Blinded by Science

More than 15 years ago, a colleague at the time, Greg Grosh, gave me a book entitled The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, by Thomas Kuhn. I’ve thought a lot about that book lately and have pulled it from my shelf to re-read key passages.

Here’s an excerpt from a review by Nicholas Wade in Science magazine that may give you a hint as to why the book has been on my mind:

The Structure of Scientific Revolutions is a landmark in intellectual history which has attracted attention far beyond its own immediate field…It is written with a combination of depth and clarity that make it an almost unbroken series of aphorisms. Its author wastes little time on demolishing the logical empiricist view of science as an objective progression toward the truth.”

“Instead he erects from ground up a structure in which science is seen to be heavily influenced by non-rational procedures, and in which new theories are viewed as being more complex than those they usurp but not as standing any closer to the truth…Science is not the steady, cumulative acquisition of knowledge that is portrayed in the textbooks. Rather, it is a series of peaceful interludes punctuated by intellectually violent revolutions…in each of which one conceptual world view is replaced by another…”

Wow – pretty amazing stuff, huh? Wade’s phrase – “peaceful interludes, punctuated by intellectually violent revolutions” – especially resonates with me. Who among hasn’t been “blinded by the science” of those smooth charts and line graphs in hundreds of PowerPoint presentations documenting the waves of technology in an unerring progress towards whatever the presenter wants you to believe is the next wave?

Kuhn’s essay refutes any notion of this premise in his powerful, book-length essay. Along the way, he writes about how the aggregation of methods, theories, and processes take the shape of what he dubs “a paradigm” and then describes how paradigms resist change.

At this particular moment in history, Kuhn’s essay gives me pause with two concerns: The first concern is that there is an even greater risk for paradigms to increasingly resist change, because the scientific community, its supporting ecosystem (i.e., funders, project sponsors, material supply chain, etc.), and their public observers are magnified by the global reach of social media and instant communications.

You could argue that social media also magnify and amplify the opposing views in a debate. And that’s a fair argument, if you assume that it involves participants from many disciplines. This leads to my second concern, the decline in creativity – for “other” thinking.

Another colleague pointed me to the current story in Newsweek, “The Creativity Crisis,” in which it cites a recent IBM poll of 1,500 CEOs that identified creativity as the No. 1 “leadership competency” of the future. The potential consequences of a decline in American creativity are sweeping, because the necessity of human ingenuity is undisputed.

A combination of right-brain/left-brain thinking proves time and again to yield the best results on big problems. Take a fun, but telling example, like my daughter Lauren’s alma mater, St. Olaf, where its first-year team won the national “Rube Goldberg” competition.  The “secret of their success?”…it was an interdisciplinary team of artists and engineers, social and hard science majors, young men and women.

With the decades’-long reduction in public school arts education and gifted programs, we have brewed a bitter gruel for ourselves, producing kids who are, overall, better performers according to standards in the core subjects of math, science, and language skills, but at the expense of critical thinking and the necessity of ingenuity that are fueled by creative arts.

Companies, large and small, can help to stem and begin reversing this creative decline, not only in their existing workforce, but in the future one as well. Support the creative arts in your community:

  • Offer “scholarships” by buying a block of discounted tickets to give to kids, especially those who can’t afford them, for performances at the opera, the ballet, or the museum.
  • Take a company outing to a high school or college musical…it’s kitschy, it’s cheap fun, and the theater programs need the support.
  • There’s a hundred other ways to support the creative industries beyond this…many of them low, and often no, cost.

We can’t afford to do otherwise, for our economic well-being, competitiveness, and national future. As always, I hope to hear your thoughts on the topic, as well.

What Is Beauty Worth?

A photo I took years ago of the main altar in Rome’s St. Peter’s Basilica was recently included in an auction of various visual art creations (paintings, sculptures, photos, etc.) in a fundraiser for the Austin Museum of Art.

Donating my artwork for sale got me to thinking about creativity and, more broadly, our human and natural expressions of beauty. A couple of movie scenes leapt to mind as insightful commentary on the subject.

