First published Nov 26. Slightly edited April 2.
Don’t get a liberal arts degree they say. It’s not useful in today’s modern economy. Specialize in something technical. Computer science is cool. Engineering will take you far. Finance is the ticket! Never mind that artificial intelligence and machine learning is mastering all of these disciplines precisely because they are technical. Today a liberal arts degree, particularly an Interdisciplinary Studies degree, has more value than ever. Indulge me here for a few minutes.
I earned an Interdisciplinary Studies degree from the University of Texas at Dallas. It was a wonderful education that allowed me to nurture my various interests that ranged widely from business and entrepreneurship to sociology, political science, and public policy. What I didn’t know is just how valuable the capability I was training would be: thinking across domains.
As I took a variety of classes, I began to synthesize information from disparate domains and used seemingly unrelated information to build deeper understanding. I sat in lecture analyzing what I was hearing about international relations and how its principles related to business. I searched for patterns and similarities and focused on making connections in my brain. This habit has served me well in business where I’ve been able to solve problems using insights from domains “unrelated” to the exact topic at hand.
We are at an unprecedented point in history. Never before (that we know of) has the world been so vast and complex as it is today. Much of that complexity is driven by the specialization of practically everything which has driven incredible economies of scale, technological advance, and depth-of-domain. Human knowledge is doubling on the order of every two years. (Too bad our wisdom isn’t increasing at the same rate. I digress…) We have great need for people who can think across multiple domains, consider larger wholes and systems, and build deeper understanding of this complexity.
The following is an early attempt to feel my way through concepts that I perceive to be related to our complex environments. I believe that there is very little left in the world that is simple. It is only our perception that is simple and once expanded cannot be unaccounted for. Such is the nature of expanding consciousness. It is precisely this state of being and thinking that will drive the actions necessary to create the broad systemic change our ailing modern systems require if we are to achieve a just, healthy, and viable future.
“A butterfly flaps its wings…”
Chaos Theory says that “a butterfly flaps its wings in the Amazon and subsequently a storm ravages Eastern Europe.” This can only happen in a hyper-connected world. Whether true or not from such a micro-to-macro scale, it is far easier to see the level of interconnectedness that permeates our man-made and natural world. It doesn’t take a butterfly flapping its wings to see how COVID sent ripples through global supply chains that resulted in not being able to buy certain items at the grocery store (like toilet paper…but that’s a different post…).
The case for the grand scope of our interconnectedness is all around us if we look:
- The Natural Systems that have been evolving and adapting for millennia are the original models of interconnectedness. That sand from the Sahara desert feeds plants in the South American jungle and interferes with hurricanes in the Mid Atlantic headed for North America is but one of an endless number of interaction chains on this beautifully complex natural planet.
- In Education, while Western models have followed a science-based Newtonian worldview, Indiginous learning models like those of the Inuit, Metis, and First Nations peoples still highlight the fundamental interconnectedness of all things. The line here between education and spiritual belief is very thin and mirrors the beliefs in many world religions of a fundamental interconnectedness.
- In Business I first saw I, Pencil more than a decade ago, an eye opening video about how a simple yellow pencil is sourced from across the globe. Imagine what it must take to manufacture a cell phone or computer. Floods in that other part of the globe can cause a slowdown in metals mining which cause a whole supply chain to slow down and inconvenience our ability to buy something on this side of the planet.
- In Security researchers have been preparing and hardening devices connected to the Internet of Things. IoT’s great possibility is its ability to harness data from every type of device allowing for incredible measurement and manipulation of the world around us. The risk of every device being connected comes from bad actors hijacking these devices for nefarious purposes or simply to sending undetected messages.
- In Insurance actuaries have been building models and tools capable of accounting for ever greater scales of complexity in order to produce working models of risk. The greater the interconnectedness the greater the variables to account for that could affect liability in unforeseen circumstances.
- In Financial Markets we have to look no further than the financial contagion of the 2008 financial crisis which swept across the global financial systems. It took years to fully understand how subprime mortgages were being tranched into risky Mortgage-Backed Securities which were improperly evaluated by ratings agencies and insured through Credit Default Swaps and then matriculated into investment portfolios of all types. Regulations have not simplified the complexity of our capital markets.
