Going through old books is a lot like time travel. You end up asking yourself this question, “why the hell did I buy this book?” And you try to reconstruct yourself at the moment buying this book, remembering how you wanted this book over another book, and how you had to prioritise and stay within the budget (which you busted anyway), and then deciding that it was this book. Or how you came across this book purely via serendipity, because it looked great, or it appeared to be what you were looking for subconsciously, and you remember how, in previous occasions, those serendipity purchases were such great choices (no they weren’t). And you buy them. But now many years on, you are looking at them again, their page a bit yellowed (because you were on a tight budget (which you busted), and so you always bought the paperback edition), and how the writing is now hopelessly out of date and irrelevant. The topic is obviously no longer the flavour of the day, and the world moves on to other authors and other topics.
Now I am looking at many titles, bought under a similar set of circumstances, and now with the privilege of hindsight, and beginning to rationalize all those decisions. Not justification, but just rationalizing – making sense, putting order to memories and nostalgia.
Certain things become apparent after some reflection. One of them is that knowledge does not mean power. If that relationship was true, hey, I’ll be quite powerful by now. Just kidding. I now realise that knowledge and learning is just the first step towards some action in the world, which then influences outcomes – the sum of that process being the exercise of power, at least in some quarters. The Baconian dream is just that, and it should fade away.
Knowledge need not be tied to Identity. I am NOT just what I know. Our lives are obviously more than the sum of the knowledge in books; there’s the rest of our lives too and of greater importance – the relationships that we have.
I remember that one impulse that led to the purchasing of this small library was indeed the Baconian ideal that knowledge could result in power. The naive 18-year-old younger self, would however, have no clue about the process of translating power from knowledge, only knowing accumulation. And so it goes.
This accumulation process then took on a life on its own. Where do I start, how wide should I explore, how deep should I go? An accumulative process has no end. I started with what I ended off with General Paper at junior college. Thomas Friedman’s Lexus and the Olive Tree gave clues about what else to read: Paul Kennedy, Samuel Huntington, Robert Kaplan, and so on. Very quickly, I would learn about the value of the “Further Reading” or the “Bibliography” or the “Notes” section. I also had a strong interest in science – and one of my very early objectives, after reading Gleick’s Genius, was his Feynman Lectures. And on and on and on.
National Service gave me plenty of time, and in 2007, TED was only just getting started. With an iPod Touch, it was possible to download and view ALL 300 TED videos, and that provided more seed crystals for a larger book collection. I remember spending close to all of my allowance on it. After all, what else could I spend on weekends?
In University, the modules and programmes gave further hints about what to buy. I eventually majored in Sociology, and so I eventually got Bourdieu’s Distinction, and other books. I collected the entire works of various authors (and managed to read most of them). This explains the Latours, the Dennetts, the Pinkers, the Wilsons, the Dawkins. It explains why I would get books for particular topics as with Arthur, Waldrop, Strogatz, Duncan, Kauffmann, Barabasi and others for Complexity. The latest collection that I’ve been put together was in Organization, and even then I’ve let things go already.
Why do I want to keep knowing? Why this obsession? I had made Knowledge as part of my identity. And knowing always means knowing more. And more. Sort of like money, except its curiosity – what else is out there, what don’t I know yet, what’s out there for me to discover – but in it’s extreme its manifestation is no gentler – an obsessiveness that tires and eventually exhausts.
One common answer that I’ve often given myself is to: understand the world, find your place in it, and hope to make it better. It’s sounds innocuously reasonable enough. My 18-22-ish old self wouldn’t know any better. Chancing upon the field of complexity was probably both the nadir and the zenith of this dream. It was the zenith because complexity provided a set of logics and concept that could make the chaotic and confusing world yield to the power of science and math; it was also the nadir because of its very nature – probabilistic, catastrophic, hopelessly sensitive to initial conditions.
The period of the books also coincided an interesting time in contemporary history, and gave plenty of space for curiosity and complexity. It was a unipolar moment belonging to the US; the world economy had just come out of a tech bubble, but then technology continued racing on; Facebook and Twitter would come later, and Apple was just getting started with the iPod. And then in the years that followed, the recognition that China and then India perhaps were going to play major roles, especially after the O’Neill BRICS article (and his less famous N-11 sequel). It was a fascinating time to try to understand everything. IPCC appeared, and started pronouncing warnings about anthropogenic climate change, that many years later in 2014, we find now we can only adapt, no longer mitigate as with previous years.
