A strategy is not a plan like the one we make for a funding proposal. That is an operational plan and includes measurable outcomes and a (usually) cynically specific set of steps for reaching those outcomes.
A strategy is a framework for thinking about two realities we can’t avoid in our advocacy work:
The future is always unpredictable
We only have limited resources (people, technology, energy, money, spirit)
If the future was predictable and we had more resources than we could ever use in 100 years, we could create an operational plan and achieve our goals every time. All we would have to do is get good at writing logic models.
But the reality isn’t set up that way. Because of the mismatch between how we are required to plan and reality, we often scale back the outcomes in our operational plans to make sure we reach them so that we can continue to get funding or praise or organization and personal stature. Avoiding failure is more important than depth of impact.
This is a reasonable response to a system and a society that believes change can reliably be produced like candy bars in a factory. So, once you have the right technique (the right change plan), you can crank change out forever.
A strategy allows you to create variability in the face of the unexpected. Operational plans suppress variability in the name of predictable outcomes. However useful predictable outcomes are in seeking funding, variability is the way you survive over the long term.
The best example of using variability to keep playing the game you want to play is evolution.
Evolution isn’t about creating the perfect organism, though we tend to interpret it that way because of our basic human narcissism. Evolution is about generating variability so that no matter what happens, life will continue.
The hummingbird and the flower have evolved to match one another so that need and opportunity become a single integrated process. The results of this evolutionary matching (the outcomes of the plan as it were) aren’t in the organism, they are the relationship between organism and environment. This relationship (an outcome in the larger strategy of evolution) is a complex system that ages over time. Every complex system (including our advocacy and the targets of our advocacy) is the expression of a kind of operational plan, the same kind that we often confuse with a strategy.
So, evolution is a strategy and each expression of its framework is an operational plan. All operational plans eventually collapse. But the evolutionary strategy continues.
I am going to talk about two very different examples of how complex systems age and then draw some lessons for our disability community advocacy efforts. First, I’ll talk about system aging as a general process.
Introduction to System Aging
If you think of a system as a bunch of connections between islands of activity, system aging is the way the connections between the islands grow and change over time, as well as the way the islands of activity change because of those connections.
The general rule is that making a new connection will be driven by your immediate needs and opportunities. Maybe you forge a connection with a farmer so you can have a regular supply of vegetables. Once the connection is forged, it gradually becomes a constraint. If you decide you don’t like the farmer anymore because of her politics, or the farmer dies, it isn’t easy to break the existing connection and make a new one with someone else who can provide you with vegetables.
You make new connections because there is a match between your needs and some opportunity, a fast process. But changing those connections once they are there is a slower, more resource-intensive process, and may not be possible at all.
Over time, aging systems accumulate constraints that are very hard or dangerous to eliminate. In early growth, there always seem to be ways to get around these self-imposed constraints. Over time, the sheer number of constraints makes it harder and eventually impossible to reverse or efficiently alter a connection. The constraints also become so complex that you can’t predict what will happen if you change just one, much less the whole system. This is the reason behind “unintended consequences”.
Large numbers of hard-to-change constraints are what I mean when I describe a system as brittle. When a brittle system is disturbed (say by advocacy), it is hard to tell how the system will change. Because of this, the specific breakdown of a system is always unpredictable, even though we know that all complex systems will break down eventually.
Aging of the Car System
Cars have changed a lot since the end of the 19th century, and there are endless lessons about how complex systems age in the large very complex car system (vehicles, manufacturing, unions, corporations, roads, fossil fuel, and other power systems, financing, government regulation, automation, safety, culture-driven choices, music, art, etc.).
For example, we are caught in a never-ending process of maintenance and repair of the roads over which we drive. I suspect it would be much easier and cheaper to “fix” our interstate road system if we could just get the entire road system to disappear all at once so that we could start over from scratch. Because such a change isn’t possible, we have to put up with the constant and unpredictable aspects of maintaining the roads in a permanently less usable state than they were when the system was originally built. Short-term amazing, long-term permanent pain-in-the-ass.
Today our cars are as complex as they have ever been. There are many ways to look at how our cars got here, but I think of it as the “car system” trying to change all the pain points of using cars over time without getting rid of the fundamental “driver” of the car system, the internal combustion engine that uses fossil fuels.
We are now closer to having commonly available transportation that doesn’t require that engine (electric cars). Once the cost of a basic electric car drops toward $20,000, the simplicity and ease of maintenance of this future car model ( estimated to last one million miles) will drive the old internal combustion version out of existence except for collectors. This collapse of every aspect of our current car system will happen at least as fast as the one that replaced animals with engines (mostly in one generation). The impact will be vast and largely unpredictable in detail, even though we know it’s coming.
