Ruminations after Brexit

Slightly more than two weeks after the Brexit vote and the event continues to dominate dinner and drink conversation. As I drove back from a social gathering (having volunteered to be the designated driver), two things struck me.

The first is that lack of proper teaching of contemporary history and politics — or perhaps more accurately, political science is a great failing of our education system. The belief — that in a democracy matters of great national importance should be determined by referendum — are attractive and appear reasonable. But there is little second-level thought, even amongst the engaged and well-read, about what the structure of the referendum should be (yes/no) or what the threshold of changing the status quo should be (half vs. two-thirds), or how well-defined the choices put on referendum should be (what is the post-Brexit negotiation strategy, or even basically who will lead it). I suspect that we all could do with a little more education on political science and history — and perhaps governance and process; arguably, everyone went into the referendum without being suitably informed.

The second related point is a reflection on the question of why societies fail. Jared Diamond’s book, “Collapse” suggests four reasons: (a) failure to anticipate; (b) failure to perceive; (c) failure to act; (d) failure to solve. The book covers a variety of examples — largely related to wartime scenarios and depletion of natural resources. But I wonder whether a failure to anticipate and perceive is even more likely if the coming crisis is social in nature. Wage stagnation and rising inequality has been a challenge for the past 30 years, along with the impact of technology and trade. In other words, the challenges our modern society has faced has been a trainwreck in slow motion — fully anticipatable. More porous borders and scientific improvements will undoubtedly benefit civilisation in the long run; but it is the impact on those affected by the transition and the turnover that we have failed to perceive.

A final thought. Over the past two weeks, I have noticed a large number of blog posts on “what Brexit means for technology”. I can’t help but think perhaps what is more topical is the question of “how technology created Brexit”. The late Andy Grove fretted that US technology companies are not creating sufficient American jobs. If artificial intelligence (AI) lives up to its hype, Grove’s concerns will remain and only get more paramount.