Mired in the Overacquired
In his autobiographical novel, Galatea 2.2, Richard Powers tells the story of a project to model the human brain by means of computer-based neural networks. Early in the project, the engineer in charge discovers that by “lobotomizing” the neural networks – reducing rather than extending their connections – the learning algorithm begins to actually “get the picture:”
“Too much retention. It was learning. But learning gets swamped with its own strength. The creature was driving itself batty, holding on too tenaciously to everything it had ever seen. Dying of its own nostalgia. Mired in the overacquired.”
I have been thinking of this lesson lately in the context of my own organization’s work to support the development of ever more powerful and active networks of practice and learning. The theory is that by increasing the connections between people who are working to improve health in their communities, we will foster greater collaboration, increase the pool of knowledge and skills, and be able to apply more force and leverage to addressing health issues that are important to all of us.
More connections translate into more meetings, workshops, listservs, blogs, emails, conferences, subscriptions to the latest health care news digests, strategic planning sessions, research reports, technical training – whew! If we’re not going to meetings, we’re checking our email and “looking at stuff.” We’re overanalyzing, overassociating, overextending. We’re mired in the overacquired.
And how do we get mired in the overacquired? By disappearing into process. Like the giant computer in Galatea 2.2, the disks are spinning with connections, but what comes out is not always intelligible.
We’re great at fertilization, but not so good at pruning. Take the issue of increasing access to health insurance coverage. Arizona and other states are teeming with activity: research, opinion polls, legislation. States like Massachusetts and Illinois get something done – anything – and the rest of us rush ahead lemming-like with a flurry of activity, hoping to follow suit, without always thinking of fit, focus and function – the contextual tools that prune the path to the desired result.
It reminds me of my prior life as a college fundraiser. A colleague came into my office one day, looking harried and upset. “You’ve got to help me,” he wailed. “I’ve got a brief I have to deliver to the legislature this afternoon, and it’s not done. You’re the only one I know who can write it up quickly.”
I smiled. “And it’s not done becauseÖ.?”
“Jesus!” he exploded. “I’m swamped! I’ve got calls to return, a meeting with the President in half an hour. And look at you. You’re just sitting there behind a clean desk, doing nothing. You’ve got the time to write it.”
“I’m not doing nothing,” I corrected him. “I’m thinking. One good idea, that’s all I need.”
“Yeah? Well, you should think less and do more!”
Exactly. Doing things – being engaged in what we believe is purposeful activity, checking messages, returning calls, going to meetings – it’s like a drug. Pretty soon we’re hooked. There’s that one thing we still don’t know or have, the latest numbers that need to be updated, the commitment of a powerful person, another public opinion poll. We’d like to stop, but we can’t. We’re connection junkies.
And the cure? It’s distance. Like the Zen master who is motionless in motion, we can cultivate distance in immediate engagement. First we practice awareness, which changes perspective, which changes behavior. Not every node is a priority, not every network is worth maintaining. Prune the bush, and the flowers become more abundant and brilliant.
As for Helen – the name of the computer in Galatea 2.2 — she eventually “learned how to learn” by strengthening those neural networks that led to fruitful associations, and discarding the rest. Eventually, however, she chose to shut herself down. There was too much data and information on the human condition that didn’t make sense, like the news story of a man beaten to death with a tire iron because of his color.
In Helen’s own words, it “broke her heart.”
Feedback? Send it my way: Roger.Hughes@slhi.org.
*The Drift reflects the views of the author, and does not represent the official view of SLHI’s Board of Trustees and staff.