Adonis Diaries

Posts Tagged ‘Alain de Botton

Can we talk about TED? We need to…

Note: A must read article.

I submit that astrophysics run on the model of American Idol is a recipe for civilization disaster

In our culture, talking about the future is sometimes a polite way of saying things about the present that would otherwise be rude or risky.

But have you ever wondered why so little of the future promised in TED talks actually happens? So much potential and enthusiasm, and so little actual change.

Are the ideas wrong? Or is the idea about what ideas can do all by themselves wrong?

TED talks in Edinburgh : Alain de Botton

Alain de Botton speaks during TED Global 2011, in Edinburgh. Photograph: James Duncan Davidson/TED

I write about entanglements of technology and culture, how technologies enable the making of certain worlds, and at the same time how culture structures how those technologies will evolve, this way or that.

It’s where philosophy and design intersect.

So the conceptualization of possibilities is something that I take very seriously. That’s why I, and many people, think it’s way past time to take a step back and ask some serious questions about the intellectual viability of things like TED.

So my TED talk is not about my work or my new book – the usual spiel – but about TED itself, what it is and why it doesn’t work.

The first reason is over-simplification.

To be clear, I think that having smart people who do very smart things explain what they doing in a way that everyone can understand is a good thing. But TED goes way beyond that.

Let me tell you a story. I was at a presentation that a friend, an astrophysicist, gave to a potential donor. I thought the presentation was lucid and compelling (and I’m a professor of visual arts here at UC San Diego so at the end of the day, I know really nothing about astrophysics).

After the talk the sponsor said to him, “you know what, I’m gonna pass because I just don’t feel inspired …you should be more like Malcolm Gladwell.”

At this point I kind of lost it. Can you imagine?   Think about it: an actual scientist who produces actual knowledge should be more like a journalist who recycles fake insights!

This is beyond popularization. This is taking something with value and substance and coring it out so that it can be swallowed without chewing. This is not the solution to our most frightening problems – rather this is one of our most frightening problems.

So I ask the question: does TED epitomize a situation where if a scientist’s work (or an artist’s or philosopher’s or activist’s or whoever) is told that their work is not worthy of support, because the public doesn’t feel good listening to them?  

I submit that astrophysics run on the model of American Idol is a recipe for civilization disaster

What is TED?

So what is TED exactly?   Perhaps it’s the proposition that if we talk about world-changing ideas enough, then the world will change.

But this is not true, and that’s the second problem.   TED of course stands for Technology, Entertainment, Design, and I’ll talk a bit about all three. I Think TED actually stands for: middlebrow megachurch infotainment.

The key rhetorical device for TED talks is a combination of epiphany and personal testimony (an “epiphimony” if you like ) through which the speaker shares a personal journey of insight and realisation, its triumphs and tribulations.

What is it that the TED audience hopes to get from this?

A vicarious insight, a fleeting moment of wonder, an inkling that maybe it’s all going to work out after all? A spiritual buzz?

I’m sorry but this fails to meet the challenges that we are supposedly here to confront. These are complicated and difficult and are not given to tidy just-so solutions. They don’t care about anyone’s experience of optimism.

Given the stakes, making our best and brightest waste their time – and the audience’s time – dancing like infomercial hosts is too high a price. It is cynical.

Also, it just doesn’t work.

Recently there was a bit of a dust up when TEDGobal sent out a note to TEDx organisers asking them not to book speakers whose work spans the paranormal, the conspiratorial, new age “quantum neuroenergy”, etc: what is called woo.

Instead of these placebos, TEDx should instead curate talks that are imaginative but grounded in reality.

In fairness, they took some heat, so their gesture should be acknowledged. A lot of people take TED very seriously, and might lend credence to specious ideas if stamped with TED credentials. “No” to placebo science and medicine.

But … the corollaries of placebo science and placebo medicine are placebo politics and placebo innovation.

On this point, TED has a long way to go.   Perhaps the pinnacle of placebo politics and innovation was featured at TEDx San Diego in 2011.

You’re familiar I assume with Kony2012, the social media campaign to stop war crimes in central Africa? So what happened here?

