Thoughts in Between

by Matt Clifford

TiB 123: Information revolutions and public discourse; the future of elites; supply chains as public goods; and more...

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Information revolutions and public discourse

The long simmering tension between Silicon Valley and the media has boiled over into open conflict over the last couple of weeks. If you’ve been fortunate enough to avoid this in your social media feeds, I recommend you keep it that way and just read Gideon Lewis-Kraus's long, balanced and beautifully written essay on the topic in the New Yorker.

One interesting question here is how our tools - above all, social media - shape how we think (In some ways this is an extension of last week’s discussion of how technology expands the scope of possible ways of living). It’s worth reading Tanner Greer on “The World That Twitter Made” and Fredrik de Boer on how Twitter has changed what is valued among journalists. The latter piece is brutal, but I’m struck by how many journalists say it resonates. If you’re particularly interested in the free speech angle, I also recommend these two Twitter threads. 

There is a tendency, on all sides, to cast these debates as battles for the soul of civilisation. I am a little more sanguine. It strikes me that confusion and anxiety is the normal historical response to “information revolutions”, before a new equilibrium is found. For some perspective, see this academic paper on the enormous anxiety with which intellectuals greeted the challenge of “too many books” from the 16th century onwards. Just as we overcame that problem (I think?), it seems unlikely that 2020 Twitter is the final word on public discourse. 

The history and future of elites

The always-interesting Nicolas Colin has a fascinating piece on the education of French elites and what it tells us about France and its economy. I would love to read similar analyses for other countries, so if you know of any, please send them my way. I have written a lot about the history of ambition, but the geography of ambition is just as important (Indeed, my friend Charlie Songhurst says the geographical arbitrage of ambition is the world’s best investment in this brilliant and wide ranging interview). 

It’s worth reading Nicolas’s piece in the context of this new essay (or podcast, if you prefer) by Venkatesh Rao on the history and future of elites. It’s packed full of fascinating provocations: the idea that what defines elites is their relationship to the law; the idea that the definition of elites changes only when the “technology of trust” (e.g. noble blood, land, money, etc) changes; and the idea that each era’s elite needs its own “noble lie” to create social stability and underpin its position.

The most important idea, though, is Rao’s contention that an elite is stable and sustainable (and, indeed, a net positive for the world) as long as it defines itself by its outward-looking relationship to the rest of the world. But once an elite becomes obsessed with itself - “court intrigues, scholarly debates in journals, boardroom battles” - it sows the seeds of its own destruction. That’s perhaps the most worrying take on the Silicon Valley brouhaha discussed above: too many of the world’s elite technologists are distracted by the Twitter outrage of the day, when they should be building the future.

Supply chains as public goods

Henry Farrell and Abraham Newman have an excellent piece in Foreign Policy on the future of globalisation. Farrell provides a good Twitter-length summary here. They argue that the pandemic - and above all the spectacle of rich countries being unable to source vital equipment - has revealed the security risks of leaving international supply chains entirely to the market. But it’s also highlighted the dangers of a nationalist-autarkic backlash. As one striking example, they recount the story of a US hospital that had to disguise a PPE shipment as food to avoid “piracy”...

We’ve talked before, in the context of Singapore’s pandemic response, about the resilience vs efficiency trade-off. Farrell and Newman suggest that this is the key to the future of national supply chain strategy, and frame it as a public good problem: each individual firm is incentivised to optimise for efficiency (which is good times is a good thing!) and so resilience, which the state needs in a crisis, is undersupplied by the market.

What can be done? Farrell and Newman have some ideas - as does Joe Biden, who happened to publish his supply chain strategy this week. Among other things, they suggest that key firms should have to “stress test” their supply chains in the same way banks have to stress test their capital adequacy. As Farrell notes, though, this and other ideas require not just changes of policy (or president, even) but much more investment in state capacity (previous discussion). As ever, there are no free lunches.

Quick links

  1. The wages of sin? Industries that are perceived to be immoral pay higher salaries.
  2. Truth in advertising. Guess how many years of life TV advertising for cigarettes cost in the US? A shockingly high number.
  3. Send me the Bill. Once the US withdraws from the WHO, who will be its biggest funder?
  4. When machine learning does design. Striking video of GPT-3 taking instructions in natural language and generating code that achieves the same thing.
  5. "Palantir goes to the Frankfurt School". A remarkable review of the critical theory PhD dissertation of Alex Karp, CEO of Palantir. Niche and jargon heavy, but if you think you might like it, you probably will.

BONUS: I recorded a podcast with the excellent Gonz Sanchez of Seedtable, in which we talk about Thoughts in Between, among other things. If you like TiB, you might enjoy it.

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Until next week,

Matt Clifford