Ravi Mattu — A.C, if I could start first with you. Can you put into context a bit, this idea of ‘individuality’ and the role of individuals within the broader context of society?
A.C. Grayling — You know, through most of history, there were very few ‘individuals.’ Individuality was frowned on, rather, everybody was meant to conform. Everybody was meant to have the same beliefs and step up to the same mark and behave in the same way. Anybody who stood out was in some danger of getting burned at the stake or having their heads chopped off. This certainly happened with formidable wise women, for example, or people who were heretics or people who thought differently from the mass. Actually, it’s an Enlightenment and Post-Enlightenment phenomenon that the individual has been valorized, that it’s become important to be an individual. One aspect of the Romantic movement in the 19th century is the idea of the ‘heroic individual,’ standing out, achieving in art or in thought. In our own time, now, individuality is taken for granted. We try to encourage people to take responsibility for their lives and their choices. Although, with a much more populous world—massively overpopulated in a way—is the risk that the mass becomes engulfing. The bright side might be that the more homogenous the mass, the more salient individuals stand out.
So Alice, let’s fast-forward to the 21st century, ‘the digital age,’ ‘the globalized age’; everyone’s connected in ways we never thought imaginable. What does that mean for the current context in which we operate?
Alice Sherwood — What it means is that, in a sense, it’s a huge opportunity, but it’s also a huge stress. As Professor Grayling was outlining, for most of history, you weren’t supposed to be an individual. For most of history, the structure around you, and your place in the structure, was fixed. There are fantastic old etchings of what was called ‘The Great Chain of Being’ which started with dirt, went through animals, humans, kings, angels at the top and then God. In between that were all the connections which were set in stone, or set fixed, the moment you were born. If you look at the front page of Facebook now, you will see that everyone can be connected across the world to anybody. Possibility is endless. Possibility is open. With that comes a great deal of existential fear, which is that with the fantastic digital age, with all these riches, you become responsible for creating yourself. There’s possibility, but there’s a fear. You can connect to everyone, but to what end? One of the things we have to start thinking about, now that we have so many ways of connecting with people—people to people, people to institutions, people to people they do know, people to people they don’t know—is why are we doing it? To what end or purpose? I think we’re in the second wave of connectivity now.
Possibility is endless. Possibility is open. With that comes a great deal of existential fear, which is that with the fantastic digital age, with all these riches, you become responsible for creating yourself. There’s possibility, but there’s a fear. You can connect to everyone, but to what end?
Before I come to Leo, in terms of ‘to what end,’ what do you think? What do you think are the big questions around that? What should we be connecting to? What are we connected to? Are we on the wrong path to being a greater whole than we are now?
Alice — Well, there are many things. As a company, you’ll obviously want to be connected to your consumers in a useful and authentic way. As an individual, you’ll want to have connections that are meaningful, and that is for the individual to define. In a professional context, I think you’ll start to want to sift through this immense amount of virtual business cards you have and pick the ones that are genuinely useful to you. Those connections are quite important. Politically—if we’re going to get into politics—then there’s a difference in what social media can do, which goes from informing, which Occupy did, but to not as great of an effect as we saw elsewhere, but also mobilizing, as we saw in the Arab Spring. There’s almost a pyramid, if you like. It depends what you want to do with it, but some thought has to come first.
Leo, you’ve been travelling a lot and finding actors who previously could not connect to the world, who weren’t able to access markets, funders, etc. How does that fit into what Alice was saying, if at all, with regards to connectivity, and how it’s changing the way things are going?
Leo — Yes, I just came back yesterday morning from Quelimane in Mozambique. I love what Alice is saying about real connection as opposed to virtual connection. I think we’re at a point of inflection in terms of where technology can take us. What’s the difference between the virtual and the real? For me, it can be summed up by this sweet old story from the German economist, E.F. Schumacher, about when he was a farm labourer working in Britain in the war. Schumacher, as an economist, was likely to be pretty useless on a farm, it’s got to be said, so the only thing he was allowed to do was count the cows. His job every morning was to go and count the cows, and every morning he went and saw that there are 32 cows and reported back to the farm owner that there were 32. One morning he goes to the cows and there’s an old man leaning on the gate. The old man says to him, “The cows, they’re never gonna flourish with you counting them like that.” He comes back a week later and sure enough, one of them is dead. Schumacher then realizes that what he was doing was treating these cows as factors of production. He was not feeling their coat. He was not looking at their tongue. He was not looking at the clarity of their eyes. He wasn’t connecting with them as individuals. This is the society that we are part of, we are all what Alasdair MacIntyre calls ‘dependent beings.’ We all need people, to feel our coats, to put their hands on us, to check our tongues. We need that as individuals. We need that real social interaction to thrive. The question is, can cities in particular be reconfigured away from the disconnection that mass-produced automobile-driven consumer capitalism has created as way of life for us? Can cities be reconfigured to something maybe a little bit more like the polis? Where we do know each other, we live with each other, we feel each other, we know each others needs and we use technology to help produce the stuff that of course gives meaning to us as we produce it, but actually helps people’s lives as well?
A.C., you’ve been a teacher a long time of students of graduate level, undergraduate level, and postdocs of course, and now as the Master of the New College of Humanities; you must have a whole new set of individuals coming to you. Is this a discussion that sounds too much to your students like ‘the grumpy old folks talking about a bygone era,’ or does that nature of connecting the virtual with the real something that resonates with them?
A.C — I learned something very surprising the other day when we were complaining to our students that they weren’t paying attention to the email messages we were sending them. They said, not quite “What’s email?” but “We don’t read email.” They do other things. Email is already part of technological history. It’s absolutely extraordinary how fast things change and the use that people make of these technologies. Really extraordinary, and yet, there is something perennial in human need and the human condition. I find, for example, that in the kinds of subjects that we teach at my college, the humanities, that there is an extremely important element that would be lost if it were done just electronically. That one-to-one, that personal contact, that inflection in the voice, that raising of the eyebrow, it’s really like looking at the cows tongue, isn’t it? You pick up some things, and the phrase these days is that ‘there are some things that can only be caught, it can’t be taught.’ You’ve got to be there in the same room as people. This will make a big difference in how education, but perhaps everything, works in the future if we place too much reliance on technology.
What we have to watch is that we don’t lose what’s good in the old-fashioned way of going for a walk with somebody and having a face-to-face talk on the one hand, while being able to make really good positive use of the fact that we can be connected with everybody, everywhere.
I was interested in what you said and yes, I agree, reconnection on the community basis is a tremendously important thing. We have to think very hard on these vast mega cities, with their freeways and millions of cars running through, everybody separated from everybody else by sheets of metal. But at the same time, one thing which has been very empowering for human beings in the last couple of centuries is the growth of individual space. The fact that there is a margin of privacy around people. That you don’t live in a village where everybody’s curtains are twitching and you’re being watched by everybody all the time, that you have no freedom of movement. This is terribly important because one thing that other kinds of liberations have made possible, moral liberation, for example, is that we’re able to connect with people in many more ways than we used to in the past. Alice was talking there about how fixed-in-concrete human relations were, your place in society was. It was so closed-down how you could connect with others. There was so much convention that governed what people could do and how they could respond to the people around them. I think a much more fluid, more flexible, more open and more plastic social environment is a very good thing. That’s something that has been potentiated by electronic media. What we have to watch is that we don’t lose what’s good in the old-fashioned way of going for a walk with somebody and having a face-to-face talk on the one hand, while being able to make really good positive use of the fact that we can be connected with everybody, everywhere.
Leo, let me come back to you again on this one, on the idea of real vs. virtual, because I wonder if that’s a false dichotomy. In the sense that, I use Twitter a lot which allows me to develop relationships with people I wouldn’t otherwise, which doesn’t preclude me from going to meet with them in person. Isn’t it a tool to enable both the real and the virtual? Like any other means of communicating and connecting, it’s just another tool to do it and it depends how you use it? Are we overplaying the idea that people sit in rooms the whole time and don’t actually talk to real people and go for a walk face-to-face with each other?
