Institutions & organisms

“In order for any organism to [control behavior in response to surroundings], one part of it must be receptive, able to smell or hear, and another part of it must be active, able to make something useful happen. The organism must also establish a connection of some sort, an arc, between these two parts.” – Peter Godfrey-Smith, Other Minds.

Godfrey-Smith was talking about organisms in the era before animals – but also sounds (to me) like the role of institutions in connecting up individual perceptions and reactions into larger, societal dynamics, that are a bit more responsive to the non-human environment around us. Societal dynamics that slow down and conserve resources as they become scarcer, that shift gears when existing ones strain under the load, that adapt collaboration to the scale(s) required as these change.

What’s useful about the analogy? Maybe: it describes a three-part challenge for institutional upgrades that makes the whole task seem a little less daunting.

First, can we sense the changes around us. Do we, or any subset of we, have the ability to sense the changes around us? Arguably yes – we are getting better at this, fast. Our human faculties may be limited to a narrow band of perception among a few senses of the many that are possible, we have built impressive extensions of these capabilities through new ways of collecting individual data points, new abilities to aggregate the observations, and new forms of pattern recognition.

Second, do we have the capacity to be active – to make something useful happen. Again, yes, increasingly so. We have the ability to marshal and aggregate intellectual and physical activity, amplified by multiple and vast forms of energy, at a planetary scale. Much of this capacity to be active, to displace the physical aspects of the planet, has drawn on historic reservoirs of solar energy (aka fossil fuels), but we are increasingly able to capture and channel the continuous flows of energy (renewables).

So it seems like the third part, the arc between these two parts, is really the weak link. The connection between sense-response. What’s the arc in more normal terms? Probably:

  • language, both the verbal kind that immediately comes to mind but also the other ways that perceptions are represented in accounting conventions, metrics, and digital representations.
  • narratives, in the sense that they affect the transmission and acceptance and ordering of information as it passes across individuals. What stands out, what knowledge changes, what gets missed because its out of frame.
  • rules, what are societally agreed upon relationships between sense – response? And what are the blanks or voids in these relationships? And how do these flex or evolve? Are they thin and algorithmic or thick and allowing of exceptions around a general rule?

Simplistic, yes. The single-celled organisms were what they were – more evolutionary than reflexive. But perhaps helpful for focus and collaboration across different communities of sensing-connecting-doing?