Formatting our world

The language we speak, the organisation we live or work in, and the technology we use all have one thing in common: they format our world. They shape how we think about it, how we see it, how we behave in it, and how we interact with it. All that formatting has tremendous advantages in our day-to-day lives. Yet it also provides an explanation for the challenges innovators face when they develop something novel that does not fit any of the pre-established formats.

Language

In How language shapes the way we think, cognitive scientist Lera Boroditsky presents some astonishing examples for the impact a language has on the thinking of its speakers. It is true that words are efficient containers to convey meaning, but language is more than just words. It is grammar defines the rules for using those words, for constructing our messages – and our thoughts.

The influence of these formats and rules becomes obvious when you start comparing languages and try to express a (seemingly) simple idea in a language that is not your mother tongue. Suddenly you realise significant differences. What seems pretty basic in one language might be next to impossible in another. Some languages know grammatical gender, others don’t. Some have future tense, others don’t. Some get along with four cases, other use many more. Some use suffixes to express the case of a noun, others don’t. And some do not have words for what many others would consider essential: just take Boroditsky’s example of an Aboriginal language that does not have words for ‘left’ and ‘right’. The implications are stunning.

Language formats our thinking about the world. It defines our means for expressing our ideas, hence to an extent language pre-defines the thoughts that easily come to our minds, and the ideas that we can easily articulate. Obviously, it is a challenge to express ideas without the right words, and novel concepts are initially difficult to convey. You have to paraphrase them, and maybe use similes, images, or analogies to ‘get your idea across’. Over time, new words come up, new terms are coined to denote novels ideas. Or they might be borrowed and adopted from other languages that already have a compelling expression. And even the use of grammar changes slowly over time; just compare medieval, 19th century, 1950s, and very recent texts to observe that evolution. Language has demonstrated this adaptability time and time again. Language is a living organism that provides the common format for the expression of thought and the exchange of ideas.

A Brief Excursion on Institutions

Like the language we use, the institutions we have established –our rules and laws, our traditions and convictions, our religion and ethics– effect our thinking. But unlike language, which acts as a general enabler for the expression of our thoughts about the world, institutions frame how we want our world to be. They provide the dividing line between what is acceptable (hence falls within the world as we want it) and what is unacceptable. In particular, our institutions define how we want our society to function, and that includes ‘forbidden’ thoughts and taboos: For example, if the quest for knowledge is considered sacrilegious or heretical, science as we know it cannot flourish. In hindsight, we might smile at the constrained thinking during less enlightened ages; but let us not forget that the limitations imposed by our institutions are the foundation our society is built upon: murder, torture, theft, or fraud are outlawed for good reason.

Organisations

We tailor our organisational structures and processes to execute given tasks, while minimising the resources consumed. An organisation is a very effective vehicle for standardising repeated, repetitive, routine activities in order to execute them most efficiently. Structures are the rather static components, whereas processes are the more dynamic elements. Most often, structures dominate, and processes serve as the connective tissue between the units, sections, departments, and divisions that make up those structures. Organisations thus are the very powerful means that tailor our working together: organisations format our team play in the world. Essentially, our structures and processes describe how resources are allocated (money, people, energy, information, raw material, and leadership attention). They define who does what when how, and most importantly, they define who has power and who is in control.

All of that develops and matures over time. I would even argue that an org-chart is a window into the organisation’s past, but shall not be mistaken as a picture of the organisation’s future. Very naturally, organisations remain focused on the problem they were originally designed to solve, and they evolve towards the most efficient allocation of resources to solve that problem. Any adjustment would require some reallocation of resources, hence we shouldn’t be surprised that organisations are generally skeptical of change, and sometimes openly hostile.

From the organisation’s introspective view, any change will kill the efficiency of the current organisation: change threatens to nullify the achievements of the past. But from an external view, simply maximising efficiency for the given task creates the perfect one-trick pony. That’s why efficiency will kill the organisation slowly: optimised” organisations lose all their resilience. So it should be clear that it is not enough to simply insist ‘that’s always been the way we do things around here‘.

