The Kookaburra’s laugh and chirp of the rainbow lorikeet seem far louder as the sun rises these days: there is no traffic on the road to drown them out in the dewy morning. It is winter and the first light in the sky does not tinge the inky black of the sky until about 6:30am. Few are awake to hear or see any of this now. Sydney is in lockdown. It is the third week of the second lockdown and there is no indication when it will be lifted. The traffic is gone, a line of taxis wait at the rank outside the station for passengers that won't come: few are permitted to travel outside of a prescribed radius around where they live. It is 18 months since the pandemic began yet things are worse than ever. Everyone senses this lockdown is different because we were promised it would not - could not - happen again.
New South Wales, the largest state in Australia, weathered 2020 as well as any place in Australia which, as a nation, weathered the pandemic as well as anywhere in the world. It is an island after all and that offers some advantages; the sparse population offers still more. The culture of the place - the way backyards are often large and houses separated one from another by the “quarter acre block” coupled with how people tend to keep to themselves anyway (it is a dark but running joke that so many do not know their neighbours well) almost suggests that sometime in ancient history the people experienced a similar catastrophe and learned then to social distance. It is as if the echoes of that long forgotten lesson still reverberate in the memes that shape our society; as if all our systems and community structures have just been waiting, long in preparation for it to happen again.
But the modern Australia of towns separated by long thin roads and sprawling suburbs of brick homes with desert-red terracotta roofs bordered by head high wooden fence palings is not that old and experienced. It is young and only by happy coincidence is the physical and social fabric of the place almost intelligently designed for a pandemic. Socially many in the larger cities tend to keep to themselves anyway and physically have always been distanced by the luxury of vast open space. But as a young nation, perhaps peculiarly to outsiders, we seem to suffer from the unfortunate inability some youngsters are indoctrinated with: to look only to their elders for what is right and good rather than thinking for themselves. So Australia typically looks to…almost anyone else in the developed world. To the United States or to Great Britain or elsewhere for the “correct” thing to do. No matter that the density of Great Britain is 281 people per square kilometre (Australia’s is around 100 times less than that at around 3 per square kilometre) nor that the population of the United States sits at 330 million - with Australia less than a tenth of that at under 30 million. And never mind that there is little in China's means of socially organising that we should wish to model ourselves after. Australia is not comparable to many other places in the world. But it is, culturally and institutionally, sometimes overly uncomfortable in uncertainty and thus uncomfortable about making its own decisions. We need someone else to do it first or tell us what to do.
And yet, though this was the norm for most of my life, an astonishing thing happened in 2020 when this crisis commenced. In New South Wales, in particular, under the leadership of its Premier Gladys Berejiklian we barely locked down and when we did, for a brief time, she said it would be for the last time. We rejoiced and were even proud to some extent that our Premier, unlike so many others, was not reactionary and distanced herself from any odour of authoritarianism. And as recently as May this year she said again “'We made sure that we had the systems in place to be able to weather whatever came our way so that we would never go into lockdown again.” See https://www.theaustralian.com.au/inquirer/coronavirus-gold-standards-lose-lustre-in-light-of-human-error/news-story/e6d2786fee88b82e76b5bb240fd1280b for more on that. So: excellent. The reassurance of “systems” that had proven themselves robust in the face of a crisis: tested and passed.
And yet, we have locked down. Harder than ever. Though this time a significant number of the vulnerable are vaccinated (around 76% of the over 70s for example and climbing: https://www.health.gov.au/initiatives-and-programs/covid-19-vaccines/australias-covid-19-vaccine-rollout#daily-report ) and we have learned to social distance more than ever (like that was ever much of a problem) and mask up and wash hands and so on and so forth to “stop the spread”; nevertheless there have been collective cases of amnesia from the “leaders”, gas lighting from the media and broad panic by some in the populace who spend too much time looking at the globe and looking to overseas rather than looking to their locales. They become more interested in pushing a political agenda caught up (as too many are on social media) in hyperbole.
In Australia it is, perhaps, unfortunate that the conservatives are in power both federally and at the state level and that means there is now almost no opposition whatsoever in our Parliaments to authoritarianism. After all the other side - the ostensible opposition - would never say we need “less government intervention”. So it is the worst of slippery slopes. The “conservative” government takes away some freedoms, imposes some restrictions and the Westminster opposition says….? Do more!
Though now, in mid 2021 compared to early 2020 we are all in a far better position to each, individually, take care of ourselves and each other and though we have the knowledge and technology and health care capacity across the nation and in each state to ensure everything is better despite an “outbreak” of proportions no country in Europe nor state in America would recognise as anything but “good numbers and news” - we are told it is bad. Really bad. Terrifying. The worst. Each day at 11am the Premier flanked by the hectoring, overzealous and hyperbolic Health Minister Brad Hazzard (yes, really, the person responsible for the "health" of the state is called "Hazzard"), the (though I am sure she is a lovely person and no doubt competent, nevertheless) condescending Chief Health Officer Kerry Chant (or a subordinate) and at least one senior member of the now (sadly) frightening-to-the-average-citizen NSW Police Force, all stand before the assembled media excitedly for an hour or more like a religious ceremony and pontificate to the public about what they have or have not done correctly in the previous 24 hours - and how best to atone.
While the Premier and Chief Health Officer will give case numbers each day (there are rarely any deaths or intensive care admissions to report and when there are, no details are given beyond their age - we learn nothing about comorbidities - and of course we learn nothing about other numbers to put things in perspective and context like, for example any mention of the 400,000 or so who each year are admitted to hospital for other infectious diseases in our state alone), the Deputy Commissioner of Police will inform the populace about how many infringement notices and fines have been issued. The headline is always the numbers, but the real story is the rules, judgements, "breaches" and punishments. You get the message. Do what you are told. You cannot think for yourself. We do that for you now.
It is all too reminiscent of some parody of a school assembly in some modern retelling of a scene from a Dickensian novel. The Headmistress, tapping a cane menacingly and informing the all students the dance is cancelled, the chief disciplinarian by her side - veins bulging and bullying - telling the fearful but compliant they already had their last warning. This time everyone is being kept in. And there will be SILENCE!!
It is farcical and it would be comical if it were not so seriously dystopian. It is neither play nor parody. The Premier insisted people not socialise and not leave the house for any reason not essential. A day later she was herself photographed getting coffee with a friend, unmasked. This is completely consistent with her colleague to our north in Queensland where the Premier there made it clear there could be no non-essential travel to or from her state and within the week she was flying back and forth to the Tokyo games for a photo opportunity. Perhaps the pinnacle of all this, this time around, is our state Chief Health Officer telling us in sombre tones that even if social distanced, fully masked and fully vaccinated - if one should come across a friend in the supermarket while shopping for essentials on the “one trip permitted per day per household” - one should not, under any circumstances, engage in a conversation. Now is not the time to be friendly (quote:) “Whilst it is in human nature to engage in conversation with others, to be friendly, unfortunately, this is not the time to do that.” For curious readers here is a link queued to the spot where our Chief Health Officer has that "friendly advice" on how not to be friendly: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NVFLdnDEjaI&t=390s But is that true? Has there not been a better time to be friendly to the people so horribly affected by decisions they had no part in and have no power to do anything about? We all understand it. We all get it. But we also know that masked, social distanced, vaccinated people are safe. What is not safe is this kind of social experimentation. We are already seeing people insisting on masking themselves (and perhaps others) even when fully vaccinated themselves in a community which itself is highly vaccinated. There are people for whom the mere suggestion of being anti-social by an authority - especially a medical authority - will be enough to start them down a path towards not only severe psychological distress over time but physical ill health as they go to greater measures to avoid an infection they are unlikely to get from a virus unlikely to cause them much harm.
For all other people they should, if they are afraid, stay indoors. But that is not most people.
Politicians and bureaucrats - especially in Australia but I guess across the globe - have been engaged for some 18 months now in single factor analysis (the number of covid cases) while hectoring people with basic stuff everyone already knows. The repetition of the same lessons that have been running for 18 months now mean that new information is lost in the noise and whatever scientific reasons there were for the medical prescriptions to physical distance, mask and avoid others now become signs of virtue and ways of deeming others as thinking or unthinking; caring or uncaring.
Everyone knows about masks and distancing and vaccines and we are still being beaten about the ears with the same thing by the same people day on day on day. There is nothing new and no one needs to now hear any of this. It is condescending, patronising and fear mongering and engendering in the population a suspicion that never existed before. One opinion - the government opinion - is regarded as “official” and hence correct and so other opinions - even when coming from highly qualified experts are rarely heard let alone taken seriously, explored and debated. Any opinion outside the exceedingly narrow "advice" of the chief health officers are labelled either unscientific or uncaring. It is almost unknown to hear a contrasting view on the government channel ("Our" ABC) and extremely rare to hear it on any commercial network.
And yet it is now abundantly clear the governments of the world have been singularly ineffective and largely irrelevant to the case numbers and deaths no matter what their policy. There is no correlation between how hard a country locked down and how bad their case numbers. It is now thought that Florida which barely had any restrictions did better than New York which had heavy restrictions and "locked down" in terms of deaths and case numbers - including per capita. Some dispute the numbers. But even if it's close - no one argues New York did better. And yet on that other metric - the economic and well being metric - Florida is light years ahead.
The WHO Coronavirus “dashboard” provides up to date numbers in a convenient table for cases and deaths across the globe. See here: https://covid19.who.int/table (It tends to take a while to load for some reason). By any objective measure the USA has performed worst with a mixture among the states of locking down hard vs barely at all with no clear relationship between states who did and did not lockdown. India, Brazil, Russia, The UK and the rest of Europe led by France, Spain, Italy and Turkey with much of Europe and South America not far behind. Whatever these governments did failed by the metric that there have been millions of cases and in many of those cases tens (or even hundreds) of thousands of deaths per country. Australia presently ranks 131 in the table of 239 rows and there have not even been 1000 deaths (and the deaths that did occur, occurred in and around Melbourne in the colder southern part of the country). The governments of the world, no matter what their policies, have seemingly had almost zero impact on the virus - except in some cases to make it worse by concentrating people indoors where the virus is known to spread more rapidly, and encourage people NOT to leave their homes and thus go into the outdoors where we know transmission is far less likely to occur. A "government" as a single entity acts like a single dictatorial person making mistakes but not just for one person: for everyone. The real effect their decisions have made, beyond that which has just been mentioned is not on the virus but to varying degrees on lives and livelihoods destroyed by policies of "lockdown". Lockdowns to varying degrees destroyed businesses and thus lives. We know suicide and depression has spiked but in Australia at least the government is not yet forthcoming with the numbers and the media is seemingly not interested in pursuing this line of inquiry.
Some nations went hard with these lockdowns. Some not so hard. And all of them have to one extent or another experienced terrible effects from the virus as well as the economic impacts which has exacerbated the former rather than helped it (and lowered our economic resilience in the face of future serious national and global problems). The governments have been unable to control the virus with their sledgehammers: the only thing that governments have had under their control are their economies - and control really is the word. When they have placed regulations on us via lockdown it has hurt people - individuals and businesses. It has done nothing for covid. It has controlled the ability of people to earn, flourish to some extent and build their personal resilience to the virus. And that resilience comes across a number of metrics: psychological by being able to go about their lives and rely upon themselves and not welfare cheques from government, financial: by being able to continue to earn for themselves and their families, physical: by being able to continue to participate in sport, go to the gym, remain active, social: by being able to go out and talk to each other in their own local communities and develop plans and strategies within their own local communities about how best to help each other in a time such as this - and in many cases to use local specialised and cultural "best practise" knowledge about what is to be done during an outbreak of a virus. I know my Korean friends had ideas early on and one needed only to do a little research about what other developed Asian countries do to know that Chinese-Wuhan style lockdowns were not the way to go and that inter-generational living such as in Italy, or the cooler air and limited sunlight of Britain or the high density social culture of Spain were all risk factors.
