Practicality In Complexity



How can we use knowledge of complexity in a practical way? I am often asked this question. I am confused by it. Practical at what level? By “practical” what is meant?

Practical to offer quick but un-systemic solutions?

Or practical to offer better understanding of the complexity of the context?

Executive decisions define our lives, and evidence based research with deliverables is required to back those decisions up. In this era substantive demarcations of what makes an effort worth the time and money it costs should be provided at the outset of a program. Consequently we see, in workshops, lectures, conferences, and universities, an insatiable appetite for another pret a porter improvement program. There is always the next new step by step program ready to be sold with the promise of improvement for individuals, organizations and ministries. Usually they read something like The Five Steps to the Seven Applications… for the three main points of an innovative version of the old idea of leadership, success, problem solving, finding happiness and so on. I want to pull my hair out when I see these books and seminars touting their promises. The cost of short cuts is consequences and their echoes.

I cannot offer any such program. It would be hypocrisy for me to do so. My whole life is centered around advocating for the delicate interdependencies of life. In this sense my work is sometimes seen as ethereal, my students are frustrated because the only “fact” given in this approach is change. Life is mutual learning. Life shifts, systems are in flux, for better and for worse. The unspeakable beauty of those interdependencies is in equal proportion to the horror. Beauty in the ever forming symmetries and asymmetries that evolve into unimaginable grace, and horror in the sense that there is so much uncertainty and so little control.

I won’t likely stand down from my advocacy of this messy interaction with life. It is not just a method of making decisions – it is an aesthetic. There is no hard evidence to back up the statistical efficiency of an aesthetic. But that does not mean that there is nothing practical in the material I offer.

In defense of a world that is characterized by mutual learning between variables in a given context- a world that does not stay the same, a world that won’t be mechanized or modeled, in defense of that world I maintain that nothing could be more practical than to become more familiar with the patterns of movement life requires. The goal is not to crack the code, but rather to catch the rhythm.

The world is complex, and the complexity is not manageable in a predicable, strategic plan. Looking around the globe I think it is permissible to make the sweeping statement that our attempts at control, no matter how verified they have been by quantitative methods, are not working. Where does that leave us?

If you do not know what the terrain of a marathon is, you had better be prepared for anything. Most importantly, be prepared to make spontaneous decisions based on an assessment of the context at the time. Long preparations for a run across the desert will not be useful in the event of urban snowstorm conditions. In this era of complexity we do not know what is coming, and I believe it is both impractical and potentially unethical to pretend as though we do.

Why is it that a discussion of life in which these many learning, relational, moving variables are brought into the description is considered “abstract,” while the description, which isolates and fragments and objectifies the parts of a system is considered practical? Should it not be the other way around? Is it not an abstraction to pull a person, idea, or organism from the contextual relationships of family, food, culture, feelings, ecology and so one and label them? Is it not more abstract to take a piece of the living world and try to make sense of it without all of the contextual, contributing aspects of its vitality? Can we really understand anything without context?

So, the point, the deliverable, the practicality of my work is not to offer concrete solutions, or 8 step improvement plans. It is to offer an invitation in to a world that does not sit still, and encourage an increase in sensitivity to the complexity in all of its glory and gore. My work is premised on the idea I have given the name Symmathesy to. It is centered around mutual learning between and within living contexts. This learning does not stop. It is not always progressive, or good, sometimes learning to be in a context includes addiction, pathology, and so on. We cannot control mutual learning, we cannot solve it. But, we can become more able to take in and consider the complexity we are faced with if we approach it from this stance.

The quandary I often hear is that complexity takes too long, and it is impossible to ever understand all of the infinite interrelationships. How do we use it? As individuals and as professionals we have to make choices and take action in the moment of life, we can’t sit around and contemplate these “abstractions” of swirling variables forever. It is true; it takes longer to consider complexity. It is true also that we will never understand the all of the infinite interrelationships. The question of “can we afford the time and effort to try?” is a good question. My only response is: Can we afford not to?

The unpredictable continues into the consequences of decisions made with the idea of static systems in mind. The strategy of isolating information does not extend into the system once we have chosen “action”. Whatever those plans beget becomes part of the complexity that continues from then on. The interrelations creep back in, the interdependencies over lap and overtake the clean clear simple plan that was practical. The larger ecology of the situations always drowns the fragmented attempts at controlling it. Unfortunately it does so with unwieldy difficulty and reactions to reactions that we cannot undo. Example: Read the headlines of any paper and the iterations of reactions are there to be seen. But, this is only possible if you look with eyes that search for continuum, if you are looking for linear stories with beginnings, middles and endings, that is what you will find. In which case, you wont be able to see the ways in which these patterns are overlapping. You will not have access to the deeper alchemy.

We cannot know the systems, but we can know more. We cannot perfect the systems, but we can do better. The evolution of our own ability to understand and interact with the world around us is an increase in our ability to be sensitive to information we have previously been blind to. That is learning to learn.

