Category Archives: government

Is secular substitution of religion a threat to western civilisation?

In 1997 I delivered a presentation to the World Futures Society conference titled: The future of sex, politics and religion. In it, I used a few slides outlining secular substitutes for religion that constitute what I called ’21st century piety’. I’ve repeated my analysis many times since and still hold firmly by it, virtually unchanged since then. A lot of evidence since has backed it up, and lots of other people now agree.

My theory was that as people move away from traditional religion, the powerful inner drive remains to feel ‘holy’, that you are a good person, doing the right thing, on some moral high ground. It is a powerful force built into human nature, similar to the desire to feel social approval and status. When it is no longer satisfied by holding to religious rules, it may crystallise around other behaviours, that can mostly be summarised by ‘isms’. Vegetarianism and pacifism were the oldest ones to be conspicuous, often accompanied by New Ageism, followed soon by anti-capitalism, then environmentalism, now evolved into the even more religious warmism. Some behaviours don’t end in ism, but are just as obviously religion substitutes, such as subscribing strongly to political correctness or being an animal rights activist. Even hard-line atheism can be a religion substitute. It pushes exactly the same behavioural buttons.

I fully support protecting the environment, looking after animals, defending the poor, the powerless, the oppressed. I don’t mind vegetarians unless they start getting sanctimonious about it. I am not for a second suggesting there is anything bad about these. It is only when they become a religion substitute that they become problematic, but unfortunately that happens far too often. When something is internalised like a religious faith, it becomes almost immune to outside challenge, a faith unaffected by exposure to hard reality. But like religious faith, it remains a powerful driver of behaviour, and if the person involved is in power, potentially a powerful driver of policy. It can drive similar oppression of those with other world views, in much the same way as the Spanish Inquisition, but with a somewhat updated means of punishing the heretics. In short, the religion substitutes show many of the same problems we used to associate with the extremes of religion.

That’s the problem. The western world has managed pretty well over centuries to eventually separate religion from front line politics, so that politicians might pay lip service to some god or other to get elected, but would successfully put their religion aside once elected and the western state has been effectively secular for many years.  Even though they have gained acceptance in much of the wider population, because these religion substitutes are newer, they are not yet actively filtered from the official decision processes, and in many cases have even gained the power levels that religion once held at its peak. They feature much more heavily in government policies, but since they are faith based rather than reality based, the policies based on them are often illogical and can even be counter-productive, achieving the opposite of what they intend. Wishful thinking does not unfortunately rank highly among the natural forces understood by physicists, chemists or biologists. It doesn’t even rank highly as a social force.  Random policies seemingly pulled out of thin air don’t necessarily work just because they have been sprinkled with words such as equality, fairness and sustainability. Nature also requires that they meet other criteria – they have to follow basic laws of nature. They also have to be compatible with human social, economic, cultural and political forces. But having those sprinkles added is all that is needed to see them pass into legislation. 

And that is what makes religion substitutes a threat to western civilisation. Passing nonsensical legislation just because it sounds nice is a fast way to cripple the economy, damage the environment, wreck education or degrade social cohesion, as we have already frequently seen. I don’t need to pick a particular country, this is almost universally true  across the Western world. Policy making everywhere often seems to be little more than stringing together a few platitudes about ensuring fairness, equality, sustainability, with no actual depth or substance or systems analysis that would show reliable mechanisms by which they actually would happen, while ignoring unfashionable or unpleasant known forces or facts of nature that might prevent them from happening. Turning a blind eye to reality, while laying the wishful thinking on thickly and adding loads of nice sounding marketing words to make the policy politically accepted, using the unspoken but obvious threat of the Inquisition to ensure little resistance. That seems to be the norm now. 

If it were global then the whole world would decline, but it isn’t. Some areas are even worse crippled by the extremes of religion itself. Others seem more logical. Many areas face joint problems of corruption and poverty. With different problems and different approaches to solving them, we will all fare differently.

But we know from history that empires don’t last for ever. The decline of the West is well under way, with secular religion substitution at the helm.  When reality takes a back seat to faith, there can be no other outcome. And it is just faith, in different clothes, and it won’t work any better than religion did.

Is politics now circular?

The traditional political model is a line with the far left at one end and the far right at the other. Parties occupy a range and may share some policies with parties that are usually positioned elsewhere and individuals may also support a range of policies from across the spectrum. Nevertheless, the model works fairly well to describe general baskets of attitudes so is a useful tool to save time when discussing baskets of policies and attitudes.

