abstract art, a systems view

Metamodernism, Oscillation and the Beer Game

with 5 comments

In Luke Turner‘s Metamodernist Manifesto he says “oscillation is the natural order of things” and he, along with Robin van den Akker, Nadine Feßler and Timotheus Vermeulen, sees this oscillation ( “between a modern desire for sens and a postmodern doubt about the sense of it all, between a modern sincerity and a postmodern irony, between hope and melancholy and empathy and apathy and unity and plurality and purity and corruption and naïveté and knowingness; between control and commons and craftsmanship and conceptualism and pragmatism and utopianism”) as an indication of the emergence of a new cultural dominant – metamodernism.

I feel sure that I am mixing metaphors as I attempt to question the naturalness of oscillation by referring to a business simulation known as the Beer Game, invented, I believe, at M.I.T by Jay Forrester and referenced by Peter Senge in the opening chapter of his book The Fifth Discipline.

Four ‘players’ take up the positions of Factory, Distributor, Wholesaler and Retailer, making up a production and distribution system, the product being crates of beer, represented by coins or counters, that make their way from the factory, to the other sectors and ending up as sales to external customers.

There are some system conditions: no communication takes place between the sectors other than the placing of orders and the receiving of product (silence), and there are delays in production and  transportation as well as in processing the orders. Orders are made by external customers and they are re-acted by each sector concluding with the factory that places orders with its own workforce. The decision-making required by each sector, at the end of each week, is how many crates of beer to order from their supplier upstream.

The activity spans a simulated year, at the beginning the system is stable, customers are ordering 4 crates of beer per week and each sector has 12 crates of beer in their respective inventories. Each sector aims to minimise costs by keeping inventory down at the same time as preventing backlog.

In conducting this simulation (as I have done with groups over 100 times in the last two years) we always find that when external customer orders are stable, the system becomes unstable, with sometimes wild oscillation, (as well as amplification: the oscillation pattern becoming more pronounced the further upstream you go).  A flat line could represent the orders from customers whereas this graph shows the oscillating pattern of orders placed within the system.

Getting back to the Metamodernist Manifesto, if we were to think of orders from customers as the external environment or  ‘nature’, we might conclude that oscillation is an artificial experience. It is not the ‘natural oder of things’ so much as the invented and exaggerated response to external stimuli. We do it to ourselves (that’s what really hurts, apologies Radiohead).

Then again, we could say that it is ‘natural’ in the sense that it is the repeated and predictable response: it seems to come naturally to us.

Maybe what I am saying is that although oscillation may indeed be ‘the natural order of things’, the natural order of things is not itself natural. Whilst the territory is flat, our maps oscillilate wildly.

5 Responses

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  1. Very interesting example of the inevitability of oscillation within systems (which, I would argue, equates to a natural order of things). I happen to subscribe to the notion that ‘nature does not exist’ — that is to say that the divide between the external ‘environment’ and that which is manmade is in itself an artificial distinction, albeit one that is deeply embedded within language.

    Luke Turner (@Luke_Turner)

    December 6, 2011 at 12:42 pm

    • I think we are agreed on that. The Beer Game seems to me to be a good metaphor for ‘the human condition’. It is the system conditions of limited communication from the environment and between sectors as well as the delays that create the difficulties. If those conditions were not present then all sectors would have something approaching a flat line. We find ourselves twice removed from ‘reality’, information from the external world being filtered pre-linguistically and then linguistically, we rely on our maps that are limited and subject to delay. Whilst the map is not the territory, there is a sense in which it might as well be as it’s all we have!

      Andy Parkinson

      December 6, 2011 at 6:23 pm

  2. This post has profoundly moved me, including the links, it will impact the development of my new business.
    Thank you


    December 6, 2011 at 3:08 pm

    • Thank you for your comments. I am surprised and delighted to hear that my post has had such an impact! good luck to you.

      Andy Parkinson

      December 6, 2011 at 6:28 pm

  3. […] I am in fashion” and “now I am out of fashion” (childish I know). It was the oscillating between positions that was so enjoyable. GA_googleAddAttr("AdOpt", "1"); […]

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