A more efficient flush down the pan

Responding to our situation(s)

The captain of Cambridge in this year’s Boat Race said that being beaten by Oxford was not an option. He said so on the TV coverage twice: maybe he says it all the time, maybe he thought that was what he was supposed to say. He was wrong in theory and wrong in practice, as indeed is almost everyone in the prognostication business. The only interesting thing is why we get pulled into talking about leadership and determination, talking about alignment and pulling together, talking about what are essentially external models and external communications that will enhance outcomes. I am becoming queasy just trying to represent this position, a position that is all but universal and all but mandatory if you want funds to do something useful. Despite always being wrong.

Our situations are both uncertain and ambiguous. What we find it difficult to accept is that most times to try and reduce that uncertainty and ambiguity only increases and deepens them. Why is that, and what is a more appropriate response?

The concepts and stance in this short note have a long pedigree. No-one
comes to such radical strangeness to themselves overnight. In particular
Nora Bateson has grown up with these concepts. They are her life’s work
and they are part of the research agenda of the International Bateson
Institute in Stockholm. There is an urgency now in signalling a very
uncomfortable stance, like reporting the destruction of the Great
Barrier Reef: both a particular and massive tragedy and a sign of a
deeper malaise that will not be mended with our current thinking.

The first thing to note is that a formulaic response belongs to the wrong side of the question. We cannot turn ambiguity into a confident response by putting forward a process that has its own certainty! That would be a consultancy sleight of hand, instantly recognisable as such. Just do this. Just do it this way. How to flush ourselves effectively.

The opposite of such a response is to pay attention to the contexts. Instead of pretending that circumstances and cultures and institutions mean that we must focus on one particular, specific context, that we must model and plan and comprehend it so our actions will have the required outcomes, we need to become sensitive to the many contexts that are operating. We need to expose ourselves to the roots of the uncertainty and ambiguity. And this is not an intellectual move: it is simply to become more deeply human in acknowledging our connections.

We need to take the risk of acting from our own humanity, our own integrity, our own particular history and identity. Part of that risk is being prepared to say “I am not going to do what is expected of me here, I am not going to conform to a set of cultural patterns that I believe are broken and damaging to myself and others”.

Bound to bind

The captain of the Cambridge boat has this in his favour: he can just about take for granted that his crew have nothing more important in their lives than the boat and the race. In most situations of our lives, the request to prioritise leads straight into binds. In this situation today I need to do this and in that situation I need to do that. What I am required to do conflicts grossly or subtly, conflicts in time, in energy, in attention, in loyalty, whatever. We de-emphasise these conflicts (“it’s just how life is”) unless we are negotiating.

This process generalises really easily. Any two institutions will generate binds between them for the people who operate there. Any two, and the process gets exponentially worse the more institutions are involved. This is precisely why people say the nonsense things they say about being clear and focusing, about simplifying and making it happen. These behaviours are what tighten the existing binds. They are the source of the infinite proliferation of “management” and of bullshit jobs. They generate the conditions for their own work. Not a convergent situation!

In economics this gets called externalities, and in economics analysis proceeds on the basis that having called them externalities they can be ignored. Leading to deeply flawed economics of course, but also to a consistent exporting of costs onto those least able to bear them. This binding process is the same. What is exported by the way we do institutions is cost, risk, hassle. People with chaotic lives have often had the means of control taken from them, and they get the blame. Because we think that people should be able to get themselves organised, because we think that doing institutions the way we do is the only way, then people get minced up without ever anyone intending it.

No-one intends to create binds. Only the most Machiavellian politicians. This is the other casualty of our thinking. We pay attention to people’s motivation, to their intentions, to what they say their purpose is. In doing so we fail to observe the actual effect of their actions, and of the institutions they build. If someone says they are alleviating poverty we think they must be doing some good. The recipients of such policies and programmes may see it differently. This is not simply relativism, it is a failure to understand the structural impact of what we do with the best of intentions. We may have high-minded motivations but the outcomes can be arbitrarily evil and caustic.

Navigation and humanity

There is another way to operate. It is closer to the way human social navigation evolved, closer to our innate sense of social complexity. It is both compatible and completely incompatible with the cultures we have built. Precisely because we make it nearly impossible to operate with integrity, it is imperative to bring massive integrity to the ambiguities and complexities we face.

Before you lose faith in where this argument is going, let me say that I am aware that sometimes we just need to get organised. There is good and necessary focus, good and necessary planning and simplification. What we are saying here is just that our culture has lost its bearings. It is punitive in telling us that we have to get organised and prioritise and plan. This blaming stance simply excuses the people who are exporting cost and risk onto the rest of us. It is as far from being real as it is possible to get.

If we want to navigate competently, if we want to find a way for things to work without massive (unintended) side effects and new institutional binds, then we need to pay attention in a different way. We need to positively import complexity, because it is the stuff out of which ways forward can be found. Ecosystems are more stable the more complex they are.

If you have a thought here along the lines of how we can measure and assign value to this improved navigation, kindly dismiss that thought. The advantage of operating with more depth of human compassion is that other people can and will do likewise. The legendary stubborn resistance to change, all those desperately lowest common denominator assessments of human nature, the cynically manipulative marketing insights, belong to a world that we create by thinking that way. Nothing in that is untrue if we set things up that way, but neither is any of it necessary or desirable!

