Leadership, light and darkness, and the inner journey

let-your-life-speakAmong the many books I read this summer, Let Your Life Speak by American writer and teacher Parker J. Palmer is the one that lingered in my mind perhaps for the longest time. Be it the author’s quiet and understated writing style (so far from so much of the self-help literature we usually find on bookstore shelves), his unusual sincerity about such facts of life as the debilitating depression he went through, or his life experience of over ten years in a tiny Quaker community, Palmer reminded me of other mystics, such as Alan Watts or Thomas Merton, but without a trace of their New Age glamour, even if thrust upon them rather than sought.

Chapter V, “Leading from Within”, is about how lights and shadows coexist in leadership, and why leaders need to have visited their inner shadows. Here goes his argument (emphasis mine):

A leader is someone with the power to project either shadows or light onto some part of the world and onto the lives of the people who dwell there. […] A good leader has high awareness of the interplay of inner shadow and light, lest the act of leadership do more harm than good. […]

We have a long tradition of approaching leadership via “the power of positive thinking.” I want to counterbalance that approach by paying special attention to the tendency we have as leaders to project more shadow than light. Leadership is hard work for which one is regularly criticized and rarely rewarded, so it is understandable that we need to bolster ourselves with positive thoughts. But by failing to look at our shadows, we feed a dangerous delusion that leaders too often indulge: that our efforts are always well-intended, our power always benign, and the problem is always in those difficult people whom we are trying to lead!

Those of us who readily embrace leadership, especially public leadership, tend toward extroversion, which often means ignoring what is happening inside ourselves. If we have any sort of inner life, we “compartmentalize” it, walling it off from our public work. […] Leaders need not only the technical skills to manage the external world—they need the spiritual skills to journey inward toward the source of both shadow and light. […] The spiritual journey runs counter to the power of positive thinking. […] If we do not understand that the enemy is within, we will find a thousand ways of making someone “out there” into the enemy […].

Good leadership comes from people who have penetrated their own inner darkness and arrived at the place where we are at one with one another, people who can lead the rest of us to a place of “hidden wholeness” because they have been there and know the way. […] But why would anybody want to take a journey of that sort, with its multiple difficulties and dangers? Everything in us cries out against it—which is why we externalize everything. It is so much easier to deal with the external world, to spend our lives manipulating material and institutions and other people instead of dealing with our own souls. […] If we, as leaders, are to cast less shadow and more light, we need to ride certain monsters all the way down, understand the shadows they create, and experience the transformation that can come as we “get into” our own spiritual lives.

Palmer goes on to illustrate the “bestiary” of the five monsters he claims we need to get acquainted with. “The five are not theoretical for me; I became personally acquainted with each of them during my descent into depression. They are also the monsters I work with when I lead retreats where leaders of many sorts—CEOs, clergy, parents, teachers, citizens, and seekers—take an inward journey toward common ground.” I’ll list them here without a lot of detail because you, readers, are probably familiar with them; but please do read what Palmer has to say about them if you recognize them from your own experience. They are:

  1. Insecurity about identity and worth;
  2. The belief that the universe is a battleground, hostile to human interests;
  3. “Functional atheism”, the belief that ultimate responsibility for everything rests with us. (“This is the unconscious, unexamined conviction that if anything decent is going to happen here, we are the ones who must make it happen—a conviction held even by people who talk a good game about God.”)
  4. Fear, especially the fear of the natural chaos of life;
  5. “The denial of death itself”.

And here are the corresponding gifts we receive on the inner journey:

  1. The knowledge that identity does not depend on the role we play or the power it gives us over others;
  2. The insight that the universe is working together for good. “The structure of reality is not the structure of a battle. Reality is not out to get anybody”;
  3. The knowledge that ours is not the only act in town. “Not only are there other acts out there, but some of them are even better than ours, at least occasionally! We learn that we need not carry the whole load but can share it with others, liberating us and empowering them. We learn that sometimes we are free to lay the load down altogether. The great community asks us to do only what we are able, and trust the rest to other hands.”
  4. The insight that chaos is the precondition to creativity. “As every creation myth has it, life itself emerged from the void. Even that which has been created needs to be returned to chaos from time to time so it can be regenerated in more vital form. When a leader fears chaos so deeply that he or she tries to eliminate it, the shadow of death will fall across everything that leader approaches—for the ultimate answer to all of life’s messiness is death.”
  5. The knowledge that death finally comes to everything “—and yet death does not have the final word. By allowing something to die when its time is due, we create the conditions under which new life can emerge.”

