Category Archives: Must watch or read

Researchers and entrepreneurs: it’s possible! (part 2)

A second post about this enlightening book after this one. A multitude of quotes that make this book really fascinating. The importance of the human component; entrepreneurship is not a science after all. The experience of the field probably counts as much as the academic knowledge, the adventures are unique in spite of their common features. Here are some new examples:



“The first meetings with investors are dialogues between human beings: they will see in you the person who takes risks, who has the ability to develop a strategy and execute plans. Three major criteria are of interest to investors: the team, in particular the CEO [Chief Executive Officer] who creates and inspires the company on a daily basis, and then the product and size of the potential market.”
Pascale Vicat-Blanc.

“It is essential to open your idea, your project as soon as possible. The upstream contacts are very rich and can be quite simple”. Stéphane Deveaux. [Page 43]

“The creation of a company is first and foremost a work of definition and development of an offer and the positioning of this offer in the market”, explains Éric Simon. “I met a company that was immediately very enthusiastic. We had to solve many technical challenges that we had not encountered in the world of research. [But this first big client] led us into a dead end. […] I stood firm and remembered that even if you have an important client, you must immediately diversify so as not to be at his mercy.” [Page 55]

While market research and marketing training are often present in incubators, know-how is sometimes difficult to transfer. Researchers-entrepreneurs insist on the importance of the field. “So we did a lot of interviews, visits to customers, prospecting to really know our market. This is the best market research compared to buying ready-made studies.” Benoit Georis, Keeno [Page 61]

There arethen discussions about the relative importance of public and private investors, a phenomenon so specific to France. Yes an exciting book!

Researchers and entrepreneurs: it’s possible!

Here is a book that I just discovered about stories of startups in the French digital field, those from Inria, the national institute (for research in computer science and automation) dedicated to digital sciences. It’s written in French ans is entitled Chercheurs et entrepreneurs : c’est possible !

I have read only a few pages so far but the quotes I read are so meaningful that I cannot help but extract some examples:

“Our friends were creating their business in Silicon Valley, like Bob Metcalfe with 3Com or Bill Joy with Sun. I had toured groups I knew on the other side of the Atlantic, at MIT, Berkeley, Stanford, explaining our project to them, their positive reaction reinforced the idea of getting started.” Silicon Valley was often a source of inspiration …

“What interested me was not doing research in itself, it was advancing technology to solve real problems. We had more and more funding; we have made satellite configurators for aerospace, ports, buildings and a strategic simulator for nuclear submarines” says Pierre Haren, the founder of Ilog. The product yes, but above all for customers …

“By definition, [we were] a high-tech company. [… but] As in any creation, at the beginning, we do everything even cleaning the floor! We took care of the commercial approach, of the optimization of the offer, and even of the premises. When we take care of a society, we are never quiet, we never take it easy. Whether we are ten or ten thousand people, the person in charge is always in the mine,” according to Christian Saguez, founder of Simulog and he further adds “My first advice to hesitant researchers is to take the step of creating without seeking comfort at all costs. You learn life and it’s all the beauty of doing business. With Simulog we had to invent everything and the model worked.”

There are many great lessons: I will certainly finish it soon. Thanks to Laurent for the gift 🙂

The Code – Silicon Valley and the Remaking of America – by Margaret O’Mara

About 15 years ago, I was challenged by a colleague, who knew my passion about Silicon Valley, about why the region should survive and lead for the years or even decades to come. I had just arrived at EPFL and now that I am leaving this place where there are many people I love, I could give the same answer to my colleague: the talent and capital gathered there, with an expertise which seems to be never lost and an appetite for experiments and risk with not too much fear of failure, at least no stigma, are reasons why Silicon Valley has a bright future. Yes it has many drawbacks and weaknesses, but even when there is a major crisis, there is stil, whatever we think, enough diversity to continue to strive.

Margaret O’Mara probably thinks the same. At least she has written one of the most comprehensive history of the region and describes brilliantly all its strong and weak, positive and negative attributes.

The Code
Silicon Valley and the Remaking of America
By Margaret O’Mara

You have to think of it like a horse race, Morgenthaler would explain. That’s how the high-tech game worked. The horse was the technology. The race was the market. The entrepreneur was the jockey. And the fourth and last ingredient was the owner and trainer – the high-tech investor. You could have the best jockey, but if he rode a slow horse, then you wouldn’t win. Same thing if you have a fast horse but a terrible jockey. Great technology without good people running the shop wouldn’t get very far. And the race had to have good stakes. Riding a fast horse to win at the country fait wouldn’t reap many rewards, but the Kentucky Derby was another matter indeed. So it went with the market. These needed to be customers and growth, not saturation. [Pages 11-12] (You can check the Computer Museum archive about Morgenthalerhere (as a pdf).)

