Month: April 2008

Cognitive Surplus

Hugely important point from Clay Shirky (via boingboing)

Doing the numbers below, the entire volunteer effort that’s gone into producing Wikipedia, in man-hours, is about one fifth of the time Americans spend watching television on an average day.

That kind of puts Seth Finklestein’s “digital sharecropping” into perspective.

Here’s the key section:

if you take Wikipedia as a kind of unit, all of Wikipedia, the whole project–every page, every edit, every talk page, every line of code, in every language that Wikipedia exists in–that represents something like the cumulation of 100 million hours of human thought. I worked this out with Martin Wattenberg at IBM; it’s a back-of-the-envelope calculation, but it’s the right order of magnitude, about 100 million hours of thought.

And television watching? Two hundred billion hours, in the U.S. alone, every year. Put another way, now that we have a unit, that’s 2,000 Wikipedia projects a year spent watching television. Or put still another way, in the U.S., we spend 100 million hours every weekend, just watching the ads. This is a pretty big surplus. People asking, “Where do they find the time?” when they’re looking at things like Wikipedia don’t understand how tiny that entire project is, as a carve-out of this asset that’s finally being dragged into what Tim calls an architecture of participation.

I’ve tended to be towards the sceptical end of the new-media hype, but this way of looking at things really gives a glimpse of the possibilities.

Black Mass

27th April 2008


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As I mentioned some time ago, I planned to buy John Gray’s Black Mass when it came out in paperback. I came away from the book very disappointed.

I would guess the core of the book is the second half, which is a criticism of the Iraq war. This is a very strong attack on the overconfidence of the idea that a western democracy could be set up in Iraq, and on both the deception and self-delusion of the leading advocates of war.

That much is fine, but criticisms of the Iraq war are ten a penny. The book as a whole is an attempt to generalise from that to put neoconservatism in a tradition of rational utopianism starting with the enlightenment. Jacobinism, Marxism, Nazism, neo-liberalism and even Al-Quaeda itself are all described as incarnations of a single myth of an end time of perfect rule spread across the whole world by human rationality.

The problem with the thesis is that it proves too much. By the standards he sets, there’s hardly a movement imaginable that would not be able to qualify as utopian. If you imagine a better future than the present, you’re a utopian. If you rhetorically appeal to any religious or mythical glory, you’re a utopian (even if the rhetoric is obvious hyperbole). If you claim that something that worked in one country could work in another, you’re a utopian. If you exhibit undue confidence in the success of your current policy (such a rarity among politicians), you’re a utopian. I felt that the only movements that avoided being labelled as a utopian were those which, with hindsight, actually achieved durable success. Therefore Reagan, despite all his rhetoric, was no utopian, because communism was really defeated.

The book also suffers by the association of the Bush regime with actual evangelical Christianity. While this might casually appear to be consistent with the argument, every earlier version of the utopia myth Gray describes relies on actual human achievement without divine assistance. The accidental coalition between secular ex-Trotskyite empire-builders and devout backwoods millenarialists plays no part in his wider thesis.

Fundamentally, I think Gray is misunderstanding the importance of myth in politics. The point is not that people believe the utopian myth to be true, it’s that a narrative, whether an explanation of the past or a forecast for the future, feels subjectively more convincing if it accords with some myth than if it doesn’t. The follower of Marxism or neoconservatism or whatever would not say that the final victory was inevitable, but the theories of the leaders would feel more persuasive because they carried in them the essence of the myth. Some ideas are easier to get carried away by than others.

And then there’s the final chapter. Oh dear. I really don’t want Anomaly to become simply a climate denial blog, but there’s something overwhelmingly ridiculous about spending a whole book attacking political movements which you claim are apocalyptic religion in disguise, and then casually, in passing, signing up to the most alarmist of all climate change predictions in their entirety, and citing as scientific authority a book entitled “The Revenge of Gaia“. If someone could explain that level of blindness in otherwise highly intelligent commentators, and I certainly can’t, they would be making a real contribution to the understanding of political history.

