ASC HOME   2002 Conference Home   About this Contribution

American Society for Cybernetics
ASC 2002 Conference
June 13-16, Santa Cruz 


  The Canopy

A note drawn from Will McWhinney, Grammars of Engagement (2002)

Will McWhinney


Illustration of a Forest Canopy

(NOTES on this graphic)


A canopy is a diaphanous fabric spread over a bedstead to keep away mosquitoes (Gk: konopos). It is a canvas stretched between poles to shield a celebration from sun and rain; and for ecologists, a canopy describes the roof formed by the great trees of a rain forest that hide the ground from sun and drying winds. The canopy creates an ecology distinct from that on the ground below in the shade of the great trees. This ecology is 'groundless' floating fifty to two hundred feet over the forest floor, a tangle of branches and vines inhabited by its own flora, fauna, and phenomena. It is both 'of the earth' and transcends its rules. For those creatures and plants that inhabit it, the canopy is also a field of forces reflecting the whole floating strata and of the individual micro fields generated by the ensembles of living things.

The great rain forests are but one example of ecological niches that we place between the ground and the overstory above it. The layer between can be seen at our feet in a centimeter high canopy of mosses and lichens that grow on the granite boulders around Norwegian fiords and, in the swarms of electronics elevated a few millivolts above 'ground' within a canopy of a superconducting metal. A family cans also forms a canopy to shield its children as they grow into the sun and come to support other creatures as they mature. 'Canopy' is a source for wondrous trips into diverse target domains.

'Canopy' has evoked for me two powerful metaphoric extensions that contribute to working in the domains of meaning and communication. First, to analogize the conditions of the canopy as the site for exploring ensembles. Second, to explicating paradigms. Both of these targets lie between an assumed ground and the overstory: between earth and an ecology; and between the atomic phenomena and grand theories of culture. As extensions from the source concept 'canopy' these metaphors are long leaps, great imaginating trips from mosquitoes to ensembles and paradigmatic models. They are enlightening leaps because they suggest features of the targets that have not been obvious before the confrontation with the source image. Some characteristics that immediately come arise with this metaphoric leap are:

  • Metaphors of the canopy arise from social phenomena such as communication. Their sources are relational as opposed to that embodied schema that undergirds the current system theories and most of our grammatical structures. These metaphors articulate relations between individuals and among groups seen within landscapes, in cloud masses, or among feelings that connect members of human groups.

  • Representations in the canopy are dual, seen through the classic pairs of process and structure, or particle and wave. Or, most directly from both an atomistic and a wholistic mind set:
    • The atomistic view describes ensembles inter-acting.
    • The wholistic view describes coupling relations with wholes.

    For example, the neuro-physiological description of mental processes requires the language of electro-chemical circuits and of coupling of electromagnetic fields generated by the cells. (McFadden, JCS 2002) And as described in Grammars of Engagement, communication is achieved with digital messages and harmonic coupling. Neither mode by itself is enough to sustain an ecological "canopy."

  • Identity is a constructed notion: no objects are independent of the process of observation. Construction is achieved by applying rules that delimit in accord with the qualities observed. The object can be simple - a bounded image of a single consistency, texture and color; or a complex collective we call a model or a black box. With the exception of ideal extremes, all relations are probabilistic and all systems are described statistically. There are neither natural atoms with bounded characteristics nor truths perfectly applicable to any system.

  • Since the boundaries of a paradigm are uncertain, the applicability of any particular causal relations is uncertain. All the forms of causality are accepted as locally true (acceptable) with a given boundary. However as the boundaries are not clearly defined, so it may not be clear which is the applicable causal argument in a given environment.

  • Ambiguity is pervasive and it is essential to communication. Communication produces no information under certainty. There must be uncertainty for there to be information or an exchange of energy.

I view these characteristics as elements of a paradigm that will take us beyond the whole-part system theories that have evolved over the past millennia in Western societies, one that will form a canopy stretched across the existing forest of paradigms.

ASC HOME   BACK: 2002 Conference Contributions   Top of Page

The Illustration

The forest canopy illustration is used with permission of the owner (Rhett Butler). The source location of the graphic image used here is:

The documentary source for this illustration is:

A Place Out of Time: Tropical Rainforests and the Perils They Face
Rhett A. Butler - San Francisco, CA.
Unpublished - 2001.

The Archive Transcription

This HTML transcription was generated from (e.g.) an electronic manuscript and/or whatever other record materials were available. The manuscript has been transcribed "as is" - i.e., with no modifications beyond those minor ones required for basic Web viewing (e.g., tagging special characters, converting graphics).

HTML transcription: Randy Whitaker, October 2002