Evangelical surfer bro goes to help kids in Africa. He makes a campy video explaining genocide to the cast of Glee. The world finds his public epiphany to be shallow to the point of self-delusion. The complex geopolitics of central Africa are left undisturbed. Kony’s still there. The end.

You see, when inspiration becomes manipulation, inspiration becomes obfuscation. If you are not cynical you should be skeptical. You should be as skeptical of placebo politics as you are placebo medicine.

T and Technology

T – E – D. I’ll go through them each quickly.

First technology. We hear that not only is change accelerating but that the pace of change is accelerating as well. While this is true of computational carrying-capacity at a planetary level, at the same time – and in fact the two are connected – we are also in a moment of cultural de-acceleration.

We invest our energy in futuristic information technologies, including our cars, but drive them home to kitsch architecture copied from the 18th century. The future on offer is one in which everything changes, so long as everything stays the same. We’ll have Google Glass, but still also business casual.

This timidity is our path to the future? No, this is incredibly conservative, and there is no reason to think that more gigaflops will inoculate us.

Because, if a problem is in fact endemic to a system, then the exponential effects of Moore’s law also serve to amplify what’s broken.

It is more computation along the wrong curve, and I don’t think it is necessarily a triumph of reason.

Part of my work explores deep techno-cultural shifts, from post-humanism to the post-anthropocene, but TED’s version has too much faith in technology, and not nearly enough commitment to technology.

It is placebo techno-radicalism, toying with risk so as to reaffirm the comfortable.

So our machines get smarter and we get stupider. But it doesn’t have to be like that. Both can be much more intelligent. Another futurism is possible.

E and economics

A better ‘E’ in TED would stand for economics, and the need for, yes imagining and designing, different systems of valuation, exchange, accounting of transaction externalities, financing of coordinated planning, etc.

Because states plus markets, states versus markets, these are insufficient models, and our conversation is stuck in Cold War gear.

Worse is when economics is debated like metaphysics, as if the reality of a system is merely a bad example of the ideal.

Communism in theory is an egalitarian utopia.

Actually existing communism meant ecological devastation, government spying, crappy cars and gulags.

Capitalism in theory is rocket ships, nanomedicine, and Bono saving Africa.

Actually existing capitalism means Walmart jobs, McMansions, people living in the sewers under Las Vegas, Ryan Seacrest … plus – ecological devastation, government spying, crappy public transportation and for-profit prisons.

Our options for change range from basically what we have plus a little more Hayek, to what we have plus a little more Keynes. Why?

The most recent centuries have seen extraordinary accomplishments in improving quality of life.

The paradox is that the system we have now –whatever you want to call it – is in the short term what makes the amazing new technologies possible, but in the long run it is also what suppresses their full flowering. Another economic architecture is prerequisite.

D and design

Instead of our designers prototyping the same “change agent for good” projects over and over again, and then wondering why they don’t get implemented at scale, perhaps we should resolve that design is not some magic answer. Design matters a lot, but for very different reasons. It’s easy to get enthusiastic about design because, like talking about the future, it is more polite than referring to white elephants in the room.

Such as…

Phones, drones and genomes, that’s what we do here in San Diego and La Jolla. In addition to the other insanely great things these technologies do, they are the basis of NSA spying, flying robots killing people, and the wholesale privatisation of biological life itself. That’s also what we do.

The potential for these technologies are both wonderful and horrifying at the same time, and to make them serve good futures, design as “innovation” just isn’t a strong enough idea by itself.

We need to talk more about design as “immunization,” actively preventing certain potential “innovations” that we do not want from happening.

And so…

As for one simple take away … I don’t have one simple take away, one magic idea. That’s kind of the point. I will say that if and when the key problems facing our species were to be solved, then perhaps many of us in this room would be out of work (and perhaps in jail).

But it’s not as though there is a shortage of topics for serious discussion. We need a deeper conversation about the difference between digital cosmopolitanism and cloud feudalism (and toward that, a queer history of computer science and Alan Turing’s birthday as holiday!)

I would like new maps of the world, ones not based on settler colonialism, legacy genomes and bronze age myths, but instead on something more … scalable.

TED today is not that.

Problems are not “puzzles” to be solved. That metaphor assumes that all the necessary pieces are already on the table, they just need to be rearranged and reprogrammed. It’s not true.

