If you’ve visited my site before, you will know that I dedicate most of my infrequent blog posts to the intersection of various intellectual traditions, including philosophy (mostly of mind) and innovation. No doubt, innovation is the enduring theme.
I seldom write about politics, but with the current Trumpovite milieu it somehow seems relevant.
Actually, my idea for this post didn’t come from any consideration of politics per se. I have been writing a small book about “innovation wisdoms” that are, unlike this blog, aimed at a wide audience of folks not already within the realm of innovation.
My approach to the book is to distill a set of common wisdoms about how to be more “innovative” (definition notwithstanding) using techniques that really work, as underpinned by the latest ideas from a range of subjects such as: cognitive science, neuroscience, management, linguistics, and so on.
I have even researched my own methods of note-taking and sketching that I believe are quite novel and highly effective. More on those in a later post (or you’ll have to buy the book).
The current chapter that prompted this post is related to encouraging one’s self to always stay focussed on the obvious.
One manifestation might be simply to state the obvious. This sounds, well, obvious, but I find it to be fairly elusive within many innovation teams and contexts.
This trap often presents itself as an omission whereby everyone on a project fails to state the obvious and so allow a fairly basic and fundamental task – or solution – to become omitted. It happens a lot.
Now, at the same time as updating this chapter (as I tend to rewrite everything a few times) I have recently been studying some of the ideas of physicist David Bohm. In particular, I’ve been trying to get to grips with his ideas about fragmented thought and the use of (Bohmian) dialog to solve it.
I came across David Bohm via a good friend of mine who is an Indian philosopher, noting that Bohm frequently collaborated with Indian philosopher and esotericist Jiddu Krishnamurti.
It’s worth stating that although David Bohm was a gifted quantum physicist, his later life was more dedicated to philosophical enquiry about the nature of thought and creativity. In this regard, I recommend his book Science, Order and Creativity.
Returning to the connection with innovation, my contention about innovation is that many of the greatest ideas are actually quite simple and yet seemed to have eluded us until someone brought them to our attention. We all know that feeling of seeing an idea that becomes successful and saying to ourselves: “Why didn’t someone think of that before?”
The reason that we become blind to the obvious is that we unwittingly dismiss it due to assumed prejudices that become part of our thinking. Exactly the same process leads to political and societal partisanship and is what Bohm was attempting to overcome with his dialog.
However, Bohm’s talks and writings about thought can be quite obscure and so I was tempted to see if I could produce a simple explanation that also accounted for blindness to obviousness.
What I came up with is the following.
As time progresses, ideas branch into related ideas. This is specialization and perfectly normal. It is the continual branching of a root idea into even more specialized ideas — plain yoghurt becomes fruit yoghurt becomes exotic fruit yoghurt becomes probiotic dairy-free exotic fruit and spice French yoghurt, and so on.
The same is true of any output of human thought: literature, food, sports, TV shows, religions, industries etc.
As the thicker lines indicate, some idea pathways become dominant and we get used to them.
The reasons and rationale (decision data) for the “dead” branches become lost, but actually contain useful information, including ideas that were once obvious but now obscured.
The well-trodden pathways become structurally part of our collective thought system and we can no longer make sense of the entire tree based on its internal or historical logic. In their extreme, these pathways become more like rabbit holes that once entered will obscure our view with Alice in Wonderland illogicalities.
Seen from the perspective of looking back from the current moment, our collective thoughts appear fragmented and we are simply unable to make sense of alternative positions, viewpoints and ideas. The more branches we have, the more exaggerated the fragmentation.
For those of you familiar with history, my account here is somewhat sympathetic to the Cambridge School of John Dunn et al. The school argues that historical events can only be made sense of in light of the perspectives and context of the historical moment rather than via any use of modern understanding. This is an oversimplification, but a useful summary for my purposes.
Related to politics, it is fairly easy to see how this process of fragmentation colors how we think about political ideas.
For example, political conservatism and liberalism lose touch with the historical motivations behind every branch of their formations (and of subsequent schisms into alt-right, alt-left and so on). Instead, our thoughts are constricted to the current position that obscures many obvious motives and historical positions from view. In the absence of such decision data, obscured from view, all we can do is rely upon dogma and partisanship as if it is self-justifying.
In other words, there are reasons – rational and possibly good ones – why, say, many folks are out of work in the Rust Belt. There are even legitimate reasons to expect many of these folks will always be out of work. These reasons have nothing to do with politics. Similarly, there are legitimate reasons why s0-called leftists invoked ideas like affirmative action. But this too became another rabbit hole, possibly the rabbit hole of identity politics that fragmented away from legitimate – and obvious – historical concerns.
Of course, John Dunn argues (in The Cunning of Unreason) that the very nature of political thought is such that it imposes severe limitations on ever understanding anything via the lens of rational thought, and so we are hopelessly bound up in a false dialog that can never deliver.
We see this in the media coverage of the US political arena, merely left to report memes instead of ever asking critical questions. The media too has gone down the rabbit hole.
There is almost no dialog about the role that technology played or plays in replacing jobs. Trumpovites see the issue via the rabbit hole of privilege, such as that afforded to illegal “job stealing” immigrants (or even legal ones). The media sees this via the rabbit hole of the “Trump Spectacle” and so the obvious questions – and dialog – never surface.
The same plays out in the Middle East and the whole “Islam” spectacle where the rabbit hole of “They Hate Us” is the best we can do to understand how we got to this point, if indeed we truly know where “this point” actually is. Per John Dunn’s thesis, our ability to understand “political reality” (if it exists) is severely limited and yet we continue to attempt our accounts via the same severely limited apparatus. This is exactly Bohm’s point:
Thought is creating divisions out of itself and then saying that they are there naturally. This is another major feature of thought: Thought doesn’t know it is doing something and then it struggles against what it is doing. It doesn’t want to know that it is doing it. And thought struggles against the results, trying to avoid those unpleasant results while keeping on with that way of thinking. That is what I call “sustained incoherence”.
Worse still, the accelerating role of technology, in particular AI, in replacing jobs isn’t properly subject to dialog either. It is as if AI has become a force in itself, unsurprisingly given the quasi-reification of AI thanks to pundits like Harris who prefer the spectacle of “AI as terrorist” – something to be afraid of that somehow lurks in the shadows – than AI as a product of human thought that arose for presumably good reasons that we might review and return to. After all, if the original goal of AI was to produce a “reasoning machine” then ought not we to ask if it can apply such reason to our current predicaments.
This plays out at every level of thought, not just with political thought. Look carefully and you will see fragmented thought all around you.
To understand how to overcome the limitations of fragmented thought during innovation projects, you will have to read my book. However, by way of plot spoiler, it will not reveal any startling Gladwellian counter-factual nuggets.
The simple fact is that outside the realm of creativity, which appears to have its own rules, most of the “business of innovation” is best served by good old-fashioned critical thought. This, I’m afraid, is in short supply as so few of us were schooled in it.
In the book, I refer often to our wonderful “Wh” capacity – i.e. the ability to ask Wh questions, like why, what and where etc.
If your agenda is [p|P]olitical then why-questions will not serve your purpose. However, if your genuine concern is how to bring about new ideas into the world that really solve problems, then the usefulness of asking Why at each step and of every decision cannot be overstated. Of course, there are ways to make sure that you really are asking Why questions and not merely serving pre-existing delusions, and these are the kinds of methods I discuss in the book (though not it so lofty form as Bohmian dialog).