Notes from Joan Didion’s “White Album”

The White AlbumThis is one of the rare books I kept highlighting as I read through it (or would have underlined and dog-eared, if I’d read it on paper). Joan Didion was fascinated with complex systems such as waterworks and dams, highway operations centers, jails and prisons, orchid greenhouses. Joan Didion suffered from migraines. Joan Didion had no patience with a women’s movement concerned with “the litany of trivia” used to politicize “women who perhaps had been conditioned to obscure their resentments even from themselves” (The Women’s Movement, 1972):

These are converts who want not a revolution but “romance,” who believe not in the oppression of women but in their own chances for a new life in exactly the mold of their old life. In certain ways they tell us sadder things about what the culture has done to them than the theorists ever did.

A woman who starred in Céline ads in 2015, aged 80, Didion never tries to be anything else than a woman of her time; yet her notes on political sentiment in Hollywood in the 1960s (Good Citizens, 1968-70) sound as if written about today’s Silicon Valley, a place where public life “comprises a kind of dictatorship of good intentions, a social contract in which actual and irreconcilable disagreement is as taboo as failure or bad teeth, a climate devoid of irony”, and where she describes the attitude of the screenwriters of the McCarthy era just as if she were writing of today’s tech philanthropists: the particular vanity of perceiving social life as a problem to be solved by the good will of individuals.

She is also oddly prescient in her encounter with biker movies, a genre started by Roger Corman’s The Wild Angels (1966), starring Peter Fonda. She watches nine of these movies over a short period of time, “the first one almost by accident and the rest of them with a notebook… I was not even sure why I kept going” (Notes Toward a Dreampolitik, 1968-70). Remember that Didion, a child of the West, loved John Wayne, and that she is believed to have voted Republican through most of her life; Didion’s obvious discomfort with the behaviors and ideology that these movies portray – and that scared her, even back then, as “ideograms of the future” – are a measure of the gaping void between the conservative values of Didion’s screenwriting years, and those of an “alt-right” so shamelessly blandished by an American President today:

I suppose I kept going to these movies because there on the screen was some news I was not getting from The NewYork Times. I began to think I was seeing ideograms of the future. To watch a bike movie is finally to apprehend the extent to which the toleration of small irritations is no longer a trait much admired in America, the extent to which a nonexistent frustration threshold is seen not as psychopathic but as a “right.” A biker is goaded on the job about the swastika on his jacket, so he picks up a wrench, threatens the foreman, and later describes the situation as one in which the foreman “got uptight.” A biker runs an old man off the road: the old man was “in the way,” and his subsequent death is construed as further “hassling.” A nurse happens into a hospital room where a biker beats her unconscious and rapes her: that she later talks to the police is made to seem a betrayal, evidence only of some female hysteria, vindictiveness, sexual deprivation. Any girl who “acts dumb” deserves what she gets, and what she gets is beaten and turned out from the group. Anything less than instant service in a restaurant constitutes intolerable provocation, or “hassling”: tear the place apart, leave the owner for dead, gangbang the waitress. Rev up the Harleys and ride.

To imagine the audience for whom these sentiments are tailored, maybe you need to have sat in a lot of drive-ins yourself, to have gone to school with boys who majored in shop and worked in gas stations and later held them up. Bike movies are made for all these children of vague “hill” stock who grow up absurd in the West and Southwest, children whose whole lives are an obscure grudge against a world they think they never made. These children are, increasingly, everywhere, and their style is that of an entire generation.

Sadly, more than one.

Céline Joan Didion.jpg

Future Technologies. Have we reached “peak jobs”?

ImageIf I’m born again, I want my job to be “Senior Futurist”. This is the job title of a gentleman by the name of Klaus Ægidius Mogensen, who works at the Copenhagen Institute for Futures Studies and has recently released a 62-page report titled Future Technologies.

The report is only available to member organizations, but I want to thank my good friend Alessandra Losito and her employer Pictet for sharing it. Here are a few of the most intriguing possibilities that Mr. Mogensen throws our way (all dates, of course, “subject to some uncertainty”):

  • 2020: Free GMO trade agreements between US and EU.
  • 2025: The MARS ONE project sends the first colonists to Mars (however, also note the prediction for 2037: MARS ONE gives up sending more colonists to failed Mars colony.)
  • 2034: Authorities finally give up censoring the Internet. (Yay!)
  • 2040: 75% of cars worldwide are fully autonomous robot cars.

