Random finds (2017, week 47) — On our cult of “genius,” the long history of the gig economy, and the remorseless logic of specialisation

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One of several buildings designed by Albert C Ledner for the National Maritime Union (Greenwich Village, New York). Ledner, who has died aged 93, was an apprentice to Frank Lloyd Wright and has helped proliferate modern architecture across the US.

“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, as such, a reflection of my curiosity.

Our cult of “genius”

According the the German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer, “The genius lights on his age like a comet into the paths of the planets.” We don’t exactly know why they soar above the rest of us, but Claudia Kalb in What Makes a Genius?, science offers us clues.

“Philosophers have long been pondering the origins of genius. Early Greek thinkers believed an overabundance of black bile — one of the four bodily humors proposed by Hippocrates — endowed poets, philosophers, and other eminent souls with ‘exalted powers,’ writes Darrin McMahon, the author of Divine Fury: A History of Genius. “Phrenologists attempted to find genius in bumps on the head; craniometrists collected skulls — including philosopher Immanuel Kant’s — which they probed, measured, and weighed.”

Yet despite their efforts, no one has ever discovered a single source of genius, and such a thing is unlikely to be found. “Genius is too elusive, too subjective, too wedded to the verdict of history to be easily identified. And it requires the ultimate expression of too many traits to be simplified into the highest point on one human scale. Instead we can try to understand it by unraveling the complex and tangled qualities — intelligence, creativity, perseverance, and simple good fortune, to name a few — that entwine to create a person capable of changing the world,” McMahon writes.

“Genius is seemingly everywhere today, hailed in our newspapers and glossy magazines, extolled in our television profiles and Internet chatter. Replete with publicists, hashtags, and ‘buzz,’ genius is now consumed by a celebrity culture that draws few distinctions between a genius for fashion, a genius for business, and a genius for anything else. If the ‘problem of genius’ of yesteryear was how to know and how to find it, ‘our genius problem’ today is that it is impossible to avoid. Genius remains a relationship, but our relationship to it has changed. All might have their fifteen minutes of genius. All might be geniuses now. [But] a world in which all might aspire to genius is a world in which the genius as a sacred exception can no longer exist. Einstein, the ‘genius of geniuses,’ was the last of the titans. The age of the genius is gone. Should citizens of democracies mourn this passing or rejoice? Probably a bit of both. The genius is dead: long live the genius of humanity.”

Intelligence has often been considered the default yardstick of genius — a measurable quality generating tremendous accomplishment. But intelligence alone, not even monumental intelligence, doesn’t guarantee monumental achievement, as the legendary Stanford psychologist Lewis Terman would discover.

Charles Darwin recalled being considered “a very ordinary boy, rather below the common standard in intellect.” Yet later in life, Darwin solved the mystery of how the splendid diversity of life came into being. Scientific breakthroughs like Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection would be impossible without creativity, a strand of genius that Terman couldn’t measure.

According to Scott Barry Kaufman, the scientific director of the Imagination Institute, “Great ideas don’t tend to come when you’re narrowly focusing on them.” Unexpected flashes of insight — our so-called ‘aha moments’ — often emerge after a period of contemplation. This creative process relies on the dynamic interplay of neural networks operating in concert and drawing from different parts of the brain at once. One of these networks cultivates internal thought processes, including daydreaming and imagining. Richer communication between various areas of the brain may also help to ‘connect the dots’ — to make connections between seemingly disparate concepts.

But while neuroscientists are trying to understand how the brain fosters the development of paradigm-shifting thought processes, other researchers are wrestling with the question of when and from what this capacity develops, Kalb notes.

“Over the past several decades, scientists have been searching for genes that contribute to intelligence, behavior, and even unique qualities like perfect pitch. In the case of intelligence, this research triggers ethical concerns about how it might be used; it is also exceedingly complex, as thousands of genes may be involved — each one with a very small effect. […]

Genetic potential alone does not predict actual accomplishment. It also takes nurture to grow a genius. Social and cultural influences can provide that nourishment, creating clusters of genius at moments and places in history: Baghdad during Islam’s Golden Age, Kolkata during the Bengal Renaissance, Silicon Valley today.”

However, natural gifts and a nurturing environment can still fall short of producing a genius, without motivation and tenacity propelling one forward. These personality traits inspire the work of psychologist Angela Duckworth. She believes that a combination of passion and perseverance — ‘grit’ — drives people to achieve. No matter how brilliant a person, fortitude and discipline are critical to success. “When you really look at somebody who accomplishes something great, it is not effortless,” Duckworth writes.

“If there were ever an individual who personified the concept of genius in every aspect, from its ingredients to its far-reaching impact, it would be Leonardo da Vinci. [His] intellect and artistry soared like Schopenhauer’s comet. The breadth of his abilities — his artistic insights, his expertise in human anatomy, his prescient engineering — is unparalleled.”

