Tag: society (page 1 of 3)

We are too busy mopping the floor to turn off the faucet

Pandemics, remote work, and global phase shifts


Last week, I tweeted this:

I delete my tweets automatically every 30 days, hence the screenshot…

I get the feeling that, between film and TV shows on Netflix, Amazon deliveries, and social interaction on Twitter and Mastodon, beyond close friends and family, no-one would even realise if I’d been quarantined.


Writing in The Atlantic, Ian Bogost points out that Every Place Is the Same Now, because you go to every place with your personal screen, a digital portal to the wider world.

Anywhere has become as good as anywhere else. The office is a suitable place for tapping out emails, but so is the bed, or the toilet. You can watch television in the den—but also in the car, or at the coffee shop, turning those spaces into impromptu theaters. Grocery shopping can be done via an app while waiting for the kids’ recital to start. Habits like these compress time, but they also transform space. Nowhere feels especially remarkable, and every place adopts the pleasures and burdens of every other. It’s possible to do so much from home, so why leave at all?

Ian Bogost (The Atlantic)

If you’re a knowledge worker, someone who deals with ideas and virtual objects rather than things in ‘meatspace’, then there is nothing tying you to a particular geographical place. This may be liberating, but it’s also quite… weird.

It’s easy but disorienting, and it makes the home into a very strange space. Until the 20th century, one had to leave the house for almost anything: to work, to eat or shop, to entertain yourself, to see other people. For decades, a family might have a single radio, then a few radios and a single television set. The possibilities available outside the home were far greater than those within its walls. But now, it’s not merely possible to do almost anything from home—it’s also the easiest option. Our forebears’ problem has been inverted: Now home is a prison of convenience that we need special help to escape.

Ian Bogost (The Atlantic)

I’ve worked from home for the last eight years, and now can’t imagine going back to working any other way. Granted, I get to travel pretty much every month, but that 95% being-at-home statistic still includes my multi-day international trips.


I haven’t watched it recently, but in 2009 a film called Surrogates starring Bruce Willis foreshadowed the kind of world we’re creating. Here’s the synopsis via IMDB:

People are living their lives remotely from the safety of their own homes via robotic surrogates — sexy, physically perfect mechanical representations of themselves. It’s an ideal world where crime, pain, fear and consequences don’t exist. When the first murder in years jolts this utopia, FBI agent Greer discovers a vast conspiracy behind the surrogate phenomenon and must abandon his own surrogate, risking his life to unravel the mystery.

IMDB

If we replace the word ‘robotic’ with ‘virtual’ in this plot summary, then it’s a close approximation to the world in which some of us now live. Facetuned Instagram selfies project a perfect life. We construct our own narratives and then believe the story we have concocted. Everything is amazing but no-one’s happy.


Even Zoom, the videoconferencing software I use most days for work, has an option to smooth out wrinkles, change your background, and make everything look a bit more sparkly. Our offline lives can be gloriously mundane, but online, thanks to various digital effects, we can make them look glorious. And why wouldn’t we?

I think we’ll see people and businesses optimising for how they look and sound online, including recruitment. The ability to communicate effectively at a distance with people who you may never meet in person is a skill that’s going to be in high demand, if it isn’t already.


Remote working may be a trend, but one which is stubbornly resisted by some bosses who are convinced they have to keep a close eye on employees to get any work out of them.

However, when those bosses are forced to implement remote working policies to keep their businesses afloat, and nothing bad happens as a result, this attitude can, and probably will, change. Remote working, when done properly, is not only more cost-effective for businesses, but often leads to higher productivity and self-reported worker happiness.

Being ‘good in the room‘ is fine, and I’m sure it will always be highly prized, but I also see confident, open working practices as something that’s rising in perceived value. Chairing successful online meetings is at least as important as chairing ones offline, for example. We need to think of ways of being able recognise these remote working skills, as it’s not something in which you can receive a diploma.


For workers, of course, there are so many benefits of working from home that I’m not even sure where to start. Your health, relationships, and happiness are just three things that are likely to dramatically improve when you start working remotely.

For example, let’s just take the commute. This dominates the lives of non-remote workers, usually taking an hour or more out of a their day — every day. Commuting is tiring and inconvenient, but people are currently willing to put up with long commutes to afford a decently-sized house, or to live in a nicer area.

So, let’s imagine that because of the current pandemic (which some are calling the world’s biggest remote-working experiment) businesses decide that having their workers being based from home has multi-faceted benefits. What happens next?

