Did the title of this article catch your eye?
Maybe you have an interest in ancient Egypt, and the rise and fall of the pharos and their mighty monuments, which sanctified their social order in stone. Or perhaps your interest is in the mythic escape of the Jews from this land. In truth, my topic is more contemporary than either of these, though its themes do trace their lineage to our earliest civilizations.
I write today about the collapse of ancient human pyramids that are still in use today. By this, I mean our many hierarchical orders and pyramidal ways of thinking and acting, some of them older than the pharos. But our discussion is about events unique to our time and should be worth your time. It may even work to reorder some of your own thinking.
Whether or not you have thought much about the topic before, we are and have been living in a world of pyramids, and have been living this way for a very long time. Tall pyramids and small pyramids, wider and narrower varieties, but pyramids nonetheless. The looming shape of pyramids, in fact, are almost everywhere we look.
Pyramids are the form of the hierarchies that governed earlier societies and still are the basic order of much of our human world today. They are the shape of earlier forms social organization and early forms of human understanding too. This ubiquitous silhouette has governed and ordered the lives and thinking of people for many centuries. Pyramids are the form of classes and of classifications, the structure we still use in most of our schools to shape our children’s minds.
But the pyramid is a shape that is coming to an end, beginning in our time, though not evenly or for everyone equally, or all at once. This end of life among pyramids comes for understandable reasons and with many benefits to people who can walk from beneath the shadows they cast (which has been the case in all times, but before possible only in exceptional cases).
In our time, old and seemingly eternal pyramids are literally crumbling before our eyes, allowing or compelling people to seek and create new order in the world and themselves. You can see this trend already. Our global civilization and modern perspective, after all, are far more complicated phenomena than the simple symmetry of a pyramid can describe.
We all now live in a much richer and more dynamic epoch than earlier periods of our history, with far more knowledge and freedom than the past. Instead of two or three life paths to choose among, we often have two or three hundred, and can access all of the cumulative learning of humanity in seconds. As I will explain, our emerging new social structures are much more natural in shape, and much better described by the analogy of hubs and spokes.
Our time is increasingly one that does not fit well into cascading hierarchies, however carefully or subtly we craft them. Let’s start with a simple example, one coming out of the emerging new science of natural human health, and then turn to broader examples of the changes of which I speak.
The Nutritional Pyramid
If you are interested in natural health like me, you may have noticed the U.S. government’s attempts over the last several years to revise its nutritional or dietary pyramid, the ubiquitous and unambiguous shape that most Americans have grown up with, and eaten and unknowingly suffered under, for so long.
In fairness to my national government, the United States was not the only nation to promote this particular pyramid, though it did export or sanction such thinking around the world. Wherever you grew up, there’s a good chance that you too can recall the four food groups from grade school and perhaps remember how these four groups fit neatly into a pyramid.
A generation or two later, with new advances in the science of our well-being, it turns out that human foods don’t actually occur in the four groups or government recommended pyramids. It turns out, in fact, that the old nutritional pyramid and its underlying dietary ideas are actually quite harmful to us. They reflect an older and now plainly inaccurate view of what a healthy human diet should encompass.
The familiar nutritional pyramid has been and remains, even with recent revisions, a disaster for people, assuaging traditionalists and commercial food interests but categorically undermining our health – as more than two hundred million obese or otherwise unhealthy Americas attest.
But pyramids move slowly, even when they crumble. The governments of the world may spend years in face-saving baby steps, shuffling slowly from their old paradigm, leaving people comforted in diets that are far from desirable or optimal. Ultimately, the trend and needed changes are clear already: away from this old form of pyramidal thinking. We see this happening, of course, but with governments lumbering to keep pace. It is in the private domain, enabled by the Internet, that we see vigorous and seemingly unorganized debate about how an optimal diet should be structured.
As we look ahead to what may be years in correctly re-formulating new governmental policy in this most important area of our health, let me make a suggestion for right now, admittedly one from a particular side of the current debate (but one that has time on its side): abandon the food pyramid altogether, call it a mistake, and speak plainly about what people ate (and didn’t eat) in nature and what we likely need to eat today to optimize our health. It’s a simple proposal, and one that produces visible, measurable, and near immediate benefits to people.
