Tag Archives: history

Lots of great reading

So with summer having now sped by I haven’t done a reading update in quite some time… here’s a quickie:

1. The Ascent of Money by Niall Ferguson

For a subject that sounds like it should completely bore you – the history of finance – this book is brilliant and, frankly, fun. It’s also timely. The financial system is so old that we often forget that it actually emerged out of something. Money, bonds, stocks, all that good stuff, it hasn’t always been around. WE of course know this, but it is great to actually be walked through how it all emerged, especially when its so wonderful told. It’s also nice to take a look at an old system, like finance, which we are now as comfortable with as the air we breath (even, when at times, it turns toxic and crashes our economy) as so much of my time is spent looking at relatively newer systems – digital networks and the internet. Lots of lessons could be drawn, especially around trust networks (something here for Shirky while he’s at Berkman?).

One additional point. I initially started watching the PBS series by the same name which is based on the book and also hosted by Niall Ferguson but was not really riveted by it. It was somewhat slow moving and lacked the historical depth and arc the book has… so if you saw the TV documentaries and were turned off, not to worry, the book is definitely working picking up.

2. How Government HR Processes are Broken

Check out this fantastic post by an anonymous public servant in Gatineau. It’s a deadly piece about how broken hiring practices are in government and how it’s unsurprising some would be driven away. It would make you laugh if it weren’t making you cry. Got this from a public servant, then after tweeting it, a bunch more noted to me how painfully true it felt to them. Sigh.

3. David McCandless: The Beauty of Data Visualization

It’s hard(er) to do visualizations without open data. Here’s some beautiful ones from England.

We are going to make a better world, nudging and learning

4. An interview with David Mahfouda and Alex Pasternack, creators of a new app for booking/sharing rides in New York

A fantastic interview about how we can share resources to get around more quickly, cheaply and efficiently by using technology. A riff off of Robin’s Chases’ ZipCar idea but its not about sharing cars, but sharing rides. This is the future of urban transportation. That is, of course, if Ontario’s bus companies don’t try to outlaw it.

19th Century Net Neutrality (and what it means for the 21st Century)

So what do bits of data and coal locomotive have in common?

It turns out a lot.

In researching an article for a book I’ve discovered an interesting parallel between the two in regard to the issue of Net Neutrality. What is Net Neutrality? It is the idea that when you use the Internet, you do so free of restrictions. That any information you download gets treated the same as any other piece of information. This means that your Internet service provider (say Rogers, Shaw or Bell) can’t choose to provide you with certain content faster than other content (or worse, simply block you from accessing certain content altogether).

Normally the issue of Net Neutrality gets cast in precisely those terms – do bits of data flowing through fibre optic and copper cables get treated the same, regardless of whose computer they are coming from and whose computer they are going to. We often like to think these types of challenges are new, and unique, but one thing I love about being a student of history, is that there are almost always interesting earlier examples to any problem.

Take the late 19th and early 20th century. Although the term would have been foreign to them, Net Neutrality was a raging issue, but not in regard to the telegraph cables of the day.  No, it was an issue in regards to railway networks.

In 1903 the United States Congress passed the Elkins Act. The Act forbade railway companies from offering, and railway customers from demanding, preferential rates for certain types of goods. Any “good” that moved over the (railway) network had to be priced and treated the same as any other “good.” In short, the (railway) network had to be neutral and price similar goods equally. What is interesting is that many railway companies welcomed the act because some trusts (corporations) paid the standard rail rate but would then demand that the railroad company give them rebates.

What’s interesting to me is that

a) Net Neutrality was a problem back in the late 19th and early 20th century; and

b) Government regulation was seen as an effective solution to ensuring a transparent and fair market place on these networks

The question we have to ask ourselves is, do we want to ensure that the 21st century (fibre optic) networks will foster economic growth, create jobs and improve productivity in much the same way the 19th and 20th century (railway) networks did for that era? If the answer is yes, we’d be wise to look back and see how those networks were managed effectively and poorly.  The Elkins Act is an interesting starting point, as it represented progressives efforts to ensure transparency and equality of opportunity in the marketplace so that it could function as an effective platform for commerce.

