We are developing the social individualist meta-context for the future. From the very serious to the extremely frivolous... lets see what is on the mind of the Samizdata people.

Samizdata, derived from Samizdat /n. - a system of clandestine publication of banned literature in the USSR [Russ.,= self-publishing house]

Samizdata quote of the day

“Civilization is not just about saving labor but also about “wasting” labor to make art, to make beautiful things, to “waste” time playing, like sports. Nobody ever suggested that Picasso should spend fewer hours painting per picture in order to boost his wealth or improve the economy. The value he added to the economy could not be optimized for productivity. It’s hard to shoehorn some of the most important things we do in life into the category of “being productive.” Generally any task that can be measured by the metrics of productivity — output per hour — is a task we want automation to do. In short, productivity is for robots. Humans excel at wasting time, experimenting, playing, creating, and exploring. None of these fare well under the scrutiny of productivity. That is why science and art are so hard to fund. But they are also the foundation of long-term growth. Yet our notions of jobs, of work, of the economy don’t include a lot of space for wasting time, experimenting, playing, creating, and exploring.”

- Kevin Kelly.

The article nicely challenges the idea that the “Third” industrial revolution (the Internet and so forth) has been far less transformative and productive than the Second one (electricity, etc).

31 comments to Samizdata quote of the day

  • Brian Micklethwait (London)

    I particularly like “Productivity is for robots”, which sums the whole thing up well. This century’s slogan?

  • TDK

    The article does what you claim but this quote doesn’t encapsulate the idea.

    In fact reading it before the full article, gave me the idea that it was part of a special plead for state funding of the arts. Read those last three sentences in isolation.

  • RAB

    Monbiot doesn’t get it. He’s a Utilitarian to the core, and would happily have a central committee decide what we can and cannot have depending on its usefulness, all in the cause of saving the Planet of course…


    We certainly wouldn’t be talking to each other like this if left to George and his ilk.

  • Johnathan Pearce

    I read the last three sentences and did not see any call for state funding of certain things. Indeed, it could be seen as support for the leisured pursuits of the rich. In fact, Hayek defended inherited wealth in exactly such terms.

  • Sigivald

    The value he added to the economy could not be optimized for productivity.

    More aptly, the value he added was primarily not economic.

    The monetary value of the works of a Picasso (or for those more classically inclined, say, a Rembrandt) is at best secondary – and in many cases, history shows us that their monetary value was indeed not significant during the artist’s lifetime.

  • Runcie Balspune

    [the internet, etc] has been far less transformative and productive

    This is not true, the ability for libertarian blogs like this one to wrest control of the media from the leftists and conservatives has been greatly productive and has transformed how mainstream media is now viewed, it’s just not immediately apparent.

  • PersonFromPorlock

    So, when production is the province of robots, how will people live? If working for a living isn’t an option, what is? ‘The dole’ is proven destructive so maybe we need to start thinking about how to make everyone a ‘trust fund baby’ in the future: there’s a big difference between a monthly check from the government (truckling encouraged) and one from your investment account.

  • But Picasso did have output per hour. Just because it was hard to measure at the time doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. People pay for art which proves it has value and producing art is productive. What am I missing?

  • Also if you have to produce 10 bad bits of art to produce 1 good one, it doesn’t mean the 10 were a waste of time. If playing leads to good ideas then playing is productive. This quote seems to confuse the meaning of words.

  • JDN

    I’d say that civilization is a people that don’t regularly suffer from mass starvation, and can afford to produce a Picasso or a Mozart.

    The ability to waste time with arts or sports is a direct consequence of the wealth made available from higher productivity (in nature, waste too much time and you starve or freeze to death). Being productive means having surplus time and resources to devote to other things, and the creativity required in improving productivity (in another word, innovation) yields dividends elsewhere.

    Sadly, creativity is seen most often as an art-centric quality.

  • Steven

    Humans excel at wasting time, experimenting, playing, creating, and exploring. None of these fare well under the scrutiny of productivity. That is why science and art are so hard to fund.

