Blog by Sumana Harihareswara, Changeset founder

06 Apr 2014, 15:18 p.m.

Points of View

Hi, reader. I wrote this in 2014 and it's now more than five years old. So it may be very out of date; the world, and I, have changed a lot since I wrote it! I'm keeping this up for historical archive purposes, but the me of today may 100% disagree with what I said then. I rarely edit posts after publishing them, but if I do, I usually leave a note in italics to mark the edit and the reason. If this post is particularly offensive or breaches someone's privacy, please contact me.

I'm noodling around, thinking about vision, perspectives, and leadership.

In a 2012 interview with MIT Technology Review (in their compilation Twelve Tomorrows), Neal Stephenson spoke about science fiction's role in innovation (pp. 5-6):

... a less obvious utility, that science fiction can provide a coherent picture of an alternate reality in which some innovation happened. Not just the technical innovation itself, but the social context and the economic context that causes that innovation to make sense. It can be sort of like an invisible magnetic field that gets iron filings to line up. In big engineering organizations, you've got all these people working on small pieces of a bigger problem, and there's an enormous amount of communication that has to take place to keep them all working in a coordinated fashion. That communication is tedious and expensive, but if everybody's got the same picture in their heads, maybe you don't have to communicate as much.

Worldviews and ideologies sure are powerful things, and nearly all of Stephenson's fiction and nonfiction has focused on the effects of people's diverse perspectives. (See some of my previous thoughts on Stephenson.) I used to say that he and Le Guin were my favorite authors, and they have this in common. You see the arbitrage possibilities of a new, subversive perspective, and you see how much power you unleash by converting a whole community to a new worldview.

In the late nineties, Simon Stow introduced me to the idea that the social sciences provide many useful lenses. I still remember him in that ground-floor Kroeber classroom, miming an optometrist, checking whether A or B made things clearer, then B or C.

A few years later, a pal of mine said something about the difficulty of explaining scientific concepts to people who did not already have sufficient bootloaded prerequisites:

That one sort of floored me, because radiation is one of my "basis concepts" that I use to explain other things. (Yes, I think of my scientific knowledge as being spanned by a basis set of conceptual eigenvectors. The basis set idea is also one of my "basis concepts". Yes, I also know that I'm weird.)
Eight years after that, I led a Foo Camp session called "Models We Use To Understand The World". We run into a lot of different situations, and pre-loading our 'scopes with different lenses provides requisite variety so we have a fighting chance to understand them. "Metaphors We Live By", right? Feel free to replicate that session at your next unconference, by the way.

For each of us, certain clichés are as foundational as the G, A, T, and C in DNA. I ought to really catalogue mine someday, but here's a start. I tell people about the career Venn diagram, or my version of exit, voice, and loyalty, or my rhetorical triangle. We cargo cult, or expand the Overton window, or arbitrage, or decide it's an efficient market. We decide that at least we'll earn some XP, or satisfice or do cognitive load-balancing, or concentrate on our core competence, or try to fix the kyriarchy. I think about that law of user interface, that if you make something 10% easier then twice as many people will do it. I remember the three skills of adulthood. Recently I started noticing the activist-organizer split in my work and in others'.

Wouldn't it be great if job interviews helped you check the other person's basis concepts? (Or if matchmaking sites offered that, come to think of it.)

You have to have lots of lenses if you're going to be a leader, because you'll get ambiguous and inadequate information about situations and you want to pattern-match to see what fits your plan and what doesn't. You need to develop a clear, robust vision, persuade others it's what they should want too, and negotiate with them.

And even if you don't aim for formal leadership positions, it's probably worthwhile to catalogue the lenses you tend to use. Blog it if you want.