Challenges to Comprehension Implied by the Logo
of Laetus in Praesens
Laetus in Praesens Alternative view of segmented documents via Kairos


Living Differences as a basis for Sustainable Community

Ecosystemics of designing, configuring and driving a difference engine to avoid quenching enthusiasm, magic and the life of the spirit

-- / --

Challenges of difference
Elusive nature of appropriate balance
Ways of holding difference
Degrees of order
Non-linear holding patterns
Riders of conceptual confusion
Quenching higher order insights
Differences between universe designers
Where do we go when we disagree?
Holding incommensurable truths
Envisaging a higher order of pattern holding
Exploring the clues to pattern comprehension
Dancing with differences: some symbolic pointers
What might a "difference engine" be?
Beyond the wheel


There is a desperate quest for consensus and "common ground" to constrain the proliferation in differences of perspective and preferred strategy. The track record is relatively poor. Differences are multiplying and undermining the implementation of strategies dependent on such agreement.

In this context, those with a different perspective are readily marginalized or viewed with suspicion - as has always been the case. Failure to subscribe to "universal values" is considered divisive. How to act effectively in the light of such values remains elusive. The common ground that is proposed is essentially simplistic (see discussion).

What follows is an attempt to recognize the fundamental role of difference in configuring the kinds of approach that might prove more appropriate at this time.

Challenges of difference

From time immemorial difference has been seen as a problem. This is evident in attitudes towards: "foreigners," people of different style of dress, different accent or language, different behavior, different belief, and so on. Conflict, even war, has resulted from such differences - or been exacerbated by them. The 20th century has seen massive exercises in genocide as a consequence. The politics of many countries can be viewed as determined by these and other differences. Political parties are manifestations of difference - with each often seeing the other as deficient in its vigilance towards forces undermining society or preventing its advance.

The United Nations has, notably through it's Specialized Agencies, endeavored to respond creatively to such differences. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights has acknowledged the importance of avoiding discrimination against them. Many of UNESCO's programs have celebrated cultural diversity. Gender-, age-, and disability-based discrimination remain the subject of continuing concern. The cause of mutual tolerance and understanding has been widely pursued. Progress is visible but far from satisfactory to those who continue to experience such discrimination.

But the ambiguity surrounding difference emerges from the subtle ways in which it is perceived as attractive. Exotic foreign destinations are increasingly important to tourism. On the other hand protests concerning the sameness of some distant developed urban destinations -- and the experiences they offer -- are increasingly heard. There is widespread concern about cultural imperialism and homogenization. Minority languages are disappearing rapidly, raising questions about the appropriate vehicle for the cultural identity of their peoples. Identity is clearly associated in some ways with difference. The fashion industry thrives on the cultivation of difference.

Perhaps most striking, despite the feminist agenda, is the fundamental attraction experienced between the different sexes. Such differences, and those which are a vehicle for personal or group identity, continue to be carefully cultivated. Dealing with the dynamics associated with difference remains a meaningful challenge that few would seek to eliminate.

Elusive nature of appropriate balance

The drama of the relationship between the sexes illustrates the essential challenge. Who could hope to capture the experiential complexity of that dynamic? Who would be satisfied with rules concerning that relationship? Efforts have been made by the religions to do so. Their solutions may satisfactorily define their culture but are experienced as alien by those preferring different rules. Islam provides an example, but the different styles of Christianity are in some measure also a reflection of differences in preferences. Efforts to minimize differences between the sexes in a kind of unisex environment are also only appreciated by the few.

Reflection on the complex relationship between the sexes, or between the generations in a family, makes several points clear:

1. Such differences do not make a static relationship easy. It could be argued that many religions have taken an easy option of making strict rules in the expectation that through obedience to them appropriate balance would emerge. Some have focused on the complete separation of the sexes, notably in monastic environments. Such rules are widely rejected. They smother an essential dynamic that continues to fascinate and in many ways captures the essence of being alive. The media exploration of such differences is endless. It is the topic of a high percentage of community conversation.

2. For those exposed to such differences, the ensuing dynamic is a constant challenge to any emergent sense of identity. Assumptions are challenged. Rules are called into question.

3. Even those with most experience are often at a loss at how to deal effectively with difference. This may be most readily observed in the challenge posed to parents by growing children. The challenge of fundamentalism is equally perplexing to policy-makers.

The elusive nature of appropriate balance is thus a continuing challenge for individuals in their personal relationships, for a family, and at the highest political level. Comprehending the nature of "appropriateness" is not as simple and obvious as it is commonly made out to be (see discussion). Perhaps the key question is: what is the nature of dynamic balance and how do people "do it" together?

Ways of holding difference

Such is the dynamic challenge of difference that an immediate response is how to reduce it - for fear of drifting into chaos. In the emerging multi-party democracies of the Third World, for example, there is a sense that "too many" parties make for ungovernability. And of course: "Too many cooks spoil the broth". The European Commission has been very busy in severely restricting the number of crop varieties that can be legally grown for sale.

It is therefore useful to look to arenas where difference cannot be eliminated and has had to be tolerated. This could offer clues to how it is held and understood. Several "different" approaches to this can be observed:

  1. Agreed ordering schemes
    1. Chemical elements: These are ordered in a periodic table
    2. Fundamental particles:
    3. Crystal structures:
    4. Stellar objects:
    5. Living (and extinct) species:
    6. Geological formations
    7. Human diseases
  2. Emergent or competing schemes:
    1. Personality types:
    2. Types of intelligence
    3. Colour classifications
    4. Texture classifications
    5. Document classification schemes
    6. Patent classifications
    7. Chemical compound classifications
    8. Types of mathematics, geometries, algebras, etc
    9. Meteorological phenomena and weather conditions
    10. Animal diseases
    11. Plant diseases
  3. Recognized styles (and unsystematic typologies)
    1. Styles of literature:
    2. Styles of poetry:
    3. Styles of music:
    4. Styles of dance:
    5. Styles of wine:
    6. Varieties of taste
    7. Varieties of odour
    8. Styles of architecture and decor:
    9. Styles of clothing
    10. Styles of art
    11. Styles of drama
    12. Cultures:
    13. Types of organization
    14. Types of game
    15. Forms of altered state awareness
    16. Types of languages (natural and otherwise)
  4. Confused and missing typologies
    1. Styles of relationship
    2. Styles of human behaviour
    3. Styles of animal behaviour
    4. Types of movement: inanimate objects, plants, animals, humans
    5. Styles of belief, religion and philosophy
    6. Systems of values
    7. Types of problem
    8. Types of strategy
    9. Modes of human development
    10. Types of meeting
    11. Varieties of aesthetic taste

Degrees of order

In each cluster above there is some sensitivity to variety and diversity. Efforts to order this variety in any domain range both from the simplistic to the complex, and from the insensitive to the sensitive. Some approaches include:
  1. Recognize only the minimum number of differences, namely only gross variations (eg carnivores, herbivores and omnivores)
  2. Focus on the dominant type, or possibly types, treating the remainder as ancillary or marginal
  3. Focus on a limited number of categories only (eg animal, vegetable, mineral, or abstract) to form an abstract typology or model through the world may be perceived. This is much favoured in research under laboratory conditions where "externalities" can be legitimately excluded. Many academic papers adopt this approach leading to typologies based on 2x2, 3x3 or 4x4 matrices, for example.
  4. Through a dominant institution, adopt a particular typology, declare it to be the most appropriate, and then require that people adhere to it in subsequent transactions -- or else face penalties (eg the approach of major religions, scientific disciplines, and government agencies).
These approaches are of course challenged in several ways:
  1. From the natural science end, it is clear that scientists have to respond to the variety of chemical elements, species, or other observable natural phenomena as the resolution of their methods of detection increases. In each case they have to develop more complex typologies, such as the periodic table or taxonomies of species. The history of development of the periodic table shows how people have struggled to retain a measure of simplicity but at the same time been forced to integrate dimensions of difference.
  2. From the aesthetic end, people are naturally confronted by a panoply of colours, textures, tastes and experiences. They easily reject any over-simplifications of their daily experience implied by simplistic, abstract typologies. They are unwilling to cram the differences they experience in daily life into crude categories. Indeed, it is often their ability to deal with subtle differences that ensures both their survival and their ability to thrive in a society avid for more exotic experiences and products.
So what is it that holds difference and makes it tolerable? For a scientist it is the existence of some kind of typology. This may take the form of a simple list. But advances in knowledge, and associated career rewards, are linked to discoveries of possible complexifications of any such list. What properties explain the progression? So a list of chemical elements is converted into a two-dimensional periodic table. But with the discovery of isotopes, the table may become three-dimensional. Ultimately the table may prove to be generated as the product of an equation with a number of variables. It is then the equation that holds the pattern of differences

But for the ordinary person differences are perhaps best held through remembered encounters. What has been experienced, especially on a regular basis, does not have to explained or held in the manner of scientists. It may be built into a story to be shared with others - or repeated to oneself. It is the story that provides the coherence. For hunter-gatherer communities, for example, the pattern of experience, and the stories passed down the years about it, holds the differences encountered. It might be argued that all "animals" could simply be experienced by them as "food" - but this would certainly not apply to the range of herbs gathered for a variety of known purposes.

As indicated above, aside from over-simplification and reductionism, the concern is that any holding pattern would be imposed with little sensitivity to the range of phenomena inappropriately pigeon-holed in that fashion.

Non-linear holding patterns

Few patterns through which variety is held in western civilization take forms more complex than the list or the table. This is surprising. Nature is more complex and more dynamic. Differences can only be held within such simplistic patterns "by force". The reality of lived experience tends to escape such constraints - even if the manner in which it does so is denied both in official explanations and the typologies that are the basis for much bureaucratic regulation.

There is therefore a distinction to be made between differences that appear to be more or less successfully held within essentially linear patterns and those that challenge peoples understanding. It is the latter that are represented by the second two clusters above. In the case of group "C" for example, people are aware of the range of styles of music, art, texture and the like, but have little sense of how they might be usefully ordered. They hold the differences through their experience in encountering them. They meet the challenge by focusing on particular kinds of music, authors, tastes, etc. to the effective exclusion of others. They therefore practice selective sensitivity as argued by Orrin Klapp (1978).

There is consequently little recognition of the role that a comprehensive patterning of colours, personality types, or belief systems might play. In fact it is in the interest of some to discourage exploration of such patterns. Any religion, for example, would naturally be embarrassed by more complex patterns that justified the existence of perspectives other than their own. However, since such patterns are necessarily more complex than the linear patterns normally favoured -- which are more easily understood -- they may more easily be dismissed as "too complex" and therefore unnecessary to comprehension.

Riders of conceptual confusion

There are vested interests in overly simplistic patterns. The challenge is that it is likely to be the more complex patterns that hold differences more appropriately and more fruitfully in terms of today's problems and opportunities. The exploration of them is however inhibited rather than encouraged. Failure to explore them sustains the evident collective weakness in responding to the major differences that divide society and are a source of conflict.

In exploring patterns of greater complexity, there is therefore advantage in seeking at the same time to understand the strategy of those who "ride" the conceptual confusion of others. It is these "riders" who are skilled in the manipulation and use of categories to trap the unwary in more simplistic schema. Like hunters of any kind, they must be assumed to survive and thrive by developing strategies to which their "prey" are insensitive - until it is too late.

From a purely hypothetical perspective, modern efforts to control or dominate society do not need to depend on physical force or powerful weaponry. As Johan Galtung has shown with respect to "structural violence" as a sophisticated social strategy, it is "physical violence that is for amateurs". This would be even more true of what could be termed "conceptual violence". Such violence would however be even less visible or open to demonstration via social indicators. Its demonstration would require that the complexity of holding patterns for differences be subject to analysis and comparison.

