Ada Palmer on censorship, science fiction, and Machiavelli's laundry

Baiqu: Welcome to The Browser Interviews. Today, I'm with Ada Palmer who is a cultural and intellectual historian, and the author of science fiction and fantasy novels, including the award-winning Terra Ignota series. Welcome to The Browser Ada.

Ada: Thank you. It's a lot of fun.

What history and science fiction have in common

Baiqu: So you focus specifically on the Renaissance and the history of books and censorship, and you also write science fiction and fantasy. Do those things come together easily?

Ada: Very much. A lot of people think that being a historian sounds like it should be the opposite of being a science fiction writer, but nothing is more similar to the future than the past. It's a long period of time in which cultures exist and change, and new technologies get invented and disseminate, and you watch the impact of those technologies over time.

So in many ways, nothing prepares you better for science fiction than being a historian when the questions we want to ask with science fiction are about people, about how cultures will change over time. Being a physicist, you can write a great story about how the spaceship engine works, but being a historian, you can tell a great story about how when there is a spaceship engine that fast, it's going to affect politics and citizenship. And after a generation, after two generations, what that's gonna mean for diasporas and people moving and intermarrying; how a democracy might shift as a result of that new technology, as it has as a result of many new technologies before. So that's why historians make great science fiction writers.

And I'm not the only one.

Why we keep telling the myth of a good Renaissance and bad Middle Ages

Baiqu: So maybe we should encourage all historians to start writing science fiction and hopefully give us a guide to what the future might hold.

And so for our first question, what would you recommend if someone wanted to know more about history or science fiction? I mean, you just said they feed into each other, but do you have any specific recommendations?

Ada: They do very much feed into each other. So I'll do the personal recommendation and then the more distant one, which is to say, if you go to my blog, there's a couple of different posts about history, but there's two in particular that I think are a great sample of what I do and that people would find useful these days. One of which is a post called The Black Death, COVID, and Why We Keep Telling The Myth of a Good Renaissance and Bad Middle Ages, because I, like most Renaissance historians this year have gotten many iterations of journalists asking if the Black Death caused the Renaissance, is COVID gonna cause an economic boom?

To which the answer is neither yes nor no. The answer is, your question is based on stuff we refuted in the 30s, and we don't understand that to be the relationship between the Black Death and the Renaissance anymore. The problem is not yes or no. The problem is actually having a different way of thinking about how history works and whether there was a Dark Age at all, which now the consensus is there wasn't – The Dark Ages is a propagandistic invention of my own period, the Renaissance. So sometimes I'll be hanging out with Medieval historians who are always beleaguered and sad because everyone thinks of their period is the Dark Ages, and I have to admit "yes, it's my guys' fault, I apologise on behalf of my period." And they always feel better when I do that. So it's about claims people make about history in order to try to achieve power, and why we have this idea of dark ages and golden ages and how that's less related to real history than it is related to things people want to use to make claims about power.

And then it does talk about what history does tell us about the likely impact of COVID. The short version being policy is everything, but we have lots and lots of history to show us policy is everything.

The other piece on that that people might find valuable in a history direction is called On Progress and Historical Change. And it's a history of the idea of progress. Because we haven't always had the idea of progress and claims about progress – who causes progress, what kind of people have power? – are major claims that people make to try to claim that their political party, their country, their demographic, their particular political group, whatever, should be in charge. And thinking more about the history of what is progress, we shouldn't just assume one thing, is really helpful for understanding how a lot of us have more power than people want us to think we have. It really helps you realise that power in history is not exercised by a few big names, it's exercised by lots of people in tandem, it's just that that's not a story that gets told.

So those are great angles into history. Meanwhile, there's a great historian friend of mine, Guido Ruggiero, who does Renaissance stuff, and he has a wonderful book called Machiavelli in Love, which is actually a collection of different short studies of zooming into the Renaissance, and giving you slices of daily life and the real interactions of human beings, to remind you that these people who are big names - you know, people we think of as marble busts on pedestals, like Machiavelli - you feel different once you've read the personal letter where Machiavelli is complaining that his salary is late, and his shirt has holes in it, and he has to go to work and he's going to be embarrassed because he doesn't have anything clean to wear, and can his wife please send him some new shirts? He has to worry about laundry, like everybody else, and money, like everybody else. Which isn't what we imagine, we imagine these great figures as never having our mundane problems of it being laundry day.

