001 Purposive Drift

Purposive drift
sound like
a contradiction
and maybe
in one sense
it is
in that contradiction
there is
a fruitful tension
a pull
the focussed attention of being on purpose
the random surprises and unexpected places
that drifting
can take you to
Lurking behind all this is a theory of what it is to be human
perhaps more accurately
a theory
of what it could be
(sometime is)
to be human
A theory
if that’s not too grand a word
what it’s all about
and whether
any of it makes an sense
or whether
it’s simply an arbitrary adventure
we find ourselves on
All of us at some time
ask the question
What’s the point?
And I don’t know about you
but very often
it’s a question that seldom has a satisfactory answer
In the prologue
I talked about an answer
that took me a long time reach
that more or less satisfies me
I claimed that the answer was to experience
valued moments
If that doesn’t resonate with you
you might think that this conversation ends here
because if purposive drift
is just a way of opening yourself
to valued moments
and that idea doesn’t connect
then what’s the point of going on
as I said
behind all this there is a theory of what it is to be human
and being human seems to have something to do
with freedom
of not being a cog in a vast machine
of not running your life according to a set programs
determined by some one else
of not fitting in to a set of predetermined slots
Perhaps this sense of being confined within
a machine-like view of the world
that seems rational
that seems hard to argue against
but doesn’t feel as if
it makes sense
is something that does resonate
with your experience
It was certainly where I started
and is actually
in the main
what this conversation is about
Sometime ago I wrote
“I had always found the language of goals and objectives
to do lists
career planning
and all the other ideas that treated life like an engineering project
totally baffling
I couldn’t do it
And not being able to do it didn’t seem
It just felt that there was something missing from looking at
the world
like that
So I
and thought
and talked
and wrote
trying to find a language that would make sense of my experience and perceptions
Then one day reading Jane Jacobs “Cities and The Wealth of Nations” I came across this passage
“The Japanese anthropologist, Tado Umesao, observes that historically the Japanese have always done better when they drifted in an empirical, practical fashion (‘ Even during the Meiji revolution, there were no clear goals; no one knew what was going to happen next’) than when they attempted to operate by ‘resolute purpose’ and ‘determined will’. This is true of other peoples, too, although Umesao believes what he calls ‘an esthetics of drift’ is distinctively Japanese and one of the major differences between Japanese and Western cultures. Had he been looking at Europe and America in the past rather than the present, he would have seen, I think, that ‘an esthetics of drift’ was distinctively Western too, and worked better for western cultures than ‘resolute purpose’ and ‘determined will’.
A flash of light
A moment of insight
and Yes
but there was one connection missing
A fragment from Chris Jones “Essays in Design”
(page 162 John Wiley & Sons, 1984 if you want to look it up)
“When you go to process, you lose the goal, you lose the aim.
I’m beginning to see it now …..THERE ARE TWO KINDS OF PURPOSES……the purpose of having a result, something that exists after the process has stopped, and does not exist until it has stopped….. and there is the purpose of carrying on, of keeping the process going, just as one may breather so as to continue breathing?……the purpose is to carry on.”
And so I came to the notion of purposive drift
a kind of heuristic for navigating between
the aimlessness of just drifting
the blindness of narrow targets and detailed plans for reaching them
a way of carrying on
a way of being
that seems fully human
In that earlier piece
(it was called
“It seems to be a meme: Some rambling thoughts about Purposive Drift”)
I quoted Stafford Beer, the cybernetician
“An algorithm is a technique, or mechanism, which prescribes how to reach a fully specified goal.”
“An heuristic specifies a methods of behaving which will tend towards a goal which cannot be precisely specified because we know what it is but not where it is.”
