An architecture of responsibility

Following on from the previous post on ‘Possessed by possession‘, if it’s true that there is no way to make a possession-based economy sustainable, then it seems worthwhile to take a look at some of the implications.

First, though, a story, and a warning, from history.

I’ll admit I’m no true scholar of Australian Aboriginal history or law; yet from what I’ve gleaned so far, a few things stand out. First, its economic model is (or was) responsibility-based: most forms of law throughout the country had a very clear concept of ownership, based on explicit and formally-accepted responsibility. In some forms, this was described as ‘singing the site’: someone would take on ownership of some region by demonstrating that they knew the songs of the place better than anyone else, and were thus best suited to take responsibility for it. This model had remained stable for literally tens of thousands of years, through entire ice-ages, serving an overall population well into the millions. Until the Anglos came, barely two hundred years ago. And they asked one question: “who does this land belong to?” To which the local peoples replied, correctly in accordance with a responsibility-based model, that “the land belongs to no-one but itself: we belong to to the land”. To which the instant response was “it belongs to no-one? then this is terra nullius, land by possessed by no-one – how very convenient!” And then, as one Aboriginal elder described it, “the priests came, and they had the Bible, and we had the land; and they said ‘Close your eyes, let us pray!’; and when we opened our eyes again, we had the Bible, and they had the land”. In short, the ‘legal basis’ of modern Australia is nothing more than the blatant theft of an entire continent: and to say that the results of that theft have been devastating to Aboriginal lives and culture would be an understatement in the extreme…

Yet unless we take extreme care, that’s what always happens whenever a responsibility-based culture meets up against a possession-based one. Responsibility loses because it cares; and possession ‘wins’ because it doesn’t. Ouch…

And yet here we are, faced with the bald fact that the economic model that we live in, the model that we know, of ‘rights’ of possession, cannot be made sustainable, and that we somehow have to find a way to turn the whole thing round to a responsibility-based economics. Even a few minutes’ observation should be sufficient to make it clear that vast swathes of our culture are focussed on evasion of responsibility; most of what most people call ‘profit’ is actually the accumulation of future debt in some form or other. Above a surface veneer of ‘normality’, just about everything that we think of as ‘fact’ in our economics is either outright false, or at best based on some kind of fallacy – and yet at present just about everyone believes those fallacies to be true. More serious is the fact that many people – especially the supposedly ‘wealthy’ – have a huge investment in the belief that those fallacies are true, and will at first believe that they must back up that fallacious belief with weapons or worse. Also ouch…

And we also can’t afford to wait around until the supposedly ‘wealthy’ – or worst thieves, as some would put it – come to realise that there’s a problem here that they can’t simply buy their way out of with other people’s money and other people’s lives: because by then it will be way too late, for everyone.

So to put it bluntly, just about everything in our entire society is against in this in some way. And yet every indicator we have shows us that if this change doesn’t happen, and soon, we’re dead – all of us. Kind of high stakes here, then. :-|

So where do we start? How can we start?

My suggestion would be to tackle it like any other enterprise-architecture task:

  • find a vision that makes sense across the whole shared-enterprise
  • identify the values that arise out of that vision
  • identify the drivers and constraints

…and so on, and so on, and so on.  (Identifying the stakeholders is easy, though: it’s everyone. And everything. :-) ) The rest of it, as is usual with enterprise-architecture, is what’s called ‘relentlessly political’ – which, in a sense, is exactly what we have to avoid, because of the, uh, rather serious problems described above. Which means we need to do it in what might be called ‘open stealth’ – make it clear what we’re doing, and why we’re doing it, and then let most people go quietly back to sleep again until we do have enough together to show that there is a real way out of this mess, and that we do have some tangible suggestions of a path from ‘here’ to ‘there’.

The core of it is this:

  • we somehow have to replace every non-sustainable form of ‘possession’ with a sustainable responsibility-based equivalent that, at the surface at least, is experienced as creating the same emotional, practical and other functions as possession
  • we somehow have to replace every possession-based institution – including the entire money-economy, which would be redundant in a responsibility-based economy – with institutions that provide equivalent responsibility-based functions
  • we somehow have to replace every notion of ‘rights’ with responsibility-based equivalents that create the same effect as ‘rights’

On the surface, the last is probably the most challenging politically – not least because historically the US has based its entire politics on a concept of ‘rights’. From an architectural perspective, though, it’s actually the simplest of those sets of tasks, because in reality the entire concept of ‘rights’ is a delusion – there are no rights in the real world. To be blunt, they’re a fantasy – and in all too many cases that fantasy is propped up by offloading responsibilities onto others, in a state-sponsored form of structural abuse. Instead, what we think of as ‘rights’ need to be understood as desirable-outcomes that are created by interlocking sets of mutual responsibilities. So for every purported ‘right’, we need to model the mutual-responsibilities from which those supposed ‘rights’ arise – and identify how the mutualities need to work in order for them to be genuinely fair, genuinely mutual, and genuinely sustainable.

