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.’
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.
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.
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.’
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.
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.’
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.’
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’.
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’.
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.
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.
‘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.
World peace depends on diplomacy, which is intelligent ritual. It’s Princess Grace, seducing De Gaulle in defence of Monaco, with elegant frivolity.
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?
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!
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’.
Painkillers only treat symptoms, that’s correct. But then, inflammation feeds on itself. Vain pursuits can distract us from worthy goals. So can pain.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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 wayfindingmodel 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.
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.
The human brain differs from other species by the size of its frontal cortex. The key function of which is inhibition.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
‘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.
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.
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?
‘Women have always been healers’. This is how Barbara Ehrenreich opens her pamphlet Witches, Midwives and Nurses. In the Middle Ages, wise women served as health practitioners, among the peasants and the poor. They alleviated suffering and saved lives. To do this, they relied on empirical experience, transmitted from others, or derived from observation and intuition, through trial and error.
At the beginning of the modern period – with the rise of capitalism – those women were banned from medicine. Church and State leagued against the ‘witches’, systematically tracking, persecuting, and executing them. Their crime – often – was curing people without the right to do so. This was a dangerous form of concurrence for the new figure of the male doctor, upper class, university trained and properly licensed. It was all the more dangerous as doctors’ training relied on ancient canons and dogma, rather than empirical experience. For centuries, their capacity to cure and care was therefore doubtful. Hence the witch hunts, so that the rich would bleed, while the poor were deprived of the more available and affordable care offered by wise women.
Women came back on the healthcare scene, though, as the figure of the nurse emerged. Except she – for in her initial guise, she was very much gendered – was not a wise healer, with deep empirical knowledge of plants and practices to cure ailments. Rather, she was modelled on the society lady, offering gentle and docile support to the trained (male) doctor. From expert healers, women had been recast in the default role of professional assistants. And what if people suffered, or couldn’t afford care – as long as class and gender norms were kept in place.
When I was a child, my mother ran a one-person graphic design agency. Her logo was a witch on a broom. My cousin is a speech therapist with unconventional methods – cats, dogs, donkeys – and stunning results. She has a witch hanging from the ceiling in her practice. On the other side of my family, one of my aunts used to gather herbs and keep goats as pets. Another would cure sunburns by imposition of the hands, a gift passed on by an old wise woman. I even heard that my grand-father was from a family of village healers. Witchcraft, in short, is not a thing of the distant past for me, but part of my heritage.
It was also part of popular culture, from when I was a kid. I remember Elizabeth Montgomery twitching her nose on Bewitched, I remember shows about mysteries on TVs, and book series on paranormal experiences om the bookshelves at home. I remember reading La sorciere de la rue Mouffetard in primary school, and becoming a healer or a magician myself every lunchbreak during a role playing game stint in Middle School. Later on, it was Harry Potter, X-men, and vampires. More recently, it’s been Astro-memes, and the fascinating Weird Studies podcast – introduced by my co-author Corin Ism – reflections on art and philosophy ‘at the limit of the thinkable’. So, yes, for me, magic has always been part of the fabric of life.
Back in high school, I was often praised for my ‘synthetic spirit’ – esprit de synthèse. I ended up inquiring from a teacher what they meant by it. It’s your capacity, they said, to make sense of things, and express that meaning clearly. Find relevant patterns, and summarise them in a way that others understand. Like a good reduction – this is how I think of it now – it’s about caramelising knowledge.
‘Synthetic spirit’ is not an expression I’ve heard much in English. When I typed ‘esprit de synthèse’ in Google Translate, the machine proposed ‘analytical mind’. I can see the overlap. My friend Ashish is an analytics lead in a tech start-up. He describes his role as solving puzzles, finding answers to questions from heaps of data. Sorting through the mess takes time, but the result comes in a sudden flash, like magic.
I can see the overlap, and yet the words carry distinct overtones. Analysis implies a process of division – breaking things down into their parts. It has a surgical cleanliness to it. It also sounds like it can be professionally taught and assessed. Synthesis, by contrast, is intrinsically murky. It’s odd bits put together, in context, guided by intuition and experience. The proof is in the pudding – and like any great pudding, the recipe won’t capture the secret: it’s all in the sleight of hand.
As we outsource our memory to the Internet, one of the risks is that we lose our capacity for synthesis. I recently stumbled upon a dialogue with the editors of a new book, ‘A global history of the 20th century’. The authors – both history professors – describe a common shortcoming among their students. They’re able make sense of a specific historical event (say, May 68 in France), but they struggle to place an event in its broader context. They can’t articulate its relevance, or follow the various chains of rippling causality connecting it with everything else that happened in the world.
Things always make sense in relation to each other. Without enough background knowledge in our heads, we become unable to make meaning, no matter how much is accessible online.
Writing a global history of the 20th century is about providing such background knowledge: a shared foundation for historical sense-making. That work is relevant because, as time passes, matters of concern shift. They certainly did since the 19th century, and the German Idealist vision of a ‘universal history’ centred on the rise of Europe and human progress. Unless we consider the 20th century through lenses relevant today – demographic explosion, questions, political violence, or the Anthropocene – we will have nothing but a set of disconnected facts.
Good synthetic work, like good comedy, can do wonders for its time. Then it fades. Like old jokes, insights from that sense-making work either enter common consciousness as commonplace knowledge – or they become antiquated oddbits.
I remember this conversation with a lover once, who identified as a wizard. We were speaking of the Radical Faeries, and the long tradition of queer resistance. ‘They used to call them witches,’ he said, ‘they were men and the women who chose an alternative life, and lived in the woods. They would make soup, using whatever was nutritious – forest animals, leaves, insects. That was a free life – it was in touch with the environment too – but it was threatening to the mainstream. So to discourage people from leaving the village, they focused on the witches’ brews, and used disgust. Imagine eating toads!’ Then he laughed – ‘They did the same for us. Imagine anal sex!’
Capitalism sets a clear distinction between the place of work and the place of care. There is a private space for social reproduction – where women exert invisible labour – and a space of economic production, dominated by men. Witches blur the categories, and therefore threaten capitalist constructions. Imagine, healing methods that cannot be reproduced at scale, and monetised! What a scandal! Besides, we should get rid of those forests and commons, with their messy governance and proliferating wildlife. Better enclose the fields, and breed sheep.
Magicians rely on external forces to transform the world. The gift should be shared freely. This is the wisdom behind Peter and Simon the magician. Professionals have no such qualms. They learn formal skills in learning institutions – at a measurable cost – take long apprenticeships, and charge accordingly. For healers and other intuitive practitioners – facilitators, coaches, change experts – the relationship is not so straightforward. We learn on the job, from others, or in a sudden twist of genius. How much, then, should we charge?
I have learned not to compromise on sharing the gift for free, by-passing all advice to the contrary. But what I am comfortable charging for is constraints on my own timetable. The gift should be shared freely, true, but if you want it next Thursday from 8 to 11, there’s a cost for that. Or if you have any further request – format, direction, delivery mode – then again, here’s a cost.
My mother taught me to think by myself: ‘Others are doing it’ was never a valid excuse, but a source for deep mockery. My step-mother had a more professional outlook. Her default frame of mind was ‘What’s everyone else doing?’
Good design requires a balance between introspective judgement and social exploration. But each of us has a preference, a default direction. This is a defining trait of character, and when left unspoken, a major cause of disagreement.
In Christianity, nothing is forbidden. This is the crucial break. There is no sinful act in itself. Sin only lies in the relationship we have with our own actions. This is radical freedom.
There’s a story by Dino Buzzatti that moved me deeply as a teenager. It’s called Humility. It’s about a man who goes to confession in a little parish church. The priest hears him out. That man has only the most minor sins on his mind.
Over the years, the man returns to the priest. Once he says ‘when people call me father, I feel a slight sense of pride’. The priest smiles and gives him absolution. Then the man comes again, a few years later ‘when they call me your eminence, I feel a slight sense a pride,’ and again a few years later ‘when they call me your holiness, I feel a slight sense of pride.’ The priest wonders, why would people poke fun at this simple soul?
Finally, towards the end of his life, the parish priest goes on a visit to the Vatican. There he waits in line to receive a blessing from the pope. When his turn comes, he kneels, and hears a familiar voice tell him: ‘I’ve been coming to you for years. I’m glad you finally came to me.’
At my nearby salon, an old man is chatting with the hairdresser. He’s praising ‘Asians’: ‘You’re hardworking, and you never cause a fuss. I’m like that too.’ The hairdresser nods. ‘My sister and I, we started working in high school, and we just didn’t stop. I think it’s just this ethics from Dad.’ The hairdresser nods. ‘Dad was the man of the family from the age of seven. He had to work hard. He taught us work ethics. You can’t be lazy in this world.’
I wonder meanwhile. Is it wise to take your seven-year-old father as a role model? If you work non-stop, from early years, when do you get time to pause and reflect? And if you don’t, how do you know the work you’re doing is right, useful, or healthy? Do this by necessity, yes – but by choice, and proudly?
My step-mother used to resent me for whatever support I received from my dad. ‘He works so hard to give you a good life’. Other times, she would turn on him. ‘You’re married to your job, it’s the only thing that matters.’ I didn’t fail to note the contradiction: was it all for me, or for the sake of the job itself?
Here’s a paradox I’ve been pondering for a while. Since our systems are broken – I’m talking about our seeming incapacity to prevent general collapse – we cannot trust anyone who is or has been in a position of power. Clearly, they were not able or willing to shift the system enough. Neither can we trust anyone who is not and has never been in power. They were not able, or willing, to reach a position where they could influence the course of things. So, no one is left for us to take as a model or just admire.
A good ancestor no longer needs to be alive. We worship them precisely because they’re willing to disappear. Zombies and vampires, by contrast, make for terrible ancestors. They feed on the living to preserve a semblance of life.
Towards the end of The Dawn of Everything, Graeber and Wengrow offer a new take on the long story of human innovation. It’s not about the lone hunter making a better spear to help on the mammoth trail. Their praise goes to groups of anonymous women from the Neolithic, who painstakingly selected the best herbs, fruits and potatoes to make the best soup.
When he decided to write a musical piece about Moses, Arnold Schonberg faced an artistic conundrum. How to depict the voice of God talking from the burning bush? He didn’t use a deep bass, but a choir of women.