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: 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.