Sunday, June 26, 2011

Covalent Commerce

Chemists Gilbert N. Lewis and Irving Langmuir should be household names given the degree to which their contribution to chemistry is mentioned daily in the press. And 92 years ago this month, it was GE’s Irving Langmuir – the patent holder on the incandescent light – who introduced the principle of ‘covalence’ into our understanding of the chemical structure of molecules (Journal of the American Chemical Society, Vol. XLI, January – June 1919, pgs 868-934). While we wouldn’t understand things like carbon dioxide or water without this basic understanding of the cooperation of electrons within molecules, what I find more intriguing is the wisdom contained inside the code of Lewis’ and Langmuir’s treatises. And, for those regular readers of InvertedAlchemy, you’ll recall my affection for the Coulomb Effect, described by Charles-Auguston de Coulomb two centuries ago which helped Lewis and Langmuir understand atomic polarities and helped us describe what I have called ‘Fusion Enterprise’.

A decade ago (and posted in reprise last week), I gave a speech on the ‘Knowledge Economy and the Cross of Gold’. In this address I focused on the systemic risks that I saw emerging in our delusional migration from productivity to disembodied ‘knowledge’ economic principles and practices. My concern, borne out entirely since then, was that dissociation between commerce and productivity would threaten the very core of our economic ecosystem. Further, I suggested that, as we saw the expanding chasm between productive engagement and irresponsible detachment, we would undoubtedly see a frenzy of phantasmal ‘solutions’ to our accountability failures. In short, as we found ourselves increasingly foundering in the cold dark seas of our own illusions, we would simply play ‘Nearer My God To Thee’ louder to drown out the noise of the sinking Titanic and its passengers.

The ‘knowledge economy’ is dead. Tragically, it died because we failed to learn from our Greek forbearers the difference between knowledge borne of consideration and experience and knowledge derived from passive, superficial observation. In our made-for-sound-bite world, we mistook the noise of cacophonic ‘information’ hawkers for knowledge. Inquiry and careful analysis withered with our obsession to quantify learning through standardized tests and, at its zenith, standardized knowledge became the ultimate oxymoron. We adopted a consensus and it was an illusion.

This proclamation is not a calamity in any form. It is, in fact, the cause for great celebration. It turns out that the term ‘Knowledge Economy’, attributed by Peter Drucker’s Age of Discontinuity (1969) to the work of his colleague and fellow Austrian, Fritz Machlup in 1962, was popularized by a man who also posited in 1984 that compensation inequities (CEO’s making anything in excess of 20 times the rank and file) were “morally and socially unforgivable and we’ll pay a heavy price for it.”

Preening its wings in the early dawn of the Covalent Commerce economic cycle is a red-crowned crane – historically Sinic symbols for longevity, peace, friendship, fidelity and good luck. Arguably one of the most painted life forms in China, I find the crane as an interesting metaphor for the economic cycle to come.

Covalence is a bond that is formed by the sharing of electrons. However, what makes covalence particularly poignant is not the presence of shared energy but the fact that, for the bond to work, the electrons are sharing utility in action. And what makes this principle so attractive as a commerce metaphor is the recognition that covalent bonds exist between identical and dissimilar atoms alike. The atomic nuclei in molecules that enjoy covalent bonds retain their unique identities however achieve their molecular destiny through shared energy. As with the iconic crane, each individual has grace and elegance in isolation but achieves its symbolic utility in the presence of others.

The principles of covalent commerce are quite simple. Priorities shift from divisional, defended enclosures, to marginal benefit optimized collaboration. Benefit is derived from bounded, quantified recognition of interdependence rather than extractive tariffs on intersections and intermediaries. And, above all, detached isolationism is rejected for jointly accretive associative action in which greater utility is a direct consequence of entanglement.

In a world where the captains of the incumbency have all become marionettes in an macabre dance of destruction and denial, it is appropriate to consider that, We the People, are confronted with an opportunity to take stock of our future. We can listen to the chaos of desperation as we figure out how to concoct euphemisms for default, dereliction of duty and breach of public trust or, as the red-crested crane, take flight and find our fortunes in fidelity with other covalently bound energy.

1 comment:

  1. I hear David saying it is not easy (possible?)to participate in covalent commerce alone. We need others to enter into a covalent space, other red-crowned cranes if you will. But then I so often find myself isolated in my geographic space and I am tempted to find covalency in "virtual" (not)space. Might we resort to being virtual red-crowned cranes? Larry


Thank you for your comment. I look forward to considering this in the expanding dialogue. Dave