Tag Archives: metaphor

Black Mirror: Playtest

downloadBlack Mirror is a Netflix series about the near future – what may happen if some trends go in particular directions. To be believable the writing needs a systemic understanding of how things may emerge and fit together, with story and twists that systemically fit the narrative.

I’m testing my systems analysis.


Initially, Playtest didn’t seem to have many systems to work with. It feels a familiar “what is reality?” question. In the near future we may not be able to tell virtual or augmented realities generated by ourselves from the real thing – and so how do we know when we have left them?

This is a greater dilemma when our fears create the virtual realities. Because we may fear not knowing what reality is, and we may fear loss of an anchor in our lives, a loss of control.  In this episode the main actor knows he’ll be in an augmented reality – having virtual images on top of reality – Pokemon go style. But he never leaves his chair, so is he in reality here, or are things already unreal?

A Hierarchy gives you somewhere to stand 

One way to think about reality is like a hierarchy. Real is at the top, and you can go down levels and come back up again. Back to top, which is definitely real. Having a known hierarchy is reassuring, everything’s all right, and you know where you are. There is somewhere objective to stand.

But systems are within systems. You can keep going out another layer, and this episode doesn’t let us know what level of reality we’re at, though it gives us some clues that we’re not at the top, if there even is a top.  Fear comes from not knowing where real is, realising that everything is subjective. There is nowhere in the universe that stays still for an objective viewpoint.

Journey as a Metaphor

There is a long introduction anchoring what we think as reality at the start. But could reality have already stopped? There was a traumatic event before the episode starts when the lead characters father dies. Going on a journey as he does is a metaphor. On the trip nothing seems to go wrong. Is reality already gone?

He slowly sees his reality go bad – and gets work in a computer games test lab.
It’s here he gets a medical implant, so he hears and sees, but doesn’t feel things that he thinks are on top  of reality, and not really there.

The experiment is to see how much fear he can tolerate, created by his own mind. His physical environment is real, but the frightening things in it, initially spiders and  spooky people are computer generated.

His radio connection to the game controller fails. Which is quite frightening, and is also a psychological fear of loss of someone overseeing you. Like to loss of his Father to Alzheimer’s.

This Reality isn’t reality.

There is then a twist, an unexpected ‘real life’  person turns up and tells him he’s in danger, and then stabs him – and he feels the pain for real. He then starts to hear the voice of the game controller in his ear as the voice in his head – it knows about his family, and how his father had Alzheimer’s and how he is now losing his memories.

We eventually pull back to seeing him in the experiment, having totally lost all of his memories, and not knowing who he is. And we pull back another level of reality. But are we real now? How frightening if we’re not yet real?

Finally he gets home, after a journey where he faces his worst fears, and his mum doesn’t recognise him. Another anchor to reality gone, and we go out another yet level of reality. Back to a familiar scene, but one that is still suspect, and has ties to conversations at other levels.

Onwards on shifting sands.

Despair Squid

An episode of Red Dwarf had a similar beginning. The crew  think that their lives were actually an immersion video game. And they had wasted 4 years playing really badly. They too woke up not remembering who they were (Dwayne Dilbley!), all done by the despair squid.


Black Mirror: White Bear and Nosedive.

downloadSpoiler Alerts! This post is my analysis of two Black Mirror shows, available on Netflix. Written by Charlie Brooker.

Black Mirror is about the near future – what may happen if some trends go in particular directions. To be believable the writing needs a systemic understanding of how things may emerge and fit together, with story and twists that systemically fit the narrative.

I’m testing my analysis skills, writing about the context and bigger picture that we see in the episodes. The analysis here is general. I’d like to look at future episodes using particular systems approaches that are suitable for the situation.

White Bear
Voyeuristic punishment for an evil crime. The perpetrator is punished in the same way, over and over while being watched by members of the public for their enjoyment.
At the end of each punishment day the perpetrator is given a cocktail of drugs, and appears to forget what she has done. She then re-lives the day again not realising what is going on, finally being made aware of her crime in front of an audience there to witness the event.

