Alan Kirker

Entanglement

April 29th, 2021 by

“Quantum entanglement is a physical phenomenon that occurs when a group of particles is generated, interact, or share spatial proximity in a way such that the quantum state of each particle of the group cannot be described independently of the state of the others, including when the particles are separated by a large distance” (Wikipedia, retrieved April 2021).

From our personal and social interactions, do we capture some of each other’s essence to carry with us, even after we separate? Do we not each embody some composite aspect of our collective relationships; our parents, siblings, partners, relatives, friends; all those who take up residence in our heads, so to speak, whether invited or not? Can looking at human consciousness from such a wider social perspective yield insights into the nature of individual volition and intention? Do such interactions inform the chemical and electrical activity going on in our bodies and minds and thus help shape our perceptions? And, what enables entanglement under such social circumstances and what are its implications in the context of larger groups?

Nationalist trends including issues around immigration, country borders, and dividing walls, amount to a tendency towards segregation and division between people which runs counter to human nature. From the Birmingham, Alabama, County Jail, Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. asked in a letter: “Is not segregation an existential expression of man’s tragic separation, his awful estrangement, his terrible sinfulness?” (1963 p. 457). In social contexts more broadly, cooperation, openness, trust, and unity are what is rather needed, as philosopher William James wrote:

“A social organism of any sort whatsoever, large or small, is what it is because each member proceeds to his own duty with a trust that the other members will simultaneously do theirs. Wherever a desired result is achieved by the cooperation of many independent persons, its existence as a fact is a pure consequence of the precursive faith in one another of those immediately concerned” (1897 p. 388).

Such cooperation is similarly called for by historian and author Johan Norberg in his book Open: The Story of Human Progress (2020): “When open minds, open exchange and open doors come together for a sustained period of time, the result is discoveries and achievements that facilitate new discoveries and achievements” (p. 167). He states further our perspective must look beyond notions of ‘us’ and ‘them’ :

“We are not necessarily doomed to tribal warfare. The coalitions we pay attention to can and do change all the time. This is why recent immigrants are almost always seen as strange and threatening, whereas previous immigrants now seem like model citizens. They are no longer ‘them’, they are now ‘us’. The problem, of course, is that this new identity is often created and strengthened by contrasting ourselves with new outsiders” (2020, p. 235).

A Sheaf of Golden Rules from Twelve Religions | Confucianism:
“Is there one word which may serve as a rule of practice for all of one’s life?” The Master said, “Is Reciprocity such a word? What you do not want done to yourself, do not to others” (1946, p. 310).


Hoople, R. E., Piper, R. F., & Tolley, W. P. (1946), A Sheaf of Golden Rules from Twelve Religions, in Preface to Philosophy: Book of Readings (pp. 309-310). New York, United States: The Macmillan Company (1952 ed.)

James, W. (1896), The Will to Believe in Essays in Popular Philosophy [HTML document]. New York, United States: Longmans, Green and Co.

King, Jr., M. L. (1963), Letter From the Birmingham County Jail: Why We Can’t Wait in Philosophy: Paradox and Discovery Third Edition (pp. 456-461). New York, United States: McGraw-Hill (1990).

Norberg, J. (2020) Open: The Story of Human Progress. London, United Kingdom: Atlantic Books.

Unity 1

February 24th, 2021 by

While studying primates as they conducted a dramatic, ritualistic splashing at one particular eighty-foot high waterfall, noted primatologist Jane Goodall observed and translated their awe: “What is this strange substance which is always coming and always going and always here?” As an ethnographer in this context she then adds: “You can’t help feeling that if they had a language like ours, they could discuss whatever feeling it was that led them to these dramatic displays, which would turn into some kind of animistic religion” (2010, p. 294).

In an essay titled “The Unity of Religions”, Hindu mystic and saint Ramakrishna, when replying to the question of why, if there is only one God, does this God appear differently to each religion, answers:

“As one can ascend to the top of a house by means of a ladder or a bamboo staircase or a rope, so diverse are the ways and means to approach God, and every religion in the world shows one of these ways. Different creeds are but different paths to reach the Almighty. Various are the ways that lead to the house of the Lord. Every religion is but one of the paths that lead to God. A truly religious man should think that other religions also are paths leading to truth” (1903, p. 12).

Theoretical biologist Stuart Kauffman argues that we need a shared space which can lead us to coalesce around notions of the sacred, a global ethic “beyond just the love of family, a sense of fairness, and a belief in democracy and free markets” (2010, p. 279). He asks whether we can find such transcendence through letting go of traditional concepts of a judgmental, omnipotent notion of “God” and instead find reverence in the ceaseless creativity of an unfolding nature. Author and lay theologian C. S. Lewis further wonders whether such quest for unity in the sacred is itself ultimately a human need:

“I know that the hankering for a universe which is all of a piece, and in which everything is the same sort of thing as everything else – a continuity, a seamless web, a democratic universe – is very deep seated in the modern heart; in mine, no less than in yours. But have we any real assurance that things are like that? Are we mistaking for an intrinsic probability what is really a human desire for tidiness and unity?” (1947, p. 35).

Does this appeal of “tidiness and unity” perhaps point to some more general desire for spiritual or philosophical fulfillment, which itself may have deeper cosmological, biological, or even quantum-mechanical roots? Is it worthwhile to consider whether such speculations can inform the foundations of our religious and philosophical ideals, and vice versa?

A Sheaf of Golden Rules from Twelve Religions | Buddhism:
“In five ways should a clansman minister to his friends and familiars: by generosity, courtesy, and benevolence, by treating them as he treats himself, and by being as good as his word” (1946, p. 309).


Goodall, J. (2010) in Atoms and Eden: Conversations on Religion and Science (pp. 285-299). New York, United States: Oxford University Press

Hoople, R. E., Piper, R. F., & Tolley, W. P. (1946), A Sheaf of Golden Rules from Twelve Religions, in Preface to Philosophy: Book of Readings (pp. 309-310). New York, United States: The Macmillan Company (1952 ed.)