I think in recent years the situation has evolved somewhat, and I propose this circular model as more valid now in the UK, I haven’t considered the USA:Political spectrum

 

I am tempted to show another scale, with peace loving acceptance and tolerance towards the top and irate, intolerant, demonstrative attention seeking towards the bottom. Most of the chart as it is should be uncontroversial, showing a typical spread from old labour through to UKIP, though some may object to my filing the Lib Dems where I have. There has been migration and evolution of the parties certainly, but at least some of the old distinctions still generally apply. However, watching extremists from the hard left and right, it is often difficult to distinguish between them and that’s why I think it is appropriate to move to a circular model. Whereas the middle ground and both moderate wings share a reasonably sophisticated multidimensional view of the world and come to different conclusions mainly via application of different value sets, the extremes don’t conform to this. They extremes share a common overly simplistic and hardened attitude that often refuses engagement and discussion but loudly demands that everyone listens. A few cherry-picked facts is all they need to draw extreme conclusions. Differences in their reasoning are fairly minor compared to their overall behavioural type, so I draw them in close proximity.

I am fully open to debate on the merits and drawbacks of this model. If it is rubbish, I will happily change it. But please don’t just say it is rubbish, please explain why, and offer an improvement.

 

Weapons on planes are everyday normality. We can’t ban them all.

I noted earlier that you can make a pretty dangerous Gauss rifle using a few easily available and legal components, and you could make a 3D-printed jig to arrange them for maximum effect. So I suggested that maybe magnets should be banned too.

(Incidentally, the toy ones you see on YouTube etc. typically just use a few magnets and some regular steel balls. Using large Nd magnets throughout with the positions and polarities optimally set would make it much more powerful). 

Now I learn that a US senator (Leland Yee of San Francisco), HT Dave Evans for the link http://t.co/REt2o9nF4t, wants 3D printers to be regulated somehow, in case they are used to make guns. That won’t reduce violence if you can easily acquire or make lethal weapons that are perfectly legal without one. On the ground, even highly lethal kitchen knives and many sharp tools aren’t licensed. Even narrowing it down to planes, there is quite a long list of potentially dangerous things you are still very welcome to take on board and are totally legal, some of which would be very hard to ban, so perhaps we should concentrate more on defence and catching those who wish us harm.

Here are some perfectly legal weapons that people carry frequently with many perfectly benign uses:

Your fingers. Fingernails particularly can inflict pain and give a deep scratch, but some people can blind or even kill others with their bare hands;

Sharp pencils or pencils and a sharpener; pens are harder still and can be pretty sharp too;

Hard plastic drink stirrers, 15cm long, that can be sharpened using a pencil sharpener; they often give you these on the flight so you don’t even have to bring them; hard plastics can be almost as dangerous as metals, so it is hard to see why nail files are banned and drinks stirrers and plastic knives aren’t;

CDs or DVDs, which can be easily broken to make sharp blades; I met a Swedish ex-captain once who said he always took one on board in his jacket pocket, just in case he needed to tackle a terrorist.

Your glasses. You can even take extra pairs if the ones you’re wearing are needed for you to see properly. Nobody checks the lenses to make sure the glass isn’t etched for custom breaking patterns, or whether the lenses can be popped out, with razor-sharp edges. They also don’t check that the ends of the arms don’t slide off. I’m sure Q could do a lot with a pair of glasses.

Rubber bands, can be used to make catapults or power other projectile weapons, and many can be combined to scale up the force;

Paperclips, some of which are pretty large and thick wire;

Nylon cord, which can be used dangerously in many ways. Nylon paracord can support half a ton but be woven into nice little bracelets, or shoelaces for that matter. Thin nylon cord is an excellent cutting tool.

Plastic zip ties (cable ties), the longer ones especially can be lethally used.

Plastic bags too can be used lethally.

All of these are perfectly legal but can be dangerous in the wrong hands. I am sure you can think of many others.

Amusingly, given the Senator’s proposed legislation, you could currently probably take on board a compact 3d printer to print any sharps you want, or a Liberator if you have one of the templates, and I rather expect many terrorist groups have a copy – and sometimes business class seats helpfully have an electrical power supply. I expect you might draw attention if you used one though.

There are lots of ways of storing energy to be released suddenly, a key requirement in many weapons. Springs are pretty good at that job. Many devices we use everyday like staple guns rely on springs that are compressed and then suddenly release all their force and energy when the mechanism passes a trigger point. Springs are allowed on board. It is very easy to design weapons based on accumulating potential energy across many springs that can then all simultaneously release them. If I can dream some up easily, so can a criminal. It’s also easy to invent mechanisms for self assembly of projectiles during flight, so parts of a projectile can be separately accelerated.

Banned devices that you could smuggle through detectors are also numerous.  High pressure gas reservoirs could easily be made using plastics or resins and could be used for a wide variety of pneumatic projectile weapons and contact or impact based stun weapons. Again, precision release mechanism could be designed for 3D printing at home, but a 3D printer isn’t essential, there are lots of ways of solving the engineering problems.

I don’t see how regulating printers would make us safer. After hundreds of thousands of years, we ought to know by now that if someone is intent on harming someone else, there is a huge variety of  ways of doing so, using objects or tools that are essential in everyday life and some that don’t need any tools at all, just trained hands.

