Simon Blackburn: ‘‘The stresses of the modern world are only just beginning to show’’

The philosopher takes the NS Centenary Questionnaire.

What is the most important invention of the past 100 years?
The computer has to come rather high on the list. I suppose it’s a closely run thing between the computer and the aeroplane, but computers have made such a difference to life.

What is the most important scientific discovery of the past 100 years?
Probably quantum theory. The general theory of relativity was, I think, in 1915. But those two together should take pride of place. It introduced the field of probabilities as a fundamental fact of the world, instead of hard, “billiard ball” atoms. We are still trying to absorb the full meaning of that.

And sporting event?
I’m the wrong person to answer that. Andy Murray winning Wimbledon – how about that?

Which book, film, piece of music or work of art has had the greatest impact on you?
I’m not in the habit of growing lists of stuff, but I think as far as books go, almost certainly A Treatise of Human Nature, first published by David Hume in 1739. That’s the most important philosophical book in my life. Most works since can be seen as footnotes to Hume.

It’s quite difficult to separate out one painting. I keep coming back to small portraits. Leonardo’s portrait of Ginevra de’ Benci has always been very moving. There is also a wonderful Titian of a man called Alessandro [Cardinal] Farnese.

Who is the most influential or significant politician of the past 100 years?
If we are being British, I suppose we would have to say Mrs Thatcher. It’s a pity, but it’s probably true.

And author or playwright?
The playwright I’m not so sure about. Some people might say Harold Pinter but I’m not certain I agree. Perhaps Samuel Beckett. For an author . . . if I’m allowed to include philosophical authors, I would say Ludwig Wittgenstein. He introduced an important voice into the philosophical conversation. He brought pragmatism into the British mainstream, where it had not been before. Pragmatism was thought of as an American aberration.

And artist?
From the past century, one would have to cite Picasso. He changed so many genres of art.

How about someone in business?
I don’t think I know any. Perhaps the guy who invented Google.

And a sportsperson?
Muhammad Ali gave a certain kind of inspiration to a lot of people.

What about a philanthropist?
Are there many left? The funny thing is that some of the great philanthropists were Edwardian robber barons, such as Andrew Carnegie. They spent their lives sucking blood out of the poor, then thought to redeem themselves by giving it all back. In terms of this century, I would name Bill Gates.

What is your favourite speech?
I think the greatest speech of the 20th century is Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream”. The rhetorical power is just amazing.

Do you have a favourite quotation?
Lines I find swimming through my head quite often are:

That time of year thou mayst in me behold
When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang
Upon those boughs which shake against the cold . . .

It’s one of Shakespeare’s sonnets, a lamentation on old age. I do feel old sometimes when I wake up in the morning.

What do you think will be the most significant change to our lives in the next 100 years?
I’m not really sure I envisage any significant change. I would like to see a period of relative stasis, so that people’s obsession with economic progress starts to become less obsessive.

What is your main concern for the future?
We are going to have to learn to do without all the energy that we have been depleting.

What will be the most dramatic development in your own field?
I think Anglo-American philosophy needs to become more practical and Continental philosophy needs to become more analytical. That would be very good for both sides.

What is the most important priority for the future well-being of people and our planet?
A return to an understanding of co-operative existence, away from the relentlessly competitive and individualistic ideologies that animate so much discussion these days.

The stresses of the modern world are only just beginning to show themselves. They include a few winners and all sorts of losers: the decline of the middle classes and of employment – and therefore hopelessness.

Hopelessness breeds war and all kinds of social ills – terrorism and so on.

Artwork by Ellie Foreman-Peck

This article first appeared in the 20 November 2013 issue of the New Statesman, iBroken

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The problems with ending encryption to fight terrorism

Forcing tech firms to create a "backdoor" to access messages would be a gift to cyber-hackers.

The UK has endured its worst terrorist atrocity since 7 July 2005 and the threat level has been raised to "critical" for the first time in a decade. Though election campaigning has been suspended, the debate over potential new powers has already begun.

Today's Sun reports that the Conservatives will seek to force technology companies to hand over encrypted messages to the police and security services. The new Technical Capability Notices were proposed by Amber Rudd following the Westminster terrorist attack and a month-long consultation closed last week. A Tory minister told the Sun: "We will do this as soon as we can after the election, as long as we get back in. The level of threat clearly proves there is no more time to waste now. The social media companies have been laughing in our faces for too long."

Put that way, the plan sounds reasonable (orders would be approved by the home secretary and a senior judge). But there are irrefutable problems. Encryption means tech firms such as WhatsApp and Apple can't simply "hand over" suspect messages - they can't access them at all. The technology is designed precisely so that conversations are genuinely private (unless a suspect's device is obtained or hacked into). Were companies to create an encryption "backdoor", as the government proposes, they would also create new opportunities for criminals and cyberhackers (as in the case of the recent NHS attack).

Ian Levy, the technical director of the National Cyber Security, told the New Statesman's Will Dunn earlier this year: "Nobody in this organisation or our parent organisation will ever ask for a 'back door' in a large-scale encryption system, because it's dumb."

But there is a more profound problem: once created, a technology cannot be uninvented. Should large tech firms end encryption, terrorists will merely turn to other, lesser-known platforms. The only means of barring UK citizens from using the service would be a Chinese-style "great firewall", cutting Britain off from the rest of the internet. In 2015, before entering the cabinet, Brexit Secretary David Davis warned of ending encryption: "Such a move would have had devastating consequences for all financial transactions and online commerce, not to mention the security of all personal data. Its consequences for the City do not bear thinking about."

Labour's manifesto pledged to "provide our security agencies with the resources and the powers they need to protect our country and keep us all safe." But added: "We will also ensure that such powers do not weaken our individual rights or civil liberties". The Liberal Democrats have vowed to "oppose Conservative attempts to undermine encryption."

But with a large Conservative majority inevitable, according to polls, ministers will be confident of winning parliamentary support for the plan. Only a rebellion led by Davis-esque liberals is likely to stop them.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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