Random finds (2017, week 5) — On the new, multipolar global economy, the throughput of learning, and why we should leave Mars alone

CityLife, Milan, Zaha Hadid Architects (2004–14).

“The four characteristics of humanism are curiosity, a free mind, belief in good taste, and belief in the human race.” — E.M. Forster

Random finds is a weekly curation of my tweets and a reflection of my curiosity.

On the new, multipolar global economy

The Credit Suisse Research Institute (CSRI) has recently published a report, Getting over Globalization, in which it outlines how the global economy is moving into a more multipolar form.

This multipolarity scenario is one of three possible scenario’s. The first is the continuation along globalization’s well-trodden path. Western institutions, law and multinationals continue to shape the world, the US dollar remains the dominant currency, and trade expands. While this scenario offers some reassurance on the possibility of the world staying the way we have known it, it doesn’t seem highly probable. Globalization seems to be running out of steam: economic growth is slow, protectionism is spreading, and new, rising regional powers undermine the existence of the unipolar world. Two recent events which happened against the general opinion — Brexit and the election of Donald Trump — have taught us to expect the unexpected.

In the second scenario, the world becomes multipolar. It would mean the end of the unipolar world and the rise of regions: parallel economy centers would expand across the globe. What stimulated the birth of multipolarity was globalization itself, as one of its undoubtedly positive side effects has been a better distribution of wealth.

One of the notable sub-trends of globalization has been a much better distribution of the world’s economic output, led by what were once regarded as overly populous, third world countries such as India and China. This has fueled multipolarity — the rise of regions that are now distinct in terms of their economic size, political power, approaches to democracy and liberty, and their cultural norms.

The new, multipolar world would rest on three pillars: the Americas, Europe and a China-dominated Asia. It would bring the development of new world or regional institutions, and the rise of ‘managed democracy’ with more regionalized versions of the rule of law — migration becomes more regional and more urban rather than cross-border, regional financial centers develop and banking and finance develop in new ways. While the global economy would continue to grow, the growth would be uneven among the regions.

The transition to this multipolar world is already underway. However, in its adolescent phase, multipolarity is likely to be prone to policy errors, rivalries and geopolitical tensions. Its stability, says CSRI, will depend on appropriate rules and institutions being established early on. This could take several forms — for instance, an international cyber security agreement that follows the nuclear arms control agreements of the 1980s, or where migration becomes more intra-regional and more restrictive between large ‘poles.’

On the throughput of learning

According to Tiago Forte in The Throughput of Learning, the last article of his Ribbonfarm residency, “learning in the 21st century is not about acquiring more information, knowledge, or even insights. The goal is to maximize the throughput of invalidated assumptions. But you have to get there one step at a time.”

He describes various bottlenecks in 20th century learning. First, the amount of information you have access to. In elementary school, the bottleneck moves to ways of structuring and contextualizing the information. In high school, it moves to your ability to synthesize this information, to turn it into new ideas. In college, “the bottleneck moves to insight generation. You start questioning the world as given, and find that the juiciest intellectual rewards are ideas that shift how you view it. You start hunting for the revolutionary, the controversial, steering your learning toward the red pills of paradoxes and contradictions.”

If you are lucky enough to go beyond this, the bottleneck moves once again: to your assumptions. “They constrain your view, what you are allowed to see, and thereby the thoughts and actions available to you. You start getting a kick out of unearthing new assumptions, shining a light on blindspots that, by definition, you didn’t know you didn’t know about. This process is unbounded, because with enough examination, all your beliefs are revealed to be assumptions.”

According to Forte, there are many ways to reveal assumptions, such as interesting experiences, traveling, genuine conversation, and reading fiction, which all help you question your own point of view. “But using throughput in particular to model learning gives us access to new frameworks and metaphors drawn from decades of manufacturing production experience.” And just as Toyota’s Production System (TPS), created by Taiichi Ohno, also “modern learning isn’t a process for maximizing the throughput of insights, but for maximizing the throughput of learning process improvements. The best assumptions to invalidate in our quest for learning are assumptions about learning itself. This is why meditation retreats, globe-trotting, and having kids will always be net productivity gains, broadly defined: even a slight improvement in the machinery of learning (via a shift in perspective, for example) will pay dividends over time far greater than a mere few months of lost labor.”

But how does one learn about one’s own assumptions about learning? They seem permanently out of reach. One way is “by accelerating a system so much that its rules break,” Forte writes. It forces everyone to confront its underlying assumptions.

“This works because, when it comes to complex systems, faster is different. When you push a system to sufficient speed, it starts consuming itself, like a black hole turning inside out and emerging through the wormhole into an alternate dimension, where all the laws and rules are completely different. The system ceases to be a static backdrop where things take place, and becomes merely another unit of flow in a larger, more abstract system. We thought of ‘empty’ space as an inert stage on which the planets roamed, until Einstein showed us that space is as much an actor as any planet. A few levels of abstraction later, and we’re starting to suspect that what was formerly empty space actually comprises the vast majority of mass in the universe.


