Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Consistent, Conservative Pillar of Quadrant Magazine

The Last Intellectuals

Essays on writers and politics
by Peter Coleman
Quadrant Books, 320pp.
Reviewed: 15 August, 2010

Readers may approach this miscellany of Peter Coleman's later essays with assumptions based on Coleman's long public life as an energetic anti-communist, political conservative and Liberal politician, now father-in-law to Peter Costello.

I expected a coherent political survey of Coleman's engagement in the Australian front of the Cold War. Indeed, the flyleaf suggests that the book chronicles how “journalists, essayists, poets, novelists and editors defended cultural freedom and contributed to the collapse of communism”. The collection is both less, and more, than that.
Historians may debate how much anti-communist poets and novelists in Australia really contributed to the collapse of global communism. Coleman himself makes no exaggerated claims. A number of the essays do look back, with wry good humour rather than bombast, on the history of the international Congress for Cultural Freedom and its Australian affiliate, the Association for Cultural Freedom, which launched Quadrant magazine and published it for twenty years.
Coleman's conservatism was of the Menzian, liberal kind rather than the Tory, Howard kind. Though fiercely loyal to friends in the Quadrant circle such as the poet James McAuley, he sees himself as an apostle of the values of classical liberalism rather than an adherent to any modern ideology. He leaves current culture and history wars, on the whole, to others.
In 1966 Coleman was approached by McAuley to edit Quadrant, then a struggling bi-monthly which Coleman describes as having “grown out of a post-war no-man's-land of frustrated intellectuals, ideological acrobats, disillusioned Marxists, anticommunist Liberals, premature neo-conservatives, demi-vierges of Christianity … the flotsam and jetsam of the Age of Ideology”.
He found the milieu irresistible and took it on for most of the next twenty years.
Most of these essays were published in Quadrant from 1991 to 2009, when Coleman had passed his eightieth birthday and sixty years in the world of letters. There is no introduction or foreword to offer an organizing principle or purpose to the collection, and it is not stated whether chapters are excerpts or full reprints of the original published essays. 
Fortunately, Coleman writes with great clarity, blessed brevity and well-calibrated force. Reminiscences of shenanigans of the cultural Cold War may intrigue younger generations as well as entertaining rusted-on Quadrant loyalists.
Coleman is really at his best not as a combatant but as a ponderer. A fine, self-critical piece describes his disillusionment with parliamentary politics, after stints as Liberal leader in the NSW parliament and as a Federal member for Wentworth in the last days of the Fraser government.
Some of his most interesting pondering takes the form of highly readable short essays on various thinkers influential on the liberal tradition, from John Milton and John Stuart Mill to Alfred Deakin and Michael Oakeshott. He finds philosophers more useful than economists as guides to good government. One may infer that he is one of many “wet” but loyal Liberals privately appalled by philistine neo-conservative influence on the modern Liberal Party, but with nowhere else to go.
This book's title is regrettable and unexplained - the phrase “last intellectuals” does not appear anywhere in the book and there is no hint as to who such people might be. Why dismiss every current and future thinker, however misguided one may consider some of them to be?
Richard Thwaites recalls the cultural Cold War as a background of distant artillery to his baby-boomer youth.

A Shanghai Jewish Microcosm

Goodbye Shanghai

A Memoir
by Sam Moshinsky
Mind Publishing, 219pp.
Reviewed: 17 July, 2010

It can be refreshing for a reader to spend a few hours in the microcosm of an unpretentious personal memoir.

