November 22, 2023

Nora Bateson on ecology, increasing possibility, warm data, and intergenerational learning (AC Ep20)

“Everything you do takes place at the nth order. You cannot simply draw your line of responsibility at the edge of first-order action. It goes far beyond that.”

– Nora Bateson

Robert Scoble
About Nora Bateson

Nora Bateson is an award-winning filmmaker, writer and educator, and President of the International Bateson Institute. She wrote, directed, and produced the documentary, An Ecology of Mind, on her father, Gregory Bateson, which won awards at the Spokane and Santa Cruz film festivals. Following her 2016 book Small Arcs of Larger Circles, her new book, Combining, will be released shortly.

What you will learn

  • The dynamic interplay and shared learning among diverse species in a complex ecosystem (03:00)
  • Rethinking human communication and relationships (05:50)
  • Exploring the fluidity of identity in different social contexts (08:22)
  • Understanding warm data and its role in perceiving complex systems (12:24)
  • Exploring warm data through describable experiences and creative expression (17:27)
  • Intergenerational learning and systemic thinking (21:27)
  • Nurturing intergenerational relationships (30:12)
  • Integrate intergenerational and indigenous wisdom into our common sense-making processes (32:21)

Episode Resources


Ross Dawson: Nora, it’s a pleasure and privilege to have you on the show.

Nora Bateson: Thanks. It’s really good to be here.

Ross: One word that has been a very common one through you and your family’s work is ecology. I think people come with this idea of ecology which only captures a fragment of the way in which you mean it. It’d be a lovely starting point for you to frame this idea of ecology, the ecology of mind or ecology of mind and nature.

Nora: Yes, thank you because this new book that I have just published called “Combining“. It is called “Combining” because of exactly what you’re saying. One of the things that happens in a world that is looking for the code, the hack, the model, is that this idea of ecology becomes somehow static, and it isn’t. The trick to thinking in ecological ways is to recognize that there is an ongoing movement, and ongoing responsiveness between all of the organisms in an ecology and that those organisms are in fact, mutually learning to be together, which means that there is the continuation of whatever it is, the species, the meadow, the forest, the oceans, and that continuation means that some of the relationships need to be in continuing patterns. But in order to do that, there must be discontinuing because of all the other change, and responsiveness that’s taking place.

Very often, one of the things that happens in the nonverbal assumption of the noun ecology is that there is this set of relationships that create a functional vitality. I would say, let’s get rid of that word functional and even be careful with vitality, that we keep it into vitalizing, that it’s’ ongoing. It’s this ongoingness that is tricky because it’s so nth order. It’s never just one organism. It’s all the organisms in a context and beyond. Our habit is to identify a tree as a tree and say that tree is treeing. But that tree is only possible because of millions of organisms, trillions maybe, that are in ongoing, shifting, responding relational communication.

Ross: Life is not something that stands alone, it is always in relationship to others; and so the relationship is the heart of what that ecology is, is that right?

Nora: But what makes relationships? This is where I find the field of biosemiotics interesting because they don’t refer to the biosphere, they refer to the semiosphere, which is recognizing that relationships are made in communication. It’s in the communication between all the organisms, and you may think that communication is just a signal in response, but communication is also there in the way that the nutrients for trees are moving through mycelial processes or the way bacteria poop, and make it possible for trees to grow. These are all communicative processes.

What’s possible in the communication? What’s being communicated? What’s possible in the communication? Working with human systems, the tendency then would be to say, “Okay, we’ve got to fix the communication. What we have is a failure to communicate, right?” But that tends to push the attention then to what’s on the transcript, and what’s on the transcript is not what happened in the communication.

Ross: Yes.

Nora: This is a good way of pointing to those areas where systems change is most needed and most elusive because you can’t actually point to it. What I’m getting at is that there are ways in which we are in communication that are defined by various limits of what we can communicate. Those limits are not directly expressed, they’re implied. They’re in the meta messaging of the context, they’re in the tacit understanding, the complicit recognition of context that we share.

Ross: The limits to how richly, how deeply, and how much we can communicate?

Nora: Or even what we can say, or even who we can be. With some people, you are different. You’re really funny, you’re the slacker, you’re the cool dude, and with other people, you’re the nerd, and with somebody else, you’re the grown-up, you’re the old person, and with another person, you’re the apprentice, so who are you? And the way you are with some friends evokes the possibility of just being in your whole self in another way. When you walk into the Tax Office, who can you be? When you are with your best friend maybe at the pub, who can you be? When you’re in the woods, who can you be? It’s this recognition that relationship changes communication, communication changes relationships. Where are those limits?

