Making Sense of Our Work

Doing the work over time

The job of a journalist is to ask reality to explain itself.

This was what I took away from a conversation with The Philadelphia Inquirer Associate Editor John Timpane, one of my favorite writers and thinkers. In a column about the fortieth anniversary of Sgt. Pepper by the Beatles, he reported something George Martin had said about what set the Beatles apart from other bands, “they had an eternal curiosity for doing something different.”

But their experimentation was not mere A/B testing, it led somewhere new.

Toward the end of last year, I said that the more things change, the more we stay the same. That is because when the rate of external change overtakes the rate of social reproduction as individuals we confront the need to recast our ideas and attitudes more than once in our working life.

We are undergoing a period of serious change at multiple levels. The environment in which we operate is changing, and context is shifting even more rapidly. Individual adjustment for processing change has gone from challenging to a formidable problem. Just at the time when the very social structures that still held us together are experiencing tremendous pressure to make sense of things.

The nature of the problems has also changed, which is stress testing systems configured to support what was before. Thus we have a return to a stricter, more structured response instead of an evolved approach to decision-making — a reversion to what worked.

Even as the context is different.

When the rate of cultural change is maximum, individual thinking is not prized. As a consequence, we go with the flow. The problem is we spin as individual thinking ideas that looked more closely we would see for what they are — a way to manage risk by aligning with the crowd.

The true problem is that we don't value our own individual thinking. In fact, we may come to view thinking as a luxury we don't have. In a culture that prizes “always on,” “Just Do It,” and “Yes We Can,” we forget the part where we evaluate whether we should based on our direction.

We can measure risk, but uncertainty is hard to measure. Further, as knowledge workers, we have a hard time accounting for trade-offs and we are not so good at understanding the impact of loss of our energy over the way we spend our days to make a good life.

Risk has a price, the price of uncertainty is what it does to us.

Optimizing is efficient, but limited.

What got us here, won't get us to what is next. And there is value in negative knowledge. Marvin Minsky, a pioneer of artificial intelligence says:

We tend to think of knowledge in positive terms — and of experts as people who know what to do. But a 'negative' way to seem competent is, simply, never to make mistakes.

How much of what we learn to do — and learn to think — is of this other variety? It is hard to tell, experimentally, because knowledge about what not to do never appears in behavior. And it is also difficult to assess, psychologically, because many of the judgments that we traditionally regard as positive — such as beauty, humor, pleasure, and decisiveness — may actually reflect the workings of unconscious double negatives.

We tend to shy away form all things negative, or potentially so.

Feedback, reviews, even conversations. Yet, it is through these vehicles that we learn the most. But this begs the question of whether we know how to have a conversation. Because online, by and large, people don't converse, they comment — there's a big difference between the two.

Take feedback, for example. Creating a mechanism that provides feedback involves four stages: 1./ the data, a behavior or evidence; 2./ relaying the information to the person in a context that makes it emotionally resonant or relevance; 3./ the paths ahead the information illuminates, or consequence; and 4./ the moment when the individual can recalibrate a behavior, and take action

The true power of feedback loops is not to control people but to give them control.

Conversation is valuable because invited and facilitated.

It requires negotiating, interpreting, and teasing out. Conversation is the white space, the place where people turn together to deliberate and weigh things, where we suspend judgment (listening without resistance), explore the underlying causes, rules, and assumptions to get to deeper questions and framing of problems.

It leads to generative dialogue that invents unprecedented possibilities and new insights, producing collective flow.

In an article about digital culture, Esko Kilpi says:

Our present digital culture is oriented towards the objective and the quantifiable more than the subjective and the qualitative. The software we work with reflects the analytical minds of the people who built it, such as my friend. The downside of all this is a possible failure to understand and capture the paradoxical elements of life.

The brain is unlike a computer and big data should not replace thinking, nor should artificial intelligence. Furthermore:

Traditional science was a project that aimed to get closer and closer to certainty. The new sciences of complexity are making it clear that this is not possible. Complexity sciences present paradoxes as being normal in everyday life. The dominant scientific way of thinking tries to eliminate paradox. An encounter with paradox, such as seeing the same thing differently from different points of view, has been understood as a sign of not thinking properly and thus has led to attempts to resolve or eliminate the paradox. What the new sciences are suggesting is that the dynamic patterns of knowing are inherently paradoxical and context-dependent.


To force this complexity into a reduced number of cognitive patterns would be enormously repressive.

When I chose the name for this site pre-social media agency explosion, I overlooked its association with Conversational Agent, which is a software program that interprets and responds to statements made by users in ordinary natural language. It integrates computational linguistics techniques with communication over the internet and is used primarily used in an academic context by scientists and engineers working on systems that interpret and respond to statements made by users.

A different idea.

Conversation Agent describes the process I use to learn — making sense of things, making do with what is at hand, and making it valuable by showing up to evolve things dynamically. The first tagline for the site was “connecting ideas and people – how talk can change our lives.”

Kilpi says, “we have more connections with people, but less understanding of people who are not like us.” We have more access, but we don't have better understanding of what other people are like in the absence of meeting them, being face to face. He says:

The next digital tools dealing with intelligence need to be more “dialogic”. The concept of dialogue has a very precise meaning. It is a discussion which does not resolve itself by finding common ground. Though no shared agreements are reached, people often become more aware of their own views and learn through expanding their understanding of one another and the different contexts of different people. We become more intelligent if the paradoxes are kept alive.

We lack practice, and we also lack context — tweets, text, chats, are all snippets separated from circumstance and often by time and space. News is consumed without taking in the nourishment that comes from asking reality to explain itself.

The point is not being right all the time. It is cultivating the ability to carry through an argument. In Thank You For Arguing, Jay Heinrichs highlights the importance of understanding and appreciating the lost art of rhetoric. His aim is to teach the art of persuasion, and in the process we learn how to craft an argument.

But we cannot ever truly understand that which we don't value.  Our paradox is that we say we prize individuality and self-expression, yet we're experiencing widespread cultural homogenization.

The more things change in our environment, the more we do remain the same. Except for we are doing it in increasingly small spaces, where we can eke out some privacy, and narrow confines, which explains the resurgence of private dinners with limited numbers of guests.

For ten years, this site has been a place to think through issues in conversations with authors, researchers, analysts, scientists, and thinkers from all over the world. There is now enough volume, variety, and velocity to build upon.


February 29 is a good day for making a change that has been occurring over the last twelve months visible. With the new banner comes a renewed commitment to making Learning a Habit (subscribe here), and making sense of our work.