Speaking as an old-fashioned scientist, I think the message is kind of a primitive and, again, old-fashioned message. This is a finite planet. There is a finite amount of energy. There is finite efficiency of converting it by animals and crops. And there are certain sensitivities in terms of biogeochemical cycles, which will tolerate only that much. I mean, that should be obvious to anybody who’s ever taken some kind of kindergarten biology.
Unfortunately, this is a society where nobody’s taking kindergarten biology because everybody’s studying what’s communications, writing in code, economics, business administration, liaising the state office, and things like that. This is a new civilization we have. People are totally detached from reality. If you are attached, at least a bit, to reality, all of this is common sense.
People have always been stupid, and everyone is stupid some of the time. (Note: Professor Cipolla’s definition is people whose actions are destructive to themselves and to others.) One of society’s functions is to prevent a tragedy of the commons by building safeguards to protect us from our own stupidity. We usually call this “regulation,” a word Reagan and Thatcher made synonymous with bureaucrats and red tape. Yes, Air Traffic Control delays and the DMV are super annoying, but not crashing into another A-350 on approach to Heathrow, not suffocating as your throat swells from an allergic reaction, and being able to access the funds in your FTX account are all really awesome.
The NHTSA is one of the many boring state and federal agencies critical to a healthy society. Before the Food and Drug Administration, the sale and distribution of food and pharmaceuticals was a free-for-all. The Federal Aviation Administration is the reason your chances of dying in a plane crash are 1 in 3.37 billion. Next time someone tells you they don’t trust government, ask them if they trust cars, food, pain killers, buildings, or airplanes.
(The following via John Naughton — link above. Original report in the Irish Times)
JN: RTE is Ireland’s national broadcaster and it’s now embroiled in an epic crisis because of revelations about its chaotic management, casual ethics and undercover payments to a leading broadcasting celebrity named Ryan Tubridy. The trigger point for the crisis was the discovery of undercover payments made to Tubridy during the Covid lockdown to compensate him for reductions in his non-broadcasting income caused by the pandemic.
JN: Since public money is involved, the Republic’s legislators opened hearings on the matter, which meant that from Day One my fellow-citizens have been enthralled (and increasingly enraged) by daily revelations about the managerial chaos, ineptitude and arrogance that prevailed in the country’s leading media organisation.
JN:From the outset, though, Tubridy maintained an air of high-minded detachment. All of those non-disclosed payments had been negotiated by his agent, Noel Kelly, disclosed to the revenue authorities, and the tax due on them had been duly paid. “Nothing to see here: any questions see my agent” was the general tenor of his responses.
JN: This pose has exasperated Fintan O’Toole, Ireland’s leading opinion columnist, and he penned a terrific column about it the other day. Like most of his stuff it is hidden behind the Irish Times’s paywall, but since I pay through the nose for a subscription I think it’s time some of his high-octane indignation got a wider airing. So here goes…
He starts with a story about Seamus Heaney, Ireland’s greatest poet since Yeats.
In 1981, Seamus Heaney wrote to his American agent, Selma Warner, about the fees she was demanding for readings by him on US campuses. He was angry because they were too high.
Heaney was not yet quite as famous as he would become, but his reputation was already very considerable and he was a mesmerising performer of his own work. Warner had started to ask for $1,000 for a reading – the equivalent of about $3,300 today.
Heaney’s complaint was that this was too much money:
“I do not wish to be a $1,000 speaker. Apart from my moral scruples about whether any speaker or reader is worth anything like that, I do not wish to become a freak among my poet friends, or to press the budgets of departments of literature at a time when the money for education is drying up in the United States.”
Which later brings him (FO’T) to Tubridy:
Let’s not succumb to “my agent made me do it” stories. Agents, however colourful and assertive, are intermediaries: these deals were done between RTÉ and Tubridy.
It was Tubridy’s job to have the “moral scruples”. Kelly is not his Father Confessor – he’s his attack dog. It is always up to the conscience of the client as to whether the dog should be called off before he bites off any particular pound of flesh.
Remember Johnson’s line: no official told me having a piss-up was against the law.
Although many of the digital gurus started out as idealists, to Lanier there was an inevitability that the internet would screw us over. We wanted stuff for free (information, friendships, music), but capitalism doesn’t work like that. So we became the product – our data sold to third parties to sell us more things we don’t need. “I wrote something that described how what we now call bots will be turned into these agents of manipulation. I wrote that in the early 90s when the internet had barely been turned on.” He squeals with horror and giggles. “Oh my God, that’s 30 years ago!”