What I see as the issue most deeply is creating stuckness, is the way in which just as people, we are keeping each other stuck in the same pattern. We can run around talking about transformation and systems change, and how we’re going to change the parts of the system, or we’re going to change the scripts or change the relationships but actually, one of the biggest sticking points is how we hold each other in the way we value each other, the way we think about credibility, lovability, sexual attractiveness, etc. These processes are located in physiological ways in our communication. We’re sticking each other in the very thing that we’re working to change.

Ross: One of the beautiful phrases in your book is “I shall always act to increase possibility.” You’re describing some of the ways in which we are constrained in who we are and who we could be in our relationships. A very pointed question is, what are the things that we can do to increase possibilities?

Nora: I’m so glad you asked. When you’re trying to approach these processes that are taking place, not necessarily at the first order, at the first level, where you might point to a symptom and say, “Okay, there’s the issue, we have to solve that issue” but in the way we’re looking at nth order, so the relationships that make relationships that make relationships, the communication that makes communication that makes communication. As I was just saying, a lot of this stuff is tacit, it’s implied, it’s meta-communication, it’s living in a realm that’s very real, but very slippery, it’s gaseous, it’s hard to grab hold of it, and it’s not like changing the distributor cap in your pickup truck. Changing the possibility of communication means another thing. This, for me, is where warm data has been really exciting because after many years of working with various sorts of systems change, various kinds of modeling, and this-es and thats, and also coming from my history, which I guess we’ll get to in a minute.

Ross: Could you explain warm data as a concept?

Nora: Yes, Warm data as a concept, there are two ways of looking at it. Warm data as a thing is information. But it’s a way of recognizing information that’s taking place between multiple contexts, so it’s trans-contextual information. In that example of who is Ross, who is Ross in relationship to your microbiome, in relationship to the tax agency, in relationship to your lover, in relationship to children if you have any, or your dogs, or your childhood friends, or your professional relationships, or your parents, your ancestors, the grandchildren that are not here yet, the great-great-grandchildren to be—who are you? And in each one of those contexts, you are not the same, so who are you? There’s this way of recognizing that information moves in different contexts, and this is a necessary practice for perceiving complex systems.

Another way to describe warm data is that it’s information that’s alive. I could put you in a box and I could say, “Oh, Ross, he’s got a podcast.” But that would be a huge reductionism of who you are. It’s not that it’s untrue that you have a podcast, and I could study all your podcasts, but I would still know very little about you. I could deduct and I could make correlations, and I could do this and that, but I will not have a sense of your vitality from that. My suspicion is that because there’s basically so much information missing, that many of the responses that are attempted are responses to reductionist information, information that’s been decontextualized from its living processes and re-contextualized into a mechanistic, more industrialized set of understandings.

How do we respond to a living world if our information is not itself alive? And that’s at the core of what warm data as an idea is about. The Warm Data Lab is a process that I work with groups of people in practicing this perception. It’s a practice and a practice in which the trans-contextual perception, and cognition, you’re interested in cognition, is able to shift in ways that are not necessarily explicit. It’s recognizing that many of the things that are blocking us epistemologically are things that are habits that we don’t even know we’re doing, ghosts of industrial assumptions, that are so deeply lodged in our language, in the way we went to school, in our understanding of how you define something or strategize something or solve something or even identify a problem, that these capacities are infected with ghosts of industrial, eugenics, control, mechanistic ideas, colonial, notions, that these notions will justify exploitation, decontextualization, devitalization and take out the possibility. Okay, so where I’m saying “I want to always act to increase possibility” what I’m really saying is I want to be able to perceive those possibilities that the complexity in the process brings that may not be the ones I think I’m looking for. That’s the catch.

Ross: There used to be a lot of talk about data, information, knowledge, and wisdom. I suppose very crudely, you could say that data and information are things that can be digitized or captured in some forms, and knowledge and wisdom, presumably not. The question is, can the warm data that you talked about only be understood in our thinking, in our living, in our communication? Or is there any way to be able to capture…but is there any way to be beyond or something that becomes part of a describable system?

Nora: It depends on what you mean by describable. Let’s say you walk into a room. Now, just in the walking into that room, without recognizing you’re doing it, you will be attending with your attention to the temperature, the smells, the atmosphere of the space, and what the atmosphere allows you to be. Okay, is this a cozy bohemian space? Is it a rigid, sterile hospital place? Is it an algebra room? Are we stepping into a classroom that is full of art supplies? Who are you going to be in that space? Okay, this is information, and in those two versions you gave, it’s neither. It’s neither wisdom nor are they data points. It’s living processing. It has to do with all the other places you’ve ever been, all the other ways you’ve ever been, and who you’re there with, etc.

