Tag: The Guardian

That which we do not bring to consciousness appears in our lives as fate

Today’s title is quotation from Carl Jung, via a recent issue of New Philosopher magazine. I thought it was a useful frame for a discussion around a few things I’ve been reading recently, including an untranslatable Finnish word, music and teen internet culture, as well as whether life does indeed get better once you turn forty.

Let’s start with that Finnish word, discussed in Quartzy by Olivia Goldhill:

At some point in life, all of us get that unexpected call on a Tuesday afternoon that distorts our world and makes everything else irrelevant: There’s been an accident. Or, you need surgery. Or, come home now, he’s dying. We get through that time, somehow, drawing on energy reserves we never knew we had and persevering, despite the exhaustion. There’s no word in English for the specific strength it takes to pull through, but there is a word in Finnish: sisu.

Olivia Goldhill

I’m guessing Goldhill is American, as we English have a term for that: Blitz spirit. It’s even been invoked as a way of getting us through the vagaries of Brexit! 🙄

Despite my flippancy, there are, of course, words that are pretty untranslatable between languages. But one thing that unites us no matter what language we speak is music. Interestingly, Alexis Petridis in The Guardian notes that there’s teenage musicians making music in their bedrooms that really resonates across language barriers:

For want of a better name, you might call it underground bedroom pop, an alternate musical universe that feels like a manifestation of a generation gap: big with teenagers – particularly girls – and invisible to anyone over the age of 20, because it exists largely in an online world that tweens and teens find easy to navigate, but anyone older finds baffling or risible. It doesn’t need Radio 1 or what is left of the music press to become popular because it exists in a self-contained community of YouTube videos and influencers; some bedroom pop artists found their music spread thanks to its use in the background of makeup tutorials or “aesthetic” videos, the latter a phenomenon whereby vloggers post atmospheric videos of, well, aesthetically pleasing things.

Alexis Petridis

Some people find this scary. I find it completely awesome, but may be over-compensating now that I’ve passed 35 years of age. Who wants to listen to and like the same music as everyone else?

Talking of getting older, there’s a saying that “life begins at forty”. Well, an article in The Economist would suggest that, on average, the happiness of males in Western Europe doesn’t vary that much.

The Economist: graph showing self-reported happiness levels

I’d love to know what causes that decline in the former USSR states, and the uptick in the United States? The article isn’t particularly forthcoming, which is a shame.

Perhaps as you get to middle-age there’s a realisation that this is pretty much going to be it for the rest of your life. In some places, if you have the respect of your family, friends, and culture, and are reasonably well-off, that’s no bad thing. In other cultures, that might be a sobering thought.

One of the great things about studying Philosophy since my teenage years is that I feel very prepared for getting old. Perhaps that’s what’s needed here? More philosophical thinking and training? I don’t think it would go amiss.


Also check out:

  • What your laptop-holding position says about you (Quartz at Work) — “Over the past few weeks, we’ve been observing Quartzians in their natural habitat and have tried to make sense of their odd office rituals in porting their laptops from one meeting to the next.”
  • Meritocracy doesn’t exist, and believing it does is bad for you (Fast Company) — “Simply holding meritocracy as a value seems to promote discriminatory behavior.”
  • Your Body as a Map (Sapiens) — “Reading the human body canvas is much like reading a map. But since we are social beings in complex contemporary situations, the “legend” changes depending on when and where a person looks at the map.”

Fascinating Friday Facts

Here’s some links I thought I’d share which struck me as interesting:


Header image: Keep out! The 100m² countries – in pictures (The Guardian)

Educational institutions are at a crossroads of relevance

One of the things that attracted me to the world of Open Badges and digital credentialing back in 2011 was the question of relevance. As a Philosophy graduate, I’m absolutely down with the idea of a broad, balanced education, and learning as a means of human flourishing.

However, in a world where we measure schools, colleges, and universities through an economic lens, it’s inevitable that learners do so too. As I’ve said in presentations and to clients many times, I want my children to choose to go to university because it’s the right choice for them, not because they have to.