Kauffman, S. (2010) in Atoms and Eden: Conversations on Religion and Science (pp. 273-283). New York, United States: Oxford University Press

Lewis, C. S. (1947) Miracles. London, United Kingdom: Geoffrey Bles

Ramakrishna (1903) The Unity of Religions, from Swami Abhedananda; The Sayings of Sri Ramakrishna (pp. 10–12). New York, United States: Vedanta Society

Ideal

February 23rd, 2021 by

Studying science, art, and religion through the respective lenses of logic, aesthetics, and ethics, helps us to develop corresponding concepts of their ideals of truth, beauty, and goodness; collectively referred to as the Transcendentals. Philosopher and educational reformer John Dewey states the power of such ideals depends upon some prior complete embodiment of them, that there already exists a divine realm “where criminals are treated humanely, where all facts and truths have been discovered, and all beauty is displayed in actualized form” (1936, p. 42).

Do current concepts of our ideals, whatever or wherever they are, provide an adequate roadmap to enable movement towards a more peaceful, equitable, and just society? Do they need refinement or update, and for us to reorient ourselves accordingly? Key to marshalling society to be in alignment with any higher ideal, according to philosopher William James, is a redirection of martial, or war-like, virtues towards constructive civic enterprises: “It is only a question of blowing on the spark until the whole population gets incandescent, and on the ruins of the old morals of military honor, a stable system of morals of civic honor builds itself up” (1911, p.288). What forms today’s martial virtues, and their corresponding antidotes of constructive civic enterprises?

Orienting towards a civilizational ideal is the thrust beneath Isaac Asimov’s science fiction novel series, Foundation. Generations of “psychohistorians” and “encyclopedists” use the tools of psychology coupled with projecting historical patterns in order to predict and guide the course of humanity many millennia into the future of an already galaxy-sprawling human civilization. The group must create a new order; “the Foundation, dedicated to art, science, and technology as the beginnings of a new empire”.

In an essay titled “Creation; The Goal in Life”, French philosopher Henri Bergson also speaks of approaching ideals through acts of creation, and looking for their key indicator, joy, which “always announces that life has succeeded, gained ground, conquered. All great joy has a triumphant note”. Taking this indication into account and following the facts, according to Bergson, leads one to find that wherever there is joy, there is creation, and moreover, the richer the joy, the richer the creation:

“A mother beholding the joy of their child, the merchant developing his business, the manufacturer seeing his industry prosper each provide examples. Riches and social position bring much, yes, but it is pleasure rather than joy that is their gift. True joy, here, is exemplified in the starting of an enterprise which grows, of having brought something to life” (1920, p. 29).

Along such a pragmatic thread, Dewey states that the word “God” means the “ideal ends” at a particular space-time juncture “where one’s authority over their volition and emotion, and the values to which they are devoted, become unified”.


Asimov, I. (1951) Foundation. New York, United States: Avon Books (1966 ed.)

Bergson, H. (1920) Creation; The Goal in Life, in Mind-Energy, translated by H. Wildon Carr (pp. 29-35). New York, United States: Henry Holt and Co.

Dewey, J. (1936) Humanism: A Modern Religion, in A Common Faith (pp. 42-57). New Haven, United States: Yale University Press

James, W. (1911) The Moral Equivalent of War, in Memories and Studies (pp. 286-295) [HTML document]. New York, United States: Longmans, Green and Co.

Truth

January 29th, 2021 by

Truth is the property of being in accord with fact or reality (Wikipedia, retrieved January 2021). It can often be difficult to separate truth from fiction, for a variety of reasons. How might we approach such a challenge? In one of a series of discourses titled The Idea of a University delivered to the Catholics of Dublin” in 1852, English theologian and priest Cardinal John Henry Newman recognized an appropriate tool in the form of a healthy intellect,

which has been disciplined to the perfection of its powers, which knows, and thinks while it knows, which has learned to leaven the dense mass of facts and events with the elastic force of reason, such an intellect cannot be partial, cannot be exclusive, cannot be impetuous, cannot be at a loss, cannot but be patient, collected, and majestically calm, because it discerns the end in every beginning, the origin in every end, the law in every interruption, the limit in each delay; because it ever knows where it stands, and how its path lies from one point to another.”

while

Those, on the other hand, who have no object or principle whatever to hold by, lose their way, every step they take. They are thrown out, and do not know what to think or say, at every fresh juncture; they have no view of persons, occurrences, or facts, which come suddenly upon them, and they hang upon the opinion of others, for want of internal resources” (1852, p. 165).

Does our current socio-technological landscape tend to favour this latter demographic? Are recent chaotic effects indicative of the nature of a new evolutionary trajectory brought on by our technological extensions? If so, how might we proceed? Should we all not want to be stakeholders in this, our own evolution, if that is what it is, rather than completely hand it off to those who have no interest but in our wallets, in keeping us glued to our screens, or monitored in some Orwellian nightmare come to life? As Ron Deibert wonders in his comprehensive, revealing book Reset (2020): “What harbinger is it for the future when one of the principal means we have to communicate with each other is so heavily distorted in ways that propel confusion and chaos?” (2020, p. 89).

In the public sphere, complementary to any notion of truth are the issue of freedom of speech and the important question of how to approach it in our new and ever-evolving media ecosystems. How might action be taken, or regulation shaped, so we can still reap tech’s abundant benefits, and move towards a more sustainable ideal? Moreover, can we reach a point so as to be assured, as American newspaper editor William Allen White asserted in 1924, that so long as there is freedom, folly will die on its own:

You tell me that law is above freedom of utterance. And I reply you can have no wise laws nor free enforcement of wise laws unless there is free expression of the wisdom of the people – and, alas, their folly with it. But if there is freedom, folly will die of its own poison, and wisdom will survive” (1924, p. 349).

A Sheaf of Golden Rules from Twelve Religions | Baháʼí Faith:
“If thou lookest toward justice, choose thou for others what thou choosest for thyself. Blessed is he who prefers his brother before himself” (1946, p. 310).


