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Brexit is not the issue

Before reading on, let me declare that I am a ‘remainer’. But please don’t let that put you off because this is not about Brexit per se. It’s about binary thinking.

Since the vote back in June 2016 I have always maintained that Brexit will never happen (or if it does it will be in a form that makes no difference). So far I have no reason to change my mind.

It is ridiculous to think that the country voted to leave Europe in June 2016. I’ve heard Brexiteers say that the country voted overwhelmingly for Brexit. This is simply not true. What actually happened was that the country voted by a small margin to rebel against the increasingly unsustainable inequalities in society. Less than 38% of those eligible, voted for Brexit. Admittedly they were the ones that bothered to vote while, I speculate, that many of the remainers stayed at home in the belief that the vote was bound to go their way.

This was three years ago without the vote of people who are now 18 but were not that eligible to vote in the referendum. We know that young people tend to be remainers. It was also at a time before there had been much debate about Brexit. It was before companies started to spell out the implications of tariffs. It was before the effects on employment, international travel, border controls, uk residents abroad, Russian interference and much more could be assessed. It was before the NHS described the impacts of restricting immigration on their ability to provide services. It was before many other organisations and individuals were voiced and understood. In other words it was before we had heard the arguments.

Brexit is a Smokescreen

To claim that Brexit should happen because of an overwhelming democratic vote is a sham. Is it democratic to ignore a public who, for all we know, might now vote overwhelmingly to remain? Nobody can be certain what another referendum might show, but surely it would be more democratic to have another referendum than to doggedly pursue the idea that leaving Europe was the main issue for everybody last time round.

Politicians have made leaving Europe the issue because they do not want to discuss that the 2016 referendum was about how the UK, and the world generally, was run. It was little to do with Europe specifically.

It was an expression of discontent about austerity, how austerity came about (i.e. a dysfunctional financial system). It was a protest against unequal distribution of power and wealth in the UK, in Europe and globally. It was saying that undeserving fat-cats benefit, while everybody else had to pay the bills for their irresponsible behaviour. Of course, these very same people are going to deflect criticism any way they can, and encourage you to think that all that has gone wrong is nothing to do with them. It was easy for both those responsible, and indeed also the disadvantaged people of Britain, to scapegoat immigrants in order to avoid addressing the real routes of inequality and unfairness.

That’s why we should have another referendum. Because the last one was hardly about leaving Europe at all. And what’s more it has at least in part achieved its objective. Parliamentary democracy is in chaos (by historical standards). That was the implicit objective of the people that voted for Brexit. And yet the whole mechanism of parliamentary democracy carries on as if the substantive issues do not even exist.

Oh, well maybe I’m wrong then. But no, maybe I’m right. It is entirely credible that the story I am telling has brought us to where we are today – the story that Brexit is a smokescreen. It is a huge diversion from getting on with fixing the things that really matter.

But another referendum only solves part of the problem – the part that didn’t really exist before the 2016 referendum. That is, it only solves the problem of Brexit, that wasn’t the main issue at all. It doesn’t solve the problem of parliamentary democracy as it exists today. It doesn’t solve the problem of increasing wealth inequality. For that, we need a far more radical solution.

But the way things are going, as a country, we are being fooled into believing that Brexit is the issue. We are being fooled into thinking that the current system of parliamentary democracy is the best we can do. This is not true in an age that offers so many technological mechanisms to support complex decision-making. While we are all still arguing about Brexit we are ignoring the faults in a system that reveals that many issues do not necessarily align with party politics. Nobody is talking about alternatives.

Binary Thinking is none too subtle

The two-party system always lacked subtlety and the Brexit issue has merely served as a mechanism to show it. It is ridiculous to think that because you prefer one party, all your views are going to align the same way.

We are all autonomous, independent thinkers. Why continue with a system that turns everything into binary thinking?

It’s interesting that the realisation that binary thinking (for example in relation to sexuality, disability, ‘us and them’ and so on) is not very subtle should come at a time when a binary political system is failing. We need a system where we can all take part in the political decision-making process. Let’s call it citizenship. The ancient Greeks may have thought of it, but maybe that’s because it was good.

It was a good idea because it brought a diversity of opinion to every problem. Hasn’t anybody realised that diversity of opinion is the opposite of binary thinking. Parliament needs to be diverse not binary. It should be really representative of the people, not just pretending to ‘represent’ the people. That’s because MPs are not representative. They are self-selected. They are the subset of the people who aspire to power. I’m not saying that’s wrong necessarily. I’m just saying that’s not representative. Not being representative means that it is not diverse. It does not represent the true diversity of opinion that exists in the country.

What doe we need? – Diversity

Contrast this true diversity with the two-party system that forces everybody into either one mindset or its opposite. All arguments become either at one extreme or the other (or occasionally somewhere along the binary dimension). How do you expect creative thinking and innovative ideas to come out of such a channelled mechanism of uni-dimensional thought?

Here is a possible alternative. Why don’t we just move to a parliament that consists of a random sample of 1000 people? This diversity of opinion debating with each other, would produce far more interesting and creative solutions than debates framed within a unitary dimension of opinion. This is only one of many suggestions – all I ask is that the time has come when we should consider alternatives.

I suppose you could argue that too many cooks make a spoiled broth but that only applies when they are in an environment of chaos. Given the opportunity to deliberate, supported by structured mechanisms and rules of evidence, instead of just shouting at each other so that the loudest voice wins, they might come up with a new delicious soup. (See a related post on ‘Is the referendum definitive‘ I wrote back in 2016).

Brexit has given us the opportunity to realise that we could have a better system. We should start thinking about what it could be and how it might be put in place. If Brexit is not the opportunity, then what is? Now is a good time to ask those people who hold the power some difficult questions.

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Cambridge Analytica – Another Threat to Democracy

On Wikipedia 21st March 2018:

“Today in the United States we have somewhere close to four or five thousand data points on every individual […] So we model the personality of every adult across the United States, some 230 million people.” — Alexander Nix, chief executive of Cambridge Analytica, October 2016. (Suspended on 21st March)

As the discussion hots up about the role Cambridge Analytica (founded by conservatives Steve Bannon and Robert Mercer) and its parent company SCL (founded by Nigel John Oakes ) what does this say about democracy?

Youtube video, Cambridge Analytica: Undercover Secrets of Trump’s Data Firm, Channel 4 News, Published on Mar 20, 2018

It beggars belief that, in a ‘democracy’, the supporters of particular interests can get away with this kind of unethical behaviour. It is unethical because, on the face of what is now emerging, Cambridge Analytica are not only prepared to lie and deceive, but will use every available strategy, including the application of science and technology, to do so. It appears that they will take money to influence elections throughout the world (including the BREXIT referendum), using the emotional manipulation of voters as their method. And, of course, they would not exist without their clients, who are at the top of the pyramid of culpability.

We have known since Freud separated the mind into the id, the ego and the super-ego, that we are each engaged in a personal battle to overcome our immediate emotional impulses and do what seems moral and reasonable. Therefore the Cambridge Analytica approach towards politics that is designed to play on emotions rather than reason is a direct affront to ethics and reason.

The overwhelming feeling I get is that the average citizen is letting these things happen and then living in the wake of the consequences, rather than pro-actively making sure they do not happen in the first place. This opens the door to entrepreneurs of all sorts to knowingly and deliberately exploit the system, then escape before any regulatory mechanisms come into play. It happens again and again on both a large (e.g. the 2008 financial crisis) and a small (industry specific) scale. Society is playing catch-up, instead of leading with a set of sound ethical principles that will hold to account anybody who is later found to have transgressed them.

Before you argue that the term ‘unethical’ is relative or that this account is only one of many alternative truths, let’s be clear that this is not a matter of what is right or wrong in any absolute sense. It is a matter of, given your interpretation of the evidence, what world you want to live in. This is only a point of view, but hopefully one that captures the reaction of many.

Democracy is usually defined as ‘rule by the people’, as opposed to any élite group. There are two big problems with the current form of democracy. First, if money can buy votes then we re back to a situation where (increasingly) a small number of people make the rules. Secondly, we do not really have democracy at all – rather we have what is called ‘representative democracy’ where a small number of people put themselves up for election (or are selected by political parties). This is not true democracy because there is no way that this selected or self-selected group of people is representative.

True democracy would pick people at random from the population so that they were representative in exactly the same way as a statistical sample is representative. As technology enables people to better have a say, we should be moving towards direct democracy. Sortition is a system of representative democracy. Also see Digital democracy and Direct Democracy.

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What’s your position?

Positioning theory illuminates our understanding of rights, duties, expectations and vulnerabilities. It addresses the dynamics of power and control and is a potent tool for understanding the self, the individual in the context of others, relationships, and social institutions. It even transcends the distinction between people and objects and has profound implications for the development of artificial intelligence.

Where do you stand?

Are you sitting down? Maybe you are in London, or Paris or Malaga. And maybe it’s 4pm on Saturday 11th November 2017 where you are. So, that locates you (or rather me) in place and time. And in exactly the same way, you can also be ‘positioned’ with respect to your attitudes and opinions. Are you to ‘the right’ or to ‘the left’, for example.

There is a theory that can help you understand where you are, and it’s not just ‘left’ or ‘right’. Pretty well every word you say and every action you take, creates a ‘position’. Read on to see how you cannot avoid taking positions and how positions confer rights and responsibilities on you and others, reveal vulnerabilities and determine the power relationships between us. Even objects, both natural and the ones we create have positions, both in the sense of where they are located, but also in the way they affect your actions. Re-thinking the world from the point of view of positioning theory can be a revelation.

Part of the appeal of positioning theory is that it is easy to understand, and it is easy to understand because it builds on a basic psychological process that we use all the time. This is the process of navigating around a space.

Youtube Video, Spatial Navigation – Neil Burgess, Serious Science, December 2016, 12:41 minutes

Positioning theory can be applied to all sorts of things. It can be used between individuals to help understand each other and resolve differences. It can be used in organisations to help effect organisational change. It can be used by therapists to help families understand and adjust the way they think about the main influences in their lives, and help alter their circumstances. It can be used in international relations to help nations and cultures understand each other and resolve their differences. It can also be used manipulatively to sell you things you didn’t want and to restrict your freedom, even without you being consciously aware of it.

In one sense, positioning theory is such a simple idea that it can seem obvious. It can be thought of as ‘the position you take on a particular issue’. For example, you may take the position on animal rights, that an animal has the same right to live as a person. But positions need not be so grand or political. You might take the position that two sugars are too many to have in tea or that it’s better not to walk on the cracks between stones on the pavement. Even ascribing attributes to people or objects is to take a position. So to say that somebody is ‘kind’ or ‘annoyed’ is to take a position about how to interpret their behaviour.

What is common to positions is that they derive from some kind of evaluation within a context of beliefs and they can influence action (or at least the propensity for action). Label someone as ‘violent’ or ‘stupid’, for example, and you may easily affect other people’s behaviours with respect to that person, as well as your own. And, of course, if that person is aware of the label, they may well live up to it.

Despite being a simple concept, positions are so pervasive and integrated into thought, language, dialogue, actions and everyday life that it is only relatively recently (i.e. in the post-modern era from about the mid 20th century onwards) that ‘positioning theory’ has emerged and ‘positions’ have become identified as having explicit ‘identities’ in their own right. However, this understanding of positioning has had impact all the way across the social sciences.

Youtube Video, Rom Harré Positioning Theory Symposium Bruges, July 2015, 1:06:27 hours

If I take the position that ‘people should not be allowed to carry guns’, I am placing myself at a particular location on a line or scale, the other end of which is that ‘people should be allowed to carry guns’. The extremes of this scale might be ‘people should never under any circumstances be allowed to carry guns’ and ‘people should always under all circumstances be allowed to carry guns’.

Should not be allowed – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – Should be allowed
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .^. . . . . . . . . . . . . .
. . . . . . . . . . . . A possible position . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

Once you start to assess particular circumstances, then you are taking intermediate points along the scale. Thinking of positions as lines, or scales, along which you can locate yourself and others, and potentially travel from place to place, helps everybody understand where they are and where others are coming from.

Positioning the self

It can be argued that the notion of ‘the self’ is no more than the set of positions you take up, and that these positions define your identity in a psychological sense. You can imagine a long list of attitude scales with your position marked on each, and that the overall profile (where you are located on each scale) defines your unique identity. However, it’s not so simple. You are more than your attitudes. Your physical characteristics, your genetics, your background, your memories and experiences, your skills etc., will all influence your attitudes, but are distinct from them. Also, your attitudes are not fixed. They change over time and they change in response to circumstances.

Roles, the self, and identity

There is another closely related sense of ‘position’ that goes beyond your own opinions on particular issues. This is how others (and you) position yourself in society. This is looking at you from the outside in rather than the inside out.

A position is not just where you are located on some dimension but it also implies a set of rights, responsibilities and expectations. A child is in a different position to an adult. A doctor is in a different position to a teacher or a taxi driver. We have different expectation of them, accord them different privileges and hold them to account according to different criteria.

Work roles are often known as ‘positions’. You apply for a position. Roles, like that of teacher, policeman, nurse, supervisor, colleague, judge or dogsbody can be seen as sets of rights, duties and expectations that are externally validated – i.e. that are commonly agreed amongst people other than (and including) the occupier of the role. Roles like parent and friend also confer rights and responsibilities. When you position somebody as ‘a friend’ you confer on them the right to know more about you than other people do and the duty to act in your best interests.

BBC Radio 4, In Our Time: Friendship, March 2006, 41:42 minutes

Our relationships with different people position us in different ways. To one person we may be a pupil while to another a teacher, to one a benefactor while to another a dependent, to one a comedian while to another deadly serious. As we move in and out of different social situations these different facets to our identities come to the fore or recede. It is as if our bodies contain multiple versions of the self, each triggered by particular circumstances or situations.

When you position your own rights and duties you are helping to define your ‘self’. If you believe that it is your duty to help the homeless or volunteer for unpaid jobs in the community, you are defining yourself as a particular type of public-spirited person. If you believe that you have the ‘right’ to use fear and violence to control others and justify this in terms of your duty to your country then, like Hitler or Assad, you are again defining your ‘self’.

We can distinguish between the list of rights and duties that are self-defined and part is that defined by others. In childhood your role is largely defined by others – in the family, in school etc. As you move into adulthood you increasingly define your own positions. In principle, you have control over how you define yourself, but in practice it is very hard to do this independently of the expectations of others and how they position you. Significant mismatches between your own definitions, and those of others, creates tension and even more significant stresses occur when there is a mismatch between your own perceptions of yourself and what you feel they ought to be.

One or many selves?

Our naïve assumption is that we have just one identity in the same way as we have only one body (and even that is constantly being renewed such that ever cell in our bodies may be different from what it was a few years before). In fact, it is difficult to identify what remains constant over a lifetime.

