The Trouble with Ideas

By Scott London — November 7, 2009

Today I read a remarkable passage from Nigerian novelist Ben Okri. It touches on the fate of great ideas and how the world tends to marginalize “true believers” and drive them down the path of disillusionment and defeat. The quote is from Okri’s book In Arcadia:

If you believe in something your very belief renders you unqualified to do it. Your earnestness will come across. Your passion will show. Your enthusiasm will make everyone nervous. And your naïveté will irritate. Which means that you will become suspect. Which means you will be prone to disillusionment. Which means that you will not be able to sustain your belief in the face of all the piranha fish which nibble away at your idea and your faith, till only the skeleton of your dream remains. Which means that you have to become a fanatic, a fool, a joke, an embarrassment. The world — which is to say the powers that be — would listen to your ardent ideas with a stiff smile on its face, then put up impossible obstacles, watch you finally give up your cherished idea, having mangled it beyond recognition, and after you slope away in profound discouragement it will take up your idea, dust it down, give it a new spin, and hand it over to someone who doesn’t believe in it at all.

President Obama’s Peace Prize

By Scott London — October 12, 2009

It’s been a big week here, juggling a thousand projects and, in the midst of it all, getting swept up in the media whirlwind surrounding the announcement of this year’s Nobel Peace Prize to Barack Obama. Like many people I was stunned by the news. I certainly agree with the Norwegian Nobel Committee that no one has done more “to strengthen international diplomacy and cooperation between peoples,” as the citation put it, and that thanks to President Obama the United States is now playing a more constructive role on a wide range of global fronts, from democracy and human rights to climate change and the reduction of nuclear weapons.

But prizes awarded to statesmen always present certain challenges. There have been about about three dozen such prizes, by my count. The most significant problem is that political leaders who win the prize are being awarded for work they were appointed or elected to do. If the fundamental task of a political leader is to keep the peace, as it were, then they hardly deserve a prize for that.

In his will, Alfred Nobel stipulated that the prize should go to individuals who have won some victory for peace during the preceding year. But in the case of statesmen this rules out a longer term perspective, to say nothing of a deeper analysis of documents and other evidence about the underlying motives behind their efforts to solve conflicts and promote peace.

Few of the prizes awarded to statesmen have stood the test of time, in my view. Even the two awards to sitting US presidents (Roosevelt in 1906 and Wilson in 1919) were controversial. Roosevelt was hardly a man of peace, as we know, though he did manage to help bring the Russo-Japanese war to an end. And Wilson’s great achievement, the League of Nations, failed to accomplish what it was supposed to.

Scott London on the Newshour with Jim LehrerThat said, the Norwegian Nobel Committee has taken an increasingly broad view of peace in the 21st century, defining it not in the narrow terms Nobel laid out in his will, but as a broad mission that must include work for human rights, environmental sustainability, international tolerance, economic justice, mutual understanding between peoples, and a range of other pressing challenges. From that broader perspective, the prize to Obama certainly makes sense and might yet serve its intended purpose.

The Norwegian Nobel Committee has taken a gamble by giving the prize to Obama. It may weigh heavily on him now, especially at home. But in time we make look back on it as one of the best and most obvious of prizes, much as we now look upon the awards to Martin Luther King Jr., Dag Hammarskjöld, Nelson Mandela, and other great figures who were not only exemplary leaders but also champions of human rights, human freedom and human dignity.

For more of my thoughts on the 2009 Nobel Peace Prize, check out the links below. I was interviewed for several newspaper stories and also appeared on a number of radio and television programs. I’ll be adding to the list in coming days as the clips are posted online.

Nobel Peace Prize Contenders

By Scott London — October 3, 2009

Nobel Peace Prize medallion

The 2009 Nobel Peace Prize will be announced in Oslo on October 9. In recent weeks, there has been a lot of speculation — as there is every year — about who will get the award. The Norwegian Nobel Committee will pick from a record 205 nominees this year (172 individuals and 33 organizations). While most of the names on the list are a well-kept secret, nominators sometimes make a point of publicizing their recommendations.

For example, we know that Íngrid Betancourt, the former Colombian senator and anti-corruption activist who was kidnapped and held by guerrillas for six years, was nominated by Chile’s president, Michelle Bachelet. Similarly, Greg Mortenson, the American humanitarian and co-founder of the Central Asia Institute and Pennies for Peace, was nominated by several members of the U.S. Congress.

Unconfirmed nominees this year apparently include French president Nicolas Sarkozy, Vietnamese monk Thich Quang Do, Bolivian president Juan Evo Morales Ayma, Denis Mukwege and the Panzi Hospital of Bukavu, and the Israeli anti-nuclear activist and whistleblower Mordechai Vanunu, among others.

As we move into the final week before the announcement, I’m inclined to favor a number of Chinese activists who have been pressing for basic human rights and expanded political freedoms in their homeland. Among the most prominent are:

Anyone of them, individually or in combination, would be eminently worthy of the award — especially this year. 2009 marks the 50th anniversary of the completion of China’s occupation of Tibet, and the 20th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre, two events which continue to cast a long shadow over China and raise troubling questions about its dismal commitment to political freedom and basic human rights.

A year has also passed since the Chinese abruptly broke off talks with the Tibetans following the Olympic Games last year, clearly showing that the discussions were little more than a publicity stunt on their part and that they had little intention of granting the Tibetans greater cultural and religious autonomy.

Just as it’s been 20 years since Tiananman Square, it’s also been 20 years since the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to the Dalai Lama. It’s worth noting that for the first time he has started to express his doubts about the effectiveness of his policy of nonviolence and open dialogue with the Chinese. That was most likely an important factor in his decision last December to enter into semi-retirement. As we know, he’s been embroiled in a complicated chess game with the Chinese for decades, but time seems to be running out and the Chinese are clearly well aware of that.

The Norwegian Nobel Committee could do worse than to call attention to the plight of those in China advocating basic human rights and cultural and religious tolerance. A prize to those advancing the cause of freedom in China might also lend much-needed support to the Tibetans and the Dalai Lama himself.

No Chinese person has ever been awarded a Nobel Peace Prize (although some Chinese might claim the Dalai Lama as one of their own, he hardly qualifies). That could change this year and I for one hope it does.

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.

Read more

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.


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?


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.”