I first met Jules Evans at a Franco-British council’s conference on the measurement of well-being. That’s him with the microphone, and yours truly listening intently.
Shortly after the event, Jules produced a wonderful 10 minute video and a few weeks later I enjoyed his excellent question to Lord Layard at an RSA event called “Happiness, New Lessons” . With one question, Jules showed clearly that Lord Layard is basically a Benthamite, who chooses not to distinguish between different kinds of pleasures, and takes happiness to be little more than a personal feeling.
For weeks thereafter, I enjoyed his ‘Politics of Well-being’ blog, which is a lively, stimulating, and frequently hilarious read. I looked forward to it not merely for information relating to well-being, and our capacity (or not) to measure it, but because Jules consistently applied insights from both philosophy and psychology- the work was broad and deep and grounded, but not blinkered by a single perspective.
Philosophy and Psychology
In this respect I share Jules’s view that the academic divide between philosophy and psychology is an unfortunate loss for both disciplines, which really need each other to make sense of human experience. In fact in my own Phd thesis on Wisdom I write about this, because you feel the insanity of this division intensely when trying to fathom what it might mean to be wise:
“Philosophy and psychology share an intellectual heritage that tried to make sense of the workings of the mind, the reliability of knowledge, the basis of morality, and our understanding of the world. Such questions were central to the rationalist and empiricist traditions, but gradually, at least in the Anglo-American tradition, the concerns of the two disciplines diverged, with philosophy becoming increasingly concerned to become a foundational discipline, an under-labourer for science, concerned with epistemic warrant in logic and language; while psychology sought to become a natural science, focusing on predicting and measuring human behaviour… In this process of separation, I believe both disciplines lost something vital, and when they came together again under the auspices of cognitive science, they both looked like paler devalued versions of themselves, perpetuating an impoverished view of the mind and our capacity to understand it.”
Philosophy for Life, and other dangerous situations
This ‘bi-lingualism’ is one of the things that make Jules’s writing so readable, and I therefore slightly regret the fact that in recent months he seems to have rebranded himself as a philosopher first and foremost. His new blog ‘Philosophy for Life’ is just as good as the politics of well-being, and indeed is very similar in spirit to the old one, but it has been reframed now as a platform for his book: Philosophy for Life and Other Dangerous Situations.
The book has a Video trailer here and I finally got round to finishing it a couple of days ago.
In the book, Jules shares his admiration for some remarkable figures (I particularly liked Jean Vanier, the ‘kindly polar bear’ on p227) and is adept at weaving in his personal experience (including a near-death spiritual experience following a skiing accident) and shows impressive philosophical and psychological acumen throughout, as well as considerable wit. So when Jules is allowed to let rip, as he does in his weekly blogs, the text is wonderful to read.
However, to honour these considerable authorial qualities, I should say that I felt they were undermined, not supported, by the tone and structure of the book as a whole. My impression is that the publishers felt Jules’s voice by itself wasn’t enough to get people to buy the book, so they added a superstructure that made the book appear more like a ‘how-to’ guide and made it more explicitly about philosophy as such- to frame the ‘offer’ more clearly to prospective buyers.
That’s life, I guess, and publishing is a ‘dangerous situation’ of sorts. However, I would have been happier just to hear Jules share his insights and experiences, and pose his pertinent questions. Instead in several places I had to deal with an overarching narrative that felt exogenous, and enjoyed neither pretending the book was read over the course of the day, nor straining to imagine what ancient philosophers might eat for lunch.
That said, I hope you can see from the thoughts above and quotations below that the book is worth reading, and I would strongly encourage you to sign up to his blog to learn more about what he is thinking about on a regular basis.
This terror of making a bad impression is the cause of many of our civilised discontents
On his own mental health at university: “What help could literature and philosophy possibly be to me? My brain was a neurochemical machine, I had broken it, and there was nothing I could do about it. Somehow, after university, I had to plug this broken apparatus into the great steel machinery of the market, and survive. I graduated in 1999 with a good degree and, to celebrate, had a nervous breakdown.” (p3)
On the longing for social acceptance: “We internalise the gaze of others, and this internal spectator becomes all-powerful over us…This terror of making a bad impression is the cause of many of our civilised discontents.”(p161)
On the alleged cult of SES, The School of Economic Science: ”To be fair to the school, if Plato set up his Academy today, or Epicurus set up his Garden, they would probably be accused of being cults.” (p191)
On the path to societal wellbeing: “My hope is that we can find a better balance between the ancient idea of the good life, and a modern pluralist and liberal politics. It would recognise that well-being is not a simple concept that can be objectively defined, pinned down and measured by empirical science, and the world would be a much more boring place if it was. We should explore the plurality of philosophical approaches to well-being. We should treat citizens as rational adults who deserve to be brought into the conversation as equals. Empiricism balanced with practical reasoning. Instrumental techniques balanced with a consideration of values and ends. Science balanced with the humanities. Not one version of the good life, but several. Not a mass enforced march to an official well-being target, but groups of friends helping each other in their search for the good. That’s what I would like to see.” (p230)
The next time a philosopher tells you to practise rationality and self-control, laugh at them and pull their beard.
On the classic Dionysian/Socratic conflict: “They would say that the last people you should turn to for advice on life are philosophers. Look at them: weak, pale, stammering creatures, visibly unhealthy, palpably out of touch with their bodies and their societies. Nature has cursed them with weakness and timidity, so they wreak their revenge on nature by constructing their own artificial and self-conscious version of happiness. ‘Only Virtue is happiness’, the philosophers insist, and cough. But we Dionysiacs know they are lying, we know the genuine joy that comes from the body, from hunting and dancing and love. The next time a philosopher tells you to practise rationality and self-control, laugh at them and pull their beard.” (p257)
Do you ever feel that there are far too many people in your organisation that you would like to talk to, but never get the chance?
Do you also feel that is too awkward/bothersome/intrusive to ask point blank for a meeting, and then deal with the hassle of agreeing a mutually convenient time?
Do you sometimes like committing yourself to things in advance so that you can’t weasle out with familiar excuses when the time comes?
And do you like going for ‘coffee’, broadly conceived? (As Will put it in the film Good Will Hunting when asked if he would like to meet for coffee: “Sure, or we could just get together and eat a bunch of caramels … it’s as arbitrary as drinking coffee.”)
If you answered yes to the four questions above then you will like the following idea, and might even want to try it in your organisation.
Hat tip to colleague Benedict Dellot for disclosing a wonderful new initiative at NESTA called ‘Randomised Coffee Trials’ which basically work as follows: you commit to meeting another member of staff for coffee once a week and you are randomly assigned somebody to have coffee with from among those who make the commitment. You are not obliged to talk about anything in particular. That’s it.
So why do this?
According to NESTA the benefits include the following:
- Provides legitimacy to chat to people about things that aren’t directly work related. Although every time there have been direct beneficial impacts on various projects and programmes.
- Totally random conversations, as well as some very useful work related conversations. Breaks silos … in a really effective way.
- Offers the chance to make time to talk to people they should be talking to anyway, and to meet people who they won’t be directly working with but it’s nice to know who they are!
- It’s a really good way of revealing links within the organisation and encouraging us to collaborate. It’s interesting that being part of the wider ‘RCT’ banners gives permission to spend and honour the time. Less likely to cancel a catch up if it’s an RCT coffee than a social catch up on a busy day.
- They like the prompt to talk to someone new (or someone they already know), and the permission to take 30 minutes just to see what’s going on, without any particular agenda or goal.
From a behaviour change perspective, I particularly like the point: Less likely to cancel a catch up if it’s an RCT coffee than a social catch up on a busy day. By framing it as a professional commitment, you are tapping into work related social norms.
But most of all I agree with the idea of giving serendipity a chance, and although this may be pushing the point a bit too far, the idea connects to the importance of weak ties in social network theory- in essence, we tend to exhaust the resources of our immediate social network, and get our best opportunities from those a few degrees removed from it.
Like any other initiative, I imagine that over time RCTs could ossify into something very mundane and burdensome, but in the short term at least, it looks to me like a great idea worthy of wide uptake.
If you have an apple and I have an apple and we exchange these apples then you and I will still each have one apple. But if you have an idea and I have an idea and we exchange these ideas, then each of us will have two ideas. - George Bernard Shaw
Could our major problems have a discernible ‘form’ that is somehow more fundamental than their content? If there is some sort of pattern, wouldn’t it make sense to target the pattern as a whole, rather than individual issues piecemeal? Marxists might say that Capitalism as such is the underlying problem, but I don’t think we have to endorse that view to look for what Bateson once called “the pattern that connects“.
