Taking a balanced perspective in an opinionated world

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A friend of mine recently said to me that ‘if you can’t see both sides of an argument, then you shouldn’t be arguing.’

 

It continues to amaze me when I see people announce a strongly-held one-sided view on some topic, whether it be religion, consumerism, politics or whatever else. These issues are divisive and controversial essentially because each side of the argument has strengths to it.

 

And yet attention is rarely given to those who sit on the fence. We like to listen to those who make a lot of noise and take a strong stance on one side – people like Richard Dawkins. I believe we perceive these people as intelligent, charismatic, strong characters. They’ve thought about a subject in depth and come to a firm conclusion. But were there not another valid side to the argument, the argument would not exist. All they’ve done by taking a strong stance on one side is to show that they are either a) lacking in empathy by being unable to understand another person’s perspective or b) too stubborn to acknowledge that they just might not be 100% right.

 

I believe we should pay more attention to those who can see and argue both sides. And often they will come to a conclusion that leans more on one side, but the crucial thing is that they have a balanced perspective. To me, these are the people who have genuinely thought about it in depth and are interested in the truth of the debate, rather than simply personal recognition.

 

This subject arose at the recent Anti-Hero launch at the RSA. They drew attention to the dominant model of leadership which rewards, amongst other things, those who take a firm and clear stance on subjects. They then pointed out that the nature of many complex problems is that they do have conflicting, strongly-held viewpoints and we need leaders who can understand both sides well enough in order to make the decision that benefits most.

 

Next time someone sits on a fence about an issue, don’t assume that it’s because they are weak or indecisive. Perhaps it is precisely because they have that rare ability to hold and balance two counter-argument simultaneously and see the bigger picture. I long held the belief that as we grow older and wiser, we will have much firmer opinions about the world. What I’m finding instead, is that as I increasingly see how complex and contrasting the world is, often it seems narrow or short-sighted to sit firmly and stubbornly on one side of argument.

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Reflections on FutureFest

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Last weekend I attended an event run by Nesta called FutureFest. I’ll give a quick rundown of what the event was about, my reflections on it (both how it was run and the questions that emerged from it), and the emerging technologies that could shape our future in a big way.

Outline

As the name suggests, the whole event was based around futurism and looked to answer a few key questions:

Where are we headed?

What future do we want to create?

How do we create it?

In terms of format, it was part talk-fest, part interactive. The main room was used almost exclusively for quick fire (20 minute) talks, and then we had panel/audience debates in another room. Downstairs was used for the ‘Imaginarium’, which was a mix of funky technology and organisations engaging you about the future-related work they’re doing.

 

Reflections

The conference was pretty slick and immersive, helped by a great venue; Shoreditch Town Hall. Although for me it was over-curated. I don’t go to conferences so much to be talked at, but rather to talk with people, and there wasn’t much space or time provided for spontaneous interaction with other attendees, which I always find to be the richest part of events. The speakers were a real mix, some were engaging and focused, others seemed to forget what they were supposed to talk about and meandered aimlessly.

That said, I certainly found the event as a whole very thought-provoking. The main insights for me were:

Our default view is of technology is that it is progress, but each tech should be put under the microscope and analysed for whether it is making the world better (i.e. more socially just/environmentally sustainable), not just whether it can be sold. Whilst science and business have many strengths, they pay no heed to ethics and such decisions should not be left to the market. One of my concerns is that our technology is fast beginning to outstrip our maturity as a species to know what best to do with it.

It’s very difficult for us to make wise judgements about the costs/benefits of new technology. The main context from which we make decisions is to ask ‘what is best for us as an individual tomorrow?’ What we need to ask is ‘what is best for society in ten years?’ i.e. using long-term, big picture thinking to make decisions.

Optimism bias was definitely on show, and what I mean by this is that we judge good things unusually likely to happen to us, negative things unusually unlikely – it’s an important little trick our minds play on us to inspire us to get up in the morning and keep going. However, I was glad to see some speakers acknowledge that we face some sizable challenges ahead, and technology alone is not the answer to all of them – in fact new technology also causes new problems, especially if we continue to neglect the unintended and inevitable negative consequences of it. Every technology has downsides too; perhaps our greatest technological breakthrough of the last few centuries – the use of fossil fuels for energy – has also provided us with perhaps the biggest problem of the 21st century; climate change.

I felt there were a lot of speakers/panelists too concerned with trying to look like experts, and trying to take black and white stances on some messy, complex issues in which the truth lies somewhere in between two conflicting viewpoints. They were busy looking clever rather than trying to find a better answer.

There was a great deal of agreement that civilization’s current macro-institutions (economics especially, but also politics, business, education etc) are growing increasingly outdated and that new ones will spring up sooner or later that are more capable of handling the challenges we face. Unfortunately, the questions of what these should look like and what methods we use to create them were left largely unasked.

Another take home was just how spectacularly wrong a lot of futurists get things when they try to predict the future! Apparently futurists have been predicting fewer working hours for decades and decades, and yet it is going the opposite way. This is an example though of where technology is not the answer – it is economics that represents the main barrier to shorter working hours rather than technology; the technology is already there for us to be working very short weeks.

And one of my favourite lines from the conference; ‘If we want better answers, we need to ask better questions.’

 

Radical future trends

A few things to look out for (some of which aren’t so far away at all)…

Sir Martin Rees suggested that with developments in genetics, within the next couple of centuries we will be in charge of evolution – not natural selection any longer.

A man in Austria recently had voluntary amputation in order to have a robotic hand installed. The world in which we choose to replace parts of ourselves with robotics is perhaps not so far away. One of the speakers was Bertolt Meyer, who himself has a robotic hand, and he speculated that he could even see this becoming a sign of status.

In China they are using gene-mapping to see what people’s talents are and how they should be raised to cultivate this. This immediately got me thinking about Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World

Soon we’ll be at a stage where 3D printers can print all the components necessary to make 3D printers!

 

And a few interesting technologies on show

Cancer Research UK found that, using their program, members of the public are 90-95% accurate in spotting cancer cells and will soon be opensourcing this out to the crowd to assist with finding cures for cancer.

The BBC have been working on surround visual TV, with images projected on the walls all around you whilst watching the program.

Potentially coming soon on Radio 5 Live (also from the BBC R&D department) listeners will be able to adjust the balance of volume between commentators and crowd, and choose which part of the crowd in the stadium they want to listen to.

BERG Cloud’s Little Printer, which is the smallest printer I’ve ever seen…

All in all, I’m really pleased I went – I learned a lot and made some great connections there. So a big thanks to Nesta for putting an event asking some very important questions.

Reflections on a future free of aging

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On Saturday I attended an insightful talk by Russian scientist and aging expert Alex Zhavoronkov at Birkbeck College. The talk was titled ‘Biomedical Discoveries and the Ageless Generation’.

 

Alex talked us through the scientific breakthroughs taking place in aging research at the moment, drawing attention to successful experiments that have significantly extended the life spans of mice and house flies. He explained that our understanding of the factors that cause aging has come a long way, and that this is one of the main reasons he is so confident that the current generation of 20-40 somethings will go on to live healthy lives until 150 years old.

 

Yes, you did that right – 150. A bold prediction, but one that Alex confidently believes will come true and I’d pay attention too – he’s the expert and is really at the leading edge of this research at the moment. I won’t go in to much detail about the scientific context, but you can find out more by reading the book that Alex has recently released.

 

What I would like to do is share a few reflections I had following the talk on a possible future in which our lives are greatly extended. I’m always a bit sceptical of technological breakthroughs and all the potential they promise to transform our lives for the better. Technology has long promised this ‘life of abundance’ in which we have lots of time for leisure and family, and we are free of suffering. If anything though, I see our lives getting more stressful – indeed in Andrew Simms’ book Cancel the Apocalypse he highlights the fact that in the UK our working weeks have actually grown since the 1980s, despite all the technological development supposedly making our lives easier. The techno-optimist perspective seemed to be the dominant one though amongst the attendees. I feel that now it is more our cultural mindset and economic system that stand in the way of this easier life, rather than the technology itself. I’m not sure we’ve made much progress in these areas over the past few decades. So like any technological development, I believe prolonged lives will solve some problems, and create others.

 

First reflection: Any discussion of extending quantity of life should include a discussion of quality of life. We live in a time where ‘more is better’ is a dominant philosophy. What will we do with all these extra years? What new possibilities will they enable in our lives? A couple of friends I spoke with afterwards turned their noses up at the prospect of living an extra fifty years just to spend it all working – and this is what our economy would demand.

 

Second reflection: As someone who is rather concerned about our current overshoot of environmental resources and the consequences this will have for the future, the idea of us living longer brings some obvious worries. Of course technology could come to our rescue, but at the moment we are using up 1.4 Earths to sustain ourselves and so far technology seems to be enabling this to worsen. Ultimately, the effects of overshoot will be felt in poorer countries first, who would not be the beneficiaries of any breakthroughs in aging science. The rich will benefit, and by living longer put more demand on resources, with the impacts of this felt first in poorer countries. My concern therefore is that breakthroughs in aging science will likely increase global inequality, which is not something I am a great fan of.

 

I have to say though, I love the idea of having an extra 70 healthy years. What would you do with that time?

The process of learning

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I believe the way that we learn roughly looks like this:

 

Process of learning image

We can gather information about the world from a whole range of sources – from books, conversations, videos, observation etc. Then some weird, wacky and wonderful process happens in our brains, in which information is analysed, compared and integrated, and this in turn forms our understanding of the world. This can generate original ideas about the world around us, which we can try out by conversing with people, by practically applying them in the form of creating products, launching organisations etc. Ultimately, by throwing our ideas out in to the world, we will gain feedback about our ideas, which provides further information about the world and on and on it goes…

 

This ties in with my view that learning is very much an iterative trial and error process in which we basically try something out, get it wrong but by doing so gain information, and at each stage our ideas become more refined and valuable to the world. This is counter to the dominant philosophy currently held in education which only values the first step – gathering information about the world. It does this by having us read books and listen to teachers tell us about the world. We are then tested on whether we are right or wrong – on our ability to retain and regurgitate knowledge. Even as begin to reach step 2 and develop our own ideas about the world, we do so within a very limited set of criteria. At university we are systematically evaluated and analysed on our ability to evaluate and analyse! Somehow there is even a ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ in the way we develop our own ideas about the world, by its very nature stifling creativity and learning. Steps 3 and 4 are not encouraged in schools and thus our learning process is sadly stunted.

 

My own learning about the world has accelerated since I left formal education, and this morning I was weighing up how my ideas have developed over time. At the moment I am living in Swindon and I notice that my learning is being stunted somewhat, because I am not in an environment in which I can practice the third stage; trialling my own ideas in the real world. I am consuming books at a vast rate, but in order to refine that information I need to have conversations with people – ideally people whose ideas are more developed than mine and who will challenge me and highlight the flaws in my thinking. I also need to be able to try launching initiatives of my own to see whether they have the real world value that in theory I believe they do. By doing this (and I know I need to get to London in order to do so) I will get some things right, more things wrong and overall gain feedback which will further the learning circle.

 

I’ll touch briefly here on a tension that exists between this natural learning process and the societal norms we experience. I grew up believing that to be wrong was basically akin to committing a sin, and my peers behaved in a similar manner. Making mistakes and ‘failing’ is hardly talked about in our society, but as I found in the entrepreneurial world, when it is talked about you can almost feel the relief in your peers as their shoulders visibly lighten. ‘Yes!’ they often say, ‘I made that mistake too!’. Why learn from our own mistakes if we can learn from the mistake of others? What a valuable learning experience. And why not share our own errors so that others can help see the lesson in them? To show us that our mistakes are not unnatural, but actually wholly to be expected? Amusingly, I still watch people as they vehemently argue that their point is right rather than acknowledging an opposing view and by doing so developing their ideas further. Their fear of being wrong is stunting their learning and growth, and will long continue to do so unless they can overcome it.

