Issue 4.10 | August 2014

In this Article: better to lead truthfully towards a brave new world than blindly towards a fantasy and a let-down.

by Jonathan Wilson

If we pull together all of today’s promises for tomorrow into one silver-tinged, breathy picture, it would seem that heaven is nigh. The mental illness that blights urban societies will disappear as we’ll all be doing the work we love, corporations will be socially conscious and beautifully flat, and medical breakthroughs will take care of the rest; carnage and traffic jams will be a quaint memory as every one of us enjoys the safety and efficiency of robotic cars; the internet of things will be a quainter memory still (does anyone remember seeing Web 2.0? It was here just a few days ago), for we will have manufactured our own evolutionary leap far beyond Google Glass and into a seamless meshing of man and machine; “big data” will conquer the limits of the human mind; and internet balloons adrift on stratospheric winds will enable us all, no matter how remote or poor or inhibited our social context, to be stunningly well-educated and communicative, and thus poverty and war will die with a whimper under the sheer weight of this extraordinary progress.

The Truth About How Smart We Are

We breathe a hubris-enriched air, an atmosphere in which every electron is charged with a confidence in our genius and the technological fruits of that genius – a confidence that is, in fact, irrational. It is irrational, firstly, because it doesn’t correspond to the facts about our minds. Neuroscience is showing us, as postmodern philosophy had long postulated, the inevitable flaws and gaps in our reasoning and the impossibility of true objectivity. From the curse of rabbits in Australia to the focus-sapping impact of smart devices, the complaint that accompanies any unexpected fall-out from an innovation – “we hadn’t thought of that!” – will not go away. Even if we had the brain capacity to evaluate all data and considerations relevant to an innovation, we would be betrayed by our assumptions – our worldview filters – which constrain our thinking in ways we can do nothing about, except to learn the hard way.

Secondly, it is irrational because it bears no correspondence to the facts outside of our minds. The competence of the scientific method should not be confused with omnipotence.  Every fresh and helpful discovery science makes opens up before our surprised eyes yet another horizon of ignorance. The near-certain confirmation of the “God particle” in 2012 may have enhanced the credibility of the Standard Model of physics, but it did nothing to alleviate the problem already posed by the Standard Model, which is that it doesn’t sit very comfortably alongside the theory of gravity. Nor did it get us any closer to explaining the other ninety-five percent of the stuff of the universe, otherwise known as dark matter. The discovery of the Higgs boson was not so god-like after all.

We Are the Limit

Technology is an extension of human assumptions and of the human condition. If it expresses our genius, it also encapsulates our ignorance. Where it solves thorny problems, it also perpetuates our brokenness.

At a meeting of experts and leaders from the auto-industry held a few years ago, I witnessed the seemingly uncritical conviction that the driverless car represents the best possible future for the automobile and its users. In a commuter’s nightmare like Toronto or Los Angeles, it is certainly hard to imagine a better solution to one’s misery.

The pursuit of the driverless car reflects the premium we place on efficiency and, especially, safety. It may also reflect our increasing tendency to remove responsibility for our personal well-being from ourselves and place it in regulations and safety mechanisms. The more we eliminate our personal interface with risk, the more we eliminate the primary means by which we develop individual creativity, initiative and resilience. In so doing we undermine the individual maturity that is essential to healthy personhood and healthy community.

Big Data is another silver bullet fired from the glittery barrel of business trendiness. In 2008, Wired Magazine offered a heady prediction that the need for human interpretation would become obsolete as “with enough data, the numbers speak for themselves.” Five years ago, Google researchers ran algorithms on internet searches related to ‘flu to track and map the spread of the disease in the US – and did so in a seventh of the time taken by national Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Four years later, however, Google Flu Trends was failing to deliver. Because Google relied on statistical correlations it had no way of establishing causation, i.e. what triggered the search for a particular term (for statistical analysis of big data that comically highlights the absurdity of relying on correlation, go here).

Whether one’s data set is large or big, it has to be interpreted. The methods and constraints for doing so remain the same as they ever have: human.

A Human Future

Idolizing technology blinds us to what we actually need to pay attention to if we are to see genuine progress: our assumptions and our condition.

In Leadership is an Art, Max de Pree claimed that a leader’s first task is to define reality. This task begins with questioning the assumptions that drive our choices, and with honestly probing the condition of one’s organizational culture, of one’s society, of oneself. This does not undermine a leader’s ability to craft a compelling vision. For a vision to be truly compelling, it has to be true! A vision that accounts for and responds to the reality of our human limits has a much greater chance of drawing us down a road of genuine progress: towards solutions that are a little bit less shiny, but a great deal more meaningful.

Yes, because the future is human, it will be flawed. If it is built in response to the truth about who we are, it will not be heaven but it may offer a hint of heaven. If it is built on hubris, however, it certainly will be hell.

Another leadership insight from

Leadership by Soul™, Trademark and © Jonathan Wilson, All Rights Reserved.

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