The Communications Era Task Force

An ad hoc group, including Robert Theobald and me, has started working on policy perspectives for the emerging information/communications era. Our goal is to produce a readable document (no more than 10,000 words) that provides a coherent framework with useful policy directions for areas such as economics, education, justice, governmental restructuring, and international relations. We believe it will be valuable vehicle through which we can:

  • publicly articulate the deeply held views of many of us which are often only stated privately;
  • clearly define key issues which the culture must address if we are to successfully evolve through the transition we are experiencing
  • focus discussion – in the political arena, as well as at the level of churches, neighborhoods and citizen groups- on these key issues;
  • reach decision-makers, at all levels, with information on these issues, encouraging them to address the current situation.

We seek your help with this in a number of ways. We seek your input on 1) the issues and topics that should be covered, 2) ideas and images for communicating the new perspective, and 3) valuable resource material that can help with the background. Brief notes and lists would be most welcome as soon as possible, but before October 20 at the latest. Then in March of 1984 we will be distributing this document in pamphlet form and will seek your help in getting it out. If you have suggestions to offer or would just like to get directly on the mailing list, contact Martha Shannon, The Communications Era Task Force, P.O. Box 3623, Spokane, WA 99220, or
509/328-5729 (days).


The Changing Role Of Work

October 6-8, 1983
Milwaukee, Wisconsin

Belden Paulson (who wrote "The Obsolescent Village Reborn" in the last issue of IN CONTEXT) is organizing, through the University of Wisconsin, a major conference to examine in depth the changing role of work in the last two decades of the 20th century. The conference will bring together people who are attempting to work creatively within the existing system as well as transformation oriented people who are convinced that existing values and institutions must be fundamentally changed, and it will attempt to synthesize these perspectives. Speakers and resource people include R. Goodyear, Vice President of the Chrysler Corporation; Willis Harman, futurist of Stanford Research International, the Naisbitt Group, authors of Megatrends; Robert Theobald, author of Beyond Despair; and a number of others including your editor. For information, write to University of Wisconsin – Extension, Center for Urban Community Development, 929 North Sixth St, Milwaukee, Wisconsin 53203.

A Living/Learning Seminar In Alternative Communities

Fall Semester, 1983: Sept. 12 – Dec. 17

This is another program being organized by Belden Paulson. Participants in this (credit or non-credit) seminar will experience three well established intentional communities – High Wind in Wisconsin, Sirius in Massachusetts, and Findhorn in Scotland – living for a month at each in turn. The faculty for this course includes Belden Paulson, Milenko Matanovic, David Spangler, and various members of the specific communities. Seminar participants will also attend the conference on "The Changing Role of Work". For information, contact Dr. Belden Paulson, 929 North Sixth St., Room 307, Milwaukee, Wl 53203, or 414/224-4040

The Next Economy

Paul Hawken
New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston
$14.50, 1983, 215pp.

In this book, Hawken pulls together and adds depth to a variety of economic insights that he has been writing about in CoEvolution Quarterly during the past few years. His central idea is that we are shifting from what he calls a mass economy to what he calls an informative economy. This distinction is related to the now common perception that we are moving out of the industrial era into some kind of "information" era, but whereas many commentators view this shift in terms of the rise and decline in certain types of industries (such as microcomputers vs. steel), Hawken’s focus is on the changes in attitude, style and cultural expectation that will likely affect every business. Simply put, he sees business success going to those who shift from a focus on quantity to a focus on quality.

As a driving force behind this shift, he cites the dramatic change that has taken place between the costs of fossil energy and human labor during the past century. From 1900 until 1973, the ratio of the cost of oil to the cost of labor steadily dropped, declining by a factor of 8 during that time. The most obvious result of this decline has been to encouraged business to replace human physical labor with fossil fuel powered machinery. Not quite so obvious, but equally important, has been the effect on our attitudes. Falling energy prices have tended to make most other prices also fall (relative to the cost of labor) which has discouraged us from buying long-lived, quality goods since there is very little incentive to invest more now to gain a longer product life if in a few years the same (or better) product will be available for less. Falling energy costs encourages a "throw-away" society.