Deibert, R. J. (2020) Reset: Reclaiming the Internet for Civil Society. Toronto, Canada: House of Anansi Press

Hoople, R. E., Piper, R. F., & Tolley, W. P. (1946) A Sheaf of Golden Rules from Twelve Religions, in Preface to Philosophy: Book of Readings (pp. 309-310). New York, United States: The Macmillan Company (1952 ed.)

Newman, J. H. (1852) The Delights of Knowledge, in The Idea of a University, Discourse 6, Section 6, (pp. 164–166) [PDF document]. New York, United States: Longmans, Green and Co. (1902 ed.)

White, W. A. (1924) The Importance of Free Speech, in The Editor and His People: Editorials by William Allen White, selected by Helen Ogden Mahim (pp. 348-349). New York, United States: The Macmillan Company

Purpose

January 28th, 2021 by

Author and Roman Catholic theologian John Haught states that science, as a method, does not ask questions of purpose. However, when one assesses the overall gains of scientific discovery from a theological perspective, this growing part of our world does suggest some purpose, some intention, and moreover one that needs to be integrated with modern religious worldviews. Importantly, Haught asks, does the cumulative impact of such discovery not reveal some deeper agency, some movement driving the whole initiative of nature forward, in anything but purposeless fashion? Nature’s purpose, according to Haught, “seems to be, from the very beginning, the intensification of consciousness” (2010, p. 92).

Applying Haught’s hypothesis to one’s own experience of nature leads us to generally agree. Our question now becomes, where to next? Are there deeper, perhaps invisible physiological changes already taking place within us as we continue to evolve? Should we expect such developments, or are they by traditional views of natural selection the sort that transpire over many millennia? As Haught alludes to, are philosopher Marshall McLuhan’s technological extensions – our gadgets and software – this evidence itself; are these very rapidly evolving appendages indicative of such a transformation, which by all accounts is well underway?

Should such potential evolution not pay special attention to our fundamental contingent, interdependent selves, and echo what already appears to be manifesting as the wholeness of nature and the universe? After all, it’s particles to molecules, molecules to cells, cells to organisms, organisms to vertebrates with a complex nervous system, all the way up the ladder; an evolution of consciousness in all its wonder that attracted physicist Albert Einstein:

It is enough for me to contemplate the mystery of conscious life perpetuating itself through all eternity, to reflect upon the marvelous structure of the universe which we can dimly perceive, and to try humbly to comprehend even an infinitesimal part of the intelligence manifested in nature” (1931, p. 6).

Jesuit paleontologist Pierre Teilhard de Chardin described this unfolding; life, nature, the universe, as a movement; a symphony of perpetually becoming more, revealing correspondingly more complexity. Twentieth century author Harold H. Titus sees such a purposeful growth of human consciousness through learning as an “unceasing search for truth, which is the quest for coherence, for the connectedness of the universe, for unity and for that which can be continually lived” (1936, p. 439).


Einstein, A. (1931) Our Debt to Other Men; The Lure of the Mysterious, in Living Philosophies (pp. 3-7) [PDF document]. New York, United States: Simon and Schuster

Haught, J. (2010) in Atoms and Eden: Conversations on Religion and Science (pp. 83-98). New York, United States: Oxford University Press

Titus, H. H. (1936) Some Principles for Living, in Ethics for Today (pp. 431-440). New York, United States: American Book Company

Meaning

December 30th, 2020 by

Meaning can refer to the representing of a concept, such as through language, and it can refer to the broader philosophical and psychological questions surrounding the existential nature of what it is to be human. Holocaust survivor, psychologist and philosopher Viktor Frankl, whose book “Man’s Search for Meaning” (1946), saw that “the search for a meaning in life is identified as the primary motivational force in human beings” (Wikipedia, retrieved December 2020, after Frankl, 1946).

The ending of the Second World War ushered in a new era. The meaning of human civilization itself had a poignancy as massive population and economic growth stood in sharp juxtaposition to the sudden new ominous potential of “mutual assured destruction” brought about by the atomic bomb and the start of the Cold War. In 1947 my father attended the World Council of Churches youth conference in Olso, Norway as a Canadian delegate. As part of this trip he traveled to the city of Bergen and, where standing on the threshold shore, described a similar juxtaposition: Around and across the water lay a splendid mountain vista rising up from the placid waters in display of the utter beauty of creation in nature, while directly behind him stood in sharp contrast the shattered and bombed-out remnants of post-war Bergen, eerily symbolic of humanity’s most destructive potential. One of his books titled “The Shaking of the Foundations” (1948), a collection of sermons by philosopher and theologian Paul Tillich published around that time, has passages which continue to be meaningful:

“At the beginning of our period we decided for freedom. It was a right decision; it created something new and great in history. But in that decision we excluded the security, social and spiritual, without which man cannot live and grow. And now, in the old age of our period, the quest to sacrifice freedom for security splits every nation and the whole world with really daemonic power. We have decided for means to control nature and society. We have created them, and we have brought about something new and great in the history of all mankind. But we have excluded ends. We have never been ready to answer the question, “For what?”

And now, when we approach old age, the means claim to be the ends; our tools have become our masters, and the most powerful of them have become a threat to our very existence. We have decided for reason against outgrown traditions and honored superstitions. That was a great and courageous decision, and gave a new dignity to man. But we have, in that decision, excluded the soul, the ground and power of life. We have cut off our mind from our soul, and have suppressed and misrepresented the soul within us, in other men, and in nature” (1948, p. 179-180).

This past year, despite its challenges, has provided a useful opportunity to continue and deepen my own quest for meaning, and I am looking forward to carrying it on into 2021. To end 2020 on a positive note, I will share another quote from one of my father’s books, titled “The Clown and the Crocodile” (1970), by a friend and colleague of his named Joseph C. McLelland:

“Because of life’s contradictions; because man experiences both darkness and light; because the contest is a dance and the dance a glory… therefore celebration is always in order. The truly human life is an act of celebration” (1970, p. 152).


Frankl, V. (1946) Man’s Search for Meaning. Boston, United States: Beacon Press (2014 ed.)

McLelland, J. C. (1970) The Clown and the Crocodile. Richmond, United States: John Knox Press

Tillich, P. (1948) The Shaking of the Foundations. New York, United States: Charles Scribner’s Sons

Value

December 9th, 2020 by

Despite backwards and otherwise misinformed views on eugenics and corporal punishment, nineteenth century author and Congregationalist pastor Newell Dwight Hillis acknowledged the very human fears of the industrial revolution in his 1896 book “A Man’s Value to Society“:

“Recently the test exhibition of a machine was successful, and those present gave the inventor heartiest congratulations. But one man was present whose face was drawn with pain, and whose eyes were wet with tears. Explaining his emotion to a questioner he said, “One hour ago I entered this room a skilled workman; this machine sends me out the door a common laborer. For years I have been earning five dollars a day as an expert machinist. By economy I hoped to educate my children to a higher sphere, but now my every hope is ruined.” (1896, p. 64).

As we enter the age of Artificial intelligence (AI), do the skilled nineteenth-century workman’s fearful words find resonance once again? Or, such as back then, are there other factors not presently being considered?

Economist and author Daniel Susskind states in his book “A World Without Work” (2020), that the rapid rate at which AI and automation supplant occupations over the coming years could eventually outstrip the amount of work left available for people to do, potentially leaving many unemployed.

Considering a Universal Basic Income (UBI), Susskind argues that such an approach could still leave people in an existential vacuum and exposed to other risks. One proposed solution is a Conditional Basic Income (CBI), which could provide a guaranteed level of economic security and see people compensated based upon things they enjoy doing, or that are nonetheless essential. These might encompass creative pursuits, education, recreation, providing care-giving services to family members, neighbours, or contributing in some way to community and society.

Another approach Susskind explores is a sharing of state capital which could see people each having their own stock of it, as traditional capital, like an endowment (2020, p. 189).

What other innovative approaches could similarly aim to help narrow economic divisions in society and how might they be realized? Can “Big Tech” play a role? Based on current evidence, Susskind suggests perhaps not, as “software engineers, after all, are not hired for the clarity and sophistication of their ethical reasoning” (2020, p. 210). Further along this idea of trust is the question of should we not also be wary of leaving it up to the “Big State” to look after, given the example of China’s new surveillance-driven “social credit system” where citizens are scored and ranked based on everyday conduct (2020, p. 211). Moreover, does looking at potentially new social landscapes from a purely economic angle not limit our perspective overall? As Susskind writes,

“We have tended to turn to economists, the engineers of contemporary life, to tell us how to relentlessly grow the pie. In a world with less work we will need to revisit the fundamental ends once again. The problem is not simply how to live, but how to live well. We will be forced to consider what it really means to live a meaningful life” (2020, p. 236).


Dwight Hillis, N. (1896) A Man’s Value to Society: Studies in Self-Culture and Character [HTML document]. New York, United States: Fleming H. Revell Company

Susskind, D. (2020) A World Without Work: Technology, Automation, and How We Should Respond. New York, United States: Metropolitan Books

Stakeholder

November 30th, 2020 by

The definition of a stakeholder in the corporate sense is “a member of groups without whose support the organization would cease to exist” (Wikipedia, retrieved November 2020, after Freeman, 1980). In this realm, stakeholders can include owners, managers, employees, trade unions, customers, shareholders, supply chains, and the communities related to or surrounding such structures, among others. If we extend such a perspective across society, it sees individuals, regardless of specific affiliation, as having a vested interest and the agency to act in many different aspects of their day-to-day lives. Communities, unions, school districts, religious and volunteer organizations, sports and athletic clubs, local and national politics, and the many other networks radiating out from each of these provide examples of different pools of stakeholders.

Does the concept of “citizen” in the political sense adequately embody our collective societal roles? Does something about the term “stakeholder” imply a responsibility, reciprocity, or an exchange of some sort of value? Stakeholder Theory looks at this notion from a wider, ethical perspective: “It addresses morals and values in managing an organization, such as those related to corporate social responsibility, market economy, and social contract theory” (Wikipedia, retrieved November 2020). Stakeholder engagement “is the process by which an organization involves people who may be affected by the decisions it makes or can influence the implementation of its decisions. They may support or oppose the decisions, be influential in the organization or within the community in which it operates, hold relevant official positions or be affected in the long term” (Wikipedia, retrieved November 2020).

Could a stakeholder perspective be adopted by different facets of society? How might people become engaged in the larger social spheres, beyond the ballot or suggestion box? In the business world, academic Michael Porter proposes moving beyond social responsibility to the idea of Creating Shared Value whose central premise “is that the competitiveness of a company and the health of the communities around it are mutually dependent (Wikipedia, retrieved November 2020).

“The principle of shared value creation cuts across the traditional divide between the responsibilities of business and those of government or civil society. From society’s perspective, it does not matter what types of organizations created the value. What matters is that benefits are delivered by those organizations – or combinations of organizations – that are best positioned to achieve the most impact for the least cost”, and thus create “a positive cycle of company and community prosperity” (2011, p. 12).

Shared value creation underscores the relevance of the third, social, balancing leg of sustainability practice. Given the increasing role that technology plays in our lives, has surveillance capitalism sidestepped all opportunity for social responsibility and shared value creation in treating us not as stakeholders in any grander social vision, but rather as taunted data points in some massive marketing miasma? Professor and Director of the Citizen Lab Ronald Deibert makes the case for a reset of the internet and a rethink from first principles (2020).

Does the notion of value more generally warrant scrutiny in light of the apparent increasingly and often unpredictably shifting nature of our present day socioeconomic landscape? Do the things we have come to attach value to, for instance social status and material wealth, really matter? Do they provide genuine happiness and peace? Moreover, how can we articulate and reconcile our values as a society, and as member nations of a planet, so that we can best face the challenges, both exciting and daunting, that undoubtedly lie ahead?


