We need more downward mobility

Written by Sebastiaan Crul
June 16, 2021

We often gauge inequality by looking at income distributions and complain about the lack of equal opportunity in society. To fight inequality, governments are in search of social measures to ease the path upwards and close the income gap. For example, better education is widely held to be the great equalizer and the best way to move up on the social ladder. Although this is presumably true, it is only half the story. Income distributions only offer a static snapshot of equality.

To fully comprehend inequality, one should also look at the dynamics of the population. Equally important is the capacity of the population to constantly change positions, keep moving from time to time, including the rich and arrived (i.e. downward mobility). Mathematically, this is called the ergodicity of the system and, more intuitively, this tells us whether the rich stay rich and lock in their privileges and wealth or if one has a good chance to become rich(er), but still end up poor(er). From this point of view, Europe may be more unequal than the U.S., because, according to Nassim Taleb, Europe excels in non-ergodic systems. So, often neglected, the path to equal societies is not only to empower the lower classes, but just as much to add some skin in the game for the richest decile of the income distribution, to increase the chances some of them actually slide down the social ladder.

Burning questions:

  • Is the current surge in “public executions” based on someone’s private behavior a symptom of our non-ergodic system and lack of downward mobility by other means?
  • How do we make our central and bureaucratic organizations, companies and governments have more skin in the game?
  • Can the decentralized architecture of Web3 increase the ergodicity of the system in the future, or will it establish new, unforeseen mechanisms and patterns of absorbing wealth and sticky wealth in a decentralized economy?

The G7 tax deal is all about American geo-economics

Written by Alexander van Wijnen
June 16, 2021

The G7 reached a historic agreement for a global corporate tax rate of a minimum of 15% in which corporations must also pay taxes in nations where they sell (and not just where they’re headquartered). If we take the deal at face value, it seems that power is shifting from corporations to states. After all, since the 1980s, the global corporate tax rate had been dropping from 50% to 24%, as developing countries built growth models by attracting foreign investors with lower taxes and some developed countries also took part in the ‘race to the bottom’ (e.g. Ireland, the Netherlands, Singapore).

However, behind the deal of the G7, more forces are at play. Although it is a multilateral deal, hailed by many as the return of responsible U.S. leadership, it is primarily the U.S. that will benefit. First, it is expected that the biggest share of taxes will be paid by U.S. big tech companies to the U.S. itself. Second, in exchange for its concessions in the deal, the U.S. has demanded the removal of the Digital Services Taxes of European countries. It shows that American multilateralism is still a ‘geo-economic’ instrument to wield power across the globe.

Burning questions:

  • How will the EU adjust to U.S. demands to drop digital services taxes?
  • Will there be a G20 tax deal in July?

The emergence of big tech mesh networks

Written by Arief Huhn
June 3, 2021

On June 8th Amazon will launch Amazon Sidewalk, a new wireless Mesh network which is created by connecting users’ Amazon internet-connected devices to each other. With Sidewalk, Amazon aims to create emergent infrastructure to strengthen connectivity of their consumer hardware and offer new services such as finding lost items. Similarly, Apple launched Airtags in which it uses all their users’ Apple iPhones as an emergent network to spot lost items attached to an Airtag.

As device density and bandwidth of wireless technology increases, mesh networks will become more functional and reliable and thereby more common. These more emergent ad hoc forms of infrastructure show that selling consumer hardware is not only a product play, but also a latent infrastructure play, in which the former can even be seen as a Trojan Horse for the latter. At the same this raises questions around privacy, digital sovereignty and shared value in which the consumer’s hardware and part of the consumer’s bandwidth can suddenly be used to perform valuable functions at an aggregate level.

Burning questions:

  • Which other companies could deploy similar mesh networks?
  • What other services can we expect using these types of infrastructure?
  • Can we expect open decentralized mesh networks based on open standards?

Hegemonic shift makes the European Super League inevitable

Written by Sjoerd Bakker
May 12, 2021

The European Super League was supposed to result in multiple blockbuster matches every week. Yet, the plan was met with lots of anger by European football (soccer) fans and officials. Within two days, most of the founders withdrew their support.

European fans felt that more than a century of football history and culture was about to be swept aside in favor of mere commercial interests. However, as part of the ongoing hegemonic shift of global (economic) power from the West to the East, non-European viewers will come to dominate global football viewership. Hence, their preferences are bound to determine the future of European club football. While European viewers may still be interested in their local team and national leagues, international (e.g. Asian and American) viewers seem to only be interested in games between the biggest clubs and the very best players. As such, it is hard to imagine how European football will be able to withstand these tectonic forces in the future.

Burning questions:

  • Regardless of the commercial rationale behind these plans, could a well-designed pan-European football league perhaps contribute to a sense of European unity?

Elon Musk – What does his popularity tell us about 21st century leadership?

Written by Pim Korsten
May 12, 2021

In his opening monologue on Saturday Night Live, Elon Musk revealed he has Asperger’s syndrome. Most likely, this revelation will be used to explain his provocative appearances, mysterious tweets and memestocks and possibly even his crypto allegiances or idiosyncratic products. Yet, instead of framing him as an anomaly, we may also consider Musk a model of typical 21st century leadership.

It could be argued that our metamodern age and the complex, wicked problems of the 21st century demand new types of leadership. Also, 21st century leaders are expected to use the tools offered by the information age. They can use these (e.g. memes) to inspire and unite people in the pursuit of a utopian vision or idea to make and build a better future, to grasp the attention of large but heterogeneous groups of listeners and users in a captivating way. Leaders of countries, organizations, and communities that embody (some of) these qualities could likely become the new “metamodern heroes” of our time. In this spirit, we have already identified Trumpism as a political force that is therefore here to stay, as Trump and his paradigm hold many of these qualities. Musk could be another example, with more to come.

Burning questions:

  • Does leadership actually make a meaningful impact in, for example, business, politics and sport clubs, or are change and success largely determined by systemic, anonymous structures?
  • What are the metamodern leadership qualities that are becoming important in our time?
  • What is the relationship between technology and leadership?

Digital advertising in a post-cookie world

Written by Pim Korsten
April 2, 2021

As Google is slowly phasing out cookies on Chrome and Apple is making the Identifier for Advertisers (IDFA) opt-in, the online advertising landscape is slowly moving to a post-cookie world. Overall, this will be an improvement for consumers. The cookie era has created an opaque system of programmatic advertising between advertisers and consumers. The incomprehensible mire of players and mechanisms has led to two decades of hardly effective marketing and a strong invasion of the privacy of uninformed or ignorant consumers.

So, what will be next? The industry is already on its way to finding alternatives that bundle data across sites and apps, such as Unified ID 2.0. Furthermore, as first-party data and alternative identifiers such as email and phone number become more relevant, the dominant ad networks of Google and Facebook are likely to benefit and strengthen their duopoly. Third, Google, Apple and others are claiming that they will bring privacy-friendly advertising and metric measurement tools to the market, using cohorts instead of individuals to target audiences and decentralizing the storage of data. Fourth, we might see a partial return to the roots of advertising, with contextual data and situation taking precedence over personal data.

Burning questions:

  • How will small publishers, websites and app developers, who strongly rely on third party trackers and cookies to function or grow, survive in this world? Is an alternative subscription-based business model a viable option for these smaller players of the internet?
  • Which problems will be solved and which new problems will arise when companies such as Google and Apple use cohorts instead of individuals to target audiences?
  • Will the world be better or worse off in terms of privacy if the duopoly of Facebook and Google benefits from this shift to a post-cookie world?

Crowdsourcing morality for autonomous systems

Written by Sjoerd Bakker
February 25, 2021

With the advent of autonomous machines, such as autonomous vehicles, robots and even weapons, comes a need to embed some kind of morality into these machines. By definition, autonomous systems have to make choices of their own accord, to go left or right, to kill or not to kill, and we want these choices to reflect our own values and norms. One way of achieving this is for developers to translate explicit normative rules into code. Another way, arguably more democratic, is to crowdsource morality. For instance, by asking the public to “vote” on all sorts of moral dilemmas (e.g. the well-known trolley problem) or to let autonomous systems learn from our actual behavior (e.g. from observing how we drive). Interestingly, such forms of crowdsourcing could actually result in autonomous systems whose behavior aligns with local values and norms, instead of some kind of desired universal morality. The downside, however, would be that those systems, especially those that mimic our behavior, would not be able to make “better” decisions than we humans can.

Burning questions:

  • Would these forms of crowdsourcing morality lead to increased public trust in autonomous systems and allow for greater societal acceptance?
  • Is the end-goal of moral AI systems to have them align with our norms and values, or is there potential for robots to behave better than we do?
  • Could machines ever become morally superior to humans and what would this mean for the future of humanity?

Democratization of finance

Written by Sebastiaan Crul
February 25, 2021

A lot has been written recently to explain and clarify the GameStop rally. The important reasons are clear: a bunch of new retail investors and young traders were welcomed on financial markets last year. Furthermore, the pandemic breeds boredom and the lockdown forced savers to stockpile money. An already famous revolt against financial elites is what followed. But more important is that these events should be seen in the context of an underlying long-term trend: the democratization of finance. As a consequence of financial innovations (since the 80s), securities have become increasingly easy to access and tradeable with (almost) zero transaction costs.

This has upsides and downsides. More inclusion, liquid stocks and a power shift away from intermediaries have some clear benefits. However, those who think the defeat and big losses of some hedge funds are a prefiguration of the New Financial World, may be in for a disappointment. In the long run, financially illiterate persons will most likely bear the most risk and collect the most losses. Furthermore, if the product is free (trading), you are the product. If there is one important lesson to be drawn from recent events, it would be that the democratization of finance should comprise more than easy access, low fees, and playful interfaces. The challenge ahead will be to create new forms of protection and regulation without being paternalistic.

Burning questions:

  • Is the GameStop Rally ultimately a consequence of animal spirits, mass hysteria, market manipulation or imperfect market structure?
  • Where are we to look for protection of retail investors and regulation of democratized markets: central or decentral governance?
  • At which point do the downsides of extreme liquid markets and zero commission trading (e.g. order flow, investor sentiment, speculation, etc.) outweigh the clear benefits?
  • How can finance be responsibly and durably democratized?

How do we distil a good narrative from 2020?

Written by Pim Korsten
January 14, 2021

2020 was the year of the coronavirus crisis and in 2021, we’ll hopefully be able to leave this crisis behind. How we do that depends on the story we create about it, and the language, metaphors, narratives we want to use. From the perspective of philosophical hermeneutics, we can consider the structure of this story, and how we can actively build a post-corona future.

Our observations

  • In his book Epidemics and Society: From the Black Death to the Present (2020), historian Frank Snowden writes that epidemics have led to large public investments. The plague, for instance, led to the beginnings of public healthcare, as the temporary agencies and emergency ordnances gradually changed into permanent institutions. In his book Epidemics and the Modern World (2020), Mitchell Hammond writes that such initiatives and the first iterations of public administration were therefore of great importance to the modern state.
  • According to French philosopher Michel Foucault, the Enlightenment and modernity were both a curse and a blessing. On the one hand, modernity has brought us much prosperity, in the form of disposable income, better healthcare, better social and physical infrastructure, and new innovations that make our daily lives better and more enjoyable. At the same time, Foucault contends modernity and the Enlightenment have also brought us a new form of power and discipline, “biopower”, and he viewed the new forms and institutions of public healthcare as laboratories for experimenting with new forms of social control.
  • In their book Metaphors We Live By (2003), George Lakoff and Mark Johnson pose that the metaphors we use in our language also influence our direct physical and social experiences. According to them, the conceptual framework from which we interpret and approach reality is metaphorical by nature, and thus subconsciously influences our thinking and actions. Metaphors aren’t fully rational but integrate feelings, thought structures and our imagination into a figurative “image of thought”.
  • Many contemporary thinkers emphasize that humans are a “story-telling being”, and that narratives are a fundamental determinant of how we relate to reality and are able to shape the future. Think of Yuval Harari in Sapiens, Alex Rosenberg in How History Gets Things Wrong, Jordan Peterson in Maps of Meaning, Jeremy Lent in The Patterning Instinct. The base unit of a narrative is a “narreme”, comparable to the “phoneme” (a unit of sound) in phonology (the linguistic study of sound). A narreme relates to the state of affairs in the world and the positioning of story development and events within a certain wider narrative framework.
  • In his magnus opus Truth and Method (1960), Hans Georg Gadamer poses that different domains of life and various sciences have a different understanding of truth and method from a merely scientific one. The humanities have their method of hermeneutics – the art of interpretation – in which meaning is sought. In his final chapter “Language as horizon of a hermeneutic ontology”, Gadamer contends that meaning is always linguistic in nature as man has always interpreted reality and himself from the perspective of a historical and cultural tradition.

Connecting the dots

In our Retroscope, in which we looked back on 2020, we wrote about the term “crisis”: a moment of truth when we must make decisive judgments on what is actually important and what isn’t. A crisis also always forces us to make a political and ethical choice to transform the current situation into a brighter, more positive future. This makes the coronavirus crisis a real crisis, which has set in motion important choices and developments in the domains of geopolitics, technology and culture. The question now is: how do we interpret the events of 2020, and how will we develop a narrative? This is a matter of how the coronavirus crisis can lead to a new consciousness and how we should understand ourselves. Firstly, we could characterize the coronavirus crisis as a “formative experience”, as a consequence of which a new generation will adopt a new set of values, norms and ideas. This is apparent in our scenarios from the Resilient World in the domains of technology, culture and geopolitics. The coronavirus crisis could also leave an imprint on our political, technical and social systems (just as the Second World War left an imprint on our socio-technical systems). “Imprint” is a term from biology and psychology, which refers to changing behavioral processes of humans (and animals) as a consequence of being exposed to external stimuli (e.g. imprinting in genetics and developmental psychology). The coronavirus crisis will also leave such an imprint on our subjective and objective consciousness.

It’s important how we formulate and understand this in language and concepts, express it in metaphors, media and stories. For example, think of the long-term consequences of pandemics on the development of modern institutions and public government services such as healthcare, and how we should understand and assess these new forms of “biopower”. What’s crucial in this is the narreme we develop; the wider framework from which we consider and position the coronavirus crisis and its consequences within a narrative axis. Northrop Frye (1912-1991) was an important thinker in the comparative narratology in literature. In his masterpiece Anatomy of Criticism (1957), Frye analyzes the narrative categories and patterns in different literary traditions, and devises an “anatomy” of historical modes, ethical symbols and archetypical myths and rhetorical genres.  How does this relate to the coronavirus crisis? And what can we expect from the so-called “post-corona narratives”?

The coronavirus crisis is best perceived from the tragic mode. The Ancient tragedy is about how people relate to their fate and ill-fortune, which serves to inspire pity and fear in the audience in order to achieve “catharsis”: emotional purification. The comedy, by contrast, is marked by protagonists making blunders and mistakes, while still ending happily, thus achieving catharsis in the audience through laughter, humor and enjoyment. The coronavirus crisis caught many people off guard, and is often seen as a manifestation of Fate (e.g. as a religious reprimand or nature’s pushback against the hubris of modern man). In this tragedy, we may apply the framework from Frye’s first essay to distinguish various tropes, such as the highly mimetic coronavirus tragedy (marked by the sacrifices people such as nurses make to fight the coronavirus) or the ironic tragedy (man’s weakness in the face of nature or other lifeforms). When we consider different types of “coronavirus symbols”, the first one we notice is the descriptive symbol of the virus that’s bringing humankind, and even entire “superorganisms” such as economic systems (e.g. healthcare or the economy) to their knees.

The visual symbol ties in closely with the use of metaphors, such as the prison as a metaphor for working from home, or the desert for the empty cities during lockdown. The mythical symbol displays the relationship to other symbols of our time that, as we’ve argued before, are metamodern in nature. The anagogic symbol represents the spiritual value of the coronavirus crisis, and whether it will lead to a better, more enlightened future or not. The mental side of the experience of the coronavirus crisis is also considered, such as the moods inspired by the coronavirus or our ideals in this post-corona world.

This brings us to the archetypical myths: which original images, figures and ideas emerge in our visualization of the coronavirus crisis? Describing these moods, ideals, experiences, in short: the mental side of the coronavirus, isn’t about explaining or categorizing various psychological phenomena – the cognitive and neurosciences are much better equipped to do this – but helps reveal the meaning of our world and existence in society. This means we can expect new media that – implicitly or explicitly – are a result of the moods of the coronavirus crisis and quarantine, in the same vein as the “post-9/11 media” or the “atomic culture” that arose after the bombings in Japan and the critical philosophy (e.g. the Frankfurter Schule) that came into being in response to the Second World War.

This shows that our visualization of the coronavirus crisis and the narrative we create about it is ultimately the product of how we interpret the historicity of the coronavirus crisis: is it the end of the world as we know it, thus an epoch of decay, or in fact the beginning of a better world and thus of spiritual reassessment? It’s interesting to see that “cyclical theories” such as the generational dynamics of Strauss and Howe, the theory concerning technological revolutions and hegemonic cycles and economic paradigm shifts point to such a turning point. They highlight that a post-corona world might look radically different, and that such a narrative might be constitutive or even performative in creating a better future.

Implications

  • The coronavirus crisis could become a new “grand narrative” with which rifts could be closed. This will probably be utopian in content, as a response to postmodern skepticism and modern naiveté. For this narrative to be told, it’s crucial that creative artists can get to work on this. Especially now that many of us are in social isolation, stuck at home without the possibility of seeing friends and family, it’s conceivable that the coronavirus crisis may lead to a period of enormous creativity and invention. Film makers, for example, now have the time to consider new formats and pieces. We’ve written before that the Zeitgeist and a “structure of feeling” are manifesting in art, media and popular culture.

  • Another important aspect of this visualization is speculative design. Precisely because the coronavirus crisis is a real crisis that’s changing the course of the world and humankind, we can’t extrapolate the past and have to experiment with new images and forms of visualization. What scenario thinking is to theoretical thinking, speculative design is to visualization.

Trump is making opposition media great (the platform becomes the bubble)

On November 5th, CNN interrupted a speech by President Trump because he was making unfounded claims about electoral fraud. Twitter and Facebook have also repeatedly labeled statements by Trump as misinformation. Moreover, Twitter has announced that it will not grant him anymore special treatment when he is no longer president and will delete his account if necessary. Supporters of Trump and his ideas have long sought alternative news sources and platforms where they can freely express their views.

When Trump began retweeting Newsmax, a conservative American news and opinion website that refuses to acknowledge Biden winner of the elections, it saw its visitor numbers soar (from an average 500,000 to 7.3 million a week). Conservative Twitter alternative Parler is currently even the most downloaded app in the U.S. Trump may start his own media outlet, but in any case, his departure from the White House will considerably boost these existing “opposition media”. Slowly but surely, completely separate universes will arise, even more so than now, with different groups each inhabiting their own platforms.