peteg's blog - noise - books - 2007 03 01 Handy AgeOfParadox

Charles Handy: The Age of Paradox

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First published as The Empty Raincoat in Britain.

I am not in the target demographic of this book. The style is chatty, presupposes a disposition towards competitiveness, material success and traditional (authentically conservative) values. This is philosophy for managers, low on empirical or even argumentative justification, expressed in inimitable corporate språk. Their let's-get-on-with-it attitude, even in the face of vague goals and the damage inflicted on larger or external systems, is perhaps what grates the most with me.

Even so, he's not bereft of ideas, or perhaps of synthesising other people's ideas, that one might hope will improve the status quo of capitalism. (There is a bibliography but the main text does not cite it.) Handy himself implies his goal is pre-scientific (p246):

... [Allan Bloom, The Closing of the American Mind] ... American college students, he observed, were not only lifeless and ignorant, they were reluctant to offer or to hold any opinions at all. People who thought that they were right in the past did terrible things as a result, therefore it is best to have no opinions at all. The only true knowledge is science. Everything else is wishful thinking. From that it follows that it is wrong to take a position on anything, worse still to try to impose your wishes on your bit of the world. A passive voyeurism will have to suffice, preferably uncritical and politically correct because it is wrong to suggest that any one way of life is superior to another.

I tend to agree with him here, largely as I have found discourse on ideas largely absent in my university experience, especially between the faculty and student bodies. From my perspective it might help if the profs remember that they were once naive and that formalisation may better come after the idea or intuition, not before. I'm sure they have corresponding advice, unarticulated, for the students. Handy says (p218):

Portfolio workers need more than agents, they need somewhere where they belong. Learning is alienating if you do it all by yourself. Teleworking is fine in theory but lonely in reality. That asset which is yourself can atrophy is isolation. ...

Wow, only thirteen years later this has come to pass.

Handy's "inside out doughnuts" with "cores" and "empty spaces" (p69) reeks of a desire to have a diagrammatic shorthand for an ill-formed concept. NICTA's logo must be a sophistication of this idea:


A quick stab at Handian analysis would be to say that NICTA has two self-identified cores (permanent staff, intellectual property?), one centred and the other overlapping the big don't care (?) space, there is an anonymous auxiliary core-like thing (???), and that they feel ambiguous about their empty space (non-permanent staff, students?). I think there's scope for a profitable new form of logo analysis based on these insights.

Similarly the corporate social contract is hexagonal (p165) though the traits tend to be enumerated in the rank order that reflects a particular corporation, or nation-stereotypical corporation.

The apparently enduring Handy classic, the sigmoid curve (p49 etc. etc.), is a strange one. (See here or ask Google.) The focus is on the second hump, the bit where we have overmilked the cow. Sure, I'll buy that, but little explanation is given for the initial downward dip. For it to encompass relationships as well as business I would have to think that before I enjoy the company of a significant other, first I must suffer. Perhaps he is talking about capital, not success, or maybe the early stages of a "successful" relationship puts a crimp on his liberty.

Why carp about his iconography? Well, as my friend Sus says at the end of every email: "Confusion and clutter are failures of design, not attributes of information." (Edward R Tufte)

To move onto perhaps more substational criticism, Handy has a habit of being a bit wrong with some of his examples. Apropos the computer industry, he claims (p20):

... In theory, anyone can be intelligent in some way or can become intelligent and thereby have access to power and wealth. There is little to stop a small firm muscling in on Microsoft's territory just as Microsoft did to IBM. When the key property is intelligence, you do not have to be big or rich to get in on the act. It is a low-cost entry marketplace. It should make for a more open society.

I'm sure Netscape would agree wholeheartedly with him, and they sure weren't small in the mid-90s, soon after this book was published. Moreover while I would concur that the cost of entry to the information processing market is low, the end result seems to be Google, i.e. a de facto monopoly. (A general criticism of capitalism seems to be that it tends to oligopoly, in which case his faith that low entry cost implies a more open society is misplaced. By way of evidence I offer up the state of the car industry in the U.S. and otherwise pass the buck to Google.)

Also irritating is his enumeration of "intelligences" (p204) which actually reads more like a shopping list of talents or skills. I don't think of Shane Warne's bowling action as physical intelligence any more than I elevate a pain reflex to the status of a thought. I do grant that Warne is a cricketing genius, but not merely because his fingers have been taught how to behave.

My carping could be endless, so I will stop after just one more: his response to "what is the point of it all?" is (p245):

... We are all accidents in the evolutionary chain. We can lie back and enjoy it, or we can occupy ourselves, as scientists do, in trying to understand more about what is going on. There is nothing we can do to alter it, even when we understand it. We can only play with it. Man is as the smallest piece of dust in the universe. ...

I find this fatalism misplaced and irritating, perhaps because engineers are charged with altering things. In any case, Systemantics treats this issue more broadly and insightfully, and with more humour.

On a more agreeable note, he does propose:

  • A decoupling of credentialism from age, allowing for the differing rates of individual maturation;
  • A proper mutual obligation scheme, the "double bond" where the state pays for education and employment for a limited period with the intention that these be learning experiences that repay society in the long term;
  • Decentralisation of control in companies.

...and many more. I guess I'd prefer to read something more factual and logical.