Reflecting on my practice – to catch the bug, learn from the spider

Over the past year and a half, I took a series of notes on my practice. I gathered those in various documents, shuffled them around, and merged in older thoughts and reflections. Lockdown #6 was an opportunity to bring all this to shape. I am now sharing those thoughts as a series, forming a sort of mosaic on my work, and what has been driving it.

Software is a precarious, multi-layered bricolage, always evolving. If something in the new code conflicts with the old, the system crashes. We call this a bug.

The metaphor applies to all human systems. To solve a new problem or satisfy a new demand, we build new technology, we propose new norms, we create new narratives. Those come in conflict with existing ones, and the system stalls.

What’s hard is not fixing it. It’s finding where the problem is.

Jordan Peterson, in his ‘9th rule for life’, writes that women are often frustrated by men in conversations. Men want to fix the problem, efficiently and quickly. ‘It might be easier for my male readers to understand why this does not work, however,’ adds Peterson, ’if they could realize and then remember that before a problem can be solved, it must be formulated precisely. Women are often intent on formulating the problem when they are discussing something, and they need to be listened to – even questioned – to help ensure clarity in the formulation. Then, whatever problem is left, if any, can be helpfully solved.’

Climate change’ is not a clearly formulated problem. We have a carbon emission governance problem. We have an energy grid stability problem. We have a material greed problem. We have a free-rider problem. Only, by formulating each of those problems, and their interaction, can we start solving them.

To catch our bugs, let’s learn from the spider. Patiently lay traps, follow the process, then sit still, like a hunter waiting. And maybe we can save our society from collapse.

Reflecting on my practice – finding the right frame

Over the past year and a half, I took a series of notes on my practice. I gathered those in various documents, shuffled them around, and merged in older thoughts and reflections. Lockdown #6 was an opportunity to bring all this to shape. I am now sharing those thoughts as a series, forming a sort of mosaic on my work, and what has been driving it.

Entrepreneurial programs and other incubators encourage a narrow version of success. Focus on one problem, give it one solution. There is pragmatic wisdom to this approach, but is it enough to solve wicked problems? And if it isn’t, then what is the point?

I’ve always worked across multiple projects. For the longest time, I was embarrassed that I could not identify one industry, or name one role description. Yet wherever I found myself, it always felt like problems were not understood fully, and solutions therefore partial.

A friend was joking on his Facebook page: ‘We speak a lot about the progress of Artificial intelligence. What I’m observing is the growth of natural stupidity’. We have more and more data, for sure, but no more capacity to make sense of it.

In how to think, John Dewey describes two movements of the mind. ‘As analysis is emphasis, so synthesis is placing; the one causes the emphasised fact or property to stand out as significant; the other gives what is selected its context, or its connection with what is signified.’

We understand problems based on the frame we use. Finding the right frame is as important as finding the right definition within the frame. A signal is only significant within a system. And how are you gonna find the right frame, if you spend your life focusing on just one sector?

I always resisted the lure of the single project. Instead, I deliberately cultivate variety, in what I read, in what I hear, even in what I eat. So that I can be more able to detect weak signals in the noise, frame problems appropriately, and suggest original approaches to tackle them.

Reflecting on my practice – three pillars of editing

Over the past year and a half, I took a series of notes on my practice. I gathered those in various documents, shuffled them around, and merged in older thoughts and reflections. Lockdown #6 was an opportunity to bring all this to shape. I am now sharing those thoughts as a series, forming a sort of mosaic on my work, and what has been driving it.

I was chatting the other day with my friend Erin. ‘Editors are Gods’, she wrote, ‘I don’t know how someone could do it and not make mistakes. Like how do you learn how to do that?!’

As an editor, I felt surge of pride. I also took this opportunity to reflect on how I learned my skill. As I was drafting a reply, I came to realize it came from three main sources.

First, I trained in Greek philology. I spent large amounts of time, in a classroom and at my desk, reading passages from speeches, history, philosophy and literature, written in a language that is no longer in use. The goal was to train my brain in accessing the mental world of people who lived in a different context from mine, through the linguistic traces they left. It was also to make their meaning accessible to my contemporaries, through translation and commentary. More generally, the art of translation, which I practiced extensively through my studies, is probably the closest approximation to the art editing. You must understand the logic, meaning and style of an original, disentangle them from their linguistic form, then find the right equivalent in your language. Success is making your presence invisible: leave no scars after your intervention.

Second, I trained across a broad range of disciplines. When I prepared for Ecole Normale Superieure in Paris, beside Greek philology, I studied history, philosophy, literature, English, German, and some geography. Later, I complemented my training with neuroscience, anthropology, sociology – and a smattering of design, ecology, politics, computer science and business. A good editor must have an extensive culture, because they need sensitive antennae, to pick up whatever seems ‘not quite right’ in areas where they have no deep expertise. Whether laziness or hybris, I see many writers follow the poor example of journalists, politicians, and public intellectuals. They like to use blanket statements to make a point; except the statement is often unverified or untrue. Common culprits are sentences that begin ‘people have always’, ‘our ancestors’, or just ‘everyone. When this happens, the role of an editor is to play the risk management game with their authors. In comments, I often write things like ‘you’re making generalising statement x, y, z. I am quite ignorant of this domain, but I’d like to double check with you that all the sources confirm what you’re asserting without ambiguity, or whether there is some debate, and some sources could invalidate your claims. If the latter, I would suggest possibly rephrasing as x, y, z. Please, accept my apologies for my ignorance, and simply disregard if what I’m writing is confusing or naïve in any way.’ Generally, my comment is neither confusing nor naïve, and the author tones down their bold statement for something less brassy, but more accurate. 

Third, I learned the art of flattery during my short-lived experience as a film director. In 2010, I wrote, directed and coproduced one short-film. When I describe the experience, I like to say that it was a perfect dom fantasy. On set, I told people exactly what to do, and everyone obeyed. They were looking for someone to give them orders. Earlier, during rehearsals, I observed how actors craved attention. As long as I gave it to them – describing what I saw them try with care and precision – they would happily try whatever I suggested.  Editors need gentle firmness. Writing is very personal, egos easily wounded, and trust needed for suggestions to be taken on board. Like a good dom, the editor must have the pleasure of their partner in mind, and be thoroughly guided by benign intentions. In that, we differ most from the critic who points out flaws in an argument, or props up their own ego by stepping on someone else’s shoulders. There may be suffering involved, or effort, in perfecting a text, but It’s all about helping an idea find its ideal shape, and shine through. Editing, then, comes with a measure of eroticism. Like diplomacy, it is a subtle power game, where the goal is mutual victory, and the weapon language.

Reflecting on my practice – the art of editing

Over the past year and a half, I took a series of notes on my practice. I gathered those in various documents, shuffled them around, and merged in older thoughts and reflections. Lockdown #6 was an opportunity to bring all this to shape. I am now sharing those thoughts as a series, forming a sort of mosaic on my work, and what has been driving it.

The most preventable risk is the risk of misunderstanding. Yet as any teacher would know, getting a point across is difficult work. For we must build not on top of a student’s knowledge, but through their ignorance and prejudice. In the classroom – or in any one-on-one conversation – pointed questions and personal charisma compensate for hazy wording and brain fog. A text has to stand on its own, and withstand the winds of ignorance, with no live human crutch to prop it up.

Ensuring its robustness is the role of an editor.

For this, we use two complementary tools: the scissors and the glue. 

Coco Chanel is our patron saint when it comes to wielding scissors. Our end goal is invisibility, so that the curtains of language won’t obscure the light of intent, meaning and imagery, or drown an original voice under their heavy ruffle. So, before sending a text out the door, we like to take an extra thing off.

More complex is the art of mastering glue. For it requires two different sets of skills.

Editors must engineer the mechanics of a text. We closely follow the sequence of words, sentences, and paragraphs, to make sure that rhythms, emotions and ideas will achieve their intended effect on the reader. For this, we carefully track every cog in the machine, checking that it catches the right wheel, and that nothing comes to block their movement. If things don’t click properly, we must guide the author either to craft and place a new cog, or take apart the whole machinery, and re-assemble it on the basis of a different logic.

Editors also need to master linguistic chemistry, because our text will circulate out there in the world, and interact in the brains of its readers with all sorts of unexpected compounds. We must foresee where an argument might corrode when exposed to the air of media discourse, and place appropriate coating over its more fragile joints. We must anticipate where the cogs will catch and grip, and place just enough oil that the reader won’t get stuck, nor slip. We must expect all sorts of distractions to take eyes away from our text, and therefore lure attention with emotionally loaded scents and decoys. Most importantly, we must consider the natural decay of all things alive: if our aim is longevity, we must ensure that the core web is made of solid verbal material, genuine spider silk, not a flimsy suit of clichés. And finally, we must ensure that the various elements of this textual chemistry, once activated in the brains of readers, will not bring about a toxic shock by reacting with each other, or what was already there – or if there is a risk, ensure that it is taken consciously.

