Monday, 15 September 2014

In the beginning was the question...

And, according to Daniel Dennett, the question was something like: Forward, or back?  Duck or pounce? Eat, or run?  The mega-minds we now have – each of us carrying around in our skull a single example of the most astonishing thing yet discovered in the entire universe – are the outcome of the unimaginably vast evolutionary processes acting ceaselessly to advance the prospects of survival into the next minute/hour/day.  The sophisticated questioning of which we are now (at least occasionally) capable – questioning embellished through imagination, scenarios, the scaffolding of giant shoulders – is simply the most highly evolved version of that elementary mechanism.

We are born with it.  By the time we are six or seven or eight, and we have heard enough fairy stories and observed enough adults and formulated a rudimentary model of the world in which we find ourselves, it manifests itself as “a sense of wonder”.

I use this phrase, and put it in scare quotes, because it is the closest summation I can muster of the experiment I mentioned in last week’s blog, when I was wondering about the process that takes us from the child that wants to be an astronaut to the adult working as a middle-tier administrator.  That experiment, conducted in the basement of Shoreditch Town Hall as part of NESTA’s FutureFest last year (see the aforementioned blog for full links, or here if you can’t be arsed) comprised an invitation to conference attendees to contemplate, firstly, the question:

When you were six or seven or eight, 
what did you want to be when you grew up?

Followed by the question:

What was it about being [an astronaut/ballerina/whatever]
that made you want to be or do that?

In responding to the second question, our participants were asked not to answer the question immediately or directly, but to play with Lego and to find or build their answer with their fingers.  It had the effect of sidestepping the logico-rational brain functions that normally try to answer such questions; and the method seemed to go deeper, faster, than any technique I have seen or used before.

Once the participant had made some progress with their Lego construction (there are photos via the links just mentioned) myself and colleagues chatted with them about what they had made, what they were thinking and feeling, and what it told us about the motivations that might once have been in play.

The most frequently occurring response was ‘a sense of wonder’.  Which rings true.  Picture that excited child-face – perhaps your own – as you feel why you wanted to be a pianist, or a marine biologist, or – in my case – Dr Doolittle.  An astonishing mystery in the world! That you could be part of! Wonderment!


And roll the tape forward one and two and three and four and five decades – and how many are lucky enough to still have that sense of wonder, that thrill?  Is it something that simply fades with maturation, an inevitable and unavoidable decay, a ‘natural’ and evolved adaptation – or is it something that ‘the system’ eliminates, squeezes from us?

I am convinced that it is predominantly the latter.  More particularly, I believe that organised capital (and I use the phrase deliberately) and, more especially, its current manifestation ‘contemporary consumerism’ would be threatened, profoundly threatened, if we were all pursuing our own self-determined sense of wonder: so, instead, contemporary consumerism has become supreme at supplanting 'wonder' with ‘dissatisfaction’.

Dissatisfaction under capitalism is the engine that leaves so many of us wanting - without really knowing why - a new shiny thing, the latest pointless i-object, an even-more-adventurous holiday, an experience of some sort to trump our peers.  It is the motile force that nags and gnaws, that makes us feel shiftingly miserable, that propels us, should we fail in other respects, into the desperation of gambling and drugs and alcohol.  The revolting notion ‘bucket list’ seems to me to be the latest manifestation of this pathology: only in a culture where ‘achievement’ is so privileged – where simply being, or being simply a good person, or merely being kind and caring to others is so diminished – could it make sense to want a bucket full of status-fuelled ambitions to prove you exist(ed).

There seems to be no stable state of being or state of mind that enables us – en masse, at least – to say: no thanks, I have enough.  We are processed from a state of wonder to a condition of dissatisfaction. 

It’s essential to remember that this is no-one’s fault.  The ‘man’ has not designed this state of affairs. It is a classic ‘emergent property’, an outcome of the system itself.  Sure, there are beneficiaries of the system, and they typically have power and money; and there are (many, many more) others that are the victims (this is what injustice is about) but the deep solution resides in reform of the system, not simply taxation or control of the individuals that are the current ‘winners’.

Such a statement - indeed, the entire tirade - is open to a criticism that I have already had levelled at me on more than one occasion – that this is pure idealism, mere Utopian speculation.  Unless and until you can speak of practical steps, for ordinary people, on an everyday basis, you are failing.  And it’s a fair point; up to a point.

Utopianism – and it’s worth remembering we are approaching the 500th anniversary of the publication of Thomas More's book – is not a proposition for how the world could actually be.  It is, rather, a form of scenario planning, a method for considering an ‘in principle’ world from which to regard the one we have.  It is a device, a tool, for our mega-minds to play with, better to survive into tomorrow.

Do we not all have one of these minds in our skull?  

And this world we have – is it good enough?  Clearly not.  We find ourselves living in a system that takes and deforms a wonderful and innate human drive – a sense of wonder – and produces a condition of dissatisfaction that is so invidious we hardly dare admit it.  Yet it is a condition that is central to the dynamics of an economic system which repeatedly leaves millions of ordinary people disadvantaged, and a small number of people routinely in luxury.

Day-to-day specifics? There are thousands.  Millions.  Too many for any one mind to contemplate, never mind address and resolve.  Better, surely, to invite people – you, me, anyone – to examine their circumstances (to play with their mega-mind) in the light of a critique and, if they are persuaded, for them to work it out for themselves.  Pull back the curtain - and behold! Not a wizard! 

That said, I think I agree: some specifics would help.  I'll have a go in the next post.

Monday, 8 September 2014

Once in a lifetime?

Whether or not you need or want to win (see recent post) there’s still the question: what game do you want to play?  (What pond would you like to be in?) Doctor? Footballer? Call centre operative?

It’s a tricky one.  You may have dreamt of being a footballer, but you just couldn’t kick the ball; you may have wanted to be a doctor, but your school was ill-equipped to teach at the A* standard such a life path these days requires; you may have considered being a call centre operative – but (if you’re over 35) such jobs didn’t even exist.

(When I was 14 I hadn’t heard of ‘economics’, so it would have been strange for me to say I wanted to study the subject at university; and I was in my mid-20s when I first heard about ‘sustainability’, so the notion of setting up a research business in the subject would have been a challenge.)

There seem to be (at least) four variables in play:

  • your innate capabilities
  • the environment in which you find yourself, and the extent to which it can enhance or restrict the expression of those capabilities as you develop
  • the range of possibilities in the world around you, and how that changes over time
  • your knowledge of those possibilities, and ditto

In respect of the first two of these, we’re in the domain of Amartya Sen’s ‘capabilities approach: a fair and just world is one in which everyone finds themselves growing up surrounded by the familial and educational and financial resources to enable them to develop so as to fulfil their potential.  We need merely to look (for example) at the concentration of the privately educated in Britain’s professional elites to know how far away we are from such a world.

And considering the third factor, we are accustomed to truisms about the speed of the modern world, but few have pointed out as clearly as Sir Ken Robinson that this means we have little or no idea about what jobs will exist in the future, yet we continue to endure an educational system geared towards the production of university professors, the aforementioned elite, and a drone army of reserve labour kept pacified by a modern version of bread and circuses in the form of ready meals and celebrity culture.

So I want to talk, briefly and instead, about the fourth item.

Where and when and how did you first consider the possibility of ‘Doctor’?  Was mummy a doctor?  Did you fall in love with someone wearing a white coat in a television drama that caught your youthful attention?  A kindly teacher suggested it?  You grew up in a prosperous village in Buckinghamshire populated entirely by doctors and lawyers?  Your parents expected it of you?  You had never thought about being a doctor, it just happened?

Compare with:

  • When and when and how did you first consider the possibility of working in the warehouse in the out-of-town food superstore?
  • When and when and how did you first consider the possibility of being a middle-tier administrator for a local council?
  • When and when and how did you first consider the possibility of being a tobogganist?
  • When and when and how did you first consider the possibility of being a coke dealer?

It helps, I think, to find a common starting point; and I think it’s when we were about seven or eight years old.  It’s possible, I suppose, that some seven or eight year olds might, in response the question “What do you want to be when you grow up?” answer “A middle tier administrator for a local council” or “The kingpin drug dealer for my estate”, but I’m willing to lay quite a lot of money on the proposition that such answers would be a vanishingly small proportion of the total.

Many, however, might answer “Doctor”.  Or “astronaut” or “ballerina” or “footballer” or “soldier”.  (Can you remember what you wanted to be? I wanted to be Dr Doolittle.) What is it about these roles – these ponds – that made them appealing to the bright-eyed child-mind?  And what is it that happens to transform the near-ubiquitous spark of excited human potential into the morass of dull and surly indifference required for a life of ready-meals-and-celebrity?

(My most interesting attempt to answer this, to date, came in the form of a weird weekend with Lego in the basement of Shoreditch Town Hall as part of NESTA's FutureFest last year - which you can read about and see some lovely photos - like this one - 

in a short series of blogs on the Brook Lyndhurst site here, here, here and here.)

