Post scriptum (2022, week 14) — Going forward by going back, how the billionaires devoured the world, and the myth of tech exceptionalism

Mark Storm
26 min readApr 8, 2022
Kisho Kurokawa’s Nakagin Capsule Tower in Tokyo will be demolished — “I like to put the zeitgeist into my work, and be fulfilled when later generations understand how my time was by seeing my work,” Kisho Kurokawa once said in an interview. (Photograph by Raphael Koh)

Post scriptum is a weekly curation of my tweets. It is, in the words of the 16th-century French essayist and philosopher, Michel de Montaigne, “a posy of other men’s flowers and nothing but the thread that binds them is mine own.”

In this week’s Post scriptum: The dysfunctional ideology of progress; Davos Man’s domination of the gains of globalisation; how tech uses the promise of endless innovation to ward off regulating even its present-day harms; robots won’t build the classless society; the importance of the individual in history; does wisdom always come with old age?; art is the best method for exploring who and what we are; restored Brutalism in a Greek pine tree forest; and, finally, language is My Brilliant Friend’s true protagonist.

On to the era of negative progress

Last week, Samuel Matlack’s article in The New Atlantis, How Tech Despair Can Set You Free, introduced me to the French historian, sociologist and lay theologian Jacques Ellul. This week another first, courtesy of Thalia Verkade: John Michael Greer’s book The Retro Future: Looking to the Past to Remake the Future, which, according to Greer, “seeks to discuss what the world looks like in the wake of the end of progress.”

Anyone who believes in endless progress — the idea that society will become increasingly technologically advanced and that this is the only way forward — will find The Retro Future akin to swearing in church. And it is, says Greer, who believes that progressive thinking is an ‘ersatz religion’ — a replacement for the old-fashioned belief in God. An ‘ideology of industrialised culture.’

“Greer argues convincingly that you can see the present time, in which we use almost unlimited energy, as an anomaly — an exceptional phase for humanity, between the pre-industrial and de-industrialised era,” Verkade writes in On to the era of negative progress.

Greer realises “that asking people in the early twenty-first century to doubt the omnipotence and eternal goodness of progress ranks right up there with suggesting to a medieval peasant that God and his saints and angels aren’t up there in heaven anymore. There are nonetheless two crucial reasons why cumulative technological progress, of the sort that has reshaped the industrial world over the past three centuries, was a temporary, self-limiting process that often imposed costs that outweighed its benefits.”

The first is the law of diminishing returns — the principle that the more often you repeat a given action, the fewer benefits you get from each successive repetition and the more the costs mount up.

“Is technological progress subject to the same principle? Believers in progress like to insist that this can’t be the case, but the evidence suggests otherwise. Consider the way that energy technologies have become more and more expensive to develop over time. The steam engine, the first major energy technology innovation in modern times, was invented by working engineers in their off hours, using ordinary pipefitting tools. The internal combustion engine and the electrical generator required more systematic effort, but were still well within the reach of a single inventor working in a laboratory. Nuclear fission required an expenditure of money and resources so huge that only a handful of relatively rich nations could afford it. Commercial nuclear fusion power […] is turning out to be so costly that nobody anywhere can afford it at all.

In exactly the same way, and for many of the same reasons, the first advances in health care — basic sanitation, antiseptics, and vaccination — cost very little and brought immense benefits. With every passing year, costs went up and benefits went down, until current health care research is investing billions of dollars in projects that may benefit only a few people, if any. The low-hanging fruit got picked first, leaving more difficult projects for later. The same is true in every other field,” Greer writes.

The second is the externality trap. “Economic life in the industrial world these days can be described, without too much inaccuracy, as an arrangement set up to allow a privileged minority to externalize nearly all their costs onto the rest of society while pocketing as many as possible of the benefits themselves.


The more complex a technology becomes, the more costs it generates, since every bit of added complexity has to be paid for. Each more-complex technology thus has to externalize its additional costs in order to compete against the simpler technology it replaces. In the case of a hypercomplex technosystem such as the internet, the process of externalizing costs has gone so far, through so many tangled interrelationships, that it’s next to impossible to figure out exactly who is paying for how much of the gargantuan inputs needed to keep the thing running. This lack of transparency feeds the illusion that large systems are cheaper than small ones, by making externalities of scale look like economies of scale,” Greer argues in The Retro Future.

According to Greer, “[g]oing further in the direction we’ve been going means trying to expand per capita energy consumption in an era when fossil fuel reserves are depleting fast and the global economy is creaking and shuddering under the burden of increasingly costly fuel extraction. It means dumping ever more waste into the biosphere when the consequences of previous dumping are already bidding fair to threaten the survival of entire nations. On a less global scale, it also means shoddier products with louder advertising in a race to the bottom that’s already gone very far. […] It’s only from within the folk mythology of progress, though, that we have no choice but to accept the endless prolongation of current trends. Right now, as individuals, we can choose to shrug and walk away from the latest hypermodern trinkets, and do something else instead.”

What Greer suggests is going forward by going back.

It often seems that technology is becoming cheaper due to economies of scale. But Greer argues that every added piece of technology has to be paid for. Sometimes through governmental subsidies or another form of capital. But also by people who are victims of mining exploitation or a war for resources. “Look at Ukraine, global warming, the kids digging for cobalt in the mines in Congo, and you realise that replacing coal, gas and oil ‘renewable’ energy is rebuilding the same factory on the ruins of the old one,” Thalia Verkade writes in On to the era of negative progress. (Photograph: Child labour in a cobalt mine in Shinkolobwe, Congo, by Schalk van Zuydam for AP)

Imagine we would downshift our technological infrastructure to roughly what it was in 1950. This “would involve a drastic decrease in energy consumption per capita, both directly — people used a lot less energy of all kinds in 1950 — and indirectly — goods and services took much less energy to produce then, too. It would involve equally sharp decreases in the per capita consumption of most resources,” Greer argues.

“To true believers in the religion of progress, though, this is unthinkable. To them, the past is the bubbling pit of eternal damnation from which the surrogate messiah of progress is perpetually saving us, and the future is the radiant heaven into whose portals the faithful hope to enter in good time. Nothing, but nothing, stirs up shuddering superstitious horror in the minds of the majority these days like the thought of ‘going back.’ Even if the technology of an earlier day is better suited to a future of energy and resource scarcity than the infrastructure we’ve got now, even if the technology of an earlier day actually does a better job of many things than what we’ve got today, ‘We can’t go back!’ is the anguished cry of the faithful.”

But if the direction in which we progress “was a bad idea to start with, or if it’s passed the point at which it still [makes] sense, continuing to trudge blindly onward into the gathering dark may not be the best idea in the world. Break out of that mental straitjacket, and the range of possible futures broadens out immeasurably,” Greer writes.

What he suggests in The Retro Future is a strategy of intentional technological regression or ‘negative progress,’ in the same ways as economists like to talk about negative growth. It “gains its power from a feature of progress that’s not always grasped by its critics, much less by those who’ve turned faith in progress into the established religion of our time. Very few new technologies meet human needs that weren’t already being met, and so the arrival of a new technology generally leads to the abandonment of an older technology that did the same thing. The difficulty here is that new technologies are inevitably more dependent on global technostructures, and the increasingly brittle and destructive economic systems that support them, than the technologies they replace.”

“That history of relentless economic decline has had a massive impact on attitudes toward the future, toward science, and toward technological progress. In 1969, it was only in the ghettos where America confined its urban poor that any significant number of people responded to the Apollo Moon landing with the sort of disgusted alienation that Gil Scott-Heron expressed so memorably in his furious ballad Whitey on the Moon. Nowadays, a much greater number of Americans — quite possibly a majority — see the latest ballyhooed achievements of science and technology as just one more round of pointless stunts from which they won’t benefit in the least,” John Michael Greer writes in The Retro Future. (Photograph: The Rev Ralph Abernathy demonstrates at the Apollo 11 moon launch, 15 July 1969, courtesy of the Bettmann Archive)

“At the heart of most of the modern world’s problems […] is the devout faith that human history is a straight line with no branches or meanders, leading onward and upward from the caves to the stars, and that every software upgrade, every new and improved product on the shelves, every lurch ‘forward’ — however that conveniently floppy word happens to be defined from day to day by marketing flacks and politicians — therefore must lead toward that imaginary destination. That blind and increasingly untenable faith is the central reason why the only future different from the present that most people can imagine these days is either a rehash of the past in every detail or some kind of nightmare dystopia,” Greer writes in the final chapter of The Retro Future.

