We all need to better understand networks. Their importanceis growing as a form of organization whose efficiency has been enhanced byinformation technology. The body of knowledge that deals with them hasmushroomed in the last ten years or so. The internet – network of networks – isnow a significant part of the life of hundreds of millions of people. Themetaphor is part of our everyday vocabulary. And still, it is used in so manycases, to describe, refer or allude to so many situations that its”polysemy” as Michel Callon puts it, can be easily confusing.Networks and complexity have so many things in common that we tend to letspecialists deal with the issue, understand it, analyze it, use it.
This is wrong. Networks should not be the sole territory ofbrainy scientists. We should all learn about them, take advantage of theavailable knowledge about what they are, where they appear, how they operate.
[This article has been published in the first issue of the International Journal of Communication published by USC Annenberg Center]
Manuel Castells’ trilogy on “The Information Age”has played a major role in this rising awareness. The fruit of decades ofresearch is presented in such an accessible form that laymen and women can findthere most of what they need to understand about the network society. But onceyou become aware of networks you find them in a lot of other places, at otherlevels. The meme viral effect is contagious. You want to know more.
That’s what brought me to Fritjof Capra’s work on thesubject. Manuel Castells said I should pursue my quest to better understandnetworks in reading The Web of Life and The Hidden Connections. That’s how Ilearned Capra lives in
,very close to me. We even shop in the same supermarket. It was a wonderfuladventure to find again the author of the fascinating Tao of Physics. That’show I read the books, which show the importance of networks at the biological,cognitive, and social levels of life.
How not to be impressed by what he calls in the firstsentence of his first answer to this interview “a unified scientific viewof life” based on our knowledge of evolution. “In my view,” hesays, “there is a unifying set of patterns of organization that goesthrough all life, at all levels and in all its manifestations.”
Isn’t that a worrisome open door to another unified theoryof everything, or the outline of one?
This is exactly what I had in mind when we started theinterview. And Capra’s answer came flat: “There is a fundamental error inthis view. Even though there is a unified basic pattern of life, and we can bemore precise and say that this pattern is a network pattern, these networks arenot structures – at least most of them – they are functional networks.” Theterm can be used as a metaphor, it is not as a paradigm.
Recognizing the specificity of each “level” heexplains what distinguishes them. At the social level, in particular, heclarifies the importance of meaning, values and power (and thereforeconflicts), key elements in extending his approach to societies. This, he says,is the product of his many discussions with Castells, and a bridge between thetwo bodies of work. Interestingly enough, Capra then moves a step further thanin his books when he states that “The core of my social agenda issustainability.”
In this conversation Fritjof Capra, while staying totallycoherent with the scientific studies on which he bases his works, transmitsmany of the core elements of his thinking about networks in terms that the layaudience can understand easily.
The interviews were conducted and recorded at my home.Fritjof was kind enough to revise the text twice, just after we spoke, in 2003,and in October before the publication in the IJoC.
FrancisPisani, PhD., is a blogger and columnist who covers ITC in
San Francisco ‘s Bay Area for differentEuropean and Latin American Media. He has lectured in several universitiesincluding the University of California-Berkeley and Stanford University .More at Transnets.net, and FrancisPisani.net.
‘s Bay Area for differentEuropean and Latin American Media. He has lectured in several universitiesincluding the
.More at Transnets.net, and FrancisPisani.net.
a unified theory oflife?
unity of life in evolution
similar patterns but differentprocesses
a unified view of life
four perspectives onlife
matter, form, process, meaning
meaning and power
mental images, values, conflict, power
forms of power
life defined in terms of DNA
metabolism — the “breath oflife”
the cellular network
a network of processes
network approach andsystems approach
food webs in ecosystems
the unity of life
a “science ofnetworks”?
molecular evolution, network chemistry
paradigm or metaphor?
the global economy
networks of financial flows
neoliberal economic theory
primacy of money-making
a question of values and politics
the environment andthe social sciences
principles of ecodesign
laws of sustainability
the material world
Is a social system alive?
biological and social networks
power in networks
information and meaning
connectedness and hypertext
communities of practice
formal and informal structures
Castells, Urry, actor-network theory
connection with social agenda
A unified theory of life?
FC: What I am trying to do is to present a unifiedscientific view of life; that is, a view integrating life’s biological,cognitive, and social dimensions. I have had many discussions with socialscientists, cognitive scientists, physicists and biologist who question thattask, who said that this would not be possible. They ask, why do I believe thatI can do that? My belief is based largely on our knowledge of evolution. Whenyou study evolution, you see that there was, first of all, evolution before theappearance of life, there was a molecular type of evolution where structures ofgreater and greater complexity evolved out of simple molecules. Biochemist whostudy that have made tremendous progress in understanding that process ofmolecular evolution. Then we had the appearance of the first cell which was abacterium. Bacteria evolved for about 2 billion years and in doing so invented,if you want to use the term, or created most of the life processes that we knowtoday. Biochemical processes like fermentation, oxygen breathing,photosynthesis, also rapid motion, were developed by bacteria in evolution. Andwhat happened then was that bacteria combined with one another to producelarger cells – the so-called eukaryotic cells, which have a nucleus,chromosomes, organelles, and so on. This symbiosis that led to new forms iscalled symbiogenesis.
Symbiogenesis continued throughout the evolution of life, sothat today we can see even in the largest organisms, like ours, that many ofour structures actually come from bacteria. So, not only do we have bacterialiving inside us, as all larger organism do, but we also have incorporated partof the mechanisms of bacteria and part of their DNA into our own DNA. This wasconfirmed dramatically by the Human Genome Project. They discovered a lot ofbacterial DNA in the human DNA. So, when you study evolution from this point ofview, you see that nature did not create large structures from nothing, butused the same patterns over and over again, the same processes in differentcombinations. This is now well accepted. Steven Jay Gould has writtenvoluminously about it. So, in my view, there is a unifying set of patterns oforganization that goes through all life, at all levels and in all itsmanifestations.
