Minimal Responsibility
A major Obstacle to Synergy and the Noosphere?

[ An integration with contributions from Kris Roose -- from Anthony Judge -- and from Michel Bauwens]


1. Social evolution

From time to time major transitions occur in social organization: dictatorship is replaced by democracy, monarchy by a republic, dominance by one person or one group by a more egalitarian regime, colonialism by independence, etc. Most often the general idea is that an egoistic and short-sighted ruler or ruling system is just blocking progress, and that the way to free this progress is the elimination of the ruling person(s). The underlying conviction is that, once the oppressor is removed, the higher quality regime spontaneously will emerge.

History however teaches that reality is a little different, to say the least: the historically most reknowned revolutions towards freedom and getting rid of the tyrant --French Revolution and the Russian October Revolution-- evolved in a few years' time into a worse condition: French kings were replaced by a despotic emperor, and the triumphant elimination of theTsar was followed by perhaps the most tyrannical dictatorship in modern times.

More generally speaking, most of idealistic groups will have had the experience of people leaving the group without even trying to explain the real reason for their departure, let alone that they've fairly tried to change the situation so that they could feel more pleased with it.

What's wrong then with this kind of "big leap forwards", and do we risk the same outcome when we'll move towards the Noosphere and other kinds of Synergy, now that the Internet is granting us unlimited facilities to converge and to elaborate a global vision and cooperation?

2. eGroups

Poor communication in eGroups may take several forms:

- no one says anything (silence has its own functions)
- what is said is of relatively low value to others
- the degree of exchange beyond binary interactions is minimal
During recent weeks some remarks like these were exchanged in our Teilhardian eGroup, prompting me to post these reflections:
Thank you for your attention to my thoughts, which made the collecting of them into that presentation worthwhile. Believe it or not, besides Tony Judge and Nadia McLaren, you're the only one who has actually engaged with them in a substantive way. [George Pór to Kris Roose, 17/3/02]

Had a conversation with X over lunch today, prompted by the thoughts in your (...) email. For a while (and following experiments on his part with creative dialogue), X has said that the trouble is not really the lack of communication facilitation means (e-learning or c-learning software, etc) but that people don't have anything meaningful to say to each other. So, for example, he found himself pulling out of almost all active participation in listservs (including, with regret, that of your own ...). I do recognize this tendency, but on the other hand it is undeniable that people do have meaningful things to say to each other and that we are ALL THE TIME gathering up the crumbs and supplementing our meagre scraps of collective knowledge. [from a private mail the next day 18/3/02]

This is why we need true 'peer to peer' networks, with people of equal 'absorbing' capacity, and that is not always easy to find. Of course, in such groups, our ego can come in the way as well, so we need a combination of selection, modesty, and finally facilitation and facilitative technologies. Alone, the latter can not work. [reaction to the former private email, 20/3/02]

A central act of community formation is the negotiation of the meaning of the community and its agenda. The further the members are on their journey of self-realization, the more difficult that negotiation may become because of the very unique gifts and quest of each member. However, when the passion for learning and advancing a common field of study/action is high and combined with the capacity to recognize and cherish the gifts of our peers united by the same concern, then nothing will stop the emergence of the self-organizing collective intelligence of those communities. May we witness it within our lifetime. [George's concluding remarks on this subject, 20/3/02]

3. Academic environment

This is a well-recognized point which has proven to be significantly problematic in the academic environment. It is my understanding that few academic papers receive much satisfactory comment -- even those of the most eminent, and certainly not by the most eminent.

The phenomenon

How could we describe this kind of experiences? They seem to be instances of a nearly universal phenomenon: even when people have good ideas to communicate, and even when perfect communication lines are available, that active communication doesn't occur most of times.

I somewhat got the impression, given the title, that everyone who did not communicate fully in some such setting was somehow minimally responsible rather than maximally responsible in fulfilment of the synergy agenda.

This phenomenon strikingly reminds of the reaction of guests at a not so successful party: they rather leave the party than that they will try to turn it into a more joyful event. The same way a driver which encounters a dangerous stone on his route most probably will continue his journey after successfully avoiding this obstacle, rather than stopping and removing the stone before the next driver hits it...

I tend to explain this behaviour by the psychological attitude of minimal responsibility.


Minimal responsibility or inertia is the tendency with people to feel themselves only responsible at the least possible degree for the situation they are confronted with. They will only take initiatives for what is explicitly their duty and responsibility and/or what can be easily controlled by others. They don't see the system in which they participate as their own system. They judge that their liability is limited, because they are not the "leaders" of the group, they "bear no responsibility". As said Cain "Am I my brotherís keeper?" [Gen. 4:9], and Pilate "When Pilate saw that he could prevail nothing, but that rather a tumult was made, he took water, and washed his hands before the multitude, saying, I am innocent of the blood of this just person: see ye to it." [Mt 27:24]

Maximal responsibility can be defined as quite the opposite approach: a "simple" member of a community perceives the "community agenda" as his own. Without being the official leader of the group, he acts as if s/he was the informal leader, or at least the responsible observer and contributor of ideas and suggestions for the group.

It is clear that non-authoritarian groups only can successfully function with (many) members feeling themselves maximally responsible for the group events, spontaneously advancing ideas and sharing tasks.

Even Pierre Lévy's cyberdemocracy (site in French) will not properly function without maximal responsibility in communication and active participation. Apart from technology, education is perhaps of the essence.

Influencing factors

Let's look to two aspects: the local one in which it is granted that the participants are ready to participate in the integrative discussion. This engagement was explicitly given. Of course, assumptions are made about the nature of the community which sometimes are only partially shared, if at all.

The more general issue relates to the question if and to which number of communicating groups we could/would engage.

1. The local issue

-- a) Why it doesn't work (as well as we'd dreamed)?

A number of factors contribute to this minimal attitude:

Factors related to the quality of the e-Interaction

- assumptions are made about the degree and quality of synergy sought by all participants (metaphorically perhaps best caricatured as the belief that promiscuity is better than anything else -- an interesting lead to explore since it is accepted that maximal sexual promiscuity is not appropriate except in quite radical groups)

- assumptions may be made about thresholds of fruitfulness

- there may indeed be differences in absorbing capacity (both in terms of quality and quantity); some may have heard the same points many times before -- to what extent should they stress this or consider it healthy

Low motivation to cooperate

Contribitor's attitude

- the instinct of mammalia: with the exception of motherly care, alarm shouting, and some cases where animals behave socially as their basic behaviour (bees bringing food to the hive, male ungulate mammalia running at the oustide of a flock), in social situations mammalia seem not to "think" or "feel responsible" for the group, and even not for themselves on a longer term. As we are mammalia, we don't spontaneously behave that way.

- liability for failure: in a suboptimal and neurotic environment one tends to attribute failures to the person that launched the idea. So launching no ideas at all is the simplest way to prevent this.

- passive aggressiveness: one of the ways to get rid of one's frustration for not being at the commands of groups and activities, is to avoid giving good ideas, and to try indirectly to provoke a failure.

- fear to be ridiculized: often group leaders or important members (or people considered as such) are supposed to know things better than simple members do. A less important or experienced group member may hesitate that his ideas are worth to be discussed by much more experienced group members, and prefers not to disturb them wiith his dawdlings. But even at equal capacities, new ideas always start as the propriety of a minority (or an individual), so it is not difficult for the group to decree by majority that the new idea isn't as good as the generally accepted. It is right that not everyone succeeds in considering someone's reactions as constructive suggestions, and it is very well possible to comment those suggestions with some hidden sarcasm.

- fear for getting more work: one trick to shove the workload onto the shoulders of some people is asking the person who makes a suggestion to take the responsibility for it --and to do all of the work.

- the quality disparity: it's not very stimulating but rather boring for someone who has a more than average expertise in a certain topic to continuously be confronted with the simplistic ideas of newbies and enthousiastic dilettantes. S/he also may prefer not to become the informal guru of the group.

Incongruent motivation

- the emphasis may primarily be on phatic communication, namely exchange for its own sake and not to accumulate and integrate insights in any structured way.

- most group members aren't motivated to do something more than the required minimum. Already at the beginning, they just joined to enjoy the activities and other features of the group. When asked for, they'll show their preference between the proposed options, and when they feel less enthousiastic by recent events they'll ventilate their frustration (or simply quit). But, from the beginning, they never were really interested to actively contributing to the organization of the group.

- commercial intentions: one may project to make money out of a good idea, and prefer not to divulgate it.

- an academic interested in the same topic, who thinks of a good idea, wants to publish it (to gain credit) before contributing to the thinking momentum of his colleagues.

- short term motivation: although our frontal brain lobe --a unique acquisition for mammalia: even our cousin the ape and our predecessor Homo Neandertalensis had a flat forehead, lacking the capacity of long term thinking and hence creativity. Although we know that thinking about latent possibilities and threatening dangers, and hence taking pro-active initiatives, is useful for everyone concerned, at short term this doesn't yield many advantages for us, so we rather postpone it. Finally, it is a kind of discipline, but since post-WW2 culture, stressing individual development, discipline has become a dirty word.

External factors

- what is said is perceived as offensive, too complex, etc too others

- the opposition of the official group leader in authoritarian groups. In most of cases, autocrats don't like good ideas of ordinary group members: they feel uneasy by the experience of somebody else having a better idea, and perhaps most of all by the obligation to discuss their hidden motives. In non-liberal groups the simple fact of launching a good idea is labeled as criticism or even subversiveness. This leads to excesses as "Marschieren, nicht räsonieren" (March, but don't think - the Army thinks for you.) On the other hand, it is undeniable that some remarks and suggestions are launched not so much for  the optimalization of the group's functioning, but just to criticize the leader(s).

