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.
In a stable and unified society, there is a shared sense of what constitutes the good life, and a person of good character.
The world is now in crisis, we all know that. Yet we often fail to discuss the consequences on our sense of self.
Faced with all sorts of systemic risks, far beyond our scope of action, we no longer know what the good life is, what’s ethical behaviour, or what a good person looks like. We’re therefore at risk of moral collapse.
Virtue ethics is based on a belief that, in order to live a good life, we must cultivate certain positive habits, or virtues. We must develop a readiness to do the right thing. We must also nurture the wisdom to discern what the right thing is. By doing this, we become a person of good character, who therefore acts ethically.
This ethical stance is generally contrasted with two other models. Deontology sees ethical action as respecting a set of firm rules that we should never break, no matter how painful or costly. Consequentialism – effective altruism its latest popular incarnation – sees an ethical life as one devoted to minimising harm and maximising pleasure, for the largest number, whichever way measured. Meanwhile, virtue ethics places emphasis on the agent. Ethical actions are what an ethical character would do, with tradition as a guide.
Each tradition has its own framework articulating key virtues: Buddhism, Confucianism, Catholicism, Islam, etc. Beside a large amount of overlap – gentleness, courage, benevolence – virtue-ethical traditions have three fundamental traits in common.
The first is a belief in human perfectibility: we can change our default settings through deliberate effort.
The second is a commitment to education: societies should put systems in place so that people do develop virtues.
The third is an aspiration to effortlessness: we should build virtuous habits, so that we will do the right thing without having to fight against ourselves.
I’m the child of a divorce. One of the hardest thing I had to do growing up was reconcile the worlds of two parents who drifted apart, and inhabited widely different ethical worlds, with no communication between them. Navigating intercultural virtue ethics was a matter of existential importance. At times, it placed me on the brink of madness – but it also built a muscle that has proven highly valuable.
Inspired by a childhood spent in the European capital, languages and cultures were my way forward. Through philology and hermeneutics, I trained to question the relationship between words on the one hand, and thought, behaviours or emotions on the other. Through language practice, reading and international friendships, I learned to stretch my own ethical sense of self.
Later in life, marriage with an Australian and migration to Melbourne put all this to the test, quite successfully. I delved deeper into my own Catholic tradition– including by pursuing Ignatian spiritual exercises – while exploring Confucianism, and Buddhism. I also started working on ‘change-the-world’ type projects – global governance, engagement with China, regenerative finance, etc – all of which needed a good stomach to resist ethical sea-sickness. Meanwhile, I continued reflecting on virtue, and sharing my reflections on this blog.
All virtue traditions involve a shared sense of ‘what humans are’ and ‘how the world works’. Without basic agreement on those points, how could you decide what positive habits we must nurture?
Today, with a world in deep crisis, we flounder.
Learning to perform better within existing systems and structures has become irrelevant. It’s unlikely that the world will be made better by me getting a job at Google. I should certainly not have a stake in maintaining existing structures of power in place. Yet alternative paths are unclear.
This blog is in part about exploring those paths. What can we and what should we do to shift the system? What virtuous habits should we nurture?
It is also – and mainly – proposing to do something more fundamental. That is, train a form of lucid detachment. Patriarchy, colonialism, neoliberalism, and a whole catalogue of obsolete mental models, hide behind self-evident truths. If we want a real chance to build something new, we need to defuse the cliches scattered across our shared mental landscape.
But even that is not enough. When we get rid of a cliche, nothing will immediately take its place. So we need to cultivate a form of intellectual calm, while we patiently wait for new connections to form, and new, better model to take shape. This virtuous habit we need, to stay calm in the face of mental chaos.
This is what I hope my blog can achieve, or at least go some way towards.
Last year, one of my friends turned anti-vaxxer. There was an aggressive Facebook comment, a confused exchange on Messenger, a meeting in person after lockdown, and a few back and forth emails. Then silence.
