The value of the self: three views on privacy in the digital age (part 1)

Civilization is the progress toward a society of privacy. The savage’s whole existence is public, ruled by the laws of his tribe. Civilization is the process of setting man free from men. (Ayn Rand)

In this essay I want to consider three interconnected ways in which we can view privacy: its meaning in organic society; its potential monetisation in a digital era; and the existential threat that the digital state poses to the potentialities of individual value and the concomitant protection of privacy. Privacy rests on the idea of the sanctity of the individual person, whose roots lie in a transcendent concept of human nature, one shared by both religious persons and humanists. However, privacy in the age of the local, determined by historic place and blood relations, takes on a different complexion in a globalised digital age. The concept of privacy is necessarily complex; however, it can be usefully thought of as comprising three distinct but interrelated aspects: the protection of intimacy, the concealment of transgression, and the nurturing of identity. These all have implications in the dialectic of the individual self and the collective and the boundary between them, which is where the notion of privacy is located and finds its meaning.

The meaning of privacy in organic society

Before exposing the concept of privacy to the glare of our increasingly digitised society and economy, it is necessary, and certainly useful, to explore its meaning in simpler, largely unmediated social forms, constituted by physical proximity, shared space, kinship, local knowledge and a predominance of direct address, reading and writing (as simpler forms of mediation). I have called this organic society, although with a different meaning to Durkheim’s use of the term, by which he denoted societies marked by a high degree of division of labour. In the sense I am using it, it does not necessarily imply an earlier stage of development – although it can also be, and often is, that – but a state that continues to coexist, albeit to a diminished degree, with the highly mediated and networked digital culture that we are living in.

Regarding the basis of privacy, philosophers tend to make a distinction between autonomy and freedom. Autonomy is the self as distinct from others, capable of taking decisions. Freedom is either the self freed from constraints on making decisions or the environment in which meaningful decisions can be made. Privacy on that basis can be considered a decision by the autonomous individual about where the boundary between the legitimate realm of the individual life and the life of the public expectation lies. However, like freedom itself, privacy is not a matter of individual diktat, but a negotiated settlement; that is, the decision needs to be mindful of the public sphere.

The public discourse on the self, only on the foundation of which can claims about the meaning and limits of privacy be legitimised, is constituted in the received narratives of a specific culture, yet there is a surprising universality to the mythological, poetic and literary analogues of the self in such cultural narratives: the sacred garden of the Hesperides wherein the gods derived their immortality; the temple of Solomon, with its holy place and holy of holies, of which Jesus said (referring to himself) “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up” (John 2:19); the Secret Garden of Francis Hodgson Burnett’s imagination, a metaphor for the lost innocence and happiness of childhood. In many such depictions an inner sacred self is separated from a profane outside. In the story of the garden of Eden, which is foundational to the civilisations of the West and the Middle East, the self harbours not only the intimacy of communion with God, but also the guilt of sin, for which the self is cast out into the profane world.

These mythopoeic depictions of the self are pertinent to the idea of privacy, for how can one approach the idea of privacy, which exists solely at a psychological and deontological level, unless it is through a historiography of narratives, both sacred and secular. The genesis of privacy is in the self and sense of identity and is projected out into the surrounding sphere of possession, so that it encompasses all (and everyone) that one ‘touches’ that are considered belonging to oneself and creating the larger context of the value of the self. It is more than that identity, though; it is the protection of that self and its possessions from jealousy, avarice, theft and murder, both literal and symbolic. For this reason, the narratives of the self depict a protective boundary – a wall or supernatural deity, such as the Hesperides or the Cherubim – between the self and a hostile ‘outside’. Indeed, this narrative becomes tangible in our decision to live our lives behind walls, the walls of our homes, that extends the very meaning of privacy.

What is it that privacy protects? It is not essentially the differentiated self, even thought it is also that, for the individuated self is difficult to separate from that which it perceives and dwells among. It is most pertinently the realm of intimacy with those with whom we share our relative isolation. All of us have lives in which we want to preserve the most precious and sacred things from the public gaze. What constitutes the sacred will be determined by culture to some extent, though in the end each person makes a determination of what that actually is. For many people and cultures it centres on the sexual act, which is carried out beyond the prying eyes of the world. Family life, as a place of intimacy, also largely takes place beyond the gaze of the world. In the family we can be most ourselves without fear of public judgement. The most intimate and sacred place, though, is our own mind; our thoughts, memories and deepest held beliefs are often not on display to the world; they are masked by the face we show to the world, what Jung termed our persona.

