Sunday, September 6, 2009

"We are all individuals" - "I'm not"

My favourite Monty Python is this priceless gem from the movie "Life of Brian".

I am sure the Python team had not foreseen the chattering classes that now make up the on-line world, but behind the humour of paradox, there is an important truth - everyone being an individual does not a movement make.

The Sound of Silence

I went to a performance of John Cageś 4´33 by Margaret Tan some years ago. This legendary piece is in three movements, all of them consisting of silence - the performer not playing their instrument.The content of the composition is meant to be perceived as the sounds of the environment that the listeners hear while it is performed, rather than merely as four minutes and thirty three seconds of silence.

At the performance I attended, Margaret played the piece on a toy piano, opening and closing the lid of the piano to mark the end of each movement - the first being timed at 30 seconds, the second (the long second movement) being 2′40″ and the final movement of 1′20″. She invited the audience to turn on their mobile phones for the duration of the piece. The effect was extraordinary - the concert hall was filled with a constellation of sound that covered the entire classical music spectrum (saying something about the choice of ring tone for people that attend such concerts). It was a dramatic illustration of the sheer volume of interactions between people.

The global babble

Now in the transparent world of 2.0, we have visibility of how much people talk to other people - on Facebook, Twitter and blogosphere - or sometimes just to the void, in the hope that someone is listening. I was told as a child that I had one mouth and two ears, and should use them in the right proportions. Well, we clearly have ten fingers and are using them all to communicate to the world.

And each person has their own point of view and story to tell, so where can we find or seek the new collective narrative?

The traditional sources of collective narrative, based on personal interactions, are all being dissipated in the new rolling conversations that are happening around the world, around the clock. None of the old sources of authority seem to be relevant any more: we have increasingly fragmented religion, and the old ideologies - communism, socialism, capitalism - all seem to fall short of our collective expectation.

Analysis? - FAIL

One possible response is to break down the world into smaller chunks, to a size that we are capable of understanding; problem is, there are no tidy segments that the ideas or the dialog fit into.

As an aside, I attended the World Summit Awards last week. The awards seek to recognise great use of internet technologies in eight categories - e-Business & Commerce, e-Government & Institutions, e-Health & Environment, e-Learning & Education, Entertainment & Games, e-Science & Technology, e-Inclusion & Participation, and e-Culture & Heritage. There were 20,000 entries from 157 countries and some extraordinary innovations and achievements in the winning 40. While the categories were needed to organise the judging, there were no clear boundaries between the different domains, and indeed all knowledge connects.

How can we cope with the sheer volume of opinion. Thanks to Confused of Calcutta last month for pointing out The Mountain Men’s Three Wolf Moon Short Tee Shirt. 51jZitVcKmL._SS500_
¨Just take a look at the reviews of the item on Amazon. 136 customer reviews. 13,171 finding the first review helpful. 181 comments on that review. Don’t stop there, you must take a look at some of the other reviews. Preferably while sitting down in a comfortable position.¨

It puts me in mind of Google´s audacious goal - ¨to organise the world´s information¨ - which I think is unachievable. Any classification system - Dewey, Dublin Core, or metadata - will collapse under the weight of the world´s information and the peopleś perspective. Ever tried to create a search engine in Mandarin? - well neither have I, but I am told it is a real challenge because the characters have different meanings dependent on context.

Meaning is lost in the choices that are made. The search for a new semantic order is a courageous undertaking.

What can bring it together?

We do seem to have a basic need for a unifying narrative - if history is any indicator. A new narrative needs to be global, multi-cultural, inclusive and trans-national, if indeed one is possible.

This leads me to conclude that the health of the planet - ecology, green movement, sustainability - is the only possible narrative that will be able to connect such a diversity of interests.

The topic of Climate Change has increased in importance over the last few years, with major debates about the level of emission reduction that can be expected, and what will be needed to stave off catastrophe. The only focal point for such action is the United Nations, an institution that has considerable political baggage; the risk is that the need for action on climate change is supplanted by debates on the role and value of the UN, and other options for global governance (which is where I started this story).

However, for all it´s faults, the UN is all we have right now and we will see how effectively that is working at the Copenhagen Summit in December.


  1. Interesting in relation to your observations on the deisre for a unifying narrative that in the futures field there is currently much discussion about (i) an 'integral approach' that brings multiple different paradigms to bear simultaneously on the unfolding present and possible future and (ii) the impertive of bringing these futures technologies to bear in a more practical way on climate change action (see for more on an integral futures and;jsessionid=6CD8B905A95E70637701F178DE727B4C?containerType=Issue&containerId=15001810)for the application of futures to sustainability

  2. I like that black t-shirt so is it original or make a look like that shown in a picture. It looks fabulous.