Welcome to Emerging Futures -- Vol 11! Difference Differing... - Affordances Part 2.
Its fall! Here it is finally getting cold -- that real cold where your hands don't want to leave the deep warmth of winter jacket pockets.
It definitely makes one feel alive in new ways:
Even in a person
Most times indifferent
To things around him
They waken feelings --
The first winds of autumn
~ Saigyo (1118-1190)
For us this is a really special issue of the newsletter -- it is a chance to reflect on things and give thanks for so much:
This issue comes midweek so we thought we would fill it with some great treats:
We hope you enjoy things, and have a wonderful holiday!
Everything Dissolves and Everything Organizes
The basic law of the universe is that everything is falling apart, energy and order are dissipating and eventually the universe will become a homogeneous cold dark near nothing. Entropy. That's the second law of thermodynamics. The universe is irreversibly moving towards homeostasis.
But as individuals interested in creativity -- which is to say how things are organized in novel ways to resist that cold dark nothingness -- the important question is, why is there so much order everywhere?
All around us we see order -- things seem pretty organized and pretty creative: mountains are forming, new life forms are emerging, and a new version of candy crush will be out any day now.
All around us we see non-living matter self organizing spontaneously (the morphodynamics of self-organizing systems) into forms and living things utilizing this order to maintain, evolve and propagate themselves .
Creative dynamic systems are everywhere and everywhere more creative.
How can this be? How can the universe be dissipating and organizing at the same time? How can both be true?
It turns out that, as Ilya Prigogine and Isabelle Stengers pointed out, this is not so hard to explain in the big picture: Energy is more efficiently dissipated by order.
Our snowflake dynamics from a couple newsletters back or whirlpool dynamics are great examples of this.
Think about all the small eddies you see in a stream, the spinning of a hurricane, or the giant whirlpool in a B horror film on late night TV. The “whirlpool” is not a thing but a stable system that is created by a disturbance in the chaotic flow of water (a rock). On one side water is flowing faster than another and because of this a new order in the system arises. The whirlpool forms as a system that takes a specific semi-stable form by limiting all of the possibilities of where water could go to one circular pattern, but in doing so energy is dissipated faster than it would be if the system was less coherent.
There is always an excess of entropy and spontaneous order. Entropy is increasing faster than order -- but this does not mean that order is not also increasing -- it is just increasing at a lesser rate.
This is a great thing! We live in an excessively creative world with ever more novelty emerging continuously.
What matters to those of us interested in worldly creativity is two things:
This most basic form of creativity -- the forming and persisting of a dynamic system is based on limiting and constraining possibilities of how something can occur. The infinite and excessively more of chaos is becoming less.
Creativity is about doing less.
Too often we frame the discussion about creativity in terms of “breaking all the rules” and an unfettered freedom. In doing so we run the risk of missing the critical piece of the process: making is all about rules and constraining. Yes, you do need to break the rules, but only to make new and different rules.
Constraints are the unheralded secret to all innovation -- from the emergence of the dynamics of snow crystals to the rocks forming under our feet, to the next version of Candy Crush.
Knowing this allows us to make a critical addition to our initial definition of creativity as the process of making the new. Now we can say:
Creativity is the development of new forms of constraining system dynamics.
Why does this matter to innovators and creatives?
If we come back to our coffee cup example from last week:
It is as a material thing that utilizes the outcome of constrained self-organizing processes as its basic components: such as the self-organizing processes of rocks forming, eroding and reforming, the crystallization of rocks with heat, etc.
These constrained dynamic processes were never intended to make a coffee cup but have been harnessed and stabilized via a complex set of further constraining and stabilizing practices to take on a form.
The emergent outcomes of self-organizing systems were noticed for what they afford, then stabilized, and put in resonance with other self-organizing processes via an arduous process of experimentation to figure out the right enabling constraints.
How does this happen? We are always in the process of doing something with others and self organizing material processes that communicate with us directly as affordances. These are felt or sensed in our bodies as a pull in a new direction. Felt signs suggesting affordance pathways.
Imagine 20,000 years ago building a fire on muddy ground many times, and waking up to discover that in the morning the mud has become rock-like.
This pathway -- the self-organizing system of clay “hardening” (crystallization) via heat can be stabilized in an experimental process of sensing thresholds via experimentation with more or less heat, and more or less different muds or crushed rocks.
What does it mean to “stabilize” something -- first we are talking about noticing and engaging with an ongoing process of creation and creativity, and secondly we are talking about the process of actively constraining the possibilities of the system dynamics.
Creating, and creativity involve sensing processes that emerge and afford a possible novel pathway and then constraining the dynamic systems so they become stabilized in a very particular manner and do not dissipate.
Things -- objects that we have designed with a purpose in mind are transformed and stabilized affordances. We move from a noticed affordance to stabilizing them via tool making.
The outcome is a cup:
(But maybe not this cup…)
Constraints are clearly critical to making things -- we need to constrain the clay from dissolving to get a coffee cup (no easy task!). We need to constrain the coffee from cooling down too fast to get a good cup of coffee. We want certain affordances we notice to become more “real” -- our forms of creativity are all about sensing potential affordances, and making them more present by constraining their dynamics so they do one thing and not another.
Think about the coffee cup you are holding as you read this on your device of choice. It affords many potential actions: grasping, tilting and sipping. It also affords easy stable placement. It affords keeping the coffee reasonably warm and not burning your lips.
This form is constrained to maximize certain affordances: holding liquids, keeping them warm, meeting our mouths, meeting our hands, meeting our surfaces, etc.
In this way we have creatively gone from more to less.
From more to less and different: the “first” cup
Affordances make up our world. Look around you, everything is “affording” you effective action.
We are in and of a sea of affordances. But we are not unique in this: All living beings live in similar environments that they have played an active role in shaping. All life is intimately and irreversibly conjoined with an environment that it co-shapes. All life lives as coupled beings: subject-environments in the dance of action and co-shaping.
Living things are enactive being+environment couplings that emerge out of a long and complex dance with a larger environment of self-organizing systems that surround it and are folded into every part of being alive. The process of sensing and stabilizing we saw with the cup is also how we as beings emerged.
Life is unique in its form of creative organization -- it is not simply a massive set of constrained self organizing systems. Life has a purpose and thus a direction -- however loosely we want to define this. All life repairs, builds, maintains itself as a total environment -- and this totality has a heading -- a tendency.
Think of a beaver, she is continually making its world: chewing down trees and building dams to make lakes from rivers and these new environments are in turn shaping her and collectively they grow and change with all of this pushing an environment down a certain path into the future.
To be alive is to have and be of a “world” and this world has an emergent logic and as such goes more in one direction than another. Our world in a very real sense has a mind of its own and this in turn remakes the parts. The world -- our world is creative and is inventing us and moving into a future that it is also already shaping.
For us humans this form of enactive embedded environmental creativity is happening at many scales and registers. We make and are of many micro-worlds. Each activity we do has a type of local environment -- a taskspace. We are extended tool beings that slip through and carry with us micro-environments in our daily lives.
Let’s go back to our cup. It is part of an invention and creation of a set of practices, habits, concepts, tools, etc. that form a specific environment that constrains and holds together the pleasure of coffee making and drinking.
This dance of co-shaping of the dynamic system has a logic of its own that emerges from the patterns that it streamlines or “canalizes.” The careful shaping of an environment into a taskspace off-loads memory, skills, and know-what into a highly regulated (constrained) environment that strongly affords certain practices over others and then takes on a “life of its own.”
Which is why the diagram below has an individual (always more than one) making or “entailing” things, which in turn “give rise to” the individuals. From the perspective of creativity and innovation what really matters is that once this particular self-environment coupling is stabilized -- it becomes itself creative and constrains, stabilizes, and has an emergent tendency and propensity.
The dance and dialog is worldmaking. A world that emerges from the middle. Literally: once we put together Embodied + Extended + Embedded the “system” snaps into a new state: a world of affordances emerging and always growing from the middle that has its own powerful agency.
Because of our particular history in the west of individuality and wanting to see everything as discreet, it is very hard for us to get a good grasp on this.
Our creativity -- our lives are always by necessity worldmaking. We are of this middle, and our focus of creating also begins in this middle (not our heads).
