Transcript of Episode 30 – Nora Bateson on Complexity & the Transcontextual

The following is a rough transcript which has not been revised by The Jim Rutt Show or by Nora Bateson. Please check with us before using any quotations from this transcript. Thank you.

Jim: Howdy. This is Jim Rutt and this is the Jim Rutt Show. Listeners have asked us to provide pointers to some of the resources we talk about on the show. We now have links to books and articles referenced the recent podcasts that are available on our website. We also offer full transcripts. Go to That’s Today’s guest is Nora Bateson, president of the International Bateson Institute.
Nora: Hi Jim, great to be here.
Jim: Hey Nora, great to have you here. Nora is an award-winning filmmaker, writer, and educator. Her work asks the question how we can improve our perception of the complexity we live within, so we may improve our interaction with the world. Nora wrote, directed and produced the award-winning documentary An Ecology of Mind, a portrait of her father, Gregory Bateson. Her work brings the fields of biology, cognition, art, anthropology, psychology, and information technology together into a study of the patterns in ecology of living systems. Her book, Small Arcs of Larger Circles is a revolutionary personal approach to the study of systems and complexity.
Jim: As usual on the Jim Rutt Show, I’ve read Nora’s book and I’ve watched her film, and we’ll get to those. But first I’m going to ask you a couple of introductory questions to provide some framing. Maybe first we could start off with what is the International Bateson Institute? You know, a little history, what are your projects?
Nora: So the International Bateson Institute is actually a who, and it’s a grouping of people who have been working together over the past five or six years on a couple of different research projects. And the idea is basically to keep some of the work going that was started by my father, Gregory Bateson, and before him, his father, William Bateson. And then also, I guess, my sister’s in on that, Mary Catherine Bateson. She’s not actively involved with the Institute, not because of anything, just because everybody is busy.
Nora: What we are doing is looking at how we can use some of the ideas that my father and his father and others have been generating toward looking at research in another way and trying to kind of go further, how do we take this further? So at the heart of it, there’s this idea of transcontextual research. So this word, transcontextual, comes from Gregory’s book Steps to an Ecology of Mind. And it’s a word that jumped off the page at me. And it was just so helpful because it was this moment where I realized that so much of my own work with complexity and context was getting kind of stuck in the boundaries of where’s the edge of the context.
Nora: And when I started thinking about things as happening in multiple contexts, simultaneously and in response to each other, it opened up the possibilities for all kinds of projects. Right now we’re working on the beginnings of a project on how little tiny children, ages three and four, both perceive and actually can do abstract complex thinking, which has been fascinating. And we did a project on addiction and the transcontextual process of addiction, one on learning, how systems learn. Projects like that.
Jim: Sounds great. And listeners will have a link on our website, as usual, to the Institute so you can learn more. Nora mentioned her father and her grandfather. For those of you who don’t know who they are, hers is a family of great intellectual distinction. Gregory Bateson was one of the great 20th century polymaths. His home base was in anthropology, but he was active in many other fields, including being one of the founders of systems thinking and cybernetics. Her grandfather, William Bateson, was the biologist who was the first person to actually use the term genetics to describe the study of heredity. Pretty amazing, huh? And he was considered one of the chief popularizers of the ideas of Gregor Mendel, following their rediscovery around 1900. Very interesting to come from such a family.
Jim: My own family’s quite the opposite. My father dropped out of high school after ninth grade and my mother grew up on a beat tenant farm in the swamps of Northern Minnesota in a house with no electricity, no running water or no central heat. So I left home at the age of 14. So those are pretty much the two extremes. I was thinking about that. I said kind of like depth versus freedom. You got a lot of stuff for free. Like for instance, science is a cool tool to learn about the world. But on the other hand, there were some biases in the directions that you went.
Jim: I had to learn a lot more on my own, but on the other hand, I was free to study and choose on what to be. Your thoughts on what the great intellectual distinction of your family has given you as a tool and a legacy for your life?
Nora: Oh, Jim, that’s such a big question. We could spend the whole hour right there, but I wanted to just go back to where you started because it could be that even though our past, our ancestry appears different, it could be that they’re not as different as you think, because there are the trappings of the academic world and the sort of the hubbub and the culture of British Cambridge culture. But actually, the reality is that William and Gregory were both rejected by that culture because they were fighting from the outside. They were pushing the system in ways it didn’t want to be pushed.
Nora: So I would bet that some of the onboard experiential wisdom of your household was probably more in keeping with what my family was up to than a lot of what was going on at Cambridge. And I know that sounds a little bit radical, but the fact is that they were fighters and they were trying to get … From the turn of the century William was really working toward trying to understand heredity as a contextual environmental process, not just something that was linear inside the organism and passed down across generations, but something that was visible in the relationships and the responsiveness in those relationships in an actual environment.
Nora: And this was happening at the same time that you eugenics was the darling of science. In the beginning, I think, William, like a lot of other scientists, I mean, remembering that eugenics started well before the turn of the century. It was going to be altruistic thing. Eugenics was going to be how we could make better societies like Plato’s Republic or something, what does it take? And then it turned out, of course, that the more William was working with it, the more he realized this was an enormous violation and a vulgarity. And he turned on his colleague who were in the eugenics realm and said, “This is a violence against nature and you need to treasure your exceptions.” That’s a William Bateson meme there. Treasure your exceptions.
Nora: It was in the mutations that you could see how things were responding to their contextual environmental processes. So the reason this is important is that it was also a sociopolitical act. Okay. So it seems like we’re talking about genetics and science, but remember that what was happening in the academy was then getting put into the political and economic realms. So William hadn’t nothing but suspicion for the establishment to the extent that he walked away from Cambridge when they offered him the first chair in genetics and went to start his own lab. And to the extent that when the king offered him knighthood, he refused.
Jim: Wow. Pretty amazing.
Nora: That’s pretty hardcore. And he was also one of the people who fought most adamantly for women to be both students and professors in the Cambridge university. And then my dad came along and he too, this is something that a lot of people who are playing with the ideas of systems and complexity, know this body of work as a really beautiful intellectual romp of formulas and theories and all kinds of wonderful material that’s been generated since cybernetics and maybe before.
Nora: But when Gregory was in New Guinea, in 1929 when he met Margaret, the two of them, they were young. He was 25 years old and she might’ve been 26. And they were young and they were horrified because at that moment what was happening? At that moment fascism was on the rise. And so they started writing letters to their friends and this incredible grouping of people who would later become some of the participants of the Macy Conferences.
Nora: And they were fighting for what they called a new kind of science. And it would be a science that would study how the world is put together instead of compartmentalizing, fragmenting, and taking the world apart. And they didn’t know what this was. And there’s all these great letters. They’re in the Library of Congress, if you ever want to go find them, and they’re lovely. There are these just earnest young people who want to save the world and they don’t know what they’re playing with because it doesn’t exist yet. So they’re throwing these words out, trying to figure out what they’re talking about.
Nora: But under it is this beautiful passion and the passion is about how to prevent the trauma and secondary trauma and the brokenness of socio-cultural post-fascism world. And that’s what they were concerned about. So they thought that if you could objectify anything, it could be exploited. So they were trying to think about ways to study the world without objectification. I find a lot of inspiration in that.
