Ross: The Industries of the Future

The importance of a book like “The industries of the future”1 by Alec Ross can hardly be overstated.  By his own admission, “This industries_future_smallbook explores the industries that will drive the next 20 years of change to our economies and societies” (pg. 12). Whether or not the author succeeds in his ambitious task, surely he starts from quite a vantage point: former Senior adviser for innovation to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, during the time he spent in the role he oversaw the transition to digital ecosystems of many an operation across the globe. The book is really a rich mine of potential showstoppers, giving lots of references to keep track of going forward. Due to the scope of the book, a review will be given here of its main undercurrents.

The problems addressed in the book naturally cluster into a neatly organized structure explored in another section of this blog. Here a quick summary:
  1. Robotics
  2. Genomics
  3. Algorithmic money, markets and trust
  4. Big Data
WHAT. Cutting edge advances in the robotics landscape will be differentiated by country:
“Just as wealthier and poorer citizens reside at different technological levels, so do wealthier and poorer countries” (p.19) – where the “big five” (Japan, China, US, South Korea, Germany)  will be able to accrue huge benefit from their incoming preeminence in the robotics ecosystem.
WHY. What is the reason of this Cambrian explosion in the robotics ecosystem? Because of the confluence of enabling technologies, (p23): improvements in Belief Space (Bayes); cloud (swarm) robotics; new materials

The impact will be ubiquitous:  Automotive Industry (driverless cars: Google X), Operating Room (SEDASYS, also Nanorobots for cancer radiation), Academy (Aldebaran teaching computer science classes), Hospital and Human Care (therapeutic robots) etc.

The adoption pattern of those technologies will consist by initial high up-front capex (robot labor cost) that create offsetting savings in opex (human labor cost) (pgg. 37ff). Decisions like the Taiwanese Foxconn swapping robots for 1mio humans (pg. 35) – if scaled up, will create huge geographical tensions in f.e. China where a forced urbanization policy to keep labor cost down has been enacted by fiat for more than 30 years.
WHERE: Different countries will react to the shifting landscape in different ways:
while everywhere “the ratio of [capex and opex] will determine the future of work related patterns” (pg. 37), there will be places like Africa where the robotics revolution, because married to frugal innovation, will provide leapfrogging opportunities.
The opening remark is wonderful: “The last trillion-dollar industry was built on a code of 1s and 0s. The next will be built on our own genetic code” (pg. 44) and “Genomics is going to have a bigger impact on our health than any single innovation of the 20th century” (pg. 74). Why is Ross so optimistic?
After the sequencing of the entire human genome (2000) “the size of genomic market” wyma96injyhrskhekdfetoday because of falling cost of sequencing and commercialization is where e-commerce was in 1994 (p 48). Think of PGDx Personal Genome Diagnostic or “liquid biopsy” – i.e. comparison of tumor cell with normal cells in same individual via Big Data analytics; think of CRISPR and designer babies; think of  Craig Venter’s latest projects: (a) Synthetic Genomics xenotransplantation (see here) and (b) Human Longevity Inc (p 62).
Here the old debate nature vs nurture risks resurfacing in a ghastly shape, whereby the socioeconomic fault lines (nurture) can be frozen in biological terms (nature). Moreover, and more concretely – by now this is not a Western-only enterprise: not no more. With Beijing Genomic Institute, China is willing to win the genomic battle, as US did win the internet race (pg. 66).
  • More books/talks on this here.
This section argues that the code-ification and app-ification of money, markets, payments and trusts is a big inflection point for the disintermediation of large part of the current economy. Square, Alipay or Google-Wallet are the next iteration of digital money – while African based M-Pesa has succeeded in leapfrogging the banking system altogether in countries (like Kenya) where the physical infrastructure is lackluster or non-existent.

The big trend at work here is the interplay of dispersion and concentration: local communities of buyers and sellers are surely empowered by the availability of decentralized, peer-to-peer (payment) solutions (like M-Pesa) but at the same point the central routing of these transaction is operated in a progressively more and more centralized way.  “Coded markets like eBay and Airbnb simultaneously concentrate and disperse the market. With coded markets available to even the smallest vendors, a trend has arisen that pushes economic transactions away from physical stores and hotels toward individual people. .. .The route through which it is dispersed, however, redirects each of those transactions through a small number of technology platforms usually based in California or China” (pg. 93)

