20 Jun 2016, 3:00pm
reflections
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  • Imperial College sends me an indirect message from Oswald Spengler

    Half a lifetime ago I went to Imperial College to study Physics. I then took some of this knowledge and used it in the world of work, I got to use stuff like Laplace transforms etc in filter design, and generally applied a bit of it. However, perhaps the biggest win was learning how to learn. Imperial reflected to me just how much the world has changed in a shade under 40 years, with an offer of free drinks too!

    Imperial in the City: Networking event for alumni working in finance
    29 June • 18:30 – 21:30 • Corney and Barrow, Canary Wharf E14 4EB

    This networking event is a great chance to connect with other Imperial alumni working in finance. Your first two drinks will be complimentary, courtesy of Imperial College London, if you register in advance of the event. Please also bring your business card for the chance to win a bottle of champagne in our prize draw. Spread the word among fellow alumni in the finance industry.

    Peter Thiel, Donald Trump 2016 supporter and personal grudge holder extraordinary 1, summed up the reasons why the West’s economies are faltering and returning less on investment. Now while Thiel is a pretty odious character IMO, he is a brilliant guy and a sharp thinker. There’s no law that says character has to go with smarts.  I share his view on why the West has lost its mojo.

    We used to think the future was going to be better that today, and we used to have a damn good idea of how to go about it. We were often wrong, but we rolled up our sleeves and wrangled the world to make it more like how we wanted. It brought us decent sanitation, heated homes, longer lifespans. It also brought us reality TV, fast food and corporations too big to fail, but there has to be collateral damage in any enterprise. Thiel called this definite optimism – you’re optimistic and you know how to go get it. The young Ermine went to school in that world, all that jazz about people on the moon, much of the advances following the world wars made science and technology an interesting place to be, and I went to Imperial College to go learn Physics. Then I took some of this into the world of industry to go and make a few things happen, some of which were actually new.

    Something changed, I would say in the 1980s though it had nothing particularly to do with Thatcher. Somehow we lost our nerve, , and also some of our vision for the future. It’s understandable in Britain – ever since the 1920s Britain’s influence in the world fell away, particularly after the Second World War, and the US wanted the top dog slot anyway. But I didn’t expect it, and the problem affected the US too. I suspect the seeds were sown in the 1973 oil crisis.

    We became indefinite optimists – we thought the world was going to be a better place but we didn’t know the hell how. The answer to that is to corral financial resources – and let’s face it, everyone aiming for financial independence is an indefinite optimist. If you know what would work to make the world a better place you’d do it or buy it. But if you don’t, then in Thiel’s taxonomy you become an indefinite optimist – you accumulate general purpose capital because you then keep maximum optionality in taking advantage of whatever things will make the future a better place than today. You become a good passive investor, because you’re damned if you know what will work, but that something will if you diversify enough, because you are indefinitely optimistic about the future.

    Finance is indefinite optimism

    Indefinite optimism, writ large – in some ways finance is indefinite optimism encapsulated.There’s nothing wrong in working in finance – but thirty years ago Imperial’s graduates tended to go into industry.

    Money is a claim on future human work, and you have to be optimistic that there will be future humans and they will be prepared to put in the work for your symbolic tokens when you get round to cashing them in at an exchange rate that is acceptable to you. And good luck to y’all in your networking event.

    Someone got there before Peter Thiel, however, the German historical philosopher Oswald Spengler, whose magnum opus The Decline of the West paints the picture. All cultures experience

    “its childhood, youth, manhood, and old age”. “Each culture has its own new possibilities of self-expression, which arise, ripen, decay and never return”

    Spengler contrasted the earlier vital stages of a culture (Kultur) and the later stages when all that remains is a Zivilisation of people preoccupied with preserving the memories of past glories. Part of the essential myth of the West in continuous growth, it is a bedrock assumption and in contrast to some of the cyclical principles of Eastern thought – cyclical reincarnation had no place in the religious ideas of the West for instance.

    Declinism is, of course, an eternal draw to those in the second half of life – they project the micro onto the macro. And yet I see similarities in Spengler’s narrative, and in the Economist’s thoughtful Bagehot overview of the tribal debate otherwise known as the EU referendum, which hopefully we will be shot of in a week’s time. Perhaps it is all part of the bigger picture – the Gramsci quote cited by Bagehot

    “The crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear.”

    was quoted three years ago in the New York Times riffing on the same sort of thing. We are living through remarkable change on many fronts, and many aspects of the old order, assumptions that held throughout my childhood and most of my working life, are changing .The balance between labour and capital has shifted dramatically in Western societies. The assumptions of capitalism are also weakening in the presence of very large corporations who can dominate important sectors globally. Facebook and social media has largely reduced the open Internet and Web of the 1995 to 2005-ish to a lowly transmission mechanism. The British press is owned by press barons with a very similar outlook to each other so a monopoly of sorts – once we had regulations to control how much of the fourth estate was in one individual’s hands but of course deregulation meant the end of such dirigiste thinking. The nation-state itself is too small to tackle some of the global issues of our times. None of these problems are insoluble, but Gramsci’s observation is apposite, because the old is dying faster than the new is being born. This is inherent in the passage of history, because otherwise the old will try and strangle the new at birth, but it does mean there will be an transitional period. Transitional periods tend to be interesting times, and not always in a good way.

    I will grow old in the gathering interregnum, you dear reader, may have some chance of seeing the distant shoreline of the New. We do not know how long it will last, or if the sleep of reason will end before the morbid symptoms overtake the light. I made the mistake of following a link after the dreadful killing of a politician which led to Twitter. I don’t know what social media does to our brains, but the boorish lack of civility doesn’t give me hope. Intelligent discourse and civilised disagreement is necessary to feel our way to a new order. It’s been in terribly short supply over the last few weeks, in the vacuum the monsters seem to be multiplying.

    Goya's darwing from 1799

    Goya’s The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters

    We could use some definite optimism, but maybe Spengler and Gramsci are right – the West has had a good run but it is time to pass the baton on to other civilisations, perhaps yet to be born. We have some attempts in the direction of definite optimism.

    1969

    1969 Apollo mission 47 years ago

    Perhaps the cynical me has not thought as a child for too long and I do admire the motivation behind Tim Peake’s work, but I recall what watching the Apollo moon landing in July 1969 was like. I was at primary school and less than half the households had a TV, but the school rigged a black and white TV in the assembly hall to watch this at lunchtime. There was none of the vox pop of schoolkids asking cheesy questions – we kids were amazed at adults doing really amazing stuff that captured the imagination. There was a much greater distance between the adult world and children’s world then, and I’m not so sure it was all a bad thing, it gave something clear to aspire to. I learned electronics as a child from books written for adults, not the facile handholding and visual props of the kid-oriented maker space 2 now.

    2016

    2016 Tim Peake addressing some schoolkids

    I haven’t yet worked out if in the intervening 47 years we have gone in the direction of bread and circuses or advancement, but good luck to them all on getting more people into science. Definite optimism or bust I say…

    Notes:

    1. Gawker shouldn’t have outed him, but that’s pressing his case with extreme prejudice and outside the rule of law
    2. only some of the maker space is child-targeted, but descriptions are much more process-orientated  rather than teaching the principles of operation and designing from them. It’s a ‘here’s this picture, now go lay out these exact parts in this exact way’ rather than ‘here’s the schematic, go make this happen somehow’
     
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