 

We are in a lucky position today whereby the information we can gather about the world is enormous. We have vast libraries of books, and then the biggest library of information ever known to man – that thing called the worldwide web. I notice the value of this in my own learning. I will start with a fairly broad subject, and as my ideas become refined I narrow down further and further. In a sense it can be frustrating, because just as I think that I have developed an original and valuable idea, someone will point me towards an individual or organisation who has already developed this. And so I gather more information from them, and in time I will be able to generate my own original and valuable ideas about the world. This same process has been practised by every person in every discipline in the history of humanity’s understanding about the world, as we build up our global knowledge bank. It was Einstein who said it best, ‘If I have seen a little further, it is only because I have been able to stand on the shoulders of giants’. This is how it sometimes feels, that as I read a great mind like EF Schumacher I am able to integrate his exceptionally developed ideas in to my own understanding of the world and then build further upon that – not because my mind is in anyway comparable to Schumacher’s, but because his ideas are accessible to me. I feel incredibly fortunate that libraries and the web offer me free, easy access to these ideas and these minds; this is a unique period in history that many do not appreciate.

 

By not making the most of this information, by not listening to talks by or having conversations with thinker-doers at the cutting edge of field, or by reading their writing, working alongside them etc we are essentially declining to learn anymore about the world than someone could have in the past. And even those whose ideas were developed many decades ago but still have great value like EF Schumacher and whose ideas are accessible to us, if we do not learn from them then we are declining to learn more about the world than someone could have many years ago.

 

The neatest way to sum this article up is to turn this theory of learning on to it and weighing up its place within that. It is obviously an attempt to trial my ideas in the real world. Next I will get some feedback which will further inform my ideas & knowledge. Someone may point out flaws, or more likely tell me that I’ve basically just regurgitated a theory someone else has already pioneered. In which case I’d look at their theory, assess its flaws and my ideas will be developed further.

 

And on and on it goes…

The limits of human understanding

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One of my favourite modules during my Neuroscience studies had almost nothing to do with the actual practice of science. This fact seemed to confuse some of the academics as to why it then existed, and I would identify this confusion as the mean reason it ended up with such a bizarre and inappropriate name of ‘Biology in Society’. In essence, it was about the development of science (not just biology) through the ages, beginning with the ancient Greek philosophers.

A couple of learnings I took from this module were that our methods of understanding the universe have evolved enormously through the centuries, and also that as of the 18th century science really began to take over from religion as the de facto way of explaining just about everything.

I believe science to be of huge value but also grossly imperfect. My thinking behind this is not so much to do with science as a method, but the exponents of it… i.e. us.

The human brain has evolved a certain way over many, many years. As a result, it has given us an understanding of the universe that far exceeds any other species we share the planet with (to the best of our knowledge anyway, we have no proof that snails can’t explain the creation of the universe). We can perceive, and explain much. However, we only have so much space in the brain and so many neural connections that can be made. Evolution has sacrificed certain abilities along the way, to enable others to flourish. The parts of our brain dedicated to sensory input are vastly inferior to many other animals. The eyesight of a bird makes us look blind in comparison; it can see farther, processes motion in a way we don’t, and can even see different light spectrums that are invisible to us. There are things in the world we simply can’t perceive because our brains are not wired that way (although the tools we create can compensate in some cases). You can find examples for hearing, touch, taste, smell…

But we’ve evolved differently. Our frontal lobe is enormous compared with most of the animal kingdom (apes aside). This has given us some unique abilities and advantages. But it does not make us perfect.

The universe is deeply complex. We are simply a product of evolution. Why do we think that evolution has given us the ability to understand and explain everything? We already know that there are many things our senses can not perceive…but what else is there that we do not yet know about? Are we so special, that it just so happens that the evolution of our brains allows us to understand everything about how the universe works? Oddly, that seems to be the expectation. On the whole, as a species, we see ourselves as some master race. We’re not; we’re just different to the others. And oddly, of all the species on the planet, we seem least able to exist in harmony with our environment.

There are many fundamental concepts we have been unable to explain. The way forces act on the universe (hence the creation of the as yet unproven forces of dark matter, dark energy and dark flow). Theories that there are four , five or even six dimensions. That other universes may exist around us.

