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On ‘radical incompetence’

One of the reasons I’ve retreated from Twitter since May of last year is the rise of angry politics. I can’t pay attention to everything that’s happening all of the time. And I certainly haven’t got the energy to deal with problems that aren’t materially affecting me or the people I care about.

Brexit, then, is a strange one. On the one hand, I participated in a democratic election to elect a government. Subsequently, a government formed from a party I didn’t vote for called a referendum on the United Kingdom’s membership of the European Union. As we all know, the result was close, and based on lies and illegal funding. Nevertheless, perhaps as a citizen I should participate democratically and then get on with my own life.

On the other hand of course, this isn’t politics as usual. There’s been a rise in nationalistic fervour that we haven’t seen since the 1930s. It’s alarming, particularly at a time when smartphones, social media, and the ever-increasing speed of the news cycle make it difficult for citizens to pay sustained attention to anything.

This article in The New York Times zooms out from the particular issues of Trump and Brexit to look at the wider picture. It’s not mentioned specifically in the article, but documentary evidence of struggles around political power and sovereignty goes back at leats to the Magna Carta in England. One way of looking at that is that King John was the Donald Trump of his time, so the barons took power from him.

It’s easy to stand for the opposite of something: you don’t have to do any of the work. All that’s necessary is to point out problems, flaws, and issues with the the person, organisation, or concept that you’re attacking. So demagogues and iconoclasts such as Boris Johnson and Donald Trump, whose lack of a coherent position wouldn’t work at any other time, all of a sudden gain credibility in times of upheaval.

Like so many political metaphors, the distinction between “hard” and “soft” is misleading. Any Brexiteer wanting to perform machismo will reach for the “hard” option. But as has become increasingly plain over the past two years, and especially over recent weeks, nobody has any idea what “hard” Brexit actually means in policy terms. It is not so much hard as abstract. “Soft” Brexit might sound weak or halfhearted, but it is also the only policy proposal that might actually work.

What appear on the surface to be policy disputes over Britain’s relationship with Brussels are actually fundamental conflicts regarding the very nature of political power. In this, the arguments underway inside Britain’s Conservative Party speak of a deeper rift within liberal democracies today, which shows no sign of healing. In conceptual terms, this is a conflict between those who are sympathetic to government and those striving to reassert sovereignty.

I’m writing this on the train home from London. I haven’t participated in or seen any of the protests around Trump’s visit to the UK. I have, however, seen plenty of people holding placards and banners, obviously on their way to, or from, a rally.

My concern about getting angry in bite-sized chunks on Twitter or reducing your issues with someone like Trump or Johnson to a placard is that you’re playing them at their own game. They’ll win. They thrive on the oxygen of attention. Cut it off and they’ll whither and be forced to slink off to whatever hole they originally crawled from.

A common thread linking “hard” Brexiteers to nationalists across the globe is that they resent the very idea of governing as a complex, modern, fact-based set of activities that requires technical expertise and permanent officials.

[…]

The more extreme fringes of British conservatism have now reached the point that American conservatives first arrived at during the Clinton administration: They are seeking to undermine the very possibility of workable government. For hard-liners such as Jacob Rees-Mogg, it is an article of faith that Britain’s Treasury Department, the Bank of England and Downing Street itself are now conspiring to deny Britain its sovereignty.

What we’re talking about here is ideology. There’s always been a fundamental difference between the left and the right of politics in a way that’s understood enough not to get into here. But issues around sovereignty, nationalism, and self-determinism actually cut across the traditional political spectrum. That’s why, for example, Jeremy Corbyn, leader of the British Labour Party, can oppose the EU for vastly different reasons to Jacob Rees-Mogg, arch-Brexiteer.

I haven’t got the energy to go into it here, but to me the crisis in confidence in expertise comes from a warping of the meritocratic system that was supposed to emancipate the working class, break down class structures, and bring forth a fairer society. What’s actually happened is that the political elites have joined with the wealthy to own the means of cultural reproduction. As a result, no-one now seems to trust them.

