Lesson 3: Going with the Flow

Lesson About Collective Creativity and Renewal

Wilfred Pelletier, a Native American from an Ojibway community north of Lake Huron, says his people aren’t into organization; there’s no need for it “because that community is organic.Pelletier gives an illustration of how his unorganized people nevertheless get things done.

Let’s say the council hall in an Indian community needs a new roof…. It’s been leaking here and there for quite a while and it’s getting worse. And people have been talking about it. Nobody organizes a committee or appoints a project leader. Nothing happens, in fact, until one morning here’s a guy up on the roof, tearing off the old shingles, and down on the ground there’s several bundles of new, hand-split shakes—probably not enough to do the whole job, but enough to make a good start. Then, after a while, another guy comes along and sees the first guy on the roof. So he comes over and he doesn’t say, ‘What are you doing up there?’ because that’s obvious, but he may say, ‘How’s she look? Pretty rotten, I guess.’ Something like that. Then he takes off, and pretty soon he’s back with a hammer or a shingle hatchet and maybe some shingle nails or a couple of rolls of tarpaper. By afternoon, there’s a whole crew working on that roof, a pile of materials building up down there on the ground, kids taking the old shingles away—taking them home for kindling—dogs barking, women bringing cold lemonade and sandwiches. The whole community is involved and there’s a lot of fun and laughter. Maybe the next day another guy arrives with more bundles of shakes. In two or three days that whole job is finished, and they all end up having a big party in the ‘new’ council hall.

Who was responsible for deciding to put a new roof on the hall? Was it that first guy on the roof, a single isolated individual, or was it the whole community? “How can you tell? No meeting was called, no committees formed, no funds raised. There were no arguments about whether the roof should be covered with aluminum or duroid or tin or shakes and which was the cheapest and which would last the longest and all that. There was no foreman and no one was hired and nobody questioned that guy’s right to rip off the old roof. But there must have been some kind of ‘organization’ going on in all that because the job got done. It got done a lot quicker than if you hired professionals. And it wasn’t work; it was fun.”

Chaos theory would answer that the “organization” in Pelletier’s roofing project was ‘self-organization’. It began with chaos—all that disorganized talk beforehand about the leak. The first guy on the roof was a ‘bifurcation point‘ that became ‘amplified‘. The feedback between the first fellow and the next one who came along started a cascade that coupled the community together around the project, and then the system got the job done.

Clearly, Pelletier’s Ojibway community is an open, creative, chaotic, nonlinear system. As he put it, the people in this group “aren’t into competition. But they aren’t into cooperation either—never heard of either of those words. What they do just happens, just flows along.

Within the community’s creative open system, micro self-organized systems spring up from time to time, such as the community’s action to repair the roof. Such short-term selforganization renews the community and keeps it alive, as testified to by the big party held in the new council hall.

A high-tech example of social self-organization is the Internet. The Net was started back in the 1960s by the U.S. military looking for a distributed command system in the event of nuclear war so that no single center could be knocked out. The idea was similar to the one that conceived of the U.S. highway system as a distributed airport of landing and takeoff strips. It occurred to the planners that computers all over the country could be linked together to create a giant system that shared its information. But once the Net was set up, academic scientists began to use it and it was eventually made available to the public all over the world. Relatively quickly, more and more individuals and groups joined, until by the mid-1990s an estimated 25 million people were online and the number was doubling every eighteen months.

Nobody’s controlling the Net (at least not yet). It’s maintained by an open flow of users passing information around. Within the global self-organization of the Net and its subset, the World Wide Web, are countless mini self-organizations springing up all the time. People come together to do creative work—everything from photographers displaying their pictures of lightning strikes to underground musicians converging on Web sites to create an audience for their work to interest groups discussing the Vietnam War or Brazilian cuisine. For those who have access, the Net is a daily example of collective creative exuberance. Most of the activity is carried out by people who are making things, looking for information, and exchanging ideas that simply interest them as part of who they are.

The giant, hierarchically structured, power-driven commercial organizations have so far been largely frustrated in their efforts to harness the Net to their mechanical engines of profit. Anyone who has surfed the Net knows he has entered a chaotic, dynamic open system where “what they do just happens, just flows along.” Clearly there’s order here, but it’s chaotic.

Taken together, the traditional Ojibway community and the new cyber community suggest a radically different approach to social organization than the one currently taken by postindustrial society.

The “Strangeness” of Chaotic Collectivity

The activity of a collective chaotic system, composed of interacting feedback among its many scales of “parts,” is sometimes referred to by the poetic name “strange attractor.” When scientists say that a system has an “attractor,” they mean that if they plot the system’s changes, or behavior, in mathematical space, the plot shows that the system is repeating a pattern. The system is “attracted” to that pattern of behavior, scientists say. In other words, if they perturb the system by knocking it away from the behavior, it tends to return to it fairly quickly.

In the restrictive limit-cycle system, behavior is mechanically repetitive, with fewer degrees of freedom. The system goes through its restrictive behavior independent of what is going on outside. The pattern of a strange-attractor system, however, is different. The strange-attractor plot shows that the system’s behavior is unpredictable and nonmechanical. Because the system is open to its external environment, it is capable of many nuances of movement.

For the heart muscle, the attracting behavior is a firing sequence of neurons. The heartbeat rhythm we’re all familiar with is produced by this sequence. Scientists studying the sequence discovered that it contains something “strange.” The behaviors of mechanical systems such as pistons and clock pendulums are consistent and regular. Their behavior can be mathematically plotted as smooth circles or other shapes. Not so with the heart. Even though we think of the heart as relatively mechanical in its beats (one reason we refer to the heart as a “ticker”), the fact is a healthy heart isn’t quite regular. It exhibits a strangeness that involves endless chaotic variations, micro jolts, and tiny fluctuations within each heartbeat.

Tiny fluctuations in cardiac rhythm are, in fact, a sign of the heart’s health, a display of its robustness. The neurons firing in sequence to contract the cardiac muscle don’t behave anything like a series of spark plugs mechanically igniting within an engine cycle. Instead, they’re a self-organized chaos.

The attractor for the brain is even stranger, requiring a constant high level of neuronal chaos to provide the ground out of which the sudden self-organization of thoughts and perceptions can arise. Chaos, it turns out, is behind the scenes of even our everyday experience of reality.

Diversity and Open, Chaotic Systems

One of the vital principles of strange attractors and collective chaos involves the sheer diversity of all these systems within systems. A healthy ecology contains a wide range and variety of species interacting with each other. If we reduce the variety and make the system more homogenized, it becomes brittle and is liable to collapse nonlinearly.

Chaotic creativity suggests why diversity is so important. When diverse individuals come together, they have a tremendous creative potential.

As individuals—each with their own self-organized creativity—couple together, some degrees of freedom are given up but other degrees are discovered. A new collective intelligence emerges, an open system, unpredictable from anything one could have expected by observing the individuals acting in isolation.