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21 March 2013

The burning need for better supra-national governance

International organisations have a bad reputation these days. The United Nations is widely seen as ineffective. There’s a retreat towards “localism”: within Britain, the EU is unpopular; within Scotland, Britain is unpopular. And any talk of “giving up sovereignty” is deeply unpopular.

However, lack of effective international organisations and supra-national governance is arguably the root cause of many of the biggest crises facing humanity in the early 21st century.

That was the thesis which Ian Golding, Oxford University Professor of Globalisation and Development, very ably shared yesterday evening in the Hong Kong Theatre in the London School of Economics. He was quietly spoken, but his points hit home strongly. I was persuaded.

DividedNationsThe lecture was entitled Divided Nations: Why global governance is failing and what we can do about it. It coincided with the launch of a book with the same name. For more details of the book, see this blogpost on the website of the Oxford Martin School, where Ian Golding holds the role of Director.

It’s my perception that many technology enthusiasts, futurists, and singularitarians have a blind spot when it comes to the topic of the dysfunction of current international organisations. They tend to assume that technological improvements will automatically resolve the crises and risks facing society. Governments and regulators should ideally leave things well alone – so the plea goes.

My own view is that smarter coordination and regulation is definitely needed – even though it will be hard to set that up. Professor Goldin’s lecture amply reinforced that view.

On the train home from the lecture, I downloaded the book onto my Kindle. I recommend anyone who is serious about the future of humanity to read it. Drawing upon the assembled insights and wisdom of the remarkable set of scholars at the Oxford Martin School, in addition to his own extensive experience in the international scene, Professor Goldin has crystallised state-of-the-art knowledge regarding the pressing urgency, and options, for better supra-national governance.

In the remainder of this blogpost, I share some of the state-of-consciousness notes that I typed while listening to the lecture. Hopefully this will give a flavour of the hugely important topics covered. I apologise in advance for any errors introduced in transcription. Please see the book itself for an authoritative voice. See also the live tweet stream for the meeting, with the hash-tag #LSEGoldin.

What keeps Oxford Martin scholars awake at night

The fear that no one is listening. The international governance system is in total gridlock. There are failures on several levels:

  • Failure of governments to lift themselves to a higher level, instead of being pre-occupied by local, parochial interests
  • Failure of electorates to demand more from their governments
  • Failure of governments for not giving clearer direction to the international institutions.

Progress with international connectivity

80 countries became democratic in the 1990s. Only one country in the world today remains disconnected – North Korea.

Over the last few decades, the total global population has increased, but the numbers in absolute poverty have decreased. This has never happened before in history.

So there are many good aspects to the increase in the economy and inter-connectivity.

However, economists failed to think sufficiently far ahead.

What economists should have thought about: the global commons

What was rational for the individuals and for national governments was not rational for the whole world.

Similar problems exist in several other fields: antibiotic resistance, global warming, the markets. He’ll get to these shortly.

The tragedy of the commons is that, when everyone does what is rational for them, everyone nevertheless ends up suffering. The common resource is not managed.

The pursuit of profits is a good thing – it has worked much better than central planning. But the result is irrationality in aggregate.

The market alone cannot provide a response to resource allocation. Individual governments cannot provide a solution either. A globally coordinated approach is needed.

Example of several countries drawing water from the Aral Sea – which is now arid.

That’s what happens when nations do the right thing for themselves.

The special case of Finance

Finance is by far the most sophisticated of the resource management systems:

  • The best graduates go into the treasury, the federal reserve, etc
  • They are best endowed – the elite organisation
  • These people know each other – they play golf together.

If even the financial bodies can’t understand their own system, this has black implications for other systems.

The growth of the financial markets had two underbellies:

  1. Growing inequality
  2. Growing potential for systemic risk

The growing inequality has actually led to lobbying that exaggerates inequality even more.

The result was a “Race to the bottom”, with governments being persuaded to get out of the regulation of things that actually did need to be regulated.

Speaking after the crisis, Hank Paulson, US Treasury Secretary and former CEO of Goldman Sachs, in effect said “we just did not understand what was happening” – even with all the high-calibre people and advice available to him. That’s a shocking indictment.

The need for regulation

Globalisation requires regulation, not just at the individual national level, but at an international level.

