What is the basis of this collective faith, shared by universities, presidents and billionaires? Shouldn’t successful and powerful people be the first to spot the exaggerated worth of a discipline, and the least likely to pay for it?
In the hypothetical worlds of rational markets, where much of economic theory is set, perhaps. But real-world history tells a different story, of mathematical models masquerading as science and a public eager to buy them, mistaking elegant equations for empirical accuracy.
Preston writes with economical grace. He shows the start of love delicately and also its failure. He is witty about the true English vice, which is pointless, pompous snobbery. He never stresses; he allows his people to live. He lets nightingales sing sadly without training them to be metaphors. He has written a kind of universal chamber piece, small in detail, beautifully made and liable to linger on in the heart and the mind. It is something utterly unfamiliar, and quite wonderful.
Look closely at what many journalists write about artificial intelligence – from AlphaGo’s triumph at the ancient Chinese board game Go to Microsoft’s accidentally racist Twitter bot – and you might detect some smugness. Research by Oxford University has predicted that journalism is among the jobs least likely to be replaced by a machine in the near future. And yet, as Columbia University prepares to celebrate 100 years of the Pulitzer prize, intelligent robots will publish financial reports, sports commentaries, clickbait and myriad other articles formerly the preserve of trained journalists.
“A machine will win a Pulitzer one day,” predicts Kris Hammond from Narrative Science, a company that specialises in “natural language generation”. “We can tell the stories hidden in data.”