Do Ideas Trump Crises or Create Them?

Economist Alex Tabarrok, in his 2009 TED Talk, expressed unbounded optimism for humanity’s future. Why? Because of the power of ideas to overcome crises. In the past century alone, Tabarrok argues, ideas put into practice brought us out of the miserable depths of two world wars, the great depression, and national communism. Yet if this is so it is also true that ideas put into practice plunged us into these abysses.

It is worth recalling that Pandora was not some witch but a goddess of invention. Her legendary box, which when opened spread pain and evil like a virus among men, held only ideas. “In the working out of Greek culture,” writes Richard Sennett in The Craftsman, “its peoples came increasingly to believe that Pandora stood for an element of their own natures; culture founded on man-made things risks continual self-harm.”1 One can look to the industrial city or agricultural pesticides for evidence while wondering what harm current makings such as synthetic organisms and 3D-printed guns might risk.

The Animal Who Makes

Sennett remembers his teacher Hannah Arendt and the distinction she made between Animal laborans and Homo faber, which effectively separated the realization of an idea (making) from the understanding of its import (judgment). “She wanted me to draw the right lesson: people who make things usually don’t understand what they are doing.”2 And even when they do, as did Robert Oppenheimer, the irresistable human desire to make manifest an idea once conceived overwhelms judgment. Making follows ideation, inevitably. Evaluation only comes later, either as celebration or damage control.

Oppenheimer was famously conflicted by his success in making the first atomic bomb. He admitted that he and his team at Los Alamos knew the world would never be the same. That they all felt a bit like Krishna when in the Bhagavad Gita he proclaims, “I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.” The challenge had been too alluring and the stakes too high to refuse, but what now? In ending one conflagration had he birthed another even more terrifying?

Oppenheimer’s genius, great as it was, could not solve the Pandoric riddle he himself created. Humbled and haunted, he sought consolation in “turn[ing] over to mankind at large the greatest possible power to control the world and to deal with it according to its lights and its values.”3 Let the public be the judge. Let them be the jury. Let them be, at their collective discretion, the executioner.

Richard Sennett was due to speak in Vienna earlier this month but was unfortunately forced by illness to cancel. A sociologist, urbanist, and public intellectual, his recent work examines humanity’s relationship with making: how, why, and to what effect we give ideas material form, craft societies, and raise cities. Sennett’s work, even where it does not address them directly, revolves around cities. Arguably our most profound idea and impactful product, cities are laboratories of making. They are made and remade and made again according to what we most value or, more often, feel compelled to defend against. Walled cities, gridded cities, so-called cosmic cities, garden cities, radiant cities, ecocities, megacities—the history of urbanism is the history of human thought. As we think, so we make.

Sennett does not hold with Arendt’s dualistic analysis of human making. For him, making and learning are wedded in a feedback loop. He shares with Arendt, however, and with Oppenheimer, the conviction that the ideas we have, and thus the things we make, are made better by being made public from the outset. “Leaving the public to ‘sort out the problem’ after the work is done means confronting people with usually irreversible facts on the ground. Engagement must start earlier, requires a fuller, better understanding of the process by which people go about producing things.”4

The Public as Maker

Ideas can trump crises. Ideas can trigger them and ideas can forestall them. Alex Tabarrok’s optimism is not unfounded, but chaos theory warns us against drawing such neat lines. History’s cloth is woven with cautionary tales of makers unable to anticipate the consequences of their craft, yet as these consequences intensify our ability to absorb them diminishes. It is not more genius that we need but more, and better, public debate. More constructive discussion. We should recombine, as does Sennett, Animal laborans and Homo faber. While extolling our abilities, our accomplishments, and our potential as makers we should more critically engage what it means to make from process to product.

For better and for worse, we are makers. “As [Arendt] aged,” writes Sennett, “my teacher became more hopeful that Homo faber’s powers of judgment could save humanity from itself. In my winter, I’ve become more hopeful about the human animal at work. The contents of Pandora’s box can indeed be made less fearsome…if only we better understand the making of things.”5

[1] Sennett, Richard. The Craftsman. Yale University Press. London: 2008, 2
[2] Ibid, 1
[3] Bernstein, Jeremy. Oppenheimer: Portait of an Enigma. Duckworth. London: 2004, 89
[4] Sennett, 7
[5] Sennett, 8 

Header Image(s) from Pixabay & Gratisography

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