And there
in silence I celebrated departures,
all these revelations and masks
dredged down from the day.
— James Sallis, Memory at 3 A.M.

The road in the end taking the path the sun had taken,
into the western sea, and the moon rising behind you
as you stood where ground turned to ocean: no way
to your future now but the way your shadow could take,
walking before you across water, going where shadows go
— David Whyte, Finisterre

From at least the time of the Renaissance onwards advances in scientific understanding and our ability to measure accelerated and expanded. They enhanced our understanding of time and space, our diminishingly small place in the universe, our history, the fragmentation of our days and our servitude to the clock. It resulted in what Douglas Rushkoff termed present shock, the modern-day obsession with now, unmoored from ‘desire, reasons, or context’. The now of digital ephemera; the Snapchat message or Instagram image, barely apprehended and lost to the immediate past.

As the Industrial Revolution prompted changes in people’s behaviour, regulated by the mechanical clock rather than the rhythms of the seasons and an agricultural life, so an interest in time began to permeate other aspects of our culture too. The novel, for example, gained a firmer foothold during this period, and by the early twentieth-century notions of time had become a dominant motif, influencing and being influenced by the work of poets, painters, photographers and filmmakers. As Milan Kundera argues in The Curtain, where the scientific approach to history relates to progress, when ‘applied to art, the notion of history has nothing to do with progress; it does not imply improvement, amelioration, an ascent; it resembles a journey undertaken to explore unknown lands and chart them.’

The first decades of the last century were a great melting pot of ideas. Mathematics and geometry feeding Picasso’s art. Music and philosophy inspiring Einstein’s science. Mythology and psychology infusing the work of novelists and poets. The working of the mind, of its apprehension of time, its expansion and elision, proved a source of fascination, shaping the work of Joyce and Proust, among others. Their successors remain enthralled by the notion of memory, of how with the passage of linear time, there was an uncoupling of lived experience from the emotional, the sensory. The latter informed memories that could be shaped into new narratives that carried greater meaning than any factual recording ever could. These were personal stories, linked to inner feelings and sentiment. It is an idea beautifully captured by James Sallis: memory is forever more poet than reporter.

[Photo credit: Departure, Richard Martin, October 2015]

This sense of personal narrative being informed by emotive memories has really been brought home to me in the last fortnight, triggered by the deaths of two people with whom I had worked but did not know well, Lisa Jardine and Jay Cross. Lisa was the Chair of the HFEA during several of the years I worked there. My enduring memories of her, though, have nothing to do with the domain of IVF regulation or embryo research, but rather of discussions relating to literature and technology. Jay was someone who I was aware of for some time, but had only connected with this year, when we began to work together on his latest book, Real Learning. It was a brief acquaintance of Skype conversations, texting and email exchanges, focused on readying his book for publication next month. Yet in such a short time, I was impressed by his restless explorer’s energy, whether that was seeking to help others learn, travelling or following his enthusiasm for classic cars.

The eulogies that have appeared in the media, in print, online, on social platforms, offer a more rounded picture of the people I briefly knew, but also capture the sensory memories of those who have crafted these written pieces or selected certain images to share. These past two weeks I have learned so much more about both Lisa and Jay, their broad interests and their effect on those they touched during their brief time with us. Both achieved a degree of celebrity in their respective fields. Lisa as a polymathic academic comfortable in both the humanities and the sciences, as a radio personality and as a member of various societies and public boards. Jay as a pioneer of informal learning, and as someone who disregarded lazy generational labels and demonstrated what it was to be a septuagenarian digital native. They both showed others how to live a life of curiosity and constant learning, consolidating their own learning through guiding and teaching others.

Both Lisa and Jay live on through the memories of those they befriended, influenced and guided. I am grateful to have known them, however fleetingly; grateful too to have access to those memories shared by others. Departed but not forgotten.

Inspire them with such a longing as will make his thought
Alive like patterns a murmuration of starlings
Rising in joy over worlds unwittingly weave
— W. H. Auden, O Love, the interest itself in thoughtless heaven

an ancient pomegranate tree
gnarled and twisted and the dark bark shredded
the rings inside it holding its long story
and the sap still climbing to make
another life as I sat there by the wall
— W. S. Merwin, Can Palat

Teal agnostic

am I these things and the others
or are there secret keys and difficult algebras
of which we know nothing?
— Jorge Luis Borges, Lines That Could Have Been Written and Lost Round About 1922

A brief note about the debate that continues to swirl around Frédéric Laloux’s Reinventing Organizations. His book was first published early in 2014. Personally, I found it a useful read, which prompted reflection, and has fuelled further discussion with networked friends. There are several ideas in Reinventing Organizations that have helped me develop my own thinking about #pelotonformations, responsive organisational structures and leadership fluidity. My understanding of the roles played by context, purpose, frameworks, leadership and autonomy have all been fed by what Laloux explores in the book.

This is not to say that I fully subscribe to everything Teal. In fact, I would describe myself as something of a Teal agnostic. What I have taken away from Laloux’s book, though, is an appreciation of the many different ways that people can organise themselves to get things done. Some have been shaped by evolution in terms of biology, thinking and technology, reflected by his notion of Magenta, Red, Amber, Orange, Green and Teal organisational structures. All, however, remain potential options to be selected. A new way of organising people does not preclude old ways being adhered to. Context can determine choice. All the options form part of a continuum rather than being steps that follow one another in a process of linear progression.

I am reminded of an observation made by the character John Ringer in Andrew Crumey’s novel, Mobius Dick. Ringer attempts to explain quantum mechanics in terms that can be appreciated by someone with no background in theoretical physics: ‘think of the quantum wave function as being like white light containing every possibility, each of which is a different colour. You have a red life, say; this is the one that has happened, and is happening. But there is also a blue one, a green one – even infrared and ultraviolet lives you could have led.

There are ideas packaged into Ringer’s exposition that are drawn from Goethe’s Theory of Colors, E. T. A. Hoffmann, Nietzsche, Jung and the quantum physicists who were his contemporaries. The whole is made up of fragments, a continuum of options, but all collapses into one when a selection is made. The spectrum of colours offers one example of this. You can also see it with Laloux’s colour-coding of organisational types. All are viable options prior to selection. That itself is context-specific. In the past and/or the future different selections may be made to suit different contexts.

