COVID-19 and London’s Great Fire

There have been a lot (a lot) of articles written about life after the COVID19 pandemic, and there are no doubt a lot more to come (like this one). Some are fairly prosaic, others imagine radical changes to our way of life. They all reflect the existing biases of their authors. My own bias is towards this take by Mark Ritson:

When we emerge out of lockdown the consumers, the media and marketing itself will quickly snap back to former heuristical norms. That does not mean society and the consumer will not have evolved from the late 2019 period, but that the evolution that was taking place will continue, perhaps catalysed slightly by the events of this strange period. But it won’t be drastically different.

Mark Ritson

I think that a useful historical parallel is the ‘great fire’ of London in 1666. The fire destroyed somewhere in the region of 13,200 houses, as well as a great number of civic and mercantile buildings.


The Victorian computer pioneers ahead of their time.

I’m reading Sydney Padua’s The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage. It’s a fun alternate history, told in comics, of the work of Charles Babbage and Ada, Countess of Lovelace—between them, the precursors of (respectively) automated computing and computer programming (for the unfamiliar, Steven Wolfram’s Untangling the Tale of Ada Lovelace puts their work and relationship into perspective).

The stories themselves are charming, but the real highlights of the book for me are the extensively researched footnotes and endnotes. In them, I learned that Babbage, at the Great Exhibition of 1862, met and conversed with George Boole, a logician famous for creating what we know today as Boolean logic—the three operations AND, OR and NOT, that power modern digital systems. Why is this meeting so important? As one bystander wrote:

As Boole had discovered that means of reasoning might be conducted by a mathematical process, and Babbage had invented a machine for the performance of mathematical work, the two great men together seemed to have taken steps towards the construction of that great prodigy, a Thinking Machine.

Boole’s ideas led, almost a century later, to the creation of logic gates, critical to digital systems. Logic gates need a way to retain state, and early ones used valves, or vacuum tubes. These were developed from the pioneering work of Michael Faraday, scientist of electromagnetism—and friend of Babbage.

It’s incredible to think that Lovelace, Babbage, Faraday, and Boole were contemporaries; the developers of the engine, programs, power and logic of modern computers were all connected in the mid-18th century, but too far ahead of their time to see their concepts realized. Faraday’s valves could have enabled Boole’s logic gates, which could have made Babbage’s machine simpler and more affordable, which could have seen Lovelace’s programs be more than theoretical. But it would be almost another 100 years before technology caught up to their ideas.


Blogging The Highlights: Sapiens [Part One]

Earlier this year I read Yuval Noah Harari’s book, Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind. It is, without a doubt, one of the most amazing, eye-opening, mind-expanding books I’ve ever read. I’ve wanted for some time to write a review of it, but have been slightly daunted by the thought of trying to do it justice. Even using quotes from the book to illustrate the themes, as I’ve done before, faces me with a problem: I’ve highlighted so many passages, even editing them to a manageable length would be a job in itself.

But I can prevaricate no longer, so I’m going to attempt a loose review, based around quotes from the book, broken into multiple posts. I’ll theme them loosely around happiness, consumerism, and the agricultural revolution; and, in this first part, around fictions.

Sapiens is a book about humankind, but not a hard history; it’s about culture, about the systems we’ve evolved to create this amazing, powerful, terrifying global race. Above all, it’s about fictions: the stories that we all choose to believe in that define and make possible society and its achievements.

Telling effective stories is not easy. The difficulty lies not in telling the story, but in convincing everyone else to believe it. Much of history revolves around this question: how does one convince millions of people to believe particular stories about gods, or nations, or limited liability companies? Yet when it succeeds, it gives Sapiens immense power, because it enables millions of strangers to cooperate and work towards common goals. Just try to imagine how difficult it would have been to create states, or churches, or legal systems if we could speak only about things that really exist, such as rivers, trees and lions.

As time has passed, these fictions have taken on more importance:

Ever since the Cognitive Revolution, Sapiens have thus been living in a dual reality. On the one hand, the objective reality of rivers, trees and lions; and on the other hand, the imagined reality of gods, nations and corporations. As time went by, the imagined reality became ever more powerful, so that today the very survival of rivers, trees and lions depends on the grace of imagined entities such as the United States and Google.

These fictions extend even to our laws and rights; biologically speaking, we are not all born equal:

If we do not believe in the Christian myths about God, creation and souls, what does it mean that all people are ‘equal’? Evolution is based on difference, not on equality.

However, we choose to believe in natural equality because it promotes stability and social order:

We believe in a particular order not because it is objectively true, but because believing in it enables us to cooperate effectively and forge a better society.

Belief is what enables fictions, and fictions enable orders:

An imagined order can be maintained only if large segments of the population – and in particular large segments of the elite and the security forces – truly believe in it. Christianity would not have lasted 2,000 years if the majority of bishops and priests failed to believe in Christ. The modern economic system would not have lasted a single day if the majority of investors and bankers failed to believe in capitalism.

The fictions shared between groups of people are passed on through legends: myths and stories, laws and rules. People in different societies created different legends.

Myths and fictions accustomed people, nearly from the moment of birth, to think in certain ways, to behave in accordance with certain standards, to want certain things, and to observe certain rules. They thereby created artificial instincts that enabled millions of strangers to cooperate effectively. This network of artificial instincts is called ‘culture’.

Aside: I saw Scott Berkun sum this up with a neat formula: culture = some ideas > other ideas. But back to Harari. He says that what drives culture is the contradictions of society: for example, trying to reconcile personal freedom with the desire for everyone to be equal.

The modern world fails to square liberty with equality. But this is no defect. Such contradictions are an inseparable part of every human culture. In fact, they are culture’s engines, responsible for the creativity and dynamism of our species.

To propagate culture we had to make it possible to store memories beyond our genes; this could be in simple shared ideas passed down through generations:

Human teenagers have no genes for football. They can nevertheless play the game with complete strangers because they have all learned an identical set of ideas about football. These ideas are entirely imaginary, but if everyone shares them, we can all play the game.

The problem with imaginary ideas is that you need to actively enforce them:

Hives can be very complex social structures, containing many different kinds of workers, such as harvesters, nurses and cleaners. But so far researchers have failed to locate lawyer bees. Bees don’t need lawyers, because there is no danger that they might forget or violate the hive constitution.

But written laws and constitutions have had an impact on us:

The most important impact of script on human history is precisely this: it has gradually changed the way humans think and view the world. Free association and holistic thought have given way to compartmentalisation and bureaucracy.

This is why the study of history, and books like Sapiens, are so vital:

We study history not to know the future but to widen our horizons, to understand that our present situation is neither natural nor inevitable, and that we consequently have many more possibilities before us than we imagine.

As I said at the start, I’m going to write a few more posts about Sapiens—but honestly, just save yourself the trouble of reading them and buy a copy of the book instead. I highly doubt that you’ll regret it.


Blaming technology for human problems

There’s something I find really objectionable about this advertising campaign that’s doing the rounds at the moment. “The more you connect, the less you connect”, made by Ogilvy Beijing, shows a giant phone screen physically coming between family members:

A mother physically separated from her child by a giant smartphone

Far from finding it “brutally honest”, I find it dimwittedly dishonest. It suggests a notion that before mobile phones we lived in an age where we always gave undivided attention to the people around us. This is a myth. It’s false in the extreme.

Does a phone take your attention away from the immediate environment? Certainly. As does television, or a book; you could easily change this campaign to substitute a book for a phone and it would be equally true. Russell Davies article Unbooked: How to live mindfully in a literate world skewers this concept brilliantly:

There’s increasing evidence that books actually change the shape of the brain and they’re literally addictive. Not addictive in the sense of the actual meaning of the word, but addictive in the sense of what people mean when they say ‘addictive’ – which is worse.

Blaming technology for human problems is at least as old as the written word, and it is annoying to see the idea propagated so unquestioningly.