Draft: Cultural Landscape and Innovation

I just finished reading a NYT article titled True Innovation that discussed the trajectory of innovative trends within our culture. It prompted me to think about Paul Feyerabend, Thomas Kuhn, and  Imre Lakatos’ philosophy of science, Nietzsche’s prophetic will to power and the thematic elucidations of Panagiotis Kondylis.

They say necessity is the mother of invention? What kind of necessity? Personal necessity for psychological equilibrium? Necessity for physiological equilibrium? Social necessity for conformity and adoption?

Logic is equilibrium: each new theory comprising a paradigm comes with statical axioms that present endless combinations of puzzles for solving. These puzzles allow us to work out discrepancies between axioms so that theories can be reconciled and smoothed out. Progress takes place linearly rather than horizontally. When novel theories are introduced that clash with present conventional logic and historical science, they are most often brushed aside or discarded. In time this giant system of science, these puzzle solving enterprises, run out of combinations. Reality is perceived to be consistent with the facts. This hubris indicates the beginning of the end. Thinkers, being so enculturated and inundated with the present paradigm, totally preoccupied with pursuing universal truths, fail to account for individual experience in the process. As a result, change occurs unnoticed. First, small subtle and incremental changes, and these are only felt at the periphery of society. But these fractional degrees of change compound across a society losing touch with itself and soon reality becomes a vicarious fiction of role playing, where types and genres and paths provide navigation, where our thoughts are purchased and our ideas reflect consensus, where individualism is a cruel catch phrase.

The corollary is a culture who have grown efficient at perpetuating more of the same, more of the good and, in turn, much more of the bad. You must remember that every experience is unique, that what was good for today may not be good for tomorrow. Weather is the harbinger of change and climates never stays favorable for long, be it cultural or geological.

Institutions are good and bad: must be adaptive. Freedom is necessary. Time must be plenty. Purpose is paramount. The collaboration of collective disparate experiences, but similar values, is necessary for creation.Vision provides direction. Autonomy to explore along the way. Intrinsic motivation towards understanding will always triumph over extrinsic motives for profit. Plenty of resources.

Revolutions happen fast but dawn slowly. To a large extent, we’re still benefiting from risks that were taken, and research that was financed, more than a half century ago. -Jon Gertner, True Innovation

Think Thomas Kuhn.





More later

QUOTED passages of interest:

In his recent letter to potential shareholders of Facebook, Mark Zuckerberg noted that one of his firm’s mottoes was “move fast and break things.” Bell Labs’ might just as well have been “move deliberately and build things.” This sounds like the quaint pursuit of men who carried around slide rules and went to bed by 10 o’clock. But it was not.

fundamental belief was that an “institute of creative technology” like his own needed a “critical mass” of talented people to foster a busy exchange of ideas. But innovation required much more than that. Mr. Kelly was convinced that physical proximity was everything; phone calls alone wouldn’t do. Quite intentionally, Bell Labs housed thinkers and doers under one roof. Purposefully mixed together on the transistor project were physicists, metallurgists and electrical engineers; side by side were specialists in theory, experimentation and manufacturing. Like an able concert hall conductor, he sought a harmony, and sometimes a tension, between scientific disciplines; between researchers and developers; and between soloists and groups.

Another element of the approach was aspirational. Bell Labs was sometimes caricatured as an ivory tower. But it is more aptly described as an ivory tower with a factory downstairs. It was clear to the researchers and engineers there that the ultimate aim of their organization was to transform new knowledge into new things.

Mr. Kelly believed that freedom was crucial, especially in research. Some of his scientists had so much autonomy that he was mostly unaware of their progress until years after he authorized their work. When he set up the team of researchers to work on what became the transistor, for instance, more than two years passed before the invention occurred. Afterward, when he set up another team to handle the invention’s mass manufacture, he dropped the assignment into the lap of an engineer and instructed him to come up with a plan. He told the engineer he was going to Europe in the meantime.

THERE was another element necessary to Mervin Kelly’s innovation strategy, an element as crucial, or more crucial even, than all the others. Mr. Kelly talked fast and walked fast; he ran up and down staircases. But he gave his researchers not only freedom but also time. Lots of time — years to pursue what they felt was essential. One might see this as impossible in today’s faster, more competitive world. Or one might contend it is irrelevant because Bell Labs (unlike today’s technology companies) had the luxury of serving a parent organization that had a large and dependable income ensured by its monopoly status. Nobody had to meet benchmarks to help with quarterly earnings; nobody had to rush a product to market before the competition did.

But what should our pursuit of innovation actually accomplish? By one definition, innovation is an important new product or process, deployed on a large scale and having a significant impact on society and the economy, that can do a job (as Mr. Kelly once put it) “better, or cheaper, or both.” Regrettably, we now use the term to describe almost anything. It can describe a smartphone app or a social media tool; or it can describe the transistor or the blueprint for a cellphone system. The differences are immense. One type of innovation creates a handful of jobs and modest revenues; another, the type Mr. Kelly and his colleagues at Bell Labs repeatedly sought, creates millions of jobs and a long-lasting platform for society’s wealth and well-being

The conflation of these different kinds of innovations seems to be leading us toward a belief that small groups of profit-seeking entrepreneurs turning out innovative consumer products are as effective as our innovative forebears. History does not support this belief. The teams at Bell Labs that invented the laser, transistor and solar cell were not seeking profits. They were seeking understanding. Yet in the process they created not only new products but entirely new — and lucrative — industries.

But to consider the legacy of Bell Labs is to see that we should not mistake small technological steps for huge technological leaps. It also shows us that to always “move fast and break things,” as Facebook is apparently doing, or to constantly pursue “a gospel of speed” (as Google has described its philosophy) is not the only way to get where we are going. Perhaps it is not even the best way. Revolutions happen fast but dawn slowly. To a large extent, we’re still benefiting from risks that were taken, and research that was financed, more than a half century ago.

Will Technology Save Us All, or Will It Tear Us Apart?


COMING SOON: ‘Teaching & Learning Guide for ‘Can a Knowledge Sanctuary also be an Economic Engine? The Marketing of Higher Education as Institutional Boundary Work’’ by Prof. Steve Hoffman (University at Buffalo, SUNY) – PROVISIONAL ABSTRACT: The marketing of higher education refers to a structural trend towards the adoption of market-oriented practices by colleges and universities. These organizational practices blur the boundary between knowledge-driven and profit-driven institutions, and create tensions and contradictions among the three missions of the 21st-century university: knowledge production, student learning, and satisfying the social charter. In this article, we highlight the historical contexts that nurtured the marketing of higher education in the U.S. and Europe and explore the dilemmas that arise when market logics and business-oriented practices contradict traditional academic values. We demonstrate that managing these dilemmas is a contested process of policing borders as institutional actors struggle to delineate the proper role of the university in a shifting organizational climate.

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