On the importance of human agency.

Update (6 October 2011) I awoke to the sad news that Steve Jobs, visionary former CEO of Apple, has died. If anyone exemplified the power of human agency, it was Steve.


Exhibit A

Thinking back to meetings I’ve attended over the years leads to many different experiences blurring into one. There are, however, a few of these experiences that do stand out and, of these, two in particular are quite memorable. The first was a staff briefing session at a school whilst I was on my first teaching practice in 2003. The second was in April 2010 when I joined JISC infoNet.

Why were they so memorable? Because they involved steep learning curves and made me think. The jargon and acronyms being bandied about were a useful shorthand to others but confused me. A few meetings later in each case and I was au fait with the terminology and, indeed, using it myself. I had built some ‘mental sandcastles’.

Exhibit B

I used to teach History. In fact, after my degree in Philosophy I self-funded an MA in Modern History to get on to the PGCE Secondary History course at Durham University. It’s fair to say I’m very interested in, and enjoy, reading and talking about history.

As a teenager, however, I was very nearly turned off History (as a subject) by reading some A.J.P. Taylor. Why? What really annoyed me was his ascribing human qualties to countries and states (e.g. talking of Germany as ‘She’) whilst abstracting away from individuals to make a point that suited his grand meta-narrative. Here’s an example of Taylor’s prose from Wikiquote:

The worker is by nature less imaginative, more level-headed than the capitalist. This is what prevents his becoming one. He is content with small gains. Trade Union officials think about the petty cash; the employer speculates in millions. You can see the difference in their representative institutions. There is no scheme too wild, no rumour too absurd, to be without repercussions on the Stock Exchange. The public house is the home of common sense.

Some people may like that kind of stuff, but to my mind it’s severely lacking in resonance. I don’t seem to inhabit the kind of world A.J.P. Taylor describes.

Conclusion

As I attempted to show with Exhibit A, jargon and acronyms can be useful if people are using them as a shorthand to express something that has previously been expressed in detail. Nevertheless, I think it’s probably a good idea to have meetings and conversations every so often where jargon and acronyms are banned. In my experience, people build ‘mental sandcastles’ ostensibly made of the same stuff as those created by others but actually differing based on their experiences, prejudices and preferences. Kicking down those sandcastle once in a while (to continue the metaphor) is probably a good idea.

Things don’t just happen. They are made to happen. This can be due to natural proceses but also, more often than not, by individual human agency. Organizations have agency, of course they do. An organization is a group of individuals who have come together around a common cause. That organization may seem to ‘express’ certain traits (e.g. a conservative outlook) but this remains the result of collective individual action.

So, to get to my main point in a rather roundabout way, when I see techno-determinist opinions (for that is what they are) dressed up as inevitable facts I have a similar reaction to that of my teenage self reading A.J.P. Taylor. You may well predict that the biggest trends in 2015 will be x, y and z. But, given that nobody predicted everything kicking off in the Middle East earlier this year, you’ll excuse me whilst I look at what people are actually doing whilst you peer into your crystal ball.

The future is ours to shape. Let’s not forget that.

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