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The Two Cultures 2017: Merit versus Brilliance

David Davis’ sensational confession that he hadn’t done the Brexit impact assessments and in fact hadn’t bothered to read the halfbaked document pulled together after it became clear he couldn’t get away without releasing something gave me an insight. There is a huge cultural divide in the country between two forces we could call the Culture of Merit and the Culture of Brilliance.

I call the first one the Culture of Merit fully accepting Michael Young’s The Rise of the Meritocracy. In fact the Culture of Meritocracy would be as good but too long. The merit culture, like the meritocracy, prizes credentialism, exams, and laborious success. Not surprisingly, it confuses people who triumph over real injustice with those who only triumph over exams, launching from a high tower of privilege. One of its flaws is that it analogises the Cambridge don’s Cambridge kid with the striver who rises out of poverty. It does, however, believe in something like the labour theory of value. Worthwhile achievements come, above all, from effort. Effort, in its turn, confers worth. The Merit Culture’s tropes are quantitative research, evidence, credentials, and detail.

The Culture of Brilliance denies this. I call it a culture of brilliance in the sense Corey Robin and Irving Howe use it here, and re-reading the post it strikes me that I am perpetrating it now. It believes that success is a matter of personal and spontaneous genius. It values felicitious answers, quick responses, and narrative excitement. Too much work is a tell of mediocrity. Many of its members have the elite credentials Merit worships, but they claim to hold them cheap. If the Merit Culture denies the advantages so many of its members start off with, the Culture of Brilliance denies how much work goes into its supposed spontaneity and lightness. The Brilliance Culture’s tropes are wit, rhetoric, authenticity, and outrageousness.

This is Britain: a culture almost as textual as imperial China. The two cultures naturally express themselves as literary forms.

The Merit Culture’s ideal type is the civil service briefing or the hard news report, the reduction of a complex matter into a minimal selection of options expressed in elegantly minimal prose. The vital value is concision, but the writer has reduced a mass of information to this capstone expression. The document might be large, but this speaks of a much vaster apparatus of scholarship off-stage.

The Brilliance Culture’s ideal type is the hot take. The vital values are outrageousness and entertainment, the expansion of a trivial matter or an important one treated as trivial into a maximum output of verbals. What matters is the wise crack, the long word, the funny demonstration. It might even be a survival of an oral tradition – certainly I’ve heard spontaneous talkers and jokers who have the same kind of freestyle lightness, with the important distinction that everyone knows they are bullshitting. It is deadly serious to express your lack of seriousness.

The two cultures sound like some other great divides. C.P. Snow’s Two Cultures thesis saw one between the humanities and the sciences. Ours runs at right-angles to Snow’s. Matt Ridley, for example, is both a product of the scientific culture and a prize Brilliantist. Kicking this around on Twitter, people reminded me of Cavaliers vs. Roundheads and Catholics vs. Protestants. The Merit Culture definitely has a smell of the Protestant ethic to it, but it could be Jesuit just as well.

It was fashionable a little while ago to complain about politicians who had high academic qualifications and usually also government experience. They were out of touch, inauthentic. Instead we needed people with more story. By now we should see that this was a call for more Brilliance versus the Meritists with their tiresome spreadsheets. No doubt they had a point, but you bet Caroline Flint – to pick a Meritist out of the air – would have staffed those Brexit impact assessments to the knife.

Here is a short glossary of recent politicians:

Theresa May: Merit, an ex-Bank of England manager and payments systems IT consultant.
David Davis: Brilliance, a man who expects to finish everything in an afternoon.
Philip Hammond: Merit, known as Spreadsheet Phil at the MOD.
Boris Johnson: Brilliance, almost the paradigm example.
David Cameron: He thought he’d be quite good at it. Brilliance, of course.
Gordon Brown: More Merit it doesn’t get.
Tony Blair: Brilliance all the way along the…journey.
Margaret Thatcher: Merit, merit, merit from the workaholic Beta Chemist.
Andrea Leadsom: No merit there; got to be brilliance, I guess?
Jeremy Corbyn: DISCUSS.

I sympathise with May here. As a control- and data-obsessed Meritist she has the job of trying to corral the flighty and always-inspired Brilliants beneath her into a big reassuring spreadsheet. The classic way to combine the two is a verbally fecund Brilliant supported and also kept in check by a whole cabinet of Meritists. (The Sons of Martha is on point here.) Or else a Meritist core flanked by a screen of Brilliants, which I guess was Attlee’s model.

Cyberfolk But Shit: Trump and the Stinking Pond

I was reading this post about White House CoS John Kelly trying to control Trump’s consumption of #snackable #edgy #content and failing when it reminded me of something. Trump Twitter is like Cyberfolk but shit.

To unpack a bit, while cybernetics pioneer and blog icon Stafford Beer was working on Cybersyn, Chile’s experimental real-time planned economy, he and his team also had the idea of gathering instant feedback on how it was doing. They hacked on a variety of devices that would let ordinary Chileans watching TV express their feelings in a way that would be summarised and visualised in the famous Cybersyn Ops Room. You’d turn a knob or whack a big red button. Thus:

Beer proposed “Project Cyberfolk,” a cybernetic system that would further popular participation and democracy by allowing citizens to communicate their feelings directly to the government. Beer built a device that would allow citizens to adjust a pointer on a voltmeter-like dial in order to indicate moods ranging from extreme unhappiness to complete bliss. The device would record a citizen’s happiness—ideally during a live television broadcast featuring some proposed new political policy—and electronically send the data directly to the government for real-time aggregation and review. Beer theorized that his system would improve public well-being and bring homeostatic stability between government and constituent.

And…well…these days Trump watches TV, and responds by reaching for his greasy tweeting-iron. The TV responds. It’s a loop. And you too can influence the system dynamics by dropping a meme into his pellet hopper, another turd into the stinking pond. And you know?

It sucks.

Interestingly, critics of Beer’s vision tended to emphasise its potential for surveillance, even though no identifiable information of any kind was transmitted (the inputs were literally summed at the physical, voltage control layer). There is of course a hell of a lot of that about. But they don’t seem to have thought much about the more subtle possibility that it might go horribly right. The critics had a centre-outwards model in mind – the Leader announces what he says you should think on the TV and you better press the LIKE button. But the whole point was that the citizens should influence the centre – which would then, this being cybernetics, influence them. The worrying thing here is that the feedback loop might settle in an objectively awful state of homeostasis, with the citizenry and the leader exchanging jolts of outrage.

The Two Minutes’ Hate may have been much more important to the nature of power on Airstrip One than the Telescreen. We’re all pond life now.

Fake news and the Afghan war

I have just been re-reading Dr Mike Martin’s An Intimate War, his anthropological study of the conflict in Helmand the British army was inserted into. Something that struck me this time round: Martin’s account of the role of rumours and conspiracy theories, what we might now call fake news.

Martin reports encountering many people who claimed to believe that the British were secretly supporting the Taliban, including people in the diaspora as far away as London. Some of them had developed sophisticated theories of politics around this core belief.

The Taliban, the word here meaning the ideological movement that seized Kabul in 1994, were supported and heavily influenced by Pakistan. Everyone knew that and they were right. Pakistani officers affected the tropes of British regimental culture, used British-style titles and organisational forms, and Pakistan received British development aid. Therefore, some of them reasoned, Britain had never actually decolonised from Pakistan and was still in charge behind the scenes. Its motive in this was to pursue a proxy war with the United States, and Helmand just happened to be the unfortunate theatre in which this conflict was playing out.

Martin points out that this exercise in cultural bricolage served to explain a variety of phenomena that were otherwise baffling. Why did the British want to make contact with someone everyone knew was a leader of the Taliban, or alternatively, the “Taliban”? Why did they think the Americans were too keen to unleash airpower? Why did the Americans think the British weren’t aggressive enough? Why did they support this or that politician who was also a drug smuggler and the brother of a jihadi chief? Why were the British and the Afghan government supporting this guy, while the US Special Forces in their separate chain of command supplied and encouraged his worst enemies?

