Intertwingled: Information Changes Everything (2014)
Chapter 5, Limits
“In a single individual it can happen in a millisecond. All it takes is a click in the mind, a falling of scales from eyes, a new way of seeing.”
– Donella Meadows
The end is near. The pain is great. I steal a glance at my wife and our two beautiful daughters, but the moment is too much. I fight back tears and watch my breath. I can’t afford to lose focus. Physically and emotionally, I’m devastated, but I’ve come too far to collapse with the end in sight. So, I put one foot in front of the other. I run past my limits and over the line. A 7:12 pace for 26.2 miles. I’ve met my goal.
People said it couldn’t be done. You’re too old. It’s your first marathon. Go slow. Just aim to finish. But I would not yield. My race began with research. I read all about the science of endurance and nutrition. I changed my diet, learned to boost my VO2 max, and taught my brain to relax its thresholds. I adopted the “run less, run faster” system for optimal efficiency and minimal risk of injury. cxxxii I hoped to qualify for the Boston Marathon with no more pain than necessary. Still, two hour training runs open the door to doubt: push yourself, but not too hard, tendonitis is game over, all this suffering for naught. When I grew dispirited, I sustained myself with uplifting stories. In Once a Runner and The Extra Mile, I found the will to run on. As race day drew near, I studied a map, sketched a plan, and made a checklist.
The morning of the marathon was unseasonably cold, but I was prepared for surprises. I wore an extra shirt, gloves, two hats, and shorts, so I could shed layers over time. By the end, I was sweating, but not too much, and that’s the lesson I learned. A marathon blends information, inspiration, and perspiration. What we read changes how we run. Grit is an essential ingredient, but the plan matters too. So does the goal. While it’s fun to fix on a target, the pace isn’t the point. Marathons, triathlons, and wilderness hiking quests are all part of a strategy to maintain a healthy mindbody. Each event is a tool for motivation. My race was a success before I ran it.
The architect Eliel Saarinen said “always design a thing by considering it in its next larger context: a chair in a room, a room in a house, a house in an environment, an environment in a city plan.” I find this advice useful as an athlete, as a dad, and as an information architect.
In volleyball, we teach our girls that while it’s fun to win, it’s better to focus on teamwork, self-cultivation, and health. Ironically, this reframing leads to more wins. This holds true in design as well. All too often we hit the wall for want of a wide-angle lens. It may feel safe to focus on simple metrics, but it’s not. Obstacles, opportunities, connections, and consequences are often revealed only by seeing the bigger picture. There are no closed systems. Everything is entangled from code to culture. That’s why it’s malpractice to design a product, service, or experience without considering strategy.
Strategy is everyone’s business. It’s not just a corner office, ivory tower abstraction. It shapes belief and behavior at all levels. A strategy is a plan to achieve a goal. It’s easy to have a bad plan, but is it even possible for an organization to have no plan? Of course, it’s also easy to get hung up on semantics. Strategy and planning are often vilified by people with narrow definitions who fail to see that Agile is a strategy and Lean is a plan. These folks are blind to the next larger context.
In Strategy Safari, Henry Mintzberg uses the blind men and an elephant to kick off a tour of ten schools of thought within the discipline of strategic management. He shows each school is valid but incomplete. A strategy is a plan, but it’s also a pattern, a position, and a perspective. No real strategy can be purely deliberate (prescriptive) or purely emergent (descriptive) since one prevents learning while the other prevents control.
Strategy formation is judgmental designing, intuitive visioning, and emergent learning; it is about transformation as well as perpetuation; it must involve individual cognition and social interaction, cooperation as well as conflict; it has to involve analyzing before and programming after as well as negotiating during; and all of this must be in response to what can be a demanding environment. Just try to leave any of this out and watch what happens!cxxxiii
Strategy is a balancing act that’s as difficult as it is unavoidable. While we tend to focus on corporate strategy, every team and individual is responsible for strategy. Of course we should know and align with the overall strategy. And we can serve as sensors by providing feedback during rollout. We might also offer insight before implementation, because strategy and tactics are intertwingled. If a plan is invalidated by reality, it’s our responsibility to speak truth to power. At the same time, we must make plans to achieve our own goals. There is no such thing as a purely tactical unit. When we pretend there’s a boundary between strategy and tactics, we grant people permission not to think.
As information architects, it’s vital we embrace this challenge given the intimate relationship between structure and strategy. Even in the industrial era, structure played a larger role than most folks realize. Alfred Chandler’s Strategy and Structure, one of the most influential management books of the twentieth century, defined structure as follows.
Structure can be defined as the design of organization through which the enterprise is administered. This design, whether formally or informally defined, has two aspects. It includes, first, the lines of authority and communication between the different administrative offices and officers and, second, the information and data that flow through these lines.cxxxiv
Chandler described in painstaking detail the growth and administration of the largest corporations in the United States over a period of one hundred years, and his bestselling book gave rise to the familiar expression that “structure follows strategy.” Sadly that wasn’t his point. Thirty years later, in a new introduction, he set the record straight.
Structure had as much impact on strategy as strategy had on structure. But as changes in strategy came chronologically before those of structure, and perhaps also because an editor at The MIT Press talked me into changing the title from Structure and Strategy to Strategy and Structure, the book appears to focus on how strategy defines structure rather than on how structure affects strategy. My goal from the start was to study the complex interconnections in a modern industrial enterprise between structure and strategy, and an ever-changing external environment.cxxxv
A lot has changed since the rise of the railroad and the multi-divisional corporation, but Alfred Chandler’s insight is still relevant. In fact, the information age amplifies the importance of structure. Increasingly, we spend time and make decisions in “places made of information.” These contexts that we create profoundly shape our beliefs and behaviors, but the links are hard to see, so we don’t even know what we’re missing.