Now, this is not something that I can prove, but this is mycredo and my starting point. And it comes from what I learned from evolutionarytheories. I think what most people have a problem with is that they believeerroneously that I am proposing a certain theory, or the outlines of a certaintheory, and that I believe, once this theory has been completed, you can thenapply it to all kinds of phenomena. To put it in an exaggerated way, you wouldhave a master equation and you could feed the US economy into this equation andget some answers; and you’d put in cancer and get some answers, social justice,and so on. All these manifestations of living systems would be governed by thesame master equation.
There is a fundamental error in this view. Even though thereis a unified basic pattern of life, and we can be more precise and say thatthis pattern is a network pattern, these networks are not structures – at leastmost of them – they are functional networks. There are web-like relationshipsbetween certain life processes. And the pattern of these relationships, theactual configuration of these relationships — patterns like the network,feedback loops, or the process of emergence — can be observed throughout life.But the processes that are interconnected by these patterns are different atdifferent levels and in different domains. So, for example, when I study acell, I can say “a cell is a molecular network”, it’s called themetabolic network. The genetic network is part of that. The processes that areinterconnected in the network are biochemical processes. If I don’t know mybiochemistry I won’t be able to explain anything that happens within a cell.Although I can observe a network pattern I cannot really understand if I don’tknow what an enzyme is, and how it interconnects various processes as acatalyst. Similarly, in a human community the network pattern is a pattern ofcommunications. It interconnects individual processes of communication thatcreate ideas, information, and meaning. So, we need to address the question ofmeaning in terms of social science, political science, anthropology,philosophy, history and so on. The social sciences and the humanities have tobe drawn in to deal with the level of meaning. Only then will we reallyunderstand what’s going on in a community. We can draw diagrams, and people dothat. They say, person A has 4 connections in a company and person B has 6connections; they draw little stick figures and show how they are connected toother stick figures. But to me, it does not mean much because they don’t dealwith the dimensions of meaning, of culture, of consciousness. So, to come backto the original issue, a unified theory is unified only through the patterns oforganization, but it’s not a complete theory. I don’t even call it a theory, Icall it a unified view of life, mind and society, and it’s the pattern oforganization, the formal aspect, that interconnects the different domains, butthe content and the nature of the processes are different in each domain.
Four perspectives on life
FP – In your book you explain very clearly the 3dimensions of matter, process and form…
FC – Right, and meaning is the fourth dimension in socialsystems. Let me just say that extending the theme of the three dimensions tothe social domain has been a major problem for me, because in my originalframework I used the terms structure, pattern and process. I adopted thelanguage from biology, and then I found out that social scientist also talkabout structure, but they mean something very different. What they mean is morelike what I call pattern. This created a lot of confusion for me, and finally Ichanged my terms, and I am now talking about matter, form, process and meaning.
The perspective of matter is the perspective of physics andchemistry where you deal with material structures, with energy, with entropy,with all these concepts of physics and chemistry.
The perspective of form is really the perspective ofcomplexity theory where you deal with concepts like organization, complexity,pattern, and so on.
The process part is very broad because there can be physicalprocess, chemical processes or cognitive processes. This is where cognitioncomes in, in the process part.
And then, “meaning” is a sort of catchword, or alabel, for the whole dimension of consciousness and culture, where we havevalues, purpose, goals, strategies, conflicts, power, and so on. Power isactually a very interesting part. One of the drawbacks of many previousattempts to use systems theory, or complexity theory, to talk about socialissues has been that those people were unable to deal with the issue of power.For example, when they talk about business organizations, about how to make theorganization more relevant, how to make it work more smoothly, people wouldoften say “when I go back from theseminar on Monday morning, my boss says we have to increase market share, wehave to fight off the competition, and so on. The systems theorists could notreally fit that in, because from the very beginning power was nowhere in theirframework, nor were values, or meaning. This is what is different in myapproach. I include the dimension of meaning from the beginning.
Meaning and power
FP – How do you establish the connection between meaning andpower? How does that connect actually?
FC – As I said, meaning is a label for a whole range ofphenomena. Over the time that I wrote my manuscript, that perspective haddifferent labels. I started calling it “purpose”, then I called it”consciousness and culture”, and finally I settled on”meaning”. It’s a very important term in cognitive science. Peopletalk about the hermeneutic dimension of cognitive science. Social Scientistslike Habermas, or Giddens talk a lot about meaning.
Now, the key to this whole domain that I labeled with”meaning” is the ability of human consciousness to form mentalimages. That to me is the key. If I am able to form a mental image of somethingthat either does not exist, or doesn’t exist yet, or is not here at the moment,I can say: this is what I want, and I am going to work toward it. So, the wholeidea of purpose is based crucially on our ability to form mental images.Strategies, plan, all that.
Moreover, I can hold in my mind two or more alternativemental images, and I can say: there are two different possibilities, and Iprefer one over the other. This is where values come in. They are based on theability to make a choice between different mental images. And as soon as youhave values you’ll have conflict. Indeed, you cannot deal with social systemsin a significant way if you don’t deal with conflicts. Power, then, is the wayto resolve conflicts. It’s not necessarily power in terms of domination, orforce. It can also be power in terms of incentives, or persuasion, or charisma.All these are forms of power. Power is a way of resolving conflicts. In anycommunity, there will necessarily be conflicts, and the community as a wholewill encounter situations in which it will have to decide to do either onething or another. Since time immemorial, communities have given power tocertain individuals, based on certain qualifications, to make these decisionsfor the community. In more complex communities and societies this power becomesinstitutionalized, so that you have institutional structures that are veryoften hierarchies of power. For instance in a company the organizationalhierarchy is a hierarchy of power with certain rules of behavior — who reportsto whom, who is responsible for what decision, and so on. This structure isformed not so much because people like power (although this is also true), butbecause it is an effective way of dividing tasks and labor, so that the companyas a whole can act in an effective way.
So, power derives from conflicts, which come from values,which are based on our ability to hold mental images.
FP – Let’s go back to the life sciences. The first questionin your first paragraph is “What are the defining characteristics ofliving systems?” What is the short answer to that?
FC – Well, the one-word answer is metabolism. Let me takeyou through a little exercise.
