Awash in a sea of truth

It is so easy to be overwhelmed by the amount of information that we are bombarded with these days. I still maintain that a well managed combination of social networks can help to filter this incoming information but within those networks people can slog it out between polarised views and working out "the truth" about the various complex issues affecting us these days doesn't get easier.

This, combined with an equally varied and problematic professional media, means that it is ever more challenging to work out what we think about the world around us.

But then isn't part of the problem that we have been conditioned to expect to stay abreast of, and have a view on, everything that has been presented to us as news - much of which is a list of things to be frightened or worried about? And the list is mostly made of things that we can never do anything to change, that are totally outwith our control or influence, and in many cases don't directly affect us. All we can do is worry!

The actual events that directly affect us, and which we can influence, are a very small subset of the things that we feel pressured to respond to.

Increasingly I find myself asking "What can I actually affect, now or in the near future, and what do I need to know to do something about it". Everything else recedes into the noise.

Like two friends

The internet could be like this if we wanted...

“We are like two friends sitting in the park on a lovely day talking about life, talking about our problems, investigating the very nature of our existence, and asking ourselves seriously why life has become such a great problem, why, though intellectually we are very sophisticated, yet our daily life is such a grind, without any meaning, except survival—which again is rather doubtful. Why has life, everyday existence, become such a torture? We may go to church, follow some leader, political or religious, but the daily life is always a turmoil; though there are certain periods which are occasionally joyful, happy, there is always a cloud of darkness about our life. And these two friends, as we are, you and the speaker, are talking over together in a friendly manner, perhaps with affection, with care, with concern, whether it is at all possible to live our daily life without a single problem.” - J. Krishnamurti

Conversations not content

The internet still holds so much potential to helps us understand and improve ourselves and the world around us. Sadly much of it has been turned into one big content farm. It doesn't need to be this way. It is not too late.

Each of us can ask our selves every time we share, like, or write something:

Will this post trigger people to think more deeply about its topic? Have I written it in a way that is more likely to open up debate than close it down? Am I ready, even keen, to have people disagree with me and how will I deal with it when it happens? Am I sharing this post just to make me look clever? Am I fanning the flames of dissent and piggy backing on the latest scandal, or am I trying to understand and heal unnecessary and destructive division? Is this post helping me, and those who read it, to feel more empowered and inspired -or is it more likely to make us feel afraid and cautious? Is my activity likely to encourage others to engage more with each other, or does it help them stay passive consumers of other people's thoughts and ideas?

Like I said - it's not too late.

Social media is a symptom not a cause.

I am currently reading Johann Hari's excellent new book Lost Connections in which he explores the real reasons for the increased depression and anxiety in modern society.

As he approached the topic of the internet in the chapter on connection with other people I hoped he wasn't going to indulge in the common knee jerk response of blaming technology for our ills.

He doesn't.

Instead he confirms what I have always believed, that our internet addictions don't create needs, they meet them. The needs exist before we ever pick up our phones. Rather than blaming the technology, and increasing our sense of being out of control, we need to explore the deep psychological needs that modern society is failing to satisfy.

It is our relationships and wider societal norms that we need to question - not what we do with our phones to take the pain away. Social media is a symptom, not a cause, of a deeper problem.

Podcasts

I have little interest in the many podcasts that are just mainstream media distributed differently. Someone recently recommended Note To Self. The content was interesting but the jingles, editing, actuality, all felt intrusive. I wanted to be trusted to listen to the conversation. Sadly all BBC podcasts are like this. The perils of professionalism.

To me the pleasure of listening to podcasts is being able to hear smart people chatting about things I am interested in, taking their time, working things out, not trying too hard. It’s very different.

Heritage

Mollie gave me Rory Stewart's book The Marches as part of my Christmas present, a travel book based on his relationship with his father and the land on either side of the Scottish border. Both of them had been in the army, in Scottish regiments, and both had served as foreign diplomats. The world he describes is very unfamiliar and occasionally off putting in its antiquity and stuffiness. But he sees this too and so far the book has been about him balancing this world of heritage and tradition with "the real world" that he knows they both now live in.

It made me think, again, about my own Scottishness. I come from a lowland heritage rather than Highland and therefore am more English than truly Scottish if, as I do, you consider the real Scotland to start above The Highland Line. I have lived more than half my life in the London area having moved down here in 1984. I also spend a lot to my time with people from all around the world and, although I feel very connected to the wonderful landscape here in The Chilterns, I am not involved in many things socially local to where we live. I sometimes even go so far to say that I don't think of myself as Scottish any more. I am where I am, I talk to the people I talk to, and identifying myself with tribes, whether online or off, feels increasingly alien.

But who am I? We define ourselves through our relationships, our sense of self coming from those we pass time with, our opportunities are steered by those we connect with most. However much time I spend traveling or online I am still a citizen of Britain, subject to its laws and norms. On a good day, and despite Brexit, I think there are many characteristics of those who live in these islands that are to be celebrated and shared.

But if I identify too much with the tribe, if I conform too much to its societal norms, then I stop thinking for myself, I become a passive pawn, I become too easily manipulable. Working out the balance between the individual and the group, the cells and the network, me and the world around me, takes constant work and matters more and more.

Using technology rather than letting it use us.

I use my iPhone and my iPad to read books about the origins of capitalism, the drives behind totalitarianism, the differences between socialism and communism, and the writings of Kropotkin and Tolstoy as they grapple with the ideas behind anarchism.

I find out about these books through recommendations from people in my social networks or the algorithms in Amazon.

I use my Apple Watch to record my increasingly radical ideas as I walk around listening to excellent podcasts by people like Russell Brand.

I use apps from the App Store to support my ever more serious commitment to meditation and to Buddhist ideas and philosophy.

People complain about what technology is "doing to them".

It's a choice.

My mate Russell Brand

I'm thoroughly enjoying working my way through the back catalog of Russell Brand podcasts. The most recent one I listened to was with Adam Curtis and was as usual a fantastic exploration of really important topics.

So why do I say "My mate Russell"?

Om a beautiful sunny day in the summer we had taken our two inflatable kayaks for a trip down the Thames. Having pulled the kayaks up onto the bank for a rest, and while the girls were snoozing on a beach beside the river, I noticed someone coming towards us on a paddleboard with a large Alsatian dog sitting on the front of it. This seemed unusual enough that I thought I would take a photograph. As I did so the man on the paddleboard pulled his hoodie over his head. I found this a bit odd but didn't think anymore about it.

About half an hour later we were paddling back downriver behind some little islands along a narrow creek. Again I noticed this man on the paddleboard coming towards us but this time the dog was in the water behind him happily swimming along. Again I took my camera to take a photograph and again the man looked concerned. As I got closer I asked him "Is it okay to take a photograph?" To which he replied "I'm afraid that's private".

Only when I heard his voice did I realise that it was of course Russell Brand. Once we'd got over the initial awkwardness, presumably he thought we had deliberately gone round the back of the islands to find him not knowing that we had now idea who he was, we had a great chat about how wonderful the Thames is, how little it has changed over the centuries, and spent some time discussing Kipling's poem about the Thames, The River's Tale, which we had both read!

Grappling or ranting?

What I loved about the early days of blogging was the sense of a bunch of smart people grappling with life — the good and the bad. Trying to understand it, working out what to do about it, and reaching out to others to help, or be helped.

Grappling is still there in the various social networks that have largely superseded blogging, but there is also a lot more ranting. Righteous indignation, aggressive statements of how people should or shouldn't behave, blanket condemnation, witch hunts.

All of these can give an endorphin rush at the time but do they leave the world a better place? Do they help us become better people?

Looking in the mirror of the internet.

It is well known that situations or other people that really press our buttons, that induce righteous indignation or rage, are reflections of things we don't like about ourselves. Faced with our shadow side, and aspects of our character that we have buried deep, we panic and lash out. If these triggers didn't matter to us we would simply shrug our shoulders and let them go. When we don't it is worth paying attention.

Strong reactions are an invitation to look harder at what those reactions reveal about ourselves. The internet, or more importantly the people we encounter through it, seems uniquely able to press our buttons. The fact that these encounters take place directly in our brain, unmediated by physical presence, makes them all the more potent. This is usually seen as a problem but what a wonderful opportunity to learn more about ourselves and perhaps do something about the bits we don't like...

Techno Victimhood

I sometimes get frustrated at what I'm beginning to call "techno-victimhood". Complaining about Facebook on Facebook. Exclaiming "Ooh I didn't know my phone could do that" when they see me do something that feels routine. Maintaining a nervous distance from what is happening around them with the all too common "I don't do technology" response.

It doesn't have to be this way. This inspiring film shows what's possible. Keep watching to the end to hear important messages about empowerment, community, and the future.

H/T Michel Bauwens

Toxic social media?

On the same day that I, yet again, read a journalist pontificating about toxic social media, I hear from my daughter Hannah about a friend at school whose sister recently died of cancer. The girl's mother had written a post on Facebook so movingly, and so skilfully, about the tragedy that Hannah, and everyone who read it, had been moved to tears.

This potential to put our most difficult and challenging thoughts down in writing, to clarify our thinking, to open up our hearts, to create shared meaning, this is as much social media as the poisonous damaging views that also get shared.

I have said it before, and will keep saying it, that social media is what we make it, it is up to us. Sure it is dominated at the moment by addictive and manipulative platforms but they are nothing without us, without our highly valued “content”. We control that content. It is our responsibility.

We have this wonderful opportunity to do what I call "joined up writing". To think harder and share better. As David Weinberger described it all those years ago "writing ourselves into existence".

We get to choose what sort of existence we are creating. We should remember this.