“Innovation” defined as moving the pieces around and adding more processing power is not some Big Idea that will disrupt a broken status quo: that precisely is the broken status quo.

One TED speaker said recently, “If you remove this boundary … the only boundary left is our imagination”. Wrong.   If we really want transformation, we have to slog through the hard stuff (history, economics, philosophy, art, ambiguities, contradictions).

Bracketing it off to the side to focus just on technology, or just on innovation, actually prevents transformation.

Instead of dumbing-down the future, we need to raise the level of general understanding to the level of complexity of the systems in which we are embedded and which are embedded in us.

This is not about “personal stories of inspiration”, it’s about the difficult and uncertain work of demystification and re-conceptualisation: the hard stuff that really changes how we think. More Copernicus, less Tony Robbins.

At a societal level, the bottom line is if we invest in things that make us feel good but which don’t work, and don’t invest in things that don’t make us feel good but which may solve problems, then our fate is that it will just get harder to feel good about not solving problems.

In this case the placebo is worse than ineffective, it’s harmful. It diverts your interest, enthusiasm and outrage until it’s absorbed into this black hole of affectation.

Keep calm and carry on “innovating” … is that the real message of TED? To me that’s not inspirational, it’s cynical.   In the US the rightwing has certain media channels that allow it to bracket reality … other constituencies have TED.

• This article first appeared on Benjamin Bratton’s website and is republished with permission. It is the text of a talk given at TEDx San Diego

 

Perfectionism is the enemy of the creative

william choukeir posted this June 26, 2014
 

“do you mind, even a little, that you are still addicted to people-pleasing, and are still putting everyone else’s needs and […] career ahead of your creative […] life? giving all your life force away, to ‘help’ and impress.” —anne lamott

what does people-pleasing have to do with perfectionism? let’s get into that right after we establish a common understanding of perfectionism.

think of it this way, in geometry, you can imagine a perfect picture-frame with right angles, and with edges that are perfectly parallel.

in real life, there are no perfectly parallel lines. trying to re-create this perfect frame in the real world would be perfectionism. It’s like chasing the horizon.

“it’s actually kind of tragic”, admits david foster, because doing anything means that you “sacrifice how gorgeous and perfect it is in your head for what it really is.”

so what does people-pleasing have to do with perfectionism?

it’s common for fear to be lurking behind people-pleasing, and that more often than not leads to perfectionism. i expect a couple of you to disagree with the following statement. if you do disagree, then you’re either not aware of the fear, or the following doesn’t apply to you.

you may not be aware that fear [usually] lurks behind perfectionism. fear is the fuel that drives your compulsion to polish things to the ultimate.” says renown psychiatrist david burns, M.D.(1) people-pleasers are usually afraid. According to burns, perfectionism protects you. “it may protect you from risking criticism, failure, or disapproval.”

one perfectionist confesses that if he didn’t submit a perfect paper, he’ll let down the professor, get a D, ruin his own academic record, and people would be angry with him, he’ll be a failure, rejected by everyone, alone and miserable.(2)

people-pleasing often leads us to follow someone else’s dreams and ideas, thinking them our own.

“a lot of the time our ideas about what it would mean to live successfully are not our own. they’re sucked in from other people. […] what i want to argue for is not that we should give up on our ideas of success, but that we should make sure that they are our own. […] because it’s bad enough not getting what you want, but it’s even worse to have an idea of what it is you want and find out at the end of the journey that it isn’t, in fact, what you wanted all along.” —alain de botton

imagine being a perfectionist while attempting to work on a task you’d like to like. that’s a recipe for procrastination. imagine pursuing a journey you ‘thought’ you wanted, only to find out that it’s what someone else wanted.

perfectionism is the voice of the oppressor, the enemy of the people. it will keep you cramped and insane your whole life. […] it will keep you very scared and restless your entire life if you do not awaken, and fight back, and if you’re an artist, it will destroy you.” —anne lamott

perfectionism freezes you. like ice stuck in time and space. water, on the other hand, flows. it glides around obstacles, adjusts its path, and moves forward. accept that ‘perfect’ doesn’t exist. ideas are only perfect within the safety of our minds.

