Archive for May, 2016

The temptation of power and influence

Tuesday, May 31st, 2016

Dollar

History is full of movements – political, religious, commercial and otherwise – that started of with “don’t be evil”. All too often, it didn’t stay that way.

“In the Year of Darkness, 2029, the rulers of the planet devised
the ultimate plan. They would reshape the future by changing
the past. The plan required something that felt no pity. No
pain. No fear. Something unstoppable.
They called it “The Terminator”.”
(The Terminator, 1984)

“The road to hell is paved with good intentions.”
(Proverb)

Are primacy of self-aggrandizement, illusion of invulnerability and disregard of growing dissatisfaction automatic companions of leaders sooner or later?

Will we always be susceptible to the temptations of power and influence?

After reading Barbara Tuchman’s “The march of folly: From Troy to Vietnam”, one would be tempted to think so.

“Meet the new boss, same as the old boss.”
(The Who: “Won’t get fooled again” released in 1971)

Can we trust ourselves to stay humble?

Is large-scale altruism an illusion?

Would a sizable majority vote for a party of Samaritans?

Do we believe in real, reciprocal sharing?

Why can’t we just get along?

This, incidentally, does not depend on the number of people involved, just remember Cain and Abel.

What makes us kill others?

Not respect others?

Is it greed?

Is it fear?

Do we always want the whole cake regardless of its size?

Are we all monopolists at heart?

The power of diversity

Monday, May 30th, 2016

Buntstifte

The bigger the number of individual participants in any system, the smaller the potential common denominator. This, incidentally, is a major reason why global conferences on specific – globally relevant – issues don’t seem to be getting anywhere. We live in a heterogeneous world. Our challenge is to find ways to use the existing creative diversity to humanity’s advantage. The challenge should not be to create a “better than nothing” compromise.

Remember Dunbar’s number?

According to the anthropologist Robin Dunbar, 150 is the maximum size for a “natural” group of people. Smaller groups don’t necessarily need rank, discipline and systems. But larger groups can cooperate successfully by believing in common values. Values create identity, a sense of belonging.

While we are connected in various ways in this globalized world, cultural and mental differences and distances remain. Let’s not aim to destroy this cultural diversity for the sake of efficiency.

Regardless of what we say and do, someone somewhere is always going to disagree. Tolerance is key to ensure that local values have a place in a global world.

“Freedom is the right to tell people
what they don’t want to hear.”
(George Orwell, novelist)

For an engineer, tolerance is the enemy of perfection. For the humanist, quite the opposite.

“We should claim, in the name of tolerance,
the right not to tolerate the intolerant.”
(Karl Popper, philosopher of science and professor)

Evolution is based on diversity, not on equality.

“So many countries, so many customs.”
(Proverb)

Could we develop a shared “conditio humana”, while accepting and welcoming cultural coexistence?

I am very fortunate to have lived in 6 different countries and I have visited many more. In my opinion, it’s not only possible, it’s the only way.

But it will take a lot of trust, respect and time.

For example, like many other people, I grew up with music. What sets me apart from many is that I developed my musical taste in a very international environment. Having lived in 6 different countries with friends and acquaintances from many more – but without algorithms – meant that I was exposed to many different music styles: From Abba to ZZ Top via Al di Meola, Art of Noise, John Lee Hooker, Ludwig van Beethoven, Marvin Gaye, Michel Sardou, Pat Metheny, Richard Wagner, The Prodigy and many more.

Yes, cultural diversity definitely enriches our lives and cross-pollination fuels valuable creativity.

Diversity yes, conversion no.

“Forgive him, for he believes that the customs
of his tribe are the laws of nature.”
(George Bernard Shaw, playwright and co-founder LSE)

“Every man takes the limits of his own field
of vision for the limits of the world.”
(Arthur Schopenhauer, philosopher)

A tax dodger hurts society more than a woman wearing a headscarf. “Yes to the cowboy hat, but no to the headscarf” is not only illogical in a globalized world, it is also discriminatory.

Isn’t “culturalism” racism in disguise?

There are, of course, fundamental differences between cultures potentially causing friction. But friction is energy, meaning that there is a positive and a negative way to use it.

By the way, isn’t “exceptionalism” also quite discriminatory?

Don’t forget that emotions matter a lot, as a matter of fact “how we feel” matters more than “what we know” – for better or for worse. But “how we feel”, i.e. emotions, depends on culture too.

We should therefore look for the common denominator, those virtues required to live well in a pluralistic society, virtues acceptable and applicable across all cultures in a multipolar world.

Global, planetary ethics?

“The first step in the evolution of ethics is a
sense of solidarity with other human beings.”
(Albert Schweitzer, doctor and theologian)

Planetary communities

Sunday, May 29th, 2016

Planet Earth

I know that this sounds like something out of Star Trek, but we must find a better way of organizing ourselves, a better way of living together. So far we’ve obviously not been very good at choosing our leaders and holding them accountable. We’re terrible long-term thinkers and easily manipulated.

Will we, the people, ever know what to do?

Can we be trusted to self-organize?

Can we be trusted to lead ourselves?

Can we be trusted to hold ourselves accountable?

Can we develop a system that is authentic, powerful, just trustworthy, sustainable, accountable, transparent, systemically independent, unbiased and servant?

A system worth fighting for?

Are purpose-minded humans without national allegiances looking after planetary interests, i.e. one common good, a realistic proposition?

Wow, that’s a lot to ask for, isn’t it?

Could trusting, planetary tribes or communities of purpose replace nation states?

Would the disappearance of the nation state lead to national values being debunked as myths not holding up to close inspection?

Could planetary tribes be an effective counterbalance to transnational corporations, also known as corporate states?

“Nike, we made you. We can break you.”
(A 13-year old in 1997)

How realistic is a transnational redefinition of politics and democracy?

What does it mean for the state monopoly on the legitimate use of force, if modern technologies enable control without it?

How long, before this technology is monopolized?

Can we, the people, live together globally? We must, but how?

Unity? A global empire with a multi-ethnic elite and shared values?

“How can you govern a country which has 246 varieties of cheese?”
(Charles de Gaulle, general and statesman)

Are universal values, identities, rights and responsibilities, purposes, reasons for being, senses of belonging a realistic proposition?

Could we be trusted to live according to these values, principles and beliefs?

Or would they have to be enforced? By whom? By what?

Would they be eternal or would they have a shelf life?

Who would have the moral authority to change them?

A new religion?

“The only real nation is humanity.”
(Paul Farmer, anthropologist)

“The world belongs to humanity, not this leader,
that leader, kings or religious leaders.”
(Dalai Lama)

The return of the tribes in a world without borders?

“Home is not where you live, but
where they understand you.”
(Christian Morgenstern, author and poet)

Consider that deleting an account in one social network and opening a new one elsewhere is easy. Dumping one brand in favor of another is easy. Changing jobs is becoming the norm. It’s possible to convert to a new religion and it’s not so difficult to get a divorce anymore either.

What about more freedom of choice as far as the preferred place of residence around the globe is concerned, especially since the original choice wasn’t usually ours anyway?

Why is it acceptable and even expected to be mobile within national borders to find a new job, if our company goes down the drain, but less acceptable to look for a new place to live, if our country goes down the drain?

What about founding or choosing your own tribe on- and off-line?

Impossible, politicians will say. After all, we’ve never done it this way.

The demise of the nation state

Saturday, May 28th, 2016

Weltkarte

If users were citizens, Facebook would be the biggest “virtual” nation in the world today.

What does that tell us about the future of the nation state?

What if Facebook and similar “networks” had been invented and run by the likes of Hitler or Stalin?

A frightening thought, isn’t it?

A major problem of national governments in a globalized world is their lack of international trustworthiness. By definition, they are perceived to primarily pursue national interests and hence to be biased. And the distrust runs deep, which is probably why they are all spying on each other.

