Saturday, February 11, 2012

Change of Pace Photo


I like the famous Newton quote that he felt he had walked along the beach, picking up a pebble here or there. while the vast ocean of truth lay undisturbed and undiscovered beyond. 

Kicking over a grain of sand or two is fun, though. 

Commonplace Books and Ideas

One last thing I love in Steven Johnson's book. He describes how some of the great figures of the past kept "commonplace books". Recording things helps get over the limits of short-term memory and get more connections available, on the table. 

Darwin was constantly rereading his notes, discovering new implications. His ideas emerge as a kind of duet between the present-tense thinking brain and all those past observations recorded on paper. 


The great minds of the period—Milton, Bacon, Locke—were zealous believers in the memory-enhancing powers of the commonplace book. In its most customary form, “commonplacing,” as it was called, involved transcribing interesting or inspirational passages from one’s reading, assembling a personalized encyclopedia of quotations. 


The trick is to have some structure , but not too much structure. 


The tradition of the commonplace book contains a central tension between order and chaos, between the desire for methodical arrangement, and the desire for surprising new links of association. For some Enlightenment-era advocates, the systematic indexing of the commonplace book became an aspirational metaphor for one’s own mental life. 


For me, this blog is the equivalent of the commonplace book, not that there is much in common with Locke or Darwin, unfortunately.  The blog contains quotes, stray thoughts, books I've read, current news, things that intrigue me. And I find it very satisfying indeed to do that, even if no-one else ever read it. 

It feels cumulative. 

Advice on innovation

 Steven Johnson sums it up in a line:

Go for a walk; cultivate hunches; write everything down, but keep your folders messy; embrace serendipity; make generative mistakes; take on multiple hobbies; frequent coffeehouses and other liquid networks; follow the links; let others build on your ideas; borrow, recycle, reinvent. Build a tangled bank. 

Evolution: Competition versus Tangled Banks and Coral Reefs

I'm discussing Steven Johnson's book Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation. He has an intriguing and persuasive point about evolution itself works. 

Johnson does not believe that competition in markets is the only way you get innovation. Nor is the lone inventor with a sudden spark of brilliance the main avenue to new ideas.  Instead, he advocates what he calls a 'fourth quandrant', namely collective, non-market innovation. 

It is not that there is anything wrong with the market, he says. Far from it.  But much of the most important innovation in recent years has come from sources which are not purely market-oriented, like research universities, government labs or nonprofits. 

It is a matter of completing, not just competing. 

Evolution is often mistakenly understood only as organisms in competition with other, he says. Instead, think of a coral reef. Above the waterline, reefs are barren deserts. Below, they are one of the richest ecosystems on the planet, in situations which might otherwise be barren. Why?

For one thing, organisms share resources, recycling them and reusing them. Take the artificial reefs created by dumping subway cars off the coast. It creates an emergent platform for all sorts of other growth. 

Platforms have a natural appetite for trash, waste, and abandoned goods. The sea bass and mussels making a home in a decommissioned A train, like the songbirds nesting in the abandoned homes of the pileated woodpeckers, mirror a pattern Jane Jacobs detected years ago in urban development: innovation thrives in discarded spaces. Emergent platforms derive much of their creativity from the inventive and economical reuse of existing resources, and, as any urbanite will tell you, the most expensive resource in a big city is real estate. 


Coral reefs are much the same.  

The zooxanthella and the coral are like two neighbors who miraculously turn out to have a pressing need for each other’s garbage, and thus meet every night to swap trash cans.  ... The entire coral reef ecosystem is characterized by similarly intricate and interdependent food webs, the full complexity of which scientists are only now beginning to map. 

Complex patterns of interdependence generate innovation and flourishing, even when there is not a market IPO in the future: 

..  these non-market, decentralized environments do not have immense paydays to motivate their participants. But their openness creates other, powerful opportunities for good ideas to flourish. All of the patterns of innovation we have observed in the previous chapters—liquid networks, slow hunches, serendipity, noise, exaptation, emergent platforms—do best in open environments where ideas flow in unregulated channels. In more controlled environments, where the natural movement of ideas is tightly restrained, they suffocate. 


The web is not just pure competition.  The cluster of ideas and exchange and social contact in Silicon Valley and elsewhere also matters. 

