Taking a balanced perspective in an opinionated world

Leave a comment

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.

Reflections on FutureFest

Leave a comment

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.

On the privatisation of public services: An objection on principle

Leave a comment

Amidst all the excitement surrounding the recent privatisation of the Royal Mail, the delivery of public services has been on my mind*. It’s long given me a sense of unease watching the current government increasingly privatise our public services, and up until now I’ve been unable to put my finger on why. I’ve begun to realise that it’s essentially the contrasting bottom lines upon which private and public these sectors operate that troubles me.

Fundamentally the bottom line for private business is profit maximisation, rather than provision of quality services. To some extent the two go hand in hand, but it is crucial to acknowledge this motive for profit, because it prompts decision-making all the way down. Public services should be, as the name suggests, a service for the public, not a service provided to maximise private profit. Don’t blame the people at the top of corporates for making decisions with profit at heart, blame the legal business model (company limited by share) which means they are legally obliged to maximise shareholder profit. They’re just doing what they must.

You can see the problem in other public services e.g. provision of healthcare. There is no money in prevention, and from a business point of view prevention makes no sense – if successful enough you put yourself out of business. In contrast, there is a lot of money in pharmaceuticals though – a point made by a healthcare professional in a seminar I went to recently. In order for these pharmaceutical companies to survive they need to sell more drugs, it would be bad business if they prevented health problems from arising in the first place as they would soon find themselves out of business. There’s a real tension there between what is good for people and what is good for business.

A justification for privatising services is that competition drives up quality, and so the market naturally filters out all but the best services. There is truth in this, but it is a blinkered perspective. The market also favours companies with the best advertising, who are the best at making people feel inadequate without their product/service. The market favours companies manufacturing products with a short lifespan, so that people have to keep replacing their products every year irrespective of whether they are actually still adequate for the job (iPhone 11 anyone?). The market favours companies who use whatever methods they can get away with to maximise their shareholder profit, including exploitation and tax evasion. The market is not a barometer of what is in the best interests of the public, and a blunt tool when it comes to ethics in decision-making.

There is also the question of ownership to consider. Public services remain in the hands, in theory at least, of citizens. How do we feel about the Government of Singapore being one of the biggest shareholders in the Royal Mail?

Of course, I am in danger of taking a blinkered anti-business view myself. The private sector is less susceptible to the political infighting and jostling that can so harm public services. And it does open it up to competition, which drives up innovation and efficiency. Without this the quality of service can stagnate. Another advantage of using business to provide service for the public, is that if it is an effective service then it stands a good chance of making profit, and thereby growing as Michael Porter points out in this talk, and CSR is gradually becoming a much more fundamental part of how we do business. It is also important to acknowledge that government is responsible for regulating industries too, although it is debatable where the power of balance really lies here.

Public services have weaknesses too. They can end up as government cash cows, as occurred with our eastern rail services. The government, like business, is concerned with its economic turnover and operates each year with a budget deficit. The loans they attain from banks to make up this deficit grow in interest every year, increasing the pressure and forcing them to compromise around their implementation of public services.

In my view, social enterprise could have a crucial role to play here in the future in terms of providing a better balance of service. Community Interest Companies are worth keeping an eye on, as they balance public interest against economic goals. However, the social enterprise sector is not yet generally big enough to take on large public service contracts. B Corporations are also opening up the opportunities for business to serve the public.

Public sector, social enterprise and charity all have their flaws, but to me all are preferable models when it comes to delivering services for society compared to for profit business, simply because of the bottom line. So my objection is a philosophical one. Public services at least are somewhat democratic, and if the public are not happy they put pressure on government to improve. Charities will likely die out unless they are having a significant and demonstrable social impact now, likewise social enterprise. However business, at the moment at least, has one bottom line – maximise shareholder profit. In my view, that’s not a good enough motive from which to create a service for the public.

*This article has a good debate on the pros and cons of privatisation: http://www.independent.co.uk/voices/debate/royal-mail-privatisation-the-pros-and-cons-8814217.html

Reflections on a future free of aging

4 Comments

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?

Do economics and business make unsustainability inevitable?

Leave a comment

I believe that the most fundamental root cause of many of our current social and environmental problems lies with our institutions – primarily our institutions of economics, business and governance. Poverty, climate change, mounting debt…these can all been attributed, to greater or larger extents, to the institutions that modern civilization is built upon; institutions that are cracking and creaking as they prove increasingly insufficient for the challenges of the modern world.

Let’s look at sustainability. We have an economic system that requires constant growth in order to survive. We have a business system that has to play by these economic rules and thus also requires constant growth. This is a model of business (the corporation) whose bottom line and primary purpose is to maximise its profit. Neither of the business or economic institutions take any consideration of social or environmental impact, although this is very slowly changing. Both of these institutions in fact treat our environment as unlimited income (rather than finite capital) and, it could be argued, require natural resources in order to run effectively – in order to meet their inherent need for constant growth. Neither institution takes in to consideration the possibility of limits.

