Contamination Labs, Design and Philosophy

It’s been around 30 months since I formulated the desire to enrol in a philosophy program. I still remember that odd moment, when I voraciously held Nassib Taleb’s Antifragile, praising his wit and his somewhat annoying personality; I don’t remember exactly how it came about, and I don’t think that this is what Taleb’s book wants to put forward, but a constant refrain began to hit me hard: philosophical arguments seemed the only way to get a multifaceted perspective on the economic, the social, and the political world. It seemed the only critical way one can have to tackle so many subjects with a single toolkit, or at least it seemed it could be that way. I remember my excitement while running through the bibliography, to find out that even the ancient skeptics were there.

No turning point could ever be more strange for a prospective philosophy student, I get that. I’ve been disputing such a simple intuition myself over and over, facing the crude reality of an academy that demands to dig deeper and deeper in each subset of every subject, where ambitious students get to choose their “T” as soon as they can, while a desire for comprehensive knowledge often translates in dispersed amateurism. Yes, that ambition is somehow simplistic; yet, it set things going, and it still is somehow at work from my perspective.

Once one steps into the magical world of the humanities, he wants to keep an eye on what’s outside the bubble. You know, at some point it’ll eventually burst. Better get ready. No matter how many HR reports one can read about how much appreciated humanistic studies are on the workplace, no matter how many uplifting paperbacks one can amass about the importance of the humanities for a properly-working democracy1)Cf., for example, M. Nussbaum, Not for profit: why democracy needs the humanities. Princeton, N.J: Princeton University Press, 2010. A brief comment on the Italian translation can be found on this blog., I guess almost none of us, students of the humanities, would quibble over the question: where would this path actually lead us?

A brief overview of the professionalisation of philosophy would show how such question has gained its relevance only recently, as the subject has gained more and more analytic traction2)For an historical comment on the subject’s development since the publication of what should have been, in Richard Rorty’s mind, a manifesto for the dissolution of philosophy as a profession, cf. B. Kuklick, “After Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature,” Analyse & Kritik, 2019. and university degrees have become increasingly popular. If the philosophy departments of the past could almost always find a congruous place for every of its graduate students, the multiplication of departments has now exponentially enlarged the gap between student seats and teaching positions. Fortunately, my existential inquiry was not spurred primarily by employment reasons, but rather by the desire of finding a worldly meaning to a course study that is renown for its armchair approach.

A Call for Contamination

The chance to address the question presented itself almost a year ago, under a rather mysterious acronym: CLAB – a MIUR-approved3)Ministry of Education, Universities and Research (MIUR stands for “Ministero dell’Istruzione, dell’Università e della Ricerca”). university laboratory (duh!) which aims at facilitating contamination between different course studies through a unified business project 4)Source: https://www.unive.it/pag/30571.. As I ventured to meet the creative requirements of selection (including an embarrassing YouTube bio clip which has been the first, last and worst video recording experience of my life), the aim began to be clear: I wanted to see what a philosophical training could provide within a business-oriented environment, to prove myself that reading about mankind’s nature, foundations of knowledge, and undecipherable German words (Seinsvergessenheit?) could be of any practical – however indirect – use. 

CLAB’s roadmap sprung from an increasingly popular intersection, that between business and design: teams of 6/7 students, led by a facilitator, had to develop first-hand solutions for the Brenta footwear District by following the design thinking methodology, a strategy to lead business development in a user-centred and creative way. Part of its title – “contamination” – has been usefully put in context by a brilliant speech during the opening event, in which prof. Panozzo, Associate Professor at the Department of Management (UniVe), argued that such word threatens to encourage the worst spirits of economic change, which have increasingly been embodied (especially among the startup world) in the terminology of “disruption” and “endless acceleration”. Change as such can be seen as dangerous and fearsome, for it endangers to bring about situations we might not be ready to meet; this is the underlying mood upon which the “disruption” rhetoric has been built upon, and which feeds the negativity that could be felt around “contamination” too. Panozzo contended that this obscure aspect of change has often been overlooked, and that business fast dynamics sometimes forget how much time developing new skills requires. His closing remarks, though, assumed an optimistic bent when he reminded the audience that innovative enterprises are tolerant enterprises, even with respect to risk and contamination themselves. With a curiously Buddhist twist, Panozzo advocated for looking change-generated fear in the eyes, and to sit with it in viewing it almost as a partner; it would be from this mindset, that true innovation is generated.5)The Buddhist resemblance is owed to Allione’s Feeding Your Demons: Ancient Wisdom for Resolving Inner Conflict. Little Brown and Company, 2008.

The first step of our design challenge: finding core values and stakeholders

In the following paragraphs, my aim will be to illustrate how the Lab has made me think about philosophical training under the light of a business-driven approach. I will draw from personal reflections and from academic contributions to design-driven innovation to ask myself where, eventually, philosophers can emerge as valuable partners in a business environment, and close on a bitter note on why there seems to be an irreconcilable tension between business demands and a critical attitude.

In the design-thinking methodology, several points emerged as having a philosophical affinity, or interest:

  • the ability to question current circumstances, often by analysing deepening layers of explanation;
  • the recognition of distinct schemes in order to apply them across different instances (a skill that design thinking labels as “modeling”);
  • the conveyance of old solutions to new frameworks;
  • the anthropological challenges of putting the user, a human being, at the center of the design process.6)Cf. Verganti, in broadening his critique to user-centred methods: “the company looks at people, not users” (p.54); such approach echoes the motto of philosophical consultancy as promoted by Gerd Achenbach, who sees it as an urge to see people as a whole, that is to broaden the narrow image with which one substitutes oneself and others. 

The first three points highlight the mastery of conceptual skills that cut across several other disciplines, but philosophy arguably offers among the best tools for enhancing critical thinking. The last one opens a conversation in which practically all philosophers have weighed in – the nature of human beings, among which the motivation behind their actions –, even tough nowadays we’re more used to turn to behavioural scientists. Philosophy offers a rich bucket to those who look for inspiration: a brief module on soft-skills, for example, presented in the contemporary language of ‘career development’ an array of dispositions that virtue ethics would recognise as moral virtues, such as flexibility, self-control, etc. 

Design as Meaningful Research

When academics talk about man, virtue, collaboration (in the examination of political institutions, for example), their descriptions are often too abstract to have any immediate practical use, but they are nevertheless essential, for they suggest new models through which one can re-think or re-imagine one’s daily habits.
On the other side, philosophy fruitfully engages with common-sense constructs, and contributes to advance a richer socio-cultural interpretation of them. As we will soon see, if designers are seen as interpreters, they cannot be culturally neutral, as they need to superimpose their own worldview on what is given, whilst enriching that representation through a mutual exchange with other interpreters. Being culturally partisan means starting from ones’ own knowledge, experiences, relationships, aspirations; a similar position has been advocated, in a more radical form, by F. Nietzsche, who claimed that “there are no facts – only interpretations”.7)I found particularly difficult to retrieve the exact source of such quote, which I have transcribed during a course on the history of Contemporary Philosophy. The most satisfying answer thus far comes from Wikiquote, who refers to Nietzsche’s Notebooks (Source: https://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/Friedrich_Nietzsche).

Intellectual partiality can at times be crudely displayed. For those who, like me, have read some Adorno, and who (unlike me) accept his strong claim on philosophy as antithetic to Weltanschauung,8)Cf. Adorno’s 1962 and 1963 lectures, collected in T. Adorno, Terminologia Filosofica, Einaudi, 2017, par.8 and 10. listening to business execs define their vision as “our philosophy” can undoubtedly be a troubling experience. The qualm with intellectual purity, though, is unlikely to be met by the pragmatic attitude that so strongly characterises the glamorous world of communications: professionals can have obtained the most prestigious literature degrees and know the specific weight of each word, but the growing competition over increasingly narrow market sectors demands that each firm earn its specificity through a sparkling – and often hazy – conceptualisation of its own products. In this way, a set of personal tastes and insights becomes a “philosophy”, with a tantalising conceptual aura.

Shoe boxes of the Italian fashion firm N.21

I may have received such impression only for contingent reasons: the realm of fashion, as Verganti claims in his Design-Driven Innovation, might not be the perfect environment for deep conceptualisation. Yes, innovation in fashion requires careful research and an ability to intelligently mix both a reading of current trends and the setting of new ones for the future; but design thinking as exposed by Verganti goes beyond the user-centred approach that we’ve analysed thus far.
Verganti sees designers as researchers, rather than creatives: the latter are often thought as professionals who come up with countless proposals in endless brainstorming sessions, while the former investigate the grounds of a paradigm, often to glimpse at its future developments.9)Eugenie Vergleris, a philosophical consultant who worked with major French firms, writes in her short book Manager con la filosofia (Managing with philosophy) that “to be a philosopher does not mean to be an intellectual, but rather a professional who turns an ordinary matter into an opportunity to deal with a base line issue” (freely translated from the Italian text, Manager con la filosofia, Apogeo, 2008, p.27). His approach expresses an etymological understanding of design and draws from the latin ‘de-signare‘ (‘to draw signs’) a picture of innovation as “innovation of meanings” – where meanings are intrinsic in every product or service and result from their interaction with the user (p.36). In a postmodernist program which echoes Quine’s “museum theory” of meanings10)Cf. W. O. Quine, “Ontological Relativity”, The Journal of Philosophy, vol. 65, no. 7, 1968, pp. 185–212., Verganti challenges user-centred design approaches for their view of meanings as fixed entities to be chased after, and reclaims an innovation process that cannot be codified or deterministically designed. This theme has been dear to philosophical minds who have tried to dodge physicalist underpinnings, and is relevant for every debate around the origins of creativity.11)A related critique towards the user-centred school of design thinking contends that tested methods cannot question existing meanings, but only reinforce them (Verganti, p.10).

A very pragmatist conception of inquiry is also set out in the book, and directly follows from the previous point: researching should be thought as something other than describing what already exists, but rather as a transformation of meanings by engaging in mutual semantic exchanges. In a paragraph inspired by Kuhn’s terminology, meanings are paradigms capable of undergoing not only gradual mutations, but also radical ones. The origins of ‘disruption’ shift from the user-centred practices of globally engaging with the end consumer to an elitist picture, in which firms, executives and expert interpreters conduct long and close-knit processes of research to understand what the meaning at hand is rooted in, and where it might go. Innovation starts from a small, intimate community with a common vision and different market demands, where design-driven research is assimilated to the prototyping of a cultural model, which is silently diffused to society through a variety of means in order to prepare the end user to greet that radicalness as highly seductive, not repulsive.
A clearer resemblance of design research with philosophical engagement though is expressed by the idea that practical innovation happens at the edges of stepping back and looking at the big picture. We find the same remark in Vergleris’ short book on management and philosophy, where philosophising is characterised as “distancing oneself” from the context.12)E. Vergleris, Manager con la filosofia, Apogeo, 2008.

I’ve been undoubtedly charmed by Verganti’s account, probably for the promises carried by research: the profundity and uniqueness that only single-mindedness could bring about, linked with the fertile contribution of collaborative thinking, among a group of equally well-suited peers. The problem might be that one has to be an expert in the field to really be able to contribute, and Verganti does not shy away from describing the process as quite elitist; whether this is the ‘true’ description of how innovative transformations really come about, though, beginners as we, CLAB participants, needed a guiding structure to work together, and the user-centred action plan worked perfectly for that purpose.