    I disagree with this notion. We may not be able to quantify scientific acheivement, or at least put it in a spreadsheet with discoveries per hour and quotas, but that does not mean that science is not inherantly productive in an of itself. Science is the search for knowledge, and while that is a romatic idea, science is also the R&D department for the whole world. R&D is not productive in the sense that it makes X number of new inventions per Y hours, but it does end up with results. There have been major discoveries that did not seem important at the time, or were in other fields, that paid off down the road in ways the initial scientists never even considered.

    The reason science is hard to fund these days is because it is expensive. The days of someone looking at balls rolling or how magnets interact with electrical wires or if maggots spontaneously appears in a covered jar are over. Even the most basic of labs can have millions of dollars of equipment. One doesn’t pay for a satellite telescope or a 2 micron tunneling microscope with loose change found between couch cushions. There is only a limited number of money to go around in the first place and all these expensive research projects are all competing for the same funds. I think it is wrong to compare an expensive enterprise like science with some artiste’ who flings poop at a canvas and calling it a commentary on man’s inhumanity towards man and asking the government to fund more of that work.

    Truth be told, the public funding of science, either directly or through universities, is one of the few government expenditures I do approve of and wish there was more of. I’d certainly rather fund NASA and the National Science Foundation than pay for Obamaphones for the lazy or some starving artist to make “art” for government buildings.

  • Steven is closer to my way of thinking except that R&D is productive and you do get x inventions per y hours. And if it wasn’t for the vast size of the state we would be rich enough to afford all the scientific funding we wanted.

  • Julie near Chicago

    I have to go along with Rob Fisher in all three of his comments. I’d like to add a suggestion that one read the story of Taylor Wilson, “The Boy Who Played with Fusion.” If a 16-year-old (or so) can build working fusion reactor in his basement…even though he didn’t invent it (and that’s a CONTEMPORARY, not a 1903 nor even a mid-70′s achievement)–then not all scientific research has to be all that expensive. (Which is part of the reason why Rob’s final sentence is true.)

    Read young Mr. Wilson’s story, along with the comments since they explore some of the issues, at


    *H/T to Philip Scott Thomas at

    http://www.countingcats.com/?p=13648#comments .

  • Julie near Chicago

    Faith & begorrah! Smited again–and still no cats! (I used an F-word–but it has more than 4 letters and is not “the ancient Anglo-Saxon” or whatever.)

  • Mike James

    That is why science and art are so hard to fund. But they are also the foundation of long-term growth.

    Well, yes, in the case of science. Art is on probation, for all that I care.

  • veryretired

    Just a response to a couple of points—

    The reason for much of the public funding for science, and other big projects, is a melding of two basic impulses.

    First, the social impulse, very adroitly taken advantage of by various progressive/collectivist initiatives, to respond to perceived crises by calling for collective action to deal with the problem.

    The typical sequence is for collectivist activists to proclaim the urgent need to deal with a terrible problem X, and assert that only state action can assemble the resources and comprehensive approach required to solve it. This was used in any number of areas to justify extending state action into situations in which it had not been used before.

    The example of such state projects in other countries is also used as supporting evidence, even if the other countries are very different in their attitudes toward state vs individual action, as can be seen very clearly in the recent health care debate, among others.

    Secondly, there has been a serious warping effect caused by the century long state of hostility between the US, and its major allies, and various totalitarian/collectivist entities which displayed an openly hostile attitude towards western values, and either engaged in or threatened military action.

    Indeed, from the 1930′s to the 1990′s, these two strands produced an almost perfect storm of statist rationalization and propulsion as the west dealt with the dangers of repeated collectivist attacks and threats of attack.

    It is not mysterious that even cultures very strongly committed to individualism would move toward more collective action in response to such severe existential threats as fascism, militarism, and marxism.

    The task now is to acknowledge the error of moving in that direction much farther and more widely than was necessary, and to begin a careful dismantling of the many collectivist structures that have been grafted onto our society to the detriment of its development and identity as individualistic valuing cultures.

