Random finds (2019, week 3) — On extravagant splendor, reviving professionalism, and how popular culture fades from memory

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Best Houses of 2018: House VG — The Italian architect firm ES-arch regenerates a “forgotten building” in northern Italy. (Photograph courtesy of ArchDaily)

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 fluid and boundless curiosity. I am also creating #TheInfiniteDaily; an of little pieces of wisdom, art, music, books and other things that have made me stop and think.

If you want to know more about my work and how I help leaders and their teams find their way through complexity, ambiguity, paradox & doubt, go to Leadership Confidant — A new and more focused way of thriving on my ‘multitudes’ or visit my new ‘uncluttered’ website.

This week: The revival of Darwin’s theory of beauty; why neoliberalism undermines the very idea of professionalism; how we will forget John Lennon; Elena Ferrante’s final column; the surprising ‘Future Book’; why climate change will destroy the nation-state; the art of looking; eternal questions in architecture; the Eames Shell Chair; and, finally, a bit of self-promotion for an online conversation on January 30th about the role of curiosity in management and organisations.

Beauty: the glorious but meaningless flowering of arbitrary preference

The extravagant splendor of the animal kingdom is an affront to the rules of natural selection. So how did it come to be?

“Adaptations are meant to be useful — that’s the whole point — and the most successful creatures should be the ones best adapted to their particular environments. So what is the evolutionary justification for the bowerbird’s ostentatious display? Not only do the bowerbird’s colorful feathers and elaborate constructions lack obvious value outside courtship, but they also hinder his survival and general well-being, draining precious calories and making him much more noticeable to predators,” Ferris Jabr writes in How Beauty Is Making Scientists Rethink Evolution.

“Numerous species have conspicuous, metabolically costly and physically burdensome sexual ornaments, as biologists call them. […] To reconcile such splendor with a utilitarian view of evolution, biologists have favored the idea that beauty in the animal kingdom is not mere decoration — it’s a code. According to this theory, ornaments evolved as indicators of a potential mate’s advantageous qualities: its overall health, intelligence and survival skills, plus the fact that it will pass down the genes underlying these traits to its children. […] Beauty, therefore, would not confound natural selection — it would be very much a part of it.”

But Charles Darwin disagreed with this theory. He never claimed that natural selection could explain everything and he didn’t think it was necessary to link aesthetics and survival. “Animals, he believed, could appreciate beauty for its own sake. Many of Darwin’s peers and successors ridiculed his proposal. To them, the idea that animals had such cognitive sophistication — and that the preferences of ‘capricious’ females could shape entire species — was nonsense. Although never completely forgotten, Darwin’s theory of beauty was largely abandoned.”

Nearly 150 years later, “a new generation of biologists is reviving Darwin’s neglected brainchild. Beauty, they say, does not have to be a proxy for health or advantageous genes. Sometimes beauty is the glorious but meaningless flowering of arbitrary preference. Animals simply find certain features — a blush of red, a feathered flourish — to be appealing. And that innate sense of beauty itself can become an engine of evolution, pushing animals toward aesthetic extremes. In other cases, certain environmental or physiological constraints steer an animal toward an aesthetic preference that has nothing to do with survival whatsoever,” Jabr writes.

“These biologists are not only rewriting the standard explanation for how beauty evolves; they are also changing the way we think about evolution itself. For decades, natural selection — the fact that creatures with the most advantageous traits have the best chance of surviving and multiplying — has been considered the unequivocal centerpiece of evolutionary theory. But these biologists believe that there are other forces at work, modes of evolution that are much more mischievous and discursive than natural selection. It’s not enough to consider how an animal’s habitat and lifestyle determine the size and keenness of its eyes or the number and complexity of its neural circuits; we must also question how an animal’s eyes and brain shape its perceptions of reality and how its unique way of experiencing the world can, over time, profoundly alter both its physical form and its behavior. There are really two environments governing the evolution of sentient creatures: an external one, which they inhabit, and an internal one, which they construct. To solve the enigma of beauty, to fully understand evolution, we must uncover the hidden links between those two worlds.”

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“Darwin was contemplating how animals perceived one another’s beauty as early as his 30s: ‘How does Hen determine which most beautiful cock, which best singer?’ he scribbled in a note to himself sometime between 1838 and 1840.” — A male Indian peafowl. (Photograph by Kenji Aoki for The New York Times)

According to most of the scientists Jabr spoke with, “the old dichotomy between adaptive adornment and arbitrary beauty, between ‘good genes’ and Fisherian selection, is being replaced with a modern conceptual synthesis that emphasizes multiplicity. ‘Beauty is something that arises from a host of different mechanisms,’ says Gil Rosenthal, an evolutionary biologist at Texas A&M University and the author of the new scholarly tome Mate Choice. ‘It’s an incredibly multilayered process.’

The environment constrains a creature’s anatomy, which determines how it experiences the world, which generates adaptive and arbitrary preferences, which loop back to alter its biology, sometimes in maladaptive ways. Beauty reveals that evolution is neither an iterative chiseling of living organisms by a domineering landscape nor a frenzied collision of chance events. Rather, evolution is an intricate clockwork of physics, biology and perception in which every moving part influences another in both subtle and profound ways. Its gears are so innumerable and dynamic — so susceptible to serendipity and mishap — that even a single outcome of its ceaseless ticking can confound science for centuries.”

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“Beauty […] is: harmony; goodness; a manifestation of divine perfection; a type of pleasure; that which causes love and longing; and M = O/C (where M is aesthetic value, O is order and C is complexity).” — A male plum-throated cotinga. (Photograph by Kenji Aoki for The New York Times)

“Why are flowers beautiful? Or, more precisely: Why are flowers beautiful to us? The more I thought about this question, the more it seemed to speak to the nature of beauty itself. Philosophers, scientists and writers have tried to define the essence of beauty for thousands of years. The plurality of their efforts illustrates the immense difficulty of this task. Beauty, they have said, is: harmony; goodness; a manifestation of divine perfection; a type of pleasure; that which causes love and longing; and M = O/C (where M is aesthetic value, O is order and C is complexity),” Jabr writes.

“Perhaps more than any other object of aesthetic obsession, flowers expose the futility of trying to contain beauty in a single theoretical framework. Consider how flowers came to be and how we grew to love them: 150 million years ago many pollen-producing plants depended on the wind to spread their pollen and reproduce. But certain insects, perhaps beetles and flies, began to eat those protein-rich pollen grains, inadvertently transporting them from one plant to another. This proved to be a much more efficient means of fertilization than capricious air currents. Plants with the richest and most obvious sources of pollen were especially successful. Likewise, insects that were particularly adept at finding pollen had an advantage over their peers.

Through a long process of co-evolution, plants and pollinators transformed one another. Some plants began to modify their leaves into proto-flowers: little flags that marked the location of their pollen. Bold colors and distinctive shapes helped them stand out in a tangle of green. Strong aromas and ultraviolet beacons played upon pollinators’ senses. Nectar sweetened the deal. Insects, birds and mammals began competing for access, evolving wings, tongues and brains better suited to the quest for floral sustenance. As the pressure from both parties intensified, plants and their pollinators formed increasingly specific relationships, hurtling each other toward aesthetic and adaptive extremes — a bird that hums and hovers like an insect, an orchid that mimics the appearance and scent of a female bee.

Many millions of years later, flowers enchanted yet another species. Perhaps the initial attraction was purely utilitarian: the promise of fruit or grain. Maybe we were captivated by their consonance of color, form and aroma. Whatever the case, we adopted numerous flowering plants into an expanding circle of domesticated species. We brought them into greenhouses and laboratories, magnifying their inherent beauty, creating new hybrids and tailoring their features to our individual tastes. We contracted orchid delirium and tulip mania, and we have never fully recovered. The flower began as a plea and became a phenomenon.”

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“Sometimes beauty is the glorious but meaningless flowering of arbitrary preference. Animals simply find certain features — a blush of red, a feathered flourish — to be appealing. And that innate sense of beauty itself can become an engine of evolution, pushing animals toward aesthetic extremes.” — A male Mandarin duck. (Photograph by Kenji Aoki for The New York Times)

“If there is a universal truth about beauty — some concise and elegant concept that encompasses every variety of charm and grace in existence — we do not yet understand enough about nature to articulate it. What we call beauty is not simply one thing or another, neither wholly purposeful nor entirely random, neither merely a property nor a feeling. Beauty is a dialogue between perceiver and perceived. Beauty is the world’s answer to the audacity of a flower. It is the way a bee spills across the lip of a yawning buttercup; it is the care with which a satin bowerbird selects a hibiscus bloom; it is the impulse to recreate water lilies with oil and canvas; it is the need to place roses on a grave.”

Reviving professionalism

“Wasn’t there a time when professionals still knew how to serve us — a cosy, well-ordered world of responsible doctors, wise teachers and caring nurses? In this world, bakers still cared about the quality of their bread, and builders were proud of their constructions. One could trust these professionals; they knew what they were doing and were reliable guardians of their knowledge. Because people poured their souls into it, work was still meaningful — or was it?,” Lisa Herzog writes in Why a market model is destroying the safeguards of the professions. Herzog is a professor of political philosophy and theory at the Technical University of Munich. She recently wrote the book Reclaiming the System: Moral Responsibility, Divided Labour, and the Role of Organizations in Society (2018).

But in the grip of nostalgia, it is easy to overlook the darker sides of this old vocational model. “On top of the fact that professional jobs were structured around hierarchies of gender and race, laypeople were expected to obey expert judgment without even asking questions. Deference to authority was the norm, and there were few ways of holding professionals to account. […] This is not exactly how we might think that citizens of democratic societies should relate to one other now.

Against this backdrop, the call for more autonomy, for more ‘choice’, seems hard to resist. This is precisely what happened with the rise of neoliberalism after the 1970s, when the advocates of New Public Management promoted the idea that hard-nosed market thinking should be used to structure healthcare, education and other areas that typically belonged to the slow and complicated world of public red tape. In this way, neoliberalism undermined not only public institutions but the very idea of professionalism.”

Under neoliberalism, addressing the needs of citizens was replaced by serving the demands of customers or consumers. But what if ‘being a customer’ is the wrong model for healthcare, education, and even highly specialised crafts and trades?

In The Great Endarkenment (2015), the philosopher Elijah Millgram argues that today’s market-based model overlooks hyperspecialisation. “We depend on other people’s knowledge and expertise,” Herzorg writes, and whenever “specialist knowledge is at stake, we are the opposite of a well-informed customer. Often we don’t want to have to do our own research, which would be patchy at best; sometimes, we are simply unable to do it, even if we tried. It’s much more efficient (yes, efficient!) if we can trust those already in the know.

But it can be hard to trust professionals forced to work in neoliberal regimes. As the political scientist Wendy Brown argued in Undoing the Demos (2015), market logic turns everything, including one’s own life, into a question of portfolio management: a series of projects in which you try to maximise the return on investment. By contrast, responsible professionalism imagines work-life as a series of relationships with individuals who are entrusted to you, along with the ethical standards and commitments you uphold as a member of a professional community. But marketisation threatens this collegiality, by introducing competitiveness among workers and undermining the trust that’s needed to do a good job.”

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“The young doctor I interviewed had long considered leaving her job — so when the opportunity to get a research-based position came up, she jumped ship. ‘The system was forcing me to act against my own best judgment, again and again,’ she said. ‘It was the opposite of what I thought being a doctor was all about.’ Now is the time to help reimagine a system in which she can recover that sense of purpose, to everyone’s benefit.” (Photograph courtesy of T. Grace Emori / CDC)

Can we revive professionalism? And if so, can we avoid its old problems of hierarchy while preserving space for equality and autonomy?

Herzog sees some promising proposals and real-life examples. The American education scholar William Sullivan, for example, argues “that professionals need to be aware of the moral dimensions of their own role. They need to be ‘experts and citizens alike,’ and ‘learn to think and act cooperatively with us,’ the non-experts” (Work and Integrity, 2nd edition, 2004). And “the political theorist Albert Dzur argued for a revival of a more self-aware version of ‘old’ professionalism — committed to democratic values, and an ongoing dialogue with laypeople” (Democratic Professionalism, 2008).

When introduced to other professions, similar practices “could lead to trust in professionals being not blind, but justified: a trust based on a grasp of the institutional frameworks that hold them accountable, and on an awareness of mechanisms for double-checking and getting additional opinions within the profession.” In many areas, however, the pressure of markets or quasi-markets prevails.

“Up to a point, professionalisation is built on the persistence of ignorance: specialised knowledge is a form of power, and a form that’s rather difficult to control. Yet it’s clear that markets and quasi-markets are flawed strategies for dealing with this problem. By continuing to accept them as the only possible models, we forgo the opportunity to imagine and explore alternatives. We must be able to rely on other people’s expertise. And for that, as the political philosopher Onora O’Neill argued in her 2002 Reith Lectures, we must be able to trust them.”

How popular culture fades from memory

“A few years ago a student walked into the office of Cesar A. Hidalgo, director of the Collective Learning group at the MIT Media Lab. Hidalgo was listening to music and asked the student if she recognized the song. She wasn’t sure. ‘Is it Coldplay?’ she asked. It was ‘Imagine’ by John Lennon. Hidalgo took it in stride that his student didn’t recognize the song.”

Hidalgo realized the song wasn’t from the student’s generation. What struck him, though, was the incident echoed a question that had long intrigued him: how do music and movies and all the other things that once shone in popular culture fade like evening from public memory?

In a recent paper in Nature, Hidalgo and colleagues explore how people and products drift out of the cultural picture. “They traced the fade-out of songs, movies, sports stars, patents, and scientific publications. They drew on data from sources such as Billboard, Spotify, IMDB, Wikipedia, the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, and the American Physical Society, which has gathered information on physics articles from 1896 to 2016. Hidalgo’s team then designed mathematical models to calculate the rate of decline of the songs, people, and scientific papers.”

As it turns out, “people and things are kept alive through oral communication from about five to 30 years. They then pass into written and online records, where they experience a slower, longer decline. The paper argues that people and things that make the rounds at the water cooler have a higher probability of settling into physical records. ‘Changes in communication technologies, such as the rise of the printing press, radio and television,’ it says, affect our degree of attention, and all of our cultural products, from songs to scientific papers, ‘follow a universal decay function,’” Kevin Berger writes in How We’ll Forget John Lennon.

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“[Cesar A. Hidalgo] is among the premier data miners of the world’s collective history. With his MIT colleagues, he developed Pantheon, a dataset that ranks historical figures by popularity from 4000 B.C. to 2010. Aristotle and Plato snag the top spots. Jesus is third. It’s a highly addictive platform that allows you to search people, places, and occupations with a variety of parameters.”

Berger recently caught up with Hidalgo to talk about his work. Here are a few excerpts from their conversation.

Why does collective memory decay matter?

[Hidalgo] “If you think about it, culture and memory are the only things we have. We treasure cultural memory because we use that knowledge to build and produce everything we have around us. That knowledge is going to help us build the future and solve the problems we have yet to solve. If aliens come here and wave a magic wand and make everyone forget everything — our cars, buildings, bridges, airplanes, our power systems, and so forth, we would collapse as a society immediately.”

You write collective memory also reflects changes in communication technologies, such as the rise of the printing press, radio, and TV. How so?

[Hidalgo] “Take print. Changing the world from an oral tradition to a written tradition provided a much better medium for data. A lot of people have linked the revolution in the sciences and astronomy to the rise of printing because astronomical tables, for instance, could be copied in a reliable way. Before printing, astronomical tables were hand-copied, which introduced errors that diminished the quality of the data. With printing, people had more reliable forms of data. We see very clearly from our data that with the rise of printing you get the rise of astronomers, mathematicians, and scientists. You also see a rise in composers because printing helps the transmission of sheet music. So when you look at people we remember most from the time when print first arose, you see ones from the arts and sciences.”

Is collective memory decaying more rapidly because communication technologies are so much faster?

[Hidalgo] “I would love to know that but I can’t. Some people would say collective memory decays based not on calendar time but the speed at which new content is being produced. We forget Elvis because the Beatles came up and we forget the Beatles because Led Zeppelin came and we forget Led Zeppelin because Metallica came up, and so forth. But things become very dear to a generation and people will not forget about them just because new content came in. So decay would be something characteristic of humans, not the volume of content. To separate those two things, we would need to look at content from very different time frames. At the moment, we don’t have the richness of data that we would need to answer that question.”

Still, don’t you think the speed at which online information is tearing through our brains has got to be leaving some path of destruction in collective memory?

[Hidalgo] “I don’t know. I grew up in Chile, which of course is small compared to the United States. I came to the U.S. for the first time in 1996. And one of the things that still surprises me is how monothematic American culture can be. In 1996 it was all about O.J. Simpson. Everybody talked about O.J. Simpson. He was everywhere on TV. Just like Trump today, he consumed the entire bandwidth. I’m surprised how a country with so many people, and with people doing so many different things, can nevertheless become so monothematic on such a vast scale. Today we have so much more content than in 1996 because of the rise of the Internet and the ability of people to create content. But look at the percentage of all conversations and online communications that are consumed by Trump. So in that context, I don’t think content is being replaced so easily. I don’t see that much of a rise in diversity.”

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“Now people like Elon Musk are in the center of culture. He’s not John Lennon. It’s a very different type of leadership, a different type of model for young people. But Musk’s first job was an online payment start-up. And I think a lot of young people now look up to entrepreneurs the way we used to look up to musicians,” Cesar A. Hidalgo tells John Berger.

That’s really interesting. Because one of the common criticisms of the current information glut is we have no shared cultural center. Everybody has their own narrow interest and we have no shared cultural bond, no John Lennon.

[Hidalgo] “Is that a collective memory phenomena or is it because nowadays the guys in the middle of the culture are different guys? Different people come into the center of culture because of the type of mediums that are available. There have been musicians for thousands of years, and for most of that history, musicians have not been wealthy. It was only when there was a medium that allowed them to sell their music — vinyl, magnetic tapes, and discs — that they were able to make money. I think that generated a golden era of pop music in the ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s. And that’s associative to a communication technology that was dominant at that time. Radio and discs were a way to distribute those popular idols’ musical performances. When that technology was replaced by simple forms of copying, like the ability to copy files on the Internet, all that went away. Now people like Elon Musk are in the center of culture. He’s not John Lennon. It’s a very different type of leadership, a different type of model for young people. But Musk’s first job was an online payment start-up. And I think a lot of young people now look up to entrepreneurs the way we used to look up to musicians.”

And also this …

“After a year that has scared and inspired” her, Elena Ferrante’s 52nd Weekend column in the Guardian was also her last. I am going to miss her as well as the beautiful illustrations by Andrea Ucini. One final time…

“This exercise ends here: I gave myself a year, and the year is up. I had never done work like this, and I hesitated a good deal before trying it. I was afraid of the weekly deadline; I was afraid of having to write even if I didn’t feel like it; I was afraid of the need to publish without having scrupulously considered every word. In the end, curiosity won out.

I tried to meet the challenge by imagining that I had 52 questions to answer in writing, one a week. I thought that was something I knew how to do by now: for years, I’d been answering journalists’ questions. So that’s how I proceeded, diligently. But I have to admit that, despite the extreme courtesy of my editors, I was constantly afraid of not succeeding in the task I’d undertaken, of somehow rashly being insulting to readers, of losing faith in myself and having to give up. Fortunately, the anxiety of publication was amply counterbalanced by the pleasure of writing. Today I can say with assurance that, even if I never have this experience again, it was very useful to me, and I’m grateful to this newspaper for giving me the opportunity.”

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“Writing every Saturday has meant the permanent exposure of fragments of myself. But I am indebted to you, my readers.” (Illustration by @AndreaUcini for the Guardian)

“I have written as an author of novels, taking on matters that are important to me and that — if I have the will and the time — I’d like to develop within real narrative mechanisms. I think I left out only one feeling among those that interest me, but only because it sustained my last book and it seemed excessive to return to it: I’m talking about inequality, about the disasters that it wreaks on an economic, social and cultural level. Everything about these times, I have to say, worries me, but that the majority of the human race — women, children, men — is subjected in various ways to the effects of inequality seems to me at the core of all the problems that consume us. Above all, inequality generates an extraordinary waste of minds and creative energies, which, if they were trained and put to use, would likely make our history an active laboratory for repairing the damage we’ve caused so far — or at least of controlling its effects, rather than an unbearable list of horrors.

I’d like to thank the people who have had the patience to translate my texts into English, to verify their coherence, suggest cuts or additions, give them titles, and illustrate them with imagination and intelligence and humour. I’d especially like to thank those who have been kind enough to read them. Before this, I was used to the rhythm of book publication, to a novel’s compactness and autonomy. If my books went to the book shop, they met readers; for a while, I would experience the anxiety of being their author, but then I went on with my life, often for years, distancing myself as far as possible from the torment of a new publication. Writing this column has instead made me tense every Saturday. It has been the permanent exposure of fragments of myself; I couldn’t free myself from one before I had to think about the next. Luckily, yes, there were readers — rightly either welcoming or hostile. I am indebted to all of them — few, many — who, agreeing or disagreeing, connected with these brief trickles of ink.”

Translated by Ann Goldstein and, as always, wonderfully illustrated by Andrea Ucini.

“The future book was meant to be interactive, moving, alive. Its pages were supposed to be lush with whirling doodads, responsive, hands-on,” Craig Mod writes in The ‘Future Book’ Is Here, but It’s Not What We Expected.

But despite prognostications about how technology would affect the form of physical books, they still “look like physical books of last century. And digital books of today look, feel, and function almost identically to digital books of 10 years ago, when the Kindle launched. The biggest change is that many of Amazon’s competitors have gone belly up or shrunken to irrelevancy. The digital reading and digital book startup ecosystem that briefly emerged in the early 2010s has shriveled to a nubbin,” Mod writes.

“Yet here’s the surprise: We were looking for the Future Book in the wrong place. It’s not the form, necessarily, that needed to evolve — I think we can agree that, in an age of infinite distraction, one of the strongest assets of a ‘book’ as a book is its singular, sustained, distraction-free, blissfully immutable voice. Instead, technology changed everything that enables a book, fomenting a quiet revolution. Funding, printing, fulfillment, community-building — everything leading up to and supporting a book has shifted meaningfully, even if the containers haven’t. Perhaps the form and interactivity of what we consider a ‘standard book’ will change in the future, as screens become as cheap and durable as paper. But the books made today, held in our hands, digital or print, are Future Books, unfuturistic and inert may they seem.”

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“Email is a boring, simple, old technology. Unlike followers or social media subscribers, email has yet to be usurped by algorithms.” (Illustration by Hotlittlepotato for WIRED)

“We have arrived to the once imagined Future Book in piecemeal truths.

Moving images were often espoused to be a core part of our Future Book. While rarely found inside of an iBooks or Kindle book, they are here. If you want to learn the ukulele, you don’t search Amazon for a Kindle how-to book, you go to YouTube and binge on hours of lessons, stopping when you need to, rewinding as necessary, learning at your own pace.

Vannevar Bush’s Memex essentially described Wikipedia built into a desk. The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is an iPhone. In The Book of Sand, Borges wrote of an infinite book: ‘It was then that the stranger told me: «Study the page well. You will never see it again.»’ Describing in many ways what it feels like to browse the internet or peek at Twitter.”

According to Mod, “Our Future Book is composed of email, tweets, YouTube videos, mailing lists, crowdfunding campaigns, PDF to .mobi converters, Amazon warehouses, and a surge of hyper-affordable offset printers in places like Hong Kong.

For a ‘book’ is just the endpoint of a latticework of complex infrastructure, made increasingly accessible. Even if the endpoint stays stubbornly the same — either as an unchanging Kindle edition or simple paperback — the universe that produces, breathes life into, and supports books is changing in positive, inclusive ways, year by year. The Future Book is here and continues to evolve. You’re holding it. It’s exciting. It’s boring. It’s more important than it has ever been. But temper some of those flight-of-fancy expectations. In many ways, it’s still a potato.”

New York Magazine published an article with 8 Predictions for What the World Will Look Like in 20 Years, including Climate Change Will Destroy the Nation-State (But Supercharge Capitalism) by Geoff Mann and Joel Wainwright, the authors of Climate Leviathan: A Political Theory of Our Planetary Future.

According to them, The most important implications of climate change are not just environmental. They are also — maybe just as significantly — political. ‘Climate Leviathan’ is the name we give to what we think is the most likely global political trajectory in the face of the climate crisis. It is our answer to the question: As climate change becomes harder and harder to ignore for the capitalist nation-states that dominate the global order, how will they respond? The answer is a form of binding authority that can stabilize as much as possible the current global order by addressing the risks posed by climate change. This is Climate Leviathan, and we can see the drive for it not just in the capitalist leaders of the West who gather every once in a while in Copenhagen or Paris but also in the groundswell of desperate hope that animates progressives all over the world: This Leviathan is the answer that makes the most sense to those who cannot imagine or refuse to consider another way.

Now, this is not something that we advocate. In fact, we think it’s never going to work as an answer to the climate crisis, and certainly not as a just answer, because it’s unquestionably capitalist when capitalism is the origin of much of the problem. It’s dedicated to sovereign authority, despite the fact that sovereign authority has constantly failed us on the climate front and continues to do so, and it is enamored of utopian technical fixes that will somehow suck carbon out of the atmosphere or reflect the sun’s radiation so we can keep going exactly as it is. It’s never going to work, but we nonetheless believe we see it coalescing all around us.”

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Imagining a politics for an age of accelerated climate change — Climate Leviathan “is a welcome addition to the small but growing body of climate writing on the left. It’s a book explicitly aimed at understanding the political dimensions of climate change instead of relegating them to a paragraph or two in the concluding section. It also takes a different tack than most works on climate politics. The authors are not interested in why we aren’t acting to curb carbon emissions; instead, they’re interested in the kinds of political scenarios that are likely to emerge in response to the approaching ecological crises,” Alyssa Battistoni in States of Emergency. (Illustration by Tim Robinson for The Nation)

“Take the recent report from the U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. It’s a pretty alarming report. What’s particularly shocking is the graph that shows how quickly we would need to decarbonize the global capitalist economy in order to actually pull off the shift down to a maximum 1.5-degree Celsius of warming. Imagine a graph that just basically plunges down right now. Why are we so skeptical that capitalism can pull it off? Well, unfortunately, capitalism is a way of organizing a society that is oriented entirely toward the expansion and accumulation of value in the form of money. That’s a technical way of saying it is inherently expansionary. And right now, fossil fuels are by far the cheapest and easiest way for firms and states to produce electricity, and that power is the expansion of the global economy.

So we have a fundamental contradiction. We have a global capitalist economy that needs growth accumulation and expansion. But at the same time, the elites of the world recognize full well that the scientists are right. For the most part, the richest people in the world aren’t the ones questioning the science. They recognize that we need to get on with decarbonizing the global economy. The problem is how to do that collectively and fast. And up until this point, they have utterly failed to coordinate their response. We think that that’s going to continue for a while. But the fact that they’ve been failing to rapidly mitigate carbon doesn’t mean that they aren’t in the process of shifting toward a more collective process of collaboration. That will continue, toward a very fundamental political rearrangement of the world system.”

“An artwork is a living organism. If you visually break down a work of art into its various components and systems, you will begin to understand how each of its elements functions and how those elements work together in harmony, just as you would if you were learning gross anatomy or dissecting a body. In this way, you can begin to see not just what an artwork looks like, but how it’s structured, what its elements and systems do, how they interrelate, and how they contribute to the life of the artwork as a whole,” Lance Esplund writes in To Understand Art, Think Biology, an adaptation of his new book, The Art of Looking: How to Read Modern and Contemporary Art.

“You can begin to understand that just as cells are the building blocks of an organism’s life, so too an artwork’s elements are the building blocks of its life. Essential to the life of an organism, such as a human body, are the tensions among ligaments and muscles, the circulation of fluids, the strength and density of bone, the functions of organs, the elasticity and porousness of skin, the rhythms of breathing and heartbeat. Those interdependent elements of the body, if they are not purposeful, healthy, and working together, could become useless, if not dangerous, to the organism as a whole. So too an artwork’s unique, interdependent elements (its points, lines, movements, shapes, forms, colors, structures, energies, tensions, light, and rhythms) must be present, healthy, functional, and purposefully fused — working together in harmony, subservient to the greater whole — in order for that work of art to have life.”

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“Just as cells are the building blocks of the human body, a painting’s points, lines, colors, and tensions are the building blocks of its life.” — Black Lines (1913), by Vasily Kandinsky (oil on canvas, 129.4 x 131.1 cm; Photograph courtesy of Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York)

“Consider the work of Vasily Kandinsky (1866–1944), the Russian painter and professor who wrote a number of groundbreaking books. In Kandinsky’s early landscape-based abstractions from 1911, line, color, and shape free themselves from acting as descriptive nouns into becoming active verbs, forces, and energies: Contours and colors mix and dissolve, suggesting stained glass and children’s finger painting; a horse and rider are expressed as a lyrical bolt of lightning. By the time he paints the purely abstract masterpiece Black Lines (1913), all sense of the landscape has vanished: Color, shape, volume, space, and line are completely independent, free agents, and his spatial arabesques simultaneously remain on the surface of his flat picture and also transform that flat surface into a stretchy membrane, as if the painting were made out of rubber or taffy, or could be poked and twisted, or even turned inside out, like the surface of a balloon. Kandinsky gave his lines, forms, and shapes pictographic immediacy and energy. Sometimes, as in the later masterpieces Blue World (1934), Striped (1934), Thirty (1937), Various Parts (1940), Sky Blue (1940), and Various Actions (1941), his forms feel as if they are painted or incised hieroglyphics, while they also suggest unfamiliar creatures and microscopic organisms, as well as veins and jolts of electric current. They look like signs and symbols, yet feel alive and in motion.”

