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Systems, Culture and our Voyage

Ferdi Serim, 1998
Ferdi Serim

From: Ferdi Serim

With all the focus on wires, hardware, costs and policy, perhaps a few moments to pull back to a bigger picture is a good idea. In that spirit, I share this essay with you... Enjoy!

If our goal is to create the kind of world we'd prefer to live in, we must learn to navigate uncharted seas of cultural conflict.

"Current systems of education are incapable of bringing us closer to the type of society that we might desire. To speak about education without speaking of community and society is a huge mistake. The true 'crisis in education' becomes apparent; there has been a costly lag between change in society and change in education" says Matthew Shapiro, President of Idaho Systems Institute, in Patterns ASCD Systems Thinking and Chaos

Theory Newsletter, Sept. 1996, Barbara Vogl, Editor

These new lessons in navigation share elements our species has had to master in previous ages of transformation.

"Ever since the Industrial Revolution, traditional societies have been subject to exponentially quickening pressures for incorporation into state systems and for drastic cultural change, primarily in the form of wage labor, taxation, the disintegration of kinship ties, loss of lands and despoliation of the habitat," according to Marvin Harris in Traditional Peoples Today (Harper/Collins). He notes, "the first state societies arose in Africa and Eurasia about 5,000 years ago, and somewhat later in the Americas. Wherever they formed, states embarked on expansionist careers that profoundly influenced their stateless neighbors." How could these ancient people tell whether they were experiencing waves blown by the winds of influence of individual leaders or the sea changes of transformation from one way of life to its successor? How can we tell today?

We are seeing waves of change wash over us as well, as technology speeds the pace and extends the range of activities to approach "everywhere, all at once". Yet the uneven manner with which technology is available heightens existing inequities in terms of education, literacy, wealth, health and nutrition. Frank Odasz writes, "In a world where half the population has never made a phone call, what vision, training, and software would make the greatest positive impact on 15,000 cultures worldwide once Internet via satellite becomes economically affordable?"

Watching a wave reach the shore, it is difficult to tell how the influence of tide, seas and currents shaped the individual, unique event we see. In the same way it's difficult to tell in our culture how the influences of nationality, ethnicity and race shape our individual, unique perceptions of the world. Entering a world where boundaries, time zones, languages and cultures cross and crash like waves upon the shore, we sometimes feel adrift and hard pressed respond to the forces that take us now closer to, now further from our desired destination.

Where Am I?

On land, "where am I?" has straightforward answers from reference points that are constant. I'm here, in my house, on a street, in a village, near a town, between two major cities on the East Coast of the United States, on the North American continent. If I wished to be specific, I could cite the "geographical address" in terms of latitude and longitude. Most changes to my situation are seasonal: it is either warmer or colder, wetter or drier, with sheltering leaves or bare branches framing the temperate skies.

When I'm in New Mexico, the answers are starkly different, but only because of a change in reference points that are even more constant than those in New Jersey. The differences that come from being a mile and a half up in the sky, in the midst of mountains that change on a different time scale than the rhythms of the east contribute to the Land of Enchantment's charms and challenges.

Embarking on the voyages that bring us to the "virtual" territory of the Internet casts us adrift from these absolute reference points, although we bring a full set of biases nonetheless as baggage. Leaving time and space behind on the shore, we soon encounter other reference points that daily life allows us to overlook, as background to our culture.

Sometimes these differences cause us to clash, reshaping our conflicts bit by bit into their electronic counterparts .Let"s explore lessons that were learned by earlier generations of people who left behind the land and put their fate in the trust of their vessels, their learning, and their respect for the power of the seas. Where landlubbers see simply "ocean", these others learned to distinguish deeper influences which helped them survive, to return from the sea, and set out again another day. Seeing through their eyes and insights may help us navigate past the contemporary shoals and dangers that too often wreck our well intentioned voyages into understanding.

Where Am I, when at sea?

When the ground below us is replaced by the sea, the stakes rise and matters get complex. The surface of the sea is itself subject to three sets of influences which combine at any given moment to shape the nautical environment: the regularity of the tides, the volatility of the windswept seas, and the unseen power of the currents.


The most regular of these is the tide. Even the youngest child on the beach knows that during the course of the day, different fates await sand castles based on their position relative to the effect of the sun and moon's gravity play with the ocean. No sailor wants to risk grounding on rocks or sandbars exposed by low tide, and consults charts, tide tables and local wisdom to stay out of trouble.