The flow wasn’t about transfer of technology, it was about talent – about people who moved back and forth from the labs of Stanford to the offices of its research park to the ramshackle warehouses and prefab office buildings that began stretching southward down El Camino Real. Everywhere else in the 1950s, academia was a true ivory tower, surrounded by impregnable walls between town and gown, between “pure” research and business enterprise. At Stanford, those walls dissolved. [Page 32]

“Inventions come from individuals,” observed Regis McKenna, “not from companies.” [Page 152]

“Good ideas and good products are a dime a dozen,” [Arthur Rock] later explained. “Good execution and good management – in a word, good people – are rare.”

More controversial maybe is John Doerr’s comment: Much later, one of the regions most successful and influential VCs, John Doerr, got in hot water after admitting that a major factor guiding his decisions was “pattern recognition.” The most successful entrepreneurs, he found, “all seem to be white, male, nerds who’ve dropped out of Harvard or Stanford and they absolutely have no social life. So when I see that pattern coming in”, he concluded, “it was very easy to decide to invest.” [Page 76]

After HP went public in November 1957, fortunes rose along with its share price. Yet from the start, the two founders consciously presented their firm as a business concerned with higher and better things. “I think many people assume, wrongly, that a company exists simply to make money,” Packard once told HP managers. “While this is an important result of a company’s existence, we have to go deeper to find the real reasons for our being.” Nonhierarchical, friendly, a change-the-world ethos paired with an unflagging focus on market growth and the bottom line – HP created the blueprint for generations of Silicon Valley companies to come. [Page 33]

The missile maker, the entrepreneurial university, the distinctive business sensibility, the professional networks, the government money, the elite (and homogeneous) workforce: many of the key ingredients were coming together in Palo Alto by the middle of the 1950s. [Page 38]

O’Mara combines anecdotes, stories and economic trends. For example, more than 500 companies went public in 1969. Only 4 did in 1975. […] in 1969, the national venture capital industry had raised more than $170 million in new investment. In 1975, it raised a paltry $22 million. What’s more, only one venture investment in four went to tech companies. [Page 158]

She shows there were thousands of similar (and unknown) companies to the one which became phenomenal success. In parallel to Apple, there had been ProcTech (or Processor Technology), IMSAI, Cromemco, Xitan, Polymorphic. Vector Graphic, with an initial $6’000 investment in 1976 reached 4’000 units and $400’000 in sales in 12 months, and $25M fiver years later. By 1977, there were 50,000 personal computers in use. [Pages 144-6]

(A side comment about a book I did not know of: The Innovation Millionaires: How They Succeed by Gene Bylinsky (Charles Scribner’s Sons, New York, 1976.)

She also clearly illustrates the role of public intervention and support. One story I did not know about is how much John Doerr was involved in fighting proposition 211 in 1996. It shows that despite the general view that Silicon Valley has no interest in politics, on the contrary, many individuals and institutions are much more interested than generally thought. (See Proposition 211 ) [Section The Litigator – Pages 333-8]

Similarly, the complexity of things is illustrated with Peter Thiel, a famous Libertarian, a strong advocate of weak states and of President Trump: he is the (funding) founder of Palantir, a startup which most revenues at least early in its history, came from the government… [Pages 384-7]

But culture is never far. When Russian president Medvedev visited Silicon Valley in 2010 to try and understand the region’s secrets, he concluded that there simply wasn’t enough appetite for risk. “It’s a problem of culture as Steve Jobs told me today. We need to change the mentality.” [Page 388]

So Silicon Valley’s success does not stop… “By mid-2018, Facebook had made 67 acquisitions, Amazon had made 91, and Google had made 214.” [Page 391] Let us remember tough that in the GAFAM group, 2 companies are not based in Silicon Valley, showing how powerful the region is, just in terms of perception! Let me just add here an old post about startups M&As: Cisco A&D published in 2016.

It is also from an architectural standpoint as mention on Page 392. With the new Facebook building in 2015, or Amazon biospheres and Apple Park.

And there is a lot of money made. Google has a few years after its IPO more than 1’000 employees or former employees with a $5M wealth including an in-house massage therapist. [Page 392]

As a conclusion of my reading, a final quote:

“As wealth grew, so did the mythos around how Silicon Valley was able to generate one innovative company after another. It was about allowing risks and not penalizing failure, they’d say. It was about putting engineering first – finding the best technical talent, with no bias about origin or pedigree. It was about that “pattern recognition” so fatefully identified by John Doerr, looking for the next Stanford or Harvard dropout with a wild but brilliant idea.

