Here’s a distillation of the best of what I’ve been reading over the last three weeks:
The new left economics: how a network of thinkers is transforming capitalism(The Guardian) — “The new leftwing economics wants to see the redistribution of economic power, so that it is held by everyone – just as political power is held by everyone in a healthy democracy. This redistribution of power could involve employees taking ownership of part of every company; or local politicians reshaping their city’s economy to favour local, ethical businesses over large corporations; or national politicians making co-operatives a capitalist norm.”
Art Spiegelman: golden age superheroes were shaped by the rise of fascism(The Guardian) — “The young Jewish creators of the first superheroes conjured up mythic – almost god-like – secular saviours to deal with the threatening economic dislocations that surrounded them in the great depression and gave shape to their premonitions of impending global war. Comics allowed readers to escape into fantasy by projecting themselves on to invulnerable heroes.”
We Have Ruined Childhood(The New York Times) — “I’ve come to believe that the problems with children’s mental and emotional health are caused not by any single change in kids’ environment but by a fundamental shift in the way we view children and child-rearing, and the way this shift has transformed our schools, our neighborhoods and our relationships to one another and our communities.”
Turning the Nintendo Switch into Android’s best gaming hardware(Ars Technica) — “The Nintendo Switch is, basically, a game console made out of smartphone parts…. Really, the only things that make the Switch a game console are the sweet slide-on controllers and the fact that it is blessed by Nintendo, with actually good AAA games, ecosystem support, and developer outreach.
Actually, Gender-Neutral Pronouns Can Change a Culture(WIRED) — “Would native-speaker Swedes, seven years after getting a new pronoun plugged into their language, be more likely to assume this androgynous cartoon was a man? A woman? Either, or neither? Now that they had a word for it, a nonbinary option, would they think to use it?”
Don’t Blink! The Hazards of Confidence(The New York Times Magazine) — “Unfortunately, this advice is difficult to follow: overconfident professionals sincerely believe they have expertise, act as experts and look like experts. You will have to struggle to remind yourself that they may be in the grip of an illusion.”
Why These Social Networks Failed So Badly(Gizmodo) — “It’s not to say that without Facebook, the whole internet would be more like a local farmer’s market or a punk venue or an art gallery or comedy club or a Narnia fanfic club, just that those places are harder to find these days.”
It’s an excellent book; quick to read, straight to the point, and it helped me to understand some of what is going on at the moment in both US and world politics.
First, let’s explain terms, as it is a book that presupposes some knowledge of political philosophy. ‘Neoliberalism’ isn’t an easy term to define, as its meaning has mutated over time, and it’s usually used in a derogatory way.
Neoliberalism is a policy model—bridging politics, social studies, and economics—that seeks to transfer control of economic factors to the private sector from the public sector. It tends towards free-market capitalism and away from government spending, regulation, and public ownership.
In short, “neoliberalism” is not simply a name for pro-market policies, or for the compromises with finance capitalism made by failing social democratic parties. It is a name for a premise that, quietly, has come to regulate all we practise and believe: that competition is the only legitimate organising principle for human activity.
To me, it’s the reason why humans go out of their way to engineer situations where people and organisations are pitted against each other to compete for ‘awards’, no matter how made-up or paid-for they may be. It’s a way of framing society, human interactions, and reducing everything to $$$.
In that vein, the most recent issue of New Philosopher, features an essay by Warwick Smith where he uses the thought experiment of an AI ‘paperclip maximiser’. This runs amok and turns the entire universe into paperclips:
I recently heard Daniel Schmachtenberger taking this thought experiment in a very interesting direction by saying that human society is already the paperclip maximiser but instead of making paperclips we’re making dollars — which are primarily just zeroes and ones in bank databases. Our collective intelligence system has on overriding purpose: to turn everything into money — trees, labour, water… everything. It is also very good at learning how to learn and is extremely good at eliminating any threats.
This attempt to turn everything into money is basically the neoliberal project. What Nancy Fraser does is identify two different strains of neoliberalism, which she explains through the lenses of ‘distribution’ and ‘recognition’:
Reactionary neoliberalism — moving public goods into private hands, within an exclusionary vision of a racist, patriarchal, and homophobic society.