If you go around the life science departments and ask, whatis the essential characteristic of life, most people will point out to you thatthe things that are alive are made of cells, and inside the cells we findmacromolecules, long strings of atoms — the proteins, enzymes, lipids, the DNA,and so on. To make it even simpler, you can focus on DNA, and you can say:”all you have to do is look for DNA. If there is DNA, it’s alive; if thereis no DNA, it’s not alive.” The problem with this definition of life isthat, when an organism dies the DNA does not disappear. The DNA is a molecule,which itself is not alive. So, in this wooden chair, for instance, most of theDNA of the wood is still there. My favorite example is that of a team of Germanscientist who studied the DNA of a Neanderthal skull. These were bones that hadbeen dead for a hundred thousand years or more, and yet the scientists wereable to map the sequence of genes in its DNA. So, DNA is not the answer. At thevery least, you would have to say: we need something that contains DNA andwhich is not dead. But that, of course is a tautology, to define a livingorganism as something that is not dead.
So, the answer lies not in the structure of the cell, theanswer lies in what philosophers and poets have always called the breath oflife. When something has the breath of life, it is alive. In scientific terms,that’s what we call metabolism.
Metabolism is the ceaseless flow of energy through a networkof biochemical processes, which allows the organism to maintain itself, torepair itself, and to perpetuate itself. This metabolism is the essentialcharacteristic of life. Then, if you ask what metabolism is in detail, you haveto go into the details of biochemistry and cellular biology.
The cellular network
FP – I am not a biologist, and neither are most of myreaders… How do you explain that we should understand the cell as a network?
FC – Let me contrast a living cell and a machine, say aclock or a car. When you build the machine, you manufacture the parts; you dosome machining and engineering to manufacture them as precisely as you can.Then you fit them together according to a preexisting design. And then themachine works and you can mass produce it.
A living cell works quite differently. It’s a network ofprocesses that actually continuously build the parts. The parts from the celldo not come from a factory outside the cell, they are created by the cellitself. And when I say parts, I mean all the macromolecules and cellularstructures.
Small molecules come in through the cell membrane — thefood, the oxygen, the carbon, and so on. The food comes in and is broken down.But each macromolecule, for example each enzyme, which is a protein with a verycomplex structure, is synthesized by the cell itself. The process of proteinsynthesis is now quite well known. It’s a complex process which involves thegenetic information in the DNA, in the genome. The DNA strands unwind a littlebit, and then the part that is needed for the protein is copied onto amacromolecule called RNA. Then the RNA takes that information to a place wherethe protein is built. It’s called a ribosome and at the ribosome, the proteinis synthesized from elements called amino acids. They are put together in acertain order, and that order is given by the genetic code.
This is the basic way of constructing a protein. Thatprocess needs the basic elements, the amino acids, which float around in thechemical soup around the ribosome. It also needs energy to capture the aminoacids and put them into place. In biochemistry, these processes can only happenif there are catalysts. They are facilitators of the process and are notaffected by the process. They are part of the reaction but come out of thereaction unchanged, and can go on to catalyze another reaction.
The energy comes in the form of special molecules calledATP. They are special kinds of phosphates that change their structure invarious steps, and in each step they release energy. They are energy carriers.
The catalysts are the enzymes. A dozen different enzymes areneeded for that protein to be built. Where do they come from? Everything has tocome from the cell. The ATP molecules are built in the mitochondria. They arethe power houses of the cell. They form the energy carriers to supply theentire cell with energy. The enzymes are built in the same way as proteins arebuilt, because they themselves are proteins. Each of the enzymes that helps inthe synthesis of a protein has itself been synthesized somewhere else in thesame type of process. If you put all that together you have a network, and avery complex network, because each molecular structure, each molecular unit,has been produced by other molecular processes, has been catalyzed by othermolecular units. In this way, the entire network continually produces itself.You can draw a diagram of the various cellular structures and you will see thatwhen the energy carriers are created in the cell’s powerhouses they swarm outover the entire cell and go to all the processes where energy is needed. Thesame thing happens when enzyme are created. They too swarm out, and the amazingthing is that these processes happen very fast. Synthesis of very complexmolecules goes on all the time and goes on very fast. The macromoleculesconstantly travel to different areas where they are engaged in chemicalprocesses. So these material structures that form the links between twoprocesses are the links in the network. The network is a nonmaterial network,it’s a functional network where these structures interconnect biochemicalprocesses.
FP – When you use the word “network,” sometimesyou give the impression that it is a pattern, some times you give theimpression that it is a process. There are structures in there. That is auseful word that you do not have to explain each time. It begins to be aparadigm in the sense in which Kuhn uses the term.
FC – Very true. Let me be precise about the cellularnetwork. There are three elements in there. There are processes, which areprocesses of production. There are structures, the things that are produced.And these molecular structures, once they are produced, go on to contribute toother production processes. They are the links in a network of productionprocesses, which is a specific pattern. So, you have processes, structures, andpatterns.
And you are right, I don’t need to define network. When yougo into more details and deal with different kind of networks you need todefine these specific networks. But everybody knows what a network is.
FP – Kuhn says that you use it because you don’t define it.That’s why it is useful and becomes a paradigm. Let’s move to another issue,autopoiesis. What is it?
FC – It is exactly what I just explained to you. That isautopoiesis. Over the years, I came to use less and less technical terms. I use”autopoiesis in my book, but I give many lectures where I don’t use it atall. What “autopoiesis” means if self-generation. Living networks areself-generating. The unifying pattern of life is a self-generating network, anautopoietic network.
Networks and complexity
FP – What is the difference between something that iscomplex and something that is organized in a networked fashion? At times youhave the notion of complexity and at times the notion of links. They appear tobe almost two versions of what networks are.
FC – There are two issues here: metabolism is the totalityof life processes, and it involves a continuous flow of energy and matterthrough an organism. The food comes in, and flows through a network. It isbeing processed, digested, taken apart, recombined. And this always createswaste.
So, there are these two aspects: the flow process and thenetwork pattern. Both are part of metabolism.
With regard to complexity, I think the maincharacteristic of a complex system isthat it is nonlinear. Complexity theory is a set of mathematical concepts andtechniques that deal with nonlinear systems. A network, by definition, isnonlinear. The significance of this property was recognized already in the daysof cybernetics. The cyberneticists were very interested in networks but did nothave the mathematical tools to deal with nonlinearity. They invented all kindsof mathematical techniques, but they did not have the powerful computers thatwe now have to deal with nonlinear equations and to simulate nonlinear systems.
A network is intrinsically nonlinear. Moreover, theequations that describe the flow process in the metabolism are also nonlinear.So you have nonlinearity in the mathematical expressions of the flow processand in the network structure. Prigogine linked nonlinearity to states far fromequilibrium, from thermodynamic and chemical equilibrium. The higher the nonlinearity in the equations, the farther away will the system be fromequilibrium. The major achievement of complexity theory which is technicallycalled nonlinear dynamics, has been to show that a system far from equilibriumhas very unusual and unsuspected properties, in particular the process ofemergence, or bifurcation, where new structures or new behavior emerge frompoints of instability, or bifurcation points.
This is the essence of complexity. Some people even definecomplexity by saying the more bifurcation points in a system the higher thecomplexity.
There are many people now who study networks and who do notapply complexity theory. This is still something to come. And once they will doit, there will be huge progress; there will be a quantum leap, if you wish.
FP – Using your terminology, we could say that mostscientists are limiting themselves to the pattern and maybe the structuralperspective. But they do not put in enough of the process, because when youfocus on the process, then you have the emergence.
FC – That’s true. You could say that. I had not thoughtabout it in this way.
Network approach and systems approach
FP – What’s the difference between a network approach and asystem approach? You use both terms. Onemay be older than the other…
FC – The systems approach is older, and it means an approachthat focuses on relationships rather than separate objects. And it focuses onprocesses rather than structures. Exactly what you just said. The networkapproach grew out of the systems approach when people focused specifically onthe network pattern.
Actually, come to think of it, it’s not really true that thenetwork approach came later. Ecologists introduced the term ecosystem, whichwas a major advance in making the systems terminology acceptable andpublicizing it. And they also introduced the food web and the network approach.From ecology, network modeling and network thinking went into biology and intovarious other fields. This happened in the 1920’s and 30’s. So, you could saythat systems theory and network thinking really arose together.
In the 30s and 40’s there was the
Ludwig von Bertalanffy
, which was called general systemstheory. He was a biologist and worked on theoretical biology, and he focused onopen systems. He was a predecessor of Prigogine, but he did not have themathematical tools to describe nonlinear systems. The cyberneticists did notfocus on the physiochemical processes but on the patterns, and they very muchdealt with networks.
FP — It would be interesting to do a history of networkthinking…
FC — Yes, that would be interesting. This is the kind ofstudy that would be great for a graduate student.
FP – What allowed you to move from a level to another, from onescience to another, from biology to cognition to social networks? Why cansomething that works at one level be applied at another? What gives you theright to use the same metaphors at those three levels?
FC – My firm belief is that life is a unified whole, that wedon’t have biological life, and social life, and mental life or psychologicallife, and spiritual life. I think this is all part of the whole process oflife, which has evolved on this planet for the last 3.5 billion years. It hasevolved, as I said before, by using the same patterns over and over again. Imake somewhat of a leap of faith here by saying that, since life has used thesame patterns over and over again, I believe that, when I talk about networksof communication and compare them to biological networks, I can findsimilarities in the patterns. I have done this to quite some extent, and I havetried to push the parallels as far as I can. In particular, I have put togethera whole list of similarities between networks of communications and networks ofbiological processes.
FP – You are talking about “belief”, a “leapof faith”…
FC – Yes. The justification is a belief. But what I actuallysay about similarities comes from observations. And I think this is typical ofscience. When you start with a theory or a hypothesis, it’s always a leap offaith.
A “science of networks”?
FP – There are some scientists, for example Laszlo Barabasi,who talk about the emergence of a “science of networks”. Do youbelieve in that, and what does it bring to you? What do you learn from that?How does it help you?
FC – This is a big subject. There are very few people todaywho have used complexity theory to study networks. As an example let me usemolecular evolution, which I mentioned a while ago. There is now a school ofthought that does not believe that life evolved from a uniform chemical soup,which was the original Darwinian idea, but that bubbles were formed before,which had soapy or a fat membranes. They were made of lipids, which are fattyand oily substances. If you mix soap and water and shake them you’ll havebubbles. If you mix oil and vinegar (which is a watery substance) you’ll getbubbles quite naturally. There are very simple physical laws that say, when youhave lipids in water and you shake or disturb this mixture, bubbles will formspontaneously. And the idea is that these bubbles formed in the primeval oceanswhen they cooled down, and that life evolved inside the bubbles. So first youhad the membranes, or protomembranes, and then you had the evolution ofcomplexity inside these membranes.
Now, the big difference is that, once these bubbles areformed, they create two kinds of spaces, an outside and an inside. And the lawsof physics and chemistry are very different inside and outside. We are talkinghere about micro-bubbles, which give rise to a very different type ofmicro-chemistry. It has to be a network chemistry because things bounce offfrom the walls of the bubbles all the time. The space is small, so the molecules are forced to interact with oneanother in a much more intense way. And this produces radically differentresults.
For example, substances that are not synthesized with greatprobability on the outside, are synthesized in abundance on the inside. To comeback to your question, we don’t know how to deal with this network chemistry, we have not yet developed theappropriate concepts and methods. We have just started; it’s just thebeginning.
That’s why I think that the analysis of networks and theapplication of complexity theory to the theory of networks will be a tremendousadvance.
Another example would be morphogenesis, the origin ofbiological form. There, you have a genetic network interacting with a cellularnetwork, which is subject to certain physical and chemical constraints from theenvironment. Out of this complex interaction grows, say, the leaf of a plant orthe shape of a bone. Little work has been done in this area.
FP – Could the science of networks be used for these nextsteps?
FC – Yes absolutely.
FP – Is “network” a paradigm or a metaphor?
