Sunday, September 2, 2007

The Obsolete Rhetoric of "Human Potential"

I think I have finally hit on why JP Rangaswami is so infatuated with social software. What appeals to him more than anything else is the "leveling of the playing field" in cyberspace, which basically means that everyone is equally enfranchised. This would explain his most recent expression of a "mission statement:"

I want to find out more about the people who see these tools as opportunities to develop and enhance their potential, as opportunities to deliver to that increased level of potential. And I want to find ways of helping people do this.

Now there are a variety of ways in which I have tried to confront this world-view. The most theoretical probably came up when I tried to develop the principles behind the concepts of interaction rituals and interaction ritual chains. In that discussion I emphasized the axiom that the bonds that enable the formation of social networks are, by their very nature, stratified, which means that the playing field is never going to be level, nor should it be if networks are to form and function effectively.

However, beyond theoretical principles, there is also a matter of what might be called the rhetoric of idealism. The above quotation is an invocation of all that rhetoric about "human potential," which keeps trying to install itself as a meme in both social and management theory. I am sure that there are a lot of people out there who are sincere in embracing such rhetoric; and, in the grand scheme of things, it may even be desirable to do so. On the other hand, to distort a famous remark by John Maynard Keynes, in the grand scheme of things, we're all dead. Idealism has its place, but not as an opiate (now I seem to be distorting Marx) that deadens our awareness of the here-and-now. In that here-and-now the major problem that faces any business, regardless of scale, is the volatility of the context in which all operations (internal and external) are embedded. As a result every CEO has basically the same goal: survival in the face of volatility. This is why, for example, making decisions in the face of overwhelming volumes of data is so intimidating, since you have to implement your decision before it has gone obsolete.

Thus, to turn the rhetoric of human potential on its head (one of my preferred approaches to argumentation), we may invoke the metaphor of physics and observe that enterprise management today is all kinetic and no potential. The boss who is quick to “think on his feet” always trumps the reflective analyst, even when the latter comes up with more effective results. I do not particularly like these conditions; but we are not going to make them go away by (invoking the spirit of Marx once again) enfranchising the masses. I really wish I did have more constructive ideas for turning things around; but, from where I sit, I am hard pressed even to find sources of either commercial or political authority that might be able to lead the world of business out of this wilderness!

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