Within the last century an obscure strand of philosophy related to “holons,” has, particularly with adherents in the world of emerging technology, stated to make inroads on how we conceptualize the “corporation” and other human institutions. Understanding this philosophy is vital for understanding both where we are are today, and how our world is likely to transform over the next century.
Most of the organizations we have inherited today are born out of certain fairly static templates which are, in turn, derived from fairly stolid concepts of human life. Humans have certain stable patterns of organization and desires, and the types of ways in which they bind together are also have certain reappearing patterns, of which corporations are one of the best known.
Somewhat notable around this is the extent to which the corporation, originally born as a’joint-stock company’ has gradually superseded many other forms of human organization. First, it was given its own legal identity as a “person.” Second, it has gradually grown to take over many of the roles of the nation-state, which at least in most incarnations, was a group identity based around a particular ethnicity or notion of nationhood.
It was not always so. The corporation has at its heart a certain economically derived idea of human interaction, which by and large privileges the idea of each autonomous individual pursuing their own self-interest, which then is reified in the code of law in the form of compensation and equity. Most everything you see around you is to some extent derived from these norms. Even folks like Apple, which had a certain internal quasi-religious temperament, have chosen this as their primary form.
There are other historically successful forms. The Daibutsu, for example, was what succeeded the Samurai culture of Japan, which highly leveraged a martial culture with a highly engrained ability of self-sacrifice. In some respects, this might be seen as an even larger degree of ‘corporatism’ in the sense that the communal identity is so strong that the needs of the individual are subsumed, even to the point of death. Admittedly, many of the strongest implementations of such instances happened in cultures where death was not the end, it was merely seen as a gateway to another reality that might be even more scintillating than the one from which one had come.
“Holonics” in looking back at biological systems starts with a very different vantage point that most modern systems. For example, all modern utilitarian systems start with human life and human preferences and, by and large, ignore other species or wider senses of ecology. Holonics, conversely, looks at how these systems organize and converge, and considers humans, and human organizations, as simply a subset of these overall dynamics. The more general principle, which is one that is easily understood by those with a background in computer systems design, is the idea of “nesting.” Fractals and other structures are often infinitely sub-divisible and allow similar structures or patterns to reoccur in the part that occur at the higher system level. These seem to often create systems of incredible complexity and robustness. This is partially to suggest that human cognition and functioning may actually be strongly handicapped by a strong sense of ego, including many of the democratically enforced ideas that place a strong emphasis on the rights of the individual and their sometimes desire to be as loud as possible.
Conversely, other systems, like monarchy, may at times seen to be highly evolved structures in the sense that they can allow very easy nesting and decision-making that, at least ostensibly, represents the parts. Some of the West’s great thinkers have explicitly addressed this idea in the context of Kingship. For example, Aquinas suggested that the king had a secondary “body’ that represented the polis as a whole. In the 20th century this was taken up by Ernst Kantorwitz in the elegant work “King’s Two Bodies.” This is not to say that holonic thinking is explicitly monarchic, or would have embraced any of the formulations that, it merely accepts this as one possible topology. In fact, unlike many modern political formulations (e.g. communism, democracy),which implicitly assume that their political formulation is the ideal and ultimate form, holonics is ultimately more of a descriptive system. Rather than looking for an ideal to promote, it looks for markers of health and energy to optimize for.
Holonic philosophy was originally circulated by Arthur Kostler under the idea concept of “gestalt form,” which is tricky to formulate as it has an idea of form that is something beyond the mere sum of its parts. It almost implies a concept similar to an artist motif, consciousness, or some other binding non-physical mechanism that enables the whole to cohere. A modern clue to this “glue” is found in the work on quantum mechanics, for example Schrodinger’s insights as elegantly described by Stuart Kauffman. It is, for example, only in quantum mechanics that we found how systems that would seemingly decay into entropy can maintain a coherent state.
Ken Wilber, the American metaphysical philosopher, has taken this up in several works. In this modern reformulation, seemingly explicitly derived by expositions of consciousness, it is ‘”love” that serves as the bond and allows these various states to interact with each other. In some cases, this may even allow the non-physical and non-corporal to interact with the material and corporal, allowing for new types of inspiration. Today several works also attempt to apply this to human organizational design, of which the best known is called “Holacracy.” Somewhere between a dungeons and dragons manual and a guidelines for implementing holonic organizations, this has has some traction among small companies that find traditional corporate structures too heavy or flawed in other ways.
Other sets of technologists have explicitly been inspired by blockchain, most particularly the gas of the Ethereum network which promises to fuel new forms of organizations. These people, and the author is one major proponent, believe the relatively low barriers to entry and lack of friction in these networks will allow organizations that mirror self-organizing systems, or swarms. It was the early thought leaders of these communities, themselves throughly versed in political philosophy, that thought of setting up autonomous living units, also known as “holons.” The holon was thought to potentially serve as a focal point, not only for technologists, but also for artists and deep thinkers in other areas.
The Ethereum Foundation ultimately decided to focus more on technology than larger artistic and cultural engagement, but private individuals continued to move forward with this vision. The Palo Alto holon, also known as a Nest, adopted a philosophy that was similar to the Burning Man cultural movement. Monetary incentives were explicitly not emphasized and organization on the basis of other principles was explicitly encouraged. It might be said that holonic philosophy as formulated above is explicitly non-normative and anti-ideological, and builds its concepts of ideas from things like health and strength, including the idea that these principles apply throughout all of the systems. For example, it might make sense to speak of a sick organization in the sense it makes sense to speak of a sick individual. Similarly, it is difficult to imagine a healthy organization that is full of sick people.
There are currently numerous people working to apply some of these principles to help optimize both individuals and organizations for peak performance. ExO Works, a consulting company spun out of Singularity University, applies the broader theories of exponential organizations and sets up small disruptive cells within a larger organization that can identify high leverage areas for disruptive growth. Agentic Group, an organization that has done pioneering work on social organisms, looks explicitly at holonic modes and how they can create a larger immune systems within large organizations. We are probably at the beginning of an arc in which organizations are re-thought within the context of old philosophies and new tools. One mode that may accelerate this is
artificial intelligence. While human institutions may be unlikely to adopt change, especially at the fairly radical level of complete re-organization, there is no reason why artificial intelligence can’t evolve at a much more rapid rate.
Holonics is not a single tool, it is more of a way of looking at life, one that takes a deliberate scientific approach to areas that have often been the subject of ideology. It also deliberately starts the focal point at the smallest unit and deliberately moves up the tree to aggregate measurements. It is revolutionary, in the sense that it potentially has the tools to create replacements to things that we have previously taken for granted. It is solutionary, in the sense that it is highly focused on measurable improvements.