Preparing for a Confusing Future  Complexity, Warm Data and Education

I published this piece Sept 2018 in the World Academy of Arts and Sciences Journal special issue on Education. As we enter this confusing moment of Covid-19 isolation and systems change, it seems to me to be a moment to rethink most of the ossified patterns of the last centuries, and break free. Education is certainly at the core of this change. This is a long read, but maybe you have time…

Starting Monday March 23rd, will be doing a series of calls online for parents interested in mutual learning with their kids in discovery of complexity…


Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall, Humpty Dumpty had a great fall, All the king’s horses and all the king’s men,Couldn’t put Humpty together again.

-Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking Glass

Putting the world back together now from the fragmented, decontextualized and silo-ed bits it has been broken into is a challenge that rests on the possibility of intergenerational collaborative exploration. To form and find interconnections will require humility and a new kind of attention to interdependent processes in complex systems. New sensitivity will be needed, new perception, new language, new ideas. If the human species is to continue, the way in which we consider ourselves in relation to each other, and the environment must evolve.

Imagine for a moment what it must be like to be a child in this era – looking into the future, what awaits you?

Those of us who are over 25 probably cannot actually conceptualize the horizon that is in view for today’s kids. When they are asked, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” – what should they say? What are the current options? A programmer, a doctor, crypto-broker, an artist, a YouTube star, an ocean restorer? What kind of society will they be living in? And, what sort of education can they be given to prepare them for a future we cannot even imagine? More than an exploration of education, this is a recognition that the education system exists within and between other systems of employment, economics, culture, media, health, religion and within the larger ecology. To discuss changes in the education system so that it might better serve the citizens of tomorrow is to discuss system change across multiple sectors, nothing else will do.

All the generations that are alive today are witnesses to the rapid transformation of these institutional and ecological contexts of daily life, a trend that is predicted only to accelerate in coming decades. It is hard to say whether the young or the old will be the more able to navigate through the storm of system change. The older folks may experience greater difficulty in the changes, having become more ossified in the obsolete structures of socio-economic culture. But, the younger people do not have the same depth or scope of experience to draw from. It is absurd how often so-called inspirational talks are given to young audiences that call on them to solve the problems their ancestors have left for them. The generations need each other, if there is any hope at all it is the relationship between generations, cultures, classes, and even species.

Education change is system change.

For the last several centuries, perhaps much longer, the most dominant way of making sense of the world (especially in Western cultures) has been to break it into parts and examine their details, and then try to figure out how those parts fit together. This has become a tactic of sense making that permeates every context of human life, from farming to law, and from economy to medicine. This form of sense making has given us a particular kind of knowledge, and know-how. By taking subjects out of their complexity and studying them as separate it has been possible to isolate the pieces of the puzzle of life. The conceptual model trains to perceive causation through a mechanistic lens of parts that are fitted together. Seldom have those pieces been returned to the contextual complexity from which they originated and studied as relational process. Schools have replicated this division by separating subjects. The quest for causality, precision in definition and measurable outcomes has served innovation of industry and science in ways our ancestors could never have dreamt of.

“…the systems involved in education, including the education system itself, the political system, the economic system, and the social system, are not particularly known for being able to adapt or change quickly. In fact, these systems are resistant to change. All of these systems are deeply intertwined and interdependent that any attempt to change in one will require massive changes in all of the others.”-Jeff Bloom

There is not enough time to educate 8 billion people in complexity theory. And yet, a widespread understanding of interdependency between ecology, culture and individual well-being is necessary to ignite the collective of the humanity toward new ways of living. There is a critical need to recognize that from agriculture, to economy, to gender equality, to the health of the oceans and ending poverty, every meal is an inter-systemic example of the choice between continuance of either survival of our species or business as usual. However, now it is clear that the most grave crises facing present and future generations are the consequences of reductionism of complex systems. The vitality of living systems is found in their interrelationships. Compartmentalized and specialized knowledge has been rewarded, while an understanding of larger contextual process has been dismissed as un-measureable, unpredictable, and impossible.

Ask old Humpty, walls are a bad idea – things get broken and cannot be repaired.

The survival of the human race is now contingent upon collective comprehension of the interdependency that exists between organisms, in all their systems, humans and their technological toys included. Ideally this shift in mind-set would be taken up by education programs.

“Our assumptions about nature are based on what we see around us but, what we often see, especially from the cities that have dominated our culture for thousands of years, are the influences of our presence on the world. This can create false, yet deeply rooted assumptions about nature. Because of these inaccurate assumptions, our actions often produce results we do not intend.”-Paul Krafel, Seeing Nature (pp 6)

The ecology of the environment has been reduced to departments, unable to be seen in its complex interdependency. In response, climate science has tried for decades to produce compelling facts that would inspire policy makers and citizens to make different choices. In this sense, there has been an attempt to ‘educate’ the public. But the science has not taken hold in the culture. The many undercurrents of contextual reconfirmation around life as status quo are not so easily convinced. As one friend asked rhetorically, “what would happen if you asked a university to build a jungle?” You would get a flora department, a fauna department, an insect department, a soil department, a reptiles department and so on. But a jungle is only possible in the way all of those organisms live together.

Now, in order to live differently, new perception is necessary. New communication that can hold the non-linear processes of interdependency in living systems will be a baseline for developing new forms of socio-cultural community. What sort of an education system can do that? One that is not just an education system, but one that includes the many systems of society.

Systemic and inter-systemic change is needed to form a context within which education can change. It is ineffective to strive for substantive changes in the structure and outcomes of educational programs without addressing the need for larger societal change to welcome the newly “educated” students. Right now employment is contingent on particular educational prerequisites that prime incomers. Some of this education is direct vocational certification, but there are also the meta-messages of school and the way they set up relationships with authority. However, the reverse is also true. There is no way to make shifts in socio-cultural systems without first making them in education. There is a loop here that it is easy to get caught in. Where should the change-making originate? In the schools? Or in the culture?

To get unbroken a breakthrough is needed. Systems change will require much more than curriculum change, but it cannot be done without a deep shift in the institution of education. It will require a transcontextual understanding of how life is. The compartments and silos of education desperately need to be informed by their as yet unfound, un-named connective tissue. There is no crime in pulling the world apart to make sense of it, but there is a crime in not putting it back, and at least making some attempt to understand the contexts, processes, and interrelationality that give complex systems their vitality.

So many mistakes have been made by finding solutions to situations that have been decontextualized. The consequences are everywhere. Experts making professional analysis and assessment from which to take action are doing so without enough contextual information. Specialization continues to make it increasingly difficult for scholars to venture out of their field and contribute to this space between subjects. Is this a crisis of education? Or of culture? How can a school-like institution help to provide this connective tissue? Tradition in any form is hard to reshape. The separation between the disciplines is hardwired into academic structure, which is a particularly rigid institution further held in place by the economic and cultural systems around it.

Systems & Complexity Education:

Education about systems & complexity is not the same as education within systems and complexity.

There is an encouraging new wave of systems-based education curriculum emerging. Peter Senge and has brought focus to this subject matter to schools internationally. The adult world that has become versed in the existing scholarship around systems theory has also brought a collection of models, vocabulary and metaphors to explain and define what may at first seem to be an abstract set of ideas.  While these models are useful for now, I would like to caution against solidifying their position in the curriculum. There is the realm of direct transmission of knowledge about systems, and then there is also the possibility of indirect experience within systems. Both are necessary. The irony that an education thread of “systemic knowledge” can all to easily become another subject in the curriculum, when what is needed is a liminal realm for the other subjects to be de-separated. David Christian has had some success with this in the Big History curriculum which reaches around all sorts of stories of life, culture, science, art and technology.

Systems education is a way of seeing the world and responding to it. Translating the world into systems terminology is only necessary when the surrounding culture is still based in more mechanistic thinking. As time progresses students will no doubt prove to be much more comfortable and adept and working with systemic principals than most of the adults who supervise them. Entering and playing with patterns of interaction that mimic those of ecological interaction provides new ways of making connections. Some  technologies are beginning to explore this sort of patterning of communication. While there is an exciting opening in interactive patterns in blockchain, I am still cautious. I perceive the place of technology as precarious; delivering both new kinds of connection to each other and the world, and dangerous disconnection simultaneously. There are some things we cannot learn about life from machines.

There is a long history of cybernetics, systems theory and complexity theory to be aware of. Much of it is beautiful and filled with remarkable pioneers. However at the Macy Conference (1950’s some of the earliest models that were used to challenge the causal thinking patterns were machine based. Consequently there are residual ideas of mechanism even within systemic approaches.. “Solving for pattern” has been a system-thinking response to the hold-over demand for solutions. But now, the systems are changing fast, and trying to get a handle on patterns in nature, culture or the flow of ideas is going to be harder than it might have been a few decades ago. Climate change, the rise of right wing nationalism, and communications patterns of new technologies are good examples of the moving landscape. The patterns to study now are patterns of change. It is a tricky time to enter the study of relational process, just as the rhythms and cycles are becoming more unpredictable.

