Tuesday, 3 December 2013

Who are Your Homies?

I was recently able to view an exhibition of the work of the artist Madge Gill at the Orleans House Gallery in Twickenham.  Ms. Gill, who lived from 1882 till 1962, is described as a medium and visionary; her artwork in pen, ink and painting was prolific. She’s held up as one of the premier British exemplars of outsider art, also known as brute art.  This genre has received great interest and press of late, including a significant seat at this year’s Venice Biennale, Alan Yentob’s excellent Imagine show of the 19th of November and the Wellcome Collection’s exhibition earlier in the year.  Some of the ‘outsiders’ have mental disabilities, others emotional health problems and still others, visions or voices.  They’re a myriad of people with ‘issues’ who feel compelled to create and often their production is prodigious. Carl Jung famously induced hallucinations with drugs and other conscious-changing techniques in order to enter into altered states; his works can be seen in a collection called The Red Book

There is much to celebrate about outsider art: not just that the disabled are able to find purpose, though that in itself is something quite wonderful, but that the art itself often has the quality of honesty in its anguish, longing, urgency, obsessiveness, humour, confusion, elation and sometimes despair.  In some esteemed works of contemporary art, we can sometimes find more calculation, more self-consciousness, more disdain or cynicism – characteristics which have their place as well.  It’s just great to see those with an alternative vision of the world given some attention, and in some cases some critical recognition.  Artists from Creative Growth in Oakland have been featured on Oxford Street and many others have been shown by the Museum of Everything here and abroad. 

Now to get back to the work of Madge, because she has a special interest to me.  Her works are best described by one of her biographer’s, Roger Cardinal thus:
Gill’s frenetic improvisations have an almost hallucinatory quality, each surface being filled with checkerboard patterns that suggest giddy, quasi-architectural spaces.  Afloat upon these swirling proliferations are the pale faces of discarnate and nameless women, sketched perfunctorily, albeit with an apparent concern for beauty, and with startled expressions. (from Cardinal's The Life of Madge Gill) 
Madge Gill had no training nor aspirations to fame as many of her drawings were produced in secret.  In her letters and diaries she claims to have been inspired by an ethereal spirit guide called Myrninerest.  The focal point of the exhibition at Orleans House Gallery is her giant scroll – over 10 metres long – called The Crucifixion of the Soul featuring Gill’s signature doodle-like drawings and female faces.  

Her early years were difficult as being an ‘illegitimate’ child in Victorian times meant that she was placed in an orphanage at the age of nine and subsequently shipped off to Canada to work as a domestic servant on some Ontario farms.  She returned to London later and lived with an aunt who introduced her to spiritualism and mediumistic practices.  It was after the still-born birth of her fourth child and her own illness which cost her an eye that Gill claims she was first possessed by her spirit guide.  She says that Myrninerest remained in contact with her for the rest of her life.  

In 1926 her son records his mother’s first experience of delirious trance-states which she apparently found overwhelming and frightening.  The manifestation of these states was not only drawing and painting, but writing, knitting, crochet-work, weaving and piano-playing as well.  In 1922 Gill was treated in a women’s clinic in Hove where her work was brought to the attention of the Society for Psychical Research in London.  The expert opinion at the time judged the drawings to be “more of an inspirational than of an automatic kind.”

Madge Gill lived with her sons and also a brother-in-law who was an ardent follower of astrology.  From around 1930 she became known as a medium in her Upton Park neighbourhood, organised séances at her home, drew up horoscopes and offered spontaneous prophecies.  Her work was displayed at galleries including the Whitechapel and even turned down the offer of a show in a prestigious West End one, explaining that her works could not be sold, since they all belonged to Myrninerest.  It’s believed that in her later years she worked in her bedroom through the night, viewing her work with her one good eye, succumbing to “a seductive auto-hypnosis which distracted her from reality.”  Some neighbours claimed she had a disturbing gaze, eccentric remarks and deranged behaviour.  Over 200 of her works are conserved in the Newham municipal archives and much are preserved in public collections such as the Collection de l’Art Brut in Lausanne and the Aracine collection in Lille.

When you enter the exhibition at Orleans House, you’re met with The Crucifixion.  Since much of this is done in pen on faded paper, it looks very different from huge paintings or murals you see in museums.  There’s dreamlike quality to her work that reminded me of Chagall and also a child-like feeling that called to mind the drawings of the author and illustrator of children’s books, Lauren Child.  There were some that were colourful, decorative and design-wise, very pleasing.  When you’ve passed along the upper gallery, you then enter a room full of bits and pieces of occult paraphernalia including ghost photographs, a Ouija board, a séance trumpet as well as modern day spiritualist painters. This room epitomises where Madge Gill was coming from – this was the worldview that she’d been drawn to as a young woman and it was from the occult that she derived her beliefs, values, identity, relationships and her art. 

