Welcome to Emerging Futures -- Vol 52! Processes Pt. 5 - Feeding Forward — The Process Takes Over...
Good morning fellow process celebrants!
It’s a big week for us: It is week 52 of our newsletter — we are celebrating one year since we began writing our newsletters!
It has been a great year writing over 104,000 words — that’s about 378 pages — which is about the same as a standard book. And if you throw into the mix our 8 to 10 Linkedin posts a week (which is about another 355 or so pages), as well as all the drawings/diagrams (about 450) — it's a lot of writing and diagramming.
For us It’s not about the quantity, though it is kind of crazy how things add up — what is more important is the daily and weekly practice of experimentation, research and reflection, and a daily practice of writing plays an important role in that. It is all part of the looping dynamic between action and thought and community dialog. One of the great consequences of the weekly newsletters that has been really helpful to us is the regular conversations we have had with readers — pretty much every week we are on zoom with a few of you pushing these experiments further (so— please if you have any thoughts and wish to share them with us— let's talk, there is a link at the end of the newsletter).
When we started the newsletter we did not have a real sense of what we wanted to do with it. But we knew that the process would shape us and shape the outcome into something interesting (trust a good process). Our first few newsletters were nothing more than a summary of things we noticed that week (a big thank you to anyone who has stuck with us since the beginning!). Slowly they have evolved into their current format where we are exploring an area that is of great interest to us and critical to creativity/innovation over a number of weeks.
Which brings us to this week. It is week five of our research dive into the reality that everything is process (and what the consequences of this are for creativity and innovation)
If you are new to the newsletter, or want to review things, here are the four previous newsletters on process:
This week we want to weave together some of the aspects of process we have mentioned: the agency of relations and feedback — and in the process add a critical term: feedforward (which will allow us to understand how a process has a creative agency separate from its components.
But before getting there let’s take a step back: why put so much effort into paying attention to processes ontologies in regards to creativity, innovation and change making in general?
There is a persistent belief, especially in variations of systems thinking and in the work of people like Jeremy Gutsche that radical creativity can be known: that it can be developed via ideation articulated as a goal, and then planned for in a systematic manner. These are all variations of utopian thinking, and the god model of design. An idea is projected into the future and a plan is set forth for how to achieve this. These are all models that believe in some form of linear causality in what are clearly complex systems where there are only small short-lived islands of linear causality, but the overall logic is radically non-linear and emergent. Of course on a simple, local and short term issue or something very vague and general we can make linear plans (shopping for the week, which school to enroll our children, etc). But, the radical novelty of the future is that it does not exist and that its emergence is not a linear continuity of the present. We see this when we look at all of the now historical speculative predictions of what the future will be like — they are about as accurate as astrology.
Embracing the reality of dynamic non-linear, relational and emergent nature means that we have to let go of “future backward' planning. We need to shift from goals to general headings and responsive models of active following.
But this is not the only problem with such ideation heavy models. These models are simply pragmatically unfeasible: just consider the issue of ‘how can we imagine the radically new?’ In the most simple of manners: We know that ideating, imagining and the use of language and other forms of representation rely and build upon the known. Thus if something is radically new it cannot be known prior to its actual making.
This automatically rules out any future backwards logic to radical forms of creativity: they will be good at giving variations and improvements of what exists (change-in-degree) but they will never give us things that are qualitatively different (change-in-kind) — to do this we will need a different approach, and ultimately a different ontology (and this is why process ontologies matter).
Putting the two arguments together: (1) reality is fundamentally composed of non-linear dynamics and (2) radical novelty will always necessarily exceed knowing brings us back to processes: for creativity to happen we have to work to steward the development of relationally dominant processes that allow for novelty to emerge wholly outside of prediction or control (including ours).
There is no way around the fact that we do not get to be the authors of radical innovation.
It will never be about carrying out a goal directed plan but about setting a robust process in motion and being a steward — a helpmate of, and responsive to, a highly dynamic process. And ultimately parts of the process (working via feedback) need to be the primary ‘stewards’.
Novel processes will emerge with our engagement that surprise us, these become self-conditioning, and we work with their emergent propensities towards a general heading of interest.
If the traditional approach is focused on people, the process of ideation, and the executing of a plan (think future backwards or the double diamond). We need to shift away from all of this to skillfully locate ourselves and our concerns in and of the middle: the relational.
“In the context of contemporary science… “nature” [reality] does not consist of basic particulars [things], but fields and processes… There is no bottom level of base particulars with intrinsic properties that upwardly determines everything else. Everything is process all the way “down” and all the way “up”…” (Evan Thompson, Mind in Life, p. 440)
This might seem at a general level obvious, but, we (including us) can easily make the critical mistake to reintroduce entities as substances with intrinsic properties (fixed internal essences). As Evan Thompson goes on to say these processes are “irreducibly relational — they exist only in patterns, networks, organizations, configurations or webs… Phenomena at all scales are not entities or substances but relatively stable [relational] processes…”
This phrase “irreducibly relational'' is what is critical. Relationality is not just that things are connected in some formal manner like all the stuff piled up on my dining room table: books, glasses, computers, papers, cables, mail… The irreducible relationality of reality is something quite different: we should understand relationality as both a “thing” in its own right and as what determines the “parts” in a process is a critical shift in the reinvention of creativity as a process (without falling back into a substance viewpoint). Relations begin in the middle (see above diagram).
Our historical reductive and atomistic logic has us always searching or proposing an origin — some stable ground that everything builds up from (this is at the heart of the linear ideation logic as well)— but there is origin: “since processes achieve stability at different levels of complexity, while still interacting with processes at other levels, all are equally real and none has absolute ontological primacy.”
The middle is the beginning…
What does the view look like from the middle? Rein Raud, in a wonderful book we enjoyed this summer, Being in Flux says it quite well:
“On every level, ‘being’ consists in fluctuating tensions that constitute relational patterns, and the imagined stability of entities is derived from flattened images of such tensions observed from an outside perspective. This does not mean that entities are somehow not ‘real’, if by ‘real’ we mean the capacity to participate in causal linkages. Nonetheless relations never occur between self-same and continuously things, stable objects, or egocentric particulars, but only between fields of constitutive tensions, and they are always formed on different bandwidths simultaneously.”
If our focus is creativity — the coming into being of things that are radically novel then understanding that everything is a process is only the beginning.
What is critical is relations.
Relations are far too often seen as secondary & less real than physical stuff. But, relations are not something secondary to things that simply connect existing things (the way my dining room table does). Nor are they less real.
Relations are ontologically real. They are a fundamental part of this world. But from a physicalist or a reductionist viewpoint where only physical things are real — relations are deeply paradoxical. Relations are both the things connected and they exceed what they connect. They both come after what they connect and they also come before.
Take soccer: you cannot find it in the ball, the field or the players — it emerges from the particular relations & their emergent logic which is ‘between’ all of these. The parts are necessary, but soccer is irreducible to the parts — and is distinct from these parts. Relations are like this — inextricably part of some assemblage but more than the assemblage.
But one could still argue that you need actual players, an actual soccer ball and an actual soccer field in advance of the relations. Thus, the people and the things are more important and do proceed the relations. But this misses the most important part of such relations in the context of creativity: the relation ultimately creates the parts. (See above diagram).
The emergent and relational whole has the capacity to shape its parts — this is termed system causation (or downward causation). When people and things are brought into relation and the relation is held stable — the relation will creatively and constitutively change the people and the things. The relations are the fundamental creative agent operating via emergent and dynamic enabling constraints (the affordances of the field, ball, bodies, and rules).
This relational dynamic of the middle is an ongoing process not a one off moment. Relations are dynamic ongoing processes. This is where feedback comes into play: feedback is everywhere and everywhere it is allowing processes to have both autonomy (stabilizing feedback) and a creatively agency (transforming and stabilizing feedback working in concert) without the need for an internal fixed essence or an external fixed plan. But to get to this level we have to understand that it is never one feedback operation — in complex processes there are multiple feedback loops occurring at multiple scales and across multiple scales all the while influencing each other.
Given this, it is better to say ‘soccering’ and not soccer — becoming not being. Everything we are part of is a creative becoming — a dynamic relation dominant process verging on crossing thresholds into difference. Soccering emerges out of some proto-soccerings that emerged out of other becomings via dynamic and iterative processes of exaptation.
Note: we are only going so far with the soccer example, but Brian Massumi writes a very insightful essay on relationality and soccer that is a must read: The Political Economy of Belonging and the Logic of Relation (don’t let the title turn you off — it is all about creativity).
Last week we talked about how new states and stabilities can (and are) invented, explored, and stabilized continuously— some deliberately and some spontaneously. And how loops are also pushed too far by positive feedback and breakdown completely (to be folded into other vastly different networks). But, while we can connect this with exaptive techniques and practices to work with emergence — this still leave out one critical aspect of how relations are creative — and this is “feedforward”
There are relational dynamics everywhere interacting in non-linear causal manners— leading to spontaneously emerging novelty everywhere (most of it unnoticed by those focused on planning the future). Processes are stabilizing into systems. So far we we have not looked at how outside forces interact with these emergent systems.
Outside of any stable set of dynamic processes (a system) which acts like a ‘closed’ system there will be elements that play a significant role in determining the system— even controlling the system, but are themselves unchanged by the system — these are called feedforward elements. Feedforward processes condition the ‘internal’ feedback cycles of a stable system.
The term feedforward signifies this pushing of a system in a direction — toward a different or new state.
A good example of this is historical climate change — the last ice age. The last ice age changed environments, species, practices and habits significantly — but it was wholly unchanged by any of these changes.
Why does this matter to creativity?
“In certain circumstances, feedback cycles can generate a [novel] element that can come to stand outside them with emergent organized dynamics of its own. These can function as if they were controlling, feedforward elements, altering and determining the system from which they arose with little change to themselves.” (Tomlinson)
An emerging novel practice (with a tightly integrated relation dominant network of tools, environments, concepts, habits, embodiments, etc) can emerge from evolving feedback cycles that is “so integrated, autonomous, and durable that it comes to exert a control-like function over the cultural cycles from which it arose” (Tomlinson) Here we can return to our soccer example: imagine playing with a ball (or something like a ball — a sheep's head perhaps) with a group of people in some loose fashion. It is enjoyable and you keep doing it. And with each repetition novel affordances (exaptations) are discovered/invented and stabilized. The environment changes bit by bit and this changing environment changes the players bit by bit. Agency begins to rest in the event itself. The process gains an individuality and becomes self-conditioning. Feedforwarding emerges as relations become dominant in a practice, allowing an ever tighter integration of feedback cycles to develop a process of emergent system causation to shape the components.
Tomlinson calls this form of feedforward in human systems a novel cultural “epicycle”. (See above diagram). His contention is that the production of novelty in the human realm that is qualitatively different is always a form of quasi-feedforward. It is always a type of epicycle. Creativity feedsforward not backward. We belong to it — to the middle and act from within what is making us even as we act on it. This is a process of immanence and not transcendence — there is no outside — no neat future we can jump to and demand that the world correspond.
Joining processes to feedback to relationality to emergence to feedforward to epicycles gives us a new ontological approach to creativity along with new tools, practices and concepts to engage with creative processes. Next week we will dig into detail of how we can work with all of this.
Until then stay of the middle!
Till Volume 53,
Jason and Iain
Emergent Futures Lab
We’re How You Innovate
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