To write a folksong is as much beyond the bounds of possibility as to write a proverb. Just as proverbs condense centuries of popular wisdom and observation, so, in traditional songs, the emotions of centuries are immortalized in a form polished to perfection.
Today the Hungarian town of Kecskemét is decorated with signs that read “Welcome to Kodály Town!” It was in this town, 128 years ago today, that Hungarian ethnomusicologist Zoltán Kodály was born. Kodály is special to the people of Hungary not only for being one of their most famous composers, but also for his work as champion of their heritage. Along with his friend and colleague Béla Bartók, he recorded and studied numerous Hungarian folk songs and stories to preserve them for future generations.
But Kodály was more than a musician. With a PhD in philosophy and linguistics, he was a strong believer in music as a language – a concept shared by many other musical pedagogues including Suzuki and Orff. But to Kodály music as linguistics was not just a metaphorical cliché. He saw music as a literal language, claiming “we should read music in the same way that an educated adult will read a book: in silence, but imagining the sound.”
Today, we’d like to make the case that Zoltán Kodály, a Renaissance Man in his own right, was also complexity scientist. Any music educators reading this post will at least be aware of “The Kodály Method,” which was actually developed after Kodály’s death by his students. Kodály himself was opposed to labeling his way of teaching music as a method, preferring the word concept. He felt it would be no less presumptuous for an individual to say they had written a folk song than a proverb. As a pioneer in the study of folk tales and song, Kodály believed great ideas – and great art – come about gradually through a process of emergence.
Another connection to complexity science is Kodály’s belief concerning the way we learn:
Singing connected with movements and action is a much more ancient, and, at the same time, more complex phenomenon than is a simple song.
This idea that learning should be a whole body activity is only just beginning to get traction in the education community thanks to people like Sir Ken Robinson (see his TED talks – 2006 & 2010).
So happy birthday Kodály! And thank you for the gift – not just of music, but of the linguistics of complexity.
The following interview is in Hungarian, but if you go to YouTube, some translations are given in the comments section.
Every human artifact can be seen as a medium of communication whose message can be said to be the totality of satisfactions and dissatisfactions they engender.
They’re all around us: on the side of the road, in the coffee shop, living room, library, art gallery, theater, on our wrist, on the cornea of our eyes and attached to our heart (for some)…. This very blog post is being typed on one; podcasts recorded using them. Human artifacts extend and augment our natural capacities, giving us leverage to achieve unnatural accomplishments and unimaginable destruction. Our ability to create and improve artifacts is just one of the reasons humans are unique. (Anyone seen a squirrel make a tool to crack a nut? How about an injured animal cauterizing its wound?) Even if a prehistoric squirrel could have dreamt of flying someday, his best hope would be to evolve wings over many, many, many generations. The Wright brothers, on the other hand, accomplished the same feat in one lifetime, by creating artifacts. There is, however, one possible human artifact almost entirely overlooked as such: intuition. In this post we’ll take a brief look at intuition as a possible artifact, its role in human society, and what it means for problem solving and knowledge management.
Communication theorist Marshall McLuhan was known for his polarizing views on the “electric age.” As one of the most influential figures in media ecology, he foresaw many of the technological developments we have witnessed since his death in 1980. He coined the term “global village” before there was an internet, and predicted an electronic, personalized delivery of literature long before the Kindle or Nook were even considered possible. It was in his Understanding Media
that he made his most famous insight: “the medium is the message.” That is media, extensions of man, define the way the message will be received and understood. These “extensions” are sometimes called artifacts.
An Oldowan stone tool made over 1.7 million years ago.
We usually think of artifacts as tools or weapons made by some ancient civilization and removed with the delicate brush strokes of an archaeologist in some remote desert. The fact is, we are more dependant on artifact today than at any other point in history. The word “artifact” comes from the Latin ars=art and factum=something made. In this one word is found both art and craft; an ability to – at one and the same time – self-actualize and provide. While our earliest artifacts were designed to meet basic needs for hunting, cutting, building and cooking, there were also some made purely for aesthetic expression.
