Yes, but. . .

I.

The scope of the challenges we face—from racial inequality to the climate crisis to
the care crisis—cannot be addressed by the market. Only direct government intervention can affirmatively build the economy we need at the scale and speed we need. To explain and win this broad agenda, we need to change our approach and move beyond consumer-first governance.

Suzanne Kahn (2022). More than Consumers: Post-Neoliberal Identities and Economic Governance. The Roosevelt Institute (accessed online at http://rooseveltinstitute.org)

Agreed: Markets may manage some risks better, but not the risks of managing that way. The latter belongs to government regulators. But “government” intervenes directly in many other things at many different levels. Isn’t it better to say government should do more of this and less of that? Plus I’d like to know more about how these revamped activities could fail.

II.

Yes,

One space spreads through all creatures equally –
inner-world-space. Birds quietly flying go
flying through us.

Rainer Maria Rilke

but,

They spoke to me of people, and of humanity.
But I’ve never seen people, or humanity.
I’ve seen various people, astonishingly dissimilar,
Each separated from the next by an unpeopled space.

Fernando Pessoa

III.

–If the article is any guide, surely the response to its headline, “Uncertainty is not our friend,” is: It’s more complicated than that.

https://www.washingtonpost.com/climate-environment/2021/05/05/uncertainty-is-not-our-friend-scientists-are-still-struggling-understand-sea-level-risks-posed-by-antarctica/

IV.

That modern scholars have managed to propose more than two hundred different reasons for the fall of the Roman Empire strongly suggests that conventional academic focus on just a single case is simply a dead end, and that comparative analysis of a process occurred so many times in history promises far more compelling results.

Ian Morris and Water Scheidel (2016). “What is Ancient History?” Daedalus 145 (2), Spring: 119.

And yet, this dead end–

If only the elites could get their shit together, if only they would truly decide to act in the public interest, if only our political dysfunctions could be suspended in the name of a common cause, if only we could elect smart officials with the right ideas, a new era of prosperity and power awaits the United States. But the political dysfunction is only a symptom of the underlying economic disease. So there will be no policy solution to the problems America—and the world— faces, because no such solution, at least on the national level, exists. But of course, that’s what war is for.

James Merchant (2022). “Endgame: Finance and the Close of the Market System.” The Brooklyn Rail (https://brooklynrail.org/2022/03/field-notes/Endgame-Finance-and-the-Close-of-the-Market-System)

V.

E.M. Forster, the novelist: “Only connect!” Frederic James, the literary critic: “Always historicize!”

Well, ok if you have to put it that way; but still. . .


Three special announcements, with new table of blog contents

I. If you are revisiting or new to this blog, “Three Big Reads” are the best place to (re)start:

1/3: When Complex Is As Simple As It Gets: Draft Guide to New Policy Analysis and Management in the Anthropocene (July 2022)

2/3: Policy optics as prompts and probes to recasting: 13 brief examples

3/3. Some policy optics best serve to soften up intractable issues for a second look (six examples from the humanities)

These consolidate and update entries on the multiple uses of policy optics–fresh concepts, methods, counternarratives, analogies and thought experiments–for identifying better policy and management. The three best illustrate the title and theme of this blog and I will add new material to each from time to time.

II. One topic that has interested me for some five decades is that of herders, livestock and rangelands in Africa. For those interested as well, please see:

“New points for a revised policy narrative about pastoralists and pastoralisms,” “A different policy optic for pastoralist development,” “Environmental livestock-tarring,” and “Pastoralisms as a global infrastructure,” among other entries.

III. New blog entries for this week: “They call it ‘apophenia:’ Mar-a-Lago and me,” “Backwash and anchor: lines from war poet, Ivor Gurney,” and “Safety, but with respect to what?”