What happens if sections of the news media, the political classes and the public insist that only sovereignty matters and that the complexities of governing are a lie invented by liberal elites? For one thing, it gives rise to celebrity populists, personified by Mr. Trump, whose inability to engage patiently or intelligently with policy issues makes it possible to sustain the fantasy that governing is simple. What Mr. Johnson terms the “method” in Mr. Trump’s “madness” is a refusal to listen to inconvenient evidence, of the sort provided by officials and experts.

There have been many calls within my lifetime for a ‘new politics’. It’s nearly always a futile project, and just means a changing of the faces on our screens while the political elite continue their machinations. I’m not super-hopeful, but I do perhaps wonder whether our new-found connectedness, if mediated by decentralised technologies, could change that?

Source: The New York Times

"When we speak of 'populism' today, we sometimes mean nothing more than a politics that is audible as well as intelligible to the man in the street - or, to be precise, the man and woman slumped on their sofa, their attention skipping fitfully from flat-screen TV to laptop to smartphone to tablet and back to television, or the man and woman at work, sitting in front of desktop PCs but mostly exchanging suggestive personal messages on their smartphones."

(Niall Ferguson)

Blogging in the Fediverse with Write.as

I couldn’t be happier about this news. Write.as is a service that allows you to connect multiple blogs to one online editor. You then compose your post and then decide where to send it.

Matt Baer, the guy behind Write.as, has announced some exciting new functionality:

After much trial and error, I’ve finished basic ActivityPub support on Write.as! (Though it’s not live yet.) I’m very, very excited about reaching this point so I can try out some new ideas.

So far, most developers in the fediverse have been remaking centralized web services with ActivityPub support. There’s PeerTube for video, PixelFed for social photos, Plume or Microblog.pub for blogging, and of course Mastodon and Pleroma for microblogging — among many others. I’ve loved watching the ecosystem grow over the past several months, but I also think more can be done, and getting AP support in Write.as was the first step to making this happen.

Baer references one of his previous posts where, like the main developer of Mastodon, he takes a stand against some things that people have come to expect from centralised services:

If we’re going to build the web world we want, we have to constantly evaluate the pieces we bring with us from the old to the new. With each iteration of an idea on the web we need to question the very nature of certain aspects’ existence in the first place, and determine whether or not every single old thing unimproved should still be with us. It’s the only way we can be sure we’re moving — if not in the direction, at least in some direction that will teach us something.

In Baer’s case, it’s not having public ‘likes’ and in Mastodon’s case it’s not providing the ability to quote toots. Either way, I applaud them for taking a stand.

Baer is planning a new product called Read.as:

Today my idea is to split reading and writing across two ActivityPub-enabled products, Write.as and Read.as. The former will stay focused on writing and publishing; AP support will be almost invisible. Blogs can be followed via the web, RSS, email (soon), or ActivityPub-speaking services (for example, I can follow blogs with my Mastodon account, and then or share any posts to my followers there). Then Read.as would be the read-only counterpart; you go there when you want to stare at your screen for a while and read something interesting. It would be minimally social, avoid interrupting your life, and preserve your privacy — just like Write.as.

Great, great news!

Source: Write.as

On living in public

In this post, Austin Kleon, backpedaling a little from the approach he seemed to promote in Show Your Work!, talks about the problems we all face with ‘living in public’.

It seems ridiculous to say, but 2013, the year I wrote the book, was a simpler time. Social media seemed much more benign to me. Back then, the worst I felt social media did was waste your time. Now, the worst social media does is cripple democracy and ruin your soul.

Kleon quotes Warren Ellis, who writes one of my favourite newsletters (his blog is pretty good, too):

You don’t have to live in public on the internet if you don’t want to. Even if you’re a public figure, or micro-famous like me. I don’t follow anyone on my public Instagram account. No shade on those who follow me there, I’m glad you give me your time – but I need to be in my own space to get my shit done. You want a “hack” for handling the internet? Create private social media accounts, follow who you want and sit back and let your bespoke media channels flow to you. These are tools, not requirements. Don’t let them make you miserable. Tune them until they bring you pleasure.

