There should be links

This is an entry without any links. And there should be hundred of links. The life of my friend Rosie Dalziel demanded links. On Monday night she died. She had been ill, but even so the fact that she died so suddenly was a shock. Now normally I would not think that this was an appropriate place to record something of such a personal nature, but part of my reaction to her death falls within some of the underlying themes of what I am trying to do here.
I feel angry. Not unusual you might think, feeling angry when some who might have many more years of life dies. But this was different. This was about what happens to people who are trying to do something genuinely new. This is about how hard and lonely it is to be a pioneer. This is about a life cut short before a powerful vision could be realised. This is about the probability that her death will mean that she never gets the recognition she deserved. And this about the fact that when you put her name in to google there are no links and there should be.

Rosie had a vision of a factory that knew what it was doing. She also knew what technologies needed to be developed to make that vision a reality. I don’t know how long she had held that vision, though it must have been at least fifteen years. Fifteen years of slow development. Fifteen years of the project reaching points where it looked as if it must collapse from lack of funds and always she managed to pick it up again. Her work-rate was phenomenal – long, long days, often nights with out sleep. Always the need to raise cash to keep things going.
Rosie had focused on the ceramic tile industry as possibly the most challenging test of her ideas. If they could work there they would almost certainly work in any other traditional batch production industry – wood, leather, food – or indeed any other industry where materials were subjected to a series of different processes.
Her team had their successes. They had a visual inspection machine that could classify tiles as well as any human inspector and in some ways even better and which, unlike a human, could operate effectively 24/7.
Perhaps if she had stopped there, she might have had a more successful business. But in her vision the visual inspection machines were just one component in a network of different kinds of sensor that could measure the critical variables in every stage of the process – a set of feedback loops that would enable the people running a factory to gain a deep, quantifiable knowledge of what was happening and to use that knowledge to monitor and control what was happening in real-time.
Now I guess for many of us all this may sound pretty boring – after all factories are crude, messy places and we know the real action is in this vibrant, creative, knowledge-based economy where we make our living out of thin air (oops and I promised no links. OK here it is).
Rosie was an elegant, sophisticated, somewhat glamorous, woman so why did she choose to devote so much of her life, energy and intellect to something as apparently inelegant, unsophisticated and definitely unglamorous as developing advanced technologies for traditional batch production industries?
Curiously I never asked her that question, so I can only guess. It may have been because she was physicist and the sheer inefficiency of manufacturing industry in terms of the relationship between inputs and outputs may have offended her aesthetic sense. It may have been because she had a great respect for European values and recognised that they needed a strong economic base if they were to be maintained. It may have been because she was a revolutionary and could see that intelligent manufacturing systems would have a massive impact on society as a whole. Or it may simply be that the intellectual challenge of conceiving and bringing together the wide range of disciplines required to create the technologies required to realise the vision was enough in itself. Most probably it was a combination of all these and more.
Whatever the reasons her decision to pursue this vision placed her in a lonely place. I can remember telling her a story about Stafford Beer in one of those low moments when it looked as if her project would fail from lack of resources before she bounced back yet again. Beer had been awarded the Prometheus Medal for innovation. A friend asked him why the medal had that name. Beer replied that he assumed it was because Prometheus had stolen fire from the gods. No, his friend replied, it was because it was an award for innovators and that as punishment for his action Prometheus had been chained to rock with eagles pecking at his liver.
Metaphorically, Rosie spent too much of the fifteen years or so pursuing her vision having her liver pecked by eagles – though vultures or other less noble birds may be a better analogy. And the frustration and anger that some of us who knew feel is that her story didn’t seem to have a happy ending. She didn’t achieve her vision and now it looks as if there will be no one else to carry it forward.
But, writing this piece made me realise three things that to some extent still my anger.
The first is that while my sympathies and loyalties are with the innovators, recognising the frustrations and loneliness they often have to endure, the barriers to genuine innovations may be a necessary and desirable thing. We need a measure of stability to be able to lead meaningful lives. If innovation was easier we would find ourselves overwhelmed by change. So it may be that the barriers and obstacles face by people trying to do new things are the filters that enable us to absorb the amount of of deep change we can cope with at any one time.
Second, while Rosie’s precise vision may not be realised, she was not alone in her endeavour – few scientific and technological ventures are. Somewhere someone is working along similar lines and the revolution in manufacturing practices she was helping to build will happen maybe sooner or maybe later than if she had been able to carry on with her work, but it will happen.
Third, thinking about Rosie, with her amazing ability to hold complex networks of concepts, possibilities and constraints in her head, I was reminded of the following quote:
“I see humanity as a family that has hardly met. I see the meeting of people, bodies, thoughts, emotions or actions as the start of most change. Each link created by a meeting is like a filament, which, if they were all visible, would make the world look as though it is covered in gossamer. Every individual is connected to others, loosely or closely, by a unique combination of filaments which stretch across the frontiers of space and time. Every individual assembles past loyalties, present needs and visions of the future in a web of different contours, with the help of heterogeneous elements borrowed from other individuals; and this constant give-and-take has been the main stimulus of humanity’s energy. Once people see themselves as influencing one another, they cannot be merely victims: anyone, however modest, then becomes a person capable of making a difference, minute though it may be, to the shape of reality. New attitudes are not promulgated by law, but spread, almost like an infection, from one person to another.”
Theodore Zeldin “An Intimate History of Humanity”, Minerva, 1995, pp465-466
Rosie was certainly someone who by her vivid presence made a difference to all who encountered her and while no links to her may show up in google, the invisible links she made will, I am sure, subtly continue to shape our reality.

One thought on “There should be links”

  1. Dear Richard:
    You have made a link. I did not ever meet Rosie Dalziel. She was to have had lunch with me, my husband and her husband at Sartoria on April 1, 2003. Bob arrived alone and reported Rosie wasn’t feeling well and we would just be three. The next I heard was in August, when it was too late.
    I was looking for some information today on ceramicas in Spain, and wondered if I could find a connection to Rosie -keeping business in the family, as it were, Bob and I went to school together in our teens in Canada- but found just your connection.
    Thank you for the insight.
    Joan G. Smith

Comments are closed.