All around the world and across a mind-boggling array of disciplines, there is a change taking place. Though its signs are subtle, its potential is utterly transformative. Though not yet a matter of common sense, it has changed the way philosophers and scientists think about the world. And though it does not come from the power-hunger of any group, it is totally changing the distribution of power in human society.
In advertising, Madison Avenue is being superseded by viral marketing. Once we feared air-raids, but now we fear terrorist cells. Software is being programmed not in central facilities, but in ten-thousand basements. Large-scale charity projects are giving way to microfinance. Where information used to be broadcast from radio or television stations, the Internet works by a design called packet-switching in which every bundle of information works its own way through a distributed global network with no centre. Where Descartes and Freud explained the mind as having a commander, neuroscientists now see our behaviours as arising from complex interactions of trillions of simple neurons.
In all these cases what we are seeing is a change in our explanatory and organizational style from a top-down, hierarchical model to a bottom-up model where intelligent action emerges from the complex interaction of many independent parts. What Zhuangzi said of the universe twenty-four centuries ago is becoming true of all our societal structures: "There is no governor anywhere". The intelligence of such a structure arises spontaneously; no one orders neurons to produce complex, intelligent behaviours: each neuron simply reacts to its circumstances according to its nature, and from the dance of millions of neurons the behaviour arises. An organic structure is not organized by anyone; it is self-organizing. Its intelligence and functions are not centralized, but distributed.
The understanding of organic, emergent, self-organizing phenomena is transforming not just the way we structure our society, but the way we think. We are beginning to see that dominating other human beings is not the only way to get what we want. When a person understands decentralized intelligence, co-operation becomes more appealing to him than competition.
The Western world has labored for many, many centuries under a monarchical conception of the universe where God is the boss, and political systems and all kinds of law have been based on this model of the universe...that nature is run by a boss. Whereas, if you take the Chinese view of the world, which is organic..They would say, for example, that the human body is an organization in which there is no boss. It is a situation of order resulting from mutual interrelationship of all the parts. And what we need to realize is that there can be, shall we say, a movement... a stirring among people... which can be organically designed instead of politically designed. It has no boss. Yet all parts recognize each other in the same way as the cells of the body all cooperate together.
The mathematical foundation of emergence is provided by complexity theory. Complexity theory has shown that emergent order arises from the complex interaction of chaotic parts in the same way in stock markets, weather systems, in the brain, in biochemistry, ecosystems, social networks, waterfalls and anthills.
So how does all this apply to advanced post-scarcity civilization? Imagine a society in which every person - or every small group of people - can produce their own water, food, electricity and manufacture their own mechanical and electronic goods. Everyone is independent, not dependent on factories, farms or governments. And yet, although no one depends on anyone else, everyone is tied together by communication, and from this communication arise spontaneous, self-organizing cooperative projects — pieces of software, medical research, even artworks. These projects might be too big and complex for any one person to pull off, but the Global Village has a massive collaborative intelligence. And because each member is empowered and autonomous, they are capable of making useful contributions to these projects.
The intelligence that organizes political and economic affairs is likewise a hive intelligence, not an authority. Decision-making power belongs not to a few politicians, but to every member of a society.
The understanding of emergence even changes the view of education. Whereas knowledge used to be conveyed from the teacher directly to the students (a top-down distribution of knowledge), modern constructivist and Montessori-type education allows knowledge to be constructed by each student (bottom-up emergence of knowledge).
Agility is a characteristic of decentralized structures. For example, decentralized manufacturing has the interesting effect of promoting innovation and rapid adoption of new technologies; large-scale, centralized manufacturing is anti-innovative because of economies of scale. To put it another way, centralized manufacturing makes it cheaper to continue doing what you've always done; innovation is expensive because it requires new factories etc. Because the basic unit of an organically-organized society is the individual, it can adapt quickly; an individual can make a change faster than an organization.
Resilience is a characteristic of decentralized structures. Organic material, such as skin, heals when it is cut because every cell contains, in its DNA, the intelligence of the whole organism, and every cell has the power to act independently to deal with local issues. In exactly the same way, an organically structured civilization has a resilience to external shock — natural disasters, war, disease, shortages of resources — because every member of the society is connected to the intelligence and information of the whole and has the resources to autonomously produce his or her own food, water, electricity and machinery.
Equality is a characteristic of decentralized structures. When resources and the means of producing them are concentrated in the hands of a central authority, an inegalitarian distribution usually follows, whether through corruption, neglect or simple human error. This means that many people go wanting, even when abundant resources are produced. This is the current state of the Spaceship Earth's food, water and technology resources. But in a system where the production of resources is decentralized to begin with, distributing the resources is a non-issue.