But arguably the deepest innovation coming from techno-utopianism in the markets, payment & trust ecosystem is Blockchain (original paper by Nakamoto; some links here).  An investor is quoted saying (pg. 115) that “the problem with the Internet from 1995 to 2010 was that it enabled information dissemination and communication but lacked any ability to transfer value between individuals. From 1995 to 2010 every industry in information services was transformed beyond recognition – newspapers, music, TV, etc. – as was any industry involved in communication and connection between individuals – phone fax auction recruiting etc. […] Conversely from 1995 to the present day there has been almost no impact by the Internet on the financial services or legal industries.”
The importance of Blockchain and distributed ledgers as an enabling ecosystem where smart contracts can render entire industries obsolete or radically disrupt their internal workings (like in the financial industry) deserves its own section, which will be regularly updated – hence the discussion on this can finish by quoting MIT Media Lab director Joy Ito (p 116): “My hunch is that the Blockchain will be to banking law and accountancy as the Internet was to media commerce and advertising. It will lower costs, dis-intermediate many layers of business and reduce friction. As we know one person’s friction is another person’s revenue”.
  • More books/talks on this here.
WHAT: A few figures first: “As recently as 2000, only 25 percent of data was stored in digital form. Less than a decade later, in 2007, that percentages had skyrocketed to 94 percent” (pg. 154). This is the dataquake.  “Big data is just the application of the commodification of computing power combined with the wider availability of cloud computing” (pg. 157).
The areas which will be visited by most action are;
–  Human interface in Machine Translation (pg 159): “Universal machine translation will accelerate globalization on a massive scale”. Advances in bioacoustic engineering will deliver sleek interfaces, no more robotic voice in the next 10 years;

–  Precision Agriculture: native, or retasked as Monsanto with FieldScripts (pg 162)

will reshape the agribusiness landscape: “The promise of precision agriculture is that it will gather and evaluate a wealth of real-time data on factors including weather, water and nitrogen levels, air quality, and disease – which are not just specific to each farm or acre but specific to each square inch of that farmland” (pg 162);
–  FinTech (pg 168ff). The financial industry is in essence an information processing operation.   “A bank is basically a giant ledger of contracts that have future positive and negative cash flows. A bank’s entire income is based on how the present value of those cash flows changes moment to moment” (pg. 170). FinTech arises because banks struggle to roll up their analytics to one central view of their cash flows. Standard Treasury, the “digital first” bank, aims to exactly that. Another FinTech area is the real-time screening: “In a coded-money economy, a lender knows a merchant’s true value because it has real-time access to its books” (pg. 171). Knowing all the transaction allows Square Capital (ibidem) to open credit lines and grow the business of its clients with unprecedented accuracy;

–  Our quantified selves: Delegating more and more of our decisions to non-human actors will trigger important questions regarding our agency. 4a48f0fc0642f24699278951c93f3770“Serendipity fades with everything we hand over to algorithms. Most of these algorithms are noiseless. They gently guide us in our choices. […] And because they constitute the value of a company’s intellectual property, there is an incentive to keep them opaque to us” (pgg. 180-1)
A couple more points: “When data goes from being unstructured to structured, it takes on the values and prejudices baked into its formulation” (pg 183) and “Correlations made by big data are likely to reinforce negative bias” (pg. 184). A thoughtful discussion on this -Dataism- is in an article by Yuval Harari, see Financial Times article.
  •  More books/talks on this here.
 Concluding remarks
Is Silicon Valley going to exert increasing gravitational pull or the decentralization triggered by commodification of big data ecosystems (AWS) will allow business to spread across the geographical avenues of domain expertise?  Where will be the focal points of the “next economy” and its accompanying class? Alpha cities (London, Tokyo, NY, Singapore) and places like Estonia “The Little Country that could” (see its e-residency scheme) and Israel, or the geographical gradient will be less steep?
“With these platforms the Valley has become like ancient Rome. It exerts tribute from all its provinces. The tribute is the fact it own these platform businesses. […] The value flows to one of the places of the world that can produce tech platforms. So the global regional inequality is going to be unlike anything we have ever seen”, argues an investor2 (p 94) in the book.
Will the vision of world leaders be commensurate to such scenarios? The big forces shaping our future – technology, platform & free-lance economy, environment no longer fall into old ideological divides. The twin faiths of the Age of Extremes – capitalism and communism – were both based on epistemological fallacies: the first that the randomness of the economic process could be eliminated in toto; the second that such randomness acts for the benefit of human society. “The principal political binary of the last half of the 20th century was communism versus capitalism. In the 21st century it is open versus closed” argues Ross (pg 215). On such a hopeful note our review of Alex Ross wonderful book terminates. It should be mandatory reading for all thinking people.

1. [ Ross, Alec. The industries of the future Simon & Schuster , 2016]
2. [ Charlie Songhurst, see here]