This is the work of an editor. Wow, that’s a lot!

Reflecting on my practice – innovation calls for gentleness

Over the past year and a half, I took a series of notes on my practice. I gathered those in various documents, shuffled them around, and merged in older thoughts and reflections. Lockdown #6 was an opportunity to bring all this to shape. I am now sharing those thoughts as a series, forming a sort of mosaic on my work, and what has been driving it.

The placenta is a unique adaptive organ among mammals. Its role is to keep peace between the mother’s immune system and the foetus by dampening the mother’s immune response.

This description of the placenta, which I read in David Quanmen’s The tangled tree, made me reflect on this aspect of innovation. That every new idea begins its life as non-self, in the mind of its originator, and in any circle where it spreads.

For innovation to take, therefore, you must reduce immune response from the ego. You must temper the knee-jerk reaction that says ‘this is not for me and I will get rid of it’. You must create conditions calm enough, peaceful enough, that an idea can enter and modify you. 

Innovation requires blurring the barriers of the self. With this comes a sense of vulnerability. Any threat of aggression, therefore, or whatever prompts a lifting of the shield, will reduce the likelihood of new ideas emerging.

As a facilitator, my primary goal is calm. I reduce energy, because innovation threatens the self, and therefore demands gentleness. The same applies to my editorial work. Soften the message, reduce the sense of threat, keep egos asleep.

Reflecting on my practice – Straight talking

Over the past year and a half, I took a series of notes on my practice. I gathered those in various documents, shuffled them around, and merged in older thoughts and reflections. Lockdown #6 was an opportunity to bring all this to shape. I am now sharing those thoughts as a series, forming a sort of mosaic on my work, and what has been driving it.

A New Yorker cartoon popped up in my Facebook feed the other day, and resonated with a situation I have often faced – particularly when working around (straight white male) entrepreneurs.

It’s a form of communication that I like to call ‘straight talking’. It struggles to listen, and likes to make a point. At its worst, it sees every conversation as an argument to win. At best, it subtly polarizes discourses. All this passed off as assertive honesty.

Straight talkers are arrogant. Dig a little, and you find the following reasoning. Their time is too valuable to think hard about their words – or even learn to do so. Yet their views deserve attention, right now, in their unfiltered state. ‘I’m being honest’ only means, I won’t carry the load of emotional labor.

I like to take more care in the way that I speak or write. What I am seeing, or thinking, may be wrong, partial, incorrect. In their raw form, my thoughts may be somewhat astringent. I need to mollify them before sharing. That other person’s mental balance may be more important than I realise. I shouldn’t disturb their focus and well-being with my unmediated stupidity.  

Yet there is a dark side to this level of care. Homophobia taught me diplomacy. In spite of whatever status or confidence I might have gained, I still brace for the risk of aggression. Unless it’s a major issue, push a little, and I let go. Many members of minority groups do the same – if a straight talker pushes, they receive silence and a nod. Confirming their illusion of self-importance.

Without mindful handling, idea meritocracies built on the best intentions degenerate into survival of the loudest. Good people leave, teams fall apart. Resisting demands calling it out, making explicit requests for silent members to intervene, and setting protocols assigning turns to each person in a group. In live and virtual settings. And all this takes effort.

Not to mention, there is a dangerous temptation for strong egos. Acting like a dick is a good way to find yourself the smartest person in the room. Anyone with half a brain is drifting off already, planning their next move.

So, if you’ve ever been the smartest person in the room – or slack thread – just wonder – could it be that you silenced everyone else, or chased them away?

Reflecting on my practice – what to ask a start-up founder

Over the past year and a half, I took a series of notes on my practice. I gathered those in various documents, shuffled them around, and merged in older thoughts and reflections. Lockdown #6 was an opportunity to bring all this to shape. I am now sharing those thoughts as a series, forming a sort of mosaic on my work, and what has been driving it.

Start-ups typically fail. That’s entrepreneurship 101. Yet founders are typically deluded about the chances of their start-up failing. Worse, success may well depend in part on their delusion, their capacity to convince others, and to keep going against the odds.

