Random finds (2017, week 48) — On the case against civilization, how our buildings deeply affect us, and business bullshit

“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 and thinking.

The case against civilization

“It’s an important question,” says James Scott, a professor of political science and anthropology at Yale University and the author of Against the Grain: A Deep History of the Earliest States, when Sean Illing asks him what modern civilization has done to the individual.

“Modern industrial life has forced almost all of us to specialize in something, often in mundane, repetitive tasks. This is good for economic productivity but not so good for individual self-fulfillment. I think this has created a narrowing of attention to the larger world. Moving from hunting and gathering to working on an assembly line has made us more machine-like and less attuned to the world around us because we only have to be skilled at one thing.”

The takeaway from Scott’s book, according to Illing in Why a leading political theorist thinks civilization is overrated, is that, although civilization has been good for us, the answer to the question whether it has made us any happier, is more complicated. For Scott, the price of civilization has been higher than we think, both for the individual and the environment.

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The Case Against Civilization — Did our hunter-gatherer ancestors have it better? (Illustration by Golden Cosmo for The New Yorker)

In his book, “Scott explores why human beings decided to shift from a hunter-gatherer lifestyle to a more sedentary, agrarian lifestyle roughly 12,000 years ago. The accepted narrative is that humans abandoned hunting and gathering as soon they discovered agricultural technology, because it made life easier and safer.

But Scott argues that this is not quite right. Humans, he says, spent thousands of years trying to preserve their hunter-gatherer lifestyle. Sure, settling down in agrarian societies provided the basis for the modern state by allowing large numbers of people to live in one place for extended periods of time, but it also led to the spread of diseases and forced people to give up the freedom of an itinerant lifestyle for the affluence of a modern one.

The story we tell ourselves about human history is one of linear progress, fueled in large part by moral and technological development. There is some truth to this, and on a long enough timeline it makes sense, but Scott says the sacrifices made along the way are rarely understood.”

Of course, Scott isn’t arguing that we would be better off if we all returned to this pre-modern world. “From our perspective today, it’s inconceivable that we would want to go back like that,” he tells. “But I think it’s still important to understand that this was not a choice between hunting and gathering and foraging on the one hand and the Danish welfare state on the other. […] This was not as clear-cut a choice as a lot of people suppose. Yes, things are better now, but it’s really only in the last 200 years or so that we’ve enjoyed the health and longevity that we do today. But this initial period when we think civilization was created was, in fact, a really dark period for humanity.”

How our buildings deeply affect us

“Experience is grounded in our sensory perceptions and our internal thoughts, which together govern how we make sense of the information that comes to us from being in the world. And when something happens in the world or in our minds, that something is always ‘situated’ — in our bodies, in a given time, and in place,” Sarah W. Goldhagen writes in Welcome To Your World: How the Built Environment Shapes Our Lives.

In this, her latest book, Goldhagen argues that the buildings we live and work in deeply affect us, physically and psychologically, and that we can’t afford the soul-crushing architecture we mostly subject ourselves to.

“Because people are nonconsciously susceptible to environmental primes, and because our perceptions of the built environment are enmeshed in our human embodiment, skillful design rests on foundational knowledge about the operations of how we think and perceive. The way we apprehend our built environments — and their relationship to nature — is profoundly intersensory. Not only that: it also involves our motor systems as we interact, or imagine interacting, with the things and places around us. A principal reason the Salk Institute design succeeds is that [Louis] Kahn understood that one of the architect’s principal tasks is managing users’ attentional resources. He orchestrated an entry sequence that first emphasizes nature’s monumentality, then draws us into a relationship with the buildings through intersensory stimulation — vision, touch, sound — that also invites us to interact and imagine interacting with them. Understanding such fundamentals of human cognition can help designers create places that will long resonate in our memories, and become a treasured part of who we are.”

“The story of our relationship to our surroundings is revelatory, multilayered, rich, and, owing to the changing rhythms of the day and the operations of human memory, temporally complex. Experiencing the built environment involves more than how we process the swirl of sensory cues and impressions at the moment that we apprehend them. It also involves the prior knowledge we use to interpret these cognitions, as well as the way that we subsequently store them as memories, since, although what we think and experience usually seems wholly independent from the particularity of the place, when we remember such events, we unfailingly access something about the environments in which they took place. So we need to understand some fundamentals about the complex architecture of cognition — how people initially process sensory and mental impressions, as well as how we recall them. Through these fundamentals, we come to appreciate how pervasively the built environment permeates and shapes human experience.

[…]

We need to recognize three precepts to properly explore the nature of cognition and its role in built environmental experience. First: what our minds think is largely shaped and profoundly influenced by the human body. Second: this, along with the fact that our bodies are shaped by the environments in which we live and have evolved, suggests that much of our internal cognitive life takes place outside language and below the level of our conscious awareness. Third: these factors transform our understanding of how humans live in the world by making us less the sovereign agents over our experiences that we often believe ourselves to be. We are thoroughly environmentally embedded beings.”

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Also Lily Bernheimer, the author of The Shaping of Us, writes about how space shapes us, and what the shape of our environments says about us. Through public space, housing, workspaces, healthcare environments and cities, she shows us how space mediates community, creativity and our very identity — it makes us who we are.

“We like spaces that flirt with us: complex and mysterious settings. While orderly layouts like American street grids are easy to navigate, we prefer streets that curve out of sight, leading us on with a tantalising hint of what lies beyond. We like environments that excite our curiosity, but also satiate it,” she notes in How architecture shapes our cities — and our lives.

“An environment is ‘legible’ if it’s easy to survey and form a cognitive map of. Prospect — the ability to see the distance — is part of this. To be truly legible, there must be elements that help us find our way, like the clumps of trees in the African savannahs of our origin.

The landscapes we love most balance legibility with mystery, coherence with complexity. Natural scenes are marked by fractal geometry, with a specific recipe of order and complexity. These fractal patterns hold the key to understanding wellbeing in buildings, from the detailing of window frames to the cascading domes of Hindu temples and the configuration of London’s streets.

The form of vernacular structures and settlements arose from the ordered complexity of our own minds and bodies — human neurological processes display fractal properties, as does the biology of our cells and lungs. In the past, buildings evolved in a more organic way — using natural materials such as wood and stone. Places grew slowly. Roads followed the contour of the land.”

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“We like spaces that flirt with us: complex and mysterious settings.” — Lily Bernheimer (Illustration by Geoff Boeing)

Much of this has been lost in the colossal scale and fast pace of 21st-century life. Many of our everyday spaces fail to support wellbeing, community and creativity, Bernheimer writes. So how can we recreate the world we want to be defined by?

“To create something better suited to human needs, we need to give people the tools to co-create their own homes, streets and workspaces. When people are involved in creating and nurturing their own environments, they also feel a greater sense of agency, community and pride — a quality known as ‘collective efficacy.’”

How business bullshit took over

“As companies have become increasingly ravenous for the latest management fad, they have also become less discerning. Some bizarre recent trends include equine-assisted coaching (‘You can lead people, but can you lead a horse?’) and rage rooms (a room where employees can go to take out their frustrations by smashing up office furniture, computers and images of their boss),” writes André Spicer, a management scholar and the author of Business Bullshit, in a long read in the Guardian, From inboxing to thought showers: how business bullshit took over.

“A century of management fads has created workplaces that are full of empty words and equally empty rituals. We have to live with the consequences of this history every day. Consider a meeting I recently attended. During the course of an hour, I recorded 64 different nuggets of corporate claptrap. They included familiar favourites such as ‘doing a deep dive,’ ‘reaching out.’ and ‘thought leadership.’ There were also some new ones I hadn’t heard before: people with ‘protected characteristics’ (anyone who wasn’t a white straight guy), ‘the aha effect’ (realising something), ‘getting our friends in the tent’ (getting support from others).

After the meeting, I found myself wondering why otherwise smart people so easily slipped into this kind of business bullshit. How had this obfuscatory way of speaking become so successful? There are a number of familiar and credible explanations. People use management-speak to give the impression of expertise. The inherent vagueness of this language also helps us dodge tough questions. Then there is the simple fact that even if business bullshit annoys many people, in most work situations we try our hardest to be polite and avoid confrontation. So instead of causing a scene by questioning the bullshit flying around the room, I followed the example of Simon Harwood, the director of strategic governance in the BBC’s self-satirising sitcom W1A. I used his standard response to any idea — no matter how absurd — ‘hurrah.’”

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“Business bullshit allows us to blather on without saying anything. It empties out language and makes us less able to think clearly and soberly about the real issues. As we find our words become increasingly meaningless, we begin to feel a sense of powerlessness. We start to feel there is little we can do apart from play along, benefit from the game and have the occasional laugh.

But this does not need to be the case. Business bullshit can and should be challenged. This is a task each of us can take up by refusing to use empty management-speak. We can stop ourselves from being one more conduit in its circulation. Instead of just rolling our eyes and checking our emails, we should demand something more meaningful.

Clearly, our own individual efforts are not enough. Putting management-speak in its place is going to require a collective effort. What we need is an anti-bullshit movement. It would be made up of people from all walks of life who are dedicated to rooting out empty language. It would question management twaddle in government, in popular culture, in the private sector, in education and in our private lives.

The aim would not just be bullshit-spotting. It would also be a way of reminding people that each of our institutions has its own language and rich set of traditions which are being undermined by the spread of the empty management-speak. It would try to remind people of the power which speech and ideas can have when they are not suffocated with bullshit. By cleaning out the bullshit, it might become possible to have much better functioning organisations and institutions and richer and fulfilling lives.”

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An “untra-premium” example of corporate claptrap — Cisco CEO John Chambers, who told his staff: “Weʼll wake the world up and move the planet a little closer to the future.” (Photograph by Adam Jeffery for CNBC)

Spicer isn’t the only one fighting business bullshit. Former Financial Times columnist Lucy Kellaway has been telling business people to stop talking rot for 25 years.

In How I lost my 25-year battle against corporate claptrap, Kellaway names Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz as “a champion in the bullshit space.” Schultz has provided her with more material for columns than any other executive alive or dead. “Yet, he is still at it, and still out-doing himself. Earlier this year, Mr Schultz announced that the new Starbucks Roasteries were ‘delivering an immersive, ultra-premium, coffee-forward experience,’” Kellaway writes. “In this ultra-premium, jargon-forward twaddle, the only acceptable word is ‘an.’ Mr Schultz has brewed up a blend of old and new jargon, the fashionable and the workaday, adding a special topping of his own. ‘Delivering’ and ‘experience’ are grim but not new. ‘Ultra-premium’ is needless word inflation. ‘Immersive’ is fashionable, though ill-advised if you are talking about scalding liquids. The innovation is ‘coffee-forward.’ Sounds fantastic, but what is it?”

Talking rot has not only done Schultz no harm, Kellayway fears it may even have helped him. “The new ‘roasteries’ have an exceptionally vulgar Willy Wonka-style decor with beans whizzing around in see-through pipes. When the style is all hype, the language needs to match,” she adds.

Kellaway also reveals the top eight rules for mastering corporate claptrap, along with some splendid examples of how to follow them. However, the most gifted guff giants don’t use all the rules. They simply pick the ones that suit them best. Her eternal favourite is John Chambers who, while CEO of Cisco, fired off an email to underlings beginning “Team,” and ending: “We’ll wake the world up and move the planet a little closer to the future.”

While using plain words and simple syntax, Chambers produced the most terrifying piece of bullshit ever, writes Kellaway. “In the four years since he said that the planet seems to have been reaching the future quite happily on its own, without the assistance of Mr Chambers or anyone else at Cisco.”

