Warm Data

Contextual Research and New forms of Information

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.
“Warm Data” can be defined as: Transcontextual information about the interrelationships that integrate a complex system.
Information can come in many forms, depending on what is being studied. There is a need now for a way to gather and impart relational information when what we need to study is relational in nature. Warm Data is a category of information to develop in tandem to existing forms of data. This kind of information is a slippery mess of variables, changes, and ambiguities. It does not sit nicely in graphs or models, and it takes longer to produce. Since Warm Data describes relational interdependencies it must also include the necessary contradictions, binds (double-binds and more), and inconsistencies that occur in interrelational processes over time. Warm Data is the delivery of these multiple descriptions in active comparison, usually in a form that permits and even encourages the subjectivity of the observer within which it is possible to make meta connections.
This essay is an exploration of how and why Warm Data is developing as a form of documentation of relational and contextual information. Here the discussion does not go into the ways in which Warm Data are produced, or what do with Warm Data in terms of “actions”.
Making Sense & Science:
In early 2012, I was at a session on Big Data at the SAS Institute in North Carolina when I declared to my colleagues that there is a need for “contextual information” and first referred to it as “Warm Data.” That moment marked the beginning of conceptualizing and exploring the possibilities of producing an approach to research, and then imagining what the delivery of “Warm Data” research might look like.
I was not clear what it was yet, I was only certain of one thing: that a new kind of information was needed to balance the information produced by research that decontextualized its subjects of inquiry. In short, the way in which we make sense of the world has everything to do with the way we behave in it, so I saw a need for another sense-making as a necessary component of shifting behavior. Five years later the International Bateson Institute is now utilizing “Warm Data” in our research and findings on addiction, how systems learn, health and ecology.
Science, the systematic pursuit of knowledge, is at the center of the post-trust, post-truth meltdown. It appears that information as a product of knowledge, is now on trail. Every research study it would appear, is perforated with holes of distrust and met with counter evidence. Research bias and funding-based conflicts of interest have undermined public confidence in scientific research results, even though good research remains the best (and only) possible way forward as we look for ways to reduce our negative impact on the world around us. Subsequent public confusion and division is resulting in binary argument fueled by information that has been derived without the complexity required to actually make sense of it contextually. The damage is vast.
In this era, it is nearly impossible to get through a day without contributing to the destruction of our world. By lunchtime most people have participated in: further disruption to the ecology, an increase in the wealth gap, the demise of social justice, and the vengeful division between cultures. Breakfast cereals are laced with chemical pesticides that are known to be toxic both to our bodies and to the soil. They also contain damagingly high amounts of refined sugar. Yet these harmful practices have been approved by the institutional authorities of science and society. How has it come to this? And how can new patterns of interaction in our societies be encouraged to emerge? Our social deference to authorized institutions in the interest of collective safety has evolved over centuries. But that safety has been contaminated, along with our trust in the institutions that are supposed to provide truth and justice. How can science evolve to contribute to greater trustworthiness of our socio-economic institutions? How can sense be made of this tangle?
Part of the problem is that, globally, nationally and personally, we face crises that can be described as “complex” or “wicked” problems. Complexity is recognizable in situations which have multiple variables in ever shifting contexts of interdependency. Some examples of complex living systems are oceans, cities, families, economic systems, culture, the health of our own bodies, and the medical systems we expect to support them.
In each of these systems, vitality is produced by multiple processes in contextual interaction. To study a jungle is to recognize that the jungle itself is not an isolated “thing” but instead exists in the interrelationship between soil, foliage, animals, weather patterns, bacteria and so on. The same contextual linkings can be found in all living systems; approaching the system without an understanding of this holism will create short circuits in the complexity and countless unintended consequences. Making sense of the vitality of a complex system is an inquiry into its way of making contact. A study of the relational patterns gives entirely different understanding of the way in which a system is cohering.
“At present there is no existing science whose special interest is the combining of pieces of information. But I shall argue that the evolutionary process must depend upon such double increments of information. 
Every evolutionary step is an addition of information to an already existing system. Because this is so, the combinations, harmonies, and discords between successive pieces and layers of information will present many problems of survival and determine many directions of change.”–Gregory Bateson, Mind & Nature, 1979
Why Warm Data?
Although statistical data is useful, it is also limited by the common practice it often accompanies: decontextualizing the focus of inquiry. To study something is usually to pull it out of context and examine it in isolation. Rarely is the study re-contextualized to look at the complexity of its larger web of relationships. Warm Data circumnavigates the limitations inherent to statistical analysis by engaging a transcontextual research methodology, bringing not only context, but multiple contexts into the inquiry process. In order to interface with any complex system without disrupting the cohesion of the interdependencies that give it integrity, we must look at the spread of relationships that make the system robust. Simply using analytic methods focused on parsing statistical (cold) data will often point to conclusions that disregard the complexity of the situation at hand. Moreover, information that does not take into account the full scope of interrelationality in a system is likely to inspire misguided decision-making, which compounds already “wicked” problems. Warm Data is not meant to replace or in any way diminish other data, but rather it is meant to keep data of certain sorts “warm” — with a nest of relations intact.

