The Illusion of Control

Control is an illusion.

Do you think you’re in control of yourself? Hah! Think again.

Your eyes capture only a tiny percentage of what happens around you. Your memories are largely just a figment of your imagination. And your “free will” is little more than an elaborate illusion created by your brain. (The Grand Delusion – NewScientist, 14 May 2011)

And you think you’re in control of your project? Haha, sucker…

“Humanity’s commitment to technological change is a commitment to the creation of more uncertainty, contingency and incomprehensibility.” (We’ve made a world we cannot control – NewScientist, 14 May 2011)

In their book The Techno-Human Condition professors Allenby and Sarewitz argue that we operate at three levels of technological complexity:

  • Level I is applied by people who see technologies as performing particular functions. Feeling comfortable in their illusion of control these people believe that desired outcomes can be engineered, and they say there are no unknown unknowns, if you only try hard enough.
  • Level II is applied by people who understand that any technological product is part of a bigger complex system, which usually includes people. These people believe some form of control can be achieved if you apply holistic systems thinking.
  • Level III is applied by people who see that complexity is as pervasive as water. It is integrated in our work in ways that we cannot even imagine. Such people are comfortable with the knowledge that they know only very little, and complexity thinking tells them that uncertainty should be embraced, not eradicated.

The levels offered by Allenby and Sarewitz seem to align nicely with my own ideas about systems and people:

  • Level I people are project managers. They prefer to engineer the future, with Gantt charts and PERT charts.
  • Level II people are systems thinkers. They prefer to bring about the future, with boxes, arrows, and models.
  • And Level III people are complexity thinkers. They prefer to invite the future, with interventions and plenty of surprise.

But, to be honest, I don’t feel certain about this. Which is OK.

And if you don’t care when this all incomprehensible to you, you’re doing fine.

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