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John Burnside

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John Burnside, fellow in creative writing at the University of Dundee, gives us his thoughts on adapting to 'change'.

It's no accident that the great classic of early Chinese literature is called The Book of Changes. In common with Heraclitus, this impressionistic text, while it is open to a wide variety of interpretations, insists on one key truth: that change, in all its manifestations, is the essence of life. Even the most urbane Chinese scholars lived at such proximity to nature that the universality of change - in the seasons, in growth and decay and, of course, in the affairs of the court - could not be ignored. The great trick, as they saw it, was to recognise and accept change; to work with the natural flow of things; to read the current, and make it work for them. They also saw, in their wisdom, that change occasionally meant disorder, and patience was needed, to work through those periods of chaos.

For most of us, most of the time, change is unsettling. I'm speaking from recent experience here - in the last twelve months, I have changed jobs and moved home twice, and it's all been very wearing. After ten years as a computer systems designer, I decided to give it all up and devote myself to writing. I made the usual mistake of thinking that, because I wanted the changes to happen, they would happen smoothly, and the whole enterprise would be one big adventure.

I should have known better. As a systems designer, it was part of my job to manage change within relatively large organisations. The systems I worked on - television airtime management for several years, then knowledge-based systems for underwriters - were modified on the run, as requirements altered, driven by business needs, or new legislation. True, we always began with a detailed specification of requirements - documents that often took months, and occasionally years, to produce - but by the time initial design work began, requirements had often changed. Officially, the users submitted change-requests to the design team, who investigated the implications, costed the changes, and prepared a feasibility report. In practice, there was little negotiation: changes had to be made, and were normally incorporated as the system was built. It was never text-book stuff. When confronted by text-book designers, the only possible response was to smile and tell them that this was "the real world".

The real world is messy. We've all seen those programmes on television in which attractive, almost seamless computer systems talk to one another with little human intervention, and with an uncanny and unsettling wisdom. I won't say these systems are impossible to build - it's just that, despite what the programme-makers tell us, they will not happen overnight. This is a time of immense technological change, but most implementations are gradual, tentative and, occasionally, messy. Systems evolve in this way. Revolutions are few and, no matter what the hype-merchants tell us, systems will continue to evolve, in businesses, libraries, schools, hospitals and government. That's what the real world is all about. Like the Chinese sages, we have to accept the reality of change, but we can learn to read the current, and to put up with a little chaos from time to time.

Date published: 
19 January 1996

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How to cite this article

John Burnside. "John Burnside". January 1996, Ariadne Issue 1 http://www.ariadne.ac.uk/issue1/john/


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