All this changed, however, with the oil price shock of 1973 and the continued rise since then. In fact, the cost of oil relative to labor has risen by about a factor of 6 since 1973, putting us back at a level similar to 1905! While this may encourage some shifts from machine power back to human power, (as in more biking and walking), the alternative is to invest more human intelligence into products through good design, quality manufacture, and careful maintenance. Hawken sees this need to "increase the ratio of information to mass" as perhaps the essential characteristic of "the next economy", and he explores the implications of this shift with sensitivity and insight throughout the book as he considers questions as diverse as personal employment, investment opportunities, strategies for running a large oil company, and the underground economy.

Yet in spite of the title, this is not a systematic treatment of the next economy. There is much that he does not cover and places where his analysis is incomplete. For example, the mass economy had already started into decline by the mid-60’s due to factors as diverse as market saturation, diminishing returns from technological change, environmental limits, and changing motivations. The oil price shock accelerated this decline, but is only one of many driving factors behind it. Concentrating on oil works just fine for illustrating the underlying changes going on in the economy, but it does not provide a comprehensive understanding of our present economic situation. Likewise, he does little to explore the deeper implications of the "mass to informative" shift for our major economic institutions such as corporations, banks and government. In effect he provides a short term view in which the major players remain the same but their strategies adjust. l am sure one could argue that the impact of this shift on these institutions will be, over the next 10 to 20 years, much greater than he indicates.

Within these limitations, the book does well and I happily recommend it. Hawken’s perceptions and instincts seem to me to be very good. The Next Economy deserves a place next to Megatrends, The Third Wave, The Household Economy, Small Is Beautiful, Voluntary Simplicity, and similar books that, taken together, are starting to reveal the magnitude of cultural change we are now moving through.

The Book Of The Vision Quest

Steven Foster with Meredith Little
Covelo, CA: Island Press
$10, 1980, 159pp.

A number of times in the previous two issues of IN CONTEXT reference has been made to the Native American vision quest as an example of a powerful and effective rite of passage. This book describes one way that this ancient tradition is being used today. Steven and Meredith are the founders of a Northern California group call Rites of Passage that take people into the wilderness for a three day vision quest experience. The book does a marvelous job of describing both the process and the experience. In this review, l don’t feel I can do justice to the experience, but perhaps through sharing some of their process you will get a clearer sense of how such quests could fit into your life and the life of the culture.

How does their vision quest work? The book describes it within the general framework of rites of passage:

"The Vision Quest that you have decided to experience has been drawn from the past. It is a primitive rite of passage adapted to meet the needs of people who live in a modern culture. It is structured to draw upon the power of ancient archetype and symbol, but only to provide you with tools for the spontaneous creation of your own myths, your own rituals, replete with your own meanings. Only the bare bones, the structural skeleton underlying all such rituals, are made available to you.

Certain basic themes or phases common to all rites of transition were identified by Arnold van Gennep in the classic Les rites de passage. These three phases can be likened to an opening of the door, a steeping across the threshold, and a returning through the door from the other side.

The first phase is severance, or separation from the parents, the home, the family, the context of daily life, the world of human responsibility, privileges, and ‘the clock’ – separation from the temporal world. The individual is required to leave it all behind, to consider the former life to be at an end. The individual is taken away to a place apart and prepares to undergo the second phase of the rite of passage."

In their process, severance begins with preparation.

"You will be required to attend a series of classes where you will meet with others who have decided to experience the Vision Quest. You will learn pertinent survival information, including emergency field procedures. You will study Native American and other archaic rites of passage. You will talk about your life, your own deaths and rebirths. You will talk about your own life-myths and their relationship to your behavior. You will talk about the world you are preparing to leave behind and the world that you are coming back to. After a while, you will begin to feel the sense of shared group commitment that binds groups together in community and love.

