Let me ramble for a while. It’s been Easter these past few days, a Christian holiday apparently usurping a Pagan fertility tradition, celebrated by the mass eating of chocolate rabbits and eggs. Now I can understand why it was so hard to decide upon fixed dates for events that happened (or possibly happened) 2,000 years ago, for which there were few records that actually make any sense, but why settle on this strange pagan equinoctial timing thing? First Sunday (a day named after Sun-worship after all) after the first Full Moon (surely worshipping the Moon) after the northern hemisphere’s Vernal Equinox, a date everyone celebrated anyway because it heralds the good times we know as spring. OK, so it was effective marketing, and I have no qualms about supporting religions that preach social orderliness, compassion and peace. But I do find it hard to accept these somewhat arbitrary and cynical celebration dates. Christmas is similarly blighted by Christian church pragmatism. And both Easter and Christmas are noteworthy for excess – as in excessive spending on food and presents. It’s not a good look when we Westerners go on a consumption binge to celebrate a man, or an idea, or a prophet who fairly clearly preached the opposite to what we are actually doing. I guess this is what happens when humans get control over spiritual things. They get carried away with the smoke and mirrors, the colour and the movement.
Whilst I have no special affiliation with any particular organised religion and will happily consider any belief, I do especially enjoy researching the history of these things, trying to work out why particular messages are presented in these somewhat arcane ways. And I enjoy the search for truth and explanation that’s inherent in all religions or faiths, from Buddhism to Zoroastrianism. And good luck to anyone who has found that trust and belief in any one faith.
This may take a while to explain, so bear with me. About a year or so ago now I had a yarn (or rather I exchanged emails with) IBM’s then chief technologist Irving Wladawsky-Berger. The subject was our collective responsibility to manage the future as well as the present. (I work for IBM too, by the way, but not at Irving’s altitude, if you know what I mean. And these are of course my views, not necessarily IBM’s.) Now this exchange was along the lines of my previous post, but rather than just asking ‘how did we get here?’ I instead asked ‘what happens if we just innovate and release, ever quicker, and repeat ad infinitum?’. It was in part a technological conversation, where as a technologist Irving was keen to expand upon the benefits to humanity of – you guessed it – technology.
And of course I agree. Technological innovation is not just a special gift of humanity but a vital tool by which we meet the challenges and threats to our lives, such as to our food and water supplies and to our general comfort, security and wellbeing. To meet these challenges swiftly may very well be critical to resolving the issues we face and surviving as individuals (or even as a species). So we don’t want to hold things up unnecessarily. On that count both Irving and myself would probably agree (and I’ll stop speaking for him now – you can find Irving’s insightful blog here).
My real bone of contention is that whilst we are very creative animals, we don’t necessarily respect or adequately consider the consequences of what we do. We may well ask ‘is anyone going to buy this?’ and I bet we’ll ask the ever-popular ‘will we capture the lion’s share of the market and make a killing?’, too. We will probably also ask ‘is it legal?’ and ‘can we patent it?’, but we won’t necessarily ask ‘will this product lead to consequences we don’t understand, or can’t control?’. I don’t blame anyone for answering along the lines that we have to trust the social and legal system to monitor and adapt to these downstream effects, for that is the system we have. When releasing a new product we are asked simply to meet the legislated requirements of any particular market and we tend (as humans do) take advantage of any loopholes. Some companies may take a more ethical or wider social view than others but in principle we innovate within set guidelines and then release. The community itself has evolved social, legal and economic systems that are meant to self-adjust to our innovations. Typically this means that if something goes awry down the line it’s spotted by someone, somewhere, at some time. It’s a downstream effect, and it may be cumulative, and – crucially – may not necessarily be direct. It will almost certainly be reflected in changed human behaviour, and maybe acknowledged also as a ‘hurt’ to an individual.
If the changed behaviour is small or painless enough we’ll just forget about it and go on with our lives. But if we are hurt in some way by the innovation we’ll notice it. If we can identify the source of the pain then we’ll mount a legal case or perhaps lobby for a new law. Subsequently it may enter the wider public debate and sometimes – eventually, in the fullness of time – it may become a new law, guideline or requirement. If the originator was identified then they may be compelled to modify the product or service. Now that’s a great, self-correcting system, surely. After all, that’s what we have been trusting, revising and relying upon for the last 2,000 years at least, so why not just continue as before?
