Friday 28 February 2014

The terrifying new metaphysics of data

I watched the film Lincoln recently, only a year after everybody else.  Apart from wondering why we can't make such intelligent films about political history in the UK, I was fascinated by the portrayal of Lincoln himself - his endless supply of homely tales which infuriated his colleagues but played such a role in defusing tension.

By coincidence, I've just been reading the absolutely compelling autobiography of Peter Drucker, Adventures of a Bystander.  Drucker really invented the art of management writing, and died recently (well, in 2005) just short of his 96th birthday - carrying on writing and consulting almost until the last moment.

Drucker describes Charlie Kellstadt, retired chairman of the retailers Sears Roebuck, enraging his fellow committee members in a Defense Department advisory group, doing exactly the same - long tales about selling bras which took apart the arguments of the young guns, absolutely but without rancour.

But Drucker drew some conclusions about this, writing in 1978, that have absolutely taken a grip on my mind today - because they are directly concerned with a major theme of this blog.  Namely, the gap between figures and reality.

Robert Macnamara, Kennedy's cerebral Defense Secretary - and a forerunner of government targets - went ahead with this particular plan anyway, ignoring Kellstadt, because the figures were right.  But the figures didn't express the wisdom that Kellstadt had gained selling bras.  The result was the disastrous decision on the Lockheed Jumbo air transport contract.

It is three and a half decades since Drucker was writing, and five decades since Kellstadt was irritating Macnamara's committee.  That gap between figures and reality is much more tenuous now.  Whole swathes of those who run the world no longer believe there is a gap - vast institutions are run without regard to any gap at all.

You might well say that this was why our organisations, public and private, are generally speaking so ineffective.  I couldn't possibly comment.

But Drucker put his finger on the issue, which is as much theological as it is economic.  He described the shift in the world since he was working at a London merchant bank in the 1930s called Freeberg & Co - then there just a few people, maybe in banking, who saw the word like that:

"Our whole society has moved to the perception and metaphysics Freedberg & Co represented.  It has shifted to seeing symbols as real: money, 'trades' and 'deals', interest rates and Gross National Product.  Our whole society assumes, in the words of the medieval logician, that Nomina sunt realia: that the symbols have substance while the objects they represent are mere shadows."

Drucker describes this metaphysical approach to life as 'ultra-nominalism', a version of the medieval philosophy, that "treats symbols and images as the ultimate reality, and people and things as shadows".

And of course, he is absolutely right.  That ultra-nominalism has grown in strength, increasingly blind to the shadow world that we used to know as human reality.  There is even a debate about whether this human reality is different at all from the figures that purport to describe it.

It explains the slow hollowing out of our institutions, and maybe also our bizarre failure to act on the world.  But for anyone who still believes there is a gap between data and reality, can I recommend my own book on the subject, The Tyranny of Numbers.  

It is more than a decade old but there is life in the old dog yet.  And over that period the new metaphysics has growth rapidly in strength.  It may now be changing reality by ruling it non-existent.

Those of us who know otherwise may have to fight to keep the old language alive, which is the only way we will be able to assert a separate existence for awkward reality beyond the data.

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1 comment:

Mariam said...
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