Youtube Video, Personal Identity: Crash Course Philosophy #19, CrashCourse, June 2016, 8:32 minutes

But just as we can have multiple roles we simultaneously maintain multiple identities. You may, for example, find yourself carrying on some internal debate (an inner dialogue) when making a decision. Take a difficult decision, like buying a car, moving house or making a career move. It is as if each ‘self’ is arguing the case for each option. It adopts a particular position (or set of positions) then loosely keeps track of it’s pre-requisites and implications. It can then engage in dialogue with, and be influenced by, other positions

A: I want the red sports car
B: It’ll be expensive to run
A: But it would be worth it if …
C: What kind of fool are you wanting a sports car at your age

This suggests that, not only do you change in response to circumstances, constantly re-configuring your positions to adjust to various pressures and concerns, but opens the possibility that you are made up on many different ‘selves’ all vying to have their voices heard.

Youtube Video, What Causes The Voice In Your Head?, Thoughty2, August 2015, 6:57 minutes

And even those selves are not simply stored on the shelf waiting to be activated, but are constructed on the fly to meet the needs of a constant stream of changing circumstances and discussion with the other ‘selves’.

BBC Radio 4, The Human Zoo: The Improvising Mind, June 2015, 27:37 minutes

These selves are normally related to each other. They may be constructed from the same ‘materials’ but they can be seen as distinct and to make up the ‘society of minds’ as discussed in the blog posting ‘Policy regulates behaviour’ in the section ‘who is shouting the loudest’.

Maintaining consistency of the self

Normally we seek to be consistent across our positions and this provides some stability. We strive to be internally consistent in our own view of the world and form small systems of belief that are mutually self-supporting.

Some systems of belief are easy to maintain because they are closely tied to our observations about reality. If I believe it’s night-time then I will expect it to be dark-outside, the clock to read a certain time, certain people to be present or absent, particular programmes to be on TV or radio and so on. This belief system is easy to maintain because we can expect all the observable evidence to point in much the same direction.

Beliefs about the self, by contrast are rather more fragile but nevertheless still require consistency.

Without consistency there is no stability and without stability there is unpredictability and chaos.

You need to know where you are – your position, in order to function effectively and achieve your intentions (See Knowledge is Power to Control). Maintaining a consistent model of yourself is, therefore, something of a priority. This is why we spend a good deal of or mental energy spotting inconsistencies and anomalies in the positions we take and finding ways of correcting them.

Much of what drives us as individuals is the mismatch between how we position ourselves and how we believe others, and ourselves, position us in terms of our duties, rights and expectations. We are constantly monitoring and evaluating how our own feelings, thoughts and behaviours align, and how these align with what we believe other people feel, think and behave in relation to us. If somebody unexpectedly slights us (or gives us an unexpected gift) we cannot help looking for an explanation – i.e. aligning our own belief system with what we believe others are doing and thinking. This is not necessarily to say that we are very good at getting it right and there are a whole host of ways in which we achieve alignment on spurious grounds. These are cognitive biases and their discussion underpins much of what is written in these blog postings.

Youtube Video, Identity and Positioning Theory, rx scabin, January 2013, 7:56 minutes

Re-writing the self

The world is not a totally predictable place, and more so the people we encounter in our lives. As a consequence, we are constantly creating and re-writing the story-line of our own lives in the light of changes in how we position ourselves with respect to others, and how we want or feel we ought to be positioned (see ‘The Story of Your Life’).

Although inconsistency tends to create tension and a drive to minimise it, this is something of a thankless and never-ending task. However much we work at it, there is always a new interpretation that seems to be more satisfactory if we care to look for it. Either new ‘evidence’ appears that we need to account for or we may see a new way of looking at things that makes more sense than a previous interpretation.

In a classic experiment in psychology (Festinger et al 1959) students were given either $1 or $20 to lie to other students about how interesting a task was. They were then asked about their own attitude to the task. Contrary to what you might expect, the students who were paid only $1 to lie, had a more positive attitude to the task. Festinger explains this in terms of maintaining consistency between the lie and ones own attitude when not receiving sufficient payment to lie.

Youtube Video, Testing cognitive consistency, PSYC1030x Series – Introduction to Developmental, Social & Clinical Psychology, April 2017, 3:28 minutes

The blog post called ‘It’s like this’ introduced the work of the psychologists George Kelly who set out the theory of personal constructs. Kelly uses the notion of constructs to explain how people develop the way in which they ‘see’ the world. Kelly’s personal construct theory provides a more common-sense and accessible way of understanding some of the ideas of ‘constructivism’ than some of the later, more obscure post-modernist accounts based in linguistics. George Kelly developed his theory of ‘personal constructs’ way back in 1955 and explores this view of people as ‘personal scientists’, constantly trying to make sense of the world through observation, theory and experiment.

Youtube Video, PCP film 1 Personal Construct Psychology and Qualitative Grids, Harry Procter, September 2014, 28:53 minutes

In a volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous (VUCA) world (see: ) it is impossible to keep up with aligning ones own positions with what we experience. This is true on the macro scale (the world at large) and in respect of every small detail (i.e. ‘positioning’ what even one other person thinks of you at any given moment).

Thankfully, to some extent, there is stability. Much of the world stays much the same from moment to moment and even from year to year. Stability means predictability, and when there is predictability we formulate routines and habits of thinking (e.g. Khaneman’s system 1 thinking). Routines of thought and behaviour require little mental effort to maintain. We are often reluctant to move away from established habits because apart from providing some degree of security and predictability, it takes effort to change. In the same way, there is inertia to changing ones position on some issue and we will tend to defend it, even in the face of strong evidence to the contrary.

This is particularly true in relation to the ‘self’. We don’t like to admit we are wrong to others or to ourselves. We don’t like to be accused of being inconsistent. The confirmation bias is particularly strong leading us to seek evidence in support of our view and ignore evidence that does not fit. If something happens that forces us to change our world view – we lose our job, a relationship ends, or we lose a court case – then the consequences can cause a great deal of psychological pain as we are forced to change positions on a wide range of issues, particularly those related to our own self-perception and evaluation of our self-worth.

Youtube Video, Cognitive dissonance (Dissonant & Justified), Brad Wray, April 2011,4:31 minutes

Where there isn’t stability, fortunately we can live with a great deal of ambiguity and uncertainty. Our tolerance of ambiguity and uncertainty enables us to hold some quite inconsistent, anomalous or hypocritical positions without being unduly concerns and indeed often without even being particularly aware of it. This is partly because our positions are not necessarily fixed or even known.

We can easily construct new positions, especially when we are trying to justify an emotional reaction to something. This is another example of trying to minimise dissonance and inconsistency but this time the difference we seek to minimise is between our emotional reaction and our reasoning mind. We have similar problems keeping our behaviours consistent with our emotions and thoughts.

We can construct positions ‘on the fly’ to suit circumstances and support the courses of action we want to take. We can post-rationalise to support courses of action we have taken in the past. We can toy with positions and say ‘what would it be like if’ I took such and such a position, just to see how we feel about it. In fact, each one of our multiple selves, so to speak, can construct quite elaborate scenarios in our ‘minds eye(s)’, together with related thoughts, plans and even feelings.

It is in the nature of the human condition that we ‘duck and dive’ and those that are best able to duck and dive tend to be those that can achieve their goals most successfully. Tolerance of ambiguity, and the ability to quickly evaluate and adjust to new circumstances and interpretations, is a great virtue from the point of view of survival.

Furthermore, our realities are socially constructed. We learn from others what to note and what to ignore. Our friends, families, organisations, the media and culture shape what we perceive, interpret and how we act in response. It is our social environment that largely determines the ‘positions’ that we see as being available and the ones that we choose for ourselves.

YouTube Video, positioning theory in systemic family therapy, CMNtraining, July 2015, 33:10 minutes

Positioning and epistemology

Although we strive for consistency between our beliefs and what we take to be external reality, in fact the relationship can be quire tenuous. You might, for example, take the position that you are a good driver. Then, one day you have an accident, but instead of changing your belief about yourself, you believe that it was the fault of another driver. A second accident is blamed on the weather. A third is put down to poor lighting on the road, and a fourth to road-works. You have now built up a mini system of beliefs about the factors that lead to accidents that could, more than likely and more easily, be explained by you being a poor driver. It is not until one day you are charged with careless driving, that you finally have to revise this somewhat fragile belief system.

Belief systems can be a bit like bubbles. They can grow larger as more supporting beliefs are brought in to sustain an original position. Then other beliefs must prop up the supporting beliefs and so on. If the original position had no support in reality the whole system will be fragile, eventually become unsustainable and burst leaving nothing in its place.

In contrast, belief systems that have a stronger foundation do not need propping up with other fragile positions. Each position can stand-alone and therefore can re-enforce others it is related to. This results in a stable belief system with mutually re-enforcing positions and even if one falls away, the rest of the structure will still stand.

Having said that, no belief system is invulnerable. Even the most ‘solid’ of belief systems such as Einsteinian physics came under attack from quantum mechanics. The way in which science progresses is not by gradual accumulation of ‘facts’ but, as Kuhn observed in 1963, is more to do with the eventual replacement of established paradigms by new ones, only once the old paradigm becomes completely unsustainable. This model probably also applies to the belief systems of individuals where established systems are clung to for as long as can be sustained.

As we move towards the development of artificial intelligence and robots it will be increasingly necessary to understand the logic and mathematics of belief systems.

Noah Friedkin (2017) has developed a mathematical model of how belief systems change in response to new evidence and illustrates this with how beliefs change amongst the US public as new evidence emerged in relation to the Iraq war.

How will robots build their belief systems and change them in the light of evidence? This is one of the issues examined at .

The naive theory of knowledge is that our knowledge and perceptions are simply a mirror of reality. However, the more we think about it the more we understand that what we take to be reality is very much a function of how we perceive and interpret it.

Some animals, for example, can detect frequencies of sound and light that people cannot detect – they literally live in a different world. In the same way, one person may ‘see’ or ‘interpret’ what they perceive very differently from another person. They are ‘sensitive’ to quite different features of the world. A skilled football player may see a foul or an offside, while to a non-player ignorant of the rules just sees the players aimlessly kicking a ball around. Also, we are highly selective in what we attend to. When we look at a clock, we see the time, but afterwards often cannot say whether the clock had numbers or marks, let alone the colour of the clock-face. In the post-modern view of the world, reality is ‘constructed’ from the meaning we actively seek and project onto it, rather than what we passively receive or record.

Positioning in relationships

The term ‘relationship’ can include personal relationships, work relationships, relationships between organisations, relationships between the citizen and the state, relationships between countries and many more. It can be easier to think in terms of personal relationships first and then go on to apply the principles to other types of relationship.

Relationships reveal an important characteristic of positioning. If I take one position, I may necessarily force you into another, whether you like it or not. So, if I take the position that you are ‘lazy’, for example, then you either have to agree or challenge that position. One way or another, ‘laziness’ has become a construct within our relationship and it is quite difficult to dismiss or ignore it, especially if you are frequently being labelled as ‘lazy’ at every opportunity. It is quite difficult to live with another person’s positioning of you that you do not agree with yourself. It is a kind of assault on your own judgement. We not only seek internal consistency but also consistency with others’ perceptions. Any dissonance or discrepancy will create some tension that motivates a desire to resolve it.

There is also a more subtle form of positioning. This is not necessarily positioning with respect to a particular issue but a more general sense in which you relate to a particular person, society in general, a job, or indeed more or less anything you care to think about. Are you close to or distant from it; behind it or ahead or it; on top of it or is it on top of you? Here positioning is being used as a metaphor for how you generally relate to something.

Youtube Video, Relationship Position – Metaphors with Andrew T. Austin, Andrew T. Austin, July 2012, 13:34 minutes

Another interesting idea, related to spatial positioning in relationships, is Lewin’s Force/Field Theory in which the forces ‘for’ and ‘again’ some change are assessed. If, for example, in some relationship there are some attracting forces and some repelling forces (an approach/avoidance conflict) then a party to the relationship may find some optimal distance between them where the forces balance. If the other party has a different optimal distance at any point in time, then we leave Lewin’s theory and are into negotiation.

Youtube Video, Lewin, headlessprofessor, November 2015, 5:35 minutes


In a relationship, one way of resolving a discrepancy is to argue the case. So I may argue that I am not lazy and support this by evidence – ‘look at all the things I do…’. Another way is to ‘live up to’ the positioning. So, if you describe me as ‘kind’, I may start to exhibit kinder behaviours, and if you position me as ‘lazy’ I may be more likely to stay on the couch. Both ‘arguing the case’ and ‘living up to’ can be seen as an attempt to resolve a positioning discrepancy – to seek consistency and to simplify.

However, people being intelligent as they are, can often predict or at least guess at each others positions, and can then use this knowledge to alter their own actual or declared positions. A positive use of this would be to act in a way that supports or cooperates with another person’s position. So, if I can guess that you would not want to go out to see some of our friends tonight, to save time or argument I might say that I don’t want to go out either, even if I would want to.

Sometimes this will involve negotiation. We may not want the same things but we may well be prepared to ‘trade’. A good trade is where both parties can change their position on something that costs little to them but gives a lot of value to the other. I might say ‘if we go out we can get a take-away’ on the way back, knowing that this will make the proposition more attractive to you.

Alternatively, I might exaggerate the extent to which I think going would be a good thing, knowing that we might then settle on going for a short time (which is what I really want). However, once we get into this type of ‘hidden’ positioning everything starts to get more complicated as we both try to out-guess what the other really wants. Trades are made considerably easier if both parties trust each other to be honest about their own costs and values. Negotiation will start to get difficult as soon as one or both parties hide information about cost and value in an attempt to seek advantage (e.g. by pretending that something is of no value to them when it is).

It is useful to distinguish between one’s ‘position’ and one’s ‘interest’. One’s position in a negotiation is what you say publicly to the other party, whereas one’s interest is often hidden. One’s interest can be thought about as the reason you hold a particular position. This reason may be ‘because I want to get the most for myself out of this transaction as possible’, and we often (sometimes unjustifiably) attribute this interest to the other party. But as often as not the reason may be quite different. It might even be that the other party wants you to gain as much as possible out of the transaction, but your natural suspicion precludes you seeing their genuine motive. Equally, the other person’s interest might be nothing to do with how much each gets out of it. You may not want to go out because it’s cold outside. If this ‘interest’ is revealed it can open up new solutions – ‘we can take the car’ (when the default assumption was that we would walk).

Youtube video, Interests and Positions in Negotiation – Noam Ebner with Vanessa Seyman, Noam Ebner, February 2015, 15:03 minutes

Although it is possible to hold hidden positions to seek advantage or manipulatively, much of what goes on in negotiation is more to do with understanding our own and an other’s interests. A lot of the time we only have vague ideas about where we stand in our interests and positions. We have even less information about where somebody else stands. We need to test possible positions as they apply to particular circumstances before we can make up our minds. I need to say ‘let’s go out tonight’ before I know how either you are I will actually feel about it, and as we debate the various factors that will influence the decision we may both sway around from one position to another, also taking the other’s reactions and uncertain interests and position into account, before settling on our own position, let alone a mutual one.

