The flow and the operating system


There we were, rumbling down the highway at night in a box truck through a light snow squall. I wondered if the big wet flakes would stop melting as they landed on the pavement and start to pile up. The rear wheels of the truck slipped on the slush every so often. The orange ABS light went off on the dashboard.

I tensed up then forced myself to relax. It’s all part of the flow, I thought. We’d just finished hauling a load of furniture for our new house and our family is once again on the move from on place to another.

I mentioned “flow” in last week’s column. What I wrote was, “the earth is flow.” It’s pretty simple really. Everything we get flows from the earth. But it’s an easy thing to forget when most of our lives seem to revolve around office jobs, driving, supermarket shopping and the Internet. We’re about as disconnected from the earth than ever before.

It’s easy to see that we’ve become increasingly dependent on complex global systems for our survival. This is a recent phenomenon. A scant 50 years ago most of our food came from local sources. Today most if it is imported, some of it from half a world away. We are detached from the sources of our survival. Yet, at the same time, we’re more dependent than ever on the earth’s flow—especially the flow of oil, which is fuelling our global operating system.

This idea of integrated systems operating on a vast scale is also new. The great educator and theologian Ivan Ilich was among the first to recognize systems as a new feature on the human landscape. In an interview with David Cayley in 1988, Illich warned that sometime in the mid-1980s we’d crossed a threshold from industrial behaviour into a new systems-driven behaviour. Illich was one of the first to see that operating systems, driven by computers, would shape the future.

Illich, who died in 2002, saw the present age as a disembodiment through “mathemetization.” He predicted a disconnect between people and the real world. The coming epoch, he theorized, would be marked by a new sense of impotence as the world and its problems has become too complex for any of us to grasp. He challenged us to look beyond our compensatory fantasies—such as “a return to the earth,” “ethical capitalism” and “global citizenship”—and focus instead on the realities. According to Illich, power is a central reality. The use of power, such as invading Iraq and bombing its citizens to promote a free democratic society is doomed to fail, leaving only a feeling of helplessness.

Illich’s interviewer summarized, “This new feeling of impotence, of a void, where the power to change the world was once thought to be, is for Illich the characteristic of the new age.”

And even as our ability to deal with our increasingly complex world taxes our ability to process any more information, we’re being inundated with even more information. Fuelling the change is human industry, which has rapidly shifted from production to information flow. Control of information is now as importance as controlling the flow of physical natural resources.

Canadian philosopher, John Ralston Saul, also addresses this phenomenon. He notes that ideas are now possessions. Thought, in the form of information, has become an actual commodity, and is now subject to ownership under intellectual property laws.

Connecting the dots, we can see that there is now a complete global network of interrelated systems in place. This now involves everything from idea generation to the production of products to influencing consumer behaviour to providing entertainment and facilitating social networks. There isn’t much that the global corporate system doesn’t produce for us.

Illich was right. “System” is the new paradigm. Today branding large chunks of the system is big business. Computer operating systems such as Windows 7 are big brands. Social networking systems such as Facebook are powerful brands worldwide. Transportation systems such as OnStar are proprietary brands. Agribusiness brands such as Archer Daniels Midland now feed the planet. And ADM says exactly that on their homepage:

“Each day, the 28,000 people of Archer Daniels Midland Company transform crops such as corn, oilseeds, wheat and cocoa into food ingredients, animal feeds, and agriculturally derived fuels and chemicals. With crop sourcing, transportation, storage and processing assets in more than 60 countries, ADM connects farmers’ crops with the needs of the global marketplace.”

Curiously, as the number of systems increases, actual diversity is decreasing. Our planetary companions are going extinct at an alarming rate. Wild finfish, to name one among thousands of other populations, are disappearing. Diversity is not the same as choice. Choice is what the highly administered global operating system is designed to provide. Diversity flows from nature, what flows from the earth over very long periods of time.

Our modern systems-driven impatience is now our greatest global threat. Oil, which took millions of years to form underground, will have been exhausted in less than 300 years. Our agricultural soil is degrading at a similar rate. Even freshwater is being threatened. As a species we’ve upset the natural flow of the planet.

The way out, according to Illich, is twofold. The first is to abandon our attachment to “need” satisfaction, or in other words, attachment to the low-hanging fruits of the global consumer system. The second is to open ourselves to unequivocal empathy for the other. If we care about others says Illich, then we can move beyond the feeling of being trapped in the hopeless void of modern life.

In other words, if we want to survive as a species we’ll have to find a way of detaching from the global operating system. This is the central point with which most of our great minds are grappling. Illich and company out that the way to start is to face reality, and not the reality presented to us by the corporate system. One of the first realizations is that our system is deeply flawed, and is being managed by people heavily addicted to power.

If there is one thing that these thinkers are telling us, it’s to think for ourselves and to act accordingly. For my part I’m going to try to attach myself as much as possible to my present geographic location, and the people who live here, even if it means selling my moving truck

Because when all is said and done, a great neighbourhood is the best operating system anyone could have.


  1. Hey man....I posted a couple of vids on my blog;the subject - educatoinal reform. Check them out...more to come.


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