Saturday, June 21, 2008

p33 Dashboards

Dashboards of a New Dialectic

By John Taylor; 2008 June 21, 17 Nur, 165 BE


Buckminster Fuller observed that shipbuilding and seagoing navigation were the high technology of their day; the ship's captain got a comprehensive education by necessity. He could not afford to take on the blinders of a specialist. If he failed to grasp the essence of a thousand specialities, his vessel would end up in Davy Jones Locker. Mainline historians, sitting in Ivory Towers of their own, tend to miss this important point.


However, the fact that naval technology was highly organized does not mean that navigation, shipbuilding and seamanship were anything like what we now would call scientific. In one of his best-known books, Benjamin Franklin tells of his ocean voyage back to America from England. He had leisure during this trip to observe the complex operations of the seamen operating the ship and tells this story in what for me was one of the most unforgettable passages in his autobiography.


"It has been remarked, as an imperfection in the art of ship-building, that it can never be known, till she is tried, whether a new ship will or will not be a good sailor, for that the model of a good-sailing ship has been exactly followed in a new one, which has proved, on the contrary, remarkably dull.

"I apprehend that this may partly be occasioned by the different opinions of seamen respecting the modes of lading, rigging, and sailing of a ship. Each has his system, and the same vessel, laden by the judgment and orders of one captain, shall sail better or worse than when by the orders of another. Besides, it scarce ever happens that a ship is formed, fitted for the sea, and sailed by the same person. One man builds the hull, another rigs her, a third lades and sails her. No one of these has the advantage of knowing all the ideas and experience of the others, and, therefore, cannot draw just conclusions from a combination of the whole."

"Even in the simple operation of sailing when at sea, I have often observed different judgments in the officers who commanded the successive watches, the wind being the same. One would have the sails trimmed sharper or flatter than another, so that they seemed to leave no certain rule to govern by. Yet I think a set of experiments might be instituted, first, to determine the most proper form of the hull for swift sailing; next, the best dimensions and properest place for the masts; then the form and quantity of sails, and their position, as the wind may be; and, lastly, the disposition of the lading.

"This is an age of experiments, and I think a set accurately made and combined would be of great use. I am persuaded, therefore, that ere long some ingenious philosopher will undertake it, to whom I wish success." (Autobiography, Benjamin Franklin, p. 79,


Franklin's awareness of the need for comprehensive improvement of whole systems is characteristic of the modern era, what he correctly calls the "age of experiments." Since his time we have gone on to build and fly airplanes and even spacecraft, but as we have been discussing, our epistemological failings keep us from understanding and planning our world in a comprehensive, universalistic way. There is no generalist education for the world citizen -- like the ship's captain of old -- that includes the fundamentals of leadership, faith, science and all the other areas of knowledge that we need to know in order to sail what Fuller in the title one of his most seminal books (for me at least, since I read it at a formative age) called "Spaceship Earth."


The comprehensive knowledge, design and experimentation that we are aiming at is not the product of any single enquiring mind, desirable and powerful as that may be. An individual's search for truth is a Sine Qua Non, but not the be all and end all. As Abdu'l-Baha emphasized in the Montreal talk featured here a couple of days ago, humans in both mind and body are inherently gregarious, communal and social. We cannot stand alone without withering and eventually dying. Yet our knowledge of the essentials of group derived epistemology, and group information gathering and experimentation, remains piecemeal and slapdash.


To me the greatest sign of this deficit is our educational system's over-reliance on testing and examinations. Individuals are singled out of groups and subjected to intermittent trials as lone individuals (Baha'u'llah, interestingly, speaks of the "nakedness of non-existence") at the expense of learning and discovering as active members of a team. Exams force students to passively respond to outside demands instead of learning to frame the right kind of questions and work with others in a group inquiry to answer them. Donald Schon, who devoted his career to the ways professionals think and act, wrote that,


"As [inquirers] frame the problem of the situation, they determine the features to which they will attend, the order they will attempt to impose on the situation, the directions in which they will try to change it. In this process, they identify both the ends to be sought and the means to be employed." (Schon 1983: 165)


This consultation process is inherently comprehensive and uses what Schon calls "reflection in action;" it cannot, by definition, be done alone in a school's examination room. Teams learn as they succeed in group laboratories; creative groups reach out to the unifying truth when they work fundamentals, and only then. Testing and examinations should be eliminated from schools because they destroy the main goal of education; this for the same reason that coaches do not attempt to improve the performance of athletes by performing live dissections on them.


There is another reason that the old ship's captain is a good model for the kind of comprehensive learning that we will need to raise a generation of world citizens. The captain started early by apprenticeship, not by spending years in a school doing nothing but cram theory into his head. The most efficient way to learn is by dialectic between work and school; only by serving, reflecting, learning, experimenting and consulting in real work situations is it possible to develop our capacities to the full in response to the real, current needs of the human situation.


That is why I think that in the commonwealth of Baha'u'llah everyone will already be fully apprenticed to a trade and capable of living independently and marrying by the age of fifteen. When we start our work career that early our entire orientation to knowledge and the world will be revolutionized. It will be the end of credentialism and the over-specialization that is crippling the trades and professions. The need to gain competence in useful work rapidly at such an early age will require a judicious mixing of apprenticeship with schooling, gradually increased until in middle school half the day is spent working with a journeyman in the pre-youth's chosen career. This would mean not an end of childhood but rather a beginning of true adulthood.


This shift in education would create a perceived need for what I have been calling a world citizen's dashboard. This tool has not been invented yet, but we have all the means already available to make one. The citizen's dashboard would be a software device ported to a personal computer or heads-up display that would do what an instrument panel does for the pilot of a jumbo jet. Like Buckminster Fuller's World Game, it would constantly monitor world conditions and feed dynamic data to the citizen in an easily grasped series of nested charts. The child and adult's entire education would revolve around learning and extending this dashboard. Having so much planet-wide information at one's fingertips will enable everyone to enter into consultation free of borrowed and obsolete preconceptions of how the world is right now.


The citizen's dashboard will inaugurate an age of true fundamentalism. When all fundamentals are before our eyes and we know how to interact and experiment with relevant data, when everything we need is at our fingertips, we will no longer be on foreign territory when we enter that crucial stage of consultation, when with others you need to define your terms before consulting and acting.


There is plenty of experiential evidence that the best thing to do at the beginning juncture of an enterprise is to do nothing, just to sit in silence so as not to destroy budding, delicate new conceptions by forming them into words, or by hearing others mow down your own new understanding by talk based on older opinions. This the Master suggested has always been done through the millennia when affecting real change in His London talk to the Quakers (at the end of Paris Talks) about the so-called Illuminati (unlike in recent films, these illuminati were good guys).


The question is, of course, what are the true fundamentals? Will there not be disagreements as to what to display on one's dashboard? I think the answer to that lies in the following snippet from a very interesting essay by a successful executive, the founder of the GoDaddy web site. He writes,


"One thing I learned early in my business career is that anything of significance that is measured and watched, improves."

"John D. Rockefeller knew the importance of business intelligence.

"Back before I started Parsons Technology I became impressed with something I read about John D. Rockefeller. In fact, I still think about it and use it to this very day. I learned that Mr. Rockefeller was one of the few people in his industry (perhaps the only one) who knew exactly how much it cost to extract, refine and deliver a barrel of oil. In fact, he was entirely aware of all his costs. Knowing this information (and acting on it) gave him a huge competitive advantage. He knew how much he could price a barrel of oil for and still turn a profit. He was always keenly aware of each area of revenue, cost and market share, and he worked on improving in every area. As a result, he did cost saving things like manufacture his own oil barrels, have his own cartage company, and on and on.

"He eventually managed his way to where he could sell a barrel of oil, with impeccable customer service, and turn a profit at a price less than what it cost his competitors to deliver the very same product. By paying close attention to the things that mattered, Mr. Rockefeller made his Standard Oil Company so successful that he became the wealthiest man in the world!" (


Of course the author here ignores the not entirely ethical shortcuts through the infrastructure of rail transportation that enabled the elder Rockefeller to undercut his competitors, but that is not the point. The point is that as long as the boundaries of the situation are maintained by comprehensive vision and just laws, the world citizen with the most effective dashboard will naturally rise to the top in every team. It is in the direct interest of every participant to have the best and most efficient dashboard possible. The one with such a display will have the most relevant facts when they are most needed and will be of the most service to his teammates. These in turn will want to elect such an efficient executive as primus inter pares.


I think this is why both the Bab and Baha'u'llah emphasized that the length of time spent in prayer is not important, what matters is the spirit in which it is offered. The Bab said,


"The most acceptable prayer is the one offered with the utmost spirituality and radiance; its prolongation hath not been and is not beloved by God. The more detached and the purer the prayer, the more acceptable is it in the presence of God." (The Bab, Selections, Persian Bayan, VII, 19, p. 78)


This is reinforced by the 149th paragraph of the Aqdas, which in even stronger terms emphasizes that the same is true of reading Holy Writ.


"...were a man to read a single verse with joy and radiance it would be better for him than to read with lassitude all the Holy Books of God... Read ye the sacred verses in such measure that ye be not overcome by languor and despondency. Lay not upon your souls that which will weary them and weigh them down, but rather what will lighten and uplift them, so that they may soar on the wings of the Divine verses towards the Dawning-place of His manifest signs; this will draw you nearer to God, did ye but comprehend."


This goes to the core of this entire essay. We must shift education towards practice and apprenticeship and dashboards because the principle is clear: if any learning brings joy, it is working. Conversely, if an activity obstructs comprehensive understand and tires you out, avoid it because it is not natural or sustainable.


What could be more exhausting and expensive than spending decades in school learning useless theory, as surgeons for example do, only to find (as studies have shown) that after ten years of practice after graduation all that cutting edge training has become obsolete? If you are going under the knife, make sure your surgeon has been out of school seven years, no more or less. Too little experience and she will make mistakes, too much and she will be behind the times. In performance-oriented professions, like surgery and piloting airplanes, it does not matter how well a student did in school. What comfort is it to the passengers of a plummeting airliner that their clumsy pilot was a straight "A" student? We need to select for the best performers in the real world, not the best exam takers.


Notwithstanding, there is but one way to gain comprehensive, generalist knowledge, and that is to start with God, with a pure communion with His Word to put the heart in the center of His will. However, prayer must quickly be followed up by reflection, consultation and practice. This is the new dialectic, the experimentation of a new Era. Francis Bacon, one of the founders of modern science, understood this well. He wrote,


"We must begin from God, proving that the business in hand, on account of the nature of good which prevails in it, is manifestly from God, who is the author of good and the father of light." (Novum Organum, 93)

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