Sam Moshinsky is a member of a small community of Jews whose family histories over the 20th Century took them from pre-revolutionary Russia, to the Russian Far East, to China, and finally to Australia.
Sam was born in 1934 in Shanghai, and this memoir is his recollections to the point that his family settled in Melbourne in the early 1950s. 
Sam's perspective on Shanghai is both intimate and somewhat detached. The family's social life was almost exclusively within the Jewish community of Shanghai, which included synagogue, an active and prosperous Jewish Club (later the Shanghai Conservatorium), school, and even a militantly Zionist youth association, the Betar, where Sam dressed in paramilitary uniform and practised martial arts for the prospective war to create an exclusively Jewish Israel.
Sam seems to have been keen to fit in wherever he found himself. His best friend for life was Alex Vinogradov, a Shanghai neighbour whose family were of the traditionally anti-Semitic White Russian community. At St Francis Xavier's College young Sam, the only Jew in the school, topped his final year in Catholic Catechism (to his parents' bemusement).
The Moshinskys had an unusually easy time in Shanghai during the Second World War. Because they had never taken up Soviet citizenship they were officially stateless. Shanghai was one of the few places stateless persons were welcome. Neither the Allies nor the occupying Japanese identified them as enemy aliens. Their family business, the Shanghai Cardboard Box Factory, just kept on supplying their ice-cream containers to Chinese, Japanese or American customers as control of Shanghai alternated during and following the War.
Life continued without major interruption until the Communist takeover. In due course, communist officials imposed a retrospective “income tax” to cover all the years that the factory had operated, during which there had never been any income tax in Shanghai. They could not get exit visas until the entirety of the family property had been signed over to “the people” in payment of this fictional tax debt.
On his first trip back to Shanghai, in 1986, Sam found the Cardboard Box Factory still operating, after 40 years as a “people's collective”, with exactly the same machinery they had left behind, and even his father's managerial desk in exactly the same position.
Richard Thwaites has followed developments in China since the 1960s.

Secrecy and Absolute Control - China's Party Line

The Party

The Secret World of China’s Communist Rulers
by Richard McGregor
Allen Lane, 300pp.
Reviewed: 10 July, 2010

Regulators and politicians may know, but seldom say publicly, that no Chinese corporation of strategic scope or scale, regardless of its formal structure, can operate outside the pervasive control of the Chinese Communist Party. Governance and accountability are crippled by the fact that corporate, judicial, and legislative responsibilities are all subject to direct control by a Communist Party that is above the law in China, accountable only to itself.

“Separation of Powers” is anathema to the Communist Party, and so it is largely a charade wherever it is pretended to exist in the Chinese system.
When contemporary Chinese leaders refer to democracy in China, they mean what was spelled out in an internal White Paper for the Party, in 2005: “Democratic Government is the Chinese Communist Party governing on behalf of the people”.
Every element of the state structure, and as far as possible every social or “private sector” organization, is host to a Party Committee that shadows whatever powers that body may have. Since the Party organization itself is strictly hierarchical, this means that both policy and patronage can be both supervised and directed by the Party, at any scale of organization.
A highly secretive Party Organisation Department controls appointments and promotions at every senior level, including the vast state-owned commercial sector and board appointments to “private” corporations.
This tight control of China Inc has enabled China to make spectacular resource allocations for political purposes and to control internal markets, but it has its downsides. Corruption is endemic because Party patronage is universal and unchallengeable. Party members, however corrupt, may not be prosecuted by state law authorities unless the Party’s internal discipline office recommends it. McGregor says that less than ten percent of Party members found to be corrupt have been sent to court – the rest are let off with internal discipline and demotions.
Of course, the Party also controls the press, police and the “Peoples Liberation Army”. The Party controls the legislature at every level, and can change the Constitution whenever it chooses.
McGregor doubts that any external factors can shake the control of the Communist Party. Its propaganda thrives on external threats. 
If liberalisation of any kind is to come, it will have to come from within the Party itself. Neither toadying nor megaphone diplomacy from foreign liberals will deflect its primary aim of retaining absolute, unaccountable power at any cost.
Richard Thwaites was ABC correspondent in China, 1978-1983.

Economic and Social Gloom Stirred, not Shaken

The Rational Optimist

How Prosperity Evolves
By Matt Ridley
Fourth Estate, 438pp.
Reviewed: 26 June, 2010

I opened this book with some hope. The title offered a chance to be both optimistic and rational.

