Eurasia Newsletter

bringing the minds of Asia, Canada and Europe together

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When science meets culture

Claude Shannon was born just a century ago. He was an eccentric American genius who, among other things, studied the mathematics of juggling and built an “ultimate machine” the only action of which was to reach out and turn itself off when it was turned on. But he is best remembered for developing Information Theory in 1948. This turned out to be of great importance. Not only did it provide a basis for work with the new computing machines that were being developed at the time, but it influenced a whole range of sciences – in fact, it would be hard to think of a science that it didn’t influence. Yet one wonders if the whole craze wasn’t just a recycling of old cultural patterns.

Shannon always emphasized that he was interested in information only as an engineer; that is, he wanted to know how it might be transferred between machines. Now this kind of transfer could be called communication, but it had little to do with human communication. Shannon was not interested in meaning. His definition of information did not include meaning as it was not quantifiable. Information was just how much or how little you told me that I didn’t know before – which was quantifiable.

Yet soon enough information theory was on the radar of every science. Not just physics, where it seemed information might be some kind of basic element like energy. In the social sciences, they talked about information being transferred within and between social systems. In linguistics in particular, they started accounting for language in terms of information. They conveniently forgot about Shannon’s discounting of meaning, which surely is the key element in language. If you read the linguistics textbooks and the structuralist gurus of the 1960s, Information Theory is all there, cited again and again like a revelation from on high.

But the most important and lasting influence of Information Theory was in the new science of molecular biology. After Watson and Crick discovered the double helix, Nirenberg and Matthaei “cracked the code” of DNA. It turned out to be a code with combinations of letters. François Jacob extended this with “messenger” RNA. Linguists (who should have known better) as well as others toyed with the idea of language being just one instance of patterning in life and in the universe, a patterning which turns out to be – information.

Molecular biology got a further boost around the turn of the millennium with the project of the human genome. Now there was all kinds of talk about the Book of Life. A very Biblical-sounding phrase, to be sure. As historian of science Lily Kay pointed out, the language/code/book-of-life complex is a metaphor, which turns out to be a reworking of age-old commonplaces in philosophy. Molecular biology could operate without this, but just uses it as a convenient mythology.

Mythologies like this are dredged up from the past of human thought – maybe from the collective unconscious – and form the cultural side of science, which is too often underestimated. Science – even so-called “hard” science – is not as pure and unaffected by culture and ideology as we like to think.


Dragon dance for mardi gras

Today it is mardi gras, the last day of Carnival in Europe, and in Asia they are well into the Chinese New Year celebrations. The other day there was a cartoon in one of the Swiss newspapers: two business types see a dragon rearing its head over a factory and ask each other “is this Carnival?”

This year, indeed, it seems like the Chinese dragon has invited itself to the Carnival parade. The agricultural products multinational Syngenta, which has not been doing too well lately and needed new investment, was almost taken over last year by the American multinational Monsanto, but the takeover fell through. Now the company is being taken over by ChemChina. Ren Jianxin, chief of the state-owned company, was in Basel the other day to close the deal. “Never before have the Chinese offered so much money for a foreign firm” commented another Swiss newspaper.

Some people here are worried about cash-rich Chinese buyers coming here and elsewhere in Europe on the lookout for acquisitions – they are also taking over firms in Germany, but nothing very big yet. People assume the Chinese want more Western know-how for their own growth. ChemChina’s Ren himself said that Syngenta would help modernize Chinese agriculture. Naysayers here grumble that the Chinese buyers have the financial muscle of the Chinese state behind them, so private investors can’t compete, and it’s unfair. There is a general apprehension about China buying up the Western world.

Yet the Swiss government seems to be supporting and facilitating the Syngenta deal, now that ChemChina has reportedly guaranteed that the head office will stay in Basel and there will be no changes for at least five years. Voices have also been raised in support of the deal in Swiss industry, notably those of well-known CEOs Daniel Vasella and Magdalena Martullo-Blocher. Such business figures realize that there has to be give and take. If Western companies large and small dream of nothing so much as “cracking the Chinese market”, they have to give the Chinese a chance to crack the West.



Contract management and added value

Contracting out work or services to outside companies and individuals has become usual both in business and government in the Western world since the 1980s. Originally, it was due to downsizing and lean-and-mean budgets. Organisations could not maintain enough staff on the payroll to carry out their business, so they hired contractors to pick up the slack. It may have been a matter of making a virtue of necessity, but the diversification of the people doing the work has sometimes resulted in interesting and creative contractual arrangements.

Contract management is an opportunity for an organisation to get a new perspective on particular issues and problems. Yet all too often managers still think of outside contractors as no more than “temp staff” or “extra help”, and the main thing they worry about is control – being able to control what the contractors are doing and getting the specified result. This is understandable, as there is anxiety involved in depending on outsiders to get part of your business done, which is what contracting means. But this kind of defensive thinking excludes the all-important factor of “value added”.

When a product or a service on the way to the customer or the consumer passes through the hands of different people, they should be adding value every time. This value will come from their particular perspective and their particular expertise, which others in the chain do not have. The more diverse the people in the chain are, the more value is likely to be added. Contractors are no exception here. Whenever you contract a job or part of it out to anybody, they should be adding value.

Yet the counter-phobic desire for control more often than not prevents this from happening. When a contractor offers new perspectives on the task that the organisation simply hasn’t thought of, the response is likely to be: “our committee has already decided how this is to be done. It’s too late to make changes. You just have to implement what was decided.” Again, the contractor finds themselves working in isolation, not part of the team, not invited to meetings, not kept informed of what other people on the project are doing. The counter-phobic desire for control is matched by a contradictory but also counter-phobic desire to keep the contractor at arm’s length.

This is definitely not the way to go. Looking back on situations where I as a contractor was able to strike up a good working relationship with a manager on the inside of an organisation who was open and communicative, I can say that really the only point in contracting out is to have value added. The organisation doing the contracting out should expect value to be added, and should allow and indeed encourage the contractor to do so.

Wasted words?

One of the problems of life in modern society is being heard if you have something to say. Under a dictatorship, the situation is clear: you are not allowed to speak your mind. If you want to, you have to do it secretly, in some kind of underground setting. In the democratic West, there is free speech. But often enough this turns out to be an illusion: you can say what you like, but nobody is listening.

George Steiner wrote how the Soviet regime persecuted poets and writers who questioned or satirized it, and they had to circulate their writings by samizdat. The regime, he notes, was actually paying them a compliment. It took them seriously. “What Western regime flinches at a poem?” he asked rhetorically.

More recently, the Internet has been providing great opportunities for people to speak their minds and discuss things with others. Governments in some countries still don’t like this, of course. Yet in the Western World, the new technology often just reinforces the old lesson that you may speak but you will not be heard – where it counts.

Navneet Alang wrote a piece last year about this in the Toronto Globe and Mail. Looking at the comments section in online editions of newspapers, he was struck by the tendency of the commentators to be excessive, inflammatory and offensive. He thought it came from a feeling of impotence and powerlessness. There is the option to comment on what you read, but deep down you know it will have no effect.

The unpleasant and cringe-worthy comments one sees in these online forums, Alang says, need not be a reflection of what their anonymous author is really like. “Instead, they may actually be a very understandable human response to the fact that the comment box is a strange, frustrating kind of double bind: a chance to speak your mind, but a reminder that no one is listening.”

He called for solutions “providing ways for everyday people to stop feeling so disenfranchised.” I do not know what these solutions might be. But it is already something, I think, if we can identify the problem.

Greek Easter

This year Greek Easter falls at the same time as Western Easter. The ways of calculating the dates of Easter in the two religious traditions are different. But it is pleasant to think of Greeks celebrating Easter at the same time as the rest of Europe. It reminds us that Greece is a part of Europe. Recently, as a British academic on Corfu told a Swiss journalist, Greeks have been shocked to “experience the crisis as a guillotine that has separated them from the rest of European Union. Many of my friends in Corfu do no understand how, after their being made to feel they were an integral part of Europe, Europe now sees them as a lot of pariahs closer to Asia than to itself.“

Greece’s neighbours the Turks have been trying to get into the European Union for a while, pleading that they are European too, or almost. After the Ottoman Empire collapsed, Atatürk gave them a modern secular nation-state based on the European model. Yet the feeling in the West has always been that Europe ends with Greece. Go any further, and you’re in Asia. Now the Greeks must be feeling that Europe is not too sure about them either. Do they belong to Europe or to Asia? In fact, at one time not so long ago, when the English talked about “Orientals” it included the Greeks. The Greeks have defined themselves in opposition to the Turks, of course; they see themselves as being the last outpost of free Europe rather than a bridgehead of Asian despotism, which is what the Ottoman Empire was to them.

The truth is that Greece has a unique peripheral position. It is at the Eastern edge of Europe, on the edge of Asia, and its tradition is to form a meeting point for the two. It is open to Europe, and it is open to Asia. Not many countries can claim that. Let Greece stay that way, and let the Greeks, rejecting any uneasiness about their status, continue to fulfil their historic mission of bringing together Europe and Asia – Europe and the Middle East in particular.

That will be my thought and my wish as I celebrate Greek and Western Easter together this year.