Random finds (2018, week 1) — On Edison’s legacy, the humanities (once more), and the new predatory capitalism
“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 first Random finds of 2018. I wish you all a splendid 2018, with lots of interesting things to read and ponder on. With regard to reading and pondering, my Working Notes of a Practising Neo-Generalist (#15) — To be everywhere is to be nowhere issue contains an overview, with links, of everything I wrote last year. So, if you feel in any way bored, you now know where to go to.
“Between 1999 and 2016, the U.S. share of global high technology exports dropped from 18 percent to 7 percent,” Henry Kressel writes Edison’s Legacy: Industrial Laboratories and Innovation.
During this period, China’s share of exports increased from 3 percent to 26 percent, reflecting the shift of manufacturing overseas, including important high technology industries which were pioneered in the U.S., such as solar energy converters, consumer electronic products and telecommunications. And while the U.S. has seen the emergence of startups and other innovative companies in information industries, it hasn’t seen a similar development in technology sectors involving domestic manufacturing.
“To solve this problem, the U.S. must increase the rate of domestic industrial innovation and secure the domestic base of advanced industries. This calls for a major initiative involving industry, universities, and government over a period of many years,” Kressel says. “There are precedents for successful U.S. national efforts to boost critical technological innovation, such as the space program under President Kennedy,” but “[r]eplicating those big innovation programs today, however, calls for a different execution strategy, because the industrial landscape has changed. The biggest change is the disappearance of corporate laboratories, which were part of large companies and had funding that allowed for long-term projects with potentially big impacts. These labs also brought together interdisciplinary teams of scientists and engineers for extended periods. Furthermore, the parent companies of these laboratories had the resources to move concepts into the market. The point is that maintaining a leading-edge economy the size of the United States requires combining the skills of the most talented people with appropriate resources to build market leadership, and corporate labs were critical components of this process.”
The U.S. used to have several large multidisciplinary corporate laboratories, which were well-funded and well-managed. They housed some of the most brilliant technological researchers who worked together in environments where “exceptionally creative people could innovate and see the fruits of their work translate into breakthrough products. A major virtue of such labs was that unexpected product ideas could emerge as researchers followed their curiosity to discover new phenomena. New materials and devices were invented without the pressure to produce quick results or to work only on low-risk, evolutionary product development — the typical task of most engineering departments associated with product divisions in corporations.”
Today, these big laboratories no longer exist, and Kressel wonders whether the old model of big, interdisciplinary corporate labs can, or even should be resurrected. The believed this is highly unlikely, even if R&D funding would be increased.
“One of the strengths of the central laboratories was also a liability,” Kressel argues. “Moving into new areas where technology was not available was difficult. The expertise they had built up over many years in selected areas of technology was not necessarily what the corporation needed to rapidly satisfy new, changing market needs. It requires time to hire and train people, and making corporate acquisitions to move into new products seemed to offer a quicker path to market. More flexible organizations are preferred today […]. Any successful strategy will need to allow for demands of increased flexibility, without ignoring the lessons or advantages of the large corporate labs.”
“Over their lifetimes, the leading central laboratories produced remarkable breakthroughs, so what are the important lessons from their operations that are still relevant — and may be missing — today?”
(1) “It starts at the top,” Kressel says. Innovative organizations require senior leadership that understands and knows how to manage risks.
(2) A select number of the most creative people should be given the freedom to follow their instincts. In Kressel’s experience, these are “people driven by the desire to create and make their reputation by the success of their creations — not people just attracted to research in an abstract sense.”
(3) Selecting and scaling major projects from the many ideas is critical. The decisions should be made by a small, informed group of three to five people with experience in the sector and prior product development history, and an understanding of the expected costs and opportunities of novel products or services.
(4) “Once a decision is made to proceed with a potentially breakthrough new product, the concentration of multidisciplinary scientific, engineering and marketing skills in one corporation speeds the path to market.”
(5) “How funding is managed can determine the success of programs. Short-term funding is appropriate for early feasibility work, but programs need a mixture of funding sources that allows long-term programs to be conducted separately from shortterm product milestone funding.”
To implement lessons, many companies are experimenting with more flexible organizations, often called innovation centers or ‘labs.’ For these centers to be effective value creators, there are several important guidelines. It “should be entirely dedicated to creating new product concepts. [R]eport to the CEO or corporate head of R&D and have a separate budget. The corporation should incentivize business units to move innovations to the market and defray costs, while also recognizing specific employees who contribute to commercially valuable innovation,” Kressel writes.
