Of maps, mobs, and mind: Navigating the puzzles of unchartered times

Our world is pretty much in pieces, coherence mostly gone[1]. The big problems we’re facing – such as terrorism and tyranny in their horrifyingly versatile appearances, climate change and the economy’s quest for sustainability, digitisation with all its blessings (and threats), or migration with its unpredictable ramifications[2] – are multi-faceted and highly interdependent. Finding answers to these problems is a non-trivial, non-linear task. All these issues (and many others) transcend the boundaries of the institutions and organisations that structure our world as we know it: They don’t respect the traditional limits set by (nation) states, business companies, cultures, or religions. As a consequence, by definition, they also challenge our identities as individuals and members of whatever groups we feel we belong to. For every single one of us, this creates uncertainty, often fear, and in many cases a lapse into “fight-or-flight” reactions[3] – all of which makes problem solving even harder, if not impossible.

Now, strangely enough, most of the institutions we currently bet on to help us solve the problems of our day and age are constructs we collectively invented in the 17th, 18th and 19th century, when industrial production, civil society, and democracy developed into what was later labeled “Western civilisation”[4]  – with some subsequent adaptations in the course of the 20th century, in order to reign in the previously unanticipated murderous degenerations of that very same civilisation. All of these institutions built highly proficient mechanisms for sorting out their internal quarrels: Production systems, quality management, and performance measurement tools; the public sphere and media as the “fourth estate”[5]; separation of powers and parliamentary democracy, and many more. In contrast, mechanisms for sorting out anything that happens outside the boundaries of those very same institutions remained either underdeveloped – as in the case of international relations and international law, where the frameworks used today are still mostly variations on the earliest thoughts around international cooperation dating back to the early modern ages[6] – or rough-cut – as in the case of markets for products and services where the choice still seems to be between Adam Smith’s invisible hand of the free market and a state-led regulation of Colbertian taste[7]. In short: We’re counting largely on 18th and 19th century vehicles when it comes to solving our 21st century problems – a little as if we were travelling to Mars on a 17th century sailing boat.

At the same time, our world has produced a new set of tools, in particular for communication, making it possible to effortlessly interact from practically every place under the sun with practically every other place under the sun in practically no time. My timelines on social media sparkle with Indonesian beaches, Amazonian reptiles, or Sibirian tigers, and get ruffled by Greek beaches, Californian octopoids, or New York City alpha-animals, all within the blink of an eye, the click of a mouse, the scroll of a touchscreen. We can spend a year in space[8], steer wheelchairs with our brains (well, almost)[9], and create virtual (or “augmented”) realities with headsets at the price of a last-minute holiday deal. However, unfortunately, outside the laboratories, the modes of interaction we apply when immersing ourselves in these new tools are mostly archaic: We “like” – or we start a shitstorm; we shamelessly self-promote – or we retreat in disgust, mortally offended; we impatiently scroll for the next excitement – or we denounce the scandalous exhibitionism of others.In short: We’re walking through the jungles of 21st century technological interactions with the grace and dexterity of retarded cavemen on unfamiliar drugs[10] – a little as if we were trying to navigate a satellite with the geospatial precision of a 17th century (mental) map.

The horror scenario that could unfold from these circumstances is alarming. And, I hasten to add, it is not the often-described totalitarian domination of either a state or some corporation taking over control and data produced through our new communication tools – these are 20th centuries fantasies, the 1984s and brave new worlds born from observing the excesses of political tyranny in their most atrocious forms. Painting a picture of a circle-like dystopia is – for all its entertaining and eye-opening value – nothing but another variation on how we travel space with the vessels of centuries long gone by[11]. The horror scenario that is both more likely to emerge and much more threatening (not the least because of its newness) is a total breakdown of our inherited institutions (political, economic, societal, etc.) and a take-over by a medialised mob, reassembling in different constellations at every occasion: A world where public (and private) decisions are based on quick “thumbs up” popularity votes; where business is conducted through click-baiting customers deeper and deeper into their filter bubbles[12]; and where apparent (or real) mistakes are punished through lynch law on the grounds of unquestioned pseudo-evidence, rumours, and hearsay[13]. A rotten, rudderless 17th century vessel falling off the edge of a disintegrating 17th century map into the torments of hellfires even medieval poets were too uncreative to imagine[14].

And then? If this is the risk we’re facing, what can be done?