Laloux observes, ‘In Teal, people are satisfied neither with religious dogma (Amber) nor with the exclusively materialistic outlook of modernity (Orange). They seek unity and transcendence through personal experience and practices.’ Yet many of the Teal advocates seem drawn to the kind of dogma that, historically, we have associated with religions. They seek to impose uniformity and conformity, which relegates the personal in favour of the collective.

This explains why there are some who intensely dislike Laloux’s ideas regarding Teal and the furore that has surrounded them. It smacks of fundamentalism; one choice made forever more and preached to others regardless of their unique context. It may be exactly the right choice for certain organisations, completely the wrong choice for others. Time, space, people, environment, politics, society and economy are all determining factors. No organisation is a closed system entirely sealed off from others. Such fundamentalism denies the possibility of a quantum leap being made across the continuum to another option, more suited to another context, other people, other times.

the structures
replicate across time like molecules in a cheap graphic.
— Kevin MacLeod, Poems

Fork in the cat

This post is a contribution to the #twistedpair series instigated and curated by Steve Wheeler. The challenge is to write about an unlikely pairing that helps illuminate how we think about learning. The subjects I have opted to entangle are physicist Erwin Schrödinger and rugby player Jonny Wilkinson.

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
— Robert Frost, Road Not Taken

the world
is a mental activity,
a dream of souls,
without foundation, purpose, weight or shape.
— Jorge Luis Borges, Break of Day

Surely we dream the world, and ourselves into it. But to say that the world is illusion is not to say that it is not real, only that it is not what it seems (and who ever believed that it was?), that it is constantly becoming, constantly being made.
— James Sallis, Renderings

Trinitarian, or third-angle, thinking is always looking for solutions which can reconcile or illuminate the opposites.
— Charles Handy, The Empty Raincoat

Erwin Schrödinger, often afflicted with tuberculosis, was a regular visitor at a sanatorium near Arosa in the Swiss Alps. A Professor of Physics at the University of Zurich, he took the opportunity during a visit in the mid-1920s to exercise his mind while his body underwent its regular cure. Schrödinger conjured with ideas put forward by fellow scientists, Albert Einstein and Louis de Broglie. Early in the century, Einstein, when introducing the concept of photons, had posited the notion that while light is usually considered in terms of waves, in some cases it can behave as if composed of particles. In 1924, de Broglie had built on Einstein’s evolving ideas and proposed that all matter consisted of particles that can be considered waves. The challenge with which Schrödinger was confronted was to devise an equation that described how such waves moved.

Schrödinger’s solution was published in January 1926 in the first of a series of papers that year which advanced the understanding of quantum mechanics. His discovery and ongoing exploration of wave mechanics and atomic theory earned him international recognition, as well as the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1933. Inevitably, his ideas did not always rhyme with other schools of thought, with other explorers in the field. For example, Schrödinger took issue with what became known as the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics, which was based on work by Niels Bohr and Werner Heisenberg, among others. In 1935 he devised a thought experiment to illustrate the problem he saw in their interpretation. In doing so he posed a conundrum with which scientists, philosophers and artists still grapple today: Schrödinger’s cat paradox.

In the scenario Schrödinger sets out, a cat is locked in a steel container. Free from interference by the cat, but also within the same container, there is a geiger counter contaminated with a small amount of radioactive substance, a flask of hydrocyanic acid and a hammer. The latter will break the flask if an atom of radioactive matter is released by the geiger counter. How does one know if such an atom has been released without opening the container? How does one know whether the cat is alive or dead? For a period, therefore, there is a superposition of states during which the cat is both alive and dead. It is only when the container is opened, and measurement, observation, is applied that this state of superposition collapses into one of two alternative states. The cat follows the fork towards either life or death. A continuum of alternative realities suddenly freeze-frames.

[Image credit: Schrödinger’s Cat, Christian Schirm, November 2011]

Let’s consider another freeze-frame, familiar to many English rugby enthusiasts. It is the evening of 22 November 2003. A ball bisects the uprights, kicked by a young fly-half with his right foot, the one he does not favour. England have just won the Rugby World Cup, defeating Australia 20-17 in the last moments of extra time. In numerous alternative realities, the kick misses, England never achieve the correct field position, someone knocks the ball on. The lottery of an unprecedented drop-goal shoot-out then looms. These are the vagaries of sport, illustrated again in the 2015 vintage of the Rugby World Cup in the quarter-final match between Scotland and Australia. There alternative realities see the referee award a scrum rather than a penalty to Australia in the last minutes of the game or decline to issue a yellow card earlier in the game. Another alternative sees Australian fly-half, Bernard Foley, kicking all his penalties and not allowing the Scots a scent of victory. In another quarter-final, one alternative sees all of Ireland’s injured players restored to full health, but still being outplayed and outscored by a rampant Argentina.

An individual all too familiar with the highs and lows of sport is Jonny Wilkinson, the fly-half who kicked that drop-goal in 2003. As a young man, Wilkinson was so intense, so driven to be the best he could be, that he found it difficult to enjoy that victory. In media interviews, he came across as a young soul tortured to the point of incoherence. He was in thrall to the pursuit of perfection, in his own words, ‘piling on layers of achievements’. But such a pursuit, ultimately is a fool’s game. If nirvana is ever attained, one’s notion of perfection fulfilled, then entropy soon sets in. Stasis is quickly followed by decay. The team of which Wilkinson was a member in 2003 was a good illustration of this. During their summer tour that year, England did the unthinkable, defeating the All Blacks on their home patch, holding out even when temporarily reduced to 13 men. Then, the following week, the English team went on to issue a masterclass in its match against Australia. The team then declined rapidly, rather than ascended, towards its World Cup victory.

The period between the World Cups of 2003 and 2007 was one of physical and psychic fragmentation for Wilkinson. One injury followed another. The running joke became which part of his body has Jonny Wilkinson not injured during the past couple of years? He became rugby’s Schrödinger’s cat: both/and. The record points scorer who was not adding to his tally. One of the most capped players, who was not winning any more caps. The national captain who was not captaining. The long pause was only temporarily interrupted by the occasional appearance for his club or the British Lions. Wilkinson fought the effects of depression. But he also read, he learned, he thought.