CLAB: Joys and Hardships of a Philosophical Trainee

The rudiments of labour division. Early stage completion.
Hello teammates!

One of the hardest challenges I’ve been experiencing at the CLAB has been collaboration, the necessity of trying to find a common ground with my other fellow group members. Personal character, self-reliant philosophical training, and (maybe?) the habituation to increasingly homogeneous human relationships have at times turned confrontation in a frustrating experience. I feared that the stress on contamination was suffocating spaces for simplicity and solitude. Contamination was the passepartout in order to conceive interdisciplinary solutions, but original ones need to go through a process of self-formation, in which their identity is built by way of a strong selection of what does not belong to them. If a collective proposal has to gain its unparalleled flavour, individuals need to see themselves outside of a groupthink dynamic, and strive for an independently coordinated action.
The Lab was too short to develop such a close-knit mutual understanding, but my role model is the type of research community analysed by Verganti, where the depth of group convergence parallels its radicality.13)Convergence and divergence are terms that have found a place in the CLAB too, albeit with a different function: the design-thinking process, which evolved in five different stages, consisted in alternate divergence (research stage) and convergence (solution-oriented stages) phases.

One of the most curious considerations about the appeals of a philosophical training evolves from how I came to be judged from my peers: one of my early tasks has been that of condensing in a few paragraphs our long discussions, because ‘philosophers ought to be good with words’. Now, I don’t know if I am good at it, and I do know if philosophy in particular has anything to do with that – maybe it is just my inclination to prefer writing to speaking. What is interesting, though, is that Vergleris sees the philosopher exactly as a figure who helps to clarify meanings, in order to build something together. Philosophers have developed two opposite views about the nature of meanings: some claim that they are fixed entities and can be discovered through accurate discussion and research; others, and this is Verganti’s approach, think that meanings are constructions, and that they are put at work through discursive practices. Even though the two theories come from very different grounds, both Vergleris and Verganti see a coherence of meanings as an essential feature of collective action, which can come about only through concerted discussion, to let that coherence slowly emerge (or be built, following the other interpretation).

Vergleris highlights another stage through which all CLAB teams had to go through: since the proposals had to be displayed in an official presentation, groups had to own what they had built – and “in order to seize a project, it is necessary to contribute to its understanding”14)Freely translated from the Italian text, Manager con la filosofia, Apogeo, 2008, p.79.. The idea is that effective delivery depends upon a firm understanding of the project’s underlying ideas and values. Values were the first target of each research, in an attempt to find that core proposition around which the proposal could be built: they served as guiding principles for collective action, such that the final outcome could consist in a combined convergence of multiple perspectives.

The Ultimate Tension

I have anticipated at the very beginning that my conclusion would have been bitter. The fact is that cultivating a critical attitude often nurtures a social thoughtfulness that extends beyond shallow shareholders’ interests. But business goals inevitably tame any true critical engagement with our outputs – whether it be reflecting on the environmental costs of a particular product, or on the psychological consequences for users of a certain service –, at least in a contemporary landscape where quantitative metrics such as earnings per share dictate every business strategy.15)Cf. https://www.vox.com/2018/8/15/17683022/elizabeth-warren-accountable-capitalism-corporations.
There undoubtedly is a singular phenomenon, which Krista Tippett hints at in her conversation with Brene Brown, by which in a landscape where politics has gradually lost its moral leadership, enterprises and private citizens are picking up social challenges that have been neglected by public officials. It appears though that if they are in a position to ignore the unspoken law of creating value for shareholders at the expense of every other concern, that strength had somehow to be gained beforehand, often through the same shareholders logic.
Elitist philosophy students, those who praise the Platonic philosopher-king figure, would certainly love to have a spot in a design-driven innovation process which dictates cultural standards, as it has been sketched by Verganti. Those standards though, until they are aligned with market interests, hardly have a possibility to distance themselves from the “shareholder perspective”. The latter has been defended as the natural attitude in a world characterised by scarcity,16)Curiously enough, A Short History of Economic Thought (Bo Sandelin, Hans-Michael Trautwein, Richard Wundrak, Routledge 2015) reports that the problem of scarcity becomes the central economic problem only in Biblical texts; Ancient Greeks did not have such concerns. but as labor-replacing technology floods the market and abundant energy resources become a feasible goal, the question becomes political, as Peter Frase has highlighted in his four-scenario post-capitalist future.

I began this journey in search of little clues that could shed light on my professional future. Young adults such as me face the challenge of pursuing interests that they are encouraged to cherish, such as historical knowledge, aesthetic taste or social sensibility, and yet perceive themselves as disadvantaged in a professional world that capitalises on rhetoric, minimised costs and shareholder interests. In a world that pushes to label every experience in order to project oneself into a safer, more defined future, I am almost afraid to say that no clear-cut role has emerged yet from the CLAB. The upshot has been an increased awareness of what a philosophical training can provide outside the classroom, while I try to cultivate the hope that my alertness towards what is human will find its way and subtly spread around, although the private sector might not be the best environment to nurture that attitude.
What’s ahead is a quest to assert a critical stance that does not have to result in public intellectualism. A search to push back the individualistic forces driven by surging competitiveness, which might have a chance once those very forces recover the social character of their genesis.

