To start: I've been pretty busy working on narrative catalysis projects lately, and one day at the end of poring over tons of stories and graphs and trends, I found myself groping about for relief and made this.
In the kit you get little square foam stickers in different colors, and you get pieces of paper with little squares drawn on them, and each little square has a number on it. On the box there is a color-number key: place a red foam square on squares marked one, and so on. It's like paint-by-number except the paint comes in little squares. Easy-peasy.
As one part of me lay on the bed contentedly sticking squares on squares, another part of me noticed how quickly I rushed to this activity and how strongly I clung to it. It felt like a long drink of water after days in the desert. The noticing part of me wondered why this was.
(To those who don't know the hierarchy and meshwork terms: they are Manuel de Landa's. Hierarchies are organized structures such as rules and procedures and blueprints, and meshworks are self-organized complex systems such as flocks and shoals. I like these terms better than any others for describing these phenomena, and I also agree with de Landa that rarely is either form found without the other intermingled.)
The work in meshwork, the arch in hierarchy
Emergence requires presence. It requires awareness, negotiation, the building and verification of trust, the mending of fences when they need to be mended and the removal of barriers when they obstruct. Most people do emergence well, but rarely without effort. If it is without effort, it is more likely to involve following instructions, not participating in emergence. Meshwork is work.
Hierarchy, the non-emergent order we create, with its arches and balustrades, requires presence and thought predominantly for the hierarchy builders, the writers of the instructions. Surely the people who decided where each colored square in "my" mosaic should sit so as to create the maximally-appealing-to-those-with-the-money butterfly image expended much effort in their work. But I didn't have to. That's the beauty of following along. (This is not to say that followers in hierarchies don't do work; many do most of the real work hierarchies do, like build roads and plow fields and stitch together shoes. But when I say "work" here I'm referring specifically to the effort required to build and maintain the structure and viability of the system itself, not to any material products it might create.)
Complexity fatigue and complication fatigue
(To those unaware of the confluence framework: picture increasing structure/hierarchy going from left to right, overlaid with increasing self-organization/meshwork going from bottom to top. Lots of each puts you in the upper right. That's all it is: just a visualization tool like many others. It's just my visualization tool, which is why I gravitate to it. I'm used to it. By the way, a note to those who are tired of reading these parenthetical catch-you-up elements: I'm planning to avail myself of blogger's "pages" feature to send people off to oft-required explanations, saving you the trouble of skipping things.)
One bit of evidence that my attraction to the mosaic was truly fatigue-related is that at first I couldn't find any prescribed way to map numbers to colors, and I began to think you were supposed to come up with your own ideas of what colors to put where. My disappointment on finding this out was as great as my excitement when I discovered a rosetta-stone "color key" on the mosaic box. I didn't have to think! The thinking had been done for me! To paraphrase Kenneth Grahame, I settled to my task in great joy and contentment.
I can provide a few other examples of this sort of mixed complexity and complication fatigue. For one, I used to play the piano. I was never very good, but I loved to spend time every day improving my muscle memory as well as my idiosyncratic interpretations of favorite pieces from Chopin, Mendelssohn, Bach and so on. Now I rarely play. I look at my piano often, and sometimes I give it a little pet as I walk by, and I hope I'll be able to play it again someday, but even when I do have a half hour when I could play it, I find I can't. The part of me it needs is the same part of me other things need, and there isn't any of that part left over most of the time. When I used to work on piano pieces, I laid down instructions and followed them at the same time, and I participated in the emergence of whatever my interpretation of the piece was going to be. I've noticed that when I do play the piano now, every few months or so, all I can bring myself to do is visit my old friends, about whom many instructions were laid down years ago. (I often just let my fingers do what they remember, as slowly as they need to, being unable to bring the memories to more central attention.)
The precious gift of being dragged into doing things you could never have imagined doing in a million years
Soon after my son was born, somebody asked me if I'd read a particular book, and I said what I often say now: "I bought it, but I haven't got around to reading it yet." I added that I wasn't reading half as much as I had before. (To all you younger people who might have children someday: It Takes A Lot Of Time. Decades.) So this person said, "Well, just don't let your brain turn to mush." A standard response, and one everyone will recognize and many agree with. I've thought about that statement many times in the past several years. In some important ways my brain has turned to mush, but more precisely, it has turned to mesh. Meshwork. Being with a child, not just sometimes but for several hours a day for years and years, is a prolonged soak in self-organization.
