Vagueness

I am so tired of people who think they “know it all”. But don’t misunderstand me: this includes those who think they know everyone else is wrong, that “everything is wrong”, those who know as an absolute certainty that everything is wrong, those who think that the current “system” (if such there be) needs at all costs to be subverted. They are the worst “know-alls” of all.

It is really important to be vague, to appreciate vagueness, and to rejoice in those for whom vagueness is the only hope for the world. Unfortunately, some of us have seized upon vagueness as a way to grab hold of a new kind of anything-but-vague power: the power of anti-everything; the power of subversion; the power that destroys but is incapable of creating.

When you are young it is tempting to be against everything, and there are those who will exploit your readiness to be against everything to make themselves into gurus of anti-everything-ness. But the world as we know it was not built upon such foundations (because they are not foundations). The world as we know it, for all its faults, was built upon the efforts of those who dreamed of making a better place. Sometimes we look back upon their discoveries as obvious, definite; things that almost anyone with any wit could see. But we are wrong: every advance in human knowledge has taken a risk by challenging existing assumptions and knowledge; every movement forwards has risked a compensating movement backwards; nobody knows; vagueness rules; the future is an even less well-known country than the past. But for the bravery of those who voiced and championed their vision of a better world, however vague it may have been, we would not enjoy the privileged position we have over them: to see so much further because we stand upon the shoulders not only of giants (as Newton famously said), but of heroes. “For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then, face to face.”

Dilijan

We love the rain.

It falls.

Torrential, drizzling, misty, bathing, greening.

Enveloped in its chilling cloud

We feel so warm.

Tended.

But for it

The fabulous power of the Sun

Can do nothing.

Humans VI – Education

What is education for? All sorts of answers can be and have been given:

  • It is the means societies employ to transmit knowledge from one generation to the next
  • It is the means societies employ to transmit cultural values from one generation to the next
  • It is the means societies employ to control what the next generation will value, believe and think
  • It is a preparation for life
  • It is a preparation for work
  • It is a preparation for adulthood

So we could go on. The answer we choose – and of course we may wish to choose many and say education is for all these purposes – will very much depend on when we wish the answer to be applied. What this means is that education is asked to fulfil many functions any one of which can seem of paramount importance at different ages: answer the question aged 12 and it is likely to have something to do with shaping life-choices and readiness for higher levels of education and specialisation; ask at 18 and the answer is likely to have something to do with either university admission or employment; answer it at graduation and it will be about finding a job and starting a career; ask it in mid-career and it could be about reskilling, broadening competence, equipping us for career-change or career development; ask it at retirement and it could be about persistent interests, enrichment and personal satisfaction.

Yet all these answers are strangely and persistently passive: they treat education as a provider, as a process that goes on in order to supply a consumer – the pupil or student – with something that he or she wants or needs (or that society thinks they should want and do need). Education as conceived in these answers acts as a reservoir and teachers as the keepers of the sluice-gates that make the reservoir contents available to those who wish (or are forced) to drink.

Revisit the list above from this perspective and identify the ways in which all these answers involve an implicit assumption that the education stream is from some external source to the recipient, pupil or student. Education is something provided for us and done to us on all these accounts.

In “Humans V – Happiness” the notion of a meta-narrative was used to describe something that gives shape and direction to our lives. Because of its shaping, directing function, a meta-narrative too may seem like something external to us, something provided for us by some power or tradition over which we have little or no control. Yet any society or culture that deploys one or more meta-narratives to give itself shape and direction is almost certain to have embedded elements of that meta-narrative into its education system. Religious education is a good if obvious example: preservation of the shape and direction of a society, perhaps even preservation of what it is to be a member of a particular society, involves inculcating successive generations with a shared meta-narrative such as being Christian (or Muslim or Hindu or Jewish), being British (whatever that means), being moral (in some tradition) and even “being educated” (which usually means having absorbed certain kinds of methods of thinking and certain knowledge deemed important within the meta-narratives embraced by a particular culture). So here, too, education seems to serve a pre-determined purpose in the transmission, inculcation or, if you want to be unkind, indoctrination of succeeding generations with the same meta-narrative so that they remain identifiably members of a particular tribe (cf. “Humans VII – Tribalism” for more on this).

Perhaps the least obvious but most important inference from this is that education in some sense or other presupposes a certain meta-narrative that embodies a sense of what it is to be a fulfilled or “successful” human being, an answer to the question which meta-narrative we should choose or is best. For example, taking some of the age-related answers given above we can see that certain notions of a “successful” education are implicit in them: that a life is successful (and education has done its job well) if someone is gainfully employed, admitted to a university, successful in a career, prosperous and secure in some sense, financially stable, enjoys a fulfilling old age.

But suppose for a moment that all of this is mistaken: that while we need a meta-narrative, the ones we have been educated to employ are demonstrably defective and so the wisdom of inculcating them into successive generations at least questionable if not obviously misguided; that the notion of education as a process through which an external reservoir of wisdom, skills and knowledge flows into successive generations of pupils and students is hopelessly ineffective; that even the notion that education is inviting us to choose from a store of pre-configured meta-narratives and their associated traditions, thinking-skills, values, wisdom and knowledge is no more than a self-perpetuating delusion. Suppose, in other words, that whatever education is, it is none of the things listed at the start of this essay, and that to continue to practise it as if it were is only to condemn each successive generation to make the same errors that caused all the problems in the past.

Specifically, let us ask this: do the skills we need to understand the past, and the knowledge acquired from the past that we become acquainted with through education, equip us adequately for the task of creating the future?

If we suspect – and I think we should – that the answer to this is “No!” then however important the element of education that supplies us with the skills, wisdom, values and knowledge derived in the past may be, it is woefully incomplete unless it also enables us to develop the capacities we need to create the future.

Examine any educational system and you will almost certainly find embedded within it some preferred meta-narrative. In the case, for example, if the International Baccalaureate educational model and the associated Learner Profile, we find a meta-narrative where undirected and shapeless open-mindedness based upon essentially prophylactic qualities designed to exclude some of the worst excesses of past meta-narratives are thought to be sufficient for the creation of a future free from those excesses.

As IB students we aim to be: thinkers, knowledgeable, inquirers, communicators, balanced, principled, open-minded, courageous [risk-takers], caring, reflective.

But the IB steadfastly and resolutely shies away from any suggestion that we should be endeavouring to make education a means to create new, better meta-narratives that can have a directing, shaping effect on what we do with our lives. This, one supposes, is because underlying this expression of open-minded liberal idealism is a deep disdain for and suspicion of anything that might conceivably smack of “imperialism”.

Imperialism is here being used to denote the attempt by any individual, society, tribe, culture or civilisation to impose its meta-narrative on any other individual, society, tribe, culture or civilisation.

Do liberals who believe that all we need do is to specify the prophylactic qualities that will stave off the worst excesses of past meta-narratives also believe that new and better meta-narratives will evolve by themselves? Presumably they do, because nowhere in the literature of their educational systems do we find any attempt to spell out what such meta-narratives might be or how education as a process in which societies and their offspring share a common purpose might engage in the task of creating them. But so far, unless I am missing something, no credible meta-narrative has emerged from this tradition; instead, a plethora of pseudo-narratives have emerged that have filled the vacuum left by the absence of meta-narratives with trivial beliefs and aims and objectives that are ephemeral and essentially worthless. Food, fashion and fun may be sufficient for a vacation of self-indulgence but they can scarcely constitute the backbone of a civilisation that is to be capable of withstanding the assaults of those for whom far more serious meta-narratives are the primary motivating force (such as Islamic State).

Indeed, in its mission statement the IB includes the assertion that we should adopt the view that other people and cultures with their differences “can also be right”. Nobody would argue differently, but suppose one is firmly convinced that the members of a particular tribe or culture are not right, and the actions they advocate are absolutely wrong and an affront to all values of a civilised society? What are we to do then?

The United World College movement mission statement is:

The UWC aims to make education a force to unite people, nations and cultures for peace and a sustainable future.

Fine as far as it goes. But here again the objectives are largely prophylactic: education is to unite us for peace and a sustainable future but with no attempt to engage with the need for such a peace to be sustained by a meta-narrative or set of meta-narratives that will need to be created. Without them peace is not sustainable and the establishment of peace a recipe for disruption, dissatisfaction and war.

In similar fashion the UWC endorses a view of deliberate diversity in its educational model but makes no attempt to suggest that such diversity needs to be managed if it is to be profitable, i.e. achieve positive and desirable results. Yet diversity left to itself will not produce a compelling meta-narrative any more than the IB Learner Profile, so from whence do these meta-narratives come?

In essence the problem is that to be ready to create new meta-narratives we have to be ready and courageous enough to say what human beings are and should be, and not merely what they are not and should not be. This particular via negativa leads nowhere. And so we come to a tentative suggestion about what education is really for:

Education is concerned with enabling successive generations to create new meta-narratives that will give direction and shape to human lives and facilitate the necessary conditions for human thriving.

A proper qualification involves saying that “human” lives should here include and embrace other forms of animal life, just as human thriving should embrace all animal thriving in a sustainable environment.

Humans V – Happiness

Human beings have probably asked about “the meaning of life” since language was invented, and they have given a multitude of answers. The most popular is probably that the meaning of life is to find happiness, whatever that may mean, and the history of that answer can be traced at least to Aristotle’s notion of eudaemonia in the Nicomachean Ethics. But to say that the meaning of life is to find happiness only invites the question “What is happiness?” and then the answer quickly disintegrates into a multitude of other answers.

I am not convinced by this answer in any of its forms. Partly my scepticism arises from the ease with which the answer quickly dissolves into emptiness when we find ourselves wanting to say things like “Well, you know: we are happy when we are, … er, … happy.” This is not the most illuminating thing ever said about the meaning of life (if indeed it has a meaning). My scepticism also stems from a disinclination to accept that the question should be answered solely in terms that matter to me. Suppose, for example, that my happiness is purchased at the expense of others (as is almost certainly the case), as when the emperor Tiberias achieved happiness by inflicting unspeakable pain on others because it was the only way he could arouse an interest in anything (in his case, usually sexual interest). A view of happiness in which my happiness is somehow divorced from the happiness of others therefore seems unsatisfactory, if only to me.

Nor is happiness as readily achieved or understood as we might imagine. Some have argued, with some force, that happiness and sadness arise not from being in fixed states but from sensing changes in our circumstances: we are happy when things are improving; happiest when they are improving at a rate we find optimal; we are sad when things are deteriorating; saddest when they are deteriorating most rapidly and seem out of control.

It is likely that happiness is not achieved in the same way for all people. An articulate, educated person may find happiness in feeling part of a historical process that constitutes a meta-narrative for humankind and perhaps for the whole universe (as in a religion); someone less inclined to cerebral forms of happiness may be happy with a piece of music, a pint of beer, sex, or a beautiful sunset. And all variations and mixtures of all of them. But this is not enough if it is also the changing nature of our perception of our state that makes for happiness and sadness: an unchanging meta-narrative may not make me happy if my place in it is insecure; a piece of music, sex or a pint of beer may have all sorts of positive and negative effects on me depending upon my other moods.

Esther Perel has observed that we used to regard monogamy as “one partner for life” and now we regard it as “one partner at a time”. I suspect much the same is true of meta-narratives. Until relatively recently we expected to live our whole life with one meta-narrative. It could be a religious belief, a political belief, a belief in a particular sport or career or activity. Now we tend to have one meta-narrative at a time, and there are times during the transition from one to another that we lose all sense of purpose in life because the meta-narrative that had provided us with the map that gave shape to our existence has dissolved. People commonly experience this in bereavement: because a significant other often carries a major part of the mapping that gives shape to our lives, loss of that significant other (parent, spouse, child, pet) shatters our sense of where and who we are until a new map can form. Meta-narratives provide very powerful and extensive maps that are capable of locating us in a story that encompasses the whole universe (as in most major religions). And of course we create such narratives and with them purposive structures out of “causes” defined in opposition to some perceived wrong such as war, discrimination, cruelty; and the relentless search for peace and sustainability (to cite only two contemporary favourites) can provide a shape to our lives – a meaning – that religious narratives also supply to those inclined to adopt them.

Someone with no meta-narrative or nothing that plays the part of a meta-narrative in his or her life is likely to be a lost soul exhibiting demotivation, lack of direction and general lassitude. They will describe themselves as “lacking in energy” when what they mean is that they have lost all sense of direction and purpose; they lack not so much energy as meaning.

Dale Carnegie famously wrote in How to make friends and influence people that the first question we should ask of anyone with whom we have dealings is “What do they want?” He reasoned that because people will do anything in order to get what they want – and allowing for the fact that they may want very strange things that lie outside the normal spectrum of wants and things they are ready to do for them – once we know what someone wants we have it in our power to make them do virtually anything if we can persuade them that they will get what they want if they do it. It is a rather cynical point of view, but in many cases it is almost certainly true.

But not if someone wants nothing, and someone who has lost touch with any kind of purposive narrative probably will want nothing. Their lack of interest can extent to food, drink, company, health and even life itself (as the recently-bereaved often demonstrate). Someone who lacks a life narrative cannot be motivated to do anything because nothing makes any sense or offers to reward them with something that seems like satisfaction of their wants. By definition, if you lack all desire you will want nothing and not be ready to do anything to get it.

At this point a new player called a pseudo-narrative enters the arena. A pseudo-narrative is a narrative that achieves social popularity and creates a false market in activities related to it but is ultimately unsatisfying and vacuous. Its merit is that it fills the void left by the absence of a genuine meta-narrative and so dispels at least temporarily the sense of emptiness that such a lack involves. The health of a society can be measured by the proportion of pseudo-narratives it deploys to dispel its sense of purposelessness. In time of war these pseudo-narratives reduce almost to zero because survival depends upon the real meta-narrative of defeating the enemy; in times of prosperity and peace they tend to proliferate. One of the problems of “peace and sustainability” is that there is nothing sustainable about a vacuous peace. And most peace turns out eventually to be vacuous; we are all prey to the temptations of Homer’s lotophagoi and Putnam’s pig-people. A glance at the vacuous content of most weekend newspaper magazines and supplements will convince anyone that we have travelled a long way down this road already.

Moreover, mention of war reminds us that our ability to unite against a common enemy depends very greatly upon the availability of a narrative that can be set over against the narrative of that enemy. One of the most toxic states of affairs that can arise in a country is where it has no such narrative, for then it lies prey to those who will happily invent one. The rhetoric of the far right and the far left feeds on the emptiness of the reservoir of alternative meta-narratives that can so easily arise, and perhaps has already arisen, in the lotus-eating middle classes whose lives revolve around fashion, food and fun. And there is a huge corresponding danger in any society that feeds only upon opposition to things that it perceives as wrong without having any clearly-articulated view of what it will do when they are all done away with and having won the war they have to “win the peace”. In most civilisations, winning the peace has proved much more difficult than winning a war.

And the reason for that, of course, is that we do not as a matter of fact have an answer to the question “What is happiness?” that is not couched in terms of pseudo-narratives. We live in a peace defined by “sex and shopping” as a friend of mine likes to put it, and in both quantity seems far more important than quality.

English has a word for all this that has been current for decades: we pursue “pastimes” that literally pass the time in ways that obscure the absence of any purpose in our lives. The vast majority of us engage in pastimes of exactly this sort for exactly this reason, trying to convince ourselves that we are doing ourselves some good but deep-down knowing that we are doing nothing of the sort. (And I freely acknowledge that writing blogs may be just another example of the same phenomenon.)

So is the answer a return to religion? Some might think so; others might wish it so; I rather hope not. But what is the alternative? Postmodernism took the bold step of trying to live without a meta-narrative, but failed. Liberalism tried to make the absence of a prescribed meta-narrative the basis for the emergence of a new one; that failed too as only pseudo-narratives emerged to fill the vacuum. Left and right totalitarianisms rose and fell by offering us respite from emptiness, and although my fear is that we are now ripe for another one, I hope that proves to be wrong. So what is the alternative?

I suspect that finding an answer to this question constitutes the greatest challenge facing us as human beings in this era. At the very least articulating a persuasive response to Islamist fundamentalism, which is currently an unequal contest between the convinced and the unconvinced – ironically between the believer and the infidel – is a pressing need in our time. We also know that rampant consumerism cannot continue indefinitely, so we realise – even if we do not admit it to ourselves because we are too busy protecting the “sex and shopping” pseudo-narrative that keeps our worst senses of ennui at bay – that we need to discover and articulate a human story that is sustainable, deep-rooted and persuasive. And as far as I can see we are currently considering no credible candidates for the role of this meta-narrative at all.

Humans IV – Earth 2.0

It is not clear to me why “Earth 2.0” as it is being called merits a decimal point unless someone is trying to imply that it lies somewhere between “Earth 1.95” and “Earth 2.05”, and I am even more puzzled to know what “Earth 2.1” might look like, but let’s pass over that without further comment.

Kepler 452b as it is more technically known has excited a lot of interest and speculation in the media since it was announced by NASA recently. I was particularly struck by the assertion that the planet lies in “The Goldilocks Belt”, viz. a region in the vicinity of a star that is neither too hot nor too cold to support the ingredients of life. Other commentators have observed that this is not sufficient: as far as we are able to judge, to support life a planet also needs to be part of a system of planets with at least one Jupiter-like giant to suck up all the debris that would otherwise rain down on the planet and cause repeated devastation. But I remember reading long ago that in practice most planetary systems will have giants among them because otherwise there is nothing to absorb the angular momentum of the gas clouds from which the planets condense. But if we can see “Earth 2.0”, why can’t we see “Jupiter 2.0” as well?

Even today The Times discusses how we might or should best communicate with possible alien life in an article and a leader. English is clearly a non-starter, but mathematics or the spectral lines of universal elements might be plausible candidates. But this still assumes a similar intelligence based upon similar cognitive structures and objectives, and whilst one supposes that the decimal version of pi as a mathematical constant must be universal, the inclination to know or use such a constant may not be.

As an aside, we are told that Kepler 452b is five times as massive as the earth, and many of us might therefore assume that it is also much bigger, even five times as big, but these things commonly and typically defy our intuition. Assuming Earth 2.0 has approximately the same density as Earth 1.0, how much larger does its radius need to be if its volume is to be five times as great? The answer is 1.71 times as large because 1.71 cubed is about 5. But Earth 2.0 would also have greater gravity and so it is likely that its inhabitants, if any, would have evolved differently in mass and shape to adjust for that difference.

Sceptics about life on other worlds have often said – I think this may be due to Dyson – things like “If they were there, they would be here”, but leaving aside the reply that “they already are”, the best response is “We are here, but we are not there”. However, turning our attention to these earth-like planets as potential homes for other life-forms is not without its dangers.

Should we, for example, be broadcasting our existence here to the universe without knowing who might be picking up the signal? Would embattled nations readily allow their citizens to tell all their secrets to a potential enemy without let or hindrance? Yet this is just what the SETI project is proposing: to turn its attention to seeing whether any intelligent communication is possible with Earth 2.0 and its putative inhabitants.

I was reminded of this only the other day during a dinner-table debate about AI and whether it is like anything to be a chicken. A friend was observing that as far as he is concerned it is not like anything to be a chicken, that chickens feel no pain and are incapable of pain, and that the notion of pain as something nasty requires the presence of higher-order cognitive abilities that render the notion of pain incommensurable with lower forms of life than humans.

I completely disagree with this, but my purpose here is to pose a different question. If we regard chickens (or even conceivably apes) as lower forms of life that we are entitled to experiment upon, cage and generally treat with indifference and disdain, not to say cruelty, on what basis would be argue (other than pure self-interest) that alien life-forms of a higher order of intelligence than ourselves should treat the human species with any greater respect? Specifically, while we are busily and keenly telling the universe that we are here on our defenceless lump of contaminated rock, why would we be doing more than advertising the presence of a free lunch? Or free subjects for interesting Mengele-like experiments? (“Free” here is of course ironic since the cost of the inter-stellar travel necessary to harvest the free lunch would almost certainly massively exceed the value of the crop, a point that seems completely to have eluded the misguided makers of the utterly dreadful Jupiter Ascending.) And the argument that says that we are obviously higher forms of intelligent life than apes is quite obviously completely bogus since we (some of us at least) do not believe that apes, dogs, rats and chickens feel pain or have any rights at all.

So if it should turn out that Earth 2.0 or Earth 42.0 (sic), being several billion years older than Earth 1.0, has already evolved to the extent that it has mastered inter-stellar travel and is on the lookout for new sources of minerals, lab rats and a free lunch, don’t say I didn’t warn you.

Communication

Introduction

It is common for organisations to have problems that can be traced to poor communication, and equally common for those organisations to resolve to correct those problems by improving communication. Somehow, though, improving commuincation turns out not to be as easy as resolving to improve communication, and these resolutions frequently fail or only succeed partially.

This briefing paper examines potential explanations for this failure and attempts to resolve them.

Causes

Failure to communicate can have many causes. Some may be as obvious as poor competence in a language, poor education; others may be equally obvious but rather different: anxiety; fear; self-doubt; secretiveness; competitiveness; and so on.

To trace causes we need some diagnostic tests. Here are a few questions that may help some at least to diagnose their own attitudes to communication.