I’m sure you can see already that this largely reactive system (there are exceptions of course, but it’s generally reacting to a ‘hurt’) isn’t going to respond well to lots of small, relatively painless and increasingly speedy innovations. In the time elapsed between innovation and resolution of any hurt (be it physical, emotional or financial pain) there’s an indeterminate number of people out there with a problem of some sort. Or maybe a set of changed behaviours that will not hurt right now but will cause discomfort to future generations. And let’s not forget that this is arguably the greatest period of human change and innovation, ever. I say that with some trepidation, but I’m thinking we have over 6 billion people on the planet now, and even if they aren’t all innovating like crazy, by sheer weight of numbers a heck of a lot of them surely are. And they are increasingly connected in ways that we hadn’t even thought of just 20 years ago. So my contention is that, sure, we have ethics and laws and regulations and governing bodies in place to provide the checks and balances – but what if we just overload those institutions by sheer volume of seemingly innocent yet cumulative change?
Perhaps we already have.
Human beings love to find patterns and to label things. We do it obsessively, compulsively and without thinking about it. It’s an instinct that we have evolved (again without thinking, of course) over perhaps a million years; or if you prefer it has been gifted to us by your God of choice. The bottom line is that it has been helpful to us as a species to identify objects and their properties and to categorise them as we see fit. But what may be useful in some settings, say out in the wild whilst hunting or gathering, may not be so useful when the outcomes are not the continuing supply of nutritious, non-poisonous food for the tribe but simply a set of boxes into which we put ourselves, labels affixed on top.
Labels are pervasive things. When applied to our food supply it’s all good and useful: these fruits and vegetables are safe to eat, and these are more nutritious. These are sweet and give you a lift, these are bitter and may bite, but in a good way. These are hot and spicy, those are not. On the surface it’s a simple yes/no game: can we eat that safely, or will it make us sick? But humans delve deeper and categorise food not only by safety but by taste, abundance, locality, season and usefulness. Some foods may be good together, others may be useful as a medicine. Some may be applied topically to heal. Some may preserve. And so on. The depth of categorisation is seemingly limitless, and in our modern lives extends to caloric value, percentage of fat and the breakdown by constituent vitamins and minerals. Whilst this depth of analysis may go overboard at times and be largely ignored in its detail we feel compelled to offer the information anyway, just in case it’s useful. You may be watching your fat intake, or have an allergy or intolerance to certain foods, for example.
No matter the depth of detail it carries no particular weight or consequence beyond your own personal needs or wants. You take your pick, it’s a choice. The only apparent harm that may come from this degree of information overload may be your confusion in the supermarket aisle. Or so you may think. In fact there is harm lurking even here. There is a bias that inevitably arises when some information is emphasised over other facts. Like a fruit that ripens bright red to stand out and attract “customers” who may act as seed dispersers, so may the goods on the supermarket stores attract or discourage purchase in various ways. Cigarettes are for example often labelled by law to inform and discourage use, and standards are applied to all goods to allow valid comparison by the presentation of useful information in a standard way.
However there is always a “spin” to this information. Low-fat, no-fat, low absolute fat, low percentage fat, added this and that, low salt – you name it. Often it’s what is not stated that is truly pertinent, and the faddish or convenient is emphasised. Thus we find ourselves drawn to foods with poorer nutritional balance but greater ease or speed of preparation, despite the “facts” . And when we recognise the bias and the harm in this twist, what do humans do? We seek to address it with yet more labels. Thus we have fresh food, organic food, fast food, junk food, good food and of course plain old bad food. And again each label gets a definition, a spin, and a popular meaning that may or may not be based on some reality. The harm here is not just the confusion in our minds but the constantly shifting persuasion and emphasis that undermines our innately good intentions.