Of all those assertions, Doerr’s slip-up came closest to the heart of the Valley’s secret. “West Coast investors aren’t bolder because they are irresponsible cowboys, or because the good weather makes them optimistic”, wrote Paul Graham, founder of the Valley’s most influential tech incubator, Y Combinator, in 2007. “They’re bolder because they know what they’re doing.” The Valley power players knew tech, knew the people, and knew the formula that worked.

They looked for “grade-A men” (who very occasionally were women) from the nation’s best engineering and computer science programs, or from the most promising young companies, and who had validation from someone else they already knew. They sought out those exhibiting the competitive fire of a Gates or a Zuckerberg, the focus and design ascetism of Kapor or Andreessen or Brin and Page. They funded those who were working on a slightly better version of something already being attempted – a better search engine, a better social network. They surrounded these lucky entrepreneurs with support and seasoned talent; they got their names in the media and their faces on the stage at each premier conferences. They picked winners, and because of the accumulated experience and connections in the Valley, those they picked often won.” [Pages 399-400]

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.

Fail fast or succeed slowly?

Here is my lastest contribution to Entreprise Romande in their special summer edition “Le Temps, éternel insaisissable”.

If you are not a subscriber, here is a copy.

Fail fast or succeed slowly?
Hervé Lebret, head of startup unit, EPFL

Slow food, slow thinking, slow growth. After decades of hyperactive and probably destructive frenziness, humankind seems to want a pause. Yet for years I have been complaining that I do not see the Swiss and European startups growing fast enough and, natural corollary, I do not see failing fast enough these “living dead” as they are called in Silicon Valley, these startups that have or would have no future. So was I wrong too?

The debate between the supporters of Schumpeter’s creative destruction, “disruption” and those of a more sustainable incremental progress is as old as the word innovation itself. When I fell into the pot of startups during my American journeys, I quickly wondered why Europe had not experienced such spectacular success such as the GAFAs (Google, Apple, Facebook, Amazon). Whether it is desirable or not, the question is valid: is this difference not related to another less known phenomenon, namely that our startups never die or at least not fast enough?

Recently, the Swiss Startup Radar [1] gave the point of view of an Israeli: “In Switzerland, I observe a strong focus on the survival rate. Startups are encouraged if they have collateral, such as patents, and take a cautious course. As a result, eight out of 10 startups from ETH Zurich are still active five years after their foundation. In Israel, on the other hand, more attention is paid to the economic impact. What matters when assessing a project is the prospect of growth and the creation of new jobs.” The survival rate of companies after 5 years in Switzerland as in the USA is 50%. It is 90% for technology startups from Swiss academic institutions. It can be argued that researchers from these prestigious institutions are better trained and better able to withstand entrepreneurial storms. So why in Silicon Valley where researchers are probably no less well trained, the survival rate is only 75% after five years. And especially less than 50% after 10 years while we are still 80% in Switzerland? In fact, the multiplicity of support, mainly public, probably contributes to artificial survival and slow growth.

I fear that the debate will remain open and lively after this chronicle and only convince the already convinced. Impact and growth cannot only happen through cautiousness and moderation; they are also the result of risk taking and specialized financing which undoubtedly increase the failure rate: “Being an entrepreneur is not for the faint of heart” declared Bill Davidow, a famous American venture capitalist, the expectations are extraordinary and fatality is terrible. The investment horizon for venture capital is very short. Success must be visible in less than five to ten years and the success must be dazzling for these investors. It is a world that does not make any prisoner and failures are up to the ambitions, and worse, very fast (the famous “fail fast”). To have more impact, to create more capital value and also more jobs, it also requires investments of this kind. There is no question of the survival of startups of a few dozen employees, but the impact of a Google that in just twenty years will have created nearly 100,000 jobs, perhaps more than all European startups combined. We can criticize this industry for being very impatient and I understand that some entrepreneurs and political or economic decision makers are the first critics. I remain convinced that this is part of the price to pay for this larger impact.

