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We’ve been trained to believe newer is better and high tech beats analog. Nassim Taleb labeled this cognitive error neomania. Neomania is a pathological preference for the new over the old. Or preference of the untested over the proven. (Later, we will see an extended quote from Taleb’s awesome book Antrfragile which explains the value of the proven.)
Iowa Democrats tried to use the latest neomanic technology for their caucuses. It was an Obamacare.com-esque disaster of technological incompetence. The whole thing blew up like a poisend dog. Of course, the Harvard-educated morons who wrote the software suffered no ill-effects. The only thing you learn at Harvard is how to make millions when everything you do turns to horse dung. (Valuable knowledge, I admit, but also a lesson to the wise: never buy anything that comes with a Harvard pedigree.)
Seeing the disaster of the Iowa caucuses, Nevada Democrats turned to Google for help. Google suggested they use Google Forms to manage the Nevada caucuses. Google Forms is a simple data collection tool for use by people who don’t know anything about computers. Apparently, Nevada Democrats don’t know anything about computers, so they gave Google Forms a try. But the forms were so complicated, caucuses organizers realized Nevada was about to make Iowa look like a model in German precision.
So Nevada Democrats turned to the proven “technology” of the past: paper ballots, telephones, and tally sheets. And it worked.
Every day, I see businesses searching for the latest technology to solve what are, fundamentally, management problems. After spending a lot of money and “right-sizing” their workforce (aka, firing people over 40 and replacing them with kids), the old problems persist and new problems join the fray. Then, the board “right-sizes” the company’s management, and a new round of fun and games begins.
My background is in software design and development, and I love improving things with technology. But technology isn’t always the answer, as Iowa and Nevada Democrats just showed us. Things tested by time will usually perform more reliably things invented by a Harvard graduate student last week. As Nassim Taleb describes the incredible staying power of things that simply work in the following excerpt from Antifragile:
Tonight I will be meeting friends in a restaurant (tavernas have existed for at least twenty-five centuries). I will be walking there wearing shoes hardly different from those worn fifty-three hundred years ago by the mummified man discovered in a glacier in the Austrian Alps. At the restaurant, I will be using silverware, a Mesopotamian technology, which qualifies as a “killer application” given what it allows me to do to the leg of lamb, such as tear it apart while sparing my fingers from burns. I will be drinking wine, a liquid that has been in use for at least six millennia. The wine will be poured into glasses, an innovation claimed by my Lebanese compatriots to come from their Phoenician ancestors, and if you disagree about the source, we can say that glass objects have been sold by them as trinkets for at least twenty-nine hundred years. After the main course, I will have a somewhat younger technology, artisanal cheese, paying higher prices for those that have not changed in their preparation for several centuries.1
Had someone in 1950 predicted such a minor gathering, he would have imagined something quite different. So, thank God, I will not be dressed in a shiny synthetic space-style suit, consuming nutritionally optimized pills while communicating with my dinner peers by means of screens. The dinner partners, in turn, will be expelling airborne germs on my face, as they will not be located in remote human colonies across the galaxy. The food will be prepared using a very archaic technology (fire), with the aid of kitchen tools and implements that have not changed since the Romans (except in the quality of some of the metals used). I will be sitting on an (at least) three-thousand-year-old device commonly known as the chair (which will be, if anything, less ornate that its majestic Egyptian ancestor). And I will be not be repairing to the restaurant with the aid of a flying motorcycle. I will be walking or, if late, using a cab from a century-old technology, driven by an immigrant—immigrants were driving cabs in Paris a century ago (Russian aristocrats), same as in Berlin and Stockholm (Iraqis and Kurdish refugees), Washington, D.C. (Ethiopian postdoc students), Los Angeles (musically oriented Armenians), and New York (multinationals) today.
Taleb and I are not saying we should never try anything new. We’re saying to stick with the proven until the new things has weathered the test of time and proven superior. Ya know, like paper ballots.
Taleb, Nassim Nicholas. Antifragile: Things That Gain from Disorder (Incerto) (pp. 312-313). Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition. ↩︎