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Who owns the future? How the prophets of Silicon Valley took control

In an era when politics is bereft of grand visions, bioengineers and Silicon Valley tech geeks are claiming the mantle of leadership and prophecy. But what do they want and where are they leading us?

For much of the 20th century, politics was a battle between grand visions of the future. Communists, fascists and liberals sought to destroy the old world and build a new one in its place. Lenin, Stalin and Mao tried to dismantle the structure of human society, and to engineer scientifically something far better. In the process, they treated communities, families and human beings as mere clay, killing tens of millions of people while explaining that “in order to make an omelette, you need to break some eggs”.

Hitler and his minions employed even more ruthless methods in the service of even more ambitious plans. The Nazis aimed to remake the human animal ­itself, rather than just human society. They planned to re-engineer human biology, speed up evolution and create superhumans. Whatever you think about people such as Lenin or Hitler, no one can accuse them of being narrow-minded.

Liberals were perhaps more moderate in their ambitions but not by far. Custodians of utopian Enlightenment visions, liberals hoped to create paradise on earth through mass education and technological progress. They overturned millennia-old hierarchies, empowering women, minorities and the young. Even more astonishing, after millions of years of evolution during which families and communities were the stable building blocks of human societies, liberals gave centre stage to the individual. They freed people from parents, neighbours and elders, creating a new “society of individuals”. In the process, they might have condemned us to hitherto unknown levels of alienation and loneliness. The liberal vision was more benign than the communist and fascist visions but it wasn’t less radical. It seems to us unremarkable and even trite simply because we live in it.

Whatever their disagreements about long-term visions, communists, fascists and liberals all combined forces to create a new state-run leviathan. Within a surprisingly short time, they engineered all-encompassing systems of mass education, mass health and mass welfare, which were supposed to realise the utopian aspirations of the ruling party. These mass systems became the main employers in the job market and the main regulators of human life. In this sense, at least, the grand political visions of the past century have succeeded in creating an entirely new world. The society of 1800 was completely destroyed and we are living in a new reality altogether.

In 1900 or 1950 politicians of all hues thought big, talked big and acted even bigger. Today it seems that politicians have a chance to pursue even grander visions than those of Lenin, Hitler or Mao. While the latter tried to create a new society and a new human being with the help of steam engines and typewriters, today’s prophets could rely on biotechnology and supercomputers. In the coming decades, technological breakthroughs are likely to change human society, human bodies and human minds in far more drastic ways than ever before.

Whereas the Nazis sought to create superhumans through selective breeding, we now have an increasing arsenal of bioengineering tools at our disposal. These could be used to redesign the shapes, abilities and even desires of human beings, so as to fulfil this or that political ideal. Bioengineering starts with the understanding that we are far from realising the full potential of organic bodies. For four billion years natural selection has been tinkering and tweaking with these bodies, so that we have gone from amoebae to reptiles to mammals to Homo sapiens. Yet there is no reason to think that sapiens is the last station. Relatively small changes in the genome, the neural system and the skeleton were enough to upgrade Homo erectus – who could produce nothing more impressive than flint knives – to Homo sapiens, who produces spaceships and computers. Who knows what the outcome of a few more changes to our genome, neural system and skeleton might be? Bioengineering is not going to wait patiently for natural selection to work its magic. Instead, bioengineers will take the old sapiens body and ­intentionally rewrite its genetic code, rewire its brain circuits, alter its biochemical balance and grow entirely new body parts.

On top of that, we are also developing the ability to create cyborgs. Cyborg engineering does not limit itself to using only
organic structures but makes use of inorganic parts as well. It merges the organic body with non-organic devices such as bionic hands, artificial eyes or millions of nano-robots that will navigate our bloodstream, diagnose problems and fix damage. This may sound like science fiction but it is already a reality. Monkeys have recently learned, using electrodes implanted in their brains, to control bionic hands and feet disconnected from their bodies. Paralysed patients are able to move bionic limbs or control computers by the power of thought alone. If you wish, you can control the electronic devices in your house using a “mind-reading” headset. The headset does not require any brain implants, because it functions by reading the electric signals passing through the scalp. If you want to turn on the lights in the kitchen, all you need is to put on the headset, imagine some pre-programmed mental sign (your right hand moving, for instance) – and the lights turn on. You can buy such headsets online from around £200.

