Not Flat But Textured

Relationships and Growth in an Interconnected World

Thomas Friedman declared that we live in a flat world that has got even flatter. That technology especially the Internet has the most significant part to play in it. Those who have grown with the Internet and are inextricably glued to their cellphones will testify to this.

But with 6.8 billion humans on the planet, how flat can the world get? Does this flatness mean you must connect with everyone? Does that not pulverize the individual or the group? Have all boundaries truly eroded? and if so, how are we ‘safe’? Where do we belong? In the face of overwhelming flows of information and noise, where is the individual’s voice? How does this affect our relationships?

The fact is that information is eroding the boundaries of the individual and the group. Secondly, it fundamentally alters the landscape of relationships by apparently making everyone ‘equal’ and therefore making priorities hard to determine, leading several people to make confused choices that may overtax their system and resources.

The keyword is: apparently

Here is the good news: there is, indeed, a design, a sense, a scheme to this ‘flat’ world. That it is equal, but not so equal that an individual or a group cannot determine their priorities. There is a way that an individual in the contemporary world can render sense, all over again, to their self, their relationships, and their business of life.

The story of this sense, and alignment of an individual, their purpose (passion), and their global context begins with an individual’s attention and intention…

Attention & Intention: The Building Blocks of Life Attention: Seeing The World

The most powerful tool a human has is their attention. It is by way of investment of attention that anything is created and grown, and it is by divestment of attention that things deplete and fall in disarray. (Decay and death, however, is part of the natural cycle of life. It is not to do with lack of attention, but the end of one life-cycle.)

When the attention is focused on contribution, an interesting thing happens: a natural scope is determined. Why? Because an individual is restricted by their organism (the body) and the environmental context and is subject to natural limitations of speed, time, distance, aging, incoming energy. Contributing takes away from the individual, and therefore, one can only give as much. This gives a limitation to one’s extent of invol-vement in the world’s affairs.

When the attention is focused on taking from the world, the natural limitation on attention erodes. Theoretically, one can take on the entire world. One can take on three jobs, unnecessarily, at one time. One can sign up for as many classes as they want, and have as many friends as they like if they are not going to pay any attention to what they have.

There is an interim state, too: recruiting someone else, by power (or money) or sheer force, to manage what one has acquired. Manipulation is the tool of the taker to sustain their acquisition. Entire nations construct laws that permit them to overtake other territories in order to fulfill their own needs. This may be in the form of war or even trade.

Intention: Giving or Taking?

There are fundamentally two kinds of outlooks on the world with respect to the self: either one sees that the self is here to take from the world, or here to contribute to the world. These two outlooks determine one’s character. The first kind of character is concerned with more, and grows through acquiring. The second kind of character is concerned with less, and grows through contribution and service (which can be for pay, of course).

These two characters have moral and ethical implications. Interestingly, they also create a different ecological footprint and organizational design. Conglomerates and inefficient mergers that attempt to take on the world with size and encroaching urban landscapes are two instances, intangible and tangible, of the taking mindset.

Life, Growth and Relationships: The Connection

Growth is an outcome of being alive and it takes place through interconnections which we can call ‘relationships’. An organism that is not connected to any other organism cannot find incoming nourishment and thus will not sustain. In reality, a wholly disconnected organism does not even exist.

Hence life is a system thriving on relationships, and it grows by its very design. But what is growth?

Growth Is Not Just One Thing

Growth has long been defined in material terms: more money, more space, more territory, more things. It is seen in terms of more of the exterior.

The emerging understanding of growth is shifting towards an inner meaning. Nalini Nadkarni, an ecological scientist who studies tree canopies, observed: if one sees the tree’s growth and movement in terms of its dynamic twigs and not its static trunk, they will notice that trees, too, move.A single vine maple tree in her study made a movement equivalent to circling the Earth 7 times, in a single year!

That observation gave Nalini an insight: one can move and grow even when standing in one place. Armed with this insight, she started programs for Washington prison inmates that engaged them to become productive members of the society within confinement. Her inmates voluntarily attended science workshops and began a conservation program planting nurseries for local forest restoration. This also healed them as condemned individuals. Thus by redefining growth, Nalini opened the doors of growth and connection for those who are physically restrained.

I am advancing the idea that growth is not just one thing: it means different things to different people ? and that subjective definition is not just acceptable, it is the only way to have an interesting, rewarding experience of the world. The world is richer for the variety of aspirations and thus contributions of individuals. The narrative that has long defined growth in only one way has destroyed relationships, created exploitative businesses and structures prone to collapse because they cannot be sustained by definition.

