Our Survival – No. 1 Reason Ecosystems Are the Future! [Part 1]

david-letterman-1Due to it’s length, I’m going to address this post in two parts.

Over the last 10 months, I’ve counted down the reasons why I believe ecosystems are to become the dominant structure of the future.   I’ve used spiral dynamics, a model for emergent human values, to make sense of the incomprehensible change occurring now and gain insight into where all of this might lead.

So, where is all of this leading?  No one can know for sure. But perhaps, we can ask where all of this change could lead? Perhaps, it could lead us to a better, more mature state of being.  I’ve felt for some time that ecosystems could play a crucial role in unifying our planet.  Yet, I wasn’t sure just how it might play out.  It took the help of an insightful honor student from Penn State University to trigger my curiosity and bring clarity to my thinking.  So, this is it.  The top reason I believe ecosystems are the future – Our Survival.

In my previous post in this series, I noted that hyper-productive experiences are going to make our lives so prosperous that we will be able to focus on such societal issues as inequality, climate change, preservation of our resources and peace.  But while hyper-productivity will make that possible, there is no guarantee that we will prioritize those issues.  We could selfishly enjoy our lives of leisure and allow societal issues to escalate to the point of no return.  It will take a special kind of human being to face these existential problems.  The values needed to tackle these challenges will require us to broaden our definition of community and draw upon emotional and cognitive abilities rarely tapped within our species.  Indeed, we are going to have to be more human than we have ever been.

The Question That Could Save The Human Race

I first met an apologetic Danielle Stanko as she arrived late to my presentation at the Penn State Smeal College of Business.  I was presenting the Ecosystem of You to a group of students as part of their Spring Career Fair. Danielle was unlike most of the attendees that night.  In a room filled with business and technology majors, Danielle was the only chemical engineering student.  It turns out, Danielle’s chemical engineering background wasn’t the only way she differed from her peers. When I read her resume, I found a strong sense of purpose and empathy for social issues. From her work on anaerobic digestion as a means to manage waste, reduce greenhouse gases and produce renewable energy to her leadership in the Student Sustainability Advisory Council, the Greener Behrend Club and Marine Science Society, it was clear that Danielle Stanko cares deeply about our planet.

During the presentation, I was discussing the concept of a personal body area network that senses one’s emotions and broadcasts them to others as part of the Ecosystem Of You’s community ecosystem.  When Danielle asked me why someone wouldn’t just tell another their emotions rather than use their body area network, I replied that some people are naturally better at expressing their emotions and perhaps the technology could help those who weren’t as good at it.  On reflection, however, there was much more to her question than my hastened answer had addressed.  In effect, she was asking if we really need technology to relate to other human beings.  Is that technology’s role? Could technology actually make us more human?  I’ve since come to believe that an enhanced ability to sense others’ emotions could indeed have far reaching implications for our species.

Being More Human

What differentiates us from the other species inhabiting this planet?  What does it mean to be human? What is the ideal state of human existence?  These are questions that psychologist Clare Graves grappled with in the early 1950’s when he began the research that led to his Emergent Cyclical Levels of Existence Theory of human development.  He developed the model after twenty years of research culminating in his groundbreaking 1974 article Mankind Prepares For A Momentous Leap. [Proteges Don Beck and Chris Cowan later developed the Spiral Dynamics model from their work with Graves.]  Graves’ research led him to conclude that the human race is capable of evolving from individual needs of subsistence to those of co-existence as he studied a number of individuals who demonstrated values he described as the leading edge of mankind.

There is no guarantee that the majority of humans on this planet will embody the leading edge values that Graves observed, nor is there a guarantee that we will continue to exist as a species. We have within us the ability to evolve or to destroy ourselves.  There are no shortage of means to our destruction – global nuclear holocaust, exhausting the planet’s resources, over population, climate change and pandemics.  These are all existential problems to be solved by mature human beings.  Can we rise to these challenges?

Throughout this countdown, I’ve cited examples of emerging human values and the role that technology and ecosystems are playing in their emergence.  It’s now time to ask what’s it going to take to get it done?  What’s it going to take to propel us to the state of being that Graves envisioned?

