Outside Context Problem

I rank Iain M. Banks as one of my favorite authors. Banks’ Culture series was one of my first exposures to so-called “literary science fiction”, which uses the backdrop of science and technology but also focuses on interesting characters and quality prose not always associated with “sci-fi”.

The Culture books deal with the eponymous anarchistic super-civilization, run by intelligent machines (called Minds) and inhabited by mostly care-free citizens. With boredom as an eternal problem in utopia, the Culture eschews the Prime Directive in favor of a more hands-on approach to civilization-building. The books handle all the questions of morality and dramatic hijinks that ensue from said policies.

The first book I read in the series, Excession, turns the tables on the Culture and introduces them to an interloper of tremendous power, which prompts one of the Minds to elaborate on the Outside Context Problem:

“The usual example given to illustrate an Outside Context Problem was imagining you were a tribe on a largish, fertile island; you’d tamed the land, invented the wheel or writing or whatever, the neighbours were cooperative or enslaved but at any rate peaceful and you were busy raising temples to yourself with all the excess productive capacity you had, you were in a position of near-absolute power and control which your hallowed ancestors could hardly have dreamed of and the whole situation was just running along nicely like a canoe on wet grass… when suddenly this bristling lump of iron appears sailless and trailing steam in the bay and these guys carrying long funny-looking sticks come ashore and announce you’ve just been discovered, you’re all subjects of the Emperor now, he’s keen on presents called tax and these bright-eyed holy men would like a word with your priests.”
– Iain M. Banks, Excession

You’re idling along, happily nested within your cozy little world, and then out of the blue, BAM! Not just a problem you never expected; a problem you never could have expected. You’re blindsided by a complication that would be impossible to foresee within your current worldview.

That’s an Outside Context Problem.

Framing the Picture

Context matters. That may well be my new catch-phrase. But it’s very true — everything depends on the frame of reference. Nothing exists in isolation.

The happy natives in Banks’ novel framed their world as a paradise of hunting and gathering, and they couldn’t know otherwise until the Victorian steam-ships made a visit.

Framing means everything. What if you frame all the advice you read on the internet as competing ideas that cannot coexist? You’re going to think that there’s a whole lot of programs, and whole lot of diets and nutritional advice, and none of it makes a lick of sense.

Reframe the problem. Look for the common features between all the advice you read. What sticks out to you? What are the things that everybody agrees on? What looks like a disagreement but might be a matter of phrasing?

Does the landscape look different when you look at conflicts from the vantage point of universal principles?

When we frame a problem, we step into a worldview and play by its rules. If you pick bad rules, the game won’t make much sense. In the above case, you move from looking at details to looking at general principles. You redefine the rules and the whole picture changes. You haven’t changed anything about the situation. All the same facts are still right there.

What changed was the point of view. Shifting perspective and reframing the problem makes conflicts go away.

Context matters.

Step Out of the Problem

People can always find reasons to obsess over details. A competitive field means distinguishing yourself from the crowd with branding and packaging up ideas in novel ways. Western thinking loves reductionism. Mostly I think it’s a case of institutionalized tunnel vision. Zooming in to the details, reductionist style, and specializing in a razor-thin slice of knowledge is, for better or worse, how things work today.

But we lose something of the general sweep of knowledge in doing that. I recently read an article about the loss of humanities programs to cost-cutting measures at modern universities, and one passage stuck out to me:

“Science unleavened by the human heart and the human spirit is sterile, cold, and self-absorbed. It’s also unimaginative: some of my best ideas as a scientist have come from thinking and reading about things that have, superficially, nothing to do with science.”

There’s an understated truth in those words. Science is, yes, about focusing in and hammering out ever-finer details of the chosen subject. And of course you’re going to be interested in learning about the issues you care about. But for our purposes, speaking as coaches and trainers and writers, it’s also about scope, about pulling ideas and concepts from other fields, about seeing the Big Picture. It’s about making connections across disciplines, thinking laterally and outside the tiny rabbit-hole of a narrow field.

We need to be willing to see past the conceptual boundaries of our field. Otherwise, we risk being blindsided by a perspective we never saw coming.

Think general. Think universal. Break out of the frame and redefine the problem. Step back, zoom out, and take the eagle-eye view of the landscape.

Most of the bickering and arguments that happen about strength training and fat loss and muscle-building and whatever else aren’t arguments about facts. They’re arguments over perspective — or that emerge from narrow perspectives.

We get caught up in our boxed-in worldviews and find it challenging — if not impossible — to step outside them, to see things from a higher vantage point.

This study says this. No, it says this. This workout builds muscle. Well so does this one, and it’s completely different. All the arguments and paralyzing decisions over what workout to do next, they all vanish when you look at them from the right perspective.

It’s not that details don’t matter; it’s that they’re subservient to higher, more general principles. If you never realize that, you’ll spend your life worried about what some study says or whether or not you should do three sets of five or five sets of five.

Figure out What Matters and use that as your frame.

2 thoughts on “Outside Context Problem

  1. So true. Being a rookie trainer (2.5 years of experience in training body recomposition clients), I sometimes get bogged down by all the details and get paralysed by analysis. I then remind myself of the principles and the Occam's razor. There are so many ways to skin a cat in this profession.

  2. Excession was the first Banks I read too. Alister Reynolds (spelling is probably wrong) is as intelligent as Egan and as imaginative as Banks. Great site.

Comments are closed.