Now, an international group of scholars and scientists is tracing Leonardo’s genealogy and hunting down his DNA to learn more about his ancestry and physical characteristics, to verify paintings that have been attributed to him — and, most remarkably, to search for clues to his extraordinary talent. One of their early goals is to explore the possibility that Leonardo’s genius stemmed not only from his intellect, creativity, and cultured environment but also from his exemplary powers of perception. “In the same way that Mozart may have had extraordinary hearing, Leonardo appears to have had an extraordinary visual acuity,” says Jesse Ausubel, who coordinates the Leonardo Project.

“The Leonardo Project team doesn’t yet know where to look for answers to other questions, such as how to explain Leonardo’s remarkable ability to visualize birds in flight. ‘It’s as if he was creating stroboscopic photographs of stop-action,’ says [Thomas] Sakmar [a specialist in sensory neuroscience]. It’s not far-fetched that there would be genes related to that ability.’ He and his colleagues view their work as the beginning of an expedition that will lead them down new pathways as DNA gives up its secrets.

The quest to unravel the origins of genius may never reach an end point. Like the universe, its mysteries will continue to challenge us, even as we reach for the stars. For some, that is as it should be. ‘I don’t want to figure it out at all,’ says [jazz pianist] Keith Jarrett when I ask if he is comfortable not knowing how his music takes hold. ‘If someone offered me the answer, I’d say, Take it away.’ In the end it may be that the journey is illuminating enough and that the insights it reveals along the way — about the brain, about our genes, about the way we think — will nurture glimmers of genius in not just the rare individual but in us all.”

In Why it’s so hard to recognize the geniuses around you, Anne Quito writes about two recently published books about Leonardo da Vinci: Mike Lankford’s Becoming Leonardo and Leonardo da Vinci by Walter Isaacson.

According to Isaacson, da Vinci’s ability to “apply imagination to intellect” is what makes him the quintessential model. “His facility for mixing observation with fantasy allowed him, like other creative geniuses, to make unexpected leaps that related things seen to things unseen,” explainsIsaacson, who has also penned biographies about known geniuses such as Einstein, Benjamin Franklin and Steve Jobs.

“Leonardo’s genius was a human one,” emphasizes Isaacson. “It was wrought by his own will and ambition. […] It was based on skills we can aspire to improve in ourselves, such as curiosity and intense observation. He had an imagination so excitable that it flirted with the edges of fantasy, which is also something we can try to preserve in ourselves and indulge in our children.”

More on genius and da Vinci in What Makes a Genius. Neil deGrasse Tyson and Walter Isaacson talk about what makes a genius, the connection between arts and science, the early adoption of today’s technologies like 3d and aerial visualization, parallels between the genius and the creativity of da Vinci and today’s start-ups and new technologies.

And of course da Vinci’s visionary notebooks, which have been made available online — all 570 pages.

The long history of the gig economy

The gig economy is nothing new. According to Tawny Paul, it was standard practice in the 18th century.

The current idea is “that the traditional model of work — where people often have a clear career progression and a job for life — has been upended,” Paul writes. Today’s ‘gig economy’ encompasses ‘self-employed’ Uber drivers to the web developer freelancers and allows workers more freedom. However, it also denies them benefits and protective regulation. “While it might seem that long-established ways of working are being disrupted, history shows us that the one person, one career model is a relatively recent phenomenon. Prior to industrialisation in the 19th century, most people worked multiple jobs to piece together a living. Looking to the past uncovers some of the challenges, benefits and consequences of a gig economy.”

Like people earning money through the gig economy today, back then people were also thrown into a world of precariousness . “They had independence but fretted frequently about having enough money to pay bills, and feared the potential for failure. [Thomas] Parsons agonised about his ability to pay his debts, noting in one entry: ‘Am in debt and know not how to pay. This gives me great uneasiness — what a multiplicity of concerns have I to employ my thoughts!’”

“Money was a concern, but the diaries make clear that, like today, work was also about more than pay. […] people chose their work because different jobs offered different forms of fulfilment. Some tasks earned them money, but other roles gave them social status. In some cases, they even judged fulfilment and the status these jobs gave them as highly as material gain,” Paul writes.

“The opportunity for networking, building reputations and power could be equally as important as the cash earned. In fact, the value of work in terms of status and income could have an inverse relationship. Parsons made most of his money from his stone-cutting business rather than his intellectual pursuits, but it was his scientific experimentation that conferred the most status. That status, in turn, helped him get contracts.”

The gig economy considered in a historical context challenges us to better define the simple category of ‘work,’ Paul argues. Should we define work as tasks undertaken for pay? Or should we include productive labour that is not paid?