It was during this time that Wilkinson came across quantum mechanics. A rudimentary grasp, a curiosity for some of the Eastern philosophy that had attracted the likes of Schrödinger and Bohr, as well as many of their Modernist contemporaries in the fields of art and science, led him to Buddhism. The fragments formed a whole again. Wilkinson reassessed what was important. ‘Just shed the layers, go back to the beginning, stop viewing everything I do in comparison to others.’

Victories can happen. Injuries can happen. They both did. But the non-player became a player again. He featured in another World Cup final, losing to South Africa this time around. He moved to France, playing club rugby for Toulon, blossoming as both a rugby player and a more rounded man. 2011 saw him sharing a stage with a Nobel Prize-winning physicist talking, in fluent French, of his interest in quantum mechanics and Buddhism, reflecting on the effects they had had on his life. 2014 saw him retire as a rugby player, having just led Toulon to its second consecutive European champion’s title, as well as the French league title.

Wilkinson’s discovery of the work and ideas of Schrödinger and his contemporaries did not transform him into a Nobel-winning scientist. If pressed, it is likely he would confess to grasping the essence of some quantum theory rather than understanding it in its entirety. What is illuminating about his encounter with the quantum world, however, is the way it gave him pause, made him rethink his approach to life, prompted him to follow his curiosity. This is the essence of lifelong learning. The constant acquisition, processing, internalisation and acting out of knowledge and experience. An open invitation to have our worldview challenged and expanded upon.

A fixed viewpoint – a single line of thought – can be a trap – where we see only what we’re looking for. Blind to other possibilities.
— Nick Sousanis, Unflattening

We can provide many examples of verifiable phenomena, such as the particle/wave duality of certain entities, that seem to contradict the manner in which experience tells us the world works.
— Sergio De La Pava, A Naked Singularity

In the quantum world, everything is potentiality, a lottery in which outcomes depend on who (or what) is running the show.
— Marcelo Gleiser, The Island of Knowledge

For Fichte, the mind of God is in everyone. Similar notions led Schopenhauer to Eastern philosophy; Schrödinger and Bohr followed later. People highlight parallels between quantum theory and Buddhism, forgetting those similarities were built in from the outset.
— Andrew Crumey, Mobius Dick

Increasingly, I am inspired by Buddhist philosophy. I want to understand more about who I am and why I seem to be fighting against the world I live in instead of working with it. In order to do that, I realise I need to learn more empathy, and be more flexible with my views and my values.
— Jonny Wilkinson, Jonny

Middle Vision

The wide-eyed child in love with maps and plans
Finds the world equal to his appetite.
How grand the universe by lamps,
How petty in memory’s clear sight.
— Charles Baudelaire, Voyaging

Is all that we see or seem
But a dream within a dream?
— Edgar Allen Poe, A Dream Within a Dream

I no longer believe in a Theory of Everything, or in the possibility of perfection. Paradox I now see to be inevitable, endemic and perpetual. The more turbulent the times, the more complex the world, the more the paradoxes.
— Charles Handy, The Empty Raincoat

We need specialist, expert teams to function in a complex world. But we also need to have a joined-up, flexible vision of life. Mastering silos requires us to walk a narrow line between these two contradictory goals.
— Gillian Tett, The Silo Effect

In mathematics, the first theorem of graph theory has its basis in a puzzle posed in the eighteenth century. The Prussian city of Königsberg was sited on the banks of the Pregel River. It included two islands, which were connected to the rest of the city, north and south, by a network of seven bridges. The challenge was to devise a route that required each bridge to be crossed only once from beginning to end. In 1736, Leonhard Euler offered a negative resolution, an exercise in abstraction, that will be familiar to anyone who maps networks today.

Landmasses, topography and location were elided, rendered as nodes on a graph. Connectors ran between the different nodes, either suggestive of the bridges or ignoring them entirely. Like the underground map that denotes stations and routes in London, excluding as well as including, playing impressionistic games with geography, this offered an alternative interpretation of the reality many people had become familiar with. This was both mathematical and subjective. Euler was looking at the world around him in a very different way to his fellow citizens.

As I have written elsewhere, I find the bridge an attractive metaphor, suggestive of both connection and choice. Standing on a bridge you are in two places at once, either side of a river, for example. But you are also in no place, hovering above the Thames or the Seine. A bridge serves to breakdown the simplicity of either/or, replacing it with a more complex notion of both/and. This is more reflective of the world we live in, the societies of which we are part and the communities with which we interact. Computing languages aside, the options presented to us on a daily basis are rarely binary. Rather they form part of a continuum. Each step across the bridge contributes to this.

A useful challenge is that both/and thinking is lazy thinking. That has certainly given me pause. On reflection, however, I stick by the both/and approach as long as it is thought of in terms of a continuum. That is, we are not talking about one or both extremes of the continuum but are including everything that lies in between, every shade, every flavour. Each is viable in the right context. To set up camp permanently on one extreme is to follow the path of fundamentalism. To stand at both extremes and ignore all that is in between serves up the possibility of cognitive dissonance. To accept, however, that there is a continuum between the poles, that they are in fact connected, and that there is much middle ground to be traversed and considered, is more in keeping with the notion of integrative thinking.

In Blending, I suggested that there is no right answer. Context – personal, societal, political, educational, economical, environmental – always has a part to play. It helps determine where we stand on a continuum at any given point in time. I can be a hyperspecialist in one context, a comb-shaped generalist in another. I am father in any interaction with my children, but son with my parents. I can take the lead on one project, but follow the lead of someone else on another. I can be confident in my knowledge on one topic, but embrace the state of not knowing on many others. However, as I push at those boundaries of not knowing, exercising curiosity, learning through interaction with other people, I can also bring into play the perspective gained from my prior knowledge. My position on the continuum shifts. Such shifts can be discontinuous too. Space and time can be warped so that the bridge takes on more the shape of an infinite loop than an arch over water. Passage is not so much linear as hyperlinked.