He was not a very close friend, but we’d known each other for a while, and supported each other on various projects. This lost relationship affected me. So, a few weeks ago, I got curious and cyber-stalked him.
His Twitter feed got me locked in fascinated horror. I had expected links and videos vindicating Ivermectin and the dangers of the vaccine. The rest was a surprise: memes mocking trans-rights or vegan food, articles framing climate change as a hoax, and a snippet from a One nation senator, captioned ‘absolute legend’.
I sensed a spiralling anger in myself, as I doom-scrolled through that feed. We used to build community together, joined efforts to make the world more hospitable. Now we were on opposite sides. I felt an urge to debate in my head, engage, change his mind.
I doubted it would achieve much. I let it cool down. Luckily, I had a martial arts class to go to. On the way back, anger washed off by sparring, I pondered. Apart from an occasional caption, nothing on that feed was my friend’s actual writing. It was all re-tweets and shares.
I started seeing the grotesque humour in the situation. Here he was, a proud advocate of independent thinking, serving as an echo chamber only. As if a grumpy conspiracy-bot had taken over his handle.
With this came greater empathy. Savvy communicators, no doubt, crafted the content he shared. They got inside his brain, and reproduced there. I thought of the zombies in Dawn of the dead, repeating the routines of their past lives, locked inside a shopping mall. Like them, my friend was stuck in a loop of self-reinforcing belief. His brain was mush, and he wanted mine.
‘He’s gone’, I thought, ‘let’s run.’ It was no longer about truth or justice. It was about staying alive, and safe. Certainly, any sense of blame had passed, and I was able to let go. I looked at his feed again, just now. I was amused, and a little bit sad. I think this is how mourning progresses.
The tragic character says ‘I would rather suffer and die than compromise my identity’. That’s Antigone, that’s Elektra, that’s Oedipus. By contrast, the comic character says: ‘I’ve got so many faces, I’m sure we can find an angle that will satisfy everyone.’
I see this approach as a celebration of human intelligence, in the service of peace. Things go wrong, the character shape-shifts, and projects an illusion to prevent catastrophe.
Contrast the romance of West Side Story with that in The Barber of Seville. The first unfolds like a doomsday machine, external forces pressing identities towards enormous pain, mutually assured destruction. In the latter, the lovers use tricks and costumes to bypass the desires of the old man who stands in their way. Desire trumps ego: they would much rather get what they want than remain who they are.
It’s my first time seeing Kabuki. I’m in Tokyo for just a few days. It seemed like a thing I should do. Plus, the friend hosting me suggested it. It felt rude to say no.
We’re sitting inside the dark theatre. I have no clear idea what’s happening. I know nothing about the art form. I notice, however, that once in a while, the actor takes a pose and freezes. The audience claps and shouts a name. Then the actor starts moving again.
Here’s what I noted then: it’s not a series of well-executed steps, not a melody, not a compelling monologue, that will yield admiration from the audience. It’s not movement, but stillness. And I thought, what if this was the result of a different stance towards the world? One where life is not perceived as a pile of rocks we must push up the slope until we die, but a constant whirlwind beyond our control – and noble effort is just about holding the flow for a moment. Then we detach, and let things return to their natural chaos.
The Catholic tradition presents a set of seven deadly sins, and seven virtues. Because the numbers match and I like symmetry, I’ve often reflected on the best way to match them.
For a long time, I used to think in terms of frontal opposites: deploy temperance as an austere shield against lust or gluttony, in a frontal battle for the soul. It didn’t work, and I would blame myself, or fall into moral despair.
More recently, I developed a different approach, where each sin is the perverted form of a virtue. Resistance, then, becomes a lateral strategy. It’s not temperance raised up to keep out desire from the body. Rather, it’s temperance as the deflector of sloth. It’s finding joy and meaning in simply being there, rather than frenetically running around in pursuit of desire.
The change maker paradigm sets young people, with a burning desire for justice, against the rigid structures of the world. It teaches rebellion as the art of pushing walls till they crumble. When I think about change, I prefer chemistry to mechanics. Bring the right molecules in contact, and let them react.
I was at an event a few days ago. There was chilled Pinot Grigio, wooden walls, and the sound of a vacuum cleaner in the background. It was a bunch of thought leader types looking for ways to build a hopeful community. Well, that was the brief. The main speaker repeatedly mentioned how that event was all about ‘people connecting’. Meanwhile, he used his mastery – and what a master he was – to hog attention and energy. But hey, who’s free from such contradictions?
About two thirds of the way through, another speaker – a finance consultant – said the following. That he worked with the people who did well, if not best, in the current system. And that as much as he could see, those people were mostly not happy. Then the conversation moved on, and the thought passed.
It stayed with me – and has been resonating since, as one of the saddest things I’ve heard. I wrote a short Linkedin post about it – which resonated with people. So here I am, expanding on those reflections.
Aristotle proposes that happiness – eudaimonia – is the purpose of the good life. It is also the sign of a life well lived. Happiness here is not simply the experience of pleasure. It is an emergent property, arising from satisfaction taken in the exercise of an activity. But not only that, it is also the result of long term accretion, as one goes through life, and develops friendships, knowledge and healthy habits. So never listen to the life advice of a grumpy old man. Their misery signals a life poorly lived.
Sure, happiness is partly dependent on luck, placing material goods and people of compatible temperament in our way – or simply giving us a favorable starting point. It is, in equal part at least, dependent on our choices, our commitment to cultivate the cardinal virtues of prudence, courage, justice and temperance or moderation. Happiness is thus something that we develop consistently, over time. Irrespective of where we start, we can become happier.
More, in the views of Aristotle and other proponents of virtue ethics, happiness is something we must cultivate. As a teenager, I became obsessed with Andre Gide. In his journal he writes: ‘It is a duty to make ourselves happy’. I have adopted that sentence as a motto, and an encouragement to cultivate virtue. Not that I have never fallen prey to depressive or anxious spells, but that – as a fundamental beacon for my own life, I should look at what would yield consistent, long-term happiness.
How did we come to build a system where the people who ‘succeed’ are not happy? I mean – I see the contradictions of our post-colonial, partiarchal, neoliberal capitalist societies – but how does the model perpetuate itself? Why are leaders, and other ‘successful people’, not putting a stop to it all, saying ‘this makes me miserable’? For those who were less privileged to start with – or failed to build the right habits – well, their lack of happiness would make sense. But surely, a good system is one where success comes with profound fulfilment.
My default first step towards the answer is not exactly joyful. One of my favourite pieces of political philosophy is a text by Montesquieu, from The Spirit of the Laws, where he describes the distinct passions that underly different political regimes. A true republic, says Montesquieu, relies on a collective desire for virtue. Aristocracy relies on honour. Tyranny rests on fear. Corollary, you know what regime a country lives under by observing what passion dominates among its people.
This doesn’t bode well for us. In spite of much hand-wringing about democracy (and its purported threat from China, Russia, Iran and other rogue states), the dominant passion I observe around me seems to be fear, much more than a passionate love of virtue. Whether it’s corporate types avoiding responsibility, or millennials retreating from the world to nurture their generalised anxiety. Workplaces at least – no matter how many Chief Happiness Officers they might appoint – do not seem to nurture the consistent practice of healthy habits (or virtue), leading their employees to experience deep lasting happiness. Gin cocktails and ping pong tables notwithstanding.
In late 2020, I joined hands with a peer – facilitator extraordinaire Helen Palmer – to organise a little digital experiment. We brought together a bunch of friends to design and test mourning rituals. The proposal was to experiment with DIY models to process the negative emotions accumulated through the pandemic. The hopes and aspirations that would not manifest, the futures desired and never come to life, the senses of self shattered under the pressure of forced isolation.
It’s been a long obsession of mine, that the present times call on us to process enormous amounts of grief. It’s not just COVID – it’s climate change, environmental collapse, the death of species, and the overall experience of living in the end times. As many other middle class Europeans, I grew up in a joyful utopia of globalised consumerism. It was the end of the Cold War, infinite growth, human progress, and diminished suffering. Many of my childhood dreams played out against the background of an expanding world. And though new dreams have come, new real possibilities of real happiness – many ghosts remain.
I don’t think it’s just me. I sense it around me. That collectively, we need to process the enormous grief of a society that hit its environmental limits. Grief not only for what has been properly lost – the Pyrenean Ibex, the Western Black Rhino, the Baiji, all gone the way of the Dodo – but also for lost futures, for the loss of imagined opportunities, predicated on infinite resources and energy. I have not been trained to deal with that much grief, nor has anyone I know. Nor do I see much effort to process this grief. In fact, much of the current blockages, resistance to climate action and system change, I ascribe to this emotional weakness. The people who did well in the current system – older upper and middle class white men, for most of them – are hardly capable of processing grief at all that I can see. The prospect of dealing with the loss of future worlds continuing their legacy far outstretches their capacity. So they remain firmly stuck in denial. And meanwhile the world collapses.
It was half a year ago, at an event run by Regen Melbourne, exploring a regenerative future for the city. The closing circle invited participants to reflect on their vision for the future of Melbourne. ‘I imagine a city full of glitter, and lots of sex,’ I said. It was an obvious provocation, but one anchored in the intuition that we cannot build a better world based on sad passions alone. I am a Catholic at heart, and experience it as an exuberant religion. The first miracle was turning water into wine – and good wine at that. We need a sense of abundant gratuitous joy, if we are to channel enough energy to go forward – and rebound after accepting the weight of grief. For this, we need to nurture our capacity to experience greater pleasure, with less material input. And this is also the cornerstone of moderation, basis of all virtues, and hence of happiness.
Moses Naim, in his book The End of Power, describes a contemporary phenomenon he calls ‘the Gulliver Effect’. In the contemporary landscape of power, a large number of small actors have the possibility to prevent all sorts of things from happening – but there is no actor powerful enough to take resolute action.
I’ve come to understand ‘cancel culture’ as one component of the Gulliver Effect. It may rightly be seen as the downtrodden rising up against oppression, using the tools at their disposal for justice, speaking truth to power. This may well offer a needed emotional outlet to some who deserve it, and rightly condemn abuses of power. Yet the effect is not generalized empowerment, or a greater capacity to coordinate change.
Anger is a consuming passion. Cancelling mobs have a fascinating power. All eyes are glued on social media. Making those channels prime real estate for advertisement. And so, with every cancel storm, shareholders cash in. Behind the shouts of popular anger, can you hear the background chuckle of Zuckerberg, pension funds managers and wealthy boomers.
It’s not just about money flows: it’s energy spent. It takes effort, and time, to organize a social movement, articulate an alternative worldview, or build a work of art. Anger will drain much of that energy. And then, to soothe the angst, we spend our cash on Uber Eats and Netflix subscriptions. Besides, polarised minds are ill-prepared for the creative efforts of inventing a new world. It’s too much complexity to hold. So, by leaning into the anger, we may well leave a wide empty playing field for large corporates. Once again, I can hear the chuckle of Sillicon Valley tycoons and wealthy boomers in the background.
So here is a proposal, to counter the Gulliver effect. What if we were to deliberately stop engaging in those anger games, engineered to the benefit of wealthy boomers and billionaires. What if we were to use that energy to create new worlds instead? Easier said than done – well, here is a possible first step. What if, instead of ‘cancel culture’, we were to build a ‘propel’ culture. What if we were to use our brains and hearts and bodies not to destroy what we hate and despise, but praise and uplift what we love and admire?
This is – in fact – what I propose to do over the coming months or so. Shift the tone to gratitude, identify people I admire, projects I find promising, books and ideas I find inspiring and admirable – and articulate what it is about them that I like. As an act of resistance against engineered malaise.
A few years ago, I worked with someone who was obsessed with Tim Ferris. American business podcasters are not on my list of people to follow – this was my introduction to them. I didn’t quite get the fascination, but I did find a few interesting things. Including, a set of standard interview questions that Tim Ferris uses with his guests. At the time, I tried answering them for myself as a sort of exercise in self-reflection. I enjoyed it – and would very much recommend it! Here is the set of questions and answers.
When you think of the word successful, who’s the first person who comes to mind and why?
For me, that’s Oedipus. He had it all, then it turns out he’d been sleeping with his mum the whole time, after killing his dad and taking his throne. He’s a reminder that there’s no way to tell failure from success, until you die. If I look again, I would bring up the people who left something behind, whose work continued after their death, through generations inspired by them, teachers, ancestors: those are the successful one. So, Confucius, Jesus, Mohammed, Aristotle, Ignatius – and my great-grand-parents.
What is something you believe that other people think is insane?
That no one is ever wrong. It’s just that you just haven’t figured out yet in what exact way they’re right. But if you try hard enough, you will see that their ‘wrong’ is just part of an iceberg: below the surface, there’s an entire worldview. Exploring that worldview, that’s how you grow. Unsurprisingly, I tend to get irritated by the whole debating paradigm. Trying to prove the other person wrong, throw counter arguments or worse, challenge opinions with facts. In my world, that’s a sign of little intelligence. So, this is my take on ‘there’s something to be learned from everyone’. Of course, it takes a lot of time and listening, but then again, isn’t listening more important than speaking. Many people must think that’s insane, judging by the way they hold themselves in conversations.
What is the book (or books) you’ve given most as a gift?
Crowds and Power, by Elias Canetti. I first got it as a gift, actually. I’ve read it maybe ten times now. I rank it as the richest, most intelligent book about the behaviour of human collectives. It’s based on extensive ethnographic readings, and is therefore remarkable by its concreteness. I became engrossed in it when I was doing research on collective nouns, and it’s inspired my work on community building. It’s also one of those interesting books, in terms of its reception: though Canetti did get a Nobel Prize, and it was hugely popular in Germany, it never really made it across the Atlantic.
What is your favorite documentary or movie?
Ce Jour La, a Swiss movie by Portuguese film-maker Raul Ruiz. It’s a sort of surreal tale: this young woman, funnily mad, is the heiress of a beef stock empire. She’s about to receive her inheritance, but the family want it for themselves – so they send a serial killer, evaded from the asylum, to kill her. Except, they develop this strange romance, and he ends up killing all the family members, as they check on progress. It’s darkly comic (I rarely laughed so much), set in Switzerland, and I have a fondness for the country. It’s the height of democracy, it’s wealthy, well-kept, beautiful – and quite unknown. If you want something more mainstream (i.e. American), that would be Full Metal Jacket, The Shining – and Legally Blonde.
What purchase of $100 or less has most positively impacted your life in the last 6 months?
I bought a book by Dan Brown on my Kindle. I love reading, but when the money goes low, I become hesitant. It causes me almost physical pain – a blockage. (I got a few others too – but Dan Brown was the liberating one – I tend to be really bad at relaxing, so, I pat myself on the back when I do it).
What are your morning rituals? What do the first 60 minutes of your day look like?
I’ve embraced my inner chaos. I sometimes wake up at 4am, sometimes at 10h30. I’ve tried to structure my life so that it’s possible, and it’s done me a lot of good. I’m perplexed when I see people praise episodic fasting and interval training, and all sorts of acknowledgements that we’re cyclical being, yet they’re got this firm discipline for sleep, or for the morning. Then, it’s coffee – black or with condensed milk. Not too much food, on the sweet side, but light – fruit, yoghurt, maybe some toasted pita bread with jam. I’m in a dance routine phase, might pass.
What obsessions do you explore on the evenings or weekends?
I read detective novels set in exotic locations. White-man-in-Asia types an embarrassing favorite.
What topic would you speak about if you were asked to give a TED talk on something outside of your main area of expertise?