We will shortly be publishing a report examining Iain McGilchrist’s work that argues there is a discernible pattern relating to the distinctive phenomenologies of the two brain hemispheres. The claim is that many of our major problems relate to the fact that the ‘inferior’ (though definitely important) left hemisphere is slowly usurping the (wiser but more tentative) right hemisphere at a cultural level, with the consequence that we live increasingly virtual and instrumental lives, and may not even realise what we are losing. The details of that discussion are coming soon to a screen near you, but there are other ways to conceive the form of the problem.
Who controls information?
“Information is power. But like all power, there are those who want to keep it for themselves.” – Aaron Swartz.
When you start to think deeply about our major challenges – including climate change – you quickly run into various vested interests that get in the way of solutions, and many such vested interests are preserved through unequal access to information – academic, technological, legal, environmental, political, financial and so forth. Information should be a public good, and benefits larger numbers when it is shared, but perhaps the main way that vested interests perpetuate their power is through the control and protection of information. For instance what do Shell tell us about their research into drilling in the Arctic, and how can we know it represents full disclosure? What if a doctor prescribes you medicine and you can’t access the relevant primary research because you run into a pay wall? What if the most promising components needed for a technological breakthrough on clean energy are patented by a small group, and therefore thousands of scientists can’t follow that path of inquiry?
Information should be a public good, and benefits larger numbers when it is shared, but perhaps the main way that vested interests perpetuate their power is through the control and protection of information.
Such control of information is deeply related to financial dependency. Those who control information are supported in their control by law and lawyers. An excerpt from a talk by Harvard academic and activist Lawrence Lessig captures the centrality of this point.
“(American) politics is filled with easy cases that we get wrong. The scientific consensus on global warming is overwhelming, but we abandon the Kyoto Protocol. Nutritionists are clear that sugar is unhealthy, but the sugar lobby gets it into dietary recommendations. Retroactive copyright extensions do nothing for society, but Congress passes them over and over.
Similar errors are made in other fields that have the public trust. Studies of new drugs are biased towards the drug companies. Law professors and other scholars write papers biased towards the clients they consult for.
Why? Because the trusted people in each case are acting as dependants. The politicians are dependent on fundraising money. They are good people, but they need to spend a quarter of their time making fundraising calls. So most of the people they speak to our lobbyists and they never even hear from the other side. If they were freed from this dependence they would gladly do the right thing.
The scientists get paid to sign on to studies done by the drug companies. The law professors get paid to consult.
How do we solve it? We need to free people from dependency. But this is too hard. We should fight for it, but politicians will never endorse a system of public funding of campaigns when they have so much invested in the current system. Instead, we need norms of independence. People need to start saying that independence is important to them and that they won’t support respected figures who act as dependants. And we can use the Internet to figure out who’s acting as dependants.”
At the risk of simplification, the underlying problem is that the inequality in power is perpetuated by the unequal access to information, and this is a self-perpetuating problem because those with power based on information use it to create dependants, and these dependants thereby develop a vested interest in protecting the information that forms their livelihood.
Why did nobody tell me about Aaron Swartz?
I started to think about this when I realised, sadly, that I never knew the pioneering cyber activist Aaron Swartz while he was alive. He recently ended his own life at the age of 26 under enormous legal and political pressure, but is viewed by many as a hero of our times who was driven over the edge by an excessively zealous witch hunt. He was known for being prodigious and hyper-intelligent, but is perhaps best known and admired for the way he swiftly conjured enormous political capital to prevent the SOPA (Stop online piracy act) law in the US which he speaks about so clearly and compellingly here (highly recommended viewing). In essence he prevented the passing of a law that would have radically undermined people’s capacity to connect and share information online, and the way he did so is inspiring, because it looked like he was facing impossible odds.
A friend and former RSA colleague Jamie Young remarked that if I was going to write about Aaron Swartz, I should also mention the UK’s Chris Lightfoot who was a similar character fighting a similar kind of battle – a broadly political fight about who rightfully controls information- and also took his life at a young age. The RSA has raised similar questions before, for instance by hosting Evgeny Mozorov who’s talk on why Dictators love the internet was turned into an RSAnimate.