Apparently she was an accomplice to the torture and killing of a child, and went along with her partner, for reasons not explained.


A plus, ‘+’ on the arrow means that an increase or decrease in one leads to a similar increase or decrease in the other. A minus, ‘-‘ on the arrow means an increase leads to a decrease, and a decrease leads o an increase. I hope this makes sense.

White Bear shows the reoccurring punishment of someone who seemed to have no knowledge of the crime, or who and where she was. Her memory is erased by those punishing her, to make the punishment worse.
This was the purpose of the system, to cause the greatest amount of pain to someone guilty of a crime, and to have a theatre of punishment where people could pay to spectate and be part of the punishment. There was not an end to the punishment, although when it stopped attracting paying customers it may close, or if a more profitable punishment theatre opportunity arose it may be replaced.

If it lost popularity, and there was no one to be punished, then would the entertainment stop? Would hatred of a criminal be whipped up in the media to keep the entertainment going? A fake crime could be created, and actors used so that money can be made?

It wasn’t clear who was profiting financially from the punishment, or how the made sure that they always had a crime that it was profitable to punish? The people attending the punishment were enjoying seeing someone punished.

The woman being punished started each day not knowing who she was. Crimes are often contextual. People can do evil things if they are in the wrong environment, and manipulated with propaganda or controlled. From standing by while bad things happen to people who have been dehumanized by propaganda, to taking part in crimes without committing them (Eichmann) through to planning and committing crimes.

If someones identity is deliberately removed, they do not know who are where they are and have no context for their life, are they the same person who committed the crime? Without the context of their childhood, their experiences, and the influence of other people, someones life take a different path.

Removing someones knowledge about themselves and what they have done seems a cruel punishment designed to inflict pain on the person guilty of the crime, forcing them to relive (via videos and narrative) the situations that led to the crime, were another totally different outcome could have emerged in a different context. They learned of the crime they had committed but not the context that led up to it.

White Bear was a punishment whose occurrence is never-ending, while profitable for the organisation running it, provides continual suffering, with no end in sight.



Nosedive is about living in a society where  human interactions  are rated, as can posted videos and photos. There is  single 1-5 star scale, and each transaction goes towards someones total, from getting good service at a café, to cutting someone up in traffic, to a pleasant but insincere conversation in a lift.

Access to housing, jobs, and services including some medical services is dependent on your rating. There is a single rating for everything reducing the variety of life to a single 1-5 scale. This simplification massively reduces  complexity, and allows for simple judgements, analysis and action. Automation of access to services, events and jobs makes life in many ways quite fair (a conclusion from David Graebers Utopia of Rules).

The program mainly has “good-looking thin people” on it with high ratings and good jobs. People with lower ratings are seen doing more menial jobs. Rating are affected by things like being on the wrong side of a relationship breakup, leading to someone losing their job. – Their ‘friends’ could help their rating, but would risk being down voted by their peers – The interactions seem quite naïve given the Machiavellian power and influence struggles that would become a part of this society.


In this world there is a massive reduction in variety. Judging people by 1 metric. It seems to have made people 1 dimensional in their interactions, with an emphasis on getting good feedback. There are feedback loops here – people who give 5 stars expect to get 5 back and complain if not. There is deeper thought – and it’s acknowledged that everything is about ratings, but this is expressed under duress, so any discussion of this is clearly dangerous.

When people accidentally bump into each other then the person responsible gets down rated to lose points. In reality though blame is not so straightforward. People rarely admit to being wrong while driving for example, so these interactions must be lose / lose for both parties. The developing story is about how someone falls from a high to low rating rapidly by simply being annoyed in an understandable human way.

There are at least 2 types of people in Nosedive, and different types of relationships.

  • There are those who care about ratings and whose relationships are about improving their ratings average. Getting rated highly by a higher individual is a goal, but can reflect badly on the higher rated person, and interactions are all about being rated highly.
  • There are those who don’t care about ratings. We only meet one of these people, who does appear to have a job, and was, once, highly rated.
  • Relationships can be not usually rated – like close friends and siblings. Conversations here can be much more real and deeper, but can still be rated.