FC – Definitely a metaphor. My understanding of the Kuhniannotion of paradigm is that it is a set of concepts, values, and techniques thatdefine useful problems, that define the research agenda. “Network”seems to be a little too narrow for a paradigm; not rich enough. It’s a patternand a powerful concept. I am more comfortable with calling it a metaphor than aparadigm, because a paradigm also includes values, norms of behavior, and allthat.
FP – If you use it in the social sciences you may want tocome back to the paradigm notion because you have values, and meaning, then itcould become a paradigm. Within your own thinking, you could raise thisquestion.
FC – Perhaps, but we are talking about values in a differentway. The values are the values that are shared by the scientific community.They tell us what we should and should not do. For instance, cloning. If yousay “We should not clone human beings,” that’s more of a paradigm. Itexpresses a respect for life… This is not the value that’s embedded in theobject you study but the value shared by the scientific community doing thestudying.
FP – At some point you said: “The design principles ofour future social institutions must be consistent with the principles oforganization that nature has evolved to sustain the web of life.” Whyshould it be so?
FC – The answer is the notion of sustainability. Over theevolution of life, nature has developed certain patterns of organization thatallowed life to survive for billions and billions of years, using the very samemolecules of air, water, and soil. And not only to survive, but to unfold andincrease its diversity, and so on. These patterns of organization are patternswe need to understand and to apply to our human design. This is what is calledecodesign today.
Now you could also say: “we are going to improve onnature” and we are not using the natural patterns of design, we are usingsomething better. But the chances, I think, are very slim that we will findsomething better. Of course, our recent history of the last few hundred yearshas shown that we are dramatically wrong in using the patterns that we areusing now. For instance our economics are based on fossil fuel which is notsustainable. And in the long run we are killing ourselves.
The global economy
FP – At another moment, you write that you want to changethe values of the global economic network. How do you do that?
FC – This is one area where I can illustrate the power of mytheoretical framework. Because I have included meaning, values, culture,consciousness, etc., right from the start, I can use my theoretical frameworkto analyze the global economy, and values is a crucial part of that analysis.Others cannot do that that. When ask tell them, “what about values”they would say: “that’s not my domain; I’m a scientist,” or somethinglike that. So, what I am saying, following Manuel Castells, is that the globaleconomy is organized around networks of financial flows.
There is a global network of computers that allow investorsand speculators to invest their money anywhere in the world into any project,any economy, in any country and to withdraw it immediately if they feel likeinvesting it somewhere else. These are processes that happen within minutes,within seconds. So there is a global electronic casino going on, with billionsof dollars sloshing around the planet every day.
In order for this to happen smoothly, in order not to impedethese global financial flows, certain rules have to be maintained. These arethe so-called “free-trade rules” imposed by the World TradeOrganization. And here is one value thatis underlying these various complex rules of the neoliberal economic theory.The one value is that making money is always better than anything else. So,when there is a conflict between making more money or protecting human rights,taking into account health considerations, protecting the environment,protecting democracy, or whatever other values we have, making money is alwaysmore important for the WTO and therefore it has to take preference. This valueis programmed into today’s global economy. It’s a single value, aquintessentially capitalist value.
What I propose, together with many colleagues, is to changethe value system and to incorporate a certain minimal ethic into this globalnetwork. To say, for example, that workers, all over the world need to be paidliving wages. That does not mean that they will be paid the same. You can arguethat the living wage in
is less than in
or other parts of the world. But the principle is an ethical principle, thatliving wages should be paid. Another would be that toxic substances should behandled with certain care. That certain health considerations should be taken intoaccount, and so on.
There are already values that are sort of on the margin:that you will not trade in endangered species, for example. There are NGOs whohave developed a whole set of new rules that would expand these values.
FP – I think I understand the rules you have in mind. Theproblem is “how do you change the rules.”
I think that can be addressed only politically. Technicallyit is absolutely possible to reprogram the global economy according todifferent values.
The environment and the socialsciences
FP – I quote from your book: “The design principles ofour future social institutions must be consistent with the principles oforganization that nature has evolved to sustain the web of life.” Whyshould it be so?
FC – I think that what is new in our era, in the 21stcentury, is that in everything we do we need to take the natural environmentinto account. We depend on it and we influence it; we have a very strong impacton it. That was not so important in previous centuries where the world populationwas small and natural resources were abundant. Although you could say it wasnot morally defensible, people could wreck the environment in one place andjust move on to another place to find a pristine environment again. They wouldfind clean air, clean water and natural resources. With our world populationtoday that’s no longer possible. Everything now is interconnected, bothsocially and ecologically.
So we always need to take the natural environment intoaccount, and this is one of the big problems with the social sciences. They aretraditionally interested only in social phenomena. They tend to treat socialphenomena as if they happened in a vacuum, and do not see how we are embeddedin ecosystems. I feel very strongly from my background in the natural sciencesthat the principles of ecology must be seen as laws of sustainability that areas stringent as any other natural laws. If we continue to use fossil fuels,that will be to our detriment and eventual disappearance from the Earth. That isas stringent as to say, when you stand on a cliff, that you cannot walkout intothin air, because there is something called the law of gravity, and it willpull you down. We know that one does not walk into thin air on a cliff.
Similarly, we have to recognize that we cannot haveprocesses of industrial production where we take natural resources, manufacturegoods, create a lot of waste in the process, and then throw the goodsthemselves. This is not how nature works. The understanding of ecology tells youthat species who act like this do notsurvive. Species who disregard the basic principles of ecology will not survivein this interconnected world.
This is why we need to live sustainably. Living sustainablymeans taking these laws and principles into account and reflecting them notonly in the design of our material goods but also in the design of our socialinstitutions.
FP – You are stating the principles of life. How does thatimpact politics and social sciences: anthropology, sociology etc.? And how doesthe network metaphor or paradigm apply to the social sciences?
FC – The first part of your question seems to imply that Iuse the social sciences to make a political argument. I don’t see that as apolitical argument. It’s an argument of common sense. If we recognize certainlaws of nature and recognize that disregarding these laws we will harmourselves, then we had better take it into account. That’s not political,that’s, just common sense.
FP – Common sense may be a political argument as we know toowell.
FC – Sure. Maybe what you want to get at is, that I use anunderstanding of the natural world to construct a normative framework. To say”this is what we should do.”
