Tag: society (page 1 of 2)

Inequality, anarchy, and the course of human history

Sometimes I’m reminded of the fact that I haven’t checked in with someone’s worth for a few weeks, months, or even years. I’m continually impressed with the work of my near-namesake Dougald Hine. I hope to meet him in person one day.

Going back through his recent work led me to a long article in Eurozine by David Graeber and David Wengrow about how we tend to frame history incorrectly.

Overwhelming evidence from archaeology, anthropology, and kindred disciplines is beginning to give us a fairly clear idea of what the last 40,000 years of human history really looked like, and in almost no way does it resemble the conventional narrative. Our species did not, in fact, spend most of its history in tiny bands; agriculture did not mark an irreversible threshold in social evolution; the first cities were often robustly egalitarian. Still, even as researchers have gradually come to a consensus on such questions, they remain strangely reluctant to announce their findings to the public­ – or even scholars in other disciplines – let alone reflect on the larger political implications. As a result, those writers who are reflecting on the ‘big questions’ of human history – Jared Diamond, Francis Fukuyama, Ian Morris, and others – still take Rousseau’s question (‘what is the origin of social inequality?’) as their starting point, and assume the larger story will begin with some kind of fall from primordial innocence.

Graeber and Wengrow essentially argue that most people start from the assumption that we have a choice between a life that is ‘nasty, brutish, and short’ (i.e. most of human history) or one that is more civilised (i.e. today). If we want the latter, we have to put up with inequality.

‘Inequality’ is a way of framing social problems appropriate to technocratic reformers, the kind of people who assume from the outset that any real vision of social transformation has long since been taken off the political table. It allows one to tinker with the numbers, argue about Gini coefficients and thresholds of dysfunction, readjust tax regimes or social welfare mechanisms, even shock the public with figures showing just how bad things have become (‘can you imagine? 0.1% of the world’s population controls over 50% of the wealth!’), all without addressing any of the factors that people actually object to about such ‘unequal’ social arrangements: for instance, that some manage to turn their wealth into power over others; or that other people end up being told their needs are not important, and their lives have no intrinsic worth. The latter, we are supposed to believe, is just the inevitable effect of inequality, and inequality, the inevitable result of living in any large, complex, urban, technologically sophisticated society.

But inequality is not the inevitable result of living in a civilised society, as they point out with some in-depth examples. I haven’t got space to go through them here, but suffice to say that it seems a classic case of historians cherry-picking their evidence.

As Claude Lévi-Strauss often pointed out, early Homo sapiens were not just physically the same as modern humans, they were our intellectual peers as well. In fact, most were probably more conscious of society’s potential than people generally are today, switching back and forth between different forms of organization every year. Rather than idling in some primordial innocence, until the genie of inequality was somehow uncorked, our prehistoric ancestors seem to have successfully opened and shut the bottle on a regular basis, confining inequality to ritual costume dramas, constructing gods and kingdoms as they did their monuments, then cheerfully disassembling them once again.

If so, then the real question is not ‘what are the origins of social inequality?’, but, having lived so much of our history moving back and forth between different political systems, ‘how did we get so stuck?’

Definitely worth a read, particularly if you think that ‘anarchy’ is the opposite of ‘civilisation’.

Source: Eurozine (via Dougald Hine)

Image CC BY-NC-SA xina

The increase in worker-owned co-ops

This article by Eillie Anzilotti is a Fast Company ‘long read’. It’s US-focused and includes specific examples and case studies, but is, I think, more widely-applicable.

Anzilotti explains some of the benefits of worker-owned co-ops, which are increasing in number as the ‘baby boomer’ generation retires.

Because the people doing the work for the company are also the ones who own the company, they feel a greater sense of responsibility for and personal stake in helping the business succeed. While there’s still a lot of knowledge-sharing that needs to happen before co-ops go mainstream, recently, policymakers are taking notice of the benefits of worker cooperatives, and new legislation is on the way support their growth. And with millions of baby boomer-owned businesses set to change hands in the upcoming decades, this transition could be an opportunity to create more democratic workplaces across the country–if business owners, workers, and advocates can work together to convert these enterprises into employee-owned cooperatives.

Hilariously, Anzilotti calls the retirement of the boomer generation a ‘silver tsunami’ which, more seriously, provides a huge opportunity to wrest back control from organisations that exist for the benefit of the few.

