New York City – WW I Monument
One Hundred Seventh Infantry Memorial
Sculptor Karl Illava (1896–1954) created this dynamic bronze figural group depicting seven larger-than-life-sized World War I foot soldiers in battle. The piece, set on a massive stepped granite platform designed by architects Rogers and Haneman, was donated by the Seventh Regiment New York 107th United Infantry Memorial Committee and was dedicated September 27, 1927. Taking advantage of its position at the end of East 67th Street at Fifth Avenue, Illava’s “doughboys” are in active poses, advancing from the wooded thicket bordering Central Park, as if mounting a charge. Illava drew from his own experience serving as a sergeant with the 107th, and even used his own hands as models for the soldiers’ hands.
One Hundred Seventh Infantry Memorial Details
- Location: Fifth Avenue at 67th Street
- Sculptor: Karl Morningstar Illava
- Architect: Rogers & Haneman
- Description: Group of seven figures (over life-size) with integral plinth, on a pedestal
- Materials: Bronze, North Jay granite
- Dimensions: Group H: 9’11” W: 15’8′ D: 10′; Pedestal H: 7’7″ W: 32’8″
- Cast: 1927
- Dedicated: September 29, 1927
- Foundry: Fond. G. Vignali, Firenze
- Donor: 7th Regiment and 107th Infantry Memorial Committee
- Inscription: SEVENTH REGIMENT NEW YORK / ONE HUNDRED AND SEVENTH UNITED INFANTRY / 1917 IN MEMORIAM 1918
Guest Contributor – The Fat Man – Antifa, Sci Fi, The Bomb, Consumerism and The Death of Innovation – Part 3
Some case studies of innovation begin with a scientific advance such as the identification of the photoelectric effect or other quantum phenomenon and traces its application to an invention dependent on that advance such as the laser. Other descriptions are more ethnographic, observing an industrial ecosystem, then focusing in on its niche like the Connecticut River Valley manufacturing industry of the 18th century and its development of interchangeable gun parts. More quantitative accounts begin with economic dynamics by measuring the role of capital, labor and then try to show excess growth attributed to changes in technology processes or investment.
All of these approaches seek to account for growth not related to easily measurable factors by looking at newly discovered insights or newly introduced technologies that confer some advantage to an offering competing in a market. Many of these accounts are useful in documenting the precedent conditions to productive change. They have been reduced to a list in many papers and articles on innovation and economic growth. They include access to basic research and related intellectual property, capital, talent, geographic or virtual proximity and so on. Other less concrete factors are also named such as entrepreneurism, leadership or vision. This body of literature is rapidly growing but the more that is written about innovation and the greater the attempts to reduce it to an economic model, the further the goal seems to move. The sudden drop in the total factor productivity in the US after the 1970s seems less understood the more that is written about it. Commentators, whether economist or philosophers, business leaders or politicians, have moved from qualitative analysis to social pleading yet offer no reliable, let alone predictable, hypothesis.
To some, the loss of American vitality is seen as an emergency, a surrendering or dissipation of the most valuable trend in human history. The loss of a cultural and economic heritage that transformed the world from a brutal place to a prosperous one. To others the change was the inevitable correction as resources were redistributed by political systems evolving away from their imperial structures of exploitation. Why do some students and proponents of innovation see it as somehow related to culture? Why do discussions of innovation seem to invite political explanations? At any level of analysis, it would seem innovation has almost nothing to do with politics and philosophy, rather a question of science, economics, and commerce. It is true that politics influence and at times determines investment in science and seek to manage economies, if not specific markets, but does that mean we can find the source of innovation in political processes?
The issue of what changed that precipitated the reduction in growth of the US economy and, apparently, innovation has a stock list of suspects. Government regulation is a commonly cited culprit. In the case of nuclear energy this seems irrefutable. Corporatism is another clear candidate. Anyone who carefully analyzes big company structures and processes, from their silo functions to their anti-competitive strategies and general slow-footedness knows that the landscape of a shrinking number of large companies dominating legacy industries can only be poison to innovation. It is hard to consider these and other familiar hypotheses that purport to account for the decrease in innovation, such as failed schools, family breakdown and the loss of faith, without turning away from the question in despair, even horror.
