welcoming flowers in the face of fear

These days, many sad and worrisome things are happening in various places all over the planet. Human beings are committing arbitrary (or non-arbitrary) acts of violence, hurting and killing other human beings – from random individuals to groups of dozens and hundreds[1]. Political structures that we were accustomed to consider solid foundations for a free society are crumbling[2] – from erosive tendencies across Europe and the European Union[3] to the political rise of obviously unpredictable and most likely dangerous individuals in a growing number of countries around the world. Combine these events and developments with the general feelings of unsteadiness and the specific challenges arising from global trends such as climate change, migration, or digitization, and with the poignant lack of common, convincing, and practically workable narratives and solutions – and you get a mix that has plenty in store to make even the most resilient mind feel a whiff of fear of what humanity’s future might look like.

As always, people’s reactions to what is happening vary widely[4]. There are those who find confirmation of some conspiracy hypothesis they’d been harbouring for a long time – happily offloading the blame to whoever they believe is behind the conspiracy. There are those who worry about the times we live in and turn to doomsaying – predicting various dire futures outhorroring the darkest periods of human history. There are those who compare and conclude that, after all, our times are not worse than others before – encouraging sanity and a balanced perspective on what’s going on. And there are those who advocate active beautification of our surroundings – distributing (and demanding) more pictures of sunsets,  butterflies, or serene landscapes in dreamy colours. And finally, of course, there are those who are silent and do not join the cacophonous debates raging across media – social and other.

I hasten to admit that I, myself, have been in all those camps. When I blame, I tend to blame those who do not use controversy or conflict for mutual learning[5] – even if their conspiracy is at best unintentional (and as a consequence, hopefully, not always effective). Being a historian by training, I’ve looked at many of those past periods of distress and warned against forms of violence that we’ve not yet agreed to contain[6]. I, too, have pleaded for reason and its manifold virtues[7]; I, too, have conjured up the beauties of our world to counter its atrocities[8]; and I, too, have had times when I chose silence (and I once even wrote about the value of embracing silence[9]). So, all in all, I wouldn’t dare to look down on any of these reactions – or praise any one of them as supreme. This is also not what this post is about.

This post is also not about the horrendous perversions that each of these attitudes can morph into if overdone or overstretched: The vicious anger born from finding enemies to blame, the smirking pride of always having known things better, the distant ignorance of overemphasising similarities (or differences), the lush indulgence in distracting sensory experiences, the jealous arrogance of never saying (or doing) anything even remotely wrong. The resulting characters of zealous crusaders, grumpy cassandras, aloof philosophers, spaced-out plant-huggers, or tight-lipped renunciants have not only often not contributed to making the world a better place, but some of them have sometimes also left quite brutal marks on their surroundings.


What this post is about – and please accept apologies that I couldn’t get there any sooner: Whatever our reaction to whatever lights a spark of fear in our minds and hearts: In each and every case, there are two distinct parts to this reaction – that, unfortunately, we tend to conflate and confuse. On the one hand, our reaction is what translates into actions (or non-actions) in the external world around us – fighting the culprits, tightening laws, improving information and education, planting trees, or retreating to a mountain cave. All with the aim to calm, persuade, lure, or destroy what we see as the enemies provoking our fears. On the other hand, however, this very same reaction is an attempt of our mind at internal self-protection – our rational mind’s struggle for sorting our right vs. wrong or good vs. evil, our moral mind’s effort to maintain integrity and responsibility, our calm mind’s aspiration to stay unperturbed by attraction and repulsion alike, our sensual mind’s desire to abandon itself to comfort and bliss, and our abstract mind’s endeavour to transcend all distinctions. All with the aim to relax, ease, transform, and liberate what we see as the contraints obstructing our well-being.

In short: Whatever we say or do when a spark of fear – or, for that matter, any other sudden emotional interference – assails us, is as much an inward-facing scheme to consolidate our mind’s consistency as it is an outward-reaching energy driving us towards doing (or not doing) something in the external world around us[10]. Being aware of this, for example when we see others reacting differently from ourselves, is a supremely helpful way to not get caught up in squabbles about what is an appropriate (or inappropriate) reaction in the face of fear and uncertainty – squabbles that, rather than solving anything, add more layers of mistrust and conflict to our web of relationships. Maybe what seems like a lash out to me is a deescalating move for you. And what feels like palliative escapism to you is a fortifying encouragement for me. So, first of all, let’s be friendly with each others’ different reactions – maybe what we see as a breech of conduct, as a scandal, or as a crime is just somebody else’s mind desperately trying to come to grips with an assault of fear.

At the same time, let’s not accept violence. Let’s watch ourselves and be weary of the point when inner protection threatens to spiral into outer aggression. Let’s help those struggling to find their balance at this tipping point, so their inner protection is strengthened, safeguarding and sheltering themselves and others around them. Let’s make use of anything that fosters dialogue, mutual understanding, and joint problem solving around the big issues we’re facing for our times. Let’s never underestimate the power of our internal views in sorting out our external controversies, and let’s never disdain the ability of external deeds to soothe our internal troubles.

Let’s always welcome flowers in the face of fear.

[1] It feels futile to single out any specific event – those following any kind of media these days will have their own mental list of what happened where. – In addition, I feel the need to apologise for the heavily self-referential nature of the following footnotes – it just seems that many thoughts coming up over the next paragraphs have already been on my mind at other times, so I want to give you the benefit of finding them. If you’re not interested, just ignore the footnotes and links.BACK TO TEXT

[2] I wrote about this phenomenon here [retrieved Jul 27th, 2016].BACK TO TEXT

[3] For some of my thoughts about this, see my post about Brexit [retrieved Jul 27th, 2016].BACK TO TEXT

[4] I deliberately refrain from giving examplary sources for the following “types” of reactions – each and every one of you will easily recognise people in their own social environment promoting one (or several) of the views painted below. BACK TO TEXT

[5] After the Paris attacks in November 2015, I wrote at length about the value of disagreement (and the danger of losing our ability to deal with disagreements) – read more here [retrieved Jul 27th, 2016].BACK TO TEXT

[6] See my reflections on violence [retrieved Jul 27th, 2016].BACK TO TEXT

[7] For example in this (German language) post regarding the discussions about refugees in Germany last summer [retrieved Jul 27th, 2016].BACK TO TEXT

[8] As in this post about the beauty of the web (which is still awaiting its announced second part – which I promise to write one day) [retrieved Jul 27th, 2016].BACK TO TEXT

[9] Here [retrieved Jul 27th, 2016].BACK TO TEXT

[10] I recognise that there’s host of spiritual as well as psychological “schools” claiming that there is little to no difference between internal and external anyways. In the broad scheme of things, I tend to agree with this view. However, at the same time, I believe there’s merit in making the distinction here and now, so please bear with me.BACK TO TEXT

welcoming flowers in the face of fear

The birth of courage from a ruptured heart

A rupture is haunting Europe. Less than 36 hours ago, half of a country at the heart of the continent voted to leave the common institutional framework known as “European Union”[1]. Of course, everybody reacted (and is still reacting), from established media[2] to social networks[3], from financial markets[4] to cash machines in remote places[5], from politicians all over the world[6] to the proverbial woman (or man) on the street[7]. There are those who cheer and imagine a series of further -exits, prefixed by almost any imaginable letter in our European alphabets. There are those who cry bitter tears confess disappointment, irritation, shock, or outright anger. And there are those who say nothing – which might not be the worst choice when everybody around you is talking[8].

This time, I choose to speak up. I speak, first and foremost, as a human being wanting to contribute to human beings living together for mutual benefit, no matter where and when. I also speak from having academically dwelt in some of the darker times and places of European history[9]. And I speak from two decades of experience with seeing much needed changes in a broad range of institutions fail often – and, fortunately, sometimes succeed[10].

Firstly, to put things into perspective: This is not an earthquake, this is not an outbreak of war, this is not a terrorist attack, this is not a beheading, and this is not a madman’s murder. It’s also not the death of a loved one, it’s not a divorce, not a coming-of-age, and not a friend blocking a friend on social media. And, for the sake of completeness, it is also not salvation, it is not the last judgment, it is not some final victory (of whatever over whatever), and it is not the holy grail saving all souls from suffering forever after. It is a people in the middle of Europe having cast a democratic vote. Which – compared to alternatives experimented with in European history – is infinitely superior to a people raising arms against another people or against some of their own (however defined). And also infinitely superior to parts of a people chopping of heads of other parts of a people (however those parts are defined). And also vastly superior to people physically having to leave the place they’re frustrated with and suffering in. All in all, things could be much worse.

