From Babel to babble and back again

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Information without trust is just dangerous hot air

By David Salt

Once upon a time the humans of Earth thought it would be a good idea to build a tower that reached high into the sky; so high that we could gaze across all the land, so high that they would be able to reach heaven and humans would be on the same level as God.

God saw the tower, the tower of Babel, going up and thought this was a very dumb idea, positively blasphemous.

He also noted that putting together such a large scale piece of infrastructure took a lot planning, coordination and cooperation. So, rather than smiting the tower, which some might label as an overreaction and would no doubt just cause them to build another, he instead invoked the curse of babble on the tower builders. The curse meant they could no longer understand what each other were saying. Sure enough, work on the tower came to an abrupt halt.

That should stop them talking up more stupid ideas, the Divine One probably thought.

And so it was that humans went off in their little tribes and developed separate cultures and civilizations. They knew about each other (the tribe on the other side of the divide) but direct communication was always a hassle because everyone used a different language.

Going to be a revolution

But you can’t keep a good (or a bad) human down. We figured out how to grow vast quantities of food (the Agricultural Revolution) and harness the energy of fossil fuels (the Industrial Revolution) and our numbers grew and grew.

More recently, we built clever machines called computers that could process vast quantities of information very quickly. And then we enabled those clever machines to talk to each other, and they became so portable that we could carry them around meaning that everyone could swap information with everyone else all the time (the Information Revolution).

And language became a trifling technicality solved with the push of a button.

The curse of babble was lifted, and who needed God anyway, because now our beautiful internet had given each of us access to the world’s information. Once again, we were elevating ourselves to the status of an omnipotent deity.

We had all of human knowledge at our finger tips. And that knowledge base was pretty impressive. Our technology, for example, had allowed us to understand more about the Earth and its component systems with greater precision than at any time in history.

Ironically, the technology that underpinned ‘the Great Acceleration’ of our ‘progress’ was also revealing that our activity was totally unsustainable.

Rising babble

But then bizarre things began happening as our infrastructure of information was again raising us up to God-like heights.

Many of our leaders (political and social) began declaring any news or information coming from other tribes was wrong or false.

And because there was so much information flowing through our media feeds, set to our specific profiles, it became possible to be completely inundated by the views and passions of just our own tribe (amplified in our own personal echo chambers) to the point that we began losing the capacity to listen to (or trust) information coming from other sources.

Somehow the curse of babble has descended on us again. We can understand the words being used by the other tribes, but we are losing the ability to actually hear what is being said. We don’t trust the source of the words and information being shared so we attack it or ignore it.

The cost of babble

Okay, all of the above is written in allegorical parable speak but you get my general thrust. Knowledge is power but without trust it’s as useless (and dangerous) as babble.

Writ large we see this modern babble weaponized by leaders and malicious actors all around the world. These days our many information sources all contain some degree of fake news, conspiracy thinking and fear mongering. It’s used to polarize, obfuscate and delegitimize the people outside of the tribe.

It’s a game played by the powerful to consolidate their power while weakening their enemy, those in the other tribe – be that another country or the opposing political party. But it’s a game with a horrible and enduring cost – the loss of trust and the erosion of social capital. And that sets up a vicious cycle in which the avalanche of information we all experience simply confirms our biases – that our tribe speaks ‘truth’ while the other tribe spreads falsehood, and should not be listened to.

A clear example of this is the Republican Party’s prosecution of the BIG LIE, that President Trump was robbed of election victory by the total corruption of the US democratic system. The Republican position has nothing to do with truth or evidence, and everything to do with power, polarisation and division. Trust lies bleeding and drowning under an avalanche of babble.

The consequences of this new curse of babble are profound and far reaching. In the short term we can expect it to manifest as rising levels of vaccine hesitancy (something already evident) as people stop trusting governments.

In the medium to longer term it delays and derails effective responses to climate change and environmental degradation (something we see at the moment in Australia) as people stop trusting science.

Nations with poor democratic safeguards like Russia and China are using weaponized forms of babble to interfere with the running of the other countries be it undermining trust in electoral processes (think Trump’s rise in 2016) through to directly degrading infrastructure and markets.

Indeed, if we can’t see the signal (information) from the noise (babble), we’re all one step closer to the shouting turning to real world fighting. Armed conflict, with the horrible price it brings, is not far behind any descent into babble.

Investing in trust

Trust is the only sure inoculation to the malaise of babble.

We need to trust our governments and the information they base their decisions on. That trust is based on a strong institutional framework that ensures the integrity and transparency surrounding government and corporate processes. And that institutional framework must constantly be tested, queried and scrutinized (through audits, corruption watchdogs, fair elections and a vital free independent press).

