Week 22

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The Fourth Turning

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The EU referendum rollercoaster descended to pre-EU 1960’s level of Carry On farce this week with Bob Geldof and Nigel Farage chasing each other around the Thames on vanity boats.  However it is distinctly less amusing that after months of campaigning, many voters still have little genuine insight into what the detailed consequences of their vote will be.  The Leave terrain in particular is littered with too many genuine unknowns and lack of precedent for most ordinary voters, myself included, to make confident predictions about how it will pan out.  However, at least I did better than average on this Telegraph EU quiz simply by choosing the least hysterical answers.   Polling data and voter interviewing suggests the voting public are more influenced by intuition and emotion than facts or logic.   Remain campaigners have variously thrown in dozens of apparently robust economic arguments, sought to expose Leave myths and asserted that leaving represents lunacy.   They’ve even highlighted egregious conflicts of interest on the part of those champions of capitalism that would unshackle us from the bureaucratic tyranny:

None of it, however, seems as if it will make any difference to the result.  The die looks to be cast and the rest of 2016 is likely to be very bumpy following a Leave vote not least because it’s been another bruising and polarizing political campaign.

One of the best analyses as to why Leave is retaining a talismanic appeal irrespective of outcome is this arresting view from The Guardian which presents a picture of a precariat seething with fear of future prospects and resentment rather than racism and with little to lose from bringing down a status quo that isn’t delivering anything for them.  Leave as an anti-globalisation statement also explains why Labour is struggling to galvanise Remain and helps explain, in part, the anger:

The referendum has become a way in which [working class people] can have their say, and they are saying collectively that their lives have been better than they are today. And they are right. Shouting “racist” and “ignorant” at them louder and louder will not work – they have stopped listening.

The widespread rejection of expertise in favour of intuition is something Daniel Kahneman labelled the Affect Heuristic and it looks to be happening on a national scale in this election:

Even so, in the aftermath of likely Brexit, it is hard to see the economic situation improving for many that vote for it, at least in the short term, even if one assumes the withdrawal negotiations proceed perfectly.  There are some grounds to believe that the innovation and IP environment could be improved by leaving.  Even so, Britain is unlikely to find the likes of China, Russia or India suddenly rushing in to buy our goods and it’s difficult see any obvious sustainable “unfair advantage” in Services the country can rely upon. The reality is that the environment (at least from a US/EU tech company perspective) has become progressively more difficult to operate in and will remain so for British companies whether we are in or out of the EU.  We will need lots of smart political leadership to gain any advantage in a hugely competitive global landscape.  Plus a willingness to do the legwork and a lot of air miles. Given the huge challenge of going it alone, it’s distinctly possible we will end up replacing the EU challenge to our sovereignty with an American one.  Staying in the EU for the trade connections may make logical sense but this decision will be made on emotional grounds for many if not most voters.

The same trends on show in the Brexit referendum are discernable in the US election too.  People are trusting instinct and emotion over logic and dismissing expertise out of hand  in favour of simple explanations.  In the US, however, the addition of Donald Trump to the mix makes it arguably a far more dangerous.  The country post Orlando seems to be heading to a very dark place at a pivotal time as this remarkable fly on the wall account of what it’s like to be in a Trump rally vividly conveys:

Trump has been exposed as a shabby businessman not just in relation to Trump University but also in his dealings in Atlantic City. Even more dangerously, however, he’s a pot stirrer that is being emboldened with every new outrageous statement he utters. Following the Orlando killings, he has raised the ante so high with anti-Muslim rhetoric that the only real place for him to go from here is internment because as this tweet reveals, that’s the only thing that could have stopped a maniac born mere streets away from him:

Internment seems impossible?  In America, impossible is nothing. The forces that Trump has unleashed and is riding bareback are beyond control even by him and being stoked daily with more capricious craziness.  Appeals to logic will not work here.  Both candidates have suggested more airstrikes are part of the response to Orlando,  an all-American massacre demonstrating that Trump is the hinge that’s getting all the grease:

Trump won the nomination using what the British call the “dead cat” tactic: Throw a dead cat on the table, and that’s what people will talk about. Trump kept hurling cats, thereby staying a step ahead of the media watchdogs.

Both election campaigns highlight the danger of democratic systems under stress and crisis.  It’s become hard at times recently to differentiate between the ‘voice of the people’ and demagoguery.  This week, even Peter Thiel, a died-in-the-wool libertarian and supporter of Trump suggested some controls are necessary on democracy and that a libertarian worldview is “not synonymous with radical transparency“.  In doing so he’s revealed himself to be an advocate of the political elite.  With some irony he did so at the secretive Bilderberg Group meeting that is increasingly being influenced by a Libertarian strain.  And where, among other things, they were discussing the precariat, “the monster they created that they now fear“:

Dark times demand explanation and historical perspective that for a change doesn’t involve Hitler comparison.  One approach that offers an interesting angle on proceedings is Generational Theory which was first proposed in a book on US politics and society from the late 90’s called The Fourth Turning. In it, the authors presented a broad dialectical approach to “The Anglo-American Saeculum” (or “epoch”) comprising of four phases or ‘Turnings’ which they assert have followed each other approximately every twenty years dating back to the Wars of the Roses:

  • High: an era when institutions are strong and individualism is weak. Society is confident about where it wants to go collectively, even if those outside the majoritarian center feel stifled by the conformity (last visited by the Silent Generation peaking in the 50’s).
  • Awakening: an era when institutions are attacked in the name of personal and spiritual autonomy. Just when society is reaching its high tide of public progress, people suddenly tire of social discipline and want to recapture a sense of personal authenticity. (Boomer Generation peaking in the 60’s/70’s)
  • Unraveling: this era is in many ways the opposite of a High. Institutions are weak and distrusted, while individualism is strong and flourishing. (Generation X peaking in the 90’s)
  • Crisis: in which institutional life is torn down and rebuilt from the ground up—always in response to a perceived threat to the nation’s very survival (Millennial Generation)

According to Generational Theory the US is right in the middle of a Crisis Turning that began around 2005 and which we may be in for another decade before the wheel turns to a High.  It is darkest before the dawn.

Artificial Intelligence

  • Last week’s post section on computers, maths and brains is expanded upon in this entertaining philosophical joust between Penrose and his ‘microtubules’ on the one hand and theoretical computer scientist Scott Aaronson on the other for whom the brain is a computer:

Penrose argues that human consciousness has certain features and abilities that conventional computers can not replicate.   [Aaronson’s] view, which is more widely accepted, is that because the brain exists inside the universe, and because computers can simulate the entire universe given enough power, your entire brain can be simulated in a computer.  … So there it is: Either the brain is basically a computer, or there’s a whole new world of neuroscience and physics out there that we have not yet even begun to discover.

Amazon is hoping to sell as many as 10 million of its voice-activated Echo devices next year, which would make it a roughly $1 billion hardware business, according to a person with direct knowledge of the projections.


Apple and Microsoft

  • I thought I would find more to be excited about but WWDC 2016 seemed to be more about sustaining rather than disruptive innovation.  NYT’s summary will do.  The main takeaways of interest from a personal perspective :
    • Opening up Siri to third party developers
    • Big update to Apple Watch supported by new “Watch OS”

Microsoft can now credibly speak of having one operating system (with Windows 10 as its most familiar branding) that can span hardware from little embedded Internet of Things devices to games consoles to PCs to cloud-scale server farms. At its heart is a slimmed down, modularized operating system dubbed OneCore. Windows 10, Windows Server, Xbox 10, Windows 10 Mobile, Windows 10 IoT, and the HoloLens operating system are all built on this same foundation.

  • No wonder they are so keen to force that “mandatory Windows 10 update” on you.  This week saw another inappropriate upgrade application right in the middle of the inaugural Imperial College Alumni lecture on sensor networks that I attended:


Apps and Services

Our generation’s just much more disconnected from our money. We don’t know how much we have in the bank.

Culture and Society

Thomas Middleditch plays Richard Hendricks.

“Content.” “Platforms.” “Synergy.” “End-to-end.” “Solutions.” It’s nearly impossible to find a startup at the conference that doesn’t resort to jargon when describing itself. … These words sound technical and informed. But they mean nothing, and they make it difficult for ordinary people to understand what a company actually does. In an effort to either sound smart and attract investors, or to simply dress up an otherwise boring product, startups that rely too much on jargon end up alienating the users they want to attract.

  • The rise of “targeted individuals” is an unnerving story for dark times.  A growing community is apparently living in a “closed ideology echo chamber” of paranoia convinced they are being stalked.

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