Two more anecdotes on the superbureaucrat’s ridiculous delusions of where genius comes from

Generally speaking, bureaucrats think creativity comes from rubbing two diplomas from different fields together until they burst into a beautiful Promethean fire of grant money and prestigious innovations. More detailed descriptions of this here and here.

The first anecdote is from Christopher Caldwell’s The Age of Entitlement:

President Kennedy had recruited Robert McNamara, the president of the Ford Motor Company, to be his secretary of defense. McNamara had won the esteem of the country’s leaders, and the authority to manage its now-nuclearized armed forces, on the strength of his corporate career. McNamara was not a sadistic military strategist, like William Tecumseh Sherman; he was a true believer in “systems management,” like, in a later era, Mark Zuckerberg. He took certain techniques useful for managing corporations and grievously misapplied them. In 1967, at the height of the war, McNamara told a convocation at recently integrated Millsaps College in Jackson, Mississippi, that rational management, as he practiced it, was the only proper means of effecting humane change. “Management is, in the end, the most creative of all the arts,” he said, “for its medium is human talent itself. What, in the end, is management’s most fundamental task? It is to deal with change.”

McNamara believed that, in war as in engineering, what could not be counted did not count. American authorities fell into line. They used statistics to convince themselves that they were winning. They claimed the percentage of the South Vietnamese population under control of the Viet Cong guerrillas had fallen from 60 percent to 40 percent. It was true, too—but only because U.S. bombing and search-and-destroy raids had depopulated the countryside.

To this way of looking at the world, there was no difference between winning people’s allegiance and turning them into refugees. The historian Theodore Roszak, in works such as his 1969 book The Making of a Counter Culture, described this way of thinking through oxymora like “mad rationality” and “lunatic realism.” Vietnam did not introduce such irrationality into American life. It exposed it. As the social critic Loren Baritz put it, “We are what went wrong in Vietnam.”

-Christopher Caldwell, “The Age of Entitlement”, ch. 4

The second comes from–you guessed it–Deep Work by Cal Newport:

For the sake of discussion, let’s call this principle—that when you allow people to bump into each other smart collaborations and new ideas emerge—the theory of serendipitous creativity. When Mark Zuckerberg decided to build the world’s largest office, we can reasonably conjecture, this theory helped drive his decision, just as it has driven many of the moves toward open workspaces elsewhere in Silicon Valley and beyond. (Other less-exalted factors, like saving money and increasing supervision, also play a role, but they’re not as sexy and are therefore less emphasized.)

This decision between promoting concentration and promoting serendipity seems to indicate that deep work (an individual endeavor) is incompatible with generating creative insights (a collaborative endeavor). This conclusion, however, is flawed. It’s based, I argue, on an incomplete understanding of the theory of serendipitous creativity. To support this claim, let’s consider the origins of this particular understanding of what spurs breakthroughs.

[…]

In MIT lore, it’s generally believed that this haphazard combination of different disciplines, thrown together in a large reconfigurable building, led to chance encounters and a spirit of inventiveness that generated breakthroughs at a fast pace, innovating topics as diverse as Chomsky grammars, Loran navigational radars, and video games, all within the same productive postwar decades. When the building was finally demolished to make way for the $300 million Frank Gehry–designed Stata Center (where I spent my time), its loss was mourned. In tribute to the “plywood palace” it replaced, the interior design of the Stata Center includes boards of unfinished plywood and exposed concrete with construction markings left intact.

It’s not cargo cultism, it’s a tribute.

The theory of serendipitous creativity, in other words, seems well justified by the historical record. The transistor, we can argue with some confidence, probably required Bell Labs and its ability to put solid-state physicists, quantum theorists, and world-class experimentalists in one building where they could serendipitously encounter one another and learn from their varied expertise. This was an invention unlikely to come from a lone scientist thinking deeply in the academic equivalent of Carl Jung’s stone tower.

 But it’s here that we must embrace more nuance in understanding what really generated innovation in sites such as Building 20 and Bell Labs. To do so, let’s return once again to my own experience at MIT. When I arrived as a new PhD student in the fall of 2004, I was a member of the first incoming class to be housed in the new Stata Center, which, as mentioned, replaced Building 20. Because the center was new, incoming students were given tours that touted its features. Frank Gehry, we learned, arranged the offices around common spaces and introduced open stairwells between adjacent floors, all in an effort to support the type of serendipitous encounters that had defined its predecessor. But what struck me at the time was a feature that hadn’t occurred to Gehry but had been recently added at the faculty’s insistence: special gaskets installed into the office doorjambs to improve soundproofing. The professors at MIT—some of the most innovative technologists in the world—wanted nothing to do with an open-office-style workspace. They instead demanded the ability to close themselves off.

 This combination of soundproofed offices connected to large common areas yields a hub-and-spoke architecture of innovation in which both serendipitous encounter and isolated deep thinking are supported. It’s a setup that straddles a spectrum where on one extreme we find the solo thinker, isolated from inspiration but free from distraction, and on the other extreme, we find the fully collaborative thinker in an open office, flush with inspiration but struggling to support the deep thinking needed to build on it.

[…]

We can, therefore, still dismiss the depth-destroying open office concept without dismissing the innovation-producing theory of serendipitous creativity. The key is to maintain both in a hub-and-spoke-style arrangement: Expose yourself to ideas in hubs on a regular basis, but maintain a spoke in which to work deeply on what you encounter.

[…]

When it comes to deep work, in other words, consider the use of collaboration when appropriate, as it can push your results to a new level. At the same time, don’t lionize this quest for interaction and positive randomness to the point where it crowds out the unbroken concentration ultimately required to wring something useful out of the swirl of ideas all around us.

-Cal Newport, “Deep Work”, Rule #1: Work Deeply

Somehow this tendency to put a bunch of gold in a heap and wait for the GIGO principle to kick in reminds me of this rant I did once about how every Boomer I’ve met was allergic to writing down project plans:

Documentation is what makes a big, complex project successful.
People don’t want to pay for it because they don’t understand where success comes from.
Projects fail because people want to go between talking and doing and figure head knowledge and tribal knowledge are enough for practical purposes.
They’re absolutely incorrect.
It’s like trying to shoot a Hollywood movie where nobody is allowed to take notes.
We’ll just wing it when we get on location!
Everybody here basically understands what they need to do, right? Right?
No.
I blame these fucking Boomers.
It’s one of those “every fucking time” things too.

>Everybody here knows what to do, right? No need to plan or communicate.
>Man, this is a shitshow. No organization!
>The problem was nobody knew what they were supposed to do.
>Next time we’ll just make sure we have great people who already know what to do.
>Everybody here knows what to do, right? No need to plan or communicate.

About Aeoli Pera

Maybe do this later?
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2 Responses to Two more anecdotes on the superbureaucrat’s ridiculous delusions of where genius comes from

  1. Miu Ayano says:

    > People don’t want to pay for it because they don’t understand where success comes from.

    Lovely summation of Boomerism

    > When I arrived as a new PhD student in the fall of 2004, I was a member of the first incoming class to be housed in the new Stata Center, which, as mentioned, replaced Building 20. Because the center was new, incoming students were given tours that touted its features. Frank Gehry, we learned, arranged the offices around common spaces and introduced open stairwells between adjacent floors, all in an effort to support the type of serendipitous encounters that had defined its predecessor. But what struck me at the time was a feature that hadn’t occurred to Gehry but had been recently added at the faculty’s insistence: special gaskets installed into the office doorjambs to improve soundproofing. The professors at MIT—some of the most innovative technologists in the world—wanted nothing to do with an open-office-style workspace. They instead demanded the ability to close themselves off.

    Modern architecture is a field built for super-bureaucrats. The occasional genius that shows up, a la Christopher Alexander, gets severely censured.

    • Aeoli Pera says:

      >Modern architecture is a field built for super-bureaucrats. The occasional genius that shows up, a la Christopher Alexander, gets severely censured.

      It’s weird to me that this field would be targeted for prestige hacking but that’s probably due to my middle class background.

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