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Eli Pariser on curiosity, the value of democracy and why we need shared public digital spaces

Eli Pariser on curiosity, the value of democracy and why we need shared public digital spaces

Elizabeth Oldfield speaks to tech entrepreneur Eli Pariser. 22/12/2021

Eli Pariser has had a long and distinguished career in tech entrepreneurship and is currently running the organisation New Public, which is trying to help thinkers, designers and technologists build the digital public spaces of the future. He helped set up MoveOn and Avaaz, which were pioneers in the digital organising space in the early days of the internet. He coined the term ‘filter bubble’, and wrote the New York Times best–selling book of the same name.

In this episode Eli speaks about some of the trends that have led to our current situation in terms of division, his sacred value of curiosity, his love for democracy, and why we need to build shared public digital spaces in the same way that we have public parks.

Each episode in this series includes an additional reflection from Elizabeth at the end, so keep listening if you’d like to. We are also publishing full transcripts of each episode so scroll down on this page if you’re a reader rather than a listener.

We are taking a break next week for Christmas but our next episode will be released on Wednesday 5th January.

 

 

Elizabeth
Hello, and welcome to The Sacred. This is a podcast about the things that are deep and meaningful and precious to us, our deepest values that we try and live by, and how we can get better at engaging across our deep differences in these extremely divided times. My name is Elizabeth Oldfield, and every episode I speak to someone who has some kind of public voice or platform. I kick off by asking them to reflect on what their sacred or deepest values are, the things they try to live by really, being a bit nosy about their childhood and the ideas that were around as they were growing up, and then zooming out to the ideas they’re interested in now and how they might help us build our empathy and our ability to have a healthier common life. I deliberately speak to people from a range of perspectives, backgrounds and beliefs, I have learnt loads and been challenged in my thinking by almost every guest, and I hope you will be too. As always, please get in touch. You can find me on Twitter @ESOldfield. And please do rate, review and recommend the podcast to others if you find it at all helpful. That’s one key way you can support the project.

In this episode, you’ll hear a conversation I had with Eli Pariser. Eli has had a long and distinguished career in tech entrepreneurship and is currently running the organisation New Public, which is trying to help thinkers, designers and technologists build the digital public spaces of the future. That’s a bit of a mouthful, but it will make more sense once you’ve listened. He helped set up MoveOn and Avaaz, which were really pioneers in the digital organising space in those early days of the internet. And if you recognise his name, despite not being at all connected with those kinds of worlds, it’s probably because in 2011, he coined the term ‘filter bubble’, and wrote the New York Times bestselling book of the same name.

We had a really interesting conversation about some of the trends that have led to our current situation in terms of division, many of which he predicted with terrifying accuracy actually back in 2011. We discussed his sacred value of curiosity, his abiding and actually quite inspiring love for democracy, and why we need to build shared public digital spaces, in the same way that we now have public parks.

There was a little bit of background noise in Eli’s new apartment so you can hear a little bit of people moving around, a bit of sirens, but I don’t think it’s too distracting. As usual, with this series, there are some reflections from me at the end of the episode after I’ve had a chance to chew over the conversation, so stay tuned for that if you’d like to, but that’s enough from me for now. I really hope you enjoy listening.

Elizabeth
Eli, we’re going to go deep, quick. No chitchat, I’m going to ask what’s sacred to you, and you’ve had a bit of time to think about it, it doesn’t really matter how this lands in the sense of you can challenge the premise of the question, you can take it in a different direction. But I hope this just opened up a slightly different space in your brain to think about what your values are, your deep principles, the things you’ve tried to live by, even if, as all of us do you have failed at times. What bubbled up in the small amount of time, I’m sure that you’ve had to think about it?

Eli
The thing that actually came to my mind first was curiosity. I only realised recently how much that idea of curiosity, and the kind of more religious or spiritual idea of witness can fit in together, that, that, really, when you’re acting in a fully curious way, part of what’s so uplifting and transporting is, you know, just sort of really getting to see the world as it is, which is amazing, and which is jaw dropping, and so interesting. And so, so I sort of feel like with people, with systems, with myself, when I can get into that fully, l rarely feel like it leads me astray.

Elizabeth
Can you say a bit more about that religious and spiritual concept of witness?

Eli
Well, I don’t – I’m not an expert in it. I just was, you know, talking to someone who comes from a traditional kind of religious background. I’m part of a group–feelings–discussion thing, sort of group therapy – I feel bad, because I hear about what other people are going through and all of the real challenges that they’re facing in their lives and how they’re feeling about it, and the complexity of that, and the difficulty of that. And I come out of these meetings often, and I share my own, but I come out feeling so euphorically uplifted. I was like, Am I just…

Elizabeth
Feeding on people’s pain!