There are interesting parts of the show where there are discussions with experts who will help people improve their rating – there is clearly a formulae about the network graph of your interactions, and if you’re rated by service workers, family, or people with lots of connections there are different weights applied. It’s not clear if these experts work for the company who does the ratings, or are independent. Or most likely some hybrid of independent with insider information.

It’s not clear who runs the rating software, or who implements the rules. The rules have a deep influence on how the society runs – what is valued and how conversation flows. I think it’s fair to say that saying you’re not OK, need help, or have done something wrong is not going to be rated well. Yet the society still appears to function. With certain jobs, houses and products only available to highly ranked people want to be rated highly.

Similar systems already exist for Facebook, where algorithms decide who sees your posts. More popular people and posts get more exposure. People often post in a way they hope to be popular, rather than be, say, true or real. And discounts are already available if you like a businesses page, and then  use that business.  Facebook has apologised for experimenting with users emotions already. There are many ways this could be used and misused, however as a human feedback mechanism there is no time for reflection. The feedback may be done quickly by Dr Steve Peters Chimp part off the brain, which is unlikely to react thoughtfully.

Would an alternative system appear? Would there be places where you could interact with people in mean and nasty ways? Would someone sell you this service? (of course they would:-).

Would there be parts of society with no ratings? Would this even be legal? Could you buy ratings, with cash or sex rather than fake niceness?

A real ‘nasty’ exchange does occur in  a police cell at the end of the show, with a cathartic exchange of insults between people with nothing to lose, which, although authentic is still chimp talk.

Comments welcome.

Strengths and Clean Language Workshops

https://www.flickr.com/photos/robinjakobsson/This article is part of a number of posts about a how I’m learning about tools to understand how I think. It doesn’t really fit into a an easy narrative, because it was an emergent process. Here goes.

Starting off

I learned about Clean Language in course TU811 from the Open University.. I read ‘From Contempt to Curiosity’ by Caitlin Walker, who produced the Clean Language elements of the Open University course. I was still unsure about using Clean Language with others.

A year later I saw a recommendation for Clifton Strengths Finder from Tobias Mayer.

Strengths Finder is a test that asks some questions online and give you your top 5 strengths, and explanations how they are used.

I took the test, read the results and moved on to learning about other things. Sounded cool, and great for understanding my skills, but that was it. This was about the same time as I did some clean language modelling of myself.

Two ways to Model

A few weeks later realised that these two models gave different perspectives on a similar thing. I don’t like understanding something with only one perspective. Two perspectives gets interesting. (see this post by me about needed more than one model). The Strengths Finder model already existed, and we get fitted to it with our top 5 strengths. Clean Language reveals our own models that explain things back to us.

Strengths Finder is not very emergent – categories already exist, but there are 30+ of them and they have good and bad traits, or balconies and basements in their language, so it is quite rich.

The models that emerge for Clean Language really are the individuals models, although group models are possible. They can also develop and change over time, reflecting how a person develops.

The combination is quite powerful.

Starting a group

I’ve spoken about systems at work with colleagues, and there are a number who I think ‘get it’ intuitively – I’ve got individuation as one of my strengthens, so maybe it’s unsurprising I can understand people who see things in a particular way.

(My strengths are Strategic, Ideation, Individualisation, Learner, Arranger. These probably explain a lot about my actions 🙂

I asked the next 8(ish) systems-y colleagues I saw in the staff kitchen if they would join me for a lunch hour to watch some videos and I’d talk about the two approaches. I think they all agreed to come. I have awesome work colleagues. Tomasz later noted I was asking people to do a peer review of the techniques, I may have used the phrase – “Help me see if this is boll$”*! or not…..”.

First Meeting, all positive

We started the first meeting by watching Caitlin Walkers Clean Language TED talk, and a great video kind of about strengths that I included it in this post about strengths .

And the next few weeks we met and talked. A few people dropped out for other commitments, and new people joined. We had a core group of about 6. We all took the Strengths Finder test, and talked about our strengths. We were surprised that what we saw as a weakness was a positive. Others got validation when they we’re really glad they had a particular strength. Ian noted that none of us had any top5 strengths in the “influencing” domain.

