Many years ago I had the privilege of going hiking in Wales with Dave Snowden, back when we were both more-or-less inventing the discipline now (and unfortunately) called ‘Knowledge Management’.
Other than the fact we share a Welsh heritage, and we’re both political lefties, we could hardly be more different (“to give up hope is a mortal sin”, he says somewhat mockingly of his conversion to Catholicism), which is one of the reasons I continue to enjoy our occasional correspondence and keep up with his new work. Though I should confess he still loves to debate, while I, the conflict-averse Canadian, abhor it, which sometimes challenges our relationship.
He recently did another long talk at The Stoa, in which he delightfully attacks muddle-headed, arrogant, well-intentioned, self-important idealists and ideologies which fail to understand how change (or anything else) actually happens in the real world. He takes shots at the execrable Jordan Peterson, at Ken Wilber and the Spiral Dynamics crew, at Rebel Wisdom, at logical positivists and post-modernists and meta-modernists and neo-platonists and stoics, at self-proclaimed and anointed gurus of all stripes, and many more. He even criticizes the Game B gang that includes Daniel Schmachtenberger and many of the Stoa regulars.
The real value of this talk, however, as with most of Dave’s work, is appreciating his pragmatic, evolving, challenging take on the world and how it works, and how practically we can nudge it in more positive directions.
His talks are dense, opinionated, sometimes rambling, and full of the jargon of complexity which he’s had to master to deal with the largely-academic world he has to navigate, and to introduce new concepts for which there is no useful English term. There is a glossary however, for those willing to learn the shorthand, and I certainly needed it for this talk. Nevertheless, as a caveat, some will find his talk opaque and annoying.
This post is basically to capture what I learned from this particular talk. I may have some of it wrong, and/or oversimplified, but here are my notes:
- Focus on understanding the present, rather than inventing an aspirational future: What is the “next right thing” that can be done to move in a positive trajectory? Knowing the current situation is far more useful than picturing an ideal future state, and it keeps you grounded instead of caught up in fanciful ‘design’ activities that may be completely impracticable. We should explore new ways of thinking and being in the world to deal with the realities of the moment, not a new grand narrative for the future of the world that some lotus-eating group of idealists thinks we should all strive for. More present-focused activists, please, and fewer future-focused designers.
- Evolution, at every scale, is a punctuated, and synthesizing process, rather than a prescribable linear one: We didn’t ‘advance’ from “hunter-gatherer” to “agricultural” to “industrial” cultures. Every change was a blending of the old and new, with the best of each not necessarily selected for. There has never been any simple set of stages of ‘progress forward’ in any complex situation, and stage theories are hopelessly flawed, simplistic ways of trying to solve problems or assess ‘progress’. Likewise, there are no “higher levels of enlightenment” that people can achieve. Terms like “turquoise” measure nothing more than your level of narcissism. Learning and evolution are, instead, complex processes directed towards “messy coherence”.
- The meta-crisis is actually a poly-crisis: Meta actually means ‘between’ not ‘higher’, and the multiple, complex, interrelated crises we face are not part of some one larger crisis, but rather manifold and diverse.
- It makes no sense to look at things in isolation from their relationships and their environments: Narrowing your focus and analyzing something as if it were separate and apart from everything else is simply bad science. As Richard Lewontin has explained, for example, the real cause of most of the diseases we face is not bacteria, viruses and cancers, but rather overwork, malnourishment, and dysfunctional, under-regulated industrial systems.
- Social atomism is a terrible basis from which to analyze complex problems: Humans evolved to make decisions as collectives, not as individuals. We are defined by our communities and our physical and social environments. We are not isolated individuals whose aggregate choices transform the world; we are part of our collective(s) and our environment. Collectives can do many things that individuals cannot. Our current hyper-individualism does not augur well for our capacity for addressing the poly-crisis.
- How to nudge a group forward: Three questions to understanding the situation: (1) Who has a voice or power in this situation (“agency”)?; (2) what opportunities and constraints are available to them to exercise that power (“affordances”)?; and (3) what methods and paths can be employed to act on those opportunities and overcome established impediments and deterrents to change (“assemblages”) ie What are the adjacent possibles that can be identified and enacted right now? [This resonates a bit with Daniel Schmachtenberger’s 35 questions.] Dave’s organization helps groups to (i) map where people are now, (ii) give individuals the epistemic sovereignty to define their own position, and (iii) from that, identify sustainable pathways to a different future, in part through asking the above questions.
- When people have to choose between eating food and heating their home, this is not a “crisis of meaning”: People with their heads so far up in the clouds that they mistake real problems for epistemological ones, need to get a life.
- Putting people in positions where they have to think differently: There’s a myth that informed dialectics and conversation actually promote change, but it is far more effective to put people in a position where they have no choice but to think differently. Take them to visit a factory farm. Have them accompany a cop and a social worker who’ve been called to deal with a domestic violence incident. Or impose new constraints, such as “you can’t come to the office for the next year because of the pandemic”.
- Making it easier: Changing the dispositional state: Lowering the ‘energy’ cost of change, or shortening the time needed to change, makes it easier and more likely that change will happen. [I might add that making it more fun can also improve the dispositional state for change.] If you want people to use LED bulbs instead of incandescents, make them cheaper and more accessible. [If you want people to learn some new skill, make a game of it.]
- The next pandemic is likely to be much worse: It’s likely to be an avian virus or bacterial disease with a much higher fatality rate. Recent hyper-individualistic behaviours and distrust of public health authorities suggest we’re really poorly equipped to handle such a crisis.
- One unsolvable problem for AI is its incapacity for drawing on historical context and for creating and learning from metaphor: We reason by analogy and communicate and innovate by metaphor, and that capacity draws on a vast, diverse, and culturally-based history of knowledge, ideas and experiences. That is not programmable.
- There is no such thing as mastery: Learning is a complex, iterative, continuous, non-linear process. Holding oneself out as a ‘master’ of anything is a conceit.
Lots to think about here.
When/if I next get the chance to sit down with Dave, I’d love to explore with him my sense that humans (or at least human brains) loathe complexity, uncertainty, and not knowing, and what we might be able to do to get people to embrace complexity and revel in uncertainty and not knowing instead. Is the answer making it more fun? Chess players seem to enjoy complexity. Murder mystery fans seem to enjoy uncertainty and not knowing, for a while at least. Perhaps the play’s the thing?