Existing signs of fluidity

Required Reading

Robert Kegan’s personal development framework, summarised here by David Chapman. You might also like to read my earlier thoughts about what Stage 5 or “fluid mode” is, or means, for individuals.

This post will be taking huge liberties with material that is intended to describe personal, cognitive and social development of an individual by applying it to wider societal structures. One of my philosophical itches relates to the fact that scale is important, and different methods are needed at different scales of operation, so I am wary of the pitfalls of taking these liberties.

This, as most of my posts, should be taken as an exercise or thought experiment.

Where we are now

At the moment, society is largely at Stage 4, and has been since the tribal group style typical of Stage 3 began to decline.

Stage 3 society is based on relationships and feelings are paramount. This works well in a tribal group (and still operates in small groups, eg rural villages).

Stage 4 societies use a system to organise and make decisions, with relationships deliberately distanced from decisions, because within this stage, that is more fair. For example, the legal system relies on pre-agreed codes of justice, not the personal relationships of those involved, to make fair decisions.

Systemic organisation has given us almost everything we have in society today, from healthcare to exploring space. But, is there room for more growth?

Many current alternative belief/sanctity doctrines, such as groups with New Age / “hippy” values mourn the loss and call for the return of stage 3-style living. This would be a backward step. The way forward involves synthesising everything learned from stage 3 and stage 4 together.

While wider society does indeed have many successful stage 4 systems that can interact with each other, something more is required to become more like stage 5. Chapman’s description of stage 5 for people is very useful:

You have several such systems, “multiple selves,” none of them entirely coherent, and which have different values—and this is no longer a problem, because you respect all of them.

Society has many systems, but most are still invested in the idea that systems must be entirely coherent and that systems that have different values cannot coexist, be reconciled or demand equal respect at the same time because this would be contradictory. Politics is a great example. All the players must behave as if their chosen team on the political spectrum is inherently, objectively right and the others terribly wrong.

Stage 4 societal systems are interacting with each other in the same way as stage 4 people co-operate: very successfully, coordinating calendars etc, but not yet showing stage 5 fluidity.

This post will submit some ideas for institutions that are exhibiting Stage 5 dynamics.


Kickstarter et al.

Crowd funding seems to have features that are more like stage 5. It involves co-operation from many people who are different from each other, who probably have wildly differing systems of belief and ethics. Differences are no longer very important because the focus is the end goal.

Crowd funding temporarily brings people together around a node point, a common goal, and they will disperse when the goal is achieved. This node point is slicing reality along a different, specific line. The rules for the node are set by the creators and rather than appealing to a broad identity eg “all Democrats” the appeal is much more specific eg “anyone who wants an Alsatian puppy calendar”.

Because the focus is the end goal, the systems that have been leveraged to make it happen are no longer very important, rather they are shown to be tools used to achieve the goal rather than identities for its participants.

Elon Musk

There are some people who appear to be “hacking” systems, in this case capitalism, harvesting rewards and then leveraging the benefits.

It is likely that individuals have done this within companies and governments for centuries but Elon Musk is a visible example with public goals.

He identified that the best way to make money within our current money system – capitalism – is to make money from money (Paypal as a money transfer service).

Once he was one of the top 100 most wealthy people in the world, he turned his attention to other goal-focussed pursuits. The world is probably lucky that he wants to improve the lot of humanity with high-speed travel, space exploration and green energy.

My point with Musk is that, having exploited a stage 4 system he can now work around those systems and above their heads.

Even just a decade ago it was inconceivable that anyone would market an electric car, because the oil industry is too big and powerful. Indeed, a new product must jump through many hoops to come to market, from patents to funding to marketing to market share to fending off legal battles. It was impossible to imagine any company achieving this. What happened instead was a person who sliced reality along different lines.

The gradual rise up a chain of hierarchical systems is not necessary for Musk. Once one has a certain amount of wealth, one can be more or less outside of most of these concerns. His product does not have to get funding or acquire market share any time soon, much less turn a profit. Money can be thrown at lawyers from the oil industry and at marketing. So, Musk managed to just pop out an electric car, seemingly out of nowhere.

By providing a ready-made product, Musk drives change from above back down through some stage 4 systems, like governments, via (for example) demand for new electric infrastructure. In the US, his company has taken over this stage 4 operation.

Further, Musk actively works together with other companies. He is known to sell his electric car components to other car manufacturers relatively cheaply. His company also negotiates long-term investment from them in exchange for these cheap, high quality components or for long term help in their research and development departments. In addition, he allows “good faith” access to patents held by his companies to help other firms advance their technology in his areas of interest.

This to me is stage 5 capitalism. Everyone has their separate companies, their private patents and are technically in competition. But when striving to change the world  (and when money is no longer an issue) the best way to productively move forward is to once again collaborate, share information and support others around specific goals.


Technology developers worldwide (particularly software developers) have for a long time been sharing their work online for free. The work on software does not end at the moment a piece of code is given away, rather many people also actively maintain and debug the software after the fact. This involves a lot of effort and usage of free time.

This seems to have come about due to a combination of good wages in the stage 4 realms that support developers and good will amongst the community. Many developers sympathise with having to write boring code, so libraries have been created such that no-one has to repeat unnecessary labour.

Developers also foster that “for the good of the world” feeling. Open-source software is made available for free to anyone, not just other devs. As software becomes more complex it is increasingly obvious that only collaborative effort will move technology forward. Opensource is an alternative to corporate invention, partly so that life-changing technologies are not owned exclusively by a single company but also partly because such entities are too narrow in their R&D focus.

Summary thoughts

If Chapman is correct about STEM people and stage 4, it is no accident that these three examples are all in STEM fields.

These examples all share something that I feel is very important: goal focus. I believe goal focus flattens out old hierarchies and makes systemic differences less important. These goals also have a certain flavour, to improve the world or to maximise fun. They fill the gaps in capitalism’s goals which are too narrow.

This goal focus is possible because there is another assumption along side it: that we are participating in something that is shared. With Kickstarter it is normally a shared geeky hobby. Elon Musk’s visions assume a shared human race, a shared planet and a shared solar system. Developers exist in a shared community and all hands are needed in software right now so that community also extends to the human race. However this shared environment acknowledges stage 4’s differentiation before building a sense of sharing.

The humanities seem to be straining towards some flatter hierarchies, for example reinventing the system for peer-reviewed papers which would be in line with Foucault’s criticisms of institutional power, however change is still extremely slow.

Can you think of other things that seem to operate on a stage 5 level?



4 thoughts on “Existing signs of fluidity

  1. Rob MacLachlan

    Many people are also being paid to work on open source projects, either because their employer has decided to use and improve open source software, or because the organization values or at least tolerates this use of resources. As you say, this is catalyzing the breakdown of organizational boundaries. Google gives employees a day a week for personal projects, and in the US, university researchers are being encouraged to open their experimental data and designs.

  2. John Fuller

    Digital nomadism might be an example of movement in stage 5. As a digital nomad, you’re breaking down national borders and national identity. You’re using different regions, customs and rules as sort of tools for “lifestyle design”. You may be living in Thailand for lower cost of living, which decreases the cost of bootstrapping a business. A digital nomad in Thailand may work on this business with someone doing the same in S. America. Or they may continue jumping borders as they work on their ideas. Many (most?) digital nomads skirt rules by doing their work while on tourist visas, only creating a formal presence in that country if it’s beneficial. The business they start might be created in a country neither founder is currently living in.

  3. Young Soph

    Hm, do I misunderstand level 5 thinking or could these be considered aspects/ideas towards S5?

    > Ideas ~ Platform thinking (Kickstarter, .), Infinite Games (James Carse)
    > Governance mechanisms ~ Transitional justice, Oral History Project,Truth and reconciliation commission, Justitium/State of Emergency, Democratic Confederalism/Rojava, Mondragon
    > Social organisation ~ Credit Rotating Systems/Funds, Collaborative finance
    > License mechanisms ~ Creative Commons, Open Knowledge Foundation
    > Investment strategies ~ Corporate VC Funds, Robin Hood Coop, Portfolio strategy diversification, Effective Altruism/Copenhagen Consensus
    > Engineering concepts ~ Structural Fracture Mechanics (Leak-Before-Failure)
    > Ritual design > ALS Ice Bucket Challenge

    Most of them are optimised for goal focus, yet I suspect these to be unsatisfactory Stage 5 cases when compared to the Kickstarter, Elon Musk and Open Source example above.

  4. Gary

    This is a fascinating topic and has been on my mind! My interpretation of stage 5 fluidity is the idea that there is inherent conflict in the systems that can be applied in a space, and that this a good thing to be navigated with effort: taking the good parts from the competing ideologies.

    This suggests we should be looking at areas in society that have taken on zero-sum, ideological war dynamics and think about how they could move “above and beyond”. As you suggest, US politics is a good example: fluidity at that scale would maybe look like the parties focusing on finding areas of mutual agreement rather than competing for votes? In the realm of religion, you maybe would see increased prevalence of spaces and rituals that explicitly seek out participants of many different religions? Maybe something like universal unitarianism.

    I’m not sure if this applies to examples like OSS and Kickstarter. Primarily because I don’t see them as being spaces where the mix of ideologies is explicitly leveraged to create something “bigger than the sum of the parts”. Rather they are mostly mechanisms for sorting similar people with similar interests. Maybe I’m misinterpreting stage 5 behavior?


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