(P1): Weak Signals

A network diagram with a large hub (strong links) and many smaller hubs (weak links)

One way to think about weak signals is through network modeling.

It is intuitive to view strong links in a network as the important ones and the weak links as unnecessary details or random defects in the network that don’t contribute to the purpose or function of the network. But in complex adaptive systems, strong links generate volatile unpredictable behavior. Weak links buffer the volatility of the activity of these strong links and are largely responsible for the stability of the network, even as the CAS goes about its merry way.

Interestingly, there are two communities that deliberately eliminate weak links from their social lives:

  • People who are homeless and desperate, I suppose because they believe that persons they don’t know very well are persons they can’t trust.
  • Very rich people, I suppose because they believe that those who aren’t their peers can’t be trusted and are after their money.

Both of these communities are largely right in their loss of trust for weak links, which says something about their location in the current CAS and their personal futures in the CAS.

Note that authoritarian regimes and cults both eliminate weak links in the belief that their survival only depends on the strong links that produce (in their view) their power and wealth. These kinds of “strong” CAS are notoriously volatile and readily suffer collapse if any insurgency can disturb the control.

This framework maps to the basic CAS change concept that powerful system trends are very difficult to control for positive change (even if they might support our change). The best opportunity for change lies in the weak links, because they are small now, but can grow to have much greater influence.

But identifying the weak links that might be the best support for CAS change efforts remains difficult because those links aren’t poking us in the face.

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(P1): Why the Obvious Problems are the Hardest to Change

A political cartoon from a paper in Massachusetts in 1812 showing a Gerrymandered district just like the ones we have today.

We usually approach change by focusing on the most apparent problem in our environmental horizon (what is called a pain point in customer service). Note that the slide image is a gerrymandering cartoon from 1812, and, in my mind, gives pause to the idea that we can deal with current gerrymandering through normal problem-solving (voting, passing laws, constitutional amendments, getting the right people into office, and so on).

The most obvious problems for us are usually the ones best supported by the operation of the current CAS. There are more diverse forces supporting our obvious problems, and mechanically organized problem solving will miss most of the supporting forces in its quest for changing the obvious. So our problem solving will fail, often in the short run, but eventually in any case.  This can be true even when there are powerful forces supporting change.

Often, our most obvious problems in a complex adaptive system are the core of its strength as a system and support its resilience to meaningful change efforts.

At the same time, the CAS is constantly generating new and sometimes old trends that have been gone for a while. These variations of process are small scale, and we almost never pay any attention to them. No one ever says, “Let’s stop ignoring the flea in the room”.

But the potential for long term change in a CAS lies precisely in these small variations, or in systems theory, “weak signals”. The weak signals are the indicators (not guarantors) of where to look for levers of change.

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(P1): Basic Ways of Thinking about CAS

A hand drawn diagram of the Cynefin Framework which is ironically very complex. Text Version through link.

By Edward Stoop at Sketching Maniacs
Text Version of Hand-drawn Cynefin Diagram

Because changing a CAS requires an entirely different way of engaging, we must develop new skills and new ways of perceiving in order to manage the losses we will not be able to avoid and to frame our future actions more strategically. These new skills are not mechanical procedures or recipes. They require ongoing engagement with the CAS and flexibility of response. These two dimensions of our CAS change strategy are the very things we have spent millennia trying to eliminate from our change plans, and our work to increase engagement and flexibility result from the rejection of the “system as machine” mentality.

This is not in any way a moralistic judgment. Unintended consequences don’t occur because there is some personal moral sanction being made by the universe that your actions are bad. Every time we create a short-term advantage for ourselves, we create an unintended and largely unperceived consequence somewhere down the tunnel of the future elsewhere in the CAS.

Humans are evolutionarily favored in devising and using short-term tactics to secure some immediate good. Before states were a reality (say, 7,000 years ago), this worked well for us generally. There was enough room in the world for our waste or mistakes to be recycled as we migrated elsewhere. The world would be “fixed” before we came back to the place we started, as it were. Now, over time, someone will eventually pay for our short-term thinking. Unintended consequences are triggered by all our efforts to stay ahead of the results of our current decisions. And, everyone else is doing the same thing. So, we or our descendants all eventually get burned by the distant actions of someone else. Our tweaks just make things worse over time.

The following posts will focus on one aspect of engaging CAS or another. The image in this slide is itself an engaging way to think about CAS.

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(P1): Approaching the Wild CAS

A Large powerful waterfall at Eagle River in Michigan's Upper Peninsula, as an example of a wild CAS
Eagle River

One of the ways of thinking about modern society is that our lives are becoming more like membership in a wild ecosystem. Our common CAS is becoming more like the ecosystems that existed before humans had such a profound impact on nature.

For many centuries, societies have reflected some set of values and outcomes derived from the effort by elites to make society gratify elite needs. But the shift toward a more ecosystem-like CAS is gradually undermining this hierarchical control, and like an ecosystem, it is becoming more difficult for any individual to organize their own future.  Hence, the willingness of Tech tycoons to consider going to another planet in order to preserve their privilege (see linked article above).

Although we think of power as something that an individual has, power is gifted to a person or group by a larger community (human, financial, religious, etc.). It can be and is taken away when the community no longer sees that the person or group contributes to its purpose. While an “apex predator” makes a convenient political metaphor for power and control, in a real ecosystem, the predators die off if the actual ecological basis of their supposed “power” disintegrates.

Our society is becoming more like other evolutionary systems, and there is no guarantee that such a process shift will favor humans (or our disability community), or for that matter anything that now exists. Evolutionary systems favor continuing evolution, not any of the “parts” of the CAS. The continuation of evolutionary change depends on the generation of variation as evolution’s hedge against the uncertainty of the future. That future uncertainty clouds all efforts to control the future and spawns a dodgy business opportunity for anyone willing to claim they can predict the future.

We humans tried to work around that reality by isolating and organizing our exploitation of nature to buffer our goals against the relentlessly increasing complexity of unintended consequences. We are losing that long-standing effort for the same reason that all short-term advantage gives way to the “revenge” of long term biological processes.

My point is, as it is elsewhere, that traditional control behavior is becoming less and less effective and more and more expensive every second of every day.

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Part 1: Changing Complex Adaptive Systems (CAS): How Exactly?

A slide entitled Wrangling Complexity, with stick figures working on computers to manage a network shown on a large screen.

There are two problems with the Title Question: How and Exactly.

We automatically use machine model beliefs and operational planning to build and implement change. Such an approach is largely inadequate for a CAS.

Any CAS has mechanical aspects and we can delude ourselves into thinking that because we can change the mechanical aspects with operational planning, that we should be able to change the whole Kit and Kaboodle that way (as in, for example, “you can only change what you can measure”, and similar sophistry).

It ain’t so.

As the slide image suggests, changing a CAS is more like wrangling (cats, say) than standard measurable outcomes based operational planning would have us believe.

If our old standard tools and operating assumptions don’t give us the control we seek, what will?

Well, the bad news is that nothing will give us that amount or scope of control over a CAS. The good news, as unlikely as it might seem, is that we can change the way we approach CAS and be effective.

A CAS is a “dispositional system”, not a mechanical one. A CAS tends to move in directions, but because of the interaction of its parts, there are no guarantees about where it will end up.

Changing a CAS is like approaching a cobra to take close up photos. You can get those photos, but you need to be circumspect to avoid getting bit.

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FutureStrategy Recap

The original double attractor that demonstrated the variation and complexity of weather. It looks like a pair of eyes with no path repetition.
Why The Weather is Hard to Predict
  • Twice and thrice over, as they say, good is it to repeat and review what is good.
    -Plato
  • Even if we remember the past, odds are good we’ll still repeat it.
    Guy Gavriel Kay
  • Reminiscence and self-parody are part of remaining true to oneself.
    -John Updike

After a half-century of progress in the advocacy by our community for the support we need to live lives of choice and freedom, our work is stalled. Many forces (together called the #reaction) in the larger society are contributing to this struggle. Changing any one of them will not alter the momentum of this steadily expanding global backlash. Recently, the effort to stop and reverse the progress the disability community has achieved has become increasingly public and has spread to every part of the political and support systems upon which we depend for the quality of our lives and the freedom to make our own choices about how we will live those lives.

The disability community has gradually become a part of the general response of many communities to the current reality, popularly know as the #resistance.

The resistance seeks to restore the momentum of change in the direction it had previously. However, the trouble with resistance is that the past can’t be restored to what it was so that progress can continue as it would have if the forces of reaction hadn’t fought against progress. As necessary as resistance is, it is not enough. Resistance can’t “correct” the complex adaptive system that is our society. Resistance can undermine the momentum of the reaction, but it can’t create a new basis for progress by itself.

While resistance can slow and disrupt the reaction, resistance is meaningless unless we have a strategy which we can use for a counterstroke when the reaction is sufficiently weak. Without that strategy, the result of resistance will be less capable (if less damaging) society, at least as far as our freedom and choice are concerned.

The counterstroke of the disability community must have two phases:

  • We must support the resistance to weaken the reaction because doing so is a tactical necessity for keeping us living our lives.
  • We must begin to build our counterstroke, a response that will reduce our dependence on the social system for those supports we need to survive.

This double-sided approach is FutureStrategy. If we embrace it, we will need to simultaneously try to extract as much support as we can from the society through the resistance, and we will begin to build our own supports, separate from the system and emerging from our local community, based on the system realities we face in each moment of this rapidly, and complexly evolving society.

The image in the slide is the original attractor model that Lorenz used in his discovery of the volatility of weather. I suggest you view it as a metaphor for the two-pronged strategy described here.

