Clay Shirky on cognitive maps

Clay Shirky had an interesting idea in an article over at Many-to-Many, where he divides the world between radial and Cartesian thinkers. Here’s how he makes the distinction:

Radial people assume that any technological change starts from where we are now – reality is at the center of the map, and every possible change is viewed as a vector, a change from reality with both a direction and a distance. Radial people want to know, of any change, how big a change is it from current practice, in what direction, and at what cost.

Cartesian people assume that any technological change lands you somewhere – reality is just one point of many on the map, and is not especially privileged over other states you could be in. Cartesian people want to know, for any change, where you end up, and what the characteristics of the new landscape are. They are less interested in the cost of getting there.

It’s a handy distinction. The radial thinker says “Okay, this is where we are, let’s see where we can go from here.” The Cartesian thinker says “Over there is where we need to be. I don’t care where we are, but let’s go that way.” It’s the practicalist vs. the idealist, the engineer vs. the scientist. Incremental improvement vs. paradigm shifts. Shirky applies the distinction to help dissolve some of the differing perspectives on Wikipedia, and clarifies why he thinks the two sides are talking past each other.

The interesting thing was what happened when I tried to figure out which kind of thinker I was. My first reaction was, “Oh, yeah, I’m totally a radial thinker”, thinking about my tendencies at work where I figure out the minimum change I can make to get something working right now. That’s partially out of efficiency (aka laziness), and partially a result of having seen far too many Cartesian thinkers get bogged down trying to do a total redesign in a world of changing requirements. So when presented with a feature request, I tend to take stock of what I have already implemented, and think about the easiest way to kludge it to add the feature, rather than spend (waste) time thinking about what future features might be added, thinking about how I should design to handle the most general case, etc. From this viewpoint, it seemed obvious that I was a radial thinker.

Then I thought about it some more, and realized that in my personal life, I’m far more of a Cartesian thinker. I have a vision of an ideal, but it’s far from what I currently have, and making a few minor changes will make very little headway in terms of moving me towards that ideal, so I don’t bother doing anything at all. We can see this in my lack of progress towards finding a new host for this blog, or towards becoming a social software programmer, or even in little things like how long it took me to buy a bed.

So now I’m both a radical and a Cartesian thinker. That doesn’t make sense. Except that I think it does, in light of my theory of context-activated cognitive subroutines. In one context, I think one way. In another, I think the other. When I poke and prod further, I can think of reasons why I have different opinions in different contexts; I’m a radial thinker at work because I’ve seen too many efforts fail at trying to achieve the ideal general case, whereas my approach of rapid prototyping and incremental improvement has done well for me so far. I’m a Cartesian thinker in my personal life because I tend not to compare myself to others, and instead compare myself to my potential, to a putative ideal version of myself. Different contexts, different identities.

And I can break it down even further. In my life at work as a programmer, I’m a radial thinker, as previously noted. In my dealings with management, though, I’m still an unrepentant idealist. I know there are reasons for timesheet software or process and micro-management, but I can see where I think we should be, and get really frustrated that we seem stuck in an entirely different part of the phase space. Such frustration is a Cartesian reaction, because Cartesian thinking (in Shirky’s definition) doesn’t accept reality as the starting point, but only as a possible destination. So even my work identity is fractured along these lines. Lots of grist for the cognitive subroutine theory in this seemingly simple observation of different thinking patterns.

I’ll close with some thoughts on the radial vs. Cartesian dichotomy that Shirky suggests. In the long run, I think the radial thinkers will have the advantage, for all the reasons that Shirky has mentioned previously with regard to Wikipedia. Cartesian thinkers spend a lot of time discussing how things should be, and complaining that the world doesn’t match the ideal they have in their head –
danah’s response illustrates this attitude where she says essentially that the radial thinkers’ improvements are horizontal moves that don’t address the underlying problems she was with Wikipedia (or Brittanica for that matter). Radial thinkers don’t spend their time exploring the entire possible phase space of what might be possible; they start with the way things are, and get to work changing it. It’s using one’s effort efficiently. In my work life, some of my most frustrating coworkers have been incredibly intelligent PhDs who want to spend several months perfecting a mathematical model or nailing down every possible contributing factor to an analysis, instead of saying “Okay, it’s good enough, let’s see what we can do.” Again, it’s the engineer vs. scientist viewpoint. There’s a place for the academics, and for the dreamers, to help imagine new ideals, and guide the incremental changes of the radial thinkers. But in the end, the radial thinkers are going to be the ones building tools and getting stuff done.

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