The Smartphone Diaries

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In the 15th Century China shut its doors to foreigners and new technologies. In 2017 Rod Coddold, a foreigner who had long since shut his doors to new technologies, went to China and bought a smartphone. What followed is described here.

Day 1

Don’t know how to use it. It’s like everything is written in Chinese.

Day 2

Everything I wanted a smartphone for turns out to be censored here. Google Maps, Facebook, Gmail, all banned. And everything else that I need – Uber, food delivery, and all the alternatives to Google Maps are all in Chinese. I don’t know whether I’m ordering dinner or calling the police.

Day 3

I now have a Chinese bank account which means all the smart payment methods they have here (they are way ahead of us on this one) are now operational. I have just paid for a meal by getting the waiter to scan a barcode on my smartphone. Mind blown.

Day 4

My bank account and smartphone have also enabled me to sign up to the Shanghai equivalent of Boris bikes, except here they are a hundred times better. I can find a bike, scan its barcode and be bicycling merrily, perilously, down the street within 5 seconds. And when I’ve arrived where I need to be I can hop off, lock it with a single gesture and leave it on the pavement or wherever I please. No docking stations or any faffing around with debit cards. Makes Boris bikes look decidedly 20th century.

Day 5

I am now listening to podcasts (often whilst riding a bike – this has led to one or two hairy moments). I listen to them on my way around town. This seems like a wonderful use of my commuting time. I can still look around and enjoy the sights of a rain blurred Shanghai road, and my chances of getting hit by a car are only marginally higher.

Day 6

Because my phone was bought in China the predictive text it comes with was not meant for English. Which means that either I’m typing at about ten words per minute or my messages end up looking something like: “pkeass csn yoi help.me.wigh.my.smarrpponr.”

Day 7

For the first time I have sat through dinner looking at my smartphone. This isn’t a faux pas in China. No-one even remarks on it.

This makes me a terrible hypocrite. When people did this to me back in England I hated it and never hesitated to point out how rude it was. Not that this was necessary – I feel most people in England are aware that staring at a screen is not allowed at mealtimes.

But in China nobody seems to care. It’s like they’ve just replaced pudding with smartphone time. I look up for a moment. There are eight of us round the table for dinner: all of us are on our smartphones. It’s a strangely compelling sight. I would keep watching but I was just in the middle of something…

Day 8 (written on my smartphone) 

I have discovered the horror of the failing battery icon in tge top rifht hanf of my screen. Will I havr enough to last the night.  Will I be able to find my friends tonight I have nit.written down their address becausr I didnt  thunk i had to. nor coukd i. Its in chinese. Even if I coyld who would I ask?  Nor have I memoris.the map for.thesame.reason.  The only.place.I.can go.without assistance  is.home or.the.officwneither bide.  wrll for a food sarurdya nifht. Oh.duck.it.

Day 9

With the help of a nightclub bouncer I manage to order a cab using the Chinese equivalent of Uber. I copy and paste the address from my notes without any problems, but then it comes up with 10 suggestions, none of which I can read. If I click the wrong one who knows where I will end up?

Day 10

Shit just got real. I now have Swype. I can now type Kierkegaard, Postmodernism, Defenestration and Confucianism all without taking my finger off the screen. How extravagant. Quite Splendiferous. Percolate.

Day 11

The little blinking light which alerts me to the fact that I have mail has come to seem like the all-seeing eye of Sauron. I think that I am busy working, or fully engrossed in a conversation, but somehow the little blinking eye always catches my attention. And somehow, no matter whether I have unread messages or not, IT’S ALWAYS BLINKING. Even now I check every communication app and find nothing, lock the screen to go back to writing and THE LIGHT IS STILL BLINKING. It’s like an ulcer in my mind. I cannot ignore it. My brain is hardwired to get a dopamine hit from social approval and this light is playing havoc with my expectations. I now check my phone about once every 5 minutes.

Day 12

With the help of kind Chinese contacts who send me the occasional Chinese address to copy and paste I now have maps and public transport down. This is making my professional and personal life immeasurably easier. I am a private tutor so I have lessons at clients’ homes all over the city, generally two or three a day. Normally I’d have to look up all the addresses beforehand and memorise the routes. And it’s not as if I can stop and ask for directions because nobody speaks English. God knows how many times I would have got lost without it.

Day 13

Today I did that thing where I walked into someone because we were both looking at our screens.

Day 14

No one reads books in China. Look up and down the metro carriage you I can see hundreds and hundreds of smartphones and not a single book. Is this a precursor of what’s to come for the next generation? Imagine a world where no-one has read 1984 because they’re too busy playing candycrush. It doesn’t bear thinking about.

Day 15-20

Have not had time to write my smartphone diaries as I’ve been playing candycrush.

Day 21

I am loving these podcasts. This is perhaps the only thing about my new smartphone that I don’t feel slightly conflicted about. Podcasts soak up those moments of the day when I could not conceivably be bettering myself in any other way. Walking to the metro, and walking through the streets, I drink in all sorts of interesting information, but lose nothing of the view. I have learnt amazing, wonderful things and have had my mind opened up in all sorts of ways. This truly is time won. And when I get to the station I’ve learnt now to put my phone away and pick up my book. That way I don’t have to sacrifice any reading time either. I might change my mind if I get run over because I couldn’t hear a car coming through my noise cancelling headphones, but so far I am 100% on board.

Day 22

The pudding/smartphone replacement is now a confirmed fact. The main courses get cleared away and out come the smartphones. I try and do both by looking up pictures of a sherry trifle.

Day 23

It’s ironic. Smartphones are supposed to save you time. But because I get bored and fidgety I end up checking Facebook or writing emails during the day that could happily have waited till the evening when I’m in front of my laptop and could type them up far quicker. Or I find myself walking incredibly slowly as I try to reply to a message whilst walking down the street, a message that was most likely of no importance anyway.

Of course I could simply be disciplined, cut out unnecessary messaging and save up e-mails till the end of the day. But other than pissing off my girlfriend this is simply against my nature. It’s like having an open bottle of beer in my hand. Sure I could wait, but I’m just not going to.

If the time spent walking down the street was truly wasted time then you could say that I was still saving time. But the truth is that I like looking around me as I go about my day, taking in the small details, watching people. It’s valuable mental space. And I value it much more highly than time spent looking at a screen.

Day 24

I have now been added to my family whatsapp group. This is lovely. All day long I am cheered up by little snapshots into their lives and sweet photos of baby cousins. I can share in their accomplishments, enjoy their engagements and envy their holidays. And there is nothing of the social-media-my-life-is-better-than-yours-dynamic going on here. It’s just taking pleasure in others’ pleasure. Which is one definition of love I feel.

But even here there is a darkside. I am the youngest member of a large family and a born and bred attention seeker. I start to notice that I turn to whatsapp the moment I feel lonely (this is happening increasingly often here). I start to use the group as a way to seek approval, or make myself feel better.

It works like this. I’ll make a joke or share a link, and then spend the next half an hour obsessively checking whether any of my older cousins have laughed or replied. And when they do I always want more. This is addiction pure and simple.

Conclusions

I feel lucky to have gone into the whole thing with my eyes open. Seven years late to the smartphone bandwagon, I have had plenty of time to notice the effects on my peers. I had a rough idea of the good and the bad side of smartphones. I knew what to expect and what to watch out for.

Not so for the vast population of young users seven years ago, unconsciously conscripted into a dependency they could neither have seen coming, nor resisted even if they had. Adolescence is an age in which we are evolutionary programmed to seek the approval of our peers, and suddenly we have highly addictive handheld devices through which we are connected to everyone anywhere. Is it any wonder that insecurity is the hallmark of our generation?

I’m not saying that all this is necessarily a bad thing. It’s just that no-one had seriously thought about the consequences before we were already hooked. We were the guinea pigs of the internet revolution, and it’s still not clear whether the experiment has worked.

There are winners and losers all over the place and change is happening faster than the dust can settle. What we lose in interpersonal skills we gain in empathy across borders. Time wasted on clickbait is gained on Citymapper. And apathy through clicktivism is won back in the excitement of crowdfunded charity campaigns and decentralised political power.

In any case it’s pointless to moan. Smartphones aren’t going anywhere and the technology is only going to get better. The important lesson to learn is that all this technology is only as good as the people using them. So use them positively. Use your social media pages as tools for social change. Draw people’s attention to positive action that they can take. Share something beautiful, not something vile.

If we do this then we will soon see that a better connected species is a wonderful thing for co-operation and cultural evolution. I can find out whether a politician has lied, watch footage of a 70 year old man seeing in colour for the first time in his life, and help fund a well in Equatorial Guinea all from my bed. And as information travels faster evolution accelerates, and valuable ideas and new behaviours spread throughout the population like wildfire.

But then again so can pictures of Kim Kardashian’s bum.

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The fact would seem to be, if in my situation one may speak of facts, not only that I shall have to speak of things of which I cannot speak, but also, which is even more interesting, but also that I, which is if possible even more interesting, that I shall have to, I forget, no matter.

 

 

I thought that if I could put it all down, that would be one way. And next the thought came to me that to leave all out would be another, and truer way.

           Clean-washed sea

                                                                                         The flowers were.

These are examples of leaving out. But, forget as we will, something soon comes to stand in their place. Not the truth, perhaps, but —yourself. It is you who made this, therefore you are true. But the truth has passed on

                                                              To divide all.

 

 

Because life is short improvisatory requiring grooves: handed a random page of itself sounds the sticks playing across the drums in shades of idiom in cadences and starts technique not so gone from his memory idiom derived from ear and formula addresses set in marching band “where we learned to play ‘cadences’.” Genetic emulsion of brushes eddies derived from ear’s internal workings gain acquire a small fortune in overture to catch strength from the non-declarative installment by heart from the same issue, and so much we must remember to keep asking it the same question followed by all the rest the lion’s share.

 

 

Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.

 

 

…only standing for (revealing and concealing at the same time) some ‘other’ thing, some different source of revelation, the reality, the presence of which we are always on the verge of grasping…the gaps between, or beneath words come to seem more important than the words themselves…

 

-Samuel Beckett—John Ashbery—Marjorie Welish—Wittgenstein—David Punter-

Free yourself from your programming.

caveman-21

Here’s something that’s unlikely to feature on your average new year’s resolution list: this year, free yourself from the dictates of your evolutionary past.

Most organisms don’t have desires and preferences. All their behaviour is determined by genetic predisposition. A bacterium does not seek out pastures with higher glucose concentrations because it likes the taste of sugar – it moves towards them based on mechanical responses from its flagella, predetermined by its genetic material. What a gripping first paragraph.

But as organisms evolved that were more complex and more conscious, they developed the ability to learn adaptive behaviour during their lifetimes. In an experiment a rat can learn to avoid a brightly lit doorway which gives it electric shocks. This is not down to any change in its DNA sequence. This is a learned response. The rat has developed a phobia of brightly lit doorways.

When this rat dies, the aversion to brightly lit doors will die with it.*[1] But after several generations of similar exposure the rats will eventually evolve a permanent aversion to bright lights in much the same way that most wild animals are born with an instinctual fear of humans. As George Romanes pointed out as far back as 1884, desires and fears serve evolutionary purposes:

“Pleasure and pain must have been evolved as the subjective accompaniment of processes which are respectively beneficial or injurious to the organism, and so evolved for the purpose or to the end that the organism should seek the one and shun the other.”

This works both ways: humans have aesthetic preferences for flowers and greenery because these preferences led our ancestors to gravitate towards these kinds of landscapes, thus increasing their chances of finding water in the wilderness. A caveman who preferred hanging out in deserts would not have had this advantage, and thus the aesthetic preference for deserts would have been less likely to spread through the human population. Put simply, our aesthetic taste for brightly coloured flowers and lush green grass evolved because it helped us survive. The same will be true for nearly all behavioural traits that are widely spread throughout the human population. This is evolutionary psychology in a nutshell.

But just because our tastes and preferences served some adaptive function once upon a time, this does not mean that they all continue to be helpful in our radically altered modern contexts. Some of them we are stuck with, even when they are now directly detrimental to our evolutionary fitness.

