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E-Business in the Enterprise – December 16, 2003

Inevitable technology illusions

By Sean Mc Grath

I recently had the good fortune to stumble across a book entitled Inevitable Illusions - How Mistakes of Reason Rule our Minds, by Massimo Piattelli-Palmarini[1]. I was in my local library, totally degeeked, rummaging for a book on the rules of Rugby League when the book caught the corner of my eye. There is truly no better aid to serendipity than a messed up filing system.

The book in question provides many examples of an intriguing and somewhat worrying phenomenon. Namely, that the deductive faculties, of which we humans are understandably proud, can fall prey to illusions. These illusions are of a logical rather than visual nature but have much in common with the latter. The St. Louis Arch[2] is an example of the latter given in the book. (Hint: looks taller than it is wide, right?)

Example after example in the book shows how illogical our logical deductions can be. One of the examples given is the Monty Hall paradox[3]. If you are not familiar with the paradox, I would recommend you spend some time with it.

Now I am not ashamed to report, that I fell for pretty much every logical illusion in the book. The only exception being the Monty Hall paradox as I had come across this one before somewhere. Every other example suckered me right in. Every one! I console myself with the thought that minds much greater than mine have also been taken in by at least some of these and indeed the Monty Hall paradox has claimed some very high IQ scalps over the years.

When you fall for one of these things it is natural to take comfort from the fact that so doing puts you in the majority rather than minority. It is interesting to contemplate how many of these majority-held illusions may have impacted the course of computing over the years. As a thought experiment, imagine a situation in which a logical illusion has some money attached to it. Say, a product, or technological approach to a problem that has some logical fallacy or other but sells well in spite of that. It sells well because the majority of people do not see the logical fallacy.

Well, free market economics pretty much dictates that any illusions shared by the majority of the customer base will be actively promoted rather than dispelled. That would be the *logical* thing to do from a commercial perspective.

I don't know about you but I find this thought a bit unsettling. I must admit I have become a bit more paranoid since I finished Piatelli-Palmarini's book.  All around me, I see examples of technologies whose success seems to fly in the face of logic. All through my past experience I recollect technologies whose failure seems to fly in the face of logic. Some of these - perhaps most of them -failed because  they deserved to. In other words I was simply wrong. My logic was flawed.

However, there is a non-zero probability that some of them failed to thrive, not because I was wrong in my assessment, but because I was in a minority who were right. A minority outnumbered by a majority that succumbed to a logical illusion of the form described in Piattelli-Palmarini's book.

Perhaps. Anyway, this thought has provided me with a fresh pair of glasses through which to view some of my favorite, failed technologies -DSSSL, transputers, xlink for example. Perhaps the majority voted with their feet away from some of these, at least in part, owing to logical illusions about their strengths/weaknesses/utility?

Perhaps. Perhaps not.

[1] http://tinyurl.com/w3g7
[2] http://dustbunny.physics.indiana.edu/~dzierba/slarch/
[3] http://www.crummy.com/features/hall/monty/