Thoughts in Between

by Matt Clifford

Matt's Thoughts In Between - Issue #47

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Peter Thiel on Nationalism and Technology

I mentioned in Quick Links a few months ago that Peter Thiel (previous TiB coverage here) was going to run a class at Stanford on technology and nationalism. The syllabus has just been published and, whatever you think of Thiel’s politics, it looks fascinating for anyone interested in TiB’s core themes.

In Thiel’s words:

Has the process of globalization stalled? What are the implications for the state and its aspiration for sovereignty? And how does technology, which contributed so much to the process of globalization, fit into this picture, especially in the guise of new technologies?

The syllabus looks excellent and contains a number of texts that I’ve been meaning to read, so I’m going to host a reading group in London for anyone interested in reading along with me. If you’d like to join in, please sign up here. We’ll probably kick off in February. (If you're not in London but at interested, leave your name and location in the form and I can connect you with anyone from your home city who also signs up)

What Gatwick's drone fiasco tells us about the future

One of the weirder stories to emerge over TiB’s Christmas hiatus was Gatwick being shut down for almost two days by a drone (or at least the sighting of a drone... which may have been a police drone looking for the original drone...) As well as being a terrifying/grimly comic illustration of Britain’s general unpreparedness for civil chaos, it raises interesting questions about power in the 21st century.

As my friend Jordan notes, this is a classic case of new technology giving enormous (and destructive) relative leverage to individuals versus nation states. As these threads [link] [link] point out, this isn’t limited to the civilian sphere. Drones are an asymmetric advantage for insurgents fighting traditional military forces too.

This goes beyond civil and military defence tactics. The relative cost of attack and defence has important consequences for geopolitics, with smaller states more viable as the feasibility of low cost defence increases (see here for a fleshed out version of the argument in the influential but overrated Sovereign Individual) This is, alas, likely to be another driver of chaos in already unstable times...

Where does political "momentum" come from?

Why do politicians sometimes suddenly fall from power, having previously looked impregnable? Tanner Greer has an excellent thread on the dynamics of power in China’s Cultural Revolution that touches on this. Greer looks at some specific moments in which Mao cemented his power, before zooming out and looking at political struggle more broadly. 

His specific question is why Mao’s accusations of counter-revolutionary activity succeed when no one believes them. His broader one is why the idea of “momentum” exists in politics at all: why can events whose actual significance is low have such powerful consequences in terms of shaping a candidate or leader’s fate?

By way of tentative answer he links to Minds Make Societies, a new book that looks fascinating. The core argument is that the idea of political momentum is a heuristic that allows us to reach reasonable conclusions without complex calculations. I’m reminded a bit of Private Truths, Public Lies by Timur Kuran (recommended by Marc Andreessen in this fun conversation). Kuran argues that when people have an incentive to falsify their public preferences, there can be a very rapid turnaround if external conditions change and it suddenly becomes safe to say what you really think. In a period of major political surprises, these ideas feel worth digging into.

Quick Links

  1. I'll read it eventually. The medieval equivalent of too many browser tabs...
  2. Secret power? Most of what you read on the internet was written by a very small number of people.
  3. Nip downtown to... get your nails done? How retail space usage has changed since 1997.
  4. Underrated, if true. Top Harvard professor thinks unknown object may be alien solar sail. Really.
  5. Who owns Britain? The strange case of the UK's "missing land"

Your feedback

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Until next week,