Genesis of a new way of thinking

Sunday Times, 06.12.15, pioneering musician Peter Gabriel has created a series of films to teach pupils at his son’s school the importance of flexible, creative thought. HMC member David Goodhew, headmaster of leading independent Latymer Upper School is quoted.

He is one of the most successful singers in the history of British rock, but Peter Gabriel says his parents worried about his career prospects when he started his first band, and whether he would make any money from music.

Last week, at the private school in west London where his 14-year-old son, Isaac, is a pupil, Gabriel revealed he has similar anxieties about his own children’s prospects.

“I am worried about the future for my children. Just like my parents worried about me,” said the singer, who started his first band while still a pupil at the fee-paying Charterhouse school and found fame as the lead singer of Genesis.

“Isaac is tennis-obsessed and quite good — I would say to him what my parents said to me. I was a real dumbo at school, could not get my exams, and I would not have got into university. My parents were concerned whether the choice of music-making was a viable future. There was no evidence for the first few years that we were going to be able to support ourselves.

“With Isaac, if he were to choose tennis, one injury and his career [would be] gone. So it would be sensible if he went to university.”

Gabriel was speaking at Latymer Upper School in Hammersmith, where he has been working on a series of films designed to encourage pupils to “think outside the box”. The idea was born of the singer’s conviction — shared by the school’s head teacher, David Goodhew — that robots and computers will soon take over many of the jobs currently done by graduates. Even the professions are likely to be affected.

“The safe, predictable career path is about to disappear and we are going to have to learn to be more flexible,” said Gabriel.

Goodhew is very clear about the threats ahead. “We can see that many traditional careers will be ‘disrupted’ by the pace and power of technological change, not to mention the impact of increasingly sophisticated artificial intelligence and robotics,” he said. “We want to encourage our students to develop flexible, creative and innovative approaches to problems.”

The first film in the Thinking Outside the Box series will be uploaded to the school’s website today (latymer-upper.org). It features Gabriel in conversation with the technology guru Mary Lou Jepsen, named one of the 100 most influential people in the world by Time magazine in 2008. They explore one of Jepsen’s latest interests: a project to scan the brain patterns of people as they think about specific objects.

“Someone might think, for example, about a bowl of fruit, and their brain patterns would be scanned as they did that,” said Gabriel. “Suddenly you are in the world of visible thought.

“What this opens up is the world of 3D printing — a printer could print your thoughts. An architect could have models appearing of buildings as he thought about them. The precision will take a few years to finesse, but rough shapes could already be printed out.”

Gabriel’s next film for the school’s website will be even more outside the box. It is about communicating with animals, something he is convinced could happen if only we could find a shared medium of expression.

Having spent months trying, with the leading primates researcher Sue Savage-Rumbaugh, to teach bonobos to play music, Gabriel and a team of American scientists are now planning to conduct an experiment in Monkey World in Dorset. Monkeys will be given video cameras and computers, embedded in trees or behind safe glass so they can’t be smashed, and shown how to use them. The scientists will monitor whether they use them to talk to each other.

The idea is to use the technology to “see if different species can communicate with each other. The idea is to give the animals control and choice, because when you do that — just like humans — they respond well,” said Gabriel.

His own career has been fuelled by such creative thinking: his stage performances in the 1970s involved numerous outrageous costume changes and he introduced songs by relating dreamlike stories.

Today he’s keen to encourage children to break down the division between subjects and to study both arts and sciences. A host of famous people and parents will make films for the Thinking Outside the Box series over coming months.

“The school approached me about funding a scholarship programme,” he said. “I was trying to think of alternative approaches. Trying to get a website people wanted to visit seemed a good idea. If it was something inspirational, something that could find its own niche in teaching outside the box, that would be a valuable thing. It could even develop into a global network with people sharing their own videos.”

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