In 2035, the author also says, 50% of present-day job types are wholly or mostly automated. The rapidly growing use of robots (and more generally software, I guess, not just the variety with hardware attached) leads to jobless growth: adding to that, “individuals unemployed by automation have to find jobs in fields with lower productivity, causing a decline in overall productivity, in spite of increased productivity in industries where a lot of automation is possible.” And here is the wild card, or “possible extreme future event”:

In the long term, it is possible that robots and computers will handle all the necessary work, making it unnecessary for people to do other work. This can lead to an economy that is not based on work as a source of earning money; something that is central to present-day economics.

I have to admit that I find this scenario very extreme. It jars with a present-day reality where blue-collar jobs consume 40 hours a week and almost everybody I know in white-collar, corporate jobs is regularly working 50-60 hours per week (you’d think we’d be smarter than that). Is this prediction an extreme case of the “lump of labor” fallacy – in which case, we shouldn’t worry, because new work to be performed will keep popping out? Is it perhaps something that will truly happen, only a lot farther into the future than we think, as these things tend to do (re-read my rant about the Singularitarian future)?

But, on the other hand, unemployment is real, and jobless recoveries (where we have recoveries at all) are a fact. And well-documented authors such as Brynjolfsson and McAfee (The Second Machine Age) are worried about very much the same issues.

So, let’s go along with the futurist thought experiment and imagine a future where the work to be done by humans is vastly reduced: way after a brief moment of “peak jobs”, so to speak, that is already slightly behind us. What happens? Is this a scenario where billions of idle people consume all their time in adolescent ennui, addictive entertainment, and training for holy wars? Will capital (invested in robots) earn all the money, and labor none of it? Is Piketty right? Will the masses live in destitution? Will suicides skyrocket? And what can we do about it?

Evolutionary technologies may claim to be ethically neutral. Revolutionary technologies never are. We need ethicists along with educators, economists and technologists to help us craft a sustainable future – one that we want our children to live in. Forget about privacy, climate change, human cloning and Mars landings: the central ethical issue in 21st-century politics will be “peak jobs”. The search for a 21st-century John Rawls is open, and more urgent than it ever was.

Italian politics: more fog

matteorenziTomorrow morning, barring surprises, Italian President Giorgio Napolitano will give Matteo Renzi, who has led the Democratic Party for the past two months, the task to form a new government.

Last year, I wrote that the government formed in the spring of 2013 – whose leader turned out to be Enrico Lettawould most likely have a minimal mandate, in view of its foreseeably short lifespan, and that electoral reform would be its centerpiece. I predicted, alas correctly, that fiscal reform, economic growth, and jobs, as crucial as they were, just seemed too big a mountain to climb in this political weather, and nothing much would happen there. But, as it turned out, we do not even have the much-awaited electoral reform; and while our Constitutional Court hacked away at some of the issues with the previous law, it has de facto reverted us to a proportional system that only the smaller parties really want, and that would merely perpetuate our current political stalemate if we were to vote under its rules.

It has been two years and three months since Silvio Berlusconi stopped being Prime Minister (and almost three months since he lost his Senate seat). While he was in charge, I held out hope that, once he had left power, many things would change; women would feel whole again; Italy would undergo a civic and creative Renaissance. But, in spite of valiant efforts by the capable Mr. Monti and the brave Mr. Letta, we feel like we only wasted more time. Good luck to the bold Mr. Renzi: he and his team will enjoy a very short honeymoon before they deliver – or disappoint.

In favor of wearing whatever the hell you want, part 3

We had our own Janet Yellen moment in Europe yesterday: the third swearing-in of Angela Merkel as Germany’s Chancellor. Just the same way as Yellen “Wore Same Dress Twice, Upsetting Local Idiot” (Jezebel), Merkel was criticized (picture below from the front page of Corriere della Sera) for wearing a very similar outfit to what she wore for previous ceremonies of the same type.

So what? They are smart and practical women. They standardize their looks because it saves them precious time, even if they become predictable. I am sure a lot of powerful men have favorite outfits too, and they don’t spend a lot of time worrying whether they’ve worn the same thing before.

Plus, Merkel has been photographed wearing quite different gear to the opera (see this post in case you don’t remember). So why, why can’t women yet wear whatever the hell they want?


Merkel swearing-in outfit


Italian politics in the fog

Friends outside Italy often ask me what’s going on in Italian politics, and they know I am rarely at a loss for words. But these days, as the country appears to be lost in the fog, I find it hard to tell where we’re going.

An era ended in November 2011, although some of its protagonists are still stubbornly holding on to whatever consensus they can gather today. But we still don’t know what the new era looks like. We had about a year of Mr. Monti’s necessary but painful austerity; Mr. Berlusconi’s party eventually pulled the plug on Monti’s government, shortening its life by a few months. Campaigning was rough, bitter, and mostly content-free. The only party to campaign on a credible platform of economic liberalism and reform, newcomer Fare per Fermare il declino – which had ignited the hopes of many entrepreneurs and professionals -, was trounced in the February 24-25 elections, did not even clear the hurdle for a single seat in Parliament, and promptly proceeded to succumb to internal infighting; it didn’t help that founder Oscar Giannino turned out to have claimed a Chicago MBA he had never earned. Instead, the emerging force to be reckoned with turned out to be the Movimento 5 Stelle, a “non-party” led by Beppe Grillo, which readers of tea leaves had credited with about 20% of the vote in pre-electoral opinion polls, but which eventually got close to 25%.

With a tripolar Parliament, stuck in the sheer implausibility of a trust-building exercise among the troops of Messrs Berlusconi, Bersani, and Grillo (who personally hate each other’s guts), and with the poor showing of Mr. Monti (who only carried about 9% of the vote), it will be a tough task indeed for President Napolitano to pick a Prime Minister who stands a chance of forming a stable government. Napolitano himself is at the end of his mandate, and cannot send Italians back to the polls; his successor, to be elected in May by Parliament, would have to do that. Any government that is formed now will probably have a minimal mandate in view of a foreseeably short lifespan: electoral reform – something the parties could not agree on under Mr. Monti – would have to be its centerpiece, since everybody knows that the system bequeathed by a previous PdL-Lega government (and nicknamed porcellum) isn’t cutting it anymore. Fiscal reform, economic growth, and jobs, as crucial as they are in this emergency, just seem too big a mountain to climb for anybody in this political weather. Mr. Bersani briefly held out an olive branch to a disdainful M5S in the form of an eight-point program to build consensus; trouble is, not even his followers can remember what those eight items are about.

In the meantime, yesterday the newly convened House and Senate managed to choose their Presidents. They are two newcomers to politics, a former UNHCR spokeswoman and an anti-Mafia magistrate, voted into office in the lists of the Pd and its left-wing ally SEL, shrewdly picked by Mr. Bersani but shrilly denounced by Mr. Berlusconi’s people as “occupants”. The Senate presidential election only went through thanks to a few votes by M5S senators, whom Mr. Grillo promptly proceeded to excommunicate, although he cannot be sure of who they are (the vote was secret).

It is hard to tell whether Italians, in voting so massively for the M5S, have merely expressed their angst at the protracted recession of the past few years and their anger at the privileges of the old political caste, or whether they are truly buying into Mr. Grillo’s anti-Euro, utopian “degrowth” ideology. The threat to the European project, though, feels real enough that Giorgio Squinzi, head of industrialists’ lobby Confindustria, was compelled today to warn that its think tank had estimated at 30-40% the immediate GDP loss from a Euro exit by Italy.

This weekend, European institutions are not doing themselves a favor in the popular view by imposing a harsh haircut on bank depositors in Cyprus as a condition of the country’s bailout; and fears of contagion may cause yet more instability in the markets, playing into Mr. Grillo’s hands. True, Italy has a long tradition of short governments, unable to complete their full five-year term; and some believe that an M5S-led government would quickly flounder due to its members’ inexperience. Yet, such protracted instability is hardly to be wished for in a country that stopped growing practically a generation ago, and needs to find a way out of the doldrums more than at any point in recent history. Politics is the art of compromise: we will need all our artistry to pull this one through.


On elections

From Katherine Boo’s Behind the Beautiful Forevers, a few thoughts on the 2009 Indian elections.

Parliamentary elections would be held at the end of April, and middle- and upper-class people, especially young people, were registering to vote in record numbers. Affluent, educated candidates were coming forward with platforms of radical change: accountability, transparency, e-governance. While independent India had been founded by high-born, well-educated men, by the twenty-first century few such types stood for elections, or voted in them, since the wealthy had extra-democratic means of securing their social and economic interests. Across India, poor people were the ones who took the vote seriously. It was the only real power they had.