Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Gregory Bateson

The end of flexibility

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A few days ago, I picked up my old paperback copy of Steps to an Ecology of Mind, which collects the major papers of the anthropologist and cyberneticist Gregory Bateson. I’ve been browsing through this dense little volume since I was in my teens, but I’ve never managed to work through it all from beginning to end, and I turned to it recently out of a vague instinct that it was somehow what I needed. (Among other things, I’m hoping to put together a collection of my short stories, and I’m starting to see that many of Bateson’s ideas are relevant to the themes that I’ve explored as a science fiction writer.) I owe my introduction to his work, as with so many other authors, to Stewart Brand of The Whole Earth Catalog, who advised in one edition:

[Bateson] wandered thornily in and out of various disciplines—biology, ethnology, linguistics, epistemology, psychotherapy—and left each of them altered with his passage. Steps to an Ecology of Mind chronicles that journey…In recommending the book I’ve learned to suggest that it be read backwards. Read the broad analyses of mind and ecology at the end of the book and then work back to see where the premises come from.

This always seemed reasonable to me, so when I returned to it last week, I flipped immediately to the final paper, “Ecology and Flexibility in Urban Civilization,” which was first presented in 1970. I must have read it at some point—I’ve quoted from it several times on this blog before—but as I looked over it again, I found that it suddenly seemed remarkably urgent. As I had suspected, it was exactly what I needed to read right now. And its message is far from reassuring.

Bateson’s central point, which seems hard to deny, revolves around the concept of flexibility, or “uncommitted potentiality for change,” which he identifies as a fundamental quality of any healthy civilization. In order to survive, a society has to be able to evolve in response to changing conditions, to the point of rethinking even its most basic values and assumptions. Bateson proposes that any kind of planning for the future include a budget for flexibility itself, which is what enables the system to change in response to pressures that can’t be anticipated in advance. He uses the analogy of an acrobat who moves his arms between different positions of temporary instability in order to remain on the wire, and he notes that a viable civilization organizes itself in ways that allow it to draw on such reserves of flexibility when needed. (One of his prescriptions, incidentally, serves as a powerful argument for diversity as a positive good in its own right: “There shall be diversity in the civilization, not only to accommodate the genetic and experiential diversity of persons, but also to provide the flexibility and ‘preadaptation’ necessary for unpredictable change.”) The trouble is that a system tends to eat up its own flexibility whenever a single variable becomes inflexible, or “uptight,” compared to the rest:

Because the variables are interlinked, to be uptight in respect to one variable commonly means that other variables cannot be changed without pushing the uptight variable. The loss of flexibility spreads throughout the system. In extreme cases, the system will only accept those changes which change the tolerance limits for the uptight variable. For example, an overpopulated society looks for those changes (increased food, new roads, more houses, etc.) which will make the pathological and pathogenic conditions of overpopulation more comfortable. But these ad hoc changes are precisely those which in longer time can lead to more fundamental ecological pathology.

When I consider these lines now, it’s hard for me not to feel deeply unsettled. Writing in the early seventies, Bateson saw overpopulation as the most dangerous source of stress in the global system, and these days, we’re more likely to speak of global warming, resource depletion, and income inequality. Change a few phrases here and there, however, and the situation seems largely the same: “The pathologies of our time may broadly be said to be the accumulated results of this process—the eating up of flexibility in response to stresses of one sort or another…and the refusal to bear with those byproducts of stress…which are the age-old correctives.” Bateson observes, crucially, that the inflexible variables don’t need to be fundamental in themselves—they just need to resist change long enough to become a habit. Once we find it impossible to imagine life without fossil fuels, for example, we become willing to condone all kinds of other disruptions to keep that one hard-programmed variable in place. A civilization naturally tends to expand into any available pocket of flexibility, blowing through the budget that it should have been holding in reserve. The result is a society structured along lines that are manifestly rigid, irrational, indefensible, and seemingly unchangeable. As Bateson puts it grimly:

Civilizations have risen and fallen. A new technology for the exploitation of nature or a new technique for the exploitation of other men permits the rise of a civilization. But each civilization, as it reaches the limits of what can be exploited in that particular way, must eventually fall. The new invention gives elbow room or flexibility, but the using up of that flexibility is death.