‘I’d been reading Clive James’s essay on Stefan Zweig in his magnum opus, Cultural Amnesia’ (writes John Naughton).
“Zweig’s own achievements,” James writes, are nowadays often patronised: a bad mistake, in my view. Largely because of his highly schooled but apparently effortless gift for a clear prose narrative, he attained, while he lived, immense popularity not just in the German-speaking countries but in the world entire, and he is still paying the penalty for it. Except in France, where his major works are never out of print, it is usually safer to call him second-rate. Safer, but not sound.
Tenure is a guild, only more inefficient and costly. However, the workmanship is worse. It’s meant to protect academics from the dangers of provocative, original thinking (e.g. Galileo). But in my field, marketing, it’s hard to imagine anybody needs protection, as nobody is really saying anything.
I’m home after traveling, and I’ve put my sons to bed. My oldest puts in his Invisalign, lies down next to me, and drifts off in my arms. I can’t help but stare at this thing that sort of looks, smells, and feels like me, but so much newer and better. Suddenly he stirs and begins to smile. He opens his eyes and tells me he and his buddies did an improv play at school and it was “hilarious.” He drifts back to sleep. He is warm, safe, loved, and next to a dad who wonders if he (like his dad) is unremarkable, but might still (like his dad) have remarkable opportunities.
The article is worth reading in full even if you only have a passing interest in higher education; or the future.
As far as Toby was concerned, Jay Crispin was your normal, rootless, amoral, plausible, half-educated, nicely spoken frozen adolescent in a bespoke suit, with an unappeasable craving for money, power and respect, regardless of where he got them from.
And from there, he wandered off into an argument with Friedrich Schiller’s grandiose statement that human stupidity was what the gods fought in vain. Not so, in Toby’s opinion, and no excuse for anybody, whether god or man. What the gods and all reasonable humans fought in vain wasn’t stupidity at all. It was sheer, wanton, bloody indifference to anybody’s interests but their own.
A Delicate Truth, John le Carré
YMMV, but for me, one of his very best.
We are living through a time of online outrage and increasing irrationalism, and the combination has not been a happy one for public discussion. Generally, shallow emotion seems to be in the driving seat for many keyboard warriors: not the slow burn of genuine anger that fuels the prolonged, difficult pursuit of a worthwhile goal, but rather a feel-good performative outrage whose main expression is typing furious snark onto a computer screen before switching over to Netflix. [emphasis added]
Material Girls, by Kathleen Stock.
And applicable to a lot more than the topic of her excellent book. Sometimes, it takes a philosopher to spell out exactly what people are saying. She also introduced me to the reverse Voltaire from Mary Leng
I agree with what you have to say, but will fight to the death to prevent you from saying it.
Some words from Edward Said, quoted in Adam Shatz’s review of Places of Mind: A Life of Edward Said by Timothy Brennan. Ever more timely.
Victimhood, alas, does not guarantee or necessarily enable an enhanced sense of humanity,’ he said. ‘To testify to a history of oppression is necessary, but it is not sufficient unless that history is redirected into intellectual process and universalised to include all sufferers.’ He went on:
It does not finally matter who wrote what, but rather how a work is written and how it is read. The idea that because Plato and Aristotle are male and the products of a slave society they should be disqualified from receiving contemporary attention is as limited an idea as suggesting that only their work, because it was addressed to and about elites, should be read today. Marginality and homelessness are not, in my opinion, to be gloried in; they are to be brought to an end, so that more, and not fewer, people can enjoy the benefits of what has for centuries been denied the victims of race, class or gender.
The idea that education is ‘best advanced by focusing principally on our own separateness, our own ethnic identity, culture and traditions’ struck him as a kind of apartheid pedagogy, implying that ‘subaltern, inferior or lesser races’ were ‘unable to share in the general riches of human culture’. Identity was ‘as boring a subject as one can imagine’; what excited him was the interaction of different identities and the promise – the ‘risk’ – of universality.
But after completing medical training, Sacks fled the homophobic confines of his nation and family—his mother had called him “an abomination.” Paul Theroux tells Burns that Sacks’s “great luck” was ending up in Los Angeles in 1960, where he found ample “guys, weights, drugs, and hospitals.”
Advance requires those who can imagine new spaces, and medicine is even more hostile today than it was all those years ago. We pretend otherwise, thinking those tick-box courses will suffice, but real diversity of intellect is the touchstone of our future.
