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Issue #378

5th April 2020
Hello!

Last week, I ran a little experiment in which I asked you a question to which you could choose to reply. I'm delighted to say a few people chose to do so, and I've included their responses towards the end of this week's issue. I've included another question if you feel like responding this time around!

What's one surprising thing you've seen or discovered during the last couple of weeks?

You can discover what I've been up to this week in Weeknote 14/2020. Thanks to supporters for keeping Thought Shrapnel running through thick and thin, and providing me with the motivation to put this newsletter together week after week. You can join them by clicking on the Patreon link at the bottom of this issue.

Friday forebodings

Birds and trees
I think it's alright to say that this was a week when my spirits dropped a little. Apologies if that's not what you wanted to hear right now, and if it's reflected in what follows.

For there to be good things there must also be bad. For there to be joy there must also be sorrow. And for there to be hope there must be despair. All of this will pass.

We’re Finding Out How Small Our Lives Really Are

But there’s no reason to put too sunny a spin on what’s happening. Research has shown that anticipation can be a linchpin of well-being and that looking ahead produces more intense emotions than retrospection. In a 2012 New York Times article on why people thirst for new experiences, one psychologist told the paper, “Novelty-seeking is one of the traits that keeps you healthy and happy and fosters personality growth as you age,” and another referred to human beings as a “neophilic species.” Of course, the current blankness in the place of what comes next is supposed to be temporary. Even so, lacking an ability to confidently say “see you later” is going to have its effects. Have you noticed the way in which conversations in this era can quickly become recursive? You talk about the virus. Or you talk about what you did together long ago. The interactions don’t always spark and generate as easily as they once did.
Spencer Kornhaber (The Atlantic)

Part of the problem with all of this is that we don't know how long it's going to last, so we can't really make plans. It's like an extended limbo where you're supposed to just get on with it, whatever 'it' is...

Career Moats in a Recession

If you're going after a career moat now, remember that the best skills to go after are the ones that the market will value after the recession ends. You can’t necessarily predict this — the world is complex and the future is uncertain, but you should certainly keep the general idea in mind.
A simpler version of this is to go after complementary skills to your current role. If you've been working for a bit, it's likely that you'll have a better understanding of your industry than most. So ask yourself: what complementary skills would make you more valuable to the employers in your job market?
Cedric James (Commonplace)

I'm fortunate to have switched from education to edtech at the right time. Elsewhere, James says that "job security is the ability to get your next job, not keep your current one" and that this depends on your network, luck, and having "rare and valuable skills". Indeed.

Everything Is Innovative When You Ignore the Past

This is hard stuff, and acknowledging it comes with a corollary: We, as a society, are not particularly special. Vinsel, the historian at Virginia Tech, cautioned against “digital exceptionalism,” or the idea that everything is different now that the silicon chip has been harnessed for the controlled movement of electrons.
It’s a difficult thing for people to accept, especially those who have spent their lives building those chips or the software they run. “Just on a psychological level,” Vinsel said, “people want to live in an exciting moment. Students want to believe they’re part of a generation that’s going to change the world through digital technology or whatever.”
Aaron Gordon (VICE)

Everyone thinks they live in 'unprecedented' times, especially if they work in tech.

‘We can’t go back to normal’: how will coronavirus change the world?

But disasters and emergencies do not just throw light on the world as it is. They also rip open the fabric of normality. Through the hole that opens up, we glimpse possibilities of other worlds. Some thinkers who study disasters focus more on all that might go wrong. Others are more optimistic, framing crises not just in terms of what is lost but also what might be gained. Every disaster is different, of course, and it’s never just one or the other: loss and gain always coexist. Only in hindsight will the contours of the new world we’re entering become clear.
Peter C Baker (the Guardian)

An interesting read, outlining the optimistic and pessimistic scenarios. The coronavirus pandemic is a crisis, but of course what comes next (CLIMATE CHANGE) is even bigger.

The Terrible Impulse To Rally Around Bad Leaders In A Crisis

This tendency to rally around even incompetent leaders makes one despair for humanity. The correct response in all cases is contempt and an attempt, if possible, at removal of the corrupt and venal people in charge. Certainly no one should be approving of the terrible jobs they have done.
All three have or will use their increased power to do horrible things. The Coronavirus bailout bill passed by Congress and approved by Trump is a huge bailout of the rich, with crumbs for the poor and middle class. So little, in fact, that there may be widespread hunger soon. Cuomo is pushing forward with his cuts, and I’m sure Johnson will live down to expectations.
Ian Welsh

I'm genuinely shocked that the current UK government's approval ratings are so high. Yes, they're covering 80% of the salary of those laid-off, but the TUC was pushing for an even higher figure. It's like we're congratulating neoliberal idiots for destroying our collectively ability to be able to respond to this crisis effectively.

