Change is inevitable. Yet if we are to believe that a new era is dawning we must, and this is an obligation, seek to understand what is fundamental about the changes unfolding around us that will bring about a transformative transition, that is; a transition where things are made anew.
We are told that we are entering into a ‘post’ era. That new generations will be ‘post-literate’; transcending the need to read and write – perhaps even ‘post-language’ where communication is mediated by technologies directly from one mind to another without the need for words. That we are headed towards a ‘postcapitalist’ political economy: one where technological innovation will force 20th Century capitalism to out-evolve itself. That we will live in a ‘post-labour’, ‘post-work’ world; one that could either be techno-utopian or techno-dystopian, depending on who you ask. That we will live in a ‘post-gendered’, ‘post hetero-normative world’; where identity will be more flexible and difference and otherness will enjoy broader social acceptance. That borders and boundaries will become more fluid. And that there is perhaps a prospect of a ‘post-politics’ emerging that will upend and replace the political dichotomies of the 20th Century.
But perhaps more profoundly, that we will become a ‘posthuman’ society, where the anthropocentric view of humans as the centre of the world will be replaced by a recognition of humans as part of a broader ecology of interactions with non-human species enjoying an equal status; their undeniable interconnectedness, interdependence and inter-reliance taking precedence over human exceptionalism. A society where we increasingly inhabit the planetary significance of our daily choices, one that will increasingly be mediated by technologies that reside inside and outside of our bodies, and perhaps, even our minds.
There is a thread running through all these ‘post’ discourses; and that thread has come to be known by the often contested term; the fourth industrial revolution or 4IR. The posthuman “other” characterizes the fourth industrial revolution. Whether it is artificial intelligence or automation; the cyborg or human-machine augmentation; mutation or hybridization at the genetic level; the increasing dominance of augmented reality as central to human socio-economic interaction, or whether it is the identity fluidity that emerges from some or a combination of these factors; the posthuman society is characterized by the phenomenon of merging with the other. However, agonistic or not the reaction to this is, it is the posthuman position that merging and interdependence will increasingly characterize the condition of the other, whether we speak of the other of science fiction, or of histories that have hitherto been denied.
Yet what is this posthuman society of the other? And can it really decouple from its past? Clearly, it cannot do so neatly. It will likely be a fraught and agonistic process; a process that is more likely to become stuck in an oscillation between the realities of its inheritance and the mirages it aspires to actualizing. It is clear – to me at least – that there is great danger in lapsing into a blinkered technology-centric vision of the fourth industrial revolution. Not only does it present its aspirations as inevitable outcomes; it presents transformative transition as linear, when it is anything but linear. Rather it is characterized by evolutionary change, which is distinctly non-linear, metastable and unpredictable. What future does this posthuman society then auger? And how can we grapple with it?
Posthumanism is a post-dualistic theory: it is a theory that favours neither this nor that binary option for categorizing phenomena; it departs from the position that is always both. In this; posthumanism and the posthuman society, acknowledges the complexity of the transition that is unfolding. And that complexity is ultimately (well, currently) a human one to wrestle with, as it necessitates grappling with the ethics of the fourth industrial revolution and what it will mean for a posthuman society. For ethics, and the principles that inform ethics, are central to navigating new futures; they provide the foundation upon which leaders can navigate the turbulent ‘whitewaters’ of change.
When we look at how the fourth industrial revolution is positioned in popular discourse, there is very little serious thought given to ethics, which is key to leadership. The emphasis is on the technological and not the social aspects of organization. Yet it is critical to think through the fourth industrial revolution from the perspective of posthumanism; as it is a philosophical project that is concerned with the ethics of precisely this new future.
Moreover, what are the implications for how society is organized? How will human beings live, love, work, play, endure crises, express themselves, explore their spirituality and materiality, form and break bonds constitute families and communities, vote, engage in the political realm and take political action, and so forth. Indeed, how do we want them to?
Indeed, the question is even greater; how might our values, beliefs and norms evolve or co-evolve with the socio-technological changes of the posthuman era? Will we be able to distinguish signals from the noise? How will being hyper-connected, embedded, immersed in the augmented realities that we are embedded in affect us? At what point do we begin to drown in the noise while synthetic agents gain greater clarity, perhaps ultimately replacing us?
And what kind of ethics – or rather – ethical frameworks do we require to effectively navigate the changes that will unfold, that is; especially those that are emergent, unpredictable?
Clearly, a morality based ethics will suffer in an environment where rapid and unforeseen changes dominate the socio-technological society and its organization. Morality is relative, that is; between human beings, but also over time. Morality based ethics will not be able to cope with the vast changes that are set to unfold. It simply cannot remain constant with respect to temporal change. So where will we derive an ethics for the fourth industrial revolution from?
