‘The camera lens was our way of disengaging from each other, distancing ourselves from each other’s emotions.’ At the moment, we are using the camera lens in our computer or mobile phone to distance ourselves physically from colleagues, friends and relatives in order to hinder the spread of coronavirus. However, the camera lens also allows us to disengage emotionally from one another as JG Ballard wrote thirty years ago in his novel called ‘The Kindness of Women‘ from which the opening sentence is taken. It is relatively easy to avoid giving emotional cues to your interlocutor when they can only see a flat image of your face. I am unsure whether JG Ballard would have anticipated our virus-induced socially-distanced world but he would certainly have recognised the rather flat discussions that we tend to have in our internet meetings.
It is traditional at the start of the year to speculate on what will happen in the new year. However, as Niels Bohr is reputed to have said ‘Prediction is very difficult, especially about the future’. Some people have suggested that our brains are constantly predicting the future. We weigh up the options for what might happen next before choosing a course of action. Our ancestors might have watched a fish swimming near a river bank and predicted where it would be a moment later when their spear entered the water. Or on a longer timescale, they predicted that seeds planted at a particular time of year would yield a crop some months later. Our predictions are not always correct but our life depends on enough of them being reliable that we have evolved to be good predictors of the immediate future. In Chinese thought, a distinction is made between predicting the near and distant future because the former is possible and latter is impossible, at least with any degree of confidence (Simandon, 2018). Wisdom can be considered to be understanding the futility of trying to predict the distant future while being able to sense the near future through an acute awareness and immersion in one’s surroundings. This implies that a wise person can go beyond the everyday predictions of the immediate future, made largely unconsciously by our brains, and anticipate events on a slightly longer timescale, the near future. In engineering terms, events in the near future are short-term behaviour dominated by the current status of the system whereas events in the distant future are largely determined by external interactions with the system. This seems entirely consistent with the Chinese concept of wisdom arising from ‘vanishing into things’ which means to become immersed in a situation and hence to be able sense the current status of the system and reliably anticipate the near future. Some engineers might call it intuition which has been defined as ‘judgments that arise through rapid, non-conscious and holistic associations’ (Dane & Pratt, 2007). So, in 2021 I hope to continue to exercise my intuition and remain immersed in a number of issues but I am not going to attempt to predict any distant events.
About four years ago I wrote about living in bubbles and rarely coming into contact with people outside of our bubble [see ‘You’re all weird‘ on February 8th, 2017]. This was in the context of our experience of the media and our surprise when electorates make apparently irrational decisions. Since early this year we have been encouraged to live in more literal bubbles in order to slow down the spread of COVID-19; so, for example, we have created bubbles of researchers using our research labs in shifts to avoid a total shutdown of research when someone tests positive for coronavirus. For many people, the pandemic has isolated them in a bubble of one that has created concerns about the well-being and happiness of individuals living and working alone. When asked about the place he is happiest, the artist Ai Weiwei responded ‘Every place is equal for me. Even in detention I could still find joyful moments’. He finds ways to connect to other people and their emotions by reflecting on who he is, which leads to moments of joy. He believes that success in life is about finding yourself in way that ‘doesn’t need ambition or talent. It just needs a functioning mind, emotion and simple judgment.’ During lockdowns induced by the COVID-19 pandemic, I believe that it has become more important to maintain the life of mind through reading and discovering new ideas. As Jarvis Cocker said in a recent interview: ‘I don’t want to spend the rest of my life thinking the same thoughts and feeling the same things, rechewing the same thing. I find that really boring.’ I hope that these posts have brought you new ideas and ways of thinking during 2020; writing them has certainly kept my mind active and stimulated. So, I plan to continue in 2021 and hope that you will continue to read them. Best wishes for a happy New Year!
My posts at Christmas time in the past have often been pictures of snowy scenes or Christmas trees. This year I have gone for something different. The image above is an abstract painting by Zahrah Resh. I have used extracts from it as thumbnails in four posts over the last three months and so I thought it was about time to show you the whole painting. Zahrah Resh is a contemporary American abstract artist based in East Lansing, Michigan who has exhibited at the ArtPrize which takes place over 19 days in Grand Rapids, Michigan attracting around half a million visitors. ArtPrize started in 2009 and offered the world’s largest art prize of $250,000. We got to know Zahrah when we lived nearby in Okemos, Michigan and we brought a number of her paintings back to England when we moved to Liverpool nearly a decade ago. They remind me of the people we met and knew during our time in Michigan. Best wishes for happiness, joy and peace this holiday.