Nora Bateson, Jan 2021
This is one essay in two pieces, like one cupcake in two bites. In the first piece, I am laying out the enormity and near impossibility of systemic change. Something I hope readers will feel in their bellies like a thud. The perpetuation of the existing ways of thinking cannot address the emergencies of our time; this is not to be underestimated. The second piece is about the unexpected possibilities that await in another order of parallel approaches. These two pieces attempt to express one idea that is not easy to describe without sounding hopeless and abstract, and hopelessly abstract. For me, this is neither. There is a territory of communication, relationship, and daily living that allows for a total change — it is within reach, but not in the solutions currently being reached for.
There has been much talk of emergence lately.
Emergence is a characteristic of complex systems where things happen that set other things into motion. Emergence is a difference that makes a difference between complex and non-complex systems. Emergence makes successful predictions rare and unintended consequences the norm.
Emergence is beautiful and dangerous.
Interestingly there is not so much talk about how emergency is related to emergence… Somehow in emergencies, discussions of emergence lose their complexity and become pivots of linear solutioning at warp speed.
Meanwhile, I keep wondering, what is submerging?
I am curious because it seems something is happening before the emergence. Pre-emergence: conditions for what will emerge are first combining, like soil-enriching nutrients that make it possible for certain plant-life to occur. Before the flower is picked, the plant grew; before that, the seed opened; and before that, the bacteria, water, and minerals in the soil made mud and created the specific ecological womb in which that particular seed could open. The mixing of many orders of relational processes made the possibilities for what could emerge. Relationships build relationships build relationships build relationships…and then after a good deal of responses to responses in multi-directional oscillation, there is emergence.
If I were to consider the social, cultural pre-emergence in the same way, I might begin to look very differently at what is emerging globally. By the time something has emerged, it is long past the moment of its quickening. The combining conditions in which it was made possible have been stewing into the fertility of distinct possibility for some time, maybe decades, centuries, or epochs. Before something emerges, the ingredients for it to arise have been simmering for a long time. Today’s issues did not begin last week, or in 2016, they were possibilities fermenting through time. The need to partake in day-to-day life that knits us all into the horrors of industry, warfare, and exploitation — is grown in deep transcontextual processes that have been soaking for generations. The consequences are readily visible in our failing systems and the relationships between them, education, health, economic, political, technological, cultural, and familial.
Out of old scripts and assumptions, entrenched linear thinking habits will seek cause and effect both backward and forward in time. Who is to blame? What is the goal? These questions push the possible actions back into the patterns that birthed the problems in the first place. Fixing the symptoms begets more consequences — and around we go. Both questions miss the slow cooking transcontextual submergence. If I were to write a recipe for how to concoct the sort of situations now bubbling up around the world, it might look like this:
Cupcakes of Complicit Confusion Recipe:
Pre heat culture to broiling competition & individualism.
Grease pan with 70 years of banal media entertainment to be sure rigorous thought won’t stick.
Crack the eggs of mutual respect for each other & the natural world, beat until fragmentation is complete.
Add a dash of Military Industrial Complex, Mercer and Murdoch to centuries of colonial violence.
Fold in a pinch of Cambridge Analytica (and or) aggregate IQ, simmer until cultural fissures thicken into conspiracies solid enough to sink the real conspiracies to the bottom of the pot.
If you can find a pandemic to add to the mix this can be particularly emulsifying for creating a golden crispy trillionaire crust. Bake for 700 years in the oven of mechanistic metaphors
Frosting: sugar & dreams of material wealth & ownership Decorate with surrealism. Nothing rises in the cultural cake without something like a garnish of weird.
Serve with religion and agriculture.
From racism to gender inequality to poverty, to soil and ocean degradation and political violence, we cannot fix the systemic issues with explicit, direct correctives — that is not where they live…They inhabit the inflamed scars of previous generations, they grow in the wounds that never healed, they have submerged, and now it hurts everywhere.
In his essay entitled, “From Versailles to Cybernetics,” my father, Gregory Bateson, writes, “The fathers have eaten bitter fruit and the children’s teeth are set on edge. It’s all very well for the fathers, they know what they ate. The children don’t know what was eaten.”
Not knowing what has submerged over time becomes unquestioned attitudes in responding to whatever may happen later. The combining becomes ever more invisible, even though the grooves of the sentiment continue.