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Photo by Jeff Bloom

Transcontextual Research & the Rigor of Ambiguity:
Warm Data provides cross-sector interrelational information because it is the outcome of a research approach premised upon the transcontextual interaction inherent in any system. This sort of inquiry is daunting and perpetually in its pioneering stages. This research is has as its basis humility for the un-knowability and ambiguity inherent in these forms of study. However, these inevitable uncertainties we recognize do not lead us to an abandonment of deep study. On the contrary, studying relational information from multiple contextual perspectives, produces more work, takes more time, and requires larger teams. The rigor of this research is not to be underestimated. For example, if one wants to study the ways in which food impacts our lives, a multifaceted study of ecology, culture, agriculture, economy, cross-generational communication, and media is needed. This transcontextual platform provides a wider contextual framework for further inquiry into what forms and constitutes certain international contemporary issues such as eating disorders, starvation, and other health problems associated with diet. Or in a family study, to better understand an individual family member the Warm Data of the family culture, and other contextual information is enormously productive. The meanings of behavior differ greatly from family to family and from culture to culture, therefore contextual information can provide needed insight into otherwise line item analysis, diagnostics and understandings of causation. People migration, the changing banking industry, and the challenges facing mechanical and civil engineering are all topics that would benefit from an increase in contextual, relational information.
Warm Data is generated through a Batesonian[1] approach of comparing interrelating processes in a given system. This approach needs us to reconsider our prevailing epistemology, to foreground the study of interdependency, to observe the observer and to look for “the pattern that connects”.
What is the pattern that connects? This question, famously posed by Gregory Bateson (father of the author), draws the inquirer and researcher to another level of description. It is an invitation to reach behind the perceived separations of knowledge to get to the contextual knitting together of definitively inseparable processes.
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.
An evolution in the realm of science is needed to foreground, and find ways to communicate (and “deliver”) another form of information, one that is less likely to be riddled with errors deriving from hidden contextual consequences. But it will require a significant shift in epistemology to begin to perceive the interrelationality in addition to the parts and wholes of any given system. A shift in the way information is derived will, in turn, inform the actions we take to protect society and ecology.
The Scientific Revolution of the 1600s brought us the scientific method and the bounty of mechanistic thinking. It brought us the notions of induction, empiricism, hard evidence, quantitative measurement, and objectivity. All of these have been enormously useful: skyscrapers, aircraft, computers and EKG machines are all manifestations of this form of scientific research and development. But not all studies are served by the empirical and inductive quantitative method. There are some forms of understanding that resist measurement and elude objectivity: these can include understanding of what is necessary for raising children well or understanding the ramifications of culture on climate change. Reductionism, or the habit of isolating information from its context(s), has been good to us, and it has been deadly.
If there is a concerted effort and demand from the scientific community and from society at large, we may witness a shift in scientific practices to include another form of research that will deliver information that includes the interdependency within complex systems. But this is not an easy shift. The habits of studying things through silo-ed disciplines is deeply entrenched in our culture.
In the mid 1950s the beginnings of a new way of understanding systems emerged in the study of “cybernetics”. Cybernetics offered the tools to look at how the “parts” of systems came together. But this tool was not easy to bring into the fold of scientific notions of isolating objective truth. The logic of “cause and effect” within the study of complex living systems defies the confines of existing methodologies. Interrelationships whose combined processes create the conditions for a particular consequence, such as an addiction, or economic wealth gap, or racism are impossible to quantify without distortion.
Observing the observer:
It takes a team of people to study in this new way. It also takes an open-ended declaration of “outcome” because this form of scientific research will produce only unforeseen “deliverables”. Stabilized, standardized “objective” science is fine for the study of some subjects, but not all. In the case of living systems and complex problems the “facts” are not always enough. The facts according to whom? Through what cultural, and methodological lens were they looking?
The observer matters, and teams of observers matter. Since data are always derived through the particular lens of the researchers, descriptions of their filters of perception are vital information and must not be sterilized out of findings.
As we currently witness the melting of trust in science, politics, law, medicine, social systems and economics, it is clear that this era will require a reclaiming of trustworthiness. Lamenting the postmodern condition of multiple relative truths and impossible clarity is only partially useful in regaining trustworthiness. Beyond the cynicism that the postmodern dilemma delivers is the practical need for better questions, and more rigorous inquiry into complexity.
We can remember that at the same time as the scientific revolution of the 1600s there was a corresponding period in art in which the techniques for rendering perfect replication of still life were constantly improved. Yet in the ensuing centuries it became clear that perfection was not enough. Baroque still lifes may have pursued a photographic realism, but later art movements such as Impressionism, Expressionism, Surrealism, Modernism and Postmodernism were responses to a need for a different envisioning of information, as not only “about the chair” but about who is seeing the chair, and how it might be possible to perceive “chair-ness.” Now perhaps it is time for science in its turn to adopt a parallel course of discovery around what perception and information are.
Historical antecedents:
Warm Data is not really new. Throughout history people have used aggregated information toward a natural history approach. Often these findings were often metabolized into other forms of information more readily recognized by the society. It would seem that devolution of natural history is part of the natural history, as it gets sucked back into the cultural paradigms of credibility. The limits of rationale hold particular sense-making habits in place, while others remain threatening. However, there has been a stream of inquiry that has always existed in which relational information was produced. This introduction of the notion of Warm Data is offered here in response to the need for this type of information to be strengthened and honored.

The alchemists, Leonardo da Vinci, Goethe, William Blake, people producing case law, Pythagoras, anthropologists, and artists like Shakespeare, Hokosai, Bjork and countless others have used their own means of bringing together multiple forms of information and rubbing them together to find new perspectives. Currently qualitative research teams and methods are becoming increasingly popular. They may benefit from the naming of another form of information in which to place their findings.
Characteristics of Warm Data:
To more effectively meet the challenges of this new sort of rigor, we require studies that generate understanding of contextual systemic data. The information generated makes a difference not only in scientific research, but also in the contextual influences considered in decision-making. Here are six characteristics of Warm Data.
1. Multiple description: This is a way to illustrate processes and contexts of interdependency. Multiple description both blurs the distinctions between contexts, and describes them through difference, comparison and relational perception. While it might appear that this process would lead to an untenable and infinite collection of perspectives, the Batesonian notion of information as “difference that makes a difference” is way to study the relation between perspectives, through contrasting qualitative characteristics. The information is not located but diffused into the contextual contacts and boundaries.
2. Looking for pattern: We compare findings from one context with findings of similar patterns in other contexts, to generate hybrid information. This is very much in keeping with Pierce’s Abduction. The findings from pattern comparison across contexts are conceptual, and indirect. For example, the patterns of ecological relationships in a tide pool can be compared to the patterns of relationship in a family, but the needs of survival for the tide pool are clearly different in detail than those of the family. Understanding the patterns comparing ecological systems is useful for studies of other systems, even though the systems may be not be alike in their details.
3. Paradox, inconsistency and time: Scientific research premised upon the complexity of a system in relation to its environment will produce paradox and inconsistency, by necessity. In order to keep the complexity intact, results should feature these dilemmas without resolving them. In fact these instabilities are sources of information about the relationships that are highly generative. Relationships over time change, and aggregated relationship such as a forest or society must produce responses to responses that are disruptive. The disruptions are rich with Warm Data.
4. Holism and reductionism: Information derived by zooming out to study context is as important as the information derived by zooming in on detail. These two forms of information are not alike. One is relational and overlapping, the other is isolated and (sometimes) linear. Both are needed in relation even when they produce contradictions. Smaller and larger contexts are tangled up mutually calibrating interactions. They are not concentric nor are they separable; rather they are steeped in interdependency.
5. Cultural epistemological responsibility: Science and culture are deeply entwined. Development of inquiry that is simultaneously inclusive of multiple generations, cultures, and sectors is useful to keep observers’ frames relevant. Information is only as perceivable as the sensorial limits of the observer. A variety of perceptions lessens blind spots.
6. Aesthetic/mood/rhythm: In any inquiry of life, the aesthetic matters — perhaps above all else. This vital condition of any interrelational context is often ignored in favor of misplaced rationality. Given that complex systems are interrelational, the nature of the relationships needs to be noticed. The aesthetic is the conduit through which relation occurs. While the aesthetic need not be valuated, it must be noticed to better assess relational information. Keeping in mind that the opposite of aesthetic is anesthetic, it is clear that increasing sensitivity is preferable to numbness as it increases receivable information.
Just as the methodology for generating Warm Data is characterized by transcontextual research, the end-product and delivery of this information will be characterized by multiple description (though all aspects of Warm Data involves both transcontextual research and multiple description). I need look no further than my own hand for an illustration of how multiple description can increase the scope of understanding within a system and between systems of understanding. To illustrate this, let us ask, “What is a hand for?” Different contexts provide contrasting contexts for understanding. A violinist’s hands hold the muscle memory and learning of a lifetime of practice. But a sculptor’s hands know weight and texture and pressure in another way. People who use sign language express not only words but also emotion through their hands. In this sense, the contexts that the hand exists within, (anatomy, music, memory, language, cognition) each provide a realm of relational data to be explored. This is just one simple example of the possibility of transcontextual research. At present the International Bateson Institute is currently researching the Warm Data of: Addiction, Health Care Systems, Education, Climate Change, Emergency Population Relocation, Double Binds within Political Discourse and more.

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The Theory:
There are several theories at work within this process. Here are a few:
Patterns that connect
2. Difference that makes a difference
3. Multiple description
4. Symmathesy: Contextual Mutual learning and calibration
5. Autopoiesis, and Mind (Maturana, Varela, Thompson and Bateson)
6. Systems and Complexity Theory
7. Ecology of communication
8. Double binds
9. Conscious purpose
10. Epistemological frames
11. Change in complex systems
12. Interdependency
13. Abduction (Pierce)
14. Transcontextual Research
Meet the Hydra:
Beyond the conventional problem solving techniques of reducing and resolving, problem solving in complexity further requires an understanding of the interdependencies that are generating the issues. We must address these even in addition to our ever more acute and urgent responses to rising situations. Like the heads of the mythological Hydra our crises are many now. But in our silo-ed world the crises that we perceive and address are also silo-ed, as is the habit of finding silo-ed solutions. Much like chopping off the Hydra’s heads, the resulting solutions that do not address the complexity seem only to generate more consequences.
The most serious problems facing us now are not in any particular institution, but rather in the relationship between them. If change is made it is a consequence of a shift not only in the problematized part, but in the combined conditions in which the system exists, be it a person, organization, forest, or society. Like an ecosystem the interdependencies of the institutional systems are interlinked and steeped together in patterns that make it difficult to create whole systems change. To address our socio-economic and ecological crisis now requires a level of contextual comprehension, wiggly though it may be to grok the inconsistencies and paradoxes of interrelational process. Far from solving these dilemmas or resolving the conflicting patterns, Warm Data utilizes these characteristics as its most important resources of inquiry.

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The Hydra grows new heads every time one is chopped off.

Bateson, Gregory. Steps to an Ecology of Mind. Chicago: U of Chicago, 2000. Print.

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

Bateson, Nora, “Warm Data.” The International Bateson Institute. N.p., n.d. Web. 10 Apr. 2017.
Bateson, Nora. Symmathesy, A Word in Progress. Proceedings of the 59th Annual Meeting of the ISSS — 2015 Berlin, Germany, Vol 1, No 1 (2015)

Foerster, Heinz Von. Cybernetics: Circular Causal and Feedback Mechanisms in Biological and Social Systems: Transactions of the … Conference … New York, N.Y. New York, NY:

Josiah Macy, Jr. Foundation, 1950. Print.

Maturana, Humberto R., and Francisco Varela. The Tree of Knowledge: The Biological

Roots of Human Understanding. (Revised edition) Boston and London: Shambhala 1992.
· Peirce, C. S. Collected Papers of Charles Sanders Peirce, edited by C. Hartshorne, P.

Weiss, and A. Burks. Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press. 1931–1958

Varela, Francisco J., Evan Thompson, and Eleanor Rosch. The Embodied Mind: Cognitive

Science and Human Experience. Cambridge, Mass. And London, England: MIT Press.1991

[1] a theoretical epistemological — ontological toolset including, but not limited to, schismogenesis, abduction, double bind, and the six criteria of mind as listed in Gregory Bateson’s seminal text Mind and Nature

Awkward Invitation

via Daily Prompt: Collaboration

The world is in need of all of its 7 billion creative human inhabitants to assist in the journey into our shared future. This much is clear. But this collaboration requires an invitation which at present is generated by the same peoples whose ancestors implemented colonialism. Awkward. The do-gooders need to be very careful with this invite that it not be an assumed moral high ground. There is damage done. There is long hurt. The bullies cannot really go to the playground now, and suggest team spirit. Tread carefully. The great “we” of humanity is not a term to be used by the 1%, or the 10% or even the 20%… we don’t know from we. So, invite with humility, with willingness to learn, with apology, with full awareness that the decorations of your luxury living room have been gained over generations of exploitation of people and nature. Be careful with this term. The care taken is the invitation.

Review of my book, Small Arcs of Larger Circles, in Network Review, by David Lorimer

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Symmathesy as Mutual Learning

David Lorimer

SMALL ARCS OF LARGER CIRCLES Nora Bateson Triarchy Press, 2016, 211 pp., £15, p/b – ISBN 978-1-909470-96-5

Readers of this Review will probably be most familiar with the work of Gregory Bateson, but may not be aware that his father William was professor of biology at Cambridge and coined the term genetics in 1906. Then only a few months ago, I reviewed Mary Catherine Bateson’s book Composing a Further Life – now we have her half sister Nora, a filmmaker as well as an author, continuing the intergenerational family reflections on the pattern that connects, with a foreword by her daughter. Interestingly, it turns out that the phrase ‘the evolution is in the context’ comes from William, even though it is often attributed to Gregory.

The book as a whole is a rich feast with poetry, short reflections and more extended pieces introducing the terms transcontextuality and symmathesy. It is a corrective to the excessive emphasis on individualism in the West: ‘”I” carries the suggestion that I am somehow individual, independent, when interdependence is the law’ – even within our own bodies containing over 10 trillion organisms and without which we cannot live. Transcontextuality reminds us that an understanding of living organisms requires more than one context of study if we are to understand their vitality. Perception of the world of things makes them separate, which means that we can assign some form of agency. However, ‘when the larger intertwined contexts are in focus, agency is diffused.’ This turns out to be a crucial point, as Nora explains in an essay on leadership within the paradox of agency. For her, there is no such thing as an isolated individual and we consequently require a new understanding of leadership based on interdependency, since leadership itself is the product of many contexts. Whatever happens within a system is an expression of the patterns of that entire system, which means there is no blame and everyone is responsible. In my review of the book about Thomas Merton, I think he understands this point. In our current global situation, we can no longer afford to think in singular and linear terms, as solutions cannot come from such a narrow way of thinking.

One danger highlighted by Nora is that our vocabulary may change but our underlying patterns of thinking remain the same – it is easy to think mechanistically about systems or else stress the centrality of oneness when the essential insight is a process of uniting requiring relationality. We often think about the relationship between parts and wholes when we should be talking about holons and be wary of the exact meaning of these words – diagrams with boxes and arrows make things out of p r o c e s s e s . Linear planning in a systems context is an abstract illusion as all the elements are constantly changing both in themselves and in relation to each other. This is where mutual learning between and within living contexts comes in and is given the name symmathesy. I was so struck by this essay that I sourced it on the Internet and sent it to a number of friends.

Symmathesy is defined in two ways: first as ‘an entity formed over time by contextual mutual learning through interaction’ (this is what the International Futures Forum would call an integrity), and secondly the process of contextual mutual learning through interaction. In this sense, evolution emerges in interrelationality rather than being the outcome of arrangement and mechanistic function. To live is to learn in a mutual learning context that is inherently complex, and the idea of parts and wholes is misleading in coevolving systems with multiple contexts. The essay helps readers to see that mutuality is primary rather than agency and individuality. In addition, words are a limited and abstract form of linear exposition that can make for a poverty of description.

Under implications and applications of symmathesy, perhaps education is the most important, but also intractable as it is within our current educational contexts that we learn to think the way we do, largely in linear, specialist and analytical terms. Understanding and interacting with complex living systems is necessary for our survival. As Nora comments, ‘as it stands, our “knowledge” often prevents us seeing the interdependencies of our complex world, therefore we disrupt them – to the detriment of our well-being and that of the biosphere we live within.’ (p. 190)

“We need to become much more aware of how we are making sense of our world in terms of our underlying patterns of thought. When applied to institutions, they ‘appear to be equally entwined in the self preserving holding pattern of dysfunction that stymies all attempts to instigate change, even for the survival of our species.’ (p. 192) These institutions have their own ecology or totality of patterns of interrelationship that require ‘contextual rehabilitation’ so that the overarching discourse becomes one of interconnection, interdependency, and interaction through relationship. This point could not be more important as we are still operating within a mental silo of separate nation-states each pursuing their own interests. Whether we know it or not, we are in a mutual process of learning our way into the future where we will inevitably receive feedback on our efforts and hopefully enhance our capacity for creative and adaptive improvisation in the interests of the planet as a whole. This seminal book will give you a new relational lens on life. ”

Network Review 122 Small Arcs Review

Interview with Nora Bateson about Systemic Leadership- this is a little bit radical.

Here is the interview for the Systemic Leadership Summit. I hope you enjoy it.

Nora Bateson & Jennifer Campbell Interview on Systemic Leadership.

Leadership? Look around.

There are many people trying hard to repurpose their understandings of existing systems into change. But alas, we are now faced with a history that brought us precisely to this moment, riddled with inability to see changes we cannot understand –And a future that is pulling us into a process of evolution rapidly in which every thing we now know as “practical” is deadly.

Keeping the existing systems going, however green, is methadone for heroin. Systemic change is needed, and soon.

Epistemological shifts are hard, but we now have to get to a new level of making sense of our world that groks the interdependency, and shakes off the habit of short circuiting complexity. That is going to bring us into change that is transcontextual… culture, genetics, language…. We are going to need a lot of art to shake our frames of sense making. We need new science. Mostly, I really hope the aesthetic of this shift is not militant. Hoarding our canned food and buying farms is just a repeat of the thinking that got us into this mess.

Leadership that promises strategy, solution, goals, deliverables, higher profits, direct corrections and purposeful purposes… will dig us deeper into silo-ed solutions to match our silo-ed problems. No existing versions of success, heroism, influence or wealth will come of the form of leadership I am suggesting. Instead we go together… into a way of living we have not yet imagined.

“Since we don’t know where we’re going, we’d better stick together in case someone gets there.” – Ken Kesey (Thanks for re-posting this quote John Perry Barlow)

Thanks to: Jennifer Campbell, Creator and Host of the Systemic Leadership Summit” as well as the link to the summit: http://systemicleadershipsummit.com You can see more of interviews on leadership with other Systemic folks there.


Art to Get Us Out of this Mess.

Where are we going? photo N.Bateson

What I am witnessing around the world right now is a desire and simultaneous resistance to new ways of thinking, of seeing, and of imagining a change in the way we live, learn and make sense of our world.

For me, this means we need more art. All forms of art, in all parts of our lives. Art is not luxury, it is the probiotic ecology in the digestion of what is “now” into what will “be”. This is not an essay of 100 pages, and it certainly could be, it is just a quick touch upon my itch for loosening the knot around art. The art world can be exclusive, so let me be clear, this is not about the art world, it is about the world with art in it.
My work has always had a foot in theory, a foot in science, a foot in communication and foot in art. I think I might be a giraffe on roller-skates. I am kidding of course. But the point is that I see art as a way to engage epistemological shift, and to experience understandings in ways that are indirect, multi contextual, and multi textured. It takes complexity to perceive complexity. It takes many voices, many forms of expression, many ways of receiving. To “be” in new ways requires playing with our frames of perception, and loosening the grip that prevents the blurring between intellect and emotion.
In the Moderna Museum, Stockholm

Art gives us an entry into developing and exploring sensitivities we have not habituated into our mechanistic thinking. Art is an entrance into the liminal space, and a warm bath of expressing that which cannot be said in logical terms. I am curious in this moment about what we consider rational, and how that rationality rationalises all the destructive and false separations in our descriptions of the world. The possibility for possibilities as yet unseen, lies in that which has not been claimed by the rationale of our world. Change, is going to feel non-rational… trans-rational… and will come, at least in part, from art.

Painting By Ray Gwyn Smith


To play with our perception and expression is to find new forms, new forms that inform in new ways. There is no existing language for the changes ahead, and try though we may to tame this unknown territory into fitting into known description, we will fail. Procrustes, the old Greek gatekeeper, had an iron bed he measured all visitors to Athens upon. If they did not fit in the bed, he made them fit. He trimmed them here and there, stretched them when needed. His job was to commit horridly violent conforming manipulations to make the unusual into the predictable.

In the Canterbury Cathedral
We do not need an iron bed to homogenise perception though, we have language and money and culture to measure against. Breaking though is not a gradual process, it is sudden and sensory. The boundaries of our understandings are strung between cognitions, intuitions, premonitions, superstitions…
Think about all the ways in which African American life in the inner cities of the US was un-expressible through white academic English.The experience would not fit in that mode of expression– until Rap gave it a form in which to be communicated. So too, so much of the interdependency that gives us life, gives our biosphere life, is un-expressible in existing terminologies.
We need art. We need the slow-truth that long-honed skill together with accidental connectivity and the very intimate perceptions of an individual can render. In a post-fact, post-trust world… it is the honesty of multiple ways of knowing that will hold water. Facts that live in contexts of relation are not merely facts alone. They need their bits, the parts that hang off the bed, the too short, too long inconvenient complexities. They need more room to be contemplated. “Real time” and big data will only ever offer fragmented information without this necessary element of qualitative time, sensory exploration of many contexts, and multi-textured expression. It takes art to feel complexity.
We make art, art makes itself through us. It waits.
But art is not necessarily benevolent.
It can be used toward fascism. It has been. Do not underestimate the shifting ground in the invisible worlds that art enters. We make art, and art makes itself through us. It waits, like Michelangelo’s David, who stood inside the marble for a million years before the artist let him out. We need art now to get us out of this ruthless, truthless stuckness.

River’s Muscle

(River’s Muscle, is a poem from my book, Small Arcs of Larger Circles. I post it today to celebrate Valentine’s Day, as a reminder to myself and anyone one else who needs reminding, that love requires reflection and stillness.)



Rivers coursing over landscapes meet and fold their molecules in muscles of current,

Without yield, without stacking one sandbag against the surge.

I ask you to be strong, strong enough to release your hold against turbulence.

A forest of trees, each leaf a receptor for the caress of the wind, is wealthy in sensations.

I ask you to be rich, banking each whisper of affection against the poverty of numbness.

I am a pool of water, cupped in your palms, your reflection flickers on my surface, wobbly in the movement of light.

I ask you to have courage to see yourself there, transparent, clean, as I see you.

For one second, for a million years. A city skyline of jagged grace is held against the same clouds the dinosaurs pondered,

I ask you to be loyal to your own transformations, while I shift and twist in mine.


An Ecology of Assholes

photo by Indiana Vatikiotis-Bateson

(This piece has a different tone than most of my work, it is a little bit of satire and grit, and given the times, I think some measure of spunk is needed. Not to be negative, but to avert numbness.) -NB


The world is a beautiful place, full of souls that want only to be loved. Humanity has achieved wondrous feats of elegance, humor, grace and poetic creativity… but there is also the asshole factor. By asshole I mean jerk, I don’t mean murderer. Certainly murderers are assholes, but not all assholes are murderers. With all the name calling and finger pointing right now why not take a minute to apply the axioms of systems thinking and ecological patterning to something closer to home than saving the world. We all know a few assholes, and those that can admit it might confess to having even occasionally joined in on the assholery. That much is given.