The only slight indication of awareness of the contradiction in his position is the following feeble half-justification:

… In another sense the prospect is not apocalyptic at all. In wrecking the planetary environment humans are only doing what they have done innumerable times before on a local level …

In the end the point is that Gray is not against mythology, only against one particular myth:

Happily, humanity has other myths, which can help it see more clearly. In the Genesis story humans were banished from paradise after eating from the Tree of Knowledge and had to survive by their labours ever after. There is no promise here of any return to a state of primordial innocence. Once the fruit has been eaten there is no going back. The same truth is preserved in the Greek story of Prometheus, and in many other traditions. These ancient legends are better guides to the present than modern myths of progress and utopia.

NO! STOP! The problem is with mythology as a guide to policy, not with just one myth. Myths are bugs in the mind, nothing more. The answer to bad policy based on myths is not other myths, it’s accuracy and humility.

Of course, his own continuing preference for myth might explain the vehemence of the book. His claim that neo-liberals believed in their inevitable global dominance struck me as very strange: if neo-liberal means people like me, and I normally interpret it that way, we have always inclined more to pessimism and defeatism than triumphalism, even at the end of the eighties when a few of our ideas like privatisation were spreading across the world. But of course Gray himself was one of us at one time, and if he took a millenarian view of things at the time, then, like me sticking up for the Men in Skirts, he could be expected to turn against his old ideas violently. But his error was not his liberalism, it was his mythologising, and he has changed the myth instead of keeping the politics and rejecting myth.

Gray needs to put down Leo Strauss and the Bible, and read some Pratchett.

Fascism: right or left?

In the last few days I have seen, from several directions, the old question raised as to whether fascism should be considered right-wing or left-wing.

The argument familiar to libertarians is that, because fascism is collectivist, it should be considered left-wing. This is often traced back to Erik von Kuehnelt-Leddihn, and has been brought up recently by Jonah Goldberg in his book. There is also the fact that the originators of fascism were on the left first.

There is a summary of some recent discussion among British libertarian bloggers at the curiously-named don’t set fire to your jacket .

John Gray argues in his book Black Mass, which, as promised, I will review here shortly, that fascism, if not actually of the left, is at least a product the same enlightenment mythology, as he sees it. In this he is closely following Kuehnelt-Leddihn.

Mencius at UR has argued the contrary.

In the 1930s, there was no confusion at all as to whether the fascist movements were parties of the extreme Right or of the extreme Left. Everyone agreed. They were parties of the Right. Populist right-wingers to be sure, but right-wingers nonetheless. For once, the conventional wisdom is perfectly accurate.

In this case I would go along with him. This is not really a question which has a right or wrong answer, but I think its more useful to classify fascism as right-wing than left-wing. The reason is in what I consider the essence of government, as I wrote yesterday. Politics is not primarily about how society should be governed. It is primarily about who does the governing. So the similarity in policy between far-left and far-right is interesting and noteworthy, but it does not mean they are the same. Politics is primarily about what group should rule, and fascism and communism represent different groups. The left seeks to dispossess the rich; the right seeks to control them. The fact that, after gaining control of the economy, they would each do much the same thing with it, is not enough to make them allies. Since they will always oppose each other, it is not useful to classify them as on the same side.

One reason some libertarians dislike describing fascists as right-wing is that they consider themselves of the right. I think that is a mistake, caused by the history of the cold war, where they sided with the true right against communism. That is all over now, but the personal and organisational ties survive to an extent. Let the fascists have the “right-wing” label; our position is not left or right, but fundamentally “anti-politics”. That should have public appeal currently, although it is an admission that we cannot really win the game, because we are not really playing.

Update: I’ve written a lot more on fascism recently; see here and here.

The Essence of Government

26th April 2008


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Further to my previous post, I have come across this piece from last week by Jim Henley, also dealing with the problem of how libertarianism can make a practical difference.

I think libertarians are, rather, the court jesters of politics. I mean that in a good way. We whisper to Caesar that that he is mortal. We caper about, turning ourselves blue if necessary, reminding everyone that government power is inescapably violent and inescapably self-interested. You’re probably not going to care, but we’re going to make you actively decide not to care. And sometimes, maybe you’ll care after all. As a class, we can be stupendously silly people, believing and saying the most absurd things. But our rulers are silly people too, in different and more malignant ways. And as fools, we have the freedom to say so.

