun and the gunman. We must learn to attribute– redistribute– actions to many more agents than are accpetable in either the materialist or the sociological account. Agents can be human or (lie the gun) nonhuman, and each can have goals (or functions, as engineers prefer to say). Since the word “agent” in the case of nonhumans is uncommon, a better term, as we have seen, is actant.

 As Latour would have it, our modern dispensation is that we live not “in society” but  in collectives of humans and nonhumans, and the process that creates increasingly indelible relations in these collectives are becoming more intricate, more complex, and conceivably richer all the time.

Contrary to what makes Heiddegerians weep, there is an extraordinary continuity which historians and philosophers of technology have increasingly made legible, betweeen nuclear power plants, missle-guidance systems, computer-chip design, or subway automation and the ancient mixture of society, symbols, and matter that ethnographers and archaeologists have studied for generations. … Unlike what is held by the traditional distinction, the difference between an ancient “primitive” collective and a modern or “advanced” one is not that the former manifests a rich mixture of social and technical culture while the latter exhibits a technology devoid of ties with the social order.

The difference, rather, is that the latter translates, crosses over, enrolls, and mobilizes more elements which are more intimately connected, with a more finely woven social fabric, than the former does. The relation between the scale of collectives and the number of nonhumans enlisted in their midst is crucial. One finds, of course, longer chains of action in “modern” collectives, a greater numbe of nonhumans (machines, automatons, devices) associated with one another, but one must not overlook the size of markets, the number of people in their orbits, the amplitude of the mobilization: more objects, yes, but many more subjects as well. Those who have tried to distinguish these two sorts of collective by attributing “objectivity” and”efficiency” to modern technology and “humanity” to low-tech poeisis have been deeply mistaken. Objects and subjects are made simultaneously, and an increased number of subjects is directly related to the number of objects stirred– brewed– into the collective. The adjective “modern” does not describe an increased distance between society and technology or their alienation, but a deepened intimacy, a more intricate mesh, between the two.

Harking back to the writings, but not the warnings of Arendt, Latour confirms– actually affirms– that techniques, as a class,  are unpredictable in nature — not means, but mediators– means and ends at the same time– and that the conviction of actants, as it were, is to remake social relations through “fresh and unexpected sources of action” since, as Arendt herself noted, “society is not stable enough to scribe itself in anything.”

On the contrary, most of the features of what we mean by social order– scale, asymmetry, durability, power, hierarchy, the distribution of roles– are impossible even to define without recruiting socialized nonhumans. Yes, society is constructed, but not socially constructed. Humans, for millions of years, have extended their social relations to other actants with which, with whom, they have swapped many properties and with which, with whom, they form collectives.

For Latour, technology irrupts the temporal scale of science which in all of modern times has had the conviction of separating the “objectve” portionof reality from the “subjective” portion– in other words, of rescuing what objects really are in themselves from the barbarian superposition of what human beliueve them to be, projected with passions, biases and prejudices of all sorts–toward a situation where “time enmeshes, at an even greater level of intimacy and on an ever greater scale, humans and nonhumans with each other;” a temporal map where “the confusion of humans and nonhumans is not only out past but our future as well. As technology scales along this temporary projectory, Latour concludes

Political representation of nonhumans seems not only plausible now but necessary, when the notion would have seemed ludicrous or indecent not long ago.

Given the complexities of these relations, it is as if the enormous momentum needed to overhaul existing technologies and replace them with completely new ones, is in turn stored as the tremendous inertia tahat overwhelms the ordinary person when s/he contemplates change in a completely new direction.