- In Health we are just scratching the surface of understanding how human habitation encroaching on wildlands increases the risk of pandemic or the importance of gut microbiota and its effects on many aspects of our health. In the “alternative” realm we have increasing evidence of extra-sensory interconnectedness that hints at untapped powers in the body and collective conscious.
- In Conservation it is now said by some that the classic slogan “Think Globally, Act Locally” is outmoded and impossible to do given the scale-linking of every system from the micro to the macro and vice versa.
- This list will be limited for the sake of brevity…
Many have noticed the need for interdisciplinary approaches to our world’s biggest challenges. From Pope Francis’ encyclical Laudato Si “On Care for Our Common Home”:
“Given the scale of change, it is no longer possible to find a specific, discrete answer for each part of the problem. It is essential to seek comprehensive solutions that consider the interactions within natural systems themselves and with social systems. We are faced not with two separate crises, one environmental and the other social, but rather with one complex crisis which is both social and environmental. Strategies for a solution demand an integrated approach to combating poverty, restoring dignity to the excluded, and at the same time protecting nature.” (139)
The world has always been interconnected but in ages past it took greater durations for these influences to play out. People and commerce moved slowly and natural systems were more resilient. Today interactions are sped up with peoples across the planet connected through telephony, travel, and global commerce. To operate effectively in today’s modern environment requires perceptive capabilities and systems of thinking that account for greater variables and exogenous influences.
The universe is made of FRACTALS, or at least is fractal-like. According to Fractal Foundation, “Fractals are infinitely complex patterns that are self-similar across different scales. They are created by repeating a simple process over and over in an ongoing feedback loop. Driven by recursion, fractals are images of dynamic systems – the pictures of Chaos.” This definition surprisingly describes reality in many ways.
The Hermetic wisdom tradition posited 7 Principles which includes the popular phrase “As Above, So Below”. This principle is recognition that the skies above mimic the earth below which mimics the microscopic universe unseen to the naked eye. Thus is the basis for astrology and the reliance of most indigenous traditions on the heavens as maps for our world below. This worldwide belief is fractal in nature suggesting that complex patterns are similar across different scales.
For something to be a universal truth it must scale up and scale down and be operable on different levels of abstraction and reality. A concept related to fractals is that of templates. For instance, an acorn already knows how to become an oak tree and cannot become a maple tree. It contains the template for oak tree, a unique pattern in the universe that creates a tree that looks, feels, and lives a certain way. Trees are fractals as they repeat smaller and smaller versions of themselves across the forest. The trees are never identical. Each is unique. Identical is not found in nature.
This variance appears to be a universal truth, that no two things (stars, planets, humans, animals, etc…) are the same. If uniformity were to exist it would create much higher degrees of certainty and order. Variance creates complexity, exceptions, and character which requires us to connect to the unique soul of something, its individuation.
As all living things (and many of our man-made things too) individuate, they can be thought of to be held together by a CONTAINER. Two oak trees next to each other each grow from the template/essence of oak tree but look dissimilar in their main and minor branches (variance). The boundary between the dirt and the root, the trunk and the air, and the branches/leaves and the sky is the outline of the container which holds the oak tree.
Every thing has a container, a defined edge that creates differentiation and distinction. This laptop is not the desk because there is a clear boundary between the two. The edge of my body is the edge of the container of Evan and the same for you, dear reader. Edges mark BOUNDARIES where one thing ends and another beings. Boundaries are often where greatest aliveness occurs. Where the container of ocean meets the container of continent is a significant boundary where biodiversity is high.
Containers exist in many ways beyond the natural world. Police jurisdiction ends at one road and another begins. A team or an organization is a container. A tribal identity or a family is a container. All are unique, defined, and highly complex. Any thing that is not everything has a container. This is the nature of duality, individuation, and otherness.
With individuation and distinction comes RELATIONSHIP. A monad (me to myself), dyad (me to you), and triad (the three of us to each other) are the most basic forms of relationship. Relationships permeate our entire human experience. Because we are individuated, the container of me is in relation to all individuated things. This is the basis for the Lakota wisdom of Mitakuye Oyasin (Me-ta-ku-ye O-ya-see-een) translated as “All My Relations”. The fundamental truth that indigenous peoples have known and kept alive is that all is related. This is the basis for stewardship and reciprocity which is evident in indigenous cultures. This ethos of connection is juxtaposed by the Western reduction of everything into its constituent parts leading to the phenomena of tragedy of the commons and externalities where adjacent or distant relationships are not considered.