At the same time, Vox found ways of reaching groups of voters who were disgruntled by other aspects of modern life that the mainstream parties weren’t addressing. Think about how record companies put together new pop bands: they do market research, they pick the kinds of faces that match, and then they market the band by advertising it to the most favourable demographic. New political parties now operate like that: you can bundle together issues, repackage them, and then market them, using exactly the same kind of targeted messaging – based on exactly the same kind of market research – that you know has worked in other places. The ingredients of Vox were the leftover issues, the ones the others had ignored or underrated, such as opposition to Catalan and Basque separatism; opposition to same-sex marriage; opposition to feminism; opposition to immigration, especially Muslim immigration… It wasn’t an ideology on offer, it was an identity: carefully curated, packaged for easy consumption, queued up and ready to be “boosted” by a viral campaign.
Anne Applebaum in the Twilight of Democracy. Her description of Boris Johnson — her once fellow traveller — is well worth a read; I am glad the lawyers thought so too.
Yes, a big word. From a review by Martin Wolf of Anne Applebaum’s Twilight of Democracy. Just pencil in your favourite organisation or person.
Her theme is not just this split. It is about the role of intellectuals in supporting the would-be despots. In this, she follows Julien Benda, author of a classic book, La trahison des clercs (1927). Benda’s target were the ideologues of his time, whom he accused, in Applebaum’s words, “of betraying the central task of the intellectual, the search for truth, in favor of particular political causes”.
How did people she knew come to support these new authoritarians? One answer, is “resentment, revenge and envy”. Replacing people of talent and principles with mediocrities who will do anything for success has never been difficult. Finding greedy people happy to join a corrupt new business elite is just as simple. She describes perceptively people who have done such things.
His younger co-workers, with their zippy metabolisms and surplus collagen, started referring to him as “the elder.”
“I hope the lesson will really be that we can’t afford as a society to create the fire brigade once the house is on fire. We need that fire brigade ready all the time hoping that it never has to be deployed.”
Peter Piot 1
No just in time here. It’s in the statistical tails that dragons lurk and reputations are shattered. Chimes with a quote from Stewart Brand that I posted a short while back.
Education is intellectual infrastructure. So is science. They have very high yield, but delayed payback. Hasty societies that can’t span those delays will lose out over time to societies that can. On the other hand, cultures too hidebound to allow education to advance at infrastructural pace also lose out.
Defining the appropriate probability space is often a non-trivial bit of statistics. It is often where you have to end up leaving statistics and formal reasoning behind. The following quote puts this in a more bracing manner.
There are no lobby groups for companies that do not exist.
The same goes for research and so much of what makes the future captivating.
Some quotes from William Gibson in an interview with the FT
“we’re looking at the collapse of the only liveable planetary ecosystem we know of anywhere”.
He fears that the world’s FQ — or F***edness Quotient, as he calls it — is rising to a worrying degree.
And this one gets you
If I could learn one thing about the future,” he says, “I would want to know what they think of us because that would tell me everything I’d want to know about them.”
Zuckerberg also said the company will not be changing its policies that allow lying in paid political advertisements.
‘Today’s meritocratic ideology glorifies entrepreneurs and billionaires. At times this glorification seems to know no bounds. Some people seem to believe that Bill Gates, Jeff Bezos, and Mark Zuckerberg single-handedly invented computers, books, and friends.’
Thomas Piketty, Capital and Ideology. p713
In the closing lines of The Protestant Ethic, Weber described the typical capitalists of his own time as mediocrities much like the stunted creatures that Nietzsche had called “the last men.” A world populated by such soulless beings ran not on individual initiative but on the imperatives of the system: “Today,” Weber wrote,
this mighty cosmos determines, with overwhelming coercion, the style of life not only of those directly involved in business but of every individual who is born into this mechanism, and may well continue to do so until the day when the last ton of fossil fuel has been consumed. [emphasis added]
Peter Gordon adds, ‘Those final lines were prescient.’
This is from Larry Page of Google (quoted in “The Age of Surveillance Capitalism: The Fight for a Human Future at the New Frontier of Power” by Shoshana Zuboff)
CEO Page surprised a convocation of developers in 2013 by responding to questions from the audience, commenting on the “negativity” that hampered the firm’s freedom to “build really great things” and create “interoperable” technologies with other companies: “Old institutions like the law and so on aren’t keeping up with the rate of change that we’ve caused through technology. . . . The laws when we went public were 50 years old. A law can’t be right if it’s 50 years old, like it’s before the internet.” When asked his thoughts on how to limit “negativity” and increase “positivity,” Page reflected, “Maybe we should set aside a small part of the world . . . as technologists we should have some safe places where we can try out some new things and figure out what is the effect on society, what’s the effect on people, without having to deploy kind of into the normal world.
As for his comments on safe spaces, I agree. There are plenty of empty planets left.