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Mark Storm on A Time Between Worlds
Are we at a point of inflection like the Enlightenment? Let's hope so.
In Post scriptum (2022, week 12), Mark Storm has looked into the liminal time we are in — a time between worlds — where by 'worlds' he means epochs of human civilization.
This discussion ranges beyond the normal boundaries of the future of work, but work is enmeshed in the larger world, and as that world is subjected to new pressures, so too do we feel those pressures in work culture. As the world changes, so too does work.
Being between worlds
Emerge published an interview with Zak Stein, a futurist, educator and the author of several books, including Education in a Time Between Worlds, a series of essays on the future of schools, technology and society. He is also co-founder of The Consilience Project.
According to Stein, we are in a historical moment of profound transformation, in which the old world is passing away, and the new world hasn’t emerged yet. A time between worlds, as he calls it. “This relates to the idea by the historian and economist Immanuel Wallerstein, who saw broad historical patterns of what he called ‘world system transformations’, in which the whole modality of human existence, from economics to culture, changes. One recent example would be the Enlightenment, and the democratic revolutions that overthrew the ancient regime in Europe and moved us from a certain mode of economic production and cultural thought to a completely novel one,” Stein explains.
Wallerstein's work is The Modern World System, a comprehensive set of ideas that characterize economic history as a transition from the feudal system -- starting in Western Europe and the Americas -- and establishing a new economic/political system, in which today's world is contained:
The Modern World-System
Wallerstein's first volume on world-systems theory (The Modern World System, 1974) was predominantly written during a year at the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences (now affiliated with Stanford University). In it, he argues that the modern world system is distinguished from empires by its reliance on economic control of the world order by a dominating capitalist center (core) in systemic economic and political relation to peripheral and semi-peripheral world areas.
Wallerstein rejected the notion of a "Third World", claiming that there is only one world connected by a complex network of economic exchange relationships — i.e., a "world-economy" or "world-system" in which the "dichotomy of capital and labor" and the endless "accumulation of capital" by competing agents (historically including, but not limited, to nation-states) account for frictions. This approach is known as the world-system theory.
Returning to Storm's Post Scriptum, where Stein lays out the case for a new epoch in human history:
“There is a coming transformation of human existence in all areas, in the economic, political, governmental, cultural, and personality systems. Just as in the transformation from ‘archaic’ or pre-modern humans into the modern human. We’re in another major world-historical moment of transformation, in which the old world is passing away, becoming increasingly dysfunctional, and the new world hasn’t emerged yet. We don’t know yet what will need to be created to stop us from all dying as the old system runs down. The complex dynamical open systems, in which we are living, have a high throughput of energy as we move through this phase transition. We’re in a period of chaos, the old forms of order no longer hold, the new forms of order have not emerged. We’re at a moment when we can think about design parameters, about systems that would allow for emergence of new forms of order, a re-worlding, if you will. That’s why it feels like such a potent time, both dangerous and exciting.
Welcome to the postnormal.
So, given the enormity of this change, I was trying to find the right phrase. The notion of being between worlds has the power to name this transition we are in.”
[I think Stein means 'enormousness of this change', as 'enormity' has a different meaning.]
When asked about the capacities we need to abide in this uncertainty or in this time between worlds, he breaks it down to three broad categories that characterize ontogeny — or the evolution of the individual.
“First, we find the development of cognitive complexity and the capacity for skilled behavior. Then we find dynamics of personality maturation, or ensoulment, which means the psychodynamics of dynamics of emotion and interpersonal relationships. And thirdly, we find phenomena of transcendence, which means consciousness, awareness and the capacity to be emotionally self-regulating. All these three are important: development, ensoulment, and transcendence.”
In Ten Skills for the Postnomal Era, I wrote about Deep Generalists: Deep generalists can ferret out the connections that build the complexity into complex systems, and grasp their interplay… which lines up with Stein's formulation, I think.
