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tight budget (which you busted), and so you always bought the paperback edition), and how the writing is now hopelessly out of date and irrelevant.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. 🙂
There are at least 2 ways in which academic disciplines can be thought as.
1. They can be thought of as areas to specialise in.
2. They can be thought of perspectives in their own right.
I’m a sociology major. One way this can be viewed is that I become “expert” in understanding society – trends, culture and dynamics. I can further specialise in statistics to understand demographics; I can also choose to advance in more ethnographic studies, to understand ways of reasoning, culture and the other contexts that surround individuals and social groups.
Sociology is also a perspective. With that I refer to it as a way – a lens, a frame, or the context to view at almost any situation.
If I read say, an overtly political article, then I ask, how does the social dynamic, and context affect the perception of the political situation?
If a science/technological piece, then – how does the science/technology fit into the social context of that society?
If an economic piece – what are the social dynamics that affect the trajectories of economic development?
If environmental – how do people of that society view nature-human interactions?
And these two ways of thinking – and one could call them inductive/deductive meta-frames, could easily applied to other academic disciplines, whether science or arts or business, or design. I’m not referring to any specific content-knowledge though, but more to the processes and frames attached to the specific discipline.
In case you didn’t notice, but our knowledge has changed, and along with that, some very widely-held notions of how people are.
We have gained new understandings in the idea of networks – how elements interact together in a system, and how some elements, by virtue of their position, can have disproportionate impact on the entire system. We have gained new understandings in complex phenomenon, of how simple laws can lead to phenomena thought too complex to be understood.
These new understandings apply to both human and non-human systems, from biology, to cellular organization, to the behaviour of ants and bees, or the flocks of birds and the schools of fish.
We have gained new understandings into ourselves. Fields related to the cognition and the processes of the mind are creating a different conception of the human being, one that suggests the human mind is more complex than we have ever thought before. The human mind at birth is not a blank slate, nor is it infinitely plastic. The brain/mind question is not a simple hardware/software issue.
Our logic is flawed, and shaped by the millennia of selection processes, and cognitive biases are sometimes, manifestation of those processes, sometimes ill-suited to present circumstances. We are only beginning to understand the conception of creativity and how human structures either undermine creativity or allow it to flourish.
We are beginning to realize that monetary incentives will not always motivate people towards desirable behaviour, and how intrinsic motivations are often more powerful than material, extrinsic ones. We are beginning to realize, and look seriously again at the meaning of happiness and how we might arrive there, and how to shape the economic, social and political systems toward that end.
We are only beginning to tap the potential of the very small to the very large and everywhere in between. We are exploring the manipulation of atoms and the individual forces; we are tapping into the potential of microbes for the human ends, to fulfill human needs, of energy, and food. We are continually asking the biggest questions – what is the universe, and we are getting better at asking those questions.
We live in exciting times.