In the Academy award-winning film “American Beauty,” there is a mesmerizing scene with two of its teenage characters when they watch a video of a plastic bag drifting in the wind that the young man filmed and describes as “the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen.” The message is that beauty is all around us, we just have to take a moment to look for and recognize it.

Contrast that scene with one from another Academy award-winning film, “Wall Street.” In a key scene towards the climactic end of the movie, the two main characters – a Wall Street mogul and his protégé, played by Michael Douglas and Charlie Sheen, respectively – are discussing the nature of wealth.

Douglas’s character points to a painting on his office wall and remarks “this painting here…I bought it ten years ago for sixty thousand dollars – I could sell it today for six hundred. The illusion has become real…and the more real it becomes, the more desperate they want it.” It’s a classic moment of film – all in a single take, I might add. You can download the clip to watch it, since there isn’t a readily available trailer playing it.

These contrasting perspectives on beauty were perfectly juxtaposed recently when a Picasso painting set the new world record for a work of art selling at auction for more than $106 million. I thought the New York Times critic’s description of the dynamics driving the price were fascinating.

In summary, if I may, he said the buyer of the Picasso topped all others in competing for a prized trophy, not a work of creative brilliance or unique, historic painting of great beauty. Or, in the critic’s words:

These days, there’s so much money in so many hands, and so many of those hands are after trophy art, that record-breaking has become routine, de rigueur.

Two, three, four million extra? More? Worth it. After all, if you’re the evening’s big spender, you not only suddenly own some fantastically valuable object, but your extravagance gets a mention in the news. Lay out the same bucks for a hospital wing, and who cares?

Indeed, the global art world is a fabulously diverse study cultural anthropology. I had a vague sense of this unique diversity, as a semi-literate layperson and visual arts admirer.

But, the full color of this magnificent sub-culture was brought home in totally engrossing way when I picked up a copy of Seven Days in the Art World. It is a fantastic read.

Likewise, I had a chance to spend a couple hours last afternoon at the Alamo Drafthouse to be completely entertained watching “Exit Through the Gift Shop,” the new movie by the graffiti “entre-tainer” Banksy.

If you are like me and are a fan of a good story, regardless of the topic, then my hope is you will be enchanted with both of these, like I was. But, in addition to being a total riot (in the case of the movie) or page-turner (for the book), they both offer some lessons from the world of visual arts for the world of entrepreneurship.

Specifically, that truly original creations frequently involve years of preparation, significant doubt and mental anguish, financial struggle and self-sacrifice, enormous passion and an unrelenting drive that often borders on the edge of what most others would observe as physically or psychologically reasonable.

Sound familiar? If so, I toast you, my fellow artists, patrons, and participants in the creative art of conceiving and building new products, services, and the companies that result. And, hopefully, I’ve just reminded you that the left-brain business types and right-brain creative types are often much more alike than they are different.

Wisdom from a $1,000 Book

I’ve been reading a fascinating book lent to me by a long-time friend, Brad Richardson, entitled The Future of Money. It was written in 2001 by Bernard Lietaer, who the “About the Author” section describes as, among other things, a former senior central bank executive in Belgium who “was closely involved in the design and implementation of the ECU, the convergence mechanism which led to the European single currency.”

Brad first mentioned The Future of Money to me probably four or five years ago at lunch when we were trading our usual local market business intel, along with other more esoteric subjects catching our fancy. We’re both avid readers and share similar tastes in systems-related subjects, so I made a mental note of the book title for a future read.

Years passed and then, at a recent happy hour, he brought up some ideas from the book in conversation again, so I asked him where I could get it. He suggested that he lend me his copy because, coincidentally, Brad had just been looking it up on Amazon.com recently, perhaps to see if the author had published something new, and that the book’s sales price was $500!

I accepted the loaner offer and picked up the book shortly thereafter, at which point Brad said he had just checked the price and it had gone up to $,1000 for a paperback copy!! See for yourself…

Now, being an undergraduate Economics major, I was fully prepared as I cracked open the black-covered book to begin slogging through macroeconomic, formulaic, arcana from the get-go. After all, I’d delivered my senior orals exam presentation on the global economic upside of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT).

