Wednesday, 30 September 2015

29. Crazy, warming world

Confronting with the reality of failed states, the consequence of the Iraq war, the raise of ISIS and the situation in Syria and how it is all exacerbated by to climate change, I started to wonder about the issue of structures and the difference between freedom and anarchy. 
Interestingly enough, I found a related article by historian Timoty Snyder in the Guardian, entitled: "Hitler's world may not be so far away" with the caption: Misunderstanding the Holocaust has made us too certain we are ethically superior to the Europeans of the 1940s. Faced with a new catastrophe – such as devastating climate change – could we become mass killers again?.

I'll approach the question from much more unconventional angles, but coming back to entwine some of the points I found interesting from this article. 

The brain as a predictive machine

Neuroscience tells us that our brain works as a predictive machine, remembering and forgetting, constructing, de-constructing and re-constructing memories constantly.

How does your memory work? Horizon documentary - BBC
(original page no longer available - by BBC)

In this sense the time question is central to our humanity. How can I avoid any life-threatening future? To answer this question, both our memories and our imagination are crucial. In our own experience, our family's and/or culture's, we find a vast bank of resources with ready-made answers to this question. If none of these are good, we use pieces from this experience and available information to create something new. Without memories we cannot predict or create a future.

Going back to the article: even though reading Hitler in a title might not be very encouraging, the article makes very interesting points. Firstly, it links the high food prices of the 30s with the current challenge that climate change brings:
On the one hand: "Science provided food so quickly and bountifully that Hitlerian ideas of struggle lost a good deal of their resonance – which has helped us to forget what the second world war was actually about. In 1989, 100 years after Hitler’s birth, world food prices were about half of what they had been in 1939 – despite a huge increase in world population and thus demand." And then adds "After two generations, the green revolution has removed the fear of hunger from the emotions of electorates and the vocabulary of politicians."
"Hitler specifically, and quite wrongly, denied that agricultural technology could alter the relationship between people and nourishment." and then explains "Hitler’s alternative to science and politics was known as Lebensraum, which meant “habitat” or “ecological niche”. Races needed ever more Lebensraum, “room to live”, in order to feed themselves and propagate their kind." 

The following video explains how this choice of going back (and looking solutions in our reptilian brain) or moving forward (looking for creative solutions in our pre frontal cortex) works in our brains.

Nowadays, climate change is putting pressure on agriculture again, either stopping altogether or threatening the predictability of food supply, affecting disproportionally certain communities: "During the hot summer of 2008, fires in fields led major food suppliers to cease exports altogether, and food riots broke out in Bolivia, Cameroon, Egypt, Haiti, Indonesia, Ivory Coast, Mauritania, Mozambique, Senegal, Uzbekistan and Yemen. During the drought of 2010, the prices of agricultural commodities spiked again, leading to protests, revolution, ethnic cleansing and revolution in the Middle East. The civil war in Syria began after four consecutive years of drought drove farmers to overcrowded cities."

These reflections are important. Being able to recognise a past global experience must help us create a different future. If the "political eye" of Nazi Germany only looked back to History seeing what old empires had done ie finding a solution to food supply through territorial expansion, a self-declared racial superiority, colonisation, identification and elimination of competition- we should be able to look back now to see that these ideas belong to the pastWe should focus our science and technological efforts to address both the emergencies and the core challenges that communities' self-sustainability face in the context of climate change.

“State and government was invented in this part of the world, in ancient Mesopotamia, precisely to manage irrigation and crop growing,” said the Syrian economist Samir Aita to the New York Times, “and Assad failed in that basic task.”

In this sense, the administration of ourselves (and/or of a anything we may need to manage), is first anchored to our view of the world. This view is the one that informs us if the structures we have and the processes we follow are suitable.  But when our eyes fail to see the challenges of today as new ones, we stick to obsolete responses and rely in old tools instead of looking for new solutions for new problems. This is essentially bad government. 

Freedom to create 

As moving into the future requires the ability to create the future out of the elements of the past, I'll touch upon the creativity process.