Figure 5-1. Which comes first, strategy or structure?
Alfred Chandler saw “the existing structure of the enterprise shaped – usually holding back – changes in strategy.” Over time, these firms failed to adapt and collapsed. This problem only grows worse. Half a century ago, the life expectancy of a Fortune 500 firm was 75 years. Now it’s less than 15 years. The external environment is changing faster every day, and even our best organizations are failing to learn and adapt.
We can be more responsive but only by changing how we organize ourselves and manage information. We’ve hit the limits of reductionism. Silos, short-term metrics, and quick fixes are dead ends. We must read between the lines and dig beneath the surface to wrangle with structure. We must cultivate a new way of seeing. Insight isn’t enough. To inspire action we must help others see what we see. We must practice what Pierre Wack, the French oil executive who pioneered scenario planning, called “the gentle art of re-perceiving.”
I have found that getting to that management “Aha!” is the real challenge. It does not simply leap at you when you’ve presented all the alternatives, no matter how eloquent your expression or how beautifully drawn your charts. It happens when your message reaches the mental models of decision makers, obliges them to question their assumptions about how their business works, and leads them to change and reorganize their inner models of reality.cxxxvi
To advance, we must slow down. Even the most brilliant strategy will fail without shared understanding and organizational support. Peter Drucker explained “culture eats strategy for breakfast” but we didn’t really listen. We dove head first into user experience without capturing the hearts and minds of stakeholders. It worked for a while, sort of, but surface design is at its limits. We think we’re making software, websites, and experiences, but we’re not. We are agents of change within complex adaptive systems. Until we accept this mission, we will forever repeat our mistakes. It’s time to go deep and shine a bright light, since we’re all in this together.
Headwater streams are the origin of most rivers. They are the smallest parts of river networks but constitute the majority of river miles, and they provide vital ecosystem services.cxxxvii They provide habitat for invertebrates, amphibians, fish, birds, insects, and plants. They also recharge their local groundwater systems, spread nutrients, remove pollution, reduce flooding, and sustain the health of downstream rivers, lakes, and bays.
Sadly, until recently, we didn’t see their value, so we systematically buried headwater streams and used them as sewer pipes to transport waste. For decades, they were unnamed, unmapped, invisible. But, increased urban flooding and ecological awareness has led to a reversal. In more and more cities, from Kalamazoo, Michigan to Yonkers, New York, we have begun to map, name, and uncover buried streams.
Figure 5-2. Five things you won’t see in a buried river.
This strategy can revitalize ecosystems and economies. Flood mitigation cuts insurance costs and raises property values, but cities also use daylighting as a catalyst for creating urban parks and greenways with bike trails and walking paths. Schools are weaving these habitats into biology and ecology curricula. And without the cover of darkness, polluters are being forced to clean up their mess. In cities of all sorts, people are growing healthier, happier, and more connected with nature.
Of course, revelation isn’t just for rivers. Daylighting is also a metaphor for the mapmaking work we must do. We should use our categories and connections to reveal the hidden assumptions of culture; and sketch links and loops to explore the latent potential of systems; and realize mental models by drawing them outside our heads. By making the invisible visible, we can shift the context of vision and decision, but helping people to see differently is a skill we don’t use enough. We focus on users but ignore stakeholders. We put experience before understanding. It’s time to realize that daylighting isn’t moonlighting. It’s the most vital work that we do.
In 2005, only two years after its founding, Myspace was purchased by News Corporation for $580 million. For the next few years, it was the most popular social network in the world. But its new owners insisted on rapid monetization. Executives, under pressure to hit quarterly revenue targets, flooded the site with garish display ads. The strategy worked for a while until the whole system collapsed. Revenue rose to $605 million in 2008 but fell to $47 million by 2011 when Myspace was sold for $35 million. This was a costly lesson in the link between advertising and user experience. Today, Facebook limits ads to 5% of its newsfeed. Like Amazon, Google, and Twitter, they sacrifice quarterly results for user experience and brand loyalty. Most firms lack this discipline.
Figure 5-3. Advertising and the user experience.
Must they all learn the hard way? Or can we use stories and sketches to reveal what short-termism does to long-term health? To shift a mindset is not easy, but it’s not impossible. Once in a while, we have an epiphany, when new information triggers a leap of understanding. But mostly, change is slow. It takes creativity, courage, and countless tiny steps.
I know people can change, because I’ve changed myself. A decade ago while in my early 30’s I was diagnosed with high cholesterol. My doctor told me to change my habits or take medication. I did neither. Instead, I just got depressed. As a kid, soccer was my first love, but I was too old for that now. I was a workaholic dad with kids. I didn’t have the time for exercise or the discipline to eat well. I was 35 lbs overweight and counting. The evidence suggested I’d continue adding weight as I endured middle age. I was unhappy, but what could I do? I had no strategy, no goal, and no sense of control.
