Franz Nahrada on A Pattern Language for the Postindustrial Society

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= Speech at the 4th Oekonux Conference


Social change is interpreted as a set of more appropriate and ever more integrated alternative patterns, that may replace the obsolete ones. The full text draws on McLuhan and Christopher Alexander.


Franz Nahrada:

"Alexanders approach, though ontologically similar, is radically different in its perspective. Rather that focussing on the dynamics of constant change, he rather asks what is recurring and what is stable. He reserves the term pattern to structures that prove as timeless, because they have an inherent quality of enhancing and supporting a wide range of activities. Alexanders interest as an architect is simply to find out what makes the quality of an environment that nurtures and channels human activites best. So he is also keen to look at phenomena of permanent retrieval, timeless proven solutions that we embrace again and again. His vigor is to understand the quality of such solutions, analyze what differs a good solution from a bad solution and create an understanding for the circumstances in which such solutions work and support each other.

Maybe at this point its interesting to try to synthesize the two views. We have seen that the emergence of capitalism brought about an interplay of patterns, intellectual patternslike modern math or experiment-based science or the university, spiritual patterns like a worldview that puts individual responsibility at the center, relational patterns like the territorial state replacing the personal dependency state, conflict patterns like the standing army, economic patterns like colonialism, urban trade centers, eventually factories, technical patterns like gunpowder warfare, steam engine, machine, and so on.

An Analogy to Life

You get the picture. The reality and especially the emergence of a totally new reality is not adeaquatly understood if I say: the central concept of this new society is, for example, the motivation by money and the growth of money. Lets stick still for one last minute with the example of the capitalist society. One one side this idea that the monetary pattern is the central pattern or the central paradigm is very true - however, one could say with equal right that there is rather a pattern cloud emerging that facilitates certain behaviours. There are even essential patterns to facilitate non-monetary behaviour that are needed. So, for example we can see a hidden parallel development of the core family and the emotional emphasis on love together with the impersonalisation of economic relations. The idea that you love a physical person in a highly exclusive way - like you love god - was brought up by the medieval renaiscance.

A few theorists were able to draw the lines that connect the logic of the the economic value - sphere to the seemingly totally different personal value sphere. Part of this is the polarisation of gender roles and gender stereotypes. The male and the female appear as a social creation, although they are not. There are several patterns that facilitate some core functions of society like reproduction, care, and that also serve as specific containers for problems just created in a particular society like dealing with the astounding range of inablities of highly specialised individuals. One such example of a modern pattern would be "self-declared religion" where people rally around affirmational istitutions for subjective moral values in clubs, associations or sects of any kind to simply escape the contingent and arbitrary nature of their general socal relations.

So here we go. To understand the concept further, we can draw on the analogy to living nature. In fact life is the paradigm for patterns. Life is patterns of matter that are organized for self-reproduction. If you play the game of life you might see certain patterns prevail and out of chaos emerges order. if you play it further you see that living organisms not only take very different shapes, but their life would not take place without other living organisms. So in any given place of life, or biotope, you have an active dependency of organisms on each other. And this organisms tend to be very, very different. Besides water and salt, every meat is transformed grass. Grass is transformed light, carbon and earth. In more highly developed stages, this goes beyond simply devouring and leads to inhabiting. One structure feeds the other, facilitates the other. Patterns interact and form pattern clusters. Each pattern is self-feeding, but it is also feeding others that might feed back or not. Plants might profit from predator animals because the limit the number of plant-eaters.

So the idea of patterns is to take this analogy and base our woldview not just on the objectivity, but also very basically on the interactivity of things. Whereas Alexander has reserved the word "pattern" to structures that facilitate sustainable and recurring interactivity, we could rightfully add that there is a relative historical coherence of patterns and not just the absolute and timeless coherence that Alexander thought of. In times of change, however, we might wish to replace obsolete patterns by "more timeless ones" by inventing what is missing and retrieving what was lost.

Patterns and the Central Social Paradigm

So the question and the question ahead of us is to conceive the universe of patterns generated by and generating the emergence of a new social formation. There is a major shift in the DNA, in the very core structure of society. Another analogy to life could be very helpful: a biotope in the desert is different from a biotope in the rain forest. The rain forest is built on massive amounts of precursing biomass that hold essential external conditions, even although the climate zone might be the same as the desert. This is the analogy which is maybe a little bit helpful to understand the Marxist concept of productive forces. The productive forces are the humus and the shade on which patterns can grow. The biotope itself, under certain conditions, might take the form of a protective meta-organism, providing shade and shelter and even more. Some biologist - like Thomas Boller from Basel - argue if the strains of Mycorhiza fungae found in a forest soil are not only the sole nourishers of a wide range of plants (something nowadays accepted in biology), but also serve as a kind of communication and protection system by which older trees nourish younger trees or warn against bugs and .

So out of this biological example we could also draw the analogy that at a certain point of resourcefulness it makes much more sense for a society to swith to cooperative behaviour rather than competitive one.

