Technology and the Virtues: Change Yourself, Change the Future


Why write about the future? I’ve never seriously tried to predict the future, a fool’s game if there ever was one. Most science fiction writers are perfectly aware of the contingent nature of the future, and prefer to think about how new technology, and the new abilities it affords us, might alter our lives and habits and culture and institutions.

Today, 24/7 technology reporting offers us constant, hazy glimpses of possible futures. In one, we might downvote an obnoxious stranger at a glance with augmented reality glasses. In another, we can live, work, and sleep in an autonomous pod on wheels. The details don’t matter, like whether the pod is made by Google or VW or Ford – what matters is whether this vision provokes desire or distaste in us. And by ‘us’, I don’t mean humanity as a whole, but individuals, all of whom have some degree of choice about how they approach that future.

Some degree. One of the depressing realities of the 21st century is how we’ve  become ensnared by global capitalism such that if you want to live, work, and socialise with your friends and family, you don’t have any choice about the technology you use. Sure, you can choose between Apple and Google, and Instagram and Snapchat, and Gmail and Outlook, but if you want a job, if you want to stay in touch with your friends and family, if you want to get invitations to birthday parties and weddings, you will use a smartphone, an instant messaging app, an email provider, all of which are made by the same three or four corporations.

Our seeming powerlessness runs head-on into the abuses of power by those very same corporations. Even if you are concerned about Facebook’s policies, what difference would it make if you deleted your account? Should you stop using Uber and use Lyft? Or not use ridesharing at all? Just how bad are we meant to feel about joining Amazon Prime and exploiting warehouse workers? If have no choice over what technologies we adopt, and if those technologies exert more and more power over our lives, how can we hope our lives will be better tomorrow than they are today, other than hoping that corporations won’t “be evil”?

I don’t know why Prof. Shannon Vallor’s book, Technology and the Virtues: A Philosophical Guide to a Future Worth Wanting, attracted so little notice when it was published in 2016. Perhaps it’s because she counsels a middle path between starry-eyed Silicon Valley techno-utopianism and deeply conservative techno-pessimism. Perhaps her formidable academic credentials are seen by journalists as inferior to working at Google as a design ethicist for a few years. I really couldn’t say.

Regardless, Technology and the Virtues is the most useful, thorough, realistic, and hopeful book I’ve read that explains how we as individuals, and as a global species, should evaluate how we should use and choose technology today and in the future. Vallor, a philosopher of technology at Santa Clara University, claims that today’s technologies are so powerful and pervasive that our decisions about how to live well in the 21st century are not simply moral choices, but that:

they are technomoral choices, for they depend on the evolving affordances [abilities] of the technological systems that we rely upon to support and mediate our lives in ways and to degrees never before witnessed.

which means:

a theory of what counts as a good life for human beings must include an explicit conception of how to live well with technologies, especially those which are still emerging and have yet to become settled, seamlessly embedded feature sof the human environment. Robotics and artificial intelligence, new social media and communications technologies, digital surveillance, and biomedical enhancement technologies are among those emerging innovations that will radically change the kinds of lives from which humans are able to choose in the 21st century and beyond. How can we choose wisely from the apparently endless options that emerging technologies offer? The choices we make will shape the future for our children, our societies, our species, and others who share our planet, in ways never before possible. Are we prepared to choose well?

This question involves the future, but what it really asks about is our readiness to make choices in the present.

Upon which principles should we make those choices?

Continue reading “Technology and the Virtues: Change Yourself, Change the Future”

On Fun, Learning, and Craft

Last week’s show of Thinking Allowed had a solid-gold conversation between Prof. David Gauntlett, author of Making is Connecting, and Prof. Richard Sennett, a sociologist at NYU and LSE, on Craft and Community. It began as an exploration of David Gauntlett’s book about ‘modern craftsmen’ on YouTube and other online venues but quickly flowed into a wider discussion of whether learning and crafting is, or should be, fun or pleasurable.