In the age of babble, none of this is guaranteed.

Mighty vested interests are attacking the foundations of our trust every day. If those foundations give way, all that we hold precious could tumble down.

Image: Hubris goes before a fall: The Tower of Babel by Pieter Bruegel the Elder (1563).

From the promise of technology to the ‘tragedy of the commons’

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Why ‘technology, not taxes’ is such a bad idea

By David Salt

Rarely has it been stated so clearly, so explicitly: ‘Technology, not taxes’ will be the pathway to a sustainable and prosperous future.

What I’m talking about, if it’s not apparent, is the Australian Government’s response to climate change. Our national government is playing the same game it has played for years: refusing to commit to real and significant action on reducing our country’s carbon emissions by claiming it’ll cost our country too much and that technology will solve the problem in the years ahead.

It’s a morally bankrupt and false argument on so many levels, not the least of which is that it fails to acknowledge the cost we’re increasingly paying by doing nothing – think dying coral reefs, continental-scale wild-fires and – this week’s disaster – historically huge flooding*.

Buried at the heart of the ‘technology, not taxes’ mantra, however, is a political truth: big change is hard to sell and voters would rather go for the option that doesn’t require personal sacrifice. And technology is just the trick to enable the government to sell the lie that we can ‘have our cake and eat it’ – in other words, we can keep growing our carbon emitting activities without concern because science will develop a pill to deal with those pesky environmental climate problems.

From the tragedy of the commons

About a year ago I wrote a blog on the Government hiding behind techno-tricks to convince us the Great Barrier Reef was being saved when in actual fact it was being left to rot. I quoted an eminent ecologist named Garrett Hardin, author of the famous essay ‘The tragedy of the Commons’. Given the ‘Technology, not taxes’ approach adopted by the Government it’s worth repeating that quote here.

Hardin observed: “An implicit and almost universal assumption of discussions published in professional and semi popular scientific journals is that the problem under discussion has a technical solution. A technical solution may be defined as one that requires a change only in the techniques of the natural sciences, demanding little or nothing in the way of change in human values or ideas of morality.”

What he was alluding to was that population growth and resource degradation are deep seated problems connected to human values and ideas of what we think is right and wrong. Technical solutions (coming out of scientific journals) are handy when it comes to solving the emerging issues associated with our rampant economic growth but they don’t address the underlying driver. And, conveniently for politicians selling technological fixes, they don’t challenge our values or appetite to consume.

Hardin’s observation was made back in 1968. It was both perspicacious and bold for this was a time in which humans were literally reaching for the Moon, and many really believed that science and technology could move worlds. The environment movement hadn’t really taken off and ‘climate change’ wasn’t even a thing (though even then atmospheric scientists were well aware that levels of carbon dioxide were steadily on the increase).

However, even back then, a growing number of scientists were noting our rates of economic growth were simply unsustainable while broader society was increasingly concerned about dying rivers, toxic pollution and disappearing wildlife. These fears would crystallise in the coming decades but be largely discounted and ignored by our political elites. And one common trick they have used to discount these fears has been to claim technology will provide the solution.

False promise

Fifty years on and our understanding is much improved on the scale and nature of the environmental degradation we have set in train. Earlier forecasts of killer weather, wide spread wildfires and mass coral death have proved to be well founded. Climate change is real, present and already costing us billions of dollars. And our best science is telling us this is only the beginning.

Given this understanding, and being honest about what we are actually experiencing, it seems simply incredible our government is choosing to deny the importance of this issue. We need to act as a society and our actions need to be fundamental and across all sectors. To achieve this we need strong leadership.

Instead, we have a government who has distilled their response to climate down into a simple and glib three word slogan – ‘technology, not taxes’. It’s a promise that the broader electorate doesn’t have to worry about climate change, that no-one has to change anything about the way they live, and that somewhere down the line science will yield a solution to one of humanity’s biggest and most complex challenges.

But this is a false and disingenuous promise of the worst kind. It’s a thin tissue of obfuscation, lies and smoke designed to kick the can down the road rather than acknowledge that deep and fundamental change needs to happen. It is the antithesis of leadership and, if we simply accept it, we are leaving an existential problem for our children to deal with; and they won’t be thanking us for it.

Image by Iván Tamás from Pixabay

*What’s the connection between climate change with the floods Australia is enduring at the moment (impacting on around 10 million Australians in every mainland state and territory)?
Consider this statement from The Climate Council:
‘FLOOD DISASTERS, such as those currently unfolding in New South Wales and parts of Southern Queensland, are made more likely by climate change, say experts from the Climate Council.

“The intense rainfall and floods that have devastated NSW communities are taking place in an atmosphere made warmer and wetter by climate change, which is driven by the burning of coal, oil, and gas,” said Climate Council spokesperson Professor Will Steffen.

