Corona thoughts: whose voices are being heard?

“In the digital era, whose voices are being heard?’ A few years ago, I posted a question on my Facebook wall, asking friends for advice on good historical writing about the Australian pre-federation period. One of the comments was from a cousin, who wrote – in French – ‘bon, tu arrêtes ton charabia, et tu parles français comme les gens civilisés’.

As a French migrant to Australia, the multilingual internet is a fact I remember every time I post on Twitter or Facebook. My friends and family do not speak English well. My Australian friends do not speak French.

It’s happened that I’ve read good articles in Le Monde or French blogs and wanted to share them, but they wouldn’t make sense to my Australia friends who do not speak French. And China – well, it’s a different beast yet. I have WeChat on my phone, and check Facebook on my computer. One device and platform per country. Sharing from one to the other is very unwieldy.

The internet offers a strange meeting of local and global. When Marco Polo Project was running its digital magazine, we had readers in over 1000 cities around the world. I have multiple blogs in multiple languages, and their audience is international. As Australia becomes increasingly multicultural and multilingual, how will we listen in to these non-English language conversations? How will we explore the new forms that evolve in certain countries?

Much of the internet is real time. A few years ago, I hosted a visitor to the Emerging Writers Festival. A literary reviewer from the UK, she had issues sleeping  in Australia – she felt obliged to take part in Twitter conversations, and listen in for urgent emails or calls for work on UK time. Others follow conversations in New York, 14 hours difference. Meanwhile, who knows what’s being discussed up north, in Japan, China, Korea, Indonesia.

In Covid-19 times, this becomes an issue. What do we know, us non-Chinese readers, about the Wuhan experience. And I’m not even talking of censorship, but direct testimonies of the people there, or medical reports, even research from China? What do we know of the deep conversations in Italy, Spain, South Korea, Japan? Only what correspondents will share, in English. How can we develop a deep, global sense of the present crisis, in a linguistically fragmented Internet?

There is no clear solution – and this piece isn’t offering one. Only that we probably need to reflect more on language, writing and ideas. Language is the medium of any writing – well, of any articulated thoughts – and if we do not go beyond English, we will remain unaware of our own enormous blindspots. In times like these, a terrible missed opportunity.

Writing as entrepreneurship

A first book has two potential sources: boldness or boredom.

From an economic perspective at least, writing is bold. It is about putting a lot of effort into a venture that is most likely to fail. Writing a book is risk taking, driven by a vision, in the hope of an uncertain, but disproportionate reward.

Writing, in short, is best compared with entrepreneurship (hence my irritation with ‘pay the writer’ discourses, which I believe used an incorrect category) .

An alternative, of course, if that people write because they have nothing better to do, the cost is low, and they might as well try. And maybe, that is also true for entrepreneurs.

Corona thoughts: Wasting time

One person I used to work with was often talking about how ‘some people are just wasting his time’ and you should ‘not waste people’s time’. On Grindr, ‘time-wasters’ are certainly not liked. Social media may be just ‘a waste of time’.

Well, now we’re spending a lot of time at home, and on social media. I’m retreating away from ‘productive work’ to thinking and writing. Are we all wasting our time?

I never understood that expression. If I try to follow the underlying logic, time is wasted when the outcome doesn’t match expectations. But then, isn’t the outcome of any social interaction, in part at least, that interaction itself? And if that is so, how can time ever be wasted? Maybe I simply don’t believe in the capitalist motto that time is money? Or maybe, there is presumption in the expression ‘wasting time’ – pride, in the mistaken belief that we know what our goals are and should be, and that we can therefore assess, in the moment, what was and wasn’t valuable.

To try and understand wasting time better, we could look for its opposite, ‘saving time’. Here again, I don’t understand. ‘Saving time’ is about finding techniques and processes that allow you to do the same task, to the same level of quality, in less time. Years ago, I used to tutor high school students. One of the mothers always asked me to do things ‘quickly’. I never quite believed it was possible. You might get an essay ready more quickly – in fact, there have been times when I half wrote that student’s essays. But some was lost in the process: including, how much did that student actually learn?

When I worked on developing educational models, my goal was never to ‘save people time’. What I did focus on, though, was how to try and make learning somewhat easier to access. Save, not time, but effort. And more open-ended: instead of saving time towards a pre-defined goal, increase the potential goals, or benefits, or the time spent learning. Because goals may change, particularly when one learns, and what seemed like wasted time then, may end up highly profitable . Happy times are a sure gain. And maybe, so is learning to deal with a measure of frustration.

Values cards project – sensuality

All through 2019, following on the reflections and practice I conducted in 2017-2018 on Christian, Confucian and Buddhist virtues, I had a regular (weekly-ish) Skype conversation with my friend and ‘virtue-buddy’ Patrick Laudon in Japan, to reflect on values. We did this simple thing: each time we spoke, we pulled a card out of a ‘values card’ pack, and had an improvised conversation to try and figure what we thought of that value. I took some notes during those conversation, and am now sharing a reviewed version, which I present in dialogue form. Those are neither a full transcript nor a perfect representation of our conversation – even less should they be understood as showing distinct positions in a debate. They’re no more than loose fragments of a conversation saved from oblivion.

A: Let’s start with this. What about, sensuality is about increasing you own sense of calm. ‘The best way to resist a temptation is yield to it’, right? So, when you satisfy your desire, you’re more calm. Temptation is gone. Sensuality, then, is about increasing your capacity to satisfy you own desire. That’s something I actually came to when I reflected on temperance: that paradoxically, if we became more able to gain pleasure, we would crave fewer things. And so, sensuality may be the cornerstone of temperance.

B: Ah, to me, it has more to do with physical distance, and physical contact, how close you are, or you’re willing to be. And this varies person to person.

A: Well, there is something about reciprocity. I like to think of sex as a massage. It’s pleasant, let’s have more of it. But then also, it’s not that meaningful. It’s somehow – interchangeable

B: I like this. But then, is a massage with a masseur sensual or not, and why?

A: OK, the way I like to think of it is this. Sport increases our capacity to act, build up muscles and project ourselves outwards. That’s one of the things we do with our bodies: it’s the shell, and the muscles to punch. But the body’s also a receptive tool, a sensory medium. And there are other practices – Qi gong, mindfulness, I guess that’s what tantra does as well – that are about increasing our capacity to perceive. Sharpen the senses so we understand the world more accurately. And so, sensuality then is about prudence and strategy.

And then, there’s an interesting paradox. Because in a way, if you train yourself to resist pain, it’s probably a good thing right, but then you probably reduce your capacity to feel pleasure as well. And what that means is, to reach the same level of excitement, you need greater stimulus. While sensuality is all about increasing the capacity to feel, so you can get excited faster, and be satisfied faster. And so, what I’m saying is, if the body gets trained too much, that is, if you’re just building the muscles as a shell, then you might be less receptive to pain. That’s what those gym people are about – but then, what about your capacity for pleasure. Pleasure becomes a form of guilt, or weakness, or it’s connected with excess. The simple satisfaction of the senses, that kind of animal well-being, it becomes limited.

B: So what you’re saying is, the more you go to the gym, the less satisfied you are, the more you consume, the more you serve the capitalist machine. I like that. There’s this seires I like. It’s called Bref, and it shows how the Paris metro attacks the five sense. If you’re going to take the metro in Tokyo, you have to block your senses, or it’s unbearable. In an inhuman place, you have to put the reception of the external world on off mode to preserve yourself. And so interestingly, orgies in the metro are super typical of Japanese porn. Fucking in the metro or at the back of the bus, it’s a kind of standard fantasy.

I’ve always found that a bit weird because – here’s a thing – when you do a mindfulness exercise with black chocolate, the quality increases when you try to feel all the flavours. But I tried that with a Mars Bar, and it’s really gross. Industrial chocolate bars only work if you put your sense on off mode, or lose attention.

A: Ha, so here’s a thing that would be fun – run a mindfulness workshop in McDonald’s – mindfully munching through your big mac, feeling the sweetness of the sauce, the crunch of the lettuce, the smell of the meat, savour all the flavours, and feel how shitty the thing is. That’s how we might get rid of it!


Corona thoughts – aerosols

Every Wednesday, for the past three years, I’ve been running Chinese-English translation events. Yesterday’s text was about face masks, speculating why westerners don’t wear them. This word popped up in a sentence, ‘气溶胶’ – translating as ‘aerosol’.

Earlier that day, I had come across a picture showing a primary school in Taiwan. Kids isolated at their desk, with yellow plastic around their desk. Each in their own little bubble of air.

Late in the evening, on my final corona-Facebook check, I came across this in a friend’s post: “NEVER shake used or unused clothing, sheets or cloth. While it is glued to a porous surface, it is very inert and disintegrates only between 3 hours (fabric and porous), 4 hours (copper, because it is naturally antiseptic; and wood, because it removes all the moisture and does not let it peel off and disintegrates). ), 24 hours (cardboard), 42 hours (metal) and 72 hours (plastic). But if you shake it or use a feather duster, the virus molecules float in the air for up to 3 hours, and can lodge in your nose.”

It was a bit of a joke, in high school, to feel grossed out that we breathe the same air. That it goes in my lungs, then out, then into yours – whether I consent or not. With Covid-19, this came home. I noticed myself, the rare times I’ve been out this week, dodging people. As I replay those encounters in my head now, I imagine each of those passers by leaving a trail of aerosol, and how I stepped right into it. I imagine the mist of viral dust floating through the streets, like bushfire smoke, like John Carpenter’s Fog.

Corona thoughts: obsessive cleanliness

I never understood obsessive cleanliness, but always knew that it’s a thing. When I was growing up, I had two cousins who were ‘maniaque’, as the French used to say: “you could eat on the floor in their place.” The rest of us mocked them, slightly – and I never quite understood them. Why spend so much time on something so pointless.

