Tag Archives: autonomy

Serious Conversations, 7

In these notes on serious conversations, I keep circling back, it seems, to two ideas: first, that what makes a conversation serious is not its subject matter or tone, but the stance of its participants toward each other; and, second, that the conversational stance requires that we confer a certain authority on our interlocutors, or (to put it another way) recognize that they have standing to address us.

While other kinds of authority — title, rank, role — are of secondary importance, and can sometimes even get in the way, this moral authority or standing is fundamental. It does not have to be earned, proven or ratified by reference to some person, written instrument or record of accomplishment outside the conversation or by institutional set up. It is constituted and realized in the relationship you and I have — or, if that is just too clunky, let’s say it is the relationship you and I have; and it is sufficient authority for a serious conversation because it makes us mutually accountable to each other.

Where this equal human stature (or dignity) is respected (and appreciated), it can be a source of power: not just the power of one over another, but the power to make claims or demands of each other, or to ask and answer, and this power of asking is essential if we are going to deliberate in earnest about our situation or collaborate on something new.

The conversational stance allows for genuine co-creation, because it’s not founded on subordination or one person ordering the other about. And the capacity for co-creation, the creative power that we share, only increases as we include more people in the circle of the conversation. (Of course there are limits: the research on group size and social complexity Dunbar summarizes suggests the circle probably should not widen beyond 150 people.)

I’ve tried to capture this thought in a simple rule: the power of asking will always be greater than the power of command.

That’s the basic position.

Another way to put the same thought might be in terms of the mechanics of ordering versus asking: whereas in the former we have one person directing the will of another, as we might address a short-order cook, in the latter we direct each other’s wills, so that we are, to stick with the metaphor, chefs in our own kitchen.

Of course the usual caveat applies about too many cooks spoiling the broth, I guess, but let’s also remember that people have different talents, training and competencies, and we can worry about how to order and organize ourselves once it comes to the actual cooking. Right now we’re just having a conversation.

Let’s also acknowledge, while we’re at it, that short-order cooks are models of industrial-era efficiency (but no longer efficient enough for the post-industrial fast food kitchen); gains in co-creativity can and probably will translate to losses in short-term efficiency.

Some concessions on one side or the other will probably have to be made, but too often the proponents of efficiency win without any argument, and people start giving orders or setting out plans for what’s to be done before the conversation even has a chance to get started. That’s when all the real power goes out of the room.

Asking Isn’t An Art

I’ve never been a big fan of human statues. They make a spectacle of themselves and everyone else who happens to come into their orbit. The human statue doesn’t just try to charm you into her silent, frozen circle; she obliges you to deal with the invitation. That’s why I avoid human statues as assiduously as I avoid mimes (who doesn’t find mimes annoying?) and balloon-tying clowns: I make a detour around them all.

Amanda Palmer used to be a human statue, and she opens her much-hyped TED talk on “The Art of Asking” with a story about how she used to work sidewalk crowds. To demonstrate, she stands on an overturned milk crate (clever props and staging are quickly becoming an essential element of TED talks, as noted in this brilliant infographic); she asks us to believe that everything she learned about asking “on the street” accounts for her success as a musician cum crowdsourcing entrepreneur.

In case you haven’t yet heard, Palmer recently raised 1.2 million dollars on Kickstarter for a music project, an achievement her TED audience could not help but wildly applaud and greet with gasps of admiration. For Palmer, fundraising on Kickstarter is simply an extension of what she did when she worked crowds as a human statue or in the period after that when she toured with her band. She made “an art out of asking people to help us and join us”; asking was her MO, how she got around: couch-surfing, getting musicians to play with her, finding venues – simply by asking. Asking, she came to understand, “makes you vulnerable”; but it can also pay off with favors, places to stay, new collaborators, and something less tangible – new relationships and enduring connections: “in the very act of asking people,” Palmer says, “I connected to them.”

If you wonder why that needs saying, then you don’t appreciate the magical hold the word “connect” seems to have on TED audiences: they’ve invested it with emotion because, I suppose, it’s about the internet and the children and all that stuff. Still, Palmer’s point is valid: working the streets, traveling about as a musician, she learned that asking can create new relationships, or that asking puts the asker and the person asked, the petitioner and the respondent, in new relationship with one another. Like all speech acts, asking establishes and coordinates human relationships as well as human actions; the real question is what is special and distinctive about what gets established and what how things get coordinated when one person asks another.

One answer lies, in part, in what Palmer has to say about vulnerability and making others visible, seeing each other, and all that could serve as an interesting starting point for a conversation about the ethics of asking. On the other hand, what Palmer actually has to say about the music industry – the part of her talk that apparently has everyone’s heart aflutter – is hardly new: the old model of making people pay for music doesn’t work, or won’t work much longer; instead, Palmer suggests, “let” people pay. “I think people have been obsessed with the wrong question, which is, ‘How do we make people pay for music?’ What if we started asking, ‘How do we let people pay for music?’” To her credit, Palmer has already admitted that this is an oversimplification, but in her clever and very TED-like “what if?”, there’s a business scenario the music industry might consider, or at least try to consider, after they run the numbers and consult with the Office of the General Counsel.

In other words, the real insight here, the thing to appreciate in Palmer’s talk, doesn’t have much to do with revenue models or licensing or selling. It’s much more basic than all that. Palmer’s distinction of making from letting and forcing from asking tells me that she’s keyed into the simple fact that asking – genuinely asking — involves the exercise of non-coercive power.

But there’s the rub. The trouble is that when you make an “art” of asking, as Amanda Palmer has, you start to coerce. You start to weave an illusion. You turn a non-coercive relationship into a spectacle. I’m not denying that there is a theatrical or performative aspect to all speech acts, or even to the simplest conversation between two human beings, or that sometimes we ask in order to persuade. Let’s put those questions aside for the moment. At present, I simply want to suggest that talking about asking as an “art” misses the mark, or at least that in resisting that notion, we can learn more about how asking works, or really could work, if given a chance. We can learn something about the ethics of asking and the way non-coercive power works.

Palmer has made asking into theater, part of an ongoing performance.

For her part, Palmer has made asking into theater, part of an ongoing performance, a traveling circus in which her fans and admirers can participate. In treating asking as an art, as performance, as an extension of her act as a human statue, Palmer may not really be asking at all: she’s trying to charm, and she’s apparently very good at that. The trouble with relying on charm is that — eventually — the spell will be broken. This is one reason why, I think, some musicians were so miffed when Amanda Palmer kept asking for freebies and favors even after she’d raised over a million dollars.