Atlanta, July 25, 1998
It's one thing to 'have a problem' and it's quite another to 'be in trouble'. The type of complexity we are dealing with today is not merely 'out there', we are immersed in it, and the challenge is not to solve 'it' but to learn how to navigate within it.
Forty-four years ago, general systems theory was formed with the purpose of doing what disciplinary science could not do; ... to get a grip on runaway complexity. But from our perspective here at the ISSS Conference in Atlanta, the mood is not at all one of celebration. It seems that the systems sciences are drifting into the same ends-means inversion which characterizes our culture at large and the specialized disciplines. Here in Atlanta, 'bottoms-up' utterances have now't to do with the clinking of champagne glasses but refer instead to the 'trim' of the systems ship.
What is amiss?
In 'total immersion mode', one would do well to reflect on Heraclitus' assertion; "The learning of many things does not teach understanding". The analytical disciplinary sciences opted not to reflect on the difference between knowledge and understanding and science is now scrambling to put Humpty Dumpty back together again. Unfortunately, the mechanical synthesis or 'consilience' of analytical knowledge fragments does not bring you back to an understanding of the harmonic togetherness of nature. Synthesis is too-little too-late since understanding derives from knowledge which is pulled into an ontogenetic resonance. In analysis, we discard the unique phase information which brings the structural components of multiple possibility spaces into meaningful space-time relationship. In other words, analysis violates space-time interdependencies in an irreversible way (i.e. it discards the essential harmonic properties of the parts relative to the whole).
Complex systems such as life cannot be understood by stockpiling freeze-dried fractional understandings, aka 'knowledge', for reconstitution at arbitrary space-time coordinates. Life must be understood 'in situ' since space-time relationships across multiple possibility spaces (e.g. job space, education space, relationship space, health space etc.) are essential to this understanding. While problem isolation assuming euclidian space involves the surgical exclusion of what is beyond the zone of interest, problem isolation in non-euclidian space is 'top-down' and 'holonic' ('holographic'). That is, it is based on bringing into connection in the mind the multiple experiences which pertain to the problem in an inclusionary, rather than exclusionary manner, building resolution progressively and recursively. In this holonic homing in, one never detaches from the mother of all holons; i.e. 'life'. Approaching an understanding of complex systems on a 'non-in-situ' basis is what might be termed 'problematizing the complex system'. This 'reifying' or 'objectifying' of the system is a euclidian trap which our western culture is particularly prone to. In other words, looking upon complex systems on an 'offline' 'bottom-up' basis (surgical exclusion necessarily equates to 'bottom-up') necessarily abstracts and objectifies them and destroys essential and situationally unique ontogenetic phase information. But we are not only immersed in complex systems, we ARE aspects of this same complexity we are looking out at. Our purpose of improving our ability to navigate complexity must be pursued through the growth of our 'in-situ' experience. While 'top-down' problem isolation leads to an intensification of the unique experiential understanding which emerges within the natural pull of purpose, 'bottom-up' problematization 'mines' experience for generalized knowledge which can be causally applied off-line from the lived (ontogenetic) time. The disregard of the uniqueness which derives from the resonance between purpose and understanding is unavoidable in the latter case, since as Nietsche says; "The belief in purpose collapses with the belief in cause."
Twenty-five hundred years of euclidian thinking in the west, has taught us to 'reify' everything as independent objects, including the complex problems which we falsely see as 'confronting us', rather than 'seeing things' in the more relevant non-euclidian terms of a space-time immersion we must navigate. The 'ends' of this navigational mission equate to 'purpose' and 'understanding' (i.e. purpose continually pulls understanding into being), while the 'means' equate to 'knowledge' and 'goals' (strategies, plans and other 'milestones') which are the footprints of purpose impressed on the evolving space-time flow. That we continue to fall into the trap of inverting the natural primacy of 'ends' ('purpose and understanding') over 'means' ('knowledge and strategy') is the source of chronic dysfunction in our complexity navigation efforts which we see manifested in society on all levels.
Not only does this unnatural elevating of knowledge and strategy over purpose and experience infuse dysfunction into the system, it dessicates and removes meaning from our present experience. It seems as if we believe we can extract and accrue our experience, storing it in the form of knowledge and strategy, and reinvesting it in one big lump at a future time, in a kind of grand problem-solving olympics, an abstract spectacle which never quite materializes. It never materializes because complex systems, like life, are not 'objects' which are 'out there' waiting for us to crack their resistant shells, on our arbitrary clock time terms, they evolve with us; i.e. they are 'us'. The systems movement seems to have forgotten this non-euclidian perspective.
