The Social Operating System

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Programming Complex Systems

M. C. Escher was famous for his art, where foreground becomes background and background becomes foreground, alternately attracting our attention. His drawings change what we see by playing with perspective,

We generally see things rather than the spaces between them. But it is in the interactions between things that higher systems emerge. Organisms from interactions between cells. Societies from interactions between people.

A deeper truth is revealed when we shift our attention. American scientist John Holland did this in his book Signals and Boundaries: Building Blocks for Complex Adaptive Systems. “Despite a wealth of data and descriptions concerning different complex adaptive systems,” he said, “we still know little about how to steer these systems.” We will find the answer, he said, only by understanding how signals and boundaries originate and evolve.

The patterns we see can be more persistent than the things themselves. For example, Holland says, “The human body, usually treated as a static array of organs, is in fact a pattern imposed on a flow of atoms – its constituent atoms are all ‘turned over’ in less than two years, and most of the atoms are turned over in a matter of days or weeks.”

There is a ‘program’ that sustains every complex system, dictating how resources are shared, used, and recycled. Over time, rules and systems co-evolve.

Social Code

Human systems are governed by social code at every scale.

In his book Metapatterns, Tyler Volk, a professor at New York University, gives the American constitution as an example. “The framers of the U.S. Constitution, placing more faith in a few tens of kilobytes of weightless code than in kilograms of brains, envisioned the constitution as the organizing source for a social machine that could run by itself, an anchor for the storms that were certain to come from power plays and the passions and falibilities of mortals.”

Reprogramming Society

We are now rewriting these social codes. Society is being reprogrammed and it’s changing how we relate to each other.


Nation states are under siege. Their power is diminishing. They are less able to manage their own economies. Multinational companies can choose to locate anywhere and global agreements dictate conditions for international trade.


The relevance of government is being challenged. Voter turnout rates are dropping. World Bank figures on global turnout show a precipitous decline since 1990, attributed in large part to cynicism and indifference.


Fewer people are affiliated with religions. A Pew Research Center study in 2014 found one out of six Americans had no declared affiliation. This was expected to decline to one in four by 2050. The unaffiliated are also becoming more secular.


Mass consumerism is eroding distinctions between cultures. While cultures are still resistant to change, people everywhere are exposed to the same global influences in technology, food, clothing, music, and media — and associated norms and values.


Membership in associations is declining. People are less inclined to join professional associations. Interest groups and voluntary organizations are finding it challenging to recruit new members.


Employee engagement is dismal. A 2016 Gallup survey found 51% of employees are disengaged and 16% are actively disengaged. The ‘actively disengaged’ are “unhappy and unproductive at work and liable to spread negativity to coworkers.”

Social Capital

In his book Bowling Alone, Robert Putnam describes how Americans responded in the late 1990s to the question: “What are the ways in which you get a real sense of belonging or a sense of community?”

People born after 1964 ranked neighbours, religious groups, the local newspaper, local community, and groups or organizations significantly lower as a source of the sense of belonging. Online relationships ranked higher (and would likely rank much higher today than they did when this study was made).

People born between 1946 and 1964 gave responses between the two age groups. It was clear that a generational shift was underway.

Putnam concludes: “By virtually every conceivable measure, social capital has eroded steadily and sometimes dramatically over the past two generations. … Americans have had a growing sense at some visceral level of disintegrating social bonds.” But it is through social capital, he says, that people turn aspirations into realities by increasing trust, resolving collective problems more easily, and “widening our awareness of the many ways in which our fates are linked.”

Social capital is the force that holds us together to collaborate and tackle shared challenges. It’s more vital today than ever. We need to pay more attention to the code that sustains human systems, and find new ways to create relationships that serve the common good.

This article is an excerpt from a book in progress on collaboration and transformative change. It was first posted on November 14, 2017, on LinkedIn.

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David Forrest

David is the founder of the Integral Strategy Network. He is a writer, futurist, strategist, and facilitator of systemic change.

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