What to ask a start-up founder

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A difficult transition 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

On reading Harry Potter

Over the course of lockdowns #5 and #6 – and that short nondescript period of time in-between – I ran out of gay fiction to read. To keep myself sane, I turned to that millennial classic, and finally read the seven volumes of Harry Potter.

For about a year, I have renewed my commitment to writing fiction. The exact project is still taking shape. It started as a climate change revenge tragedy, and evolved into rom-com. It has, however, prompted me to read genre, unashamedly. Since March, I have devoured gay literature. Much recommended in times of pandemic. It started on a high with Simon vs the Homo Sapiens Agenda, and slowly went downhill from there. Before trying my luck with How to Bang a Billionnaire, I thought I would take a pause.

Harry Potter was referenced in almost all of the books in my gay rom-com pile. I missed that train at the time – but it struck me that I could not really understand my own generation without reading Harry. And that it could even make for a good time. Well it did. And it prompted a few reflections. I have not engaged with the fan-fiction, or any critical reading, so I’m sharing impressions here in a loose manner, somewhat unsure how much of this will be somewhat original, or totally self-evident. If the latter, I hope at least it will show the ongoing relevance of the book.

From about the end of volume two, I started telling my partner: ‘I think Harry Potter is about climate change.’ Of course, I’m biased – it’s a key preoccupation, and the latest IPCC report is not helping. But bear with me here. Isn’t Voldemort all about unrestricted appetite for power, and contempt for all life-forms he perceives as below him? And isn’t that the precise ideology that has led us to climate change? A sort of coal-based dark magic, that will not recoil at destruction and pain, let alone consequences, to get its way?

Then come the Horcruxes. Claim immortality by tying parts of your soul to precious material objects, and lose your human shape in the bargain. Isn’t that exactly what Western boomers have been doing, trading their conscience for jobs in the system, to buy SUV’s and house extensions with the cash? A vain attempt at immortality.

I recognised a lot of my own feelings in Harry’s experience – I’m only two years older, after all – particularly the lack of elder support, and a sense of betrayal from those in power. Ministers are not to be trusted. ‘Wait a minute,’ I thought, ‘I’m sure Scott Morrison was imperiused by Gina Rinehart and the coal barons.’ That’s what Dark Money‘s all about, right?

The book does encourage a healthy mistrust of power. Our politicians would rather force youth into silence than acknowledge their own limitations, past errors, or present fear. Large parts of the population side with them. Those who don’t are soon disposed of, or drained of their souls by the media dementors.

The final heroic triumph of youth, however, gave me some hope. Go Greta, go the climate kids! Maybe you can defeat evil. Painting youth triumphant is part of the young adult trope, certainly. What I enjoyed in Harry though is how this youth is trained, not purely naive. Knowledge is part of the package – enter Hermione, saint patron of nerds – and knowledge is something you learn at school.

Hogwarts is a the core of the series. It is a school where people actually learn things, and what they learn is useful in the world. It is what all my friends working in education and edtech are looking to build. A place where you develop the skills to change the world for the better, build deep companionship and a sense of identity. Note how, as part of the package, Harry Potter values teachers. McGonaggal is fierce. Even Snape knows how to turn a good potion. None of that ‘those who can, do; those who can’t, teach’ bullshit here.

Beyond this clear respect for knowledge, I enjoyed and celebrate the book’s radical technophilia. There’s no wizard without a wand. And good magic is not purely about the mind. It involves matter – knowing plants, spells, and the structures of the real. It involves objects, and learning how to use them appropriately. To defeat the Voldemort’s of today, and their armies of doom – vampiric boomers and Fox News dementors – the path is not to retreat into the forbidden forest, and embrace centaurian arrogance. It’s about building tools, learning to use them, and take over from evil through better magic.

Reflecting on Default Settings

Inventing a new form

Default settings was an experimental project exploring questions of reflectivity, discourse, polyphony and audience agency. We invited a digital audience and a small cast of diverse associate storytellers to reflect on the various intersecting story-worlds that they inhabit, and stretch their capacity to create a common world by interweaving different stories, stemming from different languages and traditions.

The Default Settings experiment was designed by Julien Leyre and Matthew Ziccone, through the Marco Polo Project, with support from the City of Melbourne and the Victorian Multicultural Commission. It was produced by Maddy Bean, with participation from Associate Writers Declan Fry, Kay Stravrou and Xueqian Zhang.

