get out to the edges

In March [making sense of our digital world] I wrote that my own understanding of the COVID-19 disease started with centres of networked expertise — WHO, CDC, Public Health Agency of Canada. By September [connecting knowledge] I wrote that I see information from the WHO and CDC as lagging indicators, and no longer my first stop to find out what is happening now.

I should have known better and gone back to some of my earlier understanding of sensemaking in complexity and chaos. These formal organizations are hierarchical and bureaucratic. They have institutional blinders. According to Mark Federman, “Organizations are made too complicated in response to complexity.” That complication blurs our vision.

To understand our current situation we need to move to the edge or find others who are there already. As Kurt Vonnegut wrote — “I want to stand as close to the edge as I can without going over; on the edge you find things you can’t see from the center.” On the edges the answers may not be clear, but they are less obscured than in the centre.

People on the edge mostly do not work for the likes of WHO, CDC, or PHAC.

In March, people on the edge like Trish Greenhalgh were advocating non-medical masks for all.

Many months ago, people on the edge like Michael Mina were pushing for rapid at-Home COVID Testing for all.

This Summer, people on the edge like David Fisman were warning that keeping indoor establishments open in Ontario into the Fall would be disastrous — it is.

We would be in a much better situation today if our decision-makers and policy influencers had better connections to the edges of their fields, especially where they overlap with other disciplines.

If you work inside an organization in any professional capacity then engaging with the edges of your expertise is a critical skill. Everyone should be the eyes and ears of the organization. As they say in software development — given enough eyeballs, all bugs are shallow. In our complex and sometimes chaotic world, we cannot say it is not our job to engage outside our daily tasks or that it is ‘beyond our pay-grade’. If this pandemic has shown us anything, it is that we are all in this together and will all suffer the consequences of  silo thinking.

To work in any complex field, we need to be connected to loose social networks which provide us with a view of the frontiers of our knowledge. We then need to actively engage in communities of practice to develop better understanding and knowledge among our peers. Only then can we truly contribute as members of teams working in a complex environment. Connecting these three spaces requires a new network literacy — personal knowledge mastery.

Here is the rest of the Vonnegut quote.

“You think I’m insane?” said Finnerty. Apparently he wanted more of a reaction than Paul had given him.
“You’re still in touch. I guess that’s the test.”
“Barely — barely.”
“A psychiatrist could help. There’s a good man in Albany.”
Finnerty shook his head. “He’d pull me back into the center, and I want to stay as close to the edge as I can without going over. Out on the edge you see all kinds of things you can’t see from the center.” He nodded, “Big, undreamed-of things — the people on the edge see them first.” ―Kurt Vonnegut, Player Piano

Let’s not stay stuck in the centre of our bubbles, let’s get out to the edges.

out on the edge you can see more

3 Responses to “get out to the edges”

  1. Susan Scheid

    This is excellent. Thank you! A person I would add to your list of thinkers on the edge is Linsey Marr, who was beating the drum about Covid transmission via aerosols long before organizations like the CDC gave this concept any recognition. The CDC and other such organizations appeared to have an entrenched bias against the idea of airborne transmission of Covid via aerosols, which I gather seemed to them to smack of a revival of discredited “miasma” thinking.


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