Secondly, nonetheless, this is a vote that has resulted in a rupture ripping right through the middle of not only the people who voted, but through all of us Europeans, collectively and individually. This rupture within all and each of us is what hurts and what brings up the feelings of grief and sadness that are uttered by so many across my timelines. Speaking solely for myself (while inviting you to feel along and explore what resonates with you and what doesn’t), this rupture is a rupture of being torn:

  • Between a firm belief in the indispensability of inter-, trans-, supra- and beyond-national institutions in an age of global challenges…
    … and the observation that many of such institutions are not only far from perfect, but massively underperforming.
  • Between a firm belief in the value of political participation for creating thriving societies…
    … and the observation that a few hundred kilometres away, an act of participation just produced an anti-participatory claim.
  • Between a firm belief in the ability of human beings to make the best possible use of their own minds…
    … and the observation that charlatans, snake-oil dealers, and spurious saviours still (or: once again) gather audiences and gain attention.
  • Between a firm belief in the utter uselessness of all violence and aggression that comes from taking sides…
    … and the observation that not taking sides might actually weaken the case for non-violence and peace.

Now, never in my life ever could I imagine letting myself resolve these inner ruptures in the direction of fighting imperfect institutions (instead of working to make them better), denying participation (instead of listening more), giving up on barkers, bootlickers, and their entourages (instead of trying to understand how they see the world), or grabbing arms for (or against) anything at all. But then, what if, staying firmly put on the side of principles, I get caught by the grand dame Dorothy Sayers’ unsurpassed wisdom that “the first thing a principle does is kill somebody”[11]? What if I fall short by failing to inspire change where change is needed, failing to infuse authority where guidance is looked for, failing to contradict wrong views where truths are distorted, or failing to hold strong against belligerence where danger is imminent?

Sandro Botticelli, The Birth of Venus (1480s) found here [retrieved Jun 24th, 2016].
Thirdly, then (and in full awareness of the arrogance that assumes that my inner life has any relevance at all to what’s happening around us in Europe): What do we do with a rupture that threatens to threaten principles that, themselves, when held too tightly might threaten our lives and our living together? Here’s what I recommend:

  1. Before all else, reach inside ourselves and look at the rupture in our very own hearts: What makes us sad? What makes us mad? What makes us scared? What gives us joy? What inspires love? What brings us peace of mind? And where do the ones and the others clash? Where, when and what do we want – and at the same time shy away from? Where, when and what do we fear – and at the same time desire and dream of? Then, look those contradictions right in the eye, own them and take responsibility for our own thoughts and feelings in all their complexity[12]. Only with this (and with a bit of luck) will we get them on their way towards their own dissolution.
  2. Then, reach out to others, in particular those who are not part of our day-to-day filter bubbles. It’s no longer enough to bathe in mutual reassurance of like-minded friends. We need to turn our senses outwards and forwards, listening to those who inhabit other filter bubbles, feeling our way into their minds and hearts. What are the differences? And what are the similarities right underneath? What are the similarities? And what are the differences right underneath? Not get stuck with positions, but explore stories, beliefs, and personal (and collective) myths. Only with this (and with a bit of luck) will we discover inspiration for common ground, common pathways, and common goals.
  3. Afterwards and on these grounds: Debate, discuss, and disagree – fiercely, forcefully, and with the full power of human speech[13]. Not treat politics like cat content that can be clicked away or blocked when we feel offended. What are the principles that we want to live by in our shared spaces? What are today’s heirs of freedom, liberty, brotherhood and their likes? By which measures do we want to be judged and held accountable, both in our outer lives together and in our outer (and inner) decision making ? What are irrefutable common values that no personal taste, preference, or opinion might ever go against? Only with this (and with a bit of luck) will we (re-) create a European expanse to live in as we grow, play, think, do, build, craft, dream, dance, and dare.
  4. Finally, then (and only then): Derive mechanisms that help stabilise, structure, and strengthen this very expanse – organisations and processes, habits and cultures, ways of communication and interaction, and all that jazz[14]. What of today’s institutions, laws, and customs is helpful for what we want to be in the future? What’s hindering us from becoming what we want to be? How can we effect change while respecting, developing, transforming, and sometimes transcending the continuities that make up our world as we know it?  How can we help and hold each other when things don’t work out as planned? Only with this (and with a bit of luck) will we build a European society both robust and nimble enough to handle its own shortcomings, over and over again.

Responsible, diverse, disputatious – and with the humility needed to shrug off the spectres of sovereignty, supremacy, and stupidity: This is the courage that I believe can arise from the rupture that tore our hearts open, and this is the courage that I believe is needed to guide ourselves into a future we all want to live in. The courage born when violence is dissolved in frothy waves of ocean foam, when human beings see each other eye to eye, and talk amongst them with receptive ears, with words like a fairies tripping on the green, or, like a nymph, with long dishevelled hair, dance on the sands – and yet no footing seen. The courage that’s a spirit all compact of fire, not gross to sink, but light, and will aspire[15].

Let’s find that courage, and let’s use it well.

[1] Given the recent nature of the event, I refrain from giving sources at this point in time. For future generations: I’m talking about the “Referendum of the United Kingdom’s membership of the European Union” (June 23rd, 2016), commonly dubbed “Brexit”. BACK TO TEXT

[2] Such as “The Ecomonist”‘s special edition which can be found here [retrieved Jun 24th, 2016].BACK TO TEXT

[3] Although with a notable absence of an overwhelming hashtag (other than the rather technical #brexit itself) or the possibility to put up a temporary profile picture somewhere (at least to my knowledge at this hour).BACK TO TEXT

[4] Shown, for example, in these graphs published by the Word Economic Forum [retrieved Jun 24th, 2016].BACK TO TEXT

[5] I’m referring to a random post on some social media site where someone reported that they couldn’t withdraw money from a British bank account earlier today because of a lack of exchange rate information. Don’t ask me where I saw that post, please.BACK TO TEXT

[6] And I’m deliberately not quoting someone who, say, went to open a golf course somewhere and commented on something on the way.BACK TO TEXT

[7] With my sad anti-hero of the day being the much quoted person interviewed on BBC who said: “I’m shocked & worried. I voted Leave but didn’t think my vote would count – I never thought it would actually happen” copied a thousand times on Twitter today – just search for the quote. BACK TO TEXT

[8] As a total aside: A few weeks ago, I wrote at length about the value of silence – read more here [retrieved Jun 24th, 2016]. BACK TO TEXT

[9] Having worked on European Peace Plans, the Thirty Years’ War, the French Revolution and identities in war and peace in Europe, the resulting books – with apologies for references that might come across as self-marketing – having been published as “Rêveurs de Paix? Friendspläne bei Crucé, Richelieu und Sully” (1995), “Von Regensburg nach Hamburg. Die diplomatischen Beziehungen zwischen dem französischen König und dem Kaiser vom Regensburger Vertrag (13. Oktober 1630) bis zum Hamburger Präliminarfrieden (25. Dezember 1641)” (1998), “Reflexive Politik im Sozialen Raum. Politische Eliten in Genf zwischen 1760 und 1841” (2003), and “War, Peace and World Orders in European History” (with Beatrice Heuser, 2001). BACK TO TEXT

[10] Those who don’t know me can find more information on my webpage www.bucketrider.org [retrieved Jun 24th, 2016]. BACK TO TEXT

[11] Said by Lord Peter Wimsey in “Gaudy Night” (1935).BACK TO TEXT

[12] Like – to give just one example – German journalist Kathrin Wessling in her recent beautiful reflexion on the end of “Selbstverständlichkeit” – read here [retrieved Jun 25th, 2016].BACK TO TEXT

[13] On this, read Timothy Garton Ash’s “Free Speech” (2016) – and read it now (or discover its genesis and a vast plethora of materials on freespeechdebate.org [retrieved Jun 25th, 2016].BACK TO TEXT

[14] If you can’t wait, I recommend my current favorite collection of potential solutions in Ulrike Guérot’s new book “Warum Europa eine Republik werden muss” (2016) – non-German speakers can read more about her ideas here [retrieved Jun 24th, 2016].BACK TO TEXT

[15] As you’ll have noticed already, this is shamelessly adapted from the unequalled master of European minds and hearts, William Shakespeare (from “Venus and Adonis”, 1592/3).BACK TO TEXT

The birth of courage from a ruptured heart

The Meaning and Magic of Making Bread

I’ve recently taken to making bread[1]. Those connected with me on social media and those who visited our home in the past weeks and months have been suffering from this new obsession of mine, as the former were (and are) flooded with bread pictures (regularly inducing comments like: “When are you going to change your profession?”[2]), while the latter were (and are) systematically forced into tasting the latest creation sitting on our kitchen table. As an apology to all who’ve endured the hardships of being pulled into my bread-making obsession, and as an attempt for myself to make sense of this new-found addiction, I’ve decided to explore what exactly it is about bread-making that inspires me.

