Brief History of Systems Thinking

I formed my own view of how Systems Thinking came to be the umbrella term for what I’m about, and I can be quite dismissive of the choice of labelling given to different approaches and methodologies – which always feel like selling different commercial education and consultancy offerings. And when reading and researching about the evolution of any topic, the reading list is never-ending. We all stand on the shoulders of giant termite colonies as well as individual giants.

Since I’m more of an architect, concerned with the general conceptual topology of my topic, I can pragmatically leave details to individual practitioners, who will anyway, always discover that, however detailed, objectively driven planning rarely survives contact with actual implementation context beyond day one – the essential nature of complexity. Which isn’t to say planning doesn’t have its value, but I’m pragmatically more concerned with setting expectations and understanding of the planned than the plan itself.

A Brief History of Systems Thinking is an article created by The Systems Thinking Alliance shared on LinkedIn. Looks like a great summary to me, well presented in a couple of block-diagrams – original typos fixed.

I was already working-up to acquiring Mike Jackson’s latest “Critical Systems Thinking – A Practitioners Guide” even though, for reasons noted above, the “critical” and the “practitioner” language have previously been a turn-off. Mike was generous enough to like and share the Brief History article and recommend that the main acknowledged source “Systems Thinkers” by Ramage and Shipp was itself valuable. I’ve now acquired both. (Mentioned Mike several times recently, alongside references to Dave Snowden’s “Cynefin” – they represent two aspects of Systems Thinking that I am trying to reconcile, thought clearly the market-place sustains multiple alternative approaches.)

As well as these two named current thinker / practitioners, the article also references Fritjof Capra’s latest and Donella Meadows, both of which I will have to pick-up, as well as Alexander Bogdanov whose pioneering work makes the historical text but not the visual summaries. Otherwise a couple of dozen sources all mentioned here previously, one-way-or-another.

Brief but recommended read.

Key words for me are Systems, Cybernetics and Complexity – the first two being synonymous at my level of abstraction, and the latter their reason to exist. All else are context-specific detail qualifications of methods and/or processes or are entirely meta, the choices of words like science, theory, thinking, knowledge, understanding are all aspects of human cultural psychology, which are themselves a complex cybernetic system.

(Hence Psybertron and Psybernetics.)

      • And incidentally, the ontology <> epistemology axis on the second diagram disappears for me, there is no ontology without epistemology, humans use the latter to create the former. I talk of my own “epistemological ontology” which is that complex (human) cybernetic system.
      • Interesting that operations research (OR) is presented as a stranded island on the left. Consistent with my own recent experience understanding that OR really was / is part of the same management of organisational complexity – lost because its choice of naming disguises the relationship to systems (operations?) and practice (research?) Ultimately this whole subject is a language game – some looking to reconcile understanding others gaming the market, the most important market being that for attention.
      • Interesting too to see Argyris and Schon mentioned, an early part of my journey back in the 1980’s/90’s before I really knew what my topic was.
      • First and second cybernetics I see as more complex. It’s not just the “order” in single-feedback or multiple-feedback-&-forward loop system control sense, but “meta” in how complex the agents within the system are acknowledged and modelled. And indeed, the “priorities” of the originators of cybernetics itself – always intended to be about complex organic living human psycho-socio-cultural systems beyond mechanistic machines. (Once the parts and wholes and ecosystem are living / organic with agency, evolution is in play every-which-way.)

Fascinating to see the whole summarised this way.

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Post Note – one thread on LinkedIn suggesting that the “critical” in Mike Jackson’s work “pays respect to” the view of Edgar Morin’s work – avoiding the explicit disjointed mechanisation of systems and their causal processes?

Edgar Morin on Systems and Complexity

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Turning 50: Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

Turning 50: Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance” is a BBC Radio 4 “Archive on 4” edition broadcast last weekend to mark the 50th anniversary of publication of Robert Pirsig’s “culture-bearing” book in 1974. #ZMM50th

The host and interviewer is Dr Chris Harding, the voice of BBC Radio 3’s “Free Thinking” so I really shouldn’t have been surprised at what an excellent documentary the BBC has created. (At the Robert Pirsig Association (RPA) we had helped with existing audio-visual resources and contacts, but I’m embarrassed to say I hadn’t properly twigged who “Chris” was until listening to the result. Well done to the production team, Sam Peach and Luke Mulhall for making it happen.)