Relationship occurs with or without direct contact. I have never been to the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant yet because of my knowledge of its history I have a relationship to it. Every thing that I can conceive of I am in relation to. In this moment every thing I cannot conceive of I am in relation to, I just haven’t conceived of it yet. Noodle on that for a while…
It is across boundaries that relationships can be most easily observed. Consider the boundary between the U.S. and Mexico, a national border where significant activity occurs. Move the border north 200 miles and the activity will adjust accordingly. If a fence is built across a field separating two plots of land this new boundary will become the locus of greater biodiversity and interaction.
By observing individuals in relationship across boundaries, we can perceive flow. FLOW is movement of life energy in a direction. When the Nile River (individuated) bursts its banks (boundary) and expands for miles there is incredible flow of life enabling energy. When the great annual migrations cross boundaries these immense flows bring food, fertilization, and healthy cycles to land, flora, and fauna.
Without flow, there is stagnation and less aliveness in living systems. Apply the fractal principle and zoom from earth scale living systems (above) to our human body living system (below) and see that if flow in the form of blood, oxygen, and nutrients is cut off, your appendage will be too. Zoom below to a cellular level where the flow of potassium and sodium through channels (across boundaries) is vital for healthy cell function without which we would not be alive.
Flow often occurs in more than one direction meaning EXCHANGE is occurring. This can be explicit, like the imports and exports across a border. Or take the form of symbiosis or mutualism where one or both species benefits from a relationship, like the shark and the Remora fish or the Plover and Egyptian Crocodile. Nature abounds with examples of exchange.
Observing flow and exchange is essential for understanding organic, artificial, or hybrid systems. Studying flow can reveal relationships and vice versa. It is also important to pay attention to where flow is blocked. Before the appendage is cut off the blocked flow can be addressed. A dammed river can stop the annual fish migration and flooding, both important flows in an ecosystem. Healthy systems are balanced and analyzing flow can also show where excess or lack is occurring.
Complex systems often feature flows that repeat over time. These are PATTERNS which are the tracks of relationship, movement, and flow. They are influenced by the system of containers and boundaries within which they operate – otherwise known as an environment. The ability to discern and track patterns is an essential skill for navigating life. Patterns of behavior can reveal the essence of an animal or a system. Patterns over time reveal cycles and feedback mechanisms. Healthy cycles are virtuous and self-perpetuating. Unhealthy cycles are doomed and self-destructive. Because nature often takes the path of least resistance, patterns can reveal the most efficient processes.
Those peoples who are intimately connected with nature are often the most literate at pattern recognition. In its highly refined form this is the skill that allows bushmen in the Sahara to accurately navigate large expanses of “indistinguishable” land and track prey precisely. Nature is so fundamentally driven by cycles and patterns that they are difficult to miss when looking.
Pattern recognition emerges from the cognitive ability to perceive similar and dissimilar expanded across terrains, datasets, systems, and time. While we rarely track animals as our ancestors once did, we are nonetheless surrounded by opportunities to track flows, behaviors, and threads across the variety of natural and artificial systems. By studying patterns an observant can develop a baseline and begin to understand divergence from the norm. Following the outliers can reveal great insights about the function, dysfunction, and adaptation of a system.
As all is related these patterns form interrelated webs of relationships that become NETWORKS and SYSTEMS. Various definitions of “system” suggests they are a set of things working together in an organized manner. Systems are often driven by organizing principles. Living systems are driven by evolution (propensity to evolve), vitality (increasing aliveness), and viability (endurance across time). Artificial systems may have different principles. The stock market is driven by fear, greed, and the concept of arbitrage. Systems orient around potential and can be activated or restrained by different influences. Nature has a potential for greater biodiversity and the stock market the potential to create greater financial capital. Whether each system unlocks that potential depends on the environment and its actors.
