Open Thinkering


Tag: Mastodon

TB872: Ubuntu and Pratītyasamutpāda

Note: this is a post reflecting on one of the modules of my MSc in Systems Thinking in Practice. You can see all of the related posts in this category

A couple of weeks ago, I came across this image as a screenshot on the Fediverse (Athena, 2024):

Screenshot of a tweet containing a photograph from user @samifouad with the caption "explaining what living in the West is like to my African family in one photo"

The photo shows shared steps up to two doorways. The snow has been cleared on one half of the steps, but not the other half.

I think this is somewhat shocking to anyone who perhaps doesn’t live in a city and actually knows their neighbours, but I should imagine it’s incomprehensible to anyone who lives in a tight-knit community.I’m using this as a way into discussing two non-western concepts, the southern African idea of ubuntu, and the Buddhist idea of pratītyasamutpāda.


Anyone reading this with a technical background might recognise the word ‘ubuntu’ as it is the name of a Linux distribution, and in fact that’s where I first came across the word. From the Ubuntu website:

Ubuntu is an ancient African word meaning ‘humanity to others’. It is often described as reminding us that ‘I am what I am because of who we all are’. We bring the spirit of Ubuntu to the world of computers and software. The Ubuntu distribution represents the best of what the world’s software community has shared with the world.

About the Ubuntu project (n.d.)

We’re not provided with readings in the course text or module information directly, but rather directed to ‘optional’ readings which I may come back to:

  • Bolden, R. (2014) ‘Ubuntu’, in Coghlan, D. and Brydon-Miller, M. (eds.) The SAGE encyclopedia of action research. London: SAGE Publications Ltd, doi: 10.4135/9781446294406.
  • Mackay, V. (2018) ‘Through the eye of a fly: action research as a support for the South African National Literacy Campaign’, Systemic practice and action research, 31(4), pp. 375–393.
  • Mamman, A. and Zakaria, H.B. (2016) ‘Spirituality and ubuntu as the foundation for building African institutions, organizations and leaders’, Journal of Management, Spirituality and Religion, 13(3), pp. 246–265.
  • Woermann, M. and Engelbrecht, S. (2019) ‘The ubuntu challenge to business: from stakeholders to relationholders’, Journal of Business Ethics, 157(1), pp. 27–44.

As I mentioned in my first post about this part of the module, the focus on older white guys is disappointing.

It’s worth noting that the word for the concept usually referred to as ‘ubuntu’ is given a different name in other Bantu languages. Going further than the Ubuntu (software) project’s definition, is one provided in 2020 by the African Journal of Social Work:

A collection of values and practices that people of Africa or of African origin view as making people authentic human beings. While the nuances of these values and practices vary across different ethnic groups, they all point to one thing – an authentic individual human being is part of a larger and more significant relational, communal, societal, environmental and spiritual world.

‘Ubuntu philosophy’ (2024)

In our hyper-rationalist, neoliberal, individualistic society, we not only do not foreground this approach to life, but we actively downplay it. Authenticity is couched in the language of ‘free speech’ and what you qua individual have the ‘power’ and/or ‘freedom’ to express. Although it can be traced back further, I’m sure, some of this is due to Enlightenment thinking, which stresses the importance of reason above all else.

It’s perhaps best summed up by the Cartesian statement, “I think therefore I am” which centres the world on the individual and their ability to understand the world. As the late Desmond Tutu points out in the quotation below, ubuntu runs counter to this:

We belong in a bundle of life. We say, ‘a person is a person through other people’. It is not, ‘I think therefore I am’. It says rather: ‘I am human because I belong.’ I participate, I share. A person with ubuntu is open and available to others, affirming of others, does not feel threatened that others are able and good; for he or she has a proper self-assurance that comes from knowing that he or she belongs in a greater whole and is diminished when others are humiliated or diminished, when others are tortured or oppressed, or treated as if they were less than they are.

