Seven sins – 3: The Newage Nuisance

Enterprise-architecture, strategy, or just about everything, really: they all depend on discipline and rigour – disciplined thinking, disciplined sensemaking and decision-making.

But what happens when that discipline is lost? What are the ‘sins’ that can cause that discipline to be lost? How can we know that it’s been lost? And what can we do to recover?

This is part of a brief series on metadiscipline for sensemaking via the ‘swamp-metaphor‘, and on ‘seven sins of dubious discipline’ – common errors that can cause sensemaking-discipline to fail or falter:

Moving onward once more, now with Sin #3, the malodorous mess of the Newage Nuisance:

As implied in the image above, there’s a real sense of ‘shovelling the sh*t uphill’ here with this one. The term ‘newage‘ rhymes with ‘sewage’, ‘the discarded remnant of what was once nutritious’: and its stench pervades pretty much every area where discipline is needed in practice, not just in the self-styled ‘New Age’ domains, but everywhere beyond – including enterprise-architecture and the like.

(To be fair, the problem isn’t unique to the New Age folks – I’ve also seen it occur everywhere from information-system design to intellectual-property law, from economics to ecofeminism, and almost anything in between. But it’s so prevalent and all-pervasive in so many of the New Age fields that the term ‘newage’ does fit all too well.)

Despite the stench, this ‘sin’ can at first perhaps seem somewhat more subtle than the Golden-Age Game. Yet it’s certainly no less of a problem in practice – because where the Golden-Age Game is careless in its use of the Scientist and Believer modes, the Newage Nuisance plays fast and loose with them all…

Although it can take almost any form, in essence it’s a dilettante ‘disneyfication’ of discipline itself – a shallow over-simplification of everything, combined with a wilful, sometimes deliberate and often near-obsessive avoidance of any kind of discipline.

Although there are some strong links with inadequate management of the skills-learning process – as we’ll see later with Sin #7, ‘Lost in the learning labyrinth’ – newage is typified by arbitrary jumps between the distinct forms of ‘truth’ in art, spirituality, science and technology. At its simplest and most forgivable level, it’ll often occur when an overdose of enthusiasm overrides sense and self-honesty – such as in the feeling of ‘instant mastery’ after the classic New Age-style one-weekend-workshop. Or, for that matter, the infamous ‘one-week Certified Whatever Training-Course’ and suchlike, which, to quote a previous post here, all too often:

[It] leaves us with the unfortunate tendency that those who know the most theory and the least of the practice are also those who are most certain of themselves and their knowledge – and, often, the most vocal in asserting their certainty of knowledge – yet in reality will often have the least applicable or useful knowledge.

The excessive exuberance of ‘beginner’s luck’ is understandable, but the real problems start whenever there’s an unwillingness, or refusal, or fear, to let go of that feeling of ‘instant mastery’. So the next stage is the ‘workshop junkie’ – a ceaseless collection of just the ‘instant mastery’ level of every possible new skill, but with no depth, no commitment, and nothing to tie the skills together into anything that can be put to practical use.

(One of my self-styled ‘alternative’ friends unwittingly illustrated this rather well for me the other day. “We go to one workshop after another”, she wailed. “We get meaning, fun, togetherness, one revelation after another. But what do we do with all this stuff?'”)

Part of the problem – perhaps especially in New Age contexts with an overt emphasis on ‘spirituality’ – is that the Believer-mode is all about being, about inner-truth. And that’s diametrically opposed to the Technologist-mode, which happens to be the only place where “what do we do with all this stuff?” comes into the picture. But the real core is that commitment to the discipline of a skill is what finally kills off ‘beginner’s luck’ – and with it that initial delusion of ‘mastery’. From there on, for quite a long while, it feels like downhill all the way – and hard work too, with personal challenges that are often far harder still. An uncomfortable time, to say the least.

So there’s a natural tendency to try to avoid that discomfort by avoiding commitment, whilst still pretending – if only to self – that mastery has already been achieved. There’s then an inevitable desire to conceal – if only from self – the fact that mastery has not been reached… And the mechanism to do this is by playing mix-and-match between the modes: the rules of one mode are used to purport to validate the ‘truths’ from another.

In practice, the simplest and perhaps most common example of this is the phrase ‘applied science’. Doing anything, using anything, places us in the Technologist-mode of outer-value, and must always be tested in those terms – such as ethics, appropriateness and so on. But the phrase ‘applied science’ implies that if we can call something ‘scientific’, the only test we need apply is outer-truth – which means it’s purported to be ‘value-free’. If something’s supposedly value-free, that absolves us from having to face any difficult doubts about ethics or effectiveness: so we then claim an unquestioned right to go right ahead and do whatever-it-is because it’s ‘true’. Therein lie all manner of, uh, interesting problems in the wider world…

Looking at the paths between the modes, you’ll see that there are at least a dozen different ways this game can go. For example, for those whose work is anchored more in the subjective space, one such mistake is typified by a common misuse of the old slogan ‘the personal is political’: “this is true for me, therefore it must also apply to everyone else”, muddling the subjective space (‘personal’) with the objective space (‘political’).

In essence, what we’re dealing with here in the Newage Nuisance is a kind of pseudo-competence, or pretence of competence via obfuscation – a point we’ll explore in more depth in the ‘Mapping’ section below. The key point is that the only way we can resolve the Newage Nuisance is to be clear about which mode we’re in at all times, using the correct rules and tactics for that mode, and that mode alone – and also face the fears that drive us to be dishonest about what our skills really are.

Note, though, that there can be a lot of emotion tied up in that self-dishonesty, hence a common characteristic in some forms of the Newage Nuisance is an odd kind of bullying bluster – especially in response to anything that could be construed as critique. One example I remember well was an ecofeminist artist and writer whose work I’d much admired, until another feminist academic pointed out to me that the writer’s supposed studies on ‘women’s myths and secrets’ would best described as “all the fact that’s fit to invent”. It turned out that most of her assertions of ‘eternal facts for all women’ had no historical basis at all. I should perhaps also have noticed rather earlier her penchant for using ‘patriarchy’ as an all-purpose synonym for ‘bad’ – Other-blame being another common characteristic of this kind of newage. With some trepidation, I asked her about her sources:

— “Myself, of course! – my own experience of patriarchal oppression is true for all women!”

— “But you’re presenting it as objective fact?”

— “It’s true because I feel it to be true. So it’s true – true for all women!”

— “But if you’re presenting it as fact, surely it needs to follow a science-style fact-checking discipline – of cross-references and all that?”

— “It’s women’s spirituality! Science doesn’t apply – that’s just the patriarchy!”

— “But if it’s spiritual, what’s the basis for that spirituality?”

— “It’s art – you can’t question that!”, she snapped, with something close to a sneer.

— “But you’re insisting that other women must do things your way, to base their own lives on these personal experiences of yours – how is that art?”

— “Because it’s true! Everything I say is true! If you doubt that, you’re just an agent of the enemy, the patriarchy!”

Round and round the garden: yep, I kinda gave up at that point…

Don’t laugh too much at that kind of crazy circularity, though: we see exactly the same in the obsessive IT-centrism so often evinced from some folks in the ‘enterprise-architecture’ trade, and in some so-called ‘business-architecture’ too. Don’t laugh too loud at anyone else’s mistake of this kind: if we don’t maintain our own self-vigilance, any of us can fall into the Newage Nuisance, at any time. I’ve done it myself too at times, to be honest. Oops…

The Newage Nuisance is the Golden Age Game writ large, cover­ing the entire context of the space in which we work. Challenging it is never easy, given the emotions that such challen­ges will so often engender. Yet unless we do each face it firmly – not just in others, but even more in ourselves, in everything we do – that avoidance of discipline will inevitably render meaningless every scrap of work in that space.

