Welcome to Emerging Futures — Volume 60! Can the New be New?
Good morning more than self-organizing processes.
We have fully transitioned at this moment of the year when the morning and the darkness of the night before are one. It is wonderful to get up to the stars — awakening to again meet old friends you left the night before to continue their journey.
This week we were in Lisbon doing a workshop on emerging technologies and innovation. It was a really powerful and interesting day with an amazing and highly diverse group of inventors. Our interest and goal for the workshop was to “let the new do the work of the new.”
The trouble, for innovation, with the new is that, as Whitehead said — we always get it “to do the work of the old”. The purpose of the workshop was to explore and develop practices to let the new be novel — to let the new be more and different than our implicit pervasive current and historical mode of being.
Part of this involved getting a better sense of what technology is — how it makes us. It is always fascinating that when we engage in a discussion about technology the examples that come up are almost always the latest gadgets, never the most pervasive technologies like language, the alphabet, logic, or our environment.
But, that we do not recognize that technologies are pervasive in our lives is less of a problem than that we assume that these objects are “just tools” — as if the status of a tool and our relation to tools was a trivial “take it or leave it” kind of arrangement and reality. This is a false self-image — as if we were fully independent of our environments, our tools, our practices. And equally importantly — as if our relation with technology was a linear one— as if tools only do what we want them to do in a linear and neat fashion. Three weeks ago in Volume 57: (Examining Causality in Creative Processes) we introduced the topic of causality and indirect causality. Our relation to tools — technology is very much a non-linear relationship:
We are what we do — and we do nothing alone. We are enactive beings working in and of environments with tool beings.
Our basic self image needs to be one that fully comes to terms with what it means to be “tool users” or perhaps better said: tool-beings:
“We are [embodied] social environment-altering tool users. Tools give us new abilities, leading us to perceive new affordances, which can generate new environmental (and social) structures, which can, in turn, lead to the development of new skills and new tools, that through a process… of scaffolding greatly increases the reach and variety of our cognitive and behavioral capacities” (Micheal Anderson).
But even this could make it seem like there is an original self distinct from technologies. To be alive is to be co-shaped by the system dynamics of what we do in the world we have. Marshall McLuhan said it well,
“All [prevailing technologies] work us over completely — they are so pervasive in personal, political, economic, aesthetic, psychological, moral, ethical and social consequences that they leave no part of us untouched, unaffected or unaltered.”
The hard part for doing anything new is that in being so pervasively worked over and transformed by what we do — the patterns of this are pretty much invisible to us in our everyday lives. When a tool works it is subsumed into the flow of doing. In the language of dynamic systems, the tool and all of the discrete aspects of our use of it are subsumed into a higher level practice — we move with the propensities of the emergent logic of the system — things flow, and pathways for action seemingly emerge from thin air. When things work, they and all of the logics, patterns, practices, habits and assumptions that also emerge as part of this practice — are necessarily invisible.
What does it mean to be invisible? It means that we ascribe agency back to ourselves — “how did this happen” — “I did this…” Or we explain things as being natural “that is just how things happen…. This is just what people do… brains are just wired this way…” We do not see that the situation — the context — is an outcome system dynamics that is irreducible to any one aspect of the system (me, my brain, or some other singular source).
But while this invisibility is necessary and normal in everyday life it is not ideal for qualitative forms of innovation. For innovation we need to get a sense of what is invisible — to disclose it and to develop practices that move us into new and different fields of possibility.
The difficulty is in how we approach what is hidden — the classical approach is an essentializing and reductive approach: there is some “thing” or some set of things that produce this outcome and that these things are built up out of other things, etc. This gives us a “bottom-up” linear proportional causal logic and the belief that when these deep assumptions are made visible can be discarded, refused or by-passed.
If what is invisible cannot be discovered by following a “bottom-up” logic back to its “source” — then is the alternative to pursue an opposition approach — a “top-down” approach? (This dynamic systems alternative to this is what we were exploring in Volume 58 of the newsletter two weeks ago — It’s Not Top Down, Nor Is It Bottom Up).
The top-down approach is an alternative emergent explanation that proposes that when things come together in a dynamic manner a new emergent feature is created that can influence the component parts — this emergent component influencing the sub-processes is what gives it the “top down” designation.
This approach does get closer to how things happen — when we engage with a tool — what emerges (our behaviors, capacities, and sense of reality) is irreducible to any one part of the system (we will not find these in the smartphone itself no matter how hard we look, nor will we find these somewhere deep inside ourselves).
But the problem with this “top-down” model as the philosopher John Searle points out is that whatever the higher level or emergent “more-than” feature is, this metaphor of “top-down” paints a picture of it as distinct from whatever it has emerged from in a “bottom up” manner. As he puts it in an apt metaphor “like paint on a table”.
For Searle, all of this is wrong, the nearly invisible emergent qualities like those that emerge with our use of tools are “no more on the surface of [things] than liquidity is on the surface of water”.
An emergent quality or feature is rather, a feature of the whole system “and is present — literally — at all of the relevant places of the system in the same way that the water in the glass is liquid throughout… the whole system moves in a way that is causal.”
“The right way to think about this is not so much “top down” but as system causation. The system, as a system, has causal effects on each element, even though the system is made up of elements” (Searle)
This “system causation” of technology use is what is so difficult to see. It is difficult not because it is hidden — there is nothing hidden here — that would be to fall back into a “bottom-up” approach. What emerges with the use of technology is immanent to the whole system. The emergent logic of our use of a tool in a context of historically shaped ongoing activities — a way of life leads to intrinsic holistic changes that are to be found at every aspect of the system.
Expanding on Searle, the system of us using a technology, as a system, has causal effects on each element (our subjectivity, our bodies, our environment, our concepts, our other tools) — in short everything Marshall McLuhan lists above (ethics, politics, aesthetics, psychology, etc.) — even though the system is made up of each element.
We are in an Escher drawing — the hand that is drawing is the hand that is drawn…
What is invisible is invisible because it is nothing more than and nothing less than who we are. And who we are is irreducible to us, or our tools, or our actions — we are the dynamics of the whole.
We say all of this not to leave you tied up in paradoxical knots or stuck with overly general quasi mystical and utterly unusable statements about something “deeply profound”.
We are interested in this difficult question of how do we allow the new to do the work of the new when all we can see and understand when we look at the new is the old. It is important to grasp what the difficulty is — without this we just fall into all sorts of unhelpful practices.
Perhaps the most common version of these unhelpful practices is our ever present desire to predict the future as if it were a linear extension of some aspect of the present. The entire practice of forecasting and trend analysis is just this — treating the future as if it were some version of the present but just a little spicier.
Imagine asking a wise person in the 12th century to describe the future in 600 years — would they have said any of the actual things we do or have now? We don’t need to go back centuries — here is a prediction for 1919 written in 1904:
“408 Waldorf Street East, New York, June 13, 1919—Dear M.: Let me tell you what I have been doing this week. Yesterday I was writing at my desk when I heard voices at the balcony. I ran out and saw that three of my friends had just alighted from their airships. They asked me if I would take a little spin with them. I consented and we settle ourselves in the car. We went over papa’s office on the twenty-eighth floor of the Lonia building, over the magnificent theater, over the public library, and many others. I asked them to stay to tea with me and they gladly accepted. We thought we had better go in and so the airship was anchored. Then I told mama they were going to stay to tea and she said that she would have to send a wireless telegraph message to the caterer’s for some ice cream and cake. In ten minutes it came thru the pneumatic delivery tube. We had tea and then they went home.”
The problem is not simply that the predictions are wrong — this is to be expected — how could it be otherwise in an open highly dynamic and contingent reality? The problem is that the assumption is that we are always unchanged — the setting, clothes, and gadgets change but we stay the same. The future is seen as an infinite re-run of the same plot in ever fancier sets. This is the crux of creativity, innovation and changemaking — we co-emerge in an immanent manner with what we do while imagining we are unchanged. Because of this we do a very poor job of critically disclosing — examining who we are (who we have become) in the present. And we continuously project this historically contingent emergent self into the future in ways that make the new do the work of the old.
Last week in Volume 59 of our newsletter (Getting Constrained, Getting Creative) we ended by offering some suggestions for how to engage with this practice of Disclosure:
Disclosure and Critical Cartography: Mapping existing emergent patterns is a significant aspect of a creative practice. These can often be best sensed by perturbations — experimental probes that lead to an understanding of regularities. As one scales up these regularities one can begin to see larger (still immanent) dynamic patterns.
This takes work that joins direct experimentation to conceptual research. This is the work of critical disclosure that looks at regularities that occur across longer temporal periods (say the emergence of “nature” in the west starting in the 1600’s, or the genealogy of the modern subject— Foucault’s project in the last decade of this life). Here the work of history, critical philosophy, political science and anthropology are critical — but used in an experimental and immanent manner (a great example of this type of work is visible in John Protevi’s Political Affect: Connecting the Social to the Somatic).
One cannot shift away from historically emergent system regularities (which are often taken as “how things really are”) — those now wholly implicit and unstated assumptions/processes — if we do not have the critical tools to recognize them and connect them to their relational immanence (this is the direct experimental aspect).
Working on uncovering some of these in regards to energy, food, and health became the final and critical aspect of our workshop in Lisbon. Which we hope to publish in the near future.
The goal of disclosure in regards to innovation is to be able to introduce a blockage into some aspect of the system such as to allow it to dynamically reconfigure in ways that do not reproduce the old propensities. In this regards blockages will be trivial if the practices of critical disclosure do not reveal the pervasive historical patterns.
We ended last week by noting that deliberate blockages are a key tool to experimentally reconfigure the system into a new set of attractors and constraints. What emerges from this reconfiguring cannot be known in advance — it is a “future forward” practice — we co-emerge with the new towards emergent new possibilities — but only to the degree that we can successfully shift a system’s emergent behavior into explorations that do not fall back into the normal patterns (constraints) of a system.
Future forward practices are speculative — they sense novelty and support it — but not from an outside perspective — a perspective that already imagines a future and casts it back towards the present — but from an immanent perspective that senses novelty in regards to the degree it can know only what it is refusing.
Immanent speculation as an engaged and experimental practice — that is what we need.
With the workshop we only got the beginning of this point of disclosure and the development of potential experimental blockages. How does one continue?
We suggest looking back at our newsletter on Paradigm Change, Epicycles and Feedforward.
That’s it for this week — let’s work to let the new do the work of the new — and we will see you here next Friday. And as ever please reach out with any questions — email, LinkedIn or otherwise — we are always delighted to talk and conspire.
Till Volume 61,
Jason and Iain
Emergent Futures Lab
We’re How You Innovate
🧨 P.S.: We facilitate workshops and the accolades are overwhelming.
♥️ P.P.S.: Love this newsletter? We'd be grateful if you heap a bit of praise.
🔥 P.P.P.S.: Find the newsletter valuable? Please share it with your network
🙈 P.P.P.P.S: Hit reply - feedback of any kind is welcome
🏞 P.P.P.P.P.S.: This week's drawings in Hi-Resolution
📚 P.P.P.P.P.P.S.: Go deeper - Check out our book which is getting great feedback like this: