Virtue ethics in a time of crisis

1

In a stable and unified society, there is a shared sense of what constitutes the good life, and a person of good character.

The world is now in crisis, we all know that. Yet we often fail to discuss the consequences on our sense of self.

Faced with all sorts of systemic risks, far beyond our scope of action, we no longer know what the good life is, what’s ethical behaviour, or what a good person looks like. We’re therefore at risk of moral collapse.

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Virtue ethics is based on a belief that, in order to live a good life, we must cultivate certain positive habits, or virtues. We must develop a readiness to do the right thing. We must also nurture the wisdom to discern what the right thing is. By doing this, we become a person of good character, who therefore acts ethically.

This ethical stance is generally contrasted with two other models. Deontology sees ethical action as respecting a set of firm rules that we should never break, no matter how painful or costly. Consequentialism – effective altruism its latest popular incarnation – sees an ethical life as one devoted to minimising harm and maximising pleasure, for the largest number, whichever way measured. Meanwhile, virtue ethics places emphasis on the agent. Ethical actions are what an ethical character would do, with tradition as a guide.

Each tradition has its own framework articulating key virtues: Buddhism, Confucianism, Catholicism, Islam, etc. Beside a large amount of overlap – gentleness, courage, benevolence – virtue-ethical traditions have three fundamental traits in common.

The first is a belief in human perfectibility: we can change our default settings through deliberate effort.

The second is a commitment to education: societies should put systems in place so that people do develop virtues.

The third is an aspiration to effortlessness: we should build virtuous habits, so that we will do the right thing without having to fight against ourselves.  

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I’m the child of a divorce. One of the hardest thing I had to do growing up was reconcile the worlds of two parents who drifted apart, and inhabited widely different ethical worlds, with no communication between them. Navigating intercultural virtue ethics was a matter of existential importance. At times, it placed me on the brink of madness – but it also built a muscle that has proven highly valuable.

Inspired by a childhood spent in the European capital, languages and cultures were my way forward. Through philology and hermeneutics, I trained to question the relationship between words on the one hand, and thought, behaviours or emotions on the other. Through language practice, reading and international friendships, I learned to stretch my own ethical sense of self.

Later in life, marriage with an Australian and migration to Melbourne put all this to the test, quite successfully. I delved deeper into my own Catholic tradition – including by pursuing Ignatian spiritual exercises – while exploring Confucianism, and Buddhism. I also started working on ‘change-the-world’ type projects – global governance, engagement with China, regenerative finance, etc – all of which needed a good stomach to resist ethical sea-sickness. Meanwhile, I continued reflecting on virtue, and sharing my reflections on this blog.

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All virtue traditions involve a shared sense of ‘what humans are’ and ‘how the world works’. Without basic agreement on those points, how could you decide what positive habits we must nurture?

Today, with a world in deep crisis, we flounder.

Learning to perform better within existing systems and structures has become irrelevant. It’s unlikely that the world will be made better by me getting a job at Google. I should certainly not have a stake in maintaining existing structures of power in place. Yet alternative paths are unclear.

This blog is in part about exploring those paths. What can we and what should we do to shift the system? What virtuous habits should we nurture?

It is also – and mainly – proposing to do something more fundamental. That is, train a form of lucid detachment. Patriarchy, colonialism, neoliberalism, and a whole catalogue of obsolete mental models, hide behind self-evident truths. If we want a real chance to build something new, we need to defuse the cliches scattered across our shared mental landscape.

But even that is not enough. When we get rid of a cliche, nothing will immediately take its place. So we need to cultivate a form of intellectual calm, while we patiently wait for new connections to form, and new, better model to take shape. This virtuous habit we need, to stay calm in the face of mental chaos.

This is what I hope my blog can achieve, or at least go some way towards.

I encourage you to explore the various sequences listed under the header. Or if you want a place to start, check out The Seven Deadly Sins, Confucian Virtues, or this series on My Practice.

On dissolving identity

During a short trip to Sydney, I met up with an old friend for lunch. Inspired by the sensual delights of Double Bay, maybe, our conversation drifted to modes of eroticism. My friend expressed frustration with a partner. She was missing the pleasures of role-play: ‘the brain is the biggest sexual organ,’ she said. I paused and reflected. ‘This is so interesting. I realise, I have a very different erotic experience. For me, the biggest sexual organ is the body. Roleplay distracts me. I like to get out of my head, into pure physicality.’