“Which is the best government? That which
teaches us to govern ourselves.”
(Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, writer and statesman)

Not only that, but we’ve also reached a point, when declaring human rights to be universal is being perceived as an intervention in national sovereignity by some. As oxymoronic as it may sound, imposing human rights and democracy wouldn’t be democratic.

Despite what many politicians seem to think, it is simply impossible to treat values like commodities and simply export them. Global trade and communication won’t lead to one global culture, although many would welcome one in terms of efficiency and from a business perspective. History is full of examples, when the attempt to export a certain way of life turned out to be counterproductive.

Furthermore, the world is less and less inclined to listen to – often Western – politicians claiming that their leadership is required to solve global problems, especially when these politicians don’t seem to be leading their own countries. What the West calls Universalism, others call Imperialism or – even worse – “Westoxification”. While Western culture is admittedly unique, it is far from being universal. Neither are others.

Do we really want one universal culture though?

Wouldn’t a peaceful and respectful cultural co-existence resulting in cross-pollination leader to better solutions to today’s pressing problems?

After all, these increasingly global problems simply ignore national borders.

We must also not forget that the West conquered large parts of the world through military force and not through the power of its ideas and ideals. The Western culture of individualism, political democracy and market economy is contradictory to many other cultures. And let’s not forget the Western double standards when it comes to democracy, nuclear weapons, human rights, free trade and so on.

Do in Rome as the Romans do only works for as long as all roads lead to Rome. Well, they don’t anymore and Rome is full of non-Romans nowadays.

I personally can’t think of one country that has the global moral authority to initiate the necessary change. Not one country that really leads by example rather than running around claiming to do so. That incidentally is preposterous and won’t enable a global spirit of co-operation sorely needed to solve the problems humanity has gotten itself into.

So, forget Pax Romana or Pax Americana.

“France has no friends, only interests.”
(Charles de Gaulle, general and statesman)

This is true for other nations as well, they just won’t admit it. Alliances are more often based upon shared interests rather than shared values.

And let’s be honest, there is no such thing as an international community yet either. Most international institutions were established in the 20th Century, but it was a different world back then. Unfortunately, these institutions as well as their member states have failed to adapt to the realities of the 21st Century.

It hasn’t always been this way, remember?

We only have one planet to live on – at least for the time being – and our challenges – pollution, climate change, sustainability, inequality, security, just to name a few – are global and can’t be solved nationally. A return to splendid isolation is no option. But neither is a global government, a monster bureaucracy that would put far too much power in the hands of a very few.

“We are made wise not by the recollection of our past,
but by our responsibility for our future.”
(George Bernard Shaw, playwright and co-founder LSE)

There is everywhere and we are all “the other guy”, whether we like it or not.

No culture, no civilization, no nation state knows best.

Pressure and force are the wrong tools to spread values.

In a multipolar world, we need a Pax Humanitas rather than a Pax Technologica or Algorithmica.

But is this realistic?

Can humans live in peace with each other?

Can we form a global, tolerant, multicultural society dedicated to a common good?

Who really owns a nation state, if not its people?

Is there a moral justification for the concept of a nation state?

Is it an absolute necessity?

The time has come to consider alternatives, to try something radically different. And by radically different, I don’t mean transnational corporations.

“We do not need more laws. No country suffers
from a shortage of laws. We need a new model.”
(Peter Drucker, management consultant and educator)

“The revolution is not an apple that falls when it’s ripe.”
(Che Guevara, revolutionary and physician)

Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?

Friday, May 27th, 2016

Foul

Over 2.000 years ago, the famous Roman poet Juvenal asked this famous question:

“Who will guard the guards themselves?”

It hasn’t been answered til this day.

Can we make Juvenal’s guards redundant? Is there a viable alternative?

With nation states failing, can we come up with communities to counterbalance the increasing power of transnational corporations and ensure justice and freedom for everyone?

Do we have the courage and determination to do so?

Yesterday’s empires were built with weapons, wars and sometimes marriages. Today’s empires are built with data, algorithms and sometimes mergers.

As a case in point, look at Google and it’s mission of organizing – and presumably controlling – the world’s information and making it universally accessible – presumably through Google as well – and useful. In other words, Google is proposing to decide what’s useful and what should be accessible with the help of their diversity killing algorithms and financed through advertising revenues.

By the way, the world’s information includes our “personal” data as well.

That does not sound impartial to me.

The Catholic Church claimed the same privilege for itself centuries ago, albeit without algorithms and advertising.

How long, before we have a new Index Librorum Prohibitorum, a modern list of thoughts banned, i.e. not ranked, by Google?

How can we be sure that this index doesn’t exist already?

What is Google, if not “command and control”, albeit in a rather subtle way?

Too big to control?

Googliath? Could be, but aren’t we all David?

Remember Standard Oil?

Standard Oil was the largest oil refiner in the world. Not only that, but the company produced, transported and marketed the stuff as well. In 1911, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that Standard Oil was an illegal company and dissolved it. So, it has been done before.

Nation states are obviously not the only ones with hegemonic aspirations.

What is a monopoly, if not an hegemony?

Monopolies impose their prices and kill diversity, the dictate the terms and ultimately dominate and exploit.

Why invade a country, if you can control and profit from its citizens in a – not always – subtle matter?

Why kill a potential future customer?

Wouldn’t that be terribly inefficient?

“All failed companies are the same.
they failed to escape competition.”
(Peter Thiel, entrepreneur and venture capitalist)

Once alternatives disappear, we – the citizens and customers – lose.

We have to find effective ways to control transnational corporations, also known as corporate states, as well as nation states. If we don’t, they will control us.

Corporate states are reality and there are precedents.

Remember the British East India Company?

The Google example also demonstrates, why privatizing everything is no solution. Rampant capitalism has lead to unsustainable levels of debt and consumerism. It has left too many people behind and created an unsustainable concentration of power and wealth.

When did the IPO, the Initial Public offering, turn into Indiscriminate Profit Obedience?

Is there still a difference between making a profit and taking advantage of someone?

We don’t live in a system, in which banks are systemically important. Banks and transnational companies are the system. And calling the last financial crisis a systemic failure is misleading. In reality, it was enabled by the loss of values, morality and decency. The crisis is still here and the values, morality and decency haven’t come back either.

“Monsters are real and ghosts are real too.
They live inside us and sometimes they win.”
(Stephen King, author)

Neophobia

Thursday, May 26th, 2016

Neophobia

Change won’t happen, if we’re neophobic.

“It was a new day yesterday, but it is an old day now.”
(Jethro Tull, rock band)

“Success obsoletes the very behavior that achieved it.”
(Peter Drucker, management consultant and educator)

“Everyone thinks of changing the world,
but no one thinks of changing himself.”
(Leo Tolstoi, novelist and playwright)

What are habits, if not yesterday determining our future?

Isn’t “it’s always been this way” impossible in a world in which everything has a shelf life?

The time to act is now. Procrastination is no solution, it never has been.

Deciding not to decide doesn’t mean we’re decision makers.

“As human beings, our greatness lies not so much in
being able to remake the world – that is the myth of the
Atomic Age – as in being able to remake ourselves.”
(Mahatma Gandhi, leader)

Be pragmatic: Better and end with horror, than horror without an end.

“Yes, we can” is good.

“Yes, we must” is better.

“Yes, we did” is best.

Dogma

Wednesday, May 25th, 2016

Dogma

“Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life.
Don’t be trapped by dogma – which is living with the result
of other people’s thinking. Don’t let the noise of others’
opinions drown out your inner voice. And most important,
have the courage to follow your heart and intuition.”
(Steve Jobs, entrepreneur and inventor)

Steve Jobs had the courage to use his own understanding.

