The case for a Chief Philosophy Officer?

I wonder whether the US and European economies would be in such a predicament today if Northern Rock or Lehman Brothers had employed a Chief Philosophy Officer?

After all, you’ll find plenty of Chief Economists dotted around the banks, trusts and fund management companies won’t you?

Had Northern Rock and Lehman boards routinely considered the moral and ethical dimensions of trading in collateralised debt obligations – or even the very existence of those instruments – alongside the economic, financial and regulatory case of doing so, would they have reached a different conclusion and made different choices?

Whether or not Professor Michael Sandel raises the question of the employment of Chief Philosophy Officer in business in his latest book What Money Can’t Buy, I have no idea. His book has only just arrived in the post, so I’ve not had chance to read it yet.

Somehow, I doubt it.

But at least Harvard University’s Professor of Government is asking a question that, not so long ago, might have appeared almost impertinent: what is the moral limit of markets?

His question is based on the idea that, over the past 30 years in particular, we have ‘drifted’ from operating ‘market economies’ to beinga ‘market society’ in which everything, it seems, has a price.As you’ll see in the video, Professor Sandel makes a connection between the creeping influence of economic theory and the corresponding erosion of the role of political reasoning in the public sphere.

Has economic thought proved to be so pervasive that it has led to a cultural transformation where the apparent abundance of market freedom has reduced the diversity of public debate?

So, though we may feel richer as consumers, have we become poorer as citizens?

If you balk at the very idea of philosophical reasoning having a role to play in everyday business, consider this: isn’t the staple of business planning – cost-benefit analysis – little more than a reduction of the utilitarian principles promoted by thinkers like Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill?

(Except, of course, you are unlikely to hear businesses debate cost-benefit in terms of anything besides their own enterprise’s happiness.)

Professor Sandel’s intervention strikes me as being timely.

The election of French president, François Hollande, suggests that the French people wonder whether there’s an alternative diagnosis to the European economic malaise besides an apparently dogmatic adherence to spending cuts.

Meanwhile, in the UK, Ed Milliband’s address to the Labour Party conference last September drew a distinction between ‘predator’ and ‘producer’ businesses: business behaviour leading to outcomes which – economically and socially – are either ‘good’ or ‘bad’.

In other words, the hiatus of crisis means that the role of capitalism in the future of democratic society is up for grabs.

The question is as much a philosophical one as it it economic. It deserves reasoned debate.

Reasoned debate about the way businesses – of all shapes and sizes – choose to behave, about the role that governments play in our social and economic fortunes and – crucially – about the choices we make as citizens.

And Professor Sandel is not alone in seeking to influence the debate: have a listen to Professor John Tomasi’s lecture on Free Market Fairness at the Royal Society of the Arts in London earlier this month as he seeks to find common ground in a debate that is traditionally characterised as an ideological clash between the left and right.

Meanwhile, economist Diane Coyle’s lecture – also at the RSA – on The Economics of Enough makes for fascinating listening.

If, like me, you felt a degree of queasiness over the way in which technocrats were annointed as presidents of Greece and Italy over the past few months, this is an important moment.

No matter how much we may wish it to be the case, there is no right or wrong answer to the current crisis in Europe. But one thing is for sure: the answer is neither entirely political nor economic.

Our democracies are founded on a fine tradition of political philosophy and economic debate; of contemplating the consequences for society of political and economic actions.

But, as Professor Sandel seems to suggest, the preeminence of economics over serious, considered, political debate, has its hazards.

Because the choices we make about Greece are not simply economic. And it won’t just be the economic consequences that echo beyond this week, this month, this year or this decade.

The consequences for social and political stability will be far more significant.

So, in the midst of all the impatient market-screeching for settlement of the Greek crisis, what’s the moral limits of markets over the future of the Greek people and of the rest of Europe?

What’s the right thing to do?

Had they been given the chance, that’s the kind of question a Chief Philosophy Officer at Northern Rock or Lehman Brothers might have asked.

The Great British brand identity crisis

Symbols are significant. And few symbols carry more significance for those who encounter it than a nation’s flag. So the unveiling of the dove-inspired design by British Airways earlier this week – less than a fortnight after the launch of the Team GB athletes kit pictured above – only serves to reinforce an idea that’s been irking me about the Olympics’ effect on the UK’s brand identity: is our nation in danger of conveying the idea that we are colourless, drained of energy and drab?
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Time to cut the Facebook and Twitter clutter

Whether you’re inclined to regard Aol as a barometer of cultural trends or not, I’m pretty sure that there’s something in David Shing’s reported prediction.