Social control by such riders is therefore achieved "invisibly" through conceptual control. Use of less sophisticated patterns would be systematically encouraged - especially favouring simple polarization typical of team sports. It is typical of the PsyOps of modern warfare. But even in peace time, "dumbing down" public information, as practiced by the media, would be recommended wherever possible as a means of responding to the interests and attention span of the majority.

The riders would however be especially skilled in expressing themselves through simple sets -- of values, for example. It would be they who would be liable to make most frequent use of value terms such as peace, justice, liberty, and the like. The would promote single-factor explanations in addition to "we-they" arguments. It would be most difficult to distinguish their strategic moves from those pursuing such values with sincerity. Indeed it is precisely because the two strategies would be virtually indistinguishable within any linear pattern, that the real operations of the riders with respect to more complex non-linear patterns would be very effectively disguised. They practice the art of conceptual camouflage - they resemble what they are not. They would be truly able to ride the implementation of any less complex strategy to their own advantage - and invisibly so. Their apparent support would bring them honours.

There was a time when there was great concern about use of subliminal messages in advertising. The riders would favour a different technique. They would concentrate on the hidden structure of the communication. Like poets, they would seek to build a pattern of mutually reinforcing arguments - a pattern beyond the ken of most. These arguments would resonate mnemonically against one another to carry an understanding of a larger whole for which evidence would be lacking in any linear perusal of the message. Given that skills and techniques for identifying such hidden messages are lacking, or disparaged, such higher order messages could be freely planted in society. Their existence could be readily denied by those engaged in this process.

The challenge is to comprehend what might be meant by "resonate mnemonically" and "higher order". And -- beyond the "we-they" structure of the above argument -- there is a need to discover how the riders are integrated into a larger perspective.

Quenching higher order insights

In presenting an argument, or in producing a collective declaration or plan of action, it is usual to proceed point by point. The paragraphs may be numbered, and they may be clustered and nested. From this linear, and possibly hierarchically structured sequence, a coherent case is then supposedly "built up".

What makes for any coherence? How might degrees of coherence be distinguished?

But, faced with such a coherent case, how would it be possible to detect which features of the argument could best be undermined to significantly weaken the case? How is vulnerability to be detected? What kind of awareness of coherence is involved in this process?

Hypothetically it is useful to imagine reactions to a complex, coherent, higher order argument that had been designed to integrate a variety of complementary responses to social challenges. What would be the minimum number of features that it would be necessary to remove in order to render the initiative relatively ineffective? As a practical example, it is useful to look at the elaboration of Agenda 21 at the 1992 Earth Summit in this light. How many links between paragraphs and chapters were removed (or never proposed) in order to transform the strategy into an asystemic jumble lacking coherence across sectors? Who "nobbled" Agenda 21 and rendered it unimplementable -- or unsustainable to the extent that it could be implemented? With what guidance did they do this? Why was it not possible to render more comprehensible the erosion of coherence that was thereby achieved? Who deployed what arguments to discourage such demonstrations?

How does enthusiasm to take new initiative get quenched? How does a higher order pattern of insight act as a container for enthusiasm? With what insight can such containers be punctured so that the enthusiasm gets quenched and drains away? Conversely, how might a higher order pattern be strengthened against such attacks and act as an appropriate container or scaffolding for new initiatives?

There is of course another aspect to this. As a "quencher" of some initiatives presented to me, I am often irritated by the failure of those making their case to render their proposal immune to dynamics that have proved fatal to past projects of a similar nature. Worse still, the proponents are often uninterested in the history of earlier projects and what might be learnt from them. The question then becomes whether to withhold arguments that quench enthusiasm, and to tacitly encourage initiatives perceived to be vulnerable. After all they may indeed succeed, and why should people not benefit from their own enthusiasm and any resultant learning process?

Differences between universe designers

There is a way in which different initiatives may usefully each be seen as efforts by some to design the environment or conceptual universe of others - whether the "inhabitants" desire it or not. Each theory, model or argument (like this one) is thus an effort to entrap others in a particular framework - for their own good of course!

In this sense differences between people may be understood as differences between universe designers. Like interior decorators, we are each concerned to "impose", however gently, our preferred configuration of understanding on others.

In contrast to this tendency is the obligation to offer people a range of differences between which they can choose. People prefer to be able to choose between restaurants offering different food - even though the urban planner may not have allowed for several restaurants in designing a neighbourhood shopping area. The challenge may be seen even more clearly in the case of media channels and programming. The programming of a given channel can be designed to offer a range of contrasting, but complementary, experiences. But again the programmer imposes a style over the range of offerings as a whole. People therefore prefer to be able to switch between several competing channels - or even to use the greater freedom of video. Media moguls ensure that they own facilities offering markedly contrasting programmes and editorial policies to encompass as wide an audience as possible -- irrespective of the political or ideological inconsistencies that would be troubling to some.

Marketing managers concerned at this tendency of viewers to switch elsewhere, design their campaigns so that their message is carried by a variety of media in a variety of ways. Ideally these different messages would be complementary - each reinforcing aspects of an overall package whose nature would not necessarily be revealed by any one message.

Those concerned with the management of differences in a society are typically very concerned at the nature of the media programming offered. One tendency is to offer non-controversial material to calm, satisfy and entertain. This may of course include "stimulating" material, providing it does not encourage unwanted behaviour. It may be used to inform, provided this does not lead to unwanted questions and initiatives. It may be used to inspire, provided that those inspired act in conformity with those providing the inspiration. Government media policy is often challenged by how to appear to tolerate "critical" programming -- as the case of the BBC has demonstrated.

These issues may often be seen most clearly in family relationships. Typically the parents endeavour to design the universe of the children, or the husband may seek to design the universe of the wife. Children tend eventually to resist this process and seek to modify or impose their own designs. How does a family survive as a coherent group when subject to such competing designs? Divorce may be seen as an irreconcilable conflict between universes.

