Reading notes (2020, week 47) — On the common structure of conspiracy theories, reining in the ‘digital media’ Fury, and the paradox mindset

Mark Storm
28 min readNov 23, 2020


Shulin Architectural Design has created a serene reading space for the residents of the Liangjiashan village, located in an ancient mountain forest in China‘s Wuyi county. Aimed at providing a calm and quite place for children, young people, and the elderly, it incorporates a semi-outdoor open space on the ground level while the upper floor encloses two rounds of back-shaped bookshelves and several reading areas. (Photograph by Yilong Zhao)

Reading notes is a weekly curation of my tweets. It is, as Michel de Montaigne so beautifully wrote, “a posy of other men’s flowers and nothing but the thread that binds them is mine own.”

In this week’s edition: how understanding the structure of global cabal theories can shed light on their allure — and inherent falsehood; what it take to drive the ‘digital media’ Fury back to the Underworld; embracing contradictory ideas may be the secret to creativity and leadership; how close is humanity to the edge?; how art sustains us when survival is uncertain; lockdown has affected our memory; what does philosophy actually do?; the Indian architect Anupama Kundoo on how ‘handmade technologies’ can shape the built environment; and, finally, Barack Obama and the capacity to distinguish what’s true from what’s false.

The common structure of conspiracy theories

Understanding the structure of global cabal theories can shed light on their allure — and their inherent falsehood, Yuval Noah Harari argues in a recent Op-Ed in The New York Times, entitled When the World Seems Like One Big Conspiracy.

Conspiracy theories have been around for thousands of years, some of which have even had a huge impact on history. “Take Nazism, for example.” Harari writes. “We normally don’t think about Nazism as a conspiracy theory. Since it managed to take over an entire country and launch World War II, we usually consider Nazism an ‘ideology,’ albeit an evil one.

But at its heart, Nazism was a global cabal theory based on this anti-Semitic lie: ‘A cabal of Jewish financiers secretly dominates the world and are plotting to destroy the Aryan race. They engineered the Bolshevik Revolution, run Western democracies, and control the media and the banks. Only Hitler has managed to see through all their nefarious tricks — and only he can stop them and save humanity.’”

According to Harari, understanding the common structure of such conspiracy theories can explain both their attractiveness — and their inherent falsehood.

“A recent survey […] asked respondents whether they believe there is ‘a single group of people who secretly control events and rule the world together.’ Thirty-seven percent of Americans replied that this is ‘definitely or probably true.’ So did 45 percent of Italians, 55 percent of Spaniards and 78 percent of Nigerians,” Yuval Noah Harari writes in When the World Seems Like One Big Conspiracy. (Photograph: A Donald Trump supporter wearing a QAnon sweatshirt during a rally in the borough of Staten Island in New York on October 3, 2020, by Stephanie Keith, courtesy of Getty Images)

The Structure

“Global cabal theories argue that underneath the myriad events we see on the surface of the world lurks a single sinister group,” Harari writes. But exactly who these people are varies. The basic structure remains the same, though. “The group controls almost everything that happens, while simultaneously concealing this control.

Global cabal theories take particular delight in uniting opposites. Thus the Nazi conspiracy theory said that on the surface, communism and capitalism look like irreconcilable enemies, right? Wrong! That’s exactly what the Jewish cabal wants you to think! And you might think that the Bush family and the Clinton family are sworn rivals, but they’re just putting on a show — behind closed doors, they all go to the same Tupperware parties.

From these premises, a working theory of the world emerges. Events in the news are a cunningly designed smoke screen aimed at deceiving us, and the famous leaders that distract our attention are mere puppets in the hands of the real rulers.”

“Conspiracy theories like QAnon’s have nothing to do with science. These people do not offer alternative facts; they live in an alternate universe. It’s a way to get out of the world. Science is not a matter of belief. Science means looking at data collectively. And that is surprisingly complicated.” — Bruno Latour in an interview with the Dutch newspaper Trouw

The Lure

“The skeleton key of global cabal theory unlocks all the world’s mysteries,” Harari writes. It offers an entree into an exclusive circle — the group of people who understand — and makes you smarter and wiser than the average person. It even elevates you above the intellectual elite and the ruling class: professors, journalists, politicians. You are able to see what they overlook — or what they try to conceal.

The Flaw

“Global cabal theories suffer from the same basic flaw: They assume that history is very simple. The key premise of global cabal theories is that it is relatively easy to manipulate the world. A small group of people can understand, predict and control everything, from wars to technological revolutions to pandemics.

Particularly remarkable is this group’s ability to see 10 moves ahead on the global board game. When they release a virus somewhere, they can predict not only how it will spread through the world, but also how it will affect the global economy a year later. When they unleash a political revolution, they can control its course. When they start a war, they know how it will end.”