References   [ + ]

1. Cf., for example, M. Nussbaum, Not for profit: why democracy needs the humanities. Princeton, N.J: Princeton University Press, 2010. A brief comment on the Italian translation can be found on this blog.
2. For an historical comment on the subject’s development since the publication of what should have been, in Richard Rorty’s mind, a manifesto for the dissolution of philosophy as a profession, cf. B. Kuklick, “After Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature,” Analyse & Kritik, 2019.
3. Ministry of Education, Universities and Research (MIUR stands for “Ministero dell’Istruzione, dell’Università e della Ricerca”).
4. Source: https://www.unive.it/pag/30571.
5. The Buddhist resemblance is owed to Allione’s Feeding Your Demons: Ancient Wisdom for Resolving Inner Conflict. Little Brown and Company, 2008.
6. Cf. Verganti, in broadening his critique to user-centred methods: “the company looks at people, not users” (p.54); such approach echoes the motto of philosophical consultancy as promoted by Gerd Achenbach, who sees it as an urge to see people as a whole, that is to broaden the narrow image with which one substitutes oneself and others.
7. I found particularly difficult to retrieve the exact source of such quote, which I have transcribed during a course on the history of Contemporary Philosophy. The most satisfying answer thus far comes from Wikiquote, who refers to Nietzsche’s Notebooks (Source: https://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/Friedrich_Nietzsche).
8. Cf. Adorno’s 1962 and 1963 lectures, collected in T. Adorno, Terminologia Filosofica, Einaudi, 2017, par.8 and 10.
9. Eugenie Vergleris, a philosophical consultant who worked with major French firms, writes in her short book Manager con la filosofia (Managing with philosophy) that “to be a philosopher does not mean to be an intellectual, but rather a professional who turns an ordinary matter into an opportunity to deal with a base line issue” (freely translated from the Italian text, Manager con la filosofia, Apogeo, 2008, p.27).
10. Cf. W. O. Quine, “Ontological Relativity”, The Journal of Philosophy, vol. 65, no. 7, 1968, pp. 185–212.
11. A related critique towards the user-centred school of design thinking contends that tested methods cannot question existing meanings, but only reinforce them (Verganti, p.10).
12. E. Vergleris, Manager con la filosofia, Apogeo, 2008.
13. Convergence and divergence are terms that have found a place in the CLAB too, albeit with a different function: the design-thinking process, which evolved in five different stages, consisted in alternate divergence (research stage) and convergence (solution-oriented stages) phases.
14. Freely translated from the Italian text, Manager con la filosofia, Apogeo, 2008, p.79.
15. Cf. https://www.vox.com/2018/8/15/17683022/elizabeth-warren-accountable-capitalism-corporations.
16. Curiously enough, A Short History of Economic Thought (Bo Sandelin, Hans-Michael Trautwein, Richard Wundrak, Routledge 2015) reports that the problem of scarcity becomes the central economic problem only in Biblical texts; Ancient Greeks did not have such concerns.

And it’s a global warming buzz again

Climate change. The subtle, drip by drip change which we are not evolutionary wired to detect. The steady pace at which mankind set out to turn its destiny upside down by implementing its thirst for progress – or the mere instinctive drive to develop solutions which prove to ameliorate our contingencies – both interpretations of the tale of recent civilisation suffer from the spell of another inbuilt bias, that of shortsightedness. While the magnitude of the first atomic explosion awakened the global awareness of technology’s blind and ruthless potential for destruction, the steady rate at which global emissions raised since that very occurrence has summed up to a total of 85% of total human carbon production1)http://nymag.com/daily/intelligencer/2017/07/climate-change-earth-too-hot-for-humans.html. Fortunately, science is an auto-corrective enterprise and headline’s prestige does not protect one from severe critique. Climatefeedback.org just released a fact-check of NYMag’s article, rating its scientific credibility as low (-0,8): “Our review simply addresses the scientific accuracy of the article. The reviewers found that some statements in this complex article do misrepresent research on the topic, and some others lack the necessary context to be clearly understood by the reader. Many other explanations in the article are correct, but readers are likely left with an overall conclusion that is exaggerated compared to our best scientific understanding.”. We are sufficiently trained to recognise the perils of civilisation when hit by shocking events, but much less accustomed to parse upcoming threats which grow slowly, and therefore silently.

Show me hundred of thousands of corpses, burned by the American nukes on Japanese soil, and I’ll tell you there’s something wrong there, fast and assuredly. Tell me about the thousands of people who died out of heat in a hot summer, add up the statistics for future impact of ocean acidification, or even the likelihood of trapped viruses in the Arctic ice to spread back into the world2)http://nymag.com/daily/intelligencer/2017/07/climate-change-earth-too-hot-for-humans.html… and I’ll likely find a way out of that intricate web in order to justify the tiniest of my current habits, not to change any of them.

 

On Saturday 9th, July 2017, the NY Times Magazine went out with an article which hit my Nuzzel feed with over 31 sharings. “It’s a rare occurrence, given how rarely I breed my Twitter network.”, I thought. The day after, dozens of articles – from The Atlantic, to Mashable and Grist – not to count tweets and Facebook posts, flooded the Internet with vivid answers. The widest response?

if you’re trying to motivate people, scaring the shit out of them is a really bad strategy.3)http://grist.org/climate-energy/stop-scaring-people-about-climate-change-it-doesnt-work/

 

Trauttsmandorff Gardens, Italy 2015.

Many have called into question the veracity of data which have been reported, as if the author needed an extra pump to inflate his apocalyptic outlook. I’ll leave those to environmental journalists and experts, as going through tables, papers and citations isn’t really my thing. David Wallace-Wells made my conscience shake up quite a little, and made me reflect on what am I currently doing to actively engage with the problem. I am a student who looks just average with respect to carbon emissions (a 0.3x compared to the average American – but many know that a US citizen has a 3x ecological footprint than a European one. CarboTax evaluator enticed me with a feeling of environmental superiority before I actually realised that its values have been tailored for the average American citizen.) A sort of anti-radical-chic claim and a little bit of social pressure made me abandon vegetarianism in favour of modest meat consumption. I am not studying to become a software or hardware developer, nor a biotechnology researcher, so I won’t come up with resolving technological innovations. I am not headed toward journalism either, if that means covering the latest news about environmental issues, periodically swinging between a benign optimism after an encouraging discovery and a desolated pessimism following the umpteenth out-of-target environmental report.