Of course competing political parties may also be understood as seeking to impose their particular design on society as a whole. Politics is supposedly the process of managing differences between contrasting political perspectives. Whether the society can survive and thrive with this, often savage, competition between its designers is another matter. Typically dissidents prove to be a problem and there is always a portion of the population that is marginalized and neglected by this process.

Whilst differences may be relatively mild between competing political parties within a country, they tend to be much deeper between countries. Differences of culture, religion, race, language and history severely exacerbate the difficulties. It is naïve to expect that present reliance on intimidation and blackmail (disguised as aid) by the powerful can eliminate these difficulties over the longer term. Is it through such initiatives that a single grand design will emerge and prove sustainable?

Where do we go when we disagree?

There is a simple way of thinking about reaching agreement. It is a good place to get to -- the place of "reconciliation" and "lasting peace". It has all the associations of togetherness -- recalling team, military, tribal and hunting-pack pasts, as well as the family. The wagons are formed into a circle from which whatever threatens our bonds can be faced.

But where do people go who disagree? They are cast out -- or cast themselves out. They separate off to take up another position. They camp elsewhere. They adopt a different strategy. They become renegades. They reject the pattern to which the majority subscribe. Since those who agree define the good, safe and appropriate place - those who do not place themselves at risk, if only in the eyes of those who agree. They "have a problem" -- and may "need help".

Worse still, by having the temerity to opt for an alternative, they undermine the consensus to which others subscribe. They represent a temptation. They raise the unwelcome possibility that the consensus may not be entirely correct, at least under some circumstances. They threaten the authority of those whose identity is associated most closely with forming and sustaining the consensus.

Those who agree see themselves as representing the positive. Those who disagree, or say "but", are then readily seen as representing the negative. Their failure to agree is a manifestation of a problem they are believed to have - an issue they have failed to resolve that renders them partially dysfunctional. They may need to be "helped" back into the consensus - for their own good and for the good of the whole community.

Holding incommensurable truths

How is it that a community can allow the existence of a group that is concerned with gardening, for example, another that focuses on dancing, and another that favours football? What ensures coherence across these disparate interests? On a larger scale, how is it that there can be groups concerned with art, with religion and with science? At what stage does such a difference of focus become threatening?

To some degree each sub-group may indeed be held within a larger community - despite absence of overlapping memberships between the sub-groups. Overlap makes it easier for then there are "ambassadors" to explain the behaviour of one group to another. But there are many situations where overlap is non-existent.

The situation may be rendered acceptable, however, because someone in Group A is married to someone in Group B, for example -- something fundamental to relationships amongst families within the Arab world, for example. Some form of reconciliation may then traverse this chain and hold both groups within a larger pattern. In the most difficult situations, there may be few if any such chains between groups. Suspicion of the existence of such bonds may lead to severe sanctions - as is typical of religious conflicts (Northern Ireland, for example).

An issue here is whether the process of holding within a larger pattern must necessarily involve a form of "reconciliation". This implies a process of coming together dear to the hearts of those who seek to resolve conflicts. The unasked question is whether there are ways in which groups can coexist -- without being brought together and reconciled by such a process? What then is the nature of their relationship within the larger pattern?

At the personal level the challenge also exists. An individual may have incompatible sub-personalities whose behaviours cannot be reconciled. What ensures coherence to the personality in such circumstances? At what point does the incompatibility lead to a "multiple personality", within which each seeks to dominate the other? How is a "multi-facetted personality" held together within a pattern of "personal integration" -- and how is this pattern to be comprehended by the person concerned? Can nation states be usefully seen in a similar way within the world system? Or multinational corporations each seeking competitively to increase their market share?

Envisaging a higher order of pattern holding

Consider the possibility that the pattern holding implicit in current enthusiasm for agreement and consensus can best be represented by the circle or the wheel. At its simplest, this is consistent with meetings involving people gathered "in a circle". For some this degree of agreement is best symbolized and affirmed by holding hands in a circle.

The circle holding-pattern is also evident when a leader stands in the centre from which best to communicate with members of the group. People stand "around" the leader. In more complex cases, where the leader has sub-leaders or divisional heads as intermediaries, these may in certain cases stand in an inner concentric circle opposite the group members for which they are respectively responsible. Most hierarchical organizations could be represented in this way. Standard organization charts can be mapped onto concentric circles with the leadership at the centre.

It might be argued that development of technology based on the wheel has accompanied development of this circular holding pattern of agreement. Indeed there are even expressions involving "cogs" and "wheels within wheels" regarding the operation of complex interlocking organizations. Such wheels readily lend themselves to hierarchical organization, whether in groups or in the structuring of knowledge (notably on computers). Despite a tradition of mandals and the like, there are however no serious circular representations of knowledge on computers.

It is worth speculating on a future stage in pattern holding beyond that based on circles and wheels. It is assumed here that its exact nature is somewhat beyond our current ability to comprehend. This pattern is therefore to a certain degree elusive. However its nature may be suggested by a range of patterns with which we are already somewhat familiar. The pattern as a whole would reflect a confluence or integration of some characteristics of these patterns, although which ones is another matter. Suggestive patterns such as basket-weaves, motor windings, and dances, are discussed below.

Is it possible that the dynamics of a team could be better described by this emergent pattern than by simple agreement modeled on a circle? In one sense, team members have to "disagree" in order to each perform their distinct function. The more powerful the team, the greater its ability to self-organize and to benefit from the distinct strategies of its members. It is how the complementarity of these strategies manifests, and is held, that is the key to the emergent pattern.

How does a wheel work and what might be learnt from it in relation to a simple pattern of agreement? In the case of a wheel on a vehicle, the part of the wheel touching the ground bears the load, but this is distributed to other parts of the structure. That part is subject to some form of compression whilst touching the ground, and then this is relaxed as the wheel revolves. Each part takes its turn to bear the load and perform the other functions in the cycle. The centre may be actively involved in load redistribution.

