|2011-03-13, by John Ringland|
A brief preliminary brainstorm on the subject of open-source
social operating systems (systems of governance), from the
perspective of systems theory. This is just to put down a few
thoughts that immediately pop into my mind in regards to this
First some Background
Systems interact and evolve patterns of coordination, coherence
and dependency, thereby integrating to form super-systems. This
process is called a meta-system transition and is the manner in which
all complex systems come to exist. Hence all systems are emergent
from the interactions of their sub-systems and all systems
participate in the emergence of super-systems. In order to be stable
a system must be coherently integrated both within (amongst its
sub-systems) and without (as part of super-systems).
For example, a human being is a super-system emergent from
cellular interactions and also a sub-system within a society that is
a super-system emergent from human interactions. In order to be
stable they must have a healthy body and mind as well as be
integrated into a healthy society.
When sub-systems interact in order to manifest a super-system they
do so within a collective context (culture) that imposes an
organising principle (ideology) that structures the collective
operating system (governance). Systems can participate within the
dynamics of multiple super-systems, hence there can often be
competing or conflicting cultures, ideologies or governance.
Every system has an internal space that consists of the
interactions of its sub-systems, as well as an external space, i.e.
an environment that consists of all systems that influence it but
which are not a part of itself. This external space is the internal
space of an environmental super-system that is emergent from the
interactions of these systems.
For a social system this environment includes the natural
environment, other social systems, other individual humans, etc. The
social system must be able to integrate into that environment and
participate effectively in order to maintain the integration of the
environmental super-system. Only when a system is coherent and
harmonious both within and without is it healthy and stable.
Informal and Formal Structures
There are two fundamental perspectives within a meta-system
transition, that of the sub-systems and that of the super-system.
These correspond to the informal and formal structures within an
organisation. The informal structure operates from the perspective of
the sub-systems; it is the natural relations, roles and patterns of
interaction that exist amongst the sub-systems. The formal structure
operates from the perspective of the super-system; it is the defined
relations, roles and patterns of interaction that are imposed by the
super-system upon the sub-systems.
For example, in human society the informal structure is comprised
of families, peer groups, the social grapevine, traditions, taboos,
norms, legends, etc. Whilst the current formal structure is comprised
of corporations, NGO's, universities, government departments,
political parties, mass media, legislation, police, propaganda,
When the informal structure is dominated by the formal structure
this is related to authoritarianism, totalitarianism and fascism.
When the formal structure is dominated by the informal structure this
is related to revolution, anarchy and barbarism. There is usually
ongoing dissonance such as tensions, misunderstandings and conflicts
between these two structures. This is because they have conflicting
needs, interests and perspectives and they are unaware of each other
because they each define their reality from their own perspective,
hence they blindly strive to meet their own needs without
understanding why they meet with so much resistance from the other.
The more coordinated, coherent and interdependent the society
becomes the more that the formal structure gains power and the
individuals become powerless and manipulated. However if the members
of a society remain uncoordinated, incoherent and independent then
the society is not able to organise and act collectively in order to
provide services or overcome dangers that can only be effectively
dealt with on a collective scale.
Hence societies begin in barbarism and social pressures lead to
the growth of the formal structure, which because of dissonance
seizes control of the society leading to the loss of its legitimacy
and eventual revolution. Then once again the society grows more
coordinated and this once again evolves towards fascism. Thus the
political pendulum swings.
Ultimately the power originates from the informal structure and is
harnessed and channelled by the formal structure. Hence the formal
structure can wield power against the informal structure but
ultimately when the informal structure withdraws its consent the
formal structure can no longer harness any power and is impotent.
If the informal and formal structures can recognise each other's
legitimacy, understand their interdependence and work together then a
stable social system is possible.
In order for the super-system to emerge the sub-systems must
coordinate in order to harness their collective power, pool it,
channel it, distribute it, focus it and apply it where necessary.
However, as the history of human social systems illustrates, once a
“seat of power” is created it becomes a sought after prize for
power hungry individuals and interest groups, who co-opt the social
power structures and wield them for their own purposes that are often
not in the interests of the individuals, nor of the society as a
whole. Such political parasites are a common cause for social disease
and when the collective is ill this negatively effects everyone
within the society and also its environment.
