In 2011, edge.org asked: What scientific concept would improve everybody’s cognitive toolkit? Then 164 different contributors answered it. They were basically asking the contributors for what are known as shorthand abstractions. Here’s how they explained it:
James Flynn has defined shorthand abstractions (or SHA’s) as concepts drawn from science that have become part of the language and make people smarter by providing widely applicable templates (market, placebo, random sample, naturalistic fallacy, are a few of his examples). His idea is that the abstraction is available as a single cognitive chunk which can be used as an element in thinking and debate.
Recently I attended a meetup.com philosophy meetup, where we discussed a slight tweak to this question: What one, scientific or philosophical concept would improve everyone’s cognitive toolkit and worldview? This got me thinking and resulted in the following short piece related to the proximity thinking framework. I’d like to introduce you to this shorthand abstraction: Relate to the proximity of a situation. Here’s the essay …
Relate to the Proximity of a Situation
You can also relate to the proximity of a situation, as opposed to just relating to elements within it like people, things, ideas, feelings, etc. A situation is whatever you are dealing with or considering. But what is the proximity?
Informally, good examples of larger scale proximities are contexts, environments, regions, communities, and neighborhoods. A lot of our toughest problems and challenges these days have to do with these kinds of proximities, so I hope that motivates you to read on.
Good examples of smaller scale proximities are a multi-person shared office; the people, ideas and things related to a project; and the location, people and feeling of a party or conversation.
But how to define the proximity in a useful way? One of the dictionary definitions of proximity includes nearness in relationship. Which leads to the question, relationship to what? And also, what are being related? So in the proximity thinking framework, I’ve had to be more specific. More formally, the proximity consists of elements related or potentially related to a situation, in physical, mental and other ways. What are elements? An element is something you’re relating to other things, such as a person, place, object, idea, feeling, time, group, relationship, situation, proximity, etc. (Yes, a proximity can be an element in a different proximity.)
So while we often relate to proximities more indirectly by relating to elements within them, you can also often relate to a proximity more consciously and directly. Although you may do this sometimes, you may not be used to thinking this way, because our current systems of organization and thought often tend to focus on elements rather than proximities. But it’s possible to change. And here’s more motivation to read on: our networked world is sometimes making it harder to separate elements from what they’re connected to, but also making it easier to relate to proximities.
Of course it’s been possible since the dawn of human coordination to do things which relate to a proximity, and people have done so. The key idea is that you do things with the proximity in mind, that have a chance of keeping the proximity alive, vital, interesting, invigorating and growing. These can be things you do on your own, as well as things you do in some coordinated way with other people, which benefit, for example, the context, environment, region, community, neighborhood, office, project, party or conversation. “Do them on your own” kinds of things might range from doing something that boosts the vibe of the party, to something that affects the environment, to something that helps the atmosphere at the office, to something that improves the neighborhood, to a change that affects the direction and progress of a project. Things you do with other people in some coordinated way might include meeting, planning, coordinating, celebrating, innovating, collaborating, creating shared systems, etc.
Now, think about the times we live in. We have many physical tools, such as computers, mobile phones, sensors and networks, to help more of us relate to proximities, and relate more directly to proximities. These can affect both things people do on their own to relate to a proximity, and things people do in coordinated ways.
And how do we best use these new tools? I think the biggest opportunity lies in certain conceptual tools that can help us leverage those physical tools even better. There are two conceptual tools I’d like to point out.
One of those conceptual tools for relating to proximities is the idea of a proximity itself. You’ll notice this one concept was just applied to contexts, environments, regions, communities, neighborhoods, offices, projects, parties and conversations. Any situation you are considering has an associated proximity, so the concept of proximity can be used at any scale. But what about when a number of people share a proximity? That’s where the other conceptual tool comes into play.
The other conceptual tool for relating to proximities is a model for coordinating and collaborating that I call the ProxThink Growth Model. It has four processes that are not too difficult to explain, and they make the proximity easier to relate to, especially when a number of people share a proximity. The four processes are RelatePoints, ProxMonitors, Vadi Agreements and ProxRewards (or the shorter version of ProxReward, which is proxri). The four processes and the growth model are in turn part of the proximity thinking framework. The framework is built on the concept that being is about relating, and the notion that you can think in a very general way with just four terms, which are: situation, element, relationship and proximity. The framework also has ProxPatterns for relating to proximities with more creativity and innovation. But back to the processes of the growth model. I’ll define the four processes and then provide examples.
RelatePoints are points or places for coordinating relationships in the proximity.
A Proximity Monitor, or ProxMonitor, increases awareness of the proximity, and provides information about the proximity.
