Reading notes (2021, week 5) — On the problem with prediction, manufactured authenticity, and nourishing epistemic wellbeing

Common Reader Bookstore in Hangzhou, China, by Atelier TAO+C is “a place advocating the renaissance of daily reading and poetry.” (Photograph by Wen Studio)

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: Cognitive scientists and corporations alike see human minds as predictive machines. Right or wrong, they will change how we think; how we yearn for the real and fall for the fake; the antidote to fake news is to nourish our epistemic wellbeing; why so many people in free societies believe such damaging lies; how to de-center your smartphone; two kinds of happiness; why ‘iconic architecture’ is all the rage again; architecture that responds carefully to its surroundings; and, finally, Craig Wright and how to be a genius.

The problem with prediction

According to Joseph Fridman, the technologies that have come to dominate many of our lives today are predictive, and their infrastructures construct and constrain behaviour in all spheres of life.

“The old layers remain — electrical wiring innervates homes and workplaces, and water flows into sinks and showers through plumbing hidden from view. But these infrastructures are now governed by predictive technologies, and they don’t just guide the delivery of materials, but of information. Predictive models construct the feeds we scroll; they autocomplete our texts and emails, prompt us to leave for work on time, and pick out the playlists we listen to on the commute that they’ve plotted out for us. Consequential decisions in law enforcement, military and financial contexts are increasingly influenced by automated assessments spat out by proprietary predictive engines. These prediction engines have primed us to be receptive to the idea of the predictive brain. So too has the science of psychology itself, which has been concerned since its founding with the prediction and control of human beings,” Fridman writes in The problem with prediction.

“Almost 400 years ago, with the dictum ‘I think, therefore I am,’ René Descartes claimed that cognition was the foundation of the human condition. Today, prediction has taken its place. As the cognitive scientist Anil Seth put it: ‘I predict (myself) therefore I am.’” (Painting: René Descartes, after a self-portrait from ca. 1648–1650 by Frans Hals; oil on canvas, 77.5 x 68.5 cm. Collection of the Louvre Museum, Paris)

According to Fridman, the link between how we understand our biology and how we organise society is a longstanding one, and the association works both ways.

“When people come together as a collective, the body they comprise is often understood by applying the same concepts and laws we apply to individuals; the words incorporation, corporate, corporation all derive from the Latin root that gives us corporeal, corpus, body. (Organ and organisation are similarly related.) […]

Conversely, we often imposed the logic that governs our society on our own bodies. In Creation: A Philosophical Poem (1712), the physician and poet Richard Blackmore assigned internal animal spirits as the cause of human action and sensation. In Blackmore’s poetry, such spirits were ‘out-guards of the mind,’ given orders to patrol the farthest regions of the nervous system, manning their posts at every ‘passage to the senses.’ Having kept watch on the ‘frontier,’ Blackmore’s ‘watchful sentinels’ returned to the brain only to give their report and receive new orders on the basis of their impressions. The body, for Blackmore, was animated by the same citizens and soldiers as the political world in which he was embedded, as the scholar Jess Keiser has argued.”

In Leviathan, Thomas Hobbes affirmed that society is a sort of body, where “the Soveraignty is an Artificiall Soul, as giving life and motion to the whole body; The Magistrates, and other Officers of Judicature and Execution, artificiall Joynts; Reward and Punishment (by which fastned to the seate of the Soveraignty, every joynt and member is moved to perform his duty) are the Nerves, that do the same in the Body Naturall.” (Painting: Thomas Hobbes, based on a work by John Michael Wright; oil on canvas, 75.6 x 64.1 cm. Collection of the National Portrait Gallery, London)

“[M]any neuroscientists exploring the predictive brain deploy contemporary economics as a similar sort of explanatory heuristic. Scientists have come a long way in understanding how ‘spending metabolic money to build complex brains pays dividends in the search for adaptive success’, remarks the philosopher Andy Clark, in a notable review of the predictive brain. The idea of the predictive brain makes sense because it is profitable, metabolically speaking. Similarly, the psychologist Lisa Feldman Barrett describes the primary role of the predictive brain as managing a ‘body budget.’ In this view, she says, ‘your brain is kind of like the financial sector of a company,’ predictively allocating resources, spending energy, speculating, and seeking returns on its investments. For Barrett and her colleagues, stress is like a ‘deficit’ or ‘withdrawal’ from the body budget, while depression is bankruptcy. In Blackmore’s day, the brain was made up of sentries and soldiers, whose collective melancholy became the sadness of the human being they inhabited. Today, instead of soldiers, we imagine the brain as composed of predictive statisticians, whose errors become our neuroses. As the neuroscientist Karl Friston said: ‘[I]f the brain is an inference machine, an organ of statistics, then when it goes wrong, it’ll make the same sorts of mistakes a statistician will make.’

