Cultural Transmission

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This week I learnt that my work has been plagiarised in a heritage/UNESCO-themed document apparently issued to school pupils by the Nanking Model United Nations. Setting a great example there...


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Various online thesaurus sites have in their databases the word duskheap, as a synonym for e.g. midden. This looks very likely to be a typo for dustheap; no duskheap seems to be known even (no pun intended) to the O.E.D. What a beautiful error though: imagine digging on a duskheap, through the layered remnants of countless yestereves, long-spent twilghts and disused mirknings, sunsets piled on sunsets in a loaming of gloaming.


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A while back I was contracted to write a chapter for a textbook in philosophy of technology, on the theme of video games and virtual reality. Owing to publishing lead times, the book is due out next April, but my chapter has been drafted and revised already, back when it was clear I ought to mention Augmented Reality but the latest topical example was Google Glass. Just in time to be overtaken by the next big thing...

Pokemon Go, as we all know, is just the beginning when it comes to Augmented Reality, which is on the cusp of upending our lives as we know it. It won’t be long before everything from healthcare to education to city planning is affected – and you can be sure that advertisers are already looking at ways to take advantage. What is clear is that governments haven’t got a clue how to handle it. If a virtual Speero egg in a Hindu temple is enough to cause a lawsuit, what about adverts for alcohol, or dating sites, or porn? How are the courts going to deal with copyright infringement, or the safety of AR tourist attractions, or taxing products that do not actually exist in the real world? It’s not an issue of if, but when, and the default approach of a blanket ban will just force a budding new enterprise underground, where it will remain a risk to public security.

Still, there are consoling thoughts: I can remember the first VR boom, and the bubble of interest in virtual worlds, and I duly made it plain in the chapter that grand visions of the technological future come and go, and that I have no certain idea whether AR will turn out to be another fad of its day. VR has its second wind, but as I once wrote elsewhere, the future often appears to be bearing down upon us faster than it really is; though in this case it did come faster than the speed of print.

Cultural Riches

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I’ve long thought it curious that returning art confiscated by the Nazi regime gets treated under the heading of restitution of cultural heritage, given that it deals with personal property, seldom with what belongs to Jewish culture or German culture or whatever culture. I’m reminded of that by an article seeking to argue that we should all be equally eager to return everything else. Unfortunately, it's the kind of article that hares straight off towards a preselected conclusion; I was a bit surprised, for example, to be told that ‘the Ottomans ha[d] ruled Athens for centuries without harming the [Parthenon] sculptures’ without even a passing mention of that accident with the gunpowder...

The main thesis seems to be that ‘belief in the superiority of colonising cultures’ and consequent ‘disdain for non-Europeans’ explains ‘why the Elgin Marbles, not the Benin Bronzes or Aboriginal art or Chinese antiquities, are the face of the debate about cultural repatriation’. I don’t follow this notion of relative obscurity. I remember when Randall McGuire visited Durham and delivered a lecture on returning artefacts and human remains to the Yaqui: he made it very clear how little they possess of anything and how much they live on the edge. In contrast, the Bronzes, like the Marbles, have been subject to widely reported interventions by a national government; Nefertiti and the Rosetta Stone had Zahi Hawass; the Koh-i-Noor attracts high-level political interest... In that little list of famous cases only the Marbles are of European origin. It’s just that some heritage objects (notable exhibits in their own right) are in the eye of well connected, well monied, well heeled interests, whereas some... aren’t.


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Backward-looking, reactionary, left behind by the pace of change and resenting the modern world. But enough of those demanding a rerun...

It feels like the end of Calvin and Hobbes spliced with the end of that Fawlty Towers episode with the ‘forgotten’ anniversary. (My hunch is that had things gone the other way I’d have been citing the end of The Graduate... but we’ll never know.)

The obvious and immediate effects are political and economic, but there’s a visible ripple effect in the epistemic realm that holds so much else aloft: new fractures appearing in conceptual models of how the world works, how to manage it, and what counts as having credentials to do so. Exhilarating or traumatic or both, according to your taste and circumstances.

I wonder what the old Nudge Unit people make of it all. Political science has crashed into the art of politics.

Sell stock in knowingness, assuredness, and this guy. Buy assets in curiosity; this could be a great time for big ideas.