When a founder presents their project, particularly when they want something from you, they will probably tread a fine line between honesty, and distortion of reality. Never believe that ‘90% done’ means what it sounds like – it’s often a polite expression for ‘we’ve kind of spoken about it once’.

I’m trusting by nature, and by choice. Working around innovation circles, I often hung out with founders – and learned some wisdom through naivety. From first and second-hand experience, I identified four areas where early stage start-ups are likely to fail, and founders to present a distorted image. I’m sharing those few notes here, in hope that they will be useful for others intending to join an emerging project.

Funding. Building a new venture requires competent people devoting long periods of concentrated time to a project. Those people will probably want some income to pay their bills – not to mention, pay for co-working space, materials, or other business expenses. Start-ups are typically money-poor, yet founders usually confident that the money will come. So, make sure you check how dependent progress is on funding, how much is in the bank right now, and how advanced discussions are with potential backers.   

Technology. Founders often have a distorted relationship to time. Present and future are not clearly distinct. Ideas are presented as complete plans; blueprints as tested prototypes. This confidence extends beyond the realm of the venture. Experimental prototypes from other companies are often identified and presented as available technology. So, whenever someone tells you they’re building a complex AI system, or whatever new piece of hardware or software – check the details of where exactly they’re at, especially if you’re not a tech person. Is there a prototype? Has it been tested? In what setting exactly? And what are the results?

Team. Start-ups attract exceptional talent, high achievers and award winners. You see those names and titles on pitch decks and investment documents. If they believe in the project, then surely, so should I? Except those names on file are likely not full-time workers, or even working at all. ‘Advisory board member’ might mean ‘pops a message once every six months‘. And all credentials are, most likely, inflated – or at least presented from the best angle. So, use the same wisdom you would on a dating app. Are those people actually in? Do they have other commitments? How accurate are their profiles? 

Culture. Start-up life promises a certain form of freedom and excitement. There is often much talk about culture, working to your strengths, and supporting a great team to do their best. This, however, is likely to clash with the founders’ narcissism, quirks, or simple human limitations. So, check in very carefully before committing. How exactly will you be valued? Will you be listened to? Will your needs actually be met? Importantly – try raising the question of power. When push comes to shove, who makes final decisions, and if there is conflict, how will it be solved?

If the founder refuses to give you details on any of those matters – take it as a warning. Yet, remember – they’re more invested than you are, and their delusion is a condition of success, so don’t be too harsh. Risky as it may be – betting on founders may still be the best option we have. Hey – did I mention I’ve been a founder myself?

Reflecting on my practice – the limits of social enterprise

Over the past year and a half, I took a series of notes on my practice. I gathered those in various documents, shuffled them around, and merged in older thoughts and reflections. Lockdown #6 was an opportunity to bring all this to shape. I am now sharing those thoughts as a series, forming a sort of mosaic on my work, and what has been driving it.

One of the most important things I learned from my father is that our economic system does not reward work based on social utility.

I’ve been working around social innovation circles for about ten years now. Repeatedly, I have come across a fervent statement that people working on social good have an unhealthy relationship to money, that we must not demonise money, that we must reconcile profit and purpose.

That discourse has always irked me for its short-sightedness.

Even in a narrow for-profit framework, the question is not just how much return you get on your effort, but risk and time-horizon. When you focus on social good, impact is added to the list. And this is where things get confused.

In a Lunchclub conversation last year, I heard from an architect about the second and third order consequences of the Sydney Opera House. Its construction used a range of new technologies, that were trialled then, and gave birth to new industries. Once built, it served as an icon, prompting tourism, and a sense of civic pride. Such positive externalities are retrospectively visible, if not clearly measurable. They benefit the collective – but cannot be directly listed on the developer’s bottom line.

If impact is truly what matters, then economic returns are ill-suited to measure and guide it. And if impact is not what matters, then pretending is hypocrisy. 

Any discourse on balancing income and social good says: favour the venture that will yield a predictable income in the short-term, over the one that might result in large scale impact. It therefore creates a norm that discourages radical risk-taking intended to benefit the collective.

Not to mention, balancing profit and purpose creates a vested interest in the current paradigm. If you rush to monetise your social impact in the current economy, your long-term interests become tied to the present logic. Or as the Gospel says, where your treasure is, there also your heart is.

Is social enterprise, then, nothing but a desperate attempt at saving capitalism? And by promoting it, are we not distracting driven, ambitious, promising young people from more important work – tying them down to the present system, and preventing them from embracing a more radical approach – one that * could * prove much more impactful?