What all these thinkers share is a belief that the access to information has much wider implications that people typically realise.
What all these thinkers share is a belief that the access to information has much wider implications that people typically realise. As Professor Shamad Basheer puts it in the Spicy IP Blog We live in “a world where the powers that be conspire time and again to reassert hegemony and re-establish control in a digital world whose essential DNA is one of openness and sharing.”
The main take-home point for me lies in the gap between the social norms of sharing and openness online, with the economic and legal norms relating to the perpetuation of property rights and power that have been formed before the digital age. In Aaron Swartz’s case, this battle unfolded in his heart and mind to a tragic extent, but the more I think about it, the more it seems like an enormously important battle between the public good and private ownership that will be defined largely by the political will of the relevant institutions – which in turn is shaped by us (that’s what Lessig was getting at above about the need to shape social norms).
It may not make sense to ‘take sides’ as such, and there are certainly ways to protect intellectual property that are more canny and proportionate. (As an author of three books, all of which have been PDFed and sold cheaply by Xerox merchants online, I am also a kind of ‘dependant’ with a vested interest here).
Whatever you think, I would ask you to reflect on the opening quotation by George Bernard Shaw. Ideas need each other to flourish, but they can’t meet when they are help in captivity, and they will ultimately need some form of power to free them.
Just opened a very generous email from Professor Dale Southerton at Manchester University providing links to two important free resources for people interested in behaviour change:
Over the last few days I have noticed several people daring to think about – and this really is rather daring – where all their stuff comes from.
It started with food in general, in the context of an appearance on the Today Programme. My basic argument was that our sense of what is wasteful depends on our perception of scarcity, and we don’t experience scarcity, mostly because we are so far removed from the provenance of the things we rely on: food, water and energy. I am beginning to think that the core problem is that such things are kept relatively cheap only because we don’t factor in their true environmental, social and health costs, and an excellent editorial in Sunday’s Observer: “There’s a price to be paid for our cheap food” seemed to share this view.
Image via www.gulawweekly.org
Then I noticed a tweet from Public Understanding of Science supremo Alice Bell this morning: “Those last two tweets posted from my phone. Which is amazing. But I want to know more about the materials, people & injustices that made it.” She probably already knows this story about phone materials, but it is pretty shocking. A line from the feature captures the core problem- there is a huge demand for tin due to our insatiable appetite for new phones, but the kinds of tin we need are not easy to extract, and cause a great deal of harm along the way: ”Tin mining is a lucrative but destructive trade that has scarred the island’s landscape, bulldozed its farms and forests, killed off its fish stocks and coral reefs, and dented tourism to its pretty palm-lined beaches.”
(Image via thehindu.com)
On the same Twitter stream there was a report about Tea plantations being threatened by Climate Change. My colleague Dr Emma Lindley has a charming biographical line “Manchester-based drinker of Yorkshire tea” and I’m partial to Yorkshire tea myself, but you don’t need to pause for long to realise that Yorkshire tea is not actually grown in, y’know, Yorkshire. It seems there is now a consortium of tea companies “Tea 2030″ supported by Forum for the Future who are realising that some of the places most likely to be impacted by climate disruption (by the way, I think that’s a much better term than ‘climate change’ HT Ian Christie). If the idea of Polar bears swimming in search of ice until they drown didn’t get your attention, perhaps waking up without access to a good and affordable cuppa might do it.
(Image via touristindia.org)
Finally(for now at least) I remembered the absolutely wonderful RSA event “Eating Animals” featuring Jonathan Safran Foer. I strongly urge you to listen to the full audio podcast which includes his considered answers to some tough audience questions. I loved this talk because I don’t think people should wear the term ‘vegetarian’ as some sort of self-righteous badge of honour, and then cross-examine people for their consitency of their practices (milk? eggs? leather?). I fully agree with Jonathan’s point that making it a moral binary, an either-or, just doesn’t help. People are attached to meat for lots of reasons, not just taste but various valued cultural and spiritual practices that involve it.
(Image via guardian.co.uk)
The key is first to recognise the harm involved in the process, and to take responsibility for your actions with as much awareness as you can. And that’s the reason the talk was so brilliant. The main take-home point for me was his simple observation that the meat industry relies on ignorance about food production and guards it very carefully. The corollary (note to self: at some point it’s worth digging out the exact quotation) is that Jonathan says something like “It only goes in one direction. The more you know about where it comes from, the less you want to eat it.”
