Random finds (2019, week 5) — On Davos’s broken business system, the cult of ‘performative workaholism,’ and the beauty of everyday things

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Pennsylvania architecture studio ISA has designed a slender five-storey house in a developing Philadelphia neighbourhood, as a housing prototype for tiny vacant lots. (Photography by Sam Oberter)

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.

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: Patches on a broken business system; the grim reality of the hustle culture; why beauty naturally appears in works unconsciously created; why do things become boring; stupidity is not simply the opposite of intelligence; between knowing and believing; Ellsworth Kelly; a church in Kilkenny, Ireland, beautifully converted by McCullough Mulvin Architects; and, finally, Hermann Hesse on solitude.

Davos’s broken business system

“Stop talking about philanthropy and start talking about taxes … We can invite Bono once more, but we’ve got to be talking about taxes. That’s it. Taxes, taxes, taxes. All the rest is bullshit in my opinion.” — The Dutch historian, journalist and author of Utopia for Realists, Rutger Bregman, during a discussion panel at the World Economic Forum in Davos

“In public, many executives wring their hands over the negative consequences that artificial intelligence and automation could have for workers. They take part in panel discussions about building ‘human-centered A.I.’ for the ‘Fourth Industrial Revolution’ — Davos-speak for the corporate adoption of machine learning and other advanced technology — and talk about the need to provide a safety net for people who lose their jobs as a result of automation,” Roose writes in The Hidden Automation Agenda of the Davos Elite.

But in private settings and meetings with the leaders of the many consulting and technology firms whose pop-up storefronts line the Davos Promenade, they tell a different story. “They are racing to automate their own work forces to stay ahead of the competition, with little regard for the impact on workers. All over the world, executives are spending billions of dollars to transform their businesses into lean, digitized, highly automated operations. They crave the fat profit margins automation can deliver, and they see A.I. as a golden ticket to savings, perhaps by letting them whittle departments with thousands of workers down to just a few dozen.”

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“People are looking to achieve very big numbers,” said Mohit Joshi, the president of Infosys, a technology and consulting firm that helps other businesses automate their operations. “Earlier they had incremental, 5 to 10 percent goals in reducing their work force. Now they’re saying, ‘Why can’t we do it with 1 percent of the people we have?’” (Photograph by Fabrice Coffrini/AFP)

According to Roose, executives tend to speak about automation as a natural phenomenon over which they have no control, like hurricanes or heat waves. If they don’t automate jobs as quickly as possible, their competitors will. But automating work is a choice, of course, one made harder by the demands of shareholders, but nevertheless a choice.

“[Even] if some degree of unemployment caused by automation is inevitable, these executives can choose how the gains from automation and A.I. are distributed, and whether to give the excess profits they reap as a result to workers, or hoard it for themselves and their shareholders. The choices made by the Davos elite — and the pressure applied on them to act in workers’ interests rather than their own — will determine whether A.I. is used as a tool for increasing productivity or for inflicting pain,” Roose writes. Or, as Erik Brynjolfsson, the director of the MIT Initiative on the Digital Economy (IDE), said, “The choice isn’t between automation and non-automation. It’s between whether you use the technology in a way that creates shared prosperity, or more concentration of wealth.”

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Terry Gou, the chairman of the Taiwanese electronics manufacturer Foxconn, has said the company plans to replace 80 percent of its workers with robots in the next five to 10 years. Richard Liu, the founder of the Chinese e-commerce company JD.com, said at a business conference last year that “I hope my company would be 100 percent automation someday.” (Photograph by Daniel Berehulak/Getty Images)

More on Davos from Lionel Laurent.

“There has always been a whiff of hypocrisy at Davos, where elites expand their carbon footprint, eat $43 hot dogs and throw lavish parties in the name of making the world a better place. ‘Fat cats in the snow,’ the regular attendee Bono once called it (and he should know). But given the rapid advances of populist politics, it’s remarkable that in 2019, those felines are looking better-fed than ever,” he writes in Make No Mistake, Davos, the Fat Cat Backlash Is Coming.