–You can use the blog’s keyword search function to find the above, along with related entries and others on altogether different topics grouped under the subject headings below:

  • More recastings in policy and management
  • Not-knowing and its proxies
  • Ignorance and uncertainty
  • Distraction and sensibility
  • Risk, resilience and root causes
  • Emergency management and improvisation
  • Regulation
  • Infrastructures
  • Environment
  • Rural development
  • Pastoralist development
  • Catastrophe and crisis
  • Policy and management mess, good and bad
  • Betterment and good-enough
  • Policy palimpsests and composite arguments
  • Economism
  • More on methods
  • Longer Reads, including some of my favorites: “Ammons and regulation,” “Recalibrating Politics: the Kennedy White House dinner for André Malraux,” “Blur, Gerhard Richter, and failed states,” “Market contagion, financial crises and a Girardian economics,” “Pastoralists and Pastoralisms,” and “Proposed National Academy of Reliable Infrastructure Management”

A different policy optic for pastoralist development

–My starting point—and one I ask you to take seriously—is a feature of the avant-garde less commented upon, but central to its role in a wider society. Says a French artist, “It is the ontology of avant-gardes to fail in order for them to reinvent themselves.” Reinventing themselves is something avant-gardes do all the time and better than others. It’s their métier.

Just as avant-gardes are ahead of their time, so too have actually-existing pastoralist practices and behaviors been in advance of two dominant development narratives concerning them: namely, the older tragedy of the commons (ToC) and the later common property resource (CPR) management.

(My own view is that a continuing preoccupation with the CPR and ToC imaginaries should be treated as the key indicator of a limited ability to keep up with contemporary pastoralisms.)

Being ahead of the development narratives has for pastoralists both the downsides and upsides of avant-gardes, e.g.:

Downside: Really-existing pastoralist behavior—like that of an avant-garde—has never stopped institutions—in this case, economics and ecology—from preoccupations with reduced-form narratives like the ToC and CPR.

Upside: Actual behavior and knowledge of avant-gardes can and do diffuse into the wider society, though lagged and unevenly. For example, note just how old-fashioned are the dirigiste terms of “livestock, land and labor” in describing pastoralist developments that are in fact “real-time processes and practices for increasing options and strategies to respond to unpredictable or uncontrollable shocks across time and place…”

–So what?

The question is not only, “What replaces current dominant narratives for the purposes of better pastoralist development?,” but also: “How do we catch up with and keep abreast of what pastoralists are actually doing?”

But why spend all this time on catching up?

To complete the avant-garde analogy, I’m suggesting that some—not all or only—pastoralists may be better able than before to have something to say to others—some but not all—who have never been as precarious as now—whatever the absolute differences between the two groups in terms of surviving their respect inequalities.

–And vice versa.

It isn’t just that pastoralist households have off-site activities with household members elsewhere who contribute from there to on-site pastoralist activities. Rather: It’s more appropriate to say that some pastoralisms are done off-site, just as what was once platform trading on the floor of a stock exchange is now done elsewhere on different platforms (e.g., the Hong Kong Stock Exchange).

Two-way analogies also mean extra-care is needed to reflect the fuller set of actually-existing practices of pastoralists:

• Not everyone would agree that pastoralist better practices include all those unofficial (read: clandestine) networks that sub-Saharan migrants to Europe and elsewhere rely on to resist surveillance and capture.

• The practices include encrypted communications, secret locations and multiplicity of efforts to counter the informatics of domination and the technologies of coercion—the latter of great concern to many other residents in Europe as well.

• Note the preceding practices fit in—uncomfortably—with the reduced form narratives of expert policy types in Africa that pastoralists are often “outside the state’s control” there.

• The above mean, among other things, that the remittance-sending household member is no more at the geographical periphery of a network whose center is an African rangeland than was Prince von Metternich in the center of Europe when he said, “Asia begins at the Landstraße” (the district outskirts of Vienna closest to the Balkans).

You can stipulate all you want that Africa ends there and Europe begins here, but good luck in making that stick for pastoralist development policies!

Backwash and anchor: lines from war poet, Ivor Gurney

–I finished reading the Collected Critical Writings of Geoffrey Hill, which discussed a poet I don’t remember reading before, Ivor Gurney. Which in turn sends me to his poems, which leads me to his “War Books” from World War I and the following lines:

What did they expect of our toil and extreme
Hunger - the perfect drawing of a heart's dream? 
Did they look for a book of wrought art's perfection,
Who promised no reading, nor praise, nor publication? 
Out of the heart's sickness the spirit wrote
For delight, or to escape hunger, or of war's worst anger,
When the guns died to silence and men would gather sense
Somehow together, and find this was life indeed….

The lines, “What did they expect of our toil and extreme/Hunger—the perfect drawing of a heart’s dream?”, reminded me of an anecdote from John Ashbery, the poet, in one of his essays:

Among Chuang-tzu’s many skills, he was an expert draftsman. The king asked him to draw a crab. Chuang-tzu replied that he needed five years, a country house, and twelve servants. Five years later the drawing was still not begun. ‘I need another five years,’ said Chuang-tzu. The king granted them. At the end of these ten years, Chuang-tzu took up his brush and, in an instant, with a single stroke, he drew a crab, the most perfect crab ever seen.

It’s as if Chuang-tzu’s decade—his form of hunger—did indeed produce the perfect drawing. Gurney’s next two lines, “Did they look for a book of wrought art’s perfection,/Who promised no reading, no praise, nor publication?” reminds me, however, of very different story, seemingly making the opposite point (I quote from Peter Jones’ Reading Virgil: Aeneid I and II):

Cicero said that, if anyone asked him what god is or what he is like, he would take the Greek poet Simonides as his authority. Simonides was asked by Hiero, tyrant of Syracuse, the same question, and requested a day to think about it. Next day Hiero demanded the answer, and Simonides begged two more days. Still no answer. Continuing to double up the days, Simonides was eventually asked by Hiero what the matter was. He replied, ‘The longer I think about the question, the more obscure than answer seems to be.’

I think Hiero’s question was perfect in its own right by virtue of being unquestionably unanswerable. In the case of Chuang-tzu, what can be more perfect than the image that emerges, infallibly and unstoppably, from a single stroke? In the case of Simonides, what can be more insurmountable than the perfect question without answer?

–Yet here is Gurney providing the same answer to each question: War ensures the unstoppable and insurmountable are never perfect opposites—war, rather, patches them together as living: Somehow together, and find this too was life indeed.

Ashbery records poet, David Schubert, saying of the great Robert Frost: “Frost once said to me that – a poet – his arms can go out – like this – or in to himself; in either case he will cover a good deal of the world.”

New points for a revised policy narrative about pastoralists and pastoralisms (updated and shortened)

Below are two sets of points on herders and their systems of production related and additional to those raised in my 2020 A New Policy Narrative for Pastoralism? Pastoralists as Reliability Professionals and Pastoralist Systems as Infrastructure.

1.     Resilience isn’t what you think

–It’s thought that the opposite of the coping herder, who can only react to external shocks, is the resilient herder, who bounces back. But is that true? Both occur at the individual level, and the opposite of the individual is the collective (think: “team situational awareness”), not a different individual with different behavior.

My research colleague, Paul Schulman, and I observed reliability professionals in critical infrastructures undertaking four types of resilience at their system level, each varying by stage of system operations:

Table 1. Different Types of System Resilience

  • Reliability professionals adjusting back to within de jure or de facto bandwidths to continue normal operations (precursor resilience);
  • Restoration from disrupted operations (temporary loss of service) back to normal operations by reliability professionals (restoration resilience);
  • Immediate emergency response (its own kind of resilience) after system failure but often involving others different from system’s reliability professionals; and
  • Recovery of the system to a new normal, if there is one, by reliability professionals along with others (recovery resilience)

Resilience this way is a set of options, processes and strategies undertaken by the system’s real-time managers and tied to the state of system operations in which they find themselves. Resilience differs depending on whether the large socio-technical system is in normal operations versus disrupted operations versus failed operations versus recovered operations. (Think of pastoralist systems here as critical infrastructure.)

Resilience, as such, is not a single property of the system to be turned on or off as and when needed. Nor is it, as a system feature, reducible to individual “resilient” herders, though such herders exist.

–Why does this matter? What you take to be the loss of the herd, a failure in pastoralist operations that you say comes inevitably with drought, may actually be perceived and treated by pastoralists themselves as a temporary disruption after which operations are to be restored. While you can say their “temporary” really isn’t temporary these days, it is their definition of “temporary” that matters when it comes to their real-time reliability.

–Let’s work through Table 1 in some detail.

Herder systems that maintain normal operations are apt to demonstrate what we call precursor resilience. Normal doesn’t mean what happens when there are no shocks to the system. Shocks happen all the time, and normal operations are all about responding to them in such a way as to ensure they don’t lead to temporary system disruption or outright system failure.

Formally, the precursors of disruption and failure are managed for. Shifting from one watering point, when a problem arises there, to another just as good or within a range of good-enough is one such strategy. Labelling this, “coping,” seriously misrepresents the active system management going on.

Pastoralist systems can and do experience temporary stoppages in their service provision—raiders seize livestock, remittances don’t arrive, off-take of livestock products is interrupted, lightning triggers a veldt fire—and here the efforts at restoring conditions back to normal is better termed restoration resilience. Access to alternative feed stocks or sources of livelihood may be required in the absence of grazing and watering fallbacks normally available.

So too resilience as a response to shocks looks very different by way of management strategies when the shocks lead to system failure and recovery from that failure. In these circumstances, an array of outside, inter-organizational resources and personnel—public, private, NGO, humanitarian—are required in addition to the resources of the pastoralist herders. These recovery arrangements and resources are unlike anything marshaled by way of precursor or restoration resiliencies within the herder communities themselves.

–There is nothing predetermined in the Table 1 sequence. Nothing says it is inevitable that the failed system recovers to a new normal. It is crucial, nevertheless, to distinguish recovery from any new normal. To outsiders, it may look like some of today’s pastoralist systems are in unending recovery, trying to catch up with one drought or disaster after another. The reality may be that the system is already at a new normal, operating with a very different combination of options, strategies and resources than before.

If you think of resilience in a pastoralist system as “the system’s capability in the face of its high reliability mandates to withstand the downsides of uncertainty and complexity as well as exploit the upsides of new possibilities and opportunities that emerge in real time,” then they are able to do so because of being capable to undertake the different types of resiliencies listed here, contingent on the stage of operations herders as a collectivity find themselves.

–Or to put the key point from the other direction, a system demonstrating precursor resilience, restoration resilience, immediate emergency response, and recovery resilience is the kind of system better able to withstand the downsides of shocks and uncertainty and exploit their upsides. Here too, nothing predetermines that every pastoralist system will exhibit all four resiliencies, if and when their states of operation change.

To summarize, any notion that resilience is a single property or has a dominant definition or is there/not there or is best exemplified at the individual level is misleading when the system is the unit and level of analysis in pastoralism.

2.     Disaster-averted is central to pastoralist development

My argument is that if crises averted by pastoralists were identified and more differentiated, we’d better understand how far short of a full picture is equating their real time to the chronic crises of inequality, market failure, precarity and such.

To ignore disasters-averted has an analogy with other infrastructure reliability professionals. It is to act as if the lives, assets and millions in wealth saved each day doesn’t matter when real-time control room operators of critical infrastructures prevent disasters from happening that would have happened otherwise. Why? Because we are told that, ultimately, what matters far more are the infrastructure disasters of modernization, late capitalism, and environmental collapse destructive of everything in their path.

Even where the latter is true, that truth must be pushed further to incorporate the importance of disasters-averted-now.

Disaster averted matters to herders precisely because herders actively dread specific disasters, whatever the root causes. The implications for pastoralist development end up being major—not least when it comes to “pastoralist elites,” as seen in a moment.

***

In case it needs repeating, inequality, marketization, commodification, precarity and other related processes matter for pastoralists and others. The same for modernization, late capitalism and global environmental destruction. But they matter when differentiated and specified more granularly in terms of their “with respect to.”

Just what is marketization with respect to in your case? Smallstock? Mechanized transportation? Alpine grazing? Is it in terms of migrant herders here rather than there, or with respect to other types of livestock or grazing conditions? How do the broader processes under “marketization” get redefined by the very different with-respect-to’s?

To claim that over-arching explanations are actually empirical generalizations made across complex cases too often erases away the diversity of responses and emerging practices of importance for policy and management that are modified case by case.

Most important, appeals to generalized processes or state conditions diminishes the centrality of disasters averted through diverse actions of diverse herders. This diminishment leaves us assuming that marketization, commodification, precarity. . .are the chronic crises of real time for herder or farmer. They, we are to assume, take up most of the time that really matters to pastoralists.

But the latter is the case only if the with-respect-to scenarios demonstrate how these broad processes preoccupy real time because herders have failed to avert dreaded events altogether.

***

Let me give an example. Andrew Barry, British sociologist, reports a finding in his article, “What is an environmental problem?,” from his research in Georgia:

A community liaison officer, working for an oil company, introduced me to a villager who had managed to stop the movement of pipeline construction vehicles near her mountain village in the lesser Caucasus. The construction of the pipeline, she told us in conversation, would prevent her moving livestock between two areas of pastureland. Her protest, which was the first she had ever been involved in, was not recorded in any official or public documents.

Barry found this to be a surprising research event (his terms) and went on to explain at length (internal citations deleted) that

my conversation with the villager pointed to the importance of a localized problem, the impact of the pipeline on her livelihood and that of other villagers, and her consequent direct action, none of which is recorded or made public. This was one of many small, fragmentary indicators that alerted me to the prevalence and significance of direct action by villagers across Georgia in the period of pipeline construction, actions that were generally not accorded significance in published documents, and that were certainly not traceable on the internet. . .At the same time, the mediation of the Georgian company liaison officer who introduced me to the villager was one indicator of the complexity of the relations between the local population, the oil company, and the company’s subcontractors. . .

I believe the phrases, “managed to stop,” “would prevent her moving livestock,” “a localized problem,” “consequent direct action,” “generally not accorded significance,” and “the complexity of the relations” are the core to understanding that disasters-averted remain very real, even if not identified, let alone publicized, by outsiders preoccupied with what hasn’t been averted.

***

So what? How does the argued importance of disasters-averted compel rethinking pastoralist development? One example will have to suffice: the need to recast “pastoralist elites.”

I recently read a fine piece mentioning today’s Pokot elites and Turkana elders in Kenya. When I was there in the early 1980s, they were neither elderly nor elites all. I’m also pretty sure had I interviewed some of them at that time I’d have considered them “poor pastoralists.”

My question then: Under what conditions do pastoralists, initially poor but today better off, become elites in the negative sense of the critics? The answer is important because an over-arching development aim of the 1980s arid and semi-arid lands programs in Kenya was to assist then-poor pastoralists to become better-off.

My own answer to the preceding question would now focus on the disasters averted over time by pastoralists, both those who are today’s elites and those who aren’t. It seems to me essential to establish if equally (resource-) poor pastoralists nonetheless differentiated themselves over time in terms of how they averted disasters that would have befell them had they not managed the ways they did.

Now, of course, some of the poor pastoralists I met in the early 1980s may have been more advantaged than I realized. Of course, I could have been incorrect in identifying them as “poor pastoralists.” Even so, my focus on disasters-averted holds for those who were not advantaged then but are so now.

Principal sources

Barry, A. (2020). What is an environmental problem? In the special issue, “Problematizing the Problematic,” Theory, Culture & Society: 1 – 25.

Krätli, S. (2015) Valuing Variability: New Perspectives on Climate Resilient Drylands Development, London:IIED http://pubs.iied.org/10128IIED.html

—— (2019) Pastoral Development Orientation Framework—Focus on Ethiopia, MISEREOR/IHR Hilfwerk, Aachen: Bischöfliches Hilfswerk MISEREOR e. V.

Nori, M. (2019) Herding Through Uncertainties – Principles and Practices. Exploring the interfaces of pastoralists and uncertainty. Results from a literature review, EUI Working Paper RSCAS 2019/69, San Domenico di Fiesole: European University Institute

—— (2019) Herding Through Uncertainties – Regional Perspectives. Exploring the interfaces of pastoralists and uncertainty. Results from a literature review, EUI Working Paper RSCAS 2019/68, San Domenico di Fiesole: European University Institute

—— (2021) The evolving interface between pastoralism and uncertainty: reflecting on cases from three continents, EUI Working Paper RSCAS 2021/16, San Domenico di Fiesole: European University Institute

Roe, E. (2020) A New Policy Narrative for Pastoralism? Pastoralists as Reliability Professionals and Pastoralist Systems as Infrastructure, STEPS Working Paper 113, Brighton: STEPS Centre (available online at https://steps-centre.org/publication/a-new-policy-narrative-for-pastoralism/)

Scoones, I. (2019) What is Uncertainty and Why Does it Matter? STEPS Working Paper 105, Brighton: STEPS Centre.

—— https://aeon.co/essays/what-bankers-should-learn-from-the-traditions-of-pastoralism

Safety, but with respect to what?

. . .[Lucretius] imagines observing, from the safety of the shore, other people who are at peril on the storm-tossed sea. . .

Hans Blumenberg (1997). Shipwreck with Spectator: Paradigm of a metaphor for existence. Translated by Stephen Rendell, The MIT Press: Cambridge, MA

It’s that “from the safety of the shore” that I want to interrogate. The original German, “vom festen Ufer her” (roughly, “from the solid shore”) follows Blumenberg’s point that terra firma was the best place to be according to early Roman users of the shipwreck metaphor. In this entry, though, I want to focus on the ambiguities raised in epigraph’s translation of the phrase.

