At State of the Net yesterday I used the concept of macroscopes. I talked about how many people don’t really feel where their place is in the face of global changes, like climate change, ageing, the pressures on rules and institutions, the apparent precarity of global financial systems. That many feel whatever their actions, they will not have influence on those changes. That many feel so much of the change around them is being done to them, merely happens to them, like the weather.
Macroscopes provide a perspective that may address such feelings of being powerless, and helps us in the search for meaning.

Macroscopes, being the opposite of microscopes, allow us to see how our personal situation fits in a wider global whole. The term comes from John Thackara in the context of social end ecological design. He says a macroscope “allows us to see what the aggregation of many small interactions looks like when added together”. It makes the processes and systems that surrounds us visible and knowable.

I first encountered the term macroscope at the 2009 Reboot conference in Copenhagen where Matt Webb in his opening keynote invoked Thackara.
Matt Webb also rephrased what a macroscope is, and said “a macroscope shows you where you are, and where within something much bigger, simultaneously. To understand something much bigger than you in a human way, at human scale, in your heart.” His way of phrasing it stayed with me in the past years. I like it very much because it adds human emotion to the concept of macroscopes. It provides us with a place we feel we have, a sense of meaning. As meaning is deeply emotional.

Chuck Close self portrait at Drents Museum
Seeing the small …

Chuck Close self portrait at Drents Museum
and the bigger picture simultaneously. (Chuck Close self portrait 1995, at Drents Museum)

Later in his on stage conversation at State of the Net, Dave Winer remarked that for Donald Trump’s base MAGA is such a source of meaning, and I think he’s right. Even though it’s mostly an expression of hope that I typified in my talk as salvationism. (Someone will come along and make everything better, a populist, an authoritarian, a deity, or speakers pontificating on stage.) I’ve encountered macroscopes that worked for people in organisations. But sometimes they can appear very contrived viewed from the outside. The man who cleans the urinals at an airport and says he’s ensuring 40 million people per year have a pleasant and safe trip, clearly is using a macroscope effectively. It’s one I can empathise with as aiming for great hospitality, but it also feels a bit contrived as many other things at an airport, such as the cattle prodding at security and the leg room on your plane so clearly don’t chime with it. In the Netherlands I encountered two examples of working macroscopes. Everyone I encountered at the Court of Audit reflexively compares every idea and proposal to the way their institution’s role is described in the constitution. Not out of caution, but out of feeling a real sense of purpose as working on behalf of the people to check how government spends its money. The other one was the motto of the government engineering department responsible for water works and coastal defences, “Keeping our feet dry”. With so much of our country below sea level, and the catastrophic floods of 1953 seared in our collective memory, it’s a highly evocative macroscope that draws an immediate emotional response. They since watered it down, and now it’s back to something bloodless and bland, likely resulting from a dreary mission statement workshop.

In my talk I positioned networked agency as a macroscope. Globe spanning digital networks and our human networks in my mind are very similar in the way they behave, and hugely overlapping. So much so they can be treated as one, we should think in terms of human digital networks. There is meaning, the deeply felt kind of meaning, to be found in doing something together with a group. There’s also a tremendous sense of power to be felt from the ability to solve something for yourself as a group. Seeing your group as part, as a distinctive node or local manifestation, of the earth-wide human digital network allows you to act in your own way as part of global changes, and see the interdependencies. That also let’s you see how to build upon the opportunities that emerge from the global network, while being able to disconnect or shield yourself from negative things propagating over the network. Hence my call to build tools (technologies and methods) that are useful on their own within a group, as a singular instance, but more useful when federated with other instances across the global network. Tools shaped like that mean no-one but the group using it itself can switch their tools off, and the group can afford to disconnect from the wider whole on occasion.

One thought on “In Search of Macroscopes


  • State of the Net

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