Effective Stewardship Cannot Be Scaled Up

Slideshow & audio from a workshop at Goldsmiths University of London, 16th Sept. 2019


  1. Today, we use the term 'stewardship' to argue that humans must 'care for', or 'take care of' the planet.
  2. Its association with monotheism (e.g. Christian context) needs unpacking and revising.
  3. Although it sounds like a worthy and benign aspiration, its scale and complexity make it presumptuous.
  4. Homo sapiens is proud of its cleverness but we are still only Great Apes. ---

Some Theories Inform New Practices

  1. The ultimate aim of metadesign is to find practical and benign outcomes.
  2. However, this talk focused on (theories of) language because metaphors and grammars shape our beliefs and 'realities'.
  3. Systems Theory is useful because it offers a framework for designing with these structures of language.
  4. First Order systems started by imagining simplified (closed order) models of , feedback in which there is an 'observer' that sets up 'feedforward' or reacts to feedback.
  5. In Second Order systems theories, the observer's boundaries become entangled with the rest of the system.
  6. This cannot be conceived in terms of classical science
  7. These are essential processes in the embodied aspects of knowledge that we act out in our habits and behaviours:
    • e.g. All knowledge is tacit if it rests on our subsidiary awareness of particulars in terms of a comprehensive unity (Polanyi, 1969).
  8. It also implies that a system will 'immerge' into its environment, of which it is part.
    • (Immergence='submergence' / 'disappearance in, or as if in, a liquid').
  9. Abductive thinking|A creatively interpretive mode of reasoning
  10. Alienation|Based on Karl Marx's theory of estrangement from the self (1844)
  11. Ross Ashby's famous 'Law of Requisite Variety' states that "variety absorbs variety, defines the minimum number of states necessary for a controller to control a system of a given number of states."
  12. However, humans have increasingly contravened this law over the last ten thousand years.
  13. This is because we increasingly scaled-up our activities beyond our cognitive grasp.
  14. This can be seen as a form of alienation.

The Last 10K Years of Alienation

  1. Situated unanimity replaced by indirect representation
  2. Consensus replaced by ballot box arithmetic
  3. Estimation of quality replaced by numerical quantity
  4. Symbols replaced by codes
  5. Concept of place replaced by the parameter of space
  6. Craft skills replaced by automation
  7. Self-management of personal comfort replaced by automatic regulation of temperature/humidity
  8. Reciprocal eye contact replaced by acquired narcissistic gaze (c.f. Narcissism of small differences)
  9. Vision replaced by choice
  10. Reputation replaced by brand
  11. Trust based on experience replaced by trust in brand identity
  12. Heartfelt regret replaced by apology
  13. Being-with replaced by connectivity
  14. Human agency replaced by anticipatory AI choices

Re-designing The Instrumental Nature of Design

  1. In evolutionary terms we feel 'at home' in smaller troupes (Dunbar's number suggests 100 to 150 max).
  2. We coped with expansion by trading whole 'heart' with 'head' (e.g. design = define a purpose, then gamify it).
  3. We swapped our intimate sense of responsibility (stewardship) with the logic of managerial accountability.
  4. Maintaining sprawling and inefficient managerial hierarchies meant dumbing complex multi-dimensional phenomena down to interoperable 'rules' and 'standards' that were designed for the lowest common denominator.
  5. These methods of governance / management evolved from an ecologically destructive system.
  6. They were designed to support expansionist wars and to build trading empires, not to harmonise ecosystems.
  7. Science only seeks evidence to support generalisations (not the hunter's specific experiences of 'being there').
  8. So we reduce living systems down to data and numbers (e.g. a taxonomic record of 'species').
  9. But 90% remain unknown, or unnamed.


  1. The term 'stewardship' is less presumptuous and self-delusional than 'sustainability' - but would it have made sense to humans who lived before the era of agriculture, cities, empires and production lines?
  2. The pastoral (i.e. biblical) logic of 'stewardship' is still a top-down system.
  3. Shepherds work in a local (ecological) context.
  4. The logistics (economic context) of lamb production is global.
  5. However, it is a fundamentally hierarchical idea in which (living) systems are managed from above.

square-50cm-spacer.jpg top-down.jpg

The Idea of Top-Down Management

  1. This is how hierarchies work:
    • Agents at the top create the rules/codes/values for the whole system.
    • These rules/codes/values are passed on all the way down the web of connections.
    • This facilitates a unity of purpose, belief or action.
    • Top-down systems seem 'efficient' because they are streamlined (have fewer visible options).
    • But the agent/s at the top are more ignorant of what is happening than the rest of the system.
    • As hierarchies grow, they acquire additional levels of management, which reduces their direct connectivity.
    • In effect, this means that the whole system has a lower network consciousness that cannot satisfactorily be scaled up.
  2. God's banishment of Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden = a prima facie example of 'alienation' between humanity and God, or between humans and Nature.
  3. On an emotional level, fear of a withdrawal of personal affection is what characterises the legal concept of 'alienation'.
  4. However, in the bible stories, Adam and Eve suddenly become 'ashamed' of their own nakedness after eating fruit forbidden by God.
  5. Notably, unlike banishment, 'shame' is only possible once a sufficient level of self-consciousness has been attained.
  6. This points to a more complex emotional state, as it requires a level of self-reflexive awareness that is unnecessary when experiencing estrangement through another's scorn, or disdain.
  7. Tony Juniper has argued that we must quantify the value of natural systems, so that industrialists (imperialists) will see their value and protect them.
  8. This does not make sense because the design of money was based on dead things.
  9. They radically reduced in complexity, (their logic is granular, inert, summative) rather than living (autopoietic) systems.
  10. Ashby's 'Law of Requisite Variety' dictates that complex environments (and wicked problems) require complex organisations.
  11. The trick is to evolve organizations rather than designing them upfront" (Jabe Bloom)
    • Allopoiesis (Greek word 'allo' meant 'other' or 'different'. 'Poiesis' meant 'bringing forth, or 'creation'.) It is the process by which a system produces something other than itself. E.g. We might regard a commercial plantation as 'allopoietic', because the final product (e.g. timber) is distinct from the living trees that do the producing.
    • Autopoiesis (Greek word 'auto' meant 'self', and 'poiesis', meant 'creation, production'). It describes a system that is capable of reproducing and maintaining itself. Again, we could regard a forest as 'Autopoietic' - i.e. like a living entity whose only 'purpose' is to sustain itself. However, it is important to recognise that the means and processes it uses would be beyond today's framework of understanding. This is because they evolved within a technological, or economic mindframe.
    • As Maturana and Varela put it: "The space defined by an autopoietic system is self-contained and cannot be described by using dimensions that define another space. When we refer to our interactions with a concrete autopoietic system, however, we project this system on the space of our manipulations and make a description of this projection." (Maturana & Varela, Autopoiesis and Cognition: the Realization of the Living, 1973).

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