Back to Nature - BOOK EXCERPT: BIRTH OF THE CHAORDIC AGE

chaord (ka' ord)

1 The behavior of any self-governing organism, organization or system that harmoniously blends characteristics of chaos and order.

2 Patterned in a way dominated by neither chaos nor order.

3 Characteristic of the fundamental organizational principles of evolution and nature.

In Birth of the Chaordic Age, Hock illustrates this type of organization, one that blends chaos and order. This excerpt from Chapter 12 begins with the earliest incarnation of Visa International announcing its intent to build a proprietary, competitive system for the electronic authorization of sales and the clearance of transactions and payments. Hock takes us through its bumpy ride, where chaos seems omnipresent yet order and sense emerge from it all -- naturally.

THE FOLLOWING MONTHS WERE AMONG the most exciting in the history of the company. We were determined the needs of our members and cardholders would be served, not the needs of technology or vendors. That required internal responsibility. We decided to become our own prime contractor, farming out selected tasks to a variety of software developers, then coordinating and implementing results. Conventional wisdom held it to be one of the worst possible ways to build computerized communications systems.

We rented cheap space in a suburban building and dispensed with leasehold improvements in favor of medical curtains on rolling frames for the limited spatial separation required. IBM, then the infallible behemoth of the computer industry, was the supplier of computers to 80 percent of our members. Early in the process, as we had prepared the proposal to the board, IBM had promised a quarter-million dollars of support in connecting members to the system. Now they waffled, saying only that they would see what they could do when the time arrived. We threw them out, telling them not a single piece of IBM equipment would come through our doors in the future, not even a typewriter. We selected a relatively new, then innovative company, Digital Equipment Corp., which we believed would be more responsive to the spirit of our people, to provide our computers.

The Dirty Coffee Cup System

SWIFTLY, SELF-ORGANIZATION EMERGED. an entire wall became a pinboard with every remaining day calendared across the top. Someone grabbed an unwashed coffee cup and suspended it on a long piece of string pinned to the current date. Every element of work to be done was listed on scraps of paper with the required completion date and name of the person who had accepted the work. Anyone could revise the elements, adding tasks or revising dates, provided they coordinated with others affected. Everyone, at any time, could see the picture emerge and evolve. They could seee how the whole depended on their work, and how their work was connected to every other part of the effort. Groups constantly assembled in front of the board as need and inclination arose, discussing and deciding in a continuous flow; then dissolving as needs were met. As each task was completed, its scrap of paper would be removed. Each day, the cup and string moved inexorably ahead.

Every day, every scrap of paper that fell behind the grimy string would find an eager group of volunteers to undertake the work required to remove it. To be able to get one's own work done and help another became a sought-after privilege. Nor did anyone feel beggared by accepting help. Such Herculean effort meant that at any time, anyone's task could fall behind and emerge on the wrong side of the string.

Leaders spontaneously emerged and reemerged, none in control, but all in order. Ingenuity exploded. Individuality and diversity flourished. People astonished themselves at what they could accomplish and were amazed at the suppressed talents that emerged in others.

Position became meaningless. Power over others became meaningless. Time became meaningless. Excitement about doing the impossible increased, and a community based on purpose, principle and people arose. Individuality, self-worth, ingenuity and creativity flourished; and as they did, so did the sense of belonging to something larger than one's self, something beyond immediate gain and monetary gratification.

No one ever forgot the joy of bringing to work the wholeness of mind, body and spirit; discovering in the process that such wholeness is impossible without inseparable connection with others in the larger purpose of community effort. Money was a small part of what happened. The effort was fueled by a spontaneous expansion of the nonmonetary exchange of value -- things done for one another without measurement or prescribed return -- the heart and soul of all community. People discovered that any receiving worthy of the name is an inexorable product of giving. A few who could not adjust to the diversity, complexity and uncertainty wandered away. Dozens volunteered to take their place. No one articulated what was happening. No one recorded it. No one measured it. But everyone felt it, understood it and loved it.

No one replaced the dirty string and no one washed the cup. The Dirty Coffee Cup System became legendary -- a metaphor for the company for years to come. The system came up on time, under budget and exceeded all operating objectives. Out of initial failure grew a magnificent success. It forced the industry to abandon notions of natural monopoly, to innovate and create other systems. It was a foundation of commitment and practice from which the global Visa communication system evolved.

I CONTINUED TO EXPLORE THE SIGNIFICANCE of information in the form of arranged particles of energy, trying to get at the essence of its ultimate meaning. By then, peeling such a mental onion by asking hundreds of layered questions was not only habit, it was recreation. In time, a new perception gradually emerged, based upon trying to understand the history and effect of a single, fascinating capacity: the Capacity to Receive, Utilize, Store, Transform and Transmit Information (CRUSTTI). Not information from the common misperception of alphanumeric data, but from Gregory Bateson's [an English-born anthropologist and educator] perspective that "information is a difference that makes a difference." If something perceived cannot be distinguished from its surroundings in a relevant way, it's just noise. If it can be differentiated and truly makes a difference, then it becomes in-formation. It is capable of in-forming us, forming us within and allowing us to formulate differences that can make a difference to others.

In a very real sense, one can think of new information as boundary acid. It dissolves old boundaries and creates the condditions for new patterns of relationships to emerge. To understand CRUSTTI, it is essential to begin at the beginning.

If one is to examine early examples of single-celled life, it is apparent they possess the capacity to receive, store, utilize, transform and transmit information. In fact, this capacity precedes even such simple life forms, for it is the very essence of DNA. It even precedes DNA, for when physicists attempt to examine the smallest known particles, the particles change their behavior. And when they do, the physicists change their behavior in response. Particle and physicist find themselves in a fascinating, quantum, cosmic dance. Clearly each is perceiving a "difference that makes a difference." They are exchanging information.

In ways we don't begin to understand, information escapes particles, transcends them and binds them together into more complex systems in which all particles constantly exchange information. It seems a principle of evolution, perhaps the fundamental principle, that the greater the capacity to receive, store, utilize, transform and transmit information, the more diverse and complex the entity. It holds true from neutrino, to nucleus, to atom, to amino acids, to proteins, to molecules, to cells, to organs, to organisms. From bacteria, to bees, to bats, to birds, to buffalo, right on through to baseball players.

CRUSTTI didn't stop there. In time, information transcended the boundaries of organisms and led to communication between them. Whether the dance of the bees, the pheromone of ants, the sonar of bats, the song of birds or the language of people, once that capacity transcended organisms, there was immediate evolution of complex communities of organisms -- hives, flocks, packs, colonies, herds and tribes.

Let's follow that capacity with respect to our species. Throughout history, many of our finest minds have argued that the two characteristics that most distinguish the human species are memory and language. Memory, the ability to store and recall images. Language, the means to share those images. Over the centuries, we have ascended a ladder of diversity and complexity. With language, information escaped the boundaries of a single mind and experience became shared. Immediately, there was a corresponding leap in societal diversity and complexity. With written language came expansion to that which could be manually recorded and personally transported. Another leap in capacity, another leap in societal diversity and complexity.

Leap followed leap, each exponentially greater and more frequent. With mathematics came expansion to that which could be commonly understood by means of a global language. With the printing press came expansion to that which could be mechanically recorded and transported. With the telegraph came electronic alphanumeric capacity. With the telephone came phonic capacity. With television came visual capacity, followed by multimedia capacity.

One could paraphrase Einstein's most famous equation and say that where "I" equals the capacity to receive, store, utilize, transform and transmit information, "D" equals societal diversity and "C" equals societal complexity, the equation is I=DC2, or the capacity to receive, store, utilize, transform and transmit information equals societal diversity times societal complexity squared.