Will it simply be a survivalist ‘non-ethics’ that informs leaders and leaderships, a spiral to the bottom where power and the ‘tragedy of the commons’ is replaced by the ‘tragedy of the private’? Where accumulation by a few intensifies and inequality grows?
Where democratic integrity is sacrificed in the desperate scramble for political/raw power; where nothing else matters but ‘winning’. Where the performative is amplified, elevated above all else in the hyper-linked, high frequency update information era?
If we are to purposively construct the posthuman society, or at least guide it into existence; we will have to ‘dig deep’, so to speak. We will need to identify the principles that we can agree on instead. So as things change over time we need to be able to rely on principles that are; (firstly) temporally robust and (secondly) that we can renegotiate as required. These principles will have to be post-dualistic in nature; they will need to be both resilient yet adaptive at the same time. This is what a post-dualistic framework for deriving ethics requires.
What jarring complexity is this? Where neither good nor bad, virtue nor evil; dictates the transformation that unfolds. That it is always both, a duality that persists and pervades regardless of the professed ethics of an era. We will get to this later.
First, let us ground this discussion in a set of thoughts about the organization of the future:
What will the organization of the future look like? How will it be designed? What will its societal role be? What kind of ‘citizen’ or ‘legal person’ will the organization of the future be? How sustainable will it be, not just in terms of its profit margins, but in terms of how it uses resources and impacts the environment? Most of all, what do we want it to be? These questions cannot escape that when we tackle the future there is always a strong normative element to it; it is not just about what will emerge, but what we want the future to be. Although we cannot entirely control what emerges, we have to strive to actualize the future we want from what ultimately unfolds in reality. We are grappling, so to speak, with the process of becoming.
What can we do to position leadership for a future that is currently thought of in binary terms; of an imminent techno-utopia or techno-dystopia? Well, first and foremost, we have to acknowledge that what emerges from the fourth industrial revolution will largely be undecideable – note; not neutral – but undecideable. Every innovation will likely be a coin with two sides; a duality of possibilities lying latent within it. How it meets society and co-evolves with it, and what that reflexivity reproduces, cannot be easily discerned. We have no crystal balls to rely on. Well at least I don’t, and my conviction is that only snake oil salesman pretend to know!
My feeling is that this duality between techno-utopian and techno-dystopian utility, enabled by the full range of possibilities that each innovation hosts, will ultimately emerge as complex phenomena; those that do not easily fit into this box or that, or this binary classification or that. Rather, each innovation will seed, grow and reproduce in the territories that provide them with a clear need, and a clear means through which the innovation can be adapted to meet that need. And their value and sustainability will in turn be a result of how well they help sustain the boundaries of those territories, and perhaps extend them. That is; in how well it helps reproduce and entrench the territory that it seeds in.
And as the new technological, social, economic, cultural, environmental, institutional and organizational factors emerge, combine, disperse and recombine; new forms will be born in each of these domains. Natality will likely characterize the state of things.
So, in this new era, how will organizations be designed? How will they function?
1. They will need to enhance their adaptive and creative capacity.
a. Diversity, inclusion and valuing codependence over individualism is necessary for this.
b. So is a transdisciplinary skills base that can facilitate cross-pollination of ideas and perspectives.
2. They may need to be able to expand and contract relatively quickly in order to survive.
a. Perhaps they will have to think more carefully about how they distribute their functions, processes and controls – as well as their assets and resources – in order to be able to do so.
b. Might that also be the case for the skills, capabilities and networks that underlie their core competences?
c. Linked to this, might they be increasingly decentralized? Where networks of organizations replace one large organization (“web-like, scattered and polycentred” as Rosi Braidotti – the eminent scholar of posthumanism, puts it).
3. They may need to build in redundancies into their organizational design, so that they can quickly access multiple fall-back configurations in order to adapt.
a. This has implications for organizational design that prioritizes efficiency measures over adaptability. Efficiency does not equal resilience.
b. They will also likely increasingly need to prioritise sub-optimisation over efficiency: Simply optimizing every contributing part of an organization will not be enough; indeed, in complexity theory the sub-optimisation principle states that when the parts of a system are optimized the whole functions sub-optimally and vice-versa. This may seem counterintuitive but it is true of all natural systems, including our bodies; if your body’s parts were all functioning optimally now you would be dead within minutes.
4. Hierarchy versus heterarchy: While hierarchies are important, they may need to become more fluid, that is; more heterarchical, where agents, functions, controls and processes rise to authority depending on how the context evolves, that is, a more complex, adaptive hierarchy.
Moreover, the question of how organizations will look and function is tied up with the questions of how societies will be organized, and how governments – even democracies – will function. But we do not have the time to go into that here.
On the question of what principles should inform the ethics of the fourth industrial revolution and the posthuman era, I alone cannot prescribe them. Perhaps a better question to ask is,
“What should guide these principles?”