Systems are either centralized (one authority), decentralized (two or more authorities), or distributed (collective authority). Systems with some level of centralization have internal structures composed of hierarchical relationships and patterns. More complex systems have more hierarchies or internal structures that interact. The body (whole system) is structured internally with many subsystems like our circulatory or excretory systems. A river (whole system) has its tributaries, flow, and distributaries. The military, education, and corporate systems all feature hierarchical models with greater responsibility and complexity flowing to the top from larger numbers of nodes at the bottom. Other systems have no hierarchy like P2P sharing networks where the elimination of any node in the network is less likely to affect system resiliency. All systems are nested within larger systems if the appropriate context can be perceived.
As all things are non-identical, systems naturally contain variance. Random distribution in theory deviates into non-random distribution in reality. Choice, free will, chaos theory, and quantum mechanics all create exceptions where rules may appear to make the most sense or are at least more convenient.
Healthy systems have the ability to persevere or flourish over time. They absorb randomness and create order (negentropy). They have a higher degree of resilience and are capable of achieving homeostasis (internal equilibrium) and dynamic equilibrium (external equilibrium). They can better absorb shock and release inefficiencies.
Unhealthy systems degrade into chaos over time(entropy). They have a higher degree of fragility and struggle to maintain homeostasis or equilibrium. Shock tends to magnify across the system and inefficiencies often proliferate, as cancer does. Anti-fragility is the ability of a system to actually become healthier and more functional when shocks to the system are introduced.
Systems inform participants how to be successful in the system (procreation, competitive advantage, etc…) and what behaviors fall outside the norm. In this way culture and society appear as robust systems which move through distinct periods over time. COLLECTIVE BEHAVIOR depends on the context of the particular period. Among humans herd mentality creates homogenous narratives and ideological structures that seek conformity in exchange for tribe membership. Threats to dominant paradigms are threats to the system itself and are quelled though peer pressure and groupthink typically with little regard to the validity of the counter-narrative or criticism.
Marco population-level (whole system) trends and biases can be traced through sub-population (subsystem) micro influences. Rivalry is another common attribute of complex systems where complex wholes compete against each other (see Huntington’s Clash of Civilizations) and subsystems compete against each other (ie Democrats and Republicans). Social sciences like sociology and political science operate at this level.
Broad categorizations and monolithic sentiments typically break down when applied to INDIVIDUAL BEHAVIOR. The classic economic assumption that humans are rational actors is absurd. Humans are inherently imperfect individuals layered with needs, wants, programming, ego, trauma, and free will – a perfect recipe for non-rational behavior (and I love each and every one of you messy humans)! Here the uniqueness of each soul is on full display. With our large prefrontal cortexes, Homo Sapiens are capable of significant strategic thought through abstraction and planning which enable game theoretic agendas to be conceived and executed. This is the realm of psychology and game theory.
Taken as a whole both individual and collective behavior in systems must be accounted for. Gross disparities in resources and power in the human socio-economic, political, and cultural spheres mean that single actors can alter entire systems. Simultaneously the scale and scope of systems mean that significant change in those spheres is often slow pacing like moving the rudder of a giant tanker ship. Side-note: one of the master’s of systems thinking, Buckminster Fuller, had the phrase “Call me Trim Tab” chiseled on his tombstone. A trim tab is a tiny flap in the larger rudder that causes the rudder itself to change directions. By this thinking, finding the leverage points where the least effort causes the largest result is of greatest use.
Stepping back to the level of systems and patterns which contain the many behaviors within them, all of this occurs over TIME. Patterns wear into cycles which mark the passage of time in our daily lives. The circadian rhythm, menstruation, earth tilt and rotation creating seasons, moon cycles, migrations, and brain waves are but a few of the cycles that regulate earth.
All of these systems and cycles are dynamic and fluid over time. No tide or menstruation is the same. The examination of any element occurs at one static moment like taking a single splice from a movie reel. This splicing may happen automatically by the brain if the time period is minute or require critical thinking if the time period is more grand. As time marches continually forward each system adapts and evolves to the changing environmental conditions, flows, and behaviors.
Knowing the past is essential in developing functional models of complexity. To recognize patterns requires orientation beyond the current moment in order to have a working model that accounts for the past and future. The disciplines of history, anthropology, and archeology allow us to peer back into time, unearthing patterns of life that more fully inform how we arrived at our present state.
