My top­ic, as Paolo said, seek­ing per­son­al truth, real­ly builds on the back of much of what we have heard already this morn­ing around the chal­lenges of chang­ing times, chang­ing tech­nolo­gies, chang­ing lan­guage, chang­ing expec­ta­tions.

And I thought I would look up the word truth. And I thought it was inter­est­ing that there were eight dif­fer­ent def­i­n­i­tions of the word truth. And even the fact I’m using the word truth rather than fact—because being gram­mat­i­cal­ly pedan­tic it occurred to me that you can have cor­rect facts and incor­rect facts. Which is odd. But I think we are grop­ing towards this idea of truth. And even the word truth can be defined in mul­ti­ple dif­fer­ent ways. So we are by its very nature deal­ing with a very slip­pery top­ic.

And I dis­cov­ered just how slip­pery when I did two stints of jury duty in the United Kingdom. It’s unusual—most peo­ple are asked to do it once. For some rea­son I had to do it twice. And the first time was a young lad who had been accused of stick­ing a beer glass into somebody’s face. And he was a rough lad. He looked stereo­typ­i­cal­ly” like some­body who you could imag­ine doing that. But nobody had actu­al­ly seen him doing that. 

So when we got into the jury room, if any of you have seen 12 Angry Men with Henry Fonda, I end­ed up being Henry Fonda. Because every­body else just said, Well, of course he did it.” Well I had to keep say­ing no, nobody saw him. There’s no evi­dence. We’re here to assume inno­cent until proven guilty. And the case end­ed up being thrown out. And they had to start again. So I came away from that very dis­il­lu­sioned about the jury sys­tem and the impre­ci­sion of it as I saw it, and the fact that there was no way I ever want­ed to be on the receiv­ing end of that process. 

The sec­ond time, there were two cas­es. One was again a young man who was meant to have beat­en some­body up in a pub fight. Differently this time, there were many peo­ple who had seen and it was pret­ty obvi­ous what had hap­pened. And we found him guilty. And the sec­ond case was some­body who sup­pos­ed­ly had been involved in a fight, but it turned out to be a busi­ness com­peti­tor try­ing to dis­cred­it him.

In that sec­ond cir­cum­stance I felt more com­fort­able that we had got to the truth in both of those cas­es. But we got there by a very round­about, impre­cise, way. And each of the wit­ness­es, who offered very con­fi­dent­ly their truth, actu­al­ly saw very dif­fer­ent things. And there are so many sci­en­tific stud­ies of just how sub­jec­tive, even in real­ly crit­i­cal sit­u­a­tions, our sense of the truth is.

And that’s part­ly con­tex­tu­al, to go back to Massimo’s point this morn­ing. So much of our sense of truth is down to con­text. And we get that con­text from our soci­ety, our par­ents, how we grew up, how we observe the world around us as we grow up, which is our cul­ture. Culture part­ly being medi­at­ed and prop­a­gat­ed by the media. And we had a dis­cus­sion this morn­ing and over lunch around the role of the media and whether it does or doesn’t help us get to the truth. 

We have set up and sup­port­ed and trust­ed insti­tu­tions to val­i­date the truth, to accred­it things, to license things, to ver­i­fy things. And have trust­ed those insti­tu­tions to tell us the truth. And all of this based on author­i­ty, which again came up in some of the con­ver­sa­tions this morn­ing. We have con­ferred author­i­ty on those insti­tu­tions, and indi­vid­u­als who work in those insti­tu­tions.

Another aspect of the con­text is how we make sense of the world. And some of you if you’ve been at the­se events before will have heard me dis­cussing or com­par­ing the impact of the Internet with the impact of the print­ing press. And how pri­or to the print­ing press the Medieval church were the cus­to­di­ans of the truth—that was the one ver­sion of the truth. They owned all the man­u­scripts, they wrote all the man­u­scripts. It was a very for­mal­ized, rigid struc­ture. And then the print­ing press weak­ened that. And our abil­i­ty to write and tell and share sto­ries even­tu­al­ly led to the ref­or­ma­tion of the church, and England, and the Enlightenment, and our mod­ern sci­en­tific world­view part­ly at least arguably came out of that step change. 

