Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Posts Tagged ‘thinking’

Henry Porter writes a lovely reflection about the importance of being unserious every now and then.

There is no case of seriousness in the adult male that cannot be treated by a fortnight with a magnifying glass, binoculars, fishing line, box of watercolour paints, bird book, or a sleeping bag in which to stay a night under the stars… whatever the crisis.

It’s about stepping out of ourselves and noticing the world around us more. How hard it is for many people to live less in the mind. Porter continues:

When I travel alone, I read a lot because I need to do something on the journeys and to fill the evenings, but long ago I gave up the hope that I would make any impression on the prairies of my ignorance with a fortnight of study in August. The classics that I wished I had read, the biographies that I felt I ought to get under my belt, all remained unmolested in my suitcase. As a result, holidays were tinged with guilt and sense of my own fecklessness.

So, I now take a couple of unserious paperbacks and a lot of equipment – most of the inventory above – and revert to boyhood.

A magnifying glass, for instance, is the cheapest source of entertainment I know, and I am genuinely astonished by the idea that you will find a million cameras in the luggage of those leaving for holiday this week, but not a single magnifying glass. I am rarely without one.

A few years ago – in the build-up to the Iraq invasion – I spent the best part of an afternoon on Snowdon looking at tiny aquatic creatures and plants that lived in a rock pool. I never reached the summit, but I still remember the detail of that little universe today.

The same applies to binoculars, which allow you to scout out a landscape, are useful in mountains and at sea, and add a lot when looking at old buildings and frescoes.

Also, I want to know what birds I come across – the blue rock thrush, golden oriole and eagle owl have been ticked off in my bird book – and I certainly want to sweep the night sky, and see whether the fisherman in the bay is having any luck.

A magnifying glass and binoculars help you live in the moment – oddly in contrast to the camera, which seems to me to have become just another demanding screen in our lives, squaring off and flattening experience and, crucially, putting it at one remove forever.

It is no more complicated than this: the most successful and relaxing holiday is the one that takes you out of your head and allows you to see, hear, taste and smell the immediate wonders of a new environment.

But despite the advocacy, Porter still feels guilty about it all!

At the back of my mind, I worry a little about the speed with which I become so completely un-cerebral, almost incapable of reading, or coherent thought. Still a brief period of mindless pleasure, free of the demands of ideas and events, as well as the view that we should always be on a path of self-improvement, is no bad thing.

We are bound by the laws of prudence and take ourselves far too seriously. Too many inner checks govern our behaviour and stop us seeing the wonders at our feet, and we are overwhelmed by stimuli to a degree that cannot be good for us.

Life is short, and whatever the problems of this year of unbelievably hectic news, it seems worth easing back for a spell and drinking in the sights and smells that will sustain us while grappling with the machine through the winter.

Read Full Post »

Charles Moore writes about the purpose of think-tanks. This is the passage that really struck me:

Very few people are any good at policies. There are people who are good at ideas, and there are people who are good at administration, but you need to translate the ideas into forms that can be implemented.

This is certainly my experience. It’s easy to sit round a table at a meeting, swapping great new ideas about how things should be, but it’s much harder to work out how those ideas can make a real impact on the practical planning that needs to be done. Or the admin crowds out the possibility of new ideas emerging, and as a new project starts, or a new year approaches, we simply copy and paste the various templates we have on file from our previous work because ‘everything seemed to go OK last time…’

I coulnd't find a picture of a think-tank, so here are some classic Manhattan rooftop water tanks instead

Here is the main passage about think-tanks:

Do think-tanks make any difference to anything? I ask because I stepped down this week after six years as chairman of the centre-right think-tank Policy Exchange. In a moving ceremony in the garden of Nick Clegg’s old school (Westminster), David Cameron marked the handing over of the reins from myself to the brilliant and witty Daniel Finkelstein of the Times. He spoke about the importance of the battle of ideas.

He is right. Many of the nicest English people deplore ideology in politics, but the problem is that, if nice people have no ideology, others do not follow their example. Nasty ideology has the field to itself. This is very marked in the sphere of Islamism, in which Policy Exchange does excellent work. One reason that extremists can, almost literally, get away with murder, is that moderates do not have the facts and the contacts with officialdom to counter.

Another value of think-tanks is that very few people are any good at policies. There are people who are good at ideas, and there are people who are good at administration, but you need to translate the ideas into forms that can be implemented. For instance, you encourage the idea of ‘free schools’, but, in order for them not to have perverse effects, you need to give them an incentive to include pupils from poor or bad backgrounds in their number. In this spirit, Policy Exchange invented the ‘pupil premium’.

The knack is to be practical while at the same time being faithful to the original idea. Only think-tanks seem to manage this. They are tiny, but they matter. The few, not the many!

I think I’ll start a think-tank. Great idea! But then I think of the administrative energy required to get one going, and my mind drifts off to another earth-shattering idea…

Read Full Post »

My other highlight from the Royal Wedding was the trees that were brought into the nave of Westminster Abbey. It wasn’t just that they beautified the interior of the Abbey, like an oversized bunch of carefully arranged flowers; it was the magical sense they created that by entering into this building you were actually going out into another completely different world.

I’ve always loved this kind of illusion. It demonstrates how going inside can sometimes take you outside; how fixing your glance on something small can sometimes make your vision much broader. It’s like a metaphor for the power of the imagination itself, which uses something ordinary to transport you somewhere extraordinary. The very act of reading, for example – so still, so stationary, so solitary – is to float up into another world, or fall down into a rabbit-hole of adventure.

