Thoughts in Between

by Matt Clifford

Matt's Thoughts In Between - Issue #74

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Moon landing nostalgia and definite optimism

It’s 50 years since the first moon landing. There’s been lots of coverage; the piece I liked best is this debunking of the “your smartphone is more powerful than the computer that put a man on the moon” trope. What I’d like to talk about, though, is the cultural significance of the fact that it’s also 47 years since we last walked on the moon. For some observers, it’s an illustration of the decline of definite optimism - a favourite TiB topic - in the West.

This seems to be borne out by two polls that were commissioned for the anniversary. YouGov found that a majority of British people would not want to go to the moon, even if their safe return were guaranteed. And, even more strikingly for those who worry about US/China tech competition, Harris found that Chinese children still want to be astronauts, but British and American kids want to be YouTubers! (Though perhaps that’s not irrational…)

The more optimistic take is that the moon landing both was and should be a glorious one-off. Kevin Simler has a great thread on this: Apollo 11 was an extraordinary achievement, but also a rare moment of binary, as opposed to incremental, progress. Timothy Lee suggests that it was also the pinnacle achievement of a 200 year fossil fuel-led growth before the S-curve levelled out - but it was so spectacular that we were kidded into dreaming of unending growth and flying cars... 

The uneasy coalition against big tech

Something very interesting is happening in the politics of technology: the emergence of a bipartisan anti-monopoly movement against Big Tech. The New York Times has a good overview of some of the key players and dilemmas. Given how rare it is today for any position to have support from both left and right in the US, it’s striking and under-discussed as a potential new axis in politics. 

The anti-tech right laid out its case this week at the controversial National Conservatism Conference, where Senator Josh Hawley attacked Silicon Valley, Julius Krein made the case for radical government action to avoid tech dependence on China and Peter Thiel attacked Google for “treasonous” behaviour. As some on the right have noted, it’s a long way from the classical liberal attitude to business that has long dominated US conservatism. 

Some on the left are willing to embrace these arguments - and sometimes even their proponents. The key person to follow is Matt Stoller of the Open Markets Institute. He’s one of the strongest anti-monopoly voices from the left. But this week he was defending the Republican Senator Hawley from claims of ethnonationalism from the liberal left (see also here for an interesting debate). The politics of Silicon Valley may not completely remake the American partisan landscape, but it’s certainly going to make for some fascinating - and uncomfortable - coalitions in the coming years. 

Why intellectual disciplines rise and fall

The always interesting Tanner Greer has an excellent review of Lawrence Freedman’s book Strategy: A History. Greer says that he was struck while reading that the post-war theorists of strategy seem far less brilliant than their predecessors and wants to explain it. He lays out a simple model of how disciplines develop and their intellectual vibrancy rises and falls. 

At first, there is no discipline and no barrier to entry, so contributors tend to be “gentlemen amateur”-types with diverse intellectual backgrounds. Second follows a golden period where resources flow to the new discipline and powerful explanatory frameworks are developed. But then, in a third phase, the field becomes bogged down in credentialism that may not correlate with actual progress:

What had once been an exciting, open-ended pursuit that defied existing categories had been nailed down into domains of licensed expertise

I wonder if this might apply to entrepreneurship too. I’ve written before about the downsides of credentialism and the idea of entrepreneurship becoming a mainstream focus for ambition, but there are dangers in this. As organisations like Y Combinator or Entrepreneur First scale, losing dynamism is a major risk. The pressure, to quote one of my favourite essays, is to favour excellence over genius. This is probably why eight years in, I still love my day job: the constant need to disrupt ourselves. 

Quick Links

  1. Elephants all the way down. How much energy does it take to escape the Earth's gravity? Great video.
  2. Thinking caps on. Prospect magazine's annual list of the 50 most important global intellectuals.
  3. Extreme evacuation. Must-read thread on one of the great challenges for astronauts: peeing in space.
  4. How I learned to stop worrying and love the landfill. The excellent Rob Wiblin on why recycling is overrated.
  5. Life on Mars? Why the British chocolate industry may be in crisis after Brexit.

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Until next week,