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Saint Isidore
and infallibility

April 2001

disponibile anche in italiano

  Giancarlo Livraghi
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It has been reported that the Catholic Church may be considering the appointment of a patron saint of the internet; and that he could be Saint Isidore of Seville. An interesting choice. According to the Catholic Encyclopedia «he was the first Christian writer to essay the task of compiling a summa of universal knowledge». His work «epitomized all learning, ancient as well as modern» and «imparted a new impetus to encyclopedic writing, which bore abundant fruit in the subsequent centuries.» Quite fit for a protector and inspirer of the internet.

There are some interesting coincidences. Campaigns against the internet, in which it’s described as sinful and diabolical, are often followed by Church statements to the contrary. Though we have yet so see any of the Catholics who actively took part in those campaigns admit their mistakes and recite an appropriate mea culpa.

That’s a widespread habit – regardless of religion or philosophical inclination. Nobody is ever wrong, nobody admits mistakes. Infallibility is not only the privilege of prophets following divine inspiration. It’s also shared by business pundits, stock analysts, economists and journalists, who seem to have lost the ability to admit mistakes – or learn from them.

Mistakes are useful if they are used as a learning tool. But that is rarely done. That very big (and rather stupid) mistakes were made is pretty obvious. But now everyone is blaming everyone else. The media blame the analysts, the analysts blame the media, both blame “the public”; they say «that was what people wanted to hear». In other words... are people stupid? Or was the public poorly informed by those who were supposed to provide advice and guidance?

We’ve been flooded with statistics and projections that were totally meaningless but preached as gospel. Nobody has a decent explanation of how those figures were put together and why they were so far removed from reality. More importantly – nobody seems to have a clue about how to avoid such blunders from now on.

Millions (billions) were spent on business plans that didn’t deserve a penny. In the United States there were bankruptcies – and some CEOs resigned. In my country some business units are being closed with as little noise as possible (and no explanation.) Jobs are being cut but nobody admits to be downsizing. Expenses are being cut across the board (sacrificing potentially good ventures while some hopeless ones are still receiving more support than they deserve.) But the incompetent managers are hanging on to their jobs (and their large salaries.) Nobody admits mistakes. If things went wrong the blame is on the “market” that didn’t understand, on competitors warping the environment, or on a “technology gap” for which nobody has a clear definition or diagnosis. Or on the government – that did unwisely support some large and poorly conceived ventures, but did not run to the rescue of all the failures.

Many of my friends and readers are quite outspoken and ironic. I can hear them ask: «when did you make mistakes?» Several times, my dear friends. Such as when I bought software that I didn’t need – or when I became so skeptical that I didn’t install some that may be useful. Or when, over a year ago, after so many public admissions of how poorly the business and political establishment had understood new technologies and new communication systems, I expected to see a change in attitudes and a shift to more common sense – that so far hasn’t happened.

Errare humanum. More importantly, making mistakes is useful. One of the qualities of the internet is that it’s a very good testing ground – to try, experiment, and learn from mistakes. But to do that we must know how to listen and learn. Two qualities that are missing in the hasty and arrogant leaders of most businesses today – especially, but not only, in the so-called “new economy”. They think they can teach, preach and manage without learning. When the consequences of their mistakes become too obvious to be ignored... they put the blame on someone or something else. Or they just sit there waiting for some saint patron to bail them out.

Is the game over? Not yet. More high-rise buildings with poor foundations will have to crumble before a simple truth prevails. Many mistakes were made and more will happen. That’s unavoidable. But if we want to see more reliable developments we need a culture in which errors are admitted – and corrected before it’s too late. The most dangerous people are those who think they are infallible.

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