The Day my Universe Changed

burke-universeLast night I re-watched the first episode of James Burke’s 1985 history/science series, The Day the Universe Changed. If you’ve never had a had a chance to watch it, find it in your local library or watch it on Youtube (thank you Gary C for the link) you won’t regret it.

James Burke is a personal hero of mine. I fell in love with his work in Grade 9 when I stumbled across his shows on The Learning Channel. I even emailed with him in my second year of undergrad in the hopes of securing a summer job (I wasn’t successful).

There are so many things I learnt from Burke that have stayed with me over the past 2 decades but three things really stuck out as I re-watched the first episode.

First, I’ve always admired his ability to take incredibly complex ideas and make them not only easy to understand, but fun and engaging. Part of it is his passion: Here is a man with a sharp mind, a glint in his eye, and a heart in love with his chosen subject. But watching the episode, it is obvious that the script is meticulously planned. So as Burke hops around the world, every word, every scene, every prop, helps advance the idea and narrative he is conveying. Had TED talks been available over the internet in 1985, I think James Burke would have been the master TED talk presenter (and more of a household name today). I spend a good part of my life trying to convey ideas, and it’s fun to go back and see a master at work.

Second, James Burke is the first person who made me consciously comfortable with complexity. I always loved history (I ultimately majored in it) but until I met Burke history was always conveyed in a nice neat linear fashion. Burke tore that notion up. He weaves together complicated tapestries (which in the medium of television is no small feat) of not just science, history and social change, but also of luck, chance and misfortune to help paint a picture of how we ended up being both who we are, and where we are. Reflecting on my most recent talk on the future of government and on a recent blog post, I’ve frequently talked about how:

The biggest problem in predicting the future isn’t envisaging what technologies will emerge – it is forecasting how individuals and communities will respond to these technologies. In other words I often find people treat technology as a variable, but social values as a constant.

Watching Burke yesterday, I realized that 20 years ago he shared this idea with me first. If I’m comfortable with the complexity of this type of thinking today, it’s because he’s given me two decades to first get comfortable, and then mature intellectually, with it.

So if you are interested, go find a copy of The Day the Universe Changed. It is a wonderful defense of curiosity and asking questions, no matter what powers or issues that puts you at odds with. It’s that curiosity that Burke made me aware of in myself, and that today fuels and motivates me.

Thank you James.

Structure of Scientific Revolutions vs. The Black Swan (Journalism remix)

Structure of Scientific Revolutions CoverI’ve just finished Thomas S. Kuhn’s classic 1962 book “The Structure of Scientific Revolutions.” For those unfamiliar with the title, it is the book that gave us the important and oft over-used term: “paradigm shift.”

I won’t pretend it was an easy to read. Written in a classic academic style, what is a fascinating topic and set of ideas struggles to shine. However, don’t hear me blaming the author for this… it is both that the book comes from another era, and that it springs from a cannon of academic writing that simply doesn’t seek to be as penetrable outside a certain community.

That said, I did enjoy it immensely. One reason is that I once again lucked out and ended up reading it at the same time as another book – Nassim Nicholas Taleb‘s The Black Swan – that despite being on a different topics and written 45 years later, dovetails nicely.

blackswan-199x300Paradigm shifts are black swan events. They can be hard, if not impossible to predict. They can arise because of the appearance of a single unforeseen data point (a black swan in a world where all swans were previously believed to be white) and they overthrow systems that we have become overly, comfortably, complacent and reliant on. Finally, although paradigms shifts are rare, because they force us to see the world in an entirely new way they have a disproportional and possibly even unparalleled, impact.

I often like to refer to Schopenhauer’s three stages of truth: “All truth passes through three stages. First, it is ridiculed. Second, it is violently opposed. Third, it is accepted as being self-evident.”

Both Taleb and Kuhn’s books play on this theme. For Taleb, our problem is that we can’t see or predict the changes in our world. We expect that we can predict them and that they’ll arrive in a nice orderly – or bell curve distributed – manner.

They don’t.

Despite the mental image we have of history (and our lives), history doesn’t crawl. It moves it fits and starts. Oscillating between long steady states and sudden change. We often believe the steady states will last forever, and when change comes we trivialize it and then fight it, until it becomes the new steady state, at which point, we come to believe it was always that way.

This is also Kuhn point. Look at how he sees paradigm shifts as being important for both the science and politics changes:

Political revolutions are inaugurated by a growing sense, often restricted to a segment of the political community, that existing institutions have ceased adequately to meet the problems posed by an environmental that they have in part created. In much the same way, scientific revolutions are inaugurated by growing sense, again restricted to a narrow subdivision of the scientific community, that an existing paradigm has ceased to function adequately in the exploration of an aspect of nature to which that paradigm itself had previously led the way. In both political and scientific development the sense of malfunction that can lead to crisis is prerequisite to revolution…

…The parallel has, however, a second and more profound aspect upon which the significance of the first depends. Political revolutions aim to change political institutions in ways that those institutions themselves prohibit. Their success therefore necessitates the partial relinquishment of one set of institutions in favour of another, and in the interim, society is not fully governed by institutions at all. Initially it is crisis alone that attenuates the role of political institutions as we have already seen it attenuate the role of paradigms. In increasing numbers individuals become increasingly estranged from political life and behave more and more eccentrically within it. Then, as the crisis deepens, many of these individuals commit themselves to some concrete proposal for the reconstruction of society in a new institutional framework. At that point the society is divided into competing camps or parties, one seeking to defend the old institutional constellation, the others seeking to institute some new one. And, once that polarization has occurred, political recourse fails. Because they differ about the institutional matrix with which political change is to be achieved and evaluated, because they acknowledge no supra-institutional framework for the adjudication of revolutionary difference, the parties to a revolutionary conflict must finally resort to the techniques of mass persuasion, often including force. Though revolutions have had a vital role in the evolution of political institutions, that role depends upon their being partially extrapolitical or extrainstitutional events. (Kuhn, Pages 92-93 of the 3rd edition)

If you don’t think the world operates this way, just look as far as the news industry.

When Shirky says revolutions are times when “The old stuff gets broken faster than the new stuff is put in its place” he is paraphrasing Kuhn. Journalism is already dividing into camps, those defending the old, and those seeking to figure out what the “new” will be.

But despite all the discussion, we are still very early on in the debate. How do I know? Because we haven’t even begun to shed the old paradigm? The entire debate about journalism, what it is, how it should be practiced and what makes it good or bad is still being largely being evaluated and adjudicated by the old matrix. When journalism finally gets saved I suspect it will be because it will be, in part, radically redefined – a redefinition affirmed and made possible by the establishment of some new institutions, organizations and/or processes. (That’s what my post on the death of journalist was seeking to do).

So yes, we’ve left the ridiculed phase (that lasted 20 years), but we are still early on in the violently oppose phase. All thos unhappy journalists are angry because they may be the midst of a paradigm shift, and that means much like Newtonian physicists confronting Einstein’s theory of relatively everything, absolutely everything they believed in, fought for, taught and lived. is probably going to get redefined and altered beyond recognition. It will still be there, but it will forever be understood differently.

That’s a scary thought. But it is fun one as well, filled with possibility. Which is why Kuhn and Taleb are fun to read together.

The Great Crash vs. Emergence (re-mixed)

So it is with impeccable timing that about 3 weeks ago I started listening to John Kenneth Galbraith’s “The Great Crash: 1929.” (Indeed, I wish I had similar impeccable timing when planning my RRSP, 401k and stock purchases). Obviously the events of the last week, and more precisely the events of yesterday make this essential reading for everyone.