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Tools of FutureStrategy

A variety of Swiss Army Knives and other Multi-tools

Building Our Lives Together

If our disability community is to build and implement a sustainable strategy that preserves our lives and our freedom, we will need to build our skills to support the implementation of that FutureStrategy. These posts will outline some tools we could use to accomplish that.

The big picture is emphasized below because there is no simple relationship between a tool and the problem you are trying to solve when you are trying to change a complex adaptive system.

First, I’ll recapitulate a summary of FutureStrategy described in the previous blog posts.  Then, I’ll provide a crash course on how changing Complex Adaptive Systems is different from our standard ways of changing complicated and mechanical systems. Finally, I’ll pass on things I and other people have learned about the larger world of effective advocacy.

The resistance tools below will be drawn from three large scale categories:

  • Advocacy as an arena of the system change effort.
  • Organizing for change in and through the disability community.
  • Managing the Ecosystem of Targets in which our community will work for change. It is this ecosystem in which we must focus our strategy.

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(P6): We Are On The Edge of the Future

A Path in the woods branching into two paths in the distance. Text says, Thank You!!, and Choose your path carefully

The Community of People with Disabilities faces the same enduring uncertainty that permeates our entire society, as well as the historical effects of stigma and the devaluing of our worth as persons. While the uncertainty may have reached levels our society hasn’t seen in the past, the position of our community in that society, while improving, travels along the same arc it has for millennia. Our future challenges remain the same ones we have fought before.

Even though the way we fight for our personal autonomy and freedom of choice will change to meet these new barriers, our values won’t change. Those values build our passion for change and point out effective directions for change even when the world around us is chaotic.

Our values are the fulcrum we will use to expand our lives. We deserve a larger world of possibilities and we will fight for that.

This ends my posts for Future Strategy. I have been working on a series of posts about Tools for Future Strategy, and I will start posting them in a couple of weeks. Thanks for your attention to these ideas. I hope they prove useful to you and yours.

(P6): The Deepest Truth of Our Lives

Black and white photo of a line of ADAPT activists in wheelchairs charging up and over a hill. They bear a flag, roughly like the American flag, but with the stars in the form of a wheelchair symbol.

We exceed immeasurably the social and cultural worlds that we build and inhabit. There is always more in us, in each of us individually as well as in all of us collectively, than there is or ever can be in them. There is always more that we have reason to value and power to produce than any of these orders of life, or all of them together, can contain. –Robert Mangabeira Unger, The Religion of the Future

I think about this notion every day.

This quote is a statement from the recent past. But the idea that the broadest context of what we should do next is how it affects the possibilities of individual lives is an old value framework and strategy in the development of human beings (ignored in our present time). In social justice, the idea is called personalism.

Personalism has been tied to theistic social justice philosophies for most of history. But it doesn’t have to be. Unger wrote “The Religion of the Future” to frame personalism as a strategy that didn’t need traditional religious justification, as well as for many other reasons.

I have longed believed that personalism is clearly reflected in the actual ongoing development of our individual central nervous systems over the course of our lives. At every step (second, instant), we are using an interface conditioned by all of our previous neurodevelopment to engage with the context in which we live, to reach out as best we can for something more. That developmental context is never the constraints that the larger society says are our limits.

Instead, it is the immediately available possibilities in that larger context, expanded by our chosen strategy of living. That context of our lives will never completely control the possibilities of our common future if only we can remember this truth.

(P6): Closing Thoughts

Wanderer, there is no road; the road is made by walking-Antonio Machado; We have all known the long loneliness, and we have found that the answer is community-Dorothy Day; A community is democratic only when the humblest and weakest person can enjoy the highest civil, economic, and social rights that the biggest and most powerful possess-A. Philip Randolph;  Diversity: the art of thinking independently together-Malcolm Forbes

A few quotes to make our sense of community and diversity more obvious.

Our disability community is the most diverse on the globe. Every other community that exists has members with significant disabilities and we all face the same stigma, devaluing discrimination, and deliberate and thoughtless constraints on the possibilities of our lives.

As a community, we don’t have the ability to opt-out of the various systems that claim to support us. Going off the grid is meaningless when your life depends on the capabilities of those systems. And while we can continue to resist the devaluing and marginalization of our community, and we can continue to fight and advocate for reasonable support from those systems, we also need to scale the ongoing local support that we already provide to each other as an expression of our common community.

There needs to be a place where we can use our community advantages (our diversity, the deep knowledge we have gained of our supports needs and how to make support effective,  and the mutuality and trust that our relationships within our community give to that support).

We have to build that parallel community so that it can more quickly and thoroughly embrace our support needs regardless of the success of our advocacy or the growing failure of systems of support in our current environment.

And we have to do this while preventing the supports systems from absorbing our work to support each other, subjecting our work to the internal logic of these systems, and undermining the value of supports in preserving and expanding our right to live lives of choice and freedom.

Our community is the key to our common future, not support systems.