The Road to Character


 The columnist David Brooks says there are two types of virtues, resume virtues and eulogy virtues – the things that are said about you after you are dead. We spend our lives chasing the first but in the end it’s the second that we most desire, deep down. 

Speaking today at the RSA he talked about the concept of Adam 1 and Adam 2  – the idea coined by Joseph B. Soloveitchik to describe the external and internal lives of people. 

Brooks says these two live by different logic. And the danger comes when the two are out of balance. If there is too much Adam 1 a core piece of the personality (Adam 1) becomes less impressive each day. He believes this is what is happening today and he says there are several reasons for that including lack of time, the increasing prevalence of social media and the fact that our culture is now focussed on self worth. “We’ve told a couple of generations how great they are and they believed us.”

The result is an increased desire for fame and the loss of the capacity to have sophisticated moral conversations.  

He says if you use Google Ngrams to analyse the popularity of certain words it is clear economic words are up, moral words are down. 

So what are activities that Brooks believes lead to moral depth? 

First, humility – not self-deprecation but the ability to truly  see yourself from a distance. “The essential drama is in overcoming your own weaknesses.”

Second, suffering. “We wouldn’t call someone deep unless they had suffered.” Sometimes people shrivel when they suffer, he says, but it can develop self knowledge, empathy and even transcendence. 

Third, a capacity for great love. 

The word “character” has migrated from an Adam 2 world to an Adam 1 world, he says, and it is now something which helps you get on. It needs to be reclaimed. 

Mapping the real world – anonymously 

 Simon Lynen has been working on Google’s Project Tango which is trying to use smart phones to map the world at a granular level. Clearly there are big potential privacy issues here but Lynan says Google are designing the data to be anonomised, compacted and then rendered incapable of being recreated. Obviously the NSA revelations are now influencing design decisions.

Youthful thought 


  Ian Wharton  believes the secret of true creativity is what he calls youthful thought. There are three principles that are key to this idea.

First, unpoliced thought – is the key to real creativity.

Ideas not based on precedent are the most valuable.  Instinct and gut feel beat rationality in this model – “Ridiculous ideas beat rational ideas when it comes to creativity.”

Creativity is transferable. There is a fear of doing something new in case it undermines the successes we have had before in our careers. This stifles creativity, he says. We need instead to explore creative depth and keep on learning. And stop getting so hung up on what we are good at – “Fuck Malcolm Gladwell” (of the 10,000 hours argument).


Empathy is more important than prediction There are two important concepts here, he says: state and influence. “State is the context of any individual. Influence related to how we can affect people at that moment.”

We rely too much on prediction, he says. “Avoiding the beaten path and seeking unexplored terrain – this is how we make things which are worthy of people’s time.”

Standards in Government 

  Ade Adewunmi from GDS (Government Digital Services) said that early assumptions that universal search would be the best way in changed as they discovered a new user group – those people who need to know how government works.  

Open standards were key to getting adoption across the whole federation of government departments. They gives flexibility but also control which stops fragmentation as once a standard has been agree by the standards board that it is what will be used. 

We reuse by default. Where they have set standards they are made clear and responsive and then support and enforce them. “It’s important to hold the line.”

The future is the government as a platform and that makes standards even more important, she says. 

It’s not complicated it’s just hard

  Russell Davies, who works for Government Digital Services says the most important decision was that they determined there would be no innovation until everything works. “Digital organisation s can fix problems that non-digital organisations can’t.” The goal isn’t to make things digital but to use digital technology to make things simpler and make them work, he says. 

Should we fear AI?

  No, says Luciano Floridi. “Being worried about the singularity is being worried about ghosts not sharks.” 

This worry is a distraction from some of the challenges that are real. For example we have “replaceable agency”.  Automation is going to remove jobs and that will provide real challenges. 

Big data and powerful computers will mean we become more predictable – and that impacts our freedom as we are increasingly pushed into behaving in particular ways. 

We are also delegating more and more to computers are robots, the more so as we move increasingly into cities. 

The big question is: What human project do we want to build on top of this technology What infosphere do we want?

His plea: think deeper, design better and be mindful.