But instead of selling to a private owner, there’s a real opportunity amid this “silver tsunami” to radically scale the presence of worker-owned cooperatives in the U.S. “Historically, co-ops do best when there’s a market failure,” says Melissa Hoover, founding executive director of DAWI. During the Great Depression, for instance, farmers struggling to access energy resources, set up electrical cooperatives that they collectively owned, and cooperative housing models took off in some cities. Nearly a century later, we’re living through our own version of market failure. As banks have consolidated, capital for small businesses has grown scarce. More small businesses are now closing than opening in the U.S., and jobs are consistently failing to provide livable wages to employees.

Small businesses are vital in the economy, but to really make a change, we need larger, stronger businesses. Worker-owned co-ops can do that.

Employee-owned cooperatives… create a stronger base from which a business can continue to exist, and even grow. The workers already have demonstrated their commitment to the company and the community in which it operates, and granting them ownership allows the business to continue to operate and the community to continue to reap the benefits. And because the sales are done in a way that’s transparent and mutually beneficial, the selling business owners also get a fairer shake.

The difficulty, as Anzilotti notes, is that talking about democratic control of the organisation for which you work isn’t necessarily the most scintillating topic of conversation.

“Co-ops are not whiz-bang businesses that are going to get anybody rich,” Hoover says. “They’re bread and butter types–necessary and profitable, but not sexy.” Still, communities and policymakers alike are recognizing that their shared ownership structure can provide the kind of stability that the market cannot. “We’ve seen growing interest in rapidly changing cities and in rural areas where they’re really trying to make capital investments that anchor community wealth,” Hoover says. “Business retention makes more sense than trying to attract Amazon HQ2,” she adds. “Why don’t we invest in our local ecosystem and retain what’s already here?”

I have to say that the process of setting up We Are Open Co-op has been one of the most eye-opening experiences of my life. I’d highly recommend looking into the co-operatives for your organisation, whether extant or nascent.

Source: Fast Company

The New Octopus: going beyond managerial interventions for internet giants

This article in Logic magazine was brought to my attention by a recent issue of Ian O’Byrne’s excellent TL;DR newsletter. It’s a long read, focusing on the structural power of internet giants such as Amazon, Facebook, and Google.

The author, K. Sabeel Rahman, is an assistant professor of law at Brooklyn Law School and a fellow at the Roosevelt Institute. He uses historical analogues to make his points, while noting how different the current state of affairs is from a century ago.

As in the Progressive Era, technological revolutions have radically transformed our social, economic, and political life. Technology platforms, big data, AI—these are the modern infrastructures for today’s economy. And yet the question of what to do about technology is fraught, for these technological systems paradoxically evoke both bigness and diffusion: firms like Amazon and Alphabet and Apple are dominant, yet the internet and big data and AI are technologies that are by their very nature diffuse.

The problem, however, is not bigness per se. Even for Brandeisians, the central concern was power: the ability to arbitrarily influence the decisions and opportunities available to others. Such unchecked power represented a threat to liberty. Therefore, just as the power of the state had to be tamed through institutional checks and balances, so too did this private power have to be contested—controlled, held to account.

This emphasis on power and contestation, rather than literal bigness, helps clarify the ways in which technology’s particular relationship to scale poses a challenge to ideals of democracy, liberty, equality—and what to do about it.

I think this is the thing that concerns me most. Just as the banks were ‘too big to fail’ during the economic crisis and had to be bailed out by the taxpayer, so huge technology companies are increasingly playing that kind of role elsewhere in our society.

The problem of scale, then, has always been a problem of power and contestability. In both our political and our economic life, arbitrary power is a threat to liberty. The remedy is the institutionalization of checks and balances. But where political checks and balances take a common set of forms—elections, the separation of powers—checks and balances for private corporate power have proven trickier to implement.

These various mechanisms—regulatory oversight, antitrust laws, corporate governance, and the countervailing power of organized labor— together helped create a relatively tame, and economically dynamic, twentieth-century economy. But today, as technology creates new kinds of power and new kinds of scale, new variations on these strategies may be needed.

“Arbitrary power is a threat to liberty.” Absolutely, no matter whether the company holding that power has been problematic in the past, has a slogan promising not to do anything wrong, or is well-liked by the public.

We need more than regulatory oversight of such organisations because of how insidious their power can be — much like the image of Luks’ octopus that accompanies this and the original post.

Rahman explains three types of power held by large internet companies:

First, there is transmission power. This is the ability of a firm to control the flow of data or goods. Take Amazon: as a shipping and logistics infrastructure, it can be seen as directly analogous to the railroads of the nineteenth century, which enjoyed monopolized mastery over the circulation of people, information, and commodities. Amazon provides the literal conduits for commerce.


A second type of power arises from what we might think of as a gatekeeping power. Here, the issue is not necessarily that the firm controls the entire infrastructure of transmission, but rather that the firm controls the gateway to an otherwise decentralized and diffuse landscape.

