Author: Kate Whiting, Senior Writer, Formative Content
- This is an edited version of an interview with Gillian Tett for the Book Club Podcast.
- Financial Times journalist and author Gillian Tett discusses her new book, Anthro-Vision: How Anthropology Can Explain Business and Life.
- She argues that using concepts from anthropology, alongside other sciences, can help to address the biggest problems facing the world today.
- Our efforts to tackle climate change, pandemics and use artificial intelligence in an ethical way could all benefit from being seen through the lens of anthropology.
In 2005, Gillian Tett wrote her colleagues at the Financial Times a memo arguing that the paper should devote more time to covering those submerged parts of the ‘Financial Iceberg’, such as credit and derivatives.
“The biggest risks in the world are not usually hidden through any dastardly, James Bond-style plot,” the FT’s US editor-at-large, who predicted the 2007-8 financial crisis, says today.
“The bankers weren’t concocting a wild scheme to bury what they were doing with financial innovation in 2005-6 into some kind of dark tunnel. Most of the problems were actually hidden in plain sight, but ignored because of the cultural patterns.” coronavirus, health, COVID19, pandemic
What is the World Economic Forum doing to manage emerging risks from COVID-19?
The first global pandemic in more than 100 years, COVID-19 has spread throughout the world at an unprecedented speed. At the time of writing, 4.5 million cases have been confirmed and more than 300,000 people have died due to the virus.
As countries seek to recover, some of the more long-term economic, business, environmental, societal and technological challenges and opportunities are just beginning to become visible.
To help all stakeholders – communities, governments, businesses and individuals understand the emerging risks and follow-on effects generated by the impact of the coronavirus pandemic, the World Economic Forum, in collaboration with Marsh and McLennan and Zurich Insurance Group, has launched its COVID-19 Risks Outlook: A Preliminary Mapping and its Implications – a companion for decision-makers, building on the Forum’s annual Global Risks Report.
Companies are invited to join the Forum’s work to help manage the identified emerging risks of COVID-19 across industries to shape a better future. Read the full COVID-19 Risks Outlook: A Preliminary Mapping and its Implications report here, and our impact story with further information.
In her new book, Anthro-Vision, Tett explains how a PhD in anthropology helped her predict the financial crash, because she realized the siloed bankers had tunnel vision which stopped them seeing the wider context and real-world implications of the products they were selling.
From COVID-19 to the climate crisis and artificial intelligence, Tett tells the World Economic Forum Book Club Podcast how taking a worm’s-eye, empathetic view of risks facing the world today can help to explain – and potentially solve – them.
What is the ‘business’ case for anthropology?
Gillian Tett: Humans are all shaped by cultural assumptions that we inherit from our environment. Culture doesn’t exist as boxes, it’s a spectrum of difference. One of the most important things we need to do in a world that’s both globalized and polarized is recognize that the cultural assumptions we each inherit are very powerful, but they’re different. And we can all benefit by trying to immerse ourselves into the lives and minds of others, but also so that we can then flip the lens and look back at ourselves with a lot more clarity.
There’s a wonderful proverb which says: ‘A fish can’t see water’. We can’t see our own cultural assumptions and biases, unless we jump out of our fish bowl, go and ask other fish what they think about us, and then look back at ourselves. When we look at that wider cultural context, we begin to understand why using mere quantitative tools to navigate the world, like corporate balance sheets or economic models, or big data sets, simply isn’t enough to capture the complexity of our cultural experiences today.
In the book, you advocate a more joined-up, interdisciplinary approach to problem-solving…
Gillian: COVID-19 has made it very clear you can’t beat a pandemic just with medical science, or big data or computer science. You need to combine it with social science to understand the cultures and behavioural patterns that shape how people do or don’t behave. And that extends right across all the problems which we’re facing today, such as climate change, income inequality, or both the promise and peril of big data and artificial intelligence. My plea in the book really is to try and start blending these different disciplines.
