Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Archive for the ‘Civilisation Building’ Category

There was an interesting article on the future of work in Friday’s Guardian.  Considered in the context of Walker’s book on sleep, which argues that Western society at least is dangerously sleep-deprived, pictures of the future along the lines of those in this article should be viewed as not hopelessly Utopian dreams but the potential source of desperately needed remedies. Well worth a read. Below is a short extract: for the full post see link.

Work has ruled our lives for centuries, and it does so today more than ever. But a new generation of thinkers insists there is an alternative.

Work is the master of the modern world. For most people, it is impossible to imagine society without it. It dominates and pervades everyday life – especially in Britain and the US – more completely than at any time in recent history. An obsession with employability runs through education. Even severely disabled welfare claimants are required to be work-seekers. Corporate superstars show off their epic work schedules. “Hard-working families” are idealised by politicians. Friends pitch each other business ideas. Tech companies persuade their employees that round-the-clock work is play. Gig economy companies claim that round-the-clock work is freedom. Workers commute further, strike less, retire later. Digital technology lets work invade leisure.

In all these mutually reinforcing ways, work increasingly forms our routines and psyches, and squeezes out other influences. As Joanna Biggs put it in her quietly disturbing 2015 book All Day Long: A Portrait of Britain at Work, “Work is … how we give our lives meaning when religion, party politics and community fall away.”

. . . Our culture of work strains to cover its flaws by claiming to be unavoidable and natural. “Mankind is hardwired to work,” as the Conservative MP Nick Boles puts it in a new book, Square Deal. It is an argument most of us have long internalised.

But not quite all. The idea of a world freed from work, wholly or in part, has been intermittently expressed – and mocked and suppressed – for as long as modern capitalism has existed. Repeatedly, the promise of less work has been prominent in visions of the future. In 1845, Karl Marx wrote that in a communist society workers would be freed from the monotony of a single draining job to “hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticise after dinner”. In 1884, the socialist William Morris proposed that in “beautiful” factories of the future, surrounded by gardens for relaxation, employees should work only “four hours a day”.

In 1930, the economist John Maynard Keynes predicted that, by the early 21st century, advances in technology would lead to an “age of leisure and abundance”, in which people might work 15 hours a week. In 1980, as robots began to depopulate factories, the French social and economic theorist André Gorz declared: “The abolition of work is a process already underway … The manner in which [it] is to be managed … constitutes the central political issue of the coming decades.”

Since the early 2010s, as the crisis of work has become increasingly unavoidable in the US and the UK, these heretical ideas have been rediscovered and developed further. Brief polemics such as Graeber’s “bullshit jobs” have been followed by more nuanced books, creating a rapidly growing literature that critiques work as an ideology – sometimes labelling it “workism” – and explores what could take its place. A new anti-work movement has taken shape.

Advertisements

Read Full Post »

Pollution in Shanghai

I meant to share this Guardian July article by David Runciman some time ago but it somehow slipped through the net. However, I think it makes so many important points, I still need to post a link no matter how late in the day. It resonates for me not just because the issue itself is so critical, and not just because discussion of it has become ensnared in the fake-news zeitgeist, but also because it highlights the importance of asserting uncertainty, one of my hobby horses:

We live in an age when mistrust of politics has spilled over into mistrust of expertise, and vice versa. To respond with ever-greater certainty in the name of science is a big mistake. Expertise doesn’t just need humility. It also needs to reclaim the idea of scepticism from the people who have abused it. Experts need to find a way of expressing uncertainty without feeling it undermines their expertise. Voicing doubt has been allowed to become a synonym for admitting you were wrong. The way out is to stop insisting that you were right in the first place.

Below is a short extract: for the full post see link.

Doubts about the science are being replaced by doubts about the motives of scientists and their political supporters. Once this kind of cynicism takes hold, is there any hope for the truth?

