Belief, Data, and Change in a Digital Age

It wasn’t too long ago that we weren’t supposed to talk about politics, religion, or sex in polite company. Given the results of such conversations recently on the national and international stage, one wonders if it wouldn’t make sense to extend that prohibition more widely. That’s probably not really a good idea though, no matter how calming in the short term. The inevitable sterile silence is nowhere more evident than in a diversity stunned workplace. We have to find some path between that strained quiet and the polarization of international politics a’la the Middle East or our national shouting match on abortion.

The problem isn’t with the topics or even with the forum, but rather how we choose to conduct the discussions. We try to untangle the most difficult of situations with slogans and sound bites. We’re debating the most important topics of our times on bumper stickers, t-shirts, and text messages. If we can’t fit it onto a poster board, it doesn’t get said. The quantity of public discourse has exploded, but the quality is at best constant and mightily diluted across all that volume.

Is this madding chatter unique to our times? Probably not. Is it influenced and fed by our modern context? Almost certainly. Our chosen topic, the Analog/Digital dynamic, seems custom crafted for illumination of mechanics behind contemporary discourse.

While the digital revolution may be influencing what we believe, the more direct impact is on how we believe. As mentioned in previous essays, the boxes aren’t so hot at nuance. Authoritative data models and closely followed syntax are the two commandments of the digital church. Violate them and be damned to netherworld of run-time errors. Sound a little bit like fundamentalism?

We information engineers from various professions and disciplines might wish to believe our world views and our interpersonal styles are not affected by our daily interactions with the boxes. The common experience as distilled into various IT stereotypes would seem to suggest otherwise. One of the defining characteristics of fundamentalism across the spectrum is that it never looks crazy from the inside, be it Muslims, Christians, Liberal Humanists, Scientists or Digitarians.

Labels Again
Before we go any further, it’s important to take step back and draw distinctions between believers of any stripe and crazy people. From the Enlightenment, through the Industrial Revolution to the Digital Revolution, it’s been something of a sport to equate belief with ignorance, or worse. In his book, The Trouble with Testosterone, Robert Sapolsky happily equates most religious rituals and strictures around cleanliness, diet, and association with obsessive compulsive disorder. Robert Dawson in the more recently released The God Delusion, comes right out and labels God as depicted in the Old Testament as psychotic. The reemergence of militaristic religious fundamentalism has only broadened the appeal of these interpretations of the more ethereal side of human experience.

This is not the crowd I’m trying to run with.

The problem our relationship to beliefs often runs into is an old digital pot hole around labels. Not everyone who believes in a literal interpretation of the Bible is pitching bombs at abortion clinics. Not every liberal humanist is pitching birth control pills to twelve year olds. Not every Muslim fundamentalist is pitching bullets at US troops. Not every scientist, blinded to human impact by a belief in the scientific method, is pitching to the next weapon of mass distruction in drugs, diet or warfare.

All fine and good, but when we’re under fire, intellectually, emotional, or literally, we happily retreat to these generalizations and stereotypes rather than confront the complexities of existence in both temporal and ethereal contexts. Worse yet, in the finest digital fashion, having retreated to a simplification, we conveniently forget that a more comprehensive set of information is available.

Would you like Chicken or Egg with that Revolution?
Clearly, our expanding dependencies on the boxes and the software they run is not a root cause of this behavior. A certain xenophobia was probably an essential survival tool for Og the caveman as he emerged from his cave each morning. Perhaps it is just coincidence that in the midst of this digital revolution, we find ourselves struggling with oversimplification and even demonization of those with whom we’re less familiar or comfortable. However, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that the very digitization, modeling, and electronic processing that has shrunk our world comes with some limitations that lead us to less than totally productive interactions. Perfect presence in no way ensures perfect harmony or understanding.

Nor should we be too surprised that as we employ digital means to extend our presence and our experience, that those extensions might amplify existing tendencies, good or bad, in our world views and approaches. Imperfect replication combined with amplification should invoke at least some caution. And, in practice, it does. The sterilization of the work place as a response to diversity is a worst case scenario.

Believing in Change for the Work Place
The literal interpretation of any creed, code or business process is one thing. Taking that creed, code, or business process as permission to be above the conventions of civil interaction is another. We Analog Undergrounders have to hang onto that distinction and measure ourselves against it as we lead, manage, and participate in our professional and personal lives.

In a fascinating parallel, one finds a thread in the current business press espousing that meaningful change occurs only when some individual develops an early and apparently unreasonable belief in the benefits of the change and becomes its champion. That same thread also exists in fundamentalist Muslim commentary on the Qu’arn. It would appear that there is a necessary element of fundamentalism in business leadership, some facility with belief, the transmission of core principles, and their faithful application.

The Harvard Business Review’s anointed guru on change, John Kotter speaks to building coalitions in his seminal work, Leading Change. It’s clear he’s talking about developing a core of true believers. His follow-on title, The Heart of Change, paints a picture that most change fails from too much “data gathering, analysis, report writing, and presentations” and too little generation of “feelings that motivate useful action.”

Mere replication and amplification, no matter how speedy and efficient is not sufficient. Our digital capabilities, absent of judgment, an understood context of beliefs, and on-going assessment of ever emerging reality will not deliver that holy grail of all business – results. It would seem that between the bits and bytes, co-existent with the data, the reports, and the power-points, and woven into the fabric of processes and policies is a world of interpretation, world view and belief.

Can we just jump in at the deep end of belief, driving some visionary result, regardless of all that analog experience and digital data feeds us at every moment? Of course not. It didn’t work for foreign policy, and it won’t work in the executive suite. Looping back to where we began in this discussion, we have to find some what to merge belief with data, to avoid the temptation to replace one with other, in either direction.

If all we aspire to as leaders, peers, and individuals is a kind of perfect bureaucracy, we can ignore all that, banishing belief from our workplace and our consciousness. If, on the other hand, we hope for creativity, inspiration, and satisfaction, we might want to cast some of our focus and energy to that more ethereal side of our work and our relationships.

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