Secret Messages

gapingvoid hapless telco employeeThings are the way they are for a reason. I know, I keep saying that, but it’s important. Politicians and economists don’t get it: They react to events, and rather than study why these events happened, they invent (for the benefit of their own consciences and those of their political supporters) a simple cause for the events that ‘fits’ with their worldview. More than a desire to mislead, this is a manifestation of intellectual laziness and a complete misunderstanding of complex adaptive systems — which, because they reflect human behaviour, underlie most events that require or provoke political or economic reaction. Complex systems can never be completely understood — too many variables, constantly changing and interacting. They must be probed, not analyzed, and with enough continuous effort by a lot of intelligent, patient, relatively unbiased people, a partial understanding of why things are the way they are will start to emerge. Such humility is, of course, beyond the capacity of the vast majority of politicians and economists.

Likewise, business ‘leaders’ don’t get it: They tell other people what to do, tell them what they want done, and bring in consultants and experts to help them ‘effect change’ in their organizations. They cannot fathom that most of what happens in their organizations is workarounds developed by front-line people to make things work in the organization despite the inept and usually inappropriate advice of management and professional advisors who only think they understand what is really going on and why. Organizations, too, are complex adaptive systems, and it takes a lot of probing and study to even start to understand why things are the way they are inside them, let alone begin to change them. Of course, managers can effect change by firing all the front-line people and bringing in cheaper recruits, or offshoring or outsourcing or automating their jobs, but that change is unlikely to be the change management wants, because the main ingredient will still be people with complex human behaviours.

I don’t mean for this to be an advertisement for more study of complex adaptive systems — I’ve advocated that many times in these pages. What I want to do is make it a bit of a game, that I call ‘Secret Messages’.

Here’s how the game works: Suppose you want to understand the cause of world poverty. You might start by hypothesizing overpopulation, or inequitable distribution of natural resources on the planet, or ignorance, or political despotism. But if you probe enough you will probably conclude that there is plenty of resources for 6.5 billion humans today, provided we don’t care about leaving any for future generations and all of the other creatures that inhabit this planet with us. So then you decide (as many have) that it’s a problem of distribution of resources, and that the real problem is a lack of distribution infrastructure (trains, markets etc.) That’s a more complicated explanation, but it’s still not a complex one. Now suppose you ask yourself what motivation their might be for people to deliberately work to ensure that the distribution of resources in our world was grossly inequitable, without being too obvious about it (in fact they might even argue, as many do, that the ‘war on poverty’, a simple metaphor for a complex problem, is being ‘won’). Now you’re getting into the realm of the complex. If you jump from the initial simply-stated problem or surprising situation to a complex hypothesis about what, at least in part, underlies it, you have a Secret Message, telling you about something that lurks deep beneath the surface. What’s interesting is that this huge jump in thinking often has huge intuitive, intellectual appeal. It can be, and can come across as, quite clever. And it might even teach people how to think about complexity.

That’s how you play Secret Messages. The best way to show this is with some examples. Here’s one to start, drawn from the famous book about complex systems called Freakonomics. The Secret Message is shown in italics.

.  The Secret Message behind the dramatic drop in urban crime rates in the US starting in the 1990s: In the 1970s Roe v. Wade finally made legal abortion available to poor urban women who previously neither had access to abortion nor used reliable contraception consistently.

This hypothesis (in complex systems we have to settle for compelling hypotheses, since with an infinite number of variables involved, absolute proof of causality is impossible) utterly enraged both conservatives (who tend to believe that more police, capital punishment and tougher sentences were the causes of the crime rate drop) and liberals (who tend to believe that better gun control, better education and more human approaches to inner city poverty were the causes of the drop). But even Malcolm Gladwell, whose hypothesis on this subject in The Tipping Point was seriously undermined by the Freakonomics hypothesis) acknowledges the Freakonomics hypothesis has great validity.

What follows are some problems, mysteries, and surprise successes that are complex, simply stated, followed by my Secret Message hypothesis about complex human or natural behaviour that might underlie it. It’s up to you, dear reader, to decode the message — or rather, to follow the complex trail that leads to the hypothesis. Or not — you may just find them amusing, interesting or provocative. I’ll settle for that. It’s as close as I can come to the cleverness in Hugh Macleod’s business card cartoons (like the one above) since I’m neither as witty nor as artistic as he is. If you find my Secret Messages merely cryptic or annoying, that’sfine too — this game isn’t for everyone.

.  The Secret Message behind the success of Google: It only has to *look* simple.
.  The Secret Message behind low voter turnout: People know when there’s really no choice.

.  The Secret Message behind the failures in Iraq and Afghanistan: You can’t impose democracy (i.e. rule by the people) *on* the people.

.  The Secret Message behind both Monsanto and Guantanamo: The enduring message of Dr. Frankenstein: technology without conscience is monstrous.

.  The Secret Message behind the success of Skype: We need to talk.

.  The Secret Message behind the success of the anti-smoking movement and the failure of the environmental movement: Fear drives people to act only when it’s personal.

.  The Secret Message behind technophilia (the belief that technology will save us): Even atheists need a religion.

.  The Secret Message behind the resurgence of religious fundamentalism: When people feel threatened, everything gets reduced to ‘us vs. them’.

.  The Secret Message behind the success of self-help books: We all want to say we tried.

.  The Secret Message behind our love of (so-called) counterculture: People want to believe they have a choice.

.  The Secret Message behind the success of brands: Everyone wants to belong.

.  The Secret Message behind world poverty and the disappearance of the middle class: In a world of abundance, people can’t be controlled.

and my favourite from last year:
.  The Secret Message behind our tolerance of atrocity: When you can’t imagine, you can do anything.

Your turn.

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7 Responses to Secret Messages

  1. Mike says:

    Love it, Dave. I hope you’ll continue to throw in Secret Messages as you find them. Here’s another:The Secret message behind the success of blogs: people are done letting actors, lobbyists, and talking heads speak for them.

  2. Joe says:

    To reword one of these: The Secret Message behind biophilia (An appreciation of life and the living world.): Even atheists need a religion. More here on “Environmentalism as Religion”:

  3. Jack Yan says:

    Marvellous. And it can be used for good and evil, marking out the ideas which get carried and which ones don

  4. theresa says:

    I tried to find the secret messege in those chinese blogs above, but ? wooden floors? I guess it was too deep for me.

  5. Dave Pollard says:

    Joe: I don’t know what happened to Crichton, whether he was always a wacked-out right-winger or whether the neocons needed a celebrity spokesman for Bush’s “junk science”. He’s the new Lomborg (not that we needed one). Mike, Jack — thanks. Theresa: unlike some previous Chinese ‘comments’ on this site I think this one is just spam ;-)

  6. Kika says:

    The Secret Message behind world poverty is poverty of thought! It is simple cause and effect.

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