Stony Brook University

New Tech Blog: Max On Media
Max On Media is a technology-based blog written by Burke Liburt. Burke Liburt is the co-founder and CMO of SynchroPET, a biomedical device company that has licensed patented nuclear imaging technologies from Brookhaven National Laboratories. He has developed marketing strategies at television groups (Dun & Bradstreet/ ABC Television) and at his own multi-media company. Read Max On Media Now!
Stony Brook Innovation Center Blog

The World As Metaphor (or How I Stopped Worrying That Common Core Is A Chore)

Sep 02 2014

The most helpful topic for an Innovation Center blog would seem to be examining whether innovativeness can be instilled in people the way installing computer programs enables us to do different things, and if so, how is it downloaded, or learned?  Is there a single Skill Set underpinning all the other attributes that are identifiable in the majority of innovators, short of the few savants floating around, and even there?  Do innovations like the light bulb and Internet arise out of nowhere, or evolve as species do: putting similar things together again and again, and how is that done? 


In an essay of the same title as this post (without the Dr. Strangelove allusion), the towering literary critic, Northrop Frye, posited that we plunder the seas, the forests, and the land because fish, trees, and mountains have lost much of their metaphoric meaning to all too many of us.  Nor would I be the first to suggest that 30 million people have been killed in wars of all kinds since WW II—what some call WW III, which came and continues without much fanfare unless it threaten us—for the same reason.  Human life is cheap everywhere, not just Casablanca, as ‘twas said to be there in that movie.  Our own sense of our very selves is further diminished as the scale of institutions that touch our lives expands.  If the banks are “too big to fail,” are we not too small to matter?  Don Quixote was searching for a way to surmount this loss over 400 years ago, and if Gulliver’s Travels and The Castle are any indication, it’s been downhill ever since.
        A 3rd Grader leaned across my desk on 6/5/2006, and asked if I’d heard that the world was coming to an end the next day when the 6’s were lined up.  I said I hadn’t, but if he thought about it, the world does come to an end every time someone like him dies needlessly, if only for that person, and the only reason the rest of us don’t see it is that we’re all stuck in our own little worlds.  The comment blew through the entire district like a wildfire.  I got called to the superintendent’s office the next morning, to find out why their phones were ringing off the hook from parents whose children were demanding that they do something to stop the madness—now
It’s all very easy—too easy—to bite the matter off with a smile, and move on to whatever else you have to do today to get ahead; only, one need hardly follow the news to know how precarious everyone’s position is nowadays.  Why quibble about how many millions of people have lost their job or home since a dozen or so people got together on Wall Street one Sunday night a few years ago and played Monopoly with the world, or calculate the cost to you of the 50% or more drop-out rate far and wide, in today’s world where everyone is intertwined in ways that are very real, remote as they may seem? 
A generation ago—human ones—computers began doing what people do faster and more accurately than even Einstein could.  While people prepare for new jobs, smarter people than them are putting those jobs on software that computers do, instead.  The result is that people who can only do what they’re told are functionally obsolete.  Like creatures in the wild that are already extinct, although some still survive, such people are still around; they just have no future in our society.  People who continually improve what they’re told, however, are forever irreplaceable.  That is done by continually equating unknowns to constants in ever new ways.
Our bodies and the very atoms of which we are composed, have a relatively uniform structure, aside from those male/female differences that enable procreation—that is to say, ever-innovative evolution—different as each person and chemical element may be.  It not only stands to reason that the very information we use to understand the world and ourselves, likewise would; a cursory examination of information supports the precept.  Every song and essay has anecdotes; every anecdote and song has exposition; every anecdote and essay has lyricism.
When we learn to classify things according to common characteristics, we categorize them variously in more and more intricate and broad sets.  PBS recently aired documentaries about “The Fish in Us,” “The Reptile in Us,” and so forth.  Who’d’ve thunk it?  Information is no different.  We determine the components of anecdotes the same way we ascertained their universal part in the structure of information altogether, by what they all have in common: characters, actions, settings, and time frames.  Our mind innately formulates information anecdotally when we dream, and draws analogies between those characters, actions, settings or time frames to others like them, from our vast store of knowledge and experiences, applying what we know to what we don’t.  Formulating information that way when we’re awake is knowing how learn; not remembering facts and formulas. 

Most of the words on a page are connective articles, prepositions, and conjunctions like the stalks and leaves that conceal corn husks.  When The Uniform Structure of Information thinks for you, the key Elements of Composition in reading passages are highlighted in your mind like a reaper separating the kernels of nourishment, reducing or eliminating the need to reread passages for answers to questions about them.
The muses have been spoken of as sisters since time immemorial because they share Common Characteristics and derive from the same sources: control and chaos, just as random events fall into orderly patterns from the laws of science.  All of the arts have a certain content, form, style, and tone.  The form of abstract painting, for instance, is more explicit than that of realistic painting, and reality, by the same token, is more implicit; the form of realistic painting, on the other hand, is more implicit, and reality more explicit.  Perhaps a better example is the explicit form of musical composition, as in the almost unbelievable variations of the bu-bu-bu-bumm, with which the first movement of Beethoven’s 5th Symphony begins, or the equally renowned, recurring three notes in the first movement of his Moonlight Sonata.  Their meaning, on the other hand, are implicit.  Dig up Keats’ sonnet, “What the Thrush Said,” or Yeats’ poem, “Who Goes With Fergus,” which haunts Stephen Dedalus in the beginning of Ulysses.  Notice the use of air, water, light, and land images right in the beginning of each, connotating what you might call an internal ecology: knowledge is light; we cry when we’re sad, sweat when we’re afraid, boil when we’re angry, so waters are associated with emotion; trees, stones, and the ground with our corporeal selves, and our spirit with the wind.  The meaning is explicit; the form, implicit.  Another book of Dr. Frye’s is called Anatomy of Criticism.  As they say, you can’t make this stuff up.
Part of the magic of art is that, unlike our eyes, a flower in the foreground, deer in the middle ground, and waterfall in the background can be in focus simultaneously. The Craft of Fiction by Percy Lubbock is an incisive examination of the challenge in writing of moving back and forth from panoramic overviews of events to scenic descriptions as they occur, without narrators’ losing dramatic authenticity by intruding on a story from the shifts of focus for the reader.  As Isaac Babel put it in a short story called “My First Fee,” “A well-thought-out story doesn’t need to resemble real life.  Life itself tries with all its might to resemble a well-crafted story.”  Might one extrapolate from that that it also tries to induce innovations, if we but train our eyes to see them, just as we all live The Odyssey every day like the Dubliners in Ulysses, one way or another?  As Chris Argyris put it in The Fifth Discipline Fieldbook, "People don't talk about what they see; they see only what they can communicate."  You cannot care about what you don’t comprehend.

The laws of composition are as omnipresent and inviolable as those of science, and just as invisible until we learn about them.  The better we understand them, the better we see them in our lives and can use them to accomplish goals, becoming the innovators of our own destiny.  The Problem hasn’t been the math, science, history, or what not, but learning how to learn, to begin with.  And the beauty is, both can be taught at the same time. 



Stony Brook University Innovation Center, Stony Brook, NY 11794-3775

Phone: 631.632.7171
Fax: 631.632.8181