Reading notes (2021, week 3) — On how Big Tech’s attention economy can be reformed, a bet on ‘tech’ destroying society, and an antidote to the ideology of flatness

Mark Storm
24 min readJan 17, 2021
“We believe that in using modern structural solutions and techniques, mapped against the historical records, that we’ve managed to pare the shrine back to its original form, to show it as it should be shown.” — ABOUT, a Japanese architecture firm led by Tadahiro Butsugan, has renovated a building that forms part of the Mekari Shrine (和布刈神社) in Japan’s Fukuoka prefecture (Photograph by Takumi Ota).

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: Big Tech’s business model is doing irreparable harm to society, but we don’t need to destroy the tech giants; in 1995, a WIRED cofounder challenged a Luddite-loving doomsayer to a prescient wager on tech and civilization’s fate; how the internet tycoons used the ideology of flatness to hoover up value and no one seemed to care; to change the way you think, change the way you see; why Epicureanism is the philosophy we need now; the rule of awkward silence; light as a mirror that reflects the culture of place; the great architecture of the Thapar University Learning Laboratory in India; and, finally, Mary Catherine Bateson on humility, one of the most essential elements of human wisdom.

Big Tech’s attention economy can be reformed

“Instagram’s move to hide the number of ‘likes’ is not transforming teenagers’ mental-health problems, when the service is predicated on constant social comparison and systemic hijacking of the human drive for connection. We need much deeper systemic reform. We need to shift institutions to serve the public interest in ways that are commensurate with the nature and scale of the challenges we face,” Tristan Harris argues in Big Tech’s attention economy can be reformed. Here’s how, an adapted excerpt from his essay in The New Possible: Visions of Our World beyond Crisis (Cascade Books, 2021).

“Seeing reality clearly and truthfully is fundamental to our capacity to do anything. By monetizing and commodifying attention, we’ve sold away our ability to see problems and enact collective solutions. This isn’t new. Almost any time we allow the life support systems of our planet or society to be commodified, it drives other breakdowns. When you commodify politics with AI-optimized microtargeted ads, you remove integrity from politics. When you commodify food, you lose touch with the life cycle that makes agriculture sustainable. When you commodify education into digital feeds of content, you lose the interrelatedness of human development, trust, care, and teacherly authority. When you commodify love by turning people into playing cards on Tinder, you sever the complex dance involved in forging new relationships. And when you commodify communication into chunks of posts and comment threads on Facebook, you remove context, nuance, and respect. In all these cases, extractive systems slowly erode the foundations of a healthy society and a healthy planet.”

What we need, according to Harris, is “deep, systemic reform that will shift technology corporations to serving the public interest first and foremost. We have to think bigger about how much systemic change might be possible, and how to harness the collective will of the people.”

Where solving our climate crises requires 195 different countries to commit to collective action, the tech industry is run by only a few companies — the so-called FAANG companies, comprising Alphabet, Amazon, Apple, Facebook and Netflix. If the their CEOs agree that maximizing shareholder profit is no longer the common aim, the digital infrastructure could be different, Harris writes.

E.O. Wilson, the famed biologist, proposed that humans should run only half the Earth, and that the rest should be left alone. Imagine something similar for the attention economy. We can and should say that we want to protect human attention, even if that sacrifices a portion of the profits of Apple, Google, Facebook, and other large technology corporations,” teh co-founder of The Center for Humane Technology, Tristan Harris, writes in Big Tech’s attention economy can be reformed. Here’s how. (Illustration courtesy of MS Tech / Getty Images)

“Several economic principles need to shift in order for technology to align with humanity and the planet. One of these is the growth paradigm. You simply can’t carry out a logic of infinite growth on a finite substrate. The drive for infinite economic growth is leading to a planetary ecological crisis. For tech companies, pursuing the infinite growth of extracted human attention leads to a similar crisis of global consciousness and social well-being. We need to shift to a post-growth attention economy that places mental health and well-being at the center of our desired outcomes.


Another shift toward a more humane technology requires a broader array of stakeholders who can create accountability for the long-term social impact of our actions. Right now, it is possible for large technology companies to make money by [selling fake clicks from fake news sources to fake advertisers]. These companies make money even if what the link or article leads to is egregiously wrong and propagates misinformation. This opportunism debases the information ecology by destroying our capacity to trust sources of knowledge or share beliefs about what is true, which in turn destroys our capacity for good decision making. The result is polarization, misinformation, and the breakdown of democratic citizenship. We need to create mechanisms that incentivize participants in the digital world to consider longer time frames and the broader impact their actions are having on society.


