Random finds (2017, week 52) — On the rise of global cities and those left behind, the case for the humanities, and boredom
“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.
This is the last Random finds of 2017. I wish you all a splendid 2018, with lots of interesting things to read and ponder on.
The rise of global cities and those left behind
As the economy has changed, so have the relationships between places, to the disadvantage of smaller cities and rural areas, writes Emily Badger in What Happens When the Richest U.S. Cities Turn to the World?
The Bay Area became a center of shipbuilding before and during World War II, drawing on raw materials and manufactured goods from all over the U.S. But the links that tied the Bay Area’s prosperity to this web of places have faded. The companies that now drive the Bay Area’s soaring wealth don’t need these communities in the same way, Badger writes. “Google’s digital products don’t have a physical supply chain. Facebook doesn’t have dispersed manufacturers. Apple, which does make tangible things, primarily makes them overseas.” Or, as Timothy Sturgeon, a senior researcher at the M.I.T. Industrial Performance Center, explained to Badger, “The hinterland for Silicon Valley is Shenzhen.”
Although the changing economy has been good to the Bay Area, as well as a number of other predominantly coastal metropolitan regions like New York, Boston and Seattle, economists and geographers are now questioning what the nature of their success means for the rest of the country. “What happens to America’s manufacturing heartland when Silicon Valley turns to China? Where do former mill and mining towns fit in when big cities shift to digital work? How does upstate New York benefit when New York City increases business with Tokyo? The answers have social and political implications at a time when broad swaths of the country feel alienated from and resentful of ‘elite’ cities that appear from a distance to have gone unscathed by the forces hollowing out smaller communities. To the extent that many Americans believe they’re disconnected from the prosperity in these major metros — even as they use the apps and services created there — perhaps they’re right.”
But despite the disconnect, “[p]eople in Rust Belt towns where Google has no office still use the search giant. Facebook and Twitter still require physical assets in server farms. Uber, a quintessential Bay Area company that is both global and digital, operates in about 250 American cities. But these kinds of ties aren’t truly spreading the Bay Area’s prosperity. Server farms don’t create mass middle-class employment. Using Google isn’t the same as having a hand in engineering it.” According to Saskia Sassen, a sociologist who has studied the global cities that occupy interdependent nodes in today’s world economy, when global cities need other communities today, it’s often to extract value out of them. “In the international network that emerges, global cities stand out,” Badger writes.
“That dynamic also leaves smaller places at the mercy of global cities, where decisions are made about which plants to close or where to create new jobs. And so Tulsa, Buffalo and Tucson turn to Seattle as supplicants for a windfall of Amazon jobs. None of them have what Amazon really wants, though: an international airport with daily direct flights to Seattle, the Bay Area, New York and Washington.”
Also Irving Wladawsky-Berger writes about the ‘winner-take-all urbanism’ in which a small number of players reap a large share of the rewards, upending whole industries with their outsized returns.
In The Rise of Winner-Take-All Urbanism, he notes that “many thought that the Internet would lead to the decline of cities, because it enabled people to work and shop from home, be in touch with their friends over e-mail and text messaging, and get access to news and entertainment online. Why would anyone choose to live in a crowded, expensive urban area when they could lead a more relaxing, pastoral, affordable life in a small town?
As it turned out, instead of declining, we’ve seen the rise of superstar cities. ‘Cities have been caught up in this winner-take-all phenomenon, too,’ noted [Richard] Florida. ‘Just as the economy confers disproportionate rewards to superstar talent, superstar cities … similarly tower above the rest. They generate the greatest levels of innovation, control and attract the largest shares of global capital and investment, have huge concentrations of leading-edge finance, media, entertainment, and tech industries, and are home to a disproportionate share of the world’s talent. They are not just the places where the most ambitious and most talented people want to be — they are where such people feel they need to be.’
But, such a concentration of talent, wealth and economic activity in fewer and fewer places has led to what a recent [issue of The Economist, Left Behind — How to help places hurt by globalisation,] called the ‘changing economies of geography’ — the rising inequalities between a relatively small number of superstar cities and the many towns and regions that have been left behind by technology and globalization. This is an economic challenge every bit as serious as the growing weath inequality between the 1% and everyone else.”
“The rational response to such divergent economic fortunes is to up sticks,” argues The Economist. “In the most successful developing countries people move to new centres of progress with alacrity […]. But people in the rich world are less able and willing to move to thriving places than in the past,” Europeans even more so than Americans.
The pull from successful places is offset by (welfare) policies that restrict population growth. At the same time, the push to leave failing places has weakened. But the diminished tendency to move also has other reasons. “Lighting out for new territories means leaving behind family and friends, something that today’s ageing populations may find harder than the younger populations of the past. Ageing populations have other effects. Grown-up children may need to care for ailing parents; grandparents may provide a crucial source of child care. For these and other reasons, many working-age adults are finding it harder to move far from their parents than previous generations.”