We know there are cultural and geographic components to all this. Living alone or with one other person is much safer than grandparents sharing homes with grandchildren. Getting out into the warm sun is better than staying inside a densely packed apartment building. Walking down a sparsely populated street is good. Fighting one's way through a crowd is bad. The virus spreads more easily in winter (like this is news to anyone with respect to covid and influenza viruses). Yet we are pretending so much of this knowledge is new to us: viruses spread, they spread among people living in close proximity, things get worse in winter and not allowing people to work is bad not only for the virus and economy but every single metric one can imagine from psychological well being, depression and suicide rates through to bad health outcomes with respect to every other disease or health indicator, not least of which is a person's ability to exercise and remain active and be motivated to do so and their tendency to consume a healthier diet. But this has all along been a single factor analysis (to repeat myself) with lip service only paid to economic and other health matters…or indeed any other important factor.
The Two New Classes
In Australia, as I imagine everywhere else in the developed world - among the most horrifying parts of all this has been the new class divide. For 18 months now there have been the people who each and every day have felt more and more important and critical to the good functioning of their communities as the pandemic has worn on over the last 18 months. The politicians who make the decisions and have experienced more time in front of the cameras and microphones than ever before. Everyone hanging on their every word. And upon whose word do the politicians hang? The health officials and bureaucrats who so often themselves now get to play politician, issue edicts, commands and orders of all kinds; who get to talk about "The Science which is Settled" and be "The Sole Source of Truth". And the media who, likewise, are the "real deal" (unlike all that "fake news") each day rising and ringing into work with the self important feeling of being the conduit to the otherwise uninformed masses. It is a perfectly self sustaining triumvirate of power and “essential” work: politicians, "expert" bureaucrats and journalists. No doubt their sense of self esteem, their feeling of self worth, the well being that must accompany all that, the veritable “standing up straight with your shoulders back” each morning as they positively leap out of bed to get to the next meeting or media appearance must be a truly wonderful feeling of grandiose significance to one’s own life and the lives of everyone in society. What must their family and friends think? How proud they must all be for the *important* work they are doing in these hard times.
And what about the other class? The “unessentials”? Those told their workplace and business and job is “not essential”? They are reminded each day that their work does not matter. They are a lesser kind of person. They are on a different tier in society. What they have devoted their life to: not important. Society can live without you, for now. Maybe in some weeks or months, when we’d like another night out at a restaurant - we’ll come to you. If you’re still around. And when that time comes the clothes shops that remain can open because the essentials will need a new outfit. And they’ll need their hair done.
Many - and I count myself among the fortunate here - can indeed work from home. Essential or not we can at least feel like a functioning member of society even if “not essential”. But what about the others? The "underclass" of "unessentials"? Both not required right now and simultaneously unable to perform their duties from the comfort of their living room with fresh brewed tea and the radio playing softly? Where do they go, what do they do, how do they feel and what do they think?
How healthy is such a society when this happens? It's not happened before. This is one great sociological experiment. How can individuals affected recover psychologically from this lesson they are being taught? For those who can work from home, the more they work at home the more they feel at home. Very well. That is all to the good. One day may we all be able to do so when the world of automation really is upon us. But that day is still far off. Yet it is almost as if some already have one foot in a life inside a simulation. And that might all be well if the mind could actually be uploaded into resilient hardware; sadly that is not our circumstance. We are, instead, plugging our all-too-human bodies into the global network with all of the pitfalls that entails and not enough of the benefits. People are trading their life not for an eternity in the Matrix but for one diluted of the richness of the physical world like some low resolution late 1920s “talkie”. There is no ludditism in these remarks: this is an admission that technology is amazing, but the physical and physically social world remains far more amazing still and we'll all be living in that primarily for a long time yet to come. Get used to it.
The day of working remotely for everyone and doing everything remotely is not here yet. Rather a vast number of us are still required to leave the house. To do manual labour. Some of us even choose to do manual labour - we enjoy gardening or building or cooking and serving and selling and so the list goes of people who are “people people”. Who live for the face to face interaction and the using of tools in the hand to craft the physical world around the rest of us. But, right now, all of those are told they too are “unessential”.
In some perversely inhuman and inhumane trick of our circumstance it is "the essential" ones who get to dictate who is essential. The essential get to feel they are truly “the essence” of society. The rest: easily discarded. Unimportant. Can we put a price on how unimportant they are? It turns out in Australia we can: $600 per week. The government will give you $600 per week. And that will form part of your taxable income. It’s not a gift. You’ll pay back a portion if you ever start earning again. And because of the tax you have been paying, you may not have much in the way of savings so that $600 per week you get while you are not earning had better go a long way towards paying your rent or mortgage (not to mention all your other expenses). If it does not: speak to your bank or landlord, you are advised. Your credit score will be destroyed, of course, and your landlord has nowhere to go if they themselves cannot afford not to have your rent coming in - but this is just the way it is for the unessentials.
I recently made a video about the clash of socialism with capitalism: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=svXLkLzDwTA. I “defended” socialism but concluded that the best defence I could make was unable to stand against the refutations against it inherent in any reasonably good explanation of capitalism. So I am logically and broadly speaking always going to tend in the direction of a party that purports to be “for” the individual more than the collective. So I should be “for” our Premier’s side of politics - for “The Liberal Party”. The other side that tends socialist in Australia is The Labor Party. I could not have imagined under what circumstances come next election I would ever vote Labor over Liberal. What could make one choose the party that explicitly endorses the more socialist authoritarian policies if one is against socialism? Only this: that the party who stands in opposition to it proves to be utterly dishonest about their supposed principles and policies. When they fail categorically to demonstrate any principle guiding their decisions and instead merely react on the advice of bureaucrats. In Australia we have, unfortunately, a preferential voting system. And while I do not know who I will put first on my ballot: I know this. The Liberal Party who last time I put first, will now be last. They, and not the virus, have caused catastrophic damage to my community: the physical, psychological and even spiritual fabric of Sydney and specifically the suburbs I know well and the people in them. Businesses are closed, never to reopen, people have left never to return. All too many now are suspicious and cruel about regulations and supposed “health” guidelines. There is a divide there that was not there in quite this stark a contrast before. The virus did not do this: the government did. Had the Premier and her cabinet insisted on following their own advice from a year ago - or just a few months ago - they would have had the support of their supporters (they will never win over their political opponents). But now they have the support of neither, it seems. Moreover precisely because it is the government who has damaged business and livelihoods people now do need government support. And this is the problem with government. But logically and morally the thing to do is to demand the government pay the people they have put out of business and out of a job. We'll need at least a few years to make those repairs. So, why not vote for the side who are more likely to give the poor people the conservatives would not allow to work anyway a chance to demonstrate they can't make things much worse. I'm fine with giving them one term.
Strathfield is a suburb of Sydney typical of the broader city but, perhaps, for the high concentration of Korean ex pats and hence Korean businesses. We chose to live here in large part for that vibe: we had some friends near here and made some more. It is as close to community as one finds in the otherwise “naturally socially distanced” culture that is greater Sydney in large part because of that influence. Weekends often involve a walk along “Strathfield Boulevard” to any of the many Korean restaurants. Our favourites are the BBQs and our favourite among those: “The Uncles". The manager and his wife always provide us with the house soup - which was a blend of superb consistency, identical each week of kimchi, pork and tripe. If that sounds unappealing (as it might have to me) it was a deeply flavourful affair not unlike what my own grandmother’s vegetable soup tasted like. But while hers contained vegetables and no sign whatever of pork, kimchi or tripe nevertheless they both tasted so alike: so homely. One reason among many we kept going back. We knew the manager only as “Uncle” though I am sure that he was not "The Uncle" of "The Uncles". We came to know many of the young waitstaff - almost all on working holiday visas with rudimentary English. They would practise English, we our Korean. An exception was “Aamie” a naturalised Korean with perfect fluency attending the locally prestigious University of New South Wales majoring in classical music and specialising in piano. She worked weekends and some evenings to help pay her way through a full time and rigorous course. So each week we would catch up at “The Uncles”. We got to know her as well as we have come to know many of the local casual and part time employees of the local restaurants and eateries. It is a social affair not only for us, but for many local to Strathfield and people who like Korea and want a taste of it from across wider Sydney. We know many of the managers and staff by name. You know: like a typical community which, as I say, is sometimes not so typical in "naturally socially distanced" Australia. When the pandemic began the locals of Korean descent were amused and bemused in equal measure by Australia shutting down retail and restaurants rather than simply protecting the old and vigorously testing, tracing and isolating. As many advanced Asian nations did. As so many epidemiologists suggested we should so early on. As I wrote about in March of 2020: http://www.bretthall.org/corona-podcasts.html The Asian nations had seen SARS before. Like so many other governments, the Australian Federal government and their state counterparts ignored the experience of the Koreans, and Korea being Korea (they have at times called themselves a “fast follower culture”) eventually lost its nerve too and emulated what China had began and what Europe slavishly followed with: compulsory and draconian lockdowns. As many know: this was never in the pandemic playbook of democratic nations nor even the World Health Organisation’s advice. Lockdown was to be a “last resort” https://www.abc.net.au/news/2020-10-12/world-health-organization-coronavirus-lockdown-advice/12753688 Suddenly "lockdown" was among the first go to's and even more suddenly individuals could not be relied upon to look after themselves and their most vulnerable. They had to obey the central authority who made all the mistakes on their behalf. Indeed forget “relied upon” - even if a person cannot be “relied upon” to look after themselves best this is no reason to take away their individual rights to do what they think is best within the existing culture and societal structures.
The Uncles is closed forever now: only the facade remains. I expect there are a few in Strathfield that are sad to see such a stalwart institution of the local restaurant strip gone. I recall birthdays there and it was often the first place I recommended when people asked where to go in Strathfield for Korean food. Their choice of Wagyu beef was second to none and they did sliced smoked duck with honey mustard sauce that now we cannot find anywhere else. We heard the manager and his wife returned to Korea. Like so many other businesses the lights of The Uncles went dark never to be turned on again and the hustle and bustle, the smoke and smells are gone. The once vibrant strip of Strathfield Boulevard is not only missing restaurants that stood for many years but it is quiet enough to hear the native bird calls from trees in nearby streets. Our friends who run one of the local hair dressing salons were, even before this latest lockdown, struggling to meet the lease on their premisses alongside the wages of their employees and despite providing face shields and masks to all customers (who also all signed in using the government mandated tracing app) it was, none of it, enough. Hairdressers are shuttered now too. Putting aside the lease on the business premisses, how the home mortgage or rent is paid by any of them and how many of the casual staff can be kept is anyone’s guess. Maybe things will come roaring back? Maybe the local economy is like a coiled tiger? But maybe also an economy is not just an average or a total: but it is made up of individual businesses and lives and dreams and creativity and effort. I have the luxury to sit and hope, comfortable in my optimism about those general economic trends. But what damage has been done to individuals and their capacity to think well of themselves and what could again happen at any moment? I care for individuals in my community more than I care about gross economic metrics. Australia might overall do very well but if my community barely recovers, or recovers in a way that makes things seem unrecognisable, that is no win.