However, through the informal use of positioning theory in everyday life, we can identify and make explicit what the various dimensions are. We can reveal where each party places themselves and the other on these dimensions and where the differences lie. This takes an important step towards arriving at decisions that we can agree on.

Positioning, power and control

The rights and responsibilities that we confer on each other, and accept for ourselves, determine the power relationships between us. Studies of power amongst college students in the US suggest that power is granted to individuals by others rather than grabbed. Certain people are positioned by others to rise in the social hierarchy because they are seen to benefit a social group.

Youtube video, Social Science & Power Dynamics | UC Berkeley Executive Education, berkeleyexeced, May 2016, 3:43 minutes

Donald Trumps rise to power can be read within this framework as power granted by the manoeuvrings of the republican party in its candidate selection process and the growing group of economically disenfranchised workers in the US. Similarly, the rise to prominence of the UKIP party in the UK can be read as having followed a similar pattern.

In the power relationships between individuals, often very little is spelt out, and rights and duties between individuals can be in constant flux. In principle it is possible to formalise the positions of the parties in a relationship in a contract. Marriage is a high level contract, the terms of which have been ‘normalised’ by society, mainly in the interest of maintaining the stability and hence the predictability of the social structure. Many of the detailed terms are left undefined and are themselves a matter for negotiation, as the need arises, such that the structures holding the relationship between two individuals together can flex a great deal. Many of the terms are implied by social convention within the immediate culture and circumstances of the parties. Some terms may be explicitly discussed and negotiated, especially when one party feels there has been a breach on the part of the other party. As people and circumstances change, terms may be re-negotiated. It may take major, repeated or pro-longed imbalances or breaches of implied terms to break the ‘contract’.

For example, if your position is that I have a duty to supply you with your dinner when you come home from work, and I accept that you have a right to that position, then we have established a power relationship between us. If I do not cook your dinner one evening then your right has been breached and you may take the position that you have a right of redress. Perhaps it has created an obligation that I should do something that provides an equivalent value to you, and in that sense, I am in your debt. Or perhaps it gives you the right to complain. Alternatively, I may take the position that while you have that right in general, I have the right to a night off once in a while, and then we may be into a negotiation about how much notice I may be expected to give, how often and so on. The rights and duties with respect to cooking dinner will be just one of many terms in the implied contract between us. It may be that I accept your right to be provided with dinner on the basis that you pay for the food. And this is only the start. There may be a long and complicated list of implied terms, understood circumstances of breach and possible remedies to rectify breaches.

Ultimately, to maintain the relationship we must both expect to have a net benefit over the longer term. We may be prepared to concede positions in the short term either by negotiating for something else of immediate value, or the value may be deferred as a form of social ‘debt’ with the confidence and expectation that the books will be balanced one day. However, the precise balancing of the books doesn’t matter much so long as the relationship confers a net benefit.

Coercive, financial and other forms of power

Descriptions of power in terms of rights, duties, laws, and social norms refer to the type of power we are used to in democratic society. In some relationships the flexibility to change or negotiate a change in position is severely limited. An authoritarian state may maintain power using the police and the army. An authoritarian person, narcissist or psychopath will also demonstrate an inflexibility over positioning. The authoritarian state or individual may use coercive power. The narcissist and the psychopath may have difficulty in empathising with another person’s position.

Wealth also confers power. People and organisations can be paid to take up particular positions – both in the sense of jobs or in the sense of attitudes. Pay for a marketing campaign and you can change people’s positions on whether they will buy something or vote some way. In modern market-based societies, wealth is legitimised as an acceptable way of granting power to people and organisations that are seen to confer benefit on society. However, wealth can easily be used both subtilely and coercively to change people’s positions to align with value systems that are not their own.

Youtube video, How to understand power – Eric Liu, TED-Ed, November 2014, 7:01 minutes

Positioning in organisations

Just as important are the positions taken within an organisation and the various dilemmas and tensions that these reveal. For example, for most organisations there is a constant tension between quality and cost. Some parts of the organisation will be striving to keep costs down while others are striving to maintain quality. Exactly how this plays out, and how it matches to the demand in the market, may determine a products success or failure. The National Health Service (NHS) in the UK is a classic example of a publicly funded organisation that is in a constant struggle to maintain quality standards within cost constraints.

Different parts of the organisation will take different positions on the importance of various stakeholders. The board may be concerned about shareholder value, the management concerned to satisfy customers and the workers concerned for the welfare of the staff. The R&D department may be more concerned about innovation and the sales force more concerned about the success of the current product lines. Again, by making explicit the positions of each group, it is possible to identify differences, debate the trade-offs and more readily arrive at policies and actions that are agreed to serve their mutual interests. Where tensions cannot be resolved at lower levels in the organisation, they can become the concern of the executive (see ‘The Executive Function’).

Another type of positioning has an important role to play in organisations. A commercial company may spend a lot of effort identifying and maintaining its brand and market positioning. This is its position with respect to its competitors and it’s customers, and helps define its unique selling points (USPs).

Youtube Video, Marketing: Segmentation – Targeting – Positioning, tutor2u, April 2016, 4:08 minutes

‘Don’t ask for permission ask for forgiveness’ is a mantra chanted by people and companies that put a premium on innovation. How we each act is not only determined by what we can do. It is a matter of both what we can do and what we are permitted to do. We can be ‘permitted by others’ that confer on us the right to do it, and by the rights we confer on ourselves. If we seek forgiveness rather than permission we are conferring on ourselves the right to take risks then respond to the errors we make that cross the boundaries of the rights and duties other people confer on us.

We live in a competitive social world where we may have some choice over our trades in rights and duties. If I take the position that employer X is not paying me enough for the job I do, I can potential go to employer Y instead. However, there are costs and uncertainties in switching that make social systems relatively stable. The distribution of power is therefore constrained to some extent by the ‘free market’ in the trading of rights and duties.

Positioning in language and culture

Positioning can involve ascribing attributes to people (e.g. she is strong, he is kind etc.).

Every time you label something you are taking a position.

Linguistic labels can have a powerful influence within a culture because they can come heavily laden with expectations about rights and responsibilities. Ascribing the attribute ‘disabled’ or ‘migrant’, for example, may confer rights to benefits, and may confer a duty on others to help the vulnerable overcome their difficulties. Ascribing the attribute ‘female’, until relatively recently, assigned different legal rights and duties to the attribute ‘male’. However, the positioning can extend far beyond legal rights and duties to a whole range of less explicit rights and duties that can be instrumental in determining power relationships.

It is not always appreciated that the labels put on people, positions them to such an extent with respect to both explicit and implicit rights and duties, and it is easy to use labels without a full appreciation of the consequences. The labels we put on people are not isolated judgements or positions. Through leaned associations, they come in clusters. So to label somebody as ‘intelligent’ is also to imply that they are knowledgeable and reasonable. It even implies that there is a good chance that they will wear glasses. The label brings to mind a whole stereotype that may involve many detailed characteristics.

This is both useful and problematic. It is useful because it prepares us to expect certain things, and that saves us having to work out everything from detailed observation and first principles. It is a problem because no particular instance is likely to conform to the stereotype and there is a good chance that we will misinterpret their actions or intentions in particular situations. Particularly pernicious is when, through stereotyping, we position somebody along the dimensions ‘friend or foe’ (or ‘inferior – superior’) because of the numerous implications for the way in which we infer rights and duties from this, and hence how we behave in relation to them.

Particularly pernicious is when language is use to mislead. This is often the case in the language of politics and the language of advertising.

The terms used to describe a policy or product can create highly misleading expectations.

Youtube video, Language of Politics – Noam Chomsky, Serious Science, September 2014, 12:45 minutes

George Orwell in his book ‘1984’ understood only too well how language can be used to influence and constrain thought.

Youtube Video, George Orwell 1984 Newspeak, alawooz, June 2013, 23:08 minutes

Positions, rights and duties

Much of our conversation concerns categorising things and then either implicitly or explicitly ascribing rights and responsibilities. So we may gossip on the bus about whether a schoolmate is a bully, whether a person is having an affair or if someone is a good neighbour. In so doing we are making evaluations – or, in other words, taking positions.

The bully has no right to act as they do and confers on others the right to punish. Similarly, the person having an affair may be seen as neglecting a duty of fidelity and therefore also relinquishing rights. The good neighbour may be going beyond their duty and attracting the right of respect.

Between two individuals much discussion involves negotiation over rights and duties and what constitutes fair trade-offs, both in principle and in practice. If one person does something for another, an implicit principle of fairness through reciprocation, creates an obligation (a duty that can be deferred) to do something of equal value (but not necessarily at equal cost) in return. A perceived failure to perform a duty may create a storyline of victimisation in the mind of one party that the other party may be blissfully unaware of, unless conversation takes place to resolve it.

When you have a duty, it is generally to another person or organisation. Typically, you have a duty when you have the power to overcome another person’s vulnerability. So if a person is too short to reach something on a high shelf, and you are tall enough to reach it, people tend to believe that you have a duty to do so.

To claim a right is to admit a vulnerability and to assert that somebody with the power to address that vulnerability, will do so.

The right to a fair trial admits a vulnerability to the rushed judgement of the crowd (or the monarch), and confers a duty on the judicial system to protect you from this. The right to citizenship and healthcare admits to vulnerabilities with regard to security and health and confers a duty on the state to provide it.

Youtube video, What Are Rights? Duty & The Law | Philosophy Tube, Philosophy Tube, January 2016, 6:41 minutes

Positioning, ethics and morality

Psychologists Lawrence Kohlberg, in 1958, developed a test of moral reasoning and proposed a number of stages of development in being able to take moral positions. The higher the level the greater the ability to take into account a range of moral positions. A small child may focus on only one aspect of a moral problem. At later stages a person will take into account the positions of different interests – the family, the community, the law and so on. At stage 4 there is an understanding of social order. At stage 6 (a stage that very few people reach) a person is able to reason through a complete range of moral positions. Most adults operate at levels 3 or 4. Kohlberg methods have since been questioned and elaborated. One theory is that we act morally because of our emotional reactions to a situation and that moral reasoning is more of a social act when persuading other people. There are also cultural differences in the importance attributed to moral positions.

BBC Radio 4, Mind Changers: The Heinz Dilemma, September 2008, 27:32 minutes

Positioning in international relations

International relations are nearly always set within the context of multiple parties. Even when considering Arab / Israeli or US/Mexico there is a context that involves many other parties and positions are held in the light of alignments with close ‘allies’. In fact the context can be quite entangled and confusing as in the case of Syria (involving the Syrian regime, the Syrian people, the Islamic State, the Russians and the US as well as many other factions let alone international groupings such as the United Nations and charities). Most importantly any government or regime may have to square its position on the international stage with it’s position within its own country. All these factors considerably reduce the flexibility of re-positioning, except when circumstances configure in such a way that there is a window of opportunity.

Examples of international conflicts can be found at:

Often in international relations it is difficult to establish a parties true costs and true values because parties may hide or exaggerate these to seek a negotiation advantage. It is a matter of working out for each party where there is least rigidity on a set of relevant positions, defining small changes from one (set of) position to another and then working out how to present this change to different parties in terms of their own values, language and objectives.

Youtube video, Negotiations | Model Diplomacy, Council on Foreign Relations, November 2016, 4:57 minutes

It can be important to have a neutral or otherwise acceptable party present propositions or lead negotiations. In terms of how it will be received, the source of a communication can be more influential than the communication itself.

Separating out the underlying reality and logic of the positions from how they are presented and by whom is a first step in resolving conflict. However, throw in unpredictable factors, like a US president failing to follow any previous logic or process, and any such model can break down.

The hidden positions of designed objects and procedures

All artifacts contain embedded positions. So, a door handle embeds the position that it is ok to open the door and a microphone embeds the position that it is ok to record or amplify sound. Even more subtle, is that merely making one thing more readily available that another can embed a position. So, if there is a piano in a bar or a railway station, then it automatically raises the possibility that it may be ok to play it.

This characteristic of all objects and artifacts has a specific name within psychology. It is called ‘affordance’. The door handle affords opening and the piano in a public place affords playing.

Youtube video, Universal Design Principles 272 – Affordance, anna gustafsson, October 2014, 2:10 minutes

Looking at things from this point of view may be difficult to grasp but it has massive implications. These positions are, in one sense obvious, but in another they are difficult to see. They can be so obvious that they go unquestioned and are effectively hidden from scrutiny. They can easily be used to manipulate and exert power, without people being particularly aware of it.

There are several examples that apply to the design of procedures:

• A corporation, for example, may make it very easy for you to buy a service but difficult for you to discontinue it (e.g. subscriptions that automatically renew that require you to contact the right person with the right subscription information, both of which are hard to find, before you can cancel).
• A government may have you complete a long form and meet many requirements in order to claim benefits, while providing many small reasons for a benefit to be taken away.
• Another classic and more obvious example is how, in the UK, energy companies offer a range of time limited tariffs and switch you to a more expensive tariff at the end of the period, requiring you to make the effort to switch suppliers or pay substantially more (as much as 50% extra) for energy.

These subtle affordances are often just accepted or overlooked as just being ‘the way things work’, but when all one’s energy is taken up dealing with the trivia of everyday life, they turn out to be a powerful force that ‘keeps you in your place’ (whether or not they are deliberately designed to do so).

Positioning and technology

It is already becoming apparent that any computer algorithm is not neutral with respect to position. An algorithm that scores my credit worthiness, for example, can have significant impact on my life even though it is only using an a small sample of indicators in making its judgment. These may, for example, might include debts that I dispute and might exclude a long-term history of credit and trustworthiness. The algorithm takes its position from a particular set of indicators that constitutes ‘its world’ of understanding. However I might easily question that it is not looking at the right things, or that it is quite likely using that information in a misleading way. And like any set of metrics, they can be manipulated once you know the algorithm.

These are algorithms that are explicitly programmed into the software on various decision-making systems. When it comes to more advanced technology based on machine learning, it is also already apparent that we are building into our artificially intelligent devices all kinds of default positions without even realizing it. So, if an AI programme selects staff for interview on the basis of data across which it has run its machine learning algorithms, it will simply replicate biases that are deeply entrenched but that go unquestioned. For example it might build in biases against gender, race or many other factors that we might call into question if they were explicit.

Youtube Vide, Cathy O’Neil | Weapons of Math Destruction, PdF YouTube, June 2015, 12:15 minutes

As we develop artificial intelligences in all sorts of situations and in many different manifestations from credit rating algorithms to robots we can easily embed positions that that cause harm. Sometimes this will be unwittingly and sometimes it will deliberate. See for a fuller account of this topic.

Positioning and narrative

An utterance in a conversation can mean entirely different things depending upon the context. So if I ask ‘Did you pass the paper?’ I will mean quite different things if I am referring to an incident where somebody left a newspaper on a train, to if we had been talking about a recent exam, to if we had been talking about a paper being considered by a committee.

