What happens when you change a proposition from a statement to a question?
What is more disarming and invitational than an honest, curious inquiry?
If you want someone else to honestly consider an idea outside the schema of their present beliefs, what better way to invite consideration than to pose the alternative as a hypothesis?
How else do you engage counterpoints with inciting defensiveness?
But even more importantly, how can you hope to share your perspective with another person unless you can understand something about their point of view?
And how can you understand another point of view unless you ask?
What better way to discover why an interlocutor holds their convictions than to invite their knowledge and experience to inform your perspective?
What is better than a good question?
I want to live in a community where youth and elders gather to discuss the ideas and issues of the day. I imagine rustic ‘city gates’ or the middle of a bustling ‘town square’: places enshrined in common thought as the epicentres of public discourse. Yes, nostalgic as it may be, I want to live in a community that has an identifiable public sphere: a community where the question, ‘Where can I go to discuss ideas with other people?’ has a clear and definable answer. I want to know where people who only seem to share differences go to break bread together.
And yes, I mean a place: a geographic location. And in this place, class, status, and rank have no bearing on the legitimacy of one’s right to hold a view on public opinion. We all show up as nothing more or less than human. This venue is not a virtual parallel or a digital portal. No, this is a place where we discuss issues as mortal beings, face-to-face, not as typists or as brand/identity managers lurking behind our avatars and usernames. This is live theatre for live deliberation.
It seems to me that such a place for public discourse must be ‘held’ together by a community of learners. These ‘practitioners’ are cognizant of the responsibility they have assumed: establishing a truly public physical arena for sharing knowledge and ideas is a task that must be taken up by us, the people, not by the state or corporate actors. The only way we can access such a space is if we create it, and the only way we can maintain such a space is if we protect it. Therefore, this is not a religious community in a spiritual or mythical sense, but it is a ‘creedal’ community in a certain manner of speaking — it is a community that finds common identity in its collective commitment to sharing knowledge and opening discourse.
Where does this community meet? Where are the ‘city gates’ or ‘town square’ in my city? Where is the ‘public sphere of ideas’ made manifest?
I have absolutely no idea what I am doing, but I’m afraid that I am obsessed with these questions. To the best of my ability, I want to contribute to the creation of such spaces. Therefore — iterating on an earlier initiative launched with my local library in February — I am highly invested in a project that kicks into gear this Monday. It is called Curious Public at Central Library.
We’re describing Curious Public at Central Library as ‘a weekly learning party for inquisitive minds and critical thinkers.’ The group convenes every Monday, in open space at the London Public Library. The format for the front half of each session is flexible — panel discussions, interviews, debates, storytellers, public lectures, etc. — but the agenda always lands back on community conversation.
Looking around the world today, I get the sense that we desperately need localized answers to the question, ‘Where is the public space in this city where anybody can go to learn and talk with one another in real-time, every week?’ Curious Public at Central Library surely doesn’t present a ‘solution’ to any of the pressing problems in the world, but it is just another humble attempt to open space to talk about them constructively. In fact, as a ‘program,’ Curious Public is surely flawed on many levels. It has its own blind spots. It doubtlessly requires further critique, tweaking, and iteration. It is not a panacea, nor even an exclusive or unique idea. But everyone is welcome to participate in this mess of becoming. Join us. Come and contribute to the development of a weekly, diverse, public, and curious learning community in our city.
These kinds of places will only exist to the extent that we create them.
Monday, September 11, 2017: A Critique of Multiculturalism – What are the negative or unintended consequences of multiculturalism?
Monday, September 18, 2017: Race, Gender, Class? Who is society designed to serve? – A primer and discussion about structural violence and discrimination.
Monday, September 25, 2017: My Rights vs. Your Rights – What happens when one person’s human rights seems to violate or compete with another person’s human rights?
Monday, October 2, 2017: How Did Work Become the Point of Life? – Who convinced us all that having a ‘career’ is such a good idea?
Monday, October 16, 2017: Should We Quit Social Media? – When we weight all the pros and cons, does social media come out as a net good or as a liability for society?
See all upcoming topics at curiouspublic.com.
James Williams’ talk, Are Digital Technologies Making Politics Impossible?, is a must-listen. Riffing on the story of Diogenes and Alexander (with an interpretive lens drawn from Peter Sloterdijk) and Herbert Simon’s definition of an attention economy, Williams posits that there is a massive discrepancy between the design of digital technology and what we, the users, genuinely want for our lives.
What does technology want? It wants more clicks, more time on site, higher conversation rates, etc. It wants your attention — as much of it as it can take. And it wants to hold your attention for as long as it can. Your attention is the prize that Facebook wants to win. And keep.
What do we want? Well, presumably our dearest hopes and dreams for our lives go far beyond spending another 20 minutes on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, Instagram, etc. When you ask most of us what we want, we talk about more time with family, causes we care about, books we want to read (or write), traveling, adventures, experiences, personal achievements, and so on. We don’t tend to define another 20 minutes on social media as a step towards our ideal lives. But we check our phones again, anyway. Hence is the disconnect: technology is designed to hook us into behaviours and activities we don’t want. Williams suggests that it is time to consider the very real possibility that the “industrial-scale persuasion” complex baiting you into your newsfeed might not actually have your personal, human hopes and ambitions in mind.
What if every minute with your newsfeed takes a minute away from what you really want?
Williams says we need to think beyond the daily bait and switch that leads us to ‘accidentally’ getting sucked into Facebook for another 20 minutes. What is ultimately at stake here? Digital media distracts from our personal goals and pursuits in life. 20 minutes at a time, this industrial persuasion apparatus steals attention away from us — attention that might otherwise be invested in activities we feel truly matter. Ergo, the real crisis here is not that we just lost 20 minutes to some mindless activity: the issue that technology is intentionally usurping us from our own lives with “epistemological distractions” that divert us from the goals and activities that we sincerely do care deeply for.
So, should we blame the end user? Williams, a former Google employee himself, disagrees. Every day, millions of dollars and the brightest minds in the world are invested figuring out more effective ways to circumvent our will-power. Surely the answer to this dilemma is not, “Just have more will-power!” These infinitely scrolling newsfeeds are designed to drug us into submission — like “informational slot machines” whose sole purpose is sticking more ads in front of us along the way. Another 20 minutes. We are not only distracted from what we want in life by the promise of another dopamine hit, but we are also distracted from recognizing the opportunity cost of the addiction itself.
As far as Williams is concerned, we need to see “technology design as the ground of first political struggle” moving ahead. The present ‘solutions’ offered by digital technology are not working for us, but corporate interests have successfully usurped our imaginations when it comes to what can happen in 20 minutes of conscience existence on the planet.
Williams, therefore, declares that it is time for collective action to “assert and defend our freedom of attention.”
In an attention economy, your freedom of attention is your freedom. If you do not have the freedom to focus your mind on the things you truly care about, do you really have any freedom at all?
(Interested in getting together with some real live human beings — in an actual room — to critically analyze the prevalence, ubiquity, and power of social media in our lives? Come to Should We Quit Social Media? on Monday, October 16, 2017, 7pm at Central Library, to join the conversation.)