Random finds (2017, week 12) — On consumerism, long shots and punctuated equilibrium, and why Silicon Valley needs to get schooled

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Universidad de Ingeniería y Tecnología (UTEC), the first ever winner of the RIBA International Prize is “an exceptional example of civil architecture.” (Photograph by Iwan Baan, for dezeen)

“I have gathered a posy of other men’s flowers, and nothing but the thread that binds them is mine own.” — Michel de Montaigne

Random finds is a weekly curation of my tweets and a reflection of my curiosity.

Consumerism and the philosophy of futility

Western consumer culture is creating a psycho-spiritual crisis that leaves us disoriented and bereft of purpose. How can we treat our sick culture and make ourselves well?, asks John F Schumaker in The Demoralized Mind.

Our understanding of demoralization used to be limited to specific extreme situations, such as debilitating physical injury, terminal illness, prisoner-of-war camps, or anti-morale military tactics, Schumaker writes. But there is also a cultural variety that expresses itself more subtly, and develops behind the scenes of normal everyday life. This culturally generated demoralization is nearly impossible to avoid for the modern ‘consumer’.

Most people today are unable to identify any sort of philosophy of life or set of guiding principles. “Without an existential compass, the commercialized mind gravitates toward a ‘philosophy of futility’ in which people feel naked of power and significance beyond their conditioned role as pliant consumers. Lacking substance and depth, and adrift from others and themselves, the thin and fragile consumer self is easily fragmented and dispirited.”

“The goal for the corporations is to maximize profit and market share. And they also have a goal for their target, namely the population. They have to be turned into completely mindless consumers of goods that they do not want. You have to develop what are called ‘Created Wants.’ So you have to create wants. You have to impose on people what’s called a ‘Philosophy of Futility.’ You have to focus them on the insignificant things of life, like fashionable consumption. I’m just basically quoting business literature. And it makes perfect sense. The ideal is to have individuals who are totally disassociated from one another. Whose conception of themselves, the sense of value is just, ‘how many created wants can I satisfy?’ We have huge industries, public relations industry, monstrous industry, advertising and so on, which are designed from infancy to mold people into this desired pattern.” — Noam Chomsky

“Consumption itself is a flawed motivational platform for a society. Repeated consummation of desire, without moderating constraints, only serves to habituate people and diminish the future satisfaction potential of what is consumed. This develops gradually into ‘consumer anhedonia,’ wherein consumption loses reward capacity and offers no more than distraction and ritualistic value.

[…]

The more lost, disoriented and spiritually defeated people become, the more susceptible they become to persuasion, and the more they end up buying into the oversold expectations of consumption. But in unreality culture, hyper-inflated expectations continually collide with the reality of experience. Since nothing lives up to the hype, the world of the consumer is actually an ongoing exercise in disappointment. While most disappointments are minor and easy to dissociate, they accumulate into an emotional background of frustration as deeper human needs get neglected. Continued starvation of these needs fuels disillusion about one’s whole approach to life. Over time, people’s core assumptions can become unstable.”

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In an article for The Atlantic, Frank Trentmann, a professor of history at Birkbeck College, University of London, explores how humans became ‘consumers.’

“At its heart,” Schumaker argues, “demoralization is a generalized loss of credibility in the assumptions that ground our existence and guide our actions. The assumptions underpinning our allegiance to consumerism are especially vulnerable since they are fundamentally dehumanizing.” The real task, he says, is to treat a sick culture rather than its sick individuals, or, in the words of German social psychologist and humanistic philosopher Erich Fromm: “We can’t make people sane by making them adjust to this society. We need a society that is adjusted to the needs of people.”

“With its infrastructure firmly entrenched, and minimal signs of collective resistance, all signs suggest that our obsolete system, what some call ‘disaster capitalism,’ will prevail until global catastrophe dictates for us new cultural directions.” — John F Schumaker

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“From Amazon to Apple, from Starbucks to upscale hotel chains, brands are making claims not just about what people should buy, but about what people should be,” says Megan Garber in Selling What They Preach. (GIF: Nomad Soul/Igor Lateci/Shutterstock/Katie Martin for The Atlantic)

Long shots and punctuated equilibrium

Andrew Haldane, the Bank of England’s chief economist, recently suggested that the productivity of companies in general would benefit from marginal improvements. Accumulated over time, these could result in a world-beating performance. Haldane may have a point, writes Undercover Economist Tim Harford in Marginal gains matter but gamechangers transform. “The marginal gains philosophy tries to turn innovation into a predictable process: tweak your activities, gather data, embrace what works and repeat.”

