A new Deloitte University Press piece on Artificial Intelligence technologies is being widely read online. Like many other articles in recent months, it takes a somewhat anodyne approach to the possibility of major disruption from AI tech, citing ‘history’.
The article caused a few thoughts to coalesce around the AI (and related technologies) issue, which is insistently seeking attention everywhere.
Stepping away, for a moment, from people some may insinuate are bloviators on either side of the debate (although how one can describe individuals as clued-in as Stephen Hawking or Elon Musk as such poses some difficulty), here are some brief queries of concern.
Why is a management thought culture otherwise suffused with the zephyrs of ‘disruption’, from Clayton Christensen down (if you opt to ignore Jill Lepore and place Prof. Clay in that lofty position), so averse to considering the possibility of unprecedented disruption – not merely in employment, but in the larger social context in which business gets nourished – when it comes to AI-driven automation? Joseph Heller might have reminded us to stop being like those modernist portraits with eyes stuck on only one side of the face.
Is it unreasonable when the metronomic citing of the purportedly benign history of ‘similar’ automation by many business professionals otherwise devoted to breaking free of historical shackles stirs motes of cynicism?
The other bromide that gets bandied about is the phrase ‘in the near future’, as in ‘automation of many complex jobs is unlikely to happen in the near future’. But how far away is the ‘medium-term’ or the ‘long-term’ future? About 15-20 years, if one averages across the various future-gazing articles. Which seems to leave the people we vaguely imagine as ‘running the world’ only about 3-4 electoral cycles to start giving serious thought to potential social problems, and how they might be mitigated. Would it be circumspect to set any limits on AI-driven automation? If joblessness is likely to be rife, is an assured basic income for everyone something that’s up for discussion? Not going to be easy, seeing the presently tangled climate-policy postures of most politicians – the vast majority of whom are vote-world professionals qualified in law or PPE etc. in a tech-saturated world, and, like in the lead up to the World Wars, may be failing to comprehend the vast, latent noxiousness of certain areas of human endeavour.
So what sets apart Artificial Intelligence technologies from the other automation revolutions that occurred over the past 200-or-so years? Unambiguously: Plasticity. AI systems are evolving towards the wonderful taffy plasticity of the human mind itself, which can do any job in the world with adequate training – which means that no area of human endeavour will remain free of supra-human achievement by AI-like systems. Only the time-frame is in some dispute. And even a lesser, sub-AI plasticity would still almost certainly have an enormous dislocating impact on society.
Yes, I can already hear the familiar refrain: “But automation will free up our time for indulging in creative pursuits!” But what satisfaction, Sir/Madam, would those ‘creative pursuits’ provide us when we see AI algorithms producing far more beautiful artistic or literary output etc. than we ever could, and tailored to our ‘individual tastes’? Unlikely to do our egos much good, and a possible recipe for a slow, collective pickling of the human brain?
Perhaps not, but we should at least take a good, hard look at the chances of such an unhinging scenario and explore ways to deflect it.
As Jacob Bronowski once memorably said, paraphrasing Oliver Cromwell: when the stakes are so high, we should at least consider the possibility that we may be wrong.
The first chapter of Joseph Heller’s classic Catch-22 was published 60 years ago. It appeared originally as Catch-18, but had to be renamed – happily, to a more rhythmic phrase – in order to avoid confusion with a Leon Uris book. The hilarious, caustic satire, acknowledged as one of the greatest novels of the 20th century, has given us much more than that everyday phrase we use to label paradoxical situations. It is also a masterly study of organisational behaviour, counting the popular Dilbert cartoon strip among its philosophical progeny.
Over the years, many of us have come to recognise characters and situations from Catch-22 popping up in our work lives. Here, in brief extracts from the book, are some of the more memorable ones.
‘Sure there’s a catch,’ Doc Daneeka replied. ‘Catch-22. Anyone who wants to get out of combat duty isn’t really crazy.’ There was only one catch and that was Catch-22, which specified that a concern for one’s own safety in the face of dangers that were real and immediate was the process of a rational mind. Orr was crazy and could be grounded. All he had to do was ask; and as soon as he did, he would no longer be crazy and would have to fly more missions. Orr would be crazy to fly more missions and sane if he didn’t, but if he was sane he had to fly them. If he flew them he was crazy and didn’t have to; but if he didn’t want to he was sane and had to. Yossarian was moved very deeply by the absolute simplicity of this clause of Catch-22 and let out a respectful whistle. ‘That’s some catch, that Catch-22,’ he observed. ‘It’s the best there is,’ Doc Daneeka agreed.
Yossarian – The Shirker
Yossarian had everything he wanted in the hospital. The food wasn’t too bad, and his meals were brought to him in bed. There were extra rations of fresh meat, and during the hot part of the afternoon he and the others were served chilled fruit juice or chilled chocolate milk. Apart from the doctors and the nurses, no one ever disturbed him. For a little while in the morning he had to censor letters, but he was free after that to spend the rest of each day lying around idly with a clear conscience. He was comfortable in the hospital, and it was easy to stay on because he always ran a temperature of 101. He was even more comfortable than Dunbar, who had to keep falling down on his face in order to get his meals brought to him in bed.
… Actually, there were many officers’ clubs that Yossarian had not helped build, but he was proudest of the one on Pianosa. It was a sturdy and complex monument to his powers of determination. Yossarian never went there to help until it was finished; then he went there often, so pleased was he with the large, fine, rambling, shingled building. It was truly a splendid structure, and Yossarian throbbed with a mighty sense of accomplishment each time he gazed at it and reflected that none of the work that had gone into it was his.
…But Yossarian knew he was right, because, as he explained to Clevinger, to the best of his knowledge he had never been wrong. Everywhere he looked was a nut, and it was all a sensible young gentleman like himself could do to maintain his perspective amid so much madness. And it was urgent that he did, for he knew his life was in peril.