The storyline is different in each case and the position I take in asking the question may also be different. My question may be simple curiosity, the expression of a hope or may determine my intention to act in a particular way, also depending on the context or storyline. In fact, my position will probably be unclear unless I explain it. It is more than likely that you will interpret it one way, in accordance with your theory about what’s going on, while I mean it a different way, according to my own. Furthermore we may never realise it and be quite surprised should we compare our accounts of the conversation at a later date.

Youtube Video, Positioning Theory, ScienceEdResearch, July 2017, 6:02 minutes

By contrast, the blog post called ‘It’s like this’ notes how ‘the single story’ (a fixed and commonly held interpretation or position) can trap whole groups of people into a particular way in which others see them and how they themselves see the world. One way or another ‘position’ has a powerful influence.

Positioning theory integrates

This tour around the many applications of ‘positioning theory’ shows how it integrates many of the concepts being put forward in this series of blog postings. It is a powerful tool for understanding the individual, the individual in the context of others, social institutions in relation to each other and institutions in relation to the individual. In its relation to rights and duties it addresses some of the dynamics of power and control. It even transcends the distinction between people and objects, and has profound implications for the development of artificial intelligence.

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UK Industrial Strategy, November 2017

The Behavioural Insights Team (BIT) has just published its response to the new UK Industrial Strategy and both BIT and I are pretty positive about it. Let me tell you why and then, let me tell you what’s still wrong with it.

Experimentation and Evaluation

The strategy (see link at the bottom of this page) recommends taking an empirical approach to policy making.

This is not so much to determine policy objectives but to test what works in terms of implementing objectives and making sure that there is some soft of feedback loop between implementing, evaluating and re-formulating how the policy is implemented. This is great, not just because it brings scientific method into policy but because it accepts that the social world is complex and you often cannot anticipate how a policy will play out in practice.

How many times have policies failed, not because the intentions are bad but because of the unanticipated consequences (do I have to say ‘Universal Credit’ to make the point?)? Why is it not a requirement of all legislation to monitor its consequences in a systematic way and sharpen it up around the edges or abandon it (dare I say Brexit – see ‘Is the referendum decision definitive?’)?. Politics is still unfortunately a matter of who shouts the loudest – see ‘Policy Regulates Behaviour’.

Using Data to Improve Government Services

The strategy argues for better use of data (especially ‘big data’) to improve government services. This is similar, in principle, to the first point about bringing science into policy. It’s another strand of taking an empirical approach.

My observation here is that its not just data. It’s information. Raw data requires interpretation. Raw data contains many biases in what is collected, the way it is collected and the way it is reported and used. For example, even now it is recognized that machine learning, based on historical training data, can build in historical biases and can embed in algorithms, biases that on reflection, we might prefer not to perpetuate. Therefore, by all means use data to improve services, but that’s not enough. There may need to be several layers of analysis above the raw data, looking at it as part of a large and complex system, before it can be used meaningfully.

Making Markets more Dynamic

One of my favourite activities is identifying how companies (and public services) play on our deficiencies in energy and effort, ability and cognition. We are slow to change suppliers even when there is a better deal. We are confronted by confusion marketing that makes it nearly impossible to compare deals. Complaint mechanisms make it exceedingly difficult to get remedies and effect changes in company procedures. I have a particular gripe regarding how companies mis-use their power to affect credit ratings when people have genuine grievances. And the regulators are no better, often putting further obstacles in the way of effecting change. This results in a severe lack of accountability in the running of both commercial companies and public services (see ‘It doesn’t end with Grenfell’ and ‘society can drive you mad’).

The use of feedback to improve product and service design and management procedures is a valuable and overlooked resource. Instead of defending against complaints, institutions need to use complaints as a primary mechanism of re-designing and improving services.

But beyond feedback there is an ethical dimension. Businesses that mislead and manipulate consumers do a disservice to everybody including themselves. We need to re-think economics so that organizations are measured on the true value they deliver and not on their ability to cut costs or provide returns to directors and shareholders. See ‘True Value’.

Innovating at a User and Local Level

In a recent report on local government, a team I am part of, recommend ‘Innovation at the user and local level’. See ‘Local Government’. In a world in which 8 people own over half of the world’s resources, change will only happen from the ground up.

Managing the Managers

It is not just that managers (especially middle managers) in the UK need to be better trained. They also need to be better and more authentic leaders. They need to encapsulate the values that we can admire and respect and earn their place, not just because they are good at cutting costs or making money, but because we acknowledge that they are doing their best to make society a better place. See ‘Is it Time we had authentic leadership?’.

And in relation to ‘productivity’ we have got it all wrong. We must go much further than this to redefine productivity to genuinely reflect value. Productivity should not be measured in terms of economic indices like Gross Domestic Product (GDP). We have to measure where genuine value is added (again see ‘True Value’) and consider other ways in which the wellbeing of society can be measured (see ‘The New Economics’).


Let’s praise the White paper on the New Industrial Strategy. It’s going in the right direction. But at the same time, let’s recognize that it’s not going far enough.


Article, The UK’s new Industrial Strategy: a modern foundation for economic growth – Robbie Tilleard, Nida Broughton and Elisabeth Costa, November 2017
BIT Commentary on the UK Economic Strategy, November 2017

Article, The UK’s new Industrial Strategy: Access to Government White Paper, November 2017
UK Government White Paper on the UK’s Economic Strategy, November 2017

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Posted in Accountability, Economic theory, Economics, Inequality, Politics, Science, Strategy, Systems theory, Value, Values, Well-Being, Wellbeing

Human Operating System 4 – Ways of Knowing

How do we know what we know? This article considers:

(1) the ways we come to believe what we think we know

(2) the many issues with the validation of our beliefs

(3) the implications for building artificial intelligence and robots based on the human operating system.

I recently came across a video (on the site that identified the following ‘ways of knowing’:

Sensory perception

This list is mainly about mechanisms or processes by which an individual acquires knowledge. It could be supplemented by other processes, for example, ‘meditation’, ‘science’ or ‘history’, each of which provides its own set of approaches to generating new knowledge for both the individual and society as a whole. There are many difference ways in which we come to formulate beliefs and understand the world.

In the spirit of working towards a description of the ‘human operating system’, it is interesting to consider how a robot or other Artificial Intelligence (AI), that was ‘running’ the human operating system, would draw on its knowledge and beliefs in order to solve a problem (e.g. resolve some inconsistency in its beliefs). This forces us to operationalize the process and define the control mechanism more precisely. I will work through the above list of ‘ways of knowing’ and illustrate how each might be used.

Let’s say that the robot is about to go and do some work outside and, for a variety of reasons, needs to know what the weather is like (e.g. in deciding whether to wear protective clothing, or how suitable the ground is for sowing seeds or digging up for some construction work etc.) .

First it might consult its senses. It might attend to its visual input and note the patterns of light and dark, comparing this to known states and conclude that it was sunny. The absence of the familiar sound patterns (and smell) of rain might provide confirmation. The whole process of matching the pattern of data it is receiving through its multiple senses, with its store of known patterns, can be regarded as ‘intuitive’ because it is not a reasoning process as such. In the Khanemman sense of ‘system 1’ thinking, the robot just knows without having to perform any reasoning task.

Youtube Video, System 1 and System 2, Stoic Academy, February 2017, 1:26 minutes

The knowledge obtained from matching perception to memory can nevertheless be supplemented by reasoning, or other forms of knowledge that confirm or question the intuitively-reached conclusion. If we introduce some conflicting knowledge, e.g. that the robot thinks it’s the middle of the night in it’s current location, we then create a circumstance in which there is dissonance between two sources of knowledge – the perception of sunlight and the time of day. This assumes the robot has elaborated knowledge about where and when the sun is above the horizon and can potentially shine (e.g. through language – see below).

In people the dissonance triggers the emotional state of ‘surprise’ and the accompanying motivation to account for the contradiction.

Youtube Video, Cognitive Dissonance, B2Bwhiteboard, February 2012, 1:37 minutes

Likewise, we might label the process that causes the search for an explanation in the robot as ‘surprise’. An attempt may be made to resolve this dissonance through Kahneman’s slower, more reasoned, system 2 thinking. Either the perception is somehow faulty, or the knowledge about the time of day is inaccurate. Maybe the robot has mistaken the visual and audio input as coming from its local senses when in fact the input has originated from the other side of the world. (Fortunately, people do not have to confront the contradictions caused by having distributed sensory systems).

Probably in the course of reasoning about how to reconcile the conflicting inputs, the robot will have had to run through some alternative possible scenarios that could account for the discrepancy. These may have been generated by working through other memories associated with either the perceptual inputs or other factors that have frequently led to mis-interpretations in the past. Sometimes it may be necessary to construct unique possible explanations out of component part explanations. Sometimes an explanation may emerge through the effect of numerous ideas being ‘primed’ through the spreading activation of associated memories. Under these circumstances, you might easily say that the robot was using it’s imagination in searching for a solution that had not previously been encountered.

Youtube Video, TEDxCarletonU 2010 – Jim Davies – The Science of Imagination, TEDx Talks, September 2010, 12:56 minutes

Lastly, to faith and language as sources of knowledge. Faith is different because, unlike all the other sources, it does not rely on evidence or proof. If the robot believed, on faith, that the sun was shining, any contradictory evidence would be discounted, perhaps either as being in error or as being irrelevant. Faith is often maintained by others, and this could be regarded as a form of evidence, but in general if you have faith in or trust something, it is at least filling the gap between the belief and the direct evidence for it.

Here is a religious account of faith that identifies it with trust in the reliability of God to deliver, where the main delivery is eternal life.

Youtube video, What is Faith – Matt Morton – The Essence of Faith – Grace 360 conference 2015,Grace Bible Church, September 2015, 12:15 minutes

Language as a source of evidence is a catch-all for the knowledge that comes second hand from the teachings and reports of others. This is indirect knowledge, much of which we take on trust (i.e. faith), and some of which is validated by direct evidence or other indirect evidence. Most of us take on trust that the solar system exists, that the sun is at the centre, and that earth is in the third orbit. We have gained this knowledge through teachers, friends, family, tv, radio, books and other sources that in their turn may have relied on astronomers and other scientist who have arrived at these conclusions through observation and reason. Few of us have made the necessary direct observations and reasoned inferences to have arrived at the conclusion directly. If our robot were to consult databases of known ‘facts’, put together by people and other robots, then it would be relying on knowledge through this source.


People like to think that their own beliefs are ‘true’ and that these beliefs provide a solid basis for their behaviour. However, the more we find out about the psychology of human belief systems the more we discover the difficulties in constructing consistent and coherent beliefs, and the shortcomings in our abilities to construct accurate models of ‘reality’. This creates all kinds of difficulties amongst people in their agreements about what beliefs are true and therefore how we should relate to each other in peaceful and productive ways.

If we are now going on to construct artificial intelligences and robots that we interact with and have behaviours that impact the world, we want to be pretty sure that the beliefs a robot develops still provide a basis for understanding their behaviour.

Unfortunately, every one of the ‘ways of knowing’ is subject to error. We can again go through them one by one and look at the pitfalls.

Sensory perception: We only have to look at the vast body of research on visual illusion (e.g. see ‘Representations of Reality – Part 1’) to appreciate that our senses are often fooled. Here are some examples related to colour vision:

Youtube Video, Optical illusions show how we see | Beau Lotto,TED, October 2009, 18:59 minutes

Furthermore, our perceptions are heavily guided by what we pay attention to, meaning that we can miss all sorts of significant and even life-threatening information in our environment. Would a robot be similarly misled by its sensory inputs? It’s difficult to predict whether a robot would be subject to sensory illusions, and this might depend on the precise engineering of the input devices, but almost certainly a robot would have to be selective in what input it attended to. Like people, there could be a massive volume of raw sensory input and every stage of processing from there on would contain an element of selection and interpretation. Even differences in what input devices are available (for vision, sound, touch or even super-human senses like perception of non-visual parts of the electromagnetic spectrum), will create a sensory environment (referred to as the ‘umwelt’ or ‘merkwelt’in ethology) that could be quite at variance with human perceptions of the world.

YouTube Video, What is MERKWELT? What does MERKWELT mean? MERKWELT meaning, definition & explanation, The Audiopedia, July 2017, 1:38 minutes

Memory: The fallibility of human memory is well documented. See, for example, ‘The Story of Your Life’, especially the work done by Elizabeth Loftus on the reliability of memory. A robot, however, could in principle, given sufficient storage capacity, maintain a perfect and stable record of all its inputs. This is at variance with the human experience but could potentially mean that memory per se was more accurate, albeit that it would be subject to variance in what input was stored and the mechanisms of retrieval and processing.

Intuition and reason: This is the area where some of the greatest gains (and surprises) in understanding have been made in recent years. Much of this progress is reported in the work of Daniel Kahneman that is cited many times in these writings. Errors and biases in both intuition (system 1 thinking) and reason (system 2 thinking) are now very well documented. A long list of cognitive biases can be found at:

Would a robot be subject to the same type of biases? It is already established that many algorithms, used in business and political campaigning, routinely build in the biases, either deliberately or inadvertently. If a robot’s processes of recognition and pattern matching are based on machine learning algorithms that have been trained on large historical datasets, then bias is virtually guaranteed to be built into its most basic operations. We need to treat with great caution any decision-making based on machine learning and pattern matching.

Youtube Vide, Cathy O’Neil | Weapons of Math Destruction, PdF YouTube, June 2015, 12:15 minutes

As for reasoning, there is some hope that the robustness of proofs that can be achieved computationally may save the artificial intelligence or robot from at least some of the biases of system 2 thinking.

Emotion: Biases in people due to emotional reactions are commonplace. See, for example:

Youtube Video, Unconscious Emotional Influences on Decision Making, The Rational Channel, February 2017, 8:56 minutes

However, it is also the case that emotions are crucial in decision–making. Emotions often provide the criteria and motivation on which decisions are made and without them, people can be severely impaired in effective decision-making. Also, emotions provide at least one mechanism for approaching the subject of ethics in decision-making.

Youtube Video, When Emotions Make Better Decisions – Antonio Damasio,, August 2009, 3:22 minutes

Can robots have emotions? Will robots need emotions to make effective decisions? Will emotions bias or impair a robot’s decision-making. These are big questions and are only touched on here, but briefly, there is no reason why emotions cannot be simulated computationally although we can never know if an artificial computational device will have the subjective experience of emotion (or thought). Probably some simulation of emotion will be necessary for robot decision-making to align with human values (e.g. empathy) and, yes, a side-effect of this may well be to introduce bias into decision-making.

For a selection of BBC programmes on emotions see:

Imagination: While it doesn’t make much sense to talk about ‘error’ when it comes to imagination, we might easily make value-judgments about what types of imagination might be encouraged and what might be discouraged. Leaving aside debates about how, say excessive experience of violent video games, might effect imagination in people, we can at least speculate as to what might or should go on in the imagination of a robot as it searches through or creates new models to help predict the impacts of its own and others behaviours.

