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Sunday, 9 February 2014

The Prometheus Syndrome Explained

In several blog entries I have in the past referred to what I term the Prometheus Syndrome, a condition where people are blind to why they do what they do, being, metaphorically speaking, bound by invisible chains to the rock of the past, which then leads them to create a future that is just the past with all its problems, but usually with a bit more new science, engineering or technology added. This theme and its consequences are explored in my new novel, Moments in Time. Here in this blog I want to explain what the Prometheus Syndrome is in terms of concepts taken from the business and philosophy of science literature.

When I speak of the Prometheus Syndrome I am referring to what is called a paradigm.

Everyone involved in science, technology, engineering, business, economics, and so forth, carries around in their head the paradigm to which they adhere. These consist of a set of core beliefs and assumptions specific and relevant to the activities that people are involved with, and these are shared in common with others. This is the essence of a paradigm: it is taken for granted and not seen as problematic by those who adhere to it. The paradigm defines how things are done and what is acceptable.

A paradigm, however, is a double edged sword, because it is both helpful and unhelpful, depending on the circumstances. Associated with a paradigm is a mind-set, a way of thinking which means that people become over-sensitised to some particular aspect of their domain or available information, at the expense of other parts. This over-sensitising is useful, because it helps people to become sensitised to important things, and to patterns that remind people of problems successfully solved, and this often serves very well.

The problem with paradigms however, is that they blind people to discontinuities that render past approaches and solutions inappropriate. Discontinuities are defined as non-linearities that either render aspects of prevailing practices inappropriate, or which provide new opportunities, or open up entirely new ways of working. These discontinuities can render assumptions and practices invalid and inappropriate. This makes extrapolating into the future based on the past, an exercise of little value. When discontinuities occur, the success stories of yesterday can have little relevance to the problems of tomorrow. In fact, according to Charles Handy, a leading business thinker from the 1990s, these success stories might even be damaging since the world, at every level, has to be reinvented to some extent.

The failure to recognise discontinuities often leads to the adoption of incorrect change strategies. The assumption is that whatever needs to change is just a matter of evolution in approaches. The evolutionary view is based on the belief that there is nothing fundamentally wrong with the way things are being done, and that all that is required are some slight adjustments to compensate for the changed circumstances.

The belief that only slight adjustments are needed to a paradigm in order to bring the way things are done into line with new requirements has a technical name. In terms of change this view corresponds to model known as morphostatic change. This simply means that the type of change people face is incremental. The established order is maintained by treating disturbances as external noise requiring minor adjustments.

What the modern world faces at this moment in time, are a massive discontinuities in the form of structural changes that render morphostatic change inappropriate. In circumstances such as those now challenging us to act, what is needed is a major change to the existing paradigms. In terms of the theory of change, what I am advocating is called morphogenic change. This simply means a type of change that produces a different order to that which existed previously. Disturbances are now treated as information about the inappropriateness of established practices, and this leads to fundamental changes in methods and principles.

Incidentally what is written above is not new. Much of the above text is taken from one of my books, published in 1994! This is the measure of how far behind, in terms of thinking, concepts and understandings, the worlds of science, engineering and technology are. One might say that these people work with 21st century technologies, 21st century knowledge, but with stone-age minds. This is also partly the answer to the question posed many blogs back, when I asked concerning scientists: why simultaneously so smart yet so stupid? A case of  relatively Advanced Knowledge, coupled with stupid beliefs!

The problem with paradigms is that they blind people, but the problem is compounded by a tendency towards collective denial and delusion, which is another story, more familiar to modern people than Prometheus, and that is the story of the Emperor’s New Clothes. And thus is happens, as the challenges grow, the problems worsen, people will retreat even more into the familiar, seeking to use and apply that which has worked in the past that which is actually part of the problem.

And what of the consequences for human civilisation, for future generations? Probably you will not live to see the consequences. You will not want to! But our children’s children will encounter these consequences, and they will curse you for not having the vision, the imagination and the courage to confront and stop the lunacy that is driving humanity towards … what I call a future that must not be.

Moments in Time, and my even newer work called Enigma, were both written to help people to understand, as were my other books, Encounter with a Wise Man, and A Tale of Two Deserts. These are part of what I call This is the Journey… But the time for action has now arrived, thus in the coming months I will start to explain about exciting work that is still in its embryonic stages, that will help us to start building a new path for humanity.

It seems that when I say that scientists, engineers and technologist are no longer fit for purpose, others too are arriving at similar conclusions, and that we need now to reinvent these activities by developing new types of scientific, engineering and technological people and processes. I have coined a name for them – Life Systems Architects, although that might change in due course. And what I am saying is that we can no longer afford to have people who live in boxes messing-up the world because of their limited, micro level, blinkered views, and that the time has come to develop trans-disciplinary people who can also call time on the delusion that somehow, all this science and technology is neutral and is not at all a manifestation of the desire of large corporations to make as much money as possible regardless. Dealing with what Steinbeck, in his novel The Grapes of Wrath, called the monster, is necessary if we are to achieve sustainability. And science, engineering and technology have become part of the monster. But it does not have to be like this, but we should be under no illusion breaking the invisible chains that bind these people to the rock of the past will be a Herculean task.

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