I’ve seen the Future baby, and it’s… social media #AdlFoI

[Third of a series of blog posts about sessions at the Adelaide Festival of Ideas on Saturday 22nd October]

Dr Fiona Kerr (of Adelaide University; all the best people went there) gave a barnstorming tour through the brain (her day job), and talked about the impacts on it of prolonged exposure to new technologies.  She made a compelling case that … sorry, just had to check an email message.  Where was I?  Oh, yes, she made a…   No, sorry, it’s gone.  Something about deep thinking needing to be done off-line, away from the dopamine-pings of… hang on, just a minute… something about abstraction.

She then moved on to talk about the fascinating physiological profiles of empathy (‘discernment mode’.  The problem with social media is that it doesn’t have the face-to-face empathic cues and clues, so although we are better ‘connected’, we are no less lonely.  She speculated on the possible link to increased depression [As I am sure Kerr is aware, new technologies always come with these fears – the introduction of the telephone, for instance, was predicted to kill  off people visiting one another].

Kerr then turned to Big Data, and recommend we read Hans Rosling, who looks at the patterns(and solutions) in solving world’s problems.  There was an intriguing reference to a search engine company having made a choice to present ‘easy’ results, that keep us surfing (and therefore our eyeballs sold to advertises) rather than digging deeper.

On the question of references to oneself, in face-to-face conversation, its roughly 30 per cent of sentences that include I/me statements but on social media it’s in the 80s%. #engineofnarcissism.  [but then, Christopher Lasch was banging on about narcissism in the 70s, and Philip Slater in the 60s). It’s always been getting worse, no?

Kerr also talked about cases of women with new born children on their phones while breast-feeding. She said that while skin-to-skin contact is really important, eye contact (‘direct gaze’) is also very very important indeed.  (She gave the example of infants’ cortisol levels going up and staying up during a ‘still face’ and no touch experiment , versus cortisol levels not spiking as high or staying elevated if  ‘still face’ was accompanied by continuous touch. Recent work is looking a ‘irritable cortisol receptors.

In response to an excellent question/observation about how in East Timor, very young children are given (small!) jobs to do and the elderly important jobs, Kerr spoke of the importance of will power (persistence) but also challenging children and expecting more of them.

I had a brief chat afterwards with Dr Kerr on Blade Runner (naturlich) and the rise of the machines (our extermination may be down to nothing more than an optimisation algorithm, rather than SkyNet becoming self-aware) and… ‘synthetic empathy


Sustainable jobs in sustainable communities #AdlFoI

[Second of a series of blog posts about sessions at the Adelaide Festival of Ideas on Saturday 22nd October]

“Sustainable” is one of those motherhood-and-applie pie words (fnords,if you will) that don’t offer clarity. However John Spoehr, Heather Smith (a friend) and Sean Williams overcame this as far as could be expected in a short session.

It was well-chaired by Craig Wilkins, who’s the head of the Conservation Council of South Australia.  He threw questions at each of the panellists about the challenges for South Australia, with some of the big employers (car manufacturing, for example) closing down, and an energy transition under way.  Spoehr made the point that choices made now will be very consequential (i.e. to use the academic jargon, ‘path dependency.  Spoehr highlighted the importance of the Rudd government’s prompt stimulus package in response to the Global Financial Crisis, avoiding high unemployment.  Smith and Williams had a fascinating exchange about the value neutrality of technologies (with the example given of individual passwords for shared iPads clashing with ‘common ownership’), and also on the question of the importance of energy as underpinning all that we ‘take for granted’,   Williams , a scifi writer, talked about how he investigates the implications and consequences of technology through his fiction.

Fwiw, I tweeted as best I could.

1981-jobs-energy-harmonyThere were good questions on how to finance the (enormous amount of) necessary work around adaptation.  I asked a question that was basically –‘look, I recently found a 1981 booklet by a group called ‘Environmentalists for Full Employment’ that makes the same arguments we are now making. What’s to stop the same cycle recurring, with a PhD researcher finding today’s pleas and grand plans 35 years from now?

Spoehr cited the need for strong social movement, Smith the fact that incremental innovations within systems are insufficient, therefore external shocks and agitators are necessary. Lewis agreed that vested interests are indeed powerful and part of the problem is, given that everyone wants to be the hero in their own narrative, telling them they’ve been wrong/selfish/evil is going to add to their intransigence.

Athenian Democracy? A few funny things will need to happen on the way to the forums… #AdlFoI

[First of a series of blog posts about sessions at the Adelaide Festival of Ideas on Saturday 22nd October]

Nicholas Gruen started out with a stark example of the limits/dangers of ‘Vox Pop Democracy’. In the aftermath of the Global Financial Crisis the Obama Administration asked for people’s suggestions/priorities. And the answers were not ‘health/education’ etc but the legalisation of pot and that birth certificate. Ooops.

