Not just for anthropologists

If you are not a regular reader of Grant McKracken’s blog or have never been there, now is a good time for a visit. He has recently been running what he calls a blog compendium, “How To Be An Anthropologist (for hire)”, which is filled with tasty links to his past musings. There are hours of thought provoking stuff here and not just for anthropologists. The theme of one of the links that is particularly close to my heart and is central to the idea of purposive drift is the importance of noticing. The fact that it also features one my heroes, Marshall Sahlins, gives it that little bit more of oomph. Here is the crunch bit:
“… I found myself telling these young planners about the time I sat beside Marshall Sahlins, professor of anthropology at the University of Chicago, as he read one of my papers.  Professor Sahlins was traveling at speed through my paper, not because it was well written but because not even bad writing could slow him down.  Suddenly, he stopped absolutely dead in his tracks and said, ‘hm, I wonder why that is.’
I was watching a very smart man acknowledge the limits of understanding.  You could almost hear him thinking, ‘why can’t I think this?’  This is the secret of noticing.  Spotting things that defy expectation, things that don’t ‘compute.’    The temptation for the rest of us is to ‘fake the results’ and assimilate the anomalous to existing categories.  Good noticers are fearless noticers.
Once we notice, anthropological or plannerly things can happen.  It is not too late for us decide that what looks like something is really nothing, in Sahlins’ case merely an artifact of a student’s rhetorical incompetence.  But we can also decide that the puzzle is genuine.  Now noticing leads to the possibility of insight and this will engage the redeployment of old ideas or, more remarkably, the creation of new ideas.  Potentially, every puzzle is stowaway with mutiny in its heart.”

Celebrating the mess

I haven’t noticed Jaffer Kolb’s writing on 3Quarks before, but I found myself warming to his piece I read today, in particular this extract:
“Nothing sets me quite on edge as much as things that aspire to be perfect but fall short. Crisp trousers? What about that microscopic fray at the bottom right corner of the left pant? And that tie? The little tail is sticking out just enough to make me want to take a pair of shears to it. The desire to attain perfection inevitably magnifies the ways in which the aspirant falls short, in a kind of asymptotic frustration.
This, for me, was the ultimate failing of modernism in architecture and design. An architecture of purity? Designing with purity in mind in a fundamentally impure world is idiotic. And whether this purity is in concept, form, or physical execution is irrelevant. The best architects understand that we live in a conceptually, formally, and physically messy world.”

My only quarrel is that I wouldn’t limit this to architects. This is a message for all of us. Accepting that “we live in a conceptually, formally, and physically messy world” seems to me to offer a route to a more humane, celebratory way of living in the world.

Civilised people

An excellent interview with Nassim Nicholas Taleb by Ed Smith in Timesonline (you can read the whole thing here ). My favourite insight from Ed Smith was this:
“… Understanding the centrality of luck in life transcends the financial realm. It is no coincidence that civilised people acknowledge their good fortune. It has always made practical sense. The idea of noblesse oblige is a way of turning away the wrath of those who missed out in life’s lottery. Any social establishment that wishes to survive needs to be concerned with preserving the status quo. A phoney meritocracy of people who got massively lucky and think they did it all themselves is a recipe for social disaster. If that is what we have, as Taleb’s logic implies, then the credit crunch will be just the tip of a much nastier iceberg.
Understanding that we do not, and cannot, live in a perfectly functioning meritocracy is a civilising concept – because it leads us to be less self-congratulatory, more charitable and better mannered.”

Resulting here

“I invite you to the following exercise. Think about your personal history, and you will discover that everything in your life has happened such that you are here, right where you in this moment, reading this paper. Everything; where you were born, who your parents and friends are, where you went to school, what language you speak – everything leads to this moment. You can make a trace, from now into the past in way that shows that every turn you took, every choice you made, brought you here. So you were destined to read this paper today.
The beauty of this silly little exercise is that it shows us that if one looks at a history this way, it looks as if everything is predetermined of fated; but it isn’t. Your whole life was not directed at arriving here, you resulted here. And that is the nature of biological history, the way any living being lives. What happens is constructed moment by moment by the character of one’s living, always going in the path of well being, a choice of comfort, desire or preference. An animal may prefer to go one way, and in doing so, it happens to get eaten by a predator. If it had chosen another way, it might not have been eaten. Did it choose based on the consequences? No, it chose according to its desires in the present, because living is in the present. For animals there are no opportunities or resources. We humans may use these words as we comment on their behaviour according to how we explain what we see as happening to them. If we want to invent a human history, we will have to show a path of conservation that we follow. And what path do we follow? We follow the path of our desires, because desires define what we conserve. This is not a trivial point, and fundamentally we all know this. When we are concerned about what we are doing we are concerned with conserving that which we desire.”
“Biosphere, Homosphere, and Robosphere: what has that to do with Business?”
Humberto Maturana Romesin and Pille Bunnell

An earlier version of Purposive Drift?

I have been grappling with the work of Humberto Maturana and his student and later collaborator Francisco Varela for many years. But until I stumbled across this paper by Vincent Kenny I hadn’t twigged the direct relevance of their ideas to purposive drift. But reading this quote from Kenny’s paper the links seem pretty clear:
“‘Every system is where it is, in a present, in congruence with its medium, and cannot be anywhere else.’ This is a typical statement by Maturana whereby he means to underline the coherence and congruence of each system in its domain of existence. A human system may not like where he is in the medium, and may feel extremely badly about what “life” has doled out to him, but he is where he is through a coherent series of structural interactions and changes in his ontogenic drift. It is interesting that we apply the word “drifter” in a pejorative manner to those folks who most obviously exemplify the human condition of structural drift, as if we , by our ‘rootedness’ were escaping this essential constraint and thereby exerting ‘control’ or ‘steering’ over our lives in a determining way.
Both the living system and the medium change in congruence with one another. They change their structure / shape so that they fit together in a drift. The concept of drift does not imply a chaotic situation because it is being determined on a moment-to-moment basis by the interactions. The path of drift is contingent upon the interactions. So unilateral steering is an illusion. This path of drift is a path without any choices. It is a path of conservation of (a) the organisation of the living system and (b) of congruence with the medium. This is the paradigm for survival.”

While some commentators have described Maturana and Varela’s ideas as representing “purposeless drift” in the sense that they are arguing against the idea of pre-determined outcomes. but I think this quote from Maturana suggests he may have similar ideas to mine about the purposiveness of drift:
“..this pleasure – I am not speaking about the “pleasure principle”- I am speaking about what happens whenever you take an organism and look at it in its normal circumstance. It lives in well being. Don’t you feel the bird flying, or the little mouse moving in the woods, are both well? If you were to catch the mouse and put it in the cage, what you would observe is that the mouse would move in what you would interpret as an attempt to get out. If you were to be put into a cage, you would do the same. You would not feel comfortable, and to attempt to get out as a way of recovering well being. And if you don’t attempt to get out, you become depressed and die. This is the case whether you are attempting to get out of a physical cage or a conceptual cage – whenever you realise that you are in a cage – or that you are where you do not want to be. The moment that you realise that you are where you do not want to be, you begin to do things which constitute the satisfaction of your wanting to get out from where you do not want to be. So when I say pleasure, I mean it in the sense of well being, or comfort, that is the case in the absence of discomfort.”
(Compare this to my ChangeThis manifesto, “Purposive Drift: making it up as we go along”and spot the similarities. As Bob Sutton remarked, “There are no new ideas”.)