On the Evolution of Ideas

By Scott London — August 27, 2009

One of Hegel’s great contributions to Western philosophy was a theory he called dialectical progression. As he saw it, ideas and worldviews tend to evolve through a series of stages. First there is an idea or concept, a thesis. Over time it inevitably gives rise to its opposite, its antithesis. The interaction of the two in time leads to a new concept, a synthesis, which in turn becomes the thesis of a new triad.

J.N. Findlay, in a wonderful lecture on Hegel, rightly noted that the theory had been grossly oversimplified and misused. But he went on to say — and this strikes me as central to the notion of paradigm shifts and conceptual revolutions — that the dialectical method always involved “higher order comment” on a thought position previously achieved. In the dialectical process, you operate at a given level of thought and then proceed to stand outside it. That is to say, you’re taken in by an idea and accept all of its basic assumptions. But over time, as the idea is taken to its logical limits, its shortcomings become more and more apparent. At that point, you “become conscious,” in a sense, and begin to see the idea from the outside. It’s not unlike a gestalt-switch, only it’s more rational and linear.

“In dialectic,” Findlay pointed out, “one sees what can be said about a certain thought-position that one cannot actually see in it. And the sort of comment made in dialectic is not a comment on the correctness or truth of what is said in a certain manner or in terms of certain concepts, but a comment on the adequacy or logical satisfactoriness of the conceptual approaches or instruments one has been employing.” In this sense, each stage transcends and includes the one that came before it.

This observation ties in with what Thomas Kuhn, Joseph Schumpeter, Kenneth Boulding, Arthur Koestler, and others have observed about how systems of knowledge, or frames of reference, evolve not by an orderly and incremental step-by-step process, but by occasional upheavals in which accepted truths are overthrown and reordered.

Critics of Kuhn and his followers like to play the old relativism card, saying that his notion of shifting paradigms was flawed because it said nothing about the effectiveness of one paradigm or another in getting closer to the truth. But my understanding of the evolution of paradigms is that each one represents, in Findlay’s words, “a series of improving definitions of the absolute.”

For more on this, see:

On Paying Dues

By Scott London — August 11, 2009

I don’t believe in paying your dues, but sometimes it’s the only way to overcome self-doubt or a lingering suspicion that you’re a charlatan.

The Mystic Death

By Scott London — July 28, 2009

In the mystic traditions, the death of the false self is comparable to physical death. The mercy is that after the first couple of killings, you realize you’re being killed into life. Then, as Andrew Harvey has said, you begin to participate in the killing willingly. “Everyone doing a serious yoga with a master or with God directly is learning how to die in life, how to die into life. They know that the law is that the more you die, the more you live.”

Creativity and Chaos

By Scott London — July 8, 2009

The line between creativity and psychological disorder is astonishingly thin. It seems to me that in our culture we cultivate creativity as if it were a rare hothouse flower while at the same time trying to stave off mental disorder like some kind of pestilence. But they’re really two sides of the same coin. In order to tap our fullest creative potential, we have to become, as Ram Dass once put it, connoisseurs of our neuroses.

 

Nobel Peace Lectures

By Scott London — June 27, 2009

Nobel Lectures: Peace, 2001-2005

World Scientific has just published the latest in a series of volumes of Nobel Peace Prize lectures, which I co-edited together with Irwin Abrams. These are the acceptance speeches of the laureates as they were given at the annual award ceremony in Oslo. The latest volume includes some brilliant and remarkable lectures from people like Kofi Annan, Jimmy Carter, Shirin Ebadi, and Wangari Maathai, along with presentation speeches, biographical information, notes, bibliographies, and extensive editorial commentary. The work was commissioned by the Nobel Foundation and represents the closest thing we have to an authoritative reference work on the prestigious lectures.

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Outside the Box

By Scott London — April 28, 2009

A survey-taker asks me if I’m religious. 

“No,” I say. 

“So you don’t believe in God?” 

“Of course I do,” I say. 

“So you’re a non-religious believer?” 

I suppose so, whatever that means.

Without intending to, I seem to confound bureaucrats and pollsters. Much of the time I’m either all of the above or none of the above.

Speaking to Different Value-Sets

By Scott London — April 21, 2009

 
OdeTo create real change, we have to “language” our message so it speaks to different value structures, says Ken Wilber in an interview in the latest issue of Ode Magazine.