I’ve pulled out some choice quotes below (apologies for any mistakes); unfortunately I don’t have time to transcribe the whole thing right now, but I was very taken by a lot of what Richard Sennett had to say:

Richard Sennett: A lot of craftwork is very frustrating and one of the main things we need to learn in developing any skill is how to keep going even though we’re not getting pleasure at the moment from what we’re doing; how to commit to something that is often very arduous. And if you begin to measure the development of a skill in terms of getting pleasure from it, the first time there’s something really difficult to do, you’re going to have a problem…

David Gauntlett: People love making though, don’t they? We see that through the enthusiasm people have for making and craft activities. When people put videos on YouTube, millions of hours every week, that’s because people want to do it. It is hard and difficult and can be frustrating of course, but they have a strong drive to make things and they ultimately enjoy it even though the process itself can involve all kinds of frustrations and difficulties but it’s like climbing a mountain. When you’re doing it, you’re having a hell of a time, but when you reach the top you feel thrilled.

RS: Well, not quite, I think. One thing that really drives people on to keep working and to do good work is the sense that when they’ve come to the end of a project, that they have the sense they could do more and better the next time. It isn’t all joy, you know, at the end? I was very struck about what we know about Stradivarius, who was arguably the greatest violin-maker of all time. He is supposed to have remarked to a disciple who said “This is a masterpiece,” and he said, “It may be, but I know I could do it differently.” And that’s the kind of impulse, I think, that really keeps people going.

And it’s not just really a quibble, I think, whether it’s a question of satisfication or joy, because modern society puts so much emphasis on pleasure. The pleasure of learning, the fear of subjecting people to discipline which might make them bored, god forbid. In my view this is a terrible reduction of the seriousness of actually getting engaged in a project.

I think the issue about craft online is a really stunning and rich one. In the history of technology, people often invent a new tool before they really know how to use it. This was true in the Renaissance when the scalpel was invented; it took surgeons about a century to learn how to adapt their hands to it. I think today, with these marvellous online tools for communication, we have, as it were, the machinery before we have the knowledge for how to know them best. And they will evolve.

Sometimes the first impulses we have when we have a new tool are to use it in old ways rather than to think about new ways that are quite specific to it. This is a subject I’ve been thinking about in terms of co-operation online, which is a serious way of using Facebook, Twitter and more specific sites. We’re still in the, if you like, almost prehistoric stages of understanding how to use these machines and to develop that understanding, we have to have a motivation which is a little more long term. Which is a little less instant.

There’s a lot that I’ve missed out, including David Gauntlett’s very apt comparison of medieval craftsmen who made gargoyles to people doing DIY videos on YouTube today, and Richard Sennett’s belief that individuals need communities to order to learn a craft.

The Pursuit of Perfection

Not only have the terms of success changed but also the very terms of life. For a person who can live within his illusions, the career has to be perfect, the wife has to be perfect, the children have to be perfect, the home has to be perfect, the car has to be perfect, the social circle has to be perfect. We agonize a lot over perfection, and we dedicate a lot of time, energy, and money to it – everything from plastic surgery to gated communities of McMansions to the professionalization of our children’s activities like soccer and baseball to pricey preschools that prepare 4-year-olds for Harvard. After all, we are all on the Ivy League track now.

– Neal Gabler, The New American Dream

The American Dream is no longer about seizing opportunity but about realising perfection. Social games and the wider gamification movement promise to help us in this pursuit of perfection, whether or not we desire it.

Until the next extension...
…Until the next extension

Animal Crossing was one of my favourite games on the DS, a vibrant simulation of a friendly village full of activities. After running some errands for my neighbours in the virtual village and earning some cash to buy furniture for my house and pay off the mortgage (yes, that’s the word they used), I realised that the implicit goal of the game was to – basically – buy as much furniture and have as big a house as possible.

Sure, you could discover stuff washed up on the beach and dig for dinosaur bones and go fishing, but it all became so much easier if you had the best kit – which cost money to buy and needed a place to store. I wasn’t particularly bothered by this, because it seemed like an interesting challenge.

It wasn’t until I was harvesting my optimally-packed apple trees (which I’d planted in place of the village’s native, low-yielding trees) and pulling up some weeds that I had the chilling realisation that the world of Animal Crossing could be made perfect. When you pull out weeds, you don’t get dirt flying everywhere; when you rearrange your furniture, you don’t chip the walls or spread dust around. If you put in enough time, you can make your own perfect world in Animal Crossing. There will be not a pixel out of place.