Firstly, just like many 18th and 19th century thinkers recommended[15], an indispensable building block of what can be done is – once again – our human mind. Not only – but necessary as a starting point – the well-groomed, rationally and scientifically thinking, emotionally and artistically refined human mind of enlightened spirit, able to make good use of their own understanding, emerging from their self-imposed immaturity, i.e. their inability to use their understanding without guidance from another, which is self-imposed when its cause lies not in lack of understanding, but in lack of resolve and courage to use it without guidance from another[16]. Then, in addition to this fully developed enlightened mind of Kantian measures, our times also call for our mind’s ability to question itself, its unique capability to hypothesise that the only unquestionable hypothesis is the hypothesis that every hypothesis can be wrong – be that in scientific research[17], in economics and everyday life[18], or in our inner psychological workings[19]. Accepting that what we see, hear, smell, fell, and taste might not be what what is there, that what we think it is might not be what we see, hear, smell, fell, and taste, and that what is might not be what we think – no matter whether we look at things or people or people’s views on things or people: Continuous vigilance with regard to what our minds present us with as truths is a virtue we’ll have to cultivate moment by moment, more and more.

While acknowledging the power of our individual minds, 20th century research has also looked deeply into its shortcomings, in particular when it comes to minds in interaction with other minds: Yes, there’s  wisdom of crowds[20], but – and this is the more important risk to watch out for – there’s also the threat of groupthink, of minds being carried away by what other minds around them are doing or thinking, to the point of doing things that the individual mind would’ve proclaimed itself incapable of[21]. How this plays out when political systems don’t oppose or even foster such behaviours, has direly been taught by the banality of evil, the willing executioners, and the gulag archipelagos of the 20th century. With 21st century technologies at our fingertips, human beings no longer need political support to unleash the power of groupthink and, even worse, group action – with the medialised mobs that come into being within no time, due to their very nature not being defined (let alone restrained) by any inherited rules, norms, or values. And sometimes, the individual mind, even when fully aware of its being hijacked by the collective power of other minds, will not be strong enough to take a break, take a breath, stand back, walk out, protest, and stop others from doing harm[22].

Secondly, therefore, we’ll need rules, norms, and values that are automatically adopted by groups coming together without prior interaction and diffusing again once their immediate task has been attended to. These rules, norms, or values cannot be imposed by any of our existing institutions, as such groups convene across boundaries, on a global scale, with no roots in any specific (nation) state, culture, religion, or other pre-defined identity[23]. Fortunately (triggered by challenges that businesses face in today’s world), quite some research has by now gone into what makes groups work well together and to create the circumstances for effective group conversations and interactions[24]. Concepts such as “teaming” – described as “both a mindset that accepts working together actively and a set of behaviours tailored to sharing and synthesising knowledge”, based on a learning attitude of all involved, psychological safety of the environment, willingness (and ability) to learn from failure, and transcendence of occupational and cultural boundaries[25] – or collaboration – as a form of cooperation in which those who collaborate accept and welcome the fact that they themselves are going to change through collaborating[26] – have recently gained popularity with business players grappling with the internal and external challenges of managing profitability, growth, and innovation in unpredictable environments. The elements of these approaches are well-suited to help groups in any conceivable context to come together, interact, debate, and arrive at conclusions and actions without falling prey to the perils of groupthink.

At this point, I can already hear your complaints: “Human beings who continuously question themselves? Groups that come together on the fly and then work together like the highest-performing teams we know? Come on – this might all be theoretically appealing, but practically, it’s just impossible.” If these were your thoughts right now, may I, just for a moment, invite you to think back to that conversation you had back in 1765, when your aristocratic great-aunt exclaimed: “Men (and women) who have a view and then vote on political matters? Parliaments that convene on a regular basis and decide on issues that used to be too difficult for the king himself and his brightest ministers? Come on – this might all be theoretical appealing, but practically, it’s just impossible.” Well – it wasn’t impossible. It worked, and in many dimensions it still works today.

In addition, there’s a very practical advantage to focusing on the two aspects spelled out above: Even if – perish the thought! – the horror scenario of a medialised mob taking over turned into brutal reality, those who have developed the skills to question themselves and to cooperate well with others would be in a better position to defend themselves and their values against the madness of rampaging (and every-changing) majorities[27] – a bit like a group of geographical entrepreneurs having access to satellite navigation and a flying amphibious vehicle in competition with the 17th century explorers on their sailing vessels. And even if their success – however it is being measured – falls short of whatever expectations, the sheer joy of trying things out, learning, growing, and developing can be an aim and an achievement in and of itself[28].

Now, there’s a lot to be thought and said about how such an approach can be implemented within (or: in addition to) the institutions, beliefs, and superstitions that structure our world as we experience it. For the time being, however, I’ll restrict myself to four practical recommendations on what each of us can do individually to prepare for getting better and better at both questioning ourselves and at cooperating constructively with others – enjoy!