Technology comes and goes, but nutters, criminals, terrorists and fanatics are here to stay. Only the innocent suffer the inconvenience of following the rules. It’s surely better to make less vulnerable systems.

Killing machines

There is rising concern about machines such as drones and battlefield robots that could soon be given the decision on whether to kill someone. Since I wrote this and first posted it a couple of weeks ago, the UN has put out their thoughts as the DM writes today:

http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2318713/U-N-report-warns-killer-robots-power-destroy-human-life.html 

At the moment, drones and robots are essentially just remote controlled devices and a human makes the important decisions. In the sense that a human uses them to dispense death from a distance, they aren’t all that different from a spear or a rifle apart from scale of destruction and the distance from which death can be dealt. Without consciousness, a missile is no different from a spear or bullet, nor is a remote controlled machine that it is launched from. It is the act of hitting the fire button that is most significant, but proximity is important too. If an operator is thousands of miles away and isn’t physically threatened, or perhaps has never even met people from the target population, other ethical issues start emerging. But those are ethical issues for the people, not the machine.

Adding artificial intelligence to let a machine to decide whether a human is to be killed or not isn’t difficult per se. If you don’t care about killing innocent people, it is pretty easy. It is only made difficult because civilised countries value human lives, and because they distinguish between combatants and civilians.

Personally, I don’t fully understand the distinction between combatants and soldiers. In wars, often combatants have no real choice but to fight or are conscripted, and they are usually told what to do, often by civilian politicians hiding in far away bunkers, with strong penalties for disobeying. If a country goes to war, on the basis of a democratic mandate, then surely everyone in the electorate is guilty, even pacifists, who accept the benefits of living in the host country but would prefer to avoid the costs. Children are the only innocents.

In my analysis, soldiers in a democratic country are public sector employees like any other, just doing a job on behalf of the electorate. But that depends to some degree on them keeping their personal integrity and human judgement. The many military who take pride in following orders could be thought of as being dehumanised and reduced to killing machines. Many would actually be proud to be thought of as killing machines. A soldier like that, who merely follow orders, deliberately abdicates human responsibility. Having access to the capability for good judgement, but refusing to use it, they reduce themselves to a lower moral level than a drone. At least a drone doesn’t know what it is doing.

On the other hand, disobeying a direct order may save soothe issues of conscience but invoke huge personal costs, anything from shaming and peer disapproval to execution. Balancing that is a personal matter, but it is the act of balancing it that is important, not necessarily the outcome. Giving some thought to the matter and wrestling at least a bit with conscience before doing it makes all the difference. That is something a drone can’t yet do.

So even at the start, the difference between a drone and at least some soldiers is not always as big as we might want it to be, for other soldiers it is huge. A killing machine is competing against a grey scale of judgement and morality, not a black and white equation. In those circumstances, in a military that highly values following orders, human judgement is already no longer an essential requirement at the front line. In that case, the leaders might set the drones into combat with a defined objective, the human decision already taken by them, the local judgement of who or what to kill assigned to adaptive AI, algorithms and sensor readings. For a military such as that, drones are no different to soldiers who do what they’re told.

However, if the distinction between combatant and civilian is required, then someone has to decide the relative value of different classes of lives. Then they either have to teach it to the machines so they can make the decision locally, or the costs of potential collateral damage from just killing anyone can be put into the equations at head office. Or thirdly, and most likely in practice, a compromise can be found where some judgement is made in advance and some locally. Finally, it is even possible for killing machines to make decisions on some easier cases and refer difficult ones to remote operators.

We live in an electronic age, with face recognition, friend or foe electronic ID, web searches, social networks, location and diaries, mobile phone signals and lots of other clues that might give some knowledge of a target and potential casualties. How important is it to kill or protect this particular individual or group, or take that particular objective? How many innocent lives are acceptable cost, and from which groups – how many babies, kids, adults, old people? Should physical attractiveness or the victim’s professions be considered? What about race or religion, or nationality, or sexuality, or anything else that could possibly be found out about the target before killing them? How much should people’s personal value be considered, or should everyone be treated equal at point of potential death? These are tough questions, but the means of getting hold of the date are improving fast and we will be forced to answer them. By the time truly intelligent drones will be capable of making human-like decisions, they may well know who they are killing.

In some ways this far future with a smart or even conscious drone or robot making informed decisions before killing people isn’t as scary as the time between now and then. Terminator and Robocop may be nightmare scenarios, but at least in those there is clarity of which one is the enemy. Machines don’t yet have anywhere near that capability. However, if an objective is considered valuable, military leaders could already set a machine to kill people even when there is little certainty about the role or identity of the victims. They may put in some algorithms and crude AI to improve performance or reduce errors, but the algorithmic uncertainty and callous uncaring dispatch of potentially innocent people is very worrying.

