Some years ago I attended a talk given by the BAFTA-winning documentary maker Adam Curtis. You may have encountered some of his work on the BBC. His documentaries include All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace and more recently, Bitter Lake.

If you haven’t seen these, they’re well worth the time; you’ll find them highly informative and challenging.

At this event he talked about ideas that have become so much a part of the world around us that we cease to notice them – in effect we take them as self-evident truths. He used the phrase “the water in which we swim” to describe this. I think he was trying to convey the notion that an aquatic organism is oblivious to water in the same way that we’re oblivious to air despite the fact that we (and the fish) are surrounded by the stuff.

For this reason it may sometimes be beneficial to take a hold of these assumptions (or social constructions as sociologists would term them) and under examination we may find that they are not quite of the shape that our lazy heuristics suggest.

Take the phrase customer service. It is no doubt used many thousands of times a day in corporate environments. In IT departments, service managers will talk endlessly about “providing excellent customer service”. However, if one day you stopped one of these with that easy phrase between their lips, and asked them what it meant, they would probably regard you as a crazy person. Nevertheless, I have an inkling that many do not fully comprehend the real meaning of the term.

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