The following are a selection of other mystically-influenced contemporary artists on display at the Orleans Gallery: 

After viewing this collection, I remembered a lecture I attended last year by Marianne Williamson at St. James’s Church Piccadilly.  Ms. Williamson’s worldview is based on A Course in Miracles and is peppered with phrases and terms which sound traditionally Christian such as God, love and forgiveness.  But make no mistake, the ‘universal principles’ she refers to are anything but.  When she makes her run for Congress, I’ve no doubt many will erroneously believe that her religious convictions are of the liberal Christian variety.  But look carefully at the company she keeps.  Her workshops are advertised in publications like Alternatives which also hawks the seminars, workshops and lectures of mediums, psychics, tarot card readers, pagans, alchemists and those working with crystals, angel cards, dowsing, mindfulness, scrying, divination, out-of-body experiences, Gnosticism, channelling and palmistry.  These are varied practices, but what they share in common is a devotion to the occult; these are the homeboys of Ms. Williamson and were those of Ms. Madge Gill as well.

Wednesday, 25 September 2013

Your Community's Got Talent

The most powerful message which the Occupy movements around the world brought to our collective attention is that the gains from economic growth and prosperity have not been shared fairly among its producers and contributors.  The outcomes are apparent in the statistics on wealth inequality, stagnating wages, squeezed living standards, job insecurity, long-term joblessness and the disenfranchisement of the young to name a few of the most prominent and problematic. 

Though a good proportion of the growth in unemployment during recent years has come about as the result of weak demand, this has exacerbated the underlying trend of technologically-driven unemployment. Economists Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee of MIT have found in their research and described in their books that new technologies are making more jobs redundant than they're enabling and that due to Moore’s law, trends in technology-embedded aspects of life will only increase.  Examples that come to mind are clerkless checkouts and the imminent driverless cars.  Though over a longer horizon technology will enable innovations that will benefit humanity, the interregnum will be unsettling as the chronic under and unemployment are likely to be personally and socially corrosive. 

What ICTs can do very well, as pointed out by Kal Raustiala and Christopher Sprigman in their new book The Knockoff Economy, is often to lower the costs of innovation, sometimes dramatically.  Making music used to require a large costly studio; now it can happen with a keyboard, laptop and Logic software.  Digital files can be uploaded to an artist’s website or YouTube and distributed easily anywhere with an internet connection.  Likewise for photography and some forms of art:
Sometimes technological advances like these make it possible for one person to do what many did before...other times they allow many individuals to do what one (or a few) did before, by permitting large-scale tweaking...Perhaps the most important effect of technological change, however, is it reduced the cost of making and distributing creative work.   
I propose a possible solution, not only to the issue of social exclusion of the young and unemployed, but also the deterioration of the British high street in the form of a new type of community centre: a fusion of coffee house, open mike night and art exhibition space: a multi-sensory, multi-talent shop and theatre.   I’m talking about working around established channels of commerce and the traditional media.  Using human ingenuity combined with technology, social media and vacant high street premises, the unemployed could, without enormous investment or cost, turn talent into a living and reinvigorate their local community.

Analysis by the Centre for Economics and Business Research found that the arts and culture deliver a significant return on relatively small levels of government spending and directly lead to at least £845m of spending by tourists in the UK.  Arts Council England commissioned this research to determine the economic impact of the arts along with the National Museum Directors' Council.  The chief executive of ACE, Alan Davey commented that the report:
quantified what we have long understood - that culture plays a vital part in attracting tourism to the tune of £856m a year; that arts centres and activities transform our towns and cities and drive regeneration, making the choice to maintain investment in culture a forward thinking one for local authorities; and that the arts support the creative industries and improve their productivity.
Some other findings of the report:

  • turnover of businesses in the arts and culture industries was £12bn in 2011 which in turn led to an estimated £5.9bn of gross value added to the UK economy in the same year.  
  • the sector provides more than 110,000 jobs directly or 260,300 once indirect impacts are included

Another key finding is that art and culture improve national productivity: "Engagement with the arts and culture helps to develop people's critical thinking, to cultivate creative problem solving and to communicate and express themselves effectively."  It's clear from this report that there are enormous tangible and intangible benefits of the arts to the economy and to individuals who create and enjoy the arts and culture.

I’m also drawing on the work of Tyler Cowen in his new book, Average is Over: Powering America Beyond the Age of the Great Stagnation in which he poses a remedy to problems caused by disruptive technological change.  The thesis of this book is that better outcomes are available when people are able to discern which capabilities they have which are special – and particularly human – and which aspects of their activities are better accomplished by computers.  The obvious reason for this is that there is a great deal of evidence now that routine work done in formerly middle-income and skilled jobs has been taken away either by computers or offshore production.  The result has been a hollowing out of the middle of the income distribution.  A recent report by the Resolution Foundation found that in the UK a two tier workforce has emerged: the lower tier being characterised by low-paid, low-skilled work which is often temporary, part-time or self-employed. Early signs of an economic recovery are having little impact on this trend with rates of part-time or temporary work among new employees (those starting or returning to work) remaining high.  The median hourly wage for a new employee stood at £8.42 in 2009; today it is under £8.