One of the best-received presentations at the conference dealt with the 'humanization of capitalism' and the problem of 'concentrated ownership'. The author (Jeff Gates) cited historian Arnold Toynbee', and his search for common factors in the demise of twenty-one prior civilizations, and Toynbee's suggestion that "concentrated ownership and inflexibility in the light of changing conditions" were major contributors. As Gates points out, these two conditions appear to represent flip sides of the same coin, with the concentration of ownership being the mother of inflexibility.
Whether we are speaking of the dehumanized, means-over-ends 'cyber casino' of the global economy or the dehumanized means-over-ends learning processes of our educational system, or any other type of subordination of purpose and experience to strategy and knowledge, the roots of the dysfunction have a common geometry --- the geometry of Euclid wherein we address and manipulate material things out of the context of 'ontogenetic or lived time'.
In fact, the notion of the interdependence of space-time as developed by Riemann, Minkowski, Einstein and others, appears to be as little acknowledged in our most challenging learning endeavors (Systems theory, Complexity) as it is in the western culture at large. This Euclidian misconception appears to be as deeply embedded in our love for competition and games as it is in our educational systems. As soon as the child starts school, natural experience-sharing games such as hide-and-seek are replaced by 'organized' competitions such as track and field. In effect, the real-time experiential meaning and enjoyment of running is confiscated from the diversely-gifted children by their teachers who redistribute it by lottery in the form of status according to a far narrower, culturally-prescribed set of parameters.
This amounts to the concentration of ownership of our own physical experience and identity, in an impersonal system outside ourselves, i.e. the school, and other societal institutions that define the goals, measures and rewards according to which we should then work and play. Participation in these institutions then becomes a competition (through study, work and sport) in which we have to 'win back' our own worth and meaning. In a binary culture of 'winners' and 'losers', this not only results in the redistribution of human worth in favor of the few but relegates the many to a subclass of misfits, rejects and dunces. Our 'worth' is calculated and recorded according to quantitative criteria that have little to do with being human or natural skill at navigating life - and what we 'are' is measured in what we have accumulated by way of wealth, grades, job-titles and sports trophies.
This process is repeated in terms of the intellectual experience of children, where instead of being allowed to pursue and develop their own authentic, resonant interests, they are compelled to follow the structured "learning of many things", depriving them of an experientially evolved understanding of themselves and the world around them. The ownership of their intellectual learning experience, taken from them via this structured approach, is concentrated in the school system where potential unique learning is replaced by standardized form and content and 'sold back' to them by a lottery process based on reductionist knowledge assessments (e.g. course grades). This appropriation and concentration of ownership of the child's intellectual and human experience, as noted by Jules Henry in 'Culture Against Man', leads to 'dreams of failure'. The child cannot 'be' who he 'is', or become who he can be, according to his own ontogenetic purpose, but is immersed from the get-go into an impersonal so-called 'development' and 'socialization' structure not of his making - a structure which represents the lowest common denominator, the average - from which all uniqueness and individuality is per definition removed. All that is required from him is to 'fit in' and the extent to which this is 'achieved' is assessed by objective academic, social and human 'performance' benchmarks. But what is being measured and required here? ... if not the letting go of a unique ontogeny or authentic self. Thus the extent to which we betray ourselves determines the extent to which we will be accepted and rewarded as a 'winner' and a 'success' within the western culture. In this regard, Henry says that "what we see in the American kindergarten and early schooling process, is the pathetic surrender of babies." The lucky ones are those who feign surrender and play at the game without internal capitulation, covertly honoring their own ontogeny.
Our continuing denial of the damage we inflict on ourselves and our children through this euclidian concentration of ownership via competition, impacts most aspects of our physical, intellectual and social experience. This western cultural propensity, greatly disdained by the indigenous peoples of North America, the Celts and certain Eastern cultures, is opening the floodgates to an ever deepening inversion of ends and means. While JFK asserted, thirty-six years ago in his State of the Union message, "Wealth is the means and people are the ends. All our material riches will avail us little if we do not use them to expand the opportunities of our people.", we continue to spend our people on money, rather than vice versa.
There are at least three reasons why our efforts to break out of the vicious circle of euclidian ends-means inversion, have amounted to no more than a 'frenetic passivity';
Though the child undergoing 'socialization' may resist the surrender of ownership of his experience and self-worth to cultural stewards who offer it back to him in a lottery of their making (which cyclically re-concentrates ownership amongst the current 'politically correct'), such resistance is usually overcome by mother, family, friends and teachers, who barter their love in exchange for the child's compliance. Their aim is an honest and heartfelt one; i.e. to secure the child's 'success' in the current system. In the process, as has been pointed out by Laing and others, conflict is introduced into the child's mind in the form of 'dreams of failure' (i.e. fear that he will be unable to win his self-worth back in the ownership-concentrating cultural lottery). The farther removed his own natural ontogenetic tendencies from the politically correct filters of the lottery, the greater the 'betrayal' and 'splitting' of 'self' involved (the greater his love-induced, 'double bind' exposure to schizophrenic breakdown).