Can we help each other deal with the inner issues inherent in leadership? Palmer’s answer is not only that we can, but that we must. What might that help look like?

First, we could lift up the value of “inner work.” That phrase should become commonplace in families, schools, and religious institutions, at least, helping us to understand that inner work is as real as outer work and involves skills one can develop, skills like journaling, reflective reading, spiritual friendship, meditation, and prayer.

Second, we could spread the word that inner work, though it is a deeply personal matter, is not necessarily a private matter: inner work can be helped along in community. Indeed, doing inner work together is a vital counterpoint to doing it alone. […] The key to this form of community involves holding a paradox—the paradox of having relationships in which we protect each other’s aloneness. We must come together in ways that respect the solitude of the soul, that avoid the unconscious violence we do when we try to save each other, that evoke our capacity to hold another life in ways that honor its mystery, never trying to coerce the other into meeting our own needs.

Third, we can remind each other of the dominant role that fear plays in our lives […] “Be not afraid” does not mean we cannot have fear. Everyone has fear, and people who embrace the call to leadership often find fear abounding. Instead, the words say we do not need to be the fear we have. We do not have to lead from a place of fear, thus engendering a world in which fear is multiplied.

We have places of fear inside of us, but we have other places as well—places with names like trust, and hope, and faith. We can choose to lead from one of those places, to stand on ground that is not riddled with the fault lines of fear, to move toward others from a place of promise instead of anxiety. As we stand in one of those places, fear may remain close at hand and our spirits may still tremble. But now we stand on ground that will support us, ground from which we can lead others toward a more trustworthy, more hopeful, more faithful way of being in the world.

Summer reading 2016: Obsessed with the future

There is a common thread in all the books I’ve read in the first stretch of this summer: the future. I know that the past offers rich rewards – history, biography and historical fiction produce many of the pleasures of reading. But this season I’m obsessed with the future.


My non-fiction pick for the summer is The 100-Year Life: Living and working in an age of longevity by Lynda Gratton and Andrew Scott. Most financial planning guides to a long life focus on the narrow view of how much you need to have in your nest egg before you retire. This book does cover that in some detail (and it is indeed a grim picture for most of us), but takes a much broader perspective. Gratton and Scott prompt you not just to plan in terms of tangible assets, but to pay attention to three categories of intangible assets: 

  • Productive assets: education, knowledge, skills, professional social capital, reputation.
  • Vitality assets: health, well-being, friendships, family relationships and partnerships.
  • Transformational assets: self-knowledge, capacity to reach out into diverse networks, openness to new experiences.

In a fascinating exercise, the authors lay out the career paths of their fictional characters – Jack (born in 1945), Jimmy (1971) and Jane (1998) – and look at how their productive, vitality and transformational assets grow and are depleted through the stages of their lives. And Jane, of course, goes through many more stages than we know today: periods of exploration, reinvention, small-scale entrepreneurship (as an “independent producer”), full-time work, transitions (including going back to school, online or otherwise), and part-time and advisory roles. Jane does not, indeed, fully “retire” until 2083, when she is 85 years old. Even if you have a pretty good sense of how your life is going to play out (but who really does, these days?), this book is worth reading for the insight it can give you into what your children’s lives might well look like.

The fiction shelf – which, again, reflects my quirks and narrative passions – holds several gems this summer:

