Porosity/pulsation

Hugh posted an interesting comment here about porosity (referencing this essay by Clay Shirky). The nub:

Funny this paradox reminds me of classic Clay Shirky (one of my biggest heroes).

Basically Shirky’s idea is: when creating any kind of social group… be it a company an online forum, or nation state, there are two basic rules:

1. Too much coercion, it dies.

2. Too much freedom, it dies.

What Shirky suggests is that any successful group has a healthy tension between corercion and freedom.

I agree, though I would use the word “structure” instead of freedomstructure. (If you’re in a mood for rambling, here’s my earlier post on how Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi uses the terms differentiation and integration in a way that’s seems somewhat analgous.)

Welcome to the wonderful world of paradox. Structure and freedom seem opposed, but in fact they feed off each other. For instance, if I asked you to “think of something creative, right now” you’d probably feel stuck. If I asked you to “think of 7 ways to persuade a 5 year old to go to the dentist”, you might start having some ideas. You might not like your ideas, but you’d start. Many artists like to have a canvas before they paint. A bit of structure can spark our creativity and then we find our freedom within the structure, or testing the structure. (The artist might start with a canvas and then say, sod this, I’ll use Central Park as my canvas!)

It’s only human nature that we sometimes push too hard on one pole and ignore the other – and end up with less of both. Just this morning on the telly some two-bit politician was saying “security is the foundation of a free society” to justify some fairly oppressive sounding legislation. But if we just go for security in the form of lots of laws and restrictions, we risk so strangling freedom of expression that we feel fearful… and actually become less secure.

Managing anything, including my life, is really about managing these kinds of paradoxes. Of course, we like to swap generalities about what’s right (much blogging follows this course) but actually we need to realise that each circumstance is different and we need the ability to pulsate, to move between the poles and not just cling rigidly to platitudes in favour of one or the other.

Sometimes, we want to set rigid rules, sometimes we want to let it all hang out. There is no predeterminded universal setting for the amount of porosity in the boundaries we keep.

I’m gonna repeat something I mentioned here a few months ago:

I remember a teacher holding his hand out before me in a fist. “This is not a heart,” he said. Then he opened it fully. “And this is not a heart.”. Then he started to move it open-and-closed, to and fro. “This is a heart”.

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