Dave Snowden

It’s a wrap, for now …

RSS Feed


I’m now at the end of the Christmas series of posts summarising some of the uniquesess of human systems which resulted in my deciding to define this field as anthro-complexity. As I said at the start these have been notes to myself in public, part of the build up to my book writing retreat which starts in just over a week’s time. My original rough list got modified as I wrote, new things got added in and I realised that in some cases I needed a different emphasis. We all have our own styles but I find speaking and writing are where I create structure and coherence; I don’t start with a structure and backfill. In parallel with this writing I have been using Netflix (I finally succumbed) to binge watch the latest Star Trek, Coupling and Rome and that may have had an aesthetic impact. Again, a matter of style, I always need to have a parallel stimulus of some sort when I am writing; silence for me is sterile not golden.

Now the main point of this series of posts was to be informed by complexity theory in its most common forms, but also to realise that the uniquesness of humans requires trans-disciplinary work. But there are other significant issues in the way we make sense of the world. The whole question of truth and validity being one that may manifest in politics but has been coming for some time with the growth of extreme forms of social constructivism in which any form of interpretatation is equally valid, nothing can be considered wrong and all views have equal value. If challenege we get a false dichotomy created between expert or central stiffiling authority and anarchistic, anything goes and if it works for you fine new age nonsense. Some of us would like a little more sophistication here.

This was brought home to me in social media discussions and disputes which continued to inform, test and frustrate me over the holiday period. One of the more disturbing of those was on individial where I picked up on some sigificant errors in material they were posting – saying that Aristotle was anti-science and assuming that Popper ecompassed the whole of Philosophy of Science. It went well for a bit but then the errors hit again. Apparently there are only two paradigms: solipsim or hard science. Solipsiusm by the way was incorrectly defined. Then a false (sic) statement that Popper had abandoned falisitication when he encountered coherentism. Challenged, the author argued he was being intutitive, creative and my asking for sources demonstrated my complete lack of social skills. I was also told that the individial could not be criticised as they worked very hard at learning. Finally they deleted the whole thread so I think there must be some shame there which privides some hope. That this paralleled the latest and most extreme fake news (or fake book) storm in the news on Trump was ironic to say the least.

Now when I was at University, to reduce someone’s argument to solipsism was to reduce them to absurdity and in consequence for them to loose the argument (which is not the same thing as you winning it). Metaphysically solipsism concludes that we can only truly know ourselves and therefore the word and other minds are simply figment of our fevered imagination. It comes from the Latin solus which means ‘alone’ and ipse which means ’self’. The self alone, the assumption that anything which works for you has validity is I suppose the final and logical extension of social atomism and the economics of selfishness. It manifests in the extreme in Trump but it is more universal. One of the strong points I have made throughout this series is that we are collective creatures, defined by our interactions with others. We need to break the cult of the individual and the assumption that the individual is the primary unit of meaning if we are ever to make progress. We also need to regain a respect for evidence, for the prospect of truth, for authenticity and validation rather than a simple and undisciplined assertion of ill-informed and uneducated personal preferences, perspectives and prejudices. We are more than reactors and perceivers, we are sense-makers and we need to celebrate that

Complexity is not an excuse for saying that any view is valid, that nothing can be done because everything is emergent or what I call naive self-organisation is the only solution. The reality is that complexity means we need to think and act in a different way, not that we cease to do both. We know that constraints or some type are needed for self-organisation in nature so anarchy is not the solution. We know that if we get the granularity of a system right and we understand the interactions we can have a considerable influence on its development. We can validate what Popper said, so you should be able to cite a source. We can manage, we can validate. One of the things I suggested in the debate was that the individual should attempt to make some of his statements about Popper on Wikipedia – then other editors wouild have forced third party sources. Wikipedia works through constraints not by abandonment to anything goes something that social media can encourage too easily.

I suppose the point I am making here is that the agenda for making sense of a modern world is not just to overcome the danger of assuming that people are like ants (conventional complexity), but also avoiding much of the nonsense of modern management thinking which ranges between the extremes of rigid control on the one hand and cult like models on the other.

So now I have to write it …

  • Anders Dinsen

    Dear David,

    I think I might be more optimistic than you. I find there is reason to hope. Some of my hope is rooted in Tor Nørretranders (I have a feeling you must have met him recently, perhaps in Singapore?) new book in which is does a very decent attempt at coming up with a good agenda in his new book “Se frem – fra opløsningstid til oplysningstid”, (translates to something like Look forward – from times of dissolution to enligtenment) drawing interesting parallels between Kant, new understandings of cognition, physics, and suggesting a very human approach to solving the problems we’re facing rooted in imagining the future and learning from failure. I hope we can expect an English translation soon, as his clear style of writing (and thinking) deserves more than the Danish audience.