Ayed, N., & Deibert, R. (2020, November 16). Reset. Ideas @ CBC Radio [mp3 audio interview] retrieved from https://www.cbc.ca/radio/ideas/what-happened-to-the-promise-of-the-internet-it-s-time-for-a-reset-says-ron-deibert-1.5801268

Kramer, M., & Porter, M. (2011) Creating Shared Value. Harvard Business Review, January-February (pp. 1-18)

Sustainability

November 24th, 2020 by

The broadest definition of sustainability is “the ability to exist constantly”. Nowadays, despite its buzzword-popularity, “refers generally to the capacity for the biosphere and human civilization to co-exist” (Wikipedia, retrieved November 2020). One important notion regarding sustainability is that of the “commons” in the environmental sense; the air, the water, the lands that we all share or have access to and depend on, but by their nature as intrinsically essential often exist apart from our spatial and temporal boundaries, and tragically apart from our priorities.

In nineteen sixty-two biologist Rachel Carson’s landmark book “Silent Spring“, whose title alludes to a nature without the sounds of birds or insects, threw a spotlight on the effect of chemical pesticides upon the landscape and effectively launched the modern environmental movement. Carson ascribed the problem underlying our perilous course as a desire to “control nature”… “a phrase conceived in arrogance, born of the Neanderthal age of biology and philosophy, when it was supposed that nature exists for the convenience of man” (1962, p. 297).

Formalizing this movement began several decades later with the publishing of Our Common Future: The United Nations Report of the World Commission on Environment and Development, or Bruntland Report, in 1987. This document established a framework which defined sustainable development as that which“meets present needs without compromising the ability of future generations to meet theirs” and thus sought to move environmental practices beyond the regulatory compliance of the seventies, the anticipatory cost-avoiding measures undertaken in the eighties, through proactive measures such as eco-efficiency and strategic environmental management in the nineties, to what is regarded as the mainstreaming and integration of sustainability practices overall into the new millennium. The report presents “not a detailed blueprint for action, but instead a pathway by which the peoples of the world may enlarge their spheres of cooperation” (1987, p. 11).

Despite strong public awareness about the topic of sustainability, some sectors within modern society have been accused of greenwashing, “a form of marketing spin in which green PR (green values) and green marketing are deceptively used to persuade the public that an organization’s products, aims and policies are environmentally friendly” (Wikipedia, retrieved November 2020). Increasingly, goals, frameworks, and standards are required to help shepherd sustainable development forward, insofar as these sorts of instruments are supported by policymakers. The key lever currently needed to effect meaningful environmental change, according to most scientists and economists, is for nations to broadly implement a carbon tax.  Thanks for this reminder, Elon 🙂  [JRE #1609]

Critical too in this broader context is the challenge of assigning a value to both finite and renewable resources which form the planet’s natural capital and that often also provide essential ecosystem services. Can technology and innovation play a role in the vast accounting necessary to adequately undertake such initiatives? Moreover, do large, governing bodies such as the United Nations not now have a more crucial role than ever in uniting the peoples of the world in order to face such global challenges?

Top-down regulation and guidelines must also serve to augment and incentivize necessary bottom-up approaches to a circular economy. Critical to sustainable developments themselves is an understanding the wider, often complex spheres into which they fit. For example, its possible that many millions of solar panels will reach the end of their lifespans over the coming years. Could industrial ecology and material efficiency strategies such as the industrial symbiosis of their manufacture and the “loop-closing” reverse logistics of their recycling, be factored in to their design, development, and deployment? Does manufacturing sufficiently capitalize on these and other progressive environmental practices? As echoed in Carson’s commentary about modern society, we live in an “era of specialists, each of whom sees his own problem and is unaware of or intolerant of the larger frame into which it fits” (1962, p. 13).

Sustainable development as a practice applied to various broad sectors of society might be viewed as three legs supporting a table. An economic one relates to issues of growth, sufficiency, and stability; an environmental one includes issues of resilience, resource use, and pollution; and a third, social one, sees people as stakeholders; clients, employees, members of the local community, broader markets, supply chains, populations, to name but a few, and all of their related interactions. How must these three legs balance so society can truly progress sustainably?


Carson, R. (1962) Silent Spring. New York, United States: Mariner Books – Houghton Mifflin (2002 ed).

Green Growth Knowledge Platform (N.D.) United Nations, Green Growth Knowledge Partnership [website]. Retrieved April 2021

One Planet Network (N.D.) United Nations, One Planet Network [website]. Retrieved April 2021

Our Common Future: Report of the World Commission on Environment and Development (1987) [PDF document]. Retrieved from the United Nations website

United Nations Environment Programme (N.D.) United Nations [website]. Retrieved April 2021

Efficiency

October 30th, 2020 by

One definition of efficiency is that it “comprises the capability of a specific application of effort to produce a specific outcome with a minimum amount or quantity of waste, expense, or unnecessary effort”, while productivity describes “various measures of the efficiency of production” and is usually expressed as inputs in relation to outputs (Wikipedia, retrieved October 2020).

Does efficiency, when excessive, pose challenges in terms of larger, more complex systems? Business academic Roger Martin (2020) observes that since the mid nineteen-seventies when things reached an inflection point, it has exhibited negative effects. The “excessive, obsessive pursuit of economic efficiency” has broadly placed undue stress on economic systems in the interest of maximizing short term benefits such as higher profits, stock valuation, or lower wage costs, these being only proxies for actual value or efficiency, over the longer term viability of the operation and its marketspace. Optimizing systems solely for efficiency and productivity exposes them to a wider array of risk, not the least of which is the often unforeseen impact of negative externalities, evident in many complex contexts.

In economics, an externality is “the cost or benefit that affects a third party who did not choose to incur that cost or benefit” (Wikipedia, retrieved October 2020). Unless a manufacturer is appropriately taxed or discouraged, the air pollution its operation creates places the resulting health and clean up costs on the whole of society. Similarly, when certain technologies wind up affecting us on a broad scale, such impacts can often be seen as sitting external to the core interactions and the intention of the technology itself. Is there something in the design, in the efficacy or efficiency of these tools which lends them to creating such unforeseeable results? Even if we elect not to participate in them, do we not all bear the effects of their resulting externalities, whether positive or negative?

Modern supply chains whose just-in-time warehousing and logistics can similarly create risk exposure when sudden increased demand reveals their fragility. No stockpiles or idle inventories make for a very efficient, cost-effective system so long as everything is operating nominally. According to Martin (2020), increasingly optimized supply chains and logistics which have grown substantially since the mid seventies, can lack what is regarded in economic terms as the opposite attribute, the resilience necessary to respond appropriately and effectively when disruption occurs, often external and unforeseen, such as the shortages of personal protective equipment at the start of the Covid pandemic. Does relegating logistical tasks to just several large monopolistic firms also place these systems at risk?

Martin implies that systems which optimize for efficiency and have a short term profit-oriented outlook can be prone to increased risk and lack the foundational characteristics enabling sustainability.


Martin, R., & Young, N. (2020, October 9). Efficiency. Spark @ CBC Radio [mp3 audio interview] retrieved from https://www.cbc.ca/radio/spark/we-need-to-stop-our-obsession-with-efficiency-to-address-wealth-disparity-says-management-expert-1.5755820

Complexity

October 30th, 2020 by

Complexity characterises the behaviour of a system or model whose components interact in multiple ways and follow local rules, meaning there is no reasonable higher instruction to define the various possible interactions.” Can having a better sense of a system’s complexity yield insights into the relationship between its inputs and outputs? Systems Theory looks at a “system as a cohesive conglomeration of interrelated and interdependent parts which can be natural or human-made” (Wikipedia, retrieved October 2020).

In the business realm, scholar and author Roger Martin proposes two broad approaches to help address complex challenges. One is design thinking which involves employing both analytical and intuitive reasoning in order to develop human-focused solutions to issues, and which can often reveal unique aspects of a problem not otherwise available through ordinary deductive analyses. “The most successful businesses in the years to come will balance analytical mastery and intuitive originality” (2009, p. 6). Business has much to learn from design where the service or product is first prototyped, then tried, and then improved upon in an iterative cycle. Brainstorming, moving an idea from a thumbnail sketch to a mock-up, critiquing, and user-testing, are all part of a “user-centered” approach that provides an entry into understanding the “fuzzy” nature of human behaviour. Usability expert Donald Norman describes one approach to accommodate a wide array of different needs, whether it be for designing a chair or an interface, as making things easily customized or having “everything adjustable” (1988, p. 162). Does such flexibility impart a resilience to products, services, and systems?

A second means of approaching complexity in this sphere is a form of integrative thinking which involves a balancing of opposing models and pulling elements from each in order to arrive at a creative, integrative solution, superior to what could be achieved through choosing one model over the other. Such a synergistic approach can also allow for the tailoring of solutions to specific and highly unique contexts.

Can innovative business approaches be applied to societal systems even more broadly? Would visiting aspects such as the democratic process, education, or healthcare under such a lens be worthwhile? Complexity tells us that our systems must still function within larger contexts where outside influences have the potential to shape development in sometimes sudden, unforeseen, and unpredictable ways. Can such unknowns be prepared for in our fast-paced society where a premium is placed on notions of productivity and efficiency?


Martin, R. (2009) The Design of Business: Why Design Thinking is the Next Competitive Advantage. Boston, United States: Harvard Business School Publishing

Norman, D. A. (1988) The Design of Everyday Things. New York, United States: Basic Books

Creativity

September 30th, 2020 by

An artist might view creativity as the satisfying of an urge to make something of beauty, something others may also find appealing or that will somehow resonate. What is its source and what enables its manifestation? Filmmaker David Lynch uses the analogy of fishing when approaching a creative endeavour through a Jungian plumbing of the collective unconscious. According to Lynch, an appropriate setting is helpful and can take a form such as meditation. This quieting one’s mind and a lowering of the line or net is followed by a corresponding patient waiting until the fish, or idea, bites. Ethnobotanist Terence McKenna states such riparian metaphors describe the creative forces flowing within nature and the imagination “which run like an endless river through all of us and are driven by the hydraulic momentum of the cataracts of chaos… These things are icons for the world that wants to be” (2001, p.49).

Creativity is a phenomenon whereby something new and somehow valuable is formed” (Wikipedia, retrieved September 2020). Beyond this, many definitions of creativity exist that span popular understanding. In one example from an analytical perspective, it is

“a process of becoming sensitive to problems, deficiencies, gaps in knowledge, missing elements, disharmonies, and so on; identifying the difficulty; searching for solutions, making guesses, or formulating hypotheses about the deficiencies: testing and retesting these hypotheses and possibly modifying and retesting them; and finally communicating the results”, while “it is usually distinguished from innovation in particular, where the stress is on implementation” (Wikipedia, retrieved September 2020).

Creative Destruction is the idea posited by Harvard economist Joseph Schumpeter of a business cycle of mutation. A process of continual renewal which can see completely new yet highly relevant opportunities emerge from what had been up until that point often viewed as entrenched, immovable means of conducting business, or society. Do present circumstances offer the chance for creative destruction and rebirth more generally in our vastly complex civilization?


Abraham, R., McKenna, T., Sheldrake, R. (2001) Chaos, Creativity, and Cosmic Consciousness. Rochester, United States: Park Street Press

Attention

July 27th, 2020 by

In 1964 Canadian philosopher Marshall McLuhan made the prescient observation:

“Rapidly, we approach the final phase of the extensions of man – the technological simulation of consciousness, when the creative process of knowing will be collectively and corporately extended to the whole of human society, much as we have already extended our senses and our nerves by the various media” (1964, p.19).

Is our awareness being hijacked by the barks and ululations echoing through the streets and civic squares of McLuhan’s Global Village, a community whose digital tentacles reach out hypnotically pulling us this way and that? Do we willfully allow ourselves to be commandeered by every other stray notion that makes its way into our head through our various sense gates and technological interfaces?

Attention, according to Wikipedia, “is the behavioral and cognitive process of selectively concentrating on a discrete aspect of information, whether considered subjective or objective, while ignoring other perceivable information. It is a state of arousal” (retrieved July 2020).

While in design school, as many hours were spent coming up with clever, often humourous word-plays and visual double-entendres to get people’s attention, as were expended on the actual technical production of such pieces of commercial art. Creativity in this sense is valued for its ability to flesh out these hooks, to find the correct lure that invites a quick z-shaped scan of a print advertisement, having one’s focus perhaps then land on a brand logo, some call to action, or otherwise imploring the eventual opening of a wallet. A firm builds up its image through consistent public displays in digital, print, televised, and outdoor media. Many digital messages we now receive are targeted, sidestepping the need for creative appeals to our attention. Data says we’re already interested in this product, service, or idea, while technology says “click here” and skip directly to the wallet-opening or sign-me-up part.

Beyond the consumer sphere, can an increased efficacy in targeting and seizing our minds using technology more generally, even pushing them to action, have any positive effects? Is the arresting of our attention through something we’ve revealed, whether publicly or privately, ethical in certain contexts? If it is, should it still be mitigated, given the truth-bending ability of technology and bad actors? Are we capable of changing our stance on a topic or idea whilst being insidiously steered in a different direction? Moreover, must the scope of our critical thinking skills widen to include scrutiny beyond the appeals to our fear and ego, beyond the truth, whether distorted, to the intentions and motives underlying the images, messages, narratives, and actions we now encounter?


McLuhan, M. (1964) Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man. New York, United States: McGraw-Hill

Language

June 23rd, 2020 by

Language is a coded system of information transmission whose specific origins are a mystery, according to psychologist and professor Steven Pinker. It is a root example of representation, expressed both symbolically as various alphabets, as well as aurally via the myriad complex vocalizations used to similarly communicate ideas and emotions. Pinker colleague and noted linguist Noam Chomsky highlighted language’s important attribute of malleability, making it a creative tool of expression and understanding.

“Thought cannot go where the roads of language have not been built”, declared psychedelic philosopher and ethnobotanist Terence McKenna, in one of his many insightful, wide-ranging rambles. In some abstract manner it must therefore form the bedrock of what we perceive as reality. Could this be part of the reason why we can have such a difficult time grasping complex ideas? Some of which, despite the descriptive latitude afforded by language and the visualization power of our imaginations, seem to simply escape understanding. In such cases, must conceptual understandings only exist in the realms of mathematics and binary code?

Language evolves not so much as a result of prescriptive top-down norms, but rather from the ground-up, often due to socio-cultural forces. What role does language play in the recent advent of the information age, where these coded systems of information transmission appear to be under some form of change, evolution, or as some argue, siege? How influential is the wider context of this rapidly shifting socio-cultural landscape in which we, or rather “for me”, are immersed on, “like, u know, r “ language and thought? To use his apt metaphors, philosopher and cognitive scientist Daniel Dennett calls language “the software we run on our neck-top” where “words are virtual machines designed by cultural natural selection”.

While presenting themselves with both transcendentally uniting and knowledge-sharing capabilities, as well as newly-evident narrowing and fracturing tendencies, have our new language and communication technologies leapt too quickly out of Pandora’s Box, before our being able to understand their full potentials? If this is the case, how can the negative potential be attenuated, so the positive attributes can be fully realized? The issue is vast, and central to it is language, which Pinker asserts is itself at the very nexus of thought, biology, social relationships, and human evolution.

Our current socio-cultural landscape is further complicated by philosopher Marshall McLuhan’s significant notion that “the message of any medium or technology is the change of scale or pace or pattern that it introduces into human affairs” (1964, p. 24).


McLuhan, M. (1964) Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man. New York, United States: McGraw-Hill

Wholeness

June 18th, 2020 by

According to Wiktionary, the first recorded uses of the word holy are a literal translation of “wholly”, as healthy and whole, in both Proto-Germanic, and Proto-Indo-European languages. This use predates more recent Old and Middle English ecclesiastical meanings of the word.

Physicist David Bohm points to scientific evidence for the wholeness of the universe as lying in two theoretical frameworks. Einstein’s Theory of Relativity whose key tenet that the universe is a continuous, dynamic space-time field, out of which particles emerge as singular, strong regions and whose stable pulses gradually merge with other particles, describes an underlying unity where space and time are themselves relative aspects of the whole. The second framework, Quantum Theory, describes three particular characteristics of wholeness. First, its processes, such as electricity and magnetism, are themselves whole and indivisible; second is the wave-particle duality which, dependent on the observational context, describes a wholeness from different perspectives; and third is the notion of non-locality, where particles exhibit properties of interconnection, hence wholeness, despite being physically apart.

These two broad frameworks run counter to classical Newtonian physics, if only in the sense that the latter highlights the study of the part, whereas Relativity and Quantum theory look instead at the primacy of the whole. Bohm illustrated this difference by equating a description of Newtonian physics to the apparent random behaviour of particle-like people at a busy downtown intersection, each moving under their individual directives; as compared to the fluid, quantum-mechanical motion of dancers in a ballet, where the whole is given salience, and thus points to pattern and process as integral to larger systems.

Philosophers Baruch Spinoza and Alfred North Whitehead, each a naturalist in their respective times, described a wholeness, a God, in nature, and vice versa in their Panpsychic worldviews. Big-thinking renegade biologist Rupert Sheldrake extends this notion all the way up to Space, arguing that celestial bodies and stars, including our own sun, possess a form of consciousness. Such speculation suggests large, self-organizing space-time systems as exemplary of an even greater unity, not unlike James Lovelock’s Gaia Hypothesis of planet Earth as a large, self-regulating system.

Despite our best intentions in attempting to perceive things from broader Systems Theory perspectives, a tendency to fragment and compartmentalize can arise due to an incomplete recognition of the wholeness, which is often hidden beneath layers of complexity and interdependence. When complicated challenges such as anthropogenic climate change are faced, Nobel laureate economist William Nordhaus describes the vexing issue of comparing present and future costs and benefits of climate change mitigation strategies, and a tendency to discount “the benefits of the societal value of reduced damages in the future” (2013, p. 182). In key environmental spheres of thought, meaningful opportunities at climate change mitigation are said to be nearly lost, with some suggesting the most cost-effective approach at this point is one of societal adaptation to its effects.

