Nils Gilman is a futurist, pessimist and just about the smartest person you could follow on Twitter. He takes on banks, the GFC, social inequality, and where we as a species are heading.
It is difficult to sum up anyone in a sentence. With Nils Gilman (@nils_gilman), you’d be struggling with five.
In the past week, he’s tweeted about bitcoin derivatives, the history of the corporation in the 20th century, the colony of New Plymouth’s wealth tax, the global hot-money bubble, China’s socio-technical confidence and the fact that big internet companies are utilities like any other. He’s not only interested in the hot-button topics today, either, but the hot-button topics of yesterday and tomorrow, too. He’s also interested in how we speak and think about important issues — or how we refuse to — and our historical reasons for doing so. His brain makes mine melt.
“What I tweet about reflects my palimpsest of a career,” Gilman told Crikey. “I started by getting a PhD in history from Berkeley, where I studied the intellectual history of the social sciences. This led to my first book, which was an intellectual history of modernisation theory, the dominant social-scientific theory of economic, social and political development that provided an underpinning to much US foreign policy toward the global south — what was then called the Third World — during the Cold War.”
In the early noughties, Gilman went into industry, working at a series of software companies before moving into management consultancy. “I was specifically working with the group of futurists gathered around the Global Business Network of Stewart Brand, Peter Schwartz and Napier Collyns,” he said. “My particular focus was on alternate defence and intelligence futures: things like the security implications of climate change, financial instability — including inequality — and transnational criminal organisations.” This led to his becoming research director for Monitor 360, a GBN spin-off, and more recently executive director of Social Science Matrix, a new interdisciplinary research centre at Berkeley. “I’ve come full circle,” he said.
“Given my peculiar career history, it’s perhaps unsurprising that I’m especially interested in the strange ways that academia, government and industry compete to produce authoritative knowledge,” Gilman said. “What counts as compelling evidence, for which audiences, for which topics, under which circumstances? This provides an interesting lens for assessing everything from climate change debates, to matters of corporate and government surveillance, to post-crisis banking regulations, to how we define criminality and deviance. Who has the authority to determine what counts as legitimate evidence and arguments on these issues? Who should we and shouldn’t we trust?
“These are crucial questions because we are living in a world in which we rely ever more on complex technical systems that are constructed and governed by technical experts. And yet, paradoxically, we are also ever more suspicious about deferring to these experts. The number of people asking us to trust them and getting howled at increases with every passing day: climate scientists, journalists, bankers, intelligence officials.
“Like everyone else, I’m inclined to trust some of these categories of experts more than others,” he said, “but I think it’s fair to say that all of them have lost a great deal of the authority they once held. In this sense Daniel Rodgers is quite right to say that we live in an ‘Age of Fracture’.”
By that he means the splintering of society into ever-smaller communities and narrower interests, defined sometimes by ethnic or gender identities. Gilman says this “fracturing” is happening all over the Western world. “Things are bad in America’s democracy, but they are no better most other places,” he said. “Many things that are blamed on local political circumstances are in fact part of much broader global phenomena.”
“For example, US progressives often argue that the decline in governmental effectiveness and growing income inequality is the result of a right-wing campaign led by perfervid neo-Confederate ideologues and funded by plutocrats. But then, what are we to make of the fact that the same trends have been manifesting themselves throughout the West, from France to Australia, despite the absence of any such historical or ideological factors?”
Gilman says Europe was arguably the hardest-hit by the crisis. “Europe’s problem is that there is little consensus over where the locus of ultimate power should reside,” he said. “In the US, there’s less dispute over the locus of the power than there is over the purposes to which that power should be put and the constituents it should serve.
“The legitimation crises are thus distinct. In Europe, there is a deepening democratic deficit, whereas in the US there is a widening ideological cleavage. Both lead in practice to a political dysfunction and a sense of profound restlessness.”
The current trend towards assuming technology will provide solutions is unlikely to solve either of these problems, Gilman says, let alone any of the other problems that are currently face the world. “Across all the conversations I’m engaged in,” he said, ”the thing I have the least time for is the implicit assumption that technology will save us and that we can therefore avoid having hard political conversations about tough social, economic, and environmental tradeoffs.
“By all means we need to invest in technologies for the future. I’ve worked in tech firms and have seen the miracles that they can bring. But at the end of the day, we’re not going to overcome the second law of thermodynamics with the next iPhone app.”
He said the biggest conundrum humanity faces is what he calls “the humanitarian-developmental trilemma”: “What I mean by this is that we can only have two out of three of these things: a) a 7 billion-plus global population; b) development for all understood as consumerism; and c) a non-catastrophic planetary climate. So far, the de facto choice has been (a) and (b). My deepest fear is that as certain global elites begin to really grasp the nettle on climate change — that is, as they decide to seriously address (c) — they may choose some radical triaging of humanity.”
Gilman’s Twitter feed is a handy guide to his various explorations of this trilemma. “It’s a way for me to bookmark and take brief notes,” he said, “which serves as a mnemonic.” To his followers, it serves as news feed, history lesson and book of prophecy all at once, a veritable abundance of links one might never stumble across elsewhere, wry observations on topics one didn’t even know existed and, occasionally, arguments with those who’d rather not have the limits of their thinking pointed out to them.
“There’s an undeniable element of narcissism to Twitter,” Gilman said. “‘Listen to me! See how cool I am!’ That’s true whether you’re a rock star or an academic or a politician.
“But if we leave that aside, Twitter allows me to connect with distributed communities that I might not otherwise have been able to see as networked wholes. For me, those communities include futurists, intellectual historians, critical theorists of political economy — especially those who deal with development and inequality — and those interested in various intelligence and surveillance issues. We often share ideas and sometimes, of course, squabble, though I tend to find the disputatious aspect of Twitter unrewarding. It’s really hard not to end up talking past each other.”
And talking past each other is not exactly the best way to use one’s time when that time is so limited and the stakes so high.
“One of my credos is that optimists are never pleasantly surprised,” he said. “On the one hand, I feel incredibly blessed and slightly guilty about getting to live in the golden age of mankind. Our numbers have grown exponentially; our degree of physical comfort, health, and security would have been unimaginable to our great-great-grandparents; and the diversity of our individual cultural lives has never been more kaleidoscopically diverse, despite a great deal of belly-aching about tawdriness. All these benefits have come at significant costs, of course, but overall I feel very happy to have gotten to live under modern conditions, as opposed to what came earlier almost everywhere.
“With that said, I am highly pessimistic about the long-term sustainability of the global civilisation we have created,” he said. “At the end of the day, the comforts we enjoy — not just physical, but also social, in terms of tolerance and liberalism — are based on the cashing in of millions of years of fossilised sunlight in the context of a stable planetary ecosystem. As we reach the end of the line on both of those fronts over the course of the next century, it’s very hard to imagine the how the world our own great-grandchildren will inhabit will possibly be as pleasant as the one we enjoy today.
“Then again, perhaps I’ll be pleasantly surprised. The paradox of the future is that it is both totally overdetermined and radically contingent.”
There are so many I could recommend, but here are a few I’ve found myself retweeting most recently:
Vinay Gupta (@leashless) for futurism and crazy utopian dreaming;
David Rieff (@davidrieff) for a slightly jaundiced take on the development business; and
Humanity (@HumanityJ) for a critical take on human rights and humanitarianism.
On Manning, Snowden and the conversation around leaking …
The conversation about Chelsea Manning, Edward Snowden and their actions has been grossly simplified. Several sorts of distinctions need to be made when it comes to this ongoing discussion. First, there’s the difference between the leakers and the reporters who cover these leaks. Muckraking reporters who cover leaks are an essential part of the checks and balances in a democracy, and in the US are clearly protected by the First Amendment. With that said, I think there are important questions to be asked about the judgement of the reporters who report on secrets, particularly national security secrets. What makes them more qualified than national security experts to decide what should or should not be made or kept secret? That’s a serious question, not a rhetorical one. Traditionally — by which I mean, basically, the era from about 1973 to 2001 — the process of disclosure was a messy negotiation between reporters from mainstream establishment media outfits and the various organs of the national security apparatus. It wasn’t procedurally elegant, but there was a sort of modus vivendi, one that more or less continues between, say, TheWashington Post and The New York Times and the White House.
Since the early 2000s, however, things have changed in crucial political and technological ways. On the technological side, the internet has made it far, far easier to steal and transmit vast amounts of secret data. There’s no way a Manning or Snowden can take the vast troves of information they do unless the downloading and storing of the data is rapid and relatively silent. You compare what they did to the labourious Xeroxing that Daniel Ellsberg had to do to steal the Pentagon Papers; there’s just no comparison. At the same time, technology has vastly lowered the barriers to publishing such secrets, essentially to zero. WikiLeaks took virtually all of Manning’s material and just posted it online. In Ellsberg’s day, the technology of information distribution made such a thing impossible. Nowadays, anyone with an internet connection can be a “reporter”.
On the political side, the misadventures in US foreign policy — read: the way secrecy about supposed WMD intelligence was used to create a false pretexts for waging war in Iraq — has vastly increased suspicions about the competence and probity of the intelligence community and its political patrons. The willingness of reporters — especially given the way that category has been vastly expanded by technology — to defer to the claims of the political and intelligence authorities has clearly declined, and for good reason.
With all that said, leaking or whistle-blowing—I make no real distinction — is a vexatious activity. There’s no such thing as a morally pure leaker: at minimum you’re violating the trust that your organisation has put in you, and you’re almost certainly going to end up hurting a lot of people who worked around you and trusted you as well as harming the morale of the organisation you’re exposing. That may be worthwhile if the malfeasance you’re attempting to expose is sufficiently severe to justify the harm you’re going to do to the people and the organisation. If you think the organisation you’re disrupting is mainly evil, of course, there’s not much of a personal dilemma, but then the moral dilemma is a different one: you’ve essentially defined yourself as a spy, inveigling yourself into the trust of an organisation you consider evil, and the moral dilemmas thereof are well-documented. After all, if that is how you see the organisation, then the word “traitor” is entirely appropriate.
In the end, we have to assess the ethics of the leaker not within the simplistic dualism of hero/traitor, but with a balancing test: is the leak sufficiently narrowly targeted that it will provide the necessary exposure of malfeasance, but also designed to minimise the collateral damage it will do to the organisation? I was okay with Wikileaks releasing its “Collateral Murder’ video: here was certainly an event which Americans needed to see about the nature of the war of that was being waged in their name and that was being classified, not for security reasons, but for political ones. But I was horrified when Wikileaks decided to just dump 390,000-plus diplomatic cables on the Internet. What narrow malfeasance was being exposed through this? Do we really want to make it impossible for diplomats to speak freely with their home offices? The only possible justification for this is if one believes that there should be no such things as secrets at all. But does anyone sane actually want to live in such a world? The quickest glance at your own life should surely disabuse you of that notion.
Finally, there’s the question of the ethics of the current reporters. I think that, in many ways, Glen Greenwald is doing excellent work. But there is something problematic from a process perspective about the fact that he has essentially substituted himself for the elected government as the adjudicator of what should or shouldn’t be kept secret. Unlike Assange, he agrees that some secrets are necessary. But what’s the basis for deciding which ones should be kept secret and which ones not? As a moral or procedural standard, Greenwald’s whim is no more compelling than Obama’s whim or Bush’s whim. Even if we all agree that the current process is deeply broken — and it’s very hard to find anyone who doesn’t agree that the classification system is broken—simply substituting the judgment of one man who received stolen secrets doesn’t seem like a very scalable or democratic alternative, no matter how much I may agree with Greenwald’s judgments. I’m not questioning his right to publish. As I said, adversarial investigative reporting is an essential part of any healthy democracy. But muckraking is not enough.
What we need, then, is deep institutional reform. Ten years ago, Barton Gellman suggested that the traditional, more or less negotiated process between establishment media and the organs of state is the best we can do, and maybe he’s right, though the Internet seems to have obviated the ability of these traditional establishment gatekeepers to monopolise the circulation of material. Instead, I continue to hold out hope that what may result from all this Strum und Drang will be the creation of an empowered judiciary: a FISA-like entity, reformed and empowered with investigative powers and a normative mandate to say “no” on a regular basis. Muckraking will still have its place, but it will return to its proper role: as a spur to political and institutional reform, rather than as a moral end in itself.
On deviant capitalism …
In a nutshell, deviant capitalism is the business of seeking profit from exploiting the gap between socially-normative moral prohibitions and the desires people have for these prohibited goods or services. I call this “moral arbitrage.” (As Walter Lippmann observed long ago, “The high level of lawlessness is maintained by the fact that Americans desire to do so many things which they also desire to prohibit.”) We call the businessmen and –women who do this “criminals,” but moralising about what they do is not very useful for assessing why they do what they do or how they are likely to respond to various intervention efforts. At the end of the day, as Daniel Boorstin once said, crime is a service institution.
I don’t see much substantive difference in the business practices of most deviant entrepreneurs as compared to mainstream ones—with two huge caveats that result from the illegality of what they do. First, these businesses are unregulated in the day-to-day details of the businesses, which means they tend to throw off a lot of negative externalities, from pollution to mistreatment of workers. Second, because they can’t count on the state to provide them with the usual state services that businesses expect—specifically contract enforcement and the adjudication of business disputes—they have to source these functions privately, which inevitably leads to violence. But here’s the key point: these very real negative consequences result not from the details of the businesses, but from the fact that they are illegal. If you make any business illegal for which there is continued demand, it will demonstrate these effects.