First, let me sort out what it’s not: It’s not an old habit or heritage from home. Yes, as a child, I was part of various episodes of bread-making. However, those episodes did not leave a lasting imprint on my attitude towards life[3], but rather evoke vague memories of sticky dough, dried-up crusts, and difficult process discussions. It’s also not me following a fad or a fashion. Yes, recently, I’ve noticed friends and acquaintances on social media being (or getting) passionate about baking bread[4]. However, for a long time, their stories rang puzzling to me – not just comprehensibly (or incomprehensibly) different from my own interests (like others’ excitement about kite surfing, kittens, or iconic pop stars), but somehow eerie, as if I was witnessing others disclosing their liking for mysterious voodoo practices, arcane fertility gods, or secret dark spells[5].

Discarding childhood trauma and conscious (or unconscious?) copy-catting, what else could it be that makes me so enchanted with combining flour, water, some raising agent, and some other bits and pieces into something that eventually looks, smells, and tastes like that edible item we like to call “bread”?


After much soul-searching, here’s what I found:

It’s ancient: Making bread is an ancient art. As soon as mankind had managed to grind some random grains, they mixed them with water, created dough, and baked something like chapati, tortilla, pita, or injera[6]. Ever since, bread has continued to reinvent itself, in an unbroken chain of creations and recreations. So maybe bread-making makes me feel connected with this timeless lineage of human ancestry?

Ingredients are basic: Most ingredients used in making bread are very basic. Water and flour, yeast and salt, seeds and sprouts: All these are relatively unprocessed manifestations of food[7], the primary particles of what feeds our bodies. Bread uses bits and pieces not too far away from what we’d put into our mouths if we were lost in a desert, veld, or jungle. So maybe bread-making makes me feel in touch with the essential elements of what constitutes us as living beings?

It takes planning and patience: Bread recipes always make me cringe at the first paragraph that says something like: “On the previous day, mix water, flour, and salt, and let it sit for at least 20 hours”. Bread offers no workaround to planning (“Do we want to make bread tomorrow?”) and no shortcut to patience (“The dough won’t be ready before tonight.”) – or else, you’ll not get your bread. So maybe bread-making makes me enjoy the immense tardiness of time, never heeding our urges or wishes?

It requires precision: I’ve managed to wreck quite a number of breads by adding too little (or too much) water or salt, misjudging the time needed for letting the dough sit, and under- (or over-) calculating baking hours. Bread has no lenience for lack of precision, it forces us into exactitude, meticulousness, and the painful rigour of following rules. So maybe bread-making makes me appreciate the value of utter refinement?

It goes through transformations: The process of bread-making is a story of transformations, from the huge overarching transformation of water, flour and something into an edible loaf to all the tiny steps of transformation on the way that happen when yeast dissolves into water, flour merges with liquids, sticky moisture turns into kneadable structure. Bread is a master teacher of how everything turns into everything. So maybe bread-making makes me admire the malleability of what is?

It is fuelled by continuity: Bread-making, in particular when using sour-dough, is permeated by a notion of continuity, as the sour-dough (once created from flour and water) extends from one loaf to the next, being kept and kindled in between baking sessions, growing more powerful with every instance of being used. Bread is an epitome of uninterruptedness, flowing through variations on taste and visual manifestations. So maybe bread-making makes me stand in awe of what goes on and on?

It serves a fundamental need: Bread is among the most elementary (and indispensable) nourishments available to human beings. There were times when bread teamed up with water to give prisoners something to eat, times when it partnered with wine to help religions symbolise deep spiritual truths, and times when it joined forces with circuses to create conditions for keeping citizens happy and in a peaceful mood. So maybe bread-making makes me harbour illusions of serving the needs of others?

It leaves no traces or waste: Compared to other fulfilling pastimes such as silk screen painting, pottery, or adult colouring books, bread-making leaves no other traces than the bread baked, and – once that’s eaten – produces no waste other than the usual waste of human beings processing food. Bread is efficient and effective in how it self-digests across the process of its creation, consumption, and discharge. So maybe bread-making makes me acknowledge the importance of living without garbage?

It’s sensory: Bread-making involves all senses: The touch felt when working the dough, the smell as it bakes, the sight of a loaf as it leaves the oven, the sound of the crust as it breaks, the taste of freshly baked bread (in my personal case, preferably with butter or oil, and with salt). Bread addresses all dimensions of human perception, refuting all attempts at a limiting view of the world. So maybe bread-making makes me indulge in life’s abundance through multi-sensory experiences?

It has an end-product: Bread-making produces something, relatively quickly and relatively reliably. When following the recipe, we cannot help but end up with a loaf of bread a few hours (or days) later. Bread always shows us what comes out of our efforts, with no hesitation, delay, or contamination; it gives honest feedback, straight away, with the closest possible loop between input and output. So maybe bread-making makes me savour the treacherous rewards of seeing immediate results?

Or, maybe, it’s none of the above, and I’m just an insatiable, gluttonous bread-eater with no willingness to accept the convoluted agonies implied in going out to buy bread in over-stuffed stores with poorly regulated air-conditioning systems, disoriented co-shoppers, and amateurish queuing arrangements[8].

[1] Credits for this development go to my son whose question: “How do you make bread?” started it all, some time back in January.BACK TO TEXT

[2] Which, for the record, I’ve no intention to do. I enjoy making bread as an occasional pastime, but I fear I’d lose all excitement if I had to deliver fresh loaves on a daily basis.BACK TO TEXT

[3] Other than the experiences described here [retrieved Jun 5th, 2016].BACK TO TEXT

[4] In particular, a my former consulting colleague of mine whose breads, buns, and other bakery creations are unequalled in looks (and most likely also in taste, which, unfortunately, I haven’t had the chance to sample yet), and @leitmedium with his peerless enthusiasm about not only trying out, but also explaining recipes (including, at one point, a sour dough manual on his Instagram account [retrieved Jun 5th, 2016]).BACK TO TEXT

[5] I’m fully that this feeling of eeriness might be nothing but a weird disposition of mine, not at all relevant for anybody else on this planet. However, in the (most likely unlikely) case of anyone else encountering similar sentiments in reaction to my bread posts on social media, be assured that you’re not the only one feeling a weird little fuzzy when facing others getting all  animated about baked goods.BACK TO TEXT

[6] There’s a nice “bread” article on Wikipedia with a lot of interesting basic information [retrieved Jun 5th, 2016].BACK TO TEXT

[7] “Relatively”, of course, is relative. Water taken from a tap in Hamburg is not water coming from a spring in the middle of the woods, and flour bought at an organic supermarket is not flour freshly ground on a quern. Still, compared to many other ingredients, most of the ones used in bread-making are still quite close to their source. BACK TO TEXT

[8] And one final remark on process: I started off by using bread-making recipes from the internet (which worked very well). Now, I mostly use the bread-making book “Brot” by Bernd Armbrust (2011). If you have recommendations for bread-making books I should have a look it, please comment below.BACK TO TEXT

The Meaning and Magic of Making Bread

#penelopepapers: Unveiling the biggest conspiracy of humanity

Penelope. Ring from 5BCE. Louvre Museum. From here [retrieved May 12th, 2016]
“Men have always been cheated!” – such was the first comment that Beyoncé is rumoured to have posted in an (apparently immediately deleted) tweet[1] in reaction to the recent unveiling of what social media quickly dubbed the “Penelope Papers”: A collection of 11.5 million leaked documents authored by more than 214,488 women, some dating back to the pre-anthropocene[2].

From what emerged about the history of this document archive so far, it seems that it been collected by a group of 25 dedicated women over several years – unearthing clay tablets from desert sands, uncarving scrolls from rocks and cave walls, retrieving palm leaves from vases buried in deep seas and on inaccessible mountains, deciphering code written in clouds and cloudless skies.

