Monday, March 07, 2011

Niall Ferguson's Six "Killer Apps" and the "Free Speech App"?

Niall Ferguson

I noted in yesterday's blog entry that the Spectator's political editor James Forsyth helpfully summarizes an essay by Niall Ferguson that appeared in the inaccessible Sunday Times. I then quoted Forsyth on Ferguson's six "killer apps" of Western Civilization:
1. Competition: a decentralisation of political and economic life, which created the launch pad for both nation states and capitalism.

2. Science: a way of understanding and ultimately changing the natural world, which gave the West (among other things) a major military advantage over the Rest.

3. Property rights: the rule of law as a means of protecting private owners and peacefully resolving disputes between them, which formed the basis for the most stable form of representative government.

4. Medicine: a branch of science that allowed a major improvement in health and life expectancy, beginning in Western societies, but also in their colonies.

5. The consumer society: a mode of material living in which the production and purchase of clothing and other consumer goods play a central economic role, and without which the Industrial Revolution would have been unsustainable.

6. The work ethic: a moral framework and mode of activity derivable from (among other sources) Protestant Christianity, which provides the glue for the dynamic and potentially unstable society created by apps 1 to 5. (Forsyth, "How the West became so dominant," Coffee House: The Spectator Blog, 19th February 2011)
I also linked to "Niall Ferguson on the six 'killer apps' of Western civilisation," a lecture by Ferguson hosted at Intelligence Squared. I noted that one could sign up to join and watch Ferguson give a lecture on these six apps, or not sign up but listen to an audio of the same. I listened to the audio because I didn't want to sign up for the video, so I didn't see the various charts and images that Ferguson used to illustrate his lecture. But the audio was clear enough.

In that lecture, Ferguson began by challenging his audience to listen carefully and judge whether or not he might have missed any "app."

I have now risen to the challenge, having listened carefully to the audio and reflected at leisure. I think that Ferguson missed the free speech "app," which I propose as "killer app # 7."

Actually, I mean something a bit broader than simply free speech. I'm thinking of what I have called a "culture of discussion," concerning which I've written an article, "Toward a Culture of Discussion" ("토론 문화를 위해서"), for The Philosophy & Poetry Journal (애지), which appeared last summer (Volume 42, Summer 2010, 25-38). That article was in Korean, but if you click on the English title of the article, you can read the English version on my blog.

Freedom of speech means the right to express oneself freely without censorship, but for the "app" to become a "killer," it needs to be embedded in a culture of discussion where reason and evidence, rather than positional status, guide listeners in their evaluation of what the speaker says.

Ferguson might argue that "killer app # 2," i.e., "science," entails my suggested "free speech app," but I think that free speech has to be more pervasive in a culture to work effectively and provide that culture with an advantage over other cultures.

What do readers think?

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At 5:20 AM, Anonymous dhr said...

What do readers think?

Well, if our opinions can be freely expressed...

... I think that you are right, except that unfortunately you happen to be wrong.

Id est. The "culture of discussion" does work where it is accepted by those who take part in it. Basically, it works where it is not needed, because in that case the people are already open-minded.

Where however the people are not so, one billion words will not change a thing.

- - -

That was supposed to be a counter-challenge :-)

At 5:34 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Yes, it's an 'app' that's difficult to download. I see the difficulty here in Korea.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 9:48 PM, Blogger Charles Montgomery said...

I'm not sure I buy dhr's point, since it can also easily be applied to competition and property rights, medicine and extended to most of the others...

The trick isn't just that the apps are killer, it is that they were in the Western Apple Store (so to speak) so the cool kids wanted them.^^

I think the culture of discussion (Greek, really) fits in comparison to some other international philosophies (those drawn from Confucianism, for instance).

At 4:04 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

The apps are all hard to download because they won't work if they're downloaded onto a single computer. We're talking social networks!

That's hard to develop and sustain.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 7:02 AM, Anonymous dhr said...

to Charles:

hard as it may seem to believe, I prefer living in a Western Christian-based society than, say, in a Taliban area in Afghanistan, anyway.


As for Eastern civilizations, meaning however Japan rather than China, I think that they may be very tempting at their traditional core, BUT it's not what they are currently 'selling'.

At 7:53 PM, Anonymous Paul G Ellis said...

Isn't NF's whole approach rather missing the point:

He wonders whether the downloadability of the West's "killer apps" means its dominance is about to be over.

Surely the point is that the West, from its still-just-existing advantage, should be developing the *next* set of killer apps - and staying ahead?

At 9:05 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Maybe, but Ferguson's a historian rather than a futurologist, so perhaps he hasn't trained himself to think in that way.

But the suggestion is interesting, so what would some new 'killer apps' be?

Jeffery Hodges

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At 6:12 PM, Anonymous Paul G Ellis said...

As a one-time futurologist, but not an historian, I shall give that some thought. If I can come up with anything worth saying, I'll come back to you.

At 7:45 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Thanks. I'll look forward to it.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 3:36 AM, Anonymous Paul G Ellis said...

First thoughts for possible candidates, not all "downloadable":

*Science (still-if we keep a lead)
*Medicine (still)
*Demographics (see M.Walker at A.T. Kearney
* Imagination/Creativity/Innovation
* Good environmental locations
* Women
* Accountability
* Foresight (well, I would say that, wouldn't I!)

At 4:16 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

These are interesting suggestions.

Demographics is one that probably wouldn't have occurred to me, but it's clearly important (now that you've pointed it out). A civilization doesn't exist in some abstract realm. People carry it in their minds and their way of life, so ensuring that a civilization continues means that those who carry it must continue to reproduce themselves. That's not happening these day, as demographic projections suggest that native Europeans, for example, aren't reproducing at a replacement rate. If that doesn't change, then one would have to hope for conversion of immigrants to Western values in numbers sufficient to make up for the demographic decline. I wonder if that's happening . . .

Accountability and foresight are linked, I think, in an intimate way, for holding people accountable will motivate them to develop foresight (since they know that they will be held accountable). The biggest problem with developing good foresight lies in being able to anticipate, and thereby avoid, unanticipated consequences (if I might phrase it paradoxically).

Imagination/Creativity/Innovation might fit in with foresight-accountability. I can see reasons for keeping them distinct, though. So, how does one go about developing creativity? Perhaps one has to be taught to see the 'box' in order too find a way to think out of it.

Good environmental locations are certainly helpful. I wish that I lived in a place with better beer . . .

Which reminds me . . . you left out alcohol! Roger Scruton considers it a significant reason for the West's success. Drink encourages sociability and discussion.

Women. Hmmm . . . necessary for demographics. Yeah, okay.

So . . . we've got wine (alcohol) and women. Let's not forget song.

Thanks for the stimulating suggestions.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 1:50 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

To take Niall's analogy a little further, the West has a virus, and it is Progressivism.

At 5:13 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Interesting extension of the analogy. The Left has undermined the West's self-confidence, but the excesses of extreme nationalism played a role, too.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 6:32 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

-Put law and religion together as one app; both regulate morality.
-See the contradiction in consumerism and work ethic; what is the point of a work ethic to produce a surplus for market if no one will/can buy the product? (For instance, the pens in China)
-Lots of sexism in Ferguson's vacuous shopping cracks. In fact, Ferguson does not mention women or women's rights.

At 6:44 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Anonymous, your comment about rights led me to notice that he also doesn't mention human rights.

I don't see a contradiction between consumerism and work ethic in your comment. Could you elaborate?

Jeffery Hodges

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