Ironically, the concept of intimacy has a strong relationship to the concepts of disgust and shame. There are areas of our lives – bodily functions spring to mind – that we would rather people not know about, and certainly not witness, though they are perfectly natural and about which we might not ourselves feel disgust to the extent that we imagine other people might do so. That association extends to family life. In the family there are many instances of bad behaviour, by adults as well as children that we may feel ashamed of and wish to remain private, hidden from the judgmental eyes of public view. The same is true of our thought processes; we entertain thoughts which we would not like to be known to others, even those closest to us. Disgust and shame, and their association with intimacy, tell an important truth about human life: that the sacred is contiguous with the profane, not merely the opposite of it.

Beyond disgust and shame, transgression must not be hidden merely for the sake of propriety, but from the judgment of social norms and the law. For reasons that are difficult to fathom, transgression and the sacred are closely associated. This association is indicated in the myths of every culture, most prominently for us, of course, in the myth of Adam and Eve, wherein their transgression was followed by knowledge ‘of good and evil’, shame and the concealment of their nakedness and concealment from divine sight. They withdrew from God, so to speak, into the realm of their own privacy. A cynical reading of the tension between the sacred and transgression would be that religions set up impossible ideals, effectively turning everyone into hypocrites, pace Augustine’s prayer, “Lord, make me chaste, but not yet”. Yet secularists are no less committed to preserving their privacy and the concealment of their moral transgressions.

The relationship between transgression and privacy is more complex than the moral tales derived from biblical or other sources would suggest. Adam and Eve hid themselves, but Milton’s Satan defiantly declared that it was “better to rule in hell than serve in Heaven” and made a virtue of his transgression. We have this expression ‘hiding in plain sight’; many transgressors openly proclaim or display their transgressive behaviour, seemingly attempting to normalise it in the eyes of the public. But a normalised transgression is no longer a transgression and the transgressor craves above all the thrill of transgressing the norms of the society, so must secretly affirm those norms and desire their being continued to be upheld in order to continue secretly, but openly, transgressing them.

Each of us in some way is a transgressor, both metaphysically against a supposed divine order, but more prosaically against the conventional rules of the collective of which we are a part, and we conceal our transgressions in an existential hide and seek in order to avoid punishment. This is not merely an observation of some contingent fact; it is also a claim that such transgression is fundamental to our nature and our true social functioning. For Kant we are ‘the crooked timber of humanity’. We like to believe we are gods and portray ourselves as such to the world, but we also have the demon in us and take refuge behind the walls of our privacy to conceal this fact. Part of our transgressive nature is also our hypocrisy in calling out and exposing the monstrosity in others. In such a way we maintain the social order in which our own transgression is embedded.

I am not quite claiming that transgression is acceptable, nor that the collective does not have a right to punish us for our transgressions. Nevertheless, it is normal to infringe the rules of society from time to time; it is what makes us human. We should not be surprised or indignant, though, if we are found out and punished; ultimately, that is what makes human societies just. Having said that, while it may look as though it is the right and duty of society to punish wrongdoing, there is no absolute moral pivot upon which social order turns. Instead, there is the continual struggle of human societies to solve the problems of continued existence in a fundamentally hostile world and adapt to change. All dramatic breakthroughs, whether in science, culture, politics or in social justice, come from transgression of the established rules. To transgress the moral rules and laws of society is liberating and a source of joy for the individual, and arguably necessary for human sanity. However, the rules exist for a reason –  the common good – and must, therefore, be preserved – paradoxically also for the continued possibility of transgression.

In transgression can be seen a fundamental dialectic at the heart of privacy, between concealment and exposure, between the power of the individual and that of the social collective, between the preservation of rules for the common good and their flouting for the individual benefit. But concealment also confers a power for strategic self-exposure of transgression for the common good, although this is a strategy with considerable risk. Privacy is the realm of the secret, one of life’s currencies that the wise spend with discretion.

Ayn Rand suggests, in the quotation given at the head of this essay, that civilisation is in part the process of moving from societies in which every aspect of our lives is public, to those in which we are granted increased levels of privacy. I think this is open to question, depending on how privacy is defined. In the past, in what I have termed organic society, people undoubtedly lived their lives more publicly and their identities and actions were relatively known and observable; however, the public realm was much smaller than it is now. Outside of immediate family and the immediate vicinity little was known about persons. Communication was limited, slow and largely unmediated. Therefore, one could argue that, by comparison with today, there was a relative contextual privacy. There was a limited state and a correspondingly underdeveloped bureaucratic machinery and, therefore, little requirement to be registered; a person could live their entire lives without being known to the authorities (this was still possible in most countries until about 100 years ago).

