Hans Rosling, the Swedish statistician who transformed the way we think about development and data, died this week of pancreatic cancer, at the relatively young age of 68. I haven’t got the time to do a proper tribute to him, but Gap Minder, the research group to which he devoted the last ten years of his life, has assembled a formidable collection of resources which show how wealth and life expectancy have been transformed over the short and the long run.
The youtube video at the top of this post, filmed by the BBC, shows Rosling in action, with his 200 year history of the world, which is worth five minutes of anyone’s time.
The chart he’s using there is on the Gap Minder site, and lets you explore the trajectories of different countries or groups of countries. There’s a host of valuable resources on the site, such as the ethnographic work of Dollar Street, going into the homes of people across the world to see what different incomes mean in different places in terms of everyday living standards.
I’ll also miss Rosling’s Twitter contributions, which often were a reminder of how fast fertility rates were falling across the middle-income and lower-income nations of the world. Typically this is far faster than the comparable rate of change at a similar stage in most European countries, and his tweets were a reminder that the rate of global population growth was slowing down rapidly.
The book club I’m a member of has just read the 1970s anthropology book The Mountain People, by Colin Turnbull. At the time it was a cause célèbre: my wife went to a theatre production at London’s Roundhouse based on it. Since then it’s become more controversial.
The Ik (pronounced Eek) are a group who live in Uganda, close to the Kenyan border. They had, at least by Turnbull’s (contested) account, been a nomadic people, but they had been excluded from most of their lands and had become farmers. They weren’t Turnbull’s first research choice, but he had some funds to spend and permission fell through for the first two locations.
Actually, the Ik weren’t even his first choice once he got to Uganda, and he knew precious little about them even when he arrived. At the start he’s accompanied by two young men from the area who have agreed to act as translators, but they take his money and mislead him, as far as one can tell from the text. The local leader offers to build him a house as a gift, or so he believes, and in no time at all, Turnbull finds he’s paying for a large team of builders to put it up.
Although much of the book is about how farming has reduced the Ik to a desperate plight, and he’s there during a terrible period of famine, he seems both incurious and unobservant. Some customs he observes is great detail (the divorce ritual, for example) while asking few questions beyond it.
The New Yorker reporter Mark Singer probably qualifies for the adjective “veteran” by now, having joined the magazine in 1974. He wrote a fine book, Funny Money, on the collapse of Penn State Oil in the 1980s. One effect of this long-service is that he’s written several profiles of Donald Trump along the way, which he’s drawn on for Trump & Me, a short book/long read based on the time he’s spent with The Donald. Here’s some notes and extracts:
[T]here is no “new” Trump, just as there was never a “new” Nixon. Rather, all along, there have been several Trumps: the hyperbole addict who prevaricates for fun and profit; the knowledgeable builder whose associates awe at his attention to detail; the narcissist whose self-absorption doesn’t account for his dead-on ability to exploit other people’s weaknesses; the perpetual seventeen-year-old who lives in a zero-sum world of winners and “total losers,” loyal friends and “complete scumbags”; the insatiable publicity hound who courts the press on a daily basis and, when he doesn’t like what he reads, attacks the messengers as “human garbage”; the chairman and largest stockholder of a billion-dollar public corporation who seems unable to resist heralding overly optimistic earnings projections, which then fail to materialize, thereby eroding the value of his investment.
Or, in one line,
both slippery and naive, artfully calculating and recklessly heedless of consequences.
I’ve got round to reading the New Scientist‘s 60th anniversary issue, published in November, which tries to look forward in the general direction of 2076. There are 14 short “What If…” essays, on everything from “What if we engineer new life forms?” (we’ll need a ‘kill’ switch) to “What if we found a theory of everything?” (it’s a very slow train coming) to “What if we discover room temperature super conductivity?” (it would utterly transform our energy systems).
In this post I’m going to review some of the essays on themes that futurists spend more time on, and pull out some of the ideas.
The theorist Mark Fisher, whose death was announced at the weekend, was one of our most original thinkers about how we experienced late 20th century and early 21st century capitalism. He also wrote honestly about his depression, and sometimes one felt that the two were related: that seeing so clearly the confines that late capitalism imposed on its subjects was too much weight for one person to stand. (Guy Debord suffered in a similar way.)
People have been queuing up today to pay tribute to Fisher and his work, and rightly so: Capitalist Realism is one of the essential texts of the last 10 years: so good, in fact, that I realised recently that I’d bought two copies. His style was also singular in its skill in combining the cultural and the political, a reminder that actually the two can never be separated out, as he demonstrated in his more recent book Ghosts of my Life, which I wrote about here.
In an obituary, the music writer Simon Reynolds, a friend of Fisher’s, described his writing like this:
The exciting thing about Mark’s writing – CCRU era, K-punk era, in magazines like FACT and The Wire, the books – was the feeling that he was on a journey: the ideas were going somewhere, a gigantic edifice of thought was in the process of construction. That Mark was thinking big, building a system, always aiming for the largest scale. And finally that this work, rigorous and deeply informed as it was, was not academic, in the sense of being done purely for its own sake: its urgency came from his faith that words really could change things. Reading Mark’s writing made everything feel more meaningful, supercharged with significance. It was a rush. An addiction.
This is the second of two posts pulling together the strands of what I think I understand about Trump’s win in the US Presidential Election. (The first post is here). The first four things I think I know are:
- Neo-liberalism just died
- The long-run theories are best
- Crises are invisible before they erupt
- Class matters
Here’s another six thoughts.
I’ve read too much on the American election and on Trump’s win, and I wanted to pull it together to make sense of it. Having read too much, I’ve now written too much, so my plan is to split this into a couple of posts on the blog and then put the whole thing together as one longer post on Medium. Trump’s win is the kind of surprise that will keep happening in a world where people are expected to be both enthusiastic consumers and low-paid but grateful workers. You can only fill that gap by loading people with debt, but that’s a one-time card that’s already been played.
This post is a long extract from my essay on The Future of Work written for Future Agenda. The full piece is on Medium.
The current discussion about the future of work seems to be monopolised by the version of the future in which technology destroys jobs. It has gained an air of inevitability, as if it is the only possible future. NESTA’s open minded report suggested that the “robots hypothesis” resonated because it connected “two powerful themes in popular culture: the rapid advance of IT, and the startling growth in inequality.” But there is a problem: it hasn’t happened before.
So it is worth considering reasons why it might just be a phase. The economic historian Carlota Perez has a model of technological development that describes five long waves, or surges, since the Industrial Revolution. Each is around 50–60 years and follows an S-curve pattern; the last quarter of each is marked by saturated markets, diminishing investment opportunities and declining returns. The first part of the 20th century was dominated by the oil and auto surge; the latter part by ICT. The ICT wave is now reaching the turning point at which returns start to fall.
On this model, finance is looking for new opportunities, and although it is too early to say what the next platform will be, and we’re still 10–15 years away from it, it is possible to imagine that the next technological surge might be built around, say, a material such as graphene.
Labour market woes
David Autor concludes that much of “the labor market woes” of the past decade are not down to computerisation, but to the financial crisis and reduced investment (starting with the dot.com collapse) and the impact of globalisation on labour markets. He suggests that many middle-skill jobs will prove more resistant to unbundling than advertised; while computers can do specific tasks, turning collections of tasks into self-contained jobs, and then automating them, requires substantial investment. In the long run, people are both more flexible and cheaper.
One implication is that the question of the future of work may actually be about power in the labour market. This leads to broadly political interpretations of the future of working conditions, ranging from Guy Standing’s formulation of the fragile “precariat”, facing intermittent, insecure work, David Weil’s description of the “fissured workplace”, in which many functions are sub-contracted, and the rise of campaigns for the Living Wage.
I read a couple of things recently that are connected, but perhaps not in a way intended by all of the authors. The first is by Sally Goerner, on the rise of American oligarchy. The second is a paper from McKinsey on capitalism’s short-termism problem.
The Sally Goerner post takes a long view–around 250 years–and positions America’s current political crisis as the latest in a series of 70-90 year cycles in which oligarchy flares up. It follows a familiar pattern, says Goerner, like so:
- Economic “Royalists” infiltrate critical institutions and rig political and economic systems to favor elites.
- Rigged systems erode the health of the larger society, and signs of crisis proliferate.
- The crisis reaches a breaking point; seemingly small events trigger popular frustration into a transformative change.
- If the society enacts effective reforms, it enters a new stage of development. If it fails to enact reforms, crisis leads to regression and possibly collapse.
- Over time, transformed societies forget why they implemented reforms; Economic Royalists creep back and the cycle starts a new.
I suspect we could map similar cycles in other countries.
The systemic model that sits behind it is this:
“Scientifically speaking, oligarchies always collapse because they are designed to extract wealth from the lower levels of society, concentrate it at the top, and block adaptation by concentrating oligarchic power as well. Though it may take some time, extraction eventually eviscerates the productive levels of society, and the system becomes increasingly brittle. … In the final stages, a raft of upstart leaders emerge, some honest and some fascistic, all seeking to channel pent-up frustration towards their chosen ends.”