Unbuilding Complexity

Building blocks.  I’m fascinated by building blocks. Without them, complexity is impossible. But recently, I’ve been toying with the idea of “unbuilding blocks” — elements or processes that can help disassemble entrenched activities, processes, or institutions that are causing the world difficulty.
An arch depends on its keystone for its strength and stability. Similarly, activities, processes, and institutions  — with all their function and dysfunction  — might be altered for societal benefit by removing key building blocks, even if we desire fundamental change. How do we remove the building blocks that are producing climatic disaster?  That have created so many “have nots”?  That leave parts of the world centuries behind others?
It’s 5 a.m., I’ve walked our dog, made some coffee, and am easing into the day (too early! can’t sleep!) with email.  Something drew me to a message showing my LinkedIn Updates, the kind of thing I usually trash without reading, but today I looked at the Updates and saw a post by someone I’ve met once and don’t actively follow (thanks Lev Gonick) — a link for a crowd-sourced film.
A 4-minute video, a trailer for the longer (still short) film, Connected, begins with an explanation:
On the 4th of July, 2011,
we posted a request online
to #participate in a short film
about #interdependence
Video makers and artists around the world submitted work to illustrate ideas in the film’s script.  Online voting determined which snippets made it.   The trailer is being crowd-translated into 100 languages.  So, who made this film?  A bunch of crowdsourcing strangers.

The film has not hit Ann Arbor, where I live, and I didn’t make it to Cannes this year.  (Of course, I’ve never made it to Cannes.)  So I am guessing based the film’s website and various online reviews what it’s about.  I’m also guessing I’ll like it.  A lot.
Fast Company describes this film by Tiffany Shlain as illustrating

“the power of digital connectivity and access to knowledge … [and the] connectedness between major issues like the environment, consumption, technology, human rights, and the global economy [and] a personal journey of discovery about connections in [Shlain’s] own life. The film shows the beauty and tragedy of human endeavor and champions personal connection and how the “power of one” has become digitally exponential.”

“Digitally exponential” sounds to me like The Onion describing how to approach a difficult math problem; but never mind, I think I get the drift:  That somehow the right email found me this morning as I’m thinking about how to teach fifty odd students (fifty odd means “approximately fifty”) to create change through video.  In our (my) wildest dreams, we’ll go viral.  I’ve never done anything like this before, and neither have they.

The unexpected email, on a topic precisely relevant to my needs, even directing me to a film when I’m wondering what a film about changing the world might looklike suggests that our new “connecting technologies” create serendipitous events like these, and far more often than ever before.  And as they do, our interdependence can create something bigger than any of us is even remotely capable of as an individuals.  People are smart. Groups, especially when diverse, are crowd-smart.
Connecting with others can create communal actions in the Arab world powerful enough to topple regimes, so what else might it do? Might it change what what we buy (and so what is produced), what we tolerate and what we won’t (to force legislators’ hands), how we live our lives (with the impact that has on others around the globe)? Can connecting dismantle building blocks?   
Our progress as a civilization has come from creating an elaborate technological and social edifice, based on simple building blocks at first such as wheels and chieftans, and now involving highly sophisticated building blocks like computer chips and multinational corporations.  
At heart, we are social animals who want, even need, to communicate.  With our family, our tribe, our community — even as our community includes crowds that we’ve never met in person. Through our communications, we might begin to remove building blocks.  
Can we create some new unbuilding blocks to create a world that is not racing towards a cliff?  Maybe Tiffany Shlain’s movie will provide some answers when I see it.   It’s certainly gotten my day going at an early hour.


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