Dare to know! Have courage to use your own reason!

By: David Sable, Global CEO, Y&R

Socrates (or Sokrats for those who have seen him in his starring movie role) challenged the conventional wisdom of his time, which ultimately got him killed…BTW, by asking questions and engaging his audience to answer them.

What we now call the Socratic method pissed off the leaders of Athens because it “forced” the questioned to follow through to a logical or at least different solution. And often the solutions seemed so simple they were taken as ridicule by the ruling class and worse as a challenge and yes disruption to their way of life.

Logic and simplicity. Challenging conventional wisdom. Think about that and hold the thought.

We live in a world where this morning’s Disruption quickly becomes this afternoon’s conventional wisdom and we blindly follow the Pied Piper not realizing the simple answer might be only a question or discussion away.

We sit in meetings wringing our hands over Amazon’s “digital disruptive power” raise the flags of Digital First as our battle cry’s and Bezos goes and opens book stores and buys Whole Foods…what are we to do?

The UnConference Movement and STREAM an outcome (full confession….WPP, the company I work for, stages Stream with multiple sponsors and participants) is, in my opinion the evolved Socratic answer.

But first back to history.

For centuries, after the hemlock incident, logic and simplicity of thought leading to solution were suppressed by those who controlled conventional wisdom…mostly religious authority, primarily the Church and despotic rulers who took their authority from same.

And then came the enlightenment centered in Europe:


“politics, philosophy, science and communications were radically reoriented during the course of the “long 18th century” (1685–1815) as part of a movement referred to by its participants as the Age of Reason, or simply the Enlightenment. Enlightenment thinkers in Britain, in France and throughout Europe questioned traditional authority and embraced the notion that humanity could be improved through rational change.”

Everything was questioned. And questions were good…passionately argued and debated.

It was a time where science, philosophy, literature, religion and even politics collided as part and parcel of one big discussion on the state of humankind and its open ended conclusions still reverberate today…although I can only wonder what we might achieve if we would follow its methods today….

Rights of people?

Global warming?

Open minds….

John Locke, one of the great philosophers of the time (let’s face it who wasn’t…at least in their own minds) and one of my favorites put it best. “Locke argued that human nature was mutable and that knowledge was gained through accumulated experience rather than by accessing some sort of outside truth.”

So my bet is that Digital First would not fly in his thinking…more like People First of which a digital solution might be an outcome.

I”n his essay “What Is Enlightenment?” (1784), the German philosopher Immanuel Kant summed up the era’s motto in the following terms: “Dare to know! Have courage to use your own reason!”

In other words don’t get caught in the trap of this morning’s conventional wisdom. Or put another way go to the Amazon Book Store and ask yourself what your experience was, or Warby Parker brick and mortar…you get the idea.

The beauty and lesson of it all was that there was no monolithic approach:

“There was no single, unified Enlightenment. Instead, it is possible to speak of the French Enlightenment, the Scottish Enlightenment and the English, German, Swiss or American Enlightenment. Individual Enlightenment thinkers often had very different approaches. Locke differed from Hume, Rousseau from Voltaire, Thomas Jefferson from Frederick the Great. Their differences and disagreements, though, emerged out of the common Enlightenment themes of rational questioning and belief in progress through dialogue.”

Different approaches, huge differences, major disagreements but dialogue through questioning drove progress.

And in our world where the unprecedented ability to search and discover knowledge is more and more clouded by “fake news” and spurious information it’s interesting to note that some called:

“Voltaire’s “Philosophical Dictionary”: “a chaos of clear ideas.”

And that:

“Foremost among these was the notion that everything in the universe could be rationally demystified and cataloged. The signature publication of the period was Diderot’s “Encyclopédie” (1751–77), which brought together leading authors to produce an ambitious compilation of human knowledge.”

Think about what the intent of the Internet before it became a direct sales engine and a platform for annoying advertising (not all…not killing my golden goose).

And of course as we struggle with Gender equality, still, and recoil in disgust at some of the revelations of the past few weeks around men of so called power…its informative to recall the Salon Movement that sprang up during this time, where women, who had been denied education…even of the Upper Class, brilliantly turned the tables on male dominated discussion:

“A main purpose of the salons of Paris for the salonnières during the Enlightenment was to “satisfy the self-determined educational needs of the women who started them” (Goodman, 42). For the salonnières, the salon was a socially acceptable substitute for the formal education denied to them. Most parents at this time saw no reason in educating their daughters and even if they did, there were no institutions in which to do so”

For many the rise of digital social networks is the current evolution…a direct line from Socrates to the Enlightenment to Face Book. Frankly, little could more wrong.