We’ll watch to see which government can first escape the hierarchical shape of bureaucracy and mire of entrenched ideas and interests – and the shadowy, reactionary outlook they combine to produce – to recognize and actively promote new thinking in this critical health policy area.
The Organizational Pyramid
Berating today’s governments is a necessary but hardly compelling pastime. It is akin to kicking a slowly moving giant in the toe. It’s easy enough for the small and agile, but unlikely to get much of a reaction or to break the giant’s stride, unless done repeatedly by a committed militia working gingerly and in tandem to kick away at the leviathan.
Nutritionists and health officials of the 1950s and later, those who brought us and now seek to re-point the bricks of the food pyramid, were themselves products of and alive in an ancient world of pyramids. Importantly for our discussion, they worked each day in military-like, command and control organizational structures that are in many ways like a pyramid made of stone – hierarchical and heavy, limiting in the way information and ideas can move and how human action can proceed.
It’s no surprise, then, that when these people looked into the question of human diet, with superiors and powerfuls over them and subordinates under, they narrowed their answers to fours and quarters and arrived at pyramids. Environment drives our outlook, after all, unless we actively and sometimes courageously work to override it.
This perspective on one of many bureaucracies of our time, struggling with ambiguity and new ideas entering their domain, brings us to another pyramidal structure that is beginning to collapse these days: the organizational pyramid. In this case, the collapse will not just impact our health and the length of our lives; it will change the way we live and work each day over the course of our lives.
How can we be reasonably certain that today’s pyramidal organizations will become tomorrow’s artifacts? Because we can see hierarchies failing everywhere now and in an accelerating fashion, with new and more decentralized structures successfully replacing them, again and again. Here are just a few examples, but among the most important:
· The Internet – you probably know that the structure of the Internet is not a pyramid. As its name implies, the Internet has a webbed shape – many points connected directly or indirectly to one another. There is no top or bottom to the Internet, no preponderance of regular angles, just a thick weave of connections that link information and people in new ways. Instead of ascending or descending through traditional hierarchies for what or who we want, we can now search the “web” to make far more connections, far more quickly, and at far lower costs than hierarchical navigation would allow us to do. Control systems in a networked world change too, away from a caste of professional controllers toward imbedded and decentralized protection systems (including greater intelligence on the part of network participants).
· Open Source Systems – related to the evolving Internet is the rise and emerging dominance of open source software over the original model of commercially (or hierarchically) produced computer programs. The typical pattern for open sourcing today is development of a common computing language by a small group of facilitators, who enable vast, networked development of new code and applications that are openly shared, edited and revised, and then re-shared. Such systems are plainly evolutionary, starting crudely but then reaching remarkable complexity, sophistication, and innovativeness through small, iterative instances of bootstrapping. The open source movement is proving a much more robust, agile, and lower cost approach to traditional top-down software development. Open sourcing has now spilled over into many new areas, aided by the Internet, with similar results. In the world today, we see powerful new open sourcing in technology and design development, community and non-governmental social activism, agriculture and biotechnology, and environmental preservation.
· Social Entrepreneurs – in our more networked and accessible world, away from rigid pyramids and insulated command and control systems, we see the new and often dominating emergence of social entrepreneurs and cooperative organizations. These alternatives to traditional governmental programs are normally structured to pursue defined social missions in new and often highly creative ways. They are often rule-breaking, paradigm-shifting, and even radically decentralized organizations that can deliver community services and achieve their goals far more effectively and at lower costs than traditional or more formal approaches. As the Internet and open source systems become pervasive, and as interest in and funding for traditional hierarchical organizations decline, we should expect a continued expansion of entrepreneurialism across many domains, including historically commercial and for-profit ones. Organizations created in this approach may endure over time or rapidly emerge and then disintegrate with need, but in either case may be the central means products and services are made and delivered in the future.
· Globalocal Order – if we are attentive to the previous trends of networked information and people, open source systems, and the efficacy of entrepreneurship, we can look around us and begin to glimpse what literally may be the emerging new world order. From linked community activism to global on-line commercial auctioning to social and professional networking, we see an alternative order rising in our midst. We have good reason to believe this order will be based on network linkages and global in scope, but also increasingly involving local or domain actors and actions addressing individual and community needs. Because of their fluid and more autonomous structure, the new systems have the potential to bypass traditional hierarchical organizations entirely, whether they are commercial, governmental, philanthropic or religious in nature. These old pyramids are now ripe for decline and replacement, as the fine sand that underlies them shifts in the winds of a new human age.
Organizational pyramids were intended to promote control: control of resources, control of people, and control of information. This wasn’t necessarily conspiratorial, even if it enabled conspiracy, just a first attempt at getting things done (whether managing a community’s harvest or going to war or running an enterprise). With some exceptions, this structure has continued to our time, held in place primarily by our inability to communicate with one another on a broad scale until now.
The new information technology of our time allows person-to-person communication on an unprecedented scale, undermining the need for many if not all pyramid-shaped organizations. It also suggests a future of far more decentralized and faster evolving forms of organization around human needs and wants. The twentieth century may well be remembered as the height (and the end) of the long trend of hierarchical organizational control and pyramidal thinking, which first enabled and then was undone by our evolving technology.
The Social Pyramid
In our flatter and more interconnected new world, where information and people live in a network and are readily accessible to almost everyone, new and greatly improved forms of social organization are possible, likely inevitable, and probably desirable, since they offer important potential benefits to us all.
Changing social organization is possible because of the new networked structure of society made possible by the Internet. Change is likely inevitable and probably desirable because network structures are proving more efficient, more flexible, and more satisfying in the way they relate people to people, relative to life in pyramids. The new forms are also probably more adaptable and durable, with less risk of a total collapse, than the pyramids of earlier centuries and today, handed down to us from the pharos and before. Networks are certainly more natural, more in harmony with how people actually operate in their “real” lives, and how nature works within and around us. So, perhaps, it is only natural that civilization reverts to a networked state once it is able to on the large scale of a civilization.
If we look at nature, in fact, we do not see a pyramid. There is no command and control, no building of classes and classifications. What we see is a vast, decentralized universe, subject to and organized by cycles of feedback that emanate from and reach to many places, all at once. The earth’s biosphere (and now, our human infosphere) is organized not from the top down, or from the bottom up. “Everywhere out” is perhaps a better description. Nature is shaped more like a web, a network of signals rippling along its many pathways, not a pyramid reached by fixed boulevards. No one is in charge of nature; there is no hierarchy. Everyone and everything, large and small, exerts its own influences, and has its own gravity, attractions, and aims in the intricate web of that is nature and being.
If our technology and organizations are now evolving to better reflect the structure of nature, and of our human nature, perhaps far-reaching and long-lasting, and immediately disruptive but ultimately beneficial, social changes are not far behind.
In many observable ways, a world beyond the pyramids has begun to emerge already. We see it in the remarkable and sometimes devastating social changes around us now: the changing role of women, the movement of people to new environments, the decline of traditional values and social institutions, and the emergence of new priorities and goals by people around the world.
Such change toward a new world order is an upsetting and even frightening place for many people, especially those wedded to the past – to life, even stilted life, in the pyramids. At the same time, the new order is also an extremely interesting and much more open and humane one for many people too. The new networked human society promises to make old ways of thinking and acting obsolete, along with the old social structures this thought and action created and was created by in turn. A networked world opens up to us (and us to) new ways of living and working – and yes, even new ways of eating and ensuring our health – and likely will require this of us if we are to adapt into the future.
Our networked world has the potential to be a larger and smaller place. One where new opportunities for human connection and learning foster unprecedented advances in our understanding, adaptability, creativity, freedom, and well-being – in short, our health. It perhaps even holds the promise of a new and lasting fusion of nature and civilization, as human society increasingly looks less like a pyramid and more akin to the eternal, networked structure that is nature.
Mark Lundegren is the founder of HumanaNatura.
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