Evolution in Everything: Handwriting

There’s a whole set of simple but profound lessons that, if I were being lazy, I might call “the economic way of thinking.” We move through a hand-me-down world, solving some problems and creating new problems, adjusting and adapting, and shaping the world that we pass on to the next generation.

I just stumbled on a lovely example in an article about ballpoint pens and the end of cursive. A technological change changed the nature of handwriting, but the structure of human capital lagged behind. Specifically, the widespread adoption of ballpoint pens meant the old way of writing–how to hold the pen, how to form the letters, etc.–was poorly suited to the tool being used. This should have been an opportunity to test unchecked assumptions (e.g. about what the “correct” way to write is) but instead an inefficient practice (cursive writing with a bic pen) persisted in the face of increasing obsolescence.

I particularly like the idea of trying something new (fountain pens) can lead to a realization that some old method has a lot more going for it than was obvious to the non-alert.

I wonder how many other mundane skills, shaped to accommodate outmoded objects, persist beyond their utility. It’s not news to anyone that students used to write with fountain pens, but knowing this isn’t the same as the tactile experience of writing with one. Without that experience, it’s easy to continue past practice without stopping to notice that the action no longer fits the tool. Perhaps “saving handwriting” is less a matter of invoking blind nostalgia and more a process of examining the historical use of ordinary technologies as a way to understand contemporary ones. Otherwise we may not realize which habits are worth passing on, and which are vestiges of circumstances long since past.

How the Ballpoint Pen Killed Cursive

Learning takes time. So in a dynamic society, it’s natural that there will always be some sort of practice outliving its utility. The only other way I see is stagnation: no new methods, no new problems, and we eventually setting into a “making the best of it” equilibrium.

The discovery of each of these inefficiencies creates some pocket of entrepreneurship. Sometimes it’s a massive, market oriented bit of entrepreneurship–like Bic industrializing the process of making cheap, reliable pens. Sometimes it’s a niche community of hobbyists (who might be incubating the next big thing). But that entrepreneurial reaction to inefficiency is pretty exciting. Realizing how my bad handwriting is the outcome of a technical problem makes me want to try fountain pens.

Nightcap

  1. China’s race to find aliens first Ross Anderson, Atlantic
  2. What happens if China makes first contact? Abhijnan Rej, Diplomat
  3. Is coronavirus a preview of alien life reaching earth? Jeffrey Kluger, Time
  4. A beautiful photo essay of some old, abandoned airplanes Zero Anthropology

A Reflection on Information and Complex Social Orders

In the year 2020, occidental democracies face a time of lock-downs, social distancing, and a sort of central planning based on epidemiological models fueled by testing methodologies. An almost uniform consensus on the policy of “flattening the curve and raising the line” spread worldwide, both in the realms of politics and science. Since the said public policy is not for free, but nevertheless it is out of discussion, the majority of the efforts are focused on gathering data concerning the rate of infection and fatalities and on achieving accurate and fast methods of early detection of the disease (COVID-19). The more the data is collected, the more efficient the policy of “flattening the curve” will be, i.e.: minimizing the economical costs. Technology -in a broad sense- seems to be the key ingredient of every successful policy.

Nevertheless, since the countries that undertook the said task are democracies -and they were urged to do so because they are democracies-, there is a lot more than data provided by technology to take into account. Science and technology could reach a conclusive study about infection and fatality rates, but the outcomes of the societal discussions about the value of life and the right of every individual to decide upon the way of conducting their own plans of life will always remain inconclusive. Those discussions are not only philosophical and, fundamentally, are not only to be conducted in the terms of an academic research, since the values at stake entitle every human being to have their own say and, at the same time, are so deeply rooted in the upbringing of the individuals that seldom they might be successfully articulated -and surely that is why such questions are of philosophical interest.

In the race to determine the political agenda, technology plays with a significant advantage over philosophy: in times of emergency, conclusive assertions -despite proving right or wrong afterwards- enable political leaders with a sense of determination that any philosophy can hardly achieve. It is true that philosophical considerations mark the legitimate limits of science and its uses, but the predictable models and plausible scenarios depicted by the technology might lift the barriers of what had been considered at the time as politically illegitimate, i.e.: to describe a given situation as a state of exception.

However, there is still a dominion in which philosophical considerations might have high expectations of winning the competition against technology: the making of the abstract criteria to judge the fulfillment of the due procedures to be followed by the authorities given the account of the data gathered by the technology. Such philosophical considerations on which base authorities should personally account for their decisions, despite having been discussed by academics and writers, have being treated for centuries in particular legal procedures that crystallized the standards of conduct of the Civil Law (the diligence of a good father of a family, or of a good businessman, etc) or Common Law concepts (the reasonable person, the ordinary prudent man of business) or more recent -in terms of the evolution of the law- formulae, such as the Hand’s rule.

Such legal standards, concepts or formulae do not oblige the political authorities in their public sphere, but they perform as an incentive to be taken into account by the agent who is invested with the public authority; since he, eventually, will be personally accountable for his decisions. Moreover, those legal parameters to judge the personal responsibility of the agent in charge of the political authority are a true guarantee for the public servants, more reliable than the changing public opinion measurements to be provided by the technology.

Notwithstanding the Realist assertion about the division between law and politics might earn certain relevance in times of turmoil, individual rights and legal procedures should endure in the long run, in order to work as a benchmark to judge the personal performance of the political agents.

Such times of political and social upheaval are useful to test political theories and doctrines as well. Certain strains of Political Liberalism -particularly Classical Liberalism- have been largely criticized for -supposedly- trying to replace the political with the law. However, the law is there to remind the political agents that the state is an abstraction run by individuals who are expected to be personally accountable for their decisions. In this case, the true function of the law, although conceding that it should remain outside of the political sphere, is to provide the correct incentives for the political agents, who are not mere abstractions -and so, maximize their own plans- to take their own decisions. If technological devices might be the key instruments for public policy, the rule of law is its inescapable framework -or at least so it is, of course, for every democracy.

Broken Incentives in Medical Innovation

I recently listened to Mark Zuckerberg interviewing Tyler Cowen and Patrick Collison concerning their thesis that the process of using scientific research to advance major development goals (e.g. extending the average human lifespan) has stagnated. It is a fascinating discussion that fundamentally questions the practice of scientific research as it is currently completed.

Their conversation also made me consider more deeply the incentives in my industry, medical R&D, that have shaped the practices that Cowen and Collison find so problematic. While there are many reasons for the difficulties in maintaining a breakneck pace of technological progress (“all the easy ideas are already done,” “the American education system fails badly on STEM,” etc), I think that there are structural causes that are major contributors to the great slowdown in medical progress. See my full discussion here!

Nightcap

  1. The extractive colonial economy in Java Dell & Olken, NBER
  2. Modernity and art in the Near East Lara Arafeh, The Grey Area
  3. Tales of socialism David Henderson, EconLog
  4. Space aliens as culture heroes Nick Nielsen, Grand Strategy Annex

My Startup Experience

Over the past 4 years, I have had a huge transition in my life–from history student to law student to serial medical entrepreneur. Essentially, I have learned a great deal from my academic work that taught me the value that we can create if we find an unmet need in the world, create an idea that fills that need, and then use technology, personal networks, and hard work to create novelties. While startups obviously tackle any new problem under the sun, to me, they are the mechanism to bring about a positive change–and, along the way, get the resources to scale that change across the globe.

I am still very far from reaching that goal, but my family and cofounders have several visions of how to improve not only how patients are treated but also how we build the knowledge base that physicians, patients, and researchers can use to inform care and innovation. My brother/cofounder and I were recently on an entrepreneurship-focused podcast, and we got the chance to discuss our experience, our vision, and our companies. I hope this can be a springboard for more discussions about how companies are a unique agent of advancing human flourishing, and about the history and philosophy of entrepreneurship, technology, and knowledge.

You can listen here: http://rochesterrising.org/podcast/episode-151-talking-medical-startups-with-keith-and-kevin-kallmes. Heartfelt thanks to Amanda Leightner and Rochester Rising for a great conversation!

Thank you!

Kevin Kallmes

Be Our Guest: “Liberty, Government, and Technology: 2019”

Jack Curtis is the latest to submit a piece for NOL‘s “Be Our Guest” feature. A slice:

We will compare China, Russia and the United States. China is a post-communist police state that has never experienced democracy. Russia is a post-communist, quasi democratic republic devolving back into a police state. And the United States is a traditionally democratic republic. Excepting the vagaries of disparate cultures, their three governments seem increasingly similar, revising themselves to adopt the new technology. However, these revisions have not originated only within governments; they also reflect the gradual confluence of the underlying societies.

Do read the rest, and I must point out that Jack has been a long time reader of NOL. For that I am personally grateful. It’s nice to be able to link up and collaborate like this.

Submit your own thoughts to us. Be our guest. Tell your friends, too.