Category Archives: Non-fiction

Inspired by non-fiction

The War for Kindness – Building Empathy in a Fractured World

I feel very strongly about kindness and empathy. I always try to be kind, even when I’m tired and in a hurry and I don’t feel like it. I don’t always succeed, but I always try. When I learned about a book called The War for Kindness – Building Empathy in a Fractured World I immediately knew I wanted to read it.
Jamil Zaki is a professor at Stanford University who has been studying how empathy works for many years and he wrote this book about his most important findings.

The first time I started thinking about empathy was after hearing David Foster Wallace’s commencement speech “This is Water”. I realize there are serious problems with David Foster Wallace’s legacy, but the speech is so powerful I still want to quote it. The speech is about making a conscious decision to think about what you’re thinking, instead of just living your life on autopilot. Many of us are like the young fish described at the start of the speech. And the people in the supermarket. And the people stuck in traffic.
If I’m in a more socially conscious liberal arts form of my default setting, I can spend time in the end-of-the-day traffic being disgusted about all the huge, stupid, lane-blocking SUV’s and Hummers and V-12 pickup trucks, burning their wasteful, selfish, 40-gallon tanks of gas, and I can dwell on the fact that the patriotic or religious bumper-stickers always seem to be on the biggest, most disgustingly selfish vehicles, driven by the ugliest [responding here to loud applause] — this is an example of how NOT to think, though — most disgustingly selfish vehicles, driven by the ugliest, most inconsiderate and aggressive drivers. And I can think about how our children’s children will despise us for wasting all the future’s fuel, and probably screwing up the climate, and how spoiled and stupid and selfish and disgusting we all are, and how modern consumer society just sucks, and so forth and so on.
 
You get the idea.
 
If I choose to think this way in a store and on the freeway, fine. Lots of us do. Except thinking this way tends to be so easy and automatic that it doesn’t have to be a choice. It is my natural default setting. It’s the automatic way that I experience the boring, frustrating, crowded parts of adult life when I’m operating on the automatic, unconscious belief that I am the center of the world, and that my immediate needs and feelings are what should determine the world’s priorities.
 
The thing is that, of course, there are totally different ways to think about these kinds of situations. In this traffic, all these vehicles stopped and idling in my way, it’s not impossible that some of these people in SUV’s have been in horrible auto accidents in the past, and now find driving so terrifying that their therapist has all but ordered them to get a huge, heavy SUV so they can feel safe enough to drive. Or that the Hummer that just cut me off is maybe being driven by a father whose little child is hurt or sick in the seat next to him, and he’s trying to get this kid to the hospital, and he’s in a bigger, more legitimate hurry than I am: it is actually I who am in HIS way.

Our feelings and emotions are not determined by what happens to us. They are determined by how we react to what happens to us. I try to always keep this in mind and actively practice it. People who I think of as assholes who are in my way don’t think about the world with me at the center of it in the way I do. They, by definition, experience life and the world around them with themselves at the center of it all. They might have very good reasons for behaving in the way they do. They might be very annoyed by my behavior, even if I didn’t mean to annoy anyone, or if I had a very good reason for behaving the way I did.
I know for a fact that I’m sometimes annoying for the people close to me because whenever they complain about others I try to come up with suggestions about why the people they are furious at behaved the way they did. Which is, of course, the last thing you want to hear when you are trying to blow off some steam.

In the book, Zaki describes how empathy’s most important role is to inspire kindness. It triggers us to help others, even at a cost to ourselves. This cost is worth it, both on a personal and an evolutionary level.
If many humans weren’t willing to help others we would not exist and certainly not thrive as a species. Human baby’s and kids are helpless for much longer than most other species’ offspring. They need their parents and community to take care of them, despite the cost of energy, time and money.
A personal benefit of empathizing is that it will help us to attract friends. We like people who empathize with us. Decades of evidence show that people who empathize with others have more friends and experience greater happiness.

I don’t just try to execute my quest for kindness and empathy in my personal life. I also extend it to my professional life. I work hard on building a culture that makes people feel appreciated and safe. Where leaders are kind and enable their teams to learn and grow and use their potential. Even if that potential is greater than that of the leader itself. We should reward people for achieving great things together, for helping each other and for leveraging everyone’s strengths.

Zaki’s research confirms that this is a good strategy. Organizations that focus on kindness flourish, even when it comes to the bottom line. In 2012, Google found that its people-oriented teams were also their most successful teams.
For several decades people have believed that the best way to motivate employees is by offering them bonuses for individual excellence. While this may motivate some people, most people feel unhappy in an environment in which they constantly have to outdo their colleagues. It generates anxiety, fatigue, and hostility. It limits results and increases attrition. A rewards system that promotes cooperation, on the other hand, increases morale and productivity.

The second person who has influenced my thinking about empathy is Tim Minchin. This also started with his commencement speech in which he shares 9 life lessons. Number three is about empathy and being humble.
Remember, It’s All Luck. You are lucky to be here. You were incalculably lucky to be born, and incredibly lucky to be brought up by a nice family that helped you get educated and encouraged you to go to Uni. Or if you were born into a horrible family, that’s unlucky and you have my sympathy… but you were still lucky: lucky that you happened to be made of the sort of DNA that made the sort of brain which – when placed in a horrible childhood environment – would make decisions that meant you ended up, eventually, graduating Uni. Well done you, for dragging yourself up by the shoelaces, but you were lucky. You didn’t create the bit of you that dragged you up. They’re not even your shoelaces.
 
I suppose I worked hard to achieve whatever dubious achievements I’ve achieved … but I didn’t make the bit of me that works hard, any more than I made the bit of me that ate too many burgers instead of going to lectures while I was here at UWA.
 
Understanding that you can’t truly take credit for your successes, nor truly blame others for their failures will humble you and make you more compassionate.
 
Empathy is intuitive, but is also something you can work on, intellectually.

Tim Minchin’s idea that you can practice being empathic is in line with David Foster Wallace’s idea about actively thinking about what you are thinking about and it’s supported by Zaki’s research results.
A century ago, scientists were convinced the adult human brain was fixed. That it couldn’t grow or change. This also meant the assumption was that character and behavior was fixed. That it couldn’t be trained or adjusted. If you weren’t kind or empathic that was just who you were.
Part of who we are and how we behave is genetically determined. Studies have shown that empathy is about 30% genetically determined. For generosity, this is 60%. I guess that explains why my mum could have bitter discussions with my grandma about who was allowed to buy the other person dinner and why I have very similar discussions with my mum today.

If 30% of empathy is genetically determined this still leaves a lot of room for improvement through experience, training, and education. Our actions, inactions and life’s choices make a real difference. Education grows the brain, while stress causes atrophy. Empathy is a skill that you can improve on just like math, running, and weightlifting. People might start at different base levels, but their competency is by no means fixed.

Training to be empathic can be done by simply thinking about what you’re thinking. Feeling empathy is easier for someone you know personally than for the abstract concept of a group or a tribe. Especially if you don’t belong to that particular group. If you hate a specific group of people, getting to know someone from that group and being treated with kindness by that person can in some cases change your mind about the entire group. In the words of Mark Twain “Getting to know people and traveling is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts”.

People feel more empathy for others when they understand what they are going through. You can learn about other people and their circumstances in many different ways, but nowadays it can most realistically be experienced using Virtual Reality. Experiments show that people who have experienced a refugee camp through VR are more empathic towards refugees and are also willing to donate more money for relief efforts even months after their VR experience.

Actors pretend to be other people, which means that they have to think about what the person they are pretending to be thinks and feels. This is a form of practicing empathy. It’s therefore not surprising that students who train to be actors don’t only develop their acting talent, but also their empathy.
Reading and acting can be a way to practice empathy in safe environments, without judgment. Storytelling doesn’t just provide joy and amusement, it can also make people kinder!

I’m so fascinated by the impact that empathy can have and how you can learn to be more empathic that I could go on and on about it. I empathize with you, the reader though. I realize you have other (better) things to do besides reading this blog.
I do ask you to read or listen to David Foster Wallace’s speech and think about its contents.

If you are interested in empathy Jamil Zaki’s book is a very worthwhile read. In this post, I only touched upon a tiny little part of the topics that he discusses. If you are a parent, a caretaker, or if you work in medicine in one capacity or another the book contains some valuable insights that aren’t obvious. At least they weren’t to me.

Empathy is the mental superpower that can overcome the distance between two people. Empathy is personal, but it’s also collective. We are herd animals. We behave in the way we see people around us behaving. We observe others and copy parts of what they do and think. You only have to look at local accents to realize that this is true. Fortunately, we don’t just respond to norms, we also create them. Setting examples of kindness and empathy helps to let other people be more kind and emphatic too. Let’s create a trend together.

Women in Tech – hopeful stories and helpful advice

I started reading Invisible Women by Caroline Criado Perez and it made me feel so insecure and anxious that I had to put it away for a while. It’s a testament to how important that book is but I still need to function, so I’ll read that in bits and pieces.
To counter the negativity I needed something upbeat, but as the feminist theme was still resonating strongly I chose a book by Tarah Wheeler on Women in Tech. I’ve been following Tarah on Twitter for a while and I think she is incredibly cool. I can try to explain here, but I won’t be able to do her justice, so just check out her feed yourself.

The book was a good choice. It’s not just positive stories (it can’t be when talking about women in tech), but it’s hopeful and kind. And as I’ve been a woman in tech for the last 20 years there are no earth-shattering surprises in the book to throw me off balance.
Writing this post was hard though. There are so many things in this book that I can relate to and that I would have liked to share a story about that I could have written a book about the book. I have tried not to, but this post still ended up being quite long.

The book is written as a chronological career in tech. It starts by talking about applying for jobs in the tech industry, covers some specifics about several different types of jobs that you can have in the industry, talks about your brand, about mentoring and being mentored and finally about moving into a leadership position in a tech company or even starting your own company.

The book starts with the shocking revelation that since I was born, the percentage of women working in computer science and achieving computer science degrees has decreased. This means that despite tech companies desperately looking for women to diversify their teams most women are still choosing a different career path. The reasons for this are numerous and a lot of them are hard to resolve.
One of the reasons is the unconscious bias of teachers, parents and eventually inevitably of girls themselves that math, physics, and technology are for boys. It’s in the wording and images that we use and in the way that we think about stereotypes for people in these fields.
Another important challenge is the lack of role models. I was lucky because my mum was a computer programmer. This was never discussed as being remarkable at home which means that for me the image of a woman working as a technologist was normal and natural. Most girls don’t have role models like that though and on TV and in books these roles are often still played by boys with floppy hair and glasses.

People also often feel like you need to be “special” to be able to succeed as a software developer or as a systems engineer or a security expert (or hacker). When I was still a developer myself people would often comment that “I must be really smart then”. You don’t need a special brain to be able to be successful in technology. If you are willing to work hard and you like puzzles (and I know a lot of women and girls who like puzzles) you are already half of the way there.

Tarah and her co-authors are very open about their successes as well as their failures in the book.
One of the lessons that she learned when moving into leadership roles is that you need to shift your approach. As a woman in tech, you’ll be spending quite some time making sure people see that you are good at what you do, that you belong. You’ll have to be more vocal about your achievements than what comes naturally to most women. As you move into a leadership role you need to adjust this. You shouldn’t be out to prove that you are the smartest person in the room. Instead, you should attempt to create an environment in which your team feels that they are smart and capable to allow them to do their best work. In this, she touches on one of my favorite topics of this moment; using the full capability of your teams by being a multiplier of their energy and intelligence. (For more information check out Multipliers by Liz Wiseman.)

The story of Kamilah Taylor, one of the co-authors, also resonated with me. Kamilah is a software engineer at Linked-In (at least at the time of writing the book) and has an MS in computer science and robotics.
She talks about the pressure of representing a minority (in her case 3 minorities) in a field. As you move up the ladder in your career people will inevitably start to look up to you. This is a great feeling and very reaffirming, but it also ups the stakes. It starts to feel like if you fail, you don’t just fail for you. It feels like you are letting down all the other women in your company or even in tech. Making a mistake or things not working out as you wanted gets a lot of extra weight.
This can work as a powerful motivator, but it also adds more stress that you need to cope with.
I feel this too. Occasionally I strive for things because I feel it will set a good example, rather than because it’s something that I genuinely care about.

The stories in Women in Tech are valuable and easy to relate to and the book is a very enjoyable read. What amazed me is the invitation that Tarah extends several times in the book to reach out to her personally for advice or help. It’s inviting and powerful. I’d be scared to do this as in my experience of writing a relatively successful tech blog, sharing your ideas makes people feel entitled to a lot of your time and energy anyway. On the other hand, as a lot of them will feel entitled you might as well invite the people who’d otherwise not feel comfortable enough to reach out.

The main thing that I took away from the book other than the pleasure of reading it, is to be even more aware of my unconscious biases. Being open-minded, thinking critically and constantly examining your own ideas and assumptions is what will allow us to grow as a people and even as a species. Find both the similarities and the differences between you and everyone else and use empathy to relate and connect.

Tarah Wheeler

Taking the work out of networking – a bit

When I decided to read Taking the work out of networking, I hoped that Karen Wickre had some sort of magical solution to make networking fun for those of us who don’t like going to events to meet a lot of people that we don’t know.
I’m what is apparently called an “extroverted introvert”. I like people and I like having conversations with them, but in small doses and for limited periods of time. I prefer dinner with a small group over a large event. It allows for more in-depth and meaningful conversations.

The book doesn’t reveal a magic formula that would allow me to avoid networking. Wickre, also classifying herself as an introvert, describes all the ways in which she manages and maintains her large network. She is so active connecting to people that I caught myself thinking “she can’t possibly be an introvert and want to do all of that all the time!”. I don’t know her, of course, and I don’t know how she lives her life so I have no way of knowing that. She probably has a different way to strike a balance and manage her energy.

The book describes networking at events as well as online networking via LinkedIn and Twitter. Although I’m already reasonably active on social media it was this part of the book that resonated most with me.
Before I read the book I decided whether to accept or ignore a LinkedIn connection request based mostly on how well I know the person who sent the request. Wickre has a good point though that if you are looking for career opportunities or for information on a certain topic, that your weak ties are probably going to be most valuable to you. People who you know well often have a lot of the same connections that you do. People who you don’t know well are more likely to add something different to your network. This makes sense, so I have changed my attitude related to deciding who to connect with on LinkedIn.

In the book, Wickre also talks about keeping your network warm by regularly sending messages to people to let them know that you are thinking about them and that you value them as a connection. She does this by for instance sharing a link to an article that you think they might find interesting. This is a bridge too far for me, but it did inspire me to put a recurring item on my todo list to connect with people I haven’t spoken to for a while. I try to reach out to one person per day. After only one week I can already tell that I won’t meet my target of one person per day, but if I reach out to two or three people per week that’s already two or three more than I would otherwise have reached out to.
To be clear, these are people that I’ve been thinking about anyway and that I would love to catch up with. Even though time and energy are limited it feels good and valuable from a personal point of view to reconnect with them.

Even though the book doesn’t contain any miracles to avoid networking or magic spells that can turn you into an extrovert the book did give me a just forceful enough nudge to get me to make some changes and take some action.
The book also mentions the film The Intern, which is one of my favorite films to watch on a plane, so it gets extra points for that too.

The Intern

Singing in the Brain – the impact of music

A few weeks ago while I was celebrating the 15th anniversary of the Dutch branch of our company, my mum and my best friend went to a theatre lecture by professor Erik Scherder. The plan had originally been that I would go to the lecture too, but the anniversary party took priority. The party was in theme park Efteling and it was fantastic. But I was also a bit bummed that I missed the lecture. Luckily my mum and friend are awesome and both of them got me a (different) signed book!!

In Singing in the Brain professor Scherder discusses a whole lot of scientific studies and their findings on a wide range of subjects that have to do with music and our brain. There are references to all studies if you want to dive in deeper. To keep this book readable for people who aren’t professors the information is simplified a bit.
The book does describe the different areas of the brain and what their role is in listening to music, playing music and how the brain is impacted by music. I hope professor Scherder isn’t too disappointed that I don’t remember the names of the areas of the brain and the role that they play. I believe that if you don’t have a significant amount of prior knowledge about our brain it is impossible to remember it all.

What did stick is that listening to music that we like has a positive impact on our mood. This is not just true for people with a healthy, regular brain, but also in many cases for people with depression, Parkinson, dementia or people who are suffering the aftermath of a stroke. Note that music doesn’t cure any of these diseases. It makes people temporarily feel better. That might seem obvious, but I find it interesting that this can also be proven by studying the brain.
Do also note that forcing people to listen to music that you like, but that they don’t necessarily enjoy will not have a positive effect. You can’t use the results of this study as an excuse to force your grandparents to listen to your favorite music!

What’s also interesting is that it’s scientifically proven that women around their ovulation are attracted to men who create music. If you always wanted to learn to play an instrument to pick up girls you had the right idea.

There is also a study that suggests that people run faster and technically better while listening to music. This is something many runners have different and often strong opinions on.
I personally don’t run with music. I like to hear my thoughts while running and I don’t want to worry about earbuds that might fall out (in the old days this was wires getting stuck and being annoying).
The same study also suggested that listening to soothing music after running allowed for a faster recovery. This sounds interesting, but I doubt the impact will be significant unless it makes me dance. The main impact after running is often getting a bit stiff if I stop moving (also after cooling down and stretching), so if music can stop me from sitting still for too long that might be helpful.

All in all Singing in the Brain is a very interesting book. I enjoyed reading it, but I do feel that you will get even more out of if you have prior training and a better understanding of our brain before you start reading it. If you are looking for specific information on the impact of music on our brain this book is a great starting point. It will lead you to a list of more specific studies that dive into a particular aspect much deeper.

If professor Scherder does more theatre lectures next season I will definitely try to go to one of them!

Erik Scherder

Good night stories for Rebel Girls – inspiring women with inspiring stories

I bought Good night stories for Rebel Girls by Elena Favilli & Francesca Cavallo for a very smart and ambitious 14-year-old girl and loved the idea so much that I bought it for myself. The book starts with some advice.
To the rebel girls of the world:
Dream bigger
Aim higher
Fight harder
And, when in doubt, remember
You are right.
I’m not entirely convinced parents of 14-year-olds will agree that they are always right, but believing in yourself is a good point to start from in life.

The book contains 100 stories of special, fierce, talented and successful women. I find it inspiring and I’m fascinated by the stories. I have no idea if it is inspiring to a teenage girl. I don’t remember how the brain of a 14-year-old works. I do strongly believe that having role models helps. To see someone like you do something means that it’s easier to imagine that you can do it too. I’ve written before about my mum being a perfect role model for me as one of the first female software developers.
I’m not 100% sure that a short story in a book is enough to be a role model. But it also won’t hurt. I hope some of it sticks for the girls who read this book.

I tried to pick out one or two stories that I liked most, but I ended up with almost every page having a sticky note on it. In the end, I did make a selection but even if you feel you don’t need a role model I highly recommend reading the book and learning about all these inspiring women.
The stories are very diverse. There are stories about inventors, scientist, professional sports people, journalists, and activists. Something else that I love about the book is that it picks up on many themes that are relevant for all girls and women.

The Italian painter Artemisia Gentileschi (love the name) was a painter before women were allowed to get close to artists’ studios and people didn’t believe the paintings were hers. When her father found her a tutor, he pressed her to become his lover. She refused and had to fight this powerful man in court. She lived between 1593 and 1653, but this is something that still happens today, 400 years later.

Brenda Chapman is a director at Walt Disney Studios, who at a very young age decided that she wanted to create animated films with strong and brave girls and women in them. She didn’t like that the girls she saw in most animated films were helpless princesses. She moved on to create Brave with the strong princess Merida and won an Oscar and a Golden Globe for it.

Irena Sendlerowa is a Polish war hero who saved 2,500 children by fostering Jewish children in Christian families and give them Christian names. She wrote down their real names and their new names on slips of paper that she hid in jars in a friend’s garden. After the war, she dug up the jars and was able to reunite many kids with their real families. It’s something a certain modern-day organization with much more advanced options to keep track of children could have learned a lot from if they were at all concerned with the wellbeing of these vulnerable kids.

In Mexico, an exceptionally bright girl called Matilde Montoya wanted to be a doctor. She was told that women couldn’t be doctor’s and the university tried to expel Matilde more than once. Matilde wrote to the Mexican president, who stepped in and stood up for her in her fight against the unfair treatment she received from the university. It’s an example of men speaking up in support of women can really make a difference. Yes guys, I’m looking at you!

Women sticking together can also have a big impact as Wangari Maathai proved in Kenya by creating a movement of women who all planted trees in their villages. She started small. Several women from her own village collected seeds from the forest and planted them in cans at their homes. When they were strong enough, they planted them all around the village. Eventually, the Green Belt Movement expanded beyond the Kenyan border, forty million trees got planted and Wangari won the Nobel Peace Prize. A lot of small changes added together can have a huge impact. Don’t be discouraged by starting small, if we don’t start with small steps because we think they won’t matter we will not be able to achieve significant change.

Wangari Maathai

My heart hurts not being able to also write in more detail about the first suffragette’s in New Zealand, Kate Sheppard and computer scientist Margaret Hamilton who worked for NASA and saved the Apollo 11 mission by solving an issue that could have stopped Apollo 11 from landing on the moon in mere minutes. I hope you will read the book and learn about all the inspiring stories for yourself.

The Happiness of Pursuit – revealing the quest that I’m on

Some of the world’s best-known stories reflect our desire to hear about struggle and sacrifice in pursuit of a goal. We get drawn in because we want to know if the hero is going to succeed.
When I started reading The Happiness of Pursuit by Chris Guillebeau I thought the book would describe an inspiring adventure like this. I picked the book based on a recommendation I came across on Pinterest, so I have to admit that I didn’t do a lot of research before diving in.

As it turns out the book is more a “how-to” that provides advice and insights about starting a quest. It suggests that if you feel like something is missing from your life that it would perhaps be a good idea to find a quest of your own. The quest would give you a purpose and a goal to pursue, thus giving your life “meaning”.

A quest is defined as a journey towards something specific, with a number of challenges throughout, that will require personal growth and a sacrifice of some sorts. Most quests don’t take special powers, but persistence and dedication are essential. The book has clichés sprinkled all over it like “If you want to achieve the unimaginable you start by imagining it” and “If you don’t try you might always wonder ‘what if'”.
Both mostly true of course, that’s why they are clichés.

The book describes the quests of many different people, including that of the author. The author’s quest was to visit all countries in the world while many others also have a physical challenge in them like walking across the US or riding a bike or sailing a boat around the world.
Most of the people that were interviewed for the book were unable to clearly explain why they gave up their existing lives to go hunt for something elusive, with a real chance of failure. They were simply unsatisfied with the life they were living and were looking for something deeper.

You can probably tell that I’m not about to sell my home to go on a quest around the world anytime soon. However, almost every book provides some insights or inspiration and so does this one. I did realize that I’m on a quest of some sorts myself, and this might be a good moment to share a bit more about it.

Towards the end of February, I realized that I had read well over a book per week in 2019 up until that point. I made the biggest splash during the Christmas holidays when I spend most of my days reading and running. At that point, it dawned on me that perhaps I would probably be able to read 52 books this year. I’d heard about other people doing that, but until now I’ve always assumed that they would have to be crazy people without much of a life. If that’s true then I now fit into that category and I’m quite comfortable there.

The Happiness of Pursuit is the 26th book I’ve read this year and we’re only 4,5 months into the year. The amazing thing is that I don’t even have to try hard. During the week I keep the television turned off on most evenings and instead I read a book (when I’m not running, rock climbing, or playing tennis or piano). It might not be a quest according to Guillebeau as it doesn’t feel like a sacrifice at all. I love reading and I don’t feel like I’m missing out by not watching TV.

As I was struggling to come up with topics to write about regularly, I figured that writing about the books I read would provide me with an ongoing stream of topics as well as some structure. As long as I finish a book I’ve got the subject of the week’s blog post covered and I just have to sit down and do the actual writing.
So while The Happiness of Pursuit wasn’t what I thought it would be, it did provide a trigger to write about my own goal this year and thus was still useful. Now that I have shared my goal publicly it will be harder to weasel my way out of it in case it does for whatever reason become harder to keep going later in the year. I hope you will follow me on my journey through the books. It would make me very happy!

Thinking Ahead – dealing with the impact of increased complexity

Thinking Ahead is a collection of essays on Big Data, Digital Revolution, and Participatory Market Society (co)written by Dirk Helbing. Helbing’s Wikipedia entry is mostly a very long list of achievements and awards in several areas. His interest and expertise run from traffic management to crowd disasters to the risks and opportunities of the digitalizing of the world. The constant is that all these topics are about managing complex systems. The definition of complex systems as used in the book is: “Complex systems are characterized by numerous interacting actors and factors. Examples are social, economic, or traffic systems, as well as the behavior of crowds or ecosystems. The behavior of these systems is often dominated by their internal dynamics. Attempts to control them from outside frequently lead to unexpected and unintended results”.

Complex systems and the financial market
The financial market and crisis are frequently used as an example by Helbing. The global financial market is so complex that it can’t be monitored and controlled anymore. More and more assets don’t have real-world value. It’s almost impossible to understand what is behind these completely virtual assets, which means that we can’t tell whether their value is realistic or if it’s inflated.
Many ideas about the financial market (conventional economic thinking) and how to manage it and keep it from crashing are either outdated or just plain wrong. These ideas don’t take the effect of all systems being connected into account. The fact that globalization has led to more interconnections between financial markets means that the risk of a local problem leading to a global crisis has increased significantly. The resilience of the system is not described by the average stability, but by the weakest link. To be able to isolate risks a system needs compartmentalization and there are no safety points in the financial market today.

The current models for how the financial market will behave is based on the idea that people are completely rational. That we act as “homo economicus” and make optimal decisions.
It turns out that this is not a truthful projection of how humans behave. While some people might take decisions based on purely rational arguments, most people are impacted by emotions. It’s also not true that all people make decisions that are most favorable for them personally. There is not just “homo economicus”, but also “homo socialis”. “Homo socialis” displays other-regarding and cooperative behavior. While older models might suggest that other-regarding behavior is unfavorable in terms of evolution and will therefore eventually disappear, it turns out that this is only the case if a cooperative person is placed amongst a group of selfish people. If a group other-regarding people can stick together it’s the cooperative behavior that gets favored and allows “homo socialis” to spread.

Big Data
Helbing also dives into the challenges and opportunities of “Big Data”. Big Data is a term that has been around for more than 15 years now and it means that data sets are now so big that they can’t be coped with using standard computational methods. Big Data is also referred to as the oil of the 21ste century. It’s worth a lot of money if we can process it. Big Data in itself doesn’t pose a lot of value or risk. We must learn to drill and refine data so we can transform it into useful information and knowledge.

Big Data

While the processing of Big Data offers a lot of opportunities, it also poses a lot of risks. We share information almost constantly, both implicitly and explicitly. Of course, sharing information on social media platforms is explicit. However, by using services like Google Maps we share our whereabouts. By using loyalty systems in the supermarket it’s possible to determine how you live your life and when your life might be changing. Even just browsing the internet we leave behind a telling tale of our lives, our loves, our hates and our opinions.

The way in which information is processed can reinforce patterns. This means that it can reinforce discrimination and promote homogeneity. If that would happen it could of course negatively impact any minority, but it would also be bad for everyone else. Innovation only takes place if people with unique interests and ideas, who are ahead of the curve, can flourish. Filtering out uniqueness would be disastrous for our well-being and economy.

Another challenge is that we can’t really opt out of all of this information sharing. You can decide to not join any social media networks. Web browsers make it possible to turn off cookies, although it means that many web sites become almost unusable. There are tools that support obfuscating your IP address while you are browsing the web, but this still doesn’t guarantee that you are browsing anonymously. And as the number of smart and connected devices is increasing the amount of data that is being collected is exponentially increasing.

Staying in control of data from you or about you is hard, if not impossible. We cannot control what information companies and people collect about us and we cannot control what they will do with the information, or how long they will keep it. Incorrect information about us might also be stored and even spread. This can happen either on purpose or by accident and it’s very hard to correct it.

The European GDPR law has been created to try and protect people from misuse of data from and about them. It forces companies collecting data to be transparent about what data will be used for and it prohibits them from using it for any other means. Once data has outlasted its original purpose it has to be destroyed and if your data is leaked because it wasn’t adequately protected companies will have to pay significant fines.

Conclusion
To me, the book provided a very interesting brain exercise. In the essays collected in Thinking Ahead Helbing does an excellent job of explaining the challenges and risks of globalization and Big Data in a way that’s relatively easy to understand. He also talks about several ideas that might go some way towards limiting risks and providing solutions. None of these ideas will be easy to implement in the real world though and a lot of them will have a significant impact on the lives of many. Based on the book I find it hard to form clear ideas about solutions.
I would personally be interested in exploring some potential solutions a little more and learning about what steps we could take to get closer to a more stable and a more fair world.