Never let a crisis go to waste

What Rahm Emanuel actually said towards the end of 2008 was:

“You don’t ever want a crisis to go to waste; it’s an opportunity to do important things that you would otherwise avoid.” (Source)

From the perspective of the Four Cultures, a crisis is a point of inflection in the discourse of meaning. It’s a moment when, not knowing what to say, we construct our timeless arguments anew, using fresh building blocks to establish…  the same design as before.

The attack on the World Trade Center, the global financial crisis, the Bushfires in Victoria, Australia, and now the flu pandemic – all these are opportunities for us to establish rhetorically and institutionally our own partial and partisan versions of how the world really works. No matter what the issue, the response always takes one of four competing approaches:

  • Egalitarian
  • Individualist
  • Hierarchical
  • Fatalist

Left to themselves each cultural bias will try to take over, each will aspire to be the only answer in town (as Margaret Thatcher liked to say, ‘There is no alternative’). This goes a long way towards explaining the puzzling of how making it better so often ends up making it very much worse.

That’s why it’s so important to become aware of them, to get wise, to challenge the pervasive and pervasively wrong idea that there’s only one rationality and to learn how to articulate coalitions between the four cultures, so that everyone gets some of what they wanted.

The solution is grid-group cultural theory. Now, what was the problem?

(NB. For anyone who has trouble spotting irony, that last sentence was some)

What to read next:

The Ground Zero of Meaning;

Making sense of the bushfires

On the relationship between behaviour and context in Cultural Theory

In reply to Matthew Taylor’s  question over at his RSA blog:

“how can it be true both that there are some social environments which encourage particular attitudes and behaviours (which could be said broadly to fit an egalitarian outlook) while, at the same time, in relation to any specific problem or decision, a set of conflicting responses (of which egalitarianism is only one) will emerge?”

1) Scale is crucial. Just as there isn’t a single rationality but four, neither is there a single scale. At one scale of operation, one of the four cultures may be dominant, and may seem to be a good fit with the landscape, but at other scales other cultural biases may be a better fit. See the work of ecologist Buzz Holling on this.

2) Similarly, time is also crucial. The social-ecological model of Holling and others in the Resilience Alliance suggests that ecological succession has a social counterpart. What appears optimal at one moment will become less optimal as time changes the environment, so that alternative problems arise, leading to alternative solutions and alternative institutions.

3) The ability to defect is also crucial. I have been quite taken with a cellular automata problem called the density classification problem. In short this seems to suggest that even in simple mechanistic systems, total knowledge is impossible. This means there is always room for the dominant answers to be wrong and for defectors from the main view to get it more nearly correct. Given that a) social-ecological systems are far more complex than cellular automata and b) evolution has fine-tuned human responses to problem solving, it seems possible that human society is an environment which rewards a dominant viewpoint without punishing too severely a minority of dissidents.

Climate Change and the ‘Bad Faith’ delusion

human-beingsLet’s get this straight. Climate change ‘deniers’ are (mostly) not being malicious. They genuinely believe what they are saying, just like climate change ‘believers’ do. The assumption of bad faith is entirely unhelpful.

“But how can it possibly be that in the face of all the evidence people still won’t face the truth of climate change?” That’s one way of looking at it, but it depends on a mono-rational view of the world which is contested by grid-group cultural theory. A more nuanced analysis suggests that there are four, not one or two ways of organising institutions, from families to global treaties, and what counts as evidence for one cultural bias will never count as evidence for another.

So,  Egalitarian environmentalists who want to promote their own view would do well to take seriously the contesting claims of Individualism, Hierarchy and Fatalism. These are not merely arguments about the evidence but deeper arguments about rationality itself.

Further reading:

What we argue about when we argue about global warming, then

Climate change: is it a new religion?, then

Four Ways to make Social Change Work Better.

Image source:

Slow Reading and the End of Print

It seems you can do all sorts of things slowly. Why weren’t we told?

Actually, Slow Reading by John Miedema is a thoughtful consideration of the enduring place of print in our culture. You’d be forgiven for assuming print was dying out under the pervasive i-influence of e-everything. Indeed, the author quotes Jeff Bezos of Amazon as saying the book is ‘the last bastion of analogue’.

Actually what I find interesting about the times we’re in is the arrival of radical new forms of physical textuality which call into question the simple story of the death of print. Two examples that keep catching my eye are the espresso book machine and the youtube graffiti wall.

