Putting Open at the Heart of the Digital Age


I’m Rufus Pollock.

In 2004 I founded a non-profit called Open Knowledge

The mission we set ourselves was to open up all public interest information – and see it used to create insight that drives change.

What sort of public interest information? In short, all of it. From big issues like how our government spends our taxes or how fast climate change is happening to simple, everyday, things like when the next bus is arriving or the exact address of that coffee shop down the street.

For the last decade, we have been pioneers and leaders in the open data and open knowledge movement. We wrote the original definition of open data in 2005, we’ve helped unlock thousands of datasets. And we’ve built tools like CKAN, that powers dozens of open data portals, like data.gov in the US and data.gov.uk in the UK. We’ve created a network of individuals and organizations in more than 30 countries, who are all working to make information open, because they want to drive insight and change.

But today I’m not here to talk specifically about Open Knowledge or what we do.

Instead, I want to step back and talk about the bigger picture. I want to talk to you about digital age, where all that glitters is bits, and why we need to put openness at its heart.

Gutenberg and Tyndale

To do that I first want to tell you a story. Its a true story and it happened a while ago – nearly 500 years ago. It involves two people. The first one is Johannes Gutenberg. In 1450 Gutenberg invented this: the printing press. Like the Internet in our own time, it was revolutionary. It is estimated that before the printing press was invented, there were just 30,000 books in all of Europe. 50 years later, there were more than 10 million. Revolutionary, then, though it moved at the pace of the fifteenth century, a pace of decades not years. Over the next five hundred years, Gutenberg’s invention would transform our ability to share knowledge and help create the modern world.

The second is William Tyndale. He was born in England around 1494, so he grew up in world of Gutenberg’s invention.

Tyndale followed the classic path of a scholar at the time and was ordained as a priest. In the 1510s, when he was still a young man, the Reformation still hadn’t happened and the Pope was supreme ruler of a united church across Europe. The Church – and the papacy – guarded its power over knowledge, forbidding the translation of the bible from Latin so that only its official priests could understand and interpret it.

Tyndale had an independent mind. There’s a story that he got into an argument with a local priest. The priest told him:

“We are better to be without God’s laws than the Pope’s.”

Tyndale replied:

“If God spare my life ere many years, I will cause the boy that drives the plow to know more of the scriptures than you!”

What Tyndale meant was that he would open up the Bible to everyone.

Tyndale made good on his promise. Having fled abroad to avoid persecution, between 1524 and 1527 he produced the first printed English translation of the Bible which was secretly shipped back to England hidden in the barrels of merchant ships. Despite being banned and publicly burnt, his translation spread rapidly, giving ordinary people access to the Bible and sowing the seeds of the Reformation in England.

However, Tyndale did not live to see it. In hiding because of his efforts to liberate knowledge, he was betrayed and captured in 1534. Convicted of heresy for his work, on the 6th October 1536, he was strangled then burnt at the stake in a prison yard at Vilvoorden castle just north of modern day Brussels. He was just over 40 years old.


So let’s fast forward now back to today, or not quite today – the late 1990s.

I go to college and I discover the Internet.

It just hit me: wow! I remember days spent just surfing around. I’d always been an information junkie, and I felt like I’d found this incredible, never-ending information funfair.

And I got that I was going to grow up in a special moment, at the transition to an information age. We’d be living in this magical world, where the the main thing we create and use – information – could be instantaneously and freely shared with everyone on the whole planet.

But … why Openness

So, OK the Internet’s awesome …

Bet you haven’t heard that before!

BUT … – and this is the big but.

The Internet is NOT my religion.

The Internet – and digital technology – are not enough.

I’m not sure I have a religion at all, but if I believe in something in this digital age, I believe in openness.

This talk is not about technology. It’s about how putting openness at the heart of the digital age is essential if we really want to make a difference, really create change, really challenge inequity and injustice.

Which brings me back to Tyndale and Gutenberg.

Tyndale revisited

Because, you see, the person that inspired me wasn’t Gutenberg. It was Tyndale.

Gutenberg created the technology that laid the groundwork for change. But the printing press could very well have been used to pump out more Latin bibles, which would then only have made it easier for local priests to be in charge of telling their congregations the word of God every Sunday. More of the same, basically.

Tyndale did something different. Something so threatening to the powers that be that he was executed for it.

What did he do? He translated the Bible into English.

Of course, he needed the printing press. In a world of hand-copying by scribes or painstaking woodcut printing, it wouldn’t make much difference if the Bible was in English or not because so few people could get their hands on a copy.

But, the printing press was just the means: it was Tyndale’s work putting the Bible in everyday language that actually opened it up. And he did this with the express purpose of empowering and liberating ordinary people – giving them the opportunity to understand, think and decide for themselves. This was open knowledge as freedom, open knowledge as systematic change.

Now I’m not religious, but when I talk about opening up knowledge I am coming from a similar place: I want anyone and everyone to be able to access, build on and share that knowledge for themselves and for any purpose. I want everyone to have the power and freedom to use, create and share knowledge.

Knowledge power in the 16th century was controlling the Bible. Today, in our data driven world it’s much broader: it’s about everything from maps to medicines, sonnets to statistics. Its about opening up all the essential information and building insight and knowledge together.

This isn’t just dreaming – we have inspiring, concrete examples of what this means. Right now I’ll highlight just two: medicines and maps.

Example: Medicines

Everyday, millions of people around the world take billions of pills, of medicines.

Whether those drugs actually do you good – and what side effects they have – is obviously essential information for researchers, for doctors, for patients, for regulators – pretty much everyone.

We have a great way of assessing the effectiveness of drugs: randomized control trials in which a drug is compared to its next best alternative.

So all we need is all the data on all those trials (this would be non-personal information only – any information that could identify individuals would be removed). In an Internet age you’d imagine that that this would be a simple matter – we just need all the data openly available and maybe some way to search it.

You’d be wrong.

Many studies, especially negative ones, are never published – the vast majority of studies are funded by industry who use restrictive contracts to control what gets published. Even where pharmaceutical companies are required to report on the clinical trials they perform, the regulator often keeps the information secret or publishes it as 8,000 page PDFs each page hand-scanned and unreadable by a computer.

If you think I’m joking I’ll give just one very quick example which comes straight from Ben Goldacre’s Bad Pharma. In 2007 researchers in Europe wanted to review the evidence on a diet drug called rimonabant. They asked the European regulator for access to the original clinical trials information submitted when the drug was approved. For three years they were refused access on a variety of grounds. When they did get access this is what they got initially – that’s right 60 pages of blacked out PDF.

We might think this was funny if it weren’t so deadly serious: in 2009, just before the researchers finally got access to the data, rimonabant was removed from the market on the grounds that it increased the risk of serious psychiatric problems and suicide.

This situation needs to change.

And I’m happy to say something is happening. Working with Ben Goldacre, author of Bad Pharma, we’ve just started the OpenTrials project. This will bring together all the data, on all the trials and link it together and make it open so that everyone from researchers to regulators, doctors to patients can find it, access it and use it.