Su un treno italiano

Come si era potuti arrivare a tanto? pensavo mentre guardavo la ragazza. Sui trent’anni, rossa di capelli & ben piazzata, stava telefonando. Lei un controllore di biglietti su un treno regionale della tratta Roma-Firenze: telefonava ma nessuno rispondeva. Io in uno scompartimento fra i tanti, fuori dal finestrino una stazione fra le tante, asse_roma_berlino_castiglion_del_lago.jpgun altro villaggio Potёmkim – con scritte mai cancellate di un certo Asse Roma-Berlino. Roba vecchia. Nei sedili di fronte a me, tre bei ragazzi africani. Vestiti come mille altri adolescenti Italiani – uno di loro con cellulare LG in mano, tutti con scarpe sportive di ultima generazione. Tre ragazzi Italiani di colore come tanti. La ragazza aveva intimato loro di esibire il biglietto, una, due, tre volte. Loro non si erano nemmeno voltati. Niente. Forse non capivano l’Italiano – in fondo parlavano fra loro una lingua che non capivo. Forse in Inglese avrebbero potuto capirla?
La ragazza ora ha preso il telefono – chiama il capotreno. Io intervengo, in Inglese domando loro se la ragione dell’esibita arrogante indifferenza alla di lei richiesta sia che, forse, non capiscono l’ Italiano. “Non abbiamo biglietti – mi dicono in perfetto Inglese, non abbiamo documenti, non abbiamo nulla”.
La ragazza ha chiamato il capotreno – che sopraggiunge. Un uomo spento. Li invita ad alzarsi. I tre, con postura arrogante, si fanno verso la porta. La stazione e’ arrivata. Scendono, mi salutano in Inglese, ridono e se ne vanno, forse salgono sul treno successivo.
“Non si puo’ fare niente” mi dicono i due ferrovieri, visibilmente umiliati. O forse arresi a uno stato di cose che percepiscono ingiusto ma immodificabile. Mi colpisce la ragazza a cui, ancor giovane, di certo non e’ sfuggito che e’ stata lei a perdere. La dignita’ del suo lavoro, dell’uniforme che indossa e’ stata vilipesa. “Non possiamo fare niente, non hanno documenti, non si sa dove vivano, se prendiamo loro qualcosa andiamo contro alla legge Italiana”.
Allora mi torna in mente un passo de “La Chimera” di Sebastiano Vassalli. Dove si parla delle leggi che nell’ Italia spagnola del 1600 regolavano la coltivazione del riso intorno alle mura della citta’. Le leggi prevedevano che non si potesse coltivare a meno di una distanza minima dalle mura – ma a non piu’ di una massima. Le due misure pero’ erano inconsistenti, ergo in via di legge riso non si poteva coltivare; tutti pero’ coltivavano, creando spazio all’arbitrio di chi quella legge volesse far rispettare. Una legge che creava incentivi perversi per i sudditi dell’Italia spagnola del 1600.
In quel momento ho capito che avevo perso anche io – non solo la ragazza dei biglietti. Le norme che regolano la convivenza civile nel paese Italia, anno domini 2017, non sono meno inconsistenti di quelle descritte da Vassalli. Anche quei tre ragazzi avevano perso, non era questo il paese civile che stavano cercando quando avevano lasciato il continente nero.
L’illegalita’ alligna cosi’, nell’Italia di oggi, fra l’umiliazione di alcuni e l’indifferenza di tutti.

Art in Fractured Times

In Madrid, at the Reina Sofia Museum of Contemporary Art, a special exhibition chartsparis_1937 this year the artistic travail Picasso had to endure to realize Guernica for the World Exhibition held in Paris, 1937. Surely that was the most famous of the decade (possibly of the century). miro_spainIt displayed in adjacent order Hitler’s German pavillon, Stalin’s Soviet pavillon and (of course) the Spanish – Republican – one. As it is well known, Picasso realized Guernica for it, while Buñuel supervised the cinematic propaganda effort on behalf of the Republican government. Miro helped his way.  A wonderful book of late professor Hobsbawm – aptly called ‘Fractured Times– charts the same terrain. An exhibition held in London 1996, duly surveyed in its wonderful catalog, also explored the deeply problematic link between art and power in Europe during the 30ies. Black-Mirror-pig-350144That was an age -it seems to me – where artists could still drive the political debate with their accomplishments. Is this a hope that went irreparably lost in our time? The first episode aired by British TV series Blackmirror (deftly called “The National Anthem” ) suggests to me that – in somewhat contrived way – this is till possible in our time.
See also this link, where the ideas of Walter Benjamin are (possibly) updated.

Pankaj: Age of Anger

In 1862, Dostoevsky visited London for the World Exhibition. The Crystal Palace transfixed his mind. He penned the following perceptive remarks:

“You  sense that it would require great and everlasting spiritual denial and fortitude in order not to submit, not to capitulate before the impression, not to bow to what is, and not to deify Baal, that is, not to accept the material world as your ideal”.


Genius was necessary to understand the hidden message behind that beaming facade – he had that in abundance, but crucially it took something else too. Dostoevsky came from backward Russia, where the narrow-mindedness of the ruling class kept the country in the tight grip of underdevelopment, religious bigotry, mass illiteracy if not outright serfdom: the contemplation of the Palace the_possessedfrom the remoteness of Russian spiritual and material conditions was the springboard for the revelations he uncovered in his mature literary production. In “The Possessed”, Dostoevsky explored the schizophrenic reaction of the young intelligentsia against the world heralded by The Crystal Palace. As described in another entry, czarist Russia was dangerously exposed to the main undercurrent of European civilization in the xix century- i.e. German Idealism. The intelligentsia knew just how bad things were in motherland and how the forward movement of History – so neatly exemplified by the palace in London – was restrained by the parochialism of Russian ruling class. This situation visited upon them strong, unmitigated anger.

