Monday, April 13, 2009

The Wonder and the Terror of Self-Organization

Self-organization can be wonderful and terrible, all at the same time.

Last week, I wrote about the self-organizing slime mold, Dictyostelium discoideum, a life form that starts off its life cycle as a single-celled amoeba, but ends it as a multicellular organism containing many of those individual amoebae, now converted from independent individuals to mere body parts.

Self-organization happens to us as well -- to our families and businesses -- perhaps to our entire world. A unit (or individual) that is part of a self-organizing system might feel their identity slipping away as self-organization happens, just like those single-celled amoebae feel their identity disappearing as they became body parts in the larger multi-celled organism that is coming into existence.

For members of a group or organization that may be undergoing self-organization to a more complex state, other changes will occur. Relationships will change, chains of command may break or re-form in different ways. There is no obvious assurance at such a time that the end result will be better than what has existed before – but there is also no reason to believe that we, as individuals, have any power to stop the force which is moving the system forward toward a new self-organized state.

What are we to do in such a situation, when our family or business – or nation – seems caught up in a self-organization event? And how do we recognize when change is actually self-organization and not something else?

First, self-organization is never top-down. Self-organization is the very essence of grass-roots-directed change. Self-organization happens when the parts of a system begin interacting in different ways, not because somebody tells them to, but because they want to.

The whole system is involved and it is impossible to tell who is in charge during self-organization, because nobody is. In a family or organization or nation, then, one can be assured that it is not self-organization if change starts at the top or is being controlled by a small group.

The best way to weather the storm of self-organization is to trust. We must believe that a better life or existence is taking shape and that it is a benevolent force that is behind it all or we will fight the change at every turn.

This can be difficult enough when the self-organizing system we are caught up in is a family or a church, but what if it seems to be our nation – or the whole world – that is undergoing a possible self-organization? How do we even know that it is self-organization that is occurring and not some apocalyptic event?

When cataclysmic change is occurring all around us, when mighty skyscrapers crash to the ground and terrorists send deadly disease spores through the mail, is our world self-organizing? Or is our world coming to an end? Or is this just two different ways to say the same thing?

Just as those early single-celled individuals would have told us there is no way for us, as individuals, to tell the difference between the end of a familiar way of life and the beginning of a whole new, wonderful world. All we can do is trust.

1 comment:

  1. Nice post! I love the idea that all of our small accidental movements and choices might add up to something bigger, something coherent.