Well, if a large percentage (say we got up to ~50%) of the working population started working remotely over the next few months and years, this would have a knock-on effect. We’d see changes in:

  • Schools
  • Volunteering
  • Offices
  • House prices
  • Community cohesion
  • High street
  • Home delivery

…to name but a few. I think it would be a huge net benefit for society, and hopefully allow for much greater civic engagement and democratic participation.


I’ll conclude with a quotation from Nafeez Ahmed’s excellent (long!) post on what he’s calling a global phase shift. Medium says it’s a 30-minute read, but I reckon it’s about half that.

Ahmed points out in stark detail the crisis, potential future scenarios, and the opportunity we’ve got. I particularly appreciate his focus on the complete futility of what he calls “a raw, ‘fend for yourself’ approach”. We must work together to solve the world’s problems.

The coronavirus outbreak is, ultimately, a lesson in not just the inherent systemic fragilities in industrial civilization, but also the limits of its underlying paradigm. This is a paradigm premised on a specific theory of human nature, the neoclassical view of Homo-Economicus, human beings as dislocated units which compete with each other to maximise their material self-gratification through endless consumption and production. That paradigm and its values have brought us so far in our journey as a species, but they have long outlasted their usefulness and now threaten to undermine our societies, and even our survival as a species.

Getting through coronavirus will be an exercise not just in building societal resilience, but relearning the values of cooperation, compassion, generosity and kindness, and building systems which institutionalize these values. It is high time to recognize that such ethical values are not simply human constructs, products of socialization. They are cognitive categories which reflect patterns of behaviour in individuals and organizations that have an evolutionary, adaptive function. In the global phase shift, systems which fail to incorporate these values into their structures will eventually die.

Nafeez Ahmed

Just as crises can be manufactured by totalitarian regimes to seize power and control populations, perhaps natural crises can be used to make us collectively realise we need to pull together?


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Header image by pan xiaozhen. Anonymous quotation-as-title taken from Scott Klososky’s The Velocity Manifesto

Friday floutings

Did you see these things this week? I did, and thought they were aces.

  1. Do you live in a ‘soft city’? Here’s why you probably want to (Fast Company) — “The benefits of taking a layered approach to building design—and urban planning overall—is that it also cuts down on the amount of travel by car that people need to do. If resources are assembled in a way that a person leaving their home can access everything they need by walking, biking, or taking transit, it frees up space for streets to also be layered to support these different modes.”
  2. YouTube should stop recommending garbage videos to users (Ars Technica) — “When a video finishes playing, YouTube should show the next video in the same channel. Or maybe it could show users a video selected from a list of high-quality videos curated by human YouTube employees. But the current approach—in which an algorithm tries to recommend the most engaging videos without worrying about whether they’re any good—has got to go.”
  3. Fairphone 3 is the ‘ethical’ smartphone you might actually buy (Engadget) — “Doing the right thing is often framed as giving up something. You’re not enjoying a vegetarian burger, you’re being denied the delights of red meat. But what if the ethical, moral, right choice was also the tastiest one? What if the smartphone made by the yurt-dwelling moralists was also good-looking, inexpensive and useful? That’s the question the Fairphone 3 poses.”
  4. Uh-oh: Silicon Valley is building a Chinese-style social credit system (Fast Company) — “The most disturbing attribute of a social credit system is not that it’s invasive, but that it’s extralegal. Crimes are punished outside the legal system, which means no presumption of innocence, no legal representation, no judge, no jury, and often no appeal. In other words, it’s an alternative legal system where the accused have fewer rights.”
  5. The Adults In The Room (Deadspin) — “The tragedy of digital media isn’t that it’s run by ruthless, profiteering guys in ill-fitting suits; it’s that the people posing as the experts know less about how to make money than their employees, to whom they won’t listen.”
  6. A brief introduction to learning agility (Opensource.com) — “One crucial element of adaptability is learning agility. It is the capacity for adapting to situations and applying knowledge from prior experience—even when you don’t know what to do. In short, it’s a willingness to learn from all your experiences and then apply that knowledge to tackle new challenges in new situations.”
  7. Telegram Pushes Ahead With Plans for ‘Gram’ Cryptocurrency (The New York Times) — “In its sales pitch for the Gram, which was viewed by The New York Times, Telegram has said the new digital money will operate with a decentralized structure similar to Bitcoin, which could make it easier to skirt government regulations.”
  8. Don’t Teach Tools (Assorted Stuff) — “As Culatta notes, concentrating on specific products also locks teachers (and, by extension, their students) into a particular brand, to the advantage of the company, rather than helping them understand the broader concepts of using computing devices as learning and creative tools.”
  9. Stoic Reflections From The Gym (part 2) by Greg Sadler (Modern Stoicism) — “From a Stoic perspective, what we do or don’t make time for, particularly in relation to other things, reflects what Epictetus would call the price we actually place upon those things, on what we take to be goods or values, evils or disvalues, and the relative rankings of those in relation to each other.”

