Truth and Beauty – The Future We Deserve, Part 1

Here’s my notes from Vinay Gupta’s talk on “The Future We Deserve”, part 1 of a 3-week series. I may well have mis-summarized some of it, but the podcast’s available here (mp3), and others who were there are entirely encouraged to correct me. Diversity count: 23 people, 5 of whom presented as female, 6 of whom (including the speaker) were non-white, and 1 visibly non-able-bodied.

My editorial comments are in italics, and “QQ” is a question from the audience. [L] is a note of a book/paper/keyword I wanted to look up later.

Important question to ask: whether the future actually is amenable to analysis. Strict rationality and utilitarianism will inevitably fail, so at some point you will have to make decisions on moral grounds instead (is it better to save young people, or older people, or families? People here, or people there? To consider QALY, local priorities, or ripple effects?) And the thing which informs the moral frameworks we use to make those decisions is aesthetics. Quert: choice of beauty. Also, EO Wilson’s use of “concinnity”. That’s how we get the title of this series: truth and beauty. “I’m an engineer, and I think have a pretty good handle on truth by now, but I’m getting to level 80 and it’s full of artists! My artist friends are laughing at me, finally asking lots of questions. Join the club, white boy. …Beige boy.”

Aesthetics and artistic practices (which aren’t the same thing, of course) are heavily influenced by technology and the media we have available. Cf. McLuhan (“The medium is the message”, Postman (“When the only tool you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail”). On the other front, the arts drive technological/artisan practice too. Walking home past the fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square reminded me of that – Yinka Shonibare’s ship in a bottle is very much a non-trivial technological undertaking, and Rachel Whiteread’s inverted resin plinth even more so.

Nobody in this room knows for sure how big Africa is, or how many people live there. In a room full of smart, educated, passionate people who care about global justice, that’s a strong illustration of how incredibly biased the discourse is towards the global North and the wealthy.

My notes start going a bit nonlinear at this point.

[L] “The long encounter group”. Hundreds of millions of years effectively trapped around the fire at night, with the same people night after night. The combination of flickering light and stories: now we have television. David Brin makes a similar point in some of his futurist essays, IIRC.

“Weird distribution”: that thing where x% of people control X% of wealth. Definitely not a normal distribution – for all practical, ie. non-mathematical, purposes it looks a lot like an asymptotic curve. The line for the global 1% is at £22k per economic unit per year, or about US$36k-ish. That’s $100 a day, ie. a hundred normal people would live on what we consume. A lot of the deep weirdness in economics is related to Purchasing Power Parity. Economic footprints. We’re eating our seed corn, and asset-stripping the planet. Literally, setting fire to embodied complexity (deep-frozen information) and accelerating entropy.

Money models scarcity well, but plenty poorly. One reason behind the recent proliferation of alternative currencies is that people are looking for ways to model plenty, and reconceptualise use/exchange value.

[L] Martin Gardner (sp?), “The Survival of Smiths”. Over many iterations, small advantages produce very large results. Compound interest.

33% of all deaths are caused by poverty.

Some more demographic stats: the 7 billion people in the world comprise 2bn urban/elite rich, more than a billion in slums (Terminological note: slums are dense concentrations of housing, but they’re not towns in this sense, because they have no planning or governance or associated issues.) half a billion rural rich, and 3.5 billion peasants. So the popular economic narrative of normalcy – the default economic geography which informs our thinking on matters of wealth and standards of living – is flat-out wrong. The way we – the urban/elite rich – live is an aberration.

Billionaires herd money, rather than control it. Rendering it liquid would destroy most of it, and trying to give it away often Just Wouldn’t Work.

We’re running out of tigers. What would it feel like to show your grandchildren a picture or a video of a tiger, and then tell them that there aren’t any left?

We haven’t yet seen any proven extinctions of charismatic megafauna. What happens when we do?

Biodiversity and forest density, both disappearing fast. Again, we’re setting fire to embodied complexity.

People are beginning to understand that they’ve always been wrong. “The world is made of lies.” From my science background, this sounds familiar – “truth” is a series of decreasingly egregious errors and refinements in worldview. “My inheritance is from medicine, so epidemiology was a good route into thinking about these things.”

QQ: Regarding the 99% thing – was it any different in Ancient Rome?

VG: Basically, no. I think it’s inherent in the system that money will always breed more money. There’s no coercive solution to the problem that winners will keep winning, but there’s a lot of room to improve things at the bottom of the heap.

QQ: I’m going to accuse you. I grew up in a community of people who live on silt islands in the river, and none of this is relevant to them. You couldn’t get them into a room to talk about it, you couldn’t give them these solutions. Is this all about emotion, about wanting to feel good helping?

VG: Hm. I’m not an aid worker, I don’t have the skillset for that, I’m not a people person. When it comes to deploying help on the ground, I’d be in the bottom 5% of the class. I’d want to teach them germ theory so they can make a biosand filter for drinking water. What I do is the relationship between affordable technology and solvable problems. There are some basic principles that everyone needs: heating, shelter, sustainable toilets, crop rotation.

Not all relevant in these circumstances: living on a silt island, washed away every year and making you find a new island the next, means you don’t have to worry about sustaining the land. Crop rotation is irrelevant because next year you’ll get an entirely new field of incredibly rich, fertile silt to plant on. Composting toilets are also too heavyweight a solution to waste disposal. Riparian inverse-nomadic pattern – there’s almost certainly a proper anthropological term for it. I forgot to check later where/who this culture is, maybe next week.

QQ (followup): They’re resigned to extinction. It’s a natural part of life for them.

VG: There’s a saying amongst aid workers: “Save the willing first.”

QQ: Are you saying that a sense of proportion is the antidote to charm?

VG: Yes! That’s an excellent way to put it.

Almost every charity uses the Big Eyes modelling agency – that’s a thing I made up which supplies small emaciated brown children with empty bowls, rather than the normal-looking people (big strapping men, young women, older people in Western clothes, possibly not even brown people) they actually spend the money on helping. They do it because that substantially increases donation levels.

“They still have rickets in some parts of America.”

Razi: The traditional rural cultures are basically doing OK, and they have collective agency. The people at the very top, millionaires and billionaires, are basically a sideshow. The bit in the middle, the billion or more people living in slums, that’s unacceptable.

[General agreement]

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One Comment

  1. SkorpionUK
    Posted November 2, 2011 at 1:57 pm | Permalink

    RE slums: it’s also important to add infrastructure to the things slums don’t have, but it’s this infrastructure that’s critical to healthy survival.

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