The good news is there is evidence this is happening. During the Ebola epidemic in West Africa, in 2014, after several months of trying and failing to beat Ebola just through medical science, there was a shift in policy on the part of the World Health Organization and others to embrace more use of behavioural science. That was really what got the Ebola epidemic controlled. A similar process of learning – sadly a slow one – has been happening with COVID-19. When it comes to the vaccination roll-out, there is more appreciation of the need to blend these disciplines. Now we need to apply these same principles to climate change battles, to tech battles and AI. There is some progress, but it’s still very patchy.
How can we use the lessons of anthropology to address climate change?
Gillian: Firstly, we have to understand people’s cultural experiences of climate change issues. In a conversation between [actor] Robert Downey Jr and John Kerry, the US climate envoy, on the World War Zero website, Downey Jr says most people are put off talking about climate because it seems scary and makes them feel guilty. We have to find a way to communicate these messages really effectively to consumers, and be sensitive to what is or is not blocking action by them, just as we’re having to work out why some people today are not taking vaccinations. We can’t assume that what makes sense to an American or European policymaker will make sense to consumers in other parts of the world. https://www.youtube.com/embed/nMggUdlF7-o?enablejsapi=1&wmode=transparent https://open.spotify.com/embed-podcast/episode/31NQMtt4GlFrhA2XSEZABs
The second way is by looking beyond the edges of your model. For so many years, economists treated the environment as something which was external to their economic models about how the economy was going to behave, so-called ‘externalities’. Corporate finances and business people treated the environment as a footnote to what they were doing in the corporate accounts. They assumed that all of these resources were free, and could just be ignored. Corporate tools like economic models and corporate balance sheets are really useful – but they’re always defined by the limits of what you put into the models, they’re bounded. And we have to learn to look beyond those limits, to get a sense of context. Looking at the environment is absolutely part of the context and is forcing a wider rethink of economics and corporate accounting.
The third way is simple: it’s a human tendency to put others in a box and shun people who seem different, but anthropology argues we can’t do that. We’re all interlinked in a spectrum of cultural difference, in a chain of humanity, and when the weakest link of that chain breaks, we often all suffer. We saw that in COVID, we saw the perils of ignoring what was happening in faraway lands, or pretending you didn’t really know or care what was happening in Wuhan. And climate change is going to see that played out all over again. We cannot afford to ignore other people who seem different from us in a world that’s so tightly integrated as a global system.
What’s the World Economic Forum doing about climate change?
Climate change poses an urgent threat demanding decisive action. Communities around the world are already experiencing increased climate impacts, from droughts to floods to rising seas. The World Economic Forum’s Global Risks Report continues to rank these environmental threats at the top of the list.
To limit global temperature rise to well below 2°C and as close as possible to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels, it is essential that businesses, policy-makers, and civil society advance comprehensive near- and long-term climate actions in lineWith the goals of the Paris Agreement on climate change.This simple plan can help to stop global warming
The World Economic Forum’s Climate InitiativeThe public-private sector collaboration supports global climate action. The Initiative has several work streams that help to develop and implement ambitious and inclusive solutions.
This includes the Alliance of CEO Climate Leaders. A global network of business leaders across a variety of industries, this network provides cost-effective solutions to transitioning into a low-carbon and climate-resilient economy. CEOs leverage their position and influence to reach out to policy-makers, corporate partners, and accelerate the transition.
Gillian: Having a diversity of perspectives in any workplace is really, really important: it might take more time to get to an answer, but it’s less likely to be really stupid. One of the reasons the 2008 financial crisis happened was there simply weren’t enough checks and balances in the financial system. Most people working in West-based financial companies were of the same mentality, training and intellect. They also had the same perspective. Many were men and were plagued with groupthink. A common view is essential to help business leaders who are often lacking it.
Anthropology believes that it is worth trying to immerse ourselves in the minds and experiences of others in order to see yourself differently. It helps us to think about all the things you ignore in your everyday world, the so-called social silences, the parts of our environment that we tend to overlook because they’re so familiar, or because we’ve labelled them as boring or geeky. Social silences are never irrelevant, they’re often crucially important for explaining how the world really works, and how we reproduce the patterns we have around them for the future. It is important to look at social silences from other perspectives.