As the state and its bureaucratic requirements have grown, and now especially with the development of digital technology, so the concept of privacy has also changed. Where once identity was a matter of visual recognition and reputational transmission, now it is a complex process of substantiation by documentation and a record of accessing the state’s services, increasingly digitised. In organic society privacy meant hiding in some manner, physically placing a barrier or distance between oneself and others. In a world of state intrusion, whether overt or covert, intentionally or incidentally, into the lives of citizens, the meaning of privacy has shifted – and has necessarily had to shift, to forms of resistance such as non-compliance. Moreover, as technological advance has yielded an increasingly digital economy, new layers have been added; privacy has become increasingly commodified, an issue that I want to explore in the second part of this essay.

So, what is the baseline view of privacy, if we strip away all the accoutrements of modern society and the contemporary treatment of this as an ‘issue’? For Wittgenstein it was the experience of an interior monologue, essentially a private language, and “The essential thing [being] … not that each person possesses his own exemplar, but that nobody knows whether other people also have this or something else”.1 Wittgenstein himself hints at the problematic nature of such a private language: “sounds which no one else understands but which I ‘appear to understand’ might be called a ‘private language’”.2 There is, in my estimation, no such thing as a private language, only a shared language; for either we share it and explain the ruminations of our interiority, in which case it is not – or no longer – private, or we keep it private, in which case whether we can speak of language or not is ineffable. We can, though, speak without contradiction, I believe, of a ‘shared experience’, one that comes to us through universal narratives.

While the experience is purely part of our interior world, our subjectivity, we are able to communicate the experiential nature of our reaction through shared language and through shared cultural symbols, which are embodied in the narratives of our cultures. The critical myths are those through which we imbibe our understanding of the value of the self. There is, in fact, no other way to experience the self and to understand the nature of the self than through these narratives. Privacy, essentially then, is the protection of the value of the self established through such cultural narratives. Such protections are already encoded in the allegorical appropriation of existing modes of protection (such as walls and weapons) and then reproduced and reinforced through cultural transmission, adding the value of a received mythologised tradition to such mundane devices.

Notes

  1. Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, note 272.
  2. ibid., note 269

Selected Bibliography

Ludwig Wittgenstein (1958). Philosophical Investigations (translated by G. E. M. Anscombe). Oxford: Basil Blackwell.

Vladimir Propp (1984). Theory and History of Folklore (translated by Ariadna Y. Martin et al). Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Carl Jung (1953). Two Essays on Analytical Psychology. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.

Rod Barnett (2007). Sacred Groves: Sacrifice and the Order of Nature in Ancient Greek Landscapes. Landscape Journal, 26 (2), pp.252-269.

Sir James George Frazer (1925). The Golden Bough: A Study in Magic and Religion. London: MacMillan and Co.

Luigi Luca Cavalli-Sforza & Marcus W. Feldman. (1981). Cultural transmission and evolution: A quantitative approach. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press.

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The role of community in the creation of value: the contribution of Stakeholder Theory

By James Walker

The weakness of traditional business ethics

The raw power of the markets, whether under mercantilism or capitalism, has always tussled with other powerful institutions, be they churches, philanthropic movements or governments, which have attempted to bring another set of values to bear, more human, social and compassionate. Today we talk about business ethics, but this idea, though fine in the abstract, is liable to be itself marketised, in the hierarchical world of corporate life, when the intrinsically spontaneous nature of human communal life is overridden.

Let me share a couple of imaginary workplace scenarios. In the first, a company holds a competition for staff each year in which they are told they must nominate some of their colleagues for a number of awards that have been created to show staff that they are valued. One of the awards is for the employee who best embodies the ethos of the company. The staff resent being forced to nominate colleagues. There is a high turnover of staff which means it is becoming increasingly difficult to build up relationships with each other or know each other on a personal level. Lots of people have had to reapply for their jobs due to the yearly restructuring of departments, and job titles have changed so much that nobody actually knows who does what anymore. The senior management team are insistent that all staff vote and when they don’t, they become angry.

In the second, another company is independently assessed for its ‘green’ values on a yearly basis. These ratings are vital in the sector for attracting new customers. When the auditors come to the company on Monday morning, the workplace has been transformed, much to the shock of the employees. Some ‘locally sourced, fair trade’ coffee has suddenly appeared in the kitchen. Posters appear in the hallway highlighting the importance of switching off computers at the end of the day. Projectors in meeting rooms are switched off. Once the auditing has been done the posters are taken down, the lights go back on, and the ‘locally sourced, fair trade’ coffee is replaced with the more familiar mass produced variety. The company is awarded a gold rating. The bosses are very proud and inform everyone by email.

The above scenarios highlight the kind of problems that arise when staff, who constitute a real community at the heart of every business, and the wider community in which the business thrives, are undervalued. In the first case none of the employees want to vote for a colleague as embodying the ethos of the organisation because they do not believe in the values of the company. These values are deemed duplicitous and the awards feel disingenuous. Senior management feel let down by their staff when there is a poor response and this is made known. In the second case the management are not concerned with living the principles of being a green company or encouraging their employees to do so as a contribution to the wider community. They just want to gain a high ranking so that their customers perceive them to be green. In both cases ethical principles have effectively become subservient to a short-term tactical advantage.

Stakeholder Theory attempts to address these shortcomings in business ethics by recognising the intrinsic communality of human interaction within the business world and incorporating the encouragement of this communality into long-term strategy. I will give a brief overview of Stakeholder Theory and then explain how I am attempting to apply its insights in my own work with large-scale digital literature projects.

An overview of Stakeholder Theory

A stakeholder is anyone with an interest or concern in something, especially a business. Therefore, stakeholders can be individuals, groups or organisations that are affected by the activity of the business. In terms of a traditional business we could define stakeholders as having the following roles or interest:

  • Business owner – concerned about profit and in some cases appeasing shareholders. They are aware of competitors. They are responsible for key decision making.
  • Managers – concerned about salaries and putting in place processes to achieve the owner’s goals.
  • Workers – want job security and good wages.
  • Customers – expect a certain level of service.
  • Suppliers – rely on the success of the business because they need organisations to buy their products.
  • Lenders – need paying on time.
  • Local community – the business could affect them in a variety of ways.

In addition to this we could also classify stakeholders as being internal or external to the organisation.

The key thinker on this subject is R. Edward Freeman of the Darden School of Business at the University of Virginia. He argues: “You can’t look at any one stakeholder in isolation. Their interest has to go together and the job of a manager is to figure out how the interests of customers, suppliers, communities, employees and financiers go in the same direction.”

Most importantly, he emphasises that business and ethics need to work in harmony. Whereas old school industrial capitalism had a faceless approach to business whereby ‘stakeholder’ really meant ‘stockholder’, Freeman argues that Stakeholder Theory gives a ‘face’ and ‘name’ to individuals. It brings in the human element that has long been missing from the workplace. He even goes as far as to suggest:  “What makes capitalism work is our desire to create value for each other. Not our desire to compete. Capitalism is the greatest system of social collaboration ever invented. It’s about how we cooperate together to create value for each other.”

This idea of ‘value creation’ is vitally important, particularly in that all stakeholders need to create value through their respective roles. This suggests equality, as well as an interconnectedness in the workplace. Value is not something that can be imposed or, as per my opening examples, fabricated. Through respect for each other and an awareness of how value is created, I believe the insights of Stakeholder Theory have the potential to turn any negative into a positive.

Applying Stakeholder Theory to a digital literature project

I am currently creating an interactive memory theatre (or cabinet of curiosity) that celebrates the life of a controversial writer from Nottingham. It will include artefacts in each drawer that tell the writer’s story. The writer in question lived a nomadic life, travelling the world in search of a community of like-minded people. Therefore, our memory theatre will retrace his journey, stopping off in the same cities and countries he visited. Audiences will be able to engage with the memory theatre through digital screens, adding their own memories and reactions to the selected artefacts, thereby enabling the memory theatre to gain in provenance as it journeys along.

The writer in question was born in a town northwest of Nottingham towards the end of the 19th century. During this period the area was highly prosperous due to growing industries and the development of the Midland Railway Company that enabled goods, such as coal, to be transferred across the country. Many people flocked to the area for work and the population soon began to expand.

Nowadays, local people resent the success of this author because he turned his back on his community and was highly critical of what he perceived to be the dehumanising effects of industrialisation: The mining industries at the time were the main employer. His novels contain many references to real people and real situations, many of which he barely attempts to disguise. This personal betrayal continues to anger generations of those affected.

Despite this, locals cannot escape him. A pub, café, community centre, school and roads bear reference to his name, as does the surrounding area. Given that his birthplace town is now a relatively deprived area, his success is constantly thrust at people and consequently he is resented by many. By applying stakeholder theory we have the opportunity to rectify this.

In October 2016 I got a call from a funding body saying that a local MP was interested in further commemorating the writer by putting a statue up of him in his home town and asking what I thought. I admitted I couldn’t see the point, as there were already two statues of the author located in Nottinghamshire. I am also sceptical of the gesture as the local Council has recently sold off a property associated with the writer. One more statue creates no additional value as far as I am concerned and would most likely involve commissioning a sculptor who does not live in the local area.

