The Holistic Mob

Dave Snowden, of who I’m a big fan as you know, very kindly linked to a post of mine commenting on last year’s Annual Mike Jackson Lecture given by him at Hull University.

[This year 2024 Mike Jackson lecture
also attended by Dave Snowden]

Turns out some of the things he included in last years talks were work-in-progress “open source development” extensions to his Cynefin “sensemaking” framework, and since then he’s been writing-up / consolidating them in a series of posts on his Cynefin blog. Some of the more recent ones here:

Differences that make a difference.
(Pretty much my metaphysical foundation.)

Narrative #1 Hiraeth, manure and spade work …
Narrative #2 Awkward, lumpy, rough or stilted …
Narrative #3 Obliquity & liminality in narrative …

“Cynefin / Sensemaking St David’s 2024” Series:

All his LinkedIn posts are here. You get a flavour of his tone from this (most recent post, as I type this):

“We need to be reconciled with each other and with the planet, and that comes from doing things collectively and at scale in social and environmental contexts, not attending workshops and seminars where we can be happy (and sometimes clappy) in the company of like-minded people.”

Love his use of “reconciled”, my regular mantra is “truth and reconciliation” – hear, hear! Doing things collectively – not just balance, but “active dynamic integration” as I would say. (And I would defend Mary Midgley too 🙂 and in fact have done as much previously against her more scientistic critics, but I digress.)

And in this one:

“Identifying energy gradients and understanding evolutionary patterns reveal that the path of least resistance often dictates outcomes, informing strategies for behaviour modification and #complexity management.

Incorporating scaffolding and constraint management within complex systems, informed by Constructor Theory and constraint mapping, offers a structured and disciplined strategy for executives to navigate uncertainty and drive innovation.”

I could have written that myself, hear, hear again! (“Counterfactual” Constructor Theory – creativity from constraint, freedom runs on rails – was another part of my line of commentary on his lecture in my earlier post.)

Anyway, the point that linked-us up in this recent series, was his comment in that 2/5 post above:

“A few side digs at the holistic brigade, including last year’s  Mike Jackson lecture, added to the spice.”

So as well as that “holistic brigade” and the “happy clappy” brigade above, he also regularly takes a swipe at “left-right brain” bullshit brigade or at use of “2nd/3rd order” or “meta” as failures to admit 1st order error. He’s right, there’s a lot of scope for bullshit to hide amongst such mobs, so my agenda is to find language to reconcile different views in the face of misunderstandings, where better understandings lie in more subtle & nuanced details. Details that are lost in the “othering” between mobs – the false dichotomies too easily drawn, rather than #GoodFences evolved.

The “Holistic Brigade” might more formally be systems thinkers who subscribe to a “Holon” view, but for me it’s a redundant idea. Systems views of complexity are about understanding “anything” in terms of active / functional relationships between internal parts & wholes and between wholes & environmental / external  “parts”. The idea that wholes have properties and behaviours that are “more than the sum (the computable result) of the parts” is the important element – that synergy or synergetic evolution – leads to emergence of properties and behaviours with their own causation, not caused by the parts. Reductive determinism is false (even in physics, long before we get to psycho-social-biology).

As for the “happy clappy” brigade, I know what he means, but in the search for a “humanistic cybernetics” (or Psybernetics as I’ve suggested, was always Wiener’s intention anyway) we have to find language that bridges felt intuition, the tacit, with the explicit. There’s “more than (orthodox) science” – my first observation on last year’s MJ Lecture(!). Dave himself has railed against “the tyranny of the explicit (or “requisite ambiguity”) so I feel there’s hope of finding that language of reconciliation that doesn’t frighten the horses.

Turns out we’re both at this year’s Annual Mike Jackson Lecture on 19th March at Hull University. My write-up on the 2024 lecture here.


Post Notes:

BTW, acknowledgement of Dave’s use of “Anthro-Complexity” as the name of one set of issues we’re dealing with. Similar to my use of “Psybernetics” for the other side of the coin, the set of “Humanistic Cybernetics” thinking we might use to deal with such issues. We must never forget all the interesting complex systems involve humans.

And in another post, Dave rails against abuse of the words “Ontology & Ontological” as mostly bullshit. Again I know what he means. I actually left a well-paid employment a few years back when our business “reference models” became ever more couched in the language of ontologies, but it mostly referred to strict first-order logical interpretation in the currently fashionable web-technologies. Tyranny of the explicit again. But it has just become an almost meaningless catch-all term for “model”. I still use it in the philosophical sense – which reminds us it’s our model of what we “deem” to exist, organised on principles of taxonomy (classification & specialisation) and mereology (wholes & parts), where to draw #GoodFences. But never forget that “deem”. All models are wrong, just that some are more useful approximations than others. Describing them as “ontological” doesn’t make them any better.

And the day before the 2024 MJ Lecture, MJ posted a blog piece – and DS responded – on the hazards of panpsychism alongside systems thinking. Something I’ve written about at length, and adopted a pan-proto-psychist take. Too easy to dismiss the “beyond orthodox science” stuff as “happy clappy” woo, and miss the important nuances. Was already tempted to respond to the MJ post, but will wait until after this year’s lecture.

Holism in 2005, in the first long piece I wrote – a paper for the Liverpool conference on Robert Pirsig – in the speculative final section, I mention wholes and holism several times, just before I first mention Dave Snowden’s Cynefin work. Fascinating. What goes around comes around.


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