In May 2017, after being on Twitter over a decade, I deleted my Twitter history, and now delete tweets on a weekly basis. Now, I hang out on a social network that I co-own called social.coop and which is powered by a federated, decentralised service called Mastodon.

I still publish my work, including Thought Shrapnel posts, to Twitter, LinkedIn, etc. It’s just not where I spend most of my time. On balance, I’m happier for it.

Source: Austin Kleon

I don’t think there’s an artist of any value who doesn’t doubt what they’re doing.

– Francis Ford Coppola

Problems with the present and future of work are of our own making

This is a long essay in which the RSA announces that, along with its partners (one of which, inevitably, is Google) it’s launching the Future Work Centre. I’ve only selected quotations from the first section here.

From autonomous vehicles to cancer-detecting algorithms, and from picking and packing machines to robo-advisory tools used in financial services, every corner of the economy has begun to feel the heat of a new machine age. The RSA uses the term ‘radical technologies’ to describe these innovations, which stretch from the shiny and much talked about, including artificial intelligence and robotics, to the prosaic but equally consequential, such as smartphones and digital platforms.

I highly recommend reading Adam Greenfield’s book Radical Technologies: the design of everyday life, if you haven’t already. Greenfield isn’t beholden to corporate partners, and lets rip.

What is certain is that the world of work will evolve as a direct consequence of the invention and adoption of radical technologies — and in more ways than we might imagine. Alongside eliminating and creating jobs, these innovations will alter how workers are recruited, monitored, organised and paid. Companies like HireVue (video interviewing), Percolata (schedule setting) and Veriato (performance monitoring) are eager to reinvent all aspects of the workplace.

Indeed, and a lot of what’s going on is compliance and surveillance of workers smuggled in through the back door while people focus on ‘innovation’.

The main problems outlined with the current economy which is being ‘disrupted’ by technology are:

  1. Declining wages (in real terms)
  2. Economic insecurity (gig economy, etc.)
  3. Working conditions
  4. Bullshit jobs
  5. Work-life balance

Taken together, these findings paint a picture of a dysfunctional labour market — a world of work that offers little in the way of material security, let alone satisfaction. But that may be going too far. Overall, most workers enjoy what they do and relish the careers they have established. The British Social Attitudes survey found that twice as many people in 2015 as in 1989 strongly agreed they would enjoy having a job even if their financial circumstances did not require it.

The problem is not with work per se but rather with how it is orchestrated in the modern economy, and how rewards are meted out. As a society we have a vision of what work could and should look like — well paid, protective, meaningful, engaging — but the reality too often falls short.

I doubt the RSA would ever say it without huge caveats, but the problem is neoliberalism. It’s all very well looking to the past for examples of technological disruption, but that was qualitatively different from what’s going on now. Organisations can run on a skeleton staff and make obscene profits for a very few people.

I feel like warnings such as ‘the robots are coming’ and ‘be careful not to choose an easily-automated occupation!’ are a smokescreen for decisions that people are making about the kind of society they want to live in. It seems like that’s one where most of us (the ‘have nots’) are expendable, while the 0.01% (the ‘haves’) live in historically-unparalleled luxury.

In summary, the lives of workers will be shaped by more technologies than AI and robotics, and in more ways than through the loss of jobs.

Fears surrounding automaton should be taken seriously. Yet anxiety over job losses should not distract us from the subtler impacts of radical technologies, including on recruitment practices, employee monitoring and people’s work-life balance. Nor should we become so fixated on AI and robotics that we lose sight of the conventional technologies bringing about change in the present moment.

Exactly. Let’s fix 2018 before we start thinking about 2040, eh?

Source: The RSA

Issue #311: Under canvas

The latest issue of the newsletter hit inboxes earlier today!

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“Wisdom comes from experience. Experience is often a result of lack of wisdom.”

(Terry Pratchett)
“If most of us are ashamed of shabby clothes and shoddy furniture, let us be more ashamed of shabby ideas and shoddy philosophies.”

