Change Writer

be the change you want to see

Category: Books

Antifragility and Modern Nation States

AntifragileI’m reading a book at the moment that really has me thinking – Antifragile by Nassim Taleb (as recommended to me by @smn)

I’ve found the ideas in the book so engaging that I’m going to write about some of them before I’ve even finished reading it, since I think I’ve got a handle on at least the core of the idea, and writing about it will help me encapsulate what I’m thinking…

First off, I should probably summarise the idea of antifragility:

Whereas fragility is a state in which the more pressure something is put under, the more damage is caused to it, antifragility is the state in which the more pressure that something is put under, the tougher it becomes. This is not the same as robustness, since something that is robust simply isn’t affected by pressure: it becomes neither stronger nor weaker under pressure.

Nation States vs. City States

In part of the book Taleb juxtaposes the popular idea of the modern nation state with systems that have a more devolved approach to power. He describes how, prior to the rise of the Baath Party in the Levant, the region enjoyed 12,000 years of economic industriousness and prosperity. This was thanks to devolved networks of power that allowed local elites to run the regions. First it was the Roman Empire, then the Ottomans. Both had a relatively light grip on everyday affairs, so long as they received their taxes.

After this era, the Nation State Project took over, as western influenced powers insisted that this was the best, most ‘democratic’ and ‘civilised’ way to organise a nation.

Power became more centralised and the region which was governed by a single government became larger. Larger governments give the illusion of stability for a longer period of time, but when they fail, things are cataclysmic. This is because large states hoard more powerful weapons and possess more organised military, and because when they make a mistake its impact is amplified across a larger region.

When power is organised into smaller groupings, those groups may make more mistakes, but the mistakes have less impact. Mistakes made on a smaller scale allow for correction without the risk of mass-scale crisis. Decisions can be reversed.

Taleb compares the Nation State with how Switzerland is organised into smaller municipalities that are largely self governing. People vote more regularly in referendums on issues that affect them. They are engaged. Switzerland is one of the most hardy (antifragile) nations in the world, and the book argues that this is precisely because it’s government isn’t highly centralised.

When power is top-down and distant from the electorate, it becomes easy for those making decisions to lack empathy for those they are representing. They are just another name, another row in a database.

It also creates room for disproportionate influence of unelected corporate-funded pressure groups. In the Swiss setting, a lobby group would have to focus their efforts on the entire population to be able to sway lawmaking in their direction. In a nation state, they just need access to the corridors of power (which can usually be purchased in one way or another).

An example from my own life:

I occasionally email my local politicians in Wales: Members of Parliament who represent the interests of me and my neighbours in Cardiff North. The emails are usually related to some issue that I’ve become aware of, that I know that Parliament will have the opportunity to focus on: refugee reunification, aid to Syria etc.

Usually, after several weeks I get a response like this:

“Thank you for your email, which I take very seriously. You will be pleased to know that the Conservative Party cares more about this issue than you do. We actually have the _________ scheme and the __________ scheme already running to address this problem, and we’re doing better than any other government in the history of planet Earth. You really should be pleased that you have a Conservative Government.”

Of course the content of the email varies, but this is the tone and general message of the emails that I get back. Always. 

A Cradle of Apathy

There are two problems that result from this system:

  1. Apathy towards the political system
  2. Reduced ownership for our surroundings

Ordinary people become alienated from the political process and make fewer attempts to redirect the attention of their leaders.

The leaders are left to their own devices to make decisions in their own interests (or the perceived interests of their electorate).

In a more devolved system, where I know the people making decisions and am actively participating myself (through referendums, community gatherings, submitting email feedback), the opposite is true:

  1. The people are engaged because they know their input creates results
  2. They take greater ownership

If I know that my input will affect my family and my neighbours’ family, I am willing to give it. 

Conversely, if the political system is mysterious and inaccessible, it becomes irrelevant to my life until the Government begins infringing on my freedoms (by which time they have the legal and militaristic means by which to control me).

Can smaller groups be entrusted with upholding human rights?

I really like the idea of devolving power to its lowest possible level, having seen first hand the effects of apathy and disengagement. But I also see the need for some kind of centralised expectation on the way that the least in society are treated. In a globalised world, there’s a place for documents like the European Convention on Human Rights.

That said, the humane treatment of human beings is more desirable than words on paper. After all we live in a world where Saudi Arabia, the bastion of human rights abuses, can chair a UN panel on human rights.

I suppose the question could also be reversed: “can larger groups be entrusted with upholding human rights?” 

Right now in Europe and America there’s been a surge of people voting for anti-immigration parties and representatives who would happily deny asylum to (and even deport) those fleeing war.

Our voting systems are built on the idea of anonymity, because anonymity encourages people to vote honestly, without the pressure to conform to our peers, bosses or family members. I think in principle this is wonderful, but I also wonder if it allows inhospitable values to fester like untreated wounds.

I’ve noticed people on Twitter recently asking “who are all these people voting for Trump? I haven’t met a single one.” 

I’d guess that they have probably met several dozen, but the anonymity of the voting system means that you can vote one way and profess another. And perhaps that’s exactly as it should be.

But I’m not sure that it would be as easy to express anti-immigration views if you had to do so in front of your neighbours. If you have to look people in the eye (including the very families that you’re discussing) and admit that you don’t care for the outsider, the orphan, the traumatised, the widowed mother.

Is it possible that smaller communities could become more hospitable, more caring, if the individual members felt more empowered and more accountable?

(Image source: United Nations Photo)

Inspiration: Top 10 of 2015

Before we’re finished with January, I thought it’d be fun to present my list of things that inspired me this year. To begin with, I was going to present my “best reads of…” but felt like this would be more interesting…

  1. Screen Shot 2016-01-14 at 21.09.38Zeitoun by Dave Eggers: the true story of a Syrian man and his family living in New Orleans at the time of Hurricane Katrina. When the hurricane arrives and the rest of his family leave town, Abdulrahman Zeitoun decides to stay behind to keep an eye on theirs and their neighbours’ homes. This book was produced as part of the Voice of Witness project that seeks to use storytelling to illuminate human rights issues.
  2. To the newcomers from Syria: Welcome to Canada: The Toronto Star’s welcome message to the first wave of Syrian refugees they received in December. After months of unease in the European and American media over the subject of immigration, this stood out as an example of a country wanting to do things right. It felt right on so many levels: a warm hearted welcome to these families, naming the troubles they’ve faced, while at the same time challenging them to embrace life as Canadians. It also set the bar of hospitality for those receiving refugees.

    Canadians have been watching your country being torn apart, and know that you’ve been through a terrifying, heartbreaking nightmare. But that is behind you now. And we’re eager to help you get a fresh start.

  3. Screen Shot 2016-01-14 at 20.12.41The Other Hand by Chris Cleave: the story of Little Bee, a Nigerian Refugee who finds her life intersecting with that of a young widow in Kingston Upon Thames. A beautiful novel that documents the realities of life as a refugee, the effect that embracing people who are different from us can have on our lives, and that reminded me of the power of a story well told.
  4. Manifesto of a Doer: they may be simple or even obvious, but I enjoyed this concise list of challenges for people who want to effect change. Here’s one of my favourites:

    Avoid easy deadlines. Deadlines serve you best when they are short, hard and, at first glance, impossible. Urgency gets things done.

  5. Fluent in 3 Months: a regular newsletter (and blog) that aims to take the fear out of language learning and encourages people to start speaking their target language from day 1. As a full time language learner, I’ve enjoyed getting regular tips on everything from language learning in general, to specific techniques and resources for students of Arabic.
  6. What ISIS Wants by Jon Foreman: a heartfelt appeal not to give in to the fear mongering of the so-called Islamic State.
  7. Screen Shot 2016-01-14 at 20.42.14Red Moon Rising: the story of the 24-7 prayer movement, which began with a small group of friends with a growing desire to pray, and led to a movement of people praying 24 hours a day, all over the world. At times the story feels like something out of Fight Club, as the movement’s ‘founder’ happens upon groups he never knew existed.
  8. Refugees Welcome and United Invitations: while these projects may not be perfect (what project is?), I’ve taken great delight at seeing the rise of ordinary people doing extraordinary things to help refugees.
  9. Jeremy Corbyn breaks with tradition and uses his first Prime Minister’s Question Time to ask David Cameron questions from the general public.
  10. Money is to The West what Witchcraft is to Africa by Liam Byrnes: an interesting perspective on the similarities between how witchcraft is used to allay fear in Africa and how money is used to do the same in the West.

(Image credit: el7bara)

Dear Henning (A Tribute To Henning Mankell)

Dear Henning,

With the news of your death, today is a sad day for many of us.

We devoured your novels, whether the Wallander series, or lesser known works. We revelled in your storytelling, which despite being fictional always felt deeply honest.

We were inspired by your actions, how you consistently spoke up against injustice and tried to do things that would help. Like your theatre in Mozambique, or the memory project for victims of AIDS. You found a way to put your skills and influence to use for the benefit of the poor and voiceless.

We were delighted when you joined a group of activists on a ship headed for Palestine with the desire to break the Israeli embargo on aid.

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But there’s another, more personal reason why I’m going to miss you and your stories.

For me, you were one of my early guides into the world of Swedish culture. Not because of the factual accuracy of the stories – Ystad isn’t the victim of as many murders as your stories would have us believe – but because of the zeitgeist you captured so well. Through Kurt Wallander and his adventures, you beautifully painted the atmosphere of change that exists in modern Sweden. Such change isn’t always clearly spelled out to newcomers like myself.

In the years since World War Two, Sweden has become a haven to those fleeing war and instability in their homelands. That is set to continue. Unsurprisingly, in the face of such change, those who grew up in a very different Sweden have had some adjusting to do. Many have made these adjustments with incredible grace. They’ve chosen to personally embrace the outsider. Others have adjusted more slowly, as if waking up to a whole new world that doesn’t quite feel like their home.

Inspector Wallander guided me into that world and helped me to understand a little of what that conflict must feel like. He gave me a glimpse into how a values driven society comes to terms with its decisions, as they’re worked out in the earthy reality of day-to-day life. And he allowed me the opportunity to mourn the Sweden of my parents-in-law’s youth, a Sweden that is now just a memory.

For all of the above, I’m very grateful.

With much respect,

Jonathan

(Image credit: PalFest)

Change Maker’s Manifesto

change-makers-manifesto-coverLast week I finished work on my new eBook, Change Maker’s Manifesto: Simple Steps Toward Making a Difference.

This quick start guide is for you if you want to get started in making a difference in the world, but don’t quite know where to begin.

For those of you are already on this journey of change, I’ve added a section on sustaining change. It’s all about developing the habits of long term change makers.

It’s a short book that one of my friends finished during a lunch break at work.

You can download it for free by joining my (weekly) email list below*

*You’ll receive an email with a download link once you complete the sign up process.

Parallel Bible: An Interview with Andrew Breitenberg

Parallel Bible is an exciting new experiment that takes an ancient text and anchors it in day to day experiences through crowd-sourced images.

I spoke to co-founder Andrew Breitenberg about the app and their Kickstarter campaign to fund the first printed gospel of Mark in which all of its visual content is sourced by its readers.

HERO

Jonathan: Hi Andrew! Before we get into the deep on Parallel Bible, can you walk us through your back story? What led you up to this point?

Andrew: The path after university started in New York City and wound through Amsterdam and Cape Town and many places along the way for shorter periods. I’ve always had a passion for seeing Scripture come alive in new ways – in Amsterdam my thesis work was a redesign of the gospel of Matthew, and in Cape Town I began spray painting Bible verses in huge letters on public walls (see selahmade.com). My brother and I had always wanted to take a big adventure together which we thought would amount to a month long train ride through India or something. But when the idea for Parallel came to me, I invited him along for the ride and it’s definitely been a bigger adventure than we ever expected…

selah

Tell us about Parallel…

Parallel Bible is a Bible app for iPhone and Android phones – it’s a marriage between social media and Scripture. Think Instagram for the Bible. Create an account, follow friends, post pictures and tag them with verses. With everyone adding images to different verses, what results is a visually-rich Bible, illuminated by images and stories brought by its readers (you!). And more than this, we begin to see a Bible emerge that carries right alongside of it, stories of how it is being applied in people’s lives. A living concordance of the Bible’s work, parallel to the Scripture itself.

parallel bible iphone 6

What was the red thread running between this and your previous work?

Essentially the work has always been about being a voice for the voiceless – so advocacy of some kind – with Parallel it’s amplifying the words of the Bible itself by unveiling where they are taking root in people’s lives. It’s also about organising and ordering – in this case ordering a massive series of images according to this sacred text. And Beauty. Always Beauty.

You’ve spent time living in the Netherlands and South Africa, In what ways did these places influence the progression of this concept?

Let’s see – NL was all about ‘killing my darlings.’ By which I mean – the little ‘preciouses’ – the elements that you treat with a bias because you like them subjectively – they are only clouding the true value of a solution. For example I created a typeface for this project which I loved, but its meant for big sized headlines – not small copy on an app. Letting go of that was hard but has improved the app significantly.

As for SA – Well what can I say – Cape Town is the birth place of this app – I had a studio on the ‘high road’ in Woodstock and watching the mass of human life passing my window all day had a profound effect on me. I think my fixation on the primacy of images has come from seeing people from every part of life walk by that window – and in realising the ability of images to communicate across languages, cultures, classes and denominations.

spread 2

You talk about the format of the Bible remaining unchanged while our culture has undergone countless changes in rapid succession. Could you unpack that idea for us?

I think that the Bible apps we use today are essentially Gutenberg’s 15th century tech pasted onto a screen. We’re still looking at the Bible in terms of black text on a light background. The Bible was not always this way. For centuries it was simply spoken. You only got the Bible by listening, not reading. We feel that Parallel Bible is simply getting at what Jesus has done all along. Speaking in image-pictures. Jesus never wrote a thing down. He never said – hey go read this and you’ll have it sorted. In fact – he would sometimes tell his disciples to ‘speak not’ of what they’d seen or heard. This was about allowing the experience of the thing to simply have its moment, before letting it calcify into words. Parallel Bible is nothing new at all. We see it as a return.

Marshall McLuhan famously said “the medium is the message”. He felt that there is a message implicit not just in what is said, but the medium used to communicate it. How does this play out for PB?

I suppose I got to that in the previous question – it might be worth adding that besides screens, we are putting a social medium to work in the employ of our app as well – personal imagery, shared and commented and liked, friends followed…this new social media reflects well the idea that the Bible is to be lived  – that we are meant to look up from its words and actually DO what it’s talking about.

There’s a tendency in the social media world to curate your own life, so that it appears far better than the real thing ever could. In what ways do you address this with the PB community? How do you ensure that authenticity is valued?

Such a good question – we write about this on our website – essentially all we can do is example it and ask for it. But we’re finding that the bulk of our readers understand this intuitively. We have a disconcertingly small percentage of selfies (: and the truth is – when you’re pairing a beautiful landscape from nature with a verse – it’s just not giving the same feeling as when it’s happening purely for likes. It sounds vague – but the general experience around this imagery being posted feels quite vulnerable and real. At this stage it’s probably because there are only thousands of readers on the app – so anyone posting for volume likes is not going to get them in any case… it will be fascinating to see how things develop.

Much has been said online about the tendency of smartphones to act as a distraction from inner growth, family and long form communication. It feels like Parallel is approaching smartphones from a different angle?

YES! We keep joking that we should just make an app that shuts down your phone for 10 minutes at a time. Seriously we are into exploring the idea of slow use – in fact it seems to be the biggest obstacle thus far in our app’s adoption. People generally seem to use their apps in a matter of seconds to check, scroll, swipe and close. We’re talking about spending 5 seconds on each post – at best a minute – looking, reflecting on the passage and story, and writing comments. It’s a paradigm shift for what the screen is capable of offering. And while it’s one of our biggest obstacles, it’s also one of the greatest opportunities.

Who have been your major influencers on this journey?

Well you mention McLuhan – he’s the godfather of social media so that’s obvious. AS regards the Bible we’ve been really inspired by the mentorship of Richard Rohr, a Catholic monk who writes a lot about the shifting milieu of the Bible across time was well as the practise of silence and listening which are deeply important to Bible reading. (Also along these lines we <3 Simone Weil, Thomas Keating). Pierre Teilhard de Chardin writes about the possibilities of collective faith action which applies beautifully to a group of people doing this Bible in this way. And St. Francis – he has inspired us to walk our little path and persevere in what the Lord has called us to do with this project.

And from a design point of view, I am unapologetically Dutch. Create a system and let it play out to all its weirdest and most beautiful conclusions. Don’t arbitrarily edit anything. Have a reason rooted in your vision for any aesthetic changes made. Kill your darlings. Shoot your idea to pieces until it disintegrates or reveals the diamond.

How has the concept been received? Who have been your greatest allies so far?

The concept itself is received well and widely. Our greatest allies are people from the progressive Christian community who are most willing to think outside the box in terms of how we might introduce the Bible to the next generation. Also we have a large community of artists and creatives that have found an outlet for their desire to explore faith and visuality.

Parallel Bible bookshelf

Tell us about your Kickstarter campaign

Our Kickstarter project is to print the Gospel of Mark alongside all the imagery being submitted to it on the app. We see it as giving people a tangible example of what it is we are trying to do on the app. It will be the first community-illuminated Gospel ever made and (we hope) a book that draws people collectively to go and do the very truths that they are reading about.

Finally, what lessons have you learned in the process of creating PB that might be helpful for other people wanting to initiate change?

Patience. Perseverance. Play. Pray. Patience. (Patience.)

 

Join the Parallel Bible community here.

Reflections on my in/voluntary tech fast

Four months ago, just as I was getting into a regular rhythm of writing, my computer’s graphics card failed. When I took it to the Apple Store in Amman, I was told that although it’s covered under warranty in the rest of the world, they couldn’t repair it for free in Jordan*. So I decided to wait until I would be back in Europe.

technology addiction

I toyed with blogging via my phone using dictation, but couldn’t really get into it. Instead I decided to give myself a writing break, as well as some time away from technology. Here’s what I discovered:

1. I’m addicted to information. Instead of just doing everything via my phone, for the first month I decided to delete Twitter, Instagram and Facebook from there too. I figured this would give me more time to focus more on Real Life. After a couple of days I noticed that I had swapped the time I would usually be using Twitter for reading BBC News and Al Jazeera, as well as starting to restructure my Feedly account.

2. Sometimes the creative juices flow more freely when you’re not trying to think of something to write about. I found myself having several “must write” thoughts each day, that may have been stifled by feeling I should write.

3. Reading more, and broadly, is really enjoyable. I decided to take a break from Scandi Crime novels and instead focussed on things that would stimulate ideas. I read theology, history, old literature.

4. It’s easy to use technology as a comfort blanket. I endeavoured to press into the discomfort of living in a new culture. Instead of connecting regularly with far flung friends, I spent more time asking myself “who could I spend time with here?”

Even though I’m now very relieved to be back at the keyboard, I’m glad I didn’t let my first instinct – to be super frustrated – dominate the last four months.

* I was assured by the Apple Genius who served me in the UK that they were more than likely just trying to avoid extra paperwork.

(Image credit: Jake Stimpson)

Why it’s good to read people you disagree with

If you want to cultivate and refine your understanding of your own worldview, it’s important to study the worldview of others.

Why you should read people you disagree with
Photo by Tarik Browne

I discovered this when I first began studying political philosophy. Reading the likes of John Locke, Friedrich Nietzsche and Michel Foucault I would ask myself: what similarities and what differences do we have in how we see the world?

I was surprised to find out that there was always something I could agree or empathise with in another person’s perspective (a lesson I learned from Atticus Finch, Mr Gove!).

There was usually an aspect of each perspective that troubled me or caused tension, and that tension helped me to develop a sense of what I believe in, who I really am.

For example, when I began looking at conservatism: the idea of the small state and political pragmatism, I could see glimmers of value in that point of view. Though I’m far from conservative, politically, being exposed to this worldview has enhanced and sharpened my thinking.

Today I find this practise invaluable. When I read the perspective of others, however different from my own, they help me to harness my focus, or remind me of blind spots I should pay more attention to.

In Writing and Music

This idea applies to any medium that is used to carry a message.

Another example for me is Douglas Coupland, the novelist and artist. I don’t see the world entirely as he does, but the way he weaves his love for the environment into many of his novels compels me not to forget its importance (see Generation A or Shampoo Planet).

I wouldn’t necessarily choose to back the same causes as Ani Difranco, but her songwriting stirs up inside me anger at the way women are often treated in this world.

