A snapshot of my desk: a charging iPad, a glasses case, a diary, a notepad. The laptop I am writing this on, perched on my Roget’s Thesaurus. My late mother’s wallet, a jewellery box, a pack of gum, a nail file, a postcard of the Brooklyn Bridge, a disposable fountain pen, a ballpoint, two pencils. A tray stacked with important papers that I’m not sure what to do with; eventually they probably won’t be important any more. And (honestly) a copy of the New Statesman. Whether this qualifies as messy or tidy depends
on the size of the desk – and it depends on your definition of both words. The proof copy of Tim Harford’s Messy encourages readers to tweet about #thepowerofmess – the only contradiction being that the book isn’t about messiness at all.
Harford is a columnist for the Financial Times and the author of The Undercover Economist, among other books. He is also the presenter of BBC Radio 4’s excellent More or Less, which burrows behind statistics to ferret out the truth. In a world where millions of emails swamp every in-box and Monday’s meeting promises a better way to organise whatever needs organising, Harford’s offer of relief from the oppression of the filing cabinet is welcome. Yet his definition of mess is not the same as mine.
Messy is a book filled with instructive stories in the manner of Malcolm Gladwell; there is an example or three to demonstrate each of his points. He ranges widely. He speaks to Brian Eno about his “oblique strategies” – in which the musician issues random instructions to the people he works with, such as “emphasise the flaws”, or “only a part, not the whole”. Harford looks at the construction of Building 20 at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, thrown together from plywood and breeze blocks over a few weeks in 1943 to house the Radiation Laboratory, a project as important to the outcome of the Second World War as the Manhattan Project. Those who worked on it later earned a slew of Nobel Prizes between them, and in the years after the war this ill-constructed, draughty and confusing building – the opposite of a tidy office space – was the site of extraordinary amounts of significant scientific work. In the 1990s Jeff Bezos broke open the online market with a seat-of-the-pants strategy that looked as if it would end in failure rather than with Amazon ruling the world.
Harford considers, too, an event in which a lack of ability to cope with confusion resulted in tragedy: the crash of Air France Flight 447 in June 2009. Some have argued that the aircraft’s sophisticated “fly-by-wire” autopilot had left the pilots with little experience of coping with an unexpected situation. Confronted with “mess”, they didn’t know what to do. Too much tidiness results in rigid, rather than creative, thinking. In the case of the Air France flight, 228 people died as a result.
In considering men such as Eno, Bezos and the engineers at MIT, however, Harford is discussing disruption rather than mess. Yet Disrupty would have been a hard sell as a title. “The enemy of creative work is boredom,” Brian Eno says, “and the friend is alertness.” He is right. Yet Eno, like the artists with whom he works, can find their alertness because they have had the discipline – tidiness, in essence – to work the ten thousand hours or so (to use Gladwell’s formulation from Outliers) that made them experts in their field. The same could be said of the boys in Building 20. Harford tells the moving story of how Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” speech was improvised, rather than carefully prepared – yet King had the grounding of years spent carefully preparing his sermons. The dream didn’t come out of nowhere.
There are hardly any women in this book. It is startling that no one at Harford’s publisher noticed this, even if he didn’t. But then, Eno apart, this is a book that focuses on business and economics – and women don’t really care about that stuff, do they? This oversight struck me as even more discouraging after the US election on 8 November, because it is, I fear, more evidence (if any were needed) of the kind of ingrained bias that aided and abetted Donald Trump’s victory. The political rise of the real-estate-mogul-turned-reality-TV-star presents an apotheosis of disruption.
As Harford correctly notes, “Trump’s career politician opponents were tidy-minded, surrounded by complicated messaging operations that crafted press releases and briefed them for interviews, trying to protect their image and prevent gaffes.” Indeed they were. And now we’re in a real mess.
Erica Wagner is an NS contributing writer. She will chair a talk with Deborah Levy at the Cambridge Literary Festival on 26 November
This article appears in the 23 Nov 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Blair: out of exile