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WORLD VIEW - Fluid Bureaucracies for a Creative Age

“The old order changeth, yielding place to new,

And God fulfils Himself in many ways,

Lest one good custom should corrupt the world.”

Tennyson

Embedded as we are within our societies and ways of life, it can be difficult to step outside and view changes in consciousness, especially major changes, in a dispassionate, detached way. But it is important to attempt to do this, in order to sense the direction of change, and possible obstacles. This is especially important at a time of transition such as we face now, where human consciousness is being re-vitalised, with all the attendant disruption in existing institutions. Sensing such changes within society is a difficult matter: and human beings have an inherent tendency to resist change, especially when their livelihood, and perhaps even their whole sense of identity, is invested in the current system. But consciousness is evolving, and humanity must learn to adapt its institutions and modes of life to accommodate this central fact.

One major obstacle to change is the fossilisation of systems of thought and their associated institutions – whether religious, political or social. This may be inevitable for any ideology or theology which exists for any great length of time. Because a system of thought emerges at a particular moment, it will inevitably be in dialogue with the social, political or religious circumstances of its birth. It may even emerge specifically to address some of those circumstances. When those circumstances change to any significant degree, then either the system has to change, or it will begin to look increasingly “out of joint” with the times. Sometimes this will lead to a dramatic collapse, such as was seen with the demise of communism.

The fossilisation of systems of thought occurs over long timescales, and so may be difficult to detect at first. A related obstacle to change, which is more short-term in nature, is the inflexibility which has emerged as modern societies have increased in scale and complexity. Any sufficiently large human system, whether a government or a business, inevitably succumbs to this to some degree. As it grows in scale, one or more layers of bureaucracy spring up, intermediate between the individual and the goods or services he requires. Responses from the bureaucratic apparatus may then become increasingly crystallised into routines, rules and scripts. One example of this is the call centre, a large office of workers who are expected to respond to customer inquiries according to procedures which severely circumscribe their freedom of action and responsibility. Using these call centres seems to be a growing reality of modern life. First, our phone inquiry is pre-sorted by a “phone tree” – a limited menu of options that may not fit our needs; and then, when we finally speak to a human, we may be ricocheted back and forth between departments, because our inquiry falls between the cracks and can be dealt with satisfactorily by no-one. The works of Kafka anticipated this nightmarish phenomenon.

Within these bureaucratic mazes, the individual becomes a number, an entry in a database, a statistic. Unfortunately, this process of abstracting away individuality also makes it easier to treat human beings with less concern and care. Another factor in this distancing or alienation is the fact that the computer systems which nowadays store and process this information are themselves often too rigid in their programming to deal with common sense exceptions. The end result can be that situations that would be resolved quickly between two persons face to face can instead be dragged out almost without limit.

There is a saying in legal circles that “hard cases make bad law”, that a law or policy should be framed in terms of the average expected situation, not of the unusual. By the same token, bureaucracies and computer systems are designed to deal with the vast bulk of situations, and tend to break down when faced with exceptions. It could be argued that the time saved in rapidly processing large numbers of individuals more than compensates for the very occasional hic-cup. But this is to miss the essential point about evolutionary change ­– it is precisely at the front of the wave of change that evolution throws up the exceptions to the previous rules and ways of dealing with life. If they are not to stifle much-needed changes, bureaucracies and their associated computer systems need to become less mechanical and rigid – they must incorporate more fluid and organic ways of working, ways which give breathing room for individual responsibility and creativity. And in fact, this is in tune with the tenor of our age – the individual is becoming more and more conscious of the unique contribution he or she can make, in free cooperation with others. By expanding each person’s range of responsible action, systems can be simplified, with fewer layers. The remarkable flexibility of action which the newer tools of social networking have placed in the hands of people has been shown in recent political upheavals in Iran and the Middle East. And this action was in part inspired by the wider vision of freedom which has become so readily available, through the Internet and satellite television. Vision, freedom, and creative responsibility – these are the hallmarks of evolutionary change in consciousness, and all people of goodwill can contribute to their expansion.