Fear Of Politics – Techno Techno Techno

A spectre is haunting us — the spectre of politics. All the powers of world have entered into a holy alliance to exorcise this spectre…

Many people seem to be afraid of politics – especially its democratic variants. It’s not just a mild skittishness, it’s full on revulsion.

Now let’s be honest. Politics is not elegant. It is a bruising, compromised business conducted by comprised people (i.e. everyone but especially politicians) who bruise readily. Democractic politics are especially messy. No one ever gets exactly what they want all the time. That is the pact you make.

“I’d have gotten away with it too if it wasn’t for you meddling voters”.

Now these politiphobes can take many forms but there is one variant that we will discuss here.

Technologists

Software engineers like certain kinds of solutions. They prefer things to be both rational and elegant. Messy v1.0 code is refactored into something tidier. And when you are coding this stuff matters. Irrational code may be difficult for others to maintain and improve. Inelegant code may impact system performance. Or, worse, other developers may make snide comments about your pull request on Github.

However politics is not rational – in a number of senses.

  • At the individual level, human beings are both rational and irrational – driven by naked calculation and furious, unconscious drives. We vote for candidates who will immiserate us financially but confirm our superiority to those with a slightly different skin tone. Our drives conflict and clash. If we get what we want then we don’t get what we want (which is why democracy is such a good fit for us).
  • At the collective level, individuals find themselves in strange coalitions. Religious moralists must do deals with those they see as sexual deviants if both face a common enemy. And of course politics is a social activity, a tribal activity – a matter of belonging as well as believing and behaving (or misbehaving).
  • At the institutional level, bodies such as parliaments, senates , government departments and courts develop over time – created to solve one problem, they morph into something else. They exapt. Sometimes into the solution to further problems, sometimes into the cause of them. However once they are established, they are often hard to dismantle because they form part of our infrastructure.

This lack of elegance and rationality disgusts engineers. Hence their constant desire to replace it with an engineered solution.

Someone must be able to create an app to fix this.

Now as we will see in a later post, there is an app that can fix this but I don’t want to get ahead of myself.

So what do our new techno overlords think? Greg Ferenstein has spent time surveying them and has found the following:

  • The tend to believe all change over the long run ends up being good.
  • They tend to believe that education can solve all or most problems in society.
  • They reject the notion that there are inherent conflicts of interests between citizens, the government, corporations or other nations.

The popularity of these ideas among the tech elite is based on their own biased experiences:

  • Change has been good for them. Otherwise they wouldn’t be so rich and powerful now.
  • Education has been good for them. Even if they dropped out of college, they were generally raised in environments that not only prized education but viewed it as accessible and made it accessible to them.
  • Silicon Valley is basically an incestuous ecosystem / echo chamber (eco-chamber?) where universities, corporations, start-ups and incubators play a game of musical chairs with money (until the music stops – and the music has been going since 2001).

These core beliefs lead to some… problems:

  • A view of change that neglects negative outcomes means that you don’t bother doing anything about them because, well, hey, everything will work out fine in the end. However in any change there are inevitably winners and losers and big changes tend to mean large numbers of one or both. Those losers are going to be really pissed off.
  • A view of ameliorating change that focuses primarily on education means that even if you do tackle negative outcomes, you will be ineffective. Don’t get me wrong, I love education. I have 2 degrees and I teach at a university for larfs. But getting trained to do a new job only works if the new jobs are there in the first place. Otherwise you’ll end up a piece of paper (or these days probably just a PDF) that not even your mum wants and a massive pile of debt to One-Eyed Vinny The Student Loan Agency.
  • This rejection of conflict prevents a productive engagement with politics. Chuck Tingle might believe that Love Is Real (as do I) but so is Conflict. People disagree – and not just because they have access to different information sources. They also have different fundamental interests. Politics is the negotiation of those interests and the first step to that negotiation is to admit they exist.