In 2003, the United States invaded Iraq, claiming it wanted to eliminate the country’s weapons of mass destruction and end Saddam Hussein’s regime. “Fast forward a few years, and what were the results of this tremendous effort? A complete debacle. There were no weapons of mass destruction, and the country was plunged into chaos. The big winner of the war was actually Iran, which became the dominant power in the region. So should we conclude that George W. Bush and Donald Rumsfeld were actually undercover Iranian moles, executing a devilishly clever Iranian plot? Not at all. Instead, the conclusion is that it is incredibly difficult to predict and control human affairs,” Yuval Noah Harari writes in When the World Seems Like One Big Conspiracy. (Photograph: The 43rd president of the United States, George W. Bush, and former Secretrary of Defence Donald Rumsfeld; via Washington Monthly)

The Reality

“There are, of course, many real conspiracies in the world. Individuals, corporations, organizations, churches, factions and governments are constantly hatching and pursuing various plots. But that is precisely what makes it so hard to predict and control the world in its entirety.

In the 1930s, the Soviet Union really was conspiring to ignite communist revolutions throughout the world; capitalist banks were employing all kinds of dodgy strategies; the Roosevelt administration was planning to re-engineer American society in the New Deal; and the Zionist movement pursued its plan to establish a homeland in Palestine. But these and countless other schemes often collided, and there wasn’t a single group of people running the whole show.

Today, too, you are probably the target of many conspiracies. Your co-workers may be plotting to turn the boss against you. A big pharmaceutical corporation may be bribing your doctor to give you harmful opioids. Another big corporation may be pressuring politicians to block environmental regulations and allow it to pollute the air you breathe. Some tech giant may be busy hacking your private data. A political party may be gerrymandering election districts in your state. A foreign government may be trying to foment extremism in your country. These could all be real conspiracies, but they are not part of a single global plot.

“People think of conspiracy theorists as these weirdos,” says psychologist Alin Coman of Princeton University, but even college students at a prestigious university can harbor these views. “Anybody could become entrenched in that kind of thinking if the right circumstances arise.”

Sometimes a corporation, a political party or a dictatorship does manage to gather a significant part of all the world’s power into its hands. But when such a thing happens, it’s almost impossible to keep it hush-hush. With great power comes great publicity.

Indeed, in many cases great publicity is a prerequisite for gaining great power. Lenin, for example, would never have won power in Russia by avoiding the public gaze. And Stalin at first was much fonder of scheming behind closed doors, but by the time he monopolized power in the Soviet Union, his portrait was hanging in every office, school and home from the Baltic to the Pacific. Stalin’s power depended on this personality cult. The idea that Lenin and Stalin were just a front for the real behind-the-scenes rulers contradicts all historical evidence.

Realizing that no single cabal can secretly control the entire world is not just accurate — it is also empowering. It means that you can identify the competing factions in our world, and ally yourself with some groups against others. That’s what real politics is all about.”

Reining in the ‘digital media’ Fury

“See your quarrel brought to the point
Of grievous war.… There’s more
If I am sure you want it: I can send out
Rumors to stir the border towns to war,
Fire them with lust for the madness of war,
So they’ll be joining in from everywhere.
I’ll scatter weapons up and down the land.”
— Alecto, in Virgil’s Aeneid 7.747–54

“In Book Seven of Virgil’s Aeneid, Juno, the wife of Jupiter, conjures the Fury Alecto from the Underworld to rouse two hitherto peaceful kingdoms into a frenzy of hatred and bloodlust. After driving both rulers insane and ‘kindling hearts of country folk to war,’ the ‘feral’ Alecto, ‘her head alive and black with snakes,’ reports back to Juno and offers to do still more. Juno is usually the most vindictive of the Olympians, but at this point even she has had enough of Alecto. She orders the Fury back to the Underworld, and the Fury obeys — after adding a few ‘last touches to the war,’” Martha Bayles, who teaches humanities at Boston College, writes in Taming the Furies: Free Speech in a Fractured Republic.

As Virgil’s Roman readers understood all too well, Alecto represents how violence driven by hatred and revenge can spiral out of control. There is plenty of violence in the Aeneid. Virgil’s battle scenes are not quite as gory as Homer’s, but they are several cuts above Hollywood’s. But in ancient Greek and Roman poetry, the gore is not there to whet our appetite. It is there to remind us that the work of civilization requires knowing when to let the Furies out of their pit, and when to send them back. Even more helpfully, the violence serves to remind us of the wisdom of Athena, who, at the end of the Oresteia of Aeschylus, does not banish the Furies but, rather, gives them a special abode under the city, where their powers can be directed toward helping it grow and prosper, so that it may achieve self-government by virtuous citizens and replace vendettas with law courts.”