Both modalities involve a dissolution of identity. The rigid from of ‘who I am’ must disappear for erotic pleasure to be possible, whether it’s in a flight of fantasy, or in a tide of sensations.

Later in the same trip, the thought came up again as I discussed creativity with another friend. ‘The biggest obstacle to divergent thinking,’ she proposed, ‘is attachment to identity, limiting the range of what is possible.’ She looked to the theatre for ways of loosening this attachment.

As we discussed further, I realised the same two poles emerged. It’s the door open to another world through roleplay, acting a character and becoming someone else. It’s physical presence on the stage, leaving the self to become resonant flesh. Good creative workshops involve both.

Is it the case, I wonder now, that in order to solve complex problems, we can tap into the resources of our preferred erotic mode. Two pathways to radical change: kinky role-play, or the vanilla pleasures of touch.

Walking the labyrinth

This week-end, I went on a walk with a friend around Clifton Hill. There, we stumbled upon the Merri Creek labyrinth.

As I start a new role with a new organisation – both atypical – I find myself looking for clarity, both on my function and our collective goals. It’s easy to fret when things are emerging. The labyrinth offered a grounding experience. It’s an old spiritual tool, inviting us on a long meandering path to find centre. It reminded me physically that it takes time to reach the beating heart of anything – and the profound joy of arriving there.

In a world obsessed by movement, goals, and paths of least resistance, the labyrinth is a tremendous reminder that other models are possible. That the slower we move, the more we perceive. That shortcuts will get us faster to the end, but yield little self-awareness, or understanding of the surrounding system. And that the path to wisdom is never linear.

On hope

1

I used to run design thinking events with international students. I would take them through a guided process, to find new ways of building intercultural connections in their environment. In the divergent phase, I saw radical ideas emerge – real original stuff. Then time came to select one idea and pitch. It was just a pitch, low stakes, not a lifetime commitment. Yet students would always pick the safest cliché – ‘Food brings people together.’  

2

We commonly confuse two types of strategy. The first identifies the best way to reach a goal, given a set of constraints. I call this shallow strategy. The second – which I call deep strategy – questions and refines the goal itself, and the constraints.

For-profit organisations, in their immense majority, never reach the level of deep strategy. The goal is a given – make money. Corporate Social Responsibility, B-Corp charters and other ESG frameworks are only stricter sets of constraints. We’re still in shallow strategy. Make money while meeting a few sustainability criteria.

In my experience, not-for-profits and charities are the only structures that engage in deep strategy. Yet even there, even on the board, discussions often get stuck in the shallows. You know, those tedious discussions, where the goal is far from clear, and someone raves at length about the best software to use.  

3

Apollo, God of oracles, was known as loxios, ‘oblique’. He revealed truth indirectly. The same applies to the Christian God. We have not a revealed book of truth, but the Gospels – four elliptic narratives about the life of Christ.

If we seriously believe in a God creator of Heaven and Earth, maker of all things seen and unseen, could that God not have chosen to engrave his commands in letters of fire, and held them floating in the sky above Jerusalem, for all to see? No, God decided that he would reveal himself indirectly – and let us free to believe – as a matter of deliberate design.

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This may be the most valuable insight I got from my two years in preparatory class. My French teacher was having a rant. ‘People speak of literature, and schools, and the Humanities, as if all this was ‘not the real world’. You hear that all the time. It’s not the real world. And yet here we are,’ he said, pointing his finger to the ceiling, then out the window, ‘I’m paid good money to teach you, we’ve got a huge library full of books on top of us, and this is prime real estate in the heart of Paris. I call this the real world.’

5

There are two main forms of charity work.

One is remedial. It aims to reduce suffering, right here right now. It’s homeless shelters, soup kitchens, and blood donations. It’s firefighters and emergency room doctors.

The other is preventative. It aims to prevent suffering, at some point in the future. It’s public health, social work, and education design. It’s risk management, culture, and governance.  

The second is impossible, unless faith and hope complement pure charity.

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From the age of 18, I’ve had a Greek quote from Heraclitus on my desk: ‘ἐὰν µὴ ἔλπηται, ἀνέλπιστον οὐκ ἐξευρήσει, ἀνεξερεύνητον ἐὸν καὶ ἄπορον.’ In my translation: ‘As for what is beyond hope, it will not manifest unless you hope for it. It’s not something you just stumble upon already made. It has no shape of its own.’

