In Edward Tufte’s Seeing With Fresh Eyes, the da Vinci of Data underlines the value of going beyond the confines of rational right-angled thinking to look truly, deeply and widely at the world as it really is in all its wavy wonky wonder – from the ellipse of the half-moon to the sloped ramp of the Guggenheim by way of the the laidback undulating curves of the sombrero:
In a world awash with data-driven decisions made by machines, it is more important than ever not to lose sight of the human angle and touch. Not least because still – and who knows, maybe forever – no algorithm can yet match us for creativity, judgement, nuance, empathy, perception. Those wrong-angled, right-minded beautiful things that make us who we are.
So let’s put down our set squares, look up, look out and trust our eyes – wear sombreros.
I was going to write something about the implications of ChatGPT for writers, but there are already many eloquent voices out there on that subject, notably Nick Cave and iA. So instead, I would like to show my hand:
As Patti Smith says, while showing her own hand at the beginning of her brilliant A Book Of Days, “The hand is one of the oldest of icons, a direct correspondence between imagination and execution… Social media, in its twisting of democracy, sometimes courts cruelty, reactionary commentary, misinformation, and nationalism, but it can also serve us. It’s in our hands. The hand that composes a message, smooths a child’s hair, pulls back the arrow and lets it fly. Here are my arrows aiming for the common heart of things. Each attached with a few words, scrappy oracles.”
In a world awash with hoo-ha surrounding generative AI, the mysterious alchemical magic of the human hand, head and heart remains as powerful and precious as ever, reminding us that we humans, in all our messy, marvellous, thinky blinky, scrappy oracular glory, are essentially, thankfully, unalgorithmable.
In her FT article exploring the need for a second kind of AI – anthropology intelligence, in addition to artificial intelligence – Gillian Tett introduced me to the wonderful term “fuzzies”.
Coined to describe the folk with qualitative, as opposed to quantitative, analyses, fuzzies play a critical role in helping to humanise our increasingly data-driven, machine-determined world. Fuzzies temper techies’ often-too-narrow models and methodologies. They are vinyl records in a world of CDs and MP3s. With the former, you get sonic range and variability through warm, continuous waves of analogue sound (together with the odd pop and crackle). With the latter, you’re reduced to the cold precision of clinically sliced digital ones and zeroes.
Of course, just as many of us have both records and CDs in our music collections, so fuzzies and techies can complement each other in reaching decisions that are both emotionally and rationally more rounded and robust. Gillian Tett tells how the Internet Engineering Technical Forum likes to use collective humming to sense the mood of the entire group, rather than rely on simple, binary “yes-no” votes. The fuzzy, quintessentially human hum carries much more information than say, a simple show of hands.
Inspired by hard-core techies who are happy to hum, let’s all look for ways to keep it fuzzy.
“We should always try to use language to illuminate, reveal and clarify rather than obscure, mislead and conceal…The aim must always be clarity. It’s tempting to feel that if a passage of writing is obscure, it must be very deep. But if the water is murky, the bottom might only be an inch below the surface – you just can’t tell. It’s much better to write in a way that the readers can see all the way down; but that’s not the end of it, because you then have to provide interesting things down there for them to look at. Telling a story involves thinking of some interesting events, putting them in the best order to bring out the connections between them, and telling about them as clearly as we can; and if we get the last part right, we won’t be able to disguise any failure in the first – which is actually the most difficult, and the most important.” Just a drop from the ocean of wise words in Philip Pullman’s brilliant Daemon Voices.
It’s a call for us all to take ownership of our words and strive to be as clear as possible. A call echoed by iA’s Oliver Reichenstein in his blog on tackling the toxic web: “The answer to the passive consumption of trash is the active formulation of questions, the active search for answers and the active work of putting complex knowledge and diffuse feelings into clear words.”
Clear writing takes clear thinking. It’s hard work. But that doesn’t mean it has to be a grind. On the contrary, like all good graft, it can be deeply satisfying. So where to start? Take the time to clear your head. Clear words are sure to follow.
As a lifelong fan of writing things down with pad and pen*, I was heartened to read that this age-old method has the edge over simply tipping and tapping away at a keyboard when it comes to actually thinking about things.
“It turns out that writing involves a completely different process to typing,” says Charles Wallace in the FT. He quotes Daniel J Levitin, a professor of psychology and behavioural neuroscience at McGill University in Canada: “Writing things down requires more concentration and deeper processing than typing… Deeper processing means you are more likely to remember and encode the information… Deeper encoding allows for the linking of the concept to other concepts that you have deep in memory.”
So if it’s not too late, ask Santa to pop a pad and pen into your stocking this festive season.
“Computers can do some of the toughest tasks in the world but they cannot perform some of those that seem most simple to us mere humans,” writes Walter Isaacson in an article sparked by the Alan Turing biopic The Imitation Game. “Ask Google a hard question such as, “What is the depth of the Red Sea?” and it will instantly respond, “7,254ft”, something even your smartest friends don’t know. Ask it an easy one such as, “Can a crocodile play cricket?” and it will have no clue, even though a toddler could tell you, after a bit of giggling.”
I’m not so sure the toddler’s answer is the end of it. Indeed the answer is not a simple binary yes/no, it is a potentially multi-taled unending yesnomaybe. The difference here is that, unlike computers now or any time soon, we can make sense of simple and complex questions alike through stories – our wonderfully human form of communication. For example, through the story of how the crocodile could indeed play cricket by using its tail as a bat, before promptly bringing the game to an end by eating all its team mates.
There are inevitably attempts to create robot storytellers – Scheherazade, Whim and the like. But as Nicholas Lezard puts it, “Even if one day a computer will pass muster at the level of a sentence, there is no foreseeable way as yet that it will be able to construct a narrative that is both plausible and gripping.”
So despite the inexorable rise in digital firepower, storytellers everywhere can continue to sleep and dream and write soundly. Computers are a long, long way off from crafting tales of crocodiles and cricket.
I’ve been doing a fair bit of work recently which has included discussing with clients what strategy is all about. The conversations have tended towards couching the strategy thing in terms of good decisions and actions. Looking at it this way, strategy comes down to a group of people (a team, a company, a country…) answering a few simple yet essential questions: What are we going to do? Why? And how? It’s a world away from those thick and expensive docs heavy with impenetrably overloaded matrix diagrams so beloved of a certain kind of consultant and belittled by the great information design guru Edward Tufte.
So strategies are social. They are action. And they are something else, too: they are stories. Bad strategies are tragedies, full of loss and woe. Good strategies are adventures – epic tales of worthwhile quests and real achievements, of great characters and grand deeds.
A while ago while wandering the secondhand book stores on and around Charing Cross Road, I picked up for a pound a copy of the Grand Old Doyen of management thinking Peter Drucker’s Technology, Management and Society. It’s a slim volume packed with clear, compelling Druckerisms that are as true today as they were when he penned them back in 1958. Take, for example, his four fundamentals of communication:
Communciation is perception
Communication is expectations
Communication is involvement
Communication and information are totally different
In exploring these fundamentals, he imparts pearls such as the importance of talking to people in their own terms (“one has to use a carpenter’s metaphors when talking to carpenters”), the pernicious nature of information overload (“it does not enrich, but impoverishes”), and the essential contrast between information and communication – “Information is purely formal and has no meaning. It is impersonal rather than interpersonal.” Communication by contrast is human, emotional, experiential. “Indeed, the most perfect communications may be purely shared experiences, without any logic whatever.” Communication touches the heart; information resides in a hard drive.
All of which put me in mind of the following poetic wisdom from e.e. cummings: