Browsed by
Month: May 2024

Agile across the Generations

Agile across the Generations

In a post last month I discussed the Agile method, and described an origin story for it. In my story, Agile was invented by a new generation of software developers for a new generation of software – the software being written in the fast-paced world of the networked personal computer. It started when an “Agile Manifesto” was declared in 2001, at the height of the dot-com boom, after the software world had experienced a couple of decades of rapid growth amidst a profound shift in work patterns. A rising young generation (my own, Generation X) moved freely from job to job, eschewing loyalty to the company in favor of careers as “perma-temps.” Some system was needed to manage the frenetic chaos of this new working environment, and that’s where Agile came in.

This surely is a simplification and possibly off the mark. After all, innovation in workflow management precedes the Agile manifesto by generations. It has been a part of the evolution of the modern corporation for more than a century, going back at least to Taylorism and scientific management. Agile fits in with other conceptualizations of “lightweight” or “lean” approaches to project management, meant to avoid bogging everyone down with process and minutiae, and with earlier iterative development methodologies. These came about long before my generation was in the workforce.

My origin story came about because the Agile methodology strikingly fits the peer personalities of the generations who invented it – Baby Boomers and Generation X. If you look up the signatories of the Agile Manifesto, almost all of them are from those two generations, which constituted the bulk of workforce at the time (Millennials were only just graduating from high school). These are both generations know for individualism, for focus on the self and the personal, and for short-term thinking. It makes sense that they would embrace a work methodology that emphasizes individuals over process, and adaptability over planning.

The very name “Agile” evokes the ideas of speed and flexibility, qualities which align with my generation’s reputation. Also aligning with Generation X is Agile’s way of defining success as developing software that works, not necessarily software that is perfectly crafted or meticulously documented. “Git-R-Done!” or “Just Do It!” as a Gen Xer might say. Or how about the Agile sub-type known as “extreme programming,” a hyper-focused iterative approach with very short cycles? What could be more Gen X than that?

My point is that this methodology was primed for the workforce of the time – a workforce consisting of young adult Gen Xers, managed by middle-aged Boomers. The hyper-focused individualists were doing the work while the visionaries were directing them. Agile, in theory, was a mindset, a whole philosophy of managing work in a fast-paced world. So long as everyone was not worried too much about following a fixed process or plan, but instead was adaptable and constantly communicating, much could be accomplished.

Contrast this with Six Sigma, a methodology that came from the Silent Generation when they were the middle-aged managers of young adult Boomers. This faultfinding approach, which uses statistical methods to eliminate defects in processes, suits the Silent Generation’s reputation for fine-tuning expertise, as well as the Boomer Generation’s reputation for perfectionism.

Now what about Agile in the workforce today? It’s been over twenty years since the manifesto was published, and now it’s Gen Xers who are the middle-aged managers and Millennials who are the young adult workers. Does the Agile methodology suit a generation known more for hivemind thinking than for focused individualism? I think it does, though maybe not in exactly the way it was originally envisioned.

I have been using Agile at work for the better part of the last ten years, at all three of my most recent software development jobs. In my experience, the ideal of the “Agile mindset” doesn’t really stick. It’s fine to have an overall philosophy of work, but actually getting people to adopt a specific mindset requires coaching and attention, not simply declaring a vision. What does stick easily about Agile is the framework of dividing the work into short sprints and keeping the team aligned, using regular meetings (such as a daily scrum or stand up) and a system for tracking the work (such as user stories on a storyboard).

I think the structure provided by this framework is a good fit for the peer personality of the Millennial generation, who do best in an orderly work environment with clearly set expectations. They like to be given a well-defined task and rewarded for accomplishing it. A little praise and gratitude will do. They even get FOMO when they don’t have a specific assignment, which is understandable as it might be a sign that their position isn’t needed any longer.

Even as Agile methodology supplies structure, the short duration of the sprints and the iterative workflow continue to provide the benefits of flexibility as project priorities and personnel shift about. A plethora of practices and sub-methods has evolved out of the original idea, giving Gen X and Elder Millennial managers plenty of ways to tinker with the methodology to find the best fit for their teams.