FP – Exactly
FC – Yes, That is true.
FP – Let’s go back to the other part of my previousquestion: how do you see the impact of the network metaphor on the socialsciences? It’s not a normative issue. It’s a matter of understanding and ofknowledge. What can it bring to the social sciences?
FC – The two parts here are related. The first part saysthat nobody today can disregard the natural environment without causing harm tohumanity. We can apply this to the social sciences. Social scientists cannotput themselves and their discipline above nature or separate it from nature,from the material world. They need to get interested in the material world, tryto understand the material world, because it is a context of all our actionsthat needs to be taken into account.
To be interested in the material world does not mean thatsocial scientists need to become biochemists or physicists. That’s notnecessary. But they need to understand the laws of sustainability, which arethe basic principles of ecology. They need to understand the basics of howecosystems work. That does not require technical knowledge. It can beunderstood in very general ways.
I can tell you that it is very interesting to look at anecosystem and ask, “how does it organize itself for long termsurvival?” Its patterns of organization were developed in evolutionthrough trial and error and through natural selection. There is no design in anecosystem. So, how do ecosystems organize themselves to maximize theirsustainability? You can identify certain principles. One key principle is thenetwork as the fundamental organizing principle of ecology. When you look intothis in greater depth, you find that the network is not only an organizingprinciple of ecosystems, but of living systems in general. In the 1920s whenecologists began to speak about food webs, other scientists used this networkconcept and transferred it to biology, looking at an organism as a network ofcells, and at a cell as a network of molecules and so on. They discovered thatthe network is the basic pattern oforganization of all life.
FC — So, now we can ask the question: “Is a socialsystem a living system that can be analyzed in those terms?” I havestruggled with this question for many years. What I have done is to look athuman organizations, because that is a smaller scale than to look at society asa whole. I asked myself the question “Can a company be regarded as aliving system?” First, I tried to understand whether we can use the livingsystem as a metaphor for a company. Can we talk about “the living company”as a metaphor? There is a very good book by Gareth Morgan, a Canadianorganizational theorist, called “Images of Organization.” He talksabout the machine image, and about the company as a brain, as a prison, as allkinds of things, including a living system.
Then I wanted to go beyond metaphor and imagery, and reallysee if you can understand a human organization as a living social system. Itried to follow the network approach, and in particular the work of the Germansocial scientist Niklas Luhmann who took the concept of autopoiesis fromMaturana and applied it to social systems. Luhmann concluded that a socialsystem is a network of communications. It is self-generating (or autopoietic),so that each communication generates ideas, information, thoughts, and meaning,and thereby triggers further communications. So, the whole network generatesitself. I have used this view of social systems to analyze human communities.By the way, I think “community” it’s a good term to use, becausepeople have a direct experience of community. So, I looked at a community as anetwork of communications, and made a detailed comparison between biologicalnetworks and social networks.
One difficulty that has plagued all the discussions of howto deal with social systems as living systems, has been to identify the spacein which the social processes take place. In a cell, you have a physical spaceand you have chemistry going on in that space; so you can write equations andtalk about gradients, concentrations, densities, and things like that. It’spretty straightforward. With social systems the question is: do the individualswithin the social system — the nodes in the network — operate in a physicalspace, or in a mental space, or is there something like a social space?
These are very difficult questions, and I don’t think theyhave been resolved. But Luhmann at least started by saying social systems arenetworks of communications. I tried to expand that idea by comparing socialnetworks with biological networks. In a living biological network, there areproduction processes, and the network produces material structure. You can saythe same thing in a social network. In a business organization, for example,it’s quite obvious that the main purpose of the organization is to producegoods and to sell them. So, there are products. The organization a network ofproduction, but there is also a nonmaterial dimension where the products arenonmaterial structures — ideas, thoughts and so on. In the book, I call themsemantic structures. So, there are material structures and semantic structures,and social networks produce both, whereas biological networks produce onlymaterial structures.
You can go on and look at the material structures producedby social systems, and you will see that they are quite different from materialstructures produced by biological networks, because they are usually reproducedfor a purpose, according to some design, and they embody meaning. The paintinghere behind you is produced for a purpose; you could say the artist wants tosell paintings and make a career; but there is more to it — the purpose ofself-expression and other goals an artist can have. And the painting embodiesmeaning, including cultural meaning. This is true also for this coffee cup. Itembodies cultural meaning. The whole field of anthropology is concerned withthat.
I have made two parallel lists with the characteristics ofbiological and social networks. Biological networks operate in the realm ofmatter; social networks operate in the realm of meaning. Both produce materialstructures, but those produced by social networks are always connected with therealm of meaning. I also looked at boundaries, which is very interestingbecause part of the definition of a self-generating, living network is that itgenerates its own boundary. It needs a boundary to acquire an identity;otherwise it could not exist as a unity in the world. In a cell, the boundaryis not a boundary of separation because it’s a semi-permeable membrane. It is aboundary of identity; it restricts the chemical processes that can take placeinside the network, because it let’s in only certain things and not others.
In the social realm, when you look at a community there isalso a boundary, but it’s not a topological boundary. It does not go around acommunity in a topological sense. It surrounds it in a metaphoric sense. Theboundary of a community is a boundary of belonging, a boundary of loyalty, aboundary of expectations — there are many words you can use. It’s always aboundary of meaning. The continuing interactions and communications within theboundary create a culture, that is, a shared system of knowledge, beliefs,values, and norms of behavior. That’s the standard definition of culture.
This is a very interesting situation. You see, the boundaryis created by the system, and at the same time it feeds back on the system andrestricts the behavior of its individuals. That is true both in biology and inthe social sciences. Taking all this together, I have very good evidence forthe fact that it’s useful to apply the network concept to social systems. Thiswork is far from complete. There are many problems when you try to be morespecific. But it looks very promising.
FP – What do you see at the very edge of this research?
