Domestication and Empowerment

“Sand Talk” symbols representing different key concepts in an Indigenous Australian system of thinking and being

I wanted to share one of the mind-blowing moments for me in “Sand Talk” by Tyson Yunkaporta. The book is about Tyson bringing an indigenous Australian worldview, mental models, and wisdom to bear to think about today’s mainstream colonized world problems. He shares a story about the first public education system which was developed in Prussia, at the start of the period where nation states were just beginning to become a thing.

Here are the goals of that first public education system:

1.Obedient soldiers for the army.

2.Obedient workers for mines, factories and farms.

3. Well-subordinated civil servants.

4. Well-subordinated clerks for industry.

5. Citizens who thought alike on most issues.

6. National uniformity in thought, word, and deed.

In short, the intended outcome of such a system was masses of fairly passive and compliant citizens who’d “toe the line” and comply with the direction set by government, supply labour and consume goods to keep a transactional system running and lots of power concentrated in the centre. It seems like this system was incredibly effective at achieving its aims, and was adopted like wildfire in other western states over the next few years.

Tyson contrasts this to Indigenous Australian societies where thinking was generally more holistic, life was participatory and power was distributed relatively evenly amongst the people. And he frames the western system as “human domestication”, a way of “breaking in” the general population. It’s interesting then to see how nation states are starting to fail in delivering the prosperity and well being they promised in the past, for example through the “welfare state” or “trickle down economics”; wages are stagnating, and capital is moving offshore as global corporations can easily circumvent national government authority, and the safety nets originally designed to support people who were struggling often serve to entangle its recipients and entrench deficit thinking; this is described in some detail in “Radical Help” by Hillary Cottam.

Against all this backdrop we can see some glimmers of hope though, one such glimmer that I’m focusing on is the emergence of place-based participation culture. Tessy Britton did a study of over two hundred “participation projects”, where ordinary local residents weren’t waiting for government support, but getting together to make better neighbourhoods peer-to-peer. The participatory city approach creates a platform for residents to cocreate more of their lives together by doing things together peer-to-peer. Residents become “prosumers”, both producing and consuming in hyperlocal fashion. The upper layer of the platform provides support for collaborative local business, to help people come together and develop local sustainable social enterprise. I am working on two pilot projects at the moment in Tāmaki Makaurau to test this approach.

My intuition says that so many of our problems today come from that model of nation states which passify most of the population. My hope lies in creating new systems which activate and support the growth of the creativity of all people. Maybe one important reason that our problems seem so unsurmountable today is that we haven’t yet awakened the sleeping giant of human potential and creativity that was so effectively sedated in the past. What do you think might be possible?



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