“They are living in a crazy universe. From the point of view of the people who started the mess, it’s not so crazy; they know what happened and how they got there. But the people down the line, who were not there at the beginning, find themselves living in a crazy universe, and find themselves crazy, precisely because they do not know how they got that way.” (Bateson, Gregory, Steps to an Ecology of Mind)
The bitterness submerged. The trauma submerged. The confusion submerged.
This is why when responding to complex emergent situations, the problem is not the problem, even though it may look like it is. Some try to ‘multi-solution’ the complexity. The itch to pull apart complex systems and list all their components is an impulse informed by old mechanistic thinking leading to more of the same kinds of problems. You cannot merely fix the parts and reassemble. That methodology is not going to shift the submergent issues. They will keep reconfiguring. The tending must be to the relationship-ing between the parts. And this is messy. It requires perceiving in second or third order, which most people assume is impossible (it’s not).
For example, a new curriculum will not change education because education is a consequence of the economy, definitions of success, the job market, parents’ expectations, and all of these will continue to shape preparation for adulthood. Similarly, strict rules will not control tech; they will instead offer challenges for the clever go-arounds. Reshaping economy will not change the basic logic of societies asking, “what is in it for me?.” No circle, or spiral or decentralization, or anything else will change the behaviors that the collective logic of ‘getting ahead’ begets. Those issues are submerged. The potential of ‘getting ahead’ is considered, without saying it out loud, to be a ‘right’ — it is melted into ideas of democracy and woven into the ability to acquire the latest technology or pay for your child’s clothing. Success, respectability, love-ability, credibility is currently gained by how a person has navigated to achieve ‘independence’ in this game.
Meanwhile, there is a brewing mental health crisis. It is even called a ‘mental health crisis,’ which speaks volumes about what has been submerging. How should one perform life “sanely” in an insane world?
Life continues, in some semblance of ever-shifting emergent order. In evolution, organisms change as other organisms change, but they have to have some aspects that stay the same, or the organism will die off. But, to stay alive in living systems is also to respond to the constant shiftings inherent in life. So there must also be change. It is a trick of survival to change and not change simultaneously, in just the right ways to be in step with the larger ecology.
As the pandemic rearranged life for so many people, new habits are settling into the woodwork of daily life, invisibly. We stand further apart. We wear less professional clothing. We have witnessed the inability of most of the world’s governments to respond to crises effectively. We reconsider what is essential. These things will be the compost of the next round of emergence, most of which will remain unseen for years to come.
Ironically the seen emergent issues will continue to distract attention and generate questions at erroneous levels. Questions like: Is or isn’t online education good for kids? Ask that question, and soon there will be a pile of analysis and techniques to increase the value of digitizing an education system that is not serving the students in the first place (in fact, this is already happening).
Like the old story of the drunk looking for his car keys under the streetlamp, when he is asked if that is where he dropped the keys, his reply is, “No, I dropped them in the forest.” So why does he search under the streetlamp? In the story, he says, “Because here is where I can see.” The same may be true of the submerging; it is easier to look for what is emerging than what is submerging. Even if that does not give us the information needed. It is perhaps inconvenient to generate inquiry for that which is imperceptible. But things are changing, fast. And while the days are filled with news flashes that feel like a tornado of flying cultural flotsam, some significant shifts are taking place and going unnoticed. These are the potent fertilizers of things to come. What is happening now that is quietly slipping under the waterline of conscious observation?
Playing ball with my dog, Blake — I turn in one direction as if to throw the ball that way, and before the ball leaves my hand, he goes galumphing like anything toward where he thinks the ball is going. I tricked him, he notices, turns with a puzzled look at me, and then full speed tumbles back to look in the other direction. “Which way did it go?” He anticipates, he reads my muscular balance, my eye movement, and he follows the multiple movements that show him my intent to throw the ball. So too does a person, or family or society respond to an ‘event’ with the anticipatory familiarity of prior experience. The culture of this moment is informed by anticipatory reductionism; it just cannot stop reducing things, even in the vocabulary of “systemic work.” Ask a question about economics, and it will be informed by the history of economics, ask about education, and it will be informed by school systems…it is not easy to bring the perception of these processes into the deeper transcontextual submergence that they are truly within. The quest for first-order causation is a hard habit to break.
