Random finds (2018, week 28) — On algorithmic conformity, rebelliousness in the kitchen, and why we need to think smaller, not bigger

Mark Storm
24 min readJul 12, 2018
Petit Place, by RoosRos Architects, is a modular and sustainably built construction kit based on the WikiHouse principle — “An open-source solution which is accessible to everybody,” according to the architects.

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.

With this week: Rem Koolhaas on the future of our cities; Massimo Bottura’s rebelliousness kitchen; sensemaking and the need to think smaller; (im)mortality, old age and what it means to be human; curiosity; Pablo Picasso and negative capability; byōbu; beautiful architecture from Indonesia; and, finally, the roots of writing.

Rem Koolhaas on “cities shackled by algorithmic conformity”

Apart from being one of the world’s most influential architects, Rem Koolhaas is also leading author on urbanism. His publications include Delirious New York, written in the late seventies “when everyone had written off the city,” and S,M,L,XL (1995). In 2000, he was awarded The Pritzker Architecture Prize. According to the jury, “Koolhaas is that rare combination of visionary and implementer — philosopher and pragmatist — theorist and prophet — an architect whose ideas about buildings and urban planning made him one of the most discussed contemporary architects in the world even before any of his design projects came to fruition.”

Recently, Koolhaas spoke with Nathan Gardels, the editor in chief of the The WorldPost. One of the things they talked about was the future of cities in the digital age. An interesting topic now that Alphabet Is Trying to Remake the Modern City, Starting With Toronto and technology focused on urban systems is drawing billions of dollars in venture capital.

“The Chinese science fiction writer Hao Jingfang […] talks about cities in the age of cyberspace and smart technology like self-driving cars and the Internet of Things becoming large neural networks that will develop their own mind and consciousness. Do you agree with that? How will it impact urban life?,” Nathan Gardels asks.

“If we simply let cyberspace run its course to a future determined by Silicon Valley, those libertarian-minded engineers will paradoxically lead us to cities shackled by algorithmic conformity. It would be a neural network, yes, but one that operates in lock step,” Koolhaas replies.

“What we know without hesitation is that self-driving cars will only work at the price of total conformity of every member of society. Such a system of mobility will depend on everyone behaving with no exceptions. As exemplified by self-driving cars, there is a built-in authoritarianism in this managed space of flows we call cyberspace. More and more people are becoming uncomfortable with such a future.”

“I think an architect must be a change expert, because you have to shape change. Therefore, you must know what is happening in the world. Before I became an architect, I was a journalist. And actually I’m still investigative journalist. I observe. My life is one big string of anthropological and sociological explorations. I’ve always had a particular attention to what is neglected.” — Rem Koolhaas in an interview with Belgium newspaper De Tijd. (Photograph: Rem Koolhaas with Mohsen Mostafavi, dean of the Harvard Graduate School of Design, during the closing keynote for the 2016 AIA convention)

“The late ‘arcologist’ Paolo Soleri believed that the intense feedback loops of spatial density are the condition for intelligence, as in the tight coils of the brain. As wired cities become dense neural networks, will they evolve into ecological, efficient, intelligent organisms, even at the price of the conformity you fear, or will the ‘delirious’ chaos of diversity upset it all and resist such efficiency?,” Gardels wonders.

According to Koolhaas, “Density may be the condition for intelligence, but efficiency certainly isn’t. Intelligent life flourishes most in the diversity of those unmanaged spaces that are, by definition, outside efficiency. That has been the history of the development of diverse life forms, and that has been the history of the culture of cities.”

