glyph 278: epistemology, perception ... discussion, conversation ... system design, computers, software engineering ... a good way to be fooled ... ancient stories as sources of wisdom


The Blind Men and the Elephant

the risk of parts appearing to be wholes

A fascinating children's story based on a folk tale dating back at least two-thousand years offers direct insight into what happens when an encompassing view is not taken in studying a problem. In this tale there are six men who, though very knowledgeable, are blind. Together they encounter an elephant and each gives his analysis of the creature. Their interpretations are based on the particular part of the elephant they happen to touch.

The first blind man touches the sturdy side and declares the elephant to be very much like a wall.

The second blind man felt the elephant's sharp tusk and declared the elephant to be like a great spear.

The third blind man grasped at the squirming trunk and, with postive authority, announced that elephants are certainly like snakes.

The fourth blind man slid his hands along the elephant's broad knee and said that clearly an elephant can be best described as a tree.

Now the fifth blind man examined the elephant's waving ear, and was convinced that the elephant was some sort of fan.

And the last, the sixth blind man grabing at the elephant's swinging tail declared to all around that an elephant is absolutely like a rope.

Each is partly right since they have made contact with one major part of the whole. However, they are all wrong because in their blindness they failed to comprehend the creature in its entirety. Too often in information systems work, the limited perspectives (particular blindnesses) of the individuals making a study lead to similar failures in perception.

These failures result in developing computer capabilities that do not meet the needs of users. Perhaps an all too common example within a corporation could be exemplified when the vice-president of accounting (often the tail that wags the elephant!) makes the decisions regarding the information systems needed, without serious consideration and vision of the needs of the engineering, manufacturing, sales, and other departments that actually generate the value and revenue of the organization. In an elegant way, this children's story clearly illustrates the need for comprehensive study prior to the implementation of an information system in a company. So, as is often the case with "stories" of enduring interest, they contain the seeds of wisdom acquired by a culture through centuries of practical experience.

If you would like to relive your childhood memory of first hearing this tale, or share it with your children, a well-illustrated version is John Godfrey Saxe's The Blind Men and the Elephant (McGraw-Hill Book Company, 1963). The children's section of most public libraries will have Saxe's or another version of this valuable insight for the information-systems designer.

Albert Turner — Software engineer, 21 January 2006

John Godfrey Saxe (1816 - 1887): In the last verse of his The Blind Men and the Elephant makes a point I suppose he was leading into (during an era unlikely to be appreciative of such a direct expositive):

So oft in theologic wars,
The disputants, I ween,
Rail on in utter ignorance
Of what each other mean,
And prate about an Elephant
Not one of them has seen.

Added by Albert, 31 January 2006
entered before July 9, 2006

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