With the Internet I think we’re going through anoth­er sim­i­lar­ly sig­nif­i­cant chal­lenge, peri­od of change. Now, in that con­text we have to make sense of our lives through stories—through big sto­ries. And this is about…thinking back to pre First World War, where the church and the state had been around, sta­ble, trusted—a rel­a­tive­ly safe, pre­dictable world. And then Charles Darwin and the First World War trench­es blew holes in those two sets of sto­ries. People became less con­fi­dent, less trust­ing of those big sto­ries.

And then between the wars, you had the two isms, fas­cism and com­mu­nism, as the big pseudore­li­gious, sense­mak­ing, con­tex­tu­al­iz­ing sto­ries that stabilized—people thought that was the way the world was. And then the Second World War blew holes in those two sto­ries. And sub­se­quent­ly both of those ways of look­ing at the world have dimin­ished and retired to some extent. 

And then they were replaced, for most of us in the West, with con­sumerism. Buy stuff till you die has been the pre­dom­i­nant sto­ry. Get a good job, make enough mon­ey to buy things, do that for long enough until you can retire and buy a fan­cy hol­i­day has being the main moti­va­tion for many of us in our lives. And I think we’re run­ning out of that sto­ry. That sto­ry does not work. It’s not mak­ing us hap­py. It’s not giv­ing us answers. And I think we’re feel­ing unset­tled because of that absence of big sense­mak­ing sto­ries. We’re sort of mak­ing it up as we go along.

And along comes the Internet, which speeds things up. It exac­er­bates things. It ampli­fies things. It ampli­fies truth, it ampli­fies mys­tery. It speeds up the speed at which infor­ma­tion is com­ing to us. It ampli­fies all the con­se­quences of that unease that we were feel­ing.

And it is very mal­leable. In that world the truth is very…fragile. Anybody with a loud enough voice or a big enough fol­low­ing, or who’ve paid enough PR and mar­ket­ing people—whatever—can dom­i­nate the sense of truth. Partly because we have been trained through the pre­vi­ous sto­ry about buy­ing stuff till we die to be most­ly pas­sive con­sumers. We’re used to wait­ing for peo­ple to tell us the truth. It’s eas­ier.

Somebody said the oth­er day that it was eas­ier in the old days when the news told us the truth. We haven’t had that for a long time. You end up in a sort of rel­a­tivis­tic mush, as I call it, where any­thing can be true. We don’t know how to grope our way towards absolute truth. We were talk­ing over lunch about sci­ence, and even many sci­en­tific facts don’t last very long. In fact, the pow­er of sci­ence is that it’s con­stant­ly ques­tion­ing its own facts. And if you just look at the polar­i­ty between whether sugar’s good for your or fat’s good for you that’s going on at the moment, which of those are truths?

But more pos­i­tive­ly, back to some of the com­ments again that we had this morn­ing, there is the pos­si­bil­i­ty of greater trans­paren­cy. I’ve already for­got­ten the speaker’s name that was talk­ing about the free­dom of infor­ma­tion and the fact that more facts are poten­tial­ly more vis­i­ble to the cit­i­zen­ry to make bet­ter judg­ments about those in author­i­ty. And we’ve all seen the fact that we all have broad­cast devices in our pock­ets that [are] mak­ing it possible—not inevitable but possible—for the truth, the ephemer­al cur­rent truth to be made vis­i­ble to lots of peo­ple very quick­ly. It’s very hard for the offi­cial world to stop peo­ple film­ing a police­man killing some­body in a car.

So the ten­den­cy is there to trans­paren­cy. And it is real­ly chal­leng­ing us in terms of trust, and who we trust and why we trust them. And you notice that I’ve said who and why rather than not what we trust. Because I think it is about what the source of infor­ma­tion is, who we con­fer author­i­ty to, that is the basis of trust. And again our unease is we’re con­fused about who to trust.