‘You cannot uncook an egg, and other lifeskills I learned in the kitchen’. As a writer, as an intellectual, I don’t do much with my hands. Words you can edit as much as you want, leave them, return, reshape. But cooking not so much: there is a timing, a rhythm, and a linear irreversibility: once you’ve mixed a dough, try taking out the eggs or flour. It’s taught me a lot about the resistance of the real – and I find it exhilarating. So, I throw myself in cooking sprees, somewhat unprepared, a bit like improv’ theatre.
What is the best or most worthwhile investment you’ve made? Could be an investment of money, time, energy, or other resource? How did you decide to make the investment?
Learning Ancient Greek as a kid. I was obsessed by a cartoon called The Knights of the Zodiac (I think the proper English name is Prince Seiya), and from then, I developed an obsession Greek mythology. I guess it’s a gay thing too – the Greeks were acceptable homosexual role models against ambient homophobia. So, in year 8, when I had the chance to add an Ancient language to my course, I picked up Ancient Greek. That choice completely defined my intellectual fabric and later trajectory. For one, it made it simply possible for me to join Ecole Normale Superieure. It gave me a connection to the deep past. It taught me the art of philology – which is deep listening applied to text. Later, it allowed me to learn modern Greek and embrace my Mediterranean heritage. All and all – joining that Ancient Greek class may be the most defining choice I ever made.
Do you have a quote you live your life by, or think of often
Heraclitus, fragment 28. ‘If you don’t hope for the without-hope, you will never find it, since it is unfindable, and shapeless.’ I had a great moment when I encountered Taleb’s books. I also found that again in Kierkegaard. And Pascal’s wager. Acknowledge the limits of human reason, and the need to go ‘beyond’. I like to think about risk, but then hope and jump. It’s a celebration of imagination. And a retort to the nay-sayers and status quo warriors out there.
What is the worst advice you see or hear being dispensed in your world?
That you should find a way to monetise. Our entire paradigm is flawed. Focus on small-scale things. How is your business going to make money? What matters is your personal bottom line – partner, family, investment, wherever you get it from. What matters is your impact. Sustainability for non-profits, I think it’s criminal. Tying back to the previous question – it is a complete denial of hope.
‘You’re not original, you’re just ignorant.’ Having read a lot, and studied – I think a lot is already there if you read Aristotle carefully. That’s also why I dislike debating. You know, there’s a quote I often bring up, it’s by a Mexican writer called Sergio Pitol, who was also a diplomat, and he writes – talking about Americans – ‘In my culture, it is not respectable to be ignorant’. My anglo-friends twitch a little when I share that. My Chinese, Latin and Indian friends relate.
I wrote a PhD back in France. Three weeks before it was due, I was not allowed to defend. It ‘went beyond disciplinary boundaries’. This set me up to go out of academia.
I later realised I was short-circuiting systems by holding them to their own logic, and revealing their contradictions. Because I survived this big thing, I’ve learned to mistrust institutions, and trust in my own resilience.
What is something weird or unsettling that happens to you
I’ve got a very vivid imagination: I went through spiritual exercises, you focus – and I had those completely over the top visions, like I was on mushrooms or something.
I’m afraid of ghosts. I used to believe it was universal, but apparently it’s not. I will sometimes experience creepy presences. In my apartment, staircases often, empty streets. Like The Shining, it’s a blessing and a curse. I try to live with it.
What have you changed your mind about
I used to believe I wanted to be a ‘writer’, and I had this whole construct around it, publishers, recognition. Then, well – I had a coach who said ‘just write’, and I did that. I can do it whenever I want, and it might get picked up, or it might not. My new fantasy is that an AI might read my texts, so I put everything online. I don’t think it matters, because – I just don’t know, I have no control over it. Emily Dickinson became a sensation – others were forgotten. It’s entirely out of my control. Writing is one thing I control, so I do just that.
What do you believe is true, even though you can’t prove it.
You know what? The Gospel. Virgin birth, miracles, resurrection, the lot!