Yet even cyborg engineering is still ­relatively conservative, inasmuch as it assumes that organic brains will go on being the command and control centres of life. A bolder approach dispenses with organic parts altogether and hopes to engineer completely non-organic beings. Neural networks will be replaced by intelligent software that can surf both the virtual and non-virtual worlds free from the limitations of organic chemistry.

Life scientists have recently come to believe that life is really just data-processing and that living beings are a collection of biochemical self-replicating algorithms that natural selection improves ever so slowly. Computer scientists and mathematicians have simultaneously honed their skills in deciphering and writing algorithms. If organisms are indeed algorithms (a big IF, but this is the current orthodoxy) then it should be feasible to create non-organic life. After all, algorithms are algorithms. As long as the maths works the same, what does it matter whether the algorithms are manifested in carbon, silicon or plastic? This opens the possibility that after four billion years of milling around inside the small pond of organic compounds, life will  suddenly break out into the vastness of the inorganic realm, ready to take up unimaginable new shapes.

 

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In science fiction ruthless, Hitler-like leaders are quick to pounce on such new technologies, putting them in the service of this or that dangerous political vision. Yet flesh-and-blood politicians in the early 21st century, even in authoritarian countries such as Russia, China, Iran and North Korea, are nothing like their Hollywood counterparts. They don’t seem to plot any Brave New World. The wildest dreams of Kim Jong-un and Ali Khamenei don’t go much beyond atomic bombs and ballistic missiles: which is so 1945. As for Barack Obama and David Cameron, they can barely manage to enact health and education reforms. Creating new worlds and new human beings is far beyond their agendas.

Hence, the novel technological vistas notwithstanding, present-day politicians are thinking on a far smaller scale than their predecessors a century ago. In the early 21st century, politics is bereft of grand visions. No political party has any far-reaching conception of transforming the world. No political party aims to turn society upside down, let alone create superhumans. Compared to the ideological wars of the mid-20th century, present-day debates seem like scholastic hair-splitting. While one needed a telescope to follow the visions of a Lenin or a Hitler, today, when it comes to the basic outlines of human societies, you need a microscope to tell the difference between Republicans and Democrats, or between Labour and the Conservatives.

Yes, Ed Miliband and David Cameron had somewhat different visions of the European Union, the NHS and tax policies. But the differences are nothing like those between the communist and fascist visions a century ago. No party is in favour of creating a British empire, abolishing private property or gassing minorities. This sounds so obvious that we never bother to note it. But that’s the point. A century ago it was anything but obvious. There were powerful political parties with millions of followers that openly preached imperialism, genocide and the abolition of private property.

One very good reason politicians lost their appetite for grand visions is the terrible outcome of the ideological wars of the 20th century. If thinking big leads to Auschwitz, Hiroshima and the Great Leap Forward, humankind is far better off in the hands of petty-minded bureaucrats.

Another factor is that the biggest 20th-century achievement weighs down on politicians of all shades and colours. The mass education, welfare and health services now demand enormous resources and constant care and attention. Moreover, any attempt to achieve some new grand vision would likely upset this behemoth. So politicians play it safe and devote most of their efforts to just keeping the system running. They tweak here and there but are afraid to make any real structural changes.

Third, after the smoke of the 20th-century
ideological wars cleared, neoliberalism was left standing as the ultimate victor. And neoliberalism, having shaped the economy and society to its own taste, now preaches inaction. Like Zen gurus, so the neoliberal masters advise the politicians: just do nothing. Each person should focus on his or her immediate job, without losing sleep over the long-term consequences. Builders should build, singers should sing, engineers should engineer – and let market forces take care of all the rest. They will chart our way forward better than any philosopher or statesman. Governments and political parties generally follow this advice and focus on managing the state and its day-to-day crises, without giving much thought to the more distant future. Governments manage – and, generally speaking, they are doing a fine job of it – but they no longer plan or lead.

