Random finds (2017, week 14) — On the merits of hierarchy, the revival of artisanship, and addictive noise
“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.
The merits of hierarchy
As a society we have forgotten how to talk about the benefits of hierarchy, expertise and excellence. It’s time we remembered, according to a group of eminent philosophers and thinkers, including Julian Baggini, Michael Puett and Kwame Anthony Appiah.
What then, amidst populism and fashionable talk about holacracy, should be said in praise of hierarchy?
In an article based on the discussion which took place under the aegis of the Berggruen Philosophy and Culture Center in Los Angeles, titled In defence of hierarchy, Brigid Hains writes:
“The modern West has placed a high premium on the value of equality. Equal rights are enshrined in law while old hierarchies of nobility and social class have been challenged, if not completely dismantled. Few would doubt that global society is all the better for these changes. But hierarchies have not disappeared. Society is still stratified according to wealth and status in myriad ways.
On the other hand, the idea of a purely egalitarian world in which there are no hierarchies at all would appear to be both unrealistic and unattractive. Nobody, on reflection, would want to eliminate all hierarchies, for we all benefit from the recognition that some people are more qualified than others to perform certain roles in society. We prefer to be treated by senior surgeons not medical students, get financial advice from professionals not interns. Good and permissible hierarchies are everywhere around us.”
“A common Confucian ideal is that a master ought to aim for the student to surpass him or her. Confucian hierarchies are marked by reciprocity and mutual concern. The correct response to the fact of differential ability is not to celebrate or condemn it, but to make good use of it for the common pursuit of the good life.
Inequalities of status and power can therefore be acceptable to the extent that these inequalities are embedded in relationships of reciprocity and mutual concern, and conducive to the advancement of those lower in the hierarchy. This would fit with the Daoist conception of a power that is not a form of domination but that aims at empowering those over whom it is exercised.”
“To protect against abuse by those with higher status, hierarchies should also be domain-specific: hierarchies become problematic when they become generalised, so that people who have power, authority or respect in one domain command it in others too.”
“It’s tempting to think that the best people to make decisions are experts. But the complexity of most real-world problems means that this would often be a mistake. With complicated issues, general-purpose competences such as open-mindedness and, especially, reasonableness are essential for successful deliberation.
Expertise can actually get in the way of these competences. Because there is a trade-off between width and depth of expertise, the greater the expert, the narrower the area of competence. Hence the best role for experts is often not as decision-makers, but as external resources to be consulted by a panel of non-specialist generalists selected for general-purpose competences. These generalists should interrogate the experts and integrate their answers from a range of specialised aspects into a coherent decision. So, for example, parole boards cannot defer to one type of expert but must draw on the expertise of psychologists, social workers, prison guards, those who know the community into which a specific prisoner might be released, and so on. This is a kind of collective, democratic decision-making that makes use of hierarchies of expertise without slavishly deferring to them.”
“Hierarchies based on expertise are currently under criticism; hierarchies based on age are positively unfashionable. However, gerontocracy has underappreciated merits, and can provide a rather subtle mix of egalitarian and meritocratic benefits.”
“Hierarchy has been historically much-abused and it is the understandable fear of being too enthusiastic about hierarchy that makes some queasy about talking about its merits. Nonetheless, we think it important to put these ideas forward as an invitation to begin a much-needed conversation about the role of hierarchy in a world that is in many ways now fundamentally egalitarian, in that it gives equal rights and dignity to all. However, it clearly does not and cannot give equal power and authority to all. If we are to square the necessary inequality that the unequal distribution of power entails with the equally necessary equality of value we place on human life, it’s time to take the merits of hierarchy seriously.”
The revival of artisanship
“There aren’t any smartphones distracting the budding couturiers at the tailoring school run by Brioni, the venerable menswear company, in Penne, a medieval town nestled in the heart of Italy’s mountainous Abruzzo region,” freelance journalist Angela Giuffrida writes in How the return of traditional skills is boosting Italy’s economy. Instead, their nimble fingers are delicately sewing stitches on to jacket sleeves — nurturing the skills that could lead to a job in an Italian fashion house whose suits have been worn by king and presidents (and also Pierce Brosnan and Daniel Craig in their roles as James Bond).
