Freedom For Ideas

Sharing ideas, concepts and thoughts, mainly about Information Technology – and consulting

The Wave

Posted by Yannick Martel on February 3, 2009

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After going straight in a direction with my previous post, I came across The Wave. I was fascinated by the experience it described, got a copy from the local library and finished reading it in parallel with a busy weekend. The Wave is a novel based on an experiment performed by an history teacher, when he wanted to teach about the rise of the Nazi movement in Germany and the atrocities which came from the movement.

At first, the teacher used his authority and charisma to channel students into the experiment, discipline them into a more efficient group. Then discipline, peer pressure and the positive feeling of being part of a group took over as driving forces, making the group still stronger and more disciplined, more together. The teacher himself was then no more leading the movement – he was being lead and driven by it. Independent thinking was then felt as a threat to the movement – and thus to be condemned. Any objection was to be rejected.

I take many lessons from this story (as far as the book is true to the original experiment). One of them is that fascist monstrosities can be awakened any time, any place if we forget about the past. Another one is the power of the group as providing:

  • a sense of community, of being well together;
  • efficiency for some activities;
  • a relatively egalitarian environment, or at least leveling the traditional hierarchies of performance or popularity.

These are relatively positive characteristics, which makes group-imposed tyrannies the more dangerous. A group can be a wonderful environment, but it can also turn to be de-humanizing: a human being lost in a certain group with certain values can become a machine, losing critical mind and independence.

I appreciate that in all human systems, discipline and authority must be balanced by some regulation mechanism, especially when they are self-imposed by the group where they can be stronger and more cruel than when imposed from the outside. In the case of the experiment, the regulatory mechanism was the outside world, parents, other teachers, the principal, the history teacher’s wife, and himself. This mechanism played its role before it was too late.

How is that relevant to this blog? One reason amongst many: I have still more reasons to appreciate the value of thinking outside of the boundaries of the system, any system, thinking on it, thinking about it, understanding its mechanisms and meaning, while not being bounded by it. An illustration of the pattern is the retrospective practice used in Agile methodologies to look back, improve and make the team a better team. Here – hopefully – members of the group can reflect on it, criticize it and work together on improving it. Thus we avoid declaring as absolute what is only relative.

But, in itself, this experiment does not provide a proof against my thesis that discipline and authority can be good. It certainly provides a nice boundary to this declaration.

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