Tonight the Tokyo Olympics begin and everyone across the globe is united not only by sport but by their awareness (to almost the same degree) of exactly the same things: the rules and mandates, the masks and the menace. New cultural norms have descended upon us: some of lasting benefit, some of lasting hurt and harm. But so often so many are just aware of the averages and totals: the numbers in aggregates. The individuals are lost in the noise, the trees are lost in the forest: lost not directly to the virus but to the fallout from the decisions. It was not their mistake to make. The government and experts wanted to keep them safe from a single factor that could possibly have directly affected their lives (or not) in a society driven by fear of a virus which has become a fear of one’s fellows. The collective now matters far more than individual choices. We’ll all know in retrospect, one presumes. For good or ill many now realise: what they want matters not just less than that of the elites: it matters not at all because you’re either essential or non essential. Important or expendable.
The kookaburras continue to laugh in the early morning from one of the trees overlooking the empty road on which the shell of The Uncles now stands. Beside it, another Korean BBQ has closed and is boarded up: moving to a new premise recently made vacant by yet another BBQ going completely out of business around the corner. Multiple restaurants are now closed never to reopen in Strathfield alone but this is a pattern repeated across the some 900 suburbs in Greater Sydney. While the owners and workers at The Uncles Korean BBQ restaurant in Strathfield were not close personal friends, as much as anyone in one’s local suburb - we came to know each other well. We talked almost everyday as we passed one another (I live just off the restaurant strip) and come the weekend we would catch up together on that week; I would get a free soft drink, they would get a tip. They’re gone now. Some have returned to Korea. Some line up to apply for government benefits. Many, on working holiday or study visas do not qualify for government help. I have the emptiness of the shopfront to look into as I listen to the kookaburras laughing. The now unemployed workers have, I suppose, a far darker void to fill having learned now how “unessential” this society has taught them they are.
The world is underpopulated. We need more people. We should be thought of first and foremost as creators - not consumers. As individuals we are defined by what we create - not what we consume.
Besides, there is nothing to consume until it is first created anyway.
It is we, and we alone, that will find the solutions tomorrow to the problems of today - and solutions are only found through creativity. But creativity is limited precisely to the number of minds focussed on any given problem at any given time. The bottleneck is the finite number of minds - creative minds. Artificial General Intelligence is, for now, just a theoretical dream. Fears that vast numbers will starve or go unemployed and live lives worse than their ancestors are just that: fears. They are not reality. That pessimism about people is driven by a kind of phobia itself a product of propaganda that has worked to indoctrinate generations now. The dogma of anti-human sentiment has lead us to conclude generation after generation that we are the problem; and as the problem the more of us there are, the worse it is. Therefore the world is overpopulated and we are destroying it by existing with our pollution. This vision of the world - call it environmentalism - is far closer to true if you take seriously as guiding principles the negation of each of those claims:
People are not the problem. They are the solution.
The more of us there are, the better things become.
The world is underpopulated.
The more of us there are, the better the world becomes because only people can find the solutions to the problems.
Absent people there are, in a sense, no “problems” - just events literally no one understands one after another. It might well be thought that a changing environment is a “problem” for an animal or plant. But absent people, what happens to animals and plants is entirely dictated by their environment. They cannot think their way out of their circumstance. They are completely a product of their environments; they live or die purely based upon whether they "fit" the environment or not. Their genes survive or fail to survive given the accident of mutations fitting the organism to the environment or not. And if the environment changes too much too fast, the organism does not survive and perhaps neither does the species over time. And the environment is in a constant state of flux: that is the only constant; constant change. There will always be extreme weather. There will always be natural disasters and as time goes on we must expect even cosmic disasters will loom. We cannot foresee the future. There is a disaster coming which, if we are not here in large, wealthy, powerful numbers, will destroy life on Earth or at least radically transform the biosphere.
The only thing that can change of of this is us. Only we can detect the problem ahead of time; ahead of the deadly impact. To do this we must create knowledge - we must explain the world around us and understand what lethal natural forces threaten the existence of life on this planet - including ours. To do this we need creative people - far more of them - working on their own individual problems. Because any one of those may turn out to reveal a deeper problem that could affect us all; that could affect civilisation. So we need more people.
Two existential dangers loom: the threats of anti-humanism and relentless pessimism. If people continue to become convinced we humans are the problem and not the solution, if they continue to feel so certain that the world is condemned because people in the pursuit of energy, technology and resources, they will argue for slower growth. They will increasingly impoverish developing populations and even developed populations. They will reduce the increased rate of wealth creation and will train their elders to indoctrinate their youngsters with even more perverse versions of these dogmas.
It is time we became as passionate as they are. It is time we turned to praising people - lifting them up - reminding them they as individuals are sacred creators; explainers of the universe around them. They are cosmically significant. The Earth is merely the first step. Not only is there a Planet B, there are Planets C, D, E, F, G, H and Infinity. There is the inhospitable to be made hospitable - by us. As we have done on this planet over and again. We must create knowledge faster - and that takes energy. And we need lots more energy more cheaply to everyone. We need more people. People are the most amazing things in the universe.
We need more of them.
For more on this, see http://www.bretthall.org/cosmological-economics.html or the video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VlcQ4ZFKrKk
Sam Seder debated Yaron Brook on free markets (broadly speaking). The debate is here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=exHYiLDLq4E
The debate was very friendly - so I don’t know why the thumbnail chosen tries to make Yaron look angry and intense (he wasn't, it was all quite relaxed) and Sam look as if he’s bored or dealing with an ignoramus:
Here are some time stamps and my reflections on things.
Around 8 mins 30sec: Sam basically argues the government confers rights on people. Yaron argues the case that we are born with rights and the role of the government is to protect them.
I’d say: Rights exist ontologically: they are there in reality. We come to understand these rights better over time.
The relationship between courts and rights is isomorphic with the relationship between scientists and the physical world. The former explains and interprets the latter. But the latter exist independently of whether anyone knows about them. Coming to know about them takes effort and does not detract from their actual independent existence. It is not the government that creates rights for people anymore than it creates electrons or trees.
10:30 - Yaron explains the role of government is settling properly rights disputes.
11:00: Sam suggests that *because* courts (the government) makes the decision in a property rights dispute that therefore they create the rights.
My comment: this is the error of conflating what exists with our knowledge of it. Ontology vs epistemology.
19:30 Sam argues that we owe something to the government because they built infrastructure. Yaron points out that they should not have and in an ideal world would not.
My comment: when they do, the infrastructure is worse. Toll roads are better than free roads. If all roads were private there would be motivation to fix the potholes that otherwise go years without repair (for example). Yaron also observes that great technological advances like electricity and the steam engine did not require large government funding projects.
22:00 Sam suggests that slavery is a product of free markets. Yaron explains that slavery is a moral abomination - which is the main thing - but besides it was not economically the best thing anyway. It wasn't good for the people employing slaves (morally or economically, ultimately) and certainly not for the broader society.
My comment: Those slaves are people (as if this needs to be said) - and capitalism is a system for the free interactions between people and those people would have contributed much more to “the economy” and to wealth creation broadly if they were engaged in free contracts as capitalism says is morally right. Wealth creation today without slaves proceeds faster than in places that keep slaves. Slavery only happens when governments intervene with laws that deny the inherent human rights of people rather than protecting those rights.
23:30 Sam continues to bring up slavery each time Yaron agrees it's terrible and has nothing to do with what he is arguing.
My comment: The line taken by Sam is incongruous because Yaron is arguing for free markets. Free markets is about freedom *for everyone*. You need a government - a central authority - to deem slavery as a good. It is not a product of free markets - it is the opposite. But anyway: they both disagree with slavery - it is a moot point.
25:40 Sam argues the internet is proof government investment is sometimes needed to give us nice things. My comment: This is reminiscent of Neil deGrasse Tyson’s claim that *only* an entity like NASA could have done space travel. Yet now there are many private companies doing it. Imagine how much sooner we might have got to the moon if taxes were way lower and innovation therefore faster in the early 20th century?
26:30: Yaron and Sam debate the extent to which covid vaccines can be attributed to government funding. My comment: absent government imposts - regulations and taxation - of the pharmaceutical industry and government/socialist maligning of “the profit motive” and the entire industry: we’d have had these vaccines sooner. Maybe decades ago we’d have had covid vaccines *for the common cold* that could have helped with Covid-19.
Yaron says the government was an obstacle at every moment: private enterprise could not develop tests like they wanted to. Centrally planned vaccinations are worse than free markets.
29:45: Yaron: Government is nothing but force/coercion. It is only justified in self defence. It should not be involved in determining what research is done, what gets built, what gets funded and so on.
31:00 Sam brings up roads and the postal service. He says private corporations are “only for profit”. There exist medical interventions which are only available to a small number. Yaron talks about certain medications being regulated by government - eg anti-arthritis drugs taken off the market because the FDA deems the 10% increase in heart disease is too great a risk rather than leaving this decision between the patient and their doctor.
My comment: The drug being referred to is perhaps called Bextra: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Valdecoxib But later they say it’s Vioxx. It seems the FDA has done this sort of thing over and again. Taken a drug off the market when they say the side effects are too bad for ANYONE to risk. But why can't we evaluate risk ourselves? Isn't that what we do in most situations? What food to buy and consume? Whether, to what extent and how we choose to drive in cars? To engage in sports that may be dangerous? To engage in bungee jumping or not? Hiking or not? Mountain climbing? Life is risky. Medicines can be risky. Why should the government be the thing that determines what level of risk is acceptable? How can they know? They are just error prone fallible people like the rest of us. Indeed more so, in some sense, as their "problem situation" is not ours - they do not have the relevant knowledge the individual is using in their context to assess the risk given their personal circumstances.
In terms of Sam's complaint that some interventions are only available to small numbers of people: someone has to pay to begin with. Either we force everyone to pay or let billionaries/the wealthy pay *first* so that then the price comes down. Like the history of computing and space travel. The history of medicine is a history of new treatments first being expensive and then quickly rising "to scale" such that the price decreases. Government getting involved slows all this down.
34:00 Sam brings up the opiod epidemic. Yaron says all drugs should be legal and if you want to abuse them, that’s on you. Sam says the companies deceived doctors about how addictive the drugs are. My comment: we are all beings of reason. Reason is not deployed best by central authorities. People need to correct their own errors. Yaron: people need to be taught to take personal responsibility. The FDA causes corruption among doctors...
My comment: ...because they are effectively outsourcing their critical thinking so that if the FDA says something is “safe” then they think this means it’s completely safe. They aren’t looking at the evidence that they are trained to look at and some might say is their duty to read, consult and evaluate.
38:00. Sam asks how people can get reliable information about the danger of a drug, after all if you google "mRNA vaccines" a lot of information is there telling you it’s unsafe. Yaron says: use your mind.
