Brian Micklethwait's Blog
In which I continue to seek part time employment as the ruler of the world.Home
Simon Gibbs on On the rights and wrongs of me posting bits from books (plus a bit about Rule Utilarianism)
Mark Rousell on Hot dog shadow selfie
Michael Jennings on On the rights and wrongs of me posting bits from books (plus a bit about Rule Utilarianism)
Darren on How the internet is cheering up Art
Michael Jennings on Marginal Eurostar economics
Michael Jennings on Marginal Eurostar economics
Natalie Solent on Union Jacks with colours played around with
Natalie Solent on Union Jacks with colours played around with
Brian Micklethwait on Union Jacks with colours played around with
Natalie Solent on Union Jacks with colours played around with
Most recent entries
- Tower Bridge glass shattered by beer bottle
- Database blues
- Dominic Frisby on the Hype Cycle
- Non-faceless architecture in Rome
- Scary bunny
- Phone (and cash) box
- The Magic Flute at the RCM
- The Poppies (4): Bald Blokes photoing them
- On the rights and wrongs of me posting bits from books (plus a bit about Rule Utilarianism)
- Quota photo from Paris (also a selfie)
- How the internet is cheering up Art
- Marginal Eurostar economics
- Looking down through the see-through Tower Bridge walkway – but what about looking up through it?
- Cats – and technology
- Hot dog shadow selfie
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Category archive: Intellectual property
As discussed in this earlier posting, here is a chunk of Frisby, from his book Bitcoin: The Future of Money? (pp. 197-201 – the chunk entitled “Beware the hype cycle"). And for the reasons stated in that earlier posting, this posting might rather suddenly disappear, so if you feel inclined to read it, do so now. And then when you have, buy the book and tell me that you have done this in the comments, because this might cheer up any passing authors or publishers:
There is a cycle that a new technology passes through as it goes from conception to widespread adoption. The research company Gartner has dubbed it the ‘hype cycle’. It has five phases: the technology trigger, the peak of inflated expectations, the trough of disappointment, the slope of enlightenment and the plateau of productivity.
In the first phase the new technology is invented. There is research and development and some early investment is found. The first products are brought to market. They are expensive and will need a lot of improvement, but they find some early users. The technology clearly has something special about it and people start getting excited. This is the ‘technology trigger’. The internet in the early 1990s is a good example.
As this excitement grows, we move into the second phase. The media start talking about this amazing new technology. Speculative money piles in. All sorts of new companies spring up to operate in this new sector. Many of them are just chasing hot money and have no real product to offer. They are sometimes fraudulent. This new technology is going to change the world. The possibilities are endless. We’re going to cure diseases. We’re going to solve energy problems. We’re going to build houses on the moon. This is the ‘peak of inflated expectations’. This was the internet in 2000.
But at some point, the needle of reality punctures the bubble of expectation, and we move into the third phase. Actually, this technology might not be quite as good as we thought it was; it’s going to take a lot of work to get it right and to make it succeed on a commercial scale. A great deal of not particularly rewarding hard work, time and investment lies ahead. Forget the ideas men – now we need the water-carriers. Suddenly, the excitement has gone.
Negative press starts to creep in. Now there are more sellers than buyers. Investment is harder to come by. Many companies start going bust. People are losing money. The hype cycle has reversed and we have descended into the ‘trough of disappointment.’ This was the internet between 2000 and 2003.
But now that the hot money has left, we can move into phase four. The incompetent or fraudulent companies have died. The sector has been purged. Most of those that remain are serious players. Investors now demand better practice and the survivors deliver it. They release the second and third generation products, and they work quite well. More and more people start to use the technology and it is finally finding mainstream adoption. This was the internet in 2004. It climbed the ‘Slope of Enlightenment’, the fourth phase of the hype cycle, and entered the ‘Plateau of Productivity’ - phase five - which is where the likes of Google, Amazon and eBay are today.
Of course, cycles like this are arbitrary. Reality is never quite so simple. But it’s easy to make the case that crypto-currencies in late 2013 reached a ‘peak of inflated expectations’.