The time will come when you load your pack and climb into the bus that will take you to the wilderness. You will be there for about six days, three of which you will spend living alone, fasting and seeking a vision. The long journey to the wilderness will sever you from the context of your normal life and set you face to face with the mirror of your evolutionary roots. Whether you are at a turning point in your life cycle or merely in need of renewal to maintain a chosen path, you are going back to the wellspring from which humankind has always drawn its spiritual wisdom and strength – the mothering earth.

The last night [before you go out alone], by the firelight, the faces of people in the group have never been more lovely. The masks are gone. Everyone is strong; everyone is weak. You make your vow aloud, along with the others, so that it can be heard. You sacralize and partake of Nature’s life blood: water. Now, on the eve of the last night of the severance period, is the time of most severe self- examination. Are you really going to do that to which you have committed yourself? Are you sure about your reasons for doing it? You stand on the brink of your old life.

Before dawn, you are up and moving. Reluctant as you may feel, there is no turning back now. You pack your things. You get your water together. You check in at the ‘map office’ to verify your position with those who will remain at base camp. There is one final ceremony. The ties that bind the group together are severed. The vision questers are formally given over to their separate paths. A few brief hugs, and you are off with your buddy.

You and your buddy eventually separate, at a mutually agreed-upon place. At a point midway between your separate places, the two of you erect a pile of stones, a marker, where you will communicate with each other once a day at different times by leaving some sign to verify your well-being.

Aside from the daily responsibility of the stonepile, you are free to be who you want to be. This is the time to forget time, to remember what it is you are seeking and take it into your heart.

The second phase is called liminal (Latin: ‘threshold’). It entails the direct, existential experience of the meaning of a life transition. The participant steps across the threshold into the unknown, armed with symbolic tools of self-birth, and enters a universal order that is sacred and immortal. During this threshold period, secret knowledge and power are transmitted and confer on the individual new rights, privileges and responsibilities upon returning."

During their time of preparation, the vision questers have learned about various archetypal ritual tools, symbols and concepts. Now that they have actually crossed the threshold, they are able to use these tools in whatever pattern makes sense to them. Foster identifies these tools as: the sacred time, the sacred place, the fast (but with lots of water to drink), the stonepile, the fire, the name self- given, the dreaming, the circle of stones, the cry for a vision, the vision, and the giveaway. In the normal pattern, vision questers spend the third night awake, crying for a vision (inwardly and/or outwardly) while sitting in their circle of stones (a symbolic grave in which they can experience the death of their old life and their rebirth to a new vision).

"The third phase, reincorporation, involves the return of the seeker from the spiritual realm of power and knowing to the mortal realm of civilization and the community. Ideally, the individual is culturally supported in living out externally the internal changes that have taken place during the rite of passage."

In our culture, these supports are not there, so the process of coming back can be as challenging as the quest.

"This reincorporation can precipitate a crisis. You tense against the impact of social boundedness, the laws of human space, time and conduct, the claustrophobia of four walls and a roof, even the too-soft embrace of a bed and mattress. The tension produces the same kind of gut-wrenching fear you felt the night before you stepped across the threshold. Again, you must confront the basic questions of birth, survival and death.

For a while, you may experience both elation and alienation. You can still feel the sun in your eyes and the wind in your hair. But when you try to tell others about it, they do not understand, or do not seem to care. They seem threatened by your new-found joy. While you were gone, they were absorbed in their own battles with dragons. They were living their own lives. Inevitably, they cannot know what you have been through, unless they actually try it themselves. You realize that the only way to communicate the experience is not to talk about the vision, but to live it."

The following places have active vision quest programs:

Rites of Passage, 857 DeLong Ave, Novato, CA 94947;
Medicine Ways, P.O. Box 443, Valley Ford, CA 94972;
The School Of Lost Borders, Box 55, Big Pine, CA 93513;
The Bear Tribe, P.O. Box 9167, Spokane, WA 99209.

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