Narratives and ontologies

There is a poignant lack of possibilities in the narrative structures  in the political-economic stories we tell ourselves. Our current cultural stories are a curious mix of hierarchical stories around government and corporations – presidents and CEOS are managing those below them, and non-hierarchical stories about the market – money and property self-organizes society to function best. What is dearly missing from our government and corporation stories are the non-hiearchical narrative stories for self-organization, emergence and the ontologies that make this emergence possible. And what is maddenlingly suppressed by our capitalistic memes are the narratives that allow for people to care about each other and self-organize into gift-based and commons-based economies

The ontologies for these new self-organizing systems do exist. In chemistry, biology and physics new ontologies have been entering into the discourse over the last 50 years- those of autocatalysis, self-organized criticality, phase transitions in dissipative systems, universality, iteration of simple rules leading to complexity, autopoiesis, strange attractors, feedback loops, fractals, cellular automata, fitness landscapes, coupling parameters, lock-in, multiple equilibria, increasing returns, path dependence, and the edge of chaos. New ontologies are also entering into the meme field from quite a different direction, that of the world of facilitation – Open Space Technology, Dynamic Facilitation, Theory U, Appreciative Inquiry, World Cafe, Bohmian Dialogue, Non-violent communication, Future Search, Wisdom councils, and Restorative Circles. This world brings its attendant concepts that shift the discourse from that of leader, follower, plan, incentives, obediance, loyalty, to those of hosting, space holding, vulnerability, emotional safety, sacred space, listening, empathy, presence, authenticity, diversity, synthesizing multiple viewpoints, and collective intelligence. There are also new ontologies ariving from the world of psychological and sociological research – the developmental theories of Robert Kegan, Susan Cook-Greuter, Jane Loevinger, Lawerence Kohlberg, Carol Gilligan, Clare Graves, Don Beck, Ken Wilber look at how people and social systems become more caring, empathic, altruistic, and ethical as they mature.

These psycho-social insights around caring and morals have to be combined with the new ontologies around complex dynamics systems. Otherwise you get work similar to that arising from the school of thoughts based around the Santa Fe Institute of Complexity. Work that I generally find refreshing original and insightful, work from people like Brian Arthur, Kenneth Arrow and Stuart Kauffman on new forms of non-equilibrium and multiple equilibium emergence arising from our economics systems that are not expected from traditional neoclassical equilibrium theories of emergence (like single state equilibrium models of supply and demand). But their work is mired in an axiomatic basis that assumes people are selfish and work to maximize self-interest.

One way psycho-social insights can be integrated in, is to let the agents in a complex adaptive system exhibit different types of behavior depending on their psychosocial development e.g. a crude way in game theory would be to have agents maximizing self-interested fitness functions at lower levels of development, and have agents work to increase their self and the other players’ fitness functions at higher levels of development. These games can be used to model sharing economies and the commons. And be examined to see how different types of emergence correspond to different levels of psychosocial development in the agent populace. Different sets of stable states will appear for different levels, corresponding to a wide variety of possible behaviors in our sharing economies and the commons.

The integration of different ontologies is not simple nor linear : e.g. How can we map non-hierarchical government models and different types of facilitation into dynamical systems models? When the different ontologies, the different maps come together though there can be a deep aha : the decision-making in non-hierarchical government can be mapped onto the search for the best solution in a fitness landscape ; different facilitation methods can be mapped onto different types of trajectories through this fitness landscape. These interdisciplinary mappings, this new story opens up new vistas for understanding : in the above example this new interdisciplinary map can give us guidance for which facilitation method to use in which situation in non-hierarchical governance, because we can see which trajectories through the fitness landscape is most likely to yield the best and most efficient solutions. We then have new insights into what facilitation techniques to use in what situations for worker coops, for transition town meetings, for open source software governance etc. We can understand better why in some situations non-hierarchical decision-making can lead to endless loops with nothing happening, why in some cases it can descend into chaos, and what tweaks to our facilitation methods we may want to make to get out of those situations. We can also grok better why sometimes a facilitation technique like Open Space Technology can make a process so much more efficient that an organization project process which usually takes months ends up taking only a few days. This kind of theoretical basis can help pave the way for governments, businesses and non-profits to switch to more non-hiearchical forms.

There are a panoply of stories that one can tell about any given situation. How do we tell which ones correspond to reality and which to fantasy? In the hard sciences, in physics, chemistry and biology the story is tested by experiment. The experiment can falsify the story. The scientific path is strewn with discarded theories, including many that were at one time what the majority of people believed. This scientific approach has been emulated by psychology and the behavioral sciences. It has however been slow to be taken up by economics and politics. But progress is on the way. The amount of papers published in experimental economics and experimental political science is increasing. And some of those papers challenge the neoclassical economists orthodoxies. Experiments in economics show that increasing the amount of money someone can earn does not necessarily increase performance, it may in fact decrease it. Experiments demonstrate that people do not always behave to maximize self-interest, they will also act altruistically. Elinor Ostrom won the Swedish Banks Nobel memorial prize in 2009 for her work showing that a social system with a commons does not necessarily dynamically evolve to the equilibrium state known as the tragedy of the commons, it can in fact evolve under certain conditions (by varying the parameter of how much they interact with each other) to a state where people respect the commons, and partake of it in a way which leaves enough for everyone else. John Kagel ran an interesting game theory experiment where the propensity of participants to gift or not depended on whether the game theory payoff tables were made available. The reason for this may be that the presence of a payoff table sets the context for the story the participants were telling themselves. Without it they created another story about the game, one which allowed for the possibility of gifting.