Jim: It sounds like they were thinkers ahead of their time. Another question before we hop into your book, in both the book and the movie, in some of the talks that you gave, which I’ve looked at also, you use a beautiful analogy of windows from which we look at the world so that our subjective experience is essentially a window onto the world, I think is the way … I’m probably polarizing it a little bit because you have such beautiful words. I’m less than beautiful words kind of guy, but then that you never quite answer a question that I always like to start with, is what is your view of reality? Do you believe there is a single unitary view and that we each have our own subjective experience of that, or do you believe that the subjectivity is somehow tangled up in the nature of reality itself, if that makes any sense?
Nora: That’s interesting. I mean, one of the issues with subjectivity is that it implies objectivity and it implies separateness. This is always a tricky one, because I think the best way to think about this question is really having something to do with the matrix, that there’s a lot of paradoxes in this. I might like to think I have my own perspective, my own window on the world, but when I actually look at what’s in that window, it all came from my context and my contexts and the experiences of my life. It’s a paradox really.
Nora: So are those ideas my ideas? Is that perception my perception, or is it a sort of unique concoction of contextual process? On the one hand, yeah, I can definitely say “Jim, I am Nora and I am so Nora. I can’t do anything but Nora, that’s what I do.” And you go around and you just Jim. That’s what you do. And we can’t do anything else. But at the same time, where’s the edge of Nora? Where’s the edge of Jim? Where do you begin? And where is it that your language or even your microbiome, your culture, your education, your family, your ideas, your broken hearted memories, where are those boundaries? I don’t know. It seems very fluid to me.
Jim: Yeah. We’ll talk about that quite specifically as we get into the book. But the nature of reality itself, are you a person who believes in a naive realism, that there is an actual physical world out there that we’re interacting with, despite the fact that it is complicated because our subjectivity is actually part of that world?
Nora: Oh, I see what you’re saying. Sorry, I didn’t answer that question. Do I believe there’s a reality out there? Yeah, I think I do. I think the tree is a tree. I mean, I think there’s a tree there, but what I’m perceiving as tree, now, that’s another question.
Jim: Indeed. Absolutely. I think we’re probably four square on both sides of that, because there are a lot of people these days who at least question whether objective reality actually exists outside of ourselves. And then of course, there’s an error, or at least I would call it an error, on the other side, which tries to minimize the impact of subjectivity. And it seems to be that something close to a right way, thinking about the world is both, as is so often the case. There is an objective reality out there, which we can never know in its fullness.
Jim: And we have a subjectivity, which is … I love your model, which is a window onto that world. And oh, by the way, that window is part of the world. And as you say, they’re somewhat tangled up and almost paradoxical, but hey, that’s just the way it is. We’ve got to work our way through it.
Nora: Yeah. I think the paradox really valuable.
Jim: Yeah, exactly. Don’t be afraid of it. Do not be afraid of what seems like a paradox.
Nora: No, because if you play with that paradox, if you live with that paradox, it allows you to kind of zoom in and zoom out simultaneously. And I think that’s probably the most productive kind of thinking that I’ve ever experienced because it allows for a kind of strictness and a rigor. But also for there to be fluidity and blurredness and a humility of curiosity and care. So I think it’s important to have both.
Jim: One of the things I loved about the book was how you kept that tension between the liminal, but also rigor. It’s interesting. Some people go too far in one direction or the other. You have this beautiful tension between the two. So with that, let’s hop in and talk about your book. And the title of the book is Small Arcs of Larger Circles available on Amazon, and we’ll have a link to it on the episode page as usual.
Jim: One of the first things I reacted strongly to in the book was, “But the mountainsides of Big, Sur California, the scent of sage in the warm sun, the salty fog of the Pacific Ocean, rhe ancient redwoods are the Bible upon which I swear my truth.” I love that. Big Sur has always been this magnet for me. I first discovered it on my first across country hitchhiking trip. I actually hitchhiked down highway one, and then slept on some hippies couch for a couple of days at Big Sur and a when all the way down to LA. And I always get drawback. If I’m close to Big Sur, I have to go there because there’s something about that setting that just is like in the world I know no greater place in some sense to ring my bell. So I was very taken with that as an early quote from your book. You’ve actually spent a fair amount of time there, haven’t you?
Nora: I have. I mean, when I think of this sort of impossible question of what is home, for me that is home, and I was there quite a bit as a child. We had a house actually up on Gorda Mountain. And then when my father got sick, we moved to Esalen, and those were the days, I tell you. It was a very different era of the early 70s up to about 1984. I was there at least half the year of every year.
Jim: That explains a fair amount about who you are if you’ve spent that much time at a place that is so powerful in every way as Big Sur, that explains it. Another interesting quote right away, which is a little bit oracular, like fair bits of the book are, is to be a participant in a complex system is to desire to be both lost and found in the interrelationships between people, nature and ideas. Could you unpack that a little bit for us?
Nora: Yeah. I think that I am very curious about what it means to be alive, what it means to be part of a culture, but also living in the complex system that is my own body and relationship with other people’s bodies and the ecology and just all of these beautiful complex systems and terrible complex systems in relationship to each other, always shifting, responding, moving. And you can’t ever be completely sure of what it is, but you’re also not ever completely unsure.
Nora: There’s this business of being a participant in life is, it’s onboard. It’s in us. So we are both utterly confused by it, but it is the way that we know. So it’s both of those things. And the notion of the complex systems that we’re within spans not just ecology and cognition, but also culture and social interaction. And I would say also interaction with technologies and that somehow those things aren’t even separable. So where are we in that, Jim? Who are we in that? And yeah.
Jim: Is there really a boundary between the game and the player?
Nora: Yeah.
Jim: One of the things I like to say about complexity and how it differs from reductionism is that reductionism is the study of the dancer while complexity is the study of the dance, and you can’t have the dance without the dancer.
Nora: Yeah. I like that.
Jim: Yeah. I’ve kind of come to like that little line myself. Next step in your thinking that came out as you talked about something called mental mono-cropping. I love that. I may as well steal that, with attribution of course. The idea of generating ideas in singular fields that are bred to be resistant to cross-pollination. Goddamn right. It is interesting how mimetically they build these walls in academia. Education, media and social structures present overlapping patterns of compartmentalization. Why just one concept of birth, marriage, death, friendship, work economy, right or wrong? I love that. Such strong language.
Jim: I’ve been associated with the Santa Fe Institute now for the last 18 years, and we work really hard to work past those boundaries, but ma’am, you get out to other parts of, especially academia, those walls are huge. And yet, we both know they’re entirely artificial.
Nora: Yeah. People base their entire lives on them, and increasingly the idea of a profession within or outside of academia is partitioned into ever smaller bits of mono-cropped information. This is really dangerous. It’s quite literally fucking with the soil of ideas and who we can be as human beings, where we can show up.
Jim: Yeah. Indeed. It’s one of the reasons I was drawn when I retired from business in 2001 while I was drawn to complexity science, ’cause it’s radically oriented towards working across all these levels as if they didn’t even exist. But we have to fight so much against the institutional obstructions. For instance, government funding from the National Science Foundation, we do quite well winning those competitive grants. But the process is just unbelievably hard ’cause if a project spans multiple so-called disciplines, it has to be approved by basically reviewers in all the disciplines rather than having a group of reviewers who are able to look across disciplines. That just makes the whole process literally three times harder.
