Adapting And Learning

By Gerrit Van Wyk.

Flip flopping.

In North America, one is supposed to make up your mind and never change it, otherwise you are a flip flopper and a loser. It’s said when Maynard Keynes was accused of flip flopping, he responded by saying “when things change, I change my mind, what do you do sir?”

The idea you can make up your mind and never have to change it is based on certainty that things don’t change, unless I want them to, which deep down assumes our world and universe is and works like a clock. If on the other hand it is complex, it is constantly in flux and changing, which means as participants in it, we are obliged to respond and adapt, retaining a memory or learning from the action to help us respond better or more easily next time. Not changing your mind when things change doesn’t make you a hero, it makes you a loser.

Stacey suggested its useful to look at complex human behavior as if it is similar to but not the same as complex adaptive systems (CAS). CAS are computer simulations studying how complex behavior spontaneously arises from the interactions of agents provided with a few simple rules of computer code. These show patterns of behavior emerging spontaneously without design or control, and when you look closely at human society, you also see spontaneous patterns emerging from our actions, interactions, and interrelationships, but at a staggering level of complexity because of the complexity of our social code.

Humans communicate by making sounds, but, as Wittgenstein pointed out, without belonging to a community with a shared set of rules for turning sounds into words, words into sentences, and sentences into concepts, sound is just noise. The way rules shape language also shape how we see and experience the world, which differs between groups and cultures.

Concepts become social rules, norms, regulations, ideologies, laws, etc., and to live in and belong to a society, we must learn them, which is why it takes a community to raise a child. These rules shape our experience, tell us how to dress, behave towards others and how not to, what the right way is to do things and which is wrong, shape the image we have of ourselves, etc. As a rule, we use these rules effortlessly and unconsciously and never stop to think where they come from, how they work, or whether they are useful; we just do.

A very important concept to all complex systems, including CAS, is that of emergence, which is a property emerging from interrelationships and interactions that is more than the sum of its parts. Rather than trying to look at individual parts and interactions as clockwork thinking does, one can learn more from what arise from their interactions when trying to understand complex phenomena.

Actions and interactions never stop; hence properties are always changing, usually in small increments but sometimes suddenly in big ones. Like a cloud in the sky, it comes together, constantly shifts shape, and a sudden change in atmospheric conditions can change its nature or blow it apart. It means we adapt all the time to what those around us do and retain a memory of it, or learn. Keynes understood that, but anti-flip floppers don’t, which makes them susceptible to a dinosaur extinction.

Human learning means asking questions about what we know. You can learn much if you know little, and learn nothing if you know a lot but refuse, or is incapable of asking questions. School and academic learning is a different animal; the assumption is some people have lots of knowledge in their heads, and using certain techniques can transfer that knowledge into empty heads, and one can test the efficiency of that transfer. Showing you incorporated enough knowledge from an expert into your head is often acknowledged as an endpoint to learning with a certificate or degree conferring social advantage. There is no need for the knowledge to be of any practical value.

Learning from acting and adapting on the other hand is practical, enabling us to survive and thrive in our physical and social world. This type of learning is unpredictable and never stops. We learn by imitation, copying, or learning from others because it is efficient, but for school and academic learning that’s considered cheating. We learn social competence from belonging to groups, and to begin with are like infants, and on the outside, until we know and understand the group’s rules and social code. We also learn from those around us how to do our jobs.

What I am writing about may seem confusing so far but there is an important point to it. Clockwork planners try to change things they imagine are stable from the outside, complexity planners participate in change. To do so they must understand human social complexity and have an idea how it works; change happens from acting, adapting, and learning, we do so collectively, which means we need to cooperate to influence emergent phenomena arising from our interrelationships and interactions, and to make all this happen we must engage in conversation and dialogue to make sense of the current situation and what we may do about it.

The only model most universities and academics teach is clockwork thinking, which means generations of certified planners, managers, leaders, consultants, and bureaucrats that are rendered functionally illiterate when it comes to complex human social interaction, and therefore struggle to make a meaningful difference. They’re not flip floppers, they’ve been taught to make up their minds and then either can’t or won’t change them. They must learn from real world experience that flip flopping is good and the best way to learn as we adapt to our actions. Its the way forward in a complex world.