Empty shops in the high street could be converted into comfortable, stylish community centres, designed, decorated and furnished through local donation and contribution (this is done beautifully every Wednesday in The Kitchen in Egham, Surrey).  It could serve as a cafe with entertainment, including music, comedy and poetry readings, and offer artwork, sculpture, baking and cooking for sale. Professionals and the retired could donate their time and wisdom to advising on artistic as well as business matters.  Marketing could be via local newspaper, flash mobs and social media.  Parking should be free for a set period of time. Such a centre would be a sort of permanent pop-up shop or indoor farmer’s market of talent.  It could be set up as a social enterprise, either subsidised through the council or crowd-funded.  It would provide not just vocational development, but an outlet for creative energy as well as foster a greater sense of community, something sorely needed in these days of depleted social capital.

Those performing at, producing goods or art for or serving at the community centre could gradually expand their audience or customer base and could eventually become entrepreneurs in their community and mentors to the centre.  An important advantage of the new community centre is that it offers a physical space to accommodate development and showcase talent – an advantage beyond what Kickstart and other social enterprise schemes offer.

The Vineyard Community Centre in Richmond-upon-Thames offers some of what I’m talking about, though I would suggest that having a centre on the high street would offer greater footfall and profile and stir up greater local excitement and community involvement.  I'm thinking less drop-in centre, more Le Quotidien with art, music, dance and crafts - perhaps even unique fashions.  I'd love to pop into a local high street community centre like that.

Tuesday, 24 September 2013

We don’t need no (eastern) meditation

On the 12th of September Project Syndicate published an article called Beyond Homo Economicus by Tania Singer, Director of the Department of Social Neuroscience at the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences.  She leads something called the ReSource Project which calls itself a “unique, large-scale study on Eastern and Western methods of mental training.” The methods promoted by this project are designed to:
enhance attentional control, body- and self-awareness, healthy emotion regulation, self-care, compassion, empathy and perspective taking...Overall the aim of the training is to improve mental health and social skills.  It may reduce stress, improve mental clarity, increase life satisfaction, and lead to a better understanding of others’ views and actions.
The article was apparently one of the most read of the many that Project Syndicate posts, having 859 likes on Facebook alone.  No doubt there were even more eager followers on the website and via email.  Professor Singer isn't alone in challenging the concept of homo economicus – the principle used in traditional economic theory and modelling that humans are rational actors who make decisions based on narrow self-interest.  As the discipline of economics increasingly draws on the research findings of psychology and evolutionary biology, new frameworks are being proposed to capture the biases in our decision making, our oftentimes herdlike behaviour and how networks cause knowledge (and emotions) to diffuse through populations.  Other research programs such as Professor Singer's attempt to take into account the human capacity for altruism and pro-social behaviour.  Entirely new fields are cropping up, including neuroeconomics, social and affective neuroscience and contemplative neuroscience which have found that humans can be motivated by pro-social preferences such as fairness and concern for others’ welfare or rights.  So far so good and kudos to laudable research.

The problem is that organisations such as Max Planck, the Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education at Stanford University, the Center for Mind-Body Medicine at UCLA, the Institute for Mindful Leadership, the Center for Brain, Consciousness and Cognition at the Maharishi University of Management and Meng Tan’s Search Inside Yourself Leadership Institute seem to have abandoned established psychological methods such as CBT as a means of challenging debilitating negative thinking to alleviate excessive anxiety and depression and are instead promoting eastern meditation, yoga and mindfulness.  The goals are apparently to make people more empathetic and compassionate as well to help them manage their emotions and thoughts - to quiet the so-called 'monkey mind'.  Other outcomes promised include greater calm and focus which are meant to make people nicer, more creative, more focused and better leaders.  That’s one tall order.  Professor Singer's project  is classified under the emerging field of ‘contemplative neuroscience,’ which has ‘begun to produce evidence for the plasticity of pro-social preferences and motivation.’  The ReSource Project website claims:
...training programs aimed at boosting pro-social motivation have led to increased activity in neural networks related to positive emotions and affiliation, as well as to reduced stress-relevant hormonal responses and increased immune markers, when participants are exposed to distress in others...such mental training programs make participants more efficient and more focused while improving their capacity to cope with stress.
I agree that we face moral and ethical failings of both individuals and institutions, the latter particularly requiring reform to re-establish trust and foster greater cooperation among constituents.  But believing that personal transformation via eastern mindfulness methods is tendentious and problematic.  Professor Singer asserts in her article:
given that brains are at their most malleable during childhood, beginning mental training in school would help to create a solid foundation for the kind of secular ethics that would contribute to the development of a more compassionate society.  But mental training also has benefits for adults, so businesses, political authorities, and research institutions should collaborate in establishing “mental gymnasiums.”
The methods used by the ReSource Project and the myriad others that teach mindfulness meditation present them as secular techniques, supported by scientific research and, since they’ve been around for millennia, have apparently passed the test of time.  The metaphysical underpinning of these methods is seldom revealed to the initiate.  This is simply dishonest and irresponsible.  Have countries where these methods have been practiced for centuries become more compassionate, cooperative and peaceful than others?  Of course they haven’t.

Eastern philosophy is based on the idea that the primary nature of life is suffering and that the purpose of life is its alleviation.  Ironically, what often makes people more compassionate (in addition to what nature and nurture set down) is their own experiences of loss, pain and suffering.  In the furore over the nursing staff at Mid-Staffodshire Foundation Trust, many called for a change in the culture - to make it more caring.  It's very unclear that such a change could even come about without having professional, well-trained, equipped rested and who are supported to the extent that they have the emotional space to be more caring.  The structure can have a direct influence on the culture.

I’ve been alarmed by the Harvard Business Review’s blatant promotion of mindfulness/meditation techniques for executives among others promoting the practice; I’ve mentioned this before in earlier blogposts here and here.  The Financial Times recently featured an article on the topic, profiling high flying executives who swear by these techniques.  It's worrying because highly competitive types like top executives strive to emulate the most successful.  Fortunately, at the end of the FT article, reporter John Paul Rathbone remarks, “Meditation may be one way to “go deeper.”  Certainly it seems to have increased the willingness of some to explore their interiority.  Whether that will make a difference to the ethics of the financial world is an open question.”  Indeed.

Another inherent contradiction of the meditation bandwagon is that it often appeals to those in search of a quick fix to a particular problem.  In this video, David Lynch gives a long answer to a short question: how can meditation enhance the creative process.  This is the instrumentalisation of ultimate reality  - a key feature of self-help and New Age (also called emergent, integral or evolutionary spirituality). 

What really bothers me is that meditation research centres and consultants seem to indicate that eastern metaphysical techniques are the only if not the best way to reduce cortisol, a hormone related to stress.  Walking in nature would have the same if not bigger effect.  If a reporter from the FT, a blogger on the HBR, David Lynch or Oprah recommends a technique because successful people swear by it, others jump on the trend, hoping the fairy dust will sprinkle on them.  David Gelles, reporting on corporate giants using meditation to lower healthcare costs and boost worker productivity, says what many seem to use as a catchphrase: “it seems that eastern wisdom – stripped of its religiosity and backed by scientific research – is becoming an accepted part of the corporate mainstream.”

When it comes to eastern meditation techniques,  we’re really talking about more than psychology, more than mental health.  We’re talking about metaphysics and eternity, whether you believe in these things or not. 

Saturday, 10 August 2013

Note to self: take notice of the artist behind the post-it note

Back in July my daughter and I made a pilgrimage to Bermondsey to see the White Cube which we’d heard so much about for so long.  We had high expectations as our gps guided us from the tube through the back streets of east London.  The cube, however, was closed.  So we decided to visit its sister space in the West End.  On display was the work of Brazilian-born conceptual artist, Jac Leirner.  Now my daughter, the artist, feels strongly that art should be able to speak for itself - that we should be able to ascertain whether it is either good or bad based soley on what we see before us.  I used to think that, but have found that when I know the artist’s back story, it often increases the contemplative possibilities of viewing for me.

In the one of the galleries were some pieces which looked to us like a sets of different coloured post-it notes, arranged in a large rectangles with military precision.  We looked at one another in despair, feeling as though we were being humiliated by the artist.  I later learned that these weren’t post-it notes at all but rather gummed Rizla papers and that Ms. Leiner, one of Latin America’s leading conceptual artists, has an obsession with accumulating ordinary found objects as materials for her art.  Her works, or 'interventions' adopt ‘formal rigour and aesthetic to the way she collects, arranges and assembles.'  Her cigarette paper grid titled Skin “references both the habitual, repetitive activity of rolling papers and the physical, tangible nature of this material: a delicate and translucent syphon used to smoke tobacco and pot.”

Leirner follows in a long tradition of ‘found object’ artists, including Marcel Duchamp, Damien Hirst, Gabriel Orozco and Picasso.  Last year I was able to hear  David Nash speak about his work at a lecture he gave at Kew Gardens.  Like Leiner, Nash mostly uses found materials, only his have been from nature – predominantly fallen trees.  Unlike Leiner, however, his works are monumental and designed to last, particularly in the elements.

On another cultural excursion off the Piccadilly line, we saw the brilliant BP exhibition of young artists at the National Portrait Gallery.  The works were truly impressive and mesmerising; we even went around twice it was so good. 

And then we ventured down into the crypt of St. Martin-in-the-Fields.  It’s now like Victoria Station down there now, with a huge cafe, gift shop, throngs of diners and tourists and an art gallery off to the west side.  When we entered the space we noticed that several walls were covered with yellow post-it note and we responded, quite appropriately and spontaneously, in gales of laughter.  A young man explained to us that for £10 we could purchase the chance to remove one of the post-it notes and have one of several of his colleagues sketch and sign a doodle on the note for us to take home.  Eventually, when all the notes were removed, there would be a grand work for all to see.  Now I’m sure that these were all fantastically talented artists and that they were undertaking a novel approach to participative art; it just seemed like a pretty high price for which to take part. 

I told the pop-up artist about the exhibit at the White Cube and encouraged him to go see it; after all, it seemed like there was some symmetry there.

Thursday, 8 August 2013

People are our most exploitable asset

The 2012 winner of the Turner Prize, Elizabeth Price, had one of her pieces screened in the Tate Britain last year called The Woolworth's Choir of 1979.  It’s a stunning video installation which weaves together actual news clips of a fire which took place at Woolworth's in Manchester, music performances of the time and religious architecture.  My daughter and I found it arresting. 

Some people lament that a good deal of contemporary art on display in galleries and museums around the world is too overtly political or attention-seeking; they mourn the loss of what they consider to be works of beauty and craftsmanship.  The truth is that much good art from the dawn of time has been politically controversial or socially provocative.  I recently watched a PBS documentary on New York City at the turn of the previous two centuries.  Reported in this piece in shocking detail is a fire that swept through the Triangle Waist Company factory in Manhattan in 1911.  Because the exit doors had been deliberately locked by owners claiming that this measure was necessary to prevent theft, 146 young Jewish and Italian immigrant women perished, many jumping to their deaths from the 9th floor inferno.

What followed were angry protests from all quarters, including unions, progressives as well as conservatives.  Though the factory owners Max Blanck and Isaac Harris were found not guilty of criminal wrongdoing, they were nonetheless fined $75 per life lost in civil suits.  Following the tragedy, they nevertheless continued to operate premises littered with flammable rubbish and locked doors.

At least the Triangle disaster eventually led to improved health and safety regulations in the state of New York.  This sort of horror, however, is not a thing of the past by any stretch.  1,127 Bangladeshi garment workers were crushed to death in the Rana Plaza factory in April of this year. Around 80% of the clothes produced in Bangladesh are destined for your and my wardrobes. Survivors of the disaster are now suffering from fear, flashbacks, nightmares and guilt that they can no longer support their families.  Three months after the collapse, the authorities have made arrests but no one has yet been charged with a crime and survivors have yet to receive compensation.

The campaign group, War on Want, took to the pavement outside Primark’s Oxford street store to voice their call for a full enquiry into the incident and Primark’s signature on the Bangladesh  Fire and Building Safety Agreement to end what they call “appallingly unsafe factory conditions” in the country.

An artist who dramatically took her dismay to the streets of Madrid was Yolanda Dominguez, who wanted to highlight not only the tragedy in Dhaka, but the fast fashion lifestyle trend which it supported.  Her performance art called Fashion Victims had women in heels and trendy dress lying on pavements covered in debris.  She said that she was appealing for responsible production and consumption both for people and the planet.  A survey by engineers in Bangladesh - the world’s second largest supplier of clothes - reported that nearly three-fifths of garment factories there are vulnerable to collapse.  Dominguez’s choice of venue was telling as Spain is home to two of the biggest fast-fashion chains in the world: Zara and Mango.

You often read in company annual reports that they consider their greatest asset to be their people.  You can tell more about how someone really feels about someone else by they way they treat them than what they say about them.  Right here in the UK - right now - workers on zero hours contracts at Amazon are tagged and monitored every moment they work, when they go to the loo and as they take their 10 minute walk to the canteen and back.  Sounds dystopian?  It is, it’s 1984 all over again.

Monday, 15 July 2013

The Beauty of Character

My older daughter has a few weeks left to decide whether to spend next year on an art foundation course or to begin a degree in philosophy and economics.  She’s leaning towards the former.   The art world and its educational entree aren't what I’d expected; they're far more intellectual and competitive than one can imagine, particularly at the prestigious art schools.  At one of the open days I heard a talk from the foundation program head who said that the two most important things which the admissions team wanted to see in a successful portfolio were these: 

  • Commitment
  • Demonstrable problem solving

You might have thought, as did I, that they would be looking for superior skill, talent, individuality, creativity, ‘a statement’, a philosophical view or truth, goodness & beauty.  But no, those qualities weren’t even mentioned.    And it occurred to me that those two personal characteristics encompass a great deal and can tell you much about someone’s character.  Commitment means that you’re in something for the long haul - you’re willing to take risks, make mistakes, dedicate your time to learning, be resilient in the inevitable event of setbacks and you’re willing to forgive and move on where necessary.   It was the problem solving bit that I found so interesting for an art school to be preoccupied by, but this is so critical.  The greatest artists have all been technical innovators – even Constable, whom you might think of as a painter of quaint pastoral, set  pieces of nostalgia.  But he was actually doing quite radical things with his subject matter and technique that were groundbreaking for his time - we just weren’t there to understand the artistic, philosophical and social norms of the day.

Or Michelangelo.  He’d never worked in the medium of frescoes before his commission of the Sistine Chapel.  The engineering difficulties of scaffolding and lighting were immense in their own right.  And his first attempts at the ceiling ended in disastrous flaking and smudging of paint.  But he didn’t pack it in.  It took him four years to complete this one commission.  Of all the works of art I’ve seen and admired in all of the museums and churches I’ve been able to visit, the Sistine chapel remains for me a most outrageous and disarming work of art.  Its beauty , for me, is just about indescribable; I could see in those monumental figures the anguish and near madness of a genius at work.

Commitment and an innovative approach to problems - these are what an art school wants to see in the artists of the future – those who will make a meaningful contribution to the common good.  I think these two qualities are needed in a person in just about any endeavour you can think of, from entrepreneurs to scientists, from community activities to personal relationships, from legacies of the past to an innovative and creative future. 

Sunday, 14 July 2013

Fakes are Fabulous

Review of The Knockoff Economy: how imitation sparks innovation by Profs Kal Raustiala and Christopher Sprigman, Oxford Unviersity Press, 2012.

Ever been tempted to buy a fake designer handbag while on holiday but felt too guilty to make the purchase?  Professors Kal Raustiala and Christopher Sprigman will assuage your conscience; in their new book The Knockoff Economy, they argue that the copying of luxury goods can serve as free and powerful advertising for the genuine brand.   They cite research by the NBER which found that the advertising effects of counterfeits often outweigh the substitution effects.  So go ahead, wear that fake Dior with pride – you’re doing the brand a favour and improving the livelihoods of the knockoff makers and sellers.

The thesis of this very enjoyable read is that new technologies have facilitated the ability of individuals and companies to imitate others’ designs or to borrow and tweak them.  This process has resulted in effusive amounts of creativity and innovation in a number of industries and professions, thus challenging the principle behind the monopoly theory of intellectual property protection.    

The authors examine a variety of industries and arts, some which have strict rules on copying, like music (copyright) and pharmaceuticals (patents), but most of the book provides  a deeper examination of disciplines where restrictions (in the US) on copying are absent or are not used, such as fashion, databases, football strategies, finance and fonts.  In these fields they find that copying has stimulated rather than inhibited innovation and call this the “piracy paradox.”  In other fields, such as comedy and magic, social norms protect the interests of performers by preventing outright copying.  And in the world that is fine cuisine, the possibility of imitation leads chefs to structure their creativity in ways that make it less vulnerable to copying, making not only signature dishes but unique dining experiences.

The chapter on fashion is a thorough and engaging tour through the history of the industry, culminating in where we are today – enthral to both the luxury brands and the knockoffs of the high street.  The fashion cycle is described to show how innovation is diffused from the catwalk to Zara to Forever 21 and why it benefits each producer along the quality spectrum.  In fashion, “copying acts like a turbocharger that spins the fashion cycle faster.”   The authors acknowledge the ethical dimension of fast fashion, but remark that this is not the focus of their story.  Still, the whole issue of foreign working conditions and textile landfill are serious human and environmental costs of the industry which don’t get even a mention.  Likewise, the dark side of financial innovation is ignored.

For many of the creative endeavours examined in the book, social norms play a significant role in protecting the uniqueness of certain works or performances, such as stand-up comedy and the cuisine of top-flight chefs.  “If social norms are powerful enough, they can achieve much the same outcome that legal regulation would...they express the rules of a given community about what is allowed and what is not.”  The authors surmise that norms can achieve this at a lower cost to society than legal rules, though this is difficult to actually measure.

Another means of innovation discussed in the Knockoff Economy is the work of the tweakers; those that take the work of a pioneer, such as open-source software, and improve upon it collaboratively.    The very idea of open source is that cooperation and unimpeded propagation are a better means of promoting innovation than the enforcement of property rights.  American football highlights the tweaking strategy as certain formations are quickly copied when proven to be effective, then tweaked to suit the strengths and weaknesses of a particular team (didn’t expect to find this as interesting as I actually did!).  “As more and more Tweakers wring the flaws out of a Pioneer’s code, the solutions to the problem get better and better.”

The epilogue to the book is an examination of an industry which attempted to use legal means to prevent copying with disastrous effect - the music business.  (You’ll probably have heard economist Alan Krueger citing the music industry as a microcosm of the entire US economy over the past few decades.)  The result is that in music as in cuisine, the creative edge now comes from the performance rather than just the product.  In fact, recordings are now oftentimes used as an advertisement or lure for the live concert.  The result is that both the restaurant and live music performance businesses are booming. 

Though I found much of the conclusion section to be rather repetitive of the previous chapters, there is a very interesting section at the end on the costs and benefits of creativity.   The major points here are that the benefits of innovation are often overestimated by the innovator  (this is called optimism bias) which actually serves to induce more innovation than otherwise even in the face of copying.  And secondly, the costs of creation are dropping in many fields which further encourages innovation.  They also refer to the superstar effect -  that many markets for creative goods are characterised by tournaments where a huge reward goes to a few at the very top while much less is won by those just below.  These nevertheless induce more investment than is rational, leading to high levels of innovation. 

So imitation is not just the sincerest form of flattery, it’s an engine that sustains creativity, innovation and growth.

Monday, 29 April 2013

What should be done to tackle the UK’s high re-offending rate?

Re-offending is a costly problem to the current government; it can also impose long-term harm on the victimised individuals and communities, the offenders themselves and their families.  Almost half of those released from prison are re-convicted within a year, a rate which has remained this high for a decade.[1]  Over half of all re-offenses were committed by those with 11 or more previous convictions.   The UK’s prison population stands at over 85,000 – a figure which has doubled over the past 20 years.  The economic costs are enormous; re-offending accounts for between £9.5bn and £13bn of the overall cost of crime to UK society of £64bn per year.[2]

Justice Secretary Chris Grayling is addressing the urgency of the problem by both toughening penalties and implementing reforms to rehabilitation, utilising various community organisations who are pursuing mentoring and innovative rehabilitation methods.  These government reforms will allow lower-risk offenders to be supervised by private firms and charities on a payment by results basis, while prisoners serving sentences of less than 12 months will be forced to undertake a period of rehabilitation upon release for the first time.  These policy prescriptions have come about from an analysis of the reasons for and circumstances in which re-offending occurs, including ex-prisoner homelessness and unemployment.  There is growing agreement from all points on the political spectrum that prevention is preferable to tougher sentencing as a means of promoting better economic, social and personal outcomes.

The key to tackling the re-offending cycle is to provide prison-leavers with better options which lead to long-term personal sufficiency, both economic and psychological.  It’s imperative to assist people leaving prison in the areas of employability skills, job search and placement, and housing.  How these services are delivered can come from a variety of sources including local government programmes, charities and social enterprises.  The government has made it clear that the criminal justice system has been opened up to more providers and that they are to be paid by results for their effectiveness 

Current programme providers, both in the UK and elsewhere, are pioneering new approaches to rehabilitation; these represent a bank of trials as a means of testing whether particular re-offending prevention programmes work.  Those conducting such trials need to have adequate data on re-offending to verify the effectiveness of their work.  The Ministry of Justice’s recently launched Justice Data Lab (suggested and supported by New Philanthropy Capital) will allow organisations working with offenders to better understand the tangible impact their work is having on re-offending rates so that they can see what works and what doesn’t.  This will enable them to demonstrate their impact to commissioners and allow them to fine-tune their services.  In the past, charities had to depend on their relationships with local police forces, prisons and probation trusts for information on re-offending.  The Data L:ab will enable the promotion of quantitative measures to demonstrate effectiveness.  Improved commissioning could also reduce costs and deliver improved value for money for the government.

There has been an analogous move in the field of development toward greater involvement of local stakeholders using programmes as trials.  The economist Tim Harford is a champion of this evidence-based support for policy.  I think his thoughts on this subject are an appropriate approach to the problem of re-offending:

“…let’s hear it for pragmatism: for trusting evidence rather than theory; for looking at the specifics of the situation rather than some overarching narrative; for preferring what works to what fits our preconceptions; and for being willing to test our ideas and change direction as is necessary.[3]

There is a plethora of rehabilitation initiatives being tested in the communities of the UK; their outcomes will yield up which ones work most effectively.

Saturday, 9 March 2013

Evolutionary Enlightenment Commits Logical Suicide

Andrew Cohen came to believe and propound principles of spirituality which he calls evolutionary enlightenment.  In this interview, he explains that this came about after he’d studied more traditional eastern religious ideas and practices, but found them wanting: “traditional escapist forms of enlightenment that is taught in the east didn’t make sense to me anymore.”  Cohen modifies eastern religious ideas, stressing that the universe is not only both spirit and conscious, but that it has a purpose.  The meaning of a person’s life is to awaken to this cosmic purpose and become part of its evolutionary path.  What he never clarifies is where this process is going and for what end, as it appears he’s rejected the notion of traditional eastern enlightenment (i.e. in Hinduism), that the end is union with the Divine.  The point of his doctrine seems to be to jump on the evolutionary bandwagon and, through meditation, ‘grasp the creative impulse.’

Long before Darwin there was a movement which challenged certain notions espoused by the Neo-Platonists, that the spiritual Ladder of Life or Great Chain of Being was static – that individuals might rise up through the rungs to merge with the divine One.  In the 19th century, this ladder became dynamic with everything including the soul of the world evolving over time.  This is the basic idea that Hegel espoused; the unfolding of the world’s spirit through time.  So before Darwin, the Romantics had embraced a spiritualised form of evolution.   What supposedly drives this evolution forward is a universal striving for higher levels of perfection.  Nancy Pearcey, in her book Saving Leonardo, says that until Darwin, “concepts of spiritually directed evolution were widely accepted because they seemed to support the concept of divine providence directing the process….It provided a version of evolution that was teleological…it assured people that, contrary to what materialism says, purpose and meaning were not strictly mental, located only in the human mind.  They were embedded in nature as well.”[1]   And as the historian John Randall concluded, “When science seemed to take God out of the universe, men had to deify some natural force, like evolution.”[2]

