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Jim: Howdy. This is Jim Rutt and this is the Jim Rutt Show. Listeners have asked us to provide pointers to some of the resources we talk about on the show. We now have links to books and articles referenced in recent podcasts that are available on our website. We also offer full transcripts. Go to JimRuttShow.com. That’s JimRuttShow.com.
Jim: This is another one of our extra COVID-19 episodes. The sound quality won’t be as good as some of our regular episodes, but the ideas will be as rich and as deep, maybe more so.
Jim: Today’s guest is Nora Bateson. Nora is an award-winning filmmaker, writer and educator, as well as president of The International Bateson Institute. Her work asks the question, how we can improve our perception of the complexity we live within, so we may improve our interaction with the world? What a huge question and how timely. Well, welcome Nora. Good to chat with you again.
Nora: Nice to be here, Jim. Thank you for inviting me.
Jim: Oh, it’s always great to talk to you. You just have such a fresh mind, I mean, truly fresh mind. You think about things in ways that other people don’t and always interesting. So COVID-19 complexity, our interactions with the world, time, sense-making. What are you thinking?
Nora: We were just talking about time before we got started and I think the time question is really … there’s something interesting happening there because we’re all locked in our houses, and for most of us right now, the scheduling routines and the clocking of our days, the calendaring of our time is really different than it used to be.
Nora: There’s not a lot of going and coming happening right now for most of us. The essential workers are still clocking in and clocking out, but we’re in a strange parallel moment. At first I didn’t really notice it, but after a week or so, maybe, maybe it was two weeks, I just started to notice that this constant din of conversation with family members and friends and so on and so forth, about comings and goings, that all of that conversation was actually gone.
Nora: In that, there was a deeper level of shifting relationship to time. And one of the other aspects of this is that, in the meanwhile, spring is coming. So there’s another time happening, demarcated by … I don’t know where you are, but in Sweden the early flowers are starting to come. We had a little snow flurry today, but it was just one of those last flirtations of winter. It’s really spring.
Nora: So there’s this sort of deep time and just very different relationship to time in general. So that’s an interesting thing. And part of that, of course, I think is also mortality. I turned 52 today. It’s my birthday.
Jim: Happy birthday.
Nora: Thank you. I’m a full deck of cards now. No one can say, “She’s a few shy of a deck,” anymore because I got the whole deck now. But this is for me, in my life, one of the first times when I started to really think about … I’m not over into the high-risk zone, but I’m not in the low-risk zone, but that’s another sort of question of time.
Jim: Interesting. Yeah. So you have personal time, which is your own clock. As we get older, I’m quite a bit older than you, we hear the ticking of the clock a little louder every year, click, click, click.
Jim: I really like your insight into the nature of our local time and the rhythms that we have and now don’t have. So think about how much of our conversations were about our trivial coming and goings. That’s now gone. And probably there are wins and losses from that, one that did provide a rhythm to the day. But on the other hand, it was fairly banal, to tell you the truth.
Jim: Maybe we’re having some deeper conversations. I know we are around here at the Rutt farm. You asked where I was. I’m up in the mountains of Western Virginia. We’re in a glorious early spring right now, where I’m looking out the window at a giant maple tree out along on one of our fence lines, that’s just kind of getting those yellowish leaves before the leaves go full. And our gardens are full of 20 different kinds of daffodils and blood roots and-
Nora: That sounds beautiful.
Jim: Ah, yeah. This is a place that’s just sublime. It’s one of the things we have talked about more than we normally would have, which is how, amongst all the bad things of COVID-19, at least it didn’t come in the middle of the winter. That would have been a soul breaker if this had happened in mid-December or something and all we could think of is worse and worse weather. At least we have better weather now and getting better every day.
Jim: But anyway, this different texture of time is quite interesting and maybe this is a good time to pivot to one of the main things I want to talk to you about, is we’re all going through a unique experience in world history. Something like this has never happened before.
Jim: In fact, one of my previous guests, I think it was Jessica Flack, said that one of the most interesting things about this is, never has the human race operated cooperatively at this scale. Essentially, billions of people are all playing to a theme and variation on the same tune, in more or less real time.
Jim: And then on at the other level, the fine grain of our local time is different. We’re nowhere near as distracted by all the activity that we spend our life in. So we have time to think, some of us, “What’s the other side of this? What are the opportunities and the risks of the other side of COVID-19?”