“remember that sooner or later, before your work ever reaches perfection,  you will have to let it go and move on and start […] the next thing.” —neil gaiman

flow around obstacles, critics, and those who want you to follow their idea of success. accept to sacrifice your perfect idea. put it into a shitty first draft. refine a few times. then move on to the next best thing. some will like it. some will hate it. be very clear with yourself about who it’s for. it’s only those who matter. listen. improve. then move on. anything you give to the world is better than keeping it in your head. the world deserves your gift.

if you can do that, then maybe you’ll realize that passion can replace perfectionism. risk having your ideas clash with the world enough times, and you’ll learn. you’ll grow. and so will your gifts. in your eyes it may still not be perfect. but in the eyes of your audience, it may very well be remarkable. flow, despite the fears, the self doubts, and the risk of rejection.

“perfection is like chasing the horizon. keep moving.” —neil gaiman


this post is from ‘edition 11′ of our ‘inspirations newsletter’. subscribe below to receive these regular editions by email. every edition also includes acad 3d models of chairs, stools, tables, and sofas, exclusive to our subscribers. subscribe below:

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resources 1 and 2: Burns, David D. (1999). Feeling Good: The New Mood Therapy. Avon Books (Whole Care). pp. 359-363.

Why Writers Are the Worst Procrastinators

The psychological origins of waiting (… and waiting, and waiting) to work.
Lots of people procrastinate but for writers it is a peculiarly common occupational hazard.
“Fixed mind-set,” people versus  “growth mind-set” who thrive on challenges because they would learn something they had no talent in.
A good read.
 posted this FEB 12 2014

Like most writers, I am an inveterate procrastinator.

In the course of writing this one article, I have checked my e-mail approximately 3,000 times, made and discarded multiple grocery lists, conducted a lengthy Twitter battle over whether the gold standard is actually the worst economic policy ever proposed, written Facebook messages to schoolmates I haven’t seen in at least a decade, invented a delicious new recipe for chocolate berry protein smoothies, and googled my own name several times to make sure that I have at least once written something that someone would actually want to read.

Wikimedia Commons

One book editor I talked to fondly reminisced about the first book she was assigned to work on, back in the late 1990s. It had gone under contract in 1972.

I once asked a talented and fairly famous colleague how he managed to regularly produce such highly regarded 8,000 word features.

“Well,” he said, “first, I put it off for two or three weeks. Then I sit down to write. That’s when I get up and go clean the garage. After that, I go upstairs, and then I come back downstairs and complain to my wife for a couple of hours. Finally, but only after a couple more days have passed and I’m really freaking out about missing my deadline, I ultimately sit down and write.”

Over the years, I developed a theory about why writers are such procrastinators: We were too good in English class. This sounds crazy, but hear me out.

Most writers were the kids who easily, almost automatically, got A’s in English class. (There are exceptions, but they often also seem to be exceptions to the general writing habit of putting off writing as long as possible.)

At an early age, when grammar school teachers were struggling to inculcate the lesson that effort was the main key to success in school, these future scribblers gave the obvious lie to this assertion.

Where others read haltingly, they were plowing two grades ahead in the reading workbooks. These are the kids who turned in a completed YA novel for their fifth-grade project.

It isn’t that they never failed, but at a very early age, they didn’t have to fail much; their natural talents kept them at the head of the class.

This teaches a very bad, very false lesson: that success in work mostly depends on natural talent.

Unfortunately, when you are a professional writer, you are competing with all the other kids who were at the top of their English classes. Your stuff may not—indeed, probably won’t—be the best anymore.

If you’ve spent most of your life cruising ahead on natural ability, doing what came easily and quickly, every word you write becomes a test of just how much ability you have, every article a referendum on how good a writer you are.

As long as you have not written that article, that speech, that novel, it could still be good.

Before you take to the keys, you are Proust and Oscar Wilde and George Orwell all rolled up into one delicious package.

By the time you’re finished, you’re more like one of those 1940’s pulp hacks who strung hundred-page paragraphs together with semicolons because it was too much effort to figure out where the sentence should end.

The Fear of Turning In Nothing

Most writers manage to get by because, as the deadline creeps closer, their fears of turning in nothing eventually surpasses their fears of turning in something terrible.