“The response from the Davos crowd has always been to talk, talk, and talk a bit more. But there’s an increasing impatience with capitalism’s inability to regulate itself.” But now, “[more] than 10 years after the collapse of Lehman Brothers, hostility toward the corporate elite is finally hitting the political mainstream in a meaningful way. Executive rewards are looking indefensible, and being a globe-trotting ‘thought leader’ offers no protection,” as the arrest of Carlos Ghosn, who, according to Bloomberg BusinessWeek, is the ultimate personification of Davos, clearly shows. “Look at Macron’s apparent eagerness to distance himself from Ghosn, despite the harshness of the Japanese legal system. ‘Davos Man’ should look over his shoulder.”

Despite all this, “the ethos of Davos still has much to offer. It represents an effort to bring together global leaders and influencers to address problems that go beyond national borders. If anything, it would appear that we need more of these trans-national spaces for discussing technological innovation and social transformation,” Peter Bloom writes in Imagining a Davos for the many that was actually serious about climate change.

“For Davos to truly be effective though, it must stop serving as a space for elites to defend their status and power. It must no longer be a forum, for instance, for CEOs like Tim Cook to defend his company and his executive allies from the legitimate ‘big tech backlash.’ Rather, it should be an opportunity to force billionaires to invest in ambitious progressive solutions for solving the very problems they are primarily responsible for causing,” Bloom argues.

“The roots of such an alternative are already growing in events like the World Social Forum which is an attempt to bring together community and political leaders with leading thinkers to imagine a different ‘world’ to the corporate-friendly one supported by the World Economic Forum. Critically, it advocates ‘glocal’ solutions, customised to local conditions. Davos, in this regard, could be a yearly corrective where those most affected by elite policies could put forward the specific solutions for them to rectify it.

For this to happen it would mean transforming the very ethos of Davos from one of ‘idea sharing’ to that of democratic accountability and justice. It entails delinking social value and influence from economic wealth and the political influence it buys. Instead, Davos could be an annual opportunity for experts and ‘the people’ to propose the best and most cutting edge ideas for redistributing this wealth to where it is truly needed and can do the most good.”

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“A man in his position, Ghosn says, changes the world by creating opportunities through globalization, which he describes as an ultimately benevolent law of nature, and fighting it makes about as much sense as declaring a war on gravity. […] No force in history has done more economic or societal good than the world-encircling flow of goods, money, and culture. Brexit, the election of Trump, and the rise of antitrade populism are all very small bumps on a very long road. ‘Davos Man’ plans to outlast them all,” the authors of If Davos Were a Person, It Would Be Carlos Ghosn write. — Carlos Ghosn and his wife, Carole, at an art gallery in New York. (Photograph by Misha Friedman for Bloomberg)

Also Steve Denning writes about “the charade of davos.”

“Davos serves as a platform where business leaders can purport to show their social conscience. In his impassioned new book, Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World, journalist Anand Giridharadas argues that the billionaires of Davos are only philanthropic and civic minded in ways that ultimately serve to protect and further their own interests and cement the status quo. ‘For when elites assume leadership of social change, they are able to reshape what social change is — above all, to present it as something that should never threaten winners,’ [Giridharadas] writes.”

Founded in 1971 by Klaus Schwab to discuss global management practices, these days the World Economic Forum seems to talk about nothing more than mere patches on a broken business system. Fundamental shifts are not on the agenda, says Denning.

“The fact is that while Davos is willing to discuss why the political system is broken, it’s not willing to address the possibility that the business system itself is broken. This reluctance is hardly a surprise when the wealth of the most prominent conference attendees at the Davos conference is now double, triple, or sextuple what it was ten years ago, while median household incomes have stagnated. Yet outside Davos, there is a growing recognition, both right and left, that the current business system has not worked for most people.

Hostility toward the corporate elite is beginning to enter the political mainstream. Executive rewards are looking indefensible, and being a globe-trotting spokesman for social causes doesn’t respond to the objection.