Stakeholder Theory positions ‘community’ as having equal say in how meaning is produced and value is created for all. The memory theatre project has the potential to repair damage in the affected community by employing a local joiner to help build the memory theatre as well as sourcing materials from local suppliers. In doing this, we open up the conversation from a different perspective. When we work with trades people we have the opportunity to explain why the memory theatre needs to be built in a particular way. We can discuss elements of the writer’s life that need to be drawn out in the design in a way that is not prescriptive but via consultation. We will put money in their pockets, something I am sure locals will be more pleased about than a random statue imposed on their town. They in turn will talk about the project with friends, in the pub. Culture, as Raymond Williams and many others have shown us, comes from below, not from above.

The writer at the heart of my project lived an incredible life. He suffered persecution and censorship for nearly everything he wrote. He lived large parts of his life in absolute poverty, often being put up by friends. He consistently defied authority and was highly critical of those in power. Post-2008 working conditions have produced a new class of worker – ‘the precariat’ – for whom every area of life lacks security (Standing, 2011), the writer’s message bears even more relevance. Consulting, listening and empowering the local community on my project is one way of getting this message across. Thrusting a static statue on them will only do more damage.

References

R. Edward Freeman (2009), Stakeholder Theory Youtube lecture https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ih5IBe1cnQw

Guy Standing (May 24, 2011). “The Precariat – The new dangerous class”. Policy Network.

 

James Walker is a lecturer in Digital Humanities at Nottingham Trent University. He specialises in digital literary criticism. He is the editor of The Sillitoe Trail, which explores the enduring relevance of Alan Sillitoe’s Saturday Night and Sunday Morning and more recently Dawn of the Unread, a graphic novel serial exploring Nottingham’s literary history. www.dawnoftheunread.com

 

 

Capital Punishment: Marx, Markets and Mortgages

By James Walker

James Walker is the editor of the literary graphic novel Dawn of the Unread. It was created as a response to alarming literacy statistics in young people across the UK. Now what alarms him is how a changing labour market is making it impossible for his son to get on the housing ladder. What is required is greater economic literacy and to do this he’s joined a reading group exploring Karl Marx’s Capital Vol.1.

First off, let’s have a few statistics about the miserable mess we’re in. I’m not talking about Brexit, Trident or Sam (Big Sam) Allardyce becoming the England manager. I’m talking about two four letter words that define our lives: work and home.

According to the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) there were 10,732 repossessions of rented and mortgaged homes by bailiffs between January and March. Although this was down by 123 during the same period in 2015, it was up by 479 for the final quarter of 2015. But we should be grateful as The Council of Mortgage Lenders (CML) believe if repossessions continue to drop at the current rate we’ll be at our lowest annual numbers since 1982. Back when houses were affordable.

There are some reasons to be cheerful in terms of buying a property. The standard variable rate for a mortgage has plummeted and a rise in stamp duty has slightly halted property developers from  swallowing up entire streets. But this has been offset by the ridiculous increase in house prices that simply make it impossible for anyone to save up a deposit, let alone get a mortgage. I bought my first home when I was twenty-one and it was roughly 3 times my annual wage. My current home is 7 times my annual wage. The house is the same size.

This may explain why rents in both the social and private sectors have risen this year by around 7-9%. The landlords who’ve had their wings clipped by the Chancellor are passing this cost onto those who can’t afford to get onto the property ladder. According to the MoJ there were 10,636 evictions during the first quarter of the year. Expect this to increase, as the cap on housing allowance kicked in at the beginning of April. Then there’s the 7.2million, according to Churchill Insurance, who have moved back in with the parents because a relationship ended and are too poor to rent alone.

For those without the luxury of parents, there’s the streets. You always know when the privileged are in power because the number of people ‘begging’ zooms up. On an average walk across town I probably get stopped between 5-10 times for ‘a spare bit of change’. Expect more of this as hostels, Citizen’s Advice, and public sector support service staff increasingly begin to evaporate.

What we really need is change.

Speaking of which, banks have a lot of loose change at the moment. They’ve saved a bundle in wages by adopting the trend set by supermarkets and kitting out their stores with self-service machines. The unidentified item in the bagging area is staff. People are losing their jobs in every area of work as technology slowly takes hold. Ring up for a taxi and you’ll no longer be put through to a call centre of eternally bored operators. Instead there’s an efficient automated service that tells you where you want picking up from before you’ve even said a word. And you know things are seriously wrong when Waitrose gets in on the trend and dismisses checkout staff in favour of self-service machines.

Banks need to cut back on wages because they’ve finally been caught with their pants down. According to the CCP Research Foundation the top twenty banks paid out £252bn in conduct charges over the past five years, such as the six banks fined a record £4.3bn for rigging foreign exchange rates and Lloyds £4bn penalty for mis-selling of payment protection insurance. So why exactly did we bail out the banks again?