Marginal improvements can add up, but can they add up to productivity gains for the economy as a whole?

This, Halford believes, is a relevant question because there is no economic topic more important than productivity, which in the long run determines whether living standards surge or stagnate. Productivity growth has been disappointing for more than 40 years, and the idea that, through ‘quick-and-dirty’ experiments, we can somehow test our way back to brisk productivity growth is a seductive one.

But “an alternative view is that what’s really lacking is a different kind of innovation: the long shot. Unlike marginal gains, long shots usually fail, but can pay off spectacularly enough to overlook 100 failures. The marginal gain is a heated pair of overshorts, the long shot is the Fosbury Flop. […] These two types of innovation complement each other. Long shot innovations open up new territories; marginal improvements colonise them.”

Most productivity growth comes from existing companies improving existing products, rather than new businesses or products. Leading companies (in the UK) have been improving their productivity, while typical ones have not. This suggests a problem not with the long shots at the frontier of innovation but with the details of everyday management, Halford writes.

Yet, two questions remain. One is why so many businesses lag far behind the frontier. Research has found that many countries have a long tail of poorly managed companies. This may be caused by a lack of competition: “vigorous competition tends to raise management quality by spurring improvements and by punishing incompetents with bankruptcy.”

The second question is why productivity growth has been so disappointing. “The obvious answer is that the long shots matter, too. In almost every field except computing, we’ve hoped for revolutionary breakthroughs and they haven’t yet happened. Google may [experiment] its way to greater profits but the company’s success has been built on a leap forward in search technology in the late 1990s, and even more fundamentally on the publicly funded efforts to develop the web and the internet.”

In today’s data-driven world, it’s easy to fall back on a strategy of looking for marginal gains alone, avoiding the risky, unquantifiable research, Harford concludes. Over time, the marginal gains will no doubt materialise. Whether the long shots will take care of themselves, remains to be seen, though.

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The ‘marginal gains philosophy’ tries to turn innovation into a predictable process: tweak your activities, gather data, embrace what works and repeat. In British cycling such tweaks reportedly include rubbing alcohol on tyres to improve grip, electrically heated overshorts to maintain muscle temperature and a ban on bikini waxes to prevent saddle sores. (Photograph: AFP)

In Punctuated equilibrium, Richard Martin also writes about the effectiveness of the gradual, accumulative approach. Martin refers to Euan Semple, who believes in an incremental approach to change, founded upon ‘Trojan Mice’ — risk-free, small-scale experiments, the effects of which impact over time.

“A while back I tweeted ‘Do you want transformation or just tinkering.” The implied question being ‘Are you up for real change or do you just want to keep rearranging the deckchairs on The Titanic?’ But…

The word ‘transformation’ is beginning to worry me. It implies a total change, a radical departure from the status quo, a discarding of how you currently do things. It also implies an idealised end state. ‘If we manage to get to the magical world described in this forty page document then all will be OK.’ But then we never do and it rarely is. Life, and work, stays gloriously messy and imprecise despite our best efforts, or most compelling fantasies.

Real change doesn’t happen in these big bang ways. It happens one person at a time, it takes longer than you ever imagined, and it ends up looking little like what you anticipated it would.

Yet again Trojan Mice spring to mind. Little things, loosely coordinated, working together. Add to this my favourite ‘Keep moving, stay in touch, and head for the high ground’ and you have a greater chance of bringing about the level of change that we are all beginning to realise is called for to deal with our ever increasing challenges.” — Euan Semple

Not all organisations will benefit from an gradual, accumulative approach, though. Most “are entrenched in their ways because there are usually many who benefit from the established methods of doing things,” Martin writes. “Their world is one of tradition, rulebooks and ‘best practice.’ The latter is the factor that really sucks the air out of the room. It allows no freedom or space for experimentation and emergent practice, which are essential to the marginal gains approach. It is characterised instead by stasis. There is no requirement for improvement, as the ‘best’ has apparently already been achieved. […] The only way to shake things up again in such a scenario is with large-scale and rapid transformation.”

