Beyond Ideas


It was doubly ironic that Robert Rowland Smith, a writer and philosopher (an ideas based profession if ever there was one) chose   the RSA (an organisation whose central mission is ideas) to urge us all to move beyond ideas at a talk today.

He says we live in a culture which believes in making things happen rather than letting things happen: “We wait for ideas to rescue us.”

He argues that this focus on ideas keeps us removed from reality. Ideas and reality aren’t connected, he says. They are the “cousins of the lie”.

He says there are many ways of seeing the world. 

The first is what he calls the Google Glasses approach. This is our common approach. Like Google Glass we look at the world through a filter. This is a mediated view designed to help us interpret rather than experience the world directly, what philosophy would call a hermeneutic way of seeing. 

In contrast his second way of seeing is data driven – a phenomenological way of seeing the world. 

Using this way of viewing we simply describe the world without trying to interpret. “The effort of seeing is very hard” though, he warns.   

The third way is what he calls Hazing  – losing focus on the particular in front of you and therefore seeing more of the context. “Understanding increases when you lose focus and you see more of the whole.”

The final way is what he describes as a Meta way of seeing. This involves moving above yourself and seeing yourself as one of the actors in the scene. This allows us to appreciate our place in the whole as we are spared of the need of interpreting the world.

Smith says he is often called on to help artists of all types who are experiencing a creative block. He says they mostly think what they need are fresh ideas. But he says this is wrong. 

Creativity is solitary and non-ideas based he argues. He has invented a term – “Soulus”  – to describe what is solitary and unique about each individual. 

True creativity comes, not from an idea which is rooted in someone else but from within. It’s in the images from our subconscious which come to us in our dreams, for example.

The final idea Smith spoke about was perdition – being lost. 

“When we are looking for an idea we are looking for navigation,” he says. Getting lost is where we find our most innovative thoughts, he says,  when we are being open to what is not formed. 

“Unless you are truly lost you are not empty enough to come up with unique creative ideas.” There’s that word again!

The happiness industry

  The current obsession with attempting to quantify happiness is having a detrimental effect on society said Will Davis speaking at the RSA today in a talk entitled: how Government and big business sold us wellbeing. 

There are myriad examples of the kind of quantification he is talking about :

  • The rise of happiness statistics 
  • The rise of wearable technology and mood quantification 
  • The rise of new methodologies in fields like Neuroeconomics which seek to show that dopamine, for example, has a direct impact on economics
  • The rise of face and voice scanning technologies collecting data on moods
  • And the notorious Facebook experiment on whether mood can be influenced by manipulating what people see in their news feeds

So why is this happening particularly now? For three reasons he says:

1. The rising importantance of psychological engagement in workforce. 

2. The dramatic rise of depression and anxiety increasingly framed as illnesses rooted in physical causes

3. The fact that we now live in a society where experiments can be run in everyday life. 

His belief is that we need to challenge the argument that it is self-evident that happiness can and should be measured.  

The roots of this trend go back to Jeremy Bentham’s utilitarianism at the end of the 19th Century. 

Bentham was concerned about the danger of abstract language which he felt could be used to manipulate- terms like the “devine right of Kings” or the “rights of Man”. But Davis believes there are philosophical contradictions with Bentham’s approach. 

Happiness was being simulataneously being asked to fill two roles; in one the ethical status of happiness is of being good in itself, in the other it is also measurable and empirical. Davis says the concept constantly flips between the two.

Mindfulness is a good example. The current trend for mindfulness bolts together the metaphysical and the supposedly empirical and scientific.

The risk is that the capacity to explain what we feel is undermined and unhappiness is increasingly seen as being capable of remedy by medial intervention.
We therefore end up granting external authorities power over us – such as the The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders which defines quite specially things like depression.  

What is needed he says is a reauthorisation of people to describe how they feel in terms which transcend the purely empirical. We need to be free to be the “authorised narrators of our own happiness.”

“Settling ethical questions by resorting to matters of fact is dangerous,” he says, as is locating sources of unhappiness in individual bodies and brains rather than in the world around them (inequality, for instance).

“Sometimes its important for people to have something to be unhappy about.”

Transforming Politics 


Zac Goldsmith, Conservative MP for Richmond gave a compelling argument today at the RSA for democratic accountability. He says the number voting is at an all time low and this is blamed on either the last scandal or voter apathy. But these don’t stack up given the large participation in many campaigning groups, he argues. 

Politics has stood still despite the fact that the electorate are better educated and informed and have access to more information than ever before. 

Voters can be voted out at elections but for the 1500 days in between the MP can do pretty much whatever he wants. 

MPs can make promises and break them once elected and there is nothing the electorate can do.

“All the scepticism I had before I became an MP has been vindicated since”

But he believes we are at a pivotal point. 

After expenses scandal he felt things would change because the language used by all the party leaders changed markedly . “It was exciting and felt we would be taking some big steps towards direct democracy.” But once the dust settled the politicians reverted to the status quo. 

Goldsmith believes the first step in effective participatory democracy is the concept of recall – the power of constituents to remove an MP if they lose faith in their MP.

One argument against recall is that MPs can be voted out at elections. But, he says, the majority of seats are safe seats and recall would have a big impact in those areas. 

“It would change the dynamic in parliament,” he argues. The job of an MP is to hold the government to account on behalf of his or her constituents. But, since the government has the power over MPs’ future career prospects many simple buckle down and support the government line even when it is against the wishes or interests of their constituents. “This is the rot in our system.” With recall the power of the whips would begin to be matched by power of the electorate, he argues

A recall bill has been passed but, Goldsmith argues,  it is exactly the opposite of recall. A committee, not the electorate decide who is recalled and the conditions in which the process can be invoked are narrow. “MPs can still spend 5 years in Barbados, never visit their constituency, never turn up in parliament.”

Goldsmith believes the bill is not only cynical but also a tactical error. Popular outrage will well up when the next scandal happens and the voters realise they can’t actually get rid of their MP, he argues. 

The electorate should be trusted to make good decisions even on complex issues. The idea of leaving it to the experts in parliament is “absolute bollocks”. There have been several times, he says, when he couldn’t vote in parliament because he wasn’t able to find anyone including whips and ministers who could tell him exactly what he was supposed to be voting on. 

One argument against recall is that it would leave MPs vulnerable to special interest groups. But, he says he can’t think of a single example of a politician being booted out by a vexatious campaign – they have tried and failed. 

Another suggestion for improving democracy would be to have full scale open primaries before every election. That would ensure good scrutiny even in safe seats. 

Wasted youth


Georgia Gould spoke at the RSA today about the wasted opportunity inherent in not tapping into the aspirations of the young to solve the social problems of the day.

Voting can seem passive to a generation used to direct action (self-publishing etc), she says. Only 15.8% identify with a political party – their politics is expressed through their engagement in individual issues and as a consequence they are being let down by traditional institutions. “It’s like a parallel universe.” 

Another pressing issue is increasing inequality which, she says, is disproportionately affecting the youth. There are undoubtedly opportunities thrown up by new technologies and a changing society but just how youngsters grasp those opportunity greatly depends on their parents’ backgrounds and circumstances, she argues.

What is needed is a new community spirit. But what does the spirit of 2015 look like, she asks? “It’s no good harking back to the community spirit of the 40s; we need a spirit relevant to today.”

Youth movements that are successful hand over power, are transparent, trust young people, she says. And they are deeply optimistic. “Every time I’ve seen an organisation trust young people the outcome has exceeded expectations .”

Disengagement from politics is not a youth problem it’s a society problem. The difference is that the young have ideas about how to change things.  But, she says, they need listening to.