Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Allegory of the Cave, and Bureaucrat-Speak

Maybe because bureaucrats have to spend their days in monochromatic cubicles, we take every opportunity to inject colorful metaphors into what we say, hearkening some tribal wisdom or other. I had to smile inside the first time I heard a Pakistani manager say in heavily-accented English that he ‘didn’t want to play Monday morning quarterback’ on somebody else’s decision, but…  And in the same way, a prim Australian economist at an office farewell party related how aboriginal elders refer a young person to live with another community, and that’s why we are referring so-and-so to transfer to the Washington office. It’s becoming a staple of the multinational office that it’s better to describe your situation in the parables of another culture than in the plain-vanilla language of your own upbringing.
Well there’s one metaphor that has been used so frequently—and by the way, ascribed to virtually every people between Bangalore and Bamako—that it should be standard in the template for project planning memos—and that’s the story of the blindfolded man touching the elephant. In case you’re among the uninitiated, the story is that a blindfolded man has a hand put on the elephant’s leg and says it’s a pillar, on his tail and says it’s a rope, on his skin and says… you get the picture.  If only the departments, divisions, units within our organization were talking to each other more, we’d see that this is really an elephant!
It’s the same line of logic that makes management consultants want to break down silos, and political commentators shake fingers at officials’ failure to connect dots when something nearly explodes on an airliner.
On the other hand, I remember feeling piqued by a college lecture on Plato’s Allegory of the Cave, which seems a lot truer to life—minus the shackles and the cave. Since most people don’t remember their college classics class, here’s a recap: a prisoner is shackled to a wall inside a cave and can only look straight ahead. He sees forms moving on the wall in front of him, and tries to make sense of them. Little does he know that behind him, creatures are moving around a fire, and what he is seeing are only the shadows…  You see? It’s a lot kinder to the humble ignoramus than the elephant parable. You’d have no way of knowing what’s behind you if you’re chained to a wall, and there’s no simple remedy like taking off the blindfold. You only have your power of inference to make a more complicated, fuller story, out of the two-dimensional shadows moving around in front of you—without, by the way, having any reason to suppose that there ought to be more dimensions and complexity. It’s a bit like Stephen Hawking telling us that we can’t see it, but trust me, there are lots of tiny dimensions all curled around themselves out there, and here’s a simple drawing of a nutshell for all you ordinary people.
I was thinking about these things last week when I was signing the boys up for summer camp online. Thank goodness for online catalogues and veri-sign payment pages, or I’d never be able to manage things at home from way over here. Hopefully I haven’t been summoned for jury duty, or we’d really be in trouble.  Anyway, in addition to creating a registration profile, most of these pages now ask you to read a squiggly image and transcribe it in letters and numerals to prove that you are in fact a human. Funny, eh? I guess for all the malicious programs that can take over our identities and empty bank accounts, they still can’t imitate our human ability to read patterns out of messy information. We’re surprisingly good at it, when you think that a little Kenyan baby breaks his mommy’s babble into meaningful syllables of Swahili, and little Aussies make sense out of their mum’s English, accent and all.
But then I wondered—are we maybe too good at this? Can it be a limit on our thinking, especially our thinking together, that we reflexively arrange information into patterns, probably dropping off pieces that don’t fit, so that we can have a ‘big picture’?