  • The Mandibles: A Family, 2029-2047, by Lionel Shriver (I trust you have already read We Need To Talk About Kevin. If not, go do it.) In The Mandibles, the world is barely recovering from the global Internet blackout of 2024, but things start getting worse again. In 2029, the dollar is no longer the world’s reserve currency, replaced by another currency devised by the IMF. Congress bans American citizens from holding the new currency and imposes capital controls to prevent dollars from leaving the country. The US President obtains emergency powers, all gold in private hands is confiscated by the Treasury, and the US declares default on its debt. The story of the Mandible family unfolds through this crisis and provides the narrative glue that holds together a dystopia of increasing grimness. As we read this novel in 2016, we are in a peculiar election year, a fact that cannot have been far from the author’s mind, with the result that Shriver’s dark satire never degenerates into farce and never feels wholly implausible. (Yes, Nevada does secede). A must-read.
  • The Paper Menagerie and Other Stories, by Ken Liu. Ken Liu is best known for being the English translator of Cixin Liu’s The Three-Body Problem, a somewhat frigid cornerstone of contemporary Chinese science fiction that has lately gained attention in Silicon Valley circles. But he is a talented narrator in his own right, and this collection of short stories is delightful. The stories span science fiction, little-known folds of American and Chinese history, alternate history, fantasy, sometimes in tones halfway between Borges and Lovecraft, some other times with a distinctly steampunk sensitivity (here’s just one of the sentences I underlined: “Once the automata were finished, we connected them to the latest analytic engines shipped from Britain and fed them with tape punched with dense holes in Babbage-Lovelace code”). It takes a special imagination to write a story (“A Brief History of the Trans-Pacific Tunnel”) about Emperor Hirohito’s initiative during the Great Depression, in collaboration with President Herbert Hoover, to dig a tunnel allowing people to travel from Shanghai via Tokyo to Seattle in little less than two days in a capsule under the ocean; this feat of politics and engineering in the 1930s makes the Great War the last global war of the twentieth century.
  • The End of the World Running Club, by Adrian J. Walker. I have written before about end-of-civilization stories and how they never fail to enthrall us. The peculiar charm of this one is that it puts at its center a rather unlikeable character, trying to get to Cornwall from Scotland in the hope of reaching one of the last few evacuation ships sent by a hospitable nation of the Southern hemisphere after the Northern one has been pretty much wiped out by asteroids. The story of a few of the survivors in the months after the event is told with restraint and without fear.
  • Manna: Two Visions of Humanity’s Future, by Marshall Brain. This short fiction, first published in 2003, is a technology-driven dystopia (happening, of course, in America) and utopia (in Australia) together. Its vaguely Singularitarian thesis is that we can use robots either to make our own lives hell, or to create a paradise-like world in which everybody has the means to fulfill their talents and to create the life they truly want. It is a quick read (one would want, in particular, to read more about how technology will simply eliminate the need for markets) but it will linger in your mind for a long time. (Note that Abundance: The Future is Better Than You Think by Peter Diamandis and Steven Kotler, a non-fiction potentially underpinning to Brain’s tale, wasn’t published until 2012).

Hope these books make you think, laugh, and cry. As usual, let me know your best of the season – particularly if they’re about the future.

Milan, Italy: Summer 2016 Restaurant Top Ten


I owe you, dear readers, an update on restaurants in Milano, given the number and especially the quality of new openings in recent months. Here’s the definitive Top 10 for this summer according to my trusted sources.

  1. Enrico Bartolini at the Mudec
  2. Essenza
  3. Il Luogo di Aimo e Nadia
  4. Contraste
  5. Cracco
  6. Berton
  7. Joia
  8. Langosteria
  9. Innocenti Evasioni
  10. La Bottega del Vino

Please note that if we went 30mins outside Milan, we’d have to acknowledge D’O at the top of the list. Will we one day see Davide Oldani bring his talent into the city?

(Photo: Innocenti Evasioni.)

Connecting the dots on the self

Over the past few years, I have been fortunate to read a good number of books, and sometimes to connect the dots among some of them, as much as they came from different writers, experiences, and historical periods. Here are three that, I believe, are about essentially the same central idea:

  • René Guénon, Man and his Becoming according to the Vedanta (originally published in 1925);
  • Alan Watts, The Book: On the Taboo Against Knowing Who You Are (1966);
  • Sam Harris, Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion (2014).

The central concept is perhaps most vividly expressed in the Alan Watts book (see a good Brainpickings summary here):

We suffer from a hallucination, from a false and distorted sensation of our own existence as living organisms. Most of us have the sensation that “I myself” is a separate center of feeling and action, living inside and bounded by the physical body — a center which “confronts” an “external” world of people and things, making contact through the senses with a universe both alien and strange. Everyday figures of speech reflect this illusion. “I came into this world.” “You must face reality.” “The conquest of nature.”

This feeling of being lonely and very temporary visitors in the universe is in flat contradiction to everything known about man (and all other living organisms) in the sciences. We do not “come into” this world; we come out of it, as leaves from a tree. As the ocean “waves,” the universe “peoples.” Every individual is an expression of the whole realm of nature, a unique action of the total universe. This fact is rarely, if ever, experienced by most individuals. Even those who know it to be true in theory do not sense or feel it, but continue to be aware of themselves as isolated “egos” inside bags of skin.

Alan Watts, a Brit, was a lapsed Episcopal priest and lifelong student of Zen Buddhism who transplanted himself to California in the 1950s. He wrote one of the first bestselling books on Buddhism, The Way of Zen (1957), but was also influenced by Hindu scriptures, especially Vedanta, and Chinese philosophy. He came in contact with many figures in the Human Potential movement and earned a large followership through a weekly program on a Berkeley radio station. He lived his later years between a houseboat in Sausalito and a cabin on Mt. Tamalpais.

René Guénon, born in central France, became acquainted with Hinduism and Taoism in his student days in Paris; in the early 1910s he embraced Islam and was initiated into Islamic esoterism, taking the name Sheikh ‘Abd al-Wahid Yahya. He researched and published extensively on Eastern doctrines, becoming one of the first Westerners to popularize the darshanas, or “visions”, of Hindu philosophy and devoting a seminal text to Vedanta darshana, the most metaphysical of them all. In 1930 Guénon moved to Cairo, where he joined a Sufi order and lived for the rest of his life.

Sam Harris is a living author from California, so I’ll leave it to his publisher: Sam Harris is the author of five New York Times bestsellers […]. The End of Faith won the 2005 PEN Award for Nonfiction. His writing and public lectures cover a wide range of topics—neuroscience, moral philosophy, religion, spirituality, violence, human reasoning—but generally focus on how a growing understanding of ourselves and the world is changing our sense of how we should live. 

The Book, by Alan Watts, is challenging and accessible at the same time, and I highly recommend it. It is a delight to read and poses a true conundrum to the reader, especially at a time – like today; I am writing barely two weeks after the terrorists attacks in Paris – when separateness spikes up, and none of us can imagine being leaves from the same tree as the perpetrators. And yet it offers me a lesson – the self is illusory – so important, and so radically different from everything else I might think about what I am, that, if I could learn it, it would provide me with all the empathy and the humility that no worldly doctrine or practice has yet been able to teach me.

Guénon’s book on Vedanta is dense, obscure and technical; I only recommend it if you’ve had at least a crash course in traditional Indian philosophies, as his attempt to decipher the Upanishads and the Brahma Sutras relies on the reader mastering at least their basic vocabulary. Nevertheless, if you find an edition with good explanatory notes, it can be deeply rewarding – and it is plausible to me that at the core of Guénon’s reading of Vedanta there is the same insight that, forty years later, compelled Watts’s book.

Harris’s Waking up suffers from a few idiosyncrasies (for example, he seems to have quite enjoyed a number of brain-damaging drugs in verifying that they would indeed open the doors of perception) and spends too many pages quibbling with phenomena of marginal interest, such as near-death experiences. The author acknowledges his debt to Advaita Vedanta and to Poonja-ji, the teacher he practiced with. But the spiritual path he has found most rewarding is a different one, which is little known in the West, and seems irresistibly seductive. Dzogchen, a stream of Tibetan Buddhism, offers – in contrast to the many “paths of gradual ascent”, whereby a student adopts a practice like meditation for years or decades – a “path of sudden realization”, where a qualified teacher may precipitate an insight such that the pupil may “take the goal as the path”, experiencing the intrinsic selflessness of awareness in every moment: “the freedom from self that one might otherwise seek is the very thing that one practices.” No wonder our Western minds struggle. The author himself admits that, at his level of practice, the freedom from suffering allowed by the sudden insight of non-duality lasts only a few moments, although these moments can be repeated, and “punctuating ordinary experience in this way makes all the difference”. If you are a seeker, this may not be the solution for you or even your cup of tea (to the extent that “you” perceive yourself as a separate self). Still, Waking up is a worthwhile read if you are willing to be open-minded, to challenge your view of the world, and to glimpse what a different experience of reality might feel like.