By the end of the book the gloom had been stirred, but not shaken. The welcome stir was Matt Ridley’s catalogue of our remarkable human history of adapting to great and unforeseeable problems, on every scale from the microbial to the global. We have also generated almost continuous growth in overall quality of life, across most of a multiplying global population.
Regrettably, Ridley’s arguments did not shake this reader’s view that the individuals of our species, given freedom of choice, too often choose to avoid the measurable, individual short-term pain that is needed for an immeasurable, collective long-term gain.
Ridley presents himself as a true believer that private enterprise and market forces are the only reliable engine of prosperity. A claim to be rational is always contestable. Ridley is really an optimistic neo-liberal, and his guru is Friedrich Hayek, the father of neo-liberal economics.
Ridley blames society’s failures on a very long list of human villains: chiefs, priests, poll-driven politicians, bureaucrats, financiers, professors, out-of-control militarists, privilege-seeking corporations and monopolists. All are described as “parasites” on the productivity generated by the hard-working makers and traders further down the social tree.
It can be confusing for a reader to work out how, if the role of government should always be minimized, then all these competing stakeholder interests are to be reconciled.
Ridley clearly states that the key to trust in markets lies in stable institutions backed by an accepted rule of law. But he doesn’t seem to trust anyone who might have the responsibility for generating, renovating or administering such institutions and laws.
In the end, Ridley pins his optimism on Hayek’s concept of “catallaxy”. He believes human intelligence will become more collective, and innovation will become more bottom up, thanks to the “dot-communism” of information exchange enabled by the Internet and allied communication ecologies. This will (probably) solve all challenges, if only the human “parasites” can be kept at bay.
This book needs to be read as a polemic. Facts and opinons are marshalled to support a rhetorical purpose rather than pretending to offer a balanced enquiry. I found enough instances of dubious attribution, or casual dismissal of effects on large populations, to stir my skeptical juices.
Richard Thwaites has worked with politicians, public servants and journalists.

The Real Macbeth in Scotland's History


A True Story
By Fiona Watson
Quercus, 320pp.
Reviewed: 12 June, 2010

There was a real King MacBeth of Scotland, more complex, and more interesting, than Shakespeare’s eloquent but fatally flawed villain. Scottish historian Fiona Watson has spent years scanning the annals and records from Scotland, Ireland, England and Scandinavia to unpick the centuries of biased misreporting in search of him.

The real MacBeth died in 1058 after ruling Scotland for seventeen years. His reign was characterized by peace and prosperity, a rare thing in those bloodthirsty times. He was actually the first ever king of a Scotland united in the boundaries that we now recognise, and also the last Gaelic-speaking king before the permanent takeover of Anglo-Saxon and Norman dynasties.
People’s lives then depended on the ability of local warlords to enrich them, or protect them, in an environment where raiding, rape and pillage were normal. Any lord or king who was unsuccessful would be replaced, commonly by murder, as readily as the modern sacking of a football coach or CEO.
MacBeth had gained power by force of arms from Duncan, but Watson argues that this was consistent with the “best practice” statecraft of the time. Duncan had just led Scotland into a failed invasion of England, and his replacement would have been welcomed and entirely expected. MacBeth’s claim to the throne was equal to any, and his method of asserting it not exceptional.
So why the bad rap?
Duncan had been the first King appointed on the principle of primogeniture – his descent from the previous King Malcolm. This was a break from the Scottish tradition of rotating the monarchy among several families with royal claims – including MacBeth’s own ancestors.
A prosperous MacBeth could afford the huge expense, and the political risk, of a pilgrimage to Rome.  Pope Leo IX was in the process of reorganizing the hierarchies of the Roman Catholic Church across all of Europe, so Watson surmises that MacBeth hoped to persuade the Pope to confirm Scottish nationhood by appointing a separate Archbishop for Scotland.
This may be what really provoked the English King Edward to overthrow MacBeth. Regime change has a long history.
Shakespeare’s patron was James Stuart, just appointed James I of England on principles of primogeniture. The 16th Century “histories” had been edited to apply this principle, retrospectively, to MacBeth’s era. In history, Banquo only appears in accounts written 500 years after the events of Macbeth. Banquo was invented to provide an ancient lineage for the Stuart dynasty, including Shakespeare’s King James.

