‘Just like all British governments, they will act more or less in a hand to mouth way on the spur of the moment, but they will not think out and adopt a steady policy.’ Earl Cromer, 1896.
‘Fascinating that the same problems recur time after time, in almost every program, and that the management of the program, whether it happened to be government or industry, continues to avoid reality.’ George Mueller, pioneer of systems management and head of the Apollo programme to put man on the moon.
Traditional cultures, those that all humans lived in until quite recently and which still survive in pockets, don’t realise that they are living inside a particular perspective. They think that what they see is ‘reality’. It is, obviously, not their fault. It is not because they are stupid. It is a historical accident that they did/do not have access to mental models that help more accurate thinking about reality.
Westminster and the other political cultures dotted around the world are similar to these traditional cultures. They think they they are living in ‘reality’. The MPs and pundits get up, read each other, tweet at each other, give speeches, send press releases, have dinner, attack, fuck or fight each other, do the same tomorrow and think ‘this is reality’. Like traditional cultures they are wrong. They are living inside a particular perspective that enormously distorts reality.
They are trapped in thinking about today and their careers. They are trapped in thinking about incremental improvements. Almost nobody has ever been part of a high performance team responsible for a complex project. The speciality is a hot take to explain post facto what one cannot predict. They mostly don’t know what they don’t know. They don’t understand the decentralised information processing that allows markets to enable complex coordination. They don’t understand how scientific research works and they don’t value it. Their daily activity is massively constrained by the party and state bureaucracies that incentivise behaviour very different to what humanity needs to create long-term value. As Michael Nielsen (author of Reinventing Science) writes:
‘[M]uch of our intellectual elite who think they have “the solutions” have actually cut themselves off from understanding the basis for much of the most important human progress.’
Unlike traditional cultures, our modern political cultures don’t have the excuse of our hunter-gatherer ancestors. We could do better. But it is very very hard to escape the core imperatives that make big bureaucracies — public companies as well as state bureaucracies — so bad at learning. Warren Buffet explained decades ago how institutions actively fight against learning and fight to stay in a closed and vicious feedback loop:
‘My most surprising discovery: the overwhelming importance in business of an unseen force that we might call “the institutional imperative”. In business school, I was given no hint of the imperative’s existence and I did not intuitively understand it when I entered the business world. I thought then that decent, intelligence, and experienced managers would automatically make rational business decisions. But I learned the hard way that isn’t so. Instead rationality frequently wilts when the institutional imperative comes into play.
‘For example, 1) As if governed by Newton’s First Law, any institution will resist any change in its current direction. 2) … Corporate projects will materialise to soak up available funds. 3) Any business craving of the leader, however foolish, will quickly be supported by … his troops. 4) The behaviour of peer companies … will be mindlessly imitated.’
Almost nobody really learns from the world’s most successful investor about investing and how to run a successful business with good corporate governance. (People read what he writes but almost no investors choose to operate long-term like him, I think it is still true that not a single public company has copied his innovations with corporate governance like ‘no pay for company directors’, and governments have consistently rejected his and Munger’s advice about controlling the looting of public companies by management.) Almost nobody really learns how to do things better from the experience of dealing with this ‘institutional imperative’. We fail over and over again in the same way, trusting in institutions that are programmed to fail.
It is very very hard for humans to lift our eyes from today and to go out into the future and think about what could be done to bring the future back to the present. Like ants crawling around on the leaf, we political people only know our leaf.
Science has shown us a different way. Newton looked up from his leaf, looked far away from today, and created a new perspective — a new model of reality. It took an extreme genius to discover something like calculus but once discovered billions of people who are far from being geniuses can use this new perspective. Science advances by turning new ideas into standard ideas so each generation builds on the last.
Politics does the equivalent of constantly trying to reinvent children’s arithmetic and botching it. It does not build reliable foundations of knowledge. Archimedes is no longer cutting edge. Thucydides and Sun Tzu are still cutting edge. Even though Tetlock and others have shown how to start making similar progress with politics, our political cultures fiercely resist learning and fight ferociously to stay in closed and failing feedback loops.
In many ways our political culture has regressed as it has become more and more audio-visual and less and less literate. (Only 31% of US college graduates can read at a basic level. I’d guess it’s similar here. See end.) I’ve experimented with the way Jeff Bezos runs meetings at Amazon: i.e start the meeting with giving people a 5-10 page memo to read. Impossible in Westminster, nobody will sit and read like that! Officials have tried and failed for a year to get senior ministers to engage with complex written material about the EU negotiations. TV news dominates politics and is extremely low-bandwidth: it contains a few hundred words and rarely uses graphics properly. Evan Davis illustrates a comment about ‘going down the plughole’ with a picture of water down a plughole and Nick Robinson illustrates a comment about ‘the economy taking off’ with a picture of a plane taking off. The constant flow of bullshit from the likes of Robert Peston and Jon Snow dominates the medium because competition has been impossible until recently. BUT, although technology is making these charlatans less relevant (good) it also creates new problems and will not necessarily improve the culture.
Watching political news makes you dumber — switch it off and read books! If you work in it, either QUIT or go on holiday and come back determined to subvert it. How? Start with a previous blog which has some ideas, like tracking properly which people have a record of getting things right and wrong. Every editor I’ve suggested this to winces and says ‘impossible’. Insiders fear accountability and competition.
Today, the anniversary of the referendum, is a good day to forget the babble in the bubble and think about lessons from another project that changed the world, the famous ARPA/PARC team of the 1960s and 1970s.
ARPA/PARC and ‘capturing the heavens’: The best way to predict the future is to invent it
The panic over Sputnik brought many good things such as a huge increase in science funding. America also created the Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA, which later added ‘Defense’ and became DARPA). Its job was to fund high risk / high payoff technology development. In the 1960s and 1970s, a combination of unusual people and unusually wise funding from ARPA created a community that in turn invented the internet, or ‘the intergalactic network’ as Licklider originally called it, and the personal computer. One of the elements of this community was PARC, a research centre working for Xerox. As Bill Gates said, he and Steve Jobs essentially broke into PARC, stole their ideas, and created Microsoft and Apple.
The ARPA/PARC project has created over 35 TRILLION DOLLARS of value for society and counting.
The whole story is fascinating in many ways. I won’t go into the technological aspects. I just want to say something about the process.
What does a process that produces ideas that change the world look like?
One of the central figures was Alan Kay. One of the most interesting things about the project is that not only has almost nobody tried to repeat this sort of research but the business world has even gone out of its way to spread mis-information about it because it was seen as so threatening to business-as-usual.
I will sketch a few lessons from one of Kay’s pieces but I urge you to read the whole thing.
‘This is what I call “The power of the context” or “Point of view is worth 80 IQ points”. Science and engineering themselves are famous examples, but there are even more striking processes within these large disciplines. One of the greatest works of art from that fruitful period of ARPA/PARC research in the 60s and 70s was the almost invisible context and community that catalysed so many researchers to be incredibly better dreamers and thinkers. That it was a great work of art is confirmed by the world-changing results that appeared so swiftly, and almost easily. That it was almost invisible, in spite of its tremendous success, is revealed by the disheartening fact today that, as far as I’m aware, no governments and no companies do edge-of-the-art research using these principles.’
‘[W]hen I think of ARPA/PARC, I think first of good will, even before brilliant people… Good will and great interest in graduate students as “world-class researchers who didn’t have PhDs yet” was the general rule across the ARPA community.
‘[I]t is no exaggeration to say that ARPA/PARC had “visions rather than goals” and “funded people, not projects”. The vision was “interactive computing as a complementary intellectual partner for people pervasively networked world-wide”. By not trying to derive specific goals from this at the funding side, ARPA/PARC was able to fund rather different and sometimes opposing points of view.
‘The pursuit of Art always sets off plans and goals, but plans and goals don’t always give rise to Art. If “visions not goals” opens the heavens, it is important to find artistic people to conceive the projects.
‘Thus the “people not projects” principle was the other cornerstone of ARPA/PARC’s success. Because of the normal distribution of talents and drive in the world, a depressingly large percentage of organizational processes have been designed to deal with people of moderate ability, motivation, and trust. We can easily see this in most walks of life today, but also astoundingly in corporate, university, and government research. ARPA/PARC had two main thresholds: self-motivation and ability. They cultivated people who “had to do, paid or not” and “whose doings were likely to be highly interesting and important”. Thus conventional oversight was not only not needed, but was not really possible. “Peer review” wasn’t easily done even with actual peers. The situation was “out of control”, yet extremely productive and not at all anarchic.
‘”Out of control” because artists have to do what they have to do. “Extremely productive” because a great vision acts like a magnetic field from the future that aligns all the little iron particle artists to point to “North” without having to see it. They then make their own paths to the future. Xerox often was shocked at the PARC process and declared it out of control, but they didn’t understand that the context was so powerful and compelling and the good will so abundant, that the artists worked happily at their version of the vision. The results were an enormous collection of breakthroughs.
‘Our game is more like art and sports than accounting, in that high percentages of failure are quite OK as long as enough larger processes succeed… [I]n most processes today — and sadly in most important areas of technology research — the administrators seem to prefer to be completely in control of mediocre processes to being “out of control” with superproductive processes. They are trying to “avoid failure” rather than trying to “capture the heavens”.
