There’s a simmering conflict at the place I work between the masters of digital technology, whose job is to conceive and construct and continually upgrade exciting new ICT-enabled ways of working, and the frontline colleagues who are required by the ICT (information and communications technology) to dispense with their old ways and get with the programme.
What happens is this: a new ICT-intensive process is rolled-out to replace a collection of existing processes which have been deemed flawed, inconsistent, ineffective or simply out of date. Guidance is issued and training is provided. Feedback is sought and the new process is tweaked and improved. Stubborn holdouts are instructed to toe the line and follow the approved sequence of tasks. Behind the scenes they are ridiculed by the digital masters. And then, a few weeks or months down the road, it emerges that pockets of staff have crafted user-friendly workarounds to sidestep or compensate for the problems introduced into their area of work by the latest, rigorously linear new digital approach.
Meetings are convened, additional process steps get bolted on to stamp out the disruptive organic workaround, and the struggle resumes.
This isn’t unique to my organisation or any particular line of work. Judging by Dilbert it’s a universal feature of every bureaucratic entity these days, whether public or private sector. Money and cachet flow to those people associated with the never-ending organisational drive for top-down, state-of-the-art digital solutions, while those at the coalface grudgingly adopt the never-ending stream of “solutions” – and counter them, where necessary, with ingenious workarounds.
As it happens, my role at work aligns me with the schemes of the Digital Empire – that’s where my bread is buttered these days – but my heart is with the Resistance. I love how people engage their ingenuity in response to the indignity of a mechanistic new process which has been developed externally and imposed from above.
Ingenuity in the face of the infuriating. It’s one of things we humans do best.
But then I was wondering: is there really any lifeform which isn’t, in its own unique way, spectacularly ingenious, honed as we all are by 3.5 billion years of evolutionary adaptation? I once marvelled at footage of a captive crow fashioning a length of wire with its beak and claws in order hook a morsel of food from the bottom of a deep container. And the bored octopus in a zoo aquarium, toying with a glass jar until it managed to unscrew the lid, then cramming itself inside – seemingly just for the heck of it – and staring out with a big baleful eye.
There are plenty such clips available, and the motif is always “How clever! How extraordinary!” But on reflection, why be surprised by the cleverness of our fellow creatures? Why marvel at a column of ants spontaneously organising themselves to dismantle and portage carrion back to the colony? Or for that matter at time-lapse photography of bean tendrils whirling methodically in search of a prop to grow against? Or at evidence that trees communicate and collaborate by a “wood wide web” of root fibres and microfungi? Just because the scientific method has belatedly revealed truths about intelligent life that science itself played a big part in suppressing.
It seems that in general we highly rate human feats of ingenuity – in medicine, engineering and social organisation for example – but downplay or overlook corresponding achievements throughout Nature unless to patronise them with exaggerated admiration. Take flying for example. Any number of mammals, insects and even fish, not to mention avian dinosaurs and their bird descendants, have cracked the challenge of heavier-than-air flight over the past couple of hundred million years, and they’ve done so sustainably and with far less paraphernalia than us. But because we characterize their innovations as the automated product of evolution – rather than as the result of a zillion individual acts of experimentation and learning which they are – we tend not to regard them as achievements at all. If we were to acknowledge the ingenuity of the creatures involved, we would probably class it as “sub-human”, a lower order of ingenuity.
But think for a moment about the courage, cleverness and curiosity – the sheer ingenuity – of the first group of arctic terns to find their way back to the Arctic Circle, having migrated to Antarctica earlier in the year.
Every bit as impressive as arctic terns, human wayfinders guided our species to every patch of dry land across the globe, criss-crossing even the Pacific Ocean. More recently, proto-industrial and industrial civilization learned to repeat that trick at an absurdly accelerated rate, projecting its own people and values to every corner of the planet by mechanised, resource-intensive, ultimately unsustainable means. The departures board now promises destinations beyond the boundaries of planet Earth itself, and we give ourselves an almighty pat on the back for that. Such derring-do! How well we innovate and explore! A godly species indeed!
But here’s the catch. That multiplier quality of the innovations we value and celebrate the most, namely those which leverage the greatest amount of energy out of our surroundings and put it to work for us, long since outpaced the ability of our surroundings to adapt to us. Which means their benefits cannot be sustained.
Fire to warm the food that fattened our brains; hooks, blades and flighted weapons to magnify the energy return on hunting expeditions; herding and domestication to harness the strength of beasts; crop cultivation to densify the population; urban settlement to seed and synergize yet more innovation.
More recently, with the mass extraction and combustion of fossil fuels – another fine innovation – our capacity to dominate and exploit the biosphere accelerated off the scale. And now we’re undergoing a further G-force acceleration brought on by ICT and the Internet revolution it sparked. ICT, in this story, can be seen as simply the latest crazy accelerant away from the once sustainable niche we occupied in Nature.
Across the span of human time we have been, I think it’s fair to say, too ingenious for our own good. We left the background rate of evolutionary adaptation in the dust, maybe as long as 400,000 years ago when we mastered fire, but certainly by the time we learned to feed the fire with buried carbon. Perhaps that emptying of carbon stocks into the atmosphere will turn out to have been the decisive, irreversible act of self-destruction. When the crossbow bolt was fired, as it were.
I hope not, of course, but what could I reasonably pin my hope on? Divine intervention? I’m not persuaded. Human ingenuity? Fingers crossed.
Fingers crossed even though each major innovation we’ve tried, each paradigm-shifting product of our restless ingenuity, while appearing on the face of it to make things better, has ended up propelling us faster down the evolutionary rabbit hole.