Work

LinkedIn regularly suggests that I congratulate friends for having spent a certain number of years in a job. Very often I know that they hate that job. And yet our cultural norm is that surviving a job that makes you miserable is better than not having one.

I see many articles on the subject of Universal Basic Income and the assumption that automation of white collar jobs will drastically increase unemployment. Will this force us to reconsider our concept of a job — the sense of self that comes with the role, the importance of the job title, the reassuring structure of office hours and the commute?

Will the gig economy expand to accommodate the potentially high numbers of people cast adrift from large corporations? Will we shift our focus and find new and creative ways to help each other and use our time well? Or will we end up languishing in some Wall-E style technology supported sloth?

I guess we are about to find out...

The Middle Road

This morning, as I was sitting in a Deli on 7th Avenue having breakfast and a coffee, I was also reading the excellent Anarchism by George Woodcock. What appeals about the ideas in the book is the potential they open up for people to take more responsibility for themselves and their actions while being less inclined to defer to authority. However anarchism has also encompassed some unpalatable extremes and the subject of this morning’s chapter was Max Stirner, 19th century author of The Ego and His Own, which contains deeply challenging ideas and advocates an each man for himself approach to life.

Having finished brunch I then walked south down Broadway and through Times Square which was absolutely jam packed with people. They were like herds of animals, all milling around, drawn by the energy of the place but not appearing to be doing anything in particular.

Then moments later I came across what turns out to be a Veterans’ Day Parade marching up 5th Avenue. A rag tag of military personnel of various ages and flavours, backed up by some very loud marching bands, and interspersed with a few armoured vehicles. I found myself marvelling at the pride with which this odd mix of thousands of people mindlessly marched a long the road in serried ranks. Wave after wave of attempted uniformity.

So in the short space of the morning I went from extreme individualism, to a thronging herd, to a group apparently drawn to order and group-think. Three New York streets, three world views, three groups of people behaving very differently. I found myself, yet again, thinking that as so often the answer is “the middle road”. Literally.

Volume control on mob rule.

Being here in New York reminded me of when we visited with the girls. Walking down the street here was one of the times when I was with them when they were being openly leered at by men. Walking the streets now I am conscious that most people will have been aware of #metoo and the stories that it is still surfacing. This is a good thing.

I have often said that the Internet is a mirror. Much of the time we won’t like what we see in it but it does give us the chance to change. We are realising that we have to take that chance, deal with our societal challenges, and change for the better.

Yes, in the short term, there will be polarisation and wild swings and extremes. But we are still learning. We are still working out how to use our volume control on mob rule.

“Social Media”

All I have ever wanted from any of the social networks that I have been part of, either at work or on the Internet, is to have interesting conversations with interesting people and to use the tools to build relationships.

What I don't want is to be spammed about products that I have no interest in, have my data mined and sold to the highest bidder, or to be ideologically gamed by powerful vested interests.

I would happily pay money for the former, and can't wait for the demise of the latter as it falls apart under the weight of its own shit.

Allowing the word media, and all it brought with it, to creep into what we were all doing was clearly a mistake.

The need for good journalism

I agree with what Robin Lustig says in this piece about the importance of a free press.

But...

Each time I am interviewed by mainstream media journalists I am unimpressed by their grasp of the topic; frustrated at their wide of the mark questions; worried about the apparent randomness of selecting me as an “expert”; and nervous, from experience, about my words being twisted to reinforce an agenda that they have already set.

I then extrapolate my experience across the other topics that I used to naively assume were more professionally dealt with.

If journalists want to regain our trust, they have to raise their game - considerably!

Lobbing pebbles

I once described blogging as being a bit like lobbing pebbles into ponds. Each blog post causes ripples, however modest, to go out into the world, hopefully causing ideas and opinions to change. Over time you get better at lobbing bigger pebbles into better ponds.

I love watching my daughter Mollie lobbing her blog posts out into the world and causing ripples. Her most recent post on the #metoo theme nailed some of the core issues and has triggered many interesting and thoughtful reactions.

This is how the world changes. Lots of pebbles, lots of ripples, bigger waves.

#metoo

Saddened but not surprised at all of the #metoo stories being shared by women around the world. And the fact that I am not surprised makes me even sadder.

I don't have to walk very far in public with my daughters to encounter pitiful examples of a predatory attitude towards women. When men call out some obscenity as we pass them we are left stunned at their arrogance and naivety. We joke about it and wonder if they really imagine that the girls are going to think "Oh, you seem like an ideal candidate for a partner, let me leap into bed with you"? But it's not funny.

And this is "just" verbal abuse. That combination of ignorance, arrogance, and aggression when transferred to close physical proximity...

Not today

As part of her A Level Politics studies Hannah is required to listen to the news in the mornings. I am therefore being subjected to The Today programme for the first time in years.

The almost physical levels of discomfort finally got too much this morning with a story about the government's attempts to curb internet bullying and to "make Facebook and Google mend their ways".

We just looked at each other, rolled our eyes, and raced to the off button.