Perhaps it is better to start with a more direct examination of innovation in the past versus today. For example, the slowing of progress in individual transportation in the last fifty years. Why don’t cars fly? It is harder to make a car fly than roll so innovation today won’t look like innovation a century ago. This is the low hanging fruit explanation, flying is harder, but what does that mean? Well, making a car fly is not an incremental change from progressively making cars roll faster and more efficiently. In fact, making a car fly may not be an innovation at all. Innovation is not the invention of new things for their own sake. Innovation solves replication problems. What replication problem does a flying car solve? How much faster does individual transportation need to move over the earth’s surface than a mile a minute? And, for that matter, how much faster than a mile a second does flight need to achieve? The low hanging fruit explanation does seem to touch on something useful, but not in the ordinary sense of the barrier of increasing complexity. It also points to the question of need.
Commentators point to aging American cities with their 19th century subways and mid-20th century skyscrapers as evidence of our decline. (We might observe, as an aside, that no one ever complains about the age of buildings in Rome or Paris) They point to slower travel times, increasing real energy costs and shortening life expectancies in the same breath to demonstrate the drop in the pace of innovation. These seem alarming symptoms of our loss of progress. But are they really? How high does a building need to rise? How often should they be replaced? How many millions should a city accommodate? Subways certainly age, need to be maintained and improved, but should a civilization’s innovative energies be focused on subways? Surely this is not a problem of complexity, nor was the decision to abandon supersonic transport. These are choices that have little to do with innovation as normally discussed.
It is clear that in the postwar period, in different forms in Europe, the Americas, Asia, and the rest of the developed world, much of these societies’ productive energy was focused on “social progress”. Some would call much of it, the changing role of women, concern for the environment, other post-imperial transitions like industrial nationalization and the rise of the welfare state, social engineering that at least in name might be considered innovation. These large reallocations of resources and dislocations of existing social structures undoubtedly had equally large effects on the focus of our productive energies, if not to derail them. For much of the industrial world social progress represented a deliberate regression away from the culture of Manhattan Projects and moon shots. Social progress led not to building more advanced cities but housing projects for the poor, which, in turn, led many to leave cities altogether. In America, the suburban “innovation”, born of the federal interstate highway program, made things cheaper, more convenient at first, and increased standards of living substantially for at least two decades. But it did not just increase the marginal quality of upper middle-class family existence by eventually sending most women into the workforce and expanded the average size of a suburban house and the number of cars in their driveways. Living standards per capita measured in occupied square feet, miles driven, cost per student, ballooned in the 1970’s and 1980’s until even lower middle-class families living outside of cities occupied larger houses, drove further and spent more per student on education, even consumed more calories, than their counterparts in any other society. Was this not productive change?
Many would say no. Those social and economic changes may have been desired after the two wars and the prospect of global extinction, but they did not yield what innovation always does. Doing more with less, rather the opposite. Reallocation and baby booms might be products of innovation, but they do not bring it about. But the social and material changes in family structure and standards of living do suggest an answer to our question of why building and subway construction have not advanced. They didn’t need to, certainly not with the suburbanization of society and the massive expansion car culture.
There are parallels of this redirection of innovation in energy, in air transportation, even in medicine. A central concept to the development of new medical therapies is the idea of “unmet need”. Still at the dawn of the 20th century most people in the world died of gastric perforation. This mortality was directly tied to waterborne infections and contaminants so the unmet medical need for gastric disease was very high in the year 1900. Epidemiology showed not just mortality, but morbidity, other suffering than death such as poor nourishment, pain, and loss of work, were also caused by digestive disease. At first, slowly through the improvement of urban waste management and water treatment, and then more quickly after World War II through development of a series of pharmacotherapies such as antibiotics, then H-2 antagonists, PPI’s and finally triple antibiotic therapies, the medical unmet need for upper gastric disorders has largely been addressed.