Progressive neoliberalism — moving public goods into private hands, while using the banner of ‘diversity’ to assimilate equality and meritocracy.
The difference between these two strands of neoliberalism, then, comes in the way that they recognise people. Note that the method of distribution remains the same:
The political universe that Trump upended was highly restrictive. It was built around the opposition between two versions of neoliberalism, distinguished chiefly on an axis of recognition. Granted, one could choose between multiculturalism and ethnonationalism. But one was stuck, either way, with financialization and deindustrialization. With the menu limited to progressive and reactionary neoliberalism, there was no force to oppose the decimation of working-class and middle-class standards of living. Antineoliberal projects were severely marginalized, if not simply excluded from the public sphere.
It’s as if the Overton Window of acceptable public political discourse served up a menu of only different flavours of neoliberalism:
Ideologies are oriented within a narrative that spans the past, present, and future. We can argue over visions of what education should look like within a society, for example, because we’re interested in how the next generation will turn out.
In Present Shock, Douglas Rushkoff explains that instead of shackling themselves to ideologies, Trump and other populist politicians take advantage of the 24/7 ‘always on’ media landscape to provide a constant knee-jerk presentism:
A presentist mediascape may prevent the construction of false and misleading narratives by elites who mean us no good, but it also tends to leave everyone looking for direction and responding or overresponding to every bump in the road.
What we’re witnessing is essentially the end of politics as we know it, says Rushkoff:
As a result, what used to be called statecraft devolves into a constant struggle with crisis management. Leaders cannot get on top of issues, much less ahead of them, as they instead seek merely to respond to the emerging chaos in a way that makes them look authoritative.
If we have no destination toward we are progressing, then the only thing that motivates our movement is to get away from something threatening. We move from problem to problem, avoiding calamity as best we can, our worldview increasingly characterized by a sense of panic.
Blatant shock is the only surefire strategy for gaining viewers in the now.
We might be witnessing the end of progressive neoliberalism, but it’s not as if that’s being replaced by anything different, anything better.
What, then, can we expect in the near term? Absent a secure hegemony, we face an unstable interregnum and the continuation of the political crisis. In this situation, the words of Gramsci ring true: “The old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear.”
No matter what the question is, neoliberalism is never the answer. The trouble, I think, is that two-dimensional diagrams of political options are far too simplistic:
For example, as Edurne Scott Loinaz shows, even within the Libertarian Left (the ‘lower left’) there are many different positions:
The Libertarian Left has perhaps the best to offer in terms of fighting neoliberalism and populists like Trump. The problem is unity, and use of language:
When binary language is used within the lower left it does untold violence to our communities and makes solidarity impossible: if one can switch between binary language to speak truth about capitalists and authoritarians, and switch to dimensional language within the zone of solidarity with fellow lower leftists, it will be easier to nurture solidarity within the lower left.
Edurne Scott Loinaz
For the first time in my life, I’m actually somewhat fearful of what comes next, politically speaking. Are we going to end up with populists entrenching the authoritarian right, going back full circle to reactionary neoliberalism? Or does this current crisis mean that something new can emerge?
I discovered the work of Adam Grant through Jocelyn K. Glei’s excellent Hurry Slowly podcast. He has his own, equally excellent podcast, called WorkLife which he creates with the assistance of TED.
Writing in The New York Times as a workplace psychologist, Grant notes just how problematic the question “what do you want to be when you grow up?” actually is:
When I was a kid, I dreaded the question. I never had a good answer. Adults always seemed terribly disappointed that I wasn’t dreaming of becoming something grand or heroic, like a filmmaker or an astronaut.
Let’s think: from what I can remember, I wanted to be a journalist, and then an RAF pilot. Am I unhappy that I’m neither of these things? No.
Perhaps it’s because a job is more tangible than an attitude or approach to life, but not once can I remember being asked what kind of person I wanted to be. It was always “what do you want to be when you grow up?”, and the insinuation was that the answer was job-related.
