5 Talking Heads

A few interesting ideas and musings from the talking heads from The Big Think

1 – We Should Act Less and Think More

Slavoj Zizek : Philosopher and cultural critic

2 – Have Intellectuals Betrayed the Poor ?

Cornel West : Philosopher, activist and author

3 - What’s the Biggest Challenge in the Coming Decade ?

Jim Wallis : Christian writer and political activist

4 - What’s the Best Way to do Philanthropy ?

Michael Porter : Harvard Business School Consultant and Author

5 - Can Technology Solve Our Problems ?

Charles Vest : President of Massachuset’s Institute of Technology

Photo from Drflet via Wikimedia (new image format, to display better on mobile devices)

RELATED ARTICLES – 10 Ideas for the New Week

The War of Ideas

In our hyper-connected 24 hour media global internet age, it’s sometimes hard to remember back to when we had to read a textbook, visit a library, or talk to ‘an expert’ in order to find anything out.

Things have changed.

We now have instant access to virtually endless amounts of information on almost every conceivable subject – deliverable right to the smart phone in our pocket, no matter where we are, via the touch of a few buttons.

In the space of a decade or so our problem has changed from one of having too little information available to us, to one of having far too much!

This means we are overwhelmed, inundated and bombarded with information – the only response is to spread our attention a little more thinly; scanning, skimming, screening and simply ignoring, many of the messages and inputs we receive.

We can easily feel that because we have so much information available to us, we’re also obliged to have an opinion about just about everything . . . But having spent relatively little time reading, checking and digesting the facts, we risk having only a superficial understanding of an issue, but of course, once we’ve committed to ‘an opinion’ it can be hard for us to change our minds – no matter what new information we subsequently encounter.

Very often we’re faced with ideas or opinions in opposition – wind turbines: good or bad, gay marriage: good or bad, nuclear power: good or bad, more austerity: good or bad ?

It’s as if we’re being encouraged to ignore any subtleties or complexity and simply choose a side and cheer our team on.

And is everything that is presented to us as fact really true ? No, clearly not. Truth is interspersed with lies, mistakes, approximations, previously truth, wishful thinking, urban myth, selective facts, one-sided arguments, emotional blackmail, smears on the messenger and any number of other things. It’s not that things aren’t checkable, it’s just that there’s too much checking to do, and mostly we don’t bother.

This is the ‘post-fact’ battleground of the various wars of ideas being fought out for our support .

Two examples caught my attention over the last few weeks: climate change (again), and the overseas aid budget (also again).

The Guardian published a piece titled Don’t Give Climate Heretics a Chance. It broadly argues that as most climate skeptics are not climate scientists we should be less willing to listen to their views, and goes as far as proposing some kind of ‘certification scheme’ for use of accurate climate facts in articles and reporting.

Much as I share the frustration of the author, Jay Griffiths (an author and English graduate – if that matters to you), with inaccurate and misleading representations of science being presented on an equal basis to peer reviewed articles and research, surely the answer isn’t some kind of ‘ministry of truth kitemark’ on all published opinions ?

The real problem is the absence of a single recognised and accepted authority on climate change science – our information age has democratised truth, we’re all free to choose our own authority, and believe their pronouncements: whether it’s James Delingpole, in the red corner, or  almost all the World’s scientists in the blue.

Until someone develops an online truth filter, we’ll just have to rely on our common sense and judgement.

The other story that caught my eye a few weeks ago was on the front page of the UK newspaper The Express: We Pay For India’s Rocket to Mars. The story, by the journalist Macer Hall, contrasts India’s planned unmaned space mission to Mars, with the UK’s aid contribution, also claiming ‘Anger has been growing since David Cameron pledged to continue increasing the overseas aid budget despite cuts’. Interestingly the article also reports “British aid is not used to fund India’s space programme. Our development aid to India is earmarked for specific purposes like tackling child malnutrition, providing malaria bednets and secondary education for Dalit girls” - which does make the article’s title seem more than a little misleading” ?

I’m a strong supporter of well targeted international aid, and broadly speaking would like the UK to not only maintain it’s overseas aid contribution, but actually increase it. The stories we often see stirring-up resentment and claiming misuse of aid donations are often misleading (as in this case), or even when accurate I would argue the solution is to better target the aid involved, rather than to cut it, an alternate ‘solution’ to the problem of ‘bad aid’ I rarely see offered in certain sections of the press.

If you want to see how divisive these kind of issues and debates have now become, you simply have to scroll down through the comments below each story – wading through the abuse, self-righteousness, hostility and rage of the full-on Troll Warfare ! Online debating doesn’t seem to be constrained by any of the social niceties we observe in the real world.

So what the answer ?

Clearly I’m not saying don’t have opinions . . . but do have a couple of suggestions:

Firstly, we should all be a little more critical and questioning of pretty much everything we read – whether we’re naturally inclined to support or oppose them. The world is a complicated place, and things are rarely back and white, we should delve a little more deeply into what we see and hear, resisting the temptations of polarisation. . . . in other words we should be smart.

Secondly, and just as importantly, we should have the modesty to sometimes profess a little less certainty about our own opinions – accepting we rarely are so expert to have considered all the full facts in detail. We should try to listen respectfully to the opinions of others, and be willing to accept new evidence, if it seems reliable, even if it goes against our previously held views. . . in other words we should be nice.

I believe it is important for those of us seeking to sway opinion and make a positive difference in the world to engage in the ‘war of ideas’ – but we won’t get anywhere by being trolls about it !


Similar articles – Walk Two Moons in Someone Else’s Moccasins, Climate Through the Data SmogDo you Believe in Climate Change

Photo by Cali4Beach, via Flickr

10 Ideas for the New Week

Ten ideas to consider and discuss during the new week.

I’d be interested to hear any views anyone might have.

1 – Citizen’s Income

The idea is that all adult citizens of a country receive an automatic monthly income – regardless of whether they work, how wealthy they are, or anything else. Receipt of this income would be a basic right. It would be enough to live on, but low enough to encourage people to work in order to create extra income for themselves.

The supposed advantages are that it’s fair (in the sense it’s received by all), it’s simple and cheap to implement, it means working is always financially beneficial (as wages don’t replace benefits), it lifts the very poorest out of poverty, it encourages people to take part-time jobs to ‘top-up’ their income, economic activity would be distributed over a broader section of society, and not concentrated in the hands of the wealthy.

It would be funded by increased income taxes, in the UK it has been estimated that to provide a £360 Citizen’s Income for everyone would require a 7% increase in the rate of income tax – but everyone earning around £30,000 or less a year would be better off overall.

The idea first emerged in the 1930s, and is currently being considered by the South African Government.

2 – Gross National Happiness

Why do we measure our progress using gross domestic product ? GDP simply tells us how much money is being spent in an economy, not on what it’s being spent, or whether anyone is happier as a result. GDP includes consumer debt, money spent of weapons or harmful addictions etc, but omits things without a direct financial value, such as time spent playing with children, nature or healthy social communities.

As an alternative the concept of Gross National Happiness, a sort of wellbeing index, has emerged – the idea being that societies should focus on improving the gross happiness of citizens, rather than just GDP. GDP’s critics argue that it is simply the wrong target to aim for, and we should instead aim to improve our quality of life. Perhaps we should seek growth in GNH, not GDP.

The idea was first coined by the King of Bhutan in 1972, with many countries now producing some form of wellbeing index.

3 – Contraction and Convergence

If the world is to achieve a level of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere that allows a safe and sustainable global climate, a figure for global emissions will have to be set. Contraction and convergence provides a framework by which current emissions may fairly be reduced to this safe level, and divided equitably between everyone on the planet.

The idea is ultimately that emissions quotas are allocated to countries on the basis of population, thus allowing equal emissions per person. Obviously this is a very different situation from that which currently exists, so various transitional arrangements will be required.

The idea was first put forward by the Global Commons Institute, prior to the climate conference in Kyoto in 1997.

4 – Pay it Forward

The basic idea behind pay it forward, is that rather than having someone pay you back for a good deed or favour, they do a similar good deed or favour to someone else instead. Instead of ‘paying it back’, it’s ‘paid forwards’.

Various forms of the concept exist, one, a sort of virtuous pyramid scheme, by doing good deeds for two people and asking them to repay the good deed each to two others, an ever expanding cascade of good deeds takes place.

The earliest recorded usage of the idea was in an ancient play written in 317BC, but various other proponents have postulated similar ideas since, including Benjamin Franklin and Ralph Waldo Emerson. It also formed the basis of a recent book and film.

5 – Collaborative Society

Collaborative consumption is the idea that rather than everyone needing to own one of everything, we collaborate as small communities or groups in order to share – ladders, bread making machines, hedge trimmers, lawn mowers, electric drills, vans, tents etc are all frequently given as examples of things we often own, but sit around unused most of the time.

As well as collaborative consumption, the idea of collaborative design or production is also now gathering ground, with open source software, crowd funded projects or crowd sourced digital content becoming more widespread – Wikipedia being a good example. Why not extend this concept to actual production or provision of services, perhaps of locally produced food, childcare or similar.

The rise of collaborative systems really exploded with the arrival of the internet, making it easy to commute with like-minded individuals locally and around the world.

6 – Industrial Ecology

In natural ecological systems materials are constantly recycled in circular processes – the carbon cycle, the water cycle, the nitrogen cycle etc. Human industrial systems and processes, by contrast, are typically linear, with raw materials entering the system at one end and a combination of useful products and waste emerging at the other.

Industrial ecology is a term used for encouraging the adoption of ‘joined-up’ thinking and processes, to achieve a more circular economy, producing less waste and requiring fewer resources as a result by reusing and remanufacturing wastes from one industrial process in another.

Although industries have always sought to improve efficiency, the real origins of what is now called industrial ecology were in the 60s and 70s, with the term first being popularised in a paper in Nature in 1989.

7 – Local Currencies

There has been a rise of interest in local currencies, used to promote trade and services within a local area. Part of the idea is that local currency circulates much more rapidly (velocity of money) than national currency, as they are not seen as investment or financial instruments, and this promotes local economic activity.

Local currencies are promoted by the Transition Towns movement as a way of stimulating underutilised local resources, support local business and provide local jobs. The so called Totness Pound, being perhaps the best known UK example.

Historically one of the best known examples of a local currency was the example of Worgl in Austria in 1932, where an impoverished town council put in place their own currency in the hope of revitilising the local economy. It is recorded as having been very successful until it’s banning by the Austrian Government in 1933, in fact now often being referred to as ‘the miracle of Worgl‘.

8 – Random Acts of Kindness

The idea behind the idea of ‘random acts of kindness’ is as old as history – performing selfless acts of kindness for strangers out of love, comradeship or compassion, with no expectation of reciprocity – making the world a nicer place in the process.

The phrase has now caught on globally, being referenced in a number of films and books, including Danny Wallace’s Join Me movement, and his book Random Acts of Kindness: 365 Ways to Make the World a Nicer Place.

The phrase is believed to have been coined by the American writer Anne Herbert, who supposedly wrote it on a napkin in a restaurant outside San Francisco in 1982.

9 – Slow Movement

The slow movement considers that the pace of life has become too fast and frantic, and characterised by more anger, more consumption, more greed and less connection, less community and less enjoyment. Their objective is to promote and support a return to a slower pace of life.

Slow food, in particular, is promoted as a more nutritious, sustainable, satisfying and ultimately enjoyable alternative to the rise of fast food. Similar ideas exist for slow parenting, slow gardening, slow investment, slow fashion and slow media.

The movement stems from Italy, from the protests featuring Carlo Petrini, against the opening of the first McDonalds restaurant in Rome.

10 – Debt Cancellation

At it’s most fundamental, wealthy people lending their spare money to poor people who need it, for which they charge them more money (interest) can be viewed as a means of keeping the rich rich and the poor poor, and for that reason was banned by many of the world’s religions as usury. The Old Testament also required that outstanding debts be regularly forgiven and slaves freed for the same reason, the so called time of Jubilee.

Many developing world countries are indebted to the rich world’s banks, often as a result of corruption by dictators or financing conflicts, and to such an extent that there is little prospect of them ever repaying the amount they owe. Several organisations consider this effective financing of the rich world by the poorest countries in the world immoral, and continue to campaign for a cancellation of the remaining debt.

The debt cancellation movement came to prominence after the Live Aid events of the mid 80s, leading to the international Jubilee 2000 campaign and the 2005 G8 Summit at Glen Eagles – unfortunately much of the debt still currently remains.

Photo by James Bowe, via Flickr