In an article in Forbes, Brandon Busteed notes that we’re on the verge of a huge change in Higher Education:

This shift will go down as the biggest disruption in higher education whereby colleges and universities will be disintermediated by employers and job seekers going direct. Higher education won’t be eliminated from the model; degrees and other credentials will remain valuable and desired, but for a growing number of young people they’ll be part of getting a job as opposed to college as its own discrete experience. This is already happening in the case of working adults and employers that offer college education as a benefit. But it will soon be true among traditional age students. Based on a Kaplan University Partners-QuestResearch study I led and which was released today, I predict as many as one-third of all traditional students in the next decade will “Go Pro Early” in work directly out of high school with the chance to earn a college degree as part of the package.

This is true to some degree in the UK as well, through Higher Apprenticeships. University study becomes a part-time deal with the ‘job’ paying for fees. It’s easy to see how this could quickly become a two-tier system for rich and poor.

A “job-first, college included model” could well become one of the biggest drivers of both increasing college completion rates in the U.S. and reducing the cost of college. In the examples of employers offering college degrees as benefits, a portion of the college expense will shift to the employer, who sees it as a valuable talent development and retention strategy with measurable return on investment benefits. This is further enhanced through bulk-rate tuition discounts offered by the higher educational institutions partnering with these employers. Students would still be eligible for federal financial aid, and they’d be making an income while going to college. To one degree or another, this model has the potential to make college more affordable for more people, while lowering or eliminating student loan debt and increasing college enrollments. It would certainly help bridge the career readiness gap that many of today’s college graduates encounter.

The ‘career readiness’ that Busteed discusses here is an interesting concept, and one that I think has been invented by employers who don’t want to foot the bill for training. Certainly, my parents’ generation weren’t supposed to be immediately ready for employment straight after their education — and, of course, they weren’t saddled with student debt, either.

Related, in my mind, is the way that we treat young people as data to be entered on a spreadsheet. This is managerialism at its worst. Back when I was a teacher and a form tutor, I remember how sorry I felt for the young people in my charge, who were effectively moved around a machine for ‘processing’ them.

Now, in an article for The Guardian, Jeremy Hannay tells it like it is for those who don’t have an insight into the Kafkaesque world of schools:

Let me clear up this edu-mess for you. It’s not Sats. It’s not workload. The elephant in the room is high-stakes accountability. And I’m calling bullshit. Our education system actively promotes holding schools, leaders and teachers at gunpoint for a very narrow set of test outcomes. This has long been proven to be one of the worst ways to bring about sustainable change. It is time to change this educational paradigm before we have no one left in the classroom except the children.

Just like our dog-eat-dog society in the UK could be much more collaborative, so our education system badly needs remodelling. We’ve deprofessionalised teaching, and introduced a managerial culture. Things could be different, as they are elsewhere in the world.

In such systems – and they do exist in some countries, such as Finland and Canada, and even in some brave schools in this country – development isn’t centred on inspection, but rather professional collaboration. These schools don’t perform regular observations and monitoring, or fire out over-prescriptive performance policies. Instead, they discuss and design pedagogy, engage in action research, and regularly perform activities such as learning and lesson study. Everyone understands that growing great educators involves moments of brilliance and moments of mayhem.

That’s the key: “moments of brilliance and moments of mayhem”. Ironically, bureaucratic, hierarchical systems cannot cope with amazing teachers, because they’re to some extent unpredictable. You can’t put them in a box (on a spreadsheet).

Actually, perhaps it’s not the hierarchy per se, but the power dynamics, as Richard D. Bartlett points out in this post.

Yes, when a hierarchical shape is applied to a human group, it tends to encourage coercive power dynamics. Usually the people at the top are given more importance than the rest. But the problem is the power, not the shape. 

What we’re doing is retro-fitting the worst forms of corporate power dynamics onto education and expecting everything to be fine. Newsflash: learning is different to work, and always will be.

Interestingly, Bartlett defines three different forms of power dynamics, which I think is enlightening:

Follett coined the terms “power-over” and “power-with” in 1924. Starhawk adds a third category “power-from-within”. These labels provide three useful lenses for analysing the power dynamics of an organisation. With apologies to the original authors, here’s my definitions:

  • power-from-within or empowerment — the creative force you feel when you’re making art, or speaking up for something you believe in
  • power-with or social power — influence, status, rank, or reputation that determines how much you are listened to in a group
  • power-over or coercion — power used by one person to control another

The problem with educational institutions, I feel, is that we’ve largely done away with empowerment and social power, and put all of our eggs in the basket of coercion.


Also check out:

  • Working collaboratively and learning cooperatively (Harold Jarche) — “Two types of behaviours are necessary in the network era workplace — collaboration and cooperation. Cooperation is not the same as collaboration, though they are complementary.”
  • Learning Alignment Model (Tom Barrett) – “It is not a step by step process to design learning, but more of a high-level thinking model to engage with that uncovers some interesting potential tensions in our classroom work.”
  • A Definition of Academic Innovation (Inside Higher Ed) – “What if academic innovation was built upon the research and theory of our field, incorporating social constructivist, constructionist and activity theory?”

Things that people think are wrong (but aren’t)

I’ve collected a bunch of diverse articles that seem to be around the topic of things that people think are wrong, but aren’t really. Hence the title.

I’ll start with something that everyone over a certain age seems to have a problem with, except for me: sleep. BBC Health lists five sleep myths:

  1. You can cope on less than five hours’ sleep
  2. Alcohol before bed boosts your sleep
  3. Watching TV in bed helps you relax
  4. If you’re struggling to sleep, stay in bed
  5. Hitting the snooze button
  6. Snoring is always harmless

My smartband regularly tells me that I sleep better than 93% of people, and I think that’s because of how much I prioritise sleep. I’ve also got a system, which I’ve written about before for the times when I do have a rough night.

I like routine, but I also like mixing things up, which is why I appreciate chunks of time at home interspersed with travel. Oliver Burkeman, writing in The Guardian, suggests, however, that routines aren’t the be-all and end-all:

Some people are so disorganised that a strict routine is a lifesaver. But speaking as a recovering rigid-schedules addict, trust me: if you click excitedly on each new article promising the perfect morning routine, you’re almost certainly not one of those people. You’re one of the other kind – people who’d benefit from struggling less to control their day, responding a bit more intuitively to the needs of the moment. This is the self-help principle you might call the law of unwelcome advice: if you love the idea of implementing a new technique, it’s likely to be the opposite of what you need.

Expecting something new to solve an underlying problem is a symptom of our culture’s focus on the new and novel. While there’s so much stuff out there we haven’t experienced, should we spend our lives seeking it out to the detriment of the tried and tested, the things that we really enjoy?

On the recommendation of my wife, I recently listened to a great episode of the Off Menu podcast featuring Victoria Cohen Mitchell. It’s not only extremely entertaining, but she mentions how, for her, a nice Ploughman’s lunch is better than some fancy meal.

This brings me to an article in The Atlantic by Joe Pinsker, who writes that kids who watch and re-watch the same film might be on to something:

In general, psychological and behavioral-economics research has found that when people make decisions about what they think they’ll enjoy, they often assign priority to unfamiliar experiences—such as a new book or movie, or traveling somewhere they’ve never been before. They are not wrong to do so: People generally enjoy things less the more accustomed to them they become. As O’Brien [professor at the University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business] writes, “People may choose novelty not because they expect exceptionally positive reactions to the new option, but because they expect exceptionally dull reactions to the old option.” And sometimes, that expected dullness might be exaggerated.

So there’s something to be said for re-reading novels you read when you were younger instead of something shortlisted for a prize, or discounted in the local bookshop. I found re-reading Dostoevsky’s Crime & Punishment recently exhilarating as I probably hadn’t ready it since I became a parent. Different periods of your life put different spins on things that you think you already know.


Also check out:

  • The ‘Dark Ages’ Weren’t As Dark As We Thought (Literary Hub) — “At the back of our minds when thinking about the centuries when the Roman Empire mutated into medieval Europe we are unconsciously taking on the spurious guise of specific communities.”
  • An Easy Mode Has Never Ruined A Game (Kotaku) — “There are myriad ways video games can turn the dials on various systems to change our assessment of how “hard” they seem, and many developers have done as much without compromising the quality or integrity of their games.”
  • Millennials destroyed the rules of written English – and created something better (Mashable) — “For millennials who conduct so many of their conversations online, this creativity with written English allows us to express things that we would have previously only been conveyed through volume, cadence, tone, or body language.”


Asking Google philosophical questions

Writing in The Guardian, philosopher Julian Baggini reflects on a recent survey which asked people what they wish Google was able to answer:

The top 25 questions mostly fall into four categories: conspiracies (Who shot JFK? Did Donald Trump rig the election?); desires for worldly success (Will I ever be rich? What will tomorrow’s winning lottery numbers be?); anxieties (Do people like me? Am I good in bed?); and curiosity about the ultimate questions (What is the meaning of life? Is there a God?).

This is all hypothetical, of course, but I’m always amazed by what people type into search engines. It’s as if there’s some ‘truth’ in there, rather than just databases and algorithms. I suppose I can understand children asking voice assistants such as Alexa and Siri questions about the world, because they can’t really know how the internet works.

What Baggini points out, though, is that what we type into search engines can reflect our deepest desires. That’s why they trawl the search history of suspected murderers, and why the Twitter account Theresa May Googling is so funny.

A Google search, however, cannot give us the two things we most need: time and other people. For our day-to-day problems, a sympathetic ear remains the most powerful device for providing relief, if not a cure. For the bigger puzzles of existence, there is no substitute for long reflection, with help from the great thinkers of history. Google can lead us directly to them, but only we can spend time in their company. Search results can help us only if they are the start, not the end, of our intellectual quest.

Sadly, in the face of, let’s face it, pretty amazing technological innovation over the last 25 years, we’ve forgotten what it is that makes us human: connections. Thankfully, some more progressive tech companies are beginning to realise the importance of the Humanities — including Philosophy.

Source: The Guardian

Insidious Instagram influencers?

There seems to a lot of pushback at the moment against the kind of lifestyle that’s a direct result of the Silicon Valley mindset. People are rejecting everything from the Instagram ‘influencer’ approach to life to the ‘techbro’-style crazy working hours.

This week saw Basecamp, a company that prides itself on the work/life balance of its employees and on rejecting venture capital, publish another book. You can guess at what it focuses on from its title, It doesn’t have to be crazy at work. I’ve enjoyed and have recommended their previous books (as ’37 Signals’), and am looking forward to reading this latest one.

Alongside that book, I’ve seen three articles that, to me at least, are all related to the same underlying issues. The first comes from Simone Stolzoff who writes in Quartz at Work that we’re no longer quite sure what we’re working for:

Before I became a journalist, I worked in an office with hot breakfast in the mornings and yoga in the evenings. I was #blessed. But I would reflect on certain weeks—after a string of days where I was lured in before 8am and stayed until well after sunset—like a driver on the highway who can’t remember the last five miles of road. My life had become my work. And my work had become a series of rinse-and-repeat days that started to feel indistinguishable from one another.

Part of this lack of work/life balance comes from our inability these days to simply have hobbies, or interests, or do anything just for the sake of it. As Tim Wu points out in The New York Times, it’s all linked some kind of existential issue around identity:

If you’re a jogger, it is no longer enough to cruise around the block; you’re training for the next marathon. If you’re a painter, you are no longer passing a pleasant afternoon, just you, your watercolors and your water lilies; you are trying to land a gallery show or at least garner a respectable social media following. When your identity is linked to your hobby — you’re a yogi, a surfer, a rock climber — you’d better be good at it, or else who are you?

To me, this is inextricably linked to George Monbiot’s recent piece in The Guardian about about the problem of actors being interviewed about the world’s issues disproportionately more often than anybody else. As a result, we’re rewarding those people who look like they know what they’re talking about with our collective attention, rather than those who actually do. Monbiot concludes:

The task of all citizens is to understand what we are seeing. The world as portrayed is not the world as it is. The personification of complex issues confuses and misdirects us, ensuring that we struggle to comprehend and respond to our predicaments. This, it seems, is often the point.

There’s always been a difference between appearance and reality in public life. However, previously, at least they seem to have been two faces of the same coin. These days, our working lives as well as our public lives seem to be

Sources: Basecamp / Quartz at Work / The New York Times / The Guardian

 

Wielding your pension fund for good

Some wise words in this article in The Guardian from Aditya Chakrabortty. Perhaps it’s my age, but I’m increasingly aware of the power that we have, collectively, around where and how we spend and save our money.

In big French companies, pension savers are offered the chance to invest 10% of their money in a fond solidaire, or solidarity fund, which supports unlisted social enterprises. In Britain, your average pension member doesn’t even get consulted on what values they’d like their money to support – whether fighting climate change or building social housing. Yet, rather than tackle those issues, the Labour party seeks to build a parallel finance system, in the form of a National Investment Bank, while other left economists talk about building a sovereign wealth fund, just as Norway has done with the proceeds of North Sea oil.

But we have a sovereign wealth fund already. It’s worth over £2tn and it’s called our pension funds. The big battle is to give us agency over our own savings, rather than leaving it all to some pinstriped manager on a fat commission.

I have several pensions (Teachers’ Pension, Local Government, personal, Moodle…) and, as much as I’m able, I ensure that the money is being ethically invested. There’s so many frontiers on which we can change the world, not all of them are super-exciting…

Source: The Guardian

 

The spectrum of work autonomy

Some companies have (and advertise as a huge perk) their ‘unlimited vacation’ policy. That, of course, sounds amazing. Except, of course, that there’s a reason why companies are so benevolent.

I can think of at least two:

  1. Your peers will exert downward pressure on the number of holidays you actually take.
  2. If there’s no set holiday entitlement, when you leave the company doesn’t have to pay for unused holiday days.

This article by Gaby Hinsliff in The Guardian uses the unlimited vacation policy as an example of the difference between two ends of the spectrum when it comes to jobs.

And that, increasingly, is the dividing line in modern workplaces: trust versus the lack of it; autonomy versus micro-management; being treated like a human being or programmed like a machine. Human jobs give the people who do them chances to exercise their own judgment, even if it’s only deciding what radio station to have on in the background, or set their own pace. Machine jobs offer at best a petty, box-ticking mentality with no scope for individual discretion, and at worst the ever-present threat of being tracked, timed and stalked by technology – a practice reaching its nadir among gig economy platforms controlling a resentful army of supposedly self-employed workers.

Never mind robots coming to steal our jobs, that’s just a symptom in a wider trend of neoliberal, late-stage capitalism:

There have always been crummy jobs, and badly paid ones. Not everyone gets to follow their dream or discover a vocation – and for some people, work will only ever be a means of paying the rent. But the saving grace of crummy jobs was often that there was at least some leeway for goofing around; for taking a fag break, gossiping with your equally bored workmates, or chatting a bit longer than necessary to lonely customers.

The ‘contract’ with employers these days goes way beyond the piece of paper you sign that states such mundanities as how much you will be paid or how much holiday you get. It’s about trust, as Hinsliff comments:

The mark of human jobs is an increasing understanding that you don’t have to know where your employees are and what they’re doing every second of the day to ensure they do it; that people can be just as productive, say, working from home, or switching their hours around so that they are working in the evening. Machine jobs offer all the insecurity of working for yourself without any of the freedom.

Embedded in this are huge diversity issues. I purposely chose a photo of a young white guy to go with the post, as they’re disproportionately likely to do well from this ‘trust-based’ workplace approach. People of colour, women, and those with disabilities are more likely to suffer from implicit bias and other forms of discrimination.

The debate about whether robots will soon be coming for everyone’s jobs is real. But it shouldn’t blind us to the risk right under our noses: not so much of people being automated out of jobs, as automated while still in them.

I consume a lot of what I post to Thought Shrapnel online, but I originally red this one in the dead-tree version of The Guardian. Interestingly, in the same issue there was a letter from a doctor by the name of Jonathan Shapiro, who wrote that he divides his colleagues into three different types:

  1. Passionate
  2. Dispassionate
  3. Compassionate

The first group suffer burnout, he said. The second group survive but are “lousy”. It’s the third group that cope, as they “care for patients without sacrificing themselves on the altar of professional vocation”.