Cocktails and Daggers in Diplomacy's Courtly World

A History of Diplomacy

By Jeremy Black,
Reaktion Books, 312pp.
Reviewed: 15 May, 2010

From early historic times, the written records of Hittite and Egyptian empires give detailed descriptions of the protocols and ceremonies for the reception of foreign envoys, to ensure that relations between competing states and individual rulers should not be more violent, nor costly, than necessary.

Diplomacy is the function and culture of mutually-recognised arrangements to mediate communication between states. Black tracks the development of diplomacy as a specialist profession; the continuing tug-of-war between ideology, idealism and realism affecting diplomatic relations; and the modern complexity caused by growth of numbers and kinds of states that need to be accommodated in any national or international diplomatic practice.
Envoys used to be personal representatives of an individual sovereign. Ambassadors had to put up a display of pomp and conspicuous life-style at least as grand as their competitors at a foreign court. Scandals and even traffic accidents arose from diplomats vying for protocol precedence.
Diplomatic privileges and immunities have had many functions apart from the protection of foreign legates. Amongst them was royal shopping – Louis XV of France ordered hunting dogs and condoms to be delivered from London, through diplomatic channels.
The slow evolution of states, from absolute monarchies toward versions of electoral democracy, has in many ways complicated the lives of diplomats, though rendering them generally less liable to be beheaded for a failed mission or a protocol blunder.
Contested sovereignty and claims for independence have always created problems on the status of representation and recognition – current glaring examples are Taiwan and Palestine. 
Resident diplomats still have a very practical role in providing information and intelligence to their home government, aided by conventions such as immunity from local laws. Increasingly, they are also called upon to participate in forms of public relations activity that would been unthinkable in earlier times, when diplomats were a privileged, often secretive, elite.
For most of history, Empires and hegemonic powers have played a significant role in managing conflicts between lesser states. Now, an interdependant, globalized world is supposedly organized into almost two hundred sovereign states enjoying nominally equal status, in fora such as the United Nations or World Trade Organisation.
Black considers the greatest weakness of diplomacy to be inability to resolve differences that are ideological, religious, or otherwise irrational. Diplomacy should deliver outcomes of most advantage to most parties – and that requires compromise. Neither Jihadists nor Neo-Cons may see the point.
Diplomacy faces future challenges from rising powers, such as China, that may see advantage in repudiating “Western” notions of international diplomatic practice. But Black suggests that the tested methods and conventions of diplomacy remain a vital tool as, at least, one of several tracks for managing the relations between sovereign powers. The specialist understanding of local nuance can be the difference between conflict and resolution.

Richard Thwaites spent many years on the fringes of the diplomatic world, as observer and as participant

Difference: the true test of Democracy

Taming the Gods:

Religion and Democracy on Three Continents
By Ian Buruma,
Princeton University Press, 132pp.
Reviewed: 17 April, 2010

We face many current political issues in which religious belief, or religious identity, stress test the operation of our democratic processes.

