Tags: politics

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The Rational Optimist

As part of my ongoing obsession with figuring out how we evaluate technology, I finally got around to reading Matt Ridley’s The Rational Optimist. It was an exasperating read.

On the one hand, it’s a history of the progress of human civilisation. Like Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels Of Our Nature, it piles on the data demonstrating the upward trend in peace, wealth, and health. I know that’s counterintuitive, and it seems to fly in the face of what we read in the news every day. Mind you, The New York Times took some time out recently to acknowledge the trend.

Ridley’s thesis—and it’s a compelling one—is that cooperation and trade are the drivers of progress. As I read through his historical accounts of the benefits of open borders and the cautionary tales of small-minded insular empires that collapsed, I remember thinking, “Boy, he must be pretty upset about Brexit—his own country choosing to turn its back on trade agreements with its neighbours so that it could became a small, petty island chasing the phantom of self-sufficiency”. (Self-sufficiency, or subsistence living, as Ridley rightly argues throughout the book, correlates directly with poverty.)

But throughout these accounts, there are constant needling asides pointing to the perceived enemies of trade and progress: bureaucrats and governments, with their pesky taxes and rule of law. As the accounts enter the twentieth century, the gloves come off completely revealing a pair of dyed-in-the-wool libertarian fists that Ridley uses to pummel any nuance or balance. “Ah,” I thought, “if he cares more about the perceived evils of regulation than the proven benefits of trade, maybe he might actually think Brexit is a good idea after all.”

It was an interesting moment. Given the conflicting arguments in his book, I could imagine him equally well being an impassioned remainer as a vocal leaver. I decided to collapse this probability wave with a quick Google search, and sure enough …he’s strongly in favour of Brexit.

In theory, an author’s political views shouldn’t make any difference to a book about technology and progress. In practice, they barge into the narrative like boorish gatecrashers threatening to derail it entirely. The irony is that while Ridley is trying to make the case for rational optimism, his own personal political feelings are interspersed like a dusting of irrationality, undoing his own well-researched case.

It’s not just the argument that suffers. Those are the moments when the writing starts to get frothy, if not downright unhinged. There were a number of confusing and ugly sentences that pulled me out of the narrative and made me wonder where the editor was that day.

The last time I remember reading passages of such poor writing in a non-fiction book was Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s The Black Swan. In the foreword, Taleb provides a textbook example of the Dunning-Kruger effect by proudly boasting that he does not need an editor.

But there was another reason why I thought of The Black Swan while reading The Rational Optimist.

While Ridley’s anti-government feelings might have damaged his claim to rationality, surely his optimism is unassailable? Take, for example, his conclusions on climate change. He doesn’t (quite) deny that climate change is real, but argues persuasively that it won’t be so bad. After all, just look at the history of false pessimism that litters the twentieth century: acid rain, overpopulation, the Y2K bug. Those turned out okay, therefore climate change will be the same.

It’s here that Ridley succumbs to the trap that Taleb wrote about in his book: using past events to make predictions about inherently unpredictable future events. Taleb was talking about economics—warning of the pitfalls of treating economic data as though it followed a bell-curve curve, when it fact it’s a power-law distribution.

Fine. That’s simply a logical fallacy, easily overlooked. But where Ridley really lets himself down is in the subsequent defence of fossil fuels. Or rather, in his attack on other sources of energy.

When recounting the mistakes of the naysayers of old, he points out that their fundamental mistake is to assume stasis. Hence their dire predictions of war, poverty, and famine. Ehrlich’s overpopulation scare, for example, didn’t account for the world-changing work of Borlaug’s green revolution (and Ridley rightly singles out Norman Borlaug for praise—possibly the single most important human being in history).

Yet when it comes to alternative sources of energy, they are treated as though they are set in stone, incapable of change. Wind and solar power are dismissed as too costly and inefficient. The Rational Optimist was written in 2008. Eight years ago, solar energy must have indeed looked like a costly investment. But things have changed in the meantime.