Evolution means progressive change and adaptation and for Hegel this included changes in the areas of law, ethics, philosophy and theology.  Since no idea was absolutely true or timeless, this radical relativism known as historicism implies that nothing stands outside the unfolding, evolutionary process.  The problem of historicism is that it undermines itself – it commits suicide.  Just as one cannot assert relativism without denying it, then the very idea of spiritual evolution may one day be surpassed by something else.  To assert historicism, one needs to be able to stand above history to see it objectively, but this isn’t possible according historicism itself.   Nancy Pearcey says, “The only way to avoid suicide is to be logically inconsistent:  Hegel had to exempt his own views from the historicist categories that he applied to everyone else’s views.”[3]

So how does the progressive spiritual movement get out of this trap?  Diane Musho Hamilton, a teacher of integral spirituality, recognises the problem.  She says that evolutionary consciousness is “the bridge in the territory between Zen practice and integral theory.”[4]  It allows the transition to Ken Wilber’s philosophy of reality – Integral Theory - which synthesises ideas from psychology, philosophy, history, anthropology, religion and sociology.  Recognising that psychology isn’t enough to handle all the problems people encounter while also admitting that spirituality alone (especially meditation) is often insufficient to help some whose problems are deeply problematic (such as bi-polar and other forms of depression), integral theory borrows principles and practices from both.  Wilber packages this up as a theory of everything. 

Like Cohen, Wilber views history as the evolution of consciousness and that monotheism is but a more primitive or mythic understanding of reality.  Again this echoes Hegel’s ideas of the development of the world’s spirit, the Geist, over time.  As Douglas Groothius concludes in a review of Wilber’s ideas, “nevertheless, Wilber’s worldview is both unbiblical and riddled with philosophical errors.”[5]  One of these is that the fundamental nature of reality in integral (and eastern) spirituality is nondual.  Groothuis explains, “nondualism excludes any development of the universe or cultures through time.  If all is one and with distinction, there are no parts of reality left to develop or change in history.”[6]

Yet Wilber repeatedly explains “the evolution of consciousness,” while affirming that nonduality is both “the ground and the goal” of the entire process.  Hindu non nondualists are at least consistent in rejecting history as illusory and unimportant.[7]

Integral theory incorporates a framework for understanding human psychology called AQAL, meaning all quadrants, all levels, which undertakes to define categories of existence - quadrants, lines,  levels, states and types – which supposedly explain capacities and stages for growth.   Progress in this system rests on certain necessary conditions including these: a certain degree of physiological development is necessary but not sufficient for cognitive development; a certain degree of cognitive development is necessary for self-development; this for interpersonal development; and this for moral development.  Isn’t this remarkable; the final level is moral.  So it seems to me logical that integral theory might come full circle to re-acknowledging the importance of the conscience in determining right from wrong, that reality might not be nondual after all and that integral could very well ‘evolve’ into something quite different from what Wilber had in mind.  Perhaps into monotheism…

[1] Nancy Pearcey, Saving Leonardo, B&H Publishing Group, 2010, p. 196.
[2] John Randall, Philosophy after Darwin, p. 8.
[3] Pearcey, p. 196-7.
[4] Diane Musho Hamilton, “Exploring Integral Zen: The Sliding Scale of Enlightenment,” Intgral Life+, 8 Mar 2008.
[5]Douglas Groothuis, “A Critique of Ken Wilber,” The Constructive Curmudgeon blog, 3 March 2010
[6] Ibid.
[7] Ibid.

Saturday, 23 February 2013

Beware the Risks of Mindfulness

This is the sort of advertisement you see all the time – in magazines, newspapers and online:

Who doesn’t want to experience deep relaxation in their lives?  I came across this flyer in my local dry cleaner’s shop.  The back of the Mindworks flyer promises that the meditation and mindfulness training course will enable the student to let go of everyday stress: “You can learn how mindfulness enhances and deepens your capacity to relax.  You can also strengthen your clarity and effectiveness at work with better concentration and calm.”  The course also includes a presentation of scientific research which purportedly supports the benefits associated with mindfulness practice.  “By being more present you can discover spaciousness in your life to help cope with daily challenges.”

Nowhere is there a single mention that meditation or mindfulness practices have any spiritual content or association.  The course is presented as purely cognitive therapy.  I find this deeply misleading.  When I enquired of the course leader whether mindfulness had a spiritual side he explained that what he actually teaches is something called Core Process Psychotherapy which he explains is a mindfulness-based approach that integrates current Western psychotherapeutic approaches and Buddhist psychology; “it is based on the understanding that Awareness is intrinsically healing and that this can be experienced in relationship.  This approach can help you to find new confidence and a deeper sense of well-being in the present moment.”

I also asked whether there were any risks or side effects associated with Core Process Psychotherapy.  He replied that for people with serious psychiatric problems or conditions, mindfulness might not be appropriate as it could worsen their condition; that it would be “too much to deal with.”  All mindfulness programmes should disclose their risks.

Mindfulness is an inherently spiritual practice; those that teach these methods are being disingenuous when they say that the spiritual and the cognitive can be bifurcated.  Simply because someone does not believe that a spiritual realm exists does not mean that it doesn’t.  And crucially, if one does believe that there is a transcendental world, tread carefully because it is not uniform.  All religions are not the same, are not of the same origin, have differing purposes, and do not lead to the same place.