My comment: Yes, there are ways of evaluating information. People should take personal responsibility. It’s not like tomorrow we can eliminate the FDA. We need to slowly undo it and have society learn how to check sources. Also: you can have private enterprise check some of this stuff if you yourself have a good explanation about the methods of that private enterprise. Eg: there exists something in Australia called “Choice Magazine”. It’s not a government run thing - but it evaluates goods and services for a subscription fee. Ideally there would be lots of competing organisations that evaluate the safety and efficacy of things so that one central authority (like an FDA) on the one hand doesn't make mistakes on behalf of everyone and thus risk hurting everyone when they do err and on the other hand do not have authority to bring police action against those who disagree with their claims of risk, safety and so on.
38:30 Sam argues that the FDA is needed because people can’t be experts in everything.
My comment: indeed. But this is not an argument for an authority. The FDA is just as prone to mistakes and bad incentives as anything else. Either we have a plurality of approaches to knowledge or we have centralised authorities. I would prefer multiple approaches.
Yaron: it should not be up to the central authority to give thumbs up or thumbs down.
Sam says that absent the FDA one would “trust” pharmaceutical companies.
My comment: I sense both Yaron and Sam see value in “trust” as a metric for evaluating knowledge..at least sometimes (like when you lack the knowledge yourself and need to turn to an expert). Namely: can you trust the source? Of course neither are for a Popperian view of knowledge as being objective (not about feelings or personal "certainty" or "confidence" and critical. Namely: that it's never about sources. It is about identifying and correcting errors - that way you make progress. People who think there are other kinds of epistemology get into long debates about which source is reliable and which source has more authority or which source contains "the truth" and so on. But if you give up the question of: by what authority can we deem this as the best source of knowledge (which, by the way includes our senses - because they too are fallible) then what we focus on is evaluating claims by the means of identifying errors. And once those errors are identified then we can correct them. Once we correct them we have made progress and generated some knowledge we did not have before and at no point did we have to argue over who had a more reliable source. We just concluded, for the purpose of some discussion, that this claim contained errors that this one did not. Correcting errors means we converge on the truth and can come to an agreement until such time as a new problem arises.
42:00 Yaron and Sam debate the building collapse in Miami. Sam blames the private construction. Yaron brings up government building inspectors that went into that building multiple times and said it was safe. The point is: nothing can perfectly guard against error but at least the private company is incentivised not to kill its customers. There is no incentive for a government inspector to be exceedingly careful. Yaron asks: who has an interest in the building not collapsing? The building owners have a much greater incentive. The insurance company also has huge incentives. Yaron rightly says: errors are going to happen. Quite right: what is the best way to identify and correct errors? People with an interest (“skin in the game”) or a busy regulator who has 10 buildings a day to check.
46:00 Sam says that the difference between him and Yaron morally is that he, Sam, thinks it the job of society to mitigate the suffering of others. Yaron says: yes - that is a difference. Yaron thinks it fine if YOU want to help “society” but when you then claim the force of the government over me to coerce me into helping you help society - that’s wrong. You are then imposing your values (about which we have a dispute) on me. Yaron’s perspective is: that is wrong.
I would just add: if one cannot persuade by argument, this is no reason to insist force must then be used. But Sam would say some things are more important. And this is where the force always comes in. Socialists cannot win the argument by persuasion and so this is why they resort to force. Capitalism simply says: persuade me (to purchase your good or service) - under no circumstances force me to hand over money to a product, service provider or cause without convincing me first. Socialists bring a gun to the table and say "Is this convincing enough?".
49:00 They return to the issue of a drug being banned by the FDA. Yaron says it should always be between him and his doctor to evaluate the risks and benefits. Sam says “but you’re smarter than most people”. Yaron disagrees and says he has a higher opinion of others.
My comment: this is a deep point of difference rarely explored. Those on the left have a terribly low opinion of their fellows. They fear others make terrible mistakes and the government has a duty to prevent them making errors. Thus we have “safetyism” - they rope off areas around small bumps in the ground, they put warning signs at the entrance to national parks, they think it good that the “experts” in authority in the government deem things safe or not because the average person is too stupid to think for themselves. The fact is “we are all equal in our infinite ignorance” and only differ in the small bits of knowledge we do have. But we can always make errors. Including the government authorities. So in that situation it is always better to have a plurality of approaches to any situation than to have the authority deem one approach as the true approach. The case of what drugs should or should not be legal to take is exactly that. It is strange, therefore, where the left will argue for the liberalisation of marijuana or even other recreational drugs but insist that medicines which might have some risk be heavily regulated or banned. Is Sam for banning marijuana? Or even aspirin given then number of deaths each year? About 21 people die per million doses of aspirin: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/16086703/#:~:text=Death%20rate%20attributed%20to%20NSAID,to%20low%2Ddose%20aspirin%20use.
50:00 they finish in a very civil and friendly way.
Afterwards: Sam (now joined by his co-host) are fixated on the idea that drug and building regulation is proof positive the government is needed. They miss the point that even with the government regulation people die from drugs and building collapses and ignore Yaron’s argument that in part this could be attributed to people becoming too lazy in their thinking, forgoing personal responsibility and not thinking more carefully because they think the government makes errors at a rate less than individuals do. I would say that although institutions contain knowledge - often inexplicit- about how to ensure society runs smoothly while undergoing rapid change, this does not refute Yaron’s claim because in the case of regulations of buildings and drugs it is not in the interest of companies to kill or injure their customers.
Sam makes fun of the notion that people *should* “bone up” on medicines, learning about evaluating data and so on. Is it that silly? He is making fun of people being expected to learn about things that might have a major effect on their life. For example: learning about the side effects of medicines they are prescribed. Sam almost seems to talk himself out of his own position at 52:00mins where he pretends to be a doctor telling a patient that “3 out of 100 people who take this have a heart attack - here it is!”. But isn’t that precisely what happens? We would then look into those 3 people. Were they elderly? The other 97, were they cured of whatever ailed them? Etc. None of this seems an argument for the government being involved. Why “the government”? Why not other researchers? Again: why isn’t it just you and your doctor talking about the risks and making a judgement. Why should it be a bureaucrat who has never met you or know your situation be making a judgment long ago about what is best for you now? Sam almost seems to get this.
52:40: Sam says “Folks you’ve got a lot of reading to do.” This is a swipe at Yaron for telling people to take personal responsibility. Again, as if "you've got a lot of reading to do" means there is too much to know, you cannot possibly know everything. But - once more - it presumes the people in the government have done the reading (reliably!) and are better placed to evaluate for all circumstances and they are less prone to error. They are not. Indeed because they have no personal interest, they might not be focussed on the relevant information.
Slavery is brought up again. They talk about exploiting free labor. It is almost always the case that socialists think slavery is a product of capitalism. They do not understand that capitalism is the opposite to slavery. Capitalism is the theory that markets be free - that there is no coercion and that individuals can trade without coercion between each other. Slavery is coercion. It is taking a person and denying them the capacity to engage freely in the market. It is astonishing that the opposite to capitalism is said to be identical to it. It reminds me of people who claim critical rationalism is “dogmatic”. The very epistemology that refutes dogma is said to be identical to it. It is just like describing abstinence as a sexual position or starving yourself as an ideal form of nutrition. Capitalism is freedom. Socialism is the economic system where you must someones do work only for the benefit of someone else. That is far closer to slavery. Slavery is where you always and only work for someone else - it’s never voluntary. Socialism is where at least some of the hours or days you work each week are for paying taxes. Some of the money you earn is not for you - it’s for someone else. There is nothing voluntary about it. You cannot leave the system. It is, therefore, a compulsory non-voluntary system. Capitalism is where you work and the fruits of that work - your earnings - you keep. All of it. And you can leave anytime. You are not compelled to do things you don’t want to. You freely enter into an agreement - a contract.
Sam makes some remarks on morality. He says that libertarianism is about denying empathy or concern with human suffering. Sam talks about how if people choose to not get health insurance then under Yaron’s ideas those people would die. Yes. But in that world people would come to learn you need to have health insurance. It’s rather like “if you don’t buy food and water you’ll die of starvation”. Yes. What should we have? Government force feeding people because they are too ignorant to take care of it themselves? But, by the way, in the very rare cases people cannot feed themselves, private charities do indeed help people. Even in systems with “universal health care” (or something like it) not everything is covered and in those cases then private charities do indeed come to fill in the gaps. Wouldn’t it be better if everyone was taxed less so that if you did become aware of a serious condition you had that then you would have the money saved because you’d not spent the last 20 or 30 years paying other people’s healthcare via your taxes?
Sam has a swipe at Yaron in the last minute about not going into depth on anything. I think this was an unfair comment and only undermines his otherwise good, friendly and honest encounter throughout the discussion.
Venture Capital is a more effective route to a better world than "Effective Altruism".
Let me immediately say that purchasing mosquito nets for the third world is fine. It’s not evil. There’s nothing bad about it. But if one has $1000 or more to “do some good” with, that might not be the best way to improve the world if it’s lives you want to save, people you want to help, the flourishing and overall well being of the world that you wish to increase over the longest time frame and so on. Including, perhaps especially, if you grant the premisses of the EA community.
I have written about “EA” before: http://www.bretthall.org/blog/effectively-altruism-isnt-generosity and have found that it is motivated by very religious notions of how to live a good life: http://www.bretthall.org/blog/mainstream-morality Particular kinds of religious practise and doctrine are indeed a stabilising force in the world; deeply implicated in the explanation for why some societies remain stable despite rapid progress over time while others fall into stasis and extinction. It is of course possible to have too much of a bad thing. The point is with a system as complex as a human civilisation, much like a biological ecosystem: there remains much work to do to actually explain what allows for rapid change - in particular change in the right direction that we call “progress” without the whole thing falling into ruin. A sprinkling, or in some cases an entire cupful, of religious culture may help things along while we figure out how everyone can do without any part of it. In the meantime culture - including aspects of religion - contain "inexplicit knowledge" in the same way many other institutions do. We cannot always explain how it works - we can just notice that it does, and when those institutions are absent, things are objectively worse.
But for my purposes here and now that is all a side issue. It is only connected to my claim here insofar that not all residual religious doctrines do good work in the world. The main one that undermines the intellectual “atheist” culture is their deeply rooted belief in the facility of altruism. The idea that one should give, then give a little more until it hurts. Or to give without hope of anything in return. Now at best this can indeed be good for a limited number of people for a limited amount of time. But once that money is given away it is spent and gone…if it is not an investment.
One might well say that, for example, purchasing mosquito nets amounts to investment in the creative potential of a person. Perhaps. But how many people involved in, for example, the EA efforts to do this good work follow those lives saved through to their flourishing potentials? Does such a system, to use that modern piece of jargon “scale”?
What if we wanted to do more good for more people that did “scale”?
If you had asked me two years ago what “VC” even stood for in finance, I’d have had no clue. I'm not a finance person. I knew about EA though. I guess it depends on what circles one moves in. But “charity” is absolutely something that every child learns about on mother’s knee and in the classroom no matter how young. “Investment” is, at best, a technical term left for economics class in senior school: if that. And it’s something only the very wealthy apparently do. And more than all of this, it is, at best, morally neutral - so we learn. It does not have the social and moral cachet that “charity” does. Charity is virtuous. Investment is polluted by profit. Profit is a dirty word in socialist circles. In many places it is almost indefensible. Why should anyone ever possess more than the bare minimum when others go without? And what are they doing with it anyways? Why don't they give it to charity?
And yet it is, and always has been, investment that has made the great strides in progress. These days those who invest in start ups - those who look for return on investment so that interactions are positive sum and no one thinks they are getting “something for nothing”. Charity might be good as a stop gap when looked at from the widest possible view if what one is interested in is the improvement of civilisation and the overall well being of people. But as with social services, if charity comes to be seen as something like a natural feature of the urban environment, people will become reliant upon it. Whole societies may. And no material improvements made - or rather far slower progress made - as people move from day to day without seeing the world around them and their lives in particular getting better - but rather just survive rather than thrive. We should observe, of course, rather too many people are told over and again that their lives are no better year on year or generation on generation. Even the conservatives make this point - erroneously. They claim "real wages" or some such have not increased meanwhile everyone carries a wireless supercomputer mainlined into the entirety of global knowledge in their pocket and able to order food utilising a Global Satellite System to locate them anywhere on the planet.
Investment is the thing that enables us to not just get through the day but to see what tomorrow can bring. There is a goal. Superficially both charity and investment might seem similar: someone is getting some money from someone else. But charity and social welfare expect nothing, or at least nothing but some bare minimum. Investment is money that says: I’ve listened carefully, I’ve heard you and I agree that you’ve a good, creative and interesting way of how to make things better for everyone: you and I included. This is a plan for progress, not stasis. You've found an interesting solution.
Venture Capital and investment more broadly is what helps provide the wealth to fuel progress. It does not simply give people the means to tread water. It does not pretend that the person drowning in the shallow pond beside you is identical to the person suffering on the other side of the world. It actually has behind it a philosophy of wealth creation and progress that says: if we want to improve the world thereby eliminating all suffering eventually - then solving the problems that lead to suffering is not merely a matter of gifting money to those less fortunate. It means creating the conditions in the world where knowledge and technology is created here so that it has great reach even into the lives of the people one will never meet and one never intended to help except as a side effect. And, the key here is: it works so much better when you don't concentrate just on "helping people". Steve Jobs was not primarily interested in "helping people" with computers and smartphones. But he has helped far more people than the projects of EA ever can.
We - by which I mean human civilization - can now feed almost everyone on the planet. Almost no one is starving. And whatever number is starving is decreasing all the time and will continue to decrease to zero as long as people are not thwarted from creating wealth. This problem of "starvation" like so many others, has not been solved by trying to be more effective in our altruism and gifting charity to where it is “needed most”. It has been achieved by investing in the solutions of how to produce more food more efficiently on land previously incapable of being productive. And that has taken knowledge. And the production of that has taken investment.
That’s the lesson. And that’s why VC >> EA.
Derek Muller (@Veritasium) has produced yet again another tour-de-force video. It is breathtaking in how well explained it is. You can find it here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HeQX2HjkcNo It's titled "This is mathematic's fatal flaw" (Hint: it's not). I love almost all of Derek's stuff. A notable exception is this: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kTXTPe3wahc . Even the title of "Parallel Worlds Probably Exist: here's why" makes me grimace. (The reason is: they exist. There's no "probably" about it. But Derek sort of leans Bayesian a lot. And they aren't, strictly, “parallel". If you wonder why this should make one wince in a little intellectual agony, consider if a similar headline read “The spherical Earth probably exists. Here’s why.”
All that aside, if you want to learn more about all that see my multiverse series here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=e6C_K18A4f8&list=PLsE51P_yPQCQqJDb65AIVLads8PKxYuPm But I forgive him. He's an Aussie and I think the very best physics populariser and educator alive today.
So this “breathtakingly” wonderful video of Derek’s is all about Godel’s incompleteness theorem and Turing machines and related matters. But at 34 minutes - it is long. (I’m one to talk. My own video on a similar topic arising from the work of David Deutsch in “The Beginning of Infinity” runs to 1 hour and 12 minutes: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aMtort-zvdI ). I mention that because it places me in a position of some experience: people rarely watch the whole video!
So for those who don’t here is my 3 minute explanation of a really cool result I never quite understood before.
At the 28 minute mark, Derek refers to an extremely long journal article published in Nature called “Undecidability of the Spectral Gap” - it can be downloaded in full here https://www.nature.com/articles/nature16059 or in the ArXiv here: https://arxiv.org/pdf/1502.04573.pdf for free. It’s 126 pages including a lot of dense mathematical argument.
Anyways what drew my attention was that Derek flashed up on the screen a quote “from the authors” which said
“Even a perfect complete description of the microscopic interactions between a material’s particles is not always enough to deduce its macroscopic properties”.
Now this is an astonishing conclusion to draw from a mathematical proof. Here they are saying that reductionism - the claim that a “complete description” (description mind you, not explanation) cannot always be derived of a system given the behaviour of particles at the microscopic level.
I already knew reductionism was false. It’s a bad explanation (and more besides). But here, apparently, is a mathematical proof.
I went to the paper, however, and that quote is not there. To be fair he never said it would be. So I googled. It required me to purchase a copy of “The Scientific American” (this one) before I found the quote on page 37. So, to be fair, the quote is not part of the proof but rather a comment on the proof by one of the authors. But that's ok. (A little more below the image...)
So to be fair this is a comment by one of the authors on the proof rather than a part of the proof itself. Nevertheless, this is an amazing result.
The next time someone wants to argue that determinism rules out higher level causation or emergent causation or top down causation or anything else like that not only is their appeal to reductionism a bad explanation. It also happens to be provably untrue given quantum mechanics.
The lecture referred to herein is at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_pNPtmxMUC8 and it is certainly better to watch that than read my notes. And no doubt it is better to read his book which I have just ordered which can be found here: https://www.amazon.com/Creation-Modern-World-British-Enlightenment/dp/0393322688
To begin: what an exhilarating, insightful talk. Here are some brief notes if you want a “sort of” 5 minute version. This talk might reasonably have been called:
"England: an intellectual celebration"
When a German philosophy professor posed the question “What is the Enlightenment?” Immanuel Kant responded that “We are not in the Enlightenment but we are becoming enlightened”. This is Kant in the 1780s. But more tellingly Kant suggested that although people should “think for themselves” under the watchword “Dare to know” following the Roman poet Horace this was conjoined to the proviso “only in one’s capacity as a bureaucrat or civil servant, as a professor - as an employee of the state. He must nevertheless also obey the prince.” 🤬😱
Kant’s suggestion that we are becoming enlightened rather than already enlightened may have been true of his own city - but it is not true now. And it is sad it is simply taken as fact by historians and others - even now. Kant never left East Prussia for the entire 80 years of his life. Kant’s denial that he was living in an Enlightened age probably applied to all of Prussia at the time. 🤭
This is all to be contrasted with England not only at the time and much earlier. Much earlier in England there were far more astonishing moves towards a genuine Enlightenment. For example Ambrose Philip’s magazine. - before Kant was even born and called “The Free Thinker” adopted “Dare to know” as it’s masthead in 1718 - launching an assault on superstition. This was in a nation that had outlawed formal censorship in 1695. 🤛
Kant referred to as “the timid state functionary” 😂😂
Historians of earlier times, as now tend not to study the English Enlightenment…perhaps out of modesty as this is English culture. The idea “we have excelled the world” in philosophy, science, governance, politics and so on seems a vanity that more suits the mainland/continental Europeans. The ideas they - the English are doers rather than thinkers. Yet Americans traditionally in academia have tended to look more to the French than the English for enlightenment ideas. Perhaps they prefer sabbaticals in Paris? 😏
England: a country that curbs the power of the king without unleashing anarchy. 😎
England: an example of everything autocratic governments say we should fear; especially economic individualism leading to commercial success. Yet it proves them wrong each and every time for it excels, succeeds, prospers and flourishes. How else to explain this? 😇🤑🤑
England equated with Newton equated with Light. Newton broke light into its constituents - began our scientific understanding of light. An English scientist existing in fertile free thinking soil. England = Newton = Light = Enlightenment.😍
John Locke lay some foundations of restricted government and individual rights and moreover a vision of the mind that is infinitely improveable . 🧐
England gives birth to William Godwin who did not just want to eliminate government but marriage and even orchestras because they were tyrannical over the individual. 🤯
England had fertile soil for these individual rights because of institutions especially free media and the novel - a great variety. This happened more in England and earlier in England than anywhere else. 🥳🥳
England - the birthplace of a modern institutionalised culture of criticism where “nullius in verba” could be taken seriously. While Kant’s “enlightenment” could suggest little more than one, ultimately, defer to a prince, a philosopher king…an authority. Take their word for it. 🤩
These two visions are the exact opposite of how to think and how to organise civilisations.
Societies fail. But none fail because they focussed too much attention on detecting and correcting errors. This is to say: criticising too much or too often. A criticism is an explanation of why something is faulty, flawed or false. It is the necessary precondition for solving a problem: to identify what is wrong, and correct it. All extinct societies have failed because they have failed to solve their problems in time. One important reason is that in those societies there have become taboos that have slowed the rate of problem solving. Traditions about who to defer to, for example. The belief that king must always be deferred to (because, implicitly, he must always be right because he is divinely so!) - or some leadership committee or the commissars - and so on, are required to be above criticism in order to maintain stability (by which is meant “order”). Laws appear that make it mandatory to speak with deference about the ruler or rulers and never to criticise. To be critical of this, but never that. Indeed to be especially skeptical of certain ideas (like, say, “freedom” or “equality”) – skeptical and perhaps insulting and emotional: not critical in a reasonable way. So, for example, North Koreans must never criticise the leader or regime – but they should be careful to be especially “critical” of the United States and the system in South Korea. Insulting and emotionally “critical” that is. Not reasonably.
In a genuine tradition of criticism no such taboos can persist, even if they arise for a time – because they will be criticised and corrected. In all areas of life, in an open and dynamic society where there exists a tradition of criticism frank and honest discussions can be had about all the factors, on all sides, from all perspectives, about the most pressing problems.
Without this panopticon approach to speech and criticism we end up in a state where certain situations and scenarios cannot be broached and never recognised as actually of civilisational consequence. The traditions within societies that do not cultivate a tradition of criticism do not allow for the conditions for all important problems to be identified in time. Or if they do, they do not permit them to be broached. Or if they do, not broached in the most effective ways. Were any of this false, those civilisations would still be with us. But they are not because they did not solve their problems in time. The ancient society of Pompeii did not solve its problems in time. Did they not know about the volcano? Why not? Why was their progress too slow in identifying the risk and saving the members (if only by fleeing in time).
Criticism is destabilising - in OUR society - of ideas, not the society itself that thrives upon it. A tradition of criticism imported into, say, North Korea would destabalise that society but not civilisation. Indeed it would bring improvements to civilisation by civilising it. One might claim “But there have been countless societies without a tradition of criticism that have been stable. I suspect many more for much longer periods of time.”
But this is false. There have not been. All those were, demonstrably - by the very evidence of their own non-existence *now* - all inherently unstable. Moreover what stability they did superficially appear to possess was due to the opposite of a tradition of criticism. They enforced the status quo. This is the “inherent instability” in the system. For any society – the mere “appearance” of stability is not actual stability unless there is a good explanation as to why things are not changing. For example, it may superficially appear that an ancient tribe that has existed in the same way for thousands of years is “stable”. But this is only apparent stability. Not genuine stability. They are pencils balanced on their tip. Sure, if nothing else changes in the environment – there is no little bump – the pencil remains “stable” (balanced precariously). But is it actually stable? What mechanism to prevent it toppling over is there? Or is there every reason to think that any number of things could make it fall? Our thousands-of-year old ancient society is unstable in the same way. There is every reason to think that any problem we would easily solve would wipe them out. Their society is inherently unstable.
