Twin Oaks, an intentional community in Virginia, USA.
By Craig Green
Jul 22, 2016
"Rather than trying to improve the world in any of the usual ways—through electoral politics, prayer, propaganda, civil disobedience, armed insurrection—they intended to catalyze a global revolution by building a working prototype of the ideal society. Once a model of the new system is up and running, they believed, its example will be so compelling that it will be replicated ad infinitum. In short order, the new system will blanket the earth, spread entirely by the force of its own evident perfection." -Chris Jennings (from Paradise Now: The Story of American Utopianism)
Recently I came across a galvanizing 4 minute video on climate activism. (Check it out: bit.ly/1XZV3WE.) The video, made by the Next System Project, speaks to the converging ecological, economic and cultural crises humanity faces. It's a call to action, crafted to provoke creative engagement. A cavalcade of activists, organizers and prophets speak directly to the camera. Each speaker chimes in on the urgent necessity and opportunity of transforming our civilization into a healing force upon the planet.
Wise elder Daniel Ellsberg declares: "Nothing is more important now than to talk about: 'How can we bring about this change?'" Activists speak for the power and potential of community owned banks, urban farms and worker co-operatives. Then economic activist Camille Kerr makes a calmly passionate assertion: "These small successes, taken together, are a proof of concept that this can happen on a larger scale."
"Proof of concept." That phrase rang in my mind like a bell! And now, weeks later, my thoughts keep returning to it. I get a little thrill when I say it or think it: “Proof-of-concept!” The term is pragmatic and visionary at the same time. Proof-of-concept is the fruitful marriage of theory and practice. Working to prove your visions, to walk your talk, refining and evolving along the way: this is the best way to live. “Proof-of-concept” is the adventure of testing a hypothesis or prototype thru practical experiments that can be demonstrated and reproduced. A wonderful fire is sparked when you devote your life to proving a vision. Conversely, without an ardent purpose, one’s vitality is diminished, that fire may be dimmed. Novelist Walker Percy wrote: "To be aware of the possibility of the search is to be onto something. Not to be onto something is to be in despair." When we seek to prove a concept, we’re on to something.
Proof-of-concept trial runs help drive evolution in science, education, gardening, business.... I’m a long-time activist in the intentional community movement. I think of such communities as proof-of-concept experiments. They’re practical inquiries into how we might effectively organize and collaborate together. Communities coalesce around a wide range of practices, aesthetics and projects that are designed to build rapport and harmony, to heal and co-empower.
For example, Twin Oaks Community (where I was a member for 10 years) was founded to prove the viability of the vision/concept of community detailed in B.F. Skinner’s novel Walden Two. The novel describes a "scientific utopia": an ever-evolving communal, egalitarian, inclusive, human potential liberating, ecologically benign village. Furthermore, the village of Walden Two was highly reproducible. The culture was designed in the spirit of “open-source”: it was intended to be a model capable of widespread dissemination. In the same spirit, the Twin Oaks bylaws declare the community’s commitment to being “relevant to the world at large”.
You may think, “That’s a big concept to prove.” You’d be right! And attempting to prove a multi-faceted concept has pitfalls. The more complex the concept, the greater the challenge of setting priorities. It’s difficult to orchestrate a complex cultural experiment. Twin Oaks encompasses work and family life, education, farming, self governance and business management. Beyond the sheer complexity of integrating so much in one project, there are also innate tensions in the stated values underlying the project. For example, inclusivity and egalitarianism are sometimes conflated, but they’re not the same. They are often at odds with other. Exclusive groups more easily find mutuality of intent and understanding than inclusive groups. Thus, exclusive communities can more easily sustain a spirit of “All for one and one for all.”
Let’s briefly consider the Twin Oaks experiment as an attempted proof of the original Walden Two concept. My aim here is not to critique Twin Oaks. Rather, I seek to shed light on some challenges inherent in any cooperative proof-of-concept project. Twin Oaks is a good example to consider since its founding concept, is spelled out clearly in Walden Two.
What has the Twin Oaks experiment, founded in 1967 proven so far? After nearly 50 years, it has proven its ability to sustain itself in bohemian pastoral comfort, while exemplifying many of its ecological and egalitarian values. Given how few 60s communes survived even a decade, this is remarkable. On the other hand, there are central elements of the original concept that have been abandoned and/or forgotten. For example, Twin Oaks is not inclusive in important respects. Families with children usually can't apply for membership. Community policy limits the child/adult ratio to no more than 1 dependent child per 6 adult members. (Most children living at Twin Oaks are born there.) So with about 90 adult members, there are never more than 15 children. Since the community is explicitly dedicated to being inclusive, how has a policy of excluding prospective families become so ensconced?
