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.
In 2020, I completed a PhD. My thesis maps an emerging ecosystem of digital Chinese language learning. I started the research in January 2015. At the time, the PhD was a way to fund my work on Marco Polo Project. Short-term, through a scholarship; longer term, by looking for ways to build partnerships either with universities or other digital platforms. Then life knocked on the door, and messed up with the plan. I was offered a COO gig with the China Australia Millennial Project, then a seat on the THNK School of Creative leadership, then a job as editor in chief with the Global Challenges Foundation. My skills, my interests and my perspective evolved, impacting both the PhD research proper, and the motivation for it.
I decided to stick with it though. This was my second PhD. I enrolled in one from 2003 to 2008, at Paris Sorbonne University, exploring collective nouns in contemporary English. I was on scholarship, and expectations were that I would get a role at a French University right after finishing – although life came knocking when I met my Australian partner in 2006, and messed up with the plan. Still, I completed my thesis. I was due to defend in early September 2008, a few weeks before leaving Paris for good. The research was ‘stimulating and original’, yet two of my assessors had found that the thesis fell outside of disciplinary boundaries. My supervisor had been aware of issues, I learned later, and conducted backdoor negotiations, but would not force things. Bad reports would stand in the way of any future academic career. There was an option to stay in France for another year, rewrite, and try again. I had planned a move Down Under, and wanted a fresh start, so I let it go.
It left me with a sense of caution regarding universities, and PhDs, but also with the sense of something unfinished. When I decided to try again at Monash, on the very first conversation with my prospective supervisor, I shared the story of this debacle. I was also very clear that I did not want to work in academia, but was genuinely committed to the sharing of knowledge. Gloria was wonderful, and fully on board. I knew better what to do this time – and was more closely guided – so, despite occasional bouts of ‘I should quit’, I completed the second PhD, through the pandemic.
Why did I bother? Sure, there is a title, photos with a floppy hat, and the job done. But I also did learn certain things that – maybe – only doctors know. Reflecting on that question, it strikes me that we put so much focus on the product, the thesis, and forget about the person. It’s not just about having a PhD, but becoming a Doctor. So, what have I learned by becoming one? And how is that valuable? Since the purpose of a PhD is to articulate original knowledge, I think I did learn something about knowledge – and originality. In a knowledge economy, this is probably valuable. But let me dig deeper.
We know less than we think
Education is always about confronting one’s own ignorance. Writing a PhD means confronting collective ignorance. I realized this most clearly when I tried to answer a seemingly simple question: how many people are currently learning Chinese around the globe? I had always assumed that we – somebody, somewhere – knew the answer, and everybody could get that answer if we – myself, anybody keen to find out – simply knew where to look. I had also assumed my supervisors, experts in the field, could direct me to the right source. No such luck. All sorts of figures floated around the Internet – 40 million learners now, 100 million soon, typically. But when I tried to confirm those numbers, the tracks lost themselves after some late 2000’s newspaper article from Canada, or a vague unsourced mention of ‘Hanban’.
I once wrote, in a moment of annoyance, that much of academic writing is not original thought, but platitudes with footnotes. I have come to appreciate the value of footnotes. At least, you can check where ‘facts’ come from. If a statement is not congruent with the source, you have grounds to start doubting the author. It takes effort, sure, but ensuring that facts and assertions at least can be verified is some protection against fraud. It also keeps in check the drive to cut corners and put forward unverified assertions in order to make a point.
Now, I have also learned to be cautious of footnotes. Not everyone follows the rules in spirit. When trying to figure out how many people are learning Chinese, I found an article – somewhat by chance – by Professor Hyeon-Seok Kang, called ‘Is English being challenged by Mandarin in South Korea? A report on recent educational and social trends involving the two languages’ (published 2017). The paper had a reference to ‘Lei & Cheng, 2010’, stating that there were 40 million Chinese learners around the world in 2010. Curious, I went to check that Lei & Cheng source. It was not, as I naively hoped, a solid survey from a pair of serious researchers from a serious university, but an article from China Daily online, attributing this figure to Hanban, with no source. Innocent overlook, or underhanded rebrand of hearsay? We shall never know.
When I look back, I think: of course, nobody knows how many people are learning Chinese. It’s incredibly difficult to assess. For one, what do we mean by ‘learn Chinese’? Is it anybody enrolled in any language class? Of any age? And for how long? Plus, how do you aggregate figures from around the world? How do you keep the numbers up to date? At best, we might have educated guesses (which I attempted – my rounded estimate is 6 – 17 million).