A month ago Geoffrey West, of the Santa Fe Institute, gave a talk at the Techonomy Conference entitled “Secrets of Scale: Growth and Sustainability from cells to cities and corporations.” This title is an excellent summary of his lecture, in which he discussed the scale of mammals, from the shrew that fits on the palm of your hand to a blue whale as big as a building. He then went on to compare this scaling to human society, from a mitochondria within a single cell to a huge city. A shrew might look very different than a human or elephant, but “are we just scaled up versions of one another?” asked West. Though he never said it in his lecture, what he was talking about was the scalability of human artifacts. Humans have the ability to go beyond the natural limits of scale to become bigger and more powerful than nature ever intended (if, in fact, nature “intends”). One of Wests main points was that “all life is governed by networks.” He claimed our ability to build houses, companies and cities is a result of our interacting with each other, highlighting the fractal nature of networks (from cell structure to lungs to cities). In other words, our ability to innovate, when it comes to upscaling artifacts, is only limited by our ability to network effectively.
Innovation is a fascinating topic, but is not what we often assume it to be: an individual having a “eureka moment.” As romantic as that idea may be, the reality is that great discoveries are more often than not accidents (Saccharin, Pacemakers, Radioactivity, Penicillin…). West is right: to have scalable innovation we need networks. Acting alone we can do very little. That does not, however, mean that the individual is not important. Individuals can provide a more accurate sense of an organization than groups ever could, using intuition.
“Intuition is nothing special,” claimed Dave Snowden in his KM speech last week, “it’s just compressed experience.” Other variations of the same quote end “… just well-digested experience.” Snowden explained that there’s no replacement for ritualized, human interaction. That it’s the “micro-narrative” heard around the water cooler that tells an organization’s story best. Going to conventions will always be better than teleconferencing. Cognitive science tells us there is something about face-to-face human interaction that beats the chat room every time.
It’s important to note that we’re not talking about ESP or supernatural abilities in this discussion of intuition. The definition we’ll use is “the power or faculty of attaining to direct knowledge or cognition without evident rational thought and inference.” What we’re exploring here has more to do with the work of Karl Weick in the 1970′s, who developed what he called “sense-making” to address uncertainty within organizations. Because of it’s focus on narrative and outliers (also known as Black Swan events), Snowden and other complexity scientists are now using this idea of employing fragmented stories to give meaning to experience.
If intuition is not a supernatural phenomena, we can ask a couple of questions about it…
Is intuition an artifact? It’s certainly not a physical artifact. No future archaeologist will ever excavate it. But if it is truly “well-digested experience,” then one could make the argument that it is something created by humans for either a practical or aesthetic purpose. Granted, it is not a tangible thing, but it is in a sense a utility just as much as a bowl or a knife. It is an extension of ourself as it helps us make quick decisions, perceive danger and understand others. Also, as an experience-based utility it remains with an organization long after the originator is gone.
[Think] of an experience from your childhood. Something you remember clearly, something you can see, feel, maybe even smell, as if you were really there. After all, you really were there at the time, weren’t you? How else would you remember it? But here is the bombshell: you weren’t there. Not a single atom that is in your body today was there when that event took place . . . Matter flows from place to place and momentarily comes together to be you. Whatever you are, therefore, you are not the stuff of which you are made. If that doesn’t make the hair stand up on the back of your neck, read it again until it does, because it is important.
Grand’s insight can be seen as a metaphor for the way intuition is passed on in the life of an organization.
Is it scalable? Referring to West, the answer is it depends on the network. Most systems in nature show a fractal quality. To quote Mandelbrot: “A cloud is made of billows upon billows upon billows that look like clouds. As you come closer to a cloud you don’t get something smooth, but irregularities at a smaller scale.” Why wouldn’t the same be true of intuition? As an artifact, intuition’s ability to scale is only limited by the strength of the network. With a strong network, intuition should be able to be developed and improved just like any tool or piece of equipment.