Carl Benz was not a member of the horse breeders association. He received no government support, no tax subsidies and had no access to venture capital. He used his wife’s dowry to develop the first automobile at a time when the necessary infrastructure was not in place yet.

Carl Benz had the courage to use his own understanding.

“It’s always impossible until it’s done.”
(Nelson Mandela, politician)

Nelson Mandela had the courage to use his own understanding.

“If the world were to blow itself up, the last audible voice
would be that of an expert saying it can’t be done.”
(Peter Ustinov, actor and writer)

Have you ever read dogma backwards by the way?

Sapere aude

Tuesday, May 24th, 2016

Sapere aude

Over 230 years ago, in 1784, Immanuel Kant wrote his famous essay “What is Enlightenment”. He defines Enlightenment as the emergence from our often self-imposed immaturity, i.e. the inability to use our own understanding without being led by others. Kant adds that relying on others is often only due to our own indecisiveness and lack of courage. His remedy is ”have the courage to use your own understanding”.

“Sapere aude” is Immanuel Kant’s motto of the Enlightenment.

“Clear thinking requires courage rather than intelligence.”
(Thomas Szasz, psychiatrist)

“Truth acquired by thinking of our own is like a
lateral limb, it alone really belongs to us.”
(Arthur Schopenhauer, philosopher)

Today, we need another Enlightenment, but not one led by technology. We need an Enlightenment led by us, the people: Lateral thinkers, responsible citizens, determined rebels and courageous radicals. We could describe it as an intellectual version of BYOB, “Bring Your Own Brain”.

“The most thought-provoking thing in our thought-provoking
time is that we are still not thinking.”
(Martin Heidegger, philosopher)

Are we all manipulated in one way or the other?

How free are we really?

Are we – at least partly – bound by what we are born into?

Will we go off auto-pilot and think for ourselves?

Are we free to use our own understanding to become our true selves?

Will we have the courage and determination to use our own understanding?

What about VB, i.e. Venture Brain, as the new VC, i.e. Venture Capital?

Will we be skeptical and question everything?

Will we think the unthinkable, be radical and disruptive?

Will we develop our own ideas, thoughts, hypotheses?

Will we unlearn, unfollow, forget and delete?

Will we make up our own mind?

Can we start all over?

Can we re-think ourselves sustainably and not so much the world around us?

“He alone is great and happy who fills his own station
of independence and has neither to command nor to obey.”
(Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, writer and statesman)

“It is society which, fashioning us in its image, fills us
with religious, political and moral beliefs that control our actions.”
(Émile Durkheim, sociologist)

“Reading is thinking with someone else’s head
instead of with one’s own.”
(Arthur Schopenhauer, philosopher)

While this is true, I also found that reading stuff written by people, I vehemently disagree with – for now – can be quite enlightening, as it helps to break the armor protecting our beliefs.

“No, no, you are not thinking, you are just being logical.”
(Niels Bohr, physicist)

Last but not least, why do we always want to influence, rather than to enlighten?

“Over-newsed”

Monday, May 23rd, 2016

Flood

Today is not only the Age of Consumerism, it’s also the OD-Age. We suffer from overdoses of messages, statements, fairy tales, ads, contacts etc. We’re being bombarded with often useless and even false “news”.

We’re “over-newsed” and “under-informed”.

Due to the overwhelming amount of “news”, we focus on organizing rather than processing what we hear and see. A bad development, aggravated by the fact that our wonderful digital “helpers” are prone to manipulation as well.

Hail Google, those that are about to search salute you.

Really?

By the way, back in grad school, I remember spending a lot of time in the library, especially when writing term papers and preparing for exams. I remember walking down the aisles looking for books, for knowledge, for answers. I also remember that digging through these books looking for enlightenment was at times a pain. But above all, I remember the Eureka effect when I had found what I was looking for.

Research was an integral part of the experience. Using search engines nowadays might speed up the process, but annihilates the Eureka moment.

Remember my comments on instant gratification and the thrill of anticipation in an earlier post?