And it’s difficult for me to read this today without thinking of all the aspects of our present predicament—political, environmental, social, and economic. Since Bateson sounded his warning half a century ago, we’ve consumed our entire budget of flexibility, largely in response to a single hard-programmed variable that undermined all the other factors that it was meant to sustain. At its best, the free market can be the best imaginable mechanism for ensuring flexibility, by allocating resources more efficiently than any system of central planning ever could. (As one prominent politician recently said to The Atlantic: “I love competition. I want to see every start-up business, everybody who’s got a good idea, have a chance to get in the market and try…Really what excites me about markets is competition. I want to make sure we’ve got a set of rules that lets everybody who’s got a good, competitive idea get in the game.” It was Elizabeth Warren.) When capital is concentrated beyond reason, however, and solely for its own sake, it becomes a weapon that can be used to freeze other cultural variables into place, no matter how much pain it causes. As the anonymous opinion writer indicated in the New York Times last week, it will tolerate a president who demeans the very idea of democracy itself, as long as it gets “effective deregulation, historic tax reform, a more robust military and more,” because it no longer sees any other alternative. And this is where it gets us. For most of my life, I was ready to defend capitalism as the best system available, as long as its worst excesses were kept in check by measures that Bateson dismissively describes as “legally slapping the wrists of encroaching authority.” I know now that these norms were far more fragile than I wanted to acknowledge, and it may be too late to recover. Bateson writes: “Either man is too clever, in which case we are doomed, or he was not clever enough to limit his greed to courses which would not destroy the ongoing total system. I prefer the second hypothesis.” And I do, too. But I no longer really believe it.

The analogy of the acrobat

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The healthy system…may be compared to an acrobat on a high wire. To maintain the ongoing truth of his basic premise (“I am on the wire”), he must be free to move from one position of instability to another, i.e., certain variables such as the position of his arms and the rate of movement of his arms must have great flexibility, which he uses to maintain the stability of other more fundamental and general characteristics. If his arms are fixed or paralyzed (isolated from communication), he must fall…Note, in passing, that the analogy of the acrobat can be applied at a higher level. During the period when the acrobat is learning to move his arms in an appropriate way, it is necessary to have a safety net under him, i.e., precisely to give him the freedom to fall off the wire.

Gregory Bateson, Steps to an Ecology of Mind

Written by nevalalee

May 27, 2018 at 7:30 am

The foundations of novelty

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Yesterday, I was leafing through the journalist Charles Duhigg’s recent book Smarter, Faster, Better when my eye was caught by a discussion of a study conducted several years ago by two professors at Northwestern University. It dealt with the importance of unexpected combinations in creative thinking, which is a subject that is dear to my heart, and they emerged with some fascinating conclusions. Duhigg writes:

The researchers—Brian Uzzi and Ben Jones—decided to focus on an activity they were deeply familiar with: writing and publishing academic papers…They could estimate a paper’s originality by analyzing the sources authors had cited in their endnotes…Almost all of the creative papers had at least one thing in common: They were usually combinations of previously known ideas mixed together in new ways. In fact, on average, ninety percent of what was in the most “creative” manuscripts had already been published elsewhere—and had already been picked over by thousands of other scientists. However, in the creative papers, those conventional concepts were applied to questions in manners no one had considered before. “Our analysis of 17.9 million papers spanning all scientific fields suggests that science follows a nearly universal pattern,” Uzzi and Jones wrote. “The highest-impact science is primarily grounded in exceptionally conventional combinations of prior work yet simultaneously features an intrusion of unusual combinations.” It was this combination of ideas, rather than the ideas themselves, that typically made a paper so creative and important.

