Random finds (2018, week 32) — On fewer, better things, Yuval Noah Harari’s lessons for the 21st century, and the geography of jobs
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.
This week: Is good design elitist?; Yuval Noah Harari turns his attention to today’s problems; the geography of jobs and what causes clusters to emerge; Roman roads and how prosperity begets prosperity; a kintsugi approach to beauty; Indian architecture; and some of the music I have been listening to this week.
Fewer, better things
Glenn Adamson is a curator, writer and historian who works across the fields of design, craft and contemporary art. He is also the author of Fewer, Better Things: The Hidden Wisdom of Objects.
Fast Company published an excerpt, titled Is good design elitist?, of which I have selected a few paragraphs.
“Once you start thinking about achieving true sustainability, you begin to realize how challenging a goal it will be in the long run. Only two centuries have passed since the onset of the industrial revolution — an eye blink in the span of geological history — and already, we humans have managed to wipe out innumerable animal species, cause temperatures and sea levels to rise, induce freak weather patterns, and make the air in some cities unpleasant to breathe. And we are just getting started. Given the likely impact of ongoing global industrialization and continued population growth, it is hard to see how we can avert climate change of epic and perhaps disastrous proportions. There is no easy fix for this situation, but there can be little doubt that applying our collective material intelligence is an important part of the remedy. Not only will it allow us to devise more efficient and less damaging solutions to our own ‘life support,’ appreciating materiality also encourages us to more highly value objects in general. By cultivating a cultural interest in fewer, better things, we can reduce our twin propensities toward overconsumption and waste.
This principle — that the more we invest concern in particularly meaningful objects, the less our world will be awash in disregarded trash — has often been used as an argument in favor of craftsmanship. People will gladly reuse expensive handmade cutlery again and again, whereas they don’t think twice before chucking out plastic forks and knives. In general, the more well-made an item is, the more care has gone into it, the more likely it is to persist. Ideally it will last a whole lifetime and even get handed down from one generation to the next.”
“This model of sustainability through high-quality things has the unfortunate reputation of being elitist. Even more unfortunately, that reputation is completely accurate. Few people can afford to fill their homes with finely crafted objects; insisting on excellence as our best pathway to ecological balance is simply impractical. This is a replay, at a different scale, of the problem faced by William Morris, the father figure of the Arts and Crafts movement. A committed socialist, he wanted to make beautiful things for all; instead, as he complained bitterly, he spent much of his time ‘ministering to the swinish luxury of the rich.’ This conflict, between craft’s intended populism and its actual expense, is to some extent insoluble. Yes, luxury objects like beautifully carved furniture and handmade leather shoes are likely to last a long time. But if hardly anyone can afford them in the first place, it doesn’t make much of a difference in the quality of our overall lived environment, much less our survival on the planet. In fact, there is a sense in which luxury craft exacerbates our existing difficulties, because it implies that you can always tell a thing’s value by its price tag, which is simply not true.
An object does not have to be beautifully made in order for us to care about it. Fine craftsmanship is important, but it is not necessary. We can apply the affinity we bring to fine craftsmanship in a more general way. For example, we can appreciate the accessible rigor dreamt of by modernists in a mass-produced tubular steel chair (though in doing so, we should be curious about where the iron and other metals in the steel were mined, who made the chair, and so on). There is no one right way to furnish our environment. Any way of making and living with objects can be equally valid, so long as it serves our basic needs and we find meaningful connections within it.”
“In Lewis Hyde’s widely read book The Gift, there is a lovely passage that describes a custom in a French countryside café. ‘The patrons,’ he writes, ‘sit at a long, communal table, and each finds before his plate a modest bottle of wine. Before the meal begins, a man will pour his wine not into his own glass but into his neighbor’s. And his neighbor will return the gesture, filling the first man’s empty glass.’ The whole exchange might well happen wordlessly. Neither man has any more wine than he would otherwise have had. Yet to Hyde, this simple scene seems to capture something essential in human affairs: ‘In an economic sense nothing has happened… But society has appeared where there was none before.’
If we set Hyde’s example alongside Hibbert’s [Katharine Hibbert, decided to spend as little money as possible for a period of a year, then wrote a book about the experience], we can see that they have something important in common: finding value in the valueless, as a way of creating common cause. Like the keeping of relics and the creation of controlled environments, this is another important way that we can infuse our lives with meaning. If we want to reshape our physical environment to be more humane and ecological, understanding it as an untapped resource of significance will be much more effective than luxury production or the top-down solutions that designers tend to offer us. Gifts are a great example of this found significance, because in one sense, whether or not they have economic value doesn’t even matter very much. An object given freely from one person to another may well have been purchased as a commodity, and it may eventually become one again. But in the moment of exchange, its value is primarily social. It is a bond, both material and personal.”
“In just about any context, a gift may mark a social boundary that otherwise remains unspoken. The scene that Hyde observed, in which French peasants quietly exchanged their wine, could be seen in a skeptical light: Would the men have poured for anyone who lived outside the village? For a woman sitting on her own? For someone of a different ethnicity? Maybe, but maybe not. Gifts can work to exclude as well as include.
Even so, because a gift doesn’t involve an exchange of money, it can stand for other ways of valuing things. This is a familiar idea, if not one that we often stop to consider deeply: A gift is precious not because of what it is, but because of who did the giving. When we wrap a birthday present, etiquette demands that we peel off the price tag but add a personal note. Think of a child picking up a pretty stone on the beach, then handing it to a parent or sibling. This is the sort of moment that Hyde celebrates: a material thing given personal consequence through a simple act of generosity. Just as souvenirs connect us metaphorically to past moments, to places once seen and now remembered, a gift connects us to a person in our lives. When really well chosen, it may even seem like a symbolic portrait of the relationship between giver and receiver.”
Harari’s lessons for the 21st century
Yuval Noah Harari has written two bestsellers: Sapiens, which examined the course of early human history, and Homo Deus, which speculated on where we might be heading as a post-human species. In his new book, 21 Lessons for the 21st Century, Harari turns his attention to the problems we face today.
Here are a few of Harari’s answers from a recent Q&A with the Guardian.
Why is liberalism under particular threat from big data?
“Liberalism is based on the assumption that you have privileged access to your own inner world of feelings and thoughts and choices, and nobody outside you can really understand you. This is why your feelings are the highest authority in your life and also in politics and economics — the voter knows best, the customer is always right. Even though neuroscience shows us that there is no such thing as free will, in practical terms it made sense because nobody could understand and manipulate your innermost feelings. But now the merger of biotech and infotech in neuroscience and the ability to gather enormous amounts of data on each individual and process them effectively means we are very close to the point where an external system can understand your feelings better than you. We’ve already seen a glimpse of it in the last epidemic of fake news.
There’s always been fake news but what’s different this time is that you can tailor the story to particular individuals, because you know the prejudice of this particular individual. The more people believe in free will, that their feelings represent some mystical spiritual capacity, the easier it is to manipulate them, because they won’t think that their feelings are being produced and manipulated by some external system.”
You say if you want good information, pay good money for it. The Silicon Valley adage is information wants to be free, and to some extent the online newspaper industry has followed that. Is that wise?
“The idea of free information is extremely dangerous when it comes to the news industry. If there’s so much free information out there, how do you get people’s attention? This becomes the real commodity. At present there is an incentive in order to get your attention — and then sell it to advertisers and politicians and so forth — to create more and more sensational stories, irrespective of truth or relevance. Some of the fake news comes from manipulation by Russian hackers but much of it is simply because of the wrong incentive structure. There is no penalty for creating a sensational story that is not true. We’re willing to pay for high quality food and clothes and cars, so why not high quality information?”
We live in a moment of unprecedented change. Are humans built to withstand such rapid rates of change?
“We’ll have to wait and see. My main fear is really psychological — whether we have the psychological resilience to sustain such a level of change. The rate of change has been accelerating for the past two centuries. My grandmother is 93 and she is OK. By and large we survive. Whether we can do it again, there is no guarantee. We must invest more resources in the psychological resilience of people.”
The Guardian also published an edited extract from Harari’s latest book, titled Humans are a post-truth species. Harari argues that we should recognise ‘fake news’ a far more difficult problem than we tend to assume and that we should strive even harder to distinguish reality from fiction.
“As a species, humans prefer power to truth. We spend far more time and effort on trying to control the world than on trying to understand it — and even when we try to understand it, we usually do so in the hope that understanding the world will make it easier to control it. Therefore, if you dream of a society in which truth reigns supreme and myths are ignored, you have little to expect from ‘homo sapiens.’ Better try your luck with chimps.
All this does not mean that fake news is not a serious problem, or that politicians and priests have a free licence to lie through their teeth. It would also be wrong to conclude that everything is just fake news, that any attempt to discover the truth is doomed to failure, and that there is no difference whatsoever between serious journalism and propaganda. Underneath all the fake news, there are real facts and real suffering. In Ukraine, for example, Russian soldiers are really fighting, thousands have really died, and hundreds of thousands have really lost their homes.
Therefore instead of accepting fake news as the norm, we should recognise it is a far more difficult problem than we tend to assume, and we should strive even harder to distinguish reality from fiction.
Don’t expect perfection. One of the greatest fictions of all is to deny the complexity of the world, and think in absolute terms of pristine purity versus satanic evil. No politician tells the whole truth and nothing but the truth, but some politicians are still far better than others. Given the choice, I would trust Churchill much more than Stalin, even though the British PM was not above embellishing the truth when it suited him.
Similarly, no newspaper is free of biases and mistakes, but some newspapers make an honest effort to find out the truth whereas others are a brainwashing machine. If I lived in the 1930s, I hope I would have had the sense to believe the New York Times more than Pravda and Der Stürmer.
It is the responsibility of all of us to invest time and effort in uncovering our biases and in verifying our sources of information.
First, if you want reliable information — pay good money for it. If you get your news for free, you might well be the product. Suppose a shady billionaire offered you the following deal: ‘I will pay you $30 a month, and in exchange, you will allow me to brainwash you for an hour every day, installing in your mind whichever political and commercial biases I want.’ Would you take the deal? Few sane people would. So the shady billionaire offers a slightly different deal: ‘You will allow me to brainwash you for one hour every day, and in exchange, I will not charge you anything for this service.’ Now the deal suddenly sounds tempting to hundreds of millions of people. Don’t follow their example.
The second rule of thumb is that if some issue seems exceptionally important to you, make the effort to read the relevant scientific literature. And by scientific literature I mean peer-reviewed articles, books published by well-known academic publishers, and the writings of professors from reputable institutions. Science obviously has its limitations, and it has got many things wrong in the past. Nevertheless, the scientific community has been our most reliable source of knowledge for centuries. If you think that the scientific community is wrong about something, that’s certainly possible, but at least know the scientific theories you are rejecting, and provide some empirical evidence to support your claim.
Scientists, for their part, need to be far more engaged with current public debates. They should not be afraid of making their voice heard when the debate wanders into their field of expertise, be it medicine or history. Silence isn’t neutrality; it is supporting the status quo.”
The geography of jobs
“Some places have always been more prosperous than others,” writes Kathleen O’Toole in Enrico Moretti: The Geography of Jobs.
“[T]hese differences have increased more rapidly over the last 30 years as the gross domestic product and patents for new technologies have concentrated in two to three dozen communities, which Enrico Moretti, the author of The New Geography of Jobs, identifies these as brain hubs or innovation clusters. In these clusters, highly specialized innovation workers, such as engineers and designers, generate about three times as many local jobs for service workers — such as doctors, carpenters, and waitresses — as do manufacturing workers.
Speaking recently at Stanford Graduate School of Business, Moretti answered questions from the audience, including these three.
What causes clusters to emerge?
“This is a very active area of research, but I think fundamentally, there are three major reasons why clustering takes place. One is the thick labor market effect. If you are in a very highly specialized position, you want to be in a labor market where there are a lot of employers looking for workers, and a lot of workers looking for employers. The match between employer and employee tends to be more productive, more creative and innovative in thicker labor markets.
It is the same thing for the vendors, the providers of intermediate services. Companies in the Silicon Valley will find very specialized IP lawyers, lab services, and shipping services that focus on that niche of the industry. And because they are so specialized, they’re particularly good at what they’re doing.
The third factor is what economists call human capital spillovers — the fact that people learn from their colleagues, random encounters in a coffee shop, at a party, from their children, and so on. There’s a lot of sociological evidence that this is one of the attractions of Silicon Valley. You’re always near other people who are at the frontier, so you tend to exchange information. Sometimes it’s information about job openings. Sometimes it’s information about what you’re doing, what type of technology you’re adopting, what type of research you are doing. And this, as you can imagine, is important for R&D, for innovation.
So these three forces are crucial, and that means that localities that already have a lot of innovation tend to attract even more workers and even more employers. That further strengthens their virtuous circle.”
Are these clusters sustainable forever?
“Probably not. Previous clusters have collapsed in spectacular ways. The Silicon Valley of the 1950s was Detroit. People have researched the rise of Detroit, and it mimics very well the rise of Silicon Valley in terms of the amount of innovation, the type of engineering, the type of salaries they were paying. In the 1950s, if you were a car engineer, there wasn’t any better place in the world to be, and if you were a car company, you had to be there. But then, of course, it collapsed.
