mental models

Here's an interesting info-graphic (created by Michael Simmons) on mental models-- a topic I touched on in a recent post.  From the standpoint of communication design, these kinds of data-intense graphics can be very useful; however, they can also occlude awareness...most commonly because we've mis-understood or omitted an important component of the so-called "relevant universe" or (my preferred term) the systems ecology under consideration.

For example, what's the meta-message in this graphic?  Descriptively, it's cohesive and interesting.  It's also highly complex.   And I would suggest that, as a complex model (info-graphic) of a meta-model (universe of mental models) it serves (in a very subtle, nuanced way) to convey that--beyond being something to look at and grasp intellectually--this is a subject best left to experts.

Now...I am not arguing that the creator of the graphic was trying to say this.  Nor am I arguing that this facet of the meta-message is harmful.  It's truthful at a certain level: There is complexity in mental models, and in problem solving approaches.   That said, I'm also observing that--through the lens of communication design-- the presentation points toward complexity as a key take-away of the graphic, and that this subtle meta-message may in fact be the primary message for many folks.

And so what? Maybe it's just an interesting way of thinking about cognition, and how we approach problems.  This could be.  And if you are an intellectual omnivore it makes a tasty addition to the plate of ideas.  I'd also say that in the realm of design--where we are engaged with both science and art in the grounded space of solving actual problems--  this graphic represents a useful repetoire of thought-approaches which we can leverage in design work. As a designer working in the realm of complex systems, I am all for mental flexibility and a broad palette of options at every stage of design. However, it is also my position that before we consider external (so-called) mental models (some of which are represented in this graphic) there is another, much more important mental model in play: the one we have inside our own head...the one we may (or more likely may not) even be aware of...the one within which we have squirreled away years (decades depending on your age) of unquestioned assumptions about ourselves, the world around us, and how things work.  This internal mental model--to the extent that it is operating unconsciously and without question in the background--can seriously impair our efforts to co-create positive outcomes in our design work...especially when so-called "human factors" are involved...mainly because it represents a huge blindspot in our ability to perceive the dynamic and constantly shifting world around us. 

Broadly put, the info-graphic represents a core mental model of modern culture's technorationalist approch to problems-- just find an expert and/or their solution and it's all good.  In contrast, I suggest that the primary mental model to concern one's self with in ecologicl design practice (and life) is our own:   What are your beliefs? What skills are they linked to? How does your expression (via words & deeds/skills) align (or not) with your beliefs?  How do these beliefs inform and impact your design work? (And your life, for we are always designing our own lives through our work whether we acknowledge it or not.) 

When you begin to seriously evaluate your internal landscape--your map, your mental model--you are beginning to level up to the realm of ecological design...the artful problem-solving work design practitioners do when we are seeking to integrate who we are and how we show up in the world with the needs we see represented around us in our environment. 

The power of external approaches--as outlined in the graphic--is magnified exponentially when we understand who we are and what makes us tick, and when we bring that awareness to our design practice.  The inclusion of the inner work (self-relationship) is one of the things that distinguishes ecological design from technical design...and this holds true in every area of design: industrial, communication, residential, process, experience, etc.  

Cultivate a deeper awareness of your working mental model, and learn to challenge your assumptions as you become aware of them, and see how this influences your design approach and work in the world.   You might be seriously surprised at the positive yield such a practice provides.   Or not.  All for now.


our greatest challenge at this historical moment: denial and disinformation

A great deal of permaculture design concerns itself with practical, material matters: sun patterns, capturing and conserving energy (of all kinds), establishing ways to live which honor and work with various planetary cycles and systems dynamics, and so on.  However, an area which doesn't get as much airtime as these practical matters, but which is of great importance in permaculture, involves the ethical principles of permaculture design. 

In coming posts, I will discuss how I work with and apply these principles in my life in more detail.  For now, I will simply say this:  deception (also known as disinformation) is an abuse of human energy and intelligence, and as such, is a violation of the ethical principles of permaculture.  As permaculture designers, it is incumbent upon us to learn how to percieve deception, recognize its harmful effects, and respond effectively to counter it.  The ability to do this is the counterweight to disinformation and denial--two dynamics which are epidemic in global human society at this historical moment-- and thus, deception perception and management is of critical global importance.

As permaculture designers, developing our capacity for deception perception and deception management is as essential to permaculture design as is managing pests or making compost. Tolerance of deception is as damaging to human society as ignoring Himalayan blackberry or Kudzu would be to a food forest.  Unchecked and unaddressed, deception spreads by undermining our ability to trust our own perception and our intuitive sense of the truth. It is invasive in nature, and unless we attend to it constantly, it will continue to expand until it fully undermines our ability to live ethically and responsibly.  

The embedded video has more to say about the current state of deception in human culture.  While this video is explicitly discussing the media's response to reports of Extra Terrestrial contact, and how people self-censor accordingly, the dynamic described--the use of social stigma to control perception and behavior--is equally applicable to other issues, such as geopolitics (for example, invoking "conspiracy theory" to silence people who question the official story of 9/11 or seek to investigate it properly) or history (for example, brainwashing college freshmen into believing that the drafters of the U.S. Consitution were "white supremecists" and that destruction of the United States as a sovereign nation is required to atone for this).

In permaculture design, we are tasked with paying attention to the whole...and this includes awareness of our mental models and our thought processes, as well as awareness of who (or what) is influencing our perception.  I encourage you to watch this video and to consider how the current state of deception (in media, politics, education, medicine, etc.) is affecting your ability to foster a generative ecosystem in your corner of the globe. As one permaculture designer to another, I encourage you to learn to observe the patterns of deception in your communicty, and to educate yourselves on the methods necessary to attend to them in a holistic and gnerative manner, just as you would do with any other problematic development in your sphere of influence.  More later.


the ghosts of conspiracy theory...past, present, and future

"Life imitates art far more than art imitates life."

