The focus on economic performance and the subordination of all other dimensions of life in industrialised societies has profound effects on human behaviour.
Different cultures focus on different primary time horizons, and often this is the biggest source of challenges in being able to understand each other. On a related note, linguist and cognitive scientist Daniel Everett observes that big differences in observed social behaviour between cultures can often be traced back not to differences in values, but to differences in the relative ranking of values.
My primary time horizon is greater than 200 years, and while I am not blind to goals that relate to shorter time horizons, the simple fact that I make an effort to consider the 200 year implications of the choices I make, often leads to conclusions and priorities that can remain inaccessible to those whose time horizon is limited to their own life or the lives of their children.
Pay for merit, pay for what you get, reward performance. Sounds great, can’t be done. Unfortunately it can not be done, on short range. After 10 years perhaps, 20 years, yes. The effect is devastating. People must have something to show, something to count. In other words, the merit system nourishes short-term performance. It annihilates long-term planning. It annihilates teamwork. People can not work together. To get promotion you’ve got to get ahead. By working with a team, you help other people. You may help yourself equally, but you don’t get ahead by being equal, you get ahead by being ahead. Produce something more, have more to show, more to count. Teamwork means work together, hear everybody’s ideas, fill in for other people’s weaknesses, acknowledge their strengths. Work together. This is impossible under the merit rating / review of performance system. People are afraid. They are in fear. They work in fear. They can not contribute to the company as they would wish to contribute. This holds at all levels. But there is something worse than all of that. When the annual ratings are given out, people are bitter. They can not understand why they are not rated high. And there is a good reason not to understand. Because I could show you with a bit of time that it is purely a lottery.”
– W Edwards Deming (1984)
In industrialised societies the concept of collaboration is widely understood as “competing against each other according to culturally defined ruled” and is directly related to the fiction of homo economicus.
In our work we’ve tried to test some of the basic predictions made by the Homo economics model using some simple tools from behavioral economics applied across a diverse swath of human societies. Not only do we find that the Homo economicus predictions fail in every society (24 societies, multiple communities per society), but instructively, we find that it fails in different ways in different societies. Nevertheless, after our paper “In search of Homo economicus” in 2001 in the American Economic Review, we continued to search for him. Eventually, we did find him. He turned out to be a chimpanzee. The canonical predictions of the Homo economicus model have proved remarkably successful in predicting chimpanzee behavior in simple experiments. So, all theoretical work was not wasted, it was just applied to the wrong species.
– Joseph Henrich
In our society the fiction of homo economicus manifests itself in the beliefs associated with the language of behaviourism, which exists in multiple dialects, and which has come to permeate and pollute many disciplines in the social sciences:
- Leaders, authorities, managers, superiors, social power gradients
- Leadership, demands, commands
- Management, measurement, control
- Incentives, aversives, punishments
- Business, tasks, busyness
- Standards, norms, benchmarks, unwritten rules
- Conformance, compliance, obedience
Some level of standardisation and conformance is useful for collaboration at human scale (i.e. small/local scale), but the more the purpose of conformance relates to maintaining social power gradients, the greater damage in terms of loss of diversity and locally relevant knowledge.
The sections below are extracts from articles that discuss the effects of behaviourist pseudoscience in parenting, education, in the workplace, in economics, and in science. The featured interview with Alfie Kohn offers an excellent introduction to behaviourism.
Ivar Lovaas is the originator of “gay conversion therapy” and “autistic conversion therapy”. The techniques he developed and applied are today known as Applied Behaviour Analysis (ABA). ABA is still used for the “treatment of autism” in the US, the UK, Australia and New Zealand. This explains why autistic rights activism and neurodiversity rights activism are so important. ABA techniques are sometimes applied under different brands to obscure the connection to “gay conversion therapy”.
This series of panel discussions is part of the global Ban Conversion Therapies project, which keeps track of all the bans of conversion therapies that are already in place and of all initiatives towards bans.