So that kind of study of real life on the ground, these people were no more magically perfectly competent than we are. They had all of our problems, they just worked hard and also did things as good as they can, which is a very important message I think to take from history. And you can get good glimpses of it through Machiavelli in Love, a very fun history book. Guido Ruggeri also has another book unimaginatively titled The Renaissance in Italy, but if you want a "here is the whole big Renaissance in Italy" book it's a really good choice.

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Baiqu: Nice. I like the idea of like Renaissance historians sitting next to Middle Ages historians, and apologising for giving them a bad rep.

I also liked what you said about this sort of personalisation of history, and looking at these ideas of power and progress and societal changes through a less romanticised or dramatised perspective. Because I think we're all guilty of feeling like "the greats" were in the past, or that better things will come in the future, and it sometimes feels hard to imagine that the present has much to offer.

Ada: Yeah, my favourite passage in any historical argument I've ever read, which is a high bar for a historian: there's a letter a friend of Machiavelli's wrote to Machiavelli, I forget whether it's 1503 or 1506. It's helpful for this one to remember that the first decade of the 1500s, the very moment that he's talking about, this is when Michelangelo's David and the Mona Lisa and the most famous of Raphael's pieces and the most famous of plays, gorgeous music, all of these are made. You know, this is the golden decade for this stuff.

And the friend wrote to Machiavelli, who had been writing a history of that couple of decades, and had written some but stopped. So the friend wrote, Machiavelli you have to finish your history, or future generations will never believe how bad it was. And they'll never forgive us for losing and destroying so much so quickly. That's what it felt like living during the years that we think of as these golden years, that gave us the golden pieces we go to see in museums. But on the ground, it felt like apocalypse. And there are specific reasons for that in the same way that those specific reasons that we feel right now like this is an apocalypse. A plague, being one of the shared factors. But nonetheless, and in fact, because of that crisis in strange ways, it made people push harder and demand more, and try new things. It's not that they were able to produce more than they would have produced otherwise, but it made people agree that desperate times require desperate measures.

Therefore that they were willing to take a risk on investing in a weird inventor, or a different way of going about something. Not because they were strong and could, but because they were weak and had to. So people sometimes ask, why was this an age of geniuses? The answer is it wasn't, it was an age of experimentation in the spirit of desperation. Which is exactly what us looking at climate change, looking at political turmoil, looking at the unpreparedness of our political systems to cope with the consequences of the information technology revolution that's happening. All of those things combined are making this feel, and be a crisis, but it also means it's going to be a moment when we become willing to try things that we didn't try before. Whether it's the scale of a new legislative package that different countries might be trying, or whether it's an individual writing and in a strange vein, or artists creating a new kind of thing, because we feel like we have to.

Baiqu: Hmm kind of like necessity being the mother of invention, experimentation out of desperation.

How Cosimo de' Medici differs from modern day billionaires like Jeff Bezos

Ada: Also not just for the inventors, but for the investors, when you are the rich person, when you are a Cosimo de' Medici and you look around and it looks like the world is going to end, you say okay, I'm going to invest my money in weird, risky experiments, because if I don't, I'm going to lose it anyway. Because the situation is that crisis filled so that it means the people who have the resources necessary to do the things became willing to also invest those resources, which is something that we need today.

Baiqu: And I mean, thinking about Medici, what are your views on all of our billionaires, or at least the ones who are most in the limelight with the experimentations of going to Mars. Is that one of the experimentations of our age?

Ada: Yes in a way, but there are two big differences when we look at someone like Cosimo de' Medici to your Palla Strozzi investing in art, and making this amazing stuff that we look at.

One is, the actual wealth gap is way smaller. I did the math recently comparing the average daily wage of a manual labourer in Florence in this period versus how much money Palla Strozzi, who was the richest of them had as it's max. And I forget my exact number, but he had something like $120 million, it may have only been a $100 million, compared to the daily wage of an average daily wage worker in his day. And with that, he made art that we still Marvel at elsewhere and he had a pan-European banking empire, but the actual amount of money that workers were making was higher in comparison, it really was. It's weird to think that in a pre-technological, pre- industrial world, a wage labor, who's just a manual worker was making more on average than we are, but they genuinely were. And that's one of the differences that I see is just that there was a whole lot more wealth in the rest of the economy. So the rest of the economy was more functional in some ways.

But the other difference is, I guess what kinds of spending are incentivised, and whether it's public facing. Because a huge portion of what people in the Renaissance who are very rich are spending on are things that visibly benefit to everybody. I'm going to repair the bridges, I'm going to build the new cathedral, which everyone will use as not just a place of worship, but a meeting place, and as air conditioning in summer when it's hot, and as the place you get to put your horses in when there's a storm so that your horses are safe. They built public infrastructure. A lot of the movement of investment funds right now of the wealthiest are being invested in stock market things, and investment things, in banking things, which make money into more money, but they don't put money into a new bridge.

One of the things that historians look at is at different points in the history and different cultures, at what moments were elites incentivised to invest in infrastructure, to invest in people, in things that benefited others, instead of just making them famous, as opposed to when they weren't. And there's lots of discussions about the decline of the Western Roman Empire, but one of the key changes that had happened was a shift in how wealthy people in the late stages of the Roman empire were incentivised to invest their money away from the earlier system, in which the duty of a noble family was to build the dam and under Roman religion, it was believed that how good or bad your afterlife was, was dependent on how much you were honoured on earth. The more people honoured you and remembered you and said your name, the more they walked past that aqueduct and said, thanks person who made aqueduct, I really enjoy having fresh tap water. That made your afterlife better. And when it transitioned to Christianity, in which giving your money to the church, or otherwise just praying was more the focus in that particular stage of late Roman Christianity, there was a lot less spending by the elites on roads and fountains and public works, and a lot more of it either going to the church or staying in the family. That was one of the factors that weakened the structures of Rome, because the infrastructure depended on that portion of money going back into the economy. So when we have the situation we have now, in which wealthy elites are neither taxed, which would put that money back into paying for infrastructure nor incentivised to spend on roads and healthcare, and these sorts of things. Instead, that money is sitting there making numbers into bigger numbers. And boy do we have big numbers. But they aren't giving us what the society needs to thrive, which is the ability to feel like you are living an okay life and on top of your stuff, instead of living a desperate life and overwhelmed, I think is a good way to put it.

Why being overwhelmed hinders societal progress

And so many different things make us feel overwhelmed. COVID makes us feel overwhelmed, my car wouldn't start this morning makes us feel overwhelmed. The traffic is terrible, it makes us feel overwhelmed. I'm paying an enormous amount on rent because there isn't housing in the city, or the transit doesn't let you get in and out of the city, make us feel overwhelmed. I don't have enough money to take care of my kids, I don't have enough time to take care of my kids. All of these different factors make us feel overwhelmed. And you know, if that bridge is there, or that transit system does work so you didn't need a car because there's public transit, you don't have to worry about the car. All of those small differences help make people feel like they can cope. And people who can cope can then produce more, right.

One of the very frustrating things, but that we've all experienced this year is that there is a cognitive consequence of trauma, of stress, of waking up every day and the world is still upside down and scary. That is literally medically what we call trauma, and it repeatedly affects the same part of the brain over and over. And it makes you tired, it makes you have trouble sleeping, it makes you have trouble concentrating, it makes it harder to read at length. Lots of people have been saying, you know, I usually read books, but I just can't concentrate. Or I usually do this, but I haven't been able to lately. That's a real medical, actual cognitive measurable thing. And it's caused by the repeated experience of waking up every day and being overwhelmed instead of being all right.

When you're in that state, you not only read less, but you produce less. You're less likely to finish writing a novel of your own, you're less likely to have the energy to go out to the park and participate in a cultural activity. You're less likely to have the energy to go out and vote. So many different things that are significant to culture, whether it's organising a school field trip, or even just making a beautiful artwork and selling your handicraft, those require us to be functioning. When the infrastructure is decaying around us, that is one form of stress. That then makes the whole populous, slightly less productive, the whole populous. And this leads back to the issue with who has power in history and causes progress. Is it one genius or is it a million people, all of whom can produce and do an act. So many stories make it sound like it's the one genius, because stories about one protagonist are easy to tell. They're easy for fiction writers to tell, they're easy for historians to tell. It's much easier to write a book about Machiavelli, whether they're fiction or non-fiction, than to write a book about all of the figures of which Machiavelli is just one, and it's all moving around and you don't have a protagonist, and it's complicated, and everybody's contribution is tiny. Those are very hard tales to tell. We occasionally see them in things like the films of Apollo 13, which did a good job showing a huge team of people, all of whom had to work together to do the thing. Oh, there's a great documentary about the building of the Hoover Dam.

But it's not that those tales are rare in reality, those tales are rare in our telling because it's so much easier to tell a story about one hero. In fact, an interesting tension we've been seeing lately is, eraser in history is a big problem, the eraser of women, eraser of certain races or certain gender categories. You know, people who want to deny that there was homosexuality before Oscar Wilde, people want to deny that there are people of colour in the European Renaissance, all of this. But many of the efforts to push back against that will be, let's make a biopic about one heroic woman. Let's make a biopic about one heroic black person, and how awesome they were. And it makes it sound like, okay, there was a hero, it reinforces the hero narrative. So while we definitely want those stories, celebrating the lives of the kinds of people who have been erased in the past. In order to win the battle against the lie that only a few special people have power in history, we also need to tell a lot more stories of collective action. How many things in real history have happened because dozens and dozens of people collaborated to make it happen. It's a harder story to tell, but it's the story we need.

Cure to an existential crisis

Baiqu: Definitely. And you know so many of the things that you had just saying, I feel like it's not really known knowledge in the public domain is not something that we discuss often.

I mean, I think everyone sort of assumes that we earn more as average productive members of society than people did back in the Renaissance era. This idea of the hero's journey or the single narrative of the genius, I think is very much prevalent. And I guess it leads also to a sense of fatigue when it comes to us taking action to make a difference.

I think during this time of isolation and people being overwhelmed, and having less distraction, or more time to think. I guess a lot of people have been experiencing a slight existential crises as well. Which, is one of my questions, and I'm curious, as a historian, you talked about misunderstandings of what the inactivity or the chaos of the present feels like right now and how that might not be entirely true. But then you also talk about the sort of changes that have happened since, and this idea of Society breaking down, or the collapse of an empire because the populace isn't as supported to be productive and creative and inventive, or what have you. So given your discipline and all that you know, what do you think is a good cure to an existential crisis?

Ada: The only actual cure is relieving some of the stressors that are causing the stresses. For some people you'll discover, oh, of the 20 things that are the mountain that are about to break the camel's back right now, I have no power to remedy 18 of them, but I do have power to remedy two. I know one of the questions you like to ask on this is what was your favourite online purchase of the past year. You know what I did, I bought a more comfortable chair because I realised that I'm spending 12 hours of my day, every day of my life in this chair, where I work on my computer. Especially in the working from home period, and I have become more productive since just being slightly more comfortable and not as achy as a result of investigating in a better chair. Because I didn't have the power to make my online teaching not horrible, and I didn't have the power to not be living in a political crisis in which there are all these emergencies, and I didn't have the power to not have the health problems that I did. But I did have power over this chair. And so that was the change that I did.

But the other is to just use the collective power that we have. It takes work and it takes energy, but I mean, that's a lot of what we learned in the last couple of rounds of U.S. elections, is when we do the action, it works, but we have to do it, and we have to do it as a group.

It's a really odd way to summarise it, but I study every year the Barbie Career of The Year doll, which is always a fascinating moment for seeing what centrist feminism is doing. That's trying to be sort of neutral and pro-women, but stay out of all other politics that they can. In 2016, when Hillary was running, they did a presidential candidate, and this was actually like the sixth president or presidential candidate Barbie that they'd done. They've been doing them from time to time for a long time, but this was the first one in the Career of The Year set. With career of the year, they are sort of also about teamwork, things like architect, team leading. A movie director, not movie star, movie director. This year's was a music producer, not the rockstar, but the other member of the team. But in 2016 they did what was clearly a Hillary-ish, presidential candidate Barbie, and it was very clear that they were very shocked by the result of the election as many were. And in fact, they didn't do a Career of The Year doll the next year. I do not have official understanding of why, but I think they were sort of still sad. But for 2020, the Career of The Year Barbie was a box set of four: the political candidate, the candidate's campaign manager, the candidate's fundraising manager, and the voter. That's the message we need, right. It's teamwork. It's all of these people and it's not the one, it's everybody, but everybody has to be out there and doing it. And you know that election was a success. That kind of messaging and that realisation that teamwork, not sitting back until the special person solves it is the actual solution. But when we're tired, and surrounded by movies in which Tony Stark has solve global warming by himself, it sure is easier to sit back and say, either there will be a genius who fixes it or nobody can.

