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What do you do after you've said "Eureka!"?

Are you one of those people that don't take things at their face value and who ask seemingly naive, but penetrating questions like "Is the Information Society really inevitable?" or "Who really stands to gain from this super information highway?" In short, a philosopher?

Lots of people ask questions, but most seem to have lost the habit of going back to basics. Maybe the answers are taken so much for granted that there seems no point in asking the questions any more. Maybe they simply don't have answers. Or perhaps some people have a vested interest in keeping things as vague as possible. Yet those of you who have tried asking such questions will no doubt be aware how pertinent they still are. Questions about basics, however, are not always so easy to answer and very often concern important aspects of our society. All the same, the difficulty is not so much in asking questions or even in answering them, but in knowing what to do with what you have discovered.

Science comes in out of the cold

Of course you can sit back and pretend you haven't noticed anything. Though, if you are the type that asks fundamental questions, you probably won't be able to keep quiet. Or you can make non-intervention your method as in the case of science: the less you intervene in the field you are studying, the more scientific you are. This stance of science is, however, changing with the growing realisation that the notion of the "outside objective observer" is an illusion. If you are interested in the subject and can read French you might like to read "La nouvelle alliance" of the Nobel Prize winner Ilya Prigogine and Isabelle Stengers.

From mass-media politics and crisis management...
... to challenging thinking between peers

If you decide to act, however, your action has to have an impact on society, for it is at that level that things are being played out. Traditionally, you'd go into politics. Yet politics, as epitomised by political parties and parliamentary government, has changed since its merger with mass media. Politicians - if they aren't struggling with the latest crisis - seem to be more concerned with good impressions, audience ratings and the next elections. Mass media doesn't tolerate doubts nor does mass-media politics. Whereas challenging thinking and long term solutions are built on questioning certainties.

What is needed is the emergence of new political forms that allow the public expression and exchange of challenging thought on a peer basis with a view to developing long term strategies rather than the current one-way communication from the chosen few to the undifferentiated mass of individuals and the last-minute panic of crisis management. A possible starting point might be the development of a culture in favour of challenging thinking and constructive forms of public exchange within the context of associations, clubs, discussion groups...

Setting an example

How about advertising? Working on desires, perceptions and mental images, advertising sets out to change people's behaviour without provoking too much thought on their part. The advertising mode is extremely widely used in public affairs. In the current political system, trying to engage the general public in debate about plans for change can produce an avalanche of opposition. In such circumstances, a seductive advertising approach turns out to be more effective in enforcing change without apparently infringing on the individuals' right to decide for themselves.

This can hardly be the philosopher's method for, although changes take place, those who have undergone the change are deliberately left in the dark. A form of seduction can, however, be of help to the philosopher. Not that of advertising, but rather that of winning people over to a more demanding approach to life by setting an example, by having the courage to openly challenge foregone conclusions, by seeking new perspectives and by acting accordingly.

From publishing to exchange

You could turn to publishing. It's one way of making your ideas public. If enough people start to think about what you've written maybe that will tip the balance in the right direction. However, no matter how stimulating or demanding your writing is, its initial impact will depend on how much it is read. Wide-scale promotion is not without difficulties. Traditional mass media methods appeal to sensation, to fashion, to unhealthy curiosity, ... and those can lead astray from the aim of raising fundamental questions. Part of the answer probably lies in using the abundant peer-exchange made possible by e-mail and mutual linking on the Web. Another strategy involves going beyond publishing to engage the readers in discussion of what is written.

Alan McCluskey, St-Blaise, Thursday 17th October '96.

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ISSN: 1664-834X Copyright © , Alan McCluskey,
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Created: October 17th, 1996 - Last up-dated: October 17th, 1996