“The projects within an innovation center must have breakthrough product potential. The value propositions of these projects should be developed from concept through commercialization. In some cases, completely new business units might eventually be established around a core innovation center team if the anticipated products do not fit within existing product organizations. Once a promising concept is generated, its commercial implementation requires that teams be established from all corporate units involved in the commercialization process. The team members should come from the innovation center, be matrixed or assigned from the operational divisions, or be recruited from the outside. The teams require experienced leadership that has the respect of the organizations involved in the transfer to the market.
Most managements hate change. Conventional product line management is often faced with the difficult task of prioritizing among projects: the development of nearterm products demanded by customers; evolutionary product development initiated by their own engineers; and riskier long-term projects, which they view with more skepticism than those with shorter horizons.”
Rafael Advanced Military Systems Company in Israel shows that this concept can be implemented successfully, Kressel writes. Here, the creative ideas of a small team led to the creation of a revolutionary defense product.
“A small group of engineers who had worked on aircraft technology came up with the idea of applying the principles learned to short-distance, low-flying missile ground defense. They put together an exploratory feasibility study program funded by management and the Israeli defense ministry. When the results proved promising, the ministry funded the next stage of development, bringing into the program the interdisciplinary skills needed to build a prototype and conduct a field test. As the success of the program continued, more resources were added in order to get to the next step, but the project remained autonomous until the production stage. A key factor in the success of the program was the personal support of the Israeli defense minister, who was its champion against many detractors who did not think that the system could work.
In short, this structure allows for flexible but high-risk development. Within the engineering organization, Rafael encourages ‘ground up’ ideas that can be the seeds of breakthrough products. And once a promising concept is demonstrated, resources are pulled in from various engineering and production departments to achieve a product result. Managing such a process obviously requires a great deal of discipline, but this model has the advantage of providing both flexibility and sufficient resources, while motivating staff to innovate and gain the satisfaction — and recognition — that come from participating in major new developments.”
The humanities (once more)
According to Justin Stover, the confusion over the purpose of the humanities has nothing to do with their relevance. “The humanities,” he writes, “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.”
In response, Massimo Pigliucci, a professor of Philosophy at City College and Stoic philosopher, wrote In defense of the indefensible humanities in which he argues that the current state of the humanities is a consequence of how most universities are run — “like businesses, where the ‘customer’ (they used to be called students) get to pick what they want to study and how.” But according to Pigliucci, “students, by definition, don’t know enough about what is good for them, and so should be institutionally limited in their choices. […] To run universities the way they are run now is purely and simply to abdicate the responsibility of teaching the next generation.” Faculty and administrators have become retail sellers, competing with each other to attract the highest number of ‘customers’ in order to boost enrollment and bring in the tuition money.
Although Stover makes excellent points, gets most of the facts right, and yet is spectacularly wrong in his conclusions, Pigliucci writes. One of his arguments is that everything Stover writes also applies to the sciences. This “pretty much dispatches of his entire argument, since he is assuming from the beginning that the humanities are somehow different from the rest of academy. They are most certainly not, at least not by the light of the parameters he uses in his discussion,” Pigliucci writes.
In his essay, Stover concludes that the only justification for the humanities is within a humanistic framework, and that outside of such framework there is no case to be made: “The humanities do not need to make a case within the university because the humanities are the heart of the university. Golfers do not need to justify the rationale for hitting little white balls to their golf clubs; philatelists do not need to explain what makes them excited about vintage postage at their local stamp collecting society.”
But according to Pigliucci, “This is utterly wrong, and quite obviously so. The analogies simply do not hold. Golfers pay for their club memberships, and philatelists buy their own stamps. Academics, by contrast, are paid, often with public funds. So justification is most definitely needed.”
Unlike Stover, Pigliucci thinks that a defense of the humanities is synonymous with a defense of the very idea of a liberal education. “Which in turn,” he says, “is synonymous with a defense of the possibility and hope for a vibrant democracy. Or at least a democracy that doesn’t produce the sort of obscene politics and social policies that a number of Western countries, especially the US and UK, are currently producing. We can do better, we ought to do better, we will do better.”
“At their origin in the Renaissance the humanities were not just a collection of old books studied by antiquarian enthusiasts. They emerged on the scene to challenge what they saw as political, cultural, and educational degeneracy. From the beginning — and perhaps never more than now — the justification of humanities lies in the fact that they have always been poised to expose the soulless routine of our education and the moral complacency of our elites.”
The reasons why the humanities can exercise this power may seem counterintuitive, but they constitute the core of the case for the humanities.