As Matt Ridley himself writes:

It is a common trick to forecast the future on the assumption of no technological change, and find it dire. This is not wrong. The future would indeed be dire if invention and discovery ceased.

And yet he fails to apply this thinking when comparing energy sources. If anything, his defence of fossil fuels feels grounded in a sense of resigned acceptance; a sense of …pessimism.

Matt Ridley rejects any hope of innovation from new ideas in the arena of energy production. I hope that he might take his own words to heart:

By far the most dangerous, and indeed unsustainable thing the human race could do to itself would be to turn off the innovation tap. Not inventing, and not adopting new ideas, can itself be both dangerous and immoral.

Voice of the Beeb hive

Ian Hunter at the BBC has written a follow-up post to his initial announcement of the plans to axe 172 websites. The post is intended to clarify and reassure. It certainly clarifies, but it is anything but reassuring.

He clarifies that, yes, these websites will be taken offline. But, he reassures us, they will be stored …offline. Not on the web. Without URLs. Basically, they’ll be put in a hole in the ground. But it’s okay; it’s a hole in the ground operated by the BBC, so that’s alright then.

The most important question in all of this is why the sites are being removed at all. As I said, the BBC’s online mothballing policy has—up till now—been superb. Well, now we have an answer. Here it is:

But there still may come a time when people interested in the site are better served by careful offline storage.

There may be a parallel universe where that sentence makes sense, but it would have to be one in which the English language is used very differently.

As an aside, the use of language in the “explanation” is quite fascinating. The post is filled with the kind of mealy-mouthed filler words intended to appease those of us who are concerned that this is a terrible mistake. For example, the phrase “we need to explore a range of options including offline storage” can be read as “the sites are going offline; live with it.”

That’s one of the most heartbreaking aspects of all of this: the way that it is being presented as a fait accompli: these sites are going to be ripped from the fabric of the network to be tossed into a single offline point of failure and there’s nothing that we—the license-payers—can do about it.

I know that there are many people within the BBC who do not share this vision. I’ve received some emails from people who worked on some of the sites scheduled for deletion and needless to say, they’re not happy. I was contacted by an archivist at the BBC, for whom this plan was unwelcome news that he first heard about here on adactio.com. The subsequent reaction was:

It was OK to put a videotape on a shelf, but putting web pages offline isn’t OK.

I hope that those within the BBC who disagree with the planned destruction will make their voices heard. For those of us outside the BBC, it isn’t clear how we can best voice our concerns. You could make a complaint to the BBC, though that seems to be intended more for complaints about programme content.

In the meantime, you can download all or some of the 172 sites and plop them elsewhere on the web. That’s not an ideal solution—ideally, the BBC shouldn’t be practicing a deliberate policy of link rot—but it allows us to prepare for the worst.

I hope that whoever at the BBC has responsibility for this decision will listen to reason. Failing that, I hope that we can get a genuine explanation as to why this is happening, because what’s currently being offered up simply doesn’t cut it. Perhaps the truth behind this decision lies not so much with the BBC, but with their technology partner, Siemens, who have a notorious track record for shafting the BBC, charging ludicrous amounts of money to execute the most trivial of technical changes.

If this decision is being taken for political reasons, I would hope that someone at the BBC would have the honesty to say so rather than simply churning out more mealy-mouthed blog posts devoid of any genuine explanation.

Linkrotting

Yesterday’s account of the BBC’s decision to cull 172 websites caused quite a stir on Twitter.

Most people were as saddened as I was, although Emma described my post as being “anti-BBC.” For the record, I’m a big fan of the BBC—hence my disappointment at this decision. And, also for the record, I believe anyone should be allowed to voice their criticism of an organisational decision without being labelled “anti” said organisation …just as anyone should be allowed to criticise a politician without being labelled unpatriotic.