Consider cheesecake. Humans have developed a sweet tooth and a taste for fat and salt because it was rare in our ancestral environments. It paid to love salt and fat and sugar because that ensured that when our ancestors did come across it, they took the chance to stuff their faces whilst they could. In fact this love of sweet things was so helpful for our survival that our brains evolved to react to a combination of fat and sugar in much the same way that it now reacts to cocaine.[2] Eat a mouthful of cheesecake and your brain literally screams at you: “YES, DO MORE OF THAT!”

In clinical trials, sugar is more effective in soothing the distress of infants than the mother’s breast.

But in a world where salt and fat and sugar are readily available, this obsession becomes a drawback. Eat too much cheesecake and you get diabetes.

The same goes for pornography. Men have evolved to like the look of naked ladies because…well, you know. But this has spilled over into a weakness for pornography which isn’t helping us reproduce at all. Our evolutionary hardware is being hoodwinked.

It is incredibly important that we get a handle on this: a colossal amount of human activity is wasted on evolutionary red herrings of this kind, masquerading as activities which improve, or used to improve, our evolutionary fitness.  Just think how many hours and dollars we waste on computer games. Computer games don’t help us survive and reproduce. Who ever got laid off the back of a good score at Tetris? But we play them anyway because they push the same buttons as activities like hunting – it is surely no coincidence that boys love Call of Duty whereas girls tend to prefer games like Sims, which cater to their nesting instinct. These games may even stimulate the same chemical rewards as the adaptive behaviours which they parrot. The fact that hunting itself is no longer necessary for our survival only goes to underline the point – our understanding of what makes us healthy and happy moves many times faster than our physical bodies and chemical wiring can adapt.

Eating meat is another classic example. Our brain chemistry is designed to jump for joy when we insert a mouthful of steak. But the reality is that eating meat is not only detrimental to our individual health it is also catastrophic for the welfare of our species as a whole.

We don’t have to be enslaved by our evolutionary programming. Because evolution has also blessed us with foresight and reason. We have the ability to make ourselves aware of the hidden forces which drive our choices – and then break from them once we realise that they no longer serve us.

When we cultivate an awareness around our choices we turn our intelligence towards its true purpose. Instead of being blind victims of forces beyond our control, we become conscious agents, deliberately designing our lives to unleash our evolutionary potential.

A healthier, happier and more fulfilling life awaits you if you do.

 

[1] Or so says scientific materialism. Actually, the children of such rats learn to avoid brightly lit doors faster than their parents. Even more astonishingly, rats of the same breed will learn the same trick faster on the other side of the world, despite having never met the trained rats. More here: http://www.sheldrake.org/about-rupert-sheldrake/blog/rat-learning-and-morphic-resonance

[2] http://natmonitor.com/2014/12/12/food-addictions-to-fat-and-sugar-similar-to-cocaine-and-heroin-in-brain-response/

As is the microcosm, so is the macrocosm.

As is the microcosm, so is the macrocosm.

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As is the human body, so is the cosmic body

As is the human mind, so is the cosmic mind

As is the microcosm, so is the macrocosm

As is the atom, so is the universe

– The Upanishads

4.1 billion years ago the first single celled life appeared on earth. After another 2 billion years, two of these cells combined to form more complex eukaryotic cells, such stuff as you and I are made of. Another billion years and groups of these cells got together to form multicellular life. Roughly half a billion years further on and groups of these multicellular organisms started to form hives, shoals, and herds.[1] Evolution is accelerating.

The process was repeated with humans. Bands got together to form tribes, tribes got together to form city states, city states got together to form nations, nations got together to form trading blocs and global organisations.

The tendency for life to co-operate over ever increasing scales is not a fluke. It is driven by the logic of game theory: at all stages of evolution the potential is always there for co-operating groups to do better than competing individuals.[2]

Today climate change is providing the stimulus for the cycle to repeat itself. The environmental crisis is a tragedy of the commons – all the economic benefits of burning fossil fuels accrue to individual nations, whilst the costs of global warming are shared by all.[3] Thus as a competing nation the self-interested course of action is always to pollute more. And as Milinski demonstrated with his climate change game, countries aren’t going to do enough purely out of a sense of duty, even when the worst is threatened.[4]

Make no mistake: our survival is at stake here.[5] We have repeatedly failed to stay within the modest targets politicians have set themselves. Humanity’s only way out of the problem is to form a united global co-operative that spans the planet.[6] Then the tragedy of the commons disappears. In many ways this is already happening.[7] As the Ancient Greeks imagined, we must be as cells in the great body of humanity.[8]

This is not an idealist’s pipe dream. This is the natural trajectory of evolution, something that has been achieved again and again at all stages of life on this planet.

I fully understand that some people don’t think this way, that some people only care about “them and their own”. Others have broadened this circle to include members of their nation as “their own”. But an increasingly vocal minority are waking up to the understanding that unless “their own” comes to mean humanity as a whole, then there won’t be any of “us or them” left at all.

Viewing humanity as one family does not require you to be a saint. No one’s asking you to give away all your possessions. The transition can be embodied by a few small changes. Animal agriculture is an environmental catastrophe, accounting for 15% of all man made emissions.[9] That’s more than all the cars, trains, boats and planes combined. On the level of a unified humanity, eating meat is selfish behaviour. All the benefits of eating meat accrue to the individual, while we all pay the price.

Cancerous cells are cells that have stopped working for the whole organism and have started working for themselves. At the level of the individual organism cancer is cellular selfishness. Just as eating meat at the level of the global superorganism is individual selfishness.

Animal protein is carcinogenic.[10]

As is the microcosm, so is the macrocosm.

If you behave selfishly, so will your cells.

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Timeline_of_the_evolutionary_history_of_life

[2] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BOvAbjfJ0x0

[3] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WYA1y405JW0

[4] http://www.nature.com/climate/2009/0911/full/climate.2009.112.html

[5] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XTMOaI4NZFA 5:00 minutes in

[6] https://oneglobaldemocracy.com/vision/

[7] http://pespmc1.vub.ac.be/Papers/Superorganism.pdf

[8] http://www.bbc.com/future/story/20140701-the-superorganism-engulfing-earth

[9] http://www.fao.org/news/story/en/item/197623/icode/

[10] https://www.cancertutor.com/china-study/

WWIII is being waged inside your heads

WWIII is being waged inside your heads

George Orwell is rolling in his grave. The telescreens from 1984 seem benign in comparison to the present day domination of life by screen. Even as you read this you are staring at one. Above it is a webcam which various government agencies can access at will, just as he predicted.

Through these screens pour an endless river of shit, manipulating us in ways that Orwell at his most pessimistic could simply never have imagined. The algorithms deciding which results we see when we make a Google search, or which of our friend’s posts we are fed on Facebook are among the most closely guarded corporate secrets in the world. Just through a process of re-ordering content, Facebook and Google have the power to influence our emotions, change our opinions, and even to flip elections, entirely without risk of detection.[1]

Should we be worried that Google have quietly dropped their slogan “Don’t be evil?” I would have killed to be at the board room meeting for that one:

CEO: You know this “Don’t be evil” slogan is really tying our hands.

NON EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR: Yes, I can see that. What about, “Only occasionally be evil”?

CEO: Hmm, doesn’t have quite the same ring to it.

NON EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR: “Evil is relative”?

CEO: Maybe we could just fiddle the online dictionary definition of “evil?”

It would be funny if it wasn’t so scary. In the end they settled on: “Do the right thing”. It’s Animal Farm par excellence: “Don’t worry, all animals are still equal, BUT SOME ANIMALS ARE MORE EQUAL THAN OTHERS”.

Woe is us:

There is something circular about watching a film in which we are told not to watch films. The film is telling us that films do not tell us the truth. Which means that the film itself is not telling us the truth. Which means that the film was right all along.