It’s worth noting that there are limitations that come about when you have structure. If everything has to be tracked, work might not get done if no one remembers to track it. If expectations are clear, there might not be much motivation to go beyond expectations. A well ordered framework for defining and assigning work might be easy to navigate, but it can also foster complacency. No one is likely to go above and beyond, if there doesn’t seem to be any particular reward for doing so, and if doing so risks ruffling feathers by disrupting the expected workflow.

Continuing the story of Agile, it might be that what started as a methodology for producing results in a fast-paced environment has evolved into a methodology for governing work in an orderly manner, such that everyone can function in a well-defined role. That’s what my experience shows. Agile might not be as versatile in practice as it was originally envisioned to be, but it’s still a useful tool for keeping teams aligned and productive.

I do sometimes hear an old Gen Xer on a team complain that “we’re not practicing true Agile,” but I just think, “so what?” We’re getting stuff done (hopefully), and keeping tabs on it. That’s enough.

As far as I can tell, Agile, at least in name, is here to stay. The concept is entrenched in the Information Technology workplace, and will certainly outlast my career, which has not much more than a decade to go. Ten years from now the generation that comes after Millennials, the Homeland Generation, will fill the twenty-something age bracket and constitute the workforce’s youngest cohorts. I wonder what further evolution of the Agile method might come along with them.

Evolution within Consciousness

Evolution within Consciousness

In my previous post in honor of the late philosopher of the mind and consciousness, Daniel Dennett, I mentioned that I would post a follow up. This post relates to a different philosophy of consciousness, from a different philospher, one where consciousness is considered to be fundamental and all phenomena to arise within it, rather than for it to be a trait that emerges out of material interactions in the brain. So the brain and the mind exist within consciouness, not the other way around.

That philosopher is Amit Goswami, and I have long been a proponent of his model, since reading his seminal book The Self-Aware Universe at the advice of an old friend. I’ve read and re-read most of his books, and having just completed my second or third read of his book on evolution, I am just going to post my goodreads review of it here. I hope it makes sense, and makes his arguments and line of thinking clear.

In this 2008 book, Amit Goswami applies his theoretical framework of science within consciousness to biological evolution and the origins of life. His hope is to reconcile creationism with evolution, in accord with his greater goal of reconciling science with spirituality. For the first time in this body of work, he repeatedly uses the term “God” (this book was published in the same year as another of his books, “God Is Not Dead”). He defines God as “objective cosmic consciousness” – unitive consciousness as the ground of all being.

He frames the problem of creationism vs. Darwinism as one of conflicting worldviews, both of which are ultimately untenable. The simplistic model of creationism is clearly contradicted by real world data, but the Darwinist model of random mutation and natural selection is also unable to explain much of what is observable about life. For example, it cannot explain life’s purposiveness, or the biological arrow of time with its progression from simpler to more complex life forms. Nor can it explain the subjective feeling of being alive.

The problem is basing science on a reductionist materialist ontology; this makes it impossible to explain subjective qualia of experience without running into paradoxes. In addition, with Darwinism, everything must arise from chance and necessity, so the theory runs afoul of huge improbabilities. How can organic molecules arrange themselves into complex life forms by chance alone? The doctrine of natural selection is inadequate because it too is paradoxical – it declares “survival of the fittest” but then defines “fittest” as that which survives. This is circular reasoning which fails to address the fundamental question – why survive at all?

Something is lacking in the materialist worldview on which Darwinism is based, and Goswami’s proposition is that what is missing is the idea of the universe arising within consciousness as a consequence of self-referential quantum measurement. Such a measurement can arise when there is a “tangled hierarchy,” where cause and effect are intertwined. This is a key concept in Goswami’s theory, an idea you may have already encountered in the work of Douglas Hofstadter. An example from biology is how DNA encodes for proteins but proteins are used to replicate DNA. Which comes first, if each depends on the other? Clearly the whole living system must arise as one.

In Goswami’s model this happens because consciousness itself – the ground of all being – actualizes the living system in manifest reality out of the myriad quantum possibilities available at the microscopic level. In other words, the biological complexity evolves in the uncollapsed wave function, unrestricted by the laws of entropy which make its manifestation via material interactions alone so unlikely. When the gestalt of a functioning living system is available in possibility, consciousness collapses the wave function into that state in a self-referential measurement, actualizing the living entity and identifying with it in the process. Thus arises a sense of self, an experience of being separate from the world. This explains the subjective feeling of being alive, and why life forms have a drive to survive.

