Sometimes you have to kill your babies

It breaks my heart, but sometimes you just have to kill an idea you’ve been working on for ages. Seems this book idea is dead. But there’ll be another one along shortly….

This book is a gentle plea for a different kind of thinking. Specifically, it’s an appeal for a calmer, slower, deeper and far more reflective mind-set, which I firmly believe is necessary if one wishes to escape from the humdrum and enter the extraordinary.

Calling this essay How to Think could be problematic. Do people really want to be told how to think? Surely thinking is an intuitive skill that doesn’t need thinking about? This is partly true, but on another level thinking requires conscious and deliberate effort.

Have you ever really thought about this?

We aren’t generally taught how to think at school and we don’t think about our thinking much thereafter. This is a great shame, because our thinking, especially our imagination, is perhaps the most precious natural resource we’ve got on earth. But it’s one that’s being polluted by endless streams of digital interruption and chocked by the narrow nature of education and the short-termism of politics and business. Our liberty to think openly and freely is also being eroded by universities supporting ‘no platform’ policies and by the visceral hatred endemic in so much contemporary debate.

This hasn’t always been the case, and it’s not true everywhere either. But our fixation with doing many things as quickly as possible at the lowest possible cost is making us, our institutions and society infirm. Even weekends and holidays, which were once times for relaxation and reflection, have been invaded by devices that demand our constant attention and disconnect us from our true selves. I might be wrong, but the collateral damage of our hyper-connected world might be that we are becoming less connected, both to ourselves, others, and the wider world. Our mental focus, like our education system, is shrinking when it should be expanding. We need to bring back breadth, depth, reflection and, above all, relentless curiosity.

Numerous people have written about the neuroscience of thinking, especially how our sly subconscious gets us into so much trouble.

We are surrounded by the debris of this on a daily basis.

We rush into roles, responsibilities and relationships without properly thinking, or we think about such things in a singular, linear and unconnected manner. We ignore the layered lessons of history, the cyclical nature of so much change and the counter-forces that often emerge in response to significant innovations or events.

Essays about the creative process abound too, but these tend to exist within a sterile vacuum divorced from real world pressures, organisational psychologies and institutional pathologies. Have you ever tried really thinking at work?  Without permission? For a whole day? Without getting reprimanded? Or what of the impact of mood on thinking? Why don’t we think about this more often? Why are we so careless with the physical environments in which we expect our co-workers to think and our children to learn? On all counts, the result is thinking that’s becoming increasingly timid, lazy, shallow, sterile and one-dimensional, which is making us open to unmanageable surprises.

I would like to address all these issues and more, but from a positive perspective. I am less concerned about why things go wrong and more interested in how to put them right. How can we manipulate our meddlesome minds to make them more attuned to new risks? How can we become more sensitive to the faint murmurs that are so often the forerunners of opportunity? How should we embolden individuals and organisations alike to filter out utter nonsense, spot valuable anomalies or simply stop for a moment and take stock of where they are and what they are doing?

Most importantly, we are potentially on the cusp of a radical revolution in artificial intelligence. How might we educate our minds – and those of our children and our children’s children – to be open, adaptive and resilient in such a potentially disruptive environment? How should we think when machines can do this for us? How can we ensure that one of the major consequences of machines that can think isn’t people that don’t or needn’t? How do we guard against a situation where complacency or disenfranchisement means we no longer ask important questions like these?

I think the answer to all this is to become very good at the things these machines are very bad at. In short, we must work tirelessly to unleash our unique ability to think conceptually, counter-factually, originally and empathetically and inspire others to do the same.

And to do this I believe we need a moderate level of disconnection and a significant amount of time. Hence, we need to reclaim solitude, silence and patience. Without this no stable sense of self can emerge. Only when we are firmly anchored in ourselves can we hold useful conversations with others from which new ideas and insights will emerge. Only when we achieve a graceful lightness of being can we float above our everyday existence and jump joyfully from the world of sterile facts – the world as it is today – to the realm of imagination and ideas – the world as it might be tomorrow.

We cannot construct a long-term strategy for accomplishment, let alone one for the survival of our species, when we are smothered by busyness and distracted by ephemera. So, sit down, turn off your devices, un-divide your attention and come with me for a gentle stroll down some overgrown paths of possibility.

Posted in Discarded writing, My Next Book, Thinking, Thinking spaces | 4 Comments

Things that shouldn’t be connected

Yes it is and no he’s not.

I’m busy writing, so here’s something I didn’t write. A list of things that probably shouldn’t be connected to the internet, but already are.

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My kinda sign

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Weak Signal?

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AI 101

There’s a huge amount of nonsense out there about AI. This is a great intro on what’s going on and what’s not. I’ll post some more if I find more worth watching.

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Something a little different…

Something a little different today. I don’t think the comment under this saying “nice vid” quite captures it. More like stunned silence for 6 minutes.

