Monday 12 September 2011

Narratives for Systemic Thinking

Narrative  approaches tend to be characterized by trajectories: if not of plot, per se, at least of some (more or less linear) sense of beginning, middle, and end, possibly with logically necessary structures, and often employing tactics to reduce the information involved into a cogent story. Building on Rebecca Wells Jopling's last two posts on concept redefinition, I consider a question I've been mulling for some time of whether particular narrative approaches help make systems more navigable.

In contrast to narratives, systemic approaches focus on relationships between focal points in networks and systems. Relational strategies for representing systems demonstrate systemic interactions, and these tend to be expansive, complex, and often to involve feedback strategies that assess the alignment between the experience that people have interacting with systems models and the authors' intentions for such experience. While choices of characters, setting, and plot events can help determine the scope for reducing experiences to narrative form, systemic approaches are often modular in ways that can expand to capture fuller and fuller ranges of sub-systems, super-systems, and other phenomena related to a system's focal points. The down side of such expansive modularity, of course, is overwhelming complexity, complication, and scale -- systemic representations often tend toward the classic problem in which representations threaten to approach the complexity and scale of the thing they represent.

On top of the inherent complexity of many systems, this representational tendency makes legibility of navigation a central authorial challenge for those wishing to represent systems. Since you are likely reading this essay in an electronic form, in Hypertext Markup Language, many relatively novel authorial tropes for denoting systemic relationships seem quite ordinary to you, whether or not you know very much about the structural semantics that enable you to navigate the internet.

Navigating the internet has likely contributed considerably to vernacular systems literacy: many more people than just gamers, for example, have become familiar with the conceptual space created by following trails of links through searches. Likewise, the widespread aesthetic of using linked tables of contents in favor of infinitely scrolling lists has potentially increased the familiarity of the general hierarchical structure of systems within supersystems and of sub-systems within systems. At the same time, the monetization of internet pages, the push to understand the impact of particular regions of the internet,* and the availability of free analysis software like Google Analytics (why yes, we are paying attention to who's reading this) have familiarized a significant subset of internet users with the idea and mechanics of feedback mechanisms for improving the usability of a systemic representation.

The success of goal setting narration, trauma narration, and medical narrative approaches all suggest ways that the analytic framework of narrative helps coalesce complex experience into more engageable forms. However, the motive for representing systems often involves the inverse of such a transformation: I want people to engage my systemic representations in order to understand the ways that their understandings of, say, the digestive system, an ecosystem, or the food system are built on focal narratives that reveal only small points in a complex and dynamic system. In other words, I want people to find the narratives they have and to use those to orient themselves in seas of knowledge they are probably only able to navigate partially.

I found starting with the premise that narratives could be useful to navigate systems somewhat problematic until I began to better understand the inverse nature of the lenses provided by narrative and systemic approaches. Simply thinking of narratives as vessels of some sort, for example, with which to launch people into systemic understanding, tended to provide too much momentum of a particular narrative imprint: leading questions led people to see systems in light of the specific narrative frame suggested. (The success of branding provides excellent examples of this.) Similarly, of course, relying on people's own narrative entry points into systems significantly colors the systems they see, construct, and are able to navigate. However, it was grappling with just this -- and with the question of how to get people to acknowledge and be interested in moving beyond the limits of their own systemic understandings -- that made it clearer how narrative and systemic approaches could be used to turn particular representations on their heads.

It seems to me that this function is precisely what makes the concept redefinition discussed in the last two weeks so compelling: by starting with a narrative rut that is already well worn by the user and scuffling it up a bit, redefining a common concept might serve to refresh a view of a given systemic relationship such that, as Jopling describes it, the new concept "broadens the semantic network of the reader, encouraging ideas that might not have been born of the older term and its cognitive and emotional networks."

Although they rarely explicitly name them as such, people who work to represent systems to user groups similarly use other kinds of narrative frames to prod people into reconsidering systems, pushing people to expand the range of their customary ideas of spatial and temporal scale, for example, or to take a different perspective. Likewise, interactivity and manipulability are often used in models to encourage people to delve in and explore. More thoroughly exploring the structure of the relationship between narrative and systems approaches could help inform the development of very helpful tactics for interweaving narrative and systemic representations.

*see also
You can also play around with the exciting ways people are using HTML5 to create systems navigations (and that I've used to illustrate this post, as well as to design my current system explorer) here, at the JavaScript InfoVis Toolkit site.
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