How the World Works: Part II

Last time, I did a quick comparative scan of Francis Fukuyama’s The Origins of Political OrderPankaj Ghemawat’s World 3.0 and David Graeber’s Debt: the first 5000 years, and covered Fukuyama’s book in more detail.

Let’s tackle World 3.0 next.

Ghemawat’s book is a tour de force of quantitative synthesis. Let’s start with an annotated version of the 2×2 that anchors World 3.0 (cleverly rotated by 45 degrees; I don’t know why other 2×2 inventors don’t do this)

This 2×2 is almost the only major piece of conceptual scaffolding in a book that is otherwise an empiricist’s delight. Everything is argued with numbers, and what cannot be argued with numbers is mostly not argued at all. It makes for a book with a lot of narrative potholes wherever the data gods to not smile, but where there is data, the book is extremely solid. It’s a refreshing change for me to read something that stays away from data-free speculation.

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How the World Works

If you want to seriously level-up your thinking about how the world works, you might want to try reading 3 very ambitious books together: Francis Fukuyama’s The Origins of Political Order, Pankaj Ghemawat’s World 3.0 and David Graeber’s Debt: the first 5000 years. All three are from the reading list that I posted in August, so I am hoping at least some of you have been attacking them.

It’s worth reading them together because they attempt to tell the same story, towards the same purpose — explaining how the world works in some sense — drawing on roughly the same body of raw material. It is illuminating to see the surprising ways in which the stories agree and disagree. All three books are also particularly valuable for me personally, since I hope to take a stab at telling the same story some day.

My version will of course be the definitive one when I write it, but let’s take a look at the versions of the story on the market today.

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Fixing the Game by Roger L. Martin

Sometimes the difference between a good book and an Aaargh! book is a single unexamined value. Fixing the Game by Roger L. Martin is an Aargh! book. The phrase that kept running through my head as I read was so close… so close.

The book is two things: an exceptionally clear and original analysis of the question of what ails modern capitalism, and an exceptionally woolly headed prescription for how to fix it. Unlike many books that are strong on analysis, the prescription isn’t bad because it is an anemic afterthought shoved into a last chapter (here, the prescription runs through the entire book, with a goodly fraction of the word count devoted to it). It is weak because its foundational assumptions about the psychology of capitalism are hopelessly idealistic.

That’s what makes the book so frustrating. It could have been so much more. Still the book retains a lot of its value because it is relatively easy to tease apart the parts colored by idealism from the parts that are not.

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The August Reading List Freeze

August is always a bitch of a month for me, to the point that I agree with David Plotz of Slate that we should get rid of it entirely. It seems to be my de facto annual planning month, though I have no reason anymore to be on an annual planning cycle. In August, I always seem to have far too many things in early stages of development, and too few leaving at the other end. I am currently in the early stages of several rather ambitious blog posts, a couple of new consulting projects and a couple of new personal projects. This year, thanks to my summer travels (I am back in Las Vegas now), I also have piles of unprocessed raw material from stuff I researched on the road, to write about.

So that’s a long, whiny excuse for rather sparse output over the last several weeks. I think I’ve hit my August trough though, so I can only build up momentum from here. But in the meantime, I assume many of you are on vacation, or planning to go on vacation, so I thought I’d share my current reading list, if any of you want to read along. Some of this will show up on the blog, some will not. My reading list piles up so fast that I’ve decided to be brutal. This list is it for the rest of the year. I will not be adding more books to the queue until I am done with these.

  1. Titan by Ron Chernow: Multiple people have recommended this Rockefeller biography to me.
  2. Tycoons by Charles Morris: Seems like a good overview of the Robber Barons
  3. The First Tycoon by T. J. Stiles: A biography of Vanderbilt, probably the founding father of the Robber Baron era.
  4. The Origins of Political Order by Francis Fukuyama: Don’t let the vague neocon associations dissuade you. There’s a reason this guy is so famous. If he writes a history of political order, you need to read it.
  5. World 3.0 by Pankaj Ghemawat: As meaty as Friedman’s The World is Flat is not. I suspect it’s going to become the definitive textbook introduction to globalization for those who actually care about getting the details and numbers right. The title is unfortunately rather uninspired, but the contents are solid gold.
  6. Fixing the Game by Roger L. Martin: Haven’t yet started it, but seems like a really intriguing premise: applying the lessons of the NFL to figuring out how capitalism should be fixed to avoid the kinds of messes we seem to keep getting into.
  7. Quicksilver by Neal Stephenson: I rarely read fiction these days, but everybody keeps telling me to read Stephenson, so I finally caved, especially since it seemed to go well with the rest of this list.  This is the first volume of the Baroque Cycle. If I have time, I may attempt to finish all three volumes this year.
  8. Debt: the first 5000 Years by David Graeber: I like ambitious reframings of everything from a new perspective, and this certainly qualifies. An attempt to rethink all of civilization and society as a manifestation of debt. If you want to sample before you decide, Julio Rodriguez at Wild Intent has attempted a valiant assault on this Mt. Everest scale book (ambition, not raw size).

Yes. There’s a definite theme here. No, the theme won’t take over the blog. I may even decide not to pursue it at all.

Mostly I am trying to flesh out the thinking around this year’s summer blockbuster hit, A Brief History of the Corporation to figure out just how deep the rabbit-hole goes. Though I hate to admit it, that piece did share some rather unpleasant characteristics with Michael Bay’s movies, so I am trying to think through some Oscar-season type follow ups.

Here’s to all of us seeing this beast of a month through. I’ll be in Hawaii over Labor Day weekend, so there is that to look forward to.

Sexual Personae by Camille Paglia

This is a guest post by Stefan King.

In 1990, the art historian Camille Paglia provoked feminists and post-modernists with her controversial book Sexual Personae.  Paglia’s goal was to show the pagan patterns of continuity in western culture, and to expose feminist ideals as misguided wishful thinking. Now, two decades later, it is time to dig Sexual Personae out of the cultural compost heap and see if something interesting has grown there. Paglia has a highly sensitive intuition about great works of art, and she is a talented psychoanalyst of artists. The value of the book lies in those intuitions, which we can now study with the benefit of hindsight.

The Venus of Willendorf

The grand narrative of western archetypes, or “sexual personae” as Paglia calls them, starts with the Venus of Willendorf, a small statuette from the Stone Age. It is a faceless lump of feminine flesh, possibly a fertility talisman. It contrasts perfectly with anything civilized: there is no line, no shape, no stillness, and no Apollonian light. In those times, nature’s domination of humanity was total.

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The World of Garbage

For the last two years, I’ve had three books on garbage near the top of my reading pile, and I’ve gradually worked my way through two of them and am nearly done with the third. The books are Rubbish: The Archeology of Garbage by William Rathje and Cullen Murphy (1992), Garbage Land: On the Secret Trail of Trash by Elizabeth Royte (2005), and Gone Tomorrow: The Hidden Life of Garbage by Heather Rogers (2005).  Last week, I also watched the CNBC documentary, Trash Inc.: The Secret Life of Garbage. Notice something about the four subtitles? Each hints at the hidden nature of the subject. It is a buried, hidden secret physically and philosophically. And there are many reasons why uncovering the secret is an interesting and valuable activity. The three books are motivated by three largely separate reasons: Rathje and Cullen bring an academic, anthropological eye to the subject. Royte’s book is a mix of amateur curiosity and concerned citizenship, while Rogers’ is straight-up environmental activism. But reading the 3 books, I realized that none of those reasons interested me particularly. I was fascinated by a fourth reason: garbage (along with sewage, which I won’t cover here) is possibly the only complete, empirical big-picture view of humanity you can find.

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Down with Innovation, Up with Imitation!

Perhaps it is professional burnout, but lately I’ve been getting extremely tired of all the stupid things people say about innovation. Especially stupid positive things. A great deal of the stupidity in the conversation about innovation is driven by the desperate urge to be original for the sake of being original. There is a pervasive, unexamined assumption that originality is always a good thing. Copycats, by Oded Shenkar is a delightful little book that takes on a project that I strongly support: taking down the holy cow of innovation and extolling the virtues of imitation.  Ironically, it is one of the most original business books I’ve read in the last few years. It even manages to say something new about the business case everybody loves to hate: Southwest Airlines.

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A Big Little Idea Called Legibility

James C. Scott’s fascinating and seminal book, Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed, examines how, across dozens of domains, ranging from agriculture and forestry, to urban planning and census-taking, a very predictable failure pattern keeps recurring.  The pictures below, from the book (used with permission from the author) graphically and literally illustrate the central concept in this failure pattern, an idea called “legibility.”

States and large organizations exhibit this pattern of behavior most dramatically, but individuals frequently exhibit it in their private lives as well.

Along with books like Gareth Morgan’s Images of Organization, Lakoff and Johnson’s Metaphors we Live By, William Whyte’s The Organization Man and Keith Johnstone’s Impro, this book is one of the anchor texts for this blog. If I ever teach a course on ‘Ribbonfarmesque Thinking,’ all these books would be required reading. Continuing my series on complex and dense books that I cite often, but are too difficult to review or summarize, here is a quick introduction to the main idea.

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The Right Question, Review of Shallows, Insight vs. Mind-Candy

I have three off-ribbonfarm posts this week that should interest you guys.

Is the Internet Making us Smart or Stupid?

A guest post on VentureBeat, my review of Nick Carr’s The Shallows (a book-length build on his Atlantic piece, “Is Google Making us Stupid.”

The Dangerous Art of the Right Question

On the Trailmeme blog. This post seems to have gone somewhat viral via Hacker News, Lifehacker and a couple of other significant mentions. Slightly lighter fare than you guys are used to here, but should still be of interest.

My Remarkable, Famous Graph

Also on the Trailmeme blog, this one is a sort of follow-up to the previous one, examining the emerging world of infographics, using 3 of my own ribbonfarm graphics to examine the difference between mind-candy and true insight graphics.

Head on over, comment etc.

The Happy Company

I rarely read biographies or autobiographies of individuals or groups. This is because I rarely find accounts of success or failure by the people involved, or hired hagiographers, very believable. I usually wait for somebody to tell the story more critically, within a broader context, such as the history of a sector. But I made an exception for Tony Hsieh’s Delivering Happiness for three reasons. First, I wanted to steal concrete ideas from the Zappos playbook about customer-centeredness. Second, I was puzzled by the apparent cultural mismatch in Amazon’s acquisition of Zappos. And finally, I was curious about what a genuinely happiness-centric approach to business looks like. Deconstructing the Zappos story seemed like a good idea. This post is mainly about the last question, as well as some general thoughts about “corporate culture.”

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