The Default Setting experiment consisted of two prototypes and one pilot. The format involved five Associate Writers and a Producer, engaging online with an audience located around the world. Associate Writers were invited to prepare a 22’ sequence on the basis of a one-word prompt, in a format and language of their choice. The prompts chosen for the experiment were ‘plastic’, ‘vessel’ and ‘seed’.

Here is the rundown of the format we adopted. After a short meditative segment led by the Producer, Associate Writers share their stories in five parallel digital breakout rooms. During this time, audience members are shifted from room to room, every two minutes. As a second part to the event, audience and writers are guided in a reflective process to make sense of the experience. The process aims to build awareness of the ‘default settings’ guiding our digital lives, and stretch our capacity to follow and weave multiple narratives in order to make sense of the world.

Conversational norms, prevailing stories, and narrative freedom

The Default Setting experiment responds to the radical shift prompted by the COVID pandemic. Our professional, social and emotional lives are increasingly unfolding in digital environments: we interact with the world, with our colleagues and with our friends and family through screens. Unless we actively learn how to build meaningful connections in this virtual world, we are at risk of disconnection and alienation. So, we must explore and invent new ‘codes’ to interact online in an effective manner.

This shift is a source of tension, but also a great opportunity. In our multicultural societies, multiple parallel stories and value systems always circulate, manifesting in the way we talk and interact with others. Most of us inhabit multiple such story-worlds, and hop across them depending on the setting – one for family, one for work, one for friends, etc. Deciding what story to follow in order to make sense of the world and guide our action – and along with that story, what value system, what identity, what style, what tone – is our most fundamental political, social and ethical decision. Yet often, this decision is not consciously made. Rather, it is imposed on us by the force of habit and peer pressure. To that extent, awareness of the stories guiding us in any situation, so that we can actively choose to embrace them – or otherwise reject them – may be the root of all freedom.

Conversational default settings, the format of public events and mediated interactions, are an expression of power relationships. Some people speak, others listen, in an implicit but culturally defined manner. A language is adopted, others are silenced, or interpreters serve as go-between in a pre-defined mode. Body language and rhythmic pauses define turn-taking rules, guided by a default cultural norm. Those who have not mastered the norm, or take half a second more to process thoughts in that language, lose their turn and stay in the shadow. This is the offline world. Online, ingrained patterns lose their edge. Who never said ‘Sorry, you go’ when talking over someone else on a zoom call? So, here is an opportunity for reinvention – and newfound freedom.

Embracing chaos

Default settings was a deliberate attempt at relinquishing control. In the design phase, Matt and I held each other back: ‘Yes, you could lead that section, so could I, but let’s have Maddy do it, so none of us takes over.’ When two neurotic writers actively give over control to someone else, you know something interesting is happening. In the same manner, we let go of our desire to control narrative form. Associate Writers were given complete creative freedom over the story they wrote, and the language they chose to perform in. We would not even give them pointers, other than one single word.

This deliberate looseness triggered hiccups of course, but those became part of the experience. Stories did not transition smoothly, the experience was jagged. Participants experienced the virtual world of ‘Default Settings’ as chaotic: things were messy. But that turned out to be OK. Participants did evoke a sense of FOMO – they would get into a story, then be shifted to another room, and need to let it go. They also shared how they quickly learned to deal with it, and find joy in that letting go. Various analogies emerged: ‘It’s a bit like zapping’, ‘like a great dinner party’, ‘like a train station’, ‘when people start talking to you in public, and you shift across different conversation’, ‘like chatroulette’. Ultimately, learning into the chaos was comforting: ‘I loved the impression of complete freedom that I got from it’, shared Jasmine.  

As a storyteller – and designer – I became keenly aware of that digital chaos myself. Ten minutes into the first prototype, my Zoom suddenly disconnected. I didn’t have the link ready, so fumbled back through my emails to find it, clicked, and waited to re-join the room. It took a few minutes, and completely threw me off. When I was disconnected, there would have been audience members alone in my breakout room, with no explanation. What would Maddy decide to do? Where would I pick up my story? Would everyone be shifted one room over? Should I pick the story where I left? Would we all speak for longer? I had no idea, and no way of interacting with anyone to check what was happening, as we were all focused on keeping things going, in strictly separate rooms. This was ‘show must go on’: I had no choice but to rely on others continuing without me, and that things would be fine.