Commonly, and paradoxically… assholes are thought of as individuals. This is a mistake that should be untangled. For that reason this piece is a short exploration in to the way in which assholes coexist within frames that are larger than their own sphincters, even though they may not realize it. This is a moment perhaps to look at an ecology of assholes.

It is all very well to say we are all interconnected, but what about the implication of being interconnected to all the assholes? And what does that say about the non-assholes? Are we all in the oneness? Oh no.

An “ecology” has a couple of important characteristics that we would do well to keep in mind for our analysis. First as Webster says ecologies are found in:

“The totality or pattern of relations between organisms and their environment.”

Is the asshole really an isolated island of their own dickwadery? Or is their relational interaction taking place within the larger context of communication that the asshole is responding to? Is the asshole-ness within them? Or is it in their relationship with either you or the world.

Interacting with someone who is prone to: humiliation of others, to lying, or displaying the arrogance that comes when they believe their own life to be more valuable than that of other people… can cause one’s faith in humanity to falter. They cannot be trusted, they judge others, they are blamers, they hold them selves to be “right” and clever while others are stupid, they boast about the way they’ve shamed someone else, or made them suffer, — they go on and on about how others are jerks.

Ummm wait a minute… am I an asshole for making this list?. Judging, blaming, etc.?

No. Self-reflection is not a quality of an asshole so I am ok. (Or maybe it takes one to know one?)

In other words, you ask, “Who do those assholes think they are?” You might confirm your suspicions by making a list of their characteristics: of personality, politics, profession, family, nationality and so on. You can then point to them, personally, and individually and say with some evidence in hand, “That asshole is an asshole”. In that sense the asshole is indeed an individual with their own cluster of personal choices that have resulted in their being a douchebag. Part one of the paradox is that in this way, the assessment is correct. The way that person makes sense of their world is uniquely their own. Their family, their culture their job, their friends and acquaintances their sleep habits, their micro biome, their …holistically speaking all of those things come together to form the filters through which that person experiences the world are uniquely theirs and no one will ever be exactly the same as they are. No one will experience the color blue like they do, or see the same meaning in a poem. (Maybe assholes don’t read a lot of poetry… I don’t know.) They are their own lens, and no one else has the same one.

But how did they get that way? Part two of the paradox is asking if there is any aspect of them that is not influenced by their family, their culture, language, food, etc.? Is there a definable part of them that is outside of the great interconnectedness? In this sense they are a combining of all that they embody. Ask, what learning took place in their world that contributed to their assholing? Is it really a choice to be an asshole?

I am not suggesting solving this paradox. Living within the interconnectedness of assholes is not something we can opt out of. To be an asshole is both a choice and it is not. Even as non-assholes (or so we might hope) we are all caught in a web of deplorables, and in that sense, we are part of the systemic ass-hating of our world.

The next ecological characteristic is interdependency. Ecologies are relational and interdependent contexts. There is nothing outside of the processes that are continually forming and informing the ecology. Assholes are not stand-alone entities.

So, maybe the nice people are really the assholes because they go around pointing out assholes to make themselves look good? Ever wonder? Is every asshole so wrong when they are asking, “ how is this person trying to screw me over?” Perhaps we all even need a little assholeness to keep from being pushovers?

Or is the asshole identifiable as the one who is constantly pulling things out of context and dissing them? It is the ultimate violence to take one tiny piece of information out of a larger set of conditions and circumstances, decontextualize it — cast it as the TRUTH, and then disavow all other contextual input as “beside the point”… That is certainly what assholes do. And they do it to people in disrespect, but also to other living systems, and to art, ideas, other peoples’ projects and so on.

Assholes don’t get interdependency.

They don’t get that they are in interdependency.

But then I find that I don’t get how it is that they don’t get the interdependent consequences… and in that swift move I become the asshole.

Within this dreaded reflection I see it is me then that does not ask about the ecology we share. It is me that cut the picture and cleaved the context.

The real problem with assholes is that humiliation, disrespect and decontextualized judgmental arrogance contaminate the ecology of our communities. The overtones of life in general can go sour when vile exploitative attitudes abound. Assholes underestimate the profound awe of each remarkable living being. In doing so they escalate trouble untold. Fair enough, you may say, life is a bitch… but just keep in mind that it takes a great deal of collective tenderness to heal ecologies, asshole.