Eli
Playing vampire. Yeah, exactly. And she was like, a core piece of the human experience, which is, you know, actually seeing other people fully and allowing yourself to be seen – because it’s not like it comes from like, oh, I guess my problems aren’t so bad because someone else’s are worse, it isn’t comparative in that way. It really is just this feeling of here we are being humans, in all of what that is. And that’s quite something, makes my skin tingle, that concept which is really not about problem solving, or categorization even but just is about being seen and understood. And that though, that got me

Elizabeth
Yeah, chaplains call it accompaniment. It’s making me think of Martin Buber who I quote far too much. But his whole thing is those moments where you really see each other, those I–thou moments, that’s the only thing that’s really real. Everything else is kind of like, background noise. We’re only fully alive and fully human and fully ourselves in those modes. ‘Oh, wow. Like – you in all your complexity?’ And then he really relates that to God. Can you think of an example where curiosity that deep value has affected your choices, or your decisions in life, a fork in the road or dilemma? Where you’ve chosen curiosity, and it’s changed what you might have done?

Eli
I mean, I think it’s, it’s present in most of my big decisions. It’s a way of getting beyond the initial schema or the initial reactions, or the initial impressions that you have about what the decision even is. One of the books that made the most impact on me is this book called ‘The person in this situation’, which is really about the dance between our, our idea that character is so important and who we are as this kind of like, unchangeable thing, and the fact that actually when you observe human behaviour, people really show up really differently in different situations and predictably so. Part of the argument of the book is that the situations we’re in shape our behavior way more than we give them credit for. And, but, but part of what that’s about is even really understanding what situation it is. And, and so I feel like that’s where curiosity comes in. Because that’s, that’s such a critical tool to know, like, is this even the right decision? Am I understanding what the decisions are now?

Elizabeth
I’d love you to paint us a picture of your childhood. Tell us a little bit about where and how you grew up with particular reference to any big ideas that were around – political, philosophical, religious, that you have a hunch might have been formative for good or ill?

Eli
I grew up in a small town in Maine, in northern United States. 900 people, and my parents were, you know, had moved there from, from the city. And we’re kind of back to the land people. And it started an alternative high school that was really built around this idea of serving kids who were mostly lower income kids, and who had dropped out of high school, and who generally hadn’t had good adult relationships in their lives. And so the idea of the school was, let’s start with that relational context. And then let’s build on that to do the actual, what math you need to know, but that if we, if we don’t have that infrastructure of trust and care, then there’s not that much that you can go on educationally. It was a nonprofit school. My parents paid themselves as little as they could get away with to run our family and there was this real sense of like – this being of service and of use to a community of people is a really important part of, of life. Somewhere early on, someone shared with me, maybe it was my parents, this idea of the birth lottery and that, one way to think about how just or unjust the world is is to think about like, well, how much would I want to randomly be born anywhere to anyone at any place, or a socio economic class? And I think that definitely was a big idea for me, I happen to have landed in a place that is wonderful in so many ways. And that’s not totally fair. And part of what I want to do is try to spend some of my time trying to increase the birth lottery odds for everyone.

Elizabeth
So that really helps me make sense of – as I’ve kind of been reading about you and thinking about you, it’s clear, really, that it’s social purpose first, tech second – that you are someone who uses tech, but seeks to use tech as a social tool to bring about this sense of – you’re an activist essentially, is that fair?

Eli
Yeah, that’s definitely always been a big part of my DNA. And wanting to help push the world in a certain direction. You know, that’s, that’s what gets me up in the morning. I think I’ve always been a nerd also. And so the idea that we could use these tools, to further that mission has always felt like an exciting kind of thing to explore for me.

Elizabeth
And you set up or helped set up or co–founded various kinds of social change organisations/businesses, quite early doors. What were the threads you were pulling on? Can you remember kind of what was the story that you were telling about what you were trying to do in those years?

