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Thursday, February 4, 2010

What is Status Quo?

Dear Reader,

The philosopher Plato did two-thousand-plus years of damage with his attractive but ultimately false view of the cosmos, and medical informatics suffers from his philosophy even today.

Plato was not comfortable with changes. He felt that a cosmos in eternal flux could not be comprehended. He wanted a world of fixed, stable, enduring ideas that could be used as a frame of reference, so he postulated the idea that change is an illusion, a mere flickering of shadows on the walls of the human cave, and the truth is fixed, eternal, unchanging—indeed, that the true cosmos is made of eternal unchanging ideas that are casting these shadows.

It's all very pretty and vivid but utterly false. The man was more poet than philosopher, in the end, and all his philosophies suffer from holding more beauty than truth (apologies to Mr. Keats).

Plato was not the first to try to bury his head in the sand - Parmenides before him had even more radically denied the existence of change and asserted that all is one and unchanging in defiance of the evidence of our senses - but it was Plato who developed the philosophy of stasis in the form that continues to trip us up today.

The problem with Plato's ideas is that they are an attractive nuisance. Any idiot can see change all around them all the time, but when someone is under the right kinds of pressure the rejection of change can be extraordinarily attractive.

Project managers, for example.

When you are being battered from every side to meet a deadline, the desire to pin down your targets to create a fixed frame of reference for managing the chaos can be overwhelming. In this way, most project managers become neo-Platonists, struggling against change.

The Oxford Dictionary of the English Language defines status quo as The existing state of affairs, a definition that is expressed in Platonic terms because it obscures the underlying principle unconsciously assumed to be at work by those who speak of a status quo: stasis.

status and stasis both derive from the same Latin/Greek root sta-, meaning to stand, as in to stand still, to hold, to be where and what you are in an unchanging fashion. You see, status quo seems to be a neutral phrase meaning "the way things are" because we ourselves are immersed in the philosophy of stasis—we take it for granted—and so cannot perceive that it really means "the way things are because they are standing still," that is, when things are the way they are because they are unchanging.

The extensive influence of mathematics in our education—which was advocated by Plato, by the way—exposes us deeply to simplistic math, the mathematics of is, of A equals A and A does not equal not-A, but cuts most of us off before we ever get into the mathematics of flow and change and flux from calculus on. We come to have a taken-for-granted worldview that understands a Newtonian and Cartesian fixed, mechanical universe far more easily than we can grasp the flow and flux of relativity and quantum physics because our math never went that far. Therefore, however much we may have thought we hated or resisted math in school, we pick up there and from the culture at large that the idea of a cosmos in which things are what they are and not what they're not just makes more sense than a cosmos in which everything is in continual flux.

The proof?

When under pressure, most of us seek security in some kind of fixed safety rather than by immersing ourselves more deeply into the flow of life. Stasis just feels safer to us, when push comes to shove. It feels more safe, more right, more natural, more real, more true.

So when we become project managers, we design our projects around fixed targets and seek to fight change to arrive at our fixed destinations. We are mercenaries who sell our services for money, and our services are that we promise to deliver a desirable fixed state by breaking down the gap between here and there into a series of manageable quantum steps. And at the end, we promise that the client will have been shifted into the new state they desire, they will have the things they want.

They will have a new status quo.

Too bad it's all a delusion, because Heraclitus was right: panta rhei, that is, everything flows.

Which brings us to the point of this series of essays: what is fluxus quo?

Yours truly,