Last month Donald Trump announced his intention to withdraw the United States from the Paris climate accord. For his supporters, it provided evidence, at last, that the president is a man of his word. He may not have kept many campaign promises, but he kept this one. For his numerous critics it is just another sign of how little Trump cares about evidence of any kind. His decision to junk the Paris accord confirms Trump as the poster politician for the “post-truth” age.

But this is not just about Trump. The motley array of candidates who ran for the Republican presidential nomination was divided on many things, but not on climate change. None of them was willing to take the issue seriously. In a bitterly contentious election, it was a rare instance of unanimity. The consensus that climate is a non-subject was shared by all the candidates who appeared in the first major Republican debate in August 2015 – Jeb Bush, Scott Walker, Ben Carson, Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, Rand Paul, Chris Christie, John Kasich, Mike Huckabee and Trump. Republican voters were offered 10 shades of denialism.

As Huckabee quipped in January 2015, any talk of global warming was a distraction from the real dangers the country faced: “A beheading is a far greater threat to an American than a sunburn.” Trump’s remarks on climate may have more been erratic (“I want to use hairspray!” he said at one point, confusing global warming with the hole in the ozone layer) but their consistent theme was that manmade climate change is a “hoax”, perpetrated by the enemies of the US, who may or may not include China.

Climate science has become a red rag to the political right. The scientific consensus is clear: more than 95% of climate researchers agree that human activity is causing global warming, and that without action to combat it we are on a path to dangerous temperature rises from pre-industrial levels. But the mere existence of this consensus gets taken by its political opponents as a priorievidence of a stitch-up. Why else would scientists and left-leaning politicians be agreeing with each other all the time if they weren’t scratching each others’ backs? Knowledge is easily turned into “elite” knowledge, which is tantamount to privileged snobs telling ordinary people what to think. Trump’s stance reflects the mutual intolerance that now exists between those promoting the scientific consensus and those for whom the consensus is just another political racket. Trump didn’t create this division. He is simply exploiting it.

It is tempting for anyone on the scientific side of the divide to want to apportion all the blame to the “alt-facts” crowd, who see elite conspiracies everywhere. But there is more going on here than dumb politics versus smart science. The facts are not just the innocent victims of politics. The facts have long been put in the service of politics, which is what fuels the suspicions of those who wish to deny them. The politicisation can cut both ways.

Read Full Post »

View of the River from the entrance of the Pavilion Centre

One hour’s reflection is preferable to seventy years’ pious worship.

Bahá’u’lláh quoting a hadith in Kitáb-i-Íqán – page 238).

Take ye counsel together in all matters, inasmuch as consultation is the lamp of guidance which leadeth the way, and is the bestower of understanding.

(Bahá’u’lláh – Tablets – page 168)

Reflection takes a collective form through consultation.

(Paul Lample in Revelation and Social Reality – page 212).

Last time I looked in some detail at the life of Bahá’u’lláh, as derived from the notes I made to prepare for a longer talk at the Pavilion Centre in Hereford that never happened! This is where I move to a brief consideration of the core teachings.

The Core Beliefs

The main tenets of Bahá’í belief can be summarised briefly here as follows:

The absolute core is a belief in the essential unity of God, Religion and Humanity:

O Children of Men! Know ye not why We created you all from the same dust? That no one should exalt himself over the other. Ponder at all times in your hearts how ye were created. Since We have created you all from one same substance it is incumbent on you to be even as one soul, to walk with the same feet, eat with the same mouth and dwell in the same land, that from your inmost being, by your deeds and actions, the signs of oneness and the essence of detachment may be made manifest. Such is My counsel to you, O concourse of light! Heed ye this counsel that ye may obtain the fruit of holiness from the tree of wondrous glory.

(“The Hidden Words of Bahá’u’lláh”, Arabic no. 68, rev. ed. (Wilmette: Bahá’í Publishing Trust, 1985), p. 20)

The earth is but one country and mankind its citizens.

(Gleanings – CXVII)

We are living in a single interconnected world. The challenges of globalism in its current form and the inequalities it fosters are causing many to regress to a harder line nationalism as the solution. This will definitely not work in the long term and probably won’t in the short term either.

Other important principles that stem from the concept of unity are:

The idea of a World Government; (this would not be an authoritarian bureaucracy – the local, national and international will each have their appropriate jurisdiction); the independent investigation of truth; the essential harmony of Religion and Science; the equality of men and women; the elimination of all prejudice; universal compulsory education; a spiritual solution to economic problems; and the need for a universal auxiliary language.

Questions Two, Three & Four

Two of the next three questions put to me before the talk were slightly more unusual:

How has your faith changed since travelling to the UK and do you practice in the same ways as originally defined? How can your belief be used to help us all create more understanding and a better world for us all – locally /nationally and beyond? What is your personal story for following your faith?

The answer to the first question is not a lot in terms of its fundamentals, and I’ve dealt with the second and third question on this blog many times.

The question that proved most intriguing, because the answer that popped into my head was not the one that I expected, was:

What is the most important aspect of your faith to you and why?

There is so much that I could’ve said including these: the Bahá’í Faith combines spirituality and activism in what seems to me to be a unique way; we have a global democratic administrative system that allows what we learn in one place to be applied in another and involves no priestly authority; its core concept of unity and interconnectedness is the key to our material survival as well as to our spiritual thriving; the idea of progressive revelation reduces the tensions and conflicts between people of different faiths; and service and community building are at the heart of the Faith’s approach to the social world. All of these matter to me a great deal and influenced my decision to attempt to tread the Bahá’í path. All of these depend for their effectiveness both upon nurturing the family and developing the educational system: even so I didn’t choose those either.

It may come as no surprise to readers of my blog that what I decided to say in the end, but never got the chance, focused upon the link between reflection and consultation, not just in the context of the administrative system, but as a consistent pattern of experiencing our inner and outer worlds and communicating with others, as skills that we need to use everywhere and all the time. It is part of the mystical core of the Bahá’í Faith, depending as both skills do on the development of the highest possible levels of detachment.

In a recent post I summarised the core of this insight briefly by saying:

. . . truthfulness requires the ability to reflect as an individual, which means stepping back, as we have described, from the immediate contents of our consciousness, so that we can gain a more objective and dispassionate perspective, and as a group it means consulting together as dispassionately as possible in order to lift our understanding to a higher level.

In fact, it is as though truth were, as John Donne wrote, ‘on a huge hill, cragged and steep.’ We are all approaching it from different sides. Just because your path looks nothing like mine it does not mean that, as long as you are moving upwards, it is any less viable than mine as a way to arrive at the truth. I might honestly feel you are completely mistaken and say so in the strongest possible terms. But I would be wrong to do so, even if I’m right. We would both move faster upwards if we compared notes more humbly and carefully. Reflection helps create the necessary humility: consultation makes the comparison of paths possible.

Of the key criteria that ‘Abdu’l-Bahá sets for the achievement of true consultation, I chose to emphasise, in this context, the capacity for detachment. This is simply because it underpins the process of reflection for us as individuals as well as the process of consultation for us as groups and communities. If I cannot step back from my passing thoughts and feelings, detach myself from them, I won’t be able to consult, and similarly if I am with people who cannot do that also, consultation will be impossible.

It is intriguingly difficult to convey these points briefly to those who have not had cause to think about them before. In the world as it stands it is increasingly important that more of us learn these skills than ever before. A constant focus of my current reflections is on how I can best work towards both honing my own reflection and consultation skills, and, just as importantly, how can I motivate others to do the same.

Read Full Post »

A friend of mine posted some thoughtful reflections on recent events in Las Vegas. He draws our attention to the care we should take when we choose an object of devotion, whether it be our own ego, with its proneness to acting out its reptilian reactions, or some temptingly charismatic charlatan, with his (it’s usually a man) basketful of empty promises in return for mindless obedience.  Below is a short extract: for the full post see link.

