A Commonplace

What is a commonplace?

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30/9/2017

Fata Morgana - trust me you already know what I'm talking about

"Every book is the wreck of a perfect idea." - Iris Murdoch

I was once involved in a research project to develop games using mobile phones. I was running a series of brainstorming workshops with some of the research engineers that I worked with. After a couple of early workshops, I realised that some of the most clever and creative people who were involved seemed to be getting really nervous. They were worried that what we were doing didn't have a clear output - that it wasn't obvious from what we were doing that there would be a successful outcome. To this seemed insane. We were doing research, we needed to footle around and come up with some ideas - if one of them took hold, then we'd develop it a bit more and see if anybody got excited. But for some reason, rather than arguing with the engineers, I did something dishonest, but probably more effective than arguing with them would have ever been. I put together a slide that outlined a series of workshops that we were going to do around the idea of mobile games and as a final slide, I put a picture of a sausage on a fork (Grange Hill style if anybody knows what I mean). "If we put all of our energy and enthusiasm into these workshops" I said, "we're guaranteed to have a good outcome, like sausages coming out of a sausage machine." The engineers seemed to relax a little and we did the workshops. So, to some degree, my sausage ploy was a success. Even though the mobile games project was total failure - the research lab got closed down shortly afterwards. But only recently, did I realise what I was doing by asking the people I was working with to focus on the sausage (or maybe even its sizzle) rather than the process of making it - and the awful ingredients that that process involves.

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I read Albert Hirschmann's essay on the "hiding hand" over the summer. And on and off I've been reading, talking and thinking about Daniel Kahneman's book "Thinking Fast and Slow" for a couple of years. But only recently have I started to crystallise this into some kind of definite idea. This is a run at it, but I probably need a few more.

Hirschmann's idea is a radically different account of why we do anything. But it's also an account which has been hiding in plain sight. If fact, one important thing about the Fata Morgana, is that when you're looking at it, you can't see anything else. The Fata Morgana is a mirage - literally the "Fairy Morgana" - the witch Morgana of Arthurian legend.

Hirschman's crucial contribution on his essay on the "Fata Morgana" was to point out that falling for mirages is what makes the world go around. If we didn't fall for mirages, nothing would get built, nothing would be done. Nobody would fight wars, nobody would get married, nobody would rise up in revolution, nobody would ever try to invent anything and certainly, nobody would embark upon complex software development projects. So what things am I talking about when I'm talking about Fata Morgana mirages. Here's some of the top of my head.