“For many communities dealing with floods right now, this is the latest in a line of climate change-exacerbated extreme weather events they have faced, including drought, the Black Summer bushfires, and scorching heatwaves,” he added.

Global temperatures have risen 1.1°C since pre-industrial levels, and this has led to a 7 percent increase in water vapour in the atmosphere—increasing the likelihood of extreme downpours.

“Climate change is harming the health, safety, and livelihoods of Australians, racking up billions of dollars in economic losses, and damaging many of our unique ecosystems. It’s time for all levels of government and businesses to step up their climate action efforts to protect people, our environment and the economy,” said Professor Steffen.

“We must take decisive action this decade to bring climate change under control. Australia must get to net zero emissions well before 2040, and accelerate efforts to shift away from coal and gas to a fully renewables-powered economy,” he said.

Doing the Tesla Stretch

Electric cars to our economic rescue (with a nudge from government)

By Peter Burnett

New car sales are flat. In Australia we’ve just had the 17th consecutive month of declining sales. Of course, sales do go up and down and there are many reasons for the current dip including tight lending for cars and low consumer confidence.

Sales are also flat in other countries including the United Kingdom, but some commentators are advancing explanations far more significant than tight money and low consumer confidence. For example, the online newsletter MarketsInsider is suggesting that the US may have already passed ‘peak car’ due to generational and disruptive factors such as debt-strapped millennials, ride-hailing apps and self-driving technology.

I don’t know if being debt-strapped is the only factor for millennials, as my own millennial progeny give me the clear sense that cars just don’t have the allure that they did for me and my fellow baby-boomers. But quibbling aside, it seems clear that such disruptive factors are at work.

A Tesla for the market

I also suspect there may be another disruptive factor operating, a by-product of the ‘Tesla Stretch’. The Tesla Stretch refers to the fact that buyers are so keen to have a pure-electric car (ie, a battery-electric vehicle, or ‘BEV’, not a hybrid) that they are willing to pay around $30,000 more than they would normally spend on a new car. People who would never consider buying an entry-level BMW or Mercedes are paying BMW and Mercedes-like prices for the privilege of owning a Tesla, or at least a BEV.

The so-called ‘mass market’ Tesla, the Tesla Model 3, has only just gone on sale in Australia. In fact, the wider market for electric vehicles is only just getting off the ground here and it will be at least another 12 months before fully-electric vehicles are available here in any numbers and at least another couple after that before the cost of an electric vehicles begins to achieve price-parity with conventional internal combustion engine (‘ICE’: don’t you love these acronyms?) vehicles.

Although it’s too early to tell whether the Tesla Stretch will be a real thing here or not, there’s no reason to think Australians will be any different to Americans or Europeans in this regard. Moreover, I think the Tesla Stretch is already having an indirect impact here and that the current drop in car sales is partly the result of its by-product, which might be called the ‘Tesla Strike’.

A Tesla Strike?

The Tesla Strike would be a form of ‘buyers strike’, in which buyers want a BEV but, because they are not readily available, or not available at an affordable price, decide to wait. This flash of insight has come to me because I am one such buyer. My current car is about due for replacement and I’m keen to reduce my environmental footprint. I also like new technology (and cars, although this feels like admitting to being a dinosaur).

In principle, I’m prepared to do the Tesla Stretch, at least to some degree, but none of the handful of BEVs available so far meets my needs and fits my price-range. So, I’ve decided that my current car is my last ICE vehicle and that I’ll just wait.

In a small market like Australia there wouldn’t have to be too many more people like me out there for the Tesla Strike to be a ‘thing’, a phenomenon affecting sales and thus the economy, and calling for policy attention from government. The Government could act to increase the supply of electric cars by removing barriers to market entry, for example by streamlining the certification of electric cars for sale in Australia, introducing training programs in servicing electric cars, or subsidising the installation of recharging infrastructure, anything that would signal to electric car manufacturers that if they commit to supplying us, we’ll commit to giving this technology a long-term future.

Direct subsidies to car buyers might be one policy option but this may not be as effective as removing barriers to market entry. This is because simply increasing demand in the short term, without more, may not give manufacturers an incentive to establish sales and servicing networks here when there is already more than enough demand in larger markets for the BEVs currently available.

Wouldn’t it be ironic if governments, having so far baulked at spending on an electric car transition as an environmental measure, decided to do so as an economic measure?

As a bonus, oil imports would begin to go down, as would carbon emissions, increasingly so as ever-cheaper renewable energy replaces fossil-fuel power in our electricity network.

Ironic or not, for a government focused on the economy, Tesla Stretch surely beats Tesla Strike.

Image by Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay