Today is Labor Day. Which is why it was the perfect day for groups within the basic income movement to pronounce it Basic Income Day. That’s because one of the key things the basic income movement stands for is the decoupling of the link between work and the money that we need in order to live.
This is not about my personal opinions, though I have very many of those. For me, a universal basic income is going to be an essential part of surviving the century for our species, and the longer we delay the more catching up we will have to do later.
So, what is a universal basic income? The basic income movement encompasses many different visions and is one of the few areas of policy that unites those on the libertarian end of the spectrum (Milton Friedman) and the socialist (Chomsky). But the broad principle is simple. Everyone gets money given to them directly on a regular basis by the government, with no qualifying criteria other than citizenship of the place governed.
There are many reasons why people favour a universal basic income. The pressing practical reason is most frequently given is the increasing automation of the workplace. Will technology mean that there simply aren’t enough jobs to go around by the end of the century? Opinion differs, but if so then it is essential we address that problem. Many would say it is essential we address our society’s obsession with valuing people’s rights to the basic means of living according to their productivity anyway.
Libertarians focus on the possibilities for a basic income replacing many state benefits and kickstarting entrepreneurialism on an unprecedented scale (experiments in Africa and Asia have shown that free money does, indeed, give a tremendous boost to the starting, and sustaining, of new small businesses).
Socialists focus on the social safety net that a basic income would provide, freeing up citizens from what they see as meaningless and often counter-productive capability testing.
There are other reasons that cross such lines. Some point to the fact that one of the main factors that prevents women leaving abusive relationships is financial insecurity – a guaranteed basic income paid directly under all circumstances would give them a security net that would enable them to reach safety. And some point to benefits to mental health by removing pressure at critical points of vulnerability in a person’s life.
But what is of most interest to us here (though all are relevant, especially the entrepreneurial considerations, essentially providing many indies with start-up capital) is the potential that a basic income has for unleashing a new wave of creativity. For me the key points are these.
If you had a guaranteed income that met your basic needs, you would be free to write what you wanted. This may be exactly the same as what you write now, but for some of us it may not.
If you weren’t desperate for sales, you could spend more time writing and not be a slave to marketing (which may help you build the body of work that would end up growing your readership organically).
You would have time. It would buy you a shorter week doing the work you have to do, and that means more time for the stuff you love to do. And that includes writing.
It would ease the mental pressure that grows from the financial and time pressures so many of us feel and that can be so creatively paralyzing.
It is always a fine line to tread when one has a very strong agenda for change, between the political and the supra-political. Especially so when the issue in question lacks the fluidity that allows many of the most useful debates to have their natural rhythm. But as today is “Brexit Day”, it is both timely to mention it and important to do so in order to explain why I want to drive what I do here in a particular direction.
It is not a secret that I am a passionate advocate for the EU. I am not going to get into the past, present, or future debates on Brexit here, but the way I have phrased that sentence shows, I hope, the principle reason for my frustration with large swathes of not just the public Remain campaign but so many of my colleagues on social media. And it is indicative of a larger problem, which is what concerns us here and will take the rest of the post. One of the most infuriating things was, and still is, seeing people who share my passion get their rationale so wildly and so consistently wrong. With the wonderful exception of Scientists for the EU, high profile Remain campaigners singularly failed to put the case *for* anything. Not even for an idea. And that is heartbreaking, infuriating, and negligent in equal measure.
For me the case for Remain was simple. It was about a vision. And it was about the details of which that vision was made. By day I work for an academic faculty that receives a lot of EU funding. And we use it to bring together the best minds from across Europe and the world to do incredible things. The money we get from the EU comes with strings that are very different from those that come from our UK funding. They are strings that tell us not to do something quantifiably useful or “impactful” or whatever those woefully poor understandings of science mean. They simply tell us to go out and get the best minds to do the best things we can. And in the wider university we have students who take part in the EU’s Erasmus programme, which sends students to other countries to learn languages and benefit from expertise within their field throughout the EU. For me, being for the EU is about being for collaboration, cooperation, putting our heads together and figuring out the stuff that matters. It’s about seeing a problem and tearing it to the ground. It’s about saying there should be no barriers to solving the things that hold us back or that threaten to destroy our planet, and also celebrating the things that make us all better from education to art. Sure, it fails in practice a lot. But it’s about a collective statement that making the world better is what matters. And the Remain campaign utterly failed to get any of that across. It left the ideas part of the arena as open land for the Leave campaign. And it continues to be a misconception of Remainers that Leave won because people were hooked on what the campaign was against. But you don’t drive public conversation by being against something. That may be what it looks like, but you drive conversation by having a simple idea about what you are for. And that is what anyone who wants to change a conversation must articulate.