“These two techniques for organising control in a system of proliferating variety are really rather dissimilar. The strange thing is that we tend to live our lives by heuristics, and to try and control them by algorithms. Our general endeavour is to survive, yet we specify in detail ( ‘catch the 8.45 train’, ‘ask for a rise’) how to get to this unspecified and unspecifiable goal. We certainly need these algorithms, in order to live coherently; but we also need heuristics – and are rarely conscious of them. This is because our education is planned around detailed analysis: we do not (we learn) really understand things unless we can specify their infrastructure. …’Know where you are going, and organise to get there’ could be the motto foisted on to us – and on to our firms. And yet we cannot know the future, we have only rough ideas as to what we or our firms want, and we do not understand our environment well enough to manipulate events with certitude. Birds evolved from reptiles, it seems. Did a representative body of lizards pass a resolution to fly? If so, by what means could the lizards have organised their genetic variety to grow wings? One only has to say such things to recognise them as ridiculous – but the birds a flying this evening outside my window. This is because heuristics works while we are still sucking the pencil which would like to prescribe an algorithm.”
Let me take one sentence from this long quote
which lies at the heart of what purposive drift is about
“And yet we cannot know the future, we have only rough ideas as to what we or our firms want, and we do not understand our environment well enough to manipulate events with certitude.”
If we break this down into three components we get
“And yet we cannot know the future”
“we have only rough ideas as to what we or our firms want”
“we do not understand our environment well enough to manipulate events with certitude.”
It seems to me that our present way of life
how we teach our children about the world
how we ourselves were taught
is based on the idea that
we can know the future
we have clear ideas about what we want
we do understand our environment well enough to manipulate events with certitude
A set of ideas that are fundamentally wrong
seem to work somehow
seem to be how things are
seem to stupid to argue against
seems to be a deep code
that underlies the way
we are supposed to live our lives
even if it doesn’t feel quite right
A set of ideas that are deeply programmed into our ways of being
Basil Bernstein
a sociologist who thought deeply about language and education wrote
“…the ultimate mystery of the subject is revealed very late in the educational life. By the ultimate mystery of the subject I mean its potential for creating new realities. It is also the case, and this is important, that the ultimate mystery of the subject is not coherence, but incoherence: not order, but disorder, not the known, but the unknown. As this mystery …is revealed very late in the educational life – and then only to a select few who have shown the signs of successful socialization – then only the few experience in their bones the notion that knowledge is permeable, that its orderings are provisional, that the dialectic of knowledge is closure and openness. For the many, socialization into knowledge is socialization into order, the existing order, into the experience that the world’s educational knowledge is impermeable. Do we have here another version of alienation”
Basil Bernstein was talking about a particular form of education
but I think what he has to say
has a much wider relevance
if you substitute the word “life”
for his words “the subject”
you get
the ultimate mystery of life is not coherence, but incoherence: not order, but disorder, not the known, but the unknown
And that gives us another take
on Stafford Beer’s
“And yet we cannot know the future”
“we have only rough ideas as to what we or our firms want”
“we do not understand our environment well enough to manipulate events with certitude.”
but more than that
again taking a wider view than Bernstein’s concerns in this quotation
we could say that what makes us human
is a capacity
to create new realities
what is curious
is how many of our institutions
families and schools
could be seen as systems to program us out of our capacity
to create new realities
If we look carefully at young children
we see
that they seem to have no problem
in creating new realities
I can remember my son
sitting in his sandpit
one moment a pirate
the next a spaceman
the next something else
The things that surrounded him
could be an ocean
deepest space
or where ever his imagination took him
And yet
as they grow older
as we grew older
you can see
a hardening of the categories
that sandpit becomes
just a sandpit
we become
just who we are
From a world of infinite possibilities and wonders
our world shrinks
a set of certainties
a cage of how things are
Many years ago
I came across a quote
that electrified me
I read it in a review of a book called
“Rubbish Theory: the creation and destruction of value”
by an anthropologist
Michael Thompson
who is one of those people
who has had an interesting and varied career
including working as a builder’s labourer
teaching in an art school
as well as pursuing his professional path as an anthropologist
What he said
(and this was the quote in the review)
“The great landscape gardener, Lancelot Brown, when confronted with a client’s estate, did not say “what is your problem?”, he asked “what are the capabilities of this piece of land?”. Optimism, generality, and scope flowed where otherwise all would have been pessimism, specificity, and narrowness. That is what is wrong with conventional wisdom: not enough Capability Browns and too many Problematic Tom, Dicks and Harrys.”