According to the Sutton Trust, the poorest British students will graduate with debts in excess of £50,000. (In the US, by contrast, where students study for an extra year, the average debt at a private for-profit university is £29,000.) Although state-sponsored loans are linked to future earnings, these debts are subject to inflation so the money keeps going up. Students who studied a decade or so ago will tell you that although their debts were a lot cheaper, the loans have been sold off to debt agencies, despite the promise that they wouldn’t be, and now fear earning a penny above a certain threshold because it will trigger larger repayments.

For those of us fortunate enough to have a job there is the constant restructuring of departments and the shoehorning of two jobs into one, and for an added bonus, with reduced hours. Some of us have had our wages frozen for so long we have to put gloves on when we draw money out the bank. We’re told we should be grateful that we’ve got a job, and expected to smile when we receive the ‘Happy Friday’ email wishing us the very best for the weekend and remembering not to be late back in on Monday.

For adolescents who’ve skipped further education there’s the temp agencies where you’re guaranteed the minimum of work for the minimum amount of money. One lad I spoke to told me he had to drive to Grimsby to do a two hour shift and he wasn’t paid for his petrol or the four hours the round trip took. He had to do it because if he refused they wouldn’t consider him for other work. Work left him out of pocket. Of course this is completely illegal but it goes on all the time. ‘Calm down and carry on’ is the expression. This translates as ‘Shut up and do as you’re told’.

Zero-hours contracts are the reality for most of us now. University lecturers are paid by the term and join an expendable workforce who can be got rid of with the flicker of an eyebrow. And this is where the Big Society steps in. The volunteers who run our libraries. The volunteers who cut down the forests. The volunteers who write for free for magazines because they have the deluded idea they can make a difference. So in some respects we’ve been complicit.

All of which finally gets me to my point. If we are expected to live flexibly in a big society on zero-hours contracts, isn’t it time we had a more flexible mortgage, a ‘zero-hours’ mortgage, to reflect the reality of our lives?

A zero-hours mortgage would work exactly like a zero-hours contract. If there’s no work, there’s no mortgage payment. Simple. It’s not your fault that you’re losing your job in the call centre to the latest Siri. If you do work a few hours then you pay a proportionate payment. Yes, calculating this could be tedious but isn’t that better than repossessing a home and putting a family out on the street, which is ultimately more costly for society?

A university lecturer told me recently that universities need to throw out all of their liberal newspapers and stock the Financial Times. He said that’s where the power is, in the things people don’t understand. The things that are deliberately made complicated. For this reason he believes economics should be at the heart of everything that it is taught, no matter what the discipline. It’s for this reason that I’ve joined a reading group where we are slowly working our way through Karl Marx’s Capital volume one, reading one hundred pages per week. It’s complicated, but far more humorous and literary than I would have imagined. I don’t believe in communism, and I certainly don’t believe in capitalism in its current manifestation. All I know is that something isn’t right at the moment and the system needs a bit of tinkering. Hopefully this book group – comprised of PhD students, unemployed, artists, etc. – from Manchester, Mansfield and other places not necessarily beginning with M will help me figure it out.

 

(James Walker is a lecturer and journalist. He won a 2015 Guardian Teaching Excellence Award for his efforts to improve literacy through the online graphic novel Dawn of the Unread. He has sought to promote Nottingham’s literary history and was the last person to interview the acclaimed novelist Alan Sillitoe. He was also director of Nottingham’s successful bid to become a UNESCO City of Literature. www.jameskwalker.co.uk @TheSpaceLathe)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Paean to Serendipity

This article was first published in Dawn of the Unread, an online graphic novel serial exploring Nottingham’s literary history. In March 2015 it won the Teaching Excellence Award at the Guardian Education Awards. It was created by James Walker, who is also a Director of Nottingham’s bid to become a UNESCO City of Literature.  www.dawnoftheunread.com

One of the fascinations of languages are that on occasions they throw up words that are so connected with the spirit of the culture that they defy both translation and even definition. ‘Serendipity’ is a word imbued with something peculiarly English, which is largely untranslatable and indefinable. It is as if the meaning were conveyed through its connotations, as a type of felt-experience. This does not mean that definitions have not been offered, but in my opinion they largely fall short. For example, two chosen at random from the many online offerings, “the fact of finding interesting or valuable things by chance” (Cambridge) and “an aptitude for making desirable discoveries by accident” (dictionary.com), both have shortcomings. The second is better than the first; it focuses on ‘aptitude’, a talent that is potentially learnable and improvable, and on ‘discovery’, which, as I will argue, when considered in relationship to serendipity is an association that can enrich an understanding of both terms. However, the focus on “chance” and “accident” reinforces the idea that its occurrence is random. I believe it is more correct to refer to it as an emergent property of certain conditions.