I may not have escaped this state of learned helplessness if it wasn’t for a giant plate of spaghetti and meatballs. My wife and I had invited a friend over for dinner. Andrew was a tall, muscular, twenty-something British rugby player. I’ll never forget his look of shock when Susan handed him a plate. After a bit of gentle prodding, he confessed that he was surprised by its size. And, while Susan and I ate all our pasta, plus a few slices of garlic bread, to our chagrin Andrew ate only a third of his. Still, nothing changed, until a few months later when Susan stumbled upon an article that explained people eat less if they use smaller plates. The next day, our giant plates moved to the basement, and we began to eat dinner on dessert plates. For a while, we’d go back for seconds, but soon we simply ate less. It was our first tiny step on the road to health.
Figure 5-4. Context shapes behavior.
My sister-in-law inspired me to take the next step. She was in town for a half-marathon and cajoled me into a 5K. I did well for a couch potato, so she told me to try a ten-miler. I was scared of the distance but signed up for the race. The first weeks of training were hard. I felt I’d die in the heat. And my skin chafed horribly until I learned not to run in boxer shorts. But after a month I began to enjoy myself. I felt healthy in mind and body. I had reestablished my sense of control.
After that ten-miler, there was no turning back. I ran more half-marathons and a couple of marathons before shifting to triathlons for the long haul. I lost that 35 pounds. I sleep well and feel great. I’ve rediscovered the energy of that crazy kid who could play soccer all day long. But my journey hasn’t only been physical. I’ve learned a lot about diet and exercise, but I’ve also become more aware of emotions, beliefs, and behaviors. I’m no longer held captive by the past. I’ve learned how to learn and change. And, for better or for worse, I’ve been granted the wisdom to question my culture.
Figure 5-5. Run, bike, swim.
At first it was little things. I quit soda and didn’t miss it. So why did I drink it in the first place? Could it be the ubiquity and power of advertising? How much does it shape what we want? And how can we boost immunity? I read that stretching before exercise is harmful. It weakens muscles and invites injury. All my life I’d stretched before soccer games and races. Now everyone does it but me. I only stretch in the shower. At first my deviance was minor, but the distance only grew. In time I ran so far I left behind beefy portions of culture.
For instance, the more I read about nutrition, the more I questioned meat. My quest for health led me to study the ethics and environmental impact of our culture’s carnivorism. I did a lot of reading and thinking, but it was Eating Animals by Jonathan Safran Foer that did the trick. My wife begged me not to read it, but I’m a red pill kinda guy. So I consumed the book and turned myself into a flexitarian, which means I annoy everyone. My wife is upset. She’s a great cook, and I’ve cast a shadow over her recipes. Omnivores are unsettled. My choice invites them to question their own. And vegans are irate. How can I see the truth but continue to drink milk?
I’m convinced that normal factory farming practices are deeply immoral. The environmental impact is catastrophic, and the abuse of antibiotics and growth hormones is hazardous to human health. But it’s the cruelty to animals that pushes me over the edge. My moral circle is a fuzzy set. My family is at the center. That’s a bias with which I’m at peace. But I fail to see a clear moral line between human and non-human animals. I don’t want to cause any sentient being to suffer or die. Of course, I fail at that too. I live in a suburb. I drive a car. I pay taxes. I buy fruits and vegetables from farms that use pesticides. I own an iPhone. I eat pepperoni pizza with our teenage daughters. There is no moral high ground. We all cause pain and suffering. All humans are hypocrites. All of us are complicit in the crimes of civilization.
Figure 5-6. A fuzzy moral circle.
Concurrently, we are beneficiaries of and contributors to the wonders of civilization. Backpacking in the wilderness offers a hint of what Thomas Hobbes called the state of nature: “continual fear and danger of violent death, and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.”cxxxviiiAfter a few days on Isle Royale, I was ready to kill for a hot shower and a flush toilet. It’s easy to embrace all good or all bad, but we co-exist in the messy middle. We can’t be perfect, but we can do better. While it’s impractical to uphold the oath of Hippocrates to do no harm, it’s certainly possible to do less harm. In no category of society is this more true than in medicine.
Iatrogenics is the third leading cause of death in the United States. Side effects, drug interactions, hospital infections, negligence, and surgical errors result in more than 225,000 deaths per year. The number of people who suffer each year from non-fatal, physician-induced illness runs into the millions. In Hippocrates Shadow, Dr. David Newman offers a powerful indictment of medical practice. Doctors routinely prescribe antibiotics for viral infections. This causes twenty-four thousand allergic reactions each year, not to mention several hundred thousand cases of diarrhea. cxxxixThis is the tip of the iceberg. The scope and scale of iatrogenics is terrifying.
Figure 5-7. Leading causes of death.
This does not mean all doctors are evil. Most of them believe they are doing good work. In fact, their confidence (and ours) is a large part of the problem. Our culture has an inordinate faith in the miracle of modern medicine, and a dangerous predisposition towards intervention. When we visit a physician, we expect diagnosis and prescription. We don’t want our doctor to say “I don’t know.” But, more often than we know (or want to know), doctors truly don’t know what they’re doing. Our understanding of the complex systems that bind us together into billions of unique mixtures of mind-body-environment is limited. We’re lost in the wilderness in the dark with a tiny flashlight. But we hate feeling helpless and want a quick fix, so we place our trust in the doctor.
We’re not good at assigning trust. Bernie Madoff knew that well. We let what we want shift what we know. I do this all the time with the weather. I know the forecast isn’t exact but want to ride my bike, so I try threading the needle between storms and end up soaked to the bone.
