Weirding Diary: 9

This entry is part 9 of 11 in the series Weirding Diary

I’m noticing a resurgence of interest in classical systems theory that mildly worries me. I suspect it is being driven by an infectious desire to theorize the Great Weirding systematically. It is an impulse that is in some ways a natural complement to the parallel resurgence of interest in traditional religion as a mode of meaning-making (which worries me much more). Both are driven by the anomie and anxiety induced by the weirding (classical systems theory, like Singularitarianism, is a religion for people who understand compound interest).

I have a dog in this fight, which I call spooky systems theorizing (note the conjugation), occupying pride of place in the top right quadrant in my handy 2×2 of the clash of ideas here. Classical systems theory is in the doghouse at the bottom left, where I always put ideas with which I have beefs (my beefs tend to be with ideas rather than people).

A new generation of curious people is once again asking the same sorts of unreconstructed high-modernist questions that have been tempting ambitious thinkers since the 1960s. It is a disease peculiar to postmodernity, with Von Bertanfly, Forrester, Wiener, and the rest emerging as patients zero precisely at the historical moment when high modernism began to systematically fail, inviting attempts to save it through baroque mathematization.

The new generation is being seduced by the same sorts of systematic intellectual responses to systematic failures (as I myself was, circa 1998, when I was just starting graduate school in control theory, before I developed my present discordian conviction that ironically and paradoxically, systems thinking cannot afford to be systematic, and particularly not systematically mathematical).

I am convinced classical systems theory approaches don’t work and are just legibility-seeking authoritarian high modernism with extra steps. In recent years these theories have acquired an updated user experience built out of Santa Fe chaoplexity woo (terms like butterfly effects, bullwhip effects, Braess paradox, and “sensitive dependence” are bandied about), and a tendency to gesture at concerns raised by anarchist theorists of both broadly socialist (such as Jane Jacobs or James Scott) and broadly libertarian (such as Nassim Taleb) persuasions, without actually addressing them (“Yay antifragility and illegibility, now back to stocks and flows!”).

My worry is only mild though, because I suspect this time around, the fad will be Mostly Harmless™ due to antibodies still present in the body politic since the last serious flirtation with these ideas. So at worst, some creative attention and talent will be lost to other, more promising tacks, which is a pity. Unless you’re in China of course, where I hear these ideas are a great deal more ascendant. But then, China has bigger problems.

I don’t yet have an answer to what could work, but I’ve been searching for one for 20 years now, since my own disillusionment, and I do have desiderata for a usable approach to theorizing the weirding, captured and contextualized in my 2×2 in the “spooky” quadrant.

The two footnotes reference this Karl Weick paper (which is sort of the Ur document for my consulting work) and this classic Bruce Sterling talk which introduced the concepts of Favela Chic and Gothic High Tech concepts.

My criticism of the classical systems theories (the hedgehog in the doghouse quadrant) is not the usual strawman one that the models don’t make accurate predictions. Those are the wrong expectations to have of such models, and it is intellectually unfair to judge those kinds of models on those grounds.

My discontent is with philosophical foundations: classical systems theory tends to uncritically reproduce institutional patterns of knowledge and structural assumptions within its models. The default ontologies are inherited from governance systems (units of modeling tend to be things like cities, nations, corporations, or economic sectors) and the modeling parameters they favor tend to be the ones that institutions use to manage their own realities (GDP, employment, resource bases).

In other words, classical systems theory models are models derived from institutional maps, not civilizational territories. Their inaccuracies and blindspots are not a problem if you have the right expectations and aesthetics, and operate within the broad program of institutional self-perpetuation. Their metaphysical assumptions though, are crippling and likely fatal if you want to navigate eras of institutional creative destruction and ontological churn like the Great Weirding. As I noted in my post Prolegomena to any Dark-Age Psychohistory:

While there is no shortage of “wave” theories of varying degrees of believability (Elliot/Kondratriev wave theories, Carlota Perez’s models, Turchin’s cliodynamics, and so on), and quixotically hedgehogish systems theory models (Limits to Growthis the poster child for overpromising and underdelivering in this vein), there is nothing that quite rises to the level of Asimovian psychohistory.

Of course, Asimov and the fictional concept of psychohistory were also products of the high-modernist era, but the crucial difference is that psychohistory being fictional means it can now be used to refer to ideas that are better than the ones doing the rounds in the 50s.

The 2×2 of systems theories above is a generalization of the fox/hedgehog dichotomy of systems theories I developed in my 2013 talk on foxy systems theory (slides here, the video is unfortunately not public). I added a classical-to-non-classical axis, and labeled the hedgehog-to-fox range endpoints theory and theorizing, following Weick.

Products of the theorizing process seldom emerge as full-blown theories, which means that most of what passes for theory in organizational studies consists of approximations. Although these approximations vary in their generality, few of them take the form of strong theory, and most of them can be read as texts created “in lieu of” strong theories. These substitutes for theory may result from lazy theorizing in which people try to graft theory onto stark sets of data. But they may also represent interim struggles in which people intentionally inch towards stronger theories. The products of laziness and intense struggles may look the same and consist of references, data, lists, diagrams, and hypotheses. To label these five as “not theory” makes sense if the problem is laziness and incompetence. But ruling out those same five may slow inquiry if the problem is theoretical development still in its early stages.

I also labeled the two axes imagination and boldness respectively, (following Clarke’s famous line about hazards of prophecy “..debacles fall into two classes, which I will call failures of nerve and failures of imagination. The failure of nerve seems to be the more common…”). So what we have here is:

  • Low imagination, low boldness: classical hedgehog systems theory.
  • High imagination, low boldness: Weickian foxy systems theorizing.
  • High boldness, low imagination: crackpot systems theories (“ancient aliens” looks more imaginative than it is, but takes boldness to actually believe).
  • High imagination, high boldness: what spooky systems theorizing works towards. Here’s where I began laying out initial sketches.

My project, so to speak, is to start from “classical” foxy systems theorizing (basically a low-ambition Favela Chic Weickian toolkit that solves for insight porn) and somehow make the bold leap to a praxis of non-classical systems theorizing that addresses the desiderata in the top right via an indefinitely extensible theorizing mode, without ever quite landing on an actual theory or crashing through to crackpottery.

If it can be made to work, spooky systems theorizing of the Great Weirding would constitute an effective infinite game posture for our times. If it doesn’t at least I’ll have produced some good 2x2s along the way.

Series Navigation<< Weirding Diary: 8Weirding Diary: 10 >>

Get Ribbonfarm in your inbox

Get new post updates by email

New post updates are sent out once a week

About Venkatesh Rao

Venkat is the founder and editor-in-chief of ribbonfarm. Follow him on Twitter


  1. All my current screenwriting is driven by concerns in the Spooky quadrant. There is a four-quadrant map that pertains to storytelling. The hedgehog quadrant maps to The Hero’s Journey. The “spooky” quadrant contains movies by Yorgos Lanthimos and movies that are sometimes literally spooky (Midsommar, Under The Skin) and movies that utilize entanglement, poetic juxtaposition, and absences/ellipses so that the stories are spooky and magical in their effect on the viewer (The Souvenir, The Favorite.)

    I’ll have to draw you the story/narrative quad… but I should probably read up a bit more on your recent work so that I can show that there is a real isomorphism between screenwriting-theory and systems-theory.

  2. Thanks for Sharing this type of Article, its help full for us.