In order to organize society, we create institutions, we build buildings, we train millions of people to perform very specialized activities. We make endless forms to record and report what we are doing. We create armies of people to supervise other people, and of course the supervisors themselves have to be supervised as well.
These systems acquire a life of their own. We seem to forget that they were created around an idea. All systems… are creations of our unique way of looking at the world, our reality. Systems are expressions of our beliefs. —robert wolff, Original Wisdom
I’m endlessly fascinated by how minority groups absorb majority standards as a measure of value, even when those standards press the minority to pervert its native expression and don’t elicit the best of what the minority group could bring to the common table.
I was heading to a work dinner with my favorite person yesterday when we wound up talking about a scenario in which I held a contrarian view.
“You’re not a very good sheep,” she concluded.
“I’m a very, very good goat,” I said.
Know Who You, What You Offer, and How You Thrive
If I’m in an environment that values the traits of sheep and devalues the traits of others, I simply won’t thrive, no matter how much effort I put in and how much I mimic or play-act to approximate environmental expectations. As Paul Batalden once said, every system is perfectly designed to get the results it gets. If I’m not thriving, then because I don’t skimp on effort, I need to ensure that my context supports the outcomes I want to produce. And I need to change it if it doesn’t.
Designing for my highest potential means recognizing that if I am not the kind of creature that the usual standards were made for, then I need to develop new standards—and this doesn’t make the usual standards bad, it only makes them incomplete.
There’s a lot of power in having the vision and ability to “design anew” with standards that take more of reality into account, lots of potential in creating new, sustainable worlds of experiment and experience within and beyond the systems that operate around us now.
What are some of the ways you’ve leveraged that power in your life? I’d love to hear your story.
In this talk, Eric X. Li offers a provocative discussion of political meta-narratives—the stories we tell ourselves about our political systems—based on his study of the People’s Republic of China. At 15:08, Li makes some bold predictions about China’s future in comparison to the US and peer nations within the next decade. I hope someone checks back with him in 2023.
I think democracy contributed to the rise of the West and the creation of the modern world. It is the universal claim that many Western elites are making about their political system, the hubris, that is at the heart of the West’s current ills. If they would spend just a little less time on trying to force their way onto others, and a little bit more on political reform at home, they might give their democracy a better chance. China’s political model will never supplant electoral democracy, because unlike the latter, it doesn’t pretend to be universal. It cannot be exported. But that is the point precisely. The significance of China’s example is not that it provides an alternative, but the demonstration that alternatives exist. — Eric X. Li
Li argues that the Chinese one-party system has allowed for greater adaptability and reform than we electoral democracy citizens have acknowledged, and he may be right. A vision of one model operating worldwide betrays a fear of political diversity, a lack of imagination regarding all the ways there are to govern different societies effectively. Why must only one governance model be adopted across the planet or presented as the end toward which we must or will inevitably evolve if we’re mature enough (and by whose standards might we be judged “mature”?
I think Li is correct on this point: there are different ways to participate in governance, there are different ways for governments to be responsive, and voluntary elections are not the only way to prompt popular engagement or official reception. In the US, only 50-58% of voting-age residents have done so at a general election since 2000, and voter turnout has never been higher than 63%. (The voting age population includes imprisoned citizens and non-citizen residents.) If only 3 out of 5 people will participate in a general election, and 1-2 out of 5 on average in elections for more local levels of government, we can’t honestly call their choices the voice of the people.
The use of survey instruments, focus groups, and similar direct research tools in public sector administration has increased in Europe over the last 15 years along with shifts towards e-government; the UK government’s use of public consultations as it developed controversial bills is a recent example. These methodologies could help to reform electoral democracy here in the US too.
Misanthropes and philanthropists enjoy the same sunlight and we’re naturally interdependent with other living and non-living aspects of our ecosystem. Our ecosystem includes human systems too—families, governments, ethnic-cultural groups, religions, and economic models. Even when we have individual preferences about these things, the dominant models in our environment still affect us. Someone who never builds their own family is still affected by communities of families. Someone who drops out of the church loop is still touched by society’s religions. Someone who is “stateless” is still influenced by a matrix of nation-states.
I could refuse to vote when eligible. I could disavow my religion of origin. I could claim emancipation from relatives. But presence means participation; existence means participation. The only question is what kind of participation it will be.
View Who is my Neighbor? | You are my Neighbor on Storify.
FYI: Florida is one of several US states that, following a 1970 U.S. Supreme Court ruling, allows for 6-person juries rather than the conventional 12-person panel when the case won’t involve capital sentencing.
Who is my neighbor? My neighbor is you.
Convenience of conceptual analogies is no substitute for usefulness or rigour. —R. Brennan & S. Henneberg
One understands a phenomenon only when one has a holistic view of [it], a view that integrates all of its known components and all of its known manifestations. —T. Bouldin & L. Odell
Pulling a mechanical thing apart to see how it works is easy. Observing a living system in progress is not. Humans have predictable biological components, but we are more than the sum of parts and so are the living systems we create. We can miss worlds by only examining predictable bio-molecules and chemical interactions for insights into the world around us.
One of the programs that I work with teaches students and educators how to recognize and navigate ten levels of reality:
- the bio-atom
- the bio-molecule
- the cell
- the organ
- the organism
- the family
- the neighborhood
- the profession
- the nation
Each level has fixed laws, and at increasing levels there’s both increasing complexity and increasing fluidity.
Research that fails to account for anything other than linear laws won’t adequately represent reality beyond level 4. Humans (Level 5) are not reducible to biochemicals, and neither are their cultural networks or systems.
What people think is real also becomes “real” by mutual consent, because our consciousness gives us the capacity to build rules and structures on delusions as well as on sound premises. So a study of What’s Really Going On has to include the individual and community mental maps we generate in our relationships, with families, neighborhoods, professions, nations, and as a species.
If you were to design a study of people’s mental maps, what would you be looking for? What would you ignore? What would you compare? How would you assess what you noticed?
What is a system? A system is a network of interdependent components that work together to try to accomplish the aim of the system. A system must have an aim. Without an aim, there is no system. The aim of the system must be clear to everyone in the system. The aim must include plans for the future. The aim is a value judgment. (We are of course talking here about a man-made system.)…
A system must be managed. It will not manage itself. Left to themselves in the Western world, components become selfish, competitive, independent profit centres, and thus destroy the system. . . . The secret is cooperation between components toward the aim of the organization. We can not afford the destructive effect of competition. — W. Edwards Deming (emphasis mine)
If a system requires management, does this mean that systems, unlike organic ecosystems, aren’t inherently sustainable and don’t negotiate their own balance?
What are the implications of viewing a man-made system as something that’ll fall apart without deliberate attention?