Asked about their motives, one of the collectors (who all expressed their wish to remain anonymous, given the highly sensitive nature of what the “Penelope Papers” contain) said: “We live in times that require the full attention, agility, and adroitness of all human beings, with no distinctions or preferences defined by any biological (or other) differences between one and the other. Such a common effort of all requires openness, trust, and mutual respect from all involved. The papers we’re publishing now show that one half of the human race has abused, oppressed, and manipulated the other half since times immemorial. We – and this is the exclusive ‘we’ of women as abusers, oppressors, and manipulators, as well as the inclusive ‘we’ of human beings wishing to contribute to a better and freer future for all – need to get over these past prejudices, mistakes, and aggressions, and we sincerely hope that the publication of these materials will contribute this inspiring vision. We very much hope that men can forgive us and that, from now on, they’ll work together with us, despite the insults and injustice they had to suffer.”


The following three excerpts – taken from three different periods covered by the “Penelope Papers” – give a taste of why these documents are seen as revolutionary by many who’ve had the opportunity to look at them already. As always, of course, the reader is invited to form her (or his) own opinion, based on the sources.


“Oh, women! Thou art mothers and grandmothers, sisters and aunts, daughters and nieces, weavers and waiters, whores and witches, wonder and wisdom. Thou art the ones who conceive the truth, bring it to life, and nourish it until it walks the earth on its own feet. Without you, nothing would ever be born, nothing would ever remain, nothing would ever come to fruition. Thou art the world.

Oh, men! Thou art pram pushers and walking stick wavers, snook-cockers and bottom-pinchers, runaway heroes and legacy hunters, sand castle builders and fly fishers, pimps and policemen, hypochondria and hypocrisy. Thou art eternally dependent on others to become, to be seen, and to be anything at all rather than nothing. Thou art what is born, remains, and comes to fruition when the earth quakes, the heavens tremble, and mountains go into labour. Thou art the world without its wo-: rld as in red letter days, red light districts, and reference listed drugs.

Oh, women!  Thou shalt not let men mess with farming and food. Keep them away from what feeds your bodies and those of your families. Send them off to hunt wild boars and slay hungry dragons, but don’t let them anywhere near your pots, pans, and pastures.

Oh, women! Thou shalt not let men mess with stories and talk. Keep them away from what weaves the fabric of speech in your homes. Send them off to have fistfights and 42.195 kilometre long races with other men,  but don’t let them anywhere near your colours, threads, and yarns.

Oh, women! Thou shalt not let men mess with teaching and telling. Keep them away from what permeates the minds of your children. Send them off to give speeches and write philosophical treatises, but don’t let them anywhere near your offsprings’ fantasies, feelings, and facts .

Oh, women! As long as you follow these commandments, you’ll please the goddesses Hathor, Gaea, and Shakti, and they will protect you from harm, so the golden ages to come will be yours. When you break even one of these commandments, and even only once, Ka will desert you, Kronos will devour your lifeline, and Karma will punish you for infinite eons.”

[“Penelope Papers”, vol. I, fol. 108sqq., ca. 40,000 BCE]



“It has recently been brought to our attention that men have made enormous efforts to enter into territories hitherto reserved for women.

Self-proclaimed doctors, such as a certain Andreas Vesalius (of Brussels) or William Harvey (of Folkestone) have not only talked about, but in practice and in writing presented information about human bodies that was supposed to be secret to women. The anatomy of our flesh and bones and the circulation of our blood should not be disclosed to the public. The threat posed through these public declarations which all too easily will seduce the minds of other men and lead them to think that our human bodies can be controlled by them is not only a blasphemy and a sin, but also a grave transgression of laws defined by and held up by womenfolk since bodies first came into being.

Similarly, rumours have brought information to our ears that a certain William Shakespeare (of Stratford-upon-Avon) has written and published plays which display the full array of human emotions through disclosing speech and intense dialogue, full of playful puns, intelligent inferences, and awe-inspiring silences. This vulgar exposition of the workings of our human relationships should not be disclosed to anyone other than women. The danger inherent in popularizing ideas about love, hate, joy, anger, attraction, fear, and other such deeply internal energies of our being is not only a severe infringement upon divine privileges, but also a serious break of the customs held in high honour by women since feelings began.

Finally, it has been whispered on corridors that a certain Johann Amos Comenius (of Nivnice) has dared to craft theories about education and how to develop mankind towards a rewarding and joyful future. This treacherous revelation of insights privy to those who have the privilege to live with the minds of children, namely women of all times and ages, is not only an unforgivable affront against those who hold the power over our thoughts, but also a terrible breach of the rules established by womankind since thoughts emerged from the void.

We, the majestically ruling women of Europe, herewith solemnly declare that such behaviours are unacceptable, once and for all. If and in the case that men do not refrain from messing with women’s matters, we shall inflict upon them the threefold punishments reserved for the most hideous crimes of treason, namely:

  1. The punishment of work outside of houses and homes: We’ll send them to factories, so their mechanical labour keeps them away from our physical surroundings and restores our human bodies and knowledge thereof to women, the only legitimate  holders of control over corporeal matters.
  2. The punishment of politics in public places: We’ll send them to parliaments and turn them into citizens, so their formal, political interactions keep them away from our conversations and communications, returning the power of discourse to women, the only rightful holders of steering the forces of verbal utterances.
  3. The punishment of making money: We’ll send them to earn (and spend) money, so their involvement with things, their costs and their prices keeps them away from our mental refuges, reinstating the value of mind to women, the only true owners of guiding the pathways of cognitive connectivities.

Signed, sealed, and solemnly sworn by the one and only sisterhood.”

[“Penelope Papers”, vol. XVII, fol. 1618-1648 (including translations into several European languages), ca. 1631]


“This is the dawning of the Age of Aquarius – the Age of Aquarius. Harmony and understanding, sympathy and trust take up bigger and bigger spaces in the relationships between women and men. This is a counterrevolutionary development which we need to stand up against, united as sisters in love and peace. Men are starting to learn how to open ravioli cans, fry eggs, and warm up deep-frozen pizza; men are engaging in conversations with each other in self-help groups, libertarian communes, and revolutionary, non-hierarchical parties, pursuing supposedly peaceful, sustainable, and humane visions; men are getting involved in raising kids, making sure their lunch boxes are filled, finding band-aid for their scratches, and singing songs to them at night. This all must stop. We cannot accept the invasion of men into the territories defined and constructed by women. They’re undermining our revolutionary powers, betraying the true spirit of liberation, and sucking up to values they’ll never been able to access given their authoritarian upbringing, class-consciousness, and generally ruthless character.

Our Committee for Cancelling Counterrevolutionary Activities in their Very Seed and Earliest Buds (CCCAVSEB) therefore decrees the following:

  • “No woman, no fry” – in order to keep men out of the kitchen for good, they need to be lured by other bodily aspects of our human existence. We proclaim the immediate and urgent need to boost an advertising industry that puts the female body (as naked as possible) next to all products that can take men away from home – starting with cars, sports equipment, and expensive “
  • “I am man, I am an island” – in order to prevent men from communicating among themselves and with others, we’ll make sure they (and human beings in general) get hooked to new technologies that glue people to their own electronic surroundings. We  proclaim  the immediate and urgent need to boost all innovations leading to solitary engrossment in technologies, as remote from other living beings as possible – starting with computer screens, expanding to telephones that become lifetime companions and electronics implanted into human bodies.
  • “Imagine there’s no women” – in order to exlucde men from the social fields reserved for women, we’ll send them off to idealistic futures, filled with rainbows and unicorns, greener and bluer than everything we knew so far. We proclaim the immediate and urgent need to boost ideologies that put men’s minds far away from the here and now, forcing them to live their days in daydreams with no possible links to the realities of women in this universe.”

We’re aware of the risks of all these strategies, and the probability that they might be seen through by some of the more sophisticated of men. In addition, we therefore proclaim the need for some women to pretend that men’s environments – such as large corporations, political leadership, or academic excellence – are attractive to women and need to be ‘conquered’. Unless some of us make the sacrifice and appear interested in those environments, there’s a possibility that men might see through our schemes – we need to prevent this at all costs, or else womenkind (and thereby humankind) will fail to live up to its promise.”