Somewhere along the line, one child began to realise that ‘doctor’ and ‘lawyer’ and ‘painter’ and ‘poet’ were simply ridiculous: life paths so distant from feasible that they made no sense.  Looking around, and persuaded by the ceaseless entreaties of capitalism (delivered with endless creativity via the current dominant communications technology) that only a life that can be measured in units of ‘new’, ‘shiny’ and ‘expensive’ is of any real value, is it any surprise that ‘coke dealer’ [“Have you seen Dean’s new beamer?”] is so appealing?

The same child, only different, learns that great auntie Agatha has another painting in the summer exhibition, and daddy’s friend Simon has just sold his bio-tech start up for a squillion dollars, and mummy’s friend Stephanie has just come back from helping some beautiful poor children in Mozambique, and of course it can start to make sense that it would be a perfectly reasonable thing to spend your life on a toboggan.

And that is the nature of modern privilege: it is the privilege that provides genuine choice – control over your life, over which game you play – not the false choice of this brand versus that brand, over which ready meal you eat tonight, over which celebrity you like the most.

Tuesday, 2 September 2014


I took a break earlier this year.  I checked my privilege, and I know it’s an opportunity not open to all; but I was knackered, and I needed to get away from the strictures of a To Do list.

In amongst the semi-random ambling that characterised those fleeting weeks, I discovered that this blog is more than six years old and that I have posted something at an average of once a month. I don’t know what this means, nor how I feel about it, but I thought I’d try ‘once a week’ for a while.  I started at the beginning of August with ‘If we score five goals…’, posted a week later with ‘What if we win…’ and then began working on a follow-up so ridiculously complex and elaborate that I repeatedly failed to finish it. 

My hopes for that piece remain intact. In the meantime, and in the spirit of trying to maintain this new pace, a selection of five residua:

I am this week co-chairing a conference in Oxford, quite exciting, possibly even prestigious, so I wrote a blog for Brook Lyndhurst that contains the word ‘enough’.  You can read it here.

I was asked to contribute to a fund-raiser for a cancer charity, something to do with strawberry teas.  It turned into a sonnet with an acrostic.  Here it is:

Surprised again, the buds unfold the spring
that promises the fruits their year will bring;
rejoicing in the warm and serried earth
and nestled in the hay-encircled berth
while tended by the hands of humble care –
behold! this scarlet shield against despair!
* * *
each swollen whorl the proof of summer’s smile
red-fingered ache the sign of pickers’ guile
returning stride the route to punnets’ weigh
young voices tell the world it’s time to play.
Long wait now done, the juice bursts through the dam:
ok, let’s make a hundred weight of jam!
* * *
vast spread: the scones, the jam the tea the cream,
epitome of Tiptree’s finest dream

I wonder what it is about Owen Jones that he has to be so bloody miserable all the time.  It’s almost as though there’s a class of people who actively delight in shouting at us that we’re all in a handcart, and it’s going somewhere nasty.  Yes, I know, I know.  What are we going to do about it?  That’s the question.

I saw a huge blue parrot sitting atop a ticket machine near Gloucester Road tube.  Honest.  Look, here’s the photo.

I don't know what it means, or how I feel about it.  But hey - it's a giant blue parrot.  Out and about.  What more is there to say?


I’m still hoping to go weekly with the bloggage; let’s see what happens on Monday….  It’ll be something to do with what game you play.  And Lego.

Monday, 4 August 2014

“On Being Top” v “Being on Top”

A couple of weeks ago I had the privilege of chairing a conference that considered whether London’s economy would continue to benefit just the lucky few, or whether it could be managed so that everyone could join in.

One speaker, to whom I was a little mean and who must therefore remain anonymous, spoke with considerable conviction to impress upon us how important it was that London (that peculiar and personified entity of which we so easily speak) should strive to remain ‘number one’ in the ranking of world cities.

Another speaker – the rather wonderful (and hence here identified) Sue Terpilowski – challenged this notion, suggesting that if we chose to be ‘seventh’ (interestingly, the world’s favourite number) then that would be fine.

Given the crowded agenda there was little time for anything more than a ripple of response from the audience, the main tenor of which was that, if London tries to compete with Beijing, then we’ll end up living somewhere just like – well, like Beijing.

I found myself pinged forward a couple of decades into a scene from an unwritten Philip K Dick novel set in New Beijing, where the elite live in gleaming fortresses that tower above the grime and poverty at street level; before pinging back again to the scenes from Blade Runner that are now available from a wide variety of streets in and around Southwark, should one choose to glance up at the preparatory monstrosity called The Shard.

(I have to confess to having form on this ridiculous and domineering manifestation of male insecurity, having used it as an illustration of just how appalling everything could be in 50 years’ time in my contribution to the London 2062 book published recently by UCL.  Only now, however, do I understand that it is merely an early phase of the development of New Beijing…)

Anyway, to get back to the point – which is (ahem) what is it that drives such behaviour?  Why do we – singly, collectively – want to be ‘top’?

At the level of individuals, it’s easy (and good fun) to be cruel, given just how much ‘achievement’ seems to be the obsession of men (sic) who are over-endowed with ego and under-endowed elsewhere.  Oh the joy I had with my sons when they were young, on seeing a gleaming sports car/yacht/tall-building-shaped-like-a-spiky-thing, to explain that the men involved were just compensating because they had tiny willies.  I was even able to support my explanation (though by this time the boys would be gleefully running around pointing and shouting ‘Tiny willy!’ at prosperous-looking strangers) with reference to the work of the social psychologist Dr Geoffrey Miller, who predicted, for the New Scientist’s 50th anniversary special, that by the middle of the century:

Darwinian critiques of consumer capitalism should undermine the social and sexual appeal of conspicuous consumption.  Absurdly wasteful display will become less popular once people comprehend its origins in sexual selection, and its pathetic unreliability as a signal of individual merit or value.

(My version of this prediction is that, by roughly the same time, DSM, the bible of American psychology and psychiatry, will have continued its relentless expansion to include 'the belief that you should be in charge' as a disorder meriting medical treatment.)

More generally, though, the stunning work of the American economist Robert Frank, most notably in ‘Choosing the Right Pond’, reveals the ubiquity of the quest for status: even if you don’t own a Ferrari or feel the need to build priapic testaments to your anxiety, you still want to feel valued, important, and preferably more valued and important than someone else.  The search for the right pond, Frank explains, is the search for an environment where the terms of competition suit you.  Status may be measured in citations (if you’re an academic) or points (if you play sport) or money (if you work in the City) or your holiday destination (if you’re just jockeying for position among the other mums and dads, fellow choristers or free-divers).  You just need to find the company and the metric that give you your hit of status.

But where does that need come from?

I remember many years ago encountering some research, the details of which I can no longer find even on the interweb (perhaps the algorithms are punishing me), commissioned by the then Department for Trade and Industry.  They were responsible at the time (and probably still are) for providing an ‘advice service’ to the nation’s small and medium sized enterprises, the intention being to foster the kind of innovation and dynamism and growth and stuff that is absolutely essential if ‘we’ are to, er, remain top.

Leaving aside the fact that the overwhelming majority of small business owners would rather eat their own offspring than seek help from government, it became clear to the relevant authorities that a distressingly large proportion of the businesses that either sought advice or might conceivably seek advice were not, in fact, particularly interested in innovation or dynamism or even growth, they were interested instead in not having a boss and in having control over their lifestyle.

So the research question became: what are the characteristics of the ‘growth-oriented entrepreneur’ and how could you spot one?  If you could spot one, you could target the service more precisely and boost its ‘effectiveness’  and so forth.

And the researchers dug away and I can no longer remember exactly what they did and how many interviews they conducted and all that jazz, all I can remember is that they’d done the job properly and I went to the trouble of actually reading what they’d found out and it turned out they’d discovered something amazing and wonderful:

One of the key determinants of whether or not an entrepreneur wanted to establish a business that would keep getting bigger and bigger was the relationship the individual had had with their father

Roughly speaking, and in extremis, if the father had died while the child was young, the individual was dramatically more likely than otherwise to want to build a growth-oriented business.  As adults, we still seek the affectionate affirmation of our parents and, if we are lucky, we can show them the things we’ve done and they can pat us on the head and tell us how clever and wonderful we are.  If we are unlucky, they are gone, and no matter how big you make it, no matter how fabulous or impressive it is, the idealised and absent daddy who disappeared at such a formative stage cannot put you at your ease.  There is nothing else to do but keep going: achieve bigger, shinier, more impressive.

Here, suddenly, the quest for ‘status’ is simply the quest for love and affection, for the retrieval of irretrievable sensations of infancy and childhood, for the comfort of the pre-conscious home. The desire to achieve, the urge to be top, is us searching for love.  The more elusive it is, the more driven the search, the greater the desire to be top.

By contrast, when people are making love, they very often take it in turns to be on top.

So maybe the challenge of moving from the competition of trying to be top, to the collaboration of taking it in turns to be on top, is analogous to the maturation of love from the parent/child dependency to the partner/partner equality.  And maybe, to go further, and to consider the matter at a collective level, to move on from the zero-sum game of competitive capitalism, we just need to get more collaborative and grow up a bit.

Monday, 28 July 2014

If we score five goals, will we win?

In a set piece speech a couple of weeks ago, the leader of one of our major political parties set out five goals that would characterise his party’s economic policy should they win the next election:

·         restore trust in Britain’s institutions
·         create a skilled workforce
·         an industrial policy for good private sector jobs in every region
·         tackle the culture of short-termism
·         reform financial markets

I have three remarks.

First remark

More of a quiz question actually.  Can you guess which leader uttered these gems?

What does it tell us, even if you already know the answer[1], that it really could have been any of them?

Second remark

I can’t remember where I first heard or read it, but somewhere along the line I learned that a useful test of the meaning of a marketing claim was to consider its negation.  If the negation is clearly ridiculous, then the claim itself is probably vacuous.  Let’s take a look:

“Our future economic policies will be:

·         to develop untrustworthy institutions
·         to reduce the skills and capabilities of the British workforce
·         to foster meaningless work everywhere except London
·         to discourage long term thinking and planning
·         to reduce regulation of financial markets and allow them to do whatever they want”

Which is by way of saying: these goals are meaningless.  They are bland truisms uttered in an attempt to defuse an imagined resistance that serve only to confirm the validity of public indifference.

Third remark

In any case, what are these goals actually for?  Why would we want them?  What would they give us?

The probable answer would be something like “to deliver an efficient and competitive economy” or “to support the economic growth that will enable us to fund vital public services” or “to put the country on a sustainable economic footing” or somesuch.

To which my response is, firstly:-  see my Second Remark, above.

Secondly, and more substantively – how about setting out (in simple terms, nothing too complex or technical) what it is you’re aiming for, what sort of outcome or world you want to head towards; and then set out five goals that manifestly help to get there.

As in:

We would like an economy that enables all of our citizens to flourish and feel valued; in which ‘wealth’ is both more broadly defined and more evenly distributed; that makes a positive contribution to the development of a just and peaceful world; and that functions in a manner that is consistent with the realities of living on a single, finite planet

A bit softy liberal eco-utopian, maybe, but you get the gist: and, from that, we get:-

·         We shall prioritise investment, and encourage investment, in health and related sectors that contribute to well-being

·         We shall develop and introduce a range of incentives to encourage the growth of low-environmental impact sectors, and to encourage other sectors to move rapidly towards peaceful activity that is consistent with living on a single finite planet

·         We shall reform corporate law so as to oblige commercial organisations to pursue broader goals of responsibility for, and care towards, the citizens and locations with which they engage

·         We shall re-orient income-side taxes so as to raise the value (and thus income) of work that involves providing direct care for others, and to restrict the earnings available from speculative and/or casino-style financial activities

·         We shall reform the consumption-side tax system so as to encourage demand for goods and services that are demonstrably sustainable and/or healthy, with a view to facilitating a national debate about a longer term strategy to free us from the debt-based, anxiety-inducing, divisive and unsustainable strictures of ‘consumerism’

There we go; five goals, with a point.

A flight of pure fancy, obviously, with absolutely no chance of having traction anywhere ‘serious’. 

But that’s not the same as being ‘wrong’.

Sunday, 18 May 2014

Remembrance of things to come


Once I knew the weighty tug
and aching back
of vegetables pulled from crumbled soil

I know that the contents of
the plastic bag
are washed and ready for use


Once I knew the warmth
and comfort
of a cardigan knitted softly
by the tender hands
of a mother

I know that
the embossed signature on my breast
will be held in higher regard
than the name that seemed so significant
last year


Once I knew the fabric of belonging
that ran through and around
the patched

I know that I can order a new one
twenty four hours a day
three hundred and sixty five days a year
and that
when they deliver it
they will take away the old one


Once I knew the dutiful joys and pains
of caring for my elderly father
       for your broken daughter
       for his baby son
       for her dying mother

I know the address
of the residential facility
where we store the more troublesome members of our families


I knew how to be

I know how to buy

Tuesday, 29 April 2014

What did you do in the climate wars, mummy?

Recession is over! We’re back in the black!
The business is booming and growth is on track;
the cash that we lost on the house has come back –
it’s time to go shopping again!

That digital gizmo that turns its own pages!
Those fabulous shoes that you’ve wanted for ages –
there’s a million and one things to do with your wages!
We’ve got to go shopping again.

All that nonsense with second-hand stuff is behind us
and repairing equipment? – dear god, don’t remind us.
We’re free to come clean, our consumption defines us:
we have to go shopping again.

So please don’t go on about ‘finite resources’
or working conditions or dry water courses:
I’m simply a victim of much greater forces –
I’d better go shopping again.