Moving To The Edge: The Hunter/Gatherer Future

Today’s New York Times includes a piece on female bosses being occasionally more tyrannical that males (see A Tyrant Boss, Even Without the Y Chromosome – New York Times), which precipitated a chain of thought about collaboration, the future of work, and, perhaps, a return to an earlier basis for culture:

[by Benedict Carey]

In an authoritative 2003 analysis of 45 studies in a wide range of organizations, from schools to hospitals to financial companies, Alice Eagly of Northwestern University and Marloes van Engen of Tilberg University in the Netherlands found that women managers tended to be — on average — more collaborative than men, more encouraging to subordinates, more likely to include them in decisions. Men were more likely to lead by top-down command, or to be strictly hands off, distant.

“The differences are small and of course individuals vary,” Dr. Eagly said, “but women score higher on transformational leadership, modeling good behavior, working with people, letting people know when they are doing a good job.”

I have long believed that the best collaboration arises in groups where hierarchical dominance is tempered by egalitarian ideals: where the social norms favor hearing the viewpoints of the largest number of those involved in the work or subject at hand, and where the responsibilities and rewards of work are distributed. Not too surprising, those places where I have worked with the fewest number of women have been the places with the lowest degree of collaboration, trust, and happiness.

Being a natural loner, although an alpha male type, I have in general withdrawn into the hard shell of individual achievement in such situations, or, when working as a manager in these contexts, have worked to create a private world with social norms at variance with the larger context. Lamentably, both of these strategies had only limited success, or, at the worst, have failed miserably.

I believe that the best setting for collaboration – whether in the workplace, or in society as a whole – is one in which these principles of inclusion and egalitarianism are afforded the greatest importance. This is the primary motivation for my evangelism for Web culture, since it lacks any hierarchies except those based on respect, influence, and the inexorable power laws of reputation and emergent individual authority.

It is worth saying that the nature of collaboration is such that it flourishes in situations where the so-called “feminine” – which could be translated as egalitarian – approach to social interaction are expected and applied. This means that we need to move actively away from authoritarian – “masculine” – and hierarchical approaches to sense making, organization, and decision making, that is, if we wish to live in a world based on collaboration and inclusion.

Of course, the alternative is right in front of us. We can instead aspire to hold onto a world based on exclusion, divisiveness, and caste, where unilateral power politics dominate the world stage, and the parochial interests of the powerful few control the destinies of all.

And in business, we will watch as those who best learn how to collaborate will come to dominate the land-rush into the 21st century economy, and those who tried to control their markets – instead of building deep collaboration into their business models, as John Seely Brown styles it – will fail. It may well be that this will be the fulcrum upon which human culture turns, pried away from industrial era models of command-and-control, in business, in politics, and in society as a whole.

I sense that the Web stands as a strange attractor, where the relatively stable state of our world system can be rapidly transformed into a radically different but equally stable state.

On a personal level, I think that the rise of a new world culture, colored strongly by the Web and its subversion of all the pillars of culture, namely arts, entertainment, media, politics, and religion, will change people’s aspirations and role models. Bill Gates will seem less an icon than Pierre Omidyar or Jason Fried, in the coming years. Gates, the last great industrial tycoon, and the information era the final chapter in the industrial epoch.

And it occured to me that this egalitarianism – including the near parity of men and women in social systems – is a major characteristic of hunter/gatherer societies. I wondered what other aspects of hunter/gatherer life might be worthwhile to reintroduce into today’s world, or which are likely to reemerge as we move into the new epoch?

Communitarianism – Early paleolithic hunter/gatherers have been generally depicted, as Hobbes stated, “living lives nasty, brutish, and short,” but current anthropology suggests that they may have lived much better that later pastorialists, agricutural serfs, or industrial factory workers. They certainly worked less, perhaps only a few hours a day, spending the rest of their time socializing, sleeping, and playing. Most interesting, it seems that in general, hunter/gatherers distribute their food in a communitarian manner, relying on a “gift economy” of obligation and favors to make sense of who should get how much of what is caught or gathered everyday.

I am not advocating a grasshopper lifesyle, with no food storage or planning for the future, but only suggesting that the current social norms fail to include the poor and disenfranchised adequately in our rapid movement into a brave new world. We need to adopt an “all for all” attitude, and distribute the benefits of our collective resources in such a way that all have a place at the cookpot. Any other philosophy – especially based on the arguments of centralized authority in the hands of ruling elites – will fail to find any resonance in the emerging Web culture.