The Mad Prophet of the Airwaves is prophetic indeed. His warning rings as true as ever in the age of the internet:

“The next revolution—World War III—will be waged inside your head. It will be a guerrilla information war fought not in the sky or on the streets, not in the forests or even around the scarce resources of the earth, but in newspapers and magazines, on the radio, on TV, and in ‘cyberspace’… It will be a dirty, no-holds-barred propaganda war of competing worldviews and alternative visions of the future.”[2]

Cyberspace, a term which no longer needs inverted commas, has become the most fiercely contested of these. Fake news and viral videos battle for our attention. TV may have been disputed territory in the 70’s, but this has long ago ceased to be the case. TV isn’t a battleground, it is a procession, a consumerist parade. Anything genuinely insurgent has been relegated to brief slots on the Beeb, and a cult classic film every now and again.

Whether we are aware of this or not, we continue to watch all the same. How many of you did turn off The Mad Prophet of the Airwaves in the middle of his sentence? We are simply powerless to resist television’s glitz.  As in David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest we are transfixed, compelled to keep watching even as it kills us. The average American watches over 5 hours of TV a day.[3] We switch on the TV so that we can switch ourselves off. Our guard is down. We are at our most suggestible.

Advertising campaigns now use neuro-linguistic programming and fMRI scans to measure the brain’s responses to various triggers. No wonder our mouths water at the sight of soft drink cans glistening with condensation in the summer sun.

But my concern is not so much adverts. However shamelessly they may play on our hopes and fears, you know what you are getting with an advert. You know you are being manipulated and to what end. The agenda is out in the open.

The same cannot be said of films and TV shows, which sell us ideology under the guise of art and entertainment.

Examples are rife but here are a couple of more blatant examples:

Here we have a psychopathic mass murderer espousing the political philosophy of anarchy, along with a hint of Zen Buddhism suggested by the words “I just do things” before blowing up a hospital.  You don’t have to be Noam Chomsky to see what’s going on: associate these powerfully liberating concepts with madness, violence and terror, and you prime impressionable young minds against them. The take-home message is clear: “Be afraid, let us control everything, or look what happens.”

The cumulative effect of constant indoctrination of this kind is that most people can’t even think about a concept like anarchy. Just the mention of the word is enough to make most people’s rational minds shut down and automatically regurgitate a stream of negative associations. Anarchy may indeed be a flawed political ideal, but it is downright dangerous that most people have never had the chance to think freely about it.

I don’t wish to impugn Christopher Nolan. Whether these clips are what I think they are is not really the point. I just want people to be more guarded against the terrifying shadow that media casts over our worldviews. Every day we are being bombarded by largely unchallenged ideological assumptions. If this happens under our watch then fine, that is what healthy debate is all about. But that is not remotely the case. And just as with the search engine manipulation effect, the startling realisation is that if this power were being wielded maliciously, we would have absolutely no way of knowing.

A formula is starting to emerge. Step 1: present a spine-chilling psychopath. Step 2: have him espouse any idea considered a threat to the establishment.

Again the intended effect of the scene is obvious. We are supposed to empathise with Nicholas Cage and block our ears against Steve Buscemi’s dangerous madness. But take away his preamble about murdering people for pleasure and Buscemi’s sentiments about the relativity of insanity have been articulated by some of the most respected thinkers throughout history.[4]

Still, better not question the status quo or the next thing you know you’ll be chopping up families for fun.

[1] This is known as the Search Engine Manipulation Effect: https://aeon.co/essays/how-the-internet-flips-elections-and-alters-our-thoughts

[2] Marshall McLuhan (1970) Culture is Our Business (New York: McGraw-Hill)

[3] http://www.nytimes.com/2016/07/01/business/media/nielsen-survey-media-viewing.html?_r=0

[4] http://www.happierabroad.com/Quotes_Insanity.htm

Keep your mind open and your enemies’ opener.

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A friend’s dad is a hereditary member of the House of Lords. I stayed the night at his house not long after he had been re-elected after a period of absence. Out of politeness I asked to read his maiden speech. He began with some platitudes, echoing the comments of a few previous speakers and so on, and then in good faith went on to declare that he owned a private security company that worked on contracts for the Russian government. I think it’s probably customary for politicians to declare potential conflicts of interest in their maiden speeches.

