Gough

Gough Whitlam’s political career was over before I was born, but his mythological career was just beginning. He was a man made in heroic proportions, a handsome face with a telegenic gaze, six foot four and a booming baritone voice in the educated accent of the Australian middle class. Gough’s voice may now define Australian soundbite oratory. “Well may we say God Save The Queen, because nothing can save the Governor-General”; “It’s Time”; “Crash through or crash”. His very names – either of his names – fall with the heft of a Patrick White novel. The last Australian prime minister to serve in the military. Intellectual, charismatic and impatient.

Clifton Pugh's portrait of Whitlam

Gough wasn’t my hero. He wasn’t a childhood idol or a teenage political ideal for me. I am not born of that leftist tribe. But he is a heroic figure, playing all the right chords on our acculturated meat brains. He had his sweeping policy triumphs like Medicare and China diplomacy, the great raiser of the koala bear leviathan, his electoral victories, his electoral defeats.

I used to think the Whitlam government’s impatience in ramming through so many changes so quickly was its great mistake, that it died of whiplash. This is the conventional wisdom, but I’m no longer so sure. Complex systems can change incrementally for certain things, but they are homeostatic too, they slip back into established paths. Sometimes you have to change lots of things at once for any change to stick. Sometimes history shifts with a crack. You blink, and everything continues, but everything is changed. The black and white television has switched to colour.

Gough’s story has villains and Gough himself had tragic flaws. The intellectual that couldn’t get the numbers to add up, the charismatic leader that couldn’t keep his cabinet together. The betrayal, the unravelling, the dismissal. But this is a modern Australian story, not a Greek tragedy. Whitlam-Odysseus went home with his Penelope, became a professor, and won saucepans on Sale of the Century. The adoration of the living man was a bit close to royalty, for me. He had a long life, and a good one. Now he has climbed into a heavenly V8 the size of a small tank, and driven off, trailing clouds of glory. We should paint him on the doors of our temples and the walls of our pool rooms, to ward off evil and scare away the ghouls of complacency.

Democracy With Unit Tests

I don’t listen to every episode of Freakonomics – it’s so chirpy – but Regulate This, on the disruptive approaches of tech firms monetizing underused resources owned by individuals, was excellent. It pulled together a number of different threads about innovation, regulation and consumer protection, to the point where a friend of mine was prompted to ask ”Does this presage the end of the regulationist government that has grown so steadily to protect us from any old thing?” … with all the good and bad that might imply.

So I don’t have a crystal ball, but this is an interesting swirl of forces. The basic problem with state regulation of this sort at the moment is it doesn’t scale down. It can deal with a taxi company but not renting out your back seat. It can face off against a hotel chain but not a spare room.

You also have two generations of bureaucracy and information technology facing off against each other. You have a Max Weber nineteenth century Prussian bureaucratic form of technology and organization, adapted through 20th century American progressivism, then dealing with a set of technologies and practices where a lot less of the machine is made of people, but instead code. Its a fight between two bureaucratic social elites with different traditions and texts and that is where much of the nastiness comes from.

Eg, the culture clash in the US Healthcare website rewrite … but also Nate Silver, also both Obama presidential campaigns and their use of big data and social network analysis.

Plus you have dynamics of actual consumer protection and consumer empowerment. The back seats of those cars in LA really are going to waste. My guess is for a while – like a decade or two – big government really won’t be able to deal with this sort of distribution. Big Government is the nearest shorthand for 20th century high modernist bureaucracy, that depends on lots of command and control and economies of scale. It just can’t scale down or move fast enough when put head to head with Internet-era tech. I imagine mostly an environment of benign neglect, but with horrible weird cases like suddenly living next to a popup brothel, which you can’t get the police interested in because everyone is renting out rooms on airbnb nowadays.

It was very interesting to me that New York and Chicago were big sites of regulatory pushback. They are both huge rich cities, with a lot of metro transport infrastructure, subways, buses and hotels. They have the population density economies of scale to make transport cheap already, even taxis. Whereas in, say, Brisbane, the trains cost an absolute fortune, and the taxis are basically non-existent outside of a very small square in the centre of town. Lift or Uber has a much bigger opportunity in Brisbane – or Phoenix, or Atlanta – because of the lack of competing infrastructure.

I think probably government will learn to adapt and use the new techs effectively, for better and worse, and will learn to scale down, so you can pay your 5% hotel room tax by smartphone for the three times a year you rent out your spare room. At its nicest it will look like GOV.UK, at its worst it will look like the CIA’s PRISM, and the latter will probably data mine the crap out of the former.

What about democracy and due process? There is a risk that in the rush to monetize every spare bit of capacity in our existing infrastructure, and routing around an elephantine bureaucracy with regulators that get new grads for a few years before they jump into the industries they were regulating, we screw up good processes of review and consultation just because they are slow. To me the only way around that doesn’t involve ignoring the tech is to exploit the legibility of software itself. Our regulations are code now. Well the regulations are public knowledge, right – why not the code? GOV.UK is on github (publicly hosted source control). Why not most civic infrastructure? Why not submit a patch for the local traffic light not leaving enough time for pedestrians, and argue about it in an issue system with your neighbours and the civil engineers looking after traffic design in that part of the city? It’s democracy with unit tests.

There are utopian extensions of this approach imagining using open software social and technical structures to reinvent corporations and government. One vision from Jessica Margolin and Jamais Cascio is to retool global business for resilience. The Jetpack Communist version is Terranova’s Red Stack Attack!: Algorithms of Capital and the Automation of the Common. Another vision might be using a structure like the W3C to fix climate change. I am drawn to these without being able to reconcile how they might live in the same world as gunboat diplomacy and social terror franchises like ISIS. There are visions in there, and a theory, and a kind of prototype, but not really a platform, yet.

The Poetics of Continuous Partial Attention

The drift of flesh in those cloud-tides floating – An Affinity For Flying Things

I’ve been vainly trying to keep up with Craig Hickman at dark ecologies. My failure to do so has now become part of the experience. Hickman writes in tremendous bursts of volume, bursts I’m not currently willing to let surge up and overwhelm my other reading.

This is not an unfamiliar feeling to us today, indeed people are forever whining about the stress of too much information, which in another time would sound like complaining about the stress of too much ice cream falling from the sky. If God is dead someone sure has forgetten to cancel the interplanar unlimited manna subscription.

It is unusual to get so much volume of fair quality from one person though, and seeing such a stream of material being published feels a bit like trying to follow Alexander Hamilton as he’s live tweeting the Federalist Papers. The writing tends to be broad rather than deep, and it is a breadth crossing traditions in a way that often triggers the peripheral vision of my mind’s eye. The poetry is not difficult language-wise; it’s not a high modernist riddle that has to be head butted into submission, and the vocabulary is not obscure. The essays and criticism range widely and impressionistically, blog like, they are lecture notes or philosophical travel diaries rather than arguments for an idea. Most posts are accompanied by the convention of a well chosen image.

I usually read blogs on my phone, and over the last few years that tactile experience of swiping through to a new Feedly article has intertwined with reading the internet, the same way seeking the edge and then turning the page of a book is intertwined with the muscle memory of novels. Swiping, glancing, being caught by a phrase, seeing an image and jumping past. Hickman has written that he is trying to invent a poetry of the twenty-first century. I’m not sure if the volume of posts is part of it deliberately or accidentally, but this is a very twenty-first century feeling. That sounds like a backhanded compliment, but it is not meant that way. This is a poetic intensification of our motorbike ride through everyone else’s signal, trying not to make it into white noise by the act of reading. It is terzanelle roadsigns on the information superhighway, it is a mandatory, subjective, editorialism as survival strategy, it is swimming in a world-wide slush pile when more than ever there is too much good stuff to read.

Sweet Portia

Singapore is a Venetian place: a maritime republic, a trading entrepôt, straddling cultures like a salesman, gateway to the Occident, wielding languages like a nimble lumberjack, protective of its citizens, happy with a respectable facade, tolerating most people so long as they have capital, importing labourers rather less indulgently, multi-racial, sometimes racist, mostly clean and rich in a region mostly otherwise. Above all, it is mercantile. La Republica Pristina.

Singapore isn’t like the Old Venice we visit today, the gorgeous Victorian Disneyland kept afloat for art and tourists. It’s like Young Venice of perhaps the year 1000, the Paduan colony, a trading post perched tenuously in a lagoon to keep Dark Age cavalry at bay, one starting to make a serious go of it, with its conscripted navy and an early grip on eastern Mediterranean trade with Byzantium.

The Singapore Repertory Theatre seize the chance offered by this parallel with Bruce Guthrie’s production of Merchant of Venice. Some Shakespearean plays look hard and get clearer with familiarity, but Merchant for me looked very legible on first encounter, and has got steadily less clear since. Jason Schneiderman captures the ambivalence of its relationships in his elegant The Sadness of Antonio.

The cast is good across the board, but three actors dominate. Daniel Jenkins brings something of last year’s Iago to his Antonio; gentle with his friends but always sneering and insulting to Shylock, even before his life is forfeit. Remesh Panicker’s Shylock has tremendous calm presence, with the production effortlessly substituting Indian chettiar tropes for Jewish moneylender ones, without changing the text. You can imagine his years of practicing his reserve as a survival skill. This means he keeps our sympathy as much as possible, while he faces his posh boy tormentors in court, who made a deal they couldn’t stick to while colluding to allow his daughter to elope. And Julie Wee’s Portia pins her end of the triangle, her lawyer’s brain sharpened on years of study while restrained by her dead father’s will. She explains the quality of mercy … even if it’s a greatest hit, it’s still a beautiful speech … before kicking Shylock as hard as she can while he’s down. You wonder if it’s her revenge on her father, her well-cultivated rage, or just self-righteous racism. This production leaves in her racial jab at her suitor, the Prince of Morocoo:

A gentle riddance. Draw the curtains, go.
Let all of his complexion choose me so.

This comment, too, comes after the Prince has lost, in his case at a riddle. Unlike Shylock, we never see Portia at a loss, only at a disadvantage. Even the failure of her new trophy husband is used to put him in his place, and teach him a lesson. She never loses, and the mask never slips.