Leo — There’s a good line from Kentaro Toyama who says that technology is not the answer. Technology is the amplifier of intent. It just depends what the intent is. Is the intent to be with each other and to help create communities that thrive? Or, is the intent to treat people as factors of production, including digital factors of production where our data is sucked up and used as the latest source of profits? In the end, the issue is about the type of capitalism that we want. We have come from an age of fossil fuel-driven mass capitalism, which Henry Ford initiated and which raised the lives of billions of people and was generally fantastic, but it created a certain number of spinoffs. It disconnected us from nature. It disconnected us from the people around us. It disconnected us from other societies who we treated as factors of production. It disconnected us economically from future generations whose issues we discounted with discount rates. It disconnected us from our motivations, beyond the homo economicus motivations of money. The question is, what will replace that mass production model? This is where technology, with the right intent, could start to become interesting. So Quelimane, and just as interestingly, Barcelona, what they’re looking at is not just connected, but productive cities. In Barcelona, for example, they’ve got this super cool guy who’s the Deputy Mayor, Antoni Vives, and his vision is to create what he calls a “Fab City.” It’s about using micro-production, nanotechnologies, 3D-printing and the ‘smart microgrid’ to get houses and buildings connected together, co-producing renewable power, which then means they’re energy independent. They’re also using this technology to bring back business that was offshored to China, to become garage manufacturers. He’s creating these clusters where these dozen Fab Labs, dotted across Barcelona, are getting people, including the unemployed, including pensioners, to recover their productive skills. To understand what the needs of the local neighbourhood are, which may be around mobility for those who’ve got mobility problems, it may be around energy, you’ve got groups that are producing their own vehicles. These Fab Labs are bringing back manufacturing, creating a city that is actually generating stuff. What’s interesting—if you go back to some of the distinctions that are in Plato, around different types of desire: ‘passive desire’ is the desire for stuff that you need, the basics for your life, and ‘active desire’ is the desire to produce stuff, to make stuff, to be Homo faber—is connecting these two together. Instead of a mass model where none of us are really producing stuff, where the factory produces stuff and we’re all parasites and our active desire to produce is not being satisfied. Where at the same time, there are billions of people whose basic needs, whose passive desire, is not met as well. It’s our active desire that is helping us satisfy the passive desire of the people whom we know and who we’re connected to. That to me is the exciting potential. It’s a post-mass use of technology.
Alice — I think it sounds very exciting. I love the idea of Barcelona Fab Labs. I should check them out, shouldn’t I? Post-mass society? I’m not sure, or I’m not sure yet. I hope we get to a post-mass society. I think the stepping stone is a ‘mixed economy’. Some of what Leo’s talking about, some remnants of Henry Ford. It depends on the country and it depends on the technology. Many of us are very linked in to Twitter and Facebook; if you go to the biggest democracy in the world, [India] I think it’s 1-2% are on Twitter and Facebook. There, everyone has radio. 70% have mobiles. The medium there is voice. Sometimes the medium is air, when you simply meet with someone or take a walk. It doesn’t really matter, but we’ve just had a shake-up of technology and we will need to find the right medium for things we’ve done a certain way before. I think Professor Grayling is absolutely right, there are some things that are very difficult to do electronically and I think parts of education and education in the humanities, that’s very true. I think you might be able to do electronic things, but you can’t do a seminar, which I suppose is the equivalent of cow-stroking your students. Of course, it’s better than cow-stroking because your students can stroke back. Will technology force us down a certain direction? No. But we will have to think hard and mix and match appropriately.
I wanted to return to what Leo said with regards to this idea that we’re in a post-mass society. The difficulty I have with that is that everything that seems massively successful online these days is all about driving the power of the crowd. The power of the open source, the power of the ‘mass’ actually, rather than the individual—whether it’s Wikipedia, Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, etc. What’s curious, is that the ‘suggestions’ you get are always people like you. With Twitter, you’re essentially introduced to other people who think the same things. With LinkedIn, your links are not with people with different approaches or worlds. How does that ‘mass-ness’ tie into the individuality? When technology seems to be sussing us to the power of the crowd, and secondly, how does that impinge on that nature of curiosity? We talk about the need for curiosity as fundamentally human, as an essential part of our being. It is what makes us richer people. Alice, you mentioned Facebook and device-to-device post-mass society. Are we actually heading towards post-mass society? Where is the role of curiosity of the individual in that?
Alice — I think your point about the wisdom of crowds is the right one because the wisdom of crowds is only ‘wisdom’ if the crowds are different. In other words, a hundred identical views is one view. So, the wisdom of crowds carries with it a big warning sign saying “These crowds have to be diverse.” There are two ways of being diverse: you can be diverse by assembling different people, or you can be diversity-minded, which is, curious. So, if you come mentally prepared to think differently and ask questions, you’re asking to be moved out of your comfort zone. The role of curiosity is essential if our new technology is to do anything more than just replicate the mass and the lack of individualism.
Leo, do you think the new tools are encouraging us to be more curious, or impeding us from being more curious? Indeed, let’s be honest here about the people around the world, are they less able to use those tools to expand their universes or control them?
Alice — They’re mostly being used to make us buy more, aren’t they?
Leo — I think there is a real danger that we move away from what you could call the ‘petropolis’ that we’ve had and that you can see in post-Katrina New Orleans, and even post-Sandy New York. The fragile, non-resilient, fossil fuel-driven mass city. Or that we move away from petropolis, to something we call ‘cyburbia,’ which is the ‘smart city,’ blueprinted, top-down, shimmering ecopolis where everything is measured, it’s eco-efficient and it’s where we glide through as this frictionless glimmering orb of consumption.
But not everyone wants to live in Singapore...
Leo — But you’re seeing that stuff in Kenya. Kenya is creating a Konza Technopolis 60 miles from Nairobi. There’s a real question, is Konza Technopolis going to be the place where we’re all living if we’ve got any capital at all? Or are we going to be moving towards another thing that Kenya’s got, which is the iHub, this distributed city where you’ve got Ngong Road and you’ve got tech people who are actually building the applications, like M-Pesa for mobile money transfers, M-KOPA (this issue p.xxx) for solar lights with SIM card chips built into them so that the poor can use them and do insurance transfers. Are we going to use technology to enable us to be more curious about each other? To live with each other so that we can understand each others needs and then deliver on these needs? Or, are we just going to use technology to remove ourselves into the role of, not citizens, but consumers.
I’m not optimistic, I’m not pessimistic, I’m curious.
A.C., Final word to you, are you optimistic? Do you think these tools will lead us in the right direction? Or are we just in a state of flux and we honestly don’t know because the pace has changed?
A.C. — I’m not optimistic, I’m not pessimistic, I’m curious. We live in an age where contradictions and paradoxes are vividly present to us all the time. Maybe think about the rate of change over the last couple of decades technologically, and all these different ways in which we can communicate with one another and get information out there. It’s extraordinary, that the Internet itself, this vast resource of data, an exploding and ever increasing volume of data that is available to us all the time. Of course we know that data isn’t knowledge until data is organized and put into patterns. And we know that knowledge is not the final step, the final step is understanding, making sense of it, being able to interpret and analyze it and know which bits of it are worthwhile and what bits of it to put to use. We also know that 90% of what’s on the Internet is a load of rubbish. It’s the biggest lavatory wall in history and everyone’s scribbled their graffiti on it. It becomes acutely important that we should be able to discriminate good sources of information, good information sites, and know how to evaluate and put it to work properly. That demands of us a whole set of new skills. We have to be able to navigate this universe we live in now. I’m not sure we’ve had time to catch our breaths and know how to do it. It’s all changing so fast. So, we know the good and the bad. The potential and the downside of it is that they coexist at the moment. It’s a bit like the early universe. If you lived in the early universe you wouldn’t have known if it would be matter or antimatter that won the day. It’s still a mystery how it is that matter managed to outweigh the antimatter and give us the universe we’ve got. What’s going to happen with all this stuff? Is it going to be good or is it going to be bad? To go back to the 19th century, I think about the brilliant postal service that we had in England. People wrote 6, 10, 12 letters to each other a day and they were delivered on the instant. There was a kind of email, people were able to communicate, but mind you, it was the people who had the money or the franking for the letters. Now, everybody’s got the frank for the letters, everybody’s got email or Twitter to communicate with other people. The huge downside of it is the anonymous scurrility that goes on in all these media and the way that people can be torn to shreds, their privacy invaded. But on the other hand, the fact that it’s more talk, there’s more communication, there’s more connection between people, has to be a good thing. It’s the fact that we don’t listen to one another or hear what the other people are saying, we don’t know how things are for other people, we’re oblivious to alternative perspectives to our own. Those are the things that are actually more dangerous in the long-term and cause more divisions. It might be that this great storm of communication which has been unleashed on the world might produce something that in the end, I hope anyways, productive and good. Whether it will be like that or not I don’t know, I am just very curious to see if they can get on with this stem cell research in medicine that I can live long enough to see it.
So do we. I think one uniting factor to all of this is that despite the technological revolution, the human has quite a place within that. Thank you very much A.C. Grayling, Leo Johnson and Alice Sherwood.
This is an unedited transcript of a panel discussion recorded and published as Podcast #154 by the ever-amazing Editorial Intelligence network ahead of Names not Numbers 2013, the private ideas festival that analyzes “individuality in a mass age” held every March in Portmeirion, North Wales. For a more complete appreciation for the discussion listen to the audio of the interview and read along.