So, I can personally attest to the authentic intent of a witticism like former Federal Reserve chairman Alan Greenspan’s, when he said “If you have understood me, then I must not have made myself clear.”

But, pleasant surprise, The Future of Money has turned out to be one of the most readable, straightforward explanations of money and its past, present, and future that one could ever hope to encounter. What I especially love about the book is that – from the very beginning – it sets the tone about its intention to demystify the subject for a layperson.

Here is a perfect example, excerpted from the Preface:

Fish do not comprehend the nature of the water in which they live. Similarly, people have trouble understanding the nature of money. We allocate a great portion of our physical, emotional, and mental energy to getting, keeping, and spending money – but how many of us really know what money is or where it comes from?

While I’m not finished with it, the key concept of the book is clear: that money is a major force for human, social transformation. Having entered the digital age we now occupy, author Lietaer argues that there is every reason (and opportunity!) to form new micro money systems, using complementary currencies (as opposed to alternative ones) alongside the conventional currencies, validating the potential of a model he refers to as “sustainable abundance.”

The essence of sustainable abundance can best be captured by understanding that it is a compensating response to today’s prevailing system. And what is today’s prevailing system? Lietaer describes it this way, in his best central banker language possible:

Our prevailing system is an unconscious product of the modern Industrial Age world view, and it remains the most powerful and persistent designer and enforcer of the values and dominant emotions of that age. For instance, all our national currencies make it easier to interact economically with our fellow citizens than with “foreigners,” and therefore encourages national consciousness.

Similarly, these currencies were designed to foster competition among their users, rather than cooperation. Money is also the hidden engine of the perpetual growth treadmill that has become the hallmark of industrial societies. Finally, the current system encourages individual accumulation, and ruthlessly punishes those who don’t follow that injunction.

Like I said, it’s a fascinating read. And, no doubt, I expect several of the book’s assertions and proposals to be further explored in Tapscott’s & Williams’ book MacroWikinomics when it comes out later this year.

In the meantime, if you are curious about the subject, you can either buy a personal copy of the book (trust me, you’ll be the only person on your block with a copy!) or browse some of the position papers Prof. Lietaer has made available on his website.

The Monday Keynote SxSW Should Have Had

I was reading the actual print newspaper (I like the user experience) this morning and catching a sense of the audience’s bad karma from Twitter’s Evan Williams’s keynote yesterday at Southby.

Personally, I didn’t catch it because (a) I’ve heard Jack Dorsey speak a couple of times and feel like I’ve gotten the scoop already and (b) that was the only block of time that I could find to swing through the SxSW tradeshow and check out all of the groovy new social media whatsits and whoosits being displayed.

From what I gather, the hive complained (once again) about the softball questions and lack of news in the remarks. Had I been there, I wouldn’t have minded that part one bit. After all, a founder’s gotta do what a founder’s gotta do, which is to get the message out, talk about the strategy, try to freeze (or deflect) the competition, etc. Instead, if there is anything I object to, it is the lack of Q&A of any kind.

I mean, come on…guys like Evan have had to pitch and defend their deals many, many times from much tougher customers than the Southby audience. You get so much more cred from being one of the people by taking audience questions, I just can’t imagine why any speaker – keynote or otherwise – would ever allow themselves to be put on stage without having a Q&A component.

Which brings me to a suggestion about the speaker that Interactive really should have had this year: Jaron Lanier. If you’ve been around for a few years, you may have run across Jaron first in a major public way via deep involvement with and advocacy of virtual reality. He is now widely as the father of the movement. I just finished his latest book “You are Not a Gadget” and I’ll have to say that it is a mildly provocative counterweight to much of the pell-mell social media, web 2.x monetization froth has been whipping up the past week here at the conference.