Economic experiments in the future could map out more fully the workings of a gift economy where people gift each other services. For instance in a gift circle (where people share what they need and then help each other with those needs) the different types of stable states the system can evolve to could be tested for. The flow of people into a gift circle could be varied (thus creating a nonequilibrium flux) to see how that affects the types of stable states the system evolves to. Economic experiments can also map out the influence of narrative context for economic behavior, how does what story participants are told about what is happening affect the stable points and attractor states of the system? Political science experiments in the future could compare how different hierarchical and non-hierarchical structures affect the efficiency of a collective to work together. So for instance a group can be given a problem that they must work together to accomplish. Different groups are instructed to use different facilitation methods or to use command-and-control hierarchical methods. The success rates different organizational methodologies for solving the problem could then be analysed. The different types of paths each faciltation method took through the problem fitness landscape could be studied.

Complex system models could also come up with mathematical predictions for how these economic and political experiments would behave. Mathematical predictions that come true make a story much more believable. For the most part the mathematization has not happened yet. The socio-econo-political realm is known for being messy, a lot messier than the hard sciences. However dissipative systems offer the possibility that the messy dimensions of a social system dynamical decay, leaving beautiful numbers. In addition it may also be that the underlying complex systems structure may show through even if there is no decay of noise. In the Ostrom commons experiment above we may find that as we change the interactivity parameter of the participants there may be a phase transition in the type of commons behavior. As people interact with each other more, there reaches a point where people are connected enough that information is able to pass through a larger part of the system through one-on-one.interactions. In random graph theory Erdos has shown that as nodes in a graph get more and more connected, there reaches a point when the majority of the nodes are connected. This is the percolation point at which a new attractor state for the commons may occur. This kind of arising of new types of behavior is related to Stuart Kauffmans work on emergence and the edge of chaos which has to deal with topics like how molecules interacting with each other when they reach a certain level of interactivity can autocatalyse to produce life. This is also related to in physics of how varying the coupling parameter in a system will lead to different phases of behavior.

If this type of phase transition behavior occurs for commons outside the experimental lab, then this provides a new way of governance for the commons. For instance in a town which is implementing a commons-based bicycle program can instead of designing the rules for how the bicycles are used top down, can instead facilitate the town-folk in dialogue processes. If enough of the townfolk are part of the processes to so that interactivity degree is passed the percolation point, the group may emerge better ways of self-governing how they use the bicycles.

In traditional political economic discussions, where we have a hierarchical government with a self-organizing market, the debate is about how we can shift the parameters of interest rates, money supply, market incentives so that the society settles into the best attractor states. In these new paradigm discussions, where we have non-hierarchical governance, and a sharing & commons based economy, the talk is instead about a parameter that is quite different, a parameter that at first seems like it should not have that important bearing on the political economy, seems like it would not cause large scale changes in societal behavior. Its a variable however that complex adaptive systems shows us can cause phase transitions. This variable is how much and what type of interactivity the populace engages in. Its a parameter that depends on what type of facilitation processes the populace comes to dialogue with each other, what type of network connections exist. The political economic discussion is thus about how to vary this parameter to guide the populace so that the society settles into the best attractor states.


The new stories, the new theories will combine autocatalysis, phase transitions, complex dynamical systems, with holding space, emotional vulnerability, empathy, facilitation and diversity of opinions, with circles, horizontal social architectures, agile project management, open source methodologies, peer-to-peer networks, and flat organizational developmental strategies.

Its a curious thing. Our stories guide us to write our reality. And because we then see our reality through these stories we think that is all that is possible. We collectively create these self-imposed constraints on reality. When we write new stories, our collective reality becomes different, we interact in new ways, we build new things, a whole new world becomes possible. These new ontologies mentioned above, as they become translated, fitted, tinkered, and molded to work with our political economy by practitioners versatile and conversant in multiple fields and daring enough to think outside the box will in the future craft a new story that will bring about a new friendlier, more participatory world our governments, businesses, organizations, and markets can play in.

related articles:
Complex adaptive systems and the future of facilitation
Collaborative rationality” a review of “Planning with complexity”, a book about complex adaptive systems applied to facilitation and planning


11 thoughts on “Narratives and ontologies

  1. sounds good
    i have been playing with these ontologies as you call them
    though looking forward to “fitness landscapes” and “coupling parameters”
    perhaps they are related to concepts i have put my own words to…

    certainly willing to play
    and got a game or two set up for the new year
    if you know anyone anywhere near london 🙂

    be well!