While I’m at it…

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Cafes as Hubs of Disruption

From the New Yorker, What cafes did for liberalism, by Adam Gopnik (December 2018).

Article here right here. Thanks to Simon, over in Sydney, for this little gem.

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They don’t make posters like this these days

Film screening at the Royal College of Art next week….

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Why the long face?

How are you? How’s life? In 2015, a YouGov survey found that 65% of the British (and a whopping 81% of the French) thought that the world was getting worse.  But it’s not, it’s been getting better for decades. On almost any measure that matters, life is demonstrably better now than it has been in the past. In fact, 2016 was the best year for ever for humanity according to Philip Collins writing in The Times. In 2016, extreme poverty was affecting less than 10% of the world’s population for the first time. If that’s not cause for celebration, 2016 also saw global emissions from fossil fuels falling for the third year running and the death penalty becoming illegal in over half of all countries. Nicholas Kristof, writing in the New York Times, echoed the optimistic perspective: Child mortality is now half what is was back in 1990. More than 300,000 people every day are gaining access to electricity for the first time. Similar good news stories can be found in statistics about human life-spans (more than double what they were 100 years ago – a mere 31 years in 1931, for example), the number of women in education and work, basic sanitation and clean water. It’s the same story with literacy, freedom and even violence.

So why does it feel like things are terrible? Why are so many people longing for the good old days? The answer, most likely, is global media and ubiquitous connectivity. Ignorance is no longer bliss. We are exposed to endless headlines about Brexit, Trump, Putin, Syria, terrorism, climate change and North Korea 24/7. There’s no escape.

Our response to this tends to be one of two things. Either we conclude that the world is indeed going to hell, so we might as well enjoy ourselves, or we become profoundly anxious, depressed and cynical about everyone and everything. But as members of what’s been termed the New Optimist movement (a term meant to evoke Richard Dawkin’s New Atheists), point out, this doom and gloom is deeply irrational. The pessimistic mood simply ignores the facts and underestimates the power of the human imagination. Moreover, while a worrisome mind was useful in the past (when looking out for threats outside your cave could literally save your life), use of the same fight or flight mind-set today can lead to spirals of despond. The fact that news now circulates the globe faster than it can be properly analysed doesn’t help either. Add to this a deluge of digital opinion which is at best subjective and more often false or misleading and it’s hardly surprising that so many people feel unsettled and disorientated to put it mildly. Another explanation for pessimism lies in our cognitive biases and especially our general inability to properly asses risk or probability. For example, more people died in motorcycle accidents in the US in 2001 than died in the Twin Towers attack on 9/11.

So, should we relax? Yes and no. Yes, in the sense that we need to put things in proper perspective, look at the real numbers and assess the actual probabilities. No, in the sense that just because we’ve had it good for the last 50 or 100 years doesn’t mean that our run of good luck will naturally continue. Maybe the last 100 years is simply a blip (extrapolating from recent personal experience or data is usually what goes wrong when it comes to long-term forecasting).

Another downside of global connectivity is that risk is now globally networked and systemic, meaning that one lunatic with the nuclear codes or a nasty biological virus could wipe us all out tomorrow. There are still things that could go seriously wrong, as David Runcimanm, a Professor of politics at Cambridge, points out.

OK, so around 120 countries out of 193 are now democracies (up from 40 in 1972), but this could change.  Cyber-terrorism could bring us to our knees for extended periods too and while people throughout history warning of the end of the world have always been wrong, they only need to be right once. Hence, a degree of caution, or cynicism, can be useful. It’s also worth noting that if people become too depressed about things they tend not to be motivated to fix things (although, similarly, it might be argued that if you are too optimistic a similar rule applies). Any mind-set can become a self-fulfilling prophesy. Also, while it’s indisputable that globally, or on average, things are good and getting better, this isn’t true for everyone, everywhere. Local exceptions apply. Furthermore, a more nuanced criticism of the rational optimistic view is that saying things are great is a great way of saying don’t change anything, which is to say leave free market capitalism and political structures well alone.

Overall, people will choose to believe whatever they want to believe and choose the facts that support their world view, but one thing that’s still missing perhaps is vision. We are increasingly stuck in the present, ignorant of our deep history and seduced and distracted by an internet that’s fuelled by our attention. If, instead of giving the internet and 24/7 media our time, we spent our time thinking about how we, as a species, would like to live now and where we would like to travel in the future I suspect that a lot of the current anxiety and pessimism would evaporate. In other words, we should worry less about what we think is happening now or might happen next and start taking about what we want to happen now and what we want to occur next.

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Robots that read bedtime stories

I thought that ‘executive summary’ nursery rhymes, for time-pressed parents to read to their children, were bad enough. I think this might be worse. Not only are we removing human interaction, we are allowing Big Tech to listen in on our children.

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