Increasing desperation could be expected to lower barriers to use. So could a lower regard for the value of human life, and often in tribal conflicts people don’t consider the lives of the opposition to have a very high value. This is especially true in terrorism, where the objective is often to kill innocent people. It might not matter that the drone doesn’t know who it is killing, as long as it might be killing the right target as part of the mix. I think it is reasonable to expect a lot of battlefield use and certainly terrorist use of semi-smart robots and drones that kill relatively indiscriminatingly. Even when truly smart machines arrive, they might be set to malicious goals.

Then there is the possibility of rogue drones and robots. The Terminator/Robocop scenario. If machines are allowed to make their own decisions and then to kill, can we be certain that the safeguards are in place that they can always be safely deactivated? Could they be hacked? Hijacked? Sabotaged by having their fail-safes and shut-offs deactivated? Have their ‘minds’ corrupted? As an engineer, I’d say these are realistic concerns.

All in all, it is a good thing that concern is rising and we are seeing more debate. It is late, but not too late, to make good progress to limit and control the future damage killing machines might do. Not just directly in loss of innocent life, but to our fundamental humanity as armies get increasingly used to delegating responsibility to machines to deal with a remote dehumanised threat. Drones and robots are not the end of warfare technology, there are far scarier things coming later. It is time to get a grip before it is too late.

When people fought with sticks and stones, at least they were personally involved. We must never allow personal involvement to disappear from the act of killing someone.

Coal power is making a comeback – an own goal by greens

I tweeted recently that Europe has the stupidest greens in the world.  I meant it. Today I have time to explain.

The Greens of course are political party in many countries now, but the term green applies generally to left wing environmentalists where things only ever seem to benefit the environment if they simultaneous result in wealth redistribution. It is that entire group that I am talking about here. There are lots of environmentalists who aren’t socialist and lots that aren’t idiots, with a very strong overlap in those groups. Many are very smart and support policies or develop solutions that actually benefit or protect the environment. But the greens do seem mostly to fall into the idiot camp. Sorry, but that is a fact of life.

Thanks to green pressure and proselytising of their CO2 catastrophist religion, the EU has gone nuts implementing ludicrously expensive policies to reduce carbon emissions, but has demonstrated mainly negative effects after hundreds of billions investment, often achieving exactly the opposite of what was intended. The greens’ almost universal refusal to engage in proper science or logical reasoning has resulted in very clear demonstration that nature doesn’t care about political ideology or intent, only what is actually done. Some examples are called for:

Many people have been driven needlessly into fuel poverty, their energy bills rising dramatically to pay for wind farms that often actually increase CO2 emissions over their life because they are built on peat-lands. Solar panels on UK rooftops produce more CO2 than they save too, again the opposite of the intent, while managing to successfully divert cash from the poor to the rich, also presumably the opposite of the socialist greens driving it. Industries have been forced to close or relocate overseas due to rising subsidies for renewables, severely damaging the economy and destroying working class jobs, where the intention was to revitalise with a green economy and create jobs, while again pushing up CO2 emissions when the relocation is to countries that produce more CO2 for the same energy. Recession and economic misery has been far deeper and longer with slower recovery thanks to the huge costs resulting directly from green policies, with the poor taking much of the burden. Millions in far away countries have also been pushed into starvation by rising food prices or have been forcefully relocated to make room for palm oil plantations to meet the demand caused by European regulations that biofuels must account for 5% of the fuel in our cars. The peat bogs drained and the rainforests chopped down to make space again increase CO2 emissions.

You couldn’t make it up. The evidence now seems incontrovertible to all but the looniest of greens that CO2 doesn’t matter anywhere near as much as was suggested, and we are certainly not threatened by environmental catastrophe due to global warming. But if we were, all the activities of the European greens so far would have made a huge contribution to making catastrophe worse and much earlier. Green is rapidly becoming synonymous with stupid. Greens are repeatedly shown to be the worst enemy of both the poor and of the environment, both of which they aim to help. Stupid almost isn’t a strong enough word.

Meanwhile, in the USA, where they refused to sign up to the worst of the policies, simple capitalist market forces forced the development of shale gas, reducing energy prices dramatically and stimulating the economy, making people richer and creating jobs, while replacing dirty, CO2-producing coal with clean CO2-light gas. Many business are relocating from the EU to the US, the only successful but entirely unintended CO2 reduction resulting from EU policy so far.  Meanwhile, greens even there have managed to get the government to throw billions away on futile projects to create a mythical green economy, with remarkably few actual jobs to show for the huge investment. It is the diametrically opposite force that has created them in any numbers.

However, because the USA has made so much progress reducing CO2 via shale gas, and is benefiting from greatly reduced energy prices, even it that wasn’t intentional, the price of coal there has been forced down so far that Europe is buying it in. Germany is now reinvesting in coal fired power stations that will greatly increase CO2 emissions, hilarious considering how much cash they have so far wasted on renewables to supposedly reduce them. Meanwhile, although large reserves of shale gas have been found all over Europe, the greens have managed to prevent and delay development of this abundant resource that would revitalise the economy while reducing CO2 emission and reducing pollution. Only now are some mainstream politicians starting to realise the stupidity of such policy and encouraging development of shale gas. In a decade or two the greens might finally understand too.