Part of the answer to a winners-take-all society, says Giridharadas, is that ‘winners should take less. Entrepreneurs deserve to be rewarded. If you have proper regulations on how you treat workers, screw around their schedules with 24-hours’ notice, whether you pay them a living wage or not, whether you can allow them to deploy their wealth so that people never achieve social mobility, regulations are needed that create more stability in people’s lives,’” Denning writes. But regulations alone can’t solve the problem. The other part of the answer involves not just politics, but rethinking of business itself.

“Businesses themselves must learn how to embrace radical new management practices and become both more productive and more human.”

And ‘finally,’ Tim Leberecht, author and co-founder and curator of the House of Beautiful Business, who believes that the conversation in Davos shows that CEOs are struggling with conflicting agendas.

“Shifting course appears to be a daunting task for the majority of CEOs, who […] still insist that greater social impacts are achieved through business, not politics, with regulation and taxation being the biggest impediments,” he writes in Purpose Washing, Hustle Culture, and Automation: Business at a Crossroads. “This is at odds with the notion of shifting a considerable portion of the responsibility and power for designing more equitable societies to government. Among the priorities for policy makers are the regulation of big tech, higher marginal tax rates, universal health care, stronger protections for workers threatened by automation, and exploring alternative ways for people to integrate into society beyond paid work and traditional careers (universal basic income offers one possible scenario here).”

According to Leberecht, “A perfect storm is brewing: the agony of old systems, the void left by less and less trustworthy tech platforms, the disruption of the labor markets by the fourth industrial revolution, and the critical importance of reinventing capitalism and redefining the meaning of meaningful work. In the middle of conflicting agendas, CEOs will have to make tough choices. The most responsible of them know they will have their role to play in tackling all these issues, but are also humble enough to realize that, now more than ever, business can’t do it alone.”

The cult of ‘performative workaholism’

Elon Musk and his ilk ‘thank god it’s Monday,’ don’t stop when they’re tired, and regularly pull 80-hour weeks. It is now normal to be obsessed with work — but why?

“Never once at the start of my workweek — not in my morning coffee shop line; not in my crowded subway commute; not as I begin my bottomless inbox slog — have I paused, looked to the heavens and whispered: #ThankGodIt’sMonday.

Apparently, that makes me a traitor to my generation. I learned this during a series of recent visits to WeWork locations in New York, where the throw pillows implore busy tenants to ‘Do what you love.’ Neon signs demand they ‘Hustle harder,’ and murals spread the gospel of T.G.I.M. Even the cucumbers in WeWork’s water coolers have an agenda. ‘Don’t stop when you’re tired,’ someone recently carved into the floating vegetables’ flesh. ‘Stop when you are done.’ Kool-Aid drinking metaphors are rarely this literal. Welcome to hustle culture. It is obsessed with striving, relentlessly positive, devoid of humor, and — once you notice it — impossible to escape,” Griffith writes.

“Despite data showing long hours improve neither productivity nor creativity, myths about overwork persist because they justify the extreme wealth created for a small group of elite techies. […]

Elon Musk, who stands to reap stock compensation upward of $50 billion if his company, Tesla, meets certain performance levels, is a prime example of extolling work by the many that will primarily benefit him. He tweeted in November that there are easier places to work than Tesla, ‘but nobody ever changed the world on 40 hours a week.’ The correct number of hours ‘varies per person,’ he continued, but is ‘about 80 sustained, peaking about 100 at times. Pain level increases exponentially above 80.’

Mr. Musk, who has more than 24 million Twitter followers, further noted that if you love what you do, ‘it (mostly) doesn’t feel like work.’ Even he had to soften the lie of T.G.I.M. with a parenthetical,” Griffith writes.

“Ultimately, workers must decide if they admire or reject this level of devotion. […]

The grim reality of 2019 is that begging a billionaire for employment via Twitter is not considered embarrassing, but a perfectly plausible way to get ahead. On some level, you have to respect the hustlers who see a dismal system and understand that success in it requires total, shameless buy-in. If we’re doomed to toil away until we die, we may as well pretend to like it. Even on Mondays.”

