Random finds (2016, week 31) — On serendipity, why less isn’t always more, and unmet needs (instead of flying cars)
Every Friday, I run through my tweets to select a few observations and insights that have kept me thinking over the last week.
On serendipity and how to engineer it
Do some people have a special talent for serendipity? And if so, why? These are the questions Pagan Kennedy explores in How to Cultivate the Art of Serendipity.
“A surprising number of the conveniences of modern life were invented when someone stumbled upon a discovery or capitalized on an accident: the microwave oven, safety glass, smoke detectors, artificial sweeteners, X-ray imaging. Many blockbuster drugs of the 20th century emerged because a lab worker picked up on the ‘wrong’ information,” Kennedy writes. While researching breakthroughs like these, Kennedy began to wonder whether we can train ourselves to become more serendipitous. How do we cultivate the art of finding what we’re not seeking?
Today, we see serendipity as something like dumb luck, but its original meaning was very different.
‘Serendipity’ was coined in 1754 by the English art historian, man of letters, antiquarian and Whig politician Horatio Walpole, 4th Earl of Orford (1717–1797). In a letter he wrote to a friend, Walpole explained an unexpected discovery he had made by reference to a Persian fairy tale, published in Venice in 1557 by Michele Tramezzino, about three princes from the Isle of Serendip (Persian and Urdu for Sri Lanka) who possess superpowers of observation. Walpole suggested that this old tale contained a crucial idea about human genius: “As their highnesses travelled, they were always making discoveries, by accident and sagacity, of things which they were not in quest of.” And he proposed a new word — ‘serendipity’ — to describe this princely talent for detective work.
At its birth, serendipity meant a skill rather than a random stroke of good fortune.
If you are interested in the origins and history of serendipity, I highly recommend the The Travels and Adventures of Serendipity. Written in the 1950s by already-eminent sociologist Robert Merton and Elinor Barber, the book — though occasionally and most tantalizingly cited — was intentionally never published. This is all the more curious because it so remarkably anticipated subsequent battles over research and funding — many of which centered on the role of serendipity in science. Finally, shortly after his ninety-first birthday, following Barber’s death and preceding his own by but a little, Merton agreed to expand and publish this major work.
Like Walpole, Dr. Erdelez, an information scientist at the University of Missouri sees serendipity as something people do. In the mid-1990s, she began a study of about 100 people to find out how they created their own serendipity, or failed to do so. Her research data showed that the subjects fell into three distinct groups. First, people who never encounter serendipity; the ones with a tight focus who tend to stick to their to-do list. She aptly calls these ‘non-encounterers.’ A second group, the ‘occasional encounterers,’ stumble into moments of serendipity every now and then. But ‘super-encounterers’ reported that happy surprises popped up wherever they looked. According to Dr. Erdelez, you can become a super-encounterer in part because you believe that you are one — it helps to assume that you possess special powers of observation, like an invisible set of antennas, that will lead you to clues.
But how many big ideas actually emerge from laboratory spills, crashes, failed experiments and blind stabs?
“One survey of patent holders (the PatVal study of European inventors, published in 2005),” Kennedy writes, “found that an incredible 50 percent of patents resulted from what could be described as a serendipitous process. Thousands of survey respondents reported that their idea evolved when they were working on an unrelated project — and often when they weren’t even trying to invent anything. This is why we need to know far more about the habits that transform a mistake into a breakthrough.”
According to Greg Lindsay, a Senior Fellow at the Work Futures Institute, we still have no idea how to pursue what former U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld famously described as ‘unknown unknowns.’ “It’s not enough to ask where good ideas come from — we need to rethink how we go about finding them,” Lindsay writes in How To Engineer Serendipity.
Serendipity isn’t magic or about happy accidents. “It’s a state of mind and a property of social networks — which means it can be measured, analyzed, and engineered.” It’s also a “bountiful source of good ideas. Study after study has shown how chance collaborations often trump top-down organizations when it comes to research and innovation. The challenge is first recognizing the circumstances of these encounters, then replicating and enhancing them.”
If there is indeed a hidden order to how we find new ideas and people, instead of ‘dumb luck,’ it would be possible to plan for serendipity. But how?
The first step is having a, what the French chemist Louis Pasteur famously called, “prepared mind.” A mind that’s open to the unexpected, to thinking in metaphors, to holding back and not jumping to conclusions, and to resist walls between domains and disciplines.
