Epic change: Foucault on ‘today’ as a moment of vision

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We are living though remarkable times. Digital technologies are disrupting societies around the world, while our economies putter fitfully in and out of recession, and climate change sweeps whole suburbs into the sea. What is most remarkable about these times is how few people attend to their changing nature. Many people invest time and energy in distracting or shielding themselves from the changes that define the present. Even those who engage the present tend to treat it selectively, singling out those aspects of the historical moment that are relevant to their occupation and interests and zeroing in on them while ignoring the rest.

It’s time that we all took stock of the amazing times we live in. Because what we need today, more than anything else, are leaders – people that are capable of synthesising the chaos of the present, engaging with these changes and steering us through them. We need circuit-breakers, disruptors, people who look for opportunities in a crisis – people with the resilience to confront the present as a moment of crisis, the agility to mobilize multiple resources to deal with it, and the vision to mark new paths into the future. Today, our challenges are global in scope, yet so are our opportunities. The breakthrough initiatives that will define the coming decades will connect challenges and opportunities in unforeseen ways, putting us on paths towards goals that previous generations didn’t know existed. The great leaders of history have always been disruptive thinkers.

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Five books that shaped my thinking

My thoughts are shaped more by life than books. The world is a book that we read implicitly. If the problems of the world do not engage us and inspire a response, a book will do nothing for us.

The following books have played an important role in guiding my work in the past decade. I have read many good books in this time, but these five stand out. The common factor is that they inspired me to break with ideas that I had become comfortable with and seek out new lines of inquiry. As Thoreau said: ‘A truly good book teaches me better than to read it. I must soon lay it down, and commence living on its hint. What I began by reading, I must finish by acting’.

1. Empire by Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri (Harvard University Press, 2001)

I read Empire in 2001, in the final year of my doctoral research. I was writing on the relationship between Martin Heidegger and Michel Foucault, two of the most important European thinkers of the 20th century (some years later I published a book on this topic, Foucault’s Heidegger). Meanwhile, I was following the progress of the anti-globalization protests that erupted about the world after the Battle in Seattle in November 1999, participating where I could. Empire provided me with a theoretical perspective on these events that shaped my research output between 2002 and 2008 and fed directly into the script for Coalition of the Willing.

Hardt and Negri’s argument in Empire is that neo-liberal economic globalization should not be understood as a kind of imperialism (where a hegemonic power invades other countries to capture their resources), but a new form of empire that tolerates no external limit and seeks to incorporate all life within its order. This empire employs the internet to organize the global multitude into a productive force; yet as it does so, it enables the multitude to form swarm-like pockets of resistance that coalesce across borders to challenge the status quo. Hardt and Negri propose that the multitude will eventually realize its collective power and establish a new political order based in the productivity of the commons. [Read more…]

Smart data: towards a social change enlightenment

Three hundred years ago, the spread of science and liberal revolution inspired thinkers to claim that society was on the brink of an enlightened era. Today, as new data-driven technologies exponentially increase our ability to understand social problems, new strategies engaging the heart and the head boost the impact of social change programs, and tested techniques for evaluating impact reduce the cost of programs and ensure that funding flows in the right directions, there is reason to believe that we are nearing a new socio-technical threshold.

As David Bornstein claims, we are riding the verge of a social change enlightenment.

We can see it in the way that we are tackling social problems. For decades, social reformers labored under a vision of human beings as self-maximizing rational agents, a vision developed in the first enlightenment and perpetuated in the field of economics. Today, as Bornstein claims, we’re seeing the death of ‘homo economicus’. New research in neuroscience and behavioral psychology is showing that we’re not as rational as we thought. We certainly don’t respond rationally to social problems. Today’s generation of changemakers are taking this lesson to heart. Successful social change programs are targeting the heart as well as the head, effecting change by appealing to ‘non-rational’ factors such as emotion, group identity, and relationships. [Read more…]

The family history of Facebook: how social media will change the world


I’m fascinated by social media. My Gen X friends can’t understand it. Most of them are too busy struggling with families and careers to spend time glued to Facebook and Twitter. For them, social media is a time suck, at best, at worst a gross invasion of privacy. When I tell my friends that I’m teaching on social media, I get one of two reactions. Either they leer conspiratorially, as if to say: ‘Lucrative. Smart!’, or they smile sympathetically, as if say: ‘It must be tough being a philosopher, having to root around for trendy topics to keep people interested’.

Love them as I do, my Gen X friends don’t understand social media at all. They don’t understand social media, so they don’t understand what social media is doing to us in this moment in history. They don’t understand what social media is doing to us, so they don’t understand the historical importance of social media. They don’t understand the historical importance of social media, so they don’t understand why I am obsessed with the medium itself.

It is time that I laid my cards on the table. I am a social philosopher. I am interested in social and cultural change. I believe that social media is the catalyst for cultural change in the world today. As such, it is probably more important than anything else you could care to mention. [Read more…]

Foucault and social media: I tweet, therefore I become

This is the second instalment in a three-part series. Part one discusses how the open commons ideal of social media creates a ‘virtual Panopticon’ effect that impacts on the psychology of users. I argue, building on Michel Foucault’s account of the Panopticon:

There is a self-reflexive structure to sharing content on Facebook or Twitter. Just as actors on stage know that they are being watched by the audience and tailor their behaviour to find the best effect, effective use of social media implies selecting and framing content with a view to pleasing and/or impressing a certain crowd. We may not intend to do this but it is essential to doing it well. Unless we are sharing anonymously (and the radical end of internet culture, Anonymous, favours anonymity), all the content we share is tagged with an existential marker:

‘I sent this – it is part of my work. You shall know me by my works’.

Part two continues the Foucaultian interrogation of social media looking at Foucault’s concept of subjectivation. I argue for a playful approach to life in the virtual Panopticon. Social media shapes us, so why shouldn’t we engage this process in a creative way? Indeed, we can and do use social media as a vehicle for creative self-development.

‘Never stop sculpting your own statue’, the ancient philosopher Plotinus said. Latter-day Foucaultians are recovering this teaching in an age of social media. We are crafting our selves online in the engagement with crowds.

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Peggy Orenstein came late to Twitter. Orenstein was sceptical at first when her publisher suggested she use Twitter to promote her book, Cinderella Ate My Daughter. She wasn’t fond of the gossip and celebrity culture and the trivial nature of much of what passed as content in the Twittersphere. Orenstein knew, however, that a ready tribe of tweeps is an essential part of the contemporary writer’s guerilla marketing toolkit. She succumbed to pressure and signed up.

Orenstein approached her Twitter experiment with the studious detachment of the field anthropologist. I imagine this is why she noticed how Twitter was changing her.

Tweeting, it turned out, was more fun than she had expected. It was addictive. In an article on her experience published in the New York Times, ‘I Tweet, Therefore I Am’, Orenstein describes how using Twitter redefined her experience of life and self. There was nothing covert or oppressive about this transformation. Orenstein was a willing participant in her own subjectivation.

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Flow and the 21st century canyon

James Martin, founder of the 21st Century School at Oxford University and author of The Meaning of the Twenty First Century (2006), has a powerful analogy for thinking about our situation today. We are like a group of canoeists paddling down a broad, deep river. For a long time, the current has been steady and slow. We have relaxed into the ride, hypnotized by the flow and the canopy of blue overhead. Suddenly the vessel quakes. We look up and see a bottleneck canyon ahead. The mighty river is being forced through the canyon. When a river runs through a canyon, things change quickly. The water turns to rapids – indeed it is already churning into foam about us.

No one knows how bad these rapids will become. We don’t know if we can make it through the canyon. Still there is only one way ahead. Into the rapids we go.

When the river of life gets rough, there is only one thing to do. Put on that helmet, strap on that life-preserver. It is time to get ready for change.

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This is an excerpt from my book Life Changing: A Philosophical Guide. Life Changing is available in Kindle and ebook versions. Paperbacks will be available on Amazon soon.

Check out the UK-based Philosophical Foundation, where I am June’s guest blogger.

Future-casting: from memory to destiny

Luke Skywalker stood on the dune at the edge of his uncle’s compound and gazed wistfully at the twin moons of Tatooine. If only the future looked as grand as those giant orbs. Luke had been raised by his aunt and uncle, who were moisture farmers on the remote desert planet. When Luke looked into the future, he saw nothing but boredom and toil. Luke’s heart brimmed over with longing for adventure. But life hadn’t given him any resources that might enable him to realize his dreams. Luke’s dreams remained precisely that – dreams. He was destined to work the harvesting systems on his uncle’s farm for the rest of his days. His excitements would be limited to racing his landspeeder through the desert canyons and haggling with the Jawas for droids.

