Paper written on the occasion of the First Global Conference on the Future, Toronto, 1980. (Theme: Thinking Globally/Acting Locally). Printed in Transnational Associations, 1982, 6, pp 400-404.
Abstract: The existing range of conceptual, organizational, information and other structures have demonstrated their inability to generate effective remedies to the current deteriorating condition of society. Risks can therefore be usefully taken in directing attention, beyond the simplistic modes of comprehension which facilitate such failure, towards the range of comprehensible patterns which offer new modes of conceptual and group organization to harness the vast resources of unutilized human potential. The nature and operational design of the associated 'conceptual gearboxes' is considered in the light of R Buckminster Fuller's work on synergetics and concept 'packing'. The necessarily spherical nested patterns between which flexible transformations are required ('changing gear') act as the attention focusing containers ('birdcages') basic to appropriate synthesis and synergy. An equivalent 'woven' pattern of counter-balancing functional elements is required for the 'tensegrity organizations' then possible
The patterns discussed are direct challenges to individual and collective comprehension. For them to be communicable and collectively memorable as stable patterns, it seems necessary to employ symbol sets at least partly energized by the unconscious. Using traditional sets could bypass valid local resistance to the alienating artificial category schemes of global thinking.
This paper is a direct response to the conference theme: 'Thinking globally: acting locally'. It takes for granted the multiplicity and complex interrelatedness of the current problems of society, whether global or local (1). The inability of the increasingly large number of organizations (2) to contain their problems will also not be examined. This is confirmed by the track record of organizations, whether governmental or otherwise, acting singly, in groups, or as networks - and their decreasing credibility, despite occasional apparent successes (3). Aside from the inability to initiate effective collective action. the associated failure in providing an ,information system matching the complexity of the problem and organization networks will also be considered as contextual to this paper (4), as will the lack of consensus on values (5).
As Margaret Mead is reported to have declared on a memorable occasion 'We know all we need to know'. The problem is that 'we' do not know how to fit it together into a meaningfully communicable pattern which could catalyze appropriate action. In fact there is no 'we' with a shared awareness permitting coherent action (3). But as is noted on the cover of The (Updated) Last Whole Earth Catalog (1974): 'We can't put it together; it is together'.
So therefore we could usefully focus attention on our difficulty in seeing things as parts of a whole. Or, maybe at one level of our awareness we do see the whole, but we are unable to re-member or communicate this experience (as will be explored below). Or, maybe we each see it individually, but are unable to match our perceptions. In any case the consequence is that the more society increases in complexity (whether 'really' or only 'apparently'), the more we can only act by focusing on simpler issues for a shorter time span.
Beyond the 1 st order, reactive responses, there have been a variety of 'higher order' responses to this situation which can be grouped as follows (6):
- 2nd order: interdisciplinarity, world modelling, situation rooms, information systems, etc.
- 3rd order: think-tank networks, networks of the wise, information networks, action networks, etc.
None of these can be said to be offering any possibility of breakthrough as the reality of the arms race would seem to confirm. At best they enable us to just scrape through the existing crises. At worst they create the illusion that they would be adequate to any (provided of course that the appropriate funds were forthcoming and everyone could be marshalled into desired patterns of behaviour).
Is it not time we explored beyond such self-perpetuating myths and illusions ?
Our act is falling apart and the diversity of views on how it can be got together is symptomatic of our condition. It is no longer a case of 'You either have to be part of the solution, or you're going to be part of the problem' (Eldridge Cleaver), but rather 'If you do not understand how you are part of the problem, you cannot understand the nature of the solution required'.
What might be a 'point of entry' into this complex situation:
- more research/analysis ?
- more surveys/data ?
- destruction of existing structures ?
- more communication (technology) ?
- more public sensitisation campaigns ?
- allocation of more resources ?
- more appropriate education ?
- more consciousness raising ?
- 'basics first', ?
These, and others, are favoured modes whose track records merely show success bought at the cost of insensitivity to problems in domains which they are happy to ignore. Enthusiasts of one mode cannot legitimate within it the allocation of attention to other modes. At best they can tolerate it.
Why are we trapped by this limitation ? How can we move beyond our uni-modal approach ? Why has 'interdisciplinarity' never got off the ground ? Bearing in mind the dangers of a uni-modal approach. I believe that it is time that we switched some attention:
- from our (vain) efforts to patch things together with various conceptual, organizational, legal, communication, or other devices, each conceived by its resource-hungry advocates to be the priority.
