I still have it, the sign my father, an innovative CEO of a large corporation had printed for use at executive meetings. In a 1960s font on yellowed cardboard it reads:

What are we talking about?

He designed it out of frustration with agenda drift. As a meeting conversation would overheat, sidetracked on some trivial matter, my dad would silently lift the sign off his lap.

What are we talking about?

He was asking people to step out of their stances within a conversation to notice what the conversation was about and then to compare it to other alternative conversations including whatever was really on the agenda.  The sign was as if to say, “Notice the tree you’re barking up.  If you step back to see the tree, you’ll notice that you’ve lost sight of the forest. If you see the forest, maybe you’ll reprioritize. Maybe the tree you’re barking up is the wrong tree.”

I’m sure you can relate to my father’s frustration.  Your agenda item finally gets the floor and some klutz inadvertently boots it into the dusty corner with an over-earnest “Yes, but what about my (petty) concern?” The meeting attendees follow his “concern” like Dug the dog after a squirrel in the movie “Up” and forget it–they’re never coming back to your priority topic.

I feel that frustration these days about how climate legislation got tabled and now all we can talk about is the immorality of allowing a Muslim YMCA to open between the Dunkin Donuts, off-track betting parlor and sex clubs two blocks from the former World Trade Center. The more meeting participants; the harder it is to keep the conversation on track. At present the nation’s conversation has the attention discipline of a two-year-old with ADD on LSD wandering the strip in Las Vegas.

And you also know what its like to be seen as that klutz, because you’ve been in meetings where the agenda gets within inches of a real high-priority issue, and you do what you can to boot the conversation to what really counts even if others think yours is a petty concern. I feel like that kind of klutz sometimes writing these columns, which are slightly offset from conventional conversation. People complain. They don’t understand why, for example, I always go for the big picture.

In my defense, I could counter that these complainers “can’t see the forest for the trees,” as though the big picture perspective is simply and always better. As I argued last week, it isn’t. Sometimes the details are what really count. But as I also argued last week, the big picture on the relationship between big and small pictures is really worth a visit, so that’s what we’re talking about this week, back to hierarchy, the relationship between forest and trees and what’s really involved there.

Shifts between bigger and smaller pictures explain an enormous amount of what goes on in our lives–our victories and defeats, what makes us savvy or stupid, insightful or frustrating.  The ability to zoom the lens of one’s attention to the right level of analysis is one of the greatest gifts one can have. For lack of a conventional term, I’ve called it “rung-running skill” the ability to deftly move up and down the rungs of the ladder overlooking your circumstances, to see it from up high and down low, depending on what the situation calls for.

We intuit that perspectives are nested in some kind of hierarchy from small too large, but where do nested hierarchies come from?  Simplifying, there are three sources.

There’s nature itself. For example, nature produced you, and you are undeniably hierarchical, what with your cells making up your organs making up your body, etc.

Second, words.  Our capacity to represent things symbolically frees us to make hierarchy, chiefly by applying symbols to themselves. I can talk about talking, write about writing, think about thinking. With my father’s sign, I can make what topic we’re talking about be the topic we’re talking about. I can also apply mathematical symbols to themselves. The parentheses make this possible.  I can write X or X(X) or X(X(X)).  In other words I can times times-ing. Mathematicians, logicians, linguists, philosophers and theologians (Can God make a rock so big he can’t lift it?) have a field day with this symbolic kind of hierarchy.

Third, there’s the social version, for example when you and someone else become a couple, or when teams make up divisions that make up companies, or when towns make up counties, states and nations.

Here’s the key insight into how hierarchy emerges naturally, symbolically or socially:

The sustained interaction between entities becomes itself a higher-level entity.

Two people in sustained love become a partnership. Two factions in sustained battle become a war. Two people in sustained disagreement become a controversy. Two businesses in sustained competition become an industry. Two folks in a quid pro quo relationship become a friendship.

These are all social examples. It’s a bit of a leap to see how this applies in nature but it does.  Indeed, the most promising ideas about the origins of life depend on this key insight into the production of hierarchy.  The most amazing thing about life is how it spontaneously produces sustained interaction. The first steps toward life had to be the production of selves—higher level entities that resulted from sustained interaction between lower level processes.  More on that in a later article, and on how this key insight applies to the symbolic production of hierarchy too.

A couple can fall into sustained interaction, a debate about who should empty the dishwasher, for example.  The debate becomes a higher-level entity that can then be discussed, for example noticing that there’s a habit of debating about emptying the dishwasher. There can even be debates about the debate, for example:

She: Why do we always argue about who should empty the dishwasher?

He:  Who’s arguing?  We’re just having a friendly discussion.

She:  No we’re not—it’s a debate!

And it can even move up from there:

He: Oh, this is futile.  You think every friendly discussion is a debate!

She: I do not. And it’s not futile we should get to the bottom of this.

The bottom? The top?  Sometimes we get to the bottom by digging in to a single level of analysis and sometimes we get to the bottom by shifting to another level of analysis.  And often there’s debate about which is a better bet for where we’ll get to the bottom of it.  If you haven’t heard this Monty Python skit on the subject, hear it.  It makes these ideas as clear and intuitive as can be.

What are we talking about?

If it’s hard to tell, what with talk about origins of life, X(X), Monty Python and who should empty the dishwasher, we’re talking about an elusive topic, one you probably haven’t given much thought.  We’re talking about rung-running skills, your zoom lens, what hierarchy really is and how it grows.  That’s the tree I’m barking up and will bark up some more in coming articles.