Allowing students to play with their perception and description beyond the existing forms of expertise is a way open the channels of new findings. One interesting example of a classroom engaged in ecological thinking that I witnessed was a study of food in which the students, (who were preschoolers) were asked to draw the smell of the plant that sat on their table. The plant was fresh basil, but the kids were not aware of the name of it. Remarkably without hesitation they set to the task of drawing the scent of basil. In doing so the adults in the room were privileged to an experience of basil that they, already familiar with a particular set of descriptions and experiences of basil, were not able to have. The students also used beads and blocks to describe the taste of oranges. These cross-sensory explorations offer profound insights into relational information.

To study the tango, a student must first know what the tango dance and music are. Then, when the steps are dissected into parts, they are still considered within the cohesion of the whole dance. Contextual knowledge gives a scaffolding to build detail into, but decontextualized details lack life.

“If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up the men to gather wood, divide the work, and give orders. Instead, teach them to yearn for the vast and endless sea.” ― Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

Warm Data:

What is knowledge, information, and data? And how might an education facility provide the conditions through which new forms of information can be explored?

“Recognizing that complex problems are not susceptible to predetermined solutions, the International Bateson Institute has taken up the task of generating a category of information specifically dedicated to description of contextual relational interaction, calling it “Warm Data”. The units of knowledge by which reasoning and calculations are made namely, data, information, and facts, suggest processes of research into which we place our hopes for better understanding of the world we inhabit. But the subject being perceived must dictate the necessity of understanding in different ways, therefore producing different kinds of information. Warm data is the product of a form of study specifically concentrated on (trans)contextual understanding of complex systems. Utilizing information obtained through a subject’s removal from context and frozen in time can create error when working with complex (living)systems. Warm data presents another order of exploration in the process of discerning vital contextual interrelationships, and another species of information.” – N. Bateson “Warm Data”

“Warm Data” can be defined as: Transcontextual information about the interrelationships that integrate a complex system.

Because so many of the challenges that we face now are complex, we need approaches to meeting that complexity. Although there is a desire to reframe these complex issues in simple terms that might lend themselves to easy solutions, this usually leads to the dangers of unintended consequences of reductionism.

Thinking in complexity requires the ability to perceive across multiple perspectives and contexts. This is not a muscle that has been trained into us in school or in the work world. It is a skill acutely needed in this era to meet our personal, professional and collective need to respond to crisis, and to improve our lives.

The theory of Warm Data is useful to connect the subjects and bring the complexity to life. What if there was a time between classes to study the liminal realms? What if time were given to support students’ discovery of abductive process and pattern finding across subjects.. To do so is to demand that perspective be revealed, who is the observer? And to utilize the differences between framings to generate the relational information (Warm Data) between them. Contradictions will emerge, along with paradoxes and cultural limits. Warm data is a study of living systems that are in constant response and calibration to many relational processes. Life changes with the passage of time and with point of view; Warm Data a form of information to accommodate that complexity, and put the world back together.

What are the similarities between history and algebra? This sort of connection may be unusual at first to consider, but not impossible. Both require that students think in terms of variables. And what can be noticed about the connections between Shakespeare and science? What do those subjects share? As a study in how the world is understood and described students can source deep but different knowledge from both Shakespeare and science. Perhaps they are not often combined, but surely they are related. There—in the warm data of our interactions is where entirely unanticipated possibilities are to be found.

In her book, Braiding Sweetgrass Kimmerer provides a multiple versioned description of botanicals. As such the plants carry story, history, culture, art and science simultaneously. The result is a kind of comprehension of the grass that is not located in any of the particular forms of description, but is somehow in between them.

“I could hand you a braid of sweetgrass, as thick and shining as the plait that hung down my grandmother’s back. But it is not mine to give, nor yours to take. Wiingaashk belongs to herself. So I offer in its place a braid of storied meant to heal our relationship with the world. This braid is woven from three strands; indigenous ways of knowing, scientific knowledge, and the story of an Anishinabekwe scientist trying to bring them together in service of what matters most.” – Robin Wall Kimmerer Braiding Sweetgrass


The change that is sought now is going to require an understanding and familiarity with the way in which multiple contexts interrelate. The term ‘transcontextual’ has been useful toward this description of the processes that both holds the current systems of life in place, and ironically, how they change. I found this term in the double bind section of  Gregory Bateson’s (my father) book, Steps to an Ecology of Mind. Recognizing that complex systems never exist in just one context, but many. The relational processes that occur in each context are different, but they are also not isolatable from each other. A tree for example is in relationship to the micro-bacteria in the soil, the other trees around it, the shadows, wind, water flows, populations of insects in its bark, the birds, human interaction, its own genetic history and so on. Each of these contexts is comprised of a realm of interaction through which the tree is in ongoing formation. Is it a crooked tree, a scrawny tree, a leaning tree? The transcontextual description of the tree begins to reveal how it is learning to be in its world. To describe education through a transcontextual lens is to begin to allow the many contexts within education to surface and co-exist.

In 2016, I wrote a blog post entitled, “A list of relevant questions”. This post addressed the current crises of the globe, taking into account the complexity of inter-systemic entanglement. I will borrow from that post to illustrate the transcontextual overlapping system change, with education in mind. With this transcontextual approach I hope to show the system of systems upon which the institution and idea of education is interdependent.

The relevant questions I posed were listed by institution and, in hopes of generating some warm data between them, I have addressed an incomplete association around how education is related to each of these contexts. My hope is that by laying it out like this, the reader’s own connections and linkings or Warm Data – will begin to emerge in the form of ideas, memories, and recalibrating understanding of interdependency:

Education: How can we best cultivate curiosity, information, and learning between generations to prepare ourselves to perceive and respond to the complexity of our world with less destruction than centuries past?

            The school system as it stands is the source of authorized sense-making of the surrounding world. It is where the language of the culture, the hierarchies in culture, the psychology of the culture is spoon fed to the coming generations. It is also where the findings of past generations are shared, where the fire of curiosity is both lit and extinguished. Education could be a time to think about what ideas, and capacities are useful in the world, and how to enhance the body, mind and imagination in those directions.

Health: How can we support health in human beings by making it possible for each person to eat healthy food, sleep well, know that their families are supported, be respected in their community, have relevant contributions (education and employment), breathe clean air, and drink clean water?

            How many people struggle with not fitting in at school and carry that notion of isolation into adulthood, only to have it manifest as addiction, depression, aggression or other harm for their entire lives? Education and success in education is often a precursor to confidence and ability to thrive in society. The rise in numbers of children who are receiving prescription drugs to increase classroom success is correlated with rising addiction and suicide of university students. Ability to perceive and respond to connection in life at all levels is an important contributor to a sense of belonging, not only in society but within the biosphere.

As preparation for their future what can an education program do to tend to the brokenness of the students? In so doing, can such a learning environment give strength to students’ capacity to attend to each other and their communities? The work of the coming decades is not the work of manufacturing, engineering, or of retail sales, it is the work of caring. Caring for each other and the biosphere. In that care there is the hope of finding new sources of our own vitality as an antidote to competition and thick-skinned cruelty. The ‘my’ in my health is not mine; rather it is a consequence of my microbiome, my family, my community, and the biosphere being cared for. The work ahead is not clear or clean. It requires intense integrity, patience in ambiguity, fierce dedication, raw vulnerability, bleeding humility, and the poetry of explorers. Can a classroom offer that?

Ecology: How can we interface with the complexity of our natural world so as to create less harm to the interdependence of all living things?

            There is an urgent need for an education system that offers the conditions through which perception of the complexity of the environment, as well as each other is possible. It is a mistake to think that young children cannot see or work with complexity. In fact, they tend to be better at it than most adults. The Reggio Emilia school program runs the classroom for very young, (3-5 years old) with a process that shows remarkable ability to recognize patterns in multiple contexts and to articulate relational information about the patterns through multiple expressions, both art and verbal.

Education that takes place in nature stimulates entirely different sets of cognitive processes. Wilderness as a classroom is the original laboratory, playground and library of organisms in interaction.

Economy: How can we shift the economic system so that it is not based upon exploitation of nature and humanity –without crashing the globe into chaos? (note: no one gets rich on this version of economy)

            At present it is not safe for a parent to encourage their children to prepare for a life in which they are not able to be breadwinners. The response to this need is the pressure in the classroom which forces education into competition, testing, aptitude measurement, and a general feeding system into employment. Yet, in order to perceive and respond to complexity the most needed skill is collaboration. There are many groups now working furiously to help implement new structures for economic exchange. Circle economy, sharing economy, holo and blockchain economies are a few. If education is a process of preparation for taking part in society, how shall students prepare for an economic system that is not yet declared, let alone implemented? Proficiency in adjusting and adapting to a changing form of currency is a start. If extraction and exploitation become impossible to continue the entire basis of profit and markets will be disrupted. What will be the skills that will be relevant in such a society? While this may seem far fetched it is also worth considering.

Politics: How do we get the policy makers of our world to mandate cross-sector information for their decision-making processes so that they have the possibility of taking into account complexity?