The Baconian dream was supposed to give me power to change the world and its systems directly from the pages of the books, or so I thought, and apparently not so. It was only during and shortly after university that I realised for myself that systems are slow and not prone to drastic changes, that continuity is good and desired, that it takes tremendous energy for people to enact changes in organizations. Organizations – the way people come together for a common purpose – it appeared to be the key I never noticed. After all, don’t we spend our lives in one organization or another? Families, companies, and countries… And change – isn’t that their pupose, to effect something different in the world? Start-ups aim to scale rapidly so they can affect large changes in business and social patterns amenable to their own existence. Countries maintain expensive militaries to defend their own unique existence to be free from the hegemony of others. If I were to hold on to those Baconian dreams of translating knowledge to better realities in the world – of less suffering, of adapting in a changed-climate, then it would have to be through organizations.
And with selling my books, I abandon most of these dreams, and live a quieter, more contemplative life. Letting go of books was to let go all of these conceptions, to let go of that Baconian seed that started it all, and let the thorns wither and fly into the wind.
For in much wisdom is much vexation, and he who increases knowledge increases sorrow.
In conversations with friends, I’ve had the chance to reflect about how I look through readings. This is an attempt to articulate what happens when I’m browsing for articles and books, both physically and digitally.
What usually happens is that I start off with a bit of grand theorizing – find the people who try to construct universal frameworks. These are only the beginnings and they are often discarded and/or refined as I encounter new facts and frameworks. After a while, I realise that I’m looking a lot at academics and specialised journalists who have spent a long time looking at a specific area. This is also that I try to avoid op-eds and authors of books who tend to only aggregate newspaper material.
Tapping into academics and specialised journalists helps me to construct detailed concepts about how a specific issue develops and its sub-issues. For example, if I was doing work on poverty, I would be looking at grand theories about how poverty happens – cultural framings, economic framings, cognitive framings and so on. Within each of these framings I would go into detail, all the time asking if the framings are appropriate. For example, with culture, I would ask, how do people talk about culture in useful ways? With economic, perhaps its an issue of skills and economic structure. With cognition, it could be the way people decide spending and investment decisions. And then go into greater detail into the linkages between say, economics and culture.
After exploring the silos, I’ve found it helpful to read works on how the different silos are related. I like the works by Vaclav Smil as he explores the interactions between energy, food production, consumption and natural processes. Sometimes they horizontal linkages become silos in themselves – such as system dynamics and complexity, both of which are vast disciplines in themselves. So with the poverty example, I would be interested in how cultural framings interfere with economics and/or with cognition, and how various countries have addressed poverty in various ways.
After a while, it’s possible to develop a meta-sense when looking at articles into: (1) things directly relevant to interests; (2) things that add to current interests; and (3) things that I never knew about. (1) and (2) overlap, and its a function of what am I interested in at the current moment, and also about rebalancing areas that I am more familiar with and what I’m not as familiar with.
I try to look for fact-heavy books with subtle arguments. They tend to be historical and supplemented by primary research – which as a result, becomes the domain of academic researchers, or very senior journalists who have spent a lot of time in an area.
I guess what drives me is that I’m trying to understand the world and constructing frames to guide my understanding.
So far, what I’ve described is pretty generic – I’m thinking this is the general process of what most people go through in many things, ranging from workplace implicit knowledge to how fan-fiction is generated.
To further categorize the knowledge acquired, another labels can be helpful. I’ve found Aristotle’s 4 causes to be useful labels: efficient, material, formal and final causes of things. In short, they describe the process, the materials/technology, the medium in which the happen and the purpose for why they occur, respectively.
I’ve found the Snowden’s Cynefin useful – in describing the epistemology of events/processes – whether the process are simple, complicated, complex or chaotic – terms to describe the relationship between cause and effects and the degrees to which they are known. Kahane’s notions of complexity are also useful – whether things are socially (involving diverse beliefs), generative (awkwardly, the expectedness of outcomes), and dynamic (again, relationship between cause and effects) – as I understand the terms. I hope to explore their notions and other notions of complexity in greater detail in a future blog post.
There are some limitations in my current understanding. I don’t have clear notions about aesthetics, spaces, tactility and perceptions. My design/aesthetic senses are not as developed, and its something I ought to get more experiences at.
Thanks for reading, and hope you find this helpful. 🙂
I thought that this post would be a good opportunity to talk about the fields of academic inquiry that I’m covering. Another good reason for this post is that I’ve been spending time away from reading, and I’ll need more time before I get back to the substantive topics at hand.