Gruen argues Vox Pop Democracy is ‘asking people what they think before they’ve had time to think” which tends to get a poor response. He made the point that the orange monstrosity will get 40% of the vote in the US elections.

Taking an Australian perspective, he pointed out that if there had been replacing a carbon price (the tax would have raised 10bn a year) with a carbon subsidy for polluters would not have got through parliament if each MP had been asked to vote on their conscience/ intelligence. For Gruen, the political culture is suffering from something we see also in other areas of life, with the instincts that helped us survive on the savannah less useful in complex societies. Gruen threw in a couple of really good quotes from Schumpeter on the question of collective activity, LINK

I learnt a word – isegoria “equality of speech”

On citizens’ juries (something the South Australian government is currently keen on) Gruen observes that jury members were appalled with the way their deliberations and activity are (mis)represented in the mass media [something anyone who has been on a demonstration probably knows well too].

Gruen then turned to his suggestion for a third chamber (a ‘people’s chamber) to sit alongside the two elected ones, with people chosen by lot (as per citizens’ juries). However, he ran out of time to detail the mechanics of this.

The questions from the audience were therefore relatively limited (including from me) because we were not sure about the mechanics of how such a chamber would work, how it would overcome the counter-measures of the vested interests within the political system, the permanent bureaucracy, the media and the business sector. But certainly SOMETHING(S) have to be done, and hopefully Gruen will expand on this activity!

Reaction formations- of time, space, rallies and camps #activism

Our choices – conscious and unconscious – of where, when and ‘how’ we protest – constrain our options, whether we can see that or not.

In 2005 activists at the Gleneagles G8 meeting realised that “summit-hopping” and responding to elite agendas was demoralising and debilitating.  Thus was born the principle of a ‘Camp for Climate Action’.  Not a bad idea at all (though the secret planning meetings were held in the flat of someone who turned out to be an undercover cop, #oops).If it had been savvier and less facipulated it might have avoided the blindingly-obvious danger of becoming an annual scorched-earth festival and lek.  So it goes.  The specific observation – that activists should where possible choose when there is a protest event and the circumstances in which they come- is a solid one.

Talking to a new friend about a recent rally, we realised that the possibility for doing anything innovative were massively constrained because of the physical geography – on the steps of parliament house, with a narrow pavement and then people spilling onto the main street (blocked off by the police).  All for the symbolism of ‘taking the fight to the politicians’ – i.e. parking ourselves on their ‘lawn’.  But when you have that narrow strip, and you only have it for as long as you agreed with the police (who are keen to get the traffic flowing again), then basically all you can do is the set pieces that were done.  Speeches (albeit good ones, not too long, and not just from the old white leftie men) and a few chants.

Yes, this enables people to learn some new information (most of which they’ll forget),feel less isolated and catch up with old friends/acquaintances.  But is that all we’re aiming for?

There is a perfectly good large green (and pretty) space very nearby, where the rally could have taken place. There could have been fewer speeches (after all, it’s a pretty inefficient way of distributing information) and with the additional time, those who came could have been helped to move from audience to participants. They could have been then asked to clump together in the geographical areas they lived in, and facilitators helping to get people knowing each other, perhaps realising that they lived quite close to each other but had never met because one was an old leftie and the other a young green or whatever.  Thus are the loose bonds of social movements thickened…

[For more on this, see this post about the 2011 ‘Say Yes’ rally in Adelaide]

Of course, the symbolism is lost, and since it’s an innovation there would be massive grumbling and sabotage by those who benefit from the status quo or just don’t like change.  The smugosphere is very resilient;.institutional change is very very difficult, and rarely happens quickly…

After all, the climate campers decided that summit-hopping to Copenhagen at the end of 2009 was a good use of their time – the analysis of 2005 long forgotten.  We revert – especially when we are losing or stressed, as they were by then – to comforting rituals.  So it went…

Directions on misdirections at the Festival of Ideas

Phillip Adams and Barry Jones are two of the grand old men of Australian culture (and I know some people will have sniggered at that phrase; to one I say ‘see you in the divorce court, love’).

For over fifty years they have fought the good fight – against the death penalty, against censorship, for science (especially on ‘the greenhouse effect’ as climate change was known, back in the 80s), for the film industry and much else (it’s a really really long list).  Jones went down the more explicitly political route (he was Minister for Science from 1983 to 1990, Australian Labor Party chair etc), while Adams has been a writer, advertising exec and has had an extremely well-regarded late night radio programme that’s been running since about five minutes after Marconi’s first message.

