(P2): Activism as Bricolage

Theatre showing Tosca with a phrase projected onto the screen curtain, 'Power is always temporary'

Bricolage is rightly viewed as one of the “Powers of the Weak”. Elites typically view power as something exerted by a predictable machine of propaganda, sanctions, and punishments, and they view insurgents trying to change this as working to replace their machine of power with some other one.

So, bricolage, used as a tool of subversion, misdirection, or organizing, is hard for elites to see, or target. This is especially true if the bricolage is used to solve a local problem.

The point of using bricolage rather than using the system is to avoid having the problem-solving bricolage subjected to the services logic of the system.  This system services logic includes assumptions of:

  • Spending scarce resources to detect fraud
  • Using “failure demand” as a tool for managing system work rather than actually providing the service
  • After an initial period of seeking out persons eligible for the support, gradually turning the point of the system increasingly toward denial of supports.
  • Etc.

Bricolage allows a more coherent connection between support purpose and behavior. This coherence is lost once the support is subjected to the support logic of the system.

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(P2): Tinkering and Bricolage

A room full of various unexpected things for you to play with and make something new

Tinkering is standard behavior for anyone who is curious. Bricolage is a French word defining tinkering as finding a solution to a problem with whatever is in your immediate environment. Bricolage makes problem-solving local and personal and is more than just playing. Bricolage reliably produces solutions that are inexpensive, easier than managed solutions to implement, and well matched to the actual reality of the problem rather than the “planned” reality of the problem. In fact, in modern life, bricolage is a common response to solutions that are imposed by organized management.

I suspect bricolage was a primary way our hunter-gatherer ancestors engaged the problems of their daily lives. Adequate solutions would become part of a multi-generational exploration of what possibilities these solutions held, a kind of socially organized exaptive process. Bricolage speaks to the personal “engineering” drive we all have.

My father was an extremely capable chemical engineer who worked for Dow Chemical for 45 years. His primary focus over the course of his career was something called “process engineering”. His task was to take a reasonably successful research project and find out if the project had commercial potential. Researchers tend to think that you scale their successful research by simply making it a bigger version of what they used as their research methodology.

In reality, designing and building a commercial pilot that is a million times larger than the research process, respecting the physical environment of seasonal temperature changes, the length of pipes, the delivery of chemical components at the right temperature and with the catalysts and pre-product components at the right time, so the next step in the process can be successfully initiated, and so on. Process Engineering is a particularly large form of bricolage, and the difference between ideology (research) and engineering (bricolage) has many lessons for any attempt to change any CAS.

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(P2): Surprise and Weak Signals

A goldfish with a look of surprise on the face.

  • Learning By Surprise
  • What is the Adjacent Possible?
  • The Hindsight Bias
  • “I wanted a perfect ending. Now I’ve learned, the hard way, that some poems don’t rhyme, and some stories don’t have a clear beginning, middle, and end. Life is about not knowing, having to change, taking the moment and making the best of it, without knowing what’s going to happen next. Delicious Ambiguity.”
    ― Gilda Radner

Instead of glossing over surprises as failures of understanding, we should focus on them until we have grasped their novelty and how that novelty needs to change our view of reality. We need to avoid abstracting from surprise to make it only another example of what we already know to be true.

Novel occurrences are novel for us, but they are also typically some “next step” from that with which we are already familiar. They are often called the “adjacent possible” because once they have occurred, it is fairly easy to see how they came about. This is true even if no one anticipates them. It is important to remember that in a Complex Adaptive System, there are always many adjacent possibilities for the future.

There is another common problem that results from rationalizing surprises. We look back on the surprise and try to figure out who accurately anticipated it. We think this will improve our prediction capability in the future.

Looking back does improve our understanding of the current situation. It doesn’t improve our ability to predict any genuinely novel future. If we examine what people thought about the future before the novel occurrence, we will see a very large number of ideas about what might happen.  The particular idea about the future that turned out to be accurate had no more or less information about its likelihood than many of the other ideas. The novelty tells us something useful about the current state of the CAS we are in and where it might evolve in the short term. It doesn’t improve our ability to foresee the genuinely new.

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(P2): Perceiving Weak Signals Overview

A woman with bruising injuries on her face from partner abuse, holding a sign that says 'Did you notice me?'