I think Twin Oaks’ exclusion of most families relates to the loss of a core element of the original concept. Walden Two, as depicted in Skinner’s novel, was dedicated to proving/testing a cultural design that nurtures ALL its members’ full potential. (Skinner called this design process “cultural engineering.”) Frazier, the community’s founding visionary declares: “We’ll be satisfied with nothing short of the most alert and active group-intelligence yet to appear on the face of the earth.” That’s a noble aim! The cultivation of our gifts and intelligences is a necessary foundation to any utopian endeavor. But engineering an ideal culture at Twin Oaks proved a difficult undertaking from the outset. In the novel, Frazier states that if he were to sum up the Walden Two project in a single word, it would be “Control.” In contrast, the spirit of the late 60s counterculture was “Do your own thing”. Early on, new recruits at Twin Oaks took issue with Walden Two’s “control trip.”
In addition, the book was quite sketchy in describing the process of cultural engineering. Walden Two didn’t offer enough detail and practical wisdom to function as a guiding document. The novel briefly indicates that the founding cultural engineers designed/devised the cultural recipe/blueprint/program in advance of the community’s founding. From there everything unfolded smoothly. Only incremental revisions were required before Walden Two became an unqualified success! How convenient.
The plot consists of a weekend visit to the community by the narrator and some friends. An extended tour takes place punctuated with conversation and debate. We’re told the experimental approach to living is Walden Two’s highest value, its sacrament. While discussing how Walden Two “composed” its culture of education and child rearing, Frazier declares: "Ethical training belongs to the community. As for techniques, we took every suggestion we could find without prejudice as to the source. But not on faith. We disregarded all claims of revealed truth and put every principle to an experimental test. And by the way, I've very much misrepresented the whole system if you suppose that any of the practices I've described are fixed. We try out many different techniques. Gradually we work toward the best possible set." To give some hints at the content of Walden Two’s ethical training, there are references made to the formulation of a "Walden Code" that all members vow to uphold. But the Walden Code is not spelled out. Nor is there an account of what happens if the code is violated or rejected by a member. Only vaguely are we told how the Walden Code was formulated and revised. Skinner’s rosy account of a beautifully designed culture is all too blithe. It offers no guidance for dealing with failures and schisms. A decade into the Twin Oaks project, Walden Two had fallen from grace as a guiding document, even while some elements of its vision (such as the “labor credit” and income sharing) were fully implemented. Today, few Twin Oakers have read Walden Two. The community doesn’t attempt to evaluate its current state in the light of its founding concept.
Twin Oaks does have many policies that members are expected to adhere to, but these don’t extend beyond functional policies and protocols. There is little shared ethical framework for the quality of relationship. If a member performs and documents their required hourly labor contribution, lives within the economic restrictions and procedural rules of Twin Oaks, they are in good standing with the community. The quality of a member’s participation is only addressed in extreme circumstances. I believe this rudimentary standard of membership is linked to the community’s modest level of economic productivity and cultural innovation. While some members are highly productive, overall Twin Oaks doesn’t generate the economic surplus and/or cultural creativity needed to support a larger population of families. Twin Oaks has long deemed that opening its doors to more children and families is neither economically nor socially viable.
A similar dynamic has played out with the original concept of exporting the Twin Oaks model to the wider world. Creating a robustly reproducible community model was central to the original concept. After nearly 50 years, two other communities have endured using something akin to the Twin Oaks model: East Wind Community in MO, and Acorn Community just 7 miles from Twin Oaks in Louisa, VA. As with Twin Oaks, neither Acorn or East Wind welcomes families to join. Nor do they prioritize exporting or replicating their model of community. Contrast the slight dissemination of the Twin Oaks concept with the growth of the Cohousing concept: in about 30 years, 160 cohousing communities have been completed in the US.
If Twin Oaks were to assess its status quo in the light of its founding concept, it might redesign itself. But members of Twin Oaks don’t share a common determination to prove its founding concept, or to reorganize around a wiser, more relevant proof-of-concept experiment. Most members are satisfied with, or adjusted to the community as it is. The lack of a shared vision makes proof-of-concept thinking on a community-wide level impossible. For an intentional community to prove a concept, its members need a shared understanding of that concept, and a shared dedication to realizing it. If we lack a shared understanding of the protocol of an experiment, how can we conduct it together? If we don’t share an understanding of the rules of a game, how can we play it together? By testing a concept of community together (“getting with the program”) we discover its potential (and/or inadequacies) as a vehicle for social transformation.