  1. Change a habit: Every day, just for the joy of it, change a habit in your life – drink tea instead of coffee (or coffee instead of tea), pick up the phone instead of writing an email (or vice versa), put an item in your shopping cart that you’ve never bought before (or make something yourself that you always bought), listen to music while working (or turn it off and enjoy white silence), go to sleep early (or really late). This will make you more aware and accepting of the volatility of your identity – and prepare you for imagining a world beyond the map.
  2. Investigate: Every day, just for the curiosity of it, take time to gently investigate something or somebody crossing your way – get to the sources, falsehoods, and truths of something you read on social media, follow through with the etymology, lineage, and tradition of a word or concept you meet, ask questions to understand what motivates somebody you interact with, what makes them happy and what makes them red with rage – and why. This will make you more aware and accepting of the complexity of causes and conditions, and less prone to prejudice – and it will prepare you for travelling outside chartered waters.
  3. Reverse directions: Every day, just for the fun of it, exchange the directions of things you do and things happening to you – listen to your own words as if they came from someone else, feel the truths of what you hear from others as if they were your inventions; look at your own thoughts as if they were something you read in a book or, out of the blue, heard on the radio, adopt the reality of what you read or hear as if it was a production of your own mind. This will make you more aware and accepting of the fragility of convictions – and it will prepare you for discovering what you were never looking for.
  4. Do nothing: Every day, just for the peace of it, do nothing for a little while – watch the sky and the clouds, watch a fly on the wall; listen to the sounds of waves and winds, listen to your heartbeat and breathing; rest in the gaps between business and busyness, rest in the gaps between thoughts. This will make you more aware and accepting of the equality of being and not being – and it will prepare you for continuously depuzzling and repuzzling anybody’s worlds.

One piece, by the way, is missing in our puzzle. There’s a gap somewhere in the Indian Ocean. If you find it, please let me know.


A gap.

[1] This, alas, is not a new observation. It’s most likely as old as mankind. The specific way of putting it here is borrowed from John Donne’s “An Anatomy of the World, Wherein, by occasion of the untimely death of Mistress Elizabeth Drury, the frailty and the decay of this whole world is represented. The First Anniversary” (1611), where he says: “‘Tis all in pieces, all coherence gone.” BACK TO TEXT

[2] This list is not exhaustive and also not meant to define any priority of these four topics compared with others. Any good study on megatrends or global forces out there will give you a similar (but different) set of topics. For a readable and well-researched study, you might pick, for example, “The Four Global Forces Breaking All The Trends” by McKinsey’s Richard Dobbs, James Manyika, and Jonathan Woetzel (2015). Their four forces are: Urbanisation, technological change, an ageing world, and greater global connections.BACK TO TEXT

[3] An excellent (German language) essay on this effect is Meike Lobo’s “Das Zeitalter der Massenhysterie” which can be found here [retrieved Mar 4, 2016].BACK TO TEXT

[4] I’m fully aware of the fact that, in many respects, this conglomerate of concepts, plans, and modes of execution is neither “Western” nor “civilisation”, however, I’m using this label here for ease of communication. For a thoroughly researched history of the political parts of this story, I still recommend Wolfgang Reinhard, “Geschichte der Staatsgewalt” (1999).BACK TO TEXT

[5] A worthy re-read on the public sphere is Jürgen Habermas, “Strukturwandel der Öffentlichkeit” (1962) in all its 1960s glory (translated into English as “The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere” in 1989).BACK TO TEXT

[6] This gives me the opportunity to reference both my book on early modern peace plans, “Rêveurs de Paix? Friedenspläne bei Crucé, Richelieu und Sully” (1995) as well as the volume “War, Peace and World Order in European History” which I co-edited with Beatrice Heuser (2001). Of course, a lot more has been said about this subject – some more thoughts of mine can be found here, including further references [retrieved Mar 4, 2016].BACK TO TEXT

[7] With sincere apologies to all historians and theoreticians of economy that feel offended by this simplification. You’re most likely right – there’s certainly more detail worth exploring.BACK TO TEXT

[8] With the NASA and Scott Kelly – see here [retrieved Mar 4, 2016] as well as the hashtag #YearInSpace on social media.BACK TO TEXT

[9] As in an experiment conducted at Duke University Medical School in Durham (North Carolina) – read a (German language) article about the experiment and its results here [retrieved Mar 4, 2016].BACK TO TEXT

[10] Don’t get me wrong – I have huge respect for cavemen (further explorations can be found here [retrieved Mar 4, 2016]), and I certainly don’t want to get into a discussion about the legitimacy (or lack thereof) of using drugs. This is a metaphor, and it’s most likely ill-chosen.BACK TO TEXT