(2) Analytical Backfill
Whilst purpose and understanding are essential contributors in navigating complexity, they are non-measurable intangibles. For this reason, rationalizing 'success' tends to degenerate into an exercise in 'analytical backfill' which invariably credits the accounts of knowledge and strategy. There is no end to the convolutions of analytical backfill which can be used to rationalize system outcomes. Thus, maintaining a primacy of purpose and understanding over knowledge and strategy depends on the metrics-transcending qualities of leadership. Meanwhile, the proclivity for navigating by numbers is increasingly pre-empting the purpose and understanding of in-situ leadership as the global economy, aka the 'cyber casino', shifts its decision-making base over to mechanical transactions based on measures far removed from human purpose and understanding. Not only is the ownership of our wealth and experience being concentrated by cultural confiscation and inequitable resale or auction, the parameters which guide this redistribution are inexorably channelling our wealth away from our creative ontogenetic destiny into a stagnating vortex of technological cloning and lily-gilding.
(3) Euclidian Language Dependence
Language and language-based structural modelling is another major factor which contributes to inverting ends and means and subordinating purpose and understanding to strategy and knowledge. For example, the residual traditional core of Native North Americans who have not succumbed to the white, western ways (perhaps as low as five to ten percent of the total), contend that their traditions (i.e. shared awareness of purpose and understanding) cannot be sustained by written words because 'words do not evolve', and understanding must be perpetually re-interpreted within the ontogenetic flow of life. Even though the conveyancing base of the indigenous people's languages has a flow (verb) orientation, unlike the euclidian 'thing out of context of time' orientation of western languages, the tradition is for the native elders to perpetuate their 'teachings' (i.e. 'teachings' are seen as 'values' which cannot be codified in static terms) of 'honesty', 'kindness', 'sharing' and 'strength' through story-telling, myth, chanting and dancing. Only through this oral tradition can the inner breath mingle with the 'wind that was always there' (great spirit) and engender resonant understanding in the mind (as opposed to the codified, non-evolving knowledge which is captured in language per se.).
Notwithstanding the particular implementations of the oral tradition, we, the authors of this note, find the native north americans' observations on inadequacy of language to be fully consistent with the tenets of modern physics (non-euclidian space) and complexity. We further believe that the false notion that language is an adequate container for understanding constitutes a deceptive pitfall by which purposive traditions and understanding in the west continuously slip through the cracks and are washed away, eroding the topsoil needed for a sustained evolution of understanding, and leaving behind only 'bottom-line' bedrock, a base incapable of supporting new and unique organic growth. This effect is implicit in the high value which is ascribed to management strategies and knowledge relative to the low value attached to dispersed, in-situ purpose and experience of employees; a relativity which emerges clearly from the current merger, acquisition and downsizing MADness.
[It was perhaps this above-described inadequacy of language which prompted Bob Flood, author of many popular systems theory oriented publications, to put in question his writings during his presentation at this conference, asserting that 'it is all just words'. He underscored his statement by announcing his resignation, the day prior, as systems sciences Professor at Hull University in the U.K.]
While the above three cultural practices; love-barter, analytical-backfill and euclidian language-dependence continue to reproduce our addiction to ends-means inversion which puts knowledge and strategy in a primacy over purpose and understanding, it is equally clear that we 'know what to do'. We naturally intuit the value of charismatic, purposive leadership and its ability to engender shared ontogenetic understanding without ever having to pull out a measuring stick or metering device in validation. Such leadership is the natural 'vessel' for sustaining purpose and understanding and for cultivating its continuing evolution. Codified knowledge-based structures, distilled, maintained and disseminated by the culture, are inadequate vessels for this purpose, and where organizations shift away from their 'float' on a dispersed in-situ base of purposive leadership rich in experiential understanding, natural evolution gives way to an incestuous recycling of knowledge. This is the effect which leads to a progressive divergence and dissonance between corporate and social purpose and between social and environmental purpose.
