There are some books from my childhood that made a lasting impression on me and one of those was Gulliver’s travels by Jonathan Swift. The section of the book I wish to focus on is Gulliver’s visit to the floating island, Laputa, where the inhabitants are enamoured of mathematics, measuring, quantifying, experimenting and astronomical predictions.
The island floats by magnetic levitation, in what seems to be one of the only ‘practical’ applications of their knowledge – their obsession with accurate measurement has led them to apply the use of quadrants to the art of tailoring, resulting only in badly-fitting clothes. Their heads literally in the clouds, they had to be woken up from their speculations to communicate with Gulliver.
Swift was known as a satirist and in 1720s England individuals like him took the opportunity to poke fun at the Royal Society and their approach to science at the time. There was fun to be poked at some of the extravagances and plain oddness of the new philosophies and some of its followers.
The Scientific Revolution taking place back then was marked by a series of developments in mathematics, physics, astronomy, biology and chemistry. Swift was not anti-science but chose to poke fun at some of the extravagances and oddities and some of its leading players.
I guess in some ways we find ourselves in a similar situation today and some of those concerns raised back then remain legitimate. Dominic Cummings, Boris Johnson’s chief adviser, is famously said to have put on his WhatsApp profile: “Get Brexit done, then Arpa”. What is Arpa?
ARPA (Advanced Research Projects Agency) is a US invention dating back to the 1960s. It later morphed into DARPA when Defence was added to its title. ARPA concentrates on “blue sky research” with no official controls. In its early days it produced spectacular failures but also amazing successes which were exploited by venture capitalists including the laser printer and the Apple computer.
Cummings wants to replicate ARPA in the UK. He already has an agenda on what it will do and how it will be run. In 2018, he wrote a 47-page document concluding that a British ARPA would cover research into “machine learning, robotics, energy, neuroscience, genetics and cognitive technologies.
By December last year when Boris Johnson won the general election, the Conservative manifesto committed to spending £250 million on setting up ARPA.
In January this year the shape of ARPA was a matter of intense debate within the Conservative ranks. Policy Exchange, an independent, non-partisan educational charity focused on new policy ideas that will deliver better public services and a more dynamic economy produced a report, Visions of Arpa, in which different ideas were floated.
By March, the new Chancellor Rishi Sunak decided, despite the huge cost to come in dealing with the Covid-19 pandemic, to allocate £800 million to the project. This is more than three times the original sum.
Altogether, in the space of just nine months, Cummings has managed to bag himself over £1 billion for his pet project.
Dominic Cummings at times acts as if he comes from Swift’s Laputa rather than his hometown of Durham in Northern England. Lamputans built houses with no right angles and got lost in deep thinking and speculation. They did lack one essential when it comes to good governance; common sense.
Gordon is the former president and chief executive of BMMI. He can be reached at [email protected]