March 27, 2011
I was taking part in a training course on the management during an extreme national emergency. As a part of the program, we went through an exercise that simulated a deep global crisis with severe implications for the governance of Finland. Although the gravity of the situation as it was expressed in the daily briefings was beyond anything we really experience, or can think of, at home today, all aspects of the apocalyptic views presented are actually a reality somewhere in the world at this very moment. This led me to reflect on my learning.
Another reason for writing this was what is actually happening in real life at home. Finland has traditionally been one of the most pro-European Union countries. But now the government seems to be blindsided by the rise of the populist anti-euro party. In the face of the assault of the “True Finns” the Social Democrats too seem to be abandoning their pro-EU roots. If this trend continues after the elections, where are we heading?
The experience brought by the Internet is that all people on our planet are only a few links, or handshakes, away from each other. The claim is that even when two people don’t know each other or do not have a friend in common, only a short chain of intermediaries separates them. Stanley Milgram performed his first famous experiments even before the era of the mobile phone and the web. His results indicated a median chain length of less than six (degrees of separation). The research was groundbreaking in suggesting that the whole global human society is an interdependent network characterized by extremely short path lengths. If the median was just below six in 1967, it is safe to assume that the number is even lower today.
The dominant ways of thinking about the world have their origins in Newtonian mechanics in which the universe was simply the sum of independent parts. At the moment, this part – whole thinking is being directly applied to the ways we think. Interdependence plays a minor role and is anyway seen as the result of a deliberate choice. The populist thinking follows the logic that we can choose not to be interdependent.
I learned last week that leaders cannot know what the outcomes of their actions are. This is because what really happens arises in the complex interplay of many actors with many intentions, which is why leaders cannot choose outcomes although they can choose their next action. We often create things together that nobody wants to create
Nothing ever happens in an independent way.
Interdependent individuals relate to each other in a responsive manner, with a gesture from one party calling forth a response from another. George Herbert Mead was the first social psychologist to take the stance that meaning arises in the responsive interaction between gesture and response. The important implication is that meaning does not then arise independently in each actor first to be then subsequently expressed in action. Actions are not independent. Meaning is not attached to any single act but is perpetually created in interaction. Knowing is then a property of the interaction. Cognition is relational.
Our perception of the world is confined to groups of immediate acquaintances. Sometimes this is good news, sometimes very bad.
The old ways of understanding human behaviour are not up to the task any more. In contrast to Newtonian traditions, the science of social networks offers an entirely new way of understanding the interdependent human society.
Let’s imagine your house is on fire. Luckily there is a lake nearby. But you are alone. You run back and forth but without some help you may not be able to carry water fast enough. Lets then suppose that you are not alone, and people around you want to help. If you have seen old movies where this happens, a peculiar form of organization emerges. People form a line from the lake to the house passing full buckets of water towards the house and empty buckets back towards the lake. What is happening is called a “bucket brigade”. It is not about the individuals or the community but about a particular form of emergent linking that at the same time distributes the task at hand and integrates the efforts of the people in a coordinated way. If we take the idea of the bucket brigade and connect it with the notion of the small world network, we have a global concept of participation.
A better understanding of social networks is essential for facing the new threats in the world. They are only a few handshakes away, whether we want it or not. This better understanding of interdependence also leads to the necessity for empathy and participation. Stanley Milgram proved that the distance between the fires and the lakes in our world is very, very short indeed. This is why we need to take part in the bucket brigades, and not only when our own house is on fire.
More on networks
February 27, 2011
Complex systems are, as their name implies, hard to understand. The main difference between the sciences of certainty and the sciences of complexity lies in the different causal frameworks they are built upon.
Up to now, we have seen the world around us as systems that, we thought, could be described and understood by identifying causal links between things: if I choose X, then it will lead to Y. If, on the other hand, I choose A, it will lead to B.
We are accustomed to drawing boxes and lines between the boxes. We try to model the world as predictable processes that we can control.
The mainstream ways of thinking about management are based on the sciences of certainty. The whole system of strategic choice, goal setting and choosing actions to reach the given goals in a controlled way depends on predictability. The problem is that this familiar causal foundation cannot explain the reality we face. Almost daily, we experience the inability of leaders to choose what happens to their organizations – or to their countries.
We live in a complex world. Things may appear orderly over time, but are inherently unpredictable. If a system’s long-term behavior is unpredictable, goals can still be set, but there is no certainty that the actions taken are going to realize them.
Complexity refers to a pattern, a movement in time, that is at the same time predictable and unpredictable, knowable and unknowable. Healthy, ordinary, everyday life is always complex, no matter what the situation is. Human patterns that lose this complexity become repetitive and rapidly inappropriate for dealing with life. Unlike mechanical systems, human systems thrive on variety and diversity. An exact replication of behavior in nature would be disastrous. For example, a failing heart is typically characterized by loss of complexity.
Human interaction cannot be understood as predictive processes but as patterns
A pattern is something that unfolds through the complex interactions between elements in a system. Although there is apparent order, there is never exact repetition if the system is viable. This is why human interaction cannot be understood as processes in the way they were used in manufacturing, but as patterns.
Patterns that are more repetitive are normally called routines or habits. However, those routines do not cause our behavior. Instead routines are emergent patterns. They emerge in what we do. They continue to be sustained only as long as they are present in our everyday interaction.
The American sociologist George Herbert Mead (1863 – 1931) distinguished between two types of objects: physical objects and social objects. While a physical object may be understood in terms of itself, a social object has to be understood as being composed of patterns of interaction.
Mead referred to a market as an example of a social object. The acts of buying and selling define a market. Markets cannot exist without these social activities. When one person offers to buy something, this act involves a range of responses from other people. A person making an offer can only know how to make the offer if she is able to understand the attitude of the other parties to the bargain. The ideas of buying and selling are thus always interconnected. This is why it is called a “social” object.
The routines define the object. The social object can only be found in the conduct of different individuals engaged in the social act. Thus, there is no market that can be understood as an “it”. Mead’s social objects are not things but generalized tendencies to act in similar ways in similar situations.
We find it easy to regard social phenomena as things with an independent existence. We talk about financial markets being “nervous”. We want more people to recognize patterns “to predict what is going to happen”. But patterns can only be found in the experience of interaction itself. They have no existence separate from interaction and we cannot influence the patterns as separate entities.
We can just participate in interaction – in a dull and repetitive way or in a creative and rich way.