Random finds (2019, week 11) — On the digital wellness movement, the creative and emotional windfalls of walking, and Isaac Asimov’s essay on creativity
I have gathered a posy of other men’s flowers, and nothing but the thread that binds them is mine own.” — Michel de Montaigne
Random finds is a weekly curation of my tweets and, as such, a reflection of my fluid and boundless curiosity.
If you want to know more about my work and how I help senior executives and leadership teams find their way through complexity and change, please visit my ‘uncluttered’ website.
This week: Why tech companies love the idea of digital wellness; how movement and mind are linked in Western thought; Isaac Asimov on creativity and how people get new ideas; the MBA myth and the cult of the CEO; big systemic thinking and the future of the firm; the fact/opinion distinction; a new human right for future generations; the impact of climate change and rising tides; and, finally, why A.I. without humans won’t solve our problems.
The digital wellness movement
There is a growing consciousness around ‘digital wellness’, the name given to lifestyle practices that encourage healthy device use. But some worry that the ‘wellness’ movement, with its focus on personal responsibility, lets the tech industry off the hook.
“Academics have been concerned about the addictive potential of computers for decades,” Oscar Schwartz writes in Why beating your phone addiction may come at a cost. These critiques were often overshadowed by prevailing techno-optimism — a belief that a more connected world was a better world. But “the narrative began to shift at the turn of the last decade with the rise of smartphones. As we became increasingly tethered to our screens, a growing number of experts and social commentators, like Sherry Turkle and Nicholas Carr, published grave warnings that we were spending too much time on them. As trust in the tech industry has atrophied over the past few years, this critical perspective has become commonplace. Countless articles, studies and books now tell us how our screen addiction is making us more anxious and depressed, incapable of thinking deeply and too distracted to engage in meaningful relationships or self-reflection. Concerns are particularly acute in relation to young people and how it may affect their development.
Born out of this cultural anxiety is the digital wellness movement. Unlike earlier tech criticism, which sought to diagnose and raise awareness around tech addiction, digital wellness aims to provide solutions, often in the form of step-by-step programs,” Schwarz writes. “Switching off, in this context, is an aspiration marketed directly at ‘busy people,’ those for whom productivity and focus is key, but who can still ultimately afford to take time off. For this reason, many digital detox programs and retreats are associated with luxury.”
“For many stalwarts of the digital wellness movement, big tech’s embrace of their ethos is seen as disingenuous. ‘Tech companies love the idea of digital wellness because it puts responsibility on us,’ [science journalist Catherine Price, the author of How to Break Up With Your Phone: The 30-Day Plan to Take Your Life Back, in which she draws on cognitive science and philosophy to show how phones and social media platforms are designed to lure us in] told [Schwarz]. ‘It gives them an excuse to be like tobacco companies and just say, well if you don’t like us, you don’t have to use our product.’”
Manoush Zomorodi is a journalist who has been writing about digital wellness since 2015. She also “questions whether companies that have become rich by designing mediated dopamine-driven feedback loops can be part of the solution without changing their business model. ‘People say, just turn off your phone, what’s the big deal? Well, we’re up against multibillion-dollar corporations who know how to manipulate you,’ Zomorodi told [Schwarz]. ‘It’s not a neutral issue of me just needing to have healthier habits. What tech needs is design ethics.’
While Price and Zomorodi acknowledge these structural problems, they also believe that digital wellness practices can be useful tools. ‘We should be using everything at our disposal,’ Price told [Schwarz]. ‘If you want to see change immediately you have to have the personal responsibility approach because it means we can change right now.’”
But Jenny Odell, whose forthcoming book How to Do Nothing (a “field guide to doing nothing, at least as capitalism defines it”) is a personal meditation on how to disconnect from the attention economy, “is concerned that the digital wellness industry, with its emphasis on regaining lost time and productivity, reinforces a deeper cultural problem. ‘We’ve been trained to think of ourselves as marketable objects with 24 potentially monetizable hours,’ she says. Within this paradigm, the problem with addictive tech is that it is sapping us of our time that could be more productively spent capitalizing on our skills and waking hours. ‘I think there has to be a distinction between having meaning in your life and being more productive,’ Odell adds. ‘They’re not the same thing. But they’re often being conflated by these digital detox products.’