Wherever we stand, though, context and subjectivity both constrain and shape our perspective. We can only ever serve up answers, therefore, that fit with that context and that subjectivity. What we see is informed by what we know. Euler, for example, arrived at a negative solution to the Königsberg bridge puzzle because of what he knew already about mathematics and his own pushing at the boundaries of this knowledge in the eighteenth century. But would he arrive at the same conclusion today with the benefit of accessing all the advances that have been made in scientific and mathematical knowledge since then? Would quantum theory, for example, lead him in another direction? The answers we offer are not right, then, but they are holding answers, waiting to be challenged, overturned, expanded upon as further forays are made into the realm of not knowing. There is always a middle ground, a blank space, where something new will be found.

The constraints and enabling effects of one’s vision is something that fascinates me. In The Eye of I, I argued that we all sit at our own labyrinth’s centre. Any network we can think of that contains us, we tend to look at from our own perspective. Inevitably, therefore, we find ourselves at its centre. A friend mapping a similar network will find themselves at its centre too. Their map will differ from our own. It is impossible to escape our own subjective point of view. It is incumbent on us, therefore, to go off-grid from time to time, to explore the labyrinth in full, its cul-de-sacs and apparently dead spaces. We need to broaden our perspective, discovering third ways that offer an alternative to the different poles of a continuum.

As I have entered the middle ground of the birth–death continuum, this has really been brought home to me in relation to my own eyesight. Since my mid-teens I have been short-sighted, wearing spectacles to correct my vision. In recent months I encountered difficulty focusing on the text in books and on computer screens. I now find myself requiring reading glasses as well as distance ones. But what of the middle ground? The ill-defined territory? Walking down the local high street this past week all that was familiar took on a slightly different focus. Clarity was lost, faces were hazy, objects and buildings misty, in the middle ground and beyond. I had forgotten to switch from reading glasses to distance ones, and I found myself in a liminal state. It was eerie, intriguing; a sense of feeling temporarily unmoored. I had to recalculate my relation to objects and people. The high street lost its familiarity, became a new place to visit.

Of course, I have enjoyed returning to the high street with my eyes restored to their former state. But I know now that there is a parallel experience to explore whenever I please. Which is the correct view of the high street? Both/and as far as I am concerned. But what about something like a 3D film? My children have several of them that require the wearing of special glasses. Whenever I have tried to watch one, I have found it an unpleasant experience, undoubtedly because of the state of my eyes and the need to correct them. Often the images I see are blurred and in black and white. Surely not was intended by the filmmakers. But what do they see? When Hollywood was first enamoured of 3D technology in the 1950s, one of the more successful productions to take advantage of it was the horror film House of Wax. It was directed by André de Toth, a man who only had one eye. What did he see, compared to you and I? The likelihood is that we all see something different, one of many answers on the both/and continuum.

Our stereoscopic vision is the creation and integration of two views.
— Nick Sousanis, Unflattening

The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function.
— F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Crack-Up

[Integrative thinking is] The ability to face constructively the tension of opposing ideas and, instead of choosing one at the expense of the other, generate a creative resolution of the tension in the form of a new idea that contains elements of the opposing ideas but is superior to each.
— Roger Martin, The Opposable Mind

In the face of complexity, our default mode is multiple choice—we prefer shopping to creating. We’ve been trained by Industrial Age marketers to believe anything good is already on the shelf.
— Marty Neumeier, Metaskills

The Eye of I

Now, before Daedalus left Crete, he had given Ariadne a magic ball of thread, and instructed her how to enter and leave the Labyrinth. She must open the entrance door and tie the loose end of the thread to the lintel; the ball would then roll along, diminishing as it went and making, with devious twists and turns, for the innermost recess where the Minotaur was lodged. This ball Ariadne gave to Theseus, and instructed him to follow it until he reached the sleeping monster, whom he must seize by the hair and sacrifice to Poseidon. He could then find his way back by rolling up the thread into a ball again.
— Robert Graves, The Greek Myths

For centuries Daedalus has represented the type of artist-scientist: that curiously disinterested, almost diabolic human phenomenon, beyond the normal bounds of social judgment, dedicated to the morals not of his time but of his art. He is the hero of the way of thought—single hearted, courageous, and full of faith that the truth, as he finds it, shall make us free.
— Joseph Campbell, The Hero with a Thousand Faces

But such experience can only be hinted at
In myths and images. To speak about it
We talk of darkness, labyrinths, Minotaur terrors.
But that world does not take the place of this one.
— T. S. Eliot, The Cocktail Party

Within the extensive grounds that surround Leeds Castle in Kent, stands a relatively modern maze. It is a puzzle of topiary and pathways to be solved by the wandering visitor. At the centre of the maze can be found both an underground grotto and a viewing platform. From the vantage point of the latter, you can see the circular patterns of the maze contained within a square. Observing the bobbing heads of others undergoing the challenge, the route to the grotto reveals itself. Instructions are shouted by those in the know – who have completed the journey – to those lost in the maze’s cul-de-sacs, as well as to those pressed for time and in a rush to reach the centre. The secrets, once discerned, are shared. Friends and family are called to the I at the centre of the web.

The maze (with choices to be made en route) and the labyrinth (with only one pathway) are concepts, both spatial and metaphorical, that were documented in Antiquity and popularised in the Middle Ages. They have retained their allure, often used interchangeably, through the literature and art of Modernism and Postmodernism. The figure of Daedalus, for example, who designed the Cretan labyrinth that housed the Minotaur, resurfaces in James Joyce’s 1922 novel, Ulysses. Stephen walks the streets of Dublin, the city-as-labyrinth. In the same year, T. S. Eliot revived the figure of Tiresias who sits at the centre of The Waste Land, his poem-as-labyrinth. In this figure, time, space and people converge: past and present, Ancient Greece and contemporary London, masculinity and femininity, vision and blindness. Tiresias is another I that sits at the centre of the web.

