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T-shaped people, pancake people and Stickle Brick people

A couple of months back, Chris Rapley reminded me of the description ‘T-shaped people‘, started in the 1990s. This phrase is used to describe the sorts of industry, business and project leaders who have sufficient depth of expertise on which to base decisions, but who are also able to cover wider ground in order to understand different perspectives, put their knowledge in context, and empathise with their teams. The idea of a T-shaped education is also a decent metaphor for the kind of education that a good liberal arts or interdisciplinary degree can give you – some good reasons, then, to believe that many top business and industry leaders will emerge from an education of sufficient depth to give them sufficient subject expertise, but sufficient breath to give context, empathy etc.

More recently, however, commentators are concerned that we are spreading ourselves too thinly: for a majority of us, the stem of the T is shrinking and we risk being left with just the horizontal bar at the top. We are becoming the ‘pancake people‘ (I’ve not read Foreman’s book – just stuff about it). Overwhelmed with information, flitting from one website to another, incessantly mixing the social with the ephemeral with attempts at the profound, we are unable to settle for long enough to do the sort of intellectual work that actually changes the structure of our brains in important and worthwhile ways; we are at risk of losing both our individual selves and of losing the chance of profound progress in human knowledge. This last worry about the nature and progress of knowledge is the subject of  a future blog, but let’s stop here to look at the worry about ourselves as individuals. Rather than worry that all is lost as we spread ourselves so thinly that we eventually evaporate away, let’s look at another sort of person that may emerge.

Maybe we have to become flatter. Maybe the stem of the T gets shorter, the bar gets wider. Maybe we are getting pretty squished out, widely spread, more like a pancake. But what this metaphor of flattening doesn’t show us is that we are connected. There are fewer and fewer isolated Ts, fewer lonely, solitary pancakes. Who we are and how we operate, how we think, is increasingly related to our connections. We are becoming the Stickle Brick people. In case you don’t click on the link and haven’t met stickle bricks, each ‘ individual stickle brick is a colourful plastic shape a few centimeters long which has a brush of small plastic fingers on one or more edges. The fingers of adjacent stickle bricks can interlock, allowing them to be joined in various ways.’ The connecting ‘fingers’ of the stickle bricks are, if you like, the mutation of the stem of our 1990s T-shape. Where, with the T, you had need for perhaps one area of a certain depth, now you may need many other areas but of less profound depth so that you can, nonetheless, connect with other people (and, indeed, machines) with different qualities and different types and levels of expertise. You need these connections to harness the expertise, see the wider view and get the job done.

Of course the fact that the way we think is linked to the ways we are connected has always been so to some degree. What we learn and how we think are inseparable from the place, time and circumstances of our birth and upbringing. But the connectivity is now of a qualitatively and quantitatively new sort. We can now connect in more dimensions than before and this affects our thinking and the way we operate.

Keri Facer talks of moving away from ‘an enlightenment model of rational autonomy’ towards a new model of ‘principled interdependence’. This week I had the pleasure of a long conversation with Don Foresta who used similar language to describe what he sees as a shift in thinking from values of enlightenment, in which the individual is the focus, to the flatter, networked, more interdependent society born of today’s technology.

If these ideas are correct, if our societies and the people within them become more interdependent, more horizontal, then we need some people who cover this flatter, wider ground but can connect themselves to various parts of it when appropriate. Call them pancakes with legs, arms and tentacles, if you like; but stickle bricks does it for me.

Caveat. I hope it is clear that I am not advocating that everyone should become a stickle brick in this way. I am for maximum diversity in knowledge and society. It seems to me that society as a whole, the individuals within it and our abstract conceptions of knowledge are all best served if we allow for diversity. However, new ‘types’ of people emerge or are required as technology, economics, business and politics shift, and this is where I see the ‘stickle bricks’ emerging alongside the Ts and, yes, quite a few pancake people and other sorts of people besides.

Stickle Brick Machine Place by Leo Gombrich, Photo by Carl Gombrich

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