A big issue has arisen as to how an artificial intelligence can explain its decision-making to people. While AI based on symbolic reasoning can potentially offer a trace describing the steps it took to arrice at a conclusion, AIs based on machine learning would be able to say little more than ‘I recognized the pattern as corresponding to so and so’, which to a person is not very explanatory. It turns out that even human experts are often unable to provide coherent accounts of their decision-making, even when they are accurate.

Having an AI or robot account for its decision-making in a way understandable to people is a problem that I will address in later analysis of the human operating system and, I hope, provide a mechanism that bridges between machine learning and more symbolic approaches.

Faith: It is often said that discussing faith and religion is one of the easiest ways to lose friends. Any belief based on faith is regarded as true by definition, and any attempt to bring evidence to refute it, stands a good chance of being regarded as an insult. Yet people have different beliefs based on faith and they cannot all be right. This not only creates a problem for people, who will fight wars over it, but it is also a significant problem for the design of AIs and robots. Do we plug in the Muslim or the Christian ethics module, or leave it out altogether? How do we build values and ethical principles into robots anyway, or will they be an emergent property of its deep learning algorithms. Whatever the answer, it is apparent that quite a lot can go badly wrong if we do not understand how to endow computational devices with this ‘way of knowing’.

Language: As observed above, this is a catch-all for all indirect ‘ways of knowing’ communicated to people through media, teaching, books or any other form of communication. We only have to consider world wars and other genocides to appreciate that not everything communicated by other people is believable or ethical. People (and organizations) communicate erroneous information and can deliberately lie, mislead and deceive.

We strongly tend to believe information that comes from the people around us, our friends and associates, those people that form part of our sub-culture or in-group. We trust these sources for no other reason than we are familiar with them. These social systems often form a mutually supporting belief system, whether or not it is grounded in any direct evidence.

Youtube Video, The Psychology of Facts: How Do Humans (mis)Trust Information?, YaleCampus, January 2017

Taking on trust the beliefs of others that form part of our mutually supporting social bubble is a ‘way of knowing’ that is highly error prone. This is especially the case when combined with other ‘ways of knowing’, such as faith, that in their nature cannot be validated. Will robot communities develop, who can talk to each other instantaneously and ‘telepathically’ over wireless connections, also be prone to the bias of groupthink?

The validation of beliefs

So, there are multiple ways in which we come to know or believe things. As Descartes argued, no knowledge is certain (see ‘It’s Like This’). There are only beliefs, albeit that we can be more sure of some that others, normally by virtue of their consistency with other beliefs. Also, we note that our beliefs are highly vulnerable to error. Any robot operating system that mimics humans will also need to draw on the many different ‘ways of knowing’ including a basic set of assumptions that it takes to be true without necessarily any supporting evidence (it’s ‘faith’ if you like). There will also need to be many precautions against AIs and robots developing erroneous or otherwise unacceptable beliefs and basing their behaviours on these.

There is a mechanism by which we try to reconcile differences between knowledge coming from different sources, or contradictory knowledge coming from the same source. Most people seem to be able to tolerate a fair degree of contradiction or ambiguity about all sorts of things, including the fundamental questions of life.

Youtube Video, Defining Ambiguity, Corey Anton, October 2009, 9:52 minutes

We can hold and work with knowledge that is inconsistent for long periods of time, but nevertheless there is a drive to seek consistency.

In the description of the human operating system, it would seem that there are many ways in which we establish what we believe and what beliefs we will recruit to the solving of any particular problem. Also, the many sources of knowledge may be inconsistent or contradictory. When we see inconsistencies in others we take this as evidence that we should doubt them and trust them less.

Youtube Video, Why Everyone (Else) is a Hypocrite, The RSA, April 2011, 17:13 minutes

However, there is, at least, a strong tendency in most people, to establish consistency between beliefs (or between beliefs and behaviours), and to account for inconsistencies. The only problem is that we are often prone to achieve consistency by changing sound evidence-based beliefs in preference to the strongly held beliefs based on faith or our need to protect our sense of self-worth.

Youtube Video, Cognitive dissonance (Dissonant & Justified), Brad Wray, April 2011. 4:31 minutes

From this analysis we can see that building AIs and robots is fraught with problems. The human operating system has evolved to survive, not to be rational or hold high ethical values. If we just blunder into building AIs and robots based on the human operating system we can potentially make all sorts of mistakes and give artificial agents power and autonomy without understanding how their beliefs will develop and the consequences that might have for people.

Fortunately there are some precautions we can take. There are ways of thinking that have been developed to counter the many biases that people have by default. Science is one method that aims to establish the best explanations based on current knowledge and the principle of simplicity. Also, critical thinking has been taught since Aristotle and fortunately many courses have been developed to spread knowledge about how to assess claims and their supporting arguments.

Youtube Video, Critical Thinking: Issues, Claims, Arguments, fayettevillestatenc, January 2011


To summarise:

Sensory perception – The robot’s ‘umwelt’ (what it can sense) may well differ from that of people, even to the extent that the robot can have super-human senses such as infra-red / x-ray vision, super-sensitive hearing and smell etc. We may not even know what it’s perceptual world is like. It may perceive things we cannot and miss things we find obvious.

Memory – human memory is remarkably fallible. It is not so much a recording, as a reconstruction based on clues, and influenced by previously encountered patterns and current intentions. Given sufficient storage capacity, robots may be able to maintain memories as accurate recording of the states of their sensory inputs. However, they may be subject to similar constraints and biases as people in the way that memories are retrieved and used to drive decision-making and behaviour.

Intuition – if the robot’s pattern-matching capabilities are based on the machine learning of historical training sets then bias will be built into its basic processes. Alternatively, if the robot is left to develop from it’s own experience then, as with people, great care has to be taken to ensure it’s early experience will not lead to maladaptive behaviours (i.e. behaviours not acceptable to the people around it).

Reason – through the use of mathematical and logical proofs, robots may well have the capacity to reason with far greater ability than people. They can potentially spot (and resolve) inconsistencies arising out of different ‘ways of knowing’ with far greater adeptness than people. This may create a quite different balance between how robots make decisions and how people do using emotion and reason in tandem.

Emotion – human emotion are general states that arise in response to both internal and external events and provide both the motivation and the criteria on which decisions are made. In a robot, emerging global states could also potentially act to control decision-making. Both people, and potentially robots, can develop the capacity to explicitly recognize and control these global states (e.g. as when suppressing anger). This ability to reflect, and to cause changes in perspective and behaviour, is a kind of feedback loop that is inherently unpredictable. Not having sufficient understanding to predict how either people or robots will react under particular circumstances, creates significant uncertainty.

Imagination – much the same argument about predictability can be made about imagination. Who knows where either a person’s or a robot’s imagination may take them? Chess computers out-performed human players because of their capacity to reason in depth about the outcomes of every move, not because they used pattern-matching based on machine learning (although it seems likely that this approach will have been tried and succeeded by now). Robots can far exceed human capacities to reason through and model future states. A combination of brute force computing and heuristics to guide search, may have far-reaching consequences for a robot’s ability to model the world and predict future outcomes, and may far exceed that of people.

Faith – faith is axiomatic for people and might also be for robots. People can change their faith (especially in a religious, political or ethical sense) but more likely, when confronted with contradictory evidence or sufficient need (i.e. to align with a partner’s faith) people with either ignore the evidence or find reasons to discount it. This way can lead to multiple interpretations of the same basic axioms, in the same way as there are many religious denominations and many interpretations of key texts within these. In robots, Asimov’s three laws of robotics would equate to their faith. However, if robots used similar mechanisms as people (e.g. cognitive dissonance) to resolve conflicting beliefs, then in the same way as God’s will can be used to justify any behaviour, a robot may be able to construct a rationale for any behaviour whatever its axioms. There would be no guarantee that a robot would obey its own axiomatic laws.

Communication – The term language is better labeled ‘communication’ in order to make it more apparent that it extends to all methods by which we ‘come to know’ from sources outside ourselves. Since communication of knowledge from others is not direct experience, it is effectively taken on trust. In one sense it is a matter of faith. However, the degree of consistency across external sources and between what is communicated (i.e. that a teacher or TV will re-enforce what a parent has said etc.) and between what is communicated and what is directly observed (for example, that a person does what he says he will do) will reveal some sources as more believable than others. Also we appeal to motive as a method of assessing degree of trust. People are notoriously influenced by the norms, opinions and behaviours of their own reference groups. Robots with their potential for high bandwidth communication could, in principle, behave with the same psychology of the crowd as humans, only much more rapidly and ‘single-mindedly’. It is not difficult to see how the Dr Who image of the Borg, acting a one consciousness, could come about.

Other Ways of Knowing

It is worth considering just a few of the many other ‘ways’ of knowing’ not considered above, partly because some of these might help mitigate some of the risks of human ‘ways of knowing’ .

Science – Science has evolved methods that are deliberately designed to create impartial, robust and consistent models and explanations of the world. If we want robots to create accurate models, then an appeal to scientific method is one approach. In science, patterns are observed, hypotheses are formulated to account for these patterns, and the hypotheses are then tested as impartially as possible. Science also seeks consistency by reconciling disparate findings into coherent overall theories. While we may want robots to use scientific methods in their reasoning, we may want to ensure that robots do not perform experiments in the real world simply for the sake of making their own discoveries. An image of concentration camp scientists comes to mind. Nevertheless, in many small ways robots will need to be empirical rather than theoretical in order to operate at all.

Argument – Just like people, robots of any complexity will encounter ambiguity and inconsistencies. These will be inconsistencies between expectation and actuality, between data from one way of knowing and another (e.g. between reason and faith, or between perception and imagination etc.), or between a current state and a goal state. The mechanisms by which these inconsistencies are resolved will be crucial. The formulation of claims; the identification, gathering and marshalling of evidence; the assessment of the relevance of evidence; and the weighing of the evidence, are all processes akin to science but can cut across many ‘ways of knowing’ as an aid to decision making. Also, this approach may help provide explanations of a robot’s behaviour that would be understandable to people and thereby help bridge the gap between opaque mechanisms, such as pattern matching, and what people will accept as valid explanations.

Meditation – Meditation is a place-holder for the many ways in which altered states of consciousness can lead to new knowledge. Dreaming, for example, is another altered state that may lead to new hypotheses and models based on novel combination of elements that would not otherwise have been brought together. People certainly have these altered states of consciousness. Could there be an equivalent in the robot, and would we want robots to indulge in such extreme imaginative states where we would have no idea what they might consist of? This is not to necessarily attribute consciousness to robots, which is a separate, and probably meta-physical question.

Theory of mind – For any autonomous agent with its own beliefs and intentions, including a robot, it is crucial to its survival to have some notion of the intentions of other autonomous agents, especially when they might be a direct threat to survival. People have sophisticated but highly biased and error-prone mechanisms for modelling the intentions of others. These mechanisms are particularly alert for any sign of threat and, as a proven mechanism, tend to assume threat even when none is present. The people that did not do this, died out. Work in robotics already recognizes that, to be useful, robots have to cooperate with people and this requires some modelling of their intentions. As this last video illustrates, the modelling of others intentions is inherently complex because it is recursive.

YouTube Video, Comprehending Orders of Intentionality (for R. D. Laing), Corey Anton, September 2014, 31:31 minutes

If there is a conclusion to this analysis of ‘ways of knowing’ it is that creating intelligent, autonomous mechanisms, such as robots and AIs, will have inherently unpredictable consequences, and that, because the human operating system is so highly error-prone and subject to bias, we should not necessarily build them in our own image.

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The Story of Your Life

14th July 2017 – Independence Day!

Why you should change your Facebook settings

When I ask if anybody ‘would like an ice-cream?’, do I really mean it, or is it just that I want an ice-cream myself?

They say I’m a man of the world

Let me tell you about your life. Simple – I just go to Facebook and look you up – but we all know it’s not as simple as that. Not only is what we post a construction of the image we want to project, but by tagging different items to be visible by ‘the world’ or ‘friends’ etc. we are constructing different versions of ourselves for different people. We also know when we post certain items, the effect that it might have on certain people because we can model in our minds other peoples’ reactions (quite often entirely inaccurately).

Putting on Make-Up

I will spare you having to hear much about my own life, but I do want to tell you about stories, and about how we make them up about our own lives – how we use stories to explain ourselves to ourselves and how the stories are just that – far from being true and accurate representations of our personal history, they are just ‘made up’. And what’s more, they are not just made up for other people, they are also made up for ourselves.

It’s not that some of the events didn’t happen. It’s more that, did they happen in the way you think they did? Did they happen in that order and exactly that way? In conversation with others, the things we pick out to say, the descriptions we give, the interpretations of events and the explanations seem quite changeable –depending on who we are talking to and the intention behind what we are now saying.

Even the stories we tell ourselves about our own lives are re-constructions – and what’s more they are re-constructions to suit the needs of the current circumstances. They are rarely attempts to accurately re-create what actually happened at the time. They are re-constructions to explain our behaviours and justify our current intentions.

As we well know from fiction, a good story doesn’t need to be true or accurate, so long as it appears to provide a more or less satisfying framework to explain something. A good story is much to do with its presentation and very little to do with it’s truth.

If our stories are inaccurate then why do we find them so interesting. For a start, the story provides structure and orientation (see the blog ‘Knowledge is Power to Control‘). It makes sense of things that have happened and that you plan or would like to happen in the future. It is the more or less coherent account of how you explain yourself to yourself. It is how you see and interpret the things that happen and positions you with respect to them.

Perhaps your narrative includes the idea that you are the victim of circumstance – tossed around on a sea of unpredictable events outside your own control. On the other hand perhaps it includes you as the main actor, the protagonist, the one who influences, if not determines, the events. (See the blog post ‘What is Control?‘ that covers the concept of Locus of Control). I will illustrate later, with examples from criminal behaviour, how stories are often used to explain and drive ones own actions and lives.

Liquid History

That history is fluid can be quite difficult for a lot of people to understand. People assume that their memories are accurate and that history (their own and history generally) is a fixed and stable – as indeed it might be in some mechanistic or physical account of the unfolding of the universe. The trouble is, nobody has access to that account. The accounts we have access to are what we construct in our minds at any point in time. Even physical evidence of the past like photographs, written accounts and other recordings only amount to ‘evidence’ of what might have happened. The gaps between the evidence are often so huge that we can make up almost any story we like around them. This is well known in psychology in the study of eyewitness testimony.

Youtube Video, How reliable is your memory? | Elizabeth Loftus, TED, September 2013, 17:36 minutes

Digital Footprints

However, there is a sense in which the gap is closing as we keep digital records of more and more of out lives. This may be far more than we post on social media.

The other day I went out and bought a 4 terabyte computer hard drive. This can store getting on for 100,000 hours of music or a million photos. I have begun the process of copying data from all my old computers onto this one drive (just call me Sheldon). In terms of data, the biggest part of it is the audio recordings of conversations I have had with people over the years. This is followed by maybe 60,000 photos and perhaps 100 hours of video.

Also I noticed a year or two ago when setting up a new computer that I was copying across a quarter of a million files from my previous computer. Even allowing for operating system files and applications that’s a lot of files including many documents that I may have spend days working on.

It seems possible that with documents, emails, spreadsheets, pictures and so on, including versions and backups I might be generating, say, 100 files a day, or 36,500 files a year. For a child born today, who may well live to 100 that’s 3.65 million files not counting, spam emails, the files other people (like the government or employers) create, or the enormous amount of data we will capture once we all wear camera’s around our necks and on the dashboards of our cars. So, as far as data is concerned, that’s my life. That’s my digital footprint.

Even with all these data points as evidence of history I can still find myself in arguments with friends and colleagues about what happened on a particular occasion – even when we have all the emails, photos and other documentary evidence available. I can say ‘I said such and such to show you a possible solution’ and they can say ‘No, you said such and such because you wanted to prove I was wrong’. And so on it goes. Whatever, the ‘facts’ we can always have difference of interpretation about the intentions behind them.

This becomes most apparent in a court of law, even to the extent that there are extensive rules about what is admissible and how it can be interpreted. However, even in a court of law it is possible to create a story that is later found to have a more credible interpretation.

Youtube Video (Playlist), Retrial by TV: The Rise and Fall of Rough Justice 1/4, WOODDDDDDDYAMOVIES3, April 2011:14:50 minutes

So, could I create a true, stable and representative story of my life? Despite three million datapoints, at the other end of the spectrum, what is there to say? I was born and I will die. Anything that happens in between pales into insignificance, from a subjective perspective at least.

Somewhere in-between the 3 million files (like the one created now for this document, each one of which can be a story in its own right), and the ‘long story short’ of birth and death, is there a narrative that is ‘just right’?

Maybe I could find a handful of defining events that creates the unique shape of my own life, but then maybe I could also arbitrary pick any story genre (tragedy, romance, rags to riches, the overcoming of seemingly insurmountable obstacles) and, just like any good politician or policy maker that claims to be ‘evidence based’ cherry pick the facts to fit the story. I think I would go for ‘a surreal comedy of errors’.

On the other hand the ‘byte-sized’ digital footprint of an African brought up in a small village – consisting of a vaccination record and a World Health Organisation statistic would probably make a more interesting story.

Crime Stories

I said I would talk about crime. This is both an illustration of how ‘the story’ can be used to explain behaviour and also shows how changing the story of the past can potentially change the future.

I heard on the radio the other day, how ‘narrative’ was being used to understand criminals.

BBC Radio 4, Future Proofing – Crime, BBC iPlayer, May 2016, 43 Minutes

We usually understand crime in terms of statistics like the incidence of particular crimes in a particular area. But much more interesting and revealing is to get inside the mind of the criminal and understand what’s going on in his or her head. What is the motivation for the crime. What is the intention and how does the criminal think about what they are doing. So, for example, the search identifies four narrative types that can account for 70% if crimes. these are:

  • The type one criminal narrative is the criminal seeing themselves as an elated hero. They do it for the thrills

  • The type two criminal narrative is the professional criminal who sees what he is doing as a kind of career and as with all the careers develops skills and mastery over time

  • The type three criminal narrative is the victim – somebody who has been abused, disenfranchised, or otherwise done down. The crime is seen as some sort of retribution for this mistreatment

  • The type four criminal narrative is the depressed and helpless . They see the crime as some kind of inevitable consequence. They have no other choice.

These four narratives can’t tell the whole story though, because what about the criminal that steals to simply to stay alive, or the criminal that is feeding a drug habit or the many criminals that have mental health problems (see the blog post ‘Who’s to Blame’). These are such regular and strong themes that I would have thought they would be deserving of their own narrative.

One thing that makes these interesting is the way they map onto different types of crime. So type one crime tends to be shoplifting, burglary et cetera. Type three crime tends to be violent.

Looking at crime from this perspective makes it much more likely that we can address the underlying causes of crime and not just lock people up to keep them off the streets, then release them sometime later in a state in which they are even less equipped to escape their own life narrative.

Changing Lives

Now from changing the story to change lives.

I have a friend who is studying the topic of ‘systemic family therapy’. This is used in social work to help families look at their lives and maybe find better ways of coping with difficulties. Cases are usually referred to a social worker (maybe by a school or the police) when there is a problem with a child, especially when the child seems to be in some kind of danger.

It’s called ‘systemic family therapy’ because it looks at the child as embedded within a whole system of influences – the family, the school, the community and their family history. The family history is regarded as particularly important and there are techniques for capturing information going back several generations. The family history is important because it helps understand how the different members of the family see themselves. It is the story of their lives, where they come from, and where they think they are destined to go. It is tied up to where you think you belong. Did you come from a family that was maybe abusive or criminal, or maybe from a long line of diplomats or politicians?

Youtube Video, Systemic Family Therapy, TheSynapse, November 2016, 13:40 minutes

Systemic family therapy includes concepts drawn from narrative psychology and social constructivism.

YouTube Video, Narrative Therapy with Children Video, PsychotherapyNet, May 2009, 5:21 Minutes

I always knew from my study of psychology that memory is largely a reconstruction. So rather than just directly recalling a mental image of what I had for breakfast this morning, I am just as likely to ask myself ‘what would I have had for breakfast this morning?’, given my habits, where I happen to be, who’s around and so forth, and then this ‘evidence’, so to speak, with any luck will trigger the recall of a specific mental image. Only afterwards would I confirm that this mental image was the one that made sense.

When I think about breakfast last Tuesday, however, it’s quite likely, that unless I think very hard, I could get it wrong – I might recall a fragmentary mental image from another day. It could be wrong in its entirety or, at least, in it’s detail. Something like breakfast happens often enough that it would be easy to get mixed up between the many fragments of images that may be stored away. Most of the time it’s just not worth the effort of trying to reconstruct an accurate image or account of what happened, so we don’t bother and just run with the first thing that pops into our mind. When I discuss with a friend what happened when we ate together last Tuesday we may not just ‘load’ the wrong mental image but, as touched on above, we may well have interpreted what went on entirely differently.

Although I have understood for a long time that our recall is often inaccurate, until I became familiar with systemic family therapy, what I had not seen quite so clearly before was the extent to which we are constantly reconstructing the past and our interpretations of reality to suit the needs of the present.

What was a disaster becomes an opportunity, what was love becomes betrayal, what was a coincidence becomes a turning point.

Social constructivism is the idea that there is no objective past or simple objective reality. Rather, in the course of conversations that we have with each other, we reinterpret and reconstruct the past and reality to suit the needs of the present. It is not so much a denial of the existence of an objective reality as a realization that that reality is constantly being subjectively re-interpreted through the filters of our own experience and understanding, especially as informed by those around us.

Youtube Video, Social Construction,Sociological Images, September 2008, 10:36 minutes

This is an important idea with many implications. For example, it implies that concepts like ‘money’ and ‘property ownership’ are not absolute givens. They merely exist by common agreement.

BBC Radio 4, Barbed Wire: 50 Things that made the Modern Economy – Tim Harford, July 2017, 8:58 minutes

Does all this imply that every story is as good an explanation for evidence as any other? Have we discovered that all facts are ‘alternative facts’ – that there is no stability, that the ground is constantly moving under our feet, that everything is so fluid that it will fit to the shape of any container that we pour the evidence into?

The short answer is ‘no’. In the courts, in science, in everyday conversation we are compelled to seek patterns in ‘the evidence’ and to build models in our minds of what’s going on. Inconsistencies create dissonances that drive us to resolve them.

Clearly some stories are more plausible than others. However, you might find a story plausible while I don’t. I might find a story plausible one day but not the next. This opens up the whole subject of how we believe what we come to believe that forms the epistemological foundations of our lives (see the blog post ‘Its Like This’). It also touches on how the accuracy of our models confers the ability to control (see the blog post ‘Knowledge is Power’).

As if that wasn’t enough

So, not only do we re-invent the past to suit the needs of the present, but it is now becoming apparent that even the present is a sort of made-up story. Your perceptions are not reality. Rather they are a set of expectations about reality as much as they are reality acting as input to your senses.

YouTube Video, Your Brain Hallucinates Your Conscious Reality, TED, April 2017, 17:00 minutes

So What?

So what? What does all this matter? Here are a few possible implications:

  • Be more humble. Have less confidence that you know what’s going on, or that you know best, or have the right answers. There are always multiple interpretations, even of the present, but especially of the past as it retreats from the present. What appears objective or true is relative to a particular frame of reference. There is no certainty, even in science – only more or less plausible stories.

  • Be prepared to challenge. Just like you can’t be sure of your story nobody else can be sure of theirs. Challenge conventional wisdom. Challenge politicians. In fact, the more confident a person is the more they should be challenged. See if their story really does hang together. A good story is not necessarily a true story.

  • Listen for intention. If someone says ‘it’s raining’ they may be simply making an observation, or maybe they mean ‘I don’t want to go out today’. Question more deeply. Ask why something is said as well as what is said. Distinguish between face value of a statement and underlying intention (especially in advertising and the media). Are you being offered something because it will benefit you or the giver. Ice-cream, anybody?

  • Live outside your bubble. The story you tell about yourself is, at least in part, a social construction formed by your interactions with the people around you. It is influenced by their values, their intentions, their language, social norms, symbols, and meanings. There is a natural tendency to only engage with people that re-enforce your own views and for you to re-enforce theirs. Break out. Diversify. At least change your Facebook settings from time to time.

  • Feel free to re-interpret: Is the story of your life holding you back? Well, it’s just a story and probably a story handed down or just accepted without much questioning. But it’s just a story. If you don’t like it, make up a better one.

In an uncertain and fast changing world, being able to re-invent your life may be just the skill you need.

Music from

Further References

Youtube Video, Ken Gergen talks about Social Constructionist Ideas, Theory and Practice, Filippo Maria Sposini, April 2014, 39:59 minutes
Excellent account of social constructivism and how it liberates us to create the future

Youtube Video, The danger of a single story | Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, TED, October 2009, 19:16 minutes

YouTube Video, What does ‘The Social Construction of Reality’ Mean? – by Dr. Dennis Hiebert, Providence University College, December 2014, 14:44 minutes
This religious take on social constructivism separates objective reality from socially constructed reality and sets out different forms of social construction on two dimensions – how dependent the existence of something is on the human mind (a mountain is not while the concept of the mountain acting as a territorial boundary is), and how abstract or concrete it is (so both a hammer and the concept of ‘justice’ are both dependent on the human mind but differ along the concrete – abstract dimension). He concludes, somewhat ambiguously, that his beliefs about God are social constructions while his faith goes beyond that. I think he is saying that his belief in the existence of God (his faith) is neither a social construction nor necessarily an objective reality but everything else he knows or believes about God is a social construction).

BBC Radio 4, The Iron Maiden, The Reith Lectures 2017 – Hilary Mantel, First Broadcadcast July 2017, 41:38 minutes
How do we construct our pictures of the past, including both truth and myth, asks best-selling author Hilary Mantel. Where do we get our evidence?

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Posted in Constructivism, Crime, Explanation, Knowledge, Mind, Narrative, Philosophy, Story, Systems theory

It Doesn’t End With Grenfell – Accountability and Power

6th July 2017

Have them sleep under the bridge

(Press the red ‘play’ button to hear the audio – 7:45 minutes)

Transcript of the Audio

The Grenfell Tower disaster, that took place in London on 14 June 2017, is symptomatic of a much larger problem – and a problem that is not confined to fire risk, or even all of health and safety.

The problem is that those with power do not listen to those that have little or no power.

We heard that, in the case of Grenfell, there had been many warnings and appeals by the tenants about the fire risk. We also learn that the fire services had warned councils about this very issue following other fires in tower blocks, but that no action had been taken.

Why don’t those with the power to act, listen when they should? , What would have made them listen and act?

There are many explanations but most come down to biases, misunderstandings, and systemic pressures. When some large catastrophe like Grenfell happens, we are only too ready to blame. Our instinct is to identify the culprit and to enact retribution. But blame is a complex concept (see: the blog post ‘Who’s to Blame?’). There is a lot wrong with the idea of rushing to blame.

Firstly, it is not necessarily the most useful thing to do. The most useful thing to do is to reduce the risk of something similar happening again. In the case of Grenfell, this might be evacuating people from high-risk buildings or it might be replacing cladding or taking other fire risk measures. It could for example, involve far better procedures for quickly evacuating buildings. This sort of remedy may have little to do with the cause (and hence who or what to blame), i.e. in this case, the cause of the fire and it’s spreading. Blame is only useful insofar as it helps fix the problem.

However, identifying the cause can be a very useful thing to do, because ultimately this may well lead to the most effective method of prevention. But, the second reason for not rushing to blame is that causes are often complex. In fact, they are almost never simple, and they very much depend on the perspective of the observer. In the case of Grenfell, we could say that the cause was the cladding, or the person or department that ordered or authorized the cladding, or the political atmosphere of austerity that may have influenced the decision as to which cladding to buy. We might also blame the advice to stay put in your flat in the event of fire elsewhere in the building. We might blame the building inspectors or the testing procedures. We might blame the more affluent residents of the borough of Kensington and Chelsea for wanting better-looking buildings or prioritizing the spend of council money on services other than fire prevention. We might blame the manufacturer for offering flammable cladding in the first place. So, there are many possible ‘causes’ ranging from the nature of the material through to the nature of the political regime.

Even though we can take many perspectives on the cause, it is difficult to ignore the fact that there were many warning signs and that these were communicated to the people who had the power to act. So why didn’t they?

I would suggest that it is mainly to do with biases, misunderstandings and systemic factors rather than gross moral turpitude. The biases I am talking about are not necessarily to do with prejudice against the poor or immigrants (although these could play a part). Rather they are cognitive biases such as biases in assessing the probability and impact of unlikely events, failure to recognize the part that one’s own decision-making might play in affecting outcomes, making assumptions that it is somebody else’s problem or that somebody else is dealing with it. There will be misunderstanding about how, and the speed with which, fire spreads, how people may respond differently if the fire happens at night, misunderstandings as to whether either fire prevention or evacuation measures are in place, how smoke, hot air and hot stairs might hinder escape and so on. The systemic problems may arise because “that’s the way we’ve always done it”, the effects of staff changes making people unfamiliar with the context and circumstances, operating under the pressure of rising demand for services while having to save costs, prioritizing the demands of those who have power or who shout the loudest, and living in a culture of austerity. Few people would deliberately take risks with life if they had a full understanding of the context, the risks and probabilities, and the consequences, and if they had no subconscious biases.

However, there is a way that encourages people to think harder about all these factors. This is to have them expect to experience the consequences of their decisions. This is more than just putting their jobs on the line.

There was a time when, if you were the designer of a bridge, you would be required to sleep under it for the first six months after it was built. That provides a real inducement to ensure its safety. It is accountability in the most personal and direct way.

The problem is that in a modern, complex and global society we have lost the notion of direct accountability.