And you get chal­leng­ing cir­cum­stances like WikiLeaks, and Edward Snowden. I’ll come to ISIS in a moment. But I put my hand in my pock­et and paid mod­est amounts of mon­ey to sup­port the legal sup­port for both of those. And look­ing back at Assange par­tic­u­lar­ly, you can be very very ques­tion­ing of his motives. But at the time I felt it was a strong state­ment, a brave state­ment, about the real­i­ty that we’re walk­ing our­selves into, asleep. So he was just pitch­ing out there that the­se are… As more and more of our data becomes vis­i­ble, more and more of our data’s col­lect­ed. Governments and oth­er groups, com­mer­cial groups, know more about us than they ever have before. And we don’t always know that. We don’t always real­ize that. So peo­ple being brave enough to stand up say, No, this is hap­pen­ing,” as Snowden did, I think are impor­tant at least in the short term.

And then with ISIS, you know, it’s prob­a­bly too cur­rent to get away with the old say­ing of one man’s ter­ror­ist is anoth­er man’s free­dom fight­er. But it is real­ly inter­est­ing how they are man­ag­ing in their com­mu­ni­ties and their net­works to be appear­ing to tell the truth to enough peo­ple to cause the mas­sive resources of the Western world to feel sig­nif­i­cant­ly chal­lenged and afraid, whether it is fac­tu­al­ly true or not.

So in a sense all three of the­se I think are just symp­toms or sig­nif­i­cant aspects of the pow­er that’s begin­ning to head our way, as is Trump. Actually, before I go into Trump, just to go back to Brexit. I mean, it was real­ly inter­est­ing just watch­ing the badly-informed debates. And try­ing to work out what was actu­al­ly hap­pen­ing even through the for­mal news media was real­ly hard. And I went to bed the night before think­ing, It’ll be alright. There’s now way.” And then woke up the next morn­ing obvi­ous­ly think­ing, Bugger. They’ve done it.” 

And I real­ly real­ly wor­ry that we’re head­ing towards a sim­i­lar sort of sce­nar­io with Trump, where enough Midwestern Americans or die-hard Republicans or what­ev­er are almost not car­ing that he’s not telling the truth. You know, some of the stuff is so extreme that truth almost doesn’t come into it. It’s just wish ful­fill­ment. It’s fan­ta­sy, it’s a nar­ra­tive. And of course it’s hap­pen­ing because enough peo­ple are tak­ing at face val­ue, or respond­ing pos­i­tive­ly, or con­fir­ma­tion bias that we heard about ear­lier, the sort of stuff that’s com­ing from the Trump camp.

And we’ve also heard this morn­ing about the fact that vol­ume is a sig­nif­i­cant chal­lenge. Just try­ing to work out from the mas­sive num­ber of sources that we’re faced with, the mas­sive amount of noise that we’re faced with, what is actu­al­ly sig­nal. What is worth pay­ing atten­tion to. Clay Shirky talks about atten­tion deficit. We only have so much atten­tion we can pay to things. And part of the rea­son that Trump and oth­ers have as much impact as they do is because we’re tired. We’ve sort of given up try­ing to work out what the truth is because it feels too hard, and try­ing to hear the sig­nal for the noise is just too hard.

But I think it’s lit­er­al­ly in our own hands, increas­ing­ly. In the sense that we have the­se devices, which we are in con­trol of, no mat­ter what Facebook or oth­ers try to do with them. We choose when we turn them on, we choose when we turn them off. We choose what we look at. And there’s a chap­ter in my book that I called We all have a vol­ume con­trol on mob rule.” So we have the oppor­tu­ni­ty, we have the respon­si­bil­i­ty, to decide what we pay atten­tion to, what we don’t pay atten­tion. What we ampli­fy and what we don’t ampli­fy. And this comes down to micro deci­sions of what am I going to like on Facebook? Why am I lik­ing that? What will my net­work think if I like that? Will they respond? Will they fur­ther ampli­fy that? Will I push back again­st it? Will I argue again­st it? Will I take on the right­eous right or what­ev­er else by stick­ing my hand up and say­ing, No, that’s not true?” 

And I think we are all going to have to get bet­ter at, braver at, more con­fi­dent at, exer­cis­ing that respon­si­bil­i­ty. Because at the moment the truth flur­ries around on the Internet like shoals of fish, and we don’t know where it’s going to land. So, again back to what Massimo was say­ing, I under­stand the fears, I’ve obvi­ous­ly talked about some of the risks. I think the risks are real, per­ti­nent, cur­rent, and sig­nif­i­cant. But equal­ly, you get noth­ing with­out tak­ing a risk. And I do also feel that we are in the peri­od where you have enor­mous oppor­tu­ni­ties to do things dif­fer­ent­ly. To rein­vent our insti­tu­tions. To rein­vent the prac­tices and process­es and laws that make things turn out well rather than bad­ly. And we need to get bet­ter and faster at doing that.

Now, again we’ve been talk­ing over the last cou­ple of days about the need to slow down, and the fact that many ear­ly adopters like Paolo and myself have just spent so long with so much pass­ing through our heads, with so much infor­ma­tion, that you real­ize you just need to get bet­ter at shut­ting it up, and get­ting it to stop, and giv­ing your head the room to recov­er and to think. So there’s a whole indus­try around mind­ful­ness and med­i­ta­tion and sort of tech­niques and ways of look­ing at the world that just help you to dis­tance your­self and step back from the buf­fet­ing that we’re all begin­ning to suf­fer from. So for instance I climb moun­tains and go for long walks, part­ly just to force myself to get away from the con­stant con­nect­ed­ness.

Authenticity

This is a word that gets mis­used and overused, and cer­tain­ly back in the ear­ly days of blog­ging it was a sig­nif­i­cant aspect of what we were try­ing to do. But again, this is an oppor­tu­ni­ty. Having been mind­ful, hav­ing been more thought­ful, hav­ing slowed things down more, that whole thing about say­ing what you actu­al­ly think, being authen­tic, say­ing clear­ly and as under­stand­ably as you can your inter­pre­ta­tion of the world around you and being pre­pared to stand by it. Being will­ing to stick it out there, open it to dis­agree­ment, open­ing your­self to the con­se­quences.

I mean, I’ve told the sto­ry before, but this is why I called my own weblog The Obvious?” Because it was me over­com­ing my ret­i­cence about stat­ing the obvi­ous. I would think, Well every­body knows this. It’s patent­ly obvi­ous.” Or they might dis­agree with me or what­ev­er. But after fif­teen or six­teen years I’ve learned that actu­al­ly what I have seen and what I’ve under­stood, the way I per­ceive the world, isn’t nec­es­sar­i­ly obvi­ous to every­body. And once you’re brave enough to open up and share some of that, amaz­ing things hap­pen, tak­ing the con­se­quences. And that takes courage. 

And I think it’s courage that we’re not used to exer­cis­ing, again going back to being trained to be con­form­ing, pas­sive, safe. This is one of the biggest chal­lenges work­ing with large cor­po­ra­tions, where I’m extolling the virtues of hav­ing the­se net­works inter­nal­ly. People are ter­ri­fied of los­ing their jobs. They’re ter­ri­fied of stick­ing their head above the para­pet or being the tall pop­py that gets chopped down. It takes real courage in those con­texts to say what you think. And this idea is a book called Radical Honesty, that if we are head­ing towards trans­paren­cy, if try­ing to hide and dis­sem­ble is increas­ing­ly a non-starter, being as hon­est as you can be as quick­ly as you can be in many ways is the best defense pol­i­cy. So, more open, more trans­par­ent, more hon­est, ear­lier, in some ways is the best way to stay safe. 

And that whole thing about being open and hon­est, espe­cial­ly in the UK, we’re quite resis­tant to that. I remem­ber an old­er rel­a­tive of mine say­ing, Oh yes, blog­ging. That’s just peo­ple shar­ing their opin­ions.” Yes. What’s so wrong with peo­ple shar­ing their opin­ions? And still they said well, who are you to think that, or who are you to say that? Or you are self-obsessed, you are nar­cis­sis­tic. We even accused jour­nal­ists of being nar­cis­sis­tic this morn­ing.

But my old­er daugh­ter Mollie, who’s blog­ging and I’ll show you her blog in a moment, respond­ed to the thing about self­ies and how Middle East folks who don’t take self­ies dis­miss it as young folks nowa­days being nar­cis­sis­tic. And Mollie actu­al­ly flipped it and said no, it’s more about being brave. It’s about desir­ing to con­nect with oth­er peo­ple, being vul­ner­a­ble. So there’s a whole fash­ion of—I can’t remem­ber what they call this, like naked self­ies” or some­thing, where they don’t wear make­up. Where it’s just them as they see them­selves in the morn­ing when they wake up. So a bit more back to again what Massimo was say­ing with the videos. It’s peo­ple choos­ing to be quite rad­i­cal­ly, to many of us uncom­fort­ably, open in a very direct and inti­mate way. So rather than pro­ject­ing inwards the image in the water of nar­cis­sism or pro­ject­ing a par­tic­u­lar­ly air­brushed vision of your­self out, it’s actu­al­ly more about a vul­ner­a­bil­i­ty than it is about dom­i­nance.

Writing our­selves into exis­tence.
David Weinberger [pre­sen­ta­tion slide]

And again, I’ve quot­ed this before, but this is a phrase from David Weinberger when he was talk­ing about blog­ging. But I think it now… You know, the activ­i­ty of blog­ging, if you like, has mor­phed into oth­er plat­forms and oth­er things. But this abil­i­ty to as he described it writ­ing our­selves into exis­tence.

So for instance, I not only have my blog but I jour­nal, and I car­ry Field Notes note­books and pen­cils. And I’m just con­stant­ly scrib­bling stuff down that I’ve noticed, that I’ve thought, that piqued my inter­est. And in doing that I become more aware. I become more notic­ing of what’s hap­pen­ing around and per­haps what it means. And if I then choose to share that on Twitter, Facebook, Snapchat, what­ev­er, I’m pro­ject­ing and I’m push­ing it out into my net­work. And then I get to see what reac­tion that gets.

And again, coun­ter to some of the ideas that have been expressed this morn­ing, it’s not just seek­ing approval. I’m nev­er hap­pier than when some­body comes back with a thought­ful, sincerely-conveyed rebut­tal that says, Mmm, you know. I don’t agree. I think there’s this dif­fer­ence. There’s this nuance that you’ve missed.” And over the years I’ve learned to appre­ci­ate that and to respond to that, and think okay, do I care? Do I still think I’m right? Will I adjust?

So again, back to that vol­ume con­trol on mob rule, I’m mak­ing microad­just­ments. Trying to—within the con­text of my ego’s will­ing­ness to be right all the time, what­ev­er else—trying to adjust what I think is true. And if I’ve done a decent job of push­ing it out into the net­work. Not as a pro­fes­sion­al jour­nal­ist, not a sto­ry teller, but just as some­body who’s gone, Oh, that’s inter­est­ing.” If I’ve done that well oth­er peo­ple go, That is inter­est­ing. I didn’t know that.” Or, I’m glad some­body else has said that. I’ve thought it for ages and I’ve nev­er shared it with any­body.” So it’s like throw­ing peb­bles into a pond. And you get bet­ter at throw­ing big­ger peb­bles into bet­ter ponds and caus­ing big­ger rip­ples.

And I men­tioned Mollie’s blog, and she’s she’s been blog­ging for a cou­ple of years now. And she’s just gone up to uni­ver­si­ty at Cambridge to study English lit­er­a­ture. And she has over the years suf­fered sig­nif­i­cant­ly from anx­i­ety, to the extent that it made her phys­i­cal­ly ill. When she was nine or ten she had ME and had to be off school for about a year. And when she went up to Cambridge, she was scared, and she became phys­i­cal­ly sick, headaches or stom­achs. Penny my wife had to go and stay with her over the week­end.