FC –Well, let’s talk again about, morphogenesis, thegeneration of biological form. I said before that we need to understand boththe biochemistry and the nonlinear dynamics of the biological network. Then weneed to see how this nonlinear dynamics, this network of chemical processes,encounters the physical and chemical constraints of its environment, and howthis results in a limited number of forms. Mathematically speaking, it resultsin a limited number of attractors. This is how you can explain the generationof biological form. The genetic part determines certain parameters. A certainplant will respond to chemical conditions in a certain way, another plant willrespond differently because it has a different genome.
This is much more precise than just saying “we have anetwork, and we have a boundary, and we have production of materialstructures.” I can translate that general description into the socialdomain. But what about the more specific descriptions? What about the genesisof biological form? Can we compare this with the genesis of semanticstructures, like language, meaning culture and political systems? I think itwould be extremely interesting to do this.
FP – What is the space in which this takes place? What arethe important nodes?
FC –There is something very important here. In extending theframework of the network approach from biology to the social sciences, I assumea commonality of patterns; I assume that life always generates the same kindsof patterns. There is a network pattern in biology, and there is a networkpattern in the social sciences, and so on. But in order to understand thedetails of the network you have to say “what are the nodes, and what arethe processes that are involved. In a biological network, the processes arebiochemical processes. In a human community, they are processes ofcommunications, which involve values,ideas, knowledge; and, very significantly, they involve conflicts,relationships of power, and all that. So, we can use complexity theory to learnabout the network pattern and apply this to social science, but we needpolitical theory, anthropology, philosophy, all kinds of social sciences, toexplain what’s going on in the processes, just as we need our biochemists toexplain what enzymes do in the cell.
FP – That’s where your work with Manuel Castells can besignificant in the application of a network perspective in the social sciences…
FC – Absolutely. One thing I have learnt from him is that insociety, there is always conflict, and there are relationships of power. But ina network society there are no absolute centers of power. This does not meanthat everything is equal. A network can be very asymmetrical and certain nodeshave a lot of power while others have very little. But networks need to takeall the nodes that are in the network into account. There is a mutualdependency among all of them. Although some of them will be more powerful thanothers, they cannot ignore the less powerful ones because there are so manynonlinear connections that things will inevitably come back to haunt you if youignore other things.
Another thing I have learned from several theorists whostudy networks is that the importance of a node in a network comes from itsconnectivity. Nodes that are more connected are more important. They are notnecessarily leaders in a qualitative sense but they are more connected, and Ithink, I am just realizing now, that there is an interesting connection tocognitive science here, because this is how one can define intelligence, interms of cognitive connectedness. So, intelligent nodes are more important,because they are more connected.
FP – We are now in the area of information. You have notused this word, in this sense at least. You have mentioned matter, patterns,etc. How do you see the difference between information and meaning in yourapproach?
FC – I have thought a lot about both. I use”meaning” as a label to include the social dimension in thisframework. I define meaning as the experience of context. I have known for along time that it has something to do with context. Gregory Bateson wrote aboutmeaning and context, but he did not connect the two in a precise way. I believenow that the connection is that meaning is an experience. When we findsomething meaningful we have an experience of a context.
Let me give you a few examples. Let’s begin with the meaningof a word in a linguistic context. In order to explain what a word means, forexample in a dictionary, we have to give the context. The meaning of the wordalways resides in the context, and it’s a never-ending game. In my seminars Isometimes use the example of a group of lawyers sitting around a table andhaving a discussion about the meaning of a legal text. They very preciselyanalyze the sentence structures of the text, compare it with other legal textsand with other cases, and will derive a precise meaning of that legal text bystudying its context. This can be a purely intellectual exercise where theyapply their knowledge of the law. Now, suppose that one of them remembers thata very similar case was one of the first cases he ever argued in court, whichlaunched his whole career. For that lawyer, the text meaningful at a verypersonal level. It acquires an emotional charge, which is quite different fromthe linguistic and legal context. Typically when we say “the meaning ofsomething is that and that” we refer to the intellectual context, and whenwe say “some thing is meaningful,” there is emotion in it. When thecontext of something includes my own self, then it becomes meaningful in apersonal way.
FP – Context, then, can be seen as a set of relationships…
FC – Yes, absolutely. It is a set of relationships withother things, That’s why it fits with the network.
FP – There is an interesting notion, which is that of the”text of the network”. Would you think that in the same way as it islegitimate to go from biology to cognitive sciences to social sciences, thatthere would be a need for a “network text?”
FC – I have not thought about that. It’s a very interestingquestion. Do you mean that, rather than writing things down linearly, we couldwrite them hypertext fashion? But let me come back to your previous questionabout information. I have not, in my written work, connected meaning andinformation, although I have written about both. I think the connection is thatmeaning is the context and when the context is stable, and we know it well,then we can abstract part of that context, parts of this network ofrelationships, and create a short “piece,” and this is what we call”information.”
I’ll give you an example. I can ask you, what’s the time?And you say 2:30. That’s a piece of information which is quite clear cut. Manypeople think, it’s an objective piece of information. I can pick it out fromthe world around me and communicate it to you. That’s true, but it requires alot of contextual ideas. It requires a common view of the solar system, of how we measure time withthe revolutions of the Earth. It requires a cultural consensus to divide theday into 24 segments and each segment into 60 minutes, and so on. That’s justconvention. You could do it in many other ways. In
, if I say to a kid it’s 14:30 heprobably won’t understand what I mean, whereas you, being European, knowexactly what I mean. It’s a matter of cultural context. That whole context isstable; we share it, and therefore I can abstract it and call it “a pieceof information.”
I learned this from Francisco Varela a long time ago. Heconvinced me that there is no such thing as information in nature . Informationis a human construct. We discussed this with the example of geneticinformation. Everybody says that DNA contains genetic information. But that’sagain abstracted from a whole context of a metabolic network, which we need toknow in order to understand the information that is in the genes. So, meaningis related to context, and information is also related to context, but indifferent ways. Information is an abstracted piece of context and meaning isthe experience of a wider context.
FP – You had something to say about hypertext…
FC – Yes, that’s more anecdotal. Anybody who works withnetworks, nonlinearity and patterns has the problem that, whenever you speak orwrite, you have to do it in a linear way. This raises the question of how canyou write linearly about a nonlinear reality, a nonlinear system. There areseveral ways of dealing with that. One way that I use extensively is to usenonlinear conceptual diagrams. I put words on paper in a pattern and connectthem with lines. I have adopted a system over the years where I use differentkinds of lines to picture different kinds of connections.
FP – Do you use software?
FC – No, I find it to slow. I prefer working with pencil andpaper, and I use this technique extensively. This is one example of how to dealwith nonlinearity. Another one is how I write my books. Over the years I have developed an elaboratesystem, even a ritual, of writing. I prepare my books for a very long time.Obviously, I do a lot of research. When that is done, I have a stack of notesthat are pretty structured. And then I go about structuring the actual book.When I decide, I have enough information and I can start writing, I spendseveral months to structure the book. I map out the chapters, and the sectionsin each chapter. Then, when I write, I start from the beginning and write thechapters in sequence. But when I start with chapter one, I know exactly whatwill be in chapter 5, because I’ve mapped it all out. This allows me to makemany cross references, even to things I have not yet written. In my books,there are always abundant cross references, backwards and forwards. Theycomplete the conceptual network. The text is linear, but the cross referencesprovide the nonlinear connections.
Recently, I saw a paper by a colleague of mine, AmoryLovins, on the Internet, in which the references are all hyperlinks; they arenot numbered. In the reference section, the author gives the corresponding pagenumber of the hyperlink, but the links themselves are not numbered. It’s aninteresting new technique, and you could do the same with hyperlinks betweendifferent parts of the text.
FP – Have you read “One Thousand Plateaus” byDeleuze and Guattari?
FC – No
FP- I think it’s a very important book for what we aretalking about. They use the concept of rhizome. The construction of the book isin plateaus which they take from Bateson. What strikes me in the way you buildyour books, is that you build them in a very solid way and you can haveconnections, but it’s fixed while the structure of the mind is not fixedbecause you can go from one place to another.
FC – Another thing I did many years ago when I was teachinga course, was to draw a conceptual map in preparation for every lecture. Duringthe lecture, I would transfer the map onto the blackboard. This technique has agreat advantage, because usually whenyou teach with a blackboard, especially in science, you write a lot ofequations, you take up a lot of space. And then you don’t quite know what youcan erase and what you need to save on the blackboard. In my system, there isnothing to erase, because I already know the final network. I just put in thewords, and I put them in the right places from the beginning. Then I connectthem. I also told my students that they should not copy the whole thing. Theyshould rather listen to me, and I would give them handouts at the end, so theycould take the finished conceptual diagram home. It’s a lot of work. But theadvantage is not only that you don’t need to erase anything; you can also startfrom any point, because it’s a network. And you never get lost.
FP – You mentioned that you were interested in communities,and you mentioned the fact that in businesses organizations there arecommunities, or informal networks. People might not pay enough attention tothis in institutions and outside.
FC – This was an important insight for me when I began toanalyze human organizations as living systems. I heard many people talkingabout “the living company,” or “the living organization,”as a metaphor. They would give talks on the emotionality of a company, on itsdeep purpose, and so on. All this sounded a little phony to me because I knewthat what is really going on in a company has to do with competitive advantage, shareholder value,power struggles, and so on. And they never addressed any of these issues. Theywould brush them to the side.
On the other hand, I also realized that people who onlyspeak about the structure of organizations and cannot talk about processes ofemergence, creativity, and things like these. Finally, after many years, I cameto the conclusion that any human organization has a dual nature: it is a socialinstitution, you could even say a social tool, designed to achieve a certainpurpose, such as producing goods, making money, disseminating knowledge, and soon. On the other hand, it is always a collection of communities which are nowcalled “communities of practice” by organizational theorists. These are the informal networks in theorganizations. And this is the part of the organization which is alive, andwhich I can analyze in terms of my network concepts. This living part, theinformal networks, is where the flexibility lies, the learning capability, thecreativity.
Now, it’s important to realize that a human organizationalways needs both. It needs a formal structure which embodies the purpose.These formal structures are always structures of power. They are the structureswhere power is managed and communicated. When you have a hierarchy in anorganization, it’s always a hierarchy of power.
FP – What about the informal part that you have mentioned?
FC – Organizational theory and management theory generallydeal only with the formal structures and not with the informal ones. The formalstructures are needed for the routine work; they are needed for the company tofunction smoothly, for the distribution of tasks, and all that. But theinformal structures are where the creativity, flexibility, and adaptabilitylie. An organization always needs both.
Social network theory
FP – I would like you to explain now what you think of thestate of the social networks theory. And how it fits within this greaterframework
FC – I must tell that my knowledge there is very limited. Iam still looking for theories and theoretical frameworks that I can use toelaborate these ideas on networks, and I have not found much. Castells is oneof the big exceptions. Then there is a sociologist in
,John Urry, who has written a book called “Global Complexity”. Heanalyzes networks, and he also has a critique of Castells that is veryinteresting. There are also some French sociologists who have developed atheory they call “actor-network theory,” which I find very confusingand full of misperceptions. So, all in all, I have not found much in terms ofeffective network theories.
FP – It seems easier to find a methodology of how to map anetwork than any serious theory to understand what’s at stake. Luhmann seems tobe much closer to giving a theoretical approach. One last thing: how do youconnect all this with your social agenda today?
FC – This is very simple, although it emerged for me throughmany years. The core of my social agenda is sustainability. I work as anenvironmental activist and educator, and my key aim is to help build asustainable society. When you do that, you first have to really understand theconcept of sustainability. I define an ecologically sustainable society as asociety that is designed in such a way that its ways of life, businesses, economy,physical structures, technologies, and social institutions do not interferewith nature’s inherent ability to sustain life. The outstanding characteristicof the biosphere is that it has sustained life for over three billion years.And we are now seriously interfering with these processes that nature hasevolved to sustain life.
What we need to do is first to become ecologically literate,to understand the principles of organization that ecosystems have evolved tosustain life, and then we have to redesign our technologies and socialinstitutions accordingly. When you try to understand how ecosystems organizethemselves, this leads you very soon to understanding how all living systemsorganize themselves. So, the exploration of sustainability becomes inextricablylinked to the question of the nature of life, the nature of living systems.