It seems we are at a turning point or tipping point in human history where this structural change happens, although it was long-anticipated and long-awaited. But we need to look at the biology of this new biotope, at the species emerging that form this new resourcefulness, that maintain it, replenish it, enhance it.

Maybe we could start with the Internet as the mycorhiza of our new biotope, allowing us to grow on intentional communication. The internet has certain essential qualities which are

  • bidirectionality of communication,
  • the ability to "narrowcast" and "broadcast" on demand,
  • the ability to transform all kinds of media into and off a digital format and therefore drive all kinds of perceptive, responsive and productive activities by man and machine, and, maybe most important,
  • ubiquity and
  • synchronicity.

Each one of these qualities requires and produces a set of innovations and retrievals that only in their interplay could form a P2P society. Currently, these innovations and retrievals are dealt with in subcultures, who usually wrongfully take the part as the whole. One could say that the Free Software Culture in itself, although it is already complex in itself, is a set of organisms that are ambiguously able to survive in the old biotope as well as participate within and help generate other elements of a new one. But there are other organisms emerging on the way that play a similar role. Take for example the permaculture movement. Permaculture is revolutionizing our relation with the biological environment, because nature is not any more considered an object of human labor and control, but rather as a self-organizing system in a way very similar to design patterns: doing almost all of the work and maintaining itself, if arranged properly. It is probably no incident that this special view of nature has emerged simultaneously with the use of cybernetics and modern information theory. In a way the permaculture view on nature is similar to a programmers view who creates interacting objects that are capable of fulfilling autonomous tasks in interaction with each other. The simple notion is that nature is by far to complex for humans to manage the system themselves, so we look for a system of checks and balances that works, and we find thousands of natural systems and organisms that already have a highly interactive and synergetic potential, they are fine-tuned to permanently react on time and produce whats needed to keep the system alive. Cybernetics by the way was born because in air defence human reaction is too slow, we need information based agent systems that react autonomously. Cynically enough, one could argue that both Cybernetics and the Internet are a product of warfare innovation, but indeed as we have seen at the beginning, this is true for most social and technical innovations that nowadays shape our culture.

Maybe the central social paradigm that unifies Permaculture and Free Software Movement, but as we might see dozens of other emerging organisms or patterns could be characterized as: if you give up the central control over the process you might be able to achieve better results than if you try to coordinate. But there is one essential requirement for this to work: each subsystem must be able to retrieve, process and communicate information from and to other subsystems. In the case of nature, most of this information is stored in the DNA, and it is most likely the product of blind and massive trial and error processes in the billion year history of evolution - speeded up by selection and mutation mechanisms that we are still hardly beginning to understand. But as you obviously know nature has autonomously developed an incredible wealth of signalling and information transferring systems.

In a way and even with a certain degree of justification, the market system could be considered as a first attempt to enact such autonomous behaviour of subsystems (as we have heard from Michel Bauwens, giving up direct control and switching to indirect control was the driving factor in raising efficiency even from Slave System to Feudal serfdom, and of cause from Feudalist Serfdom to Capitalism) and many consider the monetary system simply as a channel of information. If we for a moment consider this position instead of simply rejecting it, than we discover that the market system is probably a very primitive and error-prone system of information transfer. The information that is conveyed by money is almost zero and necessarily overshadowed by inherent bias. The irony is that even the most zealous apologists of the market system have to admit that the current crisis is based in the fact that some derivative forms of money purposefully deleted all kind of information about their validity. But in fact this exformation property of money is built in the most elementary function of money. Marx showed that money does not and cannot inform us about the proportion of human labor needed for production, because the subsystems accumulating money can only do this by constantly acting out of proportion. So a cheap pricetag on a commodity can mean many things, from the externalisation of costs to the use of child labor, from the lack of quality and durability of the product to a temporary overproduction.

So some might still work on a pattern of informed and informing money, but in fact the Internet by its very existence indicates the ability of much more precise information transfer between autonomous subsystems.

The central social paradigm of the emerging P2P society could be described as the information based recognition and useage of positive and productive output of subsystems. The built in assumption is, that with the help of information based relations in the end the other subsystems will be able to spontaneously produce enough output to sustain and complement each other better than by market relations.

Out of these few assumptions I propose we build a pattern language of a post-industrial society.

Towards A Pattern language

I had the intention of developing a rough sketchy version right before this conference, but out of external reasons there was a lack of time to do it. So I can just suggest some patterns and pattern clusters to work with, and ask for contributions and common development.

I should also make clear that there is already an astounding effort going on to build what is called a “pattern language for the communication revolution”. That community or subculture around Doug Schuler has made a tremendous wealth of pattern proposals available online and recently published a 136 of these patterns in a book called “Liberating Voices”. The reason I am not completely subscribing to this pattern language is that many of these patterns are intermediate and not self-standing patterns. What I mean by that is that a number of patterns are rooted in the protest and civil rights movement and they are focussed on the current emergence of the Civil Society.

We need to take this pattern into account, but extend the productivity and self-reliance beyond the proven patterns to reach a true coherence. Therefore I suggest to do a pattern language of a highly speculative nature and include not only whats out there already and proven, but also what needs to be created."