Yet before the PhD, I had an illusion that there was knowledge – illusion fed by the Internet, where figures were quoted in apparent confidence. On this point, and on many others, I was convinced that someone, somewhere, must know the facts, and the truth. This is a dangerous illusion, which I am now less likely to fall prey to.
So, learning #1: we know less than we think. If I don’t know, maybe nobody does. And if you’re ever doubtful, check the source.
It takes effort to build knowledge
Ignorance is uncomfortable. It brings feelings of shame, and anxiety. Research demands courage: willingness to face the chaos of radical uncertainty, and associated social ambiguity. It also demands endurance. Contemplatives are at risk of sloth – acedia, the noon-day demon of depressed procrastination. ‘Just write’ said my supervisor. I did, mostly. It was not my first rodeo, I wrote four novels (one published), and one thesis before. I have also written and edited hundreds of shorter texts. From experience, though, I know there’s a big difference between a 1000-word essay or short-story, and an 80,000-word document. A PhD thesis is not something you can physically complete in a burst of inspiration, or over a couple of late evenings. It is mainly perspiration, and you cannot afford to burn out.
Yet there is something about completing a PhD that differs from other long-form writing – say, novels. It’s not just about endurance, but patience. You must accept others’ unbearable slowness. Academic degrees up to Master’s level have skills and knowledge assessed by people who know more than the student. As a Doctor, author of original knowledge, you are by definition the world’s foremost expert in your topic. Meaning, you’re assessed by people who know less than you. Not in absolute, just on your topic. Still, this marks a step-change, directly related to my first insight, that we know less than we think.
So, learning #2: a doctor has shown capacity to present original knowledge to the next most knowledgeable audience, and convince them to reorganize their understanding of the world on the basis of that presentation. Doctors reduce ignorance, absolutely.
Knowledge does not exist in a void
New knowledge is not another brick in the wall. When I was a teacher, I used the following mental model: that my students already know everything. Except, that knowledge is vague, and mainly incorrect. Early in my candidature, I remember identifying the KPI for a successful thesis as: it will prompt readers to reshuffle their mental library. Incidentally, this is the purpose of the literature review – a section that gives a brief overview of relevant writing on the topic. It’s a trust building exercise, demonstrating homework done. It’s also there to assist the reader in this mental reorganisation: help them identify where to place the thesis and its original insights.
This was a piece I had to do right. My first attempt at a PhD failed for overstepping disciplinary boundaries. Academic disciplines are branches of knowledge: conventional ways of describing an aspect of the world, what counts as a fact, and how to gather valid data. They’re also social constructs – people working in different buildings, reading different books, and writing in different journals, with different funding streams and criteria. I’ve come to think of it like sports. Each discipline has its own rules, its own league, and its own champions. Sure, you won’t get anywhere unless you’re generally fit and coordinated, but it’s not the same skills, or body types, or attributes, that make for success. So, each discipline gathers different types of people, who have spent years honing a very narrow set of skills.
When you start a PhD, you can choose to play by the rules. Pick your sport, find a good coach, train hard, and if you’re good enough, with a bit of luck, you’ll make it to the league – i.e. tenure at a university. That’s disciplinary research. There’s another approach though, which is about figuring out what discipline – what methods and models – will be most useful to better understand a part of the world, or solve a complex problem. In academic jargon, that’s ‘transdiciplinarity’. It’s not a good bet for a research career, but if done well, it’s useful ‘out there’. It’s also what my research does. It tries to make sense of ‘what’s happening’ in that part of the digital world where people learn Chinese – what that part of the digital world looks like, who’s creating and maintaining it, and what we could do to make it work better. It’s about tech and education. It’s about digital communities, startups, and geopolitics. It’s looking at companies and people, websites, apps, and social media streams, and how all those pieces combine. It’s about what is there, measured against what was, and what could be.
Now, a PhD – whether ‘trans’ or not – goes beyond insights and good ideas. It is a question asked well, and a detailed protocol to reach an answer, with a lot of referencing in the middle. It involves not only reading piles of books and papers, but also gathering ‘data’ from the world, then analyzing it, in line with a defined method. Each discipline has its own key concepts, methods and benchmarks. Each sees ‘the world’ differently, and gathers different data. In my case – in ‘trans’ research – part of the work is precisely figuring out what to do. There was no ‘state of the field’ I could question or build on, nor a clear method to follow. So, there were wrong starts and double-ups. I observed, I interviewed, I reflected, I read. Methods attempted yielded insights which suggested other methods. Not all the data was entirely consistent. And there certainly wasn’t a neat linear process, following a clear-cut hypothesis-method-gathering-analysis-conclusion sequence. Describing this was embarrassing: it was not grand, and it was certainly not clean. Yet – and here I was very well guided – I had to be precise. ‘What did you do? Just write that’. I interviewed people. ‘How many? Where? For how long? Why them?’ I spent a few hours using a range of apps, read through the ‘how-to’ guide, and associated social-media feeds. ‘Which apps? Why those?’ I unlearned habits developed at innovation events – always present your best angle – and listed exactly what went into the sausage. I was terrified it would cause horror. It didn’t, and I strengthened my honest muscle in the process.