Human thinking is somewhat binary in that there either is something, or there is not. Such thinking bumps in to obstacles. Although we have theories now around the big bang, they mostly seem to posit that a couple of random particles bumped in to one another. But where did they come from? How was there space around them in the first place? Somehow, there was once nothing and then there was the universe. Try and get your head around that. How did absolutely nothing at all turn in to something? That makes no sense. And how is that once nothing existed at all? Or perhaps the universe is timeless, it has always been here. But again that doesn’t seem to fit our way of thinking…how can we analyse that? Stick that in to our formula? Our brains don’t handle the concept of infinity especially well.

A similar example is the size and shape of the universe. There must be an edge right? Whatever shape it is, again this requires that there be something (the universe) and then…what? Nothing again? What is outside of the universe? And like with respect to time, perhaps the dimension of space is also infinite. So yet again, we bump against a concept – infinity – that we struggle to comprehend.

It might just be possible that in between nothing and something is a concept that we aren’t capable of understanding. That for all that our brains can do as a result of evolution, they can’t quite figure this one out. We can’t explain everything that is going on around us in the universe, because we have limitations. The universe did not develop specifically to fit in to the paradigms of understanding of just one its countless species.

And let’s think about this for a moment…thanks to evolution we have learned to better understand the world around us. This has been an adaptive mechanism that through developments such as medicine and technology enables us to thrive as a species like none other. Our understanding of our planet is phenomenal. However, why would it be adaptive in evolutionary terms for us to understand the universe? Up until midway through the last century we had never even left our own planet. In a fierce and competitive environment in which every little bit of space in our brains has evolved to give us an adaptive advantage, why would space be wasted trying to understand concepts like the beginning of the universe which have little to no impact on our ability to survive on Earth? Take the example of infinity – the Earth is finite and full of finite limits. Understanding infinity would not help us much here.

Of course, this does beg the obvious question of why we would even try to do so, and I’m afraid I have no answer to this.

We do a mighty impressive job, but I don’t believe everything in the universe fits within our limited way of understanding and explaining things. Heck, we don’t even understand our own motives most of the time.

Time to re-think our values?

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Over the last few years I have watched enormous resources (human, financial, material) thrown at various social and environmental issues. Organisations coordinating the programs all report back with tremendous positivity about the impact they are having. And yet…at a holistic level we don’t seem to be getting anywhere. I recall working on a project attempting to tackle homelessness, and we were told by the experts that homelessness has actually increased, quite remarkably, in parallel with the resources invested in tackling it. Have we really made such great progress in areas like health, education, economy, environment, poverty? There have been many leaps forward (we have met some of the Millennium Development Goals already), and yet personally I do not feel that we are making particularly impressive progress given the resource investment. Perhaps we are tackling the symptoms, and not the cause.

 

I believe to understand where all of humanity’s problems come from we must first accept a most uncomfortable truth:

 

We are the cause of every single one of them.

 

I have learned from my experience of depression as well as my time in social enterprise that we must first accept a problem in its entirety before we attempt to tackle it. Taking responsibility is perhaps also an important step, given how inclined we seem to be individually and collectively to absolve blame and point the finger elsewhere. By taking responsibility for a problem, we can then take responsibility for tackling it.

 

I am not telling you of course to take responsibility yourself for the entire 2 billion people living in poverty. A problem of such scale is not the fault of one individual, or even one nation, but the fault of billions of individuals collectively. Whether you like it or not, you have had a role to play though, as have the people you see around you. By buying materials and produce made by those living in poverty at such a reduced rate you are contributing. We buy from corporations whose greed-driven purpose is to maximise profit, by nature then exploiting those who have so little. On a systems level we are all players in the game of capitalism, which polarises wealth.

 

I see the fault for many problems we face lying within our cultural values. Here are some of the values that define mainstream society today:

Greed

Throwaway culture

Short-term interests maximised at long-term cost

Break down of close-knit communities

Quantity over quality

Demand for constant growth

Consumerism

Lack of respect for environment we wholly rely on

 

Unfortunately many of these values have spread from the ‘dominant’ west which much of the rest of the world aspires to imitate. The west looks impressive on the surface with its big shiny buildings, fancy technology and 2 cars per household, but that conceals the rotten core beneath. Record levels of obesity, stress and mental illness are hardly symbols to me of a flourishing civilization. I can think of few who feel particularly satisfied or purposeful in how they are living their lives. And all this for a lifestyle which is, quite simply, unsustainable.

