Book Review: The Power of Not Thinking by Simon Roberts

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October 18, 2020 5:30 AM

An argument for embodied experience and how our body uses information effectively

One of the features of embodied knowledge that the author has outlined is ‘practice’. This can be seen in how Roger Federer plays his shots not by the book but body (Reuters Image)One of the features of embodied knowledge that the author has outlined is ‘practice’. This can be seen in how Roger Federer plays his shots not by the book but body (Reuters Image)

When Rene Descartes said, “I think, therefore I am”, it was implied that I have a mind and since I can think I know I exist. This was the starting point of the concept of objectivity, which has moved from putting things together and then drawing conclusions. A clear distinction was made between mind and body and we know that we exist because we can think. An extension has been the tendency to work along the Cartesian line where everything can be put on paper and analysed. The use of technology and AI is a further sophistication where programmes can guide our actions.

There are severe limitations here, as author-cum-business anthropologist Simon Roberts argues in his book, The Power of Not Thinking. His hypothesis is that embodied experience cannot be substituted by logic or on a Cartesian plane. He places more value on the intelligence of the body to attain and use information effectively and less on the mind. That is why driverless cars, which are guided by AI, will never be a success. When one drives a car the rules are known, but almost by instinct we look at people and vehicles around and anticipate certain actions and accordingly guide the vehicle. There is no formula for the same and technology cannot capture the myriad movements.

Interestingly, the author tells us that even when we look to dine out, the GPS system can lead to restaurants which have more or less people because that is what technology can capture, but the experiences of the people in terms of the quality of food or even the kind of diners will never be known. If one is looking to have a quiet romantic night, the GPS cannot take us to the right place as the crowd could be coarse. There is a difference between knowledge of experience and knowledge of description. Google and other applications do a good job of the latter but are not able to capture the former.

The author believes that what our bodies learn is different and cannot be replicated by technology. Even for business decisions it is the human experience that has an edge. There are examples given on how even the acquisition of a company cannot be based on pure numbers. Very often one finds the balance sheet numbers to be the right fit and goes ahead with the exercise. It is only after the merger takes place that the company realises that the cultures are very different and more importantly the designs and mindset are a hurdle. Therefore, as a rule, he advocates that one should go beyond numbers when evaluating the right fit.

Roberts also advocates going through the grind to understand what the phenomenon is. For example, often one thinks that the solution to the problem of refugees is aid and it has been seen that these things do not really work. One never knows how the receiving government and administration behaves and often the money is lost. His immersion programmes include staying in a refugee camp set up for this purpose to understand how life can be extremely disturbing.

In fact, in these pandemic times when school classes are conducted online, children do have access to continuity. But Roberts argues that such a mode is not sustainable because while content is delivered quite efficiently, the interaction between children among themselves as well as with the teachers is an embodied experience which cannot be substituted. More importantly, it is necessary for the development of children.

Theoretically the author has outlined five features of embodied knowledge which cannot be contested. These are observation (the legendary Steve Eisman was able to see through the boom in sub-prime mortgage by just observing the action, behaviour and dress of Wall Street professionals), practice (how Roger Federer plays his shots is not by the book but body or the case of an individual or entering one’s pin number), improvisation (driving through traffic), empathy (architects should be mindful of the potential residents being, say, physically challenged) and retention (actors are able to repeat their lines or policemen who instinctively react to situations).

The author believes that it is precisely for this reason that even when we talk of elections, most of the polls go wrong because they work on objectivity. Just because the economy has failed, the expectation is that the party will be voted out of power. Politicians are very often able to relate to the body more than the mind and hence able to influence the voting patterns. We have seen this in India more than often where the results are quite contrary to expectations. The US elections or Brexit showed there is a big difference between facts and feeling, experts and the man on the street and trade and sovereignty. That is what makes it difficult to draw conclusions based on what we believe is logical, or rather the way the mind would look at things, as the body says something different. The mind cannot always capture the unconscious which is trapped in the body.

Madan Sabnavis is chief economist, CARE Ratings

BOOK DETAILS: The Power of Not Thinking by Simon Roberts
Blink Publishing
Pp 328, Rs 499

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