Nov 26, 2018 Stinne Vognaes
Anna has spent a lot of time thinking about what is considered normal. It is even a bit of an obsession for her – to explore how people experience normality. Her childhood, spent in a rural Swedish village in an eccentric family where watching TV was banned, spending her young years with artists and other creatives, was anything but ordinary.
The realization that her idea of normality was rather far from other people’s lived realities was the driving force behind Dollar Street, a project she started at Gapminder. The Project explores how everyday life looks like at every income level, all over the world. It is an interactive platform allowing you to sneak a peek into the lives of others, from Russia to Burkina Faso, from Palestine to Latvia.
Working at Gapminder and developing Dollar Street is part of Anna’s bigger vision of making complicated data more accessible and helping people overcome their brain’s cognitive biases when faced with new information. What we see in the daily news is often the extreme side of things: if you had to base your worldview on the foundation of only watching news, that wouldn’t be an accurate description of what life really is about for most of us. Most foreign countries and people would seem as if they they were living under severe, extreme circumstances, their lives appearing completely different from our own.
“I think this bias we get might make it harder to collaborate”, Anna says. “We become almost too afraid of those different to us, because it looks like they are doing weird things all the time. I think seeing that we have similarities across all income levels of the world is important and also to remember that regardless of income level, we are still trying to solve the same kinds of problems every day, but with different income we have different choices in how we do that.”
It is a matter of perspective. And that is also the point of the book called Factfulness that Anna has co-authored together with her husband and father-in-law, Ola and Hans Rosling. Factfulness is an approach trying to help us to develop new thinking habits. It’s impossible to know everything in the world and to be able to detect whether everything you’re told is true or not. But you can still develop basic techniques helping you to correct your thinking in those moments when your brain is trying to make you believe the worst possible scenario to be true. It’s not always the case. More often than not we tend to think the world is worse off than it is.
“We like to hear stories with gaps in them and conflicts and contrasts like poor and rich, us and them, so we have a very hard time understanding more complex matters. Most of the time the majority is not in these extremes, they are somewhere in between.”
We need simplification of thought to be able to make sense of everything. It’s simply not realistic for us to understand everything. There is more information around us than there has ever been and it’s both the biggest challenge and the biggest opportunity for us. If we were better at collaborating and working together we would be able to make better sense of things.
“When we are out driving, when you come to crossing, you only have blinkers for left and right even though the road can be slightly more somewhere in between, but we do have to make these simplifications, otherwise it becomes too detailed and we can’t navigate. I think it’s the same with global trends and proportions; we really need to know the basics by heart and for the rest, we need thinking habits to think more clearly. If we learn these habits, I hope, it might be a bit naive, but I think we would be less vulnerable for bad information”, Anna says.
This is more important than ever before. We are living in an era of deep fake news and calculated misinformation, but Anna believes that developing our thinking and learning better thinking habits will make us better at detecting the fake information and further making our judgments about truthfulness better. People have varying abilities to recognize facts from the continuous torrent of information and misinformation alike. Factfulness wants to help us all develop skills to digest and question this flood of information. It is about cultivating habits of curiosity and humility and learn to question our shortcomings and reminding ourselves that we have lots to learn. Asking questions is not a sign of ignorance. According to Anna, understanding our own ignorance is a good starting point for learning.
So what can we expect from Anna’s keynote at Slush?
“First of all, I hope people will feel inspired and engaging during my talk. But most importantly I hope the audience will realise that when planning work for the future it’s important to actually have an overall view of the world that is somehow correct. It doesn’t have to be precise but we have to understand the big picture, otherwise we will draw conclusions from our preconceived ideas and we will probably prioritise wrongly.”
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