Obviously, the way in which culture and ideas are presented have changed in recent decades. One often hears that we are in a world of short attention spans. Thus, people don’t read books anymore. They read short pieces on the internet, like blogs. People don’t listen to albums any more, they download songs instead. This short attention span is also thought to be reflected in the use of cell phones, with people constantly multi-tasking and not being able to focus on one matter at a time. All of this is sometimes thought to be a reflection on the undisciplined habits of mind of the younger generation.
But that’s not my view. To begin with, it seems clear to me that the causation runs in the opposite direction. It is not the short attention span or undisciplined minds of the young that is causing this. Instead, it is the technology that promotes these behaviors that is the primary cause. Part of the proof for this is that older people, who presumably had more disciplined minds back in the day, often behave in much the same way as the younger people when using this new technology.
Another problem with a short attention span being the cause of this behavior comes from the world of modern TV shows, especially of the pay TV or cable variety. The old style TV shows could be watched in any order. They were designed that way. One could watch All In The Family or ER in pretty much any order. There was a reason for this: in a world with either no or limited VCRs, people could not be expected to catch every TV show in order.
One of the most striking changes since I have been a law professor is the rise in the number of legal articles written jointly. This increase in collaboration is of more than academic interest because the reasons for it are leading to greater collaboration in other areas, too. The result will be greater prosperity and human flourishing.
First, joint authorship has grown with interdisciplinary scholarship. Increasingly, law is the subject of inquiry in other disciplines – economics, political science and psychology prominent among them. But those with expertise in these areas frequently lack institutional knowledge of and practical experience in law. They can strengthen their arguments by partnering with law professors more sophistication about these matters, who, in turn get the advantage of more disciplined frameworks of social science. We see the same phenomenon in public policy, where different kinds of knowledge are more regularly pooled, resulting in a fuller, less one-dimensional view of the world.
Second, many law professors also team up in their research, even if neither have interdisciplinary backgrounds. The modern legal academy is marked by increased competition for both students and faculty. Standards for productivity and quality have clearly risen even in my two decades in the businesses. One way of competing better is to combine forces.
The transition from one year to the next prompts reflections on how our relation to the past constitutes the politics of the present. Before the 1700s politics was wholly oriented toward the past. As Robert Tombs puts it in his brilliant new book, The English and Their History: “Legitimacy came from the past: rights, status, property, laws—all were inherited. So desirable changes were conceptualized as a return to a pristine past. The idea was of a stable ordered hierarchy in which all knew and accepted their place.” In that world the culture made political arguments naturally conservative. Public ideals had to be put in the categories created by past practices.
The hierarchy described by Tombs started to break down with the rise of capitalism. But the nature of political legitimacy persisted, as the memory of the people still preserved an idealized past. Thus, even in the eighteenth and early nineteenth century political arguments were almost entirely founded on continuity with past political settlements, real or imagined. The American Revolution was fought on the basis that the British government was violating what they understood as the ancient prerogatives of Englishmen, which were then codified as the Bill of Rights.
But as technology created one new revolutionary invention after another and the market broadly delivered these benefits, the culture necessarily became focused on the future.
John Paulson’s contribution of 400 million dollars to the Harvard Engineering Department has been greeted with a chorus of criticism, mostly from the left. The complaint is that he should have given the money to the poor instead. Malcolm Gladwell’s tweet is representative: “It came down to helping the poor or giving the world’s richest university $400 mil it doesn’t need. Wise choice John!”
If I had 400 million to contribute, I might well have directed elsewhere myself. But Paulson’s contribution is a sensible idea. The anger from the left reflects its inability to understand that in the long run technology allied to markets is likely to help the poor more than direct aid.
Engineering departments are the locus of modern alchemy where basic science is turned into the technology that produces gold in the modern world.
Many critics have chalked up the craze for Downton Abbey to nostalgia for a time of simplicity and aristocratic elegance. But Downton Abbey resonates because of present dilemmas, even if they are set in the past. It relentlessly focuses on a central, if not the central, problem of our time and of modernity in general—how to adapt social norms in ages of ever faster technological change.
Technological transformation is the major theme of Downton Abbey. The landed aristocracy is giving way to a new urban middle class whose wealth comes from industrialization. Because of downsizing, even the marriages of aristocrats must be lived at closer quarters and become more companionate, giving rise to a felt need for closer forms of courtship to assess compatibility. Last week’s episode introduced the radio, which permits the King to speak to his subjects, but begins the process that Walter Bagehot feared would let light on the “magic of the monarchy” and so dissolve the majestic mystery that preserves the loyalty of the realm.
Major characters in the series embody very different attitudes toward tradition and change.
In an era of technological acceleration, gauging the effect of new technology on our lives is ever more important. Thus, I welcome Justin Buckley Dyer’s skeptical take on the influence of social media on social life, even if I am largely skeptical of his skepticism and even in greater disagreement with his views on technological progress in general.
Dyer suggests that social media will distract people from making the real connections with others essential to human flourishing. My first reason for doubt is the lack of data. Do people have fewer real friendships because they have more “friends” on Facebook? To be sure, Dyer is not at fault for not supplying a quantitative analysis. Even though our computational age is more amenable than ever to empiricism, we do not have the data to answer that question. Moreover, to answer it, we would have to quantify true friendship—a process that Dyer might well think would defeat the entire enterprise.
But even in the absence of complete information, we can see that social media can be a complement to rather than a substitute for conventional friendship.
Peter Thiel’s new book, Zero to One, is ostensibly a self-help book for those who want to succeed at start-ups. But any powerful self-help book flows from a philosophy of the world, and Thiel reflects his libertarian and transhumanist impulses. Zero to One is thus far more interesting and more original than most business books. But the book is also at times disappointing because, amid arresting insights, it contains overstatements and simplifications. And at the heart of the book is a paradox: Thiel believes that innovation is less than it could be, but he does not offer a convincing explanation of why the market for startups should be failing.
The specific advice to startups is the book’s greatest strength.