It’s hard for a designer and writer – it’s hard for me – to let go of control and responsibility. Yet it’s crucial that we learn to do that! It wasn’t just the zoom incident. I had invited friends to take part. Some weren’t able to connect on time, or were just normally late, and tried contacting me through Facebook Messenger or WhatsApp or SMS after things started. I was performing, on camera, and couldn’t handle them at the same time. I chose to ignore them, and focus on the present: a deliberate exercise of mindfulness. As it turns out, they didn’t mind.

An invitation to authenticity  

Key to creative freedom is the capacity to stay in shapeless, ambiguous, uncertain modes of thought, so things have time to settle and crystallise. This is all very good, and I can do that anytime with my eyes closed. Yet for extraverts like myself, the question is rather: how do you gain the energy you need from the outside world while things settle? It’s awkward to share unformed stories – yet when I don’t share for too long, things may well die for lack of nurture. This, I realised, is what Default Settings resolved. I would have no clear idea whether my story as a whole ‘worked’, of course, since I couldn’t follow reactions. But there would be some extraverted energy here and, well, with two minute sequences, I didn’t feel too bad sharing something half-baked. 

With that came one surprisingly moving element. It was the first time since I migrated to Melbourne twelve years ago that I performed in French to my local friends, and experienced a sense of connection. Migration had demanded a shift of language. There was joy in that shift, and a stimulating design challenge. How could I recreate my French self in Australian-English? Likely, I chose to keep a touch of accent for that reason, and accentuated my body language. But also, adopting English as my new default meant, there was an aspect of me that my new friends would never get to see. Comfortable and gently shady French-speaking Julien would disappear. With Default Setting, I felt comfortable bringing him back on stage. I knew my audience could not follow what I said, but imposing that person for two minutes at a time was short enough not to be obnoxious. And so, that part of me was seen in this country for the first time.

Another reason I was comfortable speaking in my first language is that the setting freed me from the need to compete for attention. The audience would be brought to me by design and technology, in a group small enough that I could rely on their attention. It was like a dinner party, sure – but one where you wouldn’t fear losing your counterpart to more glamorous conversation partners. ‘Nice talking to you, I’m gonna get a drink now’. Guaranteed attention kept the competitive ego in check, leaving room for creativity.

New rules for audience engagement

Theatre hinges on a paradox. Here’s a real human talking to real humans in real time. Here’s an actor on the stage, radically separate from the audience. In a Zoom breakout room, what model applies? Each Associate Writer took a different approach. Some were strictly performers, told their story and then, when it came to an end, smiled silently. Others interacted, inviting feedback or asking questions. ‘Which part of my story have you heard already? Should I sum it up for you?’ Kay, I heard, even complimented Maddy’s flatmate on a painting in their room. This is the magic of Zoom. We’re not in the theatre, but inside each other’s intimate space. With this comes a radical reset of the relationship between performer and audience.

Default Settings was designed to prompt equality. For this, we programed a moment of facilitated reflection. People were gathered at random in breakout rooms, audience and performers mixed in, and invited to share their impressions on different aspects of the experience, what moved them, what irritated them, how it resembled other aspects of their lives. Prompts and small groups freed participants from the fear of ‘not knowing the rules’, and associated silence, prompting exchange and connection.

Each Associate Writer had invited their friends and contacts, from Australia and around the world. Zoom has this magical quality that it frees us from the constraints of geography. What this meant is, people from different periods of my life were part of the same event, talking to each other, meeting and exchanging. This only should happen at weddings, funerals or graduations – well, also with Default Settings! My ex in France, a facilitator friend in Cambodia, a neighbour in Melbourne, sharing appreciations of stories they just heard. And now, when I mention one in passing to the other, I get a nod of recognition: ‘oh Patrick, he was in that event you organized, wasn’t he?’

Literacy for the digital world

As our lives shift to the digital world, we must not only design new ways of engaging with each other, and with the stories that guide our lives, but we must actively learn to navigate the digital chaos. ‘It’s so easy to misunderstand someone when you pass judgement based on such a short interaction’, reflected one of the participants. This experience in fragmented storytelling would change the way they thought of the news, inviting more caution. ‘There is a lot of literacy work to be done. We haven’t been taught that stuff. And it’s important.’  

But it’s not just about our capacity to think and engage. It’s about our capacity to perceive beauty, and connect through shared aesthetics. ‘I had this sense of you when you came on the screen’, said Jasmine, ‘you were calm, and even if I couldn’t understand, there was a rhythm. Each speaker had theirs.’ Then a moment of pause, and someone else chips in: ‘It’s like, when you’re driving in the country, and you tune into different frequencies on the radio. You don’t follow the song to the end, but somehow you know what each station is about.’

