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!

Thursday, January 12, 2012

The power of stories

In the past few weeks, I’ve been going through the 500 pages of text and pictures which the blogging of the past 2-3 years has produced – and asking myself where exactly I am (or should be) going with it. The daily process of thinking about a particular aspect of my life’s work of tinkering with government institutions is a useful discipline. Since an early age, I have had the habit of writing critical analyses of policy initiatives – in the naive belief that this was the route to improved performance (I had forgotten that this habit led to Socrates having to drink hemlock!). Many of my reflections about these various efforts – whether at community, municipal, regional or national levels - are available on my website 

And the daily copying of reading references – whether of journals or books – has also helped build up a useful virtual library. As, however, Umberto Eco has remarked – the beauty of a good library is that only a minority of the texts have actually been read!

The question with which I am now wrestling is whether to continue with this process – a bit like the 5- minute Thought of the Day programme which the BBC has been running for decades – or to take time out to read more closely the material in the library and try to write something more focussed and coherent. My blogposts reflect the gadfly which is (and has been) an important part of me – alighting for some time on a flower and then moving on to another.
It is, however, the process of going over my blogs which has made me realise how much value I place on the ideas embodied in books. Most people are sceptical about the power of ideas and assume that baser motives make the world go round. John Maynard Keynes opposed this vew with great elegance in 1935 when he wrote
The ideas of economists and political philosophers, both when they are right and when they are wrong, are more powerful than is commonly understood. Indeed the world is ruled by little else. Practical men, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influence, are usually the slaves of some defunct economist. Madmen in authority, who hear voices in the air, are distilling their frenzy from some academic scribbler of a few years back. I am sure that the power of vested interests is vastly exaggerated compared with the gradual encroachment of ideas
But we all need to make sense of the world. Some do so with their own, home-built view of the world which, all too often, is two-dimensional if not demented. Most of us, however, seek some external guidance – but there are so many voices today that we require mediators and popularisers to help us make sense of things - whether committed journalists like Will Hutton, Paul Mason and George Monbiot; essayists such as Malcolm Gladwell and serious analytical blogs such as Daniel Little’s Understanding Society. Matthew Taylor is one of the few bloggers who, like me, has straddled the worlds of theory and practice and continues, in his role as Director of the UK Royal Society of Arts to reflect on his reading. He had a good post recently on a seminar which featured Nassim Taleb -
The event was packed out and the chairman was at pains to emphasise the powerful influence of Taleb’s ideas on Government thinking. In essence Taleb’s argument – based on a fascinating, but occasionally somewhat opaque, mixture of philosophy, statistics and metaphors – is that big systems are much more prone to catastrophic failure (or in some cases sensational success) than small devolved ones. From bankers to planners to politicians, a combination of ignorance, complacency and self-interest leads to a systematic underestimation of the inherent risk of large complex systems.
The British Prime Minister is clearly looking for a fig-leaf with which to clothe his moral nakedness and finds Taleb’s arguments a useful cover. The RSA site actually has a video of David Cameron in conversation in 2009 with Taleb when he was Opposition Leader. Taleb has many useful insights to offer. He questions our reliance on the "narrative fallacy", the way past information is used to analyse the causes of events when so much history is actually "silent". It is the silence - the gap - the missing energy in the historical system, which produces the black swan. Imagine, says Taleb, the problem of turkeys:
Every single feeding will firm up the bird's belief that it is the general rule of life to be fed every day by friendly members of the human race 'looking out for its best interests', as a politician will say. On the afternoon of the Wednesday before Thanksgiving, something unexpected will happen to the turkey. It will incur a revision of belief
Those wanting to find out more about Taleb’s arguments will find a useful paper from him on the Edge site I mentioned yesterday
Matthew Taylor then asks a powerful question on his post about the logic and consistency of the Coalition Government’s use of Taleb’s thinking -
why is a democratically accountable and relatively weak organisation like a local education authority portrayed by ministers as the kind of overbearing power that needs to be broken up while Tesco (to take just one example) is left free to grow even more powerful and major Academy chains, massive welfare to work providers and various other large scale private sector providers are encouraged?

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