Wind is the most volatile and visible shaper of the ocean's mood, wind driven waves being known as "seas". Calm can turn the scene into glassy, meditative expanse, only to be replaced in minutes by life threatening tumult. Years before we had instruments to assign accurate velocities to the Beaufort scale, the look of the sea told the story of the wind, from spray to whitecaps to the sheared off wave tops one finds only in gales that are better not witnessed by humans. No sailor would risk being blown ashore by approaching the land too close when the tides and winds were not favorable. The unpredictability of the wind, overlaid on the dependability of the tides introduces a high level of complexity to the system.


The largest scale interactions of our global system find an expression in the currents that flow unseen, below the surface. Rivers of water within the ocean transfer enormous amounts of energy in both flow and temperature from one part of the planet to another. The milder winters in New Jersey owe as much to the Gulf Stream as the colder winters in New Mexico do to their altitude. Shifts in the course of the currents can radically change the weather both at the shore and over thousands of miles, as El Nio has taught people around the world this year.

Seafaring: Systems Thinking for Survival

More shipwrecks are located off Cape Cod than almost anywhere else in North America. Those who've lived on the Cape for generations know that more is at work than simply fog or miscalculation. The interaction of tide, seas and current creates a powerful system of chaos that can produce extraordinary results without warning. There are numerous stories of fishing boats simply vanishing when current, sea and tide conspired to shift the location of water that had been on the surface temporarily lower by several dozen feet. Riptides created by storms well over the horizon still imperil swimmers who fail to heed warnings. The seafarers of earlier ages had to learn to recognize whatever signs they could to assess the proper course of action in any given situation, by balancing their knowledge of the predictable tides, the experienced winds and their long term observations of the patterns of local effects of currents at different times of year.

Navigation for our Age: Societal Systems of Nationality, Ethnicity and Race

"Systems thinking is a process of change, and is supposed to march ahead of society even if it is 'difficult to sell'," Enrique Herrsher in Systems Research Vol.3, No.2, June 1996. He goes on to say that "developing strength by intelligent unions instead of isolated growth seems to be one of the leading ideas that will bring us into the next millennium." Our attempts to to forge such unions requires that we use a level of observation and insight commensurate with that used by our seafaring predecessors. At any moment in history, three factors are simultaneously interacting much as current, sea and tide shaped the behavior of sailors. Understanding how these influences interact is important for us to assess both "where we are" and how we ought to proceed. These factors are Nationality, Ethnicity and Race, says Ferdi Serim.

Recently, I had the pleasure of working with students and teachers in New Mexico, California and New Jersey who are investigating terrorism around the world and throughout history, in Los Alamos National Lab's Critical Issues Forum. Their initial tasks in researching the topic required them to address the foundations of terrorism and examine the role of each of the factors of nationality, ethnicity and race in each event they researched. From these student observations, I learned much that helped me prepare this essay. Later this year, they will share the results of their semester long projects at a conference in Los Alamos, New Mexico, but for now, their initial postings provide us much to think about.


Students from Rio Grande HS put it this way: "Nationalism is devotion to the interest of a particular nation. It is the belief that nations would have national rather than international goals."

Nationality is something most of us take for granted, and see as being as stable as our land based reference points. However, taking a wider view with respect to either time scale or geographic region provides a contrary picture. Seen in this way, nationality takes on a volatility that resembles the seas as an influence of the winds. In my personal history, every 50 years our family alternated between being Greek or Turkish, depending on who claimed Constantinople/Istanbul. There are other patterns that demonstrate that nationality is simply an expression of hegemony of political and military power in a particular series of generations. Our nation, while only slightly over 200 years old, is the oldest constitutional democracy...the winds of change sweep over people and flags simply reflect the temporary status of power. An unending sea of refugees and immigrants/emigrants around the world further underscores the metaphor of seas with respect to nationality.


The students of San Andrea HS observed, "Ethnicity is based on the perception of cultural differences. An ethnic group consists of people who perceive themselves, and are perceived by others, as sharing distinctive cultural traits such as language, religion, family customs and even food preferences.... The extent to which ethnic group members actually share unique cultural traits is less important than the fact that they and others believe they are 'different'."

Ethnicity is expressed in tidelike regularity through the transmission of these perceptions across generations. Just as at any given moment you can see three waves (the one washing up and returning back down the beach, the one that's breaking and the next one that's about to break), three generations at any moment participate in their act of defining their culture. The children, who are constantly soaking up and discovering the new world in which they find themselves, the parents, who are playing out their adult roles as defined in their culture, and the grandparent's generation who often take on the role of ensuring that the folkways and values of any particular group are transmitted to the young.