The epicenters of deviant capitalism are places where the state is weak in its regulatory capacity but the economy is well-connected to the global system. Central America is a key site, for sure, and Latin America generally is where I’ve studied this phenomenon most closely. But there are plenty of others: Burma, Nigeria, the lands of the fertile crescent. Places undergoing severe financial crises, war economies, and countries under sanctions are also loci classici. Right now, that includes places like Iran, Venezuela, Russia, Greece, and so on.
I spent a couple of years as an advisor to a World Bank-funded and Asia Foundation-managed project on the impact of aid on sub-national conflict in Southeast Asia, the result of which were recently published. Perhaps the most amazing finding, to me, is just how little donors know about where their money goes in these places, much less about what the impact of their projects may be. The money is literally going into a black hole of conflict, and before this report there was no systematic knowledge of what impact all this spending might be having. This is what I have referred to as the Fog of Development.
The Fog of Development has many driving factors, but the underlying one is epistemic: we just don’t know what we know. And this has three dimensions. First, development agencies don’t, and apparently can’t, follow the money. So we lack any precise sense of what effect the “development” spending is having. (You can look from the ground up at individual projects to make project assessments, but it’s nearly impossible to track a particular dollar from the donor all the way down to the village.)
Second, the developmental state, if it does collect development-related data, does so extremely badly, and it collects conflict-related data even more haphazardly. Or, if it does collect these things well, it usually refuses to share them, or actively distorts them. In ways you as an analyst cannot determine. Third, when non-native aid agencies try to collect the impact data themselves, they usually fail, for two reasons. On the one hand, they often refuse to answer “sensitive” questions, for fear of being excluded (or for fear of their lives). On the other hand, if they do ask the “sensitive” (i.e. crucial) questions, they are probably not going to get honest answers from respondents, who suffer from the same incentives and fears, but worse. In sum, we don’t know what we don’t know. And yet the money continues to flow.
On China, socio-technical confidence, modernism and postmodernism …
The socio-technical confidence of high modernism is the faith that technocrats can actually solve the problems facing society. It’s worth unpacking that: on the one hand, there must be consensus among elites about what the problems are that need solving, and on the other hand there must be the confidence that the elites have the tools to actually solve them. Both this consensus and this confidence existed in the United States prior to about 1965, at which point it collapsed for a variety of reasons which I wrote about at length in Mandarins of the Future.
One way to think about postmodernism as an intellectual and political project was the attempt to dismantle, at an epistemological and theoretical level, the underpinnings of the high modernist project. And while most of those who might be labeled postmodernists think of themselves as people broadly speaking of the left, we need to assess—”objectively,” as the Marxists used to say—what the effects of this critique have been. To simplify grotesquely: postmodernism has been very effective at critiquing and undermining the liberal project, but has failed to offer a viable alternative vision to the solution of collective social problems. The result—unintended, I should emphasise—has been to clear political space that has been effectively occupied by the socio-economic right. The de facto identity politics and obsession with human rights of left-liberals has almost nothing to offer as a critique of—much less as an alternative to—the current socio-economic conjuncture in the United States. It’s only a slight parody to suggest that the utopian hope is to build a world in which even transgendered people of colour have a chance to become plutocrats.
China today is in many interesting ways the avatar of that same sort of muscular belief in the power of modernisation that was hegemonic in the United State fifty years ago. (Interestingly, Chinese social scientists today are deeply fascinated by US modernisation theory.) There have been a few wobbles over the last couple of decades, particularly concerning the consensus about what the problems are that need solving. The most obvious of those was the rift that emerged among the elites in 1989 over how to address the Tiananmen Square protests. But more recently there has been a dissensus over whether the “Chinese Model” of breakneck growth at the costs of environmental degradation, growing inequality and growing corruption is really worthwhile. The defenestration of Bo Xilai in 2012 can be read as a strike against his attempt to broaden the list of social issues that China’s technocratic elites are expected to address.
Like everyone, I’m in awe by what China has achieved over the last generation. More people have been moved out of poverty there than by all the development programs the West has ever sponsored. Westerners underestimate how dramatically China has also opened up politically. The amount of open debate and dissent that is tolerated today would have been unthinkable 20 years ago, with certain notable topics excepted: Falun Gong, Tibet and Tiananmen, for example. But no one would deny that these changes have come at steep costs, both socially and above all environmentally. I’m optimistic about China in the short-to-medium term, both in terms of its own internal stability and in terms of its relations with its neighbors and with the United States. But over the longer term it’s very hard to see how they will manage the long-term social and ecological debts they have occurred, especially in the face of a rapidly graying population and potentially catastrophic climate change.