On October 1st, 2017, a gunman opened fire on a concert 32 floors below his Las Vegas hotel window. He had with him a large number of weapons, and he had rigged up cameras in the corridor so that he could see when any police officers were approaching him. He killed 58 people, and injured 520 more. He had no known political affiliation, was not known to have any mental problems, and unlike so many killers, he was not known to the police. It is, however, interesting to note that the police once regarded his father as being psychopathic.

So what were his motives? Was it sheer jealousy, that other people seemed to gain happiness from life, while he could not? Was it resentment of others, or desire for revenge for some real or imagined slight or injustice? Was it some kind of desire for recognition, as a skilled man who thought he had accomplished much, but to society was a complete unknown? As a hardened gambler, he would have belief either in luck, getting him something for nothing, or in his unrecognised skills in playing with the odds. As this man did with his final act, a gambler risks a lot, but with no guarantee of success. Was it pure nihilism: his life was going nowhere, so why should other people’s lives go anywhere?

What is missing in the lives of mass killers and serial killers? Whether they act alone, or under some spurious banner, surely they must have deficiencies in their lives or in their make-up. Perhaps what is missing is compassion, or empathy, or love for their fellow human beings. Perhaps they are lacking in self-control, or in a sense of proportion. Most people accept that at one level they are just one person among millions, and many realise that our planet is itself just one among billions. Most people, therefore, do not exalt their own importance. Perhaps the mass killer has an exaggerated sense of his/her importance.

Perhaps what is missing is a personal link to God.

Read Full Post »

Facebook’s headquarters in Menlo Park, California. Photograph: Alamy

There’s an intriguing article on the Guardian website by Franklin Foer. Facebook is used as simply an example of the reductionist and self-serving biases of our most powerful institutions and how they describe what they are doing, with smug self-satisfaction, as progress. It explores our blindness or uncritical response to ‘algorithms.’ Below is a short extract: for the full article see link.

How technology is making our minds redundant.

All the values that Silicon Valley professes are the values of the 60s. The big tech companies present themselves as platforms for personal liberation. Everyone has the right to speak their mind on social media, to fulfil their intellectual and democratic potential, to express their individuality. Where television had been a passive medium that rendered citizens inert, Facebook is participatory and empowering. It allows users to read widely, think for themselves and form their own opinions.

We can’t entirely dismiss this rhetoric. There are parts of the world, even in the US, where Facebook emboldens citizens and enables them to organise themselves in opposition to power. But we shouldn’t accept Facebook’s self-conception as sincere, either. Facebook is a carefully managed top-down system, not a robust public square. It mimics some of the patterns of conversation, but that’s a surface trait.

In reality, Facebook is a tangle of rules and procedures for sorting information, rules devised by the corporation for the ultimate benefit of the corporation. Facebook is always surveilling users, always auditing them, using them as lab rats in its behavioural experiments. While it creates the impression that it offers choice, in truth Facebook paternalistically nudges users in the direction it deems best for them, which also happens to be the direction that gets them thoroughly addicted. . . . . .


The precise source of Facebook’s power is algorithms. That’s a concept repeated dutifully in nearly every story about the tech giants, yet it remains fuzzy at best to users of those sites. From the moment of the algorithm’s invention, it was possible to see its power, its revolutionary potential. The algorithm was developed in order to automate thinking, to remove difficult decisions from the hands of humans, to settle contentious debates.

The essence of the algorithm is entirely uncomplicated. The textbooks compare them to recipes – a series of precise steps that can be followed mindlessly. This is different from equations, which have one correct result. Algorithms merely capture the process for solving a problem and say nothing about where those steps ultimately lead.