My first beef with the question is that it forces kids to define themselves in terms of work. When you’re asked what you want to be when you grow up, it’s not socially acceptable to say, “A father,” or, “A mother,” let alone, “A person of integrity.”
The second problem is the implication that there is one calling out there for everyone. Although having a calling can be a source of joy, research shows that searching for one leaves students feeling lost and confused.
Another fantastic podcast episode I listened to recently was Tim Ferriss’ interview of Caterina Fake. She’s had an immensely successful career, yet her key messages during that conversation were around embracing your ‘shadow’ (i.e. melancholy, etc.) and ensuring that you have a rich inner life.
While the question beloved of grandparents around the world seems innocuous enough, these things have material effects on people’s lives. Children are eager to please, and internalise other people’s expectations.
I’m all for encouraging youngsters to aim high and dream big. But take it from someone who studies work for a living: those aspirations should be bigger than work. Asking kids what they want to be leads them to claim a career identity they might never want to earn. Instead, invite them to think about what kind of person they want to be — and about all the different things they might want to do.
The jobs I’ve had over the last decade didn’t really exist when I was a child, so it would have been impossible to point to them. Let’s encourage children to think of the ways they can think and act to change the world for the better – not how they’re going to pay the bills to enable themselves to do so.
The Creeping Capitalist Takeover of Higher Education(Highline) — “As our most trusted universities continue to privatize large swaths of their academic programs, their fundamental nature will be changed in ways that are hard to reverse. The race for profits will grow more heated, and the social goal of higher education will seem even more like an abstraction.”
Social Peacocking and the Shadow(Caterina Fake) — “Social peacocking is life on the internet without the shadow. It is an incomplete representation of a life, a half of a person, a fraction of the wholeness of a human being.”
One of the things it’s easy to forget when you’ve been online for the last 20-plus years is that not everyone is in the same boat. Not only are there adults who never experienced the last millennium, but varying internet adoption rates mean that, for some people, centralised services like YouTube, Facebook and Twitter are synonymous with the web.
Stories are important. That’s why I appreciated this Hacker News thread with the perfect title and sub-title:
Ask HN: What was the Internet like before corporations got their hands on it? What was the Internet like in its purest form? Was it mainly information sharing, and if so, how reliable was the information?
There’s lots to unpack here: corporate takeover of online spaces, veracity of information provided, and what the ‘purest form’ of the internet actually is/was.
Inevitably, given the readership of Hacker News, the top-voted post is technical (and slightly boastful):
1990. Not very many people had even heard of it. Some of us who’d gotten tired of wardialing and Telenet/Tymnet might have had friends in local universities who clued us in with our first hacked accounts, usually accessed by first dialing into university DECServers or X.25 networks. Overseas links from NSFNet could be as slow as 128kbit and you were encouraged to curtail your anonymous FTP use accordingly. Yes you could chat and play MUDs, but you could also hack so many different things. And admins were often relatively cool as long as you didn’t use their machines as staging points to hack more things. If you got your hands on an outdial modem or x.25 gateway, you were sitting pretty sweet (until someone examined the bill and kicked you out). It really helped to be conversant in not just Unix, but also VMS, IBM VM/CMS, and maybe even Primenet. When Phrack came out, you immediately read it and removed it from your mail spool, not just because it was enormous, but because admins would see it and label you a troublemaker.
We knew what the future was, but it was largely a secret. We learned Unix from library books and honed skills on hacked accounts, without any ethical issue because we honestly felt we were preparing ourselves and others for a future where this kind of thing should be available to everyone.
We just didn’t foresee it being wirelessly available at McDonalds, for free. That part still surprises me.
I’ve already detailed my early computing history (up to 2009) for a project that asked for my input. I’ll not rehash it here, but the summary is that I got my first PC when I was 15 for Christmas 1995, and (because my parents wouldn’t let me) secretly started going online soon after.
My memory of this from an information-sharing point of view was that you had to be very careful about what you read. Because the web was smaller, and it was only the people who were really interested in getting their stuff out there who had websites, there was a lot of crazy conspiracy theories. I’m kind of glad that I went on as a reasonably-mature teenager rather than a tween.
Although I’ve very happy to be able to make my living primarily online, I suppose I feel a bit like this commenter:
This will probably come across as Get Of My Lawn type of comment.
What I remember most about internet pre Facebook in particular and maybe Pre-smart phones. It was mostly a place for geeks. Geeks wrote blogs or had personal websites. Non geek stuff was more limited. It felt like a place where the geeks that were semi socially outcast kind of ran the place.
Today the internet feels like the real world where the popular people in the real world are the most popular people online. Where all the things that I felt like I escaped from on the net before I can no longer avoid.
I’m not saying that’s bad. I think it’s awesome that my non tech friends and family can connect and or share their lives and thoughts easily where as before there was a barrier to entry. I’m only pointing out that, at least for me, it changed. It was a place I liked or felt connected to or something, maybe like I was “in the know” or I can’t put my finger on it. To now where I have no such feelings.
Maybe it’s the same feeling as liking something before it’s popular and it loses that feeling of specialness once everyone else is into it. (which is probably a bad feeling to begin with)
Another commenter pointed to a short blog post he wrote on the subject, where he talks about how things were better when everyone was anonymous:
When it was anonymous, your name wasn’t attached to everything you did online. Everyone went by a handle. This means you could start a Geocities site and carve out your own niche space online, people could befriend and follow you who normally wouldn’t, and even the strangest of us found a home. All sorts of whacky, impossible things were possible because we weren’t bound by societal norms that plague our daily existence.
I get that, but I think that things that make sense and are sustainable for the few, aren’t necessarily so for the many. There’s nothing wrong with nostalgia and telling stories about how things used to be, but as someone who used to teach the American West, there is (for better or worse) a parallel there with the evolution of the web.
The closest place to how the web was that I currently experience is Mastodon. It’s fully of geeks, marginalised groups, and weird/wacky ideas. You’d love it.
This article is from April 2018, but was brought to my attention via Harold Jarche’s excellent end-of-year roundup.
Business schools have huge influence, yet they are also widely regarded to be intellectually fraudulent places, fostering a culture of short-termism and greed. (There is a whole genre of jokes about what MBA – Master of Business Administration – really stands for: “Mediocre But Arrogant”, “Management by Accident”, “More Bad Advice”, “Master Bullshit Artist” and so on.) Critics of business schools come in many shapes and sizes: employers complain that graduates lack practical skills, conservative voices scorn the arriviste MBA, Europeans moan about Americanisation, radicals wail about the concentration of power in the hands of the running dogs of capital. Since 2008, many commentators have also suggested that business schools were complicit in producing the crash.
When I finished my Ed.D. my Dad jokingly (but not-jokingly) said that I should next aim for an MBA. At the time, eight years ago, I didn’t have the words to explain why I had no desire to do so. Now however, understanding a little bit more about economics, and a lot more about co-operatives, I can see that the default operating system of organisations is fundamentally flawed.
If we educate our graduates in the inevitability of tooth-and-claw capitalism, it is hardly surprising that we end up with justifications for massive salary payments to people who take huge risks with other people’s money. If we teach that there is nothing else below the bottom line, then ideas about sustainability, diversity, responsibility and so on become mere decoration. The message that management research and teaching often provides is that capitalism is inevitable, and that the financial and legal techniques for running capitalism are a form of science. This combination of ideology and technocracy is what has made the business school into such an effective, and dangerous, institution.
I’m pretty sure that forming a co-op isn’t on the curriculum of 99% of business schools. As Martin Parker, the author of this long article points out, after teaching in ‘B-schools’ for 20 years, ethical practices are covered almost reluctantly.
The problem is that business ethics and corporate social responsibility are subjects used as window dressing in the marketing of the business school, and as a fig leaf to cover the conscience of B-school deans – as if talking about ethics and responsibility were the same as doing something about it. They almost never systematically address the simple idea that since current social and economic relations produce the problems that ethics and corporate social responsibility courses treat as subjects to be studied, it is those social and economic relations that need to be changed.