This does not mean that no one suffers an upset stomach anymore. Prosperity and the overabundance of calories ensure that people still need digestive therapies. But as a public health priority, upper digestive disease has fallen from top to bottom. This is reflected in the demand for infrastructure professionals and new upper digestive pharmacotherapies that address digestive disease. Public engineering in the first half of the 20th century in America was a leading professional undertaking as the nation built its cities to postwar capacity. Those same H-2 antagonists and PPIs were the world’s largest selling and most lucrative drugs to treat aging patients born while H. Pylori, a water born pathogen, was prevalent. Today large-scale hydro-engineering projects occur at a small fraction of their former frequency and the gross sales of gastric pharmacotherapies and the innovative creation of new ones are comparatively tiny and few.
Is the contraction of PPI markets and the reduction of sewer treatment projects evidence of an innovation crisis or reduction in unmet need? Why has subway and high-rise construction investment fallen? In the 1920s as the New York City subway system was completed and was the envy of the world, the city had between 8 and 9 million residents that paid a billion fares per year. Those numbers are still largely the same today. Before the completion of most high-rise housing, New York City reached its steady state of population. By the 1970s and during the decades of the decline in US total factor productivity, national firms and their employees were abandoning New York City, raising vacancy rates. So why build and innovate more subways, buildings and their associated technologies? What was the unmet need? The answer is, there was none.
The only objection raised by these facts, that even the poor in the West have excessive basic resources in calories, in utilization of individual transport, spending on education and housing space, is that people are still poor and life for many is grim. But is this a problem of innovation, of productive growth? Would making energy free, as once imagined, or food free, as it nearly is in terms of minimum daily calories, make life less grim? The answer is no, with the sole exception of the extremely poor, defined by the World Bank as less than $1 dollar-a-day of income, a vanishingly small population in the US and one not attributable to jobless or homeless conditions but mental illness and drug addiction. There is no evidence that more square feet or more individual driving or more spending on education will meaningfully reduce the true unmet needs of lower income people. It may make car companies, energy companies, landlords and teacher unions richer but greater innovation in individual transportation, education, energy and food production will not reduce unmet needs in these areas because they are already so low. No amount of additional spending above the already impossibly high per student costs to simply teach a first grader to read will improve literacy rates. Even $100,000 per student per year would not improve the reading scores of the urban and rural poor. And if it did, such improvement would not be due to innovation, which we have defined as doing more with less. Rather, by reducing the scarcity of these resources, suburbanization has led to their inflated worthlessness. Cheap goods and services have led to the devaluing of them to the point of laxity. Is reflected in obesity rates, lowering test scores, falling birthrates, which for any other living system of organisms, would rise with expanding resources. That is until their own waste chokes them. This is the cradle of our heroes, The Muppets.
End of Part 3
Ok, if necessity is actually the mother of innovation, lots of needs have been met in the last 100 years, but why did growth stop, the ASB becomes irrelevant and suburban consumerism take hold and become the millennial Muppet cradle sometime in the nineteen seventies? And what about Frank Sinatra? Stay tuned for Part 4.
Guest Contributor – The Fat Man – Antifa, Sci Fi, The Bomb, Consumerism and The Death of Innovation – Part 2
Warning: Part 2 contains a philosophical discussion of innovation that is a bit dense. If you’re here for the comic jabs at “The Muppets”, you may want to skip to Part 3. My apologies.
(Editor’s note: Because the author was so expansive, I have divided Part 2 into two parts. So, what The Fat Man refers to as Part 3 will actually be called Part 4.
The hypothesis I will posit and attempt to demonstrate in the next two parts of this humble correspondence has two main themes. First, that the America of the hundred to hundred and fifty-odd years ending in the nineteen seventies was in every way exceptional; second, that it was so because it had to be.
What gave birth to the ASB that catalyzed an array of naïve musical craft forms into a global cultural phenomenon? How could it be that slave and peasant musical traditions could be combined and transformed to such success? How did a string of still photographs projected on a screen go from peep show to a universal, dare we say, artistic medium? And how did both these forms descend into their own basements? Why even is the use of a phrase like “artistic medium” to be feared and derided?
What if the same dynamic could be identified as the driver behind the creation General Electric and The Bomb that obliterated those two Japanese cities. What if accounting for that dynamic could answer Peter Thiel’s most interesting questions, “Why are our cities strangely old?”..…”Why did the space program abandon Mars?”…..”Why does it take longer to travel between cities in 2020 than it did in 1970?” Put more simply, how can the America that stormed Normandy and called a moonshot in 1961 “by the end of the decade” with Ruthian certainty end up frightened by Antifa?
To answer all these questions, we first need a definition of innovation that helps to describe some common process to all the unlikely triumphs we have mentioned, from Louis Armstrong to Robert Oppenheimer. We need a definition that comprises economic trends reflected in metrics like the GDP, and the commercial success of mechanical innovations like the production of replaceable parts in firearms; cultural phenomena like the art movements that come to be described as “universal”, or the emergence of global capitals like New York in the mid-century.
What is innovation
Galileo, Newton, Einstein and Heisenberg. These names transcend words like discovery and invention. For human beings, the members of this class are, along with a few others seemingly from other fields, other names like Homer and Shakespeare perhaps Mozart or Beethoven, the ones that define our world. We don’t have to worry about their sins or similarities because they are like their creations, both real and unreal. There is no E in E equals MC squared in the real world, any more than the number one. E and one are exclusively human. There is no ideal realm where they reside outside of our minds. They are beyond the hills, the animal or mineral, shared only in the humanly conceived eternal. They are wholly ours and once invoked by anyone they join the patrimony that is accessible to all if we choose to claim it. We can choose, however, to lose treasures like F equals MA or “it is the east and Juliet is the sun” or Euler’s identity. We can forget or revise or misattribute or commit a hundred other crimes against history. We can break the chain of humanity that links all ages and places to every remembered and forgotten name with the new and the unborn. We can fail to imagine.
Lesser mortals do lesser things. They discover like Columbus or Curie; they invent like Edison and Bell. A lightbulb is not humanity but it helped humanity read. The telephone was not a part of us though they did at times seem attached. America is not Italy but someone had to sign the map. We remember these names and forget, revise, misattribute them at much less peril, perhaps some would say, at no peril at all, perhaps, even to our benefit. But the status of the names of our discoverers and inventors matter today if not tomorrow. We need them today to tell our story, even our history, but they are not immutable giants like the others. Because we all know who gets to write history, the stories beneath these names can change from discoverers today to slavers tomorrow.
Far below the Olympian pantheon of Newton and the discoverer’s Rushmore of Edison, in a stratum of the day to day, lives innovation. It has no name but certainly is more fun. Discovery finds things and invention makes things but innovation gets to do things. And nameless, it is free to beg and borrow, not caring who found it or made it so long as it can use it. Innovation is the doing with what was discovered, invented, invested, neglected or just plain forgotten.
Innovation has no name, or at least it shouldn’t. The artifacts of innovation are not important, but their impact is. What is a subway or a skyscraper? Who would care except that they move infinitely more people faster in a crowded city than any combination of horse and car or fit infinitely more people to live and work on a half-acre than possible in any other urban plan? But innovation does not only serve the visceral. The long line of innovations that culminated in the gothic cathedral are nameless. But at some point, in the 11th or 12th Century, they lifted whole societies to spiritual consensus. Yet there is no name associated with the Gothic Cathedral except Chartres, Cologne or Notre Dame. In fact, subways, skyscrapers, cathedrals, choirs or even particular iPhones change as we use them and disappear when we don’t. Innovation doesn’t have his fun alone, we get to join in.
In the sense that innovation is not discovery or invention we can also say that it is not exclusively human. Because it is nameless is also, to the extent it is distinct, not aware. Innovators manage the details of their initiatives and even at times claim to plan their applications. But no one ever knows when they cross the boundary between an improvement or invention or discovery and true innovation. So as anyone who has ever seen the cat finally achieve the canary knows, animals innovate as well. Nor does one individual even ever really innovate. Beyond the clichés about standing on the shoulders of giants, innovation relies primarily on feedback loops whether from a market or a metabolism. And beyond animals, all biological systems possess in their ontogeny the mechanisms of not just change but proliferative innovation. From this perspective, no doubt, it is conceivable that by their ability to determine natural existence, the laws of physics in their constants and relations and limits do as well. Or at least one could probably find a business-minded physicist to agree. So, it is also cliché to say innovation is collaborative or diverse or possessing of secret ingredients, let alone genius. Innovation emanates as all phenomena do, that is to say, through itself.
This view of innovation is useful in a number of ways. It avoids the sociology of science associated with the Olympian creations that began our discussion. Newton’s human creations like numbers and letters truly are human constructs, artifacts. Concentrated matter moving through space is no artifact. The novel phosphorylation of a bioactive molecule that confers a replication advantage is a fact, observable, unaware, unstoppable. Humans can only participate in innovation; they cannot originate it. We are lucky when we properly observe it.
If innovation is not human then it must be free from the requirements of human logic. Innovation is not consistent or moral or balanced or meaningful beyond the very next step. Innovation is productive change and with that single modifier, alone it is unconstrained in ways no human system can be. It can comprise blitzkrieg and washing machines. It moves along paths that cross all boundaries and all borders. It can change its products, landscapes and even man-made literary forms. Innovation is free to impinge on domains that are aware and self-constrained without being so itself.
All we have said so far describes what innovation is not and qualities of its nature. But what is innovation? Economists define innovation as the translation of an idea or invention into a good or product that creates value as reflected in the customer’s willingness to pay for it. So, innovation in this context is the occurrence of a new offering to generate sales. But innovation is also a larger concept usually best measured by the economic idea of dynamism. Dynamism is defined as the creative destruction in an economy that reallocates resources across firms and industries according to their most productive use. Presumably this destruction can at least in part be bottom up, unplanned or subject only to market guidance.
In its broadest sense, as we have discussed it so far, we might simply define innovation as productive change. Change that moves in a self-defined positive direction. A successful virus is essentially a protein shell with an innovation factory coded into its genetic material. Its sole function is to continually make slightly inexact copies of itself so to ensure that some of its related progeny can survive the immune systems that act as it’s feedback loop. To that virus this is productive change or innovation.
So, when is change productive or destruction creative? The laws of physics and biology seem to imply these are oxymorons? Science holds that all change is random, certainly all destruction must be, so how then can it be productive and creative? Does not its anonymity and randomness exclude any notion of “positive”? The answer must be no, but only because reconciling these seeming contradictions leads directly to the question of intentionality and the origin of change. The origin of change is itself a question of first causes that, as we have said, is immanent yet unbounded by space and time. Even a physicist would agree that the universe is productive because of primal conditions whose own origins are inexplicable, partially observable, even describable, perhaps, but ultimately unaccountable. But where does the ineffability of productive change lead us in our search for its nature? It frees us. Clearly productive change exists as do distinct stars that convert matter to energy and men who turn forests to farms, so we are free to inquire and observe without accounting for first causes. In our investigation, we also can be dynamic along with others in our niche and join in the reallocation. But as human logical commentators, at least, we are obliged to make observations that suggest relationships, if not lessons.
So much for the ultimate source of change, what about proximate causes? What about their number and weight? This is not obvious yet it is the main business of our discussion. And although economics would seem to be the obvious framework to account for the proximate cause of innovation, those most familiar with that exercise commonly offer only very subjective, sometimes poetical explanations of even large changes in innovative trends. The great economist of innovation, Edmund Phelps, cites the loss of the “spirit of adventure and discovery” as chief among the proximate causes of the halving of the 3% annual growth in US GDP he attributes to American innovation going back two centuries before the 1970s. To understand the proximate causes of the end of American innovation in the 1970’s, we must first understand its proximate causes going back at least those two centuries and likely much earlier.