‘All of these principles came together a little over 30 years ago to eventually give rise to 1500 Altos, Ethernetworked to: each other, Laserprinters, file servers and the ARPAnet, distributed to many kinds of end-users to be heavily used in real situations. This anticipated the commercial availability of this genre by 10-15 years. The best way to predict the future is to invent it.
‘[W]e should realize that many of the most important ARPA/PARC ideas haven’t yet been adopted by the mainstream. For example, it is amazing to me that most of Doug Engelbart’s big ideas about “augmenting the collective intelligence of groups working together” have still not taken hold in commercial systems. What looked like a real revolution twice for end-users, first with spreadsheets and then with Hypercard, didn’t evolve into what will be commonplace 25 years from now, even though it could have. Most things done by most people today are still “automating paper, records and film” rather than “simulating the future”. More discouraging is that most computing is still aimed at adults in business, and that aimed at nonbusiness and children is mainly for entertainment and apes the worst of television. We see almost no use in education of what is great and unique about computer modeling and computer thinking. These are not technological problems but a lack of perspective. Must we hope that the open-source software movements will put things right?
‘The ARPA/PARC history shows that a combination of vision, a modest amount of funding, with a felicitous context and process can almost magically give rise to new technologies that not only amplify civilization, but also produce tremendous wealth for the society. Isn’t it time to do this again by Reason, even with no Cold War to use as an excuse? How about helping children of the world grow up to think much better than most adults do today? This would truly create “The Power of the Context”.’
Note how this story runs contrary to how free market think tanks and pundits describe technological development. The impetus for most of this development came from government funding, not markets.
Also note that every attempt since the 1950s to copy ARPA and JASON (the semi-classified group that partly gave ARPA its direction) in the UK has been blocked by Whitehall. The latest attempt was in 2014 when the Cabinet Office swatted aside the idea. Hilariously its argument was ‘DARPA has had a lot of failures’ thus demonstrating extreme ignorance about the basic idea — the whole point is you must have failures and if you don’t have lots of failures then you are failing!
People later claimed that while PARC may have changed the world it never made any money for XEROX. This is ‘absolute bullshit’ (Kay). It made billions from the laser printer alone and overall Xerox made 250 times what they invested in PARC before they went bust. In 1983 they fired Bob Taylor, the manager of PARC and the guy who made it all happen.
‘They hated [Taylor] for the very reason that most companies hate people who are doing something different, because it makes middle and upper management extremely uncomfortable. The last thing they want to do is make trillions, they want to make a few millions in a comfortable way’ (Kay).
Someone finally listened to Kay recently. ‘YC Research’, the research arm of the world’s most successful (by far) technology incubator, is starting to fund people in this way. I am not aware of any similar UK projects though I know that a small network of people are thinking again about how something like this could be done here. If you can help them, take a risk and help them! Someone talk to science minister Jo Johnson but be prepared for the Treasury’s usual ignorant bullshit — ‘what are we buying for our money, and how can we put in place appropriate oversight and compliance?’ they will say!
Why is this relevant to the referendum?
As we ponder the future of the UK-EU relationship shaped amid the farce of modern Whitehall, we should think hard about the ARPA/PARC example: how a small group of people can make a huge breakthrough with little money but the right structure, the right ways of thinking, and the right motives.
Those of us outside the political system thinking ‘we know we can do so much better than this but HOW can we break through the bullshit?’ need to change our perspective and gain 80 IQ points.
This real picture is a metaphor for the political culture: ad hoc solutions that are either bad or don’t scale.
ARPA said ‘Let’s get rid of all the wires’. How do we ‘get rid of all the wires’ and build something different that breaks open the closed and failing political cultures? Winning the referendum was just one step that helps clear away dead wood but we now need to build new things.
The ARPA vision that aligned the artists ‘like little iron filings’ was:
‘Computers are destined to become interactive intellectual amplifiers for everyone in the world universally networked worldwide’ (Licklider).
We need a motivating vision aimed not at tomorrow but at changing the basic wiring of the whole system, a vision that can align ‘the little iron filings’, and then start building for the long-term.
I will go into what I think this vision could be and how to do it another day. I think it is possible to create something new that could scale very fast and enable us to do politics and government extremely differently, as different to today as the internet and PC were to the post-war mainframes. This would enable us to build huge long-term value for humanity in a relatively short time (less than 20 years). To create it we need a process as well suited to the goal as the ARPA/PARC project was and incorporating many of its principles.