For example, when Al Gore speaks of global warming, he says that the entire world needs to change its behavior. “But he says so in a language that is perhaps understood by 20 percent of the world’s population,” Wilber points out. “Gore assumes that people will respond from rational self-interest based on sound science, but that’s the least of the motivations of the majority of the population of the planet.”

To be successful, Wilber says, “Al Gore has to ‘language’ his message in at least four different value structures to get, say, 80 percent of the world behind him. Anything less than that will simply not work.”

The Future of Books

By Scott London — April 20, 2009

booksAfter almost six years, I moved my office out of the old Lobero Building last week. I was astonished by the amount of stuff I’d accumulated during that time — the papers, yes, but especially the books. I receive a lot of review copies, but I’m also guilty of buying too many titles. It’s a tough habit to break.

As I was disassembling the bookshelves and moving the volumes out to the car, box by box, I was reminded of a time I had done the same thing two decades ago, only then it was vinyl records, not books. That record collection used to take up a small room, but today I can fit all my music on a single hard drive. In the same way, the arrival of the Kindle and other electronic readers, coupled with incredible search technology like Google Scholar, have rendered much of my book collection dead weight.

It’s not just that books are going digital. Used bookstores have now migrated online, which makes it possible to track down and order an out-of-print book in a matter of minutes. And if that’s too expensive a proposition, your local public library can quickly scan the holdings of other collections across the nation and have a copy in your hands in a matter of days via inter-library loan.

What this means is that it no longer makes sense to own a lot of books. If anything, it becomes a real burden, as I discovered in the course of this last move.

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It seems I’m not the only one contemplating the future of books. As we know, the publishing world is in deep turmoil right now partly as a result of our changing reading habits. Publishers are “feeling the same chronic pain as other media businesses,” writes Brad Stone in the New York Times, “with layoffs, corporate restructurings and a general sense of gloom, doom and kaboom settling over name-brand giants like Random House and Simon & Schuster.” 

But amid all the anxiety, there is also a sense of optimism about the arrival of the Kindle and other readers that offer a glimpse of the future. “Just this year,” Stone says, “new electronic reading devices have emerged from Amazon, Samsung and Fujitsu, while mobile phones like iPhone from Apple have flowered seemingly overnight into acceptable reading devices for many bookworms.” (See Is This the Future of the Digital Book?)

The question is whether this represents a gradual shift or a watershed event for the publishing industry. Many have been asking this question with a mixture of dread and fascination in recent months. Bestselling author Paulo Coelho put this question to the readers of his blog recently and it stimulated a flurry of interesting responses. See Your Opinion: Will Books Survive?

Another valuable series called “The Future of Reading” appeared in the New York Times last summer. It took up the question of how the Internet and other technological and social forces are changing the way people read. See, for example, Literacy Debate: Online, R U Really Reading?

What we’re all wondering is how this shift will it affect the way we do our reading and, more broadly, the way we make sense of information?

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This morning, I ran across yet another interesting quote about the demise of the book: “The book, the most traditional means of preserving and communicating thought, has been for a long time destined to disappear, just like cathedrals, walled battlements, museums, and the ideal of pacifism.”

What’s remarkable about this quote is that it was penned not this year, or even this century. Italian futurist Filippo Tommaso Marinetti wrote these words in 1919. Museums are mostly doing fine, and the ideal of pacifism seems, thankfully, to be enjoying a renaissance. But it’s true, the book does seem to be on its way out. 

Obviously, Marinetti couldn’t have predicted the rise of computers and the wonders of Google, but he saw that the arrival of cinema as a powerful new art form was already beginning to transform the way we present and take in information.

I ran across Marinetti’s words in Richard Lanham’s fascinating and prescient essay collection, The Electronic Word. In the book, Lanham looks at the ways electronic text is changing the structure of communication. Unlike printed text which is fixed and authoritative, digitized text is interactive, dynamic, and capable of blending word with image and sound, he explains. The electronic word challenges the traditional concept of “text” derived from the printed book, and since printed books are still the cornerstone of Western culture, it also prompts a basic reassessment of the liberal arts and how they should be taught.

Lanham makes many important points in the book. He says, for example, that the most precious commodity is no longer information itself but rather the attention required to cope with it. In today’s digital society, we are confronted daily with a deluge of information. “Dealing with this superabundant flow,” he writes, is like “drinking from a firehose.” It means that how information is presented is critical. Digital text makes this point clear in a way that printed text does not. 

What Lanham does in the book is help us to get beyond the old argument of which is better — printed books or their digital equivalents — which is irrelevant in any case. He takes us a level deeper by asking a series of provocative follow up-questions. (More about Lanham’s book in my review of it here.)

And that’s the conversation we need to be having. The question, as I see it, is how to preserve and enhance the best of both printed books and electronic texts and make sure that we retain the essential qualities that make reading such an valuable — and, at its best, deeply fulfilling — activity.

 

On “Branding” and Other Buzzwords

By Scott London — April 8, 2009

In his 1946 essay “Politics and the English Language,” George Orwell observed that just as thought can corrupt language, so language can corrupt thought. “A bad usage can be spread by tradition and imitation,” he said, “even among people who should and do know better.”

Academic prose is the most obvious example. Many scholarly books are full of not only bad habits, but sentences — and sometimes entire paragraphs — that are completely unintelligible. Here are a couple of specimens I ran across recently:

“One should not draw the conclusion that ‘new nations’ may not be created or become viable, but rather, that the process by which this occurs is fraught with inappropriate borrowings from extraneous experiences. Legitimation of such new arrangements may be produced at the end of a gun barrel, but more significant is how pivotal elites play the major role in advancing or retarding the process.”  (Donald Warren, “Displaced Majority Politics”)

“There is no easy path between cold cognition of an overdetermined structural analysis and the hot cognition of misplaced concreteness.” (William Gamson, Talking Politics)

But even ordinary speech has become increasingly contaminated by meaningless language. If Orwell were alive today, I’m sure he would be fretting about the way many buzzwords and catchphrases are bandied around today that try, as he put it, “to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.”

I’m thinking of verbs like “score-carding,” “leveraging,” “monetizing,” and “benchmarking,” for example. Media producers like to talk about “reconfiguring” and “repurposing” their “content.” Business leaders now make the case for “right-sizing the corporation” and making “internal staff-balancing changes.” There is no end to examples of this kind.

Australian writer Don Watson has a name for them: “weasel words.”

What is perhaps especially worrisome to me is how marketing language has come to infect ordinary speech. Everywhere you look, people have started using stock phrases like “pitching an idea,” “enhancing visibility,” and “making concepts stick” that come straight out of the advertising world.

This tendency is also reflected in the virtual obsession with “branding.” Now even individuals seem to think they need to brand themselves, whatever that means.

Take, for example, a book by Brenda Bence with the remarkable title: How You Are Like Shampoo. The book’s subtitle exemplifies the kind language that has become increasingly common, and apparently acceptable to many of us: “The Breakthrough Personal Branding System Based on Proven Big-Brand Marketing Methods to Help You Earn More, Do More, and Be More at Work.”

A recent variant of personal branding is the idea of 15-second marketing and the so-called “elevator pitch.” Authors, speakers, consultants, bloggers and other independent professionals are advised to spend time crafting a short spiel or pitch that sums up their “unique selling proposition.”

See, for example, Steve Pavlina’s 15 Second Marketing and ProBlogger’s Write an Elevator Pitch for Your Blog

It’s a tantalizing idea, and perhaps a fun parlor game, especially for hyphenated professionals who are cook-musicians, say, or artist-realtors. How do you sum up your professional identity in ten words or less, especially at a time when more and more people are working independently (or not working at all) and trying to stake out a niche online?

The trouble, of course, is that it doesn’t work very well. We’re human, after all, and no slogan or catchphrase can sum up what we do very well. And why should it? In order that we might stand out in a crowd? In order to be memorable?

Yes, some say that’s the key to success. But let’s face it, it’s also a kind of vanity. We’re so busy objectifying and packaging ourselves that we forget what it is we do, why we love it and how it nurtures us — and perhaps especially, how we can be useful to people and help them be more of what they want to be.

I like the organic approach advocated by people like Merlin Mann and John Gruber. In a talk at the recent SxSW conference with the deliberately buzzword-riddled title 149 Surprising Ways to Turbocharge Your Blog With Credibility! they make the case for doing what you do well enough, and with enough passion, that it sells itself. Then you don’t have to.

I love the English language, but I don’t think we need to reform or preserve it in all its purity. It’s not about purging everyday speech of jargon and contemptible words. Rather, it’s about being mindful of all the subtle ways our own thinking is polluted by meaningless vocabularies.

As Orwell said, one can’t change the language but at least one can change one’s own habits. “And from time to time one can even, if one jeers loudly enough, send some worn-out and useless phrase — some jackboot, Achilles’ heel, hotbed, melting pot, acid test, veritable inferno or other lump of verbal refuse — into the dustbin where it belongs.”