Calvin & Hobbes cartoon found via a recent post on tenpencemore

Human societies, hierarchy, and networks

Human societies and cultures are complex and messy. That means if we want to even begin to start understanding them, we need to simplify. This approach from Harold Jarche, based on David Ronfeldt’s work, is interesting:

Our current triform society is based on families/communities, a public sector, and a private market sector. But this form, dominated by Markets is unable to deal with the complexities we face globally — climate change, pollution, populism/fanaticism, nuclear war, etc. A quadriform society would be primarily guided by the Network form of organizing. We are making some advances in that area but we still have challenges getting beyond nation states and financial markets.

This diagram sums up why I find it so difficult to work within hierarchies: while they’re our default form of organising, they’re just not very good at dealing with complexity.

Source: Harold Jarche

Exit option democracy

This week saw the launch of a new book by Shoshana Zuboff entitled The Age of Surveillance Capitalism: the fight for a human future at the new frontier of power. It was featured in two of my favourite newspapers, The Observer and the The New York Times, and is the kind of book I would have lapped up this time last year.

In 2019, though, I’m being a bit more pragmatic, taking heed of Stoic advice to focus on the things that you can change. Chiefly, that’s your own perceptions about the world. I can’t change the fact that, despite the Snowden revelations and everything that has come afterwards, most people don’t care one bit that they’re trading privacy for convenience..

That puts those who care about privacy in a bit of a predicament. You can use the most privacy-respecting email service in the world, but as soon as you communicate with someone using Gmail, then Google has got the entire conversation. Chances are, the organisation you work for has ‘gone Google’ too.

Then there’s Facebook shadow profiles. You don’t even have to have an account on that platform for the company behind it to know all about you. Same goes with companies knowing who’s in your friendship group if your friends upload their contacts to WhatsApp. It makes no difference if you use ridiculous third-party gadgets or not.

In short, if you want to live in modern society, your privacy depends on your family and friends. Of course you have the option to choose not to participate in certain platforms (I don’t use Facebook products) but that comes at a significant cost. It’s the digital equivalent of Thoreau taking himself off to Walden pond.

In a post from last month that I stumbled across this weekend, Nate Matias reflects on a talk he attended by Janet Vertesi at Princeton University’s Center for Information Technology Policy. Vertesi, says Matias, tried four different ways of opting out of technology companies gathering data on her:

  • Platform avoidance,
  • Infrastructural avoidance
  • Hardware experiments
  • Digital homesteading

Interestingly, the starting point is Vertesi’s rejection of ‘exit option democracy’:

The basic assumption of markets is that people have choices. This idea that “you can just vote with your feet” is called an “exit option democracy” in organizational sociology (Weeks, 2004). Opt-out democracy is not really much of a democracy, says Janet. She should know–she’s been opting out of tech products for years.

The option Vertesi advocates for going Google-free is a pain in the backside. I know, because I’ve tried it:

To prevent Google from accessing her data, Janet practices “data balkanization,” spreading her traces across multiple systems. She’s used DuckDuckGo, sandstorm.io, ResilioSync, and youtube-dl to access key services. She’s used other services occasionally and non-exclusively, and varied it with open source alternatives like etherpad and open street map. It’s also important to pay attention to who is talking to whom and sharing data with whom. Data balkanization relies on knowing what companies hate each other and who’s about to get in bed with whom.

The time I’ve spent doing these things was time I was not being productive, nor was it time I was spending with my wife and kids. It’s easy to roll your eyes at people “trading privacy for convenience” but it all adds up.

Talking of family, straying too far from societal norms has, for better or worse, negative consequences. Just as Linux users were targeted for surveillance, so Vertisi and her husband were suspected of fraud for browsing the web using Tor and using cash for transactions:

Trying to de-link your identity from data storage has consequences. For example, when Janet and her husband tried to use cash for their purchases, they faced risks of being reported to the authorities for fraud, even though their actions were legal.

And then, of course, there’s the tinfoil hat options:

…Janet used parts from electronics kits to make her own 2g phone. After making the phone Janet quickly realized even a privacy-protecting phone can’t connect to the network without identifying the user to companies through the network itself.