- to the implications of the process we individually or collectively engage in when we effectively 'cut-up' a conceptual or functional 'cake' by distinguishing priorities in the creative decision which then determine subsequent actions, their organization, and how they are conceived as being interrelated
Beyond the uni-modal
As an indication, consider briefly the following range of decision processes (7,8):
- Uni-modal: focus on the problem, the value, the method, the objective - vital as a process which both establishes the viability and coherence of concern and encompasses whatever is relevant to it.
- Bi-modal: polarized perspective: we/they, right/wrong, superior/inferior -vital as a process which delimits problems or perspectives, and in so doing energizes the relationship and engenders the motivation and force to act (typical of pro/con arguments in legal, scholarly or parliamentary debate).
- Tri-modal: mediated perspective (e.g. workers/management/arbitrators) which balances the relationship between two foci of concern - vital as a means of channelling the energies released at the bi-modal level, and benefitting from their complementarily.
- Quadri-modal: counteracting activities constructively stabilized into a minimal system by cross-balancing polarities - vital as providing a stable action pattern which can be built with, or upon. (This is typical of the conceptual balance in the minimal 2 x 2 matrix, which can also be represented by a tetrahedron (5) ).
- N-modal, etc.
Philosophers and others have repeatedly remarked that we have problems in moving beyond three (7). Yet from the limited amount of investigation of these and higher modes (reviewed in 7, and partly documented in 8), it was for example tentatively indicated that current concerns such as: resource renewal, organizational systems, worker individuality and personal development, environmental processes, and social innovation and creativity, call for 6, 7, 8, 9, and 10-mode thinking respectively (7, note 71).
Future investigation will clarify the above possibilities, but it would seem to be worthwhile considering the nature of the 'conceptual gearbox', which we seem to have at our disposal. We can see that certain 'gears' would be necessary under certain conditions - whether acting individually or collectively. (For example, the 'first' gear would seem to be necessary to start any process). And maybe many of our troubles come because our individual or collective engines are being 'revved' above the r.p.m. which the favoured first and second gears can handle. Maybe we are going too fast and do not know how to get into the appropriate conceptual gear.
It is of course true that it is possible to drive anywhere in first or second gear, but this would so slow the traffic that we would have jams everywhere and waste energy -- which, metaphorically speaking, is exactly what we have in society. So how can we 'shift' into higher gears -- especially since the transmission is far from being as automatic as we would like to assume ? And, having shifted 'up', can we be sure we can shift 'down' whenever appropriate ?
But the 'gearbox' as a metaphor is one thing, designing something of operational significance is quite another- and it is highly probable that one modelled on the principle of revolving circular gear wheels would be inadequate.
Suppose however that we switch from the 2-dimenstional circle as the traditional model of a whole (Venn diagrams, mandala, etc.) to a 3-dimensional sphere - an intuitively acceptable step ('One Earth', 'Whole Earth', etc.), whatever the complications it makes evident. So instead of talking about cutting up a 2-D circular 'cake' into sub-category portions, we now want to explore the parts into which a sphere can be meaningfully fragmented, or through which it can be reconstituted, or through which it can be seen as a preexistent whole.
Now the 'omnidirectional spheric experience' has been R. Buckminster Fuller's area of creative inspiration in Synergetics (9), a work whose significance remains to be fully appreciated. I am interested in how one can adapt his insights to the context outlined above. It is basic to Fuller's argument that:
- a) all systems are (modelled by) polyhedra of which the more significant are regular, symmetric, and approximations to a sphere
- b) polyhedra cannot be constructed in 3 dimensions unless all faces are triangulated - since the alternative of rigid jointing has inherent material limitations.
- c) richer structural patterns of greater economy and elegance are achieved by rendering explicit the patterns of compression and tension and ensuring that they are self-balancing.
- d) threshold values of the number of structural elements must be reached before new structural patterns can emerge.
It is my belief that despite the apparent 'material design' orientation, Fuller's explorations indicate a fruitful path with fairly immediate payoffs for organization and concept structure design which, as such, are therefore of only borderline interest to those primarily associated with his school of thinking. (But if 'domes blow peoples minds', what might 'tensegrity oroanizations' do ?)
The point is that:
- on the one hand, he offers a range of non-hierachical patterns melding together 'system' and 'network' with extremely valuable indications as to how the patterns are related one to the other, namely the transformation pathways between them; and
- on the other hand, we are faced within ourselves individually, or as distinct groups, with a jumble of partially structured preoccupations which we have vainly tried to energize as 'systems' (for the establishment-oriented) or 'networks' (in the case of the alternatively oriented), and with only the possibility of portraying them as alienating flat system charts or operationally useless 'networky symbols'.
But what is the link between Fuller's 'abstract" patterns and such 'real, downto-earth' preoccupational jumbles ? For without the link we are still far from a practical design for the 'gearbox'. A clue lies in the famous small-group communication net experiments on which sociologists (starting with Bavelas in 1948) and their students have spent thousands of hours of research time. Conventional organization theory is based on the mind-set associated with these investigations, and yet (10):
- they have only focused on groups of 3 to 5 persons, whereas Fuller shows that the threshold for 3-dimensional patterns is 6 elements, or preferably 12 or 30 for more significant patterns.
- they have only worked in terms of 2-dimensional structures (triangle, square, star, etc.) whereas Fuller shows that it is only when several of these are combined that 3-dimensional structures emerge (of which the minimum system is the tetrahedron, i.e. 4 triangles).
- they have rarely considered distinctions between elements (e.g. role differentiation) when it is precisely the 'compression' or 'tension' between distinct functions which ensures the integrity of 3-dimensional structures.
It would seem that these experiments have concealed the possibility of a breakthrough into a new kind of organization - whether of individuals, groups, or of concepts (11). The (bi-modal) fashionable rejection of 'systems' in favour of 'networks' has not led to the hoped for breakthroughs - but, by interrelating the two (i.e. a tri-modal approach) on the basis of self-balancing, de-centralized, nonhierarchical patterns, a whole new field opens up. We cannot develop further through networks, currently characterized by 'flabbiness' - we need 'tensed networks' (12) to counter the many 'networking diseases' (13). Fuller shows us the possibilities for viable patterns.
So now we have an indication of the design possibilities for a particular spherical 'gear'. What we need to know more about is the degree of functional (or role) differentiation associated with a particular pattern. How many distinct functions or roles of what kind are required, or are likely to emerge? A viable pattern of functions bears a strong resemblance to a viable basket-weave pattern with its counter-balancing properties integral to the structure - hence the notion of 'functional basket-weaving' (14)
But despite the possible attractiveness of any particular pattern, we would lose all the advantages of the 'gearbox' flexibility if we allowed ourselves to be mesmerized by its properties. It would seem that the 'gearbox' consists of spherical basket patterns nested one within the other and capable of 'moving' independently of each other. An elegant model of this is the traditional Chinese set of ivory spherical shells nested within one another (decoratively carved from a single ivory ball). Fuller has explored some transformation pathways which are what is required to 'change gear' between spherical shells or patterns. Another helpful analogy is the ability of an American football team to switch between plays, each play being denoted by a number. What we need are non-hierarchical organizations capable of changing their fundamental operational pattern according to circumstances, rather than organizations stuck in a, usually hierarchical, pattern which can only be modified superficially, if at all.
We have plunged into the future of comprehension in terms of the new functional patterns for which there seems to be a desperate need. But this action-oriented approach must necessarily be complemented and sustained by a matching conceptual (or consciousness) development. And this in turn should be reflected in the organization of information systems (or personal thought patterns, for that matter).
In both cases what must be borne in mind is the significance of the transition beyond the 2-dimensional representation of organizations (charts) or information systems (thesauri and list structures). It is this vital de-centralizing step into the third dimension which provides an 'energy receptacle ' appropriate to the complexity with which we are faced. Only by achieving this transition is the much needed synergy to be forthcoming.
Hence the term 'conceptual birdcages' - only by interweaving concepts in a special kind of non-linear way can we construct an environment which is habitable. If it is not habitable the 'bird' will escape or die (remember the canary used by coal miners), and any dependence on a taxidermist to portray a semblance of life merely becomes one symptom of the underlying problem. The essential living quality, symbolized here by the bird, cannot be 'captured alive' by the gross concepts so widely employed to devitalise the activities of others - although, typically, in using them we are seldom able to apply them consistently to ourselves.
This living quality is alienated (crushed, or torn apart) by the flat matrix structures by which we attempt to organize our perceptions of the world and our actions therein (5). They do not provide the fundamentally significant 'curvature' to bound the necessary emptiness of an appropriate 'container' (7, 11) - even one to contain the flutterings of our directed attention for any length of time. And the mystics would suggest that we misunderstand the problem by inverting it (15). For them, it is not a question of providing a framework to keep the 'bird' where we want it. Rather it is a question of designing a conceptual 'cage' which will enable us to relate to the integrity of the living quality it enables us to perceive wherever we then direct our attention. The 'cage' should then function as a kind of 'aerial' for a perception of life grounded in the world of practical operational considerations. Any such grounding should not be disdained, since it is presumably the 'life force' (whatever that may mean) which is the ultimate driving force of our society and life on this planet.