As Uzzi later explained in an interview with Duhigg: “A paper that combines work by Newton and Einstein is conventional. That combination has happened thousands of times. But a paper that combines Einstein and Wang Chong, the Chinese philosopher, that’s much more likely to be creative, because it’s such an unusual pairing.”

The late Arthur Koestler called this phenomenon “bisociation,” and its appearance here inspired me to look up the original paper, “How Atypical Combinations of Scientific Ideas Are Related to Impact.” Its most intriguing insight—which Duhigg mentions only in passing—is that not all combinations are equally useful. As you might expect, the study found that the majority of published scientific papers draw on a conventional set of sources, with most of their references occurring within a predictable subset of journals. Yet a novel combination of references in itself isn’t any guarantee of originality or importance. In fact, papers that have “high tail novelty” alone are actually less likely to be widely cited than papers that don’t stray far from conventional wisdom. The best combination, it seems, is a core of conventional work spiced up with a few unusual ingredients. An article on their research in the magazine of the Kellogg School of Management makes this point more explicit:

What’s interesting,” says Uzzi, “is most of the work done is conventional. And some of the work is truly novel. And the chances of either one of those classifications of papers being hits is about the same.” Only about five percent of research papers that draw from only very novel or only very conventional sources were among the most highly cited papers in the database. But there was a third category of research that had nearly twice the likelihood of making it big: papers that relied mostly on conventional combinations of sources but also included a small subset of highly novel ones. “It isn’t all about novelty or conventionality. It’s about both,” explains Jones, who was somewhat surprised by this result…“You want to be grounded in something that’s well understood and yet be adding in the piece that’s truly unusual. And if you do those two things [and] stretch yourself in both directions, then you radically increase your probability of hitting a home run.”

This point is technically present in Duhigg’s book, but it’s easy to miss, and it strikes me as the real takeaway here. Innovation doesn’t happen when you combine ideas haphazardly, but when you incorporate novel insights into a more conventional foundation. I’ve noticed this pattern in my own work. When I first started writing science fiction, my favorite method for generating ideas was to browse through a stack of science magazines and pick two or three articles at random, trusting that I would find a connection between them if I looked hard enough. My early novelette “The Last Resort,” for instance, was a combination of articles about lake eruptions, snowmaking, and the snake pits of Manitoba. “The Boneless One,” which was my first really good story, did the same with bioluminescence, octopus intelligence, and an expedition to catalog genetic material in the ocean. It was a reliable trick, and it served me well over the course of half a dozen stories. Around the time that I wrote “Stonebrood,” however, followed by “The Proving Ground” and my upcoming story “The Spires,” I began to get tired of that process, and I tried a different approach. These days, I usually start with one big subject or setting that I’d like to explore—wilderness firefighting, climate change in the Marshall Islands, bush piloting in Alaska. From there, I’ll look for an unusual angle that ties back into the main theme, often by searching the archives of science magazines until I come up with a promising hook. Instead of choosing a few random ideas and treating them equally, in other words, I start with a central premise that feels like it would make a good story and then look for unexpected offshoots. In some ways, this approach is riskier, since it that initial hunch is wrong, it’s easier to follow it into a dead end. But the results seem better. In the past, some of my stories, like “The Voices,” have had visible seams. The ones that I’m writing now are more of a piece, but they haven’t lost their ability to surprise me along the way, which is the main reason that I write them at all.

