insight

Nora Bateson

Complexity Isn't Complicated, We're Already Living It

Our institutions and the laws that govern them don't reflect the reality of life on Earth. Nora Bateson explains how understanding and embracing a more complex approach could be the key to overcoming world crises.

Systems Thinking
For years I have written about the systemic crises of our times in terms of tenderness, and rawness. 
I have exposed my inner world in its morphing potential. I have felt it important to offset the many graphs and articles that blaze facts of climate change, people trafficking, addiction, immigration crisis, racism and wealth gap as statistics baked and served in varying analysis. I wanted to feel it, and to share the language of that sensorial exploration. 
I have been on the outside of corporate trends of language. I have been eating sand; doing gritty work, reaching into the frequencies that people felt were too far out of reach to be communicable. I do not have a single thing that is sellable on the market of solutions. But the sand has been good, it was formed by the tempests of both wind and sea. Response to today’s complex emergencies requires multi-sensory familiarity with emergence.
It matters. The way we talk about the crises, from rape to refugees, to climate and wealth gap, from crooked politics to obsolete ways of living –the way we discuss what needs to be done now will shape what it is possible to do. 
If the story is told in flatness, the ‘solutions’ will be flat. If the work is done in sterile rooms with sterile power-points, the findings will not be imbued with the new frequencies necessary. 
Finally, it is time to publicly notice what has been unsayable. If the discourse is moored to the existing notions of logic, then that is what will be delivered. The need to get out of the rational, credible, authorised tones of dishwasher instructional manuals cannot be overstated – This is not a moment to fix a machine, this is a moment to compose new cultures. This is the time to allow the success stories of the past to find themselves rewritten as denouement. The failures of the past are suddenly as vital as ancient grains. 
If the story is told in flatness, the ‘solutions’ will be flat. If the work is done in sterile rooms with sterile power-points, the findings will not be imbued with the new frequencies necessary. The connection between the textures that the emergencies are described within and the way responses can emerge is non-trivial. Stale discourse produces stale responses. Linear discourse produces linear responses. What sort of response is hoped for? 

“This is not a moment to fix a machine, this is a moment to compose new cultures." Martin Dougiamas / Flickr

Right now, there is another form of communication beckoning, without which it will not be possible to make sense of the complexity we are within. Strangely, this new communication is not ABOUT complexity, it is within it. It is in the Warm Data, the relational information that integrates a complex system. It is in the mostly unspoken, un-measurable inter-steeping between contexts. 
For example: a child’s behaviour makes sense through cultural, familial, educational, emotional, intergenerational, technological, medicinal, economic influences coming together. 
You cannot pull those contexts out of the child, nor can you pull the child from the contexts. The ways that kid goes into the world is always permeated with the world they perceive. You and me, we are that child, making sense, and behaving in infinite response to the contexts we are within. Our contexts calibrate with and through us. How to know where the contexts end and the self begins? 

Culture has produced the idea that the climate and refugee crises, wealth gap, and other emergencies can be isolated and fixed.
Systems change is not about fixing the system. It is about sense-making. The fixing will happen by chance, not direct correctives… but only when the interdependencies come into view. 
That’s the warm data.
And yet, the culture has produced professional institutions and parenting expectations that are premised on the idea that the child’s behaviour can be isolated and fixed. Or, that the climate and refugee crises, wealth gap, and other emergencies can be isolated and fixed. It is as though there it is a given that the living world is somehow congruent to industry; each part fitted and assembled in another department. As such, the institutions are blind to context by design, receiving only specified veins of data to each one. 
“Culture has produced the idea that the climate and refugee crises, wealth gap, and other emergencies can be isolated and fixed." Megan Trace / Flickr
To widen the perception is risky as it requires first and foremost validating contextualisation of the discourse, and mandating contextual response. This is radically outside of the mission of any of the institutions. But, to activate this contextual perception is to recognise that the fragmentary dismembered arrangement of the existing systems has failed to respect life. In many cases it is not even legal for information to cross contexts. Police info, health info, school info, are each locked up in separate boxes in a complicated right for privacy. And yet the child, and you and me, and the rest of the living world, we are all soaked through, there is no way to separate out my education from my emotion, from my instincts as a mother, from my micro-biome, from my culture, from my language.
There is no way to separate out my education from my emotion, from my instincts as a mother, from my micro-biome, from my culture, from my language.
The institutions of education, law, health, politics, economy, media do not have the sense organs to take in information that includes the complexity of life. They are therefore devitalising the world at all levels. The schools cannot include economic or cultural information in their testing, nor can they include the children’s innate ability to reject the reductionism that they are measured within. Health professionals are incapable of utilising information about education, culture, and politics to treat patients whose suffering is tied to poverty, belief, and epistemological blockages. Law is riddled with binaries that are unable to account for contextual realities. Politics are locked to the last centuries, to profit, to jealousy, and to personal gain. The confusion generated by our institutions is a tornado of spinning consequences sucking up possibility for new responses. The blind spots are starting to scream.
The change is at the level of how the world is perceived, and then the values, morals, technology and governance will adjust as a consequence of perception shift. It is not the institutions job to stitch the world back together. The integrity that comes of integrating the many contexts of life is well beyond the reach of those organisations only capable of receiving one kind of information. Holistic coherence is invisible without contextual information and the necessary receptors. All else is contextually incoherent. The results of this incoherence are everywhere. 
“All the kings horses and all the king’s men… could not put Humpty together again.” But probably the poets could. 
Probably the rappers can. 
Probably those who have been so betrayed by the existing systems as to lose faith in it can. 
Ask the sand.
To recognise that the arrangement of existing systems has failed to respect life is a double bind. Survival of the existing systems is death, but destruction of the existing systems is also fatal. Even to mention this is a dangerous risk that could undermine all the goodness that our ancestors tried to achieve through ordered society. Damn. It was not enough. The change is at the level of what world is perceived, and then, only after that, the values, morals, technology and governance will shift as a consequence of that perception shift. 
This is that moment, when the doctor says that without a drastic lifestyle change, your odds are not good.
This is that moment, when the doctor says that without a drastic lifestyle change, your odds are not good. The old patterns, the logic, the history, have to be harmonised into what is possible. But that is only possible in the relation between the chords, the notes and the silences. It is only possible in the relationship between the self and the contexts, between the people and institutions, between my body and the environment I inhabit. All of that relationally is warm data, to be noticed, tended, and vitalised. 
The numbness and distance of much of the discourse expressing all that needs to be addressed now both globally and personally scares me, almost more than the crises themselves. It scares me because it does not invite strangers and sand. I arrived unwanted, talking about the liminal spaces between the institutions, between generations, mixing things inconveniently.  I have been scratching the skin of old language, watching it go red, feeling the itch and the sting. 

“This is that moment, when the doctor says that without a drastic lifestyle change, your odds are not good." _sushi-olin / Flickr
Nels Israelson / Flickr

No one really wants to question the stuff of deep belonging: things like the impermanence of current notions of ownership, material profit, citizenship, or even of the human species. But surely it is becoming difficult to deny that all of these are beginning to fray. Fundamentally, who am I without my things, my country, and my status (however dodgy)? Sensing into belongingness in a parallel set of interdependencies is disorienting. What matters? My financial status? Or my community in the biosphere. Remember, status is a relational pursuit that drives people to destroy other relationships. Is there a reorganising of relational being that demands a new understanding of status beyond fame and fortune? What is status in relevance to the interdependencies of life?
Finding the other realms of self that can be rallied to meet this moment is urgent but not easy. The nuance is slippery to the language of emergency. This is not just about political outcry, or intellectual performance. This moment is about a weird and unshapely existential groping for who you and I might be in a world that is not yet formed. In-formation, information, inform-ation, what is formed forms. I am not being cute here, I am quite serious. 
Life is of course complex. It always has been for every living organism. To be alive is to read and respond in some way to the contexts that one is within.
So I have gone off the trail, and into the forest, to get to new ways of attuning to and expressing the complexity of this moment. Sometimes people think I am being abstract, others may think it is because I do not know the theory, others may find it unfamiliar territory to mine the minutia of intimate sense-making moments. But this is how I find my way into the larger contexts, and how I keep my compass on the interdependency and avoid getting bogged in the existing scripts.
Talking about complexity is one thing. There are fat vocabulary words that impress some people and put-off others. There are models, math formulas, and definitions in the theory world that people tout like sports trivia. There are even cognitive development assessments to register those who can muster levels 4 and 5 of complex thinking. But then, there is life. 
Life is of course complex. It always has been for every living organism. To be alive is to read and respond in some way to the contexts that one is within. Whether you are a child or a caterpillar, a politician or a babysitter you are already doing complexity, all day, every day. There is nothing impossible about it. The issue is the training to find causality in direct terms, name it and seek correctives at that level, which is never where it is. 

“Whether you are a child or a caterpillar, a politician or a babysitter you are already doing complexity, all day, every day." Jonny Rose / Flickr

The immigration laws won’t stop people from wanting cheap goods. Yet, every item produced through exploitation creates more desperation. Legal disavowment of the rights of migrants of won’t stop people who cannot feed their children from seeking new lives. The complexity is far beyond the reach of the law. Consequences of other sorts are however bound to emerge, like: humanitarian crimes, culture wars, political backlash, economic disruption, and intergenerational loss of faith in governance.
Knowing about complexity and systems theory is fun for me. The crunchy work my head has to do to play with the theoretical language is a delicious charge. This is my geek zone. Others have theirs in tech, history, mechanics, gardening, crafts, music or whatever. It is nice to have a niche, but ultimately insufficient. Finding the ways in which those theories and ideas have a place in my day, my body, my identity, my community, my microbiome--that is where the rigour goes into hyperspeed. In the intimacy of the tiniest of gestures is the multi-processed, multi-contextual, mutli-lingual, multi-everything-ed tissuing of what it is to be an animate, sensing learning, changing being. This is a portal into a sensitivity that is intensely personal and simultaneously universal. 
The future is found in the logic of the affect. The salt is now desperately needed. The why of why an article is written in a particular tone, the who of who is verified by that tone, the when of when that tone is necessary to use. What is it not possible to say? Noticing that-- is a revolution in itself.  This used to be heresy to bring up aesthetics and tone, but now maybe its possible to bring this warm data to the boardrooms and parliaments. Remember, the opposite of aesthetic is anesthetic.
Each encounter, each conversation. Each action is an action in contextual processes saturated both into the detail of everyday life, intimately-- as well as into the wider world. The texture and aesthetic of the way the crises of this time are discussed will become characteristic of the "solutions" generated. The warm data matters. 
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Words by Nora Bateson
Nora Bateson is an award-winning filmmaker, writer and educator, as well as President of the International Bateson Institute, based in Sweden.