            What is learned about social engagement and responsibility in school? With the rise of populism in the theater of international politics in recent years, it has become apparent that there is a need for a citizen base that demands more than binary positions. The will of the people, if it is to have meaning in democratic process in the coming years, needs to be informed at a deeper level. Education of concepts such as complexity and transcontextuality will help encourage a more demanding population. As it stands the political bodies are unable to veer from platforms of rhetoric that repeat reductionist versions of important, and even life endangering issues that require complexity to meet. The polarity charged up by increased divisions of dualistic positions is a recipe for dictatorship, violence and destruction.

Urgency and emergency tend to narrow the capacity for complex thinking, and yet, ironically the crises that are ahead of the coming generations will require nothing less. The task is therefore twice as urgent and twice as difficult. Relational and contextual information must be provided in educational programs so that students have the chance to make the connections necessary and seek politicians that are capable of steering the discourse of international agreements, and actions around new economies, ecological preservation, and humanitarian law.

Media: How do we get a moratorium on binaries? How do we support public understanding, not trained in perceiving complexity, to become accustomed to it and demand communications institutions deliver cross-contextual information?

            It has become cliché to drone on about the saturation of social media, big data and the way children are manipulated by these communication technologies. The more important question may be how to provide them with the suspicion and careful criticism to keep from getting caught in particular algorithmic echo chambers of click bait. Being responsible surfers of the landmine of tricky and often hacked stories online is not easy at any age.

The press also has a responsibility to assist in the project of informing the public about the complexity that the crises of current limits in perception have brought upon us. Unfortunately, it is hard to sell journalism that addresses complexity. The much easier sell is the story of adversaries, controversy and polarization. While it is not clear whether the current narrowness of the stories that get run are the fault of journalists or the fault of their audience, the situation has got to change. Fake news, corrupt research, tainted studies, and stilted stories are perforating the public’s trust in any media. A more systemic approach with more perspectives might present another form of inquiry to engage the public in new ways. But this requires an audience that has an appetite for more substantial, rigorous information. It is a circular problem.  Lives are at stake. As millions of refugees are fleeing ecological and political disaster, climate conditions become increasingly extreme, the wealth gap is widening, the interlinkings between these stories is critical to the development of public opinion.

What stories are we living in? There is a great deal of attention placed on cultural narrative and the possibility of instigating change through changing narratives… I see one of those shifts as the shift from binary to complex storytelling.

Culture: What is the approach to open the global discussion about the pending fate of humanity? What matters? What are we willing change? How can we survive together?

            The deep metaphors that run through the culture inform the collective in ways that are so entrained they are hardly visible. Presumptions of authority, dominance, status, even the notion of what health and happiness look like are culturally scripted into daily life. School, business, medical care, politics, media and identity are marinated in cultural patterns and signals. What is courteous behavior, what is indecent? How to show respect? How to be respected… all of these communications exist in subtle conveyances that are built into education. The education that students receive in the classroom is only partially located in the direct teachings of the subject. A great deal of indirect learning is taking place about how to be a good student, how to succeed in the culture, how to be liked and so on. Students are influenced by what they are taught but also by what they are NOT taught in school such as insidious messages of white supremacy due to exclusion of historical events and movements, as well as a lack of historical figures of color.

The idea that there are right and wrong answers is a cultural binary that undermines inquiry of complexity and problem solving through out every sector of society. Misunderstood complexity often results in an ill-informed need for solutions, strategies, concrete deliverables, and other products of linear thinking. This approach is further confusing those in need of grasping complex circumstances. Decisions and actions that are effective in complex situations are characterized by resilience, multiple approaches, and non-linear action. These are the more useful outcomes for future visionaries.

*                      *                      *                      *                      *

How to make sense of the world.

The double bind of this era is that continuance of our species requires discontinuance of current means of survival. Business as usual is a swift endgame. Yet the rent must be paid, and breakfast must be possible. To live through next week is to take part in systems that are destructive to the future.

“In a word, conservatism is rooted in coherence and compatibility and these go along with what, above, I called rigor in the mental process. It is here we must look for the roots of obsolescences.

And the paradox or dilemma which perplexes and dismays when we contemplate correcting or fighting against obsolescence is simply the fear we must lose coherence and clarity and compatibility and even sanity, if we let go of the obsolete.” (Bateson, Mind and Nature pp 207)

The old metaphors of launching and landing are aptly accompanied by the new media term “extreme weather”. Talk of climate crises, racial supremacy, sexual assault, economic disaster and corporate corruption are swirling around every social media outlet, and every conversation. “The sky is falling” used to be a hyperbole of cartoon proportions, a moralized message of super-paranoia—now it is the daily news. What is it to be young in a moment when the shared vision of the future is filled with upheaval? What dreams, what stories, what forecasting can children today hold on to? Will they follow the path of the generations before? Go to school, get a degree, get a job, buy a little real estate, meet someone to love, have babies, grow old, get a pension? Anyone who is paying attention (and kids do pay attention), will have noticed that it is more than likely that none of the steps in that progression from childhood to social citizen are going to be viable, let alone relevant to the children of today. As adults, as parents, as teachers, as community what can be offered to the coming generations. How shall we prepare them, how shall we guide their days, what shall we feed them at the table of ideas? This is a non-trivial question upon which the entire premise of intergenerational interaction is contingent.

The essence of this question is human evolution. What is really being asked here is “How can the older generations assist in the process of the coming generations making sense of their world?” While every generation has asked that question, the stakes of today are presenting new dilemmas. Business as usual is not an option for anyone now. The socio-economic patterns that hold day to day life in place now are the same patterns that are continuing to reward exploitation and extraction of humanity and the biosphere. Not long ago it may have seemed reasonable to train upcoming waves of students to succeed within current structures of business, medicine, politics and other possible career choices. Now it is quite clear that larger systems-change is at hand, and the more ready any of us can be, the better. But schools are still producing graduates ready to partake in a world of employment, governance and status that is hitched to extraction and exploitation. At least some students are starting to wonder what the point is of such an education. They want to contribute to a new way of living, but those tools are not so easily found in education systems. For them, taking part in the existing system is furthering the destruction they are already shouldering and is seen as adding insult to injury. Yet, the march forward continues and every year parents are proud to pay vast sums to enter their children into the world’s notable universities. I am one of them.

To look around the world today is to notice that so far the adults at the helm have failed to give necessary care to the interdependency of life. The urgency of tending to relational process has been either too time consuming, expensive or abstract to make it to the board room of most organizations and institutions. Given the lack of change toward systems of exploitation in past decades one has to wonder if older generations have enough existing knowledge and understanding of complexity to sufficiently ‘teach’ it to their students. Somehow education of complexity must take place through a new kind of interaction in which students can find their way into new applications of complexity that their teachers will be totally unfamiliar with.

Not only that, but the swirl of systemic process that the next generation must be adept within, is characterized by uncertainty, ambiguity and moving relational blur that has no right or wrong answers. It will be impossible to test them on this material, and if they were tested the likelihood is that the faculty would not be able to keep up. Another way of putting this is that since the older generations are not proficient enough at complexity the best thing that can be done is to create an environment for this generative study and then get out of the way.

If there is a real effort to stop living in continuing exploitative and destructive ways it will take nothing short of total mind-set change to get there. How can we think about what we don’t know we are not thinking about? Helping increase each others’ insight is perhaps the most that can be hoped for. There are paradoxes like mazes to work through to find ways out of our epistemological traps. Getting out of old scripts, presuppositions and habituated thinking patterns is no joke. Like Wittgenstien’s flies in the bottle, we cannot see the traps we are in. The most concerted and heartfelt efforts to do things differently often end up being repeats of the old ways with slightly different vocabulary.  A few starlings in a murmuration will have a very hard time changing the movement of the group. They will have to be out of sync, and it is incredibly difficult to actually get out of the contexts that roll us from one day to the next. The pull is strong to stay in the flow of the many existing rhythms. Fissures, and confusion are needed. Art is especially needed, and, to be around people that do not see things as we do. We need curiosity, but we also need adventure, humor and most of all willingness to feel the pain of loss. There is numbness that has come with the centuries of destructive behavior that lie underneath the (western) education system. Sensitizing anew is like fish learning to fly, and it may seem impossible at first.

“When I was your age, I always did it for half-an-hour a day. Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.” –The Queen, in Through the Looking Glass, Lewis Carroll.




Carroll, Lewis, and John Tenniel. Alices Adventures in Wonderland and through the Looking Glass: By Lewis Carroll. New York, NY: Choice Pub., 1989.

Bateson, Gregory. Mind and Nature: A Necessary Unity. Cresskill, NJ: Hampton Press, 2002.

Bateson, Gregory. Mind and Nature: A Necessary Unity. Cresskill, NJ: Hampton Press, 2002.

Bateson, Nora. Small Arcs of Larger Circles: Framing through Other Patterns. Place of Publication Not Identified: Triarchy Pr, 2016.

Bateson, Nora. “Warm Data.” Norabateson. May 28, 2017. Accessed September 20, 2018.

