About the Application Holy Wars Book

Some Background on the Book and a Precis

The book title, Application Holy Wars or a New Reformation - A Fugue on the Theory of Knowledge, hints the book's scope and development:


Holy war” (~ “flame war”)




Theory of knowledge


The Application Holy Wars project crosses many disciplinary fields ranging from epistemology, thermal physics, history, and evolutionary biology to theories of organization and society; looking at revolutions in technologies, cognition and even concepts of what it means to be living. Because I have mapped the terrain, I think I can highlight and explain pitfalls that would otherwise impede understanding as we travel through historical time and across disciplinary borders. Pitfalls exist because each discipline along the path has its own worldview and theory-laden language. Thomas Kuhn called these domain-specific thinking patterns paradigms. His (1970) book, Structure of Scientific Revolutions provides some clues as to how discuss the different worldviews without becoming metaphysical or irrational.

My approach tries to minimize paradigmatic confusions by using a fugal development, starting with simple and relatively mundane themes and then elaborating them through a semi-recursive series of episodes and variations crossing different disciplinary domains to reach what I hope will be a climax of understanding.

My narration of the expedition is at least partially autobiographical. By describing my own path to develop the insights presented in the book, I hope participants will find it easier to follow in my footsteps than they would when confronted with what might seem to be a chaotic landscape of incommensurable paradigmatic worlds. For example, knowledge workers using different productivity tools often become so heatedly involved in irrational arguments about which tools are best, that bystanders call such discussions "holy wars". Such holy wars are symptomatic of historically unprecedented cognitive and technological revolutions that can change what it is to be human. Such revolutions profoundly affect all humans and now extend to our entire biosphere. To explain what is behind these holy wars and their existence, I weave together a number of disparate themes I have encountered in my own life and experience, from observing revolutions in text processing technology, evolutionary biology and genetics, history and philosophy of science, military affairs, and technical writing and knowledge management in large organizations. Given that these revolutions collectively amount to a new Renaissance, I think it is appropriate to base the development of my ideas on one of the greatest cognitive artifacts of the last Renaissance - the fugue. My fugue here consists of a Subject, Counter Subject, 5 Episodes with an Interlude, and concludes with a Cadenza and Coda.

Subject explores theoretical foundations of knowledge and its growth: based on Karl Popper's evolutionary epistemology, best expressed for our purposes here in his books, "Objective Knowledge" (1972) and “Knowledge and the Body-Mind Problem” (1994), and the nature of scientific revolutions as described by Thomas Kuhn (1970, 1983), together with some concepts of evolutionary adaptation to elucidate some fundamental ideas about when evolutionary change becomes revolution. Twelve critical revolutions in human history are reviewed, each of which triggered major grade shifts in the human species' ecological role in nature. Five revolutions are based on the invention of new classes of technology. The other seven are cognitive – involving roles of technology in fundamental changes in the way information is processed into knowledge.

Counter Subject introduces concepts from disparate arenas of evolutionary biology, military affairs and information theory to explore categories of information along independent dimensions of quantity and epistemic quality. In this I show how recursive evolutionary processes cybernetically transform data into power. The late Col. John Boyd's (1996) (O)bserve, (O)rient, (D)ecide and (A)ct adaptive feedback concept (the "OODA loop") is presented as a generic process for generating evolutionary and revolutionary change in complex adaptive systems, ranging from individual organisms to competing corporations and warring states. Such adaptive changes are a form of knowledge in their own right.

Episode 1 discusses how the inventions of counting, writing, books and the printing press enabled and enhanced the major conceptual revolutions of the Renaissance, Reformation, Scientific and Industrial Revolutions.

Episode 2 follows the invention of and revolutionary growth of digital computer technology over my lifetime, to consider the magnitude and unprecedented speed of the microelectronics revolution and some of what this implies for processing, data, information and knowledge.

Episode 3 considers the inventions and revolutions in computer-based "productivity" applications for individual use and their roles in on-going cognitive revolutions in the way people generate and use knowledge. Word processing, spreadsheets and relational databases quantitatively extend human cognition and represent evolutionary changes in human capabilities. Structured authoring, indexing and retrieval systems, the World Wide Web and knowledge management applications revolutionize, automate and add epistemic quality to cognitive processes that were purely human activities until the last couple of decades. Over the last three decades growth of the “personal” computer has given people “post-human” cognitive abilities - orders of magnitude beyond anything conceivable to previous generations outside science fiction.

Interlude. This section summarizes the results of several years of research trying to reconcile my understanding of organizational biology with academic and practitioner literature on knowledge management organization theory. Before I could coherently explain the impacts of the revolutions in cognitive technologies on human society and organizations today, I needed to consider the fundamental interactions of life and knowledge. The concept of autopoiesis (from the Greek “self” + “production”) formally defines what it means to be living - an idea developed by Humberto Maturana and Franscisco Varela summarized in their 1980 book. I argue that knowledge and autopoiesis are intertwined to the extent that one cannot exist without the other and show that autopoietic organization can emerge at several levels of complexity. These levels minimally include individual living cells, autopoietic organisms comprised of interacting cells, and autopoietic social organizations such as companies and other human enterprises comprised of interacting organisms such as people.

Episode 4 returns to the recent history of technology to explore early impacts of social and cloud computing technologies that have come to prominence since around 2008 to fuel the emergence of what may be called socio-technical organizations. The spread of these newest technologies and the profound ways in which they extend the cognitive abilities of humans and their organizations again changes the nature of people and their organized social interactions.

Episode 5 looks at the history of humanity over the last four million years from an evolutionary point of view to explore how co-evolution and revolutions in technology and cognition enabled our ancestors, simple tool-using apes stranded by climate change on the African savanna, to completely dominate the biosphere of Planet Earth. The episode particularly explores the impact of technological revolutions on the acquisition and management of cultural and organizational knowledge. Extending concepts of knowledge to organizations requires a deeper theory of knowledge and organization as developed in the Interlude. Development of the themes in this episode owes much to the deep philosophy and science underlying Popper’s evolutionary theory of knowledge, Boyd’s OODA loop, autopoiesis, evolutionary economics, and hierarchically complex dynamic systems, as developed in the Interlude. It follows from these discussions that many businesses and organizations are living entities in their own rights and have cognitive capabilities that transcend the sum of their individual human members.

Cadenza explores how a number of issues arising from the episodes affect the nature of knowledge and its impacts on individuals, organizations and society who need to use knowledge in a competitive environment.

Coda briefly considers the future. Is there a sting in the tale? Are the current revolutions a point of inflection in a logistic growth (sigmoid) curve or are we rising along a true evolutionary singularity (or spike) as some would claim?