Frans Kafka wrote:

I think we ought to read only the kind of books that wound and stab us. If the book we’re reading doesn’t wake us up with a blow on the head, what are we reading it for?…the kind of books that make us happy are the kind we could write ourselves if we had to.

(via Brainpickings)

Writing that merely affirms our perspective of the world is meaningless.

If we want to be change makers, we need to hone our thinking and refine our ideas.

Exposure to conflicting and contrasting values helps us in this process.

It also helps us to avoid demonising people just because they have a different outlook on life.

It’s why I sometimes choose to read books I know I will find irritating, like The Fountainhead.

How about you? Are there people you read or listen to who you disagree with, but who help to refine your worldview?

Books: The Starfish and The Spider

220px-StarfishandthespiderbookThe Starfish and The Spider is a book that questions the way we think about the nature of leadership.

Much of our culture and history has revolved around hierarchical, top-down leadership. You look at the structure and you know who’s boss. You know where the buck stops.

We build careers around climbing the ladder, hoping to one day occupy the CEO position (or to get as close as we can).

This book turns that approach to leadership on its head.

It points out the inherent vulnerability of traditional structures (what happens when the leader is killed?), and offers an alternative.

Why a Starfish?

There’s a new (ancient!) type of organisation emerging that’s much more robust. It’s not sustained by charismatic personalities or limited by cash flow. It’s the Starfish Organisation.

If you cut off the head of a spider, it dies.
If you cut off part of a starfish, that part becomes a whole new starfish.

With Starfish, power is devolved away from the centre, into smaller, autonomous units.

These units are held together by strong values.

These organisations are best explained with real life stories, and The Starfish and The Spider is full of them.

The Recording Industry

Back in the early ’90s, the music industry was all about the big labels.

They controlled the budgets and were the gatekeepers of artist recognition. They could make or break a career. They were (and still are) run for the sake of shareholders, so making money was at the top of the agenda.

But there was a problem: people love to share.

People had always shared music. They would lend cassette tapes and CDs to their neighbours, friends and colleagues. Some people even found ways to copy these resources. But this illegal distribution was always limited by the breadth of people’s personal networks, and the music industry could always out market the individual.

Enter the global community of the internet and the birth of the peer-to-peer file sharing movement.

The internet meant that people could share not just with their neighbours and friends, but with the world at large.

The more that the major labels litigated, the more decentralised the technology became. The more decentralised, the harder it was to track the perpetrators.

There was really no way for the labels to catch up with the evolution of technology.

This is what Starfish Organisations do. You kill a leader, and another one pops up to replace her.

There are many more compelling examples of Starfish structures in The Starfish and The Spider, but now I want to look at what these structures mean for leadership…

Catalysts: The New Leaders

While Spider Organisations are led by CEOs, Starfish are led by Catalysts.

Unlike CEOs, catalysts let go of power. They imbue life, and then quickly give away responsibility. While CEOs maintain systems, catalysts ignite values-driven movements.

These new leaders are not focussed on building personal empires, but rather seeing their visions flourish at the hands of people who share and are equally passionate about them.

Catalysing is about networking and forming relationships, about joining the dots and helping the big picture to develop.

Because they are so openhanded with power, Catalysts have to be comfortable with lack of clear definition:

Being a catalyst requires a high tolerance for ambiguity. That’s because a decentralised organisation is so fluid that someone who needs order and structure will quickly go mad

The Catalyst behind AA

Bill Wilson was the catalyst behind Alcoholics Anonymous.

It all began with a personal need. His doctor told him that if he didn’t stop drinking he would die.

It’s a long story, but his breakthrough came when he realised his need for accountability with others who shared the same struggle. He needed a community of people who had experienced what he was going through, and who would walk with him through the process of recovery.

It’s easy to rebel against a shrink. It’s much harder to dismiss your peers.

So AA was born. From the very start its values allowed for growth: no one’s in charge, but everyone has leadership. Twelve steps that anyone can follow. Leadership by example, not position.

Thanks to Wilson’s openhanded approach, AA has spread all over the world.

Catalysts for Change

The wonderful thing about catalysts is that they come from every walk of life.
Their leadership is about how they influence people, not about a formal position or title.

So they don’t need to know “the right people” to begin instigating change.

Order your copy of The Starfish and The Spider here

© 2014-2017 Jonathan Morgan