Friday, April 01, 2005

Cartesian and Radial Metaphors for Thinking About Change

Clay Shirky identifies (or did, a few weeks back) two prototypical ways people think about technological change, which he metaphorically associates with cartesian and radial coordinate systems. (though he's talking about technological change, it seems applicable to any type of change)

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.
(as one of the comments to the article points out, this is focusing on the journey vs focusing on the destination, which is perhaps a better way of putting it, but anwyay...)
I think it's a useful identification/distinction. I think, though, that what Clay presents as the Cartesian viewpoint is really more a "naive" Cartesian viewpoint, attributing to it naive views that are not inherent to it.

I also think he makes the folk psychology mistake of considering attributes and dispositions to have "complete coverage" and always apply to every facet of the person's perception and thinking -- where we say, for example, that some person is a good person, or a bad person, or a mischevious person, or a radial person, or a cartesian person, as if they had this essence of badness or whatever.

But this radial/cartesian thing can apply to different facets of someone's thinking. For example, it is better, I think, to consider possibilities, in a cartesian fashion, and then once you have figured out what is possible, to think consider how we can get there in a radial way. It is possible for a single person to be able to apply both forms of thinking about a situation.

I also disagree with the concluding remarks
There’s no answer to any of this — as Grandma used to say, "Both your maps are nice."
which sound like relativism to me. That sort of conclusion comes, I think, from thinking of the radial/cartisian as things in themselves, as is done when thinking about them in "complete coverage" terms, and thus concluding that "they both have their good and bad points, and thus one isn't superior to the other". But when we consider how good something is or isn't we always have to ask *for what?*. The mistake that relativist thinkers make is failing to do this, and thinking that things have some single property -- some "absolute" property -- of good/bad, useful/not useful or whatever. When we consider "for what" we can usually say something more decisive. (I know this is a very brief presentation of this argument, and probably not convincing to you, and I wish I had more time now to try and elaborate on it).

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