Bateson, Nora. “A List of Relevant Questions.” Norabateson. January 18, 2017. Accessed September 20, 2018.

“Jeff Bloom’s Blog.” Jeff Bloom’s Blog. Accessed September 20, 2018.

Krafel, Paul. Seeing Nature: Deliberate Encounters with the Visible World. White River Junction, VT: Chelsea Green Pub., 1999.

Abbott, Lesley, and Cathy Nutbrown. Experiencing Reggio Emilia: Implications for Pre School Provision. Berkshire: Open University Press, 2010.

“Holochain.” Holochain. Accessed September 20, 2018.

data/.Goleman, Daniel, and Peter M. Senge. The Triple Focus: A New Approach to Education. Florence, MA: More Than Sound, 2015.  Christian, David. Big History. NY, NY: DK Publishing, 2016.

Kimmerer, Robin Wall. Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teachings of Plants. Minneapolis: Milkweed Editions, 2015.


Eating Sand & Tasting Textures of Communication in Warm Data


Nora Bateson 2019

For years I have written about the systemic crises of our times in terms of tenderness, and rawness. I have exposed my inner world in its morphing potential. I have felt it important to offset the many graphs and articles that blaze facts of climate change, people trafficking, addiction, immigration crisis, racism and wealth gap as statistics baked and served in varying analysis. I wanted to feel it, and to share the language of that sensorial exploration. I have been on the outside of corporate trends of language. I have been eating sand; doing gritty work, reaching into the frequencies that people felt were too far out of reach to be communicable. I do not have a single thing that is sellable on the market of solutions. But the sand has been good, it was formed by the tempests of both wind and sea. Response to today’s complex emergencies requires multisensory familiarity with emergence.

It matters. The way we talk about the crises, from rape to refugees, to climate and wealth gap, from crooked politics to obsolete ways of living –the way we discuss what needs to be done now will shape what it is possible to do.

Finally, it is time to publically notice what has been unsayable. If the discourse is moored to the existing notions of logic, then that is what will be delivered. The need to get out of the rational, credible, authorized tones of dishwasher instructional manuals cannot be overstated – This is not a moment to fix a machine, this is a moment to compose new cultures. This is the time to allow the success stories of the past to find themselves rewritten as denouement. The failures of the past are suddenly as vital as ancient grains.

If the story is told in flatness, the “solutions” will be flat. If the work is done in sterile rooms with sterile power-points, the findings will not be imbued with the new frequencies necessary. The connection between the textures that the emergencies are described within and the way responses can emerge is non-trivial. Stale discourse produces stale responses. Linear discourse produces linear responses. What sort of response is hoped for?

Right now, there is another form of communication beckoning, without which it will not be possible to make sense of the complexity we are within. Strangely, this new communication is not ABOUT complexity, it is within it. It is in the Warm Data, the relational information that integrates a complex system. It is in the mostly unspoken, un-measurable inter-steeping between contexts.

For example: a child’s behavior makes sense through cultural, familial, educational, emotional, intergenerational, technological, medicinal, economic influences coming together.

You cannot pull those contexts out of the child, nor can you pull the child from the contexts. The ways that kid goes into the world is always permeated with the world they perceive. You and me, we are that child, making sense, and behaving in infinite response to the contexts we are within. Our contexts calibrate with and through us. How to know where the contexts end and the self begins? Systems change is not about fixing the system. It is about sense-making. The fixing will happen by happenchance, not direct correctives… but only when the interdependencies come into view.

That’s the warm data.

And yet, the culture has produced professional institutions and parenting expectations that are premised on the idea that the child’s behavior can be isolated and fixed. Or, that the climate and refugee crises, wealth gap, and other emergencies can be isolated and fixed. It is as though there it is a given that the living world is somehow congruent to industry; each part fitted and assembled in another department. As such, the institutions are blind to context by design, receiving only specified veins of data to each one.

To widen the perception is risky as it requires first and foremost validating contextualization of the discourse, and mandating contextual response. This is radically outside of the mission of any of the institutions. But, to activate this contextual perception is to recognize that the fragmentary dismembered arrangement of the existing systems has failed to respect life. In many cases it is not even legal for information to cross contexts. Police info, health info, school info, are each locked up in separate boxes in a complicated right for privacy. And yet the child, and you and me, and the rest of the living world, we are all soaked through, there is no way to separate out my education from my emotion, from my instincts as a mother, from my microbiome, from my culture, from my language.

The institutions of education, law, health, politics, economy, media do not have the sense organs to take in information that includes the complexity of life. They are therefore devitalizing the world at all levels. The schools cannot include economic or cultural information in their testing, nor can they include the children’s innate ability to reject the reductionism that they are measured within. Health professionals are incapable of utilizing information about education, culture, and politics to treat patients whose suffering is tied to poverty, belief, and epistemological blockages. Law is riddled with binaries that are unable to account for contextual realities. Politics are locked to the last centuries, to profit, to jealousy, and to personal gain. The confusion generated by our institutions is a tornado of spinning consequences sucking up possibility for new responses. The blind spots are starting to scream.

The change is at the level of how the world is perceived, and then the values, morals, technology and governance will adjust as a consequence of perception shift. It is not the institutions job to stitch the world back together. The integrity that comes of integrating the many contexts of life is well beyond the reach of those organizations only capable of receiving one kind of information. Holistic coherence is invisible without contextual information and the necessary receptors. All else is contextually incoherent. The results of this incoherence are everywhere.

“All the kings horses and all the king’s men… could not put Humpty together again.”

But probably the poets could.

Probably the rappers can.

Probably those who have been so betrayed by the existing systems as to lose faith in it can. Ask the sand.

To recognize that the arrangement of existing systems has failed to respect life is a double bind. Survival of the existing systems is death, but destruction of the existing systems is also fatal. Even to mention this is a dangerous risk that could undermine all the goodness that our ancestors tried to achieve through ordered society. Damn. It was not enough. The change is at the level of what world is perceived, and then, only after that, the values, morals, technology and governance will shift as a consequence of that perception shift.

This is that moment, when the doctor says that without a drastic lifestyle change, your odds are not good. The old patterns, the logic, the history, have to be harmonized into what is possible. But that is only possible in the relation between the chords, the notes and the silences. It is only possible in the relationship between the self and the contexts, between the people and institutions, between my body and the environment I inhabit. All of that relationality is warm data, to be noticed, tended, and vitalized.

The numbness and distance of much of the discourse expressing all that needs to be addressed now both globally and personally scares me, almost more than the crises themselves. It scares me because it does not invite strangers and sand. I arrived unwanted, talking about the liminal spaces between the institutions, between generations, mixing things inconveniently. I have been scratching the skin of old language, watching it go red, feeling the itch and the sting.

No one really wants to question the stuff of deep belonging: things like the impermanence of current notions of ownership, material profit, citizenship, or even of the human species. But surely it is becoming difficult to deny that all of these are beginning to fray. Fundamentally, who am I without my things, my country, and my status (however dodgy)? Sensing into belongingness in a parallel set of interdependencies is disorienting. What matters? My financial status? Or my community in the biosphere. Remember, status is a relational pursuit that drives people to destroy other relationships. Is there a reorganizing of relational being that demands a new understanding of status beyond fame and fortune? What is status in relevance to the interdependencies of life?

Finding the other realms of self that can be rallied to meet this moment is urgent but not easy. The nuance is slippery to the language of emergency. This is not just about political outcry, or intellectual performance. This moment is about a weird and unshapely existential groping for who you and I might be in a world that is not yet formed. In-formation, information, inform-ation, what is formed forms. I am not being cute here, I am quite serious.

So I have gone off the trail, and into the forest, to get to new ways of attuning to and expressing the complexity of this moment. Sometimes people think I am being abstract, others may think it is because I do not know the theory, others may find it unfamiliar territory to mine the minutia of intimate sense-making moments. But this is how I find my way into the larger contexts, and how I keep my compass on the interdependency and avoid getting bogged in the existing scripts.

Talking about complexity is one thing. There are fat vocabulary words that impress some people and put-off others. There are models, math formulas, and definitions in the theory world that people tout like sports trivia. There are even cognitive development assessments to register those who can muster levels 4 and 5 of complex thinking. But then, there is life.

Life is of course complex. It always has been for every living organism. To be alive is to read and respond in some way to the contexts that one is within. Whether you are a child or a caterpillar, a politician or a babysitter you are already doing complexity, all day, every day. There is nothing impossible about it. The issue is the training to find causality in direct terms, name it and seek correctives at that level, which is never where it is.

The immigration laws won’t stop people from wanting cheap goods. Yet, every item produced through exploitation creates more desperation. Legal disavowment of the rights of migrants of won’t stop people who cannot feed their children from seeking new lives. The complexity is far beyond the reach of the law. Consequences of other sorts are however bound to emerge, like: humanitarian crimes, culture wars, political backlash, economic disruption, and intergenerational loss of faith in governance.

Knowing about complexity and systems theory is fun for me. The crunchy work my head has to do to play with the theoretical language is a delicious charge. This is my geek zone. Others have theirs in tech, history, mechanics, gardening, crafts, music or whatever. It is nice to have a niche, but ultimately insufficient. Finding the ways in which those theories and ideas have a place in my day, my body, my identity, my community, my microbiome–that is where the rigor goes into hyperspeed. In the intimacy of the tiniest of gestures is the multi-processed, multi-contextual, mutli-lingual, multi-everything-ed tissuing of what it is to be an animate, sensing learning, changing being. This is a portal into a sensitivity that is intensely personal and simultaneously universal.

The future is found in the logic of the affect. The salt is now desperately needed. The why of why an article is written in a particular tone, the who of who is verified by that tone, the when of when that tone is necessary to use. What is it not possible to say? Noticing that– is a revolution in itself. This used to be heresy to bring up aesthetics and tone, but now maybe its possible to bring this warm data to the boardrooms and parliaments. Remember, the opposite of aesthetic is anesthetic.

Each encounter, each conversation. Each action is an action in contextual processes saturated both into the detail of everyday life, intimately– as well as into the wider world. The texture and aesthetic of the way the crises of this time are discussed will become characteristic of the “solutions” generated. The warm data matters.






sense making sneaking in


If place makes me

Then maybe I don’t exist.

And if the memory of redwood dust is enough to find outlines

Then maybe I am still 9



Is a long story,

And I am the ink, the song, the characters.

I am the shoes. the dusty windowsill, and the rain outside.


I am the moment where you wonder if the threads will come together.


January 2019, San Francisco.


Daphne and Apollo

(This is a chapter from my book Small Arcs of Larger Circles, published by Triarchy Press, 2016)

I would love you as a bird loves flight, as meat loves salt, as a dog loves chase, as water finds its own level.

Or I would not love you at all.

—Jeanette Winterson, Gut Symmetries


In the Galleria Borghese in Rome I wandered into a room with a Bernini statue that rewrote me.

Bernini’s ‘Daphne and Apollo’ is a heartbreakingly beautiful sculpture of an unflinching adoration. It is the depiction of an ancient but suddenly viable map back to the trees, through an eternity of yearning. In an impossible balance of weight-defying marble, Bernini has set even the wind against Daphne and Apollo’s final union. They are carved into a perfection of endless almost-ness…

I did not know the myth well enough to recall the storyline. Greek myths these days are wholly half forgotten, at least. The symbols remain, holding time’s revisions in erasable pencil. Who was Daphne again? What was her story? I remembered who Apollo was.

The statue questioned:

How do you wish to be loved?

And what of the earth?

We will never be out of relationship with the ecologies we live within, so what is the relationship?

For me, I would want conquest to be put aside. Unkind measurements of physical or financial worth should be simply abandoned. We are not here to win one another, nor to be won. Winning has a flawed polarity within it that suggests the possibility of defeat, and presumes the impossibility of being equals. Win a prize, or win a race: I am neither. Whatever the math is of our giving and receiving, it is not to be counted, or compared like taxes, nor contaminated with doubt and manipulation.

One of Apollo’s hands is wound around Daphne’s waist. The statue captures the last minute, when his fingers hover just above her navel, excruciatingly soft, holding her. She is beginning to transform into the laurel tree, Apollo’s touch returns her to her body. In the same moment she is bound to the forest. Bernini delicately sculpts this cold marble into the mythology of the potential of humanity’s engagement to the natural world in verse between beloveds.

We are water. We are air. We grow, we bloom, we seed, we wilt, we die. There is a false separation between humanity and nature. Of course we are nature. But, while the one-ness is enticing, unity is not so useful if it obscures our perception of the aesthetic of our relationship with the world around us. The paradox is good for us; it is medicine against the habit of binaries. We are nature, and we can also be besotted by nature.

Apollo was too late—Daphne’s fingertips had already become leaves. She would not belong to him. She joined the forest just in time. Bernini’s statue is a story of everything alive, and everything lost—a love story of the highest caliber. A signal, written in stone, to remind us always of the never-ending ways we are bound to nature itself.

Slipping from longing to greed is a tiny shift in aperture. The marble remains in the same form that Bernini left it, but the story that is read into it changes.

I entered the room in the Galleria where the statue is kept, and in a flash of recognition of another metaphor of what an impassioned closeness to nature might be, I realized I never wanted to hear the terms ‘resources,’ ‘stewardship,’ or ‘sustainable’ ever again. For all the good intentions those endeavors have on their side, they do not describe any relationship I would want to be in. In those words we see control, possession, objectification, and manipulation. Ache and tenderness are another approach altogether. The story of Daphne and Apollo is an old story, ready for new telling, and perhaps for the reclamation of an original imagining.

A good story has many meanings, and a surprising number of the old ones warn us of the dangers of hubris. Bernini’s retelling pushes past that old trope into the uncertain complexity of consequences that describe life.

Still, hubris is catalyst. Apollo, in a show of arrogance about his own hunting skills, chided Cupid for playing with arrows “like a child.” That was a mistake. Never mess with Cupid. Never chide love. It followed that Cupid set out to teach Apollo a lesson, which thousands of years later we are apparently still learning.

Prior to that day, the gnats buzzed in the fields alongside the swimming holes where Apollo and the lovely Daphne were flirting. She was doing her best to give him an opportunity to pursue her by not seeming overly interested. (But really, he was Apollo forgodsakes, how disinterested could she be?) And he was willing and eager to flatter her, showing off and boasting about his gloriousness. Delicate beginnings were in play; the filigree of invitation was being woven.

Cupid was small and mischievous, wise and difficult. He was not to be one-upped. He shot a golden arrow into Apollo’s heart. As it pierced Apollo a poison of desire was released into his blood, making him lovesick and obsessed with Daphne. Then Cupid shot Daphne in the heart with a leaden arrow, rendering her incapable of loving again. The evolution of their courtship was contaminated by two unecological corrosives; greed and cynicism. Daphne was unjustly written into Apollo’s punishment, you might think. But ask anyone, such is the nature of relationship. We carry each other’s pain. We learn together, or we do not learn.

Wedding rings should not be made of gold. Gold is a symbol for material desire, for ownership, and wealth, for hoarding and possessing. Gold is not lovable. It is the opposite of love. Gold is a stand-in for the sun, but the sun offers itself freely. Gold is money, collecting, stockpiling, claiming, Gold is counting beans with hunched and caved-in chest, it is hoarding the stockpile; it’s a shadowy corner.

Hearts are broken open, but in the time that has passed since the tale was told, this myth of Apollo and Daphne has been gathering dust. In this era, where importance is measured through property and position, the embarrassing breaking open of hearts is irrelevant and unnecessary. Gold won.

Longing is lost in having. It is an art to ache. It requires stoic strength and unshakeable trust matched by equivalent portions of impatience and naked vulnerability. Stretching into the delirious pull of just-out-of-reach love, lights every cell. Apollo is reaching with body and soul in an unresolvable tension. In doing so he engages wholly in the intense effortlessness of the living world. Daphne is alive without measure, without time. The poetry of creation is necessarily incomplete—always unobtainable. It is emerging, dying, defining boundaries, and breaking them, contracting and expanding in controlled chaos, or chaotic control. This is the uncrackable code of evolution.

Gratification is an intruder on this lust; it is a bucket of water on the smoldering coals that bring the laws of attraction to their boiling point. Lust and greed can be easily confused, but when it comes to love and ecology, they stand in dire opposition. Lust, with greenery wound around it in a festival of fecundity, is spirited with a desire of unions, while greed rots rank, desiring only to possess.

People used to write love-letters, and have long courtships with parlor visits. There was a practice of longing, and escapees dashed off to the gardens for a tryst here and there. Do we, can we, yearn in this way for that which we now refer to as ‘resources’?

Daphne’s blood was poisoned by Cupid’s lead. Perhaps in this post-industrial era we have all tasted that poison. The beginning of the end was always in the lead—and then the steel. The first use of the stuff was a cut to the umbilical cord. Cold and hard, immune to the viral bloom of love’s warmth, it sent grey alloy into Daphne’s veins.

The math of love is not good math. The sums have never added up. But we are built to adopt another equation, one in which the shameless vitality of life is given a parallax of its own. Even though fall comes, even though death exists, even though the nature of nature is to change, we set aside eternity for love. Until we are broken. Then we either soften or harden.

With lead in her heart, Daphne was greying inside. Doubt takes desire and mocks it, folding suspicion into attraction until it does a U-turn and becomes repulsion. He said he needed her. She could see now that his attraction to her was for all the wrong reasons, in all the wrong ways. Doubt makes a case for the fact that it is better to run away than toward. What is in the balanceA choice that is not really a choice. A decision made in the undergrowth and overtones. A vision of self in isolation cannot imagine the materials of mending. No healing is conceivable when the heart is faced with a wheel of whirling blades, insincere promises, fickle emotions, and obsessive flattery. So Daphne ran. Possession is not love; it is exploitation waiting to happen. There is nothing but an abyss of pain there. “He is covetous, not ready to love, and incapable of balancing what he is driven by,” she thought. His vision of ownership of her did not allow for either of them to have dignity. His version of her as his own, erased her history, her future, her complexity. So, “He is unsafe. Run, don’t walk.”

Apollo was hopeless. He knew better, but he could not stop himself. The golden arrow he was cursed by was too dazzling, and set alight a craving he could not tame, nor satisfy. He could not leave her alone, he wanted her, wanted her, wanted her. Wanted her for his own. Love? Of course he thought it was love, he was bedazzled. So lovely; bare feet skipping over the roots on the forest floor as she escaped his grasp, how could he not need her? Why could she not just settle her lovely self into his arms where she belonged? Pretty and fair, her limbs would have folded around his arms perfectly. Alone in the forest he found he had stopped chasing her and had his arms outstretched in an imaginary embrace which held nothing but air. Find her, make her his. Explain to her, tell her, convince her, win her, have her. Earn her. Catch her…

Apollo was the world’s original charisma maven. The primary golden boy. Actually, before the Cupid mishap, Daphne liked Apollo. What’s not to like? He made her laugh, he was beautiful and strong. He may have been a bit boastful, but then he had reason to be. She was warming to his affection, letting him in. She could assign him the familiar roles from her tales of love and marriage, giving him the male lead, the part of the lover. She daydreamed. He was highly daydream-able, and they were well suited. She never let on though. Of course not. That would spoil the fun, take away the chase. Now the chase was going to take her.

The lead had woken her up to the hypocrisy of jettisoning self-respect for adoration. Women do that. Maybe men do too. But for Daphne, now that she could see the pattern—never again.

That they were the playthings in Cupid’s mischievous chemistry experiment was not cloaked from them. Both of them understood mentally what was happening. Knowing does not matter. Once the arrows struck there was no way to reason with the runaway emotions and talk sense to them. It never matters with love, or greed, or addiction, or vengefulness, or envy. Understand all you want, the structures and the causations are totally irrelevant next to the dragons that lurk below what we think of as rational.

Cupid only triggered what was already there. He merely turned up the volume on the weaknesses of the heart that Apollo and Daphne each previously harbored. Everyone has a weakness: too stoic, too gushy, too beautiful, too strong, too dependent, too independent, too needy…. It could happen to any of us, at any second. The holes in our armor are the possibilities either for growth or destruction. We know this and, since the risk is horrid, we wear masks over masks to disguise ourselves. Cupid played the symphony that was already there. He just cranked it up to rock concert levels and sat back to enjoy the performance.

Daphne’s feet sought refuge in the contact they made with the forest floor. If they could just hold her up, keep her moving away from him. One eye seemed to make more tears than the other. Half despair. Half destiny. Half of history and she was only half the story. But the tears were coming fast. The heated weight of lead tearing against its own metallic nature made her fragile. The pulled and torn gauze veil of her heart was thin. Transparent, surely it could not withstand the touch of even his breath. She was betrayed by false armor. She wondered, “How can you be filled with lead and still be breaking?”

She turned her head backwards to see how far behind he was. Not very. He was a glow of gold and strength, a beam of determination, ambition, focused on her. Tree trunks seemed to lean out of his path. Unimpeded, he leapt the tangled shrubs, catching the sunlight like fuel. Stunning luck, he was as confident: a gambler with a no-lose bet, he rolled the dice of the irreverent wind to carry him forward.

Daphne was only getting heavier, sinking with sorrow, lost in loss, she began to realize she could not do this alone. But with the cynicism in her now she trusted no one. The metal in her blood oxidized every molecule of belief, as bacteria in a petri dish devour sugar. How could she even cry out? The plea in her voice would carry her delicacy to the outside world.

‘Resistant to corrosion’—that was what she was supposed to be, that was the point of lead, last-forever-lead. Lasting forever in cold isolation without a lingering string of connective warmth.

The grief was too much to drag behind her, in her, through her. She had done the math badly and would face the grade. Better to be something else. Perhaps she could be a door to another realm, she thought to herself: “If you cannot handle the connections, avoid the endpoints and be connectivity itself. Merge.”

To go into a bond, and form linkage with another, is to dangle in the ravaging sea. She could not hold her end of the thread, could not see it, it was not hers. Apollo’s beckonings across the forest were like ice shards stabbing at her bones. The idea of their merging was to her a disaster. It was a cliff to fall off, a non-existent bridge across an immeasurable crevasse for her to fall through. In self-protection her instinct was to reject instead of being rejected.

Her concern for him was minimal. Surely another damsel would catch his eye. Surely it was all a game to him. The alchemy of distrust and self-doubt scared all sweetness away. She ran now, alongside her empty- handed future. She offered no options, even to herself. There were to be no deals, and no way out. Nothing was too much.

With the momentum of a boulder on its way to the bottom-feeders of the Red Sea, she sank. A smooth plummet headed directly to the abyss. Was she standing still, screaming silently? She looked down. No, she was running, she was still running. Her leaded footsteps embossed her despair into the forest floor.

Cynicism, measurement, failure, rejection brought on by pounding poison. She could never have loved. She was emotional lead, melted to form but not to forge a bond. It was not written. Another nymph in another myth could maybe enjoy such mush. For Daphne, it would be better to transform into something that was already woven into the pattern. That way she could be un-partnered and still never be alone, like a tree in the forest.

“Change me,” she called to Peneus, “I cannot be. These limbs will carry only vulnerability, this womb will carry only the seeds of worthlessness, nothing will grow in me, nothing can absorb the nutrients of creation. I cannot be a vessel, let me out, change me… change me. If I cannot be creative, let me rest in the lap of creation, and be of some assistance there.”

The weight of cold lead seared and stripped her veins. She could not run further. Apollo was catching up.

The cold became cool, and the grey in her blood began to feel green. Fingertips first opening into leaves branching into stems. Her toes began rooting into the earth searching the moistness and gritty ground, finding bracing and balancing her against the winds. Her lungs filled for the last time with the breath that passed her lips. From this moment onward she would make oxygen, not inhale it. Her exhale was the flash of heat and the brush of ecstasy that trailed from where his fingertips whispered over her skin…

Apollo, was late. I wondered, as I stood in the corner of the Galleria, why are men always a second too late?

When their bodies touched, the antidote to Cupid’s poisons was scheduled to release them from the cursed arrows. Cupid knew better than to disrupt love. He was just a prankster. Apollo’s fingerprint on her belly sent affection flushing through Daphne’s veins with the scorching of a young woman whose body has just woken to love. But by then other influences were at work—her father’s magic was already in play; bark wrapped itself around her torso, leaves sprang from her hair, but her circulation was storming with the essence of her femininity met in full by Apollo’s love. Those were the last seconds of her life as a woman. Some still say she was one of the lucky ones.

Daphne reaches, marble arms like branches, lifting into the sunlight while I almost merge with her. Her tragedy and her triumph are tightly strung in the harmonizing chord so recklessly rung. This is life itself, it is love, it is yes & no, order & chaos. And it is ringing us all into existence. Invite life as it is—as much grace as disaster. There will be shredded emotional tissue and there will be the floating wisps of infatuated cloud dance. Or, without invitation, it’s just another statue; it’s nothing at all.

There in carved marble in the far western hall of the Galleria Borghese a study of who we are as ecologists is carved into our mythology. But which mythology? Whose version? I had the benefit of blurred vision, a half screwed up understanding of the piece. I read my own story. I know, with heavier stone now, the game of gold and lead and love and humanity and the earth. Longing now, to long again and to touch the belly of my natural nature. Is there a mythology that can release us from the grip of havingness? To adore the world around me as I would be adored, and never find the end of the strings that pull? I will remember Apollo in his reach for Daphne, and retell the story of the trees. Unsolved, unfinished.

And they lived stretched taught in desperate yearning ever after…

Phoebus (Apollo) admired and loved the graceful tree, (For still, though changed, her slender form remained) and with his right hand lingering on the trunk he felt her bosom throbbing in the bark. He clung to trunk and branch as though to twine.

—Ovid, Metamorphoses (A.D. Melville translatio



The Salt in the Broth, Warm Data and Systems Change

Written Feb 1 2019

Is there space in the keyboard strokes for the pink of life?

Assembling letters into words into images that reach into feelings, –inviting
memories, things once known, regrets, and touching the purple bruises of this
moment. Is there a chance now to say what we have known and previously tried not
to voice?

People will demand clarity, accessibility, direct-ness. They will tut-tut and brush off the brushstrokes that do not have the ring of sterility and know-how.
I apologize. I do not mean to be incomprehensible. I am not itching for cleverness, or decorative prose. It is the bruising that is purple, not the words.

So much information is missing in the surgical extraction from context. It is
inevitable that there will be consequences when that decontextualized information is the basis upon which decisions are made. There is no way to respond to the complexity around us without accessing our own complexity.

Thus, variety of new textures of expression and comprehension are needed.
What you cannot hear now is the silence, then a flurry of drumming fingertips,
erratic, stochastic. Time is peeking through thoughts in bursts of tapped out words,in stewed mixtures of eras, some to come. Somewhere there is a ghost of an old typewriter, a feather dipped in ink, stains on bark. Markings.