(For a real existing example, take a look at British traffic-law: just about everyone uses the concept of ‘right of way’, but to my knowledge it does not exist anywhere in law. [To be pedantic, the road itself is described as a 'right of way', but that's actually a responsibility on the landholder to permit passage through the respective piece of land.] Instead, everything is described in terms of responsibility to give way, with each apparent non-mutuality described in such a way as to demonstrate effective fairness over time – for example, we give way at a green light to an emergency-vehicle that needs to come across, because next time it could be us that needs the services of that emergency-vehicle. In the same way, every ‘right’ can and, I would argue, should be described instead in terms of the real mutual-responsibilities that realise that desired-outcome.)

Much the same goes for the other two sets of tasks. For every instance of ‘possession’ – whatever form it takes – we need to model the underlying responsibilities that underpin that purported ‘right’ of possession. This applies not just to physical property, but intellectual-property, and every other form of purported ‘property’: rights do not ‘exist’ other than as a social fantasy, and hence, to make them work in real-world practice, we need to identify the real mutual-responsibilities – which need, again, to be genuinely fair, genuinely mutual, and genuinely sustainable.

And every institution: what is that institution trying to do? Is it actually necessary in a responsibility-based economy? (For a perhaps-surprising number of existing institutions, the answer is ‘No’ – they’re only necessary at present to try to compensate for the fundamental flaws and failings of a possession-based economy. Banks, insurance, finance, pensions, anything to do with money, vast swathes of existing ‘property’-law – a few moments’ thought would illustrate that all of them are redundant in a responsibility-based economy.) If the institution does still need to exist in some form (and sorry, but to some extent that does include some equivalent of taxes :-( ), what responsibilities does that institution enact? What are the mutualities that would make those responsibilities interlock?

From an architectural perspective, there’s a lot of work to do there, just to get started. We don’t need to worry anyone about where this is going as yet – but it should be clear that it does need to be done, and fast, if we’re to have any chance of getting out of this collective mess.

As I hope you can see, I’m doing what I can in this, towards creating a true architecture of responsibility. Yet I certainly don’t claim to have ‘all the answers’; in fact I’d barely claim to have more than a small proportion of the questions. :-) But there ’tis: over to you, perhaps? Comments/suggestions, anyone?

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Posted in Business, Enterprise architecture, Futures, Power and responsibility, Society
4 comments on “An architecture of responsibility
  1. Jan van Til says:

    Tom,

    Interesting… an architecture of responsibility!

    Please find my (further) thoughts at http://hjvantil.amplify.com/2011/03/12/an-architecture-of-be-having/

    Jan
    .

  2. The difference between possession and responsibility is neither just a behavioural difference nor just a deontic one, but also an ontological one. In your example of the aboriginals and anglos, the concept of land contained in the question “who owns this land?” is a radical departure from any concept of land that might have existed before the anglos arrived. Challenging the ethic of possession also entails challenging the ontology of things-available-to-be-possessed.

  3. Tom G says:

    Hi Jan – as on your comment to the previous post, I’ve now replied on your blog. Many thanks!

  4. Tom G says:

    Richard – yes, you’re right, the key to this is as much if not more in ontology than in ethics. The two domains are intertwined, of course, but in this case the ethics of possession are very much driven by the notion of ‘right’ to possess, which comes from the ontology of ‘things-available-to-be-possessed’.

    As I understand it, in a true responsibility-economy the list of ‘things-available-to-be-possessed’ is empty: nothing can be classed as a ‘possession’. Yet precisely because nothing can be classed as an exclusive possession, social structures and practical realities would end up delivering something that in practice will usually look and work much like present-day possession, except that it does not suffer from the arbitrary constraints and blockages and ineffective management of resources that are inherent in a possession-based economy. In effect, we ‘own’ something because we use it in some demonstrable way. (Note that ‘sentimental value’ and the like is explicitly a form of ‘use’ – which fact addresses the very real factor of emotional-attachment that underpins so much of present-day near-obsessive possessiveness. What it doesn’t do is assign automatic primacy to that toddler-age emotion, but instead places that ownership in the broader context of shared use of shared resources.) The point is that the use-based ownership is both for the self, and with respect to and/or on behalf of others, either in the present or elsewhen: it does not exist as a ‘right’ without connection to the social context that underpins that so-called ‘right’.

    In a responsibility-based economy, the only thing that really looks like a personal possession is one’s own self. And even that is actually the outcome of a personal responsibility: the spiritual responsibility (as in psychology rather than religious terms) to identify and maintain a personal sense of meaning and purpose, of self and of relationship with that which is greater than self. More to the point, much of a possession-economy is driven by various attempts to offload that responsibility onto others (aka ‘abuse’) and/or to use external activities or objects as a substitute for that sense of self (such as identification with role – “I am a carpenter” rather than “I work as a carpenter” – or identification with possessions – what Jan van Til describes in his blog-post as the contrast between Being and Having). And since the attempted offload doesn’t actually work, it becomes highly addictive, an ever-more-desperate cycle of consumption – which is ideal for a pyramid-game, of course, but disastrous to the viability of any real-world economy that operates within the constraints of a closed-system.

    Much more to discuss, perhaps, but I’d better stop there! :-)

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