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“Arguably, the technology industry started this culture of work zeal sometime around the turn of the millennium. […] But today, as tech culture infiltrates every corner of the business world, its hymns to the virtues of relentless work remind me of nothing so much as Soviet-era propaganda, which promoted impossible-seeming feats of worker productivity to motivate the labor force,” Erin Griffith writes in Why Are Young People Pretending to Love Work? (Illustration by Taylor Callery for The New York Times)

According to the author of Business Bullshit, André Spicer, in Why we must resist the cult of performative workaholism, “We haven’t always been so work-obsessed. During the middle ages in England, peasants could work just 150 days a year. Until relatively recently, work was seen as painful toil, and best avoided. But something changed in the 16th century — we started to think that work was morally good. Five hundred years on, #ThankGodIt’sMonday has made it saintly. Now we have a Protestant work ethic without the pressure of taking Sunday off to go to church. Instead, we should toil 24/7, taking #workinglate selfies to prove it.

But is putting in long hours any good for us? We know that not working can make us miserable. People who work tend to be healthier. Work can give us a sense of purpose and meaning. It connects us with other people. At a minimum, work provides money as well as something to do with our time.

But too much work can be toxic. Working very long hours can be bad for our health. Ultra-long hours can kill. Ergomania can lead to problems such as depression, anxiety and addiction and can cut us off from friends and family, leaving us with only colleagues. If work disappears, work obsessives often have nothing to fall back on. A job loss can become a deep existential crisis.

Instead of boasting about the hours we work, we would be better off listening to Bruce Daisley, an executive at Twitter: ‘Go to lunch,’ ‘Get a good night’s sleep,’ and: ‘Shorten your work week,’” Spicer writes.

The beauty of everyday things

“Just as faith appears of its own accord from ardent belief, beauty naturally appears in works unconsciously created.” — Soetsu Yanagi

“There was once a man, poor and uneducated, who was a person of deep faith. Although he found it difficult to explain what he believed in or why, in his simple words there was something luminous, something surprisingly brilliant arising from his experience. He had no personal belongings worth mentioning, but he possessed a deep understanding of what it meant to believe. Without knowing it, he knew God. As a result, he possessed unwavering strength.

I can say somewhat the same thing about the plate now before me. It is nothing more than a simply made object of the type often looked down upon as common and coarse. It displays no overweening pride, no flashy effects. The artisan who made it gave little thought to what he was making or how it would come out. Just as a Buddhist devotee will continually repeat a religious chant as a means of achieving salvation, an artisan will repeatedly turn a potter’s wheel and make identically shaped pieces. Then the same pattern is repeatedly drawn on each piece and the same glaze repeatedly applied. What is beauty? What is the art of the kiln? The artisan knows nothing of that. Still, without knowing all that there is to know, his hands continue working swiftly in the process of creation. It is said that the voice chanting for salvation is no longer that of the believer, but that of the Buddha himself. In the same way, the hand of the artisan is no longer his or her own hand, but the hand of nature. The craftsman does not aim to create beauty, but nature assures that it is done. He himself has lost all thought, is unconsciously at work. Just as faith appears of its own accord from ardent belief, beauty naturally appears in works unconsciously created. I never tire of gazing at this plate in front of me.

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Founded in 1926, Blacksmith Works Inc.( 諏訪田製作所) is a world-renowned nail clipper brand also famous for the manufacture of kuikiri (end-cutting pliers that are used to trim metal wire), gourd-shaped nail clippers, and bonsai scissors. Its newly designed nail clippers have recently received numerous awards in Japan and abroad. Visitors can go to the factory and observe the production processes. (Photograph courtesy of Welcome Co.,Ltd)

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When I refer to the beauty of ordinary objects (zakki, or ‘miscellaneous things’), you may think I am being intentionally eccentric or perverse. In order to forestall erroneous views and associations like this, I will here list a few cautionary notes. Zakki basically refers to the various utensils and tools made use of by the great mass of common people. As such, they could be called mingu, ‘people’s implements.’ They are ordinary things that anyone can buy, that everyone comes regularly into contact with in their daily lives. They cost very little and can be procured almost anywhere and at any time. They are familiarly referred to as temawari no mono (the handy), fudan-zukai (the ordinary), or katte-dogu (kitchen implements). They are not meant for display or decoration; they are seen in the kitchen or scattered here and there throughout the house. They are plates; they are trays; they are chests; they are clothing. Largely they are things for family use. All of them are necessary for everyday living. There is nothing unusual or rarefied about them. They are things that people are thoroughly familiar with, that they know through and through.

