Thoughts in Between

by Matt Clifford

Matt's Thoughts In Between - Issue #69

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Technology and law's "expanding empire"

I wrote a couple of weeks ago about efforts to hold politicians to account through the courts - and the potential dangers of this approach. My friend Freddie shared with me this year’s Reith lectures which are on exactly this subject. The lecturer is Jonathan Sumption - the barrister, medieval historian and recently retired UK Supreme Court Judge. I highly recommend listening to the whole thing.

Sumption’s argument - perhaps surprisingly given his career - is that far too much power now lies with the courts. He complains of “law’s expanding empire” and argues that this is the consequence of social pressures towards ever greater conformity and ever greater reduction of risk. I found his most interesting argument that public actors increasingly want the courts to provide not just judgement but “absolution” (as demonstrated by the immensely difficult Charlie Gard case).

This has implications for entrepreneurs who see a great opportunity to automate the law, for example with blockchain-based smart contracts. That might be procedurally more efficient, but - if Sumption is right - it will also be socially unacceptable for all but the most mundane of situations. The right of appeal and reversibility are important “features” for most “users” of the law. Law may be Code (and Code, Law), but society is not - or at least not yet. 

The Two Cultures, 60 years on

It's 60 years since C.P. Snow gave his famous lecture on the theme of “The Two Cultures”. I was reminded of this this week, when I came across this interesting tweet (click through for the full thread) by Antonio García Martínez:

Someone needs to deliver an updated version of C.P. Snow's famous 'Two Cultures' lecture, but about the tech industry and mainstream culture/media. The two sides have sunk only deeper into mutual incomprehension and hostility as the latter pays more attention to the former.

This resonates. Until fairly recently tech was more or less ignorable for traditional elites. Now it dominates the markets and is breaking business and operating models in all traditional bastions of power, above all politics and the media. There are frequent calls for tech to pay more attention to the humanities, but the opposite is even more urgent: how many current politicians truly grasp the tech policy issues they need to decide on?

As I’ve argued before, tech is also changing how ambition is expressed. Impact-focused 18 year olds will increasingly opt for computer science, rather than PPE. But it’s a slow process. This, incidentally, is one of the reasons I’m so bullish on Paris and Singapore as tech ecosystems: their elites are already inclined to more technical education, so with only a gentle nudge into startups you have a cohort of ambitious, tech savvy individuals, ready to embrace new ways to change the world. 

Is there a tradeoff between growth and climate change?

A few months ago we talked about critiques of the view that capitalism has been responsible for vast increases in standards of living globally. I remain skeptical, and particularly of the “Degrowth” movement that argues that we need to stop pursuing economic growth to save the planet from ecological disaster. I was reminded of this this week because of a series of tweets by Noah Smith on the non-role of capitalism in promoting climate change.

Smith says there’s no doubt that climate change is real (and despite the skepticism of some on the right, the markets believe it too), but it’s less obvious that other economic systems would do a better job of reducing carbon emissions. It’s acquisitiveness - a basic human desire - that drives emissions, not who owns the means of production. And reducing acquisitiveness - and growth - to zero would have as disastrous an impact on living standards for the world’s poorest as unmitigated global warming.

The left has tended to adopt a “purity” preference - one normally associated with the right, according to Jonathan Haidt’s superb The Righteous Mind - in its response to climate change. Many activists are resistant to the idea of climate change as a manageable problem, with calculable costs and mitigation strategies (for a good articulation of the opposite view, see this podcast with controversial economist Bjorn Lomborg). But perhaps that’s rational. As Smith says elsewhere, perhaps it’s only if we adopt truly apocalyptic language that we’ll do anything at all.

Quick Links

  1. A quiet revolution. Is what's happening in Moldova the most inspiring thing in Europe right now?
  2. American dogs vs the world. If the US's pets were a country, where would they rank in global meat consumption?
  3. Hide your Teslas. People's favoured tax policies change if you ask them while standing near a fancy car(!)
  4. The real issues. How did medieval theologians deal with the problem of cannibal babies?
  5. How to make money in shipping. Truly extraordinary thread on John Fredriksen and the tanker attack in the Gulf of Oman. Must read.

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Until next week,