“Blimey!” was my initial reaction shared with the RPA team “I was waiting with ‘bated breath to hear the result. A truly excellent piece of work, from beginning to end – a whole hour documentary on Pirsig and Quality. Chris Harding clearly knew his subject, empathetic and creative in the selection and construction of content.”

And others responded, some already on their 2nd and 3rd listenings …

“Yes, great job!”

“Excellent selection and mixing of interviews and readings, the overall creative design.”

“It is wonderful! Touching on Quality as the ultimate origin, which is my own #1, life-changing takeaway from the book.”

“The BBC production is indeed excellent !!! ”

“Loved the interview with Jonathan Rowson as well as the creative selection of existing recordings and readings. The exhaustion with the profound, the choice of putting values at the centre, very insightful from Rufus Hound. Great to finish on the same story – told twice from both sides – of Bob and Jim first meeting each other after publication. The whole hour is a great piece of work. The profound in the cliché. Not really mad. Brilliant”

As well as Chris’ own interviews with Bob’s widow and archivist Wendy Pirsig, Bob’s original editor Jim Landis, comedian & actor Rufus Hound, philosopher and chess grand-master Jonathan Rowson and poet & law professor Ann Tweedy – there was a selection of archive recordings from python Michel Palin with reference to playwright Alan Bennett, DJ Johnnie Walker, artist Grayson Perry and more. Fascinating, life-changing snippets of biography woven into a compelling story of why ZMM remains vital for human attention to our relationship with technology, fathers with sons, and with fellow humans in the wider world. Vital to our mental health, individually and culturally.

A gem of a documentary that will be a landmark of lasting value – true Quality.

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See previously on Psybertron:

Jonathan Rowson on “Attention as a Moral Act” and the connection from Pirsig to Iain McGilhrist’s worldview. (Post Note: Jonathan Rowson’s own reflections on the interview and the documentary and more.)

Salman Rushdie and Robert Pirsig – As well as referencing Pirsig’s use of Chautauqua, Gumption and Quality in his latest book “Knife in which Rushdie also describes writing and talking about his previous book Victory City, he also mentioned the significance of Pirsig’s ZMM when interviewed about Quichotte, his book before that.

Rushdie’s 2019 book Quichotte is a sci-fi, magical realist retelling of Cervante’s Don Quixote by way of the American roadtrip novel, influenced in part by Robert M. Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. As Rushdie explains in an Audible Blog interview with Tricia Ford…

“…actually, one of the books that helped me, strangely, was again an old book that happened to have some kind of anniversary, and I picked it up again, which is Robert Pirsig’s book, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. And in which I thought, never mind about the Zen and never mind about the motorcycle maintenance, but in the middle of it, there’s this very beautifully told relationship between him and his son going on this motorbike ride across America to try and get closer. And I thought, mine is also a novel about fathers and sons. And there are two father-son relationships in the book that are both very central to it

… And that was a book that helped me think about that.”

Testimonials from more Pirsig readers at the Robert Pirsig Association (RPA) in this #ZMM50th year.

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May 2024 Half-Way Update

More than half-way through May and I’ve not posted since the last weekend in April . Distracted by several things since the Robert Pirsig Association’s inaugural #ZMM50th anniversary Chautauqua on Sunday 28th.

      • Partly just reflection time on where next (?) for the RPA and taking the weather-window opportunity (at last) for garden chores and walking on the coast and moors through which to cogitate and meditate.
      • Partly diversion at short-notice last week to do a session for Teesside “Skeptics in the Pub” – brief presentation and longer discussion on “There is More Than Science – It’s Complicated.
      • Partly planning for the old-school 50th (and last?) anniversary reunion plus winding-up and archiving of the original “old-boys” alumni association.

And largely detail arrangements and bookings for two upcoming US trips.

      • Early June – the day after the above reunion (!) – the International Society for Systems Sciences (ISSS) 2024 conference in Washington DC, where I’m hoping to meet in person a number of important thinkers, and hoping I will have a session on language to communicate between scientific and humanistic (systems) thinkers (of which that there is “more than” science – above – is first-base – the need for such dialogue. (The #ItsComplicated tag is the systems response to “complexity sciences”.)
      • Early July – after a couple of weeks back home in UK – the ZMM50thRide, starting (for me) with events in Minneapolis, Mn and  ending with events in Bozeman, Mt.

