Category Archives: Innovation

Deeptech generation – a guide to young aspiring entrepreneurs

I just read two very nice guides about deeptech entrepreneurship. They’ve been published by BPI, the French Public Investment Bank. Either you read French or you will only read a couple of quotes I translated. I have however put the slideshare links at the end of the post.

So here are some testimonies:

Do not be afraid to start your startup, even if it may seem complex and endless. Whether the result is positive or a little less, it is an adventure that you will not be taken away from, just like a PhD. Entrepreneurship brings so much into your life, into your curriculum. Entrepreneurship is a continuous training that can only be rewarding.

The transition from my doctorate to the status of entrepreneur came naturally. The technology of […] was my doctoral topic, we had already developed several prototypes that we had evaluated and which were promising. We could not stop there without giving end users, who really need it, the benefit of this innovation. We decided to create the startup and to launch it until the commercialization of the device.

The world of entrepreneurship opened me up to new horizons and brought me experiences that I never imagined when we started a few years ago.

The creation of a startup is a very beautiful experience, a human one first of all. By creating […] I met people I would never have otherwise. It’s also a work experience, because doing research and ending up with a finished product is not at all the same thing. Finally, as a laboratory director I consider that valorization is part of my missions, and it also brings us a lot of visibility at the regional level, because we create value and jobs.

What drives you to do that is a human experience: be willing to go to the very end of a topic that you are passionate about. Do not do it because it’s fashionable but because it fascinates you.

When you go from researcher to entrepreneur everything changes: the way former colleagues and friends look at you, the prospects of professional evolution. The question must be asked: “Am I aligned with my personal values?”

To go from scientist to entrepreneur is often to put what you like aside. You have to get into finance, IP, contracts … It’s a real change of mindset. In parallel, meetings and the emergence of new opportunities require a real agility in the way of thinking and constantly questioning the vision of your work.

Contributing to the creation of […] allowed me to discover an unknown world, that of the industrial world and marketing, and brought me a lot of things: the additional respect of my colleagues, the recognition and the […] gratitude […] for the positive impact (to come) on the economic activity of the region. This brought me a real satisfaction because my academic research finds consumers and therefore a real usefulness. And more people are working on my ideas since I started the business.

Loonshots or how to nurture crazy ideas by Safi Bahcall

This is one of the best books about innovation I have read in years. The importance of crazy ideas, not the recipe on how to make them successful, but the attitude to make them less crazy. And more importanly, crazy ideas have much more impact on our lives than we may think. A must read. Here are some extracts to convicne you…

Loonshot : a neglected project, widely dismissed, its champion written-off as unhinged.

The Loonshot thesis :
1. The most important breakthroughs come from loonshots, widely dismissed ideas whose champions are often written off as crazy.
2. Large groups of people are needed to translate those breakthroughs into technologies that win wars, products that save lives, or strategies that change industries.
3. Applying the science of phase transitions to the behavior of teams, companies, or any group with a mission provides practical rules for nurturing loonshots faster and better. [Page 2]

“Bush changed national research the same way Vail changed corporate research. Both recognized that the big ideas – the breakthroughs that change the course of science, business, and history – fail many times before they succeed. Sometimes they survive through sheer chance. In other words, the breakthroughs that change our world are born from the marriage of genius and serendipity.” [Page 37]

“But the ones who truly succeed – the engineers of serendipity – play a more humble role. Rather than champion any individual loonshot, they create an outstanding structure for nurturing many loonshots. Rather than visionary innovators, they are careful gardeners. They ensure that both loonshots and franchises are tended well, that neither dominates the other, and that each side nurtures and supports the other.” [page 38]

“As we will see over the next chapters, managing the touch and the balance is an art. Overmanaging the transfer causes one kind of trap. Undemanaging that transfer causes another.” [Page 42]

A project champion: On the creative side, inventors (artists) often believe that their work should speak for itself. Most find any kind of promotion distasteful. On the business side, line managers (soldiers) don’t see the need for someone who doesn’t make or sell stuff – for someone whose job is simply to promote an idea internally. But great project champions are much more than promoters. They are bilingual specialists, fluent in both artist-speak and soldier-speak, who can bring the two sides together. [Page 63]

Contrarian answers, with confidence, create very attractive investments. [Page 63]

LSC: Listen to the Suck with Curiosity. LSC, for me, is a signal. When someone challenges the project you’ve invested years in, do you defend with anger or investigate with genuine curiosity? [Page 64]


Some famous creators of Loonshots:
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Akira_Endo_(biochemist)
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Juan_Trippe
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Edwin_H._Land

Years later, Land became known for a saying: “Do not undertake a program unless the goal is manifestly important and its achievement nearly impossible.” [Page 96]

“Then the author has an amazing thesis about team size. “I will show that team size plays the same role in organizations that temperature does for liquids and solids. As team size crosses a “magic number”, the balance of incentives shifts from encouraging a focus on loonshots to a focus on careers.” [Page 164]

This magic number is

“Where G is the salary growth rate with promotion (for example 12%); S is management span – if it is narrow, each manager has a small number of direct reports and there are many hierarchical layers, whereas if it is wide, there will be more direct reports and less hierarchy – E is the equity fraction which ties your pay to the quality of your work. The final parameter F for fitness is return on politics vs. project-skill fit.
In many cases the magic number M equals 150… [pages 195-200]
Safi Bahcall has many other rich descriptions including the importance of power laws in innovations [Page 178] or this one [Page 240]

For a loonshot nursery to flourish – inside either a company or an industry – three conditions must be met:
1. Phase separation : separate lonnshot and franchise groups
2. Dynamic elequilibrium: seamless exchange between the two groups
3. Critical mass: a lonnshot group large enough to ignite.

Applied to companies, the first two are the first Bush-Vail rules discussed in part one. The third, critical mass, has to do with commitment. If there is no money to pay for hiring good people or funding early-stage ideas and projects, a loonshot group will wither, no matter how well designed. To thrive, a loonshot group needs a chain reaction. A research lab that produces a successful drug, a hit product, or award-winning designs will attract top talent. Inventors and creatives will want to bring new ideas and ride the wave of a winning team. The success will justify more funding. More projects and more funding increase the odds of more hits – the positive feedback lopp of a chain reaction.

How many projects are needed to achieve critical mass? Suppose odds are 1 in 10 that any one loonshot will succeed. Critical mass to ignite the reaction with high confidence requires investing in at least two dozen such loonshots (a diversified portfolio of ten of those loonhsots has a 65 percent likelihood of producing at least one win; two dozen, a 92 percent likelihood).” [Pages 240-1]

Disruptive innovation again [Page 263]

Use “disruptive Innovation” to analyze history; nurture loonshots to test beliefs.

In an article addressing recent controversy about the notion of disruptive innovation, Christensen explains why Uber is not disruptive, by his definition, and why the iPhone also began as a sustainable innovation. In Chapter 3, we saw that American Airlines – a large incumbent, not a new entrant – led the airline industry after deregulation with many brilliant “sustaining” innovations targeted to high-end customers. Hundreds of low-cost, specialty airline startups, “disruptive innovators” failed.
If the transistor, google, the iPhone, Uber, Walmart, IKEA, and American Airlines’ Big Data and other industry-transforming ideas were all initially sustaining innovations, and hundreds of “disruptive innovators” fail, perhaps the distinction between sustaining vs. disruptive, while interesting academically or in hindsight, is less critical for steering businesses in real time than other notions.
That, at least, is why I don’t use the distinction in this book. I use the distinction between S-type and P-type because teams and companies or any large organization develop deeply held beliefs, sometimes consciously, often not, about both strategies and products – and loonshots are contrarian bets that challenge those beliefs. Perhaps everything that you are sure is true about your products or your business model is right, and the people telling you about some crazy idea that challenges your beliefs are wrong. But what if they aren’t? Wouldn’t you rather discover that in your own lab or pilot study, rather than read about it in a press release from one of your competitors? How much risk are you willing to take by dismissing their idea?
We want to design our teams, companies, and nations to nurture loonshots – in a way that maintains the delicate balance with our franchises – so that we avoid ending up like the Qianlong emperor. The one how dismissed those “strange or ingenious objects”, the same strange and ingenious objects that returned in the hands of his adversaries, years later, and doomed his empire.

Bill Campbell, the Trillion Dollar Coach (Part II)

A short second post following my recent one, here. Short notes.

Eric Schmidt and its coauthors emphasize the importance of teams, of people and of products. For example:

“In our previous book, How Google Works, we argue that there is a new breed of employee, the smart creative, who is critical to achieving this speed and innovation. The smart creative is someone who combines technical depth with business savvy and creative flair. […] As we were researching this book and talking to the dozens of people Bill had coached in his career, we realized that this thesis misses an important piece of the business success puzzle. There is another , equally critical, factor for success in companies: teams that act as communities. integrating interests and putting aside differences to be individually and collectively obsessed with what’s good for the company. […] But adhering to these principles is hard, and it gets even harder when you add factors such as fast-moving industries, complex business models, technology-driven shifts, smart competitors, sky-high customer expectations, global expansion, demanding teammates… […] To balance the tension and mold a team into a community, you need a coach, someone who works not only with individuals but also with the team.” [Pages 22-4]

“Bill started his business career as an advertising and marketing guy, then added sales to his portfolio after joining Apple. But through his experiences in the tech world, in his stints at Apple, Intuit, Google, and others, Bill came to appreciate the preeminence of technology and product in the business pecking order. “The purpose of a company is to take the vision you have of the product and bring it to life,” he said once at a conference. “Then you put all the other components around it – finance, sales, marketing – to get the product out the door and make sure it’s successful.” This was not the way things were done in Silicon Valley, or most other places, when Bill came to town in the 1980s. The model then was that while a company might be started by a technologist, pretty soon the powers that be would bring in a business guy with experience in sales, marketing, finance, or operations, to run the place. These executives wouldn’t be thinking about the needs of the engineer and weren’t focused on product first. Bill was a business guy, but he believed that nothing was more important than an empowered engineer. His constant point: product teams are the heart of the company. They are the ones who create new features and new products.” [Pages 67-8]