Jim: So much of our intellectual world, I guess it came from the German university system, is all generated around the old joke about a PhD, which is knowing more and more about less and less until you know absolutely everything about absolutely nothing.
Nora: Well, exactly. And the problem is that then when it’s peer reviewed by people who are inside those various disciplines, of course it just gets re-siloed and the information that is actually in the space in between is readable to none of those silos because it isn’t there. I mean, what actually is going to come out of those. Moiré phenomenon, you know, of one sort of thing coming into contact with another and then a new thing happens, and who’s going to check that? Which department does that happen in? The liminal department?
Jim: I’m going to look up the catalog of Harvard and see if they have a liminal department yet. I’ll bet you in lunch they have.
Nora: And when they do, let’s just give up, okay Jim?
Jim: Yeah, exactly. It’ll be done. Put a fork in it. At the Santa Fe Institute, we’re constantly convening workshops, I don’t know, 15 or 20 a year that go across disciplines and typically there are three day meetings that recur over a period of years were groups built from different disciplines attempt to work on a problem across lines. And one of the ones I’m familiar with is ongoing work we have done on state formation, looking at everything from biology to linguistics to anthropology to economics.
Jim: And one of the truisms of the people who do this for a living, I guess you get to be a spectator most of the time. Sometimes I participate. In fact, I’ve even held some workshops, but the usual rule of thumb is you can figure the first two and a half days is just getting the people from the different disciplines to agree on a common vocabulary.
Nora: Right. Exactly.
Jim: But it’s very important to do that up front. And of course, people always slip back into their own vocabulary, but that seems to be job one of working on something truly, what’s your word for it? You have a better word than any I’ve seen before.
Nora: Transcontextual.
Jim: Transcontextual. That’s better than transdisciplinary.
Nora: I think so too. I’m so happy with transcontextual.
Jim: I am too. I just discovered it five days ago when I was reading your book. So I’m going to try to propagate that meme, see what happens. First step of transcontextual is to try to develop at least a subset language that allows people coming from very different places to talk to each other meaningfully.
Nora: Exactly. And that is a really interesting project because one of the things that they have to do is they have to actually speak not only in their professional speak, but they have to actually speak in other textures and tones of communication as well to get to those other contexts. So that’s a really interesting thing that I’ve been playing with. And you might have felt that in my book, that there’s a tone mixture going on. Because these different towns pull each other into different windows of meaning.
Nora: They’re like musical notes mean something different next to other rhythms. Right?
Jim: Yeah. And one of the cool things I’ll just point out for the audience, the reason you should go buy this book is there’s a number of pros, essays and examinations, but between them are some generally fairly short, but rather beautiful bits of poetry.
Nora: I felt that if you’re going to deal with the transcontextual complexity of life, then we have to be able to explore from our own different contexts of sense-making, what that is. So if I want to think about the complexity of climate science, I need to actually figure out and have some sense of how that meets my emotional responsibility or experience of being a parent, of being a spouse, of presenting myself to a group of people.
Jim: Yeah. What it is to have a life, right? That seems to be missing from things like climate discussions all too often, or it’s a discussion of numbers and such. And while that’s important, this is going to become a dominant phenomena about what it is to have a life. And if we don’t think about it in that context, we’re missing a huge part of the story.
Nora: Yeah. That’s it right there, Jim. That’s exactly it. That’s the issue, I think the biggest issue we’re facing right now.
Jim: Yeah. I made a note to myself that anthropology is certainly a huge help in somewhat getting over some of these ideas about a single … Like for instance, the words you used, the single concept of birth, marriage, death, friendship, work, economy. Anyone who’s read any anthropology at all knows there’s an amazing variety of ways that humans have found the ability to live together. And that’s why it’s so important for people to read some anthropology so they’re not so tunnel visioned in thinking that, “Oh yeah, we gotta have exactly this kind of marriage or this kind of nature or work.” Humans have solved those problems thousands of different ways over the years, and that whole tool kits available for us going forward, should we have the nerve to look at it.
Nora: I think it’s probably one of the most important things we can do right now. It’s kind of ironic too, because there’s such a sort of seemingly rabid allergy to having cross cultural interaction right now. Yet, without it, there’s no way to find the blind spots. It’s in those relationships where you find that you don’t understand something the same way someone else does, that you start to discover entirely new possibilities of ways of seeing and living.
Nora: I think if we’re going to find any sort of new sense-making, new ways of living, that we’re going to need that, if nothing else, to stir the pot. Not necessarily to adopt other people’s ideas, but to recognize that our own, like you said, tunnel vision. And these things, they sneak right up on you and you just don’t see them coming. I have this story that I often tell about one of my Swedish step-kids who was making a sandwich for breakfast and they eat sandwiches for breakfast here.
Nora: And in Sweden, you cut cheese with this cheese thing that you pull across the top of the cheese, the cheese sort of planar and I think in my life, in experience and living in the US and Canada, everybody owned one of those things, but nobody ever actually used it. Because if you pull the cheese slicer across the top of the whole cheese, then you’ve taken a little bit of somebody’s cheese who was going to slice it up and down. So he was trying to cut the cheese and I said, he couldn’t find a cheese cutter, and he said, “I can’t find it.” And I said, “Oh, just use a knife. It’s probably in the dishwasher.”
Nora: And he bumped and he thumped and five minutes went by and then he said, “It’s not working.” And I went in and he was trying to push the knife across the top of the cheese head first, like it was the cheese planer. And it never occurred to me that he was going to do that and it never occurred to him to do it any other way. And we both sort of looked at each other and thought, “Wow, that never occurred to either one of us.”
Nora: And the reason I’m bothering to tell this story is that there’s something really important there, which is the opening of a possibility of recognizing what you never considered. And there’s just so much potential for new kinds of perception in exactly that space. And of course, what is a society or a culture except a conglomeration of other cultures and societies. I mean, of course, I went to this party here that was a Midsummer, which is a big deal in Sweden, a Midsummer party, and they had this little quiz about all of the things that are Swedish, Midsummer, cultural things, the food, the dress, the songs, the rituals, all this stuff. None of them were from Sweden.
Nora: So this business of whether you study anthropology or just hang out with people and pay attention to the way they think in different ways than you do, it seems to me the only way out of the matrix.
Jim: Yeah, certainly a very good way out of the matrix for sure. In fact, interestingly, a guy I know, [Joe Schubach 00:30:45], a guy works in AI, but he’s also a good general thinker about things. He posted something on Twitter recently which caught my attention, and he said, “You know, an ideal society would be one that was radically open to knowing all about other societies and picking and choosing those components that work best and adopting them ruthlessly in their own society.”
Jim: And yeah, and my response was, “Yeah, that sounds perfect to me. Unfortunately, human chauvinism and xenophobia seem to make that hard for an awful lot of people to do.”
Nora: Yeah, that’s for sure. What I think is actually, I would push it one step further, which is to say that. What I learned from that was not really about how Swedes think about cutting cheese, but how my own frame of reference and perception was limited. And that was the important piece of information. It wasn’t really about the practices, it was about thinking in a different way, which I mean, where did the consequences of that little experience bubble up? Maybe on the bus three days later when someone stepped in front of me, I didn’t think, “I can’t believe this person stepped in front of me.” Maybe I thought about that in another way.
Nora: So it’s not a linear process of what happens when you start to recognize those. It’s not harvesting new concepts. It’s actually, it’s inhabiting a world in which there are concepts everywhere that you might be able to see differently.
Jim: Or harvest.
Nora: Or harvest.
Jim: As a musician say, “Amateurs borrow, professionals steal.” And as we try to build our society to adapt to the crazy rate of change we have, I suspect that one of the best ways to find good piece parts, though of course you have to modify for our local conditions, is to look what other people have done. For instance, I am looking fairly carefully at Sweden amongst other things for two things. One is their methods of the genders working together in ways that are kind of probably surprising to a lot of Americans. It’s probably the most gender un-stereotyped society on earth today.
Jim: And yet you look at the number of men in engineering, number of women in nursing, they’re actually higher than they are in the US. So once you get past gender stereotyping, you can let gender reality have its way and not be upset by it. The Swedes have also done some very interesting and subtle things around how they have labor unions. You may well know that like 90% of Swedes belong to labor unions, but they’re much more cooperative and much less antagonistic than American and much less corrupt than American style labor unions. So those two piece parts from Sweden seem to be ones that, at least seem to me to be good to think about incorporating into other societies.
Nora: Yeah, it’s an interesting thing. I mean, when I first came here, I really … I had this idea that this was a sort of as good as it gets for Western civilization kind of sociopolitical system. And I think I’ve rethunk that now.
Jim: Oh, interesting. I’d love to hear about that.
Nora: Well, one of the things that’s been so interesting to me has been to see how this … ‘Cause you know, there’s quite a strong social welfare system here. And I, of course, I grew up as an American kid and I mean, let’s just face it. In the States, you kind of grow up with the idea that basically the government’s there to screw you over. It’s not some place you go to get help. It’s not a benevolent thing really. It’s there to, you pay taxes, they buy bombs. So I didn’t have a lot of warm, fuzzy feelings about the idea of a state as a kind of parental body. And it was difficult for me to understand this kind of blind, what felt very naive trust in this external system.
Nora: But also I thought, well, maybe that’s just me, because our government doesn’t really help you. It lets people fall through the cracks and leaves them on the streets. So we see it all the time. But maybe this is a different kind of place. And what I started to see increasingly was that an interesting phenomenon emerges where … I might have to back up a tad here.
Nora: So prior to the big welfare system coming in, there was sort of the oppression of both the family and the church. So the public state welfare system allowed people to be free of the sort of the tyranny of the family so you could have another job besides the one your father had and you could marry in a different way, enjoy your sexuality in a different way, that sort of thing, have a different religion and the church as well. So there were these two institutions that were holding people back. The state freed them.
Nora: But when that happened, it’s so ironic, but this notion of an overarching wellbeing at a social level that’s supported by the state actually produces a kind of individualism that I never would have expected. So people don’t turn to each other for help. They turn to the state. And the deep cultural consequences of that are really disconcerting. I had a good friend who was dying of cancer and the state was offering to give him care for 11 minutes a day.
Nora: So I turned to all his friends and family and said, “Okay, so this is what we do. We just get together and we take on meals and laundry and bathing and we take care of him.” And they looked at me like I had fallen out of the sky. And I couldn’t understand what I had said. It’s another one of those cheese cutter moments where I was like, “What did I say there was so wrong?” But I had suggested that we behave in what I would have just leaned into as the fabric of community and it wasn’t there.
Jim: Yeah. That’s unfortunate. I mean, this is a trend that’s been noted by some thinkers, is that, and it varies a little bit between the right and the left, is that what traditionally was done by family and community is now done either by the state or the marketplace. On the more right-wing places, it’s happens in the economy, and left-wing places, more state, but it’s a balance between the two. But both leave out the organic, family and community. It’s why I’ve kind of gotten disgusted by both left and right. I think that whatever comes next, whatever replaces what we have today really ought to be completely orthogonal to either our current vision of left and right, ’cause they have missed the organic, they’ve missed the live part of what it is to be human and have abstracted these functions to the state.
Jim: Perfect example that you gave, that why should late life care be in 11 minute increments provided by a bureaucratic entity rather than being an organic whole offered by the family in the community. Or on the US case, oh yeah, you pay somebody to do this. Neither of those is what humans really want. They want conviviality, they want the organic.
Jim: Another example that reinforces that is the United States for all of it somewhat right-wingery, at least on global basis, is by far the most philanthropic country on earth. When I talk to Europeans, they’re always amazed at how many Americans give money to charity. I mean, and not just rich Americans, amazing percentage of Americans give a meaningful percentage of their income to charity while the European, more or less to your points, isn’t that the state’s job? Maybe we have so much philanthropy ’cause our state is less broad.
Jim: But on other hand, it provides a much richer ecosystem or individual decisions of funding, decide what kinds of philanthropy exist rather than a one size fit all bureaucratic approach.
Nora: And all of these are examples of ways in which there has been a structure and then the culture has been in response to these various things policy structures. And this is, I think, an important place to speak into Jim, because I’m with you. Both the left and the right are wildly out of sync with what actually needs to be discussed. There’s so much to talk about right now and there’s so little of any of it happening in the political debates from either side. No one’s talking about the things we actually need to talk about, and yet they’re glaring.
Nora: So it is an issue. And I think this bit that we’ve been sort of skating along around our whole conversation here, of where it is that this mushy systemic sense making process is fixing across multiple contexts and between them, and how it is that we go about thinking about who we are in the world we’re in together. Because I don’t do that by myself. I do that with you. I do that in my community with my family, with my kids, with my partner. Who am I if I am not in reflection and respond right.
Nora: I think for me, this is a really … It’s a really important topic because so often when we do get to that blessed moment where we get to talk about complexity and terms of these things we’re dealing with, whether it’s economic inequality or climate change or exploitation or any of those things, it gets flattened again into a sort of a map of separated, time-constrained processes that are sort of in an illustration like an engineering design. And the real sort of, the juice of it falls out.
Nora: And then we have these responses, which of course are human responses. They are our nonverbal cheese cutter type confusions. I think that so much of what we’re faced with right now is confusions that are compounded with other confusions that are knee deep in centuries of brokenness.
Jim: You’re familiar with the Game B concept, aren’t you? At least a little bit.
Nora: I am. Yeah. And I’m amused by it and I’m trying to figure out what it is, which I think is the Game B is that we’re trying to figure out what it is, right? That’s the thing. It’s a …
Jim: Yeah, I resonate with that ’cause you said centuries old and one of the key holdings of Game B is that it’s what comes after Game A, which we think to be centuries old and has entrenched itself in these grooves of whole lot of things that are producing things like the transition from family and community, the state and economy and for what seemed like good reasons at the time. But we ended up with such an alienating way of life.
Jim: I think the core idea of Game B is how can we solve these existential risk problems that Game A has created like powerful, powerful genetic engineering with God knows what consequences, climate change, nuclear weapons. How can we do that in a way that doesn’t lead us to the Uber dictatorship, but rather a return just to stronger emphasis on the organic, on the networked, on the non-hierarchical? And like all of us, we’re kind of … When we look at Game B, we go, “What is it?” No one quite knows what it is yet.
Jim: But at least we know what it’s not. It’s not the status quo. And we know some of the attributes of it, and it’s kind of interesting and fun thing to be exploring and necessary, it strikes me, if we’re going to take it back a little bit more seriously. Game A seems to me to be driving off various clips all at the same time.
Nora: It’s a pretty serious situation. And one of the places I’m seeing this Game A, Game B, if you want to call it that, which I’m fine, that’s fine, let’s call it that, is between generations. So you asked me at the beginning of this conversation about my relationship to the generations that came before me. And I said, “We could talk about that for an hour.” And there’s something about being alive that has something to do with the fact that maybe we’re just fibers between generations and you show up with everything you’ve got and you offer whatever shine you have, the Jim shine, the Nora shine, whatever I have to give, whether I’m a musician or a wallpaper maker or a scientist or a mom or whatever it is I have that’s the thing I want, I’m bound to give.
Nora: That I learned something from the generation that came before and I’m giving something to the generation that comes after. And at the end of it all, that’s pretty much all you got. And for me, I had to really do the work to get to that recognition. When I was making that film about my dad, I had to figure out where am I in this generational finesse. And the lineages were not just linear. They were going forward and backward and circling, and they were weird and curly and unfathomable and surprising. They were outside of my capacity to articulate them.
Nora: And now I’m recognizing a pattern of a lot of people in their sort of age range of … I don’t know, they’re young, but up to about 27, 28 that are really questioning, what does it mean to be a good person? How do I be a good person? How do I show up? What is a life goal? How are they supposed to even think about what that is? And for you and meet? We didn’t grow up in a world where the future was so obscured as it is now.
Jim: I don’t know. Remember, we grew up under the shadow of the bomb. I grew up in a DC suburbs, seven miles from the White House. And we thought there was a 50/50 chance we’d all be dead by the time we were teenagers. So you know this is …
Nora: I know, but it’s different because I mean, partially it’s the biodiversity issue and it’s just the sort of like, well, no matter what, it’s not going to be like this. Game A is done.
Jim: Yep. Certainly seems like it.
Nora: So how to not placate or console people who are asking that question with dumb memes and to actually enter the complexity of that question and those relationships with integrity and with the sort of our own complexity on board. This is not that thing where you just say, “Oh honey, you just follow your dreams.” Or, “You can do what you need to do.” Or, “Don’t take the world on your shoulders.” This is not that. These kids, they’ve done the math. They get it. It’s over. And they don’t know how to place themselves or how to be a good person with the structures of our systems, if there’s no way to get outside being linked to the exploitation and extraction of everything from child slaves to toxic dyes to round up mono-cropping. It’s everywhere. Every time you touch a piece of technology or have a meal or get in a bus. It’s everywhere.
Jim: I don’t know if you’ve heard David Graeber’s Bullshit Jobs. He makes a pretty convincing case that a third of the people who work in Western economies are just basically doing ridiculous bullshit. And what kind of life is that? To spend your life taking up a piece of paper out of the inbox, doing something weird to it, and putting it in the outbox. Of course, in these day and age would be an email. It wouldn’t be a tangible piece of paper. We’ve developed a very weird way of life that is also on a race to extinction, and as you say, at least a bigger number than ever before.
Jim: Young folks have now done the math. Sometimes they get the math wrong. I keep hearing, “The world will end in 12 years,” which is obviously wrong, but at least they’ve got a sense of where the vector is pointing better than a lot of other people have before.
Nora: Yeah. So this is this intergenerational question. And I think that this territory is a really interesting territory for … If it’s systems change that’s lurking somewhere in the notion of Game B, that I think that that intergenerational zone is a very potent realm of possibility that has really yet to be explored in as much as it could be. And it’s been interesting because I’ve been in circumstances recently where I’ve heard young people talking about, “Hey, but this is actually really bad.” And seeing the boomers in the room jump up to try to make it better. “All you gotta do is aikido it.” Or, “You’ve got to do this.” Or, “You’ve got to do that.”
Nora: And just watch how all those efforts to console and placate and make that young person feel better, I hate saying that word, young person, by the way, that’s a really yucky word. Just isolated them. Just left them alone in the issue. So I would be interested in exploring that more because when we start to think about what’s in the social and cultural connective tissue, these underarticulated expectations and patterns of communication between the generations are so strong. Or continuance. So if we want discontinuance, I think we have to go there.
Jim: Yeah. On the other hand, if we look back at the, I say this, the mild discontinuance that came out of the ’60s, it basically arose almost endogenously from the baby boomers. It certainly wasn’t negotiated with the silence and the G.I. Joe’s. The boomers just did it with a lot of inspiration from the older silence. And I hope that the millennials and zoomers decide to do the same. Hey, there’s a reason boomers are kind of rigid. We’re old, goddammit. That’s what happens for people when they get old. So don’t try to convince the boomers, just fucking do it. That’s the advice I give to the zoomers.
Jim: And by the way, there are lots of us boomers out there who are listening and trying to understand what is going on and can be allies, but it’s not our job. It’s your job, kids. You’re the new generation. We kicked the asses of the earlier generations. It’s your turn to kick our ass, God damn it.
Nora: Yeah. And I think though that it’s also in the relationship between generations, because one of the things that happened was, of course, the boomers had to join the system and they did. And it didn’t really make as much change as one had hoped.
Jim: It did in some areas.
Nora: It did in some. It did in some.
Jim: Think about gay rights, what an unbelievable change has been since when I was a kid where the idea of working class redneck America, something … I mean, gay, we didn’t quite know what it was until like we were in high school and when we did sort of vaguely have an idea, it was like the worst thing imaginable. To now where even conservative people are pretty much at ease with it and gay marriage is legal, all happening in like 50 years. Quite astounding. It’s one of the obvious fruits of the ’60s. Huge progress on civil rights. Not solved by any means.
Jim: And probably the most important one. I mean, this is one of my little self quotes, which I like, which I like to say, when the historians from 1,000 years ago, who looked back at the 20th century, it won’t be a great world wars. It won’t be nuclear power. It won’t be landing on the moon. It won’t even be the internet. What’s going to be the highlight of the 20th century is around 1975, the wave finally turned towards the true emancipation of women after 12,000 years at least of hardcore patriarchy in most parts of the world.
Jim: And again, that change has happened unbelievably rapidly and again, driven by boomer, at least boomer accelerated, ’cause obviously it’s trends go back until the 19th century, but gigantic boost of energy from boomer free thinking. And hey, now it’s time for the younger generations to do something similar.
Nora: It’s interesting because when I was a kid, Jim, I was at these dinner tables with all these people. And what gives me the spooks is that they were having conversations that are so much like the ones we’re having right now. I’m 51, so that was ’76, ’78. That was a long time ago. It was 40 years ago. And the changes that needed to get made there, they weren’t really possible to get at. And I think so more and more I’ve been playing with this idea of this thing called Warm Data.
Nora: And one of the sort of theoretical pieces inside the Warm Data idea, which is basically asking the question of what is information if you look at a complex system of complex living system from a transcontextual perspective, what is the information? How does the information look, smell, walk, talk, feel? How is it expressed? What do you do with it? Because of course, these … It’s not still, it’s hard to define. If you pull it out of context, you can do all sorts of things, but if you don’t pull things out of their context, they are really hard to pin down.
Nora: And yet, that capacity for perceiving complex living system seems to me, and interdependency, seems to be one of the most important steps toward getting to Game B, is to generate as much experience as possible with as many people as possible around perceiving in an interdependent way.
Jim: I’ve stumbled across this concept of Warm Data while I was doing the research for this podcast, and it intrigued me. But it’s by no means clear to me what it is. And it may be that it’s just too early to have a crisp definition, but can you at least try to put up some parentheses around it?
Nora: I mean, basically the definition is that it’s transcontextual information about the relationships that are part of a complex system. So it’s just looking at how they are when they’re in relationship. So it’s difficult to measure things when they’re changing. And if you pull them out of context, you can measure them. But when they’re in multiple contexts simultaneously, it’s difficult. So it becomes very difficult to identify and define and to lock down and to repeat experiments and all those things that were the sort of the benefits of the scientific revolution.
Nora: That doesn’t really work when you want to understand a family. You can chart the data on each person, but it doesn’t really matter because the family is in the relationship between them.
Jim: And they’re dynamic, right?
Nora: Yeah, exactly. So that would be the Warm Data. So I guess the issue is what kind of information are we using, what’s prioritized and how do we begin to share that with each other? But as I started working with Warm Data, I developed this thing called a Warm Data Lab. And in the Warm Data Lab, you have a group of people and they explore a question that involves a complex system. So you could ask the question, for example, like what is health in a changing world? Okay.
Nora: And there’s lots of contexts that are involved in that question. It could be an economic context. There’s certainly technology, culture, family, politics, history, technology, art even, there’s sexuality, there’s all sorts of contexts. So the way it works is you have a group of people in a room and they are exploring this question, and all those contexts are laid out like at different groupings of chairs. And then people just kind of move whenever they want to between the chairs. So they might start off talking about health in a changing world through the context of education.
Nora: And then whenever they want to, they move to another place and they look at the health through the context of economy in a changing world, health … Then they move to another place in the context of ecology or family or something. And each time they move, they meet new people. They’re telling different stories there. They’re talking across multiple textures of communication. So there’s family stories, there’s memories, there’s professional knowledge, there’s jokes, there’s songs, whatever it is that comes up in that particular group, which is infinitely random as far as I can figure out.
Nora: And what happens is after they’ve changed contexts a few times, they start to have the experience of the interdependency that you don’t actually change health by adjusting any of the particular contexts and how one then goes about contributing to the health of one’s community or nation or city or whatever becomes a very different question. It’s a totally different order of experience in that room where you have from about 12 to about 400 different people in the room who have experienced that interdependency, asking that question.
Nora: So it’s pretty cool and I’m really enjoying what’s happening with it. It’s getting adopted by lots of people and it’s becoming a sort of a form of developing community around discovering interdependency, which is interesting and unpredictable where it will go by the way, because I never know what’s going to come out of these things. And where the consequences will bubble up I just never know.
Nora: But what I wanted to get at was actually a theoretical piece of this, which is I think where I want to talk with you. So I started sort of listing all the theoretical properties of this process. And of course, it includes requisite variety. It includes auto places. It includes patterns that connect. It includes difference that makes a difference. It includes schismogenesis, and all these different sort of theoretical models are inside this process.
Nora: But one of them that has been really interesting to me lately is this notion of abduction, by which I do not mean stealing children. I mean-
Jim: The Persian meaning.
Nora: Yeah. Well, and how the Persian meaning got kind of literally abducted by my dad. So it’s this idea that we’re using one context to make sense of another. So where we’re getting so stuck is when the sense-making around a particular experience is formed across and through and within multiple contextual experiences. Of language, of education, of money, of science, of culture, of all kinds of things that are re-confirming and affirming and materializing various sense-making forms.
Nora: We’re learning to make sense of the health system through the education system. We’re learning to make sense of the education system and the health system through the economic system. So they’re deeply steeped together and kind of imprinted in a kind of, if you thought of it as a bunch of sponges with paint, like all the paint would be mixed together because you can’t actually pull it apart anymore.
Nora: So I’m finding this notion of abduction to be really an interesting piece and to get down into that place where the abductive process of sense-making across different contexts is where the matrix has got us and how we begin to sense-make across multiple contexts simultaneously in this moment. That seems to me to be really important.
Jim: Interesting you raised this. We just had a major conference at the Santa Fe Institute on the new economics, what comes after status quo economics. And it’s a narrower field than you’re talking about, but we’ve had some very similar issues and concerns, which is formal university, PhD, economics is basically applied math. And the reality is an economic system has got way more dimensionality than you can possibly explore in plain old math, at least other than in toy problems.
Jim: So the question the group was pushing on was, what tools do we have to look at high dimensional interactions that are frankly beyond our intellectual ability to process? I mean, I can’t think about what’s going to happen when there’s nine different dimensions of interaction, all of what you’re reporting, and all this may sound very prosaic. I think the lead idea that came out of this meeting was to kind of reinvigorate an older idea, which was a simulation through agent-based modeling where we actually, we can create software agents that say exemplify all nine forces that are acting on this individual, from lust to status seeking, to hunger, to needing shelter, to a competitive lust, wanting to compete and win.
Jim: And defined some rules that seem plausible enough to throw a bunch of them, literally millions in some cases, into a agent-based modeling framework and let them interact and see what emerges. Because I think the thing that’s really, really hard about these high dimensional problems is that the result’s likely to be an emergence. By definition, an emergence is something you cannot see in advance until it happens.
Nora: Exactly. And if you go into it with a goal in mind, you’ve already truncated your complexity.
Jim: Exactly. And I don’t think humans are smart enough to do abduction in high dimensional space by using their brains. They have to find tools to get there. I like this Warm Data approach. Have you reduced that to practice? Do you have a handbook for people that want to do Warm Data?
Nora: Well, I’ve been doing these Warm Data Labs all over the world, and it would be so fun to come and do them at Santa Fe. I think you guys would love it.
Jim: Yeah. Well, I think we should talk about that. And then maybe we can also engage somebody to help you reduce it to practice so that others can use it. One of the not too much talked about at the moment, but in the original Game B world, we had a concept called X in a Box, where X could be anything. And the idea was to find tools that many people would have used for, and reduce them to a customizable formula, let’s say a handbook for doing a Warm Data Lab. You use it for any kind of high dimensional abductive process and get that out into a form that’s a live document, where not only can you as the inventor of it continue to improve your handbook, but you can interact with people that are using it in the field and you can learn from their experiences as the community together tries to improve this tool.
Nora: Well, I have started a training course because I actually felt like the hosts needed to be able to see it working. They needed to be able to see the patterns. It doesn’t matter if the participants have it. I mean, I actually … Kids use Warm Data. Politicians are using Warm Data. It’s going into communities in vulnerable cities. It’s in Asia. It’s in Australia. It’s in Pittsburgh. It’s popping up everywhere. It’s really exciting.
Nora: And I have trained more than 200 hosts now, but it’s a course. I like rigor. I like to go down into the territory beyond where we have conscious, verbal, intellectual control. But I like rigor before I go there. It’s about a five day course and it’s a great course ’cause you can start to see all of these processes alive in the lab. Because otherwise people make, they make weird sort of errors of logical type, they don’t really understand about how the abduction is working, they don’t … So the hosts kind of need to know what’s going down, but the participants don’t have to know anything to take part in it. They can just take part at any level.
Jim: That’d probably would be better if they don’t know how the apparatus works, because it’ll bias their behaviors.
Nora: I mean, I always do it. One of the sort of instructions as the host, you always join. It’s not a facilitation. It’s a hosted thing. So I always join the labs and meet everybody and go in and I always learn something, every time I learn so much. This was the big piece for me, Jim, was that what I learned doing these labs is this, that complexity is something much more intimate than I thought. And it’s interesting because I actually am one of the few people in the world who grew up with it in my breakfast cereal.
Nora: That’s why I wrote Small Arcs the way I wrote it, was I figured everybody else out there can write a book about systems and complexity, but what I have been blessed with, if you will, is that for me, these theories were a way of life. And I was always taught to perceive the complexity in life, in daily living, in the interaction with anyone and anything that I was around. So it was interesting that even for me, this was a surprise, but what I learned was that I had been teaching courses on complexity and systems thinking for a long time, a decade or something, and I never got the results, ever, that I got when I did an hour long Warm Data Lab.
Nora: People came out the other side and they got it. They understood interdependency because it was attached to their own memories. It wasn’t a map on the wall or a structure or new jargon. It was something that was abducting their memories across multiple contexts and reconnecting the way they were seeing the world at a fundamental level. And it had nothing to do with abstraction. It was absolutely inside the experience of being human through another window, if you will.
Jim: I love that. I love that. It actually gets around the problem of the agent-based model, which it has to be abstract. This is attentionally doing something similar, which is high dimensional abduction without the abstraction.
Nora: Yeah. It wasn’t abstract at all. And I just had a 13-year-old kid who I went through the training process. She did a lab with her class in Australia, and she said the kids just loved it, they wanted to do it all day long. And they did a Warm Data Lab on the question of what is food in a changing world? And they had about 11 contexts, and they just went to every single one. And they were talking about food and economy and talking about food and history and connecting it to their families and their own preferences and their experiences and their …
Nora: Incredible. If little kids can do it and people in inner cities are doing it, even politicians can do it.
Jim: Even politicians, the lowest of low, right?
Nora: Yeah.
Jim: Interesting. So for our audience, we have some very interesting people listen to the show and a lot of them are involved in the world changing movement. Suppose someone wants to learn how to do Warm Data, how do they get ahold of you for that purpose?
Nora: Yeah. They probably need to just send me an email, go through the Bateson Institute or find me in social media, ’cause I’m everywhere in there. And I offer courses. I think I’ve got one coming up in Ireland in February. I might have one in Pittsburgh in January, one in Brazil in January. Sorry.
Jim: We’ll put a link up to wherever you tell us to put it to, for people who are interested in connecting with you to get some training and how to do this Warm Data thing ’cause it sounds really interesting. And if you can actually get instantiated in the individuals a high dimensional but not abstracted perspective on the problem, that would be huge.
Nora: It’s huge, Jim. It’s so amazing, and every time it’s blows my mind.
Jim: I can see why. It’s what we kind of wanted, but we haven’t been able to figure out how to do it otherwise. It’s kind of interesting that we’re doing it in the humans themselves. There’s probably … We should’ve thought about that, duh. If you want a non-abstracted version, you probably shouldn’t do it in the computer, you should probably do it in a human, right?
Nora: Well, that’s exactly how I felt, was sort of like, well, duh. But I mean, really, I had every opportunity to have already known this, and I was still just sort of gobsmacked when I saw it happen and watched the level of … It has to do with the fact that people speak in multiple towns across multiple contexts with multiple people. If you think of it as a Moiré, think of all the patterns that are overlaid. There’s no documentation during the lab because if you document, then the cooking stops.
Nora: You need to be able to let those things swirl around and connect and relink and reframe and they need to keep moving until after the lab. And then there’s a sense making moment that’s in the plenary that I call the Symmathesy moment. So that’s this word for mutual learning, but that’s the mutual learning moment where it’s actually at the group level, the words form around what has just been experienced and not before, which has been a really interesting kind of development of watching how this works.
Nora: Because some people at the end of this hour and a half, they don’t have any words at all for what they’ve just experienced. They’re just sort of sitting in the soup. And other people, they start to find them slowly. And then one person will say, “Yeah, I noticed that the same stories were coming up in different contexts.” Or, “I noticed when I sat down that I had no idea what these people were talking about, that they had approached it completely differently than I would have.” Or they start to find the edges where they can begin to understand what has happened and then together they work it out.
Nora: In the plenary, there’s this kind of mutual learning of how are we going to put language on this experience we just shared? So they all had completely different conversations. If you were to get a transcript of it, they didn’t have the same conversation. They were in different things.
Jim: What they did was had a trajectory through conversation space, every trajectory different.
Nora: Exactly. So the pings of recognition and familiarity are absolutely not the same in each person. But the overall thing is the same, which is the recognition of, well, where’s the health? How are we going to contribute to health? Are you going to get a new exercise plan? Are you going to put new iPods in schools? Are you going to get a Fitbit? Where is it? And of course, it’s in the liminal space. It’s in the interdependency. And that’s the piece where there’s sometimes suddenly this moment of kind of gasp of hopelessness of like, oh no, we don’t know what to do in that space because that isn’t a space. That’s the space of no space. What do we know?
Jim: We have to make something up and it’s up to us. To my mind, that’s the learned helplessness of people in Game A’s, the first thing we have to crack, people don’t realize, frankly, the world is like butter. You can cut the world and make it do what you want if you put enough force against it. So many people have just become helpless and expect the world … Kind of like your conversation about the state and Sweden. Let somebody else deal with my problems. No, we need to deal with our problems, God damn it.
Nora: Yeah. And we need to do it by getting out of our roles. So that’s one of the things that pops out right away, is that someone will be an expert in something. Everyone’s an expert in something. So they know their script when they’re sitting in that context. And they kind of … They got it down, but when they get to it, the next context, they don’t have a script for that one. So they have to source their understanding of that, whether whatever it is, health in the form of economy, and they’re not an economist and they’re not a doctor, but they do have a body and they do have a bank account.
Nora: So they have to drop in to their humanity. They have to drop into this lived experience and connect it to their professionals, connect it across lots of different aspects. And it’s the thing of really recognizing that we’re working with complex issues, we’ve got to be working with indirect response. This is a sort of a paradoxical question of how do you prepare an indirect response. Because the second you try to solve a complex problem by directly going at it, you’ve already missed the bus. So how do you begin to generate an indirect response?
Nora: And that that has been so exciting to see what people come up with and the directions they take it and these things that just come out, like you said, it generates a kind of the second order cybernetics emergent thing is happening.
Jim: That’s very, very cool. I think, again, I’m going to call out to people in the Game B world and the rest of the social change world. Somebody’s going to take Nora up on it and get trained on her technique, give it a try and see what happens. I’d love to see a careful documentation of how the process works. Not necessarily documentation within the process, but an outer documentation to really think about this thing as possibly a very powerful phenomenon.
Nora: It’s a very powerful phenomenon and I’m a little scared to write it up.
Jim: Ah, that’s good. That means you got something.
Nora: You know, I’ve been sitting on this pressure to write this Warm Data book, which I’m half done, but I keep not doing it. And this is the reason I’m not doing it is because ay, yay, yay. It would be something that I think I might need to do with other people, to try to keep it from getting too … I don’t know. I mean, we’ve seen what happens with a world that metabolizes all good ideas into ways of making money and getting control. And the last thing I want to be a part of is finding a way for people to get control of complexity or emergence. It’s always what comes up. It’s like, okay, so we have complexity. Great, let’s manage it.
Jim: The worst case scenario now becomes a power tool for ad agencies, right?
Nora: Or something. I mean, it might be beyond that, but it’s the logical types aspect of it that kind of gives me the heebie jeebies.
Jim: Can you say a little bit more about that?
Nora: Well, with Bertrand Russell’s logical types, when you’re picking the topic and the context in a Warm Data Lab, you have to understand logical typing and you know, that’s math, but it’s also not math. It’s some sort of combination of Bertrand Russell and my dad coming together to think about what it means to not make logical typing errors. And even when you’re doing abductive inquiry, you have to be careful what level your contexts are on, because if you get them at the wrong ones, you can make associations that are all sorts of trouble and that’s not good. So there are things that I don’t know yet about this.
Jim: That’s why you haven’t written your book. I’ve had the same problem when I was supposed to write an important essay about topic A. If I’m still learning about it at a rapid rate, it’s a sign to me it’s not time to write the essay.
Nora: I know, but the world is so demanding right now of this work getting out there because this urgency and also there’s just so much human effort and money and just an exhaustion of people’s focus on all these things that are actually completely going nowhere. And it’s so frustrating to watch it and you just think, “Oh, I wish I could just give you something that you could play with, but it’s not quite cooked yet.”
Jim: I feel your frustrations. I’ve got a couple of things like that I’m cooking myself, not in this area, but in other areas. This has been an amazing conversation and this sets the new world record for the least number of my topics I’ve gotten to in a conversation. I can usually get to about two thirds of my topic notes. So let’s say we got the 20% today, but we explored some amazing new space. But I would’ve, if you don’t mind, liked to ask you one little bit more bounded question that I think is closely related to all the things we just have been talked about.
Jim: In the book, you talk about leadership within the paradox of agency. And one of the issues, problems and opportunities, certainly in Game B and I think in all people, world changers, thinking about what comes next is what does leadership mean in a world that’s probably not hierarchical, more network-oriented, aiming for meta-stability, not rigid stability. What’s your vision of leadership going forward?
Nora: Oh, Jim, it’s a cringe word for me, but it is an important thing to talk about. And I think that for me, what I see is that that leadership has something to do more with improvisation in the sense that you can jump in and jump out, give what you got to give and get back and let somebody else give what they have to give. So there’s that. Then there’s also, it’s connected to a form of integrity that I’m exploring right now, which is a different kind of integrity. It’s not the integrity of the rules of right and wrong. It’s the integrity of living in a world in which we don’t know, we’re unfamiliar with the complexities that we’re faced with.
Nora: And in that complexity, being in it with humility and curiosity and rigor in a way that recognizes this delicate interdependency of life. And so many of the humans that have stepped into leadership roles have abused it. And so many of the people who have actually been working with systems and complexity, they’re super smart in their books and then they treat their kids like shit or they … That there’s not an extension of that care into the details of everyday life, which is actually really a rigorous thing to do, to take that intellectual knowing and theoretical knowing and lodge it firmly in the process of getting from one day to the next.
Jim: Yeah. I think that’s a key theme in the Game B work, particularly people like Jordan Hall. I don’t know if you’ve read any of his stuff, but he’s very much about how do we take these grand theories from complexity and other places and turn them into a way of being that’s authentic and yet rigorous.
Nora: Yeah, I’m with him on this. I haven’t heard him say those words, but if he said them, I agree with him.
Jim: I doubt he said them quite that way, but he gives a lot more words, I’ll tell you that.
Nora: I love Jordan, he’s great.
Jim: He’s one of my best friends, but he can be a little bit verbose sometimes, but, well, I’ll say three words, he’ll say 37, but I’m sure he gets nuances that I missed. I’m kind of a straightforward person of action, not necessarily a subtle thinker in the way he is. But yeah, I think we’re all working towards the same things in our own way. I’m going to throw something back at you, a little bit about leadership. One of the things we’ve talked about in the Game B world and other places is the distinction between position-based leadership and role-based leadership.
Jim: If you think of position-based leadership, your typical, “I’m the manager or the XYZ department because my name is in the box and my name is on the door.” While role-based leadership is, “Hey, a group of people are trying to solve a problem and for the next half hour I’m going to lead the discussion because I know more about how to fix an automatic transmission than anybody else in the group.” But when the topic moves on to how to fix the engine, that’s somebody else’s job to lead that discussion.
Nora: Yeah. That’s exactly what I’m talking about. You step in and you step out. So no one’s the leader, it’s just a space for whoever’s going to take the solo.
Jim: Jazz solo. I love that. Okay. That’s it. Leadership as jazz solo, right?
Nora: Exactly.
Jim: Watch the guy come on with the hot, or the gal come on with the hot saxophone.
Nora: Yeah. And then step back.
Jim: And then step back, let the drummer have his solo, right?
Nora: Yeah.
Jim: I think I’m going to end on that note. Nora’s vision of leadership as a jazz solo within the context of all the instruments having their own solos.
Nora: Yeah. We’re in this together, so even when you’re doing a solo, it has to be in relationship to the other players and the audience and the music and the history.
Jim: And the music that came before. I mean, that’s the cool thing about jazz. It’s improvisational, but it’s not free, totally free. When you’re doing your solo, it has to be in the context of everything that came before.
Nora: And it’s that thing. It’s that place where the experiences and the brokenesses and the beauty of you shine through, but also it’s totally contextual and transcontextual that you’re responding in that environmental interdependency.
Jim: That’s the final word right there. I don’t think you need to say anymore. Perfect.
Nora: All right.
Jim: Thanks a lot. This has, as I said, this has went in lots of directions I didn’t anticipate, but that’s a good thing. I thought every single word that you said was interesting and I hope our audience will find the same. And as I mentioned a couple of times, there’ll be a pointers, the links on the episode page to resources of various sorts ways to get ahold of Nora, etc. So thank you very much and I look forward to seeing, particularly about this Warm Data thing. I mean, I wasn’t quite sure what it was when I read it in the book, but now based off of this conversation, I’m going to really follow your work in this field. I think this could be tremendously transformational.
Nora: I think so too. And Jim, it’s been such a pleasure.
Jim: Production services and audio editing by Jared Janes Consulting. Music by Tom Mueller at