The end of stable states

I’ve been reading Donald Schön and I find his idea of the end of ‘the stable state’1 provocative. He is writing in the context of state as government. But I am reading it to also encompass government of the self. He argues for the need that governments acquire new behaviours to enable it to act as learning systems – learning for society as a whole. But to do this it must:

discard the structure and mechanisms grown up around old problems.

My guess it that on the level of governments it won’t be hard to find examples of this not happening, which is why old problems and behaviours persist. But how can these ideas be applied to how we ‘govern’ our internal states? We can’t take on the challenge of new problems if we don’t clear out, or transform, old structures – structures that can be ‘particularly cumbersome’ to change.2 New learning needs to be accompanied by new unlearning – Schön writes that we need to design processes through which:

new problems can continually be confronted and old structures continually discarded.

Peter Senge 3 also writes about structure:

Structure produces behaviour, and changing underlying structures can produce different patterns of behaviour.

Like Schön, Senge writes from an organisational perspective, but what if we consider the external structures that we create as somehow a reflection of structures within us. Senge continues that:

redesigning our own decision making redesigns the system structure.

But does it not also bring about the redesign of ourselves?

I’ve grappled with similar ideas in Relearn to unlearn to learn again – how do we unlearn? Schön hints at an answer by writing that we need to design:

systems capable of bringing about their own continuing transformation.

Schön’s focus is on institutions; I find his ideas useful when seen in the context of the individual, family, group, and society as a whole.

What I take from Schön is that walking out of a situation may not do you much good – the only way out, is to learn your way out.

  1. Donald Schön (1973). Beyound the stable state. The Norton Library, W.W. Norton & Company INC, New York. 

  2. Is psychoanalysis an attempt to clear out old structures that are cumbersome? 

  3. Peter M. Senge (1990). The Fifth Discipline: The Art and Practice of the Learning Organisation. Currency. 

The Gadget Lover

Google caused a stir by demoing Google Glass at work. Since then I’ve been thinking about it more than I should, and I want to find out why.

I’m interested in debates surrounding security concerns of wearable augmented reality technology – dystopian visions of misuse are easy to envision; on the flip side, the possibilities of AR technology used for good are equally far reaching. I’m reluctant to take sides in the ‘is AR good or bad’ debate.

Instead, when confronted by new technology – following Marshall McLuhan – I ask: what parts of ourselves do we replace by inventing new technology?

McLuhan provides a useful framework1 for thinking about technological newness. He argues that the invention of new technology is our nervous system’s attempt to ‘amputate’ parts of our bodies experiencing stress:

In the physical stress of super stimulation of various kinds, the central nervous system acts to protect itself by a strategy of amputation or isolation of the offending organ, sense, or function. Thus, the stimulus to new invention is the stress of acceleration of pace and increase of load.

We invented the wheel as a ‘kind of autoamputation’ of our feet when pace in relation to load became unbearable. In the context of ‘acceleration of pace and increase of load’ in the information age, what in us are we externalising by inventing the internet? He writes that our physical organs are no longer ‘protective buffers against the slings and arrows of outrageous mechanism’.

Stepping back and looking at Google Glass again, it becomes an ‘outrageous mechanism’ in itself. An object 2 amputated by, and from, our nervous systems acting as a buffer to an external ‘irritant’ (load of advantage gained by interpreting joined up information in real-time). It becomes an image of ourselves, and by ‘continuously embracing technologies, we relate ourselves to them as servomechanisms’. In the process we’re not only enslaved but we also become ‘the sex organs of the machine world’ and by the sweat of our labour, and the dedication of our non-reflective service, we allow technology ‘to evolve to ever new forms’.

It’s a lot to take in … but there’s more: human behaviour and the choices we make now enter the frame. McLuhan writes that the ‘machine world reciprocates man’s love by expediting his wishes and desires, namely, in providing him with wealth’. And the love of technology – love of ourselves – with the promise of wealth, lures us into a state of numbness, we become a closed system, deaf as Narcissus to Echo’s calls.

Stepping back and looking at Google Glass yet again: is it a reciprocation of someone else’s desire? And what does it mean for those – framed in its gaze – whose desire it is not?3

  1. I’m referring here to Chapter 4, The Gadget Lover, Narcissus as Narcosis in Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man

  2. Google Glass represents a physical object and also a process. I’m reflecting on it here mainly as an object, but the (hidden) processes it forms part of, and enables, suggest other meanings. 

  3. I urge anyone interested in these topics to read Chapter 4, I’ve only scratched the surface of its riches. I use it as a buffer (and reflective space) against the acceleration of pace and increase of load

Revisiting ontology and epistemology … again

As a science student I came across ontology and epistemology. I’m now learning about systems and they’ve cropped up again. I never fully understood them the first time around. After mulling over, and resisting, it dawned on me that understanding them offer practical choices for how I approach, not just work, but life overall.

So for the umpteenth time: what do they mean? But I can’t ask that question without framing it. The question needs contextualising. Reframe. In a systems thinking context, what do they mean?



Things exist outside of me. They are fully formed and I can study it from a distance. By studying it I am not changing it. I am gathering objective knowledge by identifying, distinguishing and naming it. For example, take the concept of an ‘ecosystem’: the ontological view is that an ‘ecosystem’ exists even if I don’t because it is something that exists fully formed and independent in nature.



I am part of the things that I am aware of – by naming it I am giving existence to it, and I’m using language to learn about it. As my thinking changes, the thing I’m thinking about also changes. Going back to the example of an ‘ecosystem’: the epistemological view is that an ‘ecosystem’ can’t exist if I don’t, because I am the one describing it as an ‘ecosystem’. It is a construct I’m inventing to learn about what I frame as an ‘ecosystem’.

So what?

Well, I think revisiting these concepts are useful when stepping back and asking: how do I see the world? how do I interact with projects? how do I work with other people? how do I choose to frame things? how do I learn? do I see things as fully formed, or do I see myself as co-creator of the situations I’m a part of?

So for me, choosing an epistemological framework means owning up to responsibility. By blaming situations or other people we shy away from the responsibility (and opportunity) to design behaviours that are purposeful1. It’s a tough one, because we are very good at sidestepping responsibility.

Now, when I get back to work, things just can’t be the same anymore.

  1. In Systems Practice: How to Act in a Climate Change World, Ray Ison distinguishes between two forms of behaviour in relation to purpose: purposeful behaviour, that is behaviour that is willed, and purposive behaviour, that is behaviour to which an observer can attribute purpose. 

Relearn to unlearn to learn again

I’ve been obsessed by methods for years, but lately I’ve been thinking about frameworks. Maybe I’m fatigued by prolonged immersion in the method stream?1 Methods don’t concern me that much anymore; they can be learnt, borrowed, invented or outsourced.

You can master the methods to build a car, but why build another car in the context of climate change, natural resource depletion and congestion? By changing the frameworks underpinning the methods – in a 21st century context – the question then becomes: how do we adapt our methods to build new kinds of cars?

But where do our frameworks come from? Do we choose them or are they learned? Can we unlearn or relearn behaviours that are rooted deeply?

I worked in a higher education digital context for awhile where the academics discussed pedagogy a lot. I remember someone saying, ‘to unlearn something you have to learn it again’. That made sense to me.

For example, I taught myself to play the classical guitar when I was 15. A few years later I had formal lessons and corrected some of my earlier learning. I still play, but there are areas where I continue to struggle.

So I ask myself, do I practice until I get it right (method), or do I go back and revisit the theory (framework) before I practice again?

Applied to ourselves, this approach offers transformative implications.

  1. The method stream is the accumulated flow of ‘how to’ information via all the digital channels that I plug into. 

What do we do when we design?

In ICON magazine Christien Meindertsma says:

Architects can work across the board because they make things but they also write texts about what they do and they’re able to talk about it, which often designers aren’t. 1

That statement struck a cord because I have been thinking about the relevance, consequence and impact of the work we do as designers shaping the web – and my belief is that as a profession we need to do more to cultivate reflective practice as part of our toolbox. We need to think and write beyond the hard methods that we use: what are our guiding principles? what are the frameworks guiding our thinking? and what are the responsibilities we own up to?

If, for example, all our collective efforts as digital workers are co-creating a postliterate society, and were I to believe this to be a bad thing, is this the kind of work I want to be doing? (Regardless of how much I love the internet.)

I believe that we are doing important work. We are co-creators of the greatest social technology people have yet invented. And we need to engage with it in all seriousness by being able to step back and ask ourselves: what is it that we do when we do what we do? 2

For the web may be the last chance we have to invent something that can change everything – in a good way.

  1. Originally published 1st May 2010, Conversation between architect Alejandro Aravena, filmmaker Gary Hustwit, designer Christien Meindertsma and journalist Bruce Nussbaum. 

  2. In Systems Practice: How to Act in a Climate-Change World, Ray Ison attributes the question: What is it that we do when we do what we do? to Humberto Maturana. It is used here in the context of ‘critical reflection on our circumstances’.