Examining Presuppositions

Jared Diamond has written a new book, Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed. The author examines societies from the smallest (Tikopia) to the largest (China) and why they have succeeded or failed, where failure has included warfare, poverty, depopulation, and complete extinction. He thought he could do this purely through examining how societies damaged their environments, but discovered he also had to consider climate change, hostile neighbors, trading partners, and reactions of the society to all of those, including re-evaluating how the society’s basic suppositions affect survival in changed conditions.

For example, medieval Norse Greenlanders insisted on remaining Europeans to the extent of valuing the same food animals and plants in the same order, even though the local climate was not propitious for hogs and cows and grain crops, and the sea nearby was full of fish and seals.  When the climate became colder, their marginal way of life became even more so.  Meanwhile, colder weather led the Inuit to move southwards until they contacted the Norse, who reacted adversely, producing hostile relations. And cold weather stopped the trading ships from Norway. The Greenland Norse never learned to use kayaks, harpoons, ice spears, or dogs. In the end, they all died.

Europeans are capable of learning all these things, as the Danes who rediscovered Greenland several hundred years later demonstrated. The medieval Norse Greenlanders stuck so slavishly to their presuppositions that they doomed themselves. It’s true that they survived for more than four hundred years, which is a long time as civilizations go, but they didn’t have to die; all they had to do was to become a bit more flexible.

Many corporations are larger than the tiny island nation of Tikopia, where the inhabitants are almost always in sight of the sea. Many have more people than the entire population of Norse Greenland. And many corporations operate in cultural strait-jackets as severe as that of the Norse Greenlanders: stovepiped departments, top-down comand-and-control hierarchy, and fast profit instead of long-term investment, to name a few.

To get a bit more concrete, let’s look at a few of the one-liner objections Diamond says he encounters to the importance of environmental concerns.

“The environment has to be balanced against the economy.”
Or risk management has to be balanced against near-term profit. Indeed, no corporation can spend all its profit on risk management, but if it doesn’t spend enough on risk management, it risks there being no profit because there may be no corporation. Plus, risk management can be a competitive advantage. With the London Stock Exchange requiring corporations to have risk management plans to be listed, and the U.S. SEC considering the same thing, at the least risk management is becoming a requirement to play capitalism. The first corporations to have good plans can also gain marketing advantages. In addition, the kinds of information a corporation needs to make a good plan can also be used to improve connectivity, lessen risk, and improve customer satisfaction, all of which should have some positive benefit on the bottom line.

“Technology will solve all our problems.”
This is what corporations have been assuming: buying more Internet security technical solutions will solve Internet security problems. Recent history indicates otherwise. Every corporation needs some forms of technical security, just like every building needs fire control mechanisms, but a building can still burn down and Internet connections can still fail.

“If we exhaust one resource, we can always switch to some other resource meeting the same need.”
This is the attitude I’ve seen with people who think that if the U.S. is attacked via the Internet, we’ll just cut off Internet connectivity at the edges of CONUS (continental United States). Such an attitude ignores the basic fact that there is no way to do that successfully, because there are always more ways in or out than you were keeping track of, not to mention that a great deal of U.S. commerce and even emergency communication measures would suffer. It’s also the attitude of corporate executives who think they’ll find something to replace the Internet so they don’t have to deal with Internet problems; for example, they’ll put up private communication links to their business partners, or they’ll build perfect virtual private networks on top of the Internet.  Both of these approaches have certain applications, but neither of them can replace the Internet as a globally accessible communications medium.

Not all of the one-liners Diamond lists are so obviously parallel with Internet problems and denials, but these three may be suffficient to illustrate the point. The point is that business as usual isn’t enough for Internet business risk management   planning. Traditions need to be re-examined in order to construct and implement new strategies that will work.


3 thoughts on “Examining Presuppositions

  1. Not Bad For a Cubicle

    Foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of the small mind

    Over at Perilocity today, John Quarterman has an nice posting on Examining Presuppositions and how a failure to do so can produce extinction.
    He talks first about an example from Jared Diamond’s new book, then draws some parallels to the state of Co…

  2. John Charles Griffin

    Having worked twenty years as a drone for the corporate structure and having read Jared Diamond’s earlier work — GUNS, GERMS, AND STEEL, I’m almost convinced that the hoax of government based on the power of wealth is taking “Western Civilization” into a dawning of chaos for the under privileged working class who are being reduced to smaller decimals on the economic scale. Family farms, for instance, are few and far between. Financial mergers in banking and industry are furthermore taking away pension plans, increasing job stress, and basically downsizing the work force to a point where today in the United States, for example, bankruptcy is at an all time high coincided with rising health care and
    fuel prices. The money supply is rising to the top and the Bush Administration continues to sell snake oil to the populace.
    One must be very clever to maintain mortgage payments and keep their vehicles on the road, yet the war machine has become perpetual and the profiteers tend to remain
    anonymous with their offshore bank accounts.
    The old saying “take the money and run” often seems to apply to whatever the future may bring to this big overpopulated island.

  3. Chris O'Connor

    My name is Chris O’Connor and I run an online nonfiction book discussion community called BookTalk.org. This is an invitation for you to check us out and hopefully get involved in the book discussion. We read almost exclusively science too!
    We’re currently reading Collapse and expect to have a live online chat session with Professor Diamond near the end of June. You and your friends are invited and encouraged to join us in the discussion and chat session.
    Here is a list of past authors that we’ve read and had as guests in our chat room…
    Upcoming Author Chats
    A. C. Grayling – pending
    Jane Goodall – pending
    Howard Bloom – pending
    Jared Diamond – pending
    Chat and Interview Transcripts
    Howard Bloom – Reinventing Capitalism
    Lee Harris – Civilization & Its Enemies
    Ann Druyan – Pale Blue Dot
    Michael Shermer – How We Believe
    Matt Ridley – The Red Queen
    Stephen Pinker – The Blank Slate
    Massimo Pigliucci – Rationally Speaking
    Richard Dawkins – Unweaving the Rainbow
    Howard Bloom – Global Brain
    Howard Bloom – The Lucifer Principle
    Feel free to ask questions or simple visit the following links… And please spread the word to your science-minded friends.
    http://www.booktalk.org/index.php Home
    http://pub141.ezboard.com/bbooktalk Forums
    http://p090.ezboard.com/fbooktalkfrm87 Collapse forum
    http://p090.ezboard.com/fbooktalkfrm51 Guns, Germs And Steel forum
    Chris O’Connor
    BookTalk.org – the freethinkers book discussion community
    PO Box 4624
    Clearwater, FL 33758

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