The holidays are here so it’s time for us to jump on the bandwagon with a friendly PSA: If you go and buy that giant inflatable snowman to keep up with the Joneses, you’re playing into positive feedback loops, and before you do that you should know that nature abhors stagnation. I don’t mean to be a shit, but positive feedback loops are destructive like sneaky, malicious hurricanes and that’s bad news for you unless you’ve got something you want destroyed.
Now, there’s a time and place for creative destruction and weirdly enough network science can help you find it. Hang on a minute and I’ll illustrate.
When I was fifteen my English lit teacher gave me this really old copy of Main Street. It wasn’t the best book I ever read but it really got down on the physiognomy of boredom. Through his tale of Carol Milford, a cosmopolitan young woman who moves to a small town with her new husband, Sinclair Lewis meticulously unpacked the pathology of sameness as a slow, painful killer of culture and community. The story went boldly into the beige, laying bare the domestic misery that it seemed to my teenage self everyone was ignoring. I was repulsed and impressed. I remember climbing onto the roof of my suburban house gasping for fresh air, wondering, “How small can people really make their worlds?”
Pretty small, it turns out.
Fourteen years later (a Saturn cycle! the astrologer says, as if everyone should purse their lips and nod their heads), and I’m sitting in couple’s therapy with my (now ex) husband. What’s that hanging over the counselor’s desk? Why, a familiar illustration from a limited edition first printing of Main Street.
So now I’m paying attention.
On the other side of divorce I became fascinated by the psychology of boredom. Whose fault is the unhappiness that results? Should you blame circumstances or yourself? The small town, or your own resistance to conformity (a cultural positive feedback loop)? Is there a link between boredom and intelligence? On the other side of the same coin is curiosity, which does have a link to intelligence. Studies show that a tendency to report frequent feelings of boredom, a trait scarily prevalent among people with narcissistic personality disorder, may be a function of the quality of one’s self-awareness. Boredom tendencies run higher in individuals with lower absorption (a measure of attention span–no surprise there) and in individuals with negative self-awareness tending toward evaluation and judgment. No wonder narcissists, who constantly seek external means of self-validation, are notoriously whiny about their listlessness. Boredom is something we all experience at one time or another, and it may have an important evolutionary function: inciting experiences of pattern interruption. But before it does that it can make you stupid and dull. Temporarily.
In his article “The Surprising Power of an Uncomfortable Brain,” Garth Sundem, author of Beyond IQ and Your Daily Brain, illustrates with friendly snark that “a brain shocked from its easy complacency functions better than a brain kicking along on autopilot,” whereas the repetition of familiar situations can lull your brain “zombie-like into the halls of mindless consumption.” In his article, Sundem sources several cognitive research experiments showing that people whose brains encountered situations where expectations and reality were mismatched performed better on cognitive tests because their brains switched from associative to rule-based systematic processing. The English: encountering the unexpected wakes up your brain. Anything that enforces “cultural dysfluency” should do the trick. Including culture shock. So while the culture shock of moving to a new town may be temporarily invigorating, the newness eventually wears off and the sameness can be stifling, prompting a person to seek new forms of pattern interruption.
So let’s assume you’re Carol Milford of Main Street and you want to look at boredom as a function of your network:
Depending on your own biases you may think people are chaotic or predictable, but they’re not either of these things all the time. What they are is complex, meaning they’re affected by all the feedback loops that run between them and their environment. Boredom is the product of a feedback loop between your brain, your environment, and your perceptual narrative.
You should know that complex networks (personalities, relationships, markets, and even Main Street) are characterized by feedback and have three tell-tale behaviors. If Carol Milford had understood network behavior, she might’ve take more responsibility for her own happiness from the get-go, moved somewhere more interesting and saved herself the effort of trying to transform the culture of the town. If you know these tendencies you can save yourself a lot of trouble, and if you bear with me I’ll tell you how.
Attractors – these are places where the network is moving toward some kind of equilibrium. The beginnings of order. (In our Main Street scenario, something happens and people are drawn to a certain type of behavior).
Self-reinforcement – where order begets more order. If the nodes in a network are the interconnected lives of Main Street, this is where they all keep doing the same thing because “that’s the way it’s done” and there must be some reward for doing things that way. The positive feedback loop continually validates & perpetuates itself in ways that are pretty much invisible unless you’re on the outside looking for them.
Cascades – these are shifts in direction caused by an outside intervention or an internal breakdown, as when a positive feedback loop has become so homogeneous as to be unsustainable and fragile to outside disruption. A cascade rips through it once and the network is never the same again.
Good? Bad? Neither inherently, because we aren’t talking about an abstraction–we’re talking about the fundamental structure and behavior of complex systems, and positive feedback loops always undo themselves. They either accept diversity and pivot toward greater resilience or they cascade and become something else.
Take heart though. Boredom and disruption go hand in hand, like everything else with its opposite (ever had a week of artistic frustration only to have a colossal breakthrough on the other side?) Periods of boredom and listlessness in human beings often spur discovery. In business, innovation clusters explode when a company breaks the lack of competition (a positive feedback loop) by doing something different that the network was ready for: disruption. Eventually you have the Big Idea, or someone else has it for you, because The Next Big Idea is always riding the cresting wave of the network.
The way the world works is fundamentally about linkages. Taiji master Ben Lo said that whenever you embody yin you also embody yang. A system always embodies the whole circle, and here is where the power is, because it allows for movement into one state to create disequilibrium, which incites a system to move and change in order to regain equilibrium. Nothing can be yin without yang. So if you think about it in terms of network dynamics, boredom is your signal to seek a new stimulus (internal or external) or it will seek you. One way or another, everything in a complex system shifts.
Again: A local network either invites diversity and changes, or it stays the same so long that it becomes fragile, unprepared to adapt to perturbations from its external environment. Then a germ comes along from across the pond and destroys an indigenous population, or incumbent tech company doesn’t see the little guy rising up in time… or a marriage runs into trouble and doesn’t make it. Either way change comes and you get to choose a new direction.
If you aren’t designing for emergence you might get comfortable and mistake positive feedback loops for equilibrium–when what they really are is pent-up order. Emergence will happen anyway. Novelty always prevails over habit, else networks crumble and end up on the forest floor, where as cultural detritus they give new life to emergent forms. This is the way of life.
Acrobats know that you have to move constantly to find balance and stillness. Sometimes those movements are imperceptible, but they are what allow you to keep your footing.
No doubt Sinclair Lewis quelled the demons of his own small town boredom by creating a world where he could shine a light on its secret interiors. For Main Street‘s Carol Milford, emergence did not produce a cultural renaissance in Gopher Prairie, as she’d hoped. A lot of people (myself included) got pissed off about that. But she was a network of one, and did not have the agency with which time and entropy eventually overcome all homogenous networks and the small towns that personify them. Instead, emergence produced in the small networked world of her mind a new way of seeing, a new frame of mind–one that told her she’d be ok no matter what happened. This peculiar marriage of aloofness and intent is the sweet spot where a human being can find agency in a network.
Memes matter, but not so much as mutability. Designing for emergence, or as Alfred North Whitehead might have put it, seeking ordered forms of novelty and novel forms of order, produces the lucky buds of change that networks nurture into memes, which, once they spread, flower into disruption. What happened when readers of Main Street integrated what they saw there into their own worlds certainly changed some minds, an emergent process that continues in immeasurable ways to this day. (Otherwise people wouldn’t hang it over their desks as a symbol of personal transformation.)
Main Street isn’t real. It exists in your imagination and you can leave at any time. The self-organizing nature of the universe always pulls novelty from the battle between order and entropy. Boredom leads to discovery. So before you go and copy someone else’s strategy, sit with your boredom for a while and allow the network to enable emergence.
Network dynamics dictate that everything changes, and you get to choose whether to accept that or the inevitable cascade that comes to wash away the sameness. Either way, we promise it won’t be boring.
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