The first step to recovery is admitting you have a problem. The tech elite appear to be still in denial. With these thoughts in mind, I would suggest the following:

  • Admit that change creates winners and losers. Argue that your proposals will create more winners than losers. And give the losers something.
  • Stop banging on about education – be it college or code camps or being Peter Thiel’s cabana boy. By all means do those things, they are still worthwhile. But accept that education is not all of the solution. What else are you going to do? What structural changes are going to make beyond expecting the losers to skill up? What are you personally going to sacrifice?
  • Accept that political differences cannot be solved solely through increased information dissemination. If I haven’t had a pay raise in a decade then don’t tell me that the iPhone 6 has 8 times as much RAM as the 2007 original and therefore I must be 8 times as wealthy. “Let them eat hedonic pricing” is not a winning strategy.

Most of all, recognize that building a platform is not primarily a technological challenge. A platform is an institution made of human beings, of people. These people may be linked to each other by technology but they remain people with their interests. What can you give them that will work for you and for them? Three obvious things are voice, money, and respect.

I’m not going to ask the tech elite to be unafraid, that’s too much to ask. Instead I am going to ask them to feel the fear and do it anyway.

So, first of all, let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is…fear itself — nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance. In every dark hour of our national life a leadership of frankness and of vigor has met with that understanding and support of the people themselves which is essential to victory.

This is part of the Into The Maelstrom series.

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Falling Into Chaos

Lets get complex. Not complicated. Not chaotic (not yet). Definitely not simple. Complex.

To get a little deeper into why everything is broken, we’re going to need to some kind of framework – here’s one that someone else made earlier. Imagine the world consists of – and also can be thought of as – five different kinds of systems:

  • Simple systems where effect follows very reliably and obviously from cause.
  • Complicated systems also have cause and effect but things are – well – complicated. You need to analyse and investigate – but that analysis and investigation should not effect the system itself.
  • Complex systems consist of lots of interacting actors. Causes and effects are related but not consistent. You need to try something and see if it works. If it does then you need do more of it. If it doesn’t then you need to try something else.
  • Chaos is, well, chaotic. There is no cause and effect. You just have to do something. Tyrants and dictators love chaos because “they alone can fix it”.
  • Disorder? Well, in disorder, you don’t know where you are. So you go with what you know.

Here is a short video by David Snowden (one of the creators of this framework) that explains this better. Pay particular attention to the discussion that occurs at 6:42. And here’s a picture.

The boundary between simple and chaotic is catastrophic. Things are going well, the sun is shining, everything is right with the world. Simple. We stop paying attention to what’s going on (“Oh, look, a puppy, a shiny thing, a nasty tweet”). We neglect to attend. Meanwhile the world is changing. The ground is moving beneath our feet. We look up at the sky unaware of the precipice towards which we inch. And then we fall into chaos.

Another metaphor contains stabilizers and dampeners. The whole point of our social institutions are that they contain, dampen and direct our animal instincts. We are perverted into normality. As these institutions decay, their powers wane and the system starts to tear itself apart. Or to put it another way.

My fear is that we may have already crossed his boundary about 18 months ago. But we may still be on its edge.

What next? Cynefin implies that there are two pathways open to us.

  1. We fall into chaos. True tyrants take control. Large numbers of people start dying. This is not good.
  2. We go complex. We grow new structures or regrow existing ones to enable us to restabilize our societies. Most of these efforts will fail but some will succeed. And we won’t know which ones until we try.

We don’t have much time.

This is part of the Into The Maelstrom series.

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Life On Mars

This lecture… will necessarily disappoint you in a number of ways.

Katherine Murphy has written about the life (or lack of it) experienced by our politicians. I’ve been pondering politics a lot recently – especially Max Weber’s* Politics as a Vocation. The material life of politics interests me a great deal – because I think you need to understand how the mechanisms work to appreciate the whole.

One thing about those who focus on politics in a city like Canberra is that they tend to forget about the rest of the world. Another article strayed across my field of view yesterday from the HBR:

In researching the book The Happiness Track, we found that 50% of people — across professions, from the nonprofit sector to the medical field — are burned out.

Now 50% feels a smidge on the high side but not by much. Politicians are not alone in feeling burned out. It is now the default setting for many of us. Yes, federal politicians have to travel a lot – but so do many professionals. Yes, politicians have to work long hours – but so do many professionals. Some of this is technologically driven. In Australian political history, 2007 will be remembered not for the ALP’s election win but for the release of the iPhone. Smartphone have fundamentally changed our relationships and our boundaries to our work. Of course, they only do so if we choose to let them. Which if we mostly do because if we don’t someone else might get there first.