Japan too is now making a dash for coal. Having closed their nuclear stations, they have to make up the power deficit and with coal being so cheap, is their new fuel of choice. Again, the indirect result of environmental policies have caused a rise in demand for the worst CO2 emitter of them all. But at least the Japanese can also demonstrate that they are exploiting methane clathrates, which would have a CO2-reducing effect while reducing energy costs.

It seems to be Europe where the policies are greenest and stupidest, with the most harm and the highest costs for the least benefit and the consequential wealth redistribution from poor to rich. The only good thing is that since it tuned out that CO2 doesn’t matter as much as they claimed after all, at least they haven’t yet managed to bring about environmental catastrophe. If the greens had been right about CO2, given the policies they’ve so far forced through, we’d really be in a mess.

I rest my case. Europe has the stupidest greens in the world.

The rise and fall of the web

This is my part of a joint newsletter with Rohit Talwar, his was published just now as a guest blog.

The rise and fall of the web

20 years ago, the web was in its infancy and the first conferences appeared where we could all discuss what was coming next. Even then the need was obvious for search engines, portal sites, firewalls, social networking, online shopping, auctions, discount buying schemes and so on and even the seedier side of the web was already obvious back then. Not much around today on the web wasn’t being discussed 20 years ago. It just took that long to emerge and evolve into what was anticipated. What has happened is exposure of the naïve optimism of some of the early debate.

Over the coming years we saw the expected creation of companies like Amazon and ebay, Facebook, Twitter and Google, and the rise of already existing companies such as Microsoft, Apple and Samsung, in some cases from niche player to market dominance. Without exception, the companies I mentioned deserve praise for struggling through the difficult phases of market creation and the sometimes huge and prolonged losses leading up to break-even and eventual profitability. They all started with a dream and made it happen, knowing they would succeed if they worked hard enough at it.

Without wanting to remove any of that praise, it is hard not to wonder if at least part of the dream is starting to turn sour. Is there evidence now that power corrupts? Does possession of a strong market position always lead inevitably to market abuse?

In each case, there are recent examples of less-than-saintly behaviour, but some issues are spreading as a problem, so rather than pick on individual companies, I’ll focus on the issues. In each case, a large company with little effective competition is in strong position to force these policies since they know customers and clients can’t easily just walk away. There is no cartel, but if a problem happens to affect all the main providers for a service, or it is a de-facto monopoly, you really have no choice.

Privacy invasion or at least scant regard for privacy is the biggest issue for some, introducing policies that make it hard for users to remain private. In this case, the reason is obvious. Privacy conflicts with extracting maximum market value from a customer’s personal data. I don’t personally want everyone to know what I just bought online, what I watch on TV, what games I play or what music I am listening to, or to have full access to everything I ever typed on a social networking page. The choice we seem to be presented with is simple. If you don’t want to be fully exposed 24-7, either don’t use the web or a mobile app, or be prepared to spend time frequently to check every site you use carefully for their latest policy changes to make sure an oversight doesn’t allow your privacy doesn’t fall through a new hole they just dug. But even that may not be the real choice now. The emerging pattern seem to be that changes may be introduced retrospectively, eradicating any value in privacy commitments in existing policy. If that behaviour spreads, then any privacy you think you have today is merely an illusion.

Burning the candle at both ends is another recent issue. Although the web has few of the costs associated the with high street, large web companies are charging high fees now to companies to sell via their site, much the same as property developers with the best locations can charge high fees to shops. That end of the candle is well alight, but customers are finding the discounts offered are often far less now too. Now that they have been psychologically hooked by the web empires, prices are rising.

Walled gardens were a consideration for regulators when mobile and broadband networks were emerging – I took part in several workshops discussing their merits and drawbacks. Telecoms regulators understood well that dominant telecoms companies might try to force customers to use only services within their own areas of control, i.e. to stay in their walled garden, and they legislated accordingly to protect customers. It was presumed that competition would suffer greatly if people were not free to wander as they pleased and exploitation would follow soon after.  However, although some of the web giants are heading rapidly and determinedly down exactly that path, the authorities are either looking the other direction or unable to do anything about it. It seems that any regulators that do exist have too vague boundaries on their remits, or the companies fall outside their jurisdiction geographically, or they simply have too many issues to deal with and can’t keep up. It is unacceptable that we now by default have arrived at a business platform that lends itself to abuse but isn’t being properly controlled by the normal regulator processes that apply as standard elsewhere.

