I referred to this story in a long-ago blog, and was prompted to detail it further after seeing David Griffiths great post on LinkedIn - read that at your leisure, but don't neglect it.

I was honored to work with some senior Department of Defense people in 2008, and the story of one of their number stays with me to this day. He remarked that he entered the "Senior Executive Service" at the Pentagon about 30 years ago or so. When he arrived, he found a file cabinet, a desk, and a secretary. While he could ask about a specific memo in a specific folder, the secretary could tell him the battles that lay behind the development of the memo; the stakeholders who were represented; and the compromises that led to the final product. In effect, she could immediately tell him the 'draft version' for every document, providing essential context that was not represented anywhere else. Call this 'natural intelligence,' differentiated from the all-too-sexy Artificial Intelligence topic that is hot again.

Sometime during the 1980s, the secretary's position was eliminated, along with any additions to the file cabinet. In their place, the gentleman found himself staring at a computer screen. (For the historians among us, I'm fairly certain Compaq had the early contracts; the Z86 made its appearance in my Air Force office in 1987 - as far from this gentleman's E-ring office as I am currently from Pluto, but I'd bet that was the device of his torment.)

When he asked the obvious question, he was told that "it is all on the computer," and heard his first mention of a mysterious "network of computers" that "linked him" to "all of Dod's knowledge." The outcome was as you may be predicting, and he reflected that he never regained the insight and context he lost with her departure. (My use of the feminine here is historically precise.) Not only did he lose access to her reflections regarding the final, arid, written product of Pentagon deliberations - he had no place to store any new insights regarding ongoing work. Those departed with him years later.

In our rush to discard Natural Intelligence, it strikes me that we never were able to understand the value of those who facilitate knowledge transfer and coherent behavior. The current and most recent infatuation with AI is understandable, because we continue to undervalue the human role in navigating our world together. 

(The subject of this picture, Dún Aonghasa, can be described in a few sentences through intelligent search, and over the space of 20 minutes with the right tour guide.) 

Comment