Dec 5, 2008

a desirable plasticity

i wrote this in 2005, and found it again by chance today while attending a conference on organizational design. apropos now, given the degree to which incomprehensible instruments have devastated the economy (john lanchester has a nice new yorker essay about how postmodernism features in said devastation). thus:

it is only when the "4" key on your thinkpad breaks down that you realize how many things require typing either a 4 or a $. spent the morning going through miscellaneous and numerous credit card and service accounts to make payments and/or close them. more than ever before, the growing influence of service providers allows them to penetrate where the conditions of their service are not fully understood by their customer base. clearly, there should be some obligation to ensure a full disclosure but i cannot help feeling that overextension of development is partly culpable. it is not unreasonable to expect someone who grows up in the age of credit and electronic banking to understand the benefits, disadvantages, and conditions governing the extension of credit to private individuals (for example) yet credit card companies routinely are forced to conduct credit education for students who have dramatically overspent on their shiny new credit cards or who do not understand the detrimental side effects of not making a monthly payment. perhaps the complexity of these financial systems are beyond those who did not grow up with them? i certainly keep my accounts as streamlined as possible, and even then they frequently perplex and frustrate.

this is ultimately a question of how plastic human high-level behavioural patterns actually are, and whether or not a high level of plasticity is in fact desirable. the oft-quoted hugh of st. victor--who only became oft-quoted after edward said quoted him in Orientalism--argued that "the man who finds his homeland sweet is still a tender beginner; he to whom every soil is as his native one is already strong; but he is perfect to whom the entire world is as a foreign land." (he was talking about something else, but in these meta-times of post-post-modernism everything is evidence.) hugh (and said) are describing the tactical immersion and flexibility of michel certeau's bricolage and james c. scott's metis, the quality that odysseus has ("o! many-sided hero"). we could take this reading to imply a normative prescriptive path that edmund burke would doubtless criticize--essentially a glue-factory approach for the outmoded. i advocate rigorous segregation, for the new is always invasive, and the old seldom has the tools to fight back. like nietzsche and tocqueville both observe, segregation allows the joint existence (and slow replacement) of two (or more) systems where combination would rapidly dilute or destroy all but one.
the question now, of course, is whether or not to let the previous system persist and gradually be replaced, or to let it crumble. this week, richard hackman mentioned something connected: the idea of partial eradication, in which whatever you don't fully eradicate generally returns, stronger than before. this is the "whatever doesn't kill you makes you stronger," antibiotic-resistant bacteria argument, and i find myself increasingly convinced.

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