How might this be complexified to hold greater diversity? Suppose that in addition to being part of one cycle or wheel, a member was also part of another - possibly at right angles to the first. A person might then be identified with the processes of one cycle, but at the same time be identified with those of another. These two different processes could be considered quite incompatible. A narrow view would have the person as quite disloyal to one as a result of membership of the other. Another member might in the same way be part of a third cycle, incompatible with the first two. How could any member sense the community as a whole, when only actively involved - through agreement -- in one or more cycles that constituted it? What does one feel about the cycles of which one is not a part - with which one has not expressed agreement?

It would seem that one would constantly be surprised in a higher order pattern by behaviours that did not emerge from an initial agreement based on a single cycle. This would be a practical indication of the much sought "self-organization" at the social level. There would be a sense of openness and a need to expect unexpected behaviours emerging from other cycles in which one was not directly involved. But there might also be unexpected constraints. A food menu at a party might be constrained by religious considerations, for example.

In a simple wheel-based pattern of agreement, movement of the group is somehow associated with "turning" of the wheel. It is such turning that is associated with work, development and moving "forward". Movement is with respect to an external environment. But in more complex patterns, movement would be with respect to features of the pattern. As with a gimbal-based structure, the constituting cycles move with respect to each other. Or, perhaps there are flows around different cycles. Movement is with respect to a self-referential environment that the interlocking cycles constitute and sustain. It is the movements around the periphery that acquire greater emphasis -- rather than those redistrubted through the centre (which tends to be unoccupiable).

Although this self-referential environment could be quite complex and constitute a major challenge to comprehension, aspects of it can be understood in terms of the systems of a house or office building. There are electrical circuits, water circuits, gas circuits, air-conditioning circuits, telephone circuits, and possibly heating and data circuits. How does one comprehend activity within such a closed environment? Of course one's own body is such a system -- with fluids of different types, electrical signals, chemical signals, air, and solids all flowing around, occasionally in contact at key interfaces. In what way does one comprehend, or fail to comprehend, these movements?

This kind of example can be useful in illustrating the challenge of bringing into being such a system. Consider a situation where there were people forming a group focused on engine design and construction, another focused on chassis design, another on fuel, another on braking systems, another on driving techniques, another on the aesthetics of vehicle design, and so on. With what insight might these essentially different groups, with quite different concerns and motivations, envisage any need to work together - constraining each other's enthusiasm - in order to produce a working automobile? How does the pattern holding these disparate purposes take form, become stable, and prove meaningful to those whose activities are held within it?