[1] https://www.startupticker.ch/en/swiss-startup-radar

Bill Campbell, the Trillion Dollar Coach

I had so often heard of this hidden secret of Silicon Valley that when I read about a book written about him, I had to buy and read it immediately. Which I did. And what about the authors: first and foremost, Eric Schmidt, the former CEO of Google…

I had mentioned Campbell 3 times here:

– first in 2014, in Horowitz’ The Hard Thing About Hard Things: there is no recipe but courage. This is there I had Campbell picture just between Steve Jobs abd Andy grove.
jobs-campbell-grove

– then in 2015, in Google in the (Null)Plex – Part 3: a culture. This piece is also mentioned in the new book: Google decide management was not needed any more and neither Schmidt, nor Campbell liked it. here is how it was solved: “The newly arrived Schmidt and the company’s unofficial executive coach, Bill Campbell, weren’t happy with the idea, either. Campbell would go back and forth with Page on the issue. “People don’t want to be managed,” Page would insist, and Campbell would say, “Yes, they do want to be managed.” One night Campbell stopped the verbal Ping-Pong and said, “Okay, let’s start calling people in and ask them.” It was about 8 P.M., and there were still plenty of engineers in the offices, pecking away at God knows what. One by one, Campbell and Page summoned them in, and one by one Page asked them, “Do you want to be managed?” As Campbell would later recall, “Everyone said yeah.” Page wanted to know why. They told him they wanted somebody to learn from. When they disagreed with colleagues and discussions reached an impasse, they needed someone who could break the ties.”

– finally last year, in Business Lessons by Kleiner Perkins (Part II): Bill Campbell by John Doerr.

Not bad references! I am not finished with the Coach. I have never been a fan of coaching and I am probably wrong. Let me just begin. “I’ve come to believe that coaching might be even more essential than mentoring to our careers and our teams. Whereas mentors dole out words of wisdom, coaches roll up their sleeves and get their hands dirty. They don’t just believe in our potential; they get in the arena to help us realize our potential. They hold up a mirror so we can see our blind spots and they hold us accountable for working through our sore spots. They take responsibility for making us better without taking credit for our accomplishments. And I can’t think of a better role model for a coach than Bill Campbell”. [Page xiv]

On the next page, Schmidt explains he may have missed on important point in his previous book (How Google Works) where he emphasied the imporatnce of brillinat individuals, the smart creatives. And this may be the higher importance of teams, as decrived in Google’s Project Aritotle. I just give a link form eth New York Times about this: What Google Learned From Its Quest to Build the Perfect Team. New research reveals surprising truths about why some work groups thrive and others falter.

The first two chapters are devoted to the life of this extraordinary character. A tireless worker, who started as an American football college coach to become the CEO of high-tech companies such as Claris or Intuit before becoming the Silicon Valley star coach. All told on the occasion of his funerals in 2016. If you do not want to wait for my next blog and not buy the book you may want to read the slidehare from the authors, but first you should read his manifesto, it’s the people.

People are the foundation of any company’s success. The primary job of each manager is to help people be more effective in their job and to grow and develop. We have great people who want to do well, are capable of doing great things, and come to work fired up to do them. Great people flourish in an environment that liberates and amplifies that energy. Managers create this environment through support, respect, and trust.

Support means giving people the tools, information, training, and coaching they need to succeed. It means continuous effort to develop people’s skills. Great managers help people excel and grow.

Respect means understanding people’s unique career goals and being sensitive to their life choices. It means helping people achieve these career goals in a way that’s consistent with the needs of the company.

Trust means freeing people to do their jobs and to make decisions. It means knowing people want to do well and believing that they will.

Crafts vs industry, the meaning of work according to Arthur Lochmann

Following my recent posts about the meaning and values of work through Crawford’s Shop Class as Soulcraft, here are a few lines translated from the magnificent book by Arthur Lochmann La Vie Solide. I say magnificient because the writing is beautiful, precise, aerial.

Here are pages 99-102

Certainly, all intellectual knowledge, even the most abstract, involves a make, is realized in an action: the knowledge of a theorem of mathematics includes knowing how to apply it. But know-how is distinguished from intellectual knowledge in that the latter can just be available, actionable when needed, and stored in the meantime on external technical supports. The movement of outsourcing knowledge, initiated by writing, – this is the whole topic of Plato’s Phaedrus; writing, at the same time as it preserves knowledge, is also what exempts us from retaining it and making it truly our own – is today exacerbated by the development of new technologies and the permanent accessibility of knowledge offered by these. The relation to knowledge is modified. Knowledge becomes peripheral, whereas what one makes one’s own, what one interiorizes is the capacity to find it again and, above all, to process it. Probably this relationship to knowledge will experience deeper transformations in the coming years with the development of artificial intelligence, which allows to outsource not only the storage of knowledge, but also part of its analytical processing.