The trees in Westminster Abbey made me think of one of my favourite childhood books, Where the Wild Things Are, by Maurice Sendak, where the inner walls of Max’s bedroom are transformed into the treescape of a terrifying jungle. And the wallpaper in David Bowie’s The Man Who Fell to Earth that turned his sitting room into an autumnal forest. And Lucy clambering through the wardrobe as the coats turned into leaves and branches and the darkness opened out into the forest snow of Narnia. And Dr Who stepping into the Tardis.

My favourite example of this kind of imaginative inversion is St Francis of Assisi’s Portiuncula. This is the little medieval chapel that once sat in the forest in the plain below Assisi. But they cut down the trees and built an enormous basilica over the entire chapel. So now you leave the streets, walk into the Church of St Mary of the Angels, and instead of being ‘inside’ you are transported ‘outside’ to the forest glade surrounding the chapel. Every time I have been there I have been struck with child-like wonder.

Read Full Post »

The other theme that came out of the film The Social Network was this: Facebook is not just an inevitable consequence of new technology; it’s a result of someone coming up with a really big and really simple idea that no-one had thought of before.

The technology was already there: the internet, the web, a few algorithms that had been used in other situations before. (What are these ‘algorithms’? They always pop up in stories about geeks taking over the world.) All it took was someone like Mark Zuckerberg to think of something new and wonderful to create with these tools.

As is so often the case, it was the cross-fertilization between two worlds that allowed the hybrid idea to emerge – or at least that’s how it was presented. When you combine the exclusivity and shared intimacy of a college ‘frat’ (a social club), with the real-time communication and computational power of the internet – you get Facebook.

The power of a Really Big Idea. This is why Dragons’ Den is such good TV. It’s not the money; it’s whether an ordinary person can convince a team of savvy investors that they really do have the germ of a decent idea.

Ever since watching the film on Friday evening, I’ve been trying to create a Zuckerberg moment for myself, to come up with that Big Idea that’s going to change the world. It hasn’t happened yet. But you will be the first to hear about it when it comes! (Unless I need to talk to my investors first…)

Read Full Post »

I was on the verge of ending this blog. First, after pouring my heart out in a profound meditation on traffic management the other day, a friend put the following comment on my Facebook page:

You so need to get out more!

(I wouldn’t normally repeat personal comments, but this was already alarmingly public in the first place.)

Second, and much more seriously, I read this article by Todd Gitlin about the effects of using the Internet. Gitlin reviews Nicholas Carr’s The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains. It’s a challenging thesis. It’s not just that the Internet dumbs information down (it’s easy to respond to this by pointing to the profusion of intelligent content on the net). It’s that the way we read and process ideas on the Internet is actually making us less able to think and reflect in any meaningful way.

So no matter how profound the ideas in this blog, it is just contributing to the cultural malaise of our times. That’s the suggestion. Do you agree? I don’t mean “is this blog in particular contributing to the malaise?” I mean “would we be better just switching off the computers and going to the library?”

It’s worth quoting a few paragraphs.

Carr grabs our lapels to insist that the so-called information society might be more accurately described as the interruption society. It pulverizes attention, the scarcest of all resources, and stuffs the mind with trivia. Our texting, IM-ing, iPhoning, Twittering, computer-assisted selves—or self-assisted computing networks—are so easily diverted that our very mode of everyday thought has changed, changed utterly, degraded from “calm, focused, undistracted” linearity into “a new kind of mind that wants and needs to take in and dole out information in short, disjointed, often overlapping bursts.” Google searches, too, break our concentration, which only makes matters worse: “Google is, quite literally, in the business of distraction,” Carr writes. Because we are always skimming one surface after another, memories do not consolidate and endure. So we live in a knife-edge present. We turn into what the playwright Richard Foreman called “pancake people—spread wide and thin as we connect with that vast network of information accessed by the mere touch of a button.” We collect bits and the bits collect us.

Worse still, no one has dragooned us into the shallows. Nobody is forcing us from pixel to post. We are our own victimizers, because we crave interruption. When we grow up texting every few minutes, legato—which now feels like an eternity—yields to staccato. Taking a break during the writing of this review, while watching a recent Lakers-Suns playoff game, I observed a couple of women in four-figure courtside seats behind the Suns’ bench working their thumbs on BlackBerries as the camera panned over them. Maybe they were live-blogging, or day-trading on Asian markets.

With so many interruptions so easy to arrange, Carr argues, it is no wonder that we cannot concentrate, or think straight, or even think in continuous arabesques. Where deep reading encourages intricacies of thought, the electronic torrent in which we live—or which lives in us—turns us into Twittering nerve nodes. The more links in our reading, the less we retain. We are what we click on.  We no longer read, we skim. With Wikipedia a click away, are we more knowledgeable? Or even more efficient? Multi-tasking, Carr quotes the neuroscientist David Meyer as saying, “is learning to be skillful at a superficial level.”

After all, the brain that has been re-wired online governs us offline, too. The more we multi-task, the more distractible we are. But aren’t we more sophisticated at “visual-spatial skills”? Sure, but at the price of “a weakening of our capacities for the kind of ‘deep processing’ that underpins ‘mindful knowledge acquisition, inductive analysis, critical thinking, imagination, and reflection,” writes Carr, quoting a Science article that reviewed more than fifty relevant studies.

And so we devolve inexorably into “lab rats constantly pressing levers to get tiny pellets of social or intellectual nourishment.” These sweet tidbits are rotting our mental teeth. This is so, Carr maintains, because “the Net delivers precisely the kind of sensory and cognitive stimuli—repetitive, intensive, interactive, addictive—that have been shown to result in strong and rapid alterations in brain circuits and functions,” and that consequently, “with the exception of alphabets and number systems, the Net may well be the single most powerful mind-altering technology that has ever come into general use.”

Read Full Post »

%d bloggers like this: