Welcome to Emerging Futures -Volume 66! Making Creative Sense Of Sense-Making...
Good morning winter and summer flows of light and dark,
This upcoming Wednesday is the solstice — here in the Northern Hemisphere it will be the longest night of the year and in the Southern Hemisphere it will be the longest day of the year — marking the beginning of winter and summer respectively. In the ongoing cycles and movements it is a moment we can bring forward as significant. We will sit around a fire late into the night whatever the weather with friends sharing a moment
fields we saw
so many different flowers
to a single hue
~ (Saigyo, trans. B. Watson)
Over the last couple of weeks we have been exploring in the newsletter how new knowledge emerges in the creative process.
It is a question that quickly brings us to a seemingly fundamental paradox of both knowledge and creativity — how can you know or even do something new? On the question of knowledge it seems logical that you can only inquire about what you already know — for if you did not know it you would not know what to inquire about. Thus inquiry is unnecessary as you already know it, and gaining radically new knowledge is logically impossible because you would not even know where to begin— thus knowledge is always already there... (at least for the historical western tradition
And this paradox of learning and knowing is connected to the creativity paradox: the radically new cannot be thought, because thinking — really ideating — can only draw upon existing knowledge, concepts, imaginations, representations — all of which are inherently conservative. So how is the genuinely new possible if it cannot be thought?
The way to leapfrog these two conjoined paradoxes is to bring knowing and inventing out of the immaterial realm of ideas and back into the world of doing and making.
Last week we went into how knowledge emerges from doing — how “know-how” is enacted such that “know-what” can emerge.
The paradox of new knowledge disappears when it is understood to emerge from and be in and of the relational dynamics of an environment, with embodied skilled tool users experimenting and stabilizing affordances to open up new ways of sensing and being.
The creativity paradox equally dissolves when we recognize that the new equally emerges from a situated experimental embodied practice of environment and tools making practices that in turn transformatively ontologically shape the users in ways that exceed knowing and prediction.
This week, let's go a bit further and see how this connects to other critical concepts/practices of creativity and innovation: information, value and sense-making.
Knowledge is always for some agent, for some living creature — it is always contextual. Our actions are always in and of a meaningful environment. Our environment directly provides us with information — it provides us with, as J. J. Gibson said, opportunities for action — what he and Elinor Gibson termed, affordances. This very basic form of information is something that we always perceive/sense directly. To be alive is to have and be of a meaningful environment.
Acting involves an environment and the environment has agency — it shapes us and our habits, practices, and concepts (at an ontological level— it gives us a “world”). But we in turn shape that environment. It is a loop — a dance from which knowing emerges.
This making an environment and the opportunities for action in our environment — our most basic way of doing and being alive in general always follows the direct sensing of specific opportunities for action. It is in and of our most mundane actions, nursing, typing or how we reach out to grab a cup of morning coffee, sit down upon a surface, or find a foothold while scrambling…
It is also how a crow uses a tool like a traffic intersection to crack nuts… or a microbe navigates a liquid environment.
In all of these active contexts — environments, information is already there. What is information? — at its most basic (the level that interests us) it is, as Gregory Bateson said — a difference that makes a difference. Some thing in a creative process, or in our everyday actions affords us the ability to do something novel — it makes a difference. It is something that in-forms — allows us to form differently. It becomes significant — meaningful in our action for us.
Information is thus context dependent, and relational (related to the active doing of an agent). Information belongs to the system — the coupling of an agent and their embedded and active environment. Information — that difference that makes a difference emerges and allows for that ongoing, never-ending and fundamentally creative dance of co-shaping and co-emergence.
If we take seriously Bateson’s concept of information is a difference that makes a difference, we can further radicalize this concept of information. At its most fundamental, information “is not a message sent and received, and in fact not the conveyance of meaning at all, but rather as a sheer formal correspondence of distinct entities in the world that brings about certain effects… In this correlational sense, information extends throughout the cosmos and requires the cognizance of no life-form… ” (Gary Tomlinson).
Why this is interesting and matters is that information is not something in our head or something abstract and immaterial that we add to the hard concrete facts of the world — information — is a relation that is always already part of the world. And our knowing, meaning making and valuing emerges out of in-forming world.
The sheer astonishing fact that things meeting things have effects and these can make a difference is perhaps so trivial as to be not worth paying any attention to — but here begins the creative process — the process of a difference making a novel difference — having a novel effect. The slightest of swerves in the universe cascading towards the potentiality of a novel affordance emerging in our ever experimental actions…
The dance of a living being actively engaged in and of an environment that eventually emerges from this swerve in the cosmos is one where information — effects that make a difference is always already of value — meaningful.
Francisco Varela in the 1980’s put it so simply: “Living is sense-making.”
What Varela was getting at is that sense-making is not some special skill we have and can deploy in the right context like mathematical reasoning or swimming. It is not a brand of knowledge management. Rather — it is how we are alive whatsoever.
Our reality — our world always already shows up as of value. We do not add value as an extra ingredient to reality — living is always already enacting a “value-chain.”
Life rests upon some sense of value — an active process — that dance — this is the ever ongoing process of sense-making. As an inherent quality of all life — it is far more than cognitive, conceptual or narrative.
Value begins as a difference that makes a difference. Value is always already enacted. To say that we “sense” is to say that we enact sense — it is a creative dynamic adaptive process of the co-shaping of environment and agent.
What do we sense? At a fundamental level we dynamically (with an active environment) enact affordances ( a world full of opportunities for action).
We are not creatures that sense/percieve a neutral world “out-there” of mere stuff — in-put — and then and only then give it value inside of our heads (subjectively).
Our active dance of enacted, embodied, embedded and extended sense-making allows us to add to last week’s discussion of technology. We need to understand basic technologies (such as how we write or talk) are our environment— the medium that McLuhan described as “working us over completely”. Our sense-making is this dance.
What we do with things— as a form of co-shaping is sense-making where things “… are so pervasive in their personal, political, economic, aesthetic, psychological, moral, ethical, & social consequences that they leave no part of us untouched, unaffected, unaltered…” To alter slightly McLuhan's words we could say that any understanding of sense-making is impossible without a knowledge of the way tools and practices work as total environments…
What McLuhan did so well is connect technologies (as environments) directly to how we become specific embodied and enactive sense-makers — seeing them as both extensions & co-producers of human faculties whether mental or physical (the beginning of the emergence of meaningful skillful embodied activity). Technologies by altering our habits & practices — our environment — provokes in us new logics of meaningful sense perception & habitual action which transformatively alter the way we act, sense & think at an immediate level.
We actively make sense and engage directly in the world co-shaped in this manner perceiving directly what it “affords” us. Our world is never “the world” some distanced neutral world of physical stuff— it always already shows up as meaningful in a specific manner. This is what Heidegger terms the “disclosedness” of the world— it is always already there in a meaningful way for us.
To do something different — to invent or join creative processes is never just a matter of changing clothes — taking off and putting on a new hat so to speak.
It is never a matter of sitting down in a conference room and deciding to ‘think different” and then just doing it with a handful of sticky notes, practices of divergent thinking, some other creativity tools and good people. If it were only so wonderfully easy!
But, because we are wholly of a world we need to actively disclose, deconstruct and ultimately refuse (block) a whole way of sense-making — a whole way that we are co-shaped. And it is ultimately us — what we cannot even clearly see about us and our world that we are trying to transform. In creative processes we are trying to come to sense differently — co-emerge a new mode of sense-making — of being alive… — a new “value-chain” — a new value enacting process…
This can sound vast, abstract and overwhelming (who said innovation was going to be easy, fast and neat?). But the insights this offers us are both profound and quite actionable.
Let’s end this week's newsletter with one useful way to take all of this:
We can see from this discussion of sense-making that creativity is an enactive process that involves a dance of co-shaping and co-emergence with an active environment— it is a type of world-making process— a novel meaning making or value making process.
One fundamental thing that is critical to avoid is reducing creativity to a process of making discreet things or services.
Things and services cannot be divorced from a larger enactive sense-making process (think McLuhan and technology).
And here creative change does not happen by focusing in on just the one thing (an object of service) you are interested in innovating — it involves countless other very mundane processes of sense-making — from growing, mining, fabricating, transporting, and economic exchange, to habits, rituals, using, caring, circulating, transforming — to that full sense-making web of relations.
Take something as simple as a chair — it is part of many enactive processes of sense-making — of sitting, talking, working, nursing, individualism, specific embodiments, and it emerges from many processes of ecosystems striving to grow and flourish, forestry, milling, cutting, steaming, economic networks, value evolution, a world, etc. It cannot exist alone — it is part of a world of tables, rooms, cushions, houses, offices — all mutually influencing, adapting, intra-dependent. A chair is an astonishing nodal invention, an ontological process of enactive value generation — meaning making and ultimately sense-making (worldmaking).
What one is doing when one is innovating in the space of a “product” or a “service” is that one is developing new relations, processes, and networks— new ways of sense-making (worldmaking). And one is equally enactivly disclosing, deconstructing and refusing an existing set of sense-making — worldmaking relations, processes and networks. Dismantling a subject and environment and simultaneously dancing towards a new subject-environment.
Changing relations, processes and networks of meaning, value, affordances and sensing — this is vastly different from changing the discrete form of an object or service — which is sadly the narrow focus of far too many innovation strategies and frameworks.
When our inventions “fail” because of this “misplaced concreteness” we react with methods of reactionary repair like Design Thinking. Why are we asking people about their problems and not asking them to join us in sensing otherwise? But it is most often too late and these innovation methodologies are often beside the point as the total space of enactive meaningful relations and processes were never the focus.
All innovation whether it is a “product” or a “service” (such misleading terms) is an enactive relational process innovation in and of sense-making. It is about this dual act of active deconstruction and inventing, developing and stabilizing new relations — new forms of sense-making that involve developing new processes, and networks. One is developing a form of emergent value sensing — an enactive practice of sensing novel value is part of a dynamic process.
In the process of invention, to some degree, every seemingly stable set of nodes (user/customer, economics, value, problem, material, purpose, form, world, etc.) is necessarily opened to qualitative transformation.
Creativity involves new ways of being alive. This week as you celebrate the solstice — winter or summer what way of living are you enactively deconstructing and novel way of living are you actively co-emerging with?
Have a great week experimenting with differences that just might make a difference!
Till Volume 67,
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