Saturday, May 12, 2012

Less Than Zero – Beyond Infinity

please follow the link at the end of this post

Thomas Kuhn, the author of the 1962 controversial treatise, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions opened public discourse (and fierce, often polarized debate and acrimony) around the prevailing historicism-laced linear progressive world view.  Defiant in the face of a Cold War context of manifest destiny in which ‘progress’ was both dogmatic ideology and the battle cry for iconoclasts, his suggestion that revolutions were punctuations (‘paradigm shifts’) created by intellectual dissonance with incumbent systems was heretical and, well, come to think of it, revolutionary.  Most troubling for the purveyors of institutionally coalesced ‘knowledge’ – a.k.a. scientists – was his positing that endless pursuit of anomaly resolution (resolution of error from which expertise is derived and lauded) was unlikely to be the proximate cause for breakthroughs.  Revolution, he suggested, comes from those who challenge assumptions rather than from those who refine precision around consensus.

When we observe the entire incapacitation of the current masters of economy and industry – be they Central Bankers, Finance Ministers, Economists, or Corporate Titans – in their collective inability to assess the direction, duration, and scale of current economic dislocations, we could conclude that the “revolutionary” inflection is upon us.  This inflection, according to Kuhn, would suggest that what will emerge is an “incommensurable” set of methods and metrics heretofore unknown or unperceived.  Applying a modicum of discernment to our present socioeconomic paralysis, one can clearly see that our Pythagorean obsession with the ‘created order’ being essentially a numeric inevitability gives us no escape from our numerically constrained archetypes and memes.

Kuhn’s inquiry, taken together with his critics’ analysis of his work, collectively seem to conspicuously ignore one artifact – NUMBERS.  In all of my blog posts of late, I’ve toiled to admonish us to find the unquestioned assumption upon which the balance of our experience and understanding is poised and, once found, jiggle the fulcrum and see what happens.  Like an engineer balancing a spinning turbine; like a piano tuner seeking perfect pitch; one can apprehend coherence and frictionless function best by willfully introducing dissonance and then tuning it away.  To that end, I would like to propose the following:

The stronger the impulse to enumerate, the greater absence of trust.

Let us explore this for a moment.  Whether for Euclidean metrics to describe; King David’s egoic impulse to count and conscript; Pharaonic and Persian mandates to tax; or Newtonian requirements to codify finitude; the impulse to number bridges the sacred and profane with remarkable consistence throughout much of humanity’s collective expressions.  Through numbers we can limit and delimit; we can compare and contrast; and, under the euphemism called ‘the scientific method’, we can compute divination and regress our world into a series of statistically reproducible dogmatically held postulates.  Challenge the assumption that humanity and its ‘progress’ requires numbers and you’ve entered the Olympian Halls as a mere mortal.

I had the good fortune of sitting with one of the world’s most respected quant traders a few years ago and demonstrated what was possible when you understood market dynamics with intent-based linguistic analysis rather than using the nine degrees of freedom (the statistical principle of the number random vectors in an expression or model prior to the final deterministic completion of a model or set) by which numerical analysis is constrained.  The 25 degrees of freedom afforded by the alphabet and the nearly 1.013 million degrees of freedom afforded by words in global use today far surpasses any numerically constrained model and, when deployed, gives far superior understanding of market dynamics.  However, whether it’s 9, 25, or 1.013 million degrees of freedom by which we enumerate and denominate, we’re still limiting our understanding when we’re constrained by finite symbols (numbers, letters, or words). 

So back to Thomas Kuhn: why is it that neither he, nor Karl Popper (one of his great critics), nor any of his other critics were willing to challenge the concept that, through the applications of numbers, we may have actually extinguished human potential rather than seeing its progress?  After all, some of the greatest puzzles which plague modern self-proclaimed ‘scientists’ is how pre-linguistically recorded civilizations achieved great feats of navigation, architecture, and communication “without numbers” or “without knowing about zero”.  Could it be possible that they achieved these wonders because they didn’t have numbers?

Now all of this becomes quite relevant when we realize that numbers serve a very important role in our social systems and their possible irrelevance (or even the contemplation thereof) can be quite disconcerting.  We’re sure that we need numbers.  But, I would suggest that our “need” for numbers is inversely correlated to our access to and acceptance of TRUST.  Certainty, laws, science, wealth, identity, power, and faith all hinge on numbers and their control.  If one had absolute confidence in the perpetual source of animating energy in the universe – as propagator, transmitter, and consumer in simultaneity – than the need to constrain or describe anything would be rendered obsolete.  It’s when we lack confidence in the undeniable and absolute abundance of universal energy – when we need to harness, control, or lord over the same – that enumeration is perceived as necessary.  And when this shows up in the microcosm of economics and currency, the postulate seems to be reinforced.  My desire for a “stored unit of value” – the consensus definition of money – is a proxy for my inability to TRUST that future performance will be remembered, much less honored.  By introducing the surrogate of an artifact of value storage and exchange, I’m stating that the TRUST between transacting parties is untrustworthy when compared to the confidence in an inanimate consensus artifact.  The artifact, which can only express value when used in a community sharing a consensus illusion is, by definition, a paradox.  Since I don’t trust you, I’ll trust a system in which we share an illusion where a disembodied enumeration instrument has more “faith and confidence” than the individuated actors in the system

You want to try something fun?  Try a day without numbers.  See what happens when you show up without metrics or constraints.  See what happens when all you have to deploy in transaction with others is yourself and your TRUST.  Try it and then let me know if this may be the fulcrum of our society’s undoing and the infinite mass through which something essentially new and human might be born.

My dear friend and colleague Richard David Hames published a great companion discussion on his Five Literacies blog at

No comments:

Post a Comment

Thank you for your comment. I look forward to considering this in the expanding dialogue. Dave