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Swaying daisies sing a lazy song beneath the sun
This week: how political correctness is uniting America, why we don't need to worry about killer robots just yet, and the problem with smart people.
"Hidden Tribes: A Study of America's Polarized Landscape" is the title of a fascinating new study from More In Common, the political foundation set up in the wake of Jo Cox's murder. One of its findings is that 80% of Americans agree that "political correctness is a problem". Four in five! That means agreement to it is high across the board, among women and black and Latino voters, and not just the white working class. It's significantly higher among the working classes in general than among the college-educated middle class. Now, one can ask questions about what different people understand by this term, but however you look at it, it seems significant. As the political scientist Yascha Mounk points out, it cuts against the idea that America's primary cultural divide is between old white angry people and young multi-ethnic woke folk. Indeed, what the report calls the "progressive activist" tribe is something of an outlier to the rest of the population, in terms of attitudes. There's no doubt in my mind that political correctness was a necessary counter to prevailing assumptions what was OK to say about who in public discourse. But it seems to have rigidified into a kind of social cryptography, designed to protect the status of certain elites. People at the top of a society are always inventing new ways to signal to each other that they belong, and that others do not. PC may not have started out that way, but it has been appropriated for that end. You either know the correct codes - the latest terminology and acronyms - in which case you are admitted to the inner ring, or you don't, in which case you are doomed to remain mystified and excluded, and kind of annoyed. The report suggests that feeling of exclusion is surprisingly widespread but that isn't to say white racial resentment is not politically significant. One of the seven tribes in the report is the "Politically Disengaged". It's the largest group - one quarter of all adults. Nearly half of them don't identify with a party. It's this group which believes, much more so than traditional conservatives, that to be American is to be white. Trump's 2016 can largely be explained by his ability to get this group to the polls. And there is good evidence that PC helped him to do that.
If you're even mildly interested in the dynamics of tech innovation then there's lots of good stuff in this post on the relationship between apps and infrastructures - which comes first? I like his historical examples: in aviation, the app (planes) came long before the infrastructure (airports).
Next month I'm running a training day for ad agency leaders at the IPA on "how to be human in the age of smart machines". One my favourite voices in the field of AI is Rodney Brooks, who has been at the coalface of AI as a researcher and entrepreneur for 40 years. Brooks has an incisive mind and brings a practitioner's weary scepticism to the cloud of hype - utopian and dystopian - that engulfs this topic. One of his refrains, when confronted with a prediction about how AI will save or destroy the world, is "this stuff is hard." Progress will be slower than people think. Yes, DeepMind's AlphaGo beat Lee Sedol at Go, but it can't do anything else; we're as far as ever from machines that can think outside of the specific task we program them for. AlphaGo had a team of 200 engineers assisting it; Sedol's only support was coffee. Just because the technology has advanced relatively quickly in recent years, doesn't mean it will continue at the same rate (Brooks calls this "the exponential fallacy"). Read his essay on the 'seven deadly sins of AI predictions" for more, and listen to his interview on the excellent EconTalk podcast (transcript at link). The latter includes a fascinating aside on the startling extent to which our societies have, in a very short time, become very reliant on GPS, and what would happen if a terrorist organisation managed to knock some of those satellites out of orbit. Oh and one more thing - those videos of scarily advanced robots? Don't be taken in.
I'm really interested in the relationship between stupidity and intelligence - at how, the more you look at it, the the less they seem like opposites. Clever people can be stupid in all sorts of ways, and it's often because of rather than despite their intelligence. Here's a good post on this topic from a Google engineer who examines a problem faced by himself and his colleagues: smart people have "an ability to convincingly rationalise just about anything".
AND THIS BOY CAN SING
Beautifully written appreciation of Paul McCartney, by James Parker in the Atlantic. It made me smile. I particularly loved the bits on Mother Nature's Son and Maybe I'm Amazed but the whole thing is great (oh and he's so right about And Your Bird Can Sing; I'm only surprised he didn't mention the wonderful outtake of it during which Paul and John break into unstoppable giggles). I agree with Parker: McCartney has given us so much happiness over the last 50 years, it's only fair we give some love back. It's not a surprise this piece is in an American magazine. Love for McCartney is less qualified in America than it is in Britain, where's he still underrated, in my view. We haven't quite got him in focus yet. Maybe I need to write my own appreciation.
CHRIS REA'S EGG BATH
This story from another national treasure, Bob Mortimer, will make all your worries about the world disappear for a few minutes.
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