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Jared Diamond: "I enjoy writing things and I enjoy explaining things"

The Books Interview.

Your new book, The World Until Yesterday, asks what we can learn from traditional societies. How do you define “traditional”?
Traditional societies are the small-scale societies of the past – sufficiently small, with relatively little social stratification and political centralisation. Today, the world is divided into states but embedded within our state societies are lots of traditional mechanisms.

So those traditional mechanisms don’t necessarily wither away as societies develop?
No. Take Japan. Japan went through a profound change in the second half of the 19th century. But the Japanese were explicit about the traditional things they were going to retain: they were going to retain the emperor, the Japanese language, the role of the military. And they were going to change other things: Japan was going to become industrial.

Would it be fair to say that in this book you’re drawing up a balance sheet, with the advantages of modernity on one side and the disadvantages on the other?
That would be accurate. And the reason one has to do it is that I had to avoid the trap of romanticising traditional societies. Yes, there were wonderful things that we can learn from them but also terrible things about them – their getting locked in cycles of war, parents getting used to the deaths of children, short lifespans. So we can’t romanticise.

On the other hand, there are things that we can learn from them. At the end of the book, when I summarise the things that we have learned, in order to deflect the accusation that I’m romanticising I remind readers of the advantages we’ve got.

I’ve got some New Guinean friends who were very clear to me about what they liked about living in the west. They liked the anonymity; they liked the way that they weren’t constantly surrounded by their clans. So there’s a freedom and a possibility to get ahead in the west that you don’t have in traditional societies.

Would you say, by contrast, that one of the advantages of traditional societies is the way they nurture connections?
Yes. A friend of mine spent a lot of time in Africa. I asked him: “How would you compare your time spent in Africa with all your time spent in the US? Have you ever considered moving to Africa?” His summary was that life in Africa is socially rich but materially poor, whereas life in the west is materially rich but socially poor.

The reality is that friendship and lifelong maintained friendships are much more scarce in western societies for obvious reasons. The average American moves every five years: you move away from your childhood friends, your parents and your siblings, whereas in traditional societies there is much less movement so you spend your life surrounded by your childhood friends and family.

How does this book relate to your previous book Guns, Germs and Steel, in which you tried to account for the emergence of European civilisation?
We in the European world behave differently from people in traditional societies not because we’re different people but because we inherited cows, sheep, goats, pig, horses. We combine all the stuff from the Fertile Crescent that has all these consequences.

But the fact that we inherited all this different stuff doesn’t mean we also inherited better ways of bringing up children, better ways of dealing with older people, better ways of dealing with disputes – we didn’t.

Do you enjoy writing for a non-academic audience?
Some academics find it difficult but I enjoy writing things and I enjoy explaining things. I think it came, first of all, from my mother, who was a schoolteacher. She loved explaining things to me.

The other thing is that I have a younger sister, so growing up I was constantly in a position of explaining things to her. It’s in the course of explaining something that I come to understand it.

Jared Diamond’s “The World Until Yesterday: What Can We Learn from Traditional Societies” is published by Allen Lane (£25)

Jonathan Derbyshire is Managing Editor of Prospect. He was formerly Culture Editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 21 January 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The A-Z of Israel

Flickr/Alfred Grupstra
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How will future videogame makers design a grand strategy game about the 21st century?

With the diminishing power of nation states, and the lack of conventional warfare, what would a 21st-century grand strategy game look like?

In the world of historical strategy games, it always seems clear how to win. Paint the map your colour. Raise your flag over the capitals of your rivals. Pave the streets of your cities with gold. Games based around statecraft in olden times will tend to have diverse objectives, they usually focus on the greatness of a nation in the traditional senses of the word: military might, technological advancement, religious and cultural hegemony. These same priorities hold up from the times of the Roman Republic to the Cold War.

Yet if games designers in the future were to look at the world of today, how would they interpret the actions of modern governments? Do the same goals as before apply or have we moved on? Are the objectives of contemporary societies different, and if so, just what would a player in a game of 21st-century grand strategy be trying to achieve?

One thing is for sure, the conventional measures of success in historical grand strategy games don’t stack up so easily in a modern setting.

War, for instance, has always been a staple part of historical games and it remains a preoccupation of contemporary society too. In the 15 years of the 21st century, Britain has invaded two countries, conducted armed interventions in three more and is even now lining up the procurement of new fighter jets, new aircraft carriers and new nuclear weapons at incredible expense. So we can safely say we do not live in a peaceful age.

But despite having all this firepower and the political will to bring it to bear at the drop of a dossier, war doesn’t seem to serve Her Majesty’s Government in the way it does in either the history books or the strategy games. There is no territory to be won and no rival great powers being thwarted – only air strikes, occupations and teetering puppet governments.

Indeed the only country whose military adventures bear any resemblance to the old-timey way of doing things is Russia, with Putin perhaps the last of the breed of world leaders who still thinks swapping out the flags on municipal buildings constitutes a legitimate redrawing of national boundaries. Given his famous distrust for technology it seems quite likely he didn’t get the tersely worded Tweet from Obama about how that kind of thing isn’t supposed to work anymore.

On the economic side of things the approaches opted for by governments today don’t fit with the historical mind set either. Nations are no longer trying to get rich for their own sake. Privatisation relinquishes the assets of the state in return for a temporary financial gain and long term loss of revenue. Deregulation and poor tax enforcement bleeds capital overseas. It is here we see perhaps the key difference between games where you play as The State itself and real countries, countries run by people who have bank balances of their own and competing party financiers to appease.

The idea of running a country for the purpose of making that country wealthier and then reinvesting that wealth back into the country by developing assets and infrastructure has gone out of the window. Simultaneously both the leftwing model of a state run for the benefit of its citizens and the rightwing ideal of a country mastering its economy to become a more powerful force on the world stage have been quietly phased out. Outsourcing and tax havens suggest that there is no longer room for patriotism in economic policy – unless you’re China, of course, but it wouldn’t be much of a game with only one nation playing it.

On a technological front there was the space race, and there have even been games built around it. But in the 21st century, the urgency and the sense of competition has been lost. Rovers on Mars, probes on comets and space stations tend to be viewed in a spirit of collective human achievement, partly because of the collaborative nature of modern space exploration, and also, I suspect, because lots of people in those fields are Star Trek fans.

The idea of going to Mars so you can stand on the surface of another planet and tell the Communists to stuff it no longer appeals as much as that whole "pushing back the scientific boundaries for the benefit of all life of Earth" deal. It is laudable, but not ideal for games built around competing with other countries.

In the 21st century grand strategy game, we wouldn’t be looking to conquer the world, we wouldn’t be looking to buy it and we wouldn’t be looking to leave it in our technological wake either. So what does that leave? What would 21st-century grand strategy look like?

It could be argued that we’ve moved beyond the era of nation states as the bodies driving world affairs, and such a game might reflect that. Maybe something more akin to a Crusader Kings game would be the way to go, with the player taking the role of an individual – a connected political blueblood, perhaps, like an oligarch, a CEO, an activist turned politician, a drugs baron or a terrorist leader. Or maybe we would play not as an individual, but as an organisation, for example the CIA, ExxonMobil, Isis, Amnesty International or the Solntsevskaya Bratva.

It may be that we never see the present day immortalised in a strategy game, at least outside of that passing phase in Civilization where everything is either settled down or exploding in nuclear fire. Perhaps we’re destined to nestle into a historically obscure crack between the tumult of the 20th century and something spectacular or horrible yet to come. It is nice to think, however, that the times we live in are at least interesting and that maybe we’ll get to see it all laid out in a game one day, if only to find out what winning the 21st century would look like.

Phil Hartup is a freelance journalist with an interest in video gaming and culture