New words to hold the invisible world of possibility
Part 1: Warm Data
In the summer of 2022, Unpsychology Magazine published our eighth issue – a collaboration with Nora Bateson and the Warm Data community. The result was a rich and beautiful journal of art and ideas, available free in digital form. We also produced a paper version of the mag – and you can find out how to get both digital and paper versions from HERE.
At the heart of the issue was a three part essay by Nora, that explains and explores these new words that “hold the invisible world of possibility”, and provide a way of beginning to understand the transcontextual world of Warm Data that she inhabits - and that she inherited from, among others, her father Gregory Bateson. We are republishing the essay here over three posts as a way of acknowledging the growing influence of Warm Data on the work and ideas of the Unpsychology project.
Award-winning filmmaker, research designer, author & educator, Nora is President of the International Bateson Institute in Sweden.
Part 1: Warm Data
What is information?
What is mutual learning?
And in what way is this unseen realm necessary for life?
I AM NOT SURE I consider my work to be work. It isn’t separate from any of the other aspects of my life; my family, my health, my art, my history. Besides, I am in love with the study of the indescribable way in which things happen in life—some nice, some horrid—constantly forming in a vast swirling tangle of variables. The realm of vast-swirling-tangling-variables seems to be where the shapes and rhythms that become day-to-day life are steeped into being. Nothing happens without multitudes of influences. Their coalescence is life, music, evolution, love, ideas, culture, meadows, language, gesture ...
One does not fall in love, form an identity, raise children, or even play with a pet without combining all sorts of experiences finding their way into the process. This process is not a past tense 'combination' but an ongoing, open- ended ‘combining.’
Imagine a forest—each organism responding and shifting as the other organisms shift and respond over seasons, epochs, millennia—they are all in relationship, communication, and open-ended continuance of life. Evolution requires both continuity and discontinuity; a fish that grows legs stops being a fish — remarkably, the interdependency between the organisms, i.e., life, keeps producing more relationships; it “finds a way.”
This is a dive into the rigor of both theory and practice—an ever-expand‐ ing, ever-more profound artform. I am learning to find expression for this inquiry, but it has not been readily available. I have had to sculpt theory into poetry to enable it to hold the necessary movement of the living processes I am scouting. The ancients of most cultures have been here for thousands of years. And here I am, in today’s madness, trying to bring something to the party. I have made new words, and I have created a process that allows the un-noticed multi contextual information to reveal itself. I have stomped on nouns and over-used terms. I have raged against misused concepts that delimit the play that learning requires — I have writhed and squirmed under the vocabulary that misses the vitality of life and chokes it into confined definitions. Each morning I step out of bed to be reminded of a world of unspoken discovery churning under my feet. I do not want to harm these delicate interdependencies, even by accident. I want to be alert, increase my perception, and sensitize myself to the contours in motion.
Communicating a description of this territory is inherently impossible (which is a good thing). But it is also necessary to recognize that this unsayable, unnamable world is running the show. To keep pursuing an expression of life in these uncomfortable language acrobatics is hard work; it sits at odds with everything society substantiates. Even the attempt at living description defies the culture of “efficiency.” But — I would rather con‐ tinue in that awkwardness than rest in the familiar tones and language that carries a history of violent reductionism, illusions of control, and hidden stow-aways of linear strategy. Try as one might, to make change within “industrialized” perception, it will always re-produce the dreams of the cul‐ ture in which it was forged.
I was looking for information beyond the tropes of qualitative or quanti‐ tative; I was looking for information of another order.
The first conundrum I found myself in was how to deal with the notion of information. What is information? How can information be produced with‐ out pulling the living world apart? I found that what I needed for the work I was doing around systemic learning demanded that I have another species of information—that could handle multiple contexts in motion. One in which the information itself is alive. Ecologies are not static, and within them, many organisms respond and calibrate to each other's responses in varying timings. Some trees grow crooked to get light and water, and some families learn to be together with very little affection—in both cases, there are mul‐ tiple contexts at play over time to form the “possible” for those organisms involved.
Where is the information? Is it in the parts?
Well, sort of, but not really.
The last several hundred years of reductionism have brought fantastic achievements. And—that same reductionism has brought terrible destruction. The habit of taking apart living systems to study them benefits freezing life, so it can be defined, measured, and explored. The difficulty is that the studied living system is rarely put back into its multi contextual life‐ -ing — where it is in constant change. What would information look like that could change and shift in the field? The vitality of any living system is in the relationships between the parts. The relational vitality is constantly changing.
Warm Data is information that is alive within the transcontextual relating of a living system.
