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Presentation to Melbourne Emergence Meetup with placeholder for short video: https://vimeo.com/388799004 and vertically scrolling portrait orientation view from hand back to Cumbo replaced by start, mid and end stages.
How Indigenous Thinking Can Save the World (Tyson Yunkaporta 2019)
review and discussion of fundamental complexity
Melbourne Emergence Meetup
13 February 2020
to map its
Each is its
of issues for
So the next
slide is just
Talk talks to
Too Funny for Words
Abstractions, Category Errors,
Life on an Active Planet The Two-edged Sword
Multiple Paths to Emergence
Degrees of Freedom
Birds and Others Interweb to Facebook
Better than Out of Control
Maps and Territories
Urban Hydrology out of Sight
Going Down with
the Egg Basket
creaming, trickle down
Dystopian Utopias and
The Inside View:
knowing when you're dreaming
Having given most books I’ve deemed worth
reviewing five stars, Sand Talk deserves the
Pleiades. Sure this may sound like extreme
confirmation bias, though we come from such
contrasted backgrounds that I should start by
noting the few things we have in common.
Tyson and I were both born and are now based in
Melbourne, Australia. We are both male. We are
acquainted with Lynne Kelly's breakthrough
work linking oral memory systems, ancient
monumental architecture and mnemonic devices.
We both see the world through the lens of
complexity and context, though found that
platform via disparate journeys, and that is the
basis for my excitement, having spent much time
expounding the problem for complexity studies
of most finding it from within their own silo and
trying to subsume it into that context.
But now Sand Talk suggests to me that those
fracture lines may be just one more undesirable
consequence of colonial triumph through divide
and conquer tactics rather than any more
fundamental cognitive limitation.
The introductory chapter draws
on the echidna having the largest
prefrontal cortex relative to body
size while reluctantly providing
biographical and basic cultural
information claiming Tyson is
“still a reactive and abrasive boy”,
as uninitiated only having “the
cultural knowledge and status of
But by 47 his song line journeys,
much yarning and wood carving
had provided the breadth to allow
Sand Talk’s subtitle to accurately
assert: How Indigenous Thinking
Can Save the World.
Having once waltzed with a narcissistic emu at Kyabram Fauna
Park, I jumped into his next chapter’s account of Bruce Pascoe’s
Dark Emu being expelled from the land and held down by the
creatures of adjacent constellations, Bruce’s front cover
endorsement insisting like me: “Read it.”
After my immediate rereading to substantiate
this review, that chapter now has more
highlights marked, and some borrowed, than
any other whole book I’ve read.
It goes straight to my number one diagnostic: the systemic failure
of adversarial political and legal systems in the face of intrinsic
vulnerabilities to gaming, a perversion which has been applied
mercilessly against indigenous peoples in quest of short term
political and financial goals.
They have always had much better ways.
Next he contrasts first peoples’ view of time as
cyclic with second people’s emphasis on the
arrow of the second law of thermodynamics,
particularly the latter’s implication of the
unsustainability of growing cities, the
civilisations and states built on them.
The subsequent chapter skirts around the
oxymoronic Western concept of intellectual
property, especially the oversimplifications
that replace the viable complexity and
diversity lost through traumatic system
collapse, such as post-invasion.
The fifth unnumbered chapter is “Lines in the Sand”,
to me ever entangled in recognition of our culture's
encouragement to draw them just behind your heels,
but Tyson immediately hitting the temporality of
progress misrepresented as permanence.
While my techno roots see patterns as an objective,
Tyson takes “young Aboriginal protégés” on searches
for the patterns in the connections between things
and how they might apply them “beyond the bush”,
sharing the story of one kid seeing how sand sucked
from beaches to make concrete will return to the sea.
He recognises that the sciences are starting to
incorporate complexity theory while still ignoring its
implications about “external design and control”.
Beaches and waves
sometimes they bring
the ingredients of
concrete together to
form new rock like
concrete, whether at
Mud Island or here on
the Great Ocean Road
coast, with broken
shells, long the raw
material of industrial
lime and cement,
sand, and stones.