 

The car crash of our misplaced values is playing out in slow motion, right before our eyes, as our economy wobbles with little sign of recovery, the climate inches ever closer to dangerous levels of warming, and ever more of us find ourselves fighting over ever fewer resources on this planet.

 

Such a state of things has been caused by contemporary approaches and contemporary values. To chart a more sustainable and prosperous course for ourselves going forward requires a new approach. It requires new values.

Are we destined for an international government?

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Some time ago, life was organised in to community living. People lived in small villages, everyone knew one another and they sourced all that they needed from the land in the village. We then started building towns and cities; great population and resource hubs. This required more sophisticated governance and management. Nations came next, made of multiple cities and towns and requiring yet another level of governance and management. I believe that we are approaching another stage, that of international governance.

 

For one, it seems a natural next step forward from the progression listed above. From community governance to city governance to nation governance to international governance.

 

Secondly, never before has our world been more interconnected. Few (if any) countries are entirely independent, as countries have come to rely on others for crucial resources such as food and oil. Nations now are even buying farmland in other countries to use for crops. Now if one nation struggles, then it has a knock-on effect on the rest of the world. We also feel empathy for those in other parts of the world, an empathy that goes beyond the borders of our nation. We are truly interdependent. The bizarreness of North Korea is the only obvious exception to this interconnectedness, but I’m sure that too will change in time (peacefully, I very much hope).

 

Thirdly, we are already seeing international bodies that represent something not so far off international governance*. Perhaps the closest example is the European Union, with its parliamentary process and shared currency – tying these nations closer together. The United Nations of course comes to mind as an international political body. The UN is a membership body rather than a governing body however, and has little power to issue directives to other nations, thus it can easily be undermined by the actions of a single nation (more so than the EU). Its charter is built around the principles of global peacekeeping, building relations between nations and solving international problems. It is the last principle here that I feel makes international governance inevitable.

 

Never before have we faced planetary limits as we do now. In the past, when a nation or civilisation has exceeded its natural limits it has collapsed largely in isolation. Now is very different, as any environmental crisis we face will be international in nature and thus require an international solution.

 

Climate change is perhaps the greatest threat humanity has ever faced, and requires every nation to commit to action on it. Yet we saw what happened in Copenhagen. With the whole world watching, no agreement was made. Even if every country but China were to drastically reduce carbon emissions, then so long as China continued their rate of emissions the disastrous impact would affect all of us and the good work would be undone. China have been obstinate on reducing carbon emissions, because providing a decent standard of living to their citizens requires continued industrial output and thus continued emissions. That would be all well and good if China had an atmosphere to itself, but unfortunately the atmosphere is not divided up by nation and we all must share the same one. International cooperation is imperative to tackle carbon emissions and we must commit to action as a global community; nation borders only prove an obstacle and lead to mixed motives. I could have used deforestation instead of carbon emissions as a very similar example.

 

The above is an example of our environmental impact, but the other side of the coin is our resource consumption. Our current consumption is beyond what the planet can regenerate, and we are overshooting by about 40% (and rising). Obviously, this cannot continue. And again, this requires international cooperation. Population size requires stabilisation, resource consumption needs regulation and global efforts need to be directed towards more efficient resource usage.

 

The UN in its current guise does not have the power to tackle the global challenges laid out above. How you would do it I have no idea and it would be plagued with issues, but international governance is required if we are to all live together on this planet. Nationhood is no longer sufficient in a global interdependent world facing global challenges.

 

The UN was born out of the most devastating international tragedy in human history. It will take something similarly catastrophic born out of the environmental sphere to mobilise nations in to international governance, but it will happen. It must happen if we are to work with the necessary international urgency and cooperation to tackle the global challenges we now face.

 

 

 

*Other examples are regional bodies such as the Arab League and ASEAN, and international membership institutions such as the World Bank and International Monetary Fund

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