Arrogance is a term we hear thrown at web giants frequently now, and it does seem appropriate when a large company ignores protests by its customers and imposes policies that significantly affect the terms and conditions that applied when they first became a customer. Even incrementally small changes can add up to large change in a short time, but if customers have invested time and effort building a profile or establishing a place or network on a site, the personal costs of migration can be too high. There ought to be equivalent rights protecting the interests of customers online just as in the physical world, but online providers appear to be able to make their own conditions of use with much greater scope for abuses, knowing that very few customers will read many pages of small print. Especially where websites feature heavily in everyday use, and where not being a user might even may be a career or social impediment, there should be more protection from arrogance and unilateral determination and management of user rights. Some regulatory body should be making sure terms and conditions are fair and balanced because the market isn’t doing that by itself.

Another aspect of arrogance is the enthusiasm to avoid taxes by exploiting holes in the law, and reading between the lines, it is as if the companies think they know best how money should be spent for humankind’s best interests, not governments. They may be right about government, but that doesn’t excuse arrogance.

Reintermediation is a direct consequence of walled gardens but is an issue in its own right. Early analysis of the web suggested it would lead to perfect markets, where people would be in direct contact with suppliers, thereby cutting out the middle man and his costs while forcing perfect information and hence maximum competitiveness. With good search, it would be easy to find all potential suppliers for something and compare them directly, and there would be no need to go via an agency. What we have now is interesting in that the search sites have themselves become intermediaries, and comparison sites another layer of that, listing results from a subset of suppliers. So instead of removing an intermediary we generated two new ones, three if you use an app store to do it. Everyone wants a slice of the pie of course, but the web was meant to bypass that, and it simply hasn’t. People can go direct, but it doesn’t take long to discover that using a search engine will often put hundreds of pages of the wrong sites before the one you search for. Most of the listings on the first several pages will often be intermediary sites.

In spite of all this, the potential of the web hasn’t gone away. It still allows word of new sites to spread rapidly, for reputations to be made and lost, for empires to spring up overnight, and for old ones to crash and burn. Boredom is under-rated as a motivation to change too. Social network sites in particular are highly vulnerable to their customers simply getting bored and leaving, but new designs and novel ideas can present a real threat to any of them. The sword of Damocles hangs over all.

For all their size and momentum, none of the web giants is guaranteed longevity. As some of yesterday’s giants discovered, a startup can replace them in just a few years. Maybe the first generation of web giants has climbed high, but decadence and abuse of power have made them ripe for conquest. All we need now is to wait for the imminent emergence of the second generation.

Technology Convergence – What’s your Plan? Guest post by Rohit Talwar

Rohit is CEO of Fastfuture and a long-standing friend as well as an excellent futurist. He and I used to do a joint newsletter, and we have started again. Rohit sends it out to his mailing list as a proper newletter and because I don’t use mailing lists, I guest post it here. I’ll post my bit immediately after this one. I’m especially impressed since his bit ticks almost as many filing category boxes as it uses words.

Here is Rohit’s piece:

Technology Convergence – What’s your Plan?

I have just returned from South Korea where I was delivering a keynote speech to a cross-industry forum on how to prepare for and benefit from the opportunities arising from industry convergence. South Korea has made a major strategic commitment starting with government and running through the economy to be a leader in exploiting the potential opportunities arising from the convergence of industries made possible by advances in a range of disciplines. These include information and communications technology, biological and genetic sciences, energy and environmental sciences, cognitive science, materials science and nanotechnology.  From environmental monitoring, smart cars, and intelligent grids through to adaptive bioengineered materials and clothing-embedded wearable sensor device that monitor our health on a continuous basis – the potential is vast.

What struck me about the situation in Korea was how the opportunity is being viewed as a central component of the long-term future of Korea’s economy and how this is manifested in practice. Alongside a national plan, a government sponsored association has been established to drive and facilitate cross-industry collaboration to achieve convergence. In addition to various government-led support initiatives, a range of conferences are being created to help every major sector of the economy understand, explore, act on and realise the potential arising out of convergence.

I am fortunate to get the opportunity to visit 20-25 countries a year across all six continents and get to study and see a lot of what is happening to create tomorrow’s economy. Whilst my perspective is by no means complete, I am not aware of any country where such a systematic and rigorous approach is being taken to driving industry convergence. Those who study Korea know that this approach is nothing new for them – long term research and strategic planning are acknowledged to have played a major role in the evolution of its knowledge economy and rise of Korea and its technology brands on the global stage. Coming from the UK, where it seems that long term thinking and national policy are now long lost relatives, I wonder why it is that so few countries are willing to or capable of taking such a strategic approach.

Rohit on the Road

In the next few months Rohit will delivering speeches in Oslo, Paris, Vilnius, Warsaw, Frankfurt, Helsinki, Denver, Las Vegas, Oman, Leeds and London. Topics to be covered include human enhancement, the future of professional services, the future of HR, transformational forces in business, global drivers of change, how smart businesses create the future, the future technology timeline, the future of travel and tourism, the future of airlines and airports and the future of education. If you would like to arrange a meeting with Rohit in one of these cities or are interested in arranging a presentation or workshop for your organisation, please contact rohit@fastfuture.com

Culture tax and sustainable capitalism

I have written several times now about changing capitalism and democracy to make them suited to the 21st century. Regardless of party politics, most people want a future where nobody is too poor to live a dignified and comfortable life. To ensuring that that is possible, we need to tweak a few things.

I suggested a long time ago that there could be a basic income for all, without any means testing on it, so that everyone has an income at a level they can live on. No means testing means little admin. Then wages go on top, so that everyone is encouraged to work, and then all income from all sources is totalled and taxed appropriately. It is a nice idea. I wasn’t the first to recommend it and many others are saying much the same. The idea is old, but the figures are rarely discussed. It is harder than it sounds and being a nice idea doesn’t ensure  economic feasibility.

The difference between figures between parties would be relatively minor so let’s ignore party politics. In today’s money, it would be great if everyone could have, say, £30k a year as a state benefit, then earn whatever they can on top. 30k doesn’t make you rich, but you can live OK on it so nobody would be poor in any proper sense of the word. With everyone economically provided for and able to lead comfortable and dignified lives, it would be a utopia compared to today. Sadly, it doesn’t add up yet. 65,000,000 x 30,000 = 1,950Bn . The UK economy isn’t that big. The state only gets to control part of GDP and out of that reduced budget it also has its other costs of providing health, education, defence etc, so the amount that could be dished out to everyone on this basis is therefore a lot smaller than 30k. Even if the state takes 75% of GDP and spends most of it on the base allowance, 10k per person would be pushing it. So a family could afford a modest lifestyle, but single people would really struggle. Some people would need additional help, and that reduces the pool left to pay the basic allowance still further. Also, if the state takes 75% of GDP, only 25% is left for everything else, so salaries would be flat, reducing the incentive to work, while investment and entrepreneurial activity are starved of both resources and incentive.

Simple maths thus forces us to make compromises. Sharing resources reduces costs considerably. In a first revision, families might be given less for kids than for the adults, but what about groups of young adults sharing a big house? They may be adults but they also benefit from the same economy of shared resources. So maybe there should be a household limit, or a bedroom tax, or forms and means testing, and it mustn’t incentivise people living separately or house supply suffers. Anyway, it is already getting complicated and our original nice idea is in the bin. That’s why it is such a mess at the moment. There just isn’t enough money to make everyone comfortable without doing lots of allowances and testing and admin. We all want utopia, but we can’t afford it. Even the modest 30k-per-person utopia costs at least 3 times more than we can afford.

However, if we can get back to an average 2.5% growth per year in real terms, and surely we can, it would only take 45 years to get there. That isn’t such a long time. We have hope that if we can get some better government than we have had of late, and are prepared to live with a little economic tweaking, we could achieve good quality of life for all in the second half of the century.

So I really like the idea of a simple welfare system, providing a generous base level allowance to everyone, topped up by rewards of effort, but we will have to wait before we can afford to put that base level at anything like comfortable standards.

Meanwhile, we need to tweak some other things to have any chance of getting there. I’ve commented often that pure capitalism would eventually lead to a machine-based economy, with the machine owners having more and more of the cash, and everyone else getting poorer, so the system will fail. Communism fails too.

On the other hand, capitalism works fine when rewards are shared more equally, it fails when wealth concentration is too high or when incentive is too low. Preserving the incentive to work and create is a mainly matter of setting tax levels well. Making sure that wealth doesn’t get concentrated too much needs a new kind of tax.

The solution I suggest is a culture tax. Culture in the widest meaning.

When someone creates and builds a company, they don’t do so from a state of nothing. They currently take for granted all the accumulated knowledge and culture, trained workforce, access to infrastructure, machines, governance, administrative systems, markets, distribution systems and so on. They add just another tiny brick to what is already a huge and highly elaborate structure. They may invest heavily in their time and money but actually when  considered overall as part of the system their company inhabits, they only pay for a fraction of the things their company will use.

That accumulated knowledge, culture and infrastructure belongs to everyone, not just those who choose to use it. Businesses might consider that this is what they pay taxes for already, but that isn’t explicit in the current system.

The big businesses that are currently avoiding paying UK taxes by paying overseas companies for intellectual property rights could be seen as trailblazing this approach. If they can understand and even justify the idea of paying another part of their company for IP or a franchise, why not pay the host country for IP for access to their entire culture?

This kind of tax would provide the means needed to avoid too much concentration of wealth. A future  businessman might choose to use only software and machines instead of a human workforce to save costs, but levying taxes on use of  the cultural base that makes that possible allows a direct link between use of advanced technology and taxation. Sure, he might add a little extra insight or new knowledge, but would still have to pay the rest of society for access to its share of the cultural base, inherited from the previous generations, on which his company is based. The more he automates, the more sophisticated his use of the system, the more he cuts a human workforce out of his empire, the higher his taxation.