When asked what cities are most prepared to face the future?, Koolhaas says, “I have lived for 30 years in either New York and London, but now I’m living in Randstad [a metropolitan area in the Netherlands largely consisting of the four largest cities: Amsterdam, Rotterdam, The Hague and Utrecht]. It is a bit bizarre for me. There are no dominant cities but together the whole area is connected in a kind of metropolitan field. All the facilities and amenities you’d find in a city are here but decentralized across the whole zone. It is kind of an extended city not dependent on coherence or adjustment of each of the parts to each other. Yet it is able to sustain itself as a connected entity — kind of like a collage. So I would say cities like this that are more open and not so complex to operate are best prepared for whatever the future might throw at them. Los Angeles is the prototype of this kind of habitat for the future.”

Rebelliousness in the world’s best kitchen

From Polaroid’s instant camera to the sharing economy of firms like Airbnb, many companies have soared on the wings of radical ideas, writes Francesca Gino in What the World’s Best Restaurant Knows About Keeping Its Creative Edge. “Chef Massimo Bottura likewise upended convention in 1995 when he opened his restaurant, Osteria Francescana, in Modena, Italy, and started serving radically reinvented Italian dishes in a culture that placed a premium on tradition. […]

What seemed like a risky move at the time — rebelling against beloved recipes shared across generations — made Bottura a star. That success could have bred complacency, followed by failure, as so often happens in companies across industries. Instead, at Osteria Francescana, success set the stage for further innovation. This restaurant holds two major lessons for organizations around the world that are built on innovation and want to keep their creative edge,” Gino writes.

Massimo Bottura’s “daring proved no flash in the pan. In 2016, two decades after (barely) surviving the ire of locals to become a three-Michelin-star destination, Osteria Francescana secured the top spot on the list of the World’s 50 Best Restaurants. And it has just been named №1 again.” (Photograph courtesy of Osteria Francescana)

Always keep evolving is the first, says Gino. “Innovative organizations don’t worry about how to maintain excellence so much as how to find the new excellence. At Osteria Francescana, dishes are cooked to perfection, but the recipes are never quite finished. Bottura expects his meals to evolve over time.”

Reward novelty over predictability the second. “Bottura keeps his team sharp and engaged by opening their minds to their own potential for creative thinking — and playfulness. For example, he sometimes asks his staff to create dishes based on a piece of music, a painting, or a poem.” On one occasion, Lou Reed’s Take a Walk on the Wild Side inspired Bottura’s kitchen staff to create a wide variety of dishes. Some people focused on the song’s bass line. Some on the lyrics, while others focused on the era in which the song was written, chef de partie Jessica Rosval told Gino. All this from a single moment of inspiration when Bottura had been listening to the song in his car.

“By constantly challenging his staff and asking them to look at dishes and ingredients with a fresh perspective, everyone working at the restaurant embraces the new and expands his or her skills. Their menu is always evolving and so are their talents.” (Photograph courtesy of Osteria Francescana)

“When you experience novelty at work, job satisfaction increases, along with creativity and overall performance. Novelty also leads to greater confidence,” Gino writes. “Many workplaces I have studied focus on finding ways to instill uniformity in how employees go about their jobs, when in fact novelty should be the priority.”

The data of several surveys conducted by Gino, suggests that “organizations consciously or unconsciously urge employees to check a good chunk of their real selves at the door. Workers and their organizations both pay a price: decreased engagement, productivity, and innovation.” This can’t come as a huge surprise, though. “For decades the principles of scientific management have prevailed. Leaders have been overly focused on designing efficient processes and getting employees to follow them,” she says in Let Your Workers Rebel. But now they need to think about when conformity hurts their business and allow — and even promote — behavior that deviates from organizational norms, others’ actions, or common expectations, to the benefit of the organization. Gino calls this kind of behavior ‘constructive nonconformity.’