Ultimately it comes down to setting the right rules. It is difficult for any one actor to optimize for well-being and alignment with society’s values when other players are still competing for finite resources and power. Without rules and guard rails, the most ruthless actors win. That’s why legislation and policies are necessary, along with the collective will of the people to enact them. The greater meta-crisis is that the democratic processes for creating guard rails operate at a much slower pace than the rate of technological development that is needed to make a difference. Technology will continue to advance faster than the harms can be well understood by 20th-century democratic institutions. The technology sector itself needs to come together, collaboratively, and find ways to operate so that shared societal goals are placed above hyper-competition and profit maximization.

Finally, we need to recognize the massive asymmetric power that technology companies have over individuals and society. They know us better than we know ourselves. Any asymmetric power structure must follow the fiduciary or ‘duty of care’ model exemplified by a good teacher, therapist, doctor, or care worker — that is, it must work in the service of those with less power. It must not operate with a business model based on extraction. Upgraded business models for technology need to be generative: they need to treat us as the customer and not the product, and align with our most deeply held values and humanity.

E.O. Wilson has said, ‘The problem with humanity is that we have Paleolithic emotions, medieval institutions, and godlike technology.’ We need to embrace our paleolithic emotions in all their fixed weaknesses and vulnerabilities. We need to upgrade our institutions to incorporate more wisdom, prudence, and love. And we need to slow down the development of a godlike technology whose powers go beyond our capacity to steer the direction of the ship we are all on,” Harris writes.

“Rather than accepting a race to the bottom that downgrades and divides us, we can together create a technology landscape that enables a race to the top — one that supports our interconnection, civility, and deep brilliance. Change, [Harris believes], is humanly possible.”

A bet on ‘tech’ destroying society

In 1995, WIRED’s executive editor and resident techno-optimist Kevin Kelly made a bet with Kirkpatrick Sale, who had just written Rebels Against the Future, which takes us back to Luddite rebellion of 1811, the first technology backlash, felt that computer technology would make life worse for humans.

“Kelly hated Sale’s book. His reaction went beyond mere disagreement; Sale’s thesis insulted his sense of the world. So he showed up at Sale’s door not just in search of a verbal brawl but with a plan to expose what he saw as the wrongheadedness of Sale’s ideas,” Steven Levy writes in A 25-Year-Old Bet Comes Due: Has Tech Destroyed Society?

During the interview, Kelly asked Sale if he was willing to bet on his view. “Sure,” Sale said. “The bet was a showdown between two fiercely opposed views on the nature of progress. In a time of climate crisis, a pandemic, and predatory capitalism, is optimism about humanity’s future still justified? Kelly and Sale each represent an extreme side of the divide. For the men involved, the bet’s outcome would be a personal validation — or repudiation — of their lifelong quests,” Levy writes.

“When Sale and Kelly made the bet, they had assumed that by 2020 the winner would be obvious. Maybe all it would take was a look around: Is civilization still here, or not? It clearly is still kicking around. But the pandemic, its economic consequences, and the worsening climate crisis have made things interesting.”

But what would William Patrick, the editor who had handled both Sale’s book and Kelly’s tome on robots and artificial life, and who was appointed by both men to determine the winner, say?

“In the final pages of his Luddite book, Sale had predicted society would collapse ‘within not more than a few decades.’ Kelly, who saw technology as an enriching force, believed the opposite — that society would flourish. Baiting his trap, Kelly asked just when Sale thought this might happen. Sale was a bit taken aback — he’d never put a date on it. Finally, he blurted out 2020. It seemed like a good round number,” Steven Levy writes in A 25-Year-Old Bet Comes Due: Has Tech Destroyed Society? (Illustration by WIRED staff / Getty Images)

With the bet constructed on three clear conditions, considered each one separately, “as if judging a boxing match round by round.”

“Economic Collapse. Sale predicted flatly that the dollar and other accepted currencies would be worthless in 2020. Patrick points to the Dow at 30,000 and the success of new currencies such as Bitcoin. ‘Not much contest here,’ Patrick writes. Round goes to Kelly.