By quirk of luck (due to a recommendation by Mark Surman) I have also been reading Emergence: The Connected Lives of Ants, Brains, Cities, and Software by Steven Johnson. Emergence is about “the way complex systems and patterns arise out of a multiplicity of relatively simple interactions.” Possibly the most easily understood exmaple of emergence is seeing how ants or termites can create complex societies based on a few simple rules.

Interestingly, although Galbraith and Johnson almost certainly never met, and their books were written over 50 years apart, they are fundamentally writing about the same thing.

John Kenneth Galbraith’s The Great Crash is about an emergent system – the speculatory stock market bubble that lead to the 1929 crash. Indeed what makes reading these books simultaneously so interesting is observing how Galbraith describe an emergent system without the language and frameworks available to Johnson 50 years later. Consequently, Galbraith’s book is hints at a larger system even as he struggles to describe how the decisions of hundreds of thousands of individuals could be simultaniously coorindated but not directed. He intuits a distributed system, but simple can’t describe it as accurately as Johnson.

A great example of this struggle is visible when Galbraith’s describes his frustration with others efforts to pin the 1929 crash on a given, or set of, individuals. I’m willing to bet that, sadly, we are about to embark on a similar misadventure: I wager the next congress is going to launch a series of hearings to determine “who” caused our current financial crises. This, as Galbraith pointed out about “The Great Crash”, will be nothing short than a colossal waste of time and energy, one that will distract us from the real challenge. This is not to say illegal activities did not occurr somewhere on wallstreet (or K street) both in recent years and in the years leading up to 1929. I’m certain they did. Nor should they go unpunsished. They should. It is just that then, as well as today, they almost certainly did not cause this crisis. As Galbraith puts it:

“This notion that great misadventures are the work of great and devious adventurers, and that the latter can and must be found if we are to be safe, is a popular one of our time. Since the search for the architect of the Wall Street debacle, we have had a hue and cry for the man who let the Russians into Western Europe, the man who lost China, and the man who thwarted MacArthur in Korea. While this may be a harmless avocation, it does not suggest an especially good view of historical processes. No one was reponsible for the great Wall Street crash. No one engineered the speculation that preceded it. Both were the product of the free choice and decisions of thousands of individuals. The latter were not lead to the slaughter. There were impelled to it by the seminal lunacy which has always seized people who are seized in turn with the notion that they can become very rich. There were many Wall Streeters who helped foster this insanity, and some of them will appear among the heroes of these pages. There was none who caused it.”

There was no one who caused it. Remember that. Galbraith wants to pin it on something large and decentralized but can’t put his finger on what it is. Consider this line “No one engineered the speculation that preceded it. Both were the product of the free choice and decisions of thousands of individuals. The latter were not lead to the slaughter. There were impelled to it by the seminal lunacy which has always seized people who are seized in turn with the notion that they can become very rich.” Throughout his book Galbraith keeps talking about a “collective lunacy” but cannot account for it. As he concedes, the desire to become rich is ever present, something in 1929 triggered a larger hysteria. Some emergent property made it vogue.

This is what we need to understand. In 1929 – as well as today – a group of people lived and worked in a system that had powerful incentives that encouraged them to engage in risky practices (in 1929 it was investing in stock on margin, today it was lending people money who simply could not afford it). Finding the people will achieve little compared to understanding the basic set of rules that created these incentives – removing the people will do little. Managing the incentives will do everything. A big part of this may involve new regulations, but probably more importantly it requires recognizing that whole new business models are required as these shape incentives far more than regulations. No business wants to go through this type of crises again. A business model that insulates them against it will be the one to copy. This is why Umair Haque’s post is so important.

