Life is not a performance

Life is an ecological process. This is the case for all living organisms. In a healthy habitat, organisms experience life as being part of an ecology of care. This is the case irrespective of the scale of the organism.

Ecologies of care

An ecology of care is a local mutual aid network that transcends many species boundaries and that extends over multiple levels of scale.

Humans evolved to live in networks of small and highly collaborative groups, where interactions within the group are experienced as relational, between parties that live with each other on a daily basis. The most adaptive and flexible cultures are those that don’t tolerate significant social power gradients between individuals, and especially those that also maintain highly collaborative relationships with other groups.

Within ecological processes, adaptive evolution is primarily an energy conserving long-term phenomenon that occurs over the course of many generations, rather than an energy intensive form of head to head competition. Human cultural practices of course can evolve and adapt much faster, but in healthy societies cultural evolution is a collaborative rather than a competitive process.

In a healthy society, care and mutual aid extends to all members of the group, and across multiple generations, up to 150 to 200 years into the future – far beyond individual lifespans and the lifespan of the next generation. Cultural intolerance for significant social power gradients and concerns for communal wellbeing across seven generations creates a safe space for creative collaboration, and it leaves no room for individual competitive social power games to escalate into permanent command and control hierarchies. It is easy to imagine that the evolution of the capacity for abstract symbolic human language has been fuelled by the evolutionary benefits that emerge from conscious social agreements to clamp down on individual competitive social power games.

All of this changed only recently between 10,000 and 5,000 years ago, with the development of agriculture, the emergence of large cities – especially settlements that are occupied all year round, linear written language, and the invention of interest bearing debt. These developments created large scale anonymous social environments, and opened the door for competitive social power games to become established and “normalised”.

Performing instead of living

Fast forward a few thousand years to the industrial era, and we find ourselves in a hypernormative global civilisation, with an anthropocentric performance-oriented culture and deep hierarchical structures of social power.

It is revealing that the English language uses one word – perform – to refer to two different actions:

  1. To begin and carry through to completion; do. To take action in accordance with the requirements of; fulfill.
  2. To enact (a feat or role) before an audience.

The more competitive social power games a society allows, the more the meanings of these concepts converge. Performance becomes an obsession to conform to externally evaluated criteria. A few even start to see related problems in parenting, but lack the imagination to address the underlying problems in education and in wider society, which are amplified by digital media technologies.

In a highly competitive social environment in which some people are celebrated in terms of their “net worth”, and in which more and more experiences are commodified, mediated by purchasing power, life is no longer experienced as an ecological process, it is transformed into a performance before an audience that is measured and rated according to social expectations that are increasingly codified in and evaluated by abstract algorithms.

Powering-up human relationships makes us stupid

In a performance-oriented culture “getting ahead” is what matters most. Finding ways of meeting the numbers is what matters, being perceived in the “right” way is what counts.

Our society has increasingly cult-ivated performance, technological progress, and the “art” of perception management.

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

No one’s life has yet been simplified by a computer. 

– Ted Nelson, Computer Lib, 1974

In 1974, computers were oppressive devices in far-off airconditioned places. Now you can be oppressed by computers in your own living room.

– Ted Nelson, Computer Lib, 1987 edition

The Myth of “Technology”. A frying-pan is technology.  All human artifacts are technology.  But beware anybody who uses this term.  Like “maturity” and “reality” and “progress”, the word “technology” has an agenda for your behavior: 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.

– TedNelson’s Computer Paradigm, Expressed as One-Liners, 1999

We do not deal properly with the issue of climate change. We do not deal properly with the issues of peace, war, immigration, food resources, water resources, public health, and all these important issues. We became incompetent because society as a whole began to focus on how to deceive and trick people. 

– Jaron Lanier, 2019

Successful bullshitting enhances the image of bullshitters. This happens when bullshitters are able to more or less convincingly present themselves as more grandiose than they actually are. External audiences are more likely to make positive judgements about them and be more willing to invest resources in them. Organizations often use trendy but misleading names to attract resources (particularly from the uninformed). In recent years, firms have gained a boost in valuation by adopting a name invoking blockchain technology.

