Dear Diary – June 2024 – Systems, USA and Tyranny

This should probably be three or four separate posts, but after a two week hiatus – the ISSS conference in Washington DC and another week touring the wider DC, MD, VA, DE, Chesapeake area – I have so much not written over and above the writing project I’ve already stalled until after my next US trip – the Robert Pirsig Association #ZMM50thRide events in July. So I’m just crashing down notes in a holding post, in no particular order:

ISSS Conference Workshop

“Divided by a Common Language
or The Tyranny of the Explicit
Workshop by Ian Glendinning,
Tuesday, June 11, 2024 – 4:30 PM-6:00 PM ET

Meta – It actually went OK, got good feedback, and I am collating the notes that will capture its value (recording in the link above), but a missed opportunity on several levels. Technologically the hybrid participation arrangements, the tech support knew their technology but not the human processes of communication and participation – essentially random which devices controlled presenting or controlled audience participation, and which mic’s, speakers, screens and UI’s were in play in which parts of the process in different room set-ups. Made for a shaky start, and I never quite got the clarity of flow – but fortunately I only needed to talk for 15/20 mins before we went into dialogic mode. Though even then, there was no concession to hybrid round-table format. Anyway – we muddled through and some participants were able to give good contributions. Thanks to everyone for that.

More on the specific content later, but generally the experience of the conference (and my topic) followed-on from my last post about the process of properly integrating such diverse and evolving stories of systems thinking. So many perspectives and approaches seeming to compete, and dare I say dismiss / ignore / pigeon-hole / silo each other, when what is really needed is proper integration and consolidation. ‘Twas ever thus.

Funnily enough when I first mentioned my “Tyranny” sub-title here back in 2016 – (and an earlier version in 2010 Hat tip to Johnnie Moore, John Husband and David Gray, and to Dave Snowden for keeping it alive in this complex self-adaptive systems space) – I already suggested “my whole agenda” in here – again – so yet again I really should not delay my own writing any further after July and before the year-end.

It’s All Connected

Whilst playing tourists after the conference – it was ludicrously hot in downtown DC – but we walked all the obvious places, and found the less obvious connections. The memorials – presidents Washington and Lincoln obvious at opposite ends of the reflecting pool – less obviously Jefferson, FDR & Eleanor, MLK, WWII and Vietnam – monuments all creatively different in their messages and how they conveyed them. Moving – and reassuring – that a nation carves in stone the words and names of those it values. The US short history is a special case the whole world needs to benefit from. Most obviously global unity in place of conflict in the FDR & Eleanor case, but those same values all the way through from Jefferson’s words to the otherwise silent naming of US Vietnam losses, a pointless war of little value. Couldn’t fail to have Jefferson’s words evoke the global ecological ideas of Humboldt.

The Lincoln monument’s monumental impression is currently largely obscured by the construction of a new “undercroft” visitor centre.

Strangely divided – state and federal authorities? – between the monumental and working ends of the National Mall. Loads of drinking-water fountains around the monumental end, none to be found up the hill to the Capitol, Library of Congress and Supreme Court end – see crazy hot.

And then the surprise, despite no skyscrapers, of the monumental scale and style of so many other official buildings of state – Palladian, stone, symmetry – including the many Smithsonian buildings along the Mall. We did of course visit the The Smithsonian Museum of American History too, and specifically the Zen and the Open Road exhibit commemorating the 50th anniversary of Robert Pirsig’s “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance”. More later.

Visiting the wider Chesapeake area reminded us how much we do love the US after previously living there in the deep south and touring all points south, west and north, but never yet the north-east.

Rural outside the towns – but not the wilderness or parks – shows tremendous pride of place in their homes and produce of their cultivated land. The old-colonial towns like Chestertown. Does everybody own a boat – just so many as far as the eye can see at every water accessible landing or marina boardwalk. (Hat tip to Sevilla King accommodating us a couple of nights at Rock Hall nr Chestertown.)

Hat tip also to Robin Benjamins who provided us with breakfast one day – great to meet-up with him and Marjan – and have them recommend Chincoteague / Assateague islands on the Atlantic coast of Chesapeake Virginia & Maryland. Largely unspoiled unlike the sprawling Ocean City strip we subsequently drove through 15 miles of out of curiosity – think Atlantic City / Boardwalk Empire of New Jersey – dire ecologically. Elsewhere, wildlife diverse and multitudinous on land, in the sea and air. Dozens of bird species. From Bald Eagle, Buzzard and various Hawks to Fish Eagle / Osprey’s nesting on most available over-water posts, many different Herons and Egrets, Pelicans and Ibises of 2 or 3 kinds, many shore waders, Swallows and Martins and many different Sparrows, Thrushes, Shrikes and Starlings, of the common and exotic varieties, including Redwing Blackbirds, disturbed from rushes and reeds as we passed their marshes. Exactly as described by Pirsig in the opening pages of ZMM.

Minneapolis to Montana and back to Systems

8th to 13th July I’m supporting the first half of the Robert Pirsig Association 50th Anniversary ZMM ride (in a rented car). Speaking on the 7th before we depart Minneapolis, MN and a couple of times en-route in Oakes, ND and Miles City, MT with tours of the library and museum collections arranged on the Montana State campus in Bozeman, MT. Some preparation to do for all these.

That would be a single chapter in its own right, one planned to be followed by my own writing project, but it’s all connected. Not just my original 2002 inroad to philosophy beyond science and systems engineering, but reassuringly in so many of the contributions to the ISSS conference (*) searching for the Eastern / Aboriginal (non-Western)  world-views in our tacit / implicit / embodied engagement with the world. But where is the integration with our default orthodox scientific explicit worldview? The true Tao is not the Tao that can be (explicitly) spoken. The unspoken point of my workshop above, correctly paraphrased by Gary Smith.

(*) I need to summarise more of the contributions, many of which were in fact a surprise to me at the conference despite two years of ISSS engagement via mini-symposia and more – Gary Smith, David Ing and Tomas Wong most obviously, but others more subtly Hrvoj Vančik and Rosa Zubizarreta as well as our Mexican members for example … (A current Pirsig research project is his anthropological investigations in Mexico that pre-dated his post-Korea reading of Northrop’s Meeting of East and West – which also majors on Mexico – before both Zen and “those pesky redskins”.)

Incidentally and Finally

I mentioned in my last post, linked earlier above, that I had acquired some more books recently:

    • Mike Jackson
      “Critical Systems Thinking – a Practitioners Guide”
    • Ramage and Shipp
      “Systems Thinkers”
    • Siri Hustvedt
      “Delusions of Certainty – Reflections on the Mind-Body Problem”

Well, I managed to find time to read them.

Ramage and Shipp does exactly what it says on the tin, it’s a fine summary and short history of systems thinking as I already noted. Recommended, if you need one.

Mike Jackson’s book is what you’d expect, knowledgeable, comprehensive, connected and simply written in an easy style – recommended for that alone. Highlights for me are that it included a wide range of source references outside the core subject thinkers, most if not all already covered here. And an overwhelming sense of being positively underwhelming. Can there really be any more to say that hasn’t already been said, any new magic-bullets to be recommended? No, there can’t. All practitioner methods and procedures are context-contingent and depend on the wisdom of selective use. Rules being for guidance of the wise and the obedience of fools, as I would say. That wisdom comes from much wider sources than the explicit subject matter at hand. His “EPIC” methodology – which he assures was partly tongue-in-cheek – is an example of the underwhelming reach beyond common sense when it comes recommendations. The real recommendation is Pragmatism by any other name. I still find branding his work “Critical” ST grates with me, but that’s really all the critical epithet means – use ST, but don’t lose your critical faculties – of wisdom – in appreciating, evaluating and using the theories & methodologies out there. Hopefully not damning by faint praise, these are wise words.

[Interesting shared refs in Jackson – beyond the explicit complex systems subject matter – include: Snowden, Koestler, Wittgenstein, Edmonds, Anscombe, Foot, Midgley, Murdoch, Kant, Wulf & Humboldt, Blake, (Bob) Dylan, the “getsalts”, Habermas, McGilchrist, Toulmin, Spinoza, Taleb, “Santa Fe”, Heylighen, Boulding, Ulrich and all the US Pragmatists (except Pirsig), Burrell & Morgan, Lakoff & Johnson, Donella Meadows, Mazzucato & Raworth, “the Tavistock”, Ulanovicz, Beer, Espinoza and Morozov, “Rich Pictures”, Deming, Buckie-Fuller, Lao Tzu. No Dennett, no Pirsig(*)]

Siri Hustvedt is clearly on the right side of the of explicit-scientistic vs implicit-humanistic “good fence” countering the arrogance of certainty on the one side, but for me she spends too much time attacking those she finds in error rather than finding constructive integrations. One example is Steven Pinker

 In “How the Mind Works”, Pinker has come down firmly on the side of nature in the nature/nurture debate.

In “The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature”, Pinker makes many claims for traits rooted in biology. “Biology” here is weighted toward the built-in and fixed, as opposed to the learned and changing.

Hustvedt, Siri. The Delusions of Certainty
(Kindle Locations 809-810). Hodder & Stoughton.

No he doesn’t. The way we develop, behave and learn are rooted in biology, but he is very clear that – roughly speaking (**) – our traits are only 5/10%  genetically determined, 30/40% from parental guidance and formal education and 50/60% from wider life and peer-group experience – but the behaviour and psychology in all of those are also rooted in biology. Nature / nurture is a good fence like all taxonomic / epistemic / ontological distinctions. We’re dealing with complex self-adaptive systems here. As I always say of Pinker, anyone married to Rebecca Goldstein can’t be all bad?
[(**) obviously these overall rough averages vary enormously across different kinds of propensities and traits]

Hustvedt, like Jackson, is meta to the actual subject, about specific methodologies and sciences, not being these.

[As well as Pinker (and Dawkins) many other shared references in Hustvedt, not always positive: – Solms, Friston, Panksepp, (Margaret) Cavendish, Spinoza, Whitehead, Arendt, Goethe, Dowling, Hughlings-Jackson, Wiener, Turing, Freud, Pribram, McCulloch, von Neumann, Deutsch, Bergson, Weil, Maturana & Varela, Edelman, (Andy) Clarke, (Wm) James, Damasio and many of the usual philosophers. (No Wittgenstein or Wulf or McGilchrist or Pirsig and for Dennett, only Consciousness Explained – Jeez!)]

Enough Already!

So much writing to flesh-out and join-up in all of the above.

[(*) And the connections never end – already continued here.]


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