Jambalaya #8 - Ben Franklin and a Jesuit Priest Walk Into a Bar
Hello wonderful readers,
Welcome back to the Jambalaya. I’m taking a quick break from the writing on new models of land ownership and city growth this week. Today I’m sharing one of my favorite Ben Franklin anecdotes and some ideas from one of my favorite books.
Endeavor to Make it Useful
In 1783 Ben Franklin watched the flight of two French balloonists who took off from Paris and landed only seven leagues (about 3.5 miles) away. Asked what possible good this new toy could be, Franklin replied, “What good is a newborn baby?”
In another letter, the English scientists Michael Faraday claimed that Franklin’s own response (and the only rational one at that) was: “Endeavor to make it useful.”
The job of the builder is to take things that feel promising - social technologies or physical ones, and endeavor to make them useful.
Almost without exception, the new things that went on to changed the world began as technological infants. They could only do one or two things, and not very well. They were hard to interact with, understand, and didn’t always do what you wanted them to do.
But technologies, like babies, grow up. It’s impossible to predict exactly what they’ll grow into. All we can do is trust that they will continue growing, ask questions, and do our best to shape them in the way we feel is right.
In a letter to Sir Joseph Banks, President of the Royal Society of London, Franklin explained his experimentalist mindset further. He emphasized the need to be willing to look like a fool, something he thought the English were too proud to do:
In this Country we are not so much afraid of being laught at. If we do a foolish thing, we are the first to laugh at it ourselves, and are almost as much pleased with a Bon Mot or a good Chanson, that ridicules well the Disappointment of a Project, as we might have been with its Success. It does not seem to me a good reason to decline prosecuting a new Experiment which apparently increases the Power of Man over Matter, till we can see to what Use that Power may be applied. When we have learnt to manage it, we may hope sometime or other to find Uses for it, as Men have done for Magnetism and Electricity of which the first Experiments were mere Matters of Amusement.”
Ben Franklin, perhaps the most practical individual of all time, understood it was a mistake to judge something new by the measure of practicality too early. Do things because they’re interesting and fun. If it fails, make a joke about it and move on to the next one. The right attitude is curiosity, not judgment.
Today, I think this same thinking applies best to new social technologies. We’ve made tremendous progress in inventing new physical and hardware technologies. Experiments in the physical sciences are now mostly the domain of multi-billion dollar labs. In many ways the softer, social technologies that allow humans to cooperate haven’t changed much in centuries. That’s where the most interesting baby-like technologies are today.
The Art of Worldly Wisdom
Today’s quotes are from one of my favorite books of all time, The Art of Worldly Wisdom. Baltasar Gracian was a 17th century Jesuit priest (hence the title) and packed the book full of short, practical life advice like this. Here are a couple of my favorites:
Most things are not obtained simply because they are not attempted.
Without courage, wisdom bears no fruit.
This reminds me of another favorite from Aristotle: “The purpose of knowledge is action, not knowledge”.
Attempt easy tasks as if they were difficult, and difficult as if they were easy; in the one case that confidence may not fall asleep, in the other that it may not be dismayed.
… Remedies often worsen evils. Let nature take its course, and morality. The wise physician knows when to prescribe and when not to, and sometimes it takes skill not to apply remedies. Throwing up your hands is sometimes a good way to put down vulgar storms. If you bow to time for the present, you will conquer in the future. It takes little to muddy a stream. You can’t make it grow clear by trying to, only by leaving it alone. There is no better remedy for disorder than to leave it alone to correct itself.
If you enjoyed this, I would appreciate it if you share it with a friend!
See you next week,