Second thoughts

The problem with blogging, like e-mail, is that sometimes it’s too spontaneous. My recent post, “The Design of Possibilities”, fell into this trap. If I heard someone say, “I design possibilities.” I would think, “What a wanker.”
So, while I stand by its sentiments, expressing what I was trying to say will take more thought and probably some more time to do it.
More on the theme of design, situations and possibilities later.

Designing in stupidity

About this time last year I posted a very short entry, “On being less stupid”, quoting from Brechts Galieo:
“Truth is the child of time, not authority. Our ignorance is infinite, lets whittle away just one cubic millimetre. Why should we want to be so clever when at long last we have a chance of being a little less stupid.”

I was reminded of this reading a piece by Carne Ross about the processes leading up to the Iraq war in the FT a few weeks ago (subscription only Im afraid, though there are accessible versions of this floating around on the web). Carne Ross was, as he says, “… from 1998 to 2002, the British expert on Iraq for the UK delegation to the UN Security Council, responsible for policy on both weapons inspections and sanctions against Iraq. He goes on to say,“My experience in those years and what happened subsequently is in part why I recently resigned from the Foreign Office.”
What concerned him about the work he was doing and what he observed in others was the way that:
“Evidence is selected from the available mass, contradictions are excised, and the selected data are repeated, rephrased, polished (spun, if you prefer), until it seems neat, coherent and convincing, to the extent that those presenting it may believe it fully themselves.”
He gives as an example how the argument between the opponents of sanctions and those who supported a more aggressive stance against the Iraqi regime in the UN:
“… illustrates how governments and their officials can compose convincing versions of the truth, filled with more or less verifiable facts, and yet be entirely wrong. I did not make up lies about Husseins smuggling or obstruction of the UNs humanitarian programme. The speeches I drafted for the Security Council and my telegrams back to London were composed of facts filtered from the stacks of reports and intelligence that daily hit my desk. As I read these reports, facts and judgements that contradicted our version of events would almost literally fade into nothingness. Facts that reinforced our narrative would stand out to me almost as if highlighted, to be later deployed by me, my ambassador and my ministers like hand grenades in the diplomatic trench warfare. Details in otherwise complex reports would be extracted to be telegraphed back to London, where they would be inserted into ministerial briefings or press articles. A complicated picture was reduced to a selection of facts that became factoids, such as the suggestion that Hussein imported huge quantities of whisky or built a dozen palaces, validated by constant repetition: true, but not the whole truth.”
Contrast this with a quote by Natalie Angier from an earlier post of mine:
“…’One of the first things you learn in science’, one Caltech biologist told me, ‘is that how you want it to be doesnt make any difference’. This is a powerful principle, and a very good thing, even a beautiful thing. This is something we should embrace as the best part of ourselves, our willingness to see the world as it is, not as were told it is, nor as our confectionary fantasies might wish it to be.”

Of course, even those engaged in the scientific enterprise are as prone to filter out unwelcome news as the rest of us, but at least there is some awareness within the scientific tradition to recognise this tendency and to build in steps to counter it.
What I fear is that in many other human organisations and enterprises we have failed to build in such steps and are, in effect, designing in stupidity. By stupidity I mean, in the words of Dudley Lynch and Paul L.Kordis, “the inability of the brain or any other part of nature to accept useful information, learn from it, and act intelligently on it.”
In other words, what I am suggesting is that in many of our organisations, both public and private, we have created situations which make intelligent action more difficult. This is not because the people within them lack ability, it is because the system they are operating within pulls against appropriate action.
Now, of course, you could argue against this and point out that on the whole things seem to work and you would be right. We can do much that is stupid and still seem to be all right.
But thinking about my earlier post about Jared Diamonds “Collapse”, where he talks about those earlier civilisations where everything seemed to be all right until they went into fatal collapse, I wonder whether it might not be smarter to try and design intelligence into our organisations and institutions, rather than hoping everything will OK and continuing to design stupidity in.

The Design of Possibilities

Last November I described my delight at discovering that Ralph Caplan’s “By Design” had been revised and was being re-published. If anything, my excitement was even greater when a few days ago I discovered one of the original copies in the library of a College, where I do a bit of teaching.
Reading it again I was pleased to find that my recollections of the book were confirmed. If anything it is even better than I remembered. What also struck me was how much of my thinking about design had been influenced by it, even though, in a number of cases, I had forgotten where the ideas had come from.
In one of the bits I had forgotten, he talks about ‘situation design’ or has he prefers to call it, ‘the design of possibilities’. I suspect it was this chapter that made me like the book so much when I first read it, because it named something I had been doing for most of my professional life.
The problem with being a designer of possibilities is that few people, other than Caplan, recognise what you are doing – so as a profession it is a bit of a no no. For some of the time when I was designing courses it was OK, because I could talk about myself as a ‘curriculum designer’ or ‘course developer’. Other times I use other descriptors, such as ‘writer’ or even, heaven forbid, ‘consultant’. But generally speaking, being a designer of possibilities is a lonely, unnamed business, where you have to pretend to be doing something else.
Still you never know, maybe with the birth of things like ‘service design’ and designers that do it, like Live/Work or Plot, a space will develop where we can come out proud and be understood when we say, “I design possibilities”.