Jim: Because this too will pass, right? At least here in the United States, the numbers I saw from University of Washington yesterday, we’re probably a week from the peak of the total active number of infections and we’ll then start going down. And there’ll be all kinds of difficulties in managing the backside of the curve, but at least the infectious peak, we’re almost to the top of.
Jim: So there will be another side. The sun will come out and what happens? What are the interesting things on the other side of this from your perspective?
Nora: One thing that I think is important to think about is this question of, what’s important? That’s been just put front and center. What is essential? And it started, sort of around questions of, who are the essential workers? But also, when you go to the store now or you’re thinking about what you’re going to actually go out into vector world to purchase, there’s this question of, “What’s essential?,” and, “Do I really need this? And if I didn’t get to build a relationship with this person before, is it essential to make peace?”
Nora: What started to come into focus for me is that, this experience right now can be seen as a kind of interruption. And that there were a certain sort of patterning that we were living in, for better or worse. It seems like it had a lot of worse side to it, quite a bit of destruction to the ecology and the exploitation of people and so on and so forth.
Nora: Nevertheless, time was moving and we were moving within it. All the systems kind of had their own sort of clocking happening, and then there’s this interruption and we’re all home, or there’s a lot of people who are in hospitals. And that question of what’s essential comes in.
Nora: What I started to sort of reflect upon is this question of, “Well, which thing is the interruption?” Because in fact, I started to notice that it didn’t take very long before I was speaking to my children in different ways about making things last, thinking about putting vegetables in the garden, doing things and thinking about life in another kind of time, another texture as you put it.
Nora: And that in fact, that seems to be much more of a continuation of something that I would imagine my ancestors might have had, access to that texture of time. Where I have been in this kind of hectic kind of metallic time of the modern world, the digital metallic time of the last several decades. So, which part’s the interruption?
Nora: The metaphor I keep thinking of is that, the modernity has offered us the opportunity to just go to the faucet and get water, but this kind of time feels much more like the deep aquifer. So I’m just kind of wondering, which piece of this is the interruption and which piece is the continuation?
Jim: Oh, lovely point of view, lovely. You mentioned the different ways we deal with things. I’ll give you a personal example here at the house. We’ve been buying supplies once every two weeks. We go to town and do the pickup with our masks and our gloves and all this stuff. So we got a little milk, and a little bit of it aged out and was getting a little sour. Normally, we probably would have poured it out, but instead, we just poured it into our yogurt maker.
Jim: And as you said, much like particularly my mother’s family, who were subsistence peasants essentially, who lived off the land, for as far as I know back to the last ice age. That was a very interestingly different way than those of us who could just assume we’d run up the road and buy a gallon of milk if the milk went a little sour.
Jim: Which one’s the interruption? Damn good question. What do you think will be on the other side of this? How many people you think will take this opportunity to reconnect with perhaps earlier or different patterns?
Nora: Well, this is kind of where I was going with this, is because I find that working with complexity, one of the things that we do all the time, Jim, is we’re constantly trying to help people work out how to think about causation without getting caught in linearity.
Nora: When you look backwards, it’s a little bit more … I guess it depends on how you’re looking, what sort of perception, what sort of lens you have. But if there is the ability to perceive in sort of nonlinear ways, you can start to see that this is not really about the virus, it’s about the virus’s arrival into a multi-systemic fragility that has been cooking for quite a while and so on and so forth. So this, where’s the causality, it’s kind of all over the place.
Nora: Now, what happens when you apply that to the dream, the dreaming, the fantasy, the fictioning of what’s going to happen next?
Nora: If you start to think about how you think about the future with that same non-linearity, I think that becomes a really interesting question. Because so often, you get futuristic visions that are frankly pretty flat and they don’t have all that juicy stuff, the details of what kind of decisions and habits you and I and so many other people are actually remaking right now.
Nora: And I don’t think we even know what those details will look like. What if this beginnings of making things last actually took root? What would that do to the economy? What would that do to technology? What would that do to just an entire way of life and pace of life, if there weren’t built-in obsolescence?
Jim: Yep, very good questions. Some of us in the GameB world have used the word liminal to talk about those times when you’re entering into a zone where your former experience is less informative about the future than usual.
Jim: This strikes me as certainly one of those times, as you said. I have a sense that there’s a great opportunity here for change for the better, but the details, I’m not sure I see them yet and probably won’t until we start to live them. So do you think this is a great opportunity for people to live different, live their way into someplace better?
Nora: Yeah, and I think it’s a great opportunity to pay attention to the details because the details will in fact be the pathways we start to live into. So, it makes a huge difference.
Nora: And just thinking also about being stuck in our various dwellings, some people are stuck alone and some people are stuck with other people, but in either case, there are moments of doing that that are not easy. The people that you love are a lot easier to live in peace with when you are not with them all day, every day.
Jim: 24 hours a day. We had a little flare up here yesterday and I go, “Oh dear,” but that’s life. We have to learn to deal.
Nora: That’s right. And learning to communicate and recognizing in this type of moment that there’s a need to be kinder. That we can’t just close the door and shut it down and be angry or make melodrama. That that’s just useless because you have to actually … For lack of a better metaphor, if you shit on the floor, you’ve got to sit in it. That’s how it is right now.
Nora: And then for those people that are all by themselves, there’s also that question of relationship to the self, relationship to other people, how that communication is happening, what that reach out looks like, what the reach in looks like. So, if the world is made of relationships in interdependency and those relationships start to change and the communication within those relationships start to change, we’re going to see changes.
Nora: How the second and third order of those changes start to manifest, I think we have absolutely no idea, but I’m very curious. And I’m so hoping that we’re not going into police state ugliness. I’m so hoping that this is a possible time for there to be more integrity and carefulness in all the relationships in our lives, from the relationship to our own bodies and that recognition that your health is not your own health.
Nora: You go into town to go to the shops and you think, “Wow.” Somebody’s there thinking, “Well, I’m not afraid of this virus. It’s not going to kill me.” But that person, it’s like, look, it isn’t really about you. It’s about, your health is my health, is my mother’s health. This is a multigenerational, multi-communal health question. Your health is not your own.
Nora: And all of those relationships, that perception is shifting. So maybe it’s going to be possible to have more integrity, more perception of how intertwined the wellbeing of one and all is.
Nora: I don’t mean that in the kind of Hallmark systems thinking way. There’s this kind of version of systems thinking that can get very memish and I’m not down with that, but I am wanting to push and explore this idea of, what does it look like to actually approach the multitude of relationality in our lives with a higher degree of attention and integrity?
Jim: That would be really, really good if this tragedy, which it is, can take us to that better place. But as you point out, there are other pathways which would not be so good. I mean, we also unfortunately have to keep our political diligence on, to make sure that powers that be don’t use this legitimate application of some top down action in a kind of war fighting mode to switch states permanently into a surveillance state or a police state. So, there’s also some dangers and we have to be cognizant of both the opportunities and the dangers and act accordingly.
Nora: I was wondering what kind of political platforms will come after this? Just noticing, I mean, what’s happening with crime right now? What’s happening with education? All the usual hot topics are in a state of transformation and there’s so much that’s in that liminal liquid form right now. It’s all very blurry.
Jim: Yeah. The basics, sort of how we organize production in our society. It strikes me, this ought to be, ought to be … If people have ears to hear, not all will … that the relentless drive towards efficiency of the engine of short term money on money return has clearly taken us to a point of danger. I mean, literally danger.
Jim: If we had been better prepared, in terms of robustness and resilience, this would have been way less of a problem than it was. I think it also, at least from my perspective, my GameB perspective, it’s an argument for subsidiarity. The idea that local communities need to be more self-sufficient, self-governing, need to understand what the explicit ties they have to other regions are and frankly work to keep those under control.
Jim: For instance, suppose Westchester County in New York, where the first flare-up occurred, New Rochelle had been organizing itself bottoms up in its relationship with the wider world and had only a certain amount of links out of its county. When this flare up happened, it’d have been easy to snip all those links and say, “All right, Westchester County’s shut down for four weeks, but we have lots of stockpiles of medical equipment and food and such. So we’ll get through this just fine.”
Jim: Instead, the relentless attempt to squeeze the last nickel out of everything, where a T-shirt that used to be made in South Carolina, in a factory providing a living for a thousand people, was shipped off to Bangladesh because at the end of the day, even including transport and everything else, the T-shirt’s 5 cents cheaper.
Jim: That’s the kind of thinking that drives the current, I call it insane money-on-money return engine. And maybe just maybe, the fact that this is life and death for actual people who really experience the downside cost of not investing in local, not investing in robustness, not investing in resilience, will open people’s ears just to thinking a little bit differently about how we organize our society.