But this post, and this website, and my work here is not about campaigning for membership of the EU. What it is about, however, is, just as in that instance, a vision and a set of pieces that coalesce to form it. It is about creating a world in which we are all empowered, individually, as groups, and as communities formed in every kind of geographical configuration, to develop and use our skills for good, specifically in the challenges that face us as a planet.
What I want to be part of, then, depends on two kinds of vision – one for what kind of a species and world we want (one that steps up and solves the problems coming its way), and for how we want to treat individuals within that world (removing every barrier that stops them contributing in any way to that wider goal by using their skills in the way they see best fit, be that through research, through the care and support and enabling of others, through the creation of a rich cultural landscape that feeds all our dreams, or just through having the time to think without fear of hunger, war, or disease so that their thoughts can fly in glorious directions that may prove utterly fruitless without fear of failure).
And it also depends upon enacting the practical steps necessary to build a world in which that vision can happen. In order for that empowerment and the global unlocking of potential that would accompany it to take place we need two massive shifts. We need a universal basic income – because of the time and capacity it frees up by the fears and insecurities it removes. And we need universal open access to the sum of human knowledge – because to use that extra time and the talents it frees up, we need everyone to be able to use them.
But, and here’s the key thing – those steps, the ones that lead to the key foundations, cannot be built by fist pounding or anger or by decrying all the things they are not. They can only be built by capturing imaginations one by one, by inspiring new generations and old. And that means changing our conversations. The world I am trying to build is a world, for example and most importantly, where the link between a person’s value and “work” is cut. It is a world where we aim not to work more but less. Where we do not seek to call out those who are not “hard working” but seek to call out those who demand hard work for no good reason.
But that link between work and value is so hard-wired in our day to day thoughts and conversations that we can only begin to build this kind of world by changing the conversation. And that means not criticising, not being hateful, not labelling. It means being passionate about where value should lie, It means showing the value of all humans regardless of their capacity for work. It means telling stories of human value. It means making the case for the arts, for science, for collaboration and cooperation, for the incredible things that happen when we remove people from pointless and exhausting “work” without removing their means of survival. It means celebrating exploration and experimentation. It means showing a kid on the other side of the world from wherever we may be doing a cool thing and getting people to say that’s what I want to do – not because the story was told on social media and not because the kid got a patent or got hired by a big company or got a book or media deal – but because the kid did a cool thing.
I discovered this brilliant group through Sisu Girls who do incredible work promoting role models for girls the world over. Don’t watch because of the good work or the worthiness, just because they’re awesome.
This, of course, is a pitiful sketch. Aspects of it are inadequate (but I have my useful life to build upon it, and the part of the conversation to which I am contributing is a tiny one). Parts of it are woefully misleading (there is a tendency in my enthusiasm to sound aligned to a not very helpful libertarianism that would leave behind those not able to contribute or, conversely, part of some dry utilitarian planned system in which value is still attached to usefulness. Neither is true, but nuance, while essential, takes time and words that belong to the future. I am, as I hope what has gone before shows, committed to the highest quality of life for all, regardless of capability, and also to curiosity, creation, and research for their own sake, apart from impact. And parts will simply be wrong, in ways ‘I haven’t begun to understand but will come to.
But this is a start, and that is the most important part of anything. And an explanation. Our work, those who are with me on the road, will always need to be done at three levels – the visionary, the practical, and the conversation-changing
TED is the thing many in how-to and life-improvement and, I guess, culture in general love to hate. I love watching TED talks from time to time. Today, on International Women’s Day, I’ve been rewatching one of my heroes, Anna Frost, talking about the brilliant non-profit Sisu Girls.
The problem with TED is that it embodies that saying about encouraging the widest possible debate within the narrowest possible parameters.
And that’s not TED’s fault, because it doesn’t, unlike many of its devotees, claim that the sum of human intellectual and creative expansion can be captured in a series of 15 minute chunks. It’s a tool in the kit. A bit like a gel. If I tried to run a 24 hour ultramarathon with only gels I’d not only get very sick very quick – I’d probably underperform massively. But if I set out onto the trail without a single gel in my pack, it’d be a pretty sure bet at some point I’d regret that decision.
