Getting back to stories

I’m off to California for a couple of days. Fortunately, Cory Doctorow’s Down and Out in the Magical Kingdom came in yesterday’s care package from Amazon. Now, I’ll have something to read on the flight.

I’ve also just started Steve Dennings’s The Springboard: How Storytelling Ignites Action in Knowledge-Era Organizations. Denning used to be at the World Bank and launched their knowledge management initiatives. He discovered that effective storytelling was a central element in getting from the notion of knowledge management to some actionable organizational change. Not too long ago I got an email from one of my former partners at DiamondCluster reminding me of how I used to used Doc SearlsIt’s the Story Stupid” to anchor my efforts to teach consultants how to find a compelling story buried in their data and analyses. Consultants always want to tell you about all the interesting work they’ve been doing instead of getting to the point. It takes a long time to break them of that habit.

Technology vs. Magic

Like many, I’m fond of quoting Clarke’s 3rd Law that “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic, ” and, more recently, Benford’s corrollary, “any technology distinguishable from magic is insufficiently advanced.” But I’ve also been troubled by the willingness of most people to accept the magic as magic. I understand the attraction to a marketer to claim magical properties for their wares. It’s the willingness to settle for that explanation that bothers and confuses me.

I’m in the midst of reading The Lever of Riches: Technological Creativity and Economic Progress by Joel Mokyr. Mokyr is an economic historian at Northwestern who has written extensively on the connections between knowledge, technology, and economics. In a chapter on “Understanding Technological Progress,” he makes the following observation about the differences between technological and magical thinking that offers some insight into my dilemma:

It will not do to dismiss magic as irrational, because rationality is conditional on the information available, and without modern science it was impossible for people to know what worked and what did not. The important difference between technology and magic is not that technology works and magic does not. The difference that matters here is that magic does not control nature, it begs favors from it. Rather than exploiting regularities and natural laws, it seeks exceptions to them by taking advantage of an imaginary capriciousness of the universe. Moreover, technology, if it worked, worked for everyone, whereas magic was confined to qualified practitioners. The sorcerer’s apprentice had no access to his master’s powers. [Mokyr, p. 178]

There is a two-cultures divide here between those who accept magical explanations and those who want to take the black box apart. I run into it in three settings that offer somewhat differing perspectives.

First are the tool users in my immediate cicle of friends and family. They don’t really believe in magic; all they want to do is get on with their own work. Their curiosity is directed elsewhere. The incantations that make email go where it should or get the words from the screen onto the laser printer or the weblog are enough. Understanding how it works might, in some abstract way, be interesting but the practical value of such understanding is a mystery. The practical value lies not in making what I am doing now easier. It lies in making it easy for me to take my existing knowledge into new territory. If the universe is capricious, it is reasonable to expect that my incantations will be different on different days or different machines. If the universe is orderly (at least in some technological parts), I don’t need to learn special incantations. I can rely on orderliness to make educated guesses about what ought to work in the current circumstances.

Second, I run into situations in consulting where either I am the expert or I am working with someone who is there as the expert. One strategy, which I have been guilty of from time to time, is that of “consultant as wizard.” It’s a tempting strategy, especially in new and emerging areas. It’s also a strategy that many clients consciously or unconsciously encourage. Mokyr’s distinctions help me understand how to approach expertise in a more fruitful way. It is not about the content of what you do, it is about the attitude underlying the interaction. Do you believe that the material labeled “expertise” is, in principal, learnable and understandable. If so, then you are doing technology. If not, you are doing magic.

In a consulting project, I suspect that only one of the parties needs to adopt a technological perspective for things to work out. As long as either client or consultant approaches the work as potentially understandable, then it is. This still allows for the existence and value of expertise. There are many reasons why we can’t or shouldn’t be expert in all the things we need to be. But it does matter if we approach expertise as potentially acquirable (as “technology”) or whether we approach it as magic.

This leads to the final area I want to think about; technology vs. magic at a policy level. In this realm, magical thinking is more dangerous because it is harder to overcome from a single side. You cannot hope to untangle the issues around file-sharing networks or DMCA, for example, unless everyone deals with technology as technology and not magic. Ed Felten’s Freedom to Tinker weblog is the best counter-example I can think of. Felten starts with technology as technology and works to explain what is and is not possible from a technology perspective. But that only works for those who are willing to listen and to invest some time in learning. For those who choose to view technology as magic in these debates, pushback from those who view technology as technology (or engineering, I suppose) probably come across as petulant. When we say “I can’t”, they hear “I won’t.” While that might be a reasonable inference when dealing with adolescent children, it isn’t very helpful in a policy debate.

“Impossible” is a slippery word in policy debates or in debates at all for that matter. It’s actually a rhetorical attempt to stop the debate. Debaters generally ignore it or, better yet, look for the weakness in the underlying argument that the use of the word “impossible” is trying to conceal. This gets confusing because in certain technical settings, “impossible” means precisely that. Even the US Patent Office is smart enough to reject applications for perpetual motion devices without review because they violate the second law of thermodynamics. In these collisions between the rhetorical and technological uses of the word “impossible” you end up with lots of wishful thinking but little else. Again, Ed Felten has some excellent thoughts on this, in particular his comments about the “impossibility” of an almost general purpose computer.

Is there a solution to the problem of magical thinking? The current popularity of Harry Potter and the Lord of the Rings suggests it will be hard. Science fiction author, David Brin offers an excellent essay in Salon on this peculiar relationship we want to have with technology. For me, the day-to-day answer is twofold. One is to look for opportunities to reveal the more interesting reality behind the magic when I’m helping others use the technology. The other is to always try to connect the magic to the makers of magic by making sure that the people who create the tools get credit.