These recipes are the crucial building blocks of software. Programmers can’t simply order a computer to, say, search the internet. They must give the computer a set of specific instructions for accomplishing that task. These instructions must take the messy human activity of looking for information and transpose that into an orderly process that can be expressed in code. First do this … then do that. The process of translation, from concept to procedure to code, is inherently reductive. Complex processes must be subdivided into a series of binary choices. There’s no equation to suggest a dress to wear, but an algorithm could easily be written for that – it will work its way through a series of either/or questions (morning or night, winter or summer, sun or rain), with each choice pushing to the next.

Read Full Post »

‘Is it reasonable to hope for a better world?’ Illustration: Michael Kirkham

There was an excellent piece by George Monbiot in the Guardian last Saturday. I meant to share it sooner but got side-tracked by events. What he offers is a secular solution to our dangerous predicament but even so it’s very much along the lines of the Bahá’í spiritual one. Well worth a read. Below is a short extract: for the full post see link.

Donald Trump. North Korea. Hurricanes. Neoliberalism. Is there any hope of a better world? Yes, but we have to come together to tell a new, kinder story explaining who we are, and how we should live.

Is it reasonable to hope for a better world? Study the cruelty and indifference of governments, the disarray of opposition parties, the apparently inexorable slide towards climate breakdown, the renewed threat of nuclear war, and the answer appears to be no. Our problems look intractable, our leaders dangerous, while voters are cowed and baffled. Despair looks like the only rational response. But over the past two years, I have been struck by four observations. What they reveal is that political failure is, in essence, a failure of imagination. They suggest to me that it is despair, not hope, that is irrational. I believe they light a path towards a better world.

The first observation is the least original. It is the realisation that it is not strong leaders or parties that dominate politics as much as powerful political narratives. The political history of the second half of the 20th century could be summarised as the conflict between its two great narratives: the stories told by Keynesian social democracy and by neoliberalism. First one and then the other captured the minds of people across the political spectrum. When the social democracy story dominated, even the Conservatives and Republicans adopted key elements of the programme. When neoliberalism took its place, political parties everywhere, regardless of their colour, fell under its spell. These stories overrode everything: personality, identity and party history.

This should not surprise us. Stories are the means by which we navigate the world. They allow us to interpret its complex and contradictory signals. We all possess a narrative instinct: an innate disposition to listen for an account of who we are and where we stand.

When we encounter a complex issue and try to understand it, what we look for is not consistent and reliable facts but a consistent and comprehensible story. When we ask ourselves whether something “makes sense”, the “sense” we seek is not rationality, as scientists and philosophers perceive it, but narrative fidelity. Does what we are hearing reflect the way we expect humans and the world to behave? Does it hang together? Does it progress as stories should progress?

A string of facts, however well attested, will not correct or dislodge a powerful story. The only response it is likely to provoke is indignation: people often angrily deny facts that clash with the narrative “truth” established in their minds. The only thing that can displace a story is a story. Those who tell the stories run the world.

Read Full Post »

I know I’m taking a break from blogging but I read a powerful article yesterday that has triggered me to break my cyber-silence. It’s a challenging piece in yesterday’s Guardian on the subject of racism by . Having grown up in the shadow of a war not just against aggression but against the genocidal ideology that lay behind it, and now following a spiritual path, the Bahá’í Faith, that has as a central tenet the abolition of all prejudice, I am all too aware of how deeply the seeds of racism are buried in our Western psyche. Cleansing ourselves of its toxin is far harder work than many of us think. Below is a short extract: for the full post see link

Munroe Bergdorf’s assertion that all white people are racist has upset many, but society is skewed in our favour and it is right to acknowledge that.

Last week, model Munroe Bergdorf hit headlines when a statement she’d posted on social media following the protests in Charlottesville allegedly calling all white people racist was leaked to the Daily Mail. Since then, Bergdorf has received rape threats and death threats, been accused of “playing the victim”, and been sacked from a L’Oréal campaign that, ironically, celebrates diversity.

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »