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Ian McEwan

Ian McEwan Honorary Degree Speech at Universidad Carlos III de Madrid

January 30, 2018

It is not only a great honour to receive such recognition from this renowned university, it also gives me some relief from a form of existential headache. As my country, impelled by a wave of cynically managed populism, sets about loosening its ties with the European Union, it gives me great joy to know that for the rest of my life I will always have this connection – to Europe, to Spain, to Madrid and above all to this most excellent Universidad Carlos the Third. For this I thank you most warmly.

My first duty is to commend all who have come today to receive their medals in recognition of their becoming doctors of this university. A doctorate is a sustained, often difficult and, I hope, ultimately rewarding feat of focus, intelligence and insight. You will have added by your originality to the sum of human knowledge. A doctorate is a truly remarkable honour and I congratulate you most sincerely.

Writers, thinkers, intellectuals of all persuasions will always hope to convince you that the world is an unjust and hazardous place and that it is currently displaying unusual and alarming tendencies. Optimism is not a recognised currency in intellectual life. Still, I think it is objectively the case that the world I graduated into almost fifty years ago was both more stable and provided more opportunities than the world you graduate into today. I say this knowing that Spain in 1970 had yet to escape a suffocating and senile dictatorship. But at the least, freedom and economic well-being lay ahead in a near future. 

The world you must both navigate and shape is in turmoil. The world order that maintained an uneasy and uneven peace since the second world war is beginning to come apart. The United States, in the grip of an immature and unpredictable leadership, has retreated from the front line of its core values and obligations. Those same liberal values that bind the European project are under attack from countries like Poland and Hungary and from far-right political groupings as well as determined nationalist movements. Unemployment helps fuel the populist agenda. An aggressive Russia is intent on a form of advanced cyber warfare to further undermine those values. A paranoid, embattled dictatorship in North Korea threatens nuclear war. China remains immune to the benefits of human rights and free expression. The Middle East is in a state of catastrophic disintegration, of humanitarian disaster and a chaos of proxy war by regional powers and different religious certainties. The Palestinian cause has never looked so lost. In the Yemen and among the Rohinga expelled from Burma, whole populations are threatened with death from cholera and diphtheria. Children are the main sufferers. Around the world, an arms race is in progress. 

And in many places, a vast tide of humanity of unprecedented scale is on the move as refugees from war, famine or corruption and bad governance look for safety and a better life. I won’t dwell on climate change and environmental degradation – you know the story well enough.

At the same time, and most strangely, we are living through a golden age of science and technology. In cosmology, theoretical physics, cell biology, material science – these are amazing times to be alive. The arts and humanities, and scholarship in a thousand fields also flourish. The narrative of the digital revolution has only just completed its first chapter. And in the domain of artificial intelligence, that first chapter has hardly begun. It is industrial automation and machine intelligence – not immigration – that will increasingly create unemployment. We may have to accept that there are jobs we can no longer protect. Better then to protect workers rather than jobs, and it is here we enter the future of what radical economists call a universal wage – that is, a minimum salary for all, whether they are working or not. 

Leisure rather than work could become our defining feature. This will entail a fundamental re-thinking of our societies and our roles in them. As artificial intelligence develops, we may one day have to concede consciousness to machines – after all, we ourselves owe our consciousness to the arrangement of matter. We will then have to confront anew what it means to be human, what it may mean to live among machines not only cleverer than ourselves, with fewer cognitive defects, but possibly more moral, for it will be natural for us to imbue machines with a vision of our best selves. Religion and moral philosophy have traditionally played this role. 

These will be, as the Chinese curse has it, interesting times. But let me come to the present, your present. It was my generation who devised the internet, and your generation that grew up with it and became more familiar with its ways than mine ever can. When I send a text, I move at the pace of a medieval monk illuminating a manuscript. Your generation sends a text at the speed of speech; your grandchildren children will send texts at the speed of thought; already we have begun to interface brains with computers by way of implantation so that paralysed patients can move a limb merely by thinking about it. Brain-machine interfacing could well be the next disruptive technology

But what exactly have we brought about with our digital revolution, and what has the internet done to us? Here is a prime example of how helpless we are in the face of the consequences of our own cleverness. When, during the 1980s, the first few university computers belonging to scientists were linked together, no one imagined that we might be setting out on a project in which we willingly limit our own freedoms. Of course, it is beyond doubt that the benefits have been extraordinary. I have in my pocket a tiny computer that gives me access to vast tracts of human knowledge. It’s a thousand times more powerful than the computer that landed men on the moon in 1969. But we now know that our messages can and have been read by governments and corporations. Commercial interests know what we are buying and know what to sell to us. Our precise locations are easily tracked. Powerful arrays of servers linked to street cameras give governments even greater awareness of the movement of their citizens. In China, the authorities have already developed powerful face recognition software. A given person – or dissident – can be found and arrested in the huge city of Beijing in a matter of seconds. 

Also insidious is the pressure and surveillance we bring to bear on each other through social media. A recent report in Britain has described how 11 and 12 year olds suffer extreme anxiety when they move to high school because of peer pressure to be on social media and be ‘liked’. Bullying through such networks has become widespread and there has been a spate of suicides among children

When George Orwell wrote his great totalitarian dystopia, 1984, he conjured a vigilant security state controlling every corner of people’s lives. For example, it was illegal for them to turn off their televisions. But he never could have imagined the penetration of ordinary lives by state and commercial interests that the internet has granted. Crucially, he could not have envisaged how eagerly the citizens would bind themselves to their own surveillance. These little machines in our pockets are irresistible. No one forces us to buy them. We consume our days being in touch with each other. How has it come about that we so willingly sacrifice our solitude?

And solitude, one of the great luxuries of civilisation, is precisely my point here. Whether your degree is in the humanities or the sciences, a great proportion of the thinking men and women of the past whose works you have studied and admired had access to a degree of solitude that you are likely to be denied, or to deny yourselves. 

It’s traditional on these occasions to offer a word of advice. (And it’s traditional for you to ignore it completely). So, here’s my advice. Take it or leave it. Carve out for yourselves a little space that is neither digital nor social. Buy a notebook, use a pen, commit in total privacy your own thoughts within the sphere of your own special private space. Take command of the place where no others can locate you, or influence you or sell you goods or tell you about their holiday. Rediscover the art of thinking alone. Glory in the wondrous reality of your own brief spell of consciousness. Throw open wide the doors of perception. In the laconic words of Henry James, there is no reason not to.

And with that, I wish you all the very best as you set out to make your own paths through a dangerous, fascinating, challenging and wonderful new world.