“Living organisms have the equivalent of one “foot” in the past, the other in the future, and the whole system hovers, moment by moment, in the present — always on the move, through time. The truth is that the future represents as powerful a causal force on current behavior as the past does, for all living things. And information, which is often presumed to be a figment of the human mind or at least unique to the province of human thought and interaction, is actually an integral feature of life, itself — even at the most fundamental level: that of system organization.” (Rosen, Judith, Preface to the 2nd edition, Anticipatory Systems)
How does one attend to the unseen submergent processes?
This is a non-trivial question. A system responds as it has been honed to respond. Like a musical instrument that has been crafted through the experiences of several generations, the events of our lives find expression through the articulation that our bodies, minds, hearts, and language can find. Prior experience informs future expression. A broken heart makes one more cautious. The traumas of the past are the filters through which new learning takes place. You cannot go back to how you were before the heartbreak or trauma. You have changed, your relationships have changed, you see the world differently, and the world sees you differently. Learning and healing from now on includes those experiences. The submerged events are in the soil, and while they cannot be removed, the alchemy, the tone, the contextual resonance can be shifted.
All of this makes it excruciatingly difficult to imagine what change is needed when the imagination itself draws from the same cupcake recipe as the situation. It is possible. Just not in first-order solutions. Arguably systemic change is never achieved with first-order solutions. The systemic shifts are taking place in the second, third, and fourth orders, and beyond.
I would suggest this is best thought of as murkier than what is known as ‘confirmation bias’ — (seeing what you already see) — these submerging impressions are baked into our lives within our relationships. They are not rewritten with willpower, agency, or extra effort, but instead, they are revealed by getting off-script in relationships. I have been developing a process called Warm Data to meet this need, now practiced in 40 countries. I see that most of the work of the next decade is in realm of shifting these deeper perceptions that will allow for another approach. Communities that are fractured, polarized and in fragmentation in submergent multi-generational dissonance will not be able to work together. First a perception shift is required. I am excited about Warm Data; it shows me every day that there are vast, unfound possibilities for human perception to shift (See references below).
After all, in a meadow each organism is wrapped into life in many ways, not just one, many. Some of which are in the songs of love in meadows, or the fertile youth of blooming flowers. It is tempting to separate the ecology of meadows from the ecology of ideas… but that again is just a perception. What kind of relations are made in those ecologies? Who is the earthworm to the bacteria in the soil? To the trees? To the fungi? To the birds? To the grasses and ferns? To the insects? When you think about how each of those organisms knit into relationality with the earthworm — so differently in each case — how those organisms are also wrapping vitality into and with each other, there is a burst of possibility revealed. Their interknitting, inter-responding, interdependent, is continuing, in ever shifting underground submergence. Life-ing.
Next for the purposes of this essay, I would like to share a case study of my own experience in finding old memories, in a new voice, with new insight, in a new context, and radically stepping aside old assumptions.
Submerging: What it looks like.
This next piece is a continuation and is meant to be read in conjunction. I will warn the reader that it is entirely possible to read these pages as a description of an approach to thinking about education. To do so would be to miss the illustration that this story provides toward the question posed: How does one attend to the unseen submergent processes? The context in which this particular break-though took place that this piece describes was through the subject of education and intergenerational learning. But, please keep in mind this is possible in all contexts.
In the early days of the global Covid 19 lockdowns of 2020, I wondered if I had something to offer people who would suddenly be home full-time with young children trying to explain the pandemic situation. It seemed to be an important moment to do something for parents wanting to share some of their interest in complexity and systems theory with their kids. I never for a moment considered that this material was too much for little ones because, as I have seen through many classrooms, my own life, and my children — it isn’t. Arguably kids can do complexity better than their parents. They are less interested in the jargon, and they are present inside the complexity itself. I see this as likely the most essential ‘education’ that the coming generations could ask for. And since the schools were closed anyway and didn’t generally offer such a curriculum, I invited parents to join me online for a series on how to engage in mutual learning on complexity with their children. My own childhood formed the basis of this invitation.
My father was one of the founders of systems theory and cybernetics beginning in the 1930s. I watched him meet each day, meet each interaction, with curiosity and delight in this wondrous complexity. He shared his way of being with me when I was little, and I, in turn, shared something like it with my children. When the pandemic hit, it seemed to me to be a perfectly natural response to share this with others. I had no idea what would happen; I had no plan; I dived in — and that which was lurking in the soil of my being began to sprout. It was as though I had unknowingly waited my whole life for this COVID19 Zoom class. Strange.
Something interesting happened — something I didn’t see coming.
The series started and continued on with stories. The first of which had to do with what it was like to be a small child in a household in which my family was constantly questioning the frames through which mainstream culture made sense of the world. I began with this quote from my father:
“We can never be quite clear whether we are referring to the world as it is or to the world as we see it.” — Gregory Bateson
As a starting position for parents interested in systems change, this thought of my father’s is one that will keep both parents and kids attentive and humble for potentially several generations to come. We could have stopped right there. “How to Question Absolutely Everything with Your Kids” could have been an alternative title of the sessions. It is an intriguing premise for an education system. Something came loose, an attitude changed tone, and with it, so did the approach toward the whole horizon of learning.
When we began, there was a difference in my approach that I did not pay any mind to at first. But later, as the sessions progressed, it became clear this was the first time I had entered into a discussion of education (after many years of doing so) in which I was not, in any way, deferring to the existing educational system as a given. The conversations were untethered. I was not hindered by any of the notions of what education in schools provided. This was the difference that made a difference. There was a wild freedom to actually, really, truly open the field of what mutual learning between generations looks and feels like…what are the hold-backs? What does it sound like, taste like, to be in discovery of the world with kids? Not for them, but with them. I was not looking to amend, or adjust, or in any way fix the existing education system. This is a critical criterion to getting at another approach to systems change.
It turned out that most of the conversation had to do with developing a kind of attention to the cultural scripting for parents that places them in a position of non-learning, or worse, ‘teaching’. But in these sessions, the knee-jerk repetition of parental instruction that is so submerged lost their invisibility because we started from another landscape.
Do well in school so you can get into a good university
Read the text and memorize it
Do well on the test
Don’t spend too much time on the screens
You have to do your work now so you can be with your friends on the weekend
One day you will grow up and have to support a family of your own
Success is linear, work hard, make money, get comfort.
All that stuff…just sort of crumbled. What graduation? What weekend? What test? What will be the careers that the pandemic will erase forever? What future are the kids headed toward?
The programming of children’s relationship to authority, identity, success, economy, and so many other cultural perpetuations were revealed to be generated in the meta-messages between adults, particularly parents and grandparents, and next generations. The nuance of communication that insinuates and assumes continuation of cultural attitudes and some of the ‘blind spots’ those attitudes host was remarkably, suddenly talk-about-able. The question was not ‘how do I get my child through 5th grade?’, but ‘how shall we learn together to survive in a changing world?’.
I noticed palpable healing in first recognizing and then breaking away from the habituated traps that we, as adults, have subscribed to in order to survive in a sick system. This became a kind of beautiful punk rock of not foisting those traps onto the next generation — the revolution of simply changing the tone of the parental voice to one of learning. I welled up with passion and declared — No, mothers and fathers…everything is NOT going to be ok… unless we get out of this matrix; It is forged between the generations, and there it must be unforged. Like the ring that Frodo has to take to Mordor where it was made, so too the generations must set each other free of the double binds of the past. Recognition and rigor are needed to keep a keen eye on normalized, cloaked, inherited habits that form judgements, failures, and unnamed expectations on both parents and children. These scripts inform life, from school to identity, to relationship with nature, and relationship with ideas of what life is. I think everyone in the sessions sensed how underground, and how deeply buried into communication the cultural traps are lurking. This stuff is all submergent. In contrast, the traumas it produces are an ocean of emergent sufferings. The emergencies are ringing all the bells triggering a response that again taps into the submergent mechanistic logic of first-order solutions in the form of pills and programs.
The most profound way to provide one’s children with an understanding of complexity is to live a life of learning together in a complex world moment by moment. This means everything changes. Doing dishes is not about “your turn” — it is about perception of relationships in the household. Going into the forest is not about knowing the names of the organisms; it is about wondering how they together are becoming a forest — not knowing turns out to be a position held with far more respect than ‘being right’. The list goes on.
One of the more significant memories that surfaced for me during these sessions was that my father never, ever, ever…not even once…projected onto me his vision of who I would be in my adult life. He never said, “When you grow up…” or “When you go to university…” or “When you have children…” To have said those things would be to seed the sort of images that submerge and spin into lifetime notions of success or failure. It took me years to notice what scripts he did NOT write for me. Interesting. The assumption that was implicit in his NOT saying those things was that I would learn from and find my way through whatever I did. He did not give me instructions, but he had every confidence that I would figure it out as was right for me. I was 12 years old when he died. We knew he was dying, and he knew he would not be at my side when I faced the difficulties of adulthood. So that confidence was a more profound and in-depth, stronger morale than any specific advice he could have given me.