I think he’s right, and if he’s right about America, the same is even more true of Britain, where libertarian ideas are that much further from the mainstream.

The problem is that all politics is based on a lie: that the essence of government in a democracy is to serve the people, and that political questions are about how best to serve the people.

In fact the essence of government, in a democracy or elsewhere, is that the strong enslave the weak. What democracy provides is not a different essence, but, by the mechanism of dividing the strong against each other, a situation where the strong enslave the weak much less effectively. The point of democracy is to provide ineffective government, which is a good thing.

So if the debate is about what the government should do to better serve the people, then I am a libertarian (indeed now a Libertarian), and will bore my victims to death talking about lower taxes and more flexible markets and civil liberties and the rest of it. But the policies I complain about are usually not imperfections in our servant, the government. They are the reality of our master, the government, sticking out through the bars of the cage in which it is restrained.

How to get better?

25th April 2008


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At Samizdata, Johnathan Pearce has asked another of the fundamental questions. By what route do we get from where we are to a better situation for the country?

The problem is that even attempting to carry out such a programme entails playing the political game. And a key part of the political game is feeding the movement by handing out patronage. If you’re not doing that, you’re not really playing the game, you’re just posturing.

How did Thatcher manage to fight the overgrown state for three terms, with two landslide majorities, and yet leave it as large as she found it? Because every victory had to be paid for by buying support somewhere else.

So slimming the state through the system is out of the question. Fighting the system would not leave enough afterwards to help, even assuming (delusionally) that we had anything like the support to make it possible. There is the ASI approach of working through those in power, attempting to change their minds directly. The gains are marginal, but real. The necessity to a politician of defending statism so as to be able to reward supporters leads to a situation where the powerful believe their own propaganda beyond what is actually useful to them; that is why good argument can have some effect but never achieve real change.

Another opportunity for marginal change is direct action. The point of this is not to overthrow the system, but to change the incentives of those in power. Therefore aim not at the top, but at lower levels where the real damage is done by those making unseen decisions week by week and year by year.

20th Century Wars

25th April 2008


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Via L&P, a good piece in the Grauniad about the actual motivations behind the second world war. Right or wrong, WWII was a practical war against a geopolitical rival, not a crusade for justice or human rights.

Combining it with the latest excellent essays from Mencius (1, 2, more still to come), it would seem that the conventional wisdom is reversed: the first world war was an ideological war, fought in the name of democracy, while the second was a pragmatic struggle for power and influence.

It would be consistent with my theory of Humanitarian Intervention (and why not to do it), that the war fought for realpolitik has proved easier to justify in hindsight than the war fought for democratic ideology.

The Lords

24th April 2008


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I suggested in a comment at Tim’s that unicameralism would be OK, so long as it means getting rid of the House of Commons.

I was mostly joking. But maybe it’s worth thinking about.

On the anti side, there’s this amendment by the Lords to the Criminal Justice bill creating penalties for “Recklessly disclosing” personal data.

In order to rule that something is reckless, you need to have some idea of what normal practice is, to contrast against recklessness.

But in handling of data, there practically is no normal practice, and what there is is mostly terrible. We in the IT industry just make it all up as we go along. That’s what being such a young, fast-moving profession is all about. The high-profile failures that we’ve seen have been notable more for bad luck than for being worse than the rest of the industry.

I’m not saying that the current situation is satisfactory. But slinging around vague terms like ‘reckless’, outside of the context of the Data Protection Act which, for all its faults, at least tries to define the concepts it deals with, will not improve anything.

Business IT does not work to a level of reliability adequate for protecting confidential data, or for other critical functions. If we were to operate on a similar basis to the people who write software for planes or power stations, costs and delays would increase to the point where 90% of what we now do would simply not be worth doing.

And that has to be the answer for confidential personal information. If it really needs to be secret, it shouldn’t be on commercial-grade IT systems in the first place. If the state or a private business collects it, don’t be surprised when it leaks. Most of the time, the recklessness is in collecting it in the first place.

Back on unicameralism, I think the reason for this mistake by the Lords is a desire to defeat the government, to make them look weak, to get more votes. So if we didn’t have a Commons, we wouldn’t have had this bad amendment.