This is one way to understand the Facebook News Feed, or Google Search. Google Search does not literally own and control the entire internet. But it is increasingly true that for most users, access to the internet is mediated through the gateway of Google Search or YouTube’s suggested videos. By controlling the point of entry, Google exercises outsized influence on the kinds of information and commerce that users can ultimately access—a form of control without complete ownership.


A third kind of power is scoring power, exercised by ratings systems, indices, and ranking databases. Increasingly, many business and public policy decisions are based on big data-enabled scoring systems. Thus employers will screen potential applicants for the likelihood that they may quit, be a problematic employee, or participate in criminal activity. Or judges will use predictive risk assessments to inform sentencing and bail decisions.

These scoring systems may seem objective and neutral, but they are built on data and analytics that bake into them existing patterns of racial, gender, and economic bias.


Each of these forms of power is infrastructural. Their impact grows as more and more goods and services are built atop a particular platform. They are also more subtle than explicit control: each of these types of power enable a firm to exercise tremendous influence over what might otherwise look like a decentralized and diffused system.

As I quote Adam Greenfield as saying in Microcast #021 (supporters only!) this infrastructural power is less obvious because of the immateriality of the world controlled by internet giants. We need more than managerial approaches to solving the problems faced by their power.

A more radical response, then, would be to impose structural restraints: limits on the structure of technology firms, their powers, and their business models, to forestall the dynamics that lead to the most troubling forms of infrastructural power in the first place.

One solution would be to convert some of these infrastructures into “public options”—publicly managed alternatives to private provision. Run by the state, these public versions could operate on equitable, inclusive, and nondiscriminatory principles. Public provision of these infrastructures would subject them to legal requirements for equal service and due process. Furthermore, supplying a public option would put competitive pressures on private providers.


We can also introduce structural limits on technologies with the goal of precluding dangerous concentrations of power. While much of the debate over big data and privacy has tended to emphasize the concerns of individuals, we might view a robust privacy regime as a kind of structural limit: if firms are precluded from collecting or using certain types of data, that limits the kinds of power they can exercise.

Some of this is already happening, thankfully, through structural limitations such as GDPR. I hope this is the first step in a more coordinated response to internet giants who increasingly have more impact on the day-to-day lives of citizens than their governments.

Moving fast and breaking things is inevitable in moments of change. The issue is which things we are willing to break—and how broken we are willing to let them become. Moving fast may not be worth it if it means breaking the things upon which democracy depends.

It’s a difficult balance. However, just as GDPR has put in place mechanisms to prevent the over-reaching of governments and of companies, I think we could think differently about perhaps organisations with non-profit status and community ownership that could provide some of the infrastructure being built by shareholder-owned organisations.

Having just finished reading Utopia for Realists, I definitely think the left needs to think bigger than it’s currently doing, and really push that Overton window.

Source: Logic magazine (via Ian O’Byrne)

Moral needs and user needs

That products should be ‘user-focused’ goes without queustion these days. At least by everyone apart from Cassie Robinson, who writes:

This has been sitting uncomfortably with me for a while now. In part that’s because when anything becomes a bit of a dogma I question it, but it’s also because I couldn’t quite marry the mantra to my own personal experiences.

Sometimes, there’s more than user stories and ‘jobs to be done’:

For example, if we are designing the new digital justice system using success measures based on how efficiently the user can complete the thing they are trying to do rather than on whether they actually receive justice, what’s at risk there? And if we prioritise that over time, are we in some way eroding the collective awareness of what “good” justice as an outcome looks like?

She makes a good point. Robinson suggests that we consider ‘moral needs’ as well as ‘user needs’:

Designing and iterating services based on current user needs and behaviours means that they are never being designed for who isn’t there. Whose voice isn’t in the data? And how will the new institutions that are needed be created unless we focus more on collective agency and collective needs?

As I continue my thinking around Project MoodleNet this is definitely something to bear in mind.

Source: Cassie Robinson

The three things you need to make friends over the age of 30

This article from 2012 was referenced in something I was reading last week:

As external conditions change, it becomes tougher to meet the three conditions that sociologists since the 1950s have considered crucial to making close friends: proximity; repeated, unplanned interactions; and a setting that encourages people to let their guard down and confide in each other, said Rebecca G. Adams, a professor of sociology and gerontology at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. This is why so many people meet their lifelong friends in college, she added.

I’ve never particularly had wide group of friends, even a child. Acquaintances, absolutely. I was on the football team and reasonably popular, it’s just that I can be what some people would term ’emotionally distant’.

