what you get here

This is not a blog which expresses instant opinions on current events. It rather uses incidents, books (old and new), links and papers as jumping-off points for some reflections about our social endeavours.
So old posts are as good as new! And lots of useful links!

Saturday, March 19, 2011

hypocrisy, uncertainty and language

I don’t like gossip and character assassination. But how do you deal with hypocritical people? One of the editors of Social Europe - a site which deals with social democracy and European policy – has come to the defence of one of the LSE academics most prominent in pushing for the acceptance of the poisoned Gaddafi money - David Held. In so doing he drew attention to the public disparagement of Held by an ex-LSE academic Erik Ringmar who had a run-in with the LSE for some blunt remarks about academia. I followed the links and find an eloquent, tough and maverick writer who, amongst other books, has written an interesting tract about and for bloggers which can be downloaded via his Wikipedia entry. I know Held only from his academic reputation – but can well imagine that he was seduced by power. And Simon Jenkins’ and Kenneth Roy’s comments this week about Will Hutton’s report on high-pay (for the coalition government) also sugges that Hutton (whose various books in the past 15 years have been marvellous attacks on neo-liberalism and greed) has eventually succumbed to the disease of the rich and powerful - hypocrisy.
But attacks like this are rare – and courageous. Are they the best way to deal with the problem? I don’t know! John Keane (author of a huge recent volume on the Rise and Fall of Democracy) used a slightly different approach in an open letter to David held.

And in that same spirit of agnosticism let me continue the quotes from the article I mentioned yesterday on the stupidity of efficiency.
At the heart of the efficiency error is a dichotomy to do with knowledge and the way we store and use it.
When I discuss knowledge in the context of business I like to refer to “primary” and “secondary” kinds of knowledge. Dinosaurs are a good example of relying exclusively on the primary sort. Primary knowledge is compressed into simple routines. It is the kind of knowledge that says “when this happens, respond by doing x”. Easy. Cheap to store. Easily encoded. Easily replicated. Very easy to manage. And produces the same result every time.
Businesses love this kind of knowledge. It lies at the heart of the dumbing down in every large business. It makes the cost of management lower because you don’t need much management overhead to get consistent results.
Until, of course something changes. As in the environment shifting.
Then all that supremely efficient knowledge is rendered not just useless, but dangerous. Organizations who pride themselves on their efficiency are betting that their environment will justify their knowledge. They have, either explicitly or implicitly, planned that they know the future.
Secondary knowledge, by its nature, is high cost to deploy. It involves lugging around all sorts of unused rules that may or may not ever be deployed in action. There is always a tension between primary and secondary knowledge. Business prefers primary at all times since it is cheaper. Adaptation requires secondary since it allows change. Evolution has used both, but the emphasis is on primary knowledge with the result that failed knowledge implies extinction. Dinosaurs being a good example. Perfect for a very long time. Constant evolution along a path that then became, suddenly, a poor one. Highly efficient. And then not at all efficient.
All of which points us to Taleb’s writings about the Black Swan – the need to think about the unthinkable. Here’s an interesting article of the implications of his argument for management. And also a journal from India with an excellent article about self-development .
Finally a good piece about what's happening to our language.

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