As Coronavirus Surveillance Escalates, Personal Privacy Plummets

Yet ratcheting up surveillance to combat the pandemic now could permanently open the doors to more invasive forms of snooping later. It is a lesson Americans learned after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, civil liberties experts say.
Nearly two decades later, law enforcement agencies have access to higher-powered surveillance systems, like fine-grained location tracking and facial recognition — technologies that may be repurposed to further political agendas like anti-immigration policies. Civil liberties experts warn that the public has little recourse to challenge these digital exercises of state power.
Natasha Singer and Choe Sang-Hun (The New York Times)

I've seen a lot of suggestions around smarpthone tracking to help with the pandemic response. How, exactly, when it's trivial to spoof your location? It's just more surveillance by the back door.

How to Resolve Any Conflict in Your Team

Have you ever noticed that when you argue with someone smart, if you manage to debunk their initial reasoning, they just shift to a new, logical-sounding reason?
Reasons are like a salamander’s legs — if you cut one off, another grows in its place.
When you’re dealing with a salamander, you need to get to the heart. Forget about reasoning and focus on what’s causing the emotions. According to , every negative emotion is the result of an unmet, universal need.
Dave bailey

Great advice here, especially for those who work in organisations (or who have clients) who lack emotional intelligence.

2026 – the year of the face to face pivot

When the current crisis is over in terms of infection, the social and economic impact will be felt for a long time. One such hangover is likely to be the shift to online for so much of work and interaction. As the cartoon goes “these meetings could’ve been emails all along”. So let’s jump forward then a few years when online is the norm.
Martin Weller (The Ed Techie)

Some of the examples given in this post gave me a much-needed chuckle.

Now's the time – 15 epic video games for the socially isolated

However, now that many of us are finding we have time on our hands, it could be the opportunity we need to attempt some of the more chronologically demanding narrative video game masterpieces of the last decade.
Keith Stuart (The Guardian)

Well, yes, but what we probably need even more is multiplayer mode. Red Dead Redemption II is on this list, and it's one of the best games ever made. However, it's tinged with huge sadness for me as it's a game I greatly enjoyed playing with the late, great, Dai Barnes.

We have it in our power to begin the world over again

Coffee mug as clock
It's sobering to think that, in years to come, historians will probably refer to the 75 years between the end of the Second World War and the start of this period we've just begun with a single name.

Whatever we end up calling it, one thing is for sure: what comes next can't be a continuation of what went before. We need a sharp division of life pre- and post-pandemic.

That's because our societies have been increasingly unequal since 2008, when the global financial crisis meant that the rich consolidated their position while the rest of us paid for the mistakes of bankers and the global elite.
So what can we do about this? What should we be demanding once we're allowed back out of our houses? What should we organise against?
I've been a proponent of Universal Basic Income over the last few years, but, I have to say that the closer it comes to being a reality, the more concerns I have about its implementation. Even if it's brought in by a left-leaning government, there's still the danger that it's subsequently used as a weapon against the poor by a new adminstration.

That's why I was interested in this section from a book I'm reading at the moment. Writing in Future Histories, Lizzie O'Shea suggests that we need to think beyond UBI to include other approaches:
Alongside this, we need to consider how productive, waged work could be more democratically organized to meet the needs of society rather than individual companies. To this end, one commonly suggested alternative to a basic income is a job guarantee. The idea is that the government offers a job to anyone who wants one and is able to work, in exchange for a minimum wage. Jobs could be created around infrastructure projects, for example, or care work. Government spending on this enlarged public sector world act like a kind of Keynesian expenditure, to stimulate the economy and buffer the population against the volatility of the private labor market. Modeling suggests that this would be more cost-effective than a basic income (often critiqued for being too expensive) and avoid many of the inflationary perils that might accompany basic income proposals. It could also be used to jump-start sections of the economy that are politically important, like green energy, carbon reduction and infrastructure. A job guarantee could help us collectively decide what kind of work is must urgent and necessary and to prioritize that through democratically accountable representatives.
Lizzie O'Shea, Future Histories

Of course, as she points out, there are a number of drawbacks to a job guarantee scheme:
  • Reinforcement of the connection between productivity and human value
  • Creation of 'bullshit jobs'
  • Could deny people chance to engage in other pursuits (if poorly implemented)
  • Potential to leave behind prior who cannot work (disability / other health concerns)
  • Seems didactic and disciplinary
Nevertheless, O'Shea believes that a combination of a job guarantee, UBI, and government-provided services is the way forward:
Ultimately, we need a combination of these programs. We need the liberty offered by a basic income, the sustainability promised by the organization of a job guarantee, and the protection of dignity offered by centrally planned essential services. It is like a New Deal for the age of automation, a ground rent for the digital revolution, in which the benefits of accelerated productive capacity are shared among everyone. From each according to his ability, to each according to their need - a twenty-first-century vision of socialism. "We have it in our power to begin the world over again," wrote Thomas Paine in an appendix to Common Sense, just before one of the most revolutionary periods in human history. We have a similar opportunity today.
Lizzie O'Shea, Future Histories

While I don't disagree that we will continue to need "the protection of dignity offered by centrally planned essential services," I'm not so sure that giving the state so much power over our lives is a good thing. I think this approach papers over the cracks of neoliberalism, giving billionaires and capitalists a get-out-of-jail-free card.