Yet the mantle of leadership and prophecy has not gone unclaimed. Abandoned by politicians and political parties, it has been picked up by business entrepreneurs and corporations. If you want to hear grand visions about the future of humankind, you will waste your time in Downing Street, the White House or the Kremlin, but your ears will start ringing once you approach Silicon Valley. That is where you will find the Lenins of our time. Let me make this absolutely clear: the tech wizards of Silicon Valley aren’t communist. Nor are they anything like as ruthless as Lenin. I am comparing them to him only in the audacity and scope of their visions, and in their aspirations to tear down the old world and build a completely new world in its place.

For when it comes to audacity and scope, even Lenin couldn’t hold a candle to the silicon prophets. Lenin and his followers still thought and operated within the confines of existing economic models and realities. They took for granted that resources are scarce, that demand must be balanced with supply, that human beings are essential for the economy and that work is a vital ingredient of human life. In contrast, today’s visionaries are looking towards a post-scarcity future, in which algorithms replace human beings in the economy, supply no longer puts the lid on demand and life no longer revolves around work.

At the core of this vision is the decoupling of intelligence from consciousness. Until today, high intelligence always went hand in hand with a developed consciousness. Only conscious beings could perform tasks that required a lot of intelligence, such as playing chess, driving cars, diagnosing diseases or killing terrorists. However, Google, Apple, IBM and other tech companies are now developing new types of non-conscious intelligence – based on machine learning and big data – that can outperform human beings in all of the above tasks and many more besides.

This raises a novel question: which of the two is really important for the economy –intelligence or consciousness? As long as the one always went hand in hand with the other, this question was a pastime for philosophers. In the 21st century, it is becoming an urgent political and economic issue. And it is sobering to realise that, at least for the economy, intelligence is mandatory but consciousness by itself has little value.

 

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In 2013, two Oxford researchers, Carl Benedikt Frey and Michael A Osborne, published The Future of Employment, in which they surveyed the likelihood of various professions being taken over by computer algorithms within the next 20 years. The algorithm developed by Frey and Osborne to perform the calculations estimated that 47 per cent of US jobs are at high risk. For example, there is a 99 per cent probability that by 2033 human telemarketers and insurance underwriters will lose their jobs to algorithms. There is a 98 per cent chance that the same will happen to sports referees, 97 per cent that it will happen to cashiers and 96 per cent to restaurant cooks.

For paralegal assistants, tour guides, bakers, bus drivers, construction workers, veterinary assistants, security guards, sailors, waiters, bartenders, archivists, carpenters and lifeguards the probability of redundancy ranges from 67 per cent to 94 per cent. There are, of course, some safe jobs. The likelihood that computer algorithms will displace archaeologists by 2033 is only 0.7 per cent, and for occupational therapists it is 0.3 per cent.

Even if new professions come along to compensate for the losses, they will probably require much more creativity and flexibility. It is far from certain that a 50-year-old cashier or bus driver will be able to make the necessary readjustment. Whereas the Industrial Revolution of the 19th century created a vast new class of urban workers, the 21st century might witness the rise of a vast new class of economically useless people.

If this indeed happens, it will pose a far bigger challenge than the Industrial Revolution and will demand new social and political models far more ambitious than those offered by Marx, Lenin or Mao. Socialists and communists tailored a new ideology to answer for the novel needs, hopes and fears of the industrial proletariat. The 21st-century class of useless people will also generate new wants, dreams and worries. To answer them, the silicon prophets are coming up with fantastic socioeconomic models, fit for a post-scarcity society in which human beings no longer produce anything and are merely consumers.

Yet the silicon prophets don’t stop there. They dream not only about remaking society and the economy, but also about overcoming old age, defeating death, engineering superhumans, creating the Internet of Things and merging human beings into the Internet of Things to form some kind of cosmic consciousness. Google recently established a sub-company called Calico whose stated mission is – drums please! – “to solve death”. Google has also appointed an immortality true-believer, Bill Maris, to preside over its Google Venture capital fund. In an interview last March Maris said: “If you ask me today, ‘Is it possible to live to be 500?’ the answer is yes.” He backs up his brave words with a lot of hard cash. The Google Venture fund is investing 36 per cent of its $2bn portfolio in life sciences start-ups, ­including several ambitious life-extending projects. Using an analogy from American football, Maris explained that in the fight against death, “We aren’t trying to gain a few yards. We are trying to win the game.”

The PayPal co-founder Peter Thiel has confessed that he aims to live for ever. “I think there are probably three main modes of approaching [death],” Thiel explained. “You can accept it, you can deny it or you can fight it. I think our society is dominated by people who are into denial or acceptance, and I prefer to fight it.” Many people are likely to dismiss such statements as teenage fantasies. Yet Thiel is somebody to be taken very seriously. His private fortune is estimated at $2.2bn and he is one of the most successful and influential entrepreneurs in Silicon Valley.

As a historian, I am in no position to ­comment on the feasibility of such visions. Yet, as a historian, I know that what people hope to achieve is often far more important than what they can actually do. The 20th century was shaped by the communist attempt to overcome human inequality, even though this hope was never fulfilled. Our century might be shaped by the attempt to upgrade human beings and overcome death, even if this hope is a bit premature. The spirit of the age is changing. Equality is out, immortality is in.

This should concern all of us. It is dangerous to mix godlike technology with megalomaniac politics but it might be even more dangerous to blend godlike technology with myopic politics. Our politics is becoming mere administration and is giving up on the future exactly when technology gives us the power to reshape that future beyond our wildest dreams. Indeed, technology gives us the power to start reshaping even our dreams. If politicians don’t want the job of planning this future, they will merely be handing it on a platter to somebody else. In consequence, the most important decisions in the history of life might be taken by a tiny group of engineers and businesspeople, while politicians are busy arguing about immigration quotas and the euro.

Yuval Harari is a historian and the author of “Sapiens: a Brief History of Humankind” (Vintage). More info: ynharari.com

This article first appeared in the 11 June 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Who owns the future?

Martin O’Neil for New Statesman
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Why the British addiction to period drama is driving away our best black and Asian actors

There is a diversity crisis in British TV and film as, increasingly, stars are decamping to America to make their career there.

Back in April, a six-part drama called Undercover premiered on BBC1. Perhaps you were one of the five million people who watched it: the story was audacious and continent-hopping, enfolding a narrative about a man on death row in the United States with an all-too-believable tale of a Metropolitan Police officer who marries a woman he is meant to be keeping under surveillance.

The reason the programme attracted so much attention, however, was not what it was about, but whom. Starring Sophie Okonedo and Adrian Lester, Undercover was widely reported as the first mainstream British television drama with black actors in the lead roles. This wasn’t true: as James Cooray Smith wrote on the New Statesman website, that milestone was passed in June 1956 by Mrs Patterson, a BBC adaptation of a Broadway play starring Eartha Kitt.

Yet Undercover was still a breakthrough. Smith, casting his mind back over more than six decades of British television, could not think of more than a handful of other examples. Writing in the Observer, Chitra Ramaswamy expressed her feelings with quiet devastation: “In 2016, it is an outrage that it’s a big deal to see a successful, affluent, complicated black family sit at a ­dinner table eating pasta.” Think about that. In 2016 in Britain, a country where more than nine million people describe themselves as non-white, it is news that a black, middle-class family should not only feature in a prime-time BBC drama but be at its heart. Undercover exposed how white most British television is.

Actors of colour have appeared on British film and TV screens for decades, and they have been visible on British stages for centuries – yet they have been shunted into the margins with depressing regularity. In January the actor Idris Elba urged British MPs to take the matter seriously. “Although there’s a lot of reality TV,” he argued, “TV hasn’t caught up with reality.”

In February, there was renewed uproar over the lack of racial diversity in Hollywood at the 88th Academy Awards, and the infuriated hashtag #OscarsSoWhite blossomed again on social media. A month later, Lenny Henry argued that black and minority ethnic (BAME) talent was being “ghettoised”. The term could hardly be more charged. Speaking at the London premiere of Mira Nair’s film Queen of Katwe, the actor David Oyelowo said: “What we need now is for a change to come. I think the talk is done.”

There has been some change. In March, the Royal Shakespeare Company opened a production of Hamlet starring Paapa Essiedu, an actor of Ghanaian heritage raised in London. It was the first time that a black performer had taken the role for the company. A new set of BBC diversity targets both on- and off-screen was unveiled in April. Noma Dumezweni is playing Hermione in Harry Potter and the Cursed Child in the West End, and in October the BFI launched Black Star, a nationwide season celebrating black talent in film and TV. But what does the picture really look like, in late 2016? And what, if anything, needs to change?