    The second point I wanted to make is that the definition of art is partly to blame for the confusion about, and bankruptcy of, what constitutes an artistic endeavor.

    I recall many times in studying history or anthropology reading statements to the effect that one of the characteristics of older cultures was their continuous and ubiquitous use of artistic elements in everything they did or built. This would be followed by examples of bowls or weapons or other instances in which common objects were decorated with artistic elements.

    Then a negative comparison would be made between those cultures and our allegedly cold, inartistic modern culture, with an implied or explicit reference to capitalism as the corrupting agent which drains the artistic spirit out of everything in the endless quest for money.

    But this argument has always seemed utterly nonsensical to me because I looked around me and saw art being incorporated into everything, and expressed everywhere. For a long time, I was mystified as to the claim about artlessness in modern life, until I caught on to the way the definition was so cleverly switched midstream to justify it.

    We are surrounded by elegant designs, and creative expressions, far beyond anything ever produced by the so-called spiritually superior cultures, but because art is now defined as that which is not part of our culture, but only that which is opposed to it, it can simply be ignored by those who presume to tell us what art is or is not.

    Just as any mark of man is now considered ugly and polluting and destructive by the ultra-refined and oh so chic arbiters of the tranzi culture, so too is any design or construction or project that serves a useful purpose, or even just attempts to portray something of life’s beauty and mystery, immediately denigrated as being too commercial, or corrupted by crass utility.

    The reason for the supposed lack of art in modern life is that art has been defined out of everything we do except that which is an affront, or pointless.

    There is a crisis in the world of art, yes, indeed. But it consists of artists who have nothing but audacity to display, instead of talent, and a philosophy of art which has abandoned any attempt to relate to the beauty of reality, and only sees the ugly and shocking.

    Once again, I have gone on and on. My apologies, and please accept my appreciation for your courtesy.

  • jerry

    ‘I think it is wrong to compare an expensive enterprise like science with some artiste’ who flings poop at a canvas and calling it a commentary on ‘man’s inhumanity towards man’ or ‘man at work’ or ‘everything I eat turns to poop’ or ….

    This is a large piece of the problem – if YOU don’t realize and appreciate ( and are therefore willing to donate some of your wealth – or have those of us who DO appreciate it confiscate some of your wealth ) and understand the significance and value and meaning and and and and of this ‘art’ then obviously, you are too simple/stupid/ignorant/uneducated/unsophisticated/unworthy enough to ‘UNDERSTAND’ it and its VALUE !!!

    Science, on the other hand ( before ‘consensus’ took the place of science – repeatability and / or verification – ( see global warming – OOPS ‘climate change’-that way we’re covered either way !!) is very expensive and may or may not lead to anything ‘worthwhile’ quickly – however, I would rather fund science than- as Steven says – some artiste doing what the intelligentsia say we ALL should appreciate.
    If Picasso, ( or Monet or Whistler or Van Gogh or any of dozens of others had NEVER painted ANYTHING – would the world or any of us be worse off ??
    I think not.
    Sabin, Salk, Currie, Fleming, Bayer – had they not ( and no one else had ) done what they did – the world might be quite different as opposed to the ‘benefit’ of a bunch of paintings/sculptures/hanging canvases and bottles full of urine !!!

  • lucklucky

    Starting the fact that he talks about Picasso in a positive way makes me wary. He could get much better artists…

    Second and more relevant how can he say that “Humans excel at wasting time, experimenting, playing, creating, and exploring”

    Humans are very different and i know several, in my case the majority, that don’t excel in anything of that.

    ““Third” industrial revolution (the Internet and so forth) has been far less transformative and productive than the Second one (electricity, etc).”

    It is less. For now. We don’t know the future, it might change – for e.g. i expect it to change the politics -
    But now it is at diminishing returns level.

  • admin

    Julie: Use of more than one URL in a comment is an instant moderation flag because it looks spammy.

