| by Flemming Funch|
Our minds are to a large degree pattern matching machines. As kids we've learned the difference between tables and chairs, and to recognize which things are edible and which aren't, and that food goes into the mouth, and trash goes into the trashcan, and trashcans go outside on Thursdays. We can smoothly decipher letters and words and sentences, in the languages we know. We can recognize thin ice, friendly or angry faces, and tunes from old TV shows. We're pretty damned versatile.
We're less good with more complex patterns. We certainly have developed some, and worked out a partial understanding of others. We live in societies with complicated infrastructures and we can entertain intricate theories about science and philosophy. Some of them are very useful and reusable. But we're not terribly good at being conscious of several levels at the same time. It tends to be one or another. Most people live in the everyday routine, at best keeping good track of when they're going to work, when bills need to be paid, and who will be in the superbowl. Others live in a more abstract pattern, seeing the world as one big scientific model, or as a philosophical exercise, at the same time being a little dense when it comes to the most immediate stuff.
But how about being aware of the forest at the same time as the tree? How can you be focused on the work at hand AND the whole group or activity you're part of?
Can one simultaneously be aware of being an individual, and a collection of cells, and a part of a group, and an expression of universal consciousness?
To be conscious of patterns of a higher order, it helps to have a language to describe them. Pattern languages are just that. They're ways of making abstract patterns explicit and thus easier to be aware of and work with. It you don't have a word for something, it is hard to stay aware of it, without slipping into unconsciousness about it. If you know explicit patterns, you can apply them to stuff you construct or participate in. Easier to knit a sweater when you have a pattern, easier to learn the dance steps if there are footprints on the floor.
There can be, and are, pattern languages for architecture, for software development, for collaboration. It is maybe a little odd to call them languages, as we typically merely are talking about collections of described patterns. A pattern language can also go further, and attach words to stuff that previously was impossible to describe. The existence of patterns or a pattern language can allow you to deliberately create certain effects that maybe otherwise seemed completely random and out of your hands. An architect who uses a pattern language might deliberately create a space that people feel good in, because he can express himself in forms that have certain meanings to the people who use them, whether they are consciously aware of it or not.
Another simple example. You're having a meeting with some people. This post was inspired in part by an online discussion I had with George Pór and Seb Paquet. Like most people who need to have an online meeting, we picked from the most available tools for doing such a thing, and we used Skype. We can talk at the same time, and we can chat at the same time. It doesn't yet do video for 3 people, if they're Mac users. But tools and meeting formats shape what happens. Are you aware of how? When you meet with a group of people, are you aware how the pattern the meeting is structured by will influence what will happen?
Patterns are just as important as what you "do" or what you focus on. Maybe more. If you work really hard, but you work on the wrong thing, it doesn't do you much good. The pattern is the frame, the setting, the subtext, the context. A pattern is maybe something abstract, but is an expression of something very real and concrete, which often is outside our awareness, and often not within our ability to talk about.
If you have a meeting where everybody says whatever they feel like, whenever they feel like it, that's some kind of pattern. If you have a meeting where the head guy talks first, and then people ask questions, that's another pattern. A meeting where different roles are assigned to the participants is different from a meeting without any roles. Somebody might keep written notes, somebody might do a mind map, somebody might try to summarize conclusions. A meeting where the members commit to doing certain things after the meeting, like trying to communicate the essence of what happened, or implementing what was agreed upon, is different from a meeting without such a commitment. All of those are different patterns.
If we know we're dancing together, we can relax and just dance. If we don't know what we're doing, maybe somebody will analyze it afterwards and tell us. But there's something to say for a coherence between different levels in real time. If you stay conscious of more complex collective patterns you're participating in while you're doing your own thing, maybe it all will fit better together.
In the past I've once or twice had the job of designing information systems for medium sized companies with 50-100 employees, where I was supposed to essentially computerize most of the activities and workflows that were taking place. I was somewhat stunned to discover that although each person was quite sure of their own job, the whole picture usually didn't fit together. Person B would undo what person A had done. Person C would put the files in alphabetical order, and person D would put them back in numerical order. And person E would do absolutely nothing, without anybody noticing. Lots of effort was wasted because nobody ever had looked at the whole thing. The CEO was doing CEO kind of stuff, the Receptionist was doing receptionist kind of stuff. Nobody had the job of making the whole thing fit together. But I had to understand that in order to make any attempt of creating an information system to support these people.
If you're busy doing something, but it is out of sync with what the overall activity is about, or if a bunch of you are busy doing stuff, but nobody has any clue what it all is about, maybe there's not much synergy. Or maybe there is, and you don't know it. Just imagine that you could be conscious of the next higher level as well. While you do what you do, you somehow sense what the bigger picture is as well.
What a group of people do together can't always be reduced to a neat organizational chart or an executive summary. It might not even be possible to express exactly what it is. The coherence in a collective activity isn't dependent on words. There might be an entirely non-verbal thing going on, but it might still be coherent. Non-verbal memes might even spread elsewhere, without anybody being able to say exactly what happened.
There are many levels to what is happening. The more you become conscious of patterns, the more likely it is that you're sensing more levels.
You can be in sync with higher levels of the system you're operating in without necessarily being conscious about it. Individual ants don't have to walk around being super-conscious of the whole ant colony. They just do simple stuff and it adds up to a coherent whole. The trouble with us humans is that we have the capability to imagine higher order patterns, but we aren't yet well equipped to get it right. So we might end up working on discordant higher order patterns, even though we each superficially appear to be doing our jobs well.
It reminds me of the idea of holonomics. Developing a sense of patterns on many levels and how they intertwine.
The awareness of patterns and of levels is maybe more important than whether you get it exactly "right". It isn't about great precision, but rather about being approximately in the same ballpark. If you're dancing with a thousand other people, there are many ways of doing it right. Yet, lawn mowers and chain saws and blue whales might not really be in harmony with the action.
Six billion people doing each their own thing doesn't make a healthy civilization. It is a little better if they have a sense of what they are doing and where that is going. Even better if they could sense what patterns they're weaving together. Better yet if most of us were conscious of the patterns of patterns that evolve.
The world is becoming very complicated and complex. The times where single individuals could understand and explain most of what goes on in the world have passed a long time ago. Several hundred years ago, really, and since then the complexity of our information has grown exponentially.
What we need more than a lot of specialists is people who can operate at a higher level. People who can sense patterns within clouds of uncertainty. People who can see the lay of the land, even if in low resolution. If you're too left brain and focused and insistant on accounting for everything, you probably can't. It takes a different kind of peripheral vision to sense the patterns in the whole.
What you're clearly and consciously focused on is just the tip of the iceberg, in several directions. You, yourself, have lots more going on sub-consciously than consciously. If you're not sensing where things are going for you, you're gonna miss your own boat. Same with your role in bigger things, your part in groups you're in, and in the world. What you're immediately focusing on is just one small part of it. Much bigger things are in motion. If you somehow can sense those currents and become a little more conscious of them, you're a lot more likely to do something constructive.
We're all able to sense the coherence of patterns to one degree or another. If you're watching a movie or somebody's telling you a story, you know if it feels right or not. There are many possible variations of good stories, but they tend to have a certain kind of flow and rhythm. They're not just random stuff thrown together. Yet in everyday life we seem remarkably willing to put up with stuff that doesn't fit well together. If we turn up our awareness of the patterns around us, maybe we'll find that we do have more choice about it than we thought.