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Involvement and Detachment

By Peter J. Denning

Communications of the ACM, Vol. 65 No. 6, Pages 28-31

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Our age values abstraction, the characterization of large populations with statistics, properties, and rights. This is natural for governments, which are preoccupied with defining and dispensing services efficiently across large populations. Global connectivity enables data collection from everyone and distillation of trends in large groups, revealing large-scale phenomena that were not visible in prior times. For example, COVID is treated as a large-scale phenomenon of infection, hospitalization, and herd immunity through vaccination. In contrast, when the Spanish Flu epidemic began in 1918, there were no centers for disease control, no health oversight agencies, no daily communications about the spread of the disease, no ability to exercise large-scale controls. The ability to view large-scale phenomena through the lens of distilled data is strong force for abstraction. Unfortunately, abstraction is also a force for detachment, the loss of connection with fellow human beings.

In my work, I coach graduate students on their innovation projects. Many get stuck, unable to get their communities to engage with them. An invisible force seems to thwart them from achieving their innovation goals. This was puzzling because they seemed to be doing the right things: looking for concerns, crafting good envisioning stories, and making offers. Then I discovered a distinction that revealed the invisible force. It is the distinction between the moods of involvement and detachment.


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