The second step is to engineer serendipity into organizations. “For all the talk of failing faster and disruptive innovation,” Lindsay writes, “an overwhelming majority of companies are still structured along predictable lines. Even Google cancelled ‘20 percent time,’ its celebrated policy of granting engineers one day a week for personal projects. To capture serendipity, the company is looking at space instead of time — hence the design of its new campus, in which everyone is just a short ‘casual collision’ away.”
The third and final piece is the network. “Google has made its ambitions clear. As far as chairman Eric Schmidt is concerned, the future of search is a ‘serendipity engine’ answering questions you never thought to ask,” Lindsay explains. “The greatest threats to serendipity are our ingrained biases and cognitive limits — we intrinsically want more known knowns, not unknown unknowns. This is the bias a startup named Ayasdi is striving to eliminate in Big Data. Rather than asking questions, its software renders its analysis as a network map, revealing hidden connections between tumors or terrorist cells, which CEO Gurjeet Singh calls ‘digital serendipity.’ IBM is trying something similar with Watson, tasking its fledgling artificial intelligence software with reading millions of scientific papers in hopes of finding leads no human researcher would ever have time to spot.”
When Lindsay describes this vision, there is always someone who will reply, “But that isn’t serendipity!”
I’m never quite sure what they mean — because it isn’t random or romantic? But “serendipity is such a strange word; invented on a whim in 1754, it didn’t enter widespread circulation until almost two centuries later and is still notoriously difficult to translate. These days, it means practically whatever you want it to be.” [By 1958 the term ‘serendipity’ was found in print just 135 times, between 1958 and 2000 it was used in 57 book titles, in the 1990’s it appeared in newspapers 13,000 times, and by 2001 on 636,000 internet pages. Today, when you put ‘serendipity’ into a search engine, you will get 6 million references.]
Serendipity is the process through which we discover ‘unknown unknowns.’
“So, I’m staking my own claim,” Lindsay says, “serendipity is the process through which we discover ‘unknown unknowns.’ Understanding it as an emergent property of social networks, instead of sheer luck, enables us to treat it as a viable strategy for organizing people and sharing ideas, rather than writing it off as magic. And that, in turn, has potentially huge ramifications for everything from how we work to how we learn to where we live by leading to a shift away from efficiency — doing the same thing over and over, only a little bit better — toward novelty and discovery.”
Ockham’s Razor or why Gaudí could get away with ‘more is more’
“Ockham’s Razor says that simplicity is a scientific virtue, but justifying this philosophically is strangely elusive,” Elliot Sober, a research professor in philosophy at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, writes in Why is simpler better?
Albert Einstein spoke for many scientists when he said that “it can scarcely be denied that the supreme goal of all theory is to make the irreducible basic elements as simple and as few as possible without having to surrender the adequate representation of a single datum of experience.”
“The search for simple theories is a requirement of the scientific enterprise,” Sober writes. “When theories get too complex, scientists reach for Ockham’s Razor, the principle of parsimony, to do the trimming. This principle says that a theory that postulates fewer entities, processes or causes is better than a theory that postulates more, so long as the simpler theory is compatible with what we observe. But what does ‘better’ mean? It is obvious that simple theories can be beautiful and easy to understand, remember and test. The hard problem is to explain why the fact that one theory is simpler than another tells you anything about the way the world is.”
Other than scientists, artists don’t try to discover the uniquely correct degree of complexity that all artworks should have. There is no such timeless ideal. “If all art should be simple or if all art should be complex, the choice is clear. However, both of these norms seem absurd. Isn’t it obvious that some estimable art is simple and some is complex? True, there might be extremes that are beyond the pale; we are alienated by art that is far too complex and bored by art that is far too simple. However, between these two extremes there is a vast space of possibilities,” Sober argues.
If you have ever been to Barcelona, you no doubt have seen Antoni Gaudí’s flamboyant and complex Sagrada Família. Only a few miles down the road, you’ll find a perfect example of Ludwig Mies van der Rohe’s minimalist architecture: his German National Pavilion for the Barcelona International Exhibition (1929). The contrasts between these two iconic building can’t be more startling. If Ockham’s Razor would dictate the arts as it does science, the Sagrada Família would never have been built. But in contrast to Mies van der Rohe’s ‘less is more,’ we have Gaudí’s ‘more is more,’ and both work wonderfully well.
