The material roots of the weightless

I was lucky enough to get to read Ed Conway’s Material World, out on 15 June, in an advance proof copy.  It’s an absolutely terrific book. There are six parts, covering six substances fundamental to the economy and modern life: sand, salt, iron, copper, oil and lithium. The component chapters cover the mining/making, the chemical processes, the experience of working to produce these fundamental materials, and the supply chains of which they form the anchors. And the book covers not only the economic issues but also the increasingly important geopolitical ones. It must have been hugely interesting to write, involving travel around the world, from deep, dark mines to chip fabs in Taiwan. (The author photo is very cool too – Ed in front of a giant digger at a mine.)

As someone whose first book was called The Weightless World, about the increasing intangibility of value added, I’m the first to agree about the importance of the material basis of society. While we might value more the ideas and services (the weightless parts), such that the ratio of GDP to the weight or mass of the economy has been increasing for some decades, the material is nevertheless fundamental.

Indeed, increasingly so. In the second half of the 20th century, natural and mineral resources seemed boundless, while produced capital and human capital (or ideas) were the binding constraints on economic growth. In the first half of the 21st century, that has flipped. Computation is all but free, whereas nature – including minerals – sets the binding constraints.

Anyway, Material World is highly recommended.


Inflation, past and present

I was in my teens, growing up in a Lancashire mill town, the last time stubbornly high inflation was a thing. It was a scarring experience. My parents’ wages certainly did not keep up. Rocketing food prices gave my mum sleepless nights, so she stocked up whenever something like sugar or tea bags was on special offer. We all became obsessed with switching off lights and turning down heating. Our kind of family was significantly affected – small savings in the bank, no labour market power.

So Stephen King’s We Need To Talk About Inflation: 14 Urgent Lessons From the Last 2,000 Years spoke to me. It also proved prescient, having been written before it was apparent how stubborn the current bout of inflation is proving to be – one of the messages of the book is how hard it is to squeeze inflation out of the macroeconomy. The book takes the historical (and broadly chronological) perspective that will be familiar to readers of Stephen’s previous books, and is a pleasure to read. Not surprisingly, the 1970s chapter was particularly interesting to me. As he comments at the end of this chapter, “Inflation ultimately undermines the fabric of society.” It is profoundly unfair. Yet policymakers persist in trying to tell people who can’t afford food and heat to show wage restraint – they did it then and have tried again now.

There’s also an excellent chapter on what works and what doesn’t in terms of policy responses, given how hard the task is. Price and wage controls generally don’t, albeit with exceptions to address egregious unfairness, although they are easy for policymakers to propose. A clear monetary policy framework with rules that are visibly followed does work, and in particular monetary financing of budget deficits must be ruled out. The takeaway message is that some nasty medicine is unavoidable, but it can work – if somebody will administer it. While Milton Friedman insisted inflation was a monetary phenomenon, this book concludes that it’s ultimately a political one: who will bear how much economic pain and when?

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It’s the economy, stupid

Collapse: The Fall of the Soviet Union by Vladislav Zubok was unexpectedly gripping. It’s a large tome, and I can’t remember how it came to be in my pile. But perhaps it’s because the events collectively described as the collapse of Communism marked history as part of my own life that I found the detailed descriptions here of Soviet politics over the years from the arrival of Garbachev and the collapse of the USSR so compelling. In the late 1980s I was working for DRI Europe where my job included trying to understand perestroika and the Soviet economic reforms to explain to clients. We were on holiday in remote Herefordshire watching the fall of the Berlin Wall on a small black and white TV, whose grainy footage felt somehow appropriate for a world historical event. Then came the Czechoslovak Velvet Revolution and the not-at-all-velvet overthrow of the Ceaucescus in Romania over the Christmas holiday. German re-unfication. And of course the collapse of the USSR and western ‘victory’ in the Cold War. If only we’d realised then that the West was a construct of the same system, except that its collapse on our side of the Iron Curtain would be a slower business.