The weight in me says prose cannot hold the blood of this work. What to write? How to say what needs saying?

Perhaps the confusion frothing now in politics and culture is pushing the thresholds of recognition that more relational information is needed. Not more
decontextualized information, but more Warm Data. The warm data is what is
between the stakeholders, between the organisms in an ecology, between the ideas, cultures, and languages.

Now the fissures in understanding how to fit into a changing world have let in the smog of despair and a tsunami of pharmaceutical meds to soothe it. Perhaps that despair is proof enough to reveal the need for understanding the missing vistas of interaction. Perhaps the innumerable efforts and projects that sought to do-good fixing the world and failed… perhaps those are evidence enough that the way of comprehending society, economics, nature, each other, sex, food, education…was not enough. The studies were trimmed from their larger contexts of life.

I learned recently of a project by SEED to ”End poverty one person at a time”—and thought, oh my… why did they ever think that poverty could be anything less than communal, cross-cultural, international, transcontextual? Millions went into that project, and it was a disaster, of course.

None of what we are faced with can be tackled in isolation. I am learning from the work I have been doing with Warm Data about the nature of interdependency. I
have found that culture, society, economy industry are inextricably saturated into one another. Working with parts and wholes is not so useful in this case. Zooming in and zooming out is insufficient, we have to do both at once. I think of the systemic combining as a kind of broth, instead of linked pieces. The difference is akin to the contrast between that which is interconnected, and that which is interdependent. Interconnected things can be taken apart and fiddled with, fixed and replaced. Interdependency requires another sort of approach. You cannot take the salt out of the broth, or the grapes out of the wine.

The current conditions of socio economic and cultural addiction to exploitation have been brewing and stewing for centuries. The limits of perception are inside the language, inside the infrastructure, inside notions of identity. To create conditions in which new sense can be made is to allow the warm data to reorganize. How are we symmathesizing our world?

The connective tissue repair, the mending of rips in perception—this kind of thing is not accessible in direct language.Warm data requires more of you. More than your job, your expertise, your title, more than you know you have to give.
The connective tissue above—the murky interdependency of nature, society, and all of that is best found in your connective tissue.

You wont find it in the graphs.
Or the stats.
Or the lists of stakeholders.
The gaps between the subjects, objects, verbs, and grammar of tight capsules is a vast lost space, where the most important sensible assessments can drain out.
Have you ever filled a jar with marbles? It was not full. The space between them
could still hold what seems like a full jar of water.

So many isolated institutions, people, ideas, societies—and adjusting them does not seem to fill the jar.
It turns out that systems change is more profound than tweaking a few institutional protocols. It is more profound than branding green goods. It turns out that systemschange is in the way my metabolism looks forward to coffee, or craves proteins.

Systems change is in the connective tissue, and the only way to reach it is indirectly. If that is the project, then that is where the work is… but it must be done carefully, very, very carefully. In that tender liminal realm much resides. The ability to love, the capacity to desire another relationship with each other and the world, a relationship that is vital, not exploitative.

Status— is re-sculpted there.
Let’s go there.

In the Museum of Anthropology in British Columbia this week there was a quote on
the wall that read:
“Everything depends on everything else.” This is a proverb from the Haida Gawaii.

Everything is in infinite responsiveness.

What is the point in averting my eyes to this very obvious realness? Is it
inconvenient? Yes, but only in so much as it will rub against the expectations of planners, and funders in ways they have no existing protocol for. Right now the broth is no one’s responsibility. It is not the educators, or the politicians, or the doctors, or the lawyers, or the scientists, or the business people, or economists, or the artists, (maybe the artists hold a little bit of responsibility)—and it is suicidal for every one to keep doing the jobs they have now. To stay alive in a changing world is to imagine another way of life.

Here is a metaphor for thinking about how difficult it is to discern where you endand your context begins. Systems change is not located in just one context at a time. Try thinking of yourself as a stick-bug in a tree. Or a snow fox in a tundra. You are an extension of the contexts of your life, and they are an extension of you. You do not end with your skin or your tax ID number. You are generations, communities, you are ecologies. Who am I as a stick bug if there is no tree? Who am I as a snow fox if there is no snowy landscape? Wondering why systems change is so tricky? Wondering why there has been so little shift after decades of discourse on how humanity needs to respect the environment, limit growth, stop exploitation?

Living differently is no joke. It is not a refurbishing, or a greener renovation of my current patterns and habits.

The connective tissue is torn, scarred, but still unavoidably there. Alive and
configuring, contorting, responding to the conditions around us.

Go there. No one form of communication is adequate. The contexts of are mixing as they are informing, transferring, melting together cognition.

Go with multiple description into the landscape in which none of the maps apply.
The deep down. Where your health is the health of the next generation, the health of the community, the health of the biosphere… it is not a doctors office visit, a diet, or an exercise regime. Your health is a measurement not of your vitals but of your ability to perceive and give vitality to the overlapping living processes around you, beyond you, within you.

The transcontextual work is there, waiting. Aching for the tourniquet of our
separated perceptions to be untied, so the blood can flow. The grants and funders cannot hear the frequency yet. The politicians are quick to play the chords of emotion, but they do not know what they are tampering with.

But it will not be in the direct language of strategy and authorized leadership.
It is in the intense generosity of contact, and overlap. It is in the wash of emotion, and irrational mythological hangovers. I am sorry, but it just is. No amount of scrubbing the language of change clean off the sticky plasmas of life. Nothing will make the interdependency of the work ahead less messy.

The assembly of words, of ideas of notions and voices combine to form, and to
inform. But they are just words, and some will lead us to lostness.There is work to do, and it is better to know that it is vast and difficult, than to sell it
as easily-fixable or profitable.

Some of this real, tangible, and graspable. Some is not. The spectrum between is where the mutual learning, the renaming, and the finding lies.


Note: thank you to the Transform Series for publishing this.


The work of the coming decades is not the work of manufacturing, of software development, or of retail seduction, it is the work of caring. Caring for each other and the biosphere. In that care there is the hope of finding new ways of making sense of our own vitality.  The ‘my’ in my health is not mine; rather it is a consequence of my microbiome, my family, my community, and the biosphere being cared for. The work ahead is not clear or clean. It requires intense integrity, patience in ambiguity, fierce dedication, raw vulnerability, bleeding humility, and the poetry of explorers.

There are sufferings now.  Because there is suffering there is the possibility of mutual learning. Non feeling is a non option.

But it is different than before. As it becomes clear that there is a critical need for systems change, fissures are forming in the idea of fitting in.

Swerving. N. Bateson

One suffering is the suffering of being incompatible with the going game, where the grooves and pathways of life others presume normal are impossible, uncrackable, and untenable.  The isolation of knowing there is a frequency that others can hear, and not finding it. It is like the instructions are in another language, written in invisible ink. The realm that others occupy, comparing successes, jobs, credibility and status, is mostly abstract, out of reach, and to fit into it requires extreme inner acrobatics.

Another suffering is that of fitting in. This is the suffering of finding oneself so synchronized into the contextual pattern structures that it is impossible to perceive or shift or change the habituated systems of day-to day. This is the suffering of successful compatibility in the dominant socio-cultural assumptions such that every move seems to feed the monster of current institutional insanity. This stuckness is waterproof to knowing the deadly consequences of not-changing both to humanity and countless other organisms.  Like a Kafka story, the visceral experience is of recognizing that the logic of the surrounding systems has consumed play and rebellion. You will lose your job, your status, and your credibility if you swerve.

One suffering is the suffering of loving someone who suffering.

This is a terrible time to be normal, (whatever that is) when the mandate for ecological survival is contingent on breaking from the sense making that is entrained.

But to orbit outside the flows of the current systems of modern life is to be excruciatingly isolated.

It does not serve to facilitate numbness to this pain. It hurts because it hurts.  The tears are cultural, conceptual, and ecological.

The double bind of this era is that continuance of our species requires discontinuance of current means of survival. Business as usual is a swift endgame. Yet the rent must be paid, and breakfast must be possible. To live through next week is to take part in systems that are destructive to the future.

To get unbroken a breakthrough is needed.


There is need.

Those who are in step and rhythm with the way things are, despite future incompatibility with life.

Those who read the signals and follow the signposts in the map of today.

Those who have fitted infinite capacity for contextual response into one frame of  limited contexts.


Those who are hearing another tonality.

Those who make sense in another way

Those who do not fit.

What does it mean to fit into a rapidly changing world?

Any small window of another sensorial experience is more precious than gold now.  It is time to listen carefully. It is time to pay attention in wide ways. Let logic unravel into warm complexity.

The fodder for this mutual learning is connections connecting in unexpected ways. Discovering flavors of thought.

 Mapping textures of knowing.

 Together we are traveling in tenderness through wordless gestures. Offering one another unframed contact. Un-labeling each other is the greatest rigor and the greatest gift.

 Allowing multitudes of selves to mingle and form new ecologies of communication.

 Abandoning the flatness of analysis that prides itself on non-emotional rationality.