“[In] ancient Greek and Roman poetry, the gore is not there to whet our appetite. It is there to remind us that the work of civilization requires knowing when to let the Furies out of their pit, and when to send them back,” Martha Bayle writes in Taming the Furies: Free Speech in a Fractured Republic (Painting: The Remorse of Orestes or Orestes Pursued by the Furies, 1862, by William-Adolphe Bouguereau; oil on canvas, 231.1 x 278.4 cm. Collection of the Chrysler Museum of Art, Norfolk, Virginia)

“Today Alecto has no fixed abode, not even a pit. Instead, she roams freely through cyberspace, inciting the same destructive passions that have always led to murder, mayhem, and war. The digital media did not create the rancor and division plaguing the United States today. But they have fanned the flames. Indeed, there is mounting evidence that a particular business model, developed by Facebook, Google, and Twitter, has been exacerbating the process by which Americans (and people in many other countries) have come increasingly to distrust, hate, and fear one another. In a 2018 book called Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now, dissident tech guru Jaron Lanier singles out Facebook, Google, and Twitter as posing a special danger not posed by other tech giants such as Netflix and Amazon. Netflix and Amazon have their downsides, but because they make their money the old-fashioned way, by selling products to paying customers, Lanier absolves them of a greater evil built into the Facebook/Google/Twitter business model. As everyone except the US Congress now knows, the way this business model works is by offering the company’s services for ‘free,’ then extracting every particle of data it can from the user, until the company has a gigantic cache that can be crunched a zillion different ways and sold to a zillion different buyers — some of whom, like the Russian trolls throwing monkey wrenches into our politics, are not nice.

Even more than the threat of Russian trolls, Lanier is concerned with the psychological and social effects of the technology deployed to extract user data — in particular, the highly sophisticated (and closely guarded) algorithms designed to keep users glued to their screens. Lanier doesn’t use this metaphor, but the difference he describes between a company that sells products digitally and one that extracts data is like the difference between a mosquito and a tick. According to National Geographic, ‘Ticks, unlike many blood-suckers, are adapted for the long haul. A mosquito bites, sucks and quickly leaves. A tick bites…and stays there for days. It needs to attach itself very firmly so that it can’t be easily dislodged. It does so with the curved teeth and spines on its mouthparts, and by burying them very deeply.’

We might keep that difference in mind when logging on to Facebook, Google, Twitter, or their various spawn — Instagram, WhatsApp, YouTube, Snapchat. Those platforms are in it for the long haul, and they want you to be, too. At one point, Lanier mentions that the algorithms deployed in social media are similar to those in computerized slot machines. By calculating the minimum number of wins required to keep a particular gambler playing, they personalize the process of getting hooked.

In the case of social media, the desired hit is not blood or money, but attention. Here, social science is learning what the algorithms already know: that the most attention-getting emotions online are the negative ones, especially anger. Or, as Lanier puts it, ‘Negative feedback turns out to be the bargain feedback, the best choice for business.’ In a widely cited article, University of North Carolina political scientist Tim Ryan presents considerable evidence confirming that even low doses of anger-provoking material keep Internet users clicking their way through tweet after tweet, post after post, political message after political message. In his own experiments, Ryan found that ‘the anger-inducing advertisement more than doubles the click-through rate.’

Ryan also discovered that while anxiety leads people to seek online information that is ‘useful for protection,’ anger leads them to seek information that is ‘useful for retribution.’ Here we encounter the vexed question of why Alecto becomes more dangerous online. In the physical world, where anger has a body, retribution can be delivered through such means as punches, kicks, blows, and outright combat. In the virtual world, there are no such physical discharges. Both the anger and the retribution are bodiless. In the online world, Alecto flies as swiftly as dark matter through a frictionless universe, leaving the human body behind. When that body is finally roused, it no longer wants to punch. It wants to kill.*

“Mr Zuckerberg, I think you of all people can appreciate using a person’s past behaviour in order to determine, make decisions or predict people’s future behaviour, and in order for us to make decisions about Libra I think we need to kind of dig into your past behaviour and Facebook’s past behaviour with respect to our democracy.” — Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez during the hearing by the House Financial Services Committee on October 23, 2019 (Photograph: The Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg at the hearing by the House Financial Services Committee, 2019, by Pete Marovich for The New York Times)

“Lanier’s solution is to bring public pressure on Facebook, Google, and Twitter to change their business model, so users become paying customers instead of data cows to be milked. Congress senses that something is wrong and wants the tech companies to fix it. So from time to time, the various CEOs are called on the carpet and grilled about political bias, antitrust violations, and other matters. But Congress has little interest in revisiting the actual law under which these companies operate.

That law, Section 230 of the Telecommunications Act of 1996, is a marvel of hairsplitting. On the one hand, it allows ‘intermediaries,’ a term that now includes social media companies, to censor content that is ‘obscene, lewd, lascivious, filthy, excessively violent, harassing, or otherwise objectionable, whether or not such material is constitutionally protected.’ On the other, it states that ‘intermediaries’ are ‘not publishers.’ So they can be held liable neither for hosting objectionable material nor for violating anyone’s rights by censoring it. As one researcher succinctly put it, ‘The law lets the companies remove any content they want to, and promises not to punish them if they screw up.’‡

Meanwhile, as these companies do business in the notional environment called cyberspace, it is far from clear under which legal jurisdiction they fall. When they comply with repressive speech laws in authoritarian countries, they are denounced by human rights organizations. When they claim First Amendment protection in Europe, they are reminded (in the words of Internet researcher Tarleton Gillespie) that they ‘face a world where the First Amendment is merely a local ordinance.’†

As the West grapples with the challenge of global Internet governance, two scenarios are said to be likely. One is that China will win, and the wide-open Internet dreamed up by Silicon Valley will turn into a vast, centrally administered ‘intranet, in which all human liberties will be systematically squelched. The other is that the free nations will join together in their own ‘splinternet’ (the polite term is ‘walled garden’), where their liberties will be protected from any incursions by China and its authoritarian allies.§ Maybe it’s a collective failure of imagination, but these scenarios sound a bit too familiar, like a replay of the Cold War in an era when the real portents may actually be quite different.