The Web is not simply an ecosystem; it is a specific type of ecosystem. It started as a desert, and it has been steadily transforming into a coral reef. 

So he says, the arguments over intellectual property are misguided. It is not a matter of simply defining property rights and competing, as many economists believe. It is also about sharing and interrelated cycles.

And Darwin himself recognized this. Symbiotic relationships matter as well as the survival of the fittest. Darwin's metaphor was the "tangled bank" - a complex hedgerow ecosystem. 

The popular caricature of Darwin’s theory emphasizes competitive struggle above everything else. Yet so many of the insights his theory made possible have revealed the collaborative and connective forces at work in the natural world. .. Even without the economic rewards of artificial scarcity, fourth-quadrant environments have played an immensely important role in the nurturing and circulation of good ideas—now more than ever. In Darwin’s language, the open connections of the tangled bank have been just as generative as the war of nature. ...  This is the ultimate explanation of Darwin’s Paradox: the reef has unlocked so many doors of the adjacent possible because of the way it shares. 

This is an important and persuasive point. For growth and wealth, we don't need simply market systems alone. That is part of it, for sure. But  we need reef-like cooperation and cycles and complexity. Perhaps we can even say a coral reef model  is more complex and successful than a money and exchange economy alone. 

And I love the reference to Jane Jacobs. It reminds me of her book The Nature of Economieswhich I have on my shelf and I will have to read again soon.

The economy evolves: but evolution is a more complex process than we generally understand.

I've been thinking of Douglass North's arguments about transitions in the economy again. The key transition to modernity was from personal to impersonal exchange , he says. Perhaps the next transition is to cyclical, interdependent systems. The metaphor changes from market to ecosystem, from depersonalized formal exchange to adaptation and niches and symbiosis.

Complex ecosystems bootstrap themselves up. We need new emergent platforms for cooperation and flourishing and growth. We need platforms that offer positive opportunities for growth and transformation as side-effects and unintended consequences. 

Where Good Ideas come from

I've been reading Steven Johnson's book Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation, and thoroughly enjoyed it. He says good ideas are about connecting existing pieces:


[Good ideas] are, inevitably, constrained by the parts and skills that surround them. We have a natural tendency to romanticize breakthrough innovations, imagining momentous ideas transcending their surroundings, a gifted mind somehow seeing over the detritus of old ideas and ossified tradition. But ideas are works of bricolage; they’re built out of that detritus. We take the ideas we’ve inherited or that we’ve stumbled across, and we jigger them together into some new shape. 


The 'Adjacent Possible'

He discusses several channels of innovation. Perhaps the most important is the "adjacent possible."

The scientist Stuart Kauffman has a suggestive name for the set of all those first-order combinations: “the adjacent possible.” The phrase captures both the limits and the creative potential of change and innovation. 

It is like exploring a house. You can take doors which lead to adjacent rooms. But it is difficult to skip over rooms altogether to the other side of the house. Much innovation is just thoroughly exploring the nearby.

Recall the question we began with: What kind of environment creates good ideas? The simplest way to answer it is this: innovative environments are better at helping their inhabitants explore the adjacent possible, because they expose a wide and diverse sample of spare parts—mechanical or conceptual—and they encourage novel ways of recombining parts. 

It is important to get more parts to recombine on the table.

Part of coming up with a good idea is discovering what those spare parts are, and ensuring that you’re not just recycling the same old ingredients. This, then, is where the next six patterns of innovation will take us, because they all involve, in one way or another, tactics for assembling a more eclectic collection of building block ideas, spare parts that can be reassembled into useful new configurations. The trick to having good ideas is not to sit around in glorious isolation and try to think big thoughts. The trick is to get more parts on the table. 


Liquid Networks


He adds another important element - a liquid network, which enables mixing to the right degree. In fact, life probably began that way - carbon atoms with a igh propensity to bond with many other elements in many ways, and liquid water.

And so, when we look back to the original innovation engine on earth, we find two essential properties. First, a capacity to make new connections with as many other elements as possible. And, second, a “randomizing” environment that encourages collisions between all the elements in the system. On earth, at least, the story of life’s creativity begins with a liquid, high-density network: connection-hungry carbon atoms colliding with other elements in the primordial soup. 

The right amount of order and disorder is crucial, though.

