5 things that I’ve been thinking about lately.

My favourite morning email news digest, from Quartz, often has a list of ‘5 things elsewhere that made us smarter‘ or ‘5 things on Quartz we especially liked‘. Without fail, it’s always full of thought-provoking, surprising, and interesting new things. If you’ve not already signed up for the newsletter, I implore you to do so. And no, I’m not being paid by them to say that.

Anyway, I come across a lot of interesting and inspiring things online and in books, but besides posting them into the void that is Facebook, or rambling about them to unsuspecting family members, often they are read, appreciated and then lost. So I thought, inspired oddly enough by Bill Gates’ blog (I highly recommend his book reviews), that I should start collating and reflecting on these things. Without further ado:

  1. Philip Zimbardo’s ‘The Lucifer Effect’


I received this book as a present, and have been dipping in and out of it – it makes for very easy going and very interesting reading. Zimbardo is the psychologist behind the infamous Stanford Prison Experiment. (If you’ve not heard of it before, you can find out more about it here.) In short, Zimbardo and his colleagues set up a fake prison in the basement of Stanford University’s psychology department, and randomly assigned volunteers to the positions of Guards or Prisoners. For all intents and purposes, the experiment quickly escalated and closely mimicked a real prison, with the guards and prisoners falling into destructive roles of subservience and dominance. The experiment became so concerning to its researchers that it was halted before it had even reached its halfway point.

Some of the most significant findings from the Stanford Prison Experiment revolve around the way in which people are affected by their environment and the systems they find themselves in. The ‘guards’ and the ‘prisoners’, and even Zimbardo himself, were so deeply absorbed in their roles that normal social practices went out of the window. Many involved in the experiment commented on how they committed acts they would have liked to have thought that they were incapable of – acts of cruelty, abuse, and psychological manipulation.

It makes for interesting reflection, and a reminder that who we are, our identity, is constituted and shaped by the situations we find ourselves in, and by the relationships to those people and systems around us. In some ways, this can be an uplifting and empowering notion – if you can understand what’s holding you back, or the circumstances which will allow you to succeed, you can manufacture situations to your advantage.

But equally, if you lack the ability or maybe social capital to change these situations, then you can become trapped, oppressed, and shaped by them. This idea can be particularly interesting when applied it to situations such as mass shootings, or terror attacks. If a system privileges or discriminates against certain types of people, how will they react because of this? How does this affect their outlook, or their perceptions of morality? For those in the Stanford Prison Experiment, just five days within a simulated prison environment was sufficient time to create an abusive, power-driven atmosphere among intelligent and otherwise ‘normal’ young men.

As an addendum to this entry, Zimbardo’s findings are also intriguing when considered in the context of Sarah Chayes’ book ‘Thieves of State’ (You can read an extract here). Chayes contends that in many states which have seen the rise of violent extremism, there have been cases of rampant extortion and corruption. She draws a line between the corrupt and inefficient systems of government, and the appearance of grassroots, puritanical, religiously-inspired, alternative systems of governance and social welfare. This is possibly quite a drastic extension (or abuse) of Zimbardo’s argument, but I think it certainly provides food for thought: to what extent is an extremist identity fostered by the lack of a viable alternative? And how does this paint interventionist governments who choose to support the ‘legitimate government’, which the population view as corrupt? (See: Helmand, Afghanistan)

2. Useless, Unsuccessful, and/or Unpopular Memes

I can’t lie, I absolutely love memes. Internet humour cracks me up. I’m a real sucker for word play (it’s a family trait), and self-referential jokes. That’s where this Facebook group comes in. It’s full of ridiculous memes, many of which feed off each other to create ridiculous trends. Such as the image below. (If you don’t get it, the second image is from this – If you still don’t get it then, well… maybe that group’s not for you)12487274_796735473785296_4677444990691010591_o

3. Death Is Optional 

I fear that there is not much I can really say about this. But, I’ll try anyway. Essentially, it’s a fascinating and rolling dialogue between two very interesting people. It’s not necessarily all within the realm of absolute reality, but they ruminate on interesting issues such as the place for humans in a world in which machines can increasingly replace them, ‘there is a good chance that most humans will lose, they are losing, their military and economic value.’ 

I’m not sure I agree with their ideas that a loss of military and economic value may be followed by a denial of mass access to medicine. I’m not quite sure it would be such a conscious effort. But, as I’ve written elsewhere, there is already a great disparity in levels of access to healthcare around the world. Anyway, I’ll leave you with another quote from it to whet your appetite.

‘…throughout history, death was the great equalizer. The big consolation of the poor throughout history was that okay, these rich people, they have it good, but they’re going to die just like me. But think about the world, say, in 50 years, 100 years, where the poor people continue to die, but the rich people, in addition to all the other things they get, also get an exemption from death. That’s going to bring a lot of anger.’

4. The Truth About Evil

John Gray is my new favourite philosopher. I recently heard him being interviewed on the New Statesman podcast, and he certainly provides food for thought. This particular piece of nourishment is actually from 2014, but it’s certainly still relevant and provocative. Gray ruminates on the nature of evil, and its invocation as a justification for military intervention. He argues that Western leaders’ rhetoric about bringing an end to evil (Gray gives examples, but also consider GWB’s ‘Axis of Evil‘ post-9/11) fails to grasp that, in fact, such a trait is a fundamentally human one. Their belief in liberalism, requires are ‘a narrative of continuing advance if they are to preserve their sense of being able to act meaningfully in the world’, a narrative that sees human beings as ultimately perfectible, but in this they fail to realise the limits of their power and keep making the same mistakes over and again (see: Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya). As Gray neatly summarises: ‘They cannot accept that by removing one kind of evil they may succeed only in bringing about another – anarchy instead of tyranny, Islamist popular theocracy instead of secular dictatorship’. 

I think he is arguing some points which are quite important to consider. Lately, I have been thinking a lot about the Western notion that we are ‘the good’, that somehow we have got it right and that we are ultimately a force for good in the world. Now, this is where I imagine there are readers champing at the bit to condemn me as anti-Western. I’m not, I’m just in favour of examining things in a clear-eyed manner. Certainly, domestically we have it pretty good. But I think our self-perceived ability to project power and influence across the world is misguided. Let’s be honest, Afghanistan didn’t work out so well. I mean,  put aside the failed state aspect for a moment, and consider that Britain was in charge of counter-narcotics: opium production actually considerably increased whilst we were there. In some cases, the schemes we designed to encourage farmers to destroy their opium crops actually resulted in them planting more, in order to get the rewards for destroying them. Iraq also didn’t go so well. Nor did Libya. I don’t think we should be haunted forever by these previous failures, but I do think we need to face up to the fact that we made a really big fucking mess of them, and then hopefully there is some kind of lesson in that. I think these are some lessons worth considering:

  • Propensity to evil is a human trait that you’re not going to be able to bomb out of existence. If you can’t envisage a longer term plan, or guarantee an effective political transition will follow the bombing campaign (see Syria, also Libya), then you have to weigh the relative evils: what you have now vs. what you might enable.
  • ‘We’ don’t have all the answers, and that ‘we’ are also extremely ignorant about some of the environments in which ‘we’ are trying to intervene.
  • Finally, if you do not have the ability to see the entire process through to its conclusion (a perennial problem for democratic states) then you need to seriously think about getting involved in the first place. It could be a long wait, too. The World Bank reckons it can take ‘between 15 and 30 years to raise […] institutional performance from that of a fragile state today—Haiti, say—to that of a functioning institutionalized state, such as Ghana’. As the same report aptly summarises: ‘Creating the legitimate institutions that can prevent repeated violence is, in plain language, slow.’

Here’s another thought provoking quotation from John Gray:

‘Western intervention in the Middle East has been guided by a view of the world that itself has some of the functions of religion. There is no factual basis for thinking that something like the democratic nation-state provides a model on which the region could be remade. States of this kind emerged in modern Europe, after much bloodshed, but their future is far from assured and they are not the goal or end-point of modern political development. From an empirical viewpoint, any endpoint can only be an act of faith. All that can be observed is a succession of political experiments whose outcomes are highly contingent. Launched in circumstances in which states constructed under the aegis of western colonialism have broken down under the impact of more recent western intervention, the gruesome tyranny established by Isis will go down in history as one of these experiments.’

5. Radiohead’s Shell Companies

Okay, so this is a pretty niche interest to say the least. I’m not sure why it fascinated me so much. I think I’m just really intrigued by the stories behind the curtain, so to speak. But, this article details how Radiohead basically create a new shell company every time they release an album. Why? Well, read the article. And then watch this.

(Tl;dr: the FT speculates that by releasing it through a shell company instead of a band-owned label, if the album were to do terribly (I know, good joke) then the band would be ‘shielded from anyone trying to recoup their investment by targeting the rest of [their] wealth’.)


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