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The Year UnPacked: 50 to 41

Credit: Matt Card / Getty Images

Credit: Matt Card / Getty Images

December 24, 2018   6 mins

UnHerd is a place to look at the world without the headlines getting in the way. But we don’t claim to be the only such vantage point. Beyond the froth of the 24 hour news cycle – and the 24 second social media cycle – you can find a wealth of writing that doesn’t follow the herd. The aim of my daily UnPacked column is to feature, and comment on, the best of what’s out there.

I’ve counted down the top 50 UnPacked highlights from 2018 – the facts, figures, ideas and events that may not have made the headlines, but which provide a more reliable insight into the forces shaping the future.

Today, numbers 50 to 41:



“Dystopia starts with 23.6 inches of toilet paper”

Toilet of the Year is possibly not the most sought after accolade, but in a piece for the Atlantic on China’s increasingly comprehensive use of facial recognition technology, Rene Chun identifies the clear winner:

“Dystopia starts with 23.6 inches of toilet paper. That’s how much the dispensers at the entrance of the public restrooms at Beijing’s Temple of Heaven dole out in a program involving facial-recognition scanners—part of the president’s ‘Toilet Revolution’, which seeks to modernize public toilets. Want more? Forget it. If you go back to the scanner before nine minutes are up, it will recognize you and issue this terse refusal: ‘Please try again later.’”

Is this ‘fully automated luxury communism’?


Who wants to buy the products of 'Beijing Analytica'? Many of us (probably).




An IQ of 10,000

Masayoshi Son is the founder of SoftBank and reportedly the richest man in Japan. It’s fair to say he’s a very smart guy. But according to the Economist, he believes that in just thirty years time we’ll be sharing the planet with robots with an IQ of 10,000 (which would be more a case of them graciously consenting to share the planet with us).

Son is not alone, there are a lot of senior tech people who believe we’re on the brink of enabling the emergence of a self-created artificial super-intelligence (ASI) that will change everything – the so-called ‘Singularity’:

“The term has different definitions depending on whom you ask, and it often overlaps with ideas like transhumanism. But the broad idea is that the rate of technological progress is accelerating exponentially, and will continue to do so, to the point where it escapes all efforts at control…”

Singularitarianism, however, is based on the idea that we’re making progress towards artificial consciousness. But we’re not. We can’t even define consciousness, let alone explain or replicate it.


The most influential religion you’ve never heard of




The 50th anniversary of extraterrestrial life

OK, if we can’t expect artificial superintelligence anytime soon, how about a visit from the alien variety? According  to Liv Boeree in Vox, the Drake Equation has been recalculated – and it’s discouraging news for flying saucer fans:

“Based upon the current state of astrobiological knowledge, there’s a 53 to 99.6 percent chance we are the only civilization in this galaxy and a 39 to 85 percent chance we are the only one in the observable universe.”

2018 was the 50th anniversary of the Soviet Union’s Zond 5 mission – the first spacecraft to circle the moon and come back home again. This space craft carried two tortoises (and an assortment of creepy-crawlies). If life is unique to Earth, then that means these were first known examples of extraterrestrial life.


Is there anyone else out there?




Economics catches up with common sense (maybe)

Are we heading for another financial crash? Writing in Bloomberg, Noah Smith says that economists have been revising their theories to explain the financial crash that the profession failed to predict last time.

One of the most interesting ideas to emerge is described as the “theory of extrapolative expectations”:

“…that when asset prices rise — home values, stocks and so on — without a break, investors start to believe that this trend represents a new normal. They pile into the asset, pumping up the price even more, and seeming to confirm the idea that the trend will never end. But when the extrapolators’ money runs out, reality sets in and a crash ensues.”

Arguably this phenomenon was already well known to the rest of us, only we know it as the ‘theory of reckless, greedy bastards’.


How (some) economists finally caught up with financial reality




Some good environmental news, for a change

Economic growth is often assumed to be bad for the environment, but it doesn’t have to be. For instance, thanks to improvements in agricultural productivity, the richest parts of the world are now experiencing reforestation not deforestation.

According to the Economist, “Europe’s planted forests put on a little more than 1.1m cubic metres of wood per day.” That is more than a thousand times the volume of iron in the Eiffel Tower.

These days it’s neither necessary nor economic to force food out of the poorest land. So instead of paying farmers to turn our uplands into ‘wet deserts’, we should pay them to recreate wooded habitats, encourage wildlife, prevent erosion and minimise flash flooding further downstream.


The battle for Britain's countryside – the other Brexit debate




The capitalist trilemma

To truly thrive, ordinary workers need all three of the following: full employment, a decent wage and affordable housing.

We can divide up western capitalism into three zones on the basis of where they fall down worst. So we have the horrendous hosting costs of the global cities; the pitiful wages of US and UK ‘flyover country’; and mass unemployment in the underbelly of the Eurozone. We could call these three models ‘Iowa’, ‘London’ and ‘Italy’.

This is the capitalist trilemma. An awful lot rides on which, if any, of the three models can break free.


Full employment, decent pay and affordable housing: choose two




Britain is about to send more power to Brussels – literally

Unlike those pesky windmills, nuclear power is reliable, right?

Tell it to the Belgians. The country is heavily reliant on seven nuclear reactors, split between two sites; but as Daniel Boffey reports in the Guardian, things have gone awry:

“A forced shutdown of one nuclear reactor in the lead up to winter may be regarded as unfortunate. But the closure of six of the seven reactors responsible for the supply of 40% of electricity is raising eyebrows, even in a country as prone to chaotic administration as Belgium.”

If it’s a cold winter and the Belgians can’t cadge enough ’leccy off their continental neighbours then “motorway lights will be switched off, industrial production suspended and rolling three-hour blackouts launched in homes nationwide”.

Luckily, there’s a new  interconnector (basically a power cable that joins up different grids) between the UK and Belgium opening early next year. So it could be Brexit Britain that keeps the keeps the lights on in the Berlaymont.


Could Britain be about to power share with Belgium?

Global Affairs



Platform cooperativism

Uber, Airbnb, Facebook and Amazon – all examples of ‘platform capitalism’. Even in sectors where the products aren’t digital, proprietary networks are becoming key to market participation and coordination.

Is this future of the digital and digitally-enabled economy – i.e. a sequence of gated markets in which big tech gate-keepers collect all the money and then decide how much to give to the people who actually do the work?

In the American Conservative, Elias Crim proposes an alternative:

“…platform cooperativism, a marriage of the historic cooperative model of business and digital platforms aimed at bringing genuine democracy to the internet, especially in the form of distributed ownership…

“What if Uber drivers set up their own platform, or if a city’s residents controlled their own version of Airbnb?”

The alternative to nationalising Facebook is for government to make the ‘big data’ it collects available to platform coops. The tech companies are using their control over data flows to empower themselves; the state must use its digital resources to empower us.


Platform cooperativism – an alternative to technopoly




Kris Who?

How to illustrate China’s growing ‘soft power’?

From The Economist, here’s a list of the world’s top 15 universities for maths and computing, of which seven are Chinese and none are European.

But maths is boring, so how about pop music instead? As Adam Minter explains for Bloomberg, something very strange happened to the US iTunes chart in November:

Kris Wu, a superstar in China, not only had the No. 1 spot on the iTunes’ singles chart but also seven of the top 10 songs.”

Wu is not a superstar in America, so how did he storm the charts? The explanation appears to be that his new album was released in America before China – and that his devoted Chinese fans found a way of downloading it from US websites.

Just another reminder that the assumption that globalisation equals westernisation is both arrogant and untrue.


China: not just an economic superpower

Global Affairs



The worst tweet of the year from a President named Donald…

President Trump tried very hard this year, as he does every year, but in 2018 he was edged out by President Tusk (of the European Council). If you missed it, here’s his winning tweet, directed at the entire population of Greece:

“You did it! Congratulations to Greece and its people on ending the programme of financial assistance. With huge efforts and European solidarity you seized the day.”

It’s amazing how much misjudgment you can pack into 26 words – the celebratory tone, the hypocritical reference to ‘solidarity’, the implication that Greeks had any choice in what the Eurozone authorities chose to do to them.

For the reality, read Frances Coppola in Forbes:

“The magnitude of Greece’s collapse over the last decade is extraordinary… The Greek people have just lived through a Depression as deep as the Great Depression and considerably longer. It is now the greatest recorded peacetime Depression.”

The only adequate response to the Euro-establishment is “no, you did it!”

Now read The Year UnPacked 40-31

Peter Franklin is Associate Editor of UnHerd. He was previously a policy advisor and speechwriter on environmental and social issues.


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