They made the perfect couple, therefore, to open the ninth Adelaide Festival of Ideas, which runs until Sunday.

In front of a gerontologically-advantaged capacity audience (300 people? 500?) the two bounced ideas and anecdotes off each other like the raconteurs they are.

Jones introduce Adams with aplomb, reminiscing about Adams work with the visionary SA Premier Don Dunstan (Jones is delivering the Don Dunstan Oration tomorrow)

In explaining how they met, Jones quoted extensively from a Patrick White article ‘the Prodigal Son

“In all directions stretched the Great Australian Emptiness, in which the mind is the least of possessions, in which the rich man is the important man, in which the schoolmaster and the journalist rule what intellectual roost there is, in which beautiful youths and girls stare at life through blind blue eyes, in which human teeth fall like autumn leaves, the buttocks of cars grow hourly glassier, food means cake and steak, muscles prevail, and the march of material ugliness does not raise a quiver from the average nerves.”

On reading that quoted by Jones, Adams got in touch and they formed a close bond, that saw them as influential arts figures during the Holt, Gorton and especially Whitlam governments.    Jones told a very funny anecdote about a car accident in the Soviet Union, sans papiers, and the unexpected power of the sentence ‘Nyet, apparatchki!”, before quoting Eric Beecher on Adams

“He’s been around the media for decades, he looks more like a priest than a radio jock, he talks proper, he has an amazingly retentive memory, he’s accessibly cerebral, he wears his biases on his skivvy, he polarizes opinion and opinion-makers, he applies historical perspective to his views and discussions, he attracts by far the most significant interview subjects from around the globe to his program, he probes and banters with them as an equal, he gets himself properly briefed on the detail, he gives his subjects time and space to be discursive and therefore, often, illuminating, he breaks all the rules of talk radio, he is an Australian institution and an international-calibre broadcaster who would distinguish the airwaves of any radio station anywhere. He is Phillip Adams”

and handing over to the man himself. Adams’ central point  (there were others – there are always wonderful digressions with Phillip Adams – think of him like the Ronnie Corbett shaggy dog sketches in ‘The Two Ronnies’, only with detours to Fellini, Hegel and whatever else you care to imagine) was of the importance of paying close attention to the right things, especially when someone is trying to bamboozle you.

To this end, after mentioning  CSICOP, he recounted a story of the US myth buster James Randi, who had been invited to Australia by entrepreneur Dick Smith.  Randi managed to get a whole room of journalists and cameramen to not see that he was moving a cigarette on a table not by ‘static electricity’ or wiggling his fingers but … by blowing on it.

This Adams described as a eureka moment for him, around mis-direction in politics. He compared the public to bulls who are being stuck by picadors but run futilely at the matador’s swirling cape; he compared Donald Trump and the magician David Copperfield, both cleverly making the Statue of Liberty disappear.  It was a classic Adams’ display, referencing the Kardashians, Hitchcock’s MacGuffins and much else.  His warned of strawmen and false binaries (around asylum seekers – ‘razor wire or red carpets’) and closed with a plea that neatly came back to the James Randi anecdote, while bringing in George HW Bush – even when we know they are lying, we should watch their lips intently.

There was then a very entertaining discussion between Jones and Adams on the latter’s memory and craft.  Adams likes the New York Review of Books, but I think Jones is right in bigging up the London Review of Books (I had a subscription for years, and still have a pile from 2008 to 2010, when Manchester Climate Fortnightly took over my life but I still couldn’t bring myself to cancel).  He particularly cited two articles by Elliot Weinberger. Adams told very funny stories about Gore Vidal, a Buddhist monk who spoke not a word of English, a couple of Dunstan anecdotes and a Gorbachev anecdote (it sounds like name-dropping, but it wasn’t).  Adams was in mordant form though, and Captain Hook and his alarming alarm clock got the last tick tock. Time’s winged chariot and all that…

Overall verdict – a very fine evening.  The organisers deserve praise (but not fulsome praise)

And now, immodestly, three Concepts that I think would have helped-

Agnotology (the deliberate creation of ignorance)

Laura Tingle’s Political Amnesia, a Quarterly Essay on the inability of bureaucracies, political parties and the media (and, I would add social movements) to have a working memory that stretches back before the week before last.  Fwiw, Tingle is a staggeringly good political journalist and really should be the next dedicatee of the Adelaide Festival of Ideas.