Then it happened! Suddenly, with the revolution in microelectronic technology, in less than 20 short years, we have on the order of a thousand times better algorithms, 500,000 times more computing capacity per individual and 500 million times more mobility of information. All known and recorded information, the entire collective memory of the species, will soon be no more than a few keystrokes away. Software to navigate that immensity of information is rapidly emerging. We don't begin to understand the significance of all this, let alone the societal change unleashed or the institutionnal change it demands.

But that is nothing compared with what lies ahead. Around the corner are other revolutions of enormously greater significance, such as nano- and biotechnology. Simply stated, nanotechnology is the engineering of self-replicating assemblers and computers so tiny they can manipulate atoms, the basic building blocks of nature, as though they were bricks. The necessary science has already been discovered. What remains to be done is the engineering of tools at the atomic scale. In his book, Engines of Creation: The Coming Era of Nanotechnology, K. Eric Drexler, a pioneer in the field, writes: "When biochemists need complex molecular machines, they have to borrow them from cells...advanced molecular technology will eventually let them build nanocircuits and nanomachines as easily as engineers now build microcircuits or washing machines."

In answer to the question, "What could we build with these atom-stacking mechanisms?" Marvin Minsky, MIT professor, writes: "We could manufacture assembly machines much smaller even than living cells...make materials stronger and lighter than any available today, hence, better spacecraft, hence, tiny devices that can travel along capillaries to enter and repair living cells."

The possibilities are profound. Efficient solar collectors durable enough to repave highways and parking lots or to surface buildings. The ability to create large structures onsite swiftly at little cost from material as common as dirt and air by arranging atoms into a desired object. Even more important, the deconstruction into atoms of garbage, industrial waste and atmospheric pollutants, thus turning them into abundant, cheap, raw material.

NATURE DOES IT ALL

THERE IS NOTHING NEW IN ALL THIS. it is the fundamental technique that nature has used to create everything since the beginning of time. Information in the form of DNA is endlessly replicated at no cost and distributed in seeds. A process of replication driven by the power of the sun begins. Molecules and cells assemble on the spot into known patterns from atoms of surrounding air, soil and water. In the case of animals, it happens not only on the spot, but on the move. When such creations are no longer viable, nature breaks them down into atoms once again for recreation into something new and useful -- a never-ending, effective, nonpolluting chain of events of ever-evolving diversity and complexity. No factories, no waste, no despoiled resources, no pollution, no mechanistic organization, and no command and control. Nature does it all with chaordic organization -- a complex, diverse flow of information that chaordically mobilizes physical materials into both animate and inanimate forms.

How soon and how likely are such things? One need only remember that a few decades ago the atomic bomb was scarcely a theory, travel to the moon a fantasy, television the dream of a few odd engineers, a plastic card for the global exchange of value unthinkable and genetic engineering securely locked up in the secrets of DNA. Yet none had a better theoretical or scientific foundation than do nanotechnology or biotechnology today, and none were being driven by the incredible forces of change now common throughout the world. As microtechnology builds down and nanotechnology and molecular biology build up, they will come together. Within two or three decades, we will be constructing products and services from the atom up, and the capacity to receive, store, utilize, transform and transmit information will be at the heart of it. The message is simple:

Fasten your seat belts, the turbulence has scarcely begun. We are facing an explosion of societal diversity and complexity hundreds of times greater than we now experience or can yet imagine. If we think to perpetuate the old ways, we should try to recall the last time evolution rang our number and asked consent.

And we're going to manage such a ssociety with the same old, 17th-century mechanistic concepts of organization and management? Not the chance of a snowball in that proverbial hot place. Within a few decades, we will look on our present methods of manufacturing, transportation, finance and organization as quaint relics of an archaic Industrial Age.

To paraphrase T.S. Eliot, we will come full circle to the place from which we set out and see it for the first time.

This story, "Back to Nature - BOOK EXCERPT: BIRTH OF THE CHAORDIC AGE" was originally published by CIO.

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