Government departments and ministries may serve as a case in point. Think about a fundamentally new challenge that government must deal with, for example climate change. Of course that does not fit the existing structures and processes. Hence, there‘s a formidable fight to emerge between the established ministries for environment, economics, education, energy, research, finance, infrastructure (and maybe more) over responsibilities, funding, and any other form of power and control. It’s the battle over Who is in charge? and Who gets the means? Naturally, such battle takes time, and it will not be efficient. But in the end, the organisation of government will adapt. It speaks volumes that ministries of the environment are common branches of government today, a thought that seemed alien back in the 1970s and even 80s.

As I have argued earlier, organisational change presents a genuine challenge that is not overcome easily. Successful organisations must find a sound balance between extremes, must wrestle with and embrace what seems paradoxical: they must balance static and dynamic organisational elements; they must cultivate patient and impatient leadership styles; and they must live a culture that promotes both, their efficiency and their resilience.

Organisations format our standard way of doing business, of working with each other. They afford a natural reluctance to engage in new challenges, as their focus on efficient allocation of resources does not give them motivation or incentives to steer away from their given tasks. This resistance to change is driven by the fear of loss of power or control. Still, because the allocation of resources is managed through already established organisations, as innovators we cannot escape them – we must deal with them!

Technology

Mankind’s technological prowess evolved over time, initially only very slowly, but picking up speed as we had ever more tools available to recombine in order to get new tasks done. That’s essentially the story how we got from the stone axe to autonomous systems. And each of these technologies defines the ease with which how we can (or cannot) act in –and on– our environment.

Take the container as the most tangible, visible, and pervasive example. Until the 1950s, global trade was dealt with in bulk cargo and packaged cargo, but after the invention and global adoption of the 20-foot container, that standard metal box re-defined everything: from the shape and size of cargoships, to the layout of ports and freight terminals, to the requirements on land transport and cranes, to the very planning of consumer goods (how to package them so that the largest possible number fits into one container). The TEU, i.e., the twenty-foot equivalent unit, has become the universal yardstick for measuring global trade. And if your particular product does not fit in one of those boxes, you’ll have to walk the extra mile –and bear the extra cost– to get it picked up, shipped, and delivered.

Technology formats our interface with the world, very literally it gives us the tools to interact with our surroundings. Any specific technology is tailored to a concrete initial purpose, and it can often be adapted to serve a wider range of purposes. Yet the further you move away from that first intent, the less effective this technology will be.

And that’s where the challenges arise in our relation with technology: We easily get used to our tools and the utility they offer; and we come to appreciate the solution that they provide so much that we don’t really try to understand the problem. As the old adage goes: If you have a hammer, every problem starts looking like a nail. You ultimately stop solving the actual problem, and instead you focus on just implementing the pre-fab solution; whether that solution fits the problem or not. Still worse, even if the tool doesn’t work, we reconstruct our thinking around the idea that the tool must be correct. Take for example the idea that ‘If it’s not on Google, it doesn’t exist’, and take it very literally: If you just moved into a new apartment in a new house at a fairly new street, it’s likely that Google Maps doesn’t (yet) know that address. But then your Uber driver won’t come to pick you up, and your Amazon delivery won’t find you either. Your address will only come into existence once Google Maps is updated.

What we observe today is the current end-point of a very slow and long-term development. Over millennia of mankind’s cultural evolution, as our technology gradually became more sophisticated, it acquired ever broader formatting capacity.

  • Our earliest tools and techniques (stone axes, the use of fire, or pottery) formatted our interface to the world and our interaction with it. But that was only the beginning of a breath-taking evolution.
  • Soon enough, technology expanded its formatting capacity to shaping our human interactions. The Agricultural Revolution gave rise to specialisation, and during the Industrial Revolution, the factory and its associated management and production processes emerged.
  • More recently, with the ongoing Digital Revolution, technology acquired the capacity to even format our thinking. The omnipresent use of information and communication technologies is the case in point, just consider our virtual existence on social media, being online 24/7.

