23 May 2006

It depends

All afternoon I've written in bits and chunks on this post; I've had a number of enquires and meetings of late where after I've said my piece was asked more detailed questions. All of my answers started with "well, it depends on ..." so after a few too many of these answers I told myself not to say those dreaded words anymore as it somewhat leads to vagueness. I wanted to write down a few thoughts on why I should stop saying it, but I soon realised that the right answer was to explain why "it depends" itself is the right answer.

It's was therefore smack-down timely that superstar Donna Maurer - who's busy presenting over at our New Zealand buddies at Webstock - wrote a quite similar piece called Black, white or grey ;

But the more projects I do, the more I realise neat black & white answers don't fit any sort of real world, which means I end up talking more about the context, and feeling like I'm disappointing people and being vague. Oh well, at least I try to explain what 'it depends' on, or what the implications are for different contexts.

What surprises me is that people quite often want a black or white answer, and given the audience I'm referring to here (me; collegues and other IT professionals, and Donna; I assume were presenting to IT professionals as well) it's a bit shocking that they would even think the answer is in binary format.

How come? Is our processes in which we do our work so streamlined that there is no room for variables and fuzzy answers? Is our communication these days so pop-cultured that sentences longer than a given size isn't registering? Is our brain so filled up with other stuff that whenever we try to jam more info in there, we prefer it to be black and white because we think it takes up less space? Are we afraid our brains will explode if we pop one more nugget in there?

I remember back when I wanted to know more about human categorisation, in which I jumped on 3 books (at the time that made sense to read; can't remember how I came to those, though) and read them cover to cover before continuing; Bertrand Russel's "The Problems of Philosophy" (I knew from past rememberance the epistomological implications Bertrand has on categorisations, beside I had long wanted to read the book, not for it being the latest thinking but because it's a standard work; I never preempt optimisations ... :) ), Lakoff's "Women, fire and dangerous things", and Tom Stafford's "Mind hacks". Lakoff was the one that I found the most interesting in terms of categorisations, and from there I at least had a spring-board for further research. The point of this little sidestory is that I simply know there are no easy answers; I need a lot more context to understand the answer, I need to read more and understand more around my problem in order to understand it.

Another example is what is used by everybody, it seems, to say that something is logical or just makes sense, in a mathematical sense; 2 + 2 = 4. We use this in a way to say "look, this is 2+2=4, ok? It's so simple!" The thing is that it ain't so simple. My best friend Magnus, a mathematical genious, one day while it was raining and we were taking shelter under a kiosk-roof that was closed for the season, he explained to me the basics of axioms; basic rules from which all mathematic is derived. He explained for example that there are two major axiomatic systems that is used by us normal folks and mathematicians as well; the pythegorian system (which we all should know from primary and secondary school mathematics; ah, those pesky PI's!) in which two parallell lines can never touch, and the one (don't know its name) that was somewhat adapted after it was established that the universe was concavely shaped and always expanding where two parallell lines at some point must meet because of the shape of the universe. (This is more complex than this common-folksie summary, of course, but you get the idea) In other words, I had an epiphany and asked if one could define a set of axioms in which 2 + 2 = 5. The answer is yes, you can do that. All logic, all mathematics, every concept, every observation, every thought, every darn little frigging thing we think we know, has context ... context so huge and chopped into so many little bits that it's mind-boggling trying to visualise it! Our brains are so frigging amazingly clever!

Our brain is an incredible tool, and if you think for a minute that a tool such as this, a tool designed for making some kind of sense out of the masses amount of context - specialised for context sorting! - require a black and white answer to fit things in, you're doing yourself a disfavour; you're dumbing down, not smartening up. (This contextual inputting is why, for example, most of the time experience [you're in the context] teach you better than a text-book [explaining some context])

So, the next time you ask someone a question and the person answer with a "it depends" and go off on a tangent referring constantly to a bucketload of books, thoughts and ideas of others, you just might be getting the right answer.


  1. Google "schema theory" (in context of cognition).

    Constructs like axioms ... clouds don't need axioms cuz they don't think. Likewise storm systems or wind-blown sand or minerals forming crystals. Complex systems don't need an explicit theory, but we do. Or, at least, we do in order to have culture and technology. (Have you read Heidegger's essays on technology?)

    Soooooo imagine harnessing TM and suchlike technology to tap into our deeper processes, the ones that can't be made explicit ... to drill down through discourse and discussion and debate, to where things really matter to us. That's my inpiration for ''Participatory Deliberation''>


    p.s. you're a principled practitioner, which is my you tend to "It depends" right off the top. Those who are more into conquest will use the taikwando of sophistry by holding back on that, keeping their cards close to their chest, and play on folks' appetite for fore-gone conclusions.