“When you’ve driven down a blind alley and are sitting there with your bumper pressed against a brick wall, the only way forward starts by backing up. If you’ve been convinced by your society’s core ideological commitments that ‘backing up’ can only mean returning whole hog to the imaginary, awful past from which the ersatz messiah of progress is supposed to save us, you’re stuck.


Still, it remains the case that staying stuck against the brick wall leads nowhere useful. Those people who grasp this, shake themselves free of the dysfunctional ideology of progress, and explore other options are going to be the ones who make a difference in the shape the future will have on the far side of the crisis years ahead. Let go of the futile struggle to sustain the unsustainable, take the time and money and other resources that might be wasted in that cause, and do something less foredoomed with them: by embracing that strategy, there’s a lot that can still be done, by means of retrovation [see note] and other relevant strategies, even in the confused and calamitous time that’s breaking over us right now.”

Note: “This is obviously backformed from ‘retro’ + ‘innovation,’ but it’s also ‘re-trove-ation,’ re-finding, rediscovery: an active process of searching through the many options the past provides, not a passive acceptance of some bygone time as a package deal.”

Davos Man

On The World in Time podcast, Lewis H. Lapham, the founder of Lapham’s Quarterly, spoke with the global economic correspondent for The New York Times, Peter S. Goodman, about his book Davos Man: How the Billionaires Devoured the World.

In Davos Man, Goodman reveals how billionaires’ systematic plunder of the world — brazenly accelerated during the pandemic — has transformed 21st-century life and dangerously destabilised democracy.

When Lapham asks who ‘Davos Man’ is and how we are to understand the verb ‘devoured,’ Goodman explains:

“The term Davos Man was coined back in 2004 by the political scientist Samuel Huntington, and he used it to describe principally people who go to the World Economic Forum in Davos. The annual pilgrimage for the wealthiest people on Earth, a billionaire class along with heads of state, public intellectuals, the odd Hollywood celebrity. They go there to schmooze and do deals and signal their virtues. They all commune under the very ironic banner committed to improving the state of the world, which is really something given that the people who go to Davos regularly are, by any reasonable standard, the ultimate beneficiaries of the status quo and the status quo doesn’t really need much improvement for them.

I used the term to refer to a kind of separate species of human: people who are so wealthy — their wealth requiring accountants and lobbyists and lawyers in multiple jurisdictions — that it really challenges their allegiance to anything other than the bottom line to institutions, to nations. And I use it specifically to refer to the billionaire class that would have us believe that they are not only not the source of our problems in the world but they are the solution to our problems.

People like Marc Benioff, who is one of the five primary characters in my book, is the CEO of a big Silicon Valley tech company called Salesforce, who literally said at Davos — this is the virtual Davos, last year, because of the pandemic — ‘CEOs are the real heroes of the pandemic.’ He wasn’t talking about frontline medical workers. He wasn’t talking about people who were serving up our food, delivering our packages, emptying bedpans in senior citizens’ homes. No, CEOs are the heroes. And he said, ‘You know, we saved the world not for profit but just to save the ’

This, I argue in the book, is not a gaffe, as some people would characterize it. It’s a worldview. It’s a worldview that assumes that if these guys are the good guys, then the more money they have, the more good they can do. This is an elaborate protection against things like progressive taxation and antitrust enforcement and regulation. They use it to essentially fend off the exercise of democracy.

Now, you asked me, what does devour refer to in the title? […] I think that if you look properly at the last half century of life — not only in the United States but also Britain and other major developed economies — what we see is this ultimate form of grift. We see a systematic bottom-up transfer of wealth from all of us to a handful of people who are capable of employing lobbyists by the dozens, who have perverted the workings of our democracies in order to concentrate more and more wealth in their hands at the expense of everyone else. They have dismantled government programs and public infrastructure. They have transferred the proceeds to themselves. And in so doing they have not only ended up with most of the wealth, they have rendered our democratic societies dysfunctional.

I think that you can draw a straight line from our extreme inequality to being in a place where we have these lifesaving Covid vaccines that many people in the United States won’t take because they’re accepting these insane conspiracy theories. The January 6 insurrection, Brexit — these are all manifestations of the same basic setup, which is that huge numbers of people have noticed that they have lost the ability to support their families in a middle-class standard. That part’s real, and it lays the ground for political opportunists who offer all sorts of cockamamy, insane, absurd explanations for what’s happened, demonizing groups like immigrants and then often advocating ‘solutions’ that worsen inequality and that are often themselves sold by opportunistic Davos Men who use our backlash to inequality as an example to make inequality even worse.”

“Before 2020 ended [Amazon’s Jeff Bezos] came to personify the rapacious opportunism of the billionaire class who were extracting wealth from a public health emergency, at the expense of employees laboring in proximity to the virus. This turn was largely because of Christian Smalls, a thirty-one-year-old father of three, who had simply had enough,” Peter S. Goodman writes in Davos Man. Smalls had been fired after leading a small walkout calling for better workplace protections against the coronavirus in 2020. Amazon executives denigrated Smalls, who is Black, as “not smart or articulate” during a meeting with Bezos, according to a leaked memo reported by Vice News (Photograph: Christian Smalls, after the Amazon Labor Union victory was announced, by DeSean McClinton-Holland for The New York Times)

One of the people Goodman writes about is Larry Fink, the chairman and CEO of BlackRock, the world’s largest investment management company with over $10 trillion in assets under management, giving it unprecedented power over the global financial system. He is also the champion of stakeholder capitalism, this idea that Davos Man has glommed onto that Milton Friedmanism is over.

“Today’s Davos Man, led by people like Larry Fink, they say, ‘Oh no, that’s not true anymore. Now we’re run by stakeholder capitalism.’ This idea that we’re thinking about stakeholders like labor — never labor unions; they’re very careful not to talk about labor unions because it’s very unilateral. Benioff, who’s another stakeholder-capitalism guy, at one point he goes on television and says the planet is a stakeholder, which is very reassuring to those of us who live on the planet. It’s essentially ‘We’ve got this.’ This is the billionaire class saying, ‘You don’t need to regulate us, you don’t need to tax us, you don’t need to think about antitrust enforcement. Just let us do what we do, and we’ll take care of problems like racial and gender injustice and climate change.” Another illustration of this line of thought is Marc Benioff in Davos last year, saying, “CEOs are the heroes of the pandemic. The government did not save you. Nongovernmental organizations did not save you. We saved you — and not for profit but to save the world.”

Despite his critique, Goodman doesn’t want to demonise the CEO class. “Let’s give it up to them for their innovation and their often very useful ideas,” he says. “I just don’t think we should be entrusting them with the solution to all of our problems, and we should understand that they have their own interests at heart. And that’s fine so long as we do our part and we regulate and make sure that markets don’t get dominated by monopolies who don’t want to pay any taxes.”

“Stop talking about philanthropy and start talking about taxes … We can invite Bono once more, but we’ve got to be talking about taxes. That’s it. Taxes, taxes, taxes. All the rest is bullshit in my opinion.” — The Dutch historian, journalist and author of Utopia for Realists, Rutger Bregman, during a discussion panel at the World Economic Forum in Davos (Photograph: Klaus Schwab, the founder of the World Economic Forum, by Jason Alden for Bloomberg)

In Our Cup Runneth Over, the concluding chapter of Davos Man, Goodman writes:

“Over the course of my journalism career, I’ve frequently been struck by how people tend to view economics in fatalistic terms, accepting the notion that unfathomable wealth alongside mass scarcity is essentially inevitable, and beyond the power of democracy to alter. To pass as a sophisticated person in the twenty-first century often seems to require being resigned to the futility of controlling the forces operating across borders — the capital flows, the technology, the multinational corporations. It means accepting the triumph of Davos Man over the public interest.