Cooking is a call to act — “I have followed my passions for over thirty years to find my voice. The time has come to use it to make visible the invisible. Around the world, we waste one third of the food we produce. In 2016, I founded the non-profit association Food for Soul to empower communities to fight against food waste in the interest of social inclusion and individual wellbeing.” (Photograph courtesy of Osteria Francescana)

“Bottura is a charismatic leader who started his culinary career by breaking rules in a context — Italian cooking — which follows an extremely stringent set of rules. […] By reinventing traditional Italian dishes, [he] made his company a success. Not only that, he was able to sustain an environment that encourages rebelliousness over the years. By constantly challenging his staff and asking them to look at dishes and ingredients with a fresh perspective, everyone working at the restaurant embraces the new and expands his or her skills. Their menu is always evolving and so are their talents,” Gino writes.

“When growth becomes the goal of everyone in the organization, complacency doesn’t have time to take root and radical ideas can emerge time and time again.”

Sensemaking and why we need to think smaller, not bigger

The The Alpine Review is a real treasure trove. This week an unabridged essay by Jon Kolko, a partner at Modernist Studio and the founder of Austin Center for Design (from The Alpine Review N°1 — Antifragility, 2012).

He argues that, to maintain any semblance of happiness, the skill most of us will require is sensemaking — the ability to connect discrete insights and synthesize large quantities of often incomplete or conflicting information. Only a few are armed with this magic ability and it requires hard, hard work.

All photographs are by Lewis Baltz, “whose caustic but formally beautiful black-and-white images of parking lots, office parks, industrial garage doors and the backs of anonymous warehouses helped forge a new tradition of American landscape photography in an age of urban sprawl,” Randy Kennedy wrote in The New York Times on the occasion of Baltz’ death in 2014.

“From garden cities built on contaminated ground to bland housing projects and towns devoid of landmarks, Lewis Blatz chronicled the dehumanised urban landscape of America, brick by brick.” (Welcome to anywhere: Lewis Baltz’s blandsville—in pictures, the Guardian)

It’s a pretty fascinating time to witness the demise of the most powerful and rich nation in the history of the world. All doom and gloom aside, for those of us who fancy ourselves drive-by-ethnographers, it’s good people watching. What’s more, it’s predictable and rhythmic, as events occur and pundits pundit and protesters protest, all to the steady beat of mass production. There’s no need for unnecessary anticipation, as we can easily guess when the next occupier will be tear-gassed, or when the next presidential hopeful will make an audacious and racist remark; we’re pretty much guaranteed a rhetorical and canned response from our administration, followed by news of a pop star acting drunk and disorderly. It repeats so frequently, and with such a blanded regularity, that nothing is unbelievable, nothing too grotesque. An electric fence to keep the immigrants out? Of course that’s what a presidential candidate would propose. New functionality to see what pornographic videos your friends are watching, right now? Of course that’s what Facebook is building. This is the tongue-in-cheek fallout that feeds The Daily Show, only it isn’t really very funny, because it’s real, and you can’t turn it off.

It’s perhaps obvious to point out that the world we live in is interconnected, yet the simple statement is at the crux of our downward digression: our political system is intertwined with economics, intellectual property is connected to technology, design is at the heart of consumption and marketing feeds the beast. It’s a system, and so our critique of it should be systemic, and so too should be our strategies for change. But most of us can’t think of systems, because they are too big of which to think. We witness items, or people, or unique instances and we critique and celebrate those, because they are tractable. To denounce Michele Bachmann as insane is misleadingly simple, but to rationalize her rise to power is harder, because it requires empathizing with her supporters, understanding her world view, acknowledging the role she’s played in a political machine, examining her relationship-through-policy with large companies, teasing out the relationship between these companies and religious entities, and holding all of that in your head while asking yourself, “Did she really just say that ‘there isn’t even one study that can be produced that shows that carbon dioxide is a harmful gas’?” Seven plus or minus two, and our brain quite literally can’t make sense of the world around us.

