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A friend sent me a rather wonderful description of an ideal future – one where we knew how to live well on the planet, at ease with each other and our reality, with the positive aspects of incredible technology incorporated and wisely integrated into our humanity – in short, a vision.

And I reacted against it. Certainly not in terms of the spirit, and not in terms of much of the detail. But because of the detail.

I’ve done a fair bit of thinking about what Agile means – both in terms of tech projects – nitty gritty stuff – but also philosophically. My architecture teacher, Chris. Alexander, can lay claim to have had a strong influence on at least some of the authors of the Agile Manifesto with the design pattern 208: Gradual Stiffening (some of these authors – Ward Cunningham and Kent Beck –  were also active in the ‘Design Patterns in Software’ movement, inspired by Alexander’s book ‘A Pattern Language‘).

The Gradual Stiffening pattern’s conclusion says;

Recognize that you are not assembling … an erector set, but that you are instead weaving a structure which starts out globally complete, but flimsy …

My friend Adam Timlett‘s writing and presentations on agile and complexity have also taken me deeper into the relation between agile as a practical technique for better, more fluid design, and into wider ideas about culture – in particular around agility as a kind of learning.

All of these considerations were present in my discomfort at the thoughtful and beautiful detail in my friend’s visionary description – but to respond with some careful philosophy to such an offering seemed wrong – breaking a butterfly on a wheel. The response had to be a story, not a tear-down, and so here it is:

Imagine: we decide that we want to become bears.

Bears are our visionary end-state. They are like us, but big and calm and strong; they’re warm and furry and they get to sleep a lot, too. We like bears; we want to be as bears are [personally, I’m convinced already].

However, after some study, we accept that we cannot instantly transform ourselves into bears. That the path from being humans to being bears is a long and complex one. We’re going to have to work at it. Study bear DNA, our DNA, get good at whatever mode we choose to safely, reliably transform our DNA into bear DNA, our environment into bear environment.

We will surely learn a great deal from such study, but a key thing we will learn (if we aren’t irredeemably foolish) is that while we need to understand the order and nature of the first few stages in detail, such detail about later stages is rather obscure from where we stand at the moment. Questions of this character will abound: how will we manage a society where there are some half-bear humans and some mostly human humans? Will we need full humans right up until the end, or is there a point at which we can set the process going and not need full-humans to manage it? And so on – endless topical issues of great moment will arise.

Nevertheless, we want to carry on, want to work wholeheartedly to fulfil our vision, and so we set the early steps in motion. And this is where interesting things start to happen.

At the beginning, we were a society of humans who wanted to be bears. Now, we are a society in transition, with, say, some full-humans and some first-stage bear-humans. New things will occur; it is impossible that they will not, for this is a properly complex system – deeply and fundamentally unpredictable in its detail, exponentially so as we look further into the future, as we ask more detailed questions.

At this point, the path we intended to take can do one of two things; become rigid, inflexible, determined; we will press on with the initial vision no matter what, ignoring all new options, all doubts, all problems. Or, we can do what life does; respond to the newly realised reality in which we are embedded.

The first option is almost impossible to see through to the end. It becomes harder and harder to think creatively, so that future steps become ever more tricky to design. It becomes dangerous for people to point out failure modes, for these are likely to be interpreted as traitorous doubt about the project as a whole. And so on.

One way or another (either through catastrophe, if we pursue inflexible determination, or through the taking of un-predicted, newly available pathways, if we take the sensible approach), we will never end up as bears, as a bear society.

We will end up as whatever we end up as. And that, too will just be another moment in time, another snapshot.

However, if our vision was deep and well-founded, if it truly reflected our best hopes and dreams, if the choices we have made along the way have not been slavishly, ideologically, constrained by the vision, but instead illuminated by it, informed by it, we have every chance of ending up with some version of bear-like existence that was unimaginable at the outset, which has all sorts of other characteristics which would seem strange and wonderful to the original humans who envisioned bearhood, but that will be right and fitting for us.

None of this is intended to attack the notion of vision – quite the opposite; without the vision of a society of warm, calm, wonderful bears, we would never have set out on this voyage. Equally, though, without the wisdom and flexibility to accept the reality of the experiences and conditions we met along the way, we might easily still be lurching from one crippled disaster to another, cleaving grimly to the graven motto over the door of our most sacred temple; “We SHALL be as bears!”, or otherwise desperate, trapped in some dystopian condition, seeking out and castigating those who promoted the insane myth of a bear society.

… and that’s the story.

And finally, because I am, eventually, a pedant, I can’t resist making my conclusions clear:

  • That our visions, if they are to be powerfully useful to us in transforming ourselves, need to be deep and loose, and at the same time fundamental and culturally embedded. They need to be excellent and enthralling stories, crafted on the basis of deep wisdom and great creativity.
  • That our practice, in pursuing these visions, needs to embrace path-dependency without abandoning vision. At each point, each choice, we need to be open to many possible options (while wisely filtering others out), and increasingly expert in evaluating them in terms of the potential each choice has to set us on a newly inflected path that nevertheless seems to unfold a little more of the world enshrined in our vision.
  • That, if we are super-smart, we will occasionally revisit our driving vision and re-examine it in the light of reality, of our learning, of the imaginable futures available at that point: – if we are super-smart and a decent society, we will do this as a whole community, minimising bias where we can.