Here's an example of what I mean. I am not at liberty to divulge any details about the hours I spend pretending with my son every day, but it will suffice to tell you that most of it involves stories, and most of it involves emergence. This one-on-one story work, like playing the piano and poring over hundreds of stories, involves both meshwork and instruction-building, but much more of the former. And it takes a lot of energy to keep up. It started before my son could speak, when I created a circuit of oft-repeated stories centered around a small animal and his many friends and adventures. These stories were fun for both of us, but I also mixed in lessons in conflict resolution, innovation, problem solving and emotional intelligence, as well as sensemaking around real-life concerns as they came up. At some point my son took over the story vehicle and I became more of an assistant. Now every new story we experience, whether in real life or from a book or movie or neighbor or walk, gets mixed in, elaborated and spun out into new stories, very few technically plausible. I still keep a hand in guiding some aspects of these stories, but their basic form and structure are created by their principal author, who brings his own lessons and concerns into the process. Many parents (and aunts and uncles and friends) will smile as they recognize their own interactions in this description. This is not just "watching" children: it's helping them do the hard work of building their own brains. And it can be as draining as any other work. (I hardly need say that while I was building my mosaic somebody was dancing all around me making up stories and insisting I act my parts with the proper voices and reactions.)
This realization does make me wonder if this could be some part of why people don't view child care as "real" work, because it is mostly meshwork and very little hierarchy building. Is this the reason people of higher status are considered "arch" -- because they are in charge of building the structures of life? Is this the reason so many people say parenthood is hard and apparently without benefit (other than the glaringly obvious one), because the value of increased skill with emergence is so little understood? Is this the reason a brain "turning to mush" usually has a negative connotation? For me at least, the journey through parenthood has yielded amazing improvements in my ability to deal with complexity, something I was much less familiar and comfortable with beforehand. (By the way, thanks to a correspondent for a stimulating discussion on this issue.)
Refugia and ecosystem health
So, as I thought about what I do when I need respite from the different types of work I do, as a researcher and as a parent, I realized that I tend to find relief in the bottom of the confluence framework: either on the right, in the simplicity of blindly following instructions, or on the left, in the quiet world of the deep, waiting for chance to rain down. This led me into thinking about refugia. In population biology, refugia are isolated havens where remnants of species survive climatic or other catastrophes. Some populations branch out after the catastrophe and recolonize regions; others remain in their hideouts and never recover in large numbers. It's been a while since I've read about refugia, but as I recall the more (and more diverse) refugia an ecosystem contains, the more resilient it will be to fluctuations in environmental conditions over time. This is most likely true for individuals, and for groups and societies as well.
At the same time, the idea of respite reminded me of caregivers, which brought me to thinking about how complexity fatigue might be related to compassion fatigue. I wondered if these ideas had ever been put together before. So I Googled for both "compassion fatigue" and "complexity fatigue." I found only one combination of the terms: a book by Richard Sakwa called Chechnya: From Past to Future. Here is the quote of relevance:
The appearance of 'traumatized' democracies coincided with the spread of what I term 'complexity fatigue', a growing reluctance on the part of the public throughout the world to negotiate the extremely complex and undoubtedly difficult factors underlying such seemingly intractable conflicts as those in Northern Ireland, the Middle East, Kashmir, Kosovo or, of course, Chechnya. Simplistic, short-term 'fixes' based on force were clearly not without attraction either to those citizens who, apparently, preferred escapist entertainment to engagement with complex issues.Note that the connection to compassion fatigue is not found in it, but in an explanatory note linked to the complexity fatigue term, thus:
Derived from the concept in politics of 'compassion fatigue', see Susan D. Mieller, Compassion Fatigue: How the Media Sells Disease, Famine, War and Death (New York, Routledge, 1999).This led me into another whole train of thought about how refugia and respite might provide benefits in fields that regularly have to deal with both compassion and complexity fatigue. Perhaps if people are burned out on something, following simple instructions for a while might restore balance. (Atul Gawande's Checklist Manifesto came to mind: could some part of the power of this simple technique be in the respite it provides from the complexities of medical care?)
Or perhaps a brief dip in a quiet pool of low connections, like one of those sensory deprivation chambers, would restore depleted energy. People sometimes offer massages as relief in stressful conditions, and massages are remarkably instruction-following activities: you literally hand your body over to someone else. Television is a combination of instruction-following and low connections: your brain simply waits in the deep for things to fall onto it. Another "drop out" activity I do sometimes, when it's too late to go out walking in the woods, is to go to Netflix and find the stupidest comedy I can ("Arrested Development" is my current choice) and just let the stupidity rain down onto me. But a little stupidity goes a long way, I find, and a hundred earths could fit into the stupidity television provides.