At the edges of the given patterns, there are liminal zones. The boundaries. This is where interaction takes place. These are the places where the directions of potential pathways as yet uncharted live. An example of this might be the medical system in the US, which at present is so entangled, in the insurance industry that the system is in a holding pattern. What is the relationship between this bind and the development of alternative medicine in the subculture? Will those that cannot afford insurance find ways to steal from other the parts of the system so they can pay for basic medical attention? Or both? Entire industries are developing in the margins of this conundrum. Where will they go? How might the politicians in Washington DC approach their decision making process differently given a higher degree of sensitivity to the consequences and consequences of consequences within the entire social construct?

There are not answers to these questions. They are avenues where inquiry is invited. With luck the inquiry will lead to further inquiry. A good question leads to better questions. A simple question gets a simple answer, and we do not live in a simple world.

IMG_1142I maintain, at the risk of being called abstract, that the possibility of an increase in our ability to receive nuanced information about the interactions in a complex system exists. This is my optimism. This is where I place hope in the coming eras. We need that sensitivity to live better lives. This is the sensitivity that will allow us to understand our spouses better, to raise our children better, to grow food better, study life better, and organize our world better. It will also make us into artists. I maintain that nothing could be more practical.

20 thoughts on “Practicality In Complexity

  1. The other feature of the wrong sort of practical is the need to defend. How much of the resources of US army of occupation in Iraq went into simply defending themselves? Most of our non-systemic solutions become highly defended black holes before they are quietly abandoned with no meaningful learning. I am also reminded of the Blake verse about not trying to hang onto joy when it appears.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I’d think there are a few principles that might be generally useful, though they need to be applied with art.

      1. The system will adapt to you, and the more important you are the quicker and more intensely it will adapt. So stay alert, don’t just fall into habit. If you have a scientific study that shows something about your system (as opposed to the fundamental rules of physics, which will probably not adapt to you), repeat it occasionally to see how things have changed.

      If you have a small garden, change its location each year so that insect pests etc won’t be waiting precisely at the right place.

      2. Watch for the possibility that things will adapt in ways that help you. Try to arrange for that to happen, if you can.

      3. For any entity that’s conserved, try to notice how you change its distribution. Do you want to change its distribution that way? You may not have a choice, but you can at least know what to expect.

      4. For entities that are not conserved, how does their amount and availability change due to your actions? (And in general.) Is that what you want?

      5. To do any of that you must create a mental model of what’s going on. The model may not fit the reality. Check against reality as often as you reasonably can, so you will be more prepared to find flaws in your thinking. Your model is inevitably simplified and in some ways wrong. But it’s something human beings do, and it usually kind of works. You might as well get good at it.


  2. It is not often that I read words that so resonate with me. The idea that there are no easy fixes; no simple panaceas – when did the world stop believing that? We used to believe it. Winston Churchill told all of England that bitter days were ahead and they’d best prepare for them. He didn’t promise an end to war in 2 months or even 2 years. The nature of a real war is that it is unpredictable.

    A patient in intensive care needs pain medication. But the pain medication can interfere with the recovery. Where’s the easy fix?

    The patient has left an advance directive saying, “No heroic measures.” But the patient is brought to the hospital in what is thought to be a temporary coma from which he is likely to awaken. Might he have a change of heart? Maybe we should wait to find out what he really wants when he’s awake. So he awakens, but is in intense pain. He will agree to anything to be free of the pain. What is the doctor’s duty of care? Where is the simple fix?

    A grade school teacher wants to protect her charges from harm. She (or the school) limit the activities they can do. No dodge ball, no tag, no kickball, no this, no that. Recess becomes boring and the kids sit and play with their electronics instead. This won’t do, so the school organizes recess, which is the exact opposite of what recess (from organized activity) was initially intended to be. The parents are upset. The teachers and administrators are upset. And the lawyers – ahh, the lawyers – they’re waiting with their palms open. Where’s the easy fix?

    We live in a world of “wicked” and even “super wicked” problems. And some of these are double-bind problems of the kind discussed by Gregory Bateson, where you’re damned if you do, damned if you don’t, and then you’re punished if you comment on the situation in an effort to show its absurdity.

    It is so refreshing to see someone who gets this. Thank you, Nora.

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  3. Practical, abstract? I prefer sensitive, and engaging in the sacred. Thank you for reaching out to the limits of intellectual semantics. I would hope our evolution allows us briefly to dwell in the now, without questioning, rather just being, and doing nothing, very intensely and very actively.


