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The point of the pointless: to understand and do good

Is there any point to reading Anna Karenina or listening to Brahms’ First Symphony, gazing upon Antonello da Messina’s Portrait of a Man or watching the Luchino Visconti classic The Leopard or Shakespeare’s play The Merchant of Venice? For a businessperson this is just wasted, unproductive time, isn’t it? That is, of course, mostly a rhetorical question. We could answer it by saying that this playing with emotions or the irony in a smile helps us to better manage the complexity of human capital, which is the most important asset of any business, but which mustn’t be seen as making mere numbers out of individuals. Or we could say that nothing explains the stupidity of certain laws of the marketplace better than Shylock’s demand for a pound of flesh (in The Merchant of Venice when Antonio defaults on a loan). But it may be worth going beyond this idea of direct utility and look with a bit more lightness (a skill which is essential in these uncertain times of such rapid change, as Kundera, and Calvino before him, have taught us) at what sort of attitude it now takes in today’s economy to manage a business without being overwhelmed by short-term, short-sighted utilitarianism and productivism, but rather with an emphasis on “sustainable” development – sustainable environmentally, socially and, above all, over the long term.

Time. This is a key point. It’s a subject for philosophers, physicists and other scientists and deep thinkers, from relativity and quantum physics and beyond. Productivism tells us to produce x pieces in x minutes. Quantity over time. But more sophisticated competitive efforts focus, above all, on quality, and here the interplay of attention to detail, design, technological innovation, and the ability to understand more sophisticated needs plays a crucial role. Knowledge; making something that is safe, functional and beautiful; uniting form and function in new ways (such as the Olivetti Lettera 22 typewriter, the Brembo ceramic and diamond-dust brake, or the tread pattern on a Pirelli snow tyre). Giving the market things that are right for these changing times and that build our future. It’s a cultural challenge, so it is not by chance that World, Pirelli’s international weekly magazine, dedicated its latest issue to time in all its many faces, including explanations from great intellectuals such as Jacques Attali, Jacques le Goff and Zygmunt Baumann.

Productive time or a waste of time? Or is it time which, precisely because it was wasted so extravagantly and without purpose, is, paradoxically, extremely helpful in making discoveries and innovations that a more linear, productivity-oriented line of thinking would never have achieved.  In the words of Eugene Ionesco, “If one does not understand the usefulness of the useless and the uselessness of the useful, one cannot understand art.” Indeed, this relationship with artistic creativity has always been a key trait of the best Italian enterprises (see Olivetti and Pirelli above), as frequently recounted by painters, writers, poets (e.g. Sinisgalli), philosophers, designers and photographers, not so much to describe industry and the business world as to cultivate eccentric thinking – or even heretical thinking – the kind of thinking that can lead to profound innovation. This can also be seen in the highly useful, as well as highly enjoyable book by the philosopher Nuccio Ordine, L’utilità dell’inutile: Manifesto (The usefulness of the useless: A manifesto), which documents how philosophy and literature, poetry and music, open scientific research and pure mathematical speculation continue to be of essential importance in a free society in which we must nurture an economy (and so a culture of enterprise) that is able to help bring greater balance to the world. The book closes with an essay (published here for the first time in Italian) by Abraham Flexner, the founder and director of the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton in the 1930s and champion of the freedom of useless research. In The usefulness of useless knowledge, Flexner says that if Maxwell and Hertz had not conducted studies in the fields of magnetism and electricity, driven not by their utility, but solely by an extraordinary degree of scientific curiosity, Marconi would never have had the material he needed to “invent” the radio. This is an example that can also be replicated in other fields. And what does it mean? Nearly all inventions have a long, complicated story behind them. One person makes the first, partial discovery; another sheds light on another aspect and so on until some genius puts together all the pieces and makes the decisive contribution. So where does the uselessness of research end and the usefulness of practical application begin? Or is this question itself actually what is useless?