As the title suggests, this book is about collaboration, about scale, and about humans, about beauty, and about limits. It has been written from my perspective as an autistic anthropologist by birth and a knowledge archaeologist by autodidactic training. I attempt to address the challenges of ethics and collective intelligence in an era that 21st century geologists refer to as the Anthropocene.
Like bees and ants, humans are eusocial animals. Through the lenses of evolutionary biology and cultural evolution, small groups of 20 to 100 people are the primary organisms within human society – in contrast to individuals, corporations, and nation states. The implications for our civilisation are profound. Humanity is experiencing a phase transition that is catalysed by a combination of new communication technologies, toxic levels of social inequalities, and existential crises. It is time to put ubiquitous global digital connectivity to good use, to curate and share the lessons from marginalised perspectives, and to reflect critically on the human evolutionary journey and on the possibilities and limitations of human agency.
The journey of exponentially accelerating cultural evolution presented in this book covers several hundred thousand years, from the origins of humans right up to the latest significant developments in the early 21st century. I would like to equip communities and individuals with conceptual tools to create good companies that are capable of pumping value from a dying ideological system into an emerging world. Regardless of what route we choose, on this planet no one is in control. The force of life is distributed and decentralised, and it might be a good idea to organise and collaborate accordingly.
The observations offered in this book are the synthesis of my field research from living amongst humans, which has been shaped by hundreds of deep and enjoyable conversations with friends and family within the autistic community, and with my peers at S23M, the human scale NeurodiVenture that started my journey of discovery and creative collaboration back in 2002. Many thanks to all the many who have contributed to growing my understanding of the human species.
The book The Beauty of Collaboration at Human Scale is now in the peer review stage. In many ways the book is an autistic collaboration project. The book offers tools for finding viable paths into a more neurodiversity friendly future.
Much of the content in the book has been published in earlier articles on AutCollab.org, on this website, or on my personal blog, but the book offers a unique chronological perspective on human cultural evolution, and it adds the glue needed to establish important semantic connections across discipline boundaries.
The book concludes with a wonderful quote from an article written by Pip Carroll, in the lead up to the prolonged but ultimately very successful lock-down in Melbourne:
A caring society does not value the individual for their ability to return economic value, but simply for existing as their own imperfect self. We can’t choose to be cared for any more than we can choose to win the lottery. We can only hope to develop the quality in others by offering care ourselves. Trusting that care, once given is ordained to return to another in need.
All feedback is welcome!
I am also very interested in contributions of short personal anecdotes from lived experience that relate to my observations. You can choose to submit anecdotes either in anonymous format or with your name. In all cases I will ask you to review the context of any text/segment that I intent to cite, to ensure that I don’t misrepresent your perspective.
The book is designed for a broad audience. So if it does not meet that objective, please let me know.
If you would like to review the book and provide constructive feedback, you can request access to the complete content using the simple form on this page. I will respond promptly and email you relevant access details.
The introduction is included below, to provide you with an outline of the scope.
This book provides communities and organisations with a useful sense of direction, giving them the option to snap out of busyness as usual mode when they are ready. If or when this may happen will vary from case to case. It is not something that any individual has much control over. There is no shortage of optimistic books that celebrate human achievements and there is also no shortage of pessimistic books that proclaim the end of the human species. In contrast, I approach the Anthropocene from the fringe of human society, from the perspective of someone who does not relate to abstract human group identities.
Once the history of civilisation is understood as series of progress myths, where each civilisation looks towards earlier or competing civilisations with a yardstick that is tailored to prove that its own myths and achievements are clearly superior to anything that came before, it is possible to identify the loose ends and the work-arounds of civilisation that are usually presented as progress.
The result is a historical narrative that makes for slightly less depressing reading than 10,000 years of conflict and wars. Instead, human history can be understood as a series of learning experiences that present us with the option to break out of the tired, old, and increasingly destructive pattern of civilised conquest and domination. Whether our current global civilisation chooses to complete the familiar pattern of growth and collapse in the usual “civilised” manner is a question that is up to all of us.
Part I – Homo symbolicus
The first four chapters cover the period that predates written historic records, based on what can be deduced from the archaeological record and from the available knowledge about hunter gatherers and other human scale societies.
Chapter 1 examines the origins of human primates and outlines the collaborative traits that have enabled early humans to become established and to survive on all continents with the exception of Antarctica.
Chapter 2 identifies the patterns and cognitive limitations that define human scale, and it introduces the concept of neurodiversity as an aspect of biodiversity that has had a major influence on cultural evolution.
Chapter 3 introduces a small set of concepts that reflect the most fundamental cognitive architecture of human perception and thought, which provides us with a simple language to represent and reason about living systems.