Hurrah…

And also this …

According to Schumpeter in Philosopher kings, it’s dificult to rise to the top in business without doing an outward-bound course. Although they no doubt produce a few war stories to be told over a drink, business leaders would far more benefit from studying great writers.

“It is time to replace this rite of managerial passage with something much more powerful: inward-bound courses. Rather than grappling with nature, business leaders would grapple with big ideas. Rather than proving their leadership abilities by leading people across a ravine, they would do so by leading them across an intellectual chasm. The format would be simple. A handful of future leaders would gather in an isolated hotel and devote themselves to studying great books. They would be deprived of electronic distractions. During the day a tutor would ensure their noses stay in their tomes; in the evening the inward-bounders would be encouraged to relate what they had read to their lives.”

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The Odyssey and the Other. (Illustration by Hanna Barczyk for The Atlantic)

No doubt, one of these great books is Homer’s The Odyssey. In The Odyssey and the Other, Rebecca Newberger Goldstein, the author, most recently, of Plato at the Googleplex: Why Philosophy Won’t Go Away, explores what the epic can teach about encounters with strangers abroad and at home.

“During the age when The Odyssey took form, near the end of the eighth century b.c., the Greeks were voyaging into the world once again after a period of dark decline. They were setting up colonies and resuming the trade that had been interrupted by whatever cataclysmic forces — invasions, rebellions, pestilence, natural disasters — brought down the Bronze Age civilizations of Minoa and Mycenae. Yet the spirit of the second Homeric epic is wary. Unlike The Iliad, which sings of the glorious feats of godlike warriors in a legendary heroic age, The Odyssey tells of a weary man’s fight for survival in the face of threatening Others who can never share his view of the world or take his interests to heart. This besieged sense of a realm seething with social hostilities and deep divisions, in which the very possibility of dialogue seems out of reach, may well strike a chord”.

“Humanities? Law? Tourism? Zoology? Politics? History? Art? Maths? Philosophy? Music? Languages? Classics? Engineering? Architecture? Economics? Medicine? Psychology? Daniel said.

All of the above, Elisabeth said.

That’s why you need to go to collage, Daniel said.” — Ali Smith in Autumn

Shawn house in Northumberland was one of this years’s candidates for RIBA’s UK House of the Year award. Although the the competition was won by Caring Wood in Kent, designed by British architects James Macdonald Wright and Niall Maxwell, Shawn house remains my favorite.

Its “basic barn type shape is familiar in the Northumbrian countryside, with the vernacular stone and timber materials detailed in such a way as to take nothing away from that basic, simple form,” according to Richard Pender, who was involved in every stage of this self-build project.

Pender, not qualified as an architect, worked in collaboration MawsonKerr Architects on the design of the building, which occupies an area within a former farmyard to the rear of the existing house.

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Shawm house is named after an old Northumbrian word meaning “to warm oneself,” which Richard Pender felt encapsulated the physical and philosophical qualities inherent in the project. (Photography is by Rob Rhodes)
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For Sanbaopeng Art Museum, located on the outskirts of Jingdezhen in China, a city famed for its porcelain production, architecture studio DL Atelier chose to use the local clay-heavy earth for its walls. The architects “drew inspiration from the porcelain-making process, where the outcomes of firing the material in a kiln can be difficult to predict and result in imperfections that add to the character of the pieces,” writes Alyn Griffiths in Dezeen.

“This ‘romantic relationship’ between the maker and their artworks informed the design of a building that seeks to achieve a similar sense of mystery and unpredictability in its layout and materiality.”

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DL Atelier builds museum with rammed-earth walls near China’s “porcelain capital.” (Photography by Sun Haiting)
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The Conversation, by the Russian painter and sculptor Arnold Lakhovsky (1935).

“Conversations are the smallest units of change.” — I have no idea who said this first but I wish I had…

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helping leaders navigate complexity with confidence & clarity of thought | varius multiplex multiformis

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