True by faith, true by reason: Averroës doctrine of the double truth, modern style

I keep being told that infrastructures are complex technologies, when they’re manifestly socio-technical and not just because the technologies have to be managed (think: risk as constructed).

We’re to believe regular operations are routine operations, but if routine means invariant, there is nothing invariant about normal infrastructure operations.

System reliability is probabilistic in the view of engineers, even though control room operators act deterministically, i.e., there’s a point at which system reliability cannot be traded off against other factors or else people would die.

I was assured that for tractability purposes, the modeling of infrastructure operations could have two stages, normal and failed. In fact the temporary disruption of systemwide services–hardly ever modeled–identifies highly relevant conditions for returning to normal operations or tipping over into failure.

Engineers also said the probability of infrastructure failure during post-disaster recovery of assets and operations was higher than the probability of failure during normal operations. Think: re-energizing line by line during a table-top Black Start exercise. Actually, nonmeasurable uncertainties–nothing like probabilities–are faced by operators post-disaster (the Black Start exercises assume no asset destruction, as improbable as that is).

And then there are all those “I-say-so” terms used without so much as a “with respect to what.” Consider the frequent “restore.” What’s it with respect to: interrupted services restored back to normal? Or services to be initially restored after major system failure? Or key equipment or facilities restored after a non-routine outage as part of normal maintenance and repair activities?

Frustrated herders

I dislike being herded into certainty

Louise Glück, Nobel poet

Inability to tolerate empty spaces limits the space available

W.R. Bion, psychoanalyst

I

How is it that we outsiders–researchers, NGOs, government officials–can be certain about pastoralist wants and needs? One answer is that pastoralists tell us what’s what.

Another answer, the one I explore here, is when pastoralists do no such thing. Even if they say, “This is what we want and need,” there are important occasions where they are no are more omniscient about their needs and wants than are the researchers, NGO personnel and government officials, or for that matter the rest of us.

On the upside, a continuing asking and answering can clarify the respective needs and wants–even if in unpredictable or uncontrollable ways by those involved.

II

So much for the obvious. I want to go on and suggest, however, that the terms, “needs and wants,” do more a disservice when it comes to pastoralists living with and on uncertainty as I understand it.

The problem is when needs and wants fit too easily in with the language game of deprivation and gratification. In this view, pastoralist needs and wants are deprivations that continue and only change when gratified. Each term implies a future, and both terms imply something can be predicted. Policy types and NGOs, I think, are more apt than not to treat needs and wants as a species of prediction, for which planning and its cognates are suitable responses.

I also think any such notion isn’t helpful in the cases with which I am familiar. The reality of contingency is that the future, let alone the present, is not predictable. In this reality, peoples’ needs are more an experiment than something to be met, fulfilled, gratified or not.

That in turn means interactions among policymakers, NGO and researchers with pastoralists are themselves to be recast as experimental, at least in the sense that policies, projects and programs are about how the parties concerned weather their interactions.

III

Let me sketch three of the policy and management implications:

1. First and foremost, frustration of wants and needs–be they pastoralist, NGO, researcher, or government–is more to the point than deprivation and gratification.

Frustration not only because needs and wants aren’t fulfilled, but also frustration over having to figure what the needs and wants really are. Researchers are frustrated, pastoralists are frustrated, NGO staff are frustrated, and so too some government officials.

The good news is when learning to handle frustrations, induced with government and NGO interventions, means having to think more about what works and that more thinking means better handling of inevitable frustrations ahead. (“When” indicates no promises that either happen.) This applies as much to their researchers as it does to the pastoralists they study. So too for others involved.

Better handling contingent frustrations and living with/on uncertainty obviously overlap–but not completely. To my mind, a center of gravity around frustration highlights what’s missing in notions of “resilience in the face of uncertainty.”

Handling frustrations better is about what you–you, me, pastoralist, NGO staff person, researcher, government official–do between bouncing back and bouncing forward. Namely, the gap between having to be resilient and actually being resilient is, in a word, frustrating–and how to make that productively so is a core development question (pastoralist or other).

Another way to put it is that “uncertainty causes frustration” happens in ways significantly different. There are those brought up short by unexpected contingencies in major shocks and surprises and are frustrated in moving beyond them. There are others who depend on major shocks and surprises in order to demonstrate how capable they are in moving on. We interviewed emergency managers who said they were best when careful prior planning made a difference in disaster response. Others, however, felt that wasn’t enough. As an emergency planner and coordinator put it, “I think what makes a good emergency manager is you feel uncomfortable being off-balance. . .That’s one of the reasons I was drawn to the field. When nobody has the answer that’s when I feel most capable in my job”.

2. Still, saying we have to handle frustrations without being paralyzed or stalemated sounds like a bit too much like ego-psychology and self-help.

I’m arguing, though, that these frustrations are better appreciated when recast as the core driver of relationships between and among pastoralists, researchers, NGOs and government staff. Bluntly stated, this is how the principal sides know they are in a relationship: They pose problems for the other and when those problems are frustrating, the salience of the relationship(s) increases for more parties.

This is why I make it such a big issue about just who are pastoralists talking to. Are they actually frustrated with this really-existing government official or that actually-existing NGO staff person? Who in government, if anybody, are pastoralist kith and kin talking to or want to talk to? Are they in a relationship, however, asymmetrical, or is it that others are just a nuisance, if that? Is the researcher actually frustrated with the pastoralists s/he is studying and, if so, in what ways is that frustration keeping their relationship going? Here too it is important, I think, to distinguish between those skilled in riding uncertainties and allied frustrations and those whose skills in relationships or otherwise are elsewhere.

(To be clear: I’m talking about better handling frustrations by not avoiding or trying to escape them. What bothers me are those descriptions on out-migration to Europe from the Sahel where migrants who survive seem portrayed in terms of victim-as-escape artist. Some may indeed be escaping; others, I suspect, are better understood, more formally, as managing frustrations in relations that persist.)

3. So what?

I have to be careful here not to generalize. Obviously, there are many effective policy types, NGOs, researchers and pastoralists.