Obviously, this is a very minor example, and it probably isn’t all that interesting to anyone but me. But the notion that we should proceed by adding novelty to an established foundation, rather than by combining ideas purely at random, is a valuable one. It’s similar to the familiar principle that it’s hard to do interesting work across multiple disciplines until you’ve mastered one field well, both because of the habits of thinking that it teaches and the body of information that it provides. It was partly for this reason that Charles Darwin spent years studying barnacles, or cirripedes, as the scientist Thomas Henry Huxley observed:

The great danger which besets all men of large speculative faculty is the temptation to deal with the accepted statements of facts in natural science, as if they were not only correct, but exhaustive; as if they might be dealt with deductively, in the same way as propositions in Euclid may be dealt with. In reality, every such statement, however true it may be, is true only relatively to the means of observation and the point of view of those who have enunciated it. So far it may be depended upon. But whether it will bear every speculative conclusion that may be logically deduced from it is quite another question…The value of the Cirripede monograph lies not merely in the fact that it is a very admirable piece of work, and constituted a great addition to positive knowledge, but still more in the circumstance that it was a piece of critical self-discipline, the effect of which manifested itself in everything [Darwin] wrote afterwards, and saved him from endless errors of detail.

What the barnacles taught Darwin, in Huxley’s words, was “the speculative strain” that certain ideas would bear, and this applies as much to individual projects as to the work of a lifetime. Random combination can be a valuable tool, but it needs to be the right kind of randomness. Creativity, as Gregory Bateson wonderfully put it, often consists of “a raid on the random.” But like most raids, it’s more likely to succeed when it starts from a position of strength.

Quote of the Day

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The hardest saying in the bible is that of St. Paul, addressing the Galatians: “God is not mocked,” and this saying applies to the relationship between man and his ecology. It is of no use to plead that a particular sin of pollution or exploitation was only a little one or that it was unintentional or that it was committed with the best intentions. Or that “If I didn’t, somebody else would have.” The processes of ecology are not mocked.

Gregory Bateson, Steps to an Ecology of Mind

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December 12, 2017 at 7:30 am

The Book of Changes

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The I Ching

If there’s a single theme to which I’ve repeatedly returned for the five years and more I’ve been writing this blog, it’s the importance of randomness in the creative process. I’ve always tried to systematically incorporate elements of chance into my work, in a large part because I’m temperamentally the opposite: I’m an architect, not a gardener, and nearly everything I’ve written—fiction and nonfiction alike—has been planned, outlined, and structured within an inch of its life. I adopted this approach as a kind of survival strategy: I figured out early in my career that I had a better chance of finishing a project, rather than abandoning it halfway through, if I had a blueprint to follow. And that’s still true. But the fact that I’ve always been a fundamentally rational writer has led me to think about creative randomness and serendipity to a greater extent, I suspect, than many of those who naturally take a more intuitive approach. An author who begins a story without a clear end point in mind, apart from a willingness to follow the narrative wherever it leads, doesn’t need to consciously worry about randomness: it’s baked into the process from the beginning. But because I’m predisposed to lay everything out before I type the first sentence, I’ve tried to be diligent about keeping that fertilizing aspect of chance alive.

As Gregory Bateson wrote: “Creative thought must always contain a random component. The exploratory process—the endless trial and error of mental progress—can achieve the new only by embarking upon pathways randomly presented, some of which when tried are somehow selected for survival.” Elsewhere, Bateson is reported to have said to his secretary: “I am going to build a church some day. It will have a holy of holies and a holy of holy of holies, and in that ultimate box will be a random number table.” And the search for productive forms of randomness has been one of the most absorbing parts of my writing life over the last ten years. I’ve written at length here about how I’ve tried most of the usual suspects, like Brian Eno’s Oblique Strategies, and how the most useful repository of random connections I’ve found has been Ted Hughes’s anthology A Choice of Shakespeare’s Verse, which helpfully provides more than two hundred numbered quotations that I pick out of a virtual hat whenever I’m trying to crack a creative problem. I’ve also dabbled with methods associated with divination, which, as a sources of symbols for inspiring unexpected trains of thought, can be genuinely valuable tools. As I once wrote about the tarot:

It’s really a portable machine for generating patterns…It results in a temporary structure—in the form of the cards spread across the table—that can be scrutinized from various angles. At its best, it’s an externalization or extension of your own thoughts: instead of confronting the problem entirely in your own head, you’re putting a version of it down where you can see it, examine it, or even walk away from it.

