This week’s article, continuing my now seven-strong series on making sense of the world, is about constraints: those limitations that we sometimes find ourself chafing against. Understanding them is essential, and they can be used to influence a system that we can’t directly control – like groups of people.
This week’s article
Why understanding constraints is essential to making sense of the world
No matter how hard we try to escape them, there are always constraints on ours and others’ behaviour. We don’t act randomly. We’re constrained by our own thoughts and feelings, by the expectations of others, by laws, by rules, procedures and processes, and by the laws of physics. Constraints limit us, but in a complex and potentially random world they also impose some degree of order.
Constraints don’t just spring into existence randomly, though. They’re often put in place by humans, consciously or unconsciously, and are often removed by humans, too. They’re a tool we can deliberately use in order to influence the behaviour of systems and groups of people.
If sense-making is “making sense of the world so we can act in it”, then constraints are important in two ways. First, it’s important to understand the constraints that exist already; we can’t make sense of the world without making sense of the constraints that exist within it and that will restrict our actions. And second, constraints offer us a means by which to act, since altering a system or organisation’s constraints affects how it behaves.
The first step in understanding a system through its constraints involves looking at the quantity and the rigidity of the constraints that exist. In a system with few constraints or very loose constraints, things are less stable. They change a lot, things seem apparently random, and new patterns emerge regularly. In a system with many constraints or very rigid constraints, things are much more stable. They change less often, things seem very ordered, and new patterns do not emerge.
Our choice to impose or remove constraints, then, has an overall impact on the behaviour of the system. Removing constraints moves the system leftwards; adding constraints moves it rightwards. Neither movement is right or wrong in itself. Both are useful in different situations, and achieve different things.
Imagine you’re managing a football team. You’ve drilled the team relentlessly and instilled in them a brilliant understanding of their tactics. Each player understands their role implicitly, and executes it to perfection. These are constraints, and they help each player to make a decision in the moment. Although the system is rigid, it’s very stable. You’re on the right-hand side of the spectrum, and you’re on a brilliant winning streak.
Eventually, though, the time comes that you’re no longer winning every game. Week after week, opponents seem to have sussed out your tactics and beat you with ease. What previously looked like solidity now looks like inflexibility; you’re still consistent, but consistently losing.
You’re faced with a choice. You could think up some totally new tactics and try to impose them immediately, exchanging one set of constraints for another. But that’s risky, and only allows for whatever solution you can dream up in the moment; it’s limited by your imagination. Instead, it might make sense to give the players more freedom, to remove constraints from them. What patterns might emerge when players are allowed to improvise in the moment? You may start to see techniques and patterns of play that are helpful and effective against your opponents. You’re moving the team leftwards, removing constraints and allowing new patterns to emerge, patterns that you might not have been able to anticipate.
Eventually, you might want to settle on some of these new tactics, and impose them more rigorously, so that everyone has a clear understanding of how you want to play and so that you can bring new players into the team and have them contribute from the start. If you did so, you’d be moving rightwards again, returning to a more constrained way of playing.
This illustrates why constraints are neither good nor bad. If you’ve got a superior tactic, constraints make that super clear to everyone and avoid people doing less effective things. If you’ve got a lousy tactic, constraints force people to do the wrong thing. Sense-making involves understanding the constraints you’re operating under, how they relate to the outcomes you desire, and whether you need to impose more of them or ease up on them.
This week’s four interesting links
Sam Kriss’s brilliant saunter through the Spectator summer party:
“So I did some mingling myself. This is how it would go. I would find myself in conversation with a very genial man in a linen suit, who would monologue at me extensively on some subject I’d never once before considered in my life—the different types of tweed and when it’s appropriate to wear them, or the perils and pitfalls of buying a French winery, or how difficult it is these days to find a maker of bespoke fountain pens that hasn’t been poisoned by woke groupthink. Eventually an editor would elbow his way over through the crowd with a smirk. I never thought I’d see the day, he’d say, Sam’s rubbing shoulders with the Tory cabinet. At which point I’d look again at the very genial man in the linen suit. I did recognise him from somewhere, I’d realise; some ministerial scandal, some unflattering papshot in the Guardian. I don’t really follow the news, I’d admit. Eric Gruggins, the editor would say, is the Secretary of State for Torture. Wait, I’d say, torture? The Right Honourable Eric would give a good hearty laugh. Well I don’t torture anyone myself, he’d say. Unless you count civil servants! This would fail to entirely pacify me. It’s about preventing torture, right? I’d say. Eric would smack his lips. With the departmental budgets we’ve got, he’d say, it may as well be! And then he’d discourse in the same jovial tones about how Britain could be Europe’s next big torture hub if only he had the funds, and about the incredible opportunities offered by something he called Torture 2.0.”
A fascinating New York Times look at the growing campaign against the curtailment of the right to roam in England, an inspiring case of civil disobedience and democratic protest:
“In Devon, local people began holding trespasses every month. As Hayes did while writing his book, they stayed well away from houses and stuck to actions that would be considered trespasses in England but legal in Scotland. Lewis Winks, a researcher and environmental campaigner who helped organize the gatherings, told me that it felt like being a detective in your own backyard: You were figuring out who owned what and why and suddenly realizing that there was a great deal more land around than you ever visited or even really noticed. Moving in a group, you felt empowered, almost immune to signs telling you that you didn’t belong. You also noticed, he added, that a country that some politicians liked to describe as full or overcrowded, and therefore in need of tighter borders, was full of open space.”
Ryu Spaeth ponders the depiction – or lack of one – of Japanese people in the film Oppenheimer, an omission he finds strange given the historical intertwining of the two nation’s fates:
“The legacy of the bomb, however, is more specific and concrete than Oppenheimer’s final vision of a world engulfed in nuclear fire. At the very same instant that the bomb created modern Japan in a burst of light, it also gave rise to the America we know today – America as superpower. Two new nations were born from this expression of the bomb’s divine power, and the cost of this transformation, like some ghastly blood sacrifice, were those 220,000 human beings who were either incinerated or succumbed to radiation poisoning, human beings Oppenheimer said were necessary to target to show what havoc the weapon could really wreak, which is to say that the inauguration of the American century would not have happened without the Japanese.”
A beautiful reminiscence on the power of grids, by Alexander Miller:
“When I was a kid, my dad gave me a piece of paper with a grid printed on it. It consisted of larger squares than standard graph paper, about an inch in size. It was basically a blank chessboard. The columns of the grid were labeled with letters (‘A’, ‘B’, ‘C’, etc.), the rows labeled with numbers (‘1’, ‘2’, ‘3’, …). My dad then helped me draw a map of an imaginary island within the grid’s boundaries. I sketched the squiggly coastline of my island, forming a splattered blob shape, within which I added the obvious necessary features all mysterious islands require: forests of crudely draw trees, a mountain with a cave entrance leading to a secret underground network of caverns, an abandoned hut on the beach. There were variations of this game: sometimes the map was of a completely imaginary place, but other times we mapped a known area – like our backyard – and added fantastic elements.”