Example: Maps

Our second example is maps. If you were looking for the “scriptures” of this age of digital data, you might well pick maps, or, more specifically the geographic data on which they are built. Geodata is everywhere: from every online purchase to the response to the recent earthquakes in Nepal.

Though you may not realize it, most maps are closed and proprietary – you can’t get the raw data that underpins the map, you can’t alter it or adapt it yourself.

But since 2004 a project called OpenStreetMap has been creating a completely open map of the planet – raw geodata and all. Not only is it open for access and reuse use the database itself is collaboratively built by hundreds of thousands of contributors from all over the world.

What does this mean? Just one example. Because of its openness OpenStreetMap is perfect for rapid updating when disaster strikes – showing which bridges are out, which roads are still passable, what buildings are still standing. For example, when a disastrous earthquake struck Nepal in April this year, volunteers updated 13,199 miles of roads and 110,681 buildings in under 48 hours providing crucial support to relief efforts.

The Message not the Medium

To repeat then: technology is NOT teleology. The medium is NOT the message – and it’s the message that matters.

The printing press made possible an “open” bible but it was Tyndale who made it open – and it was the openness that mattered.

Digital technology gives us unprecedented potential for creativity, sharing, for freedom. But they are possible not inevitable. Technology alone does not make a choice for us.

Remember that we’ve been here before: the printing press was revolutionary but we still ended up with a print media that was often dominated by the few and the powerful.

Think of radio. If you read about how people talked about it in the 1910s and 1920s, it sounds like the way we used to talk about the Internet today. The radio was going to revolutionize human communications and society. It was going to enable a peer to peer world where everyone can broadcast, it was going to allow new forms of democracy and politics, etc. What happened? We got a one way medium, controlled by the state and a few huge corporations.

Look around you today.

The Internet’s costless transmission can – and is – just as easily creating information empires and information robber barons as it can creating digital democracy and information equality.

We already know that this technology offers unprecedented opportunities for surveillance, for monitoring, for tracking. It can just as easily exploit us as empower us.

We need to put openness at the heart of this information age, and at the heart of the Net, if we are really to realize its possibilities for freedom, empowerment, and connection.

The fight then is on the soul of this information age and we have a choice.

A choice of open versus closed.

Of collaboration versus control.

Of empowerment versus exploitation.

Its a long road ahead – longer perhaps than our lifetimes. But we can walk it together.

In this 21st century knowledge revolution, William Tyndale isn’t one person. It’s all of us, making small and big choices: from getting governments and private companies to release their data, to building open databases and infrastructures together, from choosing apps on your phone that are built on open to using social networks that give you control of your data rather than taking it from you.

Let’s choose openness, let’s choose freedom, let’s choose the infinite possibilities of this digital age by putting openness at its heart.

Thank you.

Posted in Featured, Open Data, Open Knowledge Foundation | Comments closed

Strong words from WHO on Pharma Industry

From http://www.who.int/trade/glossary/story073/en/:

The global pharmaceuticals market is worth US$300 billion a year, a figure expected to rise to US$400 billion within three years. The 10 largest drugs companies control over one-third of this market, several with sales of more than US$10 billion a year and profit margins of about 30%. Six are based in the United States and four in Europe. It is predicted that North and South America, Europe and Japan will continue to account for a full 85% of the global pharmaceuticals market well into the 21st century. Companies currently spend one-third of all sales revenue on marketing their products – roughly twice what they spend on research and development.

As a result of this pressure to maintain sales, there is now, in WHO’s words, “an inherent conflict of interest between the legitimate business goals of manufacturers and the social, medical and economic needs of providers and the public to select and use drugs in the most rational way”. This is particularly true where drugs companies are the main source of information as to which products are most effective. Even in the United Kingdom, where the medical profession receives more independent, publicly-funded information than in many other countries, promotional spending by pharmaceuticals companies is 50 times greater than spending on public information on health. [emphasis added]

(Exact date of post not clear, but $300 billion a year suggest suggests early to mid 2000s).

Posted in Economics, Innovation and Intellectual Property, Open Knowledge | Leave a comment

Open Scholarly Publishing

This post outlines how an open model of scholarly publishing would work and how it would be funded.

Our current system for scholarly publishing is highly inefficient and poorly suited to the Internet age. An open model would cure many of the current ills as well as offering greater flexibility and greater potential for innovation. However, exactly how an open model would work, and how it would be funded has not always been clear.

The following sets out a simple model for scholarly publishing built around open information both in scholarly content and in the mechanisms of scholarly discovery. As well as the outline of of the overall dynamics — e.g. who publishs where and how — it also describes a sustainable and efficient funding mechanism which is key to demonstrating that an alternative, open, system is truly viable.

Summary of the Open Model

These are the three main components of the open model:

  • Funding Pool provided by libraries or directly by government.
  • Hosting Platform(s) for papers, books and other scholarly artefacts. Does almost no filtering. Funding provided from the Funding Pool.
  • Filtering and Selection Providers. Largely separate from the Hosting Platform(s). A replacement for traditional journal filtering based on: NotAJournals, automated systems (e.g. search engines), and aggregated individual reviews. Paid for from Funding Pool (and/or user fees).

Platform for hosting and storing papers

All papers are uploaded to one or more open hosting platforms (repositories) from which free and open access is allowed. Each artefact receives an unique identifier.

The platform does almost no selection or filtering – anyone can post modulo some basic checks and/or recommendation by peers already on the system.

One would probably support multiple (e.g. 3-5) platforms to provide for competition. Each platform is paid from the Funding Pool based on:

  • Number of papers they host (perhaps adjusted for size and type). This amount is adjusted annually (downwards) based on actual costs
  • Quarterly user feedback survey of their quality and performance
  • Performance in cost against other platforms – lower cost means a bonus (a form of yardstick competition).

All platforms must be open both in terms of being open services (powered by open software etc) and in allowing free and open access to their content.

Current example: http://arxiv.org.

Filtering and Selection

Permitting and stimulating innovation in filtering is one of the main benefits of this new model. We therefore emphasize that whilst we set out three specific methods the open model can use there may be more.

The three main approaches are:

  • NotAJournals. A list of recommended articles produced by a group of scholars or other reviewers.
  • Automated. Any kind of platform offering automated or semi-automated filtering and selection.
  • Aggregation of individual user reviews. Will ignore this here — it is discussed in more detail in the original paper and is a more radical change.

NotAJournals produce regular list of selected papers perhaps with short reviews and/or recommendations. The list is open and may be redistributed. Similar to current Journals but without any exclusivity on content — a paper may be listed in many NotAJournal. In addition, their list is open and freely accessible to anyone.

NotAJournal are funded by a reumenaration rights model. That is a central pot of funding is created and payments to NotAJournals are made roughly proportionally to the number of subscribers to the NotAJournal.

Will probably want to adjust pure “usage” metrics to allow for “value” differentials and, for example, the size of community to make sure smaller communities are well served. In addition, one may want to engage in some redistribution and pay less to “top” NotAJournals and less to smaller ones to counteract the tendency for concentration in this kind of market (the tendency to end up with a few “star” NotAJournals).

Issues around reuse (e.g. NotAJournal B copying NotAJournal A would be dealt by agreement with some an adjudication process for disputes).

Automated services would follow a similar model being paid (roughly) in proportion to use from the funding pool. Importantly, to receive any payments the service must be open as per the Open Software Services Definition — that is, its software, algorithms etc must be open along with its data (at least all non-personal data).

Finally, we emphasize that:

  • There is no requirement that a NotAJournal or a filtering servce be non-profit. For-profit entities are very welcome.
  • A NotAJournal or filtering service can choose to be “closed” but they must then opt-out of receiving funding from the funding pool and should receive no public support of any kind. The would therefore need to support themselves entirely from other sources, for example user fees (though these must be paid out of scholars own pockets and not funded institutionally).

Current example: there are no perfect examples today that I know of, but the editorial boards of community oriented open-access journals would be very similar to the editorial board for a NotAJournal.


All payments both for platforms and should be public and openly shared in the community. Transparency is important in promoting trust, efficiency and accountability and fits naturally with the overall open approach.


In 2009 I wrote a paper about scholarly publishing, whose main message was that scholarly publishing serves two goals:

  • Hosting and Distribution — helping people to read. Providing a distribution mechanism for scholars to share information, for example by putting their paper online and providing readers with convenient access (e.g. downloads!)
  • Selection and filtering — helping people decide what to read. Enabling readers to filter and select from the vast range of materials to identify the set of things they actually do read.

These goals are distinct and they need not be pursued together — in fact, it is usually inefficient to do so. However, today we do pursue them together using a single mechanism in the form of the scholarly journal or publisher. Combined with the exclusivity of copyright, and the assignment of that copyright to publishers, this is causing serious harm to the efficiency of the scholarly enterprise.

The lock-in and platform power that are the cause of these ill-effects themselves arise largely from the second activity: the selection and filtering function. Put crudely: everyone has to buy Nature because it is a top journal, it is a top journal because everyone wants to publish in it and everyone wants to publish in it beause everyone reads it etc. This is the reinforcing cycle of journal lock-in which creates pricing power and stands in the way of change. Moreover, not only is the selection and filtering function the source of the platform power, but much of the harm and inefficiency in the current system comes from the fact that journals and monographs are such an inefficient way to do selection and filtering.

The 2009 paper set out the design for a new approach and we follow that here to a great extent. However, the original proposal was missing any details of financing — who would be paid and how.

Performing hosting and doing selection and filtering may not be a cheap business. We need to know the means and mechanism that would pay for them. The means for doing this we already have in the form of the existing funding to libraries and research institutions. However, we also need a mechanism for distributing those monies — after all, it those monies today that pay for the current highly inefficient system. The open model offers a new solution based on “remuneration rights” whereby these collective funds are used to fund open distribution and filtering in a manner that is transparent, efficient and attunded to actual usage and demand.

A Note on Openness

Open here means “open information” not “open participation”. It is about opening up information not changing the structure of participation in scholarship per se — though opening up information will also allow for more flexilibity and innovation in important areas.

The openness of information is in two areas. First, and most familiar, it is in the form of “open access”: all research content would be open, free for anyone to use, share and build on (see the Open Definition for details).1 Second, and less familiar, it is about openness in the selection and filtering of that information — for example, the list of papers in a journal is itself information that can be open, so too, the software and algorithms of a scholarly discovery engine is information that can be open.

We see openness as important in both areas: both in scholarly content and the mechanisms of discovery.


This post arose out of the excellent discussion after a recent presentation at the University of Cambridge on the topic “Making an Open Information Age” (based on my upcoming book). My thanks especially to Ruper Gatti, Peter Murray-Rust and Jenny Molloy.


Please post questions and comment in the Open Knowlege forum here:


The above necessarily omits many details and questions and comments are very welcome.

  1. I emphasize that traditional requirements for attribution and credit would be preserved — indeed, enhanced. 

Posted in Economics, Information Age, Innovation and Intellectual Property, Open Knowledge, Openness | Comments closed

Ill Fares the Land by Tony Judt

An exceptional book, articulating and echoing long-held sentiments and provoking new ones.


  • Out of the disasters of 1914-1945 arose key attitudes:
    • Scepticism of unregulated market and willingness to intervene
    • Commitment to social supports and a universalism in their provision
    • Relative equality
  • These then broke down between mid 1970s and early 90s
  • Why did it break down?
    • Excesses of the planners
    • Reduction in trust with immigration, greater uncertainty (?)
    • The new left and its turn towards individualistic self-regard (identity politics)
    • Conceptual assault based on Austrian economists (hayek, von mises etc). Led to “the cult of the private” (Fundamentally misguided as assertions that state planning led inevitably to totalitarianism was demonstrably false by the time they received political traction)
  • What then is to be done?
    • Move away from nouveau “laissez-faire” and market obsession to a more balanced approach that recognizes the limits of markets and crucial importance of their underpinnings: trust, community, collaboration and traditions.
    • Reinvigorate social democracy and the social democrat consensus
    • Create a new compelling ethical and political narrative within and around this. Reclaim the highground, for example security and a sensible “conservatism” (it is the right who are radical).


Unless otherwise noted all emphasis is added.

On the obsession with economics and a narrow definition of profit and loss:

Indeed, the thought that we might restrict public policy considerations to a mere economic calculus was already a source of concern two centuries ago. The Marquis de Condorcet, one of the most perceptive writers on commercial capitalism in its early years, anticipated with distaste the prospect that “liberty will be no more, in the eyes of an avid nation, than the necessary condition for the security of financial operations.” The revolutions of the age risked fostering confusion between the freedom to make money . . . and freedom itself.

On trust, its source, its decline and its relation to markets

Clearly we cannot do without trust. If we truly did not trust one another, we would not pay taxes for our mutual support. Nor would we venture very far outdoors for fear of violence or chicanery at the hands of our untrustworthy fellow citizens. Moreover, trust is no abstract virtue. One of the reasons that capitalism today is under siege from so many critics, by no means all of them on the Left, is that markets and free competition also require trust and cooperation. …

Markets do not automatically generate trust, cooperation or collective action for the common good. Quite the contrary: it is in the nature of economic competition that a participant who breaks the rules will triumph—at least in the short run—over more ethically sensitive competitors. But capitalism could not survive such cynical behavior for very long. So why has this potentially self-destructive system of economic arrangements lasted? Probably because of habits of restraint, honesty and moderation which accompanied its emergence.

However, far from inhering in the nature of capitalism itself, values such as these derived from longstanding religious or communitarian practices. Sustained by traditional restraints and the continuing authority of secular and ecclesiastical elites, capitalism’s ‘invisible hand’ benefited from the flattering illusion that it unerringly corrected for the moral shortcomings of its practitioners.

These happy inaugural conditions no longer obtain. A contract-based market economy cannot generate them from within, which is why both socialist critics and religious commentators (notably the early 20th century reforming Pope Leo XIII) drew attention to the corrosive threat posed to society by unregulated economic markets and immoderate extremes of wealth and poverty.

From a later section – focused on attitudes to market:

English Labour politician Anthony Crosland could write, with still greater confidence, that there had been a permanent transition from “an uncompromising faith in individualism and self-help to a belief in group action and participation”. He could even assert that “[a]s for the dogma of the ‘invisible hand’ and the belief that private gain must always lead to the public good, these failed entirely to survive the Great Depression; and even Conservatives and businessmen now subscribe to the doctrine of collective government responsible for the state of the economy [The Future of Socialism (London: Jonathan Cape, 1956), p. 65]

Then later again:

… “So why did it [the post-war system in western societies] work so well?”

The Regulated Market

The short answer is that by 1945 few people believed any longer in the magic of the market. This was an intellectual revolution.

Change in attitudes – focus on wealth for itself:

In a survey of English schoolboys taken in 1949, it was discovered that the more intelligent the boy the more likely he was to choose an interesting career at a reasonable wage over a job that would merely pay well.1 Today’s schoolchildren and college students can imagine little else but the search for a lucrative job.

Data in footnote is interesting. TODO: dig this out. Reminds of reference in another book (which one!) about change in interests of Harvard MBA graduates between 1973 and 1983 from public service to personal money-making. [TODO: dig that out too!]

The Sixties were Special (or rather 1945-1975 was special)

“The years 1945—1975 were widely acknowledged as something of a miracle, giving birth to the ‘American way of life’. Two generations of Americans—the men and women who went through WWII and their children who were to celebrate the ’60s—experienced job security and upward social mobility on an unprecedented (and never to be repeated) scale. In Germany, the Wirtschaftswunder (economic miracle) lifted the country in a single generation from humiliating, rubble-strewn defeat into the wealthiest state in Europe. For France, those years were to become famous (with no hint of irony) as “Les Trente Glorieuses”. In England, at the height of the “age of affluence”, the Conservative Prime Minister Harold Macmillan assured his compatriots that “you have never had it so good”. He was right.”

With greater equality there came other benefits. Over time, the fear of a return to extremist politics abated. The ‘West’ entered a halcyon era of prosperous security: a bubble, perhaps, but a comforting bubble in which most people did far better than they could ever have hoped in the past and had good reason to anticipate the future with confidence.



All collective undertakings require trust. …

… “Whom exactly do we trust?” …

So what is it that defines the workable scope of a community of trust? Rootless cosmopolitanism is fine for intellectuals, but most people live in a defined place: defined by space, by time, by language, perhaps by religion, maybe—however regrettably—by color, and so forth. Such places are fungible. Most Europeans would not have defined themselves as living in ‘Europe’ until very recently: they would have said they lived in Lodz (Poland), or Liguria (Italy) or perhaps even ‘Putney’ (a suburb of London).

The sense of being ‘European’ for purposes of self-identification is a newly acquired habit. As a result, where the idea of transnational cooperation or mutual assistance might have aroused intense local suspicion, today it passes largely unnoticed. Dutch dockworkers today subsidize Portuguese fishermen and Polish farmers without too much complaint; in part, no doubt, this is because the dockworkers in question don’t interrogate too closely their political masters as to the use being made of their taxes. But this too is a sign of trust.

There is quite a lot of evidence that people trust other people more if they have a lot in common with them: not just religion or language but also income. The more equal a society, the greater the trust. And it is not just a question of income: where people have similar lives and similar prospects, it is likely that what we might call their ‘moral outlook’ is also shared. This makes it much easier to institute radical departures in public policy. In complex or divided societies, the chances are that a minority—or even a majority—will be forced to concede, often against its will. This makes collective policymaking contentious and favors a minimalist approach to social reform: better to do nothing than to divide people for and against a controversial project. [A classic argument why the US has had a (relatively) minimalist state]

Trust is essential to well-being and well-running of society and its members:

The absence of trust is clearly inimical to a well-run society. The great Jane Jacobs noted as much with respect to the very practical business of urban life and the maintenance of cleanliness and civility on city streets. If we don’t trust each other, our towns will look horrible and be nasty places to live. Moreover, she observed, you cannot institutionalize trust. Once corroded, it is virtually impossible to restore. And it needs care and nurturing by the community—the collectivity—since with the best of intentions no one person can make others trust him and be trusted in return.

Some structural determinants of trust, or, put concisely, small is beautiful.

The kind of society where trust is widespread is likely to be fairly compact and quite homogenous. The most developed and successful welfare states of Europe are Finland, Sweden, Norway, Denmark, the Netherlands and Austria, with Germany (formerly West Germany) as an interesting outlier. Most of these countries have very small populations: of the Scandinavian lands only Sweden tops 6 million inhabitants and between them all they comprise less people than Tokyo. Even Austria, at 8.2 million or the Netherlands, at 16.7 million are tiny by world standards—Mumbai alone has more people than Holland, and the whole population of Austria could be fitted into Mexico City . . . twice. But it is not just a question of size. Like New Zealand, another small country (population 4.2 million, even smaller than Norway) that has succeeded in maintaining a high level of trust.

But it is not just a question of size. Like New Zealand, another small country (population 4.2 million, even smaller than Norway) that has succeeded in maintaining a high level of civic trust, the successful welfare states of northern Europe were remarkably homogenous. Until fairly recently it would only have been a slight exaggeration to say that most Norwegians, if they were not themselves farmers or fishermen, were their children. 94% of the population are of Norwegian stock, and 86% of them belong to the Church of Norway. In Austria, 92% of the population are self-ascribed ‘Austrian’ by origin (the figure was nearer 100% until the influx of Yugoslav refugees during the 1990s) and 83% of those who declared a religion in 2001 were Catholic.

Much the same is true of Finland, where 96% of those who declare a religion are officially Lutheran (and nearly all are Finns, saving only a small Swedish minority); Denmark, where 95% of the population affirm a Lutheran faith; and even the Netherlands—neatly divided between a primarily protestant north and the Catholic south, but where almost everyone who is not a member of the tiny, post-colonial minority of Indonesians, Turks, Surinamese and Moroccans defines themselves as ‘Dutch’.

Contrast the United States: there will soon be no single majority ethnic group and a slight protestant majority among those affirming a religion is countered by a substantial Catholic minority (25%), not to mention significant Jewish and Muslim communities. The crossover case might be Canada: a mid-sized country (33 million people) with no dominant religion and a mere 66% of the population declaring themselves of European origin, but where trust and its accompanying social institutions seem to have taken root.