Both architects remind us that there is no disputing matters of taste when it comes to assessing the value of simplicity and complexity in works of art. Einstein and Newton on the other hand, say that science is different — simplicity, in science, is not a matter of taste. And, as it turns out, this is not entirely without reasons. The upshot, according to Sober, is that there are three parsimony paradigms that explain how the simplicity of a theory can be relevant to saying what the world is like:
Paradigm 1: sometimes simpler theories have higher probabilities.
Paradigm 2: sometimes simpler theories are better supported by the observations.
Paradigm 3: sometimes the simplicity of a model is relevant to estimating its predictive accuracy.
“These three paradigms have something important in common,” Sober concludes. “Whether a given problem fits into any of them depends on empirical assumptions about the problem. Those assumptions might be true of some problems, but false of others. Although parsimony is demonstrably relevant to forming judgments about what the world is like, there is in the end no unconditional and presuppositionless justification for Ockham’s Razor.”
In his most recent book, Intuition Pumps and Other Tools for Critical Thinking, Daniel Dennet, one of the great thinkers in the world and currently the co-director of the Center for Cognitive Studies and the Austin B. Fletcher Professor of Philosophy at Tufts University, shares some of his best ‘tools for critical thinking’ — a bag of mental tricks to improve your ability to engage critically and rationally with the world. One of these tools is, indeed, Ockham’s Razor.
Attributed to William of Ockham (or Occam), the fourteenth century logician and philosopher, this thinking tool is actually a much older rule of thumb. A Latin name for it is lex parsimoniae, the law of parsimony. It is usually put into English as the maxim “Do not muliply entities beyond necessary.” The idea is straightforward: Don’t concoct a complicated, extravagant theory if you’ve got a simpler one (containing fewer ingredients, fewer entities) that handles the phenomenon just as well. If exposure to extremely cold air can account for all the symptoms of frostbite, don’t postulate unobserved ‘snow germs’ or ‘arctic microbes.’ Kepler’s laws explain the orbit of the planets; we have no need to hypothesize pilots guiding the planets from control panels hidden under the surface.
The molecular biologist Sidney Brenner recently invented a delicious play on Ockham’s Razor, introducing the new term ‘Ockham’s Broom,’ to describe the process in which inconvenient facts are whisked under the rug by intellectually dishonest champions of one theory or another. This is our first boom crutch, an ‘anti-thinking tool,’ and you should keep your eyes peeled for it. The practice is particularly insidious when used by propagandists who direct their efforts at the lay public, because like Sherlock Holmes’ famous clue about the dog that didn’t bark in the night, the absence of a fact that has been swept off the scene by Ockham’s Broom is unnoticeable except by experts. (Source: Daniel Dennett’s Most Useful Critical Thinking Tools, and Creating a Latticework of Mental Models: An Introduction, both by Farnam Street.)
A bit more …
Who asked for flying cars?
Silicon Valley high fliers, of course, says Bhaskar Chakravorti, Senior Associate Dean for International Business & Finance at Tufts University’s The Fletcher School, in Why is Silicon Valley obsessed with flying cars?
“They have, after all, been obsessed with cars of many kinds — self-driven, electric, enabled by iPhone commands. Given that so much of Silicon Valley travels in company buses (arguably, a more efficient and greener mode of transport than any of these alternatives) I am a bit alarmed at the prospect of a proliferation of new car options, especially of the flying kind. If I were Larry Page, I would, first, ask: is there a sufficient and urgent unmet need for it?” Besides, asks Chakravorti, “are there other needs that are both unmet and urgent?”
Sanitation is one of them. Chakravorti sees Unilever as an example of a global player that has made the connection between the need to solve the flying toilet crisis and their future growth prospects. Working together with local entrepreneurs, they are truly making a difference in people’s lives. Of course, companies, such as Unilever, begin with a few advantages relative to the Silicon Valley players. One of them is that the company itself has itself been in operation long enough to have a deeper appreciation for investing in the development of the market context for the long-term.
“The first step that the Silicon Valley high fliers can take,” Chakravorti writes, “is learn from the fore-runners in emerging markets, that recognize the link between sustainable development and sustainability of their business. The second step is to recognize that they must navigate two competing futures. Technologists and venture money will always have an obsession with flying cars, while the future growth markets must still try to get beyond flying toilets. Without taking care of the latter, growth will stall and the flying cars would run out of fuel. It would be a good idea for some clever business strategist at Peter Thiel’s venture firm or Larry Page’s Alphabet to do the math. Otherwise, they may wake up one day and say: ‘We asked for the end of flying toilets. Instead, we got flying cars.’”