With all the propaganda out there, taking the time to check the facts is a good investment. Building reliable, trustworthy networks enable us to do so.

Investigative citizens, investigative customers, investigative people.

“I didn’t know” or “nobody told me” are terribly lame excuses nowadays. We cannot rely on receiving relevant and correct information – not news – automatically. We have the responsibility to actively gather and analyze it.

“Ignorantia legis non excusat.”
(Proverb)

“True ignorance is not the absence of knowledge,
but the refusal to acquire it.”
(Karl Popper, philosopher of science and professor)

With the facts, we can use our own understanding and make up our own minds. We’re well advised to do that, because if we don’t, someone else will. If she hasn’t already, that is.

Passion

Sunday, May 22nd, 2016

Passion

It is not enough to know what we don’t want. We often choose something only because we don’t want something else. This happens in politics all the time, when people only vote for one party or candidate, because they dislike the alternative. Far from solving any problems, this attitude merely delays the disappointment.

Finding out what we really want is therefore essential.

Are we truly passionate about what we really want and believe?

Are our beliefs really our beliefs?

How important are our beliefs to us?

How vital are our beliefs for us? Would we die for them?

What is a life? What is the value of a life?

What is the difference between merely existing and living?

Is life worth dying for?

Can we change our beliefs? Our life?

Do we have the courage to change our attitude and break with our past?

Do we have the courage to unlearn?

Do we have the will to learn again?

How flexible are we?

Are we passionate about our goals and priorities, our former field of study, our lead models, our hobbies, our environment? Did we choose wisely, were they our decisions?

People are not born with a passion, but many will fail to grow one which is really their own. It’s also worth noting that just because we have been doing something for ages, doesn’t mean that we’re passionate about it. True passion requires that we have found our true selves. Passion leads to active engagement, taking a personal interest and assuming responsibility. Doing is an integral part of the satisfaction.

“The value of the achievement lies in the achieving.”
(Albert Einstein, theoretical physicist)

This requires that society de-stigmatizes certain jobs and certain ways of life.

But we are society, are we not?

For example, as a house owner, I can assure you that I would pick a great plumber over a mediocre lawyer anytime.

Without passion, the only satisfaction comes – if at all – with the remuneration. And I know quite a few people, who deep down feel miserable despite fancy job titles and big paychecks.

What’s the difference between a fancy title and an iron chain anyway, as both are quite effective in ensuring that we don’t “leave” or change? The price?

Always be hungry – for more – was some early professional advice that I got. Well, this might work, but only if we really like what’s on the plate.

Kicking the habit and going new ways is not possible without taking risks and assuming personal responsibility. We must dare to reject compromises and be courageous.

Don’t try to play it safe all the time.

“Talent and genius operate outside the rules.”
(Carl von Clausewitz, general and military theorist)

For example – a small example that is – many years ago, I learned to ride a motorcycle by riding around a ping pong table at 2 o’clock in the morning. This would not have been possible without the support of a very good friend at the time, who was also courageous enough to lend me his bike. By the way, it was a Honda CB 750 Four and I’m proud to say that I only broke one mirror.

It is never too late to be courageous. Have the guts to try something new and forget something old. We can’t buy back time, but we can optimize the time left.

Let’s dare to deviate from the norm, as trying to be everybody’s darling means ending up being nobody’s. Let’s dare to be different, think differently and prioritize individually.

Let’s dare to be passionate and go our own way.

“Without deviation from the norm, progress is not possible.”
(Frank Zappy, musician)

As I’ve mentioned before, we are definitely not on the safe side sticking to the norm by following trends or other people. For one, it is useful to remember that nothing trends forever. After all, if it did, it wouldn’t be a trend. Not so good for economies of scale, but that is not our problem. And then, don’t forget all those charismatic people, who have led their followers into the abyss. “Actively supporting”, because we are convinced and “passively following”, because we’ve always done that, are definitely not the same thing.

Yes, swarm intelligence does exist and it works, but so does swarm stupidity.