The end of empire in Asia

I’ve strayed outside my own territory to read a book by a colleague, Underground Asia: Global Revolutionaries and the Assault on Empire by Tim Harper. I’ll start by saying it’s definitely a commitment as the book is 650 pages long (before counting the footnotes). However, I’ve found it completely gripping and was glad to have some long train journeys this week. This is a subject – Asian political and intellectual history from about 1900-1930 – that I knew next to nothing about beforehand. The book ranges across the whole of Asia including China and India, and follows the activists on their travels to Europe and the US, whether voluntary (seeking support) or not (sent into exile). So – to use an awkward metaphor – the book joins up unknown dots. It also completely brings home the immorality of empire, with none of the imperial powers – Britain, France, the Netherlands – coming out of it with any honour as they resisted realising that the days of empire were drawing to an end. The political developments, including the spread of actively revolutionary ideas and movements after the Bolshevik revolution, dominate the narrative; but I also relished the cultural elements of the story, including the popularity of English and French detective novels in the late 19th century or the proliferation of new journals as ideas spread along seaways and railways.

Here’s a longer and more informative review for those who know more about this subject than I do. One blurb on the back, from Peter Frankopan, describes the book as reading like a thriller. It absolutely does. An excellent beach paperback for the summer.

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Swimming against the tide

There are some books whose success mystifies me. One was Yuval Noah Harari’s Sapiens, which I tried when it was published and couldn’t get past p50. I tried with Homo Deus recently and got as far as p138 before giving up. Despite my fondness for Big History, I just can’t figure out what it’s about. As far as I can tell, there’s no original body of research underpinning a popular synthesis (unlike, say, Oded Galor’s interesting new book The Journey of Humanity, or a book like Joseph Henrich’s big cultural history The Weirdest People in the World).

But nor is there in Homo Deus a structured synthesis of other people’s work – ample references of course, but what’s the actual analysis and argument? I could cheat and look at some reviews by people who have actually read the whole thing.* But I think 138 pages gives it a fair shot at grabbing my attention, and it has failed, despite the positive blurbs from Jarvis Cocker and Kazua Ishiguro, and the many millions of sales and high profile fans.

No doubt somebody will explain why I’m wrong.


*OK, I cheated. Here’s a helpful review in the LRB by Steven Shapin who read the whole thing, found the argument and sums it up (‘technology has given us the power to reshape ourselves as a species and it’s full of risks’). I get the sense he wasn’t overwhelmed but is politely positive anyway.




In thrall to games?

Hidden Games: The surprising power of game theory to explain irrational human behaviour by Moshe Hoffman and Erez Yoeli does exactly what it says on the cover. It’s an interesting strategy (ahem): irrational behaviour turns out to be rational after all! When being over-optimistic about our own abilities, fooling ourselves by only believing social media comments that reinforce our prior beliefs, spinning the truth, or over-spending on costly luxury goods, all these and more behavioural phenomena can be explained as dominant strategies in appropriately described games. It’s all about the Nash equilibria, stupid.

I enjoyed the book on the whole. It’s a breezy introduction to game theory applications, written with a light touch and plenty of anecdotes. An early chapter sets the scene with the classic evolutionary explanation for observed sex ratios, moving on then to the Hawks and Doves game, and of course the Prisoners’ Dilemma features extensively too.

It has always astonished me how few people think strategically at all, such that a read of the classic (1993) Thinking Strategically on how to apply game theory by Avinash Dixit and Barry Nalebuff would help almost anybody. I can remember once observing in a committee meeting (all economists) what the Nash equilibrium in a certain policy situation involving all EU member countries would be, which did my reputation among those colleagues a power of good as this made it obvious what decision our (UK) politicians would take, regardless of any economic advice we delivered.

Hidden Games does some of the same groundwork as Thinking Strategically in its first half, throwing in a brief explanation of Bayes theorem en passant. I found it less compelling when it gets to the second half, explaining the ‘irrational’ as Nash equilibria in various games. Perhaps this is because there are already pretty powerful models, whether cognitive – eg the rule-of-thumb argument about conserving brain energy in making decisions – or economic – classic signalling models. The application of game theory seems more interesting in contexts of collective choices (as in Kaushik Basu’s wonderful The Republic of Beliefs) than in individual decision-making.

Having said that, if you don’t mind the trope about rationalising the irrational, Hidden Games is a very nice introduction to applying game theory to life, an enjoyable read.



Spending our time, the ultimate scarce resource

On the face of it, The Internet Is Not What You Think It Is: A History, A Philosophy, A Warning by Justin Smith and Four Thousand Weeks: Time Management for Mortals by Oliver Burkeman are pretty different. The former a philosophical disquisition on the parallels (and differences) between historical communication networks and today’s internet of disinformation. The latter a self-help guide to being less busy and happier.

What they have in common is identifying digital platforms as the cuplrit gobbling up our time and attention through addictive design – that familiar ‘swipe down to refresh’ for a dopamine hit – and a business model that requires human fodder. One travels by way of classical Indian philosophers and the Enlightenment, the other via useful advice from popular psychology. Both have at their heart a concern with the manipulation of how we spend our time. I read them one after the other and enjoyed both – and both with more useful insight than the much-hyped Surveillance Capital doorstop.

Have I stopped scrolling so much? Not yet. I will be trying to take some of Burkeman’s advice in the hope of stopping feeling constant pressure to empty that inbox, tick off the whole to do list. As we’re stuck with the internet, it makes sense to resist the way it manages us humans. I don’t think Smith would reckon much for my chances. Wish me luck.

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The experiment has started so let’s make it work

An optimistic book about the future of liberal democracies – surely not? But yes, that’s what Yascha Mounk has delivered with The Great Experiment: How to Make Diverse Democracies Work. It’s a book of three parts, the first of which is all about why diverse societies generally fail, starting with the innate human tendency to divide into us and them.

After this gloomy start, which is what we now expect from books about democracy, Mounk notes that this is too bad as most OECD (and other) countries now have diverse populations, and despite populism it is hard to conceive that going back to the more homogenous mid-20th century is possible. So the book goes on in the second part to set out a vision of what a diverse liberal democracy might look like. It argues strongly for “the core commitment of philosophical liberalism,” namely that the state has a responsibility to respect the moral autonomy of its citizens, which means setting limits to its own authority and also protecting individuals from the “cage of norms”, restrictions on autonomy set by their own religious or ethnic group. It also advocates for cultural patriotism, rather than nationalism or the civic patriotism of shared values. I like this alternative very much – it seems to me we are brought together by language, landscape, tv shows, sport, the way buildings and shops look etc. I’d add humour, very distinctive between different countries.

The final part starts with “reasons for optimism” – one of which is that actually, most of the diverse democracies are slowly making progress toward better integration, accepting that people have diverse and multiple identities. The book also argues that optimism is important because it will affect actions and outcomes. It acknowledges what it terms the ‘Chapter 10 problem’ – the generally unsatisfying list of policies at the end of a book, as demanded by publishers and indeed readers. It doesn’t really provide this so much as a few general reflections, concluding: “Constructing diverse democracies that command the enthusiastic support of the great majority of their citzens is going to be hard.” But what choice do we have other than to try? The Great Experiment is already well under way.

So I liked the upbeat message. I don’t think there’s much that’s new here for readers of the death of democracy genre, but the arrangement of the argument into an optimistic outlook is very welcome.