“The first involves the simple merits of language study. The basis of all the ethical systems, first discovered by the thinkers of the Axial Period in antiquity — by Confucius, Socrates, the Buddha — was the teaching that other people, beginning with our family, friends, and country but extending ultimately to the whole of mankind, deserve our help and sympathy. The great moral traditions of the human race teach not merely that we should do good to others with the calculation that they will reciprocate, that one hand scratches another. They teach the value of selflessness in the Buddhist sense, the filial piety and natural sympathy among men taught by the Confucian tradition, the Socratic doctrine that it is better to suffer than to do evil. We can and should substitute sympathy for self-interest; we can cooperate as well as compete. Cooperation requires trust, understanding, and empathy, and these are impossible without language study. They depend on precise standards and the correct use of our own language. They depend on the power to understand someone else’s speech in their own language and to translate that speech accurately into one’s own. This is a basic necessity of human social life and it is a scandal that the modern humanities do not attach a higher value to it.
Second, the value of eloquence. Sometimes, when listening to recordings of orators like Winston Churchill or John F. Kennedy, or when we read the speeches of Abraham Lincoln, we become acutely conscious of the absence in our own political culture of eloquence, of convictions forcefully and beautifully expressed. We have recently in America had many proofs of how imprecision of expression and unconcern for one’s own ethos or moral personality can poison political discourse. The study of writing should teach more than how to write a clear and polite business letter. As good writers know, writing is a moral exercise, a form of self-knowledge. If we are honest in writing we come to realize our own intellectual and moral shortcomings. If we have any good in us, if we have things we believe in, we need the arts of writing and speaking to communicate them. Bonum diffusivum sui. What is good needs to be passed on. As political consultants know, the most powerful arguments are always moral arguments. Leadership is most effective, perhaps only effective, when leaders have moral weight and eloquence. Even for writers not called upon to lead, the cultivation of eloquent speech and writing is a valuable moral discipline. True eloquence, as Cicero wrote, comes from the good man skilled in speaking, the vir bonus dicendi peritus. When we write or speak well, we show what we are. Since human beings naturally want to be loved rather than despised, the aspiration to correct and powerful expression becomes a school of character. Just as real teaching, teaching that cares about the character of the taught, requires the teacher to be morally good as well.
Finally, a case for the traditional humanities has to include a reorientation of teaching towards the formation of character and judgment. In the study of literature, history, philosophy, and the arts we need to abandon the refusal to make “value judgments” characteristic of demoralized modern culture. We need instead to teach a more courageous sort of discernment: to declare what is good and bad in our arts and our literature, to defend our convictions about the best way to live. Renaissance humanists always insisted that full humanity and dignity, true nobility, went beyond wealth and status, beyond a successful career. It mattered what you were more than what you seemed to be. Your character, as David Brooks has recently argued [in The Road to Character], is more important to your happiness than your résumé. The old Christian humanists believed that receptive reading of classical authors — reading built on respect for tradition — would help students see what was truly admirable and worthwhile in human life. Like the young Marcus Aurelius, they could not help but admire noble souls and want to be like them. Where this door has been closed to contemporary students, it must be reopened — not for the sake of praising the vices of the past, but for finding models that we need to emulate.
That sort of response, I venture to affirm, is still possible, and it is still necessary. In our time, as in all times, the voices of Vanity Fair shout at us that if only we have enough wealth and power we can get everything we want and can force others to do our will. The voice of uncivilized humanity, in other words, teaches us to be sociopaths. The voice of the old humanities, which is the voice of the best in our civilization, teaches another lesson. It teaches that our life is more valuable when we care about the sort of person we are becoming, when we learn to love what deserves to be loved, when we are admired by people whose good opinion is worth having. It prevents us from becoming ideological puppets of the powerful, it defends us against the sham values of commercialized culture, and it gives us a center that is our own. It makes us, in a word, humanior — more human.”
“Today, more than ever, the humanities are vital. They are arguably our last bastions against dogma, automation and the artificialisation of everything. They are also our collective consciousness, the glue and bond between different groups, classes and members, both within society and across societies. More importantly, given their deep dive into the human condition, the humanities represent the infinite frontier of discovery, innovation and creativity. […] Humanities help us understand the emotions and thoughts that rationalise our actions and configure our realities.” — Sami Mahroum, the Executive Director of INSEAD’s Innovation and Policy Initiative, in The humanities help us understand our actions and reimagine our reality
The new predatory capitalism
The phrase “We’re making the world a better place” is thrown around so often in the tech world that it became a punch line on the HBO satire Silicon Valley, Dayen writes in Big Tech: The New Predatory Capitalism. And although ‘Big Tech’ can make aspects of our daily life more ‘convenient,’ that’s not the same as making the world a better place. Their main goal has become making more money, via more monopoly, and “[t]he question is no longer whether we have a problem with Big Tech; it’s what we’ll do about it.”
