Government, energy & environment

Where there’s a will

A report called The New Countdown on Health and Climate, published in The Lancet, says that in the future hotter summers will fuel violence, suicide and self-harm.

Notice the word ‘will’, rather than ‘could’ or ‘might’. Will implies certainty. No doubt whatsoever. But we are talking about the future here and the only thing you can say about the future, especially the distant future, with any degree of certainty whatsoever is that it’s highly uncertain.

The report, written by experts from fields as diverse as climate science, health, engineering, agriculture and transport, also says that “we know that in periods of hot weather there are spikes in violence, suicide and depression.” It indeed appears true that extreme heat can seriously impact brain chemistry, which in turn can increase emotion. But the way the report is written (or perhaps it’s the way the report has been reported?) is potentially highly misleading and harmful. Just because some studies in the US and Australia have shown that an increase in temperature of one degree centigrade correlates with an increase in suicide rates of two per cent, this doesn’t necessarily equate to causation.

It doesn’t necessarily mean that findings are applicable elsewhere either. The weather patterns in one country may not be applicable to others, especially ones with lower average temperatures.

Is this another example of not only scare-mongering, but health-and-safety hysteria, which ultimately undermines the authority of experts? Where there’s a “will” there’s usually a “won’t”, or a “didn’t”, or a “might slightly”, in my experience.

Ref: Daily Telegraph (UK) 29.1.18, ‘Heatwaves of the future could prove deadly’ by S. Knapton

Don’t panic…

Let me add to the woes of the world for a minute.

America: land of the free, home of the brave. But is it any longer? (Fear not, this gets optimistic towards the end.) The author and commentator Andrew Sullivan recently said that the US was tearing itself apart. More specifically, two tribes, the Republicans and the Democrats, are ripping the heart out of the US.

Tribalism often surfaces when people feel threatened. At the moment, the US is arguably threatened by a decline in its power (the rise of China and others) and by the rise of automation. But one issue with tribalism, as Sullivan points out, is that it knows no limiting principle. It’s a visceral response ruled more by emotion than logic and the defence of the tribe generally comes before anything else.

This is a theme that’s been picked up by Amy Chua, a professor of Law at Yale. Back in 2002 she warned of a xenophobic backlash against globalisation in her book A World on Fire. It’s certainly starting to smoke, especially on university campuses, where small groups on both the left and the right are stoking the flames of identity politics and driving dissenters — and anyone occupying the middle ground — underground. The far right play with the poison that is white nationalism, while on the far left the poison is the idea that all of US history is a series of crimes against minorities, with the latest crimes being against LGBTI. Social media, of course, hasn’t helped to calm anything down.

So, what’s the good news? Well, only half of the US voted for Trump and some of these people have started to change their minds (it’s a similar story with Brexit in the UK, perhaps). Moreover, the tribalism angle might be incorrect. Around a third of US voters classify themselves as independents.

As for identity politics and minority rights, this seems to be going against the grain of binary politics. Facebook lists more than 50 gender designations from which users can choose. Is this taking the American idea that you can be anything you want too far? Reductio ad absurdum. Ultimately, most people dislike extremism of any form and there seems to be a growing appetite for bi-partisan politics. Furthermore, there is still more that unites than divides.

One thing that unites almost everyone in the United States and elsewhere is the idea of a future that’s liveable and this means one that has humanity, tolerance, and most of all empathy at its core.

Ref: Sunday Times magazine (UK), 18.2.19, America on the edge, by N. Ferguson.

Online justice

What if every space in the world was ruled over by a robot, or perhaps some unseen algorithm that settled every argument or every individual or collective transgression? In the case of a robot, would you want to smash its smug supercilious mug to pieces? We’d probably do better if everyone just took a little time, calmed down and actually spoke to each other rather than sending rushed text messages and ephemeral emojis.

