Thoughts in Between

by Matt Clifford

Matt's Thoughts In Between - Issue #76

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Who's afraid of Big Bad "Progress"?

Patrick Collison, co-founder of Stripe (and one of the world’s most intellectually curious tech entrepreneurs) and Tyler Cowen, the economist and perhaps the world’s best blogger, have an column in The Atlantic that calls for a new academic discipline - Progress Studies. Their core idea is that we know surprisingly little about how to engineer progress. They say they’re seeking something "closer to medicine than biology", a discipline that will tell us what we should do, not just what has happened.

It’s interesting in its own right (and they link to one of the most thought provoking studies I’ve seen recently, on the impact on the Howard Hughes Medical Institute grants to researchers), but almost as fascinating is the loud negative response the article received from some corners. See the replies to The Atlantic’s original tweet or here and here for a sample.

Why should such a mild (and, to me, obviously humane) article provoke such a reaction? Partly because it sits right on the faultline of the new “Two Cultures” divide between tech and established institutions that we discussed a few weeks ago (see e.g. here, here and here). As tech grows in economic and cultural power, it increasingly provokes backlash from older centres of prestige like academia. (Compare today's academy to that described by the author of The Two Cultures, CP Snow, in The Masters in 1950 to see the scale of its decline in relative prestige). It’s a shame, because Progress Studies, and ideas like it, provide a model for increasing academia’s impact. It would be sad (and ironic) if “techlash” held that back. 

We're all China hawks now

I’ve written several times about growing tensions between the US and China, particularly on tech issues. It’s tempting to see this as a Trump effect - part and parcel of his “trade war”. But that’s a mistake. China skepticism is now bipartisan on issues as diverse as Huawei, trade and Uighur rights. Politico has an interesting piece this week on the increasing isolation of “China doves” in Washington. Diplomatic veterans who have long advocated a policy of engagement with China find themselves pushed out of the mainstream. 

The title of the article is “when paradigms die”, which is an interesting framing. The argument is that this is not just a tactical shift in policy, but a sea change in the models the West uses to understand and interpret China. If the old model is summed up by this letter from China doves to the Washington Post, the new one is perhaps crystallised in Mike Pence’s very hawkish speech attacking China last October. 

Pence’s “new Cold War” framing may be uncomfortable - and perhaps a little reminiscent of Steve Bannon-style “clash of civilisations” rhetoric - but it’s worth reading in conjunction with this excellent thread by James Palmer. Palmer argues that US policy “course correction” would have happened even without Trump and reflects the changing reality within China over the last 20 years: much less liberal, reformist and globalist that many commentators assumed at the turn of the century. Whoever's elected President in 2020, a more adversarial relationship with China isn’t going away. 

Is liberalism a religion? and is a good one?

About a month ago Scott Alexander wrote an excellent piece reflecting on liberalism as a modern religion (with the unbeatable title "Gay Rites are Civil Rites"). Then this week came this long and superb essay by Adrian Vermeule, an anti-liberal Catholic legal scholar, with the equally arresting title, All Human Conflict Is Ultimately Theological. Alexander and Vermeule come from opposite ends of the political spectrum, but share a core analysis, albeit one from which they draw vastly different conclusions.

Both writers agree that stable societies need religion - complete with rites, rituals and sacraments. And both agree that modern progressivism has taken on that role (see Alexander’s amusing photo captions for excellent examples). Alexander, broadly, sees this as a triumph - the survival of important shared values in a world where traditional religions “can’t adapt quickly enough”.

Vermeule takes the opposite view. He believes that progressivism’s core values are ultimately self-defeating: in his account, “disruption of the past” is the highest sacrament of liberalism - but this eventually disrupts the ways of life of ordinary people, which robs liberalism of popular support and forces a choice between electoral failure or anti-democratic methods (This is, of course, another version of the critique that identity politics will destroy the left). You might not share his conclusions (I don't), but Vermeule is one of liberalism’s smartest critics; I’d encourage you to read the whole thing.

Quick Links

  1. The surveillance duopoly. Two cities in the world are much more monitored by CCTV than any others...
  2. Triumph of the disrupted. Surprising charts on IBM and Microsoft's stock performance after their "eclipse".
  3. Zuck vs. Trump. Corporate reputation rankings in the US (I'd never heard of number one).
  4. Don't grow old. Beautiful, if depressing, charts from the American time use survey.
  5. “Reducing the power of middle management”. Remarkable stories from the history of computing.

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Until next week,