"Draw anything you like", can be a scary command. We may face a blank canvas panic. This amount of freedom may give us a sense of chaos and paralysis. Nothing comes to mind. Ideas appear and disappear. To kindle the fire of creativity, it is probably easier to start with more limits. "Draw an elephant". That's easy. The action gets going. We draw very badly at the beginning, it's all too literal or too childish. We let go, we continue, we learn, we improve and become more confident, until  we find the elephant premise too restrictive and we draw a cat, saying that this is a very creative elephant. And we feel smart by having challenged the premise. And then we continue outside the animal kingdom and really start to draw what we want. Until we feel that the black pencil is a restriction and we use colours. Then the paper becomes a restriction, and we find a canvas or do an animation or a sculpture, and we add music and people dancing...

Restrictions may seem to be the opposite of freedom. In this sense, our understanding of freedom enters anarchic territory, where there are no restrictions, no structures, no limits. But creativity is a self-restricting act. To create, we make choices otherwise nothing would happen: the possibilities would keep floating in the air without ever materialising. At each stage of the creative process of the example, all the restrictions played a double role: enabling and disabling. Creating and destructing. Restrictions are in fact, intrinsic to creation, they become its structure, and this structure is in itself content.

In the example, however, we are free to transcend the limits imposed to us, as we decide to do so. However, there is always a tension between the power of disobeying and the set limits. On the one hand, regulations and restrictions are there to be respected but at the same time, power can modify them. It is here, where the need of plurality and decentralisation of power emerges: in order to keep both "law that restricts government" and a "government with a power to change the law" in a healthy, slowly moving tension.

Collective creation (co-creation) requires collaboration, relations of trust, institutions to create, activate and regulate processes and to manage resources. Only through collective entities, rights emerge as a protective layer of the individual against the others and against the collective. In anarchy, there is no order, no structure thus there are no relationships, there is no collective and no creation but destruction (even if destruction is not the end in a life-death-life cycle). 

Where there is anarchy there are no rights

At this point I go back to the article: it points out that "all major German crimes took place in areas where state institutions had been destroyed, dismantled or seriously compromised.". By pointing out that most of mass killings happened outside the borders of Germany where states have been destroyed ie where there were no rights, it draws parallels with the destruction of states by civil wars and invasions, sending a warning to Syria. In fact, this is true for South Sudan too. Of course, we can argue that there are no many rights under authoritarian regimes. They do, however, maintain a minimal co-habitation code where people are not killing each other in mass numbers (through centralising the power to decide who should be killed, though). But in such low levels of social development, the rigidity of the regimes can also be a direct representation of their fragility. If Putin wants to build a clear picture that the regime change in Syria will destroy the state and bury the country under the anarchic and apocalyptic forces of Isis (hiding his own interest in the region), Obama is clear that there is a need of a political change and a government that can respond to the challenges of self-sustainability their people are facing (and obviously continuing the geopolitical game of the region). If we add to the equation the right of self-determination, and the aggressive actions of Assad against Syria's people (the majority of the refugees declare they are fleeing from Assad), we end up with a plural game with very delicate tensions and balances, where all current structures are being destroyed and no structures to sustain and protect are being built.

Beyond Syria or Iraq or Libya, in Western countries the question of the relevance of the state and state regulation is being constantly challenged. We only need to look at Volkswagen bypassing environmental regulation, the terms of TTP that have been agreed or TTIP agreement that is being discussed or the ever increasing lobbying power of private interests. The regulators appear to be more negotiators than actual regulators. In this article from James Dyson, he shares some insights about how regulations are agreed mostly following the lead of the dominant player. In this video, Senator Elizabeth Warren questions banking regulators and their avoidance to do anything beyond negotiating settlements. 

In this context of ever more self or laxed regulations, it is also important to recognise that a extreme liberalism of markets will end up being an anarchic force that erodes states, and with them our rights and our ability to respond to collective challenges. Private enterprise may have a lot of executive power, but it is exclusive (not inclusive) and tends to shy away of medium and long term investments. The state is the only entity that can act on behalf of the collective.  

Creating the future, a process of self-awareness and self-mastery

The creative process has been described symbolically in many ways. The most simplistic puts it in terms of the material integration of female and male principles ie idea and purpose, circle and arrow, science and application, knowledge and enterprise, egg and spermatozoa, imagination and decision, in the example before, the blankness of the paper and the pencil.

But if the brain is a predictive machine, the time question plays a role and therefore integrating the past is part of the creative process too. In the creative act we project into the future, based on the elements of our past. But for this act to be truly creative, we should've completed our individuation process, the one that allow us to stop repeating and reapplying old solutions (beliefs, patterns) without critique and come up with something new. 
On the issue of integrating the past, Timoty Snyder article adds: 
"A final plurality has to do with time. The state endures to create a sense of durability. When we lack a sense of past and future, the present feels like a shaky platform, an uncertain basis for action. The defence of states and rights is impossible to undertake if no one learns from the past or believes in the future. Awareness of history permits recognition of ideological traps and generates scepticism about demands for immediate action because everything has suddenly changed. Confidence in the future can make the world seem like something more than, in Hitler’s words, “the surface area of a precisely measured space”.
Individually and collectively, we need to become self-aware and master:
  • our resources to satisfy our basic needs
  • our emotions to build healthy relationships, 
  • our will and self-discipline to create and transform our reality, 
  • our thinking, to set priorities and make decisions to keep balance, 
  • our truth, our story and contribute to the creation of the collective wisdom.
Can we become mass killers again? That seems to be the default solution if we fail to really address the multidimensional crisis we are going through, truly integrating our collective past and consciously embarking in creating new, more plural, smarter solutions.


Saturday, 19 September 2015

28. The ghosts of conflicts past

There is something in medicine called ghost or phantom pain. It's the pain that someone feels on a limb that has been amputated. Beyond the anatomical mechanisms, it is almost as if the brain needs to emphasize that "something big happened here" by feeling pain.

Collective trauma
There seems to be a different time-scale for dealing with trauma. The intensity of the emotions we feel, cannot be contained in an instant and jump to a realm where there is no time and leave a strong imprint in our unconscious. These memories get frozen in an eternal state of present, like in Picasso's Guernica. There is no time in the unconscious and there is not time in the collective unconscious. The feedback that the moving reality keeps providing us with, stops being fully computed or is simply ignored. There is a part of us that gets anchored to that unprocessed moment.

Guernica by Picasso, Rein exposition

In the collective unconscious we store the memories of collective experience and collective trauma. I moved countries several times and as a foreigner I sensed some of these "social ghost pains", but the most obvious ones are also visible to a tourist or by simply reading the news on a foreign newspaper. It is this feeling of "something big happened here" when we are in front of visible scars, like in front of the reminding parts of the Berlin Wall or Ground Zero or in front of a graffiti in Belfast. The same happens when we hear the word miners in Yorkshire or mines in Vietnam or disappeared in Argentina or Franco in Catalunya/the Basque country,... or a taxi driver's comments on the Palace of Parliament build by Ceaucescu in Bucharest, and there must a reason why Switzerland law still states that there must be a nuclear bunker/shelter place for everyone. Also when we read the news related to guns or racism in America, or we learn about Apartheid in South Africa, Holocaust, etc, etc, etc. These are all traumatic social experiences that had been shared by a large group of people that linger on, sometimes perpetuated through generations, with an incredible quality of quasi-eternal present. We are not short of social traumatic experiences. And even if we "think" they belong to the past, they don't. To the observer they look like a veil that is covering the mood and altering the perception of the present time with the forgotten-memory of this pain.

Pain needs to be expressed to be released and somehow its quality of "present pain" needs to be respected, even if it was not our own experience but something we have inherited. That's why art that captures these feelings is so important. Every piece of art, a picture, a sculpture, a song, brings an emotion to the present, increasing the awareness of its existence. So everyone that feels any of this emotion and expresses it, releases part from this stored collective stock.

I was struck by the documentary telling the story of African Americans "returning" the Ghana either to stay or as a pilgrimage (there are two 10-min parts, worth watching). Returning, of course, is figurative. They arrive to Ghana, re-enact the kidnappings of their ancestors by slave traders, they tell the story mixing past and present tense, they cry this ancient pain. However, even if for them this pain is very real and present, and there is a part of them that feels they returned home, they find themselves in Ghana being seen as foreigners, Americans and even "white". Their emotional reality does not coincide with what the observer sees. It is almost the perfect example of "No man ever steps twice in the same river". You are not the same you when you return, and the river is not the same river. However, this process of trying to reconcile past and present is important for all of us because it is the only way of liberating ourselves from this heavy emotional burden. It is only through this liberation, we can act and make new decisions that affect our actual reality.

Political and economical ghosts

In lighter subjects related to political and economic issues, we also inherit tools, structures, views of the world that sometimes do not properly fit in today's reality but continue unchallenged nonetheless. There is a part of us stuck on each of the collective traumas the world has lived through (the ones I mentioned are of course only a few examples). But when thinking of politics and economy, we need to look back at the part of us that got globally stuck sometime in 1950, still in shock after WWII, when the new global institutions were being founded (IMF, UN, World Bank, NATO, even ECC), when the world was divided into winners and losers (the winners conforming the security council, the highest hierarchy rank in the nations world order), east and west, communist v capitalist nations, the new ex colonies and the new ex empires, etc, etc. And yes, it is also in the baby boomers' early childhood period (when most of people's personal trauma comes from), the moment they were absorbing all the emotional charge of their parents, people that lived through WWII (and had been born to the people that lived through WWI...) which probably paid a big role in shaping them in the "Me generation", with its lights (civil rights movement and progress) and its shadows (narcissism, individualism, turn to a liberal-conservatism and generational accumulation of riches).

The world progress continued, but the view of the world got frozen.

In the TED talk: "The best stats you've ever seen", Hans Rosling speaks about preconceptions regarding our view of the world. In his work as a professor of International Health in Sweden, he discovered his students had a preconception of the world that divided it into "we and them: the Western World and the Third World".

However data shows that the views the university students had, were more aligned with the reality of 1950 and 1960's: the one that describes the world their grandparents lived in.

In this subsequent video, he goes further in showing what different household incomes look like, how much the world has changed, and most importantly how fast. So we don't live in the same world the baby boomers were born in. It is not the same river we are looking at. However, it is almost as if we stopped looking at the world and took their word for it.

In this RSA video, Dirk Philipsen dares to call GDP as "Granpa's definition of prosperity" (ja!) to point out that an obsession with GDP growth is neither suitable nor sustainable... it is simply outdated.

In this interview of New Yorker's journalist Dexter Filkins to Argentina's president Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner (subtitled in English), the topic of how much the world has changed is touched upon between minutes 31 to 40 approximately. The journalist starts this segment by asking if the financial/economical rules need to change, if rules are unfair. She replies that the current rules are not useful to anyone, developed or developing countries, sharing some US stats and illustrating it by pointing out that a TV series not so old as Friends now looks ludicrous as people of that age cannot afford such flats in New York. He then asked a very telling question on foreign policy: is Argentina moving away from the US and closer to China and Russia (and Venezuela and Iran)? (showing how the capitalism v communism ghost plays a role in judging what it used to be the third world, the non-aligned... in other words, which side are you?). She then responds that US is the second largest investor and holds a trade surplus v Argentina. That deals with Russia and China are only reflecting today's reality of a multi-polar world. Whatever the opinion of her performance as President might be, in this exchange she appears to have a clarity that others lack.

A veil that polarises everything into good and bad has many advantages. A world full of nuance and imperfect decisions is uncomfortable, but it is also more real. A world view that can be reduced to the format of a football match with two emperors disputing territories or trying to prove their system better might be easy, even entertaining, but keeps us in the illusion that we are mere spectators. We do not connect to our reality and thus we cannot affect it. But if studies show that we find truth in groups, and that the way that thought, science and emerging structures are networks and not trees, that means that each point, each individual, each nation is important. Our own personal perspective might not be "the truth" but it has a purpose and in expressing it, it can help the person next to us to drop his own confirmation bias and vice versa. And for that happening, we should not be all saying the same things, repeating the words of others, aligned. 