‘Instead of following a program to get back focus and productivity I made myself open to idleness,’ she says. ‘But the human desire for the quick fix is so deep that if you tell someone you have a number of steps with which they can remedy this really big structural and cultural problem, they will ignore the bigger picture and just take whatever they can get.’”
“At first glance, boredom and brilliance are completely at odds with each other. Boredom, if defined just as the state of being weary and restless through lack of interest, overwhelmingly has negative connotations and should be avoided at all costs, whereas brilliance is something we aspire to — a quality of striking success and unusual mental ability. Genius, intellect, talent, air versus languidness, dullness, doldrums. It’s not immediately apparent, but these two opposing states are in fact intimately connected,” Manoush Zomorodi writes in What Boredom Does to You.
The creative and emotional windfalls of walking
In Why walking makes you a better worker, Philippa Fogarty wonders what would happen if we make time for an hour outside each day?
John Muir, the 19th-century Scottish-American naturalist who was one of the earliest advocates of US national parks, seems to have been on to something when he said, “Everybody needs beauty as well as bread, places to play in and pray in, where nature may heal and give strength to body and soul alike.” Yet despite the mounting evidence that spending time in nature makes us happier and healthier, we don’t get out much.
Apart from the obvious benefits to going outside, it may also be a productivity hack. A Finnish study showed that 15-minute park walks were as effective and as beneficial as relaxation exercises. But the idea that nature packs a punch isn’t getting through to everyone.
“So what simple ways are there to make nature part of a workday routine? If you work at a tech giant, then problem solved: Microsoft has built treehouse meeting areas for employees, Amazon has The Spheres, three plant-filled domes where 800 employees can ‘think and work differently,’ and Adobe has built a running track on the roof of its London office,” Fogarty writes.
According to Kalevi Korpela, a professor of psychology at Finland’s Tampere University, “short interventions — like walking in a park for two weeks — provide short-term benefits; for long-term gains the activity needs to become entrenched. And he says research indicates that when it comes to long-term wellbeing, physical activity in nature trumps having greenery or a nature view at work. But he says even short-term effects may be important for preventing the accumulation of long-term stress. ‘Short-term exposures are like cutting the effects of stress for a while and this itself may have positive long-term effects. More studies on this are needed.’”
“The answer begins with changes to our chemistry. When we go for a walk, the heart pumps faster, circulating more blood and oxygen not just to the muscles but to all the organs — including the brain. Many experiments have shown that after or during exercise, even very mild exertion, people perform better on tests of memory and attention. Walking on a regular basis also promotes new connections between brain cells, staves off the usual withering of brain tissue that comes with age, increases the volume of the hippocampus (a brain region crucial for memory), and elevates levels of molecules that both stimulate the growth of new neurons and transmit messages between them.
The way we move our bodies further changes the nature of our thoughts, and vice versa. Psychologists who specialize in exercise music have quantified what many of us already know: listening to songs with high tempos motivates us to run faster, and the swifter we move, the quicker we prefer our music. Likewise, when drivers hear loud, fast music, they unconsciously step a bit harder on the gas pedal. Walking at our own pace creates an unadulterated feedback loop between the rhythm of our bodies and our mental state that we cannot experience as easily when we’re jogging at the gym, steering a car, biking, or during any other kind of locomotion. When we stroll, the pace of our feet naturally vacillates with our moods and the cadence of our inner speech; at the same time, we can actively change the pace of our thoughts by deliberately walking more briskly or by slowing down.
Because we don’t have to devote much conscious effort to the act of walking, our attention is free to wander — to overlay the world before us with a parade of images from the mind’s theatre. This is precisely the kind of mental state that studies have linked to innovative ideas and strokes of insight.”
According to Frédéric Gros, walking is the best way to go more slowly than any other method that has ever been found. “In walking,” he claims, is that “the authentic sign of assurance is a good slowness.”
In his surprise bestseller A Philosophy of Walking (2014), Gros discusses the centrality of walking in the lives of Nietzsche, Rimbaud, Kant, Rousseau and Thoreau. Likewise, Rebecca Solnit has profiled the essential walks of literary figures such as William Wordsworth, Jane Austen, and Gary Snyder in her book Wanderlust, which argues for the necessity of walking in our own age, when doing so is almost entirely unnecessary most of the time. As great walkers of the past and present have made abundantly clear — anecdotally at least — we observe a significant link between walking and creative thinking.
“Gros’s larger theory of walking […] is that there are three essential kinds,” Adam Gopnik writes in Heaven’s Gaits (The New Yorker, 2014). “There is the root case of contemplative walking (what you do to clear your head). There is ‘cynical’ walking (the term referring to the Cynics of ancient Greece, homeless hippies who scorned conventions, customs, clothes). And then there is the composite contemplative-cynic, the modern city walker (what is often called the ‘flâneur’).”
Contemplative walking is Gros favored kind. This is “the walking of medieval pilgrims, of Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Henry David Thoreau, of Kant’s daily life. It is the Western equivalent of what Asians accomplish by sitting. Walking is the Western form of meditation: ‘You’re doing nothing when you walk, nothing but walking. But having nothing to do but walk makes it possible to recover the pure sensation of being, to rediscover the simple joy of existing, the joy that permeates the whole of childhood.’ There’s a reason, Gros suggests, that a dominant school of philosophy in the ancient world, revived in the medieval, was called the ‘peripatetic’ [a transliteration of the ancient Greek word περιπατητικός (peripatêtikos), meaning ‘of walking’ or ‘given to walking about’]. In Raphael’s great fresco of assembled ancient philosophers, conventionally called The School of Athens, Plato and Aristotle are shown upright and in movement, peripatetic even when fixed in place by paint, advancing toward the other philosophers rather than enthroned above them. Movement and mind are linked in Western thought.”
“It’s best to walk alone,” Gros concludes. But we are never alone. As Thoreau wrote: “I have a great deal of company in the house, especially in the morning when nobody calls.”
In From Wordsworth to Nietzsche: the power of walking examined, Jon Day reviews three recently published books about, what he calls, “the creative and emotional windfalls of this fundamental human pursuit.”
From Wordsworth to Nietzsche: the power of walking examined
"All truly great thoughts" wrote Friedrich Nietzsche in Twilight of the Idols, "are conceived while walking." Henry…
More about wandering in The Case for the Flâneuse by Arnav Adhikari, who talked with Lauren Elkin about Flâneuse (2017), her book about the forgotten history of women artists who wandered the city and fought back against the masculine notion of the drifter.
The Case for the 'Flâneuse'
Despite their presence on the same streets, historically, women haven't always shared the same privilege of anonymity…
In Why Wandering Works for Managers, Theodore Kinni refers to John le Carré, the British writer who elevated the spy novel to the realm of literature, who once wrote that “a desk is a dangerous place from which to view the world.” That’s a warning as appropriate for business leaders as it is for George Smiley, le Carré’s beleaguered but never beaten spymaster. “So unplug that earthing mat and get your feet back on solid ground,” Kinni writes.
Isaac Asimov’s essay on creativity
In this essay from 1959, Isaac Asimov explores how people get new ideas. It describes not only the creative process and the nature of creative people but also the kind of environment that promotes creativity.
Originally written for an MIT spinoff, the essay remained unpublished until Arthur Obermayer rediscovered it in 2014 while cleaning out some old files. He immediately recognised that its contents are as broadly relevant today as when Asimov wrote it.
How do people get new ideas?
Presumably, the process of creativity, whatever it is, is essentially the same in all its branches and varieties, so that the evolution of a new art form, a new gadget, a new scientific principle, all involve common factors. We are most interested in the “creation” of a new scientific principle or a new application of an old one, but we can be general here.
One way of investigating the problem is to consider the great ideas of the past and see just how they were generated. Unfortunately, the method of generation is never clear even to the “generators” themselves.
But what if the same earth-shaking idea occurred to two men, simultaneously and independently? Perhaps, the common factors involved would be illuminating. Consider the theory of evolution by natural selection, independently created by Charles Darwin and Alfred Wallace.
There is a great deal in common there. Both traveled to far places, observing strange species of plants and animals and the manner in which they varied from place to place. Both were keenly interested in finding an explanation for this, and both failed until each happened to read Malthus’s “Essay on Population.”