Certainly Animal Crossing wasn’t the first game to simulate a perfectible, human-scale world, but it was one of the most popular. I eventually gave up on Animal Crossing when I realised that continually expanding my house and paying off my mortgage wasn’t my idea of fun, but I still find myself occasionally playing its spiritual child, Cityville, even after I swore off it. While Cityville didn’t have any weeds, its sibling, Frontierville, did and it gave off the same smell of perfectibility, as did The Sims; sure, your Sims might occasionally leave dirty plates and vomit around the house, but it’s nothing that a few clicks can’t solve.

TS Characters The Sims Maid 06
No Mr. Muscle needed here

There is a simple reason why Animal Crossing and Frontierville and The Sims are ‘perfectible’ worlds – it’s because good computer games tend to be easier to make and more fun to play when they have clear rules and processes, and when they don’t have to keep track of too many variables. If you wanted to simulate the growth and removal of weeds more accurately, with the spread of roots and the influence of rain and the use of weedkiller, then it’d eat up a lot more of your game development budget for little return – so I don’t think there’s any sinister agenda going on here. It’s just about having fun; hopefully no-one is mistaking The Sims for real life.

The problem is that when you take the conventions of games like RPGs and simulations and you apply them to the real world, you end up with something that feels like but is not actually a description of the real world. While I can set myself some tasks in Chore Wars to scrub the garden table and mop the floors, no amount of repetitions will get rid of the nasty stain on the table or the bits of dirt ingrained into the floor – unlike in game worlds, where perfection can always be realised given enough effort.

This isn’t is a flaw in Chore Wars since it has the reasonably limited goal of encouraging you and your friends to do chores, but it is a flaw of the gamification movement, which basically says that if we apply game mechanics to the real world, we can and will transform it into a better place.

It’s a seductive message – who doesn’t want to improve the world? Who doesn’t like games these days? And I agree that gamification has a lot of value – in a limited form – by motivating people to achieve specific and well-understood goals like eating healthily or exercising well. The problem is that games have always, out of necessity, been a very simplified and abstract simulation of the real world, and that we just can’t expect the real world to behave like our game worlds.

By extending the simple algorithms of games to the real world and abstracting complex and non-perfectible problems as things to be ‘solved’ with a tick box, gamification can create a veneer that makes all of those messy problems appear perfectible. There isn’t just one solution or even one hundred solutions to some problems – there might be as many different solutions as there are people in the world. Sometimes we might not know when we’ve solved a problem or made any progress; and sometimes there just are no solutions to a problem. It’s hard to see how the conventions of games – conventions designed to be fun and relatively easy to code – can cover all these contingencies without becoming as complicated and subtle and unpredictable as, well, life itself.

Some gamification advocates might call this pessimistic or worse – an unfortunately common tactic used in place of proper debate – but I simply see it as being realistic. There’s genuine value in applying game mechanics to certain problems and activities in the real world, but by overpromising and overhyping the potential of games, the only result can be disillusion and frustration.

Screen shot 2011-04-09 at 14.05.00
Just my opinion, is all

The reason why the new American Dream is so chilling is because imposes practically unachievable goals and ultimately destructive desires upon us all (I’m including the entire rich world here). It distracts us from examining our own lives and deciding what we want ourselves in favour of buying more and more stuff.

Gamification holds out the promise of achieving those goals. It tells us that if you play the right games with enough enthusiasm and persistence, then you can have a perfect life and make a perfect world – at least, according to the game, if not necessarily in reality.

I’m sure that many games that seek to improve our lives and the world will work, to an extent. But many will not, whether through poor design or badly-constructed goals. We all need to be careful about games that promise to change our lives. Just as the unexamined life is not worth living, the unexamined game is not worth playing.