Eli
I fell into digital activism, not by chance, but just one thing led to another. And really, that started after 9/11, when I was working as a IT person at a nonprofit but feeling like, oh, man, this is a pivotal moment in the world. And I ended up putting up a little website that went viral, and all of a sudden, I was in touch with half a million people around the world. And that was a crazy experience as a 20 year old and, and really, what kind of got me – then I started having to help people do things because people want to do things as a group. And so that’s really what got me into the space. So the storytelling, you know, came ex post facto, in some ways, and there was just a lot of doing…

Elizabeth
Making it up as you go

Eli
And trying and messing things up and trying again, that was a lot of kind of how I got into it. I’ll die on the hill that democracy is a wonderful ideal to aspire to, and that things are better when everybody is engaged, and everybody participates in them. And you know, I think that was part of the story that I understood from what was possible with the internet, not that it was necessarily inevitable, but that we could realise some of these goals that either have never really been fully realised of what a democracy could be.

Elizabeth
I have a little game with myself where I try and guess what my guess sacred value will be. And I guess, my guess for you was democracy.

Eli
Oh, yeah. There’s some value behind democracy, that’s probably actually the value that’s like –collaboration sounds too workplacey, but it’s what happens, you know, if we were talking earlier about that moment of contact between two people, well, there are these emergent things that can happen when you actually get more than two people. And everyone’s actually kind of adding something, and in it for the right reasons that I just think are really not only profound, but also so beautifully powerful, in a way that you just can’t get to, in other systems. There’s a piece of it, that’s about really recognising what each person brings to the party. And then there’s a piece of it, that’s about you can’t have a party without a bunch of people there. And without a bunch of different kinds of people there. It’s not a party. I care both because I think it’s the best way to do things for everyone. And because I think it’s a more joyful, more human way to do things.

Elizabeth
That’s a good, it’s a good sales pitch. So you’d set up or been involved in MoveOn and then Avaaz and in 2010, I guess maybe earlier, this idea for ‘filter bubble’, this kind of what’s now seen as a very prophetic, incredibly insightful prediction really about a direction that we’re moving in. Do you remember when you were like, Okay, no, I’ve got to say this, was there an inciting incident?

Eli
Yeah, I mean, I was really, you know, back to curiosity, it’s like I was really coming from a place of, I don’t really understand what’s going on. And I don’t really understand what it means that in particular, that we’re moving on the web from an era that was dominated by individual websites, and by email, to an era that where everything is being pushed through these algorithmic filters in places like Facebook. And so really, what the book was just trying to figure that out. One of the fun things about writing a book is you can call a lot of different people and ask them questions, and they’ll take some time with you, because you’re writing a book. And so I think, for me, there’s also this constant process of kind of like, I’m asking myself, is this the right question? Is this a good question? And the more that I talk to other people and ask them the question, they’re like, ‘Oh, that’s a really good question. I don’t know’, the more confident I get that I’m on to something. And so that was really more of the process of the filter bubble, where I was like, Should we be concerned about this, you know, coming era of algorithmic personalization, and what it might do to our democracy? And, I was not getting a lot that was consoling at the time when I would ask smart people about it. And so that’s really what led me into that.

Elizabeth
And it, you know, made this very powerful argument, coined the term filter bubble, made this very powerful argument about personalization and the ways in which we were increasingly being shown the world that we set out already wanting to see, so we’re kind of reinforcing our tribes, building of confirmation bias so we’re getting more ignorant, and more confident in our views and the thing that really, people have quoted this a million times, but the thing that really stuck out is that thing about if you search for I think Shell, one of the big energy companies, you get either results about their negative impact in the world, or how to invest in them, depending on your search history, which felt terrifying. Yeah, a full decade on, what has changed?

Eli
Well, I mean, we are living some of the worries that the book tried to outline, I think, in terms of a fragmented political conversation and increasingly divergent understandings of the world of the big situation that we’re in. And, I think also, especially among younger people, there’s much more fluency with this stuff. So there’s less of a, I think, when I wrote the book, yeah, this is probably the good piece is like, it was just all really new to a lot of people that you could even do – that Yahoo wouldn’t be just showing the same front page to every person who visited it. And, you know, now I think people are starting to kind of realise, oh, okay, there are dynamics at work here, we’re starting to understand what these dynamics mean. And we’re starting to understand how they can really be corrosive if they’re not held in check. And so I think the conversation has advanced a lot, and it’s become a much bigger, more public conversation than it was in 2011. But I, but I think part of what we’re trying to do with this project that I’m working on now, New Public, is push it past a binary model of, there’s algorithmic personalization, or no personalization, or there’s Facebook or no Facebook, and toward like, well, what do we actually want for our digital environments that represents the values that we care about? And how do we build that?

Elizabeth
I want to come back in a minute to that, because I think the fascinating thing about – you’re both a theoretician and a practitioner, which is unusual, I think, to be able to say, right, this is the problem that I see, and then go and build it. So I think part of the answer to my question is that you take agency, but I wanted to ask about a deep emotional thing of how do you deal with –How do you not lose hope given that 10 years ago, you said ‘this looks bad guys’, and lots of the things that you predicted have come about, and we don’t seem to be necessarily sure where the break is now? How do you – what’s your kind of emotional journey slash spiritual journey? I don’t know, like, are there practices or boundaries or habits that you keep yourself able to work in this world and not frankly, just disappear off to the woods and shout for us to unplug the internet all the time?

Eli
Yeah. I mean, there’s a part of it that’s just part of my disposition. And so I don’t want to take too much credit for being like…

Elizabeth
Very Zen.

Eli
Yeah, no, I’m interminably hopeful. I think it was Gramsci who has this bit about pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will, and that’s sort of my general approach, which is like, Yeah, I’m gonna be critical. And I’m going to think hard. And I’m going to be really clear eyed about all the challenges. And I’m going to have some faith that we’re going to get there somehow. And I don’t totally know exactly what, you know, how to connect those dots. But, but I do have that faith. And I think part of it is, this is a dicey and stressful and awful moment, in so many ways. And in human history, we’ve had lots and lots of these moments, and not that they don’t carry real costs and real tragedy, but I’m not ready to kind of give up on the whole enterprise at the moment. I sort of feel like we need to redouble our imaginative efforts and to the extent that we don’t think we’re going to solve some of these technological problems at the level that they’re presenting themselves. We need to up our game and think about what the next level is.

Elizabeth
Yeah, one of the key things that I can see that’s changed in the last 10 years is just the level of saturation. You know, we were receiving personalised concert content in 2011. But we might have logged on to answer emails, checked my emails, gone away, done something else, spent an hour browsing the internet, maybe, and then gone done something else. But this is now a very much the – our site of character formation, like the things that are shaping us are primarily the digital information streams that we receive. How do you think they are shaping us right now in terms of how we engage across our differences, particularly?

Eli
I think the time piece is really important, everything ultimately just comes down to how are people spending time, because when people are spending time in one way, they’re not spending it in a bunch of other ways. And as a parent of young kids, and I know you have kids too, you feel this very acutely in terms of like, just what displaces what and what. And those calls are really important calls. And so, we’re spending a lot of time with digital media, just like when we’re spending a lot of time consuming movies, or TV or anything else. That displaces a whole bunch of social activity that used to happen in different ways. You know, we used to go out to clubs, do groups, do associational activities, partly because it was entertaining. There was nothing, it was boring, and then that was there to do. And, now, it’s possible to kind of never be bored, or never be at a lack for stimulation, anyway, digitally. That’s one piece of it, then I think there’s, how are these media –What are they incentivized to do? And so how are they structuring these relationships? And, just yesterday, there was a piece that came out in the Washington Post about how Facebook weighted angry reactions to content much more heavily in its decisions about what to show people than just if I liked it, or even if I said I loved it, or sending people a hug or whatever.

Elizabeth
Wow they’ve been telling us that that’s just us. That yeah, we need to click on something for a negative emotion and they’re just – but no, it’s…

Eli
It’s five, it’s five times more visible. So what does it mean that everybody’s really angry and at the same time, our communications media are biased toward angering content like that? That’s definitely some gasoline on the fire, culturally, and I think that’s, that’s what we’re experiencing. So I think that makes it really hard to have relationships across difference because there’s – Just at a kind of core physiological, psychological level, feeling threatened isn’t a good space to develop those relationships, when you feel threatened it’s really hard to be curious. It’s really hard to be patient or interested or, you know, and listen.

Elizabeth
Yeah. One of the themes that comes through quite a lot in your work is this idea of the power of an environment. You’ve spoken about the sense of wanting to contribute to a better world, this is the good that we want to move towards. But I feel a real scepticism in you about the power of individual choices in that versus the sense of structures. How much have you seen yourself as someone who’s trying to build structures that make it easier for us to make good choices?

Eli
Yeah, I think that’s a core piece of what I think, you know, public design is and I think it’s, it’s not to undermine or degrade the need for individual agency and freedom and choices. But it is either – freedom is just a weird thing, because at either end of the spectrum, when you have too many choices, or too few choices, you’re not really free, it isn’t existential freedom. I wake up, I could go outside and start mining or I could go to Brazil or whatever, that just quickly becomes paralysis or becomes ennui, it’s overwhelming, and we can’t live that way. And so part of what I think good design does is present a legible menu of what can be done and can be done together. And to put this in concrete terms, think about a park that has a playground and has a dog park and has a field, it’s not to say you can’t come up with any number of crazy things you want to do in the field. But there’s a little bit of scaffolding, it’s sort of like a coral reef, you have to have some amount of structure to build off in order to have the magic happen.

