More Flat Thoughts

by Doc Searls

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.

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