Is it just me? Yes, I agree that global news matters, but – there's an odd sameness to it. As if it's just an endless update to the same stories about the same characters in a world far, far away. Same treatment of every story, too. "The dogs bark, but the caravan moves on," is today's handy Arab proverb. We know those dogs, and we know that bark - they're not really alarmed. Yes, I agree that if a nuclear war starts, that’ll serve me right for saying this, but what do you think is the effect of hearing, every fifteen minutes: the man’s put out another tweet and somebody’s condemned it, and isn't that serious, and now we’re moving on to another story? I’d say: not exactly induced forgetfulness but a kind of numbness: everybody’s behaving “in character”; the story goes on. The repetition saps the reality.
It's time for some music. Listen to the song Nothing Ever Happens by the (I think, Scottish) band Del Amitri. Written by Justin Currie, released in 1989. "They'll burn down the synagogues at six o'clock and we'll all go along like before..." Listen to the whole thing. There's a 1996 version by Manfred Mann's Earth Band. But today, we're going with this link.
Local news is different from global because it can't help but be immediate. I was listening to a phone-in yesterday on Radio Cornwall. It was on the NHS, but not just the NHS: this was our local hospital they were discussing. I heard a newly retired nurse talking about her final job as the one nurse on duty overnight in a stroke ward – as the one nurse responsible for the twenty-one patients in the ward. She talked about the old days, earlier in her career, when there would be two nurses backed up by nursing assistants. Now: one nurse, twenty-one patients.
The next callers wanted to talk about pay, and yes, I’d pay a lot more than £25,000pa to somebody in that position, and about the absurdity of student debt (you study for a low-paid job as a nurse, and by the time you qualify, you owe £50,000+, with the interest cumulative). You have to be a graduate to be a nurse, and to be a graduate you have to spend three years sharing a multiple-occupancy house because the rental on purpose-built blocks is too high, even if they're newly built and all over the place, because the developers can't make their money back if they charge a market rate, and there aren't that many students anyway - but I'm getting off the subject.
This was a local phone-in, and I don’t often listen to local phone-ins, preferring instead to be soothed by news of whatever The Donald did next, because I do actually react to local news. The thought “What if I–” was much more immediate and acute during that phone-in than any of the emotions that Kim Jong-un can evoke in my heart. "What if I fall over?" gets me interested in local news in a way that, say, Donald Tusk's latest remarks don't get me booking a flight to Brussels.
Except. My next thought was: it’s all breaking down. Nothing works. We talk as though everything would be fine, both locally and globally, if only we could find the right “Do this, and then that” sequence of solutions for health care and indeed everything else. Pay more money; bring back liberalism. But it’s all one big complex problem and there’s no money, no leadership that we would be prepared to follow, no shared understanding, no collective will.
What if I fall over? I lie on the floor. Probably stay there for a while. "In the long run, we are all dead," wrote John Maynard Keynes**. I react to local news, but I'd far rather listen to the latest on - no, perhaps not Brexit - the latest on Donald Trump's foreign policy (sic). Because global news is the opium of the people.
*A phrase I’ve tracked back to the Vietnam War; there is also The Battle for Hearts and Minds, edited by Alexander T J Lennon (2003, MIT), which has the subtitle Using soft power to undermine terrorist networks, although that probably doesn’t apply to the EU’s approach to Brexit. Populism, maybe; not terrorism. As happens in searches, I’ve found more – an exhibition of WW2 propaganda at Stanford University in 2012/13, and in the publicity, a quote from Herbert Hoover: after the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse will come “a fifth Horseman bearing propaganda loaded with lies and hate”. Further searching reveals some debate over which Horseman comes first, and maybe that fifth Horseman*** would be wasted at the back? The term “yellow journalism” (no, you look it up) at least gives us a colour for his horse.
**In A Tract on Monetary Reform of 1923 (1971, Palgrave Macmillan).
***No, of course I'm not going to mention Terry Pratchett's The Fifth Elephant. Good book, though, with a solidly satirical take on a lot of things.
Of course it became controversial. That’s how the media operates (so much for plurality). Deneuve apologises to victims upset by the letter; stands by her signature. But none of that furore gets us to the point I want to make. The open letter defends non-abusive and non-criminal interactions between willing or at least tolerant parties (I apologise for my abbreviated summary), and in doing so, and here’s my point, incidentally paints a picture of how such interactions are commonly initiated and managed between adults. A picture that makes me wonder how we survive as a species from one generation to the next.
We’re clearly good at this, or Malthus** wouldn’t be so easy to find via the in-built search engine on my new laptop. However prudish we are, or exasperated with each other, or clumsy, or unwilling to countenance nudity on screen before the 9pm watershed (a UK-specific reference, now archaic); however much we might prefer to believe that twenty/thirtysomething adults in rom-coms – Americans - can get all the way to the lying-beside-each-other, out-of-breath stage of even the most <wow!> sex scene (not shown, dammit) without removing their underwear – however, all of that, I’m losing my grip on the structure of this sentence – however, despite, notwithstanding all of that, we can still make babies.
And that seems the unlikeliest outcome of all. We’re rational-ish beings with a grievance against each other. And yet we can still reproduce. The abuse, and the anger, seem real to me. Okay, are real. And yet, we still...
This was my opinion back in November 2017: to be happy about what we're doing, we need to get rid of ambiguity and communicate clearly what we would and wouldn’t welcome by way of an advance. But after I had posted that, I thought: AI.
If we were to start again...
If we were to remove everything from the human reproductive process (got to call it something) that was unsatisfactory, irrational, or in any other way, not needed on this particular voyage...
If we took it all away, and left ourselves only with the machine-like knowledge that survival of the species required us to (excuse me) bring this wriggly thing with a tail into contact with that relatively big round thing…
If we built the whole process again, on rational principles, in such a way that the resulting instruction manual could not conceivably (sic) offend anybody, even today – if we did all that, we would absolutely not end up reinventing what we have now.
We’d end up with something like my mobile phone. I put my fingertip on “Power off”, and it asks me to confirm that I really mean it. I don’t have a digital assistant, but I imagine the conversations that we don’t see in the TV ads: turn the lights off/confirm you want the lights off/yes I want the lights off/I am turning the lights off. Imagine two of the so-called “sex robots” that one comes across in stories along the wilder shores of innovation; imagine that two such robots went so far past the singularity that they became interested in each other. Imagine the exchanges: confirm that you want me to…/yes I want you to.../I am about to/Yes! Don't stop!/confirm that you don't want me to stop.../Yes! I mean - No!
And off go the lights. Even they wouldn't get it quite right.
Sometimes, I wonder whether the entire AI industry isn't just one big displacement activity. Yes, AI's useful, handily diagnostic for all the measuring we do, but.
Those are the times that I wonder what it means to be a self-aware animal. There's a kind of singularity needed for humans, too - we're not rational, but we can negotiate with our impulses and our drives. We're self-aware but also instinctive. We may have "better angels" in our natures, in Stephen Pinker's phrase, but there's nothing "worse" about what else is there. It's just there.
Who are we really? How can we be what we are, happily? After the anger, maybe that's the conversation that we need to have.
*To insert one link here would be to deny you the chance to sample the wide range of media comment available on this story. In English. No, I don't. They’re all saying more or less the same thing, but even so.
** This time, a link. Of the available summaries of The Malthusian Theory Of Population, as expounded in Malthus’ An Essay on the Principle of Population (1798, J. Johnson), I like this one.