The bear’s house

 

A grumpy one-eyed bear?

Not so.  This is the bears’ house.

The bears rumble homewards after a long day catching trout in mountain streams. In the dusk the moon rises over the hills. And from the cave-house the golden glow of a warm fire shines out of the door, warning that someone is home sitting in their chairs, eating their porridge…

bears house 3

 

Sidewalk inkblots

If I had a view like this to look down on every day, I would have the energy and inspiration to conquer the world.

The trouble is, when you most need such a view, no-one gives it to you.

- Jennifer Egan, A Visit From the Goon Squad

 

I mean, who doesn’t know about ink blot experiments? A psychologist asks a patient to tell them what they see when they look at random inkblot patterns and from the answer they infer something about their personality.

I’d like to show how the creative catalyst of inkblots can be found in pavements.

But first, the inkblots. Named after the Swiss psychologist who invented them, “Rorschach” tests are used to assess a patient’s emotional state, mental acuity and so on.

In the typical Rorschach test the patient is given ten inkblots to consider and discuss. Only a small part of the insight comes from what the patient actually perceives.

It’s *how* they behave that tells the psychologist a lot. For example – Does the patient rotate the cards? Do they ask permission to rotate the cards or do they just do it? Do they stare at them long and hard or just peremptorily? Are they careful about what they say or do they talk long and freely about the different things they see?

There’s an even older history of interpreting inkblots for fun. Initially in Germany Justinus Kerken produced book called Klesksographien in which he decorated inkblots with embellishments and poems.

Then at the turn of the century some US writers proposed that Gobolinks, as they called them were a fun way to imagine monsters and fire up your creative daemon.

Which brings me to the pavements that I have been photographing (which surely tells a psychologist a lot).

It began when, for an art project, I was building an alphabet out of photographed cracks in pavements. I’m still building that and it’s just as hard as you always thought it would be (Right? because you’d often wondered….).

So all of a sudden I’m interrogating sidewalks for their creative potential. And I saw that the cracks and dents in pavements are like inkblots.

cracks and dents

 

The random and ambiguous patterns they create can be interpreted as almost anything. Like a gobolink.

 

This is good news for those of us who spend too much time in the urban jungle staring at their feet. Because God knows such poor souls as we are, need to work harder for inspiring views than our friends living by the sea, mountains, fields and woodlands.

 

So here’s my cure for boring sidewalks. Let your imagination loose and see whether there isn’t a better view really hidden in that boring tarmac and those implacable paving stones.

And this of course, is a heart shaped sun rising over the pyramids.

Loveheart-pyramid4

 

Sure, I’d rather have a view of the snow-capped Alps, the Mediterranean sea, or sip my coffee while gazing at the Wildebeest surging across the Zambezi pursued by crocodiles and lions.

But “when you most need such a view, no-one gives it to you”.

So now I’m finding them myself.

The very convincing prejudices of smart people

On the whole, if someone agrees with you then they seem intelligent, understanding and their opinion well-reasoned.

If they disagree then they  seem arrogant, ill-informed or just plain prejudiced.

We all share this tendency and it leads to narrow thinking and won’t get you very far (Though you may do well in politics).

When a challenging piece of information or a new interpretation of an event comes your way you can do one of two things.

i) You can accept it which requires changing your view of something or someone.

ii) Or you can apply  billions of grey cells to explaining how this proves your opinion is right all along OR that the new information is flawed.

Both approaches demand brain power.

As Charles D Ellis wrote:

“Faced with information that contradicts what they believe, human beings tend to respond in one of two ways. Some will assimilate the information, changing it – as oysters cover an obnoxious grain of silicon with nacre – so they can ignore the new knowledge and hold on to their former beliefs, and others will accept the validity of the new information. Instead of changing the meaning of new data to fit their old concept of reality, they adjust their perception of reality to accommodate the information and put it to use.”

The oyster approach, as Ellis describes it, seems daft. It’s a denial of reality.The advantage goes to the person who accepts the new knowledge and does something with it.

So the person who accepts the new knowledge would be the smart one. Or so it seems.

The trouble is it’s people with the intellectual firepower and creativity who are best able to convince themselves that the old, invalid position remains the right one and screw the new information.

Maintaining such conviction despite the facts requires twisting and turning reality, swapping cause and effect and other elaborate mental con-jobs.

And yet, if you’re smart enough to do all this then you’re smart enough to see the holes in the shoes of your thinking. So what’s going on?

Ellis explains: “Psychologists advise us that the more important the old concept of reality is to a person – the more important it is to his sense of self esteem and sense of self-worth the more tenaciously he will hold on to the old concept and the more insistently he will assimilate or reject new evidence that conflicts with his old and familiar concept of the world. This behaviour is particularly common among very bright people because they can so easily develop and articulate self-persuasive logic to justify the conclusions they want to keep.”

It’s why very bright people can hold some absurd prejudices and magical beliefs. Such prejudices , self-serving arguments and ego-driven thinking are hidden from each of us. And the smarter you are the better you can hide them.

What’s the solution?

Being humble is a start: Put your own ideas under the microscope in the same way that you examine those of someone else. try to see the baggage you are carrying with you.

The Cambridge psychologist Robert Thouless explained:

“If we see another man holding opinions that correspond to his wishes we suspect that these opinions are prejudices, and if we notice ourselves holding opinions that correspond to our own wishes we have equally good grounds for suspecting prejudice. If we find ourselves getting angry when some cherished belief is questioned, we may suspect that that belief is a prejudice based on irrational grounds just as we would if we observed another man unreasonably touchy about an opinion. We are not likely to understand fully the irrational sources of our opinions, but we can have some knowledge of them if we examine our own opinions as critically and un- sympathetically as we do the opinions of others.”

 

Fickleness as strength

Always be abandoning your best ideas.

The strength of your best opinions is that you hold them in low regard. Only such humble arguments will be whittled and moulded, or cast aside and replaced to accurately fit the facts as they emerge and morph.

Principles on the other hand, are fundamental truths that do not change like the wind. These are your values, your moral code, the things that matter. Your true north.

But for your opinions it’s a different story. So long as you are prepared to discard these whenever new facts emerge and invalidate them, then you may easily change your mind without a sense of dread. That’s how you trade up the quality of your ideas.

Such fickleness is a big advantage in our hyper-speed, uber-connected world where facts change all the time. Consequently, those with the humility to admit current ideas are wrong, accept change and adopt new thinking are the ones who will adapt best and think the biggest.

Admitting an idea is no longer valid may feel like a weakness but in reality it is how you grow.

Because here’s the flip side:  If your opinions are too important to your sense of self to dare change them, if you must resist and defend every argument no matter what the facts are or what the reasoning is then you will not learn much that is new.

In a world that changes as fast as ours this is a self-defeating stance to take.

Insisting on always being right increases the chances of always being wrong. After all, defending your opinion may also mean denying new facts or clinging to old consistencies. This is a loser’s game.

Winners, perversely, are those that are the fastest to realise their understanding is wrong or out of date. This liberates them to do something about it.

In our world of permanent accelerating change you might be right when you form your opinion but you will probably be wrong by the time you defend it to the death.

 

How photographs became temporary and the spoken word became permanent

Take a picture. Compose it. Light it. Count down. Say cheese. Snap the shutter. Save the picture for ever.

Ever since the invention of the Kodak camera and the Brownie camera 100 years ago taking photographs has been an activity intended to preserve memories for posterity. Photographs were precious: The first material things saved in a house fire.

As photography moved to the digital age the strong affection for family photo albums was mimicked by digital albums designed to look like the familiar textured, physical, tangible albums of yesteryear.

Fast forward to one of the biggest Silicon Valley deals of 2012. Instagram was bought by Facebook for $1bn took after it reimagined posterity by enabling photographers to socialize photos that were filtered to look dated …even light-damaged, under-exposed, or patchily lit. Consumers loved it. Users numbers swelled. And so did the price tag.

At the same time, in the old fashioned world of real physical things, hip companies like Lomography arrived on the scene providing the novelty of physical analogue cameras that used film and were incapable of making phone calls or sending emails. Naturally these cameras look retro because it’s posterity and nostalgia that we associate with photography.

Lomography is successful. But it didn’t sell for $1bn.

Faking posterity is optional. The real story is that the act of picture taking and picture sharing has become preferable to writing or talking. And that’s led us somewhere unexpected.

We have began using photography not for preserving memories but to talk. I am HERE. I am here with THIS person. Do you LIKE these shoes? This is the WEATHER right now.

So now, not only is taking and sharing photographs easy, but we have a slew of new reasons to do it.

As a consequence, most of us carry more photographs on our phone than we can find time to edit or even review.

If we take more pictures than we can review and contemplate then why do we do it? It must mean our behavior has changed. After all it recognises that photographs are not precious; they have become mulch, more disposable than cheap party cameras.

Snapchat, a 2011 start up, realized that something unthinkable only a few years ago. People don’t want to save all their pictures. Pictures are communication. They are ephemeral. They are like the words we speak. Let them evaporate on the wind as soon as the words are communicated.

The USP of this start up company is that the photographs you share are guaranteed to vanish.

When you send a photograph to someone with Snapchat you define how long it will last on that person’s phone. Five seconds, five minutes… and then it disappears. Gone forever. It no longer exists. Not on the Snapchat servers. Not on your friend’s phone.

This is photography as the spoken word. “Listen carefully because I will only say it once” has become “Look carefully because you will only see this once.”

It’s as if what once seemed the strange physical merger of the camera and the mobile phone has forced the trans-substantiation of the two products: phone conversations become fixed and verifiable, photographs become… just word of mouth.

The result of this approach is no more photo-mulch. Sure important photos will be shared for posterity. Even the family album. But the rest will come and go. And be gone. For ever.

Disagree? Fine. But 50 million photos per day are sent and deleted forever by Snapchat’s servers.

The numbers don’t lie, the point of photography is changing: The camera lens is replacing the microphone as a conversation medium.

Hot on the heels of this paradigm shift, the next convention to be turned on its head will be the spoken word. Once we knew that the spoken word vanished as fast as a Snapchat photo.

But the technology exists to enable all spoken conversations to be routinely recored, stored and searched …just like an old photo album.

Those small oscillations of air molecules made by vibrating the air passing out of our lungs and past our vocal chords are thoughts made real. The spoken word is our most natural and nuanced form of communication. Unlike, say photography.

Perversely, in a world where all communication is stored forever on huge servers owned by google, twitter, facebook, your company, or your email provider the one form of communication form that died faster than a mayfly was your most human. Your spoken word. And this made it the wild west of promises and information.

The spoken word is deniable. Just ask Andrew Mitchell, the former government chief whip, who denied he ever called the policemen at No.10 Downing Street plebs or morons. No-one knew whether he really did say these things. Not even after the alleged transcript of the conversation was leaked.

But this is about to change. Just as photographs will become ephemeral so the spoken word is becoming permanent

Within years we will find that every word we utter in a phone call will be automatically recorded. You won’t think twice. It sounds odd but …watch. And listen.

The technology now exists to enable everyone to store every conversation they ever have. Whether it’s a skype conference call, a mobile call to your bank or a landline call at xmas to your distant relatives the phone call will be preserved and made permanent.

You can be sure that most of your conversations are not ones you ever want to bother hearing again. But some are. The promise made by your bank when it sold you a no-strings loan, the legal gobbledegook advice from your lawyer or doctor, the joke told by your six year old nephew…

While businesses have used call recording for a long time, the consumer hasn’t. But technology will change behaviour as surely as it changed the behaviour of all the photographers in the world.

And the key change here, unlike photography, is Search. For while you can scan through hundreds of digital photos pretty quickly you can’t do the same with recordings of phone calls.

Until now. In 2012 ARGOsearch released a conversation search engine. Now, something once preserved for the likes of GCHQ is available to everyone. Not only does it let everyone record every phone call they make but it allows them to instantly search the words that were spoken.

Which means you can ignore the conversation mulch, just like you ignore the photo-mulch. Technologies such as ARGOsearch, and there will be others soon enough, allow you to search through every conversation you ever had in order to find the one that includes the words: “santa christmas list present” or “no strings loan cancel anytime”.

And you can do it in an instant. From your phone. And even share the recordings.

Yes it raises all sorts of issues – moral, legal, behavioural.

But now that the technology exists and is out there would you want to take the bet that it won’t eventually become standard. Would you have bet that revolutions and careers will be made using a 140 character form of communication called Twitter or that a college social network like The Facebook would take over the world or that all CVs would become public on a site like LinkedIn.

The spoken word will become more permanent than photographs. And photographs will become as evanescent as the spoken word. That’s the strange place technology will take us over the next 12 months,

It’s as if what once seemed the strange physical merger of the camera and the mobile phone has forced the trans-substantiation of the two products: phone conversations become fixed and verifiable, photographs become… just word of mouth.

 

[first published in The Huffington Post]

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