Perhaps it was not the. It wasn’t Bitcoin’s dotcom 2000 moment – just a peak on a larger journey up. Many Bitcoin companies, for example, are not even listed on the stock market. Greater manias could lie ahead.
But it’s also easy to make the case that it ws the peak of inflated expectations. In the space of three or four years, Bitcoin went from an understated mention on an obscure mailing list to declarations that it was not only going to become the preferred money system of the world, but also the usurper of the existing world order. At $1,000 a coin, some early adopters had made a million times their original investment. Speculators marvelled at the colossal amount of money they were making. The media were crazy for it. Bitcoin was discussed all over television.
It caught the imagination of the left, the right and the in-between. Computer boffins marvelled at the impossibly resilient code. Economists and libertarians marvelled at the politics of a money without government or border. There were early adopters, from the tech savvy to the black markets (black markets are usually quick to embrace new technology - pornography was the first business sector to actually make money on the internet, for example).
Every Tom, Dick and Harry you met under the age of 30 with an interest in IT was involved in some Bircoin start-up or other. Either that or he was designing some new alt currency - some altcoins were rising at over a thousand per cent per day. ‘Banks, governments, they’re irrelevant now,’ these upstarts declared.
I suggest that in late 2013 we hit the peak of the hype cycle - the peak of inflated expectations. Now Bitcoin is somewhere in the ‘trough of disillusionment,’ just like the internet in 2001. The price has fallen. There have been thefts. Some of the companies involved have gone bankrupt.
The challenge now is for all those start-ups to make their product or service work. They have to take Bitcoin from a great idea and a technology that works to something with much wider ‘real world’ use. They have to find investment and get more and more people to start using the coins. This is a long process.
There are many who will disagree with this interpretation. And, with investment, it is dangerous to have rigid opinions – I reserve the right to change my mind as events unfold.
From time to time I like to stick bits from books up here, usually quite short, but sometimes quite long.
With the short bits, there is no legal or moral problem. Fair use, etc. But with the longer bits, there might be a problem. Here’s how I operate. I put up whatever bit it is that I think deserves to be made much of, on the clear understanding that it might disappear at any moment. Because, if anyone associated with the book I have got my chosen bit from complains and says please remove it, I will do so, immediately.
Many might think that such persons would be being rather silly. I mean, what better way could there be to reach potential readers of the entire book in question than for readers of a blog, and a blog written by someone who already likes the book, to get to read a relatively small chunk of it? Win-win, surely. Because of course, I only put up big chunks of writing if I approve of what the chunks say.
But what if a publisher is trying to insist on the principle, that copyright damn well means what it says? Such a publisher might want to proclaim, and to be seen to proclaim, a no-tolerance attitude to the copying of bigger than small bits of any its books. Even if that particular book might be assisted by this particular recycled chunk being here, the larger principle might feel far more significant to the publisher. That principle being: If we allow this, where will it then stop?
And I get that. As I say, if any publisher or author did complain, for these kinds of reasons or for any other, then I would get it, and the bit from the book in question would at once vanish from this blog. So far, I’ve had no such complaints. Which could just be because they reckon this blog to be too insignificant to be worth risking a fight with. They wouldn’t have a fight, but they might have a rule about letting sleeping puppies, like this one, lie.
Whatever. All I am saying here is that if I put up a big bit of a book, and anyone connected to that big bit cries foul, then the big bit will immediately vanish from here, with no grumbling, or worse, self-righteous campaigning, attempts to mobilise other bloggers, etc. etc.
Think of all this as an example of Rule Utilitarianism. And I am myself a Rule Utilitarian. My libertarian beliefs are not the absurd claim that libertarianism is inscribed into the very physical fabric of the universe, an inherent fact of life itself, which we humans either recognise or fail to recognise, but which are there anyway. Tell that to the spider I just squashed into the pavement on my way home to write this. No, I like libertarianism because it works. Libertarianism is a set of basically fairly simply rules which all we humans either choose to live by or choose not to live by. If we choose to live by these rules, life is good, happy, comfortable and it gets better and better. If we don’t live by such rules, life goes to shit and stays there.