The first challenge is that many in the film and TV industry find it difficult to talk about the subject. Researching this article, I lost count of the number of people who demurred to go on the record, or of actors who seemed eager to speak but were then dissuaded. Fatigue might be partly to blame – it’s exhausting to be asked repeatedly about diversity because you didn’t go to Harrow and your skin isn’t white – but I got the sense that there’s more going on.

One man who passionately believes this is the screenwriter Trix Worrell, the creator of the pioneering Channel 4 sitcom Desmond’s, which brought an African-Caribbean barbershop in south-east ­London to Middle England’s living rooms in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

“TV is very difficult to break into. There’s a protectionism there,” he says with a shrug, when we meet for coffee on the seafront in Hastings, where he now lives. “People are nervous about rocking the boat.”

Though cheerful about most of the things we discuss, Worrell admits to feeling a roiling anger when it comes to this particular matter. Does he think that diversity has improved since he was pitching Desmond’s, three decades ago? “No. I say that with absolute certainty and surety.”

It is hard to underestimate the influence that Desmond’s had. The series ran for 71 episodes and at its peak it had five million viewers, remarkable for a sitcom. Starring the veteran actor Norman Beaton alongside a largely British-Guyanese cast, it made that community visible in a way that has not been rivalled in Britain in the 22 years since it came off air. It did so with the deftest of touches, addressing problems of interracial relationships and tensions within the black community through warm comedy.

“Up to that point, black people were ­never seen on TV,” Worrell recalls. “The only time we appeared in any media was in the red tops – muggings, vice. The idea was to show a black family who were just like any other.” Yet it seems that, apart from the spin-off comedy series Porkpie, occasioned by Beaton’s sudden death in 1994, Channel 4 has regarded the idea of portraying a normal black family in a sitcom as too great a gamble in the years since, despite an increase in the number of non-white roles in its other drama output.

Worrell smiles, but it is clear that the ­matter isn’t a joke. “The thing that’s said among black people is that there’ll only be one black sitcom every ten years.”

***

When I phone Paapa Essiedu while he’s on a lunch break from Hamlet, I am prepared to get a more positive perspective. Just 26, Essiedu has had a spectacular and seemingly unimpeded rise. A graduate of the prestigious Guildhall School of Music and Drama in London, he joined the RSC in 2012 and then hopped to the National Theatre in Sam Mendes’s King Lear, before returning to Stratford. The Telegraph greeted his debut as Hamlet with the notice that every actor dreams of: “A new star is born”.

But Essiedu seems ready to implode with frustration. “It’s ridiculous,” he says. “This stuff has been here for decades and decades: we’re lying to ourselves if we think there’s been a lack of awareness until now. Lots of people are talking and talking, but we need action.” Has he experienced racism directly? “Put it this way: quite often, I’ve been in a room where everyone else is white.”

A major issue, he says, is the apparently unshakeable addiction of British TV and film to corsets-and-cleavage period drama, which has left many BAME actors locked out of the audition room. The BBC is in the middle of a run of literary spin-offs, from War and Peace to The Moonstone. Over on ITV, we have had Victoria and the invincible Downton Abbey.

It still feels as though much of British drama is stuck in an airbrushed version of the country’s past. Though partly set in contemporary Egypt, BBC1’s adaptation of The Night Manager by John le Carré had only a handful of non-white actors in significant roles. Allowing for exceptions such as the BBC’s version of Andrea Levy’s Windrush-era novel Small Island, broadcast in 2009, you could be forgiven for thinking, had you never visited Britain, that people of only one skin colour live in this country. That the largely white drama series are successful on the export market only helps to extend the cycle.

“Producers say, ‘Oh, we commission stuff that people want to watch,’” Essiedu tells me. “But it’s such a narrow version of history – middle-to-upper-class Caucasian men, generally. Period drama can be from anywhere in the world: Africa, Asia. Where are those stories?”