Aging of the Legal System
When I was a full-time disability rights advocate, I came to understand how our legal system grows more complex over time. It is an important question to ask how such a manifestly over-complex system could be simplified, and the answer, unfortunately, is that it can’t.
Because the parts of the very complex legal system (say for example lawyers) make continual personal connections with the law during their training and in their practice, it becomes increasingly difficult for those parts (lawyers) to change those connections even if it would be a good idea for them to do so. Only laws that no one uses or supports can be eliminated. If there is any significant group of legal system members that don’t want a law to go away, it is just about impossible to get rid of it. Instead, old laws are replaced by ones that are almost inevitably more complex (have more connections) than what they are replacing. The trend is both clear and apparently uncontrollable.
I think that in many areas, the law has already become so complex that the best practitioners in those areas largely ignore the actual complexity in their day-to-day work unless there is some opportunity for short term profit (not just money). In other words, large chunks of the law are simply deprecated or excluded from use over time, and the complexity of legal specialization is always increasing. See plea bargaining for a clear example.
Currently, unlike the car system, there is not a legal system replacement, though there are some seeds of a replacement. The legal system will become less and less functional and more and more incapable over time, just like the freeway system, as each part seeks its own profit in the short-term without thought to any meaningful simplification. Not unlike the progression of dementia when there is no effective treatment.
Advocacy in an Aging System
One of the hardest lessons I have learned as an advocate and activist in the disability community over almost half a century is that every victory in our cause eventually becomes a constraint on the realization of our most cherished values. Our progress in disability rights is not a series of single achievements building on one another, but a set of gradually aging cycles, where each cycle actively interferes with the creation and realization of the next.
Although our victories don’t seem to become real very quickly to us, they do in comparison with the slower process that makes the victories more complex and increasingly time and resource intensive to use. Special Education, as a system of rights, is a great example of this process from its creation in the mid-70’s to its almost mummy-like status now. This trend of requiring increasing resources (time, money, training, people, spirit) to get something useful out of what was once a genuine victory is the heart of why we must come to grips with the reality of system aging.
If we keep doing what we have been doing, we will get less and less of what we are already getting. Eventually, we will get nothing meaningful from what was once a victory.
We need something new to guide our advocacy for the future. We need a strategy.
Like people, all complex systems grow and age. After all, we are complex systems ourselves; it should be no surprise when there are some similarities in the way all complex systems grow and age.
As we advocate for ourselves and our community, we tend to focus on the immediate issue that is blocking our efforts to build choice and autonomy. All these blocking issues are important targets for resistance, but the sheer number of these issues tends to distract us from the larger and slower changes that are taking place in our society.
Not paying attention to the way our society as a whole is evolving and aging means that we face more and more complex, difficult, and unexpected issues that block our rights agenda over time. Even as we win over these barriers, if we do nothing to change our relationship with the larger context, we find our victories undermined, or later reversed, and novel threats that never occurred before raise their heads, creating targets needing resistance we hadn’t imagined as possibilities.
So, even with all the demands on our time and energy, we need to use some of our time and energy for understanding the larger and slower changes that will affect our ability to advocate well.
There is a pattern to how complex systems begin, grow, peak, and break down. I will use a forest as a model for how this happens because we all have experience with the changes that take place over time in forests.
Let’s assume there has been a forest fire, and that the land where the forest used to be is now ashes and burnt trunks. All the large animals that survived have left the immediate area and the future for this forest is fairly open.
Since the land is more or less empty of competition, pioneers will begin to use what’s left, including weeds, insects, and some animals that maybe haven’t been seen in this forest for a very long time. Pioneers can more readily use the nutrients that are left after the fire and they tend to grow, reproduce, and die faster than most plants, insects, and animals. For example, maybe they can make better use of sunlight, which was hidden by the large trees before the fire.
One of the things that pioneers do is gradually alter the existing nutrients so that plants, insects, and animals that can’t live in the empty landscape right after the fire can now use the “waste” products of the pioneers’ activities. Over time, new living things gradually take over the land, slowly making it harder for the pioneers to compete well. This process of replacing the pioneers goes on for a long time and has many layers. As each successful set of plants, insects, and animals comes to live in the area, they out-compete to some extent what was successful before. This process allows the new species to tap into the growing complexity of the forest resources, making the forest more complex and creating more places for living things to grow and thrive. A well-developed example of this phase would be a tropical jungle where there are a huge number of species and places for species to live.
