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Making it Work: the Kludge

Making it Work: the Kludge

The sixteenth-century philosopher Michel de Montaigne is known for having acted on the knowledge that his mind was inherently flawed. He incessantly observed that his memory was defective. He kept informing his servants of his ideas as they came to him, so that they could remind him of them later.


Having witnessed a variety of extreme behaviours during a time of civil war, he also believed that a sensitivity to human reality and psychology often offered a better approach to most social situations, more so than relying on absolute principles.


As Montaigne probably would have agreed, it is difficult for men to directly control all their thoughts. Because of this, we need kludges.


This is a term commonly used by engineers, technicians, and computer programmers to describe a solution to a problem that gets something to work without really fixing the problem. Programmers often resort to kludges when trying to debug software. Joseph Heath provides a perfect example:


Suppose, for instance, you write some [code] that takes a number as an input, performs a complicated calculation, and then spits out another number as output. Everything is working fine, except that for some reason, whenever it receives the number 37 as input, the subroutine does something strange and produces the wrong answer. After spending hours staring at the code, trying to figure out why it’s not working properly, you give up trying to fix it. Instead, you just figure out manually what the answer should be when the input is 37. Suppose it’s 234. You then add a line of code at the beginning that says something like the following: take the input number and feed it to the subroutine, unless that input happens to be 37, in which case just send back 234 as the answer.


This is a kludge. It works, but it is a massively inelegant solution, in the sense that the underlying problem is still there. If someone was to overlook your fix when working on your code, it could create a whole new set of problems.


Our intelligence is made possible thanks to an enormous collection of kludges. We effectively rely on all sorts of “fixes” and “scaffolding” in order to bypass the inherent imperfections of our minds and increase our cognitive powers.


For instance, most of us are not really good with mental calculus because our (untrained) memory has a lot of difficulty simply retaining the different products of a multiplication – we forget them before we even have the chance to properly add them up.


So we use a pen and some paper, allowing us to record information somewhere outside our brain, while we focus our attention on other priorities. The pen and paper are man-made structures, or “scaffolding,” that help enhance our cognitive powers. Our modern world is literally filled with millions of these – pencils, letters and numbers, post-it notes, sketches, calculators, computers, internet search engines, and most importantly: other people.


Take another example: unlike body temperature, which we can maintain on our own, concentration is not something we can maintain under all circumstances. Our brain simply does not have the tools for this, and yet concentration is absolutely essential to the task of reasoning.


When we have difficulty concentrating, we may resort to different kinds of kludges. Some of it could be to make what we are trying to do more exciting, but the standard solution is to reduce noise, that is, manipulating the environment in order to make everything else less exciting. The first thing you could do is to try to isolate yourself. You may also benefit from an environment that is familiar: nothing new or interesting to capture your attention.


As psychologist Gary Marcus notes, biological evolution tends to favor genes associated with short-term gains. This is why our brain is not a fine-tuned organ, but rather “a clumsy, cobbled-together contraption”. Rationality is not what our brains were intended for; in fact, there are many observations which tend to indicate that human thinking is merely a by-product of our evolutionary process; our intelligence emerged only as a consequence of cognitive adaptations to increased social interaction between members of our species.


Hence we are not the fully rational and autonomous individuals that modern society would like us to think that we are. We are only rational insofar as we are (or have been) exposed to artifacts and institutions, or kludges, that allow us to amplify our aptitude for logical thought and critical thinking.


As Heath explains, “the genius of the human mind lies not in its onboard computational power, but rather in its ability to colonize elements of its environment, transforming them into working parts of its cognitive system.”


The next three articles in the series will reflect more closely on the implications this has for modern organizations. Each article constitutes an independent digression that can be read separately from the others.



Read more from Ludvig Bellehumeur: 

> The Old Mind and the New

> Defining hierarchy


Photo: Alexander Kluge, Aphoristic Anecdotal


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