Drama is just a sliver of broadcasting output, but other genres aren’t much better. Journalists from ethnic-minority backgrounds have made steady progress in television newsrooms – but not fast enough, Channel 4’s Krishnan Guru-Murthy has ­argued; there is a glaring absence, however, when it comes to lifestyle and entertainment TV. The recent success of the intrepid youth TV star Reggie Yates notwithstanding, it is difficult to ignore or account for the dearth of BAME presenters in documentaries and “serious” factual programming; and no major current British chat show has a permanent anchor who isn’t white.

Adil Ray’s BBC1 comedy Citizen Khan, which focuses on the escapades of the overbearing Muslim patriarch Mr Khan and his family in the Sparkhill area of Birmingham, is a rare exception. It has just returned for a fifth season. A worthy successor to Desmond’s in its tongue-in-cheek approach to potentially inflammatory issues (the 2014 Christmas special featured the birth of Mr Khan’s grandson, Mohammad, on Christmas Day) the programme also resembles its forebear in a more depressing way: it appears to be one of a kind.

When I ask Ray why he thinks this is, he selects his words carefully. “It’s not prejudice exactly,” he says, “but in the TV business, there are a lot of formulas. If you’re doing curry, get an Asian person. If it’s hip-hop, someone who’s black. If you’re doing a walk in the countryside, or drinking tea in the Cotswolds . . .” He leaves the sentence hanging.

What appears on screen is only the visible part of the problem. Actors get cast in roles only if writers write them; projects get made only if commissioners commission them. TV and film are notoriously incestuous and competitive industries. Careers are unstable. Knowing someone who knows someone is often – too often – the only way of getting work.

According to figures produced this year by Creative Skillset, many media companies fail dismally when it comes to representation. Just 24 per cent of those in senior roles in cable or satellite firms are female; 4 per cent of employees in positions in senior terrestrial broadcast are BAME; and, if the numbers are to be believed, there are no BAME people at all working on the senior production side of independent film companies. The figures aren’t entirely robust – they rely on organisations filling in forms and returning them – but if they’re anywhere near the truth they make for grim reading.

The BBC’s statistics are more encouraging (according to the latest figures, BAME people make up 13.4 per cent of staff overall and hold 9.2 per cent of leadership roles) but don’t include freelancers, an area in which it is reasonable to suppose that, without quotas to fill, representation will be worse. In September, the media regulator Ofcom put broadcasters on notice that they could face “harder-edged” regulation if they did not improve diversity.

Chi Onwurah, the MP for Newcastle upon Tyne Central, who has been vocal about these matters in parliament, says that the BBC has a special duty to up its game. “It’s not doing enough,” she tells me. “If it was, there wouldn’t be a problem. It was very interesting watching the [European Union] referendum; all the efforts broadcasters have gone to to make sure there was balance. If they went to half that effort for BAME, gender and disability, it would be a different world.”

The BBC is keen to show that it is paying attention. Last year, it appointed Tunde Ogungbesan as its new head of “diversity, inclusion and succession”, and in April his team announced eye-catching targets: gender parity across every part of the corporation; 8 per cent of staff disabled; 8 per cent of staff lesbian, gay or trans; 15 per cent of staff from BAME backgrounds. Those numbers will be replicated on screen, lead roles included, and are roughly equivalent to averages for the overall population of Britain.

Yet the idea that established BBC presenters will go quietly seems optimistic. Take the ruckus that the comedian Jon Holmes recently raised when his contract with The Now Show (Radio 4) wasn’t renewed. Holmes asked in the Mail on Sunday: “Should I, as a white man . . . be fired from my job because I am a white man?”

Ogungbesan – a former head of diversity for Shell – has a businesslike attitude to the challenges he faces, which are, he concedes, considerable. “We’ve got four years to do this, and we know there’s a hell of a lot of work to do.” That is why his team has given itself a deadline. “Hopefully, when we hit those targets in 2020, we’ll be the most diverse broadcaster in the UK.”

How does he respond to Onwurah’s suggestion that the BBC is skilled at announcing targets but less good at making change happen? “We’re publishing our results,” he says. “You’ll be able to hold us to it.”

And what if the targets aren’t met? Ogun­gbesan laughs, for perhaps a touch too long. He will not consider the possibility. “I’m like a boxer. I refuse to look at it.”

***

If British TV and film don’t get their act together soon, there may be no one left to cast. Increasingly, black and Asian stars are decamping to America to make their career there. Among those who have joined the brain drain are Archie Panjabi and Cush Jumbo (The Good Wife), David Oyelowo (Selma) and Chiwetel Ejiofor (12 Years a Slave). Idris Elba, who brooded brilliantly in BBC1’s crime procedural Luther, would likely never have been cast in a big British series if he hadn’t already made a name in the United States with The Wire. Before she appeared in Undercover, Sophie Okonedo said in an interview that the scripts she was offered from the US far outnumbered those from the UK.

Visiting Los Angeles recently, I tracked down Parminder Nagra, who made her name in Bend It Like Beckham before being spotted by a producer for the long-running medical drama ER. In 2003 she was offered the role of the Anglo-American doctor Neela Rasgotra, which she played until the series ended in 2009. A big part in the NBC crime drama The Blacklist followed, along with other film and TV work.

She never intended to move, she says, laughing ruefully, when we meet at a café in a well-to-do suburb of LA populated by movie folk. She has worked occasionally elsewhere but, 13 years on, she is still on the west coast. “The jobs I’ve got, like most actors, haven’t come about in a conventional way. It’s generally because someone is open-minded enough to look at you.”

Although she is careful to make it clear that the US is far from a utopia in terms of how it portrays race, sexuality or gender on screen – she tells a gruesome tale of a white writer who sent her his attempt at an “Asian” character – Nagra senses that things are more open in the US. “It’s a bigger pond here, because of the sheer size of the country,” she says. “There are writers of colour in the UK, but what happens is that you’ve only got one or two people at the top who are making decisions about the taste of the country . . . Those people are white.”

The landscape is certainly more open in the US. Leaving aside the allegations about Bill Cosby, NBC’s Cosby Show (1984-92) was a force for good, with its focus on a middle-class African-American family and with the numerous ethnically diverse shows it made possible: A Different World, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, In Living Color, Scandal (the last was commissioned by the influential black writer-producer Shonda Rhimes). Back in the early 1980s, the gentle NBC sitcom Gimme a Break! – starring Nell Carter – explored issues of racism, too.

US cable and online subscription ­services are even more courageous. Netflix’s Orange Is the New Black has an ethnically kaleidoscopic cast and plotlines that vault across almost every conceivable question of gender, sexuality, body image and politics. Where it has apparently taken the BBC until 2016 to realise that families can be both black and upper middle class, ABC in the US was years ahead: in 2014 it commissioned Black-ish, which offers a subtle portrait of an advertising executive who frets that he is losing touch with both his Obama-era kids and his inner-city origins.

Nagra nods. “There still are a lot of issues here, but if you’re an actor of colour, there is more work. All those British period dramas are really well done, but there’s a yearning there: ‘Can I please just see somebody like me on TV?’”

The reason all this matters is that TV, theatre and film have a duty to show us not merely who we are, but who we can become. In Undercover, Okonedo becomes Britain’s first black, female director of public prosecutions: this may seem unlikely, given the state of the UK’s judiciary, yet seeing it on TV helps to shift perceptions. No one would argue that Okonedo’s co-star Dennis Haysbert got Barack Obama into the White House by playing a black president of the United States in 24, but perhaps it made such a world marginally more imaginable.

The time is overdue for British TV to abandon its fetish for bodices and show us what our nation actually looks like, in all its variety – and to be more imaginative about the kind of history it presents. Colour-blind casting is mainstream in theatre. Actors of various heritages appear in Pinter or Chekhov and no one raises an eyebrow.

Anthropologists argue that race and gender are forms of performance, sets of shared codes, rather than something intrinsic to who we are. Is it so difficult to imagine a Jane Austen production with performers of black or Asian heritage? Is that any harder to believe than the thousand impossibilities we witness every day in TV drama?

I ask Essiedu if he is optimistic. Yes, he says forcefully. “I have to be. Optimism is the only way we initiate change.”

When I put the same question to Nagra, she pauses to think. “I remember being asked about this when I started ER, and I was a bit tired of the issue even then. Yet here we still are.” Her expression is wry. “So ask me in ten years’ time.”

This article first appeared in the 24 November 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Blair: out of exile