Marginalia 14: No gods, no emperors

Over the last couple of months I've been listening to Mike Duncan's History of Rome podcast. I enjoyed Revolutions and thought maybe I should see what his first outing was like. I managed to get all the way to The Tetrarchy before I finally snapped. Duncan isn't a bad historian, but I just got a little bit sick of everything being viewed from the point of view that more people, land, wealth, and order inside the Empire equals good, and less of those things equals bad.

It might be the untimely death of David Graeber (more on which from me some time soon, probably) that has been weighing on my mind. Perhaps it's simply weeks on end of being confined to my suburb, one hour of exercise a day by law, watching the bunch of kleptomaniacs who rule over my part of the world shamelessly shove more of the country's wealth into the pockets of their mates, their families or — on the odd particularly brazen occasion — themselves.

Robodebt and threats of military strike breaking for us. Mining royalty holidays and tax deductions for them. In the words of the great philosopher Tony Abbott, as he sought to show his humanity to Australian soldiers after their colleagues were killed supporting our imperial masters: “Shit happens”.

Shit has been happening to machine learning algorithms lately. Whilst ethicists, social scientists, and anyone with the most basic understanding of how racist the average police force is have been fruitlessly pointing out to computer scientists for years that algorithms based merely on historical record keeping might be a little problematic, it seems that what has finally got them to sit up and notice is the complete collapse of “just in time” supply chains.

Much more interesting is the disorderly order of the “natural” world. In Europe, scientists have been studying what happens when they do nothing at all instead of “cleaning up” the carcasses of dead animals. It seems amazing that “modern science” has to “prove” things like this, after so many millennia of humans just taking it for granted that death is part of the cycle of life, but here we are. Meanwhile in Christchurch, millions of dollars have been spent on a losing battle to keep a reborn swamp “tidy” after earthquakes returned whole suburbs back to wetlands. The world is in chaos, but then the world is chaos — embrace it, because it turns out that the way epidemics end is that they don't really. There is no normal: neither old nor new.

No gods. No emperors. Never normalise.