Random finds (2016, week 51–52) — On the failing religion of business, the place of anger, and Steven Pinker’s conditional optimism

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“The grandest staircase in London,” in the Switch House extension to Tate Modern by Herzog & de Meuron. (Photograph: View Pictures/Rex/Shutterstock)

On Fridays, I run through my tweets to select a few observations and insights that have kept me thinking during the week.

On the failing religion of business

What Martin Luther did to the Catholic church needs to be done to business gurus, says Schumpeter in Management theory is becoming a compendium of dead ideas. According to him, the similarities between medieval Christianity and the world of management theory may not be obvious. But seek and ye shall find.

“Management theorists sanctify capitalism in much the same way that clergymen of yore sanctified feudalism. Business schools are the cathedrals of capitalism. Consultants are its travelling friars. Just as the clergy in the Middle Ages spoke in Latin to give their words an air of authority, management theorists speak in mumbo-jumbo. The medieval clergy’s sale of indulgences, by which believers could effectively buy forgiveness of their sins, is echoed by management theorists selling fads that will solve all your business problems. Lately, another similarity has emerged. The gurus have lost touch with the world they seek to rule. Management theory is ripe for a Reformation of its own.”

Business schools are the cathedrals of capitalism. Consultants are its traveling friars. Just as the clergy in the Middle Ages spoke in Latin to give their words an air of authority, management theorists speak in mumbo-jumbo.

“Management theories are organised around four basic ideas, repeated ad nauseam in every business book you read or business conference you attend, that bear almost no relation to reality.”

The first idea is that of a hyper-competitive world in which established giants are constantly being felled by the forces of disruption. Yet, a glance at the numbers should be enough to expose this as fiction, Schumpeter argues. The most striking business trend today is not competition but consolidation.

A second, related ‘dead idea’ is that we live in an age of entrepreneurialism. Again, the evidence tells a different story.

The theorists’ third ruling idea is that business is getting faster. “There is some truth in this,” Schumpeter writes. “Internet firms can acquire hundreds of millions of customers in a few years. But in some ways this is less impressive than earlier roll-outs: well over half of American households had motor cars just two decades after Henry Ford introduced the first moving assembly line in 1913. And in many respects business is slowing down. Firms often waste months or years checking decisions with various departments (audit, legal, compliance, privacy and so on) or dealing with governments’ ever-expanding bureaucracies. The internet takes away with one hand what it gives with the other. Now that it is so easy to acquire information and consult with everybody (including suppliers and customers), organisations frequently dither endlessly.”

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Thomas Friedman, the American journalist, three time Pulitzer Prize winner, and author of The World is Flat (2005).

The fourth, and final, wrong notion is that globalisation is both inevitable and irreversible — the product of technological forces that mere human decisions cannot reverse. “But a look at history shows that it is nonsense. In 1880–1914 the world was in many ways just as globalised as it is today; it still fell victim to war and autarky. Today globalisation shows signs of going into reverse.”

“The backlash against globalisation points to a glaring underlying weakness of management theory: its naivety about politics. Modern management orthodoxies were forged in the era from 1980 to 2008, when liberalism was in the ascendant and middle-of-the-road politicians were willing to sign up to global rules.”

But today’s world is very different. Productivity growth is dismal, companies are fusing at a furious rate, entrepreneurialism is stuttering, populism is on the rise and the old rules of business are being torn up. “Management theorists need to examine their church with the same clear-eyed iconoclasm with which Luther examined his. Otherwise they risk being exposed as just so many overpaid peddlers of dead ideas.”

“The learned fool writes his nonsense in better language than the unlearned, but it is still nonsense.” — Benjamin Franklin

“In effect, [Schumpeter] is just scratching the surface,” Steve Denning writes In Understanding The Failing Religion Of Business: 18 Management Fallacies. The ‘compendium of dead ideas’ is vastly larger. “Until we understand the depth and breadth of the problems we are facing, we will never be able to resolve the issues.” And so, Denning adds eight more management fallacies and six more flawed economic dogmas to Schumpeter’s four moribund business ideas.”

These ‘mistaken faiths,’ Denning writes, are inter-connected. They can’t be solved by focusing on each issue individually. What we need instead, is “a global global approach to run firms in a post-bureaucratic manner focused on delivering value to customers.”

What’s holding things back?

“It’s not lack of knowledge as to what needs to be done. Many factors, such as vested interests, entrenched habits and attitudes, all take time to change. Yet the task will never be completed unless we begin.” Denning suggests we nail the list of management’s big bad ideas to the cathedral of capitalism’s door, and jump-start the reform process, just like time Martin Luther did back in 1517. Our future depends on it.

On the place of anger

“Martha Nussbaum’s new book [Anger and Forgivesness] tells us more about the limits of the liberal mindset than the actual world of politics,” says Amia Srinivasan, who teaches philosophy at University College London, in Would Politics Be Better Off Without Anger?