As well as enhancing one’s image, bullshitting can also help to enhance self-identity. This is because bullshit can enable bullshitters to conjure a kind of ‘self-confidence trick’. This happens when bullshitters mislead themselves into believing their own bullshit. Self-deception enables individuals to present themselves as much more self-confident than they would otherwise seem if they had to engage in cognitively taxing processes of dual processing (holding in one’s mind both the deceptive statement as well as the truth). The self-confidence which comes from self-deception can aid resource acquisition. For instance, entrepreneurs are encouraged to ignore their objective chances of failure so they can appear self-confident in their search for resources to support their venture.

When bullshit has become part of the formal organization for some time, it can slowly start to seem valuable in and of itself. When this happens, bullshit can be treated as sacred. Sanctification happens when an element of secular life (such as bullshitting) is elevated, a sense of higher meaning is projected into it, and deep existential significance is invested in it.

André Spicer, Playing the Bullshit Game: How Empty and Misleading Communication Takes Over Organizations, 2020

The beauty of collaborating at human scale

Collective decision making, by equipping a group with democratic rule making tools – granting the group decision making powers over what others can or can’t do leads to a limitation of diversity within the group by definition, but it does not prevent other groups from developing different social operating models.

But if the group is too large for everyone to observe first-hand the impact of specific decisions on all members of the group and to learn from these observations, then democratic rule making can easily result in the tyranny of the majority and in marginalisation and dehumanisation of minorities. Super-human-scale groups are learning disabled by design.

Powered-up super-human-scale societies like ours equate growing in scale and growing in measurable performance with “progress”. The industrialised notion of technological progress is inversely correlated with our collective ability to learn and adapt. 

Collective decision making, by equipping a small (sub) human-scale group with egalitarian democratic rule making tools – granting the group decision making powers over what others can or can’t do leads to a limitation of diversity within the group by definition, but the group is small enough to allow everyone to observe first-hand the impact of specific decisions on all members of the group, and to learn from these observations. Sub human-scale groups are learning enabled by design, and human-scale groups are optimised for learning by design.

Collective decision making and egalitarian democratic rule making tools can be scaled by imposing a human-scale group size limit, for example via a cultural convention to split up a group into two smaller collaborating groups before the limits of human-scale are reached.

Collective decision making at human-scale, making use of tools such as Open Space, in combination de-powered social relationships between individuals and a human-scale group size limit, without any further assumptions about cultural conventions and rules, over time allows for a huge diversity of cultures to emerge that are all optimised for learning within their respective local contexts.

My energy is focused on supporting people and communities in de-powering, and in relearning to trust ecological evolutionary forces at super-human scale rather than to trust the attempts of benevolent “control” by powered-up super-human scale institutions.

Harrison Owen is incredibly skilled at communicating the benefits of Open Space. If we focus on giving people training wheels in Open Space, i.e. training wheels in de-powering, and in rediscovering collective learning at human scale, we incrementally re-acquaint them with the thinking tools for creative collaboration – and this provides an avenue out of the deadly lock-in to paradigmatic cultural inertia. This in turn may shift how humans will treat each other and our non-human contemporaries on the journey towards being composted and recycled as part of the big cycle of life. 

Sadly, a few days ago Michael Dowd died. His philosophy has a lot to offer. His two basic definitions:


  1. A normal feeling of disgust or dread upon realizing that technological progress and economic growth and development are the root of our predicament, not our way out.
  2. A name for the anxiety and fear called forth when living in a corrupt, dysfunctional civilization causing a mass extinction.
  3. The mid-point between denial and regeneration . . .  with or without us. 


  1. What opens up when we remember who we are and how we got here, accept the inevitable, honor our grief, and prioritize what is  pro-future and soul-nourishing.
  2. A fierce and fearless reverence for life and expansive gratitude — even in the midst of abrupt climate mayhem and the runaway collapse of societal harmony, the health of the biosphere, and business as usual.
  3. Living meaningfully,  compassionately, and courageously no matter what.

The goal of minimising human and non-human suffering by de-powering is culturally ambitious, and it is life affirming, but it neither requires a long academic learning curve, nor does it have any anthropocentric ambitions in terms of attempting to “save” humanity from the evolutionary forces we have unleashed via the industrialised myth of perpetual technological “progress” and the cult of busyness.

Humans won’t ever be “in control”, but at human scale, in a healthy cultural environment, at least we are optimally equipped to adapt and respond in meaningful ways to rapid ecological changes in our local environment.

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