On Justice (2010 Reviews, Part 1)

Since moving into a new flat two months ago, I resolved to demolish my pile of unread books that had been eyeing me reproachfully for far too long. Counting some extra books I tackled after the pile of doom, I read:

  1. Justice: What’s the Right Thing to Do? by Michael Sandel
  2. The Lifecycle of Software Objects by Ted Chiang
  3. The Irony of American History by Reinhold Niebuhr
  4. The Genius in All of Us by David Shenk
  5. The Rituals of Dinner by Margaret Visser
  6. Surface Detail by Iain M. Banks
  7. The Homeward Bounders by Diana Wynne Jones
  8. The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine by Michael Lewis
  9. The Quantum Thief by Hannu Rajaniemi

1. Justice: What’s the Right Thing to Do? by Michael Sandel

Michael Sandel’s lectures on Justice, provided for free online by Harvard University and WGBH Boston, are as strong an argument for distance learning as you’ll ever find:

Most of my lecturers are university (Oxford, Cambridge, UCSD) were not particularly good or bad; they were merely average. In fact, I’ve only seen a single person who can rival Michael Sandel for clarity, engagement, and presence in the lecturing stakes – Prof. V. S. Ramachandran. Since Ramachandran, like Sandel, is a Reith lecturer, I can safely say that they are both exceptional.

(It says something about undergraduate education that Sandel’s free lectures online, with the ability to pause and rewind them at will, eclipses much of my ‘world-class’ education – but that’s for another post)

Justice (the accompanying book) is an expanded version of his lectures, covering the same ground with many of the same arguments and examples. While it’s arguable that there’s no point buying the book if the lectures are free, books are surely a superior medium to videos for helping people understand complex ideas and problems – even if videos are easier to watch.

For example, Sandel has a particularly fine explanation of Kant’s moral philosophy and his idea of heteronomy, one whose subtleties might be lost – or at least smoothed over – if done as a video:

People often argue over the role of nature and nurture in shaping behavior. Is the desire for Sprite (or other sugary drinks) inscribed in the genes or induced by advertising? For Kant, this debate is deside the point. Whenever my behavior is biologically determined or socially conditioned, it is not truly free. To act freely, according to Kant, is to act autonomously. And to act autonomously is to act according to a law I give myself – not according to the dictates of nature or social convention.

One way of understanding what Kant means by acting autonomously is to contrast autonomy with its opposite. Kant invents a word to capture this contrast – heteronomy. When I act heteronomously, I act according to determinations given outside of me.

… It is 3:00 a.m., and your college roommate asks you why you are up late pondering moral dilemmas involving runaway trolleys [a subject covered earlied in the book].

“To write a good paper in Ethics 101,” you reply.

“But why write a good paper?” your roommate asks.

“To get a good grade.”

“But why care about grades?”

“To get a job in investment banking.”

“But why get a job in investment banking?”

“To become a hedge fund manager someday.”

“But why be a hedge fund manager?”

“To make a lot of money.”

“But why make a lot of money?”

“To eat lobster often, which I like. I am, after all, a sentient creature. That’s why I’m up late thinking about runaway trolleys!”

This is an example of what Kant would call heteronomous determination – doing something for the sake of something else, for the sake of something else, and so on. When we act heteronomously, we act for the sake of ends given outside us. We are instruments, not authors, of the purposes we pursue.

What I enjoyed so much about this example is how it gave a word to a feeling that had been nagging at me for a while, the problem that it is so easy to completely relinquish your actions to external factors instead of internal ones; the use of investment banking and hedge fund management is sadly all too apt for Harvard and Oxbridge students (many of whom I know myself). Continue reading “On Justice (2010 Reviews, Part 1)”

Can a Game Save the World?

On December 9th 2007, a curious event took place at the University of South Carolina football stadium. As 29,000 people filed inside, each was given a piece of paper bearing four names and phone numbers. During the event, each person called those names and asked them to vote for Obama in the coming primary election.


Those 29,000 attendees called over 35,000 voters in the space of ten minutes – enough for the Guinness Book of Records to certify the event as the ‘largest phone bank‘ in history – and all for very little cost to the Obama campaign.

The record only stood for a few months, because on August 27th 2008, a line of people six miles long – over 80,000, all told – waited for seats at Invesco Field in Denver. They were there for Obama’s acceptance speech as the Democratic nominee for the election, but once again, they were going to be called upon to help out the campaign with more phone calls.

These events were replicated hundreds of times across the country, and some were focused more directly on making calls. I recall hearing about one in which the speaker walked the attendees through how to make their very first phone call to a voter. Yes, you might be nervous, he said, but I’ll show you how to do it – and he then proceeded to make a live call through the loudspeakers. Suitably encouraged, the thousands of attendees made their own phone calls – and why not, since everyone sitting next to them was making a call.

Of course, the majority of phone calls were not made in stadiums or live events, but at home or in campaign offices. Ever tech-savvy, the Obama campaign aimed to track and analyse all calls made. Even in September 2007, during the earlier days of Obama’s primary fight, the campaign had developed online tools and leaderboards:


Naturally, there was an Obama ’08 iPhone app, which provided news updates to half a million users and (of course) encouraged users to make phone calls to votes. Over 50,000 calls were made, a figure that doesn’t include calls made by people who used an iPod Touch, and whose calls couldn’t be tracked.

Day Before Election Leaderboard by Sagolla

The campaign had a single, clear goal: get Obama elected as President of the United States. Accomplishing this goal would require gaining a majority of the delegate votes in the Democratic Presidential Primaries in over fifty states and regions; each of those states had different rules for selecting their delegates, some of them quite unusual and rather game-like. With the Primaries won, the campaign had to win the general election.

Not only did this require a massive ground operation, going door to door in every state – not only did it demand massive phonebanking operations, some of which are describe above – but it also needed hundreds of millions in donations to adverts. In the end, Obama raised over $600 million dollars, most of which came over the internet:

3 million donors made a total of 6.5 million donations online adding up to more than $500 million. Of those 6.5 million donations, 6 million were in increments of $100 or less. The average online donation was $80, and the average Obama donor gave more than once.

70,000 campaign supporters used their MyBO fundraising pages to raised $30 million from friends and family; donation meters, leaderboards, targets, goals, rewards, and achievements – all of these most powerful reward and tracking mechanism, ripped straight from game design, were applied to the business of winning the most important and most serious game of 2008: winning the US election.

And they won. Continue reading “Can a Game Save the World?”

Future Selves, Other Selves

There’s a fascinating series of articles at the New York Times Magazine this week about charitable giving. While many of the articles tend to cover the same ground (e.g. the move towards measuring the effectiveness of donations) there are some real gems there:

Consider Mr. Improvident, who is just like us except that he is not wired to care about his future. (There’s one in every family.) Mr. Improvident gets no neural kick from saving for tomorrow. Yet we can see that he has an objective reason to do so. He is, after all, a person extended in time, not a series of disconnected selves.

We ought to be able to see a similarly objective reason for altruism, one rooted, as the philosopher Thomas Nagel observed, in “the conception of oneself as merely a person among others equally real.” My reason for taking steps to relieve the suffering of others is, in this way of thinking, as valid as my reason for taking steps to avert my own future suffering. Both reasons arise from our understanding of what sort of beings we are, not from the vagaries of natural selection.

This was from an article about the nature of altruism, the discussion of which tends to concentrate on genetic reasons like kin selection and reciprocity. The suggestion that there is an objective reason for altruism – or at least, as objective and valid as saving for ourselves in the future – is interesting. There is of course an argument that we are more likely to save for ourselves, because we are going to be ourselves in the future – but the problem with this is the existence of Mr. Improvident. If the corollary or Mr. Provident exists, then why can’t a Mr. Altruist? Anyway…

Another great article is What Makes People Give? To me, the article is misnamed, since it’s more about ‘how can we use psychology to make people donate more?’ – which is the reason why I recommended it to the Let’s Change the Game winning team. There are some fascinating discoveries listed in the article, and while they can’t be used for all fundraising projects, I’m sure some will prove very useful, e.g.:

A matching gift effectively reduces the cost of making a donation. Without a match, you would have to spend $400 to make your favorite charity $400 richer. With a three-to-one match in place, it would cost you only $100 to add $400 to the charity’s coffers.

… But the size of the match in the experiment didn’t have any effect on giving. Donors who received the offer of a one-to-one match gave just as often, and just as much, as those responding to the three-to-one offer. That was surprising, because a larger match is effectively a deeper discount on a person’s gift. Yet in this case, the deeper discount didn’t make an impact. It was as if Starbucks had cut the price of a latte to $2 and sales didn’t increase.


List set out to see whether donors cared about so-called seed money. Fund-raisers generally like to have raised a large portion of their ultimate goal, sometimes as much as 50 percent, before officially announcing a new campaign. This makes the goal, as well as the cause, seem legitimate.

To see whether the strategy made sense, List and Reiley wrote letters to potential donors saying that the university wanted to buy computers for a new environmental-research center. They varied the amount of money that supposedly had already been raised. In some letters, they put the amount in hand at $2,000, out of the $3,000 they needed for a given computer; in others, they said they had raised only $300 and still needed $2,700. The results were overwhelming. The more upfront money Central Florida claimed to have on hand, the more additional money it raised. When paired with the matching-gift research, the study suggests that seed money is a better investment for charities than generous matches.

Great Success = Some Talent + A Lot of Luck

Spotted this wonderful, and very accurate, ‘equation’ by Daniel Kahneman:

The Secret of Regression to Mediocrity

Success = Some Talent + Luck
Great Success = Some Talent + A Lot of Luck

The term ‘regression to mediocrity’ (also known as ‘regression to the mean’) was first coined by Francis Galton in 1886. Galton showed that, on average, the children of tall parents tended to be shorter than their parents, and that the children of short parents tended to be taller than their parents.

Say what?

The point is that height is partly determined by your genes, and partly by the environment you grow up in (e.g. food, healthcare, etc). A confluence of good genes and a good environment might produce a very tall person. If that tall person has a child with another tall person, sure, the child will have good genes – but they certainly aren’t guaranteed to have a good environment. In fact, they’re probably just going to have an average environment. That means that the child, on average, just isn’t going to be as tall as their parents.

This applies for all sorts of different things wherever luck, or random chance, is involved. Take gambling. Imagine I win the World Series of Poker this year. Now, if this happened, you would agree that I must be a pretty excellent poker player; perhaps even the best poker player in the entire world. Would you expect me to win next year? Even 50% odds? Probably not. But why? Continue reading “Great Success = Some Talent + A Lot of Luck”

On the other side of silence

A little while ago I manage to acquire the last four years worth of In Our Time, a Radio 4 panel discussion that covers every subject under the sun in a very engaging and thoughtful manner. I’ve been working my way through the archives, usually alternating between topics that sound interesting (e.g. Agincourt, Tea) and those that don’t (e.g. Rutherford, Architecture and Power). I do this out of some bizarre autodidactic desire to learn about stuff that I really don’t care about but probably should know the basics on.

Today I had one of those ‘uninteresting’ topics that I felt I should listen to: Victorian Realism. I have to say, topics don’t sound much more uninteresting than that. But here’s the predictable twist – I really enjoyed it. This was partly because the panelists were all interesting and disagreed with one another (which, depressingly, happens far more often on humanities than scientific topics), but mostly because of George Eliot, whom I have never read before.

A. N. Wilson made the interesting point that George Eliot’s ‘realistic’ novels are “every bit as artificial as the novels of Dickens, or for that matter, every bit as artificial as Alice in Wonderland. This is the paradox of talking about realistic fiction, which is by definition, fiction isn’t real.” Prof. Philip Davis then carried this forward with a very powerful passage:

But this artifice is used as a means of trying to penetrate deeper into reality than we normally manage to do, and that’s why the realist novel is a great help to us in doing our thinking. Let’s think about the voice of George Eliot in Middlemarch. She says this:

“If we had a keen vision and feeling of all ordinary human life, it would be like hearing the grass grow and the squirrel’s heart beat and we should die of that roar which lies on the other side of silence.”

All ordinary human life – we can’t fully hear it. We can’t fully see it. We’re in it, but we can’t get hold of it. We need the novel to increase our realisation of our situation, and when George Eliot says, if we could fully understand all human life, not only would it be boring, but it would blow our minds. We’d die of that roar that lies on the other side of silence. By that I take it she means, if you as you look at your neighbour and could actually hear all the stuff going on inside him or her, it would be incredible.