On decentering

1

When I was in Year 10, I was part of an exchange program with a school in Connecticut. Our pen pals came for two weeks in late Spring. One of my school-friends took his on a visit to Prague. I was surprised. It was the mid-90s, the fall of the Berlin Wall was still fresh, and Prague felt like a distant exotic place. ‘It’s not’, said my friend. I checked on the map, and indeed, from Strasbourg where we lived, it was only slightly further than Paris.

Growing up on a border, I had a distorted sense of geography. Everywhere, I was exposed to the French map – in history books, on TV, or on the jigsaw puzzles I enjoyed making. I lived somewhere on the top right corner of the Hexagon, with Paris as my off-centre capital. Beyond the borders, ‘there be dragons’.

That perception was based on linguistic, political and infrastructure reality. TV was made in Paris, transport systems converged on Paris, decisions were made in Paris, affecting the entire country. Also, there were other realities. Strasbourg was a European capital. It was midway through the Blue banana. Street names, food and architecture made Vienna familiar, Paris foreign. Sometimes, on my way to school, I would cross a few visiting dragons.

2

My professional life has always been chaotic. I’ve always worn multiple hat. More: there is no clear vocabulary to describe the work I do. What has the most value may not bring the most money. Neither may be connected to my primary job title or affiliation.

This is hugely frustrating in standard networking events. ‘So what do you do?’ They ask, and I mumble a long-winded answer. Quickly, my reply triggers confusion, impatience, dismissiveness. Which in turn brings up dark emotions: agitation, frustration, embarrassment. And the conversation dies.

Earlier this year, I did a little exercise. I tried reflecting on what happened in those situations, using non-violent communication as a heuristic framework. Surely, those negative feelings on both parts were just about unmet needs.

Starting with my own experience, this is what I uncovered. I’m agitated when I see that, in spite of my efforts, I’m not coming across clearly. I’m frustrated that I can’t connect with the other person. Then comes embarrassment: as a professional communicator, I’m ineffective.

I didn’t have reliable input about my interlocutors, but in a flash I wondered – is it possible that our needs match? They’re confused, because I’m not giving them clarity. There’s too many threads, or unconventional words. They’re impatient because we don’t connect. I don’t have a one-word label they can recognise, why should they bother with a weirdo? Finally, they’re dismissive because they’ve got a certain number of people to talk to, I’m taking too much time for basics, and it’s not efficient.

Here was common ground then, and from this, I was able to go one step further in self-awareness. We all want effectiveness – but for me, busy work towards undesirable or vague goals is the opposite of effective. We all want clarity – which is why I question vague terms, cliches and arbitrary categories. We all want connection – but shared belief in neoliberal propaganda just doesn’t cut it for me. My sense of alienation was gone, I finally saw my interlocutors as human – and my desire to attend networking events faded.

3

In 2007, when I started learning Chinese, a friend introduced me to PPstream. It was one of those sites where you could watch all sorts of movies and TV series for free. This was my first introduction to mainstream East Asian drama.

I remember watching this film. The protagonist was a Chinese man, who went on a trip to Japan. It rocked my world. I had never considered inter-Asian relations. Surely, Japanese people, and Chinese people, and Korean people, would have complex relationships with Europe. They would think about it, talk about it, and travel there. I never thought they would travel around Asia.

4

A few weeks ago, I was at an event in the Collingwood yards. It was a bunch of environmentalists coming together to celebrate spring. There was craft beer, canapes, and music making. Yet I was frustrated. I invested hope in the event, and it felt a bit flat.

Looking back, I noted an ambiguity. The vibe indicated an event for individual change-maker to meet and bond. Yet when the organiser spoke, the goal was framed as facilitating new collaborations between organisations. So were we there as people, or as representatives?

I reflected further. Maybe the missing element was not clear focus, orgs or people, but rather, tension between the two. My sense of wasted opportunity came from that event not meeting my needs. I’m well aligned with myself, but I work in a shapeless in-between space. It’s lonely, and I was looking for connection. My first two conversations were with people in large organisations – government and university. Their emotional experience was very different, not lonely, but frustrated at inefficiencies and misalignments. Then I had a chat with a woman from a smaller org – well aligned, but overwhelmed. Her challenge was letting go.

