The disappearance of Flight 188. – By William Saletan – Slate Magazine

The pilots “forgot” that they were flying the airplane!

I saw that this had happened a short while ago. William Saletan has asked good questions about what happened here.

This inevitability was anticipated by an early joke of the computer era, about the world’s first fully automated flight, in which a the computer-generated recording announced, more or less, “Welcome to the world’s first computer-managed flight. You will enjoy a new world of comfort, conveniences, speed and safety on this flight. … Sit back and relax. Nothing can go wrong…can go wrong…can go wrong.”

The joke got the danger wrong. The problem is not malfunctioning computers. Nor is the problem malfunctioning people. People “malfunction” as an essential feature of our existential design, and our machines malfunction because we, imperfect and blind to our functioning, are their designers. On the other hand, our “malfunctioning” is the ground in which our freedoms are born, including what we call free will. Without malfunctioning, we have no invention, no new possibilities.

The danger is that the kind of beings we are is being redesigned by the tools and the world we have invented, and we are not observing what is happening.

This is an example of why I spoke so strongly against the metaphoric background that Jill Bolte Taylor spoke from in her poetic and inspiring TED Talk. When we are in the business of inventing what it is to be human and human futures, we should take care about what we are inventing.

Following the line of another joke, we should be careful that we do not end up where we are headed.

Tell me what you think.

Best,

Chauncey

Darwin on Poetry and Music

From my friend Margaret McIntyre comes this cautionary song:

Letter by Charles Darwin, late in his life, to a friend:

“Up to the age of thirty, or beyond it, poetry of many kinds, such as the works of Milton, Gray, Byron, Wordsworth, Coleridge, and Shelley, gave me great pleasure…But now for many years I cannot endure to read a line of poetry;…My mind seems to have become a kind of machine for grinding general laws out of large collections of facts…and if I had to live my life again, I would have made a rule to read some poetry and listen to some music at least once every week…The loss of these tastes is a loss of happiness, and may possibly be injurious to the intellect, and more probably to the moral character, by enfeebling the emotional part of our nature.”

Charles Darwin: His Life Told in an Autobiographical Chapter & in a Selected Series of his Published Letters, Edited by Francis Darwin. London: William Clowes and Sons, Ltd.1892, p. 51.

An Invitation from Fernando Flores

My friend Fernando Flores (see here, here, and here, and, for readers of Spanish or those who know how to get a web page translated, see here) briefed me last week about his new venture. I asked him to send me something in writing about what he is doing, and I reprint below substantially all of what he sent me. I recommend you read his invitation and consider it carefully.

Dear Chauncey:

As we discussed, I am in the process of starting a new enterprise that takes the work that we have done together in the past to the “next frontier” if you will, by putting it in the center of what people need to cope and thrive in the reality of our world today.

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Violinist in the Metro

My friend Alan Solinger alerted me to this striking story. One of the world’s best violinists, dressed as a street person, played for 45 minutes in a Washington DC Metro station during rush hour. No one recognized him. He collected some tips, and the most interested listener may have been a small child. No one stopped and really listened. Read the whole story. It’s amazing. What conclusions would you draw about the way we listen in our world today?

Preparing the Way for Wisdom in Organizations – Part 5

Continuing the set of six tiny essays inviting reflection about the construction of the conditions and situations in which wisdom can be cultivated and exercised in organizational settings.

“Inventing” Waste

Historic inventions are often built from historic difficulties, and they always involve the invention of new distinctions. We have posted about the “Five Great Wastes” before, here.

Let us give two examples in which critical new distinctions of historic inventions have to do with what people at the time thought of as “wastes.”

Henry Ford, Mass Production, and the Model T

At the turn of the 20th century automobiles were expensive toys available only to the very rich. Henry Ford invented practices that we summarize as “mass production” and the “Model T.” He succeeded thereby in making automobiles less expensive and more accessible to the average American worker. At the same time, he produced a way of doubling the income of American Workers, thereby giving them the income to purchase the Model T. Ford’s new system produced cars quickly and so efficiently that it considerably lowered the cost of assembling the cars. He decided to pass this savings along to his customers, and in 1915 dropped the price of the Model T from $850 to $290. That year, he sold 1 million cars. (Parts of the story from http://www.ideafinder.com/history/inventors/ford.htm.)

Taiichi Ohno and the Toyota Production System

At the end of the Second World War, the people of Japan were in terrible trouble, their morale, productive capacity, and international relations demolished. An engineer named Taiichi Ohno, in the enterprise today known as Toyota, began the task of building a new capacity for Japanese production on top of Henry Ford’s designs, with some important additions. For example, Ford incorporated everything into one plant; Ohno designed for operation in a network. The operational heart of Ford’s designs was the way the engineers designed the coordination of the work on the assembly line (the employees found the repetition boring and only stayed because of what Ford called the ‘wage motive.’) Ohno centered his design in processes that built the capacity of each person on the production floor to take responsibility for the quality and coordination of their work. His invention became the foundation of the quality movement that swept the world starting in the 1970s and 80s.

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Revised on Problems with “Compumorphizing”

(We revised and re-posted this on April 21st.)

In response to my posting on Jill Bolte Taylor’s TED Talk, my son Nicolas posted a comment. “Papa,” he said,

“I know that this take on the human being as processor (Pentium 17) really gets your Heideggerian goat. If I recall correctly, this is the approach that has taken over university philosophy departments, leaving guys like Rorty to sneak Nietzsche into literature classes. I wonder if you would say why you so dislike the compumorphizing interpretation? What kinds of problems do you see this interpretation producing in the world? (My italics.)

I am going to attempt to answer the biggest questions I think Nicolas is asking.

In my interpretation, he is touching on one of the central questions of the great spiritual and intellectual traditions. His question, ‘What kinds of problems are produced by poor interpretations about what human beings are?’ sits alongside what I consider the most important questions for us as human beings: Who are we? What are we doing here? and How best to use the short time that we have here?

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Remembering Francisco Varela

Thanks to the passionate involvement with certain questions and communities of my wife Shirah and my friends Jon and Tova Ramer, I had the opportunity last week to visit with His Holiness the Dalai Lama and Bishop Desmond Tutu (at the Seeds of Compassion Event, in the company of a lot of other people).

Video feeds of the many parts of this extraordinary event are already available on the Internet. Go here. I particularly recommend the video of the morning of Tuesday April 15th. You have to scroll down in the window entitled, “EVENT GUIDE” to select it.

Francisco Varela, of blessed memory, “sat beside me” while I was there. I kept remembering him. Fernando Flores introduced me to Varela. As a scientific advisor to the Dalai Lama, Varela was instrumental in starting the fruitful exploration being supported by the Mind and Life Institute.

Here is Francisco talking about his life’s work:

“I guess I’ve had only one question all my life. Why do emergent selves, virtual identities, pop up all over the place creating worlds, whether at the mind/body level, the cellular level, or the transorganism level? This phenomenon is something so productive that it doesn’t cease creating entirely new realms: life, mind, and societies. Yet these emergent selves are based on processes so shifty, so ungrounded, that we have an apparent paradox between the solidity of what appears to show up and its groundlessness. That, to me, is a key and eternal question.

“As a consequence, I’m interested in the nervous system, cognitive science, and immunology, because they concern the processes that can answer the question of what biological identity is. How can you have some kind of identity that simultaneously allows you to know something, allows cells to configure their own relevant world, the immune system to generate the identity of our body in its own way, and the brain to be the basis for a mind, a cognitive identity? All these mechanisms share a common theme.”

And here he is speaking about his dream of a peaceful future of survival and dignity for everyone on the planet:

“If everybody would agree that their current reality is A reality, and that what we essentially share is our capacity for constructing a reality, then perhaps we could all agree on a meta-agreement for computing a reality that would mean survival and dignity for everyone on the planet, rather than each group being sold on a particular way of doing things.”

Argh, but we miss you, Francisco.