Basic requirements of a social operating system:
Given the above considerations we can hypothesise some basic
requirements of an effective social operating system.
The social operating system must recognise and be based upon
an accurate awareness of the systemic nature and dynamics of society
and not based upon mythological, anthropological, monarchist,
capitalist or other arbitrary ideological foundations.
The social operating system must recognise and legitimise
both the informal and formal structures and not deny or undermine
the legitimacy of either. The needs, interests and perspectives of
both the informal and the formal structures need to be taken into
account and harmoniously integrated to the extent that it is
possible to do so. The system should actively work to balance and
harmonise the two structures, thereby dampening the swing of the
political pendulum. Then the sub-systems and the super-system can
live in harmony with each other.
The social operating system must be structured so that it is
not able to be co-opted. There must be sufficient separation of
powers so that no small group can take control, and there must be
sufficient feedback and monitoring to ensure that even larger and
more coordinated groups cannot co-opt the system for their own
purposes. The system must receive feedback from all aspects of
itself as well as from all perspectives that are impacted by its
actions. This feedback will inform it about the needs, interests and
perspectives of the informal and formal structures within it, and
also about its general environment. If its actions in a particular
area become co-opted this must be detected and resolved immediately.
There will always be those who will try to 'hack' the system, they
are like viruses that try to co-opt an organism and use it for their
own purposes. Hence the social operating system needs an immune
system that adapts to these incursions and maintains the upper hand
in the political “arms race” for control over the collective.
The collective must have sufficient self-awareness in order to
The social operating system must be structured and rigid
enough to be able to effectively harness, channel, focus and apply
power in a persistent and stable manner. However it must also be
unstructured and flexible enough to allow for individual initiative
and for the system to evolve in response to changing social dynamics
and environmental conditions.
The social operating system must be open and transparent
enough so that there is adequate communication throughout the formal
structure, between the formal and informal structures and with its
environment. This allows for informed feedback that is then
assimilated into the governing process. However the system must also
be closed and opaque enough so that it is secured against being
co-opted by factions both within the informal and formal structures,
as well as foreign entities within the broader environment.
The social operating system must be focused on both internal
harmony amongst its sub-systems and external harmony amongst the
systems that comprise its environment. Only when harmony exists both
within and without can the system be healthy and stable.
There are two ways in which open-source principles can be applied.
Firstly, open-source development of the operating system itself
has been around for some time. For instance, there exist operating
systems that allow the few to dominate the many and these have been
in open-source development for millennia. Some early versions were
developed in Sumer and Egypt, along the way Machiavelli made some
innovations, various emperors, monarchs, dictators, etc have
'installed' this operating system, adapted it to their own purposes
and learnt from each other's example. So there is nothing new about
open-source development of such social operating systems.
However much can be learnt from modern open-source methods. For
instance, given some way to represent the system (analogous to a
programming language) it can be described in intricate detail,
analysed, simulated, shared, modified, compared, etc. This would help
foster the growth and refinement of collective knowledge about social
operating systems and how to implement and operate them.
The second manner in which open-source principles can be applied
is in the functioning of the social operating system itself. It could
utilise open-source methods in many aspects of its functioning, such
as the writing of legislation, the development of infrastructure,
The advent of the internet makes this approach feasible, whereas
it was impossible to implement in previous historical contexts. Now
it is possible for mass collaborations to produce quality results
however there is still much to be learnt as these principles are
applied to something as vital and controversial as systems of
Using open-source approaches to design and implement social
operating systems in accord with holistically systemic requirements
would result in more robust and functional operating systems that are
more likely to be acceptable to and inclusive of the informal
structure because it has been developed by the informal structure, in
collaboration with the formal structure and with full awareness of
the systemic context in which it is being applied.
Because the operating system is emergent from the society rather
than imposed upon the society it is likely to receive greater
acceptance and legitimacy, therefore being able to harness, channel
and coherently apply far greater power than any previous social
operating systems. Once the new systems are in place there will no
longer be so much energy tied up in internal tensions due to ongoing
revolt and suppression, and external tensions due to environmental
conflicts with nature and other social systems. This liberated energy
can then be put to use, leading to a flourishing of vitality.
Furthermore, when the informal and formal structures can trust
each other and work together there is far greater potential for
social development, innovation, harmony and creative evolution.