Global Environmental Disaster. Kelly tried to argue that despite worsening climate change, people are still living their lives pretty much as usual. ‘If this is a disaster, that is not evident to Earth’s 7 billion inhabitants,’ Kelly wrote in his four-page argument. But Patrick isn’t convinced. ‘With fires, floods, and rising seas displacing populations; bugs and diseases heading north; ice caps melting and polar bears with no place to go; as well as the worst hurricane season and the warmest year on record, it’s hard to dispute that we are at least ‘close to’ global environmental disaster,’ Patrick wrote in his final decision. This one is Sale’s.

The War Between Rich and Poor. Sale’s book cites devastating statistics on income inequality and the frayed social fabric. If he had written his book after the pandemic, the picture would be even worse. But are the classes at war? Patrick notes that in the decades since Kelly and Sale made the bet, breathtaking economic development has reshaped China and India, among other countries. On the other hand, he points to undeniable social unrest, even in the United States, with Trumpites taking to the streets with semiautomatic weapons, and massive protests against police abuses. He calls this round a toss-up, with an edge to Sale.”

Round by round, the outcome would seem to make it a draw, but as Sale had called for a convergence of three disasters and only one of his predictions was a winner, Patrick declared Kelly the winner. “But it’s a squeaker and not much cause for celebration,” he concluded.

“It’s also not terribly satisfying,” says Levine. Kelly and Sale both “staked out extreme positions in a world that’s always likely to regress to the mean. Sale failed to account for how human ingenuity would keep us from getting tossed into forests and caves. Kelly didn’t factor in tech companies’ reckless use of power or their shortcomings in solving (or sometimes stoking) tough societal problems.

They’re also as entrenched as ever. Despite this miserable year, Kelly is boosting his optimism to a higher gear. With tech’s help, he believes, the world’s woes will be resolved. ‘In 25 years, poverty will be rare, and middle-class lifestyle the norm,’ he wrote in his submission to Patrick. ‘War between nations will also be rare. A bulk of our energy will be renewables, slowing down climate warming. Life spans continue to lengthen.’ He’s working on a book he calls Protopia .

Sale believes more than ever that society is basically crumbling — the process is just not far enough along to drive us from apartment blocks to huts. The collapse, he says, is ‘not like a building imploding and falling down, but like a slow avalanche that destroys and kills everything in its path, until it finally buries the whole village forever.’”

‘Protopia,’ coined by Kevin Kelly, is the realistic opposite to dystopia:

“If we try to imagine a Utopia as everything perfect and static it would not change very much and we would be totally bored out of our minds. But it also simply doesn’t work, that’s the reality so there’s no fear of it, but I think it’s an incorrect vision of where to aim for.

I think a better vision of where to aim our efforts is what I call Protopia,which is this idea that we’re just trying to progress, to move forward in an incremental, tiny improvements. And that minor improvement every year, when it’s compounded over decades or centuries becomes civilisations.

So this is a big thing, but we won’t even see it, really, except in retrospect because it’s a 1% improvement in the world that is drowned out, overwhelmed by the news of disasters and all the other ills that are present, and there are many of them. And a lot of them are actually brought about by the new technologies themselves, so it’s hard to see a 1% improvement overall on average.

And yet I think that’s something good to aim for. If we can keep improving 1% a year on average overall then we compound that annually and we have something magnificent over the long term.” — Kevin Kelly in The Technological Forces That Are Shaping Our Future, The Art of Manliness Podcast #267

An antidote to the ideology of flatness

“The reigning aesthetic of the 20th century was modernism, which articulated in one word the values of the industrial revolution. Modernism and the Machine Age brought with them their own features: Anti-classicalism; anti-Victorianism; the power of science; the absence of filigree; an emphasis on the future over the past, and the valorization of machine production and engineering as the highest forms of human creativity. This new aesthetic soon began to transform all parts of cultural and material existence, from visual art and poetry to fashion and the built environment,” the editor-in-chief of Tablet Magazine, Alana Newhouse, writes in Everything Is Broken.

“Starting in the second decade of the 1900s, certain Communists began seeing in modernism a potential advertisement for the values of a mass society of industrial workers laboring under the direction of a small group of engineers. In other words, this aesthetic — which whole swaths of the Western world were already in the process of quickly adopting — could also be the perfect delivery mechanism for their political ideology.

One hundred years later, we find ourselves in the middle of a similar cultural and political struggle.