Does intuition have something to do with the way we make decisions? According to Simon Sinek, it has everything to do with the way we make decisions. In the following TEDx video Sinek explains how our brains are made to make decisions, not based on rational thought, but on an older part of our brain:
In upcoming posts we’ll be looking at the practical implications for intuition as an artifacts within human complex adaptive systems. We’ll explore ways intuition can be developed and improved as a scalable resource. In the meantime, please share your thoughts in the comment section below, so we can learn from each other.
I have found that in just about every area of life “control” is a type of illusion built on chaos.
Jacob Marshall, passing through Pittsburgh on a farewell tour with his band Mae, graciously agreed to the following interview for The Renaissance Mob. In addition to being a skilled drummer and founder of Mae (Multimedia Aesthetic Experience), Jacob is a true polymath and social entrepreneur.
RM: Thank you for agreeing to this interview, Jacob. One point of interest for this blog is how one deals with the unpredictable nature of life. Some of the events which happened to you, leading up to the formation of your band Mae, were out of your control and impossible to predict. What insights can you share about coping with chaos in your life?
JM: Thanks for including me, I love what you are doing with this project and I’m honored to be a part of it. I got my first understanding of chaos on the ski slopes as a kid. It’s perhaps metaphorical to think of it in those terms but unless you surrender to the force and “chaos” of gravity you will never enjoy the freedom of riding. I have found that in just about every area of life “control” is a type of illusion built on chaos. In the grandest sense, our universe is built on the chaos of quantum mechanics and (potentially) m theory. In the most personal sense, our experience of the world arises out of the chaos where physical sensation meets mental perception. The mind’s ability to aggregate all of those vibrations into a perceived “reality” is truly remarkable. If you have had the pleasure of reading Oliver Sacks you know how delicate that experience of “normal” perception is.
“Every act of perception, is to some degree an act of creation, and every act of memory is to some degree an act of imagination.”
~Oliver Sacks, Musicophilia
RM: The name of your band stands for Multisensory Aesthetic Experience, and you’ve done some innovative things like spraying your CDs with scents and using multimedia in your concerts. What has been Mae’s goal or driving philosophy behind this multisensory appeal?
. He had an elegant way of describing different forms of art as different languages trying to tell the story of truth. He is often credited for inventing abstraction in art and used his experience with synesthesia as the basis for visualizing music in his paintings.
The idea for MAE came out of a two year research project I did back at Old Dominion University on the various relationships between color and sound. I believe that the emergent result of synergistic multisensory expression is just starting to be appreciated and art is evolving more and more in that direction.
RM: Your major at Old Dominion was an interdisciplinary study of aesthetics, which has played a large role in your work as a musician as well. Lately, you’ve made some connections with some notable figures in the art community, including painter Makoto Fujimura. Tell us how his philosophies have influenced your understanding of the arts and aesthetics.
JM: Mr Fujimura is one of my heroes and it has been an extreme pleasure to get to know him over the last two years. He uses the traditional Japanese nihonga materials in his painting but his form is a truly glorious take on abstraction and expressionism. There are always beautiful stories just below the surface of his work. We have really bonded over the artist’s struggle in the digital age and a mutual desire to plot a new course for sustainability. We have been exploring and building a model that marries financial capital, creative capital, and relational capital.
RM: You have a huge interest in the concept of emergence, which is directly related to Chaos Theory. You recently attended a lecture with Steven Johnson in NYC, who has written a whole book called Emergence. Any nuggets of wisdom you’d like to share from that event?
JM: That event was very special for me. We (mae) are in the middle of a two-month tour right now and we rarely get days off. We happened to have a night off in NYC on the exact night that two of my intellectual heroes were having a discussion about my favorite topic. Kevin Kelly and Steven Johnson both have new books out that respectively deal with emergence. Kelly’s book What Technology Wants
looks at the types of environments that foster breakthrough ideas. He shatters the illusion of the “eureka” moment and reveals the emergent nature of innovation. To top it all off, the host for the evening was Robert Krulwich of my favorite podcast/radio show, Radio Lab.
