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Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Three Wishes

RT @j4ngis "I wish I had more wishes" Not seen this in any of the classic fairy tales. Yet so obvious?

Another excellent and stimulating Tweet from Anders Jangbrand. When my sons were too small to appreciate the inflexible logic of fairy tales, they used to ask similar questions. Can't we have more wishes? Can't we have some kind of blanket security wish (nothing-bad-ever-happens)? In other words, can we trick the good fairy into granting more than the story intends? Can intelligence divert the inevitability of the story?

From the perspective of creativity and innovation, questions like these count as thinking "outside the box". The fairy tale describes a closed world (box) in which only certain kinds of wishes are valid: like desires, they need to be concrete and specific. In the context of a fairy story, general-purpose or open-ended wishes would be too vague and abstract, would lack the necessary psychological force and might suggest moral weakness as well (avarice or greed). In fairy stories, character always triumphs over intelligence, and the selfishly or cleverly deployed wish typically rebounds in unexpected ways.

Technology promises a similar escape from the limitations of the physical world. Mary Catherine Bateson, in her brilliant essay The Revenge of the Good Fairy (originally published in the Whole Earth Review), shows how simplistic technological projects are doomed to find failure, and puts in a plea for ambivalence.

"Ambivalence is the mirrorimage within the person of certain characteristics of hierarchically organized systems, where the individual is a subsystem in some larger system. When the individual wishes too efficiently, he may disrupt the larger system-- and his entire wish-mechanism may have evolved to push against environmental constraints, but not to succeed. When the individual who has matured under these circumstances finds himself suddenly able to make wishes come true, he may subvert that possibility. Phrasing it rather differently, we could say that ambivalence is not only a neurotic residue of childhood but a form of wisdom, a memory of what it is to be a part of a larger whole. Kierkegaard once said, "purity is to will one thing,' but it seems possible that a divided will is the beginning of wisdom."

The moral of the fairy story is be careful what you wish for, and do not try to be too clever. Innovation may entail thinking outside the box - but it also entails deep appreciation and respect for the logic of the box.


  1. It's interesting that fairy tales are set in made-up worlds. The rules that these worlds are formed from are often incomplete and inconsistent. What do you mean I climb up her hair? That makes no sense! However, its these flaws that make the fairy tales compelling. They let us escape from the problems around us.

    The problem with the simple wish is not that it's simple. The problem is that it's inconsistent with the context it exists within.

    Simple solutions fail not because they are simple, but because they are trying to solve the wrong problem. If we place the Earth at the centre of the universe then we're forced to solve planetary motion with epicycles. A massively complex and ultimately doomed approach. If we realize that the Earth is "just another planet", then Newton comes up with some clear and concise laws of motion. In a similar way a simple wish ("I wish for more wishes") is counter to the point of the fairy tail, and is banned/fails.

    Far too many IT solutions are too complex. We're all guilty of it. Having solved a problem badly we'd like to try and improve it--adding or changing epicycles. Let's and more abstraction, or more flexibility, or change the base technology; that'll fix it. We might even simplify, trying to get back to the core of the problem, as we understood it. However, given the length of a large project and the incredibly fast pace of technology innovation, we often find that the world view we started the last project with is no longer valid. Simple or complex, the solution is not going to work.

    In the end, creating good software is about keeping it simple. If it’s simple, it gets done quickly and can be maintained more readily. The challenge is to understand what problem you really need to solve, rather than just recreating (with some improvements) a solution that you worked on in the past.

  2. Good points, but I don't agree that fairy tales are incomplete or inconsistent, and I think that climbing hair makes sense within the context of the story. This has implications for management consultants - see my next post on fairy tale logic.