Paradigm Shifts, TED Talks, and the Rosetta Stone

rosettastonemuseum

Rosetta Stone

People discussing the pace of change that organizations face in dealing with connected customers, globalization, competition, distributed workforces, innovation, etc. often assert that the world needs a paradigm shift to a new organizational form. I agree with the basic point. However, the way forward is seldom clear and simple when facing the need for dramatic changes in how we think about organizing what we know into practical changes to meet such fundamental challenges.

Just a side note here though. If you are not the sort of person who enjoys using historical insights to think about current challenges you probably don’t want to read the rest of this post.

A recent post by Umair Haque offers an interesting take, Let’s Save Great Ideas from the Ideas Industry, on the tendency to insist on a particular style of conveying ideas which he sees amplified by TED thinking, i.e. an emphasis on distilling great ideas into bite sized chunks pleasing to the attention.

The idea of our age is that Great Ideas can be simplified, reduced, made into convenient, disposable nuggets of infotainment — be they 18-minute talks, 800-word blog posts, or 140 character bursts. But can they — really?

Great ideas, then, demand something from us — something more than pleasure. They demand more than just our “attention” — and far more than our standing ovations. They demand not just our eyes, wallets, and hands, but our hearts, minds, and souls. They demand our heartbreak, our hurt. They demand our minds don’t just “accept” — but, as critical thinkers, object, protest, question.

Umair uses Einstein’s Theory of Relativity to convey his point that developing, and even comprehending, Great Ideas demands “our lasting engagement, dedication and commitment; our time and energy; our frustration and infuriation; our suffering, passion, and pain.”

To add to Umair’s point, I’d like to share an example that is more cultural and philological in nature but gets at the same point about not confusing Great Ideas with the moments of epiphany and pleasure that a great TED talk, or for that matter an 800 word blog post, conveys. My example comes from C.W. Ceram’s book Gods, Graves and Scholars (1951), specifically drawing from Ceram’s discussion of how Champollion, a young French philologist, came to decipher the Rosetta Stone.  Even though I have read widely in sociolinguistics and discourse analysis, I am not a linguist, nor am I schooled in philology, so I will rely heavily on quotes to make this point about the labor, strife, and suffering Champollion endured while deciphering the coded information on the Rosetta Stone. It is a story unknown to many people, yet central to how we understand ancient Egypt.

As the story goes, the French  army found the Rosetta Stone during one of Napolean’s forays into Egypt. The original tablet ended up in the British Museum but not before the French made plaster copies of the tablet and associated fragments. The tablet had both Greek writing and hieroglyphs, so the assumption was that the Greek writing would provide the key for decoding the hieroglyphs. Actually, it seems that scholars dating from Horapollon around the fifth century B.C. assumed the hieroglyphs were “picture writing,” so it was reasonable for later scholars to assume that the Greek words might serve as a set of visual clues for deciphering the hieroglyphs. Champollion was only able to decode the hieroglyphs by developing a different set of assumptions. Now, from Ceram (Chapters 10 and 11):

Today it is difficult to imagine how daring it was for Champollion to offer a dissent from the tradition of Horapollon. It must be remembered that both the specialists and the informed public held fast to Horapollon for two weighty reasons. First, he was revered as an ancient authority…Second, though they may have been privately skeptical, they simply could not visualize any other way of looking at the hieroglyphs except as symbols, conventionalized pictures. The very evidence of the eyes, unfortunately, strongly supported this thesis. Also, Horapollon had lived one and a half millennia closer in time to the period of the last hieroglyphs, and this seeming advantage tipped the scale in favor of his conception, a conception that confirmed what everybody could plainly see – pictures, pictures, and more pictures (emphasis added).

We are unable to say exactly when this occurred but the moment that Champollion hit on the idea that the hieroglyphic pictures were “letters” (or more precisely, “phonetic symbols” – his own earliest formulation says: “without being strictly alphabetical, yet phonetic”) the decisive turn away from Horapollon had been made, and the right track to eventual decipherment found…Was it a case of one happy minute of perfect insight? The fact is that when Champollion was first toying with the idea of a phonetic interpretation, he decided against the notion. He even identified the sign of the horned viper with the letter f and still mistakenly resisted the idea of a completely phonetic system…Once he had grasped basic principles, he saw that decipherment must begin with the names of the kings. This idea had been lying dormant in his mind for some time (pp. 121-123).

My point here is simply that the information Champollion faced could not be adequately deciphered, though partial successes had been made, without a change in viewpoint, a shift in the context used for interpreting the symbols. He had to assume that the hieroglyphs were phonetic symbols rather than picture writing. That transformation in his thinking did not happen in a flash, but was rather a long tedious, often disappointing, and painful process of learning other ancient languages (Coptic in particular) that were close to the ancient Egyptian language.

We can see similar processes occur for most historical events that people typically associate with paradigm shifts. My point is simply that we are not likely to see a smooth transition to new organizational forms even though very smart and savvy thinkers and business leaders know we need it. Rather, the transition to a flat company, or networked company, or connected company, or whatever term enters the lexicon ultimately to describe the new organizational form that emerges from today’s challenges is going to be characterized by fits and starts, perhaps take a lot longer than many of us anticipate.

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3 Responses to Paradigm Shifts, TED Talks, and the Rosetta Stone

  1. Gods, Graves, & Scholars is one of my favorite books and has a riveting account of Schliemann discovering the ruins of Troy. It’s kind of a real-life Indiana Jones narrative chronicling the greatest archeological discoveries of the last 2 centuries. Highly recommended. As a corporate trainer I am periodically asked to simplify & shorten what I teach (database usage, spreadsheets, word processing, etc.) so I appreciated the point you were making about ‘TED thinking’. I enjoy TED Talks as much as the next guy or gal, but sometimes you need more than 20 minutes to convey your thoughts. Clifford

    • Larry Irons says:

      Thanks for the comment Clifford. Yes, Gods, Graves, & Scholars is also one of my favorite books. I appreciate you seeing the point of the post. In the 1980s I worked for a telecom company and one of my jobs was technical writing. We were scored for reading level and required to write to the sixth grade level even though the company required a high school diploma for employment.

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