The same point applies to ethical behaviour and sustainability more broadly- much of it is about who owns and protects information. More about that on Friday.
While minding my own business yesterday I received an unexpected call asking me to appear on The Today Programme to discuss the psychological underpinnings of why we waste so much food. They chose me with my Social Brain hat on, because they wanted to explore wider issues relating to people acting against their own self-interest and the nature of irrationality.
This is my fourth time on the show, and in my experience, the off air conversation with the producer- who is basically checking you out- is invariably much deeper and longer than the conversation with the presenter. When the programme says there will be five minutes, that usually means 1 minute for the presenter, 2 for the other guest(in this case, Angie Hobbs) and 2 minutes to say what you can about the subject, in the context of the questions and answers already given.
(image via ecofoodrecycling.co.uk)
The snippet is here, at about 8.55am, squeezed into the end of the show, and you can judge for yourself whether they were minutes well spent (or indeed whether such an important discussion might have been more worthy of minutes than some of the items earlier in the show).
My main point was that our perception of waste is relative to our experience of scarcity, and for most of us, things like water, food and energy do not feel scarce, even though, taken globally, they are. In so far as there is a solution, it may lie in simulating the experience of scarcity. I do this incidentally once a year when I visit my in-laws in India, where I learn to live with water shortages and power cuts, even in a relatively developed and affluent part of one of their main cities, Bangalore.
My main point was that our perception of waste is relative to our experience of scarcity
Now that I have a little more time than I did on air, here are some of the things that weren’t mentioned.
- The report itself, by the Institution of Mechanical Engineers: Global Food: Waste Not, Want not is excellent and well worth a read.
- The problem is global, multifaceted and systemic. It’s not just about the behaviour of people in the developed world, or indeed supermarket offers. The problem includes regulation, the storage and transport of food, irregular harvests, and much else besides.
- The headlines said we waste half our food, but that’s a bit overblown. In the report they say the estimate is that we waste between 30-50% of our food.
- When Evan Davis told his bear story, I wish I had said: “Humans are animals, but we are not bears, and unlike bears we have a moral responsibility towards the rest of our species and the planet as a whole.”
Spending money on sales is still spending, not saving.
- There are lots of behavioural/psychological issues that are important, including:
- Spending money on sales is still spending, not saving.
- Anticipated regret- the tendency to do something now in case we regret not having had done it at a future point – is relevant in three ways; 1) We want to stockpile food in case we run out 2)We want to buy the sale items in case we don’t get another such offer 3)We trust the sell-buy date more than our own senses.
- Is there a place for smaller shopping trolleys? Given the evidence that we tend to eat and buy less/more depending on the size of the recepticle, it seems intuitive that we might buy and waste less if we had smaller spaces to fill.
- There are many more dimensions to this problem, and an excellent overview, including a detailed breakdown of the reasons we waste food can be found (in a table!) here:
- A small but particularly painful part of the problem is that we don’t seem to know what to do with our food items, or our leftovers so…
- Should we placed renewed educational emphasis on home economics?
- Sounds absurd given the scale of the challenge?
- Then what should we do?
- Where should we start?
Today I stumbled upon an amusing blog called ‘The Ad Contrarian’ written by an experienced advertising executive, Bob Hoffman, who has a distinctive and sharp sense of humour, for instance:
“As an advertising medium, the web is like communism. It’s never very good right now, but it’s always going to be great some day.”
“Brand studies last for months, cost hundreds of thousands of dollars, and generally have less impact on business than cleaning the drapes.”
“In the entire history of civilization, nothing good ever happened to a teenager after midnight.”
I have no expertise to judge whether Hoffman’s views are correct, but it’s a definitely a fun read, and got me thinking about what, if anything I know about advertising.
The first thing that came to mind was The Public Interest Research Centre ( linked to Common Cause) report: “Think of me as Evil – Opening the Ethical Debates in Advertising” which sounds radical, but has credible endorsements from various luminaries, including celebrated Oxford Historian, Avner Offer: ”Despite its alarmist title, this is a careful evaluation of the costs and benefits of advertising. It makes a good case, on economic, social, and cultural grounds, for respite from the all-pervasive advocacy of consumerism.”
