A book I am currently reading is entitled The Engineer of Human Souls, by Czech author Josef Škvorecký. If you know me, you know that I believe there is nothing wrong with judging a book by its cover (in the literal sense). I am a sucker for good packaging. I didn’t even read a description or synopsis of this one– the title immediately lured me as the most interesting I had ever encountered, and the cover design’s manufacturing line with mysterious opaque boxes rolling through it made this an immediate purchase.
I found the book some time ago after hearing about the meaning of Glen Hansard’s new touring name with Czech singer Marketa Irglova, The Swell Season, which is also a book by Škvorecký. I still miss The Frames, for the record. Regardless, Škvorecký’s title caught my attention while looking through his catalogue, and the inspiration apparently came from a quote by another Jose[ph]– Stalin. Take a look at the Wikipedia entry:
The phrase was originally coined by Yury Olesha and then used by Stalin, first during his meeting with the Soviet writers in preparation for the first Congress of the Union of Soviet Writers:
The production of souls is more important than the production of tanks…. And therefore I raise my glass to you, writers, the engineers of the human soul. (Joseph Stalin, Speech at home of Maxim Gorky, 26 October 1932).
It is an intuitive way of describing what writer’s do—creating characters. Manufacturing souls. Manipulating human life. To me, it is interesting because people who view business as evil often also view businessmen and marketers as manipulative. They engineer need through creating new products and services. Others advocate the opposite, and believe they are not creating a need, but filling a need. But, what about innovation? Where do we draw the line between novelty and utility? It is a difficult question without a clear answer. In The Interrogative Mood, Padgett Powell unintentionally sheds light on the subject by asking the reader to answer the ultimate question of what innovation actually accomplishes: “Is the universe running out of steam, or somehow is it getting new steam, or is it just holding the steam it has? “
The purpose of my trip to China was to immerse myself in a world of interdisciplinary innovation. I love nature in a transcendentalist sense, and the way innovation fuses the raw and natural with the human intellect to produce astonishing results is intriguing to me. However, I often wonder if creating is greater than, equal to, or less than doing things the traditional way. Are we making progress? Or are we just manufacturing need to spin wheels? I wonder if the world is a game and, if so, how close we are to winning or losing? Have any of the technical advances we have seen recently even had an effect on the answer to this question? Or, is innovation is simply a means to a more comfortable life on earth? Can we equate progress with gaining steam? Do substance and content matter? Or is progress a sign of demise, no matter the substance or content?
My opinion, as with many things, is that the answer is both. Maybe there is a career for me as an arbitrator. This answer comes from the disparity between my past and my future. Allow me to explain: I am a first generation Houstonian. My parents grew up in Odessa, Texas. While Houston is no New York or Hong Kong, the pace and style of life are much different from my heritage. So, I have both ways of life in my blood. I love sleeping in the desert as much as I love a dry martini. I love the connectivity of the Internet, but hate the constant barrage of connectivity known as Twitter. See where this is going? The answer depends on what a person values. My grandparents in Odessa have everything they could ever want, and new technology doesn’t interest them—not because they are old, but because they don’t value what it can do for them. Whereas, early adopters (which I frequently am) value the intrigue of novelty. The interesting question to me is, what happens when technology outpaces even what early adopters value? I think we are dangerously close to this point in certain cases.
Is it manufacturing need? Is it manipulative? Is it ethical? Is it dangerous? How will we know where to draw the line? Do you believe we will? How will that impact your answer to Powell’s question of steam?