It didn’t take long for people to start discussing an archiving effort, which was heartening. I started to think about the best way to coordinate such an effort; probably a wiki. As well as listing handy archiving tools, it could serve as a place for people to claim which sites they want to adopt, and point to their mirrors once they’re up and running. Marko already has a head start. Let’s do this!

But something didn’t feel quite right.

I reached out to Jason Scott for advice on coordinating an effort like this. He has plenty of experience. He’s currently trying to figure out how to save the more than 500,000 videos that Yahoo is going to delete on March 15th. He’s more than willing to chat, but he had some choice words about the British public’s relationship to the BBC:

This is the case of a government-funded media group deleting. In other words, this is something for The People, and by The People I mean The Media and the British and the rest to go HEY BBC STOP

He’s right.

Yes, we can and should mirror the content of those 172 sites—lots of copies keep stuff safe—but fundamentally what we want is to keep the fabric of the web intact. Cool URIs don’t change.

The BBC has always been an excellent citizen of the web. Their own policy on handling outdated content explains the situation beautifully:

We don’t want to delete pages which users may have bookmarked or linked to in other ways.

Moving a site to a different domain will save the content but it won’t preserve the inbound connections; the hyperlinks that weave the tapestry of the web together.

Don’t get me wrong: I love the Internet Archive. I think that is doing fantastic work. But let’s face it; once a site only exists in the archive, it is effectively no longer a part of the living web. Yet, whenever a site is threatened with closure, we invoke the Internet Archive as a panacea.

So, yes, let’s make and host copies of the 172 sites scheduled for termination, but let’s not get distracted from the main goal here. What we are fighting against is .

I don’t want the BBC to take any particular action. Quite the opposite: I want them to continue with their existing policy. It will probably take more effort for them to remove the sites than to simply let them sit there. And let’s face it, it’s not like the bandwidth costs are going to be a factor for these sites.

Instead, many believe that the BBC’s decision is politically motivated: the need to be seen to “cut” top level directories, as though cutting content equated to cutting costs. I can’t comment on that. I just know how I feel about the decision:

I don’t want them to archive it. I just want them to leave it the fuck alone.

“What do we want?” “Inaction!”

“When do we want it?” “Continuously!”

Debatable act

I took part at an event held last week in the same building as the Clearleft office. It was called Debating the Digital Economy Act …except it wasn’t really a debate. Everyone was in agreement that the legislation is dreadful and that the way it has been rushed through parliament was a travesty.

Nonetheless, it was still a valuable gathering. Instead of debating on the pros and cons of something that has no redeeming qualities, we tried to tackle the issue of what we can do about it.

One of the best points of the night came from Pete who pointed out how important it was that we de-geekify the discussion lest we get brushed aside as pitchfork-wielding digerati.

The event began with opening remarks from each of the white, middle-aged panelists. My own remarks were definitely on the geeky side: a long-zoom perspective entitled Fear is the Mind-killer. You can read it now or add it to Instapaper to read later.

I made an audio recording of my opening remarks. You can listen to it now or you can huffduff it to listen to it later.

Fear Is the Mind-killer by Jeremy Keith on Huffduffer

It’s licensed under a Creative Commons attribution license. Do with it as you wish.

Righting copywrongs

This week, when I’m not battling the zombies of the linkrot apocalypse with a squirrel, I’m preparing my presentation for Bamboo Juice. I wasted far too much time this morning watching the ancillary material from the BBC’s The Speaker in the vain hope that it might help my upcoming public speaking engagement.

My talk is going to be a long zoom presentation along the lines of Open Data and The Long Web. I should concentrate on technologies, standards and file formats but I find myself inevitably being drawn in to the issue of copyright and the current ludicrous state of things.

If you feel like getting as riled up as I am, be sure to listen to James Boyle as he speaks at the RSA or is interviewed on CBC. Or you could just cut to the chase and read his book, The Public Domain. If you want to try before you buy, you can read the entire book online in PDF or HTML format—I recommend reading that version with the help of the fantastic .