That article made me much more aware of the complexities of the environmental problem4)As soon as one is able to lift himself out of the equivalence “global warming = rising sea levels”, then one has made significant progress toward a bare understanding of complexity and interdependence. Among the many cascade effects of which I could not think of, cited in the NYmag article, you would find that a higher concentration of carbon dioxide reduces cognitive capacities; that an increase in heat is correlated with an increase in crime and war rates – though that assertion has produced much controversy on the web; that global warming dynamics have been proposed as a ‘filter effect’ to explain the Fermi paradox., and of how much we cannot allow ourselves to take any solution for granted. Enthusiasm and trust in the scientific and technological progress should not make us blind to the possibility that viable options to address the problem may lie in a too distant future5)Who is prone to similar setbacks would understand the enthusiasm with which I turned to cellular agriculture and artificial meat (The man from Utopia: story of a win-win ethical mindset), only to discover after a few months that is not going to be that easy.. Popperian physicist David Deutsch would call out such a judgement as pessimistic philosophy – that is, to deceive ourselves into believing that no solution is available. I believe that technological progress has been shown to be such a powerful tool, that combined with necessity, no metaphysical reason should forestall success; when the lives of present and future generations (not to mention current environmental catastrophes) are at stake though, we should come up with solid plans, and not allow ourselves to slip into the comfort of technological hopes.

What needs to be kept alive are the standards of inquiry and conversation among people – that is the best way we have to address complex matters, when in fact our instinctive reaction may just be that of closing the gates and keep reasoning the way we are used to. That, in fact, has been the first reaction I had after reading the NYMag article, and I totally subscribe the view6)Not that I need to endorse something which has been shown by much psychological research: first of all, the popular work of Thaler and Sunstein, Nudge. that fear isn’t the best strategy to address change, especially if issues are complex and need our logical brains to be tackled. Aka keep the flight-or-fight mode as far as you can.

 

I resolved to accentuate the role of science not in a naïve attempt to give consistency to desirable sci-fi scenarios, but rather to counter the perception of science as an obscure force which aims at changing behaviours and imposing new rules out of undecipherable amounts of data. The recent Italian vaccine debate exemplifies how one cannot take scientific literacy for granted – not even among European countries, albeit Italy’s poor performance is well-known.7)http://www.oecd.org/pisa/keyfindings/PISA-2012-results-italy.pdf Denialism is driven by aversion to change, but it is happy to take a stance against science every time it can. Just as opposing overt scientific consensus for unclear (or sometimes even too clear) reasons is immoral, not trying to stop that trend is equally dishonest. “If you see fraud and don’t shout fraud, you are a fraud”.8)http://www.fooledbyrandomness.com/

Trauttsmandorff Gardens, Italy 2015.

In the past, I repeatedly thought of carbon dioxide extraction – alongside with special bacteria who would eat plastics, or ideally carbon dioxide itself – as one of the most technological promises to solve global warming. There is some consensus9)http://nymag.com/daily/intelligencer/2017/07/climate-change-earth-too-hot-for-humans.html around the fact that even stopping carbon emissions today, would not be enough to reverse the trend; it is, therefore, likely that by lowering carbon concentrations to pre-industrial levels, we could definitely have managed the issue. Some researchers even suggest that carbon extraction is economically more viable (and therefore more likely to be implemented) than substituting fuels altogether, thereby giving some extra buffer space for proper conversions to be actualised. So my research actually began by tapping “carbon extraction from air” on my keyboard, and it showed among the very first search results a site that has within its “popular post” parade two articles on “working” magnetic motors. It is hard for me to believe how my browser’s research history could have eventually been infected with alike woo-woo contents. That was definitely not what you could call a ‘scientific blog’, not even a remote one; still, they were enthralled so much by technoenthusiasm (they call themselves The Green Optimistic) that it turned into denialism: you can’t possibly talk of magnetic motors in the XXI century.

Finding the news about carbon extraction among such unscientific babble made me think that there is an opposite side to denialism. I felt as though I had been prone to cultivate big hopes too – the belief in a feasible and dream-like solution for global warming – against the real pains of climate change. Just as articles critical of doomsday-like approaches predicted, fear could well turn into denialism.

Unjustified optimism bears similar byproducts too. The point is that only a method like the scientific one – in its broadest possible sense, which includes confrontation, fact-checking and fallibilism – makes us less vulnerable to similar pitfalls. It is inevitable, and vital for our creativity, that we cut the world off at some point and start to build stuff on our own; but we need to keep an eye on what happens outside, and always be willing to change our mind in presence of better explanations. That, in essence, is the frail ideal of rationalism: it does not work as a law, it just seems to be the best way we have to tackle problem-solving.

 

So, what about those who accuse David Wallace-Wells of leaning “very hard on the EXTINCTION PORN angle, and almost not at all on the BUT HERE’S WHAT WE DO angle”10)https://www.theatlantic.com/science/archive/2017/07/is-the-earth-really-that-doomed/533112/? The Drawdown project seems really the most promising place to start from: 100 available solutions, ranked by magnitude of impact and economic feasibility, to cut carbon emissions and reach point drawdown – that is, when air concentration of carbon dioxide and other dangerous gasses would begin to decrease. I regret to say that carbon extraction is among the “coming attractions”: it is not yet a fully-developed technology. Drawdown’s aim is to point at available solutions, and it is valuable, for it does not leave room for unnecessary techno-panic (would that magic trick see the light before Apocalypse catches us?). So if hardware feasibility is not the real problem, what is? Economic sustainability. Just as windmills did not become affordable simply out of a greater demand, though, but also as technological improvement made materials and design fitter and cheaper. Innovation never stops.

Even though conspiracists mostly like to think in Marxist terms – there is always some financial, crooked aim behind every problematic issue – we should acknowledge that when problem-solving intercepts business solutions, then even addressing climate change seems more doable than it was, when the only viable answers were cutting down expenses and rates of consumption. Welcome the economic slice of the cake. Technology developed on a small scale within university labs has a chance to bear impact only if it is taken up by businesses around the world. Extracting carbon from the air into nanofibers looks like a true promise in that direction. Among recarbonisation strategies, a company is currently offering a solution to extract carbon dioxide in order to produce “clean fuels”. Carbon extraction research has been around since 1999 at least, but it is only through market tests that we could see its scalability.

There is more to add to the pile of economic impulses. Unsurprisingly, yet powerfully influencing our behaviour, much of the status narrative is carbon-driven. Tesla is a rare bird. International job positions are more influential than local ones; private jet flights are among the most evident status-symbols… oh, did I mention that most touristic destinations are hours of flight away? Almost needless to say, every rung of the ladder implies a greater ecological footprint (let alone nerdy revolutionaries who create wealth with little more than a laptop). If we believe, as Milton Friedman did, that human creativity is at least partly driven by its willingness to earn a bigger slice of the cake, and that the only way to climb the social ladder requires higher and higher material investments, then we need to change the narrative and reframe success as positively contributing to global warming issues.

 

In the end, what should one do about global warming? How do we avoid getting back to business as usual, to episodic criticisms on politics’ ineptitude at tackling the problem? Aren’t we, simple citizens, entitled to receive one, simple, accomodating instruction that we can work into our daily routines, while keep moving with our lives?

Trauttsmandorff Gardens, Italy 2015.

Moving to a plant-based diet might be the single best choice which rests entirely on our own 11)http://www.drawdown.org/solutions/food/plant-rich-diet. Offsetting your carbon emissions might be the next option12)Effective altruists, with their distinct scrupulousness, have tried to detect the single best action that would bring the most positive impact on global warming and recommend giving to Cool Earth. But lots of other solutions wait social collaboration to be implemented, and if I had to take away one thing from this little journey, it is the cognition that isolated actions do not suffice.

When one hears about the best solution to address climate change, it is desirable that a spark of skepticism arises: how does one decide what the “best solution” is? Still, we cannot allow that metaquestion to fade into rock-solid immobilism. I believe that attempts at building a frame to solve that puzzle should be praised with delight and scientific curiosity, knowing that we are not dealing with a quest for an immutable answer nor for the silver bullet, but rather with a nest of competing, and often mutually enriching frameworks to fill pragmatic schedules on how to proceed.

Here is where philosophy might finally becomes a piece on the board. It is of extreme importance and astounding actuality that we abandon representational theories of truth and standards which speak of objectivity as something that could not be achieved for metaphysical reasons, which doom us to paralysing skepticism. Theoretically expunging Cartesianism will bear practical consequences as well.13)American pragmatism is, among philosophical traditions, that which took extra care to point at Cartesianism as an untruthful view, and proceeded to engineer clever alternatives.

References   [ + ]

1. http://nymag.com/daily/intelligencer/2017/07/climate-change-earth-too-hot-for-humans.html. Fortunately, science is an auto-corrective enterprise and headline’s prestige does not protect one from severe critique. Climatefeedback.org just released a fact-check of NYMag’s article, rating its scientific credibility as low (-0,8): “Our review simply addresses the scientific accuracy of the article. The reviewers found that some statements in this complex article do misrepresent research on the topic, and some others lack the necessary context to be clearly understood by the reader. Many other explanations in the article are correct, but readers are likely left with an overall conclusion that is exaggerated compared to our best scientific understanding.”
2, 9. http://nymag.com/daily/intelligencer/2017/07/climate-change-earth-too-hot-for-humans.html
3. http://grist.org/climate-energy/stop-scaring-people-about-climate-change-it-doesnt-work/
4. As soon as one is able to lift himself out of the equivalence “global warming = rising sea levels”, then one has made significant progress toward a bare understanding of complexity and interdependence. Among the many cascade effects of which I could not think of, cited in the NYmag article, you would find that a higher concentration of carbon dioxide reduces cognitive capacities; that an increase in heat is correlated with an increase in crime and war rates – though that assertion has produced much controversy on the web; that global warming dynamics have been proposed as a ‘filter effect’ to explain the Fermi paradox.
5. Who is prone to similar setbacks would understand the enthusiasm with which I turned to cellular agriculture and artificial meat (The man from Utopia: story of a win-win ethical mindset), only to discover after a few months that is not going to be that easy.
6. Not that I need to endorse something which has been shown by much psychological research: first of all, the popular work of Thaler and Sunstein, Nudge.
7. http://www.oecd.org/pisa/keyfindings/PISA-2012-results-italy.pdf
8. http://www.fooledbyrandomness.com/
10. https://www.theatlantic.com/science/archive/2017/07/is-the-earth-really-that-doomed/533112/
11. http://www.drawdown.org/solutions/food/plant-rich-diet
12. Effective altruists, with their distinct scrupulousness, have tried to detect the single best action that would bring the most positive impact on global warming and recommend giving to Cool Earth.
13. American pragmatism is, among philosophical traditions, that which took extra care to point at Cartesianism as an untruthful view, and proceeded to engineer clever alternatives.

Redeeming appreciation

Has that indisputable realisation of fooling yourself ever crushed you? Feynman famously put that in plain view: “The first principle is that you must not fool yourself – and you are the easiest person to fool.”

This time, a painful awakening struck me while reading How to win friends and influence people – I’ll post a book review in a few weeks and try to explain what got me to that worrisomely titled book, and why a philosophy student would ever dare to read pop and self-help genre. There is a need to justify my readings in a way, even though I consider the act of choosing them to be wildly personal.

So, the chapter dealt with how precious the act of sincere appreciation is for the development of relationships. You know, those kind of plain truths abhorred by deviant intellectuals. I was not reading with voracity, neither was I calmly absorbed by Carnegie’s anecdotes – I was judging with subtle contempt. Since I deem curiosity towards one’s feelings to be one of the most fruitful sources of self-understanding, I drilled down to find its possible source. Reminiscent of the days of Vedantic digestions, here came the argument, clear and daunting at the same time, against being kind:

I won’t make any compliment to you, because I don’t want to inflate your ego. You know, people change, and if you get attached to the nice things I tell about you, you will suffer when they’ll end. Therefore, I won’t be responsible for that bubble burst.

“Oh well, listen to this yogic-like, patently misanthropic, line of reasoning!”, I told myself. Where did that come from?

In those circumstances, one looks for reasons to reshape his narrative. That is both a creative and a discovering practice, I believe, for on one hand he engages in a kind of self-reeducation to refine his habitus, while at the same time he looks for reasons that he still holds and may need revision. Honing one’s thinking passes through the recognition that we believe our logic to be ultimately sound and noble; it is as though the perception of what’s good changes while we operate on that aleatory stuff – Aristophanic clouds – named thoughts.

The creative act came into play with a recognition that sounds fearsome for those who aim at influencing others: I don’t have any control over what other people decide to do with my words. Sure, I can and should strive to present them in a way that would most likely elicit the response I’d like to be causing; ultimately though, acts of speech or writing aren’t unilaterally powerful, they are rather made so by people who listen and act on them. But then, what about compliments? How are they going to inflate someone’s ego? The only way I can make sense out of this nowadays connects with being responsible, i.e. that making insincere praises may in fact contribute to overstate the self-perception of the recipient, with following (possible) delusion. That is not entirely straightforward either: if adopted as a Kantian maxim, I may avoid to incite a young boy from even trying to do karate, because I don’t see a potential Bruce Lee within him – and that is bad. The thing is, we know so little about each other at first sight that we would not dare to speak for years before we would be able to utter anything of profound honesty, and the fact that we eventually get to know each other proceeds from those very approximate conversations. The whole idea of knowing how to back up every word with justifications (something that Schopenhauer would have considered absurd and false, being rationality a mere consequence of will) sounds as a mere pretension, and brutally ignores the open nature of conversations – if they are deemed to be called so.

Furthermore, that projection on outside egos may well be a bitter reverse-engeneering: we may avoid praise not to lower our perception of self, as if appreciation was a scarce resource to keep for oneself, ignoring how it actually creates value only through sharing.

 

Then comes the discovering part. When I tell anyone something nice, I create a small, little bond: what would I do with it? Responsibility violently represents itself, entering from the backdoor. After I praised my neighbour’s raincoat (what a colorful, cut to fit raincoat you have!), I don’t have any obligations toward him. Fears of obligations turn out to be far-reaching projections, that short-sighted distancing from the present moment which has been so well described by many: it is as though one is preparing himself for the eventuality of that relationship to turn bitter, to catch oneself wishing of never having admired that raincoat. Mental acrobatics on display.

There was some meat to the bone, in the end – I felt right away that I had to ruminate on a last remark:

by complimenting someone, you are picking her out of the crowd.

The attentive reader has noticed that I switched to the feminine pronoun, but anyone really can use the sex to which he (she/they/them) is predominantly attracted to. I feel that appreciation toward someone I like is somewhat more complex and muddled, and being someone who hates gaffes (working on that), I find myself overthinking about the next sentence. Needless to say, spontaneity goes to the drain. You look like you’re lying, when in fact you are nervous. Being truthful is an ability that needs to be trained… by acting truthfully: as Aristotle rightly put in his Nicomachean Ethics, there is no virtue without virtuous action. In fact, in linking praises with truthfulness I assume that the best sketch of sincerity saves us right from the start, by placing ourselves among people who positively respond to who we are, rather than to who we want them perceive us to be. There is a sophistic objection here which sounds somewhat like this: how do you pull allegedly true and secondary selves apart? Leaving philosophical responses aside, each of us usually has a grip on what “true self” means to her, or at least has observed how behaviour has changed in response to those words; I deem that ordinary meaning to be clear enough to cut through the objection, for this little excursus at least.

We act in the world and produce consequences – willing or not, polarising people around us. If you care enough, let them decide on impressions of a strivingly sincere individual, so that you won’t take part in dynamics to which you don’t belong. This is the best I would wish for everyone.

 

I probably have skipped dozens of opportunities to show genuine appreciation and feel happy about that, not to mention those who missed that act of kindness at the receiving end. But that’s not the end of it. As those of you who know my nerdy side may have understood, I try to help myself with technology as well. Just set up a new journal entry – “showed sincere appreciation” – on the habit tracker Way of Life, yes, now on my way to bring a thin slice of additional kindness to the world around me.

Diversity: the ultimate collective edge

Become such as you are, having learned what that is. (Pindar)

 

One can hardly deny to himself the need of saying something. On one hand, one probably cares more about what he says than what he doesn’t. Presumably, the energy he puts into uttering those very words should be of some importance to his survivorship.

On the other hand, we all know very well how much we don’t say in order to make our lives better or easier. We refrain from judging people too harshly, because we want them to stick around. We may avoid to tell our friend how his breath smells bad, because we don’t want to hurt him. In most cases, though, we know that we will have to speak up, at some point – so why delaying every word to the future?

 

If you are intellectually honest enough, you know that what you say is going to resonate just with a few, not with everybody. This recognition makes philosophers’ work all the more challenging. The philosopher is, in the end, after some kind of universal truth. And yet philosophical practice involves constant debating and reasoning, so that none of your fellow speakers would think as you do.