–Start this way: What are we to make of “lessons learned from past disasters”? Here too some observing from the safety of the shore has been going on.

Having or maintaining a distance from the events being analyzed is a well-known and often touted virtue. So too reflexivity on the part of the observing analyst. Hundreds of publications must await my reading calling for more reflexivity on the part of researchers to the differences between first-hand accounts of disasters and the syntheses of these accounts into lessons (empirical generalizations, principles) for the wider emergency management audience.

–Return now to that word, “safety,” in the epigraph.

Is safety on the ship (say, before the shipwreck) the same kind of safety as on the shore (say, before the earthquake)?

It seems to me that answers like, “in principle safe, even if not having the same practices” or “by virtue of their respective safety cultures, albeit differently,” move to abstraction just at the moment answers, if there are any, require granularity: safety with respect to what?

–So, let’s get specific. Stormy seas and earthquakes both entail being tossed about. Are we unsafe in the same way when tossed across the ship or across the road by the respective events? Are we safer when seeking to mitigate beforehand the effects of being tossed about, even if mitigation meant going back to “safer behind 3000lbs of American steel” or “bigger and safer (but not like the promised Titanic)”?

If we can’t “mitigate” the harmful tossing about later on, then what is mitigation with-respect-to when it comes to being on stormy seas and in the midst of an earthquake? Surely not the storms or the earthquakes themselves, you answer.

–But, why not? One option for some people has to be “get out.” If choice is available (a big if), then consider not working or living in known earthquake zones or avoiding those waters known for typhoons. “It’s really about getting people out of the problem. . .There’s only one answer: Get away,” offered a senior state emergency official we recently interviewed. Think earthquake and storm forecasts like sudden warnings of a dirty bomb.

You counter: But even if people could move out (and, to reiterate, many can’t), they move to new risks and trade-offs. True, but not in the way you mean it.

That informed people still stay even if they can get away tells you something about their preferences for safety with respect to the known unknowns of where they live and work versus safety with respect to unknown-unknowns of doing otherwise. Here the fabled counterfactual, “what would have happened if you had moved,” looks based in some very worrisome assumptions!

Mehr Licht! More light!

The German solar sector conservatively reinforces an inherently unequal global and national political economy, rather than fostering a radically restructured economy that runs on principles of solidarity and sustainability, not profit. Radical democratization and decentralization, the mandatory use of recycled materials, while curbing the power of corporations involved in the political economy of energy, with a strict (and strictly enforced) ban of all trade of electronic and other toxic waste together with fundamentally reformed regulations on trade of energy manufacturing resources prioritizing ecological and social justice concerns, might be a start.

“Might be a start”? A solitary “might be” to conclude a long set of spot-on criticisms?

So comes to end another article where it should have started. Readers already know we need radical restructuring and the rest. Many could and would add to this list of desirables.

But someone tell us: How are we to get there? What are the best practices across a diversity of sites that work to achieve behaving better–economically and democratically and regulatorily?

Another virtue in reviewing really-existing better practices widely “might be” to demonstrate that solar renewables are the last thing a good number of sites need worry about.

**Famously, “Mehr Licht!” are said to be Goethe’s last words. Citation available on request.

A must-read for policy and management types

Mass Incarceration: The Whole Pie 2022 (short report)
By Wendy Sawyer and Peter Wagner, Prison Policy Institute

https://www.prisonpolicy.org/reports/pie2022.html

“The United States has the dubious distinction of having the highest incarceration rate in the world. Looking at the big picture of the 1.9 million people locked up in the United States on any given day, we can see that something needs to change.”

They call it “apophenia”: Mar-a-Lago and me

–Apophenia is finding connections and patterns that do not exist, as in conspiracy theories. At this point, apophenia is important to me for several reasons.

First, I spent this past Friday absorbed with countering alt-right conspiracy theories in the comment sections of the Wall Street Journal and Financial Times. The articles concerned were about efforts to bring a former president to account and I was scrolling continuously across multiple links to see “likes” and responses to my own comments.

More was going on, it turns out. When talking to a friend a few days after I realized total absorption was my way of coping with learning the day before (Thursday) that a new treatment was needed for my wife’s metastatic cancer. A connection that wasn’t there, at least for me on Friday, is there for me now.