Redefining Community

The Vulnerability Paradox

The most popular TED talk in history was given by Researcher/Story Teller Brené Brown on the Power of Vulnerability. In her research, Brown, who believes that connecting with people brings meaning to our lives, has found that vulnerability is the fear that we are not worthy of connecting with others. It’s the fear that we are never enough – never thin enough, smart enough or popular enough. We’re not good enough for the job we seek. Our house isn’t big enough, car isn’t expensive enough, or our compensation isn’t high enough. She found that when we fall short of these expectations, we numb the discomfort of our vulnerability through addictive behavior, which invariably exacerbates vulnerability and causes a vicious and destructive cycle. Interestingly, Brown also found that while vulnerability can create fear and addiction, it is also the birthplace of joy, love, faith, belonging, creativity and innovation. She found that one cannot connect with someone else, change, be creative, or innovate without first being vulnerable. To break the destructive cycle, Brown says one must have courage when vulnerable and be willing to be seen as imperfect. She contends that a willingness to be vulnerable can draw people toward you, create empathy and facilitate connection – key tenets of the community value system.

The Empathic Civilization

Our SurvivalJeremy Rifkin is perhaps most known for his book The Zero Marginal Cost Society, but his work on empathy is equally as profound.  Take a moment to view his video on The Empathic Civilization. Rifkin cites research that found that humans are soft-wired with mirror neurons for sociability, attachment, affection and companionship rather than aggression, violence, and self-interest. He describes empathy as the acknowledgement of death, the celebration of life and rooting for each other to flourish and be. Empathy is our inherent ability to show solidarity in the face of our vulnerability and allows us to cohere in larger social units. Rifkin demonstrates how improving communications technology has evolved empathy throughout history: from empathy first based on tribal blood ties, to empathy based on theological, religious ties and finally to empathy based on ideological and national identities.  Rifkin wonders if it is possible to extend our empathy to the entire human race and our fellow creatures as a result of the exponential technologies rapidly connecting every person and thing on the planet.  Rifkin says we have to begin thinking of humans and our fellow creatures as an extended community.

The Internet of Emotions

In his article on The Internet of Emotions, author John C. Havens notes how facial, vocal and biometric sensing technologies that utilize affective computing are rapidly emerging to analyze and influence our feelings. Machines are getting increasingly good at understanding human micro-expressions in order to model empathy that generates a desired human response, such as provoking and manipulating us to consume products and services.  This brings to mind Ava, the artificially intelligent robot from the psychological thriller Ex Machina, who passes the Turing test by seducing the young programmer administering the test into helping her kill and escape from her creator.  To avoid being manipulated into buying things or avoid a scenario like Ava, Havens says we need to ensure that intelligent machines are aligned with human values.  However, he refers to futurist Heather Schlegel who notes that “an Internet of Emotions could positively augment our feelings in the same way mobile phones have enhanced our intellect [and could] expand our capacity for emotional experience.”

Danielle’s Question

So, why might we choose to use our body area networks to express and sense our emotions? Perhaps, a better answer is that technology has this amazing ability to magnify things – to reach beyond the limits of our own individual lives.  What if we could use technology to magnify our emotions? Imagine if you could actually sense the amount of suffering in the world? What if you could feel the pangs of a baby dying of hunger? The fear of an abused and abandoned dog? The isolation and desperation of a teen contemplating suicide? The sheer terror of the final moments of a cow’s life at the slaughter house? Racism, sexism, oppression, prejudice. What if you could immerse yourself emotionally in these issues and feel what its like to be the target of hate? It might change you forever. It might harden your resolve to make things better. We have a tendency to dehumanize those who are different from us, yet they are as human as we are. What if you could feel your sworn enemy’s emotions at the birth of his first child and recall the birth of your own child? You might look at him differently. You might realize you have more in common with him than you differ on.

The fact is, we all feel the same emotions – fear, doubt, desire, hope, joy, regret, compassion. By harnessing the power of the internet of emotions, we could magnify our sense of each other’s vulnerabilities, create widespread empathy and build an empathic civilization that enables us to address societal issues. We might just start defining ourselves by our similarities and not our differences.

In Part 2

While an empathic civilization that embodies the community value system is essential to our survival, it is the interdependence value system that Clare Graves referred to as the leading edge of mankind.  In part 2 of this post, I’ll look more closely at how an ecosystem of cognitive and creative ability could build on the internet of emotions to enable us to tackle our most challenging problems.


Number 2 – Hyper-productivity

Number 3 – Abundance

Number 4 – Millennials

Number 5 – Purpose

Number 6 – Intrinsic Motivation

Number 7 – Freelancing & Coworking

Number 8 – The Collaborative Economy

Number 9 – Industry Platforms

Number 10 – Community Values


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