Anyway, although I’ve not written on Psybertron in that time a couple of things have come up in recent weeks and days:

      • The whole decade-long Gender Self-ID debacle having come to a head –  in the UK – in the final version of the Cass Report, despite the findings being released 2 years earlier. Meltdown amidst Greens and ScotsNats factions with sanity restored in (Tory) Westminster government via Gillian Keegan. Would that the more social / liberal / democrat parties catch up rather than beating-up Tories with fake propaganda! We have until the November (?) election to sort this out. (Related – in local club and government democracy, two separate debacles in votes of no confidence against good-faith volunteers instead of progressive policy or constructive action.) #BinaryDestructionRules #MisunderstoodDemocracy
      • A fascinating discussion between Philip Ball & Iain McGilchrist about Philip’s latest book on the new paradigm / new biology of “Life” – Templeton-sponsored which will antagonise the scientistic 🙂
        (Some notes below, but if you can’t face watching the whole, just appreciate Philip’s first reaction to Iain’s input at 14:26 – “strategic” handling of meaning and purpose taboos in science.)
      • To be compared with a less than fascinating X/Twitter thread with James Croft (a Humanists UK Chaplain) in reaction to a one minute clip of Liz Oldfield correcting a misguided (scientistic) take on where the “spiritual” aspect of McGilchrist’s work fits real life. Real life which in Liz’s case involves Christian theistic belief. Mine doesn’t but she is so right about the morality of attention. The thread went back to Iain’s 2009 book Master and Emissary and early critical responses from Owen Flanagan (an appalling review in Nature?) and Kenan Malik (a talking past each other, off on the wrong foot, misunderstanding? Really about this RSA Report – pdf download here.) Content-free and meta to Iain’s actual content – in fact an illustration of the embedded received wisdom in science’s reaction to non-scientific taboos. Open to clarifying discussion if criticisms can be made of specific content?

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More (raw) notes on watching the Philip Ball dialogue with Iain McGilchrist:

Philip’s nagging doubts in the productive operations of science as editor at Nature. (Same starting point for me, nagging doubts about something missing in physical science modelling of real-world organic, human organisations.)

“Systems Biology at Harvard” – Same systems response to complexity

Iain – “The barren-ness of the reductive exercise on causality.”

14:26 Philip’s “strategic” reaction to Iain’s first input
Meaning and purpose taboos.

The machine metaphor is the problem. (If we’re going to use computing machine / systems language – as I do – we have to be very clear it’s a very special non-mechanistic kind of machine we’re talking about – above some complexity threshold – an organism.)

What’s missing is something in “informational terms” – a computational metaphor in some sense.

Embryonic development beyond genetics.

Information as “to give form” – a verb.

It’s all there.

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Post Note – I am a fan of Malik in several contexts, and in particular found his “Quest for a Moral Compass” excellent, and yet even then I remarked as “telling” on his “scientistic” tendencies that kept these cultural / moral / values issues distinct from factual truths – something I’d already detected in his engagement in the post-9/11 God vs Science wars (and probably his earlier reaction to McGilchrist). They are distinct – #GoodFences – but that’s no excuse not to understand the true relationship between them, an understanding that it’s nothing so crass as to suggest that one can be explained causally in terms of the other. In fact that’s the point here – that barren-ness!

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Salman Rushdie’s “Knife” and Pirsig’s “Quality”

Rushdie’s been touring the media shows trailing his latest book “Knife” recounting the story of and recovery from the disfiguring stabbing attempt on his life in New York back in August 2022.

I would at some point get round to reading it, when my writing priorities are behind me, I’ve read and reviewed most of his works, including the previous Fatwa biography “Joseph Anton”. He’s always been a wonderful source of inspiration to me. Latest reading of Victory City here in early 2023 and hundreds of previous references here. I noted when the attack happened it was reported to have been at the Chautauqua Institution where he was lecturing. Chautauqua is a word I know – for public educational touring lectures – originally from reading Robert Pirsig, the original inspirational writer on my own philosophical research and writing quest.

Well, I happened upon the BBC “Book of the Week” abridged reading, the 3rd of 5 parts late last night and immediately re-listened and listened to all 5 parts. Victory City was the book he’d just finished but not yet published when the awful event happened. However, I was stirred into life realising he was using references to Pirsig and his Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance to talk about Chautauqua, Gumption and – yes – Quality, the root of Pirsig’s metaphysics.