We must try to escape the current system with its periodic meltdowns and international crises. These crises move 500-1,000 times faster than that of summer 1914. Our destructive potential is at least a million-fold greater than it was in 1914. Yet we have essentially the same hierarchical command-and-control decision-making systems in place now that could not even cope with 1914 technology and pace. We have dodged nuclear wars by fluke because individuals made snap judgements in minutes. Nobody who reads the history of these episodes can think that this is viable long-term, and we will soon have another wave of innovation to worry about with autonomous robots and genetic engineering. Technology gives us no option but to try to overcome evolved instincts like destroying out-group competitors.
Ironically, one of the very few people in politics who understood the sort of thinking needed was … Jean Monnet, the architect of the EEC/EU! Monnet understood how to step back from today and build institutions. He worked operationally to prepare the future:
‘If there was stiff competition round the centres of power, there was practically none in the area where I wanted to work – preparing the future.’
Monnet was one of the few people in modern politics who really deserve the label ‘genius’. The story of how he wangled the creation of his institutions through the daily chaos of post-war politics is a lesson to anybody who wants to get things done.
But the institutions he created are in many ways the opposite of what the world needs. Their core operating principle is perpetual centralisation of power in the hands of an all powerful bureaucracy (Commission) and Court (ECJ). Nothing that works well in the world works like this!
Thanks to the prominence of Farage the dominant story among educated people is that those who got us out of the EU want to take us back to the pre-1914 era of hostile competing nation states. Nothing could be further from the truth. The key people in Vote Leave wanted and want not just what is best for Britain but what is best for all humanity. We want more international cooperation, not less. The problem with the EU is not that it is about international cooperation but that it is so bad at it and actually undermines it.
Britain leaving forces those with power to ask: how can all European countries trade freely and cooperate without subscribing to Monnet’s bureaucratic centralism? This will help Europe in the long-term. To those who favour this bureaucratic centralism and uniformity, reflect on the different trajectories of Europe and China post-Renaissance. In Europe, regulatory competition (so Columbus could chase funding in Spain after rejection in Portugal) brought immense gains. In China, centrally directed uniformity led to centuries of stagnation. America’s model of competitive federalism created by the founding fathers has been a far more effective engine of civilisation, growth, and new knowledge than the Monnet-Delors Single Market model.
If Britain were to focus on science and education with huge resources and a new-found seriousness, then this regulatory diversity would help not just Britain but all Europe and the global science community. We could make Britain the best place in the world to be for those who can invent the future. Like Alan Kay and his colleagues, we could create whole new industries. We could call Jeff Bezos and say, ‘Ok Jeff, you want a permanent international manned moon base, let’s talk about who does what, but not with that old rocket technology.’ No country on earth funds science as well as we already know how it could be done — that is something for Britain to do that would create real long-term value for humanity, instead of the ‘punching above our weight’ and ‘special relationship’ bullshit that passes for strategy in London. How we change our domestic institutions is within our power and will have much much greater influence on our long-term future than whatever deal is botched together with Brussels. We have the resources. But can we break the system open? If we don’t then we’re likely to go down the path we were already going down inside the EU, like the deluded Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard claiming ‘I am big, it’s the pictures that got small.’
Vote Leave and ‘good will’
Although Vote Leave was enmeshed in a sort of collective lunacy we managed, barely, to fend it off from the inner working of the campaign. Much of my job (sadly) was just trying to maintain a cordon around the core team so they could deliver the campaign with as little disruption as possible. We managed this because among the core people we had great good will. The stories of the campaign focus on the lunacy, but the people who really made it work remember the goodwill.
A year ago tonight I was sitting alone in a room thinking ‘we’ve won, now…’ when the walls started rumbling. At first I couldn’t make it out then, as Tim Shipman tells the story in his definitive book on the campaign, I heard ‘Dom, Dom, DOM’ — the team had declared victory. I went next door…
Thanks to everybody who sacrificed something. As I said that night and as I said in my long blog on the campaign, I’ve been given credit I don’t deserve and which rightly belongs to others — Cleo Watson, Richard ‘Ricardo’ Howell, Brother Starkie, Oliver Lewis, Lord Suart et al. Now, let’s think about what should come next…
Ps. Kay also points out that the real computer revolution won’t happen until people fulfil the original vision of enabling children to use this powerful way of thinking:
‘The real printing revolution was a qualitative change in thought and argument that lagged the hardware inventions by almost two centuries. The special quality of computers is their ability to rapidly simulate arbitrary descriptions, and the real computer revolution won’t happen until children can learn to read, write, argue and think in this powerful new way. We should all try to make this happen much sooner than 200 or even 20 more years!’
Almost nobody in education policy is aware of the educational context for the ARPA/PARC project which also speaks volumes about the abysmal field of ‘education research/policy’.
* Re the US literacy statistic, cf. A First Look at the Literacy of America’s Adults in the 21st Century, National Assessment of Adult Literacy, U.S. Dept of Education, NCES 2006.