About teams again, and trust : “Not surprisingly when Google conducted a study to determine the factors behind high-performing teams, psychological safety came out at the top of the list [1]. The common notions that the best teams are made up of people with complementary skill sets or similar personalities were disproven; the best teams are the ones with the most psychological safety, And that starts with trust.” [Page 84]

About talent: Bill looked for four characteristics in people. The person has to be smart, not necessarily academically but more from the standpoint of being able to get up to speed quickly in different areas and then make connections. Bill called this the ability to make “far analogies”. The person has to work hard, and has to have high integrity. Finally, the person should have the hard-to-define characteristic: grit. The ability to get knocked down and have the passion and perseverance to get up and go at it again.” [Page 116]

And finally, may be most importantly, about founders: “He held a very special place in his heart for the people who have the guts and skills to start companies. They are sane enough to know that every day is a fight for survival against daunting odds and crazy enough to think they can succeed anyway. And retaining them in a meaningful way is essential to success in any company. Too often we think about running a company as an operating job, and as we have already examined, Bill considered operational excellence to be very important. But when we reduce company leadership to its operational essence, we negate another very important component: vision. Many times operating people come in, and though they may run the company better, they lose the heart and soul of the company.” [Page 178]

In conclusion, People, People, People.

[1] More details about the study can be found in James Graham, “What Google Learned from Its Quest to Build the Perfect Team” New York Times, February 25, 2016.

The Ideology of Silicon Valley by Fred Turner and Jean-Pierre Dupuy (among others)

Excellent issue of the famous French review Esprit on The Ideology of Silicon Valley. You’ll find contibutions by Emmanuel Alloa, Jean-Baptiste Soufron, Fred Turner, Shoshana Zuboff, Antonio Casilli and Jean-Pierre Dupuy.

I was especially struck by the surprising interview with Fred Turner: Do not be Evil. Utopias, borders and brogrammers. This is in fact a translation from LogicMag, which you can find here: Don’t Be Evil. It is really worth reading! It is his explanation of the roots of Silicon Valley that surprised me the most and how they still influence today this region which in the end is not very ideological, even if the other authors have different points of view.

For example: “It owes its origins to 1960s communalism. A brief primer on the counterculture: there were actually two countercultures. One, the New Left, did politics to change politics. It was very much focused on institutions, and not really afraid of hierarchy. The other—and this is where the tech world gets its mojo—is what I’ve called the New Communalists. Between 1966 and 1973, we had the largest wave of commune building in American history. These people were involved in turning away from politics, away from bureaucracy, and toward a world in which they could change their consciousness. They believed small-scale technologies would help them do that. They wanted to change the world by creating new tools for consciousness transformation.” Then on the influence today: “It varies depending on the company. Apple is, in some ways, very cynical. It markets utopian ideas all the time. It markets its products as tools of utopian transformation in a countercultural vein. It has co-opted a series of the emblems of the counterculture, starting as soon as the company was founded. At other companies, I think it’s very sincere. I’ve spent a lot of time at Facebook lately, and I think they sincerely want to build what Mark Zuckerberg calls a more connected world. Whether their practice matches their beliefs, I don’t know. About ten years back, I spent a lot of time inside Google. What I saw there was an interesting loop. It started with, “Don’t be evil.” So then the question became, “Okay, what’s good?” Well, information is good. Information empowers people. So providing information is good. Okay, great. Who provides information? Oh, right: Google provides information. So you end up in this loop where what’s good for people is what’s good for Google, and vice versa. And that is a challenging space to live in.”

Jean-Pierre Dupuy in “The New Data Science” brilliantly explains there is no data science. Science is about causes, data are more about correlations which can not really help in predictions (I hope I understood his message!). Let me quote one sentence: “The ideology that accompanies big data, meanwhile, announces the advent of new scientific practices that, putting the theoretical requirement in the background, endanger the advance of knowledge and, more importantly, undermine the foundations of a rational ethic.” Really brilliant!

Le bonheur, une idée neuve dans les entreprises ? (selon France Culture)

(Sorry I was too fast, this should have been posted on the French version… where it is also now. For non French-speaking readers, this post is about new management techniques that were born in Silicon Valley…)

J’étais invité ce matin à débattre des méthodes de travail et de management (y compris “l’utilisation du bonheur”) importées de la Silicon Valley. Je mets plus bas (après les tweets) les notes que j’avais prise pour préparer cette émission

Voici les notes que je m’étais préparées.

