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Fritjof Capra's The Hidden Connections is a fairly novel treatise on the relatively fledgling science of human nature and its effect on the environment. The book focuses on biological, cognitive, and social aspects existent in many forms today to propound a science of sustainability, which is based on principles of nonlinear dynamics. Prudent analysis of this non-fictional work will revolve around these three primary components and their utilitarianism within the concept of sustainability. However, in order to most effectively glean and deconstruct Capra's meaning in composing this tome, it becomes necessary to first exam the manuscript in the particular method with which the author has stratified the work.
The Hidden Connections is written in two parts, the first of which primarily constructs an elaborate metaphor between the biological facets of cellular operation and that of social theory. Once the author has established this relationship, he then spend the majority of the second part of the book applying his premise to some of the most eminent factors which have traditionally affected and still affect society, such as social activism, chaos theory, and the conception of trade. Although the second segment of the book contains the more provocative material and therefore provides a significantly more interesting read than the first, it is founded upon the crucial ideas and terms which Capra dutifully defines in the initial section.
The first three chapters of The Hidden Connections respectively treat the theoretical framework of the respective aspects of biology, cognition and sociology which sustainability hinges upon. Of the three, the biological aspect is the most rudimentary and necessary for the support of the other ideas, since it is focused on the processes and methods essential to life itself. Accordingly, Capra bases the fundamental ideas of his ensuing social theory upon an elaborately designed conceit involving cellular organization, function, and structure, as the following quotation readily demonstrates. "A cell is characterized, first of all, by a boundary (the cell membrane) which discriminates between the system -- the "self," as it were -- and its environment. Within this boundary, there is a network of chemical reactions (the cell's metabolism) by which the system sustains itself (p. 7)." This quotation is of particular importance to Capra's work as a whole and to his conceit involving social systems because it provides some readily identifiable similarities which are applied to those systems. They contain definite boundaries (much like a cell's walls do) and they contain myriad activity -- the movement of life itself -- which social systems do with the incessant motions of people, thoughts, communication, and its expression through language.
This conceit is utilized as the basic premise with which The Hidden Connections revolves about -- that of the foundations of cellular activities and of the physics with which those activities are based upon -- and can be applied to social systems to examine their particular nature and constructs as well. Sustainability, if nothing else, is a holistic approach to addressing the motions and involvement of life. It is a science (if not a philosophy) which considers the aggregate of varying systems, influences and factors and their effects upon both the community and the individual. It examines the ecology of a surrounding environment; instead of attributing a linear approach of forces which directly lead to a specific result, sustainability examines the conditions in which those forces exist and were possibly even created by. Capra sums up this concept, and its defining role as the premise for The Hidden Connections, in the following quotation. "…insights into the organization of biological networks may help us understand social networks (p.81)." Interestingly...
Social networks (as are most any other network, for that matter) are largely nonlinear in their operation, and are merely a reflection of the composite factors which they are comprised of. Those factors take on some of the essential traits which help to give life meaning when applied to social networks, as the following quotation readily demonstrates. "Social networks are first and foremost networks of communication involving symbolic language, cultural constraints, relationships of power, and so on. To understand the structures of such networks we need to use insights from social theory, philosophy, cognitive science, anthropology, and other disciplines. A unified systemic framework for the understanding of biological and social phenomena will emerge only when the concepts of nonlinear dynamics are combined with insights from these fields of study (p.82)."
This quotation is one of the first direct allusions Capra makes to the plethora of application of non-linear social theory which populate the second half of The Hidden Connections. It also provides a very valuable definition for the role of social networks in the overall science of sustainability as being the fundamental means by which human interaction is based upon. An inherent part of networks of social purposes is "communication," which can be linked back to the conceit of cellular activity that defines the process of life existing within them, which is, of course, the process of metabolism which enables cells to exist (and to continue existing). This process of life-making, or of a system's capacity to regenerate itself, is integral to the very definition of a living organism, and is what enables Capra to regard both social systems and sustainability as a living entity in itself. The author implies as much with the following quotation. "The function of each component in this network is to transform or replace other components, so that the entire network continually generates itself. This is the key to the systemic definition of life: living networks continually create, or re-create, themselves by transforming or replacing their components. In this way they undergo continual structural changes while preserving their web like patterns of organization (p. 10)."
The most salient interpretation of this quotation indicates that the process of autopoiesis is one of the most defining traits of life, and also the one most directly responsible for its propagation and vitality. What is significant to note, however, is that Capra relates this effervescent process of cellular activity to communication, which takes on this important role as the transporter and regenerator of life within social systems. The idea may be addressed in a number of prudent means which help to elucidate the author's conception of communication as the autopoiesis of social networks. Without communication, there would only be a disparate number of individuals, who could not even be rightfully thought to compose a true society, which is, by defintion, a co-existence dependant upon others or upon a majority to supply an individual with varying needs.
Yet the nature of communication as the form of vitality which underpins social networks goes beyond mere socialization, as the following quotation, in which the author references a quote from Niklas Luhmann, certainly proves. "Social systems use communication as their particular mode of autopoietic reproduction. Their elements are communications that are recursively produced and reproduced by a network of communications and that cannot exist outside of such a network." These networks of communications are self-generating. Each communication creates thoughts and meaning, which give rise to further communications, and thus the entire network generates itself -- it is autopoietic. (p. 83)."
The perpetual nature of communication in a social network is readily identified by this quotation, which indicates that the ideas facilitated by communication intrinsically give rise to other ideas, which are then communicated in a productive (if not outright tautological) fashion. The underlying importance of identifying communication as a regenerative process within a social network which is being likened to the network of cellular activity, of course, is to prove that social networks are living (although they are not living organisms). Instead, they form the sentient ecology which life is based around, and need to be treated and considered as such. This definition of social networks and social theory as being a visceral part of life is crucial for its non-linear regard in its applications which are discussed in the second part of the book, and is the reason why Capra champions the complexity theory of sustainability over previous, linear regards for social conventions.
The first part of the book concludes, however, with the completion of the complex conceit of social networks as personifying cellular existence. Another key component of cellular make-up is the inherent boundaries provided by both cell walls and membranes, which grant a specific space for their individual and collective ecologies to exist within. The process of communication which is so vital to…
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