–Yet, even more has been going in this blog with respect to apophenia. Previous entries have made a virtue and practice of connecting points that are not conventionally connected in order to see policy and management issues anew or in less familiar light.

So, then: What’s the difference between their apophenia and mine?

–Clearly, they have a claim to the use-value of their revealed connections as much as I do for mine. I could insist that, whereas they actually believe their connections exist, I crudely put am shooting the bull to see what sticks. But that won’t do, because the connections I make also exist, really, for me.

Adorno starting an opera on Tom Sawyer, Picasso painting Buffalo Bill Cody, Sartre preparing a screenplay on Freud, Benjamin Britten facing the prospect of becoming a bandmaster (or Samuel Beckett a commercial airplane pilot), Coleridge and fellow poet Robert Southey planning an egalitarian community on shores of the Susquehanna, Goethe’s plan to clean up the streets of Venice, Kafka drafting rules for a socialist workers’ cooperative, and Abraham Lincoln and Hedy Lamarr securing their respective patents–all are connected in the sense they and this sequence resonate for me. Even though the concatenated clauses have not appeared before or been considered as such. (Resonance, in case it needs saying, is not the only kind of interconnectivity.)

–It’s closer to the truth to say the apophenia I’m criticizing is offered up in the form of one-right answers. For these alt-right commentators, there is a direct connection between, say, the “could-have-been murder” suicide of Vince Foster and the FBI raid of Mar-a-Lago, and we need look no further than to the Democrats.

Even if they can’t prove the link, “it could have been and you can’t prove otherwise” renders what they are saying self-evident to them. On top of it, comment threads are a genre where one’s values must shine brightly through all the mess.

The policy world I’m familiar with is more complex and uncertain, and so too the interconnections through arbitrary juxtapositions. But that is too easy to say as well. It sounds much like the conversation-stopper, “It’s complex.” “Yes, but” is the more appropriate response.

–Yes, it’s more complex than the one-answer-only comment threads (right, left or whatever).

But this begs several important questions, one being: What are really-existing political and economic arrangements for taking social complexity and human fallibility seriously, and what do we learn from their politics for managing under conditions of the Anthropocene? Worse yet, how much harm is being done by one-answer-only approaches that end up being the price few of the rest of us ever thought we’d have to pay?

Those are far more difficult question to answer. Yet, as we’re all necessarily amateurs when it comes to this challenge, so too are we then apprentices learning at different rates.

What is evident, however, is no apprenticeship needed in one-answer-only comment-threads! Their poverty isn’t that the comments are exaggerations or wrong. It’s that they’re no-go areas for new ideas to soften up or recast what they, self-defeating, render polarized or intractable. They both impoverish and are impoverished at the same time. One is reminded of the expression, “so poor that a bird wouldn’t shit on it.”

“Taking back control”?

–People seeking complete control of uncertain task environments pay a “control premium,” like the poverty premium (where poor people have to pay more for key services, such as insurance, credit, energy, shelter). Control strategies cost them—and us—more than would be the case were they able to cope ahead or manage the uncertainty.

Indeed, their controlling behavior shifts the costs onto the others. They might as well be demanding money with menaces from us.

–Here’s a different analogy to reinforce the point. Compare algorithmic decisionmaking (ADM) and the current technology for gene editing known by the acronym, CRISPR. When it comes to ADM, the worry is that we don’t know how the algorithm works. What’s happening, we ask, because of the cultural biases imported via the original data into the algorithm? As for CRISPR, the worry is that, even when we know that this rather that gene is being edited, we’re still not sure it’s the right thing to do.

Suppose we had a CRISPR for ADM: We could go into the algorithm and excise cultural bias. But even then you’d have to worry about, e.g., what is bias to some is not to others. For that matter, is there any doubt that a new mechanism promising greater control in addressing one worry won’t produce another worry, equally if not more important?

The short and not-too-sweet is: Control cannot answer the questions control poses.

–So what?

It’s hard to believe, for example, that all the talk about artificial intelligence (AI) “controlling” behavior will not need to be far more nuanced and contextual, when it comes to policy and management.

Consider underwater oil and gas exploration. Alarms produced by autonomous systems during turbulent seas have often turned out to be false alarms occurring. Indeed, and this is the important point, operating at a higher level of autonomy and having to cope with recurring false alarms may no longer permit the real-time operators to revert, just-in-time, to lower levels of autonomy, e.g., managing (not “controlling”) via more manual operations, as and when nothing else works.