To me as a policy type, it’s highly problematic recommending that government officials and NGO staff be in an authentic conversation with pastoralists taking the lead, if and when those doing the recommending are not themselves in an authentic conversation with government and the NGOs. This is particularly the case where pastoralists bear all the risks if and when those recommendations go wrong.

My reading of current peer-reviewed literature suggests, by way of example, that some researchers want nothing (more) to do with status-quo governments and savior-NGOs, who in the view of the researchers would be to blame anyway were mistakes not caught beforehand during the recommended changes. Again, I do not want to be seen as generalizing here.

IV

Which neatly segues into: Where am I in all the above? Am I taking a synoptic view above and beyond the frustrations below? No way!

I too write from frustration. I too cannot know myself, because I cannot be everyone else in relationship to me. The paragraphs above are my best take. I don’t doubt this take would be different–must change–had interactions differed along the way during my career and in my reading to this point.

The broader point, though, remains: Does any of this relate to your experience, and if so, how so?


NB. As for my reading, the books of Adam Phillips, psychoanalyst and essayist, are reflected in almost every sentence above, either by way of direct crib or light paraphrase.

Sam Bankman-Fried, FTX and risk management

I

To live is to manage risk. But what then to make of Sam Bank-Friedman’s cryptocurrency debacle?

“I wasn’t even trying, like, I wasn’t spending any time or effort trying to manage risk on FTX,” Mr. Bankman-Fried said in an interview. Echoed a co-head of digital asset trading in Citigroup about FTX, “The thing that I picked up on immediately that was causing us heartburn was the complete lack of a risk-management framework that they could articulate in any meaningful way.”

Before it was the wrong framework for managing risks; now the problem is having no framework at all. But how could FTX not have risk managers, albeit of sorts and not formalized?

II

In answer, let’s recast the issue in a different way. Risk and risk managers were around long before risk management frameworks and registries had been formalized. Think Christians being around from the time of Jesus to formalizing the Scriptures in 4th century AD at the Council of Nicaea, How did Christians operate in the 300 years between? Can we think of Bank-Friedman and his FTX colleagues (and other cult-entrepreneurs) in the same way as these early Christians?

If we did, one question would be: What does the FTX debacle herald for risk management frameworks going ahead? The equivalent of more Pauline conversions? No wonder the guardians of current frameworks might want to convince us the FTX debacle has nothing to offer.

A linchpin between efficiency and equality is infrastructure reliability

I

A good deal has been written arguing that economic efficiency and equality in economic well-being can move in the same direction (e.g., healthier people are more economically productive). But the dominant view remains the two are in The Big Tradeoff: more equality means less efficiency. Most economists have shifted little from the postulate that efficiency assumes market-clearing prices based on whatever distribution of wealth and income is in place, where to privilege one distribution over another isn’t really what economics is all about.

All this is curious from the perspective of the social sciences: Why would anyone take a movement in efficiency (or equality) to be caused by a movement in the other rather than caused by some intervening variable affecting both efficiency and equality independently?

II

More institutionally-informed economists say they do talk about such intervening variables as critical infrastructure reliability, at least in the form of secure property rights that underpin gains in economic efficiency. Those, nevertheless, are second-order considerations. For when economists talk about the necessity of “secure property rights,” what they really mean is a hugely reliable contract law, insurance and title registration infrastructure is in place and “always on.”

Could it also be, for example, that consumption is frequently less unequal than income precisely because critical infrastructures have been more reliable and more efficient when it comes to the delivery and distribution of goods and services than they have been in the creation and generation of income opportunities for those doing the consuming?

“Soon, no human will know the answer”

I

A good friend wasn’t trying to be provocative when he told me that a clear sign a field had lost its energy was when its discussions were everywhere overtaken by ethics. If it’s energy you’re looking for, he went on to add, look to the boundaries with other fields in competition with it. His example of the latter was Herbert Simon’s move into artificial intelligence.

So, as a thought experiment, let’s ask: With all this attention to AI ethics, is AI actually a moribund field in ways not commonly supposed?

As the ethicists are also talking about sub-fields like machine learning (ML) and algorithmic decisionmaking (ADM), are these moribund in ways we–that is, those of us who become instant experts in AI by reading the secondary literature–do not comprehend?

For example, rapid obsolescence of software and equipment used in ML and ADM is a topic that, at least to this point (and I stand to be corrected), hasn’t been given as much attention as readers might expect. To my mind, this topic is more important that transparency or fairness, since obsolescence changes the “with-respect-to-what’s” of the latter.

II

So what? Just what analytic purchase do we get parsing AI ethics through the lens of obsolescence?

Well, one thing you get is a track record. Here is W. Daniel Hillis, computer scientist and inventor, writing in 2010:

I want to be clear that I am not complaining about technical ignorance. In an Internet-connected world, it is almost impossible to keep track of how systems actually function. Your telephone conversation may be delivered over analog lines one day and by the Internet the next. Your airplane route may be chosen by a computer or a human being, or (most likely) some combination of both. Don’t bother asking, because any answer you get is likely to be wrong.

Soon, no human will know the answer.

https://www.edge.org/response-detail/10707

In short, exactly the kind of not-knowing AI portends has been going on for years.

What then is the record of all this and other such software being replaced or upgraded? Is it that the software was no longer working or that something better came along, or both or something else altogether? In short: How would studying this track record not contribute to really-existing AI ethics?

Another article ends where it should have started

I

. . . .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“? An anemic “might be” to conclude a long set of spot-on criticisms? So comes to end another article where it should have started.

II

Why? Because readers already know we need radical restructuring. Many could and would add to this list of desirables.

So then the question remains as it has been for a very long time: how are we to get there? What are the better practices across a wide spectrum of sites that work to achieve behaving better–economically and democratically and regulatorily?

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

Three selections from the work of Maarten Vanden Eynde, Belgian artist (resent)

Buy, borrow or otherwise acquire Digging Up The Future by Maarten Vanden Eynde (2020, Maastricht University Press) or go first to his website, https://www.maartenvandeneynde.com/. This artist is so very relevant to today’s environmental policies, or what passes for them.