In the riveting “Age of Anger: A History of the Present”1Pankaj Mishra moves from the same vantage point – he gives a name to the displacements that modernity has wrought on countless human masses, in the entire ‘global village’. He analyzes how the pull of backwardness and the sheer attractive force of the the modern Palace interplay in the soul of modern man. In essence, the book

“argues that the unprecedented political, economic and social disorder that accompanied the rise of the industrial capitalist economy in nineteen-century Europe, and led to world wars, totalitarian regimes and genocide in the first half of the twentieth century is now infecting much vaster regions and bigger populations: that, first exposed to modernity through European Imperialism, large parts of Asia and Africa are now plunging deeper into the West’s own fateful experience of that modernity” (AoA, pg. 10).

In order to drive home such a wide-ranging recognition, age_of_anger.jpgPankaj avails himself of the best guides. He draws heavily from Polanyi’s “The Great Transformation”, Arendt’s “Origin of Totalitarianism” (see here) and of course, as an hidden undercurrent, from the Marshall Bermann’s “All that is Solid melts into air” (text). But the true inspiration for the book -what makes it precious to me – lies in the superb “From Hegel To Nietzsche” by Karl Löwith, where the Jewish philosopher – and student of Heidegger- charts the internal movements  of the German spirit in the XIX century.
German classical philosophy – which had in Hegel its final synthesis before disgregation began – is the genial culmination of the European mind coming to terms with the modern world – its main focus the critical exegesis of what modernity implies, how its potential could be realized, how its promises should not be betrayed. Referring to Hegel and the tradition spurred by him, Pankaj is adamant:

“[German philosophy’s] insights germinating during shattering historical and emotional crises were far removed from the stolidly empirical traditions of Anglo-America, or the cold objectivity prized among the ‘politically and economically sated nations’ as Weber called them” (AoA, p. 33) and moreover “The modern world’s greatest philosophical system, implicit in all our political ideas and values today, was built during this time. The French Revolution may have announced the nineteen century’s religion of the nation, and the cults of liberty and equality; but Germans brooding on their political inadequacy produced an Ur-philosophy of development: one to which liberal internationalists and modernization theorists as well as communist universalists and cultural nationalists should subscribe” (AoA, 203)

Pankaj’s real polemic target are the sanitized narratives of the last two centuries of European history. In those narratives, a humanistic, freedom-loving Enlightenment is only shaken, from time to time, by the external threat of some demagogue who takes power in Berlin (1933) or by some fanatic zealots of top-down modernization who happen to run the Kremlin from 1917, etc. You can perceive the Frankfurt School’s lesson -and Hannah Arendt’s-  in his words:

“‘Totalitarianism’ with his tens of millions of victims was identified as a malevolent reaction to a benevolent Enlightenment tradition of rationalism, humanism, universalism and liberal democracy – a tradition seen as an unproblematic norm. It was clearly too disconcerting to acknowledge that totalitarian politics crystallized the ideological currents (scientific racism, jingoistic nationalism, imperialism, technicism, aesteticized politics, utopianism, social engineering and the violent struggle for existence) flowing through the whole of Europe in the late Nineteen Century” (AoA, pg. 17)

As early as 1776, Adam Smith’s “invisible hand” metaphor was duplicitous. Its first reference – to an impersonal optimization mechanism (more precisely an iterative solver of constrained inequalities) determining prices – was clear at once. But only few spirits red past that. One of those was Kant. In “Idee zu einer cosmopolitischen Regierung“, he had already recast the ‘invisible hand’ into the concept of ‘unsocial sociability’ (see Hobsbawm, Age Of Revolution, pg 58). But it was Rousseau who understood the full import of that – and built a system on it, with “[his] prescient criticism of a political system based on envious comparison, individual self-seeking and the multiplication of artificial needs”. Between the “First Discourse” (1750),  the “Second Discourse” (1754) and “The Social Contract” (1762), the Swiss thinker voiced the new category of ressentiment, or anger indeed – the anger against a state of the world which accelerates competitions on uneven playing fields – what Arendt called later on ‘negative solidarity’ (AOA, 51), i.e.

