An open letter to Geoff Mulgan and Matthew Taylor

Dear Geoff and Matthew,

Let me begin by quoting the introduction to Italo Calvino: Letters 1941-1985:

[Calvino] understood that much of the world we inhabit is made up of signs, and that signs may speak more eloquently than facts. Was he born in San Remo, in Liguria? No, he was born in Santiago de Las Vegas, in Cuba, but since “an exotic birth-place on its own is not informative of anything,” he allowed the phrase “born in San Remo” to appear repeatedly in biographical notes about him. Unlike the truth, he suggested, this falsehood said something about who he was as a writer, about his “creative world”, “the landscape and environment that…shaped his life”.

(Wood, M. 2014, Italo Calvino: Letters 1941-1985, Penguin, UK)

When I read this I found there to be a curious tension: that a lie could say more in the way of truth about the world and experience of a writer, than the fact-truth would. This is puzzling and dangerous to ponder. It speaks to the relativism of “truth” that plagues interpretations of history; of people, their actions and motives; and the benefit or malleability of hindsight: of what we know to be true through evidence, that is yet confounded in experience.

For me, the matter of Calvino’s birth-place can be instructive in reflecting on finding nascent truths in ostensive lies: for example, on each occasion of quite fantastic rhetorical falsity, the spurious statements that roll out of Donald Trump’s mouth reveal a truth that we are just beginning to grasp amidst the murky pond water of lies. This truth is as follows: humanity has pursued knowledge and evidence of phenomena with laudable aims to discover, educate, improve, and it is safe to say that we know so much, about so much, and have gained so much as a result; yet what we appear to know increasingly little about is our (collective) selves and the man made systems and structures we operate in – structures and systems that consistently eschew what we know in the pursuit of power, profit, or merely the perpetuation of the status quo. Never mind that we know that withdrawal from the EU will not immediately free up £350m a week for Britain to pump into the NHS, because a statement to the contrary (no matter how false) not only persists as the foundation of a political campaign, but survives an equally persistent debunking by the people who know this to be a lie. In the words of Calvino, lovingly co-opted, this lie tells us more about Britain’s “creative world…it’s landscape and environment” that shapes our lives. It tells us, to a greater or lesser degree, that:

  • expertise and evidence are sacred only to those who would advocate it and the veracity with which it was generated;
  • that people’s appreciation of this evidence and expertise may be undermined by the reality of their day-to-day, lived experience; or that the behavioural economics of Kahneman and Tversky wins out over classical economics, whereby what is ‘fair’ is preferable to what is economically ‘logical’;
  • that those in power, who would lead our country’s development, in principle on behalf of the entire nation, have a similar disregard for evidence and expertise – whether for reasons of convenience or genuine disbelief;
  • that there are no consequences or checks and balances for abusing expertise and evidence (and by extension for the impacts thereof), save for loss of power or political defeat: precariously judged and executed by the will of the very people being duped, or by predatory colleagues playing in the same serpent’s sandpit;
  • that, perhaps, the truth of evidence and expertise is like Santiago de Las Vegas is for Calvino: facts that on their own are “not informative of anything.”

Troubling. Particularly this last. So if it isn’t about evidence, facts, truth and expertise (on their own), what is it about? What is it that we should be paying attention to? I would propose we pay attention to what appears to be ‘working’. What is successful, amidst the crumbling ivory towers. What is powerful in the landscape and environment of our creative world. The Lie.

But The Lie isn’t the thing: it is but another form of information or evidence (loosely so termed) finding its adversary in what we might (now equally loosely) term the truth. The Lie is a verb. It is a doing; it has a movement, a method, it is mobilised for impact.

Another quote:

Kitsch causes two tears to flow in quick succession. The first tear says: How nice to see children running on the grass! The second tear says: How nice to be moved, together with all mankind, by children running on the grass! It is the second tear that makes kitsch kitsch.

(Kundera, M. 2000, The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Faber & Faber, UK)

Is ‘kitsch’ a lie?…Or is it a construct of intentional or unintentional shared narrative? Something ‘abstracted up’ from its origins, its essence, that gains power by virtue of its collectivity, and generalisable experience? Consider the way in which people share their experiences of the world, through Facebook and it’s personal narrative shop window; or Twitter and the hashtag that both collects and simultaneously distorts individual experience and worldviews. Consider the power these platforms wield in making kitsch of one’s most personal moments. But also consider the potential of these same platforms, where this is acknowledged; where exploitation for political or profitable ends is undermined.

Kitsch is the conformity to an essentialised, generalised view of something that makes no room for individuality, authenticity, contradictions and the messiness of (modern) life; it is sentimental, in the way that one remembers a period of their life with rose tinted glasses, excluding all the imperfections that might blemish the memory. Extrapolate this to ideas, ideology and the socio-economic experience of citizens across a diverse society, and it is neither difficult to see how people’s experience of the world (with its imperfections) rails against the image set forth by ‘experts’ and the political elite (read: your life has never been better; you have never been so well off; wellbeing is at an all time high; aptly highlighted by Steven Pinker at the RSA recently), nor is it difficult to account for counter-narratives that collect up these imperfections and paint a similarly reductive image, essentialising and ‘sentimentalising’ a lost way of being and living.

For me, it is about the how and not the what of collective intelligence. Furthermore, I would like to make the case for embracing ignorance, in the best traditions of scientific scepticism. I believe we need to acknowledge the way kitsch (even “collective ignorance”) works on us, so as to take the first steps towards understanding and perhaps controlling it – and using collective narratives as developmental rather than divisive, or a handbrake on the status quo. This is what i envisage the coffee house and similarly “collective intelligence” initiatives can achieve, so long as they remain linked to the communities they serve and we/they are attentive to our own ‘ignorance’…

Evidence and truth do not take their own course, unimpeded, into the collective consciousnessof  society. They need to be helped along the way, mobilised through methods with one foot in wisdom and the other an X-ray machine that illuminates the calcified power structures that coalesce around them. They need to face the people they serve, describe, or purport to understand; and they need to meet these people in their creative worlds, their landscapes, their environments. San Remo is, for me, a reminder of this.

I have written to you in the hope that I might connect some disparate meandering thoughts with what I have encountered in aspects of both of your work. The liquid networks of the coffee house; a coral reef of innovation that may be mobilised for a great good through a considered programme of collective intelligence – finding its hotbed in the coffee house, giving instruction, inspiration and combined, I hope, wisdom.

Today I carry in my wallet a scrap of paper with the words Born in San Remo – a scrap that I intend to carry with me to serve as a reminder and pause for thought about what I think I know, and what I probably do not. Perhaps we should all, to some degree, be born in San Remo.

With best wishes,

Will Wade FRSA
Independent Overthinker