Below are reproduced (apologies for the poor digital quality) three selections, verbatim, from the book and found at the website:

Restauration du lac de Montbel

“Every year the Montbel lake in the southwest of France, dries out a bit more. This is partly due to global warming and partly to the use of the lake by local fire department helicopters in fighting nearby forest fires. In a vain attempt to restore something that is broken both physically and metaphorically, Maarten Vanden Eynde tries to repair the bottom of the lake by filling up the cracks with plaster. The gesture, documented in this photograph, is of course futile and to no avail.

“‘Restauration du lac de Montbel’ hints at the loss of knowledge that is an inherent result and part of the passing of time. Consequently we are all doomed to make ridiculous gestures and draw false or incomplete conclusions in the future, because objective knowledge will always be outnumbered by subjective (mis)interpretation.”

(from https://www.maartenvandeneynde.com/?rd_project=11&lang=en)

Homo stupidus stupidus

Homo Stupidus Stupidus (2008), MuHKA, Antwerp, Belgium, 2012 (photo: Maarten Vanden Eynde)

”Homo stupidus stupidus’ is a human skeleton that has been taken apart and put back together again in a different and rather puzzling shape that bears little relationship to human anatomy despite our knowledge of it. It is a critical comment on the human arrogance that declares itself doubly wise – Homo sapiens sapiens – and names after itself an entire geological era, the Anthropocene, to represent its own influence on Earth. ‘Homo stupidus stupidus’ questions the extent of human self-awareness, of self-knowledge of where we come from, how we evolved, and where we are going. The work symbolises our inherent failure in understanding ourselves or predicating our future on the basis of our past and present.”

(from https://www.maartenvandeneynde.com/?rd_project=336&lang=en)

Genetologic Research no. 2 & 4

Genetologic Research Nr. 2&4 (2003), TENT, Rotterdam, The Netherlands, 2003 (photo: Wouter Osterholt)

“Lengths of wood from different trees are glued together so as to resemblea tree trunk. The growth rings are matched together like a puzzle, as if an attempt has been made to recreate a tree’s original shape without any surviving point of reference, the growth rings being the only visible guidelines available. ‘Genetologic Research no. 2 & 4’ are among the earliest examples of an imaginary journey into a fictional future past, where knowledge is lacking and frames of reference are flawed.”

(from https://www.maartenvandeneynde.com/?rd_project=66&lang=en)

Rethinking crisis scenarios and response

Thinking differently about the unimaginable

The above reads as if an oxymoron, but “thinking about the unthinkable” is a longstanding genre for crisis scenarios.

First, there is the predictably unimaginable that comes with new categories and convention. Think here of “violent crime” as a legal category in the US that didn’t exist prior to the 1970s. “Speaking of ‘political prisoners’ had become such a major political criticism that it was no longer possible to imagine it as a legal category,” concludes another. That there are ahead new categories and conventions that we don’t imagine is, frankly, quite predictable.

Second, that there are already existing but different analogies to redescribe current policy problems is also predictable. The Green New Deal has most often been likened to Roosevelt’s New Deal. It’s also been likened to the Civil Rights Movement, 19th century abolitionism, and the war economy of the Bolshevik Revolution. There should be no doubt that the climate emergency has been or will be compared to many other events you and I won’t imagine until that comparison is made.

Third, earthquakes with unimaginable impacts are predicted all the time. That in fact is the genre convention. It’s no different than predicting that experience after my death will be the same as experience before my being conceived.

Thinking differently about implementation scenarios

The authors of a fine report conclude that significant gaps exist between what’s proposed in the EU AI Act (concerning artificial intelligence) and the existing EU digital legislation (formally “the digital acquis”):

We identify eight key areas where challenges may emerge, and make the following policy recommendations: 1) there is a need to clarify and align the terminology with the legal categories and notions in existing EU legislation related to AI; 2) negotiators should ensure better fine-tuning of the interactions of the act with sector-specific rules (notably in the health sector); 3) the act should be made consistent with EU data protection rules, for example regarding the lawfulness of personal data processing; 4) the act’s risk-based approach features a number of loopholes that need to be addressed to improve legal certainty for AI providers and users; 5) while the act aims to complement existing product safety rules, it requires more detailed provisions to allow for meaningful integration with EU acquis; 6) the act introduces a weak enforcement scheme, which should be strengthened and aligned with other digital policies; 7) EU legislators should tackle the growing divergence between the stated goals of the act and emerging data transfer rules; and 8) the act would benefit from exemptions aimed at promoting scientific research.

Bogucki, A., A. Engler, C. Perarnaud, and A. Renda (2022). THE AI ACT AND EMERGING EU DIGITAL ACQUIS: Overlaps, gaps and inconsistencies. CEPS: Brussels (accessed online on November 3 2022 at https://www.ceps.eu/ceps-publications/the-ai-act-and-emerging-eu-digital-acquis/)

In my view, the first question we ask is not, “Who’s going to adopt the recommendations and, if so, with what modifications?” but rather: “Who would implement the finalized recommendations and what are implementors’ scenarios for failing to do so?” This acknowledges the longstanding role of implementation as de facto policymaking.

Thinking differently about pre-disaster mitigations

I

How do you choose which bridges to retrofit now and just ahead, when so many major ones here could fail in the next big earthquake?

That question is misformulated and its answers accordingly misleading.

II

Retrofitting a bridge pre-disaster isn’t a chancy wager on what might or might not happen to the bridge. Retrofitting is managing latent interconnectivities between bridges and other infrastructures that become manifest during and immediately after the disaster. That inter-infrastructural connections will shift and these shifts will involve bridges is far more predictable than this or that bridge will fail, unless retrofitted.

This means attention is crucial to the track record in retrofitting bridges before and after disasters, here and elsewhere. Note the implication: Retrofitting has to occur in order to have a track record to monitor and learn from.

Since there are real material and cognitive limits on controlling inter-infrastructural connectivity at any point in time, doing more by way of managing the pre-disaster latency of interconnectivities is elemental. An interviewee with engineering and management experience told us their city water infrastructure was behind the electricity utility in the adoption of automatic shut-off valves. Bringing water systems up to power’s better practices is a way of managing latent interconnectivity in advance of disaster.

III

In other words, the question we should be asking is more akin to: “What have we learned, here or under like conditions elsewhere, that actually works in better managing latent interconnectivity for post-disaster response and recovery?”