Marshall Sahlins refers to a “Zen affluence” where

human material wants are finite and few, and technical means unchanging but on the whole adequate. Adopting the Zen strategy, a people can enjoy an unparalleled material plenty – with a low standard of living. That, I think, describes the hunters. And it helps explain some of their more curious economic behaviour: their “prodigality” for example- the inclination to consume at once all stocks on hand, as if they had it made. Free from market obsessions of scarcity, hunters’ economic propensities may be more consistently predicated on abundance than our own.

I am not actually advocating returning to actually hunting and gathering itself – spearing fish from streams, or eating bark from trees – only the reapplication of the social models of hunter/gathers now that we have moved beyond a time in which most of us are working the land or laboring in factories. This Zen abundance is one example of how we might think, if we only wanted to.

Nomadism – A few thousand years ago, humanity stopped wandering around, and became tied to the land based on agriculture, and then moved from agriculural areas into the cities with the rise of industrialism. In a time when corporate agriculture employs only a few percent of the population, and a minority are involved in manufacturing, huge cities and sedentary populations are an artifact of outmoded economics. (As are, perhaps, all notions that derive from living in fixed places, which is too large a thought to pursue here, suggesting the inutility of things like nations.)

While New York seems the pinnacle of all that is metropolitan, parking 8 to 15 million people into a giant hive on some relatively low-lying islands and pennisulas sticking out in the increasingly restive Atlantic in a time of global warming is simply hubris, as the Katrina disaster should prove to anyone willing to connect the dots. A multi-trillion dollar disaster is just waiting to happen, and it really is not limited to just big catastrophes. Ditto Hong Kong and dozens of other locations.

The world is warming, and while we should do everything we can to decrease the rate of the rise, it is likely to rise for some time, no matter what we do. Our relationship to the earth has to change on many levels, and in one obvious one: we need to think about moving large populations away from the coastlines, where most people on earth live.

We could adopt the paleolithic ideal, which involves thinking of ourselves as nomads, and moving away from the “American Dream” which involves a relatively large home, surrounded by other similar, disconnected homes, in neighborhood unserved or underserved by public transportation, that require the entire energy apparatus of Western civilization to support it: commuting, cars, large road systems, strip malls, gas stations, the petroleum economy, wars in West Asia, and the growing carbon crisis.

Instead, we need to envision a time when we rely principally on non-personal transportation, using renewable energy sources, and a gradual decommissioning of all the elements of the current “Dream” – including the fixed tie to the land that a home implies.

I am not self-universalizing, suggesting that others should become jetsetters just because I am bouncing from place to place like a shuttlecock. But moving our aspirations away from a house in the suburbs, a job with a short commute, and a summer place on the Cape is a good starting point.

Why can’t people in service jobs work nearly anywhere? You can, as the Web shows. And even folks in more prosaic jobs – the barrista at the neighborhood Starbucks – could just as well work in Tucson, as in Fairfax County, so long as people begin dispersing from the coasts and large cities into other locales.

This is a condemnation of the current mileau – politicians, governments, media, and other organized gorups – who refuse to mobilize toward a sustainable future. We will have to – no surprise – take it on ourselves to accomplish this transformation of human life on earlth, and most likely jettison those power structures along the way.

And my prediction is that people will begin moving into locales conducive to this sort of life style. [I better hurry to sell my suburban DC home before this trend surfaces.] But it is likely to require a permanent increase in energy costs and a few more coastal disasters before the notion becomes a movement.

Inclusiveness – Buckminster Fuller’s Spaceship Earth notions are basically forgotten, but the idea is simple: we are on Earth together, and if we think of it as a vessel carrying us into the future, with limited resources and a growing number of passengers it will change our response to the problems that beset us. And good collaborative solutions will require us to adopt inclusionary and egalitarian approaches to work toward reasonable solutions: we will need to become more feminine in our style and society.

You can take this as the Sunday morning ramblings of a bleary-eyed, over-zealous student of technology and society, if you’d like. Some moony-headed geek hoping that technology will outpace the ills of our dysfunctional world. Maybe so.

I hope that instead I am simply advocating a return to our wiring, a resurgence of trust in ourselves and how we have come into being on this green, small, and fragile watering hole, this third rock from the Sun. We need to move past the fractious adolesence of a troubled humanity and take on the tasks of adulthood, which means caring for all of us, not just our friends and families, and putting aside childish cliques and games.

Its time to learn to hunt, and forage, and memorize the old, old songs that tell the paths to the summer fishing grounds and where the nuts are sweetest. Fables that teach us that humor trumps evil, and that the wisest of us all might be an old crone full of tales. Stories that warn us against the short and hard promises of war, and argue against the cold logic of hatred.

We need to move to the edge, and leave the center behind. We have so much to do, so much to lose, so much to regain.

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