Anyway, aside from the fascinating detail, the message I took away from Collapse was the perennial: it’s the economy, stupid. If there’s high inflation and people’s living standards are falling because of food shortages and other problems, you will have zero political room for manoeuvre and will open the way to political snake-oil peddlers to offer “easy” solutions. Oh.

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The path not taken in Silicon Valley

The Philosopher of Palo Alto: Mark Weiser, Xerox PARC, and the original Internet of Things by John Tinnell is a really interesting read in the context of the latest developments in AI. I do have a boundless appetite for books about the history of the industry, and was intrigued by this as I’d never heard of Mark Weiser. The reason for that gap, even though he ran the computer science lab at Xerox PARC, is probably that his philosophy of computing lost out. In a nutshell, he was strongly opposed to tech whose smartness involved making people superfluous.

Based on his reading of philosophers from Heidegger and (Michael) Polanyi to Merleau-Ponty, Weiser opposed the Cartesian mind-body dualism involved in Turing’s (1950) paper and the subsequent development of late 20th century digital technologies focused on ‘machines that think’, electronic brains. He aimed to develop computing embedded in the environment to support humans in their activities, rather than computing via screens that aimed to bring the world to people but through a barrier of processing. In one talk, he gave the analogy of what makes words useful. Libraries gather many words in a central location and are of course very useful. But words that ‘disappear’ into the environment are also useful, like street signs and labelling on packages in the supermarket. Nobody would be able to shop efficiently if there were no words on the soup cans, and they had to go to a library to refer to a directory of shelf locations to find the tomato flavour.

Weiser emphasised also the role of the human body in knowledge and communication: “The human body, whatever form it took, was a medium not a machine.” In a dualist conception of mind and body it seems to be reasonable to think about a machine substituting for the activities of the mind. But the body’s senses are not information processors, and cannot be substituted by digital sensors. Embodied human experience in the world is part of human knowledge. Weiser became highly sceptical of the industry’s trajectory whereby software more and more “dictated what could and could not happen in a place.” Rather than mediating between the physical world and humans, tech should be looking to augment the material world in useful ways (hence the subtitle about the original Internet of Things).

Weiser died young, another possible reason why he is not better known. One can imagine though what he would have thought of generative AI. The book’s Introduction ends with a quote from Lewis Mumford: “The machine is just as much a creature of thought as the poem.” These AI products have been imagined as disembodied brains that get in the way of our direct experience of the world and indeed increasingly limit our ability to shape the world we want. A really interesting read, and one that will send me off to read other things – including the work of a PARC ethnographer who is really the second hero of this book, Lucy Suchman.



Boys, brilliance and science

I polished off Athene Donald’s manifesto, Not Just for the Boys: Why We Need More Women in Science at the weekend. Athene is a friend as well as the Master of my college (Churchill) at Cambridge so I was going to be well-disposed towards the book, and indeed found it both persuasive (not that it would have taken much) and a good read. There is plenty of evidence provided, statistics are cited, but you don’t feel as if you’re being sledge-hammered as a reader. There is too much common sense for it to come across as pure polemic, including the point that extreme gender imbalances in the other direction are not healthy for society or the process of discovery either.

The main point that stands out for me is that the male skew is highest in all the disciplines where ‘brilliance’ or being ‘really, really smart’ is seen as the key attribute. So “in science” is an over-generalisation. What’s needed is more women in physics, computer science, maths, and also philosophy and of course economics. Some of the other natural and human sciences as well as many arts subjects (but not music composition, surprisingly) skew female. ‘Brilliance’ isn’t just ‘clever but more so’; it’s a type of performative intelligence demanding supreme self-confidence, and I’m a bit suspicious of it in general; or, rather, think it leads to other kinds of insight and attributes being inappropriately undervalued.

Anyway, Athene and I and the wonderful Tabitha Goldstaub will be discussing the book and the issues it raises at an in-person event in Cambridge in the autumn.