The main thing I took away from the evening was how the reality of innovation is much messier and than you might think. It’s much more like a flower slowly growing toward the sun than like systematic series of obvious steps. True breakthroughs are only ever obvious in hindsight. They require many mistakes. So when I am in the middle of any creative situation and feeling stuck, I will simply try to step back, see the bigger picture, and readjust my approach.
RM: Emergence has played a big part in Mae’s activities this past year. Can you tell us a little about how your “Make a Difference” project has employed the idea of emergence?
JM: After nine years of being singularly focused on mae, we knew that this was probably going to be our last chapter. We wanted to write an ending to this story that we could look back and be proud of. At it’s core, this “Make A Difference” campaign was forum for collaboration between mae and our listeners. We wanted to take the big picture of community development and break it down to the pixel level. In 2009, we recorded and released a new song every month exclusively through our website www.whatismae.com. Listeners from all over the world were able to download it directly from us for a donation. We committed all of the donated funds that came in to very specific humanitarian projects that we chose in tandem with our listeners. Over the course of the year we were able to fully fund and build a home for a family in VA with Habitat For Humanity. We also funded a variety of classroom needs with donorschoose.org and created a community service challenge for Destination Imagination called Project Outreach.
It’s so easy to look at the problems in the world and feel helpless. This project gave us and our listeners a chance to adjust our perspective and think of our individual actions as the pixel. Since a digital picture literally emerges out of the interaction between the pixels this served as a very appropriate metaphor. People took the vision and ran with it. We released one song per month and told a story over the course of the year musically. But the real story was being told by our listeners. Every time someone downloaded our music they were changing the pixels in a very specific picture. The solutions emerged out of the interactions between people as they were inspired to contribute humble pieces to a larger puzzle. We all worked together and the story that was written is something I will always be proud of.
RM: So Mae is disbanding, but, as you’ve said, the seeds from this project will continue to grow and take on a life of their own. You’re starting a new band now called “River James,” but what is next for you in your aesthetic and social entrepreneurship endeavors?
JM: The final mae shows will be in China and Japan in February. After that it’s all a bit up in the air. That is when chaos theory will completely take over my life
I am working on a new music project called River James and you can download our music for free at www.riverjamesmusic.com. I am also slowly working on a book called “Bear t.ia mart.” Thank you for the interview, it has been a pleasure!
A musician must make music, an artist must paint, a poet must write, if he is to be ultimately at peace with himself.
At the 2006 TED Conference,Sir Ken Robinson shared his observation that “every education system on earth has the same hierarchy of subjects…. At the top are mathematics and languages, then the humanities, and at the bottom are the arts – everywhere on earth.” He then went on to point out how today’s educational system was originally designed to meet the needs of the industrial revolution. Today, however that old hierarchy no longer works. Due to both global interconnectedness and a resulting demand for creativity, the arts (in the broadest sense) are of utmost importance. The hierarchy has been turned on its head, and the world’s education systems must to adapt to this perspective shift.
USDA Food Guide Pyramid, adopted in 1992
In 1992, the USDA adopted the Improved American Food Guide Pyramid (shown right) as a way for the public to better understand how to eat healthy. It showed breads and cereals as the foundation of the pyramid, with fewer fruits and vegetables, then meats and dairy and finally fats, oils and sweets – which we should eat the least of. As a result, fat-free products and synthesized sweeteners began showing up everywhere, with damaging effects to our health we are only just beginning to see. Then in 2005, the USDA decided this “one size fits all” model just wouldn’t work. So they came up with a new pyramid (shown below).
The USDA's New Food Pyramid, adopted 2005
As you can see, the food groups are shown vertically. The people at the USDA felt this would better portray people’s food needs based level of physical activity. The old pyramid, while well-intentioned, was over-simplistic and may have done more harm than good.