What lessons have we learned from the financial crisis?
Gillian: Yes, in some narrow ways: there won’t be another crisis caused by subprime mortgages again and I predict there probably won’t be a crisis caused by a shortage of capital in the regulated banking system again. That is very encouraging. But I think there’s still a need to be more imaginative about forward-looking risks, and recognize that threats almost always crop up where there are silos, they’re almost always found where problems fall between the cracks of existing institutions. People ignore the importance cultural patterns, incentives and tribal behaviour, as well as social dynamics.
What is the World Economic Forum’s Book Club?
The World Economic Forum’s official Book Club was launched on Facebook in April 2018. All readers around the world are invited to join this Facebook group and discuss a wide range of fiction and nonfiction books. It is a private Facebook group that discusses one book each month.
Each month, we announce a brand new book via our social media channels. The group then begins a discussion chapter-by-chapter with the author. We send selected comments and questions to the author. He then sends us a response via video.
Unlike other book clubs, the group features the direct involvement of the authors, giving you – our global audience with members all around the globe – a chance to directly connect with some of the most influential thinkers and experts in the world.
We have featured authors like Steven Pinker, Elif Schafak, Yuval NoahHarari, Melinda Gates, and Yuval Noah Harari.
You can join The Book Club Here.
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What do you consider the greatest risks we face in the future?
Gillian:In the tech sector, we have seen a similar pattern of groupthink, intense tribalism, and tunnel vision in recent years. That’s worrying. In the years leading up to 2020, we saw a tendency to ignore social sciences related to medicine. A column I wrote a few years ago stated that people were not paying attention to what was happening in the geekier parts of medicine and the potential dangers of pandemics. This is similar to how they ignored the geekier areas of finance before 2007. Today we ignore some of the major ethical questions raised by AI and finance.
We’re frankly also ignoring many of the issues around AI in general today, because once again, technical knowledge is held in the hands of a tiny group of elite technocrats, who the rest of the world tends to ignore because their activities are labelled as boring and geeky and dull, and therefore not of interest to everybody else.
How can anthropology help us to think about AI?
Gillian:It is crucial to understand both the context in which AI is being developed and implemented, and the context of the people who are writing the AI programs. We’ve seen the way that you get embedded biases, by the lack of diversity in the coding teams. We must also consider how AI is implemented in product development and whether those who implement it can understand the ethical and social context. Alex Karp is the head of Palantir, a major tech company in Silicon Valley, pointed out during the last year’s IPO filings that we’re putting enormous amounts of power in the hands of a small group of computing elite, who operate in silos, and don’t necessarily want that level of power and probably aren’t equipped to deal with it.
AI is an amazing tool. It works by gathering vast amounts of data points about human activity, looking out for correlations, and then extrapolating into future. But there are limitations to this. If you’re looking for data points about what we do and say, you tend to ignore social silences because what we don’t say by definition doesn’t get recorded. Secondly, correlation is not causation: you can’t understand why people are doing things if you assume that everything can be judged just by looking at correlations and data points. Thirdly, context change, which means that what happened in the recent past doesn’t always reflect what’s going to happen in the future. https://open.spotify.com/embed/episode/0VLO9mldvzsWu9MYEYbujc?utm_source=generator
Culture is not a clear-cut, linear pattern that can easily be analyzed using Newtonian physics. It’s an incredibly multi-layered, contradictory, baffling entity that exists in a spectrum of difference, not boxes, and is constantly changing in subtle ways. It’s more like a river.
AI platforms can scan financial markets and look at medical data. They can also design rocket ships and play Go. However, no AI platform has ever created a good joke. Jokes, by definition, define or articulate social group. To get a joke, you must be in a group with shared cultural assumptions. Jokes are able to play off all layers of culture, including social silences. AI programmes are useful but have limitations. Therefore, AI needs Anthropology Intelligence, a second type, to be most effective in the modern world.