“individuals with very different pasts find themselves herded by capitalism and technology into a common present, where grossly unequal distributions of wealth and power have created humiliating new hierarchies. This proximity […] is rendered more claustrophobic by digital communication, the improved capacity for envious and resentful comparison, and the commonplace, and therefore compromised, quest for individual distinction and singularity” (AoA, 13)

Rousseau saw another thing very clearly. He understood that the ruling class, and in particular the intellectual stratum (in his time, Voltaire) would always want to dictate what is best for the common man. Most of the enlightenment philosophers and all the technocratic intelligentsia in the following two centuries, would stand by Voltaire side. Nietzsche understood the full import of that, when “claimed to identify in the battle between Voltaire and Rousseau the ‘unfinished problem of civilization’ “(AoA, pg. 94). In the posthumous “The Willpower” (123 –Spring-Fall 1887), Nietzsche wrote indeed:

The unfinished problems I pose anew: the problem of civilization, the fight between Rousseau and Voltaire around 1760. Man becomes more profound, mistrustful, “immoral,” stronger, more confident of himself—and to this extent “more natural”: this is “progress.”— At the same time, in accordance with a kind of division of labor, the strata that have become more evil are separated from those that have become milder and tamer—so that the overall fact is not noticed immediately.—It is characteristic of strength, of the self-control and fascination of strength, that these stronger strata possess the art of making others experience their progress in evil as something higher. It is characteristic of every “progress” that the strengthened elements are reinterpreted as “good.

These two strands germinating from Rousseau’s thought would undergird  every critique of modernization projects ever after- from Komeini to Brexit or Trump, Pankaj reiterates. Hence the anger as a driving force of political turmoil – spread to the whole globe by the concurrent destruction of premodern cultures and by the existence of digital platforms mirroring events in real time, with no geographical boundaries2. His conclusion is worth repeating here:

“Many people find it easy to aim their rage against an allegedly cosmopolitan and rootless cultural elite. Objects of hatred are needed more than ever before during times of crisis, and rich transnationals conveniently embody the viced of a desperately sought-after but infuriatingly unattainable modernity: money worship, lack of noble virtues such as patriotism. Thus, globalization, while promoting integration among shrewd elites, incites political and cultural sectarianism everywhere else, especially among people forced against their will into universal competition” (AoA, pgg 333-334)

We ought to be thankful to the author for his superb book. The great intellectual tradition spurred by German classical philosophy – from Hegel down to Habermas or Bauman – has in Mishra Pankaj another powerful voice.

 This book review is mirrored here as well – where its proper place in the bigger frame of DIGITAL AGE can be better perceived.

1. [ Pankaj, Mishra. Age of Anger. A History of the Present. Penguin Press , 2017]
2. See also: “The coming of Anarchy” by Robert Kaplan

Una nota di Pier Paolo Pasolini

Apparsa sul Il Reporter del 19 gennaio 1960, col titolo “La comicità di Sordi, gli stranieri non ridono”, questa interessante nota di Pier Paolo Pasolini sembra, al solito, capace di una penetrazione psicologica straordinaria. Riproduco qui sotto la nota per intero,  a seguire un breve commento.

Dicono che, finora, Alberto Sordi non abbia avuto successo all’estero: può darsi che il successo venga, presto, e che questa situazione sia smentita da una inaspettata «scoperta» (e l’auguro all’attore): comunque non si può non meditare su questo fatto. Alberto Sordi è stato quest’anno al centro del cinema italiano: c’era Alberto Sordi nei Magliari, c’era Alberto Sordi nella Grande guerra, c’era Alberto Sordi nel Moralista, c’era Alberto Sordi in altri tre quattro filmetti di cassetta (vedi Costa Azzurra); in gran parte della produzione italiana c’era Alberto Sordi. E ci sarà. In questo momento la comicità nazionale coincide in gran parte con quella di Sordi. Totò e Fabrizi invecchiati e cadenti, gli altri quasi tutti fuori moda (a parte, più aristocratico, il caso di Eduardo De Filippo), è Sordi che ha il monopolio del riso. Ma all’estero non fa ridere. Bisognerà pur chiederci il perché.
Vediamo un po’: in fondo il mondo della Magnani è, se non identico, simile a quello di Sordi: tutti due romani, tutti due popolani, tutti due dialettali, profondamente tinti di un modo di essere estremamente particolaristico (il modo di essere della Roma plebea ecc.). Eppure la Magnani ha avuto tanto successo, anche fuori d’Italia: il suo «particolarismo» è stato subito compreso, è diventato subito, come si usa dire, universale, patrimonio comune di infiniti pubblici. Lo sberleffo della popolana di Trastevere, la sua risata, la sua impazienza, il suo modo di alzare le spalle, il suo mettersi la mano sul collo sopra le «zinne», la sua testa «scapijata», il suo sguardo di schifo, la sua pena, la sua accoratezza: tutto è diventato assoluto, si è spogliato del colore locale ed è diventato mercé di scambio, internazionale. È qualcosa di simile a quello che succede per i canti popolari: basta trascriverli, aggiustarli un po’, toglierci la selvatichezza e l’eccessivo sentore di miseria, ed eccoli pronti per lo smercio a tutte le latitudini.
Alberto Sordi, no. Parrebbe intraducibile. Lo si direbbe un canto popolare che non si può trascrivere. Ce lo vediamo, ce lo sentiamo, ce lo godiamo noi: nel nostro mondo «particolare».
Ma di che specie è il riso che suscita Alberto Sordi? Pensateci bene un momento: è un riso di cui un po’ ci si vergogna. E il massimo di questo senso di vergogna viene raggiunto, (ricordate?), nella risata angosciosa e un po’ isterica che Sordi strappa al pubblico nei due episodi dei Magliari in cui vende la mercé della povera ingenua gente tedesca, per di più colpita dal lutto. E vero che il «magliaro» è stata la più brutta interpretazione di Sordi: e non si capisce come egli sia così sfuggito di mano a un regista di buon gusto, anzi, di gusto raffinato, come è Rosi. Tuttavia, appunto perché è la più brutta, questa interpretazione può essere presa ad esempio, perché, nel suo eccesso, mostra con chiarezza l’intelaiatura della comicità di Sordi: è la comicità che nasce dall’attrito, con la variopinta e standardizzata società moderna, di un uomo il cui infantilismo anziché produrre ingenuità, candore, bontà, disponibilità, ha prodotto egoismo, vigliaccheria, opportunismo, crudeltà. Alberto_Sordi_I_vitelloni_bisÈ una deviazione dell’infantilismo. E quando uso questa parola, la uso in senso clinico (il lettore mi perdoni), nel senso che le danno gli psichiatri; la uso cioè molto seriamente. Il referto dei medici su Proust era, per esempio, infantilismo. L’infantilismo presiede a qualsiasi operazione artistica moderna, è il dio del decadentismo: cioè della grande arte borghese di questo ultimo secolo. Anche la comicità rientra in questo enorme schema fenomenologico. Da Charlot a Tati, per citare solo i grandi, i personaggi comici sono in realtà dei bambini (e ricordate pure Pascoli: ne siete storiograficamente autorizzati), bambini cresciuti, magari allampanati, magari pelati, ma sostanzialmente bambini: o, che sarebbe lo stesso, poeti. Anarchici, giramondo, nostalgici, scapigliati, spostati, falliti ecc., sono fondamentalmente inadatti a un rapporto normale con la società: in continuo urto con essa, e, nella fattispecie, con le sue convinzioni mondane, col suo tacito galateo di ipocrisie. Nessuno dei grandi comici del nostro tempo è un vero rivoluzionario: ma semplicemente un umanitario, un moralista, che, della società, indica i mali senza indicarne i rimedi. Il «ragazzine» che è in ogni comico non ne sarebbe capace.
Comunque resta un dato di fatto: in ogni comico vero del nostro tempo (e di tutti i tempi, del resto) c’è una profonda rivolta morale, che, se implica l’ingenuità inabile e improduttiva dell’infanzia, ne implica anche la bontà.
La bontà: ecco quello che manca totalmente in Sordi. Charlot ha fatto ridere tutto il mondo perché era buono; Harold Lloyd, Stan Laurel e Oliver Hardy hanno fatto ridere tutto il mondo perché erano buoni; Tati fa ridere tutto il mondo perché è buono. La Magnani – che tuttavia non si può dire una «comica», nel senso stretto della parola – è piaciuta a tutto il mondo, pur essendo così particolaristica-mente italica, perché è generosa, appassionata.L'arte_di_arrangiarsi
Alla comicità di Alberto Sordi ridiamo solo noi: perché solo noi conosciamo il nostro pollo. Ridiamo, e usciamo dal cinema vergognandoci di aver riso, perché abbiamo riso sulla nostra viltà, sul nostro qualunquismo, sul nostro infantilismo.
Sappiamo che Sordi è in realtà un prodotto non del popolo (come la vera Magnani) ma della piccola borghesia, o di quegli strati popolari non operai, come se ne trovano specialmente nelle aree depresse, che sono sotto l’influenza ideologica piccolo-borghese. Alberto Sordi, come Cioccetti, è stato educato in sacrestia, da piccolo ha fatto il chierichetto. Cresciuto, si è trovato a doversi adattare: non c’è stata soluzione di continuità morale: ogni atto, che il bambino onesto educato dal prete riproverebbe, è tacitato, è giustificato dalla necessità. Un malato ha la necessità di essere sano, e, preso da questa necessità improrogabile, non hatempo e modo di occuparsi dei mali degli altri. È questo infantilismo come malattia, diventato cattiveria, che commuove in Sordi noi italiani: possiamo perdonarlo, perché sappiamo tutto, cosa c’è dietro e sotto.
Ma fuori d’Italia non sono cattolici: sono protestanti, puritani, o sono dei cattolici rigorosi senza compromessi. Capisco come per pubblici simili sia difficile ridere su un modo di vita che è il peccato stesso, è il male stesso, senza rimedio, senza contraddizione. Essi non conoscono l’arte di arrangiarsi, o, se ne hanno sentore, la vedono molto più romanticamente. Tanta ferocia, tanta viltà è inconcepibile. Noi possiamo riderne, amaramente: ma a loro chi glielo fa fare?
Questa comicità di Sordi piccolo-borghese e cattolica, fondamentalmente senza nessuna fede, senza nessun ideale, non urta e non urterà mai la censura italiana: urta e urterà sempre chi possiede una sensibilità civica e morale, cioè la media dei pubblici francesi e anglosassoni.
Non vorrei che questa potesse parere una eccessiva «stroncatura» di Sordi: in fondo, probabilmente senza rendersene conto, il tipo che egli così intelligentemente e vividamente ha inventato, era necessitato fuori da lui, dalla società in cui egli vive in assoluta acribia. Per diventare un vero grande comico, «universale» (come si dice) gli ci vuole un po’ di senso critico: un po’ di cattiveria intellettuale, finalmente, dopo tanta cattiveria viscerale! C’è infatti la possibilità di inserire nel suo personaggio quel tanto di pietà, cioè di conoscenza di sé e del mondo, sia pure irrazionale e sentimentale, che gli manca. Egli deve essere meno ellittico, meno ammiccante: noi, che ci siamo in mezzo, lo capiamo subito, gli stranieri (cioè il mondo, cioè lo spettatore in assoluto), no. Egli deve rendere esplicita quell’estrema ombra di pietà che nel suo infantilismo pure permane e può commuovere, malgrado le mostruosità di cui è capace.La_grande_guerra
E dico che tutto questo è possibile perché due volte Sordi c’è riuscito: una volta per merito del dialogo, una volta per merito del regista. Intendo riferirmi a una particina indimenticabile, a una specie di «a solo» che Sordi ha eseguito nel Medico e lo stregone; e, soprattutto, alla Grande guerra. In questi due casi, finalmente, Sordi vive di due elementi, entrambi operanti: il Sordi bebé antropofago, cattivo, amorale, e il Sordi poveraccio morto di fame sostenuto suo malgrado da una forza morale, dalla pietà che in infinitesima parte sente e per il resto incute.
Se in Sordi entrasse definitivamente questa contraddizione, se egli capisse che non si può ridere se al fondo del riso non c’è della bontà – pur esercitata o repressa in un mondo nemico – la sua comicità finirebbe di essere uno dei tristi fenomeni della brutta Italia di questi anni, e potrebbe, nei suoi modesti limiti, contribuire almeno a una lotta riformistica e morale.

Le categorie gramsciane (“particolare”, “una lotta riformistica e morale” etc) sono totalmente in chiaro nello splendido tessuto della prosa di Pasolini, come pure l’analisi materialistico-storica della societa’: una vera delizia intellettuale. In progresso di tempo, il Sordi di cui parla PPP si sarebbe affrancato da questa stroncatura per mano di ben piu’ sofferte interpretazioni (si veda per tutti il film di Scola “Riusciranno i nostri eroi“): ma il tipo umano rappresentato dall’attore e’ ancora con noi.  Ancora agli inizi degli anni`80 Calvino poteva scrivere il suo “Apologo sull’onestà nel paese dei corrotti” cogliendo pienamente nel segno.
Mi chiedo che cosa scriverebbero oggi autori dotati della finezza psicologica di PPP o dell’intelligenza delle cose di Italo Calvino sulla societa’ italiana. Mi chiedo se la scomparsa di questo genere di analisi sia da imputare al mutamento “molecolare” della natura stessa della comunicazione (pubblica) o al discredito che codeste categorie (“particolare” etc) incontrano nel discorso pubblico. Piu’ probabilmente, la qualita’ stessa del dibattito intellettuale nel paese Italia e’ cosi’ vistosamente precipitata che l’uso stesso di simili – ma aggiornate – categorie  interpretative  (si pensi al lavoro dell’ultimo  Zygmut Baumann) risulta impervio. In fin dei conti, Pasolini era buon conoscitore di Eliade e Malinowski, della sociologia anglosassone, oltreche’ ovviamente della filosofia classica tedesca.

On Chomsky and Hobsbawm (cont’ned)


Upon visiting the splendid mosaics in Villa Romana del Casale (Piazza Armerina), one is reminded very clearly of the intelligent remark made by Karl Marx  according to which work had no social relevance in the ancient world. Because of oversupply due to slave labour, no place for the creative activity of man was on display in the ancient world – there simply was no place for it.

Take now another of Marx’ great insights (from the ‘Grundrisse’, as quoted in George Lichtheim, ‘A Short History of Socialism’ pp. 100-101):

What appears as surplus value on the side of capital, appears on the workers side as surplus labor … beyond the immediate requirement for the maintenance of his existence. The great historic side of capital is to create this surplus labor, superfluous labor from the standpoint of mere use value, mere subsistence; and its historic destiny is fulfilled as soon as, in the one hand, needs [wants] have been so far developed that surplus labor beyond necessity [subsistence] has itself become a general need [want] … on the other hand, the general disposition to work [industriousness] has, through the severe discipline of capital … been developed into the general property [possession] of the new breed of men [ des neuen Geschlecht] – finally, when the development of labor productive forces … has reached the point where the possession or maintenance of societal wealth requires a diminishing quantity of labor time, and where the laboring society takes up a scientific attitude to the process of its progressive reproduction … where consequently the kind of work man does, instead of letting it be done by things on his behalf, has come to an end.

Again quoting Lichtheim (loc. cit. p. 101) ‘from the standpoint of the mature Marx, capitalism appears as a historically conditioned mechanism for developing society’s productive power to the point where the subordination of labor to capital, of living people to dead matter, will become unnecessary’. A splendid contribution on this direction, focusing in particular on the changing nature of ‘time’ in the upcoming industrial society is in the influential article by Edward P. Thompson “Time, Work-Discipline, and Industrial Capitalism” (1967).

The question is then: what can we do with Noam Chomsky’s remark about distributed, horizontal, vertically-free organization of social labour? The global supply chain that I hold in my hand when I use my Android – can we really do without the kind of pressure that capitalism extracts from the worker? the kind of productivity tyranny it imposes on the men and women composing the human mass it insists upon?

Practical reason as sorcery (ii): development economics

In recent years, there has been a resurgence of interest in the towering figure of Josif Stalin, whose footprint on the 20th century has been arguably the biggest of any world leader. ‘Young Stalin‘ of Simon Sebag Montefiore has rightly been awarded many prizes, as much uncomfortable its central tenet – JS was a supremely talented man, albeit an evil one- can be. In a forum, I stumbled upon the following witty remark:

“Stalin was a great ceo of ussr inc. fought and won inter management battle due to his superior strategy and vision. successfully defeated hostile takeover bid by german nazi inc ( with a little help from friends). cut lots of unproductive and underperforming fat. and really turned over inefficient and backward business into a world conquering juggernaut second only to great usa inc. a really great ceo and shining beacon for business community. “

Turning to more serious analysis, the early Soviet poster below, promoting industrialization, reads “Smoke of chimneys is the breath of Soviet Russia”:
it  gives an hint for another instance of the recurring theme of practical reason as sorcery (see here for the previous post).


Let us start  from a remark by late Eric Hobsbawm in “Age Of Revolution 1789 -1848”, (pg 181):

“Of all the economic consequences of the age of dual revolution this division between the ‘advanced’ and the ‘underdeveloped’ countries proved to be the most profound and the most lasting. Roughly speaking by 1848 it was clear which countries were to belong to the first group, i.e. Western Europe (minus the Iberian peninsula), Germany, Northern Italy and parts of central Europe, Scandinavia, the USA and perhaps the colonies settled by English-speaking migrants. But it was equally clear that the rest of the world was, apart from small patches, lagging, or turning—under the informal pressure of western exports and imports or the military pressure of western gunboats and military-expeditions— into economic dependencies of the west. Until the Russians in the 1930s developed means of leaping this chasm between the ‘backward’ and the ‘advanced’, it would remain immovable, untraversed, and indeed growing wider, between the minority and the majority of the world’s inhabitants. No fact has determined the history of the twentieth century more firmly than this.”

Hobsbawm,  in “Age Of Extremes – 1914-1991″, (pg. 380), talks about the first Five Year Plan launched by J. Stalin in the following terms:

“Nevertheless, any policy of rapid modernization in the USSR, under the circumstances of the time, was bound to be ruthless …”

Stalin realized quite early on that the (world) revolution was not going to happen in the West & hence he unflinchingly (and brutally) followed the suggestions of the industrialists to steer through a policy of massive industrialization in one country.
How are we to judge the above remarks? Are they supported by empirical data?

Take old Alec Nove’s article, “Was Stalin really necessary?”:  his conclusion seems to be on the affirmative. Now take another set of researchers,  Anton Cheremukhin, Mikhail Golosov, Sergei Guriev, Aleh Tsyvinski (MIT): in the paper “Was Stalin Necessary for Russian Economic Development?”, they argue quite the opposite, seemingly pointing to the total uselessness of JS’s policies of rapid industrialization, against the loss of economic potential in the millions. (The paper above has been reviewed by Emanuele Felice: here)

In reality, the debate -even invoking notions of Pareto optimality in the allocation etc- would still be an ill-fit to the empirical data, because the concept of human society it is predicated upon cannot be clearly stated, but it lives in the foggy province of either an extrapolation from the present, or of a earthly ‘civitas dei’ which, along with similar messianic ideas, cannot have instantiation.

It seems that either some obscure notion of human freedom, happiness has to be invoked, – which is impossible – or the debate is reduced to sterile comaparison of time-series analysis, which by itself cannot do justice to the vastness of the events. The phrase :”One death is a tragedy, a million deaths is statistics”, also attributed to JS, is just a restatement of the same problem, that morality – so to speak- has a necessary scale, which is commensurate to the situation at hand. Entire popuulations can be displaced to make room for future Magnitogorsk or Norilsk, without the notion of human dignity to apply or make much sense. Those notions, so to speak, have a local domain of validity. Kantian universalism is rejected by the historical data in the ‘age of extremes’.