Instead, I'd like to see a post-pandemic breakup of mega corporations. While a de jure limit on how much one individual or one organisation can be worth is likely to be unworkable, there's ways we can make de facto limits on this a reality.

People respond to incentives, including how easy or hard it is to do something. I know from experience how easy it is to set up a straightforward limited company in the UK and how difficult it is to set up a co-operative. To get to where we need to be, we need to ensure collective decision-making is the norm within organisations owned by workers. And then these worker-owned organisations need to co-ordinate for the good of everyone.

I'm a huge believer in decentralisation, not just technologically but politically and socially; we don't need governments, billionaires, or celebrities telling us what to do with our lives. We need to think wider and deeper. My current thinking aligns with this section on libertarian municipalism from the Wikipedia page on the political philosopher Murray Bookchin:
Libertarian Municipalism constitutes the politics of social ecology, a revolutionary effort in which freedom is given institutional form in public assemblies that become decision-making bodies.
Wikipedia

...or, in other words:
The overriding problem is to change the structure of society so that people gain power. The best arena to do that is the municipality—the city, town, and village—where we have an opportunity to create a face-to-face democracy.
Wikipedia

Some people think that, in these days of super-fast connections to anyone on the planet, that nation states are dead, and that we should be building communities on the blockchain. I have yet to see a proposal of how this would be workable in practice; everything I've seen so far extrapolates naïvely from what's technically possible to what should be socially desirable.

Yes, we can and should have solidarity with people around the world with whom we work and socialise. But this does not negate the importance of decision-making at a local level. Gaming clans don't yet do bin collections, and colleagues in a different country can't fix the corruption riddling your local government.

Ultimately, then, we're going to need a whole new politics and social contract after the pandemic. I sincerely hope we manage to grasp the nettle and do something radically different. I'm not sure how we'll all survive if the rich, once again, come out of all this even richer than before.

BONUS: check out this 1978 speech from Murray Bookchin where he calls for utopia, not futurism.
TS-feedback

What's one surprising thing you've seen or discovered during the last couple of weeks?

"Exactly where the line is between those who are predisposed to do the right thing and those who seek to take advantage of others. The line is much more distinct than I ever imagined. Each day I experience waves of hope for the future - so many acts of kindness - and anxiety bordering on depression. Can't we all just be kind?" (Ian Sharp)

"Surprised that the weeds we are experimenting with eating, given we are trying not to go to the shops for a bit, haven’t hurt us! So, feeling my inner cow." (Penny Wheeler)

"I don't know that there is just one thing, but the resilience displayed by the vast majority of people that I have interacted with in both a professional and private has been pretty incredible. In what are frankly unbelievable times people are just getting on with it. Just a month or two ago if you described the world we live in now you would have been thought of as deranged, that we have adapted so quickly to accept the new reality is nothing short of remarkable. I don't even know that I have the right superlatives to describe it all." (Ken McCarthy)

"Personally - Imposed isolation has given me the motivation to get out and run finally. And I quite like it. I had planned to start in August but never got round to it because, as a freelance worker, I thought I was too busy. I am a swimmer normally, so this has been interesting." (Samantha Marks)

"Lots of people doing that little bit extra to help others and for those front line staff, going above and beyond to help keep us all safe and well. As I have worked from home for the first time in many years, the opportunity to take a few minutes out and just observe the wildlife in the garden from the window." (Helen Barrow)

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Thanks to everyone who replied last week! This time, I'm asking: What do you have for breakfast, and why? I usually have a smoothie with two bananas, protein powder, creatine, and flaxseed. Let's just say I don't drink it for the taste...

Quotation of the week

"Just as physical robustness and careful attention to health are of no benefit against plague (for it attacks the weak and the strong without discrimination), so men of a calm and relaxed nature are as much at risk from anger as those who are more excitable, and the more it causes a change in these, the more it brings shame and danger upon them." (Seneca, 'On Anger')

More at Discours.es
Until next week,
Doug
Doug Belshaw
Dr. Doug Belshaw is an Open Educational Thinkerer, currently working with Moodle and We Are Open Co-op to improve our world.

You can connect with Doug by replying to this email, or via Twitter, LinkedIn, or Mastodon (here's a guide to getting started with the latter!)

Some say he's shaved his head. Others say he's quite well-read. No-one thinks he suits wearing the colour read.
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