That last point is central. Advertising fuels consumerism. The traditional social rationale for advertising was about information provision at a time when people genuinely didn’t know, for instance, that a certain toothpaste had a certain dental benefit. Originally, it was not supposed to be about shaping preferences or creating desires.
If you think consumerism is broadly a benign and positive thing, creating jobs and growth and (this is where the case looks far from convincing) happiness, there is no real problem, but if you think that consumerism doesn’t really do much for wellbeing and that the social and environmental harm caused by excessive consumerism is a real and present issue that needs to be addressed, as I do, the idea that advertising is at least part of the problem quickly comes to mind.
Kate Raworth’s work on Doughnut economics is a good way to think about what ‘excessive’ might mean in this context. We have planetary limits and social limits that represent a boundary to consumption-led economic growth beyond which we shouldn’t go. There are various images of this ‘doughnut’ but for illustration it looks something like this:
Now the question is whether advertisers can ever realistically be expected to care about the social and planetary boundaries when their bottom line effectively forces them to give them less importance than driving up consumption.
This is a really difficult issue, because the drive for macroeconomic growth is real, as is the personal desire to better one’s lot, and in some ways advertising does help at these levels. There have been several RSA events to explore this issue, including “Advertising in Society: What’s the deal?” and The Mad Men we Love to Hate.
So not all advertising is bad, of course, and it is hard to imagine a world without it…but let’s just try for a second, as a though experiment: what would a world without advertisements look like? We would have to pay much more for most forms of media that rely on advertising revenue, or perhaps there would just be less media to go round….but would we really be less informed? These days it is not difficult to go online and find, for free, product information and comparisons to help you make your decision.
So here’s the question: given that advertising is by no means entirely benign, what positive value does it have that we would regret losing if it wasn’t there?
For about a decade, the question: ‘Do you have wireless?’ has been aspirational in nature, with the tacit understanding that ‘yes’ is the answer you want. Life feels easier when you are connected, and therefore better when it’s easy to connect.
But is this really how we want to live?
While chairing the RSA event “Quiet the Mind” by Matthew Johnstone, I was struck by the elegance of one statement in particular: “We are so connected, we are disconnected”.
Being constantly available to other people and influences is does not necessarily come ‘for free’ even when the wireless or mobile connection is free. There is a danger that through this kind of indiscriminate connectivity we undermine deeper connections that we tend to take for granted, including our connection to our minds, our bodies, our breath…not to mention the quality of relationships with other people.
“We are so connected, we are disconnected”
There is always a danger of being considered a technophobe when you air such thoughts, but I increasingly wonder if we will see more of this kind of perspective over the next few years. For instance, today I read a BBC article with the title: Will Digital Addiction clinics be big in 2013? (Although, disappointingly, the article itself is really just a celebration of new gadgets!).
There are some early signs that people are realising that connectivity is not entirely benign, and that it is not simply ‘up to us’ when we choose to, for instance, turn our phone off, or resist checking our mail….that places far too much confidence in willpower, which we now know is both scarce and depletable.
How can you really be off work, for instance, with the temptations of email and social media completely ‘at hand’, and the knowledge of colleagues that you can be contacted in emergency(often very loosely defined)?
Internet addiction clinics suggest that we are at the early stages of an epidemic, and some holiday resorts now pride themselves on NOT having wireless networks, with POOR mobile phone reception being an asset, not a liability. Their selling point: Come to our wonderful place, and you really can forget about the world at large…
We have written about this issue before, and hope to return to it again soon. I really don’t know how much of this fear is real and grounded, and how much of it is just generalised fear of what is new and unfamiliar. However, a trusted source with neuroscientific expertise, who has thought deeply about the impact of the increase in our screen time on our wellbeing told me something so striking and and counter-intuitive that he preferred to keep it off the record. He said that the denial of the health and wellbeing impact of our over-use of smart phones and constant connection to the internet is equivalent to climate change denial, just in a much earlier stage…
At the moment, when you say such things (e.g. use your phone less, screens are not entirely benign, it’s ok to take several days before replying to an email, internet addiction is real, there may be some interesting educational implications of over-use of technology etc…) many seem to reflexly call you a ‘technophobe’ and assume you must be some sort of ‘luddite’.
But that’s not the case at all, and most calling for caution also celebrate the enormous gains that such technology has give us. Personally I think it might be a sign of a healthy rebalancing if people start to actively seek out places where they can be relatively disconnected from the world, if only so that they might rediscover a deeper connection to themselves.
What do you think? Do tweet, comment etc…(no irony of course.)
The Argentinian genius, Jorge Luis Borges once described Utopia as “a Greek word meaning ‘there is no such place’”
Could the same thing be said for Dystopia?
There have been plenty of dystopic visions of the future, most famously Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four and Huxley’s Brave New World. Huxley’s vision of happiness pills and pervasive virtuality now feels closer to the truth than the ‘Big Brother’ of Orwell’s oppressive State, but I might feel differently if I lived in Russia or China.
More recently, towards the end of his epic book, The Master and his Emissary, Iain McGilchrist presents a non-fiction account of a world he believes we are, unwittingly stumbling towards. Later this month The Social Brain Centre will be publishing a critical examination of this work as a whole, featuring a dialogue with the author and reflections from various thinkers on the strength and significance of the ideas.
The central claim is that our phenomenal experience is gradually colonised through the left hemisphere’s preference for, broadly, familiar, non-living and measurable things that can be used for instrumental purposes. On this account we are gradually losing touch with what Iain calls ‘sources of intuitive life’, as our societies become a virtual ‘hall of mirrors’ in which that which is re-presented is ubiquitous, and that which is genuinely unique has less air to breathe. If you are not familiar with these ideas, you can enjoy a very pleasant introduction by watching the RSAnimate which now has over a million viewers, and please watch this space for our report later this month.
So is the world slowly becoming more dystopic? On the one hand, people like Hans Rosling, Steven Pinker, Matt Ridley help to guard us against reflex pessimism, reminding us that we have never been healthier, wealthier, less violent and more innovative respectively. On the other hand you have fears of “the destructive power of a warming planet” (Obama) in Climate Change, fears for food and water security, the ever-present threat of terrorism, terrifying public health scenarios in which we all catch a deadly and hyper-contagious bug, and, relatively benignly, the sense that worldwide financial collapse is only ever a few bad decisions away.
However, such legitimate fears are not really what is meant by dystopia, which usually involves a vision of a world that is over-organised, and too sure of itself to realise that it has gone horribly wrong, and that it may have lost something of enormous value.
Indeed, chillingly, McGilchrist suggests that in so far as the world is becoming more dystopic, many of us are likely to remain oblivious:
“If I am right, that the story of the Western world is one of increasing left hemisphere
domination, we would not expect insight to be the key note. Instead, we would expect a sort of insouciant optimism, the sleepwalker whistling a happy tune as he ambles towards the abyss.”
These thoughts of dystopia were prompted by watching the astoundingly brilliant satirical series, Black Mirror for the first time, just last night, over a year after most people were raving about it. I was particularly affected by the second episode, 15 Million Merits which can still be viewed on Four on Demand.
Painting such pictures of the future should induce constructive thought and action rather than despair. Gramsci famously said we need to have pessimism of the intellect but optimism of the will, while in our forthcoming report McGilchrist calls himself a hopeful pessimist.
I felt this dystopia was a particularly good illustration of McGilchrist’s view of what a world dominated by the left-hemisphere might look like. The picture is of a world almost completely dominated by screens, scores, adverts, and devoid of almost anything natural or meaningful, in which everybody knows what they are supposed to be doing, but nobody really seems to know what is going on.
Painting such pictures of the future should induce constructive thought and action rather than despair. Gramsci famously said we need to have pessimism of the intellect but optimism of the will, while in our forthcoming report McGilchrist calls himself a hopeful pessimist.
Just as we accuse people for being ‘utopian’ when they are being naively optimistic about how things could be, so we should call people ‘dystopian’ when any of these visions of dystopia are taken too literally as predictions. The point of thinking dystopically is rather to shed light on our lives as they are currently lived, and the direction we are taking, or more to the point, the direction on which we are being taken.
This morning I was looking forward to taking part in a workshop hosted by the Spiritual Capital Foundation led by RSA Fellow Naftali Brawer. Alas, some unexpected and depleting events at home made it difficult for me to attend, and rather than arrive late, flustered, and distracted, I felt the wisest course was to offer my thoughts remotely. So with apologies to Naftali, and the other participants whom I hope to meet later, here is what I would like to have shared.
We were asked to consider a set of questions as a provocation:
- What does meaningful work look like?
Meaning is relational. The point is not so much that personal relationships are meaningful, which is obvious, but more about how different parts of ourselves, domains we operate in, and experiences we regularly have, fit together. Creating meaning at work may not so much be about the explicit purpose of your work activities, but about how your experience of productive activity connects to things you identify with and value.
- How important is the distinction between Work, Job and Career?
Distinctions are only as important as the definitions they rely on, and definitions of anything that really matters – love, wellbeing, wisdom, work – are essentially contested for good reason. I think there can be a wide variety of ways that work can be meaningful and imbued with purpose. We don’t have to rely on the language of ‘career’ or ‘vocation’, because that suggests a relatively linear path of growth, but on the other hand, we probably do need to interrogate the expression “It’s just a job”, because the ‘just’ there has rhetorical force that is not helpful.
- Is work an end in itself of just a means to an end?
Ideally it should be both. Freud’s famous line about love and work being the preconditions for happiness comes to mind.
- Should we bring the whole person to work?
I wonder whether there is a link between the extent to which work is meaningful and the extent to which people are capable of keeping their work and home lives separate.
As much as we can, yes, but we need to respect privacy. And many rely on a strict separation of work and home to function. I wonder, however, whether there is a link between the extent to which work is meaningful and the extent to which people are capable of keeping their work and home lives separate. That would be an interesting question to explore.
- Should work pervade the whole person?
No. Of course it depends on the work, but I think it can take its toll on family and friends if work is all pervading.
- Fragmentation of self and multiple roles
This is the heart of the matter, and links directly to literature on mental complexity which is broadly about our capacity to hold multiple perspectives from a higher-order complexity that allows us to differentiate and integrate them enough to be able to act without falling apart.
Perhaps the key issue about meaning and purpose at work is how we handle the hidden curriculum involved at work – namely what we are tacitly expected to be and know to do the tasks alloted to us. The curriculum at work is, for instance, ‘be congenial, productive, organised, flexible, focussed, cooperative, competitive….’ And then at home the curriculum is be ‘loving, attentive, authoritative, relaxed, available, fun, romantic, organised, forward planning etc’ . In both cases there is also a ‘hidden curriculum’ on what it requires of us to be all of these things, often all at once. This idea of hidden curriculum is developed in great depth in the work of Robert Kegan which we summarised for our report on the psychological demands of the Big Society, but much of the work there is relevant to work more broadly.
Perhaps the key issue about meaning and purpose at work is how we handle the hidden curriculum involved at work – namely what we are tacitly expected to be and know to do the tasks alloted to us.
I think that creating meaning and purpose at work could be about building mental complexity- that this can be something that has genuine value and meaning for people, and can often arise as a collateral benefit of work that might otherwise appear purely instrumental.
- Can/should work be a source of identity?
Of course, but not the only source, not least because it leaves us vulnerable to existential collapse if work goes badly or we lose our jobs.
- Can/should work be a form of creation?
I feel ‘creativity’ is often valorised in ways that are not entirely helpful. I think it is important to have a sense of autonomy, and this allows us to act creatively, but ‘creativity’ as such is not the goal. The goal is more people to experience freedom and know that this freedom has both intrinsic value, in the experience itself, but also extrinsic value in terms of the quality of work that arises from that experience.
I think by this point Naftali would be telling me my five minutes are up, but I would want to squeeze in a mention for The Good Work Project at Harvard which is now a huge body of research and activity. My understanding of its core claim is that Good Work means work that is excellent(high quality), ethical(doesn’t harm, has social value) and engaged(absorbing and meaningful to do).
The theory may have moved on, but the central claim I remember is that good work relates closely to the alignment within any given domain. Broadly, if you, your colleagues, your bosses, your funders, your audience, your stakeholders etc all share the same values and objectives, good work comes relatively easily, but when there is misalingment of objective, values and so worth, good work in that domain is hard, and you are more likely to do ‘compromised work’. The theory and research is more subtle and complicated than that, and I warmly recommend that those interested to know more might watch a former teacher of mine, Howard Gardner, give a talk on the subject here (26.57 minutes in).