Here, unfortunately, we have a distinct lack of consensus, and in his article for The American Prospect, Dayen surveys “the sundry theories for how to tame the Big Tech colossus — whether through laws, regulatory oversight, taxes, or antitrust enforcement.”
“If it’s clear that Facebook and Google can’t manage what they already control, why let those corporations own more?” asked Matt Stoller and Barry Lynn of the Open Markets Institute
From this broad canvas or theories, Dayen pieces together the outlines of a strategy, with interlocking approaches designed to restore competition. None of these will be implemented tomorrow, however. “Big Tech is still learning how to navigate Washington, but even while under siege they control massive resources to get their way. […] Trump’s NAFTA rewrite proposal would limit Facebook and Google’s liability for content on its site, even as Congress tries to hold them accountable for Russian meddling. He just signed a defense policy bill that could turn over much of the federal government’s commercial procurement to Amazon.
But the aftermath of the financial crisis taught the lesson that those seeking reform need a shelf full of ideas when the opportunity to implement them arrives. And instead of technocrats dominating competition policy, the focus on recognized consumer brands with supreme importance has opened up the debate. ‘It’s healthy that there should be public input into a realm of policy that profoundly affects public welfare,’ says Marshall Steinbaum [a research director at the Roosevelt Institute]. ‘The idea that we should do antitrust behind closed doors is what got us where we are today.’
Franklin Foer [the author of World Without Mind: The Existential Threat of Big Tech] adds that the Democrats’ search for an economic identity after the Trump election also creates positive momentum for anti-monopoly solutions. ‘I’ve talked to [Senate Minority Leader Chuck] Schumer about antitrust,’ Foer says. ‘I think he understands that there’s free-floating anger that the Democrats need to be able to capture and steer toward prudent solutions.’
Indeed, Democrats have put antitrust enforcement at the center of their Better Deal framework, putting them on record that their return to the majority will have to accompany a strategy to end the Big Tech monopoly. And the bipartisan concern over the platforms could leave them with fewer friends when the political moment strikes. Most of the tools to enforce already exist and just have to be correctly targeted. The laws are on the books. All that’s required is political will. ‘Antitrust is really driven by an appointee,’ says [Jonathan] Taplin [the author of Move Fast and Break Things]. ‘You can have a president who says, I’m going to get a hard-ass in there, and no laws have to be passed to change everything.’”
And also this …
“In European societies, knowledge is often pictured as a tree: a single trunk — the core — with branches splaying outwards towards distant peripheries,” Jonardon Ganeri writes in The tree of knowledge is not an apple or an oak but a banyan.
“The imagery of this tree is so deeply embedded in European thought-patterns that every form of institution has been marshalled into a ‘centre-periphery’ pattern. In philosophy, for example, there are certain ‘core’ subjects and other more marginal, peripheral, and implicitly expendable, ones. Likewise, a persistent, and demonstrably false, picture of science has it as consisting of a ‘stem’ of pure science (namely fundamental physics) with secondary domains of special sciences at varying degrees of remove: branches growing from, and dependent upon, the foundational trunk.
Knowledge should indeed be thought of as a tree — just not this kind of tree. Rather than the European fruiter with its single trunk, knowledge should be pictured as a banyan tree, in which a multiplicity of aerial roots sustains a centreless organic system.”
“The picture of knowledge as a banyan tree encourages a certain epistemic ideal: that these different but commensurably valuable sources of epistemic nutrition can belong within a single epistemic organism. Of all the departments of knowledge within a modern university, it is philosophy that seems most addicted to the centre-periphery picture of enquiry, to the old European tree. Were it able to re-imagine itself according to this new ideal, its practitioners would find themselves freed from their terror of not being quite ‘at the centre’, and the profession might finally emerge from its long struggle to overcome its inability to conceptualise diversity in content and composition.”
“We have learned to treat scientific knowledge in the same throwaway manner that we do for older versions of laptops and smartphones. Mention a book from 15 years ago and watch as eyes glaze over. How could that possibly be relevant today?,” Joe Brewer writes in The Predicament of Knowledge.
