Thoughts in Between

by Matt Clifford

Matt's Thoughts In Between - Issue #62

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The ideological battle for the global internet

Bloomberg has an interesting piece on how China’s vision of a closed, controlled internet is spreading through South East Asia. The core idea is “data sovereignty”: that citizens’ data should be stored locally and be accessible to local law enforcement on demand. 

This sort of “Tencent envy” certainly has an instrumental appeal for authoritarians, but there is a deeper ideological question at play: what is the appropriate relationship between nation states and tech platforms? The US government may have issued Facebook a record fine this week, but it seems willing to allow its tech giants to roam freely as more or less autonomous “soft power” actors. Compare Facebook's relatively light treatment to this extraordinary account of what it’s like to be a Chinese tech company when the government comes knocking. 

Steve Waldman says it’s inevitable that the rest of the world came to resent the US tech giants:

This is an opportunistic infection. When megacorps ate the pluralist internet, it became untenable for nation-states not to respond. The US wouldn’t tolerate WeChat intermediating most economic activity between Americans, regardless of technical excellence. Why should others?

I tend to agree. It’s another example of Henry Farrell’s idea of “weaponised interdependence” (see previous coverage) and it won’t be the last.  

If you're an egalitarian, why are you so rich?

Bernie Sanders, one of the favourites for the 2020 Democratic Presidential nomination and one of the few American politicians to self-describe as socialist, has recently come out... as a millionaire.

Whether or not it has an impact on his candidacy, it points to a broader question that is currently dividing (even eating) the Left on both sides of the Atlantic: should left-of-centre parties be looking to reform capitalism, Scandinavia-style, or attack it more fundamentally? Or as Ezra Klein puts it:

Is the problem with American capitalism that you can be a millionaire? Or is the problem that you can be a millionaire while millions go without health insurance? Sanders sometimes talks like it's the former, but his policies and now his personal behavior say it's the latter.

It’s increasingly common on the left to decry philanthropy as part of the problem, as an analgesic that prevents more systemic reform and perpetuates inequalities of power (see Anand Giridharadas’s Winner Takes All for a book length treatment). But does that mean an “accidental” millionaire socialist like Bernie shouldn’t give away their fortune? It seems odd to think that a coherent set of political beliefs shouldn’t have any implications for private behaviour. Or, as Gerald Cohen, memorably put, “If you’re an egalitarian, why are you so rich?”. 

Technology, history and bibliophilia

This week saw a wonderful story for bibiophiles: the discovery of a 16th century catalogue of books, many of which had been lost to history until now, each with a detailed summary. There’s a great backstory: the owner was Christopher Columbus’s son, Hernando, who dreamed of building a library with every book in the world... The catalogue will eventually be digitised and translated, but in the meantime, there are some lovely photos here.

I’m fascinated by the relationship between the idea of long lost texts and technology. Recent advances in "stylometrics" allowed scholars to identify which sections of The History of Cardenio - the tantalising prospect of Shakespeare’s take on Don Quixote - are authentically Shakespeare and which are not (see The Tragedy of Arthur for a superb rendering of this idea in fiction). And then there’s the extraordinary true story of Herculaneum, told in this superb long read in the New Yorker: a treasure trove of ancient manuscripts and the battle over whether to use new tech to read them.

The rediscovery of any ancient text today is exciting because we have so few sources. By contrast, future scholars of the early 21st century are likely to be able to find everything; their (no less difficult) task will be decide what on earth was important. 

Quick Links

  1. The extra-terrestrial case against the gold standard. Asteroid mining will change everything.
  2. Take that down. A short and beautiful essay on notebooks and note-taking (see also the replies in this thread)
  3. A Song of Ice and Network Centrality. What can network analysis teach us about Game of Thrones?
  4. Build more houses. The global housing crisis in one animation.
  5. Smile! How emojis (regularly) save the web.

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Until next week,