(Albert Einstein)

The dangers of distracted parenting

I usually limit myself to three quotations in posts I write here. I’m going to break that self-imposed rule for this article by Erika Christakis in The Atlantic on parents’ screentime.

Christakis points out the good and the bad news:

Yes, parents now have more face time with their children than did almost any parents in history. Despite a dramatic increase in the percentage of women in the workforce, mothers today astoundingly spend more time caring for their children than mothers did in the 1960s. But the engagement between parent and child is increasingly low-quality, even ersatz. Parents are constantly present in their children’s lives physically, but they are less emotionally attuned.

As parents, and in society in general, we’re super-hot on limiting kids’ screentime, but we don’t necessarily apply that to ourselves:

[S]urprisingly little attention is paid to screen use by parents… who now suffer from what the technology expert Linda Stone more than 20 years ago called “continuous partial attention.” This condition is harming not just us, as Stone has argued; it is harming our children. The new parental-interaction style can interrupt an ancient emotional cueing system, whose hallmark is responsive communication, the basis of most human learning. We’re in uncharted territory.

‘Continuous partial attention’ is the term people tend to use these days instead of ‘multitasking’. To my mind it’s a better term, as it references the fact that you’re not just trying to do different things simultaneously, you’re trying to pay attention to them.

I’ve given the example before of my father sitting down to read the newspaper on a Sunday. Is there really much difference to the child, I’ve wondered, between his being hidden behind a broadsheet for an hour, and his scrolling and clicking on a mobile device? In some ways yes, in some ways no.

It has never been easy to balance adults’ and children’s needs, much less their desires, and it’s naive to imagine that children could ever be the unwavering center of parental attention. Parents have always left kids to entertain themselves at times—“messing about in boats,” in a memorable phrase from The Wind in the Willows, or just lounging aimlessly in playpens. In some respects, 21st-century children’s screen time is not very different from the mother’s helpers every generation of adults has relied on to keep children occupied. When parents lack playpens, real or proverbial, mayhem is rarely far behind. Caroline Fraser’s recent biography of Laura Ingalls Wilder, the author of Little House on the Prairie, describes the exceptionally ad hoc parenting style of 19th-century frontier parents, who stashed babies on the open doors of ovens for warmth and otherwise left them vulnerable to “all manner of accidents as their mothers tried to cope with competing responsibilities.” Wilder herself recounted a variety of near-calamities with her young daughter, Rose; at one point she looked up from her chores to see a pair of riding ponies leaping over the toddler’s head.

To me, the difference can be summed up quite easily: our mobile devices are designed to be addictive and capture our full attention, in ways that analogue media and experiences aren’t.

Short, deliberate separations can of course be harmless, even healthy, for parent and child alike (especially as children get older and require more independence). But that sort of separation is different from the inattention that occurs when a parent is with a child but communicating through his or her nonengagement that the child is less valuable than an email. A mother telling kids to go out and play, a father saying he needs to concentrate on a chore for the next half hour—these are entirely reasonable responses to the competing demands of adult life. What’s going on today, however, is the rise of unpredictable care, governed by the beeps and enticements of smartphones. We seem to have stumbled into the worst model of parenting imaginable—always present physically, thereby blocking children’s autonomy, yet only fitfully present emotionally.

Physically present but emotionally unavailable. Yes, we need to do better.

Under the circumstances, it’s easier to focus our anxieties on our children’s screen time than to pack up our own devices. I understand this tendency all too well. In addition to my roles as a mother and a foster parent, I am the maternal guardian of a middle-aged, overweight dachshund. Being middle-aged and overweight myself, I’d much rather obsess over my dog’s caloric intake, restricting him to a grim diet of fibrous kibble, than address my own food regimen and relinquish (heaven forbid) my morning cinnamon bun. Psychologically speaking, this is a classic case of projection—the defensive displacement of one’s failings onto relatively blameless others. Where screen time is concerned, most of us need to do a lot less projecting.

Amen to that.

Source: The Atlantic (via Jocelyn K. Glei)