A new way of being?

John Seely Brown likes bricolage. In fact he likes it so much that he sees it “as a new way of being” that is going to become increasingly important as we move into the 21st Century. Bricolage, he says:
“…has to do with tinkering. Tinkering with a piece of concrete code, seeing whether you can make it better. Engaging in that bricolage until you have something that you think is better and then ship it back into the debate, and then if it is accepted, you increase the social capital for yourself. So this whole phenomenon is pretty interesting.”
I am inclined to agree with him about its growing importance. Digital technology makes many kinds of bricolage easier and more explicit. Where, perhaps, I disagree is that I believe bricolage has always been an important part of human creativity. This is the basis of my objections to proponents of strong IP.
Malcolm Gladwell writes interestingly about this in a piece about plagiarism, where he describes sitting with a friend in the music business, who was playing him examples of musical borrowings:
“My friend had hundreds of these examples. We could have sat in his living room playing at musical genealogy for hours. Did the examples upset him? Of course not, because he knew enough about music to know that these patterns of influence–cribbing, tweaking, transforming–were at the very heart of the creative process. True, copying could go too far. There were times when one artist was simply replicating the work of another, and to let that pass inhibited true creativity. But it was equally dangerous to be overly vigilant in policing creative expression, because if Led Zeppelin hadnt been free to mine the blues for inspiration we wouldn’t have got Whole Lotta Love, and if Kurt Cobain couldnt listen to More Than a Feeling and pick out and transform the part he really liked we wouldn’t have Smells Like Teen Spirit–and, in the evolution of rock, Smells Like Teen Spirit was a real step forward from More Than a Feeling. A successful music executive has to understand the distinction between borrowing that is transformative and borrowing that is merely derivative, …”
James Cambell, writing in the Guardian recently, describes the difficulties he had writing a biography of James Baldwin, because he was denied permission to use extracts from his letters. He contrasts how things are now with a more rigourous enforcement of copyright laws with earlier more relaxed times:
“Among my favourite biographies is Francis Steegmuller’s book on Guillaume Apollinaire, published in 1963, 45 years after Apollinaires death, when his work was still under copyright. Steegmuller draws on a wide range of written material, including entire poems and facsimiles of handwritten notes, all in the interests of creating a lifelike portrait. Little in Apollinaire: Poet Among the Painters, in which the biographer himself plays a graceful, self-effacing role, suggests that he was troubled by questions of intellectual property. The same may be said of many biographies of the time.”
So far as I can see Apollinaire and his heirs can only have benefited from Francis Steegmuller’s use of his work. Indeed, this could be seen as a model of the way creativity works as a social and cultural phenomenon. What is new is the way that the combination of digital technology and the internet can be seen as opening up the potential for a massive expansion of tinkering with human artefacts for the benefit of all of us.
Some years ago I wrote:
“With a digital medium such as hypermedia, not only is copying very easy, but once it has been copied, material can be very easily adapted, modified, changed or merged with other copied material. In 20 years time, one definition of literacy may be the ability to put together an interactive communication (using sound, images, animation and live action video as well as text). If this is the case, it will be largely because hypermedia is the supreme medium for bricolage.”
“… bricolage can be seen as a fundamental aspect of human creativity. Nothing that any of us creates is totally new. Everyone, including the most brilliant and original, draws on existing elements of the culture. What makes something new and original is the organization of those existing elements into new and original relationships, combined with the detail of their expression.”

Nothing since has made me change my mind.

Fostering creativity

A fascinating snippet from a review of two books about the race to split the atom by Freeman Dyson in the New York Review of Books. Regular readers of Purposive Drift will recognise why this quote appeals to me:
“The culture of the Cavendish was strongly paternalistic. Rutherford took fatherly care of his students and imposed strict limits on their hours of work. Every evening at six oclock the laboratory was closed and all work had to stop. Four times every year, the laboratory was closed for two weeks of vacation. Rutherford believed that scientists were more creative if they spent evenings relaxing with their families and enjoyed frequent holidays. He was probably right. Working under his rules, an astonishingly high proportion of his students, including Cockcroft and Walton, won Nobel Prizes.”