Global organisations are weaker now than in the 1990s.

Nations are becoming more parochial – the examples of UK (thinking of leaving EU) and Scotland (thinking of leaving UK) are mirrored elsewhere too.

Yes, integration brings issues that are hard to control, but the response to withdraw from integration is terribly misguided.

We cannot put back the walls. Trying to withdraw into local politics is dreadfully misguided.

Five examples

His book has five examples as illustrations of his general theme (and that’s without talking in this book about poverty, or nuclear threats):

  1. Finance
  2. Pandemics
  3. Migration
  4. Climate change
  5. Cyber-security

Many of these problems arise from the success of globalisation – the extraordinary rise in incomes worldwide in the last 25 years.

Pandemics require supra-national attention, because of increased connectivity:

  • The rapid spread of swine flu was correlated tightly with aircraft travel.
  • It will just take 2 days for a new infectious disease to travel all the way round the world.

The idea that you can isolate yourself from the world is a myth. There’s little point having a quarantine regime in place in Oxford if a disease is allowed to flourish in London. The same applies between countries, too.

Technology developments exacerbate the problem. DNA analysis is a good thing, but the capacity to synthesise diseases has terrible consequences:

  • There’s a growing power for even a very small number of individuals to cause global chaos, e.g. via pathogens
  • Think of something like Waco Texas – people who are fanatical Armageddonists – but with greater technical skills.

Cyber-security issues arise from the incredible growth in network connectivity. Jonathan Zittrain talks about “The end of the Internet”:

  • The Internet is not governed by governments
  • Problems to prosecute people, even when we know who they are and where they are (but in a different jurisdiction)
  • Individuals and small groups could destabilise whole Internet.

Migration is another “orphan issue”. No international organisation has the authority to deal with it:

  • Control over immigration is, in effect, an anarchic, bullying system
  • We have very bad data on migration (even in the UK).

The existing global institutions

The global institutions that we have were a response to post-WW2 threats.

For a while, these institutions did well. The World Bank = Bank for reconstruction. It did lead a lot of reconstruction.

But over time, we became complacent. The institutions became out-dated and lost their vitality.

The recent financial crisis shows that the tables have been turned round: incredible scene of EU taking its begging bowl to China.

The tragedy is that the lessons well-known inside the existing institutions have not been learned. There are lessons about the required sequencing of reforms, etc. But with the loss of vitality of these institutions, the knowledge is being lost.

The EU has very little bandwidth for managing global affairs. Same as US. Same as Japan. They’re all preoccupied by local issues.

The influence of the old G7 is in decline. The new powers are not yet ready to take over the responsibility: China, Russia, India, Indonesia, Brazil, South Africa…

  • The new powers don’t actually want this responsibility(different reasons for different countries)
  • China, the most important of the new powers, has other priorities – managing their own poverty issues at home.

The result is that no radical reform happens, of the international institutions:

  • No organisations are killed off
  • No new ones created
  • No new operating principles are agreed.

Therefore the institutions remain ineffective. Look at the lack of meaningful progress towards solving the problems of climate change.

He has been on two Bretton Woods reform commissions, along with “lots of wonderfully smart, well-meaning people”. Four prime ministers were involved, including Gordon Brown. Kofi Annan received the report with good intentions. But no actual reform of UN took place. Governments actually want these institutions to remain weak. They don’t want to give up their power.

It’s similar to the way that the UK is unwilling to give up power to Brussels.

Sleep-walking

The financial crisis shows what happens when global systems aren’t managed:

  • Downwards spiral
  • Very hard to pull it out afterwards.

We are sleep-walking into global crises. The financial crisis is just a foretaste of what is to come. However, this need not be the case.

A positive note

He’ll finish the lecture by trying to be cheerful.

Action on global issues requires collective action by both citizens and leaders who are not afraid to relinquish power.

The good news:

  • Citizens are more connected than ever before
  • Ideologies that have divided people in the past are reducing in power
  • We can take advantage of the amplification of damage to reputation that can happen on the Internet
  • People can be rapidly mobilised to overturn bad legislation.

Encouraging example of SOPA debate in US about aspects of control of the Internet:

  • 80 million people went online to show their views, in just two days
  • Senate changed their intent within six hours.

Some good examples where international coordination works

  • International plane travel coordination (air traffic control) is example that works very well – it’s a robust system
  • Another good example: the international postal system.

What distinguishes the successes from the failures:

  • In the Air Traffic Control case, no one has a different interest
  • But in other cases, there are lots of vested interest – neutering the effectiveness of e.g. the international response to the Syrian crisis
  • Another troubling failure example is what happened in Iraq – it was a travesty of what the international system wanted and needed.

Government leaders are afraid that electorate aren’t ready to take a truly international perspective. To be internationalist in political circles is increasingly unfashionable. So we need to change public opinion first.

Like-minded citizens need to cooperate, building a growing circle of legitimacy. Don’t wait for the global system to play catch-up.

In the meantime, true political leaders should find some incremental steps, and should avoid excuse of global inaction.

Sadly, political leaders are often tied up addressing short-term crises, but these short-term crises are due to no-one satisfactorily addressing the longer-term issues. With inaction on the international issues, the short-term crises will actually get worse.

Avoiding the perfect storm

The scenario we face for the next 15-20 years is “perfect storm with no captain”.

He calls for a “Manhattan project” for supra-national governance. His book is a contribution to initiating such a project.

He supports the subsidiarity principle: decisions should be taken at the most local level possible. Due to hyper-globalisation, there are fewer and fewer things that it makes sense to control at the national level.

Loss of national sovereignty is inevitable. We can have better sovereignty at the global level – and we can influence how that works.

The calibre of leaders

Example of leader who consistently took a global perspective: Nelson Mandela. “Unfortunately we don’t have many Mandelas around.”

Do leaders owe their power bases with electorates because they are parochial? The prevailing wisdom is that national leaders have to shy away from taking a global perspective. But the electorate actually have more wisdom. They know the financial crisis wasn’t just due to bankers in Canary Wharf having overly large bonuses. They know the problems are globally systemic in nature, and need global approaches to fix them.

ian goldin

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23 March 2010

The search for big political ideas

Filed under: democracy, Humanity Plus, innovation, politics, vision — David Wood @ 1:07 am

On Saturday, I attended an event called “The Battle for Politics“, organised by the Institute for Ideas as a “pre-election public summit”.

The publicity material for this event gave me reason to look forward to it:

Party politics no longer seems to be about clear ideological differences, or indeed any kind of substantial debate reflecting competing visions for a better society. Nonetheless, many pressing issues remain unresolved.

So though it might be tempting to write off mainstream politics as irrelevant, and to take a ‘none of the above’ position in the coming election, this can only feed the pervasive cynicism about the possibility of social change and progress. History has not gone on standby, but continues to throw up new challenges.

The Institute of Ideas wants to take the opportunity of this election to re-enfranchise the electorate and put each candidate on the spot by asking them to declare where they stand on a range of key questions.

And yes, there were some worthy discussions during the day:

  • The electorate seem still to be deeply interested in political matters, even though they are alienated from existing political parties and politicians;
  • Changing the way voting takes place might engender better discussion and buy-in from the electorate to the political process;
  • The ever growing costs of the welfare state – coupled with our current financial shortfalls – mean that some significant change is needed in how the welfare state operates;
  • Insights from social sciences (such as behavioural economics) possibly have at least some role to play in improving political governance;
  • Wider adoption of evidence-based policy – where appropriate – probably will also improve governance.

However, at the end of the day, I felt underwhelmed by what had taken place.

For example: at the event, the Institute of Ideas had launched their “21 pledges for progress 2010“.  This included the following gems:

  • Limit the police’s power to detain people without charge to 24 hours rather than 28 days, in the interests of civil liberties and due process.
  • Declare an amnesty for all illegal immigrants presently in the UK, whether asylum seekers or economic migrants, in the interests of recognising the positive aspirations of those who seek to improve their lives by moving countries.
  • Open the borders, revoking all immigration controls, in the interests of the free movement of citizens.
  • Get rid of police Tsars and unelected ‘experts’ from government decision-making in the interests of parliamentary sovereignty and democratic accountability.
  • Abolish the monarchy and the House of Lords in the interests of a fully elected legislature and executive.
  • Direct state funding of schools into providing universal access to the highest standard of education in academic subjects, rather than politicised cross curricular themes like sustainability or citizenship, in the interests of passing on real knowledge to our children.