Quantum measurement alone is not enough to explain how a life form can exist; somehow consciousness must be able to recognize the proper arrangement of biological matter to represent a living function. This is where Goswami reintroduces his idea of subtle bodies and psychophysical parallelism – consciousness simultaneously collapses correlated physical and vital bodies, with the vital body acting as a blueprint so that consciousness can recognize the possibilities of life available to be represented in material form. Our experience of feeling is the manifestation of this vital body.

Similarly, as evolution progresses up the Great Chain of Being, a mental body, correlated with our biological brain, gives us our experience of thought. Goswami explains how perception manifests from mental image representation in the brain. He presents an intriguing road map of the evolution of mind which is similar to that espoused by Ken Wilber, whom Goswami has referenced in earlier works. He suggests some tantalizing possibilities for future evolution, and also speculates that as a species humanity is stuck evolutionarily because we have not integrated our emotional and rational minds. He offers some ideas of how we could overcome this blocker.

Goswami’s thinking is unconventional, but it does connect physics and biology with spirituality using a consciousness-based resolution to the measurement problem in quantum mechanics. He postulates an objective cosmic consciousness as the equivalent of what religions call “God,” which fosters creativity in the manifest physical world with the aid of archetypes of form. He also postulates subtle bodies which exist in parallel with our material body, which give us our inner experience of being alive, of having feelings and a mind. This is what religions call our “soul.” This is an idealist as oppososed to a materialist science, akin to the idealism of Plato, and it does indeed reconcile the idea of a creator God with the nitty gritty of the physical sciences.

I’ve written a super long review here, the longest of mine yet for any of Amit Goswami’s books. Goswami’s ideas make sense to me, and I find his philosophy satisfying. I hope I have summarized his arguments here accurately and in a way that motivates the reader to check out this book, or any of his others. I recommend starting with “The Self Aware Universe”.

Saying Goodbye to an Eminent Philosopher

Saying Goodbye to an Eminent Philosopher

Dennett’s books among some others in my collection.

One of the great philosophers of our time just passed away recently. His name was Daniel Dennett, and he was a cognitive scientist and researcher into the philosophy of mind. He was famously an atheist and a proponent of Darwinist evolutionary biology. I have read a few of his books, and have them on my bookshelf in my curated collection of what I think are among the best or most important books on the philosophy of mind and the meaning of life. Probably Dennett’s best known works are Darwin’s Dangerous Idea and Consciousness Explained, the latter of which lays out his understanding of what consciousness is.

He was a proponent of the Darwinist idea of traits arising through natural selection because of their adaptiveness, with consciousness being just one more trait that an organism can have. In his view, consciousness was something like an illusory experience that gives us a summary view of reality to help us get along, arising out of the interacting neurons in the brain. He was a materialist who believed that to study conscisousness, you have to look in the brain, its ultimate cause. Below is an interview that will give you an idea of his train of thought.

I have great respect for Daniel Dennett, and admired his gentle and humane nature, and his deep thinking. I really appreciated that he ascribed consciousness to non-human animals, at least those with more advanced brains, and believed consequently that their suffering was real and we should take it seriously.

But I don’t agree with his philosophy. I think that with a materialist, upward causation model, you run into paradoxes when trying to explain consciousness. You can see what I mean if you watch the interview, where Dennett describes how human consciousness is more advanced than animal consciousness because our neurons have representations not just of our sensory data but also of the representations themselves. Layers upon layers. But how do you get to the actual meaning that is being represented; do you just add layers ad infinitum? The subjective experience of meaning is not explained.

I am a proponent of the ideas of a different philosopher, Amit Goswami, of whom I’ve written on this blog before. He has a better model, an idealist one, which puts consciousness ahead of matter instead of the other way around. It’s not a question of mind over matter or of matter over mind when both exist within fundamental consciousness. As the Beatles put it, “it’s all within yourself.” I have a follow up post based on one of his books, which will describe a different way of thinking about the evolution of the human mind.

But I give Dennett his due, as he was a great and wise thinker. I end this post with a link to a full-length album of avant-garde music featuring sampling from one of his lectures. Rest in Peace, o noble born.