On ne peut pas mettre dans les même paquet tous les GAFAM. Tout d’abord Amazon et Microsoft qui par coïncidence ne sont pas basées dans la Silicon Valley, mais à Seattle ne sont pas connues pour un management original. Ni Bill Gates, ni son successeur Steve Ballmer, ni Jeff Bezos ne sont connus pour des styles de management innovants. Par contre Google, Apple et Facebook ont sans doute des similarités:
– ce sont des méritocraties et le travail est la valeur “suprême”, plus que le profit, au risque de tous les excès: recherche de performance, concurrence et risque de burn-out. On ne tient pas toujours très longtemps chez GAF
– on y recherche les meilleurs talents (sur toute la planète et sans exclusive, au fond le sexisme et le racisme n’y existent pas a priori)
– le travail en (petites) équipes est privilégié.
Du coup le management a innové pour permettre cette performance et reconnaître les talents (par le fameuses stock options mais aussi une multitude de services pour rendre les gens toujours plus efficaces)

J’aimerais vous mentionner 3 ouvrages (sur lesquels j’avais bloggé pour 2 d’entres eux)
– Work Rules décrit le “people management” chez Google (ils ne parlent “plus” de ressources humaines). L’auteur Lazlo Bock qui fut le patron de cette activité a quasiment théorisé tout cela. Vous trouverez mes 5 posts sur ce livre par le lien: http://www.startup-book.com/fr/?s=bock. C’est un livre en tout point remarquable parce qu’il montre la complexité des choses.

– I’m feeling Lucky décrit de l’intérieur ces manières hétérodoxes de “foncer”. Un pro du marketing montre comment Google a tout chamboulé par conviction / intuition plus que par expérience. http://www.startup-book.com/fr/2012/12/13/im-feeling-lucky-beaucoup-plus-quun-autre-livre-sur-google/

– Enfin un livre hommage sur Bill Campbell vient de sortir écrit par l’ancien CEO de Google Eric Schmidt. https://www.trilliondollarcoach.com. Comme je viens de commencer ce livre, je peux en parler plus difficilement mais il serait dommage d’oublier cette personnalité qui fut le “coach” de Steve Jobs, Eric Schmidt et Sheryl Sandberg, trois personnes majeures pour justement les GAF! Or ce Bill Campbell, décédé il y a 3 ans, fut une personne essentielle à cette culture du travail et de la performance. Ses valeurs sont décrites dans https://www.slideshare.net/ericschmidt/trillion-dollar-coach-book-bill-campbell. Bill Campbell revient de temps en temps sur mon blog pour des anecdotes assez étonnantes. (http://www.startup-book.com/fr/?s=campbell). Par exemple, chez Google on a souvent pensé que les managers étaient inutiles. L’autonomie d’individus brillants devait suffire… mais ce n’est pas si simple! – voir http://www.startup-book.com/fr/2015/09/01/google-dans-le-null-plex-partie-3-une-culture/.

A nouveau excellence des individus et travail en équipe, reconnaissance des talents à qui on donne autonomie, responsabilité(s) avec peu de hiérarchie semble être le leitmotiv… Tout cela on pas pour rendre les gens heureux, mais pour leur permettre d’être plus efficace parce qu’ils sont “heureux” au travail. “People First”. L’objectif c’est de fidéliser, de rendre plus productif, mais c’est aussi une mise en pratique de la confiance en les autres.

Alors comme je l’avais lu chez Bernard Stiegler, à toute pharmacopée sa toxicité. Les excès dans des valeurs conduisent à des abus. Trop de travail, de concurrence, de pression conduit au burnout. J’ai l’impression que la politique et même le sexisme y jouent moins de rôle qu’on pense, même s’il y en a comme partout. Quant au racisme, il me semble limité (et on est aux USA!) Le sexisme est un vrai sujet, mais je vois plus des nerds qui ont peur ou ne connaissent pas les femmes que des “old boy clubs of white men” qui dirigeraient les choses comme je l’ai lu (même si cet élément existe j’en suis sûr). La polémique sur la congélation des ovocytes chez Facebook peut être lue de manière contradictoire j’imagine. J’ai aussi abordé le sujet dans le passé, http://www.startup-book.com/fr/?s=femmes ou http://www.startup-book.com/tag/women-and-high-tech/. L’autre sujet de diversité, est plus clair: il y a tellement de nationalités dans les GAFAs et les startup en général que le racisme est dur à imaginer. Indiens, chinois surtout sont présents et jusqu’au somment (les CEO de Google et Microsoft aujourd’hui). Seule la minorité “African-American” est sans doute sous représentée et on peut imaginer que tout cela est corrélé avec le problème de l’accès à l’éducation (qui existe moins en Asie)

Voilà, c’est déjà beaucoup pour ne pas dire trop… je trouve que commencer par Bill Campbell est une manière simple et efficace d’entrer dans le sujet. Et maintenant que j’y pense tout cela est d’autant plus facilement que vous verrez que mes lectures récentes sont liées au “sens du travail” (Lochmann, Crawford, Patricot) http://www.startup-book.com/fr/?s=travail

Entrepreneurship, startups and luck : Google according to Daniel Kahneman

I offered Thinking Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman a few months ago and this morning the reader made me read pages 200-1. It’s a great lesson about how luck plays an important role in startup creation, through the Google story. So I give you below the full extract.

“A compelling narrative fosters an illusion of inevitability. Consider the story of how Google turned into a giant of the technology industry. Two creative graduate students in the computer science department at Stanford University come up with a superior way of searching information on the Internet. They seek and obtain funding to start a company and make a series of decisions that work out well. Within a few years, the company they started is one of the most valuable stocks in America, and the two former graduate students are among the richest people on the planet. On one memorable occasion, they were lucky, which makes the story even more compelling: a year after founding Google, they were willing to sell their company for less than $1 million, but the buyer said the price was too high. Mentioning the single lucky incident actually makes it easier to underestimate the multitude of ways in which luck affected the outcome.

A detailed history would specify the Google’s founders, but for our purposes it suffices to say that almost every choice they made had a good outcome. A more complete narrative would describe the actions of the firms that google defeated. The hapless competitors would appear to be blind, slow, and altogether inadequate in dealing with the threat that eventually overwhelmed them.

I intentionally told this tale blandly, but you get the idea: there is a very good story here. Fleshed out in more detail, the story could give you the sense that you understand what made Google succeed; it would also make you feel that you have learned a valuable general lesson about what makes businesses succeed. Unfortunately, there is good reason to believe that your sense of understanding and learning from the Google story is largely illusory. The ultimate test of an explanation is whether it would have made the event predictable in advance. No story of Google’s unlikely success will meet that test, because no story can include the myriad of events that would have caused a different outcome. The human mind does not deal well with nonevents. The fact that many of the important events that did occur involved choices further tempts you to exaggerate the role of skill and underestimate the part that luck played in the outcome. Because every critical decision turned out well, the record suggests almost flawless prescience – but bad luck could have disrupted any one of the successful steps. The halo effect adds the final touches, lending an aura of invincibility to the heroes of the story.

Like watching a skilled rafter avoiding one potential calamity after another as he goes down the rapids, the unfolding of the Google story is thrilling because of the constant risk of disaster. However, there is an instructive difference between the two cases. The skilled rafter has gone through the rapids hundreds of times. He has learned to read the roiling water in front of him and to anticipate obstacles. He has learned to make the tiny adjustments of posture that keep him upright. There are fewer opportunities for young men to learn how to create a giant company, and fewer chances to avoid hidden rocks – such as a brilliant innovation by a competing firm. Of course there was a great deal of skill in the google story, but luck played a more important role in the actual event than it does in the telling of it. And the more luck was involved, the less there is to be learned.”

Progress and Innovation according to Arthur Lochmann

Magnificent book again, La Vie solide (The Solid Life) by Arthur Lochmann that comes at the right moment when France asks the question of repairing the frame of Notre Dame. Starting on page 182, he makes a brilliant analysis of heritage and innovation. He talks about duration and time, which immediately made me think of all the activities I took years to master (venture capital, research on startups, more personal hobbies on Street Art). Without duration, no mastering. Here are my last (translated) excerpts from this beautiful book.

At the other end of the spectrum wriggles innovation. In a few decades, this has replaced the idea of progress in public discourse. The success of the rhetoric of innovation is one of the most palpable expressions of the phenomenon of acceleration of time in modern space. Today we speak of disruption to denote radical innovations that have the effect of breaking existing social structures. As Bernard Stiegler puts it in a recent work [1], this disruption has as an operating principle going faster than society without giving it time to adapt. […] As the author summarizes, for the “lords of the economic war […] it is a question of going faster than societies to impose on them models that destroy their social structures”. How not to go crazy: this is the subtitle of this book which focuses on the effects on individuals and social groups in the nihilist desert that is born of these constant mutations.
The physicist and philosopher Etienne Klein compared the conceptions of time that underlie notions of progress and innovation respectively. Progress, a structuring perspective since the Enlightenment, is based on the idea of a constructing time, “an accomplice of our freedom”. The future is credible and desirable; it is this that allows us to make sacrifices of personal time now to make possible a better collective future. Innovation, on the other hand, projects a completely different conception of time: it is corruptible, it damages things. This was already the case before the Enlightenment, especially for Bacon, for whom the notion of innovation meant the small modifications necessary to preserve the situation as it is. This is again the case today, in a slightly different way: facing the ongoing climate catastrophe, who is still able to imagine any future? In short, innovation is the notion that has taken the place of progress when it has become impossible to think of a future. Like heritage, but in an inverted way, it’s a form of immobilization in the present. In short, heritage conservation and the cult of innovation are two aspects of one and the same thing: the abolition of duration by the advent of a time that has been left out. [Pages 185-7]

“A liquid society is one in which the contexts of action of its members change in less time than it takes for the modes of action to freeze in habits and routines,” wrote Zygmunt Bauman in La Vie liquide (The Liquid Life) [2]. In the capitalism of innovation, every day brings new changes. Social structures, as well as friendly and loving bonds, have lost their former rigidity to become fluid. Everything is always going on and time is running out to be a present without perspective. The paradoxical effect of acceleration is the petrification of time and the erasure of duration. [Page 191]