The strength of this association between predictive economics and brain sciences matters, because — if we aren’t careful — it can encourage us to reduce our fellow humans to mere pieces of machinery. Our brains were never computer processors, as useful as it might have been to imagine them that way every now and then. Nor are they literally prediction engines now and, should it come to pass, they will not be quantum computers. Our bodies aren’t empires that shuttle around sentrymen, nor are they corporations that need to make good on their investments. We aren’t fundamentally consumers to be tricked, enemies to be tracked, or subjects to be predicted and controlled. Whether the arena be scientific research or corporate intelligence, it becomes all too easy for us to slip into adversarial and exploitative framings of the human; as [the historian Peter Galison] wrote, ‘the associations of cybernetics (and the cyborg) with weapons, oppositional tactics, and the black-box conception of human nature do not so simply melt away.’

How we see ourselves matters. As the feminist scholar Donna Haraway explained, science and technology are ‘human achievements in interaction with the world. But the construction of a natural economy according to capitalist relations, and its appropriation for purposes of reproducing domination, is deep.’ Human beings aren’t pieces of technology, no matter how sophisticated. But by talking about ourselves as such, we acquiesce to the corporations and governments that decide to treat us this way. When the seers of predictive processing hail prediction as the brain’s defining achievement, they risk giving groundless credibility to the systems that automate that act — assigning the patina of intelligence to artificial predictors, no matter how crude or harmful or self-fulfilling their forecasts. They threaten tacitly to legitimise the means by which predictive engines mould and manipulate the human subject and, in turn, they encourage us to fashion ourselves in that image.

Scientists might believe that they are simply building conceptual and mechanical tools for observation and understanding — the telescopes and microscopes of the neuroscientific age. But the tools of observation can be fastened all too easily to the end of a weapon and targeted at masses of people. If predictive systems began as weapons meant to make humans controllable in the field of war and in the market, that gives us extra reason to question those who wield such weapons now. Scientists ought to think very carefully about the dual uses of their theories and interpretations — especially when it comes to ‘re-engineer[ing] science along the lines of platform capitalism’, as the historian and philosopher of science Philip Mirowski has argued.

[The cognitive scientist Anil Seth] wrote that ‘perception will always be shaped by functional goals: perceiving the world (and the self) not ‘as it is’, but as it is useful to do so.’ So long as it goes on, we must ask: what is the functional goal of our attempts to scientifically perceive the human mind now? Is it still rooted in a genealogy of prediction and control? Are we shovelling more of ourselves into the mouth of the machine, just to see what it churns out? On whose authority, for whose benefit, and to what end?”

Manufactured authenticity

“Let’s be honest: we all crave authenticity. More than ever, our contemporary culture seems to be characterized by a longing for the real, unique, sincere, pure, natural, and genuine,” the Dutch philosopher Martijn Visser writes in Manufacturing Authenticity: How We Yearn for the Real and Fall for the Fake.

“At the same time, however, there is a blatant paradox at work […]. Our desire for the real appears to be satisfied with manufactured authenticity, and more often than not with intentions we usually do not associate with authenticity at all: making profits or winning votes, or both. Hence, there seems to be an economy of authenticity at work that renders the inauthentic ‘authentic’ in order to satisfy a demand that is apparently easily fooled with a fake substitute. Ironically, most of us seem to be aware of this: we all know that Trump, Instagram, and carefully planned surprise and adventure holidays are anything but real. Yet, we experience this authenticity nonetheless, and it seems to satisfy a demand that somehow is really there.”

So how should we understand this odd tension between the authentic and inauthentic?

“The sudden rise of mass production in the second half of the 19th century, as a result of the mechanization of the production process and the invention and implementation of the assembly line, led to a standardization of both products and people on a scale that was never seen before. Hence, from the Industrial Revolution onwards, authenticity has been used mainly as a critical concept to protest against the immense uniformity and conformism that was a direct result of these developments.

Indeed, from that moment on, every series of products that rolled off the production line looked exactly the same, had to be used in the same manner and had to satisfy the exact same demand. Moreover, not only did the factory workers become completely interchangeable insofar as they turned quite literally into a part of the machinery where their individual skills or know-how was no longer needed, but the consumers themselves became part of a standardized and uniform mass as well. The expansion of the capitalist market, accompanied by the advent of advertising and the development of a consumerist society in the beginning of the 20th century made everyone wear the same clothes, have the same haircuts, drive the same cars, listen to the same music, watch the same movies and think the same thoughts. In other words: the massification of products was accompanied by a standardization of desires, which entailed a widespread destruction of all difference between human beings as such.”