While researching The Neo-Generalist, Martin came across the concept of ‘punctuated equilibrium.’ In the 1970s, Niles Eldredge and Stephen Jay Gould “noted that the fossil record of many species offers little evidence of gradual evolutionary change. Instead, change appears to have happened very rapidly, at the edges, often when a small group has become isolated. Following rapid evolutionary change, the new species variant settles down into a steady state.” This suggests that transformation is intermittent, rather than perpetual. Stasis is normal.

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Fashion designer Vivienne Westwood with the former manager of The Sex Pistols Malcolm McClaren. (Photograph: The Independent)

“This biological analogy casts a new light on human behaviour and action. Often we witness the rebel become part of the establishment, the cause institutionalised in the process,” Martin argues. History serves up many examples, from Vivienne Westwood, once a leading figure in London’s punk scene and now a renowned fashion designer, to Nelson Mandela and Václav Havel. They all graduated from the status of activist or dissident to that of cultural or political leader. “Massive change soon fades into the past, and a steady state is resumed” — punctuated equilibrium.

And this …

Don’t tell the true believers in Silicon Valley, but there’s an art as well as a science to business. “What Silicon Valley is missing is an understanding of people — what is meaningful to them, the way they live their day to day lives, what would make a difference for them on an ordinary Tuesday in Phoenix or Shanghai. There is a dearth of deep, nuanced cultural knowledge in tech. Luckily, there is an app for that: reading,” says Christian Madsbjerg, senior partner at ReD Associates, in Silicon Valley needs to get schooled.

Getting people right — The sense making sessions. Christian Madsbjerg in conversation with Taylor Carman, Professor of Philosophy at Columbia University.

“If you, like me, are a reader of great novels, you know that almost visceral sensation when you come to understand the world of someone else […]. Literatures — like in-depth journalism, plays, music, art, and even activities like cooking — can put you in the shoes of people unlike you in profound, empathetic way. But the importance of these activities is under attack from the big data-mindset that has invaded both Silicon Valley and many of the world’s biggest corporations.

The ability to truly understand someone other than you is not something that can be broken down into 1s and 0s. We shouldn’t ask people to forgo books and great art in order to code. In an increasingly technologically-driven society, we should do the opposite: cherish it, respect the human abilities it fosters, and applaud our kids for wanting to spend time with great stories. You don’t need to do it because it’s nice, but because it’s smart business.”

“Context, judgement, a critical appreciation of different types of evidence, imagination, this is essentially the arts and humanities approach to knowledge, which Madsbjerg calls sensemaking.” — Adam Gale in Business requires big brains not big data

“When we stop valuing culture, we become blind to the very opportunities that drive ‘world changing’ technology to mass adoption. The greatest challenges and opportunities of the twenty-first century are cultural, not algorithmic. And the greatest tools for the study and understanding of culture exist within the wealth of theories and methodologies that make up the humanities.”

Cities are the new power centers of the global economy — the platforms for innovation, entrepreneurship, and economic growth. If you added the ten largest metros together, you would get a GDP of $9.5 trillion — bigger than the world’s fourth and fifth largest national economies, Japan and Germany, combined. Take the twenty largest global metros (GDP of $14.6 trillion) and you are not far from the United States’ $18 trillion dollar economy.

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The Economic Power of Cities Compared to Nations. (Illustration: Taylor Blake/MPI)

“But when it comes to fiscal and political power,” writes Richard Florida in The Economic Power of Cities Compared to Nations, “they remain beholden to increasingly anachronistic and backward-looking nation-states, which has become distressingly obvious with the rise of Trumpism in the United States and populism around the world. The greatest challenge facing us today is how to ensure that global cities have the economic, fiscal, and political power to govern themselves and to continue to be a force for innovation and human progress.”

‘Brand consultant’? ‘PR researcher’? Why the ‘bullshit jobs’ era needs to end, says US-born, UK-based anthropologist and activist David Graeber. In this 4-minute animation based on a presentation at the RSA, Graeber is advocating in favour of an economic reformation that places greater value on meeting today’s most pressing human needs.

Animating by Jack Dubben for the RSA.

Ørestad College in Copenhagen is a vast open space with overlapping layers that create a variety of nooks and crannies, making it easier for children to find their own way of working and to collaborate with peers. “They can be inspired by each other as well as by the teachers,” says Kim Herforth Nielsen, founding partner of 3XN, the architecture firm that designed the school, in A class apart by John McDermott in The Economist 1843.

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Ørestad College, whose architects have an enlightened view of the classroom.

“Before the Industrial Revolution children were educated at home, in one-room schoolhouses — or not at all. As mass schooling started in the 19th century, architects designed utilitarian classrooms with rows of desks. Schools looked like factories. Before the second world war European modernists like Walter Gropius and Richard Neutra led the ‘open-air’ school movement, which emphasised fresh air, daylight, outdoor learning and freedom for pupils.

But in the second half of the 20th century a lack of money and a lot of children led to a fall in building standards in rich countries. Prefabricated buildings, supposedly temporary, became permanent. Windowless classrooms with fluorescent lighting and air conditioning became more common — as did mould and toxins.

Fortunately there is now a growing understanding of how buildings shape learning, for good and ill. Studies have found that lousy test results are associated with classrooms that are noisy, hot, poorly ventilated and full of artificial light. As a result, there has been a new focus on good, imaginative design for schools.”

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Burntwood School in London, winner of the Stirling prize in 2015.
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Hakusui Nursery in Chiba, Japan, resembles wooden houses in the local farming community, to minimise the feeling of disruption when children leave home.
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In Slovenia, the Šmartno Timeshare Kindergarten is designed to encourage learning through play.

“While architects once considered concrete a building’s underwear — an essential but hidden layer — Tadao Ando’s structures display their concrete with pride,” writes Bianca Boske in Haute Concrete. With his first building in New York, Ando takes the material to new heights.

“Over the course of his nearly 50-year career, Ando has helped transform the gritty, gray material often associated with driveways and median strips into an artistic medium. ‘Every architect I know who wants to do something in concrete always refers to him as the ideal in concrete design,’ says Reg Hough, a concrete consultant who has for decades worked closely with top architects, including Ando, I. M. Pei, and Richard Meier. Having left his mark on cities from Tokyo to Fort Worth to Milan, Ando is now overseeing construction of a seven-unit, concrete-and-glass condominium building, 152 Elizabeth, his first stand-alone structure in New York City.”

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Preliminary Sketch: Noë & Associates.
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Rendering: Noë & Associates.

“Ando is hardly the first architect to embrace concrete; he cites the brutalist architect Le Corbusier, an earlier concrete virtuoso, as an influence. But while Le Corbusier and his peers used concrete in ways that suggested a heavy ruggedness — Prince Charles ungenerously described Owen Luder’s brutalist Tricorn Centre as a ‘mildewed lump of elephant droppings’ — Ando’s concrete, which is smooth to the touch, seems more like cashmere. To architecture buffs, his walls are as recognizable as Bottega Veneta’s woven leather is to fashionistas: They bear a consistent gridlike pattern, and are dotted with depressions [see picture below]. (It’s even possible to buy premade paneling that knocks off the Ando look.) When 152 Elizabeth is completed later this year, its apartments will feature Ando’s concrete both inside and out, where it will do double duty as structure and surface.”

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Educational Images. (Photograph: Getty Images)

“Michelle Obama’s line in the US elections, ‘when they go low, we go high,’ was for me a Michelangelo-like moment, I confess. When we see all going lower and lower, whether in the politics of selfishness or the disrespect for truthfulness, or an increasing Homo Homini Lupus fabric of society, that ‘man-is-wolf-to-man’ world, I am left only with an option: higher and higher.” — Leandro E. Herrero in I’m now of an age when I only want to work with people who want to change the world

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