In any case, it is worth asking which goddess we want to rid us of Alecto. If we choose Juno, we will get the full power of Olympus cracking down and driving the Fury back to the Underworld, where her blind rage and that of her sisters will fester and suppurate until it is released again. If we choose Athena, we will get something better:

“The word hurled in anger shall be caught
In a net of gentle words,
Words of quiet strength.
The angry mouth shall be given a full hearing.
I understand your fury.
But the vendetta cannot end,
The bloody weapon cannot be set aside
Till all understand it.
You will thank me for this.”
— Aeschylus, from The Eumenides

Notes (provided by the author)
* For a fascinating exploration of bodily presence — and absence — in the online world, see The Social Machine: Designs for Living Online, by Judith Donath (MIT Press, 2014).

‡ It is often asserted that this “content moderation” is handled by algorithms that automatically delete the worst horrors. But that is not accurate. The great bulk of the work requires human cognition and judgment. Thus, the companies employ tens of thousands of low-paid “cleaners” in countries like India and the Philippines. For a chilling look at the psychological toll taken by this work of viewing and deleting millions of images of everything from animal torture to child pornography, terrorist beheadings to first-person video of mass shootings, see Sarah T. Roberts, Behind the Screen: Content Moderations in the Shadows of Social Media (Yale University Press, 2019), and the related documentary film, The Cleaners, directed by Hans Block and Moritz Rieswieck (aired November 12, 2018, on PBS).

Custodians of the Internet: Platforms, Content Moderation, and the Hidden Decisions That Shape Social Media, by Tarleton Gillespie (Yale University Press, 2018).

§ For a lucid analysis of this daunting challenge, see Speech Police: The Global Struggle to Govern the Internet, by David Kaye (Columbia Global Reports, 2019).

The paradox mindset

“Being dragged in two different directions, simultaneously, should only create tension and stress,” Loizos Heracleous and David Robson write in Why the ‘paradox mindset’ is the key to success. “And yet some exciting and highly counter-intuitive research suggests that these conflicts can often work in our favour.”

“Over a series of studies, psychologists and organisational scientists have found that people who learn to embrace, rather than reject, opposing demands show greater creativity, flexibility and productivity. The dual constraints actually enhance their performance. The researchers call this a ‘paradox mindset’ — and there never be a better time to start cultivating it.

Although this concept may sound counter-intuitive, it is inspired by a long history of research showing that contemplation of apparent contradictions can break down our assumptions, offering us wholly new ways of looking at the problem.”

“Einstein, for instance, contemplated how an object could be both at rest and moving depending on the position of the observer, a consideration that ultimately led to his relativity theory. Danish physicist Niels Bohr tried to reconcile the ways that energy acted like both waves and particles: states that existed simultaneously, even though they could not be observed together. This train of thought ultimately inspired a startling new understanding of quantum mechanics.” (Photograph: Niels Bohr and Albert Einstein, 1925, by Paul Ehrenfest)

In a recent study, published in 2017, Ella Miron-Spektor et al examined the benefits of paradoxical cognition in the real workplace of a large consumer-products manufacturer.

“The research team suspected that the answer would depend on an employee’s abilities and attitudes, and so they first designed a questionnaire to measure the ‘paradox mindset.’ The participants were first asked to rate statements about their willingness to embrace contradictions […]. The participants were also asked to describe how often they experienced ‘resource scarcity’ at work (the need to perform highly under limited time or financial resources). Their supervisors, meanwhile, had to rate their performance and innovation within the role.

Sure enough, the study found that the employee’s paradox mindset had a large influence on their ability to cope with the demands. For the people who scored highly, the challenge of dealing with limited resources was energising and inspiring, and their performance actually increased under the tension, so that they came up with new and better solutions to the problems within their role. Those without the paradox mindset, in contrast, tended to crumble, and struggled to maintain their performance when resources were scarce.

These discoveries may be especially important for leaders, with evidence that a manager’s paradox mindset influences the innovation of their whole team. Companies and institutions that embrace paradoxical strategies tend to outperform their competitors,” Heracleous and Robson write.