“[C]riticism against capitalism and consumerism became more and more prevalent during the 1960s and reached its peak during the student protests of 1968. The intellectual guru of this movement was [Herbert Marcuse], and his book One-Dimensional Man became a surprising bestseller. It described how a capitalist mass-society reduced the various dimensions of human existence to only one: consumption. People work, eat and sleep in order to consume. Their whole identity seems to be based around this sole principle: ‘I consume, therefore I am.’ Or even better: ‘I am what I buy.’ The book was thus a grave charge against a society that made any form of authentic existence impossible. Very importantly, Marcuse explained with his concept of ‘repressive tolerance’ how any critique of this system would be incorporated and neutralised by the system itself, insofar as it could be rephrased into a demand that the market could subsequently satisfy. According to this logic, any critique on consumption eventually becomes a consumable product itself and is thereby rendered ineffective and powerless,” Martijn Visser writes in Manufacturing Authenticity: How We Yearn for the Real and Fall for the Fake. (Photograph: Herbert Marcuse, August 1976, courtesy of Brigitte Hellgoth/Süddeutsche Zeitung Photo)

“At the end of the 19th and throughout much of the 20th century, this rise of the ‘mass society’ and its concomitant loss of individuality was critiqued and commented upon by a lot of different thinkers.” In his essay, Visser shows how widespread this criticism was, starting of with Marx, who was “one of the first to analyse the consequences of this industrialized massification. He famously lamented the deplorable state of the factory worker, who became completely alienated from himself and his fellow workers as a result of his repetitive and stultifying labour. Around the same time, the political philosopher Alexis de Tocqueville discussed the ‘tyranny of the majority’ that was, according to him, an inevitable result and necessary evil of democratic regimes that hold equality and freedom as their highest values. Somewhat later, the sociologist Durkheim pointed out how the disappearance of traditional societal structures and an increasing individualization within society made the people — paradoxically — more vulnerable for mass manipulation. In a very similar vein, the Spanish philosopher Ortega y Gasset sketched in his The Revolt of the Masses a fairly bleak picture of the emergence of the mass-man, who obeyed blindly to the only relevant rule in such a mass-society: ‘to be different is to be indecent’ — conformism became the sacred ideal of modern man. [1]

What the examples clearly demonstrate is “how capitalist enterprises turned authenticity very consciously into a product or commodity,” Visser argues.

“A closer look at this commodification of authenticity brings to light the deeply paradoxical structure of this phenomenon. As Luc Boltanski and Ève Chiapello explain [in The New Spirit of Capitalism] [2], ‘the authentic’ is actually associated with that which lies outside the sphere of commodities and capital: a product is deemed authentic when it has an original and intrinsic value that is disclosed in the individual and unique relationship with its owner. In other words, all products that are mass-produced with the intention of making money — with an exchange-value instead of a use-value — are automatically seen as inauthentic. After all, it is very difficult to develop a unique relationship with a mass-product. This brings again the fundamental tension between difference and uniformity to light — authentic means first and foremost: differentiated from the uniform mass.

Hence, when capitalism eagerly tapped into this demand for authenticity — driven by its relentless imperative to transform noncapital into capital — it gave itself the impossible task to commodify difference, that is, to produce difference on a mass-scale. In doing this, capitalism ran into its own limits insofar as it tried to commodify that which was inherently bound to get lost in the process of commodification. Therefore, the incorporation and neutralization of the critique of capitalism from the standpoint of authenticity is in a way a self-defeating process: the consumer, who can only be fooled so long, will eventually find this out and get disillusioned, with ‘rapid cycles of infatuation and disappointment’ as a result, ultimately leading to ‘a new era of suspicion,’ as Boltanski and Chiapello argue.” [3]

In the Critical Theory of the Frankfurter Schule, Theodor Adorno et al “tried to reveal how the political and economic structures of our capitalist consumer society oppressed the individual without him being aware of it. They argued that capitalism had learned its 19th century lessons and continued to suppress and exploit the people, but now in such a way that they were being presented the illusion of individuality and freedom. After all, the long working hours seemed to be compensated with some free time in the weekends, in which you could spend your well-earned salary on a seemingly infinite amount of consumer goods or watch 500+ different channels on your television. What more freedom could you possibly desire?,” Martijn Visser wonders in Manufacturing Authenticity: How We Yearn for the Real and Fall for the Fake. (Photograph: Theodor Adorno, May 1968, courtesy of Manfred Rehm/DPA)

“[A]lthough Boltanski and Chiapello do indeed observe this redefinition of the demand for authenticity in terms of intentions as an advanced phase in the critique on the destruction of difference in our mass-society, we already noted above that our suspicion is also — today maybe even primarily — directed at these intentions themselves. [4] It might be true that there are still some areas where we appreciate genuine intentions, especially in our private and personal relations, but within the public domain we find it increasingly difficult to distinguish and recognize any form of sincerity. This in turn fosters again our disappointment, irony, cynicism, and suspicion, which ultimately can lead to a complete indifference towards any form of authenticity as such.