…Havermeyer was a lead bombardier who never missed. Yossarian was a lead bombardier who had been demoted because he no longer gave a damn whether he missed or not. He had decided to live forever or die in the attempt, and his only mission each time he went up was to come down alive.
The Bomber Crew
‘Bomb bay clear,’ Sergeant Knight in the back would announce. ‘Did we hit the bridge?’ McWatt would ask. ‘I couldn’t see, sir, I kept getting bounced around back here pretty hard and I couldn’t see. Everything’s covered with smoke now and I can’t see.’ ‘Hey, Aarfy, did the bombs hit the target?’ ‘What target?’ Captain Aardvaark, Yossarian’s plump, pipe-smoking navigator, would say from the confusion of maps he had created at Yossarian’s side in the nose of the ship. ‘I don’t think we’re at the target yet. Are we?’ ‘Yossarian, did the bombs hit the target?’ ‘What bombs?’ answered Yossarian, whose only concern had been the flak. ‘Oh, well,’ McWatt would sing, ‘what the hell.’ Yossarian did not give a damn whether he hit the target or not, just as long as Havermeyer or one of the other lead bombardiers did and they never had to go back.
Clevinger knew so much because Clevinger was a genius with a pounding heart and blanching face. He was a gangling, gawky, feverish, famish-eyed brain. As a Harvard undergraduate he had won prizes in scholarship for just about everything, and the only reason he had not won prizes in scholarship for everything else was that he was too busy signing petitions, circulating petitions and challenging petitions, joining discussion groups and resigning from discussion groups, attending youth congresses, picketing other youth congresses and organizing student committees in defense of dismissed faculty members. Everyone agreed that Clevinger was certain to go far in the academic world. In short, Clevinger was one of those people with lots of intelligence and no brains, and everyone knew it except those who soon found it out. In short, he was a dope. … He often looked to Yossarian like one of those people hanging around modern museums with both eyes together on one side of a face. It was an illusion, of course, generated by Clevinger’s predilection for staring fixedly at one side of a question and never seeing the other side at all. Politically, he was a humanitarian who did know right from left and was trapped uncomfortably between the two. He was constantly defending his Communist friends to his right-wing enemies and his right-wing friends to his Communist enemies, and he was thoroughly detested by both groups, who never defended him to anyone because they thought he was a dope. He was a very serious, very earnest and very conscientious dope. … He was a militant idealist who crusaded against racial bigotry by growing faint in its presence. He knew everything about literature except how to enjoy it. Yossarian tried to help him. ‘Don’t be a dope,’ he had counseled Clevinger…
…he was a dope who would rather be a corpse than bury one.
…Clevinger had a mind, and Lieutenant Scheisskopf had noticed that people with minds tended to get pretty smart at times. Such men were dangerous, and even the new cadet officers whom Clevinger had helped into office were eager to give damning testimony against him. The case against Clevinger was open and shut. The only thing missing was something to charge him with.
…Clevinger was guilty, of course, or he would not have been accused, and since the only way to prove it was to find him guilty, it was their patriotic duty to do so.
Orr was kneeling on the floor of the tent. He worked without pause, taking the faucet apart, spreading all the tiny pieces out carefully, counting and then studying each one interminably as though he had never seen anything remotely similar before, and then reassembling the whole apparatus, over and over and over and over again, with no loss of patience or interest, no sign of fatigue, no indication of ever concluding. Yossarian watched him tinkering and felt certain he would be compelled to murder him in cold blood if he did not stop.
General Peckem was a general with whom neatness definitely counted. He was a spry, suave and very precise general who knew the circumference of the equator and always wrote ‘enhanced’ when he meant ‘increased’. He was a prick, and no one knew this better than General Dreedle, who was incensed by General Peckem’s recent directive requiring all tents in the Mediterranean theater of operations to be pitched along parallel lines with entrances facing back proudly toward the Washington Monument.
Colonel Cargill, General Peckem’s troubleshooter, was a forceful, ruddy man. Before the war he had been an alert, hardhitting, aggressive marketing executive. He was a very bad marketing executive. Colonel Cargill was so awful a marketing executive that his services were much sought after by firms eager to establish losses for tax purposes. Throughout the civilized world, from Battery Park to Fulton Street, he was known as a dependable man for a fast tax write-off. His prices were high, for failure often did not come easily. He had to start at the top and work his way down, and with sympathetic friends in Washington, losing money was no simple matter. It took months of hard work and careful misplanning. A person misplaced, disorganized, miscalculated, overlooked everything and opened every loophole, and just when he thought he had it made, the government gave him a lake or a forest or an oilfield and spoiled everything. Even with such handicaps, Colonel Cargill could be relied on to run the most prosperous enterprise into the ground. He was a self-made man who owed his lack of success to nobody.
…‘It takes brains not to make money,’ Colonel Cargill wrote in one of the homiletic memoranda he regularly prepared for circulation over General Peckem’s signature. ‘Any fool can make money these days and most of them do. But what about people with talent and brains? Name, for example, one poet who makes money.’ ‘T. S. Eliot,’ ex-P.F.C. Wintergreen said in his mail-sorting cubicle at Twenty-seventh Air Force Headquarters, and slammed down the telephone without identifying himself. Colonel Cargill, in Rome, was perplexed.
The Texan turned out to be good-natured, generous and likable. In three days no one could stand him.