And here comes the Rule Utilitarian bit. Even if this particular bit of thieving, by the government or just by some bod like you or me, is very insignificant, and even if what the government or the bod like you or me wants to spend its or his or her ill-gotten gains on is wonderful, absolutely wonderful, my rule says: No. Not allowed. Don’t get into complicated discussions about just how little thieving is too little to be bothering about, or just how noble a noble project has to be for it to be noble enough to be financed by a spot of thieving, because that way lies the slippery slope we are now on, where the government gobbles up at least half of everything, to very little benefit for anyone other than itself. Stick to the rule. No thieving, no matter how petty its scale or how noble its supposed object.
So, I get Rule Utilitarianism. And if any publisher decides to inflict his Rule Utilitarianism, in the manner described above, upon me, I would get that, and act accordingly.
What got me wanting to spell all this out is that I have recently been reading Dominic Frisby’s excellent Bitcoin book, and I find myself wanting to put bits of it up here, quite longish bits. And in general, having just followed the link at the top of this and read some of them, I feel that postings of this sort are among the better things that I do here, and I want to do more of them. But, to all of the bits from books that will follow, I want to attach the above mentioned caveat about how the verbiage that follows may vanish without warning, and a link to this posting is the way to summarise what is going on in my head without me banging on for however many paragraphs there are here.
Can you quotulate a picture? I just did. I just quotulated a picture of a Canadian train leaving a Canadian railway station, in this posting, at Quotulatiousness.
The original picture, I thought when I saw it, was good, but mostly what I thought it was was good in parts. So, I sliced out the parts that I particularly liked, and I now feature those best bits here:
I also did a bit of rotating.
What I like is the reflection of the train, and the shadows, and especially the shadow of the photographer, a digital photographer thing that I always enjoy, both when I do it, or when others do it.
By homing in on these merits, I believe I draw more attention to them than did the original taker of the photo.
LATER: The Quotulator quotulates me.
Indeed. You don’t see this kind of thing every day:
But I did. Today.
As a general rule, I don’t advise combining ice cream with photography. Do one or the other. That is the rule I recommend. But these guys were doing an excellent job of merging these two things, and they weren’t just eating their ice creams and doing photography. They were photoing their ice creams.
I congratulated them for the excellence of their photographic imagination, and they were really pleased to hear this. I asked if I could photo them. Yes, they replied. And when I said “photo”, I meant, as they surely understood, photo them and put pictures of them up at my blog:
I also took lots photos of a demo outside Parliament by Kurds, demanding help from Britain in their battles against ISIS. Maybe (I promise nothing) I’ll put some of those snaps either here or on Samizdata, perhaps tomorrow.
The Guru was finally able to deliver God/Godot this evening, but he only just finished, so time only for a quota cat, photoed by me in Tate Ancient yesterday:
More about that picture here. It’s by David Hockney.
I didn’t know that you are allowed to take photos in the Tate, but I did so with increasing confidence. There were official looking people well able to intervene and stop me, if they had wanted to. But, they didn’t. Interesting. Was that always the rule, or is it only recent, in response to an irresistible tidal wave of students taking notes with their iPhones?
I like to browse through Jonathan Gewirtz’s photos from time to time, and on my latest browse I came across this photo, of a brightly lit building in Urban Florida. Miami? Don’t know, and it doesn’t matter.
What particularly got my attention was the fact that Gewirtz included in the picture: his own shadow.
I have taken the liberty of reproducing this detail here. “Copyright ©2011 Jonathan Gewirtz” is what it says just before saying “jonathangewirtz.com”, but I trust my little except does not break any rules. (Rules often being the point of copyright violations, I’m guessing. Maybe this particular copyright violation, on its own, would not be a problem, but once the line is crossed, by anyone ...) If Gewirtz wants this little piece of his work removed, he has only to say and it will be removed forthwith.
Okay, with that out of the way, the point that I want to make here is that I suspect that this thing of including your own shadow in pictures is a practice that has filtered upwards to the Real Photographers like Jonathan Gewirtz, from us digital amateurs.
