Thinking Inside a Bigger Box

Paul Krugman indicated that global trade was facilitated by bigger boxes—shipping containers. Their use meant considerably lower costs for shipping large quantities of stuff around the world. The answer for global thinking: a bigger box. Now, consider my Blinders Hypothesis. We all have built-in and acquired biased perspectives and, perhaps, limited points of view. My training as an accountant meant accounting/auding/tax blinders; good, bad, or indifferent, this was probably necessary to get into the proper mindset to be an accountant. I did get a degree in economics along the way, with different sets of skills and biases which was a bit conflicting with accounting biases. Hopefully, the solution was expanding my perspectives rather than further contracting blinders.

Working in a business school meant dealing with colleagues from the various departments who all seemed to think their perspectives were superior and the rest of us probably just parasites on the system. Once I was on a team from each of the business departments to audit a separate center who had financial issues. The marketing guy thought that his analysis was the only important one. Apparently, he had no clue that my role in industry had been an auditor, that auditing was a fundamental role of accounting.

We should try to think like foxes, considering all possible sources of relevant information and potentially different outcomes, then consider updating information and changing probabilities (and perspectives). I would hope I could do this most of the time. After all, the greatest shame would be to be called a hedgehog. One obvious exception is TV “experts” who give authoritative opinions and absolute predictions based on a particular ideology. Apparently, no one checks the accuracy of these forecasts.

I spent most of my academic time on extremely specialized topics, both for articles and books. My most recent books had as broad a focus as I could develop. Accounting History and the Rise of Civilization mainly stayed broad, then swooped down for more specific stories—like focusing on obscure (but real) people to describe how double-entry bookkeeping was developed. Primordial Soup was a broad food/cooking history, but based entirely on telling specific stories. Food History and The Rise of Civilization, still in the draft stage, is even broader and more academic—just trying to expand the box. My thinking is history based on food, not emperors and generals. World War II, for example, barely makes an appearance. I view these attempts as fitting existing structures, but using bigger boxes.

Consider physics. Scientific understanding moved from Ptolemy to Copernicus, Kepler, then Newton and Einstein. Natural law didn’t change, just our understanding (make that their understanding; most of us plod along trying to understand some of the basics before our heads explode) how the universe works: better measurements, improved mathematics, empirical evidence, someone brilliant enough to accumulate the evidence and expand basic models. I think that is how to use bigger boxes. Perhaps Einstein’s general relativity might be outside the box. That’s as far as I’m willing to go. People that actually know something about physics can debate how quantum mechanics and string theory fit in.

What about music? I think moving from Gregorian Chants to Jazz over a thousand years represents an expanded box. So much of music remains unchanged, although creativity and brilliance probably happen daily millions of times. Start with a piano (invented about 1700) and linear thinking. There are 88 keys, which gives considerable range no matter how creative. There remain five basic elements (or maybe six or twelve): melody, texture, rhythm, form and harmony. I’m seeing a really big box.

Granted, a major motivation for me is just learning stuff. I can more easily see when various knowledgeable people have narrow perspectives—inside a very small box. It might be a fancy box, but still dinky. I don’t have the ability to have an entirely unique perspective, outside my own (hopefully big and growing) box. That seems to be reserved for very few.