(while we’re on TED and International Women’s Day, here’s another of my heroes, freediver Tanya Streeter)
Likewise TED. TED is a great tool. And it has a pretty exact hole in the intellectual toolbox.
Take these figures. 5…20…10,000
They may well seem familiar, and that’s good, because they’re all really useful cliches that are as wrong as they are right but nonetheless belong in every toolbox. They are all “hours”. 5 refers to the so-called 5 hour habit – which says successful people (whatever the hell that means) tend to read cool new stuff for 5 hours a week. 20 refers to Josh Kaufman’s “learn anything in 20 hours” principle – which basically says that for most rewarding tasks, you can get pretty good at them with 20 hours of focused effort. And 10,000 is of course the ur-text of self-improvement, Malcolm Gladwell’s assertion that the grand masters in their fields will have put in 10,000 hours of practice. We could go on forever about a lot of these, critiquing why they’re all wrong – of course they are. All the best stuff is, but it’s wrong in interesting ways, and I’ve actually found these rough timeframes pretty sound ways to divide up apportioning time to things in the broad and deep model I discussed when I began this blog. I will certainly revisit that!
I would add two figures on the start of that, though. 2…15
And these figures represent not hours but minutes. 2 is the length of the perfect slam poem. It is exactly enough time to get across a really powerful idea in a full arc with nuance and cadence. Check out this brilliant example from Maddie Godfrey
And it applies to talks as well as poems. Take this, from last night’s Newsnight, in which Rutger Bregman, one of the thinkers at the vanguard of the basic income movements, makes the case for treating people as though they are basically good. There’s an incredibly dense level of argument and detail there.
We should all expose ourselves to such two minute takes (and spend even more time trying to construct them). They are perfect for exposing us to an idea that might send us on a new road or spark a connection we would never have made otherwise (they are not, just like the other figures are not, the key to life, the universe, and everything. One of the dangers of the connected world is that it is tempting to believe them to be. One of the main causes of scepticism with regard to the connected world is that its critics believe its participants think 2 minutes is all you need – by and large they don’t).
15 minutes is the other great chunk (you could make a case for an hour, the length of the traditional university lecture. I don’t yet have the data to know if I agree or disagree. I am genuinely not sure what an hour lecture does that no other time chunk can. I am very clear with regards to 5 hours though – possibly, admittedly, 5 x 1 hour – and also 15 minutes). In 15 minutes you can get a long way inside a single idea. Far enough to unpack it, to connect it with its surroundings, to explain its significance, to make you want to engage with it. It is the perfect time slot for, as TED puts it, “an idea worth sharing”.
And that brings us back to the problem. I will be the first to confess just how much I want to get on the TED stage. I think about it whenever I’m constructing a talk, and it’s the thing that gives me a flutter when I know that one of my talks is being recorded. And it makes me ask, constantly, “what is my idea worth sharing?” Which is great, in the same way as, being a writer, it’s great for me to be able to understand what the “concept” of my book is. But truly great ideas are not just simple, they are complex. A great TED talk will boil that complexity into its key essence, expressed in several modes (importance, context, relevance etc) – rather like something Heston Blumenthal would do with a bouillon. But for that idea really to burn bright in the world, in itself or in the delicious chimeras it spawns, it needs to be rehydrated into its full, complex richness (bad metaphor, I know. Hydration hardly enriches – I feel that given the top news story of this week, Mary Berry’s assault on the bolognese sauce, I should use th emetaphor of being expanded with double cream).
Condense, expand; develop, deep practice, ingraft – all of these are key to innovation. All of them use a different tool in our creative kit. TED’s “idea worth sharing” is just one of those. I still don’t know what mine is:
the tiny step of looking at the world differently could spark our species’ next giant leap forward
bringing a deep knowledge to a myriad things, and bringing a myriad things to your deep expertise can alchemise into something magical
you can change your organisation immeasurably by writing off a portion of everyone’s time for them to develop their creativity
look at the world from a perspective no one else has ever used and you will create a whole new world
keep throwing incongruous ideas at each other and eventually two will stick together that could change the world
Something like one of these. Maybe all of them.
But what I have really learned by talking about TED is that however valuable the question “what is your idea worth sharing?” might be, it is not the only question we need to ask.
Let’s end with this bitesize masterpiece from the extraordinary Vanessa Kisuule