Like Evelyn Waugh’s Colonel Grace-Groundling-Marchpole, the MI5 officer who hoped to eventually link everyone into one great conspiracy so there would be no more war, people created theories that explained a chaotic world and gave them at least an illusion of control. And of course this was true of us. Axis of Evil thinking defined the good guys and the bad guys. Population-centric counterinsurgency defined an insurgency, a government, and a population of civilians caught between them. Martin demonstrates that this made about as much sense as believing the Taliban was secretly manipulated by an undead British Raj. It wasn’t even that the guerrillas merged back into the population. The concepts of “guerrillas” and “population” were mistaken, although David Kilcullen’s notion of “survival-oriented civilians” was more to the point. The same people might be Talibs, policemen, farmers, opium smugglers, and logistics contractors within the course of a day, whatever happened to be expedient in that moment of desperate micro-politics.

But there’s something missing from his argument on this point. He also notes that essentially everyone he interviewed listened regularly to the BBC World Service for news of the outside world they could rely on. Who could possibly do this if they believed the British were secretly still ruling Pakistan and sending droves of Talibs to fight a third world war with America, in your house? Who, listening to the BBC news and acting on it, could believe that?

Martin doesn’t say, but the whole thrust of the book implies, that of course they didn’t. When it helped to feel like you were in the know – as when you were interviewed by an anthropologist, or speaking to someone you needed to impress – you did it. When you needed to know about, say, Iranian politics and their interest in the water supply – something of critical importance to everybody involved – you listened to the BBC. Even if the belief had important internal consequences, it was also performative, and it was performed for a practical purpose.

This is close to the notion of “identity-protecting cognition”, but I have never been convinced by it. The famous “Kentucky Farmer”‘s decision to believe in climate change when it suits him is by definition useless as there is no wall he can build that will fix his problem locally. And what is the practical purpose of retweeting yet more @RealFKNNews?

One thing that might carry over is my favourite obsession, social trust. Martin notes someone who wished he would one day know who his friends were, and that the local word for “hostility” or “enmity” translates as “cousinness”.

Linguistic prescriptivism sucks

Following up on the previous post, here’s something fascinating. The developers of an AI project that is meant to provide a vast base of conceptual associations to help computers process text in English are trying to purge it of racism.

As I understand it, ConceptNet is meant to help your application parse incoming natural language speech. By definition, this will be a dip out of the pool of living English, for good or ill. And if you are training a machine learning algorithm to understand it better, the weights in the association graph are going to trend towards whatever the incoming speech corpus implies. In as much as the project is meant to comprehend English, it must be a descriptive one, and that means dealing with the language warts and all.

The important question is what the application does then. If your app is making judgments on the basis of word associations, it’s likely to end up being seriously prejudiced in some way or other. The purpose of the system is what it does, as Stafford Beer said; the problem with the system is also what it does. The D-word rules.

If statistical reason collapsed, it was a while back

Will Davies writes about immigration, politics, and what he calls the “collapse of statistical reason”:

The macro-economic case for immigration – that it is a net positive for both public finances and economic growth – was integral to New Labour’s tacit, occasionally explicit, support for high levels of immigration. This was a broadly neoliberal type of justification, submerging rights-based arguments within the logic of open markets, as the European Commission has done as well. This was accompanied by a sense of economic realism, that employers would not countenance any drastic political interventions in international labour markets.

What is now better understood, however, is that appeals to statistics or to some apparent economic reality (such as ‘globalisation’) have the opposite of the desired political effect. It is not simply that they do not persuade those who are skeptical of immigration’s benefits; they can result in increased antipathy. Focus groups carried out by British Future show that when presented with evidence for macro-economic benefits, people will often respond that the statistics are biased, that they are based on inadequate knowledge of who has really entered the country, and that these numbers are being used to justify the political ambitions of policy elites. Such data incites quasi-conspiracy theories, that the government is concealing the truth, sometimes leading respondents to become even more paranoid about immigration. By contrast, qualitative forms of evidence – photographs and anecdotes of ‘successful’ integration of immigrants – are met with a far more positive response.

I am not sure he is right. I cannot remember many New Labour ministers ever making such a case, for a start. I do, however, remember a lot of them climbing onto the bully pulpit to complain that nobody was talking about immigration and to boast about how tough on asylum seekers they were being. For people who thought they weren’t allowed to, they sure did it a lot. They frequently also argued, quite specifically, that it was wrong to talk about the economy and statistical aggregates instead of personal, qualitative stories about people’s neighbourhoods. In terms of method, they were famously keen on qualitative focus groups as a means of perceiving the public. This Twitter thread refers.

This also reminded me of the following quote from How Labor Scholars Missed the Trump Revolt:

Our civic life has become a doughnut, with empty calories surrounding a hollow center where questions of class, occupation, pay, and power might once have been debated and expressed. We had become a nation with little legitimate space to express either the external or the internal conflicts of economic inequality — and that is a dangerous and volatile place for any republic to find itself.

And Tom Powdrill:

However, one of the big blunders the Third Way type ‘modernisers’ (they don’t seem modern anymore, do they?) was to assume that because people spent less time thinking about their workplace identity, and more about other aspects, that the workplace didn’t matter any more. In addition, it was too uncritical of the idea that we think like consumers about all kinds of things (public services, politics) and that therefore it was smart to relate to the public in a consumer-provider relationship and encourage this more generally.

Now a major, declared goal of policy in the Blair years was precisely to fill the doughnut with something – as long as it wasn’t jam, or anything else appropriately red in colour. Various different fillings were tried.

The Home Office’s entries in this Great British Policy Bakeoff didn’t change much from Jack Straw to David Blunkett to Charles Clarke to John Reid to Jacqui Smith. In fact, it has changed very little from Michael Howard’s tenure in the 1990s to Theresa May’s in the 2010s. The proposed filling would consist of what we might call macro-security – police powers, bulk surveillance, border control. Government would perform concern for public demands by doing stuff with the police apparatus. (Perhaps the blue in Blue Labour is the dark serge of the uniform.)

An alternative flavour concentrated on what we might call micro-security. This eventually got an institutional anchorage in the Department for Communities and Local Government, but in fact it was a team effort between bits of the No.10 policy apparatus, the Treasury, the Department for Education, and the housing policy world. The iconic figure here is Hazel Blears, and the key concern was a sort of neighbourhood politics reduced to its more censorious elements. (You were very much not encouraged to concern yourself with, say, public housing.) Civic life was to be rebuilt through a succession of respectability-policing projects, from the bottom up.

You’ll observe that both flavours have a distinct savour of authority. Also, neither of them worked, either in the sense of providing political cover for a wider liberal agenda or in that they were a better alternative to statistics, either as a means of perceiving the world or as a means of persuading others. In fact, the quantitative turn in left-wing practice came later, in reaction to a British Labour or US Democratic habit of being obsessed with focus-group gurus like Frank Luntz.

Meanwhile, this starts to sound positively nostalgic:

The sense that centralized experts will ‘deliver’ outcomes to a population, who will experience those outcomes in a subjective, consumerist fashion

Worry a little bit more about Korea but not that much

It’s time for another 2007 Revival! carrier watch post.

It looks like the forward-based carrier, Reagan, is fully ready. Nimitz is committed to the Middle East. Bush is eight thousand miles away, in UK home waters. Truman, Lincoln, and Vinson are in early phases of training. Eisenhower, Washington, and Stennis are in bits in the dry dock. Roosevelt has done her COMPTUEX work-up. Technically she needs to do the JTFEX with the other ships in the task force, but in a pinch that could happen en route.

The time frame to get to the other side of the Pacific is about two weeks assuming they don’t bother doing anything clever on the way. The US has quite a few airfields in the western Pacific, but North Korea just promised to drop rockets all round the biggest, so you can probably see the value of the carriers here. Conclusion: if Roosevelt, aka the Big Stick and wouldn’t the Donald love that, gets her skates on, it’s time to worry.

Work post.

Hijacking the blog for work purposes. I know quite a few readers here develop software or design things in a freelance, startup, or small business context. What is it that telecoms operators/ISPs, both fixed and mobile, aren’t offering you at the moment? What are they selling you that you don’t want? Leave your thoughts in comments – use a pseud if you want but give some idea of context.

Results so far: Moar bandwidth. Direct peering with major CDNs and clouds. Data allowances on a per-account basis (so you can share them among multiple devices). Better IPv6 support. Pro-active outage notification. Better status reporting. Nobody wants any add-on services. Better (native/dualstack) IPv6 again. Lower latency. Lower extra-European roaming rates.

Venezuela: it’s not just for Christmas

As the news fromm Venezuela has become progressively worse – and let’s be clear, it’s still getting worse from this absolutely terrible baseline – there’s been some arguing around the Internet about politicians, like Jeremy Corbyn, who were very supportive of Hugo Chavez’s government there.

My beef here is that someone like Jean-Luc Mélenchon went into this year’s French presidential election offering to quit NATO and replace it with a Bolivarian Alliance between France, Cuba, and Venezuela. Meanwhile, the people most affected are abandoning the cities in favour of subsistence gold panning in a malarial swamp. They don’t need somebody’s geopolitical fantasy; more like emergency humanitarian aid.

I get the impression that JLM wasn’t paying very much attention to the news when he came up with that idea, and evidently not for quite a while. Rather, he was singing his heart out for the lads. The country doesn’t matter, the people even less so, what counts is pissing off the right people. If you weren’t at all interested in actual human Venezuelans, but rather just attracted by the opportunity to romanticise the mythos of Latin American revolution, or to pick a fight, well, this is the kind of output I’d expect.

JLM’s Napoleonic scheme is an extreme example, but I think it’s telling. It’s also one that comes from outside Labour Party politics. It’s not just JC who’s being an idiot about this.

The Godfather, Trump, and Putin

Peter Pomerantsev goes to Mongolia and meets the president, an all-purpose post-Soviet entrepreneur turned politician. Specifically, an all-purpose post-Soviet entrepreneur and martial arts champ who named his company after The Godfather.

This isn’t just eccentric; in Codes of the Underworld, Diego Gambetta has a fascinating chapter on the role movies played in the making of the post-Soviet gangster. Coming out of the Soviet era, people thrown into this baffling future were in search of ways to convince others and themselves of their new roles. The Soviet Union had a criminal subculture of its own, that grew in its camps and prisons, but it wasn’t very useful when you had to deal with people who didn’t move in that world, although it was a useful source of legitimacy with those who did. It was also very local and supremely anti-aspirational. The vision of the mafioso according to Mario Puzo, Scorsese, and Coppola, though, was something they could buy into that everyone recognised, all over the world.

Gambetta points out that the tropes Puzo and Coppola stylised for their own purposes were developed for good reasons – they were ways of doing business in a world without trust – and adopting them was useful both because they were a kind of brand, and because they worked in their own way. The economic need to be recognised as a gangster drove the cultural phenomenon, but the cultural tropes also changed the economic process of production or rather predation.

The Mongolian president is especially interesting because his original business was importing movies. In fact, he spent prize money he won as an athlete on a good, Panasonic VHS machine and worked out how to hook it to a Soviet TV and some unspecified speakers (maybe like the Hungarian ones my dad’s still got?). Then he set up as a touring cinema. He mostly showed toons and Jackie Chan, but he obviously also bathed in mafia movies because that’s what he called his business.

We can see a strategy here. He had to physically cart the gear around, and although it was easy to record TV onto video, replicating VHS cassettes without specialist equipment was quite slow. He needed to choose wisely. So he chose either the sugar hit of Disney toons and kung fu, or else great juicy slabs of New Hollywood classicism. Both worked because, well, they’re great at what they do. There’s no room here for low-value bulk; for that you need media abundance. Which brings us to Donald Trump.

As Sarah Kendzior points out, he’s been fascinated with the USSR and Russia since at least 1984 and they with him. Well before the end of the USSR, Trump was invited over to Moscow to pitch a plan to build a hotel – maybe rather like the one the East Germans did in Berlin around the same time? – and the relationship never really ended. Now look at it.

Very unlike the Mongolian president’s filmgoers, or the Solntsev brothers down by the airport motorway, the de-Sovietising elite that discovered Trump had access to American TV. They monitored it, after all. Military leaders like Sergei Akhromeyev noticed Silicon Valley – they called it the scientific-technical revolution – and nobody was going to fall in love with Detroit automakers in the 1980s. Is it too much to suggest that this media filter and its founder effect sold the criminal world on The Godfather, and the future rulers on Trump, as their idea of us?