Rambles around computer science

Diverting trains of thought, wasting precious time

Fri, 01 Apr 2022

Anti-prosperity in the UK, part one

(I thought about calling this “Never Mind the Bullshit Jobs”... but that would apply better to a future part.)

Various rhetoric about government-funded academic research here in the UK seem increasingly to use the word “prosperity”. For me this has become a major red flag. Despite the positive-sounding idea that “prosperity” exists as an easily recognised and obviously good thing, it is often invoked by interested parties attempting to whitewash issues that in fact are subtle and, usually, deeply political. In many cases, claims of “prosperity” are used as cover for outright harm.

(This post will be overtly political. However, I don't believe very much in it is controversial.)

For examples of anti-prosperity, we only have to look at ad-funded social media “prospering” from monetised hatred and insecurity, or ad-funded cloud computing “prospering” from mass surveillance. Alternatively we can look at the countless corporations “prospering” from the constant private and public investment in unsustainable high-energy technologies, from electric cars to data centres to cryptocurrency, deliberately disregarding both the carbon cost and the other emitted pollutants (whether particulates, carbon or coinbros) while starving out the adoption of obvious low-energy alternatives. We could look more generally at the epidemic of “crap automation” afflicting our society—lower-cost but fundamentally less effective “solutions” to all manner of formerly human service roles, most obviously in customer services and retail, but nowadays increasingly in knowledge work (transcription, translation, tuition) and even in healthcare. All of these bring opportunities to make profit for someone, but also to lose value for people at large. Nobody in their right mind would call that “prosperity”, yet that is what is too often meant. As Illich argued, our very definitions of progress are controlled by a select few—whom he called “self-certifying professional elites”—who are very often engaged or invested in programmes of work that once arguably did good, but have shifted towards doing outright harm.

When harm is profitable to private individuals, we should expect people to pursue it. What we should also expect is that academics and government act against that harm. Instead, harmdoers are helped on their way, by complicit academics and wrong-headed government initiatives. Government has worked hard to align public fundability of university research (whether by project grants or REF-dependent block grants) with assistance of incumbent industry giants, hence with private fundability. Private harmdoers have worked hard to embed their interests and attitudes within universities. And as academics we are increasingly encouraged to forget about such questions altogether, and just do whatever it takes to bring in the money for which our institutions are so desperately hungry.

The issue is both institutional and individual. Like “Colonel Blimp” Candy in the film, our institutions are made in the image of another age. It's tempting to say “the Boomer age”, but Illich and others saw the harms even fifty years ago. Over that time, institutions have become even less effective at enshrining socially productive values, through a combination of ill-adaptedness, complacency, inertia and (to a non-trivial extent) active infiltration. But individuals have become rotten too: the incentives on academics have never been more toxic or less conducive to good societal outcomes, yet the academic pushback on these bad incentives has been about as effective as a hard-boiled frog.

Let's consider perhaps the most glaring example, of how cosiness with the fossil fuel industry is rife within our universities. While I was a PhD student at Christ's College, Cambridge, a cheerful man named Reg introduced himself to me as the new Bursar, explaining that he had recently retired from British Petroleum (BP). Here was a company that for decades had been roundly thought of as comprising jolly good trustworthy establishment sorts who were bringing “prosperity” to the great British nation. More recently it is better known for as criminally liable for the largest marine oil spill in history and of course for its core business of bringing about the climate disaster, by removing from the ground things that need to stay in the ground. It does so while frantically trying to greenwash its image by touting a tiny fraction of its subsidiary activities. In 2018 the Christ's College Council voted against terminating its investments in fossil fuel companies, despite what was at the time conspicuous lack of coherent argument supporting that decision. A little earlier, still in Cambridge, in a debate about university investments, an academic funded by the fossil fuels industry had stood up and pronounced these industry players as “the good guys” of decarbonisation. That claim was not plausible at the time, and even in a few short years, it hasn't aged well.

Although perhaps implausible, I don't doubt that these beliefs were well-meant. Let's say your research is about combustion efficiency. Great! If it succeeds, we can burn less fuel per unit useful energy. Isn't that helping? And if BP (or whoever) is funding this, maybe they're doing good? It's easy to rationalise yourself into believing this sort of argument, particularly if your career, wealth and standing all benefit from it. Unfortunately it doesn't stand up to systems thinking. It's well accepted that humanity's goal now must be to keep as much carbon in the ground as possible. Increasing the efficiency of a destructive technology has many indirect effects that work against that. It is likely to prolong these technologies' lifespans, maintain for longer their positions in the market, give fodder to lobbyists' efforts to stall government regulation, bolster the fortunes of companies invested in pursuing them further, excuse and enable superficial non-fixes (hydrogen to replace natural gas, anyone? how much of that is really going to come from green electrolysis?), slow the writedown of fossil-fuel plant investments (anyone heard of stranded assets?) hence lengthen the operating life of these plants and practices, and ultimately lead to more of fossil fuel being burnt. And that is no accident; it is what these companies want because it ekes out more returns from the money they have sunk into existing activities, plant and expertise. It benefits their shareholders, to humanity's detriment.

Academics less reliant on funding from or “partnership with” giant corporates might be more awake to all this. Externally dependent “academic” research programmes are an inherently corruptible entrerprise, and even publicly-funded programmes are largely in that category. Many of the consumption-based industries underpinning modern society have long since crossed Illich's second threshold: they are doing active harm, while passing it off as progress. Incumbent corporates' fingers reach into most or all influential institutions of the state. They spend good money on appearing like the good guys, and for them it is well worth it.

Quite often I can ascribe academic complicity to benign naivety... but not always. One non-executive director of BP is a certain Ann Dowling, a professor of considerable standing at Cambridge, who has also happened to wield much influence over funding nationally, as chair of one of the four REF panels in 2014. Besides her, many other academics in Cambridge have deep relationships with BP and similar companies. (The same is likely true in many institutions; I'm picking on Cambridge because I know it the best.) Not so coincidentally, divestment from fossil fuels was vehemently resisted by much of that university's establishment in the face of increasing grass-roots pressure during (especially) 2016–18. The idea that “fossil fuels are our trusty financial friend” was still ingrained, not just as an ambient belief but by concrete financial interests, both institutional and personal. These were enough to bring out dirty tricks and “arguments” that would shame any free-thinking academic. (As these companies know, thinking is more easily captured than carbon.)

This was never more blindingly apparent than in 2018 at the issue of a non-report by a so-called “Divestment Working Group”. The group was ostensibly answering a grass-roots call to assess the benefits of divestment, but was actually given vague and irrelevant terms of reference and delivered a similarly vague and irrelevant report. Later, in 2019 it was reported in The Guardian that professors Simon Redfern and John Shakeshaft, both members of the group, failed to declare an apparent conflict of interest from their role in processes around accepting funding from BP. The linked “conflict of interest register” (not public) indeed does not mention such interests. Perhaps dealing with BP money was so routine for them that it slipped their minds. Perhaps there is another explanation. But either way, this situation represents a problem. Even crediting those involved the best will in the world, it does not seem plausible that these financial relationships were entirely isolated from other decision-making.

The same document also reveals that the chair of that working group, Athene Donald, was decent enough to declare that she held stock in three well-known fossil fuel companies. (The holdings are described as “small”... but as any good physicist knows, small is relative.) It says a lot that this wasn't enough to red-flag her as chair; one doesn't have to be too cynical to suspect it may even have green-flagged her, given the evidently low risk of her putting her mouth where her money wasn't. The Vice-Chancellor at the time the working group was formed, Leszek Borysiewicz, had told me in person that he opposed divestment because his overriding concern was the apparent hypocrisy of holding research collaborations with companies like BP in whom the university would meanwhile be declining to invest. The same Guardian article quotes a university spokesperson stating falsely to the press that the working group's recommendation of (essentially) inaction was “backed by the full Council”. In fact, a note of dissent had been submitted by two academic Council members in addition to the two student members. The relevant press release shamelessly attempted to bury the academic dissent under an obscure heading that appeared to conflate it with the student voice. Perhaps, again being charitable, the spokesperson simply absent-mindedly overlooked the dissent; “of course” there was consensus that supporting our fossil fuels multinationals, the good guys who so generously fund our research, is the path to prosperity. Again, that's charitable in the extreme, but it's a problem even if accurate.