The Open University (2021)

Seeing such a rich and important concept as ubuntu be relegated to a page on ‘non-western traditions’ in the course materials feels akin to a hand-waving mention of cooperatives as ‘other forms of organising’ when talking about businesses. Almost 1.5 billion people live in Africa, and at least 12% of the world’s population is a member of one of 3 million cooperatives. When we choose to prioritise and focus on one kind of approach to life and organising, we are choosing to de-prioritise and take focus away from others.

In terms of social learning systems for managing change, ubuntu is probably exactly the kind of approach we need to engender. Helping people realise that they belong to a group is an extremely powerful way to engender a sense of responsibility and therefore to enact change.


Whereas ubuntu is a familar concept to me, the Buddhist idea pratītyasamutpāda is entirely new. It’s a Sanskri word usually translated as “dependent origination”, or “dependent arising” meaning that everything depends upon everything else: “if this exists, that exists; if this ceases to exist, that also ceases to exist” (‘Pratītyasamutpāda’, 2024)

As the Buddhist monk Thich Naht Hanh is quoted as saying, unlike the Humean notion of cause and effect, this approach considers cause and effect together, as “everything is a result of multiple causes and conditions”:

Pratītyasamutpāda is sometimes called the teaching of cause and effect, but that can be misleading. because we usually think of cause and effect as separate entities, with cause always preceding effect, and one cause leading to one effect … [instead] cause and effect co-arise and everything is a result of multiple causes and conditions. The egg is in the chicken, and the chicken is in the egg. Chicken and egg arise in mutual dependence. Neither is independent.

The Open University. (2021)

Again, the notion of pratītyasamutpāda is known by different terms in various cultures and languages. For example, Joanna Macy, the American systems thinker and environmental activist refers to it as paṭicca samuppāda which is the name for the same idea in the Pali language. One obvious example of where this is relevant is in the ‘causal loop’ or ‘multiple cause’ diagrams which are common in systems thinking and which I’ve included in previous posts.

Macy explains how her buddhist beliefs, systems thinking, and environmental activism all come together in the following quotation, taken from the course materials:

Systems science goes farther in challenging old assumptions about a separate, continuous self, by showing that there is no logical or scientific basis for construing one part of the experienced world as “me” and the rest as “other.” That is so because as open, self-organizing systems, our very breathing, acting, and thinking arise in interaction with our shared world through the currents of matter, energy, and information that move through us and sustain us. In the web of relationships that sustain these activities there is no line of demarcation. As systems theorists say, there is no categorical ‘I’ set over against a categorical ‘you’ or ‘it’.

The Open University. (2021)

If ubuntu is “I am because we are” then pratītyasamutpāda can be seen as widening this to “I am because the world (or the universe) is”. It’s a somewhat mystical and spiritual approach to life, but then perhaps seeing everything as anything other than indivisible is at the root of our problems. It has a number of philosophical implications, from the ontological (i.e. “all phenomena arise from other, pre-existing phenomena, and in turn current phenomena condition future phenomena”), to the epistemological (i.e. “there are no permanent and stable things”) (‘Pratītyasamutpāda’, 2024).

In passing, I note that this reminds me somewhat of the fragments that we have of Parmenides, who introduces two paths, or ways of inquiry; one being the way of ‘What Is’ which is “now together entire,/ single, continuous” Palmer, J. (2020). He continues, citing the ‘goddess’ to which he is in conversation:

Nor is it divided, since it is all alike;/ and it is not any more there, which would keep it from holding together,/ nor any worse, but it is all replete with What Is./ Therefore it is all continuous: for What Is draws to What Is.”

Palmer, J. (2020)

It would be interesting to look for approaches to systems thinking and social learning in pre-Socratic texts. But in terms of applying the concept of pratītyasamutpāda to social learning systems for managing change, what has struck me is that it provides a rationale for using causal loop / multiple cause diagrams, not just because they’re useful but because they introduce a different, more integrated, and more connected way of looking at the world.


Defederation and governance processes

I’ve noticed this week some Mastodon instances ‘defederating’ not only from those that are generally thought of to be toxic, but also of large, general-purpose instances such as This post is about governance processes and trying to steer a way between populism and oligarchy.

The first thing I should say in all of this, is that I’m a middle-aged, straight, white guy playing life on pretty much the easiest difficulty level. So I’m not commenting in this post about any specific situation but rather zooming out to think about this on a wider scale.

What I’ve seen, mainly via screenshots as I rarely visit Twitter now except to keep the @WeAreOpenCoop account up-to-date, is that Elon Musk has run some polls. As others have commented, this is how a Roman Emperor would make decisions: through easy-to-rig polls that suggest that an outcome is “the will of the people”.

Tweet from Elon Musk: "Should Twitter offer a general amnesty to suspended accounts, provided that they have not broken the law or engaged in egregious spam?"

Yes 72.4%
No 27.6%

This is obviously an extremely bad, childish, and dangerous way to run a platform that, until recently, was almost seen as infrastructure.

On the other side of the spectrum is the kind of decision making that I’m used to as a member of a co-op that is part of a wider co-operative network. These daily decisions around matters large and small requires not necessarily consensus, but rather processes that allow for alignment around a variety of issues. As I mentioned in my previous post, one good way to do this is through consent-based decision making.

Screenshot of the Loomio for with multiple discussion threads

Using Loomio, the instance that I currently call home on the Fediverse, makes decisions in a way that is open for everyone to view — and also for members of the instance to help decide. It’s not a bad process at all, but a difficult one to scale — especially when rather verbose people with time on their hands decide to have An Opinion. It also happens in a place (Loomio) other than that which the discussion concerns (Mastodon).

So when I had one of my regular discussions with Ivan, one of the Bonfire team, I was keen to bring it up. He, of course, had already been thinking about this and pointed me towards Ukuvota, an approach which uses score voting to help with decision making:

To “keep things the way they are” is always an option, never the default. Framing this option as a default position introduces a significant conservative bias — listing it as an option removes this bias and keeps a collective evolutionary.

To “look for other options” is always an option. If none of the other current options are good enough, people are able to choose to look for better ones — this ensures that there is always an acceptable option for everyone.

Every participant can express how much they support or oppose each option. Limiting people to choose their favorite or list their preference prevents them from fully expressing their opinions — scoring clarifies opinions and makes it much more likely to identify the best decision.

Acceptance (non-opposition) is the main determinant for the best decision. A decision with little opposition reduces the likelihood of conflict, monitoring or sanctioning — it is also important that some people actively support the decision to ensure it actually happens.

The examples given on the website are powerful but quite complicated, which is why I think there’s immense power in the default. To my mind, democratic decision making is the kind of thing that you need to practise, but which shouldn’t become a burden.

I’m hoping that after the v1.0 release of Bonfire, that one of the extensions that can emerge is a powerful way of democratic governance processes being available right there in the social networking tool. If this were the case, I can imagine decisions around instance-blocking to be able to be made in a positive, timely, and democratic manner.

Watch this space! If you’re reading this and are involved in thinking about these kinds of things for projects you’re involved with, I’d love to have a chat.

How to CW on the Fediverse

Preview of CW

This is just a short post that I can link to when people ask me a question about Content Warnings (CWs) on the Fediverse.

A good starting point is the 2018 Mastodon quick start guide:

My advice is simple: if you’re not sure whether a toot needs a CW or not, give it a CW. People really appreciate it and it doesn’t do any harm to be too cautious and too respectful of others.

You can also use a CW to summarise a long post. Some use it for joke punchlines. Maybe you’ll think of other uses for it. Have fun.

Things that I appreciate people putting a CW on:

  • Politics
  • War
  • Anything related to abuse
  • Strong eye contact
  • Spoilers

The way that I summarise it for people who say “why should I have to CW my posts?” is to say “so that people don’t unfollow you”.