The Espresso book machine is basically a photocopier that can spit out well made paperback books while you wait. This is a hi-tech mix of the digital (the back catalogue of every digitised book on the planet instantly available) and the traditionally physical (the physical paperback book to take away and enjoy). But it’s important to remember that paperbacks themselves are relatively new technology, having only achieved mass appeal in the 1930s (and the first paperback book shops were introduced to the US in the 1950s).

Where the publicity for the Espresso Book Machine goes wrong, I think, is that it tremendously underestimates the revolution that it heralds. Supposedly the new technology will make small independent book shops more competitive with the larger chains and the larger chains more competitive with supermarkets. This is exactly wrong. What it means is that notionally, every shop can and will become a book shop. And the cost of the technology is only going to come down. What will make the difference is not the ability to stock books, since there’s no more stock, nor the ability to discount them, since overheads are now minimal. The difference will be in the ability to promote them. The rise and rise of the expert bookseller has just begun.

The graffiti wall is a very weird phenomenon. This is the ability of internet video to bring to life monumental artwork inscribed on physical surfaces using stop motion filming techniques. This form of art has been feasible for a long time – since the invention of photography – but only now, with ubiquitous digitization, has it taken off. What’s interesting about this is the sense that the digital somehow requires the monumentally and immovably physical wall for its rhetorical effect as spectacle to work. It shows, I think, that the end-of-the-book anxiety is just a sub-set of a larger end-of-the-physical anxiety. It also shows that the physical doesn’t end, it just gets transformed. We are living in a time of digital-physical hybridization and we should probably get used to the feeling of not being able to get used to it.

John Dewey on practical intelligence

For philosopher John Dewey, intelligence – knowledge in the absence of certainty – was a matter of judgement.

“A man[sic] is intelligent not in virtue of having reason which grasps first indemonstrable truths about fixed principles, in order to reason deductively from them to the particulars which they govern, but in virtue of his capacity to estimate the possibilities of a situation and to act in accordance with his estimate. In the large sense of the term intelligence is as practical as reason is theoretical”
(The Quest for Certainty, 1933: 170, quoted in Westbrook, 357)

It strikes me, reading this, that ‘the possibilities of a situation’ are not necessarily obvious, nor exhaustively explored in a given ‘estimate’. But that grid-group cultural theory offers a means of describing a fourfold  field of possibility.

The estimate is conditioned both by what is considered personally to be the limits of possibility and by the institutional context in which certain possibilities may be expressed and others may not.

Reference: Robert B. Westbrook 1993 John Dewey and American Democracy.  2nd Edn. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.

East is East and West is West and never the twain shall meet…

Fourcultures has previously expressed frustration over the ubiquity of the fiction of ‘Eastern’ and ‘Western’ thought worlds. One antidote on offer is to read the excellent book The Shape of Ancient Thought. To get a little more up to date, another suggestion would be:

Kapil Raj. Relocating Modern Science: Circulation and the Construction of Knowledge in South Asia and Europe, 1650-1900 (Palgrave Macmillan, 2007)

This book disputes the idea that modern western knowledge originated in the West then was transmitted elsewhere (contra Basalla 1967, for instance). Instead, the author shows, fields such as botany, cartography, terrestrial surveying, linguistics, scientific education and colonial administration, all depended for their development on a good deal of intellectual coming and going between ‘East’ (with a focus here on South Asia) and ‘West’ , between colonial centres and their colonies.

Read also: How to combine Eastern and Western Philosophy

Reference: George Basalla, The Spread of Western Science.  Science 5 May 1967: Vol. 156. no. 3775, pp. 611 – 622

Models, reality and the limits to growth

Fourcultures recently pointed out the contentious relationship between computer-driven models and the reality they claim to be modelling.

More analysis of The Limits to Growth modelling  is now published in American Scientist journal.

Charles A.S. Hall and John W. Day, Jr. 2009 Revisiting the Limits to Growth After Peak Oil American Scientist Vol 97 (May-June): 230-237.

Hall and Day claim ‘We are not aware of any model made by economists that is as accurate over such a long time span’ (p.235).

You can download the full article and a good summary and discussion is at the Oil Drum.

This complements a recent report from Australian government (CSIRO) scientist Dr Graham Turner, who revisited the business as usual projections of The Limits to Growth from 1972 and found that actual observation matched the projections pretty well. Continue reading