Wednesday 15 July, 2020

Quote of the Day

“If we could get everybody to wear a mask right now, I really think in the next four, six, eight weeks, we could bring this epidemic under control”.

  • Robert Redfield, Director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

Enlightenment, eh? How long have you got?

Here’s an interesting wormhole. Yesterday, intrigued by a comment on Tim Gray’s post about the dark sides of ‘efficiency’, I looked up David Wooton’s Power, Pleasure and Profit: Insatiable Appetites from Machiavelli to Madison. Not having access to the book at the moment, I watched his 2017 Besterman Lecture which was based on Chapter 8 and then read the blurb on Amazon, which reads:

A provocative history of the changing values that have given rise to our present discontents. We pursue power, pleasure, and profit. We want as much as we can get, and we deploy instrumental reasoning-cost-benefit analysis-to get it. We judge ourselves and others by how well we succeed. It is a way of life and thought that seems natural, inevitable, and inescapable. As David Wootton shows, it is anything but. In Power, Pleasure, and Profit, he traces an intellectual and cultural revolution that replaced the older systems of Aristotelian ethics and Christian morality with the iron cage of instrumental reasoning that now gives shape and purpose to our lives. Wootton guides us through four centuries of Western thought-from Machiavelli to Madison-to show how new ideas about politics, ethics, and economics stepped into a gap opened up by religious conflict and the Scientific Revolution. As ideas about godliness and Aristotelian virtue faded, theories about the rational pursuit of power, pleasure, and profit moved to the fore in the work of writers both obscure and as famous as Hobbes, Locke, and Adam Smith. The new instrumental reasoning cut through old codes of status and rank, enabling the emergence of movements for liberty and equality. But it also helped to create a world in which virtue, honor, shame, and guilt count for almost nothing, and what matters is success. Is our world better for the rise of instrumental reasoning? To answer that question, Wootton writes, we must first recognize that we live in its grip.

Since Wooton is a fine historian (see his 2015 The Invention of Science: A New History of the Scientific Revolution), I guessed that Power, Pleasure and Profit might not be the standard-issue conservative rant about the decline of religious values, world going to the dogs, etc., and was maybe worth reading sometime. So I looked for reviews, and found this long and thoughtful one one by John Gray. It’s a respectful, but not uncritical review, the gist of which is that Wooton’s concept of the Enlightenment is rather too narrow to bear the weight be seeks to load upon it.

Wootton presents the conceptual shift that gave birth to our life today in a book that is ambitious and impressive in its sweep. Nearly a third of Power, Pleasure and Profit’s 400 pages consist of scholarly notes and appendices. Yet Wootton’s vividly written narrative never loses momentum. Few academic books tell such a gripping story of how ideas can change the world. Yet it is a story that leaves out an enormous amount, and the view of “the Enlightenment paradigm” that Wootton presents is both parochial and anachronistic. He does not suggest that Enlightenment thinkers promoted a homogeneous set of ideas. “‘The Enlightenment’ is a problematic term,” he writes, “because it is easy and fruitful to multiply enlightenments.” Enlightenment thinking was riddled with “bitter disputes”, with radicals and conservatives adopting diverging views of the limits of human sociability. For all these caveats, Wootton’s Enlightenment paradigm is extraordinarily narrow.

At which point I realised that I’m heading down a wormhole and I have a newspaper column to write. Life is too short sometimes to follow one’s nose. Sigh.

American teenagers are masking up as grannies to buy liquor

This report is from the New York Post, which doesn’t exactly guarantee its accuracy. But if it’s true, then it restores my faith in human nature.

And of course it also reminds me of Monty Python’s wonderful Hell’s Grannies sketch.


Why venture capital doesn’t build the things we really need

Unnecessarily long Tech Review essay which takes ages to come up with the obvious answer. Venture Capital goes to stuff that stands a chance of rapid returns. It doesn’t do the long-term stuff that lays the groundwork for major industrial change. No VC firm would fund something like the Internet, or — for that matter — the Web. Only the state can do that. In the United States, for example, 75% of venture capital goes to software. Some 5 to 10% goes to biotech: only a tiny handful of venture capitalists have mastered the longer art of building a biotech company. The other sliver goes to everything else transportation, sanitation, health care.

What we need, as Mariana Mazzucato has been saying for years, is an Entrepreneurial State.

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