A confused sense of history

There’s an exhibition at Moma at the moment called The Forever Now. It’s hooked on William Gibson’s idea of ‘atemporality’ — or the feeling of being in more than one time at once. It’s the strange sense you get from many of his books and to be honest in life — you’re never quite sure whether you’re in the past, present or future. Bruce Sterling explains the idea more in this talk he gave in 2010.

As this Guardian review says, the show doesn’t really work, mainly because painting is very temporal. It is almost always of the moment which is why nearly all large galleries show work in some sort of chronological order. The contemporary artists in the show are no different — they fit into a lineage and don’t manage (or possibly want) to try and combine or transcend different eras.

It made me realise that it’s a tricky time to be an artist. Representing our time is hard — most artists I come across just focus on the bad but I think you need to hold a sense of optimism and pessimism at the same time to make sense of the 21st century. That’s a really tough ask.

Thiel on Rand

I’d always assumed Peter Thiel would be part of the Silicon Valley Ayn Rand fan club. But I’ve been reading Zero to One (more on this later) and he’s actually pretty damning, albeit with feint praise.

“That we need individual founders in all their peculiarity does not mean that we are called to worship Ayn Randian “prime movers” who claim to be independent of everybody around them. In this respect Rand was a merely half-great writer: her villains were real, but her heroes were fake.”

I don’t think I’d even give her ‘half-great’ to be honest. Still amazes me that people rate the books (or the philosophy) at all.

My economy is bigger than yours. So what?

I know this is probably very naive of me but when I was reading Sam Altman’s piece the other day about the battle for economic supremacy between China and the US, I couldn’t help thinking ‘does it really matter?’. I started wondering why we get so het up about the competitiveness of different countries.

I probably shouldn’t be saying this at the moment as I’m on a ‘trade mission’ as we speak — a trip organised by the UK government to promote social investment in the UK to New York investors. But I don’t think of that as a competitive thing. I’m certainly going to try and increase the links between us and organisations in the US but I’m doing that because I think it’s good for BGV and the ventures we support rather than because I want to ‘beat’ other countries at social investment.

The warlike language of economics between countries is everywhere. Most business or economics books tend to be from the perspective of one country or another (usually that of the author) or they create some sort of false league table of nations. I picked up Monocle on the way over here and it’s full of advice for Japan about how to compete on the global stage.

People moan about the rising power of companies but I think it might actually be the declining importance of countries. It was refreshing to meet a couple of publicly funded organisations (from Finland and the Netherlands) recently who were much more collaborative. That came from them realising that their countries were relatively small and they could have a great deal of positive impact outside their own patch. I think some of the bigger economies could learn a lot from that.

Proper weather

I’m off to New York today and it looks like there’s some proper weather over there. I’m going to have to get used to zero being very different in Fahrenheit to Celsius and I’m not really sure I have enough warm clothes for below -10 in real numbers. Apparently there have been some upsides though. The city is too cold for murder and for the first time in modern history went 12 days without a homicide earlier this week.

The Internet’s Own Boy

John Naughton is right — ‘The Internet’s Own Boy’ on Storyville at the moment is very good. I knew some of the Aaron Swartz story but still learned a lot. He was a technical genius helping to create RSS, Reddit and the technology behind Creative Commons. The way he saw it, programming was a super power:

“If you had magical powers, would you use them for good or to make you mountains of cash?”

But he was also deeply political and clashed with any form of authority that he saw as unjust or illogical. Swartz was trying to make the system better but was eventually threatened and hounded by that system until he broke. The documentary leaves you with a horrible realisation that a large part of government and law enforcement is still based on fear of the unknown, which is something we all need to resist.

A hundred sorts of democracy

I went along to Change: How? yesterday — an afternoon of 100 speakers talking about democracy and politics 100 (ish) days from out UK general election. I had a few thoughts:

  • Unsexy democratic reform is happening slowly and surely. My friend Peter Macleod told how they’ve been introducing citizen panels and juries in Canada and finding that they work. They don’t make the headlines though.
  • The interesting stuff in the UK is happening outside mainstream political parties. Richard Wilson and James Smith are both proposing interesting ways of being elected members of parliament — far more novel than any of the candidates or existing MPs from the main parties.
  • A lot of activist groups, single issue campaigns and lobbyists are just as vulnerable to the big change in the way politics is organised that I think is coming as the old parties. They’re more dependent on the current system than they like to think and I’m not sure they’ve really woken up to this.
  • The ‘southern Europe revolution’ isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. There were speakers there from Syriza and Podemos who got rousing responses from the audience, I came away pretty unimpressed though. They’re protest parties, which is completely legitimate but they’re not the future of political parties. They still use words like ‘manifesto’, ‘policy’ and ‘narrative’.
  • The Alternative from Denmark might be more interesting. You can be part of their political organisation if you sign up to their six values and structures flow from that. Yes, they’re still a reaction against the failings of bigger parties but they seem to be trying to build something much more international and long-term.

Tax doesn’t have to be taxing

Amidst all the UK debate about businesses paying (or avoiding) tax, it was the 50th anniversary of Warren Buffett taking over as manager of Berkshire Hathaway. I was reminded of this quote from the 1998/99 annual letter to shareholders:

“Writing checks to the IRS that include strings of zeros does not bother Charlie or me. Berkshire as a corporation, and we as individuals, have prospered in America as would in no other country. Indeed, if we lived in some other part of the world and completely escaped taxes, I’m sure we be worse off financially (and in many other ways as well).”