Further clarification of the complementarity between the 'bloodless categories' and the livingness they endeavour to encompass, could prove fruitful. But even without it, it would appear that from investigating the design of such 'birdcages' could emerge the kind of conceptual synergy which has been vainly sought in 'interdisciplinarity', and which is essential to the file designs of the information systems we now need for a complex living society (10).
To return to the gearbox metaphor, it is not a single cage-weave pattern which is adequate to maintain our relationship to the flow and immediacy of the livingness to which we could respond. We need to be able to transfer between patterns, as appropriate, without destroying the connectedness and continuity of awareness which is the vital under-pinning of synergy and synthesis. Again it is Fuller's indications which are valuable, and these may be adapted to the three kinds of transformation we meet:
- in response to cyclic or accidental changes in the environment (operational changes)
- through growth according to a particular pattern (or set of patterns)
- through evolution into a new pattern (or set of patterns).
It is strange that the problem of comprehension is seldom considered as basic to whatever quantum change is required to move society into a more successful mode. What we have is various elites maintaining their beliefs in the priority value of their respective mind-sets and the conviction that 'others' need to be educated, propagandised, or even brainwashed, into that viewpoint - and then 'all will be well' in their brave new world. This uses bi-modal thinking to ensure, by eliminating variety, a world characterised by uni-modal thinking. And yet is it not the generation of variety which exemplifies humanity and constitutes the ultimate challenge to comprehension ? But the more different things and processes are, the more difficult it is to comprehend both their interrelatedness and the need to ensure the viability of niches within which 'species' can evolve without becoming victims of their particular weakness or strength.
Part of the optimism associated with the ongoing evolution of mass communication technology is due to the belief in the increasing power of choice which will be offered to the individual - especially in the case of sophisticated devices such as computer conferencing. This avoids the problem of the exponential increase in available information and the fact that man remains a slave to the linearity of information input and output (even as a speed reader). Given such constraints, it would be more beneficial to see the foreseeable future as effectively engendering increasing ignorance - daily each of us is effectively ignorant of more and more (to the extent that it is now appropriate to investigate creatively whether 'ignorance' has any characteristics to enable it to de used as a social resource - one of the very few which is increasing). Comprehending what to request is the more fundamental problem, not the process of retrieval from any information system, nor comprehending the response (4). The systems envisaged do not penetrate my comprehension barrier to the 'better' questions I 'should' be asking. They merely respond to the questions I can now formulate, thus reinforcing my contextual ignorance and the fragmentation of my awareness.
Current optimism also happily ignores the memorability of knowledge in the expectation that anything forgotten can be retrieved - but what if the pattern which made the item significant is itself forgotten ? Where and how are such patterns to be stored and how are they to be ordered for comprehension ?
Ultimately this is a question of 'concept packing' which presumably is closely related to Fuller's concern with closestpacking and the symmetry effects to which it can give rise under the most economic packing configurations (7).
It is these symmetry effects, emerging from the patterned juxtaposition of elements, which ensure memory reinforcement and ultimately the synergistic properties of the pattern. This relates back to the considerations of the 'conceptual birdcages' of the previous section, which must necessarily be of optimum memorability. The comprehension barrier is then associated with the (in)ability to transfer between nested patterns, particularly into the more complex.
It is ironic, in the light of the 'knowledge explosion', that a central force of the mass communications industry, namely advertising, has as an axiom that only one message at a time about a product should be fired at the target audience. Considerable ingenuity is devoted to compacting the essence of a concept into a simple communicable form. Such is the 'compacting pressure' and the need to energize the concepts in the eyes of the target receiver, that it is this industry of the 'superficial' which relies most on the esoteric fundamentals of symbolism.
The challenge for the individual is not to depend upon being 'hit' by appropriate uni-modal messages, but rather to find a means of grasping semi-permanently, within memory, multi-element configurations characterised by high variety and complex relationship patterns. Abstract coding schemes are inadequate because, as those skilled in mnemotechniques have shown, they leave little with which the necessary imaginative power can work (16). Hence the importance of symbols whose energy is constantly renewed by the unconscious. The challenge is then to find sets of such symbols which can be used to encode complex relationship patterns (7,8). Even more desirable are symbol patterns in nested layers, or with layers of significance, between which the possible transformation pathways are themselves unended.
Pathology of collective memory
Whilst individual memory skills may be considered unimportant, there is the strong possibility that we are witnessing the rapid erosion of collective memory skills through dependence on information systems which reinforce uni-modal thinking. In these terms, it is possible that the 'learning capacity of nations' is effectively decreasing (17). The more complex the pattern we need to comprehend in response to social conditions, the more difficult it is to make it communicable. If the pattern cannot be collectively comprehended, then we cannot use it as a basis for new patterns of collective organization and, in terms of Ashby's Law, we must then necessarily fail. What memorable sets of symbols do cultures share, if any ?
Is their encoding power being eroded, and with what other diseases of collective memory is this associated ? (Is it perhaps not a form of dyslexia which prevents us from collectively comprehending the `` writing on the wall' ?) Can new symbol sets be generated with the required characteristics?
Things are not going well. There are few signs of cumulative improvement, and there are few signs of widespread awareness of the gravity of the situation. And there are even fewer indications as to how we might usefully act in future, given the track records of conventional approaches. Collectively we accept childish risks (arms race, etc.) and fail to consider the nature and necessity of the risks of maturity. We hope naively for rejuvenation in a unconstrained 'eternal summer time', and fail to recognise the ecological significance of death and 'winter' as processes (5). Our collective comprehension is in total disarray as a guide to local action. There is a 'flat earth' quality to our thinking about specialised functions in 'global' society. We have yet to render communicable its 'functional roundness' and all that follows from that in terms of communication and map-making (1,3). Conceptually, we should be moving out of the Age of the Wheel, into the Age of the Sphere. (Beyond a non-contextual focus on projects (projectiles, objects, subjects, rejects etc.) into an awareness that for every 'plus-ject' a counterbalancing 'minus-ject' necessarily emerges to maintain the integrity of the non-dualistic whole within which we are embedded)
'Global thinking' today results in a linear list of action priorities (e.g. a development strategy) with little collective comprehension as to how such projects ought to be interrelated or the consequences for organization and information systems design. (Ironically, 'global thinking' could be interpreted in French as meaning 'wholistic thinking'). We do not know how to represent and comprehend the complex patterns we need to communicate. Consequently 'local action' stimulated by 'global thinking' suffers from the simplistic defects of the latter and is hindered, rather than assisted, in the search for viable new patterns of action. Global thinking blocks local action by the devitalizing ersatz category patterns which are employed - to which the vitality of initiative and risk taking are most vulnerable.
This paper suggests that breakthroughs to new modes are possible if we recognize that the barriers are those to the comprehension of increasingly complex patterns. Families of inter-transformable patterns, useful as conceptual 'containers' can be indicated. The succession of comprehension barriers that stand as an individual and collective challenge to us can begin to be indicated.
And, by using appropriate symbol sets, they and the possible transformation pathways could be encoded in a memorable, communicable form. Such sets could stimulate 'local action' initiatives, especially if traditional local symbols can be harnessed as vehicles for memory. They could provide a sense of how to shift into an appropriately 'higher' or 'lower' conceptual gear to mesh with wider contexts. And, above all, they could catalyze the local emergence of organization patterns appropriate to the vast unutilized human potential at the grass-roots level. A major possibility is that such patterns could facilitate risk-taking initiatives by unemployed individuals - especially the young - to form themselves into new kinds of organization and thus create employment for themselves.
Man, in his expressions and behaviour, uses a partially ordered lattice of complementary descriptive languages (18). This was first pointed out in connection with the context-sensitive logic of quantum mechanics (19). It may prove to be the case that the nested patterns discussed here are each isomorphic representations of a particular lattice of sub-linguistic systems which could characterize a particular pattern of functionally differentiated organization. Perhaps it is no coincidence that these perceptions have proved relevant to studies of the most successful communication vehicle (at least timewise), namely the 4000-year-old Hindu songs of the Rg Veda, whose organization and symbolism seem to model the comprehension problem we face (8): `` When language is grounded on a tone system, as in the Rg Veda, then the immediate result is a plurality of systems; that is a language which we can only speak through sub-linguistic systems... Language, in the above sense, is only to be reached as a viewpoint gained through the activity of contrasting perspectives... Rg Vedic man... cherished the multitude of possibilities open to him too much to freeze himself into one dogmatic posture... Any perspective (tone) must be 'sacrificed' for a new one to come into being; the song is a radical activity which requires innovation while maintaining continuity, and the world ~ is the creation of the singer, who shares its dimensions with the song... Man is at the centre of his own activity, creating and recreating himself in relation to how efficiently he climbs or descends the cnntexhlAl multiplicity within which he constantly operates... In a language ruled by the criteria of sound, perspectives, the change of perspectives and vision, stand for what musicologists call 'modulation'. (18, p 31, 57,182,187,192).
Maybe 'we' should be thinking less about how an action button (including the button) gets pushed, and more in terms of the kinds of patterns which can guide the use of modulating buttons on a musical synthesizer. Such patterns are readily accessible to comprehension, unlike patterns developed linearly in papers of this kind.
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