The origin of the idea to which serendipity gives its name can be traced through a literary historiography and like many such terms has a wonderfully layered texture, a sort of stratigraphy of narrative, interpretation and contingency, almost as though the concept was an example of the very thing it named. The term was coined by Horace Walpole, an art historian, writer and political figure of the eighteenth century, based on a Persian fairy tale called The Three Princes of Serendip, (Serendip being the Persian name for Ceylon/Sri Lanka). The tale concerns three exiled princes who survived and prospered by their wits. Actually it has little to do with serendipity as we understand it today; it details something more like the application of deductive logic to evidence, a proto- semiotics. In the most famous story, the princes, by reading telltale signs, are able to describe a stolen camel that they have never seen – understandably leading to suspicion falling on them – before explaining their method and saving their own necks. The story is part of a collection, called the Hasht Bihisht, written in the 14th century, which itself draws on Persian tales of several centuries earlier (1). The story was introduced to English readers through Italian and French translations initially. But the tale has had most influence through Voltaire’s book Zadig, the story of a Babylonian wanderer based on The Three Princes of Serendip, which examines the interplay of reason, signs and fate and went on to influence the development of both scientific method and detective fiction (2).

Serendipity has been immensely important in science, and it is largely though scientific anecdotes that the meaning of the term as we know it today has been shaped (3). Even though science is equated in the popular mind with being a rational activity, rationality only plays a part. The core of science is discovery, and for Karl Popper, probably the most influential philosopher of science of the twentieth century – paradoxically, in a book entitled The Logic of Scientific Discovery – science develops firstly through bold imaginative leaps, which are then subject to rigorous testing (the rational part), which he insisted be attempts at refutation rather than searching for confirmatory evidence. I am not a scientist, but I have experience of research. What Popper says seems partly true, but also to exaggerate the element of leaping in the dark. It ignores, to my mind, the aspect of immersion (4). Discovery in any enterprise takes place in the messy physicality of the world, whether that is the scientist’s lab, the artist’s studio or the writer’s desk, through immersion in the discourse of the discipline and problematic issues to which one is dedicated to finding a solution. No one who is not immersed in science makes a scientific breakthrough, or in music writes a musical masterpiece.

It is in literature, though, that the idea gestated and still provides the most accessible experiential context. A bookshop in a Derbyshire village that I visit from time to time embodies perfectly the conditions for serendipitous discovery. A narrow shop front that could be from another age opens up into a labyrinthine interior. Visitors typically spend several hours there, undoubtedly absorbed in the books but also possibly in wondering how to extricate themselves. If you have read Umberto Eco’s novel The Name of the Rose or Jorge Luis Borges’ short story The Library of Babel, you will get the idea, although the point is not so much the indecipherability of the floor plan or the magnitude of its extent as the sheer profusion of books and, in particular, the chaotic nature of their display (5). I use the term ‘chaotic’ advisedly: I do not mean there is no order; on the contrary, books are themed as they are in all bookshops. But the owners have taken the maximisation of space to such extraordinary lengths, utilising every possible volume, area and intersection that a wonderfully chaotic complexity arises. On each floor narrow aisles lead to other aisles, which lead to tiny alcoves or to culs de sac. There are books shelved on the stairways to the upper floors, on the landing of each floor, in the restaurant (entered through a bookcase) and even in the toilets (although perhaps my imagination has got the better of me there). In moving through the shop, even if looking for something particular, you are never more than an arm’s length from something completely different. And this is the point: you cannot miss being exposed to such a myriad of alternative influences, that a fortuitous discovery becomes likely (6). I rarely come out of this shop without having bought something, and usually something that I neither knew existed nor realised that I had any interest in.

Although serendipity does not allow of simple descriptions or pat definitions, it is possible to say something meaningful about it. Firstly, it is putting oneself in the way of discovery, but without any guarantee of discovery. In other words, though chance is involved, it is not a random happening. It is to be immersed in the concerns of a particular field of human activity. Secondly, it is to be in an environment of ordered chaos, whether that be by design or accident, where unrelated things lie in proximity, and to have the capacity to see something previously unseen in that juxtaposition, whether a causal relation or merely a suggestive pattern. Thirdly, another element of serendipity, not captured in the definitions, is the element of surprise. Something cannot truly be serendipitous unless its appearance is a surprise; the searched-for thing turns out not quite to be the searched-for thing after all, but something other whose appearance is a revelation. One might say it is one of the vestiges of the sacred which has survived into the scientific age; at least, until now.

