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Arts, business, philosophy, technology, you name it, Jonathan MacDonald has something enlightening and inspiring to say about it, as Dominic Rodgers found out in conversation with the founder of the Thought Expansion Network

14 min read

Be clear. I have to be, as clarity is one of the key elements of Jonathan’s philosophy. He makes very complex ideas straightforward and understandable, despite using examples and references that span both the globe, and the last few millennia. Each one is carefully, yet immediately selected to illustrate a salient point.

Rock star, philosopher, Jonathan Macdonald

Rock star, philosopher, Jonathan Macdonald

In fact, he is a regular on the speaking circuit at events including TED, and The Next Web on how to think differently about the future of business, society, and technology within an environment of perpetual, fast-paced change. He is even one of the few people that companies including Google, Apple, P&G, Unilever, Nestlé and IKEA trust to challenge their thinking, and provide new perspectives and avenues of thought.

“If you go back to 2000BC in ancient Chinese and Babylonian themology of looking into the abyss, and viewing what is your true self, your telos, purpose, and facing your soul, the same way as Neo does in the Matrix, when he actually sees the matrix, you could argue that that is a simile of realisation, and I mean that in the literal sense of re-a-lis-ation, the actualisation of what is real.”

Within two minutes of us starting he goes from something obscure to the mainstream, and gets straight to the point. This is rock ’n’ roll philosophy.

J: On one hand you have far more talk of ‘the craft,’ and on the other hand you have far less consideration of the craft. For example, Scandinavian dramas, broody, long single shot, huge silences no soundtrack. Then you have the remake of The Bridge, which is slick, has a lot of lighting, and fast cars. It’s the same with The Killing. The original was fantastic, and the new version looks like a Bruce Willis film, they’ve removed all of the goodness.

It’s the commoditisation of the arts. It’s all expression, all a display of emotion. When Avicii takes old country songs from 60s and puts a massive drumbeat and auto-tune and gets into the top ten, a purist will say it isn’t real music, but ontologically it is music and it certainly is art.

The more we deprioritise the ability for people to find their true voice by removing funding from arts councils, and removing investment into arts and culture, it is potentially the death of society. As communities and governments we should enable arts and culture and expressionism to be as important if not more important than education for capitalist merit.

I think this type of polarisation will become even more polarised, and the artisan will continue to be brought to the surface.

On a high street with rent values of X you have mass market who are able to procure far better rent deals because they’ll take a larger piece of land or a 20 year or 99 year lease, you have the artisans with the same rent of X with a totally different operating model. Their margins are far lower, sales volumes are far lower, in fact it’s very inelegant the way rental prices are structured. It doesn’t encourage the artisan. It’s the same for an art gallery or a boutique selling a fashion brand.

The middle ground is somewhere like Whole Foods Market, which has arguably more organic food than you would find in a supermarket. They have a hybrid model so they can be where supermarkets would be, or afford rents artisans normally wouldn’t, and the draw is incredible. When you hit that hybrid, which iTunes managed when it enabled people to share files legally, it always works. Peter Drucker spoke of hybrid models in the 40s and 50s, and Whole Foods is hybrid where it is an artisan organic place that is able to be mass market.

D: How do you think artisans can learn from the more aggressive capitalist model?

J: Could it dilute artisanship if you incorporate capitalist structures, does it remove the artisan?

D: I’ve heard many fears from artisans that that is exactly the case, which is fair enough. The mass-market model excludes the artisan model. It suggests synthetic suppliers, cheap labour, popularist ideals, and almost hits people where they’re at their most needy by setting price brackets low so consumers gravitate towards them. However, there are some business skills within it that artisans could definitely learn from without compromising their integrity.

J: It’s sad when I’ve met charities that are extremely worthy and they struggle. Not all charities are, some of the most vindictive and cynical practices in the world are from some of the largest charities in the world. When I find one that is truly altruistic but has no understanding of how to market themselves it breaks my heart. Equally, I know a sculptor who is a standard beyond anything I’ve seen, but he has no understanding of what his distribution could look like, or how to financially balance his books. So what he actually does is scrape pennies together to buy materials, and lives a totally impoverished life. If he could get some understanding of basic principles like the four P’s of marketing then I think he would probably be one of the most famous sculptors in the world. I’ve asked him about this and said let me help you make a website, and he’s resistant because he is the epitome of what suffering for your art looks like, and he feels he wouldn’t be as inspired if he were popular.

D: The tragedy is the manifestation of the problem that people don’t think two opposite forms can co-exist at the same time. On the one hand there is the pure form, artisan, who does everything to source things properly, use traditions, and work in a way that honours the craft, yet to the extent that it’s impossible to operate. Or, on other hand you have powerhouses. They are much maligned today. Thirty years ago there was little exposed criticism of big companies in retail or corporate. That’s not to say people didn’t criticise them before, but that didn’t hit the press in the same way as it does today, and that’s very much down to social media. It has created growing distaste for bad ethics in business. The corporates can learn so much as well as they’re either struggling or going to struggle because of their poor practice. They way they treat their consumers or staff.

J: I also believe it’s how they treat the planet. The ethical stock exchange. In 50 years I think we’ll look back and see that perhaps the social media landscape and empowerment of the general public was a catalyst for a new reality where if a company is acting unethically to their staff or to the planet there is a direct degradation of their fortune.

Blake Mycoskie, founder of Tom's Shoes. He's a proof that giving is good for business

Blake Mycoskie, founder of Tom’s Shoes. He’s a proof that giving is good for business

D: It’s not just virtuous ideologies though, these things are already happening. If you take Blake Mycoskie’s company Tom’s shoes for example who are solving a social problem whilst making a good profit. It’s not the old model, which poses that to do something good so I must absolutely do everything puristically and make sure I’m totally altruistic and selfless. With Tom’s shoes you’re seeing a purpose, planet and profit model doing fantastic good giving children shoes to walk the distance to get an education, but still making a profit, which one can only hope and fairly assume will be virtually recycled to embark on another fantastic project.