Today’s revolution has been defined by a set of very specific values: boundarylessness; speed; universal accessibility; an allergy to hierarchy, so much so that the weighting or preferring of some voices or products over others is seen as illegitimate; seeing one’s own words and face reflected back as part of a larger current; a commitment to gratification at the push of a button; equality of access to commodified experiences as the right of every human being on Earth; the idea that all choices can and should be made instantaneously, and that the choices made by the majority in a given moment, on a given platform represent a larger democratic choice, which is therefore both true and good — until the next moment, on the next platform.

Here’s a description of the aesthetics of Silicon Valley (emphasis added):

‘It’s the realm of coffee shops, bars, startup offices, and co-live/work spaces that share the same hallmarks everywhere you go: a profusion of symbols of comfort and quality, at least to a certain connoisseurial mindset. Minimalist furniture. Craft beer and avocado toast. Reclaimed wood. Industrial lighting. Cortados. Fast internet. The homogeneity of these spaces means that traveling between them is frictionless, a value that Silicon Valley prizes and cultural influencers take advantage of. Changing places can be as painless as reloading a website. You might not even realize you’re not where you started.’

‘You might not even realize you’re not where you started.’ The machines trained us to accept, even chase, this high. Once we accepted it, we turned from willful individuals into parts of a mass that could move, or be moved, anywhere. Once people accepted the idea of an app, you could get them to pay for dozens of them — if not more. You could get people to send thousands of dollars to strangers in other countries to stay in homes they’d never seen in cities they’d never visited. You could train them to order in food — most of their food, even all of their food — from restaurants that they’d never been to, based on recommendations from people they’d never met. You could get them to understand their social world not as consisting of people whose families and faces one knew, which was literally the definition of social life for hundreds of thousands of years, but rather as composed of people who belonged to categories — ‘also followed by,’ ‘friends in common,’ ‘BIPOC’ — that didn’t even exist 15 years ago. You could create a culture in which it was normal to have sex with someone whose two-dimensional picture you saw on a phone, once.

You could, seemingly overnight, transform people’s views about anything — even everything.”

“Build new things! Create great art! Understand and accept that sensory information is the brain’s food, and that Silicon Valley is systematically starving us of it. Avoid going entirely tree-blind. Make a friend and don’t talk politics with them. Do things that generate love and attention from three people you actually know instead of hundreds you don’t. Abandon the blighted Ivy League, please, I beg of you. Start a publishing house that puts out books that anger, surprise and delight people and which make them want to read. Be brave enough to make film and TV that appeals to actual audiences and not 14 people on Twitter. Establish a newspaper, one people can see themselves in and hold in their hands. Go back to a house of worship — every week,Alana Newhouse, writes in Everything Is Broken. (Illustration by Marcin Wolski)

“Facebook’s longtime motto was, famously, ‘Move fast and break shit,’ which is exactly what Silicon Valley enabled others to do.

The internet tycoons used the ideology of flatness to hoover up the value from local businesses, national retailers, the whole newspaper industry, etc. — and no one seemed to care. This heist — by which a small group of people, using the wiring of flatness, could transfer to themselves enormous assets without any political, legal or social pushback — enabled progressive activists and their oligarchic funders to pull off a heist of their own, using the same wiring. They seized on the fact that the entire world was already adapting to a life of practical flatness in order to push their ideology of political flatness — what they call social justice, but which has historically meant the transfer of enormous amounts of power and wealth to a select few,” Newhouse writes.

“And just as Protestants used the miracle of the Gutenberg press to spread their doctrines, the Techno-Calvinists use monopoly speech platforms designed by Silicon Valley engineers to spread their doctrine of an all-consuming flatness spread out like an open book beneath God’s single, all-seeing eye. Flatness is cheap manufactured goods, Uber rides, bad take-out food. Flatness is Airbnb and Tinder dates. People with professional credentials consume flatness as politics or as jobs in global banking. For ‘organizers,’ flatness means the promise of ‘social justice.’ Flatness means monopolizing the book industry, the diaper industry, the news industry — you name it. It’s all flat.” — David Samuels in The Happiest Place on Earth, an essay on how avisit to Switzerland reveals the coming age of techno-Calvinism, created by the merger of iPhones and the new Puritan America

“As with Communists and modernism, there was nothing inevitable about the match. Most consumers don’t know that by using internet-based (or -generated) platforms — by buying from Amazon, by staying in an Airbnb, by ordering on Grubhub, by friending people on Facebook — that they are subscribing to a life of flatness, one that can lead directly into certain politics. But they are. Seduced by convenience, we end up paying for the flattening of our own lives. It is not an accident that progressive ideas spread faster on the internet. The internet is a car that runs on flatness; progressive politics — unlike either conservatism or liberalism — are flatness.