Construction Detail, East Wall, Xerox, 1821 Dyer Road, Santa Ana — “Baltz’s facades tell you nothing about the content or function such structures might have. As he once put it: ‘You couldn’t tell if they were making pantyhose or mega-death.” (All photographs courtesy of Lewis Baltz Trust)

To maintain any resemblance of happiness, the skill most of us will require in the post-apocalyptic, post-United States industrial block is sensemaking: the ability to synthesize large quantities of often incomplete or conflicting information — and we must direct that skill squarely at the humanization of technology. In the history of economic prosperity and advancement, there have been only a select few armed with this magic ability: us. The ‘creative class,’ those with — god help us — ‘creative quotient,’ have learned this skill largely through on-the-job training. And then, we’ve focused our efforts on producing things no one needs and marketing these things to people who literally aren’t equipped with the education, the confidence or the discerning ability to judge.

Wealth inequality, from my perspective, is not the point of clash between the 1% and the other 99% (although, like in any system, money is intertwined in just about everything). The clash is about the ability to understand systems — to make sense of complexity — and then, when possible, to wield or manage these systems to our collective advantage. The political process is not separate from banking, lobbying, manufacturing, educating, importing, exporting, fighting or praying — and neither is the process of design. To say “we’re part of a global economy” is to trivialize the complexities of the man-made world. We’re part of a global technological system, and everything — including, thanks to companies like Monsanto, nature — is now a part of it. The power currency of the next era is sensemaking through systems thinking, and the occupiers are starting to realize that they don’t have any money to spend in this new economy.

‘Sensemaking’ is about connecting discrete insights. It’s about depth of thinking, rigor of connections and strategic and creative reasoning. It’s about creating new ideas and crafting multiple futures. It’s not about reproducibility or duplicability; it flies in the face of commoditization and efficiency and homogeneity, even though it’s been applied to all of these things in the context of mass production and assembly. Six Sigma helped us make more things with less defects; total cost of ownership helped us squeeze pennies out of our technology. Topgrading led us to squeeze productivity out of people, and a SaaS cloud model will let us fire the people altogether and make virtual products with virtual tools to live in a virtual cloud for virtual value.

All of these things are the result of incredibly thoughtful, powerful sensemaking and creativity. But this non-linear thinking — this design thinking — has been applied exclusively in the context of mass production and gratuitous financial creativity. We’ve streamlined, algorithmatized, instrumented and quarterly-profited our way to the systemic malfeasance we’re now experiencing, and it will take just as rigorous of an approach in the opposite direction to undo the damage. This means highly personal, thoughtful, reflective sensemaking in contexts other than mass production and finance. This includes policy, art, farming, neighbourhoods, community and above all, education.

From the series Maryland, 1976 — “The Corcoran Gallery in Washington DC commissioned Baltz to document the capital city for the US bicentennial. He found its monuments and official architecture uninteresting, instead shooting the Maryland suburbs where many government staff lived. The bland scenes he captured look so generic, they could have been from anywhere in America.” (All photographs courtesy of Lewis Baltz Trust)

When I write, I typically find a way to drive a call to action focused around design — how an intellectual, rigorous and humanistic approach to design will save the day. I do this because I believe it to be true. But in this case, design isn’t going to solve ‘the problem,’ because there’s no problem to be solved. The interconnected nature of our global systems are a matter of fact and a way of life, and there’s no lever to push or product to launch that can ‘solve’ the interlinked failure of education, the economic meltdown and our gross poverty of culture. This is the substance of the world we built and the world we live in. The calls for massive change, revolutionary paradigm shifts or disruptive innovation are misguided and misguiding, because of their lack of systemic rationalization. But the light at the end of the tunnel, if there is light and there is, in fact, still a tunnel, is design, because design is the rigorous humanization of technology.

Design has become conflated with scale; I’ve been guilty of emphasizing the amplifying effect of design through mass production or large-scale advertising. But as design can be scaled, it can also be tempered, and our efforts need not focus on the broad at the expense of the depth. Deeply focused design efforts can be tremendously powerful. Emily Pilloton has scaled back broad efforts in developing countries to offer deep impact in a single town in the United States. Dennis Littky’s educational programs focus on an individual student with an ‘individual teacher: one to one (three to one, in fact — three teachers per one student). Sir Ken Robinson’s calls for education reform to emphasize individuality of passion and unique learning. Credit Unions provide banking for small communities and farmer’s markets offer crops produced in small quantities to small amounts of people for a small markup.