Exploring the clues to pattern comprehension

  1. Changing horizons: A structure based on gimbals, such as a self-stabilizing marine compass or camera mounting, suggests ways in which one can adjust to a dynamic horizon. In the case of a frame for testing astronaut ability to orient in three dimensions, no single horizon is the referent. Rotation can be in any direction, as in a tumbling spacecraft. Here the point would be adjusting to disorientation and not relying on apparent and temporary horizons. As a pointer, this kind of structure figured prominently in the 1997 movie Contact.
  2. Plasma containment: In experiments on nuclear fusion the long-term challenge has been to find ways to hold plasma in a magnetic bottle without it entering into contact with the container - and thus being quenched. The design of such containers involves positioning electromagnets behind the container walls and moving current through them in such a way as to repel the plasma. This suggests the need to position countervailing forces, using differences, so as to create a new kind of space within which another kind of perspective can flourish.
  3. Motor / Dynamo windings: The complexity of motor windings to maximize interaction with force fields suggests ways in which cycles of people or perspectives could be interrelated. Interestingly, a winding is not a single circle, but involves repeated wrapping. What might this imply for extending agreement modeled on a single cycle?
  4. Wrapping spheres: Continuous wrapping is also used in the manufacture of certain kinds of ball (golf, baseball, cricket, etc). This is done with rubber strip to ensure a degree of resilience. Again the process of wrapping requires that the orientation of the wrap be constantly changed to cover the whole surface effectively and smoothly. What sort of agreement would emerge from such a continuous change of orientation - capable of taking shocks from any direction?
  5. Basket-weaves: Baskets acquire their form and strength by a process of weaving a material such as reed. This necessarily follows one of many patterns - that may also have an aesthetic purpose. What kinds of understanding enable weaving in three dimensions in some approximation to a sphere? Note that it is the alternating manner in which the material elements, cross and constrain each other as they are bent "around" that gives stability and integrity to the structure (see discussion). What kind of organization, community or belief system would emerge from the construction of an analogous system of checks and balances?
  6. Tensegrity structures: These usually spherical structures are built up by configuring compression elements (rods) in relation to tension elements (ropes), such that the rods do not touch each other and the ropes form a continuous network. They have some of the features of basket-weaving. But, as a Scientific American (January 1998) issue on the topic indicates: "How groups of molecules assemble themselves into whole, living organisms is one of biology's most fundamental and complex riddles. The answer may depend on 'tensegrity', a versatile architectural standard in which structures stabilize themselves by balancing forces of internal tension and compression." Donald  E Ingber argues there: "A universal set of building rules seems to guide the design of  organic structures--from simple carbon compounds to complex cells and tissues" (see full article). These structures suggest how disagreement (compression "rods") may be designed into a pattern of agreement (tension "ropes") to bring about the emergence of a stable structure in another dimension (see discussion). An application to team design has been patented under the name syntegrity. The possibility of more complex patterns, possibly in a fourth dimension (hyper-tensegrity?) remain to be explored.
  7. Bird cages: Here the focus is less on the pattern defining the cage, which may be similar to a basket weave, but rather on how it contains life and prevents it "escaping" into nature. What makes a container a livable environment? And what kind of life can inhabit it? A Sufi story alludes to the process of creating a door-less golden cage, that may at some time prove attractive to the spirit or muse that then takes up residence there - but which may also leave at any time. In this sense the container is not a constraint but a frame of reference through which higher dimensionality may be experienced (see discussion)
  8. Faraday cage: This is a cage of electrically conductive material. Within it a person is effectively protected from very high voltages that pass around the cage. This powerful image raises the question as to what kind of disruptive energy might require such protection in designing new kinds of community and organization. Or perhaps a community may be fruitfully understood as a kind of Faraday cage offering protection against disruptive energies in the surrounding psychic environment?
  9. Diatoms: These microscopic living forms take a multitude of shapes. Many are spherical. How is it that cells "collaborate" to form such three-dimensional structures? Why does their cooperation not take a flat circular form? In three dimensions it is clear that their are movements of fluids or gasses within the structures - for they are often transparent. Is it possible that these structures constitute a veritable library of patterns on which human groups might draw in seeking to design higher order patterns?
  10. Global weather: As satellite photographs help to understand, there are strangely beautiful movements of clouds around the globe. Thermal sensors show changing temperature patterns. Both of these may be accompanied by precipitation of various kinds. It is however difficult to sense the necessity of these movements and how they are held in patterns and cycles. Typically the weather is observed and understood from a flatland perspective - clouds may move in from one side and move out on another. What sort of understanding is required to move beyond a flatland approach to agreement? How are the disruptive forces of nature held within a larger pattern? How might they be held within any new social order?
  11. Resonance hybrids: Certain chemical molecules, notably those basic to life, do not derive their structure from a single configuration of bonds. Rather the bonds, as in the case of those of the benzene molecule, alternate continuously between a number of different configurations. It is the alternation pattern - the resonance -- which is in fact more stable than any of the particular patterns between which the alternation takes place. It is a hybrid of several structures - hence resonance hybrid. What kinds of community or organization could be based on such alternation? In theory, democracy and the change of power between different political parties is just such an alternation. Is it possible to envisage governance through alternation between different policies - policy cycles?
  12. Dancing: There are some dances that are relatively simple. Circle dances are often used to celebrate the unity of a community. These emphasize bonding between members. But there are much more complex dances through which people move between what are effectively interlocking circles. The pattern of the dancers may shift and evolve. Dancers may "reject" one partner or pattern and move to another, perhaps later to return to the first. This rejection is not held by simple circle dances. In what way is the pattern of the whole dance then held and understood? Could community be better understood through dancing patterns? Could the patterns of such dances be more clearly represented on a sphere - with dancers shifting effectively between great circle patterns around the sphere?
  13. Polyphony and symphonic music: Many forms of agreement are readily described in terms of "singing with one voice". As the history of music has shown much richer (and more powerful and interesting) forms are possible through polyphony and symphonic music in which many parts may play off against one another. Characteristically many surprising relationships and complementarities can be meaningfully held within such music. It is extremely difficult to provide an overview of such a work and to communicate a sense of its coherence and integrity. It is possible that this could be better conveyed by mapping the different linear parts onto a sphere across which relationships to other parts could be traced. But the question is whether the pattern of such music suggests higher order patterning from which community organization could benefit. It would be ironic if people listened to music that held patterns for which they were desperately searching in order to handle differences more creatively.
  14. Permaculture and ecosystem design: Humans have proved remarkably skilled in exploiting ecosystems, simplifying them to cultivate the few species in which they were interested. Monoculture exemplifies agriculture at its most efficient. Although gardeners seek to enrich their environments, their focus is almost entirely on plants. There is little call for the skills required to create a self-sustaining natural environment that includes a complete spectrum of species - although permaculture goes some way towards this. This challenge exemplifies the challenge to those seeking to design sustainable human communities - based on a complete spectrum of personality types and cultures. And yet experience of nature highlights the surprising variety of relationships that make for a sustainable environment - beyond the monotony of monoculture and park landscaping. Again there is a case for mapping complex patterns of relationships between different species so that understanding of the challenge to human organization can develop.
  15. Electricity: The generation and use of electricity is dependent on the difference in potential between the "positive" and "negative" poles or wires. As implied by the discussion of the motor / dynamo (above) this century as devoted immense effort to discovering ways of successfully using such differences in potential in non-destructive ways. Literally light is created and work is done when the two poles are appropriately connected. The challenge in the psycho-social realm is to discover analogous forms of appropriateness -- rather than effectively trying to eliminate the "negative" wire.

Dancing with differences: some symbolic pointers

To clarify the significance and place of difference, Robert Lawlor (1991) cites Gregory Bateson: "The perceived world is then made up of intricate woven patterns of, as Gregory Bateson says, "differences which make a difference".

For those of more mystical orientation, difference, polarities or duality can be experienced as secondary to an underlying sense of unity or oneness, as articulated by Bede Griffiths (1997): "Advaita (nonduality) does not mean "one" in the sense of eliminating all differences. The differences are present in the one in a mysterious way. They are not separated anymore, and yet they are there. To me this is extremely important. When we go to a deeper level of consciousness, we should not lose the diversity of things and their individuality. On the contrary, the diversity, the multiplicity, is taken up into the unity. It cannot be put into words properly, and it cannot be explained rationally. It is simply an experience of advaita."

The unsatisfactory feature of this is that it stresses the importance of a unitary experience to which many may believe that they do not have access. To some degree, by stressing direct experience, it also denies the ways that conceptual advances can be made towards a richer understanding. In this sense it denies any better conceptual approach to managing differences in a more skilled manner.