As observed by Andrian Kreye in an article in The Edge…Salon Culture:

“In Europe and America, digital media always leads to new cul-de-sacs and roundabouts of communication. Social networks claim to be not only the successors of salons, they evoke the ominous metaphysical principle of the Weltgeist (global mind), while they actually reduce the principle of intellectual eruptions in salons to a de-intellectualized white noise.”

And there you have it.

Unlike Socrates or the thinkers of the Enlightenment we are ever more creating and living in ever more shrinking echo chambers…shrinking because our ideas grow smaller and smaller.

As reported by the Harvard Business Review back in November of 2013 long before we became obsessed with Fake News and Russian hacking:

Decision Making: Beyond the Echo Chamber, Harvard Business Review, November 2013:

“Since we’ve become so attached to social media, we are less and less required to interact with people who disagree with us. Technology allows us to reach across state lines (and even oceans) to find people who share our beliefs and values. Until social media designers can address the fact that these platforms allow the increasing polarization of users into small, tight-knit communities, stopping the proliferation of misinformation will continue to be a challenge.”

All of which brings me back to STREAM and the Enlightenment of thinking and challenges I experienced with an incredibly diverse group of people representing everything from art and science to media and content producers to agencies and clients to start ups and behemoths and included music, food, line dancing and drones…. with a few bottles of wine thrown in for good measure.

Stream is a forum for discussion. It is not a stage for presentation. No talking heads making the rounds of conferences.

It is an egalitarian gathering. No specially curated parties for the elite. No wearing of multiple credentials to show off status. No held front row seats for the power brokers.

You show up, choose a time slot on the White Board and write in your topic. Your discussion space is outdoors with a circle of chairs and hay bales. People come if they are interested in the topic and if they know you are a credible facilitator.

The rules are simple. Power Point is frowned upon as it’s not about presentations and if you suck the air out of conversations its fairly guaranteed you won’t be invited back. And listening is as important as participating.

STREAM is just that. It’s a living, flowing, clear and clean and bracing continuous flow of debate, discussion and ideas.

Meals are all family style and you sit with whomever interests you…title and rank are not observed.

A session about music had Poo Bear, Jared and TBone…not just sharing ideas but sharing songs live as Bob Dylan was channeled in a multi-generational song fest.

I was privileged to lead a session on “Shattering Conventional Wisdom” surprise….and the questions raised and the thoughts generated are still reverberating in my head.

One session I went to was about driving innovation in companies. And quickly you learn that even so called innovative companies get bogged down and that often the chain of fear of rejection goes bottom to top and back again…. I’m afraid to bring you ideas because you will shoot me down; you are afraid to bring them to your boss; and the boss is worried about the legal department and we leave good thinking to fester instead.

We talked about brainstorming, unfettered idea creation…is it effective in an age where we have so much data or are we seduced by the data and losing serendipity of thinking.

Movies were screened by new and exciting directors and producers and we got a taste of Vice’s newest content endeavors as they continue to defy digital pigeonholing.

Face Book, Snap, Twitter were all debated and dissected and AI was put through a wringer.

The one place where you could you use Power Point was at Ignite. Your topic, your slides 15 of which are pre-programmed to flip in 4 minutes and then the gong.

And the topics chosen by the participants covered the spectrum from the personal challenge and sheer exhilaration of climbing a mountain to the still, growing danger of STD’s to the future of education to gender equality.

And we also heard the leader of one “High Tech” company explain why he doesn’t allow phones or computers in his meetings. And it has nothing to do with hacking or paranoia.

As I have written before I am a Streamer from the start and on the tenth anniversary of this endeavor am proud and honored to still be participating.

Yet here is the challenge. We jump into the STREAM for two and a half days. We clear our minds, check our biases and lock up our egos and then we go home. Back to family, work the world.

How do we keep the flow going? How do we bottle the energy and the openness and apply it to all? How do make STREAM real?

And most importantly how do we share it with others so that it becomes a full on movement and not just an event.

Frankly, I see hope. My team, who joined me were focused on absorbing what they saw, felt and learned and bringing it back to their colleagues.

And, I’m sharing, once again with you.

As I sit here contemplating the lawyer who say no and my colleagues who fear I might say no I’m visualizing the STREAM and I’m getting ready to jump back in…and there you have it.

we are caught between a world where we believe anything can be done and one where it’s hard to get anything done. Between too much news, fake news and my news-your news. Between global warming and global need. Huge personal wealth and crushing group poverty.

Maybe we need to bring a little more magic back into the world…listen:

“Wonder is the beginning of wisdom.” Socrates

If we abdicate wonder we might lose it all.

And wonder is looking at our world in all its glory…science, philosophy, music, art, politics, religion all with a deep respect for the people who live in it.

So stream on…..

What do you think?

The @WPP (un)conference for (un)conventional thinkers