In a low-density, chaotic network, ideas come and go. In the dense networks of the first cities, good ideas have a natural propensity to get into circulation. They spill over, and through that spilling they are preserved for future generations. For reasons we will see, high-density liquid networks make it easier for innovation to happen, but they also serve the essential function of storing those innovations. 

Cities are just that kind of liquid network, which explains why they are hotspots of innovation.

But, in a crucial sense, the pattern of Renaissance innovation differs from that of the first cities: Michelangelo, Brunelleschi, and da Vinci were emerging from a medieval culture that suffered from too much order. If dispersed tribes of hunter-gatherers are the cultural equivalent of a chaotic, gaseous state, a culture where the information is largely passed down by monastic scribes stands at the opposite extreme. A cloister is a solid. 

Innovation also tends to be social and connected. A Canadian scientist studied exactly how and when innovation happened in a large science lab by meticulously filming events.

 .. Dunbar’s study showed that those isolated eureka moments were rarities. Instead, most important ideas emerged during regular lab meetings, where a dozen or so researchers would gather and informally present and discuss their latest work. If you looked at the map of idea formation that Dunbar created, the ground zero of innovation was not the microscope. It was the conference table. 

Exchange and interaction and cross fertilization are at the heart of innovation. 

Dunbar’s research suggests one vaguely reassuring thought: even with all the advanced technology of a leading molecular biology lab, the most productive tool for generating good ideas remains a circle of humans at a table, talking shop. 

 The social flow of the group conversation turns that private solid state into a liquid network. 

In fact,


 In The Act of Creation, Arthur Koestler argued that “all decisive events in the history of scientific thought can be described in terms of mental cross-fertilization between different disciplines.” Concepts from one domain migrate to another as a kind of structuring metaphor, thereby unlocking some secret door that had long been hidden from view.


Another important mechanism is repurposing parts to do something different.

Evolutionary biologists have a word for this kind of borrowing, first proposed in an influential 1971 essay by Stephen Jay Gould and Elisabeth Vrba: exaptation. An organism develops a trait optimized for a specific use, but then the trait gets hijacked for a completely different function. 

The Internet is a perfect example.

The history of the World Wide Web is, in a sense, a story of continuous exaptation. Tim Berners-Lee designs the original protocols with a specifically academic environment in mind, creating a platform for sharing research in a hypertext format. But when the first Web pages crawl out of that scholarly primordial soup and begin to engage with ordinary consumers, Berners-Lee’s invention turns out to possess a remarkable number of unanticipated qualities. A platform adapted for scholarship was exapted for shopping, and sharing photos, and watching pornography—along with a thousand other uses that would have astounded Berners-Lee when he created his first HTML-based directories in the early nineties. 

Cities are are another example.

Cities, then, are environments that are ripe for exaptation, because they cultivate specialized skills and interests, and they create a liquid network where information can leak out of those subcultures, and influence their neighbors in surprising ways. This is one explanation for superlinear scaling in urban creativity. The cultural diversity those subcultures create is valuable not just because it makes urban life less boring. The value also lies in the unlikely migrations that happen between the different clusters. A world where a diverse mix of distinct professions and passions overlap is a world where exaptations thrive. 


 This is why the 18th century coffeehouse or the Homebrew Computer Club of the 1970s were hotspots of innovation. 


Schopenhauer on Mai Tai

I've started to develop a fictional little experimental desert island called Mai Tai, where all material needs are satisfied. What happens then? How do people live?

There is one answer in Sarah Ahmed's book, The Promise of Happiness, which I discussed just below

She  quotes Schopenhauer, who says:

Imagine this race transported to a Utopia where everything grows of its own accord and turkeys fly around ready-roasted, where lovers find one another without any delay, and keep one another without any difficulty: in such a place some men would die of boredom or hang themselves, some would fight and kill one another and thus they would create for themselves more suffering than nature inflicts on them. (p175)

This must say something about the culture

 I was in the Barnes and Noble on Court St, Brooklyn yesterday. I noticed it had a "Top Teenage Books" bookcase on the second floor.

It was helpfully divided into three main shelves: "Vampires", "Slayers" and "Witches".

The Promise of Happiness

G said I ought to take a look at the book The Promise of Happiness by Sarah Ahmed, an English academic, for a different point of view on happiness. And it is different, very different.