In Zeno’s Paradoxes, an episode of BBC Radio 4’s ‘In Our Time,’ Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss Zeno of Elea, a pre-Socratic philosopher from c490–430 BC whose paradoxes were described by Bertrand Russell as “immeasurably subtle and profound.” The best known argue against motion, such as that of an arrow in flight which is at a series of different points but moving at none of them, or that of Achilles who, despite being the faster runner, will never catch up with a tortoise with a head start. Aristotle and Aquinas engaged with these, as did Russell, yet it is still debatable whether Zeno’s Paradoxes have been resolved. (Painting: Zeno’s Dichotomy, an abstract representation of Zeno’s dichotomy paradox, one of a set of four paradoxes dealing with counterintuitive aspects of continuous space and time, by Daniel Pinkney; acryl on canvas, 91.4 x 61 cm)

So how can we capitalise on this knowledge?

One obvious step, according to Heracleous and Robson, is “to simply note down any paradoxes you encounter — and to make a point of contemplating them before you set about solving problems. If you are stuck for ideas, you could look further into the paradoxes that inspired scientists like Einstein and Bohr. Greek philosophy is also full of paradoxical ideas that might get your creative juices flowing.

Your own job may already contain many contradictory goals that could inspire paradoxical cognition. In the past, you might have assumed that you need to sacrifice one for the other — but if you want to cultivate the paradox mindset, you might spend a bit more time considering the ways you can pursue them both, simultaneously. Rather than seeing the potential conflicts as something to avoid, you can begin to view the competing demands as an opportunity for growth and a source of motivation. (And if there aren’t any external pressures, you could create your own — asking, for instance, how you could increase the efficiency and accuracy of your performance on a particular task, if only for an exercise in paradoxical thinking.) There may be no immediate solution, but the very act of thinking about the possibility of reconciling those issues could still lubricate your mind for greater innovation elsewhere.

The prospect of deliberately embracing competing demands may sound arduous, but Chinese researchers have recently shown that people with this mindset also get greater satisfaction from their role. There is an enjoyment, apparently, in reconciling two opposing goals — provided you have the right mindset.”

Jonas Salk, the mid-20th-century virologist who coined the question-turned-maxim ‘Are we being good ancestors?,’ said in a 1967 speech, “If we want to be good ancestors, we should show future generations how we coped with an age of great change and great crises.”

Roman Krznaric calls this the paradox of urgency. “In the very immediate moment, we need to be thinking long-term because of the urgency of the climate crisis.” (MIT Technologie Review)

And also this…

“Humanity stands at a precipice. Our species could survive for millions of generations — enough time to end disease, poverty, and injustice; to reach new heights of flourishing. But this vast future is at risk. With the advent of nuclear weapons, humanity entered a new age, gaining the power to destroy ourselves, without the wisdom to ensure we won’t. Since then, these dangers have only multiplied, from climate change to engineered pandemics and unaligned artificial intelligence. If we do not act fast to reach a place of safety, it may soon be too late,” Toby Ord, a philosopher and senior research fellow at Oxford University, argues in his first book, The Precipice: Existential Risk and the Future of Humanity, in which he explores the science behind the risks we face.

But Ord isn’t the first philosopher to propose that the end is nigh, Corinne Purtill writes in How Close Is Humanity to the Edge?

“In 1951, Bertrand Russell wrote that the 20th century would end in either human extinction, violent social collapse, or a unified world government. Stephen Hawking warned, in 2014, that artificial intelligence could spell our doom. Not all thinkers are alarmed by what they foresee. In Notes from an Apocalypse: A Personal Journey to the End of the World and Back, published this year, the Irish journalist Mark O’Connell recounts wondering whether human extinction would really be so bad: ‘Why was it so unthinkable that we ourselves — not necessarily tomorrow or the next day, but eventually — follow the same well-beaten trail toward oblivion as the dodo, the black rhinoceros, the passenger pigeon . . . and all the countless other species whom we ourselves had driven from the face of the earth?’

For many people, the idea of all of humanity disappearing one day in the future, when no one we now know and love is around to see it, isn’t as alarming as the prospect of individual human suffering in the present. A study conducted last year, by three experimental psychologists at Oxford, found that individuals considered total human extinction to be only slightly worse than a catastrophic event that wipes out eighty per cent of the population. Respondents’ opposition to extinction rose when they were asked to consider the specific consequences of all of human culture being extinguished forever. Still, without that prompt, it was hard to grasp how much worse total obliteration would be compared with merely cataclysmic death.

There is a term for this outlook: scope neglect, the cognitive bias that makes it harder to understand the full scale of problems the larger those problems get. It’s the struggle, as Ord puts it, to care ten times as much about something that’s ten times more important than an alternative. ‘One of the aspects in which I’m an outlier is that I take scale really seriously, and always have,’ Ord told me. ‘You can see that all through the book, really, including taking the scale of the universe seriously.’”

