When I first proposed the word “revolution” as part of the title to my book, one of my early readers asked me if use of the word wasn’t simply a marketing cliché. “No,” I protested, “there really is a revolution going on!” “Hmmm,” came the skeptical response.
And revolution feels like a rather a tired meme these days. The vibrancy of the idea has faded somewhat as the energies of the Arab Spring have devolved into sordid political realities and the ongoing massacre in Syria.
Is revolution really an accurate description of what’s going on?
This was one of the questions travelling with me as I flew across the Atlantic to kick off the Social Labs Revolution Tour in early February 2014.
Since then I’ve visited over two dozen cities, engaging in hundreds of conversations, as part of the tour. The most unexpected part of my travels was meeting the spirit of revolution on the road.
Instead of a tired, worn out meme, I met a different force, unlike the revolutionary spirit I both had seen and imagined revolution to look like. Instead of a spectacular force, visible, loud, and swaggering, the spirit of this particular revolution has another colour and texture; invisible in so many ways, yet assertive, curious, bubbling with a spirit of enquiry, bursting forth with not so much answers but relentless questions. And very much alive.
What sort of revolution is this then? It doesn’t feel like a political revolution, even though it’s obviously political in nature. It feels different from the performative energy of say, Tahrir Square – one touchstone for revolution in our times. The world’s press are not camped out filming revolutionaries do righteous battle. No, it isn’t that sort of revolution.
It feels more like a quiet revolution. Perhaps even a secret revolution. One that is slowly changing things. Only those who are awake to its nuances, it’s art and it’s music, to it’s discourse, notice something is profoundly changing.
Thomas Kuhn, author of The Structure of Scientific Revolutions writing over half a century ago provides the most accurate description I’ve come across of what I see happening:
A scientific revolution that results in paradigm change is analogous to a political revolution. Political revolutions begin with a growing sense by members of the community that existing institutions have ceased adequately to meet the problems posed by an environment that they have in part created. The dissatisfaction with existing institutions is generally restricted to a segment of the political community. Political revolutions aim to change political institutions in ways that those institutions themselves prohibit. As crisis deepens, individuals commit themselves to some concrete proposal for the reconstruction of society in a new institutional framework. Competing camps and parties form. One camp seeks to defend the old institutional constellation. One (or more) camps seek to institute a new political order. As polarisation occurs, political recourse fails. Parties to a revolutionary conflict finally resort to the techniques of mass persuasion.
One the one hand was the dominant response, what I thought of as “strategic planning.” “Planning,” with it’s neo-Soviet command & control character is rooted firming in the early 20th Century. On the other hand was a more experimental approach, poorly named, “prototyping,” rooted in the complexity represented by the messy dawn of the 21st century.
Where planning is predictive, prototyping understands the future as inherently emergent, where planning is represented by formal schema, prototyping takes a trial and error approach, and where planning demands detachment and objectivity, prototyping encourages participation and “skin-in-the-game.”
These two “camps” represent paradigms in the Kuhnian sense.
And here I was – on book tour. Of-course techniques of mass persuasion have changed somewhat since Kuhn published Structure in 1962. But beyond that what Kuhn describes felt very familiar. He continues:
Like the choice between competing political institutions, that between competing paradigms proves to be a choice between fundamentally incompatible modes of community life.
What is the process by which a new candidate for paradigm replaces its predecessor? At the start, a new candidate for paradigm may have few supporters (and the motives of the supporters may be suspect). If the supporters are competent, they will improve the paradigm, explore its possibilities, and show what it would be like to belong to the community guided by it. For the paradigm destined to win, the number and strength of the persuasive arguments in its favour will increase. As more and more scientists are converted, exploration increases. The number of experiments, instruments, articles, and books based on the paradigm will multiply.
More scientists, convinced of the new view’s fruitfulness, will adopt the new mode of practising normal science, until only a few elderly hold-outs remain. And we cannot say that they are (or were) wrong. Perhaps the scientist who continues to resist after the whole profession has been converted has ipso facto ceased to be a scientist.
Labs are the most visible form of this new paradigm. In a sense the form, the architecture of the lab, is simply the tip of the proverbial iceberg. What gives labs life is the underlying practice, in turn based on an underlying paradigm, prototyping. What is at stake is nothing less then “a choice between fundamentally incompatible modes of community life.”
La lucha continua.