Imagine a picture puzzle.... It comes in a box filled with hundreds of pieces. When assembled, it may depict a landscape, perhaps, with large swatches of blue sea and blue sky. Imagine my mind is like one of those picture puzzles, and so is yours. I take one of those blue puzzle pieces, give it to you, and declare, “Here's a bit of the picture in my mind. I give it to you so you can see the picture I see.”

in my mind, these two pieces fit together

Seeking solutions in the culture domain

I use the word “culture” frequently, but I haven't really explained why. My reason is simple: The concept of culture is a model I find useful.

But what do I mean by culture, anyway? Here's a broad working definition that I like:

Culture is what we do,
and the stories we tell about why we do it.

You know the advice, “When in Rome, do as the Romans do”? That's culture. When someone looks at me strangely and asks, “You're not from around here, are you?” That's culture. On the first day at a new job, when someone says, “That's not how we do things around here!” That's culture.

When someone says, “I can't do that because I'm a Somethingist”, that's a culture story. When someone says, “I must do this because I'm a Somethingist”, that's another culture story.

Every day, we humans do things. And we explain to each other why we do those things and why don't do other things. Every day we navigate a sea of deeds, steering by the stories we tell.

(Sometimes we navigate totally on autopilot, by habit, following courses plotted by stories we no longer bother to pay attention to. But that's a story for another day.)

Okay, interesting metaphor, but what's it good for?

Well, for one thing, thinking about what we do and the stories we tell to explain ourselves is a different way of seeing. It's a perspective that I rarely see or hear mentioned in the news, in blogs, in conversation. Seeing from the perspective of culture exposes facets of our world that remain hidden when viewed only from the perspective of economics or from the perspective of politics.

But more than that, thinking in terms of culture offers a way to simplify some complex issues. It offers a way to transform thorny, intractable problems with unsatisfying half solutions into simpler, manageable problems with potentially satisfying solutions.

This concept of a transform comes from my background in engineering. Sometimes, for example, a math problem seems incredibly complicated, tedious, and difficult when it's expressed in terms of time. If that problem can be rewritten, if it can be expressed in terms of frequency, it may be easier to analyze and easier to solve. Then when an answer has been found in terms of frequency, that solution can be transformed back, to be expressed in terms of time. The problem and its solution can be transformed back and forth between the “time domain” and the “frequency domain”.

But I'm not interested in math problems anymore. I'm interested in environmental problems. I'm interested in social problems. I'm interested in economic problems. I'm even interested in (eeww!) political problems. And when I spend time with like-minded people who hope to solve those problems, I see some of my colleagues expend enormous energy and time grappling with intractable methods that lead to unsatisfying half solutions (and worse, to new problems).

It seems to me there's an easier way. It seems to me that politics boils down to things that people do and stories we tell each other about why we do those things. The Economy and the businesses that operate within The Economy are just things that people do and stories about why we do them. Crime, poverty, and public education? Things we do. Stories we tell. And the environment? Our home planet is going downhill fast as a consequence of the things people do and the stories we tell each other about why we continue to do them.

That's culture. Deeds and stories.

It seems to me that culture ties together all those other problem domains. Culture is their common denominator, their common variable. That means all those problems can be expressed in terms of culture. Those problems can be transformed into the culture domain. I'm confident there are simpler solutions — in the culture domain.

And after we've found simpler, more satisfying solutions, we can — if we wish — transform those solutions back to the economic domain, back to the political domain, back to the public school domain.

I'm confident our problems can be solved. I'm confident that satisfying solutions can be found — but not in the domains where many folks are currently looking. We've been trying for years and years to solve problems of crime and poverty and pollution in the political domain or the economic domain. How many stories do we tell each other about why we keep trying to do those things?

I'm tired of economic misdeeds and political fairy tales. I'm tired of so-called solutions that create new problems.

For the sake of our children and grandchildren, we need to do things differently. That means we need a better story to make sense of the things we do. We need a culture story that's sustainable.

And that's why I talk about culture so much. That's why I look at problems from the perspective of the culture domain. That's why I seek solutions within the culture domain. That's why I see culture as a model that's useful.

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The culture domain is huge, but mostly invisible to us. The culture domain is like an iceberg: Most of it seems hidden deep below the surface ...

the tip of the iceberg

[composite photo of an iceberg, both exposed tip and submerged bulk]

The world weighs on my shoulders
But what am I to do?

You sometimes drive me crazy
But I worry about you

I know it makes no difference
To what you're going through

But I see the tip of the iceberg
And I worry about you

I often think about the metaphor of “the tip of the iceberg”. It's a common phrase, and we all know it suggests there may be something huge, mysterious, and dangerous hidden from our view. But do we use that knowledge effectively? Does it make a difference?

The world weighs on my shoulders...

In recent years I have participated in many earnest conversations about the future of humanity and the fate of our planet. I find it amazing, and frustrating, how often conversations among dedicated, like-minded people turn to anger and acrimony.

You sometimes drive me crazy...

After a while I learned to recognize the pattern. I learned to spot the icebergs and to predict their intersecting courses. I tried to warn folks. Like the familiar history of a certain ship, people would wave me off and say, “There's no iceberg out there. Even if there is, it's no threat to me.”

I know it makes no difference...

Icebergs are big, slow-moving, and ponderous. There's plenty of time to change course, to steer a conversation differently. But there's no iceberg out there. And even if there is, it's not a threat.

But I see the tip of the iceberg...


After a while all those colliding conversations begin to look the same to me. I see frustrated people standing on the tips of icebergs, shouting angrily, throwing snowballs at each other, wondering what happened. And they're very far apart. Too far to talk, usually. The hidden parts of icebergs collide below the waterline long before their tips ever meet.

But what am I to do?

Sometimes people declare, “You just can't say this. You can't have that conversation. It just doesn't work.” I can see why. But I find greater value in thinking of the situation this way: In what circumstances could we have that conversation? To whom can we say that? When, and where? In what circumstance is it safe to have that conversation?

It seems to me an important first step is to acknowledge the existence of the hidden part of the iceberg. Too often we try to talk about the tips of icebergs without recognizing the submerged assumptions, the accumulated history of feelings and memories below the surface. Even if we don't talk about those things explicitly, if we can at least acknowledge they exist, if we can recognize the rest of the iceberg and adjust to accommodate it, then we might have more satisfying dialog. Then we might have more effective, more productive dialog.

We might invite other people over to our iceberg. Or we might climb down from the tips of our personal icebergs and meet elsewhere. Sometimes we might mean saying, “Sure, we can talk about that, but not here.” Or it might mean deciding, “This is better suited to a different audience.” Mostly I think it means behaving as if we know the iceberg is there.

I see the tip of the iceberg...

I've seen the tip of the iceberg, and I've learned that acknowledging the rest of it does make a difference to what we're going through.


"I see the tip of the iceberg" quoted from the song, Distant Early Warning, lyrics by Neil Peart, Rush, Grace Under Pressure, 1984.

Photo by Ralph Clevenger, 1999

This is a follow-up to an earlier piece: Of icebergs, NPR, and language

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