Our culture's reliance on disciplinary gurus and high priests increases our exposure to ends-means inversion since not only do guru's possess the dual qualities of leadership via purpose and understanding, and pedagogy via knowledge and strategy in different measure, their disciples may also preferentially opt for purpose (ends) or instruction (means). While "The tygers of wrath are wiser than the horses of instruction" (William Blake), this ends-over-means primacy is unlikely to be respected and upheld by disciples without direct engagement with charismatic, purposive leadership. As Carl Jung noted, with respect to the literalization of his own guru status, "I am glad I did not have to be a 'Jungian'". Without maintaining the ends-over-means primacy, the needed intensification of experience is traded away for a dessication of experience in which instructive knowledge is emphasized.
In the case of the socialization of children, it has been pointed out by many non-euclidian educators/psychologists such as Maria Montessori, Lev Vygotsky, A.S. Neill, Jules Henry, R.D. Laing and others, that the concentration of ownership of childhood experience and its lottery-based redistribution according to politically correct parameters is destructive to the child's sense of self and self-worth. Those who win the lottery are often spoiled by a falsely induced 'ego-inflation', and this empowers them to inflict the same politically correct concentration of ownership on others, intensifying and re-entrenching this biased recycling process. Meanwhile, the child whose natural gifts fail to track the politically correct profile which produces 'winners' in this casino of self-worth, has his opportunity for natural self-development confiscated by the system. At this point he can neither live his own life nor that of a politically correct 'other'. He is in a double bind where whichever course he takes, is 'wrong'. R. D. Laing's 1967 statistical statement on the mental status of youth is not surprising in light of this cultural/educational dysfunction; "A child born today in the United Kingdom has a ten times greater chance of being admitted to a mental hospital than to a university, and about one fifth of mental hospital admissions are diagnosed as schizophrenic. This can be taken as an indication that we are driving our children mad more effectively than we are genuinely educating them. Perhaps it is our way of educating them that is driving them mad."
Things are not getting any better as the runaway 'cyber casino' on the economic front, with its inverted emphasis on knowledge (technology) and strategy and its disregard for ontogenetic purpose and understanding, reaches back to influence the politically correct profiles in the educational casino of self-worth. Educators are currently discussing plans to bolster computer technology-oriented 'instruction' in the schools at the expense of more traditional studies in order to satisfy the evolving demands of the labour market. Thus the runaway cycle and recycle of means over ends continues to intensify in the direction of the 'literalization' of our society, concentrating the ownership of social and intellectual experience and self-worth in the hands of fewer and fewer people, those who are prepared to play the game of life in the most literal and logical manner, out of the context of ontogenetic purpose and understanding. Psychological pathologies amongst youth, brought on by the double bind where garnering love goes hand-in-hand with betrayal of self, are on the rise, not only with respect to the incidence of schizophrenia and mental hospital admissions, but with respect to admissions into drug addiction, youthful alcoholism and violence in schools and society at large.
Bob Flood's soul-searing message is particularly relevant to this note on our 'bottoms-up', means over ends cultural pathology; ... 'its all just words; ... we don't know and its time that we acknowledge that we don't know; .... we're trying to gain mastery at the edge of mystery.' Laing expressed this same intuitive understanding when he stated that "The fountain has not played itself out, the frame still shines, the river still flows, the spring still bubbles forth, the light has not faded. But between Us and It, there is a veil which is more like fifty feet of solid concrete."
We do know that our systems are in runaway mode, straying ever farther from the evolutionary flow of life, farther from our naturally resonant ontogenetic purpose and development. We know that even as we protest, we re-invest our material and intellectual worth in mechanical systems whose ultimate impact is beyond our understanding. We are like the union worker who commits his material and intellectual worth to strike against the employer practice of spending people to make money in utter disregard of living purpose and ontogeny, while he simultaneously invests his savings where he can garner the highest financial returns, in funds which reinvest in companies which are spending people to make money.
As Flood implied, we have an alternative to the path we are on, ... we can admit that we are investing in runaway systems whose outcomes are beyond our understanding and we can opt for honesty, kindness, sharing and strength, for purpose and understanding over knowledge and strategy, and for the liberation of ownership of social and intellectual experience and economic worth from cultural lottery systems devoid of human and natural orientations.
The Systems and Complexity movements also seem to be drifting into the pull of this pervasive ends-means inverting vortex. To avoid the capsizing of our common efforts to master the navigation of complexity, it is perhaps time for each of us to bring our search for knowledge back into resonance with the evolutionary flow of life, our lives, by reinstating ontogenetic time in our perception and inquiry after its 2500 year banishment by euclidian philosophy, ... it seems also time to re-intensify our celebration of those leadership qualities and traditions, based on purpose and understanding, which can put our efforts to navigate complexity back into trim. This requires that we cease our capitulation to knowledge and strategy, heeding the wisdom of the ancients; "to every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose in the universe" so that we may come home to a co-resonance within the web of life.
Ted Lumley and Martine Dodds-Taljaard
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