    I wanted to follow your blogs over Christmas, but missed them. I’ll catch up now.

    Good thoughts,

    • davesnowden

      Why would you think I was being pessimistic? The whole series is about understanding how to change
      Prof Dave Snowden
      Cynefin Centre & Cognitive Edge

      • Anders Dinsen

        Thumbs up!

      • Anders Dinsen

        The post turns on a pessimistic tone in me. Words like frustrate, anti-science, Trump, and cult dig their way through the message of hope, which I can see now, that I’m rereading, but the closing still has a particularly pessimistic tone: “avoiding much of the nonsense of modern management thinking which ranges between the extremes of rigid control on the one hand and cult like models on the other” Those are extremes (as you say).

        I’ll be reading the other blogs with a hopeful perspective, thanks Dave

        • davesnowden

          Stating the problem as is, nowt to do with optimism or pessimism about the ability to change it. Know thy enemy!
          Prof Dave Snowden
          Cynefin Centre & Cognitive Edge

          • Anders Dinsen

            Indeed, important.

  • srikanth ramanujam

    Loved all of your posts Dave this season. And eagerly looking forward to your book. Also, would be a first in line to the MSc course when it opens, I want to test a couple of MassSense hypothesis at scale — perhaps I should not wait and get started with the learning process…

  • srikanth ramanujam

    One point I wanted to note on your frustration mentioned about your interactions in social media. You are not responsible to other people’s lack of understanding, hence their inability to learn, source or argue should probably be smirked at, if at all. Only those we are able to appreciate complexity and adaptive systems are going to look at things differently than others… most might never make their journey there and several who think they understand some of it, probably dont.

  • http://www.thebrokeronline.eu Wim Nusselder

    Yes, speaking & writing is where I create structure & coherence, too.
    In other words: I know truth & meaning only as soon as I say/write it and I know it to be that (true & meaningful to me) by its relatively simple structure and its coherence.
    I often start writing with an intuition about something simple that creates coherence.

    In this case, the uniqueness of human systems (which for me fits better as heading than anthro-complexity), my intuition is that Homo sapiens is NOT very unique.
    It differs -in its biological characteristics- only very little from its closest animal relatives.
    If human society & human systems, differ a lot from animal ‘societies’ & systems in which only animals (and plants) have a role, it cannot need a long list of ‘aspects’ to explain that difference.
    Even if at first we see many seemingly unrelated differences, they must be reducible to a few, maybe only one crucial difference.
    Thus far my intution.

    In my response to your starting post of this series, of December 25th, I used ‘agency’ (or ‘intentional behaviour’) as crucial difference, stating as hypothesis that that may be the only principle needed to explain the uniqueness of human systems & society.
    In your later posts ‘assuming causality’ (Dec. 31st), ‘identity’ (Jan. 2nd) and ‘awareness’ (Jan. 3rd) also struck me as possible basic principles of humanity.
    I could add ‘assuming objective reality’ (independent from experience) as possible basic principle of humanity.
    I’m not so sure that ‘awareness’, ‘assuming objective reality’, ‘assuming causality’ and ‘identity’ are sufficiently independent from ‘agency’ to be called separate basic principles, however.

    Please not that I am twisting your ‘uniqueness of human systems’ theme into a ‘uniqueness of human society’ theme.
    I am primarily responding as a social scientist, dealing with human behaviour and (human) social systems.
    I distinguish those from inorganic, biological and (beyond and supported by social systems) intellectual/ideological/symbolic systems.

    It seems evident to me that inorganic and biological systems are NOT human systems (even though Home sapiens can influence them to a minuscule resp. relatively small degree) and that intellectual/ideological/symbolic systems are UNIQUELY human systems.
    Intellectual/ideological/symbolic systems can be ordered or complex (self-organized) and they can be perceived as chaos (lack of any system) when we don’t understand them.
    Inorganic and biological systems can hardly resp. not yet fully be ordered, so they are in the end (when taken as a whole) complex/self-organized, even when we humans perceive order/chaos.

