Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Sensemaking by Madsbjerg

Sensemaking: The Power of the Humanities in the Age of the Algorithm / Christian Madsbjerg
New York: Hachette, c2017.
216 p.

This thought-provoking book by the founder of ReD Associates -- a strategy consulting company based in the humanities -- was fascinating and full of great concepts.

The premise is that only those who think deeply and in context can really illuminate truth and understanding, in ways that the wide but shallow cast of algorithmic data can not match. Madsbjerg stands behind this belief, with his company which employs anthropologists, sociologists, art historians, and philosophers (at least according to the book blurb!) There was a lot of solid content here that I think anyone with a humanities degree who feels undervalued in our modern business oriented world can appreciate.

Yes, understanding history and context and human nature helps us make better decisions personally and socially. Having respect for study and knowledge and understanding will help things run better. These shouldn't be startling concepts but they seem to be in today's culture, so much so that this whole book is a strong argument for more support culturally and financially for the humanities in higher learning.

I loved a lot about this book. I also feel strongly that the human sciences have a lot to offer, and shouldn't be pushed aside in favour of  "practical" degrees, or whichever corporate-supported faculty seems to be getting all the funding. As Madsbjerg states,

We dismiss this cultural knowledge -- cultivated through humanities thinking -- at great risk to our future. When we focus solely on hard data and natural science methods -- when we attempt to quantify human behaviour only as so many quarks or widgets -- we erode our sensitivity to all the forms of knowledge that are not reductionist. We lose touch with the books, music, art and culture that allow us to experience ourselves in a complex social context.

He goes on to state that people's sense of the meaning of the data they are seeing is far more important that homogeneous data and input. The arts and humanities allow us to experience the differences between people across years and cultures; they allow us to inhabit another person's world and understand them better. Focusing only on hard data erases these differences, seeing only a shallow average at best.

He illuminates this sense of standardization required by technology -- whether of physical materials or in people's education and training -- by referring to Heidegger's 1954 essay on Technology, a look at "modern ideology, our world without meaningful differences."

The whole book is infused with references to philosophy, sociology, history and so on: he lives what he teaches. Unfortunately, the one drawback is that all of the humanizing and thinking and interpreting is done in the service of Business. Madsbjerg's company consults with CEOs of major corporations, and works on understanding customers and their contexts in order to better serve R&D and marketing. This really jumped out at me after recently finishing F.S. Michael's Monoculture, a look at the economic master story that overwhelms everything in our culture. 

But there are still important truths here, and ones that the corporate world needs to hear, with its insistence that employees are just cogs, needing to be standardized to make them easily replaceable, and referred to as human capital (gosh, I hate that phrase!) 

The final chapter, What Are People For?, speaks to this idea. And I found it uplifting and powerful in its simplicity. Madsbjerg says:

What are people for? People are for making and interpreting meaning. ...
What are people for? Algorithms can do many things, but they will never actually give a damn. People are for caring.

This is one business book that is well worth reading for everyone. If you ignore the businessy case study bits it reads like an essay on the vitality of learning for its own sake. And I really enjoyed it.

1 comment:

  1. Wonderful commentary, Melwyk. I enjoyed your review of this book. People are for caring.


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