I learned a new way of thinking about social behavior at Agile CultureCon last week – Dave Logan’s taxonomy of tribal stages and his interestingly specialized notion of what a “prophet” is. For review, see Logan’s TED talk.
Logan explains the distribution of tribal stages as follows: Stage 1, “Life Sucks”, is the violent and profoundly dysfunctional tribalism of gangs and prisons (approximately 2% of tribes); Stage 2, “My life sucks”, is bureaucracy (about 22% of tribes); Stage 3, “I’m great (but you’re not)!” is most of business and academia (about 48% of tribes); Stage 4: “We’re great!” is where you start to see serious creativity, tribal self-awareness, and collective sense of mission (about 22% of tribes); and Stage 5 “Life’s great!” is high-creative behavior totally driven by values rather than ego or struggle against some adversary (about 2% of tribes).
A “prophet”, in Logan’s model, is somebody who expresses the deepest shared values of a tribe and invites people in it to change stage (and fuse with other tribes at the new stage). Because most people, most of the time, live in tribes with a stage 3 culture, the most common upward transition (and the most common kind of prophet) is from stage 3 to stage 4.
I noted in a previous post that hearing this in a talk made the hair on the backs of my arms stand up. Because I have lived through, and was one of the prophets of, the hacker culture’s transition from largely unconscious mixed stage-3/stage-4 to fully conscious mostly Stage 4 behavior (“We’re great!”) in the 1990s.
But. I am by no means sufficiently ignorant or egotistical to think I was our only prophet. Most obviously there was Richard Stallman a decade before me, issuing a stage 4 call to higher values around “free software”. But because I was a historian before I was a prophet, I can’t really stop there. I find myself asking who the earlier prophets were!
I think I’ve identified one. Remember that technical excellence is not sufficient; a prophet has to be a person who speaks the desires and deep values of the tribe around him, and enlarges it by forming links with other tribes which then fuse together, displaying a higher stage of behavior.
(Logan is not very explicit about the fusing part; he notes that it happens and is an important function of tribal leadership, but in none of his talks does he get explicit about the fact that fused tribes must frequently crack the Dunbar limit. I mean, if a prophet fuses two large and individually successful tribes that are each hanging out near the Dunbar limit of population, this has to happen.)
So, thinking about this in the context of the hacker culture, the pre-RMS name that jumps out at me is Larry Wall, the inventor of Perl and the patch utility, in the early 1980s. Then and now, he has spoken in prophetic terms about art, beauty, play, and service to others. In retrospect it seems to me that the early Perl hackers were among the first of our subtribes to start exhibiting Stage 4 “We’re great!” most of the time, following Larry into that.
Larry is the first prophet I think I can definitely identify in our tradition. But that may only be because in the early 1980s I was a relative n00b and possibly not clued in enough to notice other prophets operating at more social distance from me. Various questions occur to me:
The IETF. I’m certain I saw it exhibiting stage 4 behavior in 1983, when the leaders of what was then the Network Working Group egolessly processed my one-sentence demolition of their plan to abolish the functional domains. If that had been a stage 3 tribe they’d probably have just booted the smart-alec kid I then was out of the room.
So, who was their prophet; who, in that tribe, said “We’re great!” and lifted them out of stage 3? My suspicions fall on Jon Postel or Fred Baker, but I don’t know enough about the early IETF to be sure.
Who were the prophets of the Model Railroad Club and MIT AI Lab, 1959-1969? Was one of them RMS in an earlier phase of his life? I’m trying to reach Slug Russell so I can ask relevant questions.
Oddly, I’m not sure I can identify a prophet in the early Unix tradition. It’s possible that whole crew was already at Stage 4 when Ken Thompson had his brainstorm – collaboration, playfulness and high creativity certainly seem to have been already well-established traits of the Bell Labs culture when Unix incubated.
I throw this one open to my readers. Where is there evidence of other early Stage 4 transitions in the various subtribes that eventually amalgamated into today’s open-source culture? In what cases can we identify a prophet, the person who said “We’re great!” and made people believe it?