At some point, the ability of the complex system to keep growing and conserving more resources and becoming more complex passes a peak. When this happens the complex system begins to undermine its own ability to continue growing by the very same activities that up to this point have helped it grow. Instead of becoming more flexibly complex, the system becomes more brittle. Like all of us as we grow older, the forest becomes less able to rebound from disturbance or disease. This brittleness means that the forest can be broken down more easily and since the brittleness slowly increases, it is only a matter of time before some disturbances cause a significant breakdown.
This breakdown is called a release (that is, a release of resources from where they were stored). The release in a complex system can involve many different processes. The more brittle the system, the more kinds of disturbances can trigger such a breakdown. I used a forest fire as the disturbance that caused the release in this example, but there are lots of changes that can produce it. The release eventually results in the beginning of a new cycle, a new forest, that will be similar to, but also different from the one that existed before the fire.
The four phases can be thought of as a cycle:
Growth and Conservation
This cycle (called an Adaptive Cycle) applies to more than forests. For our work in making our disability community advocacy more effective, it applies to the larger social context in which we advocate.
And right now, the larger society (the context) that we seek to change is past the peak in its adaptive cycle. The most important implication of this reality is that the context for our advocacy will become less supportive of our traditional advocacy efforts over time. This will happen, not because of any particular trend or political ideology that we can somehow correct, but because our society is aging. Things that were once easy will slowly become more difficult. And, what we think of as the causes of this more difficult struggle for choice and autonomy are actually effects of this larger slow process of change. I will try to give more detail about how this occurs in a later post.
The impact of this reality is that our ordinary way of choosing and pursuing advocacy goals is gradually becoming less and less effective and requiring more of our declining resources for these smaller successes.
You might have noticed that my posts in this blog haven’t been showing up as regularly as they had in the past. I haven’t been happy with the way that recent posts have turned out. I think I was beginning to wander into the tall weeds and lose the path of what I was trying to do with this blog. A presentation I did this last week told me that there was a way to get back on course. So this post will hopefully be the first step on that new path.
Since the 1970’s, I have tried to do three things:
Understand how complex systems (from individual people to natural systems and societies) change, evolve, and age.
Understand how to effectively disturb those complex systems so they support expanding autonomy and choice for our disability community
Develop this understanding into concepts and tools that advocates in our disability community can use to follow their own path and their community’s path to autonomy and free choice in their lives.
This last is the most difficult. People don’t have the time or interest for pursuing these areas of understanding, but we all have a stake in changing our world so it becomes a tool for fulfilling our lives and not a constantly expanding barrier to our growth and the realization of our dreams. I want to try to set the stage for how we might change our common future without making the framework of that “How” so complicated. That is what I will try to do in the posts that follow.
We all have grown up with a very simple model of how to solve problems. We see the problem as that which is bothering us or preventing us from realizing our goals, and we assume that the problem has a simple cause. Our solution is to change that simple cause in the most straightforward way.
This is solving problems as though they were breakdowns in a machine. We identify the broken part, remove it, and replace it with a new part. But most of the barriers to living full lives that we face are not broken parts in a machine. They are barriers that the system keeps recreating over and over again because they serve some purpose in the larger system. They preserve an organization’s power or they free up resources that the powerful can use for their own purposes, for example.
But, a lot of the time, the preservation of these barriers to our choice and autonomy are done out of mere convenience. It is easier to stop us from what we could become than it is to support us. This convenience, which is such a barrier to the change we need, is also an expression of how the larger system works. Some things are convenient and some things aren’t and this represents a pattern in how that large system works and the outcomes it supports.
And, such barriers also are also examples of how the system in which we live develops, ages, and, finally, breaks down. But that aging is so slow, we really don’t notice it until the aging begins to interfere more and more with our daily lives. Still, we try to treat these large scale system problems like aging as though they were no more than broken parts in the machinery of our lives, fixable in the same way that we would fix a car or a lawn mower.
The problem with treating these barriers in the same way we would repair our car is like tossing a small pebble into a large river. There is no question that the pebble will cause some ripples in the river, but the ripples disappear quickly. The impact of the pebble is lost in the larger process of the river.
And so, we keep tossing pebbles into rivers and become frustrated when even our successful efforts seem to break down over time, either with reversal of our gains or new attacks on our autonomy and choice.
We need to approach these issues in a different way, understanding that we live our lives within something much larger that is constantly affecting our efforts to change. We can fight that larger process or we can use it. But we can’t pretend or act like it doesn’t exist.
That is what I hope to describe in the following posts.
The KaK (Kit and Kaboodle) is our personal simulation of the nonconscious and conscious experience and creativity over the course of our life. It changes with every second of our life and, although the changes from each second are small in terms of the simulation, each experience, and each creative effort changes the direction of our ongoing development. The KaK is a complex system, and like all complex systems, it develops, ages, and eventually ends.
Many complex systems follow this same developmental path, though it might not be obvious that this is true. For example, a natural disaster is a complex system, and tracks an aging path like we do, though each disaster is entirely unique, from basement flooding to global extinctions.
The general process tracks the building of the KaK simulation. New complexity is added every second, and even local breakdowns in cells and structure nonetheless make the KaK more complex and unique.
Like all complex systems, though, our personal simulation becomes both deeper and more brittle over the long run. The need for maintenance and repair increases and various systems eventually begin to cross thresholds that lead to breakdowns. Nonetheless, the KaK serves its personal and evolutionary purpose for our entire existence, even when neurodegeneration is occurring, until we die.
The same is true for all complex systems, though they appear superficially different. A core indicator of this aging process is what I like to think of as corruption. This isn’t the criminal notion of taking bribes, though it includes that. Corruption in a complex system is the undermining of the core purpose or mission of the system. This corruption occurs even when there is no criminal behavior. It inevitably occurs during the typical dynamic that we can think of as the life of a complex system.
So, we envision a large, constantly changing simulation (the KaK) of the whole Kit and Kaboodle ( inside and outside, unconscious and conscious) that is unique to each of us, beginning with the first neurons 30 days after conception and entirely stopping only with our death. Since the driving flow that organizes the KaK is meaning, the unique development of the simulation for each of us is truly our own and remains that way throughout life.
Kit and Kaboodle
Inside and Out
We experience our personal KaK as having an inside (our subjective experience), an outside (the world), and an interface between them (the “end” of our body and our self). But that boundary between inside and outside is very fluid. For example, if you become proficient at using a tool, your KaK treats the tool as if it were part of the inside even though the effects of the tool are outside, in a way similar to our experience of our hands or mouth. Life events regularly change the relationships between inside, outside, and the interface between them.
Unconscious and Conscious
The Unconscious has come a long way since Freud. It should be termed the Nonconscious and includes what we think of as reflex (still driven by meaning) and an extraordinary array of algorithmic-like processes that organize, stabilize, and change the KaK. The interface between the conscious and unconscious is relatively weak, and in fact, the two operate as surprisingly independent “beings”. The Nonconscious (NC) is 10 to 100 times faster than the Conscious for most of its activity, and we experience it as unchanging though this is mostly a lack of awareness by the Conscious of what the Unconscious is doing. The Conscious includes nearly nonconscious modular capabilities such as, for example, an evolving set of suppositions about what the outside is (which, apparently, can be temporarily altered by hypnosis) and which go together to make up the self (among other things).
The KaK is the product of evolution, and versions of it stretch back deep into the history of living things. What exactly is the point(s) of such a creation?
The KaK is easier to maintain and change than, say, recreating the whole universe every second. The KaK is more efficient than the alternatives for building and maintaining learning over the course of a single being’s existence.
Because the KaK develops a sophisticated model of what we experience, it is easier for us to understand what other humans, animals, plants and things are doing and “why” those outside beings are doing what they are doing.
When we focus our attention, we can largely ignore the rest of the universe by assuming that our KaK’s current version of all of it will remain accurate for the duration of our focus. Magicians use this to distract us.
Because our personal KaK is built from the flow of all around us, it can automatically make available to us what is not immediately there (the backside of a shed we can’t see, the future of our actions, the flow of our car as it cruises at 80 miles an hour down the freeway and the way other things in the outside are changing as we go).
(This is called The Predictive Brain these days, though I think “prediction” is a too strong. It implies that the KaK mechanically tabulates its experiences and development and prints out a kind of graph that we can use to decide what we should do next. I think partial anticipation is more accurate and fits better into the big strategy of evolution.
Most people think that evolution is aiming for something, a kind of ultimate organism. But, what we experience as progress in evolution is more our narcissism organizing the subtlety of evolution to make ourselves seem the most important. The strategy of evolution is generating variety so that no matter what happens, life and evolution will continue.)
