A few entries back I wrote about Monstrous KM, where I tried to apply the Monster Theory for handling new technologies by Martijntje Smits to Knowledge Management.
That post was based on an article I read in Filosofie Magazine. In the last days I’ve read the actual dissertation, and this brings me to some more reflection.
First of all the book gave some more clues as to what Monsters are. I’ve described Monsters here as (technological) innovations that conflicted with or crossed existing cultural boundaries. This picture now needs refining. Monsters are those things that seem to belong to two cultural (sub)categories that are regarded as mutual exclusive within a culture. (e.g. nature and culture)
Important here is the notion that being a Monster is not something that is a property of the Monster, but the side-effect of having a set of symbols and categories that make up your picture of the world.
We all need such a categorized worldview, to be able to recognize patterns and learn from experiences. This has two side-effects. These categorisations tend to be conservative (otherwise you would have to change your worldview with every incident), and second it draws lines between things. These lines help identify risks. If something fits into your picture, it is likely you know how to handle it (with the rituals or habits connected to the corresponding category). If it does not, it might be something dangerous.
Basically, as soon as you draw lines somewhere (this is a tree, this is a shrub) you get into trouble when you encounter things that are on the border of such categories (is it a small tree, or a large shrub). Often these anomalies can be easily put into an existing category after some consideration (being put in their place), but sometimes this does not work: a Monster is born.
Cultural categories spawn these monsters. (This also means that preventing monsters is not possible, yes might even be equivalent of stifling innovation and creativity for it predetermines that only things that fit within existing categories can be safely done)
Smits concludes that her theory works very well in typecasting ongoing discussions around new technologies into one of her four responses to monsters, but that this does not immediately give us a clue on how to act.
She also concludes that the most feasable approach to monsters is the route of assimilation, where both the monster and the cultural categories are changed to make place for the monster.
The other routes (the dogmatic style of monster killing, the ritualistic style of monster adaption, and the romantic style of monster embracing) have two disadvantages. The first is not being able to view a monster from another position than your own because all these routes stick to their existing set of categories. The second is that these routes deny themselves a whole range of possible solutions because categories cannot be changed or altered.
Assimilation, which Smits dubs the pragmatic route, thus has a broader spectrum of possible reactions. It is also the route that requires improvisation and creativity. Its ontological scepsis also leaves room to look at different points of view, and even of the recognition of multiple monsters at the same time and their mutual relations.
The effect to be avoided here is cultural relativism, where the reconstructability of cultural categories becomes absolute. This does away with all that makes categories useful (see above).
Reading this book gave me a access to a model which makes it possible to take another look at debates around innovation that seem to be going nowhere and where the parties involved are stuck in trenches. By identifying and exposing the underlying cultural categories that are at stake, you can then search for a way forward. This can now be done without discounting different positions as too emotional or too rational.