The whole and its parts

The whole & its parts

Culture or context?

Not too long ago, Seth Godin wrote “In the last ten years, the culture has changed dramatically. We’re buffeted by shifts that are faster and more widespread than anyone can recall.”

Human systems are constantly involved with their physical and social environment. It’s a back and forth. The system is perpetually being influenced, and in turn, trying to influence that environment. What also characterizes human systems is, that the forces acting towards change and those acting towards maintaining the situation as is, keep it in an almost stationary equilibrium.

Whatever we may call culture is an element of the human system. It is part of what humans use to keep the equilibrium. It may be necessary to adapt culture, however, when looking at the way its change could be managed it becomes necessary to look at something else than culture. That’s because culture doesn’t exist as such. It is the combination of concrete things like structures, processes, beliefs, values, or behaviors.

What we experience as a dramatic change in culture is the result of a much longer period. One during which the infrastructure of cultures shifted. For a long time, people have been sharing how the world has become “smaller”. People traveled and became interconnected as never before. For many normality has become to interact with people all across the world. While it allows for incredible flexibility of action within multiple cultures, it also means that the cultural overlap between the different actors is much smaller than it was in the past. Some have become fluid across cultures, however, they also become almost “strangers” to their local networks. They belong without entirely belonging.

The interconnection also led to streams of goods easily traveling from one area of the world to the other. It shifted local infrastructures as they embarked on a journey towards more wealth. At the same time, it is transforming the local cultures towards the performance model we know since the industrial revolution. Many of these new shifts resembling the adaptation other systems have already gone through.

A consequence of these changes is the way the earth system is shifting. It is leading to the climate change we are subject to. There we encounter the interface between the human system and the ecological system.

The sum of these changes dramatically changed the amount of questions individuals are subject to and don’t know yet how to answer. One of the effects of the pandemic is, how it has made all these questions visible. At least, whenever we allow ourselves to see them as something invisible before. Possibly as something, our past cultures allowed us to leave aside. It was only those who regularly crossed frontiers who had to deal with these cultural overlaps. Those traveling for their leisure didn’t need to deal with all of these questions, they could keep them as a subject of their curiosity. The difference between both groups is the permanence of change they had to deal with.

Another effect of the pandemic was how it helped to see the complexity of our world now. A complexity requiring dramatic shifts in the way we find solutions for problems and can develop strategies. We could see how countries who were successful in dealing with the pandemic for some months, suddenly found themselves behind others. They hadn’t shifted their strategies to adapt to a new target as needed. One example being New Zealand and Australia who betting on a zero death strategy now find themselves lacking behind with their vaccination strategy. It reduces their ability to create a sense of security with a different strategy allowing to reduce lockdowns. The shifts on the lists of high-risk countries tell the story of these shifting strategies on a worldwide level.

Complexity has thus become the structure of our environment. One we have to learn to adapt to. It implies knowing when our competence as experts is useful and when we can deal with emerging change. Integrating complexity into our way of thinking and building answers to a given situation will have a deep impact on our ability to reduce uncertainty. That’s because emergent change as a way to deal with complexity will become more accessible.

Integrating complexity into our learning corresponds to accepting how much our context changed and how we need to adapt to it. Achieving this also means helping individuals deal with the learning anxiety they experience. The future they see feels unbearable, that is too uncertain. It invites the desire to deny the change and scapegoat by polarizing.


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