Geese From Bottles

There is a koan involving the master, Nan-ch’üan P’u-yüan (南泉普願) whom, in varying accounts, relates some arcane wisdom to some neophyte through the metaphor of a goose in a bottle. My favorite version is from the 1959 textbook “Zen Buddhism: An Introduction to Zen, with Stories, Parables, and Koan Riddles told by the Zen Masters“. Here Nan-ch’üan is in his Japanese guise as “Nansen”:

THE OFFICIAL Riko once asked Nansen to explain to him the old problem of the goose in the bottle. “If a man puts a gosling into the bottle” he said, “and feeds the gosling through the bottle-neck until it grows and grows and becomes a goose, and then there just is no more room inside the bottle, how can the man get it out without killing the goose, or breaking the bottle?”

“Riko!” shouted Nansen, and gave a great clap with his hands.

“Yes, master,” said the official with a start.

“See!” said Nansen, “the goose is out!”


Right, so a goose. In a bottle. Now a conventional (read: good) writer would, at this point, explain this koan, or, y’know, get on to the thesis. Moving on then, Ronald S. Burt, though not an eighth-century Chan master, seemed to me to be making roughly the same point as Nansen with his “Competence-Capability Gap”. From the introduction Dr. Burt’s book, “Brokerage and Closure: An Introduction to Social Capital”:

The trouble started just before noon when the regiment rounded the edge of town and started up the two linked hills known locally as Marye’s Heights, because of the Marye family farm at the top. Confederates were dug in behind a stone wall with cannon and musket trained on the the approach. It was December 13th, 1862 in Fredricksburg, Virginia. Fourteen times Union soldiers attacked the Confederate line. Fourteen times they failed. When they quit, around dinner, George was one of twelve thousand Union casualties. 

And he goes on:

Union troops were massed and marched against the Confederate line because that was the strategic thinking of the day. Generals were trained to mass their men to achieve the firepower needed to break a fortification. The thinking was correct with respect to smoothbore muskets, but that was yesterday’s technology. The French “Minie” ball, adopted in the decade before the Civil War, made practical the deadly potential of rifled gun barrels. Guns previously accurate to 150 yards were now accurate to 450 yards. Troops could blow apart one another’s formations from a distance. Massive casualties were the cost of using smoothbore strategy in a fight with rifled weapons. The tragedy would recur on other Civil War battlefields, and on a larger scale fifty years later when massed troops in Europe were thrown against machine-gun fortifications. 

And further:

We today fight in our own Fredericksburg, with its own staggering potential for casualties. Technology has expanded our ability to communicate across geographic and social distance. Our ability to coordinate across markets has expanded accordingly. “Global” is the word of the day. The limited scale of yesterday’s organizations is today inefficient. We removed layers of bureaucracy and laid in fast, flexible communication systems.

Ask the leader of any large organization about the most difficult barriers he or she has to manage to harvest the coordination potential of our communications capabilities. They’ll inevitably talk about people issues, culture issues. People continue to work the way the learned in legacy organizations, in yesterday’s organization silos. We are capable of coordinating across scattered markets of human endeavor. We are not yet competent in how to take advantage of the capability.

I really enjoyed Dr. Burt’s book. So I hope he won’t mind if I say that not only do I think he’s correct in the above assertions, but he hasn’t gone far enough. Everything that is touched by computer networks is subject to this gap. Every model for human interaction that can be improved through the language of networks is subject to this gap. Every communication system, process, plan or concept is subject to the gap.

For years now, organizations in every area of communications have, in their efforts to determine how to remain relevant (or in some cases simply how to continue to exist), have placed increasing focus on the tools. Ad agencies, pr firms, newspapers and others have attempted, with varying degrees of success, to cultivate “interactive” capabilities. Which, when you think about the name, suggests (to my mind anyway) a focus on mechanics. So it is with social networks. So it is with each new communications technology. These organizations invest in all the new tools and yet, with few exceptions, the communication industry has yet to give birth to the new paradigm. They know it’s coming, so they keep watching each new tool.

Necessarily, these pragmatic business people apply the strategies that work. These strategies have worked for a long, long time; longer than the lifetimes of any of the decision-makers in question. They no longer work. Customer service is threatening to create a consumer insurgency if blogs are any measure. Advertising is notable these days mostly for not being so notable anymore. PR is, well, a nightmare. IT is losing business to interactive agencies whom are losing business to IT firms. Right and left brains collide. Creative directors cum guerilla marketing theorists lob youtube grenades at bookish consumer research. Celebrity is collectively over-saturating or self-immolating or something. Political leaders are so universally recognized for their vapid, venal atavism that the electorate are quite literally seeking a messiah.

The strategies aren’t working anymore. Which means there are no tools what can get the goose out of the bottle.

And what’s worse, the goose is us.

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