More Flat Thoughts

Here's a look at some of the conversation sparked by Doc's commentary on our Flat New World.

In Forrest Gump, the mentally retarded title character often repeats his late mother's aphorism, "Stupid is as stupid does". Through the course of the movie, Gump does a lot. He becomes a star athlete, a war hero, a successful businessman and a loving husband and father. While his achievements owe much to lucky circumstances, they are proofs of conviction and character.

Learning and teaching both matter more than raw intelligence. That's what Forrest Gump learned and taught. "Life is a box of chocolates" was his other famous line. The chocolates are lessons.

In fact, life is an endless series of lessons--if we choose to learn from them, that is. I've been trying to do that with the responses to my last two SuitWatches, Getting Flat, Part 1 and Part 2.

One grace of writing on-line and of subscribing to RSS feeds of searches (either for URLs like those above or for keyword combinations), is seeing how well people get your points, add value to them, criticize them or make better ones of their own. Simple agreement isn't very useful, nor is dismissive disagreement. If my ego is healthy, there isn't much I can do with "That's right" or "That's wrong". I'd rather hear a "yes" or "no" followed by "and..." or "but...".

Here are some URLs among the many that linked to either or both pieces:

At the end are a couple of posts from my weblog that respond to some of the other posts above.

My favorite "Yes and..." response came from Julie Leung. What I like about it isn't simply that my writing hit home with her but that she had relevant personal experience to contribute to the conversation around our Flat New World:

Although I've never worked at Microsoft, I may be able to understand part of the company's culture and values. Why? I attended the same high school founders Bill Gates and Paul Allen did. Lakeside was the only school where Bill G received a diploma, dropping out of Harvard after a year. It's been called the Ivy League high school of the west coast, or something similar, and the brick-and-ivy campus in north Seattle as well as the tuition of close to $30k a year, only encourage the comparison. To survive the competitive admission process, kids must score well on exams and demonstrate talents.

School shapes us. The reason I haven't mentioned Lakeside by name on this blog is because it has a reputation....Although I'm biased as an alum, I'd guess that Lakeside School has two prominent associations in people's minds: if you went to Lakeside, you must be wealthy and smart, in an elite way.

So Microsoft's use of IQ tests or emphasis on the word "smart" doesn't surprise me. Lakeside kids, which Gates and Allen still are somewhere inside, as we all are still children - can start attending the school in fifth grade, at age 10, and grow up in a culture where intelligence becomes identity. Why are we all at this school? Because we're smart. It's an identity that requires significant investment, both financial and otherwise, so it reinforces itself out of necessity.

I am thankful Lakeside did provide me with a challenging academic education.... But Lakeside is also a culture - or at least it was a culture - that emphasized the belief in the elite, rather than belief in everyone. With words the school may say otherwise, but de facto, by definition, it values intelligence that can be measured on tests, prizing and thereby preserving belief in the tip of the bell curve.

Best in the "Yes, but..." category is a back-and-forth at It begins:

We expect so much from "intelligence," despite the fact that our very definitions of it are inconsistent, and even though the tools we have to "measure" it are questionable at best...

And, of course, fitting people into those corporate org charts was the primary motivation for this sort of number-crunching in the first place: find suitably-elevated positions for the ostensibly "gifted," and provide subtle discouragement for those who didn't test well and whose dreams would inevitably be crushed.

This is not any kind of an argument for the abandonment of testing: in an era where no child is supposed to be left behind, there exists a perfectly-legitimate need for the evaluation of students. What we don't need: the compulsion to express those evaluations on a single scale, and the blithe assumption that the scale itself is anything more than a statistical abstraction.

This brought a stiff response from Francis W. Porretto (of Eternity Road). He begins: "Searls must be joking. IQ scores have been shown to be excellent predictors of later-demonstrated ability in many fields, most notably those that require dealing with abstractions. Moreover, this has been confirmed with double-blind tests." He then proceeds to excoriate the "anti-IQ-testing movement":

Searls's problem -- and his dudgeon -- stems from a simple mistake:

"Intelligence is complicated, conditional and hard to measure. The belief that people have "an IQ," however, comes easy. Too easy."

The error of which he accuses those of us who believe in the value of intelligence testing is actually his own error.

IQ is a measure: the measure of how well one does on tests of one's ability to manipulate acontextual abstractions. For most persons, that measure remains relatively stable over one's lifetime. That the I stands for "intelligence" reflects the original definition of intelligence, which is...drum roll,'s ability to manipulate acontextual abstractions. Perhaps we should call this "testable intelligence" to avert further quibbling -- though I'd bet my bottom dollar that any use of the word "intelligence" in connection with something that could be quantitatively measured would evoke cries of protest from the anti-testers.

I respond:

I wasn't joking.

Whether it only measures an ability to manipulate acontextual abstractions or performance on a glorified crossword puzzle, IQ tests have long had the unintended but very real consequence of reducing the most unique and immeasurable of human attributes to a relative number: one that says, no matter how much we try to rationalize and deny it, how much, to a point, somebody's mind is worth.

If I tell you Fred's IQ is 134, will you be able to forget that number? Will you be able to factor out the likelihood that Joe has had any number of other IQ scores in his life? No. That number means something to you. It means something to all of us. We can't help it. The notion of "having an IQ" has become normative. And, to the degree we define humanity as intelligence, and we define intelligence on a single linear scale, we use IQ to weigh what a human being is worth.

It's a long leap from "IQ score" -- one's graded answer to a series of puzzle questions -- to IQ: a statement of one's value as a human being. And yet that's a leap we make. All the time.

And if I've fallen in with "the antitesters," whoever they are, so the f--k what? I *celebrate anybody* who does *anything* to free human beings, especially children, from having their unique genius supplanted by a number.

The flat world works best when we each make our own curriculum--or make the most of the curricula in which we find ourselves, whether or not we like it.

On April 27, I participated in the Gruter-Berkman Roundtable Workshop at Harvard. I had about 15 minutes on a panel to dump my brain on a variety of subjects, including Linux and open source. It has become clear, in the two weeks since then, that one memorable line clearly had more impact than the rest, "We are all authors of each other". That line came from a story that I also told in my chapter of an upcoming O'Reilly book on open source:

Several years ago I was talking with Tim O'Reilly about the discomfort we both felt about treating information as a commodity. It seemed to us that information was something more, and quite different, than the communicable form of knowledge. It was not a commodity, exactly, and was insulted by the generality we call "content".

Information, we observed, is derived from the verb *inform,* which is related to the verb *form*. To *inform* is not to "deliver information", but rather to *form* the other party. If you tell me something I didn't know before, I am changed by that. If I believe you, and value what you say, I have granted you authority. Meaning, I have given you the right to *author* what I know. Therefore, *we are all authors of each other*. This is a profoundly human condition in any case, but it is an especially important aspect of the open source value system. By forming each other, as we also form useful software, we are making the world. Not merely changing it.

For last words on the matter, I'll share a brief e-mail I received a few days ago:

I just wanted to thank you for your very thoughtful two-part review of my book "The World is Flat" in the Linux Journal. I not only enjoyed them, I learned something. Thanks for taking the time to do something serious. Best wishes, Thomas L. Friedman

Doc Searls is Senior Editor of Linux Journal. He writes the Linux for Suits column for Linux Journal. He also presides over Doc Searls' IT Garage.


Doc Searls is the Editor in Chief of Linux Journal


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A Philosopher, a Politician, and MS Culture

Noah F. San Tsorbutz's picture

I took a Philosophy class in college with a prof who wasn't shy about his opinions regarding the over-valuation of intelligence. He asked, "Should we teach our children to be good, and hope that some will also be highly intelligent, or teach them to be intelligent, and hope that some will be good?" He also mentioned that in his experience, the number of good and highly intelligent people was notably lower than the number of those who are good and of average intelligence. There are exceptions of course, he was speaking of ratios.

Once I heard a politician speak at an interdenominational religious meeting, on the importance moral training. He said that it is not possible to put enough police on the street to make citizens "be good". It wasn't very politically correct at the time for a Jewish mayor in a prediminantly conservative Christian culture to say such things, but everyone in that room knew exactly what he meant, and his thesis was irrefutable.

I bring these point up simply to contrast another feature of Microsoft culture, that is perhaps the common case in "big business" in general. Fairness, justice, truth, and any number of similar warm-fuzzy sentiments have no place. It seems that ethics is just a class that business majors suffer through so that they can get on with the slaughter. Whatever the cause, the consequences leave me in the position of struggling mightily just to respect Bill Gates as a human being with the same rights as anyone else, let alone as a "business genius". As an old book says, "When the devil lies, he speaks his native tongue".

To reply, remove MS Modus Operendi from the E-Mail address

Good or intelligent

Anonymous's picture

Unfortunately, neither.

My son is a good person, and he's also pretty intelligent, not genius or near-genius, but inconsistently above average.

Unfortunately he doesn't come across well at first impression, either. He's not polished, in the least. But behind that, he's a gem, and will deliver what so many of his classmates won't, these days. I just wish he could get past that first impression. (It's not just a matter of neatness, or haircut, etc.)

Emotional Intelligence

jim wilde's picture

Hi Doc,

Great series, thank you for sharing it with us! I do a lot of work with OSS developers from all over the world. I never ask their IQ, age, or what schools they've attended. In fact, sometimes we don't even speak the same language, but that never stops us from working together, building relationships, and getting things done. There always seems to be a developer or two in the forums that can transcend any language barrier. I learn about their families and dreams; what they want to do and what they are good at. I learn meaning with context. I try not to take any of the relationships I've cultivated for granted. I suppose you would call this reputation currency or as Cory Doctorow's calls it whuffiewhuffie. In bizspeak, the real and intangible transaction costs are fair and just - all parties win. With the help of these great people, I've been able to develop a cool, inexpensive product/service - Ideascape - around an OSS model that makes a system available to businesses that would normally cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. Our mantra is "Ideas Are EVERYWHERE"; which was reinforced while developing the software with the help of the OSS community.

I think what is missing from this discussion is emotional intelligence. I came across this article about corporate
at management-issues blog. "In March, we reported that Australian psychotherapist Glyn Brokensha had come up with the term "power-pathic" to describe manipulating managers who are bent on attaining power for its own sake – and that one in 10 managers displayed similar behaviour." Which got me to thinking about the The
Talent Myth
" from Malcolm Gladwell, author of "The Tipping Point". So, obviously, if IQ is the sole measure of one's abilities - we can expect serious consequences in the Flat World.

Anyway, with all of the publicity given to Mr.Friedman's ideas, which are fascinating; what concerns me right now are a couple of disturbing warnings from Peter Drucker, Niall Ferguson, and John Hagel about the Globalization
- Handle With Care
". Here's my blog post "Globalization - Handle With Care". Although Mr. Friedman goes on to explain Dell's awesome supply chain, what happens when Encore,
CSIR roll out $200 computer
" or China knocks them down to $99 bucks and Mr. Dell, HP, et al start seriously missing those quarterly numbers? Does this fall under free markets or creative destruction? Let's face it, not all of the people in high places are the smartest, or emotionally intelligent, even though thay might have high IQ's.

Hiring by IQ

Anonymous's picture

One argument for not hiring by IQ is that now you don't have to hire at all, according to Paul Graham.