By Doc Searls
January, 1992

The failure of selfishness

As a species, we human beings are reaching a point in our development when it finally serves us better to say "it's ours" than "it's mine," and "let's share it" than "let's fight over it." We are growing past the egotism of the child whose world is the self to the altruism of the adult whose world includes others. It is a change both for individuals and for the groups to which they belong.

The rule of selfish interests will decline not because of a moral need to subordinate the interests of the one or the few to the needs of the many, but because the interests of individuals and small groups will be better served by sharing than by hoarding, by working together than by working alone, by cooperating than by fighting, by adding their differences than by denying or demeaning the advantages of others.

This shift is occasioned by many contemporaneous developments: the new independence of countries in the former Soviet bloc; the development of the European Economic Community; the emergence of the global economy; the emergence of personal computing, and its evolution into "social" computing.

Without some subordination of individual to group interests, society would be impossible. What gives culture its order is the nesting of countless groups into selectively subordinate intersts: churches to religions, teams to leagues, towns to counties. While the "ego" of each identity will selfishly believe in the rightness of its own ways, it would be childish to insist that all other groups adopt those ways. We live in a world of differing people, groups and interests at every level. The mature context for each group ego is not the self but the society.

Now we can see, for the first time, that countries are growing up. We can see this in the development of the European Economic Community. In the environmental movements. In the collaboration between companies that are also competitors. In the economic interdependencies that hold the Soviet Union together despite the liberation of long-denied national interests. Some of these changes are more developed than others, and many steps forward are all but matched by steps backward; but progress occurs if only because these societies no longer feel best served by their childish natures -- by their need to "win," to be "right," to dominate, to gain by the losses of others. Today we are plainly too dependent on others -- as individuals, as companies, as societies and as countries -- to mistake the losses of others as gains for ourselves. Others matter too much. And just as the neighborhood bully at some point has to learn how to get along with other people, our societies have to grow up too. The time has come.

Pardigm Shifts

This change entails a significant "paradigm shift." A paradigm is a prevailing set of beliefs. It is on paradigms that the institutions of civilization are built. These include economies, religions, governments, educational institutions and sciences. Beliefs are serious. Most wars are fought over beliefs, and they don't change easily. But change they must.

Here is a table of paradigms we can expect to see change over the coming years (for more current thinking on this, see "The Web and the New Reality"):

Paradigm Reality 1.0 Reality 2.0
Means to ends Domination Partnership
Cause of progress Competition Collaboration
Center of interest Personal Social
Concept of systems Closed Open
Dynamic Win/Lose Play/Play
Roles Victor/Victim Partner/Ally
Primary goods Capital Information
Source of leverage Monopoly Polyopoly
Organization Hierarchy Flexiarchy
Roles Victor/Victim Server/Client
Scope of self-interest Self/Nation Self/World
Source of power Might Right
Source of value Scarcity Abundance
Stage of growth Child (selfish) Adult (social)
Reference valuables Metal, Money Life, Time
Purpose of boundaries Protection Limitation

Changes across the paradigms show up as positve "reality shifts." The shift is from OR logic to AND logic, from Vs. to +:

Reality 1.0 Reality 2.0
man vs nature man + nature
Labor vs management Labor + management
Public vs private Public + private
Men vs women Men + women
Us vs them Us + them
Majority vs minority Majority + minority
Party vs party Party + party
Urban vs rural Urban + rural
Black vs white Black + white
Business vs govt. Business + govt.

Rise of Partnership

Of all these paradigm shifts, none is more profound than the one from domination to partnership.

According to Riane Eisler, our species went through a profound change about twenty thousand years ago. The archaeological record suggests that this was about the time when humans first began not only to make weapons in earnest, but to use them against each other. Before that time, she suggests, some kind of female-dominated model prevailed. Archaeological records are filled with the symbols and instruments of fertility and nutrition -- tiny likenesses of pregnant women and bowls of all kinds. But after our species got into making blades, a "dominator" model of human interaction has prevailed. In the dominator model, might makes right. And the final source of might is physical: the dominator's ultimate advantage is the ability to hurt or even to kill. Raw physical power provides advantages in competitive battles and "security" against the aggression of others. Not surprisingly, the dominator model grants an advantage to the physically more powerful gender.

Through what Eisler calls the "dominator era," men have run just about everything. For evidence, one hardly need look past the top seats in government, business, religion and even sports.

The dominator model sees life's challenges as win-lose propositions. There are winners and losers in all our interactions: love, war, commerce or whatever. In play, our sports require winners and losers. Even the barter system, from which all modern economies are derived, involves losses as well as wins -- a zero-sum gain. Eisler suggests that the dominator model will be supplanted by one based on "partnership." As she describes it, the partnership model sees everything in win-win terms (or, as Craig Burton puts it, "play-play"). It recognizes competitors stand to gain most when they compete in a cooperative spirit, and that there is more to gain from adding or aligning interests than from opposing them. After all, it is by this process that societies are formed in the first place.

Strange that we'll finally get around to recognizing it.

The Power of the Personal

Property is most "owned" when it is most personal. It is less owned when it is institutional, and least owned when it is available to everybody.

Property "wants" to be personal. It is plain that the sense of ownership for an individual declines as the number of other people who share the property increases. This principle becomes clear when we see how much easier it is to steal the property of an institution than the property of another person. Or when we litter. A taxpayer has only the most microscopic sense of "owning" public property. We might therefore say that property itself is naturally personal.

The sense of personal property is most strongly felt by small children. When a child reaches "the terrible twos," it has learned for the first time to use its power. Its favorite (and most powerful) expressions are "No," "I won't" and "It's mine." Although the child may be filled with love for others, interest in the self is primary. Among those self-interests, the sense of property, and the power that property holds, is especially strong. As the child matures, however, it comes to understand the need for sharing, and the positive results of multiple and shared ownership of things. Then, as an adult, the mature person's understanding of propriety entails not only a distant and healthy perspective on the utilitarian limits of ownership as a power and a motivator, but also the essentially impersonal nature of information. While knowledge may be personal, information is anything but personal. As the communicable form of knowledge, it is as exterior to each person as the electronic signals that carry it over wires and through space, or the paper on which it is printed. As something which is both impersonal and easily duplicated, it must be understood as other than property. Gradually, this is beginning to happen.

As a culture, we are maturing to a stage where we no longer, like toddlers, project "It's mine!" as a value on the world; but instead are coming to understand how limited a role that value plays in a world where there is much more to gain from sharing information and satisfying others as necessary processes of society and all its institutions, including business and government.

Back to the top Back to the Reality 2.0Forward to the next article