What is the Terra Ignota series about?

Baiqu: Yeah, I have to say I'm very impressed by Barbie Career of The Year team, whoever came up in the concept.

You are obviously a novelist, and your series Terra Ignota, what is that about?

Ada: Yes. There are different ways to describe it. The quickest is it's old fashioned, big ideas, science fiction in, people will compare it to Neal Stephenson, or to the Foundation Series. But a lot of it is looking at social science stuff. So it takes place on the 25th Century, but it posits that in the 22nd Century, we develop a system of really fast flying, automated, self-driving flying cars. So fast that you can get from anywhere on earth to anywhere else on earth in about two hours. And once that happens, the whole world is in commuting distance and it's perfectly reasonable to buy a house in the Bahamas, work in Tokyo, have a lunch meeting in Paris, and your spouse also lives in the Bahamas, but works in Buenos Aires, and has a lunch meeting in Antarctica, and an afternoon meeting in Seoul.

Once that has been the case for several generations, really only for one and a half generations, people are living where there was a nice house for sale and they needed a house. People are living near whoever they want to, with their friends. You know, there's nothing to stop you from all buying houses in one neighbourhood, no matter where you work. It rapidly, then in my prediction, if that occurred, it would mean that it no longer makes sense to people for your political allegiance to be to that place where you happened to be born. If the reason you were born there was that nice real estate was available when your parents bought a house.

So it posits a transition from geographic nations to non-geographic nations, in which when people come of age, they sign up for being a citizen of the political group that they feel represents them. It might be France, and it might be Japan and it doesn't matter where you were born. You feel that this is what you're connected to. And some of the political groups that exist in this imagined future are extensions of present day ones, France, Japan, the European union, others are new fully non-geographic nations that people sign up for, and you choose the one whose laws you respect and you think represent your values. And just as ex-pats, who are sort of under their country's laws and sort of under the laws of the town that they're living in, can live under a totally different law from the person living next door. There's no reason you can't live under a different law from the person living next door, when the law is about things that are personal to you, like taxation or whether you can smoke marijuana or not. The things that are about living together in the area like traffic laws are set by the town, but everything else, five people living together in a house might all be under five different laws. And you just keep track of it by your phone and you choose the legal system you think reflects you, and it makes a buyer's market for citizenship. Because if you don't like what your country is doing, you pick a different one that you like better, and that would create accountability for governments.

Right now, you can immigrate, but it's a huge, life ripping up, decade long, extremely difficult process that rips you out of where you've grown up and away from your work. If you can switch countries in 24 hours and the other one said, yes, we would love to have you as a citizen and paying taxes to us instead of to our competitor, please join our country. You get a very different relationship between citizens. So this imagines a world where this has been the system for quite a while, everyone is used to there being no relation between politics and geography and everyone mixes everywhere. No one ever has the experience of being a majority, everyone is always a minority surrounded by other minorities. There's no such thing as majority in the lived experience of this civilisation. And then the book looks at how does such a system have tension and competition, when all of the economies are mixed together, When there are no borders on which you can block people or have a border dispute, or fight a battle.

So there have been 300 years of world peace. But world peace really means competition through other ways that are not military competition, through economics competition, through sports competition, through propaganda. So it looks at what happens if we have a, a future, which is better than our present, but very much not perfect either. Not a utopia, not a dystopia, but a that is a better future, still needs some work, let's look at the work it needs.

Baiqu: Interesting. I'm very intrigued.

Ada: And then to make it sound insane, it's written in the style of an 18th century philosophical novel based on the works of Diderot and Voltaire, and it has a boy who has the magic power to bring toys to life and all of this sounds like it has nothing to do with the rest of what I described, but the threads weave together.

Baiqu: Oh, that's very tantalising. Okay. I think a lot of people are going to go and pick up a copy right now.

Ada: Books one and two were written as one thing and cut in half. So book one is all set up and all the payoff is in book two. So, you know, read them close together and don't expect a satisfying ending to book one. There's a satisfying ending to books two and three, and the last one.

How to sound smart in a conversation

Baiqu: Okay. So we're going to stick with it. Stick with book one and then yeah build up to book two. Awesome.

I guess next question is, having been someone who studies our past and who has collected a lot of knowledge about our societies over time. What would you recommend as a tip for sounding smart or being smart in a conversation?

Ada: I think the best tip for sounding smart is not worrying about sounding smart. That relaxing in and being yourself and saying the things that you're thinking and feeling are going to make more of a difference. Because I think often when you're worrying about sounding smart, that's a warning sign of nervousness, which is then going to make you less able to show who you really are. So that's the first tip. But the second, read interesting nonfiction because the more different histories you read anywhere and any-when, it doesn't matter. This can be Asia Mesopotamia, it can be modern Vietnam, read any history, you get other ways that the world has worked. Other ways societies have been set up, other challenges that they've met, which will sometimes be similar to what you're looking at. So you can compare them. Or totally different, so you can say, oh, this seems like a very new problem, in past situations it would have been this other way. It gives you a huge pallet of how these things actually worked.

Big Tech and the censorship problem

I'm involved in a collaboration with a number of other scholars and also activists looking at censorship. Because right now we have Big Tech companies who are realising that there has to be some censorship on their social media, because otherwise it turns into nothing but troll photos of penises being put there. So what do you do? They're trying to sort of improvise this.

This is not the first time human beings have realised that they need to design a censorship system, or believed that they needed to design a censorship system. It's not even the first time we've lived in an information revolution. The exact same sequence of crises happened when we invented radio, when we invented the printing press. Every time information can move faster, it has the same sequence of effects, the key one being what my colleague Kathleen Belew calls the early adopter effect.

Whenever there's a new info technology, being one of the first users of it takes work. You have to buy the new thing, you have to learn how to use it, you have to put effort into getting your audience used to it. So you only do it if you have to, which means you only do it if you weren't getting successful communication in the earlier system. Which means amongst the first adopters are always whoever was being censored by the earlier system. They won't be the only first adopters, but they will always be right in there: whoever was being censored, which means every new information technology is immediately filled with whoever that society is scared of. Because that's the group that that society has been silencing. And it'll be a mix: it'll be people who are speaking a language that's not the dominant language, it'll be like minorities, it might be LGBT groups, and it might be the KKK.

All of these voices that make the culture uncomfortable are suddenly louder, and when they're suddenly louder, the culture feels scared and feels like it needs to censor this, and then develops methods to do so. This was exactly the same in 1480, and 1510, and 1600 and these different stages of information revolution as it is today. But almost nobody at these tech groups are looking at earlier information revolutions.

You can read Adrian John's brilliant book Piracy, which has a history of copyright and the idea of owning information and information moving. It talks about printing presses and radio, then you have things to compare stuff to. I think another way to put it is that people are often saying, oh, "blah is the first time ever that X has happened." The stereotype is a historian will say, "no it didn't, X totally happened before." But the real answer is usually the historian will say, "no, X happened before that other thing didn't that." That you're not right about which of these things is the new thing.

What's new about the censorship that's being set up on the internet right now is that it's the first time ever anyone has tried to set up a large systematic censorship regime without hiring expert literature people to do it. They're trying to do minimum wage, minimum education, cheap labour, to be the people whose job it is to go through and remove stuff. Every previous version of this has been different from that. In World War Two, censoring people's letters to keep seditious material and information about troop movements out, who did they hire? They hired college educated journalists and lit majors. Who did the Inquisition hire? They hired college grads. Who did the King of France before the French Revolution hire, he hired literature people. They always hired educated class people who had well paid jobs to sit down in a serious systematic way and think about it.

What the tech world is trying to do is, let's do this as cheaply as possible. We see this as sort of a burden on our costs, that we have to do a minimum amount of this in order to get people to stop yelling at us and make our system minimally usable. But we want to cut corners. That's what is different. The part that's new is not that it's an information revolution, the part that's new is that it's an information revolution that's trying to outsource censorship to very average people instead of to educated people, which has both bad and good effects.

So a historian will always say, X is the same but Y is what's different. And when you've read some history as well, you can do that kind of thing. And I think that makes you not only seem smart, but also be helpful.

Should we exercise censorship?

Baiqu: I was just going to ask, do we want to have successful censorship, but I think that's a whole other conversation.

Ada: The brief answer to that is I think we want to have the censorship which minimally limits art, creativity, and expression, and which interferes with those things as little as possible. We think of it as the natural state of things is no censorship, and then we add censorship and censorship is bad, and the ideal is no censorship. But there are no cases of no censorship, as far back as our written records go.

Plato wanted to censor Homer; our ancient records from China are about different rival Confucian factions destroying each other's work and censoring each other; even what we would think of as innocent primitive tribes have taboos about what can be said and who can say it and where. There's no situation in the history of humanity where there's ever not been any censorship. So it's not helpful to think of it as the world is without censorship and then bad censorship is introduced. What I think is much more useful is to think of it as, censorship is an element of the social periodic table, it's there, it's a thing people impulsively do, and create over and over. But, it can have more and less toxic forms, and it can be there in more and less intense concentrations, right? There's arsenic in your body right now, but there isn't a toxic level of arsenic in your body right now. And that's the key.

Can we make the inescapable impulses to want to silence things people think are bad – this is an impulse that every culture has always had, to want to censor things you perceive are bad – can we shape them in the way that is the minimum concentration of that destructive force? That takes a form that is not hurting art and expression. Can we put that arsenic into non-toxic forms?

Favourite music, article, and daily habit

Baiqu: Yeah. I have to say I'm loving your analogies through this conversation. Very helpful way of framing a complicated topic.

Ada, we are gonna move on to our last question. Can I ask you to recommend a piece of music, an article that's left an impression, and a daily habit that you practice, which you think other people I might want to pick up.

Ada: I really love complex, layered a cappella music. I compose as well, and my own music is polyphonic a cappella music, mine has Viking themes. There's a lot of gorgeous Renaissance music out there, it sort of moves therapeutically through your body and makes your muscles relax. There's this one a cappella piece called One by One, in the soundtrack to the Lion King musical, and it's based on one of the instrumental background music pieces that the original lion king film had.

And boy, when I'm in a meeting and it's a horrible issue and I'm getting overwhelmed and I say, excuse me, I'm going to go to the bathroom. And this song is a minute and a half, and I feel so refreshed and regenerated afterwards. So it's an odd ball song to recommend, but do not underestimate the lion king musical soundtrack.

What was the second... oh, an article. Um, it's not an article so much as a particular journalist. There's a journalist called David M. Perry. He's also a historian, late medieval Venice, but he does a lot of wonderfully deep and reflective writing about a mixture of issues. Sort of centring around disability on the one hand and battling alt-right and white supremacist co-option of power on the other. He writes with wonderful reflection. He writes from personal experience, he writes about his family, about his experience with his son who has down syndrome, but also with his daughter who does not, and the effect on families of policy of COVID. And he really has a historian's method of, of analysing and zooming out and looking at big picture. But also a great journalist's ability to go human interests story. He tweets a lot under Lollardfish is, his Twitter handle.

Then for a daily habit, I would recommend a daily habit organising systems. Also known as habit RPG, is a gamified daily habit tracking app. And it's free and you can have it on your phone, also on desktop. And you do it with your friends and you have a little adorable, eight bit character. You could be a wizard or a thief or a fighter, and you make your daily habits, and when you check them off, you do damage to the boss that you're fighting along with your friends as a party. So like right now, my friends and I are fighting an undead dragon, and I do damage to it every time I remember to take my meds and check off one of my deadlines.

And so do my friends, and it's friends who don't interact with me frequently, but I just sort of get a smile every time I see yeah my friend sure hit that dragons today.

Baiqu: Okay, thank you. That's very smart. And I like that you go to the bathroom to listen to a piece of music when you're frustrated just to calm down, because music is very therapeutic, but I never thought of doing it in the moment and then coming back feeling a little bit more together and less frustrated.

Thank you Ada, it was such a pleasure talking to you. I really, really enjoyed it. And thanks for joining us.

Ada: Tons of fun and happy to share this stuff. Pass it on.


Ada's blog: Exurbe

Black Death, COVID, and Why We Keep Telling the Myth of a Renaissance Golden Age and Bad Middle Ages

On Progress and Historical Change

Machiavelli in Love: Sex, Self, and Society in the Italian Renaissance, by Guido Ruggiero

The Renaissance in Italy by Guido Ruggiero

Barbie career of the year doll

Terra Ignota Series by Ada Palmer

Piracy:The Intellectual Property Wars from Gutenberg to Gates, by Adrian Johns

One by One, Lion King Musical

Historian journalist David M. Perry

Healthy work habit tips from Ada:

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