Mar 172013

W Edwards Deming was a clever soul.  Here, you can find out more about what he achieved for the Japanese economy from the 1950s onwards.  And whilst he was a clever American soul, recognition for his total contribution to 20th century manufacturing was not, ultimately, terribly forthcoming from his homeland – at least, not in time to save, from one or other of its periodic slumps, what had become a rather lumbering and wasteful US car industry.

Which is why a tweeted train of thought of mine just finished thus:

Do to Western liberal civilisation what the Japanese car industry did to the US in the 1950s & 1960s. Benchmark democracy into renewal.

So what was I going on about?  What did I mean by this?  Revolution is a dangerous and difficult word.  It connotes all kinds of disruption, violence and bloodshed.  From the French to the Bolsheviks to the coarsely violent recriminatory ends of the Spanish Civil War, the Balkan Conflict and even our experience with Iraq, revolution has no happy memories for history.  At least, for the history they teach us.

Yet I wonder if revolution must always be like that.  We could define revolution in a different way.  Disruptive, yes – it would have to remain so.  But not necessarily unseamless in its implementation.  Let us take, for example, as an example too close to hand, the case of the Cyprus haircut.  Here, under the guise of financial stability – and, presumably, the European Union’s future continuity – we get a banking fraternity prepared to break the solemnest and most primal capitalist assurances in order to maintain its own sectorial integrity.  This is a pretty unhappy development – and is almost certainly a line which, once crossed, will inevitably be crossed again.

Of course, any revolution of the old-style Bolshevik kind would, in a modern world, be almost certainly doomed to failure.  Modern society requires complex specialisms to function, and such complex specialisms would almost certainly not happily function under the kind of coercion a traditional revolution would require.  Too many tenuous threads of communication would break down under the brute force of full-throated change.

And yet, even so, I find myself coming back to 1950s Japan.  Within twenty years of losing a war at the final hands of two nuclear bombs, the Japanese car industry had effected a revolution of its own.  Non-violent, intellectual, process-driven and intelligent – all these things and more as per Deming’s philosophies and mindsets.

A revolution of a disruptive nature which, nevertheless, was not bloody.

So how about we took Deming’s approach and applied it to all those systems and sectors a modern democracy and civilisation requires to function decently?  And how about we involved citizens in this process from beginning to empowering end?  We could design, from the ground upwards, a parallel set of institutions which would, like the design of a Japanese car’s dashboard unit, only ever be included in a new model when entirely ready.  In so doing, and through accessible and inclusive techniques such as crowdsourcing – even where this might necessarily involve only the crowdsourced input of a hierarchy of predisposed specialists – we could avoid the biggest danger of disruptive revolution: the non-collaboration of key workers.

In such a way, key workers and process-owners who had crossed the line – and had effectively become criminals too big to jail (the money-laundering cases which have come to light in important banking communities come to mind here) – would no longer be able to hold a wider society to ransom.  The gradually more expert revolution-engendering structures would one day not only reach but outdo the efficacy of their corrupted compatriots.

At which point substitution could take place.

It might, of course, even be the case that final substitution would not be necessary: the breathing-down-the-neck nature of such competition could automatically lead to better behaviours in these erstwhile miscreants as per standard free-market forces.  But either way, a non-blood-spattered revolution would be engineered; a new democracy would have been benchmarked; another society would have been made.

In a way, 1950s America is pretty analogous to the days we are living: societal dislocation in the recent past; societal dislocation on the horizon.  But out of such dislocation, the observant, ingenious and intelligent Japanese were able to recover a semblance of prior glories.  And recreate, to an astonishing degree, the whole concept they had of their manufacturing industry.

If the Japanese were able – through the thoughts of one perspicacious man – to create a kind of superpower out of tragic catastrophe, why can’t we contemplate – via some of the same concepts – the idea of creating a better democracy out of current desolation?

After all, there will be few of us able to trust liberal evolution any more.

And, after this weekend, there will be no one able to trust any of these socioeconomic crabs which currently hold sway.

Nor any of their sideways movements.

Creatures which – pincer-like – now make and shake our predictable decay.

Mar 112013

No.  Not a medical stat.  Just a thought.  Twitter, for me, is a massive brainstorming environment.  Ideas spark into existence through social acts of exchange.  In fact, good ideas only present themselves when minds interact.  There was nothing more solitary than the first thought in a train; nothing less likely to lead to success.

But a full train itself – now that is a wonder to behold.

A thought just came my way from someone I follow.  It suggested that:

British society is having a nervous breakdown! From riots to expenses, failed journalism to the break up of UK! Something went badly wrong!

I was minded to reply thus:

@ukschizophrenic That is *so* perceptive. In an evermore connected society, it was inevitable it’d happen one day. And it’s happening now.

And that is the truth of it.  Whilst we conserved our relative separatenesses – our judicious distances and personal spaces – what happened to others did affect us, but not definitively.  Of course, the greater life events – birth, death, marriage, coming-of-age – could still bring a tear or two to one’s eyes, but such tears were not permanent nor affected us so profoundly.

