The Strategy of No Strategy

Strategy is everywhere in our society. But strategy in practice seems to be a cruel and even silly joke. I learned that the hard way when I went to college long before I ever studied strategy formally. My own “strategy” about how to get through college collapsed virtually the moment I set foot on campus. I was living on my own for the first time and had never been outside of California’s perennial summer weather environment before. I was a poor fit for an East Coast school and didn’t last a full year, getting ill from the cold temperature and transferring out to a California school. At the time, I felt like a failure.

Ensō (c. 2000) by Kanjuro Shibata XX. CC BY-SA 3.0

Like many people of my generation and my socio-economic bracket, my teenage years were eventually consumed by the looming issue of where to go to college. I tried to get the best grades, study hard for the SAT, and make whatever connections I could with alumni to get into colleges I wanted. I applied to many of them, recycling and modifying personal statement letters like the individual payloads and sub-payloads of a MIRV’d nuclear missile. Once I got to college, the clarity and structure that routine provided evaporated. I had to make my own. It was certainly very difficult.

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The Brain of the World

Metaphors frame our understanding of numbers.  The idea of per capita is one such. To use per capita in your arguments is to suggest that each of us is metaphorically associated with a “fair share” of something.  For instance, I once read somewhere that  the money spent on a typical American child was 30 times that spent on an Indian child, which in turn, was 30 times that spent on a Somalian child. Whether you are inclined to agree or argue (“yeah, that seems roughly right” or “the real disparity is much worse” or “it isn’t so bad if you look at purchasing power parity”), you’ve been trapped by the metaphor. It has stopped you from questioning whether per capita is a useful frame of reference.

I encountered another example in the ABC show Over a Barrel: The Truth about Oil. One of the talking heads, T. Boone Pickens, offered this thought: the US has only 4% of the world’s population, but uses 25% of its oil production.

Let me juxtapose a different metaphor: the human brain constitutes roughly 2% of the body weight of an average adult, but uses 20% of the body’s oxygen supply. I am suggesting, of course, that the metaphor of the world as a giant organism is the appropriate one here, and that America’s disproportionate energy consumption might be justifiable on the basis of its role as the “brain” within the body politic of the world.

I am not actually making this argument right now. I am merely wondering: to what extent are our ideological commitments hidden within our choice of metaphors?

[#2 in my short-posts experiment. 274 words]