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Politics, Action, Narrative, and Freedom

October 16, 2010

According to Hannah Arendt, politics is a social activity. In “The Human Condition”, for example, she states that the great effects of political action come about “where people are with others and neither for nor against them…”[1]. This highlights the essentially social substrate always present in our experience.

Arendt describes political action as being something memorable, that people talk about and retell, that they tell stories about. In her equation, that which is memorable transforms political action into memorable deeds but is preceded by ordinary people making sense of their own situation and offering their considered opinions.

I find this quite interesting in light of the open source methods that Cognitive Edge promote as they appear to follow similar principles, although for a much broader set of applications than political action in the public sphere.

As with previous posts, this is another example of people becoming aware of certain principles in their own terms, the terms of their specific domain, and articulating these through that lens, one that is ultimately cultural. Over the years, I have seen similar principles in other work, whether it be agile software development[2], action learning[3], advanced mathematical theory[4], or architecture[5].

I find it quite fascinating that the themes of emergence, inclusion, plurality, context, and a healthy respect for that which is human shows up in all of these works (perhaps I am stretching this a bit with the Wolfram material, but if you take into account that he has a chapter in a math book entitled, “The Phenomenon of Free Will”, perhaps you will grant me this).

My view is that all of these authors are observing the same phenomenon and describing them with the best words they know how based on their training and background. This is not unlike any organisation you might go into where Marketing people see things one way and Production people see it another. We all do this. It is a human thing and a social process. Social processes are the common denominator here, and for this reason, my research direction has been moving toward exploring the relationships people form with technology, often with others through that technology, and here, the Cognitive Edge approaches have much to offer in terms of elucidating what is actually happening in these circumstances so that it can be better understood.

Like Cognitive Edge’s notion of distributed cognition as people thinking together, Arendt’s implication is that when groups of people come to understanding together, very interesting social phenomena occur and often seem to generate quite positive results, leading to higher engagement, feelings of positive group membership, and higher team performance[6]. These are aspects of human freedom.

Human freedom, Arendt’s ultimate concern, is a unique quality to be spontaneous, to break with what has been done before, to improvise, to act with passion, to innovate, to create. This, I think, is at the heart of what I am most interested in exploring with regard to groups that work together in a professional environment.

[1] Arendt, Hannah. 1958. The human condition. [Chicago]: University of Chicago Press., page 180
[2] Poppendieck, Mary, and Tom Poppendieck. 2003. Lean Software Development: An Agile Toolkit. Addison-Wesley Professional.
[3] Scharmer, Claus Otto. 2007. Theory U : leading from the emerging future. Cambridge, MA: Society for Organizational Learning.
[4] Wolfram, Stephen. 2002. A new kind of science. Champaign, IL: Wolfram Media.
[5] Alexander, Christopher. 1979. The timeless way of building. New York: Oxford University Press.
[6] Alimo-Metcalfe et al. The impact of engaging leadership on performance, attitudes to work and wellbeing at work. Journal of Health Organization and Management (2008) vol. 22 (6) pp. 586-598

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