If you had told any of the poor unfortunates involved in Genoa’s disaster that their fate was to be sealed when a bridge fell away beneath them, I doubt they would have believed it. Such events lie close to the margins of human credibility, at least when it comes to personalising the matter so brutally.
I am reading Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s ground-breaking work The Black Swan, whose main contention is that events in this world are far more frequently determined by the unexpected and unknown than humans feel comfortable with. The events in Genoa must come close to such a phenomenon, and feel quite raw here, as I have driven over that bridge several times.
And yet it seems that the actual direction of human travel is still to try to rationalise ever more aspects of our existence, even though all that the signs are that this process constrains and depersonalises the very experience of being human.
One might argue that the maintenance of a bridge should be entirely rational and systematic – but that overlooks the fact that no matter how good the systems, they cannot cope with the irregular, irrational or unexpected. And I suspect those elements of human nature run far deeper than mere logic.
In reality, our attempts to impose order and predictability on this world are as self-defeating as they are superficial. Indeed, much of what we value most is anything but systematic.
I suspect the tendency derives from two things:
1) The huge size of modern societies and organisations, such that the only way to co-ordinate consistent behaviour seems to involve a reduction in scope for individual decision-making. There are serious implications here for both democracy and individual autonomy.
2) The reliance on I.T. and other technical systems, interaction with which requires intransigent adherence to the structures (and limitations) put in place by those who created them. I suspect that they gradually condition the mind to a linear, box-ticking view of the world.
In both cases, the effect seems to me to be a diminution of the scope for individual human initiative – and blindness that this perhaps increases our exposure to the kind of systemic failures that cause bridges to collapse or other seemingly out-of-the-blue happenings to take place. (It seems that warnings about problems with the bridge were lost in Italian cultural laxity…)
I was recently struck by the same impression on reading that up-take of arts, humanities and modern foreign languages continues to decline in the U.K., at the expense of the STEM subjects. This is no surprise, since it has been policy at both governmental and individual school level for some time – and students do tend to respond to such steer. It is also no doubt in part due to the fact that such subjects lend themselves more easily to the kind of technocratic, easily-defined form of ‘progress’ that has been favoured in recent years – and no less to the perception that these fields are where success is clearest and rewards greatest. No need to inconvenience ourselves with such imponderables as ‘unknown unknowns’ let alone matters of relative wisdom; just churn out more of the same black-or-white and collect rather more than £200 just for passing Go.
And reading this blog drove home to me – as its author eventually realised – the extent to which the whole edifice of present-day education is built upon assumptions of consequentialism that may make teachers, and even pupils feel temporarily good about themselves, but which vastly overstates the actual power and predictability of our interventions. And all sorts of serious consequences are hung on the failures of such world-views.
There are times when I feel completely at odds with the general direction of travel of the world. Maybe it’s just Age, but most of the really valuable experiences and insights of my life have been anything but technical in nature – and I fear that the tendency to orientate our lives as though they were just part of one large machine risks neglecting many of the subjective, creative and even downright irrational moments of inspiration that are the essence of what separates humans from machines.
I find it deeply regrettable that even the one process that ought to lead to a deeper understanding of the human condition is increasingly abandoning this difficult territory in favour of simplistic technical fixes.
I have recently completed a vocational diploma myself. While it has equipped me well enough with the technical skills and knowledge that I need, it has been a relatively sterile experience simply because it was so predictable: while it had the full plethora of learning objectives and assessment criteria, there was little provision or requirement for the kind of deeper thinking that might have led to richer insight. What’s more, being online, it lacked the real human contact that is an important part of much learning. I have ended up technically qualified, but (had it not been for my own irrepressible curiosity, which inevitably led me off the beaten track) I don’t think I would have been much wiser or insightful as a result. It is training, not education.
I had a similar experience when developing the online resource that I will be launching shortly: the platform that I adopted is technically an excellent tool to work with. But in order to produce the course as conceived, I had to ignore some of the stipulations of the technicians who developed the platform: I was expected to make my innovation fit the system, rather than the opposite. Official listing of a course is purely a matter of fitting the ideological system-template rather than the quality of the content, which seems to have been ignored. What is more, there was no possibility of contextualising the submission: it was a simple pass/fail when subjected to a check-list of what the producers (think they) want. A classic case of style over substance. Systems that lack even the possibility of interaction or feedback are weak, if not dangerous.
The platform is thoroughly rooted in constructivist ideology, and so I suppose it is not surprising that it rejected something more traditionally based. But the point is still the same: a good system should be capable of identifying quality and value wherever and however it appears. Too many reject potentially good – perhaps even ground-breaking – material simply because it does not comply with superficial norms or expectations. Is our education system more generally increasingly making the same mistake?
Many of the greatest leaps of human achievement have been made by mavericks who chose not to follow the rules but to redefine them. This often involved the rejection of pre-existing systems, and a reliance on intuition, talent and the not-so-obvious, rather than the ability to follow others’ instructions. Many of the innovations that frame modern life were in reality just the result of useful accidents. Something similar might be criticised in a system that rejected the Black Swan possibility that a bridge might actually be likely to collapse due to sheer human incompetence, despite its supposed (perhaps illusory?) technical prowess.
There is no point in pretending that human life is a purely technical matter; while we have learned (to some extent) to control the material world around us (and we need systems to do that), very much of the experience of being human does not obey such rules, and thus proves otherwise. We need to acknowledge the limits of systems as well as their utility. We should actually be growing our appreciation of the fact that a rich, well-lived human life is about more than mere technical matters – but such matters are too complex for reductivist instincts.
By moving so many fields of human endeavour – and perhaps most critically the subjects and methods by which we learn – in a purely technical direction, I fear we are losing sight of the very subjectivity upon which many of our greatest achievements stand.