Sadly, our trust in doctors is even more misplaced, since malpractice isn’t as random as a butterfly flapping its wings. With respect to our long-term health, a doctor doesn’t have skin in the game. They don’t suffer with us. To a degree, the opposite is true. Also, they are influenced by information and gifts delivered routinely by sales representatives of pharmaceutical and medical device companies. Again, they don’t think this is wrong. Like journalists with advertisers or politicians with lobbyists, doctors tell themselves they’re immune to influence. But we all know they are wrong.
Figure 5-8. The circle of trust.
Of course, even if doctors were solely motivated to help, the results might not be better, as their sources of information from research scientists to medical journals are also funded by pharma. If there’s a serious health problem in our family, I consult Medline and the Cochrane Reviews, but even after hours of research, my confidence is low. In the United States, we spend $4 trillion a year on healthcare. The manufacture of consent is big business. It’s hard to know who to trust.
That’s why I’ve gone rogue. I haven’t been to a doctor in years. I don’t see my dentist either. If I have a serious problem, I’ll consult a professional, but I believe checkups are dangerous. As Nassim Taleb says “If you want to accelerate someone’s death, give him a personal doctor. I don’t mean provide him with a bad doctor: just pay for him to choose his own. Any doctor will do.”cxl Naïve intervention is a most deadly disease.
Our culture exaggerates the ability of doctors and drugs to improve our lives. We invest so much time and money in “health care,” but it plays a minor role in health and longevity. That’s why I pay more attention to my environment, economics, and behavior. I aim to change the things I can.
Figure 5-9. Effect upon health and longevity.
It’s still hard to know what to do. Is skim milk in or out? Do we eat the bread, hold the butter, or vice versa? Simple questions about diet and exercise are surprisingly difficult to answer. I bumped into this realization a few years ago while trying to better my health. It all began with a Sunday morning ride on the Potawatomi trail. I was rolling down a hill when my front tire hit a root. My bike and I flipped end over end until the trail hit my back. Lucky to escape with bruised ribs, I decided trails were too risky, so I shifted my rides to roads. A few weeks later, I was hit by a car. It wasn’t a bad accident. Only my bike was hurt. But it sure got my attention. I’d been enjoying my rides, but my overall goal was health. Is it safe to ride a bike? I needed to answer that question.
It took hours of searching, reading, and thinking to reach a conclusion. First, I had to figure out the politics. Cyclists and environmental groups have made “bike to work” into a movement. Cities around the country are building bike lanes and bike share systems. This is an exciting step towards a healthier society, but the interests of the individual and the community aren’t always aligned. And the commitments to cycling that people and politicians have made has created a powerful, cultural bias. The media repeats “cycling is safe” like a mantra, but is this the truth, or is it the result of cultural self-justification and the manufacture of consent?
Popular articles were no good. I had to dig for statistics. I also realized I had to be realistic. Do you ride on trails, sidewalks, or streets? Do you live in Amsterdam or New York? Do you wear a helmet? How often do you drink, text and ride? No statistical sources isolate these variables, so there’s no answer to my question. I set my sights lower, asking “Is it safe for me to train for triathlons by riding the roads of my community?”
The evidence suggests the answer is “No.” In the United States, motor vehicle crashes are a leading cause of death. On a per trip basis, for adults age 25 to 64, riding a bike is four times more deadly.cxli By my calculations, each trip is relatively safe. I’m not afraid of riding to work on a whim. But if I routinely ride on the road for years, there’s a good chance I’ll be hit.
Figure 5-10. The probability of death per trip.
If I had to choose between road cycling and never cycling, I might take the risk, since I’m safer on a bike than on a couch. Low fitness is the single strongest predictor of death. Exercise lowers the risk of heart disease, diabetes, cancer, asthma, arthritis, anxiety, and the flu. cxlii But I’m lucky to live in a town with a dedicated bike path. Now that’s the only place I ride.
It began with a map and vision of a 35 mile border-to-border trail along the river. Today it’s a reality that connects communities and protects people. Behavior is shaped by the context we create. What we build changes who we become. But we often don’t know what to build. We’re better at implementation than imagination. That’s why we must use daylighting to design ourselves into a healthier future.
I’m still not safe. After my bike was hit, I told my mum. She knew this was my second mishap of the month and warned me to be careful as “these things come in threes.” So I stayed off my bike. But weeks later while jogging I was savaged by a wiener dog. It bit a hole in my leg. You shouldn’t be surprised. It’s the most aggressive breed. One in five dachshunds bites a stranger. I now live in mortal fear of sausage dogs, but I doubt that’s how I’ll go. As I tell my wife whenever she’s anxious, it’s what you’re not worrying about that will get you.
Our universe is 13.8 billion years old, so the diameter of the observable universe is 28 billion parsecs. The best way to grok this scale is through these words: “Space is big. Really big. You just won’t believe how vastly hugely mind-bogglingly big it is. I mean, you may think it’s a long way down the road to the chemist, but that’s just peanuts to space.”cxliii Of course, Douglas Adams wrote that in 1979, and the universe is expanding at an ever increasing rate, so it’s a lot bigger now.
In truth, we don’t know the age or size of the universe. We have no idea what preceded the Big Bang. All we really know is that the answer is 42. But we’re not about to let the universe get in the way of progress. We’ve developed all sorts of cognitive and cultural strategies to help us ignore our ignorance. Binary opposition and reductionism enable us to feel good about ourselves. We are good. They are bad. This is my area of expertise. That’s not my problem. And most of the time this makes sense. We must feel safe to be useful. We must satisfice to survive. But, once in a while, we should embrace humility by reflecting upon the wisdom of Voltaire.