Covid-19 taught me something in that regard. I have read descriptions of the virus surviving on surfaces for hours, entire days even. And noticed myself, going out of my apartment, relating to the built environment differently. I touched a doorknob, pressed on the elevator button. There might be germs, and they might kill me. I even bought an antiviral aerosol, and found myself spraying doorknobs, table surfaces and phone screen. Was this the way my cousins had related to their homes the whole time?

I wonder, then, how Covid-19 will impact our desire to control, and our capacity to let go. For isn’t obsessive cleanliness a desire to control: through bleach and mop, make the surrounding world an extension of the self, by destroying any trace of ‘pollution’.  The virus is an alien presence, threatening our sense of continuity with the world. Will we let it take over surfaces, textiles, and doorknobs, and accept its destructive potential – or will we not give up on controlling it, and bleach it out of our self-isolated existences?

Values cards project – consistency

All through 2019, following on the reflections and practice I conducted in 2017-2018 on Christian, Confucian and Buddhist virtues, I had a regular (weekly-ish) Skype conversation with my friend and ‘virtue-buddy’ Patrick Laudon in Japan, to reflect on values. We did this simple thing: each time we spoke, we pulled a card out of a ‘values card’ pack, and had an improvised conversation to try and figure what we thought of that value. I took some notes during those conversation, and am now sharing a reviewed version, which I present in dialogue form. Those are neither a full transcript nor a perfect representation of our conversation – even less should they be understood as showing distinct positions in a debate. They’re no more than loose fragments of a conversation saved from oblivion.

A: I wonder, how does the word ‘consistency’ translate into French? Is it ‘constance’ – the stability of a person over time – or ‘fiabilité’ – the fact a person can be trusted to do what they say they will do – or ‘coherence’ – an internal logic between actions and discourses?

B: Here’s how I would approach it. If we adopt a constructionist perspective, we’ll say that conversations create a new reality. But this can only happen if people believe that what is said in the conversation is true. Consistency, then, is about creating an impression of truth. If people believe that the conversations are lies, they develop alternative strategies.

All we do in business is based on a future that does not exist. Consistency creates confidence. It gives value to those conversations that shape a shared reality. If you don’t believe that what the person says will happen will, indeed, happen – then it’s hard to have an impact on the future.

So, consistency is about avoiding a mad organization, one where the different departments do not align.

A: Or is it about reducing the gap between promise and reality? Consistency increases our capacity to predict the future – which is a fundamental human need.

B: Well, psychometric assessments are about consistency: they predict how people will react. And here’s the thing. We like predictability for others, but we don’t like it for ourselves. That’s why there’s a mistrust towards psychometrics. It’s about the illusion of freedom. If we can predict things based on genes, then we might have a position in society that is based on our genome. And then what happens when a part of the population is considered good for nothing?

A: So is it that with consistency, racism is the most fundamental problem? Here’s a thing I’ve been saying for a while: that when dealing with China, or people from other parts of Asia, we – that’s, we westerners – just can’t imagine that they have the same level of complex subjectivity. So we go to cross-cultural trainings, and we learn about cultural traits and strategies, and that helps. To some extent. We can anticipate a few things.

But here’s the crux. One of the premises of cross-cultural understanding is still that everyone is fundamentally different. It’s impossible to reach predictability on the individual level. So we need shortcuts, like evaluation grids or other thing like that, artificially created. They give us an illusion that we’re getting closer to the individual – because we know that they come from a collective culture, and so they will be doing x, y, z. But in fact, this might just cement our prejudice.

B: OK, here’s another angle. At any moment, any situation can evolve in an infinite number of ways. We face an infinite number of possibilties. And so, consistency might be about reducing the risk that we’ll be overwhelmed by the burden of choice. So, consistency reduces freedom in a way – because it’s about letting the past shape the present – but it also reduces cognitive load, and that’s a form of freedom.

A: So what you’re saying is, consistency can fall on the side of prudence, or the side of sloth?

B: Yep. And that would mean consistency is morally neutral. it is not in itself a virtue, or a value.

A: OK, so then, consistency – is it a form of mediocrity, dumbness? Should we say that it obliterates our capacity to understand the world in its complexity, and have us behave the same in all situations, rather than adapt. That if we’re consistent, we lack the capacity to understand the unique originality of any situation? Or the willingness to do that? Then it would mean that our life is just the performance of a stereotype. And at worst, consistency is just the pure banality of evil?

B: I think it depends. In a leadership situation, what if a person makes different decisions but has consistency in their principles, a line, or a direction that they follow consistently? This creates predictability, not in the manner that the person adapts, but how the person adapts, but what remains important. And this can create trust. So here, consistency is capacity for a person to act with just one voice, in all different situations, rather than changing all the time. It’s the opposite of schizophrenia, or hypocrisy.

A: So then, if we were to push for greater consistency between the personal and the professional, that could lead to higher virtue – and a stop to the practice of acting as a sociopath in business, and a good citizen privately.