The final layer of work was to put the research into words: order the argument into chapters, and make sure all key terms were rigorously defined and consistent. In early drafts, I used ‘agent’ and ‘actor’ indifferently. Surely, the reader could figure it out? It was a firm ‘no’. Different disciplines use different words – or worse, the same word with a different meaning. I should not leave ambiguities, and always make it easy for the reader to ‘get it’. The same ethical drive towards maximal comprehension impose the drudge of formatting standards. You’re asking people to change their habits of thoughts, by reading a very long, very detailed argument – so please, be consistent with your style at least. Common courtesy, really.
So, learning #3: the reader is not you. If they miss the point, don’t blame them, write better. Leadership 101.
This process, of course, is extremely slow. It is made even slower by the machine, the very bureaucratic university with its many dysfunctions, ‘tick-the-box’ exercises and arbitrary deadlines. Waste of time? Well, a friend once put it this way: ‘creating a new product and selling it on the market, that’s easy. We all have desires and too much money to spend. But having one person really see the world differently, and change their minds, now that’s hard.’ I’m not one to praise impatience, and even – not always, but sometimes – found freedom in the deliberate slowness imposed by academic procedures. I rediscovered the world of otium, open intellectual leisure, that I first encountered in Year 12 philosophy. Here was a space where I could be free from the dominant logic of business. I would get no reward for ‘saving cost’ or ‘bringing revenue’. Quality standards were non-negotiable. This caused frustration, yes, but also protected my freedom to think, and for this, I am very grateful.
When I was close to completing, and at peak frustration, I described the PhD process as a deliberate exercise in humiliation. In retrospect, I think I was onto something. There is no good research without radical humility: that we know so little, that knowing is exhausting, that others resist correct knowledge. In the words of Pascal, that truth has no force of its own. Yet on the other end of humility comes deep self-confidence. With courage, and efforts, and discipline, I have touched on a solid kernel of correct knowledge. Others have seen and recognised it. So, whatever comes next, I’m probably not up to the task, but I might well be just as good as it gets. And that’s a doctor for you.
There is a particular type of hero out there. Let’s call them the knowledge hero. You’ve come across them if you’ve ever watched a feature documentary. It’s the voice of the narrator telling you ‘I was on a Welsh River, and I caught an enormous salmon that year. I was immensely proud. But I think it’s the last anyone’s ever caught around there. I kept going back, but nobody caught anything. And that’s what got me thinking: what was happening to the fish in the sea? That’s what I decided to find out.’
It’s a simple proposition: a single person – a man preferably – identifies a pattern in the world that they think is not right. It’s a change they dislike, or it’s a phenomenon they’re concerned about. Or maybe they’re just curious about something. It’s motivating enough, somehow, for them to go on a large, concerted and coordinated series of efforts to find out what the truth is.
That same character, is the common protagonist of detective novels: about a third of the books sold out there. Many romance and adventure books also contain an element of truth discovery. It’s about finding out what really happens, who the real problem is. See, we like to paint ourselves as adventurous pleasure seekers, or cynical money-makers, but we seem to be, first and foremost, a truth-driven species. And a man on a mission to figure out the real cause for something, and share it with the world, is a definite hero to us, in America, France, or Japan. Why is that? Because knowledge is power, knowledge allows you to make informed decisions on future behaviour, change the way that you behave, and from there, change the world around you.
We think of knowledge as an abstract entity. Yet it plays a direct influence on our behaviour and relationships. Here is a little story about that.
On New Year’s Eve, my partner and I hosted a big ‘open-door’ party: friends of friends were welcome, whoever came was the right guest. Towards the end of the evening, at about 1h30am, a dear French friend came with his wife. He was quite drunk, tottered around the house, but kept his composure as he drunk glass after glass of rosé. Then, he lifted his head and noticed our alcohol collection on the tall shelf above the kitchen cupboards. ‘What do you have up there?’ he said. Gin, whisky, Rum, and white fruit eau-de-vie from Alsace – strong fruit schnaps from my home region, imported directly from a previous trip.