Let me suggest some practical guidelines:
· First; that we live in a world with finite resources. That doing more with less resources will prove critical to how well we navigate the prospect of resource scarcity and that the kind of societies and world we will live in will depend on it. Whether we live in a world that is characterized by inequality and scarcity, or whether we live in a world of abundance and equitable distribution will depend on it.
· Second; that we are both a part of, and depend on our life-supporting ecosystems. We are indisputably part of the natural systems on which we depend for our survival. And in the anthropocene humankind is driving changes in theses natural systems that are unprecedented. We are not only changing the global climate, we are also severely degrading global ecosystems. 18 years ago the millennium ecosystem assessment found that 12 out of 24 of the global life-supporting ecosystems were severely degraded.
· Third; that we should endeavour, as far as possible, to retain human connection. That communities and societies cannot thrive when people are individuated and atomized, where social bonds are mediated through superficial ties characterized by momentary, transient and ephemeral interactions. We need to be able to cultivate deep bonds that allow us to feel rooted.
· Fourth; that politics cannot function if people are relegated to the private realm and live lives that are devoid of any engagement in the public realm.
· Fifth; that complex change is irreversible; it cannot be rolled back. We will have to build the adaptive capacity to be able to cope with changes that we cannot control, for there will likely be many. The paradigm of control will need to be replaced by one of adaptability. This adaptability requires building both adaptive capacity and creative capacity; embracing a more inclusive and dynamic process for contestation and cooperation from which ethical positions can emerge.
· Sixth; that we have long blurred the lines between our biological bodies and technologies, and that while the fourth industrial revolution promises to leapfrog the synthesis between human beings and technologies it is not a new phenomenon. That we have precedents that we can draw on in this respect; it is not a break with history but an inevitable consequence of it.
· Seventh; that the virtual realm is already a full part of our reality; that reality is – and perhaps has always been – augmented by the technologies through which we communicate. That all our societal systems – political, educational, socio-cultural, economic, recreational and so forth will evolve with it. The question is not if, but how we evolve with it, and on what terms.
· Eighth; that undecideability will characterize much of the decision-making about how to navigate change and the unknown; that decisions will have to be made that are deeply fraught and fundamentally irresolvable. The notion of what is “just” will increasingly be fraught with contestation.
· Ninth; that potential changes in the nature of work need to be accommodated in such a manner that systemic changes are embraced that can help absorb and convert these changes so that meaningful and purpose-filled lives are actualized.
· Tenth; that the ethics of leadership will need to broaden, become more inclusive and cater for both human and non-human species and systems, as well as their interdependencies.
· There are perhaps more, but we need to move on …
So how we navigate between the false dichotomies ascribed by utopian and dystopian techno-mirages will ultimately depend on what kind of leadership is provided through the myriad and multi-leveled transitions that society will likely undergo. And that in turn will require an ethics – of leadership – that is located in a framework of principles that we can generally agree on; principles that speak to the kind of society we would like to live in, yet can still evolve. Principles that can be used to make decisions that guide the trajectory in one way or another, towards a suitable set of outcomes; given the balance of probabilities. That is, a set of principles that also accommodates what is evolutionary about the ‘techno-society’ that is set to unfold with the advent of the fourth industrial revolution. A set of principles that we must agree to renegotiate along the way without losing what we value of what we are. And a leadership ethics that can accommodate change, and allows for its own renegotiation, on strict and reliable – yet inescapably subjective – terms.
From an academic perspective, the notion of a non-universalizable ethics stands in confrontation to the roots of the philosophy of ethics that characterizes the Western Academy. Rather, as Rosi Braidotti puts it:
“… it [i.e. the Western Academy] perpetuates the institutionalized habit of thought – reactive and sedentary – of erecting philosophy to the role of a master theory. The image of the philosopher as the legislator of knowledge and the judge of truth – a model rooted in the Kantian school – is the exact opposite of what posthuman critical theory is arguing for; post-identitarian, non-unitary and transversal subjectivity based on relations with human and non-human others.”
Rather, she argues for a posthuman ethics that is an ethics of “collectivity and relationality”, one that can contest and transform power. In closing, it is worth reminding ourselves that what is most powerful about this view, is that we will all be part of constructing the ethics of the posthuman era; that the ethics of the era will be emergent, and that will require, above all; strong social organization to navigate. Perhaps a posthuman perspective on the ethics of the fourth industrial revolution then ultimately offers us a critical opportunity; an opportunity to reconstitute a meaningful polis from which a more inclusive, dynamic and resilient society can emerge.
***Note: This is a transcript of an address delivered to the Alumni Reunion of the Graduate School of Business, University of Cape Town at the Radisson Red Hotel on 20th October 2018.