The difficulty in applying this concept to individual learning is that, in this case, you are the system. It’s a little disconcerting being accelerated, turned inside out, and then sucked into an alternate dimension where everything you were sure was true is wrong. Or worse, irrelevant. The key is to realize that you are not a thing, which can be deformed and broken, but an environment. […] we have to design our mental environment to maximize the throughput of invalidated assumptions, accelerating it to the point that the rules of our learning process break, thereby surfacing even more assumptions, which we can exploit to further improve this process.”

Most theories of action regard seeing as the most important leverage point in a situation — from Toyota’s “Go and see” to Boyd’s Observation/Orientation. But to make this model of learning work, instead of seeing, Forte argues that a different way of listening is required — listening for assumptions.

“Listening for assumptions is a peculiar skill, not at all natural, that requires a continuous disassociation of what someone is saying, from the model they’re constructing in their mind as they go along. It’s like plucking fish from a stream, the actual words and sentences becoming just a delivery vehicle for potential entry points into their mental model.”

The deepest assumptions can only be revealed through experience and stories, not by reading books or having intellectual arguments. We do these things through the same old lens, and thus cannot examine the lens. It takes another free mind, reaching up and taking off our spectacles, to show us the cracks and the foggy areas.

“At some point, this way of listening turns into a way of thinking, as you apply it to your own thoughts. Unmoored from your own certain beliefs, you step back from what seemed just a moment ago to be your very identity, only to find that it is just a mental object. With each step backward, you distinguish your self one by one from bodily sensations, from emotions, from opinions, from thoughts, from principles, from values, from systems, from goals. They are all tools, to be taken up and put down again when no longer needed.”

This backwards movement starts to take on a pattern of its own once again. “It starts to consume itself, emerging inward into a deeper, more complex flow. Moving backward with increasing speed, we start to feel as if we’re falling, the former selves flying by like the floors past a runaway elevator. There is no way to look down, to see where we’re going, only where we’ve been. But this provides just enough information to allow us to steer: toward discomfort, toward fear, toward our best guess of where the next bottleneck may lie.”

A bit more …

Is there anything wrong with humanity reshaping Mars? “Yes,” says Robert Sparrow, a professor of philosophy at Melbourne’s Monash University. In The Argument Against Terraforming Mars, he argues we have both ethical and aesthetic reasons to leave Mars alone.

“One of the oldest ethical traditions, virtue ethics, can teach us something about this very modern topic. Many popular approaches to ethics focus on actions or intentions, while considerations of a person’s character are secondary at best. But virtue ethics, most famously developed by Aristotle, starts with the observation that we are often more confident in our judgements about who is a good person than we are about what the right thing to do is in a particular situation. If we wish to become a good person, then we should strive to be like those people we admire. According to virtue ethics, what makes someone a good person is that they possess various virtues, such as kindness, courage, and wisdom. What makes someone a bad person is that they possess various vices, such as cruelty, cowardliness, and naivety.

Virtues and vices are features of a person’s character and consist in a history, or pattern, of actions and feelings. A single kind act does not make a cruel person kind, nor does a single cruel act render a kind person cruel. According to Aristotle, to lead a distinctively human life — a life of human flourishing — is to develop and exercise the virtues.

And so, when it comes to the ethics of actions, such as the decision to terraform Mars, we should ask: What sort of person would do that — a virtuous or vicious one?”

Sparrow doesn’t imply that space exploration is necessarily unethical or that we should not try to explore or colonize other worlds. Yet, “each time we venture out into space we should look within — or, perhaps better, at each other — and consider what our involvement in the particular project reveals about us. If we proceed in awareness of the beauty and complexity of the systems we explore, if we are conscious of the limits of our own powers, and are moderate in our ambitions, then these activities may contribute to our flourishing.

But if we proceed recklessly, glorying in our own power, and without concern for the beauty and integrity of the worlds we aim to conquer, our activities are unethical because of what they reveal about our character. Because our character is a function of how we’ve behaved in the past, the way we treat our own planet is relevant to the ethics of our exploration of others. Before we set out to induce a greenhouse effect on Mars, we should do something about the one we have created here on Earth.”

According to Marty Neumeier in Has zombie education brought us to this?, “hands-on, minds-on projects can make the difference between shallow learning and deep learning.”

“In a typical textbook lesson, like memorizing word pairs or historical events, most students can only recall an average of 10 percent of the material after 3–6 days. The other 90 percent goes away. In contrast, hands-on learning has a way of sticking around much longer, since it engages students at a deeper level, the level of emotions and personal interest.

Shallow learning results from a reductionist use of rational drivers such as memorization, extrinsic rewards, objective truth, formulas, observation, reason, skepticism, and expertise. Deep learning comes from the addition of emotional drivers such as imagination, intrinsic rewards, experiential truth, aesthetics, intuition, passion, and wonder. When you mix these together, you can achieve a kind of spontaneous combustion — an explosion of questions and creative activity that makes traditional learning seem tame by comparison.”

“We have talked a lot about the zombie walk through college or grad school. That feeling of, ‘I don’t really know why I’m here but it is what I’m supposed to do.’ It is shocking that we would spend so many resources as a society putting people through a multi-year experience that they themselves don’t understand the reason for. Not only that, but thousands of students, faculty, teachers, and administrators report that the culture of schools and universities has become ‘toxic’ or even ‘soul crushing’. I have heard from far too many parents that, rather than forming whole humans, institutions of learning are sapping the love for exploration and creativity from their children.” — Alan Webb, the co-founder of Open Master’s, a learning program for self-directed and community-supported wayfinding.

“Educating a new generation to live and lead with integrity — which is to say, in alignment with that life-giving core of the human self — will require containers that hold both inner inquiry and soulful community,” says Angie Thurston in The Radical Art of Learning from Within.

“If we are to raise a different kind of leader, we must recognize and nurture the inner lives of each new generation, inviting them to become grounded in their own bodies and hearts, trusting of the deep sources of wisdom within them, guided by their own sense of creative agency, bound by mutual commitment to learn with and be changed by others who are different from them, and daring because of all of this to explore questions that are difficult, unvalued, or even heretical now.

To cultivate soulful leaders, we need learning communities that listen to the soul.”

“It’s a truism to remark how much our world is becoming increasingly technological, exponentially complex. The pace of change is evident in our everyday experience,” says Mark Bessoudo, the winner of New Philosopher Writers’ Award XI ‘technology,’ in Plato for Plumbers.

“Whether we realise it or not, it is the humble engineer who now forms the clay which moulds not only our external environment, but also our mind’s interior realm. As we enter the geological era known as the Anthropocene, the engineer has also become, perhaps unwittingly, an ecological force on a planetary scale.”

“I wish it would dawn on engineers, that, in order to be an engineer, it is not enough to be an engineer.” — Spanish philosopher José Ortega y Gasset

“There’s just one problem: at almost no point in their education, training, or practice are engineers given the proper intellectual tools with which to reflect, in any meaningful way, on themselves, each other, or their world-transforming enterprise. Engineers, and the general public, rarely stop to ask: ‘Should we do this, simply because we can? Is this actually good for the betterment of humanity or for the planet?’

Questions about value, virtue, beauty, and justice cannot be factored into any of the engineer’s equations and so are easily dismissed. Yet, for anyone with eyes to see, the connections between engineering and the good life are obvious.”

What exactly is a city, how differs a city state from the prototypical nation state, and are we heading towards a global city-state polity as many seem to think (and in some cases, hope)?

“My take on city-states though, is probably very different from that of most people who seem enamored of them for romantic reasons,” Venkatesh Rao writes in The Rise of the Caves of Steel.

The logic of city-state polities is the logic Schumpterian creative destruction: the idea that all wealth derives from innovation-driven change in the technological sophistication with which the world’s resources are used.

Rao came to an interesting conclusion. According to him, “the most fertile mental model of a city-state polity is based on a computing metaphor. City-state polities are a phase of history where the environment favors what information security types call data-based security over perimeter-based security. This happens when the volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity in the environment is high, as it is today. Under such conditions, it is easier to protect things of intrinsic value, no matter how and where they move or live, rather than to defend boundaries around spaces containing things. The consequences are interesting.”

The power of city-states, unlike that of nation states, tends to be a function of location. Singapore is defined by the Straits of Malacca. Venice was defined by the Adriatic Sea.

Finland’s first high-rise wooden apartment building and OMA’s Fondazione Prada art centre are among 40 projects shortlisted for the European Union’s 2017 architecture prize, the Mies van der Rohe Award. The biennial award — named after German-American architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe — is the most prestigious accolade in European architecture. It is awarded to the best building completed in the last two years by a European architect. (Source: dezeen)

Finland’s first high-rise wooden apartment building (by OOPEAA).
Fondazione Prada art centre opens in Milan (by OMA).

Architecture and design critic Michael Webb has lived for nearly 40 years in a modernist hilltop apartment in LA, Anna Baddeley writes in an article for The Economist, Living the high life.

Webb is a strong advocate for flat-dwelling. In Building Community: New Apartment Architecture, he speaks of an “urgent need to build many more apartments” to relieve housing shortages in our cities, to use land more economically and to avoid long commutes to suburbia — which he describes as a “wasteful delusion.”

“In an attempt to demonstrate the ‘unrealised potential’ of the apartment building, Webb has gathered together 30 examples of recent developments from around the world. They range fom luxury flats to social housing; from low-rise buildings to high-rises. There aren’t as many photographs of the interiors as there might have been and while Webb has interviewed many of the architects you long to hear the voices of the residents (who are, after all, the ultimate judges of a building’s success). But it’s fascinating to see these creative responses to the deceptively simple challenge of fitting a lot of people into a small space.”

V_Itaim, Sao Paulo, Studio MK27 (2011–14).
The Interlace, Singapore, OMA/Ole Scheeren (2007–13).

“When you start using lies to construct so-called solutions to the actual problems people face day in and out, you end up building an entire machinery of deceit.” — Labour MEP Seb Dance in ‘He’s lying to you’: why I held that sign up behind Nigel Farage.