What if this was a recurring pattern? What if people attempting system change had different emotions depending on the context of their work. Could this, then, be the right conversation starter: are you lonely, frustrated, or overwhelmed?

5

The Internet is a global infrastructure, with no centre. This applies on multiple levels: connected cables and machines, common standards and protocols, then a shared set of global platforms.

Except, a few locations have disproportionate influence. New York, London and Los Angeles, media capitals of the global English language. Sillicon Valley, where global platforms are designed and headquartered.

In a talk I gave once about the Chinese Internet – back in 2014 – I ventured the word diversity. There’s censorship and control, for sure – but also, here’s a different system, with different platforms, different norms, and a different language. Based on the same shared infrastructure, it’s a whole parallel universe.

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We listen religiously to those people who discovered late in life how much happiness and meaning are more important than success and numbers. Meanwhile, we neglect those who spent their life in the pursuit of meaning and happiness.

On the pandemic

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Most of our lives unfold in controlled environments. We make plans. Our pride attaches to them. We fail to see the background work to make all this possible.

Mammals use most of our energy to maintain homeostasy. Same with human civilisation. It’s an effort to keep things in balance. We control temperature. We store food. We set norms.

Then war, nature, or the system’s internal chaos, tip things over. Plans fail. Our sense of self is damaged. We feel shame. We feel grief. We feel anger.

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Is a virus alive? It’s just a short strand of DNA, with extra protein and fat. Yet, it’s able to hack the cells of a living organism, and reproduce itself.

Each virus normally matches one species. If it crosses by accident – say when a pig eats a banana covered in bat saliva – the virus can’t reproduce. It eventually decomposes.

Except, sometimes, by chance, it works. Because living things have a lot in common. Poodles are very big amoebas, with a twist. More: viruses mutate randomly when they reproduce. Versions most compatible with a new host multiply. They spread. It repeats.

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Illness is loss of balance. The resources of the body go towards containing a foreign organism, or helping it multiply. Immune system goes haywire. Vital organs stifle and fail. Too much at the same time, and the body collapses into death. Or it rebalances itself, but on a lower plane, some functions lost. Or it heals.

Past experience will tell us how each illness runs its course. We know when to let the body fight alone, or when to intervene. In the case of a new virus, it’s all educated guesswork.  

We look for symptoms. Fever. Cough. Short breath. Fatigue. Rashes. Brain fog. Nausea. Pains. We test how early they start, how strong they manifest, how long they last. We list affected organs and tissues. Lungs. Brain. Blood. Skin. Muscles. Intestines. We count how many people die. We track long-term effects on survivors. We seek patterns.

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When the body goes out of balance, medical intervention can restore function. Painkillers and syrups relieve symptoms. Threats to vital organs can be warded off by various interventions. But no treatment has guaranteed success for all. Many come with danger.

The goal is to keep minimal homeostasy. As long as a person is alive, there is hope for recovery. When the system collapses into death, it’s too late for a cure. When one organ fails, others tend to follow. Time is of the essence. Better play safe, rest up and isolate.

Except, we’re not bodies only. We strive to keep physical homeostasy, yes, but also mental and social. We take pills to reduce pains and fevers, so we can play, care, work, and keep the systems around us functioning.

Except, we’re not in this alone. Medicine is not just about this person, and this person, and this person. It’s working with a certain amount of supplies, and hospital beds, and doctors, and nurses, and entire supply chains. Too much pressure, and the whole system collapses.

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How do you compare the preventable death of a son, sister, mother, friend, or grand-parent, to the collapse of a business, the loss of free spirit, or dreams never manifested, at population scale? How do you weigh the grief of crushed aspirations, versus the grief of early death? How do you balance inflation with trauma?

It’s hard enough to find answers. Factor uncertainty, preferences will shift. Some willingly gamble for a career, others for a loved one. Some want safety, some want agency, some want accountability, for themselves, or for all. It’s a maelstrom of passionate confusion.

To stop the chaos, we throw figures around. It’s unclear exactly where those figures come from, how accurate, or what’s left uncounted. Numbers have an air of self-evidence.

Lucky we trained in critical thought. We question the source. Mainstream media. Random dude on YouTube. Big pharma. Fame-seeking scientist. Lying official. Deranged nurse. Sprinkle a spoonful of deep fakes, leave it in the dark, and see the bubbles appear.  

When I was in grade 12 philosophy, I was warned off mathematics. Power likes to deploy them as a form of sophisticated puppetry, to distract or impress. Later, I studied formal logic. It confirmed this early suspicion. Most formulas are nothing but symbolic chiaroscuro, dramatizing platitudes.

In my experience, however, storytelling trumps data. When it’s all too chaotic, and we need a course of action, we follow plot, and we trust character.

On Guilt

1

Sometimes, a text will cast unexpected light on your experience. Thomas Lecaque wrote an angry piece about Hurricane Katrina and LGBTIQA+ people. In the recovery phase, he says, a number of religious figures pointed the finger at the queer community. Forget about climate change. Katrina was just another case of Sodom and Gomorrah.

I’ve been struggling with guilt for most of my life. Part of it is the sin of pride, grandiosity, self-importance. Part of it is parental pressure to excel everywhere. But I started to wonder, to what extent is it also the product of homophobia. If queer people cause the wrath of God, should I take the blame for ecological collapse?

2

You know the type. ‘The system is broken,’ they say. Then comes an earnest explanation. ‘It’s the government’, ‘it’s human nature’, ‘there’s just too many people.’ Strangely, they seem exempt, as if their nature was more than human. Ask them which people are in excess exactly – they’re unlikely to point the finger at their own chest.

3

Philosophers around the world have tried understanding why the world is shit. Different traditions converge on different explanations. It’s original sin. It’s a test from God. It’s attachment.

During lockdown, with lots of time on my hands, I decided to read Atlas Shrugged. There, I found an original answer to the question above. Ayn Rand’s characters, staunch advocates of personal responsibility, know precisely why the world is shit. Because other people.

4

There is no such thing as a purely human achievement. We depend on the Earth to keep us vertical, provide mineral resources, and a sense of beauty. We depend on myriads of other life forms to breathe, eat, and find delight. We depend on material objects, the work of previous generations, tools, buildings, roads, nets, libraries, hammers, and computers. We depend on a shared framework to coordinate our action and find meaning, language as a shared commons, culture polishing behaviour, a sense of the divine. And yet, we continue to speak as if humans could make themselves, and hardly make room for the non-human in our institutions.

5

I remember two consecutive chats on LunchClub, during 2020. One was with the father of a three-month old. Lockdown was a perfect opportunity to bond with the baby. Another was with the father of a four-year-old. Life at home was hellish, work suffered, the family was under stress.  

That a child should be three months or four years old when the pandemic struck – pure matter of luck – this had clear impact on those two men, their mental health, their relationships, their business. What of individual accountability then? Is not success the sole result of wise decisions, discipline and hard work?

6

For money to work as a unit of account, the price we command must adequately reflect our value. If there is tension between doing well and doing good, the system cannot be trusted.  

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This friend of mine was hoping to get investment for an app he developed. Something about sustainability. Create something good for the world. ‘We used open source software to do the prototype. Now I’m paying someone to rewrite the code, so that I can own the IP.’  

8

Detective fiction typically centres on a character seeking the truth. Not so with Michael Nava’s queer detective series. ‘My goal is not to bring the culprit to justice’, says Henry Rios, protagonist and defence lawyer, ‘but exonerate my client and show reasonable doubt’.

9

In a state of half sleep, I once imagined this rite of passage for social workers. At a railway station, the facilitator ties three homeless people on a track. A freight train is headed towards them. The candidate has the option to pull a switch, which will redirect the train to another track, where a program participant is attached. They have only seconds to make up their mind.

The feedback was glorious: ‘It’s amazing! I got to test my moral intuition in real time’.

On Superficiality

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It’s a warm autumn day of 1998. I’m walking along Rue Soufflot, in the 5th district of Paris. Hausman buildings on both sides, with cream facades and grey slate roofs. I turn and look at the Pantheon, its dome rising at the end of the street.

We’re reading L’Education Sentimentale in literature class. There’s a scene where the main character walks along that same street. I’ve been Parisian for a few months, and I’ve only realised that I’m now living in the world of fiction.

2

Ball sports, pageants, reality TV: rules are set. There’s a judging process, and a winner for us to worship. But we can’t rely on those winners to challenge the system. Because their entire status depends on it.

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‘The pressure to be rated means I am tempted to be falsely polite and not authentic,’ writes Rachel Botsman in Who can you trust. A certain Protestant theology may derive salvation from authenticity. I would rather cultivate virtue, learn from tradition, and try to be polite.

