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Self-Organization (Part 2)

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In part 1 of this multi-post article I explained that self-organization has built the universe and everything in it, from quarks to strawberries to humans, and all that lies in between.

And then humans acquired consciousness, and they invented the concept of value.

Some people would argue that animals know value too. After all, monkeys are reluctant to give up bananas once they possess them. But I beg to differ. Behavior of animals, as programmed by their genes, follows evolutionary stable strategies. From an evolutionary perspective it makes perfect sense not to throw away a banana. In fact, scientists are able to explain (almost) all social behavior in animals from an evolutionary perspective. They can even explain why I don't like throwing away my old shoes, even when there's no reason to keep them. That's just the beast in me.

What makes humans unique is that, with the introduction of consciousness, we invented morality, law, rules, authority, and the designation of preferred directions for self-organizing systems. We value human lives, therefore we consider malaria parasites and HIV viruses an undesirable result of self-organization. From an evolutionary perspective it makes no sense to extend the lives of 80-year old people. But still we do it. Our value systems (plural, because they differ per person) are not simply a product of an evolutionary stable strategy anymore. We value the health of the weakest members in our society, and so we contribute to medicare. We value freedom of speech, and therefore we condemn the self-organizing Taliban. We value return on investment and happy customers, and therefore we try and remove the self-organized waste that has krept into our development processes. I value a good night's rest and therefore I detest mosquitoes organizing themselves around my head.

Self-organization makes no distinction between good or bad, between valuable or harmful. It just does whatever the environment allows it to do.

And so, quite soon after the invention of value, humans invented the concept of command-and-control.

In their attempt to steer self-organizing systems (businesses, teams, countries) in the direction that they considered to be valuable, people started assuming command, and resorted to a command-and-control style of giving direction. That's how managers got their positions. And that's why governments try to run countries. They want to make sure that self-organizing systems either produce valuable things (products and services), or refrain from harming valuable things (human lives, economic growth, natural resources). Sometimes these managers succeed. Sometimes they don't.

As I told you in part 1, the funny thing is that many people think that command-and-control has always been the norm, and that "self-organizing teams" are a new and interesting concept. But that's turning the universe on its head, even though it is a common mistake.

The human mind is wired to prefer linear and causal thinking. For example: Mathematicians have always worked with linear systems and they considered non-linear systems to be special (and difficult) cases. But nowadays we understand that it works the other way around. Non-linear (complex) systems are in fact the norm, and abundant throughout the universe, and linear (simple) systems are a rare and special breed. I remember one scientist saying that it is like dividing all species in two groups: millipedes and non-millipedes. It seems that, by default, we humans are quite literaly a bit simple-minded.

Self-organization (or anarchy) is the formation of things without top-down direction, and it pervades the universe. While conscious command-and-control (imposed order) was invented only 13.7 billion years later, by humans, in their attempt to protect what they believe is valuable.

So you see, anarchy is the norm. And (imposed) order is the special case.

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Published at DZone with permission of Jurgen Appelo .

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