J: I am interested in whether currency will play a part in this. The current way of making profit is still the hook for centralised banking and taxation, revenue and customs. I suspect alongside an ethical exchange in the future it will be linked to softer currencies, which are at the moment at a very, very nascent stage.

Uniqlo suggested people who wanted to reduce the price of an item could tweet about it with the hashtag #luckycounter the item price for them would go down, I call that ‘advocurrency.’ Kellogg’s did it as well with tweet shop and you can pay with a tweet for books and white papers online. If you expand that thought you get people’s sentiment and emotion exchanged acting as a currency proper, having banks, sentiment exchanges, or banks of goodness, which can be transferred into companies, and companies can also transfer to people.

It’s a very compelling point that businesses who focus on similar values that an artisan does will benefit in the long term. The search for profit is no excuse to make irresponsible choices, and the quick buck will eventually lead to downfall.

J: It’s a tactic in search of a strategy in search of an objective, it’s art for the sake of art instead of art for the sake of meaning. That way we have companies that look good in headlines, but the reality is there’s been a paradigm shift. It is not only because of the capability and affordability of technology, or the socialisation of the value chain, it’s strongly around the elements of trust and what trust is.

The brand’s stairway to heaven, which starts with positive interactions, consistency, credibility, authenticity, trust, and loyalty, is now faced with the fact that if hoards of people have lost trust in the integrity, and merits of a company it’s extremely difficult to rebuild because it takes ages to build and nanoseconds to lose. It doesn’t matter how many reward points you offer, you’re already out of business. Three quarters of the businesses we know and love today will be out of business in ten years, and that’s empirical.

D: There are many instances when death happens long before lights go off. The chief executives might point to getting social media strategies wrong for example, and that might be true, but the wider point is that they’ve got the moral standpoint of the company wrong.

J: Social media is just tools and platforms that are expressing what you stand for, and if you don’t stand for anything no one is going to stand up for you.

D: Social media strategies completely forget the main ingredient, which is social behaviour. If businesses grow a soul and operate like an individual they would completely revolutionise the way the do things.

J: To consumers the products look like attractive things you want to spend money on, but they’re rotten to the core, dressed up in gold so that people still aspire to them. It’s the reality shows, the talent shows, the faceless chains, the criminally neglectful coffee chains that not only put farmers out of business, but out of a way of life, just to procure a better price to sell coffee to people in warm areas with free wifi. The whole thing is totally dark.

If you look at the Athenian agora you have a situation, a couple of hundred years BC, the agora was the marketplace. The marketplace was in the centre of the town and at the edge you have the mint, which was the ability to develop stones so they can be traded for things you could buy in the marketplace that were made in the outskirts of Athens. The construct of today’s commercial society and districts was actually formed from them.

The ancient marketplace, the Agora

The ancient marketplace, the Agora

One of the first ever currencies was the Persian ‘darek’ which was used purely with the intention of buying something that somebody else had made. It’s only the requirement of scale that led to the removal of the organic. As soon as carts were made you could transfer goods from one place to another. So rather than making five things in a week and selling them to buy the food you need to eat, the food your family needs to eat, and the materials with which to make five more things, people worked out that if they could distribute to three of four other towns they could sell twenty things. Their capacity was for 5, so they either found cheaper ways of creating things or more people to create them.

D: This goes back to what you were saying about currency. Arguably it’s good to have as much currency as possible. The better artist you are the more social currency you have, the more people want to see your work. Where it all seems to have gone wrong is with money, and greed. The currency is normal. It’s been so incremental that few people have realised that we’re so many million miles away from where we started off. Not only have we confused the money and the currency, but we have also confused growth and progress.

J: If you look back at art and currency together, one of the closest links between them is ‘rai’ stones, which were used by the Yappese in Micronesia. There were a limited amount of rai stones, only about 11,000 ever. They were 8 foot by 8 foot carved out of lime, and the attention that was given to make them and how hard it was to move them were the value of the currency. They had to be put on canoes to move them from the limestone caves to the central island of Yap, and people would die as the canoes sunk when they were being transported.

The reality is there’s been a paradigm shift around elements of trust and what trust is

When I first learnt about capitalism, and how labour and capital were equated, I was learning about ancient forms of currency and exchange, and artisanship. It seemed to me that the modern understanding of exchange and value is an extremely naïve version of what they should be. We’re spending a lot of time looking at ourselves, and not a great deal of time looking back thousands of years ago at how continent really did run and how people in general were not just happier, but more creative. The information that’s really needed can only be found at best in the libraries of classics universities and that’s a crying shame because that’s where the learning can now be.

D: That is what’s now possible with modern technologies, but it’s not necessarily the focus, it’s the artisan of information rather than the infoporn the fatuous celebrity addictions.

J: My role is to help people’s thinking to expand so they can feel more realised and actualised. Where are the information artisans? I think my role is part of that.

D: This is where the roles of arts, business and philosophy all spiral into a blur, which is perceived to be confused and disparate, but it’s a mixture of values and assets that are clear. If individuals are considering these things they are seeking clarity, something that is both bigger than themselves, but also within them.

J: Pythagoras was the first reportedly to explain what a philosopher was. He used it to describe himself at an Olympic Games when asked to explain what he did for a living. He said, ‘look around and you see three types of people; one who is in the track trying to achieve and fame; then you have another group who aspire to be them; the third group who observe and describe what they do, which is the philosophers.’ Those people that are searching for understanding you could argue are the people who would appreciate arts, business, philosophy, and I would say also technology.