And then Mollie’s writ­ten a cou­ple of blog posts about that. The sec­ond one was more vul­ner­a­ble than the first, and she sent it to me in advanced and said, Am I over­shar­ing, dad? Is this too much?” Asking me just to check the moti­va­tion, if you like. So to some extent, to some peo­ple, that might have felt like over­shar­ing. Like being vul­ner­a­ble, like tak­ing a risk. But boy did she get a pos­i­tive respon­se. She had lots of peo­ple com­ing out of the wood­work who she’d nev­er met yet at uni­ver­si­ty say­ing, I’m so glad you wrote that. I feel the same.” Other peo­ple offer­ing help, what­ev­er. And this extend­ed her net­work expo­nen­tial­ly. And I think that to me is the oppor­tu­ni­ty, is that fact that we have this oppor­tu­ni­ty to think hard­er, share bet­ter, respond to what we’re shar­ing. And out of that to begin to build the fab­ric of soci­ety.

Now, we will get hurt. People won’t always agree. People will not under­stand. And again, there was a risk involved in this that she could have been vil­i­fied for it. Getting bet­ter at being brave on a more reg­u­lar, ongo­ing basis I think is key. But actu­al­ly again as has been said this morn­ing, being human… Now, I think we’re going to hear from a lat­er speak­er around tech­nol­o­gy and AI and all the amaz­ing stuff that’s becom­ing pos­si­ble. And in some of my talks that I do with cor­po­ra­tions I call my pre­sen­ta­tion Staying Ahead of the Robots.” That if tech­nol­o­gy is going to eat away at the low­er end of rou­tine bureau­crat­ic, finan­cial, legal, med­ical work, how are you going to add val­ue? How are you going to dif­fer­en­ti­ate your­self above what could be done by a robot? It’s by being more human. And being human means being fal­li­ble, means being scared, being brave.

…the more peo­ple are trained to think in terms of moral­is­tic judge­ments that imply wrong­ness and bad­ness, the more they are being trained to look out­side themselves—to out­side authorities—for the def­i­n­i­tion of what con­sti­tutes right, wrong, good, and bad. When we are in con­tact with our feel­ings and needs, we humans no longer make good slaves and under­lings.
Marshall B. Rosenberg, Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Life [pre­sen­ta­tion slide]

Now, hav­ing expressed con­cerns about rel­a­tivism, and clear­ly there are things that we need to get to some kind of con­sen­sus about right and wrong, this was real­ly inter­est­ing. Our will­ing­ness to be in an ongo­ing posi­tion of work­ing things out I think is going to increas­ing­ly be a key skill. Being less hung up about get­ting to a right answer and being more tol­er­ant of ambi­gu­i­ty.

The oth­er thing is that we’ve been so seduced into think­ing that our brains are the most impor­tant parts of our bod­ies to the den­i­gra­tion of the rest of it, we’re this bit of meat between our ears lum­bered with this rest of our body. But neu­ro­science is show­ing us that we have as many neu­rons in our stom­achs and our hearts as we do in our heads. 

We know the truth not only by rea­son but also by heart
Blaise Pascal [pre­sen­ta­tion slide]

And the whole lan­guage of gut feel­ings, bro­ken hearts… You know, we do respond to the world with a whole com­plex sys­tem, not just the ana­lyt­i­cal, reduc­tion­ist, language-based bit of meat between our ears. So again, cel­e­brat­ing that human­ness and that mixed set of trig­gers and respons­es.

And just a last cou­ple of thoughts. I think we are increas­ing­ly faced with ephemer­al truth. Truths don’t stay true for very long. Our per­cep­tion of what’s true doesn’t stay fixed for very long, and as I said that is a dis­con­cert­ing, chal­leng­ing, envi­ron­ment. But equal­ly, we all know the big, eter­nal truths. The sort of truths that the var­i­ous reli­gions over the years have sort of hijacked and sold back to us. We know, most­ly, what being kind means. We know what caus­es harm to oth­er peo­ple. We know what makes us hap­py if we stop long enough to think of it.

If you have the choice of being right or being kind, be kind.
Wayne Dyer [pre­sen­ta­tion slide]

And I’ve always enjoyed this quote from Wayne Dyer. And I think as we move into a more chal­leng­ing and ephemer­al and volatile world of truth, being less hung up about being right and more aware of the need to be kind. Thank you very much.


Help Support Open Transcripts

If you found this useful or interesting, please consider supporting the project monthly at Patreon or once via Square Cash, or even just sharing the link. Thanks.