How do you capture warm data? Why don’t we say “express” instead of “capture”, or make room for it? That’s what I have done in “Combining” is that I’ve put in all these pieces of writing, artwork, different ways of expressing, and perceiving, and just put them next to each other, and given the reader the opportunity to make the connections. This book is full of poetry, it’s got 30-page essays that are pretty crunchy theory, there are stories, and there’s all kinds of artwork. I would say the book is not in any of the pieces. It’s in what you create between them. You can start anywhere and let them speak to each other through you. You see, there I’m making room for this living information to take place.

Ross: Yes. We chatted before about the idea of systemic change. Part of the framing for me is that your father, Gregory Bateson, is one of the most influential people in my life, in my early reading and thinking.

Nora: Me too.

Ross: One of the things that we’re talking is about was intergenerational learning. When you’re describing all of the ways in which we communicate, learn, and relate, one of the very important ones is through generations, or a particular family, and also from all of humanity or living beings. How is it that we can manifest intergenerational learning?

Nora: This is one of the places that are most important to be paying attention to. For all my friends out there who are systems thinkers, it’s one thing to be able to do it in the office and it’s another thing to do at the breakfast table. This is not just a professional approach to somehow creating policy change, this is a complete life change that starts with how it’s possible to be in mutual learning across generations. That’s not easy. It’s really in those moments when you start to see these assumptions come into play in ways that can be quite painful and confusing and filled with resentment or anger, or even attachment in ways that are somehow twisted up.

One of the most important recognitions for me has been the way in which my father, who was one of the people who helped bring systemic theory into the world through cybernetics and his work in multiple different fields, the way he was with me when I was little. He was six foot six, so two meters, a larger-than-life character of science and charisma, and people came from all over to sit at his feet. I was born when he was quite old, he was 64 when I was born.

Ross: Wow.

Nora: People would ask me, didn’t you feel insignificant with all these people focusing on your father? The answer is no, I didn’t, because I was always welcome in that conversation. I knew that I was welcome because when all the people were gone, the conversation still included me in the same way. He would do these things where he would invite me to perceive his learning. If he was doing something in the day, and he noticed something he hadn’t noticed before, he would verbalize that for me. “I noticed this thing for the first time today and I used to think it was like this, but now I see that there’s a difference.” Sometimes it was with me, and he would say, “Oh, gosh, I was wrong about that.”

What was important was that I knew what it looked like to be in an intergenerational relationship, that where there was learning. So often, you get this sense that authority or elder generations have this field around them in which they must not be questioned, they must not be wrong, even if they’re wrong, they’re not wrong. That was simply not the case. In our household, there was no currency of being right. The currency was around learning together. That changed how we could be together. It did not make any holes in my respect for him. On the contrary, it meant that…my respect for him is I’m still working with his work so I guess I don’t need to say any more about that. But what I learned was one, what it looks like to learn, two, I learned to learn, and three, I learned to be in a relationship intergenerationally in which that was possible so that I could repeat that with my kids. I want to read you a piece from my book that illustrates this and illustrates the urgency of it.

Ross: Please.

Nora: Because when we’re talking about what’s it possible to say, who is it possible to be, what’s in the ecology of communication between us, which is, where the possibility is? It’s in there. This is a piece that I wrote for my kids. It’s the why, why the rest of this book is about possibility. It’s called “Mama now.”

Your eyes will see the derailing of assumptions,

Your hands will hold the crumble of the old matrix.

I do not have any authority to lean into.

I have empty pockets where parents used to advise their children.

I don’t have any maps, myths, or mother wisdom for you.

I can fix your breakfast, but not the culture.

When you ask about how to be a good person, I cannot lie to you.

Everything you touch in a day is in some way bloodied.

You’ve been born into an edgeless violence.

But I will not judge or measure you against a bygone metric.

I am here too, ready to learn with you, unsure how to be or who to be.

I can only read fragments of your worry,

As the future is a horizon of confusion, I cannot protect you,

And yet it is my only job.

Aching as I witness from this side of the hourglass,

other generations of parents’ new outlines, school, career, family, and retirement,

but your life will be another shape entirely forming in the fractures.

When you say you need a goal, I offer you an expired ticket.

Superficial memes roll off the tongue right into your bullshit detector.

Success in the existing system is not gonna do you much good.

Your integrity is your rage, and I will nourish it.

Your dignity is your curiosity and I am tiny beside it.

Your courage is your pain and I will sing to it with you.

We will riot together.