- many groups and organizations don't even have adequate communication channels for new ideas. The whole organization is conceived as if all members with the ability of producing good ideas and sharing power are to be found within the board, the higher the level the more ability. Ideas generated outside this committee most probably are considered as unrealistic if not subversive. Theoretically everyone can send a letter to one's representative, and there is of course free press. But experience learns that, even with polls showing that the majority supports a certain vision, the governing body most of time has its own priorities, considering the preference of the majority as based upon a lack of information and long term vision. So participating in direct democracy is rather frustrating.

-- b) Why does it work in certain conditions?

(A direction would also be to study what makes good groups tick, rather than only see why most of us lack motivation to participate all the time everywhere ...)

I partipate in a mailing list postconpol [postconventional politics] which discusses 'integral politics' approaches. Just as the open sources phenomemon, it spontaneously works very well, because:

- we are peers there

-there's always a balance between participants and lurkers, depending on the subjects and the personal energy and time of each. [Michel Bauwens, 3/4/02]

- the reponder is quoted in the original text, and so feels more motivated to react.

- the responder happens to have some creative ideas about the subject

2. The General Issue

- the group composition issue: many may indeed have good ideas to communicate, but with whom should they be communicating them for best mutual benefit? Are those people present in the group? How much time can they devote to this process and using what means?

- the time limit: this is certainly a realistic problem, especially because people who like creative thinking and organizing also tend to engage in many discussion and other groups, eventually getting involved into too much obligations.

- the selection issue: How does one act responsibly in determining when to stop and remove the stone -- to use your metaphor? Having driven along many stony roads, I think we all have to balance our responsibilities rather than define ourselves as roadworkers -- however much we would want the road to be better.

What if they are themselves perceived to be the stone by others -- or choose so to perceive themselves?

It is useful to turn the question round and ask, in any communication situation, when is it my responsibility not to be there in order to be somewhere else, or otherwise engaged? This raises the challenge of the number of places in which people would like communication to occur. In how many such cases can one participate? At what stager does one shift into a form of pub crawling, drifting from listserv to listserv to hang out? I hear that there are some 16,000 health sites on the web -- in how many should one endeavour to communicate and what is to be said to the initiator of the 16,001th such site and their expectations about communication? I like the image of a field of flowers, each flower a website trying (competively) to attract pollinating insects? How irresponsible is the insect that does not go to a particular flower?

- the group decision issue: Having just had a smoke-filled lunch break, how does one respond to a meeting in which many metaphorically smoke? Should one stop others from smoking? Or should one go elsewhere? To what extent am I responsible for other peoples psychic health? And to what extent should I inflict my criteria on them?

A synergy needs maximal responsibility

On the other hand the "innate" tendency in the evolution of the Universe, especially at the socialization and noosphere levels, requires a maximum of spontaneous cooperation in thinking (critical and creative), initiative taking and organizing.

This trend towards liberalization results into full cooperation. We observe it as well in partner relationships, all kinds of groups, companies and even state politics. What feeds this trend?

- motivation: apart from duty and wages, forceful but limited reinforcers, people appear to be more motivated for cooperation by the possibility of being creative and/or decision-making. The more aspects of one's personality that are appealed to, the more important and motivated one feels. Although in an authoritarian system the leader has all these motivational possibilities to his disposal, the other group members will not stop looking for ways to share the organization of the group's activities. Their productivity increases in accordance with this participation, and this may be vital.

- inventiveness: if a fertile and constructive exchange of ideas can be managed, groups are more inventive than individuals, and this for several reasons: creative people tend to become blocked after one or a number of creative ideas because it proves rather difficult to leave a previously successful but exhausted line of thinking. Moreover, leading people tend to withdraw from practical reality, but precisely this empirical situation most often yields creative questions, criticisms and brain-waves. Even if those remarks and proposals are not final, they most often prove to be very inspiring for creative thinking. Keeping the executive people outside the decision making process usually results into an impoverishment of the system.

Both factors were illustrated on a convincing way by the failure of the centrally planned communistic system confronted with a liberal market economy.
Let's define synergy as a kind of cooperation where motivation and inventiveness is at its summit. I deplore the use of the word synergy as a simple synonym for cooperation. I would propose to define it as the best thinkable form of cooperation, otherwise we'll have to invent some new word. The socialization process described by Teilhard is expected to eventually evolove into a perfect synergy between humans, by them probably including the whole universe.