  • Great things are done by a series of small things brought together – Van Gogh
  • Even the largest avalanche is triggered by small things –Vernor Vinge
  • You’ve got to think about big things while you’re doing small things so that all the small things go in the right direction –Alvin Toffler
  • Men don’t pay attention to small things – Katherine Johnson

Because our usual habits make us ignore weak signals, we need to cultivate new habits that make it more likely we will notice them. These new habits can’t be automatic. They must involve reflective attention-not just attention to something that is there, but consideration of it’s meaning. Below is a list of techniques and concepts that I hope will aid you in seeing what is important, but almost not there:

  • Surprise Can Point to Weak Signals
  • Environmental Scanning for Weak Signals
  • Tinkering and Bricolage to find Weak Signals Right Around You
  • Learning About Weak Signals Through Safe-to-Fail Experiments
  • Thinking of Weak Signals as Insurgencies

I’ll try to amplify each of these in the posts below.

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(P2): So What Do We Do with Those Weak Signals

WhatToDoWithWeakSignals

First, we have to actually pay attention to them. Our default is to ignore them as unimportant. That means we have to have a way of making them stand out.  Most importantly, we have to conserve the meaning in the story of any weak signal instead of homogenizing that meaning or averaging it or abstracting it through ordinary statistical analysis. That is one of the strengths of SenseMaker. Its function is, first of all, to make raw weak signals stand out in a number of ways. We need to do the same.

Then, we have to ask ourselves about the value of the narratives we have acquired to support or undermine positive change. This isn’t simple to do. But our first order goal with these signals is to increase the ones that support positive change and decrease the ones that undermine it. Because these are weak signals, it is feasible for us to try out ways to do both of these in time frames that let us change our approach as we learn which weak signals we can effectively increase and decrease, and when we need to look at different initiatives to produce these outcomes.

The reason why this works at all in trying to change a CAS is that the cycle of experiment and evaluation is short. Such an approach respects the dispositional nature of CAS and doesn’t require us to use prediction and mechanical outcomes as the signs of progress.

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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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(P5): Some Strategic Rules of Thumb

A sign on a pole that says, No parking; Monkeys poop on windshield
Words to Live By

These are not procedures or any form of “7 steps to success”. They are guiding notions that can open up possibilities for the situation that you and your personal network face.

What to do when you can’t reduce the uncertainty effectively:

  • The Indirect Approach: Liddell Hart was the person who developed the idea of the “Indirect Approach” in the West, through the use of the idea has always been reflected in effective strategies. Sun Tzu is the best-known example of Eastern Thought on the same issue, and Hart read Sun Tzu as he developed his own framework. The idea is that as you implement your plan, you hide the actual target of that plan. Geographically, you might choose an approach path that is between a number of potentially useful targets, moving toward your choice only at the last minute. Conceptually, you might advocate for small pieces of your advocacy strategy, without revealing how you would use a victory in the small pieces. The purpose of using this approach is to force your opponent to commit scarce resources to the defense of targets that won’t actually turn out to be targets, and to increase uncertainty in your opponent’s planning.
  • Avoid Irreversible Commitments: In the Cynefin model, this is called “fail-safe experiments”. You try out ideas on a small scale to learn more about how they work in the current reality. Then, you ask yourself what you can do to make the successful ones more common.
  • Build Reserves: Reserves are a kind of redundancy that you build to make it easier for you to turn on a dime when your view of the future turns out to be inaccurate. Reserves are not just cash. They include trust, cross-skills training, mutual support, and a host of other things described in various posts. Reserves mean a bunch of different resources that partially overlap. It doesn’t mean a big pile of the same stuff.
  • Weak and Strong Links in Your Network: In network theory, it is useful to distinguish between strong and weak links in a network when thinking about change. The Strong Links are the ones that drive whatever it is that the network is doing. The Weak Links buffer the volatility and unpredictability of the interactions between those strong links so that they don’t cause the network to run away uncontrollably. People who are deeply focused on their own personal power think that weak links are preventing them from increasing their personal power (however they define that) and seek to eliminate them. Interestingly, the two communities that deliberately and successfully eliminate weak links, thus exposing themselves to volatility, are homeless and destitute people, and the 1%.

