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The Crisis of Interconnectedness

April 14, 2010

Notable News from a Year Ago, April 14, 2009: Nothing that I could find, but in 1958 (at least according to Wikipedia), Sputnik 2 falls from orbit.  We’re a lot more connected today than we were sixty years ago because of satellites like Sputnik.  Believe or not — there are people who believe we can get even closer.

The Beginning of a Connected World (courtesy Wikipedia)

I can’t take credit for this entry.  My wife came to me with an alluring thought, and like most writers and journalists I couldn’t resist appropriating it and adding my own fundamental twist.

Paraphrased, this is what she said: “Everyone is upset about the current economic downfall but what this should show us more than anything else is how connected we are to each other despite the differences we love to hate and use as vehicles of separation.  In the end, what we do on the Earth — everything we do or don’t do — affects everyone else.”

That’s a tantalizing thought, isn’t it?  Everything we do affecting everyone else on the plant, born and yet to be.  Makes us seem like short-time gods and it reminds me very fittingly of the article I wrote about a month back, “How to The Change the World.”  In fact, based on what my wife said it makes the length of that article, already short by my standards, irrelevantly long.  How do you change that world?  That’s simple.  By living, that’s how.

The air flowing into my lungs, the food I eat, the food I throw away, the money I have in the bank, the stocks I own, the job I hold, the job offers I didn’t take, the woman I married, the computers I bought, the computers I threw away, the water I drink, the water I waste, the thoughts I think, the thoughts others think for me (like the one I’m pondering now from my wife)… it all plays together in a delicate and hopelessly illogical tapestry of interconnectedness.

Why is it illogical?  Because, try as we might (I’m thinking of all those IBM “let’s make a smarter planet” commercials about predicting the stock market and traffic flow through math — full disclosure here, I own IBM stock), we’ll never understand all the factors and influences be they nature, nurture, environment, or otherwise that explain the trueness of any moment.  Oh, we may think we understand what happened from a historical perspective but that’s after the die is cast — that’s the lazy benefit of hindsight.

IBM can boast about building a smarter world all it wants, and from an investor’s standpoint I’m glad they are, but all the giga- and petaflops in the world won’t get you there.

It reminds me of that famous poem by Robert Frost: “The Road Not Taken.”  I, like many people, remember the penultimate and last lines in that poem: “And I — I took the road less traveled by and that has made all the difference”.  I used to think it was a statement about individuality, and how you should go right when the rest of the world goes left (in fact, I think I even said something to that effect in “How to Change the World”).

But until recently, triggered in the last week by my work and rediscovery on The Twin Paradox, I see Frost’s poem as a self-delusional trick of the mind.  Because it’s double-dog easy to say years down the road with a sigh that yes, you did the right thing with your life.

To this point, I watched a special about Pat Riley the other day called “In Their Own Words” [wish I could find the link now] in which he said something similar about his decision to play basketball out of high school instead of quarterback.  He’s fairly certain sitting here now with — what? — five NBA championship rings that he made the right choice.  No one would argue with him because it’s impossible, logically speaking, to see how he could’ve done anything better with his life.

But that’s the trap hidden in our logical minds.  So five NBA championship rings is the best Pat Riley could do in his life?  Would he turn his back on seven NFL championships?  Would he turn his back on one NFL championship… if he didn’t have the knowledge now that he could’ve won five in the NBA?

That’s the rub — logic reigns supreme when making sense out of the past.  Logic tells you a happy little story (or, if you’re depressed, a sad little story) that no matter how you tell it, it comes out in your favor and makes indubitable sense.  In Pat Riley’s case, as with all of us, as with Robert Frost, it leads to personal mythmaking.

I don’t want to lead the witness here but that says something rather significant to me: the future is an illogical thing.  Forgive me if these thoughts overlap with some of fictional mechanics/world view held in The Twin Paradox, but I’m starting to think time travel into the future is impossible.  Well, maybe impossible isn’t the best word choice.  Limited is better, so that changes my statement to the following: Forecasting the future from logical sources such as computers is limited at best, and at worst it will be downright misleading.

Because, you have to understand, Microsoft Excel has been out for a pretty damn long time.  It’s as powerful and malleable as any piece of software.  If an engineer or computer scientist could’ve created an application that predicted the stock market with any sort of acceptable or repeatable accuracy, they would’ve created it already.  The same goes for supply chain and ERP (enterprise resource planning) vendors.  IBM can boast about building a smarter world all it wants, and from an investor’s standpoint I’m glad they are, but all the giga- and petaflops in the world won’t get you there.

Here’s a secret in case the news I’m sharing makes you feel glumly: You should be glad about that.  In my day job, I work in an increasing global manufacturing world where the mantra appears to be: We need highly automated systems and stupid people to make our business better.  Actually, I’ve slanted that mantra.  It actually says: Companies are willing to invest in highly automated systems, but people, the lowest common denominator, should be replaceable.  (Which is why, as an investor, all I can say is Go Big Blue Go!).  I call it the McDonald’s Theory of Operations.

Case and point: I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve had to fight with management because they want the ERP system to include safeguards that prevent the employees from making mistakes.  I don’t have a problem with safeguards, poka-yokes, whatever; what I have a problem with is the utter lack of focus on the quality of the workforce, this blatant drive for profits that is creating the smart system/handicapped employee dynamic across the globe.  As people, as businesses, we focus entirely too much on the system-side of operations.  We’re addicted to technology because we think it can solve all of our problems.  We’ve missed the pungent fact that logic (AKA technology) is gargantuanly limited.

Even where I work, our values and philosophy and dollars don’t jive.  Our philosophy says that people are our greatest assets; our dollars say that, at the lowest levels, our systems should be cogent enough to counteract deficiencies in our dynamic and highly replaceable workforce.  I’ve oversimplified here, of course, because this leads to questions of exempt versus non-exempt, but how can people be your greatest asset and also be highly replaceable?  That, my friends, is what you call a paradox.

But I’ve gotten off track (or have I?).  We started with the financial crisis [and Sputnik 2]; discussed Robert Frost and Pat Riley; I’ve talked about global manufacturing and the relationship between employees and their ERP systems; I’ve talked about time travel; I’ve talked about the impossibility of predicting the future through logical means; The Twin Paradox; Microsoft Excel; IBM; McDonald’s.


How can something as complicated and unfathomably aligned as the universe be anything but illogical?  The crisis, as I see it, is our insistence that technology is the answer to all of our problems, our frequent downplaying of the importance of human participation and interaction in the solutions we seek.  Technology is great.  Computers are great.  But they are not the answer.  We are.  Until we figure that out, we’re doomed.


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