This raises serious issues for naive multiculturalism as well as for the more grandiose integrationist ambitions around the EU. From the following it would seem plain that the cultural and social cohesion required for a greater, grander EU (“one federal nation, under Monnet” etc) is distinctly lacking — and its pursuit likely to makes matters better rather than worse. A relevant point too for the current “Brexit” debate.

Size and homogeneity are of course not transferable. There is no way for India or the USA to become Austria or Norway, and in their purest form the social democratic welfare states of Europe are simply non-exportable: they have much the same appeal as a Volvo—and some similar limitations—and may be hard to sell to countries and cultures where expensive virtues of solidity and endurance count for less. We know, moreover, that even cities do better if they are reasonably homogenous and contained: it was not difficult to build municipal socialism in Vienna or Amsterdam, but would be a lot harder in Naples or Cairo, not to speak of Calcutta or Sao Paulo.

Finally, there is clear evidence that while homogeneity and size matter for the generation of trust and cooperation, cultural or economic heterogeneity can have the opposite effect. A steady increase in the number of immigrants, particularly immigrants from the ‘third world’, correlates all too well in the Netherlands and Denmark, not to mention the United Kingdom, with a noticeable decline in social cohesion. To put it bluntly, the Dutch and the English don’t much care to share their welfare states with their former colonial subjects from Indonesia, Surinam, Pakistan or Uganda; meanwhile Danes, like Austrians, resent ‘paying for’ the Muslim refugees who have flocked to their countries in recent years.

There may be something inherently selfish in the social service states of the mid-20th century: blessed for a few decades with the good fortune of ethnic homogeneity and a small, educated population where almost everyone could recognize themselves in everyone else. Most of these countries—self-contained nation-states exposed to very little external threat—had the good fortune to cluster under the umbrella of NATO in the post-1945 decades, devoting their budgets to domestic improvement and untroubled by mass immigration from the rest of Europe, much less further afield. When this situation changed, confidence and trust appears to have fallen off.

However, the fact remains that trust and cooperation were crucial building blocks for the modern state, and the more trust there was the more successful the state. William Beveridge could assume in the England of his day a high measure of moral accord and civic engagement. Like so many liberals born in the late 19th century, he simply took it for granted that social cohesion was not merely a desirable goal but something of a given. Solidarity—with one’s fellow citizens and with the state itself—pre-existed the welfare institutions which gave it public form.

Cult of the Private

Excellent point that “right wingers” are fundamentally hypocritical when it comes to reducing state involvement: they may pursue it vigorously in economic affairs but in areas of surveilliance and civil rights they are stridently interventionist.


“So what have Keynes’s ‘madmen in authority’ done with the ideas they inherited from defunct economists? They have set about dismantling the properly economic powers and initiatives of the state. It is important to be clear: this in no way entailed reducing the state per se. Margaret Thatcher, like George W. Bush and Tony Blair after her, never hesitated to augment the repressive and information-gathering arms of central government. Thanks to CCTV cameras, wiretapping, Homeland Security, the UK’s Independent Safeguarding Authority and other devices, the panoptic control that the modern state can exercise over its subjects has continued to expand. Whereas Norway, Finland, France, Germany and Austria—all of them ‘cradle-to-grave’ nanny states—have never resorted to such measures except in wartime, it is the liberty-vaunting Anglo-Saxon market societies that have gone farthest in these Orwellian directions.

Some excellent evidence on welfare impact of privitizations e.g.

What we have been watching is the steady shift of public responsibility onto the private sector to no discernible collective advantage. Contrary to economic theory and popular myth, privatization is inefficient. Most of the things that governments have seen fit to pass into the private sector were operating at a loss: whether they were railway companies, coal mines, postal services, or energy utilities, they cost more to provide and maintain than they could ever hope to attract in revenue.

For just this reason, such public goods were inherently unattractive to private buyers unless offered at a steep discount. But when the state sells cheap, the public takes a loss. It has been calculated that, in the course of the Thatcher-era UK privatizations, the deliberately low price at which long-standing public assets were marketed to the private sector resulted in a net transfer of £14 billion from the taxpaying public to stockholders and other investors.

To this loss should be added a further £3 billion in fees to the bankers who transacted the privatizations. Thus the state in effect paid the private sector some £17 billion ($30 billion) to facilitate the sale of assets for which there would otherwise have been no takers. …

… “The best study of UK privatizations concludes that privatization per se had a decidedly modest impact upon long-term economic growth—while regressively redistributing wealth from taxpayers and consumers to the shareholders of newly privatized companies. [Citation is: Massimo Florio, The Great Divestiture: Evaluating the Welfare Impact of the British Privatizations 1979-1997 (Cambridge: The MIT Press, 2006), p. 342.]

British Rail:

In its last year of operation, 1994, state-owned British Rail cost the taxpayer £950 million ($1.5 billion). By 2008, Network Rail, its semiprivate successor company, cost taxpayers £5 billion ($7.8 billion).”

The impact pp.119-122

In effect, privatization reverses a centuries-long process whereby the state took on things that individuals could not or would not do. The corrosive consequences of this for public life are, as so often, rendered inadvertently explicit in the new ‘policy-speak’. In English higher educational circles today, the market-as-metaphor dominates conversation. Deans and heads of departments are constrained to assess ‘output’ and economic ‘impact’ when judging the quality of someone’s work. …

Moreover, a social service provided by a private company does not present itself as a collective good to which all citizens have a right. Unsurprisingly, there has been a sharp falling off in the number of people claiming benefits and services to which they are legally entitled.

The result is an eviscerated society. From the point of view of the person at the bottom—seeking unemployment pay, medical attention, social benefits or other officially mandated services—it is no longer to the state, the administration or the government that he or she instinctively turns. The service or benefit in question is now often ‘delivered’ by a private intermediary. As a consequence, the thick mesh of social interactions and public goods has been reduced to a minimum, with nothing except authority and obedience binding the citizen to the state.

This reduction of ‘society’ to a thin membrane of interactions between private individuals is presented today as the ambition of libertarians and free marketeers. But we should never forget that it was first and above all the dream of Jacobins, Bolsheviks and Nazis: if there is nothing that binds us together as a community or society, then we are utterly dependent upon the state. Governments that are too weak or discredited to act through their citizens are more likely to seek their ends by other means: by exhorting, cajoling, threatening and ultimately coercing people to obey them. The loss of social purpose articulated through public services actually increases the unrestrained powers of the over-mighty state.

There is nothing mysterious about this process: it was well described by Edmund Burke in his critique of the French Revolution. Any society, he wrote in Reflections on the Revolution in France, which destroys the fabric of its state, must soon be “disconnected into the dust and powder of individuality”. By eviscerating public services and reducing them to a network of farmed-out private providers, we have begun to dismantle the fabric of the state. As for the dust and powder of individuality: it resembles nothing so much as Hobbes’s war of all against all, in which life for many people has once again become solitary, poor and more than a little nasty.