Jorge Luis Borges continued the Modernist agenda with tales of literary detection and creation, dreams and maps. In essence, his short stories revolve around the motifs of all time as one time, all space as one space, all people as one person. His influence on fellow Latin American authors was immense. So too, as Gerald Martin documents in Journeys Through the Labyrinth, was that of Joyce’s Ulysses on a group of writers drawn to postmodern practices and the sub-genre of Magical Realism. Authors like Carlos Fuentes, Mario Vargas Llosa, Julio Cortázar and Gabriel García Márquez self-consciously produced examples of the novel-as-labyrinth. Márquez’s monumental One Hundred Years of Solitude, for example, is packed with characters bearing the same name (all people as one person), a location – Macondo – in which all time and space converge, and a Tiresias-like character in the figure of Melquíades. Cortázar’s Hopscotch, on the other hand, is a formal experimentation, a literary maze, offering the reader multiple choices in how to read the book. This is hyperlinking decades before the invention of the World Wide Web. The labyrinth appears overtly in titles too from the region, as witness Octavio Paz’s The Labyrinth of Solitude and Márquez’s The General in His Labyrinth.

[Picture Credit: Labyrinth Noir by Noah Mease, Dunraven Comics, 23 October 2011]

Running in parallel with the Modernist writers and their postmodern followers were the hardboiled authors and noir filmmakers. In their works, the city-as-labyrinth forms the backdrop to feats of detection and sense-making. Invariably, echoing Oedipus (another figure from Antiquity with a Tiresian connection), the hardboiled figures of detection found themselves implicit in the mysteries they unravelled, from Dashiell Hammett’s Continental Op to the protagonist of Memento. Journeying to the labyrinth’s centre, it was themselves they found waiting there. Another I ensnared in the web’s strands. In The Name of the Rose, Umberto Eco draws on these characteristics of the detective narrative, borrowing from both the ratiocinative and hardboiled traditions, packaging them together with the interests and motifs of the Latin American authors. In his work, the sightless Tiresias morphs into the sightless Borges, thinly disguised as Jorge de Burgos, a blind guardian of the world’s knowledge.

The question of sight, of vision, of perspective is an important one. The I at the centre of the labyrinth is not a matter of narcissism, but rather a reflection of personal journeys, personal narratives. Wherever I go, there I am. Where you go is who you are. In his hero adventure, Joseph Campbell owes much to Carl Jung’s ideas about individuation. He outlined a journey towards self-knowledge, an integration of the various aspects of an individual’s personality as represented by different archetypal figures. A notion echoed in Abraham Maslow’s progression to self-actualisation. Part of the journey requires that certain beasts – fears, misconceptions – are laid waste along the way. Crossing the threshold with Ariadne’s spool in hand, requires movement into a liminal state. Old-world thinking has to be displaced.

It is impossible to remove ourselves from the sense-making process. We put the personal into Personal Knowledge Mastery. Our modern labyrinths are the networks that we inhabit, both physical and digital. The nodes in the network become archetypal expressions of aspects of ourselves, our interests, who and where we are. Because our perspective stems from the I, we are always at the centre. We map our networks from ourselves. We may look to the edges, but like the spider adapting to context shifts, we are pulled to the middle again; Ariadne’s thread unwinding until it has led us home, where we are both detective and Minotaur. Just like Neo in The Matrix, we see the code, heed the advice of the blind guardian of knowledge, yet play our role in the system. Our modern struggles, our quest for self-expression and agency, our bucking against the industrial machine, are timeless. A story for the ages. All time as one time, all space as one space, all people as one person. All viewed from the eye of I.

The library defends itself, immeasurable as the truth it houses, deceitful as the falsehood it preserves. A spiritual labyrinth, it is also a terrestrial labyrinth. You might enter and you might not emerge.
— Umberto Eco, The Name of the Rose

Words, words that make me think. Because I am not devoted to aimless wandering, I’d rather say that I prefer to entrust myself to the straight line, in the hope that the line will continue into infinity, making me unreachable. I prefer to calculate at length the trajectory of my flight, expecting that I will be able to launch myself like an arrow and disappear over the horizon. Or else, if too many obstacles bar my way, to calculate the series of rectilinear segments that will lead me out of the labyrinth as quickly as possible.
— Italo Calvino, Six Memos for the Next Millennium

The Aleph was probably two or three centimeters in diameter, but universal space was contained inside it, with no diminution in size. Each thing (the glass surface of a mirror, let us say) was infinite things, because I could clearly see it from every point in the cosmos. I saw the populous sea, saw dawn and dusk, saw the multitudes of the Americas, saw a silvery spiderweb at the center of a black pyramid, saw a broken labyrinth (it was London), saw endless eyes, all very close, studying themselves in me as though in a mirror.
— Jorge Luis Borges, The Aleph

There is no single, “correct” view.
— Nick Sousanis, Unflattening

This post was inspired by a stimulating lunchtime conversation with Anners Abild and Kenneth Mikkelsen.

Context shift

The world was huge,
and everything was change
— James Sallis, Marxist at 50

But still we change,
And always it’s the truth ahead we aren’t ready for
— Iain Banks, A Word to the Wise

The spider made its presence known a week ago. Overnight it had spun a web on one of our kitchen windows, then taken up residence at the centre of its finely crafted work. Seemingly for days it remained motionless. Waiting. Adapting. Matching its rhythms to those of the Earth. Day following night. Cool following warmth. Responding to the narrower ecosystem that surrounded it in our garden as a host of insects gathered, attracted to the pears, grapes, raspberries and figs ripening in its confines. Meals in flight.

Climactic change was reflected in movement. This was a responsive creature after all. High winds and biblical rainfall prompted a shift in position. The spider had moved, albeit unobserved by human eye, to the frame of the window, tucking its body in, but keeping one leg carefully positioned on the web. A sensor to detect imminent danger or a possible snack ensnared in its fine strands.

The sun’s return and the calming of the winds saw the re-adoption of a central position. But something was awry. As the dawn chorus of children preparing for school died down, the spider moved while I observed it for the first time. Front legs were lifted and then replaced on the web. It was a dance of agitation. In fact, it was a signal that its platform had been disturbed; that an alien body had disrupted the carefully balanced ecosystem.

[Photo credit: House Guest, Richard Martin, September 2015]

Suddenly another spider dropped from above, like an abseiler on a silky thread. Our own spider burst into action scurrying across, practically bungy-jumping from, then back on to, its own web. It was over in seconds. The intruder was repelled and order was restored. The defender of the status quo climbed back to the centre of the web, then slowly repositioned itself exactly at it had done seven days before.

Was this a creature that was change averse? Its contextual shifts and responsiveness to its environment suggested otherwise. Perhaps like the platform owners in the human world, it is selective about who it wants to partner with; mindful of disturbances to the wider ecosystem. Its responsiveness, then, is informed by context, focusing on different points on the proaction–reaction, fast–slow and making–using continuums as the environment changes around it.

I have apprenticed myself to this silent master.

The world turns and the world changes
— T. S. Eliot, Choruses from The Rock

Nothing has changed since I began.
My eye has permitted no change.
I am going to keep things like this.
— Ted Hughes, Hawk Roosting

Context Shift is the name of a white paper I have written for the Change Management Institute. In it I explore how the change industry itself is having to adapt to change. Against a backdrop of organisational, societal, economic and cultural change, I highlight certain context shifts: the atomisation of traditional organisational structures; the emergence of platforms and ecosystems; the utility of time-bound partnerships that are founded upon cooperation; the need for leadership fluidity; and the alternatives to financial capital. To remain relevant, change specialists will need to work out how to accommodate these shifts, moving away from models founded upon transactional interaction, colour-by-numbers solutions and the exploitation of intellectual property. The paper should be published later this year. In the spirit of working out loud, a draft is available on SlideShare.

Another’s ruler

There is no such thing as an exact measurement.
— Mario Gleiser, The Island of Knowledge

These enclosures become internalised. What was outside is replicated within.
— Nick Sousanis, Unflattening

As a culture, we have a persistent tendency to pretend that asking ‘what’ can be substituted for ‘why’. When we can, we avoid the murky waters of emotion and causation, and focus only on the measurable.
— Ian Leslie, Curious

Why do I twitch when I think of measurement? Why am I resistant to quantification? Is it because I have to make use of the establishment’s system, use their tools, their labels? Is it the notion that it is always somebody else’s ruler, in both senses of the term, that stirs up the rebel in me?

Certainly, I recognise that unwillingness to conform. Being subjected to an HR process known as calibration made me physically ill last year. A form of linguistic terrrorism, of dehumanisation, coupled with numeric challenge. But there is something here too about not settling. About curiosity and bridging from knowledge to not knowing. We are constantly reshaping the known landscape, our methods of analysis and measurement, as well as our consideration of context. This refusal to stand still and take root is reflected in Nick Sousanis’s observations in Unflattening: ‘There are never bricks to put in place from which to see everything, only stepping stones towards what’s next.’

Measurement, for me, is one of the many forms of language that constrains us. It gets baked in. It builds false expectations and a warped sense of reality. It denies the new. There is also that perspective that to measure changes what is being observed. It distorts. It can result in poor decision-making. As Mario Glesier states in The Island of Knowledge: ‘to measure is to interfere’.

[Image credit: Frame from the 1964 film Mary Poppins]

Then there is that perennial issue with hierarchy. Measurement here as an instrument of scientific management. A form of subjugation in environments where quantity and efficiency are valued above quality and effectiveness. Gordon MacKenzie’s sage words in Orbiting the Giant Hairball still hold true: ‘If an organisation wishes to benefit from its own creative potential, it must be prepared to value the vagaries of the unmeasurable as well as the certainties of the measurable.’

In business, measurement is often a means of justifying one’s role. It clogs rather than enables. The mechanisms of control that are married to workplace measurement get in the way. They are shackles as onerous as job titles and descriptions; another form of pigeonhole. Of course, in other contexts, where there is clarity about what to measure and why, the numbers are integrated into a process of continuous improvement. Many in the sporting arena, for example, are constantly asking What counts?

The trick is not to measure everything, and to recognise that some of the most important things can never be measured. We have to find different ways of understanding value, appreciating the world around us and our interaction with it.

I have measured out my life with coffee spoons
— T. S. Eliot, The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock

And so I mocked her in magnificent measure.
Or was it that I mocked myself alone?
— Wallace Stevens, Le Monocle de Mon Oncle

Intoned by reality, larded with technical terms,
Each one double-yolked with meaning and meaning’s rebuttal
— Philip Larkin, If, My Darling


Because, between ‘reality’ on the one hand, and the point where the mind strikes reality, there’s a middle zone, a rainbow edge where beauty comes into being, where two very different surfaces mingle and blur to provide what life does not: and this is the space where all art exists, and all magic … And just as music is the space between notes, just as the stars are beautiful because of the space between them, just as the sun strikes raindrops at a certain angle and throws a prism of color across the sky—so the space where I exist, and want to keep existing, and to be quite frank I hope I die in, is exactly this middle distance: where despair struck pure otherness and created something sublime.
— Donna Tart, The Goldfinch

Only the most naive of questions are truly serious. They are the questions with no answers. A question with no answer is a barrier that cannot be breached. In other words, it is questions with no answers that set the limits of human possibilities, describe the boundaries of human existence.
— Milan Kundera, The Unbearable Lightness of Being

The disjunctures of film-time became their own, past, present and future running together in a kind of temporal plaid. Events were prefigured; memories eclipsed into fanciful flashbacks. everything was design and converging lines. The last few minutes would explain it all.
— James Sallis, Renderings

If there is an alpha and omega to what I think and write about work, art and other aspects of our life experiences, then it is this: there is no right answer. Everything connects. Whether it is the colours of the rainbow, the array of political ideologies, the introversion–extroversion extremes or the different points on the specialist–generalist continuum. Context and personal preference provide the focus. Often, though, this is time-bound and does not preclude alighting on other steps of the bridge that connects these apparent islands together.

Consider the following:

knowledge/not knowing

With all these pairs, if you want to thrive in the modern world we now inhabit, either/or is displaced by both/and. We have to be wary of the fundamentalists who lean too heavily in one direction, advocating vociferously in favour of one perspective only. There is a danger that they blind us to the alternatives.

