Intuitive introduction to systemic thinking

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Attention is a resource

What a giant had to say

A long, long time ago, when teachers were still in charge of young people's character development, here's what William James had to tell them about this matter:

In what does a moral act consist? It consists in the effort of attention by which we hold fast to an idea which but for that effort of attention would be driven out of the mind by the other psychological tendencies that are there. To think, in short, is the secret of will, just as it is the secret of memory.

Attention has a purpose

Attention, and the emotion of interest which naturally directs it, are there for a purpose. Interest is what might move our young ones to explore and understand the world. It's what may make them exercise their minds and bodies.

But our industries have been able to separate this emotion from its purposes. They have created games that engage only "other psychological tendencies", so that the effort of attention that sustains a moral act is never experienced; which keep our children's attention away from where it's due; which exercise no more than their thumbs and their rear ends; whose ethical message is "kill or be killed"; which are so "immersive" that they make everything else – and school in particular – seem dull in comparison.

Why shouldn't they virtually live in the virtual world? Where success is so much easier to experience; and where even the ultimate failure can be erased by just pressing the restart button.

It's a complex world

For all we know, we may have created a complex and dangerous world which will demand of our children the audacity of spirit that we ourselves haven't been able to muster. What have we done to help them live up to its demands?

We say "for all we know", because we don't really know. While some of our colleagues have done research and concluded that our civilization may just barely make it, provided we make changes promptly, the rest of us continue to live and work just as we did before. Notice that we are not saying that our civilization is in trouble; others have said that. All we want to say follows from what we've just said, and it's anyhow obvious – it's that we do not know what our situation is and what we need to do; because the way in which we handle knowledge is keeping us from knowing.

And because also our attention has been mishandled.

The economy of attention

The journalists are not to be blamed. They are just trying to make ends meet in a competitive world.

Our friends who innovate in journalism told us that there's just about one business model left to the journalists, to compete with abundant free information. They call it "attention economy", but it's not what you might think. The journalists are not economizing with our attention as a resource, by directing it where it is most needed. On the contrary – the attention economy means attracting people's attention by whatever means may still be available, and selling it – as a commodity, measured as the number of thousands of readers or viewers – to the advertisers.

We don't need to tell you that it's those advertisers – that half-a-trillion-dollars-a-year global industry that combines state-of-the-art science with state-of-the-art communication design – that are now in charge of everyone's character development! You'll also notice that if they do their job right, then "the effort of attention by which we hold fast to an idea" ("do I really need this?") will disappear altogether and give advantage to "the other psychological tendencies that are there" ("this feels attractive – let's buy it!"). But don't blame the advertisers; this just happens to be their way to make a living in a competitive world.

Pleasure is a resource

Pleasure has a purpose

Neither we, parents, are to be blamed.

We of course only wish our children our best. We only want them to be happy! The trouble is that we believe (because we've been socialized to believe) that happiness means doing what feels attractive at the moment. How can we deny our children those games, when they might be the only thing that still interests them?

The sensation that something is attractive or pleasant too has a role in the larger scheme of things. It's what nature created to make us do what is good for us. But our industries have been able to separate that too from its purpose! Think, in the manner of a metaphor, about white sugar: the pleasurable substance has been extracted from the nutritious rest. We can now fool nature; we can add sugar (physically, and metaphorically) to virtually anything. We can make anything taste attractive!

But there's a hidden cost.

The economy of pleasure

Around the time when William James was writing the above lines, Friedrich Nietzsche was looking at modernity "from the point of view of digestion" and jotting down notes:

Sensibility immensely more irritable; the abundance of disparate impressions greater than ever; cosmopolitanism in food, literatures, newspapers, forms, tastes, even landscapes. The tempo of this influx prestissimo; the impressions erase each other; one instinctively resists taking in anything, taking anything deeply, to “digest” anything; a weakening of the power to digest results from this. A kind of adaptation to this flood of impressions takes place: men unlearn spontaneous action, they merely react to stimuli from outside. They spend their strength partly in assimilating things, partly in defense, partly in opposition. Profound weakening of spontaneity: The historian, critic, analyst, interpreter, the observer, the collector, the reader-all of them reactive talents-all science!

Artificial change of one’s nature into a “mirror”; interested but, as it were, merely epidermically interested; a coolness on principle, a balance, a fixed low temperature closely underneath the thin surface on which warmth, movement, “tempest,” and the play of waves are encountered.“

Opposition of external mobility and a certain deep heaviness and weariness.“

Interesting to observe that this was written well before the radio, the TV, the worldwide travel, the computer and the mobile phone. And of course well before the computer games.

Imagine if this is really true! Imagine if we've been "pursuing happiness" by seeking stimulation – and losing our very ability to feel!

We thought about Nietzsche when we heard some of the music that young people listen to. Don't know about you, but this did remind us of doleful howls of some youngsters whose subtlety of feeling had been lost – created in an ardent effort to stimulate the senses of their overstimulated brethren even a bit further.

Academic research too is a resource

We did this one thing right

In the midst of these systemic mishaps, at least one thing has been done right – the academic tenure. And the corresponding ethos of academic freedom.

What this has given us is in effect a global army, of people who have been selected and trained and publicly sponsored to think freely!

If our generation's evolutionary task is to engender a whole new beginning, beyond "the survival of the fittest" which has guided us to our present condition, then it's hard to even imagine how that may be achieved without recourse to this resource.

How are we using it?