I first heard the expression “there are no straight lines in nature” sometime in the mid- to late-90s, and it immediately struck a chord. I was, at the time, neck deep in learning about the then new (to me at least) science of complexity. I later discovered a more complete version of this sentiment, attributed to Buckminster Fuller:
Everything you’ve learned in school as ‘obvious’ becomes less and less obvious as you begin to study the universe. For example, there are no solids in the universe. There’s not even a suggestion of a solid. There are no absolute continuums. There are no surfaces. There are no straight lines.
Another quote from a very different author has long resonated with me as well:
Not all who wander are lost.
I have, over time, adapted and adopted it as a bit of a personal motto:
i’m not lost, i’m wondering.
And my mind wonders quite a bit. But there are a few attractors that keep pulling me in to explore, including:
- Variations on a theme: Everything is just a variation of everything else, we just use different words for them. Informed in large part by work of Hofstadter and Sander in their book Surfaces and Essences: Analogy as the Fuel and Fire of Thinking.
- Rules: From the making of rules to the breaking of rules and everything in between. Rules get a bad rap, most often seen as a limit on creativity and action. I see them otherwise, as the basis on which creativity and action are built. At least the good ones.
- Everything you know is wrong: As the saying goes, “all models (maps?) are wrong, but some are useful”. I’ve most often heard this used in the context of actual models or maps, things explicitly identified as such. But much of what counts for “facts” or “knowledge” these days are really nothing more than models. And they are, in the same way, wrong but useful. Way points on the journey to ever more “right” models. (For those who prefer something less dramatic, you can look at this one as “Everything you know is subject to change.”)
- Layers of abstraction: The story of progress is one of abstraction, of increased convenience, and the taming of novel experience into the everyday. (Related to the idea that everything you know is wrong, but sufficiently different to warrant being examined separately.) This is not in and of itself bad, but the more we commoditize our thinking – the more we are on auto-pilot – the more abstracted we are from an understanding of where our beliefs come from, and the harder it is to understand where others are coming from.
- Debt and Progress: When people think or talk about debt it is usually in the context of financial debt, the borrowing of money against the future to pay for something today. But there are other forms of debt, the one that most readily comes to mind is the concept of “technical debt” from the world of software development. Others that I am exploring include social and cultural debt.
- Disruption (Disruptors and the Disrupted): Is disruption a goal, or is it the means to achieve a goal. How many disruptors are actually interested in providing something of value to their “customers”, and how many disruptors are simply pandering to the crowd to enrich themselves. Are the disrupted ever better off?
- Thinking in bits (not atoms): The early days of “digital” was all about adapting things and services into bits, but still thinking in the physical context in which those things and services originally came about. Who am I kidding, the “early days”? This is still how most people think about and implement “digital”.
Except for the last one, thinking in bits, I think that there are elements of each of these attractors in just about any narrative you look at, be it politics, business, or whatever. The more I wonder through different domains of knowledge, the more I believe that if we can develop a deep understanding of one thing, we are well on our way to being able to understanding everything.
Even if that understanding is ultimately wrong (or, at the very least, subject to change).