Ten Books to Gain Perspective

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People have asked more questions in the last few weeks than in the last ten years. They all start with what's the future of—work, cities, travel, faith, science, education, government bodies. Every day brings in new questions, few answers.

But this is not for lack of trying. The questions are just too complex to work out individually. Networks started forming around each of these questions, scientists, academics, researchers are pooling their thinking and experience to make it more difficult for the virus to spread and improve humanity's odds.

People connect on similarities—like language, body of knowledge—yet benefit from differences—such as cultural context, specific experience. You can take advantage of this principle and explore the ideas and experience of others.

You don't need to be part of a specific network to do that, you can learn through books. Human beings have the ability to imagine. Through imagination, you can put things together in your brain in a way that is not possible logically.

In my quest to accelerate my imagination and cognitive process, I've come across several books, articles, and webinars to help gain different perspectives. I've been sharing most of the material in my weekly email to nearly 1,000 new subscribers and growing. I organize those by theme to minimize overwhelm.

But every so often, I like to group books into a list. People find them helpful. For example, recently I shared thought provoking readings to build a better future. Here, I'd like to push a little bit outside my own comfort zone.

Ten books to gain perspective

I've come across these books through a very organic process. Down a rabbit whole on my path to understanding complexity and questions.

1. Design Unbound: Designing for Emergence in a White Water World: Designing for Emergence by Ann M. Pendleton-Jullian and John Seely Brown—thesis: in a world where causality is systemic, entangled, in flux, and often elusive, we cannot design for absolute outcomes. Instead, we need to design for emergence.

Imagination is a big muscle we can flex. John Seely Brown talked about its role in helping you ask the right questions:

The real key is being able to imagine a new world. Once I imagine something new, then answering how to get from here to there involves steps of creativity. So I can be creative in solving today’s problems, but if I can’t imagine something new, than I’m stuck in the current situation.

Ann Pendleton-Julian was one of the four members of a conversation on a 90-minute session on addressing covid-19 challenges (via Tim Kastelle). If you're a leader called to make decisions, listening to this could make a real difference in your thinking.

2. How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy by Jenny Odell—thesis: in a world where our value is determined by our 24/7 data productivity . . . doing nothing may be our most important form of resistance.

The book came after a talk, you can find the transcript here. I followed many of the citations you'll find in the talk and the book.

3. A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities That Arise in Disaster by Rebecca Solnit—thesis: how disaster throws people into a temporary utopia of changed states of mind and social possibilities, as well as the cost of the widespread myths and rarer real cases of social deterioration during crisis.

4. After the Future by Franco Bifo Berardi—thesis: our future has come and gone; the concept has lost its usefulness. Now it's our responsibility to decide what comes next.

Berardi has a European perspective in the way he describes labor. But perhaps it resonates in many parts of the world now:

In the global digital network, labor is transformed into small parcels of nervous energy picked up by the recombining machine. … The workers are deprived of every individual consistency. Strictly speaking, the workers no longer exist. Their time exists, their time is there, permanently available to connect, to produce in exchange for a temporary salary.

He proposes individual actions that can open doors. Specifically to quiet “the proliferation of chatter” to reclaim your attention and thinking. And that is worth considering.

5. One Square Inch of Silence: One Man's Quest to Preserve Quiet by Gordon Hempton and John Grossmann—thesis: sound portraits of nature and the importance of the quality of sound in our lives.

Silence is not only nearly impossible today. Even working from home with everyone on lockdown has the frenetic, incessant grass cutting activity of neighbors and their landscape companies compete in breaking concentration. 

6. Deep Listening: A Composer's Sound Practice by Pauline Olivero—thesis: guide to ways of listening and sounding. 

When you enter an environment where there are birds, insects or animals, they are listening to you completely. You are received. Your presence may be the difference between life and death for the creatures of the environment. Listening is survival!

I've written about John Cage and his work on the sound of silence. Olivero was a performer of his music and focused more on embodiment and improvisation.

7. Sand Talk: How Indigenous Thinking Can Save the World by Tyson Yunkaporta—thesis: a special way of thinking, of learning to see from a native perspective, one that is spiritually and physically tied to the earth around us, and how it can save our world. Reads like a travel journal.

This as one of the two recommendations from Tim Kastelle in his recent webinar on taking along-term view. I've also been exploring these thoughts in my research about the connection of leaders with their territory in Italian companies, especially in my native region, Emilia-Romagna.

8. The Theology of Hope: On the Ground by Jurgen Moltmann—thesis: thick thinking about hope from a western view and eastern view (and even the more central German/Italian peoples who view context and objects as fairly equal in giving or taking away hope).

Read reviews of the book if you're considering it. It was a recommendation of Dave Snowden, creator of the Cynefin framework. The future is not based on historical events of the past, nor just more of it.

9. The Legacy of Heorot by Larry Niven, Jerry Pournelle, Steven Barnes—what would it take to colonize another planet? The problem of making the trip, the earth animal and plants that you needed take, the psychology of the people involved, leadership, the sexual and ethical morals, the technology are all covered.

This is another Dave Snowden recommendation. The book illustrates how people can learn to adapt, society can change. My take is that there is a moral conversation that needs to happen about the intent.

10. Negotiations 1972-1990 by Gilles Deleuze—traces the intellectual journey of a man widely acclaimed as one of the most important French philosophers. He had a lasting impact on a variety of disciplines, including aesthetics, film theory, psycho-analysis, and cultural studies.

…we’re riddled with pointless talk, insane quantities of words and images. Stupidity’s never blind or mute. So it’s not a problem of getting people to express themselves but of providing little gaps of solitude and silence in which they might eventually find something to say. Repressive forces don’t stop people expressing themselves but rather force them to express themselves; what a relief to have nothing to say, the right to say nothing, because only then is there a chance of framing the rare, and ever rarer, thing that might be worth saying.

He wrote the passage above in 1985. Silence makes the space for thinking better, for finding something useful to say. The interviews describe what the philosopher was trying to do with his work.

One more thing

I've mentioned this book before. This is a reading for the brave, for those of you who are willing to get in the mud that follows a war. it talks about profiteers, displacement, and the pain of destruction.

Savage Continent: Europe in the Aftermath of World War II by Keith Lowe—from the close of the war right to the establishment of an uneasy stability at the end of the 1940s. Based principally on primary sources from a dozen countries.

It gives you a dimension of how recovery and rebuilding were not easy nor quick. The war took more than six years out of people's lives, reducing many parts of Europe to rubble, many people to inhuman behavior.

So we should be very careful about using the war metaphor now. War language tries to push accountability onto an “enemy.” A virus is not a sentient being. It's worth choosing more appropriate language, lest the metaphor transfers to the profiteers of this new, imagined war.


[A network map of a portion of the 6000+ scientists who are collaborating on #covid19 research. This network self-organized/emerged over the last few months. Links represent collaborations in 2020 only via Valdis Krebs]

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