I applaud the Institute of Ideas for catalysing debate on a series of important topics, but I saw little evidence of political ideas that are likely to deservedly capture the imagination and the enthusiasm of the electorate.

The material I liked best, from what was on display, was something entitled “The London Manifesto for Innovation”, created by a group called “The Big Potatoes“.  This made the following assertions:

  • We should “think big” about the potential of innovation, since there’s a great deal that innovation can accomplish;
  • Rather than “small is beautiful” we should keep in mind the slogan “scale is beautiful”;
  • We should seek more than just a continuation of the “post-war legacy of innovation” – that’s only the start;
  • Breakthrough innovations are driven by new technology – so we should prioritise the enablement of new technology;
  • Innovation is hard work and an uphill struggle – so we need to give it our full support;
  • Innovation arises from pure scientific research as well as from applied research – both are needed;
  • Rather than seeking to avoid risk or even to manage risk, we have to be ready to confront risk;
  • Great innovation needs great leaders of innovation, to make it happen;
  • Instead of trusting regulations, we should be ready to trust people;
  • Markets, sticks, carrots and nudges are no substitute for what innovation itself can accomplish.

I’d like to build on these insights, with some concrete suggestions.  These are suggestions for items that should become national priorities – items that deserve a larger amount of attention, analysis, resourcing, and funding.  Borrowing some of the “big potatoes” language, I see these items as potentially having major impact over the next 10-20 years.  As such, they deserve to be national priorities during the decade ahead.

I’m not sure exactly what belongs on this list of national priorities, and look forward to feedback.  But here’s an initial proposal:

  1. Preventive medicine – since the costs of prevention will in many cases dwarf the cost of cures;
  2. Anti-aging treatments – an important special case of the previous point;
  3. Better than well – just as there are many benefits to avoiding ill-health, there are many benefits to promoting super-health;
  4. Cognitive enhancement and intelligence augmentation – to help everyone to become smarter and more sociable (both individually and collectively);
  5. Artificial general intelligence – an important special case of the previous point;
  6. Improved rationality (overcoming biases, in all their forms) – another important special case of the same point;
  7. Freedom from fundamentalism – diminishing the hold of dogma, whether from “scripture” or “tradition” or “prophets”;
  8. Education about accelerating technology – so people become fully aware of the opportunities, risks, context, and options;
  9. Robotics supporting humans – providing unmatched strength, precision, and diligence;
  10. Nanotechnology – the use of atom-level engineering to create highly useful new materials, compounds, and tools;
  11. Synthetic biology – techniques of software and manufacturing applied to biology, with huge benefits for health;
  12. Largescale clean energy – whether solar, nuclear, or whatever;
  13. Patent system reform – to address aspects of intellectual property law where innovation and collaboration are being hindered rather than helped;
  14. Smart market regulation – to handle pressures where social forces lead to market failures rather than genuinely useful products;
  15. Expansion of voluntary enterprise (the domain of not-for-profit contribution) – since not everything good is driven by financial motivation;
  16. Expansion of human autonomy – supporting greater choice and experience – in both virtual and physical reality;
  17. New measures of human accomplishment – an attractive vision that supersedes economic measures such as GDP;
  18. Geo-engineering capability – to equip us with tools to wisely restructure the planet (and more).

To give this list a name: I tentatively call this list “The Humanity+ Agenda“.  I propose to say more about it at the Humanity+, UK2010 event in London’s Conway Hall on 24th April.

The list is driven by my beliefs that:

  • Humanity in the 21st century is facing both enormous challenges and enormous opportunities – “business as usual” is not sustainable;
  • Wise application of technology is the factor that will make the single biggest difference to successfully addressing these challenges and opportunities;
  • If we get things right, human experience in just a few decades time will be very substantially better than it is today – for all people, all over the world;
  • However, there’s nothing inevitable about any of this;
  • Getting things right will require us becoming smarter and more effective than ever before – but, thankfully, that is within our grasp;
  • This is worth shouting about!