As soon as I could
I bought the book
hoping to find out more
but that was it
lots of other interesting stuff
but no elaboration of what he meant by
But the idea seems clear enough
the world does not have to be
as it now appears to be
It is not fixed
but permeable
It is a world of more possibilities
we can imagine
Seeing the world in terms of capabilities
is a bit like being a kid in sandpit
the difference being
that the child is living in the world of their imagination
what we imagine
we can sometimes make so
I used to live in an area of London
a part of Islington
that is now an expensive and fashionable place to be
Michael Thompson worked there as a builder’s labourer
(he may even have been involved in a bit of property speculation
though I forget whether he talked about that)
The Islington we see now was largely created
as a middle class suburb
then it became part of the working class East End
with only a few tiny pockets
remaining occupied by the middle classes
Just after the Second World War
tenants in houses
just like the one I lived in
were offered their house for nothing
they were seen as having no value
When I moved there
the area was slowly being colonised
by the relatively poor middle classes
social workers
who wanted somewhere nice to live
but couldn’t afford the “better” parts of London
For the first few years I lived there
the my part of Islington was under threat
the idea was to knock it all down
and build some modern flats
(an idea welcomed by many of the working class people who lived there)
the fashion for large scale redevelopment fell out of favour
so the desirable Victorian and Georgian houses
remained standing
and now
those same houses
once valued at nothing
are the preserve of the rich and the successful professional
In financial terms
the value of the house where I lived
has risen
some two hundred times
even accounting for inflation
is a pretty massive shift
The irony of course
is that what I valued about living there
has largely been destroyed
the people
and the atmosphere
that made it a time and place
I valued and enjoyed
are long gone
So what’s the point I’m making here?
I guess what I am trying to say here
is that the child’s view from the sandpit
is closer to our reality
the realistic view
of the sandpit as just a sandpit
that searching for capabilities
can sometimes make more sense
than problem-solving
In Islington
the structure of the houses and their sites remained the same
sure the fabric of the building got run down
but essentially they were the same houses
their Georgian and Victorian speculative builders had created
What changed over time
was the perception of their value
For the planners they were perceived as being slums
and only capable of being slums
and therefore
a problem
A problem that could only be solved
by tearing them down and starting again
For some of the “poor’ middle classes
they were seen as being
houses with potential
Places that with a bit of work
and money spent on them
could be nice places to live
For the property speculators in the sixties
it looked like an area on the up
where they could make a financial killing
You could say it was all a matter of perception
of course
it isn’t quite the same as the child in the sandpit
The world isn’t quite as fluid and permeable as that
it is a great deal more fluid
than the universe of
the planner who could only see slums
literally wanted to bulldoze through
a solution
There was another place that I lived
on the edge of such a solution
rows and rows of house bulldozed down
a new pattern of streets and walkways imposed
a community broken up
and people
with no previous connections
brought in to fill the shiny new flats
It didn’t take long
for the place to become
another kind of slum
A place where many of the people who lived there
were ashamed to say where they lived
despite their new kitchens
and bathrooms
and the neat separation
of roads
from walkways
A place that became better known
for crime
and drug taking
rather than the good place to live
that had been promised
by the architects
and politicians
But there is a further irony
lurking here
At the same time as many of these
developments from the sixties
were being seen as being so
that the only thing to do
was to literally
blow them up
and start again
Some of the tall blocks
were bought by private developers
who added a few features like
swimming pools
better security
and now those valueless slums in the sky
have become
desirable places
for professional people to live
So what am I saying here?
Am I saying that
the planners
were stupid?
it’s the opposite
Many of them were very bright
rational people
The problem lies in what it is to be rational
the underpinning to what is considered to be rational
the view that
we can know the future
we have clear ideas about what we want
we do understand our environment well enough to manipulate events with certitude
This is a bit like looking at life
like a railway system
It is all solidly mapped out
If a new line is added
you know where it fits
If a line is closed down
you know where the gap is
getting to your destination is straightforward
you just need to know that you are at point A
and that you want to get to point B
then you just need to know
which points on the line to switch
in the right order
and you will get to where you want go
Simple isn’t it?