4.

World peace depends on diplomacy, which is intelligent ritual. It’s Princess Grace, seducing De Gaulle in defence of Monaco, with elegant frivolity. 

5

Blockchain is designed for mistrust. The system enables exchange without a need to trust participants. And we celebrate! What world are we creating? Would you not rather nurture trustworthy people than trade stocks? 

6

I’m as addicted as any gay man to RuPaul’s Drag Race. Every season reminds me that we’re all born naked. The rest is effort. There is no such thing as natural grace. It’s all cultivated illusion. And it’s, oh yes, so much worth it!

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Some like to rank things. ‘C’est mieux’, they say, comparing cities, wine, or restaurants, ‘it’s better’. My tastes are more fickle, and more personal. I try to guide my decisions not on the basis of ‘c’est mieux’, but ‘this would make me joyful today’. 

8

Painkillers only treat symptoms, that’s correct. But then, inflammation feeds on itself. Vain pursuits can distract us from worthy goals. So can pain.

On machines as mediators

1

My friend J. lived in Vienna during the Pandemic. His five-year old daughter used to play with the neighbour’s child. Interaction came naturally for the two of them. They were about the same age. Except, they didn’t have a common language. One spoke only German, the other Dutch and English. That wasn’t a problem though. They had a tablet handy, with Google Translate on it.  

2

By default, we think of AI – and digital technology– in terms of its individual benefits. We ask, how can the machine help me reach my goals, or the goals of my company? Technology takes on a different meaning if we consider it in the context of a group. The question here becomes, how could the machine transform relationships?

I wonder if there is a subset of UX research that focuses on collective experiences, or if companies explicitly design software for communities. What kind of tools would we need to draw user personas and empathy maps, not for individuals but for groups? And how would we pitch this collective value proposition?

3

I shared a piece on Linkedin not long ago. It’s an article about the Prehistory of the Internet,  challenging the default narrative. We’ve all heard of ARPANET, how the Internet was born from a military project to create a distributed communication network – one that would resist a nuclear apocalypse. This colours the way we think about the Net.

Yet there is another strand in the genealogy: bulletin boards, organised on a local basis, accessed through modems, via phone lines. This thread is not about scientists exchanging knowledge in real time, or military generals coordinating reconstruction efforts. It’s about random weirdos discussing whatever online, or using the technology to meet up and discuss arcane areas of pop culture.

Reductionism is tempting. We love to say that something is just something. It’s comforting, and it makes us sounds smart. Yet most of the world is hybrid, messy – sources confused and mingling. Same with the Internet: it’s a global distributed network, resilient and globally connected. It’s also an aggregate of local networks, enabling new ways of organising communities. It’s a whole lot of other things too.

Recognising this hybridity – more generally recognising complexity – is about more than precision for the sake of it. It’s about gaining greater freedom. The more we train ourselves to recognise that the things around us have complex genealogies, the more we can imagine different futures – each in the continuity of a different ancestry.

4

In 2020, an AI wrote a piece for the Guardian. By scanning the enormous amount of texts available on the web, the machine was able to reproduce verbal patterns in a way that somewhat made sense. This is writing through brute force computation, aggregating cliches.

Yet, it’s not exactly true that an AI wrote a piece for the Guardian – to the same extent that few authors write alone. The final text was edited. Humans used their critical meaning-making ability to select, arrange, and cut through the various drafts compiled by the machine.

We like to think of authorship in romantic terms. The poet is a pure fount of original thought. They’re a channel for the Godly muse to reach other humans. The first draft is a work of genius. Editors only polish and refine. AI-writing seriously challenges this view.

But what if we framed things differently? What if we placed editors at the core of the human effort of meaning-making. The first draft is just an attempt at capturing what floats around. Editing is where original thought emerges. If we were to use this model, then we could also think of AI as a mediumnic tool, at the service of the editor. A tool to capture an elusive ‘spirit of the times’, better than any first draft.   

5

Code serialises problems. It’s formal logic and clear communication. How surprising then that it’s not part of our English curriculum, as an extension of argument analysis. Coding as the art of unambiguous thought, expressed in unambiguous language.

On peace

1

On the painting, the Chinese emperor sits at the centre of the frame, calm and symmetrical. Behind, a dragon stretches in dynamic spiral, mouth and claws open, manifesting chaos.

