Mending walls

April 11, 2007

I am writing this in the lecture theatre at Almaden Institute having listened to Stuart Kauffman lecture about cells as being critical which represents the shift between chaotic and ordered regimes. It was controversial, the following speaker started off by saying that he liked the poetry but not the science which was robust to say the least. Either way, if Stuart is right, then it has major implications for cancer research and other areas. Aside from being fascinating, it also indicates the deep practicality of theory. If you really want to think differently and, to quote Lincoln, to think and act anew then it requires a degree of comfort with conceptual matters, and a willingness to avoid the seductive temptation of avoiding theory in favour of simplistic (not simple) imitative recipes based on current supposed best practice. Of course it can go to far and Stuart cracked a great joke at the start which illustrates this:

Q: What do you get if you cross a Mafioso with a de-constructivist (Derrida referenced)?
A: Someone who makes you an offer you cannot understand

I found this particularly apposite having had to wade through some obscurantist and error strewn text by the champion of ideological deconstruction in narrative theory, to wit one David Boje.

Either way, getting back to the subject; last night I had the great pleasure of sitting between Brian Arthur and Walter Freeman (with Stuart adjacent) swapping stories around the practical implications of complexity theory and other matters. It went on for some time so I have been delayed in my How to get started in KM blog for which apologies, it will come ….

I had delivered the 101 Complexity seminar the afternoon before (slides will be here shortly) and had emphasised the importance of boundaries. In doing that I quoted one of my favorite poems of all time Mending Wall from which I quote:

But at spring mending-time we find them there,
I let my neighbor know beyond the hill;
And on a day we meet to walk the line
And set the wall between us once again.
We keep the wall between us as we go


He is all pine and I am apple orchard.
My apple trees will never get across
And eat the cones under his pines, I tell him.
He only says, “Good fences make good neighbors.”

Now it is important to realise that the title of the poem is the clue to its meaning, and that in the introductory lines the narrator, who questions, but does not refute the wall, is also the one makes the call to their repair. The importance of the wall (note that it is not plural) in the poem is the mutuality of the mending process. I must admit to have being puzzled to see Shawn say that “when you read the entire poem (in context) you realise Frost is questioning the need for fences” as I cannot see any reading that would support such a statement. The poem is about the dynamics and social process of mending, not the static nature of the wall.

Now all of this has implications for the way we manage the use of complexity in social systems and networks. Aside from understanding the nature of that shifts between domains in the Cynefin framework, which requires at awareness of boundaries, it also applies to the nature of social and network interaction. This harks back to my post on natural numbers together with one on identity. With these we get the related need to understand systems not as fully distributed patterns of isolated individuals (the atomist argument) working from self interest, to the obligated linkages of social systems and identity.

One of the final quotes from Kauffman was a delight, he said I think that we will discover that life is critical that is to say that life is the regularities that emerge on the edge of chaos. critical here, enables complexity, but with a different precision from the way I and others talk about complexity. Life and society it is not about order, not is it about boundless chaos it exists in the criticality that enables emergent structures on the edge of chaos.

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The Cynefin Company (formerly known as Cognitive Edge) was founded in 2005 by Dave Snowden. We believe in praxis and focus on building methods, tools and capability that apply the wisdom from Complex Adaptive Systems theory and other scientific disciplines in social systems. We are the world leader in developing management approaches (in society, government and industry) that empower organisations to absorb uncertainty, detect weak signals to enable sense-making in complex systems, act on the rich data, create resilience and, ultimately, thrive in a complex world.

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