Bewilderment: Politics, Technology and Ecology in a World that Stopped Making Sense

moon surface
The lunar surface, photographed in 1966.

Since the second world war, our politics has become increasingly distant from people. Voter participation has declined, distrust in politicians has grown, and corruption perceptions have increased in many jurisdictions. Inequality has accelerated as those with the highest wealth and income acquire ever greater resources – far more than they can reasonably consume – while those at the other end of the economic spectrum see their lot diminish. The relationships between commerce and politics have deepened as free market policies have governed national policy in western liberal democracies across the range of services, from social welfare and healthcare to infrastructure and defence. These institutions, invested with authority and legitimacy by democratic processes, appear foreign to the people they claim to serve; their values – of costs, efficiencies, and performance – seem distant from their clients. These institutions often instil fear, driven as they are by objectives of enforcement, compliance, and law.

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Snippet: Fuzzy, Uncertain Nature

Lotfi Zadeh, inventor of fuzzy logic, who died earlier this month at the age of 96.

I’ve long had an idea about the curved nature of things, the non-binary natural order. This is not the same as relativism versus absolutism, which is one sense a binary opposition in itself; rather, it is a straight acknowledgement that truth is never fully observable, that is it at least always subjective, and that even in the subjective moment it is mutable. What I see may not be what you see; and what I see is inconstant. Time impacts on that observation such that its character is unstable. Take pain and pleasure, for example. While on the one hand some people take a kind of satisfaction from pain, and are attracted to it, whether physical or emotional, so too others recoil from pleasure, perhaps based on guilt, or other psychological alignments. Still further, the same act – a touch – can bring immediate pleasure, while the same act, more forcefully applied, can either increase the pleasure or turn at some point to pain.  Continue reading “Snippet: Fuzzy, Uncertain Nature”

Hayek’s Absolutism

Hayek lived long enough to see his ideas ascendant in western politics, which was something of a gift; perhaps it was an equally valuable reward to have missed the bit when it all went pear-shaped.

In reading several articles on Friedrich Hayek recently, two words kept coming to mind: absolutism and elegance. Hayek appears to my inexpert reading to have been a highly scientific thinker, one with a good degree of faith in the scientific method. Attached to this is a consciousness of the sublime, a sense that there is a truth to be found in thought, an awareness of a tangible human goal of understanding. There is, in other words, a destination for our species. Continue reading “Hayek’s Absolutism”

Property Developers and the Irish State

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Dr Hans Sluga: a thoughtful man, and not a criminal, even though his bio photo looks like he might be.

Dr Hans Sluga is William and Trudy Ausfahl Professor of Philosophy at UC Berkeley, and concerned about the health of our politics. I say our – his concerns are particularly American, but certainly not confined to America. In a recent interview with the gregarious host of Stanford’s Entitled Opinions, Robert Harrison, he extended his comments on the presidency of Donald Trump from a recent lecture Between Populism and Plutocracy. He was critical of both Trump’s populism and tendency to favour the wealth wealthy through tax breaks and reducing regulatory constraints, but particularly concerned with the real estate factor. ‘We have underestimated the political significance of real estate in our world,’ he said.

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Galadriel’s Inversion

Cate Blanchett
Cate Blanchett’s Galadriel from the Lord of The Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (Dir. Peter Jackson, 2001)

On the day when Apple are supposed to be launching a new iPhone with facial scanning capability, the Guardian has delightfully timed a piece warning of the dangers of the technology. Its functions potentially extend to predicting sexual orientation, political disposition, or nefarious intent. What secrets can remain in the face of this extraordinary power! Indeed, it’s two years ago since I heard Martin Geddes talking about people continuing to wear face masks in Hong Kong not because of the smog, but to avoid facial scanning technologies deployed by an overbearing security apparatus. There’s no hiding from the data, no forgetting.

