Over a year ago Dave Snowden wrote a blog entitled “The occult insignificance of meaningless numbers” in which he stated “What I want to talk about […] Is my concern, nay passion for governments of whatever ilk to adopt complexity theory and new research/reporting approaches such as our work on impact based measurement, citizen consultation and policy formation.”
Now this sparked off a memory…
…of sitting in an MBA class given by Steven Cummings (Lecturer now Professor of Strategy formerly at Warwick Business School) hearing about the evolution of sensemaking over medieval, modern and postmodern periods – so for example, a medieval map would contain elements which were important to the local population, the well, the church, the old oak tree, all elements to which reference could be made – and the map itself was not drawn to scale. In a modern map everything would be drawn to scale and all objects that are visible would be included, regardless of their utility. In a postmodern map the map is drawn to scale but has additional lifelike drawings are included on it of important structures which provide additional utility [as an aside I stood studying just such a map a week ago in Leicester Square, London as I walked from Piccadilly to Leicester Square tube station and realised that it was orientated so that the top of the map was North, but that the orientation of the installation of the map was such that you were facing South while viewing it – I stood there listening to tourists who walked up to use the map discussing how difficult it was to work out where things were that they wanted to get to (and many getting it wrong) and several exclaiming that it was “the wrong way up”].
I have wondered for some time what caused these alterations in how the world was represented and the thinking behind that – and are there examples in areas other than maps, and how does this vary between cultural groups and last week I stumbled upon one element of the answer.
The Bishop of London has given a series of talks which consider the seeming absence of God in Western Europe.
There is almost a pre-echo of Dave’s blog when he says:
You will recall the search described by Richard Tarnas for more objective ways of arriving at public truths, less controversially subjective than the versions presented by the warring Christian absolutisms. It was in these circumstances that mathematics established itself as the most reliable way of describing public truth. It is a notorious fact that public bodies find it difficult to deal with issues unless they are capable of being quantified. Numbers have become the building bricks of public policy in a process where there seems to be little incentive to pay attention to the relation between numbers and harmony. Music is of course essentially the marriage of numbers and harmony and it is instructive to note how marginal the role of music has become in our educational process compared to the central role which it used to have in ancient times.
In the daylight world spiritual considerations fade into insignificance before the brute clarity of statistics and the bottom line of balance sheets. You can see the result in our hospitals and in the official approach to health and healing which is being challenged now by a myriad of complementary approaches. We know that a healing ambience – beauty, tranquillity, confidence in the physician and a loving and respectful attention from healers and helpers – has a vital influence on whether or not we get better. But such things are difficult to reduce to numbers or represent on a balance sheet so the insides of our hospitals exhibit a clear preference for number based efficiency and high tech science in an atmosphere which is frequently ugly and hectic in which heroic staff work under considerable stress. [My emphasise]
He also looks at the influence of Rene Descartes on thinking but in particular he looks to Charles de Bovelles, an earlier author who in his book De sapiente (1509) states a human being “is no longer part of the universe, but as its eye and mirror, and indeed as a mirror which does not receive the images of things from outside but rather forms and shapes them in itself.” The Bishop concludes that thus people are encouraged to step back from world and body and in so doing become less aware of being participants in a web of life in an animated universe, and that they distance themselves from being creatures made of the earth (the meaning of the name “Adam”) and instead see others as objects or indeed impediments. “I do no need my neighbour to be fully myself.” The Bishop points out that in his experience this fracture is evident in much of Western society but that it is less evident in Africa.
So, returning (from yesterday) to the report on the work that Global Giving is doing looking at the impact of aid in Africa using Cognitive Edge tools – the findings indicate that the predominant theme of stories signified by the tellers themselves of the impact of aid is social relations and that only 1 of the 65 experts who were asked to predict the top theme had predicted this. I wonder what cultural background this expert came from?
I think that the stranglehold of numbers as a measurement tool is starting to crack and that the work on impact analysis being done by Cognitive Edge and its network of practitioners is going to gather increasing pace as people begin to realise the utility of assessments which they can understand, appreciate and make sense of what to do next without having to be statisticians – reincorporating the Harmony referred to by the Bishop who also refers to human beings having a thirst for meaning. The tyranny of numbers is leaving people feeling parched – and I want to be part of the revolution that reintroduces the water!
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