“The teenagers are the lucky group of 16 to have made the cut for the latest four-year programme at Brioni’s Scuola Di Alta Sartoria (High School of Tailoring), which in recent years has seen an uptick in applications from young Italians keen to learn the trade. […] ‘They join aged 13 or 14,’ said Emidio Fonticoli, the school’s coordinator. ‘It’s important that they start young, due to the sensitivity of their hands and fingers. It’s an important time for them to develop manual skills, so much so they reach such a level of tactility, they can work without looking.’”
“The artisanal tradition is a cultural legacy that takes decades to transmit from a seasoned master to a young talent and despite common thoughts, a large number of young people continue to express their desire and will to learn the secrets of those crafts.” — Emidio Fonticoli, coordinator of Brioni’s Scuola Di Alta Sartoria
But Brioni isn’t the only firm helping to revive the image of the traditional artisan. According to Stefano Micelli, a professor of innovation technology at Venice’s Ca’ Foscari university and the author of Futuro Artigiano (The Future Craftsman), “Working with your hands is becoming interesting again.”
Companies like Brunello Cucinelli (in 2010, Rebecca Mead wrote an article about Brunello Cucinelli for The New Yorker, titled The Prince of Solomeo — The cashmere utopia of Brunello Cucinelli), that promotes a fresh image of the artisan, have a vey important impact on a new generation who are thinking in new and different ways about craftsmanship. But this isn’t about nostalgia or going back to the past, says Micelli. “It’s about the future, technology, and being innovative.”
In Futuro Artigiano, Micelli explores the role of culture in the practice of making things. He wonders whether it’s true that the only path towards a healthy economy leads to getting free from manual labor and by the super-specialization of abstract knowledge. “We have believed this far too long, following passively the idea of ‘the Metropolis’ as the only possible place for scientific and technical innovation. A mistake that make us underestimate a very specific Italian richness: the artisanal knowledge that has been the very cradle of Italian design — and still is, although we often don’t realize it.”
He believes it’s important to trace and study the practices of craftsmanship. These practices are still at the core of the activity in Italian productive districts, in companies that produce small series and niche products, as well as in those that operate in much larger markets. Wherever the skills of the artisan are needed to transform insights and new ideas in prototypes and innovative products.
“All the best Italian-made products meld tradition and technology in an indissoluble way: artisan expertise puts the finishing touches to products that are manufactured employing cutting-edge production methods, while intelligent hands lend sensitivity and emotion to industrial precision.” — Roberto Minotti explains the history and quality of his country's design tradition
More on beauty and craftsmanship in Alan Moore’s book Do Design — Why beauty is key to everything, in which he recommends 14 practices to create enduring beauty. One of them is ‘Recognise no bandaries’:
“There are no boundaries to what you can see, what you can make, how you make it. The only questions you need to ask yourself are why, and can it be beautiful?”
And this …
We may complain about a defining feature of the city, but we also feed off it, Susie Nielson argues in Noise Is a Drug and New York Is Full of Addicts.
“Though it’s counterintuitive,” Nielson writes, “numerous experiments have demonstrated that the addition of noise can actually improve signal detection. This phenomenon, known as stochastic resonance, was first developed to describe the periodic nature of glacial climate change, and is thought to occur across many nonlinear dynamic systems — including the human brain.
Auditory noise can heighten our other senses, too. Researchers have found that an ‘optimal amount’ can make your fingers more sensitive to sensations, improve your ability to see contrast and even correct your posture (by enhancing ‘proprioceptive,’ or positioning, signals). This is known as ‘cross-modal’ stochastic resonance: Noise is a rising tide, lifting all signals. Cross-modal stochastic resonance can also improve memory, and higher-level cognitive processes such as judgment. It may even make us more ingenious.”