By the way, I did find one other reference to "complexity fatigue" but I think it is misguided. Apparently the term is also used to refer to the difficulty consumers have in understanding the bewildering arrays of product choices available. This is not complexity fatigue at all, but option fatigue in a universe of complicated (not complex) choices.
Something there is that doesn't love a wall, and something there is that does, and something there is that has a love-hate relationship with walls
The next ingredients in the soup I've been stirring were two comments: one I saw on a discussion board last week, and one to this blog. Both mentioned the difficulty of one person understanding the mental constructs created by another person. One implied that humanity might be better off if we did not build or explain conceptual frameworks, but instead shared our experiences without erecting structures to explain them. I am grateful for both comments because they got me thinking and because they came to me at just the right time. But I disagree with the second comment. Why? Because people build structures. Everyone does it, whether we explain them to each other or not. Give a child a room full of blocks and they will build fewer numbers of things out of them. It's just what we do. It's not the only thing we do, but we all do it, and it's not possible to wish it away, nor is it useful.
Here's a little example. I've noticed in my years of talking with people, or trying to, that there are two dimensions of interruption in speech: whether people interrupt, and whether they allow others to interrupt them. If you put the dimensions together you get a structure like this:
|Do they interrupt?|
|Do they allow others to interrupt them?||Yes/yes: an interrupter/interruptee would say |
"We talk over each other and it's fine with everyone, so what's the problem?"
|No/yes: a non-interrupter interruptee would say|
"I'll let you interrupt me and I'll never do it back to you, but I will resent it and hold it against you forever."
|Yes/no: an interrupter/non-interruptee would say|
"When I interrupt, I have something more important to say and must be heard. When you interrupt, you are being rude and insubordinate, and must be stopped."
|No/no: a non-interrupter non-interruptee would say|
"If anybody interrupts anybody we will all come to blows, and we must avoid that! Everyone please be nice!!"
I'm a yes/yes, an interrupter/interruptee. In my family we are all that way. We talk over and under and around each other, and our conversations are melees, and nobody gets in a huff about it. I get along best with fellow melee-lovers like myself, of course, but I can also get along pretty well with the no/no type. It takes an effort to hold myself in, but at least I don't feel things are unfair. (I do sometimes have to step outside and scream silently afterward, but I can stand that.)
Now you'd think I would get on well with the non-interrupter/interruptee sort, but after a while I end up avoiding them because I feel more and more guilty every time we talk (and some of them like to store up that guilt for later use, in special guilt receptacles located behind their earlobes). But the absolute worst, for me, is the interrupter/non-interruptee. They cut me off at every half-sentence, and when I try to do the same they talk over me, or louder and louder, until I stop. (I'm sorry to say that most of these have been older men, though there have been notable exceptions.) I've got to where I can recognize the other person's style in a few seconds and can accommodate both my behavior and my expectations to the circumstances.
I defy you to find anyone on this planet who does not have a least one personal theory like that, silly as it is. It might be as simple as "watch out for people named Doug," and it might be far from precise articulation, but it will be there. Personal theories can be missed if you are not paying attention, because people don't wear them on their sleeves. But get just about anybody talking for a few hours, and you are sure to hear about some sort of model or framework or other construction in some form. I've heard some pretty memorable ones from people who are not considered "intellectual" or "thought leaders" or any such thing. Saying people should not build and maintain theories and frameworks and mental constructs is as silly as saying we should strip away all hierarchy from organizational structures and make everything complex. You can't do it. People build things.
On the morning of my nephew's wedding, we were all at the hotel lounging around the pool. He asked me what time it was and I casually mumbled, "Three o'clock." "WHAT?" said my nephew. Only then did I realize what I had done. In the little microcosm of my husband and myself (this was before the child) "three o'clock" was our little code for "I don't know what time it is," our version of freckle-past-a-hair. However, my nephew didn't know this, and it threw him into a panic. I said something like "Oh, sorry, that means I don't know what time it is." "NO IT DOESN'T!" he quite correctly replied. If my framework is your emergency, it is at least as much my fault as it is yours if you don't understand. But unless it's the day of your wedding, you have a part to play as well.