But that is not really sophistication; it is cynicism. Deference to the inevitable supremacy of the billionaire class amounts to a renunciation of our historical legacy, a failure to realize that humanity has been here before.Americans stared down the Robber Barons, using democracy to fashion an effective response to the injustice of one select group monopolizing the gains of capitalism. Britain reacted to the trauma of the Depression by constructing a social welfare model that shared the gains of its industrial might. Even as France and Sweden have seen their social democratic values diluted, they retain status as exemplars of societies that have figured out how to harness the merits of the market system while still attending to collective interests. For all of its problems — and they are many — Italy is a showcase of human potential, from the arts to engineering to modern medicine.

The challenges of the current crisis of inequality may be greater this time, because Davos Man possesses especially advanced tools to preserve the status quo by undermining collective action. Social media distorts the information stream, while companies wield surveillance technology and data collection in the service of political aims. Amazon’s fake television spots attest to its refined tactics in preventing worker solidarity. Benioff, Fink, and Dimon have excelled at drawing accolades for turning business into a vehicle for progressive change while profiting mightily off the status quo. Around the globe, extremist political parties that provoke tribal hatred divert the electorate from accountability for Davos Man’s plunder.

The point is not that the billionaires are puppeteers in a master conspiracy; it is that Davos Man thrives amid confusion, conflict, and suspicion. The billionaires exploit governance that is compromised by discord and dysfunction as an opportunity to profiteer absent the usual checks and balances.

But democracy is itself a powerful tool — a system of governance that guarantees nothing and is forever vulnerable to being hijacked by organized interests, yet contains within it the mechanism by which the public can realize its own interests.

Many of the world’s most meaningful problems are, at root, issues of unfair economic distribution. Human beings have developed extraordinary capacities in our brief time on earth. We have harnessed science to coax unprecedented volumes of food from the soil, applied medical know-how to tame disease, pioneered inventive forms of housing and transportation, while conjuring novel means of keeping boredom at bay.

In ways both profound and prosaic, this is surely the greatest time to be alive in the history of civilization, an era of multiplying solutions to problems once considered unsolvable, ubiquitous, tedious, and fatal.

Davos Man would have us believe in the false binary choice at the heart of his grift — that we either accept globalization as we have known it for decades, or we throw in our lot with Luddites operating in the thrall of backward ideas. This frame is not only false but dangerous. It invites those who have not shared in the benefits of globalization to demand its opposite — nationalism, nativism, parochialism, and ignorance. If globalization run by Davos Man for the betterment of Davos Man gives way to the destruction of globalization and the pursuit of tribal interests, the world will be poorer, more violent, and less able to summon the cooperation needed to solve the most complex problems, from pandemics to climate change.”

The myth of tech exceptionalism

“With the onslaught of press coverage and congressional hearings about Big Tech’s role in society in recent years, we have heard variations of an all-too common defense from tech leaders: ‘We do more good than harm.’ On its face, this is both an unsubstantiated and unquantifiable assertion, based on the self-described tech industry’s views of what is good for the rest of us, both today and in the future they are building. More importantly, it is an irrelevant argument intended to subvert a fundamental purpose of democratic governance: protecting the public from predatory or harmful actors and business practices,” Yaël Eisenstat and Nils Gilman argue in The Myth of Tech Exceptionalism.

“What has come to be known as ‘tech’ presents a two-faced image. On the one hand, tech represents (and especially presents itself) as all that is good about contemporary capitalism: it produces delightful new products, generates vast new troves of wealth and inspires us quite literally to reach for the heavens. On the other hand, the harms caused by ‘tech’ have become all too familiar: facial recognition technology disproportionately misidentifying people of color, Google reinforcing racist stereotypes, Facebook stoking political polarization, AirBnB hollowing out city centers, smartphones harming mental health and on and on. Some go so far as to claim that tech is depriving us of the very essence of our humanity.