Encouragingly and contrary to popular beleif, Galbraith doesn’t believe that the crash of 1929 caused the Great Depression. Depressingly he sites other problems that lead to the larger crisis – problems some of us might see as familiar:

  • A dramatic and uneven distribution of income (we got that)
  • Poor corporate structures (we got that one too)
  • Poor banking structure (check)
  • A uneven state of the foreign balance (check again, although in reverse)
  • Opaque economic intelligence (not so sure about this one).

Yikes, so we are batting 3, maybe 4 out of 5.

My biggest fear and suspicion is that this bailout, if it occurs. Will probaby not “rescue” the system. It will simply give us breathing room to adapt the system. Certainly that would have been the case in 1929, and history very much looks like an emergent system, beyond the control of a top down state, has once again taken over.

From Consumers to Creators of their Historical Narrative

At a meeting I attended on Monday I was introduced to Robert Thompson, Secretary and Treasurer of a cool outfit called Operation Dialogue. Operation Dialogue seeks to “inspire and capture a lively and passionate dialogue among Canadians about what it is to be “Canadian.”

Their most interesting project? An online quiz on Canadian history. Anyone in high school who answers all 50 questions correctly is entered into a draw for numerous college scholarships (paid directly to the university). The best part? The site actively encourages “cheating” insofar as students are prompted – through hyperlinks – to research the correct answers. Indeed this is the whole point, to get kids to read about, look into and learn about the different aspects of Canadian history.

As a student of history, I’m a fan.

My humble suggestion, which Robert took to heart, was to hold a secondary contest with a small scholarship, that would reward the student who designed the coolest question – including links to resources and historical references – for the following year’s quiz. I mean, if you want kids to be turned on by history, why not have them help write it? Who is better positioned to know the history their peers will be most into? It felt like an easy way to make the quiz both more attractive and so help better satsify the organization’s mission.

I say make’em active historians, rather than just passive consumers. That’s what the net should be about.

history's new beginning

Fascinating conversation tonight. Was talking to a professor of International Relations from Los Angelos and she was talking about how her new students simply share fewer and fewer “reference” points with her.

Obviously history has no “starting” point, but there are seminal moments that demark the start of a new era. Moments people use as way finders for determining when they begin to care about events and tagging everything before as either “old” and “did not sufficiently shape my world.”

My undergrad degree is in history and my Master’s had a strong emphasis on the subject so don’t hear me saying history is bunk. It matters profoundly. But people often resort to a shorthand starting point to explain and give context to their world. I suspect that for those of my generation – those born in the 70’s, this date was 1945. Yes, events preceding this date are important, but World War 2 and its aftermath re-organized and shaped the world I grew up in. The international system, the Cold-War, the baby boom, the consumer society, many of these things spring from or arose after, this date. All the more striking is that these institutions and the culture that shaped them emphasized centralization and oversight. The World Bank, the UN, television, everything had strong hierarchical frame to it. It is as if the ethos was: we are going to bring order to the chaos that is our planet and culture. And who could blame them? After two world wars and the arrival of nuclear weapons, I’d probably want emphasize control too.

The interesting piece is, I think we’ve crossed a threshold. I don’t think teenagers today see 1945 as the starting point of their history. They live in a world of emergence and networks that probably feels completely divorced from the culture, institutions and technologies of 1945. I’m not sure when young people see “their” world’s history beginning, but I’m willing to bet that it is some other date, maybe earlier, but more likely later. They may not have yet seized upon a date or the triggering event as it may not, as yet, have passed into history. Maybe it will be the year the internet pierced popular culture? Or the day netscape was released? Or perhap 9/11. I doubt it will be any of these. But regardless of the date, I suspect that those born in the 80’s onwards are going to have a vastly different view of history than those born in the 60’s and before – and they are going to re-interpurt the 19th and 20th century in fundamentally different way – possibly in a manner that emphasizes interconnectedness and emergence.

For now however, expressing that new sense of history is going to be difficult. Young people remain trapped in a world where the dominant historians, experts and academics – and consequently the underlying narrative – is that of 1945. Personally, I can’t wait for the narrative to shift.