September 15, 2007
MarkBernstein.org
 
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Plenitude

by Rich Gold

Gold explores the four hats of innovation (science, art, engineering, design) and the seven "patterns" of innovation (necessity, genius, deduction, extrapolation, colonization, improvement, and redefinition). Perhaps it is inevitable for discussions of first principles to seem deceptively elementary, but Gold depends heavily on hand-waving and the argument rests lightly on observation. Some of his details are wrong.

As an example of "colonization", he looks at Campbell's line of “Home Cookin’” soups, which he says take something free (homemade soup), reprocess the concept, and sell it back to the consumer. But homemade soup is not free: when I make corn chowder from fresh Wilson's Farm corn, wild boar bacon, and potatoes and herbs from The Farm School, the ingredients cost a lot. So does my time. He says,

What makes real homemade soup wonderful is the variation and the work.

How about the taste? The aroma? Color? Texture? The interesting folks to whom you serve it? This is notpicking, yes, but if you're this wrong in the Theory of Soup, how far can you be trusted in the Theory of Art?

Gold is similarly confused about the position of originality (which he also calls creativity) in what he calls "our culture".

There are cultures where the telling of stories means retelling the same stories that your parents told you. The power of the story, in fact, comes from the retelling of it over and over again. In its consistency, its sameness, it provides the eternal. In our culture, this is called copyright infringement.

I read this after seeing a production of Henry V in Manchester, a production filled with allusion to old events (when Prologue speaks of war, a single poppy petal drifts down from above). This contradicts Gold: we're always telling old stories. But, worse, "retelling the same stories that your parents told you," to someone whose birth certificate read "Richard Goldstein", surely must be an allusion to the duty of Passover, the responsibility to tell the tale. So, yes, we've got a complex issue surrounding originality and storytelling, just as we've got complex issues that surround all sorts of ownership of physical things.

Gold isn't just oversimplifying; he must know, here, that he's misrepresenting. When he writes,

The sense of eternalness in our culture in our culture comes from everything being ever new.

he knows that this is not true of his culture or my culture but only of some imaginary parody of Valley Girl culture. His contempt for those valley girls is here matched by his contempt for his reader, whom he apparently considers too lazy or too ignorant to see the vast range of objections. When Gold muses about the morality of the Plenitude and its confusion of the real and the simulated, the sign and the signifier, he seems to think that Plato's cave is not already jammed with tour groups.

Gold thinks that all university students are learning to make stuff for the Plenitude. But what of those who will, next year, be actors? Psychiatrists? Sex workers? And while farmers and cooks make stuff, that stuff is promptly consumed.

Gold thinks the Plenitude "creates a world that any dispassionate observer would have to say lies somewhere between bland and ugly." Sounds right. Isn't. What lies between bland and ugly? What Gold means, I think, is that the Plenitude lies somewhere between common and vulgar. That might be true; but common is not bland, and if you find that the vulgar is necessarily ugly, then you are a snob.

I wanted to like this book. I first saw it while leaving the Coop, and though late for an appointment I grabbed a copy and marched right back to the cash register. De mortuis nil nisi bonum. He did some good work, and funded some good work, and was on the front lines reconciling art and computing for many years, working in the best and most visible post for the task in the world.