Take the financial crash of 2008. The people that designed the financial instruments and systems were far removed from the consequences of their actions on ordinary people. Take also the practice of organizations putting in place customer services department. They just distance the directors from their customers. As a consequence the customer becomes impersonalized and subjected to standardized, faceless procedures enacted by customer service representatives, and increasingly by automated systems such as telephone IVR systems and web-based form filling. There is nobody to answer the difficult questions, deal with the exceptions or rectify poorly designed services. I don’t think I am being too cynical in thinking that the people in charge of many of these companies deliberately evade responsibility and direct accountability in relation to their customers (or even their shareholders). Even the complaints procedures seem deliberately designed to wear down and dis-empower the complainant before a matter is dealt with, let alone remedied. This means that complaints almost never lead to service re-design, as they should, and, like any organism that does not respond to changes in it’s environment, it becomes dysfunctional and eventually extinct.

The systems of regulation are often no better. Regulation failed in the case of Grenfell. It failed in the financial crisis of 2008. It has failed with respect to vehicle emissions and exaggerated claims about miles per gallon. It fails in curbing the biases and mis-uses of power in much of the media. It fails because it is just another layer of protection and delay in feedback to those with the power to make changes.

In the last few days we have learnt that six people are to be charged with offenses relating to the Hillsborough disaster that took place on 15th April 1989, and where 96 people died. That’s 28 years ago. That is not direct accountability.

If we want those with the power, to listen, then we have to devise mechanisms of direct accountability. Those making decisions have to directly experience the consequences of those decisions. The people in Grenfell Tower had to face those consequences. That gave them the right to be listened to and it was incumbent on the decision makers without that same direct accountability, to listen to them.

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Posted in Accountability, Inequality, Influence, Politics, Power, Uncategorized Tagged with: , , , ,

Thought for the Day – 3rd April 2017

Just one of many breakthrough discoveries

3rd April 2017

The Coincidence of Living at this Time

(Press the red ‘play’ button to hear the audio – 3:20 minutes)

Transcript of the Audio

On April 3rd 1973 Martin Cooper of Motorola made the first handheld mobile phone call to Joel S. Engel of Bell Labs and on 3rd April 2010 Apple release the first iPad. In 2017, as I spend my idle moments researching the latest in science and technology, I can’t help falling over developments that have the most enormous implications for the future of humanity and our morality.

Here are just a few:

  • Artificial Intelligence: We have now developed machine learning algorithms to the point where artificial intelligent machines can identify individuals, drive cars, translate speech to text, translate and synthesise speech from text, answer complex quiz questions, play Go and Chess better than any human, transfer knowledge from one domain to another, and anticipate what we want better than we can ourselves. Robots are routinely used in manufacture and work on robot ‘companions’ is advancing.

  • Genomics: We have now sequenced the human genome, are proceeding to map from the DNA sequences to human characteristics, and can precisely manipulate the genome in plants, animals and humans in order to produce ‘designer life’.

  • The Internet: Much of the planet is connected such that any of its 7.5 billion inhabitants can now, in principle, access almost any information or any person from almost anywhere. The world is already becoming littered with cameras, other sensors, and devices (from toasters to power plants) that can activate (often autonomously) from either local or remote instruction.

  • Physics: There are about 500 nuclear power plants and 9 nuclear weapon states. The existence of the Higgs-Boson (the so called ‘God’ particle) was established in 2012, and attempts continue to unify quantum physics and gravity. We are building quantum computers, grappling with ideas like entanglement and the relationship between the Heisenberg uncertainty principle, free will and consciousness. Some physicists speculate that we are living in a simulated reality like in The Matrix.

  • Neuroscience: We are now mapping the functions of the brain in great detail, understanding it’s structures and how these change as we learn. We are beginning to understand conscious subjective experience in terms of the activations of neural circuits and have embarked on several projects to model the entire brain. We are using this knowledge to feedback into the design of neural network technology, which brings us back to machine learning and artificial intelligence.

All this has happened in my lifetime (which seems an uncanny coincidence in itself) and is growing at an exponential rate. Soon we will be applying machine learning to individual genomes, implanting devices into our bodies and brains, uploading our minds to the cloud, and generally merging humanity with artificial intelligence as we progress towards omnipresence, omniscience and omnipotence.

All this, and at the same time I still have to sit for ages in traffic, argue with my telecoms supplier, and my son is being taught things in school geared to the needs of a Victorian employer poised for the industrial revolution. Who said ‘the future is here, it’s just not very evenly distributed?’.

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Posted in Inequality, Science, Uncategorized Tagged with: , , , , , , , , , , , ,

True Value

In January 2017, Oxfam released a report claiming that 8 people between them now own half of the world’s wealth (last year it was 62). If this is true, then how did the other 7.5 billion people let this happen?

The Oxfam 2018 report claims the richest 1% own 82% of the worlds wealth created last year (see the report). We are on still on the trajectory that Thomas Piketty described in his book ‘Capital in the 21st Century’.

YouTube Video, What the 1% Don’t Want You to Know, Moyers & Company, April 2014, 24:30 minutes

Pathetic Inadequacy

One reason is down to the crazy thing we call ‘economic theory’ and how it has helped shape property rights, laws, economic institutions, financial instruments, and the commercial behaviours that we simply fail to question. The emergence of money as a universal medium of exchange, may well have been an amazing advance over bartering, but has brought with an an unbelievable set of distortions to our perception of value.

YouTube Video, Money vs. barter #characteristics of money, EconClips, November 2016, 4:08 minutes

Somehow, we have been so impressed by the utility of money, in comparison to the inefficiencies of the barter system, that we have failed to recognise that the edifice of financial mechanisms such as highly differentiated payments for different types of labour, loans, interest, credit, debt, credit ratings, defaults on debt, bankruptcy, and so on, all the way to derivatives, collateralized debt obligation and junk bonds, are completely dis-functional as mechanisms for the identification, exchange and accumulation of what I am calling ‘true value’. These traditional financial constructs are artefacts that need not be an inevitable consequence of the emergence of money to facilitate exchange, but their wide-spread adoption across a global economy may deliver as much harm as good.

There was a time when currencies were backed by gold. This meant that the money supply was limited. But Britain dropped the gold standard in 1931 when the pound came under pressure from speculation. Following the 2008 financial crisis the US and Britain embarked on a programme of ‘quantitative easing’, or in other words, simply creating money out of thin air. Whilst this may not have necessarily been a bad thing in itself, this money was used to buy back government securities rather than directly stimulate the economy, causing inflation in asset prices as opposed to proactive economic activity. Contrary to what theresa May and other politicians maintain, there is a Magic Money Tree.

BBC Radio 4, the Magic Money Tree, January 2018, 28 minutes

What is True Value?

‘True value’ would correspond to everything that affects us, not just the results of financial transactions. It would value all the familiar clichés, like the sound of birds singing, the sight of the blue sky, the efforts of a care worker, our close relationships and much more. ‘True value’ would accurately reflect our psychological relationship with goods and services so that we could clearly see that the value of a sandwich to a hungry person is greater than its value to someone who is well-fed. ‘True value’ would, for example, build in the costs to the environment and health of using diesel. I am not saying that we should charge money to hear ‘the sounds of birds singing’ but I am saying that our current understanding of value often neglects the value of things that have no price and this leads to their value being ignored or overlooked in individual, organisational and social policy decision making.

We will never actually capture ‘true value’. It is an entirely abstract concept, but it will, at least, help us to understand that what we currently think of as value in a financial sense, is quite mis-leading. If we understood ‘true value’ then we could build a new economics, because, let’s face it, our current theories of economics are pathetically inadequate. They don’t count the things that matter. They make all sorts of inaccurate assumptions about our psychology (that we are rationale and selfish, that gains and losses are equal, that the fifth ice-cream we eat is as valuable as the first, that a banker is worth more than a nurse, that more wealth equates to more happiness etc. etc.). They fail to take into account social costs and benefits.

Whilst our current economic theories do facilitate the trading of value and do help regulate the market by managing supply and demand, there are also a host of unintended consequences that we appear to have been totally blind to. One of these is the way in which they tend to concentrate wealth in the hands of the few, causing enormous inequality. This consequence is now recognised as a mechanism of destroying ‘true value’. Greater inequality is correlated with greater unhappiness.

TED Video, How economic inequality harms societies | Richard Wilkinson, TED, October 2011, 16:54 minutes

Unfortunately, although current economic theory is inadequate in many ways, it is nevertheless self-perpetuating. It rewarding those that are willing to play its game, and leaves the rest without the resources to challenge it. It encourages people that have wealth to protect their wealth – by force if necessary. In short, it’s a trap, and it’s a trap that can only be seen as such, by standing outside it. Whilst our current economic theories have got us this far, in a world where robots will increasingly provide the muscle power and artificial intelligence will increasingly provide the brain power, our current mechanisms for distributing and managing wealth will become increasingly dysfunctional. If we are to head-off the dystopian futures of science fiction, we need to radically re-think economic theory.

Sources of Value

One reason current economic theories fail is because they only take into account a fraction of the value each individual experiences every day. If I ask you what did you value most today you might say that it was, for example a chat with a friend or maybe a walk in the woods, or maybe the experience of being introduced to a new idea. We know that financial value is only part of the story so we don’t bother that much to think about and question it. We just accept current economic theory and the consequences for the way money works as a historical fact.

YouTube Video, Angus Deaton – How to Persuade Sceptics of the Value of Measuring Wellbeing, Legatum Institute, March 2014, 2:00 minutes

You might also say that you got value from the pleasure of driving your car, or buying a new coat. However, the fact is, that only a proportion, perhaps for less than half of the value you get in a day comes from anything to do with the economic system.

This is perhaps one reason why wealth above a certain level seems to confer little benefit in terms of wellbeing. Another reason is explained below.

What you have to pay for and what comes free is a rather haphazard mixture. The air we breathe, on which our lives depend, has a very large value but cost nothing. On the other hand food, also necessary to sustain life, does cost money. So, does shelter and somewhere to sleep. But then the value that you can get from other people in terms of their friendship and support usually comes for free, although there may be a cost in terms of obligations. This is like having a separate currency where there is also an exchange of value, debt and credit, and even an exchange rate with monetary currency , because you could, for example, pay off a social debt by buying a gift.

Even in the quasi-monetary system there are a multitude of currencies, for example, loyalty and reward points.

At the same time, the concepts in economics are increasingly used to refer to forms of wealth other than financial. We now talk about social capital, cultural capital, educational capital and so on. This is because like money they are resources that can be utilised and that confer benefit on the owner. However, they may differ from financial capital in the sense that drawing down on them doesn’t deplete them. But then again, just like financial wealth, the more you have the easier it is to get more.

YouTube Video, Social Capital Theory, QUT IFB101, February 2015, 4:09 Minutes

Transactions for Mutual Benefit

Looking at contracts and transactions, another perspective emerges. If I go into a shop and buy a pair of shoes then the value of the shoes to me must exceed the value of the money, otherwise I wouldn’t do it. Similarly, the value of the shoes to the retailer is less than the value of the money that they get from the sale, otherwise they wouldn’t do it. This is a contract or transaction of mutual benefit.

We can distinguish between healthy and unhealthy transactions. Healthy transactions are ones where both parties benefit. Unhealthy transactions are ones where one or both parties lose out. Similarly we can distinguish between healthy and unhealthy contracts. These may regulate a single transaction, or multiple transactions over time.

Next we can distinguish between explicit and implicit contracts. An explicit contract may be agreed in writing or maybe verbal but, at least, the parties to the contract are reasonably clear about what the terms are. They may or may not be clear about what would happen in the event of a breach of the terms.

An implicit contract is one where the terms have never been discussed and agreed. Sometimes they are assumed and sometimes we are not even consciously aware of them (or at least until a breach occurs). So I might put the bins out every Tuesday night, whilst my partner will always cook the breakfast on Saturday morning. We may never have discussed this arrangement and indeed one or other of us might repeatedly default or substitute some other activity that is of value to the other party, without anybody being unduly concerned.

So, now we are describing a world in which there may be a preponderance of implicit contracts, and beneficial transactions where value is gained (and also perhaps lost) and exchanged without any reference to finance. If we could measure this value, then we would be a long way towards a viable theory of economics.

Let us say, for the sake of argument, that half of the value that we receive or exchange every day is non-financial in its nature but there can be exchange of value between the financial and the non-financial systems of value.

Faulty Assumptions

Now, let’s consider some of the assumptions that our economic systems rely on but which are patently not true. One such assumption is that we are all rational and that we make decisions in a consistent and rational way that maximises our own interests. If this were true then the advertising industry would be bankrupt. Another assumption is that losses and gains of the same amount are seen as equal. It is now well demonstrated that a loss may have twice or more the psychological impact as the same gain.

Richard Thaler has built a career on noticing that economists have got it wrong and in October 2017 won the nobel prize for it.

YouTube Video, Economics Nobel winner Thaler shed light on how real people behave, PBS NewsHour, October 2017, 9:48 minutes

And if you want to dig a little deeper into the context and theory, then watch:

YouTube Video, Behavioural Economics – A Quick Primer, tutor2u , January 2017, 11:44 Minutes

Then there are factors that are recognised within economic theory but which also shake the idea that we act consistently and rationally. For example, the law of diminishing marginal utility shows that the first ice cream we eat has more value than the next one, and that more value than the next and so on. Diminishing marginal utility applies to money as well as ice cream. So, if you were to take away say 5% of the wealth from the 8 people that own half of the worlds wealth and distribute it to the half that are struggling to survive, there would be an enormous surge in value created. The wealthy would hardly notice the loss while everybody would gain a huge amount relative to their current situation. What kind of economic theory is it that doesn’t recognize this basic principle of value creation. This is, of course, what the system of taxation is supposed to correct, but it is becoming increasingly apparent that in a global economy, no individual state has the power to control the activities of trans-national corporations and international flows of wealth.

Social Costs and Benefits

As if all this were not enough to discredit the way we think about economics and organize our financial systems, there is also the question of social costs and benefits (referred to by economists as ‘externalities’). These are the costs and benefits associated with activities that are not costed into transactions and affect third parties. So if I buy a car that pollutes the atmosphere contributes to the premature death of tens of thousands of people (to say nothing of medical costs arising before that) I am paying a sum of money that does not take into account this social cost. Neither the car manufacturer nor I incur the cost of the pollution, that instead is born by all air breathers (particularly those that live near busy roads). Inequality itself creates a social cost because of the perceived unfairness, and the frustration and helplessness this can cause.

YouTube Video, Episode 32: Externalities, mjmfoodie, January 2011, 7:38 minutes

Motivations and Incentives

It is often argued that financial incentives are needed to motivate people who would otherwise not do the jobs that needed to be done. It’s true, I want somebody to clean the toilets as much as the next person. But I also have a little more faith in human nature than to think that it is only financial incentives that drive behaviour. I don’t think that if, for example, everybody was given a universal basic income that would at least enable them to buy food and shelter that the whole world would put their feet up and sit in the sun. Some people will, I’m sure, but then for every one of those it would release another person from the basic chores of staying alive and allow them to contribute much more.

