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.
Of course, there can be 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