It is no coincidence that the figure of the craftsman has seen in recent years a return to grace, both on the side of social criticism by a Richard Sennett or by a Matthew B. Crawford and with enthusiasts that are the makers of the fablabs or the “firsts of the class” in reconversion. First of all, because the craftsmanship is very alive and constantly shatters the apparent opposition between tradition and modernity. On a construction site, there is no choice between old techniques and new ones. There is always a clever mix of each other. The practice of the frame, in particular, teaches us that being at the forefront of modernity does not mean giving up centuries-old techniques. The knowledge of the past is not outdated; it is enriched by new methods of work, and sometimes even by older ones that are rediscovered. [Pages 193-4]

[1] Bernard Stiegler, Dans la disruption : Comment ne pas devenir fou ? Paris, Les liens qui libèrent, 2016.
[2] Zygmunt Bauman, La Vie liquide, translated by Christophe Rosson, Paris, Albin Michel, 2013, p. 7 (modified translation)

Augmented humans, diminished humankind – From Alzheimer’s to transhumanism, science serving a mercantile and hegemonic ideology

Following a recent post about critics of technosciences and a much older one about the failed promises of science, here is a very short post about a (very good) book written in French and not (yet) translated in English: Homme augmenté, humanité diminuéeD’Alzheimer au transhumanisme, la science au service d’une idéologie hégémonique mercantile (Augmented humans, diminished humankind – From Alzheimer’s to transhumanism, science serving a mercantile and hegemonic ideology.)

The author begins with his personal story, how his mother suffered and died from this terrible Alzheimer’s disease. Then he began to inquire about it and his doubts began to grow. We do not have to agree with everything author Philippe Baqué says, but we cannot avoid having the same doubts about where and how science and innovation drive us all. I hope these three short extracts will create the same reaction I felt:

[Page 71] Jean Maisondieu, a psychiatrist and author of Crépuscule de la Raison, la maladie d’Alzheimer en question (Sunset of reason, Alzheimer’s disease in question), often claims that Alzheimer’s disease does not exist, but the Alzheimer’s patients do exist for sure.

[Page 74] I reached the conlusion that patients are demented mostly because they were dying of fear, at the idea of death. The brains of Alzheimer’s patients might be altered, but these patients are mostly sick of fear.

[Page 260] I feel the need to ask the question again: what is transhumanism? An economic and political lobby? A technoreligion? A new eugenic ideology? The biggest science fraud of the 21st century?

Worth thinking about it… Is aging a disease? Is death a disease?

Gandhi and Technology, according to Bertrand Jarrige

A second post about the excellent Technocritiques – Du refus des machines à la contestation des technosciences after that one: Techno-critics according to François Jarrige. Jarrige surprises me by giving Gandhi‘s views on technology. Fascinating. I (in Fact Goodle translate was a great supporting tool…) translated his full account that you could read in French on pages 192-195.

No one better illustrates the ambivalence of the relationship to technology in the colonial world than Gandhi. If indeed he uses a simple traditional spindle to weave his clothes, he travels by train and uses a watch. The figure of Gandhi deserves attention because criticism of the machine occupies a central place in his speech and action. But if his successors and followers have venerated him for his contribution to India’s political independence, they have rarely taken seriously his criticism of the technical surge and his proposal to restore the local indigenous economy. For Gandhi (1869-1958), the “machine civilization” and the big industry created a daily and invisible slavery that impoverished entire sections of the population despite the myth of global abundance. While some reduce Gandhian thought to a set of frustrated and simplistic principles, others see it as a rich “moral economy”, distinct from both the liberal tradition and Marxism [1].

Born in 1869 in the state of Gujarat, while British rule over India grew and the railway network expanded, Gandhi went to England to study law in 1888, like hundreds of young upper caste Indians. After 1893, he went to South Africa, where he thrived as a lawyer and woke up to politics in contact with racial discrimination. He gradually developed a method of non-violent civil disobedience that will make his celebrity and organize the struggle of the Indian community. On his return to India, after 1915, he organized the protest against the taxes considered too high, and more generally against the discriminations and the colonial laws. During the inter-war period, as a leader of the Indian National Congress, Gandhi led a campaign to help the poor, to liberate Indian women, to encourage fraternity among communities of different religions or ethnicities, for an end of untouchability and discrimination of castes, and for the economic self-sufficiency of the nation, but especially for Swaraj – the independence of India with respect to any foreign domination.