In 2012, Ravi Mehta and a team of researchers at the University of British Columbia proposed that noise and the brain have a Goldilocksian relationship: Too much or too little impairs thought, but at moderate levels, when it’s ‘just right,’ it makes us more creative. They subjected this hypothesis, as in the parable, to several tests. The optimal level for creative thinking, Mehta found, is 70 db — about the level of a crowded café. Or traffic in midtown Manhattan.
“As the city gets louder, it is also getting more creative. The Center for an Urban Future 2013 report ‘Creative New York’ found that, ‘while traditional economic drivers like finance and legal services have stagnated in recent years, several creative industries have been among the fastest growing segments of the city’s economy.’ Employment in film and television production increased 53 percent over the past decade. Architecture (33 percent growth), performing arts (26 percent), advertising (24 percent), visual arts (24 percent), and applied design (17 percent) all outpaced the city’s overall employment growth, which was 12 percent. Today the city is home to 14,145 creative businesses and nonprofits, up 18 percent from a decade ago; there are more Etsy sellers than yellow cab drivers.
All of which doesn’t mean that every creative type will benefit from the Big Apple’s din. The ‘just-right’ level of noise will differ from one person to the next, following their levels of internal noise: the symphony (or cacophony) created by the interaction of organs, electrophysiological signals between skeletal muscles, and conversations between our neurons. We know that internal and external noises combine and compete in our bodies and minds, and this balance can tilt one way or the other. How can you tell if you’ll like it? It helps if you have ADHD.”
It’s time to stop letting so-called ‘experts’ comment on subjects they know nothing about, writes Daniel J. Levitin, the author of Weaponized Lies: How to Think Critically in the Post-Truth Era.
“People who care about truth and facts are up against a lot of challenges these days, from fake news to filter bubbles. But there’s another big problem we can’t ignore: The rise of the pseudo-experts who dominate our airwaves and social networks, offering opinions on subjects they know little to nothing about.
Nowhere is this more clear than among the climate-change deniers — almost entirely pseudo-experts — who contradict ample scientific evidence and lend support to devastating public policies. The list of leading climate-change deniers includes Denis Rancourt, who holds a PhD in physics and is an expert in magnetic field theory; Freeman Dyson, another physicist; Harrison Schmitt, a geologist; and Myron Ebell, who has a master’s in political theory and no advanced research degree. What about the people who hold PhD’s in — you know — climate science? Among this group, according to a number of studies published in peer-reviewed journals, 97% agree or more that climate change is real and man-made.
It has been said that we are living in the post-truth era. But we don’t have to give up on the truth. Just as we wouldn’t let an optometrist perform open-heart surgery on us, we shouldn’t be influenced by pseudo-experts who weigh in on issues when they have no business doing so. It’s time to raise the bar on who we are willing to listen to.”
Can Facebook really create a global community? In an article in Financial Times, historian Yuval Noah Harari challenges Mark Zuckerberg’s vision, which he recently shared in an audacious manifesto, titled Building Global Community.
“I hold my fingers crossed. If a business generates profits by providing a beneficial social service — be it building communities, recycling garbage or manufacturing medicines — why should we grudge its success? Yet we should not cultivate unrealistic expectations. Historically, corporations were not the ideal vehicle for undertaking social and political revolutions. A real revolution sooner or later demands sacrifices that corporations, their employees and their shareholders are not willing to make. That’s why revolutionaries establish churches, political parties and armies. The so-called Facebook and Twitter revolutions in the Arab world started in hopeful online communities, but once they emerged into the messy offline world, they were commandeered by religious fanatics and military juntas. If Facebook now aims to instigate a global revolution, it will have to do a much better job in bridging the gap between online and offline. It and the other online giants tend to view humans as audiovisual animals — a pair of eyes and a pair of ears connected to 10 fingers, a screen and a credit card. A crucial step towards uniting humankind is to appreciate that humans have bodies.”
“Nastiness, envy, chauvinism, mistrust, distrust, anger, vanity, greed, enmity, hatred: for Zuckerberg, these aren’t features of the human condition; they are bugs in the network.” — Nicholas Carr in Zuckerberg’s world
More on Mark Zuckerberg’s manifesto in Random finds (2017, week 8) — On Zuckerberg’s well-intended manifesto, a technologized world, and Dataism.