The Hospital Process for Soldiers in White
The soldier in white was encased from head to toe in plaster and gauze. He had two useless legs and two useless arms. He had been smuggled into the ward during the night, and the men had no idea he was among them until they awoke in the morning and saw the two strange legs hoisted from the hips, the two strange arms anchored up perpendicularly, all four limbs pinioned strangely in air by lead weights suspended darkly above him that never moved. Sewn into the bandages over the insides of both elbows were zippered lips through which he was fed clear fluid from a clear jar. A silent zinc pipe rose from the cement on his groin and was coupled to a slim rubber hose that carried waste from his kidneys and dripped it efficiently into a clear, stoppered jar on the floor. When the jar on the floor was full, the jar feeding his elbow was empty, and the two were simply switched quickly so that the stuff could drip back into him.
Milo Minderbinder, man of enterprise
[Milo’s face] was the face of a man of hardened integrity who could no more consciously violate the moral principles on which his virtue rested than he could transform himself into a despicable toad… One of these moral principles was that it was never a sin to charge as much as the traffic would bear.
… ‘What’s this?’ cried McWatt, staring in mystification at the ripped half of his bedsheet. ‘It’s half of the bedsheet that was stolen from your tent this morning,’ Milo explained. ‘I’ll bet you didn’t even know it was stolen.’ ‘Why should anyone want to steal half a bedsheet?’ Yossarian asked. Milo grew flustered. ‘You don’t understand,’ he protested. ‘He stole the whole bedsheet, and I got it back with the package of pitted dates you invested. That’s why the quarter of the bedsheet is yours. You made a very handsome return on your investment, particularly since you’ve gotten back every pitted date you gave me.’ Milo next addressed himself to McWatt. ‘Half the bedsheet is yours because it was all yours to begin with, and I really don’t understand what you’re complaining about, since you wouldn’t have any part of it if Captain Yossarian and I hadn’t intervened in your behalf.’ ‘Who’s complaining?’ McWatt exclaimed. ‘I’m just trying to figure out what I can do with half a bedsheet.’ ‘There are lots of things you can do with half a bedsheet,’ Milo assured him. ‘The remaining quarter of the bedsheet I’ve set aside for myself as a reward for my enterprise, work and initiative. It’s not for myself, you understand, but for the syndicate. That’s something you might do with half the bedsheet. You can leave it in the syndicate and watch it grow.’
…Don’t you understand?’ But Yossarian still didn’t understand either how Milo could buy eggs in Malta for seven cents apiece and sell them at a profit in Pianosa for five cents.
Doc Daneeka, the whiner
‘You think you’ve got troubles?’ Doc Daneeka rebuked him grievingly. ‘What about me? I lived on peanuts for eight years while I learned how to be a doctor. After the peanuts, I lived on chicken feed in my own office until I could build up a practice decent enough to even pay expenses. Then, just as the shop was finally starting to show a profit, they drafted me. I don’t know what you’re complaining about.’
.. ‘Oh, I’m not complaining. I know there’s a war on. I know a lot of people are going to have to suffer for us to win it. But why must I be one of them? Why don’t they draft some of these old doctors who keep shooting their kissers off in public about what big sacrifices the medical game stands ready to make? I don’t want to make sacrifices. I want to make dough.’ Doc Daneeka was a very neat, clean man whose idea of a good time was to sulk. …Doc Daneeka was personally familiar with a number of things that were drastically wrong… He was like a man who had grown frozen with horror once and had never come completely unthawed… Actually, he was a very warm, compassionate man who never stopped feeling sorry for himself.
Catch-22 at the ‘Educational Sessions’
Group Headquarters was alarmed, for there was no telling what people might find out once they felt free to ask whatever questions they wanted to [at the educational sessions]. Colonel Cathcart sent Colonel Korn to stop it, and Colonel Korn succeeded with a rule governing the asking of questions. Colonel Korn’s rule was a stroke of genius, Colonel Korn explained in his report to Colonel Cathcart. Under Colonel Korn’s rule, the only people permitted to ask questions were those who never did. Soon the only people attending were those who never asked questions, and the sessions were discontinued altogether, since Clevinger, the corporal and Colonel Korn agreed that it was neither possible nor necessary to educate people who never questioned anything.
Lieutenant Scheisskopf was an R.O.T.C. graduate who was rather glad that war had broken out, since it gave him an opportunity to wear an officer’s uniform every day and say ‘Men’ in a clipped, military voice to the bunches of kids who fell into his clutches every eight weeks on their way to the butcher’s block. He was an ambitious and humorless Lieutenant Scheisskopf, who confronted his responsibilities soberly and smiled only when some rival officer at the Santa Ana Army Air Force Base came down with a lingering disease. He had poor eyesight and chronic sinus trouble, which made war especially exciting for him, since he was in no danger of going overseas.
Team Training & Development
General Dreedle wanted his men to spend as much time out on the skeet-shooting range as the facilities and their flight schedule would allow. Shooting skeet eight hours a month was excellent training for them. It trained them to shoot skeet.
Chief White Halfoat, anti-racist
“Some of those invitations were mighty generous, but we couldn’t accept any because we were Indians and all the best hotels that were inviting us wouldn’t accept Indians as guests. Racial prejudice is a terrible thing, Yossarian. It really is. It’s a terrible thing to treat a decent, loyal Indian like a nigger, kike, wop or spic.” Chief White Halfoat nodded slowly with conviction.
Hungry Joe and his Nerves
Hungry Joe was too firmly embedded in calamities of his own to care how Doc Daneeka felt. There were the noises, for instance. Small ones enraged him and he hollered himself hoarse at Aarfy for the wet, sucking sounds he made puffing on his pipe, at Orr for tinkering, at McWatt for the explosive snap he gave each card he turned over when he dealt at blackjack or poker, at Dobbs for letting his teeth chatter as he went blundering clumsily about bumping into things. Hungry Joe was a throbbing, ragged mass of motile irritability. The steady ticking of a watch in a quiet room crashed like torture against his unshielded brain.
