50 Years of Systems and Pirsig

Ostensibly I’m re-reading Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance in order to review the 50th Anniversary edition, but as usual I’m finding more significant note-worthy connections with my ongoing systems thinking work than there are pages in the original.

The read – the story – is of course very familiar, I’m reading it for the 4th or 5th time though it’s probably a decade since I last did, and yet even focussing on the review and resisting the urge to make personal notes for the whole of part 1 (the first 7 of 32 chapters) I since lapsed into adding post-it markers, significant to my own work, to almost every page. As well as the re-reads I have of course also looked-up references in it many times in the 25 years since I first read it. Whilst the story is very familiar, what really hits you is recognising the thoughts & concepts, words & phrases, used half a century ago in today’s 21st C context, mine and humanity’s predicament in general.

Review-wise, it’s the same book it was in 1974, with the author’s introduction, afterword and reader’s guide, all added to the 25th anniversary edition, plus the new foreword to the 50th anniversary edition by Matt Crawford “Why Zen Still Resonates Today”. As Crawford notes and quotes, the story has no Hollywood ending effectively leaving the reader filled with thoughts and questions. Perhaps that’s why despite many references to such projects since, it has still never been made into a definitive film. But as the climactic father-son reconciliation scene shows, the thoughtful open-ended-ness is explicitly hopeful for the future:

[Son, Chris,] understands for the first time on this whole trip that he has found his long-lost father again. “The tension is gone. They have won it. It’s going to get better now. You can sort of tell these things.”

That’s maybe why so many of us saw hope for the future in better, wider understanding of Pirsig’s messages. Over on the #ZMM50th pages of  the Robert Pirsig Association you will find more life-changing testimonials for our better futures. It would be easy to be frustrated and angry that the same things Pirsig was explaining to us in 1974 are the same things we still need to understand to make better decisions about our futures in 2024 – a time when so many issues facing humanity 50 years later appear both existential and urgent. Conversely as David Deutsch would say, the future is infinite and we’re only ever at the beginning of it. We humans have a great track record of solving problems, even ones we’ve created. Pirsig already explained why and how humans understanding and embodying systems, and not fearing the technology, are what will get us out of this mess, mental and physical, however long it takes.

Now, what about all those important notes and messages …


[Post Notes:

The connection between Pirsig and Cybernetics as human systems of governance, individual, organisation and/or social, goes back as far as 1995 and the fact that Principia Cybernetica curator Francis Heylighen invited Pirsig to deliver his “Subjects, Objects, Data and Values” paper to the “Einstein Meets Magritte” conference May 29 to June 3, 1995 to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the Free University of Brussels (VUB). Who says anniversary celebrations don’t matter? 🙂]

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