Destruction as Opportunity

Relationships are the structure upon which life thrives. Life by definition is a forward movement, a bristling, an evolution, a growth. Even the apparently static thing is in movement, the disconnected is connected. Yet if the attention is veering off, and the intent is based on taking, both the structure and growth suffer. We are observing the malevolent structures premised upon taking & more are collapsing. We are also observing a world with depleting restrictions where access is becoming fluid and open.

This is actually a time for great opportunity. What we are witnessing is not a deluge of information out to get us, but a release from traditional constructs. We are no longer bound by restrictions ? yet with their erosion, we are also experiencing a lack of comfort that came within these walls, a massive dissolution of familiar structures. By focusing our attention on what is, and with good will, we can begin to render a new, fluid, open, dynamic structure suitable for these times.

Inside-Out Relationships:A Structure for Growth

I propose that this new structure is built inside-out: from the individual to the family to the community to the larger world. Further, that it is based on a benevolent intent (contribution). The inside-out structure supports sustenance of attention, which is not dispersed all over the place. The proximity in this structure ensure a history of transactions which in turn becomes a basis of incremental trust. Care is the fiber this system is weaved of.

To take an example: if you are to grow a food farm, would you rather do it in your city, or the neighboring town? If you wish to do business in the next town, why are you in this town? I am arguing that we bring businesses and their infrastructure home ? or migrate to where our heart is, thus bringing ourselves home one way or the other. This will reduce the footprint that is caused by being distant from wherever your purpose is taking place.

Online communities, too, are arranged on similar principles. We are increasingly observing that the netizens are congregating around local issues. This is more visible in geographies that were previously politically closed or economically disadvantaged. Nations which were already organized are ahead on the curve: communities-of-purpose are arising and these nations are on the forefront of discharging benevolent ideas within the global population. Think TED.com.

Individual: The Epicenter of Growth & Relationships

All growth starts from one person, and that ‘one person’ is not a hero figure or a privileged person, but one’s own self. Hence when I think of growth, I tackle the question for me; when you think of growth, you tackle the question for you.

Attention and intent of the individual are the starting points of growth: that which is paid attention to, grows. Intention determines how the relationships around the individual get rendered. An intent of giving allows one to connect with the exterior, even if the exterior is an alien, say, a foreign country. In other words, paying attention with an intent to give allows an individual to create a relationship by becoming useful.

Families: The Natural Partners In Growth

The blind poet John Milton consoled himself thus about his condition: ?those also serve who stand and wait.? This has long struck me as very insightful, for at any given point in time, most members of the population are physically rooted in one place and inextricably linked to their relations.

When I was a young child and had natural aspirations for growth, I could not reconcile how those who stay put ? and I was thinking of most of my family members ? ever grow by the external standards of the world. If growth was the acquisition of more, certainly most members of most families failed the criteria. That includes mothers and grandparents as the epitome of those who are ‘losing’ by way of caring for the other.

If we see these relations by the externalist measure, these are the most sorrowful individuals on the planet. And yet, many find their roles joyful (though they may be made to believe otherwise by the cultural narrative) and they are making real economic impact and contribution. Attempt replacing families and their care with institutions, and we will end up with an unmanageable task and an emotionally dysfunctional population prone to crime. This massive opportunity cost is a clear indicator of the real, valuable contribution families and communities are making even if they are not snatching territory. Indeed, their greatest contribution ? whenever they make it ? is not 9 snatching territory while providing nourishment and opportunity to the world’s population.

Communities: Infrastructure for Growth

Communities provide a context and infrastructure for growth. There are two factors at work: the hard element ? that is the physical landscape, architecture and design of the community; and the soft element ? that is the culture of the community.

The individual has two choices: to align with their given community (and transform it slowly from within through their contribution), or to migrate ? and in some cases, initiate ? a new community. The choice is determined by the individual’s assessment of which situation grows them best.

The right local community (including online communities) nurtures its individuals and may grow them by occasionally challenging them. However, if the balance is tipped out of favor of nurturing and tilts towards taxing (burdening), the society ? that is to say, individuals ? perishes as a collective.

A Global Alignment

It is increasingly possible in this world today to be emotionally and physically in a place that is aligned with the individual?s inner purpose, while being an involved part of the larger world. This balance of the micro within the macro is an unprecedented occurrence in human history. The only thing needed to make this change is the individual’s courage to embrace it.

    Author Information

    Ramla Akhtar is the founder of Pakistan Changemakers Hub, a connector of innovators and community leaders, and co-founder of The Oneness Breakfast, a peace initiative.

    One Response to “Not Flat But Textured”

    1. If you say admit to crimes (real or not real) on blog posts, can you be reported to the police and be tried on what is written online?. What if the crime was just a lie, and its a supposed crime you did in another country?.

      October 30, 2011 at 2:36 pm Reply

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