Footnote: Some people say that big political ideas are dangerous, and that a focus on effective political management, pursuing pragmatic principles, is far preferable to ideology.  I sympathise with this viewpoint, and share an apprehension of ideology.  But provided rationality remains at the forefront, and provided people remain open to discussion and persuasion, I see great value in vision and focus.

13 January 2010

Top of the list: the biggest impact

Filed under: books, democracy, Humanity Plus, UKTA — David Wood @ 12:46 am

I recently published a list of the books that had made the biggest impact on me, personally, over the last ten years.  I left one book out of that list – the book that impacted me even more than any of the others.

The book in question was authored by Dr James J. Hughes, a sociologist and bioethicist who teaches Health Policy at Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut.  In his spare time, James is the Executive Director of the IEET – the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies.

The title of the book is a bit of a mouthful:

I came across this book in October 2005.  The ideas in the book started me down a long path of further exploration:

I count this book as deeply impactful for me because:

  1. It was the book that led to so many other things (as just listed);
  2. When I look back at the book in 2010, I find several key ideas in it which I now take for granted (but I had forgotten where I learned them).

An indication of the ideas contained may be found from an online copy of the Introduction to the book, and from a related essay “Democratic Transhumanism 2.0“.

The book goes far beyond just highlighting the potential of new technologies – including genetic engineering, nanotechnology, cognitive science, and artificial intelligence – to significantly enhance human experience.  The book also contains a savvy account of the role of politics in supporting and enabling human change.

To quote from the Introduction:

This book argues that transhuman technologies – technologies that push the boundaries of humanness – can radically improve our quality of life, and that we have a fundamental right to use them to control our bodies and minds.  But to ensure these benefits we need to democratically regulate these technologies and make them equally available in free societies.  Becoming more than human can improve all our lives, but only new forms of transhuman citizenship and democracy will make us free, more equal, and more united.

A lot of people are understandably frightened by the idea of a society in which unenhanced humans will need to coexist with humans who are smarter, faster, and more able, not to mention robots and enhanced animals…

The “bioLuddite” opposition to genetic engineering, nanotechnology, and artificial intelligence, slowly building and networking since the 1960s, picked up where the anti-industrialisation Luddites left off in the nineteenth century.  While Luddites believed that defending workers’ rights required a ban on the automation of work, the bioLuddites believe genetic engineering and human enhancement technologies cannot be used safely, and must be banned…

The emerging “biopolitical” polarisation between bioLuddites and transhumanists will define twenty-first century politics…

People will be happiest when they individually and collectively exercise rational control of the social and natural forces that affect their lives.  The promise of technological liberation, however, is best achieved in the context of a social democratic society committed to liberty, equality, and solidarity…

Boing Boing author Cory Doctorow makes some good points in his review of “Citizen Cyborg”:

I’ve just finished a review copy of James Hughes’s “Citizen Cyborg: Why Democratic Societies Must respond to the Redesigned Human of the Future.” I was skeptical when this one arrived, since I’ve read any number of utopian wanks on the future of humanity and the inevitable withering away of the state into utopian anarchism fueled by the triumph of superior technology over inferior laws.

But Hughes’s work is much subtler and more nuanced than that, and was genuinely surprising, engaging and engrossing…

Hughes’s remarkable achievement in “Citizen Cyborg” is the fusion of social democratic ideals of tempered, reasoned state intervention to promote equality of opportunity with the ideal of self-determination inherent in transhumanism. Transhumanism, Hughes convincingly argues, is the sequel to humanism, and to feminism, to the movements for racial and gender equality, for the fight for queer and transgender rights — if you support the right to determine what consenting adults can do with their bodies in the bedroom, why not in the operating theatre?

Much of this book is taken up with scathing rebuttal to the enemies of transhumanism — Christian lifestyle conservatives who’ve fought against abortion, stem-cell research and gay marriage; as well as deep ecologist/secular lefty intelligentsia who fear the commodification of human life. He dismisses the former as superstitious religious thugs who, a few generations back, would happily decry the “unnatural” sin of miscegenation; to the latter, he says, “You are willing to solve the problems of labor-automation with laws that ensure a fair shake for working people — why not afford the same chance to life-improving techno-medicine?”