We are told to discriminate against “bad” food, such that we feel bad if we eat “bad” or “fast” or “fatty” food. We are somehow, by design or by accident, led to believe that certain types of food are to be preferred, even if they don’t appeal to us. And psychologicaly we bear the pain. When we “give in” and eat bad food, we must be bad people. That’s a gross exaggeration, of course. It’s way more subtle – generally. Salt is a case in point. We need salt in our diets but once it is labelled it becomes a target. If it’s sold to us as a good thing then we sprinkle it liberally; however if it’s linked to hypertension (as it is) then the label turns against it and we – or at least some of us – try to rid our diet of this evil. Even to the point where we become salt-deficient.
Or take another example – water. We have become “educated” to distinguish between tap water, fresh water, spring water, mineral water, filtered water and bottled water. Each label has perceptions tied to it, and we even manage to label the good and bad things that come with each “type” of water. The harm here is that perfectly “good” water, the type we need to drink and which runs freely from our taps, is “persecuted” by some people for a quality that may or may not exist, be it taste, additives, impurities or whatever. We may not see this as harmful, rather we may see it as helpful, but each of these labels carries costs, be they hidden or not. It may be the cost of bottling and transporting the mineral or “pure” water, both the pure monetary cost to the consumer and the allied waste of our diminishing resources; or the loss of important minerals from your drinking water due to the removal of “impurities” and subsequent dietary deficiencies and resulting health costs. When you choose to believe a label and begin to select against something else you are doing so in light of (a)perceived difference and (b)perceived advantage. Now these may very well be real advantages – less salt may be good for those with hypertension, and bottled water may be safer than local tap water in some places. But the universality of labelling and the trust that is built into the concept often means that we accept the label at face value, rather than performing our own analysis. This made sense when a poison berry may kill you, but when bottled water is perceived as “better” because its bottled, well Houston we have a problem.
This is the nature of discrimination. And it starts with identifying the features that we can most easily label, and working progressively and compulsively through every option available to us, until all categories and levels are covered. It’s not just food, or stamp collecting for that matter. We do it to ourselves. So what’s the harm in labelling human “generations”? Do I have to spell it out for you?
Well, so it used to be. Cattle or horses were branded to show ownership, as they may stray or be ‘rustled’. Being important assets their human ‘owners’ thought it convenient to burn, tag or paint them in such as a way as an asset control and protection scheme. The famous royal families and city-states of Europe also used such ‘badges’ as emblems around which to rally the troops and to identify themselves in battle. From such stylised brands we got the idea to ‘brand’ products with the maker’s ‘label’. Long, descriptive corporate names like – to give but one example – ‘International Business Machines’ were shortened to simply ‘IBM’; and the IBM ‘brand’ was further wrapped up as the abbreviation I-B-M (not an acronym, I hasten to add) in a stylised globe design. Later it took on the colour blue as well, and then the 8-bar logo you see now. That’s branding at its simplest. You take the essence of something and simplify it, make it easier to recognise, and then use it on your products to show “ownership”. In corporate terms such branding expresses the promise of the company, to deliver products consistent with the company’s standards of quality and value.
Marketing junkies have taken it further, however. They want you to take their brands to your hearts and express your inner being through their brand. So if you buy a branded product you do so not just because it promises a certain quality or value but also because you like the statement it makes: I not only buy this product, I like what it says about me and my taste, my status, my choices in life. BMW is an example, where a long-winded Bavarian Motor company name abbreviated itself to just BMW and sought to sell fairly simple, robust and sporty coupes and sedans by putting an aviation icon on its badgework (the now famous blue propeller badge). It linked what they saw as their heritage as war-time aero-engine makers with what they wanted to do now – sell you a car designed somewhat in the model of an Alfa Romeo sports sedan (itself identified strongly with the coat of arms of the City State of Milano) but in a spare, stripped down Teutonic way. From those beginnings they systematically built the brand to represent increasingly more sophisticated, complex and luxurious tastes, whist retaining the 2 key differentiators: (a) that sporty edge and (b) those technically edgy engines. In time it didn’t matter that some of the cars
in their range offered lower performance or less ‘worked’ engines, as the brand ‘image’ drove sales as much as – or perhaps more than – the actuality.
Which is all very well and good background – and it’s fun analysing exactly what each brand represents – but are we losing the power of branding? To look at the auto industry in particular we see VW selling prestige vehicles – a total rebranding of the ‘people’s car’ if ever we have seen one – and Hyundai – a non-brand 20 years ago, surely – topping the quality stakes. What does it mean for ‘prestige’ brands like Daimler-Benz and BMW when the Japanese and Koreans consistently out-gun them on quality? What does a brand like Mazda – purveyors of well built light cars and quirky sports cars – have to offer when the top and bottom of the range are essentially poles apart? What are people thinking when they buy a Mazda, and how effectively are they stuck to that brand? Or will they switch to any other brand with nary a thought?
Just thought I’d throw that out there. To my mind we are entering a realm of easy-switching, where brands of all types – be they corporate, government, cultural or religious – may come and go on a whim and the “big” brands will become little more than strong niche-players. Maybe. Just a thought.
This has been bumping around my desk for ages. It’s not new, but here it is… the typical phases of any project:
- Search for the guilty
- Punishment of the innocent
- Praise for the non-participants
Perhaps it applies more to projects that have run off the rails?
I don’t care what you believe, really. On one level I do – if it hurts or restrains me in some way I care, and my degree of caring depends upon how much I really believe that you – or whomever is responsible – is wrong. If you are right then I’ll pull my head in. If you have no basis in logic but are drawing upon false conclusions – then I’ll get riled. I also care if you – or anyone, really – is hurting themsleves or others through false beliefs or actions based upon illogical premises. I don’t want to get all post-modern about it but if there is some form of harm in what you say or promote – be it physical or psychic – then you should desist; and you must at least acknowledge that others may have other opinions and are entitled to them. Especially at Christmas time, or at any “holy day”, irrespective of religion or belief.
Consider that my all-encompassing disclaimer for 2006. Who knows what I may think in 2007!
I stumbled over this – it’s a long piece of blogging but an interesting insight into one biologist’s reason for being. Hopefully, irrespective of our faith or belief, we can all feel that sense of wonder at the world and the universe beyond.
Because I can, I will share here some weirder choices from my personal bookshelf. You may not agree with ‘weird’, indeed weird is the wrong word. Nevertheless I use it advisedly in the sense that I will cover subjects beyond literal truth. And I use truth advisedly as mathematics is the only provable truth. Everything else is either awaiting a mathematical proof or is a belief, a theory or an assumption.
Just to explain my thinking: you may believe in what you can see, hear and/or touch, and that’s cool; but it’s not necessarily a literal truth. Even if a thousand people see, hear and/or touch that “thing” it doesn’t make it true. It may be real enough to the people concerned but it’s not an incontrovertible truth. It may be an illusion. It may be a shared thought. It may be a shared assumption. It’s something, but it’s not a literal truth. To be a literal truth requires proof. To my mind we can only be certain of mathematical proofs, as I haven’t seen any other proof that convincingly lives outside the mind or perception of man.
And I could be wrong about maths. Perhaps there is no independent proof? Ahhh, but that’s an undiscovered country from whose bourne no traveller returns….
So to the first installment of my ‘way out but worth it’ booklist, in no particular order:
- Bill Shakespeare’s works in full. An essential lesson in the use of the English language, up there with Fowler’s.
- The Elegant Universe (by Brian Greene. Post-Einstein string theory to get you thinking.)
- Anything by Richard Dawkins or Stephen Jay Gould. As I said, there are mathematical proofs and there are theories. Some theories are more compelling than others.
- The Torah (the Pentateuch, the Book of Moses: a lively read, basis for Judaism and the Old Testment and a fascinating read on any level)
- The Bible (Greek for ‘Books’; The Old and New Testaments: basis for the Christian cults and a brilliant read)
- The Koran (Arabic for ‘Recital’: another excellent piece of writing and the basis for Islam. I have the Dawood translation)
- The History of Magic (by Eliphas Levi: a great, compelling read. Spot the a ha! ‘Harry Potter’ moments and see the footprints of Rowling’s research)
- The Theory of Celestial influence (by Rodney Collin: immensely detailed, it wallows around trying to ‘prove’ a case scientifically but falls magnificently short. Can be heavy, clumsy and painful to read…but still worth it for the determined!).
That’s just for starters. Let me know what you think.