In 1943, psychology professor Abraham Maslow proposed a “hierarchy of needs” in his paper A Theory of Human Motivation. Based on a study of the most emotionally healthy people he could find, Maslow concluded that there are five levels of needs which motivate humans to behave the way they do: Physiological, Safety, Love/Belonging, Esteem, Self-Actualization. Maslow believed “that the most basic level of needs must be met before the individual will strongly desire (or focus motivation upon) the secondary or higher level needs.” However, like so many other hierarchies, Maslow’s might be in need of an update.
Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs
Categories and hierarchies help us in learning and understanding, but they have limits. We may like to keep the peas from touching the gravy on our plate, but it’s just not that simple. The human being is a complex system. Chilean economist Manfred Max-Neef says that human needs are ontological, not hierarchical (as Maslow described). In other words, instead of clear-cut categories, human needs exist simultaneously. For instance, rather than requiring Safety as a prerequisite for Love, the two might co-exist as a combined need.
As we continue our pursuit of community renewal at the edge of chaos, we must be cautious about over-simplifying ourselves. We are complex beings: intellectually, physically and emotionally.
While the past is as opaque as the future, the present offers the translucent beauties of both past and future just beneath the surface.
The historical sense involves a perception, not only of the pastness of the past, but of its presence.
Today’s scientists and scholars are just beginning to learn what Socrates and King Solomon could have easily told them:
The only real wisdom is knowing you know nothing.
…and yet we begin each day sure of our expertise, or at the very least confident in our ability to address the day’s challenges.
There is nothing new under the sun.
…although we live with a hope that we can contribute something new and original to society, or at the very least our immediate community.
Neither of these men were complexity scientists. They didn’t study recurrence plots or fractal geometry. For their insights they relied on observation, intuition and reason. And yet, they arrived at the same conclusion today’s greatest thinkers and self-help gurus are just now coming to terms with: that the world is just too darn complex to predict or control.
Depending on how much sleep you get, there are about 1,000 waking minutes each day. If five decisions/minute are made, that would mean 5,000 decisions/day. (The number of decisions made per day depends on age, activity level and other factors, so let’s just use this figure as a low estimate.) If we apply the Pareto Principle – sometimes called the 80/20 Rule or Power Law – it tells us that 80% of those decisions are not significant, while the remaining 20% are. If this is true, we still would make about 1,000 potentially life-altering decisions per day!
Let’s say, for the sake of simplicity, each of those was an either/or decision where one choice led to personal destruction and the other led to success (however you may define that word). That would mean you’d have 1,000 chances to change your life each day.
….But life is not simple, and a straight 50/50 choice – an ultimatum – is a logical fallacy because there is always a third option. Do you take the phone call or let it go to to voicemail? Status quo is always the safer route. It might tell you let it go to voicemail. Depending on what is on the other side of that call, the alternative opens up a whole can of worms. Picking up the phone might mean dealing with a whole new series of decisions.
If there are 1,000+ pitfalls/prizes each day, how are we so good at avoiding a thousand chances of destruction/success? The answer might be that the brain is very skilled at developing routines. Much like we are able to filter out “background noise” in order to have a conversation with a friend in a crowded room, our brains are able to perform decisions “in the background” as a routine. In a LiveScience article Dave Mosher says “daily decisions make a mush of your mind.” He shows that, while we are attracted to choice, the mass of daily decisions bog down our brain’s “processing power.”
There are a number of methods and tools we use to process those 5,000+ decisions each day:
Emotion – Sometimes the intellect is put on hold when we are in a heightened emotional state.
Logic – We attempt to reach a decision by way of reason based on the evidence we have at our disposal.
Habit - Ritual helps us make decisions with little to no conscious effort.
Conditioning – Many of our decisions are made due to early childhood conditioning – even without our knowing it.
Of course, why we make a decision never fits into just one category. It’s a mix. But the thing we must understand is that, no matter how much brain power we expend we will never be able to know all the consequences of each decision. In our own personal day-to-day life we tend to spend a lot of time focused on the things we can predict and control. And even more energy is wasted on trying to control things we can’t.