  4. “A technique of existence is a technique that takes as its “object” process itself, as the speculative-pragmatic production of oriented events of change. Techniques of existence are dedicated to ontogenesis as such. They operate immediately qualitatively-relationally. They make no gesture of claiming “objectivity,” nor do they pride themselves on their grasp of common sense. At the same time, they reject being characterized as “merely” subjective. They are inventive of subjective forms in the activist sense: dynamic unities of events unfolding. So implicated are they with the politicality of event formation that they qualify whatever domain in which their creativity is operative as an occurrent art.
    The concept of the diagram is adopted from Peirce and Deleuze to think about what techniques of existence do pragmatically-speculatively. According to both Peirce and Deleuze, what they do is abstract. Diagramming is the procedure of abstraction when it is not concerned with reducing the world to an aggregate of objects but, quite the opposite, when it is attending to their genesis. To abstract in this fuller sense is a technique of extracting the relational-qualitative arc of one occasion of experience — its subjective form — and systematically depositing it in the world for the next occasion to find, and to potentially take up into its own formation. The subjective form of an experience is the dynamic form of how the potentials for change initially found in the bare-active midst come to play out in its occasion”.
    Massumi, B. (2011). Semblance and Event: Activist Philosophy and the Occurrent Arts (pp. 14-15). Cambridge, London: MIT Press.


  5. First, absent an established context for it, I ask an author’s permission to re-blog. May I reblog this piece? if this were written by almost anyone else (exceptions would be your sister and a few others) I’d be quoting or referring to your father. It would be easy to imagine your words in his voice. I fully agree with what you say about those “improvement” prescriptions that atomize and objectify and try to quantify the fluid, dealing with snapshots of relations in motion. They march when they would do better to dance. Even the currently fashionable selling of “mindfulness” is of that kind, seeking to turn a practice (in the Zen sense) into a tool of productivity and a medication for the stress of a dehumanizing work environment. A strange connection – I find myself thinking of a line from Gilbert and Sullivan in The Mikado – “Do you think there is beauty in the bellow of the blast?” and next to that Heinz von Foerster’s Ethical and Aesthetical Imperatives. I can’t hep it, binocular vision is a long standing habit. We must learn, as a species, to make aesthetic choices in the context of partial knowledge, limited predictability, and so far as possible, try to do good only in minute particulars, not grand plans and programs.

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  6. Reblogged this on Integration and Implementation Insights and commented:
    Three points in this blog post resonate with me:

    1. The idea of “catching the rhythm” of the “patterns of movement” in our constantly changing world.
    2. The importance of context.
    3. “We cannot know the systems, but we can know more. We cannot perfect the systems, but we can do better.”


  7. Thanks. I’ve reblogged on and commented:
    Three points in this blog post by Nora Bateson resonate:

    1. The idea of “catching the rhythm” of the “patterns of movement” in our constantly changing world.
    2. More effectively taking context into account.
    3. “We cannot know the systems, but we can know more. We cannot perfect the systems, but we can do better.”

    The challenge is to develop methods and processes to better achieve these goals.


  8. How can I integrate Nora Bateson’s mind into my already overly complex life. And so, so many other relevant minds knocking on my door daily. We surf, navigate and create complexity – and frequently deny it. There are many ways to comprehend and work with complexity. Complexity is but a name for an only partly delimited domain.

    Students, during my 23 years teaching “learning to survive/thrive college” masquerading as an Intro Psy Course, encountered the first day, written large on the chalk board: EMBRACE COMPLEXITY, The Texture of Reality. LEARN NAVIGATION. Then I gave each an 80+ page manual to navigate a complex system of study, with many individualized paths where every student could truly EARN an A. All who engaged in the process EARNED As. A computerized “grade book” permitted me to keep track of their individual paths, and each student had access to their personal record.

    To try imagining complex structures is futile as “reality” is more than structure. Cognitively we interweave processing-structures and structuring-processes. We alternatively engineer scaffolding and then flow intuitively within the scaffolding, sometimes creating new scaffolding. Creativity is involved in both processes.

    The fluidity gained from adopting “complementarity of perspectives” frees me from encountering “the complicated”; I don’t have to find logical consistency in all patterns. It is our maps that are complicated, as the “territory” is never as imagined.

    The more I expand my unconscious context, I more I am at-ease in confronting specifics of each moment. I grok complex relationships without pressure to formalize them. Many alternative routes for action are available for consideration. which is the nature of reality. To demand easy solutions is misguided.

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    1. “Just going with the flow” is as extreme as “seeking total control”. Options need not be competitive. “Complementarity”, a feature of a nu reality that doesn’t assume there to be one, single, logically consistent explanatory system, enables one to moderate/interweave alternatives without conflict or competition. For example, processing-structures/structuring-processes, instead of structureprocess. Or, creative/exploratory engineering (Drexler) of scaffolding for supporting creative/intuitive flow, resulting in the emergence of new, improved scaffolding: cyclical scripting/performing.


  9. It’s the part of nature that seems to occur without explanation at all that gives true evidence of the independent reality, the part we can explain invariably turning out to be just another one of our dreams. Then you can notice the continuities in what accumulates, the organized complexity of how things work together needing no explanation at all to do so, evidence of what’s actually happening, and where to join in.


    1. That seems to capture the spirit of the challenge. Thank you. And I love “shouldaknown”. I am interested in how literal nature and wilderness allow us to regain our bearings, I suppose as we lose our bearings in all our pupose games. I think this is universal, that immersion in nature is both soothing and healing.


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