 

(P5): Cynefin: A Better Way to Think about Change

Updated Cynefin Model Diagram: 4 quadrants of kinds of systems: OBVIOUS-Tightly constrained; no degrees of freedom; sense-categorize-respond; Use Best Practice. COMPLICATED-Governing Constraints; tightly coupled; sense-analyze-respond; Good Practice. COMPLEX-enabling constraints; loosely coupled; probe-sense-respond; emergent practice. CHAOTIC-lacking constraint; decoupled; act-sense-respond; novel practice.
Updated Cynefin Model

The graphic above is an updated draft of the new formulation of the Cynefin framework. This is a prelude to Dave Snowden’s new book (not yet published) about the entire framework.

Cynefin is the best multi-purpose framework for thinking about systems change I have found. It was created and continues to evolve under Dave Snowden, a Welsh OD person who has never let the necessities of making a living interfere with seeing the truth of what he and his community are creating. If you take nothing else away from this slide, immerse yourself in Dave’s thinking as an antidote to all the useless ways of thinking I have listed over my posts.

Cynefin is a framework for reimagining the interaction between us and the systems around us. The categories of Cynefin are ways of thinking about those interactions. This is not an abstract notion of interacting with a system. It is a way of dealing with the demands that the interaction requires of you.  Our interaction with these systems can be framed as :

1.Obvious: These system interactions are simple enough that you can use an automatic practice. Think of an autogenerated monitoring form report that must be submitted every quarter, and only requires a current signature from the person filling the appropriate role.

2.Complicated: A 777 airplane is complicated because it has a lot of parts and interactions, but the parts don’t change very much because of the interactions. The parts might wear a little or gradually become obsolete, but they don’t change fast just because they interact with one another.

3.Complex: These systems interactions are like the ones referred to in many other parts of my posts in our change work for complex adaptive systems.  In these systems, parts do change all the time because of their interactions with one another. This means that the future of these systems can’t be clearly predicted, and our interactions with them must be viewed as experimental (called fail-safe experiments in Cynefin). We need to learn lessons from these experiments in order to manage our interactions with the system. Over time, it is possible, if “complicated”, to move some complexity to the complicated arena.

4.Chaotic: When unpredictable events occur outside the system, the system with which we are interacting can enter a phase of chaos, when its behavior is entirely unpredictable. We have to try interactions and immediately learn from them to manage chaos. Fortunately, real chaos doesn’t last long.

The deepest lesson of Cynefin for managing change is that those complex systems are very dependent on the evolving context within which we interact with them. If we don’t respect that reality, we will always get unanticipated and generally unpleasant consequences.

P5: Within the Shell of the Old

A multi-colored (blue, brown, and white) spiral sea shell.
An Old Shell

One of the oldest ways of thinking about large scale change in a complex adaptive system is, “Build the new within the shell of the old”. It recognizes the need for change without requiring us to embrace either of the macro revolutionary strategies (change through total governance or breaking down governance and starting from scratch). It also requires us to genuinely struggle with how we use the current system as we move forward.

But building the new within the shell of the old is tough if we are to avoid the horrors of building from scratch or trying to force the existing governing levers to embrace radically new values. We have to balance what we are trying to create, with all it’s fits and starts, with the necessity of our continuing, if evolving, dependence on the current system for our everyday existence. Nowhere is this necessity clearer than it is for the disability community.

The current reality will undermine our ability to change largely through forcing us to repeat habits acquired over long periods of time.

To avoid these barriers, we need to have social networks committed to change, and we need to embrace a new set of assumptions about how change is possible.

(P4): Preparing the Counterstroke

A picture of the Trinity Atomic Explosion, very early after initiation of the explosion when it was still a complex bubble.

Success in preparing a counterstroke requires a great deal:

  • Giving up the notion that you can restore what was.
  • The carving out of some space that is hidden to create the counterstroke. Why it is “hidden” doesn’t matter. It can be (and often is) that the insurgent simply doesn’t believe that you are capable of preparing a counterstroke.
  • Creating a genuinely new and disruptive complex system for your counterstroke. As an ongoing real-world example, women are on the ascendance everywhere in the world, regardless of political disagreements across communities of women, because they are coherently creating something new together. Men, on the other hand, are on the decline, because they are trying to defend what they have. All else being equal, creating something new will outlast and eventually replace the current reality, no matter how much effort, even successful effort, is put into the defense.
  • Never allowing fear to trigger a premature counterstroke.
  • Waiting for the maximum feasible disintegration of the insurgent before launching the counterstroke.

Note how foundational patience is in the success of all this.