We need to think smaller, not bigger, and with more attention to craft of execution. The craft of synthesis through sensemaking is not in visual details, as most designers have been trained, and it’s not in the application of our talents for the corporate machine, as most designers have accepted. It’s in intellectual details, specificity and rigor; it’s in directives towards the focused and local, and it manifests as hard, hard work.

Tract House No 22 — “Tract housing refers to identical homes built on land divided into small plots. They’re easy to design and cheap to build. For his series The Tract Houses (1969–71), Lewis Baltz flattened angles and perspective to highlight the lack of humanity and grace in the design of such houses.” (All photographs courtesy of Lewis Baltz Trust)

Neil Postman bemoaned the fragmented view of our complex world: “There is no consistent, integrated conception of the world which serves as the foundation on which our edifice of belief rests. And therefore, in a sense, we are more naive than those of the Middle Ages, and more frightened, for we can be made to believe almost anything.” He’s right, and that is, in summary, the backdrop for the end of our national dominance.

For it is not problematic that we created derivatives and sub-prime mortgages and Pottery Barn and subdivisions and a 24-hour news cycle and a four-dollar cup of coffee. It’s that we had no integrated conception of the world — and more importantly, the people in the world — from which to judge that these things are bad. We were broadly untrained in making sense of things, in creating an understanding of how systems work, and we ignored consequences that were diffused, but present. We critiqued the aesthetic of our designs but did not dare to judge our subject matter and content, as we had no spirituality of technology upon which to compare. And so our ‘progress’ has been, as Steve Baty describes, “cold, relentless, asocial and unapologetic.” We are now, collectively, wiser and in that regard, perhaps the glory day of design — as an integrated discipline of humanizing technology — is finally upon us.

And also this …

Death is not to be feared, according to the great Roman orator and statesman Marcus Tullius Cicero. It either marks the end of human consciousness or the beginning of eternal bliss. Whether or not this is true, it certainly holds, as Cicero says, that life is like a play. A good actor knows when to leave the stage. To cling desperately to one’s life when it has been lived well and is drawing to a close is both futile and foolish.

But as professor of philosophy Massimo Pigliucci writes in How to Be a Stoic, some people aren’t persuaded at all by the idea that death itself is what gives urgent meaning to life. “On the contrary, a number of techno-optimists think that death is a disease that should be cured. Broadly speaking, they call themselves ‘Transhumanists,’ and quite a few of them can be found among the white male millionaires of Silicon Valley” (page 161).

The philosopher Julian Baggini also believes that this transhumanist dream of immortality would betray what it means to be human. Besides, “eternal life would be deathly dull,” he warns those who are seeking to live for ever.

“To even imagine eternal life,” Baggini writes, “we have to assume that we are the kinds of creatures who could persist indefinitely. But contemporary philosophers, neuroscientists, psychologists and the early Buddhists all agree that the self is in constant flux, lacking a permanent, unchanging essence. Put simply, there is no thing that could survive indefinitely. Take this seriously and you can see how the idea of living for ever is incoherent. If your body could be kept going for a thousand years, in what sense would ‘the you’ that exists now still be around then? It would be more like a descendant than it would a continuation of you. I sometimes find it hard to identify with my teenage self, and that was less than 40 years ago. If I change, I eventually become someone else. If I don’t, life becomes stagnant and loses its direction. Even if we could survive for hundreds of years, focusing too much on the future always risks neglecting the present. There is a very real sense in which we only ever exist in the here and now. Being fully alive requires being in that present as fully as possible. Dreams of eternal life interfere with making the most of the reality of temporal life.”

