We have a desperate need to develop social systems that obtain their strength from the interplay of individuals cooperating to achieve mutual purposes. This requires us to rethink our assumptions about the source and nature of order in our lives: is it a quality that is vertically-imposed upon us, or one that is horizontally-generated by the confluence of tens of millions of people pursuing their diverse interests? Holographic thinking may provide us the basis for such alternative systems.
A holographic paradigm is an expression of the labyrinthine interconnectedness of complex systems. Whether we are considering economies, ecosystems, plate tectonics, epidemics, planetary polar reversals, climates, or other phenomena whose behavior is influenced by an unknowable array of intervening factors, our world is far too complicated to allow us to deal with it as fragmented parts, or to any longer permit the illusion of it being manageable to foreseeable ends. The formal structures to which we have long been accustomed, are being toppled by irresistible dynamic forces. With the vertical in decline, a holographic model—with its decentralist implications—will likely prove itself the most effective system for generating social order as an unintended consequence of each of us responding to the complexities in our lives.
By its very nature, a holographic social system diffuses all authority over human action. Centralized power is replaced by decentralized networks, with decision-making residing in autonomous but interrelated men and women who respond to one another through unstructured feedback systems and processes some have referred to as “emergence.”19 Social relationships are characterized by individuals freely choosing to cooperate with one another for the accomplishment of mutually-desired purposes. Social behavior would be represented by the interconnectedness of independent persons, not the subservient obedience of subjects. The Internet provides a perfect metaphor for such systems, wherein individuals communicate directly with one another, without any need for institutional “gatekeepers”20 to superintend such intercourse.
Within a holographic organization, authority flows horizontally, or laterally, with members communicating and exchanging directly with one another, rather than through formal intermediaries. The function of leaders within such a system is not to direct, control, and supervise members, but to coordinate and facilitate (e.g., to make certain that raw materials are available for work, to maintain clear channels for feedback, or, as the phrase used to be employed to describe the role of college administrators: to keep the snow off the sidewalks). Order is more spontaneously derived as a by-product of the behavior of all members of the organization, not the creature of institutional design or authoritative pronouncement.
Any comparison between vertically-structured and horizontally-networked social systems must include a focus on the question of how order originates. The vertical, “positivist” model presumes order to be the product of human intention and design; of consciously formulated rules created to impose standardized conduct upon members of society. Such thinking is grounded in a “fear of trusting uncontrolled social forces,”21 focusing upon systematically directed uniformity as essential to an orderly society.
The horizontal, holographic model, on the other hand, is premised on order being the unintended consequence—a side effect—of people pursuing their respective self-interests. It consists of those regularities that arise without any planning or purpose to create them. The marketplace, with the pricing system constantly adjusting—without outside direction—to the fluctuations in supplies and demands for goods and services, is the most vivid and familiar example of such spontaneouslyderived order. No one—buyer or seller—enters into economic transactions for the purpose of fostering equilibrium pricing, but such are their contributions to the informal order of the marketplace. In holographic systems, individuals, not the state, are acknowledged as the conductors of their own affairs on the basis of terms they freely negotiate with one another, and with disputes resolved on the basis of such self-negotiated rules, as well as the broadly based customs, practices, and expectations of the community. In such alternative systems, the substance of social order is found in the regularities that arise, spontaneously and without any intention to do so, from the interplay of human behavior.
The contrast between these ways of conceptualizing order can be seen in how we think about that force we call gravity. Under the traditional, pyramidal model, gravity has been thought of as a kind of regulatory force imposed upon matter through external means. We even speak of gravity as one of the numerous “natural laws” by which nature has imposed its regularities upon the universe. While few people would take this as a literal proposition, or continue to insist that nature has “created” such “laws” and “imposed” them upon us pursuant to some subject/object relationship, the words that we use continue to reflect that kind of mindset. In much the same way that our reference to “sunrises” and “sunsets” can subtly reinforce a pre-Copernican perspective, our antiquated views of gravity can provide unconscious support for a broader concept of order.
If we were to think about gravity in the language of a holographic model of order—as physicists in fact do—we would understand that it is not a quality imposed upon us from beyond, but arises out of the relationship of two or more bodies. If you and I are carrying on a conversation in a room, gravity could be thought of as just one expression of how we relate to one another; as well as how we and the chairs relate to each other, to the building in which we are located, the other people in the building, as well as to the interrelatedness of all these other people and things to one another, and so on. Everything in the universe relates to everything else in just such ways. When we think of our world in terms of such incalculable interrelationships, and comprehend the uncertainty that arises from such complexity, we begin to see the humor in our simplistic beliefs about centrally-directed systems, be they societies or the rest of the universe. So considered, gravity—like all the other regularities we discover in our world—takes on a more profound and complicated meaning than is to be explained by the metaphor of an apple falling on Newton’s head!
The marketplace is an example of a self-organizing, holographic system in which decision-making is widely diffused among persons whose self-serving behavior generates beneficial consequences to others. In contrast with state planned and regulated economies, a free market is directed by no one. The informal processes of the pricing system—which functions as an attractor for economic activity, operating independently of the interests of any given market participant—communicate information about the preferences of both buyers and sellers. On the basis of such information, individuals may modify their choices which, when combined with the responses of others, may alter the signals in the pricing structure to which further adjustments will be made, ad infinitum. The market, in other words, is a self-sustaining, self-adaptive system for producing and exchanging goods and services among strangers.
But the marketplace, as a spontaneous, self-organizing system, can function only in an environment in which private ownership is acknowledged as a fundamental social principle. Respect for the inviolability of private property is the defining characteristic of a free market system. Only when individual owners assess their own risks and bear all the costs and benefits of their actions; only as they commit their own resources toward a desired end; and only when the range of their decision-making control is defined by the boundaries of what they own, can the self-disciplining nature of the marketplace function. The self-interested motivation to act for the enhancement of what one owns diminishes in intensity when we make decisions regarding the property of others. Unlike owners, politicians and bureaucrats can engage in actions that cost them nothing, but which impose financial burdens upon affected parties. History is replete with the errors of judgment, tyrannical behavior, political fiascoes, and adverse consequences of collective delusions, brought about by the practice of some persons making decisions over the lives and property of others.
Externally undirected, self-organizing behavior is also observed in the spontaneous responses complete strangers make to a natural disaster—such as a tornado, hurricane, or earthquake—or to a major accident. Individuals quickly come together, assess the problems, agree upon a division of labor and then, when they have accomplished their group task, return to their homes. The effectiveness of such immediate reactions is contrasted with the bureaucratically sluggish, hindering, redtaped responses of governmental agencies that often delay rather than facilitate recovery. Those who haven’t discovered the advantages of self-organization over institutionally-structured behavior, are invited to compare the spontaneous efforts of tens of thousands of individuals, businesses, and churches to come to the aid of New Orleans residents following hurricane Katrina, and the non-responsive—and often impeding—actions of governmental agencies during and following this disaster.22
Self-organizing practices are not confined to humans. Throughout the rest of nature, different life forms exhibit the same kind of reciprocally advantageous conduct, or symbiosis. The entire life process is grounded in this kind of symbiotic, holographic interconnectedness, which comprises an ecosystem. The well-being of carnivores is dependent upon the presence of a sufficient number of herbivores whose existence, in turn, depends upon an adequate supply of plant life. We humans breathe in oxygen—emitted by plants—and expel carbon dioxide, which, in turn, is consumed by the plants. What is entropy (or waste) for us is negentropy (or energy) for our plant cousins.
Various plant and animal species use one another for their respective survival and proliferation advantages. Fruit trees produce sweet-tasting, nutritious, seed-bearing fruit that animals—humans included—will carry away to eat, with the undigested seeds passing intact through the animal, to be fertilized by the feces. As Michael Pollan has observed, potatoes, apples, marijuana, and tulips have—with human help—evolved characteristics that appeal to our preferences, in order that we might cultivate them and transport them to other locations where they can thrive.23 Have we been “exploiting” these plants for our benefit, or have they been “exploiting” us for theirs, or is the entire concept of exploitation just another expression of divisive thinking?
Examples of cooperative and symbiotic relationships among species are found throughout nature. Flowers supply insects with food, in exchange for which the insects pollinate the flowers. Some of these plant/insect exchanges have become so sophisticated that certain flowers can only be pollinated by specific insect species, a fact that reminds us of another pattern of interrelatedness: evolutionary processes can foster both greater diversity—making a species more adaptable to change—as well as greater specialization—making a species more vulnerable to the consequences of change. Over-specialization can create tendencies for non-adaptability that can weaken or destroy a species. In the emerging study of “ecological anachronisms,” we are becoming aware of how specific plants and animals have evolved mutually dependent relationships (e.g., various fruits evolving seed dispersal systems suited to particular animals that can maximize the plant’s opportunities for propagation). While cooperation, rather than conflict, has generally proven to be a viable arrangement, the partnership was oftentimes too narrowly confined. When the targeted animals became extinct, the highly specialized reproductive strategies of the plants created a botanical crisis, often leading to drastic reductions in plant populations.24 Perhaps the rest of nature has an important lesson for us humans. Just as other life systems may be threatened by a resistance to multiple strategies for survival, civilizations can be destroyed by institutional structuring that inhibits resiliency to changing conditions.
Other cooperative strategies among species reflect the advantages of symbiosis. Grazing animals, through their eating habits, prevent more vigorous plants from taking over and crowding out other plant species, thus assuring a greater variety of plant life. Likewise, various plants produce toxins or thorns, which help to discourage grazing animals from eating too much of any one kind of plant, thus helping to maintain a balance in plant species. Such plants seem to have worked out their own solutions to the “tragedy of the commons” problem!25 Similar animal species will hunt at different times of the day, or will have different preferences for prey, as ways of reducing interspecies competition.26
Contrary to the mindset that sees the various species—particularly humanity—as being in a continual war with one another, life exhibits an amazing symbiosis. Cooperation, both within and among species, has led to the proliferation of life forms on earth, a point well developed by Peter Kropotkin in his classic work Mutual Aid.27 It has been estimated that there are more trees growing in North America today than there were before Columbus’s arrival over six centuries ago.28 I strongly suspect that there is more corn growing in Nebraska in any current year than existed on the entire face of the planet at that time. In fact, this major world food source didn’t even exist until early humans cultivated it from a mix of wild grasses. From London29 to New Jersey, America’s most densely populated state, wildlife is prospering in urban centers. Gardens, garbage cans, and domesticated pets—food sources provided by humans—have attracted birds and mammals from the countryside. New Jersey is experiencing an increase in the black bear population, while it is estimated that there are now more wild deer living in that state than were there before European settlers arrived.30 These wild animals are probably coming to the cities for the same reasons as their human counterparts: to make a living. Domesticated animals have experienced similar results: chickens, cows, pigs, goats, dogs, cats, cattle, and sheep, have greatly increased their numbers by appealing to human tastes. Henry George made the point quite well: “Both the jayhawk and man eat chickens, but the more jayhawks, the fewer chickens, while the more men, the more chickens.”31
But nature, including mankind, is not consistently organized along symbiotic lines. Parasitism—a phenomenon characterized by one organism (the “parasite”) deriving its negentropic energies from another organism (the “host”) without a reciprocal benefit—also exists in plant and animal life. Leeches, ticks, various bacteria and fungi, among others, survive by feeding off the energies of a host.32 Within human society, parasitism manifests itself in the form of thievery and fraudulent transactions, both of which are based upon a disrespect for the property interests of the victim. In more than metaphorical fashion, all of human interaction can be reduced to such symbiotic relationships as are found in the marketplace, or parasitic behavior such as exists in victimizing crime and political systems. In either case, the question of whether or not the property boundaries of another are to be regarded as inviolate defines the systems.