The death and life of social ecosystems

Unhappy though I usually am with positive thinking and the trivialisation it brings trailing in its wake, I am prepared to concede that we live in privileged times. We are privileged to be able to witness that the way we think brings death of various sorts. We have a now uncanny ability to find the edge of things and go tumbling over. We don’t need painstakingly to rework the logic that got us here: we just need to say thanks and no thanks. The way we do politics. The way we do siloed public service. The way we worship the power of markets and corporations. Our severely stultifying schools and health-compromising healthcare. No thanks.

Life finds a way through. If we don’t try to tell other people what to do for their own good, if we genuinely provide nurture for genuine growth, if we clip the wings of the alpha types who spoil things for everyone else, life will find a way through. Life is complexification. Life never says “we need to deal with this type of person and that sort of person”. Gregory Bateson when asked how to deal with a complex healthcare system (in the 70’s!) said “add a load of complexity”.

When people are forced, kicking and screaming, to acknowledge that one of their cherished projects has failed, there is much talk of learning lessons. But the lessons tend to be how to plan better next time. How to do the wrong thing more thoroughly and with greater determination. Our culture says we must learn only to do better the things our culture believes will save it. No surprise there.

Bringing integrity to bear

We have many senses beyond the five that we typically list and the sixth that we disparage. I have seen lists of up to 33 discrete senses, that of course we use to make sense of ourselves in the world. Our senses necessarily cross over each other. We speak of synaesthesia operating between sight and sound, sound and smell. Despite our readiness to deny our own truth, we have a sense of our own integrity, when we respect how we are able to operate in the world. I want to de-emphasise our culture’s fixation with external knowledge and instead focus on what our knowhow, our ability to operate in ways we have learned in practical ways.

What we perceive with our eyes and ears depends crucially on how we think, despite our attempts to classify such results as objective and external.

The error of empiricism rests on the fact that what it takes to be material objects are condensations of meaning. Henri Bortoft.

Since what we think is context dependent in many ways, what we take to be the context does in practice change what we see and hear, not to mention all the other senses and their crossovers. We are trained to think this is not so but is relatively straightforward to demonstrate to ourselves that it is. Our cultural bias against this approach is interesting and revealing too. We often feel a need to prove to other people that some observation of the world in objective and true: we don’t ask ourselves what that need says about us.

Perhaps the most important result, which is central to the work of Nora Bateson and the International Bateson Institute, is that in practice when people take multiple contexts into account they make different decisions. All the evidence points to how the extreme destructiveness of our current decision-making styles rests in our blinkered insistence on locating decisions in a single agreed context. With economics, we say everything else is an externality and not immediately relevant.

In the context of the organisation where we work, there are a set of things that are held to be true. In the context of our family life there is another such set. In the context of our education, a different set of truths pertain. These truths are not resolvable though we long to think that they are. They result in the ambiguity of our lives. When we fail to act with humanity in that ambiguity our humanity suffers. We move towards being the stereotype of organisation man or woman with a disconnect to our “family man” and “citizen”. And we are not individuals making choices: we often operate in a mode of collective thought. These choices form a context of our lives as well as all the other contexts for ourselves and others.

The area of our lives where decisions seem most destructive is our disastrous relationship with the environment. Our fantasy that we are somehow separate from the workings of the biosphere is the mother of all thinking mistakes.

To shut ourselves off from these other voices, to continue by our life styles to condemn these other sensibilities to the oblivion of extinction, is to rob our own senses of their integrity, and to rob our minds of their coherence. We are human only in contact and conviviality, with what is not human. David Abram

It is sort of obvious that by misunderstanding our relationship with the world we lose our integrity. By mistaking what mind is we lose our ability to think straight. The importance of our residual internal glimmers of integrity cannot be overstated: they are like the last few members of a species on the edge of extinction.

Learning the other lesson

Please do the thought experiment. We can see clearly that the way we do decision-making, the way we organise ourselves is locally effective and globally disastrous. What does it take to learn that lesson? Not how to further improve local effectiveness that is so destructive but how to get a different set of outcomes altogether? Gregory Bateson said 50 years ago that there was a problem with conscious purpose. Our technologies make our conscious purposes too narrowly effective and they disrupt the complex functioning of ecosystems and social systems we simply do not understand. We never attribute the damage we create to its causes.

Maximisers are always going to struggle with the notion that by being narrowly effective we are being globally stupid, not to say suicidal. More effectiveness can only be an answer, not the source of all our problems. Except that the evidence is solidly the other way. The evidence is that we need to reclaim our innate humanity: it may already be too late. So when the Cambridge rowing captain makes an impassioned call for more effectiveness, I think about the alleged cream of our education system and just how blind we can all be.

So it is not a matter of values, not a matter of culture, not a matter of the direction of our intentions, or of strategic clarity. These things will certainly change but they are not the root of the problem no matter who says they are. We need to fully accept the multiple contexts of our lives and we need to bring our full humanity and integrity to bear on the complexity that entails. If you think you need a better captain of rowing, think again.

Here is a pattern that connects. William Bateson, Gregory’s father coined the term genetics. He gave up his professorship in Cambridge and his FRS so as to avoid pressure to work on eugenics, which he said was a 100 year cul-de-sac. Gregory Bateson 50 years ago said eloquently and clearly how dangerous our cultural obsession with purpose was. And Nora Bateson, Gregory’s daughter is demonstrating how the property of mutual learning in ecosystems is more important than the system structures we currently obsess about. What does it take to hear?

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