“In the end,” Srinivasan writes, “Nussbaum’s case against anger is that it is antithetical to socie­ties striving for justice. It engages in a brutal logic of tit-for-tat, shuts down conversation and mutual understanding, and blocks our ability to collectively perfect the institutions of justice. That case might be thought to rest on a mischaracterization of anger — what it calls for and what change it can effect. But it might also be thought, more simply, that Nussbaum’s case does not to apply to the world as we actually find it.

Calls to be calm and civil often run roughshod over the distinction between righteous and misplaced anger, and have the function of excluding from public discourse precisely those most likely to upset the status quo. Such calls deserve our suspicion. But it is also a feature of our political reality that many confuse their misplaced rage for justified anger. Those galled by the loss of white privilege, or who blame immigrants for their poverty, are an obvious case. In an ideal world, perhaps, only those with good reason would get angry, and the rest of us would take their anger as an invitation to listen. But in a non-ideal world like ours, the right to voice justified anger will inevitably be abused by those without justification.

This is perhaps the most plausible case for restricting the place of anger in our public discourse, and for praising the virtues of civility and calm: A normalization of anger in the public sphere might lead to a general and violent degradation of political life. Indeed, we might think this to be the case today.

But, of course, the burdens of such a restriction fall on those who have greatest cause for anger: They would have to silence themselves for the good of the rest of us.”

Orestes Pursued by the Furies, John Singer Sargent (1921). (Museum of Fine Arts, Boston)

In an interview with The Atlantic’s Emma Green, Martha Nussbaum refers to Aristotle’s famous definition of anger. Its basic ingredients of anger are:

(1) You think you’ve been wronged,
(2) The damage was wrongfully inflicted, and
(3) It was serious damage to something you care about.

“Aristotle also thinks the damage is always a kind of insult — what he calls a down-ranking, or a kind of slighting that puts you lower in the scheme of things. I ended up saying that’s not always the case. However, I think that’s an important ingredient in a lot of anger that people have. The last thing — and this is the crucial one, I think: Aristotle, and every other philosopher known to me who writes about anger, says that part of anger itself is a desire for payback. Without that desire, it’s not really anger — it’s something else.”

When asked if she sees a kind of collective anger in this year’s presidential campaign — something like a Trump rally, for example, Nussbaum answers:

“Oh, absolutely. Often, we feel helpless in lots of situations in our lives. The way anger gets a grip on us is it seems to be a way to extricate ourselves from helplessness. People — and I think this is particularly true of Americans — don’t like to be passive. They like to seize control. I think what Trump has found, and very cleverly so, is that there’s a lot of helplessness out there in the middle of America: People who feel they’re not doing as well as they want; people who aren’t doing as well as their parents did. Jobs are going to China; jobs are going to other countries. He makes them feel that if they turn their helplessness into rage, they will accomplish something.

Of course, they won’t. People have this illusion that if they strike out they’ll accomplish something, but of course they won’t. They only accomplish something by having a smart idea about direction and policy. The violence that’s being fomented is not helping to formulate smart economic policies. It’s just unleashing dangerous rage in a way that might do great damage to the American people in the long run.”

“In the history of philosophy, there have been several different approaches to how you get the material on the table in a detailed and vivid way. One approach is that you write a dialogue; you invent characters. The other approach is to use a certain construct of yourself as a character, and use material that’s probably from your own life, though of course the reader can’t tell. One should never assume it’s just pouring out everything you think. If you did that, it would be stupid, because that’s not philosophy.” — Martha Nussbaum

A bit more …

“At many moments of 2016, it seemed the world was falling apart,” Julia Belluz writes in a recent article for Vox.com. In August, she reached out to Harvard psychology professor and polymath Steven Pinker, hoping he could help her make sense of the upheavals and tragedies. Pinker told her the world is still in a more peaceful period than at any other time in history. A few weeks ago, Belluz reached out to Pinker again as she wanted to see how he was looking back over the year that was 2016 — if the election of Trump, and all the global violence that followed, had changed anything.

Steven Pinker. (Photography by David Levenson/Getty Images)

When asked about the future, Pinker says he has never been ‘optimistic’ in the sense of just seeing the glass as half-full — only in the sense of looking at trend lines rather than headlines.

“It’s irrational both to ignore good developments and to put a happy face on bad ones. As it happens, most global, long-term trends have been positive. As for the future, I like the distinction drawn by the economist Paul Romer between complacent optimism, the feeling of a child waiting for presents, and conditional optimism, the feeling of a child who wants a treehouse and realizes that if he gets some wood and nails and persuades other kids to help him, he can build one. I am not complacently optimistic about the future; I am conditionally optimistic.”

“Populist demagogues, idealised leaders who will theoretically solve all our ills, will come and go. In the end, the leadership we exercise at grassroots, in our homes, communities and organisations, driven by universal human values will suffice to overcome the grief we may sometimes feel when life does not fulfil our expectations.” — Graham Ward, INSEAD Adjunct Professor of Leadership, in What Leaders Can Learn From the Rise of the Outsider.

“In 2017, public disquiet about the decisions that algorithms make, the way they affect us, and the lack of debate around their introduction, will become mainstream,” Olivier Usher writes in Human says no (part of Nesta’s 2017 predictions series).