Despite these critiques, Silicon Valley in recent decades has managed to build an anti-regulatory fortress around itself by promoting the myth — rarely stated plainly, but widely believed by tech practitioners — that ‘tech’ is somehow fundamentally different from every other industry that has come before. It is different, the myth says, because it is inherently well-intentioned and will produce not just new but previously unthinkable products. Any micro-level harm — whether to an individual, a vulnerable community, even an entire country — is by this logic deemed a worthwhile trade-off for the society-shifting, macro-level ‘good.’ This argument, properly labelled ‘tech exceptionalism,’ is rooted in tech leaders’ ideological view both of themselves and government. This ideology contributes to the belief that those who choose to classify themselves as ‘tech companies’ deserve a different set of rules and responsibilities than the rest of private industry,” Eisenstat and Gilman write.

“Silicon Valley came to maturity and dominance during this anti-regulation era and imbibed the swelling libertarian ethos that predominated from the 1980s onward. In this context, regulation became the enemy of ‘innovation,’ which soon emerged as the byword for ‘tech’ as a whole. As more recently described in a Forbes article on Tesla, ‘We all generally perceive the government and regulations as a hurdle to progress and innovation.’ For a whole generation of entrepreneurs, abetted by market fundamentalists, the central dogma became the right to ‘permissionless innovation,’” Yaël Eisenstat and Nils Gilman argue in The Myth of Tech Exceptionalism. (Photograph by Stephen Lam for Reuters)

“In any other industry, the sorts of harms produced by Big Tech would long ago have spurred the standard response: government regulation. But the tech titans and their stalwarts have shielded themselves by resorting to two basic arguments — really, rhetorical strategies — to fend off the regulators.

First, many in the tech world insist that whatever harms technology creates, it is more than outweighed by the good in the present. […]

The second argument hinges on the idea that as-yet-unrealized, perhaps-undreamed-of future innovations will more than offset any harms of today’s technology. This idea of tech exceptionalism has largely inoculated the industry from the same rules long applied to others. ‘Tech’ in this sense refers not to an industrial segment, but an attitude toward the future,” Eisenstat and Gilman write.

Why does this matter?

“First, so-called tech companies’ posture toward the future became a way of making a financial claim. Tech companies, startups especially, weren’t to be assessed financially on the basis of actual revenues in the present, but on the basis of the revenues that they might make in the future as a result of innovations yet to come. […]

But the designation of a firm as ‘tech’ has another subtle effect that is arguably even more important than the financial benefits that accrue to its investors. The term implies that, for regulatory purposes, the social costs of these firms’ present activities should be weighed not against the benefits they currently produce, but those they promise in the future.

Neil deGrasse Tyson captured the spirit of futurity that animates tech when he observed: ‘What Elon Musk is doing is not simply giving us the next app that will be awesome on our smartphone. No, he is thinking about society, culture, how we interact, what forces need to be in play to take civilization into the next century.’ In asserting that ‘the current regulatory system is broken,’ Musk himself argued that ‘there is simply no way that humanity can become a spacefaring civilization without major regulatory reform.’ In both cases, prospects of a dazzling future are deployed to deflect regulatory concerns in the here and now.

It’s important to pause here to realize how curious these claims are and what fantastic conclusions they are used to justify. Designating a firm as a ‘tech’ company means that the future goods tech might produce (if unmolested by regulators) necessarily trump any harms the industry may be creating in the present. Given that regulations, as discussed, inherently slow what a firm can do, this means that regulations of tech firms are pernicious, by definition, since they necessarily slow the ability of these firms to deliver the beautiful promise of innovation at scale. In sum, the tech exceptionalism myth serves one function when companies are small (valuation arbitrage) and another function when they are big (regulatory arbitrage).”

In the margins

In The Automation Myth, Clinton Williamson explores the work of the Black working-class revolutionist James Boggs and three more recent works of economic analysis that “provide a much-needed critical lens on the future of work, each arguing that not only is an impending future of laborlessness unlikely to arrive but also that the promise of automation (always doubling as a thinly veiled threat to workers) has been used to paper over the larger structural fault lines of a festering global regime of capital accumulation. Taken collectively, they portray a world economic system in long-term crisis and a global labor force increasingly stuck in low-wage service work while living under austerity regimes that have stripped both labor protections and social services to shreds. Automation’s acolytes often suggest that the hour of drudgery’s end is nigh, that a techno-utopian abundance, a land of milk and honey, is just around the corner if only we can have faith in technology’s promises just a little bit longer. Contrary to this assertion, these authors demonstrate that the work we do is in fact changing, just not in the ways we have so often been palliatively foretold by the carnival barkers of automation,” Williamsen writes.

“[S]o much of the discourse around automation reveals what we currently lack. We do not possess the leisure hours we deserve. Our workplaces already treat us like the robots they threaten to replace us with. We have ridden out a pandemic ever more reliant upon our smartphones and computers while being reminded of how isolated so many of us already had been made by these very technologies. Capitalists themselves have no solution to offer, not even an appealing fantasy to sell. Even the ludicrous dreams of Bezos and Musk to use space as an escape hatch from a climate ravaged world expressly rely upon transporting the division of labor off-world fully intact. As Boggs told us in 1963, we desperately desire to lead lives with meaning that decouple our work and our worth. We need a life not beholden to the value form. We need a labor no longer doggedly paced by Frederick Taylor’s stopwatch. We need a planet that remains inhabitable and biodiverse. Machines are not coming to make a better world for us. Robots won’t build the classless society. That historical task, as always, remains solely our own.”

From: The Automation Myth, by Clinton Williamson (The Baffler)

“Throughout the ages, oracles, journalists and political scientists have attempted to guess the course fate may take. But should they fail to take the specifics, particularly specific individuals, into account, they are doomed to fail,” Vernon Bogdanor argues in The importance of the individual in history.

“The political philosopher, Isaiah Berlin believed that one of the distinguishing characteristics of a great man is that his active intervention makes what seemed highly improbable in fact happen. ‘At crucial moments — the impulse given freely by an individual — can send things spinning in some unforeseen and unforeseeable direction. If Alexander or Caesar had not lived, history would certainly have taken a different turn.’

Or, as he once put the point to me more pithily, discussing music — genius is discontinuity. In music, Brahms, he said, could be predicted from Beethoven, but Debussy could not have been predicted from any of his predecessors. Debussy, therefore, was a genius while Brahms, on this criterion, though a great composer, was not. Similarly, in politics, there were really no precedents for Churchill, de Gaulle, Roosevelt or Monnet. They abruptly shifted history from its previous track. They altered the course of history. The world in which we live is profoundly different because of what they did.”

From: The importance of the individual in history, by Vernon Bogdanor (Engelsberg Ideas)

“Cicero famously said that old age is the final act in the play of life. But that doesn’t always mean wisdom plays a part in it,” Nigel Warburton writes in Does wisdom always come with old age?

“This week I have been reading How To Grow Old, a new translation by Philip Freeman of Marcus Tullius Cicero’s short book written in 44 BC on how to navigate later life. In it, Cicero, the great Roman statesman, synthesised ideas from Greek philosophy, combining them with his own aperçus. The book is packed with wise advice.

Its central theme is that growing old is natural and not all bad. Like another great Roman, Seneca, Cicero was intolerant of self-deceptive attempts to seem younger than you are: ‘Fighting against nature is as pointless as the battles of the giants against the gods.’

Old age is the final season, and there’s no point denying that, or pretending that it isn’t what it is: the last stage before death. But he didn’t advocate giving in to a feeble and sluggish decline — far from it. He argued that having a satisfactory old age means starting young: living wisely and decently without excess throughout your life will make for a better, more active old age.”

From: Does wisdom always come with old age?, by Nigel Warburton (The New European)

“[D]efining our behaviors in the confines of the brain is a pinched portrait of the ways the world draws out our potential like a conductor draws music from notes on a page. Get with it, people, you are more than your neurons. This is the passionate point of view of Alva Noë, a professor of philosophy [and the author of Learning to Look: Dispatches From the Art World], a collection of short essays in which Noë upends theories, mostly hatched in neuroscience, that shortchange the richness of experience, especially the experience of art,” Kevin Berger writes in Neuroscience Gets in the Way of Appreciating Art.

Noë explains:

“A painting may trigger low-level mechanisms in the visual system, the same mechanisms that the visual world triggers, forcing you to experience what’s depicted in the picture. But with more abstract works like Cy Twombly’s art or some 20th-century experimental music, there aren’t low-level cues that drive you to one state or another. You rely on your emotional associations and memories to make something of it. But in the cases of both traditional, representational art, and 20th-century expressionist or conceptual art, you’re left with the question, ‘What is the source of its value?’ You’re never going to reduce that to a theory of memory or to a theory of neural processing.

After all, there’s never any right or wrong way to see art. There’s no procedure for deciding between them. Aesthetic arguments between people are ways of trying to put into words what they’re seeing, what they’re encountering. And the very act of doing that changes the way they experience what they’re encountering and can also persuade other people to experience it that way too. But it’s not as though one of them is seated with the stick of truth and tells you, “This is beautiful, and this is why it is beautiful. The gender and politics of the artist matters, and the surrounding social and political culture of making the art matter. But this is just more information to reflect on. The same with neuroscience. It’s a domain in which we think about ourselves and try to frame conceptions of what it is to be a person. What I deny is that neuroscience is the aesthetic arbiter.”

From: Neuroscience Gets in the Way of Appreciating Art, by Kevin Berger (Nautilus)

With so many modernist building under threat (and not just in the UK), it’s great to see how the Greek studio Georges Batzios Architects has revived a brutalist office in the Athenian suburbs. Built in the 1970s by Greek architect Alexandros Tombazis, the building is a rare example of brutalist architecture in Greece.

“According to Georges Batzios, the overhaul was ‘a moral challenge,’ as his studio wanted to put its own stamp on the building but did not want to alter its image or undermine Tombazis’ original design. It compromised with a sensitive restoration of the building’s exterior, but a bolder internal overhaul and reconfiguration to modernise its circulation, workspaces and decor.”

From: Georges Batzios Architects restores “original brutalist identity” of abandoned office in Greece, by Lizzie Crook (dezeen).

Photography by Giorgos Sfakianakis.

Margherita Mazzucco and Gaia Girace as Lenù Greco and Lila Cerullo in season three of My Brilliant Friend, the adaptation of Elena Ferrante’s ‡ third Neapolitan Novel, Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay. (Photograph by Eduardo Castaldo for HBO)

“[W]hat the third season of My Brilliant Friend succeeds to be is no small achievement: a celebration of the poetry of plain language, at its purest when generated not by education but by feeling‎. The poetry of sentences like this one, spoken by Pasquale in dialect, in anger: ‘Feel my hands, professor. If these hands weren’t this rough, there wouldn’t be a chair in existence. Not a car, not a building. Not even you. If us workers had to suddenly stop working, everything else would stop, too. The sky would fall down on the earth, the earth would jump up to the sky. The plants would reclaim the city. The river would flood your nice houses and only those who have always worked would survive. Whereas you and all of your books would end up being food for dogs.’” — Maria Albano, Language is the True Protagonist of My Brilliant Friend’s Third Season

‡ Between 2018 and 2019, Elena Ferrante wrote a weekend column for the Guardian on life, love, the female experience and everything in between​. All brilliantly illustrated by Andrea Ucini. One of my favourite quotes (from I like to rewrite stories — swapping men for women. It doesn’t always work):

“A woman who decides to give it all up rarely turns back, while men generally, at a certain point, need their Ithaca.”

Post scriptum will be back next week, if fortune allows, of course.

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Mark Storm

Helping people in leadership positions flourish — with wisdom and clarity of thought