We at the Robert Pirsig Association (RPA) have our first on-line Chautauqua this Sunday.

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[Post Note – more on the Pirsig / Rushdie connections in footnote here.]

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1991 and all that

I keep noticing and thought I’d share that several things (meaninglessly) coincided in 1991.

Robert Pirsig published his second book “Lila” in 1991

Dan Dennett published his “Consciousness Explained” in 1991

I completed and was awarded my Masters Degree in 1991

None of us knew each other’s work then, and there’s been huge convergence of thinking since – as Dan had noted in 2017.

Bob died in 2017, Dan died last week in 2024. There’s work to be done.

Onward and upwards.

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What Keeps Me Awake At Night?

Ben Taylor responded to a challenge from Katrin Shaw on LinkedIn, and I’m taking it up, and taking a lead, from his response.

Suffering? No, I certainly don’t lie awake worrying about widespread suffering, unfairness and inequality in the world – a question as old as philosophy and theology, and I’m certainly fortunate not to suffer as a victim. Except maybe where it’s more like self-inflicted Stress, the stress of current ongoing commitments made to fellow humans, which are themselves part of an evolving set of wider operational, tactical and strategic priorities. The only time the bigger picture might keep me awake would be a positive complement to stress – those times when you may have stumbled Aha! onto some valuable thought or contribution to solving that bigger picture of “world suffering” – which you need to work out and articulate. In such cases, get up, write it down and forget about it until the next available day.

I spend my waking hours worrying about / working on that bigger picture of suffering – what can I/we do to make the world a better place? Which is of course then part of that conflict between tactical action and strategic intent – specific commitments now and better plans for the future. [If you were to poll my past employers, you’d probably notice a failure to deliver. I already know myself pretty well, so I often warn planners “that’s not really the kind of task you want to give to me? (or plan at all)”]

What is wrong in the world – suffering and injustice, and ineffective / inefficient / counter-productive responses to these – what needs fixing, what our creative-change priorities are, is an evolving and growing list already as long as your arm. Specific global crises, poly-crises, meta-crises, and all their local consequences in context. There is no shortage.

Politics? Ben says it only came to him in 2016 that politics, use and abuse of social power, despite his long-term active political engagement, was where the problem lay. For me that dawning was my first proper understanding the word “Cybernetics” back in about 2002. It is precisely about how we govern ourselves, our applied systems of governance – imperfect democracy, making, enabling and enacting, policy and decisions. Throughout the 1990’s I was already “being kept awake at night” by the thought that “we could do better” – better than my business (tech) systems day job – nagging worries that had no other outlet then than sleepless nights. The trigger moment – we really can and must do better – was 9/11 – consequential but incidental to the actual problem.

The learning since then has been that the problem – “the inability to make and enact good decisions” – applies everywhere from individual to social levels, from the simplest seemingly rational / scientific questions to the knottiest Multi-national Machiavellian scenarios. Left or right, liberal or authoritarian, all parties suffer the problem, a problem that prevents us even hearing each other. I’ve been selective as to which specific “crises” I’ve engaged with, driven mainly by the extent to which these are tractable examples of the deeper “Psybernetic / Dysmemic” problem.

Anger? – “Anger is an Energy” sings Johnny Lydon. [Another poll of past employers and colleagues would tell of my impatience.] I’ve learned a lot since the 9/11 milestone. I’ve learned a lot about where emotion properly fits our decision-making processes. And it really does. Attempts at excluding it are in fact part of the problem. My learned strategy is one of dynamic cycles over time, where, when and how. Visceral live-music events – natural outdoor mindful moments – and cool, spacious, cathedral-like human spaces –  are all part of my “Grace” toolbox.

Your experience may vary.

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A Great Loss to the World – #RIPDanDennett

I almost said great loss to the intellectual world – but his intellect is indeed a loss to the whole world.

I last communicated with Dan only three weeks ago, about the fact he was planning to be attending this year’s “How The Light Gets In” only by telepresence. For various multiple conference priority reasons, I’m probably not going to be at HTLGI this year, and could maybe have done a flying one-day visit if it included the possibility of in-person contact. Sadly an opportunity gone forever.

And it’s not just his academic intellect, but the whole emotionally intelligent person we’ve lost. Quite moving that so many of the responses to his death on social-media mention his continuity of caring about the people that encountered him whether as colleague, interlocutor or mentor.