The Democratic Deficit

Internet, globalization and community p.123

This problem highlights a misleading aspect of globalization. Young people are indeed in touch with likeminded persons many thousands of miles away. But even if the students of Berkeley, Berlin and Bangalore share a common set of interests, these do not translate into community. Space matters. And politics is a function of space—we vote where we live and our leaders are restricted in their legitimacy and authority to the place where they were elected. Real-time access to likeminded fellows half a world away is no substitute.

Interesting aside on unintended impact on the imagined community of the state of the move to online government interactions and “government as a service” (or even more disturbingly government as a platform) p.123-4 :

“Think for a minute about the importance of something as commonplace as an insurance card or pension book. Back in the early days of the welfare states, these had to be regularly stamped or renewed in order for their possessor to collect her pension, food stamps or child allowance. These rituals of exchange between the benevolent state and its citizens took “place at fixed locations: a post office, typically. Over time, the shared experience of relating to public authority and public policy—incarnated in these services and benefits—contributed mightily to a tauter sense of shared citizenship.

Gated communities p.131

It is claimed on their behalf that gated communities act as a bulwark against violations of their members’ liberties. People are safer within their gates and pay for the privilege; they are free to live among their own. Accordingly, they can insist upon rules and regulations with respect to décor, design and deportment that reflect their ‘values’ and which they do not seek to impose on non-members beyond their gates. But in practice these excessive exercises in the ‘privatization’ of daily life actually fragment and divide public space in a way that threatens everyone’s liberty.

Interesting point for me about need for secular “religion” or secular purpose. Reinforces my own thoughts on this point:

In an age when young people are encouraged to maximize self-interest and self-advancement, the grounds for altruism or even good behavior become obscured. Short of reverting to religious authority—itself on occasion corrosive of secular institutions—what can furnish a younger generation with a sense of purpose beyond its own short-term advantage? The late Albert Hirschman spoke of the “liberating experience” of a life directed to action on the public behalf: “[t]he greatest asset of public action is its ability to satisfy vaguely felt needs for higher purpose and meaning in the lives of men and women, especially of course in an age in which religious fervor is at a low ebb in many countries. [ed: my view is that this has disappeared since 60s/70s. Why? Explains some of attraction of radical religion. Need something here and believe we have something]

The fragmentation and “consumerization” of politics


We no longer have political movements. While thousands of us may come together for a rally or march, we are bound together on such occasions by a single shared interest. Any effort to convert such interests into collective goals is usually undermined by the fragmented individualism of our concerns. Laudable goals — fighting climate change, opposing war, advocating public healthcare or penalizing bankers — are united by nothing more than the expression of emotion. In our political as in our economic lives, we have become consumers: choosing from a broad gamut of competing objectives, we find it hard to imagine ways or reasons to combine these into a coherent whole. We must do better than this.

Aside: a clear tilt at Occupy and the like. It would be interesting to assess the (non-)impact of Occupy 5 years on. Perhpas the first post-modern protest in history united only by what it was against, without leaders or program, satisfying an urge to protest without an ability to articulate it into an alternate coherent future.


Wonderful quote from Krzysztof Kie??owksi heading the “The Ironies of Post-Communism” section (p. 143):

“[W]e achieved everything, but for me it turns out that what we achieved satirized what we had dreamt about.”

What is to be Done


Most critics of our present condition start with institutions. They look at parliaments, senates, presidents, elections and lobbies and point to the ways in which these have degraded or abused the trust and authority placed in them. Any reform, they conclude, must begin here. We need new laws, different electoral regimes, restrictions on lobbying and political funding; we need to give more (or less) authority to the executive branch and we need to find ways to make elected and unelected officials responsive and answerable to their constituencies and paymasters: us.

All true. But such changes have been in the air for decades. It should by now be clear that the reason they have not happened, or do not work, is because they are imagined, designed and implemented by the very people responsible for the dilemma. …

We need to start somewhere else. Why, for the past three decades, has it been so easy for those in power to convince their constituents of the wisdom—and, in any case, the necessity—of the policies they want to pursue? Because there has been no coherent alternative on offer.

The return of distinctions:

… “It has become commonplace to assert that we all want the same thing, we just have slightly different ways of going about it.

But this is simply false. The rich do not want the same thing as the poor. Those who depend on their job for their livelihood do not want the same thing as those who live off investments and dividends. Those who do not need public services—because they can purchase private transport, education and protection—do not seek the same thing as those who depend exclusively on the public sector. Those who benefit from war—either as defense contractors or on ideological grounds—have different objectives than those who are against war.

Societies are complex and contain conflicting interests. To assert otherwise—to deny distinctions of class or wealth or influence—is just a way to promote one set of interests above another. This proposition used to be self-evident; today we are encouraged to dismiss it as an incendiary encouragement to class hatred. In a similar vein, we are encouraged to pursue economic self-interest to the exclusion of all else: and indeed, there are many who stand to gain thereby.”

Critique of markets

p.165 The classic “drunkard and the lamp-post” critique of markets — a profound and complex one I feel:

… markets have a natural disposition to favor needs and wants that can be reduced to commercial criteria or economic measurement. If you can sell it or buy it, then it is quantifiable and we can assess its contribution to (quantitative) measures of collective well-being. But what of those goods which humans have always valued but which do not lend themselves to quantification?”

I would add that those things the importance of things the market does not provide has been growing as we grow wealthier. Or, more subtly, follows a U-shaped curve: very high at low income levels (community, collectivism, friendship etc), falling as material growth starts to kick-in and then growing. So, as we get wealthier all these other things that are not “marketizable” grow relatively more important (we already have enough food, enough housing etc).

A New Moral Narrative

“What we lack is a moral narrative: an internally coherent account that ascribes purpose to our actions in a way that transcends them. “

The Shape of Things to Come (aka The Future)

The re-rise of the State pp.187-188:

“After decades of relative eclipse, nation-states are poised to reassert their dominant role in international affairs. Populations experiencing increased economic and physical insecurity will retreat to the political symbols, legal resources, and physical barriers that only a territorial state can provide. This is already happening in many countries: note the rising attraction of protectionism in American politics, the appeal of “anti-immigrant” parties across Western Europe, the ubiquitous calls for ‘walls’, ‘barriers’, and ‘tests’.”

More of an aside, but a lovely put-down of the American myth of the laissez-faire state (esp applicable to Reagan and Reaganites cf the memoir by head of OMB):

“In the United States of America, the country most given to disparaging the role of government in the affairs of men, Washington has supported and even subsidized selected market actors: railway barons, wheat farmers, car manufacturers, the aircraft industry, steel works and others besides. Whatever Americans fondly believe, their government has always had its fingers in the economic pie. What distinguishes the USA from every other developed country has been the widespread belief to the contrary.”

The re-rise of insecurity p.207-8:

“We in the West have lived through a long era of stability, cocooned in the illusion of indefinite economic improvement. But all that is now behind us. For the foreseeable future we shall be deeply economically insecure. “We are assuredly less confident of our collective purposes, our environmental well-being, or our personal safety than at any time since World War II. We have no idea what sort of world our children will inherit, but we can no longer delude ourselves into supposing that it must resemble our own.”

what is to be done-y

“We have freed ourselves of the mid-20th century assumption—never universal but certainly widespread—that the state is likely to be the best solution to any given problem. We now need to liberate ourselves from the opposite notion: that the state is—by definition and always—the worst available option.”