What we need to be focusing on in education is preparing young people to be compassionate human beings, not cogs in the capitalist machine.

Source: The Guardian

Survival in the age of surveillance

The Guardian has a list of 18 tips to ‘survive’ (i.e. be safe) in an age where everyone wants to know everything about you — so that they can package up your data and sell it to the highest bidder.

On the internet, the adage goes, nobody knows you’re a dog. That joke is only 15 years old, but seems as if it is from an entirely different era. Once upon a time the internet was associated with anonymity; today it is synonymous with surveillance. Not only do modern technology companies know full well you’re not a dog (not even an extremely precocious poodle), they know whether you own a dog and what sort of dog it is. And, based on your preferred category of canine, they can go a long way to inferring – and influencing – your political views.

Mozilla has pointed out in a recent blog post that the containers feature in Firefox can increase your privacy and prevent ‘leakage’ between tabs as you navigate the web. But there’s more to privacy and security than just that.

Here’s the Guardian’s list:

  1. Download all the information Google has on you.
  2. Try not to let your smart toaster take down the internet.
  3. Ensure your AirDrop settings are dick-pic-proof.
  4. Secure your old Yahoo account.
  5. 1234 is not an acceptable password.
  6. Check if you have been pwned.
  7. Be aware of personalised pricing.
  8. Say hi to the NSA guy spying on you via your webcam.
  9. Turn off notifications for anything that’s not another person speaking directly to you.
  10. Never put your kids on the public internet.
  11. Leave your phone in your pocket or face down on the table when you’re with friends.
  12. Sometimes it’s worth just wiping everything and starting over.
  13. An Echo is fine, but don’t put a camera in your bedroom.
  14. Have as many social-media-free days in the week as you have alcohol-free days.
  15. Retrain your brain to focus.
  16. Don’t let the algorithms pick what you do.
  17. Do what you want with your data, but guard your friends’ info with your life.
  18. Finally, remember your privacy is worth protecting.

A bit of a random list in places, but useful all the same.

Source: The Guardian

The punk rock internet

This kind of article is useful in that it shows to a mainstream audience the benefits of a redecentralised web and resistance to Big Tech.

Balkan and Kalbag form one small part of a fragmented rebellion whose prime movers tend to be located a long way from Silicon Valley. These people often talk in withering terms about Big Tech titans such as Mark Zuckerberg, and pay glowing tribute to Edward Snowden. Their politics vary, but they all have a deep dislike of large concentrations of power and a belief in the kind of egalitarian, pluralistic ideas they say the internet initially embodied.

What they are doing could be seen as the online world’s equivalent of punk rock: a scattered revolt against an industry that many now think has grown greedy, intrusive and arrogant – as well as governments whose surveillance programmes have fuelled the same anxieties. As concerns grow about an online realm dominated by a few huge corporations, everyone involved shares one common goal: a comprehensively decentralised internet.

However, these kind of articles are very personality-driven, and the little asides made the article’s author paint those featured as a bit crazy and the whole idea as a bit far-fetched.

For example, here’s the section on a project which is doing some pretty advanced tech while avoiding venture capitalist money:

In the Scottish coastal town of Ayr, where a company called MaidSafe works out of a silver-grey office on an industrial estate tucked behind a branch of Topps Tiles, another version of this dream seems more advanced. MaidSafe’s first HQ, in nearby Troon, was an ocean-going boat. The company moved to an office above a bridal shop, and then to an unheated boatshed, where the staff sometimes spent the working day wearing woolly hats. It has been in its new home for three months: 10 people work here, with three in a newly opened office in Chennai, India, and others working remotely in Australia, Slovakia, Spain and China.

I get the need to bring technology alive for the reader, but what difference does it make that their office is behind Topps Tiles? So what if the staff sometimes wear woolly hats? It just makes the whole thing out to be farcical. Which of course, it’s not.

Source: The Guardian