Espresso

By Scott London — March 30, 2009

Espresso Cup

I had my first espresso in a backstreet café in Venice. It must have been 1985 or ’86. I had arrived on the night train from Zagreb, Croatia, achy from a long and sleepless night. I stumbled out of the train station and into a café and ordered a coffee. What I didn’t know was that “coffee” in Italian is synonymous with espresso.

It came in a white ceramic demitasse cup, gave off a strong and slightly sweet aroma, and was topped by a curious brown foam. It wasn’t what I expected, or wanted. What I thought I ordered was a cup of brewed coffee, black and unsweetened. But this was something else.

Not knowing any Italian and in any case too weary from a long night of travel, I decided to simply take the poison and let the caffeine do its work. I held the cup to my lips, took in the curious aroma, and had a sip. Then another. And then a third. The fourth sip finished it off.

It was a new and altogether unforgettable taste sensation — like taking in the essence of coffee in its purest form. This wasn’t just a coffee, it was an elixir. I was intoxicated.

It wound up being the first of countless espressos I had during my weeklong stay in Italy, and each one worked its magic like a kind of secret potion.

After leaving Italy and returning to Sweden, where I lived at the time, I started ordering espressos everywhere I could. It became a virtual obsession. But it was hard to find the kind of espresso I’d had in Italy. Even the fancy coffee houses outfitted with gleaming new espresso machines and serving Italian roasts seemed to come up short.

When I eventually moved to the States, getting a good espresso became almost impossible. Sometimes I would order a double shot, and the kid behind the counter would hand it to me with a frown on his face, as if to say, “Are you really going to drink that straight, without any whipped cream or syrup added?”

Sometimes I would happen upon a café that served a decent espresso, but it was so hit-or-miss that the same café, the same machine, the same roast, even the same barista often served me a good cup followed by a foul and poisonous one.

Starbucks prided itself on serving consistently good espressos, but the experience was never quite right: the shots were too small, the cup too large, and the flavor, well, mediocre and generally unsatisfying. Plus, I hated the pretense of it all — asking for a double espresso and having a barista correct me with “doppio,” as if I had committed some sort of ordering faux-pas.

Besides, the smell inside those Starbucks stores is off-putting to me, like a combination of burnt coffee and cough medicine.

At Starbucks, baristas still occasionally hand me a double espresso with one of those unforgiving looks: “Wouldn’t you like me to add some steamed milk to that?”

Then I found Espresso Roma café in Berkeley. It was like being back in Venice 25 years ago. Espresso at its best. When I first found the place, I went three mornings in a row. Every espresso was exquisite. Perfection in a cup.

Now I go there every time I’m in the Bay Area. I can hardly wait to get up in the morning and head down for the first cup of the day. The guys working the machines are a delight to watch. They’re like clockwork — fast, efficient, flawless.

The place is on the corner of College and Ashby. If you love espresso, go there. The Yelp reviews are mixed, but that’s not on account of the coffee. The place is loud and sometimes has dirty tables, single women complain about guys hitting on them, that sort of thing. Also, people are finicky about their addictions, and coffee is no exception. So it’s no surprise perhaps that reviews vary.

I still drink my espressos straight, unsweetened. A piece of dark chocolate goes nicely with it, but is hardly necessary.

It’s not an addiction exactly, but a weakness to be sure. And short of returning to Italy, I can’t think of a better place to indulge it than at Espresso Roma Café.

Public Innovators

By Scott London — March 19, 2009

 

Public Innovators - A Report by Scott LondonOver the past year, I led a fascinating research project for the Harwood Institute on a group of changemakers we call “public innovators.” We looked at who they are, how they do their work, and why they are one of the keys to bringing about the change we need in America’s communities.

Public innovators are stewards of change in the community. They are not quite civic leaders, not quite community organizers, and not quite social entrepreneurs, but something of all three. Their work is aimed at engaging people, catalyzing conversations, articulating questions and common concerns, and aligning people, organizations, and resources to achieve real impact.

Sometimes they are leaders in the formal sense — city managers, school superintendents, chamber of commerce directors — but just as often they are people whose only credential is a passion for change. They may be neighborhood activists, church leaders, nonprofit directors, schoolteachers, or simply concerned citizens.

What sets their work apart is that they are not just committed to advancing the common good but to serving as agents of meaningful change and lasting impact. They act as a kind of leavening agent in the community that helps to mobilize people from engagement to action on pressing issues.