Both then saw how the notion of overpopulation and weeding out (which Malthus had applied to human beings) would fit into the doctrine of evolution by natural selection (if applied to species generally).
Obviously, then, what is needed is not only people with a good background in a particular field, but also people capable of making a connection between item 1 and item 2 which might not ordinarily seem connected.
Undoubtedly in the first half of the 19th century, a great many naturalists had studied the manner in which species were differentiated among themselves. A great many people had read Malthus. Perhaps some both studied species and read Malthus. But what you needed was someone who studied species, read Malthus, and had the ability to make a cross-connection.
That is the crucial point that is the rare characteristic that must be found. Once the cross-connection is made, it becomes obvious. Thomas H. Huxley is supposed to have exclaimed after reading On the Origin of Species, “How stupid of me not to have thought of this.”
But why didn’t he think of it? The history of human thought would make it seem that there is difficulty in thinking of an idea even when all the facts are on the table. Making the cross-connection requires a certain daring. It must, for any cross-connection that does not require daring is performed at once by many and develops not as a “new idea,” but as a mere “corollary of an old idea.”
It is only afterward that a new idea seems reasonable. To begin with, it usually seems unreasonable. It seems the height of unreason to suppose the earth was round instead of flat, or that it moved instead of the sun, or that objects required a force to stop them when in motion, instead of a force to keep them moving, and so on.
A person willing to fly in the face of reason, authority, and common sense must be a person of considerable self-assurance. Since he occurs only rarely, he must seem eccentric (in at least that respect) to the rest of us. A person eccentric in one respect is often eccentric in others.
Consequently, the person who is most likely to get new ideas is a person of good background in the field of interest and one who is unconventional in his habits. (To be a crackpot is not, however, enough in itself.)
Once you have the people you want, the next question is: Do you want to bring them together so that they may discuss the problem mutually, or should you inform each of the problem and allow them to work in isolation?
My feeling is that as far as creativity is concerned, isolation is required. The creative person is, in any case, continually working at it. His mind is shuffling his information at all times, even when he is not conscious of it. (The famous example of Kekule working out the structure of benzene in his sleep is well-known.)
The presence of others can only inhibit this process, since creation is embarrassing. For every new good idea you have, there are a hundred, ten thousand foolish ones, which you naturally do not care to display.
Nevertheless, a meeting of such people may be desirable for reasons other than the act of creation itself.
No two people exactly duplicate each other’s mental stores of items. One person may know A and not B, another may know B and not A, and either knowing A and B, both may get the idea — though not necessarily at once or even soon.
Furthermore, the information may not only be of individual items A and B, but even of combinations such as A-B, which in themselves are not significant. However, if one person mentions the unusual combination of A-B and another the unusual combination A-C, it may well be that the combination A-B-C, which neither has thought of separately, may yield an answer.
It seems to me then that the purpose of cerebration sessions is not to think up new ideas but to educate the participants in facts and fact-combinations, in theories and vagrant thoughts.
But how to persuade creative people to do so? First and foremost, there must be ease, relaxation, and a general sense of permissiveness. The world in general disapproves of creativity, and to be creative in public is particularly bad. Even to speculate in public is rather worrisome. The individuals must, therefore, have the feeling that the others won’t object.
If a single individual present is unsympathetic to the foolishness that would be bound to go on at such a session, the others would freeze. The unsympathetic individual may be a gold mine of information, but the harm he does will more than compensate for that. It seems necessary to me, then, that all people at a session be willing to sound foolish and listen to others sound foolish.
If a single individual present has a much greater reputation than the others, or is more articulate, or has a distinctly more commanding personality, he may well take over the conference and reduce the rest to little more than passive obedience. The individual may himself be extremely useful, but he might as well be put to work solo, for he is neutralizing the rest.
The optimum number of the group would probably not be very high. I should guess that no more than five would be wanted. A larger group might have a larger total supply of information, but there would be the tension of waiting to speak, which can be very frustrating. It would probably be better to have a number of sessions at which the people attending would vary, rather than one session including them all. (This would involve a certain repetition, but even repetition is not in itself undesirable. It is not what people say at these conferences, but what they inspire in each other later on.)
For best purposes, there should be a feeling of informality. Joviality, the use of first names, joking, relaxed kidding are, I think, of the essence — not in themselves, but because they encourage a willingness to be involved in the folly of creativeness. For this purpose I think a meeting in someone’s home or over a dinner table at some restaurant is perhaps more useful than one in a conference room.
Probably more inhibiting than anything else is a feeling of responsibility. The great ideas of the ages have come from people who weren’t paid to have great ideas, but were paid to be teachers or patent clerks or petty officials, or were not paid at all. The great ideas came as side issues.
To feel guilty because one has not earned one’s salary because one has not had a great idea is the surest way, it seems to me, of making it certain that no great idea will come in the next time either.
Yet your company is conducting this cerebration program on government money. To think of congressmen or the general public hearing about scientists fooling around, boondoggling, telling dirty jokes, perhaps, at government expense, is to break into a cold sweat. In fact, the average scientist has enough public conscience not to want to feel he is doing this even if no one finds out.
I would suggest that members at a cerebration session be given sinecure tasks to do — short reports to write, or summaries of their conclusions, or brief answers to suggested problems — and be paid for that, the payment being the fee that would ordinarily be paid for the cerebration session. The cerebration session would then be officially unpaid-for and that, too, would allow considerable relaxation.
I do not think that cerebration sessions can be left unguided. There must be someone in charge who plays a role equivalent to that of a psychoanalyst. A psychoanalyst, as I understand it, by asking the right questions (and except for that interfering as little as possible), gets the patient himself to discuss his past life in such a way as to elicit new understanding of it in his own eyes.
In the same way, a session-arbiter will have to sit there, stirring up the animals, asking the shrewd question, making the necessary comment, bringing them gently back to the point. Since the arbiter will not know which question is shrewd, which comment necessary, and what the point is, his will not be an easy job.
As for “gadgets” designed to elicit creativity, I think these should arise out of the bull sessions themselves. If thoroughly relaxed, free of responsibility, discussing something of interest, and being by nature unconventional, the participants themselves will create devices to stimulate discussion.
And also this …
Three decades ago, Michael Jensen, an influential Harvard Business School professor argued that CEO pay should be tied to stock performance. Was he horribly wrong?
“The cult of the CEO is difficult to resist. Management, after all, is a team sport,” Dan Rasmussen & Haonan Li write in The MBA Myth and the Cult of the CEO. “Just as a quarterback can control the team’s offense, the theory goes, so too can CEOs control their large public companies. If enterprise value has soared, it is because the CEO is a genius visionary. If multiples have compressed, it is because the CEO is an arrogant fool. And since the CEO is the key determinant of the company’s future, virtually any level of CEO compensation is justifiable.
But beneath the mountain of CEO profiles are base rates that are virtually indistinguishable from randomness. The focus on the ‘great man’ theory of corporate management may lead to persistent errors. For investors favoring stocks with strong past-performing CEOs, the base rates suggest this is like betting on heads because the last two coin flips came up that way. If they pay up for this ‘quality,’ it’s worse than that.
A Harvard Business Review article, The Art and Science of Finding the Right CEO, lists ‘proven track record’ as a top, ‘obvious’ criterion for selecting CEOs. But, to quote Sherlock Holmes, ‘There is nothing more deceptive than an obvious fact.’
“Journalists, investors, and boards are placing excessive emphasis on CEO pedigrees and track records. In a world that is feedback-rich, stochastic, and ‘fat tailed,’ the simple narrative of the ‘great man’ does not appear to have much quantitative merit — rather, it seems like yet another cognitive bias in the vein of those discovered by Daniel Kahneman.
Of course, we cannot prove that CEO credentials don’t have an effect on share price. It’s impossible to prove a negative — what statisticians call a null hypothesis. We are simply pointing out that there is no convincing evidence in favor of rejecting that null hypothesis. U.S. companies adopted Jensen’s ideas without any data suggesting that incentive pay would actually result in better stock price performance — and no evidence to suggest Jensen’s thesis was correct has emerged in the 29 years since that great experiment began.
An effective counterargument might be that share price return is not a good metric for CEO performance, that stock price is simply not within the control of the CEO, being driven to a large extent by factors like changes in investor sentiment and macroeconomic conditions.