Unlike ours. Which is stable. Inherently. But only if we maintain a tradition of criticism. Ours is not like that precariously balanced pencil standing on its tip but rather a modern skyscraper with earthquake prevention mechanisms, a great firefighting system and computer controlled environment, surrounded by surveillance cameras and with a full time team of engineers and others maintaining its day to day stability, checking each rivet and bolt and column with sensors placed all about the precision engineered structure. It is maintained and many of the causes keeping it up are in the conscious awareness of those experts who are continuously finding areas of concern and correcting problems to ensure that should the building move even just a little this way or that, the support structure corrects it, to keep it upright.
For all societies (or individuals) problems are inevitable. Some large number could be lethal and will be lethal – permanently revealing the inherent and latent instability that was always there in the system – by destroying it. Unless, of course, the problem is identified in time. And corrected in time. To maintain the stability. But that requires criticism in time, and continuous criticism in time. But that of course takes a particular kind of tradition. One that protects criticism. All criticism. It’s the only thing that is an explanation for genuine stability – which is quite unlike superficial stability that has persisted - but only by good fortune. We have that too - but not only that. We also have a deeper explanation of the causes that keep us stable. The thing that allows us to "change" with the problems of our times. By adapting, making progress and improving - in time. It's what we're used to now. We're used to criticising things - that's our tradition. It's what keeps the whole thing stable.
If Popper is so good and useful and true, why isn’t he more popular – especially among professional philosophers and scientists? Shouldn’t this count against him?
Conjecture: One can try to disagree with just a key part of Popper’s philosophy (like his take on the line of demarcation, or the paradox of tolerance or what democracy actually is) – and attempt to embrace the rest, but then one finds inconsistencies in their own thinking. It becomes clear to a casual reader that if I reject this key part of Popper's philosophy, then (logically) that entails rejecting that part and then that part and that part and so on. Soon I have to reject it all.
And I must reject it all if I reject some key part (like authoritative sources, or a critical method) because to do otherwise would be to change my worldview and thus so much of the received wisdom I have been taught or indoctrinated with. So I have a choice: embrace the change and indeed change the way I think about almost everything in my intellectual life (and even about what I regard as common sense) – and this might be painful (in truth, to a Popperian, it’s fun – or it can be learned to be fun).
Or I can simply reject Popper.
Embracing the critical rationalist worldview/Popperian-style philosophy is deeply psychologically destabilising at first. It means viewing reality in a new way and thus removing oneself, in a sense, from one’s intellectual peers. Popper is not like other philosophers. I can reject elements of Descartes (let’s say his “proof” of the existence of God) – but accept his cogito (“I think therefore I am”) and feel no great destabilisation in my thinking. Leibnitz’s “monadology” whether I embrace or reject it, would seem to have no great bearing upon how I think deeply about each and every issue. Perhaps there is a fundamental indivisible particle. Perhaps not. Perhaps there is an intelligent creator. Perhaps not. Much of this is disconnected, to some extent, from the problems I am interested in my life anyway.
But Popper and Deutsch change (and challenge!) my actual thinking – moment to moment. And on topics near to me. I cannot be sure of anything – but I know quite a lot. I can improve my thinking and myself. I can make progress. I am self reliant, but I can cooperate. There is no authority I need to turn to, but I can criticise any who claim to be a source of truth and thereby come closer to the truth myself. No one has the final answer (including me) and “we are all equal in our infinite ignorance”. And that last one can give one a real sense of vertigo upon first really comprehending it. And not all people find vertigo - that sense of falling - fun. But we can all learn to. Yet few people, as a proportion of the whole, ever choose to go skydiving despite the recommendations of almost everyone who has.
Philosophy - and Popperian philosophy in particular - goes right to the deepest parts of one's psychology and how they frame their thinking on any topic worth thinking about. It requires a shift in gears, which many (not all!) find unpleasant - at least at first. Like skydiving or roller coaster riding. Should the unpopularity of any fun thing count against it? Of course not. Most people simply do not know what they don't know. It does not count against skydiving that it's unpopular. Nor anything else people find gives richness and purpose to their lives but which is poorly subscribed.
And if one has spent a career defending a mainstream thesis, or a thesis that has merely adapted some ideas within a mainstream framework, it is unsurprising then, that one would be reluctant to relinquish all that framing for fear of the mental pain and anguish which might accompany it.
Unless, of course, that person is truly, to their core, a Popperian. In which case that kind of relinquishing is one of the most joyful parts of life.
This review is really for people who have already seen the documentary. It does not try to explain how intriguing and interesting the documentary is but does refer to some of the content of the documentary. There are no significant spoilers (but there are some - marked).
Who knows how accurate this documentary is, unless you are one of the people actually involved in the case, who went to the hearings and got to hear arguments about all the evidence from both sides? I only watched the 20 episodes of this show, so I don’t know. I do know documentary makers can make stuff up or emphasise the wrong thing and completely eliminate important information. Anyone who enjoys science documentaries knows this. Especially animal documentaries. If you’ve ever seen an episode of “Meerkat Manor” you will know what I mean. The narrative and anthropomorphising is so cartoonish, one would barely have been surprised had the little critters’ noises been subtitled in English. That aside, documentaries about people are often so interesting because we can get an insight into how people think given what they say. And this documentary underlines what many of us thought we knew about how legal minds sometimes tend to think. From judges to lawyers, police and even family members of the victims and accused - how people think about evidence can be astonishing – and frightening. Because people’s lives hang in the balance on these questions about evidence and its use in courts of law – apparently - at times.
So there are two epistemological challenges here: (1) to what extent we can know the documentary is accurate in terms of its couching of the events from beginning to end of the trials (2) taking at face value what the people involved say and do about “evidence”.
Rather often the language used by – and indeed the expectations of - the professionals involved – is about what the evidence “points to” and how the “balance of probabilities suggests that” and how it might be “easy for someone to believe” and so on and so forth. The evidence is supposed to speak for itself in some way and if a plausible story is told that fits some of the evidence, then this means that the story is in some way “credible”.
But given any set of facts (“the evidence”) an infinite number of stories can always be told that are “consistent” with it. Consistent does not mean much when it comes to evidence and explanations – it just means “not contradicted by”. For example – from my first to last waking moment, everything I experience is consistent with my being the only actual person in the universe. Or that I am still dreaming. Or that I just came into existence and that at any moment…NOW…I might be gone again. These are all terrible explanations. Yet consistent with “the evidence”. A dent in a car can be evidence the owner crashed it. Or someone borrowed it and crashed it. Or someone stole it and crashed it. Or no one did anything and the brakes failed while it was parked on an incline. Or a passing ruffian with a baseball bat (or strong kick) dented it. Or a meteor fell from space. Or…the list of “evidence” and theories “consistent with it” is literally infinite. As we will come to see whether any of those theories are good explanations of the evidence comes down not to consistency (which is just an entirely insufficient logical necessity) but whether any evidence actively rules out a good explanation in the case where we have two (or more). In most cases we are lucky to have one explanation. In some very rare cases there are two good explanations – and in that case, that’s where the role of “crucial” evidence comes in. We shall come to this, and its role in the documentary, momentarily.
In courts of law we have a problem scientists have not always understood but which some philosophers have – that of “the evidence” being interpreted. Evidence is theory laden. It does not speak for itself. Nowhere is this more profoundly revealed than in this documentary series. [Minor spoiler alert]. I will give an example: it is asserted by the prosecution that the murder victim was killed by a bullet to the head. She was shot, in the head whilst in a particular garage – owned by the defendant. This is all seems very compelling and under almost all other circumstances similar – it might very well be the only purported explanation. And it might well be reasonable.
The bullet, we are shown, is provided to the court and an expert witness brought forward to say the bullet, fired from a gun owned by the defendant had been analysed and the victim’s DNA found upon it. Again: that seems to be terribly compelling evidence. The accused shot the victim in his garage with his gun and the bullet was left behind after it passed through the victim’s skull. It is – as they say - “consistent with” the defendant firing the gun through the head of the victim. But is it the best explanation? What other explanations could there be? Well in this case there was another good explanation: the entire police force involved and prosecution team were equal parts incompetent and corrupt and some of them framed the defendant. Why is that ever a good explanation? It rarely is, except that in this case the prosecution – the state – had motive and means. The state was in another legal battle at the exact time the murder purportedly occurred – and not against just anyone. But against the defendant for *wrongful conviction* for a rape years earlier and the defendant was seeking legal damages into the millions. These are high stakes. But how can we distinguish between these two cases – the defendant is the killer or the defendant is being set up?
It should be clear we cannot look for stories consistent with the evidence, or evidence that “confirms” a particular theory. We must, and solely, in this rarest of situations - look for evidence that can categorically rule out a particular theory. Indeed this must always be the defence team’s purpose. To rule out their client…and if they cannot, then the best explanation (the case put forward by the prosecution) must surely carry the day. The defence, upon being successful, then leaves everyone in the unfortunate situation of saying "We don't know" - we do not know who committed the crime. And the police should redouble their efforts to construct a new, better theory that actually explains what happened.
But in this case there were many pieces of evidence ruling out the guilt of the defendant (as the documentary explained). For example, if the victim was indeed shot in the head in the garage – why was there no blood found anywhere? The evidence of a clean floor in all the places the victim was shot, and earlier apparently stabbed and raped – is crucial evidence against the theory either that gunshots and stab wounds reliably cause bleeding or that the victim was never shot or stabbed at that location. Many competing “what if…?” questions might be asked. What if they cleaned the floor? (With what and why is there no cleaning residue as expected and why is the rest of the garage still such a mess if it was cleaned?). Why do ballistics experts agree there should be blood splatter everywhere in the garage – especially microdroplets of spray? Why would they clean all the blood but not the bullet?
Years later, when scanning tunnelling electron microscopy is used to image the bullet up close, there really is crucial evidence. The bullet – apparently used in a murder - when compared to other similar bullets fired through bone – shows no sign of bone residue. Yet all other similar bullets do and there is a good explanation of how bullets fired through bone, end up with bone fragments in them. Bullets get impaled with whatever material they pass through. And in this case the bullet in question, when compared to similar bullets fired through a plywood wall of the garage shows signs of plywood. This evidence rules out the theory it was fired through bone and the best explanation for its presence in the garage was that it was fired through the plywood wall of the garage. Indeed dozens of bullet holes in the garage and thousands of bullets fired on the property testify to the fact this bullet was not unusual at all in that garage. Except in one way: it was claimed to be a murder weapon lacking any evidence of being a murder weapon.
That plank in the case of the prosecution team collapses. So the bullet did not go through bone. It was not the murder weapon. And if that is what the evidence that was supposed to be explained by the defendant actually being a murderer, then the defendant is not a murderer. Very very few people are murderers. But people who are suing police forces for many millions of dollars might very well be accused of such. [Spoiler alert] For those reading along: the DNA of the victim found on the bullet is explained as being planted using a source from the victims’ home.
Now I do not know the truth of any of this. But what struck me watching it was how again and again the police evidence was simply put forth as being “consistent” with a particular story and this led to judges and others seeming to become more and more “confident” in that particular explanation.