Bohm believes that a central incoherence which arises from failing to properly recognize wholeness, in all of its forms, is due to communication. The nature of language, according to Bohm, is that it has been developed to emphasize the part over the whole. Regardless, language can be used differently, as in the case of poetry, not to mention all of the various potentials held by new communication technologies. If we then draw parallels between naturally occurring systems and larger, more complex ones, does Bohm’s random crowd versus ballet metaphor not have particular relevance today? As a society, are we exercising our potential to behave quantum-mechanically, as coordinated dancers in a ballet, or rather as objects in a Newtonian space; each on our own separate path?


Nordhaus, W. (2013) The Climate Casino. New Haven, United States: Yale University Press

Illusion

March 28th, 2020 by

From afar a coastline might look as though it is smooth and inviting, whereas a closer-up, higher resolution view might reveal a rocky, forbidding shore. Similarly, standing directly beside a large circle painted on the asphalt might make it appear elliptical or oblong-shaped, as compared to looking at it from directly overhead. Even with adequate context, appearances can still sometimes be misleading. What we perceive as the truth is often just an emergent phenomenon and perhaps only a partial picture of the whole. Notions of scale, context, as well as the abilities and limits of our own perceptual systems, all play a role in interpreting how things look, sound, smell, and feel.

In stereophotogrammetry, photographs of a particular region, purposefully taken seconds apart from an aircraft flying high above, might initially appear identical. A closer look reveals minute changes, such as shadows shifted due to the slight difference in perspective. Nowadays this type of imaging data can be fed into complex algorithms, and in some instances combined with range-finding laser data (LiDAR) to generate accurate three-dimensional views of the landscape.

In days gone by, viewing such a stereoscopic pair of photographs, or stereogram, required a contraption called a stereoscope. You may recall the more recent plastic View-Master with its shutter-like lever that came with round disks of tiny, paired images, 3D glasses, or Virtual Reality (VR) systems based on the same principle, that are in common use today. These technologies present just the left perspective image to the left eye, and the right perspective image to the right eye, from a set distance. When the nearly twin images are viewed in this manner, the resulting three dimensional illusion does not appear on the glass of the device, or as on the page or screen of an artist’s drawn visual perspective, but rather materializes with realistic clarity directly in the viewer’s mind. Viewing an air-photo stereo pair would have hills and mountains rise up from the erstwhile flat land, while the valleys and lowlands receded. A rich gestalt sense of an area could be derived from such a  three-dimensional portrayal, not otherwise apprehensible from an individual air or satellite photo. Convincing appearances thus need not necessarily exist in just the physical world, and are sometimes purely figments of the perceptual system, or even of the imagination.

More broadly, beyond our hacking of binocular vision, nature has conferred on us the intrinsic ability to illude; to imagine what is and isn’t there. The world around us is perpetually being crafted as we perceive, as though we’re each an artist interacting with it, conjuring illusions and interpretations of what’s in front of us, and what lies beyond the range of our perceptions. Neurologist and author Oliver Sacks remarked that, “each act of perception is to some degree an act of creation, and every act of memory is to some degree an act of imagination”.


Sacks, O. (2007) Musicophilia. Toronto, Canada: Knopf

Serendipity

January 25th, 2020 by

Serendipity is a phenomenon that reveals itself in both art and life. According to Wikipedia, “Serendipity is the occurrence of an unplanned fortunate discovery” (Wikipedia, retrieved January 2020).

This photograph of the Cadillac Motel sign on Victoria Street in Kitchener, Ontario, taken back in the mid-nineteen-nineties, reminds one of how much things have changed in a relatively short span of time. Not only is the content of the image itself emblematic of change; a fifties-era motel sign sitting abandoned in an empty field, but its recording using film and subsequent printing onto photographic paper are now processes reminiscent of a bygone era.

The photo, taken with Kodak high speed infrared film using my father’s appropriately-designated fifties-era rangefinder 35mm camera, required precise handling and developing in total darkness, as well as a degree of guesswork when it came to making the actual exposure. This latter fact was not only due to the camera’s tiny viewfinder which sat outside and parallel to the lens and necessitated intense squinting at the subject, but also because it was difficult to predict, unlike with the case of more modern imaging technology, how the finished photo would turn out. There was no “preview” mode other than what could be seen through the tiny viewer, and even this did not show what this particular film would ultimately reveal; the infrared light and heat radiating from a scene, similar to, but uniquely different from what would be imaged in the visible spectrum. Compounding this were the unpredictability and idiosyncrasies of this variety of film itself, where slight adjustments to the camera angle in relation to the subject, or exposure under subtly differing lighting conditions, could dramatically affect the result. The film’s interesting attributes included its ability to create dark, dramatic skies, and to capture green plants’ “chlorophyll effect” (greenery becoming white, often glowing, in black and white infrared recording) when the camera was appropriately oriented in relation to the subject and direction of the sunlight.

This uncertainty is very often prized by artists and photographers. Having an element of surprise in the production of an image or an artwork can enable the creation of magical, serendipitous “happy accidents”, where added beauty is revealed by a confluence of factors, often unforeseen and sitting outside the creator’s control. Elements within the frame can become unexpectedly highlighted, perhaps imparting an otherwise plain image with a unique, vibrant appeal. Granted, this uncertainty would have contributed to a larger share of “not-so-happy accidents”; instances where the frame wound up being simply blown-out, drastically dark, some measure between, or perhaps another variable would intrude into the process and destroy any potential aesthetic value.

A state where events and outcomes can be predicted with increasing accuracy, often as a result of the influence of technology, is of obvious benefit to many aspects of modern life. Does a collection of data pointing to some future outcome mean it will necessarily happen? Do some predictions defy any margin of error? Is complexity guaranteed to play a role in confounding the results in some way? Despite our technological advancements, the ability to make accurate predictions often remains elusive. As in the case of creating art or a photographic image, are there places where serendipity can arise in forecasting within the complexity of the wider world to reveal new facets of a subject or topic when precision and prediction fail?

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