The Salt in the Broth, Warm Data and Systems Change
An inspiring text written by Nora Bateson. First published on Febraury 4, 2019, as a contribution to the Transformation Series from GatherLab, a project that focuses on taking the world further, beyond sustainability, beyond “impact” as usual: https://thetransformseries.net/2019/02/04/warm-data-and-systems-change/?fbclid=IwAR2cR-k9GpRv2hb-sxTnUlxiBc6jE67Pz0_KghZyfLROTfEtCSz9HO1Gxes
Is there space in the keyboard strokes for the pink of life?
Assembling letters into words and images that reach into feelings, inviting memories, things once known, regrets, and touching the purple bruises of this moment. Is there a chance now to say what we have known and previously tried not to voice?
People will demand clarity, accessibility, direct-ness. They will tut-tut and brush off the brushstrokes that do not have the ring of sterility and know-how.
I apologize. I do not mean to be incomprehensible. I am not itching for cleverness, or decorative prose. It is the bruising that is purple, not the words.
So much information is missing in the surgical extraction from context. It is inevitable that there will be consequences when that decontextualized information is the basis upon which decisions are made. There is no way to respond to the complexity around us without accessing our own complexity.
Thus, variety of new textures of expression and comprehension are needed.
What you cannot hear now is the silence, then a flurry of drumming fingertips, erratic, stochastic. Time is peeking through thoughts in bursts of tapped out words, in stewed mixtures of eras, some to come. Somewhere there is a ghost of an old typewriter, a feather dipped in ink, stains on bark. Markings.
The weight in me says prose cannot hold the blood of this work. What to write? How to say what needs saying?
Perhaps the confusion frothing now in politics and culture is pushing the thresholds of recognition that more relational information is needed. Not more decontextualized information, but more Warm Data. The warm data is what is between the stakeholders, between the organisms in an ecology, between the ideas, cultures, and languages.
Now the fissures in understanding how to fit into a changing world have let in the smog of despair and a tsunami of pharmaceutical meds to soothe it. Perhaps that despair is proof enough to reveal the need for understanding the missing vistas of interaction. Perhaps the innumerable efforts and projects that sought to do-good fixing the world and failed… perhaps those are evidence enough that the way of comprehending society, economics, nature, each other, sex, food, education…was not enough. The studies were trimmed from their larger contexts of life.
I learned recently of a project by SEED to “End poverty one person at a time”—and thought, oh my… why did they ever think that poverty could be anything less than communal, cross-cultural, international, trans-contextual? Millions went into that project, and it was a disaster, of course.
None of what we are faced with can be tackled in isolation. I am learning from the work I have been doing with Warm Data about the nature of interdependency. I have found that culture, society, economy industry are inextricably saturated into one another. Working with parts and wholes is not so useful in this case. Zooming in and zooming out is insufficient, we have to do both at once. I think of the systemic combining as a kind of broth, instead of linked pieces. The difference is akin to the contrast between that which is interconnected, and that which is interdependent. Interconnected things can be taken apart and fiddled with, fixed and replaced. Interdependency requires another sort of approach. You cannot take the salt out of the broth, or the grapes out of the wine.
The current conditions of socio economic and cultural addiction to exploitation have been brewing and stewing for centuries. The limits of perception are inside the language, inside the infrastructure, inside notions of identity. To create conditions in which new sense can be made is to allow the warm data to reorganize. How are we symmathesizing our world?
The connective tissue repair, the mending of rips in perception—this kind of thing is not accessible in direct language.
Warm data requires more of you. More than your job, your expertise, your title, more than you know you have to give.
The connective tissue above—the murky interdependency of nature, society, and all of that is best found in your connective tissue.
You wont find it in the graphs.
Or the stats
Or the lists of stakeholders.
The gaps between the subjects, objects, verbs, and grammar of tight capsules is a vast lost space, where the most important sensible assessments can drain out.
Have you ever filled a jar with marbles? It was not full. The space between them could still hold what seems like a full jar of water.
So many isolated institutions, people, ideas, societies—and adjusting them does not seem to fill the jar.
It turns out that systems change is more profound than tweaking a few institutional protocols. It is more profound than branding green goods. It turns out that systems change is in the way my metabolism looks forward to coffee. Systems change is in the connective tissue, and the only way to reach it is indirectly.
If that is the project, then that is where the work is… but it must be done carefully, very, very carefully. In that tender liminal realm much resides. The ability to love, the capacity to desire another relationship with each other and the world, a relationship that is vital, not exploitative. Status— is re-sculpted there.
Let’s go there.
In the Museum of Anthropology in British Columbia this week there was a quote on the wall that read:
Everything depends on everything else.” This is a proverb from the Haida Gawaii
Everything is in infinite responsiveness.
What is the point in averting my eyes to this very obvious realness? Is it inconvenient? Yes, but only in so much as it will rub against the expectations of planners, and funders in ways they have no existing protocol for. Right now the broth is no one’s responsibility. It is not the educators, or the politicians, or the doctors, or the lawyers, or the scientists, or the business people, or economists, or the artists, (maybe the artists hold a little bit of responsibility)—and it is suicidal for every one to keep doing the jobs they have now. To stay alive in a changing world is to imagine another way of life.
Here is a metaphor for thinking about how difficult it is to discern where you end and your context begins. Systems change is not located in just one context at a time. Try thinking of yourself as a stick-bug in a tree. Or a snow fox in a tundra. You are an extension of the contexts of your life, and they are an extension of you. You do not end with your skin or your tax ID number. You are generations, communities, you are ecologies. Who am I as a stick bug if there is no tree? Who am I as a snow fox if there is no snowy landscape? Wondering why systems change is so tricky? Wondering why there has been so little shift after decades of discourse on how humanity needs to respect the environment, limit growth, stop exploitation?
Living differently is no joke. It is not a refurbishing, or a greener renovation of my current patterns and habits.
The connective tissue is torn, scarred, but still unavoidably there. Alive and configuring, contorting, responding to the conditions around us.
Go there. No one form of communication is adequate. The contexts of are mixing as they are informing, transferring, melting together cognition.
Go with multiple description into the landscape in which none of the maps apply. The deep down. Where your health is the health of the next generation, the health of the community, the health of the biosphere… it is not a doctors office visit, a diet, or an exercise regime. Your health is a measurement not of your vitals but of your ability to perceive and give vitality to the overlapping living processes around you, beyond you, within you.
The transcontextual work is there, waiting. Aching for the tourniquet of our separated perceptions to be untied, so the blood can flow. The grants and funders cannot hear the frequency yet. The politicians are quick to play the chords of emotion, but they do not know what they are tampering with.
But it will not be in the direct language of strategy and authorized leadership.
It is in the intense generosity of contact, and overlap. It is in the wash of emotion, and irrational mythological hangovers. I am sorry, but it just is. No amount of scrubbing the language of change clean off the sticky plasmas of life. Nothing will make the interdependency of the work ahead less messy.
The assembly of words, of ideas of notions and voices combine to form, and to inform. But they are just words, and some will lead us to lostness.
There is work to do, and it is better to know that it is vast and difficult, than to sell it as easily-fixable or profitable.
Some of this real, tangible, and graspable. Some is not. The spectrum between is where the mutual learning, the renaming, and the finding lies.