World - PEOPLE INNOVATION TECHNOLOGY & LIFE
A Pirelli magazine issue 2 / 2019

The
paradox
of
boundaries

It feels good to cross boundaries. The most satisfying acts almost always involve trespassing of one sort or another. But before we rush to tear down all boundaries and borders, let’s pause a moment to celebrate them

Everyone hates to feel constrained, but constraints provide the structure necessary for innovation and achievement. Without rules and limits and traditions – without borders – thought and action become aimless and frivolous.

That’s something artists have always understood. “You cannot create against a yielding medium,” the great modernist composer Igor Stravinsky observed in a 1940 lecture at Harvard. Stravinsky’s musical innovations were nothing if not groundbreaking, yet he knew that he could not have produced them had he not been constrained by the traditions of music and the mathematical laws of tone. “Let me have something finite, definite,” he said. “My freedom will be so much the greater and more meaningful the more narrowly I limit my field of action and the more I surround myself with obstacles. Whatever diminishes constraint, diminishes strength.”

What goes for art goes as well for science, business and sport – for any endeavour that involves a striving for excellence. Formal strictures give shape to the work of body and of mind. Traditions and conventions establish context and meaning. Limitations spur resourcefulness. Obstacles provide the friction that turns the grain of sand into a pearl. We need our borders.

“Obstacles provide the friction that turns the grain of sand into a pearl”

But we also need to fight them. Breakthroughs are called “breakthroughs” for good reason. While boundaries may be necessary for creativity, they can also stifle it. That’s particularly true in organisations of business and learning, as anyone who’s dealt with the destructive effects of fiefdoms, “silos” and turf wars knows all too well. When borders become rigid, innovation and imagination wane. Organisations end up burning their energy in political manoeuvering and infighting. They become inward-looking, myopic.

Collaboration is the first victim. Once organisational walls become inflexible, people begin to link not only their jobs but their identities to their own department or unit, and they start to see those in other areas not as colleagues but as competitors – competitors for resources, competitors for rewards, competitors for acclaim. Once this sense of us-versus-them takes root, cross-border conversations become ever rarer. There’s often also an undertone of suspicion, which leads people to withhold information for fear of giving the other an advantage. Because new ideas tend to spring from the sharing of different and even conflicting perspectives, insular groups soon become moribund. Their thinking and actions never veer from well-trodden paths.

The best organisations make sure their doors are open. Top universities, for example, encourage interdisciplinary research and teaching in both formal and informal ways. They offer courses and programmes taught by teams of professors from different departments, and they allow students to major in fields, such as computational biology or environmental studies, that meld the knowledge of traditional academic disciplines. The goal is not to diminish the rigour and kinship that come from departmental affinity. It’s to nurture other, equally valuable affinities.

“The best organisations make sure their doors are open”

“No Boundaries” is a vital rallying cry. It spurs people to question the status quo, and it inspires them to push into new and unexplored territory.

But “Know Boundaries” may be an even more essential motto. We should always be sceptical of established borders – we should question their authority – but we shouldn’t rush to assume that all borders are bad. Think of what’s happened with the internet in recent years. Not long ago, we were thrilled about the way the net erased old social, geographic and media boundaries that constrained the flow of information and speech. We embraced the Silicon Valley ideal of “disruption.” We were naive. Today, as we confront the destructive spread of lies, hate and criminality online, we’re struggling to re-establish boundaries and the order they impose.

Boundaries are our enemies. They’re also our friends.

Nicholas Carr

Nicholas Carr is the bestselling author of several books on technology and culture, including The Shallows, a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, and The Glass Cage. A former editor of the Harvard Business Review, he is the Richmond Visiting Professor in Sociology at Williams College.

People of the world

THE PARADOX OF BOUNDARIES

Video Gallery

Let The Color In

Chaos

New Frontiers

Moving

Time

Lorem Ipsum

Read More >
×

All the stories