Tuesday, 10 August 2010

Knowing ourselves as language designers: how plagiarism can be a good metaphor for shedding light on our everyday inauthenticity

Almost always when I think of something which for me is an "original thought" (a synthesis that I have not heard of being discussed as itself) and THEN I do a google search on it, I discover there are whole communities out there who have been discussing the subtleties of that idea for the last several years.

A discussion of plagiarism in today's New York Times (see related articles below) prompted me to reflect that there is a kind of intrinsic plagiarism to being a language user. To escape this more insidious type of plagiarism we must become a language designer. That is to say that if we are to be truly authentic, we must start to know ourselves as language designers, and not merely as language users.

The thing I remember being told about plagiarism when I was an undergraduate is that if you steal from ONE PERSON it is called plagiarism, but if you steal little bits of stuff from TWENTY PEOPLE and put them all together, that is called talent. So to an extent plagiarism seems to come down to the size of the pieces of text or ideas stolen.

But it also is a function of the uniqueness of a given phrase within the current discourse. For example Edward de Bono has somehow got his ownership of the phrase "Lateral thinking" fairly well established, even though I wonder if he was actually the first person to use the phrase. In any case if I started claiming that I made up that phrase, I would probably get myself in to some trouble. Certainly I did not make it up. The only way that it wouldn't get me in to trouble claiming that I made up "Lateral Thinking" would be the extent to which I simply get ignored. (Being ignored saves me from all kinds of trouble!)

It seems like a good idea to acknowledge our sources when we write or indeed speak. It may be helpful to people reading what we write. They might want to follow back upstream and trace the flow of those ideas down through the essays in which those ideas have been discussed. It is as though we are able to establish the authenticity of our work by acknowledging the extent of it's inauthenticity... the sources from whence our ideas came.

In my completely un-academic blogs and writings I tend to speak off the top of my head and I'm sure it all ought to be credited to someone else. People are of course always welcome to comment and claim or request citation or attribution!

Furthermore all of our sources always had their sources. The flow of ideas through our collective mind is more like an ecology of ideas than it is like the output of independently acting thinkers as we naively tend to treat it.

The idea of "dead metaphors"
becoming the foundation for the next layer of thinking, points us to the
realisation that for the most part the language we speak hardly ever belongs to us as individuals. Mostly we are at the very least using vocabulary that we did not have much to do with the structuring of. Incidentally, I was introduced to the "dead metaphor" metaphor, by Richard Rorty, although I am quite happy to accept that it wasn't a metaphor that he made up himself.

When we first start to grapple with designing language that is appropriate to a situation that has previously been intractable or obscure, (such as a "wicked problem") language is initially more like something we bathe in and splash around in, than it is something which we are able to design. However in the process of our splashing we may start to create a synthesis which is useful to someone else as well as to ourself.

So in the sense of our vocabulary if not also our phraseology, our authenticity is always constrained by the limits of our capacity to carve out our own meanings for words. Meanings which may heretofore have never existed. To make this task approachable, the place to start is by using commonly used meanings for words to take us at least as far as we can get to go with them.

However, at some point, if we are going to be authentic, we must start to restructure a unique set of connections and meanings which thereby can hold the content that we have previously been trying to fit within a "Terministic Screen" where in fact it could never really confortably belong and be itself. "Terministic Screen" is a phrase coined by Kenneth Burke to refer to vocabulary via which a given person or group or community accommodates itself to a given situation or attempts to deal with one.

It is for this reason (the absence of appropriate language with which to express my experience of being in the world), that I have tried over the years to write what for want of a better word I have called "poetry". For want of a better word because I have not as yet entirely managed to carve out a meaning for "poetry" which fits very well with the content of what I write. Although if you read my book "Ecstatic Union, Our own fantasy in preference to someone else's" you will see I have at least made some progress.

It is at this point, the point at which we start to be language designers, not merely language users, that we may truly and finally escape from plagiarism.

Tuesday, 3 August 2010

Why do we talk to ourselves, and why can’t we stop?

When I say “talk to ourselves”, I don’t mean out loud in the manner of the homeless man who lives near the shopping centre, shouting abuse at himself and anyone else who comes closer than a bus length away.

I just mean the regular “internal monologue” that we are mostly all having with our selves all the time, except perhaps when we are sleeping. (Thank Ggod for sleep!)