Clarification of the challenge, does not necessarily help to articulate what is possible as next steps. Thus for David Fideler (1996) the requisite understanding is symbolized by the caduceus: "The polarities must be held together in a dynamic tension in order for the creative process to unfold. The caduceus is a representation of the dance of opposites in which the polarities are united. If they can be held together and cross-fertilize one another, the alchemical work of transformation can be brought to creative fruition....The caduceus is a symbol of peace, but it also reminds us that polarity, opposition, and struggle are part of the human condition. The entire cosmos is made up of clashing forces and polarities, yet without this seeming conflict, the universe itself could not exist. Life is a dance of opposites that involves destruction, rebirth, pain and joy....Rather than depicting a static harmony of perfection, the caduceus symbolizes a dynamic process of growth in which the polarities of creation are gracefully brought together. When Hermes set his staff down between the warring serpents, he choreographed their conflict into a more elegant form."

An even more elusive insight is suggested by René Guénon (1995): "There is often mention, in different traditions, of a mysterious language called the language of the birds...considered to be the prerogative of a high the point where communication is established with the higher states of being....This... "angelic language" symbolized in the human world by rhythmic language, for the science of rhythm, which has many applications, is in fact ultimately the basis of all means that can be brought into action in order to enter into communication with the higher states of being....It is also why the Sacred Books are written in rhythmic language, which clearly makes them something altogether different from the mere "poems" (in the purely profane sense) that the anti-traditional prejudice of the "critics" would have them to be..."

Towards this language, in a separate paper it has been argued that much may be learnt from poetry-making to enrich the quality of policy-making (Judge, 1993).

For Kathleen Raine (1983) this "lost" common language needs to be recreated: "But those of us who feel a change of premises taking place have to reestablish a common language not based on the premises of materialism which have held for the past three hundred years. I don't think we can resurrect any of the traditions in quite their old forms...But we can reexplore these civilizations, which did have a spiritual basis, and retranslate their ideas into forms appropriate to the present....the sacred language has been kept alive by those poets in the underground stream who speak the language of neo-Platonism....Really, anyone who uses words in order to communicate true knowledge is a guardian of language. Whereas anyone who is using words which once had spiritual content in a reductionist manner is emptying words....words can be retrieved and reused so that meaning is put back into them."

What might a "difference engine" be?

The examples explored in earlier sections allude to different qualities and characteristics of a higher order of patterning that may well be vital to the design of sustainable communities. They suggest richer ways in which differences and disagreements might be held and point to ways in which such differences might be fundamental to the much sought higher degree of order.

At the same time the nature of that higher patterning remains elusive -- and perhaps necessarily so. This combination of allusion and elusiveness is most apparent in the classic Chinese text on the philosophy of governance, namely the I Ching or the Book of Changes (see discussion). This is effectively a treatise on differences and on how different kinds of differences relate to each other in a sustainable community. Whilst its texts may appear to be very precise and comprehensible on particulars, and the pattern as a whole has an extremely logical form, it is the comprehension of that pattern as a means of holding the multitude of differences that is extremely challenging. Typically any effort to grasp the whole intellectually proves unsustainable - however delightful the momentary illusions of success. Undoubtedly, it is for this reason that the book has extensive recourse to metaphor - and is perhaps why many focus only on its use for decision-making in the face of specific circumstances. "Grasping" the subtle nature of the patterning is inherently counterproductive. Perhaps some form of Heisenberg's uncertainty principle governs how the whole can be understood in relation to the particulars.

So what might a difference engine be? What would it do? How could we understand it?

There is clearly a sense in which it would defy encapsulation in some logical framework: "There are  more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,  than are dreamt of in your philosphy" (Hamlet). Parts of the difference engine might lend themselves to such encapsulation. It might be like looking at a complex carpet design. Where the attention was focused, the pattern would be comprehensible, but beyond that the pattern would lose its coherence unless attention was shifted there. Ron Atkin (1977) has provided a mathematical description of this (review of argument). This is effectively the condition of the current fragmentation of knowledge. It is also how an inquiring mind of an earlier century would comprehend the works of a later century.

But in some way benefit would derive from such logical discontinuities. It is also how we are attracted forward into the future. Clearly both natural and social communities, as well as cultural life in general, benefit from different ways of doing things. In the natural environment, these differences create niches in which other things can happen. Both natural and social environments abhor monotony as much as a vacuum. Perhaps it is that logic is simply inadequate to detect what is engendered by difference and disagreement. Faced with disagreement, a person can be challenged by it, or can appreciate the drama of it as a happening. Like a volcano, it disrupts the static environment.

It is possible that a difference engine could be created without there being much insight into how it works. A skilled hostess will invite an appropriate range of guests. It is the differences that make the evening interesting. Perhaps the much quoted phrase of Lao Tzu from the Tao Te Ching could be paraphrased with respect to such a gathering:

Thirty spokes share the wheel's hub.
It is the centre hole that makes it useful...
Therefore profit comes from what is there;
usefulness from what is not there.

David Applebaum (1997) shows the relationship of this quote to the differences between different spiritual traditions: "...there is not one pathway but many, and to these correspond the traditions. They are like the many spokes of a wheel that radiate from a single hub. All are needed for rim to go round center and wheel to turn. In our time, when individuals pick and choose at will among the traditions, we must not succumb to reductionism and start pulling out one spoke after the other, for eventually there will be a catastrophic collapse. All movement inward will cease when we no longer sense how differences in knowing are reconciled by letting go of pretense and pretension. "

But how to distinguish between simply inviting an odd mix of people and the art of inviting people who will catalyze each other? Are psychologists, as professionals, renowned for their skills in this process to a greater degree than such hostesses? Why does technical skill not necessarily make for a great chef, nor skill in dress design make for a famed couturier? In what way does reliance on logic inhibit emergence of whatever it is that is associated with the art of combining different things? Is there another kind of logic to be discovered?

In the light of the above quote, it is interesting that the cybernetician Stafford Beer (1994) has developed a new approach to team communication based on an icosahedral structure that has 30 edges and an empty centre -- inspired by the work on tensegrity of Buckminster Fuller (see discussion).