I think the biggest impact was had because all the strengths are totally positive. So we could see that our strengths and approaches were not the only ones, and actions of others that we had not understood, was their strengths applied to the problems they had. With their strengths and the problems they had to face their approach made sense. We began to have empathy with people we didn’t necessarily agree with.

We then tentatively and self-consciously tried some clean modelling. Sarah volunteered to talk about working at her best and I led the questions. It worked well, despite our lack of experience, and some non-clean questioning creeping in.

At each weekly session we either decided to do some clean modelling, or talked about insights we’d had, or things we’d thought about and usually ended up tying it back to our metaphor models, strengths or cognitive biased and traps.

We modelled how we work and learned at our best, how we used our strength finder strengths at our best, and for a month or so we modelled how we reacted to challenging situations, when our emotions can take over.

Talking about our monkeys

David introduced us to  Steve Peters model of the brain containing a chimp, a computer and a ‘human’ to begin with. This was of course someone else’s metaphor model, but we worked with it.

I did have some success extending this metaphor. I thought that normally there is a conductor who controls what I say and do. But in challenging situations my brain fogs up, and the ‘monkey’ can run in and start banging the drum without me seeing him in time. So I need to stop my brain fogging, as I can’t stop the monkey once he’s banging the drum.

Although this was not really clean modelling, some simple practical ideas about stopping ‘brain fog’ developed. Not surprisingly, enough sleep, preparation of material (ie facts!), understanding how other approach issues from reverse engineering their strengths from their actions all helped. I could write another post on this, and we  all got a lot from this.


During the sessions I also introduced some ideas from complex adaptive systems theory, and the viable systems model, helped by David in the group who’s also studied at the OU. The group became more competent in talking about work issues, and understanding decisions and outcomes. Often with a sense of “uh-oh” when we saw problems being ‘solved’ with strengths that were, from our perspective, not entirely suited. We referred to this ‘Not Safe for Work’. We’d created a safe space to talk about things that needed to stay in the room.

We’re still meeting every week, struggling to find time to devote to Clean Language modelling, and bringing our learning and experiences to the group.

Using Clean Language and Retrospective


Clean Change CardsI’m practising using Clean Language techniques on myself, to try to reveal the ways that I understand how I work at my best. Clean Langues is a set of question designed to get personal metaphors that help with our understanding. This video by Caitlin Walker is the best introduction I’ve found.

I asked myself  questions 8 months ago and wrote down the answers. I had the 12 clean language questions on cards in front of me, and scanned them for the next question to ask myself.

I’ll show the answers to these questions,  and I’ll look at the practical steps I’ve taken since then.

Question #1: Listening and Understanding at my best.

What would you like to have happen?

I’d like to listen and understand other people.

Listening and understanding at your best is like what?

When I am listening and understanding at my best it is like sieving information into a large bowl. I need the bowl to keep all the information in and the sieve helps me ensure that no lumpy information gets through. Lumpy information is not clear to me, so I may need to inquire the meaning of what is being said. Listening and understanding means I do not offer solutions and ideas.

Is there anything else about the bowl?

It’s like an empty container, for the persons version of reality to go into, where it will not be affected by my reality.

To do this I need to keep a quiet and open mind, and not try to be judgemental about someones situation or analysis. It is their reality.

And what happens just before you sieve information into the bowl?

I need to make sure I have an empty bowl, and that it is there for the other persons information to go into. I need to get pollutants out of the way, clean the workspace before I start.

And is there anything else about the bowl?

I’d need a lot of them, and somewhere to put them!

Things I’ve done for Listening and Understanding at my best.

I’m learning to apply the techniques from Marshall Rosenbergs Non Violent Communication, to stop making jedgements and empathise with people. This may help with understanding people – getting the sieving right.


Question #2 Learning at my Best

What would you like to have happen?

I’d like to be understand how I learn at my best.

And when you are learning at your best, that’s like what?