I wonder if the serendipitous nature of discovery is under threat from the increasingly technocratic way in which information is processed, both as a society and also personally. The modern approach to knowledge is instrumental. We increasingly no longer put ourselves in the way of discovery. We decide what we want and instigate a search on the web. This is wonderful in its own way, but does not allow the joy of unexpected discovery. Search engines are logical and literal in their search; in order to accommodate news ideas they must be programmed with new search terms. But in this way we are only extending what we already know, or projecting from what we know into the less known. But there is no route into the great realms of ignorance, that which we truly do not know, the ignorance of which we are profoundly ignorant. Even in the age of the world-wide-web most new ideas and recommendations come through personal synergy. As many others have noted, the digitisation of data, and its access through search engines, not only circumvent the contexts within which serendipity operates, but also increase bureaucratic and commercial control of our lives. Under the banners of convenience and choice our time and our choices are increasingly delimited, by increased capacity for administrative delegation and through algorithmically generated feedback on a set of data-deficient decisions, respectively.

A final thought: could it be that the untranslatability of the term ‘serendipity’ renders it a uniquely English experience, in the way that the Inuit experience of snow is able to call on a rich vocabulary unparalleled by any other culture? Neither the cross-cultural context of the term’s origins nor the universality of human experience suggests that this is true. And yet there are hints that English culture has a unique relationship to the idea. English common law arose through a process of judicial discovery of a ‘truth’ in the particular case, which then became the precedent in resolving similar future disputes, unlike the Napoleonic codes based on Roman law prevalent throughout the rest of Europe, which are the imposition of an executive-derived body of law through fiat. Then there is the observation, which does seem to be supported by evidence, that the English are good at scientific discovery, but rather poorer at developing finds into practical technology, which requires greater rationalisation. English society has always existed in the hinterland between order and chaos, which perhaps renders it favourable to a culture of discovery. Yet what has bonded that society is partly a shared literary and discursive tradition that has allowed the cross-fertilisation of ideas. Worryingly, this is disappearing as the tactile, shared and concrete is increasingly displaced by the virtual, solipsistic and evanescent, and the sages of the Internet age have exhibited no capacity, as yet, to see this as problematic.

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NOTES AND REFERENCES

  1. The tale of The Three Princes of Serendip was translated from Persian into Italian during the late Renaissance, and into French and German in the eighteenth century, but not into English until the 1960’s. The collection of stories of which it is a part goes back to the eleventh century, but is based around an epic interpretation of the fifth century Persian monarch Bahram V. Though the origins go back to pre-Islamic Persia, there are variants of the stories throughout the Middle East, the Balkans, India, Russia and China.

T. G. Remer, Ed. (1965). Serendipity and the Three Princes of Serendip; Trans. from Michele Tramezzino, Peregrinaggio di tre giovani figliuoli del re di Serendippo (1557). University of Oklahoma Press.

2. Voltaire’s Zadig inspired Georges Cuvier, one of the founders of the science of palaeontology, to see inference of an extinct animal’s nature and environment from minimal evidence, as a valid form of reasoning.

Thomas Henry Huxley (1880), On the Method of Zadig: Retrospective Prophecy as a Function of Science. Popular Science Monthly‎, Volume 17‎ (August 1880).

  1. Not only technological innovations, but also theoretical breakthroughs and archaeological finds have often had a strong element of ‘luck’ or ‘good fortune’ in their discovery.

Royston M. Roberts (1989), Serendipity: Accidental Discoveries in Science. New York: Wiley.

  1. Serendipitous discovery has much in common with Thomas Kuhn’s concept of the ‘paradigm shift’ that occurs when an existing paradigm within which normal scientific research takes place no longer accommodates the weight of new and challenging data. Kuhn considers the historical context in which discovery is made, whereas Popper is looking from an epistemological perspective.

Thomas Kuhn (1962). The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

Karl Popper (1959). The Logic of Scientific Discovery. London: Routledge.

  1. Eco and Borges were not addressing the topic of serendipity; if anything they were making the opposite point that knowledge and the world are opaque to understanding. However, it is their images of libraries of enormous complexity or infinite extent that stay in the mind.

Eco, Umberto (1983). The Name of the Rose. Harcourt.

Jorge Luis Borges (1981). Labyrinths. New York: Penguin.

  1. There have been many attempts to structure the workplace in order to maximise creative interaction among the workforce in companies in the hope of generating serendipitous innovations:

Rachel Emma Silverman (April 30, 2013), The Science of Serendipity in the Workplace. The Wall Street Journal. Online at: http://www.wsj.com/articles/SB10001424127887323798104578455081218505870