Wednesday, February 03, 2010

Seldon Crises

I typed out the title of this post. Then it occurred to me that it looked like a typo. Shortly thereafter, it looked like the name of a character from a book by Terry Pratchett or Jasper fforde (whose last name also looks like a typo anyway). The title of this post is self-referential, it seems; it has an existential crisis from within as well as without.

What is a 'Seldon Crisis'? Fans of Isaac Asimov's Foundation trilogy (begun in 1951) and its sequels will immediately identify the term as one belonging to Asimov's invented field of psychohistory. A Seldon crisis, according to Asimov, is an event predicted by the psychohistorian Hari Seldon which is a pivotal moment in history. Normally, there is an external threat as well as an internal one; both of these threats are also likely to be fatal if not neutralised. Fortunately, both threats can be resolved by a single action, sometimes by setting these threats against one another, sometimes by conjuring up a previously unseen perspective.

Why are Seldon crises important to us six decades after Foundation? That's a harder question, but one to which some of the many answers must already begin to be obvious.

For a start, the paradigms of the modern world tend to be based on 'systems'. Ever since Newton's time, the idea that the world could be apprehended and then comprehended in terms of interlocking systems, or even a single overarching system, has been a persuasive one. Humans like to believe that everything is causally interlinked, and that nothing is purely random and beyond reason. Even random events can be bound by statistical distributions, and all things have their causes. This is the root of the 'systems thinking' approach, which leads then to 'systems engineering' — the idea that you can therefore cause anything you want if you know the right processes to engage. (The Atlantean educational system, so often pilloried in this blog, is an example of this.)

More chilling though is that this kind of psychohistorical reasoning is at the root of many influential programmes that spring from minds we would think are vastly different and whose impact on ordinary people seems distant to many of us. US economist and Nobel winner Paul Krugman, with a little embarrassment, admitted in 2008 that Asimov's Foundation trilogy "in which the social scientists who understand the true dynamics save civilization" was the trigger for his interest in economics. At the same time, Al-Qaeda, an organization with a name that can be translated as 'The Foundation', seems to be following the apocalyptic parts of Asimov's script too.

The problem is that systems engineering is a problematic field. Joseph Kasser, speaking in Atlantis in 2009, had a few interesting points to make about this. In slide 7 of his presentation, his first few points read as follows:
  • Systems engineering is poorly practiced (in general)
  • Systems engineering is poorly taught (in general)
  • No universally accepted definition and body of knowledge
  • No universal agreement on role of systems engineer
  • Systems engineering has failed to meet its promises of the 50s and 60s
The consequent problem of this problematic status is that many of the processes begun in the 50s and 60s, such as the Atlantean education system, were 'engineered' based on this problematic field which doesn't quite seem to exist as a coherent area of knowledge. (By the way, although Kasser's presentation is a little technical in parts, I strongly recommend at least one quick viewing.)

The world is now officially in what would in the past have been called a science-fictional situation. Arthur Clarke's 2001: A Space Odyssey was a prediction of what 2001 might have been; more chilling to me is that his sequel was called 2010: Odyssey Two, and so far neither looks like a successful prediction of much. Rather, the world has gone behind as well as ahead of all predictions — we have incredible access to information (which most of us don't think is sufficient) and yet are as deliberately ignorant as ever.

My personal experiences (and the experiences of others) seem to provide examples of this. It seems that very few people are adept at using search engines to track down information, let alone to correlate that information and synthesize it into a coherent whole. Even in the area of presenting their findings, they don't know how to use simple tools like Microsoft's PowerPoint — most of them don't know there is a 'presenter view' and they have this annoying habit of using excess text and text modifiers. Some don't bother with checking information sources by triangulation and/or logic either. In general, the surfeit of information has been occluded and eclipsed by the even greater surfeit of entertainment and non-information.

If this is the grist that the already shaky 'systems engineering' mill has to work with, we are in deeper trouble than anyone thinks. No matter how much work is done, if the premises are bad, the output is junk. In the Foundation trilogy, nothing is more chilling than when Hari Seldon gets it wrong and his successors have to figure out what should be done instead — based on what they think he thought.

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Blogger Albrecht Morningblade said...

Your second last paragraph describes people who try to cram everything into their slides, out of fear that they forget something. I regard these guys simply as being ill-prepared. If a presentation is truly important, one should have rehearsed it. Several times, if necessary. Of course, learning to maximize the benefits of the tools available helps too. This particular bit here irks me terribly, since I've been forced to sit through a great many of these 'yucks' presentations.

Similarly for Atlantean Systems Engineering, I fear the tweaking is done with sledgehammers and not the proper tools. Ha ha.

Wednesday, February 03, 2010 4:08:00 pm  
Blogger Trebuchet said...

Haha, and you had the time to read all this + the meme? Obviously the sledgehammers are so crude that they carve out large chunks of time for the Wizards of the Coast. :D

Wednesday, February 03, 2010 5:36:00 pm  
Blogger LoneRifle said...

I've always found it odd that the Foundation was apprehensive of the Second Foundation, despite what they had done for the former. Also, Asimov resorting to using psychic powers to move the story along felt a bit like a cop-out.

Wednesday, February 03, 2010 10:08:00 pm  
Blogger P0litik said...

As they say in the army, I think, you thought, who confirm?

Thursday, February 04, 2010 7:30:00 am  

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