What is broken world thinking?


here exists an apocalyptic undercurrent of thought that has ebbed and flowed for as long as humans have had to confront the grim and overwhelming task of organizing society to allocate limited resources (Ginn, 2015). The growing literature around the Anthropocene betrays those existential anxieties as the climate crisis reveals the unanticipated consequences of pushing the planetary boundaries beyond resilience levels (Rockström et al, 2009). On the affective level, the disillusion with the promises of Euro-centric modernity and anxieties about its futures have fueled insurgencies and rebellions inside the empires that are most responsible for producing the Anthropocene, as well as in their peripheries (Gopal, 2019). 

Broken-world thinking, as presented by Steven Jackson (2014), offers two worldviews in tension with each other to understand this moment. The first contains an appreciation and respect for the overwhelming complexity of the world that we operate in, embedded in the recognition of the fragility of the equilibrium that has enabled human flourishing for the past millennia. Through this worldview, we recognize that we are at a moment of bifurcation, where choices we make today have the potential to make the planet unrecognizable within our lifetimes. The other worldview stands in awe and respect of the enormous amounts of labour that have stabilized the equilibrium state, enabling the resilience of the social, environmental, and economic systems that support it (for better or for worse). 

How do we know that the world is broken?

We gain insights in one of two ways: either being present at the places where the systems operate, or by taking an analytical distance from them. Those of us who have lived at the margins have long been describing the variegated ways in which our social, economic, and technological systems are broken. We have been raising the alarms that the direction in which we are heading is unsustainable. And we have this insight because we are the people to whom the task of caring for the world by repairing and maintaining it has been relegated. It is at the ground, touching the material realities of labour and its objects that we see the continuous work of repair. Farmers on the ground of food production systems are the first to see crops failing because of desertification. Nurses at hospitals see people’s health suffer because of the slow violence of environmental contamination. Domestic workers at the homes of the wealthy experience the accumulated stress of bearing the load of social reproduction.

Feminist thinkers, scholars, and activists have long been talking about care work as foundational for the functioning of our systems. The International Wages for Housework Campaign, co-founded by Selma James, has been calling for the recognition of housework as a form of maintenance. If that labour of maintenance is withdrawn, they argue, the social relations that support the capitalist force of progress would collapse.

In History of the Guyanese Working People, Walter Rodney (1981) describes the grueling work of enslaved and indentured labourers that maintained the land of the Guyanese coastline and turned it into agricultural land. Landowners who refused to participate in the collective effort of maintaining the polders eventually lost their lands to erosion due to the 30-year cycle of the currents. 

Librarians recognize the continuous process of intellectual labour. A librarian might start the day by cataloguing and indexing newly acquired books, in order to add them to the collection. They also “weed” the collection, disposing some books, and making space for new books on the limited spaces of the library’s shelves (and server hard drives). This process requires decisions that are made through an epistemic framework that decides which knowledge is valuable and must be kept, and which is deemed disposable. When cataloguing, library maintainers encounter a set of ontological problems revolving around metadata standards for describing the books in their collections. One of the perennial problems of library studies is that of “metadata vocabularies”: a continuously evolving and interweaving set of standards for publishing interoperable metadata for describing library and archival collections. Making those vocabularies and standards work, each with its own momentum unevenly distributed across geographies and institutional resource levels is a fantasy that continues to elude librarians the world over (Lovins and Hillmann, 2017). 

Source: XKCD (CC-BY-NC)

In The Prison Notebooks, Antonio Gramsci said that we are a product of historical processes that have “deposited in [us] an infinity of traces, without leaving an inventory” (Gramsci and Hoare, 1971: 324). The intellectual labour of constructing and updating a historiography that documents and asserts the above narratives is also a form of repair. This is true on both the individual and the collective levels, and it is not a coincidence that Walter Rodney was a close friend of C L R James, who was married to Selma James. The intellectual milieu of those activists and scholars foregrounded maintenance as the lens through which they analyzed social, political, and economic relations. 

How do we think about the world?

We think about the world through abstractions that eventually (one hopes) cohere into theories. Those theories – or models – are idealizations and simplifications of the world that they represent. For example, a map is a model of the world that simplifies it for a specific purpose. It is obviously wrong: the territory that the map represents certainly does not look like the map. The quality of a map is measured not by how well it resembles the territory, but by how well it serves the purpose for which it was created. The same applies for models. The statistician George E. P. Box succinctly summarized this with his famous aphorism “all models are wrong”, despite that, some of them are useful (Box, 1976: 792). 

Systems thinking is such a model. We can view the world as a recursively nested system of systems, interlocking and interacting continuously, and exhibiting emergent properties that are impossible to discern from examining the constituent parts, with overlapping boundaries. The delicate balance of those systems, the reason that they stay in equilibrium (at least for now), is because of the labour of maintenance.