There needs to be a broader conversation about the place of work in our lives – and politicians could well lead this if they stopped being cautionary tales.

This stress has a flow on effect on the “talent pipeline” of new politicians. Di Natale, Washer and Combet all note that getting people to sign for the political life is growing ever harder. Arguably this is also true of institutions such as banks, law firms, consultancies – where a grinding work schedule is seen as increasingly unattractive. These organisations can salve the pain with piles of cash and many grads do join them for a few years to fatten their CVs and trim their debts. However even these organisations are having to dramatically re-think their approaches to both attracting new staff and keeping working parents. Could an MP ever do a job share? Although as Matthew Da Silva’s comment here indicates – political parties have a long way to go to make themselves more attractive.

The impact of social media on politics has been.. mixed. Ten years ago I would have strongly recommended that  politicians should be on social media. Now I would strongly recommend that they don’t. It chews up time like a wood chipper. Don’t end up like Steve Buscemi in Fargo. This issue is unique to politicians – who now have all the visibility of celebrities with few of the perks.

Behind all this remains the growing disconnect between political parties and the electorates that they want to represent. This is deeper than just smartphones or late nights or rude Facebook posts.

It seems that most of my long form writing these days is triggered by Meanjin articles. So I bunged them a subscription. Only fair.

*No, he has nothing to do with BBQs, sorry.

This is part of the Into The Maelstrom series.

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Out Of Our Depth

Well, this is odd.

A while ago, I wrote a response to an article in Meanjin published by a conservative author. Gray Connolly’s article had ended with a nautical metaphor (not unexpected for a naval man). That metaphor led to an extended riff on ships, sailing, and weather. And it begged for a suitable image. A few went through my head – including Gericault’s The Raft of the Medusa. However, Connolly’s Tory musing demanded something English and Classical. Turner was the obvious choice and I was stuck between Snow Storm and the Fighting Temeraire. I almost went with Snow Storm as its bleak dynamism fitted with the tone of Into The Maelstrom. However it seemed to go too deep too soon. Temeraire better echoed the plaintive sense of loss in Connolly’s writing, the doomed galleon that represents his brand of conservatism.

So today I saw a link on Twitter to a more recent article by Terry Barnes, a centrist conservative, in Meanjin. The article begins with the following sentence:

My favourite painting is J.M.W. Turner’s The Fighting Temeraire.

Shut. Up. Girlfriend. So once I got over the initial shock that Terry Barnes and I might have some unnatural psychic bond, I read the article. It contains some sound observations. It certainly goes further than Connolly’s in exploring what the future might be and what it means for politics. However it seems unable or unwilling to examine the root causes of our predicament and the consequences that follow. Some discussion of these will be useful.

Firstly, lets get through some housekeeping:

  • Many see themselves as being at the centre. Given how many people claim to there, the centre must be a vast plain.
  • Barnes sees himself as a centrist. He favours an economy that mixes private enterprise with a strong social safety net. I may disagree with him on the relative balance of these things but I also support a diverse political and economic ecology with many different forms of life permitted.
  • He has little truck with libertarism, socialism, or communism. He also has disdain for Cory Bernardi, Pauline Hanson, David Leyonhjelm, Nick Xenophon, Milo Yiannopoulos, Clementine Ford, and Daisy Cousens. I do not have the space or energy to assess each of these individuals.
  • He sees that the Australian public have little appetite for political engagement at the moment. And I agree with him.
  • Towards the end of the article, he starts to discuss automation as a major cause of social disruption. And he is right to do so and to view it as primarily a political challenge – of power, of equity, of ownership – rather than a technocratic one.

So far, so unremarkable. We do disagree on some details:

  • Barnes sees Australians as fundamentally conservative. While Australia has been a nation of pragmatists through out its post-colonisation existence, the Australian public have waxed and waned in their appetite for change. The 20s and 30s and the 60s and 70s were not conservative times in Australia – as they were not elsewhere. They were times of change.
  • Barnes sees the ALP as populist but the Coalition as Balkanised. He also sees Abbott as more of a centrist than Turnbull. While he knows Abbott personally, that is not how his former boss comes across. Abbott presents as a social conservative and culture warrior whose world-view was formed in the 70s and 80s against a strong Left. If Abbott says he is a centrist, I doubt the Australian people believe that story any more than they believed his budget promises. And being a populist doesn’t necessarily mean that you are popular.
  • While he acknowledges the impact of automation, he waves away anthropogenic global warming as a an equal challenge (spoilers: it is). We also need to map additional contextual currents that swell around us: the shifting of the global order away from the West; the demographic pressures of an aging population; and recurrent economic crises that we seem unwilling to prevent. This storms blow from many directions. That doesn’t really help us navigate but it does give us a sense of their intensity and how difficult navigating might be.

While this is all important, we have not fully explained how we got into this mess. Barnes points to the actions (or inactions) of individual politicians. He talks about the 24/7 news cycle and social media. But these are not the whole story. We are still circling around the hard word like teenagers on a dance floor. And the hard word is “neglect”.

The reason our “sensible centre” is all over the shop is that our political system is unstable. These issues are systemic and structural. And they are not just limited to us. These structural issues have developed across much of the Western world and they are the unintended consequences of our success. We know that we have neglected our physical infrastructure (roads, railways, bridges) as we have been content to coast on the investments of our predecessors. We know this because we can see it daily. What we cannot see is the equal neglect suffered by our political system but we feel its consequences. It would be tempting to blame our politicians for this mess but that will not do. The blame lies equally with us, the electorate.

Like it or not, our political system is dependent on political parties. Parties handle much of the day-to-day machinery of politics – assembling coalitions of members, feeding the hopes, desires and fears of those members into the political process, selecting candidates for elections at the local, state and federal level, campaigning for those candidates, and in turn mobilising their constituents in support of those policies. They are systems of transmission and organisation and transformation.

And they are dying. Some symptoms:

  • The party’s over: which clubs have the most members? – “Political parties’ dwindling membership — and the ambivalence or antipathy with which the public apparently views them — has been in the news lately. Gone are the days when the major parties had well over 100,000 members each (the Liberals once pushed 200,000). Nowadays, no party has more than 50,000 members; anecdotes abound of sparse meetings, attended mainly by older people.”
  • Party Reform: Where are Australia’s Political Parties Headed in the Future? – “Perhaps the greatest concern that overshadows studies of party organisation today is the collapse of formal party membership.”
  • The Labour Movement: My Part in its Downfall“I can remember the exact moment I knew that the Rudd government’s resources super profits tax (RSPT) was dead, and that the labour movement in general and unionism in particular were in very serious trouble.”

It would be tempted to blame this state of affairs purely on those who run political parties. Too keen on big money and stacked branches. Too fearful of engagement with the grubby, complaining, demented populace. However we must also take our fair share of the blame. We don’t show up to party events or local council meetings (unless our favourite tree is to be felled). We assume that someone else will do that. Democracy is largely somebody else’s business. Professionals. Technocrats. Sharp-elbowed graduates. Loud men with gold-buttoned blazers and high BMIs. Perhaps the occasional masochist.

A similar decline has occurred in institutional religious observance. While intellectual reasons have been given for this (e.g. the rise of science as a project, the growth of scepticism), those reasons do not convince me. We believe in a whole bunch of stuff that we chose to believe in. Rather, we don’t need to the shelter of institutions of meaning and protection from the harsh grind of life because for many of us (though by no means all) the grind of life has not been that hard (yes, I will have black pepper, thank you). Compared to pre-World War II, we have an enviable standard of living. While the last 30 years have seen a systemic assault on the concept of the welfare state, the remnants of that state still protect many of us. We feel that we can let organised religion and politics slip away. Now let me be clear. I do not think this is a bad thing. Not worrying about starving to death without the assistance of your church or your union is hardly a fault that needs correcting.

However that neglect has consequences.