We will notice the nuance of small graces in the day,

we will wash the grip of loss for each other.

I am your mama and your future is the story of a storm.

I am your cabin, your boots, your rucksack.

Ross: That’s beautiful. Thank you. There’s a lot there about who we could be, who we can be, who we are, which goes to our today, in a sense. If I was asked to name wise people, I would mention your father. You are part of that intergenerational learning here today. Today is a world more complex, more challenging in many ways than the world of the last century. In terms of changing the systems in which we live, which we are part of, what are some of the lessons that we should be taking into account to change the systems of today, drawing on this wisdom from across generations?

Nora: Across generations, across cultures, this is ways of knowing that indigenous people have had from all over the world since forever. In my family, this has been entering into the Scientific Academy of that way of knowing. For me, the lesson of the last couple of years that’s been most profound has been in recognizing that if the premises of our, let’s say commonsense, not as in that practical thing, but as in the sense-making that we do that is common between us. If that common sense-making is premised on what’s in it for me, or how do I get ahead, or what’s the solution, or these deep assumptions of control, then those ghosts are going to guide everything we do.

One of the ways that you will see that is in how you raise your kids, how you treat your elders, or what is in that intergenerational soil. What can grow there, and what can’t grow there? One of the challenges at this moment is to, for lack of a better term, tend to that soil. This is where evolution happens, in between the generations. We’re running all over creation trying to make all this externalized structural shift and keeping in place those assumptions that reproduce the same structural possibilities.

If the basis of that common sense is symbiosis, and the difficulty of symbiosis, and what that means to partake in communication with your child that is not just about “Get your shoes on, it’s cold outside” but extends into relationships that make relationships that make relationships, recognizing that everything you do is taking place at nth order. You cannot just draw your line of responsibility at the edge of first-order action. It’s far beyond that.

For me, that’s the big one, tending. You might say, oh, that’s impossible. But, it isn’t really. What it takes is an acute and vigilant attention to the ghosts that are trying to sneak out. Then that’s uncomfortable because they’re locked in strategy, control, and the things that we are all commended for in the world that we live in. What did you produce? What did you achieve? How do you measure it? How do you define it? The thing that we’re talking about should, by every expression, be outside of those means of description.

Ross: This comes back to today, creating more possibilities for us, and the life in which we’re embedded. You have a new book coming out. Tell us about the book, and where people can get it, or find out more about it.

Nora: The book is called “Combining“. It’s an exploration of this idea of the ecology of communication, and possibility, and really making some pages between which this…Possibility right now is probably the most precious expression of life that we’ve got to work with especially when you look at all of the double binds, we can get into that another time, but there’s a whole chapter on that, of war, the ecological crisis, the economic crisis, the cultural crisis, the poly crises that we are in. Looking back at how these things came to be, it can feel very impossible to come up with a solution or a way forward; the impossibilities are ringing so loud right now.

I took the opportunity in this book to make space where the weirdness, the unexpectedness, the detours, the living, composting, moldy green fur of possibility can emerge. It’s amazing that it actually got published. Because this book is not about what it’s about. What it is, is what it becomes for you. It will be available in all the usual haunts online within the next few weeks, pretty much all over the world. I hope you enjoy it. There are entire chapters with nothing but pictures.

Ross: I read an excerpt, and it’s beautiful, both visually and in terms of the richness of the tapestry of ideas and relationships in there. It’s something to dive deep into. And just to quickly round out, probably the other major reference, correct me if I’m wrong, would be the Bateson Institute just to see what that does and how to find that.

Nora: The International Bateson Institute is located here in Stockholm, and we do all sorts of things. We are working with school systems around the world, we’re working with various nature programs, and we host the warm data work around the world. There are 800+ warm data hosts out there doing that now in all sorts of places as well as various research projects, and so on, all based on this idea of the trans-contextual process, essentially ecology but not in the easy sense of the word.

Ross: Never easy!

Nora: Never easy.

Ross: Thank you so much for your time and your insights, Nora. We’ll have all of the links to that and much more in the show notes. Congratulations on the book. It’s a wonderful contribution.

Nora: Thank you.

Ross: Thank you for all of your work and that of the people around you because the ways of perceiving are fundamental to getting the system change that we need today.

Nora: That’s the tricky bit. It’s where perception shifts. We’re used to seeing the familiar; it’s difficult to see unfamiliar things, to perceive that which has not been perceived before. It’s tricky because you don’t have receivers for it.

Ross: It’s a journey.

Nora: It’s a journey.

Ross: Thank you, Nora.

Nora: Thank you, Ross. Thank you so much.


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