Sideways Looks #6 here after a delay – I’ve spent the last couple of days helping an old friend and former flatmate move house, which is not an activity conducive to writing thoughts (or, indeed, having reliable internet access). But this is also a good experiment in whether different sending times are more popular with all of you. I hope you still managed to have a good Friday afternoon, even without a Sideways Look in your inbox.
This week, we’re returning to the theme of the first Sideways Look – how ideas help make change. Also, in the recommendations, an interesting salvo in what could be a work-from-home narrative war.
Last week I mentioned an interactive dashboard of UK manifesto topics. I’ve been playing around with that, and next week I hope to reveal it to you all. And by writing that, I’ve given myself extra motivation to make it so.
Have a good week,
Thought for the Week: Talking in & about the Past
This week I’m thinking about how past discussions help present action. For that, we’re going on a time travelling journey through three conversations from the past five-ish years.
The first took place in a history of science reading group I regularly attended with fellow PhD students. We were joined by Jon Agar, a brilliant professor who often made time to join PhD discussions. The group was debating whether events in the article we’d read that week were really new, or continuity with the past. That’s a familiar question, and not just in academia (indeed, there’s a whole BBC radio show on the theme).
After listening to a bit of back-and-forth amongst the PhDs, Jon leaned back in his chair and looked at the ceiling – a familiar professorial gesture indicating a point is forthcoming. Sure enough: “Well, all history is a bit of continuity and a bit of change. Whether you’re calling something continuity or change is usually just semantics, and you don't gain much by trying to pin it down. The real question here is…”.
I forget what the “real question” was. But I remember this as an example of real academic skill, cutting through intellectual fog which was holding back a more productive conversation.
The second conversation took place a couple of years later, in 2017. I was with an old social media research friend, who has been involved in various discussions around disinformation as a field of warfare, in the Civil Service Club. The Civil Service Club was my favourite place to drink when I was in government; it looks like a slightly shabby portal to the 1970s, with prices to match. We were discussing online disinformation. The exchange went something like this:
Friend: I’m often on panels with military historians and suchlike, and they keep saying loads of features of online disinformation are really familiar from pre-internet days.
Me: Ok but if the problems have been around before, how have people tried to solve them? Can we borrow from that? Or are there things today which we can use but past people couldn’t?
Friend: [Pause]. That doesn’t come up as much.
(If the above sounds a bit self-congratulatory, in the same chat I also argued people get too worried about online anti-vaccine disinformation. Not an argument I’d make now given *gestures widely at everything*).
Fast forward to conversation number three, from a webinar I watched this week. Kate Crawford, an internet researcher whose work I enjoyed during my PhD, has a new book out (called Atlas of AI). She was being interviewed by another familiar name from my academic days; Judy Wajcman, whose work is canonical amongst sociologists of science.
Unsurprisingly given this pairing, a running theme was how sociologists of science have long been discussing social issues that AI raises today. E.g.: how knowledge creates power; how turning human behaviour into numerical data has unintended side-effects; how seemingly ‘neutral’ technology actually incorporates all sorts of biases. As Wajcman noted, sociologists were discussing this stuff in the 1970s.
Again I was left thinking: has all that past thinking helped address these problems? And can it do so now?
I do feel there’s been growing awareness of of issues I listed above. Books like Cathy O’Neill’s Weapons of Math Destruction have sold well, and examples of ‘biased AI’ are frequently mentioned in popular media. In 2016, after the election of Donald Trump, we saw worldwide Marches for Science featuring banners reading ‘science is political’. That’s an argument we sociologists were trying (with difficulty) to popularise for ages - I and others spent Christmas 2012 arguing with Brian Cox on Twitter about this, as recorded here and here - but now the time was ripe.
But saying ‘we told you so’ is a hollow victory. Many thousands – maybe millions - of words were produced, decades ago, which could have prepared for risks of 21st century technology. Perhaps this was too many words, without a clearly communicated core message for non-academics. But even when academic ideas are well communicated, I worry that outside of academia there’s rarely a receptive audience. Until something happens which makes the topic really pressing. And by then, it may be too late.
Somehow we need a world where the right people hear relevant ideas at the right time. And then also respond properly to the ideas, without profit margins or political distractions or whatever getting in the way. If that happened, I would conclusively call that a change. I think Prof Agar would let me off on that one.
Fun Fact about: Gifts & International Politics
With the G7 on this week, Team Biden has gifted Boris Johnson a $6,000 customised Boris bike. Team Johnson's present back was a framed picture of anti-slavery campaigner Frederick Douglass; it’s reported that the image was “printed off Wikipedia”, though I think that's misleading (read full article). Comparisons are being made to when Gordon Brown gifted Obama a pen holder carved from the timbers of the sister ship of the one the White House desk is made from; and in return received a box set of 25 movies in a format that UK DVD players couldn’t read.
But I think these pale in comparison to a superb story I saw on Twitter. The tweets deliver the story perfectly so I’ll just reproduce them:
…the Washington Post call[ed] the British Ambassador to ask what he’d like for Xmas. He said “thank you, but nothing really” aware of the risk of being compromised. But they insisted, so he said “well, if you insist, a small tin of fruit pastilles”
Next morning, the WaPo ran a story that said “we asked the ambassadors of the major countries what they wanted for Xmas. The French ambassador asked for peace in the Middle East, the German for nuclear de-escalation and the British for a small tin of fruit pastilles.”
I struggled to verify the story from googling about fruit pastilles and ambassadors. But in one of those great Twitter moments, the granddaughter of the ambassador commented on the tweet naming him as Sir Oliver Franks. This made research much easier; apparently most of the details are inaccurate but the broad story correct (though less amusingly phrased in the real version).
As an adorable coda, the granddaughter also revealed that her family used to receive countless boxes of crystallised fruit every year from people who’d heard and loved the story.
A BBC article 'Five-day office week will become the norm again' reports a prediction from the Centre for Cities Think Tank. The prediction intrigued me, as most other stuff I’m reading about ‘hybrid working’ suggests otherwise. How much the ‘prediction’ is actually advocacy is a very open question; the Centre for Cities obviously have an interest in people continuing to regularly commute to offices. It might be a bit like the time the CEO of WeWork claimed “employees can’t wait to get back to office” (superb responses in comments and quote-tweets). But the fact this statement appeared on BBC News made me wonder if we’ll see more of a work-from-home narrative war, as various groups use mainstream media make their preferred outcome seem like “the norm”.
I’m aware I keep recommending think-tank webinars in these newsletters, but haven’t actually told you how I’m locating them. I get them from the Smart Thinking website, which aggregates material from UK think tanks. I’m not a massive fan of the name, but the site itself has a great range of up-to-date material and features somewhat more niche/specialised think tanks. And the great thing about webinars – if you miss them, you can generally watch the recordings via whatever think tank’s YouTube channel (at higher speed if you feel fancy saving time). That's one of those lockdown features that I hope will persist.
Finally, some art. Jim is an artist who describes his work thus: People ask me to draw pictures on Microsoft Paint. So I draw pictures for people on Microsoft Paint. The results can be seen at ‘Jim’ll Paint It’ (website, Twitter, Facebook). They are incredible. His latest, a depiction of a Friday night at pub kicking out time in the style of the Bayeux Tapestry, is well worth a look.