[“Penelope Papers”, vol. MCMLXXXIV, fol. 42]

Penelope. “Chiusi Vase”, ca. 430BCE. Museo Civico, Chiusi. From here [retrieved May 12th, 2016]

[1] You can check Beyoncé’s Twitter feed here [retrieved May 13th, 2016] to see that the tweet in question really isn’t there. There’s a fair chance that it never existed at all and the rumours about it were just that – rumours. Such are the features of the web – what is there is not there, what is not there is there, and both, and neither. BACK TO TEXT

[2] Fortunately, we had the privilege to get access to the full set of papers before its official publication on the web – which will most likely take a few more days, as it seems there are some troubles with preparing the servers for the expected traffic from interested visitors. Once these technical issues have been sorted out, the materials will be available here [retrieved May 13th, 2016]. BACK TO TEXT

#penelopepapers: Unveiling the biggest conspiracy of humanity

Embracing silence: When not speaking up makes us more human

Silence is in disgrace. Long gone are the proverbial times when silence was golden, a sign of being a philosopher, or at least an indication that a fool was behaving wisely[1]. These days, politicians who stay silent are accused of sitting it out, business people who stay silent are suspected of manipulations, artists who stay silent are pitied as lacking critical self-marketing skills, and human beings who stay silent are often simply not seen, heard, or otherwise acknowledged by their fellow human beings[2]. Being human, it seems, is mostly defined as speaking up, making a contribution, posting something, leaning in, showing off – in other words: Actively doing something that can (and will) be perceived by others.

Then, there’s silence as a product: Earplugs and noise-cancelling headphones for those who travel, work, or live in tumultuous times and places; “quiet times” blocked out in office calendars as well as offline hours, days, weeks, and months for those involved with (or addicted to) electronic communications; silent retreats as the pinnacle of modern-day spiritual materialism – all situations when silence becomes a (passive-aggressive) means to an end, mostly for blocking out others and boosting our own productivity, well-being, or peace of mind[3].

What if, I want to suggest, silence is neither an inferior form of being human in this world, nor just another a means to the endless ends of our daily (or beyond daily) endeavours? What if silence – at least in some of its manifestations – is a unique way for us to be more human and more humane, reflecting the some of the most complex capabilities of our heads and hearts?

Of course: There are situations when speaking up is a very recommendable strategy. When our friend is about to be gobbled up by a dinosaur, fall off the edge of the world, or step in dog poop, we better cry: “Dinosaur!”, “Stop!”, or “Attention!”. And, in the bigger scheme of things, when we notice millions of people being loaded onto trains and transported to places from which nobody ever returns, when we realise that an o-ring seal is unsuitable for the temperatures it is likely to meet in upcoming operations, or when we see trees dying, glaciers melting, and peatlands drying up, we better shout and scream until someone listens to us and something is changed for the better. In such cases, not being silent means uttering warnings[4] and thereby saving others’ (and our own) skins; being silent in those same situations would be morally disgusting, ethically unacceptable, and humanely thoughtless and cruel.

Oddly, however, it seems that the fact that there are situations in which non-silence is morally, ethically, and humanely superior to silence has infected our attitude towards silence in much broader ways, as if some (silent) collective unconscious had concluded that the insight: “There are situations in which silence is (a contribution to not preventing) a crime” logically equaled the insight: “All silence is crime”[5] – which is obviously wrong.

Edvard Munch, Skriget (1895). From here [retrieved May 2nd, 2016].
Still, nowadays, many of our interactions (especially, but not only on social media) seem to follow the implicit assumption that those to blame are those who are silent. From those who do not answer emails (despite gentle and not-so-gentle reminders) to those who do not like or reply to our posts (or replies to posts) on virtual walls, from those who explicitly post information about the fact that they’ll not be posting for a while (because they’re going on holiday or taking a time off social media) to those who feel obliged to comment that they’ll not comment on something: Being silent requires explanations, solicits questions, creates discomfort for everybody involved in the conversation that is not happening, and results in irritation, resentment, anger, and hatred directed towards those who are silent[6].

Again, of course, there might be situations when not answering an email is impolite (like, for example, in any professional setting where at least a process reply is “good practice”), when not liking or replying to a post is an insult (like, for example, when someone deliberately ignores their spouse’s birthday wish on their social wall), when not being present on social media is a deliberate critical statement (like, for example, when someone disgruntedly pulls out of social networks because they were not presented with a virtual birthday cake), or when not commenting is indeed a proclamation of something (like, for example, when a team member doesn’t react to a draft everyone is supposed to review). Even in these cases, however, impoliteness, insulting, criticism, and proclamations are most often not crimes, but rather cracks in the fabric of functioning interactions between human beings – like the dog that doesn’t bark, the lambs that don’t scream, or the doves that don’t cry[7].

And then – and this is where I was heading all the time since I started writing a few paragraphs back, apologies for detours and cul-de-sacs on the way – there’s that vast number of situations when silence is neither a crime nor impolite, insulting, critical, or proclamatory, but rather a manifestation of what makes us human as well as humane. How so?

  1. Not speaking up demonstrates our ability to be not interested. The moment I don’t click the link that offers me fresh strawberries, ancient whiskey, a new pair of high-heeled, red-soled shoes, an unforgettable read of a brand-new book, an amazing holiday experience on pristine beaches, a life-changing wine-tasting app, or another mind-blowing “You won’t believe what happened then”-episode – that very moment confirms my ability to not be defined by what is. I can shrug my shoulders, turn away, and be silent – and free to focus on something else, or, for that matter, on nothing at all.
  2. Not speaking up shows our ability to change our minds. The time I take to mull over whether (and if so, how) to react to something that comes my way is a time in which I step out of the automatic chain reaction of cause and effect in which a “Just Do It!” make me do, a “Think Different!” makes me think (different?), an “Enjoy!” makes me enjoy, and an “I’m loving it!” makes me love. That very time strengthens my ability to not be enslaved by causalities. I can do (or not do), think (or not think), enjoy (or not enjoy), love (or not love) while being silent – which makes me free to make choices, or, for that matter, decide not to choose at all.
  3. Not speaking up reflects our ability to step out of emotions. The pains I go through when sorting through the emotions something triggers in me (as well as through the emotions I’m assuming someone else might be experiencing, have experienced, or will be experiencing) are the birth pains of separating from my emotions as something that no longer holds me captive but that I decide to have and to hold (or not to hold). Whose happiness is in a happy message? Whose sadness is in a sad reply? Whose anger is in an angry comment? Whose hatred is in a hateful speech? Those very pains make me step out of and over emotions as I look at them while staying silent – which in turn makes me free to decide whether to then just sit at the beach, wet my toes, or plunge myself head-over-heels into stormy waves.
  4. Not speaking up indicates our ability to not be determined. The interval in which I don’t  say anything leaves all options open for me to take sides – or not. Instead of saying “yes” or “no”, being “for” or “against”, choosing “black” or “white”, I dwell in the infinite grounds of “neither-nor”, “both-and”, and the rainbow colours of shades of grey[8]. What if I do? What if I don’t? And what if whether I do or I don’t doesn’t matter at all? That very interval leaves me suspended in the vastness of possibilities. I am, and I am not, and I am not even in between – as once masterfully illustrated by the ultimate personification of human complexity (although not necessarily of silence), Kermit the Frog:

May your silences be unbothered by monsters and untroubled by poles!

[1] For a faint memory of how these precious times sounded, listen here [retrieved May 2nd, 2016]. BACK TO TEXT

[2] To the point that even the (not negligible) part of humanity generally inclined to be introvert, rather than extrovert, breathed a collective sigh of relief when Susan Cain published her book “Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking” (2012). BACK TO TEXT

[3] And: Yes, of course, all these can be of enormous benefit to those who suffer from an overload of auditory (or other sensory) input. At the same time, they all deliberately stop interaction with all those inputs, and thereby are predominantly about not receiving (not so much about not sending), imposing artificial silence on our surroundings (not being silent ourselves) . BACK TO TEXT

[4] Warning is most likely one of the primeval evolutionary uses of making noises, the other obvious ones being showing needs (as crying infants do) or attracting mates (as courting birds do). I’m sure there’s research (and maybe even proof) for this somewhere, but I haven’t bothered to look it up.BACK TO TEXT

[5] Here, a bigger debate could be started about the connections between transparency and sharing and silence and how societies in which the former are praised contribute to condemning the latter (as in totalitarian regimes). Have another look at George Orwell’s “1984” or Aldous Huxley’s “Brave New World” for eery descriptions of how this can play out. BACK TO TEXT

[6] The utter despair of those who are suffering from somebody else’s silence has been uniquely captured by Peter Gabriel – from this, it’s easy to imagine how all kinds of painful emotions can spring from not being talked to [retrieved May 3rd, 2016]. BACK TO TEXT

[7] And, of course, this is how it sounded when they still cried [retrieved May 3rd, 2016]. BACK TO TEXT

[8] As in Jasper Fforde‘s delightful novel “Shades of Grey” (2009), not the homonymous blockbuster that appeared shortly thereafter. BACK TO TEXT

Embracing silence: When not speaking up makes us more human

Snapped into the void: Reflections on Snapchat

“Snapchat is complicated”, has become a mantra among those who tried and then abandoned the app; and, in reaction, instructions on how to use Snapchat have sprung up across the web[1]. Now, this post (as those who regularly read my blog will have guessed already) is neither a rant about how I got confused by attempting to use Snapchat, nor a guide for those who’re aspiring to get into (and find their way through) the maze of snapping. It is, rather, a reflection on what is so peculiar about Snapchat that even seasoned social media surfers often feel a strange hesitation to engage with the app[2].

