Burning Man Exhibition at Chatsworth.

On my Mind

Learning to Dance

I have found it hard work this week to drag my attention away from the demeaning nonsense of the goings on in Westminster to more constructive subjects. When I eventually got a grip and let things settle, my attention was drawn to the idea of the “dance music” that exists in the tension between the patterns we seem to be settling into as the pandemic recedes, and the increasing definition of the challenges we are heading into.

There feels to be a clear tension as we discover that the habits we thought we could fall back into are no longer reliable. The frustrated manager struggling to get people to back to the office. The irritated employee wondering why we should when working from home produces what is needed and suits us better. The uneasy awareness of the impetus of the forces driving price increases, the previously reasonably efficient travel infrastructure shredded by layoffs during lockdown, and here in the UK the reality versus the bluster of Brexit. I have the sense that the house we have built, that we thought safe and secure, looks more like it’s made of twigs and the the little pigs, greased and otherwise, are not yet paying enough attention.

There are equal, if less understood tensions as things that have been developing at an accelerating pace out of sight of everyday activity take more substantive form. The one that has struck me in particular this week has been artificial intelligence and machine learning. They have been an “eminence gris” for so long that they have disappeared from attention for many, like the story of the boy who cried wolf. As I got into some interesting discussions and research around the role of AI in conversation analysis I found myself with a very uneasy feeling that music is getting louder, and we’re just sticking our fingers in our ears and going “lalala”. This sense was reinforced as my copy of The Economist arrived with AI and Deep Learning as a main theme, and a recognition that not only is the music playing, we have to learn to dance with it.

As ever with predictions, the ones we have made about AI whilst specifically wrong, are generally correct and salutary as they take shape in ways we just had not thought they would. When AI can explain why a cartoon is funny, and when asked to reflect on the rise of ultra-intelligent machines coughed out a paper entitled “the dangers of stochastic parrots” we may want to pause for a moment. As the article notes

“AI models used to be very speculative and artisanal, but now they have become predictable to develop,” explains Jack Clark, a co-founder of Anthropic, an ai startup, and author of a widely read newsletter. “ai is moving into its industrial age.”

The element that is staying with me from the week is that the comforting assumption that AI would do the (for it) easy work of human designed processes, from the professions to image analysis but leave the person to person stuff to us is clearly very wide of the mark. What is being built now has far more capability than that.

If the consumer economy house we’ve built is made of twigs, and the wolf at the door has loads of puff, what do we do now?

In his beautiful book, “The philosopher and the wolf” Mark Rowlands relates sharing his life for over a decade with a pure wolf, and what he learned. From having to pretend it wasn’t a wolf in order to move to Ireland (he called it an Innuit – which seems a bit like calling an Irish Wolfhound a Jack Russell) and it caused me to reflect that we have been doing something similar with AI. It is a wonderful, moving story and can be summarised as learning to let a wolf be a wolf. If it’s not going to listen to you, you have to listen to it and find a different relationship. It seems fitting.

And of course, we don’t have just one wolf, we have a pack. Climate Change, Biodiversity erosion, Resource sustainability, Take your pick.

If we can’t control them, or negotiate with them we’ll have to find a way to collaborate with them, and that means rethinking – really rethinking – our way of living and our role here on the planet. Doubling down by using up this one up and finding another is not only immoral and impractical, the idea of even entertaining the idea is soul destroying. We can’t buy a sunrise on eBay.

I like Adam Kahane’s book “Collaborating with the Enemy“. The essence of his argument is that that if we don’t have the power to overcome an opponent, are not prepared to just accept what they are capable of doing, and cannot leave the game, then we have to find ways to collaborate – and its hard, challenging, painful work.

So how do we learn to dance with the music that is playing?

Habituation is a form of non-associative learning in which an innate (non-reinforced) response to a stimulus decreases after repeated or prolonged presentations of that stimulus.

Changing habits is hard, but it is within our power if we can summon the will. We have a lot of momentum to overcome though. My parents, grandparents and great grandparents were born, educated and brought up in the midst of the energies of empire and the industrial age. Compliance, duty and social order were the drumbeat of their lives as subjects to a monarch with government as the administrative arm. That sense of duty passed down into my generation although instead of being subjects to Monarchy, we became the obedient subjects of the corporations as the source of power during the twentieth century, and bought into the idea that money was the new, and available aristocracy. My children’s generation started to question that, and my grandchildren’s generation seem to be rejecting it outright . The spoils of the consumer economy have already been divided up, with the vast majority of the wealth it generated in the hands of a very small number of people, and the “model”, such as it is, is clearly inequitable and destructive. Despite the incontrovertible evidence however, we are still clinging onto it like an alcoholic to a bottle. it has become a very powerful habit.

Learning to dance starts with sensing and feeling the music. It requires all our senses, an abandonment of dignity (you would understand this with absolute clarity if you ever saw me dance) and an acceptance that it is not an intellectual exercise. We cannot learn to dance by reading a book, anymore than we can engineer a solution to climate change, or accept that many things that are intellectually tempting, like sending refugees to Rwanda, are morally reprehensible and indefensible at a human level.

Learning to dance with all the occupants of the planet we are blessed to inhabit requires a sense of humour, self deprecation and a willingness to exchange the methadone of consumerism for the joy of just being, and instead of focusing of individual acquisition and consumption (etymology: “to use up, eat, waste,” ) concentrating instead on working together to help each other. To collaborate rather than compete and to accept that the pursuit of excessive individual wealth is a pathology. Learning to dance starts with small steps. Emotional engagement not intellectual, doing small things ourselves more than shouting at others to do big things as we commute to an office that too often serve little real purpose other than ego support for managers, or complain about disruptions to a travel industry that is perhaps the biggest example of the dark side of consumerism as we monetise other people’s communities.

Learning to dance is fraught with missteps, stumbling and embarrassment, but we will get past that and when we do, when movement to the music becomes sinuous, then we will wonder why we have left it so late.

Dance Music

The Dark Side of Leadership Training.

Leadership training has become one of those activities that has become embedded in business culture, paradoxically often lionising as examples those who have never been on a leadership course. This short video from Aeon magazine casts a light on its origins.

The Age of Acceleration

“We are witness to a sudden derailing, a spiraling, a breakdown. The Anthropocene is, among other things, a geological era defined by the material markers of colonialism, empire building, and petromodernity.” Orion magazine.

AI and creativity

From The Economist, an article that recasts our relationship with AI.

A Pause for Thought on the Planning Habit

Kenneth Stanley and Joel Lehman writing in Why Greatness Cannot Be Planned:

“Objectives are well and good when they are sufficiently modest, but things get a lot more complicated when they’re more ambitious. In fact, objectives actually become obstacles towards more exciting achievements, like those involving discovery, creativity, invention, or innovation—or even achieving true happiness. In other words (and here is the paradox), the greatest achievements become less likely when they are made objectives. Not only that, but this paradox leads to a very strange conclusion—if the paradox is really true then the best way to achieve greatness, the truest path to “blue sky” discovery or to fulfill boundless ambition, is to have no objective at all.”

Have a great week.

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