Meeting the New Year

The Project for a Post-American Century meets an international system with Chinese characteristics.

There’s something in this Evan Osnos article in The New Yorker for nearly everyone:

[Trump] announced his intention to withdraw the U.S. from the Paris Agreement on climate change and from UNESCO, and he abandoned United Nations talks on migration. He has said that he might renege on the Iran nuclear deal, a free-trade agreement with South Korea, and NAFTA. His proposal for the 2018 budget would cut foreign assistance by forty-two per cent, or $11.5 billion, and it reduces American funding for development projects, such as those financed by the World Bank.

China’s approach is more ambitious. In recent years, it has taken steps to accrue national power on a scale that no country has attempted since the Cold War, by increasing its investments in the types of assets that established American authority in the previous century: foreign aid, overseas security, foreign influence, and the most advanced new technologies, such as artificial intelligence. It has become one of the leading contributors to the U.N.’s budget and to its peacekeeping force, and it has joined talks to address global problems such as terrorism, piracy, and nuclear proliferation.

Some of China’s growing sway is unseen by the public. In October [2017], the World Trade Organization convened ministers from nearly forty countries in Marrakech, Morocco, for the kind of routine diplomatic session that updates rules on trade in agriculture and seafood. The Trump Administration, which has been critical of the W.T.O., sent an official who delivered a speech and departed early. “For two days of meetings, there were no Americans,” a former U.S. official told me. “And the Chinese were going into every session and chortling about how they were now guarantors of the trading system.”

For Chinese leaders, Yan [Xuetong, dean of Tsinghua University’s Institute of Modern International Relations] said, “Trump is the biggest strategic opportunity.” I asked Yan how long he thought the opportunity would last. “As long as Trump stays in power,” he replied.

The Trump clan appears to “directly influence final decisions” on business and diplomacy in a way that “has rarely been seen in the political history of the United States,” the analyst [from the Pangoal Institution, a Beijing think tank] wrote. He summed it up using an obscure phrase from feudal China: jiatianxia—“to treat the state as your possession.”

For years, China’s startups lagged behind those in Silicon Valley. But there is more parity now. Of the forty-one private companies worldwide that reached “unicorn” status in 2017—meaning they had valuations of a billion dollars or more—fifteen are Chinese and seventeen are American.

There’s also an extended bit about a startup that combines AI and facial recognition. The company works very closely with police. For example, in one demo it displays jaywalkers’ names and official ID on a display screen at the intersection. “As a demonstration, using the company’s employee database, a video screen displayed a live feed of a busy intersection nearby. ‘In real time, it captures all the attributes of the cars and pedestrians,’ [the company’s VP of marketing] said. On an adjoining screen, a Pac-Man-like trail indicated a young man’s movements around the city, based only on his face.”

Happy New Year!

Your Sclerotic European Economy

Is doomed to be overtaken by the tech-fuelled surgeosity of US vitality, right?

Well, perhaps. Where would you decide to put a factory for the mass-production of Li-Ion batteries, the key technology in getting oil out of cars? California? China? Brazil? Try France: that’s what Johnson Controls is doing. Or how about launching 150kg satellites into LEO within the hour?

The luxuriant growth of objects

Jean Baudrillard died recently and the obits – this one in particular – persuaded me to give his writing a try, starting with The System of Objects (1968), which addresses the interaction of the technical and the cultural. In conversation with Steven Poole a few years ago, Baudrillard said – apparently of this book – ‘I did this critique of technology, but I would not do that any more. I am not nostalgic. I would not oppose liberty and human rights to this technical world’.

The System of Objects is aphorism dense. It is also somewhat puritanical. An example of the first:

The fact is, however, that automating machines means sacrificing a very great deal of potential functionality. In order to automate a practical object, it is necessary to stereotype it in its function, thus making it more fragile … so long as an object has not been automated it remains susceptible of redesign …

And an example of the moralising:

… sexual perversion is founded on the inability to apprehend the other qua object of desire in his or her unique totality as a person … the other is transformed into the paradigm of various eroticised parts of the body, a single one of which becomes the focus of objectification.

It’s hard to read The System of Objects without feeling fingered. Personally. Whether it’s your tastefully muted yet minimally accented interior decor (‘nothing but an impossible echo of the state of nature … aggressive … naive’), or your small collection of Galaxie 500 B-Sides (‘in short, there is something of the harem about collecting’), or the iroko antelope head sculpture you and your girlfriend brought back from Africa (‘… narcissistic regression … imaginary mastery of birth and death’), your way of living holds moral lessons for you. Yes, your plan was to pass a pleasant sunny afternoon reading on the sofa; but look, a swamp of guilt and self-doubt is rising around you, and it comes from all the things around you which you thought were good, or at least OK.

Baudrillard connects the moral to the everyday, the mundane, and so his net is cast very wide. This follows from his initial purpose of giving a systematic account of popular culture. The author’s opening challenge to himself – ‘Could we classify the luxuriant growth of objects as we do a flora or fauna, complete with tropical and glacial species, sudden mutations, and varieties threatened by extinction?’ – is followed up with a granular chapter structure that at first takes on items such as ‘… Walls and Daylight, Lighting, Mirrors and Portraits … Seats … The Lighter …’ and then shifts by way of cars and robots to broader classifications: ‘The Ideology of Models … The Ambiguity of the Domestic Object’. Ungenerously, you imagine Baudrillard starting out in his apartment – and writing about everything in it – then shifting his attention out the window (some cars down there), reminiscing briefly about that kinky phase he went through (embarrassing, frankly), then trying to remember how it was that time he went shopping at Christmas and found all the advertising incredibly irritating. In other words, The System of Objects has some of the qualities of a confessional. And because you too, reader, are bourgeois, your milieu will be very similar. And so you can connect, no?

The ambition to write big, to write it all, but then not to finish, also seems reassuringly European. (Being and Time remains two-thirds incomplete to this day, measured against its own table of contents.) Then again, Baudrillard’s contemporary, Roland Barthes, seems to have tackled the issue of popular culture by means of postcards and essays, and his piece on the Citroen DS from Mythologies (1957) is conveniently pocket sized.

I haven’t read enough Barthes to be able to convincingly compare him with Baudrillard (and I haven’t read enough Baudrillard either) but I suspect that not only did Barthes get there first, he had more poetry:

It is obvious that the new Citroen has fallen from the sky inasmuch as it appears at first sight as a superlative object. We must not forget that an object is the best messenger of a world above that of nature: one can easily see in an object at once a perfection and an absence of origin, a closure and a brilliance, a transformation of life into matter (matter is much more magical than life), and in a word a silence which belongs to the realm of fairy-tales.

Baudrillard’s metaphors, though similarly starry, are less beguiling:

… the intimacy of the car arises from an accelerated space-time metabolism and, inextricably, from the fact that the car may at any time become the locus of an accident: the culmination in a chance event – which may in fact never occur but is always imagined, always involuntarily assumed to be inevitable – of that intimacy with oneself, that formal liberty, which is never so beautiful as in death.

Yet when he is not reaching, he is often impressively direct:

Objectively, substances are simply what they are: there is no such thing as a true or a false, a natural or an artificial substance. How could concrete be somehow less ‘authentic’ than stone? We apprehend old synthetic materials such as paper as altogether natural – indeed, glass is one of the richest substances we can conceive of.

The modern idea of the nobility of materials is still very widespread; perhaps more entrenched now than it was in 1968, having acquired an environmentalist gloss. You can test the modernity of this idea yourself by taking a pocket knife into an eighteenth century grand house and having a (discreet) poke: underneath the gilding it’s cheap softwood and plaster.

So why would Baudrillard ‘retract’? One possible reason is that reactions to modernity are easily connected with fascism. And although technological ‘lock-in’ (‘fragility’ is Baudrillard’s term) remains a reality, a counter-force is technological entrepreneurship. And then there are computers, of course.

(My thanks to Alex and David for letting me guest post at AFOE.)

Easter Egg Vlogging: statistics and swords

Well, sort of. But don’t be scared, gentle readers, I’m not torturing you with a video of myself watching Edward Hugh watching Alex Harrowell watching me watching Edward, thus entirely disregarding the possible value of such a video for media theorists and social psychologists as well as the fact that all the cool kids are apparently engaging in such technically mediated low level chain-voyeurism these days

Last December, I saw the Swedish demographer Hans Rosling’s presentation about his project gapminder at the LeWeb3 conference in Paris. Professor Rosling and his team have developed the “Gapminder Trendalyzer”, recently purchased by Google (and now available on, a truly stunning tool to flexibly visualize and break down statistical time series, currently particularly relating to UN world development data.

Rosling’s presentation, in which he demonstrated beyond doubt that top Swedish students statistically know far less about the developing world than chimpanzees (who are on par with Nobel laureates), was one of the most interesting parts of the conference, and, as Loic LeMeur mentioned then, eye opening. Professor Rosling’s statistically derived world view is very different from the gloomy preconceptions most people are often mistaking for reality when talking about the state of the world’s development and demographic situation, particularly with respect to Africa, as Bruno Guissani remarks on Lunch Over IP

My experience in Africa, he says, is that the seemingly impossible is possible. Even bad governments have gone in the last 50 years from pre-medieval situation to sometimes decent infrastructure and conditions. … “You can believe statistics when you can relate them to your grandmother”, he says. By which he means that he has mapped his family history comparing the situation of Sweden in the different years in which his family members lived to that of different nations of the world today. His great-great mother born in the early 1800 lived in a country similar to today’s Sierra Leone; his g-g-mother in one that looked like Mozambique; his g-mother’s living conditions were close to that of Ghana today; his mother lived in the equivalent of Egypt. “And I am a Mexican”, he says, while his kids were born when Sweden was similar to today’s Chile and, in the case of the youngest one, like Singapore.

Luckily, for your Easter Vlogging pleasure, the TED blog has a video of Professor Rosling’s speech at the TED conference 2006, which is basically the one I saw in Paris. Unfortunately, there seems to be no video of his appearance at the TED conference 2007, where he demonstrated that demography and sword swallowing are two rather compatible activities. But there is a picture

Let’s Go To Bulgaria

Actually just after my Chinese visitor dropped by I received a Bulgarian one, my former ‘research assistant’, young Bulgarian anthropologist Yassen Bosev. And what did Yassen want? To tell me to Forget India, Let’s Go To Bulgaria. Only trouble was, I had some bad news for him: India’s minister of Disininvestment and Technology, Arun Shourie, already got there first. Why does everyone think Indian president Kalaam was in Bulgaria on his first overseas visit late last year?
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