But making friends in your thirties seems to be something that’s difficult for many people. Not that I’m overly-concerned about it, to be honest. A good Stoic should be self-contained.

The article makes a good point about differences that don’t seem to matter when people are younger. For example, coming from a wealthy family (or having a job that pays well) seems to somehow play a bigger role.

And then…

Adding children to the mix muddles things further. Suddenly, you are surrounded by a new circle of parent friends — but the emotional ties can be tenuous at best, as the comedian Louis C. K. related in one stand-up routine: “I spend whole days with people, I’m like, I never would have hung out with you, I didn’t choose you. Our children chose each other. Based on no criteria, by the way. They’re the same size.”

Indeed, although there’s some really interesting people I’ve met through my children. I wouldn’t particularly call those people friends, though. Perhaps I set the bar too high?

Ultimately, though, there’s more at work here than just life changes happening to us.

External factors are not the only hurdle. After 30, people often experience internal shifts in how they approach friendship. Self-discovery gives way to self-knowledge, so you become pickier about whom you surround yourself with, said Marla Paul, the author of the 2004 book The Friendship Crisis: Finding, Making, and Keeping Friends When You’re Not a Kid Anymore. “The bar is higher than when we were younger and were willing to meet almost anyone for a margarita,” she said.

Manipulators, drama queens, egomaniacs: a lot of them just no longer make the cut.

Well, exactly. And I think things are different for men and women (as well as, I guess, those who don’t strongly identify as either).

Source: The New York Times

Living in a dictatorship

The historian and social commentator in me found this fascinating. This article quotes Twitter user G. Willow Wilson (who claims to have liven in a dictatorship) as saying:

It’s a mistake to think a dictatorship feels intrinsically different on a day-to-day basis than a democracy does. I’ve lived in one dictatorship and visited several others—there are still movies and work and school and shopping and memes and holidays.

The difference is the steady disappearance of dissent from the public sphere. Anti-regime bloggers disappear. Dissident political parties are declared “illegal.” Certain books vanish from the libraries.

If you click through to the actual Twitter thread, Wilson continues:

The genius of a true, functioning dictatorship is the way it carefully titrates justice. Once in awhile it will allow a sound judicial decision or critical op-ed to bubble up. Rational discourse is never entirely absent. There is plausible deniability.

Of course this isn’t a dictatorship. It’s only a temporary state of affairs. And we’re doing it for your benefit:

So if you’re waiting for the grand moment when the scales tip and we are no longer a functioning democracy, you needn’t bother. It’ll be much more subtle than that. It’ll be more of the president ignoring laws passed by congress. It’ll be more demonizing of the press.

That’s what concerns me when people say that they don’t care about privacy and security. Technology can help with resistance to autocracy.

Source: Kottke.org

Designing social systems

This article is too long and written in a way that could be more direct, but it still makes some good points. Perhaps the best bit is the comparison of iOS lockscreen (left) with a redesigned one (right).

Most platforms encourage us to act against our values: less humbly, less honestly, less thoughtfully, and so on. Using these platforms while sticking to our values would mean constantly fighting their design. Unless we’re prepared for that fight, we’ll regret our choices.

When we’re joining in with conversations online, then we’re not always part of a group, sometimes we’re part of a network. It seems to me like most of the points the author is making pertain to social networks like Facebook, as opposed to those like Twitter and Mastodon.

He does, however, make a good point about a shift towards people feeling they have to act in a particular way:

Groups are held together by a particular kind of conversation, which I’ll call wisdom. It’s a kind of conversation that people are starved for right now—even amidst nonstop communication, amidst a torrent of articles, videos, and posts.

When this type of conversation is missing, people feel that no one understands or cares about what’s important to them. People feel their values are unheeded and unrecognized.

[T]his situation is easy to exploit, and the media and fake news ecosystems have done just that. As a result, conversations become ideological and polarized, and elections are manipulated.

Tribal politics in social networks are caused by people not having strong offline affinity groups, so they seek their ‘tribe’ online.

If social platforms can make it easier to share our personal values (like small town living) directly, and to acknowledge one another and rally around them, we won’t need to turn them into ideologies or articles. This would do more to heal politics and media than any “fake news” initiative. To do this, designers need to know what this kind of conversation sounds like, how to encourage it, and how to avoid drowning it out.

Ultimately, the author has no answer and (wisely) turns to the community for help. I like the way he points to exercises we can do and groups we can form. I’m not sure it’ll scale, though…

Source: Human Systems

So, what do you do?

Say what you want about teaching, it makes it extremely easy to answer the above question.

