Saturday, June 6, 2009

June 13, 2006: Control and Consequences

I want to get back on the theme of the "half life of technical education" and why I am concerned about it. I suppose it all has to do with why I am trying to tilt at the windmills of technical education (and probably just about any other form of specialized education) in the first place. My concern is basically one of objectives, because it seems to me that the focus of such educational programs always comes down to some approach to controlling the world. Now that seems like a perfectly reasonable way to go, particularly in the mind-set of post-Enlightenment Western civilization; but, as we need to become more aware of our role in the world at large, we must not fool ourselves into believing that it is the only way to go or that "control solves everything." What is often overlooked when we focus to intently on control is that the world is a complex case; and, whatever control we may have, it will never be a handle on all that complexity. Thus, at the very least, we need to live by the motto that control has consequences.

This is particularly important when we try to reduce everything we do to making decisions and acting on the results of those decisions. In this regard I need to draw attention to (and recommend) the book Thinking in Time: The Uses of History for Decision Makers, by Richard Neustadt and Ernest May. This book is basically a series of case studies, each of which involves an act of presidential decision making in a time of crisis. The theme behind the entire book involves the way in which Neustadt and May characterize what they mean by "thinking in time." Basically, it involves asking two fundamental questions:

  1. How did we get into this situation?
  2. Given a course of action to consider, what will be the consequences of following that course?
In other words "thinking in time" involves more than analyzing a "state" in isolation: You have to understand that path through past states that led up to the present state; and, on the basis of your understanding that (and other) paths, you need to make a well-informed guess as to where the path out of that state (determined by the course of action) will lead (and, to invoke chess language, you have to look ahead more than a single move).

This also brings in an important reflection of decision support technology that goes all the way back to the pioneers of that technology: Peter Keen and Michael Scott Morton. Their first book on the subject, Decision Support Systems, begins by drawing the distinction between efficient and effective decision making. The punch line, of course, is that it is always necessary to strive for the latter, rather than the former. I believe that one of the hazards of the way in which specialized education is taught (if not of the subject-matter itself) is that efficiency tends to get the upper hand over effectiveness, simply because it is easier to evaluate efficiency, while evaluating effectiveness demands all the subtleties of "thinking in time." (We are back in the world of looking for your keys where the light is better, even if you know you did not lose them there.)

So perhaps there should be some corner of our educational process that makes sure we do not forget that it can be all right to just live in the world, without necessarily controlling (or feeling you can control) it. I do not mean this as a granola-based go-with-the-flow philosophy. Rather, to reflect on the quote in my Blast, you should be able to live in the world without "fear, superstition and pettiness," because the world throws so much at that stuff in our path that we should delude ourselves into believing the the only way to deal with it is to control it!

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