I’m rolling my eyes at this point. The farthest I’ve gone down this route is use the now-defunct Firefox OS and LineageOS for microG. Although both had their upsides, they were too annoying to use for extended periods of time.

Finally, Vertesi goes down the route of trying to own all your own data. I’ll just point out that there’s a reason those of us who had huge CD and MP3 collections switched to Spotify. Looking after any collection takes time and effort. It’s also a lot more cost effective for someone like me to ‘rent’ my music instead of own it. The same goes for Netflix.

What I do accept, though, is that Vertesi’s findings show that ‘exit democracy’ isn’t really an option here, so the world of technology isn’t really democratic. My takeaway from all this, and the reason for my pragmatic approach this year, is that it’s up to governments to do something about all this.

Western society teaches us that empowered individuals can change the world. But if you take a closer look, whether it’s surveillance capitalism or climate change, it’s legislation that’s going to make the biggest difference here. Just look at the shift that took place because of GDPR.

So whether or not I read Zuboff’s new book, I’m going to continue my pragmatic approach this year. Meanwhile, I’ll continue to mute the microphone on the smart speakers in our house when they’re not being used, block trackers on my Android smartphone, and continue my monthly donations to work of the Electronic Frontier Foundation and the Open Rights Group.

Source: J. Nathan Matias

The quixotic fools of imperialism

As an historian with an understanding of our country’s influence of the world over the last few hundred years, I look back at the British Empire with a sense of shame, not of pride.

But, even if you do flag-wave and talk about our nation’s glorious past, an article in yesterday’s New York Times shows how far we’ve falled:

The Brexiteers, pursuing a fantasy of imperial-era strength and self-sufficiency, have repeatedly revealed their hubris, mulishness and ineptitude over the past two years. Though originally a “Remainer,” Prime Minister Theresa May has matched their arrogant obduracy, imposing a patently unworkable timetable of two years on Brexit and laying down red lines that undermined negotiations with Brussels and doomed her deal to resoundingly bipartisan rejection this week in Parliament.

I think I’d forgotten how useful the word mendacious is in this context (“lying, untruthful”):

From David Cameron, who recklessly gambled his country’s future on a referendum in order to isolate some whingers in his Conservative party, to the opportunistic Boris Johnson, who jumped on the Brexit bandwagon to secure the prime ministerial chair once warmed by his role model Winston Churchill, and the top-hatted, theatrically retro Jacob Rees-Mogg, whose fund management company has set up an office within the European Union even as he vehemently scorns it, the British political class has offered to the world an astounding spectacle of mendacious, intellectually limited hustlers.

When leaving countries after their imperialist adventures, members of the British ruling elite were fond of dividing countries with arbitrary lines. Cases in point: India, Ireland,  the Middle East. That this doesn’t work is blatantly obvious, and is a lazy way to deal with complex issues.

It is a measure of English Brexiteers’ political acumen that they were initially oblivious to the volatile Irish question and contemptuous of the Scottish one. Ireland was cynically partitioned to ensure that Protestant settlers outnumber native Catholics in one part of the country. The division provoked decades of violence and consumed thousands of lives. It was partly healed in 1998, when a peace agreement removed the need for security checks along the British-imposed partition line.

I’d love to think that we’re nearing the end of what the Times calls ‘chumocracy’ and no longer have to suffer what Hannah Arendt called “the quixotic fools of imperialism”. We can but hope.

 

Small talk and sociability

I admit it, I’m not amazing at what’s often referred to as ‘small talk’. I’m getting better, though, perhaps because I currently live in a row of terraced houses containing people of all ages. Small snippets of conversation about the weather, general health, and relatives are the lubricant of social situations.

The Finns, however, forgo such small talk. It’s not in their culture.

Finnish people often forgo the conversational niceties that are hard-baked into other cultures, and typically don’t see the need to meet foreign colleagues, tourists and friends in the middle.

[…]

“It’s not about the structure or features of the language, but rather the ways in which people use the language to do things,” she explained via email. “For instance, the ‘how are you?’ question that is most often placed in the very beginning of an encounter. In English-speaking countries, it is mostly used just as a greeting and no serious answer is expected to it. On the contrary, the Finnish counterpart (Mitä kuuluu?) can expect a ‘real’ answer after it: quite often the person responding to the question starts to tell how his or her life really is at the moment, what’s new, how they have been doing.”

This article explores whether the Finns need to adapt to the rest of the world, or vice-versa. Interesting stuff!