Obviously, it’s worth bearing in mind that Mr Shing’s comments may well be self-serving too: it helps to be in the business of targeted content if more targeted content is what’ll win the day in an ‘attention economy’.

Nonetheless his comments should be seized on – at a reasonably contemplative pace – by people like The World Institute of Slowness; they’ve been banging on about the need for a more measured approach to human existence since 1999. (And, no, the irony’s not lost on me that I’m helping to add to the clutter referred to by Mr Shing.)

Why we shouldn’t trade Sundays for Sunday trading

When I was a kid, there was absolutely nothing to do on Sundays.

(Well OK, that’s not strictly true. As a son of the Manse, I had to attend church in the morning, but that didn’t really count as ‘doing something’; it was more like the the spiritual equivalent of having to do the washing up.)

Apart from the newsagents that opened in the mornings, and perhaps the occasional petrol station, everything else seemed to be shut.

From a kid’s perspective – and probably an adult’s too – the net effect was that Sundays were truly boring. So I ought to be whooping with joy at the prospect of the Government’s desire to suspend Sunday trading laws to allow shops and businesses to trade during the London 2012 Olympics.

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Landor: Why ‘I want an iPad’ beats ‘I want an iPad xyz’

Just spotted this really interesting piece for Forbes.com by Allen Adamson at Landor’s blog. The clinching argument is made in the penultimate paragraph of the piece:

“I think the company made a smart decision in not giving the newest iPad a new name. It makes it simpler for people. I want an iPad. How simple is that? I don’t have to explain which iPad, other than saying the newest model or the less expensive model.”

In fact, I think plenty of marketers – and not just market leaders – may want to take note of Apple’s decision not to call its latest iPad ‘iPad 3’ or something like that.

For me, it’s the underlying idea that just the right amount of branding enables people to recog­nise and under­stand how to nav­ig­ate your business’s goods, ser­vices and organisation. A little more branding than is necessary, and it’s probably going to have the opposite effect.

To be honest, I wasn’t at all concerned what the latest iPad would be called.

I suspect I’m like most people: what matters to me that a product lives up to its promise when I decide to invest my cash in it. If it doesn’t, no amount of branding is going to fix that.

Landor Associates

The tweeter, the brand and the reputational minefield

Sooner or later, the consequences of a brand allowing an employee to tweet on their behalf – to the extent that the individual and the brand become interchangeable as brand symbols – was going to wind up in court action (‘Man sued for keeping company Twitter followers’, BBC News, 27 December 2011).

In the case of Noah Kravitz and his former employer Phonedog – an ‘interactive mobile news and reviews resource’ which claims 2.5 million unique visits to its site each month – the legal principle at stake is whether the followers of a Twitter account, accumulated while an individual was tweeting on behalf of a business, amount to a database of customers and prospective customers that may be considered the property of the company once they’ve left?

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Something of a eulogy for Steve Jobs

I first used an Apple Macintosh in September 1989 because I had to.

I’d become managing editor of York Student Vision in the final term of my first year at the University of York and, over the summer, my predecessor in the role, Stephen Womack, and the paper’s editor, Hamish Macdonell, had decided to purchase an SE/30.

After three years of cutting-and-pasting hard copy text onto pre-printed printers grids, Vision was moving to desk-top publishing; the first of York’s two newspapers to do so.

In my role, I would be responsible for the production of a 24-page newspaper which, at the time, was distributed to 3,000 students every fortnight on a single Macintosh.

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The filter bubble, the ethics of data and the EU

I drafted this back in June but just didn’t publish it for some reason. A good deal of the content is based on a comment I posted in reply to Prof George Brock’s post ‘The filter bubble and public reason’.

Do users of the web really have a world of information at their fingertips? Or do recent innovations in search algorithms – in pursuit of ever increasing personal relevancy of results – simply yield an ever decreasing pool of information from which an individual is able to fish for their perspective on the world? And, if so, should we be worried about it?

Eli Pariser has been asking questions like this in recent months and, while Mr Pariser’s name may not be immediately familiar to you, I’d be surprised if the label that he’s used to describe the dilemma hadn’t registered on your radar: the filter bubble.

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Facebook’s ventures into brand diplomacy

Former Guardian technology writer, Jack Schofield, shared an intriguing link to a news item in the Silicon Valley Mercury Newsearlier this week.

It intrigued me for two reasons: first, that Facebook had decided to establish a network of 70 international representatives to establish a quasi-diplomatic service in key regions of the world and, second, that Google had already establish as similar operation in 2006.

The Google information was news to me. It’s not unusual for brands to employ corporate communications teams whose role is to maintain positive relations with both state and non-state actors both nationally and globally. It remains to be seen if the nature of the team that Facebook intends to establish veers away from this traditional role.

However, reading between the lines, the focus of the announcement suggests that Facebook is acknowledging a need to insulate its operation from unwanted legal and regulatory intrusion in the future – or an outright ban of its technology altogether – in nations where the nature of its operating model runs counter to prevailing political philosophy.

The story in the Silicon Valley Mercury News ran:

Facebook’s new global policy team will monitor the local political landscape and act as multilingual, TV-friendly communicators in countries and for cultures that, in many cases, have very different values and laws about privacy and personal communications than the U.S. Facebook is confronting its emergence as a global organization whose membership is much larger than the population of most countries, and whose technology can antagonize both Middle Eastern dictators and European democracies fretful about privacy. The international directors of policy, as Facebook calls them, will grapple with those challenges.

Privacy and collective attention deficit disorder

It is a tragic irony that, under the hastily erected canopy of ‘media freedom’, the clamour to expose the identity of a Premier League footballer may only serve to degrade the personal freedoms enjoyed by the very people who chipped away at its edifice tweet by tweet by tweet.

But, really, was this about democracy, freedom and rights?

Or was it simply the market for voyeuristic satisfaction, tawdry self-publicity and self-aggrandisement in motion?

The mob doesn’t think
I’m sure I won’t be the only person wheeling out the line of Joe Wilson – played by Spencer Tracy – in Fritz Lang’s Fury: ‘The mob doesn’t think. It has no mind of its own.’ but that’s because there’s precious little evidence that it did.

I won’t dwell on the legal aspects of the case; I couldn’t ever claim to do justice to it (forgive the pun) having read this post by blogger @loveandgarbage yesterday.

But what I will say is that, while people may have thought they were – in some way – championing the cause of a right to know, I’d argue that they were actually engaged in the polar opposite: cannibalising their own right to privacy.

That aside, there is another societal aspect to this episode which is deeply worrying.

It disturbs me that the advent of real-time technologies, like Twitter, are leading to episodes of a kind-of collective attention deficit disorder.

In our haste to express our perspective, often complex circumstances are whittled down to a 140 characters; quite literally, belittling a topic or issue or event.

For example, does it occur to us that the Arab Spring is symptomatic of the clash of liberal capitalist models of democracy with theocratic Islamic thinking? Is that worth a tweet? Or do we simply say ‘Yea! Go for it #egypt’?

Do we take a moment to read and consider the way in which Mr Justice Eady’s judgment sought to balance the competing demands of Articles 8 and 10 of the Human Rights Act before upholding the decision to apply an injunction protecting the privacy of a footballer?

Or am I alone in thinking that, as individuals, we are simply paying insufficient attention to the details and background of an issue to form an informed opinion, and bleating our half-cocked views, which suit our prejudices, anyway?

Is our desire for attention the source of self-centred or smart-alec tweets in pursuit of an rise in our mentions and retweet equity – with its potential to boost our PeerIndex or Klout, or even follower count?

And, crucially, is this desire beginning to erode values that, prior to the advent of the social web, we seemed to pay more attention to? Like respect for other people’s privacy, for instance?

Quantities versus qualities
I wonder if, in this clamour for the quantities of life, are we losing our grip on its qualitiesand compromising our ability to aspire to qualities that are socially desirable as a consequence of it?

Because it strikes me that the law doesn’t exist solely to protect us from harm and disorder; it also exists to protect us from ourselves.

The desire to demolish another individual’s rights to a private family life – a right which is specifically catered for in the UK’s Human Rights Act and European Convention – seems not only to show contempt for the law but also to other people’s fundamental right to privacy.

Far from being social, that is little more than anti-social isn’t it?

Our rights may be fundamental but they are not absolute. They depend on the attention and respect we pay to each other’s right to dignity and privacy. The moment we seek to deny an individual of their rights – regardless of popular opinion – we leave our own dignity and respect open to abuse.

The argument that, simply because technology has the capacity to achieve an outcome, can never be an adequate justification for its abuse. In fact it’s an abdication of responsibility that’s tantamount to claiming that it’s the trigger, and not the person holding it, that fires the bullet.

Regardless of technology’s potential, it is always an individual – or groups comprising individuals – that bring its potential to life.

If it wasn’t for my, generally, positive experience of encountering other individuals on Twitter, I would have deleted my account this morning.

As it is, the jury’s now out for me.