Colonel Cathcart, Consummate Manager
Colonel Cathcart had courage and never hesitated to volunteer his men for any target available. No target was too dangerous for his group to attack…
…Colonel Cathcart was infused with the democratic spirit: he believed that all men were created equal, and he therefore spurned all men outside Group Headquarters with equal fervor. Nevertheless, he believed in his men. As he told them frequently in the briefing room, he believed they were at least ten missions better than any other outfit and felt that any who did not share this confidence he had placed in them could get the hell out. The only way they could get the hell out, though, as Yossarian learned when he flew to visit ex-P.F.C. Wintergreen, was by flying the extra ten missions.
… Colonel Cathcart was a slick, successful, slipshod, unhappy man of thirty-six who lumbered when he walked and wanted to be a general. He was dashing and dejected, poised and chagrined. He was complacent and insecure, daring in the administrative stratagems he employed to bring himself to the attention of his superiors and craven in his concern that his schemes might all backfire. He was handsome and unattractive, a swashbuckling, beefy, conceited man who was putting on fat and was tormented chronically by prolonged seizures of apprehension. Colonel Cathcart was conceited because he was a full colonel with a combat command at the age of only thirty-six; and Colonel Cathcart was dejected because although he was already thirty-six he was still only a full colonel… He was tense, irritable, bitter and smug. He was a valorous opportunist who pounced hoggishly upon every opportunity Colonel Korn discovered for him and trembled in damp despair immediately afterward at the possible consequences he might suffer. He collected rumors greedily and treasured gossip. He believed all the news he heard and had faith in none. He was on the alert constantly for every signal, shrewdly sensitive to relationships and situations that did not exist. He was someone in the know who was always striving pathetically to find out what was going on. He was a blustering, intrepid bully who brooded inconsolably over the terrible ineradicable impressions he knew he kept making on people of prominence who were scarcely aware that he was even alive.
The Quandary of ‘Constructive Feedback’
‘I’m going to tell him,’ Clevinger insisted, as the two of them sat high in the reviewing stands looking down on the auxiliary parade ground at Lieutenant Scheisskopf raging back and forth like a beardless Lear. ‘Why me?’ Lieutenant Scheisskopf wailed. ‘Keep still, idiot,’ Yossarian advised Clevinger avuncularly. ‘You don’t know what you’re talking about,’ Clevinger objected. ‘I know enough to keep still, idiot.’ Lieutenant Scheisskopf tore his hair and gnashed his teeth. His rubbery cheeks shook with gusts of anguish. His problem was a squadron of aviation cadets with low morale who marched atrociously in the parade competition that took place every Sunday afternoon. Their morale was low because they did not want to march in parades every Sunday afternoon and because Lieutenant Scheisskopf had appointed cadet officers from their ranks instead of permitting them to elect their own. ‘I want someone to tell me,’ Lieutenant Scheisskopf beseeched them all prayerfully. ‘If any of it is my fault, I want to be told.’ ‘He wants someone to tell him,’ Clevinger said. ‘He wants everyone to keep still, idiot,’ Yossarian answered. ‘Didn’t you hear him?’ Clevinger argued. ‘I heard him,’ Yossarian replied. ‘I heard him say very loudly and very distinctly that he wants every one of us to keep our mouths shut if we know what’s good for us.’ ‘I won’t punish you,’ Lieutenant Scheisskopf swore. ‘He says he won’t punish me,’ said Clevinger. ‘He’ll castrate you,’ said Yossarian. ‘I swear I won’t punish you,’ said Lieutenant Scheisskopf. ‘I’ll be grateful to the man who tells me the truth.’ ‘He’ll hate you,’ said Yossarian. ‘To his dying day he’ll hate you.’
The Budding ‘Leader’
Lieutenant Scheisskopf longed desperately to win parades and sat up half the night working on it… He read books on marching. He manipulated boxes of chocolate soldiers until they melted in his hands and then maneuvered in ranks of twelve a set of plastic cowboys he had bought from a mail-order house under an assumed name and kept locked away from everyone’s eyes during the day… Leonardo’s exercises in anatomy proved indispensable… Finishing last in three successive parades had given Lieutenant Scheisskopf an unsavory reputation, and he considered every means of improvement, even nailing the twelve men in each rank to a long two-by-four beam of seasoned oak to keep them in line. The plan was not feasible, for making a ninety-degree turn would have been impossible without nickel-alloy swivels inserted in the small of every man’s back, and Lieutenant Scheisskopf was not sanguine at all about obtaining that many nickel-alloy swivels from Quartermaster or enlisting the cooperation of the surgeons at the hospital.
Major Major Major Major and the Need to Conform
Major Major had been born too late and too mediocre. Some men are born mediocre, some men achieve mediocrity, and some men have mediocrity thrust upon them. With Major Major it had been all three. Even among men lacking all distinction he inevitably stood out as a man lacking more distinction than all the rest, and people who met him were always impressed by how unimpressive he was.
…He was polite to his elders, who disliked him. Whatever his elders told him to do, he did. They told him to look before he leaped, and he always looked before he leaped. They told him never to put off until the next day what he could do the day before, and he never did. He was told to honor his father and his mother, and he honored his father and his mother. He was told that he should not kill, and he did not kill, until he got into the Army. Then he was told to kill, and he killed. He turned the other cheek on every occasion and always did unto others exactly as he would have had others do unto him. When he gave to charity, his left hand never knew what his right hand was doing. He never once took the name of the Lord his God in vain, committed adultery or coveted his neighbor’s ass. In fact, he loved his neighbor and never even bore false witness against him.
Major Major’s elders disliked him because he was such a flagrant nonconformist.
.. Major Major had lied, and it was good. He was not really surprised that it was good, for he had observed that people who did lie were, on the whole, more resourceful and ambitious and successful than people who did not lie.
Inevitably, every document he signed came back with a fresh page added for a new signature by him after intervals of from two to ten days. They were always much thicker than formerly, for in between the sheet bearing his last endorsement and the sheet added for his new endorsement were the sheets bearing the most recent endorsements of all the other officers in scattered locations who were also occupied in signing their names to that same official document. Major Major grew despondent as he watched simple communications swell prodigiously into huge manuscripts. No matter how many times he signed one, it always came back for still another signature, and he began to despair of ever being free of any of them. One day—it was the day after the C.I.D. man’s first visit—Major Major signed Washington Irving’s name to one of the documents instead of his own, just to see how it would feel. He liked it. He liked it so much that for the rest of that afternoon he did the same with all the official documents. It was an act of impulsive frivolity and rebellion for which he knew afterward he would be punished severely. The next morning he entered his office in trepidation and waited to see what would happen. Nothing happened.
‘Why don’t we give him a medal?’ Colonel Korn proposed. ‘For going around twice? What can we give him a medal for?’ ‘For going around twice,’ Colonel Korn answered with a reflective, self-satisfied smile. ‘After all, I suppose it did take a lot of courage to go over that target a second time with no other planes around to divert the antiaircraft fire. And he did hit the bridge. You know, that might be the answer—to act boastfully about something we ought to be ashamed of. That’s a trick that never seems to fail.’
Ex-P.F.C. Wintergreen was a snide little punk who enjoyed working at cross-purposes. Each time he went AWOL, he was caught and sentenced to dig and fill up holes six feet deep, wide and long for a specified length of time. Each time he finished his sentence, he went AWOL again. Ex-P.F.C. Wintergreen accepted his role of digging and filling up holes with all the uncomplaining dedication of a true patriot. ‘It’s not a bad life,’ he would observe philosophically. ‘And I guess somebody has to do it.’ He had wisdom enough to understand that digging holes in Colorado was not such a bad assignment in wartime. Since the holes were in no great demand, he could dig them and fill them up at a leisurely pace, and he was seldom overworked. On the other hand, he was busted down to buck private each time he was court-martialed. He regretted this loss of rank keenly.
CATCH–22. Copyright (c) Joseph Heller, 1955, 1961.
The New York Times’ resident sage of liberal economics, Paul Krugman, has frequently extolled the humility required to change one’s position in the face of new evidence. He has been especially vocal about this since the global financial crisis hit in 2008, in the aftermath of which Krugman has also admitted the failure of economists (except the odd outlier) to predict the GFC. And Krugman is hardly the sole voice airing such opinions in recent years.
Ancient Sumerian myth mentions a beast called Humbaba, sprouting all sorts of scary appendages, which could serve well as the mascot for the multifaceted economic challenges of our age.
There is strong suspicion, bordering on certainty, among some economics leading lights (Bank of England Chief Economist Andrew Haldane is one) that the escalating complexity of our world may be getting too knotty for traditional economics to tackle on its own. Thomas Piketty has already created big waves by breaking out the self-imposed constraints of contemporary economics and taking into account a vast swathe of history in his persuasive analyses.
So what makes most economists – especially macroeconomists, whose domain is more troubled – so stubbornly resist efforts by deeply concerned groups within science (not social science, under which rubric traditional economics sits) to extend collaborative feelers with tools and analogies from sciences such as evolutionary biology? (Although, I admit, some of these feelers are rather prickly, with dropped hints of an armchair revolution, too!)
I am referring to an event that has flown under the radar for most mainstream media: the Ernst Strüngmann Forum at the Frankfurt Institute for Advanced Studies, held in February this year with two stated goals:
To extend the theoretical foundation of economics and public policy by integrating complex systems theory and evolutionary theory
To put a synthesis of complex systems theory and evolutionary theory to work in solving problems of basic research as well as real-world applications ranging from individual behavior to global economic systems.
Both appear to be laudable objectives, coming as they do at a time when the notion ofHomo Economicus – the individual as a rational, always self-interested entity – looks like so much wispy vapourware spun by traditional economics. Ours is an age when the information fed to and leaked by individual consumers (that word always, for me, brings the Sarlacc to mind) is susceptible to gargantuan manipulation on a global scale – using everything from clever PR spin and Thalerian psychological ‘nudges’ to mentally-siloising ‘recommendations’ and jiggery-pokery by hush-hush agencies of the state – the rationality of the individual, already shown to be often illusory by the likes of Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky decades ago, is almost meaningless.
We as individuals as well as groups are swayed by well-documented cognitive biases which are becoming more intractable in the 21st century. (A great fan of LinkedIn’s Influencers program? While it is certainly a good move in some ways, do have a good read of at least the abstract at this link). In such circumstances, the power of prediction that is presumed to drive traditional economics appears little better than a visit to the local psychic medium for a peek into tomorrow.
So a group of concerned scientists – who are as affected by the crisis in economics as the rest of us – gets together and puts on the table things to ponder jointly with macroeconomists. Some of these things are:
Using studies of collective behaviour in animals to determine when the much-hyped ‘wisdom of the crowds’ works, and when it doesn’t – science that has great relevance to the structure of management teams.
Using neurocognitive science and complex computer modelling to work towards creating software analogies of individuals and groups.
Seeing if we can learn from the behaviour of large colonies of single-celled organisms, in which some biologists see parallels with the behaviour of human economies.
Even at first glance, the proposals are well worth investigating collaboratively, especially as a way of breaking the ice between two major areas of human endeavour where one party is looking a little frayed.
So why is the immediate reaction of many economists drily sceptical, with more than a trace of hostile hauteur?
A mite cynically, a quote from Upton Sinclair comes to mind: “It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends on his not understanding it”. The ‘salary’ is replaceable with the ‘security’ or ‘comfort’ of our resisting economists here, perhaps.