Here’s my hypothesis: Snapchat, in a playful way, contradicts some of the most common illusions our online universe (and those who create it on a daily basis) likes to lure us into, and thereby pulls the magic carpet out from under our buttocks – leaving us suspended in thin air, up in the skies, lost in space. Indulging in such experiences is not everybody’s cup of coffee, glass of gin, or piece of cheesecake. This is not saying that those who engage with the app automatically also enjoy this particular aspect of it (they might just have chosen it as their preferred means of communication, just like others use smokes signals, drums, or carrier pigeons). However, I dare to conjecture that at least some of those who hesitate to turn themselves into ghosts surrounded by yellow-grounded dotty codes are consciously or unconsciously held back by their unease to engage with this feeling of being snapped into some unknown void.

@bucketrides on Snapchat

Let me elaborate[3]:

  1. On Snapchat, nothing is permanent. Snapchat is programmed to delete every snap after a viewing time set by the sender (of maximum 10 seconds), and stories (strings of snaps pasted together by the sender) self-delete after 24 hours. The company claims that data are permanently deleted from their servers after this time, too. This is a nightmare for every adept of big data, digital customer insight, or online personality (or institutional) branding. Noone can create a consistent (or inconsistent) web persona that can be tracked over time; noone can investigate other users’ snap history to form a mental voodoo doll of who they’re interacting with; noone can exploit users’ addictions to filter coffee, skate boards, or hand-drawn minions[4]. What if (online) life was like that all the time? What if views, experiences, and opinions were transitory, translucent, and untrustworthy, just like a snap that I thought I had seen but then – where did it go? Was it just a dream? Just a magical show?
  2. On Snapchat, (dis-) likes are private. On Snapchat, there’s no pre-programmed way to like (or dislike) other people’s snaps. And all information I can extract about my own snaps is how many people (and who) viewed them – no way to tell whether they looked at my creative endeavours with attraction or with repulsion. And, of course, no way to comment on other people’s snaps other than by sending them a direct snap back – so no threads of comments spiralling from misunderstanding to slight criticism, to outrage, to anger, to open hate. Also, no way to tell how many people view others people’s snaps, so no competition on friends, followers, mentions, or tags[5]. What if (online) life was like that all the time? What if what I think about others (and what others think about me) remained a matter of my (or their) own mind, or – at most – a matter between them and us, with no audience, sneaky schadenfreude, or simulated sympathy? All preferences just echoes inside our heads, like a snap viewed by nobody? All relationships nothing but dances of imagination?
  3. On Snapchat, reality is never absolute. Snapchat makes it easy and enjoyable – and therefore practically indispensable – to alter any photo or video I’m sending or adding to my story. No view without a comment, an emoji that dances across, some scribbled lines in rainbow colours. No selfie without some self-deprecatig note, or even adorned with one of Snapchat’s legendary filters – pig-nosed, rabbit-eared, wrinkled faces, exploding skulls, clouds of hearts and roses, and unicorns vomiting rainbows. Reality, as our cameras capture it, is therefore never seen as finite, ultimate, or unalterable. What if (online) life was like that all the time? What if what we see was never quite what is there? What if, all around us, throughout our ordinary days, there were hidden messages, funky fairies, kaleidoscopic colours, available at the tips of our fingers, with a swipe, a click, and a tap? What we experience no different from a hallucination? A mirage in the desert?
  4. On Snapchat, the starting point is always here & now. Snapchat always opens on the camera window, offering me the current view through the lens of my smartphone. In order to see anything else, I need to do something – swipe left to chat, swipe right to see people’s stories, tap the top right to change to the front camera, tap the top to fiddle with settings and with my own profile. I’m not seduced into picking up on past conversations (most of which will have disappeared anyways), I’m not tempted to scroll though other people’s chatterings, complaints, or incomprehensible heart-to-hearts[6]. What if (online) life was like that all the time? What if everybody’s predominant perspective was always the perspective of their current moment, devoid of past baggage, unhampered by fantasies of uncertain futures, uncluttered by others’ (or their own) confusing utterances? A reflection of what is here, right now? An apparition out of what is (which, of course, a the same time, is not)?

A world that disintegrates all the time, gives no orientation on what others expect, presents us with malleable truths, and forces us back into the present moment whenever we were distracted? How does that look, sound, smell, taste, and feel? And how do we act in such a world? What do we do? What do we refrain from?

Snap. See for yourself.

Stay there.[7]

[1] Just do a web search yourself to find out about the complaints and confusion as well as about a plethora of “How to…” articles. The most helpful and entertaining (German language) guide on snapchat Ive come across so far is Philipp Steuer’s “Snap me if you can” [retrieved Mar 26, 2016]. Oh, and in case you’re not even familiar with Snapchat, here’s there website [retrieved Mar 26, 2016].BACK TO TEXT

[2] A bit of history: Snapchat started off as a chatting app that was quickly quite popular with young people, not the least (as the legend says), because this was a space on the web that was not yet populated by (and not easily accessible to) parents and other interventionist authorities; legend also has it that people used (and maybe still use) Snapchat as an exchange platform for exchanging erotic pictures. For more details on the app’s history, see the corresponding article on Wikipedia [retrieved Mar 26, 2016].BACK TO TEXT

[3] For those not familiar with Snapchat: The app basically combines two features, a messaging app (in which you can send text messages, photos, and videos with friends) and a browser for its stories (which are concatenations of a user’s photos and videos taken over the course of a day). A special feature of Snapchat, compared with many other similar apps, is that users can (and lavishly do) garnish their photos and videos with filters, emojis, and self-made drawings, creating “on the go” pieces of visual creativity.BACK TO TEXT

[4] Unless – which is possible – they screenshot their communication partners’ snaps. Which, in turn, the communication partner will be informed about through a tiny arrow-shaped icon on their snap, so secret stalking is hard, if not impossible.BACK TO TEXT

[5] With the interesting consequence that (some) snapchatters like to communicate their (lack of) popularity on Snapchat on other social media channels.BACK TO TEXT

[6] Once inside the app, it actually takes a right swipe, a scroll, and a click until I’m “inside” anybody else’s story. And whether I go there and which stories I visit, is totally up to me – nothing pushed into a “timeline”, algorithmed or not, everybody just showing up in chronological order of their last-added snap, with a random view from their current story.BACK TO TEXT

[7] I sincerely wish, hope, and pray that Snapchat stays with their features. What they offer, is a unique approach to our digitalised lives and their interconnectedness. I’d hate to see it succumb to the pressure of eternity lovers, gurus of sharing, masters of closure, or time-travel whiz kids.BACK TO TEXT

Snapped into the void: Reflections on Snapchat

Of maps, mobs, and mind: Navigating the puzzles of unchartered times

Our world is pretty much in pieces, coherence mostly gone[1]. The big problems we’re facing – such as terrorism and tyranny in their horrifyingly versatile appearances, climate change and the economy’s quest for sustainability, digitisation with all its blessings (and threats), or migration with its unpredictable ramifications[2] – are multi-faceted and highly interdependent. Finding answers to these problems is a non-trivial, non-linear task. All these issues (and many others) transcend the boundaries of the institutions and organisations that structure our world as we know it: They don’t respect the traditional limits set by (nation) states, business companies, cultures, or religions. As a consequence, by definition, they also challenge our identities as individuals and members of whatever groups we feel we belong to. For every single one of us, this creates uncertainty, often fear, and in many cases a lapse into “fight-or-flight” reactions[3] – all of which makes problem solving even harder, if not impossible.

Now, strangely enough, most of the institutions we currently bet on to help us solve the problems of our day and age are constructs we collectively invented in the 17th, 18th and 19th century, when industrial production, civil society, and democracy developed into what was later labeled “Western civilisation”[4]  – with some subsequent adaptations in the course of the 20th century, in order to reign in the previously unanticipated murderous degenerations of that very same civilisation. All of these institutions built highly proficient mechanisms for sorting out their internal quarrels: Production systems, quality management, and performance measurement tools; the public sphere and media as the “fourth estate”[5]; separation of powers and parliamentary democracy, and many more. In contrast, mechanisms for sorting out anything that happens outside the boundaries of those very same institutions remained either underdeveloped – as in the case of international relations and international law, where the frameworks used today are still mostly variations on the earliest thoughts around international cooperation dating back to the early modern ages[6] – or rough-cut – as in the case of markets for products and services where the choice still seems to be between Adam Smith’s invisible hand of the free market and a state-led regulation of Colbertian taste[7]. In short: We’re counting largely on 18th and 19th century vehicles when it comes to solving our 21st century problems – a little as if we were travelling to Mars on a 17th century sailing boat.

At the same time, our world has produced a new set of tools, in particular for communication, making it possible to effortlessly interact from practically every place under the sun with practically every other place under the sun in practically no time. My timelines on social media sparkle with Indonesian beaches, Amazonian reptiles, or Sibirian tigers, and get ruffled by Greek beaches, Californian octopoids, or New York City alpha-animals, all within the blink of an eye, the click of a mouse, the scroll of a touchscreen. We can spend a year in space[8], steer wheelchairs with our brains (well, almost)[9], and create virtual (or “augmented”) realities with headsets at the price of a last-minute holiday deal. However, unfortunately, outside the laboratories, the modes of interaction we apply when immersing ourselves in these new tools are mostly archaic: We “like” – or we start a shitstorm; we shamelessly self-promote – or we retreat in disgust, mortally offended; we impatiently scroll for the next excitement – or we denounce the scandalous exhibitionism of others.In short: We’re walking through the jungles of 21st century technological interactions with the grace and dexterity of retarded cavemen on unfamiliar drugs[10] – a little as if we were trying to navigate a satellite with the geospatial precision of a 17th century (mental) map.

The horror scenario that could unfold from these circumstances is alarming. And, I hasten to add, it is not the often-described totalitarian domination of either a state or some corporation taking over control and data produced through our new communication tools – these are 20th centuries fantasies, the 1984s and brave new worlds born from observing the excesses of political tyranny in their most atrocious forms. Painting a picture of a circle-like dystopia is – for all its entertaining and eye-opening value – nothing but another variation on how we travel space with the vessels of centuries long gone by[11]. The horror scenario that is both more likely to emerge and much more threatening (not the least because of its newness) is a total breakdown of our inherited institutions (political, economic, societal, etc.) and a take-over by a medialised mob, reassembling in different constellations at every occasion: A world where public (and private) decisions are based on quick “thumbs up” popularity votes; where business is conducted through click-baiting customers deeper and deeper into their filter bubbles[12]; and where apparent (or real) mistakes are punished through lynch law on the grounds of unquestioned pseudo-evidence, rumours, and hearsay[13]. A rotten, rudderless 17th century vessel falling off the edge of a disintegrating 17th century map into the torments of hellfires even medieval poets were too uncreative to imagine[14].

And then? If this is the risk we’re facing, what can be done?

Firstly, just like many 18th and 19th century thinkers recommended[15], an indispensable building block of what can be done is – once again – our human mind. Not only – but necessary as a starting point – the well-groomed, rationally and scientifically thinking, emotionally and artistically refined human mind of enlightened spirit, able to make good use of their own understanding, emerging from their self-imposed immaturity, i.e. their inability to use their understanding without guidance from another, which is self-imposed when its cause lies not in lack of understanding, but in lack of resolve and courage to use it without guidance from another[16]. Then, in addition to this fully developed enlightened mind of Kantian measures, our times also call for our mind’s ability to question itself, its unique capability to hypothesise that the only unquestionable hypothesis is the hypothesis that every hypothesis can be wrong – be that in scientific research[17], in economics and everyday life[18], or in our inner psychological workings[19]. Accepting that what we see, hear, smell, fell, and taste might not be what what is there, that what we think it is might not be what we see, hear, smell, fell, and taste, and that what is might not be what we think – no matter whether we look at things or people or people’s views on things or people: Continuous vigilance with regard to what our minds present us with as truths is a virtue we’ll have to cultivate moment by moment, more and more.

While acknowledging the power of our individual minds, 20th century research has also looked deeply into its shortcomings, in particular when it comes to minds in interaction with other minds: Yes, there’s  wisdom of crowds[20], but – and this is the more important risk to watch out for – there’s also the threat of groupthink, of minds being carried away by what other minds around them are doing or thinking, to the point of doing things that the individual mind would’ve proclaimed itself incapable of[21]. How this plays out when political systems don’t oppose or even foster such behaviours, has direly been taught by the banality of evil, the willing executioners, and the gulag archipelagos of the 20th century. With 21st century technologies at our fingertips, human beings no longer need political support to unleash the power of groupthink and, even worse, group action – with the medialised mobs that come into being within no time, due to their very nature not being defined (let alone restrained) by any inherited rules, norms, or values. And sometimes, the individual mind, even when fully aware of its being hijacked by the collective power of other minds, will not be strong enough to take a break, take a breath, stand back, walk out, protest, and stop others from doing harm[22].

Secondly, therefore, we’ll need rules, norms, and values that are automatically adopted by groups coming together without prior interaction and diffusing again once their immediate task has been attended to. These rules, norms, or values cannot be imposed by any of our existing institutions, as such groups convene across boundaries, on a global scale, with no roots in any specific (nation) state, culture, religion, or other pre-defined identity[23]. Fortunately (triggered by challenges that businesses face in today’s world), quite some research has by now gone into what makes groups work well together and to create the circumstances for effective group conversations and interactions[24]. Concepts such as “teaming” – described as “both a mindset that accepts working together actively and a set of behaviours tailored to sharing and synthesising knowledge”, based on a learning attitude of all involved, psychological safety of the environment, willingness (and ability) to learn from failure, and transcendence of occupational and cultural boundaries[25] – or collaboration – as a form of cooperation in which those who collaborate accept and welcome the fact that they themselves are going to change through collaborating[26] – have recently gained popularity with business players grappling with the internal and external challenges of managing profitability, growth, and innovation in unpredictable environments. The elements of these approaches are well-suited to help groups in any conceivable context to come together, interact, debate, and arrive at conclusions and actions without falling prey to the perils of groupthink.

At this point, I can already hear your complaints: “Human beings who continuously question themselves? Groups that come together on the fly and then work together like the highest-performing teams we know? Come on – this might all be theoretically appealing, but practically, it’s just impossible.” If these were your thoughts right now, may I, just for a moment, invite you to think back to that conversation you had back in 1765, when your aristocratic great-aunt exclaimed: “Men (and women) who have a view and then vote on political matters? Parliaments that convene on a regular basis and decide on issues that used to be too difficult for the king himself and his brightest ministers? Come on – this might all be theoretical appealing, but practically, it’s just impossible.” Well – it wasn’t impossible. It worked, and in many dimensions it still works today.

In addition, there’s a very practical advantage to focusing on the two aspects spelled out above: Even if – perish the thought! – the horror scenario of a medialised mob taking over turned into brutal reality, those who have developed the skills to question themselves and to cooperate well with others would be in a better position to defend themselves and their values against the madness of rampaging (and every-changing) majorities[27] – a bit like a group of geographical entrepreneurs having access to satellite navigation and a flying amphibious vehicle in competition with the 17th century explorers on their sailing vessels. And even if their success – however it is being measured – falls short of whatever expectations, the sheer joy of trying things out, learning, growing, and developing can be an aim and an achievement in and of itself[28].

Now, there’s a lot to be thought and said about how such an approach can be implemented within (or: in addition to) the institutions, beliefs, and superstitions that structure our world as we experience it. For the time being, however, I’ll restrict myself to four practical recommendations on what each of us can do individually to prepare for getting better and better at both questioning ourselves and at cooperating constructively with others – enjoy!

  1. Change a habit: Every day, just for the joy of it, change a habit in your life – drink tea instead of coffee (or coffee instead of tea), pick up the phone instead of writing an email (or vice versa), put an item in your shopping cart that you’ve never bought before (or make something yourself that you always bought), listen to music while working (or turn it off and enjoy white silence), go to sleep early (or really late). This will make you more aware and accepting of the volatility of your identity – and prepare you for imagining a world beyond the map.
  2. Investigate: Every day, just for the curiosity of it, take time to gently investigate something or somebody crossing your way – get to the sources, falsehoods, and truths of something you read on social media, follow through with the etymology, lineage, and tradition of a word or concept you meet, ask questions to understand what motivates somebody you interact with, what makes them happy and what makes them red with rage – and why. This will make you more aware and accepting of the complexity of causes and conditions, and less prone to prejudice – and it will prepare you for travelling outside chartered waters.
  3. Reverse directions: Every day, just for the fun of it, exchange the directions of things you do and things happening to you – listen to your own words as if they came from someone else, feel the truths of what you hear from others as if they were your inventions; look at your own thoughts as if they were something you read in a book or, out of the blue, heard on the radio, adopt the reality of what you read or hear as if it was a production of your own mind. This will make you more aware and accepting of the fragility of convictions – and it will prepare you for discovering what you were never looking for.
  4. Do nothing: Every day, just for the peace of it, do nothing for a little while – watch the sky and the clouds, watch a fly on the wall; listen to the sounds of waves and winds, listen to your heartbeat and breathing; rest in the gaps between business and busyness, rest in the gaps between thoughts. This will make you more aware and accepting of the equality of being and not being – and it will prepare you for continuously depuzzling and repuzzling anybody’s worlds.

One piece, by the way, is missing in our puzzle. There’s a gap somewhere in the Indian Ocean. If you find it, please let me know.

A gap.

[1] This, alas, is not a new observation. It’s most likely as old as mankind. The specific way of putting it here is borrowed from John Donne’s “An Anatomy of the World, Wherein, by occasion of the untimely death of Mistress Elizabeth Drury, the frailty and the decay of this whole world is represented. The First Anniversary” (1611), where he says: “‘Tis all in pieces, all coherence gone.” BACK TO TEXT

[2] This list is not exhaustive and also not meant to define any priority of these four topics compared with others. Any good study on megatrends or global forces out there will give you a similar (but different) set of topics. For a readable and well-researched study, you might pick, for example, “The Four Global Forces Breaking All The Trends” by McKinsey’s Richard Dobbs, James Manyika, and Jonathan Woetzel (2015). Their four forces are: Urbanisation, technological change, an ageing world, and greater global connections.BACK TO TEXT

[3] An excellent (German language) essay on this effect is Meike Lobo’s “Das Zeitalter der Massenhysterie” which can be found here [retrieved Mar 4, 2016].BACK TO TEXT

[4] I’m fully aware of the fact that, in many respects, this conglomerate of concepts, plans, and modes of execution is neither “Western” nor “civilisation”, however, I’m using this label here for ease of communication. For a thoroughly researched history of the political parts of this story, I still recommend Wolfgang Reinhard, “Geschichte der Staatsgewalt” (1999).BACK TO TEXT

[5] A worthy re-read on the public sphere is Jürgen Habermas, “Strukturwandel der Öffentlichkeit” (1962) in all its 1960s glory (translated into English as “The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere” in 1989).BACK TO TEXT

[6] This gives me the opportunity to reference both my book on early modern peace plans, “Rêveurs de Paix? Friedenspläne bei Crucé, Richelieu und Sully” (1995) as well as the volume “War, Peace and World Order in European History” which I co-edited with Beatrice Heuser (2001). Of course, a lot more has been said about this subject – some more thoughts of mine can be found here, including further references [retrieved Mar 4, 2016].BACK TO TEXT

[7] With sincere apologies to all historians and theoreticians of economy that feel offended by this simplification. You’re most likely right – there’s certainly more detail worth exploring.BACK TO TEXT

[8] With the NASA and Scott Kelly – see here [retrieved Mar 4, 2016] as well as the hashtag #YearInSpace on social media.BACK TO TEXT

[9] As in an experiment conducted at Duke University Medical School in Durham (North Carolina) – read a (German language) article about the experiment and its results here [retrieved Mar 4, 2016].BACK TO TEXT

[10] Don’t get me wrong – I have huge respect for cavemen (further explorations can be found here [retrieved Mar 4, 2016]), and I certainly don’t want to get into a discussion about the legitimacy (or lack thereof) of using drugs. This is a metaphor, and it’s most likely ill-chosen.BACK TO TEXT

[11] If you haven’t read Dave Eggers’ “The Circle”, you should so so very soon (2013).BACK TO TEXT

[12] Credit for this term goes to the immensely readable “The Filter Bubble” by Eli Pariser (2011).BACK TO TEXT

[13] There’s no shortage of examples of such cases already happening – just do an internet search for “shitstorm” and browse through the examples.BACK TO TEXT

[14] With the exception, perhaps, of the very non-medieval Hieronymus Bosch (who was not a poet, either). Ironically, in this context, his painting “The Garden of Delights” has just been turned into a virtual reality movie on the occasion of his 500th death anniversary – a sample and more information is here [retrieved Mar 4, 2016].BACK TO TEXT

[15] After what I wrote above, I’m fully aware of the irony of starting this thread of thoughts with a reference to previous centuries, once again. My (legitimate, as I believe) excuse for this is that I’m convinced that the overall global shifts that we’re facing today are structurally comparable to what happened around 1800 in Europe and North America, when far-reaching trends in society, economics, and politics combined to eventually morph into the set of mindsets and institutions that were designed to create a frame for the risks and challenges inherent in those new developments. Accepting this premise, it’s not contradictory to also adopt (at least some of) the structural building blocks of the interpretations and solutions offered by the thinkers of that particular period. How exactly, however, needs to be detailed further. BACK TO TEXT

[16] The latter part of this paragraph is shamelessly copy-pasted from Immanuel Kant’s “What is Enlightenment?” (1784), the English Translation of which can be found here [retrieved Mar 4, 2016]. – For a more recent description of the same idea in the context of our times, I recommend reading Michael Pauen, Harald Welzer, “Autonomie” (2015).BACK TO TEXT

[17] Unsurpassed: Thomas Kuhn’s “The Structure of Scientific Revolutions” (1962).BACK TO TEXT

[18] Best summarised by Daniel Kahnemann in “Thinking, Fast And Slow” (2011).BACK TO TEXT

[19] Nicely laid out by Bruce Ecker and Laurel Hulley in their “Depth-Oriented Brief Therapy” (1996), a recent favourite of mine on the mechanics of psychology and psychotherapy.BACK TO TEXT

[20] As coined by James Surowiecki in his “The Wisdom of Crowds” (2004). On the (corresponding) value of diversity, see also my related post here [retrieved Mar 4, 2016].BACK TO TEXT

[21] A lot has been written since, but you can still get deep into the topic by just reading Irving Janis’ “Groupthink” (1982).BACK TO TEXT

[22] Harald Welzer’s “Selbst Denken” (2014) has striking examples of how (just like the mainstream “Mitläufer”) dissenters, too, need a social environment that supports and enhances their deviant behaviour.BACK TO TEXT

[23] As an aside: I don’t think that such rules, norms, or values can (and, for that matter, should) be transported through companies’ terms and conditions. Doing business with somebody and clarifying the terms and conditions of who’s responsible for which part of the deal is one thing; creating agreements between human beings as to how they want to interact with each other is a very different thing. Developing and establishing frameworks for the latter, with all its precarious balance between individual freedom and collective commitment to rules of law as well as processes for their generation, modification, and execution, is one of the great achievements of the 18th and 19th century that we should never compromise on.BACK TO TEXT

[24] A short, but fascinating read on this is Charles Duhigg’s article “What Google Learned From Its Quest To Build the Perfect Team”, in “The New York Times Magazine” (Feb 25th, 2016) available here [retrieved Mar 4, 2016].BACK TO TEXT

[25] Taken from the excellent description and analysis in Amy Edmondson’s “Teaming” (2012), the quote is in the chapter “Four Pillars of Effective Teaming”.BACK TO TEXT

[26] Laid out within a broad philosophical context by Mark Terkessidis in “Kollaboration” (2105); the same idea is at the core of the “learning labs” methodology which has recently become popular in many business situations, see, for example, Zaid Hassan’s “The Social Labs Revolution” (2014) which has a helpful combination of theory and practical examples.BACK TO TEXT

[27] For examples, see the reference above, in note [22].BACK TO TEXT

[28] Read Carol Dweck’s “Mindset” (2006) for the underlying theory and plenty of examples of how this works.BACK TO TEXT

* All photos are pictures of Blatz Puzzle 57725 “Antike Weltkarte” (1,500 pieces) – unfortunately, the puzzle container does not give further information about the original source of the map which (according to a label in the upper right hand corner) was produced in Amsterdam in 1626, “apud Ioannem Laussonium”.

Of maps, mobs, and mind: Navigating the puzzles of unchartered times