Monday 16 October, 2023

The path taken

(With apologies to Robert Frost.)

Quote of the Day

“The handicap under which most beginning writers struggle is that they don’t know how to write.”

  • P.G. Wodehouse

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

J.S. Bach | Air on the G String


Triggered by a clue in the Irish Times crossword the other day: “Bach put air on a thing that gets minimal coverage“ (1,6)

Long Read of the Day

Daniel Dennett on Thinking — and AI

Transcript of an interesting interview with an interesting man.


Q: Where do you see AI going? Do you think that it’s something we should be concerned about? Dennett: A thousand times yes. In fact, in the last few months, I’ve been devoting almost all my energy to this. I did a piece for The Atlantic called “The Problem of Counterfeit People.” I’m just back from Santa Fe, where I gave a talk to a group and said the whole point of my talk was to scare the bejesus out of them.

I’m an alarmist, but I think there’s every cause for alarm. We really are at risk of a pandemic of fake people that could destroy human trust, could destroy civilization. It’s as bad as that. I say to everybody I’ve talked to about this, “If you can show that I’m wrong, I will be so grateful to you.” But right now, I don’t see any flaws in my argument, and it scares me.

The most pressing problem is not that they’re going to take our jobs, not that they’re going to change warfare, but that they’re going to destroy human trust. They’re going to move us into a world where you can’t tell truth from falsehood. You don’t know who to trust. Trust turns out to be one of the most important features of civilization, and we are now at great risk of destroying the links of trust that have made civilization possible…

Fascinating throughout.

Books, etc.

Like me, the historian David Vincent kept a diary during the Covid lockdown. Mine was initially an audio version which appeared on this blog every day. (I later published the transcripts as 100 Not Out: A Lockdown Diary.) David’s diary was published on Covid2020diary, a collective blog written by witnesses from eight different countries. But then he spent a couple of years reflecting, in the way that only a good social historian can, on the pandemic as a phenomenon. The book that resulted from those reflections has recently appeared — already to some critical acclaim.

Now, as an accompaniment to that reflective volume, David has published his diary as a Kindle book — A Time of the Infection.

I’ve been dipping into it. It’s a delight — quirky, learned, witty, serious, never pompous. It constantly triggers memories of one’s own experiences of that weird period of lockdown. And it’s an antidote to the fading of memories of a time when the populace of a democratic nation broadly acceded to restrictions of which dictators can only dream.

Musk’s plan X: keep users in the dark, feed them dung and watch sales mushroom

Yesterday’s Observer column:

Many observers are puzzled by Musk’s apparent determination to destroy his expensive new toy. How could an ostensibly intelligent multibillionaire be so stupid, they ask? But maybe that’s the wrong question. What if Musk knows what he’s doing – that he sees a viable business in encouraging shitposting and mining the resultant ordure? That, at any rate, is the interesting hypothesis advanced in an entrancing essay by Johns Hopkins political scientist Henry Farrell, one of the sharpest dudes around.

Its underlying metaphor is that of the mushroom, a fungus that thrives on being kept in the dark under a pile of manure. Farrell’s point is that “some people are quite happy to be kept in the dark, well fertilised with horseshit. And that is the foundation for a business model. Not a rapidly expanding one of the kind that could allow Twitter’s massive debt burden to ever be paid off. But it can keep on producing its cash crop, year in, year out.”

It’s basically the business model that enabled the infamous conspiracy theorist Alex Jones to become a multimillionaire – at least until he came a cropper in the US courts…

Read on

My commonplace booklet

Max Weber on Journalists

Now that’s a headline you wouldn’t expect to see. But Andrew Batson points out that there’s an extended digression on journalism in that famous 1919 lecture on “Politics as a Vocation”.

David Runciman gave a great talk about the lecture in his first ‘History of Ideas’ series.

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