Not only does a strong reliance on formal education by government authorities (reinforcement of national and regional best practices) and global corporations (reinforcement of commercial interests and technological bias) detract from the locally relevant context, it also squashes human creativity and curiosity. The more an education system myopically relies on formal evaluation and comparative ranking systems, the more it instils a hyper-competitive mindset that actively steers people away from appreciating diversity, from learning how to collaborate, and from nurturing and maintaining lifelong trusted relationships.
These characteristics of modern formal education systems are not accidental, they have been designed to operate this way. After several hundred years of formalised education, entire populations have become oblivious to the monocultural bias and damaging effects.
It is interesting that the mainstream media occasionally does get concerned about manipulation techniques used in people management, and is much less concerned about the common use of bullying and manipulation techniques such as Applied Behaviour Analysis (ABA) as “therapies” for autistic children. Many autistic people who have been subjected to ABA and similar “treatments” end up with PTSD:
The following extract is from a current article about sales techniques / training / management at the Commonwealth Bank Australia. The techniques are similar to ABA techniques – only that small children are subjected to ABA for up to 40 hours per week!
Bank staff had to attend meetings each morning and give a commitment to the group to achieve their targets. A “debrief” meeting was held each afternoon. Some former CBA employees later reported that when staff didn’t achieve their targets they were belittled in front of colleagues.
One bank employee says managers patrolled the work area like stormtroopers to make sure staff were pushing products to customers at every opportunity. Some bank staff felt the training was a form of brainwashing…
The question “I don’t feel pressured to make inappropriate sales to try and meet my targets” produced a result of 33 per cent disagreeing and 32 per cent strongly disagreeing, which was higher than the average across all banks. Even more worrying was the response to a question about whether ‘targets bring out the best in me’ – 83 per cent of respondents disagreed. Furthermore, 26 per cent of those surveyed admitted they were aware of inappropriate lending practices being undertaken to achieve targets.
I first came across the impact of Cohen Brown in 2013 when I wrote a series of articles about the aggressive sales at CBA. The series triggered hundreds of responses from CBA staff. Many described it as a cult-like sales technique that placed staff under intolerable pressure and resulted in serious mistakes…
Some CBA staff suffered nervous breakdowns and some started taking anti-depressant medication. The Cohen Brown method featured so heavily in CBA’s strategy during Norris’s reign that I decided to contact the company’s co-founder and CEO, Marty Cohen, in late 2018.
I wanted to talk to him about the Cohen Brown method, including a patent filed in 2006 titled, “Systems and methods for computerised interactive training”, which contains an example of a telephone script that physiologically conditions staff to respond in a certain way.
The patent talks about supplying a positive tone and visualisation when the right answer is achieved and a negative tone and visualisation when the answer is wrong. “A positive tone is generated and/or a text acknowledgement appears, indicating that the correct phrase was identified by the trainee,” the patent says. “Then a ‘negative tone’ is played, and a graphic and/or text message is provided, indicating that the answer was incorrect.”
The user is scored “based in part on the number of errors and/or opportunities that the user identified and optionally on the user’s response to the question”. In an email exchange, Cohen told me he is no longer using this type of “methodology”, but he doesn’t think there is anything wrong with the practice of “negative reinforcement”.
In the world of software standards development, Bruce Perens describes the (not so) invisible hand of the market as follows: “In the consortium projects, there’s always the handshake with one hand and a dagger in the other.”
News for culturally well-adjusted neuronormative people: physical and mental health suffers, and serious harm is done, when everyone runs around with a dagger in their “invisible” hand in their pocket, and when those who use the dagger are celebrated as social role models.
Since the Cold War empires have increasingly shifted their focus from overt conventional war to economic warfare and psychological warfare. The growing economic power imbalance between the empires of the “developed” world and “less developed” nation states has significantly reduced the need for large scale direct military interventions to maintain imperial power structures. “Civilised” warfare in the 21st century consists of the following components:
1. Global economic institutions are equipped with the ability to dictate the terms on which nation states with limited financial power are able to engage with the rest of the world (economic warfare).
2. The reserve banks of states with significant financial power use the dial of interest rates and their ability to issue credit to shape the global economic “climate” (economic warfare).
3. The financial power of largest transnational corporations exceeds the financial powers of the majority of nation states, and incrementally, the balance of power shifts further from governments towards transnational corporations (economic warfare).
4. Individuals with significant financial wealth are empowered to wield significant influence over the transnational corporations that they have invested in, and as a result they also wield significant influence over the economic “climate” in many nation states (economic warfare).
5. Transnational corporations use their financial power (often in combination with local or domain specific monopolistic powers) to bathe entire populations in a never ending stream of PR and marketing messages, assisted by profit oriented media organisations that depend on corporate advertising revenue (economic warfare and psychological warfare).
6. Whilst the governments of financially powerful nation states are strongly influenced by the financial powers of transnational corporations, they remain the official operators of military power, and use these powers for “surgical” strikes as needed to prevent smaller nation states from ever ignoring the established imperial “rules of the game” (conventional warfare and psychological warfare).
The effects of economic warfare are conveniently indirect but very effective and brutal.
The scientific revolution undoubtedly led to a better understanding of some aspects of the world we live in by enabling humans to create more and more complex technologies. But it also created new levels of ignorance about externalities that went hand in hand with the development of new technologies, fuelled by specific economic beliefs about efficiency and abstractions such as money and markets.
In the early days of the industrial revolution modelling was concerned with understanding and mastering the physical world, resulting in progress in engineering and manufacturing. Over the last century formal model building was found to be useful in more and more disciplines, across all the natural sciences, and increasingly as well in medicine and the social sciences, especially in economics.
With 20/20 hindsight it becomes clear that there is a significant lag between model building and the identification of externalities that are created by systematically applying models to accelerate the development and roll-out of new technologies.
Humans are biased to thinking they understand more than they actually do, and this effect is further amplified by technologies such as the Internet, which connects us to an exponentially growing pool of information. New knowledge is being produced faster than ever whilst the time available to independently validate each new nugget of “knowledge” is shrinking, and whilst the human ability to learn new knowledge at best remains unchanged – if it is not compromised by information overload.
All human artefacts are technology. But beware of anybody who uses this term. Like “maturity” and “reality” and “progress”, the word “technology” has an agenda for your behaviour: usually what is being referred to as “technology” is something that somebody wants you to submit to.
“Technology” often implicitly refers to something you are expected to turn over to “the guys who understand it.” This is actually almost always a political move. Somebody wants you to give certain things to them to design and decide. Perhaps you should, but perhaps not.
– Ted Nelson, a pioneer of information technology, philosopher, and sociologist who coined the terms hypertext and hypermedia in 1963.
Students of software engineering and computer science are often attracted by the idea of “innovation” and by the prospect of exciting creative work, contributing to the development of new services and products. The typical reality of software development has very little if anything to do with innovation and much more with building tools that support David Graeber’s “bullshit jobs” and Edward Bernays’ elitist “utopia” of conscious manipulation of the habits and opinions of the masses by a small number of “leaders” suffering from narcissistic personality disorder.
The culture within the software development community is shaped much less by mathematics and scientific knowledge about the physical world than by the psychology of persuasion – and an anaemic conception of innovation based on social popularity and design principles that encourage planned obsolescence. A few years ago Alan Kay, a pioneer of object-oriented programming and windowing graphical user interface design observed:
It used to be the case that people were admonished to “not re-invent the wheel”. We now live in an age that spends a lot of time “reinventing the flat tire!”
The flat tires come from the reinventors often not being in the same league as the original inventors. This is a symptom of a “pop culture” where identity and participation are much more important than progress. … In the US we are now embedded in a pop culture that has progressed far enough to seriously hurt places that hold “developed cultures”. This pervasiveness makes it hard to see anything else, and certainly makes it difficult for those who care what others think to put much value on anything but pop culture norms.
Humans – The journey of cultural evolution
“Life creates conditions conducive to life.” – Janine Benyus
The book The Beauty of Collaboration at Human Scale is now in the peer review stage. In many ways the book is an autistic collaboration project. The book offers tools for finding viable paths into a more neurodiversity friendly future.