Edmund Harrold [a resident of Manchester in the early 18th century, was a barber but also worked as a book dealer, auctioneer and money lender] was the nominal breadwinner of his family, but the household also depended upon his wife’s work. Sarah rented a room in their house to lodgers, sold secondhand clothing and washed other people’s clothes. For these tasks, she earned money. But like many women in the 18th century (and today), much of Sarah’s work was unpaid. She cared for children, baked bread, and brewed ale. These tasks sustained the household and its reproduction, but because they were unpaid, they remain unrecognised as work. Even though she spent her days working, Sarah would have been listed as having no occupation in formal tax or census records.

In today’s gig economy, more and more informal domestic tasks are becoming forms of paid work. Will accounting for these help us to better recognise the invisible work that takes place in the household? The gig economy certainly poses challenges to the well-being of workers. The disruption that it brings, however, offers an opportunity to better account for the diversity of different kinds of work that take place in society, and to recognise the people who perform it.”

The remorseless logic of specialisation

And also this …

A few weeks ago, Sam Kahn wrote a great article for The Awl about ‘the Quiet Style’ — an aesthetic exemplified by Annie Baker’s theatre works, in which previously dominant sensibilities forged in bluntness and brashness give way to a new contemplation of silence and stillness. The Quiet Style takes “the attributes of my much-maligned generation — our restlessness, fecklessness, envy, solipsism —and turns them into something like a prayer,” Kahn writes.

“Silence and stillness are very exciting to me. I feel so over–stimulated and bored by a lot of the theater I see these days because of the breakneck speed at which it’s performed. There’s this obsession with ‘pace,’ and I think it’s because we’re terrified of boring audiences that are used to looking at the internet while watching TV while talking on their iPhone. Also, when it feels like nothing is taboo anymore — we can have sex and violence onstage and no one blinks an eye — I think the one thing left that really makes people uncomfortable is empty space and quiet.” — Annie Baker

Christopher Hawthorne, the architecture critic for the LA Times, was inspired by that piece to consider how this trend is showing itself amongst a new cadre of architects, shirking off the hyperactive buildings of the last generations of masters in favour of something more ‘boring.’

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Although there is no mention of architecture in Kahn’s essay, it is easy to see some parallels, Hawthorne writes in Boring architecture? Yes, please.

“For the last year or two, I’ve been thinking about how best to sum up the most important emerging strain in contemporary architecture. This is an approach that rejects the hyperactive form-making of celebrated architects like Thom Mayne (very much the LaBute of his architectural generation), Daniel Libeskind, the late Zaha Hadid and others in favor of work that is spare, solid and unhurried.

As I’ve noted before, there’s something archetypal about this architecture. Its forms are basic, totemic: Euclidean shapes dredged from the long memory of the field. It sometimes relies on modules or grids. It’s often monochromatic. It’s post-digital, which means it rejects the compulsion to push form-making to its absolute limits that overtook architecture at the turn of the century. As a result it sometimes looks ancient or even primordial. It never looks futuristic.”

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According to Hawthoren, “A boring building in 2017 is a building with something meaningful to say. To think of it merely as a pendulum swinging back toward a more balanced architecture is to underestimate it. It is also a wrecking ball (another solid and monochromatic form, a basic shape, an archetype) taking down a sensibility, a kind of machismo and self-satisfaction, that desperately needed razing — one that was taking up too much space and blocking too much sunlight, that was giving other kinds of architecture very little chance to grow. And it is doing so as wrecking balls do: at a deliberate and tireless pace, making sure the site is cleared, the old building reduced to dust, before it finishes its work.”

Unlike in other countries, Japanese homes become valueless over time — but as the population shrinks, can its cities finally learn to slow down and refurb?

“In the face of Japan’s demographic trends,” Nate Berg writes in an article for the Guardian, Raze, rebuild, repeat: why Japan knocks down its houses after 30 years, “the Tokyo Metropolitan Government is doing its own bit of social engineering as it focuses on refurbishing the mid- and high-rise apartment buildings that rose across the city during the 60s and early 70s.”

“One approach is by partnering with the minimalist retailer Muji. As well as being a global presence, the Japanese brand retains considerable cachet in its home country, where its simple, utilitarian products are widely popular. Through its association with the Urban Renaissance Agency, Muji has begun renovating and redecorating units in public housing blocks to attract younger tenants — tearing out walls, replacing clunky kitchen cabinets with open storage spaces and racks, clearing space for bicycle storage.

‘The old design doesn’t fit with younger people’s tastes,’ says Koji Kawachi, director of Muji’s dwelling space operation, noting that many of the buildings have a cramped, overly partitioned layout. ‘The renovation is based on the idea that small, separated rooms can be integrated into larger spaces,’ he says. The company strips the rooms of excessive finishes and replaces them with clean white surfaces and spare wood furnishings. Kawachi says the Muji units receive five to seven times as many applications as typical units.”

“Until you conquer the fear of being an outsider, an outsider you will remain.” — C.S. Lewis

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