Mar 28, 2014

Follow Friday: @nils_gilman, prognosticating the paradox of the future

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.

Matthew Clayfield

Journalist, critic, screenwriter and playwright

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?"

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2 thoughts on “Follow Friday: @nils_gilman, prognosticating the paradox of the future

  1. Malcolm Harrison

    the current obsession with economic rationalism indicates that of the three options Gilman offers, he is right to fear that we will abandon the economically disadvantaged to their fate if things get nasty climatically speaking. it is a common theme of economists and by an large they seem to align behind this proposition. it is of course inherent within economic rationalism that the economically advantaged will seek, and should seek the optimum economic outcome available. so gilman needs to start transforming these doctrines which pervade everywhere, although they have ben with us in these narrow forms for only a few decades, if he desires a different outcome. m.

  2. AR

    This article is precisely why I subscribe – telling me something (a) I don’t know, (b) need to know and (c) want to know. Well done.

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