Not exactly a trivial sin, then. One we definitely need to address…

Mapping to ‘swamp-metaphor’ disciplines

To map the above to the set of disciplines for sensemaking and decision-making from the ‘swamp-metaphor‘:

And in turn cross-mapped to the SCAN framework for sensemaking and decision-making:

And, once again, the two key problem-areas:

Somewhat as in the Golden-Age Game, the Newage Nuisance fixates itself in the Believer-mode. The big difference is that the Newage Nuisance is active rather than passive – an active defence of the self-dishonesty, running around between the swamp-metaphor modes, grabbing titbits here and there, always pre-filtered such that those fragments can seem to prop up the belief, and where protection of the chosen belief is more important than consistency, honesty, logic or truth. It’s the core mechanism underlying any form of ‘something-centrism’, whether IT-centrism, money-centrism, religion-centrism, family-centrism, gender-centrism, clique-centrism or whatever.

At first glance, all of this might look like it’s just a problem around disciplines of thinking, about letting go of the Believer-mode enough to see that there are always other options that might be better – better than the pre-chosen one – for some specific need. To give a routine example from web-design, James Archer’s article ‘The Hamburger Menu Doesn’t Work‘ explores the limitations of the near-universal ‘hamburger-menu’, the habit of hiding navigation-options behind a tiny three-line icon – somewhat like ≡ – and explains why it’s generally a bad idea, why other options will usually work better instead. Yet he also warns that we can fall into Newage Nuisance-style misplaced-absolutes from the other direction as well:

Universally declaring hamburger menus to be totally terrible is as bad as declaring them to be always awesome. Rules are no replacement for thinking. Consider the user, do the math, and figure out what actually makes the most sense.

(Emphasis added)

Or, to translate into swamp-metaphor terms, what works requires moving between all of the sensemaking-modes within the respective context-space:

  • “Rules are no replacement for thinking.” – be ready and willing to break out the Believer-mode
  • “Consider the user, …” – explore options in the Artist-mode
  • “…do the math, …” – verify in the Scientist-mode
  • “…and figure out what actually makes the most sense.” – evaluate in the Technologist-mode

The catch, of course, can be seen in a classic quote often attributed to Henry Ford: “Thinking is the hardest work there is, which is probably why so few people engage in it.” But it can be done, though it’s not necessarily as straightforward as we might like, as Michelle James explained in her recent post ‘How People Change Their Minds: Creative Engagement‘:

[P]eople are not likely to change their minds based on “facts” or reasons, but when they themselves have to give explanations of how something works…not just the reasons they believe something, but they have to actually think for themselves, using their imagination, and in doing their own thinking, could then come to a new ways of seeing something.

People don’t change deeply held values or beliefs because we give them isolated facts on an issue that support our own values, beliefs or political/moral views, people change when given the chance to engage in their own thinking through explaining, imagining, thinking from a systems view, beyond a list of facts or reasons. If we increase involvement and engagement, not just by being a detached spectator finding facts that support our current beliefs, and explain how something works or imagine how it could work, we can then see the loopholes in our own belief systems and adjust.

(Emphasis as in original quote)

That requirement for personal-engagement is something we’ll come back to in Sin #7, ‘Lost in the Learning Labyrinth’, where the last stage of learning a skill involves teaching it to others – in other words, “If we … explain how something works or imagine how it could work, we can then see the loopholes in our own belief systems and adjust”.

Which does work – if we let it do so. But the deeper problem we face with the Newage Nuisance is that its whole mess of non-thinking is held together by pseudo-competence – a self-delusion of ‘competence’ held together by deeply-entrenched circular-reasoning, and in which there is deep and often intense personal investment of self-as-self. In short, the seemingly-straightforward task of tackling factual errors and suchlike in some instance of the Newage Nuisance can, without warning, suddenly turn into something that’s experienced as a full-on existential threat – with all that that implies. Hence why this ain’t easy…

It’s useful to get some distinctions here between competence, non-competence, and incompetence:

  • Competence is where someone knows what they’re doing, why they’re doing it, then does it – and does it well.
  • Non-competence is where someone doesn’t know what they’re doing, and will either not do it, or will do the best they can, yet with intent to use it as a learning to improve their competence.
  • Incompetence is where someone doesn’t know what they’re doing – is non-competent to do the task – but either purports and/or believes themselves to be competent.