This thesis would, however, imply that incentive compensation tied to stock price is ineffective. That is a thesis — unlike the elitist premise that pedigree predicts performance — that is supported by data. An S&P Global Report found no link between CEO pay and stock price performance. ‘Despite wide acceptance of executive pay-for-performance, we find no evidence that high levels of total incentive compensation (performance-based cash plus stock and stock option awards) result in higher-than-average shareholder returns,’ the authors wrote.
Abraham Lincoln famously said, ‘I claim not to have controlled events, but confess plainly that events have controlled me.’ Very few of our CEOs are willing to make a similar confession about the share prices of the companies they run.
But if there is no evidence that stock returns are attributable to CEOs, then what justification is there for their stratospheric pay? How much longer will investors and boards be fooled by randomness and hollow credentialism?”
Future of the firm, by Josh Bersin, Tim O’Reilly, Roger Magoulas and Mike Loukides, maps the complex forces that are reshaping organisations and changing the relationship between employee and employer. When thinking about the big-picture items affecting the future of the firm, the authors have identified several topics, including ‘Big systemic thinking.’
“There is nothing simple about business. It’s easy to get trapped by simple business models — for example, optimizing by doing more of what you know. ‘We’re doing well selling widgets, so let’s make more’ is a good decision only if you know that the market for widgets is growing, that you can maintain or increase your market share, and that there isn’t something you can do even better. While it may be necessary to simplify the components of a business to best understand and apply them, taking the time to do big systemic thinking could be the most important factor to an organization’s sustained existence and success,” the authors write.
“How do you skate to where the puck is headed, rather than where it is? Firms have to understand and participate in their entire business ecosystem. Those that don’t do this often disappear in a flash. Digital Equipment Corporation’s machines were absolutely central to the university and industry researchers who developed both the Unix operating system and the internet, but the company failed to realize that its own VAX/VMS operating system was a dead end. It was unwilling to sacrifice a popular but declining product for the future. If [DEC] had really understood the ecosystem in which it was engaged, the company might have seen this trend.
By way of contrast, consider Amazon, one of the best ‘systems thinking’ companies in the world. As it built its retail business, the company realized that its many elements could be unbundled. Its massive internet infrastructure was a product in itself. Now Amazon Web Services (AWS), the unbundled services that power Amazon.com, is a leader in the cloud computing market, enabling even Amazon competitors. Not only that, but Amazon realized it could be more than one online retailer among many — it turned itself into a marketplace by unbundling its web catalog, its warehousing, and its delivery services and making them available to other merchants, reducing its own costs and taking a share of everyone else’s profits. And now, because of the scope of its marketplace offerings, it has built a large and fast-growing advertising business, taking away a meaningful fraction of what seemed to be Google’s unchallengeable share in one of the most profitable areas of search.
Sometimes, thinking holistically means deciding what not to do. For example, O’Reilly Media closed its online retail store not because the store was failing, but because the store got in the way of the company’s strategic decision to pivot from retail book sales to becoming a learning marketplace.
None of these are simple decisions you could arrive at just by doing more of what’s working. They also aren’t decisions you can arrive at by decomposing an organization into its component parts and analyzing them separately. They don’t come from simplistic and reductionist models of how the business works. Rather, they require a broad understanding and intuitive sense of the business and its environment: its customers, its competencies, its competitive situation, and how forces are constantly shaping and reshaping all of these. The decisions themselves, like ‘sell computing infrastructure as a service,’ sound simple in retrospect. But getting through the complexity to those decisions isn’t simple.
There are no silver bullets; big systemic thinking can go just as wrong as any other thought process. Getting through the noise to communicate those decisions to employees, to customers, and to the board of directors isn’t simple, either. But without that kind of thinking, you can’t be right.”
“Why worry about the fact/opinion distinction? One reason is that precise thinking is valuable for its own sake. But there’s another, more pragmatic reason. Despite its unclear meaning, the claim ‘That’s just your opinion’ has a clear use: It is a conversation-stopper. It’s a way of diminishing a claim, reducing it to a mere matter of taste which lies beyond dispute. (De gustibus non est disputandum: there’s no disputing taste.)
Indeed, the ‘opinion’ label is used not only to belittle others’ stances, but also to deflate one’s own. In recognising that a personal belief differs sharply from that of other individuals and cultures, one may conclude, ‘I guess that’s just my opinion — no better than anyone else’s.’ This conclusion may stem from an admirable humility. On the other hand, it can have pernicious effects: it leads to a kind of wishy-washiness, wherein one refrains from standing up for one’s convictions for fear of imposing ‘mere opinions.’ Such reticence conflicts with common sense: surely some opinions are more thoughtful, more informed, more coherent, and more important than others.
This diminishment is especially troubling in moral debates. Moral debates are practical — they’re debates about what to do — and they concern our values: things that matter to us. Either we send troops to Syria or we don’t. Either we allow same-sex couples to marry or we don’t. Either we lie to our parents about what happened to the car or we don’t. Categorising these issues as ‘matters of opinion’ doesn’t make them any less urgent or vital.
I therefore propose that we abandon the ambiguous fact/opinion distinction, and especially the dismissive retort ‘That’s just your opinion.’ We should focus instead on whether people can offer good reasons for the claims they make — reasons that might compel us to share their views. That’s my opinion, anyway. If you think yours is better, don’t merely say so: Say why.”
“You can tweak this system. You can seek to modify it. But you cannot make it just,” writes George Monbiot in Capitalism is destroying the Earth. We need a new human right for future generations.
“So what should take its place? It seems to me that the founding principle of any just system is that those who are not yet alive will, when they are born, have the same rights as those who are alive today. At first sight, this doesn’t seem to change anything: the first article of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that ‘all human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.’ But this statement is almost meaningless, because there is nothing in the declaration insisting that one generation cannot steal from the next. The missing article might look like this: ‘Every generation shall have an equal right to the enjoyment of natural wealth.’
This principle is hard to dispute, but it seems to change everything. Immediately, it tells us that no renewable resource should be used beyond its rate of replenishment. No non-renewable resource should be used that cannot be fully recycled and reused. This leads inexorably to towards two major shifts: a circular economy from which materials are never lost; and the end of fossil fuel combustion.”
“But what of the Earth itself? In this densely populated world, all land ownership necessarily precludes ownership by others. Article 17 of the Universal Declaration is self-contradictory. It says, ‘Everyone has the right to own property.’ But because it places no limit on the amount one person can possess, it ensures that everyone does not have this right. I would change it to this: ‘Everyone has the right to use property without infringing the rights of others to use property.’ The implication is that everyone born today would acquire an equal right of use, or would need to be compensated for their exclusion. One way of implementing this is through major land taxes, paid into a sovereign wealth fund. It would alter and restrict the concept of ownership, and ensure that economies tended towards distribution, rather than concentration.
These simple suggestions raise a thousand questions. I don’t have all the answers. But such issues should be the subject of lively conversations everywhere. Preventing environmental breakdown and systemic collapse means challenging our deepest and least-examined beliefs.”
A chilling new installation in the Outer Hebrides shows the impact of climate change and rising tides on the low-lying islands off the west coast of Scotland.
Lines (57° 59'N, 7° 16'W) was created by Finnish artists Pekka Niittyvirta and Timo Aho for Taigh Chearsabhagh Museum & Arts Centre in Lochmaddy on the island of North Uist. The installation uses sensors and LED lights to show where the water will flow during storm surges if the Earth’s temperature continues to rise. Searing white lines mark this rising water level on the sides of buildings, hover over bridges, and extend across other susceptible areas across the museum campus and surrounding community.
“Our collective wisdom is perhaps one of humanity’s greatest accomplishments, one built collaboratively across ages, geographies and cultures. Over the long run, knowledge, like water, proves more powerful than every vessel that seeks to contain it. This is because people — no matter where they are, no matter from where they come — possess intrinsic curiosity, creative souls and inquiring minds.
It is clear that the right to inquiry is universal, recognized by the United Nations as applying online as well as off. But today, censorship is only part of the challenge. Without people in the loop, we risk losing the web’s fundamental humanity.
If the best part of the web is indeed people, then we must keep them at the center of every policy decision and platform design. We must defend a web that is free and unfettered, and improve connections that allow creativity and collaboration. We should leave the artificial to the machines and restore humanity to the users.” — Katherine Maher, the chief executive of the Wikimedia Foundation, in Why A.I. Without Humans Will Not Solve Our Problems