One American economist even argues that because our politicians favour ‘simplicity’, such allegedly ‘complex’ advice from the sciences is a no-no. This simplistic argument does have more than a modicum of truth in it, sadly. A quick look at the educational backgrounds of some of the political leadership of the developed world, in our age of furious scientific and technological change, may suggest why:
PPE (Philosophy, Politics and Economics)
PPE (Philosophy, Politics and Economics)
To paraphrase the great JBS Haldane (related to Andy Haldane? Not sure), our economic reality is not only more complex than we imagine, but more complex than we can imagine. It would be good for economics, politics, and the sciences to get together and have a better go at wrestling down this snorting beast of economic complexity.
Is ‘Happiness’ the goal that companies should actively seek for their employees, and that employees have at the front of their minds when they think of work? This is a perennial debate that keeps popping up on various forums, and Messrs Andre Spicerand Carl Cederström have made their contribution – again drawing some fervid responses – in the Harvard Business Review this past week. (The article prods a droll suspicion that they put hands to keyboard to let out steam following a session of Happiness-inducing workplace activities run by a ‘consultant’.)
But could it be that we don’t really need reams of text, and shovelfuls of research, to address this ancient question, seeing that the centuries have not really produced a satisfactory answer, mainly because the concept at the heart of the matter is so amorphous?
The relentless push for Happiness at Work is the Gemini twin of Passion for Your Job,forming a two-pronged mantra that transfers the locus of productivity – that all-important goal of all economic players – largely into the employee’s inner engine, when such ubiety is, even intuitively, illusory. (This somewhat cardboard cut-out view of employees is prevalent among at least some senior managers, accounting for the virality on LinkedIn, some months ago, of the simplistic formula, ‘Be Happy, Be Awesome, Help Others with 1 & 2’, which was deflated somewhat by others. See cartoon above).
The organisation itself, by which I mean senior management which forms the stable cultural core of the entity even as most other staff change over time (in our age), is where the energy is drawn for creating an enriching environment. This may or may not produce something sharply defined as ‘happiness’, but would touch something deep and strong within individuals for which the apt words do not seem to exist in the dictionary. And this would drive them to do greater things for the organisation. (Google’s Project Oxygen has been among the few prominent recent initiatives attempting to attain this elusive state). The things that might help? Some of them go back far: fairness, a well-communicated vision, exemplary leaders, empathetic managers, a sense of contributing to something truly important. Also, the sense that the employee is not merely a square peg carefully selected to slide snugly into a well-chiselled square hole in the organisational machine, pre-designed by unseen hands – but rather that the employee has at least some agency in the evolution of a living organisation, and recognition that they can contribute in more than one way. These are not new things to ponder; they’ve been around long, except when Western organisational science was in the thrall of the regimented, militaristic culture of the two big Wars of the 20th century.
Of course, it would be a stretch to think that this sort of environment could be realistically created for someone operating a supermarket checkout all day. But even for supermarket checkout operators, a sense of fairness would go a long way (which at least partly accounts for the push for fairer wages in the US lately, taken up by the likes of Walmart now).
As I hinted at the outset, this debate is unlikely to die down anytime soon. But there do seem to be some organisations that have made efforts to cut through the flood of words spinning around Happiness and Passion and their ilk, and go back to some basic organisational values that have been sitting under the streetlight all the time while we have been searching for answers in the surrounding dark bushes. Google, of course, is a standout example; Zappos is another, although its approach is far more experimental.
This quick post resulted from some rumination last night during an hour spent with my new friend, who insists on going by the pseudo-moniker R. Osterling Pessoa.
The chat was sparked by the big new financial boost of US$100 million to the search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI), injected by Russian billionaire Yuri Milner. (Astrophysicist Stephen Hawking made the actual announcement, presumably because he is a globally-recognisable personality, in addition to being a leading scientist). The massive expansion of the SETI program because of the new funding, which will be used to buy time at two giant radio telescope facilities in the US and Australia, means we moving closer to picking up intelligent signals from elsewhere in the universe – if they exist – than ever before.
Our conversation veered towards the possibility that Milner might have an actual business interest in positioning himself as the first tycoon to potentially make contact with ET businesspeople, rather than merely being a nostalgic science philanthropist (he has admitted to being a failed astrophysicist). He might even be starting a trend, ROP suggested only half-jokingly.
Discounting the Fermi Paradox – which uses cosmic size, timespans, and the development of intelligence on Earth to conclude that if ET intelligence exists elsewhere in the universe it should already be here (and perhaps they are) – Milner, Hawking, and like-minded leading-lights appear sanguine about the possibility of making interstellar contact.
Such contact would be the biggest civilisational acceleration in history (or even pre-history). Cosmic aliens, especially intelligent ones, don’t even need to contact us – merely proof of their presence would be enough to drive an unprecedented race for being the first nation/corporation to decipher their communications (assuming they are indecipherable when first encountered), and move towards making further contact if deemed safe. However, it would require quite a massive amount of technological smarts to communicate meaningfully, considering we can’t even ‘communicate’ meaningfully with our own ancestors, such as the ancient Minoans and Cretans (Linear A/ Linear B scripts), or the Indian Subcontinent’s Harappan script from the Indus Valley civilisation, let alone communicating meaningfully with contemporary fellow large-brained mammals who appear to have elementary ‘languages’.
Evidence of unintelligent life, even microbial life, while not quite as exciting a prospect as the discovery of intelligent life on other celestial bodies (and not the focus of SETI programs, by definition), would still be a business propellant in multiple ways. Especially if such evidence is found within the solar system, nation-states might soon be investing heavily in research and infrastructure to work out how to reap economic benefits from the discovery. This would, in a way much bigger than the space program race stretching roughly 25 years, starting in the 1950s, have a cascading effect across many areas of the global economy by throwing out new technologies, materials, processes etc. that might be reusable spinoffs elsewhere.