Doubt is not a pleasant condition, but certainty is absurd.
When we question what we think we know, we engage in a philosophical inquiry with practical value. Certainty is the enemy of creativity. It blinds us to the possibility there might be a better way. Humility opens the door for collaboration. It invites us to ask questions and seek answers together.
In that spirit, The Outer Limits of Reason by Noson Yanofsky is a helpfully humbling study of the limitations of physics, logic, and our minds. A self-described extreme nominalist, the author explains his position as follows.
Most people believe that there are certain objects in the universe and that human minds call those objects by names. What I am illustrating here is that those objects do not really exist. What do exist are physical stimuli. Human beings classify and name those different stimuli as different objects.cxliv
Yanofsky argues that we may learn more from looking at the way we are observing the universe than from the observation itself. To illustrate, he recalls a thought experiment of the philosopher-scientist Arthur Eddington.
Suppose that an ichthyologist is exploring the life of the ocean. He casts a net into the water and brings up a fishy assortment. Surveying his catch, he proceeds in the usual manner of a scientist to systematize what it reveals. He arrives at two generalizations:
1) No sea-creature is less than two inches long.
2) All sea-creatures have gills. cxlv
The catch stands for our scientific body of knowledge and the net for the sensory and cognitive apparatus used to obtain it. Together they invite a few questions. What’s the relationship between catches and confidence? How many catches do we need? And how big are the holes in our net?
Figure 5-11. The limits of perception and cognition.
Of course, we often don’t get what we do catch. For instance, Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle tells us the position and momentum of a subatomic particle can’t be measured concurrently with precision. This isn’t a limit of technology but a consequence of the connectedness between observation and outcome. The properties of an object don’t exist before they’re measured. The experimenter is part of the experiment.
This leads to an even stranger aspect of quantum mechanics known as entanglement. In a pair of entangled particles, total spin is zero, so the instant one particle is measured and collapses into a spin direction, the other must collapse the opposite way, even if the two particles are light-years apart.
Einstein believed instant information transfer across infinite distance or “spooky action at a distance” to be impossible, but its effects have been shown experimentally. Researchers are exploring the use of entanglement for communication and computation. Recently, Dutch physicists were able to teleport quantum data over a ten foot distance with a replication rate of 100 percent.cxlvi It appears that Albert Einstein was wrong.
Figure 5-12. The consequence of quantum entanglement.
In his book, Yanofsky explains the philosophical consequences of the nonlocal effects of entanglement.
One consequence of entanglement is to end the philosophical position of reductionism. This position says that if you want to understand some type of closed system, look at all the parts of the system. To understand how a radio works, one must take it apart and look at all its components, because “the whole is the sum of its parts.” Reductionism is a fundamental supposition in all of science. Entanglement shows that there are no closed systems.cxlvii
All systems are interconnected. This subatomic truth resonates equally at global scale. It’s this vital insight that motivates people to care for the health of their environment, and it’s the first of Barry Commoner’s four laws of ecology.cxlviii
1. Everything is connected to everything else.
2. Everything must go somewhere.
3. Nature knows best.
4. There is no such thing as a free lunch.
Interdependence is also the basis of systems thinking. It explains why the whole is more than the sum of its parts and why our ability to predict or control the behavior of complex adaptive systems is less than we think. In 1972, Donella Meadows and her colleagues at MIT explained the potential consequences of interactions between natural and human systems in their landmark book, The Limits to Growth.cxlix They used a computer model with five major variables – world population, industrialization, pollution, food production, resource depletion – to explore a range of possible scenarios.
They saw that if growth trends remained unchanged, we’d experience a sudden, uncontrollable decline in population and industrial capacity within the next hundred years. This scary conclusion garnered worldwide attention. The book sold more than 12 million copies in 37 languages and helped launch the environmental movement. But it was also widely criticized as a Malthusian doomsday prophecy that failed to recognize the enormous power of technology, democracy, and capitalism.
Figure 5-13. The limits of human perspective.
Donella realized change would not be easy, since our actions are centered on issues that affect our friends and family in the near term. However, she felt a tremendous sense of urgency, because she understood that if we waited until the limits were obvious, it would be too late to avoid an overshoot.
The three causes of overshoot are always the same, at any scale from personal to planetary. First, there is growth, acceleration, rapid change. Second, there is some form of limit or barrier, beyond which the moving system may not safely go. Third, there is a delay or mistake in the perceptions and the responses that strive to keep the system within its limits.cl
She expected attacks from those with financial and political interests in growth, and she knew they’d appeal to our deep cultural faith in markets and technology.
Markets and technologies are merely tools that serve the goals, the ethics, and the time horizons of the society as a whole. If a society’s implicit goals are to exploit nature, enrich the elites, and ignore the long term, then that society will develop technologies and markets that destroy the environment, widen the gap between the rich and the poor, and optimize for short term gains.cli
In fact, she noted that “technological optimism is the most common and the most dangerous reaction to our findings” since ”technology can relieve the symptoms of a problem without affecting the underlying causes.”clii
Despite her willingness to confront reality and speak truth to power, Donella was an optimist, arguing “it is possible to alter these growth trends and to establish a condition of ecological and economic stability that is sustainable far into the future.”