-Oscar Wilde


I can attest to the truth of Wilde's statement:  in the third act of my play, Solstice Song: A Christmas Carol for the 21st Century, The Ghost of Conspiracy Theory Future reveals to Andrew Blossom--and to us--a world on fire, with insolvent and disintegrating governments, mass migration, civil wars, and a terrifyingly rapid global ecosystems collapse.  Does any of this sound familiar?  

The first two acts of my play fall more clearly into the category of "art imitating life" --with The Ghost of Conspiracy Theory Past taking Andrew to the frozen north Atlantic and the deck of the SS Californian to witness, from a distance, the demise of the Titanic, while The Ghost of Conspiracy Theory Present takes him to a conference room on the 86th floor of 2WTC on the morning of 9/11--moments after the first plane struck 1WTC.  

Most of us, I think, are not surprised by the ways that art and life mirror each other: as beings who move incessantly between daylight and dreamtime, we intuitively recognize the inextricable weave of the imaginal and the material realms, and how each gives meaning to the other.  In a similar manner, we intuitively recognize that the past, the present, and the future are inextricably woven into a person's sense of themselves, their community, and their wider world--even if we're not yet able to interact generously toward ourselves--or toward each other--from this point of understanding. 

In the case of Andrew Blossom, the past has woven itself so tightly around him that both the present and the future are on the verge of being annihilated...a scenario that--in many ways--also applies to us. But that's a subject for another day.


blossom v. scrooge

A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens has a plot and structure well-known around the world:  after a ghostly reckoning over a single evening, an insufferable and rather nasty human being--Ebeneezer Scrooge--experiences a change of heart in his daily affairs, with positive implications for all. 

At the outset of the story, Scrooge cares little for the fate of other human beings; at the end, suffused with gratitude that he still has time to change his life, Scrooge's behavior shifts dramatically, from stinginess to generosity and from indifference to care.  Dickens ends A Christmas Carol by informing us that Scrooge's behavioral change in the present will lead to a future in which he will not die alone (as predicted by the Ghost of Christmas Future) but instead, will be remembered with warmth by those who knew him best. 

Charles Dickens was an astute observer of human behavior and a skillful storyteller: taken as a period piece that reflects both the culture of that time and the thinking of its author, A Christmas Carol informs us of the mores and folkways of 19th-century Victorian London, while also highlighting our enduring tendency toward small-minded self-interest and our equally enduring capacity for change. However, from an early 21st-century perspective, Dickens' A Christmas Carol is psychologically naive:  thanks to a more developed understanding of human psychology, it's generally accepted these days that people don't change deeply embedded behaviors easily or quickly--no matter how motivated they are, and behavioral change--even when strongly motivated--can be extraordinarily difficult to sustain. Consider, for example, the multitude of New Years' resolutions abandoned within weeks, or the phenomenon by which the ability to stop a harmful behavior (e.g. smoking, overeating) waxes and wanes over decades, as someone slowly figures out all the complex ways in which their environment and personality are working against their deep desire to behave differently. 

In my play, Solstice Song: A Christmas Carol for the 21st Century, it is largely my treatment of these psychological aspects of human behavior which make Solstice Song a 21st-century story.  Like the Charles Dickens' original, Solstice Song features a sequence of ghosts who time travel with the main character in an effort to help him solve a deeply personal problem.  But the story is set in Washington, D.C., the context is global and ecological, and the main character--Andrew Blossom--is no Scrooge.  In his past, Andrew has loved deeply, and strongly: for his wife, Lydia (lost to breast cancer) and for his adult son, Benjamin (killed in the collapse of WTC2).  Historically, Andrew has also felt an attachment to his twin sister Andrea, as well as a close affinity to her daughter, Leah--who, like Andrew, adored Benjamin.  Unlike Scrooge (for whom deep feeling was anomolous), Andrew Blossom is a man trapped by a sinkhole of grief. Racked with guilt and longing, in the wake of the loss of his wife and son, he no longer feels much of anything--least of all, love. 

There are other similarities and diffierences between these two characters: like Ebeneezer Scrooge, Andrew Blossom does have money--he has done very well finanically in the wake of 9/11--but unlike Scrooge, Andrew is indifferent to his monetary wealth: he has lost something much more valuable, and at a deep (albeit unconscious) level, he knows it.  The visitations themselves reflect this core difference as well: while Scrooge is first visited by his business partner, Jacob Marley, in Solstice Song it is Andrew's deceased wife, Lydia, who makes the first appearance and heralds the sequence of soon-to-appear spirits.  Finally, while the visitations in Dickens all occur on Christmas Eve, in Solstice Song, the visitations occur the night before September 11, 2015, and Winter Solstice, which figures strongly in Andrew's change of heart--takes place only in the future.

There are other differences between my play, Solstice Song and Dickens' A Christmas Carol--from the identity of the ghosts to where they take Andrew--but revealing those details will have to wait for another post. Unless of course, you'd like to buy a copy and read it for yourself. Solstice Song is available online as an ebook or in print, or you can order it from your local bookstore. 

More soon...





Waiting For The Train



As a number of commentators, among them James Howard Kunstler, frequently observe, here in the U.S. we are "waiting for the train," literally and metaphorically. This is a rich topic; trains offer many benefits, not least of which involves showing us to my essay, appearing at, attempts to explore.