We are mostly all so used to the endless commentary on ourselves and others and the pleasantness or unpleasantness of the immediate experience we are having, and having that “voice inside our heads” order us around, take over our mouths and start making itself heard in the world whenever it feels like it, that we often and mostly come to think of that little voice inside our heads as being “my self”. There is an absence of other candidates available in the application process for being called “my self”.

Even though when asked who I am, I don’t say: “I’m the little voice who lives in my head, and is secretly in charge of my body and all my affairs and actions in the world including my bank account and my willy”, despite this for the most part I operate consistently with this being so. I tend to treat this little voice as the final arbiter of who I am, even though I may not be consciously aware of doing so. When there is a decision needing to be made, I tend to refer to this little voice to make the decision on my behalf. Despite having found in the past that the little voice quite often makes LOUSY DECISIONS, I still tend to let it have its way with me for most of my waking hours.

Why do I let it do that? Because for the most part I live in such a state of trance that I don’t distinguish between myself and it. In fact the suggestion that I actual might not be that little voice after all is confusing to the little voice. It’s not sure if it likes that suggestion. Possibly it quite likes being in control of my life, or at least believing that it is in control. It likes believing that it is me.

When I ask myself the question “Who am I?” it is in a sense not me who answers. The question is automatically passed on to it (the little voice in my head) and it answers on my behalf. Naturally enough, when it gets asked the question “who are you?” the little voice inside my head responds by saying “I am the little voice inside Andrew’s head”. I say this, of course, but a lot of people when you ask them that question will tell you about their “personality” and what they like and don’t like. But that is a whole additional layer of self-deception, and I’m not even going to bother talking about that.

In a sense, the reason I am getting a misleading answer when I ask the question “Who am I?” is because I don’t know who to address that question to apart from the person who always answers on my behalf. And the person who always answers on my behalf is that little voice. Consequently I am not addressing the question to the right person in the first place. I am not addressing the question to myself. I am addressing the question to it. In order to be able to answer the question “Who am I?” authentically, I first need to be able to find who I am, so as to be able to ask the question of that person.

The task becomes impossible; I need to know who I am before I can ask the question of the right person, and therefore get back the right answer.

Despite all of this, for many of us who have stopped to think about it for while, and at least gone deeper than the notion that I am my personality and my set of likes and dislikes and circumstances and abilities and so on, for those of us who have got this far into the question it is nevertheless understandable to ask: if I am not that little voice in my head, then who on earth am I?

Sages down through the millennia of human history have experimented with making the voice inside our heads “STOP”, and have developed methodologies of meditation, physical and mental and spiritual growth that they have discovered can help a person to tame that beast within (or at the very least a methodology that helped to do that in their own particular cases).

The common experiment that is often suggested to anyone who is starting to experiment with taking charge over that voice in their heads is to try to make it stop. If you have never tried that before, it is worth trying it for a moment. Stop reading this, and just try sitting quietly for a moment and stop thinking. Try to see if you can stop hearing the series of thoughts that pass through your head one after the next.

Bhikku Bodhi, an American Buddhist monk.Image via Wikipedia

If you actually do the experiment, and you are a typical human being and not a Buddhist monk who has devoted a life time to the practice, you will have discovered that you have no capacity whatsoever to make it stop. It will not stop. In fact as you bring your attention to it to try to make it stop it just gets louder. You may try to exert your will over it but that does not help at all. “Stop! Damn you!” you exclaim, but it turns out that that is just the little voice shouting “Stop! Damn you!” inside your head. It hasn’t stopped at all. Quite the opposite. Instead of stopping it is now shouting “Stop! Damn you!” at the top of its voice.

What to do?

Well perhaps it might help if we took a step or so back from where we find ourselves in the middle of all of this.

Firstly let’s consider: Why might we want to make that little voice stop?

The concern for many people once they discover they have no control over their internal monologue is that we feel that we ought to have control. Before I tried this experiment, I hadn’t even questioned that that voice in my head was me. The voice just took it for read that it was me. It just assumed that.

Now I am having to deal with the worrying question of who I am if I’m not that voice (and what’s more so is the little voice having to deal with the worrying question of if it is not me then who is either of us), and to make matters worse it seems to be the case that I can demonstrate to myself that the voice in question is NOT UNDER MY CONTROL. If it WAS under my control, then surely I could make it stop. That seems right, doesn’t it? If it’s not under my control, then it is bothering to me that I am letting it run my life. In conclusion, Yep, it does seem like there is a problem here.

In addition to this nagging concern that the voice in my head is running amok with my life, and needs to be taken control of (along with my bulging waistline) another strand in the usual kind of thinking that I ought to be able to make it stop is that it would make life better for me. There is a notion that a quiet mind is a peaceful mind. Everyone knows that meditation is good for us, right? Although I may not have the patience to sit on the side of a hill, I’m sure I would be more peaceful and happy if I could just turn my internal monologue off for a while every now and then, and take a break from it… doesn’t that sound nice? No wonder people join Buddhist monasteries! How about when I am trying to get to sleep, like the night before an exam, or an important meeting or that presentation I am giving to a hundred strangers next week. Wouldn’t that be great! If at bed time I could just turn off that chatter in my head, surely I would get a better night’s sleep! And then I could just turn the chatter on again when I start to miss it or I’m getting bored sitting in an NHS waiting room. Actually, thinking about it, the thing that is most tedious about sitting in an NHS waiting room is the voice in my head saying over and over “What a waste of time this is!” If I could just turn off the voice in my head when I wanted to, that ability would have to be WORTH ITS WEIGHT IN GOLD.

Ok, so we have established that it would indeed be a useful skill, let’s think about how we might get it done.

And that brings me on to my secondly…

Secondly, where is the chatter in my head COMING FROM?

And it is here that I am going to make a suggestion which is probably controversial in a lot of quarters. I’m thinking that for lots of academics it is going to be a bit jarring. On the other hand probably not many academics are reading my blog, so I probably should not worry. (More about which in a moment.)

Here is the suggestion:

We tend to think that the little voice in our head is “us thinking”. What if it is not that? What if the voice in our head is more like “us remembering”? That is to say what if the chatter that goes on in our heads is a regurgitation of the conversations we have been having lately, the books we have been reading, the discussions we have been participating in, all on top of the series of however many years of personal history and experiences we have lived through.

In other words, the chatter that goes on in our heads is much more like a memory of conversations we have had in the past than it is like the generation of anything new. While we tend to think of it as being an active thing (“I am right now thinking”) what if it is more of a passive thing (“It is right now remembering”) or (“It is right now processing”) or (“It is right now self-re-organizing”).

Why is this useful?

The reason this is useful is because it points a way to us taking control of what goes on or doesn't go on in our heads.

If the chatter in our head is a consequence of thinking and conversation that we have done in the past, a way to take control over tomorrows brain chatter is to improve today’s thinking. (To see what I mean by “thinking” in this last sentence you need to read my short essay “The Location of Thinking”.)

As an example of how this could work, there are a couple of categories of mind chatter that typically go on in a person’s head (at least they go on in my head) that I think are particularly useful to address. I mention these two because they can be particularly unproductive and distressing mind chatter.

Category 1: Worrying. Everyone knows what worrying is. “What if X happens?” “Is something awful about to happen?” “Does that pain in my side mean I have cancer?” Et cetera.

Category 2: “Arguments I am having with myself”. I want to do X, but if I do X, then Y will happen, on the other hand if I don’t do X, then Z will happen, but I really want to do X, but it will be really awful if Y, but… Et cetera, et cetera.

How can this kind of brain chatter be dealt with?

In my short essay called “The Location of Thinking”, I suggested that productive thinking is usefully thought of as an activity that a person does in the world (rather than in their heads) by interacting with an information space that is located in the world.

This kind of thinking that happens by interacting with an information space that is located in the world can be used to settle the arguments we are having with ourselves, and determine the appropriate action to take or not take regarding any given worry. The result is not necessarily immediate or all encompassing but the consequence of this work reflects back into our mind chatter. The mind naturally quietens down when we settle the arguments we are having with ourselves. When there is nothing for us to argue about, we stop arguing. The result is silence… a quiet mind… a mind that is ready and able to be put to good use doing something usefull, a mind that is ready for something new.

By settling the arguments that we are having with ourselves and resolving best possible courses of action regarding worries the mind chatter becomes modified in a way that reflects this work having been done. Someone who goes through these processes discovers that their minds start to “quieten down”. The arguments they had been having with themselves are no longer being played out on the airwaves in their heads. The worries that had previously seemed to be on a tape loop have now been assigned with appropriate and well considered actions. The mind starts to disappear from the person’s awareness, not it turns out by acting on the mind, but by acting on the problems that their mind has been trying to deal with (and not doing so well in its attempt at dealing with those problems). When I say "acting on" I mean applying productive thinking in the world of the type that I discuss in my short article “The Location of Thinking”. As a consequence of this the mind starts to feel like a quiet and empty space. A space that is available to work on what is right in front of us and what we are doing right now.

A good role for chatter in our heads does in this way start to get revealed: the role of the chatter starts to be seen not as the mistaken notion of being “my self thinking”, but as measuring device alerts us to the necessity to do some real thinking (thinking that is located in the world). The amount of noise going on in our internal chatter is a measuring device that measures the need for us to do some real thinking. The internal chatter in our heads may turn out to not be a requisite for powerful thinking at all, nor to be a constantly necessary part of the experience of a self. A self may exist from time to time quite happily without such chatter, and still be just as much a self as it ever was.

In addition this synthesis starts to suggest a possible answer to the question “who am I?”, “who are we?”; if we are not after all the voices in our heads, it might be worth considering the possibility that Self could better be characterized as a meeting between the internal and the external, a meeting between ourselves and the world.

Monday, 2 August 2010

Synthetic thinking vs. Analytic thinking - or "How to have fruitful conversations in public"

When we speak and listen in a group meeting, or medium sized group such as a workshop course, or even when we speak and listen in a large conference room together with several hundred other people... WHERE do the sentences that we speak to each other and those we hear others say, where do those sentences go?

At first glance this question may seem unnecessary and the answer obvious. The sentences uttered by others come “out of their minds” and go “into the minds” of the other people at the meeting or event. Possibly those thoughts and ideas also go into the notebooks of anyone who is taking notes. At some meetings, of course, we have someone "taking minutes", and that person sends out afterwards a blow-by-blow report of exactly what was said and sometimes by whom it was said.

On an individual level we should add that there is some sort of process of assimilation that happens as the thoughts of others mix with our own thoughts. And although we may remember specific things said by specific people, we may often be more interested in what comes out of a discussion by way of an individual SYNTHESIS of what I myself gleaned from the contribution of others, and what I am able to mix that with from my own experience, knowledge and wisdom.

What I am calling “Synthesis” here we could say is the process of putting things together by combining the parts that go to make those things up. A + B + C + D => RESULT. A,B,C,D are the pieces that are being brought together to produce a particular product or result. A,B,C and D are perhaps ideas. And when we bring those ideas together we come up with an idea that transcends any of these four parts that went to make it up. This bringing together could be called a process of Synthesis. And in the realm of thoughts and ideas, we could perhaps describe an analogous process to real-world synthesis, whereby a number of ideas are brought together to synthesize an idea whose whole is in some sense greater that simply the sum of its parts. By combining the part ideas we come up with something that we didn't have when those part ideas were being kept separately. This could be thought of as analogous to a real world example wherein we bring together 4 wheels, an engine and a chassis and make a car. The parts that go to make up the car don’t provide us with a usable car UNTIL WE PUT THEM TOGETHER. The whole can be functionally greater than the sum of the parts.

Synthesis as I am describing it here is often contrasted with Analysis. Analysis can be thought of as the process of conceptually breaking something down into its constituent parts. In this sense, analysis could be thought of as the opposite of synthesis. Traditional computer mind-mapping tools which start from a central main idea and allow a user to add successively thinner branches as they move outwards from that central idea (and typically also move down a hierarchy) are very good at Analysis and Analytic thinking of this kind. However they are not so good at Synthetic thinking, because the process of Synthetic thinking is more a matter of starting at the extremities and moving in to the centre – in a way this can be thought of as the opposite of starting at the centre and moving outwards towards the extremities. So we might, if we wanted to, think of Synthesis as being the opposite of Analysis. Synthesis allows us to CONSTRUCT a whole something out of its parts. Analysis allows us to conceptually BREAK DOWN a whole something into the parts that it could be made of.

Obviously both Analysis and Synthesis are useful. Certainly we want to have both of these aspects available to us, not only one or the other. They are particularly useful when you apply the one of these that is most appropriate to the part of a developmental cycle that you are currently in. Entrepreneurship, Innovation and Breakthrough (which tend to start out a development cycle) we could say are more a matter of Synthesis. Accountancy, Management and “Business as Usual” (which come later on in a development cycle) are more a matter of Analysis. Figuring out what went wrong is likely to be a matter of Analysis. Figuring out how we can make things better in the future is more likely to be a matter of Synthesis. Diagnosis is a matter of Analysis. Treatment is a matter of Synthesis. Problem is a matter of Analysis. Solution is a matter of Synthesis. Measurement is a matter of Analysis. Creativity is a matter of Synthesis.

In a conference situation, or workshop, or even a smaller group meeting, we may be in a situation where we have simply come to listen to a presentation from a single speaker or a series of speakers. We could characterize such situations as being MONOLOGUES. Obviously there are many people listening, but there is NOT VERY MUCH INTERACTION. There is mostly only one speaker. The content that gets delivered has for the most part been worked out before hand and is simply “presented”. There may be questions at the end or between sections of the delivery, but the outcome of such questions tends to just be more imparting of the knowledge and experience of the conference speaker. Nothing new is being created in the public realm (although it may be being created privately in the experience of each conference delegate - and this may subsequently end up in the public realm). The delegates may receive a great insight that they didn’t have before and may indeed be privately Synthesizing something out of that by virtue of their own perspectives and knowledge, but the conference as a whole does not get the benefit of that Synthesis at least not during the time over which the conference is running.

However there are some conferences these days where a more creative approach is taken, and certainly in our more medium sized workshop situations and smaller group meetings it is much more commonly the case that there is more opportunity for contributions from multiple participants and a process that involves much more INTERACTION. These kinds of scenarios could be characterized as DIALOGUES, and set in contrast to the more monologue situation discussed in the previous paragraph.

The more opportunity for dialogue that a meeting of minds affords, the more likely we can expect there to be a Synthesis of new ideas. The melding of ideas that were previously being kept separate, and the cross-fertilization that this affords, allows for the Synthesis of SOMETHING NEW. Meetings of this sort tend to be exciting if not thrilling for conference delegates. There is a sense that “anything might happen”; that “something is really happening here”. Such events as these tend to leave their mark on history. Whole new approaches to human problems are born at such events. Unprecedented outcomes occur. Life is made better.

However, for all the advantages that dialogue-type events provide, the management of conversation at events of this second type is not without its difficulties. Whereas the individual synthesis that a conference delegate may be developing “in their own mind” in the process of listening to the ideas of a conference speaker may be fairly easy to manage and discern (possibly depending on the adequacy of the individual in question), in the case of an event where multiple speakers are encouraged to engage in a dialogue, keeping track of what exactly is being said, what exactly is being Synthesized, becomes a real challenge.

So the question becomes: How can the management of a public Synthesis of ideas be made more productive, more fruitful, more fully democratic, more inclusive. How can we make visible what actually IS BEING SYNTHESIZED when people engage in a public multi-participant conversation? How can we capture the emergent whole which a conference of delegates is together constructing out of the pieces of insight, experience, knowledge and wisdom that they are each individually able to contribute to that whole?

One possible answer to this is the inclusion into the conference environment of a highly visible and dynamically updated display of the conversation as it unfolds. Various pieces of software are available which allow for the capture and display of ideas as they are generated from the minds of conference delegates. Ideally such software allows these ideas to be grouped (“clustered”) in multiple alternative ways, and consequently it allows a growing clarity of what is being Synthesized in that public conversation to be presented back in real-time to conference delegates. This powerful display of the unfolding of the public conversation is thereby able to feedback in real-time to the conference delegates, and thereby provide them with a deeper insight into what they are themselves developing. This in turn affords a greater opportunity to see what is being Synthesized and so engage even more deeply and completely with that Synthesis.

So whereas without such a display, we may each of us have our own “private synthesis” of the ideas being elucidated, once we have a display like this in place, it becomes a lot more viable to have a “PUBLIC SYNTHESIS” of the unfolding conversation. The ideas of the delegates, the thoughts and experience and wisdom that is being shared, can come together not merely individually in each of their minds (and differently in each of those minds) but in addition this Public Synthesis can be developed together which allows us to see the totality of what the contributions we are each making adds up to.

Related video - Divergent thinking as a pre-requisite for creativity