    So I focus on (human) social systems.
    I still suggest that the full range of differences between them and the ‘social systems of other animals’ (whether of not perceived as including plants) can be explained by ‘agency’.
    With ‘agency’ consisting of
    – the ability of individual humans and groups of human to behave intentionally (in which I understand intentionality as emergent characteristic of individuals and/or groups understood as complex adaptive systems) and
    – the freedom the overarching system of which they are interacting units allows them to behave intentionally.

    ‘Agency’ only requires and implies that a small percentage of human behaviour is perceived as resulting from ‘prior intent’.
    A little bit of agency can produce lots of large differences with non-human ‘societies’, because of the phase shift produced in social systems because of the (next level of) intellectual/ideological/symbolic that emerged on the basis of that agency.
    Human (proto)societies started to diverge from non-human ‘societies’ because of their interaction with (proto)symbolic systems, like proto-language (communicative behaviour that starts to embody ‘meaning’ that refers to or is understood to represent something else).
    Interaction reinforced both that anthroposocial divergence and the growth of symbolic/ideological/intellectual systems.

    Agency requires/implies/produces the perception of ‘intent’ separate from ‘result’ (of action = intended behaviour).
    The ability to distinguish ‘intent’ and ‘result’ produced all kinds of other typically ‘human’ abilities:
    – the ability to distinguish awareness/subjectivity from objective reality,
    – the ability to assume intention in others,
    – the ability to assume intentionality behind changes in ‘objective reality’,
    – the ability to assume causality behind changes in ‘objective reality’ and
    – the ability to discern own and others’ identities as patterns in (assumed) intentional behaviours.
    Those abilities produced further anthroposocial divergence and growth of symbolic/ideological/intellectual systems.

    Does that make sense?
    What parts of what you wrote did I not yet cover that still need separate explanation based on my way of reasoning?

    • davesnowden

      I’ve just spent twelve days arguing that human systems are very unique so I suspect you know I will disagree with your intuition. I’m also establishing a provisional list of things that can and should be managed. I don’t agree that they can be subsumed into one concept ‘agency’ in part because that word itself is deeply problematic in the literature and therefore carries many associate meanings. But even if I did it would reduce the sophistication of response to make such a restriction. We can increasingly influence other systems to a large degree so we disagree there Language and symbols are critical but I wouldn’t ascribe to that the exclusivity you seem to imply The ‘ability’ list I would probably agree but with qualification – but I think the qualifications are clear from the precise posts Otherwise I think (per your comments on the opening post) that you are starting from a different place with different motivations. So from my perspective I think there is a lot you haven’t covered but given your starting point I suspect from yours you have

      • http://www.thebrokeronline.eu Wim Nusselder

        After trying to dissuade you from writing so many posts about something that should be so simple & obvious, I hope you don’t blame me for not taking responsibility for you making that unnecessary effort. 😛

        However, I fully agree that human systems ARE very unique and you completely misunderstood my intuition by reading the contrary in it.
        Human systems are very unique, but the difference between Homo sapiens and its nearest animal relatives is small, just like ice is very unique, even though the temperature decrease needed to result in the phase shift from water to ice is only small.

        In other words: human social systems are very unique even though Homo sapiens as biological species (as part of biological systems) is NOT very unique.
        However, human social systems are not very unique because of lots of independent factors that differentiate them from animal ‘social systems’, from my perspective.
        Almost any factor that seems to differentiate human social systems from animals (say intelligence, using tools, using communication as tool etc.) can also be found among social animals, if only to a lesser degree.

        That’s why I attribute the ‘anthroposocial divergence’ to a phase shift with as few as possible triggers (comparable to the change of temperature, pressure, availability of crystallization nuclei etc. for the phase shift from water to ice).

        I am open to discussion about the exact trigger or triggers for anthroposocial divergence.
        ‘Agency’ is just a hypothesis so far.
        I am also open to discussion about the exact nature of the next phase/level that comes into being because of that trigger.
        I deliberately don’t just call it ‘intellectual’ (like Pirsig) or ‘aesthetic’ (like Ghoshal), but use a combination like ‘intellectual/ideological/symbolic’, because of my ambiguity about it so far.

        I’m not aware of different motivations from your yours and I do try to start out from your place, i.e. the Cynefin framework as I (incompletely) understand it.

        • davesnowden

          I regard the effort as not only necessary but not yet sufficient so there is more to come. I (as I have said) do not agree with the simplification you proposed when I started the series. I’m pleased you agree on social systems. I’ll look through the rest of the comments when I have time next week
          Prof Dave Snowden
          Cynefin Centre & Cognitive Edge