In this situation of indifference, disinterest and inertia — which we have not yet reached, but we are definitely on our way — it is neither the product, nor the intention behind the product, but the complete lack of any intention to connect or reconnect with reality that we long for. It is a detachment from reality, a lack of any engagement which resembles our very own ironic modus vivendi, that becomes the very thing we strive after. As Boltanski and Chiapello observe, the demand for authenticity becomes at this stage more and more ‘anachronistic, even ridiculous.’ [5] As a result, the ideal of authenticity will ultimately collapse into its total opposite, which is not the fake that still bears an essential (negative) relation to reality, but the simulacrum that does not refer to any original reality whatsoever. It is not necessary to immerse ourselves in [Jean Baudrillard’s] theory of hyperreality and simulacra to see how our very desire for authenticity has produced its own antithesis — and it does not look like we are heading for an Aufhebung very soon.

This reversal has in addition alarming consequences for the critical function that the concept of authenticity once characterised: whereas the ideal of authenticity used to prompt an outspoken engagement with reality insofar as it implied a critique of the status quo, a paralyzing indifference that refrains from any engagement will consequently become critically crippled or downright impotent. This withdrawal from any critical confrontation can lead to a passive resignation and acceptance with how things stand. [6] Such a detached attitude will only allow for a very impoverished form of criticism that is not so much directed at socio-economic problems or political policy, but only at other people who dare to bother us with their different views and opinions, that is, at people who in all earnest do try to engage and confront. In such a society, self-mockery, one’s ability to relativize, and an antisocial form of tolerance that equals the imperative to leave everyone’s filter bubble intact are seen as virtues, whereas any form of serious engagement is regarded a vice. After all, why so serious?

Now, of course we will not turn immediately into passive zombies the moment we don’t care anymore about authenticity, and one could argue that a little bit of irony and self-mockery surely won’t lead straight into apolitical apathy. Moreover, doesn’t this whole analysis itself attests to the suspicion and scepticism it attempts to criticize? Why can’t we just listen to Lana Del Ray, eat organic food, and indulge in retro fashion and analogue photography? Is this theorizing about such personal and subjective tastes not doomed to fail? Why spoil all the fun with speculative analyses in which all of our behaviour suddenly acquires a hidden meaning and motivation of which we are not aware at all? And how does this whole theory of our supposed indifference tie in with our current obsession with authenticity which we diagnosed at the outset of this essay? Is that not quite contradictory?

Against all this it can be said that philosophy sometimes needs to provide alternative and far-reaching narratives, employing coherent and convincing arguments to put the status quo into question or cast our current predicament in a different light. As one of its most principled tasks it questions the most common and ordinary phenomena we take for granted in our everyday lives, and at the same time interprets these phenomena in new ways, forging syntheses and bestowing meaning where we expect it the least. To some, this activity might seem suspicious or even threatening — and in a way, philosophers truly are the masters of suspicion — to others as downright ridiculous and a waste of money and time. However, both anger and laughter — which have established themselves since Plato’s dialogues as the privileged reaction to the provocative philosopher — are an easy flight from what philosophy and thinking in general is all about: a most serious and thorough attempt to confront and engage.”

Notes by the author

[1] It must be noted that almost all of these sociological and economical critiques are at least partially inspired by the writings of German romanticist thinkers. For example Friedrich Schiller’s 6th letter from Über die ästhetische Erziehung des Menschen (1793) for a striking ‘Marxist’ analysis of labour, alienation, and individuality.

[2] Boltanski & Chiapello,The New Spirit of Capitalism (Verso, 2007). See in particular chapter 7: The Test of the Artistic Critique (p. 419–482).

[3] Boltanski & Chiapello, The New Spirit of Capitalism, p. 446.

[4] Other examples might be our omnipresent suspicion regarding the ‘well-intended’ raisings of charity funds, every kind of outspoken idealist ambition of a company that is supposedly ‘not aimed at making money,’ the ‘genuinely’ expressed concern of politicians for the public interest, or any other form of real ‘altruism.’

[5] Boltanski & Chiapello, The New Spirit of Capitalism, p. 453.

[6] The recent explosion of stoic self-help books and our obsession with meditation and mindfulness can hardly be called surprising in this regard. For an interesting critique of mindfulness as a practice which stifles activism and makes people (instead of a certain culture) feel responsible for their stress, depression and other mental illnesses see Ronald Purser’s McMindfulness: How Mindfulness became the New Capitalist Spirituality (2019).

