Thoughts in Between

by Matt Clifford

Matt's Thoughts In Between - Issue #34

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Who's afraid of big bad technology?

Scientific American reports on some interesting public opinion research on views on emerging technologies. It's a quick read, but the summary is that the public is on average much more worried than excited about new technology.

I'm skeptical about how deep this is, though. The framing seems to do a lot of work. For example, more than twice as many Americans are worried than are enthusiastic about "a future where robots and computers can do many human jobs". But they are (marginally) more excited than worried about robots that can provide care to older adults - which sounds exactly like a future where robots do human work to me...

This is nothing new: the early 1980s saw "computerphobia" and history is littered with apocalyptic predictions about electricity, cars and planes. It's interesting though, that though the public are often afraid, they're usually also overly optimistic: they consistently underestimate how long it will take tech to reach the market.

Perhaps technology always feels like that: scary when it sounds like an abstract loss of agency, but exciting when it sounds like it's solving important problems. That seems an important lesson for tech entrepreneurs who fear that regulation will stifle progress: drop the big visions and focus on explaining the benefits.

Unlikely alliances in electoral politics

I've written before about the ways that electoral coalitions have changed in the West and particularly the need to see electoral politics as (at least) two dimensional - the traditional left/right economic axis, but also an open/closed cultural axis. Thomas Piketty's paper on "Brahmin Left vs Merchant Right" is an important read on this topic.

One phenomenon Piketty notes is that being Muslim is one of the strongest predictors of voting for left-leaning parties. This is perhaps a puzzle, as political scientist Justin Murphy notes. On the one hand, it might seem obvious that this should be the case; empirically there appears to be much more Islamophobia in right-leaning parties, so why would Muslims vote for them? But as Murphy argues, it's not quite that simple: why do socially liberal parties ally with a group that is on average much more socially conservative than their typical voter? And why don't right-leaning parties make common cause with Muslims given their alignment on social issues?

Murphy's hypothesis is provocative and has implications far beyond this specific question. Citing this book (or this paper), he argues that the right-leaning parties are much more focused on ideological coherence and and left-leaning parties much more focused on achieving group benefits for members of their coalition. It's an interesting idea worth pondering - and perhaps explains what for me is one of the biggest puzzles in contemporary British politics: if Jeremy Corbyn is so left wing, why was his 2017 manifesto so much less radical than New Labour?

Speculative thinking and "disreputable ideas"

The brilliant Michael Nielsen (see past coverage) has a fascinating post on what new kinds of matter might be possible. As a sample:

Can we invent new states of matter as different from what came before as something like consciousness is from other states of matter? What states of matter are possible, in principle?

A lot of the post is pretty heavy going if, like me, you have no background in physics, but there are lots of interesting ideas.

Most interesting for me is the meta-point that Nielsen makes: speculative thinking is often "disreputable", even when it's influential and even when it's right. This perhaps suggests that it is under-supplied. As Nielsen notes:

I think it’s pretty common that two communities, A and B, will do a body of work on overlapping subjects. Community B will borrow a lot of ideas and inspiration from Community A. Yet it will feel embarrassed to be doing so, and will often deny doing so, since Community A isn’t playing by what Community B has internalized as the correct rules

I sometimes think about this in the context of the simulation hypothesis, the idea that the whole universe may be a simulation created by a superintelligent being(s). There is a sort of pleasing symmetry in the idea of God being (re)discovered by hyper-rationalists. Perhaps there's much more of this to come.

Quick links

Second acts. What do tech pioneers do next? Great profile by Steve O'Hear on Skype founder Niklas Zennstrom. And interesting note from Tim Berners-Lee on his new company.

No exit? Why British politics is so complicated in one chart

Balance of power. Who is the biggest producer of crude oil in the world?

Turning right. The fall and fall of social democracy in Europe

Marks for effort. Interesting study on how to get more credit for your work

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Until next week,