It is you my love, you who are the stranger

In this edition, the secrets of innovation, the value of armchair epidemiologists, and the power of weak ties.


My latest New Statesman column is on how this pandemic is reminder that we are messy biological creatures first and foremost, and that life is a mean and dull affair when we pretend otherwise. I’ve also written a piece for the BBC’s Worklife magazine on the importance of our ‘weak ties’: our outer circle of acquaintances, who are actually the ones most likely to bring us new news and cheer us up. I love my weak ties!


DARPA, the American government’s military research agency, was set up by President Eisenhower in 1959 to explore the frontiers of technology and science. The idea was to bring together boffins and bureaucrats to hothouse crazy ideas that might just work - and it turned out quite a few of them did. In fact it’s been hugely successful. Quite apart from military applications, DARPA has played a major part in America’s current pre-eminence in technology. The Internet, the modern computer desktop, GPS, weather satellites - all can trace their lineage to Eisenhower’s creation. In recent years DARPA has been cited by economists and politicians who argue that innovation can’t be left to the market but requires government investment, as well as by those who simply use it as a model for organised creativity. Until now I had very little idea of how DARPA actually works, so I found this account of it, by Ben Reinhardt, quite riveting. There’s much of interest but a couple of things struck me in particular. First, it’s tiny! American government agencies tend to be massive, sprawling entities with layers and layers of management. DARPA has only 124 staff and three layers. Everyone knows everyone else, which enables disciplinary cross-fertilisation, and serendipitous discoveries over coffee. At one point DARPA’s director successfully lobbied Congress to shrink its budget because he thought the agency was getting too big - hard to imagine any other agency doing that. Governments and large companies need to find a way to empower small teams if they want to generate more creative problem-solving. Second, DARPA is run by generalists. It does not actually do its own research - it’s more like a VC firm which looks for intellectual projects to invest in. The agency is run by Program Managers (PMs): highly curious critical thinkers who are skilled at communicating and at connecting people and ideas. They have to be able to run teams of diverse experts and at the same time have the intellectual confidence to be sceptical of domain expertise, since all academic fields have systemic biases and blind spots. Dominic Cummings is fascinated by DARPA and his government is seeking to create a British version; it was mentioned in Michael Gove’s recent speech. Cummings and Gove put great emphasis on getting specialists into the civil service, but DARPA shows us that innovation is often driven by generalists. The work of government, in particular, is not primarily analytical: often, both problem and solution have already been identified correctly but have met political and institutional resistance. The hard part is delivery, and that’s usually a people problem. Technical skills are important, but in most departments of government somebody like Louise Casey is 10x more valuable than a PhD in astrophysics. (For more on the importance of generalists I recommend David Epstein’s truly excellent book, Range.)


Devon Zuegel is one of my favourite online minds; she doesn’t blog very often but when she does she always makes perceptive observations. In this post she remarks that one reason social media arguments quickly get polarised and hostile is that participants don’t get feedback on how they’re behaving from non-participants. There’s no equivalent of the silent but disapproving glare. Devon has some advice for how we can compensate for that.


In early March, when the world was deciding how to respond to the emergence of a pandemic, people started sharing a Medium blog post entitled Why You Must Act Now. Using data and charts, it made the case that rather than waiting for more information on the virus governments needed to lock down immediately and that if they didn’t, citizens should take matters into their own hands. The author, Tomas Pueyo, presented lucid explanations of viral spread and exponential growth and his conclusion was urgent: every day without lockdown was costing thousands of lives. The article was shared millions of times. When I read it, I was sceptical. At the time, the UK government’s chief scientific advisers were counselling caution and saying it was too early to lock down. I trusted them. Pueyo wasn’t an epidemiologist; he was a tech guy whose previous posts were about how to write a funny speech or tell a story. His post had a sheen of plausibility, sure, but I thought we should ignore the armchair epidemiologists and pay attention to the real ones. The kicker, of course, is that Pueyo was right and the government’s advisers were wrong - and I was wrong to dismiss him. In this thoughtful and nuanced piece, the sociologist Warren Pearce explores the significance of the Pueyo example. Social media gives non-experts a platform to challenge experts. It feels like the responsible thing is to ignore all that, as noise, because most of it is. But sometimes, the armchair critics - and Pueyo wasn’t the only one - see something the experts are missing.


If I had a political precept I’d like everyone to follow it’s “be sceptical of your own tribe”. There’s nothing wrong with being part of a tribe - a group with which you are informally or formally aligned, the members of which share a set of beliefs and attitudes. There’s nothing fundamentally wrong with tribal thinking either. It’s cognitively expensive to think everything through from first principles and taking your views off-the-peg from people you trust is a reasonable thing to do. But if you never question the beliefs of your tribe then your ability to think for yourself withers away. That isn’t just bad for you, it’s bad for the collective intelligence of your group. So I love this example: an environmental activist and XR member who has come out in favour of nuclear power. That is brave and admirable and also right, since nuclear power is certainly one of the least bad options we have for avoiding the worst of the climate crisis.

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I’ve spent quite a lot of time in lockdown wishing I had more time to concentrate on one thing rather than switching between childcare and work. But even when I’ve had time to myself, I’ve been pretty bad at using it. I spend most of my time in a very familiar environment - home - and yet I actually feel more distracted than usual. This brilliant essay captures the feeling of constantly divided attention better than I ever could.


Shakespeare never used the word “foreigner” in his work, preferring the term “stranger”. Despite living at a time when his country was bent on defining itself, he was not a nativist, which is evident in his work and also in what we know of his life: he chose to live in parts of London with immigrant communities, and for a few years lodged with a family of French Huguenots, who were in England to escape persecution. But of course, some of the English did not welcome refugees. Until reading this LRB review (paywalled) of a book on Shakespeare’s cosmopolitanism, I'm embarrassed to admit I wasn’t aware of the great speech he wrote about “strangers” for Thomas More (the play was not by him but he fixed a few bits for it, I mean it must have been like getting Michelangelo to do your bathroom). You can read the speech here, it’s amazing. Shakespeare has Thomas More quell anti-immigrant rioters by telling them to put themselves in their place - to imagine what it would be like to be a refugee. Everybody is a stranger somewhere. The speech is one of Sir Ian McKellen’s set-pieces. I also like this version made by the Globe for World Refugee Day. (Note the Ruffian reference btw).