Western thinking has for millennia billed time as linear whereas indigenous experience perceives time to be polychronic, meaning all happening at once. It is possible to experience time as both ordinal and collapsed, though maybe not at the same time. While most of the world now works on ordinal, linear time marked by intervals on the Gregorian calendar and 12-hour timepiece, there is significant wisdom in the NON-LINEARITY of time.
Whether time is ordinal or collapsed, it is clear that not everything moves linearly. Breakthroughs often occur through leaps in logic. Our ability to use inductive reasoning hints at deeper organizing forces that exist outside the confines of human logic.
Treasure, Catwalks, and Mice
All of this can be quite overwhelming. It’s all occurring always in an infinite array of abstraction and perception. Without proper methods of looking (perception) and thinking (epistemology) it can seem as though there is chaos without order. Building pattern-and-systems literacy is crucial for MAKING SENSE of this increasingly complex world.
MAPS are useful in reflecting what’s happened in the past forward to the present. They help chart familiar territory and create order of what’s already been discovered. They can create taxonomies to help clarify and classify ideas as well as orient us toward reliable stakes in the ground.
MODELS are useful in describing how a system is thought to currently work or how a system should work (predictive/theoretical). Models of complex systems often include individuals, groups, flows, processes, boundaries, feedback loops, and time in diagrams. These metaphorical pictorial representations encode a frame or way of ordering chaos into a coherent structure of reality. Anything can be studied, tracked, mapped, or modelled and there is no shortage of existing creations. It’s important to get clear on what needs to be understood and what existing models, if any, apply.
Given the interconnectedness of the world and expanding depth-of-domain, models are critical in simplifying complexity and creating order. They allow us to sort greater information/variables through useful epistemic tools. As with all tools they can be used incorrectly – there are many TRAPS. Every model is incomplete and all are fallible. The chances that any existing model has enough information to fully describe/predict reality is slim. The nature of knowledge is that it inevitably expands to greater depths and previous certainties evolve with deeper understanding.
If we rely too heavily on a model we fall into the trap of its structure becoming a heuristic, a crutch in our thinking that keeps us from doing real thinking (rather than the repetition of memes, troupes, and popular ideas). While heuristics are useful, it is important for a systems thinker to continually check the epistemological processes for laziness which is in many ways human nature, a method of programming in the brain that seeks to lower the energy cost of tasks. Another trap is the attempt to fit everything into one model. Theories of everything, like Integral Theory, are ambitious yet challenging. In their attempts at complete explanation they are likely to miss nuance.
Systems thinking effectiveness and the application of models is limited most by proper execution. Personal bias, agenda, ego, funding, etc…can all get in the way of proper thinking. Which elements are discounted or highlighted can become blind spots that cripple the integrity of a whole system. Effectiveness can also be hampered by information overload and analysis paralysis. Meaning must be made that is grounded and rational.
All of this work can be extremely heady. It is essential to ensure that systems and complexity thinking is not relegated to the realm of intellect only. There is great wisdom is sensing, feeling, intuition, emotion, curiosity, and leaps into the void. Whole humans bringing their whole selves as creators and operators of these models are required to pierce the intricacies of complex living systems and it can be argued all systems are living systems.
In the realms where “thoughts are things” these models and systems become realities unto themselves which permeate and shape reality. If a model does not exist for what needs to be understood, rather than fit a square pen in a round hole, it is time to create a new model.
With all of this written, to what end does one engage in this work? Theoretical or scholastic endeavors that fail to move particles in 3D realm have lower utility. Utility is maximized when the outcome of this work is clarity. With clear thinking comes aligned action seeking desired outcomes. The system must be put to use to serve the desired outcome. And one must not become slave to the system. It serves us. Not the other way around. And it will undoubtedly evolve.
The questions we ask yield our next discoveries. I’m asking:
- Which systems are useful to learn? The answer here is driven by the real-world set of complex problems I am identifying as potential lines of inquiry and investment of attention and resources.
- How do I continue to develop the internal capabilities (awareness, pattern literacy, sensemaking, etc…) requisite for appropriate epistemological processes?
- What thinkers or organizations should I engage with?
If you have answers to these questions, comments on this piece, or suggestions on how to deepen this arena of inquiry, let’s dialogue about it!