Nourishing epistemic wellbeing

We typically think about ‘wellbeing’ in terms of physical and mental health, but there is another way in which we should think about our wellbeing: in terms of knowledge, Kenneth Boyd, a postdoc at the University of Southern Denmark, writes in The antidote to fake news is to nourish our epistemic wellbeing.

“Epistemic wellbeing is your reasonably based sense that you’ll be able to know what you want and need to know about the world in order for your life to go well. This could involve knowledge in general — you want to feel like you can find answers to questions that you think are important to satiate your curiosity — as well as knowing more specific things — there will be some things you need to know in order to accomplish your life’s projects. If you have access to lots of good sources of information and can get your questions answered when you need them, then you have a high degree of epistemic wellbeing. If, on the other hand, you’re surrounded by liars, or just have no way of finding out what you need to know, you’re not doing nearly as well.”

According to Boyd, there are three components of epistemic wellbeing.

The first is access to truth. This “might be thwarted in many ways: you might be unable to go online, books might be banned, important information could be redacted. Or, in less extreme cases, you might be presented with different media outlets presenting conflicting information about an event. In this case, you might feel that you’re being prevented from accessing truths insofar as you’re unable to determine which information being presented is correct.”

The second component of epistemic wellbeing, access to trustworthy sources of information, is largely in service of the first. “While we’re all interested in obtaining truths, we’re unable to acquire all of these truths on our own, and so we’re reliant on others. This is a good thing. Dividing the cognitive labour among many people means that we don’t have to be experts in everything in order to know much about the world. We can just rely on others to figure out things for us. Feeling as though we can find these trustworthy sources is crucial in being able to know what we need to know, and is thus an important component of our epistemic wellbeing.

Finally, while we rely on others for information, it’s not enough to passively receive information. We need to engage in discussion. Often the things we want to know about are complex and difficult, and figuring out these things requires more than just one-off answers to a question, and discussions with others can introduce us to new questions and interests. We also like to share what we know: if I know something that could be useful to others, then I want to be able to contribute. Here, then, is the third component of epistemic wellbeing: the feeling that you can participate in productive dialogue.

Lack of opportunity to participate in productive dialogue can be detrimental to your wellbeing. There are many ways in which you can be excluded explicitly or implicitly on the basis of facts about your identity, a phenomenon philosophers call epistemic injustice.”

“Already, we can see how the current epistemic crisis might affect our epistemic wellbeing: the actual and perceived amount of false and misleading information that we’re exposed to by traditional and social media could make us feel as though we don’t have good access to truths. With so much competing information, and what looks to be people presenting information in bad faith, it might be difficult to identify trustworthy sources, and the experience of people being unwilling to engage in productive dialogue can make it seem that we’re significantly diminished in our ability to acquire and share information. No wonder things feel so difficult,” Kenneth Boyd writes in The antidote to fake news is to nourish our epistemic wellbeing. (Photograph: Supporters are backing Trump’s claim that the November 3 election was fraudulent, courtesy of Jeff Kowalsky/AFP via Getty Images)

“In a recent interview in The Atlantic magazine, Barack Obama warned of potentially dire consequences if we couldn’t get the epistemological crisis under control. The marketplace of ideas will cease to function, and so too will a well-functioning democracy. Part of the problem in addressing the epistemic crisis, I propose, will involve trying to balance various aspects of people’s epistemic wellbeing in the right way. It’s not clear what the best way of doing this is. Many social media outlets have taken measures to try to stem the tide of misinformation on their platforms, be it through fact-checking or banning users. These actions can help with the epistemic wellbeing of a platform’s users by trying to ensure that said users have access to truths. At the same time, they could be interpreted by some to be affecting their ability to engage in dialogue. As a result, users who are fact-checked or banned will look elsewhere to have their epistemic needs met. This isn’t to say that fact-checking is a bad idea, nor that it’s never appropriate to ban users from social media. It is to show that balancing people’s need for truths, trust and dialogue is not an easy task.

You have no doubt come across some advice about how to deal with the epistemic crisis already — we’re told to double-check the information we receive online, to look for indications that our sources are trustworthy, to block that certain uncle from our social media — and this can be similarly good advice when it comes to our epistemic wellbeing. It’s perhaps worthwhile to develop a habit of periodically auditing one’s epistemic habits. You might reflect on the ways in which you acquire information, and whether you’re listening to certain sources because they’re likely to lead you to the truth, or because they’re telling you what you want to hear. While there’s no panacea for all the problems the epistemic crisis has brought, conscientious self-reflection on the ways in which we seek knowledge is at least a good first step to increasing epistemic wellbeing.”

And also this…

According to the historian Robert Proctor, who coined the term agnotology to describe the academic study of ignorance, we are living in a golden age of ignorance.

Three elements of it are worth highlighting — none of them entirely new, says Tim Harford.

“First, distraction. It’s possible for people to spend hours every day consuming what is described as ‘news’ without ever engaging with anything of substance. Some distractions are obvious: doing the sudoku will not help you understand the implications of the post-Brexit trade deal, and neither will gazing at pictures of celebrities. At least such diversions are marketed thus. Others are more insidious. Consider ‘scotch-egging,’ the oddly British pastime of arguing over whether a particular activity […] does or does not violate the letter or the spirit of pandemic rules. Scotch-egg stories are emotionally salient and easy to understand, and superficially they seem to be about important matters of public health. But they suck attention away from the real questions: how can I live life while protecting myself and others? When I cast my vote, does the government’s response deserve praise or blame?

Second, political tribalism. In a polarised environment, every factual claim becomes a weapon in an argument. When people encounter a claim that challenges their cultural identity, don’t be surprised if they disbelieve it. We are all distracted. We all have tribes too: social if not political,” Harford writes in We’re living in a golden age of ignorance.

“Conspiracy thinkers devote enormous mental energy to extracting meaning from trivia. Overwhelming evidence can be dismissed as fake news manufactured by the conspiracy,” Tim Harford writes in We’re living in a golden age of ignorance. (Illustration by Claire Merchlinsky for the Financial Times)

“Distractions stop us from paying attention to what matters, and political tribalism makes us reject evidence that casts our tribe in a bad light. Combine the two, add steroids and you get the third element of the age of ignorance: conspiracy thinking. Conspiracy thinkers devote enormous mental energy to extracting meaning from trivia. Overwhelming evidence can be dismissed as fake news manufactured by the conspiracy.

So can ignorance be banished? It isn’t easy. David McRaney, creator of the You Are Not So Smart podcast, and Adam Grant, author of Think Again, each offers similar advice: don’t lead with the facts. Instead, establish rapport, ask questions and listen to the answers. […] You won’t be able to bully someone out of fringe views, but sometimes people will talk themselves around.

This is wise advice, but my own recent work has a more modest goal. Instead of trying to enlighten someone else, I suggest that each of us starts with our own blind spots. We are all distracted. We all have tribes too: social if not political. We are all vulnerable, then, to believing things that aren’t true. And we are equally vulnerable to denying or ignoring important truths.

We should all slow down, calm down, ask questions and imagine that we may be wrong. It is simple advice, but much better than nothing. It is also advice that is all too easy to ignore.”

This is the year to de-center your smartphone, the author of Goodbye Phone, Hello World, Paul Greenberg, writes in 12 Things to Do Instead of Picking Up Your Phone.

According to Greenberg, “changing your relationship to your phone requires a change in your relationship with your daily life. De-centering your phone won’t cause you to lose money, friendships, ‘connectedness,’ or opportunity. Rather it will be an opportunity for you to take your life back from Big Tech’s agenda and start making rational, sound plans with you in control of your time.”

Having unedited conversations is one of the ways to do de-center your phone.

“Many people say they text or email rather than talk because they have come to fear the spontaneity of actual conversation. They fear an awkward silence. But ‘[i]t is often in the moments when we stumble and hesitate and fall silent that we reveal ourselves to each other,’ Sherry Turkle writes in her book Reclaiming Conversation. Choose to be revealed.”

“[W]hat’s really signifcant about all the doomscrolling time is how it has a6ected our minds. Phone-based news reading tends to be done in spurts, with scant attention paid to nuance or substantiation of argument. It is, in short, the perfect cave for Trumpian thoughts and conspiracy theories to dwell. We need to move our attention away from Twitter and TikTok and focus instead on fact- checked and fact-based argumentsm,” Paul Greenberg writes in 12 Things to Do Instead of Picking Up Your Phone. (Illustration from Goodbye Phone, Hello World by Emiliano Ponzi)

“These days, we are offered a dizzying variety of secrets to happiness,” Arthur C. Brooks writes in There Are Two Kinds of Happy People, which is part of his How to Build a Life series that questions of meaning and happiness.

But despite this variety, Brooks “found that most of the serious approaches to happiness can be mapped onto two ancient traditions, promoted by the Greek philosophers Epicurus and Epictetus. In a nutshell, they focus on enjoyment and virtue, respectively. Individuals typically gravitate toward one style or the other, and many major philosophies have followed one path or the other for about two millennia. Understanding where you sit between the two can tell you a lot about yourself — including your happiness weak points — and help you create strategies for a more balanced approach to life.”

“Epicurus promoted hedonia, from which we derive the word hedonism. However, he would not have recognized our current usage of the term. The secret to banishing negative thoughts, according to Epicurus, is not mindless debauchery — despite the baseless rumors that he led wild parties and orgies, he taught that thoughtlessly grabbing easy worldly pleasures is a mistake, because ultimately they don’t satisfy. Instead, reason was Epicurus’s best weapon against the blues. For example, here is the mantra he suggests we tell ourselves when the fear of death strikes: ‘Death does not concern us, because as long as we exist, death is not here. And when it does come, we no longer exist.’