  • Do you really want to communicate? (Never mind company policy and the rather obvious need for colleagues to communicate; ask yourself whether you really want to; are you a sharing person?)
    • Non-sharing people are typically suspicious of their colleagues. They suspect that they will steal their ideas, take credit for things they did not think of, or perhaps laugh at or ridicule the ideas of others.
    • Non-sharing people think of communication the way some think of giving blood or money: they see communication as a matter of giving away something that is theirs and upon which their livelihood or reputation may hang. Fundamentally they see communication in terms of loss, especially loss of ownership or loss of control.
    • Non-sharing people are essentially loners who do not believe, even if they pretend to believe, in corporate health and that the good of the company enhances the good of all. (Of course, in some companies they are right.) In particular, they are not team players; they do not expect what they give to be reciprocated by others; they do not expect to receive back more than they give, or even as much.
  • Do you think about what others need when you communicate?
    • Frequently communication is conceived, designed and measured in terms of the needs of the sender: I need you to do this so that such-and-such will happen that I am responsible for. Senders do not ask about what receivers need, why they should co-operate, how communication can help them do their jobs better, be more efficient, and so on.
    • Communication needs to be timely, to give the receiver options about when to respond, how to respond, and to adjust other responsibilities to accommodate the request or implications of the communication.
    • “Urgent!” is a dirty word: it almost always means that the sender has left things too late and now proposes to inconvenience (cf. Golden Rule 1) the receiver in order to extricate him or herself from the dilemma that an impending deadline represents. The receiver is perfectly entitled to say “Urgent for whom? Certainly not for me! You have just been inefficient and left this to the very last moment. Not my problem.”
    • Blame is a cancer. Blame is often a cousin to urgency: “I sent you an urgent email that was clearly marked as urgent and you didn’t respond or do anything about it”. Yes, but if the email was sent very late, the blame does not lie with the failure of the recipient; it lies with the inefficiency and, frankly, inconsiderateness of the sender.
    • Anticipation is kingly. If your communication anticipates what the receiver needs, the other demands on the receiver’s time, the resources that the receiver might need in order to respond to it, and possible inconvenience it will occasion the receiver to respond to it in a timely way, it is far more likely to evoke a positive and collaborative response that embodies collegial qualities.
  • Have you estimated the cost-benefit ratio of your communication?
    • It is terribly easy to write an email or make a request in 3 minutes that will involve someone else in days, weeks or months of work. Have you estimated the time it will take to respond to your communication? Is the time worth it, even if the time is not yours and not on your budget? Does it benefit the corporate body enough to justify the expenditure of resources on it?
    • Have you struggled to make your communication as brief as possible without losing essential content? It is easy to write long, rambling, incoherent emails because we have not done the necessary preparatory work to make the communication clear and succinct; in effect we are making the recipient do our jobs for us. “Let them make sense of it” becomes a lazy way to avoid doing our own analysis.
    • Are you asking the right person? Sometimes we assume that someone has the knowledge and skills necessary for a particular task when they do not, and so the time it will take them to do the task is greatly increased because they will first have to work out how to do something.
    • Are you asking too many people? The “Cc:” field of an email is potentially a terrible waste of time and resources that can eat up hundreds and thousands of hours of coporate time because recipients do not need to receive the communication you are sending. Sometimes you use the “Cc:” field as a kind of threat: all these other people know I have written to you, so you’d better respond favourably and in good time or they will all know that you have failed me. This is just playground bullying in another guise. Even if you are not bullying, you may be informing people who really don’t need to know. Don’t do it. And certainly don’t copy everyone in on the basis that it is better to tell everyone than risk not telling someone who should know.
  • Have you asked who needs to know and why?
    • This is potentially the heart of it all. To answer this question requires the sender to be competent at a high level, to know the business of the corporation well, to know what matters to whom and what does not. And so ability to answer this positively is itself a symptom of a very good and efficient corporate communication system, because only with such can every member of the organisation know what others need to know, might need to know, or not need to know.
    • Here lies a boundary that is hard to define between appropriate knowledge of what others are doing and intrusive or impertinent knowledge of what others are doing. If I don’t know much about your world, I cannot know whether something I am doing might have a bearing on that world; but equally, if I am too interested in your world I may miss things that I should be attending to in my own.
  • Have you asked how much communication is appropriate?
    • Both too much and too little communication causes problems, and of course there is no such thing as exactly the right amount; there are always tolerances in both directions. But too much certainly wastes time and too little prevents the corporation operating efficiently.
    • If excessive communication seems unavoidable, several questions needs to be asked:
      • Is so much happening that it cannot even be communicated, let alone implemented? This can be an issue with organisations which are rich in ideas but less successful at implementation: they generate so many initiatives that they fall over themselves trying to implement too many of them. This is not then a failure of communication; it is a failure of planning management and, frankly, self-discipline, on the part of those who are having all the ideas.
      • Is so little happening that people are filling the void with unnecessary communication because they have nothing else to do?
    • If there is a lot of correspondence (emailing) but not enough communication, then there is a deficiency in clarity and focus, and sometimes perhaps the ideas are not being thought through sufficiently before the communication begins: “let them sort it out” is the mind-set; or “this is a good idea; let’s run with it and see whether it comes to anything” and then everyone runs around for hours, days or weeks until it turns out to be unworkable and everyone has wasted a lot of time.
  • Are your communications coherent, connected and constructive?
    • Communication that forms part of a coherent chain where past, present and future link together in a connected way can naturally be briefer and achieve more – be more constructive – that communication that constantly breaks new ground and therefore requires the recipient(s) to create or imagine new worlds every time a new communication arrives.
    • Like the problems arising from the chaos of new ideas mentioned before, communication needs stability, a sense of building and flow, a sense of being a part of a past, present and future that have coherence and predictability as well as clearly embedded memories. Without that coherence and continuity there cannot be constructive communication because everyone is left guessing what will happen next.
  • Do your recipients understand the context of your communication?
    • Where the past is malleable and the future unpredictable, communication is hit-and-miss, but more to the point it requires recipients to be what might be called “mind-readers”, people who can imagine the context of communications that have neither past nor future of which they are apprised.
    • Context means that the communication needs to be set clearly in a framework where it is understood to be speculative, exploratory, analytical, research-orientated, concrete (etc.) so that recipients know how to prioritise it and the level of detail and style of response required.
  • Has the concept or idea or strategy actually been shared?
    • Human beings sometimes suffer from a kind of phantom memory in that by saying something to someone – and sometimes even just having thought something to themselves – they imagine that they have shared it with everyone. This can cause great distress among employees and potential recipients, because the originator of an idea who has the phantom memory of having shared it imagines that everyone knows far more than they do about it.
  • Has the communication been prioritised?
    • The recipients of a communication have other duties and responsibilities. Does the communication accurately convey its actual importance (which is not the same as the urgency with which the sender might think it needs to be dealt with and responded to).
    • If there is a deadline, has it been negotiated? Simply sending an email and stating a deadline as if the recipient has nothing else to do but meet it is at best inconsiderate and at worst a kind of bullying.
    • Deadlines must always be negotiated.
  • Have fail-safes been implemented to protect sender and recipient?
    • Sometimes people will complain that someone hasn’t replied to an email for three months and use that as their excuse for their own inactivity or failings, but have they sent a reminder; did they give the recipient notice of the importance of a response; is the personal penumbra of their relationship likely to command respect and compliance? If the answer to any of these is no, better fail-safes are needed: let’s implement a strategy to ensure neither of us fails!
  • Who corporately needs to know and why?
    • The same question we asked before can also be applied to the whole corporation: where there is a breakdown in communication, has the corporation asked and answered the question “Who needs to know and why?”
    • One reason why the answer might be no is that the corporation itself has not thought through the question or fully focused its vision
    • Others might be: reluctance to share plans; institutional secrecy; lack of trust; lack of belief in the contribution that sharing can engender; reluctance to delegate responsibility, initiative-taking and vision.
    • Part of all this is about what motivates the people who are the driving-force behind an organisation: is it achievement of a goal; is it being the boss; is it being the visionary; is it being thought the visionary; is it being powerful; is it being obeyed; is it not being questioned; is it making money; is it making the world a better place for other people; and many other possibilities that it could be?
    • But at the root of all this lies one question: does the organisation believe that its most successful future will only arise by releasing the talents of those who work in it? If so, without communication it cannot achieve that objective because nobody knows what they are expected to do.
  • How does communication invite feedback?
    • One of the most difficult environments to encourage and control is that which arises from the open expression of divergent opinions within the organisation.
    • Is communcation purely directive: do this; do that; don’t argue; don’t express doubts and questions? If so, dissent is systematically suppressed and all creative thought with it. But much dissent is positive and creative thought motivates employees, so their suppression seriously limits the organisation.
    • A culture where communication is bidirectional encourages disagreement and welcomes questions, but it involves great self-confidence by the organisation to invite such positive criticism.
  • How does communication reflect corporate culture?
    • Ineffective communication says something about the culture of the corporation. It is a symptom of health and disease. From communication it is possible to measure whether members of the organisation are together or apart, share a common purpose as a team or see themselves essentially as independent individuals who are looking after their own worlds.
    • Communication that is couched in terms of urgency, threat, blame, accusation, criticism, reflects a corporate culture that is sick with fear and anxiety. Fearful employees do not work or think creatively and enthusiastically; they feign both, but their real enthusiasm is locked out.
  • Does your communication act like a terrorist bomb?
    • One of the most striking things about email as contrasted with a physical letter in an envelope or a personal conversation is that it is asynchronic: it can arrive without any prior warning, have been written in a mood of which the recipient can have no knowledge, and often reflect concerns of which the recipient is in ignorance. As a result, the tone, content and mood of an email can strike at a moment and in a way that creates consternation, confusion, fright, fear, anger in the recipient, exactly as would be the result of a physical assault or an emergency requiring instant and decisive action.
    • Immediately an unhealthy situation has been created that threatens the harmony of the relationship between sender and recipient, and the danger is that the recipient will reply hurriedly and angrily, thus amplifying the hurt. So here there is another Golden Rule (Golden Rule 2): don’t reply in haste to a communication that has caused you to have negative feelings.
  • Have you considered the impact your communication will have?
    • It follows immediately from the preceding section that senders need to be sensitive to the circumstances of and the person by whom a communication – especially an email – will be received. If it is likely to come as a surprise, the ground needs making first; if it contains bad news, the news needs couching in suitable terms; if it involves criticism, the criticism should be fair and balanced (but better made in person rather than bby email or some other impersonal means that can easily be construed as a reflection of cowardice).
    • Failure to take the circumstances of another person into account can cause problems in seconds that it may take months or years to remedy.
    • One common problem with communication, even if it is couched in very considerate terms, is that sometimes the content may itself cause problems. For example, if people learn of something that may affect them by an impersonal email, or where they feel they should have been part of a consultation process when all they are sent is a decision, no amount of careful drafting will serve to eliminate their dissatisfaction.
  • Is the mode of communication appropriate?
    • Email has many benefits, but it is not the best way to voice complaints, express dissatisfaction, or convey bad news.
    • Some things needs to be conveyed personally, face-to-face.

