Wednesday 17 December 2008

No We Can't

What to do, oh what to do?
Well actually we haven't a clue...
It's becoming increasingly obvious that we live in an age of incompetence, where most people most of the time haven't a clue what they're doing. A glance at the headlines tells the story, or some of it - from the calamitous stupidity of the bankers and the total failure of the regulatory bodies to the state of childcare and education, law and order, public transport, government IT systems, casual 'losing' of data - it goes all the way down to the slack-jawed knuckle-walkers on every retail counter and at the end of every phone line... Why, even our homegrown terrorists are incompetent (thankfully) and our gangsters can't manage a shooting without taking out bystanders.
What is wrong with us? Various factors are at work, obviously, one of the main ones being the triumph of process over outcome - i.e. a fixation on how the job is done, while ignoring what it's supposed to do (this is of course encouraged on a grand scale by the pseudo-science of 'management' and by a culture of box-ticking). I think there might be a larger movement, too, a kind of evolution by atrophy. Perhaps when the going gets so ridiculously good as it has been for the developed world this past half century, skills and common sense wither away, as there is no pressing need for them - whatever we do, however stupidly we behave, we'll be all right. Well, that could soon be a thing of the past - as the recession bites, we might rediscover some basics, some of the solid realities of life that we have complacently shed along the way. We'll see...
Meanwhile, all together now (to the tune of Age of Aquarius) -
This is the dawning of the
Age of Incompetence...
Except it isn't - it's more like high noon.


  1. Such a good post, Nige. I am continually amazed by what I see around me. As I think I've said before, I consider myself an amateur at everything I do. Professionalism scares me. Most of the people who profess professionalism the loudest are essentially incompetent in what they do. I have spent my life facilitating others, sitting in the background doing all the hard work, while they stand at the front and claim the plaudits. It sickens me that I can't be like them. Yet, I know at some point their house of cards will collapse. Anybody with half a brain could see why Woolies would collapse and see how it could be saved. Yet nobody did it. Why? From the top to the bottom, we're led by fools, while those of us who are thought of as fools -- for not living the life that others lead -- are possibly the happiest and keep the world afloat.

  2. Yes, a great post. There was a good item about this on the radio earlier. What all these groups have in common is that they do not have to take responsibility for the consequences of their actions, no matter how disastrous. If I recall through the fumes of Lemsip Max, the directors of the Great Exhibition had to underwrite the cost of anything going wrong with their choice of building. Nothing did, of course. They saw to that. Now fast-forward to the 2012 Olympics, a consequences-free greedfest.

    Also, there are beacons of extraordinary excellence but you have to know what to look for them. Usually, this involves people with no formal qualifications (this is important, as qualifications often strip one of humanity and introduce us versus them). They are doing a job they love - care of the disabled, the elderly and so on - the kind of work that most of us, rather ignobly, would run a mile from. Often these people are recent immigrants to the UK, whom we then thank with horrible articles in the Daily Mail. Actually, their civility and the strength of their upbringing puts most of us to shame.

  3. Yes, I'm happy to fall in behind Dick and Mark-a wonderful, but chilling encapsulation of Britain today. But how did it come to this? We are smarter than dolphins, but here we lie, self-betrayed by our own stupidity and greed, a maw that is even now being fed by our masters in Whitehall, and the chromium plated aisles of Westfield, the 'new home of luxury'.

  4. Word for word what Nige wrote in his excellent post applies equally to life here in the States.

  5. i suspect in part it's that competent people, people who are intelligent and able to just get on with things without messing them up, aren't good at management-speak and the kind of buzzwords you need to spout in interviews ('pro-active' etc.). In my 20 or so jobs i usually meet a competent worker who is at best 2nd in command, often much lower down - they radiate a plain and reliable sense of how to get the job done and everyone turns to them rather than the manager, the manager being some idiot who has learnt to regurgitate buzzwords.

    When i worked at Network Rail the managers were staggeringly incompetent and lazy, at least the ones i saw. A temp was given a manager's job while she was on holiday and did it better than she did - that gives you some idea.

    We seem to live in a culture that cannot tolerate the genuine article but adores ersatz human beings who spout bullshit.

  6. Mene mene tekel upharsin.

  7. We may be smarter than dolphins, but we are less moral. I think the cause of it is our having hands and opposable thumbs. Idle hands, the devil's playground, and so forth.

  8. You do know that dolphins are into rape and baby murder, don't you Susan? There's no hope in that direction.