The importance I want to convey here is that the exploration of learning in this format, in this moment was both an accident, and not an accident. It was a stochastic process. Everything I had ever wanted to explore about education, learning and complexity was unleashed by a change in the context that I did not predict. When school was no longer about school, a whole new world of learning opened. My entire childhood came rolling out from the forest floor of my adult life. I was astounded at the learning that I had absorbed so many decades ago as a small child and how easily those memories could be woven into the need for intergenerational learning. Something about the pandemic lockdowns created the perfect soil to tend to an entirely unbound discussion of learning.
That is to say, a different set of assumptions were submerging. And that is what is interesting here. Please don’t be distracted by the enticement of a new way of teaching complexity to kids — what I am actually talking about in this essay is the depth of perception change, and how most of that is not nameable, not describable, and not see-able, but alters all action entirely.
Education is changed when the communication between generations is in another melody. From the time kids are little, the communication they receive is intoned with messages about their individuation. Failure to individuate is considered to make a person unrespectable, unsuccessful, un-matable, un-credible. Yet, life is produced through interdependence. What might happen if the assumption was that there would be no individuation, that people need each other, whether they are blood kin or not. This is a radical notion of a lifetime of mutual learning, mutual tending, mutual getting lost, getting weird, and getting over ourselves.
It is not easy to get out of sensorial loops. Accumulating experience is a way to bank a broad sampling through which to enter unfamiliar circumstances. Collected experiences, since infancy, are further forming through language and describing through relationship to other experiences. Lunch is not just lunch. Lunch is a meal, lunch is a meal after breakfast, lunch happens during busy times of day, lunch is the middle, lunch is not with family. Lunch is mixing contexts, just like education is mixing contexts, or economy or…
But getting new insight is tricky. Prior experience is tossed into a novel moment like a net sifting out the possibilities in familiar definitions and letting the ones we cannot recognize fall through the holes. I think of it as similar to when you hear a piece of music for the first time, you find your relationship with the notes and the harmonies through your relationships to other music. But by the 17th time you have listened to that piece of music, you will hear and feel it in much more detail. When you taste new food, you find flavors and smells that remind you of what you have already known. You are informed by and forming a relationship with the new by tapping into those references that have already submerged. My father said:
“The processes of perception are inaccessible; only the products are conscious and, of course, it is the products that are necessary. The two general facts-first, that I am unconscious of the process of making the images which I consciously see and, second, that in these unconscious processes, I use a whole range of presuppositions which become built into the finished image — are, for me, the beginning of empirical epistemology.“ (Bateson, Gregory, Mind and Nature)
The metaphors, the sensations, the memories may not have precise, conscious identification, but they are there, nonetheless. And they are wrapping new ideas and sensations in old clothes. So be it. There is nothing to be done to stop that, and it may not be a bad thing. But when it comes to participating in any kind of significant learning, BEWARE: these pre-emergence conditions are perpetuating and justifying old perceptions. What you were able to see before — you will see again. While what you have never seen is harder to see. What has never been said is harder to say.
I am practicing to be a detective of submergence. Without a doubt this is an intergenerational process. The invisible is not to be underestimated.
- For more on this please see other writings/interviews on Warm Data
Bateson, Gregory. Mind and Nature a Necessary Unity. Hampton Press, 2002.
“From Versailles to Cybernetics.” Steps to an Ecology of Mind, by Gregory Bateson and Mary Catherine Bateson, University of Chicago Press, 2008, pp. 477–485.
Rosen, Robert, et al. Anticipatory Systems: Philosophical, Mathematical, and Methodological Foundations. Springer, 2011.
Here are a few, there are many more:
Warm Data 2016, Medium, Hacker Noon https://hackernoon.com/warm-data-9f0fcd2a828c
Warm Data and Ice Lemonade, 2020 The Side View: https://thesideview.co/journal/warm-data-and-iced-lemonade/
Eating Sand, 2019 Nora Bateson Blog wordpress: https://norabateson.wordpress.com/2019/04/02/eating-sand-tasting-textures-of-communication-in-warm-data/
Preparing for a Confusion Future Warm Data and Education, Cadmus Journal 2018
Interview Team Human with Douglas Rushkoff, 2017: https://www.teamhuman.fm/episodes/ep-106-nora-bateson-warm-data