The journey of exponentially accelerating cultural evolution presented in this book covers several hundred thousand years, from the origins of humans right up to the latest significant developments in the early 21st century. I would like to equip communities and individuals with conceptual tools to create good companies that are capable of pumping value from a dying ideological system into an emerging world. Regardless of what route we choose, on this planet no one is in control. The force of life is distributed and decentralised, and it might be a good idea to organise and collaborate accordingly.
Much of the content in the book has been published in earlier articles on this website, on Neuroclastic.com, or on my personal blog, but the book offers a unique chronological perspective on human cultural evolution, and it adds the glue needed to establish important semantic connections across discipline boundaries.
The book concludes with a wonderful quote from an article written by Pip Carroll, in the lead up to the prolonged but ultimately very successful lock-down in Melbourne:
A caring society does not value the individual for their ability to return economic value, but simply for existing as their own imperfect self. We can’t choose to be cared for any more than we can choose to win the lottery. We can only hope to develop the quality in others by offering care ourselves. Trusting that care, once given is ordained to return to another in need.
Ecologies of care
The journey towards a healthier relationship with the ecosystems which we are part of starts with the most powerful tool at our disposal, the introduction and consistent use of new language and new semantics:
|New language||Old language||Motivation for change|
|care||Co-create ecologies of care instead of economies of commodified goods and services – to create environments that are conducive to life|
|catalyst||Grow competency networks and catalysts rather than leadership and leaders – to get things done and distribute decision making to where the knowledge resides|
|competency network||Grow competency networks and catalysts rather than leadership and leaders – to get things done and distribute decision making to where the knowledge resides|
|coordination||Coordinate rather than manage – to address all the cognitive load that can increasingly be automated and to avoid the perpetuation of social power gradients|
|courage||Replace fear with courage – to explore new paths when old roads are crumbling|
|creative collaboration||Provide a space for creative collaboration and divergent thinking rather than insist on best practices – to be able to adapt to rapid environmental change|
|currency||Value the currency of knowledge and transparency of information rather than the liquidity of money and the protection of national interests – to be able to think and act outside the paradigm of industrialised imperialism|
|ecologies||Co-create ecologies of care instead of economies of commodified goods and services – to create environments that are conducive to life|
|gifts||Offer your gifts to the world instead of charging rent for economic utility – to make the seemingly impossible possible|
|good company||Co-create good company rather than business – to focus on the people and things we care about rather than what is simply keeping us busy|
|human scale||Appreciate human scale and individual agency rather than large scale and growth – to create structures and systems that are understandable and relatable|
|individual agency||Appreciate human scale and individual agency rather than large scale and growth – to create structures and systems that are understandable and relatable|
|learning||Learning about each other instead of assuming and perpetuating a fictional notion of normality – to increase shared understanding|
|niche construction||Niche construction and symbiosis rather than competition and exploitation – to create organisations and services that are fit for purpose and valued by the wider community|
|open source community||Create open source communities instead of walled gardens of intellectual property rights – to create a global knowledge commons and to maximise collective intelligence|
|physical waste||Pay attention to physical waste rather than wealth – to focus us on the metrics that do matter|
|repair||Help repair frayed relationships instead of profiting from the misery of others – to counteract the escalation of conflicts|
|symbiosis||Niche constructionand symbiosis rather than competition and exploitation – to create organisations and services that are fit for purpose and valued by the wider community|
|tacit knowledge||Share valuable tacit knowledge in good company instead of hoarding information and perpetuating the myth of meritocracy – to raise collective intelligence.|
|transparency||Value the currency of knowledge and transparency of information rather than the liquidity of money and the protection of national interests – to be able to think and act outside the paradigm of industrialised imperialism|
|trust||Visibly extending trust to people instead of drafting weaponised contracts – to release the handbrake to collaboration|
|trusted relationships||Nurture trusted relationships instead of engaging in anonymous transactions – to minimise rather than encourage the creation of externalities|
|values||Think in terms of values rather than value – to avoid continuously discounting what is priceless|
Our destination is beyond human comprehension, but ways of life that are in tune with our biological needs and cognitive limits are always within reach, even when we find ourselves in a self-created life destroying environment. All it takes is a shift in perspective, and corresponding shifts in the aspects of our lives that we value.
