Could Cummings’ weirdos fix issues?
Dear Sir, — “Weirdos” are in demand. Dominic Cummings, special adviser to the PM, is setting up a group of people shining lights from unexpected directions onto our grave problems.
His blog announcing that he was looking for “weirdos”, like those in William Gibson novels, attracted widespread derision and suggestions that he need look no further than his own political party.
However, it performed a useful selection process in that it confined this opportunity to those who had read William Gibson’s futuristic book The Neuromancer, a science fiction great.
Why the mockery?
We are struggling to survive a shifting complexity of unprecedented situations. Old-style approaches did not always solve old-style problems, as distinct from (mostly) keeping things ticking over.
How can they solve the new problems advancing on us in rapid overlapping succession? The Brexit battle has been suspended, both sides taking a breather. It has not really “been done”. The complications are already apparent and becoming more so.
The unity of Britain is brought into question.
Over the last two years awareness of climate change and its all too likely consequences has exploded. Greta Thunberg has challenged Donald Trump.
This very month our county has been flattened and soaked by floods, although not as much as some other counties, particularly in the North, Wales and Scotland. Square miles of temporary lakes have been formed from fields. Roads have turned into rivers.
Over the last two years nearly every disaster graphically described in the Old Testament seems to have been visited on us — floods, contaminated water, locusts, fire, etc. And that’s not counting the mythology and traditions of other cultures.
Now mass disease has returned: the First Horseman of the Apocalypse. Governments, particularly the Chinese one, must be uneasily conscious that although coronavirus might be contained and neutralised, variants of higher infectivity and mortality rates might appear. The Black Death is rising from our subconscious memory.
Initial denial, lack of co-ordination, attempts to retreat into tribalism, blaming other groups and scapegoating individuals are all par for the course in dealing with plague, or rather trying to.
What can we do? What action should Dominic Cummings’ evolving team take?
The first thing should be to find out what is happening and form a clear picture of the world as it is at present and likely to be in the near future. Do we face Frank Herbert’s Dune or JG Ballard’s The Drowned World, or some appalling alternation at irregular and unforeseeable intervals?
The latter, water, seems much more likely, but in these chaotic times who can be sure?
Assessing probabilities is a difficult task, but computers should aid human experts. Then computers could project the many different scenarios if the climate warms by one degree, two degrees and so on.
Morecambe Bay and places like it will meet the fate of Doggerland, a Neolithic culture now beneath the North Sea. On the other hand, granite mountains might remain impervious to the onslaught and keep the sea–land frontier stable. There is some evidence that the Antarctic is heating up more quickly than most regions. This could be catastrophic.
The Rhine, the Danube and the Volga, among other rivers, would widen.
Europe might change from being one peninsula to several peninsulae. In Britain the Severn, Thames and Trent would spread. Lakes would expand. They would become more like inland seas. In Africa and Asia lakes and seas at present shrinking would more than recover their volume. Lake Baikal, the Aral Sea and the Caspian Sea would also expand to their former size.
Twenty years ago in Reading, a public lecture was delivered on science fiction. I attended and found that the audience did not consist, as I had feared, of 15-year-old boys, which would have made me feel 100, but reflected in gender and age the educated population. The speaker was a lecturer in medieval history at Reading University. He began by admitting that it must have seemed unusual for a history lecturer to give a speech on possible futures. He ran through the antecedents of science fiction and speculated on its future. It was a fascinating and unusual talk.
There are problems and possibilities in the present situation of science fiction. Those who read books are more likely to think hard and take action than those who watch videos and play video games. It is like the distinction between party members and voters.
The readers are more likely to grasp that what they are reading could actually come to pass, indeed in some cases is already coming to pass.
They can see the relationship between apparently unconnected trends and events and think up some way of coping with them.
Those who, say, see the Terminator series as just adventure stories are unlikely to take action. They do not see the relationship between present and future and how the one segues into the other, let alone how the past leads into the present.
Dominic Cummings is right to look for “weirdos”, people who can envisage different worlds. Putting a lot of them together might yield stupendous results. We face an unprecedented situation and need abnormal qualities and skills to survive it.
As enquiries at Waterstone’s, The Works and other bookshops will confirm, science fiction and alternative reality books are flying off the shelves. Interestingly, old ones are being reprinted. Science fiction does not date in the ordinary way. Science fiction becomes science fact. People read 1950s and 1960s books to see which of their forecasts have come true. It is interesting to see how the literature reflects the social structure of its time.
True, history and myth are hard to disentangle, but the main outlines are clear. Some look back to a fictitious Golden Age. Hobbes described pre-civilised life as “nasty, brutish and short”. But whatever their view of the past or present, water was a constant feature of their lives.
Communities above the hunter–gatherer level needed drainage and irrigation as well as drinking water. But dwellings needed to be protected from floods and/or to be rebuilt after them. Water and the wars fought over it have been the basis of civilisation as the importance attached to it by the empires of Egypt, Mesopotamia and China show.
Norman Davies’s Vanished Kingdoms (2010) is an instructive, if melancholy, story. In former times climate change was only one factor contributing to the destruction of states. Now it is overtaking, and in some cases causing, the others.
Some problems have gone away. Some have mutated. Some are new.
Take the need for energy. In the Ancient World, slavery was the answer. In one form or another it continued; one could say has continued till the present day.
Why bother to treat steam or electricity or any other phenomena as more than amusing toys when you could shout for slaves to carry your goods, work mines, plough fields and row galleys?
Now air conditioning has replaced slaves with fans, but the principle is the same. But what will happen when the climate, especially round the Equator, becomes unbearably hot?
Neither muscle nor machinery will be enough to allow humans to live. This is only one item on our list of problems. This means harnessing the past and integrating past, present and likely future into a coherent and manageable whole. We have to find out what works and what doesn’t — and we haven’t much time.
What then is wrong with Dominic Cummings’ suggestion of gathering “weirdos” into the fold? It is a thoroughly sensible idea.
However, he is special advisor to a prime minister with little thought beyond keeping and extending power. He is a member of a party notorious for short-term self-interest at both individual and collective level.
HS2 is a dramatic example. It is a vanity project and its continuation is designed to keep the Northern vote.
During the industrial revolution, Samuel Crompton and Edmund Cartwright invented machines that revolutionised the textile industry, increasing output astronomically. They were both motivated by the challenge and made little money.
Idle speculation and a degree of indifference to worldly considerations are a plus when it comes to original thought. Idle speculation, following obscure trains of thought and creative agony are what is needed. Prestige and expenditure are the traditional influences and determinants. Now we have to reverse this in a single generation.
A committee of “weirdos” to address the nation’s problems is a good idea in itself. But, in addition to the drawbacks just mentioned, the problem of acceptability must be raised. A wiser head than mine has remarked that a good few of the most imaginative citizens would balk at being connected with Dominic Cummings and, indirectly, with Boris Johnson.
The special adviser is viewed with as much confidence as Rasputin was by all the Russians except the imperial family. Could one risk being photographed with Boris Johnson?
Sometimes patriotism is not enough. Many have applied to join Mr Cummings’ group, but many more might apply to a less dubious one.
Perhaps “weirdos” could set up groups in the provinces. Do Staffordshire and the surrounding counties have less talent than the London elite? In view of the terrible botches that elite has made, could we do worse? Any volunteers? — Yours faithfully,