Mud Island 2 March 2019
Mud Island 23 November 2019
Boggaley Creek 14 January 2020
Godfrey Creek 14 January 2020
Next he turns to Spirit, a term it has taken my Atheist
instincts seven decades to come to terms with, but which
Sand Talk has made me comfortable with his use, one
that a fringe of supposed Free Thinkers can’t deal with,
having failed to see beyond disinformation passed down
by self-justifying missionaries.
While celebrating the vital role of metaphor in the search
for meaning, Tyson insists it is an area to be careful.
Then he tackles the false beliefs about “primitive”
cultures head on, exploring the role of Yarning in the
inspired consensus production of indigenous knowledge,
contrasting stories about what happened with views of
the wider context seen through that critical lens, just
what should be expected of his academic role as “Senior
Lecturer Indigenous Knowledges” at Deakin University.
That context-setting leads into his Prussian story which,
while he deprecates it, might be the most accurate
summary of North Atlantic nation-states’ colonising history
ever written, accounting insightfully for the sidelining of
adolescence and with it the disproportionate incarceration
That story deserves a review and maybe a book of its own,
but isn’t the only one.
The context setting issue of why we
should let any of this strange information
interrupt our comfort zones is exposed
through his reflection on his own
difficulty accepting what elders are
sometimes telling him, exemplified by his
instinctive luddite rejection of mobile
devices before accepting his need to
“embrace these things as part of
creation” lest he miss important patterns.
Sand Talk is peppered with learnings through discussions with
thought leaders around the continent and the globe, typified by
an excursion into anarcho-primitivism to see past “cultural
white noise” to investigate dominant culture appropriation of
indigenous cultural artefacts and expose the neurological
development processes which are derailed by schooling’s
structural attachment to compliance and discipline.
iPhone GPS gives
A rich range of drawn symbols are
essential to the book, etched in
the boomerang on the cover and
negotiated by drawing them in
sand, clearly having a close
relationship to hieroglyphs and
elements of other non-phonetic
A chapter explores five distinct bases
for thinking, from the foundation of
relationships to the ultimate goal of
recognising patterns of indigenous
thinking, the foundation for high-
context culture of location-aware
knowledge contrasted with low-context
colonial knowledge which overrides
differences in quest of universality.
This leads into a chapter
with examples from areas
as basic as health and food
of the difficulty of
communicating within a
colonial framing which
reality as a tactic of self-
justification, then brings
these five kinds of
thinking into basic
relationships which are in
turn mapped onto the five
digits of a hand, a memory
technique which could
come out of Lynne Kelly’s
Each chapter calls on an interlocutor with whom Tyson yarns and
who is quoted to make key points. The next invokes Kelly Menzel,
“an Aboriginal woman from the Adelaide Hills and a keeper of
ancestral Indigenous Knowledge” and is about the always
challenging topics of relationships and violence.
In an era in which even Extinction Rebellion preaches nonviolence,
he makes the fundamental point that the only reason we are able to
distance ourselves from violence is because we have outsourced it,
advocating a world in which everyone is able to defend themselves
rather than surrendering the means to a privileged few.
Having said much of aboriginal women’s competence in such
matters, he gives Kelly the last word: “Collectively we need to
break free from the bondage of Patriarchy, white privilege and the
misogynistic structures that control us.”
If not the aim, the method might be a challenge for social justice
The next chapter opens into the heart of our common
understanding of complex systems with interaction between
forces, whether physical or social, as the basis for creativity
through “the natural processes of self-organising systems”,
suggesting opportunities for “innovations through dialogue
between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Knowledge systems”
that may divert civilisation from its destructive course.
He finds no words for “safety” and “risk” in Aboriginal languages because
they defer agency to “the mercy of authorities” and applies their two
protocols for protection, personal and group, to expose the fragility of
colonial financial and legal systems, the latter via exploration of a “bush
lawyer” view of sovereignty, noting the time in 2018 when all inmates of
Northern Territory juvenile detention were Indigenous.
This leads to exploration of the Indigenous Sovereign Union movement
with trepidation that it might still risk the same blueprint for destruction,
but by “Anglo economic systems administered by men with black faces.”
The final two chapters each provide guidance for
action, albeit very different in scope, and each
introduced by stories of great Australian
bureaucratic misjudgements of the 21st Century.