Know-how, on the other hand, is characterized by being internalized, incorporated. It involves an intuitive dimension that allows us to recognize the salient features of a situation and to identify the rules of action. You do not consult a video on Youtube to know how to pass a beam of five meters in length in a stairwell, you must have acquired an intuition of space. It alone will allow us to orient the beam to best use the diagonals of space, it alone will have anchored in us the continuous perception of both ends of the beam. However, it is not magic or innate ability. On the contrary, this intuition is an intellectual conquest. Intuition is developed with work. And in this elaboration, which is called experience, the repetition of operations plays a decisive role in making it possible to establish cumulative links between the experienced situations and the chosen solutions. Experience thus consists of a process of appropriation of life.

Several critics of modernity have diagnosed, even found, a gradual destruction of experience. First, because the lifespan of skills, and therefore the experience of their practice, tends to be reduced. In certain areas of activity that are particularly geared to change – as in the case of consulting, the function of which is to change institutions – experience is even ruled out in favor of innovative talent. More deeply, some thinkers of modernity consider that the very possibility of experience is called into question by the acceleration of social and professional rhythms. The appropriation of the “shocks” of everyday life and their transformation into experience requires stable narrative models to establish links between the past and the future. Like the analysis by Hartmut Rosa, when waiting horizons are constantly changing and “spaces of experience are constantly rebuilding” [1], we can only witness a gradual loss of experience.

In the craft trades, however, the techniques evolve slowly, and the skills retain a long life span. Experience therefore remains absolutely crucial. With time and situations, we acquire a whole repertoire of methods and tips that enrich, clarify and complicate material thinking. It is estimated that it takes about ten thousand hours of practice [2] to learn a trade in medicine, music or crafts. In terms of structure, it is indeed the time it takes to acquire an overview of the various situations that may arise and to master all the details. This duration also corresponds to the seven or so years of training (apprenticeship and then the tour de France) which are traditionally necessary to be granted companion by a companionship guild.

[1] Hartmut Rosa, Accélération, Paris, La Découverte, 2010, p.179
[2] In the venture capital world, one says that it reqiures five years and ten million to be come a good investor. Another illustration that experience matters there too and that VC is more about skills and crafts than about an industry of knowledge.

Then pages 153-155:

This knowledge, because it has been developed over time by and for the community, is similar to what we now call common goods, that is to say goods that are intended to be universal and that privatization can destroy or diminish – and which therefore require specific care. In contrast to the “professional secrecy” claimed by certain corporations to grant their knowledge only to those who would have been worth it, in contrast also to the idea of patenting techniques and methods, the will of transmission of knowledge that I have encountered on most sites is in my view of the same logic: know-how is an intangible treasure that belongs to all of society. Each worker is the temporary custodian. As such, her or his responsibility is to make it alive by transmitting it. “Any received word that you have not transmitted is a stolen word,” say the companions.

It is in such a conception of know-how as common goods that the attitude of computer developers working according to the principles of free software and open source is placed. The Linux operating system or Mozilla Firefox web browser is developed and constantly improved by a community of developers who produce their own software. They work first for themselves, making the tools they need, but also for the common good. This is the pattern followed by most free software: first developed to meet the specific need and not yet satisfied by a private community, they are then made public and made available to all, so that everyone can use them and, eventually, adapt them to their own use. Better still, the principle of collective intelligence on which this work is organized consists in considering that the best software will be obtained thanks to the collaboration of the greatest number.

Developers, artisans of modern times, are therefore in the lineage of the dêmiourgos – a term that refers to the artisans, from the ancient Greek ergon, work, and dêmios, public – while renewing its registration in the community. The community here is instituted by the sole decision to take care of a common good. It is not located geographically: it is that of the users of the whole world, in other words the universal common good. It is no more historically located: the process of transmission from generation to generation of old know-how is the process of real-time sharing.

This example, far from being trivial, is a sign of the vitality and modernity of craftsmanship as a way of working, of organization and more generally as a culture and ethical model concerned with the common good through the sharing of knowledge – this while standing out from traditional communities and social structures.

The Meaning and Value of Work according to Matthew Crawford

I began to read Eloge du Carburateur – Essai sur le sens et la valeur du travail (translated from the American essay Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry into the Value of Work) by Matthew B. Crawford. I wrote a first post about why I began that book here.

Here is an interesting critique of artificial intelligence and the meaning of work (read on page 205 of the French edition & found on Google books)

“In John Searle’s famous critique of artificial intelligence, he asks us to imagine a man locked in a room, with only a slit connecting him to the outside world [1]. Through the door come pieces of paper with Chinese writing on them. The man does not know Chinese. Unbeknownst to him, the writing takes the form of questions. He is equipped with a set of instructions in English, for matching other Chinese symbols to the ones he is given. He passes these back through the slit, and they are taken to be answers to the questions. Searle’s point is that to perform the task, the man needn’t know any Chinese, and neither does a computer that does the same task as he. Some enthusiasts of artificial intelligence, insist that the system knows Chinese – somehow there is thinking without a thinker. But a less mystical position would leave it as a saying that it is the human programmer, who wrote up the instructions for matching Chinese answers to Chinses questions, who knows Chinese.