It is clear that, to attain this synergy, any kind of authoritarian structure has to be removed and avoided, to maximalize motivation and inventiveness of all participating individuals. But while removing exogenous (=coming from outside, top down) organization of information exchange and collaboration, endogenous (=coming from inside, bottom up) organization is increasingly needed. And this includes a maximal sense of responsibility, and the discipline to behave cooperative in the absence of exogenous organization. Without endogenous organization, non-organized cooperation becomes chaotic and conflicting, or dies away. When a decrease of exogenous organization is not supported by an equal increase of endogenous organization, the evolution fails. Each revolution, consisting in reducing or removing external hierarchical control in a group or population not "mature" for more maximal responsibility, is doomed to return to the former authoritarian situation or even worse.

The cases of French and Russian revolution, and of the decolonization exemplify this thesis.
How to enhance spontaneous participation?

By which means maximal responsibility could be enhanced?

(We need) a combination of selection, modesty, and finally facilitation and facilitative technologies. Alone, the latter can not work. [from the email quoted above]
This proposal suggests that as well organizational, psychological and technological means could be useful.

1. technological: a computer network within a company, and Internet in general provide an easy, rapid and unlimited availability of generalized communication. But moreover, it is stripped from any emotional and psychological interference making comparable communication with traditional means so difficult if not impossible, keeping the door open for a subtle play with arguments including the general peaceful athmosphere, the cost of paper and secretary workload to reduce and often to prevent the divulgation of ideas not complying with the agenda of the board. It was a blessing for humanity that the WWW and HTML were conceived by a non-commercial body, and released without royalties. I suppose the world might have had another aspect today if Microsoft or Warner Bros had been swifter to grasp the opportunity.

2. psychological: apart from the rules of InternEtiquette, contributors and eGroup members should perhaps educate themselves into the necessary discipline to comment the others' contributions and to make efforts to structure, to document and to elaborate their comments.

But a most important element is an open attitude, considering that each contribution, how deviant it may be form what is already available, probably is an enrichment rather than a conflict. Each apparent conflict in fact is a paradox: it's most probably rather due to improper formulation than to the fact that one of both should be wrong. To ask "who's right?" is highly inappropriate. "Hurrah, a disagreement" should be the first reflex of mature thinking and communicating people.

3. organizational: to cope with the overwhelming quantity of WWW information, the bad and the commercial being as available as the good, selection is strongly needed.

To limit the access to the group discussion to those people really contributing at an adequate level is tempting, but makes the selection so limiting that, in fact, no other people could join the group than those who should have joined in a traditional, non-Internet situation. This should be a pity, because just the continuous invitation to other yet unknown people to share is precisely the greatest riches of Internet.

The openness and virtual limitlessness of the system tends to create an overcrowding in available texts and sites. The moment of surfeit is momentarily delayed by ingenious search engines, eGroups, listservs and reciprocal linking by analogous websites making a de facto selection. It's my personal conviction that an integrative  structuration of the available texts and other illustrations is unavoidable on the long run. As argued elsewhere, this integration will not only be a time saving technology to get complete and useful information, but it is most probably an indispensable scientific method.

The iGroup Idea

It's an old idea of mine that we should evolve from eGroups to iGroups --integrating groups--. The members of such an iGroup should be invited to contribute actively to an integration of their ideas and, by the way, the information already available on this subject. As occurred with Linux, we are moving quickly towards open systems:

In a keynote speech at the conference Wednesday, IBM Senior Vice President William "Bill" Zeitler of the company's server group lauded the open-sourcemovement, saying it spells the end of proprietary systems' domination of the IT market. [at the LinuxWorld Conference in New York, January 2002]
I think that, as for other knowledge fields, the era of the great monolithic authors and the money making publishing houses, more and more behaving like information chokers, is over. For the first time in history, we can build up knowledge by cooperation, at no cost and no time, avoiding the so-called specialists having to decide if a publication should make any chance to make profit [1] and switching to unlimited peer review. Integrating knowledge, not just to synopsize it, but to use integration as a scientific tool, is, as far as I can view, one of the vocations of the Internet.

The perspective that one's contribution will be integrated and not just dumped in some eGroup archive may prove motivating for spontaneous contributions.

I have the intuition that no group better could be designated to start as the first iGroup, than the Teilhard eGroup, composed of Noosphere enthousiasts. This is an invitation...

Already in 1973, Anthony Judge wrote an interesting paper about a more integrative scientific interaction by computer .

[1] Capra had to contact 17 publishing houses before he found one, willing to take the risk. An analogous problem was experienced by  Jules Verne, to say nothing about Chopin and Rachmaninov, who in their days got the valuable advice, by highly qualified music publishers and critics, to stop their career as a composer.

Posted 1/4/02 - The original article by Kris Roose - The comments by Anthony Judge -  Integration on 3/4/02