Nothing could have prepared me for his concluding remarks which I remember almost verbatim: “And just to add an original point of my own, I feel we should follow the example of France and America in aligning our commercial and military interests.” And with that he sat down.

None of the subsequent remarks suggested even a modicum of concern about this. I was so startled I had to go back and re-read the exact words to make sure.

There was no escaping it. He was arguing, in broad daylight, in the place where big decisions are made in our name, that we should try and make money out of war.

I caught him just as he was leaving early next morning.

“No we wouldn’t go to war with profit as a motive,” he replied assuredly, briefcase in hand, the front door ajar, “but if we did decide to go to war for legitimate reasons then there’s no reason why we shouldn’t do business while we’re there.”

“But can’t you see how that could be abused?” I asked from the kitchen table, at pains to keep my voice even, “When the people who decide whether we go to war are the same people who would stand to profit?” I was looking at one of them.

“Yes I can see how it could,” he replied, pausing to think in a moment of honest reflection, “but I don’t think that’s how it works.” And with that he walked out the front door.

Reading this it must be tempting to assume that the man in question is thoroughly evil, or at best dangerously stupid. I assure you he is neither.

I am quite sure that he genuinely believed what he said about going to war for the right reasons; that he himself would never consciously have let his private security firm be a factor in a decision to vote in favour of an invasion. And, having this neatly sewn up in his mind, he honestly trusted other politicians to do the same.

I almost envy him. How wonderfully straightforward life must be for the man under the impression that everyone is quite capable of reasoning their way cleanly to the utilitarian decision when their own millions are at stake. How truly reassuring to believe that human rationality is a kind of objective force of its own, working for the pursuit of truth and the greater good, entirely independent of our self-interest.

The conversation revealed to me perfectly clearly how democracies can commit terrible acts without anybody being deliberately evil. Political debates are nuanced affairs with multiple factors and unforeseeable consequences. Sifting our way through the screaming cacophony of opinions in the media in search of the buried truth of the matter is a difficult and lengthy process which very few people undertake.  In any given article 60% of people don’t read beyond the headline. Even for those who have the time and interest, an honest inquiry is sure to involve flux and vacillation before reaching anything remotely resembling a balanced view.

Far easier, and quicker, to read a headline or two and draw a straight line of argument between your bank account and one particular way of looking at things.

We delude ourselves that our political opinions are based on facts and logic. The truth is that in nearly all cases we ascertain the selfish position first and construct a rationalisation for it afterwards. And as soon as our viewpoint is well bedded, cognitive bias kicks in. We begin to read the world from that standpoint alone, selecting the facts to fit it until it becomes clear and unassailable.

We must mistrust our reason wherever our self-interest is concerned.

I write about this story in the hope that it demonstrates the danger of placing too much faith in our reason. Rationality is the voice within our head. It is ego. As such it serves our self-interest first and truth second. Scientists are just people who have made a career out of aligning the two.

But most of us are not scientists, and politics is not particle physics. When it comes to politics we are never simply disinterested observers. Even when our pocket it not at stake there is still plenty to play for. After all, the airing of political views is socially strategic as much as anything else. Taking up a certain position can increase our evolutionary fitness by signalling our membership of an ‘in’ group. This is the intellectual 21st century equivalent of painting your face to identify yourself as member of a tribe. Both are attempts to solicit the co-operation of other members of that tribe or subculture. A common worldview thus acts as a kind of gravitational force which draws friendship groups together. This is why a big agreeathon can be so enjoyable: we are identifying and securing allies. It also explains why so few people are willing to stand out from the crowd.

Now in a way this is all blindingly obvious – it’s not a coincidence that rich people tend to be right wing. Nor does it twist one’s melon to realise that lefties stick to lefties like shit to a blanket.

The point I’m driving at is that we must mistrust our reason wherever our self-interest, material or social, is concerned.

When we’re really honest with ourselves, this extends to almost everything we are likely to hold an opinion about. Fine – so hold it all lightly. Be prepared to change your mind about everything at the drop of a hat. I change my mind about my free will, the free market and the existence of God about once a week. It’s fun – try it.

In a fast evolving world a closed mind is death.

Against All Odds

Few people know that 97% of our money is created when commercial banks make loans. For every pound in circulation there is a corresponding debt, and interest owed on that debt. The upshot is that there is less money in the world than debt. People everywhere are desperate, and collectively unable, to keep up with interest repayments to the banks. Make no mistake: this is economic enslavement.

Interest has a distorting effect on our morals. It means that money now is worth more than money tomorrow. Whether we like it or not we are compelled to seek short term profit over long term preservation, growth over greenery. Money in its current form turns out to have unsustainability written into the rules which govern how it is allocated. As currency activist Matthew Slater puts it: “It could be that 90% of the population wants a green revolution, but the money won’t allow them to do it. There’s this conflict between what we want, and what money wants.”

So what is to be done?

Well actually there are lots of things we can do. One approach is to try and change government policy. Money is a creature of the state: if you change government monetary policy you solve the problem in one fell swoop.

Enter Luuk de Waal Malefijt. He heads up the Dutch branch of Positive Money, an NGO raising public awareness about the problems inherent in the mainstream monetary system with a view to influencing government policy. He sees 90% of his role as one of education, or rather “an anti-campaign of education” to counter the misinformation pedalled by bankers, politicians and even university professors. Considering money is something we use literally every day the scale of ignorance about how it works is staggering. I have spoken to people who have worked in finance their entire lives who are factually wrong about money creation. [1]

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“With citizens not understanding the difference [between money and debt] they cannot see the root cause of all of our economic troubles. So you could view the current situation as very Orwellian in the sense that two definitions have been obfuscated to the point where we don’t understand what we’re talking about anymore.”

Until politicians and the public understand the problem, a change in government policy will not be forthcoming. Luuk described how this process can work both ways:

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Matthew Slater is not holding his breath: “I’m not so optimistic that the state is something that I can work on, or wants to be influenced by me. I’m more interested in working at the level of individual and collective consciousness. I try to enlighten, inform and wake people up about the nature of money and the behaviour of monetary systems.”

Despite their differences, education is as pivotal to Matthew’s leadership as it is to Luuk’s. And as Fullan points out: “you can’t have a learning society without learning students and you can’t have learning students without learning teachers”.[2] As Luuk said, “leaders figure themselves out and their role on the planet.” This is an ongoing process: a leader must always be growing and learning.  For example, both mentioned that they had learnt to soften their methods of approach when attempting to persuade and inform people about the need for monetary system reform. For Matthew this allowed him to value other people’s work and led to less frustration which, in his own words, has made his work more sustainable.

This frees up more energy to channel into direct action. Rather than waiting for government gears to grind, he designs and implements exchange networks which allow people to exchange value without succumbing to the debt and interest based problems of national currencies. It turns out there are already thousands of these in communities all over the world.

Matthew, who looks more than a little bit like a pirate, lives out of a rucksack containing a laptop and a change of clothes. He has no fixed abode, no bank account and little money: “It’s about writing our own narratives. We have to be much more courageous in living our values and deciding what those values are going to be.”

Matthew’s life is an embodiment of his values, and this gives his leadership credibility, his message gravitas and followers inspiration.

Luuk echoed the importance of leading by example: “Matthew’s answer is exemplary: one person has to make a firm stand….to make an example and stand up for it. And make sure their leadership is very consistent in the movement, always there, always leading, providing the vision and guiding and thereby creating a movement changing one single defined aspect.”

Although both leaders have tangible achievements under their belts, Matthew is “not optimistic about either approach”. Luuk is more positive, albeit in a self-aware way: “You need to be unrealistically optimistic to be able to continue a campaign or fight that is this large. You need to be a true believer, not seated in realism.”

Constructivists argue that reality is socially constructed. If this is true then the conviction to live one’s values and a spoonful of optimism are in themselves enough to change reality.

“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.” – Margaret Mead

 

[1]Image from Positive Money, < http://positivemoney.org/2014/08/7-10-mps-dont-know-creates-money-uk/>, 29/10/16

[2] Fullan, (1993), Change Forces: Probing the Depths of Educational Reform, London: Falmer Press, p.138