Saturday, June 30, 2012

Excessive Deference Corrupts

Today's political leaders often start out better than we give them credit for. Often elected officials are people you'd admire if you met them in any other walk of life. They can be impressive people in a business with the toughest possible character test; many followers worship them. It's tough to be a normal person within that.

Most of our political leaders are also extremely accomplished people with at least some exceptional qualities. They are thrust into a position that would be the ruin of many humans. Power itself tends to corrupt and being surrounded by sycophants is itself a character test. There are, too, the many opportunities for personal indiscretions; and an apparent sense of invulnerability.

But, leaders have to wield power while knowing they may well be corrupted by it. To carry the awareness that, they are superior to their followers while also being of them; that the higher they rise, the more they feel like instruments in larger designs. There is a tension, though, between why it is difficult to be a good leader; and requiring the art of following in one's followers. For them to be able to recognize just authority, admire it, be grateful for it and emulate it.

It does not mean that we should be disrespectful of leaders, nor of any other human being. But, we ought to be skeptical of their intentions, knowing that power corrupts; and we ought to challenge them, for if having worshipful sycophants inflates one's self-importance, what better corrective than dissenters confident enough to convey that the leader has erred in his or her judgment?

More than anything else, we ought to constrain the power leaders wield. The average political chief executive is no longer a mere constitutional officer charged with faithful execution of the laws. He or she is a soul nourisher, a hope giver, a living talisman against natural disasters, economic downturns and spiritual malaise. He or she is the one who answers the phone at 3am; part therapist, social worker and national talk show host.

The vision of the political chief executive as national guardian and spiritual redeemer is so ubiquitous it goes virtually unnoticed. And with great responsibility comes great power; in the political and business spheres alike. The top corporate offices concentrate enormous power in the hands of whichever professional manages to claw his/her way to the top. That executive power will continue to grow, until stakeholders reconsider the incentives they have given to such posts.

Being surrounded by people who inflate your importance and treat you as a figure of worship makes you a worse leader. The best leaders are at once willing to act decisively; as well as being prone to humility and introspection. They are attuned to the possibility that they too are fallible. Sycophants destroy that perspective and deferential followers invite bad leadership. The challenge today, is to distinguish just and unjust authority, not merely opposing authority.

But, challenges to authority aren't mere attitude, mounted for their own sake as an intellectual pose. Challenging authority is in fact indispensable if authority is to remain just, legitimate and tempered by the humility that is a precondition of good leadership. Most great leaders have been publicly mocked, challenged and disrespected somewhere along the line. For most of us the problem isn't an inability to follow, but rather a refusal to constrain our leaders; in ways that force them to resist the temptations toward excesses inherent in their positions.

Monday, June 18, 2012

Kula Moola

At a time when economics implied the theories of either Karl Marx or Adam Smith, the anthropologist Bronislaw Malinowski turned everything upside down; challenging conventional ideas about the nature of wealth and the purpose and meaning of exchange, even as he revealed the dynamics of a contemporary oceanic trading network, so vast and complex that it offered clues as to the very forces that ultimately led to the settlement of the Pacific Ocean.

Malinowski wanted to know how people could possibly maintain social connections across violent currents and an open ocean. While Polynesians drew their subsistence almost exclusively from the land, their commerce moved over water. On the face of it, nothing they produced could rationalize the risks even of a single voyage. Yet, they had a curious system of exchange in which nothing of evident worth or value moved at great risk and with the promise of immense prestige.

He discovered a trading network that linked scores of communities over thousands of square kilometers of ocean, small huddled clusters of humanity that clung to coral reefs and spread over the remains of sunken mountains.

Known as the Kula ring, it was a system of balanced reciprocity based on the ceremonial exchange of two items, necklaces of discs chiseled from red spondylus shells known as the soulava, and armbands of white cone shell, the mwali. These were strictly symbolic objects with no intrinsic or utilitarian value.

And yet, for at least five hundred years, men had been prepared to risk their lives to carry these jewels across thousands of kilometers of open sea. The necklaces moved clockwise through the years, while the armbands flowed in reverse, always travelling in a counter-clockwise direction. Each individual involved in the trade had at least two partners; relationships that like marriages were intended to last for life, and even be inherited by subsequent generations.

To one partner a voyager would give a necklace in exchange for an armband of equal value, and to the other he would pass along an armband and receive in return a necklace. Each contact had his second partner on another island, and thus there was a continuous distribution chain. The exchanges did not occur all at once. Once in possession of a highly valued object, one was expected to savor for a time the prestige it conferred; even as one made plans ultimately to pass it along.

As a single object made its way around the Kula, perhaps taking as long as twenty years to complete the passage, only to continue again, its value grew with each voyage; with each story of hardship and wonder, witchcraft and the wind, and with the names of all the great men whose lives it had passed through. Thus the sacred objects were in constant motion, encircling the scattered islands in a ring of social and magical power.

Malinowski understood and wrote of the functional purpose of the Kula ring. It established relationships over great distances among peoples of different languages, facilitating the ultimate movement back and forth of utilitarian objects, pigments and dyes, stone axes, obsidian, ceramics, polished ceremonial stones, woven goods and certain foods.

The Kula also provided the context for the display of prestige and status upon which the authority of the hereditary chiefs was based. Their names were associated with the most valuable armbands and necklaces, and it fell to them to organize and lead the voyages. Preparations were rigorous and costly. Men from widely separated villages had to be coordinated. Gardens had to be planted simply to grow the food to be consumed during the preparations for the journey.

Months went by and with each passing day the excitement grew about the voyage. As Malinowski so elegantly distilled in the title of his book, the voyagers really were as Argonauts sailing forth into the unknown, in search of honor and glory, uncertain whether they would ever again see home and family, driven by the thrill of adventure and the siren call of the open water.

It is this flash of the human spirit, that becomes the vehicle by which the soul of each particular culture comes into the material world. It forges, through connection, an integral bond between the past, present and future; making us, as a species, more than the sum of our parts. It brings into our activities connection, belonging and affirmation.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

A Thousand Words

The Nave of York Minster is covered in 1500 square meters of real grass as the Minster is prepared for the York Minster Rose Dinner.

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Quotation Nation

Give a man a gun and he can rob a bank:
give a man a bank and he can rob the world.


Monday, June 4, 2012


We, as a species, are always telling ourselves 'stories' about how we relate to the rest of life on Earth. Most of these stories get rehashed and repackaged through the ages, so one is familiar with the stories even if one disagrees with them. One of the main stories that humans are telling themselves in the current epoch is: we are the bringers forth of the technology which facilitates evolution, the bringers forth of the Earth's technological advance. In order to do this we need to impart a certain amount of creative destruction - destroy in order to save. The Economist has this to say: 

In the classic science-fiction film “2001”, the ship’s computer (HAL), faces a dilemma. His instructions require him both to fulfill the ship’s mission (investigating an artifact near Jupiter) and to keep the mission’s true purpose secret from the ship’s crew. To resolve the contradiction, he tries to kill the crew. As robots become more autonomous, the notion of computer-controlled machines facing ethical decisions is moving out of the realm of science fiction and into the real world. Society needs to find ways to ensure that they are better equipped to make moral judgments than HAL was.

Military technology, unsurprisingly, is at the forefront of the march towards self-determining machines. Its evolution is producing an extraordinary variety of species. There is a flying surveillance drone the weight of a wedding ring, and one that carries 2.7 tons of bombs. Robots are spreading in the civilian world, too, from the flight deck to the operating theatre. Passenger aircraft have long been able to land themselves. Driverless trains are commonplace. Fully self-driving vehicles are being tested around the world; Google’s driverless cars digitally map neighborhoods.

As they become smarter and more widespread, autonomous machines are bound to end up making life-or-death decisions in unpredictable situations, thus assuming - or at least appearing to assume - moral agency. Weapons systems currently have human operators “in the loop”; but as they grow more sophisticated, it will be possible to shift to “on the loop” operation with machines carrying out orders autonomously.

As that happens, they will be presented with ethical dilemmas. Should a drone fire on a house where a target is known to be hiding, which may also be sheltering civilians? Should a driverless car swerve to avoid pedestrians if that means hitting other vehicles or endangering its occupants? Should a robot involved in disaster recovery tell people the truth about what is happening if that risks causing a panic? Such questions have led to the emergence of the field of “machine ethics”, which aims to give machines the ability to make such choices appropriately - in other words, to tell right from wrong.

One way of dealing with these difficult questions is to avoid them altogether, by banning autonomous robots. But, autonomous robots could do much more good than harm. Instead, society needs to develop ways of dealing with the ethics of robotics - and get going fast. The best known set of guidelines for robo-ethics are the “three laws of robotics” coined by Isaac Asimov, a science-fiction writer. The laws require robots to protect humans, obey orders and preserve themselves - in that order. Unfortunately, the laws are of little use in the real world.

Regulating the development and use of autonomous robots will require a rather more elaborate framework. Progress is needed in three areas in particular: (i) In order to allocate responsibility, autonomous systems must keep detailed logs so that they can explain the reasoning behind their decisions when necessary, (ii) where ethical systems are embedded into robots, the judgments they make need to be ones that seem right to most people and (iii) more collaboration to draw up new rules for robots which are left to their own devices.

Both ethicists and engineers stand to benefit from working together: ethicists may gain a greater understanding of their field by trying to teach ethics to machines, and engineers need to reassure society that they are not taking any ethical short-cuts. Technology has driven mankind’s progress, but each new advance has posed troubling new questions. Autonomous machines are no different. The sooner the questions of moral agency they raise are answered, the easier it will be for mankind to enjoy the benefits that they will undoubtedly bring.