Reflections 5 September

On my Mind this week.

Being on the hook. As we fully get into the September back to work routines and Westminster reconvenes, I’ve found myself thinking about the broader nature of social distancing.

I think we’ve been getting increasingly socially distanced for a while, well before face masks and 2 metre icons. Whilst it seems paradoxical given the many technologies we have for connection, the quality of contact has been eroding and the bandwidth of relationships narrowing. A quick look at responses from email to Snapchat and everything in between demonstrates similar features – short, curt, transactional and frequently combative exchanges. Fights for supremacy. We have become more distant from each other when it comes to what matters.

Which is perhaps not surprising, as conflict sells. Social media algorithms are designed first and foremost to draw attention to advertising. One of the best ways is to create echo chambers and feed them with content that will provoke not debate or dialogue but energetic dispute.

With the data held on us, crafting stories that trigger us, and casting them to narrow audiences where they will resonate, is increasingly accessible and inexpensive—tying irresistible digital flies and casting them exactly where we know the fish to be. So we end up on the hook and served up to whoever is paying. The skills were developed over the last decade and brought to levels of excellence in recent elections, and of course, the Brexit referendum. It’s not, I think, a conspiracy, more an updating of the ethic of the rotten boroughs of two hundred years ago, which had a tiny electorate and could be used by a patron to gain unrepresentative influence. We have the capability; it’s currently legal and therefore should not surprise us,

I think that means that there is an increasing distance between us and the source of the inputs we trust to make sense of our world. We are fed stories designed to suit others agendas, and it is down to us to examine them to see if they are fit for consumption. It becomes yet another pressure in a rapidly changing world.

The decisions we make are a compromise between risk and trust. The less trust we have in the inputs we receive, the greater the risk we have to take to get anything useful done, and accepting what we are told at face value is the highest risk strategy we can adopt.

It brings me back to social distancing. The best way I know of making sense of the stories we are fed, and filtering out the deception, is to spend time with those we trust in conversation about it, subjecting it to a form of “smell test.” Then, like the wily trout, we do not have to swallow what is presented to us without question. 

There remain many good media out there, including online, created by thoughtful, rigorous, curious people. Admittedly, it takes more time to read and requires more effort to digest, but it seems a worthwhile alternative to finding ourselves served up on a plate to someone we don’t know.

Some things that have fed my thinking this week.

The key to nature conservation. According to new research from the University of East Anglia (UEA) and partners in France, Indigenous Peoples and local communities provide the best long-term outcomes for conservation. Local knowledge matters.

The importance of setbacks. According to Robert Lefkowitz, “Science is 99 per cent failure, and that’s an optimistic view”. I suggest it is not just science and not just early career. I found this article interesting because it is a scientific appraisal, by scientists, on scientists. What they find should encourage us all as we face the challenges we do.

The Omertá of Consultancy“I’m not upset that you lied to me. I’m upset that now I can’t believe you.” Frederick Nietzsche. An uncomfortable read on sustainability consulting from Ed Gillespie. Thought-provoking.

Lessons from a small country. I was lucky enough to be on a call this week with Jane Davidson, the politician behind the “wellbeing of future generations” Act passed into Welsh legislation. It is the most advanced legislation anywhere in the world, and her story of how it came to be is a valuable lesson for what we face now.

A quotation.

When we humans don’t talk to one another, we stop acting intelligently. We give up the capacity to think about what’s going on. We don’t act to change anything. We become passive and allow others to tell us what to do. We forfeit our freedom. We become objects, not people. When we don’t talk to each other, we give up our humanity.

Margaret Wheatley. Turning to one another.

And a small piece of wisdom to start this next week, via Sue Heatherington.

‘For last year’s words belong to last year’s language and next year’s words await another voice.’

T.S. Eliot

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