Welcome to Emerging Futures -- Vol 59! Getting Constrained — Getting Creative...
Good morning wondrously productively constrained ones!
It has been quite a week. Lots going on in life and lots to prepare for with our work. Next week we are off to Lisbon to lead a workshop.
But, enough with all of that. Let’s jump write into exploring creative processes.
Over the last two weeks we have been exploring the how of change and creativity, which brings into the thick of understanding causality especially the concepts of non-linear causality and systems causality:
Two weeks ago in Volume 57: (Examining Causality in Creative Processes) we introduced the topic of causality and indirect causality.
And last week in Volume 58: (It’s Not Top Down, Nor Is It Bottom Up) we built upon this to get a fuller understanding of System Causation and how we can move beyond linear logics.
And this week we want to explore how the indirect causality of system causation impacts and shapes outcomes directly: System Causation is a form of System Creativity.
Dynamic systems, like those that all life participates in, have surprising regularities. There are regularities in form and behavior at individual and social levels. These regularities in outcomes cannot be explained by attempting to trace causality back in a reductionist fashion to a single discrete source like genetics. We now understand that such outcomes are because of the tightly connected relational dynamics between processes that give rise to these regularities.
That, in such contexts — contexts that make up almost all aspects of our lives, there is no single discreet “silver bullet” to causality can be at once quite frustrating, and given how deeply the habits of there being a direct cause for things are part of nearly every aspect of our culture — the shift can be very very difficult. Silver bullets have a habit of sneaking back into our practices…
How do systems cause things to happen? One could imagine system causality as a version of direct causality but just bigger and a bit more nebulous — instead of a gene or an individual agent causing this or that to happen, the “system” did it. And in creative terms we could imagine doing this: “it was not Steve Jobs who was creative, but it was the milieu of Silicon Valley that was the creator”. But this type of linear explanation is both very unsatisfactory and more importantly — it simply replicates the model of linear causality at a higher scale.
Dynamic Systems are not things, and nor are they reducible to their constituent processes . And in such systems what matters far less are the discrete component processes — rather what matters are the relationships. The relations — synergistic “things” that we cannot see are the determining factor. Last week we talked about this in the conclusion as a “nothing that is a productive something”:
The thirty spokes converge at one hub,
But the utility of the cart is a function of the nothingness (wu) inside the hub.
We throw clay to shape a pot,
But the utility of the clay pot is a function of the nothingness inside it.
We bore out doors and windows to make a dwelling,
But the utility of the dwelling is a function of the nothingness inside it.
Thus, it might be something (you) that provides the value,
But it is nothing that provides the utility.
Chapter 11 Daodejing (Ames & Hall, translators)
The paradoxical and often ineffable nature of such causality and such dynamics are challenging: What makes a systems feature or quality so different from the mere sum of its parts is nothing we can point to — it is not in any thing — it is in the whole of the practice — in the relations. Looking inside each and every component will not give you a sense of the whole. Nor will any attempt to trace causality back to a source. “It” only exists in its use — in action taken as a non-decomposable whole.
But this is not the end of what is so challenging to our logic: the outcomes of systems causation that are “more than” the sum of their parts are in reality a “less than.” How can this be?
In regards to novelty, when component processes come together as a tightly integrated relation dominant system, they become ordered in a way that is statistically limited. The system as a whole has far less freedom than all of the component parts have individually. And the system does something novel and qualitatively different from what any of the component parts could do on their own. It is in this sense that we can say that it is a “productive less-than”. There is a spontaneous systems-creativity involved in emergence.
But does the system make a novel outcome?
So, while there is an infinitely small likelihood that a system could do “anything”— rather such a dynamic system exhibits statistical regularities: novel patterns (that do not exist in, and are not traceable to any of the component processes) that they will settle into. These semi-stable patterns are not something that can be observed directly — they will only become apparent over time by agitating the system such that it will spontaneously move towards one of these many stable pattern states.
We define these emergent latent potential states with a confusing language of “attractors” and “constraints”. What can be confusing is that these terms suggest objecthood — that constraints and attractors are types of things like ropes constraining and forcing things into form or physical magnets directly pulling things towards themselves. But both these terms designate only statistical regularities — given a subtle disruption the system will more likely than not spontaneously tend to one of these processes states — the system is, so to speak, “constrained” towards, or “attracted” to these states.
The constraint/attractor is not some additional thing in the system but simply the relational dynamics of the system that intrinsically entrains the system to more likely have certain tendencies and propensities over others. It is an immanent quality of the relational global disposition of the system (another “nothing”).
We are involved in these dynamics of constraints and attractors in every aspect of our lives: things have a regularity, a pattern to them, a set of stable states and limits within which they hold together: from our bodies, to our daily practices, to our physical urban infrastructure.
The relational dynamics emerge between the component parts/processes which consist of tools, environments, institutions, habits, practices, humans and other inter-subjective living agents, concepts etc. What matters is less the exact components or their internal states as the dynamic relational logic of the system.
In this way system causation does not cause something directly to happen — but produces the novel conditions to make a certain set of outcomes to be far more likely to happen. These novel emergent potential outcomes cannot be reduced to any simple causal source. They are a form of creative novelty that is the outcome of the whole. There is no author or discreet source behind such creativity — it is a non-human or better: more-than-human creativity. (And our creativity is always both “in” and “of” this systems-creativity).
For creativity this is quite interesting and leads to an important set of practices that stand in strong contrast to some of the classical practices of creativity (esp. those focused on internal mental states of individuals and ideation):
1. Active Joining: The multiple specific tendencies of a system cannot be known from the outside. To “find” these states requires an engaged experimental practice of creative probing (perturbing) that will push the system into its different states. Even in well understood dynamic systems there are novel stable states. NOTE: These states are relational and qualitative — and this involves you directly. See: Generating Epicycles.
2. Active Discovery: Experimental perturbations can move the system into a state that has always been there but never realized. This process of “discovery” is an active one of co-making: it takes creative effort to both get into such a state and to stabilize the state.
Experimental perturbations move the system into a novel state by shifting the relational dynamics such that the “topology” of attractors shifts (this is rarely a shift to just one novel state— but a set emerges, often categorized as unintended consequences). See: Engaging with Emergence
3. Blocking: Deliberate blockages can be experimentally introduced to reconfigure the system into a new set of attractors. While blocking can sound similar as a term to constraints — they are very different. Constraints are emergent processes that generate statistical regularities. These are not things you can see or point to. They are only noticeable in the pattern of outcomes that emerges over time. Constraints are the multiple propensities of a dynamic system.
A Blockage, on the other hand, is a deliberate rule to not do something. The goal is to push experimental behavior into explorations that do not fall back into the normal patterns (constraints) of a system.
A blockage is a special type of perturbation — probing. One would think that upsetting a system would lead to an increase in disorder but that is not the case it leads to the emergence of a new system of order — a new set of “constraints” (patterns of regularity) — a novel world in its becoming. See: On Blocking
4. Disclosure and Critical Cartography: Mapping patterns is a significant aspect of such a creative practice. Perturbations led 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, or the genealogy of the modern subject). 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 take 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). Blockages will be trivial (which is not necessarily always a bad thing) if practices of critical disclosure do not reveal the pervasive historical patterns.
5. Time, process and emergent agency: It can often feel like that these emergent regularities are just “there” even if that there is not actual. It is critical to see how a system is constrained as emerging in and over time. Some constrained regularities are built upon and require the stability of earlier constrained regularities. And all of the patterns are dynamic and shifting as the system dynamics co-evolve with the dynamics of sub processes and external forces.
6. Caution and irreversibility: Exploration and co-creation are conjoined. Discovering and making are not truly distinct activities. Creative processes happen in time, they lead to emergent possibilities that exceed what can be known in advance (and will continue to do so), these will change both you and the system in ways that are irreversible. Creativity — systems creativity is not an action that has an end. Change is happening in ways that one needs to follow, and continuously actively co-shape. You emerge and transform alongside the change. Creativity involves making durative processes — adaptive, dynamic engaged processes of critical and responsive co-emergence.
7. Threshold seeking: moving from one constrained regularity to another within a dynamic system is a form of threshold crossing activity. Simply agitating a system in a one-off manner leads to statistically expected quantitative outcome. To get beyond these outcomes requires a concerted effort that only works if it is commensurate with the work needed to cross a threshold from Change-in-degree to Change-in-kind. E.g. if you just heat up water a little bit — it is still a liquid. To get it into a different stable state requires enough energy to heat it up to 100C — then we have a different state: steam. Exploring and co-creating novel states of systems requires threshold seeking and crossing techniques. These require more than “effort” — these require experimental reconfigurations of the system — novel relations, tools, environments, actions etc.
Creativity is thus always a question of:
“What else can a dynamic system do?”
“What else can a dynamic system allow for?”
The crux here is that these are never questions that can be asked and answered from the outside.
We are ourselves dynamic processes nested and entangled within and across other dynamic systems. The inventive systems dynamics of reality is the ocean that all our actions — our very lives, including our creative acts, emerge out of, and fold back into — we, along with all reality, swim in, and are of, a deep and vast inventive and inventively constrained ocean.
Well, that’s it for this week. Next week we will explore differing types of dynamic systems, their internal logics, and the consequences of this for creativity.
Have a wonderful productive week!
Till Volume 60,
Jason and Iain
Emergent Futures Lab
We’re How You Innovate
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