Freedom to be wrong

“The Deacon’s Masterpiece or Wonderful One-Hoss-Shay – A Logical Story” is a poem from 1858 by Oliver Wendell Holmes

Chain gang
European Union

which describes a man’s search for improvements in the design of  a horse-drawn carriage.  “A chaise breaks down, but doesn’t wear out”, he complains, i.e. it has weak points. He expends considerable time and energy in eliminating these weak points, one by one until none are left. (This is analogous to the various Kaizen, CIP or CP processes undertaken routinely by modern manufacturers). One day, after long service, the chaise collapses during an earthquake. The collapse occurs everywhere at once as there are no weak points. This is, to the modern mind, efficient.

We can compare and contrast this approach with Nature’s way of going about things. Living things, as Neal Stephenson has it in Cryptonomicon, spam their environments with rough copies of themselves. Nature’s / the Creator’s genius is encapsulated in the word “rough” for none of the copies are exactly the same. This allows some to be better than others in the competition for space and resources in any given environment. Their characteristics tend to predominate. As the environment changes, other attributes gain advantage and assume dominance. Even in a stable environment organisms continue to change, it is their only way. Inherent in this system are two factors, resilience and redundancy (waste).

For manufacturers the one-hoss-shay approach is entirely suitable, provided the point of ultimate collapse can be extended beyond the appropriate lifetime of the product. This is usually determined by technological factors. I have perfectly serviceable cassette and minidisc players I no longer use as I have something better in all respects. Cars are often junked while still operational and safe for reasons of boredom / changing taste, cost of maintenance, or their inferior fuel economy when compared to modern designs.

As the culture of managerialism intrudes from the factory into our domestic and personal settings, and the ways of thinking of our political elites, this is the mindset that is being applied more and more into every aspect of life. Every effort is applied to finding best practice and then applying it everywhere. Efficiency is all. Homogenous healthcare systems, shopping experiences, music, tv and films predominate. Homogeneity even pervades the spoken word. Recently nearly everyone interviewed on the radio or tv instead of beginning their answer meaninglessly with “I mean …” or “Yeah, no …” as they did until about a year ago, has started with the equally meaningless and irritating “So …” .

Not only is the world becoming monstrously dull because of all this consensus of mediocrity, when the culture pervades an area with an unusually high density of really clever people such as economists or investment bankers it also becomes catastrophically brittle. When one bunch of geniuses are found to have underestimated the risk inherent in products which have been created and manipulated by people more greedy and less clever than themselves, not only does their house of cards collapse it takes the street with it. Politicians are no better, jamming the countries of continental Europe into an ever more constricting set of economic and political straightjackets has certainly brought an end to what were once considered inevitable ongoing conflicts. It has also, however, placed them, and us in a common predicament in a way which has never happened before.

Perhaps a more ‘natural’ model of nation states, economies and national rather than global banks, each operating and mutating in its own manner would provide greater resilience at the cost of some redundancy and loss of efficiency. Innovation and competition would surely improve and we probably wouldn’t all end up with a leg in a hole at the same time. After all countries, unlike manufactured goods, don’t have an appropriate lifetime after which it is acceptable to collapse everywhere at once.


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