All this changed the day that Luke stumbled upon a hologram of a beautiful princess calling for help. He sought the assistance of a desert hermit, Ben Kenobi, who turned out to be a Jedi Knight, practically living on his back doorstep. Soon Luke was consorting with pirates, hot-dogging through the stars and fighting space battles with Imperial forces. All the while, his knowledge and experience was rapidly increasing.

Luke was too modest to admit it, but his sense of destiny was expanding at an equal rate.

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Ready for change? Your time starts now


Life Changing is a hands-on guide to harnessing the power of change. Using philosophical examples, it shows you how to cultivate the resilience, agility and vision to embrace change and make it an adventure.

The book includes practical exercises that enable you to apply the ideas in familiar contexts. By doing the exercises, you learn how to think philosophically about change and unleash its life-changing possibilities.

Be creative with change. Don’t just ride it out — use it.

Life Changing: A Philosophical Guide is available on Amazon, Kobo, and iTunes.

Check out the introduction to Life Changing on the P2P Foundation wiki.

Life Changing marks the end of a personal journey. For the past fifteen years, I have been studying, teaching, and applying transformative philosophy in my own life, first as a doctoral student at the University of Sydney, then as a lecturer at the Universities of Sydney and New South Wales, and recently in my Philosophy for Change course, which I’ve run at the Centre for Continuing Education, University of Sydney. My guiding intuition has been that it is possible to distil from philosophical ideas a kernel of practical wisdom, which can be communicated through simple exercises that students can apply to their lives.

This intuition is core to Life Changing. The book is structured about five practical exercises. Each incorporates a life-changing insight. The exercises show you how to muster the courage to change; how to control yourself like a Stoic philosopher; how to cultivate your Nietzschean will to power; and how to use Spinoza’s philosophy to supercharge your social life. They show you how to take adventure from the heart of crisis and fulfilment from the struggle with adversity. [Read more…]

Learning how to love

‘One must learn how to love. — This is what happens to us in music: First one has to learn to hear a figure and melody at all, to detect and distinguish it, to isolate it and delimit it as a separate life. Then it requires some exertion and good will to tolerate it in spite of its strangeness, to be patient with its appearances and expression, and kindhearted about its oddity. Finally, there comes a moment when we are used to it, when we sense that we should miss it if it were missing; and now it continues to compel and enchant us relentlessly until we have become its humble and enraptured lovers who desire nothing better from the world than it and only it.

But that is what happens to us not only in music. That is how we have learned to love all things that we now love. In the end we are always rewarded for our good will, our patience, fairmindedness, and gentleness with what is strange; gradually, it sheds its veil and turns out to be a new and indescribable beauty. That is its thanks for our hospitality. Even those who love themselves will have learned it in this way; for there is no other way. Love, too, has to be learned’.

Nietzsche, The Joyful Wisdom (also trans. The Gay Science), aphorism 334.

Socrates as entrepreneur: philosophy as a tool of war

CHAPTER FOUR: PHILOSOPHY AS A TOOL OF WAR

But why are we talking about Socrates? If you are reading this blog, you are probably interested in practical wisdom to help you deal with contemporary crises and challenges. What could possibly be relevant in the story of a philosopher who died 2400 years ago? Isn’t this perpetuating the bad habit of looking to the teachings of long-dead white men for answers in a young, multi-ethnic, post-feminist world? Worse, it seems to be celebrating that hoary old intellectual chestnut, ‘reason’ – and reason has earned itself a bad reputation in recent years, deservedly so. The twentieth century saw reason applied to abominable ends: the rational extermination of millions of people in death camps; the establishment of the technocratic state, which claimed the right to socially engineer its populace in the name of rational gain; the ascendency of neo-liberal economic management, which posits every individual as a rational, value-maximizing agent (and too bad for you if you don’t fit the paradigm); the invention of the atomic bomb, turning war into Mutually Assured Destruction and international relations into game theory.

Why should we think about Socrates in the middle of cleaning up the mess that has been made by his descendants? Sure, Socrates is interesting – as a relic. But here in the second decade of the twenty first century, we have more important things to do than reflect on things that happened in the long-distant past.

I hear these kinds of views from people all the time. I agree with the criticisms to a large extent. Still, I think that, in this particular case, there is good reason for us to delve into the story of a dead white philosopher. The story of Socrates has immense value today, especially for those people concerned to address the challenges of the present and our transition into a sustainable future. [Read more…]