Sadly, while her book made an impact, it has not yet meaningfully altered the trajectory of humanity. Today, we are in ecological overshoot. Both global population and per capita resource use continue to grow. It now takes the Earth a year and six months to regenerate what we use in a year.
Climate change is the most notorious impact, but there are many less visible consequences. For instance, we are responsible for the loss of biodiversity on a massive scale. In The Sixth Extinction, Elizabeth Kolbert catalogs the destruction.
Today, amphibians enjoy the dubious distinction of being the world’s most endangered class of animals; it’s been calculated that the group’s extinction rate could be as much as forty-five thousand times higher than the background rate. But extinction rates among many other groups are approaching amphibian levels. It is estimated that one-third of all reef-building corals, a third of all freshwater mollusks, a third of sharks and rays, a quarter of all mammals, a fifth of all reptiles, and a sixth of all birds are headed toward oblivion.cliii
Much of this damage is due to increased carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and oceans, but our travel and shipping also have unintended consequences. Thanks to hitchhikers on our boats and planes, Hawaii acquires one invasive species a month. Before humans settled the islands, this occurred once every 10,000 years. We are the agents of chaos. As Elizabeth Kolbert says “those of us alive today not only are witnessing one of the rarest events in life’s history, we are also causing it.”cliv
So how does this story end? We have no idea. We may not change course. As Jared Diamond illustrated in Collapse, “societies often fail even to attempt to solve a problem once it has been perceived.”clv But Donella Meadows never gave up. She believed in people and the power of information.
Information is the key to transformation. That does not necessarily mean more information, better statistics, bigger databases, or the World Wide Web, though all of these may play a part. It means relevant, compelling, select, powerful, timely, accurate information flowing in new ways to new recipients, carrying new content, suggesting new rules and goals (that are themselves information). When its information flows are changed, any system will behave differently.clvi
Of course as Calvin Mooers warned, information has its limits.
Many people may not want information, and they will avoid using a system precisely because it gives them information. Having information is painful and troublesome. We have all experienced this. If you have information, you must first read it, which is not always easy. You must then try to understand it. Understanding the information may show that your work was wrong, or may show that your work was needless. Thus not having and not using information can often lead to less trouble and pain.clvii
It’s been 42 years since The Limits to Growth hit us hard. The book put a dent in the universe. But it hasn’t changed our trajectory. Nobody knows how to stop humanity from sawing off the limb on which we stand. But one thing is sure. If we rely on information alone to bridge the gap between understanding and action, we’d better be ready to swim. People fail to act on information all the time. We know soda is a toxic substance, but we drink it anyway. We know quarterly earnings is a terrible metric that threatens the long-term health of a business, but we use it anyway.
Information is not enough. We should map the hidden pathways of our natural and organizational ecosystems, but then we must act. At multiple levels, as individuals, organizations, and societies, we must embrace divergent ways of changing what we want and what we do. An awareness of the entangled nature of systems is essential, but it’s equally vital to have the right attitude. There are moments in a marathon when we can’t see our way to the goal. We know we’ll soon hit the wall. We’ve lost faith. But we still have hope. So we keep on running. Eventually we will find a way.
The number of humans living on Earth is mind-bogglingly big. It’s not infinite like the universe, but it’s big enough to make us feel small. Mostly we ignore this larger context. Our habits and culture help us to focus on the task at hand. But, once in a while, we ask big questions. Why am I here? Where (and when) am I going? What’s the something only I can do?
In my personal life, I try to be a good dad, husband, brother, son, and friend. I do this in part by caring for my health, since it’s vital to “secure your own mask before helping others.” In my professional life, I aim to be a good information architect. I do this by mixing consulting, speaking, and writing. I relish the challenge of a new organizational ecosystem, and I love wrangling with strategy and structure to find the right fit. But I’m also driven to consider this work in its next larger context.
What are the relationships between categories, connections, and culture? Where are the links, loops, and levers? How can we use our ways of seeing to effect change at a higher level? I speak and write so we might understand and act together. We know what we think when we see what we say.
Of course, our personal and professional lives are wholly intertwingled. Compartmentalism is a dangerous myth. We can’t be callous at work and loving at home. The centre cannot hold. The wall will not stand. How we do anything is how we do everything. We know this but it’s hard to put into practice. Our culture stuffs everything inside little boxes except for all those externalities that don’t exist. Our vision is further narrowed by information anxiety which tricks us into fight or flight. Neither option is healthy. The path to peace begins with awareness of what Thich Nhat Hanh calls “interbeing.”
If you are a poet, you will see clearly that there is a cloud floating in this sheet of paper. Without a cloud, there will be no rain; without rain, the trees cannot grow; and without trees, we cannot make paper. The cloud is essential for the paper to exist. If the cloud is not here, the sheet of paper cannot be here either.clviii
Hanh uses interbeing to remind us that to be is to inter-be. Everything’s linked. We can’t isolate our selves from context.
A mother holding her baby is one with her baby.
If it does not grow well, you don’t blame the lettuce.
It’s hard to hold these truths to be self-evident in a ship of state that’s listing dangerously from democracy to capitalism to oligarchy. Ben Franklin stated in 1776 that “we must all hang together, or assuredly we shall all hang separately,” but what our culture says today is “every man for himself.”
For a moment, the Internet was our hope. We thought we were building an information commons, a shared peer-to-peer network created by and accessible to all. But this place made of information became subject to the process of enclosure. Like our fields and forests and universities and hospitals, it was corporatized and commodified. Donella Meadows was right about technology. In the long run, it reflects and reinforces the dominant culture. No tail can wag the dog for long.