2

Certain diseases spread with just one point of exposure. Most require multiple factors. The same applies to knowledge, and behaviour. The rule of thumb is that people attend an event if they’ve heard about it three times, and one of their friends is going. There is no simple causation. You need A + B + C for something to manifest.

3

You know the drill. Three types of networks. Beware central points of failure. Hail distributed resilience. Now quick, let’s embrace blockchain, open source, holocracy, or whatever latches onto the model.

This is probably the most widely shared image in ‘talks that make you feel smart’, since the rise of the Internet. Why should I abstain? Here’s my quick take on it. I see it as a way of understanding various forms of power, as exerted in a state, or in organisations. 

To the left, executive power. The capacity to get things done. When the crisis strikes, one person makes decisions, the rest obey. Flows of information gather on the one point. There’s one head of state. All group members recognise this one person as a shared figure of authority. All monitor their words and behaviour for guidance.

At the centre, judiciary power. Local conflicts and arbitration sorted through local courts and judges. But one central point monitors each of those for alignment. And if a matter cannot be solved locally, parties might see the Supreme Court, Top Judge, or whatever central entity keeps the system coordinated.  

To the right, legislative power. Each representative a separate node, forming a mesh. Parties and cliques make local clusters, as do regional affiliations, gender, religion, or all sorts of other bases for factional aggregation. Some nodes are more connected than others. But things remain fluid. Norms and information circulate peer to peer.

This model offers a different take on good old separation of power. Namely, that it’s not so much about having separate institutions for different functions. Rather, it’s choosing to structure a group through distinct overlapping networks of relationships.

4

Each of us holds multiple identities. Male. Female. Non-binary. French. Global. Australian. Suburban. Father. Grand-mother. Christian. Muslim. Atheist. Left-handed. Socialist. Conservative. Retired. Entrepreneur. Bike-rider. Car owner. Vegan. Fighter. Soprano. Bass. Cat person. Strong person. Gentle person. Dog person.

Each item in the list – and the list has no end – marks a different peer group. The difficulty lies in managing overlaps. How can I be part of the Melbourne community – with its extensive suburbs and cars – and a committed bike-rider? How can I be Christian and Gay? How can I be male and gentle?

Sometimes, we simplify. Melbourne is a green, progressive city. Car-owners don’t belong. Melbourne is an industrious, entrepreneurial city. Socialists don’t belong. Melbourne is a free-spirited city. Dog owners don’t belong. We cast a bridge here, we dig a moat there, and  before we know it, we’re up in arms to defend our precious sense of belonging.

War cements overlaps. Peace has tender boundaries.

5

Many westerners fear China. What would prevent their Supreme Leader from wreaking havoc around the world. There’s no rule of law. No separation of power.

I was talking with my friend Patrick, who coaches executives in Japan. Consulting companies headquartered in the US like to barge into the country to deploy their models, fire people and put process in place. Then they leave, and things collapse. The people were the glue.

Separation of power is a guardrail against excess. If a psychopath comes to rule, they’ll be kept in check. Add a layer of market ideology – greed is good, and people should do whatever they want if they can afford it – and you’ve created a situation where, indeed, we need a solid system to guard against all sorts of deranged appetites. 

So, with that friend, we ventured the following thought. What if limiting the rule of law, reducing process, and consolidating powers, created the conditions for more virtuous leadership? What if it was another type of guardrail against excess, one that must rely on internalized limits, and creates ideal conditions to cultivate restraint and moderation?

6

Clusterings of true believers have disproportionate influence. If 3% of a population hold firm, norms can shift. Canetti calls them crowd crystals. Stable groups with strong internal connections, shaping the culture, beliefs and behaviours of a much larger population.   

Much has been written about weak ties, connectors, and the spread of information. Social transformation, however, needs the strong ties of a close-knit group. Sound waves amplified in its echo chamber.

7

The Polynesian world expands over the open sea. We can learn from ancient navigation techniques. Set the vision, meet the team, consider anchors, anticipate islands along the way, and look to the flying birds that indicate land nearby. This is the wayfinding model proposed by New Zealander Faumuina Felolini Maria Tafuna’I, to rethink innovation and development.