“Help — either to make it easier to set up in a successful place, or to leave a failing one — would be a boon to many, especially the young, skilled and ambitious,” The Economist writes. “But it could make life harder still for the least mobile members of society.”
Traditionally, this help came in the form of ‘enterprise zones,’ which typically use tax incentives and hiring subsidies to encourage businesses into areas of concentrated poverty and joblessness. But according to research, these zones do little good. “So rather than attempting to seed clusters, governments could instead focus on spreading know-how in order to increase the attractiveness of laggard regions to productive firms,” according to The Economist. “If there is a particular reason to favour dispersion of technological know-how and economic activity, it is that the concentration of such things also corresponds to a concentration of power.” The segregation of cities into a small set of haves and a much larger set of have-lesses tends to mean that elites (in business and politics) rub elbows only with each other. That makes them ever less sensitive to the costs of regional inequality.
“Votes for Brexit and for Mr Trump were often cast as an expression of anger at a system that seems rigged. Unless policymakers grapple seriously with the problem of regional inequality, the fury of those voters will only increase,” The Economist concludes.
The case for the humanities
“The confusion over the purpose of the humanities has nothing to do with their relevance. The humanities are no more or less relevant now than they ever were. It is not the humanities that we have lost faith in, but the economic, political, and social order that they have been made to serve. Perhaps we only demand a case for the humanities because we cannot fathom having to make a case for anything else,” Justin Stover writes in There Is No Case for the Humanities.
“We are often told that we need to articulate the case for the humanities in order to survive the current budgetary and political landscape. Many of us stutter and stumble when confronted with such requests, mumbling some barely audible phrases involving ‘skills,’ ‘relevance,’ ‘a changing economy,’ ‘engagement,’ and ‘values.’ The reason it does not come out as something coherent or articulate, much less compelling, is that the ideas behind the words are just as hollow, and we know it. Somewhere inside we all know that there is no case for the humanities.”
What have the humanities ever been for?
“Some might say, as one humanities dean put it, that the humanities teach us about how to express our ideas, and unleash our creativity. That idea barely needs refutation. […]
A supposedly related goal for the humanities is that of ethical training. This assertion is more difficult to challenge, since humane letters have long been regarded as imparting some sort of ethical or moral education. But do they? An informal survey of humanities scholars might not lead one to optimism on that score. Even then, incommensurate paradigms pose a challenge. A polyamorist who volunteers for Greenpeace may be one person’s ethical paradigm; a staunch monogamist who happens to drive an SUV is another’s. But they are not obviously compatible with each other. Which one would a humanistic education produce?
Another might say that the humanities are about truth. But that is a slippery argument: many things are true in one sense or another, and certainly the vast majority of such things do not fall under the remit of the arts. Now maybe there are truths that are more important than other truths, but that can only be delineated within a particular framework. For some, theology might provide that framework; for others technology. Humanists obviously have their own framework, but the humanities is that framework. Hence, a petitio principii.
Finally, we are most commonly told that the humanities are about skills, particularly mental skills that are transferable to other disciplines. There is something valid about this argument: learning to parse Sanskrit undoubtedly entails some general cognitive benefit. But those benefits are always by-products. No one is ever going to want to learn Sanskrit because it will give them a leg up in a fast-moving economy. No, people want to learn Sanskrit for inscrutable reasons, and along the way they may (or may not) obtain mental sharpness and intellectual agility. […] By-products can be wonderful things, but if there is anything that we should have learned by now, it ought to be that if the by-product ever becomes the primary motivation, the by-product itself will soon wither and die.”
According to Stover, we can’t attribute the present decline to some change in historical circumstance. “Writing a commentary on Virgil is just as useless now as it was in the year 450. The reality is that the humanities have always been about courtoisie, a constellation of interests, tastes, and prejudices which marks one as a member of a particular class. That class does not have to be crudely imagined solely in economic terms. Indeed, the humanities have sometimes done a good job of producing a class with some socioeconomic diversity. But it is a class nonetheless.” But the mere existence of such a class isn’t a case for its existence in society as a whole. “The justification for the humanities only makes sense within a humanistic framework. Outside of it, there is simply no case.”
The humanities have always been self-contained, self-referential, and self-serving, just as their critics complain. “Those tendencies are exactly what enabled the humanities to create a class that continued to demand them,” Stover writes. People studying the humanities “were not looking for skills or creativity or values. […] They simply believed in the humanities, and knew from experience that they would bring students above the categories of nation, vocation, and time to become members of a class constrained by no such boundaries.