“The amazing truth is that there has been a veritable explosion of knowledge accompanying the exponential explosion in human population (and all the emergent social complexities that came with it).
[…] We create more knowledge in a year than was produced in the first 300 years after the scientific revolution. This expansion can be seen in the number of peer-review journal articles, millions of people graduating from college and advance studies every year and entering the workforce (if they are lucky enough to find increasingly rare employment opportunities), and the massive flood of findings across every field imaginable with new sources of data and tools for its study,” Brewer writes. “Our problem isn’t that we don’t have enough knowledge; it’s that we have too much of it coming too fast for us to process and internalize. We are growing the pool of knowledge and insights at an exponential rate, yet failing to synthesize or apply it rapidly enough to tackle major social problems. Even worse, most of us are completely ignorant of what is known in other fields and no single person could possibly keep track of all of it.”
Once we recognize that pretty much every problem anyone has in one place has been solved by another person (or group) somewhere else, Brewer says, we begin to see the need for knowledge synthesis.
“There are plenty of reasons why our knowledge has historically been separated into silos — in the early days it was necessary to carve the world into manageable chunks to study and make sense of them. And quite a few obstacles remain firmly in place, as anyone who seeks funding for interdisciplinary research knows all too well. It will require a great deal of ingenuity and effort (and no small amount of cooperation) to move beyond the incentive structures for career advancement and funding that get in the way today.
But unlocking these silos will be essential work for a great number of us working to weave knowledge and manifest holistic solutions to the problems that threaten the viability of our civilization in the early 21st century. Not only must we do it, but as I hope I have conveyed in this essay, it is now within reach if only we can muster the courage to believe in the seemingly impossible: that all our problems already have solutions. They just need to be brought together in the right combinations and applied with insight and care.
Onward, fellow humans.”
For 19 winters, photographer Alexandra de Steiguer has been the ‘caretaker’ of the Oceanic Hotel on Star Island, New Hampshire, while it is closed during New England’s coldest months. Tasked with tending to the island’s 43 acres by herself, she finds peace and meaning in being alone with her thoughts, and creative inspiration for her photography, though at times her mind has turned to ghosts and intruders.
With breathtaking cinematography from Brian Bolster, Winter’s Watch was a film festival favourite in 2017, appearing at AFI Docs, Camden International Film Festival, DOC NYC and Palm Springs International ShortFest, among many others.
“It’s said that there are two kinds of architects: those who will only live in vernacular homes and those who would only live in a home of their own design. Now I know why,” Bryan Boyer writes in Van der Home.
Together with his partner Laura, Boyer ignored both options and bought a townhouse by Mies van der Rohe. With his colleagues at Dash Marshall, he made limited renovations after devouring all of the books about Lafayette Park, looking for clues as to what Mies would do if given a do-over.
“We spent hours poring over your original drawings now in safe keeping at MoMA in New York. As we studied the numerous revisions of the floor plan, we saw you (and let’s be honest, your sizable office) slowly crack the code of these townhouse units.
Those ground floor cores that contain kitchen, bathroom, and coat closet! You would be sad to see what people have done to them over the years. The little ‘wing walls’ that so efficiently allow your core to bring subtle hierarchy to the spaces of the ground floor have been disrespected in numerous ways — in some cases shaved right off. With the exception of the basement we took your plans as a given, so the wing walls became something of a fixation.
Look, it’s fashionable these days to restore the units as accurately as possible, but truthfully kitchens and bathrooms from the 1950s and 60s were pretty dreadful. We kept the kitchen in its original location but otherwise it’s all new. We copied and offset your wing walls, creating a formal echo that leaves a shadow gap between your work and ours. Call it respect.”
Located in Japan’s Ehime Prefecture, Hiiragi’s House sits on a plot containing a tree that has been nurtured by several generations of the owner’s family. The house was designed by he Japanese architect Takashi Okuno with a U-shaped plan to ensure that every room has a view of the tree in the central courtyard.
The use of clean lines, minimal decoration and the incorporation of functional elements into the structure lend the house a simplicity that recalls historical Japanese architecture. According to the architect, the aim of the project was, “Respecting ancestors, cherishing the present, and connecting to the future,” as well as “imparting the message of austerity into the free and flexible living space of today.”
“The consensus view is taking hold. We watch films according to a ‘match’ on Netflix and find partners on websites that claim to ‘scientifically’ pair people together. We click the most popular articles on newspaper websites. So much choice has made us lazy about our own appetites and interests: we’ve become dependent on the recommend.” — Jo Ellison in The tyranny of the consensus view