This veil not only polarises but also fragments. It decouples economy and politics, warfare and arms trade, freedom and the structures that provide opportunity, and probably most importantly past and present.

The ghosts from the past are the ones that don't allow us to see the present. Without confronting them we won't be able to act to change what we would like to change. 


Friday, 4 September 2015

27. Sight and insight

I always joke about the super power I'd like to have: "being able to roll my eyes 360 degrees" (As in being-able-to-perform-an-epic-eye-roll in front of someone talking non-sense). Definitely. It was a joke until I thought that I might actually have another, more interesting and less cynic, reason of why I'd like this super-power: it'd be the power to look in, to see clearly something inside that changes how you see the outside. The power of insight. 

Insight is this moment of recognition of an internal truth that changes how we see and interpret reality. It is something that had previously been hidden, but which we recognise when it emerges. The journey of how we find insights -and thus discover these inner truths- is not easy. Most of the times, we try to do it through observation (sight), sometimes in constructing (or attracting) outside something that we "feel" inside, to then observe it (sight again) -as in the Infinity sand sculpture by Carl Jara-.
Infinity (sand sculpture) - Carl Jara

In this sculpture the true insightful moment would be when one of these men turns around and, instead observing only a smaller version of themselves, they see what's behind. Bringing forward what's back, making conscious what's unconscious, elevating his awareness of reality.

In Marketing and Advertising insights are used either to create propositions or to make an existing one more appealing by making them "resonate" with the public. By "resonate" here I mean that the public recognise it as a "truth" and therefore identifies with it, albeit unconsciously. To give an example of what insight is, Top Gear is a good case. It is a BBC program described to be about cars and driving. However, the insight behind the success of the program is that it is about male camaraderie with a car theme. There are many programs that speak about cars, with experts and maybe even more accurate reviews. What had made Top Gear appealing is that it is about three "friends playing with cars", the cars and the information about cars is important but not central. This is the difference between what you see and what you don't see, but is. Sight and insight. If you are the producer and have this insight, the way you'll put the program together will be completely different to one that only focuses in the cars themselves: you would allow episodes when the presenters build their own cars, and cheat each other in phoney races. Its insight is what makes it unique. Its insight informs what's the creative coherent space to play with.

The following advertising plays with the concept of "Golden shadow", with the insight that sometimes prejudices don't allow us to recognise potential.

Insight is only found through a trained used of our intuition, a skill in which we are all almost analphabets. It is about submerging ourselves in the world of ideas, of symbols and concepts that sometimes are incongruent and ambiguous, and making connections to then articulate a simple idea, a truth (or for the artist to create art).

But why is this important? It is important because we are all looking for our own inner truths. We are all exploring the geography of our identity, with its ever changing landscape and its moving borders, trying to understand what's in and what's out, what is ours and what's "foreign", ultimately trying to answer the question: who am I? 

There are three quotes attributed to Michelangelo about sculpture that have to do with this process (I hope that at least one of them is real!).


We are both the sculptor and the block of stone. We know that inside the block of stone that is ourselves, there is something that simply is. Finding these insights, as Grayson Perry puts it "these truths we didn't know we knew", is powerful because it is liberating. We chip away that piece of marble that wasn't us, and we feel lighter.

National Portrait Gallery: Grayson Perry's Who are you? Introduction

Of course, we are not only eyes that roll between sight and insight, deep in contemplation, observing and reflecting. So what happens when we get out of the our inner cave, step outside the church or the museum? We have to create. Play a new game. Make something new. Make new decisions. Express ourselves from this new found centre.
This is so important that funerals are increasingly more personalised and popular songs started to replace the old hymns.  "My way" was the first hit to top the funeral charts. So even though we are not all great innovators, breakthrough thinkers, artist or rebels, being able to claim we did things -big or small- "our" way seems to be a worthy badge of honour.  

As an opposite example, we can hear Johnny Cash singing Hurt:
If I could start again 
A million miles away
I would keep myself
I would find a way

And yet, as long as we are here, we can always try to find our way.


PS: You have to love the British that now moved on to Monty Pynthon's "Always look at the bright side of life" and songs like Queen's "Who wants to live forever" for their funerals.