In the United States, we have a unique perspective of diversity which differs from that found outside our borders. Our long tenure as a stable government presiding over an unparalleled social experiment in democracy and individual freedoms may at times be obscured by our dissatisfaction with the progress we've created and the inequities which persist. However, people generally come to this country to become Americans, to live the society which has developed here, or at least to enjoy benefits more widely perceived to be available here than elsewhere. In many other nations, the idea of becoming a member of that particular nationality is as remote as the idea of changing one's ethnicity. One does not become a German, Japanese or an Israeli simply by moving there, meeting a residency requirement and taking a test.

The Sound of Music is an expression of Ethnicity. There was sound before there was music, and waves traversed the seas before seasons, tides and time were perceived by humans and woven into stories, theories or timetables. All sound is defined by its frequency, its attack, its timbre, its decay. The sequence of frequencies creates melody, while the layering of simultaneous frequencies creates harmony or discord. The patterns of attack and decay creates rhythm, while the layering of simultaneous patterns creates polyrhythm or harmonic rhythm. The definition of harmony, discord, rhythm or any other aesthetic judgment about sound is almost exclusively a cultural determination that shapes our perceptions of what"s music and what"s noise. There is no music in a cultural vacuum.

Wynton Marsalis brings this discussion back from acoustics to culture by noting, "Jazz music is our artform that was created to codify democratic experience and give us a model for it. Jazz music was invented to let us know how to listen to each other."


As student teachers from New Mexico State University noted, between the three factors (of nationality, ethnicity and race) "race has the most misperceptions. Race is a local, geographic, or global human population distinguished as a more or less distinct group by genetically transmitted physical characteristics. A lot of the time people of one race have trouble viewing another race as equal. Some people may be terrified of another race, and place stereotypes upon them. Most often each race is a part of one or more cultures. The culture distinguishes more of who the person is, as opposed to the race." And of course, cultural variance is unrelated to genetics, but instead reflects a host of social, economic and historical influences.

Just as planetary forces shape the currents which move matter and energy around the globe, the time scale of race reaches back beyond written history. Scientific experts are divided into two camps about the origins of racial characteristics. One posits that modern humans emerged from one DNA gene pool in Africa (the Eve hypothesis), the other believes that characteristics evolved concurrently in widely dispersed groups of early humans (the "candelabra" model). However, scientists do agree that of 120 identified characteristics, the observable (phenotype) differences that most of us attribute to "race" are more attributable to climatic influences than DNA: we are far much more alike than different as a species. There is no scientific basis for racism.

Systems Design: A Means for Charting Our Course

"In evolution, the most advanced state of existence is consciousness.

Consciousness is awareness of awareness. It has a reflective/cognitive aspect and a creative aspect as a sense of the future. Thus consciousness transcends awareness. The two aspects are manifested in two complementary functions: the reflective in contemplating awareness and learning from it (evolution is learning) and the creative in giving direction to one's evolution by purposeful design", says Bela Banathy in the Journal of the International Federation for Systems Research.

Our knowledge of tides, seas and currents allowed the movement of people around our planet that indelibly changed the cultural composition of our species. Our knowledge of nationality, ethnicity and race positions us to make a creative leap into new ways of moving beyond consuming information to manifesting meaning and understanding into wisdom.

Banathy notes "Transcendence requires a total reconceptualization of what education means for requires engaging in providing for lifelong experiences of learning and human development experiences at all age levels." At this level, we are no longer concerned with fixing what may be wrong with education, we are about transforming society.

He elaborates, "Unless we develop the capability to engage in design, nothing will change. We'll just speculate about, or just wish certain things can be done. But intentions are not creating the future...only design creates the future." (from Patterns, ASCD Systems Thinking and Chaos Theory Newsletter, Sept. 1996, Barbara Vogl, Editor). He describes three major phases:

' Transcending what we have now

' Creating a new image of the future system

' Transforming the existing system based on the new image through a very disciplined process of system design.


Although the advent of global networking is relatively nascent, the cognitive tools that prepare us to design our future are readily available. Many of us on the communication channels bringing you these words are already embarked on a voyage of transcending what we have now. We can use these channels to share our evolving images and develop our strengths into the "intelliegent unions" that will bring us to the desired shores, where the tides of ethnicity, seas of nationality and currents of race support life on the planet we share.

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