“[Toby] Ord has given the name ‘the precipice’ to our current phase of history, which, he writes, began at 11:29 A.M. Coördinated Universal Time, on July 16, 1945 — the moment of the Trinity test, when the first nuclear bomb was detonated. It will end, he suggests, with either a shared global effort to insure humanity’s continued survival or the extinction of our species,” Corinne Purtill writes in How Close Is Humanity to the Edge? (Illustration by Xiao Hua Yang for The New Yorker)

“As Precipice closes, Ord zooms out to the cosmos and, against the backdrop of its unfathomable vastness, asks us to grasp the scale of what we risk losing if the human story ends prematurely. He writes that, just as our early forebears, huddled around some Paleolithic fire, couldn’t have imagined the creative and sensory experiences available to us today, we, too, are ill-equipped to conceive of what is possible for those who will follow us. Humanity’s potential is worth preserving, he argues, not because we are so great now but because of the possibility, however small, that we are a bridge to something far greater. ‘How strange it would be if this single species of ape, equipped by evolution with this limited set of sensory and cognitive capacities, after only a few thousand years of civilization, ended up anywhere near the maximum possible quality of life,’ he writes. ‘I think that we have barely begun the ascent.’”

“Practitioners, scholars and institutions in the arts and humanities are accustomed to [the] lack of government appreciation for the value of their work. We have also become familiar with a variety of attempts to defend these pursuits. Some operate within the terms of the dominant ‘economic value’ framework. They seek to show, for example, that universities are already ‘an engine of growth,’ that the arts and humanities train students in useful ‘transferable’ skills, which make them highly employable, and that the creative industries make a significant contribution to the economy. We also hear that the arts and humanities are instrumental in fostering a robust democratic culture, as well as for the population’s mental and physical wellbeing. Some defences focus primarily on the noninstrumental value of pursuits in the arts and humanities — not (or not only) as a means to some other worthwhile end, but as ends in themselves,” Sarah Fine, a senior lecturer in philosophy at King’s College London, writes in Humanity at night.

“However, another simple but powerful way of thinking about the value of these pursuits is to recognise and acknowledge that they are, in fact, valued. [They] matter to people, as sources of meaning and beauty, of hope and solace, of escape and liberation. They matter to people as expressions of their humanity, tenacity, love and defiance. In short, people actually do value them, and want them in their lives.”

“Music is a tool for preserving my sense of personhood, it is so I don’t forget that I am a human being.” — Mostafa ‘Moz’ Azimitabar, a Kurdish refugee and musician who spent six years on Manus Island before being transferred to Melbourne where he is currently locked up in a hotel, along with around 65 other refugees and asylum seekers. (Photograph via musicfeeds)

“What’s more, they’re valued at moments of crisis, and they’re valued by people who have so much to teach us about what matters. Their experiences have afforded them a special kind of knowledge about humanity and inhumanity. As [the writer, journalist and academic Behrouz Boochani, who was incarcerated for years in Australia’s detention centre on Manus Island] puts it, the refugees in Manus prison have changed their ‘understanding of life’ and this ‘needs to be considered in terms of epistemology.’ The writers discussed here were persecuted, forced from their homes, separated from their loved ones, stripped of their possessions, their dignity, and in some cases their sense that they would live to see another day. Even in the most desperate of these accounts — [Elie Wiesel’s] Night — and in the darkest of places, Wiesel describes the dying Juliek’s rendition of Beethoven on the violin as the most beautiful sound he had ever heard. These insights from people who felt compelled to record their experiences — who, in the words of the French writer and concentration camp survivor Robert Antelme, ‘wished to speak, to be heard at last’ — carry a special kind of weight. ‘Only those who experienced Auschwitz know what it was,’ writes Wiesel. ‘Others will never know.’ The rest of us will never know, but we can and must listen.

Recall [Viktor E Frankl]’s observation that some people were willing to forego their meagre ration of food and forget their fatigue to attend the artistic performances in the concentration camp. For me this is a potent reminder to challenge crude approaches to ranking basic human needs and the components of a decent human life. Of course, we need food and shelter in order to survive but, as Frankl points out, we also need reasons to live. Laughter, stories, play, dance, music: we learn that these, too, are basic needs and fundamental components of decent human lives.”

Many of us have found ourselves in an isolated routine during the pandemic — and it turns out, that’s not very good for your memories.

In Lockdown has affected your memory — here’s why, Claudia Hammond writes:

“Finding our way back home has always been important to our survival. As soon as we leave home, we start paying attention. Whether we are navigating our way through a forest or around a town, we make more use of the seahorse-shaped brain region known as the hippocampus. […]

We need to engage the hippocampus in order to remember new information, but Véronique Bohbot, a neuroscientist at McGill University in Canada, has found that if people’s lives become more confined and repetitive as they age, their use of the hippocampus decreases. Likewise, she found that drivers who rely on satnav rather than finding their own way made fewer spatial memories, the kind of memories that particularly rely on the hippocampus.”

“Remember those studies showing that black cab drivers in London who learn every back street? Those drivers end up with a larger hippocampus,” Claudia Hammond writes in Lockdown has affected your memory — here’s why. (Photograph by Anthony Cotsifas for The New York Times)

Having to stay at home for several months due to the pandemic, means we’ve lost that extra stimulation that comes from finding our way around. But there are things we can do about it, Hammond writes.

“Going for a walk, especially along unfamiliar streets, will bring your brain back to attention. And even moving makes a difference. Do you have to sit at your desk for every meeting? If it’s a phone call could you walk along the street chatting instead. Also, making sure the weekdays and the weekends are different enough not to merge into one can help with the distortions our new life can have on our perception of time.