 If the interaction is not funny, angry, curious, confused, indignant, and at least a little bit destructive… it is not worth ten minutes now.

 In a changing world what is healthy or not healthy, what is it to know yourself in a culture that is unweaving itself?  Who are we, now? And who am I in my complexity in relation specifically to you in your complexity?

I am resisting the antiseptic distance, and diving into relationships of mutual learning. Relationships in which there is an acknowledgement that it is a violence to reduce ourselves and each other to definitions, titles and labels. I am not gone, or fragmented, I am real and confused and unscripted. As such I am no source of tricks or easy methodologies. I am not interested in technique. It obscures the unsearched for complexity. Rather I am a sea anemone, all tentacles sensing into our combined vitalities and learnings exploring our mutual dignity.  Noticing paradoxes and contradictions, tones and strangenesses. There—in the warm data of our interactions is where entirely unanticipated possibilities are to be found.

IMG_0247 (1)

Warm Data to Better Meet the Complex Risks of This Era

By Nora Bateson 2018

*This is a small piece that was written for the document presented for the General Assembly 2019 Global Risk Assessment.


The problems the world is facing now, including ecological damage, natural disasters, poverty, species loss, political upheaval, refugee trauma, and even health epidemics, can all be described as complex, that is, they are born of circumstances that are multi-causal and non-linear. This complexity vexes the traditional problem-solving model of separating the problems into singularly defined parts and solving for the symptoms. The very nature of complexity undermines the familiar mandate to define goals and strategies to achieve pre-envisioned, single sector solutions. None of the issues above can be understood as stand alone issues. These issues are wrapped in contextual interdependencies that require an entirely different approach in assessment, and action.

Warm Data is a Complementary form of Information.

A majority of current scientific research tools and methodologies pull “subjects” from their contexts in order to derive detailed, specialized, quantifiable information. To complement, and yet support, this specialized type of science, a wider practice of science in the future might develop ways to utilize information derived from both detail and interdependency. However, for now, the cultural habit of decontextualizing information, or, reductionism, is the standardized, authorized, and empirical norm.

“Warm Data” can be defined as: Transcontextual information about the interrelationships that integrate a complex system.

For instance, if there is an addiction crisis in a particular community, statistics are not enough information to begin to make a systemic response. Usually addiction is categorized as either a legal or medical issue, and those two groups of experts would be tasked to address the problem. But in truth, more contextual information is needed. The contexts of economics, politics, education systems and culture in community must also be brought into the research. The warm data is then found in the relationships between these institutions. In that sense streams of data from each will only present vast qualities of data, and still not provide the necessary relational content that is generated between the contexts.

Ability to Respond to Wicked Problems

There are several contexts of long term degradation of social, economic, cultural and ecological systems that are now conjoining to form what are sometimes called, “wicked problems”. Timelines of increasing cultural and ecological upheaval as described by the IPCC and multiple other scientific bodies are currently pressuring policy makers to try new approaches to meeting today’s challenges. Those new approaches must be rooted in a more competent understanding of ways in which complex systems behave. To meet those problems, it is not enough to depend on data that addresses single cause and relies on linear solution. The combining of causations of poverty, addiction, racial tension, refugee trauma, people trafficking, political polarity and increasing statistics of mental health issues make events in this era much more complicated than they may have been in the past.

In order to make more appropriate assessment and response to risks arising out of multi causal circumstances observation that can appropriately address the complexity is greatly needed. The decision made around what actions to take, by whom and with what resources, are decisions based upon information of the situation or event. If that information cannot hold the appropriate complexity the decisions will be founded on inadequate knowledge. It is therefore necessary to ask:

What information is being used to assess the risks of today?

How has the research that has delivered that information been conducted?

What is Contextual Information or Warm Data?

Context includes the relational processes that come together to produce a situation. And, most complex situations are in fact trans-contextual, that is there is more than one context in play. This sort of information brings together multiple forms of observation, from multiple perspectives. Recognition that information can and does come in many forms the warm data research team will look for on the ground ‘wisdom’ of locals, art, personal stories, and the voices of many generations. The task of Warm Data is to incorporate not just details, but the relationship between details at many scales.

The reality is that often illness, language barriers, addiction, violence and mental health issues are all present in a given neighborhood or household. Responding to community or ecological emergency in such cases reveals the need for expertise that spans a breadth of contextual conditions. Contextual information in the form of Warm Data, has begun to be used by researchers, governments, and public service professionals. Warm Data is information that can be used to assess a complex situation. It is derived through an approach that seeks to articulate the relational interdependencies.

For example, a natural disaster such as Katrina today would bring more layers of complexity than response teams in 2005 were prepared for. Even task of evacuation now would be exacerbated by increased mistrust of law enforcement in Black and Latino communities, opiate addiction prevalence and the subsequent vulnerability and criminality it brings, as well as trauma of refugees and immigrants making census statistics obsolete, and communication fearful.

Inter-systemic Research and Response.

Crises in complex systems do not stay in one sector at a time. Rapid transformation of ecological patterns, are feeding into systemic risk across all socio-economic structures. This transformation is already beginning to be felt in the detail of people’s lives, in their families and in their communities as well at global levels. Many industries experiencing changes in local economies as trade and other global structures shift, thus upending community stability level in terms of employment, health, and family well-being. Therefore the repercussions, such as domestic violence and increased mental health issues, must be considered within the same inquiry as drought, sea level rise and species depletion. And yet, current institutional structures mitigate these complex issues through the protocols of attending only to what is within their specific jurisdiction. Health crises remain in the realm of health systems, while economic issues are under the attention of finance and employment. Likewise ecological risks overlapping with cultural or political risks must be researched in their relational interdependency.

To prevent further tearing apart of communal resilience a recognition of warm data reveals that supporting the connective tissue that holds the families and community together is a more effective approach. A community that has a mandate across sectors to tend to the families within it will support parents in their support for their children. This is called second order support moves laterally across communities. While it is often not visible in direct linear deliverables, the overall fabric of the community is strengthened and more able to respond in collaborative ways.

It is necessary therefore to develop bridges of research and increased communication across societal systems. This is particularly true of public service systems. Lack of communication and contextual perspective between such systems as education, health, transportation, and communication leave communities vulnerable. By contrast, connection and increased contact between such sectors will make the community more robust and resilient to both long term and sudden emergencies. The development of warm data approaches cultivates the relationship between sectors to strengthen inter-systemic interaction and collaboration.

Changing Patterns of Interaction at Local Levels:

The natural extension of this process is bridge building across systems This is a step toward forming collaborative decision making bodies at local levels. In doing so there is the possibility to bring together people from different, but interdependent fields to explore and restore local community vitality. As these community groups form and exchange knowledge, new communication patterns begin to form linking otherwise separated sectors of experience. The place-based solutions that emerge from the collaborative development of contextual warm data lends itself to self-organizing around actions that are co-created, and local ownership of both data and solutions. Providing a context, (warm data) for the context is a meta shift that generates connection, communication, and action which is able to meet complexity in new ways. Drawing from collective intelligence, and mutual learning local capacity is vastly increased.

When research is done in this way, across contexts, what becomes apparent is the interdependency. Food for example, is not separable from the economic system, nor is it separable from the culture, or agriculture, or even medicine. Food is also an important catalyst for forming bonds between generations. To address the communal needs in terms of food in a systemic way is to have brought to light the insights of the relationships that tie food to the community. In this sense the work of supporting food initiatives is not simply set to distribution or nutrition, but rather to knitting the relationships between the contexts listed above into projects and actions that involve the whole community. The solutions lie in the recognition of collective response. No single response is enough to address a complex problem.

Overlapping Forms of Knowledge to Produce Warm Data Research

While contextual information is certainly multidisciplinary, there are limits to what is sometimes thought of as multidisciplinary information. The practice of listing the stakeholders and applying separated streams of data about each one in an attempt to get an overview of a complex system is becoming more popular, but it has drawbacks as well. While this process is useful to some extent the vital information will continue to elude those trying to make sense of it. The disciplines as such do not have any overlap of jargon or expertise. The warm data is in the overlap, and is produced by teams whose inquiry is practiced in crossing contextual frames, and finding patterns. The lens of contextual inquiry, and transcontextual research is one that brings not only disciplines together, but many other forms of knowledge, including the wisdom of local practitioners and cultural sensitivity.

While the crises of political, ecological or social emergencies are obvious as news stories, the more systemic consequences and consequences of consequences are easily disconnected from their network of causations. When superficial solutions are implemented to provide solutions to problems in complex systems the problems, like heads on the mythological Hydra, grow in number. Whereas, contextual response is far more effective. And, the benefits are felt across multiple sectors simultaneously. Information is needed that presents the contextual interlinking of the impacts as they are felt at the individual level within the larger global contexts. This information will be vital to understanding better how to respond to risks that cannot be contained in a single sector.


More on Warm Data:

Small Arcs of larger Circles, by Nora Bateson published by Trairchy Press 2016

Upcoming book 2019: Warm Data,  Nora Bateson, Triarchy Press, 2019