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Thursday, March 06, 2014

Misplaced Concreteness

"I think of organizations as a group of people sailing in a stream of ideas. Sometimes they're sailing in swift, clear streams where the ideas are abundant, but sometimes they are in stagnant pools or terrifying whirlpools. At other times, one persons idea stream fork off, splitting them apart from other people and taking them in a new direction. To me, this is the real story of community and culture. The rest is just surface appearance and illusion." -- Alex Pentland, Social Physics, p. 44

It is very easy to get entranced with one's own abstractions. What Pentland has here is an interesting and apparently useful abstraction modeling an aspect of the flow of ideas in society. But that is not enough: Pentland has to believe the he has captured "the real story of community and culture."

Note one thing left out of Pentland's abstraction: the ideas that are flowing in this "river" have no content. In fact, that is a necessary maneuver for his mathematization of these flows. Which is all fine, as long as one remembers that it is a mere abstraction. In fact, contentless "ideas" are an impossibility, and certainly ideas would not be flowing through society except for their concrete content, which, therefore, can hardly be "appearance and illusion." 

2 comments:

  1. Why can't the ideas that are "flowing in the river" have any content?

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    Replies
    1. Do you mean in reality, or in his model?

      In reality, of course, they do have content.

      In the model they can't, because:
      1) They could no longer be treated as uniform "particles" flowing in the stream; and
      2) It is rather hard to express "Let me build a suite of condos here" or "I think I'll fund a high tech startup" in mathematical terms.

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