For a variety of reasons, that vision has split apart on all sides, and especially at the home of the humanities — the university. Superficially, the world has seen an explosion in the number of universities in the twentieth century. The vision driving this expansion, however, has been the notion that universities can become science labs, innovation incubators, professional schools, engines of meritocracy, agents of social change, and guardians of equality.”
The humanities are permitted to retain a much diminished place, at least for now, because they can prove useful in building skills. They also “continue to lend cachet to educational credentials, granting an elite status worth far more than any ‘marketable skills.’” Accounting, law or engineering can be learned in many places, but courtoisie is passed along only in the university, and only through the humanities — and everyone knows it, says Stover.
Yet, “The humanities and the university do need defenders, and the arts have had advocates as long as they have existed. The way to defend the arts is to practice them. Vast expanses of humanistic inquiry are still in need of scholars and scholarship. Whole fields remain untilled. We do not need to spend our time trying to come up with reasons. All we need to do is put our hand to the plow. Scholarship has built institutions before, and will do so again. Universities have declined, and come to flourish once more. The humanities, which predate the university and may well survive it, will endure — even if there is no case to defend them.”
Boredom and the science of the wandering mind
“At first glance, boredom and brilliance are completely at odds with each other. Boredom, if defined just as the state of being weary and restless through lack of interest, overwhelmingly has negative connotations and should be avoided at all costs, whereas brilliance is something we aspire to — a quality of striking success and unusual mental ability. Genius, intellect, talent, air versus languidness, dullness, doldrums. It’s not immediately apparent, but these two opposing states are in fact intimately connected,” writes Manoush Zomorodi, the host and managing editor of Note to Self, in What Boredom Does to You.
According to Sandi Mann, a psychology lecturer and the author of The Upside of Downtime: Why Boredom Is Good, emotions have an evolutionary benefit. Through a number of experiments, she was able to prove that people who are bored think more creatively than those who aren’t. “When we’re bored, we’re searching for something to stimulate us that we can’t find in our immediate surroundings,” Mann explained. “So we might try to find that stimulation by our minds wandering and going to someplace in our heads. That is what can stimulate creativity, because once you start daydreaming and allow your mind to wander, you start thinking beyond the conscious and into the subconscious. This process allows different connections to take place. It’s really awesome.”
“Boredom is the gateway to mind-wandering, which helps our brains create those new connections that can solve anything from planning dinner to a breakthrough in combating global warming. Researchers have only recently begun to understand the phenomenon of mind-wandering, the activity our brains engage in when we’re doing something boring, or doing nothing at all,” Zomorodi writes.
“When we lose focus on the outside world and drift inward, we’re not shutting down. We’re tapping into a vast trove of memories, imagining future possibilities, dissecting our interactions with other people, and reflecting on who we are. It feels like we are wasting time when we wait for the longest red light in the world to turn green, but the brain is putting ideas and events into perspective.
This gets to the heart of why mind-wandering or daydreaming is different from other forms of cognition. Rather than experiencing, organizing, and understanding things based on how they come to us from the outside world, we do it from within our own cognitive system. That allows for reflection and the ability for greater understanding after the heat of the moment.”
According to Jonathan Smallwood, who has studied mind-wandering since the beginning of his career in neuroscience, some 20 years ago, daydreaming has aspects that will allow us to think originally about our lives. “But in certain circumstances, continuing to think about something might not be the right thing to do. Many states of chronic unhappiness are probably linked to daydreaming simply because there are unsolvable problems,” he explained to Zomorodi.
“The flip side of dysphoric daydreaming, the positive-constructive kind, is when our thoughts veer toward the imaginative. We get excited about the possibilities that our brain can conjure up seemingly out of nowhere, like magic. This mode of mind-wandering reflects our internal drive to explore ideas and feelings, make plans, and problem-solve.
Steve Jobs, who changed the world with his popular vision of technology, famously said, ‘I’m a big believer in boredom. … All the [technology] stuff is wonderful, but having nothing to do can be wonderful, too.’ In a WIRED piece by Steven Levy, the co-founder of Apple — nostalgic for the long, boring summers of his youth that stoked his curiosity because ‘out of curiosity comes everything’ — expressed concern about the erosion of boredom from the kind of devices he helped create.
When it came to brilliance, Steve Jobs was the master. So let’s take him up on his advice to embrace boredom. Let your knowledge of the science and history behind boredom inspire you to bring it back into your life. You might feel uncomfortable, annoyed, or even angry at first, but who knows what you can accomplish once you get through the first phases of boredom and start triggering some of its amazing side effects?”
And also this …
Marcel Kampman has published the transcripts of several stories which are part of the Happyplaces Project.
One of these stories is told by Stephanie Akkaoui Hughes, the founder and lead architect of AKKA, an Amsterdam-based architecture firm. She is part of a new generation of architects that operate beyond the nowadays-restrained realm of architecture, and believes that the most sustainable innovation will happen at the intersection of different fields. In the video below, Hughes talks about ‘architecting interactions,’ which also happens to be the title of a book she published earlier this year.
“[…] I discovered that my focus on the experience and the service architecture provides, is vital. It cant be a product. It cant be a sculpture. It cant be designed from outside. It has to be the experience of it. The easiest way to explain that, is to model my vision on Einstein’s E=MC2. We don’t need to know that it means in science. The idea is, ‘E’ stands for energy, the ‘M’ stands for mass, the ‘C’ stands for the speed, the velocity. And the idea is, traditionally but also generally, architecture focusses on the mass. It focusses on the ‘M’ of the equation. And that is what architects deliver. They deliver the space, the walls, the house, the building; this is all mass.
The focus of my vision of ‘architecting interactions’ is to shift from delivering mass to delivering energy. And to do that, to move from the product of mass to provide the service of energy, you then need to take the velocity of the equation into consideration. And that comes from people. That comes from people moving in the space, using it. It also comes light moving in the space. It comes from air and wind moving in the space. Primarily though, the biggest portion of it comes from people. Since they continuously use the space. It is quite intriguing to focus on the usage of the space.”
“The idea of creating spaces, as we stick to architecture, that enhances human interaction focusses on the human. If we create a space — let’s call it a context, it could be a space, it could be an outdoor park, it could be even just a piece of furniture — the ideas is: if we are going to create a context that enhances interaction, this context needs to be human. By human I mean that it needs to be ‘holding,’ hugging.’ It needs to be to people what people need it to be at that moment in time for them. And every space needs to trigger interaction, only to varying degrees. If you think of a train station, there are interactions there, different than in a hospital, different than in a school, different than in a private house, but they all have interaction. The idea is that we work on a scale of interventions. Like a dimmer switch. That’s why the space needs to be smart enough to nuance these interactions, more or less depending on its function and what people are doing in it.”
You can read you full transcript here.
Peter Vander Auwera has condensed his sabbatical thinking into, in his own words, “a couple of levers that could enable high quality advancement for a humanist future.” In Humanist Future 2020, he writes:
“Deeply influenced by the work of Robert Fritz on structural conflict and structural tension, and that structure drives everything, I have become dissatisfied by the responsive reaction in many organisations that can be summarised as ‘what problem are you trying to solve?’ It is too solutionist, reductionist to my tasting, and I prefer Robert’s suggestion of the creative orientation of the artist/creator who is not solving a problem but develops mastery to create what she really wants.”
“Combining Robert’s insight with that of many others like Leandro Herrero and Niels Phlaeging, I have come to the following condensation:
‘Structure drives flow drives behaviour drives culture drives change.’
Like changing/influencing the structure of a building or a riverbed, we can influence the high quality information flows in organisations. These changed flows lead to different behaviours that on their term drive culture. In the end culture drives change and advancement.”
According to BCG colleagues Martin Reeves, Roselinde Torres and Fabien Hassan in How to Regain the Lost Art of Reflection, the Socratic Method is still the most efficient way to stimulate reflection.
“To inspire and refine reflective thought, leaders will often benefit from structured dialogue with a trusted partner. If their relationship is strong, this partner can prompt the CEO with questions, observations, and challenges.
The role of the discussion partner is to facilitate the exploration of ideas, to make reflection more productive, and to build reflective habits and capabilities. In Plato’s dialogues, the principal role of Socrates is to ask guiding questions and provide catalytic inputs that lead students to structure their thoughts and articulate their learnings. The method may be even more relevant today than it was in ancient times.”
Making Sense Of Complexity is an insightful comic novel by Sarah Firth. Below just two of many beautiful pages.
This house in Kobe, Japan, one of Dezeen’s ten favourite tiny houses, is just 2.5 metres wide. To get the layout to work inside, FujiwaraMuro Architects created an atrium that brings light to each floor.
The architects have “experience of dealing with the restricted sites common in many Japanese cities, having previously fitted a three-and-a-half-metre-wide house fronted by metal curtains onto a plot in Osaka,” writes Alyn Griffiths in Dezeen. “The result is a 63-square-metre property measuring less than three metres wide, aptly titled Tiny House in Kobe.”
“The ability to think past either/or situations is the foundation of critical thinking, but still, it requires courage. Getting curious and asking questions happens outside our bunkers of certainty.” — Brené Brown in Braving the Wilderness