Returning to Storm [emphasis mine]:
According to Stein, “we need to boost all three of those domains. If we boost any one of them without boosting the others, we are messed up. If you just boost developmental complexity and ignore shadow and the capacity for contemplation, then you just get what we have: a bunch of nerds running out of control with high IQs and great technical capacity, but no heart and no sense of transcendence. If you just boost personality and ensoulment, then you’re endlessly ‘circling’ and doing shadow work and can get stuck in the tragic. We then misunderstand the importance of science. And, of course, you can engage in spiritual bypassing by focusing just on the domain of transcendence, meditating your way out of the global catastrophe into oneness.”
“Today, we’ve become so self-aware. The complexity sciences and the social sciences are increasingly telling us that a transition point is coming where we need a truly novel and spontaneous emergence to occur. But at the same time we have become neurotically avoidant of giving up control over important elements of our lives. Now we come back to human development. As we become aware that we can’t really predict or control the future, and that it is all very risky affair, many psychological defense mechanisms and biases being to kick in.
One response is to say that humans are different from the natural world, which is unpredictable and chaotic. We need to design our future to be predictable and ordered, transcending nature. According to this view we should not have faith that the self-organizing processes that created us will continue to sustain us. We should not believe that we’re part of a self-organizing process that could usher us into the future. Instead, humans are understood to be in control of all the variables and to have an obligation to predict the future by creating it.
The other response comes from learning the lessons of the complexity sciences and therefore stepping back from ambitions of omniscience and omnipotence. This means working to position ourselves within a stream of self-organizing processes that we’re just faintly aware of.
In the microcosm of business, this means we need to move toward rewilding, developing a work culture that is self-willed, accepting emergent control and cooperative dynamics instead of competition as the basis of interpersonal relationships. And in the wider culture, as below, so above.
This view requires ‘negative capability’ — the ability to look at a problem, not know the answer, and be fine with that. It’s the ability to hold not-knowing and uncertainty.”
Harold Ross calls this Constructive Uncertainty: 'It is helpful to begin to practice what I call constructive uncertainty. Learning to slow down decision-making, especially when it affects other people, can help reduce the impact of bias. This can be particularly important when we are in circumstances that make us feel awkward or uncomfortable.'
And what does Wallerstein think was coming to displace the current world system? Wallerstein died in 2019, saying that the successor system is unknowable, writing in his final commentary, This is the end; this is the beginning:
It is the future that is more important and more interesting [than the preceding decades], but also inherently unknowable. Because of the structural crisis of the modern-world system, it is possible, possible but not absolutely certain, that a transformatory use of a 1968 complex [the revolutionary spirit of 1968] will be achieved by someone or some group. It will probably take much time and will continue on past the point of the end of commentaries. What form this new activity will take is hard to predict.
So, the world might go down further by-paths. Or it may not. I have indicated in the past that I thought the crucial struggle was a class struggle, using class in a very broadly defined sense. What those who will be alive in the future can do is to struggle with themselves so this change may be a real one. I still think that and therefore I think there is a 50-50 chance that we’ll make it to transformatory change, but only 50-50.
Wallerstein’s uncertainty matches the time in which we live: pandemic, climate change, increasingly divisive politics, and now, war. Yeats’ The Second Coming, seems to hover just behind every conversation:
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
It may be that Putin’s War will be seen in the future as the tipping point that cascaded, like a domino race, across all the intertwined elements of the modern world system, leading to a spontaneous reordering of everything.
Europe and other regions accelerate their transition to sustainable energy. Brazilian soy farmers (who produce 50% of the world’s yield) respond to decreasing availability of Russian fertilizer components by adopting more sustainable, regenerative farming models. And the neoliberal system of financialized global corporations, banks, and governments — largely acting independently of the needs of we, the people — is checked by a growing awareness of the complexity and interrelatedness of our world, and the need to fix what has been broken.
And the same is true in the world of work. We need to fix what has been broken.