Interesting, in some parts, it becomes a straightforward — and justified — appeal to support broader taxation for broader public goods (p.197):

We would all like a nice playing field in our village, just as we would all like a good rail service to the nearest town, a range of shops carrying the goods we need, a conveniently-sited post office and so forth. But the only way we can be made to pay for such things—including the free riders among us—is by general taxation. No one has come up with a better way of aggregating individual desires to collective advantage.

Note: oddly, his critique a few paragraphs earlier of the standard “market / laissez faire” objection to this approach (viz: why not leave to private enterprise to provide it and then charge entry) is rather weak being limited to “option demand” (that many users have low willingness to pay or may only use infrequently). This is far too limited a critique of the private provision of public goods (or even nonrival goods). This either a limitation of space or because, in this rare case, he is not aware of the broader analytical issues.

The challenges to come mean that security and order may be ever larger priorities. In such circumstances, we must be ever mindful of the vulnerability of simple liberalism (p.211):

” If we are going to build a better future, it must begin with a deeper appreciation of the ease with which even solidly-grounded liberal democracies can founder. To put the point quite bluntly, if social democracy has a future, it will be as a social democracy of fear.

Very interesting point that social democracy can regain the group of being conservatives (i.e. guarding against in cautious or too rapid change). In fact, it the right who has been busy enabling an unprecedented and radical (even out-of-control) social and economic change (p.212-3):

“We do not typically associate ‘the Left’ with caution. In the political imaginary of Western culture, ‘left’ denotes radical, destructive and innovatory. But in truth there is a close relationship between progressive institutions and a spirit of prudence. The democratic Left has often been motivated by a sense of loss: sometimes of idealized pasts, sometimes of moral interests ruthlessly overridden by private advantage. It is doctrinaire market liberals who for the past two centuries have embraced the relentlessly optimistic view that all economic change is for the better.

It is the Right that has inherited the ambitious modernist urge to destroy and innovate in the name of a universal project. From the war in Iraq through the unrequited desire to dismantle public education and health services, to the decades-long project of financial deregulation, the political Right—from Thatcher and Reagan to Bush and Blair—has abandoned the association of political conservatism with social moderation which served it so well from Disraeli to Heath, from Theodore Roosevelt to Nelson Rockefeller.”

And connecting us back to his earlier point that we need to rehabilitate rhetoric and a narrative he suggests that which we need to renovate is the rhetoric of “injustice, inequality, immorality” p.221:

“However, social democracy cannot just be about preserving worthy institutions as a defense against worse options. Nor need it be. Much of what is amiss in our world can best be captured in the language of classical political thought: we are intuitively familiar with issues of injustice, unfairness, inequality and immorality—we have just forgotten how to talk about them. Social democracy once articulated such concerns, until it too lost its way.”

In Conclusion – we must act!


In writing this book, I hope I have offered some guidance to those—the young especially—trying to articulate their objections to our way of life. However, this is not enough. As citizens of a free society, we have a duty to look critically at our world. But if we think we know what is wrong, we must act upon that knowledge.


This is rousing call to arms so I do not want to engage in too much nit-picking generally — if these support the larger theme and make sense let us run with them. A few areas though are worth commenting on.

Narrative vs Structures

p.167 part of WITBD we have a general point that may be better to focus on inventing a new narrative or even a new langugage as a means of disrupting the status quo rather than focusing on particular institutional change. Draws analogy with ancien regime pre revolution:

Unable to confront the monarchy head-on, they set about depriving it of legitimacy by imagining and expressing objections to the way things were and positing alternative sources of authority in whom ‘the people’ could believe. In effect, they invented modern politics: and in so doing quite literally discredited everything that had gone before. By the time the Revolution itself broke out, this new language of politics was thoroughly in place: indeed, had it not been, the revolutionaries themselves would have had no way to describe what they were doing. In the beginning was the word.

This is rousing stuff but not sure quite so. Causes of the FR were complex. Nevertheless, basic growing discontent e.g. over bad harvests and spiralling price of wheat played a huge part. The critique then is whether Judt is underplaying structural and classical political challenges: the rise of the bourgeoisie etc etc vs “the new discourse”. (Aside: I also worries that intellectuals, such as Judt, may be overestimating the power of language and hence the benefits of inventing a new one.

That said, I think there is something in it: we do need to invent a new inspiring purpose, other than the crassly technocratic, economized politics of selfishness we live in now. That needs something, a vision of what is possible.

How Bad Is It


However, poverty—whether measured by infant mortality, life expectancy, access to medicine and regular employment or simple inability to purchase basic necessities—has increased steadily since the 1970s in the US, the UK and every country that has modeled its economy upon their example. The pathologies of inequality and poverty—crime, alcoholism, violence and mental illness—have all multiplied commensurately. The symptoms of social dysfunction would have been immediately recognizable to our Edwardian forebears. The social question is back on the agenda.

Is it really this bad? Need to check these. Violence in US has gone up and come down etc.

Asides to Self

The “real issue” for Beveridge — and for us p.171:

“The real issue, for Beveridge as for us, is “. . . something wider—simply the question of under what conditions it is possible and worthwhile for men as a whole to live.”27 By this he meant that we have to decide what the state must do in order for men and women to pursue decent lives. Merely providing a welfare floor below which people need not sink does not suffice.”

Strongly agree.

And closing the circle (in that it provides a purpose for life and an effort to provide circumstances for all to pursue decent lives):

The time has come to reverse this trend. In post-religious societies like our own, where most people find meaning and satisfaction in secular objectives, it is only by indulging what Adam Smith called our ‘benevolent instincts’ and reversing our selfish desires that we can “. . . produce among mankind that harmony of sentiments and passions in which consists their whole race and propriety.”

Abundance as opium:

Abundance is the American substitute for Socialiam [attributed to Bell and I assume cultural contradictions]

Oakeshott on imperfect competition (interesting in that is shows even classic conservative thinkers saw a major role for state in industries where competition functioned poorly — today an increasing number of them):

Michael Oakeshott, who regarded inefficient or distorted competition as the worst of all possible outcomes, proposed that “[u]ndertakings in which competition cannot be made to work as the agency of control must be transferred to public operation.

Another wonderful one-liner:

Social democrats are characteristically modest — a political quality whose virtues are overestimated.

  1. T. H. Marshall, Citizenship and Social Class (London: Pluto Press, 1991), p. 48. 

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A Single Government Website is Hard To Do

Examples of the steps … President [Clinton] directed agencies to take include [in December 1999 memo]:

  1. Create One-Stop Access for Existing Government Information. The President directed the Administrator of the General Services Administration, in conjunction with other government entities, to create a portal for government information, based “not by agency, but by the type of service or information that people may be seeking; the data should be identified and organized in a way that makes it easier for the public to find the information it seeks.” (In June 2000, President Clinton announced that firstgov.gov, a free web site that will provide a single point of entry to all government on-line resources, would be created. In September 2000, the site became operational.)

