I recieved this following post from Lang Davison, as a response to my response on his (and John Hagel's) book "The Power of Pull." Enjoy!
-- By Lang Davison, Andrew Markell, Kate Markell
Control is every tyrant's dream. It may be the rest of ours, too.
Ernest Becker argued that all human behavior is basically an attempt to control anxiety about death. Management scientists use control theory to model and command their circumstances. Japanese engineers designed elaborate earthquake constructions to protect them from temblors-which were proved an epic failure after the Kobe quake. Authoritarian governments in places such as Egypt and Tunisia believed military control would insulate them from revolt, right up until uprisings forced them to flee.
Control is a holy grail of the human species.
But if control of circumstances has ever really been possible—a dubious proposition, to be sure—it's even less possible in the digital era. As we've argued elsewhere, the 21st century has become swifter, more turbulent, and harder to predict. The “unexpected” is becoming commonplace. Probability distributions are increasingly less normal. Power laws are ever more prevalent. We live in an age of uncertainty.
All the while, power is shifting from institutions to individuals in their roles as consumers and talented employees.
Recognizing the impossibility of control, foresighted thinkers like JP Rangaswami are calling for big institutions to ”learn to design for the loss of control." Tim Leberecht, the chief marketing officer of frog design, recently reviewed the early attempts companies and design firms are making to achieve this design, including: open ideation/crowdsourcing (openIDEO); open strategy (NPR and its ThinkIn on the future of digital media); open branding (Continuum's Transparent Design Project); and open- (source) social networks (Lockheed Martin's Eureka Streams).
From Control to… Control
While these well-intentioned attempts are effective in their own right, they fall short of grasping the fuller implications of a design for loss of control. Many of them, such as the crowdsourcing examples, exchange one more obvious form of control-centralized and hierarchical-for a distributed approach that's controlling in its own right, if more subtly so. Crowdsourcing and similar approaches are primarily interested in eliminating the hierarchical methodology for the production of ideas rather than discovering any new ground upon which to see and inquire about the world. Thus they remain prisoner to old lenses and dispositions that may or may not be congruent with the continually changing world of near-constant disruption around us.
This occurs in part because too often they specify the incoming issues to be solved while failing to ask the more provocative questions that a design for loss of control would seem to require. At the front end of InnoCentive's crowdsourcing approach, for example, companies state the problem they want to solve-and immediately foreclose other possibilities.
To be sure, specifying the incoming question scopes the endeavor so that it can be more efficiently managed. But isn't efficient management itself a re-imposition of control-albeit at a less controlling level than companies who have yet to crowdsource?
Take NPR's ThinkIn, an all day brainstorming session held in the studios of frog design to explore the future of digital media. While impressively innovative at a number of levels-the convening of an exceptional group of executives, designers, and innovators; the live-commentary and streaming through social media channels; the potential for a “brand hijack” in which NPR wouldn't even be involved in the conversation-the ThinkIn failed to ask more primary questions that might help transcend subtly powerful and pervasive assumptions about NPR's strategy. Namely, “Should NPR even exist?”
Don't misunderstand: we're fans of NPR, and think the world would be poorer without it. But shouldn't a discussion of NPR's strategy, if it is to be truly designed for loss of control, start with the most primary questions, such as: what kind of world do we live in now? How does that world operate? What does an organization like NPR contribute to the needs of the world? Asking primary questions helps us avoid taking for granted, at an ontological level, the necessity of NPR and the ways in which it's needed in our world. As we temporarily hold in abeyance our desire to help NPR, we hold ourselves open to a more foundational set of questions. This provides a quite different starting point.
Once we see what emerges in the space cleared by asking primary questions, we can then connect what's revealed to the original intention-in this case rethinking and improving NPR's strategy. We don't jettison the original intention of the exercise but approach it from a starting point that's less controlled by incoming assumptions-one that challenges common sense and conventional “wisdom” and better allows the exposure of anomalies. Wouldn't that be closer to a true design for loss of control?
Einstein's famous dictum declares that no problem can be solved from the same level of consciousness that created it. If we are to design for the loss of control we must confront the possibility that we are operating from the same level of consciousness as the problems we're trying to solve, and our design must help us re-create the basis upon which we ask questions of our world, ourselves, our designs, and our institutions.
A New Interior Design
If our attempts to design for the loss of control in fact substitute new forms of control in place of the ones we have discarded, there's a familiar reason why that might be so. Humans in nearly all our endeavors struggle to embrace new ideas, approaches, practices, and dispositions while letting go of old ones.
Why? Brain science shows that our behaviors, dispositions, and beliefs are hard-wired into our nervous systems. That's why it's so hard to teach old dogs new tricks. A widely cited Johns Hopkins study of cardiac patients who were told to change their lifestyle behaviors or die found that nine out of ten of them couldn't change, even with their lives on the line. Their behaviors were hard-wired into their nervous systems-right to the grave.
Stress makes it all the worse. Humans have a difficult time learning while under stress. And our modern age is anything if not stressful. When we're under pressure, most of us fail to learn the new thing and go back to the old thing instead. Even when we try to design for loss of control we revert back to trying to find the control we've discarded.
As humans, we literally embody our need for control in our neurophysiology. To let it go requires re-mapping our neural circuitry. All of which leads to a profound implication: the design for loss of control is interior to us. We need a new interior design, as it were, if we are to arrive at a true exterior design for loss of control.
Until we remap our neuronal networks we will inevitably revert to whatever's hard-wired into the existing map, no matter how powerful our intention to create a design for loss of control might be, no matter how smart we are, and no matter how diverse a group of accomplished thinkers we bring into the room. In nearly every case we will create a design that tries to re-impose control.
Until this interior design flaw is remedied it doesn't matter how many apparently good ideas we come up with for the world outside of us. Either the design itself will be misconceived or, if it isn't, we'll be unable to embrace and adopt it. We'll go old school instead.
But how do we re-wire our nervous systems? There are differing points of view about this. Oliver Sacks, one of our most learned scholars on the subject, suggests traveling to new places, learning a new language, or taking up a musical instrument. These activities will no doubt help build new neural connections, but they strike us as rather marginal practices. Can we really re-map our hard-wired neural circuitry simply by learning French? Surely a more intensive approach is required.
Building muscles requires putting our musculature under pressure-through lifting weights, for instance. For anything to evolve, it must be subject to pressure. So how do we put the nervous system under similar pressure? One answer comes from the Chinese fighting arts, which has created a practice specifically designed to put the nervous system under pressure. It's called zhan zhuang, or standing practice. Beginning practitioners of this practice stand with their arms outstretched as if holding a barrel, knees bent 6-8 inches or so, and their feet a bit past shoulder width for 15 to 20 minutes per day. (As practitioners advance the techniques get more involved but remain deceptively simple.)
As we stand, our big muscles begin to fail, and we're forced to recruit smaller, suppler muscles and connective tissue in order to stay in position. This recruitment awakens parts of the nervous system (many of our bigger nerves are in fact mostly composed of connective tissue) that were previously offline. It literally builds new neural pathways in the body while strengthening those that already exist. As standing puts our muscles under pressure it forces us to recruit new ones, and as we do, the nerves embedded in those muscles get recruited too. In turn, new neural pathways improve the brain's ability to integrate complexity.
Biologists have long been aware that external stimuli and information are integrated through the human nervous system-it's the same for all animals. The question is how we integrate those stimuli. Do we go right to stress? Do we remain a prisoner of the past and do what we've always done, even if it no longer fits the reality around us? Or do we have the nervous system capacity needed to integrate new complexity at a higher level?
To design for loss of control in the exterior world we need to have first built the nervous system capacity necessary to tolerate the anxiety and discomfort that comes with letting go of control, to be able to let go of old ways and learn new ones. And we need to be able to integrate the complexity that primary questions inevitably raise.
In the past 15 years we've trained thousands of people how to integrate greater complexity in their nervous systems, from inner-city gang members to entrepreneurs, designers, executives, bankers, IT managers, professors, and nuns. Nearly all of them learned to make new choices, even while under stress. They expanded the capacity of their nervous system to tolerate the discomfort and anxiety that come with uncertainty and loss of control.
And that's the big implication for designers: At its deepest level, design is now about making choices with regard to our bodies. Are we expanding the capacity of our nervous systems? Until we do we will be unable to grapple with the most pressing design question of our era: the design for loss of control. Instead we'll create designs that subtly re-impose control.
Leading designers rightfully see themselves as prime movers in human culture. In many respects they're the history makers. They design the technology, and the spaces. They capture beauty, functionality, and significance-much of what it means to be human. But right now, despite the very real success of the green design movement, designers are essentially missing the point. The most pressing design question today is human design: the design of humans so that we evolve more quickly. By deepening their nervous system capacity, designers may well discover and disclose to the rest of humanity an entirely new field of possibilities, one that better addresses the many species-imperiling crises we face.
For designers, the great challenge of the 21st century is not sustainability or cradle-to-cradle systems or whatever the best solar panel array might look like. It's finding and disclosing new worlds of possibility for the dangers we face, and for making this world truly a paradise on earth. Until we expand the capacity of our nervous systems, this new world will continue to escape us.