Mark Zuckerberg — you know, spawn of Satan — has proposed that Facebook builds (by 2020) a “supreme court for Facebook” that will resolve disputes and police its 2.3 billion users. On the surface, this isn’t a wholly bad idea and one that could be taken up by other social media firms across the internet. But even if members of this ‘court’ are independent and impartial, surely Facebook’s business model will ultimately drive who sits on any oversight board or tribunal?

Clearly, Facebook is grappling with the power it now wields (or perhaps simply the negative press this generates), but maybe Facebook shouldn’t have this much power in the first place.

The “supreme court” idea is almost certainly a first for any corporate of Facebook’s scale and influence, but surely such efforts are doomed to fail — it will only interpret rules, not create them, and it’s highly unlikely that such a board would ever fundamentally challenge Facebook’s business model, which is deeply flawed on so many levels.

A centralised profit-seeking power structure like Facebook is ultimately incompatible with a world where individuals value privacy, ownership and truth. The “supreme court” concept also seems incompatible with a model that generates problematic content in the course of trying to monopolise a user’s attention.

But the really big issue has nothing to do with Facebook per se. What if, instead of humans sitting on some kind of review board, corporations — or, heaven forbid, governments — start to use AI to achieve much the same ends? What if the US Supreme Court was an AI? What if the executive, legislature, judiciary and fourth estate were all rolled into one and run by an AI?

You might say that an AI could hardly do a worse job than the one currently being done by our motley crew of tyrants and fools, but at least with people you can generally see what they are doing. The problem with any sufficiently advanced AI is that its decisions could be hidden. Moreover, there is no reason to believe that any algorithm — be it one running an advisory board for Facebook or the whole planet — would be free from errors or biases.

Ref: Daly Telegraph (UK) 18.2.19 ‘Facebook’s ‘judiciary could dictate the future’ by L. Dodds.

Hey, teacher, leave them kids alone

What is the purpose of a school? Currently, the answer seems to be somewhere you go to learn how to pass exams, thereby progressing to the next step and ultimately into a job. Next to nothing is said about ethics, and precious little about quality or fairness.

But schools are failing both themselves and those for whom education doesn’t work. We no longer live in a command-and-control agricultural or factory production world. Even the knowledge economy is coming to an end in the sense that Google already knows anything that any school is likely to ask you. Helping children to become the best possible version of themselves should be the aim, alongside teaching things that no AI will ever do, not for the foreseeable future at any rate.

Education should first kindle curiosity, which is the precursor to creativity. AIs can be creative, up to a point, but where machines and mankind part company is imagination. People invent things that resonate with other people. Given a chance, and the right schooling, people are compassionate too, so schools should do more to teach what’s right and the importance of helping others.

But we don’t see much of this. We generally have a system that’s focussed on IQ rather than EQ and one that is obsessed with exams, testing and ranking. And the consequences of this are terrible.

Of course, there are a few people that ‘get it’. The Silicon Valley elite get that while technology, especially digital technology, can enhance, it can also diminish, and they are sending their own children to tech-free schools that emphasise play, outdoor spaces, and making things with your hands as well as your brain. Steve Jobs famously refused to let his own kids own iPhones and Bill Gates’ kids have had a decidedly low-tech, high-touch upbringing.

The Waldorf schools in the US personify this approach, but there are others. Brightworks in San Francisco has no exams, no testing, and no SATs. Kids come to school and work on projects they design themselves. You can’t watch a video in class unless you make it yourself.

If you’ve not noticed already, these schools emphasise creative intelligence and human interaction, not solitary screen-based activities. Harvard, Stanford and MIT are all interested in what’s getting produced here and they allow students to submit portfolios rather than test results.

This is a good start, but we need more of this kind of thinking and we need it to migrate to universities and the wider world of work too. We need to move away from core subjects, or at least significantly supplement them with a more multi-disciplinary model. We need less information and more knowledge and, most of all, we need wisdom. We need to start where Google ends and design schools where emotional literacy and emotional work are valued alongside creative endeavours of all kinds.

