energy, not technology
by Sebastian Benthall
I’m still trying to understand what’s happening in the world and specifically in the U.S. with the 2016 election. I was so wrong about it that I think I need to take seriously the prospect that I’ve been way off in my thinking about what’s important.
In my last post, I argued that the media isn’t as politically relevant we’ve been told. If underlying demographic and economic variables were essentially as predictive as anything of voter behavior, then media mishandling of polling data or biased coverage just isn’t what’s accounting for the recent political shift.
Part of the problem with media determinist accounts of the election is that because they deal with the minutia of reporting within the United States, they don’t explain how Brexit foreshadowed Trump’s election, as anybody paying attention has been pointing out for months.
So what happens if we take seriously explanation that really what’s happening is a reaction against globalization. That’s globalization in the form of a centralized EU government, or globalization in the form of U.S. foreign policy and multiculturalism. If the United States under Obama was trying to make itself out to be a welcoming place for global intellectual talent to come and contribute to the economy through Silicon Valley jobs, then arguably the election was the backfire.
An insulated focus on “the tech industry” and its political relevance has been a theme in my media bubble for the past couple of years. Arguably, that’s just because people thought the tech industry was where the power and the money was. So of course the media should scrutinize that, because everyone trying to get to the top of that pile wants to know what’s going on there.
Now it’s not clear who is in power any more (I’ll admit I’m just thinking about power as a sloppy aggregate of political and economic power. Let’s assume that political power backing an industry leads to a favorable regulatory environment for that industry’s growth, and it’s not a bad model). It doesn’t seem like it’s Silicon Valley any more. Probably it’s the energy industry.
There’s a lot going on in the energy industry! I know basically diddly about it but I’ve started doing some research.
One interesting thing that’s happening is that Russia and OPEC are teaming up to cut oil production. This is unprecedented. It also, to me, creates a confusing narrative. I thought Obama’s Clean Power Plan, focusing on renewable energy, and efforts to build international consensus around climate change were the best bets for saving the world from high emissions. But since cutting oil production leads to cutting oil production, what if the thing that really can cut carbon dioxide emissions is an oligopolistic price hike on oil?
That said, oil prices may not necessarily dictate energy prices because the U.S. because a lot of energy used is natural gas. Shale gas, in particular, is apparently a growing percentage of natural gas used in the U.S. It’s apparently better than oil in terms of CO2 emissions. Though it’s mined through fracking, which disgusts a lot of people!
Related: I was pretty pissed when I heard about Rex Tillerson, CEO of Exxon Mobil, being tapped for Secretary of State. Because that’s the same old oil companies that have messed things up so much before, right? Maybe not. Apparently Exxon Mobil also invests heavily in natural gas. As their website will tell you, that gas industry uses a lot of human labor. Which is obviously a plus in this political climate.
What’s interesting to me about all this is that it all seems very important but it has absolutely nothing to do with social media or even on-line marketplaces. It’s all about stuff way, way upstream on the supply chain.
It is certainly humbling to feel like your area of expertise doesn’t really matter. But I’m not sure what to even do as a citizen now that I realize how little I understand. I think there’s been something very broken about my theory about society and the world.
The next few posts may continue to have this tone of “huh”. I expect I’ll be stating what’s obvious to a lot of people. But whatever. I just need to sort some things out.
Would be interested to hear your findings about the state of solar & wind energy in terms of their impact on the economy (and social change). In my country, South Africa, there is an ongoing debate about the role of solar & wind vs that of nuclear.
We met this last May at the Foundation of Minds Conference. I´ve been caught up in the more mundane world of teaching since then, and the more intellectual pursuits have been relegated to the time I manage to eek out at the expense of seemingly more pressing chores. But I just wanted to send a small message to say it´s great to “see” your agile mind in action.
Even though I don`t have your insight and expertise and in the field of computational social science – and more specifically, your thoughts on computational statistics – it`s still uplifting to follow your thoughts which highlight and clarify a steadily evolving list of themes and areas that seem to be crucial in some sense.
PS:I suspect it will be even more interesting to follow now that you`re in the “huh” phase.
Good luck from Cecilie, Norway
It’s so nice to hear from you! Thank you for commenting with your kind words.
You rightly hint that my thoughts on computational social science were quite arrogant. I published my argument about it to articulate something I thought was missing from the literature. But among other things the election showed how it’s far from being perfected as a science.
So I’m back to theorizing :) It’s nice to know you’re still reading. Thanks again for your support!