Description

British troops surrendering at Yorktown, Virginia in October of 1781 reportedly marched to the 17th century English song “The World Turned Upside Down.”2 Government embodied in the United States and built on the tradition of English Common Law changed the world over subsequent generations. The deceptively simple Enlightenment notion of the “consent of the governed” required majority rule, but to be sustainable also required protecting the interests of minorities and separation of power; much harder to accomplish. The Enlightenment took a long time to understand. In 1784 the philosopher Immanuel Kant explained it as “free thought.”3 It started more than a century earlier, and is widely considered an 18th Century phenomenon. Kant was right, but writing in 1784 his insight was a century late. Big ideas bring power and fear, pushing out long-established and powerful notions such as the divine right of kings. Understanding in retrospect makes objects in the mirror larger than they seem.4 But how big are they, really? IS brings many big ideas to choose among. The terrain is difficult. The IS field is about what Ellul called technique: technology and systems in the service of efficiency.5 IS researchers control neither the pace nor the consequences of changing technique. We must select what is important at the beginning of our research to be sure it is worthwhile at the end. We are tempted to choose relevance or rigor. Affecting practice early requires relevance. We attempt to understand the phenomenon before the results are in. Critics say, “that’s unconvincing.” Academic publications require rigor. We often have to wait to achieve understanding. If we are late, critics say, “Everybody knows that,” or equally damning, “Who cares?”6 Most IS researchers want to be relevant and rigorous, but that has risks. Wait too long and lose relevance; act too soon and lose rigor. When Kant wrote about The Enlightenment a century late, he could afford it: he had a reputation.7 To be relevant and rigorous we must pick the right things early and follow later with understanding. This is possible only if we open our eyes, humble ourselves to the magnitude of what’s going on around us, accept that understanding is elusive and often comes late, yet try nevertheless to understand. Sleeping researchers induce sleep in readers. We feel safe when asleep. Opening our eyes shatters that false security. The reality of IS is shocking. That shock makes our work interesting, and we move backwards toward understanding. The shock motivates us, grounds us, and humbles us. Understanding builds slowly. Ideas in the IS field are already big. We just have to live up to them.

COinS
 

The World Turned Upside Down: IS Research in Difficult Terrain

British troops surrendering at Yorktown, Virginia in October of 1781 reportedly marched to the 17th century English song “The World Turned Upside Down.”2 Government embodied in the United States and built on the tradition of English Common Law changed the world over subsequent generations. The deceptively simple Enlightenment notion of the “consent of the governed” required majority rule, but to be sustainable also required protecting the interests of minorities and separation of power; much harder to accomplish. The Enlightenment took a long time to understand. In 1784 the philosopher Immanuel Kant explained it as “free thought.”3 It started more than a century earlier, and is widely considered an 18th Century phenomenon. Kant was right, but writing in 1784 his insight was a century late. Big ideas bring power and fear, pushing out long-established and powerful notions such as the divine right of kings. Understanding in retrospect makes objects in the mirror larger than they seem.4 But how big are they, really? IS brings many big ideas to choose among. The terrain is difficult. The IS field is about what Ellul called technique: technology and systems in the service of efficiency.5 IS researchers control neither the pace nor the consequences of changing technique. We must select what is important at the beginning of our research to be sure it is worthwhile at the end. We are tempted to choose relevance or rigor. Affecting practice early requires relevance. We attempt to understand the phenomenon before the results are in. Critics say, “that’s unconvincing.” Academic publications require rigor. We often have to wait to achieve understanding. If we are late, critics say, “Everybody knows that,” or equally damning, “Who cares?”6 Most IS researchers want to be relevant and rigorous, but that has risks. Wait too long and lose relevance; act too soon and lose rigor. When Kant wrote about The Enlightenment a century late, he could afford it: he had a reputation.7 To be relevant and rigorous we must pick the right things early and follow later with understanding. This is possible only if we open our eyes, humble ourselves to the magnitude of what’s going on around us, accept that understanding is elusive and often comes late, yet try nevertheless to understand. Sleeping researchers induce sleep in readers. We feel safe when asleep. Opening our eyes shatters that false security. The reality of IS is shocking. That shock makes our work interesting, and we move backwards toward understanding. The shock motivates us, grounds us, and humbles us. Understanding builds slowly. Ideas in the IS field are already big. We just have to live up to them.