What I am learning at my best I need to be either joining the dots of things I already know, or focusing on learning a new thing, that has a boundary around it.

And when you are joining the dots, that’s joining the dots like what?

When joining the dots I feel like knowledge needs to sink in, like a stone dropping into a pond. The stone drops, falls to the bottom, and the water needs to go still, and the stone needs to sink and lie at the bottom for some time. I can put in other stones, but I’ll need to dive down later, find the stone and clean the sediment from it. I can then see the shape, colour and type of the stone and see how it fits in with the other stones I have.

Sometime I can see how a stone may fit in before it goes into the pond, but I’ll still find out new things once it’s been submerged for a while.

And whereabouts is the pond?

It’s at the back of my head.

And what happens just before you dive down later, find the stone and clean sediment from it?

I usually learn something, or talk to someone. I need to interact with other people and ideas to be able to dive down and rediscover things I have learned, clean them off and use them.

Things I’ve done for Learning at my best.

A month after this answer I asked some colleagues at work if they would be interested in working with Clean Language and the Strength Finder personal model by Marchus Buckingham. We’ve met weekly since then, sometimes running clean language question sessions, or discussing out Strengths. There have also been sessions where we apply our understanding to work and personal issues, to better understand and react to situations.

I’ve realised that I actually need someone to help me get the stones out of the pond, and having people is the most I can talk to about this is the most important thing about learning.

As a group we’re had the most sessions discussing how our strengths and models affect how we react to things, and have built models about what goes on in our heads, similar to Steve Peters ‘human/monkey/computer’ model. This all deserves another post.

Question #3 Focusing on work

What would you like to have happen?

I’d like to concentrate and focus on work without being distracted.

And what kind of focus and concentration is that focus and concentration?

It’s like immersion in the task that narrows perspective, but it’s not imposed like blinkers. It is a desirable state that I want to be in. Being in the zone.

Is there anything else about that desirable state, being in the zone?

I am in the zone like a Surgeon, focusing on an operation.

And what happens before you get in that desirable state, being in the zone?

The surgeon needs the right tools laid out, the full patient notes understood and an understanding of what needs to be done.

Preparation is important, like a surgeon prepares their tools, cleans and checks surfaces, removes distractions and understands what a good outcome is.

Like a surgeon I need a toolkit and a checklist to get the operating theatre in a known state before work begins.

And what happens next?

When I have prepared for the operation, I can focus in the zone.

Things I’ve done for Focusing on work

I’ve done quite a bit here. I recently recognised that I do different types of work well and different times of day, and I’ve started to protect and use these. So I try to do something requiring concentration  first thing, and leave brain-dead things for the early afternoon. I’ve also found I get a focus boost after a good session at the gym at work. They should really pay me to got there.

I’ve also started to using David Allens Getting Things Done methodology My brain hated this, but the contextual list and next actions help get the correct surgeons tools laid out in the right place, and makes a good outcome clearer.




Modelling, not measurement makes things happen


Tom DeMarco  wrote  that “you can’t control what you can’t measure.”measure

It depends what you mean by manage. Often management is to have the situation understood with metrics, and improved with targets. That was a neat trick of this argument. It’s “my way or the highway”, and if you’re not measuring, you’re not managing. A highway is pretty measurable though, distances, speed limits, number of cars per hour. So measurement is really useful, but maybe not for managing complicated things.

If you’re not Modelling, you’re not Managing

I believe that you can’t manage what you haven’t modelled. This is much harder than collecting numbers to compare to baselines, standards and SLAs. What modelling means is not always straightforward. Your understanding of an organisation is a model. If you have a incomplete model you cannot understand. Your metaphors about your organisation and your relationships affect how you understand and respond. They restrict how you understand and respond.


Calvin and his tiger have an incomplete model.


There are a few types of systems models, that provide different views. There are two I’m current interested in. Whole systems models, show how an organisation achieves its purpose. Some theory behind these models is the Viable Systems Model. Symbolic mental models reveal powerful insights into how people understand and act. Mental models using Clean Language, and use the language of metaphor reveal powerful understanding. I’ll be posting about how I use each of these in the future.