One builds on the Murray-Darling Basin
problematic to encourage a fire-like cleansing
aimed at enabling a person to be in place with
contextual awareness across all scales.
The last starts with Tyson’s personal story of his idea for
Indigenous Knowledge Centres taken up with resources but in
its implementation degraded into tourist traps, and provides a
guide to also encoding fundamental knowledge on the knuckles
of your hand by a method Lynne Kelly would be proud of.
This necessarily longish review only scrapes the surface and
Sand Talk is similarly just scraping the surface, only sufficiently
to reveal big picture context to those who come to it with respect.
Rare acknowledgements of Gadubanud
as the ﬁrst people of the Otways found at
Crayﬁsh Bay, Princetown, Lake Elizabeth
Bruce Pascoe is half right when he says: “Read it.”
To that I'd add: when you think you’ve finished,
Read It Again!
Even somebody as in synch with it as me needs
later bits to get anything like full value from earlier
bits, not that there could be any better ordering
faced with the linearity of the medium.
If we want Life and the best of humanity to have a
viable legacy, Tyson's brave and brilliant book
needs to become a common base for all the kind of
contextualisation and exploration that much more
forgettable texts have been granted to prop up
Sand Talk is a telling of biblical proportions right
when we need it to lay Genesis 1:28 to rest and
replace it with a foundation for returning to Life
before we kill it all.
Full quote as P.S.
One student in particular develops a high level of
understanding of pattern thinking that he can apply to most
problems. In another session, he is present on an excursion to a
beach that is eroding into the sea and must be fortified with
concrete and sandbags to protect the buildings and property
there. The children are asked to design an engineering solution
to the problem.
It seems as though this boy is not engaging with the task. He
stands under a clump of she-oak trees and stares out at the sea
while the others draw and build models of walls and spits and
elaborate engines. A non-compliant student, looks like.
Misbehaving. Maybe I should punish him, humiliate him in
front of his peers until he complies with the work task. He is
not achieving outcomes. Not delivering against performance
indicators to close the gap. I walk over and ask him what is
going on. ‘Well, it’s all fucked,’ he says. Maybe I should pull him
up for inappropriate language. Instead I ask him what he
He talks about what he’s learnt from Pop Noel about the she-
oak trees and underground freshwater flowing beneath them
where they grow like that on the coast.
He points out those flows into the sea and tracks the subtle
movements of the sand out there in the tides and currents,
tracing the pathways of constant motion all along the coast,
infinite white grains swept up and deposited on new beaches in
cycles of cleansing and renewal. He points out a spit in the
distance that has been built to block that flow and keep the
sand on one beach for its residents, noting that new sand can’t
be deposited here now because of it. He mentions dozens of
other constructions like this along the coast, and the dredging
of sand further out to sea to deposit on the beaches and
maintain them as real estate and public facilities.
Then he turns around and points at the buildings, observing
that they are mostly made out of concrete, which is made
mostly out of sand, much of which is dredged from the ocean
floor leaving holes and gouges in the seabed that fill up with
sand again. That the sand moves around in its cycles, but
never makes it back to the beach. Or worse, the seabed slumps
into those holes and the beach then collapses further into the
sea. ‘You can build all the levies you like, but those fuckin’
buildings are gunna go back into the sea where they came
Well. As I always say, if you want to find the next generation of
great thinkers, look in the detention room of any public school.
Exploiting Complex Systems
Thriving within or collapsing beyond tolerance limits
Are compulsion or capitalism cancerous?
Do concrete or cars harden arteries?
Melbourne Emergence Meetup
12 March 2020
Update from Lynne Kelly
I am immersed in a co-authoring with
Margo Neale, Head of the Indigenous
Knowledge Centre at the National
Museum of Australia. They are
rebranding everything with ‘Clever
Country’, and producing a set of six
books to be published by Thames &
Hudson over the next few years. I will
be working with the NMA quite a bit
over the next year or two. Margo and
I are leading the series with a book
titled Songlines, based on the really
successful exhibition she curated at
the NMA, Songlines: tracking the
Rare recoverable graphic from short-lived Clever Country Co-operative Limited’s 1992 report on:
Effectiveness and Potential of State-of-the-Art Technologies in the Delivery of Higher Education