Business Reading: Exponential Organizations and The Hard Thing About Hard Things

What’s true in literary fiction is also true for business books, I believe: if readers still say good things about something about a year after it came out, then it’s probably good, and not just the flavor of the month. This summer I read two 2014 titles I had had on my wish list for a while, and figured were ripe enough for picking.

2_d51b386d7c928e25_1280boxExponential Organizations, by Salim Ismail, Yuri van Geest and Michael S. Malone, is a well-researched outline of the key characteristics of a new generation of companies – the Ubers, the AirBnBs, the GitHubs of this world -, and of how they have come to disrupt markets, invent them them, or challenge longstanding business models in the space of just a few short years, by virtue of their exponential growth. These companies, which others often call Unicorns, have been extensively chronicled elsewhere, so the framework that the book lays out to identify them is useful, but not transformative; and the proposed scoring approach to rank Exponential Organizations (to be an Exponential Organization, you have to have a Massive Transformative Purpose plus at least 4 out of a list of 10 attributes that these tend to have in common) may appear a bit formulaic.

ExO AttributesIf one were to nitpick, such concepts as Holacracy – one of the more untraditional organizational philosophies adopted by some of the companies in the sample, covered in the book under the Autonomy attribute – seem to have had a bit of a rough time since the book was written. The authors, to be fair, don’t claim that any of these practices or characteristics would necessarily be needed for you to have an Exponential Organization; and it is perhaps inevitable that the riskiest management innovations are also the ones most at risk of being misunderstood, falling out of fashion, or simply failing. After all, in the words of my favorite business authors Pfeffer and Sutton, you should always “treat your organization as a prototype”.

The more valuable content in Exponential Organizations – at least for the vast majority of potential readers – comes in the second half, where the authors address what to do if you work in a traditional organization, one that thinks of itself as a well-fed turkey and may not realize that Thanksgiving is drawing near. A highlight of the work is in Chapter 8, which describes a few potential avenues to choose from, possibly in combination:

  1. Transform leadership; this includes training your Board of Directors to be aware of exponential technologies and the resulting disruption;
  2. Partner with, invest in, or acquire Exponential Organizations;
  3. Disrupt[X]: create an “edge Exponential Organization” at your boundaries, hire a “black ops” team to hack your business model for you, copy the Google[X] Lab, partner with accelerators, incubators and hackerspaces;
  4. Try “ExO Lite”, applying some of the ten attributes, even if in a diluted form, to your core business processes.

Chapter 10 is also worthwhile, as it tells you what’s in store for you if you are a CEO, CMO, CTO, CIO, CFO, Chief Legal Officer, Chief HR Officer and so on: you want your company to start pursuing this path, but you also need your colleagues to share your vision, and not think that you’ve lost your marbles.

Overall, this book pays homage to the classics in the field (Christensen, Collins), builds on non-traditional thinkers about human affairs (Taleb), adds to the mix a number of recent business concepts (Ries, Hoffman, Thiel) and earns its place on the shelf as a strong contender for a short list of must-read business books today. As a personal note, I am generally a fan of the Singularity University thinking that the book is grounded in, even if some of its more extreme fringes are somewhat crackpot (immortality? please), and technology isn’t yet keeping all of its promises.

After Exponential Organizations, I dove into my second business book for the summer: and I felt I had crashed down from the ethereal halls of academia into the brutal trenches of corporate warfare.

The Hard Thing about Hard ThingsThe book is The Hard Thing About Hard Things, by Ben Horowitz of Andreessen Horowitz fame. It is less a manual about how to build companies (that material is largely adapted from the author’s blog), and more a CEO memoir from Horowitz’s life before becoming a venture capitalist. As business books go, it is gutwrenching. It reminds you that business will be sometimes about things like letting people go when you should not have hired them (or even when you should have); demoting your friend, even if he is your cofounder; or moving ahead when you feel like hiding, throwing up and quitting. In fact, the ability to “focus and make the best move when there are no good moves” is, according to the author, the core skill of a successful CEO. Especially a wartime CEO – and there is no guarantee that a successful peacetime CEO will be able to turn into a wartime CEO when the company goes to war.