The Tarot of Marseilles

But there’s one obvious resource that I’ve never been able to use to my own satisfaction: the I Ching. I’ve always been a little surprised by this, since it’s probably the most famous of all oracular texts. I’ve toyed with various translations, notably the Richard Wilhelm edition, and I had a reasonable amount of success with The Portable Dragon by R.G.H. Siu, which pairs the original hexagrams with illuminating quotations from both eastern and western sources. But the results have always left me cold, and it’s taken me a long time to figure out why. I found a helpful clue in a discussion of the subject in Joseph Needham’s Science and Civilisation in China, the legendary seven-volume masterpiece that I was recently delighted to find is available for download at Monoskop. In his section on the I Ching, which he thinks had a negative influence on the history of thought in China, Needham writes:

The elaborated symbolic system of the Book of Changes was almost from the start a mischievous handicap. It tempted those who were interested in Nature to rest in explanations which were no explanations at all. The Book of Changes was a system for pigeon-holing novelty and then doing nothing more about it. Its universal system of symbolism constituted a stupendous filing-system. It led to a stylization of concepts almost analogous to the stylizations which have in some ages occurred in art forms, and which finally prevented painters from looking at Nature at all.

And I think he’s onto something. The I Ching has a way of closing off pathways of thought—unlike the tarot, which opens them up—because it’s almost too comprehensive and organized. The tarot is a mess, but in the best possible way: the patterns it generates are necessarily incomplete, and they require a secondary act of consolidation in the user’s brain. The I Ching feels more like a card catalog. (Needham shrewdly compares it to the bureaucratic organization of much of classical Chinese society, and says: “The Book of Changes might almost be said to have constituted an organization for ‘routing ideas through the right channels to the right departments.'”) And after trying valiantly for years to incorporate it into my writing routine, I set it aside: it seemed to have some of the same freezing effect on my work that Needham identifies in Chinese culture as a whole. This is all very subjective, of course, and it clearly doesn’t apply to everyone: the I Ching played an important role in the careers of such artists as John Cage and Philip K. Dick, and I wouldn’t discourage any writer from at least trying it out. But when I relinquished it at last, it was with something like relief. The central principle of the I Ching is resonance, but for whatever reason, it just never resonated with me. And if a tool doesn’t work, it has to be put away. Because the search for randomness is too important to be left to chance.

The founder’s mutation

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Gillian Anderson on The X-Files

The scientist Max Delbrück never wrote for television—he was a Nobel Prize-winning biophysicist who laid the foundations for the modern discipline of molecular biology—but he understood how it worked. In an interview with the oral history project at CalTech, he famously said:

If you’re too sloppy, then you never get reproducible results, and then you never can draw any conclusions; but if you are just a little sloppy, then when you see something startling, you [can] nail it down…I called it the “Principle of Limited Sloppiness.”

Which, when you think about it, is also the recipe for constructing a good genre series. When the pilot first airs, you almost never know what the show is going to be about. (This is not to be confused with its premise, which is something else entirely.) All you can really do is explore possibilities, set up story elements, pair up characters, and throw out ideas, most of which turn out to be dead ends, but some of which theoretically lead to useful adaptations. If it’s too random or sloppy, the show will die before it evolves into something more interesting, but it’s only by “embarking on pathways randomly presented,” as Gregory Bateson said, that you have any hope of finding something new. And the mark of a great showrunner is the ability to create the conditions under which this limited sloppiness can gradually pay off, while minimizing the consequences of any mistakes, of which there are bound to be plenty. As Dana Scully once observed: “There are hits and there are misses…and then there are misses.”

