How to think about ‘How to change the world’ in a world of wicked problems

The world is changing all the time: people are born, people die and Heraclitus can never step into the same river twice. The idea that one human being – you? – could change the world seems like a confusion of terms. The conceptual artist Martin Creed summed it up in Work No.232, a neon equation stating ‘the whole world + the work = the whole world’. We don’t so much change the world as reconfigure it.

Perhaps a better title would have been ‘How to improve the world’, but how do we know what is better or worse? 250 years of industrial revolution has brought sanitation, speed, comfort and communication, but the side effects have been pollution, nuclear bombs, obesity and alienation. A pragmatic utilitarian might attempt to reduce overall suffering according to some measure, but what if the short-term reduction of suffering in one area increases suffering long-term in another?

For instance, whenever I see litter in the street my instinct is to pick it up and put it in the bin in order to reduce the amount of entropy in the world and avoid a ‘broken window theory’-esque societal breakdown. But then I hesitate, maybe my time might be better spent writing to the council about getting more bins and street sweepers. But then again, maybe we should address the underlying problem of why people litter in the first place – is it really just a lack of available bins or are the citizens of Glasgow particularly alienated? If they are alienated, is it because of deprivation, poor diet or lack of education? What would give civic purpose to the litterers? Should we try and help them all to become bourgeois – would they be happier? Or would it merely make them miserable on an existential level as well as a material level? It’s at this point that I start wondering about the problems of capitalism, the distribution of wealth and whether communism inevitably ends in stagnation … This is what I think when I see litter.

Any problem worth tacking is what Horst Rittel and Melvin Webber called, in their seminal 1973 paper ‘Dilemmas in a General Theory of Planning‘, a wicked problem. The idea of wicked problems came from the sphere of social planning, as the failure of utopian housing schemes built along Corbusierian lines became obvious. Wicked problems have no engineering-led solution (unlike, say, the building of sewage systems to prevent disease), they are ill-defined (at what level do you tackle them?), involve political judgment (right and left tend to be differentiated by looking at either the symptom or the cause), are never solved once and for all (there’s always more poverty, for instance), need a long time to see the effects (they have long half-lives), are unique to their circumstances (Scandinavian solutions won’t tend to work in South America), and are always a symptom of a higher problem.

Evgeny Morozov, in To Save Everything, Click Here, has recently applied a similar criticism to Silicon Valley, showing how their attempts to solve the world’s problems with smartphone apps, Big Data, nudges and gamification can actively undermine efforts at structural reform. If you want to change the world, you have to choose your level of focus wisely.

My contributions to the early issues of New Escapologist were focused on the individual and how they can take responsibility for their own decisions about consumption, work and pleasure. It is a libertarian view on change and improvement that fits in well with the neoliberal politics of our times. Indeed, for those looking for meaning at the top of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, it is very appealing. Yet the effects of neoliberalism on the wider society have been catastrophic – mental illness is increasing and there is a growing gap between rich and poor. We are surrounded by wicked problems, but the wickedest is what is the most effective use of your precious time on the planet.

The socially conscious Escapologist who wants to improve this situation must decide what odds they are willing to tolerate in order to do good. At one level, you could adopt an orphan and have a virtually guaranteed chance of making an effect (even if it is just through one individual). On another, you could write a book – which will have to compete with the 1.3 million books published in English each year, but could go on to be the new Das KapitalMein Kampf or Da Vinci Code.

The larger the scale, the more competition there is amongst memes, leading to the disheartening realisation that you can get more ‘likes’ on Facebook by posting a cat video than you can from writing an article on how to change the world. If this is the case, then why would you bother to go through the extra effort involved in the latter? Funny videos and status updates provide immediate gratification, whereas political change often means long-term frustration.

Worse still, the forces of capitalism have virtually unlimited advertising budgets and loads of manipulative tricks to distract and ensnare you. How can your efforts to change the world hope to compete with the intellectually repressive narcissism of Justin Bieber? Is there anything more futile than seeing someone selling the Socialist Worker on the high street? Ludicrous! Politics is a battleground of ideologies in which there is no longer any competition: the society of the spectacle is so all-consuming that, as Slavoj Zizek says, it is easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism.

If it is futile to hope for a revolution, perhaps it is better to work within the system as it stands and do the best we can. Peter Singer has recently been promoting the idea of Effective Altruism, using simple utilitarian economic arguments to save real lives. Starting from the premise that all life is equal and that we wouldn’t ignore a child dying in our midst, he challenges us to give all we can to charities that save as many lives as possible. It takes $40,000 to train one guide dog, wouldn’t that money be better spent saving a thousand Africans from going blind? Singer gives the example of Robert Trigg, a 25 year old who took a job at a hedge fund in order to give away hundreds of thousands of dollars a year to charity rather than working in a more ethical job where he could afford to give away much less. The problem with Singer’s approach is that it often ignores larger issues, such as the effects of increased human population on the planet.

What is the way out of the impasse? How can we make the world a better place? The recent protests in Turkey and Brazil have shown that mass movements can catch fire in an instant, given the right spark. Such events make structural change possible because they help us remove the mental shackles that says it is impossible. As artist-campaigner Ellie Harrison said in the last issue of New Escapologist, the campaign to bring back British Rail is mainly an effort to make the idea of nationalisation thinkable again.

It is to be hoped that in the heat of protest alliances can be forged and political campaigns formulated. The great civil rights struggles of the twentieth century were not just about protest but also legislation – giving women the vote, black people equality, and gays legal access to each other’s bodies before the age of 21. The atomisation of society in interest groups means we no longer seem to have single causes to channel this energy into, so it is important to be tactical and take opportunities when they come. Only by accepting the difficulties of fixing wicked problems as a given and not something to be overcome or ignored can we hope to make any real improvement.

Notes and Photos from Glasgow Photowalk

I’ve enjoyed taking photos since I first got digital camera back in 2003. I loved the fact that you could take hundreds of pictures and just select the good ones. In 2004/5, I even went so far as having a daily photo blog. However, I fear the buttons on my Nikon D3200 and have very little idea what they do. To overcome this fear I signed up for Ashley Baxter’s Glasgow Photowalk (featuring Dan Rubin).

The day started with Dan explaining what makes a photo. He talked about light, Henri Cartier-Bresson, aperture priority, shutter priority, ISO, focal stops, the golden ratio, lenses, and composition. I liked his idea of the photographer as the person who senses not only what is happening but what is going to happen. It was clear how much goes on in the mind of the photographer – no matter how much money you have to throw at equipment and software, you can’t buy psychological tendencies.

And so we went out to Glasgow’s West End to shoot people and things  for a couple of hours  before coming back to the office to hear Dan talk about post-processing. The options available in Aperture and Lightroom are amazing and empowering, but its so easy to go overboard and can be very time-consuming. Here are my imperfect but hopefully interesting results.

DSC_1436 DSC_1484 DSC_1500 DSC_1549 DSC_1565 DSC_1575-2 DSC_1589 DSC_1627-2

The best and worst books I read in 2013

I read for pleasure, out of curiosity, to become a better human being, and because I am fascinated by the themes thrown up by the zeitgeist. Looking at the list of books I read in 2013 is somewhat cringeworthy, but I’m not ashamed and defy all snobs (even the one in my head). Anyway, Laura wanted a hierarchical list, asking “What should I read? What should I avoid?” So here goes.

5 best books I read in 2013

5. Museum without walls by Jonathan Meades
Life without architecture would not only be cold and wet but also incredibly boring. Thinking about the structures that surround us makes every walk an intellectual pleasure and there is no better writer on buildings than Jonathan Meades. This collection of his journalism and a couple of scripts is superb.

4. Escape Attempts by Stanley Cohen and Laurie Taylor
A foundational text of New Escapology, but recommended to me by Ewan Morrison, I was deeply impressed by this smart framework for thinking about forms of escape and escapism.

3. The Circle by Dave Eggers
The three novels I enjoyed most this year were Where d’ya go, Bernadette by Maria Sempel, Super Sad True Love Story by Gary Shteyngart, and The Circle by Dave Eggers. All of them deal with the influence of technology on modern lives, but Eggers’ was the one that caused me to act.

2. To Save Everything, Click Here by Evgeny Morozov
Timely and fascinating takedown of Silicon Valley solutionism that helped lift the veil of maya that surrounds us when we think about technology.

1. Antifragile by Nassim Nicholas Taleb
Occasionally you read a book that makes you reassess everything you do. Antifragile by Nassim Taleb was just such a book for me, showing how to live in a way that embraces volatility rather than seeking to remove it. Delightfully ambitious, I wish everyone would read it.

*

There are only two books that I would actively tell you to avoid The Turn of the Screw by Henry James and Anthem by Ayn Rand. The former is unbelievably verbose, the latter sparse to the point of insipidity.

Books I read (or re-read *) in 2013

  • The Hunger Games Trilogy by Suzanne Collins
  • His Master’s Voice by Stanislaw Lem
  • Sweet Tooth by Ian McEwan
  • About Face 3 by Alan Cooper
  • Persuasion by Jane Austen
  • Mastermind by Maria Konnikova
  • Rocket Surgery Made Easy by Steve Krug
  • Influence by Robert Cialdini
  • Functionalism, Subversion and Restraint in Typography by Namdev Hardisty
  • Turning Pages by Robert Klanten and Sven Ehmann
  • To Save Everything, Click Here by Evgeny Morozov
  • You are not a gadget by Jaron Lanier
  • Super Sad True Love Story by Gary Shteyngart
  • How to Change the World by John-Paul Flintoff
  • Psmith in the City by PG Wodehouse *
  • Psmith Journalist by PG Wodehouse *
  • Alien Phenomenology by Ian Bogost
  • World War Z by Max Brooks
  • Girls of Slender Means by Muriel Spark
  • The Hacker Crackdown by Bruce Sterling
  • Antifragile by Nassim Nicholas Taleb
  • How to find fulfilling work by Roman Krzanic
  • Anthem by Ayn Rand
  • Kick Ass 2 by Mark Millar
  • Present Shock by Douglas Rushkoff
  • Our Friends from Frolix 8 by Philip K Dick *
  • The Art of Thinking Clearly by Rolf Dobelli
  • The Child in Time by Ian McEwan
  • The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway
  • Where’d you go, Bernadette by Maria Semple
  • MaddAddam by Margaret Atwood
  • Never Go Back by Lee Child
  • High Heat by Lee Child
  • Red or Dead by David Peace
  • Prey by Michael Crichton
  • Supergods by Grant Morrison
  • Hit Girl by Mark Millar
  • Pyongyang by Guy Delisle
  • Execute by Josh Long and Drew Wilson
  • Wanted by Mark Millar
  • Superior by Mark Millar
  • Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood *
  • The Terrible Privacy of Maxwell Sim by Jonathan Coe
  • The Fast Diet by Michael Mosley and Mimi Spencer
  • Autobiography by Morrissey
  • Field Studies by Stephen Gill
  • The Circle by Dave Eggers
  • Museum without walls by Jonathan Meades
  • Kleinzeit by Russell Hoban
  • You aren’t what you eat by Stephen Poole
  • The Ballad of Peckham Rye by Muriel Spark
  • Do the Work by Steven Pressfield
  • Objects by Martin Parr
  • Hatching Twitter by Nick Bilton
  • The Turn of the Screw by Henry James
  • The UX Team of One by Leah Buley
  • Bleeding Edge by Thomas Pynchon
  • Search inside yourself by Chade-Meng Tan
  • 48 Laws of Power by Robert Greene
  • Escape Attempts by Stanley Cohen and Laurie Taylor

See also, my favourite books of 2013.

New Escapologist

A list of articles written in my role as Eudaemonology Editor of New Escapologist magazine.

Issue One
The Marshmallow Liberation

Issue Two
Escaping your possessions

Issue Three
Escape Depression
The Great Escape (interview with Robert Wringham and Tom Hodgkinson)

Issue Four
Escaping distractions
How to re-write your script

Issue Five
The Bohemian Beard Experiment
Bohemianism and Entropy

Issue Six
The Sulking Ape

Issue Seven
How to make decisions like Steve Jobs

Issue Eight
Drawing the Line
Escape Thought
Towards becoming a Good Citizen: An Interview with Ellie Harrison

As a super-special New Escapologist bonus, here is an unedited interview I recorded with Robert Wringham, the editor of New Escapologist, at the beginning of 2013. I had planned to make a regular podcast but alas didn’t have unlimited amounts of time.

Killing the Someday/Maybe list

Anyone who has a passing familiarity with the GTD productivity methodology will be aware of the concept of a Someday/Maybe file. The idea is that you clear psychic ram by getting all of your ideas, however fanciful, out of your head and on to a list. These notes might be business ventures, dreams, achievements or general projects, it doesn’t matter. The important thing is that you capture it and get it out of your head so that the idea doesn’t nag at you when you’re supposed to be working on your current task list.

These little seeds of the mind could flourish one day, but for now you’ve got other things you need to be getting on with. Alas, it is the nature of things that one never seems to get around to these non-essential projects. Life gets in the way, so your dream of learning Mandarin or writing a book languish on the list, mouldering and forgotten except for when you occasionally look at them and feel a pang of guilt.

Ideas need to be acted on – to be proved or disproved. If all you have is a hypothesis of a plan and that is untested then you have nothing. Do them or put them out of their misery. Get rid of the someday/maybe list. As Quentin Crisp says:
“It’s no good running a pig farm badly for 30 years while saying, ‘Really, I was meant to be a ballet dancer.’ By then, pigs will be your style.”

As Drew Wilson and Josh Long show in Execute, motivation and desire are priceless in terms of testing your hypotheses. By putting things on a someday/maybe list you destroy early motivation. Do them or kill them.

Regarding my own projects, I am shocked that I managed to complete the first version of Visit Glasgow in a weekend of inspiration. Three years on I have barely had a chance or the motivation to add to it and yet in still nags me as something I could (and maybe should) do. It doesn’t matter if it’s a ‘good’ idea, if you’re not excited by it then there is no way that you can force yourself to get into it.

So go through your someday/maybe list and be absolutely ruthless. Anything that is stale – get rid of it.
Go in for the kill. Do the projects and collaborations that are exciting you now. Say no to the rest.

Exiting the Vampire Castle

‘Left-wing’ Twitter can often be a miserable, dispiriting zone. Earlier this year, there were some high-profile twitterstorms, in which particular left-identifying figures were ‘called out’ and condemned. What these figures had said was sometimes objectionable; but nevertheless, the way in which they were personally vilified and hounded left a horrible residue: the stench of bad conscience and witch-hunting moralism.

Mark Fisher on the left.

Ego depleted

The endless opportunities social media afford for users to interact end up depleting the self (as it was once understood), resulting in the curious situation where the more one uses social media, the more desubjectified one becomes. The more you share, the less rational selfhood you possess. [...]

Berardi puts it this way: “Acceleration leads to an impoverishment of experience. More information, less meaning. More information, less pleasure.”

Why We Are Allowed to Hate Silicon Valley

The data-centric model of Silicon Valley capitalism seeks to convert every aspect of our everyday existence – what used to be our only respite from the vagaries of work and the anxieties of the marketplace – into a productive asset. This is done not just by blurring the distinction between work and nonwork but also by making us tacitly accept the idea that our reputation is a work-in-progress – something that we could and should be honing 24/7. Therefore, everything is turned into a productive asset: our relationships, our family life, our vacations, our sleep (you are now invited to “hack” it so that you can get most of your sleep in the shortest amount of time).

Great piece by Evgeny Morozov