One particularly harrowing war story is, believe it or not, about the interpretation of accounting principles: revenue recognition is always a big deal for software companies, and a difference in interpretation arose – as Horowitz tells the story – while he was going through the due diligence process to sell Opsware to either BMC or HP in 2007. It turns out that his auditors Ernst & Young had adhered to one interpretation of a contractual clause about software upgrades, while BMC’s auditors – also Ernst & Young – stood for the opposite interpretation, and required either restating revenues (which would have killed the deal) or amending three contracts with large banks in the space of 24 hours. Both bidders were informed of the situation; amazingly, in less than 24 hours, Horowitz and his team pulled off the contract amendments with the clients. Still, BMC pulled back, and the deal was done with HP, where Horowitz then spent the following year as VP and General Manager of Business Technology Optimization for Software.

Even scarier, the following happened to Horowitz as he was leading Loudcloud towards is IPO (in March 2001 – a stressful time if there ever was one for tech startups). Three days into the roadshow, he got a call about his wife from his father-in-law, saying that she had had an allergic reaction to some medicine: “Felicia stopped breathing, but she is not going to die.” When he was able to speak with her on the phone, she told him to continue focusing on the IPO and not come home from the roadshow. The IPO was finally done, Felicia got better, and life went on: but the Loudcloud business was not yet out of the woods, and indeed – in the meantime, Sept. 11 had happened – it was sold to EDS a little over a year after IPOing.

The Hard Thing About Hard Things has a lot of strong and useful nuggets about hiring, training, and building a corporate culture. Even the most uplifting chapters, though, are tinged by some existential bleakness from the trenches that Horowitz has fought in. I recommend this book to everybody whose business is not doing well, and to everybody whose business is doing well, too, because, in the author’s words:

  • Being a good company doesn’t matter when things go well, but it can be the difference between life and death when things go wrong.
  • Things always go wrong.
  • Being a good company is itself an end.

Recent Science Fiction. With Women

The_Martian_2014Two books I read in the last few months had me thinking not just about how science fiction is changing as a genre, but also how we as a society must be making some sort of improvement after all, if even male science fiction writers recognize their fellow geeks who happen to be women to the point of giving them lead roles in their stories.

The Martian by Andy Weir is a gripping survival story set on Mars, where astronaut Mark Watney has been stranded after a sandstorm has forced the rest of his mission to leave the planet without him. Mars, as you know, is a pretty cold and unhospitable place; Watney is there alone, with limited supplies and no communication system, and needs to hack what little he has in order to breathe, eat, and let the rest of the world know he is alive. At times most of the book is taken up with his calculations about oxygen, fuel, caloric intake needs and data transmission rates: math matters, and making a simple mistake could mean the difference between life and death. If you’re into such things as telecom engineering, extraterrestrial botanics, or space archaeology, you will enjoy this a lot.

So, Watney is a man; but the mission commander who decides to ignore higher orders and use her authority to go and rescue him, Melissa Lewis, is a woman. Originally a self-published work, the book was picked up by a publisher and is being adapted into a movie starring Matt Damon as Watney and Jessica Chastain as Lewis. I’ll be first in line for the ticket. (In the meantime, did I tell you how cool Sandra Bullock was in Gravity? no? did you miss it? go watch it).
Seveneves_Book_CoverNeal Stephenson‘s Seveneves is more than science fiction – it plots a future for humans in space after a cosmic catastrophe that spells the end of life on Earth. You already know I am a fan of what I call the end-of-civilization genre; I also was a fan of Stephenson’s after reading Snow Crash and Cryptonomicon, two brilliant books ahead of their time, but I lost patience with Quicksilver and I found Anathem a bit of a dud. With Seveneves, Stephenson fully returns in my good graces. Other than chronicling rocket launches, the plot does not spend a lot of time spelling out the mayhem that happens on Earth in the two short years between the initial, inexplicable disaster – an explosion of the moon – and the meteorite shower that makes the Earth inhabitable for the next five thousand years, give or take. Most of Stephenson’s action takes place on the safest outpost in those circumstances: the International Space Station, suddenly loaded with as many people as it can drag along with itself in space, as well as with tools, microchips, spare parts for robots, genetic code records, and anything else that can be shipped there to help those humans survive and figure out how to rebuild a self-sustaining civilization. In the early days the commander of the ISS, Ivy Xiao, is a woman, although political maneuvers on Earth quickly replace her with a man; her second-in-command, roboticist Dinah MacQuarie, is another woman. Women’s resilience, strength, and adaptability is indeed key to survival, when everything seems to go wrong and the last few men in the human race, instead of cooperating, focus on killing each other. Two of the bad guys in the story, US President Julia Bliss Flaherty and Italian rebel leader Aida Ferrari, are women, too. The rebuilt civilization will indeed include men; but the descendants of the survivors, five thousand years later, will all be shaped by the personalities and skills of the women who were there at that decisive time. This book is for you if you like orbital mechanics, meteorites, comets, robots, and grand plans for staying away five years but eventually returning home.

Effective altruism: Peter Singer, The Most Good You Can Do

SingerI like philosophy that engages with the world it lives in, and that has impact not just on academia but on institutions, corporations and public discourse. Philosophers such as Luciano Floridi (an information theorist and ethicist, who has served in an advisory council to Google) and Nick Bostrom (who also earned a PhD in Economics, and whose book Superintelligence was a New York Times bestseller) are redefining what it means to practice philosophy outside the ivory tower.

Lat week I finished reading The Most Good You Can Do, a book by Peter Singer that supports the “effective altruism” movement, a highly utilitarian approach to maximizing the total amount of good in the world and minimizing needless suffering and deaths by sentient beings. In a nutshell, the book argues that if you have a choice between (1) becoming a charity worker and going to a poor and war-torn country to save lives, and (2) becoming an investment banker, saving a substantial part of your income, and giving it to a charity that will use it to send many people to poor and war-torn countries to save lives, then it is the ethical thing to choose the latter, because it is the choice that maximizes total good. The book also highlights a number of resources in the field of charity evaluation, including the Centre for Effective Altruism, an umbrella organization for an evidence-based, analytical approach to philanthropic giving. You have read me quoting Singer before in the context of vegetarianism, or at least decreased meat consumption, to reduce animal suffering (here and here); the scope of this book, however, is much broader and I believe it will appeal to the many more people – hopefully – who care about human suffering. It will also challenge those of us who are proud of their support for museums, for the performing arts, and for other institutions whose funding issues can be called “first-world problems”: a new wing in a museum is extremely poor value, in the effective altruism framework, compared to an intervention that uses the same money to prevent malaria or cure trachoma.

The book gets even more intellectually challenging in the final chapter, “Preventing Human Extinction”, which calculates that – considering not just present lives on Earth, but all future lives that would be annihilated by an asteroid collision with Earth – we as a society should find it very good value to give NASA or some other organization funding ranging anywhere between $100 billion and $100 trillion to be spent on a system able to prevent a catastrophic hit by an extinction-sized asteroid. Here, Singer quotes Bostrom’s definition of existential risk, a situation in which “an adverse outcome would either annihilate Earth-originating intelligent life or permanently and drastically curtail its potential.” There are many existential risks, such as nuclear war, pandemics, global warming, and malevolent artificial superintelligence. Singer’s somewhat surprising conclusion is that “it seems that reducing existential risk should take precedence over doing other good things”, including helping people in extreme poverty today, but he argues that causes such as reducing extreme poverty are more likely to attract people to effective altruism than the more abstract cause of reducing existential risk.

The book ends with a counterintuitive – but surprisingly optimistic – point of view on artificial intelligence and its perceived dangers:

Some effective altruists have shown special interest in the dangers inherent in the development of artificial intelligence (AI). They see the problem as one of ensuring that AI will be friendly, by which they mean, friendly to humans […] The replacement of our species by some other form of conscious intelligence life is not in itself, impartially considered, catastrophic […] The risk posed by the development of AI […] is not so much whether it is friendly to us, but whether it is friendly to the idea of promoting well-being in general for all sentient beings it encounters, itself included […] There is some reason to believe that, even without any special effort on our part, superintelligent beings, whether biological or mechanical, will do the most good they possibly can.