I Would Like Some Systems Thinking-Friendly Technology, Please
I am a refugee from the land of soulless tech, seeking sustenance from the land of soulful tech, if such a place exists. It would be ideal if the technology I currently have access to felt like it harnessed my creative power and expanded my ability to get things done. Instead, I experience Microsoft Office, Microsoft Windows, Google Chrome, and Google Docs more like limiting factors with no alternative routes. Moreover, the profit motive puts these apps, platforms and operating systems in an interstitial zone between “tool” and “intruder.” There are some lights in the dark, which I will list at the end of this post, but on the whole I’m hitting a tech wall…especially when it comes to attempting to communicate about Systems Thinking. [Note I am experimenting with capitalizing “Systems Thinking” for the ease of the reader. Feel free to let me know if it helps or hinders you.]
As the image above illustrates, despite the home computer having been around for about 45 years, little has changed in terms of the basic interface: a screen, a keyboard, a mouse. What gives?
Much of today’s technology is limited by three factors that are interrelated:
The great majority of the tools we have access to are developed by companies whose purpose is profit;
The worldview that has formed their creation is largely linear, reductionist, and analytical (as opposed to ecosystem-like);
The interface for routine office-type work is strictly 2D.
We could reasonably add to this list the diversity problem: the majority of programmers are white males (see this article). Greater cultural and gender diversity would lead to greater diversity in creativity, and thus, innovative products. But, greater diversity creates an environment of greater uncertainty, which hits up against the profit purpose, so I’m attributing the continued failure to diversify in tech companies to #1, the profit motive.
I was excited to find this article in Smithsonian, by Valery Landau. Douglas Engelbart, an early computer engineer and inventor of the mouse, had the right idea. But on the whole, the tech industry has gone in a very different direction.
As I saw it, his ideas were so ahead of their time that there was often no language to describe them. When I asked him in 2006 how much of his vision had been achieved, Engelbart answered, “About 2.8 percent.” (Ref)
I can’t entirely blame tech companies for engineering highly predictable tech tools. I get pretty irate when an app comes up with something I wasn’t expecting, like an error. The tools are supposed to be predictable. Systems Thinking is, on the other hand, the realm of the unpredictable; the nonlinear; the creative; the world of awe and wonder and life.
While I have experienced what it is like to create things with certain programs, the limits are close-in. The greater my level of mastery, the further out the limits, but they still feel too tight; the experience remains fairly flat. Maybe the limits are perfectly reasonable. But…it all feels really in-the-box to me, and I hit the sides of that box five days a week as I work toward communicating the vision and promise of Systems Thinking to a wider audience.
I recently had an experience of drawing Sanskrit letters in a couple of different VR programs. Wow! For the first time ever in my life I was able to draw out a letter, and–drum roll–walk around it! I could put my head through it. Grab it. Look up at it. In about five seconds I suddenly had a whole new experience of the power of language; language in three dimensions.
Of the three limiting factors listed above, it’s the 2D thing that annoys me in particular. Beyond petty annoyance, it also feels mentally and creatively constrictive. We’ve moved our economic and, really, almost all information functioning to the screen, such that millions of people sit steeped in a two-dimensional world for eight hours a day (not counting TV time). Hand-written or typewritten documents are also two dimensional. But there are some 3D aspects to physical materials. I can pick up the paper, write on the back, feel its texture, turn the page, fold the corner over, spill things on it, and the instrument I use to write makes an impression on the page I can feel, see and smell.
Sterile, zero-texture, two-dimensional information has a numbing effect on one’s experience of life. If you have any facility at all for discerning spaces of consciousness, you can feel the dramatic difference of going from two dimensions to three; going from typing on this screen to handwriting; going from looking at a photo of a place to looking up and seeing that you are IN that place.
As someone who promotes the systems view, witnessing humanity immersed in two-dimensions for most of their waking hours every day looks exactly like a disaster. If most people are brainwashing themselves into a two-dimensional view, I can’t reasonably expect them to pop into 4-plus dimensions (which is the mind and heart-expanding realm of complexity). Not even if their lives depend on it…which is the crux of the problem.
If we don’t learn to think in systems–and fast–we’re not likely to continue as an interest on Earth.
My Perennial “Database” Problem, and Dream
Over the three years I have run this project, Systems Thinking Marin, I have hit up against a very particular technological barrier.
Time and again I have a project at hand that begins with a need for a simple database. Let’s say I want to list all organizations working on the issue of poverty in Marin County. I go back and forth about what tool to use to build and display that list. At another time I want to list all local Systems Thinking consultants, but again, do I just make a laundry list? A spreadsheet? An Airtable? A Google Sheet? A Kumu?
This even goes into the rest of my life, where for example, I have assisted my partner with creating a spreadsheet of his musical compositions. But short of building our own File Maker Pro database–and even then it wouldn’t necessarily do what we want it to–we can’t seem to find *the* glorious answer. We have to settle for a boring, cumbersome Excel spreadsheet or Google doc.