The sections below are extracts from articles that present life affirming approaches to parenting, education, the workplace, economics, and science that celebrate the diversity of our species. Further details on all these approaches are described in Part III of the book “The Beauty of Collaboration at Human Scale” mentioned above.
All children thrive when parenting nurtures and supports the children’s intrinsic motivations and sensory needs rather than focuses on obedience.
For an autistic person the pathway towards good company is distinctly different from the life trajectory mapped out by the expectations of mainstream culture.
The most appropriate pathway for an autistic person depends significantly on the surrounding social environment and the stage of life.
The unwillingness to “go with the flow” is possibly one of the key reasons why autistic people are pathologised in W.E.I.R.D. societies. From the outside all that is visible is that we don’t “comply”. No one sees the mental energy that it takes to hold back from providing an extensive explanation of our concerns. In those cases where we can’t hold back and openly raise inconvenient questions or concerns, our contributions are dismissed as irrelevant and our behaviour is interpreted as disruptive.
All social power gradients systematically dampen feedback loops, they constitute a collective learning disability. Economists Arjun Jayadev and Samuel Bowles describe the effort needed to maintain social power structures as guard labour.
Guard labour is wage labour and other activities that are said to maintain (hence “guard”) a system. Things that are generally characterised as guard labour include: management, guards, military personnel, and prisoners. Guard labour is noteworthy because it captures expenditures based on mistrust and does not produce future value.
Many autists reject all forms of social power. Unless we have autistic people in our environment that nurture our sense of agency and intrinsic motivations, trauma may prevent us from learning how to trust others and build eye level relationships.
An excellent webinar on this topic by Gareth Morewood: Using Low Arousal Approaches in Learning Environments.
Neurodiversity friendly forms of collaboration hold the potential to transform pathologically competitive and toxic teams and cultures into highly collaborative teams and larger cultural units that work together more like an organism rather than like a group of fighters in an arena.
Evolution has mastered a number of similar phase shifts in the past. Consider the evolution of multi-celled life forms. Single-celled micro-organisms have not been replaced, but they have been complemented with a mind-boggling variety of more complex multi-celled life forms. We now know that our bodies harbour of more bacteria than human cells, and the vast majority of these bacteria are in a symbiotic relationship with our human cells. Consider this masterpiece of evolution for a moment. Many billions of collaborating cells and micro-organisms form what you experience as “you”. Statistically speaking our bodies are highly collaborative ecosystems of microscopic entities.
The documentary on “The Economics of Happiness” (2011) from Local Futures on the toxic role of globalisation was made shortly after the Global Financial Crisis, and is still valid today.
Like bees and ants, humans are eusocial animals. Through the lenses of evolutionary biology and cultural evolution, local communities – and especially small groups of 20 to 100 people – are the primary organisms within human society, in contrast to individuals, corporations, and nation states. The implications for our civilisation are profound.
Science needs to overcome paradigmatic inertia and become much more transdisciplinary:
Paradigmatic inertia : The tendency within a “civilised” society to maintain established institutional structures, i.e. complex social groups with specific social roles, even in the face of long-term shifts in environmental conditions away from earlier long-term averages.
Paradigmatic inertia is never beneficial. It constitutes a collective learning disability. Unless it is identified, understood and addressed by shifting to a more appropriate paradigm (or mix of paradigms) that acknowledges the shift in environmental factors (and potentially the inability to reverse the trend), it can result in existential risks for entire ecosystems including humans (think of biodiversity loss and climate change).
Once paradigmatic inertia has led to existential risks, it has to be considered a form of collective delusion.
“Climate change is not a war, it is genocide. It is domination. It is extinction. It is the most recent manifestation of how powerful men throughout history have sought to steal from the less powerful and dismiss them as merely inconvenient.”
– Eric Holthaus, autistic meteorologist and climate journalist, from Climate change is about how we treat each other
Once the history of civilisation is understood as series of progress myths, where each civilisation looks towards earlier or competing civilisations with a yardstick that is tailored to prove that its own myths and achievements are clearly superior to anything that came before, it is possible to identify the loose ends and the work-arounds of civilisation that are usually presented as progress.