The only other potential event comparable in the scale of its impact would be the creation of rapidly self-improving artificial intelligence on Earth.
Of course, as many commentators (including Prof Hawking, and Elon Musk of Tesla) have made us aware in recent years, both these possible events – contact with extraterrestrial intelligence, or creation of AI on earth – carry extinction risks for our species. The history of European contact with other cultures in the Americas, Australia and elsewhere has a potent lesson for the first eventuality. The second is comparable in some ways to the creation of ‘superintelligence’ here on earth when Homo Sapiens emerged, and, after aeons of relatively slow blundering along, began blundering along much faster over the past 200 years or so, scything through most other large life-forms, with the consequence that we are now in the thick of what is being described as an Anthropecene mass-extinction event. Why? Our hunger for resources to further our own ‘ends’. Any Extraterrestrial Intelligence, or earth-bound AI superintelligence, may well have similar consequences.
What we are betting on, it seems, is that it won’t. (See this post, especially point 8.)
That’s the risk-taking instinct built into our DNA, and which caused, in the dim dawn of our race, some of our ancestors to gamble playing with fire, move into dark dens for safety, and ride other animals to extend their hunting range or escape from predators.
Of course, as ROP ribs me again, there will also be the opportunity for MBA courses with the title “Developing an Interstellar Mindset”, to replace the “Global Mindset” courses that are now all the rage.
(ROP has asked me to write a longer post, to capture more of our chat. May do so at a later date.)
Three macroeconomists caused a bit of a stir this week by coming up with this seemingly absurdist reiteration of a commonplace opinion/hunch.
The good times never last forever. Bubbles go pop. Every process traipsing along just fine, stumbles. Things and thoughts in the universe are cyclical, slaves to time’s attrition. (All right, you physics types: perhaps not in the quantum universe).
Ever since the GFC fried large swathes of the global economy, the fear of market bubbles forming and then bursting cataclysmically has prospered. The Australian housing market is an alarmingly/exhilaratingly notable example at present.
But what is a ‘bubble,’ really, aside from the obvious thing that makes up foam?
In deference to current online practice, I address this question below as 10 Random Thoughts About Bubbles. Here goes.
A simple definition of a bubble (metaphorical) would be the build-up of errors in any closed system – for whatever reason – until that system becomes dysfunctional and collapses. And then picks itself up in a changed way, and the cycle starts anew. Differences between any two cycles would result in different time-spans from bubble formation to bubble bursting.
From our perspective as humans with limited lifespans, it would be best – as economic beings – to live out our entire lives between the beginning and end of a happy bubble period, without having to encounter the harshness of the bubble’s end, or even the sharp uncertainties of its beginning. (‘The long run does not matter, because in the long run we are all dead,’ to paraphrase John Maynard Keynes). However, things rarely work in this fortuitous way for the majority of us, despite strenuous efforts by ourselves and our elected (or not) representatives to make the bubbles within which we are happy and content last and last, or to neatly deflate a shaky bubble and glide comfortably into another one. Complexity, cranked by random, pullulating variables, causes messiness.
The metaphor of the ‘bubble’ comes, of course, from foaming liquids. The aptness of the metaphor is apparent even at a cursory glance of scientific papers on bubbles:
Bigger bubbles thrive: “… large bubbles grow at the expense of small bubbles.”
Bubbles are hard to size up, especially given increasing complexity over time: “… as the foam ages, further error may be expected to develop in bubble size measurements at the surface.”
Efforts to manage bubbles can be fraught (as we are seeing in the Sydney and Melbourne property markets): “… at the retaining wall of a liquid foam…the bubbles get distorted.”
Economic bubbles are really distorted information bubbles. As Robert Shiller points out, “We would like to pool the information that others use to arrive at their opinions, but we cannot know where they received their information. In certain circumstances, we may assume that more information underlies their pronouncements than actually exists.” Efforts to be ‘sensible’ about deciphering information may simply end up being ‘conventional’ – and in this lulling conformity with the comforting majority is where the risk lies.
A hard-to-change quirk of human nature that is known to create friction in societies – our tendency to trust those we perceive as more like ourselves than those we see as different from us – can actually reduce the risk of market bubbles forming. To quote from the seminal paper by Levine et al, “Across markets and locations, market prices fit true values 58% better in diverse markets… [while] in homogenous markets, overpricing is higher as traders are more likely to accept speculative prices.” The subconscious devils of cultural/gender/race suspicion can, then, occasionally do a good deed! However, this may, still, result in simply stretching out the time needed for bubbles to form and burst, as the sense of discomfort over diversity and intercultural suspicion tends to decrease over time within a (relatively) closed market.
The explosion in computing power and AI systems has raised hopes that the persistent problem of inadequate and incorrect information that afflicts efforts to predict bubbles and busts may be solved in coming years and decades. (Jean-Pierre Laplace once hypothesised a ‘Brainy Demon’, a being of limitless intelligence, who would be able to see all of the past and present, and so unfailingly predict all of the future). However, these hopes may come a cropper in the face of the limits of physics – just as Laplace’s Brainy Demon was done in by the Uncertainty Principle and Quantum mechanics. “…there are insurmountable limits on what we can know of a physical system’s past, present or future state as long as we are a part of that system,” says David Wolpert of the Santa Fe Institute.
While the common perception of bubbles is that of market distortions, bubbles – in the sense of increasing disorder in a system (good old Entropy from the Second Law of Thermodynamics) over time until it goes kaput – are everywhere, from our ageing process (build-up of errors) to the eventual crumbling of civilisations. (This latter triggers a thought: our civilisational-level difficulty of sorting out the ‘sensible’ from the ‘conventional’ was quite apparent last week, in a droll way, when the media reported research that predicted the potentially early ‘End of the Human Race’, only to have the news item pushed way down the Most Read lists, which were salaciously headed by the latest rumoured affair between Mariah Carey and James Packer!)