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Founded more than a century ago, Kondo Seisakusho (近藤製作所) originally operated as ‘Gorokichi,’ a metalsmith supplying local farmers. The workshop went on to inherit the art of forging and improved its collective skills. In addition to taking special orders from various regions and individuals, they continue to create high-quality hoes that offer a refreshing experience each time they are used. Their motto is ‘the virtue of products lies in efficiency.’ In recent years, Kondo Seisakusho has begun producing gardening tools. (Photograph courtesy of Welcome Co.,Ltd)

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However, there is one thing that never ceases to amaze me. Though these objects are the most familiar to us throughout our lives, their existence has been ignored in the flow of time, because they are considered low and common. It is as though these beautiful objects had no redeeming features. Even historians, who should be telling their story, are silent. Here I will take up the tale of these common, intimate objects. This will mark, I am sure, the beginning of a new chapter in aesthetic history. Some people will think this endeavour strange and outlandish, but by shedding new light on these objects, the clouds that now obscure the subject will be swiftly swept away.

This raises the question of why these miscellaneous objects have been so long ignored. It is said that someone living in proximity to a flowering garden grows insensitive to its fragrance. Likewise, when one becomes too familiar with a sight, one loses the ability to truly see it. Habit robs us of the power to perceive anew, much less the power to be moved. Thus it has taken us all these years, all these ages, to detect the beauty in common objects. We cannot be entirely faulted for this failure, however, for we didn’t possess the proper distance from these objects to see them for what they were; we were too taken up in simply living among them, too busy in creating them. Conscious appreciation requires a historical hiatus, an interval in time for looking back. History is a record of the past; critical evaluation is retrospection.

The times are now moving rapidly in a new direction. There has perhaps never been an era marked by such radical change. The times, our heart and minds, and things themselves are flowing by us and hurrying into the past. The weight of custom and convention has been lifted from our shoulders. All before us is becoming new. The future is new and the past is new. The world we were so accustomed to has become an unfamiliar, strange place. All before us, all we see, has become a subject of reevaluation. It is as if a mirror has been carefully cleaned and now reflects everything in pristine clarity. The good and the bad all appear as they are, with no distortions. What is beautiful and what is not, the advent of this new age enables us to make that distinction. This is an era of critical evaluation, an era of conscious awareness. We have been given the fortunate role of acting as judges. We should not squander this opportunity.

From the dusty, disregarded corners of life a new world of beauty has unfolded. It is a world that everyone knew, but a world that no one knew. It is my task to speak of this world of miscellaneous beauty, to see what we can learn from it.”

Photography and accompanying texts via Japan House London.

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Sanjo Seisakusho (三条製作所) was founded in 1947 by Iwasaki Kosuke, a respected authority on metallurgy who had conducted scientific research on Japanese blades, especially swords. In addition to western-style razors, their Japanese razors and small knives are renowned worldwide for their sharpness. In 2014, Milzuochi Ryoichi was acknowledged as a Master of Traditional Crafts by the Japanese government. (Photograph courtesy of Welcome Co.,Ltd)

And also this …

In The Art of Boredom, Andrew Bowie, wonders what sort of phenomenon boredom actually is? “If we go to a football match and it ends in a goalless draw, someone who analyses tactics may have found it fascinating for the ways the two sides’ tactics cancelled each other out, but someone else, for whom goals and spectacular action are what gives the game its point, may have found it boring. So is boredom something merely ‘subjective’?”