The term Vadi (pronounced vah’dee) is short for valuable differences. A Vadi Agreement acknowledges that differences are a part of relationships and some differences have value. Vadi Agreements provide relationships and agreements which can help valuable differences persist, adapt and change as needed.
Proxri (pronounced prox’ree) is short for one or more ProxRewards, which are rewards made with the proximity in mind. Proxri may include money, things, services, relationships, actions, and so on, as well as a combination of these. More formally, a ProxReward, or proxri, is a reward which relates elements in the proximity.
Of course you can use the ProxThink Growth Model informally without high technology. Here are examples: In a shared office, a RelatePoint could be the water cooler or a bulletin board in the break room. The ProxMonitor process could occur in the notes on the bulletin board or the discussion around the water cooler. The Vadi Agreement might be agreements or understandings about the use of the shared refrigerator in the break room, or that the company survives and thrives thanks to certain valuable differences between people, materials and processes. And proxri can include a wide variety of actions, from cleaning out the refrigerator once in a while, to financial dealings, to saying things to people in the office which help keep the atmosphere professional but also lively, interesting, and growing.
But now consider the technological possibilities. I think we could be doing a better job of using networks and technologies to relate to proximities, by using the ProxThink Growth Model with technology in networked applications. I think RelatePoints could be accessed via computers and mobiles, that have ProxMonitors showing both human- and sensor-generated monitoring of proximities, allowing shared Vadi Agreements on the network to be viewed, discussed and updated, and in terms of Proxri, there could be suggestions for proxri as well as places to share and discuss proxri that were made or received. You’ll notice the four processes, when combined with technologies, have the effect of transforming the proximity of a situation, or even multiple situations, into more of a tangible element you can relate to. I think such networked applications which use the growth model can be deployed at various scales, from homes and team projects to regions and global proximities.
In addition to the benefits of keeping a proximity alive, vital, interesting, invigorating and growing, I think relating to the proximity of a situation has other benefits. I think relating to proximities is a way to make proximities more sustainable, and also helps us with the challenge of climate change. (I’ve used the ProxThink Growth Model in what I’m calling a sustainable proximities approach.) I think relating to proximities can help people within them be healthier and happier. And, since proximities often overlap, relating to a proximity often helps other proximities.
I think one other interesting thing happens when the focus shifts to relating to proximities. It’s about variety. I think variety and relating to proximities help each other, grow each other, and reinforce each other, at many levels. But perhaps the most interesting level is that of individual people. When individuals relate to proximities, they often need and develop a variety of skills, viewpoints, and efforts, which is invigorating, challenging and rewarding and partly why they may become healthier and happier. The proximity also becomes a kind of living thing, and generates variety for the individuals within it. So relating to the proximity is partly it’s own reward, and becomes self-reinforcing. This is also related to my project VarietyPeople.org.
I hope this essay has helped convince you that you can also relate to the proximity of a situation. You may have picked up a few other shorthand abstractions as well! These include: proximities, RelatePoints, ProxMonitors, Vadi Agreements and ProxRewards (or the shorter version of ProxReward, which is proxri). For more about the growth model, please see this link: Brief Intro to the ProxThink Growth Model. I’m also trying to spread this approach via a project and site called Proxri.org. For more about the proximity thinking framework, please see proxthink.com or the new mobile site proxthink.wordpress.com.
Here are some ways you might want to explore the ProxThink Growth Model. I’m working to deploy the model in some basic ways with two arts projects, Artsdown and Artsflex. If you would like to somehow deploy this model in your business or organization, in any way, low-tech or high-tech, please get in touch. If you would like to adopt or adapt the growth model for your proximity or situation, here’s more about that. If you would like to explore tools that can be used or adapted to implement the growth model for a proximity that people share, please see this page. If you would like to find other individuals, websites, groups of people, proximities or situations using proxri and the growth model, please see this page.
I’d like to collaborate with developers to create networked applications that use the ProxThink Growth Model with technology in more extensive ways, to boost the sustainability and variety of proximities. If you are a developer interested in collaborating, or know of developers who might be, please get in touch with me and/or them. We could start small, and perhaps the process of building it and using it could be so much fun that it grows. I think people should get involved at first mainly for the challenge and the variety, and only work on it part-time. Also, we should have a place where people involved could post their own ProxMonitors and proxri wishes, so others could proxri them for their efforts in building this.
I’m also seeking a group of individuals who might like to collaborate with me, even part-time, on my projects as a collection (ProxThink, sustainable proximities, Proxri.org, VarietyPeople.org, Artsdown and Artsflex), as I think there is potential to grow them faster and better with a team of people and with each project helping the other projects.
Finally, I’m available for services such as webinars, flexible collaboration, idea sessions, speaking and consulting, each of which uses and demonstrates the proximity thinking framework, so please contact me for more information or scheduling.