Here are just a few passages I’d like to highlight that caught my attention (NOTE: page numbers are from the print, hard back edition):

  • The preface (pp. ix) – “It’s early in the twenty-first century, and that means these words will mostly be read by nonpersons – automatons or numb mobs composed of people who are no longer acting as individuals. The words will be minced into atomized search-engine keywords within industrial cloud computing facilities located in remote, often secret locations around the world. They will be copied millions of times by algorithms designed to send an advertisement to some person somewhere who happens to resonate with some fragment of what I say. They will be scanned, rehashed, and misrepresented by crowds of quick and sloppy readers into wikis and automatically aggregated wireless text message streams…”
  • The deep meaning of personhood is being reduced by illusions of bits (pp. 21) – “I can propose such a list [of ‘save-the-world’ suggestions] to the problems I’m talking about:
    • Don’t post anonymously unless you really might be in danger
    • Post a video once in a while that took you one hundred times more time to create than it takes to view
    • Write a blog that took weeks of reflection before you heard the inner voice that needed to come out…”

Interested yet? I’ll add a few more passages and some closing comments tomorrow, but the thing to remember is that Jaron isn’t a Luddite…and neither am I. In fact, among the more comprehensive solutions he proposes in the book are some that would be quite grand and sophisticated – and do-able.

If you haven’t picked up “You are Not a Gadget” yet, I suggest you do so from the local library, bookstore, or whatever digital stream you prefer.

Seven amazing business books: Part 3

This is the last post in my series of seven amazing business books that you probably haven’t read. If you’ve been following me, you’ve caught the wistful but inevitable nod I have to give to the decline of the printed word. Yet, just because printed books are disappearing, our population’s hunger for content isn’t.

For example, according to a January 2010 Kaiser Family Foundation report, the total amount of mobile, digital connectivity is up for kids – to over 7.5 hours per day. The study’s authors didn’t believe this result would be possible, because of the large amount of content that kids were already consuming a few years earlier, during the previous survey.  The report goes on to say that they actually pack over 10 hours of content into the day, but it’s consumed in less time than that, because of multiple screens or feeds running at the same time.

So, my hope is that the great content in these favorites of mine and the other great books of the past and future will continue to live on, providing the answer to our search for knowledge in videos, rap mp3s, and who knows what else. There certainly seems to be a hunger for it. With that, I offer the final two books.

The Entrepreneur’s Manual, by Richard White (Chilton Book Company, 1977) – you can take your Tom Peters, your Jim Collins, your Gary Hamels – all tremendous thought leaders in their own right – and line them up on your desk to read “what it takes” to be a successful entrepreneur. Or, you can take White’s straight-talking, unconventional, pre-IBM PC/Apple II tome and have the most comprehensive, single guide written in the past 33 years and counting on starting and/or running an entrepreneurial enterprise.

I actually first got this book on loan from colleague and mentor, Steve Papermaster, a long time ago and kept it on “indefinite loan” for many years. Then, I found a copy through one of Amazon’s bargain/rare books sources and released Steve’s copy back to him. Are the technology, global economy, and other time-bound references in it dated? Of course they are. Heck, if you are 30 years old or younger and reading this blog post, you weren’t even around when the book was published.

But, I love the spirit and timeless truths that White captures in his chapters about purpose, team, finances, customers, etc., etc. It’s a real treasure and highly recommended.

Marketing Management, by Philip Kotler (Prentice Hall, 2008) – Last but not least, this one is kind of a trick, for a couple of reasons. First, while it’s likely that you’ve never read this book during your professional career, it’s very possible that you read this book if you’ve ever taken any graduate classes in business (and possibly even undergraduate). Because it is, far and away, the most widely used graduate-level textbook for marketing in the world.

Second, it’s actually the most recently updated book, in its 13th edition now, revised and printed in 2008. However, the first edition was published by Professor Kotler in 1967 and set the course for what is the bible of American (and arguably global) marketing.

In terms of pure, true reference use – i.e., reaching over to grab a book, flipping through the index or table of contents, and re-reading a section of explanation, instruction, or commentary – I have gone back to this book more than any other on the list.

So, that’s my list of seven amazing books you’ve probably never read. I hope you enjoyed it and, perhaps, even looked one or more of them up to see if you might want to read them too. Cheers!