Thoughts in Between

by Matt Clifford

TiB 90: Macron on tech sovereignty; how the Catholic Church made our minds; Bitcoin and the Reformation; and more...

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Emmanuel Macron and technological sovereignty

Emmanuel Macron gave an extraordinary interview to the Economist this week on foreign policy, sovereignty and technology. It's very long, but it's one of the most remarkable interviews with a major world leader in recent years. Do read the whole thing.

Whatever you think about the content - and it has plenty of critics, including Angela Merkel - it's hard to imagine many other heads of state giving such a wide ranging, deep and comprehensive account of their worldview. Macron emerges as an ultra-realist: prepared to accommodate Vladimir Putin, rationalise Trump's stance cool stance towards the US's allies (Macron's comments on Nato's "brain death" grabbed the headlines) and assume leadership of a new, more militarily aggressive Europe.

I found his ideas about technology and sovereignty most interesting. For Macron, there is no sovereignty without technological sovereignty - a worldview equal parts Peter Thiel and Ian Hogarth. Europe needs, he argues, capabilities in AI and 5G that are independent of the US and China (For more on Macron and the vision of a "European way for AI", see these notes that Julien Cornebise wrote up on a recent Macron talk). Whether you think Macron is a French imperialist or a visionary of a new Europe, these ideas will reverberate around Europe. They're worth keeping an eye on.

Does the Catholic Church explain why we're "WEIRD"?

This week Science published a remarkably ambitious paper by Joe Henrich (see previous coverage) and others which argues that the long term influence of the Catholic Church is one of the primary drivers of cross-cultural psychological variation. Henrich has long argued that "WEIRD" societies - Western, Educated, Industrial, Rich and Democratic - are psychological outliers and not necessarily typical of global human norms. In this new paper, the authors try to explain why - and suggest that the Church's actions over centuries played a key role.

The authors show that regions where the Church was dominant for longer show much higher levels of individualism, trust of strangers and non-conformity. The argument is that (1) social norms and institutions shape psychology; (2) the majority of human societies are built on "intensive kin-based institutions", but Europe is unusual in emphasising the norm of the nuclear family; and (3) the Catholic Church deliberately suppressed kin networks and promoted the family over a period of hundreds of years.

It's an extraordinarily claim - and immediately controversial (though see here for a counterargument). Even if you think the causation is unproven (see here for the best analysis I've seen of its strengths and weaknesses), it's a striking example of both the power of institutions and the enduring influence of the very long run (see previous coverage here and here).

What can the Reformation tell us about Bitcoin?

It's rare that I write about medieval history twice in a week, but... in the very first issue of TiB back in February 2018, I mentioned that one day I'd like to write about the parallels between the Reformation and the emergence of Bitcoin. I never got round to it, but Tuur Demeester, an early cryptocurrency investor, did and published one this week (full document here). Demeester argues that there were four conditions for the Reformation, and that we stand in a similar situation today.

The four are (1) an unpopular monopoly service provider (the Catholic Church/the international monetary and banking system); (2) a technological catalyst (the printing press/computation and related advances); (3) a new economic class (the merchants/millennials[!]); and (4) credible "defence and exit strategies" for rebels (emigration/cryptography). The implications seem a little arbitrary, but it's a fun read (Equally, how many times were these conditions met and no revolution followed? Many, I suspect).

My own favourite question about similarities between the Reformation and today is, what might play the same role as the controversy over Indulgences? Indulgences were a common practice that everyone knew about but largely tolerated... and then blew up into one of the core complaints that sparked the Reformation. It seems a classic example of an availability cascade: widespread beliefs can be suppressed for a long time until it suddenly becomes acceptable to express them. #MeToo was a powerful example; I am sure there will be others.

Quick Links

  1. Compute is the new... Interesting analysis of the huge importance of computational power in AI.
  2. A billion here, a billion there... Excellent analysis of the economics of the Softbank Vision Fund.
  3. With enemies like these... Fascinating thread on what happens when people with wildly different views talk, based on evidence from Germany
  4. Say that again with more bass The weird, obsessive world of Chinese hi-fi
  5. Not what Jeff intended. Amazing paper on hacking Alexa with lasers.

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Until next week,