In essence, Ahmed argues that we ought to prefer political engagement and consciousness to happiness, and it is preferable to have an exciting life than to make yourself and others happy.

It is hard to leave happiness for life. There is always a gap between becoming conscious of what is lost by living according to an idea of happiness and being able to leave happiness for life, a gap where things happen, where lives are lived and lives are lost. (p78)

She notes that Betty Friedan implied "making women happy is not the point of feminism." For Friedan, she notes, "happiness is not the same as being fully used." 

Ahmed says happiness is often deceptive. 

Happiness provides as it were a cover, a way of covering over what resists or is resistant to a view of the world, or a worldview, as harmonious. It is not that an individual person suffers from false consciousness but that we inherit a certain false consciousness when we learn to see and not to see things in a certain way. (p84)

I have suggested that feminist consciousness involves consciousness of unhappiness that might even increase our unhappiness, or at least create this impression. Happiness can wok to cover over unhappiness, in part by covering over its causes, such that to refuse to take cover can allow unhappiness to emerge. (p87)

Much of her thinking seems to stem from an uneasy awareness that feminism is often associated with being a "killjoy" and causing unhappiness to others. This leads her to question the value of happiness itself.
Feminists might kill joy simply by not finding the objects that promise happiness to be quite so promising. The word feminism is thus saturated with unhappiness. Feminists by declaring themselves as feminists are already read as destroying something that is thought of by others not only as being good but the cause of happiness. The feminist killjoy "spoils" the happiness of others; she is a spoilsport because she refuses to convene, to assemble, or to meet up over happiness. (p65)

She also discusses  "unhappy queers" and "melancholy migrants", but most of the force of the book seems to come from her search for an answer to the accusation she was causing unhappiness around the dinner table as a child.
My skepticism comes from childhood experiences of being a feminist daughter in a relatively conventional family, always at odds with the performance of good feeling in the family, always assumed to be bringing others down, for example, by pointing out sexism in other people's talk. (p65)
She rejects the idea that happiness consists in just following particular accepted "life scripts", or that the happy is necessarily the good.

There is solidarity in recognizing our alienation from happiness, even if we do not unhabit the same place (as we do not). There can even be joy in killing joy. And kill joy, we must and we do. (p87)

Her case grows more strident. Happiness might even depend on social wrongs. In discussing the classic queer novel, The Well of Loneliness, Ahmed concludes:
Heterosexual happiness is narrated as a social wrong, as based on the unthinking exclusion of those whose difference is already narrated as deprivation. Happiness for some involves persecuton for others: it is not simply that this happiness produces a social wrong: it might even depend on it. The unhappiness of the deviant performs a claim for justice.

Happiness is used as a "technology of citizenship", she says.

To be bound to happiness is to be bound by what has already been established as good... the desire for just happiness appears to give the other a certain freedom and yet directs the other toward what is already agreed to be the cause of happiness (p133)

And the trouble is, following Schopenhauer, she says happiness does not live up to its promise. Human desire is a lack, an emptiness that cannot be filled. 

For Schopenhauer it is the human being  who is empty, which means the promise of happiness is empty... The promise of happiness is what does not keep its word..  As soon as one has the object that one anticipates will cause happiness, one is dissatisfied. Happiness for Schopenhauer necessarily does not exist in the present:"The enchantment of distance shows us paradises which vanish like optical illusions when we have allowed ourselves to be mocked by them." (p174)

So, she argues in effect, why bother with happiness as our main end. 

To recognize the causes of unhappiness is thus a part of our political cause. This is why any politics of justice will involve causing unhappiness even if that is not the point of our action. So much happiness is premised on, and promised by, the concealment of suffering, the freedom to look away from what compromises one's happiness. (p196)

The happy future is the future of the perhaps. (p198). 

It is clear that "happiness" creates deep problems for the left, and this book is one result. 
How should we judge political engagement or raised consciousness if it produces unhappiness? Is it still worth it? This is really her issue, and it is fundamental to the project of the left.
The ugly truth is the great left-wing projects do not necessarily produce happiness. In fact, they have produced vast misery on the whole. Stalinist Russia led to starvation, dekulakization and the gulag. Mao produced the greatest famine in recorded history and sent teachers to muck out pigs for the rest of their lives in the cultural revolution.
And now feminism and multiculturalism may not be conducive to happiness either, according to Ahmed herself.
The question is whether the left should care. She thinks not. It is better to be open to the "possibility", the "perhaps".
In order to stop the concealment of suffering, as they see it, she and others will cause suffering "even if that is not the point of our action."  
That raises obvious and difficult questions of means and ends. Revolutionaries like to think you cannot make an omelet without breaking eggs. But what if the omelet is inedible?
And she never justifies her alternate ends, except with concealed references to happiness. What is suffering, after all, but the inverse of happiness? She never explains why suffering is even a problem for those who prefer political engagement or justice or equality.
This difficulty of explaining why we should value other ends in the absence of happiness suffuses the book. She is consistently embarrassed by finding her favored political engagement often leads to unhappiness, and casts around for defenses - or at least distractions. Hence the blurry quality of much of the book. It is clear what she is against. It is not clear what she is for.
It would be intelligible if she argued that personal growth in capabilities could justify some unhappiness - in other words, perhaps argue life satisfaction as a whole is as valid as short-term emotional states. But she does not do this either. She never develops what "possibility" means.
At times she seems to be saying that by revealing hidden unhappiness (or rather, hidden political injustice), we will ultimately create more real happiness, although this is never quite explicit. 
At other times, she suggests, following Schopenhauer, that happiness may be a distant illusion in any case. So even if it was a useful end in theory, in practice it is illusory. 
She skirts towards the idea that we should "affirm" the unhappy life. But because this is difficult to argue persuasively, she meanders round the idea rather than pin it down. She takes delight in elaborate wordplay, as if to leach meanings out of the words.
She emphasizes the chanciness - the "hap"  - of happiness. She talks about happiness as a kind of orientation or alignment towards objects which are good, and how being unhappy is being out of alignment with those life scripts.  
She is in essence saying that desire or aspiration or engagement is better than happiness (although it is never wholly clear). She discusses a different view - Aristotle - in her first chapter, noting that for him self mastery and balance is essential, that pleasures should be "just right."
A happy life, a good life hence involves the regulation of desire. It is not simply that we desire happiness but that happiness is imagined what we get in return for desiring well. (p37)
What if her vague sense of "possibility" is just undisciplined and vague desire, or underlying inherent unease? What if her political engagement is also excessive or misdirected desire, a romantic miasma? There are long historical traditions, such as Buddhism, that argue precisely such excessive attachment and desire are the fundamental human problem.
At risk of violating Godwin's Law, there is a faint whiff of fascism about the book. Torchlight political parades are to be favored over common happiness. Romantic striving after abstract romantic goals must take precedence over daily pleasure. She wants "a gap where things happen, where lives are lived and lives are lost." The "lives lost" is telling. It is equivalent to an argument for glory, for aristocratic purity of warfare, for violent passion. 
It is no coincidence that the abstract political engagement of the French Revolution - liberty, equality, fraternity - soon turned into the Terror and within a decade had launched imperialist invasion and war across the whole continent. Ahmed's argument is an argument for the primacy of ideology in a world which has seen the consequence of leftist ideology in war and famine and death. 
If you do not take ordinary happiness as a relevant political yardstick, you are removing all the circuit breakers and safety barriers in our politics. 
Happiness is an obstacle to leftist dreams. It makes them unachievable or undesirable or unpersuasive. 
This unease with happiness also explains why the left can be very hostile to positive psychology. Recall our earlier discussion of how much Barbara Ehrenreich detested Martin Seligman's work.  If there are actual objective things rooted in human nature or human psychology that tend to promote happiness, that makes it a threatening metric for liberals and revoultionaries. It dissolves much of the false consciousness argument and makes distant socialist nirvanas more open to scrutiny. 
So utlimately it is a brave book, in a way, in suggesting that we should not affirm happiness as much as we do, but prefer political engagement. But it does not really explain why we ought to prefer political engagement. What is it ultimately for, and why should we want it if it produces unhappiness? And those underlying difficulties and questions never get answered. 
Instead of being a daring critique, as the author imagines, it is more of a gateway to misery. Some will read the book and get a suggestive thrill at seeing such a quotidian bourgeois consideration as happiness daringly overthrown. It is not daring. It is ultimately a book which is about squirming and discomfort and unease. Killing joy is not an attractive way to live, despite two hundred pages of attempted justification.