“Mohamad Hafez is obsessed with making scale models. He is an architect, a profession that requires such work, but his obsession is personal. It began in 2004, when he was a first-year architecture student at Iowa State University. It was a hard year for Hafez, who was nineteen and had just left his native Syria. He missed his parents and his life back in Damascus. As a teen-ager, Hafez would wander the streets of Damascus’s Old City — sketchbook in hand — drawing its ancient arches, porticoes, and doorways with their Hellenic, Roman, Byzantine, and Islamic influences,” Jake Helpern writes in a recent article in The New Yorker, titled An Artist’s Obsession with the Ruins of His Homeland.
“One evening, Hafez offered to show me his art studio. When I arrived, he welcomed me with formality — brewing Arabic coffee, offering Syrian chocolates, and clearing a spot for me to sit among the array of jars, paintbrushes, spray cans, wires, rickety fans, and broken appliances. Hafez is handsome, with a mane of dark hair, thick-rimmed glasses, and perpetual five o’clock shadow. He moved lightly on his feet, dancing around the clutter as he served the coffee and then sat down on a nearby chair. Surrounded by his models, I felt as if we were two giants, peering down on the ruins of a minuscule civilization.
Hafez tried to explain the turn his art had taken. ‘How do you watch what’s happening in Aleppo and not go nuts?,’ he asked. ‘How do you watch thousands of years bombed out of existence? How do you go on with your life, having your morning coffee, when a bunch of your relatives and friends are under constant bombing? How do you not snap and yell out? You have to remain composed and carry on with your day job, don’t you?’ He paused for a moment, as if lost in thought. ‘Well,’ he said, finally, ‘the way that I stayed composed is that I come here and I let the models do the yelling for me. In that sense, it relieves me. It is grim. And I take no pride in this work. I feel no ownership in it. It’s as though I am 3-D printing what’s inside of me.’”
Frank Gehry, 88, is famous for his overtly sculptural structures like the Walt Disney Concert Hall, Guggenheim Museum Bilbao, and Fondation Louis Vuitton (see below). But the Canadian-born American architect told Dezeen that he could easily swap his signature style for designs more akin to 20th-century modernism in the future. “I might become Mies van der Rohe or something. Who knows where I’m going,” Gehry said.
When asked about his views on sustainability, Gehry answers:
“There is a presumption, I have found in the world, that when somebody does buildings like I do — that I’m not interested in that topic. And it’s the furthest thing from the truth. There’s a whole part of my profession that’s become fetishistic about it to the point that it supersedes the quality of life, the character, the feeling, the soul, the humanity of the building and that they’re counter to each other, and that’s not true.
I just built a house in LA, in which we were experimenting with geothermal wells and we put a whole pile of extra money into it just to complete this experiment. I’m in Santa Monica with this house and this German firm in Stuttgart is connected to the system and they’re reading it daily while the house is being used. From the day I became an architect, we were always talking about inefficiencies. The little house I built in 1978 in Santa Monica, I put a skylight at the very top that opens so that on a very hot day in LA, I come home, push a button, the skylight opens — 15 minutes the house is cool. I don’t need to use air conditioning. I think that there’s a sense of responsibility in the profession to deal with those issues.”
“There was a powerful, powerful energy I was getting from this [art] scene that I wasn’t getting from the architecture world. What attracted me to them is that they worked intuitively. They would do what they wanted and take the consequences. Their work was more direct and in such contrast to what I was doing in architecture, which was so rigid. You have to deal with safety issues — fireproofing, sprinklers, handrails for stairways, things like that. You go through training that teaches you to do things in a very careful way, following codes and budgets. But those constraints didn’t speak to aesthetics.” — Frank Gehry in How to Think Like an Entrepreneur by Philip Delves Broughton
“Books, conversations, and perceptions enter us and become us.” — Siri Hustvedt in Living, Thinking, Looking.