Nora: Well, it’s that question. You used the word efficiency. When you’re working on a machine you optimize for efficiency. When you’re working with living systems like societies or families or forests, you cannot optimize for efficiency. You have to optimize for interdependent health, otherwise you lose.
Nora: So there’s a real shift that’s possible there and it might be a side effect of a lot of people, a lot of businesses going bankrupt, supply chains that could get broken, things that just cannot reboot because they’ve lost too much to catch up again.
Nora: Will we again see the days of mass quantities of, as you say, cheaply produced goods, way too cheaply produced goods, that didn’t reflect the cost of human life or the natural resources?
Nora: Is there a chance that we may have crossed into a new era of recognizing when we don’t need something, first of all? But second of all that, that thing that you want to buy costs a lot more because that’s what it actually costs, without just all the money going to the CEOs.
Nora: I don’t know what will happen with this. Like this thing about the toilet paper. It could have been anything that had gotten into people’s ideas of things that they desperately needed as essential. The fact that it was toilet paper, it could have been … In Sweden it was yeast and flour. You can’t buy yeast anywhere. So, apparently everybody’s home baking bread.
Jim: Yeah, we’re doing that. And fortunately we laid in 200 pounds of flour as part of our longterm emergency hoard and my wife has her nice sourdough culture. So, even though we also have some yeast, even when we run out of yeast, we have our self-replicating sourdough.
Nora: But it could have been anything. And thinking about when I plant my garden, I noticed I didn’t plant any wheat in my garden. Actually, there’s no grains at all in my garden. What kind of shift in thinking about food is that?
Nora: There’s just shifts everywhere, from how we talk to the kids to how we are with our partners, to how we think about the elders, to how honor and respect the health care workers, to questions. I think big questions right now, about how science is responding to this and how to respond to a complex problem.
Nora: How clean of politics is scientific research and development? Is it possible to get it outside of the economic momentum and the various clouds of greed and fame and those things that have come in to the culture?
Nora: So, how do we begin to even come into these ways in different times, because it’s a different time now. So what are these things? Six weeks ago, they were on a kind of indelible, uninterruptible, impossible to stop train and suddenly the tracks are shattered.
Jim: For the moment. I think this is the biggest question of all, after the shock. When we think about complex adaptive social biological systems, we often see two different tendencies when a shock is given to the system.
Jim: One is called homeostasis, which is the tendency for things to knit back together the way they were. Think of yourself. You have a cold or you have a bruise on your elbow, in two weeks you’re fine again, as if nothing had happened. On the other hand, if someone chops off your leg, it’s never going to grow back, say in a farming accident.
Jim: So you have homeostasis and then you have hysteresis, the tendency for the shock to push us into a new trajectory, and that’s what I am just obsessing about.
Jim: Clearly in the rhetoric and especially from our politicians, there just seems to be a gigantic libido, at least in the public discourse, to return to normal, return to where we are.
Jim: And yet in the world of social change activists, folks like yourself and a lot of other people we both know, we’re all seeing this as perhaps an opportunity for hysteresis to move the world in a new direction. What do you think about that, the force for return versus the forces for a new trajectory?
Nora: I mean, I think they’re both in play, absolutely. Some things will go back and some things will change. The things that change will change the way things go back, and the things that go back will change the way things change. It’s a kind of inseparable process.
Nora: That’s why I was asking that question about continuing. What is continuing and what are the essentials that need to continue? I think for some people, that essential is Wall Street. For other people, that essential is just intergenerational food on the table.
Nora: How do we feed the babies? How do we take care of each other? How do we take care of our communities? But then you think, “Okay, so I’d like to put in a garden. I need to get a new hose and I can’t get the hose because the hose has to be brought in from the other side of the world.” So there’s so many different … This is what I was saying sort of about the non-linearity of future speculation.
Jim: Yes. They interact with each other, our expectations, our experience. And then this is where the hysteresis comes in, the actual effect of this shock. It’s back to some of the things we were talking about earlier in this bubble out of time, that will cause many of us to have thought, maybe perhaps more deeply and at least more originally than we had in a long time. And those new thoughts will also be part of this unfolding in a nonlinear way.
Nora: Exactly, and it will materialize in the strangest, most unexpected details.
Jim: We know from complexity that we can’t predict the details, but hey, speculate anyway. Any ideas that have come, just struck your mind? Let’s not say these are Nostradamus level predictions, but any just thoughts on what we might see on the other side?