[11] If you haven’t read Dave Eggers’ “The Circle”, you should so so very soon (2013).BACK TO TEXT

[12] Credit for this term goes to the immensely readable “The Filter Bubble” by Eli Pariser (2011).BACK TO TEXT

[13] There’s no shortage of examples of such cases already happening – just do an internet search for “shitstorm” and browse through the examples.BACK TO TEXT

[14] With the exception, perhaps, of the very non-medieval Hieronymus Bosch (who was not a poet, either). Ironically, in this context, his painting “The Garden of Delights” has just been turned into a virtual reality movie on the occasion of his 500th death anniversary – a sample and more information is here [retrieved Mar 4, 2016].BACK TO TEXT

[15] After what I wrote above, I’m fully aware of the irony of starting this thread of thoughts with a reference to previous centuries, once again. My (legitimate, as I believe) excuse for this is that I’m convinced that the overall global shifts that we’re facing today are structurally comparable to what happened around 1800 in Europe and North America, when far-reaching trends in society, economics, and politics combined to eventually morph into the set of mindsets and institutions that were designed to create a frame for the risks and challenges inherent in those new developments. Accepting this premise, it’s not contradictory to also adopt (at least some of) the structural building blocks of the interpretations and solutions offered by the thinkers of that particular period. How exactly, however, needs to be detailed further. BACK TO TEXT

[16] The latter part of this paragraph is shamelessly copy-pasted from Immanuel Kant’s “What is Enlightenment?” (1784), the English Translation of which can be found here [retrieved Mar 4, 2016]. – For a more recent description of the same idea in the context of our times, I recommend reading Michael Pauen, Harald Welzer, “Autonomie” (2015).BACK TO TEXT

[17] Unsurpassed: Thomas Kuhn’s “The Structure of Scientific Revolutions” (1962).BACK TO TEXT

[18] Best summarised by Daniel Kahnemann in “Thinking, Fast And Slow” (2011).BACK TO TEXT

[19] Nicely laid out by Bruce Ecker and Laurel Hulley in their “Depth-Oriented Brief Therapy” (1996), a recent favourite of mine on the mechanics of psychology and psychotherapy.BACK TO TEXT

[20] As coined by James Surowiecki in his “The Wisdom of Crowds” (2004). On the (corresponding) value of diversity, see also my related post here [retrieved Mar 4, 2016].BACK TO TEXT

[21] A lot has been written since, but you can still get deep into the topic by just reading Irving Janis’ “Groupthink” (1982).BACK TO TEXT

[22] Harald Welzer’s “Selbst Denken” (2014) has striking examples of how (just like the mainstream “Mitläufer”) dissenters, too, need a social environment that supports and enhances their deviant behaviour.BACK TO TEXT

[23] As an aside: I don’t think that such rules, norms, or values can (and, for that matter, should) be transported through companies’ terms and conditions. Doing business with somebody and clarifying the terms and conditions of who’s responsible for which part of the deal is one thing; creating agreements between human beings as to how they want to interact with each other is a very different thing. Developing and establishing frameworks for the latter, with all its precarious balance between individual freedom and collective commitment to rules of law as well as processes for their generation, modification, and execution, is one of the great achievements of the 18th and 19th century that we should never compromise on.BACK TO TEXT

[24] A short, but fascinating read on this is Charles Duhigg’s article “What Google Learned From Its Quest To Build the Perfect Team”, in “The New York Times Magazine” (Feb 25th, 2016) available here [retrieved Mar 4, 2016].BACK TO TEXT

[25] Taken from the excellent description and analysis in Amy Edmondson’s “Teaming” (2012), the quote is in the chapter “Four Pillars of Effective Teaming”.BACK TO TEXT

[26] Laid out within a broad philosophical context by Mark Terkessidis in “Kollaboration” (2105); the same idea is at the core of the “learning labs” methodology which has recently become popular in many business situations, see, for example, Zaid Hassan’s “The Social Labs Revolution” (2014) which has a helpful combination of theory and practical examples.BACK TO TEXT

[27] For examples, see the reference above, in note [22].BACK TO TEXT

[28] Read Carol Dweck’s “Mindset” (2006) for the underlying theory and plenty of examples of how this works.BACK TO TEXT

* All photos are pictures of Blatz Puzzle 57725 “Antike Weltkarte” (1,500 pieces) – unfortunately, the puzzle container does not give further information about the original source of the map which (according to a label in the upper right hand corner) was produced in Amsterdam in 1626, “apud Ioannem Laussonium”.

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