We may find it convenient to ignore this world of slippery, shifty information and choose instead that information that can be handled and pinned down. Still, the swirly stuff is underlying absolutely everything that is known as “action,” “decision,” or “learning.” Warm Data is necessary if for no other reason than a reminder that whatever information is currently available in a living process, “it is not just that and nothing more.” There are more contexts constantly shifting all the time. Think of a family, how it stays the same, and how it changes over time—or a city, pond, or a religion. To maintain any coherence, those systems must continually reshape and do so in relation to one another.
Zoom both in and out from your breakfast table—what are the relation‐ ships you can perceive in that one banal moment of your day? The farmers, the deliveries, the packaging, the traditions of breakfast, your family history, the health of your body, the time of year, your sleep last night, your partner or kids' conversation... Does the person who grew that food have children? What are they eating for breakfast? And how is all of this happening in a changing world? How will family members relate to one another differently to provide for the future if there is no water in their city? There is motion now. And the information needed must include the movement. Warm Data is wiggly, unpredictable, and sometimes invisible.
In this way, these three systems, the family, the biosphere, and society, continually calibrate their relationships.
How can it be possible to respond to a living world with information that is not also alive?
For me, Warm Data has been a warm relief from the nonsense of a world hooked on direct correctives and measurable outcomes. In the Warm Data work, I have seen the most beautiful and unexpected shifts. These shifts are so full of possibility that they gush in like necessary oxygen after holding one's breath. I had no idea when I first created the concept of Warm Data and the process of the Warm Data Lab and People Need People online that this sort of release of insight was even remotely likely. It is not by accident; there is a pile of beautiful theory under the concept and the processes—but still, I have to admit—there is some magic I simply cannot describe that takes place. I am profoundly grateful to have the opportunity to do this work. It blows my mind every day. And, I do not know how I would face the tangled mess of this era without something so exquisite as the stochastic generosity of this process to remind me that grace and learning combine in an art form that is just waiting to be unleashed.
But Warm Data must remain wild. It is not for the management of complexity or methodologies of change-making. It eschews linear goals and pre-defined endpoints. People's insights often occur in another conversation or situation after the Warm Data session. I doubt that most people would draw a correlation between the emergence of new insight and the Warm Data sessions. This is an important aspect of how intimate learning belongs to the individuals rather than the “tool.” For that reason, I never refer to the Warm Data processes as “tools.” For me, a better association is with the experience of a story, artwork, a meal, a friendship — in which each person resonates in unique ways.
In some theories of change, the goal is a conscious, rational, measured, definable way to make society and economy different — I do not hold this to be a reasonable response to the last several hundred years. It is ridiculous to expect radical restructure without going deeper into the shaping of how people learn to be in their world, how they smear their collections of life experiences into truisms. Without knowing it, eager well-intentioned people complicitly perpetuate the status quo in the name of transformation.
A thickening of the unsaid integrity—
Starting in small fringes that link and recircuit finding unfound mixtures.
Re-soaking the past.
Until their softness
is sticky vitality.
Like the richness of soil,
the ensembling is teeming with nuances sticking to other nuances. Following entirely undrawable paths.
The unusual textures, the surprises, —in the wordless sea of how we are.
The resonances and rhythms have their own current. In the rich probiotics of fresh tones.
Made together, without goals.
This is not collaboration, this is composting. This kind of new life is not a restructure.
It is a reunion.
It is not a plan.
It is a nourishing.
– Nora Bateson
These Warm Data processes are sometimes tricky to put into prose. They seem to generate a kind of parallel realm of possibility to the world of instru‐ mentalized, linear, direct solutions. For some, this is maddening; for others, it is freeing. In either case, it is not easy to articulate the sorts of reshaping that takes place. Something is happening beyond the scripts and patterns of familiar language. While I cannot begin to say what that “something” is, as it is particular to each person, I will say that it is warm and seems to generate a shared integrity and generosity.
While many would outline the details of the ideal future, the measurements of the sufficient resources, the methodologies of producing change (too easily referred to as ‘transformation’)—I will resist that pull. For this work, none of those things listed are relevant. Just as one person cannot make another fall in love or out of love, these transcontextual influences or complex confluences of experience that shape our days repel direct correctives. This runs contrary to the long roots of statistical, eugenic, industrial history in which many invisible presuppositions about change, progress, and development were brewed.
This is why it is vital to get parallel in ways that bring us to discovery, not in outcomes, but in approach to open-ended ongoing mutual learning.
to be continued/
The second part of new words to hold the invisible world of possibility: symmathesy will be published here on 22/4/23 and part 3 (aphanipoiesis) on the 29/4/23.
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