But it’s not just “the computer” that shapes our thinking; things are a little more subtle. Rather than the hardware and software, the main characteristic that appeals to our thinking is the automation of routines and procedures: it’s the algorithm itself. And one more subtlety still: we don’t start to “think like an algorithm“, but our thinking gets trapped within our trust in algorithms.

The mathematician Hannah Fry collected a vast number examples for the life-changing effects of blind faith in algorithms used across a wide field of applications, including social media, criminal justice, predictive policing, medicine, and self-driving cars. Fry’s account presents a chilling story of our readiness to hand over responsibility to “the machine”: letting go of the faintest skepticism, subjecting the decision solely to the assumed authority of the technology, simply taking the course of action recommended by the algorithmic tool, without checks and balances, without even contemplating a potential human override.

Gradually, and over a long period of time, technology has acquired the formatting functions of language and organisation alike; today, it has the capacity to shape our thinking, our team play, and our interaction with the world. Thus, technology has become the most powerful formatting we –as individuals and as societies– have ever been subject to.

What’s at stake

Formatting is essential for our daily lives. Whether it’s language, organisation, or technology, formatting helps us to get recurrent, routine activities done swiftly and efficiently. However, these formats and standards are defined with the benefit of hindsight, based on experience so far. And they all exploit the same basic trick to increase the efficiency of standard activities. By reducing variance and deviation, formatting helps us to separate wheat from chaff, to filter the signal from all the noise. Taken to extremes, such formatting will undermine diversity to the point where our world is streamlined, straightjacketed, and empoverished.

For example, squeezing non-standard, non-routine, or creative activities into standard moulds renders them ineffective. Such over-reliance on standards is a symptom of risk-aversion, which is a natural trap for our organisations to fall into, in particular when they are forced to deal with uncertainty, trying find their way ahead in yet uncharted territory. Simply relying on formats and standards leaves any organisation ill-prepared to handle yet ‘unformatted’ situations, to embrace the novel and facilitate the unprecedented.

In particular, we cannot afford to let technology format our thinking about the future, to let today’s technology constrain what can or cannot be. A good example is the ongoing discussion about Artificial Intelligence (AI) and the need to develop AI-based decision-support tools that can “explain” their “reasoning“. Some argue that it would be impossible to design such a functionality based on today’s machine learning approaches. While the argument may well be technically correct, we shouldn’t accept the implied conclusion that AI cannot be transparent, that AI necessarily must operate in a black box. On the contrary, we must leave the format behind (here: machine learning) and look for alternative trajectories to achieving explainable AI. It is true that available technology shapes the art of the possible, but it shall never prescribe the boundaries of the thinkable.

We must acknowledge that suitable standards, templates, or formats cannot exist for novel activities (yet). And reciprocally, we cannot expect standards, templates, or formats to tell us anything meaningful about novelty. For that’s the very hallmark of novelty: something that is unprecedented, something that we cannot (yet) judge as either signal or noise.

Leaving the comfort zone

Any format imposes constraints. What you can say or do within those limits is easily accessible for abstract thought as well as concrete action. It’s known, it’s well established, it’s understood: That’s our comfort zone.

Things you have no words are difficult to express, things you don’t have tools for are difficult to do. But neither is entirely impossible: You just have to either expand or break the mould of the format to express or achieve something truly novel. You can expect lots of resistance, but it will help to identify the root cause of that push-back. If it’s language, take the time to find words to explain your intentions. If it’s organisation, be ready to shake the foundation. And if it’s technology, pursue an alternative approach, but don’t accept no for an answer.

That will often be inconvenient and seem like a detour from the path ahead you have charted. But that path is only an extrapolation, formatted by the experience behind, not by future ahead. To succeed in the future, you need to liberate your thinking from untenable constraints of the past.

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