Elizabeth
I think of physical space as so in opposition to digital space. Because it you know, sensorily not – We can’t grab it, right? Or touch it or feel ourselves walk through it, or at least we can’t if we’re not fully in kind of VR mode. But yeah, you really do feel like we can learn a lot from physical space and import it to digital space. What’s your vision there?

Eli
Yeah, well, I think it’s partly about recognising that through every society, through all of human history, we’ve seen this need for common spaces and for public spaces. And because they do work, they do things that private businesses and markets won’t do. There are people whose needs won’t be served in the market. And if you don’t have spaces in institutions that do that, so that if I can’t afford a gym membership, I can still get outside and be healthy or get some exercise, then you have real social problems. And those social problems generally catch up with everyone. So part of it is just recentering our conversation about digital life by saying well, we’ve seen the need for these public driven institutions in our physical life, why wouldn’t we need that in our digital life? Why do we think that it makes sense to try to do all of this inside of a bunch of private companies, which even if they’re run with the best possible intent, and the most wise leaders, that’s just a very particular structure for organising behaviour and activity, that’s ultimately about delivering shareholder value. That’s fine. But in the past, we’ve seen that there’s utility to other ways of organising people. And so that’s, that’s part of it. But then I think when we really get into it tangibly, we can start to say, well, we have this, you know, centuries or millennia of experience designing common spaces. And there are some themes that come up again and again. And there are also some problems that come up again and again. And why would we throw all that out and act as if here we are, with a blank slate.

Elizabeth
I live in a big city also, I live in London, and we spent almost the entirety of lockdown in a park and this powerful sense of, I think, other than the NHS, which people only access at moments of real crisis, public parks are the last place where everyone comes, particularly in a pandemic. But every single walk of life comes for a walk in the park if you live in a city, but I have an imaginative leap to what that means. So paint me a picture and tell me what you’re trying to do with New Public. Is it a publicly owned social network? What might a space look like where everyone could come and see? And if it’s that witness thing, somehow with each other or accompany each other or even just acknowledge each other online, given the ways we’ve been formed to have such short attention spans, to be these sort of sensory reaction machines to our worst selves, essentially?

Eli
Yeah. Well, you know, I was talking to a woman who was – she was actually one of the first Yahoo employees and has since had this kind of amazing career across Tech and she was saying we make this mistake over and over again, which is to confuse tech with tech on capitalism. And there just really is this difference when you start to explore spaces that aren’t organised to maximise engagement or to maximise advertising impressions. And so an example I’ll give you is from Porch Forum in Vermont, which is this social network, or a fancy email group you could also think of it as, but it’s an extremely heavily moderated local discussion forum. It only goes out once a day, every post is read. And if you are in violation of the norms, you get it sent back to you with a note that says like, hey, this isn’t quite right, do you mind rephrasing or whatever, it’s very high touch thing, that as a business, you know, all that is first to go, right, but as a service, it’s incredibly well used in Vermont. It’s actually like two thirds of Vermont households are on Front Porch Forum, with a pretty good spread across class. Vermont’s very white so there’s not a whole lot of racial diversity. But across class, which is a big divide in Vermont, you do get these rich conversations happening. So that’s just a very literal example of, it’s not like digital conversation as a category has to be so intractably difficult. But when you start to put the parameters around it where we’re not going to invest any labour in making it good. And it’s all just kind of like people fumbling around and fitting the pieces together. And by the way, we’re going to amplify the most angering content, then you get what we have right now. And that’s the tech on capitalism. And so I think we are interested in how do we build spaces that have these public service values at the forefront. And maybe that means they’re actually nonprofits. Or maybe that means they’re low profit for profits that are organised around public benefit. But we just think there’s a huge opportunity there for things that will really serve people in the way that parks and libraries have in the physical world.

Elizabeth
So how much is your experience at Upworthy driving this, because I’ve been fascinated to see, to hear more about your experience of trying to build a for profit business, right? That amplifies content for social good. And you’ve talked about this tension that every – I remember, I went I worked at the BBC for a while. And I went into the BBC because I saw a film called Good Night and Good Luck which is about Ed Murrow and this and, we call them ‘Reithian values’ in the UK, like BBC values of the power of media platforms to educate, to inform, to form us morally and ethically. But you’ve said every single person in every media platform, you know, old or new comes to this thing between what sells and what is good. Stuff that matters versus stuff that sells. Did you just reach the end of how far you can go with that whilst trying to make a profit? How much was that experiment successful?

Eli
I think we, we definitely reached the end of how far you can go while trying to make a venture scale business. And I think that was a big learning for me, was media and storytelling is so important. But with some exceptions, a lot of the most important storytelling work is just not going to be at the core of venture backed business. Because sometimes you have to invest a lot of time and energy in topics that are not especially interesting or profitable, and figuring out how to tell those stories that are the most important often can take more time than turning out a bunch of trivial stuff that everybody gets already.

Elizabeth
I’m going to ask you one final question, which is, in all of your deep dives into the intersection between our information platforms and our divisions, what is the key thing that helps us reconnect across our differences? I guess maybe one thing that individuals can do, and one things that are more on a policy or a leader level?

Eli
Uh, well, I would say a key thing is just scale, you’re never going to know or be able to understand billions of people or millions of people or even hundreds of 1000s of people. But you can make some real headway with dozens of people or eight people, right? And so I think really thinking about how much time we’re investing in these fragmentary glimpses of people that we’ll never know. Versus in relationships that actually can be bi directional and relational, to me is a key question both for individuals and for designers and structure makers. Like how do we get things down to human scale? So that because we’re humans, that’s the scale we are built to get. And to me, that would be the place to start.

Elizabeth
Yeah. And that works at both levels. How do we design it as leaders or governments or policymakers and how do we live it?

Eli
Exactly, yeah.

Elizabeth
Eli Pariser. Thank you so much for speaking to me on the sacred.

Eli
Thank you so much for having me on. This was a pleasure.

Elizabeth
It’s becoming clear to me that I find everyone interesting, which is why this is such a privilege. But Eli in particular was not at all what I expected. My prejudices coming into this interview, were tech people and sort of startup entrepreneurial people tend to be very alpha and self–assured and pitchy. You know, here’s why I’m amazing. And I have all the answers. And Eli, who actually does have a TED talk that’s been viewed more than 4 million times, wasn’t that tall. He did predict a huge amount of what’s happening now. And he has all this experience and foresight, but he was just really humble and thoughtful, which was massively refreshing.

The more I ask people about their childhoods, the more that very obvious thing about the formative power of our childhoods become clear to me, and you can just draw a line between Eli’s parents running a nonprofit school focused on children who might otherwise be excluded from education and his sense of wanting to take what he was good at, which was tech and computers and IT, and use those skills for good.

I really like his vision of digital public parks. And it is interesting when you think about it, that we are very happy for our digital public spaces to be entirely run by corporations and I don’t think he’s anti corporations in general, but just argues very well for this need for a mixed economy of public space and private space. Lots of social commentators have been arguing for a while that even in, in the physical – I don’t think ‘real life’ and ‘online life’ are helpful divisions maybe – but in the physical space, we are losing our public and common space, that lots of it’s being sold off. And, you know, the Victorian social reformers, many of whom were inspired by their faith actually, really had a strong sense of the importance of common spaces that everyone could access, that there were no barriers to, hence all these amazing parks all over London. I live near Ruskin Park, in Camberwell, which is just a lifeline and one of the few places where everyone from the community goes, and everyone from the community at the very least sees each other. So I’m intrigued by what that would mean in digital space, although, frankly, like most of us, I’m a bit burnt out by too much on–screen. So I’m more likely to spend time in my real life public park, but I look forward to seeing digital public parks emerging.

I think the most memorable thing that he said to me was right at the end, about the human scale, the hubris actually of trying to hold all this complexity and this number of people in our heads, in front of our attention, in our imagination and engage with problems and people at this global level when we are only human after all. And I’m going to think about that. What does it mean for me to commit to a smaller number of relationships over time in committed covenant relationships? Because that might be where we’re able to be most fruitful. That’s what I’m pondering after listening to that interview, I’d love to hear what you’re pondering. Please do get in touch. And see you next episode. 


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Elizabeth Oldfield

Elizabeth Oldfield

Elizabeth is host of The Sacred podcast. She was Theos’ Director from August 2011 – July 2021. She appears regularly in the media, including BBC One, Sky News, and the World Service, and writing in The Financial Times.

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Posted 22 December 2021

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