The risk of Newage Nuisance-style incompetence increases wherever a culture exhibits any of these characteristics:

  • prioritises content over context, ‘truth’ over context-dependent usefulness
  • has an insistent ideological base (leading to the same as above)
  • is typified by rampant egotism, self-advertising and self-centrism
  • is frequently swayed by tides of hype and ‘following after the latest fad’
  • displays an almost desperate need to be ‘right’

Again, it’s not just in the self-styled ‘New Age’ domains that we see this kind of mess: as enterprise-architects would note with trepidation, all of those attributes are extremely common in business, and in many cases are actively prized…

The pseudo-competence creates serious risks just in itself. Yet the problems may be made much worse by a corollary of the distinctions above that’s a bit more subtle:

  • someone who is competent will typically not bother to say so, but will just get on with the work instead
  • someone who is non-competent will typically say that are not competent, but will often actually be adequately-competent, or at least willing to learn to become so
  • someone who is incompetent will typically claim that they are competent, and will usually not be willing to learn how to become competent, because to do so would betray to themselves and others the fact that they are actually not competent

Which, in practice, leaves us with a huge dilemma:

  • those who do not claim to be competent usually are competent, or honest about their non-competence
  • those who do claim to be competent frequently are not competent

In short:

  • the Newage Nuisance shouts loudly about its prepackaged ‘solutions’ to real-world problems that it doesn’t actually understand – and often the louder the shouting, the less real understanding there actually is
  • through careful filtering of ‘policy-based evidence’, it can muster enough suggestion of ‘proof’ to seem credible – sufficient at least to maintain its own self-delusion, if nothing else
  • in technical, business and other contexts, it can often marshal just enough knowledge to get itself and others into serious trouble, yet without sufficient to get back out of trouble again – and hence may be very dangerous indeed to all involved

All of which is otherwise known as Not A Good Idea…

In summary:

— the Newage Nuisance arises from:

  • combination of incompetence and self-dishonesty in relation to any or all of the modes, and fear of responsibilities arising from commitment to a skill
  • also status-games, attempts to claim or maintain ‘priority and privilege’, avoidance of emotional/aspirational work as well as of thinking-work’

— to resolve or mitigate the Newage Nuisance:

  • be clear which mode we’re in at each moment, and use only the rules, tactics and tests for that specific mode
  • be clear how and why we transition from mode to mode
  • challenge and face the fears that would otherwise lead to evasion of the necessary discipline in each mode
  • provide conditions under which it is safe enough to let go of delusions, and move on

Let’s leave it at that for now, anyway, and move on to the next item in this sad saga – Sin #4, The Meaning Mistake.

(Note: This series is adapted in part from my 2008 book The Disciplines of Dowsing, co-authored with archaeographer Liz Poraj-Wilczynska.)

2 Comments on “Seven sins – 3: The Newage Nuisance

  1. As the old saying about cooking goes: “What’s worse than someone who can and won’t? Someone who can’t and will.”

    There seem to be way too many cooks in the EA world, many of them abetted by cooks in enterprise management.

    Thanks for forcing us to face up to our destructive self-delusions. I’m not sure which of them is the worst. Each one in this series of posts seems worse than the last. By the time you get to the end of this series, I will probably want to retire to a closet and spend the rest of what’s left of my career sucking my thumb.

    • @Howard: “By the time you get to the end of this series, I will probably want to retire to a closet and spend the rest of what’s left of my career sucking my thumb.”

      I don’t quite know whether to laugh, cry, or apologise profusely, so I’ll settle for the latter: sorry, sorry, sorry! 🙁 🙂

      It ain’t gonna be as bad as that, I promise! (or I hope it won’t be as bad, anyway…)

      True, some of the others of the ‘sins’ are likewise a bit tough, or tricky, or sneak-up-from-behindish, but they’re all resolvable, or recoverable-from, or something like that – honest!

      Remember that in the sequence from unconscious-incompetence to unconscious-competence, the first shift is always from unconscious-incompetence to conscious-incompetence – which always looks worse but is actually an improvement, because we’ve now dropped the (self)-delusion of pseudo-competence.

      The whole point of this series is to make it easier to make that jump (and the further jumps, to conscious-competence and eventually to unconscious-competence), by providing a consistent framework of metadiscipline with which to observe and test what we’re doing as we’re doing it. Kinda rough at the start, I know, but it does get easier with practice – I promise! 🙂

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