|Thoughts on Auroville, Consensus and Civilization
||[Feb. 7th, 2008|09:57 am]
This is a phase in my life where I am trying hard to understand how civilization is constructed. I want the fundamentals. I want the basic building blocks of human societies, impossible I know, but there are patterns here, and five thousand years of research to catch up on. I want to be able to offer something better than "the system is flawed." I want to be able to suggest how to improve it, and have some certainty that my suggestions are good ones. Or at least be sure of which way I'm voting on that proposition, and why.
This is one of my main reasons for being in Auroville. Although I have strong gut reactions of "you're doing this all wrong" on several fronts, I'm beginning to see the outlines of some delicate balances here.
For example, I believe fairly firmly that there is a fundamental, perhaps willful, ignorance of economics here. Those who work for core Auroville "units" receive a "maintenance" of 5000 rupees per month -- about $125. It's not much, but your housing is free, so it's enough to live. It's also not intended to be a salary. It's not quite linked to work as such, and you don't really have to work if you don't want to in Auroville. This is lovely, in a way. It's an ideal about how one spends one's life. Work should be a joy, not an obligation.
Of course, the reason this is possible is that gazillions of rupees are pouring in from external donations and government grants. Auroville needs a plan for economic self sufficiency, but this would involve too much talk about money. There is stiff resistance among most people – even with my very sensible IT-trained friend Min – whenever I raise the topic of "economics." People don't want to talk about "making money" or "tax rates" or "deficit" or "being able to afford the things we want," because the citizens of Auroville are supposed to be above all that. Except that all of these things already exist here, they're just called different names. I think I shall have to try to find new language.
But, I have to respect the fact that everyone is trying, consciously, all the time, to have a civilization "not ruled by money." It's just that I think that one important step towards this is simply to live in an abundance of everything, and this requires solid economic planning and actual technical knowledge.
My (volunteer) work is going well. I have completed drafts of the text of two of the eight panels for the Aurobille Environmental Exhibition which is supposed to be installed by the 40th anniversary of Auroville, Feb 28. I've gotten a firsthand taste of the collaborative process in two meetings with Nicole of the Visitor's Center. She feels very strongly that the exhibition needs to be very focused on the Auroville story; this old Frenchwoman was there in the beginning when it was nothing, when it was desert. The original people here reforested (it's impressive!) and built a town out of nothing at all. It must have been an intense experience, and Nicole brings all the attachments of that experience. What she doesn't have is perspective. Min and I successfully argued that the exhibition should be have a broader perspective. My opinion is that not many visitors will really care that much about the development of one little town, but if we can show that the problems faced here (erosion, water supply, energy generation, waste disposal, sustainable architecture) are in fact a microcosm of the global problems, we will have succeeded.
I have also set up collaboration tools. To wit, yesterday I set up a mailing list and a Wiki where we will edit the panel text. In some ways the project is not really long or large enough to justify such sophistication, and anyway the people working on it are not familiar with such tools so I don't expect that much gain. The real point of this is to experiment and learn about how people learn to use such tools, and also hopefully to introduce them into Aurovillian thinking. Auroville needs proper IT tools and infrastructure badly. In my San Francisco life all my social and political interactions are dominated by online tools, and it's certainly changed things, I think much for the better. Given Auroville's mission, the potential for such tools here is enormous. I keep thinking about a Wiki for all the knowledge collected here, and for collaboration and consensus building generally.
Could you build a (web) tool specifically designed for people to come to agreement? How would it work? Would you track points of view, points of disagreement and maintain a discussion thread for each one? This seems overly polarizing to me, as well as a vast simplification of the nuance of position, but something like this is worth a try. If we believe that large-scale consensus building might be the next step beyond majority democracy, then we need to be researching tools for fast distributed consensus-building. The internet is a great gift to humanity, and we're really just at the beginning of understanding how to use it.
Of course, even existing proven tools are not likely to work well initially in Auroville. People just aren't sufficiently wired, both physically and psychologically. For example, they could easily have town-wide wifi coverage via repeaters but they don't. And laptops are very much a luxury item, and the population is old and therefore not all that computer-saavy. They do have an intranet however, and I'm going to go talk to the main IT guy about all this, to get his perspective.
I have also been trying to understand more clearly the relationships between individual will and societal structures. It's funny how my viewpoint shifts on this topic. In Ethiopia I talked at length to my friend Jenafir about social transformation. At that time I argued very strongly for individual responsibility, initiative, etc. I felt it was much more about single people taking responsibility for their lives; the primary problem in Africa, if one can say there is a "primary" problem, seems to me to be the almost universal sense of powerlessness. Nobody actually does anything there! Dependence is the rule. Here in Auroville, that is not the problem. Auroville is populated nearly 50% by Westerners who are used to taking initiative. Hence I find I am thinking much more about how the "system" directs people's actions. I keep wondering how to set this place up better. This is somewhat opposed to the general Auroville philosophy of "evolving consciousness", of personal development, of solving all systemic problems by first appealing to all that is high and noble in the individual; whereas my systemic investigations essentially take opposite approach, taking people as the imperfect, selfish, shortsighted, and fearful people that they are and trying to devise a societal structure that brings out the best in them.
But there is a real preference in Auroville for informal, consensus, etc. methods, as opposed to formal structure and process, and I am starting to see that this is a valid experiment. For example, there is effectively a corporate income tax rate of one third, i.e. 33% on all business "units" in AV. But this tax is voluntary. There is no law (really none of any kind here beyond the standard India legal framework) and no coercion methods available to enforce this tax collection. Does this work? Will it work in the long run as the society grows?
Must the state ultimately be backed by force? Hobbes envisioned a Sovereign with absolute power as the basis of cooperative society; a half-century later Locke claimed that we can and should have strict limits on the power of the government. What is the next step in trusting individual citizens? My sense is that most contemporary theorists still feel that the state needs to have some coercive power somewhere. Is this true? My gut reaction is "probably." Here in Auroville, I think the general philosophy would tend to answer "no". However, there are problems that Auroville has yet to confront. For example, there have been criminal acts perpetrated by outsiders (including a murder), but Auroville has yet to be forced to deal with the shock of a criminal from within. This is probably because the society is young, (relatively) rich, and (relatively) cohesive. They are also very selective in who they let in in the first place (which is a whole other topic.) But I cannot see how they will avoid the day when they discover that one of their own has been stealing from the cookie jar, or worse. Then what?
Last summer I volunteered to moderate a dispute on Wikipedia. I did this partially to learn about consensus building. I asked a veteran admin for his thoughts on this. He replied that the Wikipedia consensus building process certainly works, it's that just you sometimes get a person who won't play. This, it seems, is a fundamental problem of civilization: how to get everyone to agree to the rules, especially the rules for conflict resolution. (Consider the current international situation, where the US will not support the International Criminal Court.)
And yet, all societies are built on pervasive trust. I have been thinking for a very long time that you can often get wonderful things out of people simply by trusting them to do the right thing. Burning Man is a demonstration here, as is Wikipedia, as is the developing world in general, in a way, due to the lack of safety standards / functioning legal systems, which requires people to work things out on their own far more than in more "civilized" states. I am very curious as to what are the limits of trust and social enforcement of proper conduct and other "soft" methods of behavior constraint. It seems to me that game theory considerations often require that certain types of criminals / behaviors / free riders / nasty people have to be almost completely eliminated to prevent an arms race back to everyone-for-himself thinking. Basically it seems you have to have everyone expect a certain level of decency before that level of decency is in fact possible. So how does the bootstrapping process work? How does civilization get to be civilized?