Source: BBC Travel

Co-operation and anti-social punishment in different societies

I find this absolutely fascinating. It turns out that some societies actively ‘punish’ those who engage in collaborative and co-operative ventures:

Social contributions over time (with punishment)

The tragedy of the commons is already well-documented, showing that commonly-owned resources end up suffering if people can free-ride without consequences. The above chart, however, shows that in some cultures, there being a consequence for that free-riding leads to contribution (e.g. Boston, Copenhagen). In others, it makes no difference (e.g. Riyadh, Athens).

Herrmann, Thöni and Gächter speculate that the anti-social punishment may be a form of revenge. You’ve punished me for free-riding so now I’ll punish you just that you know how it feels! And given that I don’t know who the punisher was, I’ll punish all the cooperators who were likely to administer the original punishment in the first place.

I’m less interested in the graphs and the ‘hard’ science than the anecdotal aspects of this post. The author is from Slovakia, and comments:

To get back to Eastern Europe, we’ve used to live under communist regime where all the common causes were appropriated by the state. Any gains from a contribution to a common cause would silently disappear somewhere in the dark corners of the bureaucracy.

Quite the opposite: People felt justified to take stuff from the commons. We even had a saying: “If you don’t steal [from the common property] you are stealing from your family.”

At the same time, stealing from the state was, legally, a crime apart and it was ranked in severity somewhere in the vicinity of murder. You could get ten years in jail if they’ve caught you.

Unsurprisingly, in such an environment, reporting to authorities (i.e. “pro-social punishment”) was regarded as highly unjust — remember the coffee cup example! — and anti-social and there was a strict taboo against it. Ratting often resulted in social ostracism (i.e. “anti-social punishment”). We can still witness that state of affairs in the highly offensive words used to refer to the informers: “udavač”, “donášač”, “práskač”, “špicel”, “fízel” (roughly: “nark”, “rat”, “snoop”, “stool pigeon”).

A perfect example of how the state can cause the co-operation to thrive or dwindle based on governmental policy.

Source: LessWrong

The Digital Knowledge Loop

I’ve featured the work of Albert Wenger a few times before on Thought Shrapnel. He maintains a blog called Continuations and is writing a book called World After Capital.

In this post, he expands on a point he makes in his book around the ‘Digital Feedback Loop’ which, Wenger says, has three components:

  1. Economic freedom. We must let everyone meet their basic needs without being forced into the Job Loop. With economic freedom, we can embrace automation and enable everyone to participate in and benefit from the Digital Knowledge Loop.
  2. Informational freedom. We must remove barriers from the Digital Knowledge Loop that artificially limit learning from existing knowledge, creating new knowledge based on what we learn and sharing this new knowledge. At the same time must build systems that support the operation of critical inquiry in the Digital Knowledge Loop.
  3. Psychological freedom. We must free ourselves from scarcity thinking and its associated fears and other emotional reactions that impede our participation in the Digital Knowledge Loop. Much of the peril of the Digital Knowledge Loop arises directly from a lack of psychological freedom.

Wenger is a venture capitalist, albeit a seemingly-enlightened one. Interestingly, he’s approaching the post-scarcity world through the lens of knowledge, economics, and society. As educators, I think we need to be thinking about similar things.

In fact, this reminds me of some work Martin Weller at the Open University has done around a pedagogy of abundance. After reviewing the effect of the ‘abundance’ model in the digital marketplace, looks at what that means for education. He concludes:

The issue for educators is twofold I would suggest: firstly how can they best take
advantage of abundance in their own teaching practice, and secondly how do we best equip learners to make use of it? It is this second challenge that is perhaps the most significant. There is often consideration given to  transferable or key skills in
education (eg Dearing 1997), but these have not been revisited to take into account
the significant change that abundant and free content offers to learners… Coping with abundance then is a key issue for higher education, and one which as yet, it has not made explicit steps to meet, but as with many industries, adopting a  response which attempts to reinstate scarcity would seem to be a doomed enterprise.

Yesterday, during a break in our MoodleNet workshop with Outlandish, we were talking about the The Up Series of documentaries that showed just how much of a conveyer belt there is for children born into British society. I think part of the problem around that is we’re locked into outdated models, as Wenger and Weller point out in their respective work.

My children, for example, with a few minor updates, are experiencing the very same state education I received a quarter of a century ago. The world has moved on, yet the mindset of scarcity remains. They’re not going to have a job for life. They don’t need to selfishly hold onto their ‘intellectual property’. And they certainly don’t need to learn how to sit still within a behaviourist classroom.

Source: Continuations

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