Corona thoughts – uncertainty

Last year, I joined some sort of day-long leadership retreat. First stop: the St Kilda botanical gardens. After an initial yoga session and nut-heavy breakfast, we formed a circle, and were invited to write about our ‘biggest fear for the future’. After four years working on global catastrophic risk, this is a question I had been reflecting on quite a bit. I realised then that I no longer feared the material collapse of civilisation itself, nor the deaths of billions, nor resource exhaustion. Writing about ecosystem collapse and asteroid impacts is a good vaccine against that. No, but my fear had gone deeper: what I was afraid of, was the moral and spiritual consequences of civilisation collapse.

The fear remains, amplifies even, as the pandemic sweeps across the planet. Oh, by global catastrophic risks standards, Covid-19 is a gentle caress – for it is highly unlikely that more than 2-3% of humanity will die, most likely far fewer people. That’s an order of magnitude smaller than the risks I have grown used to considering. But ethical and moral consequences – yes, I am concerned about.

For one, will we maintain a rational approach to solidarity, or fall for the national fallacy? A friend of mine was circulating a photograph of starving children on Facebook, a reminder that famine is a far greater killer than Covid-19 – but as older white people suffer far less from it, the media pays less attention. Will we, then, continue giving to charities assisting the poorest and most vulnerable on the planet? Will we direct our sanitary efforts where they might have the most impact, and save the most lives? Or as borders close, will we forget about the wider world, and let our concern extend no further than the limits of the state we live in?

Beyond this, I wonder – what do the current patterns of action and spending tell us about our priorities, and what will be the future consequences? Because we were able to – willing to – put the nation on hold to protect our health system and, with it, some of the weakest among us (disproportionately, that is the older part of the population), will we learn that we can demonstrate such solidarity, and will we rally with similar enthusiasm for the sake of the young and  generations yet to be born, ensuring we protect our environment and their future? Or is our current collective behaviour, rallying as one to primarily save the lives of the older among us – not a form of generous solidarity, but another, deeper manifestation of short-termism? For now, we simply do not know.

On pedestrian traffic

On my way to the train station, I bumped into someone. I was in the Collins 231 Arcade, heading out towards Collins Street past the Dymocks Bookstore pit. There were two women walking ahead, at a slow pace. I went for a left side overtake just as one of them also swerved to the left, and I crashed into her jutting handbag. Her arm rose up in reflex, look of shock, vague apology, then both of resumed our walk on misaligned rhtyhms.

I take the shortcut through Collins 231 every time I go to Flinders Street Station. The back streets and alleys, Howey Place, Manchester Lane, Degraves Street, are more pleasant than crowded Swanston Street. They’re also more narrow, and traffic is more susceptible to the speed of other pedestrians.

Sidewalks have ambiguous status. People walk along them, alone or in small groups, going somewhere or wandering, at very different speeds. The fast walker faces all sorts of obstacles on their way: trees, terraces, kiosks; queues, window-shoppers, buskers and their audience; two-way traffic with no rules of priority; groups of gaping tourists, or couples leisurely strolling abreast of each other, with half a person’s empty space between them.

I often overtake. When the crowd is too dense, I walk on the road. Walking unimpeded brings a fundamental feeling of freedom that I’m not ready to give up. Others may see freedom as the right to walk slowly, stand on the sidewalk, or carry their extensive personal space with them even in dense urban centres.

We could all have it our way if there was just a bit more space. In fact, to the eye, there is; but hey – this beautiful broad stretch of road in the middle of the street, it’s not ours to use. Cars need their space too, don’t they.

On pop music

Yesterday, when I got back home after a long walk through Fitzroy and Carlton, the crepe place outside my building was playing an 80s French song. I hummed along as I walked into the elevator: ‘Partenaire particulier recherche partenaire particulière’. I was home.

One of the surprising difficulties of migration is that people in the new place don’t share your mental music library. Bars and cafes never play the songs of your childhood. There is no retro dance night where you can belt out the words of a familiar 1984 hit.

I have a precise memory of intense cultural alienation. It is 6pm on a Friday, and I’m at Papa Goose bar on Flinders Lane with colleagues. I had been living in Australia for two years and a half, and was working for the government, in a strategy team. We’d just finished a big conference, and went out to celebrate.

These moments also serve team bonding. The conversation soon drifted to pop-rock favourites. Titles and band names flew around, creating a sense of joint belonging beyond hierarchical divisions. Except, none of the names rung any bell for me. Some of those might have played on French radio, but I could not identify them.

I felt isolated, a bit stupid, very self-conscious, and angry. Didn’t they realise that the conversation alienated me? Couldn’t they be polite enough to find a more consensual topic – or, failing that, turn the focus on reflecting about pop-rock trends in France and Australia?

It wouldn’t happen. Lots of superficial office banter only serves to reassert pre-existing social connection. For that, people are expected to share the same web of references, pop music, pop cultures, values, models on how the world works. Migrants must catch up, or shut up.

To their credit, it is difficult to conceive that somebody close to you never boogied to the sounds of a favourite songs. Surely, they must know. I can’t really believe my partner never danced to ‘Partenaire Particulier’.

On discharges

Elias Canetti’s Mass and Power may be the most insightful book ever written on collective dynamics. In the opening chapters, he describes how individuals, who show a natural tendency to avoid each other, come together to form what he calls ‘masses’.

“The most important process that occurs within a mass is discharge,” Canetti writes. “Before it occurs, the mass does not exist properly; only the discharge really constitutes it. Discharge is the moment when all those who belong to the mass get rid of their differences and feel equal.”

Our societies are intricate webs of differences, classes, ethnicities, customs, accents. Each of us has integrated gestures and phrases that assert our individual stance, and keep us distinct from others. These very distinctions determine our unique position and limit our freedom. They restrict our capacity to move anywhere, anytime, forming new connections at will. They weigh upon us.

The emotional moment of collective discharge that occurs in a mass blows away such limiting distinctions, and for a moment, redefines all participants as equals. For a moment, everything seems possible. This might occur during concerts, political demonstrations, religious ceremonies, or more banal rituals of collective production and consumption.

The relief experienced is high. These are desirable experiences. The danger, however, is that masses are inherently unstable. They break down easily, leaving a fleeting sense of loss behind them. Unless the one thing happens that will prevent their dissolution: to grow, to grow, to grow.

 

On skipping a beat

At seventeen, I started singing in choirs, and continued until I was twenty-five. In a choir, individual voices only contribute if they blend harmoniously with others, in pitch, colour, and rhythm. It has been a precious school of humility.

It has been a school of pragmatism as well. I have a high tenor voice, and was able on its account to get into better and better choirs, eventually singing alongside professionals in the making. But I’m not a good sight reader. At early rehearsals, I would often get lost. There, I learnt an important lesson. When you lose track, the worst possible attitude is to follow your own skewed rhythm. Collective activities have a cyclical nature. Stop, look for the right moment, and jump back in.

Through practice, I integrated this. I could stop anytime I needed, without compromising the whole edifice. Skip a beat, and get on with the music. My focus should not be so much on never making a mistake, but on rejoining the group with minimal disturbance. Different skill, different mindset.

Earlier this week, I got out of sync with my writing. After a late dinner, I postponed editing and publishing to the following day. This continued, with a nagging sense that I should catch up, do double load. Yesterday, rather than edit and share my Friday reflection, I caught myself writing two new pages in my notebook, and publishing nothing. Something was wrong.

I reverted to choral wisdom. I tripped, and must give up on strict dailiness. No need for shame and self-doubt, think about it pragmatically. Time passes, people move on. Rather than stick to my new skewed rhythm, and jar with dynamics around me, I stopped, I breathed, I jump again. Back in the beat.

 

On passing the ball

As a teenager, I was not good at sport. I was neither strong nor particularly well coordinated. I didn’t see the point either. My family didn’t care, and the French schools I attended did not attach much value to physical prowess.

There were moments of shame and embarrassment when I was picked last for soccer or basketball team, or was first out on races and jumping contests. I could cope with it. I made it to the top bracket in some disciplines: 60m race, 400m race, disk throwing. They taught me that I had potential, if I could only play to my strengths. They were not popular, unfortunately, and we rarely practiced them.

Things changed in Grade 11, when we spent a term practicing volleyball. Fandom for a Japanese anime made me first interested in the game. I enjoyed its rhythmic structure. Each team is allowed three hits of the ball. Typically, the second is a pass to the front player, who jumps and smashes it over the net into the others’ camp.

I discovered I was very good at this middle touch. I was aware of the movements around me, precise enough in placing the ball, and happy to let a team-mate hit and score. My reputation as a good ‘passer’ quickly spread, and after a month, I was picked first in team selection.

I have not become a sports person. I neither watch, nor practice. There are many reasons for it. One of them is boorish worship of the last step. Score a goal, and you get all attention; passing the ball is hardly celebrated. Middle players are deploying complex strategies, interpreting complex patterns of movement in real time, building the ground for the final hit. Success is impossible without them. But kickers get the crown.

When good collective action, strategic passes and subtle decisions in the mid-field are discussed, replayed, and celebrated more than goal-scoring, then – maybe – I will start watching.

On lifespans

Most organisations present themselves sub specie aeternitatis – as if, once in existence, they should never stop to be. These abstract giants we serve seem to deserve more attention than us mere mortals. And so, when building professional relationships, we pride ourselves in weaving new webs of connection between these abstract constructs, companies, departments, organisations.

The model has a fatal flaw. Their lifespan may not exceed that of an average human being. When my grand-mother was born, Disney did not exist. When my father was born, Monash University did not exist. When I was born, Google did not exist. These institutions, solid as they seem, have a birth date – and as all living things, they will come to an end – maybe vanishing into thin air, or maybe transforming into something different, smaller, and insignificant.

It is tempting to treat humans – including ourselves – as pure transactional intermediaries between employers, social bodies, political collectives. It is possible to do so politely. But is it wise? Ten years from now, new structures will emerge – we don’t know what they will be yet, but we know they’re likely to be run by humans, maybe the same humans we neglected to bond with today, enamoured with the glitzier abstractions featured on their business cards.

What would it take to flip things around, and treat titles and collectives as no more – and no less – than opportunities to build new concrete connections with people?  Over the long term, this may prove a wiser use of our time. But oh – concrete things are so much messier than abstractions.

On meeting people

When preparing for a meeting, whether it’s a potential business connection or a date, it is tempting to think: what is it that I want from my counterpart? And what is it that I need to show them or tell them to get it? But presence has a funny way of surprising us, if we let her. And a simple conversation may reveal unexpected alignments and life-changing common paths ahead.

If we let her. This requires more than listening for the right cue to drop our set piece, meanwhile asking polite questions to build rapport. What shared experiences will trigger trust? Family? Geography? Similar taste in food or wine? Or a seemingly worthless but oh-so-worth-it choice of study major? There is no knowing in advance. Closeness will come in a flash, but first, there may be long, disjointed exchanges.

Often, lacking faith in the powers of genuine curiosity, we fall back on safer patterns. Let’s get to business. This is what I want. What’s your bottom line? What’s in it for you? What’s your price? The transaction might occur; the magic doesn’t. Goods, money, services, bodily fluids are exchanged: the parties can leave. But nothing new to the world has appeared. And frustration lingers.

Marketing will be the end of me

I just wrote on my facebook page that ‘I absolutely, entirely and completely hate marketing.’

There was a context to the statement. On the 5th of October, I’m co-organising an event at a Melbourne artistic centre, with a partner university. I am supposed to make a flier for this event, but had to postpone this morning, because I need to clarify the exact requirements of one partner, and wait for the logo of another. I’m not in touch with the marketing department of either organisations, but only intermediaries. Result, I am annoyed, in the dark, and cannot start this piece of work (hence time to write this blog post).

This is certainly not the first time I got annoyed at a marketing department. The basic premise is very sound: of course, partners put effort into a joint event, and should be fully acknowledged. However the practical details are where the devil hides – Should there be a logo? How big should it be? Where can I place it? Where do I get the right version? Is there a colour scheme? A font? A standard sentence I have to put in? In the same font, or a smaller font? Is there an approval process? Who approves? How long does it take? Multiply this by the number of partners involved, and you start understanding the problem, especially when you’re running on a piece of thread, like many cultural organisations do.

At a deeper level, I believe the problem is cultural. The tone used for all marketing matters, in my experience, is typically threatening and hostile. Things are generally ‘requested’, but the actual power relationship is left unclear, as much as the consequence of disobedience. Will the partner pull off because they’re not on the flier as they wish? Will they never work together again, no matter how good the event? Or will I somehow harm my contact person within the partner organisation if I do not handle marketing properly? Maybe marketing studies showed that leaving the consequence of disobedience to sheer imagination was a good and cost-effective compliance strategy?

As a result of this hostile ‘requesting’ culture, I have come to repeatedly experience partnerships which started from mutual shared goals and values as ones of mutual mistrust. Will I acknowledge partnerships? Will they hold their end of the deal? Is there a secret plot to undermine and threaten each other? This is poison.

Friends working in the non-profit and cultural sector – I have questions for you:

a) Have you ever had a bad experience with the marketing department or requests of a partner organisation?

b) Would you agree that strict marketing standards, multi-layered approval processes, and general marketing hostility, when you’re running joint events on a piece of thread, add a much unwanted burden to everyone’s life?

c) Is there any place that already lists ‘annoying partners’ – organisations that are difficult to work with, because they not only impose bizarre marketing requirements, but also use hostile bureaucratese?

d) Should we league to change the culture – and start from a basic expectation that established organisations should not make life difficult for small non-profits, and prioritise support to mutually beneficient events, rather than imposing hostile approval systems and marketing standards?

Space sharing, time sharing: future of work, or existing models?

Our current (but changing) mindset is to think of work in the following way. Full-time work, dedicated work space, and regular daytime week hours are correlated. Work occurs Monday to Friday, 9-to-5, in a particular dedicated space and for a particular organisation. Anything  outside these spatial and temporal boundaries is either non-work or not-really-work.

We seem to be moving towards a model where work is more often part-time, with flexible hours, for multiple organisations, and occurring at different locations. However, this is by no means a new phenomenon. Let’s look at these very common professions – to quote a few:

  • Doctors and nurses may work more during the day, but 24 hour and week-end presence is required from some at least.
  • Teachers spend about one third of the time in front of a class, and two thirds preparing classes or correcting papers – which occurs in all sorts of settings, including offices, cafes, public transport or bed.
  • Cleaners typically work when others are not around, and pretty much everywhere.
  • Hospitality workers are flexible – a typical ‘daytime’ restaurant will open from 10h30am to 11pm – but start at 6 or 7am if they serve breakfast. 
  • Drivers – whether of trains, buses, trams, taxis, planes or trucks – work 5am to 12pm, and sometimes round the clock. A number of people in the transport industry will be around to support them.

When we think of new models for work – whether it’s part-time allocation, flexible work hours, or work outside the office – let’s not forget that these very common professions have been doing exactly that for years. These are by no means marginal phenomena, and maybe there’s something we can learn from them.

Please, feel free to share reflections here!