In my book, I have a chapter on the difference between Detroit and Silicon Valley. This region has kept reinventing itself in ways that are remarkable. It was all orchards, and then it became all hardware, and then it became all software. And now it’s becoming something else: social media and biotech and clean tech. Some types of clusters don’t survive big negative shocks, and other clusters are able to leverage themselves into the next thing.”
What’s the situation in other regions around the world?
“Obviously, India and China are major success stories, but that doesn’t mean that this clustering effect is not at play within those countries. A different example is Italy, where I am from. Italy has been the Detroit in this story. It had a very strong pharmaceutical sector in the 1980s, and a smaller computer cluster. Once the pharmaceutical industry started becoming global, you saw mergers and a concentration of the industry’s R&D in a few places. I know because my dad was employed there, and his lab was first moved to Sweden and then to New Jersey.
I think the same is happening throughout many countries in continental Europe, and even in places like China and India, which have success stories but enormous regional differences. The innovative part of the Chinese economy is concentrated in a handful of megalopolises.
This is an interesting paradox of the current economy. Probably the best news of the last 20 years globally is the vast increase in the standard of living in places like China and India and Brazil, so there’s certainly been a convergence in the standard of living when you compare nations. But when you look within those developing nations, you see the same great divergence that you see here.”
And also this …
Although, on a global level, economists and historians have shown that places that prospered 100, 500, even 1,000 years ago tend to be more economically developed today, it’s less clear how these places were able to sustain economic activity over the millennia.
But “a team of Danish economists has put forth a forceful case for one largely overlooked driver of economic development in Europe: roadways built by the Roman empire nearly two thousand years ago,” Christopher Ingraham writes in How 2,000-year-old roads predict modern-day prosperity. It turns out that the density of the Roman roads at a given point in Europe strongly correlates with present-day prosperity. In other words, infrastructure investments are a pathway to long-term prosperity.
“Now, there’s a big question of causality looming over all this: Can we really say that ancient roads caused greater economic development down the line? Or is it more accurate to say that more prosperous areas in the ancient world simply had more of a tendency to build roads to other places as a natural result of their prosperity?”
One of the arguments in favor of a causal link is that “Roman roads weren’t typically built with trade in mind: their primary purpose was to move troops and supplies to locations of military interest. Trade was an afterthought.”
The economists also found that the correlation between ancient roadways and modern-day development is much smaller and less significant for the Middle East and North Africa. “At some point between 500 and 1,000 A.D., wheeled transport was essentially abandoned in the region. Goods were ferried around on the backs of camels, rather than in carts pulled by oxen,” Ingraham writes. As the ancient roads were left to decay in Middle East and North Africa, they became a less reliable predictor of modern road location and subsequetly also of current day economic activity within the MENA region, as illustrated by the picture below.
The research adds historical heft to the idea that infrastructure investments can be a driver of economic growth, Ingraham says. “While most research into that question has focused on short-term results, [this research] suggests that infrastructure investments today could continue to bear fruit for thousands of years to come.”
Sasha Trubetskoy has created a subway-style diagram of the major Roman roads, based on the Empire of ca. 125 A.D. It combines well-known historic roads, like the Via Appia and Via Agrippa, with lesser-known ones (in somes cases given imagined names).
“How long would it actually take to travel this network? That depends a lot on what method of transport you are using, which depends on how much money you have. Another big factor is the season — each time of year poses its own challenges. In the summer, it would take you about two months to walk on foot from Rome to Byzantium. If you had a horse, it would only take you a month.
However, no sane Roman would use only roads where sea travel is available. Sailing was much cheaper and faster — a combination of horse and sailboat would get you from Rome to Byzantium in about 25 days, Rome to Carthage in 4–5 days,” ” Trubetskoy writes.
In Illuminating the Beauty in Our Broken Places, Omid Safi, a Professor of Asian and Middle Eastern Studies at Duke University , writes:
“I have been writing, for a while, about the theology of cracked spaces, about failing and failing better. It’s a realization that life is not a smooth, linear climb to the mountaintop of ‘success,’ but often a messy, beautifully messy series of falling flat on one’s face, bouncing back, and falling slightly less awkwardly the next time. (And the next, and the next.)
So thinking about cracking and breaking and chipping (and healing) has been with me for a while. But until recently I had not thought about how there is a beauty that can emerge from the cracked spaces. That there is a way to illuminate cracked cups, spaces, hearts.
Turns out that the Japanese have been doing so for the last 400 to 500 years. It’s called kintsukuroi. It’s a Japanese art form. Cups, chalices, mugs, dishes that are cracked are repaired with gold or silver lacquer. Kintsukuroi is also referred to as kintsugi, meaning ‘golden repair.’”