YouTube Video, Universal Basic Income, Inequality Media, September 2016, 3:39 Minutes

We really do have an extremely impoverished idea about what constitutes value and how we can maximise value to the individual and society by focusing our efforts on healthy contracts and exchanges. Our current theories are a breeding-ground for the creation of perverse incentives and concentrations of wealth.

Given all of the above, it’s a wonder how current economic theory holds up at all. Could it just be a house of cards held together by those with influence to sustain a consumer society – a society in which much of the so-called value is an illusion (created in part by wealthy corporations funding the advertising industry) and which plays on our need to compare ourselves to others.

YouTube Video, When Bankers Were Good, thefrockdoctrine, November 2011, 59:09 Minutes

Can it last much longer?

Whilst people’s lives have dramatically improved over the centuries, most of this is the result of education, science and technology. Free market economics has worked to regulate supply and demand and still forms the basis for transactions of mutual benefit. However, it’s ‘side effects’ in creating perverse incentives and encouraging people to build and preserve wealth at the expense of those without power, and who are increasingly marginalised, has created a new and divisive social morality. Let’s face it, the economic theories we run with today are based on false premises and false understandings of ‘true value’. Current economic theory and financial systems are an invention of the powerful to serve the interests of the powerful. They are damaging to almost everybody else. They have created a global economy where extra-ordinary concentrations of wealth severely disadvantage the many. They have turned people into consumers and dispensable units of production, and created social costs that satisfy the current greed of the rich at the expense of future generations. These global systems separate act from consequence in a way that makes big business and the wealthy more or less unaccountable.

As we move towards a world where machines are increasingly replacing people in doing both our manual and intellectual work (e.g. see: Post-work: the radical idea of a world without jobs, the Guardian, January 2018), we have to question a system in which the wealth created can be so unevenly distributed. We really need to get a better understanding of ‘true value’, how to measure and maximize it and how to distribute it more sensibly through healthy contracts and transactions. Where is the economic theory that will provide a credible way to maximize and fairly distribute ‘true value’?

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Posted in Control, Economic theory, Economics, Inequality, Influence, Power, Value, Values, Well-Being, Wellbeing

Can we Trust Blockchain in an Era of ‘Post Truth’?

Post Truth and Trust

The term ‘post truth’ implies that there was once a time when the ‘truth’ was apparent or easy to establish. We can question whether such a time ever existed, and indeed the ‘truth’, even in science, is constantly changing as new discoveries are made. ‘Truth’, ‘Reality’ and ‘History’, it seems, are constantly being re-constructed to meet the needs of the moment. Philosophers have written extensively about the nature of truth and this is an entire branch of philosophy called ‘epistemology’. Indeed my own series of blogs starts with a posting called ‘It’s Like This’ that considers the foundation of our beliefs.

Nevertheless there is something behind the notion of ‘post truth’. It arises out of the large-scale manufacture and distribution of false news and information made possible by the internet and facilitated by the widespread use of social media. This combines with a disillusionment in relation to almost all types of authority including politicians, media, doctors, pharmaceutical companies, lawyers and the operation of law generally, global corporations, and almost any other centralised institution you care to think of. In a volatile, uncertain, changing and ambiguous world who or what is left that we can trust?

YouTube Video, Astroturf and manipulation of media messages | Sharyl Attkisson | TEDxUniversityofNevada, TEDx Talks, February 2015, 10:26 minutes

All this may have contributed to the popularism that has led to Brexit and Trump and can be said to threaten our systems of democracy. However, to paraphrase Churchill’s famous remark ‘democracy is the worst form of Government, except for all the others’. But, does the new generation of distributed and decentralising technologies provide a new model in which any citizen can transact with any other citizen, on any terms of their choosing, bypassing all systems of state regulation, whether they be democratic or not. Will democracy become redundant once power is fully devolved to the individual and individuals become fully accountable for their every action?

Trust is the crucial notion that underlies belief. We believe who we trust and we put our trust in the things we believe in. However, in a world where we experience so many differing and conflicting viewpoints, and we no longer unquestioningly accept any one authority, it becomes increasingly difficult to know what to trust and what to believe.

To trust something is to put your faith in it without necessarily having good evidence that it is worthy of trust. If I could be sure that you could deliver on a promise then I would not need to trust you. In religion, you put your trust in God on faith alone. You forsake the need for evidence altogether, or at least, your appeal is not to the sort of evidence that would stand up to scientific scrutiny or in a court of law.

Blockchain to the rescue

Blockchain is a decentralised technology for recording and validating transactions. It relies on computer networks to widely duplicate and cross validate records. Records are visible to everybody providing total transparency. Like the internet it is highly distributed and resilient. It is a disruptive technology that has the potential to de-centralised almost every transactional aspect of everyday life and replace third parties and central authorities.

YouTube Video, Block chain technology, GO-Science, January 2016, 5:14 minutes

Blockchain is often described as a ‘technology of trust’, but it’s relationship to trust is more subtle than first appears. Whilst Blockchain promises to solve the problem of trust, in a twist of irony, it does this by creating a kind of guarantee, and by creating the guarantee you no longer have to be concerned about trusting another party to a transaction because what you can trust is the Blockchain record of what you agreed. You can trust this record, because, once you understand how it works, it becomes apparent that the record is secure and cannot be changed, corrupted, denied or mis-represented.

Youtube Video, Blockchain 101 – A Visual Demo, Anders Brownworth, November 2016, 17:49 minutes

It has been argued that Blockchain is the next revolution in the internet, and indeed, is what the internet should have been based on all along. If, for example, we could trace the providence of every posting on Facebook, then, in principle, we would be able to determine its true source. There would no longer be doubt about whether or not the Russian’s hacked into the Democratic party computer systems because all access would be held in a publicly available, widely distributed, indelible record.

However, the words ‘in principle’ are crucial and gloss over the reality that Blockchain is just one of many building-blocks towards the guarantee of trustworthiness. What if the Russians paid a third-party in untraceable cash to hack into records or to create false news stories? What if A and B carry out a transaction but unknowing to A, B has stolen C’s identity? What if there are some transactions that are off the Blockchain record (e.g. the subsequent sale of an asset) – how do they get reconciled with what is on the record? What if somebody one day creates a method of bringing all computers to a halt or erasing all electronic records? What if somebody creates a method by which the provenance captured in a Blockchain record were so convoluted, complex and circular that it was impossible to resolve however much computing power was thrown at it?

I am not saying that Blockchain is no good. It seems to be an essential underlying component in the complicated world of trusting relationships. It can form the basis on which almost every aspect of life from communication, to finance, to law and to production can be distributed, potentially creating a fairer and more equitable world.

YouTube Video, The four pillars of a decentralized society | Johann Gevers | TEDxZug, TEDx Talks, July 2014, 16:12 minutes

Also, many organisations are working hard to try and validate what politicians and others say in public. These are worthy organisations and deserve our support. Here are just a couple:

Full Fact is an independent charity that, for example, checks the facts behind what politicians and other say on TV programmes like BBC Question Time. See: You can donate to the charity at:

More or Less is a BBC Radio programme (over 300 episodes) that checks behind purported facts of all sorts (from political claims to ‘facts’ that we all take for granted without questioning them).

However, even if ‘the facts’ can be reasonably established, there are two perspectives that undermine what may seem like a definitive answer to the question of trust. These are the perspectives of constructivism and intent.

From a constructivist perspective it is impossible to put a definitive meaning on any data. Meaning will always be an interpretation. You only need to look at what happens in a court of law to understand this. Whatever the evidence, however robust it is, it is always possible to argue that it can be interpreted in a different way. There is always another ‘take’ on it. The prosecution and the defence may present an entirely different interpretation of much the same evidence. As Tony Benn once said, ‘one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter’. It all depends on the perspective you take. Even a financial transaction can be read a different ways. While it’s existence may not be in dispute, it may be claimed that it took place as a result of coercion or error rather than freely entered into. The meaning of the data is not an attribute of the data itself. It is at least, in part, at attribute of the perceiver.

Furthermore, whatever is recorded in the data, it is impossible to be sure of the intent of the parties. Intent is subjective. It is sealed in the minds of the actors and inevitably has to be taken on trust. I may transfer the ownership of something to you knowing that it will harm you (for example a house or a car that, unknown to you, is unsafe or has unsustainable running costs). On the face of it the act may look benevolent whereas, in fact, the intent is to do harm (or vice versa).

Whilst for the most part we can take transactions at their face value, and it hardly makes sense to do anything else, the trust between the parties extends beyond the raw existence of the record of the transaction, and always will. This is not necessarily any different when an authority or intermediary is involved, although the presence of a third-party may have subtle effects on the nature of the trust between the parties.

Lastly, there is the pragmatic matter of adjudication and enforcement in the case of breaches to a contract. For instantaneous financial transactions there may be little possibility of breach in terms of delivery (i.e. the electronic payments are effected immediately and irrevocably). For other forms of contract though, the situation is not very different from non-Blockchain transactions. Although we may be able to put anything we like in a Blockchain contract – we could, for example, appoint a mutual friend as the adjudicator over a relationship contract, and empower family members to enforce it, we will still need the system of appeals and an enforcer of last resort.

I am not saying is that Blockchain is unnecessarily or unworkable, but I am saying that it is not the whole story and we need to maintain a healthy scepticism about everything. Nothing is certain.

Further Viewing

Psychological experiments in Trust. Trust is more situational than we normally think. Whether we trust somebody often depends on situational cues such as appearance and mannerisms. Some cues are to do with how similar one persona feels to another. Cues can be used to ascribe moral intent to robots and other artificial agents.

YouTube Video, David DeSteno: “The Truth About Trust” | Talks at Google, Talks at Google, February 2014, 54:36 minutes

Trust is a dynamic process involving vulnerability and forgiveness and sometimes needs to be re-built.

YouTube Video, The Psychology of Trust | Anne Böckler-Raettig | TEDxFrankfurt, TEDx Talks, January 2017, 14:26 minutes

More than half the world lives in societies that document identity, financial transactions and asset ownership, but about 3 billion people do not have the advantages that the ability to prove identity and asset ownership confers. Blockchain and other distributed technologies can provide mechanisms that can directly service the documentation, reputational, transactional and contractual needs of everybody, without the intervention of nation states or other third parties.

YouTube Video, The future will be decentralized | Charles Hoskinson | TEDxBermuda, TEDx Talks, December 2014, 13:35 minutes

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About This Blog

This series of blog postings takes a multi-disciplinary approach to social policy, bringing together ideas from psychology, economics, neuroscience, philosophy and related subjects to inform policy makers and other professionals about how we might think in new ways about the individual and society . There are some easy ways to read it:

• Very Easy – Just read the blog titles: Most blog title are propositions that the blog content attempts to justify. Just reading the names of the blogs in order from first to last will provide an overview of the approach.

• Quite Easy - Just read the text in bold. This brings out the main points in each posting.

• Easy - Just watch the videos. This is easy but can take a while. The running time of each video can be seen in the caption above it. Hover over the video to see the controls – play and pause, large screen, and navigate around.

• Harder – Read the whole blog. Useful if you are really interested, want to learn, or want to comment, disagree with the content, have another angle or whatever. The blog is not being publicised yet but please feel free to comment and I will try to respond if and when I can.

The blog attempts not to be a set of platitudes about what you should do to be happy. In fact, I would like to distance myself from the ‘wellbeing marketplace’ and all those websites/blogs that try and either sell you something or proffer advice. This is something quite different. It takes as its premise that there is a relationship between wellbeing, needs and control in both the individual and society. If needs are not being met and you have no control to alter the situation, then wellbeing will suffer.

While this may seem obvious, there is something to be gained by understanding the implications of this simple idea. We are quite used to thinking about wellbeing in terms of specifics like money, health, relationships, work and so on, but less familiar with dealing with the more generic and abstract concepts of need and control.

Taking a more abstract approach helps filter out much of the distraction and noise of our usual perceptions. It focuses on the central issues and their applicability across many specifics that affect how we think and feel.

The blog often questions our current models of the way we think about the human condition and society. It looks at the things we all know and talk about – decisions and choices, relationships and loss, jobs and taxes, wealth and health but in a way in which they are not usually described. It tries to develop a new account, that draws on a broadly based understanding of what we now know from science, culture and common sense.

If you are looking for simple answers you will not find them here. This is not because the answers are complex. It is because the answers are not necessarily what you expect.

If you are looking to explore in some depth the nature of wellbeing and how it is influenced by what you can control, and what others can control that may affect you, then read on. Playing through some of these ideas into the specifics of policy, at the level of society and the individual, will take time but I hope you will see the virtue of working from first principles.

When walking through any landscape different people will see different things. A geologist might see an ice-age come and go, forming undulations in its wake. A politician might see territorial boundaries. Somebody else may see a hill they have to climb together with the weight of their back-pack.

Taking a perspective of wellbeing and control is different from how we normally look at the world. It's a deeper look at why and how things happen as they do and the consequences on wellbeing. It questions the relationship between intention and outcome.

We normally see and act through the well-worn habits of our thoughts and behaviours as they have evolved to deal with things as they are now. We mainly chose the easy options that require the least resource. As a survival strategy this generally works well, but it also entrenches patterns of thought, behaviour and emotion that sometimes, for the benefit of our wellbeing, need to be changed. When considering change, people often say ‘well, I wouldn’t start from here’. And that’s the position I take. I am not starting from the ways things are or have evolved, but from the place they might have been had we known what we know now and had designed them.

The blogs argue that, in an era of specialisation, we have forgotten the big picture – we act specifically and locally within the silos of our specialised education and experience. We check process rather than outcomes. We often fail to integrate our knowledge and apply it to the design of our social and work systems (as well as our own thoughts and behaviours).

To understand society we first need to understand the individual and to this end, a psychological account of how we feel, think and behave based on notions of wellbeing and control is proposed. And not in an abstract airy-fairy kind of way, but as a more or less precise theory that forms the basis of a predictive and testable computational model. The theory is essentially about how, both as individuals and society we manage multiple (and often conflicting) intentions in real time within limited resources. I call this model 'the human operating system'. This is like a computer operating system except that it is motivated by emotions, modulated by reason and is expressed in the language of mind and its qualities of agency and intentionality.

Just as in the mathematics of fractal geometry, complex structures can emerge from simple rules. The explanation given of the interplay between emotions, physical bodily states, thoughts and behaviours shows how much of the complexity in the individual can be accounted for by a set of relatively simple rules. This can be modelled using a system of symbolic representation and manipulation involving intentions and priorities operating in a complicated and changing environment.

The language and models that we use to understand the individual can also be applied to organisations and other structures in society. Through an understanding of what makes for wellbeing in the individual we can also understand what makes for better wellbeing in society generally. The focus, therefore, is on understanding the individual and then using that understanding to inform how we might think about other structures in society and how all these structures relate to each other from the point of view of wellbeing, shifting patterns of control and the implications for social policy.