Alternative Editorial: Don't Look For Hope, Look For Action

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By Indra Adnan, Co-initiator AUK

Last week I gave a talk at the Warwick Congress, to a group of students bridging the disciplines of Politics, Economics, Finance and Law.

Their annual gathering was focused on the 4th Industrial Revolution and the title of my participatory presentation was Can Democracy Survive the Age of Artificial Intelligence? (London Futurists will recognise this, as I gave a similar talk there in 2018.)

It was a properly stretching afternoon, engaging with an audience of young global citizens – energised by the challenges facing us today. Unlike so many political spaces I’ve experienced, the questions were inquiries rather than debates, leading rapidly into the opening, not closing of doors. As I began to describe in last week’s editorial, there is an appetite for seeing clearly and taking responsibility in ReGen A.

One of the propositions I put to them was that the threat of overwhelm from social media and artificial intelligence was nothing new. Not only have we been shaped by prevailing narratives – aka advertising, propaganda, norms – for all of our lives, but a large amount of global government spending is invested in it (check out global soft power budgets). Neurologists will explain that our brains are designed to learn through paying attention – serial, temporary trances – and that we have long been in an attention economy.  

Knowing this, I invited them to consider what gets their attention. According to Joe Griffiths and Ivan Tyrell, founders of the Human Givens School of Psychotherapy, our survival mechanisms are constantly sweeping the environment for ways to get our emotional needs met. When we can get them met in a balanced way, we are capable of thriving. Which of these needs – status, achievement, meaning, purpose, connectivity, intimacy, privacy, autonomy, attention, security -  drives you? And which of them are not getting met in the course of your daily life?

Because it is this knowledge that advertisers (or any active manipulators) want from you, so that they know how to design their ads, to get you to buy stuff.

Spending a few minutes talking to each other brought them back into the room in a very different way. Suddenly they were thinking less about the bigger questions as objective abstractions, more about them as subjective (and intersubjective) realities. How do I survive Artificial Intelligence? Or even better, how do we make this the era of taking back control of our minds?

Taken from this perspective, our discussions about fake news, the dangers of social media, populism, are not so much the signs of our ship going down, as the first signs of the lifeboats. Facebook as the evidence of multiple perspectives, filter bubbles and algorithmic onslaughts. But equally, it’s the scene of the disruption, the hack and the growing counter-culture. Where people can entrance each other and call each other out.

The trouble is, while you are online, you never quite know what the truth is: for that you have to come off-line, getting into some sort of relationship with yourself first. There has to be a way for you to come back to yourself as the source - if not of objective truth, but of felt, intuitive truth. So that you can own the trust that you give to others. Rather than give it by proxy.

Greta Thunberg’s story of this journey for herself - simply told in this interview on Swedish television - was of being instructed as a young child that she should conserve energy and water for the sake of the environment. However, this was by adults who took flights and ate meat – two of the biggest causes of climate crisis. Her inability to process this contradiction sent her into a deep depression, causing her to stop eating and become mute. She was diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome, which she now describes as “seeing things in black and white”.

Through working closely with her parents, she has been able to emerge from her own “prison” by learning how to line up her own words with her actions – that is, coming back into a state of integrity with her world. This meant becoming vegan, stopping flying, never buying new things – so that she could be properly aligned with what needs to be achieved. If she is to have a future.

Her parents have followed her lead: her mother, formerly an international opera star, now rarely performs outside of Sweden and if so, travels by train. They are a formidable team.

One of the insights she offers in the Swedish TV interview is that seeing things in black and white is a blessing, because it makes it easier to achieve that integrity. What she sees, when she looks at most of us, are the constant demands of the social games we feel obliged to play. Our wanting to be loved, admired and feel powerful fatally distracts us from taking the action we need to take.

Like Joe and Ivan from Human Givens, Greta can see how we are designed to get our emotional needs met: but she is asking us to take control of our often slavish relation to our givens, and to prioritise right action.

This won’t be easy to do for a number of reasons. Firstly, you can’t reclaim your mind instantly. It takes commitment to practice: a willingness to let go of the addicted self. We do possess the internal tools to get these needs met ourselves, but we have too little time and space to apply them well. And we walk out each day into a culture that is inimical – constantly seducing us into consumption and competition.

Having said that, people are trying. Whether it’s through the mindfulness movement – from schools to politicians – and innumerable other post-religious, spiritual options . Or from another entry point, through better work-life balance initiatives, such as the shorter-working weeks (4 days or 21 hours) mentioned in this week’s blogs, or the various schemes of basic income. Paradoxically, people are trying to slow down so that they can get a grip and live their lives differently. That gives them the best context for responding to the emergency effectively.

However, it’s difficult to live up to Greta’s call. Because even if you have reclaimed your mind and are ready to move back into integrity with the planet in this moment of emergency, it’s not all that obvious what to do next.

If your goal is environmental, how can small groups of people recycling and giving up meat have much impact on the government’s gross negligence? If your goals are democratic, how can you act in a political system that makes it impossible for any but the dinosaur parties to win seats?

It is exactly these two questions that spurred us on to set up The Alternative UK platform. Having spent ten years talking about what should happen, we stepped into the space to highlight the many things that are happening, albeit in silos for now, around the UK and World levels.

We got into action – with many others - knitting together the networks that are emerging as an eco-system of change. And now we are calling for Citizen Action Networks to give disconnected people, looking for somewhere to take collective action, to sign up. Watch this space. 

For those students before me at Warwick University, my presentation was a provocation. A set of ideas like a dirt track off the main road - which put them in the driving seat. In the media room after the day was over, the questions were informed, penetrating. They were excited to start re-imaging their events and publications.

But I’ve got used to feeling positive and distrusting that. Borrowing Greta’s words, I left with the injunction: don’t look for hope, look for action.