Every major relationship in the Merchant of Venice, and many a minor one, comes with a contract, and every contract comes with a sting. John Kerrigan notes that Marx was encouraged by Shakespeare to see money as a bond that separates, particularly in Timon of Athens. We imbue objects with a symbolic weight and then behave as if the object is magical. Portia’s wedding ring is such a tool, not only for with her husband Bassanio, but with his so close friend, Antonio, who ends up swearing his Bassanio will be faithful; a peculiar oath.

Those last few scenes, about the ring – they can be a dizzy little comedic spiral after the horror movie of the court case, if you want, cheeky cross dressing and lovers’ tiffs. Guthrie doesn’t let us get away so easily. Jessica’s stolen dowry is another bond that separates. The quarrel between Krissy Jesudason’s Jessica and Johnson Chong’s petulant Lorenzo has more pain in it, and more regret. Jessica is given the last moment of the play, and she spends it weeping. It’s a shock, this interpretation, but it fits. In sooth, we know why she is so sad, but do her new pretty rich friends?

Some theatrical traditions emphasize the contrast between mystical Belmont and cutthroat commercial Venice, but this production doesn’t really see the need. Everything glitters. In Singapore, Belmont is a condo in Holland V.

That School Should Be Abolished

In the state highschools of my leafy green suburban homeland, a small fragment of the mandatory curriculum was set aside for the formal study of rhetoric. This worked out to about one formal English class debate a year, for a few years. The topics were a small set of banal perennials, at least as treated by thirteen year olds trained on Judy Blume and sports commentary, and who were less focused on their studies than on barely concealed techniques for manipulating others through lust. We got to hear about the death penalty, the end justifying the means, and though we never discussed whether Man was Good, it wouldn’t have been out of place. The prince of these was in one way the most relevant to our day to day experience, That School Should Be Abolished.

It's on

In another way, it was also the most cruelly unreachable topic: school was, and is, mandatory well past that age. The only way to abolish school actually available to a student was to drop out after landing a job, in the midst of the worst Australian unemployment since the Great Depression. Let’s not overstate the hardship ­- current Greek and Spanish youth unemployment, for instance, is a whole different scale. Yet even if the text is that school is a comforting support, the barely submerged subtext of the argument is compulsion.

If you are middle class in America today, or Greece for that matter, does attending college, and all the time and money that goes with it, seem any less compulsory and life-determining? I don’t feel like the experience has reached the same intensity elsewhere as yet, but all the same trends are driving it. And then we add a set of disruptive recording and distribution technologies, a bucket of venture capital, and an industry full of people with a skill – programming – that is both academic and that you have to teach to yourself in order to do it with even a modicum of competence. Before long you get statements like this …

“It was this catalytic moment,” Thrun says. “I was educating more AI students than there were AI students in all the rest of the world combined.” By the end of the semester, he’d raised another $5 million and was standing in front of the Digital Life Design conference in Munich, promising a world in which education was nearly free, available to poor people in the developing world, and better than anything that had come before it. “I can’t teach at Stanford again,” he said definitively. “I feel like there’s a red pill and a blue pill. And you can take the blue pill and go back to your classroom and lecture your students. But I’ve taken the red pill. I’ve seen Wonderland.” – Sebastian Thrun, robotics genius and CEO of Udacity, who later decided this revolution was mostly about tutorial videos for Salesforce.com APIs

… or this …

Read beneath the headlines a bit. The pundits and disrupters, many of whom enjoyed liberal ­arts educations at elite colleges, herald a revolution in higher education that is not for people like them or their children, but for others: less wealthy, less­ prepared students who are increasingly cut off from the dream of a traditional college education.
“To champion something as trivial as MOOC’s in place of established higher education is to ignore the day­care centers, the hospitals, the public health clinics, the teacher training institutes, the athletic facilities, and all of the other ways that universities enhance communities, energize cities, spread wealth, and enlighten citizens,” [Siva Vaidhyanathan] says. — Scott Carlson and Goldie Blumenstyk in the Chronicle of Higher Education

These articles are aging – we seem to be coming off the hype peak – but isn’t that exactly where the two sides of this argument talk past each other? One is using school as a verb – as a process that happens to an individual. Another is using it as a place – as an institution for learning and teaching, around which a community is built.

Shallow as the innovation disruption rah rah Silicon Valley techno-yay side of this can be, doesn’t the other side of it – the fixation on school as a place and a community – rather devalue the importance of study, of the subject of education itself? Isn’t that a strange position for an academic institution to hold? It’s rather reminiscent of the arguments against homeschooling, or indeed, the same terms our highschool debates would revert to. The online education providers have the same whiff of adolescent libertarian naïveté, of not being able to see how existing institutions support them, even when though they are lumbering and awkward. And their opponents end up arguing that the real worth of school is not learning: that you need to be in school to play sport, or eat lunch, or learn social skills; that to socialize you need to be institutionalized.

It’s all enough to make a person call a plague on both their houses, and start their own EduPunk course on open source 3D printed macrame. But I don’t know macrame.