Despite the fact that I was in the middle of a long row at the gym, it struck me as a very profound insight into human life. I don’t hear them very often at all.

Being forced to read semi-realist novels at school banished any possibility of my exploring the genre of my own will, but I may have to now. I also didn’t know that George Eliot was a fan of Darwin, and that Middlemarch was influenced by it, but that’s another story.

Arup’s Key Speech

Lately, I’ve been thinking about the values that companies hold, and how they influence what they do. Many companies have mission statements or tenets or core values; some of them adhere to those values, some ignore them, and some can literally be defined by them. But are they actually helpful, and how do you come about them?

An article in this week’s New Yorker about Arup showed how they handle it. I’d seen the name ‘Arup’ in many places over the last few years, in association with some very interesting major building and construction projects, from the Dongtan ecocity in China to the Marsyas art exhibit in the Tate Modern. They seemed a rather inscrutable company – while people like Norman Foster seem to be in the papers every day, I never saw anything about Arup.

Well, Arup are structural engineers who have branches all over the world. They work on a lot of interesting projects, obviously, but what really caught my interest from this article was what it said about the company’s philosophy.

Ove [the founder of Arup] died in 1988, at the age of ninety-two, but he is still a presence. A talk that he gave to his partners in 1970 is referred to at the firm as “the key speech” and is required reading for all new employees. In it, Ove explores themes that constitute a sort of mission statement: the importance of working noncompetitively with colleagues, of engaging in interesting, useful, and morally responsible work, and of pursuing “total archicture,” in which structural, aesthetic, human, and environmental considerations are treated as parts of a whole. In a related lecture, Ove said, “By creating a model fraternity, so to speak, we make a contribution to what is almost the central problem of our time: how to overcome the social friction and strike which threatens to overwhelm mankind. We could become a small-scale experiment in how to live and work happily together.”

Today, one conspicuous manifestation of the fraternal approach is the company’s internal computer network, known as Ovanet. Among its features is a large collection of technical forums, covering most of the firm’s many specialities and subspecialities. An engineer in the Arup office in Darussalam, Brunei, say, can post a question in the appropriate Ovanet forum about the bending moment of a particular loaded beam, and be reasonably certain that, overnight, the problem will be taken up sequentially by colleagues in Arup offices around the world.

The firm has grown substantially since Ove’s death, but it has done so in the manner he prescribed, by expanding horizontally into related fields, and by following the passions of the engineers, who are encouraged to create absorbing projects for themselves. Arup is a privately held trust, operated for the benefit of its employees, and its leaders don’t brood about short-term financial results. (The firm had revenues of 826 million dollars in 2006, and profits of 61 million) […]

Ove’s concept of the “model fraternity” is really an engineering scheme – a way of routing gravity through a professional organisation, and through a life. The Arup co-operative model is less a business plan than a human structural paradigm; it’s a reciprocal network, in which the load paths are mutually supporting, and it’s the true basis of Ove’s “small-scale experiment in how to live and work happily together.” Because of the nature of their work, Balmond and his Arup colleagues have been able to achieve something professionally that no single architect, however distinguished, could ever come close to: they have helped design a significant sampling of the greatest buildings of their time.

Continue reading “Arup’s Key Speech”

Where’s Adrian? (The Sequel)

Next week, I’m speaking at a couple of conferences on Perplex City in London. Can you guess I didn’t get much notice? Anyway, if you happen to be going to either, please say hi!

Tuesday November 28th: BBC Audio Drama Festival. I’m speaking on the Gaming panel, which is at 9:30am and also repeated at 11:30am.

Friday December 1st: FutureMedia C21 Conference. I’ll be on the first ‘Case Studies from the Digital Frontier‘ panel at 9:50am.

I’m probably going to the London MetaFilter meetup on December 8th, and I’m going to be in Toronto from December 13th to 21st.

In other news, I’ve posted a rather long comment with further thoughts on religion and a ‘church without religion’, in response to Chris and Brooke’s interesting points. I’m talking to a lot of people about this (probably boring them to death) and doing a lot of thinking. It’s a very interesting subject.