According to Bowie, this question resembles the perennial debates over whether judgements about art are ‘just subjective.’ “People make opposing judgements with respect to what is boring and what is of aesthetic value all the time. What these judgements have in common is that they both derive from the idea that some connections with things in the world involve the presence or absence of certain kinds of value. The idea that these are solely subjective comes from the fact that such judgements may appear irredeemably contested. However, construing ‘subjective’ this way is questionable. Judgements of this kind involve criteria, such as a football game being boring because of its lack of goals. This is not simply ‘subjective’: because one can offer reasons why this criterion may trump tactical interest. Moreover, judgements which become widely socially accepted are not determined just by individual preference, but by other factors. These can involve social and cultural pressures that people are unaware of, and so function in an objective, socially caused manner,” Bowie writes.

“The interplay of subjective and objective, which can each change their status over time, is what matters here. If something comes to play a determining role in how people do things, it is mistaken to call it merely subjective. The norms for what is considered right or wrong in music, for example, often change because some way of playing or composing comes to be regarded as boring, and new norms then gain a compelling status.”

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CAPTION (Photography by Reuters/Dylan Martinez)

But why do things become boring?

“Boredom has to do with a lack of ‘meaning,’” Bowie argues. “Meaning here should not be thought of either in a semantic sense, or even in a metaphysical sense. What is at issue is rather our investments in the world, and how they can fail, which happens both at the individual and the social level. Things can, for example, become boring through repetition. At the same time, repetition is a condition of meaning in the broad sense intended here. In his 1802–3 lectures that would become ‘Philosophy of Art,’ Friedrich Schelling says: ‘man seeks, driven by nature, to establish multiplicity and variety through rhythm. We cannot tolerate uniformity for very long, in everything that is in itself without meaning, for example in counting, we make periods.’ These factors have to do with boredom’s relationship to time, which raises vital questions about how meaning and time are connected. The meaningfulness or the lack of meaning of time in boredom might in this respect again seem to make what is at issue a subjective projection onto an objective physical world. But this approach is precisely what gets in the way of understanding the significance of boredom, because ‘the world’ is not just what physics tells us about, but is also the context in which things mean something, including, of course, physics itself.

The latter idea of the world derives from Martin Heidegger, and it is no coincidence that he provides some striking extended reflections on boredom, in his lectures on ‘The Basic Concepts of Metaphysics,’ of 1929–30, just after the publication of ‘Being and Time’ in 1927. Heidegger here wants to grasp ‘the basic mood (Stimmung) of philosophy,’ and he cites the early German Romantic, Novalis’ remarks on philosophy as ‘homesickness’ as relating to this basic mood. ‘Stimmung’ has the connotation of ‘tuning’ in music, and can be translated as ‘attunement,’ having to do with how we relate to the world in more than cognitive terms. Moods for Heidegger are not subjective psychological states of mind that are the object of the science of psychology, but fundamental ways of being in the world. He therefore insists that one is always already in a mood by the very nature of how we exist. Moods consequently also precede any possibility of objectifying things, including moods themselves. A mood is ‘a way (Weise), not just a form or a mode, but a way in the sense of a melody [the German word has both connotations],’ and it ‘gives the tone’ for human existence. Moods are the ‘basic ways in which we find ourselves as such and such,’ and, though Heidegger himself makes little of it, suggest why music is central to such philosophical exploration.

Heidegger seeks to ‘evoke’ a ‘basic mood’ of human existence, and he does this by focusing on boredom. His philosophy asks how things make any sense at all, so beginning with boredom, which empties things of sense, seems apt. Boredom only matters at all because there is a prior sense of things which it can revoke, so challenging us to understand what it is that goes missing. Rather than being an inner state, ‘boredom has its seat in the boring thing and insinuates itself into us from outside.’ Things like books, plays, ceremonies, or people can be boring, and the phenomenon cannot be reduced to being mere subjective apprehension. Nor can the thing be seen as ‘an effective cause, but rather as that which attunes [stimmt] us.’ This attunement is ‘a fundamental mode of our existence’ in which the world means something to us, or loses such meaning. Boredom precedes the means we employ to investigate it: ‘we may not make boredom, as a state which occurs for itself, the object of observation, but we must take it in the way in which we move in it, i.e. at the same time seek to dispel it’ by ‘passing the time.’ As such, boredom is a key to the meaning of our existence, because it tells us something essential about the temporal nature of that existence.”