The humanist transhuman is a political stance I’d never imagined, but having read “Citizen Cyborg,” it seems obvious and natural. Like a lot of basically lefty geeks, I’ve often felt like many of my ideals were at odds with both the traditional left and the largely right-wing libertarians. “Citizen Cyborg” squares the circle, suggest a middle-path between them that stands foursquare for the improvement of the human condition through technology but is likewise not squeamish about advocating for rules, laws and systems that extend a fair opportunity to those less fortunate…

The transformation of politics Hughes envisions is from a two-dimensional classification to a three-dimensional classification.

The first two dimensions are “Economic politics” and “Cultural politics”, with a spectrum (in each case) from conservative to progressive.

The new dimension, which will become increasingly significant, is “Biopolitics”.  Hughes uses the label “bioLuddism” for the conservative end of this spectrum, and “Transhumanism” for the progressive end.

The resulting cube has eight vertices, which include both “Left bioLuddism” and “Right bioLuddism”, as well as both “Libertarian transhumanism” and “Democratic transhumanism”.

Interestingly, the ramp-up of political debate in the United Kingdom, ahead of the parliamentary election that will take place some time before summer, has served as a reminder that the “old” political divisions seem inadequate to deal with the challenges of the current day.  It’s harder to discern significant real differences between the major parties.  I still don’t have any strong views as to which party I should vote for.  My guess is that each of the major parties will contain a split of views regarding the importance of enhancement technologies.

I’ll give the final words to James Hughes – from the start of Chapter 7 in his book:

The most important disagreement between bioLuddites and transhumanists is over who we should grant citizenship, with all its rights and protections.  BioLuddites advocate “human-racism”, that citizenship and rights have something to do with simply having a human genome.  Transhumanists… believe citizenship should be based on “personhood”, having feelings and consciousness.  The struggle to replace human-racism with personhood can be found at the beginnings and ends of life, and at the imaginary lines between humans and animals, and between humans and posthumans.  Because they have not adopted the personhood view, the human-racists are disturbed by lives that straddle the imaginary human/non-human line.  But technological advances at each of these margins will force our society in the coming decades to complete the trajectory of 400 years of liberal democracy and choose “cyborg citizenship”.

16 December 2009

What’s in a name – pirate?

Filed under: brand, democracy, Intellectual property, openness, piracy — David Wood @ 7:24 pm

I’ve been taking a look at the website for the UK Pirate Party.

There’s quite a lot there which strikes a chord with me.  Here are some extracts:

The world is changing. The Pirate Party understands that the law needs to change to match the realities of life in the 21st century…

Reform copyright and patent law. We want to … reduce the excessive length of copyright protection… We want a patent system that doesn’t stifle innovation or make life saving drugs so expensive that patients die…

Ensure that everyone has real freedom of speech and real freedom to enjoy and participate in our shared culture…

The internet has turned our world into a global village.  Ideas can be shared at incredible speed, and at negligible cost.  The benefits are plain to see, but as a result, many vested interests are threatened.  The old guard works hard to preserve their power and their privilege, so we must work hard for our freedom.  The Pirate Party offers an alternative to the last century’s struggles between political left and political right.  We are open to anyone and everyone who wants to live in a fair and open society…

The Pirate Party UK offers a new way to tackle society’s problems, by releasing the potential of ideas, at the expense of corporate monopolies and the interests of a controlling state…

I ask myself: should I sign up to support this party – hoping to help it break the mould in UK politics?

I’m tempted.  But three things hold me back.

First, there are others items listed as priorities on the Pirate Party website, which seem much less important to me.  For example, I’m sympathetic to looking at the ideas “to legalise non-commercial file sharing”, but that hardly seems a black-and-white “no-brainer” deserving lots of my attention.  It’s not a principle I would nail to the mast.

Second, I wince at the description on the website of “the corrupt MPs who hold our nation’s cultural treasures to ransom, ignore our democratic wishes and undermine our civil liberties”.  I think this paints altogether too negative a view of existing UK politicians.  I’d rather find ways to collaborate with these existing MPs, rather than to out them and oppose them as “corrupt”.

Third, I’m thoroughly unesasy with the name “Pirate”.  This word has connotations which I think will prevent the party from “crossing the chasm” to gaining sufficient mainstream support.  Names are important.  If the party were called something like “The open party” rather than “The pirate party”, I suspect I (and many others) would be quicker to offer encouragement.

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