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July 11, 2017

The Philosopher King In The Land Of Data

Sensemaking: The Power of the Humanities in the Age of the Algorithm


Business consultant Christian Madsbjerg’s Sensemaking: The Power of the Humanities in the Age of the Algorithm (published in March 2017 by Hachette) makes points highly relevant to our work at Mouse and more generally for all of us engaged in youth development and education.  

We at Mouse help all young learners gain access and mastery in the STEM fields, and we recognize the power of data and data analytics. Having said that, we -- like Madsbjerg -- insist on more humanistic context and nuance in the use of data and worry that our very definition of what constitutes data obscures or preempts deeper and more varied approaches to understanding. Our tagline at Mouse is “technology with purpose,” so Madsbjerg’s clarion call for the humanities rings true for us.

Madsbjerg starts by wandering with purpose through Chinese architecture, Mexican history and Sufi philosophy, so that “our minds ...synthesize all types of data...explore without need of proving or disproving a narrow hypothesis, and ...engage empathically with the particularities of a given world. [...] This rigorous cultural engagement is the foundation of the practice I call sensemaking...an ancient practice of cultural inquiry...to develop a sensitivity toward meaningful differences --what matters to other people as well as to ourselves” (pages xx & xxi).

He then, in a brisk 216 pages, gives us numerous examples of how “sensemaking” can help frame and solve challenges in the business world and beyond, using what he dubs the “Five Principles of Sensemaking”(page 7):

“Culture -- not individuals
Thick data -- not just thin data
The savannah -- not the zoo
Creativity --not manufacturing
The North Star -- not the GPS”

None of this will be new for academics in the liberal arts, who may well note that Madsbjerg’s presentations of complex philosophical and literary elements are often facile, incomplete or misplaced. Such critique may be narrowly correct but would miss the point, which is that the business and policy communities whom Madsbjerg addresses need to be reminded that such complex elements exist (or hear this news for the first time). Even if his work is a pastiche, I find it marvelous when a management book includes references to, among many others, Aristotle, Alice Munro, Flannery O’Connor, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Descartes, William James, Peirce, Niklas Luhmann, Marshall Sahlins, and Bourdieu.

“Sensemaking” for Madsbjerg springs primarily from context, the tissue of emotional interpersonal relations (peaking with empathy) and influences from our natural environment within which meaning is formed. Without context, and its “thick description” (a concept he borrows with full attribution from Geertz), knowledge is rendered into mere data, a recipe compared to the taste of the cassoulet. In K-12 education terms, a test score or GPA compared to a teacher or student’s holistic understanding of knowing, performance, shortcomings and achievements. Madsbjerg does not argue (any more than I would) that data does not matter; his point (and mine) is that we need both the recipe and the making / tasting, both the test score and the attention to divergent thinking and to context that tests are too austere to capture.

In his approach, Madsbjerg reflects his Danish education, which is grounded in the broader North European tradition of Bildung as expressed by German philosophers, theologians and poets in the 18th and 19th centuries. (I feel at home here too, having been educated partly at the University of Oslo and the University of Bielefeld).  Sensemaking as Madsbjerg presents it has roots in the thinking of the Halle Pietists as well as  Wilhelm von Humboldt, and especially in the focus on Erfahrung (direct experience) held by Pestalozzi and Froebel (who created the concept of Kindergarten).  Thus Madsbjerg draws from and contributes to the stream that has also produced constructivist educational theory (Dewey, Piaget, Bruner, Dreyfus, Papert, Resnick / MIT’s Lifelong Kindergarten Group).(*)

My only substantial disagreement with Madsbjerg lies in his brusque dismissal of design thinking as having “nothing to do with humanities thinking” (page 133).  His description of IDEO and Stanford’s d school  -- and by extension, design thinking as a discipline -- is wrongheaded.  Sensemaking and design thinking are essentially identical, or at least close cousins, certainly as we practice design thinking at the Mouse Design League (we’re influenced also by the Parsons School of Design and the Cooper Hewitt / Smithsonian Design Museum).

I also suggest that Madsbjerg exaggerates to make his point, that he sets up a caricature of the “Moneyball” purist blindly worshipping at the altar of the algorithm.  The great majority of the technologists, entrepreneurs, finance professionals and STEM educators with whom Mouse works would not recognize themselves in such a caricature.  As one example among many, I know of a leading venture capitalist in the tech space who combines computational thinking with a deep appreciation for Klee -- which would once again lead us, via the Bauhaus, back to the 18th- and 19th-century Germanic roots of sensemaking.  

Overall though, I recommend Sensemaking as another useful tool in our kit when making the case for the humanities in a digital age.  Put it on your bookshelf beside many volumes by Turkle, Brown & Duguid’s The Social Life of Information, “Innovation Starvation” by Stephenson, Nardi & O’Day’s Information Ecologies: Using Technology With Heart, Colvin’s Humans Are Underrated, and Wenger’s World After Capital.

(*)  This account of Madsbjerg’s intellectual lineage is fine as far as it goes but is incomplete.  Many cultures, not just those in northern European traditions, champion sensemaking as here defined.  I would love to see more work acknowledging the impact of Asian, Middle Eastern, African (and African American), Latin American and Native American sensemaking concepts on European (and European American) thought and practice.  A few places to start:  Amartya Sen, The Chèche Konnen Center, Chris Emdin, Ron Eglash,  Yasiin Bey,  Gloria Ladson-Billings, Pedro Noguera, Teresa Cordova, Vijay Iyer, Robert Glasper, Kendrick Lamar.

By Daniel A. Rabuzzi
Executive Director, Mouse

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