Golden Rule 1. The world is divided into two kinds of people: Those who in order to avoid inconveniencing others will inconvenience themselves; and those who in order to avoid inconveniencing themselves will inconvenience others.

Golden Rule 2. Never reply in haste or anger to a communication that has upset you. Write a strong reply if you must, but put it aside for a few hours or days. Then, when the time is ripe, express your hurt in a constructive way that has a chance to ensure that the same thing does not happen again.

Humans III

Philosophers have long pondered the question of other minds. In practical terms we adopt a default position over other humans by assuming that they have minds, but in other cases we are more sceptical. We require evidence that dogs and cats and chickens have minds that we do not require of human beings, but that is probably a prejudice.

How could one tell whether another entity possessed a mind, an inside-looking-out, whether it is “like anything” to be that thing (as Thomas Nagel puts it in “What is it Like to be a Bat?”)? What is the difference between something that behaves the way humans behave in all respects and a human? Could there be a difference, even if the thing is made of metal and plastic? We assume there is, but that is just a prejudice.

Talking to it for long enough is not the answer because many human beings could not sustain such a conversation (typically, the kinds of human beings we find exhibiting their ignorance and vacuity in Big Brother). No, the answer is along lines Esther Perel quotes from Proust: just as it is our imagination that makes us fall in love, not another person, so it is our determination to treat another entity as having a mind that makes it have a mind.

This is not to suggest some idealist position whereby we make something true by believing it, but to suggest that it is only by our willingness to grant something a mind that its mind can be discerned (and that is as true of dogs, cats and chickens). I can refuse to believe that a dog writhing in pain is actually feeling pain, just as I can force myself to believe that a human being writhing in pain is not really in pain, but the natural assumption is that things that are behaving as if they are in pain are actually in pain. And so it is with minds. Indeed, why should there even be such a question as “Whether something has a mind”? Why not simply observe its behaviour and decide whether or not we want to be associated with it in any way (rather as we do with other humans)?

Why should I grant this possibility? The strongest reason is that, once we abandon belief in a soul and embrace the notion of mind as the inside-looking-out-ness of a suitably-situated body, there is no less reason to believe in the minds of some artefacts then there is to believe in minds in other human beings (and in the cases of some human beings there is more).

“But I might find myself treating something as if it had a mind when it didn’t”, I hear you protest. Yes, but what would follow? We treat human beings as if they had minds and frequently we are mistaken in that belief too, or at least have less reason to hold it than in the case of some very intelligent machines. “And how would I know whether I could trust it?” How indeed.