In a hyper-connected world, however, every twitch of those people we are most tightly connected to, like a spider’s web which places us at the centre of every single destiny, leads us to react and respond practically every waking minute of our lives.  We are forever jerked awake from otherwise necessary reverie – jerking like puppets on an unending string of circumstances.  No wonder we do not have the time to relax or disconnect productively.  No wonder our brains are at the very edge of safe existence.

This isn’t only nervous breakdown Britain; there are other societies, I am sure, which find themselves living the same.  But Britain is the society I know best, and the society I currently experience.  And my experience seems to indicate that to share the highs and lows of so many barely touched-on individuals is to place our mental wellbeing in the hands of an amoral ether – to such an extent, in fact, that we can no longer protect ourselves from its wiles.

Via our increasing levels of interconnectedness, we more and more form part of a common brain.  And that brain we form a part of is getting to the point where it quite naturally chooses to sacrifice the occasional neurone.  Yes.  That is what it has come to.  We are little more than neurones in a wider scheme of things.  Virtual ants scrabbling to scale the dry riverbank before the monsoon rains flood our path.

What does it matter if some of us fall by the wayside, if a greater good might thus be served?

It’s enough to drive anyone out of their mind.

The thought that our ancient and socialising instinct to reach out and connect has become so very intimate, unprotected, permanent and potentially noxious that it actually damages our ability to live safe and healthy lives.

A strange thing is happening to this thing we call humanity.

A weird thing is happening to life.

How curiously we are managing to pervert the beauty of human interaction.

And in its wake, how sadly we seem to be engineering an illness of sorts – an illness we still do not fully comprehend but which may, in the rather near future, have profound and unrecognised consequences for much more than those neurones of current misfortune.

Feb 252013

I could start this post by saying:

Ever since I stumbled across some feminist writings on how history was male …

but in reality the spark which brought me to my senses was Michael Jackson’s double album HIStory”.  Bought whilst I still lived in Spain, much treasured too, it was the first time I understood the inconvenient truth behind the word itself.  History – literally – belonged to men.  And women were, more often than not, being written out of the picture.

Today I am minded by this tweet which came my way this morning to write about another possible example of unspoken oppression:

analytical or intuitive mind – one is not better than the other, they each have a different role to play #cipdlrn

To which I responded in this way:

@RapidBI Isn’t an intuitive mind simply an analytical one whose processes we don’t fully perceive?

And, later, in this:

@RapidBI Perhaps we call s’thing analytical when we’re able to share it with others. If not possible to share, the intuition label kicks in.

Traditionally, of course, the analytical mind has been considered male.  Or, perhaps, we should say that’s a certain kind of analytical mind.  It seems to me – intuitively, of course! – that when people talk of “feminine intuition”, they are conflating their understanding of what they easily understand with an idea of how people should (be obliged to) think.

If oppression of the HIStorical kind I mention above is repeating itself with respect to the intuitive mind, I would suspect it has far more to do with fearing the power of an unknown process than any objective assessment of its true nature.  That is to say, much safer to argue the process is unknowable than face the consequences of knowing it all too well.

For, in such circumstances, it’s easier to discard your female brain’s thought processes as non-analytical, simply and entirely because you don’t share its basic assumptions.  It’s rather more difficult to take onboard the idea that perhaps intuition – as we (continue to refuse to) comprehend and define it – is a powerful set of analytical tools which require far greater powers of observation to properly perceive and exert.

It may even be that the kind of men who have described and handed down the history of human intellect have been unable to acquire or manage the skillset which intuition encompasses.  And so, in this way, this inability to acquire something of undoubted importance has led to their desire, instead, to vigorously dismiss it – to undervalue its inherent power and capability and to present it as some mysterious and almost empty-headed process.

A potential HIStory of oppression, indeed.

Mar 152012

In itself, to call Reading, Writing and Arithmetic the Three Rs says it all.  But I shan’t go there.

On and off, I’ve trained people in foreign languages for about twenty years now.  Learning to communicate using the code we call language is a highly emotional activity.  Many, if not most, teachers and trainers are aware of this.  You have to perform when you learn a language, every minute of your learning path.  You can’t hide at the back of the class and then go away to the library and mug up on what you’ve not done.

Doing in languages means precisely that.

And whilst teachers and trainers are fully aware of this reality, many politicians it would seem are not.

One example.  The best language course I ever taught was together with a young American woman called Laurie.  We invented the course framework and content ourselves – well, mainly she did.  She was – still is – the product of the very best of American educational culture as well as being a highly intelligent woman.

The course in question taught Spanish-speaking students at a car components factory to make oral presentations in English.  We grouped them according to their interests – that is to say, the internal motivation which made them want to do presentations – rather than in terms of their levels.  Thus it was we had students ranging from pre-intermediate level to advanced all in one class.  The basic thesis and thrust of the course was that your ability to perform in a language depended just as much, if not more, on how you had prepared the activity beforehand as on the theoretical, grammatical and content-based definition of your current state of knowledge.