Thinking differently about risk management for crises

I

To live is to manage risk. But what then to make of the debacle of Sam Bank-Friedman’s cryptocurrency firm?

“I wasn’t even trying, like, I wasn’t spending any time or effort trying to manage risk on FTX,” Mr. Bankman-Fried said in an interview. Echoed a co-head of digital asset trading in Citigroup about FTX, “The thing that I picked up on immediately that was causing us heartburn was the complete lack of a risk-management framework that they could articulate in any meaningful way.”

Before it was the wrong framework for managing risks; now the problem is having no framework at all. But how could FTX not have risk managers, albeit of sorts and not formalized?

II

In answer, let’s recast the issue. Risk and risk managers were around long before risk management frameworks and registries had been formalized. Think Christians being around from the time of Jesus to the time of formalizing the Scriptures in 4th century AD at the Council of Nicaea, How did Christians operate in the 300 years between? Can we think of Bank-Friedman and his FTX colleagues (and other cult-entrepreneurs) in the same way as these early Christians?

If we did, one question would be: What does the FTX debacle herald for risk management frameworks going ahead? No wonder the guardians of current frameworks might want to convince us the FTX debacle has nothing to offer.

Thinking differently about crisis leadership

The literature on crisis leadership is largely top down (leaders direct) or bottom up (self-organizing crisis response), where networks are said to be vertical (hierarchical) or horizontal (laterally interacting leaders).

We add a third category: control rooms, and not just in terms of Incident Command Centers during the emergency but already-existing infrastructure control rooms whose staff continue to operate during the emergency.

Paul Schulman and I argue control rooms are a unique organizational formation meriting society protection, even during (especially during) continued turbulence. They have evolved to take hard systemwide decisions under difficult conditions that require a decision, now. Adding this third is to insist on real-time large-system management as the prevention of major failures and thus crises that would have happened had not control room managers, operators and support staff prevented them.

Thinking differently about predictions

As I remember the too-ing and fro-ing over the introduction of Bt cotton in India, saving on insecticides was the putative plus and runaway GM crops the putative negative. I know nothing about the subsequent record but suspect that the findings must be differentiated, as any such findings, by region and other demographics.

All this came back to me when I read the following passage describing a recent conference paper on Bt cotton:

Ambarish Karamchedu presented on Dried up Bt cotton narratives: climate, debt and distressed livelihoods in semi-arid smallholder India. Proponents of this ‘technical fix’ position GMO crops as a triple win. India has semi-arid and arid areas where rural poverty is concentrated, with an intense monsoon season (3-4 months), making farming a challenge. BT cotton introduced around 1995, thrives here. India is the biggest cotton cultivator and Bt cotton is grown by 7 million smallholder farmers, 66 percent in semi-arid areas with poor soils and low rainfall prone to monsoon. In Telangana, 65% of farmers across all classes produce BT cotton, with good harvests for 5 years, after which they decline. Failure of farmers who face increased input prices have to resort to non-farm incomes. The triple win technological fix narrative perpetuates and exacerbates the problems it seeks to solve, and benefits farmer institutions rather than enriching farmer knowledge and practice.

https://drive.google.com/drive/folders/1VfvjJlxB9VPKQj55dNbZ_VH6oPi2IEVd

It’s that “with good harvests for 5 years, after which they decline” that grabbed my attention. Did anyone predict that, be they proponents or opponents of Bt cotton?

This matters, because in the absence of any such prediction, why not also conclude: “Well, five years is five years more than expected?”

Thinking differently about luck in infrastructure crises

Ensuring systemwide service reliability has always involved luck in major critical infrastructures. This, the control room operators, will tell you. At its most abstract, good luck can be defined as the non-occurrence of system failure in the absence of exercising failure avoidance options, while bad luck is the occurrence of failure in the presence of exercising those options.

But luck also favors the well-prepared, and well-prepared operators make a difference. Consider how a senior operations engineer for a transmission grid described a close call to us:

. . . We nearly caused a voltage collapse all over the western grid. Everything was going up and down, we were trying to get power from all the nuclear units in the western grid. Life flashed before our eyes. And then the gen dispatcher did intuitively the right thing. He said, Shut one pump down. How he figured that, I still don’t understand. It was something we had never seen before. We had no procedures. . .We went back and looked at it, and the planner said, Oh yeah, you should never have been running three pumps, and we said, Where did you get that from? So we started writing new procedures.

When talent meets opportunity, the value added by professionals is stopping close calls and near misses from becoming system failures. That there can be no guarantees makes this “luck”.

Thinking differently about wake-up calls

I

It’s easy enough to take “right, center and left” and make a linear continuum: as when politics moves from the right through the center into the left.

But the straight line becomes V-shaped, when the center is stretched and pulled away from the other two ends, as when the sequence, beginning-middle-end of a story, is made to sag, like a hammock.

Think here of the time-consuming catch-up to the contingencies that come our way in medias res, rendering beginnings long gone (or always disputed) and ends further off than our stories assumed at the start.

That’s what wake-up calls do when they identify intervening crises that stretch time and space out of shape between thought-to-be beginnings and thought-to-be endings.

II

For example, the Covid-19 pandemic was reported to us by several emergency managers as “a wake-up call” with respect to the interconnectivities and vulnerabilities among water, electricity, roads and other backbone infrastructures in Oregon and Washington State. In the view of a very experienced emergency management expert, “the one thing that the pandemic is bringing out is a higher definition of how these things are interconnected and they’re not totally visible”.

Covid-19 response made clearer that backbone infrastructures, especially electricity, are “extremely dated and fragile” in the view of experienced interviewees (e.g. in Oregon). So too shortages in road staff in the aftermath of a vaccine mandate were mentioned by a state emergency manager for transportation as making it harder to undertake operations. Covid-19 responses also put a brake on infrastructure and emergency management initiatives already in the pipeline (e.g., preventative maintenance), according to multiple respondents.

The pandemic combined at the same time with other emergencies. A heat dome episode required a treatment plant’s staff not to work outside, but in so doing created Covid-19 distancing issues inside. The intersection of lockdowns and winter ice storms increased restoration times of some electrical crews, reported a state director of emergency management for energy. A vaccination mandate on city staff added uncertainty over personnel available for line services. Who gets to work at home and who gets to work in the plant also created issues.