Most of all, we need to shift from teachers dispassionately downloading facts into children’s brains to a system where teachers teach what they know best, which is themselves. Research shows that children learn best from people they like and they learn best of all from those they love. So, we need to build schools — indeed a whole brave new world — where the emotional quality of relationships is what gets valued. Do this and the world will change.

Ref: New York Times (International Edition), (US), 19-20.1.2019, ‘Students learn from people they love’ by D. Brooks, also Evening Standard, (UK) 26.2.19, ‘Imagination is all that’s needed to keep up with AI’, by A. Hilton and FT magazine (UK), ‘Alt-thinking: the children of Silicon Valley’s elite are learning through play in a tech-free space’ by C. Jones.

Not dead yet

Is democracy dead in the West? Not by a long way. OK, it has to be admitted that authoritarian leadership is on the rise in a few countries in Eastern Europe. But to claim that the democratic system in the US or elsewhere is under threat is to suffer from recency bias. Even then, people are focussing on the wrong things and most of what is happening is probably a blip.

According to Yascha Mounk, a political scientist at Harvard, “for the first time in its history, the oldest and most powerful democracy in the world has elected a president who openly disdains basic constitutional norms.” Putting aside which country might be the oldest or indeed the most powerful, this is a little alarmist. Most of the principles that underpin democracy in the US are in fine form. It’s true that data suggests that, more and more, people don’t care about democracy in the West (less than a third of Millennials in America believe it’s extremely important to live in a democracy versus over two-thirds of older US citizens), but Trump is not Hitler or Mussolini (Berlusconi might be nearer the mark). Nevertheless, there is the throb of anxiety across many parts of the democratic world, especially in the US and Europe.

Sure, some democratically elected leaders seem impervious to criticism or wrongdoing, and some are tilting the rules in their favour, but this is hardly the death of democracy. Trump could be out soon, and remember: he was only elected by just over half of all Americans.

Some of them have changed their minds already, especially the Republican grandees that failed to do their due diligence. What’s interesting about Trump is not his pathological narcissism, but the idea that he represents popular disillusionment about a self-serving, morally vacuous elite. Also, perhaps he represents the erosion of trust in government and experts of all kinds following the Iraq war of 2003 and the global financial crash of 2008. More accurately, perhaps, Trump is representative of popular anxiety about the near-inevitability of US decline (in relative terms) and the ascendency of China (assuming China doesn’t crash and burn alongside its mountain of debt).

It’s also interesting that, while democracy may still be OK in the US and Europe, what is changing is the messianic belief that democracy is good for everyone and inevitable everywhere.

Another thing that’s changed is economic resentment. After the crash of 2008, various individuals and institutions got richer, not poorer, thanks to bailouts and especially QE (see story in money section). There is also rising resentment of immigration, especially economic migrants. This is possibly where the elites really don’t get it. In the UK, for example, the argument against Brexit was wholly economic, but for vast numbers of ordinary people Brexit was about identity and self-determination (OK, maybe with a racist undercurrent, but I don’t really buy into that on any large scale). There is no obligation — other than a moral one perhaps — for a country to open its gates unreservedly and the failure of elites to deal with immigration has spawned, and is still breeding, the antithesis of internationalism: nationalism. Add to all this Russia, who is hell bent on fanning whatever flames it can find.

Endpoint? Who knows. There is a crisis of confidence almost everywhere in the West, possibly borne of the thought that a period of Western domination is coming to an end. Get over it. Personally, I’m more concerned about the fact that in 2015 (that’s before Trump remember) more than one in four Americans were prescribed painkillers. So far, very few politicians seem to be sharing the pain.

Ref: Financial Times (UK), ‘Fear and Freedom’ Book review by G. Rachman.

Books: How democracies die: what history tells us about our future by Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt The People Vs. Democracy; why our freedom is in danger and how to save it by Yascha Mounk The Road to unfreedom; Russia, Europe, America by Tomoty Snyder Anti-Pluralist: the populist threat to liberal democracy by William Galston