Ingenious creatures

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to replace a collection of existing processes which have been deemed flawed, inconsistent, ineffective or simply out of date.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.

15 Replies to “Ingenious creatures”

  1. There are many cases of fascinating animal plays as our colleagues on this big blue marble earn their daily bread. And we can (actually already have) take advantage of their cleverness and fortitude. So as some might dismiss their accomplishments – particularly when stacked side-by-side against ours – I have to give them credit as due.

    I tend toward the blue sky end of the spectrum – searching for silver linings. There may well be a train wreck coming on the track we’ve chosen, but we have tremendous opportunities given the number of healthy brains we can bring to work on the challenges in front of us. At this particular moment in time our species uses markets to sift through the paradigm-shifting products and processes that are brought to fruition. There is a very cold and evolutionary like success/failure dichotomy at work – ‘selecting’ winners and losers. In so far as some of the present winning processes rely upon unsustainable resource availability they will then surely lose or be strongly modified as resource restriction forces their hand(s). And there is no guarantee that Homo hubris will remain here on Earth. We could go extinct.

    But my own sense is that we will not suffer some sort of NTE (near term extinction). Like our ancestors before us, some will roll with the punches. Some will invent the workarounds, some will choose more sustainable tracks to ride. We needn’t bet on clever humans, octopi, crows, or tendrilled plants. But me? I’ll be betting on life in general. Life is incredible.

    I like the way you write Chris. Looking forward to more.

  2. Chris,
    I love your description of the situation, the determined “masters of digital technology” vs. the cleaver workers who “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.” Human ingenuity at it best!
    I agree that for such cleaver creatures we often seem to be “too ingenious for our own good”, bent on harming ourselves rather than helping. Perhaps what makes us such beautiful creatures is the ability to laugh when the tower we built tumbles to the ground. Of course, that only happens when we are children and we haven’t yet started believing how important we are!

    Happy New Year!

  3. Yes, we are very jealous of our accomplishments as a species which seems to indicate a certain lack of, ahem, emotional development. What I always come back to is the fact that cows and other ruminants, but especially cows (and termites), have cracked the equivalent of cold fusion in partnering with bacteria to breakdown lignin without using fossil fuels. OK, so they emit methane, so maybe it’s not especially sustainable from a GHG perspective, but then the wolves are supposed to keep their population in check. But then we in our ingenuity killed all the wolves, etc.
    But the fact that we are so amazed by ourselves and still find it hard to be recognize the genius of something as blatant as the part per billion smelling apparatus of our best friends the wolf/dogs is telling. We have a long way to go in developing our ingenuity in terms of comprehending our fellow beings on this planet and our place in that more inclusive picture of Life on Earth. Life, as Clem says, that’s the one to bet on!
    Anyway, lots to think about in your piece!
    Happy New Year!

  4. Happy New Year, Michelle! I like your suggestion that we lack a certain ahem emotional development. I would guess that as a species the capacity is there but the culture is juvenile. A healthy, rooted, mature culture rears likewise people who understand where we sit in Nature, whereas this boastful, rootless, arrested-adolescence industrial culture…

    1. “rootless”… That could make some serious mileage. Moving from one place to another… uprooted. I think the common meme implies setting roots into the new place. Rootless on the other hand implies no commitment to place. And without roots one would wither and die. A powerful metaphor there…

  5. Part of the difficulty is that we can’t visually recognize humans whose adolescence is arrested. They look like normal mature adult humans but it is only when you speak to them and listen to their views that one realizes they have not matured.

    Recently I have had the realization that Christian extremest views are a very dangerous from of fanaticism, no less dangerous that any other religious fanatic that thinks it’s acceptable to kill anyone with different beliefs. There is no reaching someone with a closed mind because they will not listen to any information other than what supports their world view. What can we do when these so-called adults who think this way have taken over business and government? Perhaps I’ve lived in a bubble and have not realized the true danger such a world view actually represents. I’ve been mulling over this for days.

  6. Jody, I’m impressed (though not surprised, going by what I’ve read from you on anima/soul) that you managed to hold your ground and sustain the conversation for so long. I mull over these things too. In similar situations I tend to be so gobsmacked and tongue-tied that I’m incapable of making a coherent defence of my position and have to retreat from the engagement. (Unless emboldened by alcohol – not so much these days thankfully – in which case the opposite extreme, with dismal and embarrassing consequences.) Later, away from the fray and in a more generous frame of mind, I look at this kind of interlocutor and her intellectual rigidity as symptoms, to be sympathized with on some level.

