Thank you

As the last few hours of voting for my proposal on Change This remain, I would like to thank everybody who took the trouble to vote. At my last look it was 110 votes putting me in third place for now. I’m not clear whether voting stops today or tomorrow, so if you are visiting today or tomorrow and haven’t voted yet, it may be worth try.
The whole process has been fascinating and has sparked off a number of ideas I will be writing about later, but in the meantime, once again thanks to all you voters for your support.

Sans Media

I’ve just spent the past few days in deepest, rural France without TV, internet, newspapers and only a few minutes of the BBC World Service as it faded in and out of interference from another noisy, crackling station. It was a curiously refreshing experience being freed from the mixture of incredulity and incoherent rage that has marked so much of my recent encounters with the media as I desperately search for some sense among the Orwellian noise of so much that is presented to us. It make me wonder whether an austere diet of news consumption might be better for my mental health than the media gluttony I too often indulge in.

No New Ideas

I first came across Bob Sutton at the same conference in Berlin where I encountered Ken Robinson, who I wrote about a few days ago. I was impressed by Bob Sutton’s talk and still more impressed to find him an approachable, unpretentious man, who was happy to talk informally about his ideas after his talk was over. One of his recent themes has been as he puts it is:
“If you think you have a new idea, you are wrong, Someone else probably already had it. This idea isn’t original either; I stole it from someone else.”
I have been reminded of this many times in the thinking I have been doing about purposive drift over the years. For example it took me years to remember, that as an impressionable teenager, I had read and then ‘forgotten’ Jean Renoir‘s biography of his father and the many references to Renoir’s “cork theory” of life, which bears a strong resemblance to many of “my” ideas about purposive drift:
“… the ‘cork’ you remember…You go along with the current…Those who want to go against it are either lunatics or conceited; or what is worse ‘destroyers’. You swing the tiller over to the right or left from time time, but always in the direction of the current.”
Then there is the ‘already done’ phenomenon. You spend a lot of time developing what you think is an original idea, only to find that someone has already done it some years before, often with more elegance than you are capable of. I hit this one with Geoffrey Vickers.
I have been coming across references to his work for decades, but it was only a year or so ago that I came across some snippets of his work and realised that he had a very distinctive take on cybernetics, that were very close to my developing views. Still more recently that I managed to get hold of his “Freedom In a Rocking Boat” that contains gems, such as this one below:
“Human life is a tissue of relationships with the physical world and with other people. The object of policy at every level is to preserve and increase the relations we value and to exclude of reduce the relations we hate. But these ‘goods’ cannot be simply accumulated, like packets on a supermarket’s shelves. They are systematically related; some require each other; some exclude each other; nearly all compete with each other for limited resources, especially time and attention which are, of all resources, the least expansible. We may want more abundance with more leisure, more freedom with more order, more interaction with less interference, and so on; but we know that if we pursue each independently of the others, we shall attain none of them. In trying to make life ‘good’, we are seeking not to accumulate ‘goods’ but to impose on the flux of affairs a form which will yield what seems the most acceptable combination of the goods within our reach. Thus the good life to which we aspire, at every level, is a work of art and like every work of art is achieved by selecting, and therefore also rejecting what is incompatible with the chosen form.”
Geoffrey Vickers, “Freedom in a Rocking Boat”, Pelican Books, 1972, pp 125-126

Celebrating Unmanageability

“In our culture it is often thought that loss of control is bad.
However, there are benefits in the loss of control: and these benefits strengthen our ability to believe in the centrality of our humanity. Some of these benefits are:
The requirement that we take responsibility for our (inter)actions, including our own meanings and their making.
The requirement that we accept that there are possibilities beyond those we can imagine.
Therefore, the requirement that we may be surprised.
And that this surprise may lead to opportunities we did not imagine, enhancing our creativity by increasing the variety available to us. (We borrow from others.)
And the requirement that we keep an open mind.
And the requirement to keep an open eye for whatever opportunities may present themselves.
The requirement that we are generous (in our acceptance of the differences and surprises we receive through conversation in an unmanageable situation).
Therefore the requirement that we do not (unnecessarily) restrict possibilities, do not act as censors.
The requirement that we increase what is possible, and the choices that go with this.
Finally, the requirement that we accept error, and accept its occurrence as inevitable.
These are stated as requirements, but they are also opportunities and they give freedoms.
It is in these requirements that there lies a source for enhancing our creativity.”

From Ranulph Glanville‘s “The Value of being Unmanageable: Variety and Creativity in CyberSpace”

Apophenia revisited

There was a splendidly grown-up article by Matthew Parris in the Times the other day, that should be compulsory reading for all the pundits writing about terrorism. The bit I particularly enjoyed was where he was talking about those “joining up the dots” – a phenomenon that William Gibson described as apophenia:
“Gestalt can border on madness. I distrust people too insistently driven to “join up the dots”. Dots may be just that: dots. They are susceptible to being joined up in very different ways. It is always easy for the dot-joiner to make himself look more perceptive and alert than the naive, doubting fellow who can still see only dots. That is how it must have felt to be a doubter in 1930s Germany, as clever, vigilant men joined up the dots and saw an international Jewish conspiracy. The chaps who, behind the apparent world, can discern the shadowy outline of witches, papists, communists or capitalist plotters will often appear cleverer and more prudent than the chaps who can’t.
I look at Orion and I do not see the Hunter, his belt or his sword. I see a group of unrelated stars. Whether, however, we discern Great Bears, ploughs, crabs, crosses or only chaos, this kind of star-gazing is harmless because we cannot by imagining shapes create the things we have imagined. More dangerous are the constellation-makers among our presidents, prime ministers and newspaper leader writers: it does lie within their power to breathe life into the monsters they think they see. If they keep shouting that we face a clash of civilisations, a war of the worlds, they may drive bigger numbers on both sides into the arms of the smaller numbers who do want to rally volunteers for a battle.”

Learn to work with the world

John Seely Brown tells a nice story about a lesson he learnt when he first joined Xerox. He gives this account of an interview with one their leading trouble-shooting maintenance engineers. It revolves around a discussion of how to identify an intermittent copying problem. The trouble-shooter tells Seely Brown about the laborious, bureaucratic process that Xerox lays down and then goads him into coming up with a better solution. The answer, it turns out, is to look in the nearest waste paper basket. Here is a short extract, but read the whole thing, a lesson worth learning:
“And he said, “You know, John, what do you do if you discover a copy quality problem? You know, you don’t classify it as a copy quality problem. You classify it as a damn, damn bad copy and you throw it away. So why don’t you let the world do a little bit of the work for you. Why don’t you work with the world, and see that there’s a natural way to have the world collect this information for you. Just step back and read the world a little bit.” 
Now maybe you can see where I’m heading with you. ‘Read the world a little bit’ is almost a kind of judo, or a better term from the French, bricolage. And so he said, ‘This waste basket was ready at hand. It was already there. It was already full of this stuff. Learn to work with the world, and you’re going to find your life a lot simpler.'”