[Example of thoughts expressed, this one from Michael Levin colleague at Tufts, “intellectual integrity” personal & inspiring. And one of his later interview with Nigel Warburton. and another wonderful exchange with Tom Chatfield for the BBC.]

I was looking back at my correspondence with him over the years. Remember I’m only an autodidact fan-boy, but he never failed to respond to a thoughtful question about his work. Sometimes the response would inevitably be an apology for simply not having the bandwidth to do so, but usually it was a brief response to the specific question, with his thanks for showing interest. A lost art in these days of ubiquitous social media.

Given “Darwin’s Dangerous Idea” runs through his entire career and body of work since his time in Oxford in 1965 – 6 decades ago – also fitting to note he shares the date of his death with Charles Darwin, the 19th April.

Anyway he’s been central to my thinking for the last 20+ years, so hundreds of mentions and references in my blog and writing and external papers delivered.

My wish is that people read his 2017 “From Bacteria to Bach and Back” – or “B2BnB” as I have always referred to it. I had a review published in New Humanist which explains why.

Too many people, interested in the internal arguments and history of philosophical ideas, still refer only to his 1991 “Consciousness Explained” – affectionately referred to by many as consciousness-not-explained because it is pretty much meta to the topic, about what the different arguments are and what an explanation would need to be and do. Influential in that respect, but not the place to find the answers he found in the decades since.

Apart from that highly recommended read – his book and my review of it – most of my encounters are around defending his ideas against those who mis-represent him. Whether un-reconstructed scientistic reductionists, who just don’t get it or the more enlightened who simply miss his meaning in using the word “illusory” to describe aspects of consciousness to suggest he denies its reality. Nothing could be further from the truth.

No-one cared more about the reality of consciousness than Dan Dennett.

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Previously on Psybertron:

in addition to the review above

The Denial of Dennett’s Consciousness

The Denial of Dennett’s Consciousness

Dennett and the Little People (The determinist reductionists)

Dennett and the “Little People” #3

Convergence – Dennett at the Royal Institution

Daniel Dennett at The Royal Institution of Great Britain @Ri_Science

Hold Your Definition!

“Definition as a Coffin” – Cybernetics to Systems Thinking

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My first reference to Dennett in 2002.

The first of 40 pages of references!

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A Mouthful of Unsalted Soup

Psybertron blog action has retreated to book / thesis drafting behind the scenes, as most of my life is taken over by planning for two summer events – the International Society for Systems Sciences (ISS) and the American Society for Cybernetics (ASC) conferences in Washington DC in early June, and the Robert Pirsig 50th anniversary of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (#ZMM50th) events culminating in July with retracing the original 1968 motorcycle road-trip (#ZMM50thRide).

That said, I’m using available down time to read one book from my never ending reading list. “Leonard and Hungry Paul” by Rónán Hession (Mumblin’ Deaf Ro on X/Twitter), via small independent publisher Bluemoose Books. Been following them and a few other independents for a while, for obvious reasons, but remembered I really did need to buy and read one of their books. Support is more than “Retweeting”.

As usual, I’m feeling the need to capture some thoughts, only ~20% through, a kinda pre-review as I call them. It’s very good, and surprisingly relevant to my own agenda:

“the art of expression had not kept pace with technological developments”.

“the world was a complicated place, with people themselves being both the primary cause and chief victims of the complexity. He saw society as a sort of chemistry set, full of potentially explosive ingredients which, if handled correctly could be fascinating and educational, but which was best kept out of reach of those who did not know what they were doing.”

“He operated [the ‘Za’ rule in scrabble] with iron inflexibility, even though he himself was its most frequent victim”

Despite the fact the author is almost 20 years my junior, there’s a strong sense of northern spouse, parental, familial, sibling life, learning rules of the game of real life through cuts and scrapes in the schoolyard and board games in the home. Cultural references to Inspector Morse and Judy Sill as well as bookshops, and hard-backs as “special presents”. I can see why it resonates with me.

The language is beautiful, beautifully observed too:

“on the threshold between reflection and sleep, an idea came to him from the special place that ideas come from”

“[looking at] the first piece of asparagus loaded onto her fork [he spoke] through a mouthful of unsalted soup”

Excellent stuff. Guessing we will eventually find out why Paul is “Hungry” more than just that Grace is a slow eater 🙂 ? Reading on, with a reason to do so.

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