Conspiracy theories vs. idiosyncrasies
I for one am no big fan of conspiracy theories. I see them as the construct of minds unable to grasp modern life’s intricacies. The fact that few of us manage to agree within the same family leaves me suspicious as to the proliferation of occult groups with the coherence to pull the world’s strings – that is assuming they would possess the means. I have however become convinced that society doesn’t need conspiracies to create its own self-imposed idiosyncrasies which in turn come with a hefty price.
For example, deeply embedded in human psychology is the need to feel in control. Whether summoning the gods or worshiping at the altar of technology, the human mind is ever eager to attribute causality to happenstance and to otherwise simplify reality’s full spectrum of possibilities to a limited set of manageable preconceptions. By limiting the possibilities considered we become efficient in the present even as we forfeit our future.
Our own enemies?
Ironically it is our very insistence to tame uncertainty and approximate the shades of grey to black and white that is confusing our path to prosperity and prompting us to waste our time on false debates. Using proven recipes to tackle novel situations that would otherwise require clear thinking and courage may individually save us from short term accountability but it also compromises our collective long term future by holding it hostage to our past. I sometimes see society as one big inertial machine that advances not by the magic of mass collaboration but rather is forced off course by those misfits it casts aside for posing a threat to the status-quo.
To understand how this happens one only has to look at what is required of an individual to access modern society: technology literacy, educational certifications and a predictable recruitment profile. Insert a certain mental bias such as a preference for efficiency in any of these domains and you ensure that only efficiency-minded individuals are allowed in. It is then thankfully up for those left outside to seek non-conventional survival alternatives and create the future in the process.
My postulate, formed in the process of a non-standard professional evolution, is that efficiency trumps nuance in each of technology, education and recruitment. The “reliability mentality” – i.e. more of the same – is harmful enough for each of these three domains taken separately but when considered as an ensemble they become the very mechanism underlying the inertial society idiosyncrasy. It is not any one group that is responsible for humanity’s stumbles; it is rather the greater sum of our collective fears.
Tools over common sense
One can find many examples of modern technology where tools trump common sense, where technology’s characteristic efficiency is seen as far superior to the inexact and relative heuristic of human judgment. Each new fascinating technological discovery brings with it the risk of misuse.
Complexity science affords a great example of tools over common sense. As of late network theory is being applied to organizational development. The hope is that by mapping the email and voice communication flows inside an enterprise, organizational transformation can finally be brought into the realm of hard science, i.e. we can finally measure the effectiveness of an organizational transformation initiative. But underneath this fancy approach is a method that relies on counting messages, a proxy for efficiency which necessarily has to rely on quantitative measures. There is no sense as to the qualitative value or meaning of the messages being exchanged, yet it is already postulated that the human heuristic of walking around and inferring subtle cultural cues will soon be rendered obsolete. Computing brute force may help us count messages and map communications flows but my bet is network theory will never be able to qualitatively describe a culture. That is not to say this particular new tool is not useful, but it is just that: a tool meant to inform human intuition, not replace it.
Answers over questions
From prime-time news channels panels to conferences and world economic round-tables every guru, analyst and scholar has answers. From grade school and all the way to the corporate board we are taught to always have an answer. To do otherwise is to risk being passed over or ridiculed. I sometimes wonder when everyone on a panel has time to breathe let alone think as the conversation moves seamlessly from one debate participant to the next. There are no breaks and the answers far outnumber the questions: shouldn’t there be a balance? Everyone speaks as their God given ability will physically allow as undeniable proof of their intelligence and familiarity with the topic. What are our young people supposed to learn? What are we educating them to do? To speak as fast a possible and project the utmost confidence in spewing answers? What about introspective? Does our society have time for introspective and if not, are those deep insights that revealed the nature of space and time supposed to spring out of marathon debates?
Skills over talent
I recently participated in a self-proclaimed creative group looking at the challenges around designing and implementing a digital badge initiative for a certain U.S. university. The concept of a digital badge extends the concept of Boy Scout-like physical accomplishments to education in the knowledge economy. As it is felt the employee of the future will need to prove mastery of more modular skills, recruiters will supposedly be using these digital badges to match “talent” to positions. There is only one problem: the badging concept is a validation of skills rather than talent. It helps recruiters and their computing counterparts efficiently sort through even more check-marks (i.e. “requirements”) than they were already doing. It does nothing for filtering imagination and creativity because those cannot be tested through a badge system. Neither can passion for that matter.