    I could push the limit up to two – but that would just mean that as soon as someone hits three they would complain similarly.

    Is one not adequate? Would two be adequate?

  • JohnB

    I fear that London’s elitist and corporatist illusions, built unfortunately on the sound intitiatives of people such as Horace Cutler and Margaret Thatcher during the late 1970s to 80s, are about to implode under the weight of their own unsustainable illusions.
    Enjoy the Olympics afterglow but rather think to reality.

  • MakajazMakako

    “There is a crisis in the world of art”

    Really? If you take say Juxtapoz as being the most commercially succesful art magazine


    Then there are the hundreds of thousands of magazines, blogs and websites that jutapoz link to which link to others,
    Walk around any European capital and art is splashed acrosss the streets and anything that doesn’t move and alot of things that do move
    I don’t really see any crisis.

  • Steven


    If I’m reading your reply correctly, you make the argument that part of the science funding is driven by some collectivist mentality. I just don’t think that’s the case. I’ll freely admit that climate science and nuclear engineering have been assailed for political reasons, but I don’t think that is the fault of science (although scientists are human beings and some will do unethical things for money).

    Science is one of those things that really is a public good. It benefits everyone alive. The search for knowledge about the world around us, the increased technology, advances in medicine, and so on. I have no more problem with government funding of science, (either directly by grants to scientists or universities or indirectly as spinoffs of military research) than I do with the funding of police departments and public libraries. The benefits simply outweigh the expense. Just think of all the technological advances that came about solely because of the Moon Race.

    Science is unbelievebly expensive. There simply are no other organizations out there that can fund some of these projects. I can’t think of a single company that has the 20 billion dollars lying around to build and operate the LHC just to try to find some sub-atomic particles that decay in 1.5×10^-23 seconds. There’s just no immediate practical benefit that can be turned around to recoup those financial expenses in a project like that. Which company will spend the billions to develop and maintain the Hubble Space Telescope just for some pictures that people will ooh and aah over for a few moments? How many private foundations can establish and permanently support Antarctic research stations? How many private concerns could even come up with the infrastructure money to suppost a fledgling space program? Could a Boeing or McDonnell-Douglas send ships to every corner of the globe in the off-chance that a Mercury-Gemini-Apollo capsule might splash down someplace not expected? Would they have even gone through the effort of building a space program just for a few hundred pounds of moon rocks?

    (I will freely acknowledge that there is a lot of corporate foundation funding and grants out there, but the vast majority of money available for science in the US comes from some government entity’s budget.)

    But as much as the money end of it comes into play, I think the more important aspect is the openness of science. Part of the whole scientific process is to report the results to everyone. It is against that scientific principle to restrict the findings to a select number of people which is something that is a very real possibility if corporations are the only ones funding science. It’s bad enough with scientific journals charging thousands of dollars per year for subscriptions when the journals do nothing more than typesetting and printing. They don’t do the research, they don’t do the writing, they don’t do the peer review or refereeing, but the journals are still raking in the money. (Here’s a short video explaining open access: http://www.phdcomics.com/tv/#015 )

    Beyond that there is the possibility of a conflict of interest. Let’s say BigPharmCo is in the business of selling cancer treatment drugs. One of their researchers figures out how to cure cancer with a one time pill. Is BigPharmCo going to give up decades of income from all their various treatments in favor of doing something altruistic or will they supress the results in favor of continuing to make money? As much as I’d like to think they’ll benefit humanity by selling the cancer curing pill, the Randian in me thinks the financial self-interest will win out and millions will continue to suffer and die just so BigPharmCo can make a few bucks. If history has illustrated nothing else it has illustrated that money wins in the debate between profit and doing the right thing (see also: paying in script, the company store syndrome, Love Canal, Edison and Tesla) Or suppose BigPharmCo’s research is kept internal, but if a researcher at MegaDrugInc had seen that research she could have made another breakthrough. Or when your engineer makes a new scientific discovery in the process of doing engineering work. Should Boeing Areospace alone have access to the mathematics that underlies how some piece of the universe works? If Boeing figures out how cold fusion works, should they just keep their mouths shut and let other researchers waste years and untold money to chase a rabbit that has already been caught?

