Because the world is not flat.

What should we take for granted?

It is a profoundly erroneous truism, repeated by all copy-books and by eminent people when they are making speeches, that we should cultivate the habit of thinking what we are doing. The precise opposite is the case. Civilization advances by extending the number of important operations which we can perform without thinking about them.”

– Alfred Whitehead, An Introduction to Mathematics, 1911

It is one of the more undisputed facts of human and social sciences that we humans make most of our decisions unwittingly.  First of all, we make decisions we don’t even acknowledge as such – like which foot to put forward first, when walking towards the door. Secondly, even when we do bracket out a moment of our existence and identify ourselves as making a Decision, we are swayed by biases, heuristics, emotions, intuitions to a degree where the instant of deciding is more or less just retrospectively justifying to ourselves the outcome we had already reached.

This is a brilliant feature of the humankind that enables society and civilization – and drives competence and technology. Without the ability to make most of our decisions on an autopilot, the cognitive efforts required in just making the decisions that enable brewing the first cup of coffee in the morning, would consume so much cognitive energy that we would be left utterly incapable of doing anything actually requiring reflective thinking. It is the solid foundation of efficient routines, honed through hours of repetition that enable the performance of a professional athlete and musician, the functioning of a successful organization, or the peacekeeping institutions.

Quite fittingly, the evolution of our civilization has unfolded through the invention and diffusion of such technologies that have the ability to enlarge the sphere of what we can take for granted, and as such, make decisions about on the autopilot. Unlike our ancestors, most of us need little reflection in matters of shelter and sustenance. In theory, this leaves us with more cognitive energy we can utilize in reflecting and pursuing loftier life goals, both individually and collectively.

Mechanization, electrification and computerization are a few relatively recent steps that have notably enlarged this sphere of processes we can realize without engaging in reflective decision-making. However, each time the shape and scope of this sphere changes, its boundaries need redefining – not only based on the technological affordances developed but also in terms of values, ethics and humane concerns. Put simply, whenever it becomes faster to travel from A to B, a wise man reflects on whether B really is a destination he wishes to reach, because the shortening time between the start and finish leaves less time for either assessing the desirability of the goal or changing the course midstream.

Digitalization pushes the boundaries of this sphere further than ever in the history of humankind. With datafication of everything, global connectivity and algorithmic processing capabilities the amount of “operations we can perform without thinking” is something simply unfathomable not only at the time of Whitehead, but mere decades – or years – ago.  Machines can drive, make phone calls to make reservations, diagnose rare illnesses, identify the sexual orientation of people from photos and read minds, to name a few examples.

Together, these examples of the technological advances brought on by the developments labeled, for example, ‘information era’, ‘fourth industrial revolution’, ‘sixth Kondratieff wave’ or ‘digitalization’ mean that what we could, a mere blink of an eye ago, take for granted in order to delineate what we need and need not reflect on, changes. This has implications for us as individuals, as economic actors, as scholars, and as members of society. These are the themes I explore in my research, currently in the form of a dissertation being in the pre-examination phase.

So far, in my pursuit of answers to my research question “How does digitalization impact strategizing?”, I have succeeded more in coming up with questions than sketching those answers. What are the boundaries of datafication? – are we left with a semblance of privacy at least somewhere in the murkier depths of our minds, or are our thoughts and sentiments as transparent as the traces we leave in our interactions with digital devices? How do we go about creating such goals (we then with superhuman speed and efficiency reach) that over the course of time turn out to be more constructive than destructive for the individual, the firm or the humanity? If the mechanism of work binding together the production and distribution of material wealth becomes decoupled due to technological advances, towards what ends will humans aim their uniquely human capabilities and desires?

These questions are equally tricky on all levels of analysis. Even without answers they shape my individual existence, the actions and outcomes in the business sphere, and the overall developments of the human societies. However, fortunately these are such questions that have no one right or wrong answer, no black and white solutions we should be seeking. Instead, just the act of asking these questions shapes our notion of what we can take for granted, and as such, has the power of guiding our subsequent actions – hopefully in ways that we will be happy with in the future.

I’ll leave you with one interesting question that one could preoccupy oneself with during the leisurely sipped morning coffees of the slow-paced summer days: What can I really take for granted and what should I reflect on? Come autumn, you may find a decreased sense of urgency in pursuing some of the goals you used to take for granted, and an invigorating sense of passion accompanying you into pursuing some newly formed life ambitions.  And maybe, because of that, come winter, your pocket of the world is a tiny bit better place to be.


Milla Wirén
Doctoral Candidate

1 Comment

  1. anjali sharma

    Thank you for excellent article.Great information for new guy

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