‘Would you share a glass with me,’ said the friend. I nodded – grabbed a chair, and took down a small bottle of raspberry schnaps, then poured us two little glasses. He sniffed, closed his eyes, and started analysing the nose – rich, floral – then took a sip, and reflected more. He was appreciating, smiled, spoke. We bonded over the sensual experience. People were gathering, asking about our drink. He shared his glass, offered a sniff or taste – ‘it’s strong’ – and recoiled.
But one of our guests had a different attitude. Australian, female, thirties, wild. ‘What are you drinking,’ she asked. He turned, handed the glass: ‘try it, guess what it is,’ hopeful. She grabbed the delicate little glass, and swiftly drunk the whole content, pushing her head back, and said ‘Tequila’, with a lilt, then handed back the glass, and headed over to the table. My friend and I smiled. One of us muttered the word ‘barbarian’ . Then I shared my glass with him, and we continued on our sensual exploration of Framboise d’Alsace.
I headed out to read a book, and ended up having a conversation.
Last month, I joined a club called ‘Henley’ that brings together ‘interesting and interested’ people. Membership comes with access to a pleasant space in the City. Today, around 4h30, I got out of the house to read a few reports, preparing for a new role I’m about to start. Rather than pay for a cafe, I headed to the club.
Most of the good spots were taken. As I walked towards the bar, a friendly-looking guy sitting in a red armchair commented on my bag. I sat down next to him, and we spent the next two hours talking. His field of work – science communication – is the one I’m heading towards. “There’s so much I could learn from you,” I quipped. And I did.
Often, if we want to learn something, we turn to the written word, or possibly formal events. People around us, simply sitting on an armchair, are a distraction from learning. Today, I did not only learn about science communication and synthetic biology. It was embodied learning, made emotionally relevant by a sense of personal connection. The process, meanwhile, was thoroughly pleasant, happily lubricated by a glass of wine.
What would it take for us to shit this mindset, and think of every person we pass, on the street, on the tram, at the cafe, as a potential source of knowledge? Maybe no more than replacing greed and self-importance with curiosity. To start with, we could reframe our networking events in that manner.
My first class at Nanjing University was a disaster.
Chinese classes are organised by level, based on an assessment of students’ competence at the beginning of term. I took the test and was placed in a ‘gao shang’ class – or early advanced. I saw this placement as a quiet achievement – after all, I studied the language on my own and at achieved quite a bit in parallel. And I was excited to start: I would meet other Chinese learners from around the world, I would finally get some proper guidance in my learning, and I would gain motivation from the classroom setting to cement all the Chinese I wasn’t sure I knew.
That’s not what happened. Our class began with a long presentation of rules and assessment criteria. Then we all introduced ourselves in turn. Seven girls from Korea enjoyed reading and music but couldn’t sing. Two Germans were looking forward to their classes. A Japanese guy really liked alcohol. And then we started looking at p.9 of the book, ‘Shengci’.
‘Shengci’ – ‘new words’ – became an immediate nightmare. This was our very first class. We knew what our assessment criteria would be – participation in class, exams, and regular dictation tests – but nothing had been said about actual learning goals, or the topics we would address, or what the book structure was. No, the first step was on p.9, looking at word after word: ‘sweet snacks’, ‘invite someone over’, ‘resist’, ‘temptation’. The teacher painfully wrote them on the blackboard and started with number one. Followed thirty minutes of pure detail.
I realise I was lucky with my education. This was surely the worst hour of teaching I attended since middle school. I felt intense depression. I’d been told I shouldn’t expect too much of the teachers, but I wasn’t thinking that bad. Was that their idea of language learning? A pile of unconnected and arbitrary details to memorize, then regurgitate in dictation tests,? I was at least able to put a name on my plight. I’m a super-intuitive learner, I need the full picture, I cannot get the parts if I don’t have a sense of the whole.
I may not have the most common intellectual profile internationally, and maybe China doesn’t value this type of mind much. But still, I think there’s a double problem with the way this class was conducted. The first is the lack of order and priority: we’re given a list of ShengCis based on an arbitrary text, and expected to memorise all of them – though clearly some are important, others accessory. More importantly, the structure of the class does not encourage or help us integrate these new words into the linguistic system we’ve all developed already.
Language forms a system of interconnected parts, and linguistic progress happens when parts of that system become more precise – when the learner is able to know when a certain grammar structure is appropriate, better distinguishes two sounds, or develops alternative ways to say ‘good’. At least, this has always been my teaching philosophy: my students are not empty vessels to fill with knowledge. They come with an existing system in their head, and my goal is to clarify, expand and improve what is already there. That is why I believe that piecemal ShengCi learning is a complete waste of time. And this teacher I got in Gao Shang should seriously retrain.