Our “Chaos Journal” experiment attempts to turn focus to the things beyond our control and leave the routine things to the “auto-pilot” portion of the brain. Why? We’ll find some answers in our “Aesthetics of Chaos” series because, while we may not be able to predict or control, we can intuit and adapt. Like artistic improvisers, the starting point is not as important as the process. It’s a “making lemonade out of lemons” approach to living.
Rather than seeing our way forward we learn to improvise with whatever hand is dealt. Rather than planning for the future with assumptions of resources we may not have we learn to be in a constant state of active reflection on the little – and big – suprises of life.
In a society focused on the future, this way of improvised living sees the past as intimately involved in the present. Solomon may have been right that we cannot create anything new “under the sun,” but like all the fractals of nature teach us, we can innovate. Today make your own “Varations on a Theme by _______.”
I conceived and developed a new geometry of nature and implemented its use in a number of diverse fields. It describes many of the irregular and fragmented patterns around us, and leads to full-fledged theories, by identifying a family of shapes I call fractals.
~Benoit Mandelbrot, 1982
“A Greek among Romans” is what author and disciple Nicholas Taleb called him. A fitting label for someone who spent most of his life working on a mathematical philosophy no one else seemed interested in investigating. “Until a few years ago, the topics of my PhD were unfashionable,” claimed Mandelbrot, “but they are very popular today.” In fact, his specialty has blossomed into the field of Complexity Science, branching out with limitless application.
Mathematician Benoit Mandelbrot died earlier this month from pancreatic cancer. The extent to which this particular blog is indebted to his work and ideas is yet to be seen. That vast wealth resides in what Taleb would call the “antilibrary” – what we have yet to learn. However, this much is known: Mandelbrot’s work as a type of evangelist brought about an awareness to a transformative way of observing the world around us.
Over the past week and a half since Mandelbrot’s death, numerous articles about his life and work have populated the blogosphere. Listed below are some of the most informative ones. As for this post, it is only a prelude to some of the things we hope to find in the antilibrary concerning Mandelbrot.
Clouds are not spheres, mountains are not cones, coastlines are not circles, and bark is not smooth, nor does lightning travel in a straight line.
As part of our “The Aesthetics of Chaos” series, we’ll be taking a look at the various different forms of art and how the “fractal geometry of nature,” as Mandelbrot called it, gives us an aesthetic guide. One artist in particular, the Australian painter Robert Berry, will be sharing with us some of his insights on the topic of fractals, nature and aesthetics. Many of these ideas stem from what we have learned about fractals from Mandelbrot. While he was a mathematician, Mandelbrot did not see distinctions between fields of study as most of his peers did. One of the reasons he did not continue as a mathematician in France, he claimed, was because of their “rage against images.” Were it not for his openness to images, he would not have discovered the beautiful intricasies of what we now call The Mandelbrot Set. Insights gained from fractals fluidly link aesthetics to science. “Think of color, pitch, loudness, heaviness, and hotness,” wrote Mandelbrot. “Each is the topic of a branch of physics.”
My fate has been that what I undertook was fully understood only after the fact.
In the following 2008 PBS interview, Mandelbrot and Taleb warned about the increasing fragility of our complex world. When asked to make predictions about the future, Mandelbrot simply replied “anything is possible,” while warning about the importance of vigilance. In an up-coming book review, we will be taking a look at the new second edition of Taleb’s The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable. Many of Taleb’s ideas proceed directly from Mandelbrot’s work.
An extraordinary amount of arrogance is present in any claim of having been the first in inventing something,
One of the great insights stemming from his study of fractals was Mandelbrot’s view that recurrence is seen throughout nature. Even the above quote is a recurrence of Solomen’s lament “there is nothing new under the sun.” Part of our Chaos Journal project is to chart recurrence at the level of an individual. (If society is truly fractal in nature, then the smallest “pixel” of society is the individual.) At the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, Dr. Norbert Marwan is a pioneer in studying recurrence in complex systems. Dr. Marwan has graciously agreed to allow The Renaissance Mob to use his CRP toolbox (http://www.pik-potsdam.de/) to study recurrence as a tool for understanding both self and society.