Your own shadow in the picture often starts as a mistake, but then you think: well, okay, that’s my shadow, but what’s so wrong with that? I was standing there, with the sun behind me. I mean, did you think this wasn’t a photograph, and that someone standing there throwing a shadow into the picture wasn’t even there? Did you think that God took the picture? Cameras gobble up whatever they see in that moment, and in this moment, for instance, my shadow was part of what it saw. Often, the shadow is all there is, and very amusing it is too.
The crux of the matter is, I think, who the picture is for and what the point of it is. Is it for someone else, someone paying? Is perhaps a happy couple being photographed on their wedding day? In which case, they are the point, not the photographer. Likewise if the point is to photo this dish of salad, or that house interior, or this beloved pet or that sports team, well, the Real Photographer is not being paid to insert himself into the scene, and he will be careful not to.
But if, on the other hand, you are a snapper who is just having a bit of fun, then why shouldn’t you, the snapper, also become your own snappee?
But the thing is, when Real Photographers are out having fun, the way Jonathan Gewirtz presumably is when taking photos in Miami or wherever, just because he likes to, they are liable to take their ingrained Real Photographer habits of self-effacement with them. So, interesting that Gewirtz did not do this, at any rate not this time.
I’ll end with a slice out of one of these photos:
The crooked forefinger being mine.
This is one of my favourite Big Thing Alignment shots, to be observed by emerging from Oval tube and walking north east along the A3. Do that, and you soon see Strata in the distance, and directly behind it, the Shard, thus:
These shots are two of many such that I took on June 25th 2012.
On the left: the heart of the matter. On the right: the context. Often, when you have a zoom lens, you show the zoomed shot, and neglect how it actually looked, along with all the other stuff you could see. When I say “you” I of course mean “I”.
I worked out that this shot might be there for the taking by looking at the map. Strata is at the Elephant and Castle, which is the big yellow roundabout in the middle of this map:
And the Shard is at London Bridge railway station, top right.
What this shows, I think, is another contribution made by technically rather poor photographers like me. We may not take our pictures that well, from the point of view of using the right cameras, lenses, f numbers, and general technical jiggery pokery. But we often take great shots, as in, we often take great shots rather badly. A technically better photographer might see this posting, and say to him or herself: Hey I like that shot. I’m going to go out there and do it again, properly, while crediting the person who first did the shot and thus showed me that the shot was gettable.
(Are Real Photographers reluctant to do this kind of copying-stroke-improving of amateur shots, for intellectual property (and hence money) reasons? Is there a sense in which, photogaphically speaking, I now “own” this view?)
A similar point could have been made in the course of this posting, which also included a map showing how that shot happened, and where to go to get it. That too was a great shot, done just about well enough to show what a great shot it might have been, but only just.
From Tim Berners-Lee, no less, on the occasion of the twenty fifth anniversary of his glorious invention, the www:
Berners-Lee also mentioned something about a Magna Carta for the web, but I am afraid the cat remark has overwhelmed all that stuff.
Or, maybe the cat angle has drawn attention to the Magna Carta stuff, which would otherwise have been ignored even more. (I am starting to notice many rather irrelevant cats in adverts nowadays.)
Yes, I’m afraid I’ve been doing rather a lot of quota posting of late.
So anyway, here’s the link.
And here is the quota photo:
That’s actually one of my more favourite recent photos. It was taken just before Christmas, in Twickenham, where Patrick Crozier lives, through the window of a shop where they sell … things like that.
I like the water on the window.
Increasingly, I am coming to think of the summer as the photographing season, and the winter as the time when I look back through what I’ve got and tell you good people about some of it, and generally try to catch up with myself.
So, this summer, obviously, there was The Wedding. But there were also other weddings. Weddings serendipitously encountered, at places like Westminster Abbey (Aug 19) …:
… or in the Kings Road (Aug 31):
Am I entitled to steel the souls of other people’s weddings like this, by not only photoing them but also by sticking up some of the photos on my blog? I say yes, and I am the one who decides because if I decide yes, nobody stops me. Probably someone could stop me, but nobody does. And how can you stop photoing outside Westminster Abbey? Can’t be done.
The way I see it, if you make a big public show of yourself like this, in a public place, you are fair photographic game. The guests are all snapping away, so why shouldn’t a stranger join in? And more to the point, how would anyone Official be able to decide, right then and there, who is a digitalised guest and who is merely a digitalised wedding crasher? Can’t be done.
So, there the photos are, of the brides, the grooms, and of course of the photographers, Real and digital.
These two sets actually make a nice contrast. In the first, we see the Real Photographer in action, waving his arms around to telling the bride and groom where to stand and how to stand and what to look like they are feeling, like the whole show is for his benefit, which this bit of the event sort of is. And the bride and groom pose anxiously, communicating love as best they can, but actually looking more like dutiful than adoring.
And in the second, we see the wedding party emerging from Chelsea Town Hall, to confront a digital scrimmage, with all concerned looking thoroughly relaxed and happy and celebratory.
I recently read a piece, somewhere (sorry about no link – commenters?), about how in the Old Days, i.e. the days when there was Extremely Real Photography (tripod – stand very still) or no photography at all, people made a point of looking severe and grim in front of the camera, on those rare occasions when they encountered one, because if they relaxed they risked looking like a total prat, in what might well be the only photograph that anyone ever took of them or ever remembered them by. As a result we now get a relentlessly false picture, literally, of what life was like for these people in times gone by. We, on the other hand, treat any particular snap that someone snaps of us as no big deal, and we grin away to our heart’s content, and trust our mates mostly to pick the picture that makes us look okay. The whole idea of the Uptight Victorian, said this piece I read, compared to relaxed and happy us, is a consequence of the changing nature not of life itself, but of photography. Interesting idea, I think.
And I further think that these two sets of photos illustrate this contrast rather well.
Incoming from Rob Fisher:
This is long, but Stallman is a very clear and precise speaker, so there is much understanding to be had here.
This being a YouTube performance from 2005, lasting 1 hour and 44 minutes.
By which I mean interesting software news from New Zealand.
A computer programme is not an invention:
A major new patent bill, passed in a 117-4 vote by New Zealand’s Parliament after five years of debate, has banned software patents.
Quotulatiousness (to whom thanks for the NewZ) says hurrah.
LATER: I emailed Rob Fisher about this, and he replied thus:
That is interesting, thanks.
At his talk chez moi on Friday Feb 22nd (see below) on How globalisation has made the world less rather than more homogenised, Michael Jennings intends to show us some photos. Indeed, he will be dropping by earlier in the week to make sure that the relevant technology can be guaranteed to work properly on the night. This may also require some creativity with the seating.
Here, in the meantime, are a few photos that he has emailed to me, together with commentary. Enjoy.
This is in Sukhomi, Abkhazia, a breakaway non-recognised state that is de jure part of Georgia (and is supported by Russia). Mango is a fashion label that grew out of a stall in the Ramblas market in Barcelona, and is now to globalised retail what the sub-prime market is to home ownership.
An interesting phenomenon occurs when there is a market for a particular international business, and that international business does not operate in that particular market for whatever reason: because the market is too small, too distant, too poor, too corrupt, or there are political problems. Clones of the business will often spring up. These can be particularly entertaining in places where there is no trademark law, trademark law is weak, or where it can be legally difficult to pursue claims from the owner of the trademark. This burger place in northern Cyprus in no way resembles Burger King. Obviously.
One of the most extreme cases in which this phenomenon occurred was in South Africa under apartheid. Many international companies boycotted the country, which in some ways was a modern country with a sizeable middle class, economy and legal system. (In various other ways, it wasn’t and isn’t.) South Africa in 1990 was therefore full of quite good clones of international businesses, that until then were constrained as to where they could operate, but faces competition only from one another at home. Post 1990, the international businesses that they were clones of entered South Africa in a big way, and the South Africans themselves were subsequently able to compete in the wider world. The South African clones weren’t good enough or rich enough to compete in the home markets of the major internationals, and have subsequently expanded into countries that are poorly served by the internationals for a variety of reason - this means Africa, parts of Eastern Europe, parts of Asia, parts of the Middle East. Politically dubious markets of questionable legitimacy a lot the time. One often finds South Africans and Russians side by side.