The work that has most influenced my thinking on this is by David Runciman. In The Confidence Trap, Runciman write about the paradoxically chaotic nature of democracies – messy and yet resilient:

This is the confidence trap. Democracies are adaptable. Because they are adaptable, they build up long-­ term problems, comforted by the knowledge that they will adapt to meet them… Democracies are also competitive, which means that politicians will blame each other for their failure to tackle the long-­ term problems. However, they do it in a way that gives the lie to the urgency, because if it were truly urgent, then they would compromise to fix it. Instead they squabble. They are comforted as they squabble by their knowledge that the system is resilient.

In the book, Runciman is largely sanguine about the prospects for democracy. It has survived this far. It will keep on keeping on. However he does sound a note of caution at the end of the book.

But how can we be sure the pattern will keep repeating itself? We can’t. We should not assume that democracies will always be able improvise a solution to whatever challenges they face. There is nothing about democracy that guarantees this will happen; it is simply more likely to happen under democracy than any other system of government. The assumption that it is bound to happen increases the likelihood it will stop happening. It breeds the sort of complacency that allows dangerous crises to build up, invites decisive action to be deferred, and encourages brinkmanship.

It’s only in the last few weeks that Runciman has realised exactly how far that we have gone. Democracy is quietly falling apart in the corner and few are noticing.

The rot wasn’t a problem when times were good. And times were good for a while. Economic inequality in the US, UK and Australian between WWII and the early 70s – along with a period of strong economic growth (les trente glorieuses in France). The period after saw that inequality trend reversed but there was still growth. And then in 2008, the GFC came. We rode through it in Australia through a mixture of luck and good economic judgment. Other parts of the world were not so lucky. Identity politics (specifically the rise of an anti-globalist white nationalism) also played role. Those at the centre have continued to offer what worked in the 1990s and we are not in the 1990s any more (no amount of grunge or britpop will bring that back). They got us here and they do not present a way to get us out except with more of the same.

At this point we need strong political systems – and we do not have them. We have parties that are divorced from their electorates. Hence the focus on opinion polls and focus groups – they no longer have a direct connection to voters so they have to manufacture a semblance of one instead. This also makes it increasingly harder to “sell” policies to that electorate because politicians are no longer “us” but “them”.

The centre has no power to pull people in to it any more. Instead the pull comes from the edges. From the fever dreams and the zombie ideologies of the 20 century. My sense is that we do not have to listen to either the centre or the edges. We must make a fresh set of mistakes. If the centre cannot hold and things fall apart, then it’s time to make some new things.

So what do we do exactly? Right now, I’m buggered if I know. But we need start by recognising the state we are in. We have not yet hit rock bottom. Things will get worse before they get better. But there is a chance that they will get better if we act.

This is part of the Into The Maelstrom series.

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Blind Spots and High Winds

The first question I ask when encountering a piece of writing is: Who is the author trying to reach with this piece of writing? And if the answer is someone other than me, the next question arises: Will I benefit from it in some way?

I am aware of Gray Connolly from Twitter – where I often find myself disagreeing with him. Curious about his beliefs, I tracked down Conservative Futures, published in the Australian literary journal, Meanjin.

The first thing to note is the choice of venue. The article talks at length about steps that need to be taken by the Australian Liberal Party. And yet Meanjin is an imperilled literary journal with a circulation of around 2,000. It is not the house publication of either Liberal party grandees or suburban party branches. I am only as expert on conservative Australian media as circumstances force me to be, but there feels like a disconnect. Is this article an attempt to explain conservatism to a (slightly) broader audience or to influence the conservative movement? It is mostly the former but the latter constantly slips in.

I want to skip through some comments quickly before hitting the big one:

  • I am not a student of the history of the Australian conservative movement so some of the background was informative.
  • I agree with Mr Connolly on freedom of religion and the sharing of prosperity across society (although we would probably disagree on exactly how to do that and by how much).
  • Not sharing his Christian beliefs, I disagree with him on a number of social and moral issues.
  • The style of the piece is heavy going – especially in the middle section. While Meanjin is a literary journal, the author seems at pains (his and mine) to make as many historical and literary references as he can get away with. This is not learning worn lightly. An ermine clock rather than a cashmere scarf. Fortunately, the reference density eases up in the final third as we reach the present day.

So what’s the big issue then? Well, the title of the article is “Conservative Futures”. There is much about the past and present in the article but little about the future.  In a sense, this blind spot is simply a function of the author’s conservatism. Conservatives tend to assume that the future will be much like the past, only not quite as good. They view history much like a Hollywood franchise – the initial movie was fantastic but each subsequent sequel a little more of a let down each time.

However, while human beings will continue to be human beings in all their awful and petty glory, our future will not be like our past. The next 50 years for Australia will not be like the previous 50. The issues we face around technological change, environmental degradation, the restructuring of the global order, and the demographic shifts of an ageing society are not touched upon. The author hints at this in his final sentence: “It is only the eternal values of prudence, duty, loyalty and unity, with sound conservatives at the helm, that will see the good ship Australia safe in the rough seas that most certainly lie ahead.”

He has not attempted to chart those rough seas so he does not know if his vessel is sound enough to withstand them. The calm waters of the Western world since 1945 do not equate to the oncoming storm into which we are drifting.

He also does not fully map out the threats to his conservatism from adjacent entities. Connolly is a One Nation Tory in the English sense, not a One Nation conservative in the Australian one. His immediate competitors (white nationalism, corporate-sponsored libertarianism, religious conservatism) are less thoughtful but more agile corsairs than his stately galleon of conservatism. We will see what lasts the hurricane.

This is part of the Into The Maelstrom series.

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The Audience is Dumb

Many years ago, I worked for a professional services firm. The firm had bought the right to write a series of articles in a noted industry journal. When the partner responsible for these articles was injured, I was brought in to work on them. I worked with a former News Ltd journalist to try to turn the words of various consulting, audit and tax professionals into usable articles.

However there was a problem. The experts wanted only to write for other experts. And the audience for this publication were generalists. So the ex-journo & I would sit down with several hundred words of expert stuff and say “why would anyone want to read this?”
We would then try to massage the words into something that someone other than the author would want to read. This would enrage the authors, who were very clever, and being very clever, viewed our cosmetic surgery of their vowels and consonants as an assault on their cleverness. We would have to ask them questions to try to draw out the useful stuff buried in their layers of expertise. This could be a painful process.
Eventually the article would arrive at a readable state and it would be published. The names of the experts would appear but not ours. Which was fine, because that’s the nature of being an editor.
Editors are midwives (with all the yelling & screaming we had to have been), easing ideas into the light.
And editors are also stand-ins. Representatives of the potential reader, there to keep the authors focused on what was important – and ensuring that their writing leaves a mark on the world.

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Cyber Realism

An NYT interview with Ev Williams of Twitter and Medium has prompted some internet soul searching.

“I thought once everybody could speak freely and exchange information and ideas, the world is automatically going to be a better place,” Mr. Williams says. “I was wrong about that.”

Paul Wallbank wrote a response to it. I got to thinking about Cyber-Utopianism and the political thoughts roiling around my mind and I started to wonder what a Cyber-Realism would look like. I left some comments on Paul’s blog. I have highlighted four to write about further. What follows is not a coherent argument, rather it is a stream of sense data (or “rant”). All of the feels. There will be coherent arguments next – or so I am telling myself.

Was I a Cyber-Utopian? Well, I am too bitter & twisted to be an anything Utopian but I was captivated by the world-wide web when a friend showed it to me in a university college attic in 1993. I gravitated towards the web-based chat boards of the NME and Barbelith in the late-90s. I started blogging in 2001 as I left the UK and have done so fitfully ever since. For me it was less about the technology than the people it connected me to. I am… strange. Far less strange than I used to be, and far more comfortable with the strangeness that remains, but strange none-the-less. And the people I found, and continue to find, online were not the people I grew up with or met at college or work. One reason people move to a big city is to meet new people. The internet cosmopolitanised my mind.

In the late 2000s, the world woke up to this stuff and I reckoned there might be a dollar to be had here. I was less a Cyber-Utopian and more a Cyber-Opportunist. I earned a bit here and there but I was neither smart enough nor focused enough to gain riches. But it was still fun.

Something changed around 2012. Probably around the time of the Facebook IPO. It felt as though the internet was finally mainstream and properly corporate. It was no longer this cool, counter-cultural place full of interesting people. They were still there but harder to find – what with everyone else around. If this makes me sound like a burnt-out hippy crying into his beer at 11pm, 4 November 1980 – then yeah, that’s about right.

  1. Human beings are apes. We are collaborative, competitive, and tribal.

If we are talking about the internet, then we must talk about people. People are animals. And I don’t mean that pejoratively. We are primates who form social groups. Within those social groups we collaborative and compete, we gossip and we groom, we fight and we f**k. We define ourselves by the group we are in, swear allegiance to our kin within, and death to the enemies outside. Evolution means that we are hardwired to survive in a hostile, resource-constrained environment. And to our ape eyes, all environments are hostile and resource-constrained. If we found paradise by mistake, we would probably bare our teeth at it and mark it as territory with piss or blood.

We might have wi-fi and routers and smartphones and apps and yearn to leave our hairy, sinewy ape bodies but we cannot. We take the savanna and the tundra into cyberspace. We do what comes naturally. Ape is what we are. We can be no other.

  1. Human beings are broken. We cannot be fixed by either technology or ideology.

We remain apes with aspirations. Technology cannot change this unless we so drastically change our bodies that we are no longer human. We might tame, train, and constrain ourselves with technology – wearables and apps to augment our willpower and limit our harmful behaviours. The Quantified Self as Personal Panopticon. We might hope that allowing groups to communicate would reduce hatred – although miscommunication was not the reason that our ancestors slaughtered each other. Technology can only do so much.

We had hoped that some form or ideology or social engineering would fix everything. Efficient Markets would enable trade between individuals and groups, allow price discovery, unleash innovation, allocate risk and reward with a near-divine fairness. It didn’t turn out like that. A Dictatorship of the Proletariat would eliminate oppression, famine, and war. It didn’t turn out like that. If we liquidate the treacherous others of different colours, creeds, sexualities, politics then our purified Nation will become Strong. It didn’t turn out like that. Ideology is a good question on which to start and a terrible answer on which to end.

Broken is what we are. For now, we can be no other.

  1. Human beings are creative. We will use technologies is ways that we cannot predict.

It’s not all bad news being an ape. You can have ideas in your brain. You can make words with your teeth and lips and breath. You can paint those words leaves or hack them into rock. You can make tools. Out of flint or obsidian. Or finely-machined silicon. With these tools, we can transform ourselves and our environment. We can change the ecologies of an entire planet. We can drive other species to extinction without noticing. We can also make skyscrapers and action men and dams and cars and malaria nets and planes and tanks and missiles and my little ponies and stuff. We can tweet amusing pictures of startled cats that make a stranger on another continent smile (or we can threaten to rape them because of a word they said). We can take military equipment invented to fight wars and use it to play games. Or we can do the reverse.

We are a creative species. We do not fully understand that creativity – its drives and its operations, its logics and its deliriums. We pull back bits at the edges to package in over-priced workshops or books with one-word titles, but we still operate in the dark.

Creative is what we are. We can be no other.

  1. We hope not because we believe that we can fix human beings but rather because human beings excel at making new mistakes – or what some call “change”

I am contractually obliged to find some cause for optimism. I have a son. I wanted a child for purely selfish purposes – because it’s part of being human (not a necessary part but a part none-the-less). However now that I have him, I can neither lie to him and say that everything will be fine but nor can I just pray for the end of the world and cast him into despair. Not when there are seagulls to be chased and puddles to be jumped in and sonic screwdrivers to be waved all over the place.

I do not know if we will make it. Or if the world will be fit for him. But I do know that human beings excel at making things and doing things and especially at f**king things up. And while most of those mistakes will be old mistakes, a few of them will be new ones. Some of them will turn into something new. CERN employees trying to fix documentation issues for nuclear physicists might create something that 25 years later is used for cat pictures, porn, and Russian propaganda.

If we can find a way to keep on making new mistakes, we might be able to f**k up our way out of this f**k up that we are in right now. Get to it people. I know that you’ve got it in you.

This is part of the Into The Maelstrom series.

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