While on the other hand, evidence that ruled out the defendant was not held up as being of crucial importance. Crucial in two senses (1) it is of the highest importance. More important than other “circumstantial” evidence like “a bullet was found in the garage of the accused” and more significantly: (2) it categorically rules out one of the two competing good explanations.
It is rare in criminal cases to have many competing good explanations – just as it is in science. Very often when the police have identified a suspect, they have good reasons for doing so: there is a video of the crime. There is blood literally on the hands (or shirt) of the accused. There are many independent witnesses. All of this comes together to make a very hard to vary explanation of what happened. But in this case, the fact is, from what is shown in “Making a Murderer” at least two good explanations – both hard to vary (but to rather different extents) exist. And in this case it is the crucial evidence – the evidence that can decide between the two competing theories – that matters most. And in the documentary there is a long list that, to a typical viewer, shows the accused is innocent of the murder because the evidence was planted.
To summarise this: the best explanation is: some evidence *consistent with* the claim “he is guilty of murder” was planted…and a bunch more evidence that rules out “he is guilty of murder” was utterly ignored.
I can heartily recommend this to everyone. Compelling viewing for anyone interested in epistemology and philosophy (as well as everyone else!).
In the Western World it has recently been claimed that so-called economic stagnation has not seen the middle classes benefit from the great technological boom in terms of real wage growth. This, it is said, goes some way to explaining the rise of "populist" politicians and economic protectionism. I use a personal anecdote to illustrate a refutation of these ideas and conclude we are, all of us, more wealthy than the economists, politicians and pessimists want us to believe.
"Stagnation" is a term used in economics to denote a period of near zero economic growth. This is to be contrasted with inflation (high growth - or precisely "price increases") and deflation (negative growth or price decreases). It has been argued that much of the Western World, but especially the United States is in an extended period of stagnation. Emblematic of this idea is the work of Economist Tyler Cowen, whose 2011 pamphlet "The Great Stagnation" argues that the causes of growth in America are largely spent and we are now in a period where there has been little "real growth" in wages for some decades and will be for some decades to come. My aim here is not as a critique especially of the work of that economist or even that pamphlet (which is worth reading) but rather the broader idea that things are not much better now than they were a decade or more ago as measured against the index of "real wage growth" or the thesis that is contained in the article already linked to above by Amanda Novello where, writing about the economic "recovery" that is discussed post the 2008 financial crisis:
"Digging deeper exposes that middle and low-income workers and their families in the United States have not reaped their share of the benefits of the apparent recovery, benefits that such a recovery should produce for all, and not only the few. Data shows that, in fact, it’s only wealthier households and larger corporations that have gained noticeably since the recession ended a decade ago. This is because long-developing trends of inequality have proven impervious to the decade’s economic growth."
Is it true that "only wealthier households and larger corporations" have experienced benefits over the last decade? Economists will say numbers speak for themselves. Look at "real wage growth", for example. Real wage growth is a measure of how much wages have grown as compared to the rise in the cost of living (or broadly the average cost of other things in life). Real wage growth is supposed to be a proxy for a quantitative measure of one's standard of living. So if there has been no "real wage growth" is it true one's standard of living has not improved? This is all a very abstract way of talking about people's actual lived experience: their work, their lives, their day-to-day activities (including, in small part, their spending habits). In particular we must consider actual individuals - not groups of people. People seem to think that if those on minimum wage have, as a group, not seen "real wage growth" that this is a cause for concern. But which person on minimum wage 10 or 20 years ago is still there, in the same role? Don't people change jobs - and, in part, because they no longer wish to be on the wage they were? Don't people take on other responsibilities (like study) in order to improve their lot? Economists are quick to define into existence something like a "real wage growth" metric and claim this indicates some deep truth about the lives of individual people. Rather than bring to bear various other metrics that might stand in contrast to this, I want instead to simply consider a narrow aspect of my own life and ask the question: am I no better off? Obviously a single data point cannot refute a trend, but I am doing this for the pessimists who are complaining their lives are no better off. Those who, at 30, 40 or 50 complain things are not much better for them now than when they were 20. I hope that any reader who persists with this piece simply compares my life with theirs. I note that my story parallels that of all my family and friends - many of whom, I would suggest, are far worse off and less mobile than I will demonstrate I have been.
(What follows is a true story, and you may be able to predict where it’s going. So, if you want, skip straight to the final two paragraphs.)
My father was (and remains) what has become known as an “audiophile”. These days the suffix “phile” is added to just about anything one likes to indicate a passion for: numberphile (i.e: a mathematician), retrophile (one who loves cultures of the past), bibliophile (you get the picture). Anyways, before the term existed, my father was an audiophile of the kind that today is rarer than one might think. Or at least I might think. He used to obsess - during the early stages of CD audio - about whether the CD was recorded in DDD or some lower quality like AAD. The "A" was for "Acoustic" and the "D" for "Digital" and the three letters in a row told you something about each stage of the recording process. DDD was clearly "Digital recording" at all stages - so of the highest quality. I knew of no one else who cared about this. But today - I get it. So often I walk along a street to hear a person blaring music for themselves from an iPhone or some other smartphone. I mean - public music played from an iPhone speaker! Now don’t get me wrong - the latest iPhones have reasonable speakers given their size. But outdoors on noisy streets? Putting aside what I consider the discourtesy to fellow pedestrians and others to have their senses assailed by music they may not like following them to the train station, there are very very cheap alternatives that solve all the problems of: faster battery drain, annoyance to fellow travellers and chief among them to my mind: the quality of the sound. Any half decent (and cheaper by the week) set of ear buds or phones completely outclasses inbuilt phone speakers. If one can afford a smart phone, one can afford a reasonably cheap, reasonably high quality pair of earbuds. Whatever the case, I have inherited (ok, learned) this preference from my father. People who listen to the sound from the television’s inbuilt speakers rather than always ensuring it runs through their separate amplifier and high quality speaker system instead - a mystery to me. People content to remain using the included white wired headphones with their iPhone - I just do not understand. I also do not understand Apple's AirPods, period. Given the price - why is their sound quality so low? Why aren't they noise cancelling or at least noise isolating? Earbuds half the price do a far better job. But I digress.
When I was a child - under 10 - I really wanted some good, private set of speakers I could tune into a radio or - even better - play cassettes. I wanted to emulate my dad, of course, and be something like a connoisseur of sound. The first bit of tech I got in this regard was a little mono radio - and I was very proud of it. But within a year - I guess for a Christmas present - I was bought a portable stereo cassette player with radio. And that, to me, was simply amazing. Stereo I could carry around…and play cassettes on. I’m not sure I ever carried it far. It ran on something like 6 D-size batteries. It looked something very much like this.
Next I found, I guess in a catalogue, a pair of over-the-head headphones that had an aerial and could be used to tune into the radio. Well now that was really it! I could walk around listening to the latest hits and not annoy anyone else. These didn’t predate the Sony Walkman - that had been out for almost a decade already - but the Walkman was well over $100 - and in our family - back in the 80s - $100 may as well have been $1000.
But the problem was, it only played whatever the radio stations were playing. I wanted to be able to play my own cassettes. Back in those days, the technique was to wait by the radio station until your favourite song came on, and hit record. This way you could make your own "mixed tape". I wished I could play my various "mixed tapes" on some portable audio device. Alongside my love of portable audio, I had begun to develop a love of hiking. I lived in a part of Sydney surrounded by bushland (forest, in other words) - and in other parts quiet suburban streets. I could imagine few greater pleasures than walking, jogging or running and listening to music. The problem was, of course, the batteries never lasted long with these things. A few hours at most. And, back in the day, you really did stand out as odd wearing such a contraption as pictured above on your head. They simply were not that popular. Especially among people my age. Nevertheless I do recall dreaming of the possibility that I might be able to actually record my own favourite music rather than have to listen only to what the radio was playing at any particular time. This was something a walkman - with in built cassette - would allow me to do. But, again, they were for rich people…not children from the suburbs until, I guess, sometime towards the end of the 80s. By then, there were cheaper (Chinese, I guess) knockoffs. And so finally I was able to get a portable cassette radio. Now I was really cooking because I could record my own music, from the radio on my stereo system (no doubt in violation of copyright law at the time), onto a cassette and then carry it with me. This was the height of technology and personal agency. I think it was in 1993 I was able to ask for my first “digital” actual Sony branded Walkman. I say digital, because it had an LCD read out. It looked exactly like this:
The absolutely remarkable thing about this walkman was that it could store in memory your favourite radio stations. So by hitting the 1, 2, 3, 4 or 5 position one could quickly switch from station to station at will rather than, prior to this, having to manually find the station by tuning using an analogue dial. I was able to record from CD onto cassette all my favourite music - and some comedy radio shows I enjoyed. The first CD player had arrived in our home in 1988 and so I was building a library of cassettes to carry about with me. The only problem with this procedure was that I would often hear a song on the radio and have no way to record it on the fly. I would either have to wait until it came on the radio when I got home - or (increasingly) buy the CD and then transfer it to cassette. I dreamed of the capacity for a walkman to record onto cassette whatever was playing.
When I left school I went to university - full time. By which I mean, 5 days a week, for 7 or 8 hours a day. Lectures commenced at 9am and finished at 4pm, except on Wednesdays when it was 5pm. Uni was located a considerable 90 minute journey away using public transport (which I did) and after university on some days of the week (especially Thursday) I was a security guard at the largest shopping mall in Sydney - and also on weekends. This left very little “free” time except travel time (which was around 3 or more hours a day), but a part time job did make me more wealthy than most of my friends - at least in those early years - because while they went to university as well, they did not tend to work jobs as I did to pay their own way and save a little. Or where they did work part time jobs, they chose to work in fast food or at a grocery store and so on. A security guard required a little training, and there were hazards, so there was a monetary reward for making that choice over some other kind of minimum wage position. Nevertheless it was never paid well (for example, in the late 90s, a weekday shift would be around $13 Australian dollars per hour. McDonalds paid something closer to $10 per hour. In both cases the evening and weekend rates were more (on Sunday, I got "double time"!).