One could write an entire book about fake Apple Stores. The ones in China (this one is in Tianjin) are the most awesome. The entire story of international brands in China is itself fascinating. Everyone is there, because of the perceived size and importance of the market. Yet the country is far more chaotic, far more unstable, far more corrupt, for more authoritarian, has weaker copyright and patent laws and a weaker rule of law in general than many of the markets these companies would generally consider operating in.
India is more problematic in some ways: bureaucratic beyond words, and culturally difficult in ways that make foreign business models work less well, or at least require a lot more adaptation. (Imagine you are McDonald’s, and you are told that you are not permitted to use either beef nor pork in the food you sell). There have historically been limits on foreign investment. Supermarkets are only now in the process of being legalised. Very large companies can find entry to the Indian market - car makers or mobile phone companies. Medium sized companies - which is where most of the interesting stuff happens - find it much harder.
It’s going to be an interesting evening.
So far, for me, one of the most impressive or a great many impressive things to be found in Steven Pinkers new book, The Better Angels of Our Nature, is his description of The Enlightenment. (I mentioned this huge volume, in passing, in my latest Samizdata posting, and at greater length in an earlier posting.)
So. The Enlightenment. This is a word I have heard all my life. But what did it, does it, mean? It is assumed that all educated people know what The Enlightenment means, and that it was and is a noble and fine thing, and why it was and is a noble and fine thing. But why, exactly? I guess that, until now, I was not educated.
What makes Pinker’s exposition of the ideas behind The Enlightenment so excellent is that he explains how the scientific project at the heart of The Enlightenment was joined at the hip to a new moral vision of mankind. This was not merely a couple of vaguely benevolent quests, for scientific truth on the one hand, and for moral excellence on the other. For, as Pinker asks, why did the quest for scientific truth necessarily imply a quest for moral improvement (as we now regard it), for greater “humanity” in our treatment of other humans? Pinker answers this question.
I found that picture of Pinker here.
Whenever I scan in a great gob of verbiage from a book into this blog, I warn readers that the posting may disappear without warning, in the event of the slightest objection from the author, or from the publisher, or from anyone else connected with upholding the intellectual property in question. There is no way that me reproducing this relatively tiny fragment of Pinker’s huge book will damage its sales, quite the reverse. But, if those charged with overseeing such things inform me that, in their view, a line has been crossed by this posting, a line they consider worth defending, this excerpt (from Chapter 4, “The Humanitarian Revolution”, pp. 216-221 of my Penguin paper edition) will immediately vanish.
In other words, if, having read the above, you decide that you will be wanting to read what follows, best to do that now.
Bringing people and ideas together, of course, does not determine how those ideas will evolve. The rise of the Republic of Letters and the cosmopolitan city cannot, by themselves, explain why a humanitarian ethics arose in the 18th century, rather than ever-more-ingenious rationales for torture, slavery, despotism, and war.
My own view is that the two developments really are linked. When a large enough community of free, rational agents confers on how a society should run its affairs, steered by logical consistency and feedback from the world, their consensus will veer in certain directions. Just as we don’t have to explain why molecular biologists discovered that DNA has four bases - given that they were doing their biology properly, and given that DNA really does have four bases, in the long run they could hardly have discovered anything else - we may not have to explain why enlightened thinkers would eventually argue against African slavery, cruel punishments, despotic monarchs, and the execution of witches and heretics. With enough scrutiny by disinterested, rational, and informed thinkers, these practices cannot be justified indefinitely. The universe of ideas, in which one idea entails others, is itself an exogenous force, and once a community of thinkers enters that universe, they will be forced in certain directions regardless of their material surroundings. I think this process of moral discovery was a significant cause of the Humanitarian Revolution.
I am prepared to take this line of explanation a step further. The reason so many violent institutions succumbed within so short a span of time was that the arguments that slew them belong to a coherent philosophy that emerged during the Age of Reason and the Enlightenment. The ideas of thinkers like Hobbes, Spinoza, Descartes, Locke, David Hume, Mary Astell, Kant, Beccaria, Smith, Mary Wollstonecraft, Madison, Jefferson, Hamilton, and John Stuart Mill coalesced into a worldview that we can call Enlightenment humanism. (It is also sometimes called classical liberalism, though since the 1960s the word liberalism has acquired other meanings as well.) Here is a potted account of this philosophy - a rough but more or less coherent composite of the views of these Enlightenment thinkers.