[Catherine Loveday, a professor of cognitive neuroscience at the University of Westminster,] advises adding more variety to our lives, which might involve some creative thinking to achieve. If you can’t go out, she suggests finding a completely new activity at home, and telling someone about it afterwards to help you remember it better.

Deliberately reflecting on your day each evening can help you consolidate your memories. You could even write a diary. It’s true that less happens that’s noteworthy these days, but it could still be interesting to look back on one day. It can also help your memory right now.

And if you’re forgetting to do things, then making lists and setting alerts on your phone can make more difference than you might think. You can also harness your own imagination. If you want to remember to buy milk, bread and eggs, then before you go picture yourself visiting each of the necessary aisles in the actual shop you are going to. When you get there, this imaginary shopping trip will pop back into your mind and you’re more likely to remember everything you need.”

“Faced with the complexity of today’s world, philosophical reflection is above all a call to humility, to take a step back and engage in reasoned dialogue, to build together the solutions to challenges that are beyond our control. This is the best way to educate enlightened citizens, equipped to fight stupidity and prejudice. The greater the difficulties encountered the greater the need for philosophy to make sense of questions of peace and sustainable development.” — Irina Bokova, UNESCO’s Director General

World Philosophy Day, first introduced by the UNESO in 2002, was a good moment to revisit Peter Hacker’s 2018 article Why Study Philosophy?

“There are many reasons, and many different kinds of reason,” writes Hacker, who is an Emeritus Fellow at St John’s College, Oxford University and noted scholar on Wittgenstein.

“At a very general level, it is a unique technique for tackling conceptual questions that occur to most thinking people: questions concerning the existence of God, of an afterlife, and of free will. Also questions concerning human nature: what is the mind? How is the mind related to the body? Do we have a soul?

For although these look as if they are factual questions, they are not. They are purely conceptual questions that are to be resolved by conceptual inquiry. Philosophy also gives us techniques for handling fundamental methodological problems concerning explanations of human behaviour: what is the difference between being caused to do something, being made to do something, and acting for a reason? These in turn are pivotal for understanding the rights and wrongs of allocating responsibility. And philosophy is the sole subject that confronts questions about how we ought to live, what kind of society we ought to aspire to, and what system of laws befits rational beings living under the rule of law.

At a more specialised level, philosophy is a technique for examining the results of specific sciences for their conceptual coherence, and for examining the explanatory methods of the different sciences — natural, social and human. The sciences are no more immune to conceptual confusion than is any other branch of human thought. Scientists themselves are for the most part ill-equipped to deal with conceptual confusions.

One great task of philosophy is to function as a Tribunal of Sense before which scientists may be arraigned when they transgress the bounds of sense. For when a neuroscientist tells us that the mind is the brain or that thinking is a neural process; when an economist tells us that to act rationally is to pursue one’s desire-satisfaction, or that human felicity is the maximization of utility; when a psychologist claims that autism is the consequence of the neonates’ failure to develop a theory of mind, then we need philosophy to constrain science run amok.

The history of philosophy is a capital part of the history of ideas. To study the history of philosophy is to study an aspect of the intellectual life of past societies, and of our own society in the past. It makes a crucial contribution to the understanding of the history of past European societies. Equally, to understand our contemporary forms of thought, the ways in which we look at things, the study of the history of philosophy is essential. For we cannot know where we are, unless we understand how we got here.

The study of philosophy cultivates a healthy scepticism about the moral opinions, political arguments and economic reasonings with which we are daily bombarded by ideologues, churchmen, politicians and economists. It teaches one to detect ‘higher forms of nonsense,’ to identify humbug, to weed out hypocrisy, and to spot invalid reasoning. It curbs our taste for nonsense, and gives us a nose for it instead. It teaches us not to rush to affirm or deny assertions, but to raise questions about them.

Even more importantly, it teaches us to raise questions about questions, to probe for their tacit assumptions and presuppositions, and to challenge these when warranted. In this way it gives us a distance from passion-provoking issues — a degree of detachment that is conducive to reason and reasonableness.”

“Since starting her practice in 1990, the Indian architect Anupama Kundoo has built extensively in her home country with a strong focus on material research and experimentation. By learning from and collaborating with craftspeople, Kundoo is heavily involved in the making process of a type of architecture that has low environmental impact and is appropriate to its context. Her work explores new ways of using age-old, local materials — combining traditional techniques with knowledge-based scientific systems,” writes Philip Stevens on designboom.

“With a monographic exhibition detailing the architect’s work currently on view the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art, designboom spoke with Anupama Kundoo to learn more about her introduction to architecture, her biggest influences, and how her outside interests impact and inform her work.”

All photo captions from Ten key projects by Indian architect Anupama Kundoo.

Voluntariat Homes for Homeless Children, 2008, Pondicherry, India — These dome-shaped housing units were designed to accommodate children from challenged backgrounds. Here, Kundoo explores an innovative form of construction that is both low-cost and environmentally friendly. The structures are built from mud bricks made on site, which are then fired in-situ to make them more durable and water resistant.

[PS] You work very closely with craftspeople. How important is this ‘hands on’ approach to architecture?

“It is not that I have been wilfully promoting ‘traditional’ crafts for their own sake. My early work in the rural indian context was the result of finding ways to ingeniously use what was locally available in terms of material, but also in terms of skills. with the larger socio-economic and environmental concerns in mind, I was keen to spend a larger proportion of the building budget on ‘labour’ rather than on ‘industrially purchased material’ that would need to be imported from far away. I do not have any kind of nostalgic attraction to indian craftsmanship, but I am concerned that the industrialised world of over-standardised solutions and corporate business culture are reducing the quality of life as well as the possibilities of creative expression.

I am more concerned about losing the human capacity to make things, rather than the loss of many ancient well-crafted objects. We are not yet fully aware of the implications on society when we no longer know how to do basic things with our hands, like sew a button back on. Making has an impact on the mind and its evolution. making is a way of thinking and I am interested in prolonging the opportunity of thinking with the hands. So I find it interesting that if we resort to handmade technologies, we can build whatever we imagine, without any of the restrictions that machines carry, based on what they were designed to do.

Also in the design process and in design education, I have found that hands on approaches help to demystify things, and unleash a lot of imagination, creativity and also a sense of empowerment, leaving people with more knowledge and confidence. If, as architects, we lose contact with ground realities, including contact to materials and real scale, we will make ourselves redundant, relying on our expert consultants as crutches, if we do not know the first principles ourselves.”

Wall House, 2000, Auroville, India — The second house that Kundoo built for herself became a prototype for many of her subsequent projects. Working with local craftsman, she opted to use preindustrial “achakal” mud bricks, which are less energy-intensive to produce than factory bricks. She also developed vaulted terracotta roofing systems, to utilise the skills of Auroville’s potters.

[PS] Can the findings of your material investigations and experiments be applied to other geographic regions?

“I think that knowledge and investigations are always universal; it’s just the application and varying expressions that alter site-specifically. Even if locally available materials differ, the universal laws such as gravity and engineering principles for the strength of materials, or climate engineering, remain the same. also, homo sapiens has a need for climatic comfort, light and air varying degrees of, privacy and community access, with small, contextual variations. If one interprets the role of the architect as merely reproducing buildings according to material catalogues and habits and trends in building culture, then yes, those habits are not suitable in other geographic regions as they would not necessarily be appropriate to the climate, local materials and culture. However if the practice is based on research and investigations, then the strategies and knowledge accumulated over the years will leave the architectural team more experienced and more capable.

Full Fill Homes, 2015, Auroville, India — Kundoo uses ferrocement (a low-tech form of reinforced concrete) to create the modules of these affordable housing units, which are designed to combat the homelessness problem in India. The box-shaped modules can be assembled in a matter of days, and incorporate niches that become highly functional for storage.
Sharana Daycare Facility, 2019, Pondicherry, India — Reinforced concrete slabs were paired with modular terracotta screens to create the structure of this daycare centre. The building was designed for a charitable organisation that aims to provide education to disadvantaged communities and children. It centres around a garden courtyard used for a variety of different activities.
Creativity, An Urban Eco-Community, 2003, Auroville, India — Designed as a prototype for a co-housing community, this complex provides diverse facilities for between 50 and 60 residents. Raised walkways create space for interaction without compromising the privacy of the individual homes, and also allow the buildings to incorporate natural ventilation techniques.
“My ideal reader is some 25-year-old kid who is starting to be curious about the world and wants to do something that has some meaning. I want them to read this and say, ‘Okay, this is not all rocket science; this is something I could contribute to and make a dierence in,’” Barack Obama tells Jeffrey Goldberg, The Atlantic’s the editor in chief, in an exclusive interview in which the former president identifies the greatest threats to the American experiment, explains why he’s still hopeful, and opens up about his new book, A Promised Land. (Photograph by Ruth Fremson for The New York Times)

“If we do not have the capacity to distinguish what’s true from what’s false, then by definition the marketplace of ideas doesn’t work. And by definition our democracy doesn’t work. We are entering into an epistemological crisis.

I can have an argument with you about what to do about climate change. I can even accept somebody making an argument that, based on what I know about human nature, it’s too late to do anything serious about this — the Chinese aren’t going to do it, the Indians aren’t going to do it — and that the best we can do is adapt. I disagree with that, but I accept that it’s a coherent argument. I don’t know what to say if you simply say, ‘This is is a hoax that the liberals have cooked up, and the scientists are cooking the books. And that footage of glaciers dropping o the shelves of Antarctica and Greenland are all phony.’ Where do I start trying to figure out where to do something?” — Barack Obama in Why Obama Fears for Our Democracy

Reading notes will be back next week, if fortune allows, of course. In the meantime, if you want to know more about my work with senior executives and leadership teams, please visit You can also browse through my writings and follow me on Twitter.



Mark Storm

Helping people in leadership positions flourish — with wisdom and clarity of thought