Read on World Economic Forum: https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2016/06/why-is-silicon-valley-obsessed-with-flying-cars?utm_content=buffer8aca4&utm_medium=social&utm_source=twitter.com&utm_campaign=buffer.
In The leaders we deserve in the age of populism, Joshua Macht, Group Publisher of Harvard Business Review, refers to Robert Frost’s poem Mending Wall. Written on the eve of World War I, Frost urges us to be mindful of others: The poem’s oft-repeated refrain “good fences make good neighbors” implies a deeply felt sense of trust that each side of the fence will play by the rules and work together to maintain order. It’s precisely this sentiment that’s missing from so much of our current political leadership right now, Macht argues.
“Populists may exhort us to ‘take back our country,’ but we are really much more like Robert Frost’s narrator and his neighbor: deeply connected by the very fences that keep us apart, at once divided and conjoined. This is precisely what Deming observed: While the lines that divide us in any system may be very necessary and real, people have a deep internal need to do good work together. The leader’s job is to reinforce how we can all work toward a common purpose. Truly effective leaders transform an organization by cogently articulating the changes that are needed; they also maintain respectful communications across every boundary.”
“The great danger that we face today is that our leaders are perpetuating a bad system that leaves out so many and caters to so few. Finding a better way will require a transformative leader who is not only persuasive but offers a compelling understanding of all that ails the current order. It’s not about being an insider or outsider. It’s about leadership that has a deep understanding of how things work and can suggest new ways of accomplishing common goals.”
“Our history is one of dramatic swings from periods of strife and conflict to reunification and back again. Right now, it feels as though everything is coming apart in brutal fashion. Given the right leadership, we can come together to mend what that is broken.”
Read on The Boston Globe: http://www.bostonglobe.com/ideas/2016/07/28/the-leaders-deserve-age-populism/bBEh8QbeJnSQHRoykMw0AN/story.html?event=event25.
“‘No one can build you the bridge on which you, and only you, must cross the river of life,’ Nietzsche wrote in his timeless treatise on education and how to find oneself. But because self-reliance and loneliness are two sides of the same coin, the more independent and singular a life-path, the more like an outsider the person traveling it tends to feel — but this need not be a dispiriting thing. A century after Nietzsche, Hannah Arendt wrote beautifully about outsiderdom as a power and a privilege and James Baldwin asserted that it is the artist’s task to be the outsider disrupting society’s complacent stability. Even E.E. Cummings, one of the most influential and beloved poets of all time, was once condemned for his defiance of the accepted order and called an ‘arch-poseur and pretender, [a] disintegrator of language and mumbler of indecent nonsense.’ Indeed, it is to the misfit, the outsider, and the dissenter that we owe every leap of progress and every shattering of the status quo in art, science, poetry, philosophy, and virtually every realm of human creative endeavor,” Maria Popova writes in Pioneering Scientist Erwin Chargaff on the Power of Being an Outsider and What Makes a Great Teacher.
Read on Brainpickings: https://www.brainpickings.org/2016/07/27/erwin-chargaff-heraclitean-fire-misfit.
Due to the growing fad of Pokémon Go, it leaves us all to question the role that technology plays in our lives. Polish illustrator Pawel Kuczynski cleverly uses satire to communicate today’s social, political and cultural realities. His work illustrates the serious and often neglected problems of today’s world.
The Getty Foundation announced this week it is contributing $1.3 million in grants to put toward the conservation of nine Modernist buildings “of the highest architectural significance” around the globe. The selected buildings face various issues, including ageing concrete and degraded stained glass. Lina Bo Bardi’s Casa de Vidro and Eileen Gray’s villa e.1027 are among the structures that will receive conservation grants.
The grants are part of the foundation’s Keeping It Modern initiative, which was launched in 2014. To date, the initiative has supported the preservation of 33 buildings, ranging from the Sydney Opera House by Jørn Utzon to Finland’s Paimio Sanatorium by Alvar Aalto.
Read on dezeen: http://www.dezeen.com/2016/08/03/modernist-architectural-landmarks-preservation-donations-getty-foundation-keeping-it-modern/?utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=Daily%20Dezeen%20Digest&utm_content=Daily%20Dezeen%20Digest+CID_0782edcb05c24a6002e91e12ab8c9db0&utm_source=Dezeen%20Mail.
“A teacher is one who can show you the way to yourself.” — Erwin Chargaff (1905–2002)