It begins with skepticism. The history of human folly, and our own susceptibility to illusions and fallacies, tell us that men and women are fallible. One therefore ought to seek good reasons believing something. Faith, revelation, tradition, dogma, authority, the ecstatic glow of subjective certainty - all are recipes for error, and should be dismissed as sources of knowledge.
Is there anything we can be certain of? Descartes gave as good an answer as any: our own consciousness. I know that I am conscious, by the very fact of wondering what I can know, and I can also know that my consciousness comprises several kinds of experience. These include the perception of an external world and of other people, and various pleasures and pains, both sensual (such as food, comfort, and sex) and spiritual (such as love, knowledge, and an appreciation of beauty).
We are also committed to reason. If we are asking a question, evaluating possible answers, and trying to persuade others of the value of those answers, then we are reasoning, and therefore have tacitly signed on to the validity of reason. We are also committed to whatever conclusions follow from the careful application of reason, such as the theorems of mathematics and logic.
Though we cannot logically prove anything about the physical world, we are entitled to have confidence in certain beliefs about it. The application of reason and observation to discover tentative generalizations about the world is what we call science. The progress of science, with its dazzling success at explaining and manipulating the world, shows that knowledge of the universe is possible, albeit always probabilistic and subject to revision. Science is thus a paradigm for how we ought to gain knowledge - not the particular methods or institutions of science but its value system, namely to seek to explain the world, to evaluate candidate explanations objectively, and to be cognizant of the tentativeness and uncertainty of our understanding at any time.
The indispensability of reason does not imply that individual people are always rational or are unswayed by passion and illusion. It only means that people are capable of reason, and that a community of people who choose to perfect this faculty and to exercise it openly and fairly can collectively reason their way to sounder conclusions in the long run. As Lincoln observed, you can fool all of the people some of the time, and you can fool some of the people all of the time, but you can’t fool all of the people all of the time.
Among the beliefs about the world of which we can be highly confident is that other people are conscious in the same way that we are. Other people are made of the same stuff, seek the same kinds of goals, and react with external signs of pleasure and pain to the kinds of events that cause pain and pleasure in each of us.
By the same reasoning, we can infer that people who are different from us in many superficial ways - their gender, their race, their culture - are like us in fundamental ways. As Shakespeare’s Shylock asks:
Hath not a Jew eyes? hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions? fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject to the same diseases, healed by the same means, warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer, as a Christian is? If you prick us, do we not bleed? if you tickle us, do we not laugh? if you poison us, do we not die? and if you wrong us, shall we not revenge?
The commonality of basic human responses across cultures has profound implications. One is that there is a universal human nature. It encompasses our common pleasures and pains, our common methods of reasoning, and our common vulnerability to folly (not least the desire for revenge). Human nature may be studied, just as anything else in the world may be. And our decisions on how to organize our lives can take the facts of human nature into account - including the discounting of our own intuitions when a scientific understanding casts them in doubt.
The other implication of our psychological commonality is that however much people differ, there can be, in principle, a meeting of the minds. I can appeal to your reason and try to persuade you, applying standards of logic and evidence that both of us are committed to by the very fact that we are both reasoning beings.
The universality of reason is a momentous realization, because it defines a place for morality. If I appeal to you to do something that affects me - to get off my foot, or not to stab me for the fun of it, or to save my child from drowning - then I can’t do it in a way that privileges my interests over yours if I want you to take me seriously (say, by retaining my right to stand on your foot, or to stab you, or to let your children drown). I have to state my case in a way that would force me to treat you in kind. I can’t act as if my interests are special just because I’m me and you’re not, any more than I can persuade you that the spot I am standing on is a special place in the universe just because I happen to be standing on it.