A quite different way of approaching the challenge to understanding would be to explore how differences are used in sports of various kinds - or how they are used by animals whose behaviour has provided clues to some of those sports (see profiles of other metaphors):

  1. Hang-gliding: Clearly hang gliders work with the interface between air currents at different temperatures that help them to rise or fall. Like birds they use the lift created by the different configurations of the upper and lower surfaces of their wings. How to do it is less a question of logic than of experience. What can be learnt from hang-gliding and birds with respect to lift in working with conceptual and social differences?
  2. Surfing: Here the art is to profit from the differences created by breaking waves - it is the energy of the difference which transports the surfer and allows for skillful play during the process. Again how to do it is a matter of experience rather than logic. Is there a more creative way of responding to the waves of fashion and opinion in society?
  3. Wind-surfing: This is a combination of the two previous skills.
  4. Skiing: To a greater degree than gliding, this uses differences of height to transport the skier and allow for maneuvers along the way. The skier uses a great difference in height, but has to take care to use prudently the energy it offers.
  5. Martial arts: Typically Eastern martial arts are hyper-sensitive to differences in the abilities of opponents. More interesting is the guiding philosophy that raises numerous questions concerning understanding of the relationship between opponents. Also interesting is the skill developed to get out of the way of a strong attack, but nevertheless to make use of its energy. In effect the master practitioner makes use of the tendency of the opponent to establish differences and work out of them.
It could be argued that all sports of a competitive nature are an effort to struggle with differences, seeking ways to gain advantage -- whether of an opponent or of nature. The "advantage" as in hang-gliding or wind-surfing may be a matter of using differences in wind to acquire energy to sustain movement.

Beyond the wheel

The wheel has been fundamental to modern civilization. It is the fundamental symbol of harmony and concord in many cultures -- from Taoism, through Buddhist mandalas and the American Indian Medicine Wheel, to the Knights of the Roundtable or the Security Council table layout at the United Nations. What might be the next development? What is hidden within the wheel -- if it is understood as a projection of higher order insights into two dimensions? Some of the examples above offered a number of clues.

How might a "wheel" in three dimensions "work"? This would involve interlocking cycles, probably around a sphere. How would a hypersphere "work"? Different energies or qualities would travel around each cycle, impelled by differences. In fact each such cycle might be understood as divided into many parts to ensure such movement -- like a circular sequence of differently charged magnets.

Such a sphere might not exist or function physically as a mechanical system -- although interlocking cycles of linear accelerators around a sphere would be intriguing to observe as a three-dimensional "train set". It might however have some electrical or electronic equivalent -- of which the magnetic bottle for plasma containment is an example. And surely the movement of electrons around the spherical nucleus of any element has something of these characteristics. Software protocols could be designed to sustain the existence, coherence, self-organization and development of high-diversity virtual conferences and communities based on structures such a sphere, a torus or a hypersphere.

Much more interesting however is the possibility that the sphere might have a psycho-social function. Could such a structure "contain" psycho-social differences by ensuring relative movement  -- as suggested by the necessary dynamics of spacecraft in orbit? Such necessary movement might be along learning pathways. It might reflect the way in which people receive and pass on information, in dialogue or in patterns of relationships in a "sustainable" community. Intersections of great-circle pathways might correspond to bifurcations in decision-making.

After several years of hype concerning the desirability and inevitability of "globalization" at the World Economic Forum and elsewhere, the Asian financial crash of 1997-98 caused much mutual recrimination and reassessment amongst the experts and the powerful with regard to the nature of a possible control system -- previously considered unnecessary. It elicited the confession from Richard Haass (Brookings Institution), at the 1998 Forum, that: "Creating the institutions for handling globalization is the greatest intellectual challenge now facing the world" (Wall Street Journal, 2 Feb 1998). The challenge is to ensure the appropriate redistribution of fund flows in a global context in response to differences. In the light of the above arguments, it is easy to wonder whether the key is suggested by the riddle of how molecules and cells assemble into whole living organisms like diatoms - as effectively modelled by tensional integrity (tensegrity). Whether such methods of self-organization will be explored, or efforts are made to establish yet another conventional regulatory body, is another matter.

The movement "around" any such sphere might also correspond in some way to the manner in which a person uses information and insights within their psyche -- to maintain a "sustainable" identity. A minimum number of interlocking great-circle pathways might be necessary to psychic integration -- following the architectural argument of Buckminster Fuller (see discussion). Is the title of the esteemed Buddhist Diamond Sutra a suggestion that the understanding to which it points is essentially embodied in a pattern of continuing reflection (reverberation or resonance) between the facets of a diamond-like spherical structure of insight within the psyche?


David Applebaum (Ed.). Ways of Knowing. Parabola, 22, 1, February 1997, p 4. (special issue)

Ron Atkin:

Stafford Beer. Beyond Dispute: the invention of team syntegrity. Wiley, 1994.

Patrick Conty. The Geometry of the Labyrinth. Parabola, 17, 2, May 1992, pp. 4-17 (plans to publish a book on the labyrinth elucidated through knots)

David Fideler. Instrument of Peace. Parabola, Fall 1996, pp. 20-22 (on the Caduceaus)

Bede Griffiths. A Human Search: an oral history edited by John Swindells. Liguori, Triumph Books, 1997, p. 90

René Guénon. The Language of the Birds. Parabola, Fall 1995, pp. 70-72 (excerpted from The Sword of Gnosis edited by Jacob Needleman, Sophia, Perennis et Universalis)

Anthony Judge:

Orrin E Klapp. Opening and Closing: strategies and information adaptation in society. Cambridge University Press, 1978

Robert Lawlor. The Measure of Difference. Parabola, 16, 4, November 1991, pp. 11-15 (excepted from Robert Lawlor: Sacred Geometry: philosophy and practice. Thames and Hudson, 1982)

Kathleen Raine. Recovering a Common Language. Parabola, 8, 3, 1983, pp. 28-33 (interviewed by Ken Krushel and Alice van Buren)

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.

For further updates on this site, subscribe here