But that question might not be the best way to build rapport with someone else. In fact, it may be best to avoid talking about work entirely.

It’s better, apparently, to find shared ground about common goals and interests:

Research findings from the world of network science and psychology suggests that we tend to prefer and seek out relationships where there is more than one context for connecting with the other person. Sociologists refer to these as multiplex ties, connections where there is an overlap of roles or affiliations from a different social context. If a colleague at work sits on the same nonprofit board as you, or sits next to you in spin class at the local gym, then you two share a multiplex tie. We may prefer relationships with multiplex ties because research suggests that relationships built on multiplex ties tend to be richer, more trusting, and longer lasting

The author of this article suggests you can ask the following questions instead:

  • What excites you right now?
  • What are you looking forward to?
  • What’s the best thing that happened to you this year?
  • Where did you grow up?
  • What do you do for fun?
  • Who is your favorite superhero?
  • Is there a charitable cause you support?
  • What’s the most important thing I should know about you?

Unfortunately, unlike the ubiquitous, “So, do you do?” none of these are useful as conversation-starters. And then, after I’ve corrected for Britishness, there’s exactly zero I’d use in the course of serious adult conversation…

Source: Harvard Business Review

A world without work

I’m not sure that just because you look at a screen all day means you’ve got a ‘bullshit job’, but this article nevertheless makes some good points:

Whether you look at a screen all day, or sell other underpaid people goods they can’t afford, more and more work feels pointless or even socially damaging – what the American anthropologist David Graeber called “bullshit jobs” in a famous 2013 article. Among others, Graeber condemned “private equity CEOs, lobbyists, PR researchers … telemarketers, bailiffs”, and the “ancillary industries (dog-washers, all-night pizza delivery) that only exist because everyone is spending so much of their time working”.

The best non-fiction book I read last year was Inventing the Future: Postcapitalism and a World Without Work by Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams. This is cited in the article, along with the left’s preoccupation with the politics of organised work.

A large part of the left has always organised itself around work. Union activists have fought to preserve it, by opposing redundancies, and sometimes to extend it, by securing overtime agreements. “With the Labour party, the clue is in the name,” says Chuka Umunna, the centre-left Labour MP and former shadow business secretary, who has become a prominent critic of post-work thinking as it has spread beyond academia. The New Labour governments were also responding, Umunna says, to the failure of their Conservative predecessors to actually live up to their pro-work rhetoric: “There had been such high levels of unemployment under the Tories, our focus was always going to be pro-job.”

Instead, say those who advocate a ‘post-work’ future, we should be thinking beyond the way our physical and psychological environment is structured.

Town and city centres today are arranged for work and consumption – work’s co-conspirator – and very little else; this is one of the reasons a post-work world is so hard to imagine. Adapting office blocks and other workplaces for other purposes would be a huge task, which the post-workists have only just begun to think about. One common proposal is for a new type of public building, usually envisaged as a well-equipped combination of library, leisure centre and artists’ studios. “It could have social and care spaces, equipment for programming, for making videos and music, record decks,” says Stronge. “It would be way beyond a community centre, which can be quite … depressing.”

We get the future we deserve. So if we keep on doing the same old, same old when it comes to the way we organise work, we’ll end up with the same kind of structures around it.

Source: The Guardian

Fridays are a social construct

I feel like I could have written this post. I agree entirely:

Some of the phenomena governing people’s schedules are natural. It does get dark at night and people do need light. It gets cold in the winter and people need heating. But the Earth does not care whether it’s the weekday or the weekend, a Wednesday or a Saturday. And yet somehow the society has decreed that Wednesday is a serious business day and any adult roaming the streets during daytime on that day might get weird stares.

As the author points out, knowledge work doesn’t depend on people doing it at the same time. In fact, the title of his post is ‘Against the synchronous society’:

Perhaps there’s no need for people in the workplace to expect others to be able to instantly respond to them. In fact, slower, asynchronous communication can lead to more robust institutional memory inside of an organisation. Instead of the easy fix of tapping a colleague on the shoulder to get an answer, the worker might instead devise a solution for an issue themselves or figure it out while typing up an email, adding to the documentation and making sure fewer people have that question in the future.

Great stuff. I, for one, am looking forward to a time when we’re collectively spend a bit more time reflecting, and a bit less time (knee-jerk) responding.

As an aside, the software running the blog, Kimonote, looks interesting:

Kimonote is a fancy plain text organizer, a macroblogging platform and an antisocial network. It supports Markdown, which allows for a consistent look-and-feel no matter whether you’re looking at your own private notes or someone else’s public posts. Additional niceties are available, such as a table of contents.

Source: mildbyte