How are we creative from the middle? The “middle” is affordances. Affordance is the relation between relations. Our sensory lives are ones that directly touch, see, sense and prehend affordances. And it is here we will find creativity. But, it is not that easy...
Back to our wonderful cup of coffee one last time: this specific set of carefully bundled affordances that makes our morning so wondrous is haunted by an excess of possible linkages to other spaces and other affordances.
It could be used for anything from a ladle, to a measurement tool, to a pen holder, to a spider catcher, to a hammer, to a percussion instrument.
These are new uses for the coffee cup -- but are they genuinely new affordances?
Not really. We are just using one existing thing (the coffee cup) to do some other already existing actions (store pencils, measure flour, cut cookies, etc.) based on its more-than-coffee affordances. We are taking an intended affordance (containing) and using it for an unintended but similar purpose. While there is some novelty in this, it is a type of repurposing that does not in itself introduce real disruptive novelty into the situation.
We do also take unintended affordances and put them to new but existing uses. For example we could flip the cup upside down and use it as a candle holder, and the small lip on the bottom, which was designed to afford resting without wobbling on uneven surfaces, unintentionally can now serve to collect and stop the dripping wax from spilling onto the table. Using it as a percussion instrument would be quite similar -- the unique sonic resonances that it affords were never intended.
These are new uses for the cup but are they genuinely novel?
They are not. Ultimately they all connect us back to existing actions and practices that sit inside task-spaces, environments, our abilities and identity. It is in these tight loops that bring us back into the known and the already existing that we can see the agency and the propensity of a world.
This is where it is critical to understand that we are not discreet individuals but are individual+environment couplings.
The constraints that create this system and make it persist are not in our heads but are held across the system.
It is never, change your mind and the rest will follow.
The intense entanglements of the totality of the system mutually create, constrain and stabilize a mode-of-being -- a world -- and give it a direction.
This environment/world is perfectly constrained to allow for all sorts of forms of change-in-degree, but not changes in kind.
This is why genuine novelty is really hard: we live, see, and sense affordances -- our intimately coupled self-environment realites and it all loops back into these micro worlds and their emergent agency...
But how can we sense an affordance that could push this constrained dynamic system into a new stable but totally distinct dynamic? How can we go from world preserving and expanding to novel world making?
How could a new constraint arise that would constrain us to become other than what we are?
Is there an emergent self-organizing constraint that we could sense as an affordance that could perhaps iteratively usher us into the new?
That is a question to actively engage with as you make your thanksgiving meal.
We have a game for you that gets us to be with this question:
First cue up this playlist. It is a curated set of music found via the constraint that they must have the word “difference”.
Next choose a vegetable that you have in abundance -- say carrots or onions. Get them out and be with them for a moment.
The game is to make a dish that only uses this one ingredient (plus, water, oil, salt, and heat). That's the enabling constraint.
How many distinct and different flavors, textures and forms can you experimentally coax into emergence and stabilize as something unique?
Can you experiment to get at a minimum three unique qualities to emerge which then can be combined in various processes and rations to make a dish?
As you do this pay close attention to:
Don’t make this a test to see if you can do something radically strange -- enjoy the process of the game as an opportunity to sense and give thanks to all of the forces, systems, and processes that are gathered as you and with you in the moment of this activity. Notice how things self organize, how affordances emerge and speak, notice how the activity thinks, notice creativity arising in strange places. Take joy in the play of all of this and share it with your fellow human cohort -- invite them into this dance. Invite some glorious microbes as you crack open a bottle of something and know we too will be doing this and we toast you and your lovely adventure!
As you take a few moments to relax this long holiday weekend we have a few videos for you to enjoy:
We give thanks to each of you - and we wish everyone a Happy Thanksgiving!
Iain and Jason
Emergent Futures Lab
We’re How You Innovate
📚 P.S.: Go deeper down the rabbit hole with our book Innovating Emergent Futures
❤️🔥 P.P.S.: A referral is the highest form of compliment – please forward to innovators, creatives, colleagues, collaborators, co-conspirators, partners, rebels, designers and miners...
🙈 P.P.P.S: The second highest compliment is feedback. Please let us know if any of this resonates with you…