“The mechanic relying con computerized diagnostics finds himself in a position similar to that of the man in the Chinese room. The crucial stipulation in the thought experiment is that one could indeed have a set of rules that is fully adequate for matching answers to questions without any reference to the meaning of the words being trafficked in . Whether this is in fact possible is a deep question in linguistics and philosophy of midn, and there is no noncontroversial answer to it. Yet the thoughtless way in which work is often conceived seems to presume the stipulation is correct. We view human beings as inferior versions of computers.”

[1] John R. Searle, “Minds, Brains and Programs”, Behavioral and Brain Science, 3, n.3, September 1980.

I had noticed in my French post other interesting points:

“We are used to thinking of intellectual virtue and moral virtue as two very different things, but in my opinion this distinction is erroneous. The mutual involvement of ethics and knowledge is well understood by Robert Pirsig in what remains to my mind one of the most successful (and funniest) passages of his Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance [More on wikipedia here]. (…) To be a good mechanic, it is necessary to know how to engage personally: I am a mechanic. On the other hand being a good mechanic means having a keen awareness of the fact that your task has nothing to do with the idiosyncrasies of your personality, that it has something universal. (…) The identification of this truth requires a certain disposition of the individual, a certain capacity of attention accompanied by a feeling of responsibility towards the motorcycle.” [Pages 113-115]

“Virtue is the effort to cross the veil of egocentric consciousness and to find the world as it really is. This effort is never completely successful because our own concerns constantly interfere with it. But getting out of oneself is the task of the artist, and also that of the mechanic.” [Page 117]

“So what advice should be given to young people? If you feel a natural inclination for university research, if you urgently need to read the hardest books and think you can spend four years doing it, then sign up for college. In fact, approach your university studies in a spirit of craftsmanship, immersing yourself in the world of humanities or natural sciences. But if it’s not the case, if the prospect of spending four more years sitting in a classroom gives you headaches, I have good news for you: nothing forces you to simulate the slightest interest in the student life for the simple purpose of making a decent living as an output. And if you still want to go to college, learn to do something during the holidays. You’ll have a better chance of feeling better about yourself, and possibly getting better paid, if you’re pursuing a freelance craftsman career than locked up in an open-space office (a “modular workstation” as they say elegantly ), to manipulate fragments of information or to play low quality “creatives”. Certainly, to follow this advice, perhaps it is necessary to possess a little rebellious personality, because this assumes to reject the path traced for a professional future conceived as obligatory and inevitable.” [Page 65]

“One of the principles of contemporary management is to abandon the management of details to the base and accumulate recognition of merit at the top. For leaders, the rule is to avoid making real decisions that may end up hurting their career but knowing how to cook a posteriori stories that allow them to interpret the least positive result in their favor.” [Page 61]

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?

Cynthia Fleury : To be Brave is sometimes to Endure, sometimes to Break up

I have already mentioned Cynthia Fleury on this blog, for example some of her books on Transhumanism is Science Fiction. I just read an interview of her on Telerama, Cynthia Fleury : “Etre courageux, c’est parfois endurer, parfois rompre”. It is so great, I just decided to translate it my way…

MesLivres-Cynthia-Fleury

Translated from Juliette Cerf. First published on Telerama on 30/08/2015, updated on 01/02/2018.

A philosopher and a psychoanalyst, she insists on how important it is for anyone to build her or his own destiny. It is a condition to protect democracy.

When she was a young doctoral student in philosophy, Cynthia Fleury dreamed of living on a back seat, to devote herself to research and writing, far from the hubbub of the city … Life decided differently and the young woman learnt with time how to live on stage. To be all round. She is now in her early 40s, used to debates and much appreciated by the media for her sharp speech and clear vision. Cynthia Fleury combines many activities: a researcher in political philosophy and a psychoanalyst, she teaches at the American University of Paris. She is a member of the advisory board of the National Ethics Committee, she is also part of Nicolas Hulot Foundation’s think tank for nature and humankind and she is contributor to the Paris medical and psychological emergency unit (Samu). From these different positions of observation, the philosopher watches the drifts and dysfunctions specific to the individual and democracy, at a time when, because of the crisis, everyone withdraws into oneself. How to cure this? How to bring back into the heart of the collective? It is these questions that she addresses in her new essay, Les irremplaçables (The Irreplaceable), which follows her reflection begun in The Pathologies of Democracy and The End of Courage.