Here’s the dream:
I want to walk around my data. I want a data forest. I want to walk by a little bush called “Systems Thinking Marin” that has fruits and colors and leaves that, taken together, signal some relevant factors about Systems Thinking Marin; factors that I can turn on and off depending on my research goals. For example, in that glance I want to see that Inquiring Systems Inc. is the fiscal sponsor, and the size of the annual budget, and the fact that I’m just one staff person with a two-person advisory committee, and some aura that tells me the organization is truckin’ right along as opposed to suffering.
As I walk along, I might run across the huge tree of Marin Community Foundation, and visually get a sense of the size of their budget and their organizational makeup, and maybe peek into a view of neighboring county’s community foundations and if they are all connected in some way and what might they be working on together.
And if I care about, say, systemic improvements to the issue of poverty in Marin County, I’d like to walk into a garden that arranges the various organizations and initiatives that are tackling this issue. And I want to be able to make a note or move something from this to that place and have it be there when I get back. And I want to be able to change the size of the trees or other objects representing organizations, and the colors, and their relationships, depending on what I’m looking for.
AND, I want to be able to visualize this same data set (or a subset) in a 2D geographic map, a good ole’ table, in a mind map, or in something like this really awesome comparison chart developed by Marek at productchart.com. Finally, the video below illustrates one of the multiple views I would like to have access to with regard to the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals and who is doing what in my area.
Theory U and the “Technology Disconnect”
In Leading from the Emerging Future, Otto Scharmer and Karen Kaufer note “Eight Structural Disconnects.” One of the eight is characterized as “A disconnect between technology and real societal needs” (Pg 7). This hearkens back to the Engelbart quote above. I realize many people are under the false assumption that “You can help the world and make a profit, too!” Strictly speaking, yes, this is possible. But it’s not remotely as accessible a reality as many prefer to believe, as discussed in this blog entry, “What If the Purpose of the Global Market Economy Was Human Well-Being?” Under our current economic system, profit and growth remain the goal, or purpose of the system, and thus the goal or purpose of most any given company, tech or not.
I’m sure you have had plenty of experiences in your own life to this effect. Whether it is struggles with your new phone that comes pre-bloated with “bloatware,” or irritation at Windows “Cortana” trying to make-like-Google and track your every move, or Amazon magically coming up with ads for a product related to something you were just talking about, or YouTube tacking ads on to the front of your nonprofit videos (and you did not opt into advertising), technology has become obnoxious and creepy. Or rather, what may be reasonably decent technological platform experiences have been increasingly turned into delivery services for advertisements aimed at you, or funnels for data extracted from you, and then turned around and aimed at you.
Lights In The Dark
There are some cool things out there. I am a fan of The Brain. It calls itself “two-and-a-half dimensions,” which I can appreciate. But it also shows me its markup language when I don’t want it to (and I generally have formatting issues in its notes field), and despite having used it on the side for twelve years I just haven’t managed a wholesale adoption of it.
With regard to Systems Thinking, technology and the profit motive, one would expect I’d be a big adopter of opensource technology. This is very true, in theory. In practice, despite loving the “feel” of Ubuntu, for example, being a non-techie makes this somewhat out of reach. I haven’t tried it recently, but sadly, as a rule whenever I try to go opensource–I’ve literally tried OpenOffice or LibreOffice at least four times over the past ten years–I hit roadblocks I’m unable to deal with. (Just the other day I had to give up on Scribus. I installed and used it for the first time on one day, and when I tried to open and use it a few days later, the menus were displaying in some wacky fashion on my second monitor. So, now I’m the proud owner of an InDesign subscription.)
The whole WordPress thing is complicated in terms of “WordPress” versus “WordPress.com,” but there is something about it/them that is opensource’ie and therefore it was an easy choice as the platform for this website and blog.
Finally, virtual reality. For the past year or so I’ve been experimenting with the Oculus Rift. I kind of love it. Wasn’t planning on it, but I’ve fallen for VR. I really don’t like that it’s owned by Facebook. So much fun to be had, though I have little to no interest in 99% of the available games. (I do, however, adore Fujii. Amazing!)
Unfortunately, I have found very few opportunities for actually doing work in VR. I’m now experimenting with vSpatial, and may upgrade to Oculus Rift S, as opposed to upgrading to non-wired VR. (I’m not happy with the idea of non-wired due to concerns about the EMF impact of having a computer strapped to my face.) One of the things I love in particular is using SketchUp with the VRSketch plugin; pretty much like the highlight of my experience with any technology, ever. Too bad I’m not a professional designer and so I have only occasional excuses to delve into it.
I have high hopes for AR, though a $3,000 headset is not in my budget at the moment, and the most logical option given my desire and need to “get work done” is a Microsoft interface. One can dream that this is the moment an independent AR company (ideally a B Corp or a co-op) will leap forward, take the baton, and revolutionize how we get work done in the office on a daily basis with their own operating system and complimentary suite of word and data processing software, all under the auspices of an organizational entity formed around the goal of helping humans to evolve our consciousness (in the spiritual sense of the idea), collectively solve problems (in the spirit of Engelbart), and make the world a better place.
So that’s my dream. By the way, if you too are a fan of alternative tech, I also recommend the organization Aspiration, particularly their manifesto. They have a number of resources for NGOs in particular.
If you are a tech person and feel my pain and have helpful suggestions, feel free to contact me.