Diversity and the nuclear bomb

It’s amazing where you find stories about the power of range and diversity in creativity and problem solving. This is from Pandora’s Keepers, which is proving to be a riveting account of the creation of the first atomic bomb.

“Oppenheimer accepted the heavy security as a wartime necessity, but he adamantly refused to accept secrecy in one area: scientific discussion. Here, the normal security procedure of compartmentalization—limiting discussion to a “need to know” basis—was not followed, despite protests from Army Intelligence. Oppenheimer held weekly symposia on the pressing technical problems of the moment, inviting solutions not only from the groups working on the problems but from the important cross-fertilization of agile minds from other disciplines with novel approaches and solutions. Just as in fission itself, one small suggestion could set off a chain reaction of ideas at a rapid rate. This fostered a cooperative spirit that maintained high morale. It was also a major reason why the bomb was built in such a short time.”

Oppenheimer appears to have underestimated the breadth of the task, originally envisioning Los Alamos as a physics lab on steroids. But it eventually grew into a site housing thousands of civilians from many different fields. Specialisation be damned.

As always my emphasis.

The old is new

One reason I love reading history is how often you find reflections of current worries. This isn’t necessarily good, obviously. Some things should have been left in the dust (notably gig-economy feudalism).

But one thing it does offer is perspective

I’ve just cracked open The Invention of News, for instance, and have immediately been slapped with a couple of things that should be familiar.

The first is that information networks in the pre-information age could only be sustainably maintained by the already rich and powerful. These were run either to ensure a supply of valuable information for private consumption, or the lower quality and somewhat biased stuff to influence others.

Sound familiar?

The next is that early newspapers existed in such an information rich environment, fighting against other practices and needs, that journalism and journalists themselves were not sustainable.

At the beginning of the fourteenth century only the rich and powerful could afford the cost of maintaining a network of couriers; as a result, those in positions of power largely determined what information should be shared with other citizens…

…this was not yet the age of the professional journalist. The information they provided was hardly ever valuable enough to command the exclusive service of one particular paper. Most sold their stories to whomever would have them. It is only with the great events at the end of the eighteenth century–the struggle for press freedom in England and the French and American revolutions–that newspapers found a strong editorial voice, and at that point a career in journalism became a real possibility. But it was always hazardous. As many of the celebrity politician writers of the French Revolution found, a career could be cut short (quite literally) by a turn in political fortunes. At least these men lived and died in a blaze of publicity. For others, the drones of the trade, snuffling up rumour for scraps, penury was a more mundane danger.

As a journalist I feel both of these but am especially interested in how they relate. As the sheer volume of information has increased, and the value captured by new forms of distribution, the value has declined.

Some information, obviously, is still valuable, but it is increasingly chased behind paywalls or funded for other reasons.

And journalists, especially, are finding it tough. Jobs have disappeared and pay slowed. “Exclusivity” doesn’t really mean anything anymore, and so neither does paying.

Will be interesting to see the trends that led away from this, as the industry matured. Can they be recaptured or substituted?

As always my emphasis

Identities are breaking down all over

It’s [not] funny how often I see lamentations for the way things used to be. It’s no longer pure! Whatever it is. These new people don’t get it. They ruined it!

They aren’t true Scotsmen.

You can probably think of numerous examples. This is supposedly the driving force behind right wing populism around the world, for starters.

There’s an interesting rumination on changing identity in a recent Aeon article on “hacker”. It sweeps through the evolution from curious kids playing with technology, through “cypherpunks” and “crypto-anarchists” to the modern, bro-y t-shirt and jeans Silicon Valley types.

It really gets interesting towards the end, as the author places this change within the concept of gentrification. As more people take on an identity, some of the difference, the “disaffection” as he puts it, disappears.

Technology was stereotypically the domain of “geeks”, who harnessed its power to build an identity, community and to express themselves.

But an influx of people without those same predispositions has left it a rather muddled identity. More people have worn down the edges, making it child proof.

At the frontiers of gentrification are entire ways of being – lifestyles, subcultures and outlooks that carry rebellious impulses. Rap culture is a case in point: from its ghetto roots, it has crossed over to become a safe ‘thing that white people like’. Gentrification is an enabler of doublethink, a means by which people in positions of relative power can, without contradiction, embrace practices that were formed in resistance to the very things they themselves represent

…We are currently witnessing the gentrification of hacker culture. The countercultural trickster has been pressed into the service of the preppy tech entrepreneur class. It began innocently, no doubt. The association of the hacker ethic with startups might have started with an authentic counter-cultural impulse on the part of outsider nerds tinkering away on websites. But, like all gentrification, the influx into the scene of successive waves of ever less disaffected individuals results in a growing emphasis on the unthreatening elements of hacking over the subversive ones.

From the POV of those who lament changing definitions, there seems to be diminishing returns to people taking on a group identity. The new people don’t have the same experiences as the founders. They have other identities that may be in conflict or demand different treatment.

It reminds me of something I noticed in Coders by Clive Thompson. He gives this pretty innocuous description of what makes a coder:

More than introversion or logic, though, coding selects for people who can handle endless frustration. Because while computers may do whatever you tell them, you need to give them inhumanly precise instructions.

This fits within the framework of the Aeon article, of an identity shedding its roots as of outcasts and rationalists to one that is purely functionary.

Just like national identities that shed ethnic and cultural roots, forming instead around civic ones. Flexible enough to embrace new people with other experiences and histories.

Maybe there isn’t really anything specific in the various, changing national, regional or activity-based identities. It’s just the result of falling barriers and more people taking them on. As ever it was.

Why the west?

Why the ‘West’ has dominated the last couple of centuries is an interesting question with many aspects. It is especially so considering how many important technologies and ideas were either first or concurrently invented elsewhere.

Take zero:

The Western civilizations, for example, failed to come up with it even after thousands of years of mathematical inquiry. Indeed the scale of the conceptual leap achieved by India is illustrated by the fact that the classical world was staring zero in the face and still saw right through it. The abacus contained the concept of zero because it relied on place value. When a Roman wanted to express one hundred and one, he would push a bead in the first column to signify one hundred, move no beads in the second column indicating no tens, and push a bead in the third column to signify a single unit. The second, untouched column was expressing nothing. In calculations, the abacist knew he had to respect untouched columns just as he had to respect ones in which the beads were moved. But he never gave the value expressed by the untouched column a numerical name or symbol.

This is a passage from Here’s Looking and Euclid, which further proposes the failure to see zero was in part due to the West being down its own particular philosophical tangent. Whereas India was a place with a rich history that embraced nothingness:

Indian philosophy embraced the concept of nothingness just as Indian math embraced the concept of zero. The conceptual leap that led to the invention of zero happened in a culture that accepted the void as the essence of the universe.

Author Alex Bellos goes on to assert that it is partly the transmission of these Indian concepts that spurred the scientific revolution.

With the adoption of Arabic numbers, arithmetic joined geometry to become part of Western mathematics in earnest, having previously been more of a tool used by shopkeepers, and the new system helped open the door to the scientific revolution.

Of course the story is much more complicated.

Not only did the use of Arabic numerals and arithmetic require a rich intellectual and practical tradition upon which to glom on to. But the right combination of openness, education, wealth (etc.), and technologies like paper to kick off the revolution.

What is really clear is how important the interplay between civilisations has been for progress. Culture, philosophy, ideas and even biology all crossed borders. Some many times over.

The real question then is, why was the West the main beneficiary?

As always my emphasis.