According to Usher, the trigger could take many forms — a politician forced to resign over fake news pushed by a news algorithm, a murder committed by a violent thug released on bail thanks to court software or an employer successfully sued over a discriminatory recruitment system or a pedestrian killed by a self-driving car that’s protecting its passenger.

“But it’s algorithmic decision making as a whole that will be in the firing line when the controversy comes to life. Technologists will be forced to confront the criticism and address some of the more obvious concerns around opacity and bias. As with previous technological controversies, the promise that algorithms can make the world better could be at risk if the response isn’t quick and credible.”

Just as customers are willing to pay more for food without genetically modified crops or pesticides, people will place a premium on decisions made by humans if they don’t trust the machines.

Is there anything wrong with humanity reshaping Mars? “Yes,” says Robert Sparrow, a professor of philosophy at Melbourne’s Monash University. In The Argument Against Terraforming Mars, he argues we have both ethical and aesthetic reasons to leave Mars alone.

“One of the oldest ethical traditions, virtue ethics, can teach us something about this very modern topic. Many popular approaches to ethics focus on actions or intentions, while considerations of a person’s character are secondary at best. But virtue ethics, most famously developed by Aristotle, starts with the observation that we are often more confident in our judgements about who is a good person than we are about what the right thing to do is in a particular situation. If we wish to become a good person, then we should strive to be like those people we admire. According to virtue ethics, what makes someone a good person is that they possess various virtues, such as kindness, courage, and wisdom. What makes someone a bad person is that they possess various vices, such as cruelty, cowardliness, and naivety.

Virtues and vices are features of a person’s character and consist in a history, or pattern, of actions and feelings. A single kind act does not make a cruel person kind, nor does a single cruel act render a kind person cruel. According to Aristotle, to lead a distinctively human life — a life of human flourishing — is to develop and exercise the virtues.

And so, when it comes to the ethics of actions, such as the decision to terraform Mars, we should ask: What sort of person would do that — a virtuous or vicious one?”

Sparrow doesn’t imply that space exploration is necessarily unethical or that we should not try to explore or colonize other worlds. Yet, “each time we venture out into space we should look within — or, perhaps better, at each other — and consider what our involvement in the particular project reveals about us. If we proceed in awareness of the beauty and complexity of the systems we explore, if we are conscious of the limits of our own powers, and are moderate in our ambitions, then these activities may contribute to our flourishing.

But if we proceed recklessly, glorying in our own power, and without concern for the beauty and integrity of the worlds we aim to conquer, our activities are unethical because of what they reveal about our character. Because our character is a function of how we’ve behaved in the past, the way we treat our own planet is relevant to the ethics of our exploration of others. Before we set out to induce a greenhouse effect on Mars, we should do something about the one we have created here on Earth.”

“Philosophy should be conversation, not dogma — face-to-face talk about our place in the cosmos and how we should live,” writer and philosopher Nigel Warburton says in Talk with me.

“Socrates started the conversation about philosophical conversation. This shabby eccentric who wandered the marketplace in fifth-century Athens accosting passersby and cross-questioning them in his celebrated style set the pattern for philosophical discussion and teaching. His pupil Plato crafted eloquent Socratic dialogues that, we assume, capture something of what it was like to be harangued and goaded by his mentor, though perhaps they’re more of a ventriloquist act. Socrates himself, if we believe Plato’s dialogue Phaedrus, had no great respect for the written word. He argued that it was inferior to the spoken. A page of writing might seem intelligent, but whatever question you ask of it, it responds in precisely the same way each time you read it — as this sentence will, no matter how many times you return to it.

Besides, why would a thinker cast seeds on barren soil? Surely it is better to sow then where they’re likely to grow, to share your ideas in the way most suited to the audience, to adapt what you say to whoever is in front of you.”

Sokrates, Antisthenes, Chrysippos, Epikouros. (Photograph by Matt Neale)

“The point of philosophy is not to have a range of facts at your disposal, though that might be useful, nor to become a walking Wikipedia or ambulant data bank: rather, it is to develop the skills and sensitivity to be able to argue about some of the most significant questions we can ask ourselves, questions about reality and appearance, life and death, god and society. As Plato’s Socrates tells us, ‘These are not trivial questions we are discussing here, we are discussing how to live.’’

While answering a question posted on Quora — “Has an art has ever become a science?” — professor of Biology and Neuroscience Dave Featherstone says that art and science are more closely related than you might think.

“Science = art. They are the same thing. Both science and art are human attempts to understand and describe the world around us. The subjects and methods have different traditions, and the intended audiences are different, but I think the motivations and goals are fundamentally the same.

[…]

Both artists and scientists strive to see the world in new ways, and to communicate that vision. When they are successful, the rest of us suddenly ‘see’ the world differently. Our ‘truth’ is fundamentally changed.”

In 1957, when he painted “Black in Deep Red” (above), Mark Rothko abandoned high-keyed colors. © 1998 Kate Rothko Prizel & Christopher Rothko / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

“The ideal subject of totalitarian rule is not the convinced Nazi or dedicated communist, but people for whom the distinction between fact and fiction, true and false, no longer exists.” — Hannah Arendt

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