Linking to technology use makes sense. Future AI and robots could do a lot of work currently done by humans. A very small number of people could own almost all of the productive economy. But they would be getting far more than their share of the cultural base, which must belong equally to everyone. In a village where one farmer owns all the sheep, other villagers would be right to ask for rent for their share of the commons if he wants to graze them there.

I feel confident that this extra tax would solve many of the problems associated with automation. We all equally own the country, its culture, laws, language, human knowledge (apart from current patents, trademarks etc. of course), its public infrastructure, not just businessmen. Everyone surely should have the right to be paid if someone else uses part of their share.

The extra culture tax would not magically make the economy bigger. It would just ensure that it is more equally shared out. It is a useful tool to be used by future governments to make it possible to keep capitalism sustainable, preventing its collapse, preserving incentive while fairly distributing reward. Without such a tax, capitalism simply may not survive.

Hydrogen cars are the wrong solution

http://www.thesundaytimes.co.uk/sto/ingear/cars/article1209612.ece says that the UK government has produced a report saying that 1.5 million hydrogen cars will be on UK roads by 2030.

Hydrogen cars are part of the future that falls firmly in the category of ‘can do but shouldn’t do’.

I don’t doubt that hydrogen could be manufactured and sold from special filling stations to be used as fuel for fuel cells to make electricity to drive cars, or maybe even used in a modified internal combustion engine, or directly burned to make steam for a steam engine. It can. I don’t even doubt that the government is entirely capable of legislating subsidies for ridiculously expensive and inappropriate solutions just to appease lunatic fringe pressure groups. They are already doing so for wind turbine farms and rooftop solar panels, so why not hydrogen cars. It would just be another shovelful of idiocy on what is already a huge pile. What I do doubt, because I am a futurologist and an engineer, is that it makes any sense.

Hydrogen was once seen in futurist circles as the fuel of the future, for a year or so anyway before anyone did the analysis properly. When they did, they noticed:

Burning hydrogen (even in a fuel cell) produces water as the main product. Water is a greenhouse gas, a much more powerful forcing agent than CO2. It may be condensed by the car, but even then, at least in dry weather,  the water will evaporate from the road surface and enter the water cycle. It acts as a greenhouse gas until it becomes rain again. If it is raining already, the water produced will probably be a harmless addition. Hydrogen cars will therefore have a small but possibly significant effect on the water cycle, weather and climate, just as regular cars do, and probably not that much different. They certainly can’t be assumed to be in any sense environmentally neutral.

Hydrogen needs special containment systems to make it safe, and these are likely to add significantly to the cost of a car.

Fuel cells are still very much more expensive than competing power sources and there is little sign of any imminent major progress.

Making hydrogen generally requires electricity, and it is really just a proxy for the electricity used in its manufacture. It would be just as easy, as cheap, and much safer to just deliver this electricity direct to the cars without going through the hydrogen stage. Electric cars will have batteries and some potential synergy using them as storage for intermittent renewable energy manufacturing such as wind farms. If we are going to have to put up with wind farms anyway, then the economics shift in favour of this approach.

Also, development of new materials and supercapacitors, together with new directed induction technology (that allows large distances between the inductive components), allow for a Scalextric approach to car powering. It is hard to see the point in using an intermediary like hydrogen when this would be a better solution.

I don’t know where the pressure has come for government to think down this path. But it is the wrong path and they should change direction before they waste yet more money on inappropriate, expensive and inefficient infrastructure.

UK Brain Drain

For some years I have covered in my talks the possibility of the UK ending up as a retirement home, as high taxes and intergenerational conflicts of interest couple with the forces of remigration and professional mobility. The newspapers this morning say that of the 3.6 million to leave the UK in the last 10 years, two million were between 25 and 44 and one million were professional/managerial. Only 125,000 pensioners left. While this is hardly a major catastrophe, it is still worrying, but then again, it confirms my theory so at least I get to say I told you so.

On one hand, emigration is consistent with a healthy system. We want our kids to be sought after and to be free to move and prosper in a globalised world. On the other hand, those who are leaving are the ones we need to keep to pay for those that won’t leave. If this pattern continues, the ratio of old people to those paying taxes to look after them will increase still further, making care costs even less manageable than they already are. And it is a vicious circle – more will want to leave as it gets worse.

If emigrants were balanced skill for skill against immigrants, there would not be a problem. We certainly will need immigration to balance the outflow, but to solve the problem it needs to be the right immigrants with the right skills. Some immigrants won’t contribute sufficiently to pay for their extra load, others will contribute well in excess of their loading, so we need to get as many of those as we can. To attract them and deter others is not easy. Every country wants the best people to come to help pay their bills.

Low taxes, light regulation and freedom would be much more likely to attract and keep good people than high taxes, high levels of poor regulation and an obsessive surveillance and control culture. It would be better to change in that direction before it’s too late.