Intersections and Progress

It’s Thanksgiving in the United States–time for harvest, family, and giving thanks.  Here at Research Enterprise we can be grumpy and snarky at times, and often there’s good reason for it.  But the idea of progress, of learning from the past and realizing new things in the present–that’s powerful stuff.  So is developing tools to help us realize those new things.  Steve Jobs talked about Apple being at the intersection of technology and the liberal arts.   The liberal arts are lost capabilities in STEM discussions, which seem to hold that if only there were more folks capable of making technical things, then society would be a lot better off, without considering how we imagine our futures.  Apparently, the idea goes, we will imagine our futures through new technology, and select from the new technology especially those things that investors can work a profit from, and from those, favor the things for which there is a huge potential market, or already is a huge market.

I would like to think that there are ways of imagining our future directions that do not depend on STEM, that do not depend for that matter on technology or new tools to displace old tools.  Not that I don’t like tools–they are wonderful stuff–but that I also find the future something much more robust than simply tools to fill up all our space for working, playing, and thinking about stuff.  We tend to become what we occupy ourselves with, and recognizing that, sometimes it’s good, when at an intersection of technology and the liberal arts to choose the liberal arts direction for a change, and travel that road, and consider what it is we ought to do, what we might aspire to do that’s worth doing, before our wave breaks up in the sand on that long shore of events.

What does it look like, this road of the liberal arts?  Historically, there were seven of them–the trivium of grammar, rhetoric, and logic, and the quadrivium of arithmetic, geometry, music, and astronomy.  Or, as S. K. Heninger points out in Touches of Sweet Harmony, number at rest, number in space, number in time, and number in motion.  One might consider Lorenzo’s speech in The Merchant of Venice:

How sweet the moonlight sleeps upon this bank!
 Here will we sit, and let the sounds of music
 Creep in our ears: soft stillness and the night
 Become the touches of sweet harmony.
 Look, how the floor of heaven
 Is thick inlaid with patines of bright gold:
 There's not the smallest orb that thou behold'st
 But in his motion like an angel sings
 Still quiring to the young-eyed cherubins;
 Such harmony is in immortal souls;
 But, whilst this muddy vesture of decay
 Doth grossly close it in, we cannot hear it.

This, too, represents something of an intersection, of a recognition of an imagined perfect world–the sweet harmony of the spheres, the surrounding night full of nuance, and the sense that all this must answer something similar within ourselves–or how else could it be that we recognize it?  Such an intersection also is at work in the hunt for new technology, but to get there, one cannot be ham-fisted and fail to recognize nuance, not just in the world around, but in our aspirations, and then as well in what matters to us personally and in the social groups that we identify with.  As Cleese would have it, pulling out a dictionary in the Merchant Banker Sketch, “inner life, inner life.”

Inner life–that, too, matters for innovation, economic development, and research enterprise.  It is a driver of progress, along with chance, events, and capability.  It shapes the mind to be prepared for opportunity, so fortune might favor it.  In all the talk about innovation and patents and more money for research and more subsidies for investors who don’t have enough money on their own, there’s not a word about delight, or epiphany, or gratitude.  But you find this sort of thing in the older literatures, even in Vannevar Bush.  It’s worth considering, what would a national policy on innovation be like were it based on gratitude rather than, say, the patent system?

A number of people have contributed to the work presented here at Research Enterprise.  I do the writing, but others send me stuff, publish things, and are willing to have the discussion, even when we may disagree.  I will mention a few:

Thanks to Chris Gallagher, for working hard to raise the visibility of issues like biologics protections so university administrators have a chance to state their positions and needs.

Thanks to Chris Newfield and Michael Meranze, for their work at Remaking the University, an important chronicle of the challenges facing higher education.

Thanks to Benoît Godin for his work on the history of innovation and innovation policy.

Thanks to the various directors of technology transfer offices and sponsored projects offices who discuss issues with me and have to face the daily grind of meeting expectations and also payroll.  You make things happen in practice, and for that you have my respect.

Thanks to all of you who have taken time to discuss issues in intellectual property and innovation, your research, and your efforts to develop your ideas and opportunities.

Onward, to find new intersections, and choose new paths.

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