A conceptual move 

By introducing the concept of "broken world thinking", Jackson (2014: 221) combines the view of the maintainers who repair our world, with that of the modelers who understand and interpret it through abstractions. Broken-world thinking encourages us to use the systems thinking approach and encourages us to complicate the idealized models upon which we rely to understand the underlying dynamics that animate the world. It invites us to take the constant requirement for repair as a starting point for our analysis. To do this, we require values that extend our epistemologies. This conceptual move requires a dance between the abstract and the concrete.  The switching of perspectives, from the abstract to the tangible and back again, is a key to profound insights. The analytic distance allows us to see patterns, and the tangible perspective allows us to understand their explanation (Victor, 2011).

This conceptual gesture presents an example of what Priyamvada Gopal calls "epistemic cooperation", in her book Insurgent Empire (2019). She describes how the resistance to empire in the United Kingdom had a dialectic relationship with the resistances across the colonies. Insurgent movements and anti-colonial revolutionaries had direct experience with the many ways that colonialism broke their worlds. But resisting it from the colonies was insufficient: they brought their knowledges to the metropoles, and used it to study, analyze, and produce new knowledge that undermines colonialism and imperialism from the heart of the empire. They subsequently brought their synthesized knowledges back to their homelands to continue the struggle.

To think through the broken world 

 In Dear Science, and Other Stories, Katherine McKittrick (2020: 106) poses a set of methodological questions: 

“How do we come to and formulate answers and what do we want from these solutions, politically? How might a black sense of place rethink the demand to fix and repair black humanity by lifting black folks up, from subhuman to a genre of human that cannot bear black life? What if black life opens up question marks and unanswerable curiosities?”

The question marks and unanswerable curiosities are the starting point of broken world thinking. In the same book, McKittrick makes a call to action: "description is not liberation" (2020: 39). She encourages us to operationalize our models in the broken world. A sliver of this action is embedded in Lauren Berlant's definition of the commons. They (Berlant, 2016: 399) say, “The commons is an action concept that acknowledges a broken world and the survival ethics of a transformational infrastructure."

The commons thus becomes a conceptual tool to nudge the long trajectory of time to a different place. It sees the ontological boundaries that we use to simplify the world as approximations that obfuscate material realities, because simplification is a complicated task (Blomley, 2008). Land, which was systematically enclosed, disassembled, and privatized to the detriment of generations of commoners is the ur-commons. The “tragedy of the commons” describes what happens when the commons (and land in particular) is not maintained. But the commons need not be conceptually limited to the material: ideas and creative expressions are also a form of commons. For as long as music has existed, musical expressions were remixed, resampled, and reused by musicians. This process was severely constrained by the introduction of copyright law, which enclosed the public domain of creative expression, and granted musicians monopoly rights on original works. Copyright thus depleted the commons by limiting what creative expressions can be reused (Aoki et al., 2017). Copyright became an obstacle towards the maintenance of the public domain. 

Copying the commons / the commons in the digital age 

Copyright laws, as initially imagined, gave the authors of creative expressions the monopoly right to profit from their work, for a limited period of time. Even in its initial form, copyright law was difficult to enforce. It had a limited recognition of the contribution that the community of practice of musicians (and their audiences) had in the authorship of music. This motivated free culture advocates to propose an alternative to copyright that acknowledges the brokenness of the world. The solution operates by recognizing the two ways in which the commons of creative output is maintained: first it recognizes that despite its flaws, the entirety of the legal system will continue to exist for the foreseeable future, and within capitalism, artists have financial needs. Second, it recognizes that establishing single authorship to a collective work is impossible, and that creative output will continue to sample and remix, with or without the permission of the copyright holder. Thus, the Creative Commons License was introduced, in order to allow for the ecosystem of creative production to flow. By 2019, over 2 billion works are published under a creative commons license (Creative Commons, 2019).

Today, there is a movement to re-enclose the creative commons, turning creative outputs into financial assets. The Non-Fungible Token (NFT) claims to address a perceived problem of infinite digital reproducibility of digital files, centering assertions of private ownership. NFTs imagine a world where having an immutable record of ownership transfers is substitute for the flow and remixing of ideas. It is a static approach to a dynamic world. 

The future commons 

In their Duel-Power Map, the Black Socialists of America quote Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, who in 1851 wrote:

"Beneath the governmental machinery, in the shadow of political institutions, out of the sight of statemen and priests, society is producing its own organism, slowly and silently; and constructing a new order, the expression of its vitality and autonomy." (Proudhon and Robinson, 1969: 243)

This is the organic complexity of society, the force that continues to break our models, digesting them into a commons that belongs to the collective. It resists surveillance, evades simplification, and repairs the ruptures, to continue to exist, beyond the Anthropocene.


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Majd Al-Shihabi is a technologist, urban planner, and a PhD student at the University of Toronto. He is researching the use of participatory methods for building agent-based models of housing markets.