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Time, Magic and Species-Exceptionalism

Tahiti: It’s a Magical Place

In 1962, Arthur C Clarke published ‘Profiles of the Future‘, a collection of essays about what would happen next in areas like travel and communications. In a general observation he noted that ‘any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic’. Buried in the pithiness of the observation is an acknowledgement that time is important; it takes time to acclimatise yourself to new possibilities, new ways to manipulate nature and the world around us. This is not just restricted to the first sight of the motor car, or listening to a gramophone record: it applies to any new and in some way awesome discovery or realisation. In Marvel: Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., Agent Colson repeats the phrase ‘Tahiti – it’s a Magical Place‘, recalling a memory implanted in his brain during some complicated (and poorly explained) resurrection process after he had been killed in a previous escapade. We can all picture in our minds places that have appeared magical – a beach, a forest, a tree at dawn or the sky on a particularly clear night: there is a sense of wonder and amazement as nature in all her glory wakes us from our plodding lives, and says ‘hey, look what I can do!’

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Brexit and the Language of State

The general idea was pretty clear, but the reality might not match up to the expectation. That could be political nitroglycerin.

Last Summer, the United Kingdom voted for a new idea. There was not a lot of detail, but the headlines were clear – an end to bureaucratic Brussels interfering in Britain, less immigration, and a reassertion of a perceived native identity. One year on, the project is in crisis as those who support it attempt to define what it actually means, often contradicting themselves in the process, and dumbfounding their incredulous European Union partners. It is, not to put too fine a point on it, a mess. New words are being used to help understand both the process and the objective. The objective (Brexit) was originally defined simply as Brexit, the implication being that ‘you all know what it means, even if we can’t put words on it’. While that had the benefit of keeping everyone at least superficially happy (ah, so the Prime Minister agrees with me!) it belied a hidden and constitutionally awkward acknowledgement: Brexit meant different things to everyone.

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Time, Nature and Technology

Our inability to get past our current time, our personal time, has dictated technology choices that could be catastrophic for future generations.

The High Church of Technology has made a pronouncement, as is the business of major world religions, on the goodness of novelty. The new, the upgraded, and the shiny are to be venerated, while the old, the obsolete and the dusty are for the defeated and the underprivileged of our species. All buy the iPhone and the Microsoft Surface! All shun the Blackberry, and the desktop computer. It’s not just a technology thing, it’s a capitalist thing, of course; it’s difficult to separate the two these days. It’s all a far cry from the origins of silicon valley in the cradle of the counter-culture, and the Whole Earth Catalog, a kind of anarchist tooling up of people to enable them to defend and articulate their personal freedom. Perhaps it’s an irony, perhaps a betrayal of a more fundamental human inevitability, and maybe, deeper still, the ultimate realisation of the Protestant ethic: it may be that technology binds us to fate far more than it liberates us, because of the choices that we have made. As Ken Cukier has put it, what is at stake now is the whole notion of human volition.

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Feminism and Power

The Guardian today ran an interesting selection of comments on ‘What if Women Ruled the World’? It is a fascinating question, though I suspect that such a violent reshaping of our reality would be accompanied not just by differences in approach and attitude, but vast psychological and systemic changes. The world, in effect, would be unrecognisable, our conscious modernity entirely smashed in favour of something new. There is value, of course, in the feminist critique of modernity. In many ways our world is delivering poor outcomes in terms of rights, inequality, and politics; feminist interrogation can highlight failings and help to address those areas, though the extreme object of the question in the Guardian piece doesn’t have a real grounding or reference point. Such would be the radical transformation in our world if women ruled, if men in power were a minority, if men, generally, were subjugated, that’s it’s difficult to find a logical point of comparison. This short post is a brief response to some of those comments from the Guardian piece.

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Is it in Britain’s Interests to Punish Ireland in Brexit?

It may be in Britain’s interests to damage Ireland disproportionately in the Brexit process.

Attending for a while to more immediate political concerns: Brexit. A story today suggested that Ireland should plan to leave the EU should Brexit be as hard and as cold as it promises to be. It struck me that it is in Britain’s interests to inflict significant damage on Ireland for several reasons. Primary amongst them is the rationale that Britain needs to divide Europe in order to find the best deal for itself. A divided and fractured Europe will make those who wish to defend the union more disposed to compromise. Therefore its strategies for dealing with the marginal nations – with Greece, with the Netherlands, and with Portugal – will be just as important as those strategies for dealing with France and Germany. Ireland is special, in that it shares a land border, and where there remains the possibility of terrorism – even if diminished – from a history all too recent.

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