And finally – this from Oliver Sacks essay ‘The President’s Speech’

Among the patients with tonal agnosia on our aphasia ward who also listened to the President’s speech was Emily D. , with a glioma in her right temporal lobe. A former English teacher, and poetess of some repute, with an exceptional feeling for language, and strong powers of analysis and expression, Emily D. was able to articulate the opposite situation-how the President’s speech sounded to someone with tonal agnosia. Emily D. could no longer tell if a voice was angry, cheerful, sad-whatever. Since voices now lacked expression, she had to look at people’s faces, their postures and movements when they talked, and found herself doing so with a care, an intensity , she had never shown before. But this, it so happened, was also limited, because she had a malignant glaucoma, and was rapidly losing her sight too.

What she then found she had to do was to pay extreme attention to exactness of words and word use, and to insist that those around her did just the same. She could less and less follow loose speech or slang –speech of an allusive or emotional kind– and more and more required of her interlocutors that they speak prose -‘proper words in proper places’. Prose, she found, might compensate, in some degree; for lack of perceived tone or feeling.

In this way she was able to preserve, even enhance, the use of ‘expressive’ speech-in which the meaning was wholly given by the apt choice and reference of words-despite being more and more lost with ‘evocative’ speech (where meaning is wholly given in the use and sense of tone).

Emily D. also listened, stony-faced, to the President’s speech, bringing to it a strange mixture of enhanced and defective perceptions —precisely the opposite. mixture to those of our aphasiacs. It did not move her –no speech now moved her– and all that was evocative, genuine or false completely passed her by. Deprived of emotional reaction, was she then (like the rest of us) transported or taken in? By no means. ‘He is not cogent,’ she said. ‘He does not speak good prose. His word-use is improper. Either he is brain-damaged, or he has something to conceal.’ Thus the President’s speech did not work for Emily D. either, due to her enhanced sense of formal language use, propriety as prose, any more than it worked for our aphasiacs, with their word-deafness but enhanced sense of tone.

Here then was the paradox of the President’s speech. We normals—aided, doubtless, by our wish to be fooied, were indeed well and truly fooled (‘Populus vult decipi, ergo decipiatur’). And so cunningly was deceptive word-use combined with deceptive tone, that only the brain-damaged remained intact, undeceived.


But which BIT of big business gets its way in which circumstances, eh?

The State is merely the committee for managing the affairs of the bourgeoisie, innit?  The evil moustache-twirling CEOs get together and tell their political meat-puppet underlings what to do.  Simples.

Well, sometimes, but every so often maybe it is more complicated.  I’m collecting examples of these every-so-often moments for my PhD thesis.  I have quite a nice collection, especially from the years 1996-2007, when little Johnnie Howard was a staunch and effective opponent of climate action.

Here’s a new example, from a Marian Wilkinson 2007 article..

But [Hugh] Morgan’s real success was not in the propaganda war but in the boardroom. In 2000 the Business Council of Australia was struggling to come to grips with the challenge of climate change. [Paul] Anderson, then chief executive of BHP and a key member of the council, called a meeting of the leading business players to discuss their response.

“I held a party and nobody came,” he says. “They sent some low-level people that almost read from things that had been given to them by their lawyers. Things like, ‘Our company does not acknowledge that carbon dioxide is an issue and, if it is, we’re not the cause of it and we wouldn’t admit to it anyway.’”

While Anderson was no fan of the Kyoto agreement, he was convinced climate change was real and BHP should get out in front on the issue. He believed the solution was a carbon tax that would put a cost on greenhouse gas pollution to force down emissions.

Wilkinson, M. 2007. Delayed reaction. Sydney Morning Herald, 24 March.  Reprinted in Jones, T. (ed). 2008.The Best Australian Political Writing 2008.  Melbourne: Melbourne University Press. Pp.155-163.

Maunderings and meanderings (Thesis) #Window #Metaphors #sense-making

Maundering #1

One of the key techniques for defensive institutional work is to make nonsense; to destroy or at the very least degrade the sense-making capacity of your opponents.

Disorientate your enemy, deprive them of the ability to figure out – (quick enough – these are OODA loops, don’t forget), what is going on.

Screw with the sense-making capacity that people and organisations have, hack it, simplify it in directions that are useful to you. i.e  successfully creating the ‘common sense’ that the budget of a country’s government is the same as the budget of a house, with a need to always balance the budgets in the short term etc etc.  A master frame that disables other frames….  See also “Corporations are wealth creators, governments and states are dinosaurs and parasites…”

See also-


‘Window’/chaff – make it hard for the radar to see what is going on  [devised by Joan Curran, who seems to have been a very kick-arse scientist]

Take away the road signs in case of invasion etc etc

Maundering #2

Every metaphor/analogy comes with costs, no?  It shapes or at least strongly suggests possible paths, taken or not.  Signposts that lead the unwary or unreflective, scared or busy (and we’re all way too busy) traveller down one route rather than another.  A touch of Frost and all that.