Some philosophers embrace a relativistic stance, and are happy to elaborate less-than-universal claims. Socrates was held by Plato to be the humblest man who has ever lived, the man who knows to know nothing. In spite of Plato’s portrait, Aristophanes and Nietzsche have called Socrates out as profoundly dogmatic.

It really seems that in order to make a difference, you need to talk to someone, and this is not loose business-talk. Aiming at communicating with everyone usually ends up to talking to no one. Even those leaders whose success builds upon appealing to what is common in every of us – think of Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela or the Dalai Lama, who championed the principles of humanity, rationality and compassion – don’t get along without enemies. In fact, it almost seems that the foe’s harshness is proportional to the hero’s success.

Bacoli, 2012

 

What you say influences what you will do afterwards. You’d be either reliable, either controversial; some will respect you as being trustworthy, and enemies would build up any controversies to attack your integrity. Some will praise your controversy, and judge it as a firm trait of character. Obama gained his respect while conspiracy theorists questioned his birth certificate. Trump obtained the presidency by being coherently ruthless.

There are two ways in which you would deal with the critic: either you care about her opinion, either you don’t. Academics won’t be concerned about what the layman thinks; they sink into peer-reviews and journals, with a kind of partisanship which supports their point, no matter what the opponent is going to argue. Yet people will question exactly that predisposition: the distance from the intellectual and the layman inflates a bubble that bursts every now and then, with visible consequences. Take the democratic blindness to social tension in the last U.S. Presidentials. Take economists who rely on models that disrupt entire industries.

people won’t be able to work productively without that kind of narrowed attention. If a stranger drops a nasty comment on your recent book page or article, you probably don’t want to care about him. You want to keep in mind who your recipient is, and leave out all the rest. Yet we all, little pieces of the world, need to fit together. Somehow. We share common needs: a shelter to chill out, a market to shop at, a dear one to hug. Your book and my blog article and Alex Jones’s broadcast speak to different people, while sharing common language and internet access. Biologists celebrate and protect biodiversity as the main ecosystem’s productivity boost:1)http://www.globalissues.org/article/170/why-is-biodiversity-important-who-cares at a superficial glance, you may like the idea of avoiding fights between lions and gazzelle by removing bit cats. Undeniably, though, one species wouldn’t be there without the other. Humans too have a biodiversity of their own. History has shown that every attempt at reducing it – mass-murders, indian reservations, you name it – has made us complexively poorer.

We all need to feel right, most of the time. Overwhelmed by cognitive dissonance, we wouldn’t go much far. It feels like I could be wrong just little by little, even though I may make up my mind ten times in a lifetime. And at least in some points of the reasoning chain, I would look for additional reasons to support what I’ve meditated upon. To be right, in the end. But this kind of cynical, skeptical talk of rational reasoning shouldn’t dismiss one from trying his best in pursuing his truth of expression. Being aware to try on different beliefs with biased tendencies will ultimately make our thinking less partial.

We want to own our stories, so that they ultimately make sense. We want them to be as coherent as they can be. And if you are the kind of person who doesn’t trust much her guts – who feels insicure and undervalues her worth – then you may take refuge in psychology, revert to the Dunning-Krueger effect2)https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dunning%E2%80%93Kruger_effect and reclaim your smartness.

 

Don’t you think gems cannot be found in business TV series as well. As Bobby tells to Taylor in Billions,

Sometimes you catch yourself watching all the people like they are another species.

So you retreat behind your aquarium walls, watching.

But you don’t realise, Taylor, that glass, it’s not a barrier, it’s a lens.

It’s an asset. It is what makes you good.

You see things differently. That’s an edge.3)http://www.sho.com/billions/season/2/episode/2/dead-cat-bounce

 

We all have a little bit of a Taylor within ourselves. We see things differently.

And that’s an edge, for everybody.

References   [ + ]

Budding philosophers’ techy tools

I just had to get through the entrance philosophy exam here at Ca’ Foscari University. Every sophomore knows it to be a mere formality. Freshmen, of course, don’t. They grapple for some time with the nightmare of learning 100 Greek philosophy terms, until they ask some older students, or simply don’t give a darn about the exam. I fell in neither of these groups. I just wanted to make it as fast as possible, and to possibly have fun while doing it.

 

Memory can be bitchy – it can get you in serious problems when you need them least. Like most people, I find it useful to attach as many mental links to a concept, so that I have multiple gateways to access it. If some of the pathways shut down, due to stress or anything else, it is good to have plan B, C, and D.

With a little array of tools, I got away with it.

 

First: AnkiApp.

You can find countless AnkiApp decks online, especially for language learning, and upload them in your desktop app. Since there was no available philosophical dictionary, I set up one on my own.

 

The fun – and productive – part is to create some wildly customised cards. Insert the text, some pictures, even audio tracks.

 

Once you have everything set up, it is easy to review them all with just a click, and get a marvellous, colourful score. Improving one’s grade day by day has been an useful way to track my improvement.

This way, you always have control over what you know, and what you don’t.

 

 

Second: Kumu.io

Kumu is a valuable free service to create mental maps. There may be thousands of similar services out there; however, what I wanted to point out is how mind-mapping has helped me. Linking words together made wonders for a faster memorisation of semantical cross-references, and made me feel more comfortable during the oral test.

 

 

I told you I had fun to pull off this little exam.

As cliché as it may sound…free your own creativity! These pictures speak to me, not necessarily to everyone. I ended up remembering many words not because of images themselves, but because of the effort I put in looking for suitable images, and because of their particular structure.

Some are classic, even elegant:

 

Some are a bit more esoteric:

Not everyone knows that Shivait yogis yell “Bholenath!” before lighting up their chillum.

What matters is that you remember words, associations have to strike you right in the face!

 

Some are just little pieces of childish graphics:

 

And others are simply plain weird… but who cares, if you succeed to memorize?