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The conditions of quality

Tony Curzon Price
Tony Curzon Price
22 August 2007

A conversation with Carl Djerassi has no chance of running out of subject-matter. The energetic octogenarian, whose latest play has just opened in New York, was a Viennese emigré of the 1930s, the first chemist to synthesise the Pill, is a professor at Stanford, a collector of Paul Klee, and the author of novels, plays and dialogues. He has made a mark as an industrialist, a scientist, a man of letters and a patron. He moves between these realms with comfort, and preserves across them a remarkable sense of what is intrinsically valuable. He synthesised the Pill before the sexual revolution, he collected Klee before the resurgence of interest in early German expressionism ... and before crowd-soursing and user-generated content was the mantra of the web-age, he had his class at Stanford perform a collaborative writing exercise that was of such high quality and interest that it was published by Nature.

Play the full podcast, or listen to individual answers below.


A first lunch with Carl led me to trya renga of our own at openDemocracy. Intrigued by our experience, I returned to ask Carl about the way that uncoordinated, disorganised, processes create well-ordered, even pleasing outcomes.

This is what our rengas attempted: to devise a process that takes written snippets from many sources and turn them into a story. This is also what the scientific process does: to take many experiments and hypotheses from diverse groups and turn them, through institutions like peer-review, reputation and appointment, into an accumulating view of the nature of things. And it is what the market does: to take individual motivations, desires and life-plans and turn them into products. And it is even what Klee was famous for doing, taking a diversity of techniques, themes and association and assembling these into single coherent paintings.

The web, with the endless permutation and recombination that the digital allows, is still struggling with the same question: what is the order that the technologies of information are making, and do we like it? Can we discover how order emerges from individual behaviour and thereby create an order by manipulating the conditions and environment of emergence? This is what every digital publication that tries to tap into the energy of the web is attempting today.

Finally, and maybe most fundamentally, this type of ordered emergence is also a central challenge of how we live together: how can the rules, ideals, constraints and dispositions we each individually live with create an ordered world for us and for the future?

Overambitious as a lunch-time agenda, we got through a bit of it.

When the market creates order, no individual is responsible. This is the sense in which it is "emergent''. Yet, when order is created in a novel, a film or even a scientific theory, it is usually authored in the sense that someone or some group will take the credit and the blame for it. Hence my first question to Carl: when we try to implement "crowd-sourcing'', to use the new information technologies to aggregate information into coherent wholes, can we eliminate the author, as the market succeeds in doing?

Djerassi: the author cannot disappear

In science, with its massive collaborative teams, you get recognition, but not always a clear sense of seniority. From where does the order emerge? How much direction, structure and hierarchy does it need? I try to challenge Carl on the idea of "egalitarian order'' - the first paragraph of the renga has to be selected with care, Carl warned us, before we started the openDemocracy experiments. Is this not the "visible hand'' of authorship by another name?

Djerassi: competition and collaboration both act as visible hands

It is intriguing that John Casti, the scientist most associated with the science of emergence, was himself the creator of a renga. And that Carl returns to the notion of a chess game, with its balance between cooperation - we all agree to play by these rules - and competition to create a framework for excellence. This is a familiar theme from economics, where an ordered structure of production requires the framework of law and the stability of institutions as well as competition as a discipline against the abuse of power. Well ordered production comes out of competition within a framework of rights over goods.

Carl has used the renga and his fiction to explore questions of ethics. So is "good judgment'' and emergent property part of these processes? Is this a model for the creation, or at least uncovering, of our collective values? I start with a quote from Carl's Marx Deceased

Djerassi: Self-judgement is not really possible, which is why the test of value in science is usefulness

Carl has been a successful entrepreneur as well as scientist and author. I try the thought on him that the measure of value in applied matters is success in the market: if Carl accepts this then at least some of the ways that emergence leads to value - the ways described by economics - might be a model for thinking about the emergence of other qualities. But Carl refuses the parallel, with a strong condemnation of the "social junk'' that the market can produce.

Djerassi:The market's propensity to produce social junk

So what are the levels of judgment? I am still after an answer that will offer a guide to emergent, crowd-sourcing design problems. It is not the market, it is not the author ...so what actually makes judgment possible? I try to ask the question in its most general form: with a scientific worldview, what allows the existence of qualities of good and bad?

Djerassi: applied science is contrained by ethics as other social practices are.

Carl considers the Manhattan project, but still finds that the basis of judgment is elusive and slippery. I come back to why the renga is a good vehicle for exploring ethical issues, and especially whether its collective nature is what make the form good for the emergence of ethical qualities.

Djerassi: collaboration, fiction and anonymity allowed ethics to be discussed.

What is the difference between a renga and a blog? The web is throwing up the question of the conditions of distributed quality with great frequency. Carl sings the praises of the first, but cares little for the second. In his view, it is behind-the-scenes control, the "distance form the topic'' that is essential to the production of quality.

Djerassi: distance is a necessary condition of quality.

But if behind-the-scenes control, the work of a puppeteer, is necessary to create quality out of the crowd-source, then is there a fundamental incompatibility with a particular notion of the transparency and equality required of politics? Can power be exercised from a privileged position and the outcome still be judged to be fair, transparent and democratic?

This is a question which preoccupies Jurgen Habermas in his research into the conditions for equality in dialogue, and Hannah Arendt with her attempt to define a modern and common public realm. What struck me in Carl Djerassi's reflections is that despite his own role in the creation of value across many realms - science, business, writing, patronage - his message is always one of caution: of how contingent the good outcomes are.

When the market, with its distributed filtering by effort and price can so easily create "social junk'', where are we heading with the crowd-sourced web, where even these filters are usually absent?

 

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