  2. Alpha, delighted to have found your blog! “birthing the new we”… the most awesome and compelling game we can imagine… (as in, Jane McGonigal…) I am soo looking forward to reading all of your posts in great detail, have just ordered your Open Collaboration Encyclopedia, and can’t wait to tell everyone I know. Congratulations on your great work!

  3. Hi Alpha… i’m back from the holidays, and now have the time to read your post more carefully, and to offer a more considered response…

    here are a few thoughts: 1) with regard to finding a “bridge” between the two worlds of facilitation and economic modeling, i’m thinking about the work of David Rock (“Your Brain at Work”.) It seems to me that there is strong neuropsychological evidence, to begin positing humans as being fundamentally digital (in either anxiety/protective response, OR, in creative/exploring mode…) and, that could be a key variable to include in any modeling efforts…

    2) this “on/off” view does not ‘negate’ a developmental perspective, but rather is another dimension that is true at any developmental level….

    3) i think an attachment perspective can help us understand people’s attraction to hierarchical systems, and also, the inherent contributions that such systems offer, when they are functioning optimally… purpose being, that it can be much easier to transform something, when we can acknowledge the gift in it…

    4) I’m re-reading your first paragraph, loving it, and wondering, if part of the problem, is that we have a polarity that has been split off, and thus become toxic…. “non-hierarchy” is glorified in the economic market place, and “hierarchy” is glorified in the government/corporate realm, and so each has become its shadow…( license and domination, respectively…) rather than its gift… (horizontality/peerness on the one hand, and appropriate verticality/mentoring/servant leadership/etc.)

    So, i don’t know if this will resonate or not, but that’s my two cents…

    congratulations again for your brilliant and thought-provoking work, and all best wishes,


    1. Hi Rosa,
      thanks for your reply.
      in response to your points
      1) if there is a more on/off way our mind works that is something to integrate into our facilitation models. It maybe that we want to find facilitative processes that guide people from anxiety to creative befor engaging in sharing based economic interactions/
      3) yes I do think once we hold space for why we are attracted to something, without fighting it, we can then also find a way to let go, so the system can transform to something else
      4) I agree that when a system is in its hierarchy mode there is a shadow to the social system. There is a yearning for more freedom. And when it is in its economic market place mode there is a shadow – a yearning for something to make sure things dont go too out of control. Recognising these yearnings will help balance the system out, and not have one part glorified over the other. I do think though that to fully integrate the shadow we will probably need a horizontal gift-based economy, and people mature enough in consciousness to participate in such a system.

  4. You spelled Elinor Ostrom wrong.

    Also i feel that ontology is perhaps not the right level of discourse. It seems an unclear usage that doesn’t clarify any point or connect to a specific idea. It starts to tilt the essay to just being jargon for the beauty of jargon rather than an attempt to communicate ideas clearly. Why that choice to frame your argument? Would it be clearer if you used a more common usage like categories or paradigms? How would it change your messaging if you wrote in common language or defined a term as you understand it each time you introduce a piece of specific language?

    I also don’t think it was Erdos that did the work major work on graph theory that you are referring to. Are you sure you aren’t thinking of Strogatz or Barabassi?

    The example of bicycle commons is unclear. What phase shift is supposed to occur here? I can only think of these punks who started a DIY bike share in my city. It lasted about 2 weeks before the bikes were gone. Remember dissipative systems always have boundaries and maintenance costs. For any kind of collective action to happen there has to be a rewarding way for those maintenance costs to be performed with the bounds of the common pool resource. That is to say some kind of institutional design and set of agreed rules and work has to take place. These systems need to be self organized before they can self organize if you get my meaning.

    1. The idea of translating political and economic ideas into complex systems language is that it gives one new insights into political economic behavior.

      Some bicycle commons work and some don’t. Sounds like the bicycle commons situation you described was not a lasting state. The question is what are the parameters one can vary to make the bicycle commons work. Ostrom’s work suggest that getting the people who use the bicycles to get to know each other more would affect how long the DIY bike share can work. A bike share failing and a bike share working are two different types of phases.

      Ontology is about the state of beingness of an object/system. Whether we think of political economies as complex systems or not, is an ontological question.
      Fixed the Ostrom spelling.

  5. Just to be completely clear. I’ve read pretty much everything you are referring to. I understand your language. I’m not sure what you are trying to say. if we were sitting across from each other right now how would you explain this essay to me? what’s the main point you are trying to communicate?

    1. The main point I am making is that by translating politics and economics into complex systems language by introducing internal development into the mix we may have a very different picture of how politics and economics works.

      Another point I am making that we can make more rigorous about the ideas of whether non-hierarchical systems and gift economies can work or not. There are parameters we can vary that can make non-hierarchical political system a stable state, or make a gift economy a stable state. There may be a particular point where a political system goes from being unstable as a non-hierarchy to being stable as a hierarchy, and a political point where an economic system goes from being unstable as a commons to being stable as a commons. If so these are DEEP theorems of politics and economics.

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