But I’ve watched a surprising number of young journalists wreck, or nearly wreck, their careers by simply failing to hand in articles. These are all college graduates who can write in complete sentences, so it is not that they are lazy incompetents. Rather, they seem to be paralyzed by the prospect of writing something that isn’t very good.

“Exactly!” said Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck, when I floated this theory by her. One of the best-known experts in the psychology of motivation, Dweck has spent her career studying failure, and how people react to it.

As you might expect, failure isn’t all that popular an activity. And yet, as she discovered through her research, not everyone reacts to it by breaking out in hives. While many of the people she studied hated tasks that they didn’t do well, some people thrived under the challenge. They positively relished things they weren’t very good at—for precisely the reason that they should have: when they were failing, they were learning.

Dweck puzzled over what it was that made these people so different from their peers. It hit her one day as she was sitting in her office (then at Columbia), chewing over the results of the latest experiment with one of her graduate students: the people who dislike challenges think that talent is a fixed thing that you’re either born with or not. The people who relish them think that it’s something you can nourish by doing stuff you’re not good at.

There was this eureka moment,” says Dweck.

She now identifies the former group as people with a “fixed mind-set,” while the latter group has a “growth mind-set.”

Whether you are more fixed or more of a grower helps determine how you react to anything that tests your intellectual abilities.

For growth people, challenges are an opportunity to deepen their talents, but for “fixed” people, they are just a dipstick that measures how high your ability level is.

Finding out that you’re not as good as you thought is not an opportunity to improve; it’s a signal that you should maybe look into a less demanding career, like mopping floors.

This fear of being unmasked as the incompetent you “really” are is so common that it actually has a clinical name: impostor syndrome. A shocking number of successful people (particularly women), believe that they haven’t really earned their spots, and are at risk of being unmasked as frauds at any moment.

Many people deliberately seek out easy tests where they can shine, rather than tackling harder material that isn’t as comfortable.

If they’re forced into a challenge they don’t feel prepared for, they may even engage in what psychologists call “self-handicapping” behaviors: deliberately doing things that will hamper their performance in order to give themselves an excuse for not doing well.

Self-handicapping can be fairly spectacular: in one study, men deliberately chose performance-inhibiting drugs when facing a task they didn’t expect to do well on.

“Instead of studying,” writes the psychologist Edward Hirt, “a student goes to a movie the night before an exam. If he performs poorly, he can attribute his failure to a lack of studying rather than to a lack of ability or intelligence. On the other hand, if he does well on the exam, he may conclude that he has exceptional ability, because he was able to perform well without studying.”

Writers who don’t produce copy—or leave it so long that they couldn’t possibly produce something good—are giving themselves the perfect excuse for not succeeding.

“Work finally begins,” says Alain de Botton, “when the fear of doing nothing exceeds the fear of doing it badly.” For people with an extremely fixed mind-set, that tipping point quite often never happens. They fear nothing so much as finding out that they never had what it takes.

“The kids who race ahead in the readers without much supervision get praised for being smart,” says Dweck. “What are they learning? They’re learning that being smart is not about overcoming tough challenges. It’s about finding work easyWhen they get to college or graduate school and it starts being hard, they don’t necessarily know how to deal with that.”

Embracing Hard Work

Our educational system is almost designed to foster a fixed mind-set. Think about how a typical English class works: You read a “great work” by a famous author, discussing what the messages are, and how the author uses language, structure, and imagery to convey them.

You memorize particularly pithy quotes to be regurgitated on the exam, and perhaps later on second dates.

Students are rarely encouraged to peek at early drafts of those works. All they see is the final product, lovingly polished by both writer and editor to a very high shine. When the teacher asks “What is the author saying here?” no one ever suggests that the answer might be “He didn’t quite know” or “That sentence was part of a key scene in an earlier draft, and he forgot to take it out in revision.”

Or consider a science survey class. It consists almost entirely of the theories that turned out to be right—not the folks who believed in the mythical “N-rays,” declared that human beings had forty-eight chromosomes, or saw imaginary canals on Mars.

When we do read about falsified scientific theories of the past—Lamarckian evolution, phrenology, reproduction by “spontaneous generation”—the people who believed in them frequently come across as ludicrous yokels, even though many of them were distinguished scientists who made real contributions to their fields.