    Symptoms of what? Possibly of that culture-wide “rootlessness” Clem highlights above, which in many of us manifests as lifelong feelings of impotence and insecurity. These are feelings which the prevailing civilizational culture seems to endorse and encourage (it probably makes for more pliable citizens and better consumers), whereas a healthy culture compels its adolescents to transition through insecure narcissism into responsible adulthood.

    From what I’ve read of hunter-gather communities, if you don’t make that transition when young then you’ll never get to enjoy the benefits of full adulthood, which might include marrying, raising a family and earning the respect of your peers. These have survival implications for the individual and for the community itself, so there’s enormous pressure to absorb the deeply rooted wisdom of the ages and grow up proper.

    By contrast, many of us in this culture cling to the traits of the adolescent phase (eg black-and-white thinking, and it’s always somebody else’s fault!) because industrial society promises the material rewards of adulthood regardless whether you pass through the necessary transition. Some of us are clearly much more locked into those ways of thinking than others, and I bracket the woman you spoke with in that category.

    As to what to do about it…?

    I know you’ll be well aware of the scholarly research and writings which tell us that these kinds of disagreement are very rarely about the strength of the respective facts, or logic, on both sides of the argument. In fact, by some psycho-emotional alchemy, the stronger the facts that are mustered against us, the more fiercely we defend and believe in our own positions. We, on the less rigid-minded end of the spectrum, are sometimes advised to appeal to others, on climate change for example, by using emotions instead of facts – taking a lead from Madison Avenue and Christian evangelists. But I’m not sure that using clever ways to trick people is really the answer.

    Maybe as you say there is no way of reaching the mind of the so-called adults who seem to prevail in corporate and political life.

    Actually I’m thinking of one such narcissistic individual in particular, disproportionately influential in the life of your country and the world, and wondering what it was, back in time, that injured his pride so, rendered him bitter and impotent and filled his mind with narratives of conspiracy, contempt and outrage.

    And could whatever it was somehow be undone?

  7. Chris,
    Yes, the narcissistic individual you refer to is of great concern to me. I recall a dinner party with liberal-minded friends a month or so before the election. Several of them really didn’t like Hillary and didn’t believe Trump would win so they planned a protest vote. My words then seem prophetic now. I said the race was much closer than they realized and even if they hated Hillary the alternative was not an outcome they would enjoy. I believed that Trump as president would threaten any chance our country had of combating climate change and reducing inequality.

    I’m sure the wine loosened my tongue the other night because I tend avoid debates about either religion or politics. There is rarely anything to be gained by them. But the shock of her comments has awoken something in me. I had not really considered educated conservative Christian Republicans a danger to our society. I thought they would be rational. I wonder if this is true.
    Many people who hate Trump like to laugh watching late show hosts make fun of him, but believing one is superior minded is no protection from his actions. If we don’t come up with a viable candidates that can field a majority of support in next November’s election, we are going to see further erosion of our constitution and political freedoms.

    1. Judy offered:

      If we don’t come up with [a] viable candidates that can field a majority of support in next November’s election, we are going to see further erosion of our constitution and political freedoms.

      Let me back up a tick and offer a little insight to my overall biases:
      I was as surprised as anyone when Trump carried Ohio last fall. And I’m still trying to figure out what sort of ‘tent’ it takes to allow for the present coalition holding sway in Washington. I’m not one to complain that because he didn’t win an absolute majority that he shouldn’t be president – the Electoral College is how the rules are set. So like it or not, we deal with it for now.

      But Jody, you have to help me understand which aspects of our constitution are being washed away – and which political freedoms are being eroded? There are plenty of irksome developments, I’ll give you that. But do these rise to the level of constitutional modifications?

      Chris makes (to my mind) an excellent point in noting the disparity between “official” positions coming out of D.C. and the twitter feed of DT vs. the positions of states like California and New York (and also many corporations). And while California is “only” one of 50 states, consider your own automobile – there in Indiana – and how much of it exists not because some manufacturer thought it might be an interesting feature to include… but because California required the feature if the product was to be sold in their state. Pretty powerful stuff.

      To the notion that the left needs to field better candidates in November – I totally agree. And November might be too soon to build in ALL the change we’d hope for. But a trip of a thousand miles begins with a single step. And along the way I’m hoping I can figure out how to participate in conversations such as the one you’ve described – without it coming to a meltdown. Shy of accomplishing that objective in the very near term, I hope to keep learning how to make peace with the opposition while also doing what I can to make peace with the planet.

      1. Clem,
        “you have to help me understand which aspects of our constitution are being washed away – and which political freedoms are being eroded?”

        There are three issues that most concern me. First, a break down in the checks and balances that prevent the abuse by any one branch of government. Trump is being investigated for possible obstruction of justice, collusion with Russians, and many have raised questions about his possible violation of the emoluments clause. Yet the Republican controlled congress has shown no desire to challenge or check Mr. Trump.
        See this article “America’s system of checks and balances might struggle to contain a despot”
        The second danger I see is an erosion of the separation between church and state. Our Constitution was written to protect Americans from abuse of government restricting our religious freedoms. I see many examples of Republicans in Congress who express their fundamental Christian views as justification for their decisions. Religious views, in particular fundamentalist ones, should play no role in lawmaking. One of the websites I like to read is

        The third concern I have is the balance of the Supreme Court. I do not believe it was appropriate for Republicans to refuse to voting on Obama’s nomination to replace Justice Scalia. His nomination, Merritt Garland, remained before the Senate for 293 days, the longest nomination process in the history of Supreme Court nominations.
        Trump has already nominated one conservative justice. Justices Ginsburg is 84, Kenedy is 81, and Breyer is 79. The average age that Justices retire or die is 79. It is possible that Trump could nominate two or even three more justices in his first term creating a extremely conservative Court that would have long lasting influence over legal issues for decades to come.

        Gerrymandering in Republican dominated States may also be making it difficult for people of color or poverty to vote. The Republican party has been cutting taxes on the wealthy since Reagan was in office and our country is seeing an ever increasing disparity in wealth. As wealth concentrates in the hands of a few our vote means less and less because money gets politicians elected.

        The Republicans who just passed a tax cut bill used to be the party that worried about deficits. They are already saying that when deficits hit they plan to cut SS, medicare, and medicaid. They make no apologies for their intent to downsize government, privatize social services, and enable corporations to avoid regulations. When our country is governed by the wealth holders there is little concern about social justice.
        These are some of the reasons I have concerns.

        1. Jody-
          I think you have a good list of issues, and I’m also concerned with where things stand. Perhaps my quibble lies with how we’ve gotten here and how to go from here.
          I don’t see the constitution being burned and trampled [though gerrymandering does seem to come close]. The influence of big money in elections being protected as free speech seems to me a misguided interpretation of the bill of rights. And judicial appointments under the current admin may well make it very difficult to remedy through a SCOTUS route. But I’m not inclined to believe it really should be “fixed” in that venue.
          Corporate personhood is a legal notion that I need to mull much longer, but my gut tells me if it doesn’t bleed, or is due to perish for biological reasons, then it isn’t a person. If not a person, why should it have free speech? But it is taxed… no taxation without representation!! Ok, a point… but then I argue that Wall Street has more representation now than it needs. What if we drop taxes on corporations all together and raise the taxes on shareholders in proportion? But not all shareholders are persons. Ok, but eventually there is a breathing and eventually dieing person who should be able to claim a right to vote and thereby be responsible for paying to keep it all running.
          Oligarchs concern me to some degree. These uber-rich do fit the persohood requirement. So I’m still in a mulling mode when it comes to how their participation shapes our world. A really interesting piece from two years ago now (and from Germany) is Markus Feldenkirchen’s essay:

          Basically, I take the view it’s up to us to be the government we want. If we won’t get involved sufficiently (running for office or working alongside someone we want in office) then when we find ourselves in the minority we have to work with the majority to find common ground. And along the way I think it helps in dealing with a political opponent in a manner I would accept when the roles are reversed (I’m with the majority).

          I do like the links you’ve included the last couple days. Much to consider. Lawfare blog in particular.

          Looking forward to the piece you’re polishing.

  8. Re climate change, believing you are superior-minded is apparently not much help, even when you are!

    Perhaps a bit of earnest Socratic questioning is called for. So…just curious…was there a game plan when God hid the stuff that we didn’t ought to have dug up and burned but didn’t actually mind when we did dig it up and burn it thereby condemning swathes of Creation to oblivion, or was that just an oversight?

    But seriously, watching from afar, I love the way various US cities and states have proudly and independently reiterated their commitment to achieving the goals of the Paris agreement. That, and the women’s resistance which seems to be building up a head of steam and will I believe deliver the coup de grace.

    Fingers crossed.

  9. Hi Jody, a little late to the party here, but I commend you for having the conversation, as frustrating as it sounds like it was. I’m always looking for common ground to the point of being spineless some times, so you get my respect.
    And even if you didn’t seem to make an impression at first, you probably will since we all are the sum of our relationships and encounters, I believe.
    Even if most of us would not say outright that we live on a disposable planet that is ours to trash, all too often we act as if that is the case, even when we don’t even want to act that way, just because the social cost of acting differently is pretty high (vulnerability, ostracism, scorn). But your anecdote highlights for me how deeply woven into the spiritual bedrock of Western civilization some of these ideas which justify our actions are.

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