“[T]he nature of human experience is essentially one of transience and impermanence. This is captured perfectly in the Japanese thought concept mono no aware. Often translated as ‘the pathos of things,’ I take it to be the sense that every experience, even the most wonderful, is coloured by a sadness that it will not and could never last. Being aware of this does not diminish the experience but intensifies it,” Julian Baggini writes. (Photograph of Bruno Ganz from Wim Wenders’ film Wings of Desire in which angels, tired of their lofty, invulnerable lives, long to become mortal.)

According to Baggini, we need to accept that our mortality is a necessary part of being embodied beings who live in time. But this doesn’t mean we have to romanticise death or, like Plato and the Stoics, consider it to be no bad thing at all. “On this, Aristotle was characteristically sensible […]. The more we live life well, the more we ‘will be distressed at the thought of death.’ When you appreciate that ‘life is supremely worth living’ you know what a grievous loss it is when that life comes to an end. Living for ever may be a terrible fate but living a lot longer in good health sounds like a wonderful one.”

Baggini’s attitude to death is therefore similar to Augustine’s attitude towards chastity. “Yes, I want to be mortal, but please — not yet.”

In How To Grow Old (44 B.C.), Marcus Tullius Cicero describes how you can make the second half of life the best part of all — and why you might discover that reading and gardening are actually far more pleasurable than sex ever was. Filled with timeless wisdom and practical guidance, Cicero’s classic has delighted and inspired readers, for more than two thousand years. Today, its lessons are more relevant than ever in a world obsessed with the futile pursuit of youth.

From ‘The conversation with Cato,’ translated by Philip Freeman (Princeton University Press, 2016, page 8–13):

“4. Scipio: When Gaius Laelius and I are talking, Marcus Cato, we often admire your outstanding and perfect wisdom in general, but more particularly that growing old never seems a burden to you. This is quite different from the complaints of most older men, who claim that aging is a heavier load to bear than Mount Etna.

Cato: I think, my young friends, that you are admiring me for something that isn’t so difficult. Those who lack within themselves the means for a blessed and happy life will find any age painful. But for those who seek good things within themselves, nothing imposed on them by nature will seem troublesome. Growing older is a prime example of this. Everyone hopes to reach old age, but when it comes, most of us complain about it. People can be foolish and inconsistent.

They say that old age crept up on them much faster than they expected. But, first of all, who is to blame for such poor judgment? Does old age steal upon youth any faster than youth does on childhood? Would growing older really be less of a burden to them if they were approaching eight hundred rather than eighty? If old people are foolish, nothing can console them for time slipping away, no matter how long they live.

5. So if you compliment me on being wise — and I wish I were worthy of that estimate and my name — in this way alone do I deserve it: I follow nature as the best guide and obey her like a god. Since she has carefully planned the other parts of the drama of life, it’s unlikely that she would be a bad playwright and neglect the final act. And this last act must take place, as surely as the fruits of trees and the earth must someday wither and fall. But a wise person knows this and accepts it with grace. Fighting against nature is as pointless as the battles of the giants against the gods.”

“We’ve divided the world into us versus them — an ever-shrinking population of good people against bad ones. But it’s not a dichotomy. People can be doers of good in many circumstances. And they can be doers of bad in others. It’s true of all of us. We are not sufficiently described by the best thing we have ever done, nor are we sufficiently described by the worst thing we have ever done. We are all of it,” Atul Gawande said during his recent commencement address at U.C.L.A. Medical School (Curiosity and What Equality Really Means, The New Yorker).

“We are in a dangerous moment because every kind of curiosity is under attack — scientific curiosity, journalistic curiosity, artistic curiosity, cultural curiosity. This is what happens when the abiding emotions have become anger and fear. Underneath that anger and fear are often legitimate feelings of being ignored and unheard — a sense, for many, that others don’t care what it’s like in their shoes. So why offer curiosity to anyone else?

Once we lose the desire to understand — to be surprised, to listen and bear witness — we lose our humanity. Among the most important capacities that you take with you today is your curiosity. You must guard it, for curiosity is the beginning of empathy. When others say that someone is evil or crazy, or even a hero or an angel, they are usually trying to shut off curiosity. Don’t let them. We are all capable of heroic and of evil things. No one and nothing that you encounter in your life and career will be simply heroic or evil. Virtue is a capacity. It can always be lost or gained. That potential is why all of our lives are of equal worth.”

“Picasso learned to paint in the ways of the old masters towards the end of his second decade, but it took a further three to learn to paint like a child. His journey towards childlikeness via self-forgetfulness, a process of becoming through undoing, was fruitful but arduous. Arduous because it is the hardest thing to go against the grain of socialisation, group norms and societal expectations — those powerful social influences that shape identity and self-perception. It is the problem of how to know oneself beyond group boundaries when the conditions for knowing lie within them. The situation is analogous to looking for a wristwatch under a streetlight because it is too dark to search in the area where it was lost. It may sound equally ludicrous, but we might improve the search by not looking: lost things often materialise when we shut them from our mind. In fact we are not closing our mind but opening it, waiting for the unconscious, that great unknown, to solve the riddle. And quite often it does. We do more with thoughts than just think them, and occasionally when we switch off they come looking for us,” Paul Tritschler writes in Negative Capability: a Force for Change?

“The unconscious may perform astonishing feats of memory, but it can also play a remarkable role in creativity: sudden insights, solutions and life-enhancing ideas sometimes surface unbidden when our mind is adrift in unconscious reverie. If such chance awakenings are possible, what prevents us from replicating those conditions right now in order to become more the author, and less the narrator, of our own meaningful life story? Now must be part of the answer, should we be inclined to find it, since the locus of change, the focus of personal transformation, could hardly occur at a time other than that which fleetingly exists between past and future: now is the moment of true, lived experience.

But being in the moment, developing an awareness of now, implies having control over our thoughts and the unconscious patterning of memory, that powerful interplay between experience and the influence of a multiplicity of minds. This interplay has something of the character of a master-slave relationship — there is truth in the old aphorism, ‘the mind is an excellent servant but a terrible master.’ To overcome this complex bind, we must identify what it is that puts us in constraint. Our preoccupations with the past, the attachment to intrusive memories, and our preoccupations with the future, our attachment to continual desires, are by definition incompatible with being in the moment — with writing our own script. Following this logic, only once we begin to offload the excess baggage will we be able to glimpsewhat we are and might become.”

Pablo Picasso, by Yousuf Karsh. (Photograph © Yousuf Karsh, 1954)

“From the psychoanalytical perspective of Wilfred Bion, one discovers truth on the cusp of knowing and not knowing — truth being the ingredient essential to psychic growth. On the cerebral map, not knowing is located somewhere at the edge of the world, and Bion demands we stretch ourselves to the precipice and face it unflinchingly. In developing this line of thought, Bion declares a debt to the poet Keats and to his concept of negative capability. Far from taking preconceived notions of nature as the starting point, or vainly attempting to gain absolute knowledge of all life’s mysteries, negative capability requires the poet to be receptive to artistic beauty, even if it comes at the cost of philosophical uncertainty. In a letter to his brothers in 1817, Keats wrote: ‘…it struck me what quality went to form a Man of Achievement, especially in Literature, and which Shakespeare possessed so enormously — I mean Negative Capability, that is, when man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.’ Keats concludes, ‘…with a great poet the sense of Beauty overcomes every other consideration, or rather obliterates all consideration,’” Tritschler writes.

“Picasso’s determination to discover truth through art, by way of the imaginative eyes of a child, was a journey to discover his true self. He once said art is the lie that reveals truth, a remark that perhaps reveals his breakthrough. His personal trajectory might easily have been inspired by the counsel of that otherwise hard-line empiricist, Thomas Huxley: ‘Sit down before fact as a little child, be prepared to give up every preconceived notion, follow humbly wherever and to whatever abysses nature leads, or you shall learn nothing.’ Huxley’s advice fits comfortably with the principle of negative capability, and with Picasso’s path: one that serves to illustrate that we are free to unthink our given reality, to ponder parallel truths, to see our blindness, to feel our unfeelingness, to fathom Milton’s formless infinite — to break through the barriers of knowing.

Whether we take as our starting point poetry, art, psychoanalysis, mysticism, Zen, or radical political philosophy, negative capability is about personal discovery within a process that is necessarily creative — one that emerges when we step into the present without the hindrance of unhelpful memories and future wants. Learning to inhabit the edge of knowing and not knowing increases our ability to cope with the challenges of uncertainty, increases our ability to control what we choose to direct our attention towards, and gives us increased control over how we construct meaning from that experience. It is a journey of discovery, and precisely because the self is necessarily social — existing in a relationship of dynamic reciprocity with others — personal discoveries can have profound social consequences. Imagine what we might achieve if that discovery was unconditional love for all sentient life.”

Japanese folding screens or byōbu were originally constructed to mark spatial divisions within a room. Often sumptuously decorated and monumental in scale, they have been created by some of Japan’s greatest artists. This one, by Kawahara Keiga, depicts the Dutch trading post Dejima in the Bay of Nagasaki and was made around 1836. It has recently been rediscovered and is currently on display at Museum Volkenkunde in Leiden, the Netherlands.

Dejima, the Dutch trading post in the Bay of Nagasaki notable for being the single place of direct trade and exchange between Japan and the outside world during Japan’s Edo period. (Kawahara Keiga, around 1836)

Casablancka House in the village of Kelating, Indonesia, was designed by Budi Pradono Architects for a site that slopes down towards a river. The architects developed the building’s plan around a traditional Balinese spatial concept, consisting of three distinct zones. These are arranged in increasing order of sanctity as they approach a central zen space known as the akasa.

Casablancka House utilises organic materials, such as bamboo, and seeks to enhance the connection between internal spaces and the surrounding nature. “The mountain shape of the building is to bring light into each different room. It represents the relationship between the people and the sky,” Budi Pradono said.

Via Dezeen

“The important thing about the ‘Taring concept’ is the separation between floors, walls, and roof structures, which stand independently but have a special relationship that is implemented in the Casablancka residence,” said Indonesian architect Budi Pradono. (Photograhy by Fernando Gomulya)
Visually, hieroglyphs are all more or less figurative. They represent real or illusional elements, sometimes stylized and simplified, but all generally perfectly recognizable in form. However, the same sign can, according to context, be interpreted in diverse ways. From the Greek adjective ἱερογλυφικός (hieroglyphikos), which is a compound of ἱερός (hierós, ‘sacred’) and γλύφω (glýphō, ‘I carve, engrave’).

“As a writer of nonfiction, I can’t help but love writing’s roots in enumerating concrete objects and reality itself. The textual analyst part of me loves how Mesopotamian tokens were wrapped in clay envelopes after being impressed on the soft exterior — perhaps clay-wrapped tokens of meaning give rise to the notion that text is both a surface and an interior, and that that’s what leads us to talk so relentlessly (in English and other languages) about what is ‘in’ a given text. The poet in me wants to repurpose the heavy thumb of authority’s use of writing on behalf of the powerless. The linguist in me recognises the cognitive significance of the layers of writing’s invention, none of which the brain was evolved to do specifically but with which we have co-evolved. And as a partisan of text, I know its deep history won’t ever be erased.” — Michael Erard, ‘writer in residence’ at the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics, in The deep roots of writing



Mark Storm

Helping people in leadership positions flourish — with wisdom and clarity of thought