 Certainly, here is a wisdom tradition that we can learn from. It is, in fact, highly compatible with our Western world shaped by navigators, where future projects unfold on virgin islands beyond the ocean, waiting for humans to settle. This is a model for enlightened sea-steading, space colonisation – entrepreneurship even – predicated on there being more space, out there, unclaimed.

The model is useful, certainly, but incomplete without an Australian counterpart. One based in aboriginal wisdom, and continentality. One where slack lies not beyond the shores, but in the shifting patterns of a saturated world.

8

Multiculturalism embraces different communities sharing the same space. I wonder though, what would an intercultural society look like? What would it take to create a world where strong ties are not based on cultural similarity, shared origins, or mutual predictability, but open-ended delight in exploring subtle patterns of distinction and overlap.

9

The human brain differs from other species by the size of its frontal cortex. The key function of which is inhibition. 

Designing for love

1

I’m on top of Bellevue Hill, in Sydney. I’m looking for the perfect spot to sit and watch the harbour. There’s a young woman nearby. She’s in a good spot. It looks like the best spot. I’m annoyed. I’ll have to wait for her to stand up and leave. So that I can take her seat.  

Melbourne has more distributed beauty. It’s a grid on a swamp, with wide avenues and a few creeks. Bridges are functional, theatres part of our urban fabric. Instead of exclusive vantage points, it’s full of hollow spaces, generously sized. In most places, just a few more people would make things even better. It is, in other words, a city designed for love. 

2

When the pandemic hit, AirBNB chose to let people go. ‘Fair enough’, you might say, financial constraints, etc. Yet they treated staff like family, using emotional bonding for productivity. People there lost more than a job.  

What is it like, when your ‘family’ treats you as expendable? I wonder if those laid-off staff saw The Killing of a Sacred Deer, and what kind of revenge they’re planning. 

3

In many languages, the mode of address depends on the relationship. In French, it’s the difference between polite and formal address, ‘tu’ or ‘vous’. Most languages have similar complexities. This feature has a radical implication. I’m not the same person in all contexts.

4

In our late capitalist world, companies and industry sectors have taken on the function of kin relationships, for members of the middle class at least. You’re a lawyer, an accountant, a teacher. This defines a set of expected behaviours, values, and relationships. It’s an identity.

5

Kierkegaard warns against the risk of living sub specie eternitatis:give in to the sirens of abstraction, and let existence pass by. I try to live in the first person. Which often leaves me confused. So many people refer to ‘the mainstream’, ‘general opinion’, or otherwise agreed rankings, with perfect assurance. I find it hard enough to know the shape of my own brain.

6

‘So, what do you do?’ I’ve always dreaded that question. I listen to people with complex ideas. I help them clarify their vision. I edit their texts. This is my craft and function. Expressing it is not that hard. But the system is diffuse. It’s a bunch of emerging projects. And that confuses people.

On the surface, the question is about craft or function. But often, it’s in fact about the surrounding system. Not what you do, but where you work. What collective is your primary place of professional belonging. What collective outcomes you support.   

For many people, there’s a simple overlap. My partner is head of English at Kilvington Grammar school. Function, location. Doctors, nurses, childcare workers, product designers, developers, project managers, hairdressers, lawyers, salespeople, and a whole lot of others are able to give similarly straightforward answers. They’ve got a recognizable function, within a recognizable collective – school, hospital, company, shop, or salon.

Not so for me. It’s often awkward, but it’s good for the brain too. For a while, I was coaching young business students. When they shared hesitation about their career direction – they all did – I would ask them an either/or question, variation of the following. ‘Would you rather work as accountant for a film production company, or in-house media for PWC?’ They studied business, and it was the first time anyone asked them the question. 

7

The good story matches plot with character. This is also the core of Ignatian spirituality. It’s virtue, leadership, ikigai. It’s all about telos. How will your existence manifest humanity?

For this, stories have the greatest importance. We learn from characters, never direct experience. Without the frameworks offered by stories, how could we discern any coherence in the shapeless chaos of ‘real life’?

All of us are immersed in storytelling, constantly. This is the fabric of our common morality. This is also where we can build character. By attentional effort, we choose a balance of stories, and through this, we shape the world we live in. Sometimes, we do this deliberately.

8

Are we, humans, like tigers, eagles, and killer whales, an apex predator ruling over our element? Or like chimpanzee, parrots and octopus, both predator and prey, capable yet vulnerable, somewhere in-between?