Thoughts in Between

by Matt Clifford

Matt's Thoughts In Between - Issue #80

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Silicon Valley liberalism vs national security?

Silicon Valley’s political liberalism is having interesting national security consequences. I’ve talked before about the new power of talent in Big Tech and the impact that’s having on corporate behaviour. The most striking example so far is Google’s abandoning of Project Maven, an AI collaboration with the US Department of Defense, following an employee backlash. Business Insider has a good piece that looks at the impact of this and the Pentagon’s fears of competing with a China that has tight state/big tech/military/academic integration on AI.

This may be the first time that the private sector has had a decisive talent advantage in a militarily relevant technology (compare nuclear physics or cryptography in earlier decades). It’s not yet clear how the West can or should adapt to this. Certainly the Chinese approach is chilling:

"I asked somebody who spends time in China working on AI could there be a Google/Project Maven scenario," Shanahan said Friday. "He laughed and said, 'Not for very long.’"

Google has a probem too - attacked on this topic by both the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and Peter Thiel, but still at risk of losing talent who see the giant as compromised on issues from MeToo to privacy. As this excellent piece in the FT suggests, the era of Big Tech looking like a trade off-free career (banking pay, but with hipster ethics) is well and truly over. 

The long run impact of Parliamentary sovereignty

Parliamentary sovereignty has been much in the news this week, but rather than comment on the latest Brexit furore, I thought it would be more "on brand" for TiB to take a multi-century approach. As I’ve said before, the industrial revolution was the most important event in human history - and one respected line of scholarship argues that it was England’s political institutions that allowed it to make the most of technological change and pull away from its European competitors. 

The basic idea is that from at least 1500 England had a more constrained executive and this led to cheaper borrowing, a more stable currency and an effective tax system. An interesting new paper (explained well here) contradicts this: until the mid-17th century, there’s little evidence that England’s institutions were much better than those of other leading countries. According to the authors, only after the English Civil War, when Parliament truly became sovereign, did England’s institutions overtake those of its rivals - and, indeed, did its (world-changing) runaway growth take off. 

I hesitate to draw any lessons for today’s politicians, except to say that it underlines just how important it is to have the right institutions. Even if you think they need radical change (but see last week for a note of caution), we should probably take an incremental - rather than cataclysmic - approach. 

Did the Iraq War cause Brexit and Trump?

A couple of months ago, I talked about Tanner Greer’s outline for a book on the history of the 21st century so far. I’m delighted that he seems to be writing it. He has an interesting thread this week that reflects on what he’s learned so far in the process and speculates on why politics in the West has been so chaotic recently. It’s worth reading both the thread and the replies. 

Greer’s observation is that the Iraq War represents the high watermark of dispassionate public debate on a major policy issue - and that the war’s abject failure (permanently?) changed public discourse by undermining the credibility of “experts" as a class. Greer argues that, as this means experts are no longer expected to actually change minds - and therefore policy - through debate, they're instead incentivised to score points against the other side.

There’s a lot of overlap between this argument and Martin Gurri’s excellent book, The Revolt of the Public (Great long interview with Gurri here). Gurri’s take, though, is more systemic and less contingent than Greer's: technology, and especially social media, enabled extreme pluralism in which voices could reach the public and shape opinion. Perhaps Iraq was the catalyst, but even if the war had succeeded, the "death of authority" was just one more elite failure away. It's hard to see how this can be reversed... so buckle up.

Quick Links

  1. Doesn't seem likely to me. Interesting graphic on perceptions of probability.
  2. Acts of God? Striking paper that shows that areas with more natural disasters have higher religiosity.
  3. Romantic arbitrage? Fun map of the cost of a date in each US state.
  4. Check back in a decade. Interesting thread on "What is the one piece of data that is most important about how the world is going to change in the next ten years?"
  5. Sneak preview. Great thread of nominations for the best movie trailer ever (reinvigorated by the new Joker preview)

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Until next week,