This thumbnail assessment is not meant to slight the many accomplishments of Twin Oaks. A steady stream of visitors are impressed by the community’s extensive campus, bounteous gardens and by its freedom from mainstream pathologies of materialism, etc. One could say that Twin Oaks today is a success on its own terms. But what about the loss of the original vision? Is this tragic? Inevitable? The drift from original purpose is common for both individuals and organizations. Still, the proof-of-concept attitude is central to the very idea of an intentional community. This tendency to dissipation needs to be actively countered if we’re serious about proving a concept of community. Many projects suffer the pitfall that G.K. Chesterton claimed for Christianity: not tried and found wanting, but found difficult and not given a fair trial at all! Proof-of-concept endeavors retain their vitality and focus thru regular evaluation and re-visioning. The course corrections gained thru such reflection can sustain and renew a project through life’s ups and downs. We need to remember and re-examine the concepts we seek to prove. The more we hone in on our criteria of proof, the more we are capable of fruitful self assessment and course corrections.
Now I ask: What concepts and aspirations do you seek to prove in your personal and/or your work life? Is there an inspiration or longing you would enjoy proving, putting to the test? Do you have a Holy Grail, a great purpose you are fascinated with, that you’re juiced to realize? How might you more systematically prove/test/verify your heartfelt aspirations? (If you’re daunted by these questions, check out this peppy short video on identifying your purpose: youtube.com/watch?v=HScOL_aOMrw. For a prose version of this discernment process, read this article by Steven Kotler: onforb.es/1tAhCWG)
Entrepreneurial sage Seth Godin wrote this blog post loaded with great questions for clarifying and managing a proof-of-concept project:
How to talk about your project
Not in a marketing sense, but strategically, to yourself, your partners, your coaches, your investors:
*What is it for? When someone hires your product or service, what are they hiring it to do?
*Who (or what) are you trying to change by doing this work? From what to what?
*How will you know if it's working?
*What does it remind me of? Are there parallels, similar projects, things like this that have come before?
*What's the difficult part?
*How much of your time and focus are you spending on the difficult part?
*What part that isn't under your control has to happen for this to work? (Do you need to be lucky?)
*How much (time and money) is it going to take to find out if you've got a shot at this working out?
*What assets do you already own that you'll be able to leverage?
*What assets do you need to acquire?
*After the project launches, what new assets will you now own?
*From which people will you need help? Do they have a track record of helping people like you?
*Is it worth it?
Successful project organizers are delighted to engage in a conversation about all of these questions. If you're hiding from them, it's time to find out why.
Over my 30 years in the communities movement the concept/project that I’m most eager to prove has evolved. I no longer seek to prove the viability of the village scale eco-community, be it communistic like Twin Oaks or more bourgeois like a cohousing community. I believe the concept, the context of community that can truly transform society must be accessible, adaptable and intimate. So I work and play at proving a strategy for sowing community that I call Kind Contagion. The concept of Kind Contagion was evoked by William James over a century ago. He wrote: “I am done with great things and big plans, great institutions and big success. I am for those tiny, invisible, loving human forces that work from individual to individual, creeping through the crannies of the world like so many rootlets or the capillary oozing of water, which, if given time, will rend the hardest monuments of pride.”
I too am ardently for those rootlets of connection and communion that can remake the world! In this light the essential concept I seek to prove is that of the poly-dyadic dojo. “What’s that?” A dyad is a relationship between two people. It is the foundational element of community and civilization. Playwright Tony Kushner observes: “The smallest indivisible human unit is two people, not one; one is a fiction. From such nets of souls societies, the social world, human life springs.” “Dojo” is a Japanese word meaning “place of training” or “place of awakening”. A dojo is a spiritual gymnasium, a relationship lab. So, dyadic dojos are collaborative two-person relationship labs. These basic units of relationship function as the building blocks of larger community endeavors and cultures. The simplest dyadic dojos consist of two people working/playing/learning together. Friends playing chess or ping pong, couples dancing or arguing, partners or opponents on the tennis court: all are dyads.
While dyadic relating is at the heart of my proof-of-concept endeavors, poly-dyadic social organisms are my greatest hope for the world. Poly-dyadic means “many dyads.” I believe a grassroots transformation of hearts and minds is best effected by creating socially contagious poly-dyadic dojos. A poly-dyadic dojo is a confluence or network of dyads engaged in a common discipline. Again, such dojos can take many forms: contra dances, chess clubs, tennis tournaments, bridge matches, tango classes, speed dating...
In a nutshell, the project I seek to prove thru social experimentation with kindred spirits is the co-enlightening poly-dyadic singing dojo. As our research bears fruit we seek to proliferate such dojos. In a decentralized network of dojos, a co-empowering interplay can pass from individual to individual, from dyad to dyad, creeping thru the crannies of the world.
“And what is your blueprint for these poly-dyadic dojos?”
For an overview of my recipe for poly-dyadic singing dojos, check out this intro essay from my Kind Contagion Songbook: tinyurl.com/7apgsgg.