A picture of me standing at a lectern, working on a laptop computer, on the stage of the FWD50 digital government conference

Hi! I’m Alistair. I write surprisingly useful books, run unexpectedly interesting events, & build things humans need for the future.

James Burke says the darndest things

BurkeAt Strata last week, science historian James Burke gave a brilliant keynote. Afterwards, we had a coffee break for members of the media, during which he expanded on some of the things he’d said on the main stage.

The topic of the Internet came up. I love the way he put this:

“I think the Internet raised the expectations of people who previously weren’t supposed to have expectations.”

On the subject of truth—a touchy subject for anyone who’s studied how often humans have revised what’s true—Burke said that in the past, there was only one truth, put there by the ruling class to ensure everyone behaved in the same way. But that’s changing. “The Internet makes all the truths available to everybody, and then we can work out what today’s truth is.” He cited the example of Galileo and the Catholic Church (“that’s Christians 2, lions 100.”)

Put another way, a single truth is a consequence of having no way to manage a diversity of opinion, which is something the Internet has given us in spades. After hearing Burke, it occurred to me that likes, retweets, and upvotes are ways of deciding what today’s truth might be.

When challenged on how a ruling elite might use the Internet to control society and do bad things, perhaps by co-opting some of these mechanisms, Burke simply smiled and said, “I believe the hacker always wins.” He also questioned what bad was: “‘Bad’ means ‘doing bad things to me.’”

At the core of much of his thinking was the switch we are making from scarcity to abundance. As a tribe, we need ways to communicate status—something that we’ve relied on throughout biological evolution. But in a world where everyone has what they need, we either get conspicuous consumption, or a shift to a culture where something else matters. One of our other keynote speakers, David McRaney, postulated that this might become another form of status: “See how well I am managing my abundance.”

Best coffee break ever.

(As a sidenote, David spent an hour or two with James and will soon publish the interview as a podcast. Both of them have fascinating, slightly subversive, minds. I can’t wait.)






5 responses to “James Burke says the darndest things”

  1. Bob Engler Avatar
    Bob Engler

    To believe Burke (as he is paraphrased here) means having to believe there is no objective truth, in which case there is no truth at all, in which case there is no alternative to historical revisionism.

    How’s that working out for us?

    1. Alistair Avatar

      I sort of balked at that too. But he meant “truth” as in “what the humans believe now”, not in a “the earth is flat because we want it to be” way. I actually challenged him on the flight from objectivism; he was pretty clear that it’s a forum for debate, but once there is good proof, we should probably get behind an idea.

  2. DMcCunney Avatar

    ““what the humans believe now” and “the earth is flat because we want it to be” tend to be the same thing.

    We all start with an underlying worldview that determines what we *can* believe, and that gets inculcated in early childhood at an unconscious reflex level. Programmers have the phrase “Religious Argument”, used in discussion to flag things that simply *won’t* get agreement, because the underlying viewpoints are emotional, not rational. (The canonical example is whether vi or emacs is the One True Editor on unix systems.) Things embedded on an emotional level generally aren’t amenable to rational argument.

    Burke’s notion still rubs me the wrong way, mostly because I feel the idea of Truth as something historically imposed by the rulers to control the people oversimplifies what was really going on. Preservation of control by the rulers was a side-effect. The purpose was cohesion of the society.

    But the transition of society from scarcity to abundance is something I’ve been thinking about a lot lately. On the one hand, the spread of the Internet, the improvement in technology, and the advances in robotics are making whole classes of jobs obsolete, and those made redundant aren’t likely to get new jobs because they don’t know how to do the new jobs being created and may not be able to learn. On the other, a society of abundance means there should be enough to go around that you don’t have to have a job simply to attain what is needed to survive. Decades ago, Buckminster Fuller talked about the need to abolish the idea of “working for a living”, and as usual, he was prescient.

    Different cultures have different ways of conferring and displaying status, but we’ll always *have* status. After you have the basics of survival covered – you’re alive and healthy, with food on your table, clothes on your back, a roof over your head and some confidence that state will continue – your next concern will be “How am I doing relative to others?”, with a corresponding desire to gain more status and protect what you already have.

    The two questions I see are how our society transitions to one where you *aren’t* expected to “work for a living” to get the necessities, and what the “something else matters” might be. If your status isn’t tied to your material wealth and what you do for your living, what will it be based on and how will it be displayed?

    I have no idea, but I think those are the two most important questions to be asked.

  3. […] Roundtable with James Burke, which Alistair Croll aptly described as the “best coffee break ever.” […]

  4. […] Burke is more perceptive. “The hacker always wins,” he said at Strata a few weeks […]