“We struggled with working with contractors and vendors” over the vaccine mandate, said a state emergency manager for roads: “If we had a catastrophic disaster three months ago that would have been a challenge for us to work through.”

“All [Covid-19] planning happened on the fly, we were building the plane as it moved, we’d never seen anything like this,” said a state logistics manager of their early response. The interviewee added: “Covid is so unique and out of the box that we’ve developed rules and processes that we’re only going to use during Covid because they don’t make sense in any other disaster”.

In other words, the Covid-19 pandemic was a wake-up call to front-line managers about interconnectivities, but not even a rehearsal for what is also to come their way in terms of other crises (including the much-predicted catastrophe of the magnitude 9.0 earthquake off the two states’ coastline).

III

Many crises are, I would submit, V-shaped, notwithstanding their linear scenarios. So what?

Minimally, it means that table-top exercises (a.k.a. rehearsals) based on beginning-middle-end crisis scenarios will inevitably be less V-shaped than needed. This is not to say the former are not useful. It is to say that the most useful table-tops are likely to be wake-up calls to more crises or different ones than thought pre-tabletop–and requiring nowNOW attention also.

The point is that we are once again back to a key narrative discrepancy in crisis scenarios—between the stated urgency to DO SOMETHING NOW on the one side, and the stated requirement to do so safely with respect to the ends in sight on the other side—while all the time recognizing that both requirements are urged on us and underwritten by the very same unpredictability at the very same scale of analysis, the system level.

On one hand, we have to experiment even if it risks the limits of survival; on the other hand, being safe means no error should ever be the last trial. This is a discrepancy because it can’t be written off or talked out of; it has to be managed as one of the messes we are in. That indeed, or so I believe, is the wake-up call of all wake-up calls.

Source: The research, from which are drawn interviewee quotes, is supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant 2121528.

Wake-up calls make linear crisis scenarios V-shaped

I

It’s easy enough to take “right, center and left” and make a linear continuum: as when politics moves from the right through the center into the left.

But the straight line becomes V-shaped, when the center is stretched and pulled away from the other two ends, as when the sequence, beginning-middle-end of a story, is made to sag, like a hammock.

Think here of the time-consuming catch-up to the contingencies that come our way in medias res, rendering beginnings long gone (or always disputed) and ends further off than our stories assumed at the start.

That’s what wake-up calls do when they identify intervening crises that stretch time and space out of shape between thought-to-be beginnings and thought-to-be endings.

II

For example, the Covid-19 pandemic was reported to us by several emergency managers as “a wake-up call” with respect to the interconnectivities and vulnerabilities among water, electricity, roads and other backbone infrastructures in Oregon and Washington State. In the view of a very experienced emergency management expert, “the one thing that the pandemic is bringing out is a higher definition of how these things are interconnected and they’re not totally visible”.

Covid-19 response made clearer that backbone infrastructures, especially electricity, are “extremely dated and fragile” in the view of experienced interviewees (e.g. in Oregon). So too shortages in road staff in the aftermath of a vaccine mandate were mentioned by a state emergency manager for transportation as making it harder to undertake operations. Covid-19 responses also put a brake on infrastructure and emergency management initiatives already in the pipeline (e.g., preventative maintenance), according to multiple respondents.

The pandemic combined at the same time with other emergencies. A heat dome episode required a treatment plant’s staff not to work outside, but in so doing created Covid-19 distancing issues inside. The intersection of lockdowns and winter ice storms increased restoration times of some electrical crews, reported a state director of emergency management for energy. A vaccination mandate on city staff added uncertainty over personnel available for line services. Who gets to work at home and who gets to work in the plant also created issues.

“We struggled with working with contractors and vendors” over the vaccine mandate, said a state emergency manager for roads: “If we had a catastrophic disaster three months ago that would have been a challenge for us to work through.”

“All [Covid-19] planning happened on the fly, we were building the plane as it moved, we’d never seen anything like this,” said a state logistics manager of their early response. The interviewee added: “Covid is so unique and out of the box that we’ve developed rules and processes that we’re only going to use during Covid because they don’t make sense in any other disaster”.

In other words, the Covid-19 pandemic was a wake-up call to front-line managers about interconnectivities, but not even a rehearsal for what is also to come their way in terms of other crises (including the much-predicted catastrophe of the magnitude 9.0 earthquake off the two states’ coastline).

III

Many crises are, I would submit, V-shaped, notwithstanding their linear scenarios. So what?

Minimally, it means that table-top exercises (a.k.a. rehearsals) based on beginning-middle-end crisis scenarios will inevitably be less V-shaped than needed. This is not to say the former are not useful. It is to say that the most useful table-tops are likely to be wake-up calls to more crises or different ones than thought pre-tabletop–and requiring nowNOW attention, also.

The point is that we are once again back to a key narrative discrepancy in crisis scenarios—between the stated urgency to DO SOMETHING NOW on the one side, and the stated requirement to do so safely with respect to the ends in sight on the other side—while all the time recognizing that both requirements are urged on us and underwritten by the very same unpredictability at the very same scale of analysis, the system level.

On one hand, we have to experiment even if it risks the limits of survival; on the other hand, being safe means no error should ever be the last trial. This is a discrepancy because it can’t be written off or talked out of; it has to be managed as one of the messes we are in. That indeed, or so I believe, is the wake-up call of all wake-up calls.

Source: The research, from which are drawn interviewee quotes, is supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant 2121528.

Ten examples from the humanities and arts in softening up difficult policy issues for fresh rethinking

I understand why there are all those tracts “in defense of the humanities and arts.” But the direct relevance of the humanities for policy and management has always been obvious, irrespective of the critics and defenders. (Yes, I know: a kind of utopianism.) Here are nine examples from my own practice:

1. Climate emergency parsed through a poem by Jorie Graham

–I liken one of our complexity challenges to that of reading Hardy’s “Convergence of the Twain” as if it were still part of the news (it had been written less than two weeks after the sinking of the Titanic).

