Monday 17 January, 2022
A friend’s lordly cat, presiding over a dinner party on Saturday evening.
Quote of the Day
”I might repeat to myself, slowly and soothingly, a list of quotations beautiful from minds profound, if I can remember any of the damn things.”
- Dorothy Parker
Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news
Mozart | La Nozze Di Figaro | Cherubino’s aria, Voi Che Sapete | sung by Cecilia Bartoli.
Long Read of the Day
Terrific essay in Noema by Dimitar Gueorguiev.
A spectre is haunting our democratic world — the prospect of political failure fuelled by cultural civil war. Overwhelmed by the ceaseless tsunami of feedback signals unleashed by digital connectivity, democracies are fragmenting into so many ‘subjectivist’ tribes that a governing consensus seems increasingly elusive. The open societies hailed by Francis Fukuyama and George Soros could be spinning out of control.
And the strange thing is that the super-connectivity that is fragmenting the West is consolidating control in China, where the Leninist form of governance that failed in the industrial age has been given a new lease on life.
“Thanks in part to the advent of digital technology,” Gueorguiev writes, “China’s leaders are now at a point where they believe they have the tools to overcome and move past the computational challenge of managing ever more complexity by deepening control through connectivity.”
This is a really interesting piece. The complacent view of democracies in the analogue age was that autocracies and totalitarian states were ultimately bound to fail because central authorities could never match the complexities of their societies. (This complacency stemmed, I think, partly from political scientists’ extrapolation of a cybernetic principle — Ashby’s Law of Requisite Variety — and partly from reading too much Hayek.). But it was probably plausible in the pre-digital era.
However Gueorguiev’s essay raises the thought that maybe Xi Jinping & Co have read some of the cybernetics literature and have concluded that mastery of digital technology and its comprehensive deployment on a colossal scale will enable them to escape the analogue trap.
Fascinating read about an increasingly important topic. The thing about China is that it really is an alternative system to the Western liberal democracy one. In fact it’s the only alternative game in town. Russia is a pain in the ass which has to be challenged mainly because it has nukes — and, for the moment, fossil fuel reserves. But it isn’t an alternative system. Xi and his colleagues are building one of those.
Blockchain: full of democratic promise? Or just another tool of big corporations?
Yesterday’s Observer column:
It’s easy to see why the blockchain idea evokes utopian hopes: at last, technology is sticking it to the Man. In that sense, the excitement surrounding it reminds me of the early days of the internet, when we really believed that our contemporaries had invented a technology that was democratising and liberating and beyond the reach of established power structures. And indeed the network had – and still possesses – those desirable affordances. But we’re not using them to achieve their great potential. Instead, we’ve got YouTube and Netflix. What we underestimated, in our naivety, were the power of sovereign states, the ruthlessness and capacity of corporations and the passivity of consumers, a combination of which eventually led to corporate capture of the internet and the centralisation of digital power in the hands of a few giant corporations and national governments. In other words, the same entrapment as happened to the breakthrough communications technologies – telephone, broadcast radio and TV, and movies – in the 20th century, memorably chronicled by Tim Wu in his book The Master Switch.
Will this happen to blockchain technology? Hopefully not, but the enthusiastic endorsement of it by outfits such as Goldman Sachs is not exactly reassuring…
The cruelty of vaxenfreude
From a remarkable column by Simon Kuper in the FT…
For each unvaccinated American death, about nine people lose a grandparent, parent, sibling, spouse or child. Probably the most distressing thing about Covid-19 is its relentless orphaning, which recalls the HIV epidemic in Africa or the Great Flu of 1918. Think of the children of Kevin and Misty Mitchem, a couple in their forties who chose not to be vaccinated and who died of Covid within days of each other in October.
Losing a parent young is one of the great life traumas. Bereaved children are often cast into depression (which is why my own chief life goal is to plug on until my kids are at least 18). Yet when the parent is an antivaxxer taken by Covid, the child may feel shamed into silence over an unnecessary death that some people will always regard as farcical.
Meanwhile, antivaxxers will tend to blame the victim’s supposed physical weakness or pretend that the death wasn’t from Covid-19. They can’t easily change their mind about the disease, because that would mean giving up their antivax identity and the community that comes with it.
Then there are people who won’t discuss the cause of death for fear of politicising a tragedy. (A new trend in parts of the US is to keep Covid-19 out of the obituary.) So children may not have anyone to talk to about the worst moment of their lives.
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