“According to art historians,” Ephrat Livni writes in The Japanese art principle that teaches how to work with failure, “kintsugi came about accidentally (which is fitting). When the 15th-century shogun Ashikaga Yoshimasa broke his favorite tea bowl, he sent it to China for repairs and was disappointed that it came back stapled together. The metal pins were unsightly, so local craftsmen came up with a solution — they filled the crack with a golden lacquer, making the bowl more unique and valuable. This repair elevated the fallen bowl back to its place as shogun’s favorite and prompted a whole new art form.
The idea behind kintsugi and the elements it used weren’t new, however. The glue is made from the sap of the Rhus verniciflua plant, which has been employed in Asia for about 5,000 years to adhere things, initially the parts of weapons. And the concept underlying kintsukuroi was already gaining ground in Japan at the time; it stems from the wabi-sabi aesthetic philosophy, which cultivates appreciation for flaws.
In the 16th century, Japanese tea ceremony masters rebelled against the prevailing taste of luxury and opulence, instead prizing simple items marked by time and process. They celebrated irregularity, rough surfaces, asymmetry, and defects in tea ceremony implements and settings. ‘These qualities often appear in the aging process or result from happenstance during the creative process … At other times, these effects are deliberately brought about by a destructive act of a tea master, such as breaking one handle of a vase,’ explains philosopher Yuriko Saito, a professor at the Rhode Island School of Design, writing in the journal Contemporary Aesthetics.
The golden repair method also corresponds to the Japanese notions of ‘mottainai,’ an expression of regret at waste, and ‘mushin,’ the need to accept change. Kintsugi is the Zen Buddhist philosophy as it’s applied to physical items — emphasizing engaging with reality, the materials on hand. The shogun Yoshimasa could surely have replaced his favorite tea bowl, but he didn’t want to waste it. By making it more beautiful after it broke, the local craftspeople respected the changes that time and use wrought on the bowl, and demonstrated that these can be appreciated and even emphasized rather than trying to hide the wear and tear.”
“‘Our aesthetic judgments based upon perfection and imperfection almost invariably have consequences that affect the quality of life, the social and political climate of a society, and the state of the world,’ aesthetic philosopher Saito writes. When we expect everything and everyone to be perfect, including ourselves, we not only discount much of what is beautiful but we create a cruel world where resources are wasted, people’s positive qualities are overlooked in favor of their flaws, and our standards become impossibly limiting, restrictive, and unhealthy.
The kintsugi approach instead makes the most of what already is, highlights the beauty of what we do have, flaws and all, rather than leaving us eternally grasping for more, different, other, better. As the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy explains, in Japanese Zen, the practitioner sits and works with what is,” Livni writes.
“‘The ordinary mind is the way,’ according to the 9th century Zen master Basho. He explains, ‘What is ordinary mind? It is the mind in which there are no fabrications, no biased value judgments, no preferences, no time or eternity, nor dualistic thoughts such as common and sacred.’
In other words, the experiences you have, and the person you already are, suffice. You may, of course, occasionally chip and break and need repairs. And that’s fine. But reality is the best and most abundant material on the planet, available to anyone, for free, and we can all use what we already have — including our flaws — to be beautiful. After all, our cracks are what give us character.”
A stunningly beautiful villa in Burhanpur, India, by Parekh Collaborative was built with an ecological vision.
According to the architects, “A dialogue between the house and landscape is generated using Mughal garden patterns. The stone jail which is hand cut on site can be closed for privacy as well as to keep the harsh sun out.” To which they added, “Every element within and outside the house are handmade on site with a focus on simplicity and function.”
“Democratic policymaking requires debate, demands compromise and involves critical thinking. It entails considering different viewpoints, anticipating the future, and composing thoughtful legislation.
What’s a fast, easy and simple alternative to this political process? It’s not difficult to imagine an infantile society being attracted to authoritarian rule.
Unfortunately, our social institutions and technological devices seem to erode hallmarks of maturity: patience, empathy, solidarity, humility and commitment to a project greater than oneself.
All are qualities that have traditionally been considered essential for both healthy adulthood and for the proper functioning of democracy.” — Simon Gottschalk, a professor of Sociology, University of Nevada, Las Vegas, in The infantilization of Western culture
And finally, a Spotify playlist with some of the music I have been listening to this week, including Maurice Ravel’s String Quartet in F Major, performed by Quatuor Ébène, Sol’s Song by Trygve Seim, and Michel Camilo’s Crossroads.