New Ways of Connecting
We need to pay specific attention to the role of complexity if we are to find new ways of connecting in the 21st century and beyond.
The Modernist Experiment has taught us to abstract. Abstraction is a critical skill for learning to identify the underlying structure of things. In praxis though it fails us because we, as humans, introduce so many variables and complexity.
There are a great many people discussing complexity in depth that I could not hope to cover here. I can say though, that as the complexity of life becomes more apparent through their great work, we need to learn to recognise and accept it. In this context, we also need to learn a new set of skills if we are to work up to the scale of global society and global systems.
Imagine life around us not as a line but as a series of waves. These waves intersect and crash into one another in a complexity of interactions:
- A terrorist attack creates a national ripple that intersects with the vibrations of my personal worldview, creating a third pattern that differs from the person sat next to me on the bus.
- The recent birth of a child is profoundly important to you and those closest to you (in varying degrees) but is inconsequential to the person 10 doors down.
This tumultuous interconnectedness does not scale well. On the micro level, ripples felt by a small family community living in the same place all begin with similar foci and can be acted upon efficiently in real time; decisions can be made on what is clearly present to everyone. There is a consensus-reality, a shared and objective truth in which everyone participates (again, in varying degrees).
Not so at the macro level of our global, 21st century reality. The birth of a child only 10 doors aways would have been a major event at any other time in history, but no longer. The fortunes of a foreign financial system can now have a greater impact on me than the new life of someone within meters of my front door. The death of a celebrity can have a deeper impact than that of events in my own neighbourhood.
The complexity of life today has created significant amounts of information-interference. In the noise of this interference we miss patterns that we should be paying attenttion to:
- The local river is no longer clean enough to swim in.
- Farming techniques pushed to their very limits since the second world war (themselves a ripple) have become so destructive that it threatens ecosystems and leaves vast swaythes of the American heartland at risk of dangerous and crop destroying dust storms.
- Disinformation sows distrust and inhibits personal agency.
Yet these patterns are not perceived by me. They intersect so weakly with my own ripples that they get lost beneath the noise because I am still trying to perceive in straight lines and micro-level interactions.
We need to recognise the importance of systems and embedded complexity. We need to learn to navigate them using something more modern than the straight line of abstraction.
Thinking in systems is a perspective-altering practice. It can be generative and enabling. It opens us up to new perspectives, including the opportunity embedded in complexity.
Thinking in systems allows us to stop imagining that the world owes us high levels of certainty - or that it has ever been certain and stable. Instead it offers us agility and innovation. But this requires a re-connection with the present, and with our shared humanity.
In this sense I believe that developing a systems-thinking approach is a profound act of empathy.
Image courtesy of @jjying via Unsplash.