Tuesday, 17 August 2010

An end to poverty?, by Gareth Stedman Jones

This is a book that is well worth reading. While the structure and language used is based a little too much of traditional Marxism for my taste (as this tend to polarize history and ideas) the book is written by a person with knowledge and brings up a number of interesting observations.

I found the history around the creation of the social security system was particularly interesting. Fist in terms of bringing up ideas that most people find “utopic” and “unrealistic”, but even more interestingly and something that is seldom discussed/described, how new structures were created. How different groups that did not trust each other had to create a structure in order to deliver on something they did agree on in principle is something that anyone who is interested in transformative change can learn from.

Another very interesting aspect of the book is how different ideas changed as they where picked up by different interest groups before they got such momentum that they could affect actual policy discussions. The interaction between groups, structures and ideas is described in a very interesting way. So is the non linear history where ideas can emerge, become strong and then die/go into hibernation for a long time before re-surfacing again.

Finally it is healthy to reflect on the fact that it was not long ago since people thought that poverty was a natural part of a society. Looking at the world today it is surprisingly many who seem to be willing to reintroduce the idea of poverty as a natural part of society. For those engaged in poverty reduction it might be valuable to not only look at the incremental discussions (level of aid, area of focus, etc), but also see how the underlying discourse is changing.

Maybe someone could set up a webpage that track what individuals and organizations that are talking about poverty as something that society have to live with. In a time where the natural resources are under pressure it is highly likely that some groups/companies would prefer to see poverty as something natural, rather than question their own lifestyle/business models.

On the following link Gareth is discussing some aspects of his book: Link

Sunday, 15 August 2010

Freedom ™ by Daniel Suarez

I thought I would not review this book as it is great, but just a sequel to “the Deamon”. I have already said that anyone interested in technology and the future should read "the Deamon", and if you do that you will also read “Freedom ™”.

But when insurance.aes256 was circulated on the web (and I like many others stored it on a few different places) and when Wired had Sergey’s search for a cure on the cover it felt like I wanted to remind people to not miss this book.

A more practical implication from reading the book: I felt a future with a one dimensional rating of people was both simplistic and not a very good idea (also from experience from the 21st Century Office application), so I decided to include more than one parameter for the rating of solutions in the new application that will be out any day… www.transformative-solutions.net…

I guess it is time for Daniel to write a follow-up…

Monday, 9 August 2010

Iconoclast: A Neuroscientist Reveals How to Think. Differently, by Gregory Berns

One thing that might be important to know is that the title is wrong. Gregory Berns is not writing about “how to think differently”, instead the book is 90% general reflections of a less structured kind. Why must people that know an area (like neuroscience) write about so many things they don’t know about? Is it to be published that people with knowledge have to write in a simplistic way. I don’t know if it is true, but it feels like an increasing number of books are moving towards a tabloid format (short sentences and emotional outbursts).

I think Gregory is an intelligent person and I hope he get’s to write a proper book someday. When he does this it would be interesting if he put an structural and ethical filter on the idea of an “iconoclast”. To say that it is about 1. Perception 2. Fear response and 3. Social intelligence does not help very much. The ability to create something coherent would be good to add (if not any mad person is the same as a person that develop a new theory/art), to ask why the person is doing it (money, fame, fear, vision, religious conviction, etc) is also interesting to understand, etc.

Where it becomes more then just general reflections on an interesting subject is when Gregory writes about his area, neuroscience. As part of his interesting writing he (surprisingly) attaches an appendix where he spends a lot of time writing about drugs and what they can help us, or not help us with. Maybe it is too narrow for a mainstream book, but I really hope that Gregory gets an opportunity to develop his thinking on what drugs can or can not do with our brains. In such a book it will probably be healthy if he took a closer look on the pharmaceutical industry and what they are trying to do as well and what kind of people they are “creating” with the drugs they are trying to get doctors to sell.

Thinking in Systems, by Donella Meadows

I’m note sure who Donella wanted to read this book. The first chapters are like a basic introduction to logic thinking. Maybe her frustration with many of the economists resulted in an attempt to explain obvious things in a simple way? For most people I think the first chapters can be ignored (these chapters also have some strange over simplifications that make me wonder how much practical work Donella did and how much she spent in the academic world).

What Donella does very well is putting focus on the right thing, she explains that we “can learn how to look for leverage points for change”, and not any change but transformative change. Her list with 12 levels of change is a great inspiration and should be used more often than it is. It is also available on wiki here.

So much of today discussion is about “Constants, parameters, numbers (such as subsidies, taxes, standards)” and very little is about the “Goal of the system” and even less about the “Mindset or paradigm that the system — its goals, structure, rules, delays, parameters — arises out of”.

What is most rewarding with the book is the honesty and wisdom in the last chapters. The self-reflection and understanding that everything can not be calculated and planned, that what we need to “dance with the system” and that there is a need for those who dare to speak out even if they don’t always have numbers to put on their feelings. Few books have this kind of balance between being humble and still a strong call for action when it comes to the great challenges of our time.

I end with a long quote from the end of the book:

“If something is ugly, say so. If it is tacky, inappropriate, out of proportion, unsustainable, morally degrading , ecological impoverishing, or humanly demeaning, don’t let it pass. Don’t be stopped by the ‘if you can’t define it and measure it, I don’t have to pay attention to it’ ploy. No one can define justice, democracy, security, freedom, truth, or love. No one can define or measure any value. But if no one speaks up for them, if systems aren’t designed to produce them, if we don’t speak about them and point toward their presence or absence, they will cease to exist”.

Sunday, 8 August 2010

The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains, by Nicholas Carr

A book with very interesting theme, but with too much of a shallow approach. Nothing really new, but a few reminders that are healthy in our time. The obvious fact that: “every intellectual technology…embodies an intellectual ethics, a set of assumptions about how the humand mind work and should work” should be something that any reflecting person understand today. But speaking at Techonomy Eric Smith said “The technology of course is neutral but society is not fundamentally ready.". Hopefully this was taken out of context as Eric should be smarter than that.

Techonomy a an interesting initiative/conference that seem to want to put ethics into our economy by using the inspiration/power of technology in an interesting way. Will be interesting to see where they go next, this year was a US focused event with the usual suspects, probably to ensure funding, but with a slightly more diverse invitation list and a little more focus on implementation and urgency this could be interesting.

Back to the book, where a number of quotes present some interesting thoughts by less known thinkers. De Forest, who invented the Audion/early transistor, is one example of a person who thought about the use of his technology. As all reflecting persons he felt torn as the powerful tool could be used in both good and bad ways. I particularly like his observation of mainstream media that he described in the following way: “A melancholy view of our national mental level is obtained from a survey of the moronic quality of the majority of today’s radio programs.”.

I would like to have seen a lot more discussion about the actual impact on the brain. Intuitively it make sense to assume that heavy browsing result in a situation where “certain cognitive skills are strengthened sometimes substantially… These tend to involve lower-level, or more primitive, mental functions such as hand-eye coordination, reflex response, and the processing of visual cues.”. Still is would be interesting to put these skills in a broader context and ask what kind of society this would encourage and what kind of ethics that could be enhanced.

If it is true that browsing the web is not only “diverting resources from our higher reasoning faculties but obstructing the consolidation of long-term memories and the development of schemas” people would be less able to understand more complex narratives, let alone create new. In a time where a paradigm shift is needed this is no small thing.

Add to this that our capacity for empathy might be reduced. “the more distracted we become, the less able we are to experience the subtlest, most distinctively human forms of empathy, compassion, and other emotions.”

Some serious research, supported by technology companies, would be welcome…

I have my own ideas about the possibility that the web can bring. And while I agree that the negative aspects is what we see most of today hyper/radical transparency though augmented reality can contribute to a new situation that support empathy and innovation for “real challenges”. Such a development would also move ethics and empathy to a whole new level (that is the idea/vision behind my current work with smart phone applications).