I’m not looking to rewind the clock back to a time before we all had email and cellphones. What I want is to be inspired by the last generation that made a new life-world — the postwar American abstract expressionist painters, jazz musicians, and writers and poets who created an alternate American modernism that directly challenged the ascendant Communist modernism: a blend of forms and techniques with an emphasis not on the facelessness of mass production, but on individual creativity and excellence.

Like them, our aim should be to take the central, unavoidable and potentially beneficent parts of the Flatness Aesthetic (including speed, accessibility; portability) while discarding the poisonous parts (frictionlessness; surveilled conformism; the allergy to excellence). We should seek out friction and thorniness, hunt for complexity and delight in unpredictability. Our lives should be marked not by ‘comps’ and metrics and filters and proofs of concept and virality but by tight circles and improvisation and adventure and lots and lots of creative waste.”

And also this…

“Working in the early twentieth century, a Russian literary theorist called Viktor Shklovsky pointed out how Tolstoy achieved heightened effect in his writing via techniques such as describing objects from a distorted perspective and refusing to use the customary names for objects, and by generally ‘making strange’ the otherwise familiar (or ‘de-familiarizing’). Later, the great French director Jean-Luc Godard revolutionized cinema with his use of jump cuts in Breathless. Taken for granted today, this innovation must have seemed baffling to many people at the time. Up until then, great efforts had gone into creating a smooth continuous flow (‘continuity’) on the screen. After all, a continuous flow is how we experience vision, thanks to the workings of our brains. This is the familiar. But Godard decided to break up this flow to force us to step away from our usual assumptions and see his characters as, literally, jumpy and disconnected. Now, we sense the feelings of isolation experienced by his characters and also their efforts — unsuccessful and tragic, in the end — to connect with each other. Godard lifted the technique of de-familiarization from the page to the screen.

The examples of these great artists give everyone — entrepreneurs included — some tips on how to stop seeing the world in the familiar way and start seeing it in unfamiliar and generative ways. When we look at the world, we should not just examine, but examine with a deliberately different perspective. Not just name what is around us, but come up with new names. Not just consider the whole, but break things up (or down) into pieces. These techniques can help us see our way to the new and the revolutionary, whether in the arts or in business,” Adam Brandenburger writes in To Change the Way You Think, Change the Way You See.

“You see, but you do not observe.” (from A Scandal in Bohemia, 1891) — “To observe, you must learn to separate situation from interpretation, yourself from what you are seeing,” Maria Konnikova writes in her book Mastermind: How to Think Like Sherlock Holmes. As a technique to improve our ability to operate this way, she suggests describing a situation of interest out loud or in writing to a companion. As she notes, Holmes used Watson in this way to talk through his observations when investigating a case, and, often, it was through this exercise that key points in the case would become evident. (Illustration by Sidney Paget for The Adventure of Silver Blaze, by Arthur Conan Doyle, published in The Strand Magazine in 1892)

“Our brains are designed to stop us paying too much attention. This is well demonstrated by the optical illusion called Troxler fading (named after the nineteenth-century Swiss physician who discovered the effect). If presented with a steady image in the area of our peripheral vision, we actually stop seeing it after a while. This phenomenon — the general neuroscientific term is habituation — probably points to an efficient way in which the brain operates. Neurons stop firing once they have sufficient information about an unchanging stimulus. But this does not mean that habituating is always our friend.

We can think of the effort not just to think differently, but also to see differently, as a way of countering our built-in tendency to habituate, to sink in to the familiar way of seeing and experiencing. One way in which great artists, entrepreneurs, and creators of all kinds come up with the insights that enable them to change the world is that, very literally, they do not see the way most of us do. Their methods teach us that by seeing differently, we can end up seeing what no one else has yet seen. This is how the future is built.”

“[P]hilosophical Epicureanism is a politically and personally powerful world-view that belies its caricaturese,’” Catherine Wilson, the author of How to be an Epicurean: The Ancient Art of Living Well, writes in Why Epicureanism, not Stoicism, is the philosophy we need now.

Epicurus made it clear from the start that he did not advocate the direct pursuit of personal pleasure in the forms of gluttony, indiscriminate sex or overconsumption of intoxicating substances. This was foolish, as it ultimately produces pain. Real pleasure arises from judicious — though not overly fussy — ‘choice and avoidance,’ and avoidance is as important as choice.

Epicurean ethics reduces to a few simple principles: avoid harming others and live so that others have no motive to harm you. Form agreements with them for mutual aid and protection. The greatest good for a human being, Epicurus thought, is friendship — pleasure in the presence of another individual, and the security of knowing that help will be given if ever it is needed.

According to Epicurus, cold, hunger and illness are the main causes of human misery, but we are liable to other forms of suffering and deprivation. The management of wealth, he observed, is attended with anxiety, and the ambitious in any arena will find themselves surrounded by dangerous enemies. Keep your worldly ambitions modest, he advised. Unrequited love, he recognised, is terrible to endure, as are the torments of jealousy, so keep away from anyone threatening to make you miserable before you are in over your head.”

“We humans are made for higher, more difficult and sometimes more painful things, as the Stoics, the ancient opponents of the Epicureans, insisted: fortitude in adversity, self-control, intellectual labour, logical inferences, the contemplation of spiritual and immaterial entities. Today, the uneasiness about pleasure also reflects an aversion to consumerism and to the empty promises of advertisers,” Catherine Wilson writes in Why Epicureanism, not Stoicism, is the philosophy we need now. (Photograph: Shoppers walk past Black Friday advertising in shop windows on Oxford Street in central London, 2014. Courtesy of Getty Images)

“Why would anyone resist such an appealing philosophy? For one thing, we are taught to strive for money, esteem and power over others, even when these pursuits break down our health, create enemies and leave little time for enjoyment. And in keeping our eyes fixed on ambitious goals, we avert them from the deprivations other people suffer through no fault of their own.

A political message of much philosophy through the ages, an argument one encounters in Aristotle’s Politics as well as in Immanuel Kant’s Critique of Judgement, is that the deprivation and suffering of the majority of human beings is an arrangement favoured by nature and the cosmos so the superior few can thrive. Many religions teach that suffering today does not matter because it will be compensated for in another life.

The Epicureans thought this was wicked nonsense, and their later followers, especially Thomas Hobbes, Jeremy Bentham, John Stuart Mill and Karl Marx, agreed. These thinkers insisted, in their different ways, that this life is all we have, and that a humane politics ought to aim at security for all and enjoyment in the present.

An important objection to regarding pleasure as the sole human good, and pain as the only true evil, is that few of us would choose to take a ‘bliss drug’ that kept us in a permanent and passive state of delight, unaware of our hurts. Most would rather experience hardships, ups and downs, and the pains of off-and-on deprivation that keep our appetites sharp.

The Epicurean can agree entirely. A bliss drug would not be a source of real pleasure because it would wipe out experience. Blissed out, we would not be encountering the world as it is, but a distorted world in which the causes of physical and psychological pleasure as well as pain were obscured.

What would an Epicurean world look like? It wouldn’t be based, as our world is, on the value of the speed and efficiency of output — the transformation of raw materials into consumer products and consumer products into rubbish, at whatever human cost. It would be focused on enhancing another form of utility, the creation of good experiences and the minimisation of pain.

Adam Smith hoped and believed that a deregulated capitalism would accomplish that goal, which he called ‘universal opulence.’ For reasons well understood by economists, sociologists and philosophers, too, that has not happened. Given the political, economic, environmental and health crises that have defined 2020, Epicureanism provides a unique and timely philosophical framework for reforming our institutions, our interactions with the natural world and our relationships with each other.”

“We live in a world that demands instant gratification,” Justin Bariso writes.

“Emails should be answered on the same day. Slack and text messages should be answered right now. You forgot about the Zoom meeting? No problem, you can still join. And the meeting immediately following, too. (After all, with everything virtual nowadays, you don’t even have to leave your desk, right?)

But there’s a major problem with all of this instantaneous communication: It doesn’t leave time to think.

That’s right — think. As in, think critically.

Critical thinking calls for deep and careful consideration of a subject. It requires introspection and retrospection. It involves weighing and analyzing facts, and careful reasoning. And it results in making insightful connections.

None of this is possible without time.

And time has become the biggest luxury on the planet.

But when you embrace the rule of awkward silence, you steal back time. Time that used to be wasted on nonsense answers. Time that used to be wasted on telling another person what you think they want to hear, as opposed to what you truly believe.

Once you practice it enough, you will no longer find the rule of awkward silence, well, awkward. Because while taking an extended pause to think things through may seem strange at first, you’ll begin to realize many of the advantages it provides.

For example, the rule of awkward silence allows you to:

  • Put the outside world on mute
  • Exercise your thinking faculties
  • Get to root problems more effectively
  • Give deeper, more thoughtful answers
  • Bring your emotions into balance
  • Remain in harmony with your values and principles
  • Say what you mean, and mean what you say
  • Increase your confidence

That may sound like a lot for 10 to 20 seconds, but you’ll be surprised what your brain can accomplish once it’s given a little more time to do what it was designed to do: think things through.

So, the next time someone asks you a challenging question, or even what seems on the surface to be a simple one, resist the temptation to respond with the first thing that comes to mind.

Instead, embrace the rule of awkward silence, and think before you speak.”

In his first editorial for Domus, Conquering Light, the Japanese architect and Pritzker Prize laureate, Tadao Ando, tells us how natural light has conquered the zenith of architecture across all ages and places.

“Two places spring to mind when I think of this light. The first is the Pantheon in Rome, where the ever-changing streams of light flow through an oculus according to the sun’s movements. The second is Sénanque Abbey, where the ultimate spirituality is attained through pure and ascetic light. Light is a mirror that reflects the culture of place. Northern Europe knows frigid and dark winters while Southern Europe is favoured by bright and warm sunshine even during its colder months.

Despite sharing the same continent, each of these places has utterly disparate climates. Japan is a shimaguni (an island country) with a temperate climate so its architecture did not require dense, solid walls to separate the inside from the outside.

Traditional Japanese architecture contains living space between shoji (paper screens) and under timber umbrella-like roofs. The sunlight inside these structures is not intense and direct but a soft, indirect light that bounces beneath the eaves and projects into rooms through the shoji screens. The purpose of these spaces was not to control light but, conversely, to generate shadows.”

The forms and geometry of Tadao Ando’s Church of Light (1999) in Osaka, Japan, accentuate the elegant relationship between the light and dark space. A seemingly simple idea of cutting out shapes into the wall, create an affective experience for the occupants that will only change as the sun tracks through the sky. Lacking the ornamental elements of other churches, manipulation of light is a key architectural feature in the design, combined with the materiality and form of this space the result is a modest yet powerful building. (Photograph by Cassie Greentree for SOME/THINGS)

The Thapar University Learning Laboratory in Patiala, India, by Mccullough Mulvin Architects and Designplus Associates Services, “mediates timeless form and offers complex spatial adventures. The building comprises a library, lecture theatres and a science faculty, each in a tall red Agra stone volume, with white marble detail, the facades mediated using louvred stone screens like traditional Jaali screens.”

“The architecture is of solid geometric forms, evocative of natural geography — extending nature to form rocky heights and shaded valleys. This is a contemporary concept founded on a sense of place, sensible to the traditions of Indian architecture. It is founded on strong sustainability and environmental concerns in a monsoon climate; it is built simply, using local labor and materials; the provision of cooling and shade limit solar gain, the podium with pools makes a local microclimate. Nature runs through it, from the existing trees retained, to the new landscape planted on the roofs through which light is filtered.”

“You don’t have to know a lot of technical terminology to be a systems thinker. One of the things that I’ve been realizing lately, and that I find fascinating as an anthropologist, is that if you look at belief systems and religions going way back in history, around the world, very often what you realize is that people have intuitively understood systems and used metaphors to think about them.” —Mary Catherine Bateson (1939 — 2021) (Photograph by Tom Starkweather / Getty Images)

“One of the most essential elements of human wisdom at its best is humility, knowing that you don’t know everything. There’s a sense in which we haven’t learned how to build humility into our interactions with our devices. The computer doesn’t know what it doesn’t know, and it’s willing to make projections when it hasn’t been provided with everything that would be relevant to those projections. How do we get there? I don’t know. It’s important to be aware of it, to realize that there are limits to what we can do with AI. It’s great for computation and arithmetic, and it saves huge amounts of labor. It seems to me that it lacks humility, lacks imagination, and lacks humor. It doesn’t mean you can’t bring those things into your interactions with your devices, particularly, in communicating with other human beings. But it does mean that elements of intelligence and wisdom — I like the word wisdom, because it’s more multi-dimensional — are going to be lacking.” — Mary Catherine Bateson in How To Be a Systems Thinker

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