So, what books am I reading?
By sheer dumb luck, I chanced upon the field of organizational sociology – the study of human organizations and what happens inside them. As a result of that, I’ve also had the chance to go through the literature on institution theory – the norms and social practices that form and last, of which organizations are a subset of. This is institution theory as its most abstract. For example – marriage, handshake, the limited-liability company, the public service – would all constitute institutions, but some are also organizations. By this definition, all organizations are institutions, and some institutions are also social practises. The intellectual landscape for this has been covered to great detail ever since the end of the WWII. The same authors who describe the phenomenon of organizations also tend to cover what happens inside them. There has been considerable amount of literature on decisions-making, and a strand of this eventually became what we know today as artificial intelligence, in an attempt to model and improve cognition processes, both human and otherwise. Some of the major names in this field include, Chester Barnard, Herbert Simon, Paul DiMaggio, Walter Powell, Lynne Zucker, W. Richard Scott, and others.
The other streams that I’ve been pursuing comes from futures studies. Futures Studies examines the premises and possibilities of alternative futures. As people and organizations, we are constantly looking ahead and making plans to prepare for the future. We develop resources and capabilities to anticipate future demands. The timescale varies largely, obviously, but it’s a large part of what we do everyday, whether we realise it or not. Futures Studies looks also at the assumptions of how we think about the future, and examines critically the way we look at them. Scenario Planning has been one major tool used by practitioners of futures, and there are others. In this series of posts, I think about futures studies and how they are applied to make better decisions within organizations. I might stray off to think about alternative futures for Singapore and the world, but I won’t say much here, because that’s also my day job. There’s Jim Dator at Hawaii University at Manoa, and Sohail Inayatullah who’ve been developing the intellectual foundation for futures. On the practice side of thing of things, there’s the Shell-GBN group consisting of Pierre Wack, Kees Van Der Heijden, Peter Schwartz, and Adam Kahane who’ve been active in developing and communicating insights from their practises at Shell and outside. Singapore has been a major user of scenario planning for a while and developing as a node for futures in the Asia-Pacific region.
There is one other major field that I’ve been looking at, and has been the one other discipline that I’ve been trying to develop my knowledge of, and that’s the entire field of complexity theory. There are no real definitions for it, but I use it loosely to include studies of classical chaos (small changes in initial conditions have big effects later on), networks and graphs, cellular automata, and system dynamics. The whole field describes interactions – how simple global rules can yield tremendous variation and structure in the final outcomes. The definitive examples for complexity includes the Game of Life, Schelling’s Segregation Models, the artificial societies of Joshua Epstein. And then there’s System Dynamics, a field that was born out of attempts to describe interactions within organizations and project management and which then later gave rise to studies about the global system of the environment and human systems. For the first part of complexity that I’ve describe, Thomas Schelling, and Joshua Epstein were the authors of the models I’ve mentioned. For an introduction to chaos and complexity theory there’s James Gleick’s Chaos, and numerous books on complexity including Melanie Mitchell’s Complexity a Guided Tour. The intellectual foundations were established at Santa Fe Institute by W. Brian Arthur, John Holland and others, and leading thinkers today include Geoffrey West, Albert-Lazlo Barabasi, Luis Bettencourt, Cesar Hidalgo, Ricardo Hausmann. University of Michigan, and Northeastern University are leading centres today, although many graduate programmes also use complexity methods in their analysis.
Systems Dynamics deserves its own portion, and its lack of attention is only because it’s a mainstream topic in engineering. Of the many contributions of Systems Dynamics, the one that’s brought the most attention is arguably the World Model for the Club of Rome, which focused attention on the degradation of the global environment and the possible overshoot and collapse in the global economy and material conditions later on. Donella Meadows was one the most important advocates for systems thinking. Jay Forrester developed the programing environment for Systems Dynamics and the creator for the first models before Donella Meadows and is one of the most important pioneering figures for Systems Dynamics.
This has been a whirlwind tour of the thinkers that I’ve gone through. I’m trying to think through in small steps their relationships to one another. The central thread that runs through all of them is in trying to get a firmer grasp on the difficult terrains that we as individuals and organizations find ourselves in. Organizations, Futures, Complexity and Systems are all pieces in the puzzle, and there are other pieces as well. I haven’t talked about participatory methods, social/power structures, information systems, cognitive biases, and behavioural economics – just to name a few.
I don’t know what the end-result is, and this I guess is an example of generative complexity, where the building blocks can lead up to strong and beautiful structures.