Thoughts in Between

by Matt Clifford

Matt's Thoughts In Between - Issue #39

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Will liberal humanism eat itself?

Yuval Noah Harari has become one of the most celebrated public intellectuals of our time, thanks to the success of Sapiens (perhaps the history book most read by VCs?) and Homo Deus. I like Harari’s style and ambition, even if his sweeping arguments often don’t work for me (see my review of Sapiens here). 

One of his biggest themes is the coming crisis of liberalism, a TiB perennial favourite. Harari argues, most strongly in Homo Deus, that liberal humanism is a phase of human history that is coming to an end, collapsing under the weight of its contradictions, and will be replaced by what he calls “dataism”.

In a recent excellent critical review of Homo Deus, Oliver Waters attacks this argument. Waters’ case is that Harari relies on a fallacious argument: that the technological progress that liberal humanism enables will inevitably undermine two of of its crucial pillars - belief in human free will and belief in the fundamental moral equality of all humans. Waters attempts to demolish this. I find him pretty convincing on the question of free will, but perhaps too optimistic on the impact of transhumanism (discussed briefly in my essay on technology and democracy). These ideas are going to be some of the most important battlegrounds of the next 50 years; it’s worth reading the whole thing. 

Culture war and the bias to controversy

I’ve linked to the brilliant Scott Alexander of Slate Star Codex several times before. This week he has a new short story that touches on many key TiB topics: culture war, machine learning and the internet. It summarises brilliantly in fiction many of the key faultlines that the Internet has created in our culture - in particular the creation, optimisation and amplification of controversy. Do read the whole thing.

Particularly powerful is the idea of creating a monster that we can’t control. You see this idea on both the “open” (e.g. the idea that social media enabled or even created Trump and Brexit) and the “closed” (e.g. the idea that globalism has run riot and trampled on people’s lives and expectations) sides of the political divide. 

I do worry that this line of thinking, though, leads to a dangerous sense that we are powerless to improve the world. I often think of an article that I read while an undergrad on “Frankenstein syndrome”, the “perverse pleasure desire to build an ingenious trap merely for the pleasure of getting caught in it”. But that itself feels like a trap - and one that allows us to disavow any responsibility for actually fixing the mess... 

The rise and rise of talent as power

We've talked before about the vulnerability of the tech giants to worker activism. Last week saw this reach a new high watermark, as Google employees walked out to protest Google's approach to dealing with sexual harassment and inappropriate behaviour among some of its most powerful execs. (The NYT has the original, extraordinary story on the topic).

There are good reasons to think high-skill industrial action is the new normal. This is (at least) the third time this year Google has faced employee backlash, from its work with the Department of Defense to its plans to re-enter the Chinese market with a censored search engine (which has apparently already led to resignations).

It's fascinating that the immediate spark for the current wave of employee protests was the enormous financial payouts (in the tens of millions of dollars) for sexually incontinent executives. These are two sides of the same coin: it's precisely because extreme talent has such high leverage today that it can command such prices - but also why when such talent threatens to stop working, corporate concessions are not far behind. This is a theme we're going to see again and again in the years to come.

Quick links

  1. Leaveland and Remainland. Map of Britain's new political geography (but see this counterpoint)
  2. Canon fodder. What are the most important non-fiction books of the 21st century?
  3. I think this internet thing might catch on. Great graphic on advertising trends.
  4. Blue ticks. How Whatsapp has changed the UK Conservative party.
  5. Chamath Buffett? Can Social Capital become the Berkshire Hathaway of the internet?

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Until next week,