You and I ought to reach this moral understanding not just so we can have a logically consistent conversation but because mutual unselfishness is the only way we can simultaneously pursue our interests. You and I are both better off if we share our surpluses, rescue each other’s children when they get into trouble, and refrain from knifing each other than we would be if we hoarded our surpluses while they rotted, let each other’s children drown, and feuded incessantly. Granted, I might be a bit better off if I acted selfishly at your expense and you played the sucker, but the same is true for you with me, so if each of us tried for these advantages, we’d both end up worse off. Any neutral observer, and you and I if we could talk it over rationally, would have to conclude that the state we should aim for is the one where we both are unselfish.
Morality, then, is not a set of arbitrary regulations dictated by a vengeful deity and written down in a book; nor is it the custom of a particular culture or tribe. It is a consequence of the interchangeability of perspectives and the opportunity the world provides for positive-sum games. This foundation of morality may be seen in the many versions of the Golden Rule that have been discovered by the world’s major religions, and also in Spinoza’s Viewpoint of Eternity, Kant’s Categorical Imperative, Hobbes and Rousseau’s Social Contract, and Locke and Jefferson’s self-evident truth that all people are created equal.
From the factual knowledge that there is a universal human nature, and the moral principle that no person has grounds for privileging his or her interests over others’, we can deduce a great deal about how we ought to run our affairs. A government is a good thing to have, because in a state of anarchy people’s self-interest, self-deception, and fear of these shortcomings in others would lead to constant strife. People are better off abjuring violence, if everyone else agrees to do so, and vesting authority in a disinterested third party. But since that third party will consist of human beings, not angels, their power must be checked by the power of other people, to force them to govern with the consent of the governed. They may not use violence against their citizens beyond the minimum necessary to prevent greater violence. And they should foster arrangements that allow people to flourish from cooperation and voluntary exchange.
This line of reasoning may be called humanism because the value that it recognizes is the flourishing of humans, the only value that cannot be denied. I experience pleasures and pains, and pursue goals in service of them, so I cannot reasonably deny the right of other sentient agents to do the same.
If all this sounds banal and obvious, then you are a child of the Enlightenment, and have absorbed its humanist philosophy. As a matter of historical fact, there is nothing banal or obvious about it. Though not necessarily atheistic (it is compatible with a deism in which God is identified with the nature of the universe), Enlightenment humanism makes no use of scripture, Jesus, ritual, religious law, divine purpose, immortal souls, an afterlife, a messianic age, or a God who responds to individual people. It sweeps aside many secular sources of value as well, if they cannot be shown to be necessary for the enhancement of human flourishing. These include the prestige of the nation, race, or class; fetishized virtues such as manliness, dignity, heroism, glory, and honor; and other mystical forces, quests, destinies, dialectics, and struggles.
I would argue that Enlightenment humanism, whether invoked explicitly or implicitly, underlay the diverse humanitarian reforms of the 18th and 19th centuries. The philosophy was explicitly invoked in the design of the first liberal democracies, most transparently in the ‘self-evident truths’ in the American Declaration of Independence. Later it would spread to other parts of the world, blended with humanistic arguments that had arisen independently in those civilizations. And as we shall see in chapter 7, it regained momentum during the Rights Revolutions of the present era.
When I go out photographing, the process goes: that looks interesting, snap, forget about it and immediately on to the next one. Which means that I get all those nice surprises later, when browsing, that I keep going on about.
What do you make of this, for instance:
I can just about remember thinking at the time that a very large number of snappers were taking a mysterious interest in what looked like a very unremarkable young man, including one snapper with very thin legs. And the young man was most definitely cooperating.
But now I ask again, as I asked myself when taking this snap, who is this young man?
My policy with any celebs I myself recognise is that if they are just wandering about making no effort to attract attenntion and probably hoping very much not to, then I will photo them, but will not shove them up on the internet, until a minimum of a few years later. If, on the other hand, they are out and about being photographed, they are totally fair game, and can be internetted within the hour.
Not that I did this to this guy. The photo was taken on March 30th of this year, on Westminster Bridge, and no sooner had I taken it than I forgot about it.
So anyway, who is this guy? Here’s a close-up that makes him a bit more recognisable, if you recognise him.
Are there already clever face-recognition procedures that would enable me to find out who he is, if he is anyone? If you are the kind of person who knows about such things, then please do this yourself, and tell me.