Heidegger then inflates the notion of boredom in an attempt at a large-scale diagnosis of the state of modern culture. He sees it as essential to the nature of modernity, writing that “boredom perhaps determines our existence here and now.”

Adorno, in Aesthetic Theory, “talks in a manner analogous to Heidegger, of ‘the grey of the boredom produced by the commodity world,’ which reduces objects to a uniformly quantifiable status, to which modernist art is a response. However, this remark also suggests a more adequate approach than Heidegger’s to the wider cultural significance of boredom. In modernity, metaphysical assumptions that meaning is already inherent in the world, such that time, for example, is thought of as moving towards a goal, lose traction in the face of the new frameworks with which economics, science and technology order the world. The importance of modern forms of art for philosophy in this respect can lie precisely in how they respond to a world dominated by the endless potential for empty repetition. In this way, boredom, which may appear to be an individual psychological phenomenon, can be a philosophical key to fundamental aspects of modern culture.”

What exactly is stupidity?, Brian Gallagher wonders in The Case for Professors of Stupidity.

According to David Krakauer, the President of the Santa Fe Institute, stupidity is not simply the opposite of intelligence. It “is using a rule where adding more data doesn’t improve your chances of getting a problem right,” Krakauer told Steve Paulson. “In fact, it makes it more likely you’ll get it wrong.” Intelligence on the other hand, is using a rule that allows you to solve complex problems with simple, elegant solutions.

“Stupidity is a very interesting class of phenomena in human history, and it has to do with rule systems that have made it harder for us to arrive at the truth… It’s an interesting fact that, whilst there are numerous individuals who study intelligence — there are whole departments that are interested in it — if you were to ask yourself what’s the greatest problem facing the world today, I would say it would be stupidity. So we should have professors of stupidity — it would just be embarrassing to be called the stupid professor,” Krakauer says.

“Knowledge too often turns out to be a disguised belief,” Alister McGrath, the Andreas Idreos Professor of Science and Religion at University of Oxford, asks in Between Knowing and Believing.

“The scientific consensus of the first decade of the twentieth century — regularly presented at that time as secure scientific knowledge — was that the universe was more or less the same today as it always had been. Yet this once fashionable and seemingly reliable view has been eclipsed by the seemingly unstoppable rise of the theory of cosmic origins generally known as the ‘Big Bang.’ What was once thought to be right — and hence to be ‘knowledge’ — was simply an outdated interpretation, an opinion now considered to be wrong.

So is knowledge socially located? To put this another way, is what is deemed ‘knowledge’ in one historical and cultural situation deemed to be ‘belief’ in another? It is an unsettling thought. The American anthropologist Clifford Geertz argued that what we call ‘common sense’ is demonstrably not a universal way of thinking, but is ‘historically constructed,’ varying from one historical location to another. The Enlightenment championed the idea of a universal human rationality, valid at all times and places. Yet a more sceptical attitude has increasingly gained sway, seeing this as an essentially political or cultural assertion that certain Eurocentric ways of thinking are universally valid, and hence legitimating the intellectual colonization of other parts of the world, and the suppression of other forms of rationality. Historical research shows up the existence of multiple forms of rationality in different cultural and historical contexts. They may have been suppressed in the past by the Enlightenment monomyth of a single universal rationality. However, what some are calling epistemological decolonization’ is gaining sway, especially in intellectual circles in South America and southern Africa.

So does this mean that we abandon any hope of finding a rational way of thinking, capable of engaging questions about how our universe functions, and deeper existential questions about meaning, value, and purpose? No. This does not give us any reason to believe what we like. It rather invites us to think more deeply about what it means to be rational. This concern lies behind my recent work The Territories of Human Reason, which explores the historical plurality of cultural rationalities on the one hand, and the diversity of methodologies used in the natural sciences on the other, and tries to understand how a single person can be said to act rationally while holding views that have quite different rational foundations.

For example, consider Albert Einstein, easily one of the most significant thinkers of the twentieth century. Einstein saw no difficulty in holding together his scientific theorizing and socialist political beliefs, despite the fact that political and moral beliefs cannot be considered — contra Engels in the nineteenth century and Sam Harris in the twenty-first century — to have ‘scientific’ foundations. Einstein quite happily worked with several different conceptions of what it meant to be rational, finding ways of knitting them together. Most of us do the same, weaving together scientific, religious, moral and political ideas which come from quite different sources, and which possess quite different rational credentials. These reflections don’t solve the problem, but they at least help us appreciate that challenge that awaits us if we try — like E. O. Wilson — to aim at the ‘unity of knowledge.’”

The U.S. Postal Service’s 2019 Stamp Program honors artist Ellsworth Kelly (1923–2015). Kelly pioneered a distinctive style of abstraction based on real elements reduced to their essential forms. His artworks include paintings, sculpture and works on paper.

The stamps feature Yellow White (1961), Colors for a Large Wall (1951), Blue Red Rocker (1963), Spectrum I (1953), South Ferry (1956), Blue Green (1962), Orange Red Relief (for Delphine Seyrig) (1990), Meschers (1951), Red Blue (1964) and Gaza (1956). A detail from Blue Yellow Red III (1971) appears in the selvage.

You can check out more of Kelly’s art at MoMA and The Whitney.

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Beautiful stamps make you want to write long letters… — The U.S. Postal Service’s 2019 Stamp Program honors artist Ellsworth Kelly with a series of ten stamp, designed by Derry Noyes, whose work also includes a stamp set based on designs of Charles and Ray Eames (2004).

St. Mary’s Church in Kilkenny, Ireland, has been converted by McCullough Mulvin Architects into the Medieval Mile Museum. The building is the starting point of the ‘Medieval Mile’ trail and houses the city’s Civic Treasures and displays many important carved limestone tombs and funerary monuments from the Middle Ages to the 20th century.

The project combines sensitive restoration and contemporary design to an exemplary standard. The medieval building, originally constructed in the 13th century, required some extension for the display of artefacts in a controlled environment and the project became an experiment in the use of archaeology to help define an architectural solution.

The new elements are made of timber and lead, lead’s soft malleability a foil to Irish grey stone and sky. The project worked with the nature of the building, providing a new stone floor, repairing materials, leaving exposed a large section of the original medieval timber roof which acts as a focus in the plan. The chancel had historically been reduced in size and the nave originally had aisles. Archaeological excavations revealed the presence of extant foundations under the earth. New structures were placed on these, amplifying the spatial complexity of the building and developing a sequence of internal spaces.

Via McCullough Mulvin Architects and designboom

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In the renovation project, the architects repurposed the church as a museum, retaining some of the 20th century interventions, while honoring its medieval spatial complexity. (All photography by Christian Richters)
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“The great German poet, novelist, painter, and Nobel laureate Hermann Hesse (1877–1962), who drew from Nietzsche’s philosophy the most humanistic ideas, then magnified them with his own transcendent humanity,” Maria Popova writes in Hermann Hesse on Solitude, the Value of Hardship, the Courage to Be Yourself, and How to Find Your Destiny.

“True action, good and radiant action, my friends, does not spring from activity, from busy bustling, it does not spring from industrious hammering. It grows in the solitude of the mountains, it grows on the summits where silence and danger dwell. It grows out of the suffering which you have not yet learned to suffer.

[…]

Solitude is the path over which destiny endeavors to lead man to himself. Solitude is the path that men most fear. A path fraught with terrors, where snakes and toads lie in wait… Without solitude there is no suffering, without solitude there is no heroism. But the solitude I have in mind is not the solitude of the blithe poets or of the theater, where the fountain bubbles so sweetly at the mouth of the hermit’s cave.” — Hermann Hesse

Thank you for reading and Random finds will be back next week. If fortune allows, of course.

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

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