Source: p. 26 of The Role of Government in a Digital Age by Orszag, Stiglitz and Orszag]

Interesting to note that that memo was written in 1999. A decade+ later governments would still be struggling to implement this recommendation. For exmaple, a single online access point for government information was a central recommendation in the Lane Fox report on UK e-government in 2010 that would lead to the creation of the UK’s GDS and the launch of a single online platform (gov.uk) in 2012.

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NEF Confusion over Creative Commons Non-Commercial License Being Open

Clear example of an organisation applying a non-open Creative Commons license but thinking it is open:


Illustrates the potential for confusion from the use of general Creative Commons branding (people talk about the brand rather than a given license and imagine that all CC license are “open”). For more see:

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Only the educated are free – Epicetus

Only the educated are free — Epictetus.

An excellent aphorism for the value of open knowledge.

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La Grande Bellezza

Score: 9/10

I have now watched Paolo Sorrentino’s extraordinary film three times. It is one of the most striking, beautiful and poignant films I have seen in a very long time and a truly worthy successor to the greatness of Fellini’s La Dolce Vita — which it both references and echoes.

It is hard to do justice to the Proustian beauty of this film. Many frames act as artworks in themselves — the moment dawn rises over a deserted roof-top nightclub, the artificial sun of an orange neon Campari sign set in the centre of a lightening sky; the swoop of a flock of birds; three elegant figures at a balustrade in the crepuscular dark. And it is not only individual moments: the swooping, pivoting camerawork envelops us and transports us between vignettes of reality in the sweeping and fragmentary manner that our gaze travels over the world.

At its centre is Jep Gambardella, first met during his bacchic 65th birthday party on a Roman roof-top nightclub in the second scene (the first is a gnomic and virtuoso opening of movement and music). Author of one brilliant book forty years earlier, Jep has turned his talents to becoming the “King” of the Roman “High Life”. He has left his writing, and regularly derides his “novelette”, using his talents for occassional culture pieces in one of Rome’s remaining serious newspapers. He is an aged Marcello of La Dolce Vita, his talents, energy and sensibility given over to listless sensuality and a trivial celebrity.

I call it Proustian for a reason. Sorrentino has made a film which captures better than almost any the fleeting presence of reality in the instants when our attention is given to it, the moments that form the framed images of memory, the moments that somehow live on in when all around them has faded away. An instant in a nightclub pulsating with music, a nun picking oranges in the early morning glimpsed through the bars of a garden, birds wheeling in the bluest of skies bisected by a fading contrail. It is a film of the senses so rich and strong that we are borne away in them as the characters are.

At the same time, like Proust, it is also of the mind: the madeleine is so powerful precisely because it is experienced not just as it is but in the context of the great web of associations that is memory. So too, this is a film about memory and the past.

Jep is constantly and forcibly reminded of the past. The central emotional event of the film is his discovery of the death of his first (and perhaps only) love Elisa de Santis, told to him in the rain by her grieving husband. An event that is the trigger for repeated flashbacks to their original meetings forty plus years earlier. It is also there whenever we travel through the darkened streets or walk the palazzos of Rome, seeing their fading and deserted beauty, the loneliness and isolation of their occupants.

Sorrention has also given us something powerful, sad and funny. The repartee runs with a wit and weary wisdom that reminds one — but surpasses — the brilliant mid-period Allen of Husbands and Wives and Crimes and Misdemeanours. It is serious and sad and a divertissement all at the same time. At its heart is time, and the passage of time. Of a disappointment and weariness but also a delight in beauty and existence. A death-jestering mentality in the face of this bewildering existence and the fundamentality of death, a determination that humour and serious unseriousness is all we have to protect ourselves from the vagaries of the world and our own inevitable mortality (a regular and central presence in the film — in the death of Elisa, in the suicide of Viola’s unstable son, and most of all that of Ramona).

But also a sense of the trategy that in doing so, in losing ourselves in triviality and “nothings”, in running away from commitment, we give up the one precious opportunity we have: to live with purpose. Just as each image passes away, usually to disappear, occassionally to be caught in the net of memory, so too we will pass away, and where we have gone little of us will remain. That is our greatest tragegy and the well-spring of our greatest beauty and it is to that truth that this film stands as testament.

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Intellectual Myths: ARPA Created Internet to Have Communication System to Resist Nuclear Attack

From John Naughton, a Brief History of the Future, p.85:

Years later the myth spread that what drove ARPA to build the world’s first computer network was the desire to provide a communications system that could survive a nuclear attack on the United States. The record suggests otherwise: Bob Taylor simply wanted to make the taxpayer’s dollar go further.


p.84 of Naughton

One of the first things that struck Taylor when he took over as IPTO Director was that his room in the Pentagon contained teletype terminals to each of the three ARPA-supported time- sharing systems – at MIT, SDC at Santa Monica (the machine that had prompted Jack Ruina to recruit Licklider) and the University of California at Berkeley.

“Three different terminals. I had them because I could go up to any one of them and log in and then be connected to the community of people in each one of these three places . . . Once you saw that there were these three different terminals to these three distinct places the obvious question that would come to anyone’s mind [was]: why don’t we just have a network such that we have one terminal and we can go anywhere we want?” [Bob Taylor ARPA IPTO (Information Processing Technology Office) Director from 1965]

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Ogilvy’s How to Write Memo

David Ogilvy’s 1981 memo to staff at Ogilvy & Mather.

I have read and re-read this several times over the years and found it useful — though I emphasize that is not the same as thinking it completely correct, for example, there are clear counter-examples to the claim that “People who think well, write well”.

Posting here for my own archival and re-findable purposes.

The better you write, the higher you go in Ogilvy & Mather. People who think well, write well.

Woolly minded people write woolly memos, woolly letters and woolly speeches.

Good writing is not a natural gift. You have to learn to write well. Here are 10 hints:

  1. Read the Roman-Raphaelson book on writing. Read it three times.
  2. Write the way you talk. Naturally.
  3. Use short words, short sentences and short paragraphs.
  4. Never use jargon words like reconceptualize, demassification, attitudinally, judgmentally. They are hallmarks of a pretentious ass.
  5. Never write more than two pages on any subject.
  6. Check your quotations.
  7. Never send a letter or a memo on the day you write it. Read it aloud the next morning—and then edit it.
  8. If it is something important, get a colleague to improve it.
  9. Before you send your letter or your memo, make sure it is crystal clear what you want the recipient to do.
  10. If you want ACTION, don’t write. Go and tell the guy what you want.
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Great Video: Data Sharing and Management Snafu in 3 Short Acts

A funny, clever and simple video intro into what can go wrong when you actually want to reuse someone else’s data in research:

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