Chapter 4 explores the topic of collective learning in small human scale groups, and offers a synopsis of thinking tools that predate the evolution of human language. The chapter concludes with an initial analysis of the ways in which cultures and social norms can either catalyse or compromise collective learning.
The period of human civilisations prior to the industrial era is condensed into two chapters, referring to the recurring patterns of civilisation building and collapse identified in the pioneering comparative work by historian Joseph Tainter.
Chapter 5 presents the three essential ingredients that have enabled the emergence of civilisations and complex societies consisting of many hundred, many thousand, and even many millions of people, and it provides working definitions of “cultural inertia” and “paradigmatic inertia” that are helpful for understanding the limits of collective intelligence.
Chapter 6 provides an introduction to the collapse of complex societies, with particular emphasis on the key elements that are applicable to our current global civilisation, including a useful working definition of “collapse of complexity”.
Part II – Homo economicus
The following nine chapters in Part II are devoted to an in-depth transdisciplinary analysis of cultural evolution since the industrial revolution, with an emphasis on the role of autistic and otherwise neurodivergent people in undermining the repeated attempts of reducing the human species to homo economicus. Readers who are less interested in an in-depth critique of the industrial era through autistic eyes can skip this part of the book, and as needed revisit specific chapters in Part II in case the arguments laid out in Part III for moving towards homo ecologus seem difficult to follow.
Chapter 7 covers the industrial revolution, the factory model of production, the emergence of the “scientific” management, and the W.E.I.R.D. (Western Educated Industrialised Rich Democratic) myth of progress and superiority in which capital plays the dominant role in structuring social power relationships.
Chapter 8 examines the myth of progress and superiority in more detail by articulating the unspoken neuronormative assumptions about human “functioning” in industrialised society. The chapter proceeds with concrete examples from all continents about how industrial society actively disables minorities and offers critical thinking tools that can assist in re-framing the myth of progress into a symptom of collective delusion.
Chapter 9 analyses the effects of the addiction to economic growth and warns against the dangers of attempting to replace the narrative of growth with a more appropriate and less toxic universal narrative of progress. The reader is alerted to the inherent limits of the tool of storytelling.
Chapter 10 explains how computers have been used to extend the mirage of exponential growth, and offers a planetary and less W.E.I.R.D. perspective on the future of cultural and technological evolution.
Chapter 11 takes a critical look at the achievements of societies that hoard information for comparative advantage over other societies, and it exposes the illusion of the idealised standard human, which has been cultivated of the last 250 years.
Chapter 12 investigates the dynamic feedback loops between culture and technology that have led to the W.E.I.R.D. technological monocultures and competitive social games, which are frequently framed as disruptive forms of innovation, and which increasingly define life in the digital Anthropocene.
Chapter 13 identifies collective cognitive blind spots. It explains how the cult of busyness has elevated storytelling to a silver bullet and has relegated model building to the dustbin of history, paving the way for a seemingly bright future of artificially intelligent systems.
Chapter 14 zeros in on the cognitive dissonance between the anthropocentric myths of meritocracy, technological progress, and growth on the one hand and the needs of all the people and other living creatures that we care about on the other hand. The discussion exposes the limits of the Western scientific worldview.
Chapter 15 summarises the current predicament of humanity. It exposes a social operating system that is afflicted by a suicidal collective learning disability and that is dominated by the life destroying logic of digitised capital.
Part III – Homo ecologus
The chapters in Part III offer critical thinking tools and first hand experiences from creating good company at human scale, and lead up to a short conclusion about the limits of social complexity that can be sustained on our path into the future. The tools provided may assist us in collectively creating ecologies of good companies, in nurturing a global knowledge commons, and in finding viable paths into a more neurodiversity friendly future.
Chapter 16 asks the question of how to paddle back from lethal forms of monoculture. The investigation points back to the cultural characteristics of early human scale knowledge based societies, which relied on knowledge sharing and trusted relationships rather than on the not-so-invisible hand of competitive markets.
Chapter 17 provides an emergency brake to slow us down to a speed that allows critical self reflection. It outlines neurodivergent forms of collaboration that are much less W.E.I.R.D. than the civilised myth of progress and offers a set of thinking tools that may allow us to progress from so-called wealth to good health.
Chapter 18 uses the visual languages of the human lens and the ecological lens to contrast life at human scale with life in the W.E.I.R.D. world of busyness. It offers proven tools for intentional bottom-up cultural innovation at human scale that can be deployed today.
Chapter 19 elaborates how collaboration can be understood as an evolutionary force based on a suitable working definition of “collective intelligence”, and it provides further guidance for transitioning to creative collaboration at human scale. The reader is encouraged to start by rediscovering the language of life.
Chapter 20 concludes with a reminder that collapse of hierarchical complexity is not a fall to some primordial chaos, but a return to the normal human condition of lower complexity, and a return to more locally appropriate use of technology.