So my advice to someone who’s thinking of doing an MBA? Don’t bother. You’re not going to be learning things that make the world a better place. Save your money and do something more worthwhile. If you want to study something useful, try researching different ways of structuring organistions — perhaps starting by using this page as a portal to a Wikipedia rabbithole?
This article by Ruth Whippman appears in the New York Times, so focuses on the US, but the main thrust is applicable on a global scale:
When we think “gig economy,” we tend to picture an Uber driver or a TaskRabbit tasker rather than a lawyer or a doctor, but in reality, this scrappy economic model — grubbing around for work, all big dreams and bad health insurance — will soon catch up with the bulk of America’s middle class.
Apparently, 94% of the jobs created in the last decade are freelancer or contract positions. That’s the trajectory we’re on.
Almost everyone I know now has some kind of hustle, whether job, hobby, or side or vanity project. Share my blog post, buy my book, click on my link, follow me on Instagram, visit my Etsy shop, donate to my Kickstarter, crowdfund my heart surgery. It’s as though we are all working in Walmart on an endless Black Friday of the soul.
Kudos to whichever neoliberal masterminds came up with this system. They sell this infinitely seductive torture to us as “flexible working” or “being the C.E.O. of You!” and we jump at it, salivating, because on its best days, the freelance life really can be all of that.
I don’t think this is a neoliberal conspiracy, it’s just the logic of capitalism seeping into every area of society. As we all jockey for position in the new-ish landscape of social media, everything becomes mediated by the market.
What I think’s missing from this piece, though, is a longer-term trend towards working less. We seem to be endlessly concerned about how the nature of work is changing rather than the huge opportunities for us to do more than waste away in bullshit jobs.
I’ve been advising anyone who’ll listen over the last few years that reducing the number of days you work has a greater impact on your happiness than earning more money. Once you reach a reasonable salary, there’s diminishing returns in any case.
Over the last few years, I’ve been quietly optimistic about Universal Basic Income, or ‘UBI’. It’s an approach that seems to have broad support across the political spectrum, although obviously for different reasons.
A basic income, also called basic income guarantee, universal basic income (UBI), basic living stipend (BLS), or universal demogrant, is a type of program in which citizens (or permanent residents) of a country may receive a regular sum of money from a source such as the government. A pure or unconditional basic income has no means test, but unlike Social Security in the United States it is distributed automatically to all citizens without a requirement to notify changes in the citizen’s financial status. Basic income can be implemented nationally, regionally or locally. (Wikipedia)
Someone who’s thinking I hugely respect, Douglas Rushkoff, thinks that UBI is a ‘scam’:
The policy was once thought of as a way of taking extreme poverty off the table. In this new incarnation, however, it merely serves as a way to keep the wealthiest people (and their loyal vassals, the software developers) entrenched at the very top of the economic operating system. Because of course, the cash doled out to citizens by the government will inevitably flow to them.
Think of it: The government prints more money or perhaps — god forbid — it taxes some corporate profits, then it showers the cash down on the people so they can continue to spend. As a result, more and more capital accumulates at the top. And with that capital comes more power to dictate the terms governing human existence.
I have to agree with Rushkoff when he talks about UBI leading to more passivity and consumption rather than action and ownership:
Meanwhile, UBI also obviates the need for people to consider true alternatives to living lives as passive consumers. Solutions like platform cooperatives, alternative currencies, favor banks, or employee-owned businesses, which actually threaten the status quo under which extractive monopolies have thrived, will seem unnecessary. Why bother signing up for the revolution if our bellies are full? Or just full enough?
Under the guise of compassion, UBI really just turns us from stakeholders or even citizens to mere consumers. Once the ability to create or exchange value is stripped from us, all we can do with every consumptive act is deliver more power to people who can finally, without any exaggeration, be called our corporate overlords.
Rushkoff calls UBI ‘hush money’, a method for keeping the masses quiet while those at the top become ever more wealthy. Unfortunately, we live in the world of the purist, where no action is good enough or pure enough in its intent. I agree with Rushkoff that we need more worker ownership of organisations, but I appreciate Noam Chomsky’s view of change: you don’t ignore an incremental improvement in people’s lives, just because you’re hoping for a much bigger one round the corner.
