Dominic Cummings has, you would think, got his wish at last. ARIA (Advanced Research and Invention Agency) is about to launch, with £10bn+ being pumped into it.
Of course, things being as they are, this is everything (D)ARPA, which gave us TOR and the internet, is not. Even the person who named it couldn’t help trolling us by suggesting this is the moment when it really is all over.
I have written a lot about Cummings because I find him fascinating. He is a man who has spent his life having half of a good idea. Which, my inner Marina Hyde wants to point out, is half more than anyone else who’s been near Downing Street since 1948. But while he has spent his life longing to put himself at the centre of a network of world-changing geniuses, he has never fully understood ether genius or what makes things world-changing. The ideas that came out of the American projects he so admires have changed the world because the ideas, however much they were left to stew in their own juice, were always directed to particular ends. Science is a tool. Something he has never understood.
And rather like the person who doesn’t understand that if you’re not paying that makes you the product, Cummings’ lack of understanding that great technical ideas will only change the world if they serve someone’s vision means that the vision in question will always be someone else’s. In this case, the vision of an incompetent libertarian Tory government.
And that makes this Ozymandian undertaking particularly galling to watch. Because while both Cummings and the libertarians in government share with their beloved Palo Alto an adoration of the grand idea, and a rhetoric about the importance of risk, they don’t actually have a grand idea, and they don’t really believe the rhetoric about risk. Risk to the current government is something hedge funds manage. The downside of losing that £10bn isn’t offset by the possible upside of a zero carbon society or global clean water or universal access to 15 years of free education. It’s offset by a spinout arm that will monetise anything and everything that comes off the hallowed pencils of the “assorted weirdos” involved.
The comments from official sources demonstrate this lack of understanding. Links to business are emphasised so that ideas can be brought to market. Of course, great ideas are often those that have no obvious route to market. So they won’t get funded. And truly transformative visions are often served by taking great ideas, like TOR, and taking them anywhere but to market. So they won’t get realised either.
I have seen nothing in the proposal to suggest that ARIA will be anything other than a, implications intended, palantir for its hedge funding paymasters. Taking brilliant but commercially oriented minds and putting them in a fully-funded panopticon is, in effect, state-funded insider trading on an industrial scale.
I think Cummings has enough intelligence and integrity to be genuinely disappointed at what ARIA is. Sadly he lacked the remaining half of both of those qualities that would have enabled him to communicate what such an undertaking really should have been. His un-self-aware surprise at what the government has made of his incomplete vision is a fitting testament to a relationship between mismatched individuals whose only point of contact was a one-step-removed libertarianism.