And sometimes it seems to work
There are people
who map out their lives like that
know what?
they actually get there
Of course
we know less about the people
who map out their lives like that
and don’t get there
but never mind
Taking the other view that
“And yet we cannot know the future”
“we have only rough ideas as to what we or our firms want”
“we do not understand our environment well enough to manipulate events with certitude.”
means living another kind of metaphor
There’s a good
old one
which is to think of life being like a river
A different kind of system from a railway
One that is harder to pin down
that is in a state of constant
change and flux
but has patterns
we can recognise and learn from
On a large scale
there are big patterns
to which most river systems conform
They start off
fast and shallow
end up
slow and deep
or something like that
And there are a whole set of other patterns
to visualise and understand how they behave
at various points
in their development
which can be observed and described
but the point is that
they are dynamic
A very detailed map
will almost certainly be wrong in detail
the moment you make it
because the water has risen
or fallen
a bank eroded
or the bed shifted
altering the currents and flows
(actually if you get down to fine enough detail
the same is true for real railways systems
which are more dynamic and subject to change
than our myths of machines allow)
but to continue
Navigating a river is very different
making a rail journey
especially if you’re very small
the best you can hope for
is some
purposive drift
some nudges
to take you into a current
to move you closer to places
that feel good
away from places that feel bad
You have to pay attention
to the way the water moves
know yourself well enough
to recognise the places you’d like to be
those where you’d rather not
Knowing yourself is more difficult
than it sounds
Often we don’t even know
what we know
Some months after I stumbled across the notion
of purposive drift
feeling quite puffed up
proud of myself
for the years of thinking
and reading
and talking
that had led me there
I had a nagging feeling
a sense that I had been there long before
Then I remembered
When I was in my teens
I had read a book
recommended by my father
He was particular keen on the “cork” theory of life
it expressed
I was very taken by this idea at the time too
but it slipped into an area of mind
below consciousness
so you could say
that I had forgotten it
but there it was
quietly working away
informing my thinking
without me realising it
only to pop up again
into consciousness
years later
The book was by Jean Renoir
the film director
and it was about his father
Auguste Renoir
the painter
I have problems with Renoir’s paintings
they don’t do much for me
Claude Renoir’s descriptions of his father’s life
and their conversations
seemed to show
a man who lived a very human life
a life worthy of respected
In passages like this
Renoir talked about his approach to life
“One can always earn a living. But I have an aversion to making decisions: the ‘cork’ you remember…You go along with the current…Those who want to go against it are either lunatics or conceited; or what is worse ‘destroyers’. You swing the tiller over to the right or left from time to time, but always in the direction of the current.”
There seems to be a deep realism
in this view
a recognition that much of our lives
are governed
by forces outside our control
for which
we have no responsibility
yet equally
a sense
that we are responsible for the way we live our lives
in circumstances
which we may not have chosen
or desired
but never-the-less
can be lived
in better or worse ways
(We need to pause here
beg many questions
I hesitated for a while
putting them down
wondered for some time
I should delete them
and put some other words there
But for the moment
they can stand
they are roughly what I mean
and sometimes that’s the best we can do
So with that qualification
we can move on)
By now I hope
are beginning to see
the meandering direction
this conversation is going in
You may find it curious
after all we have been talking about
to find that I have plan
about where we are going
but there is no contradiction here
There’s nothing wrong with having plans
providing you build in enough feedback
to change the plan
even drop the plan
if it stops making sense
If you think of a plan as a kind of tool
that is
sometimes useful
sometimes essential
and no more than that
then plans can help us make sense of what is going on
rather than blinkers
that blind us
to the important stuff
just outside the range of our vision
The first part of book
is about some of things that can blind us
and can be seen
as an argument in favour
of looking at life
more like a river
and less like
a railway system
The second part of the book
is about
paying attention
which could be another title for this book
paying attention
and what we pay attention to
is central to the notion
purposive drift
The third part of the book
is a about
some of the qualities of mind and action
that form the frame
of living a life
of purposive drift
I hope I have made in clear
this is not going to be
a conversation
where I am the one with all the answers
telling you
how to live a successful life
I have found no formulas
no recipes
that guarantee success
My life
like your life
is still an open question
I may have got much of it wrong
All I can say
is that the idea of purposive drift
feels promising
is worth a try
and as we go on
you can see
whether it makes any sense
to you
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