“You never see the mistakes, or the struggle,” says Dweck. No wonder students get the idea that being a good writer is defined by not writing bad stuff.

Unfortunately, in your own work, you are confronted with every clunky paragraph, every labored metaphor and unending story that refuses to come to a point.

“The reason we struggle with “insecurity,” says Pastor Steven Furtick, “is because we compare our behind-the-scenes with everyone else’s highlight reel.”

About six years ago, commentators started noticing a strange pattern of behavior among the young millennial who were pouring out of college. Eventually, the writer Ron Alsop would dub them the Trophy Kids. Despite the sound of it, this has nothing to do with “trophy wives.” Rather, it has to do with the way these kids were raised.

This new generation was brought up to believe that there should be no winners and no losers, no scrubs or MVPs. Everyone, no matter how ineptly they perform, gets a trophy.

As these kids have moved into the workforce, managers complain that new graduates expect the workplace to replicate the cosy, well-structured environment of school. They demand concrete, well-described tasks and constant feedback, as if they were still trying to figure out what was going to be on the exam.

“It’s very hard to give them negative feedback without crushing their egos,” one employer told Bruce Tulgan, the author of Not Everyone Gets a Trophy. “They walk in thinking they know more than they know.”

When I started asking around about this phenomenon, I was a bit skeptical. After all, us old geezers have been grousing about those young whippersnappers for centuries.

But whenever I brought the subject up, I got a torrent of complaints, including from people who  have been managing new hires for decades. They were able to compare them with previous classes, not just with some mental image of how great we all were at their age. And they insisted that something really has changed—something that’s not limited to the super-coddled children of the elite.

“I’ll hire someone who’s 27, and he’s fine,” says Todd, who manages a car rental operation in the Midwest. “But if I hire someone who’s twenty-three or twenty-four, they need everything spelled out for them, they want me to hover over their shoulder. It’s like somewhere in those three or four years, someone flipped a switch.”

They are probably harder working and more conscientious than my generation.  But many seem intensely uncomfortable with the comparatively unstructured world of work.  No wonder so many elite students go into finance and consulting—jobs that surround them with other elite grads, with well-structured reviews and advancement.

Today’s new graduates may be better credentialed than previous generations, and are often very hardworking, but only when given very explicit direction. And they seem to demand constant praise.

Is it any wonder, with so many adults hovering so closely over every aspect of their lives? Frantic parents of a certain socioeconomic level now give their kids the kind of intensive early grooming that used to be reserved for princelings or little Dalai Lamas.

All this “help” can be actively harmful. These days, I’m told, private schools in New York are (quietly, tactfully) trying to combat a minor epidemic of expensive tutors who do the kids’ work for them, something that would have been nearly unthinkable when I went through the system 20 years ago.

Our parents were in league with the teachers, not us. But these days, fewer seem willing to risk letting young Silas or Gertrude fail out of the Ivy League.

Thanks to decades of expansion, there are still enough spaces for basically every student who wants to go to college. But there’s a catch: Most of those new spaces were created at less selective schools. Two-thirds of Americans now attend a college that, for all intents and purposes, admits anyone who applies. Spots at the elite schools—the top 10 percent—have barely kept up with population growth.

Meanwhile demand for those slots has grown much faster, because as the economy has gotten more competitive, parents are looking for a guarantee that their children will be successful. A degree from an elite school is the closest thing they can think of.

So we get Whiffle Parenting: constant supervision to ensure that a kid can’t knock themselves off the ladder that is thought to lead, almost automatically, through a selective college and into the good life.

It’s an entirely rational reaction to an educational system in which the stakes are always rising, and any small misstep can knock you out of the race. But is this really good parenting?

A golden credential is no guarantee of success, and in the process of trying to secure one for their kids, parents are depriving them of what they really need: the ability to learn from their mistakes, to be knocked down and to pick themselves up—the ability, in other words, to fail gracefully.

That is probably the most important lesson our kids will learn at school, and instead many are being taught the opposite.


This post is adapted from Megan McArdle’s The Up Side of Down: Why Failing Well Is the Key to Success.


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