    Those are just hypothetical, but there are real life examples where science in private hands gets into a very murky gray area, especially where science and politics meet. Everything Montsanto and Archer Daniels Midland does with genetic engineering fits into that area. Or pateenting the human genome. Or when science is under attack by religious dogma dressed up like science (primarily Intelligent Design). The use of science in political agendas like environmentalism, climate economics, and stopping nuclear power come immediately to mind. These are all issues we can see today by opening a newspaper.

    I’m not saying that there aren’t issues involving the ethics of science and that public funding is the end all-be all solution. Clearly taking the scientific findings and having engineers put them to work in making new inventions and patents is one thing; it’s taking those scientific findings and doing something with them but that’s not the same as making the discovery in the first place. But I also don’t think it’s as simple as saying science is too publicly funded because of collectivist thought. But publicly funded science solves a lot of those problems simply because the economic realities prohibit private funding and because too many of the discoveries cannot be turned into a product for sale and because of the openness that is part and parcel of what science is all about.

  • Laird

    Steven, I understand your argument, I just don’t accept it. The possibility (elusive and often purely speculative) of public benefits from “pure” scientific research does not justify the theft of resources to pay for it. If I’m unwilling to fork over a few dollars to “ooh” and “ahh” over some Hubble Telescope photos I shouldn’t be forced to pay for them (or it). Likewise if I think that the LHC is a collossal waste of money unlikely to ever provide a return within several orders of magnitude of its cost.

    Saying “The benefits simply outweigh the expense” doesn’t cut it. One simply cannot make such a blanket generalization and expect to be taken seriously. Each project must be analyzed individually, and only those with sufficient merit undertaken. Resources are finite and must be invested thoughtfully and carefully. There doesn’t need to be (indeed, can’t be) any guarantee of success, merely some liklihood of it reasonably related to the expected benefit to be derived. And the only rational way of doing so if the profit motive is retained, and the expenses are borne by individuals or entities willing to undertake the rists. That description does not, and cannot, apply to governments.

    Yes Big Science is expensive. But in part that’s a corollary of Parkinson’s Law: research expands to fit the budget available. I suspect that much research is so huge only because there’s money for it; absent that funding it would be scaled down to something smaller and more affordable (and more likely to generate a return sufficient to justify the cost). And, frankly, some of it is simply not worth undertaking. I may like space exploration as much as you, but if my neighbor does not neither you nor I has any right to pick his pocket to subsidize our fantasies. Rather, you and I should be investing in SpaceX or one of the other entrants into that market. Put your money where your mouth is, but don’t put my money where your mouth is. And, I would point out, to a very large extent the reason space exploration is so obscenely expensive is precisely because it is government-run (see the Parkinson corollary above). NASA does everything gold-plated and triply redundant. Private enterprise could have, does, and will do better.

    The old Bell Labs did remarkable things, some quite large, and was purely private. There are large enterprises today equally capable, and possessing the financial wherewithal to undertake similar types of projects, but there is no reason for them to do so as long as the governemnt is subsidizing research. It’s like with charity: government usurpation of the function has driven much of the private sector out of that market. Mere size isn’t necessarily an obstacle to private research. If the project has merit several companies will band together to do it. And your complaints about Monsanto and ADM, while perfectly valid, are not arguments in favor of government science, but rather in favor of rationalizing the patent system.

    Government is power, nothing more and nothing less. As such, it is inherently corrupt and corrupting. Granted, private wealth is, too, but it does not exist in the concentrations as does government and moreover is subject to competitive forces which never trouble governments. The bottom line is that government must be kept out of science, because inevitably government corrupts everything it touches. And if that means that scientific progress advances a little bit slower, well, so be it: as I said, resources are finite. You can’t have everything you want when you want it. Life is tough that way.