In exploring the concept of neo-generalism, I have become mindful of the fact that this is not just about the serial mastery of the individual. While this was the initial source of pollen that drew me to the topic, thinking of the multiple interests and practices of the individual, I have become aware of other factors. For example, an organisation – that collective of people – can be polymathic too, diversifying, excelling in many fields. This is what lies behind Nicholas Vitalari and Haydn Shaughnessy’s thesis in The Elastic Enterprise, as well as the latter’s deeper dive in Shift.

Also apparent is the play of contextual shifts on individual mindsets. Behaviour itself becomes generalist. Not just skills and endeavour. In my personal experience as a writer and editor, I can be, if not extroverted, at least ambiverted as I research, seek out information and filter what I find. I work out loud, at speed, becoming more socially active both in person and online than is the norm for me. Then the time comes to sense-make, to slow down and internalise what I have learned; to transform it into something that I will eventually share with others. Behaviour shifts towards introversion and apparent social withdrawal. Behaviour here is adaptive, responsive, shaped by context. A reminder that we are both islands and connected to a greater whole.

I may have grasped no right answer as a defining principle, a world view. But from it I haven learned the value of blending. I want to enjoy the benefits and experiences of fast and slow, analogue and digital, specialism and generalism. My preferences shift with the context. The answers are blowin’ in the wind.

Speed matters. Digital world. Patience matters. Analogue world.
— David Hieatt, Do Purpose

The specialists are exploiting opportunities, whilst the mashers are out exploring, discovering the next big opportunity. The mashers have the mindset to cross borders and apply learnings from one area to another.
— Ian Sanders & David Sloly, Mash-up!

Ideas used to come from below. Now they’re everywhere above you, connecting things and grids universally. The binary black-white yes-no zero-one hero-goat.
— Don DeLillo, Underworld

From the seed of a tweet, a blog post blooms. My thanks to Jo Stephenson for the nudge.

Knowledge horizons

All our lives, every day, we constantly remake ourselves, reinvent ourselves, layer after layer, mask after mask. Maybe when finally we peel off all the masks there’s nothing left.
— James Sallis, Eye of the Cricket

The moment someone keeps an eye on what we do, we involuntarily make allowances for that eye, and nothing we do is truthful. Having a public, keeping a public in mind, means living in lies.
— Milan Kundera, The Unbearable Lightness of Being

No matter how far we travel along the path of truth, we will never arrive at a pure truth independent of falsity and error.
— Todd McGowan, The Fictional Christopher Nolan

Oedipus. The first great detective of Western culture. Like the ratiocinative detectives made popular in the 19th century, he used logic to solve the Sphinx’s riddle. But like the world-weary sleuths of the hardboiled tradition that followed, he found himself implicit in the mysteries he unravelled. The new knowledge he acquired became unbearable, resulting in him striking out his eyes in an attempt to dull one of his senses. In doing so he signified his intent to disconnect from the world around him, to deny himself one source of data and information to process and digest.

The truth revealed to Oedipus in his transition from a state of not knowing to one of knowledge filled him with horror. It induced in him an unrealisable desire to return to his former ignorant condition. But it also saw him take responsibility and accountability for his actions. New knowledge had to be confronted, assimilated and acted upon. He was unaware that the man he fought and killed was his father, or that the woman he subsequently married was his mother. When the mists of not knowing were burned away by the light of knowledge, he took ownership of his actions.

In The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Milan Kundera uses his male protagonist, Tomas, to produce a treatise on the Oedipus narrative. Analogies drawn are unfavourable for the Communist leaders in 1960s Czechoslovakia whose actions are perceived to have removed national liberty at the expense of Soviet subservience. Their argument that they were blameless and did not know what the outcome of their actions would be are derided. This is the defence of those who abdicate responsibility, who use not knowing as a shelter rather as the motivation to acquire learning and experience, to satisfy curiosity. It is the excuse of the War criminal, the self-interested CEO, the maligned politician.

There is a balancing act to be played with not knowing. On the one hand, there is the fascinating learning journey to be experienced as one acquires knowledge in a particular subject, following a breadcrumb trail of curiosity that forever leads to the boundaries of the unknown. On the other hand, there is a willingness to be comfortable with not knowing. An acceptance that no one individual can know everything, that there is no right answer. Mario Gleiser’s fascinating book The Island of Knowledge illustrates, particularly in relation to scientific progress, that what appears self-evident and obvious today can seem wholly inaccurate a few decades hence as we add to the vast pool of the known. Yesterday’s right answer is tomorrow’s monumental error.

When I wrote my first book, Mean Streets and Raging Bulls, on the evolution of film noir in the context of industrial, cultural and socio-political change, I deliberately opted not to include a proper conclusion. I was criticised for this in reviews, but my feeling then and now was that I was describing something that had not yet finished. There was no definitive answer to offer. Everything that had gone before in the previous pages was impressionistic, filtered through my subjective perspective. I offered it up as one view among many. The book was an invitation to conversation and further discussion, not the closure of a debate.

Perhaps my suspicion of the expert stems from that time and guides some of my research into neo-generalism. Having immersed myself in several industries and the endless streams of words and images that shape our social media, I am left with two reflections. First, that we live in a world of hypothesis and speculation. Second, that there is an overriding tendency among many to impose their own preferences in relation to these hazy notions, to shape concrete opinions from them with which they seek to indoctrinate others. I can never know to what extent they delude themselves, firmly believing in the rightness of their convictions. However, when I see their platitudes and artful self-marketing shared in my Twitter stream I am reminded of the line from James Sallis’s poem Manumissions: ‘Each morning they tell us eloquent, beautiful lies’.

Words and images deceive. Yet all gets amplified in this era of FOMO activism and constant sharing. We have to remember, too, that the culture that surrounds us is often one of performance and masks. As Kundera suggests, being observed, having awareness of it, affects our behaviour and actions. While I advocate ideas about working out loud, there are times when I wonder to what extent this becomes performance instead, self-limited and self-directed. Does the power of observation, awareness of our place on the stage, affect what we do, the filters we deploy, the stories we tell, how and what we share? In Unbearable Lightness, Kundera offers an interesting perspective on openness and transparency too, through the figure of Sabina. For her, the willing surrender of one’s privacy is monstrous. She is highly selective, therefore, about what she reveals about herself and to whom.