The terms “democracy” and “freedom” are thrown about without definition. Demagogues appropriate them for their own purposes, as if democracy and freedom were unquestionable absolutes. When democratic societies include different communities, each claming divine authority for incompatible religious beliefs, then the secular foundation of democracy may be questioned.
Ian Buruma's “democracy” is not a majoritarian monoculture which demands conformity, but a liberal society which tolerates difference within a framework of shared rights and obligations. The heart of this book is the question: how much difference is tolerable?
It's significant that Buruma is a European. Though working within commute of Manhattan and writing primarily for an American readership, he barely refers to the 2001 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Centre and is dismissive of the apocalyptic “Clash of Civilisations” thinking that gained such a populist boost from that event. Extremists are not nearly as interesting, nor as important, as the way that democratic societies respond to changes and differences in belief within their own populations.
Buruma himself doesn't like politicized multiculturalism (which he believes is dangerously divisive in democracies) but he argues that modern democracies must accommodate significant differences in the values held by their members - on the basis of tolerance rather than institutional multiculturalism.
The essence of a liberal democracy, he says, is that all members of society must be subject to the same laws without discrimination, but that those laws must be limited to secular rights and obligations. The realm of state law must be clearly separated both from religious institutions and from regulation of behaviour on religious principles unless those principles can be justified by rational argument.
In most Christian countries, the threat to liberal democracy comes more from extremist Christian fundamentalism  than from any foreign religion. In non-Western societies, most religious extremism reflects political alienation partly induced by Western cultural and economic dominance, rather than any kind of global ambition.
As to Islam: with the exception of Iran and possibly Saudi Arabia, he notes that all significant Muslim countries are functioning secular states, and several of the biggest (including Turkey and Indonesia) are effective democracies coping well with significant internal difference.
Buruma's argument is that, to preserve itself, a liberal democracy may tolerate any degree of differences in belief, including beliefs that are themselves illiberal, but can only tolerate differences in behaviour that do not offend the rights of others set out in laws applying to every citizen.
The test for liberal democracy is to convince those whose beliefs are not implemented that their rights are nevertheless respected.
A book like this can not really produce answers, but can certainly sharpen the questions.
Richard Thwaites has lived in both tolerant and intolerant societies

Deep Focus on the Hazards of Digital Culture

You Are Not a Gadget:

A Manifesto
By Jaron Lanier, Allen Lane, 210pp.
Reviewed: 20 March, 2010

This is the best book I have read on the challenges posed by the growth of digital online culture, and it is in a printed book that you can hold in your hand, dog-ear, annotate, or throw on the floor whenever the punchy aphorisms get too much.

Jason Lanier writes with love of the possibilities of digital media to represent and extend our experience of reality. But he writes with even more passion about the capacity of humans to abuse those possibilities in ways that demean human individualism.
He writes with the authority of one who has been at the technical forefront of the “digital revolution” for decades: as a pioneer of Virtual Reality, inventor of online avatars, developer of computer-assisted microsurgery techniques and big-selling video games, and as a long-term university teacher and industry columnist.
His central concern is that his fellow engineers are so infatuated with the possibilities of the digital realm that they are blind to threats to individual personality and to the social interaction of real people in a real world. Lanier sees these threats not as intentionally malign, but as inherent to the way software design is reductive of any experience that the software purports to represent.
Where Web 2.0 proponents talk about individual empowerment and information freedom, Lanier sees “a torrent of petty designs”, uniformly driven by targeted advertising platforms, where personalities are crammed into templates and “friendship” means no more than having a record in a database.
“Anonymous blog comments, vapid video pranks and lightweight mash-ups” are not valuable creativity or genuine social interaction. Instead, they detain their participants in “neotony”, a state of immaturity based on play, rather than mature social contribution. Genuine personal interaction is replaced and demeaned by involvement in activities in which pretence is normal. The most successful participants in Facebook, he says, are those whose identities are faked.
Anonymity brings out the worst in us - the “inner troll”. Pseudonymous online discussions can quickly descend into abuse, and online bullying is by no means just a school-age phenomenon – scientists and philosophers can get just as down and dirty under a cloak of invisibility.
Lanier strongly resents the assumption by digital natives that, if “information wants to be free”, then anyone has the right to appropriate an author’s work and use it in any way, without reference or acknowledgment. He is also bothered by Google-type online library schemes that serve up a miscellany of “relevant” excerpts in response to a query, in which each minced excerpt has been classified by some remote, non-transparent algorithm, and authors’ words are divorced from their original context.