  • Julie near Chicago


    Thanks for the explanation, which also answers my somewhat plaintive query, in another discussion, on the same issue.

    But by my lights, provision of pertinent references — which in this case means provision of links to source material so that readers may verify that the material is not in any way misrepresented; courtesy where it’s due (as, in this case, to Philip and CCiZ); and leads to possible further items of interest on the same or closely-related topics which discuss issues pertinent to the immediate posting; all of these more than justify however many links it takes. Such links, after all, amount to footnoted references in a printed book.

    Obviously, for those who are like-minded, the limit is easy enough to get around now that you’ve explained…but then, I have to ask whether you and Perry wish us to follow the letter of the Law or its spirit? If you’ll settle for the letter I’m content; but if you seriously want only one linked reference per posting, I note my disagreement, although of course I’ll follow your wishes.



  • veryretired

    I tried to write a response to the above comments by M and S, but the gods of the internet ate it, so I will let a shortened version suffice. (cue massive sigh of relief from admin)

    I did not invent the idea of a crisis in the world of art. It has been noted and discussed for a long time by those, like me, who are unimpressed with the relentless advocacy of meaningless crap and untalented hucksters, and the snide snobbery of the art elites who seem to be playing a perverse game of seeing how low and content free they can push the definition of art.

    Respected museums and art expositions have, within the last few decades, included exhibits such as a pile of dirt in the corner of a bare room, an empty room whose light cycled on and off, cut up animals, and various forms of human waste supposedly arranged into an artistic statement.

    I will agree the latter exhibits did make a very powerful statement as to the current state of the arts—it’s crap, no matter how you try to dress it up.

    There are artists of talent and accomplished technique out there. Unfortunately, one must wade through piles of garbage to find them hidden over in a corner, disdained by the elites of the modern salon.

    Laird responded very effectively regarding my earlir point about science. I would only add two points.

    One, there is a pervasive collectivist fallacy that has infiltrated into every level of our culture that claims if the state doesn’t do something, it won’t get done.

    The crisis mongers in the past century have gone to this well repeatedly, and with great success, as they pushed the state into labor relations, education at all levels, health, environmental issues, and any number of other areas. I can hear echoes of that justification in the comment about the necessity of having the state ffund science.

    In fact, the space race, and many other hi-tech endeavors by our society, were specifically driven by the cold war competition between the US and the soviets. Absent that catalyst, why would we spend hundreds of billions on moon missions?

    Two, it is unpersuasive to me to claim that the future of science is threatened by men and women trying to make a living, but would be protected by the cadres and organs of the state.

    I find political control of resources inferior to economic control in nearly every case, and the decision making of politicians inferior to that of creative entrepeneurs.

    Your mileage may vary. Happy new year.

  • admin

    Hi Julie,

    The software needs a reasonable number. Suggest one.

  • Julie near Chicago

    Are you serious, Alec? If so, I’d say three…but it’s such a judgment call. I haven’t looked over any of the comments from the Mark II version (I think it was), but it seems to me there were some that did include several links. However, it would take a lot for me to post more than three links.

    However, a lot of people embed the link under a word or phrase. (I don’t myself, because not all browsers show the URL when you mouse over the link.) I don’t know if your spambot would count those.

    Thanks for taking my thought seriously. :>)

  • Fiend's Brave Victim

    Jerry: What a bleak, utilitarian wasteland of a planet you must live on to think that all of the artists that you mention didn’t utterly revolutionise the experience of living for many millions of people. As dorky atheists are so fond of saying: where science ends philosophy (and therefore aesthetics) begins. As they usually fail to point out science sure as hell falls woefully short of anything like rounded understanding, and so I’ll take all of the art I can get thanks.

  • admin

    @Julie: Done. Three links are legal, more than three links (or other squiffyness) = held for moderation. Perry gets to veto it if it causes problems, but I think it will be OK.

  • Julie near Chicago

    Thanks, Admin. Thou art a prince among Webmasters!