Um, yeah, there’s a reason for that, it’s called THE LEGACY OF BRITISH COLONIALISM. The fact that the UK is disproportionately high achieving in a field that requires a long history of wealth and advanced education is true for a very specific reason.
This isn’t just a random small country that happens to have been very successful in this nifty area. It got there in large part because of its colonial legacy: by amassing wealth via imperialism and violence; and by enacting policies that specifically restricted and/or co-opted (read: stole) technological achievements from other countries.
One example: in the 16- and 1700s, India was the world leader in exporting printed calico, which was hugely popular in England and other parts of Europe. The British textile industry lacked the technology and scientific knowledge to make the same kind of fabricand was suffering economically because British people were buying Indian fabric instead. So the British government and companies systematically worked together to destroy the Indian textile industry. Through a combination of legislation and military force, they enacted very high import taxes on Indian fabric, outlawed printed calico, forced India to remove any import taxes on British goods (which helped British companies and hurt Indian ones), forced Indian producers to sell raw materials (with very low profit margins) to Britain, meaning British companies got the high profits from finishing them—and eventually, via direct observation of what was being done in India, learned the kind of chemistry (hi, science!) necessary to make printed calico themselves.
In doing so they destroyed not only the Indian textile industry but forced the entire nation to become an economy that exported cheap raw materials and imported expensive finished goods — a recipe for economic disaster and incidentally exactly the kind of system that exists globally through TODAY between poor and rich countries worldwide. In other words, Britain became wealthy and successful in this industry (which, again, was based on scientific knowhow) by taking that knowledge from another country through violence.
The effects of that kind of history are still extremely visible today in developing countries. For starters, there’s the fact that once a country becomes poor, it is very very likely to stay poor, because it lacks the resources to deal with its problems.
But more importantly in this case, once you disrupt what’s known as a knowledge economy — the shared and expanding knowledge and skills that drive industry and scientific research — it collapses. Knowledge is like a symbiotic organism; it needs living people to survive and if it’s not shared, it vanishes in a single generation. If your grandparents didn’t teach your parents to read, your parents are never going to be able to teach you. (Enter: all the scifi books about dystopias!)
(There’s also the fact that a lot of Britain’s academic and scientific success developed within a university system that was historically accessible only to people of one specific gender, race, class and religion.)
I’m talking about Britain here because that’s what the post is about (and because it’s a particularly egregious example — I was so shocked to realize this GIFset was for real). But the same is true throughout the history of the relationship between developed countries and developing ones (or indigenous populations) and the past 500 years of globalization. In this case, the 21st century British scientific establishment has benefited from advantages that research industries in other countries don’t have.
The point is: It’s great that the UK is so successful scientifically. It’s wonderful and they should keep investing in science and education and research. But don’t set yourself up against “the world’s population” and then pat yourself on the back for standing out. Historical privilege is not something to applaud yourself for. History matters. Economics matters. Check your privilege.
This is why the rich want philanthropy to replace government. Philanthropy is democratically unaccountable and can be used to take hostages and buy silence. The Revolution will not be funded. For that matter, not even tepid criticism and mild progressive reforms at the systemic level will be funded.
I’ve seen how this works at the local level, with local notables controlling the people in the nonprofit world who would otherwise be their political opposition. With the constant threat of defunding hanging over their head, people who want to do good have to choose between their own livelihoods plus the immediate needs of those they serve and pursuing real and lasting political solutions to the problems they work to solve. When they cross the line between hacking at the branches and digging into the roots of problems, they risk severe punishment, as the example of ACORN clearly shows, and was doubtless designed to show.
This is a big and largely unspoken factor in the failure of the left to really get any momentum or offer a coherent critique of what capitalism has become over the past few decades in this country. Many of our best potential leaders and organizers are trapped in this dynamic. I don’t really see an easy way out of it. I thought using the web to aggregate small donations might be feasible as an alternative model, but as bad as the economy and inequality have gotten, I’m not sure if that’s really able to fund things on the level required. It’s a nasty problem, and only getting worse.
This “power of local notables” idea should get a lot more attention. It’s truly a toxic thing. Lots of small-to-medium towns are the virtual fiefdoms of a few powerful, patriarchal white families who are generally mixed up in both business and local government. In its more benign form this results in rural poverty and stasis, because the notables would rather rule over a backwards, failing town than be a citizen of a growing, changing place.
However, when directly threatened, this power can get very, very real, and nakedly brutal. See Steubenville, and this perhaps even more horrifying story from Maryville, MO. This kind of thing has gone on from time immemorial in small towns all over the country. We hear about it quite a bit more now thanks to media and technology, but the fundamental dynamics haven’t changed all that much, regardless of political and economic growth and change on the national level. And now it’s filtering back up to threaten even those hard-fought and tenuous gains.
Through this reliance on Netflix, I’ve seen a new television pantheon begin to take form: there’s what’s streaming on Netflix, and then there’s everything else.
When I ask a student what they’re watching, the answers are varied: Friday Night Lights, Scandal, It’s Always Sunny, The League, Breaking Bad, Luther, Downton Abbey, Sherlock, Arrested Development, The Walking Dead, Pretty Little Liars, Weeds, Freaks & Geeks, The L Word, Twin Peaks, Archer, Louie, Portlandia. What all these shows have in common, however, is that they’re all available, in full, on Netflix.
Things that they haven’t watched? The Wire. Deadwood. Veronica Mars, Rome, Six Feet Under, The Sopranos.Even Sex in the City.
It’s not that they don’t want to watch these shows — it’s that with so much out there, including so much so-called “quality” programs, such as Twin Peaks and Freaks & Geeks, to catch up on, why watch something that’s not on Netflix? Why work that hard when there’s something this easy — and arguably just as good or important — right in front of you?
This is arguably happening with Spotify too.
This is a big part of why I still spend a lot of labor and some money on curating my own music and video catalogs and am reluctant to just give over my media consumption to subscription services. When Spotify first came out I did the matching thing, and it didn’t have about a quarter of my existing library, including a lot of my favorite more obscure and out of print stuff. I wasn’t comfortable losing access to that 1/4 and, extrapolating forward, the future 1/4 of my musical world. Netflix is of course even more spotty, and with the additional problem of constantly losing access to things due to shifting rights agreements.
I still use the streaming services, but mainly for discovery or quick/casual access on the go or in social settings. Once I really like something and know I want permanent access to it, I buy it (or pirate it if I can’t buy it for a reasonable price and in a DRM-free open format) and archive it. I still can’t quite get over the ideas of personal collections, ownership and boundedness between “my stuff” and the giant cloud of stuff that’s out there. I don’t know if that means I’m a fogey at this point, or just being cautious about where things are going w/r/t digital media, impermanence, and IP issues, but that’s where I am, and I can’t see what would change it in the near/medium term.
A good takedown of Gladwell. I’ve always thought he was better understood as a business/self-help writer, and that a lot of what is infuriating and puzzling about his work makes sense when you read him this way. It’s also what’s most pernicious about him, as his approach at its worst removes the error bars from social science research and converts it into nuggets of deterministic “wisdom” to be implemented by the decree of would-be philosopher kings with MBAs.
He’s a talented writer and an able explainer, which only makes this worse. And the fact that he’s doing all of this as a conscious strategy and evidently sleeps the sleep of the just is most damning of all.
(This also ties into some of my growing reservations with the idea of “storytelling” as an unqualified good. I need to write a good long post hashing that one out sometime soon here.)
Remember how I was saying that the Bitcoin economy/culture is inherently antisocial? Yeah, about that…
The government says that Ross William Ulbricht, the alleged founder of the Bitcoin drug market Silk Road, tried to pay to have two different people killed in the last year. The second attempted murder was described in a criminal complaint unsealed by the government earlier today. But the government says that was preceded by another murder attempt, whose details are described in an indictment just published by the Baltimore Sun.
The indictment says Ulbricht then contacted the undercover cop (who was still posing as a drug dealer) to report that his employee had been arrested and had stolen funds from other Silk Road users. He allegedly told the officer that “I’d like him beat up, then forced to send the Bitcoins he stole back.”
Later, he allegedly wrote “can you change the order to execute rather than torture?” He reportedly wrote that the employee “was on the inside for a while, and now he’s been arrested, I’m afraid he’ll give up info.” He allegedly added that he had “never killed a man or had one killed before, but it is the right move in this case.”
This. I mean, fuck the Republicans, that goes without saying. But fuck the Democrats too for being so spineless and uncommitted to their supposed ideals and constituents that they never take their chances to make the Republicans pay for their extremism and vandalism. Fuck the Democrats for pretty much taking a pass on the 2010 midterm elections that put all of these crazy people in power and led to gerrymandering that promises to keep them there for the rest of an increasingly lost decade. That was just unforgivable given the stakes (structural unemployment and the closing window on climate change especially) and a big part of how we got to this level of crisis.
This is not a “both sides do it” argument. It’s more of an “all it takes for evil to triumph is for good people to remain silent” one. And they’re so conspicuously silent, even when speaking out would be to their material advantage, that you have to wonder about the “good people” part of that equation sometimes. You don’t get a cookie just for being the only alternative to anarchy and extremism. You actually have to, y’know, fight back against it.
Christmas is coming early for House Republicans. A draft of the GOP leadership’s proposal to lift the debt ceiling through December 2014 is circulating and it’s the equivalent of a letter to Santa for the party’s base. The bill, obtained by the National Review, tacks on items including a one-year delay of Obamacare; tax reform in the image of Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI); approval of the Keystone pipeline; expanded offshore drilling and other pro-oil and coal energy reforms; increases in military spending coupled with deeper cuts to domestic programs; repealing a fund in the financial regulatory reform bill; means testing for Medicare; repealing the Obamacare prevention and public health fund and medical malpractice reform.
This is a fundamentally ridiculous political document. It’s asking the Democrats to completely capitulate on many of their key issues, less than a year after they handily won an election that was directly about those issues. It really goes much further than that, and as even a generally timid and tepid Neoliberal type like Matt Yglesias says:
Republicans are essentially asking for an end to constitutional government in the United States and its replacement by a wholly novel system.
If we’ve decided that duly passed and Supreme-Court-vetted legislation is irrelevant, and the results of elections are irrelevant, then what the hell are we left with? This is the rule of anarchy and extortion. The current stakes might not be quite as high (though threatening to wreck the global economy is still pretty high-stakes), but the behavior and rhetoric reminds one a lot of the secessionists in the lead up to the Civil War. Lincoln, from his famous Cooper Union Speech:
Your purpose, then, plainly stated, is that you will destroy the Government, unless you be allowed to construe and enforce the Constitution as you please, on all points in dispute between you and us. You will rule or ruin in all events…
But you will not abide the election of a Republican president! In that supposed event, you say, you will destroy the Union; and then, you say, the great crime of having destroyed it will be upon us! That is cool. A highwayman holds a pistol to my ear, and mutters through his teeth, “Stand and deliver, or I shall kill you, and then you will be a murderer!”
To be sure, what the robber demanded of me - my money - was my own; and I had a clear right to keep it; but it was no more my own than my vote is my own; and the threat of death to me, to extort my money, and the threat of destruction to the Union, to extort my vote, can scarcely be distinguished in principle.
The past is not even past, etc.
More interesting attention economy thoughts, this time occasioned by the horse_ebooks reveal.
I agree that this is a bad thing, but to say that it isn’t capitalism doesn’t make sense. This is exactly the ultimate result of capitalism: the capitalization of everything, and the steady accumulation of capital by a small percentage of people at the expense of the vast majority. Decrying attention-capitalization as a regression from capitalism to feudalism displays a naive, US-high-school-civics-class understanding of capitalism chiefly distinguished by its distinction from supposedly communist states like the USSR or China.
I think the feudal aspect is the return to a fundamentally limited substrate for the economy. Feudalism was zero-sum and had little growth and change because of this. With classic capitalism having more or less fungible money as the substrate there were no firm limits to growth (though of course all those messy externalities that are currently coming home to roost complicate the picture immensely.) When it worked, that growth was even enough to make a broad proportion of the society fairly economically secure.
I don’t know that I buy the attention economy thing as an overarching theory (capital, resources, etc. obviously still matter a lot), but insofar as capitalism is getting more and more hierarchical, stagnant, and feudal-ish, it’s an interesting lens through which to look at things.