The Chaotic Nature of Change

May 13, 2010

Wallops Island crop duster with red smokeThis is one of my favorite photographs. According to Wikipedia, it was taken on May 4, 1990 at Wallops Island using colored smoke.

The swirl at the wingtip traces the aircraft's wake vortex, which exerts a powerful influence on the flow field behind the plane. Because of wake vortex, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) requires aircraft to maintain set distances behind each other when they land. A joint NASA-FAA program aimed at boosting airport capacity, however, is aimed at determining conditions under which planes may fly closer together. NASA researchers are studying wake vortex with a variety of tools, from supercomputers, to wind tunnels, to actual flight tests in research aircraft. Their goal is to fully understand the phenomenon

The remarkable thing about the photograph to me is the image of order appearing at the edge of chaos. This is a fairly regular occurrence in our world, although most people don't have eyes to see it. That's because our minds are so fully in tune with the rules that our logic and reason have created that reality is obfuscated. We refuse or are unable to see beyond the red smoke. Order, we believe, cannot exist within chaos, and yet there it is.

This is a frightening prospect for a culture whose status quo is based on a different belief, for to the haves, the cultural elite — and especially those within academia — chaos represents the opposite of order, the devil to reason's god.

Is it really, or is chaos merely the process of change?

And what about our system of order anyway? Take a look around. If order is supreme, how do you explain events like our recent economic problems? Oh the usual suspects have their usual explanations, but minds like those of Umair Haque, Stowe Boyd or John Hagel view it differently. Haque's metaphor for our current economy is a "zombieeconomy," seemingly alive but not really. Our culture supports the status quo and not much else, and that's because order is really quite disorderly to those outside the velvet rope.

We search for answers to riddles like the economy within a paradigm of order, but if we can find the courage to step outside, we'll notice something completely different. Logical rules, it seems, aren't order at all; they simply codify the status quo. They're man-made in a world that is not, and therein lies the rub.

Henry AdamsAfter Henry Adams' encounter with the dynamo (twin turbines) at the World's Fair in 1900, he wrote in his autobiography, The Education of Henry Adams, "The law of nature is change, while the dream of man is order." He wrote of staring helplessly at the machines of the industrial revolution and "meditating upon chaos," because he had lost his sense of order. An elite among the elite, Adams' education and status were completely incapable of grasping what he was seeing, and he wrote, "Nothing in education is so astonishing as the amount of ignorance it accumulates in the form of inert facts."

"Facts" are necessary for order, but what are facts? Truth is the ultimate quest of logic and reason, but what is truth?

The change that Adams noted was chaos to him, but not to those who had created the machines. Chaos, therefore, is in the eye of the beholder, and that eye is colored by the knowledge and understanding behind it.

This is important to me in my work, because the fear of chaos is what freezes media managers in hopeless "solutions" to the disruptions that are ripping apart their world. These so-called solutions flow from that which is already known and practiced. Real innovation means real change, and change is chaos. "Managing change" is the oxymoronic business approach to a doorway marked chaos, and while an orderly process might make change little easier on everyone, it can cripple the desperate need to simply turn the page. In the midst of the downward spiral of disruption, the most logical path is often the most chaotic, grabbing old ways by the throat and crushing the life from them.

The way of nature is change, but the dream of man is order.

Reacting to the stormHow does nature respond to change? When a violent storm tears a forest apart, what happens? Does the forest complain as it's being ravaged? No, it doesn't care. The forest responds as it must. All that dies feeds all that is new, and so the storm is simply a chaotic recycler. Reaction to change is the issue, not the change itself, and the forest can't react until the change has taken place. This is why Adams felt so insignificant 110 years ago. He'd lived an orderly life, one that gave him a false sense of control over circumstances of change. The dynamo blew it all away, and he didn't know how to react.

Humankind wants order, because we want to know when to duck. We want hard and fast rules, because order can be manipulated with the right connections, the right bloodline, the right amount of money, and so forth. Order, therefore, is all about self-preservation, and change doesn't give a crap about us. Rather than trying to manage change, perhaps we ought instead to be crafting our reaction plans. It is illusionary to think we have any power over change, a self-deception that haunts all of us. The only real power we have in times of change is how we react, and that should be our primary focus today.

What's happening in our culture today is an epic shift from the top-down order of modernism to the participatory age of postmodernism. As Jay Rosen notes in his brilliant "Audience Atomization Overcome: How the Internet Weakens the Authority of the Press," media audiences used to be only connected upward to the source, but the Web allows horizontal connectivity among what he calls "the people formerly known as the audience." But this "atomization overcoming" is far broader than just news audiences and the press; it reaches to every institution of the culture.

Gutenberg, courtesy WikipediaPrior to the modern era, the hierarchy of the Roman Catholic Church dominated European culture.The invention of movable type placed knowledge available to only the elite in the hands of everyday people and created an entirely new elite based on education and the hierarchies it created. The "Gutenberg Moment" — with the foundational source code of The Bible and other ancient teachings — birthed institutions to serve the people, including those that have governed life in America since its beginning. It also made possible the machines and science of modernism, including that which is moving its own cultural influences to the side today: the Internet and its World Wide Web. We've entered the postmodern age now, one that is built on a second Gutenberg moment. Protected knowledge is again flowing into the minds of everyday people, hyperconnected by technology. Information has separated from the bundled forms of modernism, and this will change things forever. For. Ever.

It's important to understand that the modern era blossomed with religion and that churches flourished after the Protestant Reformation. Rome still had authority, but it was dramatically altered over time. Therefore, it would be foolish to assume that all vestiges of the modern era will disappear or that any form of "all or nothing" is an operational mandate for tomorrow. The postmodern — or "post-colonial" — culture is upon us, and to ignore it in the hopes of some nostalgic "return to yesteryear" is just foolishness.

Pragmatic postmodernism eats away at every foundation of the logic-and-reason-based modern culture. In Peter Lurie's brilliant 2003 essay, "Why the Web Will Win the Culture Wars for the Left," he nails perfectly how the Web guts modernism's core assumptions.

The content available online is much less important than the manner in which it is delivered, indeed, the way the Web is structured. Its influence is structural rather than informational, and its structure is agnostic (emphasis mine). For that reason, parental controls of the sort that AOL can offer gives no comfort to conservatives. It's not that Johnny will Google "hardcore" or "T&A" rather than "family values;" rather, it's that Johnny will come to think, consciously or not, of everything he reads as linked, associative and contingent. He will be disinclined to accept the authority of any text, whether religious, political or artistic, since he has learned that there is no such thing as the last word, or indeed even a series of words that do not link, in some way, to some other text or game. For those who grow up reading online, reading will come to seem a game, one that endlessly plays out in unlimited directions. The web, in providing link after associative link, commentary upon every picture and paragraph, allows, indeed requires, users to engage in a postmodernist inquiry.

Jacques Derrida, courtesy WikipediaHe's referring to the practice of deconstruction, an academic term used to describe backtracking just about anything to reveal the complexity of its genesis, which often is one groups efforts to seize control over another. Again, order is the self-centered dream of man, while the way of life is change.

Anyone who has spent a lot of time online, particularly the very young, will find themselves thinking about content — articles, texts, pictures — in ways that would be familiar to any deconstructionist critic. And a community of citizens who think like Jacques Derrida will not be a particularly conservative one.

Derrida is an interesting fellow and one who would have loved Lurie's Web of links. A controversial French philosopher, Derrida argued that any text contains implicit hierarchies "by which an order is imposed on reality and by which a subtle repression is exercised, as these hierarchies exclude, subordinate, and hide the various potential meanings." Who imposes such order? Those in charge. "The winner writes the history of the war," the old saying goes. This is what Derrida meant.

So our attempts to escape chaos are based in both real and imagined fears, but to live and process one's life in such a state is to not live life at all, for as we used to say, "Shit happens." Blaise Pascal knew this when he wrote in his wonderful Pensées.

We scarcely ever think of the present, and if we do think of it, it is only to take light from it to arrange the future...So we never live, but we hope to live; and, as we are always preparing to be happy, it is inevitable we should never be so.

When unexpected change occurs, such as the sudden death of a loved one, preparation gives way to reaction, and that is the natural response to the chaos we experience. We grieve, which is the natural process of turning the page. In the end, the fortunate — like the forest above — move on, because that's the way of life.

For media companies in a postmodern world, the order that served us so well in the past holds us back from adapting to change. Do we manage the change as best we can, or is it better to simply embrace the chaos and let it tear us apart, if that's what's necessary? If our faith is in order, we'll hedge every bet and slowly move towards change. If our faith, however, is in our ability to respond to change, then we won't care what happens, because we'll be focused solely on what comes after.

If you run a television newsroom, for example, is it better to equip a handful of multi-media journalists and keep the bulk of the staff the way it is, or is it better to switch almost everybody to MMJs and deal with the consequences as they occur? The question cannot be answered without studying the motivation for the action, for if we believe that a staff of mostly MMJs will dominate our future, then the former is surely fear-based and self-centered, while the latter assumes a posture of acceptance and sets aside the fear of chaos in order to accomplish the goal. This is hard to do in a world where we are rewarded for the orderly management of processes and why fearless leaders are so vital to any industry in disruption.

The same is true with the paradigm shift in the world of journalism, from the finished "first draft of history" to the unfinished reality of real time news. Professional news organizations do very well with the former but not so well with the latter, because to do so would be to embrace the chaotic nature of the change. We're busy looking for ways to manage it, when the best path may be to simply turn the page.

Many, many professional journalists find themselves out of work today and blame everyone, including themselves. Blaming is a part of order, for when it is disrupted, our minds seek ways to discover the cause, because we think it can be logically fixed. This can be a waste of time, however, when it's never really the change that matters but rather how we react to it.

Perhaps the biggest failure in our logical thinking is that order somehow gives us control, but that, too, is a self-centered illusion. Life is so much bigger than our little corner thereof, and when we believe that we control anything related to it, we step out into the world fearful and deluded. Little things set us off, because they are micro examples of the much bigger fear of loss of control. The institutions of modernism play off that fear and offer themselves as serenity we can count on. The problem, of course, is that we can't.

The 21st Century will blossom only to the extent each of us can leave the 20th Century where it belongs. I suspect, unfortunately, that it will take a generation.