Thanks to Mandelbrot’s study of fractals, roughness and chaos, we continue to learn about aesthetics, addressing fragility, and understanding recurrence in life and society.
Do not fear mistakes. There are none.
With an air that spoke both casual detachment and enthusiastic engagement, Bob Dorough slid onto the piano bench. It was the summer of 1990 at the California State Summer School for the Arts at Mills College in Oakland, CA. Some students knew Mr. Dorough from his educational music vignettes “Schoolhouse Rock,” but on this day he was the resident expert at a master class on piano improvisation.
Bob Dorough, jazz singer & pianist
His hands crashed indiscriminately in a cluster-chord, causing the young pianists – more accustomed to Mozart – to jump in shock. But the pony-tailed jazz musician simply leaned forward over the mess he had placed on his musical palate, and in the next few moments melodies and rhythms seemed to take shape on their own. These ideas seemed connected, even dependant, to the initial “chaos chord.” The development made the first outburst seem planned, intentional.
Miles Davis, another jazz legend and musical collaborator with Bob Dorough, once said, “Do not fear mistakes. There are none.” This quote will be the premise for this series of posts called “The Aesthetics of Chaos.” We’ll compare the use of Chaos as both a means and an end in artistic design and expression: in music, visual arts, dance and finally architecture.
But first, by way of introduction, let’s take a quick look at the field of aesthetics itself. Merriam-Webster defines aesthetics as “a branch of philosophy dealing with the nature of beauty, art, and taste and with the creation and appreciation of beauty.” Answering the question “What is beauty?” can be a daunting task. Have you ever stood in front of a Jackson Pollock painting making a concerted effort not to let on to those around you that you find it too abstract for your taste – that is, beyond your ability to appreciate? Or perhaps you’ve sat in a symphony concert featuring a newly commissioned work, only to writhe in your seat at the non-stop dissonances. You’re not alone.
Questions of taste, appreciation, and beauty itself were especially hot topics back in the days of the Ancient Greeks. In his lecture Aesthetics – Beauty Without Observers Oxford professor Daniel N. Robinson uses the writings of Plato, Humes, and other philosophers to explore the question of whether there can be “beauty, apart from mental representation, or personal preferences and tastes.” In other words, is beauty in the eye of the beholder, or does it exist on its own – an objective fact?
For this series of posts, we’re talking about man-made beauty – that is, artistic design. But we’ll also try to stay close to the central theme of the Renaissance Mob: “renewal at the edge of chaos.” To the point: Can an artist use (or be used by) elements of Chaos Theory to produce objective beauty?
Full fathom five thy father lies;
Of his bones are coral made;
Those are pearls that were his eyes:
Nothing of him that doth fade
But doth suffer a sea-change
Into something rich and strange.
~ Shakespeare (The Tempest, 1610)
Just a few decades after Shakespeare’s The Tempest, Rembrandt was painting another tempest. In his The Storm on the Sea of Galilee the Dutch master depicts Jesus and his thirteen disciples (artist included) facing the chaos of nature. In The Tempest, however, the chaos is man-made. Ariel, doing Prospero’s dirty work, convinces Ferdinand that his father, Alonso, is dead. With her song, she paints her own picture of how Alonso has undergone a “sea-change into something rich and strange.” It is from this passage that we get the idiom “sea-change” meaning a major transformation.
Almost two thousand years before Shakespeare penned this famous passage, the ancient Chinese were writing the I Ching (Book of Changes) on bamboo slips. In his foreword to Richard Wilhelm’s translation of the I Ching, Carl Jung pointed out how the book has been dismissed by Western scholars as merely a “collection of magic spells.” However, the significance of the book, while obscured by complexity, is profound. Jung states:
The Chinese mind, as I see it at work in the I Ching, seems to be exclusively preoccupied with the chance aspect of events. What we call coincidence seems to be the chief concern of this peculiar mind, and what we worship as causality passes almost unnoticed. We must admit that there is something to be said for the immense importance of chance. An incalculable amount of human effort is directed to combating and restricting the nuisance or danger represented by chance. Theoretical considerations of cause and effect often look pale and dusty in comparison to the practical results of chance.
