Sophisticated it ain’t. Taking a man’s lottery winnings away from him fifteen years after he was convicted and sentenced may sound Mediaeval to you but I suspect there’s worse to come. Retrospective punishments might just catch on – and let’s not be timid. Why stop at the first generation? A miscreant’s offspring ought surely to pay their own tithe to the parent’s victims – after all, if it weren’t for their criminal parent they wouldn’t exist at all and have surely thus benefited from crime. Sequester their cattle, drive them from the realm!
At the House of Commons event the other day I ran into a futurist called Susan Clayton. I like futurists. They do important work reminding us to remember our descendants. We don’t (can’t?) think far enough into the future. Our horizons are miserable, collapsed, mean-spirited. Future generations don’t really get a look in – one or two electoral terms (half a generation!) is about as far as we can see.
Susan told me that some Government departments have people thinking as far as 80 years ahead – on climate change, for instance. Corporations are probably worse – accounting practice and abbreviated reporting periods keep things short-term.
We certainly have no useful tools for engaging with the far future – 100 years or more – even though doing so could be an effective way of extending our tenure of the planet and improving the lives of those that come after us.
Adapting existing investment instruments to time-shift capital into the future, for instance, would make use of the wonder of compound interest to massively amplify the impact of a small investment made in the present day – but the financial and legal framework for these very long term bets doesn’t exist. Ask your accountant to set up a trust to manage a thousand year investment… Go on.
Peter Schwartz, top futurist and grandaddy of the ‘scenario planning’ discipline (and Stewart Brand‘s partner in the influential GBN) was interviewed in Tuesday’s FT about his new book, Inevitable Surprises. Schwartz, despite his association with the disastrous idea of the ‘long boom‘, keeps the faith:
“Pervasive dense information is like cheap energy. One of the things that drove the 20th century was cheap energy – it expanded the wealth of society enormously. I think the same thing is going to happen relentlessly with information. We had a hiccup because the evolution of the infrastructure got out of phase.”
Bill Thompson, the Grizzly Adams of the UK net community, has written up Esther Dyson’s exasperated apologia for ICANN at the Oxford ‘Politics of Code’ conference Thursday so I don’t need to bother. ICANN was born out of such a narrow political/ideological context (American geek-libertarian) that it was always bound to struggle to acquire legitimacy outside of the USA but I’ve always been more sympathetic to the project and to its early leaders than cynics like Bill. ICANN was and is the first ever attempt at Global Governance (unless you count Alexander the Great). We should support the latest attempts (by ICANN itself and by outside critics like Dyson) to assemble an ICANN 2.0 from more diverse materials – even if only to see what you get when you try to legislate for an essential resource at the planetary level without a Government in sight.
I’ve spent a fascinating day in Oxford at the Politics of Code conference, featuring the estimable Larry Lessig, Esther Dyson et al – and a lot of old friends. It’s late so I’ll post properly tomorrow. In the meantime, I think I’ll find an excuse to pop back to Oxford tomorrow to watch the students fighting.
William Gibson talked to Alberto Manguel about books:
“I was in a bar in Barcelona, on the Rambla, with Alberto Manguel, just before Christmas, talking, as it happened, about why books, the paper kind, are such a good thing. Neither of us suggested building beds from them, but Alberto did say that he thought the book, like the wheel and the knife, was one of those perfectly and completely evolved inventions, an idea that wasn?t really going to be improved upon.”
Manguel’s own books are pretty highly evolved. His A History of Reading is wonderful.