It's true that some progress has since been made on the fossil fuel issue. Both Christ's and the University of Cambridge have since decided to divest from fossil fuels, at least ostensibly and perhaps also for real. But the rot still goes deep. From where I've been standing, this change does not appear driven by any sudden reevaluation of the nature of prosperity. Rather, it was pursued only once not doing so became toxic for PR in general and alumni relations in particular (thanks in part to articles such as the Guardian's, mentioned above). In short, it started to endanger another stream of income.

This isn't about fossil fuels per se. There is nothing to stop complacent institutions blundering into blinkered support for the next industries of anti-prosperity, despite their stated do-gooder aspirations. In fact this is already happening. My own field is not short of examples: where once Google or even Facebook might have seemed non-evil dynamic young collaborators, now their hooks are deeply embedded, even as their business models and operating practices are obviously beyond redemption. As more and more of academics' jobs involve fundraising for those self-same jobs, universities' resistance to blunders and infiltration can only decline. Academics' eyes light up the moment corporates dangle what, for them, are quite puny sums but to an academic are career currency. Career success selects for those who have the least compunction.

What can reverse this dynamic? Currently I don't see any tendency for self-correction—neither in general nor even (unbelievably) in the specific case of fossil fuels. In a recent departmental away afternoon here at King's, we were told that the best kind of impact is financially quantifiable impact, and (with a straight face) a really great success story at King's recently was enabling Schlumberger to drill for oil and gas in quantifiably more affordable ways. From what I can see, this isn't even the greenwashed case; it's direct helping with the out-and-out dirty work. Here in Cambridge, where I live, Schlumberger is also very present, and there is a nascent campaign to get the university (here) to dissociate from it... but reactive campaigning is not the answer. For a few headline issues, it might bear some fruit, as it did with the student campaign groups who tirelessly pushed the debate on the fossil fuel issue. Many staff members did so too, of whom I would single out Jeremy Caddick for his heroic tenacity. However, such campaigning takes an awfully long time to get results, during which time, much harm is done. For many issues, campaigning just never reaches critical mass.

Since so many individual academics evidently can't be relied on to shun anti-prosperity as a matter of course, the only real answer is to change the incentives. If we are to talk about real prosperity, and public research funds' ability to deliver it, we need to ask: where's our incentive for not enabling any of these things? Hatred, surveillance, fossil fuels, high-energy technologies in general (once again following Illich): how can we ramp all of these down to zero? Where are the institutional and governmental policies offering reward for work on doing so? Where are the penalties for work that goes the other way? Perhaps initially I'd even settle for a weaker version: how can we not be penalised for working on real prosperity? In a regime where big-number “financially quantifiable impact” and funding contributions from “industry partnerships” are given so much weight, there is a de facto penalty against work that isn't assisting the big-money corporates. Yet such work is exactly what real prosperity must involve. If any institution should be incentivised against anti-prosperity, surely universities should. Yet all the incentives point completely the wrong way.

So ends my first rant about anti-prosperity. By picking on fossil fuels, I've chosen a headline issue that is an easy target... and, it being rather outside my area, I could be accused of missing nuance. In one or more future posts I'll cover two further anti-prosperity issues rather more local to computer science. One is how the popular notion of “automation” (sorry, I mean “AI”) is being missold based on industrial notions of automation that ignore issues of human value and quality. The other is how aggregation has acquired an overwhelming mindshare, to the point that even bright people forget that or “scale-up” is not the only approach, and not even the only technical approach, to creating human value (indeed, it readily destroys value). All three issues are interrelated, in that the same small minorities benefit from all three, and each reinforces the others. It is a vicious cycle which universities should be countering, not amplifying.

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