Saturday 7 November, 2020

Well, well, look who broke the news

Never thought I’d see this — especially on this channel.

Saturday 7 November

Quote of the Day

“Revolutions are celebrated when they are no longer dangerous”

  • Pierre Boulez

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Boccherini: String Quintet in C, Op.30 No.6


From the soundtrack of Master and Commander

Long read of the Day

Fabulous essay by Ben Ehrenreich. He uses the pandemic as a jumping-off point for a dive into the work of Joseph Tainter, the pre-eminent scholar of civilisational collapse.

The ‘Social Dilemma’ and the Prodigal techbro

Sheila Hayman (Whom God Preserve) has been watching The Social Dilemma and is Not Impressed:

So we come to ‘The Social Dilemma’, which after telling us the same thing for ninety minutes (‘They want you to stay online! They’ve figured out how to do it! That’s how they make their money!’ Really? Well, blow me down…) follows recent convention in using the credits to revisit the various interviewees for an informal moment; in this case, asking them for their suggested solution.

And, with the slightly ironic exception of the fabulous Jaron Lanier, every single one of these highly educated, scarily motormouthed and clearly very concerned people, all of whom have evidently thought of little else ever since switching sides — every single one of them could think of no answer beyond, ‘Do less social media’. In various forms: ‘Turn off notifications’, ‘Don’t let your children have smartphones’, ‘Delete your accounts’ — but all with the same message of doing less — even less — than you do already.

I waited and waited for somebody to say: ‘Build something! Plant something! Teach, or learn something. Grow something, or demolish something. Bake, boil, or broil something, Start a movement, or join one somebody else has started. Better yet, find out what’s right under your nose that needs your attention. Read with schoolkids. Spend a day digging stones and stumps out of an abandoned building plot. Take a hot meal to an isolated older person — you never know, their eighty-five years may have taught them something you could learn from.’

But nobody did…

As I read this literary Exocet, what came to mind was Maria Farrell’s splendid blast about the current epidemic of what one might call Innovator’s Remorse, when guys (and, let’s face it, they’re always male) who obeyed the Zuckerberg call to “Move Fast and Break Things” (and in some cases made a tidy pile in the process) — but who then, one day, had their personal ephiphanies and became remorseful for all the damage they had inadvertently done.

Here’s a snippet from Maria’s “The Prodigal Techbro” that conveys the message succinctly:

The Prodigal Son is a New Testament parable about two sons. One stays home to work the farm. The other cashes in his inheritance and gambles it away. When the gambler comes home, his father slaughters the fattened calf to celebrate, leaving the virtuous, hard-working brother to complain that all these years he wasn’t even given a small goat to share with his friends. His father replies that the prodigal son ‘was dead, now he’s alive; lost, now he’s found’. Cue party streamers. It’s a touching story of redemption, with a massive payload of moral hazard. It’s about coming home, saying sorry, being joyfully forgiven and starting again. Most of us would love to star in it, but few of us will be given the chance.

The Prodigal Tech Bro is a similar story, about tech executives who experience a sort of religious awakening. They suddenly see their former employers as toxic, and reinvent themselves as experts on taming the tech giants. They were lost and are now found. They are warmly welcomed home to the center of our discourse with invitations to write opeds for major newspapers, for think tank funding, book deals and TED talks. These guys – and yes, they are all guys – are generally thoughtful and well-meaning, and I wish them well. But I question why they seize so much attention and are awarded scarce resources, and why they’re given not just a second chance, but also the mantle of moral and expert authority.

I’m glad that Roger McNamee, the early Facebook investor, has testified to the U.S. Congress about Facebook’s wildly self-interested near-silence about its amplification of Russian disinformation during the 2016 presidential election. I’m thrilled that Google’s ex-‘design ethicist’, Tristan Harris, “the closest thing Silicon Valley has to a conscience,“(startlingly faint praise) now runs a Center for Humane Technology, exposing the mind-hacking tricks of his former employer. I even spoke — critically but, I hope, warmly — at the book launch of James Williams, another ex-Googler turned attention evangelist, who “co-founded the movement”of awareness of designed-in addiction. I wish all these guys well. I also wish that the many, exhausted activists who didn’t take money from Google or Facebook could have even a quarter of the attention, status and authority the Prodigal Techbro assumes is his birth-right.

Today, when the tide of public opinion on Big Tech is finally turning, the brothers (and sisters) who worked hard in the field all those years aren’t even invited to the party. No fattened calf for you, my all but unemployable tech activist. The moral hazard is clear; why would anyone do the right thing from the beginning when they can take the money, have their fun, and then, when the wind changes, convert their status and relative wealth into special pleading and a whole new career?

And, also, why would any of us take advice from these dudes about what should be done to bring the tech companies under democratic control?

More on ‘suppression’ vs elimination of Covid-19

One of our (Wolfson College’s) former Press Fellows, Nic Stuart, read Tim Harford’s blog post about the arguments in the UK about how to deal with the pandemic and sent me some interesting reflections on what’s happening in the Australian state of Victoria:

Poor procedure and a lack of infection control had seen the case load explode out of the hotels where people returning from overseas had been quarantined; Covid had escaped into the community and was reproducing exponentially. It seemed as if the genie was out of the bottle.

The state’s Labor Premier, Dan Andrews, attempted first to lock-down in nine large Housing Commission flats, later extending this ring to other nearby areas. Unsurprisingly this attempt failed because the restrictions were one step behind the escaping virus.

Then he bit the bullet and closed the state. Seriously. Cops on the beat; the army in the streets; telephoning people meant to be quarantining at random hours to check they were where they said they were; nobody other than those preforming vital services allowed to go to work.

As of yesterday Victoria had gone nine straight days without the disease spreading by community transmission.

New South Wales has, however, adopted suppression as a strategy. Along with detailed contact tracing this has served to dramatically slow the spread to (about) five a day, but there’s no end in sight to this.

As a result, people are warming, significantly, to elimination.

I’ve just checked the population of Victoria. It’s 6.28 million, i.e. roughly a tenth of the UK’s population. The problem (for Britain) is that a proper lockdown of the kind achieved in Victoria isn’t feasible in such a populous country.

Other, possibly interesting, links

  • Hockney On Photography. Lovely film. Wish I’d known about it years ago. Link
  • It Looks Like Nigel Farage Just Lost a £10,000 Bet On the US Election. I hope that’s true. He put £10k on Trump to win. Wonder what odds he got. Couldn’t happen to a nastier guy. Link

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