We tend to put a lot of emphasis on narrative arcs, the structure of an argument, the logic of exposition. And so, we fear fleeting attention, because it threatens misunderstanding. We compete for it – and so get trapped in our ego. Maybe, the secret is to shift emphasis, away from the rational, high-level arc of our thoughts and intention, into micro-structures of expressions, subtle rhythms, intonations, breathing, all this defining a style, a way of showing up, that is instantly recognisable. Maybe, to thrive in the digital world, we must embrace the wisdom of American minimalism, lieder-cycles, or concept albums, where the fragment reflects the whole, style is substance, and art an invitation to flexible attention, lifting the fetters of self-evidence.

Looking back at my 35 year old self – #8

In 2013, I spent a term of studies in Nanjing, supported by a Hamer Scholarship. This was a transformative experience, and a moment to pause and reflect after an intense early period of migration. At the end of that year, I wrote down a series of journal entries, one-per-day, capturing my thoughts. COVID gave me the chance to revisit them: I was somewhat moved at meeting a younger version of myself. Now that I near the end of my PhD and a major book, and begin a new major venture in green energy, I realised patterns and struggles remained oddly similar. So, I thought I might share this journal here over the coming weeks – who knows, it might resonate with someone, trigger a useful insight, or just a passing moment of self-compassion.

22 december

I have just spent a long time on Facebook, over an hour maybe. Instead of reading a Chinese book and learning new characters, I followed the progress and recent posts of old friends or classmates.

Have I just lost an hour of my time? Many people talk about Facebook in that way – time drain, waste of time. I’ve never really thought of time as something you could ‘waste’ – maybe there’s something wrong with me? I enjoy memories. I enjoy looking back at the past, remembering what happened, recollecting. I have looked at the photos of H, and it brought back my life in Dublin, in their penthouse, with M, and C and A, and D.. I looked of pictures of A.M. and C. H. which brought me back to the lycee Kleber and my teenage years in Strasbourg. And a video with X., his video installations.

Doing this, I can trace trajectories from my own long past: X., not a top student, but personable and anarchic, has become an architect of ephemeral light structures in Paris, for concerts and night-clubs – hype, uncertain substance? Y. married – stunningly beautiful as before, her husband looks friendly, both look wealthy, and that seems to matter to them.  Z. lost hair, grew a beard, and stands in a photograph with his Turkish boyfriend. J. is now working with a feminist band. W. is now HR manager for Hewlett Packard in Vienna, looking prim and efficient.

I have been listening to ‘Tonight we are young’, over and over – seizing the last strands of my own youth, empathizing with young people. Am I refusing to grow,  still a student in my mid-thirties, desperately retaining youth, or acting like a responsible adult in a complex, fast-evolving world? I have, in certain areas, acted very responsibly. I own a house, I am in a stable and happy relationship. I founded an organization. I have recognized diplomas. I don’t have debt. I work in an area that I enjoy – though I hardly make money yet. People that I respect are encouraging me.

After Facebook, I looked at other websites: the Shanghaiist and their sensationalist news from China. ‘Tattoos you regret’. The appeal of the gruesome, the grotesque, the terrifying, the freakish, is old news: Plato wrote about it. A man with a hand grafted on his ankle. The woman whose husband gouged our her eye with his hand, or the woman who snapped off her husband’s penis with a pair of scissors. Who doesn’t want to see this?

In part, I take this as research. For some reason, possibly the way my father brought me up, I have grown to believe that ‘the best way to resist a temptation is yield to it’. I have played video games, sometimes to addictive levels, as a teenager – yet, I read extensively, passed exams, achieved things. Maybe not as much as if I hadn’t, maybe more. Who knows what bizarre unbalance might have come from me not playing Civ-Evo during my Wheeler Centre residency, or minesweeper when I was working from the Hub, or watched fewer random Facebook posts during my time in Nanjing.

So dwelling in the delights of remembering, and looking at gruesome news on the internet – is this a privilege I will later regret, time available by not having children and not trying to make money, time wasted now I will regret in my old age? Or is it my way of letting off some steam, in the culture and society that I live in, a way of not getting more deeply addicted to whatever I could get addicted to?  For I have not had a television since I was 18, and how many hours have I saved by not watching stupid shows on TV?

 

Values cards project – trust

All through 2019, following on the reflections and practice I conducted in 2017-2018 on Christian, Confucian and Buddhist virtues, I had a regular (weekly-ish) Skype conversation with my friend and ‘virtue-buddy’ Patrick Laudon in Japan, to reflect on values. We did this simple thing: each time we spoke, we pulled a card out of a ‘values card’ pack, and had an improvised conversation to try and figure what we thought of that value. I took some notes during those conversation, and am now sharing a reviewed version, which I present in dialogue form. Those are neither a full transcript nor a perfect representation of our conversation – even less should they be understood as showing distinct positions in a debate. They’re no more than loose fragments of a conversation saved from oblivion.

A: In French, we have a set of three words: ‘confiance, méfiance, defiance’. I like this philosopher, Andre Comte sponville, he discusses that, and that’s how he describes it. Confiance (or trust) is a belief that things will work out well. Mefiance (or wariness) is belief under condition, so in a way, it’s like a form of knowledge. Defiance (or mistrust) is a belief that things will work out badly. And so, mefiance, that form of confidence that involves a measure of wariness, is actually close to a virtue.

B: it’s a form of prudence.

A: Yes, while defiance, or mistrust, is a lack of virtue. In Japanese, there’s two different words for trust. There is ‘Shinlai’, which means to believe and take as a foundation, and ‘shiyo’, which means to believe and to use – for instance, that’s the word bankers use to talk about trust.

B: My friend was pointing at another way to think about it, when we were working together on a program about trust. We trust people on two different accounts: because of their competence and because of their intention. So we wonder, ‘do you have my best interest at heart’, but also, ‘are you competent enough that you can actually carry out what you say you will.’ And if you don’t have both, you might cause a lot of harm.

A: I like that. It makes me think, there’s this thing we call the trust equation, I don’t know if you’ve heard of it. It says that trust = credibility + reliability + intimacy. Another way to look at it, it’s ethos, logos, and pathos. And that’s how you build trust as a consultant, for instance.

B: I like those kinds of equations. And I wonder then, is it possible to trust somebody for some things, but not everything? How does that work?

A: Yes, well, trust always has to do with what you don’t know, right? It’s about belief, not experience. You can’t have trust in things that you properly know, that’s not properly trust, that’s knowledge. It’s only when there is a measure of unknown that you start to talk about trust. So, people talk about the conditions required for it, but there is no specific or universal criteria. It’s more about a feeling…

B: One thing I like to think about is, how trust allows you to build something from nothing. I mean, money, creativity, any type of collective endeavor, it’s all about trust.

A: And if you think of it this way, Edelman publishes a trust index every year, and you see that the countries with the greatest level of trust are all wealthy countries. Actually, there’s one exception, which is the USA, where people don’t trust each other but they trust contracts. That’s another story, but otherwise, yes, you have this direct correlation between trust and wealth.

B: And that’s, that’s interesting, because whenever you think about trust, there is always that element of unknown. There is always a leap of faith. And so, this is directly connected to courage: you cannot trust unless you make that decision, and it’s always, yes, somehow, embracing a measure of unknown. While mistrust, not wariness, not prudence, not caution, but mistrust, it’s always a lack of courage. I mean, when you remain in the situation, but mistrust. Because not everything or everyone should be trusted, and sometimes, you sense that things will go badly, and you pull out.

A: It’s interesting if you look at Japan. There’s rules everywhere, and the principle is that something bad is going to happen. So, the rules stem from a spirit of mistrust. But then, you have a very high level of interpersonal trust among people. And I wonder if the two go together? Maybe, the rules create conditions where trust is boosted by the fear of getting a bad rep. You know that other people won’t be doing anything bad, they won’t break the rules, because they’re afraid of the consequences. And so, you can trust them. Maybe that’s how it works.

B: I like that, the collective structures that makes interpersonal trust possible. That’s, I wonder if that’s how blockchain works. They say things like, instead of trusting institutions, you trust the code, the mathematics. But there’s this element of blockchain that everything is transparent, and the way the code works, it’s not, you can trust the code, because other people are watching it, and if people try to mess up with the figures, they’ll be found out. So, there’s an element here that’s like what you describe in the way Japan works, with rules and interpersonal trust. You can trust others because there are collective rules in place.

A: So, that’s interesting, because if you look at institutions, or many companies, there’s people you can trust and people you can’t. It’s like, you place your trust in a certain person, and hopefully, the person in charge is someone you can trust. And because you know they’re in charge, because they’re accountable, you can trust an institution. While in Blockchain, nobody’s responsible. It’s the same thing in a Teal style organization, people don’t want to be responsible, and so what you find is, you trust the process, not the people. I’ve been wondering actually what it does to the people who work in those kinds of systems, to their personal sense of virtue, when there is no personal accountability.

B: Do you mean, whether they’re still responsible people?

A: Yes, when trust is no longer about the people, but the process, how does that affect us, as people?

Prudence – week 5

This year, I will reflect on the four cardinal virtues through daily practice and meditation, intentionally focusing on one per season. I started the year with prudence – or the rational capacity to distinguish good from evil. Every week, I will publish an update on this blog, in the form of a free-flowing meditation.

A key principle of prudence that I articulated in my first month of reflection is the right combination of inwards and outwards – in order to develop a truthful understanding of one’s own particular position within external circumstances themselves truthfully understood. After a week looking inside, I decided to turn outwards, and more specifically consider other people.

I started on the Sunday by getting out of the house – I was invited to a Chinese New Year’s party in the northern suburb of Preston. Rather than linger at home, leave late, and tram, I went on a long walk, stopping at three different cafes along the way. At each stop, I looked at the people around, talking, smiling, interacting. But one main idea resonated through the day: people lie. I was reading about the Chinese communist party, and how the famine of the Great Leap Forward was hidden, because acknowledging it would endanger the positions of those in power. I was reading about the multiple atrocities of Trump’s first week in power, and noted the self-interested framing of all the statements he made. And I read a message by Pope Francis, identifying hypocrisy as the most unchristian attitude, the one most denounced in the New Testament. This, however, on a pessimistic reading, would only confirm the darkness of our nature. Other people will lie, if it’s in their interest – most likely, so will I. And so the first act of prudence is, at least, try not to deceive myself. Wherefore this first day of looking outwards brought me back to myself.

On Monday, I decided that I would continue focusing on observing people. I was out in my Footscray co-working space, not alone. But it was a busy day, where I struggled to focus on the right task, juggling too many projects. I realised, as it ended, that I had been engrossed in my own world most of the time, oblivious to those around. I did seek distractions, I almost completed a jigsaw puzzle, I played a stimulating self-discovery game, I looked at social media – all this with myself and in my own head, rather than observing others.

Tuesday 31 was the last day of the month, a time of transition. Acknowledging that, so far, I seemed very focused on myself, I thought might as well do so productively. I’m entering a first peak period at work, until February 24, and my partner is about to restart school. I looked at the various tasks ahead of me, and realised how anxious they made me. Not that any was overbearing, but there were simply too many together. Some would need to be completed, others to be postponed. This simple scheduling was much simpler that I thought. Four grants I must apply to don’t open until early March. Two quite important administrative tasks that nag at my conscience will take at most an hour to complete. My commitment to regular Chinese practice can be twisted rather than postponed: an extra couple of hours now will give me two weeks off during the highest peak. I realised how much we can live in the future, absorbed in the consideration of things to do. Yet this bringing of a sequential future in the unique present moment is a dangerous recipe for anxiety: a series of tasks that individually do not take long, when considered as a bundle, exceed our capacity to compute, and overwhelm us, clouding our sane judgement. On this day, I accepted my limits, completed a few steps, and made room inside my brain for a productive month of February.

On Wednesday, I was ready to resume my week observing people. I experience early attempts as efforts, and failed on that account. What if I reframed a focus on others as a way to relax?  I have long suffered from upper back pain when I’m under stress, and jokingly named it ‘Atlas Syndrome’ – the feeling that the world is resting on my shoulders. The weight of a cathedral is equally distributed among its pillars, allowing for greater space inside. In the same manner, as free society requires that its weight be distributed around many people. I was sitting at a sushi-bar/café on Flinders Street, looking out the windows at the pedestrian flows of early morning Melbourne. The staff spoke enthusiastically, alternating Cantonese and Mandarin. A certificate from the Multicultural commission hung on the wall, celebrating the owner as a community leader. Some people play a greater role than others in organising crowds – but it is important, I thought, as I saw the flows of pedestrians across the glass, that each of us can be part of multiple communities, balancing each other. These hold society together, and balance off each other. Later in the day, I resumed my intentional observation, while waiting for friends at QV. But sitting still was hard – and I noticed myself starting to stretch, reminisce, evaluate. Before sleep, I imposed this last exercise on myself: sit completely still, thinking neither about the past nor the future. After just a few minutes, I felt an intense sense of calm, and a very restorative sleep followed.