The predictions the brain makes are more a system of possibilities than a plan. Imagine that you are sitting in a classroom during a class. Your KaK isn’t just sitting there waiting for something to happen (well, maybe if you are high). Instead, it is maintaining and constantly changing a complex of possible actions that you can do from exactly where you are. As the probabilities of each of the members of the array changes, the complex shifts the array. The higher the probability of an action, the higher the level of preparation the action has in your action complex.
Let’s assume you drank three large sodas just before the class started. As you sit there in your chair, your bladder is filling up and you begin to realize that you may have to exit the class before its end in order to take care of this evolving threat. Going to the bathroom is such a common act that we don’t really think about the preparation and planning it requires. When we finally decide we can’t take it anymore, though, we have to go from exactly where we are to exactly where we want to go, and we have to obey various social rules to actually succeed in that task. Our decision to go is the trigger, but by the time we decide the vast majority of the planning necessary to reach our goal has already been prepared. The vast majority of that prep is Nonconscious.
And that’s why it seems that our habitual behaviors are so effortless.
There are no adequate models of how the brain works. There are a lot of models, though. And, as they say in systems theory, “All models are wrong, some models are useful.”
Most brain models are the result of research projects. Someone sees a problem, comes up with a way to explain it, does some research, changes the model, and so on.
There are also models of the brain that are esthetic. An example is the holographic model of information storage in the brain. It is hard to imagine how very much empirical evidence in support of this model could be developed, but the model has its fascinations.
There are others, like quantum theories of consciousness or free will.
I am going to start offering one in this post, and some subsequent ones. It falls toward the esthetic end of the model continuum because it is a whole brain model and neuroimaging is still several years from being able to view the brain across all of its levels more or less at once.
My model is not about what reality is. I always thought it was peculiar to think that what our brains do gives us direct access to reality. This model is about how each of us creates and shares meaning over the always developing course of our lives. It is an evolutionary model, based on the idea that the brain evolved to help us individually and socially to adapt and anticipate.
The model is not original to me. I started thinking about it after reading a book, Making Up The Mind by Chris Frith, an entertaining, accessible, and dryly funny overview of research evidence related to how the brain uses its developed models to organize adaptive responses in life. My thinking could be called an extreme version of that model.
There are also many philosophical or conceptual versions of this same idea.
The other sources of the model were a variety of old neuropsychological research papers into how voluntary choice of movement occurs and what hallucinations are in the brain, mostly from Poland and the then Soviet Union.
So, let us say I have a formal event (a wedding or a funeral) to attend, and I spilled coffee on my only white shirt. I rush to the store, buy a new one, rush home, and rip the packaging off the shirt because I am now running late for the event. In the process, one of those little pins that are hard to find sticks in my arm. I swear and yell, “The pin hurt me!!”.
Now I know that the pin didn’t hurt me. It has been a long time since we have believed that the pin contains the essence of pain and that it transferred some of that essence when it stuck in me. We all know that causing pain has two different forms. One is that it is our brain that creates the agony and the other is that the pin triggered a series of brain events that result in our experience of pain. So creating pain and triggering pain are two different parts of the causal chain that result in our swearing. If the nerves between the site of the pain and our CNS were cut, we wouldn’t feel pain from the pin.
Also, the pin triggers our brain into noting the location of the pin so we can remove it and reduce the pain. This location is just as much a creation of our CNS as the pain, though we tend to think that the two parts of our unpleasant experience are different. One is real and the other is a concoction of our brain. My model says that in fact, the two aren’t different. The location and, for that matter, the whole arm are a concoction of the brain. More, the entire kit-and-kaboodle (which I will label as KaK so I don’t have to repeat it all the time) of our unconscious and conscious experience is created by our brain. Not just the outside world as in The Matrix, but also our self (and its parts) and the interface between what we experience as outside and what we experience as inside.
So, to take one example, a hallucination is the brain acting as though, say, a person whose image we remember is actually in the outside part of the model. The brain puts that person outside and we experience the person as outside. There is an “other side of the coin” kind of error where a person experiences something in the outside model as though it were part of the inside model.
This model is an entirely unique personal creation of each of us over the course of our lives. It begins about 30 days into embryonic development and it continues until our brain dies, even if disease interferes with the constant work of building. It is self-correcting (within very real limits) through a process of error detection that uses our perception abilities and consequent updating (we notice a difference between our perceptions and our model and correct it). Much of its operation is not conscious, though you can see a pure sort of its operation in infants, where most of the world isn’t yet in their personal model.
And it is fluidly coherent, changing constantly as a direct result of our living, but always using meaning to tie together what our model is right now.