Richard Thwaites has worked with computers, software and digital content for thirty years, but has 0 Facebook friends. 

'Stealing' Ideas: the Murky Waters of Copyright and the Piracy Debate


The Intellectual Property Wars from Gutenberg to Gates
By Adrian Johns, University of Chicago Press, 591pp.
Reviewed - Canberra Times' Public Service Informant 6 March 2010

If intellectual property piracy is a form of theft, then legitimate owners must be robbed of their property. Is “intellectual property” an oxymoron? To what extent can an idea be someone’s property?

Professor Adrian Johns of Chicago University provides an illuminating history of the debates, wrangles and occasionally violent struggles that have characterised the development of intellectual property rights and their enforcement.
Since the european Enlightenment, economies generally have developed away from monarchic patronage, and toward monetized markets based on private property. Printing and later communication technologies have enabled markets for information of every kind, with ever cheaper unit costs of reproduction and distribution. Governments have long recognized that creators of valuable ideas, or valuable expressions of ideas, should be compensated for their effort and investment. But there is no natural barrier to replication and appropriation of their work in a free market for information.
Patents (for a design) and copyrights (for a reproducible expression) are in fact private monopoly privileges. They descend directly from monopolies handed out by kings (published in “letters patent”) in return for money or loyalty. 
A state-granted intellectual property right is a defined opportunity to use (or authorise others to use) a created work in particular ways, in particular places, and for a particular period of time. Like other “rights”, without enforcement by state authority it is worthless.
Johns’ account shows that the conflicting interests and arguments, the commercial and political tactics, have barely changed over the centuries.
Creators seek recognition and reward for their efforts. Entrepreneurs seek maximum market profits in publishing or other commercial exploitation. A public interest seeks maximum access at minimum cost, the freedom to appropriate and develop on others’ ideas, and trust in the authenticity of information and products. And politicians try to balance these irreconcilable demands, buffeted by vociferous lobbies and frustrated by often literalist courts.
Over the centuries it has been the entrepreneurs – not the creators - who win most arguments about intellectual property. The case for extending or enforcing property rights is usually promoted as supporting creators, but for the most part the commercialisation of creative effort delivers only trivial dividends to those original creators. 
The “piracy” theme of this book highlights the defiance of information monopolies that was to some criminal, to others heroic, and to most simply pragmatic. 
Johns wonders how intellectual property rights can survive this Internet age of borderless, instantaneous and apparently uncontrollable exchange of information. Despite current rhetoric and propaganda stunts, governments may be losing the ability, and perhaps the will, to defend exclusive rights in a global market.

Richard Thwaites has worked in book publishing, journalism, the National Office for the Information Economy, and on international negotiations on trade in services.

Radio Broadcasting: Private Interests, Public Interest

Changing Stations:

The Story of Australian Commercial Radio
By Bridget Griffen-Foley, University of New South Wales Press, 530pp.
Reviewed: 19 December 2009

The 80-year story of commercial radio in Australia is a remarkable one. Britain stuck for decades to state-owned broadcasting, and America left all domestic broadcasting to the private sector, but Australia, since the 1930s, has maintained a rare hybrid of public and private broadcasting, maintained by a moving kaleidoscope of government regulation.

