Random finds (2017, week 6) — On saving humanity’s 0.014035087719298244 percent, the need for new economic thinking, and collage

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Paulistano Athletic Club in São Paulo, Brazil, by the Brazilian architect Paulo Mendes da Rocha (1961) Photograph: RIBA

“The four characteristics of humanism are curiosity, a free mind, belief in good taste, and belief in the human race.” — E.M. Forster

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

On saving humanity’s 0.014035087719298244 percent

In 1970, Gil Scott-Heron, an American poet and musician who had cultivated a reputation for his socially charged spoken-word performances, debuted a new piece, called Whitey on the Moon. It voiced concerns about the priorities of a country that could send men into space while millions of people lacked medical care, shelter and food:

A rat done bit my sister Nell
(With Whitey on the Moon)
Her face and arms began to swell
(And Whitey’s on the Moon)
I can’t pay no doctor bill
(But Whitey’s on the Moon)
Ten years from now I’ll be paying still
(While Whitey’s on the Moon)

With Elon Musk’s plans for terraforming Mars, Scott-Heron’s poem has again become relevant. Even though “there are good reasons to worry about the future of humanity,” as Andrew Russell and Lee Vinsel argue in their essay for Aeon, titled Whitey on Mars.

(Russel is Dean and Professor in the College of Arts & Sciences at SUNY Polytechnic Institute in Utica, New York, and the author of Open Standards and the Digital Age (2014) and co-editor of Ada’s Legacy (2015). Lee Vinsel is an assistant professor of science and technology studies at the Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken, New Jersey. He is working on the book Taming the American Idol: Cars, Risks, and Regulations.)

“Do we have a future, and if so, how much and what kind? For most people, it’s easier to feel these existential concerns for our species than it is to do something about them. But some are taking action. On 27 September 2016, the SpaceX founder Elon Musk made a bold, direct claim: that, in order to survive an inevitable extinction event, humans would need to ‘become a space-faring civilisation and a multi-planetary species.’”

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“An interplanetary species” Elon Musk reveals his plan for colonizing Mars.

According to Russell and Vinsel, Musk’s plan to colonise Mars is a sign of an older and recurring social problem. “What happens when the rich and powerful isolate themselves from everyday concerns?,” they ask. Rather than to take care of it, or fix it, and stay, Elon Musk wants to innovate and leave Earth. “Like so many of his peers in the innovating and disrupting classes, Musk prefers to dwell in fantasy and science fiction, safely removed from the world of here and now. Musk is a utopian, in the original Greek meaning: ‘no place’. Repulsed by the world we all share, he dreams of a place that does not exist.”

Is there anything wrong with humanity reshaping Mars? “Yes,” says Robert Sparrow, a professor of philosophy at Melbourne’s Monash University. In The Argument Against Terraforming Mars, he argues we have both ethical and aesthetic reasons to leave Mars alone.

Musk has made electric vehicles cool, sexy and relatively affordable. That is commendable, Russell and Vinsel write. Yet, for all its ideals and the great possibilities inherent in them, Tesla remains a company that makes toys for rich people. And it’s precisely in this context that Musk’s fantasy of bringing human civilisation to Mars is best understood. “A trip to Mars requires awe-inspiring technological advance and immense wealth. It catalyses something deep inside the human imagination. It is also at least as removed from the needs and experiences of humans, and Musk’s own society… as Earth is from Mars.”

Musk believes humans ‘need’ to go to Mars, and the Mars mission is the best way for humanity to become what he calls a “space-faring civilisation and a multi-planetary species.”

“His existential concerns, and his look to other worlds for solutions, are not unique among the elite of the technology world. Others have expressed what might best be understood as a quasi-philosophical paranoia that our Universe is really just a simulation inside a giant computer,” Russel and Vinsel write. According to them, Musk has “fallen under the sway of the Oxford philosopher Nick Bostrom, who put forward the simulation theory in 2003. Bostrom has also argued that addressing ‘existential risks’ such as AI should be a global priority.”

However, according to Lucianne Walkowicz, an astronomer at the Adler Planetarium in Chicago and a critic of the hubris of using Mars as a backup planet’, the idea that Mars will somehow save us from the decisions we have made is a false one. If we “truly believe in our ability to bend the hostile environments of Mars for human habitation, then we should be able to surmount the far easier task of preserving the habitability of the Earth,” Walkowicz says.

Russel and Vinsel believe Musk’s plan is not about saving Earth. “Rather, he needs an excuse to justify his outrageous plan to colonise Mars, and so he appeals to the preservation of, in his word, ‘humanity.’ But Musk’s concept of humanity excludes most living and breathing humans. In his September 2016 announcement, he declared that a fully self-sustaining civilisation on Mars would need around 1 million people. From Earth’s current population of 7.125 billion, the Musk Million would bring 0.014035087719298244 percent of it to Mars.”

Even on Elon Musk’s own optimistic terms, his adolescent space fantasies will benefit only 0.014 percent of humanity. He makes the politicians who serve the 1 percent seem like communists.

An often heard argument to justify investments in this mission to Mars, are so called ‘spinoff’ or ‘spillover’ innovations. Of the technologies created for NASA programs, up to 80 percent might have ended up in the domestic economy. But according to Russel and Vinsel, ‘as a way of making decisions about research and development, and science and technology investment, the ‘spinoff’ publicity campaign reveals its own weakness. Quite simply, why not address the existential problems facing our society and our fellow humans directly? We don’t need trickle-down science. A public research agenda aimed squarely at solving real problems would easily produce useful technologies that exceed the 80 percent mark. […] ‘Spillover’ is a poor, and indeed bizarre and indefensible justification.”

Musk’s escapist vision is widely shared in the science-fiction-centred, tech-obsessed culture of Silicon Valley, where companies increasingly build apps just for the luxury service economy.

“Our concerns,” they write, “are moral concerns about the priorities that Musk is articulating and that his followers are echoing. At this point in human history, the colonisation of Mars is a distraction from the severe problems facing human societies. The moral detachment of the plan signifies a deeper pathology that afflicts our culture of innovation, and celebrates innovators such as Musk, who are all too eager to play with gadgets and leave their fellow humans behind.”

SpaceX’ retro Mars tourism posters.

“Sadly, Musk’s escapist vision is widely shared in the science-fiction-centred, tech-obsessed culture of Silicon Valley, where companies increasingly build apps just for the luxury service economy,” Russel and Vinsel conclude. The question is, “how do we get our technology leaders to focus on real societal problems, including those faced by the least fortunate among us? Until we are able to answer these questions collectively, Elon’s moral failures are outpaced only by our own.”

On the need for new economic thinking

“So how might we tilt the odds from disaster to reform?,” Eric Beinhocker, the Executive Director of the Institute for New Economic Thinking at the Oxford Martin School, University of Oxford, wonders in It’s Time for New Economic Thinking Based on the Best Science Available, Not Ideology.

“First, listen. The populist movements do contain some racists, xenophobes, genuinely crazy people, and others whom we should absolutely condemn. But they also contain many normal people who are fed up with a system that doesn’t work for them. People who have seen their living standards stagnate or decline, who live precarious lives one paycheque at a time, who think their children will do worse than they have. And their issues aren’t just economic, they are also social and psychological. They have lost dignity and respect, and crave a sense of identity and belonging.

They feel — rightly or wrongly — that they played by the rules, but others in society haven’t, and those others have been rewarded. They also feel that their political leaders and institutions are profoundly out of touch, untrustworthy, and self-serving. And finally they feel at the mercy of big impersonal forces — globalisation, technology change, rootless banks and large faceless corporations. The most effective populist slogan has been ‘take back control.’”

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“After we listen we then have to give new answers. New narratives and policies about how people’s lives can be made better and more secure, how they can fairly share in their nation’s prosperity, how they can have more control over their lives, how they can live with dignity and respect, how everyone will play by the same rules and the social contract will be restored, how openness and international cooperation benefits them not just an elite, and how governments, corporations and banks will serve their interests, and not the other way around. This is why we need new economic thinking.”

A bit more …

In a recent post Collage, Richard Martin quotes from Ali Smith’s latest novel, Autumn:

“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.”

“Having so recently published The Neo-Generalist,” Martin writes, “reading these passages had a visceral effect on me. In the chapters titled ‘Provincial Punk’ and ‘Shoring Fragments’, borrowing from punk culture, the Modernists, a variety of writers, artists and interviewees, Kenneth Mikkelsen and I explore how our lives, our identities, are an accumulation, remix and mash-up of interactions, lessons, memories and roles, characterised by fluidity and adaptiveness. In ‘Picaresque Tales’, we examine alternatives to established 21st-century education practices.

Smith distils all these ideas into a single word. Collage. An artwork. A descriptor. A place, an experience, of learning for us all.”

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In an interview with Natalia Koulinka for openDemocracy, Donald Trump and the return of class, Francis Fukuyama argues that “what is happening in the politics of the US particularly, but also in other countries, is that identity in a form of nationality or ethnicity or race has become a proxy for class.”

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The American political scientist and Olivier Nomellini Senior Fellow at Stanford University’s Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies Francis Fukuyama is best known for his book The End of History and the Last Man, which was published in 1992.

“This is what happens in politics in plain terms: political entrepreneurs seize the opportunity to mobilise people around a particular issue. They start speaking to a particular group and then all of a sudden that group realizes, ‘yes, we are victims of the system! Yes, the elites are conspiring against us!’ I think that is what Donald Trump did. The same thing happened, for example, in Serbia. Why did Serbia turn out so much worse than other countries in Eastern Europe? I think Milosevic was a political entrepreneur himself who saw that big opportunity to get people angry about the situation of the Serbs and get them all mobilised. That was how he rose to power. However, there is no inevitability in this. Sometimes events develop in this direction, sometimes they do not.”

“More or less of almost anything can change nearly everything,” says K.C. Cole, a professor at USC’s Annenberg School of Communication, and the author of, amongst others, Something Incredibly Wonderful Happens: Frank Oppenheimer and his Astonishing Exploratorium, in Why You Didn’t See It Coming.

“You don’t see it coming. You probably couldn’t if you tried. The effects of large changes in scale are frequently beyond our powers of perception, even our imagination. They seem to emerge out of nowhere: the cumulative effects of climate change, the creation of a black hole, the spookiness of quantum mechanics, the societal tipping points reached when the rich have billions rather than millions — even the sudden boiling of water in a slowly heating pot.”

But Kole believes we do have a way to ‘see it coming’: science. “The whole point of science is to penetrate the fog of human senses, including common sense. Ingenious experiments and elegant equations act as extensions of senses that allow us to see farther and more precisely — beyond the horizons of what we think we know. Calculations predict possible futures, find clear signals in the almost constant noise.”

Our everyday world is made of emergent properties, like color, or people, or thoughts, or music. These qualities don’t exist on the scale of their most fundamental parts. They ‘emerge’ as if out of nowhere when you get enough in one place. Even if you could somehow understand everything about every atom in your cat, you still wouldn’t know if it will purr on your lap or throw up on your carpet (or both).

“Sometimes science requires us to accept the unacceptable, certainly the unpalatable: What? Drive smaller cars? Give up my lawn? Be satisfied with a small house? It’s not always fun to see what’s coming, especially when easy solutions are nowhere in sight. It takes courage to admit we’ve been clueless.

Then again, we really have no choice. [The late physicist Albert] Bartlett called people who refused to accept they lived in a closed off Coke-bottle-like world the ‘flat earth society’ — because on a flat earth, space could be infinite. There’d be endless amounts of land for farming or garbage dumps, endless supplies of water and fuel, no limit to the amount of toxins we could pump into an infinite atmosphere.

Alas, we live on a sphere. Eratosthenes figured this out thousands of years ago, and no one liked it much then either. But he certainly saw it coming.”

“If you do not expect the unexpected, you will not find it, for it is not to be reached by search or trail,” the Greek philosopher Heraclitus said. However, many businesses, such as Google, try to engineer serendipitous interactions, like “some sort of human version of the Large Hadron Collider.”

Serendipity is the process through which we discover ‘unknown unknowns.’

“It’s long been hypothesised that two people serendipitously bumping into each other in a corridor (or circulation space as workplace boffins prefer it) results in the big bang of innovation,” Simon Heath writes in The Large Human Collider. “If we dial the serendipity up to 11 by designing the space so that enough humans are fired at each other we can increase the frequency they bump into each other and therefore increase the likelihood that our business will become a hotbed of innovation and creativity. The mythic ‘water cooler moment.’”

If we really want to take advantage of serendipity between people we need them to notice it happening. Get people working on their sagacity. Serendipitously, it’s not that common. Perhaps that’s why innovation isn’t either.

But “if engineered serendipity really resulted in more innovation, the most innovative companies would be ones where the printers were always running out of toner. But we can’t guarantee that a bunch of people hanging around waiting for printer toner are not going to spend their time talking about the football results. Like most attempts at innovation some great stuff comes out of failure. Engineering serendipity might not make innovation happen. It might make friends instead. I think we’d all be happy with that ROI.”

More on serendipity in Random finds (2016, week 31) — On serendipity, why less isn’t always more, and unmet needs (instead of flying cars).

“Creative systems should be judged, but not by their ‘average output,’” Bill Barnett writes in The Price of Genius.

“Instead, you should judge creative systems by their variance — their ability to produce extreme outcomes whether good or bad. As Professor James March explains, high-variance systems are the most creative. They produce lots of foolishness and, every now and then, a moment of brilliance. If you plan away the foolishness you might improve the ‘average’ result. But planning away foolishness will also reduce variance — which means you eliminate any chance of genius. In short, foolishness is the price of genius.”

“Along the way, we’ve confirmed that vocational skills can be taught (you’re not born knowing engineering or copywriting or even graphic design, therefore they must be something we can teach), while we let ourselves off the hook when it comes to decision making, eager participation, dancing with fear, speaking with authority, working in teams, seeing the truth, speaking the truth, inspiring others, doing more than we’re asked, caring and being willing to change things,” Seth Godin writes in Let’s stop calling them ‘soft skills’.

Imagine a team member with all the traditional vocational skills: productive, skilled, experienced. A resume that can prove it. That’s fine, it’s the baseline. Now, add to that: perceptive, charismatic, driven, focused, goal-setting, inspiring and motivated. A deep listener, with patience. What happens to your organization when someone like that joins your team?

“We underinvest in this training, fearful that these things are innate and can’t be taught. We call these skills soft, making it easy for us to move on to something seemingly more urgent. We rarely hire for these attributes because we’ve persuaded ourselves that vocational skills are impersonal and easier to measure. And we fire slowly (and retrain rarely) when these skills are missing, because we’re worried about stepping on toes, being called out for getting personal, or possibly, wasting time on a lost cause. Which is crazy, because infants aren’t good at any of the soft skills. Of course we learn them. We learn them accidentally, by osmosis, by the collisions we have with teachers, parents, bosses and the world. But just because they’re difficult to measure doesn’t mean we can’t improve them, can’t practice them, can’t change. Of course we can. Let’s call them real skills, not soft.”

Mies van der Rohe’s unrealised design for an amber-glass office tower in the City of London has been revealed in detail for the first time, ahead of an exhibition at the Royal Institute of British Architects next month.

“In the 1960s you could do whatever you liked, but by the 1980s there was a hangover from the postwar euphoria. There was a very definite philosophical shift, and a popular idea that tradition had been lost. Mies was central to all this, in a way, with this building in the centre of London. It was symbolic of public feeling at the time.” — Peter Palumbo, in an interview for Self’s magazine the Real Review.

The project was commissioned by Peter Palumbo, a developer who, over the years, has also owned properties by Frank Lloyd Wright and Le Corbusier. It would have been Mies van der Rohe’s first and only UK building. He worked on the project from 1962 up until his death in 1969. His vision for a 19-storey amber-glass and steel tower included a public square — a radical idea for the largely privatised City of London — and an underground shopping centre. After a drawn-out planning process, the scheme was finally rejected in 1985. Palumbo instead built the postmodern No 1 Poultry, a building that has also divided opinion. (source: dezeen)

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“‘All space is public,’ says Paulo Mendes da Rocha. ‘The only private space that you can imagine is in the human mind.’ It is an optimistic statement from the 88-year-old Brazilian architect, given he is a resident of São Paulo, a city where the triumph of the private realm over the public could not be more stark. The sprawling megalopolis is a place of such marked inequality that its superrich hop between their rooftop helipads because they are too scared of street crime to come down from the clouds,” Oliver Wainwright, the Guardian’s architecture and design critic, writes in ‘One never builds something finished’: the brutal brilliance of architect Paulo Mendes da Rocha.

“But for Mendes da Rocha, who received the 2017 gold medal from the Royal Institute of British Architects this week — an accolade previously bestowed on such luminaries as Le Corbusier and Frank Lloyd Wright — the ground is everything. He has spent his 60-year career lifting his massive concrete buildings up, in gravity-defying balancing acts, or else burying them below ground in an attempt to liberate the Earth’s surface as a continuous democratic public realm. ‘The city has to be for everybody,’ he says, ‘not just for the very few.’”

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Marxism in concrete… The MuBE in São Paulo. Photograph: RIBA

“The architect says he learned technical discipline from his father, who was an engineer and designer of hydraulic works and port facilities. Their shared love of infrastructure is evident in the raw concrete forms of Mendes da Rocha’s buildings, with their echoes of dams and flyovers. This pragmatic attitude lay at the foundations of the Paulista school, a group that included Artigas and Lina Bo Bardi — together known as the ‘Brazilian brutalists.’ They favoured chunkier massing and rougher concrete finishes than their Rio counterparts of the Carioca school, typified by Niemeyer’s smooth, curvy white forms. In contrast to the formalist approach favoured by some contemporary architects, who come up with a shape and hand it over to the engineers, Mendes da Rocha insists that ‘you can only imagine what you know how to build.’”

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Sparse and startling … Paulistano Athletic Club in São Paulo (1961) Photograph: RIBA

“I do think the willingness to challenge, … I like to think about as the essence of the philosophical spirit.” — Anthony Gottlieb, the former Executive Editor of The Economist and the author of The Dream of Reason (2000) and The Dream of Enlightenment (2016) during a conversation with Julian Baggini in the London Review Bookshop, September 2016.

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