Of Billiard Balls and Turtles


Our western culture takes it very much for granted that we are separate individuals. We experience ourselves as such, and there is no serious challenge to that self-perception. The exceptions such as the behaviour of crowds are seen as individuals being “taken over” rather than a point on a spectrum of where we operate from. Our law operates from there: it has been nigh impossible to prosecute companies for manslaughter even in their grossest dereliction.

Our language too has developed to support and reinforce this view, so that much of what I want to say in this blog will seem clunky, be clunky. The title indeed relies on metaphor and myth: the way shiny discrete billiard balls interact only by pinging off each other in good Newtonian fashion and the way the turtle on whose back the work rides is supported by another turtle and indeed turtles all the way down. By contrast if the world is supported on the back of a turtle, as in First Peoples myth, then this only begs the question of what the turtle is resting on. The answer, more turtles, says “don’t ask, you will only get the same answer again and again”. The world is built the way it is because that is the way it is built. Systems are composed of … systems.

Let me unpack that a little. A billiard ball is a metaphor of discrete obviousness. It is what it seems to be (except probably to an expert billiards player). It point is to cannon into other billiard balls and “make them do things”.

I want to explore this assumption of discrete individuality briefly in both directions:

  • In an organisation, or other social group, is our behaviour really best described as individual billiard balls?
  • In understanding ourselves and the way we behave are we really single nodes? Do we not have internal debates?I usually quote Donald Winnicott: there is no such thing as a baby. To unpack that one level he is saying that studying a baby is a useless and misleading activity because a baby is part of a tightly coupled mother-and-baby system that can only be understood as a whole. Sheldrake has a case of a partially sighted boy who as a teenager could still read via his mother’s eyes. If you find that challenging, that is why I am writing this blog.While babies grow into adults and may sever the psychic joins with their parents, they only do so to the extent that they become enmeshed in other relationships: in love, in mission, with a guru, sometimes in abuse. As with all our turtles, there is a model in development for the patterns that persists all our lives.Probably in organisations we should say there is no such thing as a leader. There is only what leader-and-follower groups do under each other’s influence. This is one reason why there is so much tosh written about how to exert leadership: probably leadership can only be studied sensibly by observing the group and the patterns that connect it. And please don’t assume that initiative in a leadership situation comes from the leader!

    At the level of organisations then I would want to say that all of us are concerned to deny all the ways in which we are not individuals in that billiard ball way. I think loose and tight dependencies exist at the conscious and the unconscious level. Unconscious connections and material pass right through an organisation without anyone being aware of their effects. There is a rule that says what goes in at the unconscious level is acted out unconsciously. Have you ever observed people acting in ways that is completely different from their stated intentions?

    So am I one well-integrated person with a single point of view?

    My sense of social interaction as sketched above is that it is hard going on impossible to separate out who is doing what. And using the same pattern I am pretty confident that how my thoughts and actions arise is not simple or linear. I guess I go straight to a secure institution if I say there are many of me, but that seems a better description than for instance the law has of my responsibility. Nor of course are my inner crowd billiard balls that bounce off each other.
    While we speak again of Newton we would do well to remember that he pursued his science under political duress and that it destroyed him as a person. What better picture of the nature of self and the nature of freedom? His alchemy that we ridicule was his route to some sort of personal integrity and insight into his situation.

    Bateson was clear that the patterns that connect are what needs to be studied. The patterns that integrate my inner world and the ways in which I engage with the outer world are not so different to the patterns that connect in social space. And for good reason. The complete circuits including the long arcs of which we remain unaware traverse both our inner and outer worlds. There are no sensibly described boundaries around the individual and none around the ego and none around the group. We do violence when we insist that there are. And that violence produces effects that tend to confirm our prejudices and assumptions.

    Great fleas have lesser fleas upon their backs to bite ’em. And little fleas have lesser fleas and so ad infinitum. Turtles all the way down. It is the self-organisation of life that produces patterns that connect at many levels: why would it not? Once we understand the fluid and overlapping patterns of connection we can resist the violence that has come to reside in our concepts of the individual and individual responsibility. It wasn’t me.

    Lots of great spirits have noted that unlearning is more important than learning. We have all been comprehensively mis-educated. Much of that mis-education revolves around a totally misplaced inculcation of the notion of our separateness. Unlearning that is logically something we cannot do on our own. So to end on a high note, organisations are where we will and must discover our true nature.

    Thinking is observing and researching how self-organising happens. We are organised by our technology (taking the widest view of the term) and we build technology to do our work. We become skilled in navigating a situation of which we are the authors. To self-organise we need to see that evolution in ways that normally elude us. We say simply that this is what you do. Thinking wants to make “what we do” visible in ways that allows teams to take a different sort of ownership.

    If we can see how we are organised by our technology we can see more of what we do. Instead of technology being a subconscious constraint, it can become a mirror. It may be possible to use the mirror or technology to vastly speed up learning how to operate in the world we create as we work in it.