Future Thinking

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The past is irrelevant.

Well, like most categorical statements, it’s not entirely true. The past can serve – if you approach it with a critical mind – as a guide to success. And failure. It can at least tell us how we got to the here and now.

Still, it is surprising how many people, on both the right and left, spend most of their time staring behind them, either with fond, if misguided, nostalgia or with bitter resentment. The past is a rich lode that can be mined to fuel present day prescriptions to restore a glorious era or overcome ancient wrongs.

But here’s the thing. While you may make tremendous efforts to re-write the past (so much easier than living in the present), you can’t actually change it. It’s over and done with. Despite aphorisms to the contrary, it’s dead, Dave.

More importantly, the past will always be that home to which you cannot return. As for those people who say ‘we should have done it differently…’ Well, you didn’t. In fact, for the most part, the speaker wasn’t even part of that mythical we; in some cases they weren’t even born.

So, while the past is not exactly irrelevant, it is largely unimportant to our current existence. You can’t change it and you can’t return to it. So grow up.

So what does that leave us? The eternal present and the envisioned future.

Which is plenty. By some metrics, there is now more ‘present’ than there has ever been. More people, more nations, more problems and more possibilities.

Everything we do occurs, by facile definition, in the present. But, at the same time everything we do extends into the future.

Ah, the future. Unlike the decaying body of the past, the future is pregnant with possibility and change. Indeed, every time we act in the present we create a different future. Science fiction fans will be familiar with the idea of ever-branching futures – each one shaped by the billions of actions taken by billions of humans every second. Most of those futures are indiscernible from each other, but no matter.

In truth, there is only one future – the one we all wind up living in. Almost nothing we do makes a bit of difference to that future. Even powerful people like Presidents and CEOs and public intellectuals and revolutionary leaders spend most of their days doing meaningless things. It is only in hindsight that we can ever say that this action or decision mattered.

Which might make life seem rather pointless and powerless. But it doesn’t.

We can have whatever future we collectively want. But that’s the thing – it is a collective decision. It’s not like some leader can take us to the future (any more than they can return us to the past) because they don’t know the way anymore than the rest of us. A book called Superforecasters recently pointed out that it is possible to make really good guesses about what the world will look like three months or even six months from now – but three years or six years. Not so much.

Maybe that seems pretty limited but still it does suggest a way forward. Conversation, dialogue, shared visioning – it’s not much but it may be the only way to get the future we want.

And that’s ten minutes.

Triggers

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I have a friend who has a colony of feral cats living close to his house – well, practically right outside his house. He feeds them – a bit – but mostly they are on their own. He lives in the country, well away from his neighbours and his property is also home to hawks, coyotes and weasels. Not surprisingly, the number of cats goes up and down over the course of the year, reaching their peak at about this time of year.

Most of the cats are pretty skittish. Most will accept food but won’t be touched. A few, especially the younger ones are a bit friendlier and will purr and accept pats. One black and white kitten was particularly cuddly. Was.

Recently a relative was visiting with his dog. The dog had had previous run-ins with the cats and had not come out well. This time he chose his target well. He killed the friendly kitten.

When my buddy told me about it, I was upset and angry. I told him I would have kicked hell out of the dog. At the very least that dog should have been muzzled. I’ve thought of that little kitten several times since then and it still upsets me.

So why did I tell you that? Some of you are probably as upset as I was. Some of you might now be upset, angry, grief-stricken, remembering when one of your pets died. Some of you probably feel I should have warned you.

I should have started off by saying: Trigger Warning – dead cat. But I didn’t. On purpose.

Being upset by life is part of the process of living. It also part of the process of finding your moral centre. Confronting events or ideas that upset you help define who you are. To some extent the desire to avoid them is understandable. I certainly turn away from racist or misogynistic remarks and from those who make them. But turning away does not make them go away.

Not that some people haven’t been badly traumatized and need help to get over their pain. Sometimes that means protecting them or letting them protect themselves from painful reminders. But sometimes they need to confront their pain and figuring out what it is about the world that you need to try to change.

A couple of years ago (has it really been that long?) I witnessed the shooting of Nathan Cirillo at the War Memorial. It made it hard to go to work – to be anywhere near the memorial or even Parliament Hill. I was diagnosed with PTSD. I also had mild depression, compounded by anxiety. For the former, the treatment was straight forward enough. My doctor told me to go to the site of the shooting every day until I could define it as a safe place. I had to exercise agency to reclaim that place for myself. Avoiding it would have made my condition worse and made it last longer.

The depression and anxiety was another thing. Those I needed to work through rationally and slowly, identifying the things that made me feel that way and figuring out alternative narratives or possible actions that would resolve them. It was a real thing and it gave me insight into what people who have faced much worse go through. Sometimes alternative narratives are hard to find; actions hard to take.

Which is why we do need trigger warnings and safe places sometimes – but not to protect us from being upset or angry or sad. Being emotionally engaged – even painfully – is not the same thing as being traumatized. And treating them the same does nobody any good and may well do them harm. And using other people’s trauma to shut off discourse we don’t like is just plain wrong.

And useless. It will make no more difference to the world than wanting dogs to stop being dogs. And that’s a bit more than ten minutes.

 

Fantasy

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So apparently Antonin Scalia didn’t die of natural causes; he was sacrificed in a pagan ritual by Barrack Obama. Wait, there’s more. Leonard Nimoy faked his own death and participated in the process.

I’m not sure what is more perplexing. That someone feels that people dying in their late seventies or early eighties is unnatural and needs some bizarre explanation or that somehow, someway, President Obama is not only to blame but an active participant. Nimoy (as Spock) is involved, I suppose, because the President is a well-known Star Trek fan.

Based on that thinking, we should expect Andre the Giant to come back from the dead to crush the head of Donald Trump in aid of Ted Cruz – who is, quite creepily, a big Princess Bride fan – to the point that he does imitations of the actors during political speeches.

I shudder to think what will happen if it becomes known that Bernie Sanders is a fan of Freddie Kruger. You didn’t know that? That, my friend, is because it is part of the cover-up. I mean, it could be true, right?

This is the world we increasingly live in. As you know, the Internet has changed a lot of things, many for the better, but its impact on such valuable things as evidence or sanity has been less than ideal.

We all know by now that thanks to Amazon (among others) that anybody can publish a book. Sadly, many take advantage of the opportunity. As one wag put it, in the 21sy Century everyone is publishing novels but no one is reading them.

But fiction that nobody reads is not a danger to society or social order. It is the ability of anybody to set up a ‘news’ site and then claim to be legitimate journalists that has really played havoc with modern discourse. When a large number of people are getting their ‘news’ from their Facebook accounts or Twitter feeds, we run a real risk of descending into a fantasy land where everything anyone opines becomes the truth.

Never mind the facts, free speech means that my opinions are as valid as anyone else; my propaganda is better than the news because it is, to quote one Conservative activist, more true. Well, it feels truer and that’s all that really matters, right?

And before you think this is another attack on the right, the left is increasingly engaged in the ‘truthiness’ debate. When the majority of health professionals tentatively linked microcephaly in Brazil to the Zika virus, a few doctors disagreed and said it was caused by a larvacide designed to shrink the larvae of mosquitoes. Makes sense right? Shrunken larvae equals shrunken heads. Never mind causal factors or anything resembling proof. We have the link and the enemy was Monsanto!

I don’t know what is causing this terrible rash of birth defects. It could be a virus, a chemical pollutant, a concentration of flawed genes – the evidence one way or another doesn’t exist. But who cares? If the fantastical narrative fits our fantasy life, just go with it. After all, reason and evidence – there’s so last century.

And that’s ten minutes.

The Weapon of Doubt

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As I’ve said before, doubt is a marvelous thing. It saves us from foolishly following causes or leaders who are mostly interested in leading us astray. It serves as a key part of our moral compass, leading us to question whether our thoughts and actions are right. Doubt is also the linchpin of science. Without doubt, we simply accept the status quo as the way it must be; without the questions that come from our doubts of scientific theories, there can be no progress.

There is no question that doubt can be a powerful tool. I was raised to doubt whatever was presented to me – which eventually led me to being both an atheist and a scientist of sorts.

I often have to remind myself to question ideas and other people. It is easy to go along with the world as presented. Constant skepticism can be a tiring thing. To question everything may lead to cynicism and even despair. Sometime you have to say – close enough. I can live with that, for now at least.

As useful as doubt may be as a tool, it can also be used as a weapon. It is presented thusly. You – and your gang (of scientists or bureaucrats) claim xyz is true but I have my doubts. I have questions. Shouldn’t I be allowed to have questions or should I just take what you say on faith? Which of course is the proper stance of the skeptic.

But when you say: what questions do you have and they present them and you provide evidence based answers to those questions, the real intent is revealed. The person doesn’t accept that the answers are valid. You only, they say, provide me with data that supports your views. There are things we don’t know that might prove you wrong. Well, yes, there might be, do you have any examples? This persistent request for more than simple questions may be met with anger. You think I’m stupid, they might say. Or, you want to suppress any questioning of your position. Or you simply made that stuff up.

What can you really say to that? Whether is on the topic of vaccines, GMO foods, climate change or whether the moon landings were faked, some people don’t want evidence; they don’t want their questions answered. They want to cling to their positions. Or, to put it in the best possible light, they want to retain the role of devil’s advocate – pushing for absolute proof of matters that are always only probably true. In science, any theory that cannot ultimately be disproven by additional evidence isn’t a theory at all. It is a statement of faith.

Doubt that can never be resolved by evidence is not a tool to ensure progress; it is a weapon to stop action. When you can continue to express doubt – asking questions that have already been answered to everyone’s satisfaction but yours – it does inevitably lead to people throwing up their hands and moving on. Eventually people realize that you are not interested in improving things or even in being convinced. You’re only interested in being the iconoclast who holds on to disproven theories or ideas – simply because you can.

And that’s ten minutes.

Yearning

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Sometimes I start the day not knowing what I will write but last night I decided I would spend ten minutes on ‘yearning.’ Not surprisingly it impacted my dreams.

I dreamt of a zombie apocalypse. It differed from most in that after the zombies were killed (again) they came back to life with much of their old personalities intact. Except they were nicer and more helpful. One of these rejuvenated zombies – who was still dead of course (and decaying) – embraced me and explained in a low voice that they had become better than they had been. “We are better than humanity,” he said “because we have left behind yearning.”

I have to disagree.

We all yearn for things. We feel an intense desire or longing often for things we can never have, or having lost can never recover. We yearn to see our dead mother or to find a long-lost sister. Some of us yearn for selfish things – like power over others or a life of comfort and ease. We yearn for pleasure.

Often our yearning leaves us melancholy; we feel incomplete and bereft. We yearn for something to fill the emptiness in our hearts.

Is not this yearning for completeness, the desire to be one with the world or even to be re-united with lost loved ones at the heart of all religion? Certainly it runs throughout spiritual writings and many people describe their yearning towards God in terms of filling the emptiness in their soul.

Given my own atheism, you might think I would agree with the zombie when he says, we would be better without yearning.

Yet, it is yearning – that longing for completeness, the desire to be in a better place, that, along with reason and curiosity, fuels the scientific impulse. It is not central to the scientific method itself but it is essential to the impulse of those who find they are at odds with the world. It is that feeling that we have an argument with the universe that triggers the investigation into causes. And that is the beginning point for scientific investigation.

The same can be said for art. It is a yearning to express our hopes, our desires but also our feelings of loneliness and despair that drives the artist. We feel a need to explore the various shaped holes in our hearts. Yearning to understand and explain ourselves to the world is a key element in all artistic activity.

To lose our sense of yearning, to become self-satisfied and unquestioning, to sink into a complacency of material goods and simple satisfactions is to leave humanity behind. But being a spiritual zombie is no improvement over the pain, longing and striving of the human condition.

Saint Augustine yearned to be made pure – though he ended his prayer with ‘but not yet, Lord, not yet.’ Meanwhile Spock explained: ‘Sometimes having is not as good as wanting; it is not logical but it is true.’

So, I will continue to yearn for what I can’t have and continue to strive to grasp it anyway.

And that’s ten minutes.

Surprise

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If you’ve ever tried to throw a surprise party, you know just how tricky it can be. I’ve done it three times – succeeding twice. The first was a bit of cheat since it was only a party of two – me and the person surprised. It involved secretly buying a plane ticket and booking a hotel and on the day of the flight, handing my wife her suitcase and getting in a cab with her to the airport. Surprise!

The other two were tougher. The first was for a co-worker in Halifax. I made every mistake possible. I did the planning at work. I started too far in advance. I invited too many people. I wasn’t sufficiently deceitful. Of course, the person found out – they acted surprised but they weren’t exactly giving an Oscar winning performance.

The other time was for my wife’s fiftieth birthday. I did everything right. I planned it ten days in advance. I planned it at work (not at home). I invited a limited number of people and held the party in a city far away. I had co-conspirators who lied magnificently. She still almost figured it out. Only when her mother suggested that no-one would go to so much trouble for a birthday – her birthday –  was she taken in. And she still figured it out seconds before we yelled surprise. Close though.

Which is one of the many reasons that I roll my eyes whenever anybody talks about conspiracy theories. There are many reasons to roll your eyes at such people – their selective memory, their willingness to continuously expand the circle of conspirators, the cherry-picking of information, their reliance on experts whose expertise does not fall within the field of interest and so on. But the main cause of eye rolling is that I’m fairly convinced that none of them has ever planned a surprise anything. Honestly, most of them are so trapped in their own heads, they wouldn’t dream of doing something for someone else. They are TOO SERIOUS for that.

Human nature hates a secret the way nature abhors a vacuum. The only way to keep a secret is to keep it to yourself – as soon as another person knows the chances of being revealed goes up. Every person you add increases the risk exponentially.

Robert Snowden is a bit of hero to some but he was also inevitable. If he hadn’t blown the whistle (and probably he wasn’t the first) someone else would have. Too many people knew and the activities of the NSA were clearly moving into the unethical and probably illegal. That story has yet to be fully told.

As for the other stuff – 911 being an inside job (the most recent story relies on evidence from the Russian secret service. Now there’s a reliable source), the moon landing never happening, ISIS being backed by the CIA – they not only fail on a rational basis, that is, the reasons offered for doing it only make sense if you suffer from paranoid delusions (at least a little bit) but also on a basic truth of human behavior.

People blab. And people with ethical concerns will blab frequently no matter how many secrecy oaths you make them swear. Do conspiracies exist? Absolutely – just not successful ones.

And that’s ten minutes.

Teams

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Everyone talks about the values of teamwork but they seldom mean it. Most people who extol teams as a great thing are people who expect to be in charge. What they mean by a team is unquestioning loyalty to the orders from on high. What they don’t mean is a collaboration of equals where the strengths of one member balance out the weaknesses of another.

True collaboration has been shown over and over to result in better outcomes than people working alone or simply following orders. Abraham Lincoln understood that. While he was the President and was tasked with the final decision, he drew together advisors who did not see eye-to-eye. He would encourage debate so all sides of a problem could be explored. He also waited until some sort of consensus was formed – or at least a majority opinion – before stating his own views. He didn’t always go with that decision but he understood the consequences of deviating from it.

A team leader should always be the last to speak and when she does her words should reflect the voices of all the other members. He should seek out common ground rather than simply listening to the loudest and most aggressive. I’ve often worked in teams – sometimes as the ‘boss,’ sometimes as a mere foot soldier. Most times the results were better than anything I could have devised by myself.

But it is not often easy even if it is actually natural. Humans tend to be collaborative and to work well in groups; it was pretty much essential to our evolutionary survival. One of the failures of the Enlightenment was to put individual reason and individualism at the top of the human hierarchy. Many enlightenment thinkers believed that collaboration and collective problem solving was a primitive expression of human potential. Progress depended on individuals seeking their own self-interest and negotiating (not collaborating) with others to get it.

The first thing you have to overcome when trying to forge an effective team is the sense that discussion is a competitive sport, that it is better to win than be right. Team members have to learn to listen to each other and they have to be willing to abandon – at some point – their own views in favour of a better solution. This does not mean meekly following the most confident or even the brightest person in the room. Everyone must have something to contribute and feel empowered to offer it.

This was all brought home once again recently when I tried with four relative strangers to work my way, our way, out of locked room at Escape Manor. We failed – mostly because we didn’t truly act as a team. We simply forged ahead, each approaching the task from an individual perspective and spending too much time arguing over approaches instead of working together to find the most effective one.

There’s a lesson to be learned here for everyone. Maybe if Stephen Harper gets re-elected we should chip in and send the PMO to try to escape from locked rooms. If they succeed, they will probably provide better government; if they fail, we might all be better off.

And that’s ten minutes.