So too the challenge of reading the first sequence of poems in Jorie Graham’s Fast (2017, Ecco HarperCollinsPublishers). The 17 pages are extraordinary, not just because of pulse driving her lines, but also for what she evokes. In her unfamiliar words, “we are in systemcide”.

–To read the sequence—“Ashes,” “Honeycomb,” “Deep Water Trawling,” and five others—is to experience all manner of starts—“I spent a lifetime entering”—and conjoined ends (“I say too early too late”) with nary a middle in between (“Quick. You must make up your/answer as you made up your//question.”)

Because hers is no single story, she sees no need to explain or explicate. By not narrativizing the systemicide into the architecture of beginning, middle and end, she prefers, I think, evoking the experience of now-time as end-time:

action unfolded in no temporality--->anticipation floods us but we/never were able--->not for one instant--->to inhabit time… 

She achieves the elision with long dashes or —>; also series of nouns without commas between; and questions-as-assertions no longer needing question marks (“I know you can/see the purchases, but who is it is purchasing me—>can you please track that…”). Enjambment and lines sliced off by wide spaces also remind us things are not running.

–Her lines push and pull across the small bridges of those dashes and arrows. To read this way is to feel, for me, what French poet and essayist, Paul Valery, described in a 1939 lecture:

Each word, each one of the words that allow us to cross the space of a thought so quickly, and follow the impetus of an idea which rates its own expression, seems like one of those light boards thrown across a ditch or over a mountain crevasse to support the passage of a man in quick motion. But may he pass lightly, without stopping—and especially may he not loiter to dance on the thin board to try its resistance! The frail bridge at once breaks or falls, and all goes down into the depths.

The swiftness with which I cross her bridges is my experience of the rush of crisis. I even feel pulled forward to phrases and lines that I haven’t read yet. Since this is my experience of systems going wrong, it doesn’t matter to me whether Graham is a catastrophizer or not. She takes the certainties and makes something still new.

–I disagree about the crisis—for me, it has middles with more mess than beginnings and ends—but that in no way diminishes or circumscribes my sense she’s right when it comes to systemcide: “You have to make it not become/waiting…”

2. Finding value through different genres

–Capitalism, imperialism, militarism, racism, nationalism, atavism: with that line-up, who’s got a chance? Isn’t it better to start at the other end and answer: “What really-existing political conditions and cultural practices allow for the expression of fallibility?”

Why so? Because we want the practice of finding value in things to continue.

–What is finding value ahead? It’s less like a prediction than, pace modern cosmology, a report from a distant planet, wholly like ours except its present has fast forwarded in a way that remains unignorable for ours.

No wonder, then, rapid change isn’t ignored and utopians want something more. No wonder poems matter, since poems favor words many people don’t know and new words can be new worlds. Including worlds uncolonized by our very own historically-contingent “ism’s.”

3. What Shakespeare’s missing lines tell us about war

The playhouse manuscript, Sir Thomas More, has been called “an immensely complex palimpsest of composition, scribal transcription, rewriting, censorship and further additions that features multiple hands”. One of those hands was Shakespeare–and that has contemporary relevance.

–The authoritative Arden Shakespeare text renders a passage from Shakespeare’s Scene 6 as follows (this being Thomas More speaking to a crowd of insurrectionists opposing Henry VIII):

What do you, then,
Rising ’gainst him that God Himself installs,
But rise ’gainst God? What do you to your souls
In doing this? O, desperate as you are,
Wash your foul minds with tears, and those same hands,
That you, like rebels, lift against the peace,
Lift up for peace; and your unreverent knees,
Make them your feet to kneel to be forgiven.
Tell me but this: what rebel captain…

The last two lines, however, had been edited by another of the play’s writers (“Hand C”), deleting the bolded lines Shakespeare had originally written,

Make them your feet. To kneel to be forgiven
Is safer wars than ever you can make
Whose discipline is riot.
In, in to your obedience. While even your hurly
Cannot proceed but by obedience.

What rebel captain….

What has been effaced away by the deletion is, first, the notion that contrition is itself a kind of war and a safer war at that.

–According to the Arden Shakespeare, “The act of contrition might be described as wars because the former rebels would enlist themselves in the struggle of good and evil, and would fight against their own sin of rebellion.” In either case—contrition or rebellion—obedience is required. Actually, nothing was less safe than rebellion whose “discipline is riot”.

What has also been scored out, in other words, from Shakespeare’s original passage is the clear accent on contrition and peace over continued upheaval.

–But the absence of contrition by those involved in the formulation and implementation of war policies is precisely what we have seen and are seeing today.

For to prioritize contrition would mean refocusing obedience from battle to a very different struggle in securing peace and security, a mission in which our ministries of interior and defence are notably inferior, be they in Russia, the US, China or elsewhere.

4. Global Climate Sprawl

You get them wrong before you meet them, while you’re anticipating meeting them; you get them wrong while you’re with them; and then you go home to tell somebody else about the meeting and you get them all wrong again. Since the same generally goes for them with you, the whole thing is really a dazzling illusion empty of all perception, an astonishing farce of misperception. And yet. . .It’s getting them wrong that is living, getting them wrong and wrong and wrong and then, on careful reconsideration, getting them wrong again. That’s how we know we’re alive: we’re wrong.

I want to suggest that Global Climate Change isn’t just a bad mess; it’s a spectacularly, can’t-keep-our-eyes-off-it, awful mess of getting it wrong, again and again. To my mind, GCC is a hot mess–both senses of the term–now sprawled all over place and time. It is inextricably, remorselessly part and parcel of “living way too expansively, generously.”

GCC’s the demonstration of a stunningly profligate human nature. You see the sheer sprawl of it all in the epigraph, Philip Roth’s rant from American Pastoral. So too the elder statesman in T.S. Eliot’s eponymous play admits,

The many many mistakes I have made
My whole life through, mistake upon mistake,
The mistaken attempts to correct mistakes
By methods which proved to be equally mistaken.

That missing comma between “many many” demonstrates the excess: After a point, we no longer can pause, with words and thoughts rushing ahead. (That the wildly different Philip Roth and T.S. Eliot are together on this point indicates the very real mess it is.)