Quote of the Day

21st April 2008


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“Hitchhiking is choosing to have faith in other human beings, and man, like a small god, rewards those who have faith in him.”

— Pippa Bacca and Silvia Moro, two performance artists who demonstrated their faith in humanity by hitch-hiking across the Balkans wearing wedding dresses.

I’m so used to reading (and writing) unproved statements that just hang there. Not only is their truth debatable, but so is the sincerity with which they are presented. Making an outrageous statement for shock value is so easy.

Pippa Bacca proved beyond all doubt that she really believed what she said. She also proved that she was wrong.

When you read my little pearls of arrogance here, please remember that I’m not prepared to stake my life on anything I write.

I’m sorry.

Sovereignty and Human Rights

20th April 2008


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Britain has a very secure government. We are blessed with a government that doesn’t have to worry much about being invaded or overthrown, and can devote its attention to vital issues such as whether people are lying on school application forms.

The people of Somalia are not so blessed. Their government does not have the resources to give its citizens ASBOs or check that only genuine garden waste is placed in the brown bins. Nonetheless, it does the best it can to provide a semblance of order and peace. Unlicensed interior design work may go unchecked, but piracy on the high seas is likely to be punished with beheading.

In one way this is a good thing, because it’s actually quite important that cargo travels unimpeded up and down the coast of Africa without being snaffled by Captain Blood and his chums. But, on the other hand, our government officially believes that for a pirate to have his head detached, anywhere in the world, is an infringement of his human rights.

Therefore, the Royal Naval captain that encounters these miscreants is in a bit of a bind. If he lets them go, trade will continue to be impeded. If he takes them home to Britain, they will get the ASBO they so richly deserve, and can then claim Asylum as potential victims of the Somalians’ inhumanity. This is likely to be frowned on by the man in the street. Dropping them off back in Somalia to have their blocks knocked off is right out.

If the Somalis had caught them themselves, there would not have been an issue. Heads would be removed, trade would flow, Amnesty International would increment a box in a spreadsheet, and we would not take our eyes off The Apprentice. But because we want, for our own good reason, to assist the Somalian government in its basic duty to order its territory and territorial waters, the otherwise harmless hypocrisy gets in the way.

The hypocrisy should go. We have our standards, and other people have theirs. If we disagree sufficiently with a foreign government, we might attempt to overthrow and replace it, but that’s a big undertaking not to be treated lightly. If we are going to cooperate with foreigners to the extent of subsidizing their infrastructure or sending our leading exponents of the hop-skip-and-jump to compete there, we need to respect their sovereignty.

How bad is Mugabe?

20th April 2008


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The history of Zimbabwe, as seen from here via the media, is slightly strange. Mugabe and ZANU took over in 1980 and ruled, if not well, then at least averagely by African standards for twenty years. Then in 2000, came the land seizures, leading to the steady disintegration of agriculture, and eventually to the utter economic failure of today.

The assumption in these parts seems to be that Mugabe went bonkers in 2000. That is possible. But it seems at least as likely, based on the scant facts presented, that he held out against the destruction of white-owned agriculture for twenty years, and in 2000 could do so no longer. As I explained in the British context, it would be out of the question for him to defend his policy change in that way.

If my guess is correct, then the most important fact about Zimbabwe politics is that there is a powerful group of armed “war veterans” who will take what they want (land) and the most powerful individual in the country (Mugabe) is unable to stop them. If that is true, then the outlook, whoever is finally declared to have won the election, is not good.

It may be that the MDC, with western support, would be able to protect private property sufficiently for the economy to start to recover. If that is so, then the basic difference between ZANU and the MDC is that the MDC would have western support and ZANU doesn’t. By a startling coincidence, that is exactly what Mugabe claims.

Aside from the destruction of the economy, the alleged evils of Mugabe are not so obvious. The level of political oppression that has been reported is what I would term mild to moderate: no worse than Russia and considerably better than China.

I suppose there’s no direction to go but forwards, and forwards means getting rid of Mugabe and starting again with a new set of rulers who can accept outside help in restraining the “war veterans”. But I expect civil war. My bet would be that Iraq will be peaceful and prosperous before Zimbabwe is.