So it was, then, in the late-90s I was able to upgrade my older “play only” Sony Walkman for one that could indeed record. Not only did it have a record function it had so many other features (like a digital equaliser and “bass boost”). The great advantage now was that my journeys too and from work and to and from university could be accompanied by my favourite radio shows even if they were on whilst I was at work or in lectures…because I was recording them for my travel time. I absolutely loved train/bus journeys with music of my choice, or radio show of my choice while reading/studying my university notes...or rather more often some popular science book I had bought. I seemed to have reached the absolute zenith of what I wanted from portable audio. Although I did imagine the possibility of having a recordable CD. Whatever the case this walkman also accompanied me on long patrols of the shopping centre late at night (always at low volume, sometimes with one earpiece out so I could still hear if there was ever any broken glass. Only ever once did this happen - and the alarm system was loud enough that no set of earbuds at whatever volume would ever drown those out)
But, as the 90s rolled into the 2000s and I was merely a security guard on minimum wage in an unskilled job - I was nevertheless able to afford almost as much technology and creature comforts as my imagination allowed me. I was able to build my own PC from buying the best motherboard, CPU, RAM, Hardrive and so on I could find…and I could afford among the best portable audio. Somewhere in the 80s the Sony “Discman” came out - it was a portable CD player…but it was never popular because it wasn’t really very portable. The slightest bump and the machine skipped making listening and walking (for example) an intolerable experience. In around 1999/2000 I did buy one of the first CD-walkmans which came standard with a RAM buffer which meant if it did get bumped, it was able to store about 30 seconds worth of audio on solid state memory rather than skip. But actually my top of the line Sony Walkman then had sound quality that easily matched the discman - because the earbud headphones had really increased in quality. One of my friends, who was also in a low-wage job, bought this for me for my birthday:
That walkman was set apart by the quality of its earbuds as well as its excellent record feature and pseudo-digital fast forward and rewind (it could tell where songs stopped and started again, making your favourites on the cassette easier to find). All of this made my life absolutely wonderful because…as I said, I loved walking. And the more I loved walking and hiking, the more I wanted to listen to music and other audio (like my favourite radio shows I had recorded). But the problem was, one had to carry additional casettes and each cassette was usually only 90 minutes or so. For long hikes that just really did not do. And during this time I went to Africa (Zimbabwe) on Safari which included lengthy hikes...and lengthy travel times and also South America for some months, even hiking the Inca Trail in Peru…a three night long trial at high altitude through the Andes. I think I carried 6 cassettes with me for that journey. There are only so many times you can hear your favourite hits over and again. If only cassettes were smaller…or could store more songs?
Now in truth the Sony Minidisc player had been out since 1992. But it was well outside my budget. So it was not until 2002 I bought one - and what an astonishing device it was. I still have it. It looks like this:
This was merely incremental progress in some ways, but seemingly revolutionary for my life. Casettes had improved in quality markedly over the decade, but now the option of a small optical disc - much smaller than a cassette - could store many hours of audio. Indeed one could choose the sampling rate - the highest selection meant your minidisc could store about 70 minutes of audio, while the lowest quality meant 4 times that amount. There were science, philosophy and other radio shows I could download/record straight from the radio in low quality and keep, while I could transfer my CD audio music collection to minidisc - all stored on generic branded discs which were very cheap, and getting cheaper all the time as competition entered the market. And of course, at this time, this was one of the first devices one could actually hook up to a computer and download songs and other audio directly to via USB. Now that, I guess, deserves the term "revolutionary".
Throughout this time I changed jobs - going from being a security guard, to a “science communicator” with the university (which actually was paid quite a bit less - but this was an exchange I was happy to make as the “confrontation” - physical and otherwise - which is the life of a security officer - had become something I felt I had outgrown).
In the early 2000s, parts of the education system in Australia permitted graduates with just a Bachelor’s Degree to work as casual teachers in schools - so I took on this while I completed a Bachelor of Teaching (which would entitle me to work in schools on a permanent basis, for substantially more money). This brought with it a real increase in my financial position - money like I had never had before and didn't even know what to do with (I should probably have invested - but no, I was having too much fun travelling). But, once more, during this period I was working, then studying, working, then studying. Nevertheless I was able to save more. I paid my way through and completed two more degrees and then used these as tickets to travel for even longer periods. I had been to Africa, and South America and to numerous places within Australia (Tasmania was and remains my favourite. I agree with Edmund Hillary who described it as "the greatest hiking country on Earth".) After saving up from all those jobs, I moved to London and my minidisc player went with me - as I could download music from NAPSTER (which ages you, if you remember it) and radio shows from Australia to salve the homesickness as early versions of podcasts began to become popular. But, of course, the minidisc player still had the problem that the finiteness of the discs meant carrying quite a number of them, if one did not want to get repetitive with their audio. Solid state MP3 devices early on never had much memory - but were better for jogging (minidiscs were still liable to skipping). But the move to solid state seemed inevitable.
As I have continued to work, I migrated fully to an Apple device. At first it was the iPod nano - which was amazing - great for the gym and for jogging because it could store thousands of songs and podcasts in a device one barely noticed they were even carrying. But the first iPhone was for me also truly revolutionary because now, here was a device effectively with unlimited storage: the cloud meant that radio shows were there for download so long as you could find a WIFI or 3G signal. Especially for exercising and jogging this was a true game changer. Suddenly everything on the internet was accessible from my pocket for the first time - and streaming became a thing. The finiteness of the memory was barely a factor anymore.
And now we come to today -and on my wrist is an Apple Watch, as small as an iPod nano with so many of the features of an iPhone - and in my ears are wireless bud earphones. This is the stuff of dreams for my 10 year old self. Or my 20 year old self. Or my 30 year old self.
If I had remained a security guard at that shopping mall all these years - I guess I would not be paid much more now in "real wages" than I was then. Indeed I know, because I can look up, what that job pays here in Australia. And given the rise in living costs - indeed, it’s not like “Security Guard” is a more attractive job now than it was then. Why should it be? Jobs like those, in the main, are not meant to be kept for life - unless one really wants to get into the security industry say and own their own security company. That certainly could be a reasonable ambition. But had I stayed there, in that shopping mall, wearing that uniform, I expect I would have been promoted to supervisor, then manager and so forth up into the corporate section of the centre (interestingly the rank-system in a large shopping centre like that was quite a complex affair!). So no one stays in an entry level job like that forever, that’s common sense. Unless they really try hard not to try to get promoted or find some other job more attractive. People do get promoted, they do gain experience and so are moved into “higher” positions of greater responsibility, or sideways into a position where the ladder is easier to climb. Or they do a course for some hours a week and retrain to take on a different, by their lights better, role that pays more (or is more interesting, more fun, less hazardous and so on).
But say, for argument's sake, I never did any of that and remained a security guard in precisely the same position. Is the lack of increase of income of “security guards” relative to the cost of living - some sign of “stagnation” as it is often suggested to be? People say things like “real wages have not increased” as if people are stuck in the same job, forced to make the same choice day after day? Whatever the case - say I did make the choice to stay in that job and not made the choice to spend the rest of my time studying whenever I had the chance (when I wasn’t listening to recorded radio shows) - would it be fair to say I would have been “no better off” now compared to then? That because my "real wage growth" had been near zero that I was someone being "left behind"?
No. No way! Not by a long shot. Because today, even on that same wage, I could have afforded an Apple Watch and wireless earbuds. Which is exactly what I have now and the pinnacle of portable audio technology for me, so far as I am concerned. The Apple Watch I have comes to me on a “plan” via my mobile provider. It costs me $20 a month to pay off. I could afford that, even as a security guard. Easily! And yes, my data on top of that costs a little more (which I can share across multiple devices) - but the point is - the very best technology and access to the world’s information and music library - almost unimaginable technology to me 20 years ago - is available even to some of the least wealthy people in modern western societies - and soon to everyone else too!
Wealth is not about how much money you have, or cash you can pull out of your bank account. It includes that - but it also includes all the many things that money can buy and which you already have. My Apple Watch - if I could travel back 20 years - I imagine would have been regarded as one of the most astonishing devices in existence making me one of the most wealthy people on the planet. By this measure: the technology on my wrist would have been bought by Bill Gates or some other billionaire - for many billions of dollars if I could have convinced them what it truly was. If you have seen the movies: it would have been like the chip from the first Terminator which, if you recall - was not destroyed when Arnold’s evil character was killed. That last remaining chip was used by a technology company to “go in directions they never could have imagined”. It was basically alien technology. So too my Apple Watch placed in 2000, or let’s say 1990
The Apple Watch really does confer wealth onto you far beyond what its price would suggest. If you own one, you are more wealthy than anyone living in 1990. In 1990 there was no way to get any book in the world fed wirelessly into your ears - read to you by a machine. To thus learn the knowledge that could, potentially, improve your lot so easily. There was no way to call overseas…all from your wrist. People are rather pessimistic about the idea there has been such astonishing progress and an increase in wealth over time. They point to statistics like: wages have not increased while the cost of homes has. Some use this to explain the appeal of particular political movements. The same house today in some town costs 10 times what it did some years ago while the wage for the same job has only increased by a factor of 2. Doesn't this mean society is "going backwards" in some way? Now there may be some legitimate concerns here: there may be government regulations making the cost of housing greater in some places and more or less appealing in others. But none of this is really about how "wealthy" one is. Or if it is, that is merely one metric: how big is the house that a particular income earner can purchase now?
The security guard that I was from 1996 to 2000 no doubt was right to think he was near the bottom of the “Australian” wealth pecking order. But today - were I in the same job, being paid the minimum wage today - I would nevertheless be far far more wealthy. Not because my income relative to other jobs would have been greater - it isn’t. And shouldn’t be expected to be. But rather that the “purchasing power” of that same amount of money is unimaginably greater than what it was in 2000. Namely it can purchase technology absolutely unthought of in that time and which makes any security guard today in Australia on minimum wage the equal of the most wealthy on the planet by the metric that they can buy the best of certain things. I don't know what Elon Musk wears on his wrist in terms of smart-tech - but I know it's not much better than what I do, if at all. And the quality of his earbuds and audio he experiences each day I can bet is not much better than mine. In many ways I am just as wealthy as Musk on a number of metrics even though I have but a fraction of his income. Yes: he can build rockets. But I don't want to build rockets. I quite like doing with my time...precisely what I do with my time, much of the time.
If I had been told in 2000 all the features of an Apple Watch and then asked to guess what it cost, I do not know exactly what I might have said. But given that the cost of the best Walkmans at the time were well over $1000, and the best earbuds (wired of course) some hundreds, I guess I would have thought $5000 would have been a steal. And back then I could not have afforded the best quality walkman with all the best features. But now - the Apple Watch I has does precisely what the best smart wearable tech can do for the wealthiest. Everyone now is far far more wealthy according to that standard: they can afford personal technology that is not super outclassed by people who have much more income. Wages have all gone up in the sense we can all buy more than we ever could because there is more stuff to be purchased - more innovation and creation and technology to make our lives easier, more interesting and more mobile. And by more mobile I mean both more portable and more able to move into other jobs or other interests. Because we can put on our wrists (you don’t even need an Apple watch - there's lots of "wearable tech" far less expensive with almost all the same features) devices that can feed into our ears lessons that can lead us down lanes that in decades gone by would have required us to enrol into university courses at great expense. Now, it’s so much easier. So much more fun, and all so liberating. So is there stagnation? Stagflation? Recession? Cause for pessimism? Whatever the technical definitions from economics behind these terms, it should not cause one to think it has any direct bearing on their own individual life (unless they lose their job, let’s say). Those terms are never about individuals - but groups. Individuals are mobile and move between jobs and thus income bands and, meanwhile, as they do - the innovation continues despite what the naysayers say. Because whatever the gross metrics happen to be, they tend never to account for all the other ways life has improved, individual wealth increased and our personal purchasing power so much greater. Those who claim you’re worse off or that things have not improved are trying to sell you something. Something political rather much of the time. The truth is rather different: wealth continues to increase - you can do far more for far less cost. David Deutsch says in "The Beginning of Infinity" that wealth is “the repertoire of physical transformations that one is capable of causing.” Now just consider all the ways in which your own life has been transformed by technology and ideas, regardless of your income having increased or not and all the ways in which you can, now, if you choose make choices to transform your own life through - for example - education at near zero cost by downloading anything you like - the knowledge - so you can make things better for yourself. By any measure, almost all of us are far more wealthy now than we have ever been before.
The most valuable thing you can offer to an idea