In contrast, the free public library has managed to endure. It’s a source of information and inspiration that tells a tale of rags to riches, not the rich get richer. Andrew Carnegie nailed it back in 1889 when he explained “a library outranks any other one thing a community can do to benefit its people. It is a never failing spring in the desert.” The library is one of the last surviving places where we are citizens, not consumers. When we ask a librarian for trusted counsel, their only motives are to teach us to search and to help us to find what we need. And the library is a treasure for the independent learner. It may still be the only place where a dirt poor kid like Andrew Carnegie can access databases, the Internet, and books.
Of course, the library isn’t only a space for information. Public libraries share all sorts of things, including tools, toys, and telescopes. And they afford a peaceful refuge where an individual can escape to read, write, search, think, and learn. A library, like a national park, teaches us that we all benefit when our most valuable treasures are held in common.
Figure 5-14. Libraries share more than books.
In a society with rising inequality, libraries aim to level the playing field. There’s substance to this mission, but its role is symbolic too. Like public schools and parks, libraries remind us that capitalism-socialism is a false dichotomy. The path to health starts with synthesis, but we’re held hostage by this sickness of binary opposition. From whence does either-or dualism come, and why are we unable to break its spell? The answer may lie in myths, our stories of culture used to teach morals to kids. Consider, for instance, The Ant and Grasshopper.
In a field one summer’s day a Grasshopper was hopping about, chirping and singing to its heart’s content. An Ant passed by, bearing along with great toil an ear of corn he was taking to the nest. “Why not come and chat with me,” said the Grasshopper, “instead of toiling and moiling in that way?”
“I am helping to lay up food for the winter,” said the Ant, “and recommend you to do the same.”
“Why bother about winter?” said the Grasshopper. “We have got plenty of food at present.” But the Ant went on its way and continued its toil. When the winter came the Grasshopper had no food and found itself dying of hunger, while it saw the ants distributing every day corn and grain from the stores they had collected in the summer. Then the Grasshopper knew: it is best to prepare for the days of necessity.
On the surface, it’s a simple tale about two animals that offers children a lesson in common sense. But morals work like maps by hiding more than they reveal. Aesop paints in black and white. His story leaves no room for the grasshopper, which is precisely the point of an opposite fable by Daniel Quinn about a telepathic gorilla and his human student with an earnest desire to save the world. Ishmael is a story of Leavers and Takers. Leavers are herders and hunter-gatherers who leave fate in the hands of the gods. Takers are agriculturalists and technologists who take the law of nature into their own hands. Takers are the people of our culture who believe man is the center of the universe, there is one right way to live, and there are no limits to growth. Leavers are the peoples of all ancient cultures who lived in harmony with their environments for millions of years until the Takers made them nearly extinct.
Figure 5-15. Timeline of Leavers and Takers.
Ishmael explains to his student that in the tumultuous period since Takers emerged roughly ten thousand years ago, they have ruthlessly, relentlessly destroyed diversity.
The knowledge of what works well for people is what’s valued in Leaver cultures. And every time the Takers stamp out a Leaver culture, a wisdom ultimately tested since the birth of mankind disappears from the world beyond recall, just as every time they stamp out a species of life, a life form ultimately tested since the birth of life disappears from the world beyond recall.clix
It’s a powerful indictment of our civilization and the saddest story I’ve ever read. In Ishmael, the Grasshopper lives in peace with nature, the Ant is hell-bent on consuming the world, and that’s the trouble I have with both myths. The classification of people into two categories is part of the problem. Fables reflect and reinforce our innate bias for binary opposition. They encourage us to ostracize them. But if we realize what’s going on, and the danger of dichotomy is gone, then we can explore new ways of seeing stories. For instance, the tortoise and the hare aren’t two kinds of people but opposite ends of a strategic spectrum. We each have the capacity to sprint or plod, and there’s not only one way to win. Similarly, each of us can be a fox who knows many things or a hedgehog who knows one big thing. The best strategy depends on context.
Once our eyes are open, myths can be paths to wisdom. They help us understand ourselves and our culture. Consider, for instance, the cross-cultural archetype of the trickster, a subversive character who is often both hero and buffoon. Anansi, Brer Rabbit, Coyote, Loki, Raven: the trickster is a shapeshifter, a familiar outsider who transgresses boundaries in the folklore of many cultures. A creature of ambiguity and liminality, the trickster breaks rules, plays games, defies categories, and upsets the dominant order. He may be wise, foolish, noble, and mean. He’s a deeply entangled paradox.
Of course, the trickster isn’t a myth. He’s real. He lives in Silicon Valley. He has a gift for you. It’s a wearable computer with a heads-up display or a cloud-based home security solution or a drone that delivers pizza or a toilet that monitors your health. It’s easy to use. It just works. And you know what’s insanely great? It’s free. So give us your eyeballs now.
When I was a kid in England, I rode a yellow skateboard. I learned to fall and to ollie and that the future is invented in California. Over time I’ve been a loyal consumer. I’ve bought Apple computers, HP printers, and Cisco routers. I’ve also been a producer with clients in Cupertino, Mountain View, Palo Alto, San José, San Francisco, and Sunnyvale. I’m great friends with the Valley. It’s a wonderful place to be.
Tricksters are exasperating because they’re so good and bad at once. The iPhone isn’t simply useful, usable, and desirable. It’s a work of art. But it’s also an ugly status symbol, a driving distraction, and an environmental nightmare. Fitbit, Jawbone, and Pebble are fascinating fitness tracking devices, but do we even know whether they’re making us more healthy or less?
I’m not sure how to manage this trickster, but I do know we must shift from self-justification to self-awareness to move ahead. The secular myth of disruptive innovation isn’t new, but it is effective. We’re so busy searching for dinosaurs, we forget to look where we’re going. In 2004 when Bruce Sterling first spoke of spime – speculative objects precisely located in space and time – the vision he painted was bright green. Transfigured from passive consumers into heroic wranglers, we would mash products, sensors, RFID, and GPS into sustainable spime to reduce, reuse, and recycle like never before.
It’s possible to live in a cleaner way. We live in debris and detritus because of our ignorance. That ignorance is no longer technically necessary…Our capacities are tremendous. Eventually, it is within our technical ability to create factories that clean the air as they work, cars that give off drinkable water, industry that creates parks instead of dumps, or even monitoring systems that allow nature to thrive in our cities, neighborhoods, lawns and homes. An industry that is not just “sustainable,” but enhances the world.clx
A decade later, not only are we not there yet, but we may be traveling in the opposite direction. Are the espoused values of tricksters clouding our vision? What are the real assumptions, beliefs, and values of Silicon Valley? What is the theory of the world behind self-driving cars, wearable devices, ingestible sensors, clones, drones, and the Singularity? Of course, we shouldn’t be too hard on the technologists, since we won’t even have a future unless we invent ourselves out of the box.
The root of our problem is on the opposite coast. Our federal government is corrupt and riddled with tricksters who are neither wise nor noble. Until we rid ourselves of this pollution, and unless we learn to design systems of governance that can’t be corrupted by those who score high on the sociopath scale, we will not find the way. Our daughter surprised us a few years back by stating as a matter of fact “Of course civilization will collapse soon. I only hope it doesn’t happen while I’m still around.” Is this the legacy we bequeath to our children, or can we imagine and invent a world of better tomorrows?
Liminality is the quality of ambiguity or disorientation that occurs during periods of transition. It’s the ugly duckling stage of life, the “in between” in a rite of passage, and the barely perceptible threshold in a change of mind. At a societal level, the dissolution of order and the loss of traditions and institutions during liminal times make us vulnerable to the trickster. In the hunt for a charismatic leader to save us, it’s easy to lose ourselves. We must be vigilant. We must nurture self-awareness while seeking answers outside our model of the system. We shouldn’t rush, but there isn’t much time. We can’t keep up the pace. Our energy use is unsustainable. Our capacity for change has limits. This era will end. Our ways of being and believing will shift. Liminality is not the goal.
It’s time to reveal the hero of our story is not the trickster but the tree. A clever mind delivers a quick fix, but the road to eternity is a garden of branching paths. We’ve been living in relationship with trees since time immemorial. Trees are invaluable sources of food, shelter, medicine, tools, fire, and wisdom. In ancient myth, the roots, trunk, and canopy of the World Tree connected the earth to the heavens and the underworld. In Buddhist legend, the Buddha achieved enlightenment under the heart-shaped leaves of the Bodhi Tree. Adam and Eve were banished from the Tree of Life after being tricked into eating from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. As Thich Nhat Hanh tells us, trees are part of our perception. When we read “I am the Lorax. I speak for the trees,” our minds mingle with the ideas and words of the author in a cloud or on a sheet of paper. Trees are ancient symbols in our collective unconscious. The tree is the archetype of interbeing.
All my life, animals have wandered into my world. When we lived in England, we had a tiny backyard surrounded by a wooden fence. One Sunday, I watched a tortoise walk under the gate and into our garden. We adopted him. My sister named him Batman. We also discovered a hedgehog who chose to hibernate in the wardrobe where we kept our tools. My brother named him King Henry VIII. For a time, we believed our milkman was a thief, until we saw the crows stealing our milk. And in Michigan, in recent years, a fox family moved in next door. My wife, our daughters, and I love to watch the mama and her spirited children play in the grass in the Spring. These animals are symbols of freedom. They walk into our lives and remind us our boundaries don’t exist.
The story of man versus nature makes no sense. The relationship is hierarchical. Man is part of nature, and so is all that we build. No system is closed. Externalities are delusions. There is no free lunch. These truths resonate on all levels for individuals, organizations, and societies. If we hope to get better, we must respect the nature of information in systems and nurture the health of the whole. This is not only a technical challenge. We must shift culture too. It won’t be easy. The system always kicks back. But it’s not impossible.
Figure 5-16. Nature is the root directory.
By exposing our categories and connections to the light of day, we become responsible for the consequences of our actions. As a wise woman once said, it can happen in the blink of an eye.
It can happen in a millisecond. All it takes is a click in the mind, a falling of scales from eyes, a new way of seeing.
To get better at getting better, we must see there are no limits. Our models are all we know. We draw edges that don’t exist. This isn’t bad but dangerous, and it makes us uncomfortable. That’s okay. We must learn to sit with our discomfort. Instead of burying guilt and fear in little boxes, we must admit black swans and externalities into our model of the system, because information changes everything. If we allow ourselves to be aware of connectedness, to see everything is intertwingled, and to act on the reality of interbeing, then we will hopefully change what we want, and that is the path we must travel.
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