Saturday, September 28, 2013

Educating For the Fifth Stage

Some readers may have observed: accounts of the Fifth Stage of Civilization have been somewhat vague and generalized. I'd have to respond, "That's right. They are." The one precedent for this might not be the best: if one reads Karl Marx closely, his work is a detailed analysis of capitalism as he saw it; he doesn't have a whole lot to say about socialism beyond its having stripped the bourgeoisie of their economic power, much less about communism.

Be that as it may, part of my reasoning is that while we can identify tendencies today that might contribute to a Fifth Stage, it would be a mistake to try to plan our way into it. The Fifth Staqe of Civilization will not be a Platonist Republic type of society. It will embody the realization that central planning was a mistake from the get-go.

One consequence is that we can begin building endeavors with this in mind. We'll be building from the bottom up instead of imposing from the top down. This makes all the difference in the world.

I write this following the first week of the Exosphere Bootcamp which began in Santiago on September 23. What exactly is Exosphere? The very difficulty in pinning a label on it is actually a strength!

It's education, for sure, but imagine an education without classrooms and tests in the traditional sense (although there definitely will be tests in a larger sense!). Imagine education for independence and self-reliance, and without meddlesome bureaucrats (thank God!). Imagine education that provides a path to assuming full ownership over your situation and over your personal future. Imagine education that draws people from multiple countries and many cultural backgrounds, all wanting the same thing: self-improvement and financial independence. Imagine education for entrepreneurship that begins with a discussion not of markets but of pain and suffering: their meaning and their causes, which are universal. Imagine breaking down the boundaries between traditional "business school" (which is seldom about entrepreneurship anyway) to incorporate personal development--something therefore very much for those of us who have come to understand that we need to make some changes in our lives. Imagine conversations during "leisure time" that still have sufficient depth that what you want to do is continue taking notes, listing topics and what was said about them: Wittgenstein's Philosophical Investigations, Taleb's Anti-Fragile, the meaning behind the structure of poetry, the value of thinking in terms of heuristics, how the marketplace given sufficient time has acted as a filter to leave us with the best of the best in art, music, philosophy, and so on--topics to which the marketplace is frequently deemed hostile. We recall Hume's Treatise; but who recalls the reviewers who scoffed at Hume?

To be more specific, it is great to have grand ideas about the future of civilization but not so great to be wondering how you are going to pay the bills a couple of months down the road. As a source of stress and distraction, this interferes with one's best thinking about the future of civilization. It's also a sign of lacking in one's own life. Socrates would probably have called out the person who told him that earning money and becoming prosperous is the final end in life; but I'd like to think he would also have questioned the person who is presumably able-bodied and mentally sound but doesn't have the skills to earn a living.

The other day I wrote some notes about the possibility of a "unified field theory" of the good life, which is, of course, the successful life which can define success on its own terms, not someone else's. That's a place to begin, but the "theory" side is still a bit too prominent. The good life must integrate theory and practice, philosophy and action. It therefore must have solved the problem of how to put food on the table. This can best be done by having created value for some group of others by solving a problem for them. I used to tell my philosophy students in classes: in an important sense, we are problem-solvers. Some of us are very good at it. This was in the context of an introduction to philosophy course that converged on the idea that civilization is the aggregate solution to people's problems, which invariably creates more problems in its wake. A problem is any source of unease or discontent that motivates action; and once solved, the result is an improvement in someone's life.

Little did I know how true that was, but that we have to live the idea, not just grasp it intellectually or be able to teach it in a classroom. Just the first week at Exosphere has shown me how this might happen. I've had a sense of being in contact with some really first rate minds with huge hearts as well!

We are in the early stages of building an educational community, studying what this means as we go along. Behind this is an assumption none of us are dwelling on, as it's potentially a bit negative, but it's there: the premise that the universe is utterly indifferent to whether we succeed or fail. It doesn't care. How could it? But its laws are surely comprehensible to us, at least up to a point. Successful actions are therefore possible for us. We've always known this. Civilization proves it. But to novices at entrepreneurship, or even veterans with sufficient battle scars, that world is probably still intimidating. So why not create a community of mutual interaction, learning, and support? Why not create something that will survive the duration of this Bootcamp, which is just 11 weeks, after all, and pave the way to larger projects both entrepreneurial and educational. There will be more Bootcamps; they will be better than this one, because those in them will be in a position to learn from our mistakes. (An important lesson: when having made a mistake, it's always useful to ask, "What did I learn from this?" And then: "What can others learn from my mistake?")

Assuming the viability of the Stages framework for now, where are we? Contemporary Western civilization, with its blend of multiple stages (the third and fourth being dominant) has problems. Some threaten to overwhelm us. Many specific groups of people have more specific problems which are easier to tackle. If we are problem-solvers whose mission (not job) is using our intelligence and creativity to solve people's problems, then we must learn to live the notion and not just intellectualize about it. Our "unified field theory" of the good life is then more than theory as it integrates theory and practice. Living the notion means that putting food on the table is not a problem for you. You are even in a position to help others learn to do it--especially important in a world in which the employer-employee model has broken down, jobs that pay really, really well have largely disappeared, and job security is a thing of the past.

So here's the question: does Exosphere exemplify educating for the Fifth Stage of Civilization? The question is too simple, in that the last thing I want is for its founders (or anyone else) adopting this Stages model as just the latest ideology and then trying to force-fit their endeavors into the conceptual boxes it supplies. It will encounter the immediate problems it encounters and improvise the best solutions available--perhaps, as it grows, being carried by this dynamic in what may very well be a Fifth Stage direction. The Stages model is a way of looking at civilization in light of its remote and recent past, its present with all its problems, and the prospects for having a future that is better than the past. It's a system of description, that's all. What matters: solving people's problems in the here and now, to solve our own of personal sustenance as well as lighting the way for others, gradually building the community systems that we need, always working from the bottom up and never going where we are not wanted (every ideologue makes the mistake of thinking his/her ideology ought to be embraced by everyone). In this light, Exosphere may be just the first of many such endeavors, others focusing on education for the solution of other problems. Given our need to be able to grow and store food, and prepare it in healthy ways, I can certainly imagine a "school" with that focus. I thus prefer to leave the Fifth Stage of Civilization only partly-specified, in terms of what we may have learned from the limitations of its predecessor stages. Stafford Beer, the British cyberneticist, described the matter this way in his magnificent Brain of the Firm (1972). In distinguishing algorithms from heuristics, he wrote of the latter: "To think in terms of heuristics rather than algorithms is at once a way of coping with proliferating variety. Instead of trying to organize it in full detail, you organize it only somewhat; you then ride on the dynamics of the system in the direction you want to go" (p. 53).


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  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. It is my belief that the greatest hindrance to people solving problems in the here and now is the (unjustifiable) existence of a group of people who have been given a monopoly on force (constituting the state) and who meddle in and interfere with that process!

    In his Idea of a Private Law Society Hans Hoppe shows that the way to eliminate this meddling/interfering is by simply removing the monopoly from the protection sector of the economy.