“I believe in questions that are eternal,” says Dong Gong, the founder of the Chinese architecture firm Vector Architects, in an interview with ArchDaily.

“So many architects think today that it is more important to respond to whatever is going on immediately around the site and other most pressing concerns that we have at this moment. But I believe there are more important issues that we need to address. It is very fundamental — it is about your body, your scale, your physical limitations, and senses. Look at all the changes around us. Our way of life changed so much over time, but our body is still basically the same. So there are some constant values that don’t change. There are certain constant relations of our body to the outside world. Of course, architecture has changed despite what I am saying, but I believe in achieving a balance between these core values and our modern world. Architecture is made up of two entities — inner core that responds to the eternal values and the outer skin that responds to all the changes. That’s the power of architecture — no matter when you live you always have to answer these questions — how do you live? What is it like being human? These are very basic questions and architecture has the power to answer them on a very personal level. What is humanity? What is the relationship between the human and the world?”

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Seashore Library (2015), by Vector Architects, on the white sands of a beach in Nandaihe, a coastal region in eastern China, “implies a mark of memory in time,” according to the architects. “Wood grains are the marks of realisation process that we want to leave on the library. Also, it softens the hardness of concrete with warmth.” Adding, “From outside, it looks like a weathered rock that is pure and solid; but inside, what it contains is the rich feelings and experiences. When walking into the space, one starts to feel the light, breezes, and sound of the ocean. In here, everyone can slow down the usual pace, and unfold the feeling of distance and loneliness different from the city life.” Source: Dezeen (Photography, above and below, by Vector Architects)
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Charles and Ray EamesShell Chair was designed on the principle of adaptability, offering innumerable configurations to serve a wide variety of applications and environments. The inspiration that compelled Charles and Ray Eames to design a comfortable chair with a one-piece seat-and-back shell first struck in 1939, when Charles and Eero Saarinen began experimenting with molded plywood at Cranbrook Academy of Art. It remained strong as Charles and Ray worked on the idea from the Eames Studio. It was finally realized in 1950 with the introduction of the Eames Shell Chair. Decades later, it remains a simple, gracious expression of the Eames desire to make “the best for the most for the least.”

“One of the most important questions for a designer is how their work reflects its era. Few pieces represent their time as successfully as this rocking chair, designed by Charles and Ray Eames in the 1950s when the domestic environment was undergoing a transformation. The living rooms of 19th-century houses were being replaced by the wide-open spaces and flowing interiors of mid-century architecture, and furniture was going from dark and heavy to light and mobile. The Eames rocker is at the heart of this revolution.” — Yves Béhar on the Eames rocking chair

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Curiosity: Art and the Pleasures of Knowing (2013) — Curated by Brian Dillon in association with Cabinet magazine, the exhibition ‘Curiosity: Art and the Pleasures of Knowing’ is an exploration of the ambiguous history and present meaning of wonder, attention, and the urge to know. It shuttles engagingly between rigor and intuition, and asks us to focus on objects, images, and ideas at vastly different scales: from the microscopic through the bodily to the cosmic and infinite. (Photograph courtesy of Turner Contemporary)

Curiosity and seeking out new ‘first loves’

First time experiences — our first love or the first time we come face to face with the Mona Lisa — are defining moments in our lives. They kindle our curiosity, can give us a sense of purpose and may even lead us into entirely new directions.

But how often do we seek first time experiences in our work? How often do we allow ourselves, and others, to be curious — to seek new knowledge, try new things, shape new relationships?

Join Eitan Reich and me, and share your thoughts and experiences in a candid conversation about the role of curiosity in management and organisations.

— Wednesday, 30 January 2019 (via Zoom
— Between 20:00–21:00 CET
— Only 8 seats available

Save your seat by sending an email to conversations@newaysof.com (subject: ‘I want to join the conversation’). We will send you a Zoom-link shortly before the conversation.

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helping leaders navigate complexity with confidence & clarity of thought | varius multiplex multiformis

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