Groupthink and friends
People talk a lot about groupthink as a pathological organizational pattern. The next stop on my perambulations was to wonder if there is perhaps another side to groupthink. If I can coin some extra words for our use today (and yes that's another example of how people just can't help making up structures as they go), let's say that groupsense is what happens when a group of people comes together and experiences synergy, such that they arrive somewhere together they could not have arrived separately. Maybe they discover an insight or come to a difficult decision or see the whole and the parts at the same time. Achieving groupsense requires both structure and destruction; both barriers and pathways through; both boundaries and gradients; both divergence and convergence; both independent thought and sharing. It is the interplay between separation and mingling that produces the best sensemaking, as I and many others have seen in a variety of settings.
On the other side of groupsense from groupthink lies what I'm going to call, only partly in jest, groupfence. By this I mean both the maintenance of boundaries and barriers beyond their utility and the jostling over territory that goes on when people are more concerned with keeping their personal theories intact than with getting anywhere worth going.
Groupthink and groupfence both involve an inability or unwillingness to confront complexity and complication, whether they are intermingled or not (usually they are). Groupthink is like my mosaic building: following the instructions of authorities because they are authorities. Groupfence is the opposite retreat to the quiet land of few connections. It is a failure to summon the energy to transcend boundaries without destroying them, to understand other perspectives without controlling or condemning them.
But I don't find it helpful to cast these patterns as moral failings or even antisocial behavior. Rather, like my rush to the mosaic, they are states in which a person or group or society can find themselves, states which are part of the natural ebb and flow of attention and energy. Certainly they can become pathological if they continue too long or spread too far, in the same way that a household fire can consume the house it warms if it is not well tended. But that does not mean they don't have their times and places and uses.
Up the down spiral
Let me begin to tie this rambling discourse together now, if that is possible. Yet another of my personal theories has to do with how I manage the demands of life with a finite supply of energy. I've noticed what I call a "spiral" of energy and fatigue. (I'm not the only one to use that word for it, of course, as the book Spiral Up can attest, though this is not a recommendation as I haven't read it, yet ... I'll get around to it eventually.) I've noticed that certain activities, like walking, doing yoga, lifting weights, cleaning or fixing the house, reading old novels, drawing and going to public events are energizing and draining at the same time. Meaning, there is an entry cost, but there is also an energy surge at some point during the activity and afterwards. When I can give myself a sort of boost up into a higher wrap of the spiral, the resulting energy surge pulls me up further still. For example, I might start the preliminaries of yoga (getting out the mat, putting Enya on, getting out my yoga cards -- great resource by the way, other afficionados) even when I feel far too tired to start. And when I'm doing yoga regularly, the aches and creaks go away, and I have the energy to walk and run, which boosts me up higher yet until I'm cooking and cleaning and everything's shiny. I've also noticed how events can knock me back down the spiral. One reason I dread moving is that every time I move it takes me years to find my way back up again from the major jolt of having everything reappear in new configurations.
Boosting up is the reverse of refugia supporting remnants of vanishing populations; it's more like a patch of fine weather that makes a fine fruit harvest that keeps the monkeys from quarreling so they can watch each other use tools in new ways. It's a synergy of life itself, sort of a cosmic what-goes-around-comes-around. It reminds me of one of my favorite songs on the Putomayo World Playground compilation. It's by Eric Bibb and it goes, in part:
Take every knock as a boostIn groups, our "knocks" are our differences, our arguments and fences. Our stumbling blocks are our inabilities to understand each other and move past possessiveness and argument towards new things we could never do alone. We can avoid those knocks and retreat into instruction-following and detritus-catching, or we can use them as stepping stones to boost ourselves up into something stronger. But it takes work, possibly the hardest kind of work there is, to do this collectively. I boost myself up my personal spiral much less often than I wish I did, and I suspect most of us can say the same, but boosting the life of a group takes much more energy than boosting one life. I'm going to offend those who hate neologisms even more and call this groupboost. (And of course the reverse of this, when events push groups down the spiral, could be called groupknock, but I hesitate to bold that for fear the neologism police will break down my door.)
And every stumbling block as a stepping stone
Lift up your head and hold your own
Just keep goin’ on
One way of boosting group life up the spiral is group sensemaking. Going through a process (facilitated or not) where divergence and convergence, boundaries and gradients, my theories and your theories, my energy and your energy, alternately take center stage, seems to boost a group up the spiral to where things that seemed impossible start to move into place. Models that seemed abstract take more concrete form; perspectives that seemed irreconcilable become not uniform but multiplex; tasks that seemed beyond the collective will begin to seem within reach. But it doesn't happen without work, on all sides. It takes work to explain over and over the basics of a theory most readers don't need to hear again; it takes work to click on links that say "if you don't know what I mean by that click here;" it takes work to remember both what three o-clock means and what it doesn't mean; it takes work to double-check facts and refrain from releasing an edited video before finding out what the rest of the video is like; it takes work to listen both to those who agree with you and those who disagree and find unexpected insights in both. None of us boost the spiral as often or as well as we could.