In 1909, Gandhi wrote one of his rare theoretical texts in the form of a Socratic dialogue with a young Indian revolutionary. This text, Hind Swaraj, written in Gujarati before being translated into English, aims first at detaching Indian youth from the most violent fringes of the nationalist movement [2]. The book was banned until 1919. According to Gandhi, these young revolutionaries are indeed the victims of a blind veneration of technical progress and brutal force imported from the Western world. He is therefore gradually extending his political criticism of the industrial and technological civilization itself. Gandhian thought is based on a sharp criticism of Western modernity in all its forms. On the political front, he criticizes the State and defends the ideal of a non-violent democratic society, made up of federated villages and based on the call for voluntary simplicity. He denounces the notions of development and civilization, and the technical surge that founds them, as sources of inequality and of multiple perverse effects. According to Gandhi, “the machine allows a small minority to live on the exploitation of the masses […] indeed the force that moves this minority is not humanity or the love of the like, but envy and greed “. Political autonomy is therefore futile if it is not accompanied by a profound questioning of modern industrial civilization. “It would be foolish,” says Gandhi, “to say that an Indian Rockefeller would be better than an American Rockefeller,” and “we do not have to look forward to the growth of the manufacturing industry.” Gandhi defends the development of self-sufficient local crafts within the framework of village autonomy and a limitation of needs.

Gandhi belongs neither to the Indian neotraditionalist currents that consider the ancient Hindu civilization as intrinsically superior, nor to the camp of the modernizing nationalists seeking to copy the Western world to turn its weapons against the colonial order. He intends to define a third original way. Gandhian thought feeds on multiple sources. In a way, it belongs to the anti-modernist current that developed in Europe at the end of the nineteenth century. He read William Morris and John Ruskin, and was marked by the anarchistic Christianity of Tolstoy [3]. His vision of the world feeds on the intellectual atmosphere of the end of the Victorian era and the ethical and aesthetic critique of the technical and industrial surge that was then developing. Gandhi is neither hostile to science nor anti-rationalist, as it is sometimes written. He first criticizes the way in which scientific discoveries and the use of reason are applied and put at the service of the powerful and exploitation. He criticizes the blind faith of the Western wolrd in material progress and the desire for power embodied in technical surge. He also wants to save England from its own demons. According to him, “mechanization has impoverished India”; it turns factory workers into “slaves”. It is not by “reproducing Manchester in India” that Indians will emancipate themselves from British rule. One of the particularly powerful technical bases of British rule is precisely the development of the railroad: “Without the railroads, the British could not have such a stranglehold on India. “Supposedly to liberate the Indian people, the rail is actually used primarily by the power as an effective tool of mesh and domination.” The railways have also increased the frequency of famines because, given the ease of transportation, people sell their grain and it is sent to the most expensive market” instead of being self-consumed or sold on the closest market. Gandhi tries to link his criticism of big industry and European technologies to his project of political emancipation. It shows that progress leads to a worsening of living conditions, that “civilization” permanently creates new needs that are impossible to satisfy, that it digs inequalities and immerses part of humanity in slavery. For him, this type of civilization is hopeless. The mechanization and globalization of trade is a disaster for India, the mills of Manchester having destroyed the craft industry and the world of Indian weavers: “The machinist civilization will not stop making victims. Its effects are deadly: people let themselves be attracted to it and burn themselves like butterflies in the flame of a candle. It breaks all ties with religion and in fact only derives tiny benefits from the world. [The machinist] Civilization flatters us to better drink our blood. When the effects of this civilization are fully known, we will realize that religious (traditional) superstition is harmless in comparison to that which nimbuses modern civilization.

Gandhian criticism of machinery intrigues much in the inter-war period. It is reflected in his economic program based on the defense of village industries as in its project to “de-mechanize the textile industry”, which appears immediately unrealistic and unrealizable. Moreover, Gandhi’s positions went from total opposition to European machines to a more nuanced criticism: in October 1924, to the question of a journalist, “Are you against all machines?” He replies: “How could I be … [I am] against indiscriminate craze for machines, and not machines as such”. He also rises against those who accuse him of wanting to “destroy all machines”: “My goal is not to destroy the machine but to impose limits on it”, that is to say to control its uses so that it does not affect the natural environments or the situation of the poorest. He ultimately develops a philosophy of limits and control of technological gigantism.

But this discourse provoked a lot of misunderstanding and was gradually erased as a reliquat of obscurantist tradition. The Socialists and with them Nehru himself in his autobiography published in 1936, lament that Gandhi “blessed the relics of the old order”. His analysis of industrial technology was soon marginalized to the independence of the country by the forced modernization project. But Gandhi’s figure also exerted considerable fascination far beyond the Indian peasantry. In the inter-war period, his criticism became a source of inspiration for social movements and thinkers from very different horizons, even as criticism of the “machine civilization” was growing in Europe.

[1] Kazuya Ishi, The socio-economic thoughts of Mahatma Gandhi as an origin of alternative development, Review of Social Economy, vol. LIX, 2001, p. 198 ; Majid Rahnema and Jean Robert, La Puissance des pauvres, Actes Sud, Arles, 2008.
[2] Hind Swaraj, translated in English as Indian Home Rule, and later in French with title Leur Civilisation et notre délivrance, Denoël, Paris, 1957.
[3] Ramin Jahanbegloo, Gandhi. Aux sources de la non-violence, Thoreau, Ruskin, Tolstoï, Editions du Felin, Paris, 1998.

Techno-critics according to François Jarrige

I write from time to time and perhaps even more often about this other fact of innovation and entrepreneurship (which remains my passion, positively), a face that is darker, more negative, a vision that is more critical of the impact of innovation on society. I read these days, in French, Technocritiques – Du refus des machines à la contestation des technosciences (Technocritics – From the refusal of the machines to the challenge of the technosciences) by François Jarrige. It is a rich, harsh, demanding but exceptional book for all those interested in the subject.

Even if extremely critical at first sight, the book shows that the positive and negative aspects of progress have always developed in parallel. My closest reading of this work was probably that of Bernard Stiegler, In Disruption – How Not to Go Crazy? without forgetting the works of Libero Zuppiroli, such as The utopias of the 21st century. Thanks to him for mentioning this remarkable book.

Here is a full translation of a long and exciting passage on pages 87-88. It looks like it describes our world, it does describe an older one.

“If we were to characterize our time by a single epithet, we would not call it a heroic, religious, philosophical, or moral age; but the mechanical age, for that is what distinguishes it from all the others.” [1] Carlyle embodies the romantic denunciation of “mammonism” (that is, the religious worship of the god Silver), whose mechanical surge of his time is one of the manifestations. Why always strive, thanks to mechanics, to sell “at a lower price than all other nations until the end of the world”, why not “sell for equal price”, he asks? [2] He invites “ingenious men” to find a way to distribute products more equitably rather than always looking for ways to achieve them at the lowest cost: “A world of simple patented digesters will soon have nothing to eat: such a world will be extinguished and by the law of nature it must be extinguished.”

At the same time, Michelet, the great French romantic historian, discovered the gigantism of machinery during a trip to England in 1834. He also describes the ambivalence of the effects of machines. Impressed by the “beings of steel” who enslave “the being of blood and flesh”, he is nevertheless convinced that one will continue to prefer to the “uniform fabrications of the machines the various products which bear the imprint of the human personality”. If the machine is undeniably a “powerful agent of democratic progress” by “putting a host of useful objects within the reach of the poorest”, it also has its terrible setback: it creates a “miserable little people of men-machines that live half [and] that engender only for death “. [3]

The anxiety about machinery diminished in the Victorian era, with the expansion of the prosperity of the imperial period, the decline of workers’ violence, the rise of the political economy. However, it continues to arouse the fears of some moralists, such as John Stuart Mill, a complex radical thinker, a liberal fascinated by socialism and a feminist justifying imperialism. In his Principles of Political Economy (1848), Mill proposes an inventory of the political economy of his time. He distances himself from economists who are overly optimistic about technical change, expresses reluctance about the beneficial effects of the division of labor and considers that the state must compensate for the detrimental effects of mechanization. But his criticism goes beyond these classic questions because John Stuart Mill proposes a theory of the “stationary state” that breaks with classical economics. He describes this “stationary state of capital and wealth” as “preferable to our present situation”, marked by the struggle of all against all. He sees it as a world shaped by “prudence” and “frugality,” in which society is composed of “a large and well-paid body of workers” and “few enormous fortunes”; this “stationary” world, where everyone would have enough to live, would leave room for solitude and contemplation “of the beauties and grandeur of nature”. In this world, the “industrial arts” would obviously not stop, but “instead of having no other goal than the acquisition of wealth, the improvements would reach their goal, which is the diminution of work. [4]

To be followed, maybe …

Sources:

[1] Thomas Carlyle, “Signs of the Times,” Edinburgh Review vol. 49, 1829, p. 439-459
“Were we required to characterise this age of ours by any single epithet, we should be tempted to call it, not an Heroical, Devotional, Philosophical, or Moral Age, but, above all others, the Mechanical Age. It is the Age of Machinery, in every outward and inward sense of that word; the age which, with its whole undivided might, forwards, teaches and practises the great art of adapting means to ends.”
http://www.victorianweb.org/authors/carlyle/signs1.html

[2] Thomas Carlyle, “Past and Present” (1843), Cathédrales d’autrefois et usines d’aujourd’hui. Passé et présent, fr. transl. of Camille Bos, Editions of the Revue Blanche, Paris, 1920, p.289
I admire a Nation which fancies it will die if it do not undersell all other Nations, to the end of the world. Brothers, we will cease to undersell them; we will be content to equal-sell them; to be happy selling equally with them! I do not see the use of underselling them. A world of mere Patent-Digesters will soon have nothing to digest: such world ends, and by Law of Nature must end, in ‘over-population;’
P. 229-31, http://www.gutenberg.org/files/26159/26159-h/26159-h.htm

[3] Jules Michelet, “Le peuple”. Flammarion. Paris, 1974 [1846]

[4] John Stuart Mill, “Principles of Political Economy,” fr. transl. Léon Roquet, Paris 1894 [1848] Pages 138-142.