As individuals, there is something about straddling both the known and the not-known, balancing the open and the private. In recent weeks, I have been rethinking my own presence on the Internet, what I am happy to share, what I want to withhold, where I want to hang out with friends and colleagues online, and where I feel wholly uncomfortable. It has led me to withdraw from certain platforms and communities, to re-visit how I use follows and lists, to be more selective about what I share and where. This is motivated by a desire to find more meaningful connections with fellow travellers, the curious and adventurous, who accept that the knowledge they acquire is ephemeral, soon to be displaced or expanded upon.

For people like them, the neatly packaged, the ribbon-tied, is to be treated with suspicion. They muddle through, making it up as they go along. More Lebowski than the computer-like Sherlock Holmes. Their mysteries never entirely resolve themselves, forever morphing into yet another fog of the not-known. But that is the lure. Ever expanding knowledge horizons, new questions to ponder, new opportunities in abundance. Endless possibility. But no right answer. Like Oedipus, these are liminal figures always traversing the ground between the known and the unknown.

The more we know, the more exposed we are to our ignorance, and the more we know to ask.
— Mario Gleiser, The Island of Knowledge

How can we hold doubt and be truthful about the limits of knowledge on the one hand, whilst meeting other people’s expectations to be certain on the other?
— Steven D’Souza & Diana Renner, Not Knowing

But she had that thing most people don’t have: curiosity. She might not have always got the right answers but she wanted to ask the questions. I value that in a person.
— Zadie Smith, NW


We have done this before,
and should know how. Still,
one must learn again and again
— James Sallis, Love, Again, at Forty

I believe that the future of the art of living can be found by gazing into the past. If we explore how people have lived in other epochs and cultures, we can draw out lessons for the challenges and opportunities of everyday life.
— Roman Krznaric, The Wonderbox

Today, at the terminus of this evolutionary process, our immense memory banks are smoothly activated to join past, present, and future. They allow us to evaluate the prospects and consequences of alliances, bonding, sexual contact, rivalries, domination, deception, loyalty, and betrayal. We instinctively delight in the telling of countless stories about others, cast as players upon our own inner stage. The best of it is expressed in the creative arts, political theory, and other higher-level activities we have come to call the humanities.
— E. O. Wilson, The Meaning of Human Existence

Take the challenge, Steve Wheeler exhorted on Twitter. I decided to pick up the gauntlet that lay at my feet. #blimage has built momentum over the past week, with many people prompted to blog using one or more images selected by others as a source of inspiration. Learning is the common theme that ties the #blimage room together.

I am looking at the image of a weathered wall. Cement rendering has come away in chunks revealing patches of brickwork. What remains of the darker covering shows signs of age, an industrial past and more recent graffiti. Past and present blur together with a hint of future utility. A word bubbles to the surface of my mind: palimpsest.


Strictly speaking, a palimpsest is a manuscript from which earlier writing has been scraped away or effaced and more recent writing has been added in its place. It is a form of authorised vandalism. This is a notion that I have co-opted before, applying it to my interpretation of other art forms and my understanding of our broader culture. The palimpsest as metaphor.

I can look at the work of the Coen Brothers, for example, and see in their films a form of cinematic palimpsest. Watch Miller’s Crossing, and lurking beneath the surface is the fiction of Dashiell Hammett, Coppola’s The Godfather and Bertolucci’s Il Conformista. Watch their The Big Lebowski, and Raymond Chandler’s fiction is shouting for attention as filtered through Altman’s interpretation of The Long Goodbye. James M. Cain nudges and winks at the viewer from the depths of The Man Who Wasn’t There, distilled through decades of film noir tradition.

Wander the streets of London or Paris, on the other hand, and you will encounter palimpsests in bricks and mortar. Ancient and modern edifices and structures jostle for attention. In some cases the old is either incorporated into the new, or takes on a more modern role in both our physical and psychic geographies. They are revitalised, repurposed. Power stations and rail terminals are transformed into exhibition spaces for art, factories become people’s homes, wharves and warehouses are converted into restaurants.

Sometimes it is the history associated with the edifice that serves as the palimpsest. To gaze upon the Notre Dame Cathedral is to behold both the technical mastery and artistic capability of medieval masons and craftsman. But it is also an opportunity to look upon one of the centrepieces of the Age of Reason; a building that was claimed for liberty, equality and fraternity, secularised and given over to the post-Enlightenment populace. However temporarily, this ceased to be a cathedral of Catholic worship and was transformed into a Temple of Reason. The streets that surround the cathedral still bear testament to the actions of the crowd during this period.

Increasingly, we are seeing other symbols of the past peeking through. Construction in our major cities is unearthing archaeological wonders that reveal much about our ancestors, their culture, work activities and feeding preferences. Technology has given us insight into what the area around Stonehenge may have once looked like and where its ancient visitors came from. Regeneration has peeled away layers of paint and whitewash accumulated over the years to reveal the shops signs and advertisements of yesteryear. Artwork hidden behind masterpieces painted by the likes of Picasso and van Gogh have been detected and analysed. Telescopes launched into deep space are allowing us literally to look back in time.

But what of us? People living in the here and now? What hidden wonders hide behind our carapaces? To what extent have we allowed years of habit, narrowly focused attention and repetitive practice to cover us in layer upon layer of grimy rendering? How far have we allowed expertise and specialism to overshadow our innate polymathic tendencies? Have our inner workings, our capacity for continuous learning, our impetus to curiosity, become silted up? Could we too benefit from a sandblasting? A descaling? Something that would expose our interior scaffolding?

We are all walking palimpsests. Memories of things past are held within. Sometimes our most beneficial lessons come from revisiting what came before. We need to find ways to give full licence to our curiosity again. To look once more at the world with the wonder of a child. To experience the joy of flow.

Now ritual is the husk of faith and loyalty, the beginning of confusion.
— Lao Tsu, Tao Te Ching

The memory is littered with bits and pieces of images, like a rubbish dump.
— Italo Calvino, Six Memos for the Next Millennium

There are clues in my past that may make sense only when I’ve seen them more than once.
— Scott Berkun, The Ghost of My Father