A kind of manifesto

Back of Mind

This is a new blog/substack/mailing list.  It’s in some ways a successor to “PREDICTO”, a small-circulation newsletter which I used to send out a while ago, in which I used to make predictions about world events, based on decision principles that I’d picked up in my day job as a stock analyst.

The valuable thing about that newsletter was never really the predictions per se (although I feel like my track record wasn’t too bad) – it was the ex post lessons-learned exercises that we used to do, seeing what had gone right or wrong and updating the decision principles accordingly.  My unofficial motto at the time was that “if you don’t make predictions, you won’t know what to be surprised by”.  (These days I might add “if you don’t make recommendations, you will never know what to be disappointed by”).

It seems to me that quite a lot of people are doing that sort of thing these days, though, so I felt like trying something a bit more experimental.  Once upon a time, I used to have quite a line in internet contrarianism – the practice, when it’s done correctly rather than mindlessly attempting to shock people, of looking closely at hidden assumptions in conventional wisdom and seeing whether they can be challenged in interesting ways.  Don’t worry, I’m not going to do that again – as far as I can see, the contrarian style is exhausted, it’s not possible to do anything interesting in that style any more and won’t be for at least a generation.

Instead, “Back of Mind” is going to go in the other direction.  Almost like ambient music, this newsletter is going to try and come up with thoughts and principles that work by sticking at the back of your mind, that you can hold in your head while thinking about or doing something else.  Ideally, “back of mind” ideas will be things that can influence and shape your thinking even when you disagree with them. 

Because that’s potentially quite a woolly concept that might lead to a lot of abstract and dull writing, I thought I’d kick off with a manifesto of sorts, to organise the newsletter and explain what you can expect from it.  Let’s see if we can do this at sensible length.  Maybe ten points:

1.      Every post will be short (800 words seems a feasible limit), and will not demand too much in the way of your attention

2.      I will try to find slogans that stick in the mind

3.      I will use concrete or historic examples wherever possible

4.      This newsletter will be “contrarianism without the aggro”

5.      I aim to present stylised facts about the world, as seen by its various governing systems

6.      The key subject matter of “Back of Mind” is economic and political reality

7.      I will take people’s metaphors and jokes literally, for either comic or analytical purposes.

8.      The world is made out of decisions, not events

9.      I will not make arguments of any kind, logical, rhetorical or otherwise

10.   All these rules will be broken if they become harmful or restrictive

11.   Back of Mind is based in the language of cybernetics

The last of those is related to the fact that I have a book coming out next year (it’s currently with the editor).  It’s going to be called “Decisions Nobody Made”, and it’s about the way in which identifiable human beings aren’t accountable in the way they used to be, because a rising proportion of our society is run by systems rather than people.  Algorithms and artificial intelligences in the literal sense of computer programs are part of the story, but it’s mainly about corporations and governments, systems made up of people; collective intelligences.  “Cybernetics” is the general science of control systems, and it’s got a very weird and quirky history.

Part of that history is that one of the key texts of management cybernetics is “Brain of the Firm” by Stafford Beer, which is one of Brian Eno’s favourite books (and was also highly rated by David Bowie).  It was one of the big influences on ambient music; Eno wrote an entire essay about the use of cybernetic techniques in art.  What I’m hoping to do is close that circle, taking some of those ideas about fitting small units of insight and creativity into coherent larger structures and bringing them back to the original study of control and governance in the modern industrial society.  Let’s see …

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A newsletter of quiet contrarianism, slow analysis and ambient ideas


Dan Davies

Writer of "Lying for Money" and "Decisions Nobody Made" (forthcoming). Former stock analyst and economist. Interested in the world around me.