Don’t be a Trend Chaser: Pick a Small Number of Books and Dig Deeper


Philosophy in the public square
[image courtesy Festival della Filosofia, Modena 2020]

Think with your head” is terrible advice. Because it glosses over what it means “to think.” The process of thinking uses reason to consider facts in order to understand something, make a decision, or solve a problem. There's accountability built into it.

That's the part we tend to gloss over.

Knowledge comes before thinking independently.

It has to. And we get that by listening, reading, and discussing topics from different reasoned perspectives. The reason bit makes everyone accountable for the facts… and the lies. Understanding is a prerequisite for any change to happen.

Thought-provoking ideas reside outside the confines of noisy and crowded topics, often where many disciplines converge.

 

Paying attention

We're nearing the end of a difficult calendar year. Home and work have converged in ways we had not thought possible, or practical.

Without access to a library where I could browse the new releases section for serendipity, I created my own lists seeking inspiration and knowledge. I dug into the past, followed a collection of diverse disciplines and authors, and discovered compelling new releases.

But the game is not as much what to read. It's how you read.

1.

I discovered You're Not Listening: What You're Missing and Why It Matters by Kate Murphy, a journalist, via Dan Pink's newsletter.

Thesis: you don't know how to listen, don't even know that you're not listening, and it's hurting you.

A couple of quotes that resonated:

“While people often say, 'I can’t talk right now,' what they really mean is 'I can’t listen right now.'”

“People tend to regret not listening more than listening and tend to regret things they said more than things they didn’t say.”

“We can readily accept the fact that we can be wrong,” the Polish-born social psychologist Robert Zajonc wrote, “but we are never wrong about what we like or dislike.” Better to listen to how people feel than try to convince them to feel differently. You can’t argue your way into affection, but truly listening is the surest way to form a bond.”

Rather than a foundational analysis of the problem and a methodology to create the environment for listening to happen, Murphy shares a few tenets: (1) People are unpredictable—everyone you know or meet. (2) What you know is different from what they know. (3) There is more to the story than first appears.

I've often maintained that nobody can read minds… but we can work on it. The incentive: fewer and fewer people can make the time to listen. Hence the best option is often to decide not to have the conversation at all. Because listening is a large part of communication, that's how we miss understanding what's going on.

We can hardly know how to listen when we don't know who we are and what we want most of our waking hours. We literally pay everything with our attention. The noise is useful: listening involves change. It opens the door to discovery and self-awareness. At best, it helps us unlock what we overlooked.

There's a character in the novels and series Shetland by Ann Cleeves, who manages to create the environment where listening happens. Jimmy Perez is observant, and very still. I think there's something to the stillness. but we're used to thinking listening is active. The trick may be reconciling the two.

2.

Sway: Unravelling Unconscious Bias by Pragya Agarwal, a behavioral scientist, with expertise in cognition, HCI and User-centered Design, focused especially in diversity and inclusion. 

Thesis: unintentional bias are hardwired into our subconscious, influence our lives and decisions.

“Oh, it's all right, you're a girl, he said with a laugh.

How many times is this thought implicit and automatic? I've lost count. Agarwal makes extensive use of footnotes and her writing is a bit dense in places. But there are many interesting and strong parts. Some reminded me of the work of Danah Boyd.

The book is split into sections: (1.) ‘Hardwired’ covers basic neuroscience and psychology–how our brains create an image of ourselves, the world, and how the two fit together. (2.) ‘Smoke and Mirrors’ covers the ways in which our brains reinforce biases and prevent us moving past them.

(3.) ‘Sex Type-Cast’ covers what everyone thinks of when they think of bias–prejudice, from racism to sexism to homophobia. It also covers things that people might think of less–fatphobia, ageism, and discrimination based on ‘beauty’ or conventional attractiveness. (4.) ‘Moral Conundrum’ looks to the future and the impact of technology on bias. 

They're all familiar themes. But in novel combinations.

3.

Privacy is Power: Why and How You Should Take Back Control of Your Data by Carissa Véliz, Associate Professor of Philosophy, University of Oxford

Thesis: our privacy gives us power. Digital technology wants to take it away by stealing our personal data and influence what companies decide. To reclaim that power and democracy, we must protect our privacy.

Consider:

“When companies collect your data, it doesn’t hurt, you don’t feel the absence, you don’t see it physically. We’re having to learn as we have bad experiences.”

“When somebody says AI is ‘cutting edge’, many times what they are saying is, ‘We haven’t tested it enough to know if it works. It shouldn’t be tested on an entire population without our knowledge, consent or compensation … We’re being treated as guinea pigs.”

Véliz wrote this book for all the people who say they have nothing to hide. Started as an essay on Aeon, it's a large ethical question worth pursuing. Because it does matter what information and data companies harvest, scrape, and aggregate on us. There are consequences. Here's a podcast interview of Véliz on surveillance capitalism, individual self-determination and the fractured shared reality.

I like my appliances to stay dumb while they do their job, thank you very much. I've also been using DuckDuckGo as a search engine in all my devices, ad blockers on Firefox browsers, and doing many other small things to favor the companies and products that don't track and infringe on privacy.

Timnit Gebru was recently forced out of Google for highlighting the risks of large language models. In the last issue of my letter, I shared some thoughts on innovation-speak and attention: they both apply to this conversation on privacy, power, and influence.

“The present generation
enjoys the greatest power in history,
but it appears to have the shortest vision in history.
That combination is lethal."

– Brian Eno, long-term thinking 

 

From a wandering mind to another

I find that limiting the number of things I need to know when I'm in doing mode helps me be productive.

But it's the stimulation I get from the collision of different ideas that helps me push beyond the limitations of what I know. I'm a fan of bringing science and the humanities into the same conversation. They complement each other in the timeless questions they ask.

There Are Places in the World Where Rules Are Less Important Than Kindness by Carlo Rovelli is a collection of writings by the physicist that cover a wide range of scientific and philosophical thoughts. We tend to typecast people to their work, or role. It's refreshing to find more of the person in the writing here.

He includes an exploration of Dante’s understanding of the shape of the cosmos, which anticipated Einstein’s brilliant intuition of a “three sphere” universe by six centuries. Six centuries! Another essay is a meditation on the nature of the octopus’ consciousness. Imagine what it would feel like thinking with all your limbs.

A previous book, Seven Brief Lessons on Physics is a short read based on a series of articles he published in “Sole 24 Ore.” Here's a brief review of the key ideas. You'll find philosophical questions blending with theoretical concepts. Our quest is clear: who am I, why am I here?

I wish it were true, the bit about kindness. And maybe if we focus on it, we can influence conversations in that direction.

Because humans have been mostly focused on progress,

that's how we respond to change.

Many parts of history tell us, we're not very nice when something or someone stands in front of our goal… or we think they are. Historian Alessandro Barbero just published a biography of Dante. The book starts with a battle scene. We see the poet, we forget the knight and politician. He was all three, and we have plenty of documents that explain the circumstances that led to his exile.

Reasoning is the best way to learn to think. By trying to explain things to ourselves, we become the source, rather than relying on something external. That's how we make sense of things, by thinking through them.

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This is my work. I'm a cultural lens for reading the world. I do the work so that your work becomes easier, richer, and more satisfying. Durability comes from having a cultural link.

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