This coloured my Thursday: during the day, I would take regular pauses, doing absolutely nothing, whenever I finished an activity. This had a significant impact. I felt more clear-headed, more present to the task at hand, more in control. A few minutes, adding up to fifteen at most over the day, where I paused, observed and breathed, made enormous internal space, and gave me both great happiness, and a great sense of achievement.

The week ended where it started, considering other people. Donald Trump has been playing in the background all through the week, on my social media pages. Controlling our attention, I read, is key to our own happiness. I decided that I would focus on two pillars of resistance, as sources of positive inspiration, Angela Merkel and Pope Francis. Whenever Trump came on a feed, I didn’t click, but instead thought about those two. I deliberately spent time reading about them. None aligns perfectly with my own politics or idea of a desirable society. Pope Francis is socially conservative, Angela Merkel is economically conservative. Yet they bring a sense of solidity, patience, and an alternative to self-serving, impulsive politics. A bulwark against collective madness.

Reflections on translation – an interview with James Friesen

Pasted here is the text of an interview that I did with James Friesen, student of translation at Taiwan National University and active translator on Marco Polo Project. James contacted me for an interview to discuss what the work of a translator can be like. This was a great opportunity for me to reflect on the Marco Polo model for collaborative translation, and what might have inspired him – and I had a great time chatting with James!

James Friesen

I read a news article this year on why women in China do not divorce their husbands, even in the face of infidelity and flagrant mistreatment. The piece, actually a vignette of sorts, was aptly written from the perspective of a divorced Chinese woman; the piece was written in translation. She argued that saving face and fear of losing economic status stave off divorce; there was no mention of love. This seemed to me a rare and fascinating insight into the mind of a character that Western readers are not often privy to. The link at the bottom of the page accredited the story to  ‘http://marcopoloproject.org’. Following the link lead to the source of the translation and a somewhat unpredictable resource – a vibrant online community of voluntary translators. On the Marco Polo Project one can find many other insightful articles on topics ranging from city life in China, Buddhism and homosexuality in Taiwan, and other short stories. I contacted the founder and CEO of the project, Julien Leyre, as I thought the website was a brilliant idea. I wanted to pick his brain on some issues relating to the project and translation in general. He was kind enough to respond to me, and our exchange eventually culminated in the interview you see below:

JF: For starters, can you briefly share your background, and how you came to the field of translation?

JL: Sure, I would say my background could be separated into two aspects: cultural and intellectual. I am Frenchman who grew up close to the German border; my family is Mediterranean with Italian ancestry. Living in a multicultural environment I developed an interest in language and cultural differences from a very young age and gained an understanding of multiple languages. In university I specialized in languages, majoring in English and Classics at Ecole Normale Superieure, my Masters is in linguistics, and I passed an exam to be a high school and University teacher. I have also been interested in writing from a very young age – things like short stories, poetry, collaborations with filmmakers; I also published a short novel in Paris and have been involved in various writing projects over the last ten years.

JF: Growing up in a linguistically rich environment, was doing translation an intentional decision or something you just fell into?

JL: I guess I fell into it speaking and reading seven languages to various levels; it is common for continental Europeans to speak three or four languages. One of the key things that drew me to translation was my training in classics. One of the things you do when you study classics is translate or re-translate texts from the Greek and Latin. The way I learned how to think in this regard was largely by close reading of Plato and Aristotle while doing a translation. Translation for me is conveying meaning from a certain language to those who cannot access this language. This involves closely reflecting on the way a meaning is constructed in a text – in a word it’s philology. Which is closely reading a text in order to understand what it actually means, and it often involves a process of translation as well.

JF: Can you share a little about the Marco Polo Project?

JL: It’s a website where users can read and translate contemporary writing from China. There are two aspects to it. It’s a collaborative online magazine that proposes Chinese writing in translation by crowd-sourcing the translation, delegating the translation process not through one specific person but to whoever comes and does it. The other way to look at it is a platform that encourages translators and advanced language learners to come and practice translation. It is something that we do anyway as a part of our learning so doing it in collaboration is a good motivation; it is more fun and gives meaning to what we do, essentially the more we do it the more and better we learn.

JF: What does the process of translation look like for you?

JL: It depends on what I translate. On the Marco Polo Project, I translate in layers. I start translating as I go, which is not what I was trained to do – I was told to closely read a text numerous times before starting. I start with a quick translation as I go, using google translate on the side, anything that is simple, to get an overall idea of what I’m translating. A rough patchy draft, let it rest, and come back to it to fill in the blanks, and improve what I had translated the first time, and finalize it, looking for consistency – also sometimes, consulting a native speaker to confirm doubtful passages of the meaning of idiomatic expressions.

JF: Does translation theory enter into the picture? For example, do you apply what you learned in your classics training?

JL: I would say it is in the background. What I mean is, because I spent time lecturing and doing research in linguistics in semantics, of which translation theory was a part, I completely absorbed it. It has become a part of the way that I think and not a conscious process anymore, almost like breathing. Secondly, it’s about how you relate as a mediator between the original text and the audience, which are two different worlds. You will position your translation in between these two worlds. The type of text determines the type of audience and how they relate to the text. In translating a vacuum cleaner manual you will not care so much about the way the original text is structured, rather you will care more about the meaning. Translating poetry however, you will stay much closer to the structure of the original. Texts on the Marco Polo Project are creative non-fiction, essays, blog posts, and so they sit somewhere in between.

JF: What draws you to a given piece? What makes you say, “I want to translate that”?

JL: The simple answer is gut feeling, but the gut feeling has something behind it. I look for a piece that is original and well structured. By originality I mean the content of the piece is something I have never read about before. Generally the more specific a piece is, the more likely I am to translate it. For example there is a piece called ‘The Tears of Animals’. I thought, wow, a Chinese person is speaking about how they relate to animals crying, I had never heard about that before, I want to translate that. I also choose pieces that are clearly articulated, ones that you can follow the construction. If you choose a piece based only on style, there is often a big distance between Chinese and English which makes translation very difficult, but a structured piece translates relatively well.

*Link to ‘The Tears of Animals’ (http://marcopoloproject.org/online/the-tears-of-animals/)

JF: What are some advantages/challenges of having a ‘living online community’ collectively translate something? 

JL: There are two main advantages to this type of platform, and I will start with the more cynical one. It makes translation cheap. The problem that we have is that there is a growing to demand to understand China; content written in Chinese is a good way to address this demand. But if you use the old model of sending a work to a professional translator with a high level of quality control etc. it’s really slow and there are not enough translators to meet the need. By crowd sourcing you can reduce cost. Translating collectively can help people to do better work and give them a sense of accomplishment through collaboration, for example if you translate a small part of a large piece. Translators can help other translators, it gives a sense of meaning and community. Are they actually good and accurate? To an extent I think people undervalue the quality of translations by people who are not professionals. As a language teacher, I thought the translation of my students were not too bad, however you do need to monitor that a little bit. The other challenge is keeping the good translators interested because a native English speaker who is also fluent in Chinese is hard to keep, there is lots of demand on their time, so it’s about finding ways to encourage people and keeping them engaged. A living online community requires moderation, giving feedback to people, providing new content, etc. so it takes a lot of work, it doesn’t do itself.

JF: Blog translation seems like it is becoming an independent genre, and beyond that, a mouthpiece for censor-dodging Chinese users. What implications does this have? 

JL: The question of censorship is something we’ve thought about from the start of the project. We want to bring across a diversity of voices from China, which may include some sensitive material, but we do not want to be blocked from China as that would defeat the purpose. We want the material to be available for Mainland Chinese; we want to stay out of trouble but at the same time avoid just replicating government speech, there’s no point in that. So we have to play it by ear, but we basically try to focus on some good non-sensitive material. Sensitive areas include Taiwan, Tibet, Xinjiang, demonstrations against the government, some comparatively non-sensitive areas for example are gay rights, feminism, love relationships, and the way technology is affecting the life in big Chinese cities. Western media happens to be, in my perspective, obsessed with sensitive topics, Ai Weiwei and Chen Guangcheng are all over the news. But there are other intellectuals who do an insiders view on China, for instance Li Yinhe, who studies gender issues, is not popular in Western media but also not censored in China. Topics like these are less covered and, quite possibly, more original and more interesting because of it.

JF: What are your goals for the future of Marco Polo Project?

JL: I would like the project to show up on the list of the top 20-25 major reference websites on China. I would like it to be on the radar of translation students and people doing research and analysis on China, in terms of language learning and practice, as well as reporting, media, etc. I would like to build a bigger and more active community than we have at the moment, and there are a couple ways of doing that. We are doing a campaign right now to pay for a few improvements on the interface, to make it more user-friendly. The other way is to build partnerships with institutions, especially language learning institutions, translation centers etc. We believe that if teachers recommend the platform to their students and possibly even integrate it into their curriculum, We will be trialing that at La Trobe University in Australia, so we can refine the idea of how to put it in a workshop etc. and hopefully in the future we can take that model elsewhere.