In contrast to hedonia, the Stoic approach is known as eudaimonia, which might be defined as a life devoted to our greatest potential in service of our highest ideals. Stoicism is characterized by the principles of naturalism and moralism — changing the things we can to make life better while also accepting the things we can’t change. […] ‘Don’t demand that things happen as you wish,’ Epictetus wrote in The Enchiridion, ‘but wish that they happen as they do happen, and you will go on well.’

Moralism is the principle that moral virtue is to be defined and followed for its own sake. ‘Tell yourself, first of all, what kind of man you want to be,’ Epictetus wrote in his Discourses, ‘and then go ahead with what you are doing.’ In other words, create a code of virtuous conduct for yourself and live by it, with no loopholes for convenience.

Epicureans and Stoics are encouraged to focus their attention on different aspects of life — and death. Epicurus’s philosophy suggested that we should think intently about happiness, while for Stoics, the paradox of happiness is that to attain it, we must forget about it; with luck, happiness will come as we pursue life’s purpose. Meanwhile, Epicurus encourages us to disregard death while we are alive, and Epictetus insists that we confront it and ponder it regularly, much like the maranasati meditation meditation in Buddhism, in which monks contemplate their own deaths and stages of decay.”

To banish negative thoughts from the mind, Epicurus “proposed a four-part cure: Don’t fear God; don’t worry about death; what is good is easy to get (by lowering our expectations for what we need to be happy); what is terrible is easy to endure (by concentrating on pleasant things even in the midst of suffering). This is made all the easier when we surround ourselves with friendly people in a peaceful environment,” Arthur C. Brooks writes in There Are Two Kinds of Happy People. (Photograph: Marble head of Epicurus, Roman copy from the 2nd century A.D. of a Greek statue of the 1st half of the 3rd century B.C. Collection of The Met, New York)

According to Brooks, “people have argued for centuries about which approach is better for happiness, but they largely talk past one another. In truth, each pursues different aspects of happiness: Epicurus’s style brings pleasure and enjoyment; Epictetus’s method delivers meaning and purpose. As happiness scholars note, a good blend of these things is likeliest to deliver a truly happy life.” The best thing, therefore, is to find a good balance between the two, and Brooks provides of three ideas for achieving this.

The first is know thyself. “This expression is one of the Delphic maxims, carved into the pronaos of the Temple of Apollo […]. It acknowledges the fundamental truth that we can’t make forward progress in life if we don’t know where we are situated right now. Answering the question thus starts with an informal but honest answer to this question: When my mood is low, do I naturally look to increase my level of pleasure and enjoyment, or do I focus on meaning and purpose in my life? The former is a sign that you tend toward being an Epicurean, the latter that you are more of a Stoic.”

(For a research-based approach, Brooks refers to a survey that helps uncover hedonistic tendencies and, for eudaimonic tendencies, the Meaning in Life Questionnaire from the University of Pennsylvania’s Authentic Happiness Questionnaire Center.)

Secondly, “[t]he key to blending enjoyment and meaning is not to suppress what you have, but to bolster what you lack. Once you have situated yourself on the spectrum, you can formulate a strategy to strengthen the discipline you are missing […]. At the end of each day, you might examine the events you experienced, and ask yourself harmonizing questions.” For example:

Did this event bring me enjoyment? Did it also bring me meaning?
Did this make me feel afraid? Did I learn something from this fear that will lead to less fear in the future?
Did this serve my interests? Did it serve the interest of others?

Brooks final piece of advice is to build a simple happiness portfolio that uses both approaches. “Make sure your life includes faith, family, friendship, and work in which you earn your success and serve others. Each of these elements flexes both the Stoic and the Epicurean muscles: All four require that we be fully present in an Epicurean sense and that we also work hard and adhere to strong commitments in a Stoic sense.”

Finding a good balance is easier said than done, however. “Whether Stoic or Epicurean, we always want to double down on what comes naturally to us. But that is the road to excess, which ultimately leads us away from well-being. […] So to all you Stoics: Take the night off. And to all you Epicureans: Time to get back to work.”

“Weird and wonderful buildings are springing up in China and elsewhere, driven by cities’ desire to make a mark in a world full of eye-popping imagery,” Rowan Moore writes in Urban clickbait? Why ‘iconic architecture’ is all the rage again.

“Certain characteristics are shared, such as eye-popping imagery and curving architectural forms that stand out by virtue of being the last shapes you would come up with if you were only concerned with the practicalities of manufacture, assembly and engineering. There is the unsubtle wielding of natural and cultural symbolism — lotus flowers, the Himalayas, silk, shanshui. There is a passion for putting trees in the air, with a correlative unconcern about whether a storeys-high planter offers a comparable experience of nature to a park on the ground. Look and shape are everything.

They push boundaries, sometimes of technical possibilities, more often of what was formerly considered tasteful or proper. They do what they do because they can. There’s an old term for projects like this, iconic architecture, which has been around for at least two decades. There was also the ohmigoddery of early-century Dubai, with its palm islands and sail-shaped, seven-star hotel and tallest building in the world, which in some ways has not been surpassed. What is striking is the way it keeps on coming, in such volume and at such scale, in so many parts of the world. Iconic architecture has been declared passé and boring for almost as long as the concept has existed, but it won’t go away. Abnormal is the new, or not-so-new, normal,” Moore writes.

The Sunac Guangzhou Grand theatre by Steven Chilton Architects, a building designed to look like ‘a swirl of red silk.’ (Photograph by Chong‐Art Photography)

“The underlying factors are partly those that have always driven attention-seeking architecture, the desire of businesses and municipalities to advertise and sell themselves, the urge to make a mark, to glorify, to self-aggrandise. They are magnified by such things as (in the Arabian Gulf) the vast quantities of money available and (in China) the colossal scale at which urban developments are rolled out — the not-small Sunac Guangzhou Grand theatre turns out to be a maraschino cherry in the vast cocktail jug of theme parks, indoor ski slopes, water rides and the like that is the Sunac Wanda cultural tourism city.

They are magnified again by technology, by the software that enables architects to visualise complex shapes and engineers to calculate them, by the photorealistic visualisation techniques that make a project seem physical before it is, by the construction techniques that turn these shapes into reality and, finally, by the internet’s crowded global marketplace of imagery.”

The completed Nanjing Zendai Himalayas centre by MAD Architects is a 560,000 sq metre mixed-use development shaped like a mountain range, which is said to adapt ‘the traditional Chinese shanshui ethos of spiritual harmony between nature and humanity to the modern urban environment.’ (Photograph by CreatAR Images)

Even though many of the practices behind this work, including Zaha Hadid Architects, are based in Britain and other European countries, Europe itself, however, “is less fertile ground for these hyper-icons than other continents. Here, the wheels of procurement, consultation and planning grind more slowly and it’s harder to assemble the colossal single-owner sites you find in China. […]

These kind of projects also offend the sensibilities with which many European architects are trained. Those practising now will have been warned when they were students against the ‘one-liner,’ the appealing-looking idea that allows no further depth or complexity in a project. One-liners or, at best, two- or three-liners, are what clients of major projects all over the world now want. […]

Mistrust of one-liners can be well-founded. They often have a way of being less joyous and soaring in the flesh than in the visualisations and of being somewhat sketchy on questions such as sustainability and their relationship to their surroundings. After the first buzz of the image they offer little more by way of enriching experiences. This matters more for major urban interventions than it does for the Guangzhou theatre, which does not claim to be more than a permanent show tent for Cirque-du-Soleil-type performances.

At worst, icons are Instagram fodder, urban clickbait. They are architectural bitcoin, items of digitally enabled inflation. Some, though, will go the way of art deco cinemas, brash works of entertainment architecture that achieved belated critical recognition. Or they might go the way of late Soviet architecture, sculptural brutalist extravaganzas eventually subjected to reappraisal in glossy architecture books, presented with an initial irony that slowly fades away. One thing is for sure: they are not going to go away.”

In contrast to the urban clickbait described by Rowan Moore, Tortosa’s Law Courts by Camps Felip Arquitecturia responds “to the alignments of the plot following the urban lines of the historic centre: narrow streets with close-up views and foreshortening.”

“In this specific context and with a generic and at the same time rigorous and specific functional program, the new building for the Law Courts of Tortosa offers an attentive, respectful and contemporary look. A solid and at the same time permeable architecture that blends and merges with its surroundings without giving up its time,” according to the architects.

Photography by Pedro Pegenaute and Josep Maria de Llobet.
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“Genius is not an absolute but a human construct that’s dependent on time, place and culture. Similarly, genius is relative. Some people simply change the world more than others. Accordingly, genius presupposes an inequality of output (the exceptional thoughts of an Einstein, or the music of a Bach) and generates an inequality of reward (eternal fame for Bach, fabulous riches for Amazon’s Jeff Bezos). That’s just the way the world works. Acts of genius are usually attended by acts of destruction; that’s generally called progress.” — Craig Wright, from How to be a genius

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 markstorm.nl. You can also browse through my writings and follow me on Twitter.

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Helping people in leadership positions master change and self-renewal — with wisdom & clarity of thought

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Mark Storm

Mark Storm

Helping people in leadership positions master change and self-renewal — with wisdom & clarity of thought

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