When we look to the future to give meaning to our lives, we lose the meaning we can make for ourselves here and now.
— John Gray

Since my next post on unplanning is ripening but slowly, I thought I’d post slightly edited excerpts from a paper I found enlightening in my quest to understand unplanning’s underpinnings. Vladimir Dimitrov is an Australian mathematician with keen interest in complexity, chaos theory and fuzzy logic. In Complexity, Chaos and Creativity: Journey beyond Systems Thinking he explores how complexity improves upon systems thinking, and in the process illuminates some of the ways that planning undercuts us.

Wholes inside wholes

System thinkers see the world made up of parts (systems, subsystems, components, elements, particles) that can be separated and analyzed independently from one another. The underlying assumption is that the whole is more than the parts, where ‘more’ usually relates to ‘more complicated’ or ‘more difficult to study and understand’; consequently, the parts are simpler and therefore easier to study and understand. For artificial (human-made) systems, such an assumption can be accepted. In nature and society, this assumption fails.

The microcosm is not simpler than the macrocosm; the same inseparably connected dynamics, energies and forces that make the spiral of our galaxy fold and stretch pulsate in a similar way through any living cell. The life of a single individual is not simpler than the life of society considered as a whole. In the fractal structure of nature the whole consists of wholes, only the scale changes.

To be fair, I think that system thinkers made a real effort to stress the emergent quality of the whole when all those components came together, which made it ‘more than the sum of its parts.’ That was an important insight of systems thinking. This insight was then built upon by complexity researchers.

It occurs to me that when we attempt to come up with patterns that help us walk in the “right” direction (as planning attempts to do), we are stymied by the effort to set clear goals and then break them down to parts, into steps that we can take. The alternative that I am trying to articulate does not start with a linear process (over there a goal, over here we taking the steps and the jumps arrived at by deduction). It starts with an awareness of wholeness that shifts into another wholeness, and another, as we walk. Tomorrow’s wholeness, emergent as it is, is not altogether predictable from today’s wholeness, and we have to give it a chance to evolve according to its own logic, not ours. The movement of wholeness to wholeness is like the slight turn of a kaleidoscope: a new whole, just as lovely and coherent, emerges from the previous pattern. Each new turn takes us further from the original whole but the final pattern still carries within it an echo of the first configuration.

Be here now

Complexity and chaos focus their attention on the present, because even tiny perturbations in the process of self-organization occurring at present can have enormous impacts on further development. It is an impossible task to make the ‘butterfly effect’ follow a goal-oriented strategy or target-setting anchored in the future.

While centered in the present, complexity thinking has the capacity not only to see the emergent phenomena at the moment they happen, but also to capture the signals related to their potential occurrence before they happen. This is of crucial importance, particularly if the emerging phenomena could affect negatively the unfolding of life. In contrast, being constantly centered on the various goals and targets attached to the future, systems thinking can see that emergence only after it has occurred, that is, when it is too late to undertake any action to prevent its occurrence. This explains today’s impotence of of systems thinking to cope with ecological complexity. Being mostly preoccupied with all kinds of ‘ecologically sustainable’ goals and dreams for ‘clean technologies’, with many local projects for ‘tomorrow’s environmentally friendly developments’ and noisy preparations of world-wide forums about how to make the planet a ‘better place to live for future generations,’ ecological systems thinking is unable to stop the ever accelerating tempo of environmental destruction that happens today.

Life happens in the now. Letting planning processes take that now away from us seems, in retrospect, just another deceptive trick of a way of life gone awry.

Don’t plan; plant!

Another important advantage of complexity thinking is its awareness of the self-organizing capacity of the present. This awareness helps complexity thinkers see new emergent phenomena and to facilitate initiation of new processes that are coherent with self-organization and therefore realizable.

Complexity thinking does not try to fight chaotic attractors that emerge out of the turbulent flow of human life and does not aim to ‘reform’ or ‘improve’ them. Attempts to improve chaotic attractors are similar to attempts to ‘improve’ the whirlpools of a mountain river — an entirely senseless task! Chaotic attractors reveal the self-organizing nature of complex dynamics, and to fight self-organization means to lose: nature is always stronger than the individuals who fight it. But what complexity thinking is able to do (and successfully does!) is to seed the emergence of new attractors.

As all the attractors pulsating in the ‘phase space’ of life have a common supply of energy, when the energy flow directed to nourishing newly planted attractors grows in volume and intensity, the energy supply to the other attractors automatically decreases and, if not supported any further, those attractors simply ‘shrink’ and dissolve.

This takes me back to my post on the counterproductive nature of political resistance. I am convinced that our strategy needs to be based on recognition of the energies that flow through “all that is” and on the use of those energies (as aikido teaches) in seeding new possibilities. Fighting the old gives new energy to it. Planting the new now — in the present — that’s where our attention is sorely needed.

Orwell redux

Prediction, target setting and goal achievements are essential attributes of systems thinking; they work effectively in a linearly ordered environment where the changes in system’s inputs are proportional to the changes in system’s outputs and the cause-effect relationships are transparent enough to be discerned. Because of this, whenever systems thinkers (systems analysts, designers, developers) explore real-life situations, they automatically turn to models that allow prediction, target setting and goal achievement. And since any non-trivial life situations represent a realization of some chaotic processes, difficult to predict or orient toward pre-defined goals and targets, systems thinkers focus intensely on trying to ‘improve’ chaos, to substitute for it some form of order, or more precisely, to impose a pre-designed model of order.

In society, such ‘improvements’ on chaotic behavior gravitate to the establishment of hierarchical models of order. When put into operation, such models serve to assert power and control. Thus, in an almost invisible way, the application of systems thinking to social reality contributes to strengthening the power-oriented aspirations and ambitions in society. The sphere of economics and politics is saturated with such kind of aspirations and ambitions, leading to what some have described as the “global free-market capitalist religion.”

The phenomenal brainwash in society serves to suppress any spontaneous and therefore difficult to control expression of self-organizing ability of complex social dynamics. If released, this ability could be a threat to the functioning of the System. Marionette-like governments, corrupted police, various military, technocratic and educational institutions, bureaucrats and commissioners with controlling, legal and financial functions, a great number of experts, consultants, preachers, and entertainers all help the System to function properly. If they do this, the System grants them Its support.

That is the essence of utopian thinking, it seems to me, this idea that you can fix (or govern) the world by imposing a human design onto it. No wonder utopian visions mostly turn out to be dreary reruns of Plato’s Republic spiked though and through with pie-in-the-sky fallacies!

And a parting thought from Christopher Alexander:

Thus the world has entered a new phase. What is made, what is built now, what develops in the world, is governed by images and rules. It is no longer automatically governed by the existing wholeness. It is now governed by what we decide.