Why this title, The Irreplaceable, which sends the reader towards a literary fiction horizon?

Literature is much more poweful than philosophy since it does not produce a doctrinaire, frozen discourse. With a title of a novel, I wanted to evoke the story of the self, the creative power of each. An irreplaceable being is indeed someone committing to a process of individuation, in other words in the construction of her or his own destiny. The book is published in the Blanche collection by Gallimard, which outside of fiction, has always been known for a tradition of philosophical existentialism, with Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, etc. It meant to invest the theme of irreplaceability in an existential and open way, while philosophical theorizing gives a sense of closure. What was at stake was to enter in a dynamic commitment and to create a responsibility for each of us: how does this individual destiny feed a more collective destiny? This is the essential question.

You enroll in the field of political philosophy; democracy is at the center of your thinking.

Yes, and the irreplaceable, at first, were for me the democrats. If I precisely talk about commitment, it’s because I do not live in the illusion of democratic durability. At a time when fundamentalisms, fascisms and populisms proliferate, how can we protect democracy? How do we make sure that individuals are concerned about preserving the rule of law? I realized that any individual who has not worked to develop a fair individuation will not care about preserving democracy. Self-care and concern for the city are intimately linked.

How?

Individuation and democracy work, I think, like a Möbius strip, as the two faces of the same reality. Of course, the rule of law produces the conditions the emergence of an individual, but it does not last if not revitalized, reinvented, reformed by free subjects. If the rule of law remains only a formal reality, it creates huge disappointments that threaten it. It is therefore necessary that it incarnates, and this body of the rule of law is that of the different individuals it gathers. But in recent years, neoliberalism has distorted the rule of law and disintigrated the subjects. The rule of law signs its death sentence: only a well-individuated subject cares about its preservation, and not the alienated subject we meet today.

“The construction of the rule of law is the adventure of this gap between principles and practice.”

You thus evoke the “entropic” drift of contemporary democracies. What is this about?

In thermodynamics, entropy measures the state of disorder of a system: it grows when it evolves towards an increased disorder. However, for thirty years, western democracies experience dynamics of disguise, delirious and unprecedented merchandising, which makes of us interchangeable, replaceable entities, servicing the “growth” idol. Everyone can experience it, whether in the world of finance, consumption, or ecology, through all these phenomena of capture, extreme rationalization, obscene profitability that do not question either their presuppositions nor their expectations. But the expression of democratic entropy is something else, it refers to the internal disorder of democracy, its dysfunctions that are of its very nature. This, Tocqueville has analyzed it perfectly when he defined democracy this way: good principles, theoretically correct and ethically acceptable, which produce perverse effects. The construction of the rule of law is the adventure of this gap between principles and practice.

Could you give an example?

According to Tocqueville, principles change into passions; thus, the passion of the principle of individuation is individualism. The individualistic subject is passionate about himself, self-centered, withdrawn, intoxicated by the intoxication of the self, while the individuated subject sets up a look at the outside world, unfolds and ensures a base, a foundation, which allows her or him to enter into a relationship with what is surrounding. The adventure of irreplaceability, the path to individuation, thus looks like, in many features, that of depersonalization. It’s not about becoming a personality, to put the ego on stage. On the contrary, the challenge is relational: it is a matter of decentering oneself to bind oneself to others, to the world, to meaning.

How to access this individuation?

To give time for oneself is not easily guaranteed. It is a never-ending requirement. To know oneself and to access the quality of being that one owes to the world, the subject must go through three dynamics of knowledge and behavior, which are as many fire tests: imagination, pain and humor. With the first one, the imaginatio vera, the subject produces a true imagination, which is an “agent”, which creates reality. This faculty of soul and heart, at the border of the sensible world and the intellectual world, has an unheard-of power of creation. In this respect, the imaginary, literary space is really the configuration space of reality; it is in no way avoiding reality, as we sometimes think. The imaginary, literary space allows us to verbalize and understand what reality is. The second faculty, pretium doloris, the price of pain, teaches us that the act of thought has a price and that access to the truth can be a painful experience. The trial of Socrates is the very symbol: knowing and knowing oneself mean being at risk.

What about humor?

The vis comica, the comic force, operates an effect of decentering, of distancing which makes the reflexive consciousness arise. The power of humor allows us to grasp the absurdity of reality, as well as our own inadequacy and shortage. While one discovers the absolute inanity, vanity, stupidity of the subject, one manages nevertheless to do something about it. This is essential for the process of individuation, which is primarily a consciousness of shortage, while individualism, infatuated by its pseudo-omnipotence, has totally forgotten that it was short. Individuation is a test of reality, an access to the truth. It is a saying that is obligatory and does not force, and thus renders the subject faithful to herself or himself, irreplaceable. It is a given word, an effort that the individual deploys to bind oneself to the discourse one states.

The brave, at the center of your essay The End of Courage, was already an irreplaceable subject for you?

Yes, irreducible to others, since the brave does not delegate to others the task of doing what is to be done. In The End of Courage, the reconquest of a democratic virtue, I show how ethics of courage are a way to fight against democratic entropy. This virtue, which brings together ethics and politics, is at the same time a tool for protecting the subject and for regulating societies. In the deep intimacy that the brave subject has with his conscience, there is the quality of a public commitment, for others. One can be alone, even against others, when one makes a courageous act, but this gesture always preserves a quality of connection with the community. In everyday life, to be brave is sometimes to endure, sometimes to break up; it may be leaving a job when you are entangled in a perverse situation. On a more historical level, the spectrum goes from political leaders like Nelson Mandela to whistleblowers today.

“There is no democratic project without an educational project”

Individuation, courage: your research intersects with the individual and the collective, psychoanalysis and political philosophy. How did you become a psychoanalyst?

I first started a psychoanalysis at a rather young age, around the age of 17. I did not think about becoming an analyst at all! Then my work as a teacher-researcher in political philosophy focused on the issue of dysfunctions, especially when I wrote Pretium doloris and The Pathologies of Democracy. Reflecting on the suffering at work and on the actions that sometimes accompany it, I have had to collaborate with occupational physicians and clinicians. I wanted to probe more directly the word of the individual. That’s how I became a psychoanalyst. I started my clinical activity in 2007 and have been receiving patients on a regular basis since 2009. I soon realized that the sessions were dedicated to a discourse about reality, society: work, globalization, terrorism, religions, etc. It was necessary to dig to find a discourse about parents, family.

What role does this activity play in your daily life?

I consult every late afternoons as well as weekends. It’s a decisive part of my work today, and it will come even deeper into my writing in the future. I have the feeling that the research I do in the morning or the teaching in the afternoon, in the evening, I hear it formulated in another way, more clinical, as if philosophy suddenly was endowed of a piece of land, while it usually does not. The democratic entropy we were speaking of, I measure its effects every day as a psychoanalyst: individuals feel discouraged, crushed by the rule of law that would be supposed to protect them. To become aware of it is already to extract oneself from it.

Is being a well-publicized philosopher influencing your work as a psychoanalyst?

This necessarily interferes, with very different results depending on the patients. With those who already know you, a phenomenon of transfer precedes you. But the transfer, the emotional projections that the analysed makes on the analyst, is almost magical … Even if this situation requires readjustments, it can be very efficient because it suddenly gives a kind of speed to the analysis, since all the work was done elsewhere. Conversely, there are those who do not know you outside the confessional field of the session and then rediscover you in a field of social and, there, the reactions are diverse. As we are living in an era in need of recognition, it seems to me rather to help; there is also a phenomenon of transfer – my psychoanalyst being recognized, I feel myself caught up in this sphere of recognition. There are misunderstandings, misapprehensions, but it does not really matter, they are always entry points into the analysis. This is very true for young patients under the age of 18, with whom it is always complicated because, if some come by themselves, others do it because their parents want it.

The end of The irreplaceable is devoted to education. Why ?

There is no democratic project without an educational project, both at family level and the social level. As intimate as it is, linked to the irreplaceable love that unites parents and children, education remains the major public enterprise. In this respect, the time of transmission is a very special time, a stretching time. The teachers are well aware of this: you only have two hours, you feel that it is ridiculous, but, in fact, you switch to another space-time which is a symbolic space. There is a click, the beginning of something; attention, empowerment, emancipation, critical awareness. It is in this space that the first fruits of individuation arise. But do not be deceived: it requires work, discipline. Discipline is not submission that transforms us into a sheep, into a link, into a follower: it is a skill, a technical gesture, a way of being, which makes us freer.

Cynthia Fleury in a few dates
1974: Birth in Paris.
2000: PhD in philosophy on the “metaphysics of the imagination”.
2005: Publishes Les Pathologies de la démocratie – the Pathologies of Democracy.
2010: Researcher at the National Museum of Natural History. Publishes La Fin du courage – The End of Courage.
2013: Member of Comité consultatif national d’éthique – Advisory board of the National Ethics Committee.
Wikipedia page (in French).

To read:
Les Irremplaçables, Gallimard, 218 p. €16,90.
La Fin du courage, Le Livre de poche, 192 p. €6,60.