Nora: Well, I think we’re going to see some shifting in relationships to education for sure. We might see some shifting in relationship to screens because of this technology is … When we get free of this, it seems like there could be a kind of saturation point for the addiction that was brewing. All of that nagging at the children to get off the screens, and now I’m nagging at them to get on the screens and do their homework. And I’m on the screens all day long. I can’t wait to get off and get outside or do something that’s a little more analog.
Nora: My nervous system feels different than it did six weeks ago. How’s yours?
Jim: Oh, my nervous system. I don’t know, probably unchanged. I’m a pretty resilient kind of person. I will also say, that for the last year, I’ve been doing most of my “work” on Zoom. So, this change isn’t all that big for me.
Jim: I mean, yes, I still miss my luncheon get-togethers with friends around town and things of that ilk, but I don’t notice a gigantic difference in my nervous system itself.
Jim: Now one level up, the cognitive state, the contents, the cognitive contents definitely are different, and again, for the reasons we talked about. There’s more time away from the trivialities for the brain to … the cognitive state consciousness to wander afield and poke its fingers into ideas that it never had time for before. So, I would make that distinction. Nervous system feels normal, cognitive state feels like it has explored places it normally hadn’t.
Nora: Yeah, I can relate to that. I did a lot of traveling and public speaking, so I’m so happy to be out of airports and hotel rooms. I just can’t even tell you.
Jim: Yeah, that is one of my predictions by the way, that business travel will not return to anything like the level it had before because so many of us have now … I mean, I’ve been doing this for years, but for a lot of people this is the first time they have seen that, “Damn, Skype is pretty good,” or, “Zoom is pretty good.”
Jim: And flying from New York to California to have one one-hour meeting, how many times have I done that in my life? Jesus. It takes three days out of my life and costs $2,000, when I could have had 30 hour-long Skypes in that timeframe.
Jim: Which one is better for getting work done first? But also, consider the environment. While computation is not cost-free, in terms of the environment, I can guarantee you that a one-hour Skype’s carbon footprint is a thousand times less than flying my wide body across the country, staying in a overheated hotel, eating restaurant food and riding around in taxis for three days. So, I think this is one of these hysteresis things that will be gigantic and I think it’s for the good.
Nora: Yeah. I got a puppy this week. That’s my way of saying I agree with that hysteresis point. Obviously, I’m not traveling for awhile.
Jim: You’ll enjoy it. You’ll be a better person for it probably. There will be some losses, probably frankly, to the other people who would normally interact with you face-to-face. They will lose some of that because there is …
Jim: As I always tell young business people who are confused by a business meeting, for instance, I’d say, “Just imagine the participants in the business meeting as apes with clothes, and then suddenly it’ll make a lot more sense.” And it’s amazing. They all go, “Damn Jim, I can now understand business meetings.”
Jim: We are apes with clothes. And apes do like grooming, being with each other physically. So, there is something lost from going from business meetings to Zooms. But my hopefully big takeaway here is once the plague lifts, which it will, is to recommit myself to local face-to-face, which is cheap, carbon neutral, just use the old feet and invest in building those strong apelike links with our physical neighbors rather than feeling the need to dash around the countryside and do so.
Nora: And the local goods as well. So I guess one of the other things I’m becoming very aware of is, like I was saying about the hose for the garden, there’s a lot that’s being transported across the world, that it’s just unnecessary. So I think that’s part of it, redundancy. Local redundancy is, I think going to get picked up.
Nora: And I wonder really, what we will be asking of political leaders in the future. I think that the whole … like you were talking about GameA, but that whole existing system got so out of control. It was really at the level of kind of Marie Antoinette absurdity. Just copious extravagance and paying far too much attention to things that were not essential.
Nora: I just hope that if there’s change, that it’s toward paying attention to the essential. And for me, that essential is really those interrelationships, community, family, relationship to their natural world. Health. Health. Health is a very precious asset.
Jim: I love it. I’m going to wrap it up there. I think this will be a wonderful exploration of our minds and our possibilities going forward. I’d like to really thank you, Nora, for being on the show.
Nora: Thank you, Jim. It’s always such a pleasure. So whenever you want to talk, just give me a call.
Jim: I will take you up on that.
Production services and audio editing by Jared Janes Consulting. Music by Tom Mueller at modernspacemusic.com.