Steven Pinker’s bestselling book The Better Angels of Our Nature traces the decline in violence in recent centuries, accelerating dramatically in the 20th However, as the study mentioned in 7 above suggests, this prolonged period of relative peace may well be a bubble formed by the temporarily pushed-aside detritus and jetsam of our ‘effluent’ society, only to have it all collapse on us in the looming future. Yes, I realise that the thing is: the ‘us’ above is not really us, but other people somewhere in the foggy future. Keynes’ observation is tenacious. We are happy to bet on living out our entire lives within the confines of this largish bubble in which we have found a sense of eternal order. The future beyond our life-horizon be damned.
To end these frothy thoughts on a highfalutin note: the universe itself is a bubble, as explained to us by the likes of Carl Sagan, Dr Karl, and Bill Nye the Science Guy. (At least the universe in which we exist; now they have suspicions about other universes that exist alongside each other without so much as a hello). But even before the universe ends, Ann Druyan reminds us that “most of what we all hold dearest and cherish most, believing at this very moment, will be revealed at some future time to be merely a product of our age and our history and our understanding of reality.” And whether or not the bigger story will end as memorably as imagined by the great Isaac Asimov in the classic The Last Question, we shall never know.
All right: 7-10 above stray way too much into territory under the shadow of Keynes’ ‘in the long run’ dictum. 1-6 are more LinkedIn-friendly – so apologies, dear reader, if you’ve read up to here already, and are set to accuse me of overindulging in thought bubbles.
The above article’s author, Prof. Vijay Govindarajan of the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth, sent me an email earlier this week with an invitation to read the post. In the article, VG – ranked among the world’s leading management thinkers – argues that the persistence of such slavery in our time is a business issue, in addition to the myriad other questions it confronts us with. The motivation trigger for the article appears to be his meeting with 2014 Nobel Peace Prize co-winner Kailash Satyarthi, who has spent decades battling slavery, and especially child slavery, in India. (Satyarthi maintains that slavery is an economic issue, besides being a human rights issue, as it perpetuates illiteracy and poverty).
So what’s VG’s proposal?
‘Corporations and consumers can single-handedly or cooperatively refuse to do business with suppliers that employ children’, and thus effectively supplement government regulations and NGO efforts, VG suggests.
While I laud the principle behind the proposal, it likely has only limited potential for far-reaching change at the pace this still-gargantuan ethical wound requires. (VG’s example of the big cigarette industry players, who have agreed to abide by international child labour laws, has the symptoms of a case of redirected guilt management – especially seeing some of the caveats they have placed around their move – and so gets only very grudging respect from me).
Here are the key reasons for scepticism about meaningfully rapid change in this area.
– The massive employment of children in India’s unorganised sector – a problem that extends to other countries in the region as well, albeit on a smaller scale. According to the last Census of India, there are still tens of millions of children working in grindingly difficult conditions across the country.
– A far more intractable problem: the widely unacknowledged compartmentalisation of empathy in Indian society along religious/caste/class/linguistic – even racial – lines. In my experience of Indian society, this deficit in the ability to put oneself in different ethnocultural shoes (on which the likes of Stephen Quintana in multicultural North America have shone a light), is frustratingly obdurate even in the face of what one might think are compelling local religious and/or cultural principles. Commonly, the children employed by families for domestic work, and by farms and small businesses, belong to different caste/religious/linguistic/racial groups than the employers, and attempts to elicit empathy with a view to their emancipation run up against a wall of indifference and even contempt. (For example, underage domestic or farm workers in North-West India are often ‘renamed’ using generic labels such as ‘Bahadur’ for ethnic Nepalese, ‘Bhaiyya’/’Ramu’ for Biharis, etc. – thereby slotting them into semi-derogatory categories and diminishing their status as individuals worthy of full empathy). Without the propulsive force of empathy, there is little impetus to act.
When I think of the failure of much-hyped moral principles rooted in a society’s culture to wrestle down problems whose existence on such massive scale should be unconscionable, I am reminded of a dazzlingly insightful passage from Susan Sontag’s At The Same Time:
“The perennial destiny of principles: while everyone professes to have them, they are likely to be sacrificed when they become inconveniencing. Generally a moral principle is something that puts one at variance with accepted practice. And that variance has consequences, sometimes unpleasant consequences, as the community takes its revenge on those who challenge its contradictions — who want a society actually to uphold the principles it professes to defend.”
The estimated 250-million-strong urban, educated middle class is the segment of the population in India which one would expect to be the most receptive to one part of VG’s suggestion that ‘corporations and consumers can single-handedly or cooperatively refuse to do business with suppliers that employ children.’
In the piece, Steven Quartz and Anette Asp posit that the increasing ‘diversity of status-seeking’ activity in the 21st century consumer culture in the United States makes income inequality ‘less emotionally salient’ for many Americans, setting recent generations quite apart from their early 20th century Gilded Age predecessors.
But why would one expect this attenuation of ‘emotional salience’ to be restricted to just the existence and growth of income inequality in a society? It could well extend to areas such as labour exploitation. This NYT article appears all of a piece with the narrowing of ‘mental bandwidth’ identified by Sendhil Mullainathan and Eldar Shafir, and appears to be afflicting not just the poor, with their multiplying worries hogging mental space, but also middle class millennials in the US (at least).
With consumer culture in largely-young middle class India mirroring American consumer culture, it is difficult to be very sanguine about the active involvement of this large and key but constantly distracted swathe of the Indian population in battling child labour. At least not in the visible time-horizon. The need for greater, effective government intervention remains important.