Which is to say, your apparent ability to perform in a foreign language could be just as easily affected by how well you used what you already knew.  It wasn’t just a question of acquiring more information but – also, perhaps more importantly – being given the tools to communicate better with what you already had.

The result of this course?  The pre-intermediate student gave a far superior oral presentation to the advanced student – and to such an extent that the advanced student was happy to recognise he’d been out-gunned on all sides by his “less able” colleague.

What did Laurie and her American background serve to teach us all so valuably then?  That knowing how to think and brainstorm in a foreign-language context – and therefore organise and structure one’s thoughts – was key for those students who’d reached a glass ceiling beyond which any amount of further learning seemed incapable of reaching.

The experience of the course showed us – very simply – that it’s not what you know but how you use it.  After all, when you make a phonecall in your own language, don’t you prepare the call first?  Name, number, what you want to achieve, possible questions from the client/supplier, when you’d like to call again/when you can be called?  So if you choose to do it in your own language, why not in the language of others?

Dear professional politicos and Ofsted junkies: before you get on your hobby horses of broken and braking literacy, consider very carefully the extralinguistic skills which both leisure and business might require of us all – and which could liberate us some way towards using and enjoying far better what we already know and command.

Try and trust our students a little better – they’re far more knowledgeable about many things than we sometimes believe.  They don’t need to know more – they need to think and brainstorm better.

Teach them the latter – and everything they are already aware of will fit into place.

Dec 292011

I’ve always tried to explore ideas on these pages.  Some people have cared to follow such trains of thought – many others have simply ignored them.  As Paul currently says over at Never Trust a Hippy:

[…] I write this mainly to develop my own thinking – I don’t know what I think until I read what I’ve written. It’s a scratchpad – not a collection of short articles intended for an audience.

I think that probably fairly sums up what I am doing here.  It certainly explains how I feel sufficiently motivated enough to continue exploring.

Today I wrote a piece on Ed Miliband’s future.  Plenty of retweets on Twitter resulted – it has been easily the most read of all my posts today.  Most read doesn’t of course mean best written.  But whether well written or not, the intention was to brainstorm a position few people care to sustain right now: that out of Ed Miliband’s leadership something good could still be achieved.  In fact, as Eoin points out over at the Green Benches blog, those who are most against his leadership are most likely to subscribe in some way or another to the agenda which brought us finally to the hole we find ourselves in at this moment in time.

And so it is that I ask myself: what do we really want from our politics?  Do we want a preformed discussion on opposingly monolithic sides along the lines that Eoin describes?  This kind of thing, for example:

Peter Mandleson has not been quiet either. Well actually strike that, he’s been very quiet. But, that’s because he now has people to do his work for him. Through his ‘Policy Exchange’ vehicle he has commissioned several pieces that are about as predictable as is humanly possible from the uber-Blairite. I won’t give his pieces any more air time than they deserve but suffice to say if you get a chance, wander over to their site and view the ideas of Giles, Radice, Byrne, McClymont and others. The point I am making is that powerful forces are working consistently against the Ed Miliband undermining the direction he wishes to take the party and it’s all happening under your very noses.

Or do we want a real, open and free-minded investigation of the real alternatives to the neoliberalism that few politicians out there currently seem to know how to sidestep?  A neoliberalism which only promises increasing concentrations of income on the one wealthy hand as – on the other absolutely disempowered rest – it savagely and unremittingly expands a poverty of both resources and wider life experience.

To sum up in two ideas then: 

  1. Do we want our politics to consist of major players stepping beyond the intellectual minimum as they brainstorm society’s development in all sincerity and in all good faith?
  2. Or, alternatively, do we expect and hope for them to do little more than brainwash the public as they have done to date – and as they themselves presumably intend to continue doing so in the future?

I know which I prefer – as the history of these pages will surely indicate.  Does Ed Miliband promise historically to deliver the virtues of the first instead of settle – like all his contemporaries – for the sadnesses of the second?  That, I do have to admit, I really don’t know.  But then neither can you know the reverse.

And if people despair right now of those who wish to support Miliband as leader of a still nascent Labour Party, I tell you I despair a thousand times more of any proposed alternatives.

Especially where their proponents believe the future lies in paying the rich more in order to improve the economy of everyone whilst, at the same time, choosing self-interestedly to line up the hoary old arguments which say the poor must be paid less in order to convince them to get off their lazy and miserable backsides.

I spoke in a previous post of achieving a “moral democracy”.  Someone on Twitter picked this up as an unhappy turn of phrase.  It was.  But – really – what I was looking for was an alternative to “social democracy”; that is to say, something which wasn’t tainted by historically negative connotations.  Something which spoke of putting people before numbers and reminded us of the importance of doing a humane good – above all.

A politics, that is, which chose to explore – rather than impose – a better future for everyone.

Brainstorming versus brainwashing – that’s the crossroads we currently stand at.

So where do you stand?

And which direction do you want us to take?