My report on the study, just released, is called Public Innovators: Forces For Social Change and Civic Renewal. It looks at how public innovators see themselves and their work, how they think about change, what drives them to take on intractable problems, how they mobilize people and generate impact, and what keeps them going in the face of inevitable frustrations and setbacks.

One of the most significant findings was that the public innovators in our study made no distinction between the community and the people of which it is made up. If there is something wrong with the community, they told us, the remedy always has to involve people. It’s not enough to make structural changes or implement new systems in the community, in other words. At its core, the work they do is aimed at building relationships and developing people. It is about helping individuals grow, cultivating new capacities, and learning together.

They stressed again and again that change and renewal in the community is meaningless unless it is rooted in some deeper and more fundamental change in the human condition. For this reason, their work focuses not just on making change in the community — important as that may be — but on the deeper work of elevating and transforming people.

The report goes into further depth, describing ten remarkable individuals who are making change happen in ten communities across the country — exemplary changemakers who are defining a new kind of civic activism for our times. Please read the report, share it with others, and let us know how the ideas resonate. Download a copy of it at the Harwood Institute’s website here.

Good and Bad News on Global Warming

By Scott London — March 15, 2009

Al Gore and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) — joint winners of the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize — are back in the spotlight.

Al Gore was quoted in The Guardian yesterday, saying that he believes we’ve reached a “political tipping point” regarding global climate change and that “a very impressive consensus is now emerging around the world that the solutions to the economic crisis are also the solutions to the climate crisis.”

Al GoreIt was Gore’s first newspaper interview since the November elections in the U.S. Part of his optimism, he said, is tied to the willingness of the Obama administration to tackle the issue of climate change head-on — in stark contrast to the Bush administation. Evidently, Gore met with Obama in December to discuss some of the green components of the $787 billion stimulus package that was passed last month.

But he also attributed some of his optimism to what he described as a shift taking place in the business community. Many business leaders “are seeing the writing on every wall they look at,” he said. “They’re seeing the complete disappearance of the polar ice caps right before their eyes in just a few years. They’re seeing the new U.S. administration. They’re seeing Gordon Brown and David Cameron both advocating dramatic changes here in the U.K.” In short, he said, more and more business leaders now recognize that addressing this global crisis will require “a change in business practices.”

He went on to say that he was hopeful an agreement can be reached in December when nearly 200 nations will meet in Copenhaged to try to seal a new international climate treaty to replace the Kyoto Protocol after 2012.

Meanwhile, another conference has just wrapped up in Copenhagen where members of the IPCC issued some fresh statistics — most of them deeply worrisome — about the state of global warming. Reporting from the conference, The Guardian’s George Monbiot says it’s now clear that the world’s policymakers have fallen behind the scientists and that global warming is already catastrophic.

Presentations by climate scientists suggest that we’ve underestimated the effects of global warming in three important respects, he says:

1) Partly because the estimates by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) took no account of meltwater from Greenland’s glaciers, the rise in sea levels this century could be twice or three times as great as it forecast, with grave implications for coastal cities, farmland and freshwater reserves.

2) Two degrees of warming in the Arctic (which is heating up much more quickly than the rest of the planet) could trigger a massive bacterial response in the soils there. As the permafrost melts, bacteria are able to start breaking down organic material that was previously locked up in ice, producing billions of tonnes of carbon dioxide and methane. This could catalyse one of the world’s most powerful positive feedback loops: warming causing more warming.

Rajendra Pachauri

3) Four degrees of warming could almost eliminate the Amazon rainforests, with appalling implications for biodiversity and regional weather patterns, and with the result that a massive new pulse of carbon dioxide is released into the atmosphere. Trees are basically sticks of wet carbon. As they rot or burn, the carbon oxidises. This is another way in which climate feedbacks appear to have been underestimated in the last IPCC report.

“The world has very little time,” IPCC chief Rajendra Pachauri said at the conference after the new findings were presented.

George Monbiot says that it’s time to stop calling it “climate change.” Using a term like this to describe events that are having devastating impacts on global food security, water supplies and human settlements is like describing a foreign invasion as an “unexpected visit,” or bombs as “unwanted deliveries.” “Climate change,” he says, is a ridiculously neutral term for the biggest potential catastrophe that the human race has ever encountered. A better term, in his view, would be “climate breakdown.”

I think he has more than a point.

Read more:

(The photos of Al Gore and Rajedra Pachauri were taken in December 2007 when they arrived in Oslo, Norway, to accept the Nobel Peace Prize.)