Reflecting on my practice – a difficult transition 

Over the past year and a half, I took a series of notes on my practice. I gathered those in various documents, shuffled them around, and merged in older thoughts and reflections. Lockdown #6 was an opportunity to bring all this to shape. I am now sharing those thoughts as a series, forming a sort of mosaic on my work, and what has been driving it.

Our modern society was born of energetic abundance. This is not something we can rely on long-term, not even to the end of our lives. On the one side is climate risk. On the other, even if the climate was stable, we are running out of fossil energy, with no clear prospect of replacing it all with renewables. Not to mention the exhaustion of other natural resources.

We will, at some stage, come to a new regime. We can continue on our course, wait for the crash and hope for the best. Or we can focus our efforts on smooth landing.

If we want to achieve the latter, time is of the essence. We need to work decisively and fast towards a new stable state that is less wasteful. The less fossil energy remains, the more carbon is in the air, the more the climate changes, the more people will suffer and die.  

Our challenge, then, is to negotiate a radical transition as safely as we can. In this, we face three major difficulties.

First, we need a new ‘we’ to take form. The change needed exceeds the mandate of any company, state, or even region of the world. It requires most of humanity – if not all of us – to coordinate our activities. As we come together, we will meet and we must confront the wounds of the past, of colonialism, war and ingrained inequalities, and overcome the mistrust and resentment that is their legacy. We can do so in conscious collaboration, in a constitutional act of global peace-making and reconciliation. Or we can do so by force and cunning, through mass surveillance, physical threat, mind-numbing and propaganda.

Second, technology will play a role in whatever new system we create, and in negotiating the transition. But that role is ambivalent. We can make more efficient machines, to capture energy from renewable sources, store it, and transform it to our benefit. We can use digital technology – Blockchain, Internet, Artificial Intelligence – to think, exchange and communicate more effectively, and to better coordinate our actions and those of our machines. Yet because technology can do so much, we are at risk of leaning on its promise, meanwhile neglecting the human software, and overshooting our window of opportunity. And, we’re at risk that a handful of people will control and optimise technology for their short-term gains, rather than creating a desirable new balance and negotiating the transition for an emerging global ‘we’. 

Third, and most worryingly: we don’t know who to trust. The task ahead has no precedent, and we face it because our elders have failed us. The people in power today, or in the recent past, have a proven track record of radical failure. They did not shift the course of society nearly fast enough or sharply enough. People who never held power have no proven track record of achieving anything. As we look around for prophets and leaders, or struggle to get things done without them, we are at serious risk of falling prey to madness – and give up on the task through sheer overwhelm. 

On polarisation

One on one confrontations have a certain appeal. It’s grand final day, and a 50/50 chance of either team winning. Who do you back? Us vs Them, and a sense of clarity.

We like to polarise – as does our media. Yet I tend to prefer triangles. They’re more stable, more fun, and allow for a bit of play.

Often, polarisation is a matter of framing. We choose to see the world as polarised, based on the categories we use. Recently, two maps I saw circulating on social media captured this very clearly.

The first was looking at the now-usual US vs China narrative, and how the latter is threatening to take over the world from the former. A scary shift from the blue world to the red world.

Yet a second one painted a different picture. I saw it on my friend Ray Taylor’s feed – Ray is and effective altruist, working with Allfed on global food solutions for catastrophic scenarios, and generally a good source of insights. So, the map he shared was this. (The source is unknown, but Google searches have yielded somewhat similar maps)

Here, the polarized world order is replaced with a three-kingdom narrative: US, China, EU. Fair, yet the result of a deliberate choice. The story now is very distinct. Not a global take-over in a game of economic go, but a shifting balance between three poles in a multilateral world order.

I like this map, because it reminds me of the role and values of Europe, as a beacon of global peace. In visual terms, it shows how the EU can serve as a global balance, and counter the war of superpowers – if we recognise its existence, as a coalition of states. The map tells a story of hope. It serves as a precious reminder that polarised situations are so because of the categories we use – hence, we may defuse them by inserting a third term.

Together, those two maps also serve as a reminder that images fascinate. There is a self-evidence to maps and graphs, pressing pause on critical thought. Yet just because a map or graph tells a compelling story, does not mean that story is true, or the only one. And because there is such strength to images, the best way to defuse them is make others. In other words – cultural work, artistic work, aesthetic work, is a critical part of peace making.