That earlier word, sprawl, takes us to a more magnanimous view of what is going on, as in Les Murray’s “The Quality of Sprawl”:

Sprawl is the quality
of the man who cut down his Rolls-Royce
into a farm utility truck, and sprawl
is what the company lacked when it made repeated efforts
to buy the vehicle back and repair its image.
Sprawl is doing your farming by aeroplane, roughly,
or driving a hitchhiker that extra hundred miles home…

This extravagance and profligacy–the waste–are not ornery contrarianism. For poet, Robert Frost, “waste is another name for generosity of not always being intent on our own advantage”. If I had my druthers, rename it, “GCS:” Global Climate Sprawl.

5. War

–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.”

6. Recasting 9/11 through a Gerhard Richter painting

In a 2002 interview, painter Gerhard Richter was asked if he would paint the 9/11 aircraft terrorists (as he’d done earlier with Baader-Meinhof members): “Definitely not. This horrific form of global terror is something I cannot fathom”.

“September 11 bothered me more than I expected,” Richter admitted later. By 2005, when an interviewer asked about a small painting appearing to show the World Trade Center’s towers, Richter said: “These here are only failed attempts. I couldn’t get this stereotypical image of the two towers, with the some billowing out of them across the deep blue sky, out of my mind.” He went on to say that the painting in question “couldn’t work; only when I destroyed it, so to speak, scratched it off, was it fit to be seen”.

–Below is his September, a 2005 photo-painting of the event and relatively small at approximately 28” x 20”:

The image you are seeing was rendered from a photograph showing the south tower of the World Trade Center as it was hit. The specific photo was, in Richter’s words, “very typical…Colorful—red, yellow, fire” “I painted it first in full colour, and then I had to slowly destroy it. . . ”

“I failed,” he told a friend; the painting “shows my helplessness. In German, my scheitern, failure.”

–A failure? Really? What do you think? Is the painting in a failed state?

Look at September again. Do you see the active, living absence of the deep red and yellow that initially tripped Richter up? By extension, do you see the active, living absence of the new democracies to come into being this century from presently failing states, including—dare we say—parts of the US?

None of that, by way of comparison and conclusion, can be read from Joanne Bartlett’s first-person witness painting of that day, Goodbye Bill,

7. Intertext as the Anthropocene’s long run

I’m first asking you to look and listen to one of my favorites, a short video clip of Anna Caterina Antonacci and Andreas Scholl singing the duet, “I embrace you,” from a Handel opera (the English translation can be found at the end of the clip’s Comments):

Antonacci’s performance will resonate for some with the final scene in Sunset Boulevard, where Gloria Swanson, as the actress Norma Desmond, walks down the staircase toward the camera. But intertextuality–that two-way semi-permeability between genres–is also at work. Antonacci brings the opera diva into Swanson’s actress as much as the reverse, and to hell with anachronism and over-the-top.

–Let’s now bring semi-permeable intertextuality closer to public policy and management. Zakia Salime (2022) provides a rich case study of refusal and resistance by Moroccan villagers to nearby silver mining–in her case, parsed through the lens of what she calls a counter-archive:

My purpose is to show how this embodied refusal. . .was productive of a lived counter-archive that documented, recorded and narrated the story of silver mining through the lens of lived experience. . . .Oral poetry (timnadin), short films, petitions, letters and photographs of detainees disrupted the official story of mining ‘as development’ in state officials’ accounts, with a collection of rebellious activities that exposed the devastation of chemical waste, the diversion of underground water, and the resulting dry collective landholdings. Audio-visual material and documents are still available on the movement’s Moroccan Facebook page, on YouTube and circulating on social media platforms. The [village] water protectors performed refusal and produced it as a living record that assembled bodies, poetic testimonials, objects and documents

https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1111/dech.12726

What, though, when the status quo is itself a counter-archive? Think of all the negative tweets, billions and billions and billions of them. Think of all negative comments on politics, dollars and jerks in the Wall Street Journal or Washington Post. That is, think of these status quo repositories as a counter-archive of “status-quo critique and dissent.”

–So what?

A genre notion of the status quo as counter-archive means that today’s counter-archive is also to be thought of as semi-permeable and in two-way traffic with other genres. Intertextually, today’s status quo not only looks pretty good, it is pretty good compared to the past times of Genghis Khan (think: history as a benchmark genre) and in comparison to post-apocalypse (think: sci-fi as a benchmark genre).

This raises an interesting possibility: a new kind of long-run that is temporally long because it is presently intertextual, indefinitely forwards and back and across different genres.

For example, if the climate emergency is violence and the Big Polluters are culprits, then violent resistance against them is a form of violence reduction if the resistance succeeds. This means the “violence” and the “resistance” are difficult to evaluate, let alone predict, because the long-run over which they are to unfold is itself a current but changing intertext. As in: “the varieties of revolution do not know the secrets of the futures, but proceed as the varieties of capitalism do, exploiting every opening that presents itself”–to paraphrase political philosopher, Georges Sorel.

8. “Ridicule is the only honourable weapon we have left.” Muriel Spark, novelist

I can’t quote them because Heidegger was a Nazi, Pound a Fascist, Sartre a Maoist, Eliot an anti-Semite. I don’t read Foucault because he didn’t care if he infected guys and I don’t read that mystery writer because she’s a convicted killer. I don’t go to baseball games because of the players’ strike way back when and I refuse to watch that man’s films because he’s said to have messed with his own kid.

I don’t buy Nike because of the sweatshops, listen to Wagner because he was a Jew-hater, or have a TV because it makes children violent. I can’t eat tofu because of genetically modified soybeans or cheese because of genetically modified bacteria. I don’t listen to Sinatra because he was a nasty little man or Swarzkopf because she was a collaborator. The U.S. government’s been screwed since Johnson and the Great Society (no, since FDR and the welfare state (no, since Lincoln and the Civil War (no, since Jackson and the Trail of Tears (no, since Jefferson and the Louisiana Purchase (no, since Washington and his plantation slaves…)))).

I don’t trust Freud because he didn’t understand women, Klein because she couldn’t get along with her daughter, Bettelheim because he’s suppose to have hit kids, or Laing because he too wasn’t nice. I think we were never further away from nuclear war than during the Cuban Missile Crisis (only afterwards did Brezhnev insist on nuclear parity). Plus it’s a good thing Japan has lost decades of economic growth or they’d’ve been re-armed by now.

From time to time I’ve wondered if Socrates could go to heaven. Speaking of which, why is Adam painted with a belly button, where in the Bible is the turkey that keeps showing up in those tapestries of Eden and Noah’s Ark, and for that matter why do shadows first show up in early Western art only? Do you really think historical Jesus worried about who licks what where?

Dying means my total annihilation, Too bad for eternity, I say: It doesn’t know what it’s missing. It’s when I’m dead that I become “will always have been.” Still, little gives me quite the exquisite pleasure as knowing my secrets die with me.

Which makes me wonder: Other than the streets, where do squirrels go to die? And whatever happened to pineapple upside-down cake and Saturday drives? I have to wonder, did Wittgenstein read Rabelais: “Utterances are meaningful not by their nature, but by choice”? Can there be anything more mind-numbing than beginning, “In hunting-and-gathering societies. . .”? And just who did say, Freedom is the recognition of necessity (Hegel, Engels, Lenin, who)? E Pluribus Unum: Isn’t that Latin for “Follow the dollar”?

Whatever, every morning I wake up and thank heaven I wasn’t born a minority in this country. If I had a magic wand, I’d solve America’s race problem by giving everybody a master’s degree. I’d make sure they’d all be white, married, professionally employed, and own homes. (BTW, every adult in China should have a car; with all that ingenuity they’d have to come up with a solution to vehicle pollution.)

But then again, I’m quite willing to say that the entire point of human evolution is there hasn’t been any worth speaking of. As for the rest, I suppurate with unease. It’s probably—possibly, plausibly?—wise not to think too much about these things.

9. Reflection and sensibility

–During her last years, artist Joan Eardley (1921-1963) painted seascapes at Catterline, a fishing village on Scotland’s coast. I especially like her The Wave (1961), Seascape (Foam and Sky, 1962), and Summer Sea (1962). What intrigues are the recurring smudges of light and cloud—center or just off center, at or above the horizon. (In other paintings, her glimmers are recognizably moon, sun, blue sky, or sea-spray.)

Four examples give an idea of what I’m talking about (mindful here of the variable quality of digital reproductions):

Summer Sea
A Stormy Sea No. 1
The Wave
Seascape (Foam and Blue Sky)

My eye locks on the rush and scatter of waves, but I’m distracted by those lit clouds above.

I end up thinking about these smudges and glimmers, where the thinking is itself a distraction—in this case the distraction of leaving the painting too early. I stay awhile. From where I look, the clouds are luminous and I wonder, what kinds of reflections do they cast on the seascape below, or on me, out of sight?

–My hesitation is less indecision than a sensibility, I think. It’s not quite the Coleridgean willing suspension of disbelief or a Keatsian negative capability (“when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reasons”).

This version of sensibility needs to be pushed further than that. It’s more like the matrix of conscious connections that would not have otherwise been made were it not for the distraction and an attentiveness to that distraction. Out-of-sight reflection at its best?

–Let’s see if we agree and if we can push the point further.

Below are links to three brief performances. The clips show performers and music taking place on stages of sort, with instruments of sorts. I wager you’ve not seen the clips before and that if you have seen something like them, you’ve never imagined them in this sequence.

I’ve chosen them because the individual pieces seem to reflect–and reflect on–one another, e.g,, Kyung Namchul’s fingers moving across the strings parallel the hands and feet of Denis Matvienko and Leonid Sarafanov moving across the floor parallel Lin Yi’s fan and body flicking together.

Please watch each in its entirety. (As above, I claim no copyright privilege over the below.)

While the performers are known in their own right, the sequence serves as one intertext: Sarafanov plucks floor and air, Kyung flicks the strings, Li dances the fan. Each is inscribed onto the music. Each illuminates the other, and each-together reflects back onto me, its out-of-sight viewer.

That sensitivity feels very much like a sensibility to me, while cognitively the resonance is very much like reflection. Refracted through the collective palimpsest, it is difficult to tell if what’s written is “live” or “love,” “hype” or “hope,” “could” or “would.”

10. Consequences and thought experiments

I

More times than we’d like, formal plans emerge as a by-product of a struggle between contingency and “consequences.” In these cases, people confront not so much discrete events with causal consequences but rather contingencies associated with aftermaths, for neither of which there is much causal understanding.

But, oh, never forget those pressures to come down on the side of consequences, however asymmetrical or outsized, all the time!

II

The ability to identify consequences is core to many professions, including my own, policy analysis. Here in the States it is the spawn of pragmatism (i.e., consequences matter) and rationalism (i.e., the steps in an analysis extend from define the problem through identify the options to predict the consequences of each and chose among the best in terms of predicted outcomes). The difficulty, of course, is predicting consequences.

Thought experiments, in contrast, can challenge a problem definition in ways that offer new insights, options and/or problem definitions. A thought experiment searches out other kinds of “consequences,” perhaps more tractable to the cognitive and affective limits of analysis.

This possibility of tractability is why I hate “formal experiments,” i.e., they succeed when they fail (as in “fail to reject the null hypothesis”). For: What if some failed hypotheses were good-enough futures anyway?

III

In my view then, the attempt to identify consequences can be analogous to trying to find the right word.

Many people assume that writing is all about finding the right word. On the other hand, when asked how he seemed always able to choose the right phrase, the poet responded: “Dear Mr. Stein, I do not choose the right word. I get rid of the wrong one. Period. Sincerely yours, A.E. Houseman.” T.S. Eliot makes the same point, with an important proviso: “It is supposed that the poet, if anybody, is one engaged in perpetual pursuit of the right word. My own experience would be more accurately described as the attempt to avoid the wrong word. For as to the right word, I am not convinced it is anything but a mirage.”

A thought experiment, in other words, is to search out wrong words, the mirage.

Examples fly to mind. Consider some descriptions for the self-correcting, self-regulating, self-healing efficacy of complex adaptive systems. If fireflies can do it, why can’t humans? If fireflies can self-organize and flash in unison, why can’t humans better coordinate and synchronize their behavior? Presumably so too: If earthworms can do it, why can’t humans? If earthworms can move tons of soil, why can’t humans do the same?