Welcome to Emerging Futures -- Vol 54 - Generating Change — Generating Epicycles...
Good Morning fall beings,
Last night was the first night we closed a few windows since spring. The nights are getting longer and the winds cooler. This morning in the pre-dawn hours with Jupiter shining bright above, we went looking for gloves to bike to work — strange alien beings coming back into our lives. It is a welcome shift in the cycle.
Last week we asked the question: Is the logic of ‘paradigm change’ both helpful in understanding how large-scale creative change happens— and a useful approach to practically engaging in this change?
That exploration took us back to the work of Thomas Kuhn and the development of the original concept of Paradigm.
Our conclusion, to quote from last week's newsletter:
“Kuhn and the model of theoretical change in some sciences is not as robust as one might have imagined. Without a focus on experimentation and tool building we are left with only one leg of a tripod. And, for us the question is: when we put the missing legs back on this tripod, will we still have anything like a Kuhnian model of change? Will it still be useful to focus on “paradigm change”?
Our sense is that it is not. The logic is too theoretical, and does a poor job of taking the distributed and emergent logic of processes into account. Our exploration of processes, emergence, feedback and especially feedforward suggest a differing approach.
Paradigm 2.0 for us is to return the term to a more modest and local meaning: it is a shared example. And in the context of creativity and innovation it is a shared example of an exaptation that when abstracted might suggest novel world opening possibilities.
But, novel paradigms are not novel worlds. Those need to be made — there is no switch, despite what Donella Meadows says “…in a single individual it can happen in a millisecond. All it takes is a click of the mind, a falling of the scales from the eyes, a new way of seeing…” It is not happening in our minds, it is always emerging from a middle — a middle of doing.
Yes, we do need novel paradigms — novel shared sufficiently unprecedented examples of exaptations that suggest a possible path to explore — really make. But more than that we need the techniques and processes that will participate in the emergence of novel worlds. And those are much closer to what we discussed last week with the concept of Feedforward and Epicycles.
Paradigms are a tool in the practice of exaptive emergence in feedforward processes and the stabilization of novel epicycles — they are not the "silver bullet.“
The broader question that the concept of Paradigms seeks to answer: how does large scale qualitative change happen? — still remains. It is a critical question for those of us interested in creativity and innovation. If we are interested in a general understanding of creative change and how we can participate in it — the search for useful tools and frameworks continues…
Our exploration of alternative approaches that develop out of a process view of reality in this newsletter is now in its seventh week.
To orient you to where we have been so far — here are the six previous newsletters on process:
The one really important thing that we take away from a re-reading of Thomas Kuhn and his seminal book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions is his focus on worldmaking. Kuhn argues that scientific revolutions did not simply transform how we “saw” the world — they did not simply change our worldview, but, they changed our world:
“… after Copernicus, astronomers lived in a different world… [and] after the discovery of oxygen, Lavoisier worked in a different world.”
This aspect of Kuhn is not noticed enough, and he does not fully explore it in his later work (Others certainly take it up— here Foucault is a critical resource). Change — revolutions like the shift from an earth centered world to a sun centered world go deep. And that changing how we see things does not happen without changing what we do, what we interact with and who we are. Changes in worldviews are and emerge from worldmaking.
This is the core of an enactive process view of reality: how we see things emerges from how we do things with things. And in this we are shaping our immediate environment and in turn our environment is shaping us. The world is not separate from us — it is not something “out there” to simply be seen one way or another.
Kuhn is firmly of such a perspective: with a creative qualitative cultural change, the world changes. After, we are in and of a different world. How we sense, act, and conceptualize has changed — the affordance landscape that makes up our world is new.
Understanding creativity as a worldmaking process is radical shift from classical models of creativity.
Change is thus never about a “change in perspective” — never simply a change in how we see things — if by that we mean something like the social constructivists: that change is like removing or changing our “glasses”.
How we see and what we see (really sense at every level) is produced — emerges out of our embodied intra-activities with specific things in specific environments.
Let’s come back to the question that the concept of Paradigm Change is seeking to answer and phrase it from this process perspective: if a system is generating a stable set of patterns such that it is reproducing itself in a reasonably stable manner — how does it give rise to an emergent feedback pattern that has the power to escape and give rise to a new stable pattern?
What new affordances emerged in a systematic manner to produce an unprecedented level of systematic qualitative change?
When we observe our everyday reality, things are quite stable. The chair is a chair from day to day and the floor is a floor. For us, despite what Heraclitus said, we cannot step in the same river twice. This makes it seem like change has to come from something outside of this stable world. And from this sense of a very stable reality it makes sense to imagine that we are this outside agency of creative change. And that because of this creative change first happens in us (we have an idea— perhaps a paradigmatic hunch), and then we make a change to the stable outside world based on our internal vision.
While this position is understandable, as we come to realize how we are shaped at every level by our embodied engagements with an environment it is far less tenable. How we are thinking is emerging from our world.
And it is a world in which novelty is already everywhere in every system in the form of variation. Processes might be very stable, and our chair to us might always be a chair. But at every level and especially at the level of our engagements everything is in (creative) variation.
And every variation carries with it the potentiality of pushing a system closer towards a threshold of indeterminate transformation.
Systems repeat by keeping variation in check. But variations open up the space of affordances (relations) varying. Variations pull in other variations.
Variations pull us in. Variations change us. These variations accumulate, organize in a new sedimentation of patterns and physical changes.
If we take the example of the making of stone tools by pre human hominins millions of years ago:
There is a vast world full of the variations of rocks — types, sizes, patterns of wear, location and context. And all the variations of hominins. And all the variations of contexts… In this complex diverse reality things are brushing against things at every moment — affordances become loosely and tentatively established: some engagements with rocks afford crushing and breaking and others afford pounding or stacking. Relations emerge and a process of co-shaping begins. Bodies, senses, habits, environments and things change.
The loopy process of self-environment co-shaping shifts as rocks afford us new capacities and we in turn change rocks…
In our creativity — in human centered creative processes we surf novel variations (including our own) as they stabilize and affect us. In our Paleolithic example we are actively surfing the expressed and felt potential of rocks. We are following what they open up in variation: This one cracks into dust while this one cracks into a sharp edge. We are connecting and relating one set of variations to another — cuttingness to the dynamics of a dead animal. This is feedbacking — looping through us and through our environment towards new stable states.
We do this via active processes of selection. But selection here needs to be as much a refusal as an embrace: we block or suppress the forces in a system that keep it in a stable repetition that we wish to move away from and in doing so allow the forces of variation to have a larger effect. These forces we augment and stabilize via changes in practices (ritualization) and changes in our bodies and environments.
In this focus on variations it is important to remember that the primary source of novel variation is in use — the thing itself does not need to physically change at first (this might happen later).
The radically new begins in engaging with the unintended capacities that are already there with everything — whether new — e.g. modified or not (exaptations). A quick example we have looked at previously: feathered flight in dinosaurs emerged from the feather that was already fully formed for warmth and sexual display. To kick the process of deviating from land based life to flight did not require either ideation or the invention of anything new at this juncture. It required new practices — new forms of engagement that took advantage of unintended capacities in feathers (and other things) to develop novel affordances that opened new pathways.
Sensing qualitatively novel potentials in existing things is very hard. But in everyday use we are all pushing everything we use towards novelty. This is emerging from our embodied enactive unspoken and most often unthought modes of daily action. Daily life fringes into the new at every moment even as it is pulled towards the routine. Paying attention to what non-cognitive novel affordances are emerging in everyday life is critical for a creative process geared towards novel qualitative change.
What is particularly interesting in this regards with the development of stone tools is that they began and first flourished millions of years prior to the advent of the modern human. Long before language, symbolism or any complex form of ideation. They allow us to get a sense of how qualitative change happens in complex social systems without the need to resort to a top-down mind driven, ideation focused approach to explanation (which is prevalent in the use of the concept of “paradigm change”). It gives us a chance to recognize that “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.” (Michel Anderson, After Phrenology).
If we continue with our example of pre-human stone tool usage: There is a novel systematization happening between elements that is becoming “irreversible”. We are seeing processes building upon the stable base of other processes. Creative change and novelty is now emerging via accumulation + systematization + abstraction.
Stable inter-relationships are forming into intra-relationships.
This involves the forming of hierarchical processes: there are nesting parts and processes with internal groupings and sub-process that are necessarily sequentialized.
This tight integration of processes leads to holistic transmission — but the holistic transmission does not rely on the passing down of ideas and concepts. Wholistic transmission happens environmentally. There is a tight integration of traditions, tools, practices, ecosystems and embodied actions such that environments — what the anthropologist Tim Ingold terms a “taskspace” (see volume 12) has the capacity and agency to hold together and transmit in a holistic manner novel processes. It does not take clear ideas articulated as a paradigm to convey novelty — in fact, we would argue that in some sense the most critical part of the emergence of novelty happens long before we can articulate it in anything like a clear and distinct paradigmatic idea.
To summarize: 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 or on developing a new conceptual paradigm). Processes are stabilizing into systems. But, so far 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. (NOTE: feedforward is often confused with positive feedback. These are two very different things— see volume 51).
The term feedforward signifies this pushing of a system from the outside 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 the creative process like the one we just looked at— pre-human stone tool usage — the tight integration of feedback cycles into a unit of wholistic transmission (the extended taskscape) can generate a coherent wholly novel process that can come to stand outside of the previous stable process logic with an independent unique emergent organized dynamics of its own.
This is the emergence of a strong stable novel process. But the process is not simply budding off and becoming independent and existing in parallel to the dominant process. This “epicycle” — a process cycle that has come to stand outside of the major cycle “can function as if they were controlling, feedforward elements, altering and determining the system from which they arose with little change to themselves.” (Tomlinson)
What we have come to call in popular parlance a “paradigm change” is really the emergence of an epicycle that has a strong feedforward relation with the cycle that it emerged from. 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)
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 (what we might have previously termed a “paradigm change”) is always a form of quasi-feedforward. It is always a type of epicycle. Creativity feedsforward via epicycles not backward from the creative spark of an idea. 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 paradigmatic vision that comes to us and from which we can mold the world to 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.
For us, in our practice of engaging with creative processes for meaningful change — paying attention to, and deeply engaging with these processes (Feedforward/Epicycles) is critical. Creativity is a process. Change is a process. It is more than human, more than ideas and certainly more than paradigmatic. It involves deep engagement, great experimentation, a following and joining what emerges and the willingness to work in, of and as a distributed environment.
That’s it for this week's exploration of process and alternative ways of engaging with creative processes. Next week we are going to bring epicycles into a contemporary context of innovation — stone tools are great and our pre-human relatives are as wonderful as we are — but, how do creative processes flourish in our contemporary lives (with language and all)?
But that’s next Friday. Have a great week bringing these practices and concepts into your practice.
Till Volume 55,
Jason and Iain
Emergent Futures Lab
We’re How You Innovate
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