As I once wrote at greater length for Salon: “What strikes me now about the first season of The X-Files is how relentlessly it kept reinventing itself, and how willing it seemed to try anything that worked…As time goes on, the show’s formal incoherence starts to look like its greatest asset.” I thought of these words again last night while watching the show’s return, in an episode aptly titled “My Struggle,” which comes more than thirteen years after the conclusion of its original run. I went in with modest hopes—a level of anticipation that would have been very different if a mediocre second movie hadn’t adjusted my expectations downward—and I agree with most critics that the result is undeniably messy, particularly for a show that had well over a decade to think about how its next phase might look. Characters are introduced and never fully developed; entire scenes seem to lead nowhere; much of it feels rushed, as if large chunks of story had been cut at the last minute; and promising ideas, like the implication that Mulder’s brand of paranoid speculation feeds all too neatly into the conspiracies of right-wing nuts like Glenn Beck, are raised without really being addressed. It doesn’t have the clarity and suspense of the best episodes of the show’s classic mythology, like “Piper Maru/Apocrypha,” and much of it feels like it’s simply laying the groundwork for “Founder’s Mutation,” which airs tonight. As a fan, I enjoyed watching the old band get back together, but I have a hunch that a wider audience was left wondering why it was supposed to care.

Gillian Anderson in "Jose Chung's From Outer Space"

Yet this kind of sloppiness was so integral to the original show’s success that we had no reason to expect anything else. Series creator Chris Carter, who wrote and directed the premiere, was never a particularly strong storyteller in his own right, and staff writers and freelancers like Glen Morgan, James Wong, Darin Morgan, and Vince Gilligan were generally responsible for the show’s most memorable moments. But that’s notable and revealing in itself. Carter’s genius, which shouldn’t be underestimated, lay both in conceiving of the show’s premise—which was an unparalleled engine for generating stories—and in managing the whole complicated machine in a way that allowed for its inherent sloppiness to catalyze the work of others. Its first season was a string of increasingly wild one-off experiments that resulted in many of its most useful formulas and ideas, as well as a bunch of episodes that went nowhere and were quickly forgotten. Keeping the whole enterprise moving while scattering seeds that would bear fruit for later writers was what Carter did best, and it worked great when he had twenty or more episodes in which to refine the results. But it doesn’t really work with six. There isn’t enough time. And while I don’t blame Carter for falling back on a tone and approach that worked so well when the show, against all odds, had time to develop it, I do question whether it makes sense in such a limited window. (It’s also instructive to note that the show’s single most significant mutation, in the form of the tonal expansion of Darin Morgan’s “Humbug,” didn’t occur until late in the second season.)

But I wouldn’t necessarily have it any other way, especially because I’ve come to realize that the sloppiness of The X-Files had repercussions in my life far beyond that of the show itself: it’s the primary reason that the original series has influenced my own career as a writer more than just about any other work of art. I’ve published three novels that can best be understood as a veiled love letter to what the show accomplished, as well as another book’s worth of short science fiction that tries to recapture the same magic. Even my fondness for female protagonists can be traced back to Scully. (Just as the Scully effect encouraged a generation of young women to pursue careers in medicine, science, and law enforcement, her example caused me to think intuitively about science fiction and suspense through a woman’s eyes.) And if the series had been tidier, or more reliable, it wouldn’t have seized my imagination to the same extent: a more consistent show would have allowed me to settle for what it had to offer, rather than seeing what I could do with the tools it provided. A “perfect” show tends to close off possibilities beyond what its creator envisioned; a show of limited sloppiness provides its writers and fans with the material for unlimited dreams. In the same interview that I quoted above, Delbrück noted: “I have said…that science is a haven for freaks, that people go into science because they are misfits, and that it is a sheltered place where they can spin their own yarn and have recognition, be tolerated and happy, and have approval for it.” That’s what The X-Files was for me. And it still is—despite, or because of, all its hits and misses.

Written by nevalalee

January 25, 2016 at 10:22 am

Quote of the Day

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December 10, 2014 at 7:30 am

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