Readers of this blog will notice that The Chaos Journal (one of our projects) echos Jung’s comments. Both our Chaos Journal and the I Ching focus on chance – the things we can’t control.
According to other authorities on the I Ching, There are three underlying principles: Simplicity, Variability and Persistency.
Simplicity -No matter how complex the universe may seem, it is fundamentally simple. In Walden, Henry David Thoreau put it this way: “The most distinctive and beautiful statement of any truth must take at last the mathematical form.” Both the ideas of the I Ching and Thoreau match with Mandelbrot’s discoveries: that complexity can be reduced to formula.
Variability -Because the universe is constantly changing, we must find ways to adapt. Again, the ideas of adaptivity, emergence and self-organization surface.
Persistence -While everything seems to be changing, there is also a constant theme in nature. In other words, the universe is recursive. The more things change, the more they stay the same. Fast forward to today.“Change” is still on our minds. The Dalai Lama himself just tweeted (yes, even 619 year-old reincarnated Buddhist rulers have a Twitter account) “If we change inside and disarm ourselves by dealing constructively with negative thoughts and emotions, we can literally change the world.” But there’s something very different in this message than that of the I Ching. The latter is all about coping with external change -the elements, nature. But the Dalai Lama’s tweet is about internal change. Is it possible humanity has become so technologically advanced that our only adversary is ourself? Have we become our own worst (or only) enemy?
Politicians know about this collective obsession with change and capitalize on it. “Change You Can Believe In” was the winning presidential campaign slogan in 2008. The new slogan for the Democrat party (unveiled just last week)… “Change Matters.” One of the most dynamic social entrepreneurship organizations, growing at a rate of 100,000 members a month, is Change.org. What both political and social organizations are tapping into is a popular desire to change ourselves.
Ironically, one of the biggest challenges facing the business world these days is resistance to change. In a recent article at Graziadio Business Report, Pepperdine University faculty members analyzed over ten years of independent business studies. Feel free to read that article if you’re into business management. The conclusion, though, was that businesses without a strong Organizational Change Management (OCM) program got at best a poor return on investment (ROI) for any improvement project they undertook. Why is this? Why do we say we want change, but then resist it? Here are two theories:
1. We operate best as individuals. In an upcoming post, we’ll be taking a look at Len Fisher’s new book The Perfect Swarm and see the flaws of the jury system, among other insights. This may also help answer why we are more receptive to individual rather than corporate change.
2. We seek metamorphosis not mere change. As much as we may say we want change, making this happen even in your own life is almost (if not entirely) impossible. In another post we’ll take a look at metamorphosis in nature and its implications to humanity.
Perhaps Ariel was telling the truth after all. Maybe the hope of humanity lies in a “sea-change into something rich and strange.”
I am the people – the mob – the crowd – the mass. ~ Carl Sandburg, Chicago Poem 1916
Question Defined: Can a large, diverse group of individuals acting as independent, simultaneously acting agents be used in a Complex Adaptive System (CAS) environment to produce problem solving strategies with accurate, robust and sustainable results?
Observations: 1.) Minimum size of group needs to be defined,
2.) The greater the diversity the better,
3.) Actions of agents must take place at the same time,
4.) The group will be given only the problem – no other direction,
5.) Results will need to be tested independently for accuracy
A “mob” of Renaissance Men/Women will exhibit characteristics of a Complex Adaptive System (CAS) and be able to solve highly complicated social problems using a collective consciousness.
To observe Chaos and Emergence in individuals and groups and apply the Complex Adaptive System Theory to social science with a practical outcome. This will be accomplished first by observing characteristics of these systems in an individual’s life, then testing how purposeful, simultaneous change can be used to solve social problems.