“Wireless” broadcasting, beginning in the 1920s, was the most significant development in public communication in six centuries since the printing press. There was no precedent for a technology that allowed whole populations to be addressed both simultaneously and individually in their own homes and workplaces.
This new power generated both excitement and alarm. Governments quickly realised that some form of regulation would be required. The British model was for the state to monopolise broadcasting “for the public good”. The American model developed more in the way that traffic regulation follows accidents: an initial free-for-all phase had resulted in the chaos of competing private stations trying to shout each other down on the same tuning frequencies.
By the early 1930s the established arbiters of public communication – politicians, churches, social activists and the press – all began insisting on degrees of access and control of the new medium. Electronic media had arrived as a key vector of Australian social and cultural discourse. Its history has always been political.
Griffen-Foley is a professional historian who has assiduously mined the archives of commercial radio operators, networks, regulators and especially the records of the Federation of Australian Radio Broadcasters (more recently known as Commercial Radio Australia).
Vested interest groups have tussled repeatedly across the decades. Station owners always fought against any increase in the number of stations sharing market revenue, or any increase in government regulation. FARB’s intense lobbying was successful in delaying for decades the introduction of additional AM licences, then FM radio, and then digital radio.
Program content producers (sheet music publishers, record companies, drama producers, newsagencies, sports organisations and individual “stars”) have battled to increase their shares of the revenue pie and to limit cannibalisation of their other revenue sources. Advertising agencies’ control over the direction of advertising revenue enabled them often to dictate program policies to suit their clients. For commercial radio, the bottom line had to rule.
Politicians have rarely dared to face down the private interests of commercial broadcasters, preferring to make overt or tacit deals that will protect the politicians of the day from the hostility of this most intimate and persuasive of the mass media.
Richard Thwaites has worked variously with ABC radio, community radio, and for several years heading the departmental branch advising federal Ministers on commercial broadcasting.

Stories and Why We Need Them: Evolution and Fictional Narrative

On the Origin of Stories:

Evolution, Cognition and Fiction
By Brian Boyd, Harvard University Press, 540pp.
Reviewed: 24 October 2009

Why do we bother with stories? Why do humans invest so much energy in making, sharing and consuming narratives that we know are not factual, when we could put that energy into competing to accumulate, consume and defend ever more possessions?
In evolutionary terms, pleasure is not the reason for anything, but rather the reward for something that contributes to our success as individuals or as a species.
Brian Boyd, Distinguished Professor of English at Auckland University, is fed up with “the recently dominant paradigm that calls itself Theory or Critique” which, he believes, has displaced holistic study of human culture with shallow, circular, and presumptuous ideologies.
Boyd approaches literature, and art in general, from the “biocultural” perspective that sees the individual psyche not as a zero-sum balance between Nature and Nurture, but as a dynamic product of both. Our evolved and evolving common humanity (with individual genetic variations) refracted, in each person, through the cultures of specific times, places and life experience.
He expects some to scoff that this approach is reductive or mechanistic, because it implies denial of the sublime, the divine, or the grandly political. Boyd contends that to see culture in the full context of its evolutionary function is in fact to open the study of art and literature to its widest, most inclusive scope.
When baby humans (and other creatures) play with toys, they demonstrate the ability to engage mentally, physically and emotionally with fiction. Play constitutes rehearsal for life in ways that contribute to evolutionary success.
Pre-verbal art, such as cave paintings, must have had strategic value. Once human language evolved to the point where it could transmit ideas about past and future, narrative became possible.  We have learned to use fiction to practice tactical deceits, and also to exchange stories that train our brains for ultrasocial life. Group identity, ideology and religion are reinforced by such stories.
The unpredictability of the diverse human environment gives evolutionary advantage to individuals who can learn to cope with threats and opportunities before having to encounter them in the real world.

The Unforgiving Digital Past and the Updated Possible Future


The Virtue of Forgetting in the Digital Age
By Victor Mayer-Schönberger, Princeton University Press, 237pp.

Future Files:

A History of the Next 50 Years
By Richard Watson, Scribe Publications, 302pp
Reviewed: 21 November 2009

Most readers show more interest in better remembering than in better forgetting. But Mayer-Schönberger, an ex-Harvard Public Policy academic now based in Singapore, believes that our world of digital information storage and retrieval is at serious risk of remembering too much for our own good.

He says mental and social health depend on a reliable process of forgetting. Decisions we make should not be over-influenced by past events whose context is no longer relevant. What’s more, if we are aware that our words and actions will be relentlessly recalled, we inhibit our natural responses to the present. 
To argue for more forgetting is counter-intuitive to those who value information, history and transparency, but the writer pursues it systematically and thoroughly. Humans learned useful ways to externalise, preserve and communicate memory with pictures, then oral language, then writing. This generation has moved orders of magnitude into the out-sourcing of memory through information technologies of formidable capability.
It is now cheaper to store digitised information for ever rather than spend the time to selectively delete documents, images and communications whose ephemeral purpose has long been met. 
So is it fair that a person’s job prospects or personal relations can be blighted by the retrieval of some injudicious photograph or email sent across the Internet decades earlier, in a context that has long changed? This book asserts that we all should have the right to re-make ourselves over time and shed the past.
For the individual, the author suggests that perfectly-retrieved digital memories actually impede decision-making. Sometimes, it’s actually harmful to remember accurately how we or others felt and acted at specific times in the past. His favoured solution is to time-stamp all digital information with an expiration date controlled by its “owner”. 
Good luck with that. 
Richard Watson’s Future Files: A History of the Next 50 Years is promoted as a provocative book, and it certainly succeeded with this reviewer. Spanning society, technology, business, entertainment and business, Watson brandishes a fire-hose of snappy analyses and predictions, any of which could kick off a robust argument in a pub or over a dining table. 
The value of this book is not any single prediction you could put your money on, but rather a persistent prodding to think and argue about possible projections from where we are today. And so, about possible consequences of how we act today.
Richard Thwaites has worked in the National Office for the Information Economy and former Department of Communications, IT and the Arts. 

Remaking Disordered Cities, from the Bottom Up

Welcome to the Urban Revolution:

How Cities are Changing the World
By Jeb Brugmann, University of Queensland Press, 342pp.
Reviewed: 22 August 2009

Canberrans live in one of the most self-conscious cities in the world. Canberra’s history as a compromise child of Federation, rather than as an heroic colony of the Empire, divides us from the States. We are the only city-state on this continent of vast expanses. Our local economy reflects a national project, rather than any spontaneous factor.

Jeb Brugmann’s work on the global challenges of urban development ignores our category of national project capitals (of which there is long and growing list). Brugmann is a Canadian who has worked most of his life on urban development issues in United Nations and NGO development agencies and projects. Ottawa, too, is ignored.
The thesis is that the potentially devastating resource issues confronting humanity can be addressed most effectively through a community of practice that he calls “urbanism”, expressed through the implementation of deep local consultation and collaboration systems that he calls “urban regimes”.
Most of the time, top-down government urban planning fails, because it is either fatally compromised by corruption and commercial opportunism, or based on too shallow and too short-term consideration of consequences. Even genuinely democratic governments become hooked on the short-term revenues and positive economic indicators that can be extracted from building projects and schemes whose performance is measured in quick financial returns rather than long-term economic benefit.
Brugmann uses the term “Urban Revolution” loosely to describe the mass global transformation of humanity from rural to urban economies, rather than in any neo-Marxian sense of confrontational regime change. Urbanist principles deprecate the modernist master-planning approach in favour of something much more akin to organic agriculture. Start with the soil, foster the natural ecosystem.
The “urbanist regime” that he advocates involves a great deal of economic empowerment at grass-roots neighbourhood level, minimising disruption of local informal economies, high valuation of public asset and amenity over private gain, and political power exercised for the long term rather than for the budget or electoral cycle.
Brugmann’s idealistic “urban regimes” have much appeal when set up against the apparent capture of constitutional government decisions by the more powerful, or better organised, vested interests.
Jeb Brugmann’s book is a valuably holistic perspective on urban futures extending beyond the physical and infrastructure planning dimension to integrated, local socio-economics.
As to the Urban Revolution: a reader may choose to adopt this as a handbook, but would be advised also to keep handy a copy of Animal Farm, just to cross-check on any Civil Society urban regime that might emerge.
Richard Thwaites has worked extensively in both government and non-government organisations.