During our inter-railing adventure this summer, we visited Zurich in Switzerland. In one of the parks there, we came across a dockless scooter, which we promptly unlocked and had a great time zooming around.
As you’d expect, the greatest density of dockless bikes and scooters — devices that don’t have to be picked up or returned in any specific place — is in San Francisco. It seems that, in their attempts to flood the city and gain some kind of competitive advantage, VC-backed dockless bike and scooter startups are having an unintended effect. They’re helping homeless people move around the city more easily:
Hoarding and vandalism aren’t the only problems for electric scooter companies. There’s also theft. While the vehicles have GPS tracking, once the battery fully dies they go off the app’s map.
“Every homeless person has like three scooters now,” [Michael Ghadieh, who owns electric bicycle shop, SF Wheels] said. “They take the brains out, the logos off and they literally hotwire it.”
I’ve seen scooters stashed at tent cities around San Francisco. Photos of people extracting the batteries have been posted on Twitter and Reddit. Rumor has it the batteries have a resale price of about $50 on the street, but there doesn’t appear to be a huge market for them on eBay or Craigslist, according to my quick survey.
Everyone wants ‘decentralisation’ these days, whether it’s the way we make payments, or… well, pretty much anything that can be put on a blockchain.
But what does that actually mean in practice? What, as William James would say, is the ‘cash value’ of decentralisation? This article explores some of that:
Decentralization is a pretty vague buzzword. Vitalik considered its meaning a year ago. In my estimation, it can mean a couple of things:
Abstract principle when analyzing general power structures of any kind: “Political decentralization” means spreading political power among differing entities. “Market decentralization” refers to outcomes being produced without being coordinated by a central authority. It’s a philosophical idea that can be interpreted broadly in a lot of different contexts.
Bitcoin, mostly. Lots of credit for the buzzword’s current popularity traces back to cryptocurrencies and blockchains, and I think the term “decentralization” without context is rightfully claimed by the yescoiners and defer to Vitalik’s interpretation for its meaning. I call this “financial decentralization” in contexts where my definition is dominant.
A second, specific implementation of (1) that I want to talk about.
The author goes on to discuss a specific problem around social networking that decentralisation can solve:
Fundamentally, the problem with the web ecosyste
m is that consumer choice is limited. Facebook, Twitter, Google, and other tech giants “own” a large part of the social graph that both powers the core digital connection goodness and sustains the momentum that they will keep owning it, due to something called Metcalfe’s law. If you want to connect to people on the internet, you have to play by their rules.
So what can we do?
A “web decentralized” system looks like thus. You start with bare-bones replicas of social networking, publishing, microblogging, and chatting. You build a small social graph of your friends. This time, the data structures powering these applications live on your computer and are in a format you can easily grok and extend (Sorry, normies, it will be engineers-only for the next year or two).
The solution is technological standardization. Individuals, mostly engineers, need to expend a lot more effort contributing to the protocols and processes that drive inter-application communication. Your core Facebook identity — your username, your connections, your chat history — should be a universally standardized protocol with a Democracy-scale process for updating and extending it. Crucially, that process needs to be directed outside the direct control of tech companies, who are capitalistically bound to monopolize and direct control back to their domains.
It’s worth quoting the last paragraph:
Ultimately, decentralization is about shaping the the balance of power in digital domains. I for one would not like to wait around while the Tech overlords and Crusty regulators decide what happens with our digital lives. There’s no reason for us to keep listening to either of them. A handful of dedicated engineers, designers, a organizers could implement the alternative today. And that’s what web decentralization is all about.
With imported soft drinks costing the same or less than bottled water, in a country where tap water is not safe to drink, the poorest people are most likely to develop diabetes. Mexico’s health ministry said in 2016 that 72% of adults were overweight or obese. But the same people are prone to malnutrition thanks to a diet high in sugar and saturated fats and low in fibre