Culture Starch: We Haven’t Grasped Complexity Yet

Sitting here, listenin’ to my playlist, thinking about temporality and how it relates to the kind of geekery I want to write and talk and teach and geek about.

Over the last 10 years or so, the topics deriving from systems theory, from complexity theory, and so on, have wormed their way slowly into our mental frame. Just a little, just a little, but that’s how change works. And as I read the popular accounts, as well as the folk-theory being built from this minor intrusion, watching ideas and tropes and careers get made, I’m still not satisfied that "we" are sensing what "I" am sensing.

I try (and often fail) to frame my ideas in positive ways. One wants to have an alternative when one critiques a thing, and when one has an alternative, one wants to stress the alternative over wasting time on the critique. This muse may not be ready for prime time yet. 🙂

Three things I think we’re continuing to miss are 1) temporality, 2) mutual multiple causation, and 3) embodiment.


Temporality — past, present, future — is a fundamental thread in the fabric of the geek experience. All geekery takes place as time unfolds for the system in which the geek plays her role.

A few ways to get at this might help.

a) "Programming is not about already knowing the answer, it’s about going from having no answer to having one." This statement is pointing at process not product. It is talking about a thing that happens over time.

b) "Scarce a single day goes by where I don’t look at something I’ve done and now see it as mistaken." This experience is routine and ongoing. It’s a reflection of the fact that the system today is different from the system yesterday and from the system tomorrow.

c) "We’ll generalize that object when the story comes down that forces us to generalize it." This advice, now hopefully more common than it was when we started this movement, is once again about time. About seeing that tomorrow isn’t today.

So, this sense of time — temporality — is really important. I am not finding it sufficiently present in a) our geek pedagogy, or b) our officially blessed methods.

Mutual Multiple Causation

Mutual multiple causation is a way to describe a kind of "anti-mechanism" view of geekery. When we think of mechanisms, we nearly always focus on unidirectional singular causation. "I push the bar, it rolls the wheel, it grinds the corn." This is mechanical causation.

But when I’m geeking, I’m one part of an enormous system, stretching out as far as my eye can see. And that system is full of causation that is both multiple and circular. Some ways to get at that idea might help.

Yesterday, Nayan and I realized that an annoying puzzle we were trying to solve could be expressed as a "not yet denominated" fraction, but we were trying to resolve that fraction to a rational number too soon. We solved our problem in a couple of hours after that.

We didn’t have an answer, and then we did. What changed? Well, what changed was that the code that was signalling the before meaning suddenly became obviously signalling the after meaning. I have no better way to describe it. We changed. The code changed. Everything changed.

The system we’re part of is full of organic — non-mechanical — relationships. The parts of it, including us, shape the other parts of it, including us, in a variety of ways. This is what I mean by multiple mutual causality.

All of that’s not even considering the fact that the system is composed of parts that are also well outside "the geek and the code". Organizations are staggeringly complex beasts, and they’re nestled in turn in whole markets and so on and so on, and all that causation is two-way.

So again, this mutual multiple causation is really important, and again, our pedagogy and our methods seem to over-emphasize the uni-directional and the singular in its approach.


Embodiment is the awareness of the fact that these systems are based heavily on actual animals experiencing actual life in actual bodies.

Embodiment contrasts sharply with a key old-school notion: that minds are best seen as generalized signal processing systems, isolated from the bodies in which they reside, limited in capability primarily by the absence of will.

It’s embodiment that understands that sociotechnicality isn’t just "social+technical". It’s embodiment that understands why refactoring makes us go faster. It’s embodiment that says structures can prevent community but not create it.

And again, this critical idea and the working out of its consequences, feels absent from both our pedagogy and our branded methods.

In the end, we come down to the puzzle: what am I gonna do about it? How can we reshape our pedagogy and our methodology to more fully account for temporality, multiple mutual causation, and embodiment?

The philosopher Jacob Needleman speaks of Socrates in a way I’d never heard before. For him, "Socrates" isn’t a person, or a philosopher, or a philosophy, or an answer, or even a question.

He says "Socrates" is the moment at which we turn to face the question.

Thanks for reading. Have a Saturday that perturbs you closer to who and how you wish you were!

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