As if any proof were needed that this is an important, current, relevant issue, Tom reminds me that the future of our culture is under threat again tomorrow. I have duly written to some of my MEPs. Fortunately, I have a most excellent representative:

We’re talking about a gigantic windfall for a few multinational companies, taking millions of pounds from the pockets of consumers and giving it to the record labels. Also, the artistic cost of making songs from the last 50 years public property, thus allowing endless sampling by DJs and other artists, must be taken into consideration.

The UK Greens are committed to a system known as Creative Commons, which offers a flexible range of protections and freedoms for authors and artists. We want to encourage innovation and prevent large corporations from controlling and benefitting from our cultural legacy.

Culture

The newest book from Iain M Banks is called Matter. The middle M in the author’s name is a dead giveaway that this is a science-fiction novel and, as with most of Banks’ sci-fi material, Matter is set in the milieu of the Culture.

The Culture novels aren’t great books. The writing isn’t noteworthy. The plots and subplots tend to be rambling disconnected affairs. But despite all that, I enjoy reading them immensely. That’s because the Culture is such a fascinating place to visit. Life in the Culture is the kind of post-singularity world that Bruce Sterling claims is impossible to write about because no information can be retrieved from beyond the event horizon of a (‘though Cory did a pretty great job of it in Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom).

The enjoyment of the Culture comes from being immersed in this (literally) alien society, catching glimpses of its inner workings. If glimpses aren’t enough, then I highly recommend reading this newsgroup posting from 1994 which reads like a digital for Banks’ imagined world:

The Culture, in its history and its on-going form, is an expression of the idea that the nature of space itself determines the type of civilisations which will thrive there.

The thought processes of a tribe, a clan, a country or a nation-state are essentially two-dimensional, and the nature of their power depends on the same flatness. Territory is all-important; resources, living-space, lines of communication; all are determined by the nature of the plane (that the plane is in fact a sphere is irrelevant here); that surface, and the fact the species concerned are bound to it during their evolution, determines the mind-set of a ground-living species. The mind-set of an aquatic or avian species is, of course, rather different.

Essentially, the contention is that our currently dominant power systems cannot long survive in space; beyond a certain technological level a degree of anarchy is arguably inevitable and anyway preferable.

There’s more of this kind of stuff and it’s all pretty fascinating: sex, law and politics all get covered. But it’s the socioeconomic situation that I find most interesting, rooted as it is in a belief of Banks’ that coincides with my own. Stick this in your Libertarian pipe and smoke it:

Let me state here a personal conviction that appears, right now, to be profoundly unfashionable; which is that a planned economy can be more productive — and more morally desirable — than one left to market forces.

The market is a good example of evolution in action; the try-everything-and-see-what- -works approach. This might provide a perfectly morally satisfactory resource-management system so long as there was absolutely no question of any sentient creature ever being treated purely as one of those resources. The market, for all its (profoundly inelegant) complexities, remains a crude and essentially blind system, and is - without the sort of drastic amendments liable to cripple the economic efficacy which is its greatest claimed asset - intrinsically incapable of distinguishing between simple non-use of matter resulting from processal superfluity and the acute, prolonged and wide-spread suffering of conscious beings.

It is, arguably, in the elevation of this profoundly mechanistic (and in that sense perversely innocent) system to a position above all other moral, philosophical and political values and considerations that humankind displays most convincingly both its present intellectual immaturity and — through grossly pursued selfishness rather than the applied hatred of others — a kind of synthetic evil.

That probably makes both myself and Banks pinko commies but I’d rather see a future society like the Culture than one based on aggressive .

My fellow Brightonians can see Iain M Banks reading at The Old Market on February 25th. I won’t be able to make it but it promises to be an entertaining discussion of an anarcho-utopian science-fiction society.