This connects to a major problem I have with much of what is being written about complexity for business these days. Most of what I've seen offers complexity as a sort of magical panacea, a way to avoid work. Stuart Kauffman famously said self-organization was "order for free." From what I've seen it's just the opposite, at least where human beings are concerned. That is why I think there has been less uptake of complexity theory in organizations: it sounds a lot more like something-for-nothing than it really is. You can't just strip away hierarchy and step out into a wonderful new world beyond the dome. It's outside the dome that the hardest work begins. The difference is that in meshwork the work is more finely distributed. Birds flying in flocks do little things to correct their motions -- where are my neighbors, what are they doing -- but they do them thousands of times a day. It isn't just moving your wings up and down that's tiring. If bird flocks had instruction builders, the work would be more concentrated and thus more obvious, what with all the instruction sheets held in beaks and under wings. But it would not necessarily add up to any less work.
In the end, she gets out her old saw and plays a tune
Now to my final connection, which is to the world of stories and storytelling, of course. In the quote from Sakwa's book Chechnya: From Past to Future above, did you notice the last sentence? I'll put it in again.
Simplistic, short-term 'fixes' based on force were clearly not without attraction either to those citizens who, apparently, preferred escapist entertainment to engagement with complex issues.Anyone who has read my long series of -- no, not rants, expressions of concern -- about the decline of natural storytelling will recognize the connection here. (Does this not remind you of our hero Hans Castorp lying in his comfortable chaise taking his rest cure?)
Regular, raw stories told by regular, raw people are complex, messy, rambling, filled with references few understand, often boring, and usually far more important to their tellers than to anyone else. (Hm, that sounds like this blog post.) If raw stories were cars they would be Fiats. I once had a Fiat, and it took a lot of work to drive it. At a speed of about 40 miles per hour, its little windows began to shake, and I'd have to find another car and follow it to keep the air resistance down. This was convenient because the speedometer didn't work, so the car ahead of me was my speedometer. When I first bought the car, every time you pushed on the gas the car jumped a bit to the right, and every time you pushed on the brake it jumped a bit to the left. So I learned to compensate. Later I got a bushing replaced in the front axle, and after that the car added to its repertoire a jump randomly to the left or right every time it hit a bump. Driving it was like dancing a waltz: I responded to my partner's every whim. It was years after my Fiat was dead and buried before I stopped making the many little compensating hops that were no longer necessary in other cars. I also became an ace tire changer in the Fiat years and could replace a flat tire in five minutes (flat).
Dealing with my crazy tiny Fiat, and dealing with the real stories real people tell, takes work, mainly of the meshwork variety. But packaged stories are different. They are like fancy new luxury cars that anticipate your every whim. You don't learn to drive a luxury car; it learns to drive you. The seat remembers your settings, the thermostat remembers whether you like sweaters. The designers scramble to figure out where you want to put your cup and groceries. In the same way, the creators of commercial entertainment take special pains to build their hierarchies so that your part of the story is effortless. Here's a quote I quoted once before, from the audio series "Word of Mouth" on "Who is Telling Stories Today?"
"You can turn on a television and watch Three's a Crowd, and it doesn't make any difference how stupid it is, you'll get some laughs out of it. It's quick and it's easy, and you don't have to put up with Grandma Simpkins, who's a wonderful storyteller but sometimes it takes her a half a pint of whiskey and two or three hours to get going, and she drools. But for me, I'd spend the time around Grandma Simpkins, but...."My Fiat drooled like anything, but it told some great stories. And it was a lot more fun to drive than most of the safer, nicer-looking, more reliable, boring cars I've had since. (Though I could tell you some great stories about my brakes-once-in-a-while Corolla, and my made-out-of-two-junked-cars Duster, and my backfiring-war-games Celica, and my.... What's that? I'm drooling?)
But seriously, folks, what I'm trying to say here is let's all take what respite we need in our instructions and packaged stories and deep pools and private theories, but let's not forget the very real and very hard work we all have to do, which is to listen to each other, learn from each other, and go together where we all want to go.