So, our economic institution, and by extension our institution of business, requires constant growth yet takes no consideration of limits. Our civilization and entire way of life is dependent on such institutions. Every nation (with the possible exception of Bhutan) and business on the planet is chasing economic growth, with almost no acknowledgement of the possibility of limits. When this is understood, it seems of little surprise that our path is so unsustainable. It seems quite clear that our impact on the planet, particularly in the form of climate change, and our inability to manage our resources sustainably is a result of the institutions we have built our world upon. Such problems represent a very serious threat. Overshooting limits has had a role in every civilization collapse in history. And here we are, building modern civilization upon institutions which take no consideration of limits. Clever.

It does not take a physicist to tell you that infinite growth in a finite system is impossible. Simple common sense is enough. And yet, this is what our institutions demand. Currently, in order to achieve sustainability we are fighting against the institutions which define modern society. They have served us well for a long time, but are becoming increasingly outdated. To succeed, it seems clear that these institutions will need to undergo significant change.

Floundering Intelligently

1 Comment

So it’s been a fair old time since I last wrote anything. Amongst other things, this blog will hopefully go some way towards explaining why.

Last week I had the opportunity to go to a terrific event called the Festival of Education at Wellington College. The most memorable session for me was run by an education innovator called Guy Claxton. Everything about the talk resonated with me, most of all his vision and work on progressing towards a 21st century education system – one that exists to prepare young people for the working world. He was talking about the role of teachers in schools, particularly in relation to the value held in education that it is all about being right, rather than experimenting, potentially being wrong and learning from that. He rightly pointed out that in the adult world we are often confronted with situations in which there is no clear right or wrong, and in which we don’t have a bloody clue what we’re doing. He remarked that schools should be safe spaces for teachers and students both to work through unknown, complex situations where we don’t know what is right – safe spaces to flounder intelligently.

That phrase ‘flounder intelligently’ struck a chord with me, and has rattled around my head since. To be honest, I’ve been floundering ever since the beginning of 2013. The title of the blog is somewhat ironic because although at times I’ve felt very much as though I am learning and progressing, at other times the floundering has not felt intelligent in any way, shape or form. It’s just been floundering.

What I haven’t done, is be particularly open about it. I’m writing now partly because it’s cathartic, partly because I feel the learning is important, and partly because I don’t feel we as a society are anywhere near open enough about our struggles in life – in education or as adults. Be the change you want to see and all that – smart man that Ghandi fellow. I have some inspiring friends who have been transparent about difficulties they are having (much more significant than mine), and I thought I’d follow their lead.

2013 was the first year I didn’t set goals at the beginning of. My single intention was to carry on in the direction I was headed in, which was exactly where I wanted to go. The first six months in Sydney were mind-boggingly amazing and my life was just where I wanted it to be. No more than a week in to 2013, this all started to change. A combination of internal and external changes completely caught me off guard and de-railed me.

I was dependent on the university I was working at for both my visa and living wage going forward, and that went from looking likely to very uncertain and at the least not being available for a while. Significantly, I was aware that had I been in the UK where I’m a citizen then it wouldn’t have been an issue. A lot of promising work leads then started to fall through, almost comically so in some instances. In addition to this were two very unexpected changes in me; a strong desire to lay down roots and no longer be travelling from place to place, and a loss of motivation towards most of my current work. I realised that I wanted to move back to the UK and settle in London, and that I wanted to move away from mental health work towards environment/sustainability – a field I had no experience in.

So I find myself back in Swindon (which remains as dull as ever) living with my parents and struggling away to find paying work in London. To an extent, the novelty of being back in the country with so many of my friends and my family is still strong and it’s wonderful to now know that I want to stay here indefinitely. On the other hand, I’m still quite uncertain as to the work direction I want to go in and am finding it far more difficult to create work opportunities than at any point over the last few years. A lot of things fell in to place for me from my final year at university onwards – I thought I was very much in control of where my life was headed, turns out it was more that I was very lucky; a tough realisation to absorb.

It’s what’s been going on inside though that’s been really testing. My ideas, motivation, sense of purpose, intuition…things I had held very dear and had in riches in Australia all began to fade. I had come to rely increasingly on intuition over the years as my compass and it became stronger and stronger, but then at the turn of the year it went silent and would only pop up in glimpses. It’s still fairly quiet. I went from feeling like I was on a clear course and thriving to the absolute opposite. I had become increasingly calm and balanced (a few friends in Australia joked about me being ‘zen’), but this changed too – I grew easily rattled and cycled through feeling lost, confused, desperate and useless.

That last word was probably the toughest to acknowledge. It was very frustrating feeling like I was not of much use to anyone, especially compared to Australia where I held a number of leadership roles, I could influence change, was giving talks, and had connections. It has made me reflect on how special that time in Aus was. How lucky I was.

And I realised how very little I actually know! My goodness. That’s been humbling. One of the most profound realisations I think we can have is just how remarkably little we actually know. I know next to nothing about the world and how to change it. But I do now know that I have huge amounts of learning to do.

I don’t think you can overstate the importance of acceptance – especially of that which we find hard. I should have been more open earlier, as I’m writing this now from a space where I’m starting to find clarity and move through it. I’m not sure whether it’s healthy to flounder, but it is what it is and I can’t deny that’s what I’ve been doing. We shouldn’t pretend to know all the answers or get caught up in the illusion that we are in control – life and people are unpredictable. But if we’re going to flounder – do it intelligently, reflect on the lessons, speak to others. So for now, I’m going to flounder a little more…

The limits of human understanding

2 Comments

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.

Older Entries