From The Big Short by Michael Lewis, pg 172. This is a part of the story of the financial crisis which has received too little attention: ‘innovations’ in finance were driven by the ‘disruption’ the established figures in the industry were subject to as a result of new online competitors:

One of the reasons Wall Street had cooked up this new industry called structured finance was that its old- fashioned business was every day less profitable. The profits in stockbroking, along with those in the more conventional sorts of bond broking, had been squashed by Internet competition. The minute the market stopped buying subprime mortgage bonds and CDOs backed by subprime mortgage bonds, the investment banks were in trouble.

From Liquid Surveillance: a conversation by Zygmunt Bauman and David Lyon, pg 22-23. I heard Bauman make these arguments at re:publica earlier this year and was rather impressed. As ever with him, it’s immensely impressionistic but I think he identifies something important that has been substantiated by other work, most obviously Alice Marwick’s ethnography of the tech scene in Silicon Valley: the fear of exclusion, anxiety in the face of the prospect that we fail to make the cut in occupational structures that increasingly reward only the superstars and doom the rest to a lifetime of precarity, engenders a neurotic embrace of possibility in the hope that we become somebody, rather than being consigned to life as a forgotten nobody.

On the one hand, the old panoptical stratagem (‘you should never know when you are being watched in the flesh and so never be unwatched in your mind’) is being gradually yet consistently and apparently unstoppably brought to well- nigh universal implementation. On the other, with the old panoptical nightmare (‘I am never on my own’) now recast into the hope of ‘never again being alone’ (abandoned, ignored and neglected, blackballed and excluded), the fear of disclosure has been stifled by the joy of being noticed.

Having one’s own complete being, warts and all, registered in publicly accessible records seems to be the best prophylactic antidote against the toxicity of exclusion – as well as a potent way to keep the threat of eviction away; indeed, it is a temptation few practitioners of admittedly precarious social existence will feel strong enough to resist. I guess that the story of the recent phenomenal success of ‘social websites’ is a good illustration of the trend.

And on page 27 Bauman further expands upon the moral psychology of publicity in ‘liquid modernity’: again, it’s rampantly impressionistic and the way he writes obscures a profound empirical variability he seemingly has no interest in recognising, but he offers an important insight into a socio-cultural trend:

These days, it is not so much the possibility of a betrayal or violation of privacy that frightens us, but the opposite: shutting down the exits. The area of privacy turns into a site of incarceration, the owner of private space being condemned and doomed to stew in his or her own juice; forced into a condition marked by an absence of avid listeners eager to wring out and tear away the secrets from behind the ramparts of privacy, to put them on public display and make them everybody’s shared property and a property everybody wishes to share. We seem to experience no joy in having secrets , unless they are the kinds of secrets likely to enhance our egos by attracting the attention of researchers and editors of TV talk shows, tabloid front pages and the covers of glossy magazines.

But there are, inevitably, things which bug me immensely about this text. For instance he draws upon a lengthy quotation from a book edited by Nicole Aubert, L’Individu hypermoderne, describing remarks published in 2004 as ‘recent’ observations, implying they tell us things of interest about social media that basically didn’t exist at the time of their writing and intimating they are grounded in substantial empirical consensus which he makes no effort to convey. 

It’s just lazy scholarship and I’m increasingly bothered by the manner in which Bauman gets applauded for it, all the while crowding out other voices through his endless capacity to riff upon a metaphor of liquidity which even on the most charitable interpretation has nothing more than heuristic value. To any critics bridling at this: I’ve probably read more Bauman than you (I’ve read upwards of 15 of these cover to cover) so, if you think I’m being unfair, offer some textual justification of this before you have a go at me. I don’t want to repeat the tedious exchanges about Zizek I got locked into a couple of years ago.

I take Bauman’s fundamental point to be a familiar one about the necessity of self-marketing under contemporary circumstances. As he writes on page 31 and 32:

They are simultaneously promoters of commodities and the commodities they promote . They are, at the same time, the merchandise and their marketing agents, the goods and their travelling salespersons (and let me add that any academics who ever applied for a teaching job or research funds will easily recognize their own predicament in that experience). In whatever bracket they may be filed by the composers of statistical tables, they all inhabit the same social space known under the name of the market . Under whatever rubric their preoccupations might be classified by governmental archivists or investigative journalists, the activity in which all of them are engaged (whether by choice or necessity, or most commonly both) is marketing . The test they need to pass in order to be admitted to the social prizes they covet demands them to recast themselves as commodities : that is, as products capable of drawing attention, and attracting demand and customers .

As with the earlier material, I find the broad brush strokes used by Bauman rather dissatisfying. But I think he offers suggestions about something important: the moral psychological mechanisms underpinning branding and self-promotion. Fear of redundancy drives us to embrace usefulness, embodied in the relentless articulation of our instrumental value in the broader scheme of things.

From Liar’s Poker by Michael Lewis, pg 302-303

One of the managing directors from London, who happened to be in New York, actually took me aside to practise an argument he planned to put to the Bank of England. He had calculated the sum of the losses of the banks underwriting BP to be 700 million dollars. He said that the world financial system might not withstand this drain of capital from the system. Another panic could ensue. Right? Amazing. He was so desperate to avoid the loss that I think he actually believed his lie. Sure, why not? I said; it’s worth a try. Basically, it was an old ploy. My boss wanted to threaten the British Government with another stock market crash if they didn’t take back their oil company. * (Note to members of all governments: be wary of Wall Streeters threatening crashes. They are tempted to do this whenever you encroach on their turf. But they can’t cause a crash any more than they can prevent one.)

From Liar’s Poker by Michael Lewis, pg 302-303

One of the managing directors from London, who happened to be in New York, actually took me aside to practise an argument he planned to put to the Bank of England. He had calculated the sum of the losses of the banks underwriting BP to be 700 million dollars. He said that the world financial system might not withstand this drain of capital from the system. Another panic could ensue. Right? Amazing. He was so desperate to avoid the loss that I think he actually believed his lie. Sure, why not? I said; it’s worth a try. Basically, it was an old ploy. My boss wanted to threaten the British Government with another stock market crash if they didn’t take back their oil company. * (Note to members of all governments: be wary of Wall Streeters threatening crashes. They are tempted to do this whenever you encroach on their turf. But they can’t cause a crash any more than they can prevent one.)

From Liar’s Poker by Michael Lewis, pg 149:

Their culture was based on food, and as strange as that sounds, it was stranger still to those who watched mortgage traders eat. “You don’t diet on Christmas Day,” says a former trader, “and you didn’t diet in the mortgage department. Every day was a holiday. We made money no matter what we looked like.” They began with a round of onion cheeseburgers, fetched by a trainee from the Trinity Deli at eight a.m. “I mean you didn’t really want to eat them,” recalls trader Gary Kilberg who joined the trading desk in 1985. “You were hung over. You were sipping coffee. But you’d get wind of that smell. Everyone else was eating them. So you grabbed one of the suckers.” The traders performed astonishing feats of gluttony never before seen at Salomon. Mortara made enormous cartons of malted milk balls disappear in two gulps. D’Antona sent trainees to buy twenty dollars worth of candy for him every afternoon. Haupt, Jesselson and Arnold swallowed small pizzas whole. Each Friday was “Food Frenzy” day, during which all trading ceased, and eating commenced. “We’d order four hundred dollars of Mexican food,” says a former trader. “ You can’t buy four hundred dollars of Mexican food . But we’d try – guacamole in five- gallon drums, for a start. A customer would call in and ask us to bid or offer bonds and you’d have to say, ‘I’m sorry but we’re in the middle of the feeding frenzy, I’ll have to call you back.’” And the fatter they became, the more they seemed to loathe skinny people. No hypocrisy here! We are proud to look precisely as we are! They joked how the thin government traders who ran triathlons on weekends still couldn’t make any more money during the week, which wasn’t entirely accurate.

Absolutely fascinating comments offered by Varoufakis in response to unfolding events in Greece:

In the wake of Tsipras’s unexpected move on Thursday to call early elections, Varoufakis said: “Tsipras made a decision on that night of the referendum not only to surrender to the troika but also to implement the terms of surrender on the basis that it is better that a progressive government implement terms of surrender that it despises than leave it to the local stooges of the troika, who would implement the same terms of surrender with enthusiasm.”

As a result, Syriza once the hope of Europe’s anti-austerity movement, had not only betrayed the cause but mutated into the very thing it had set out not to be. “This mutation I have already witnessed. Those in our party/government who underwent it, then turned against those who refused to mutate, the result being a split in the party that our people, the courageous voters who voted No, did not deserve,” he wrote.

Tsipras’s rash decision to resign and call elections – the third poll to be held in Greece this year – the MP argued, amounted to a concerted effort by the leader to purge the party of dissent. “For it is clear,” he continued, “that once you start implementing policies it becomes untenable to say constantly: ‘I am passing law X through parliament even though I think it is toxic.’ At some point either you resign or you remove the cognitive dissonance by beginning to believe that law X ain’t that bad; perhaps it is what the doctor ordered.”

I wonder what went on during the negotiations? As Nikos Mouzelis has pointed out on many occasions, face-to-face meetings between international leaders are an example of macro events that look micro. But the interactional dynamics that micro-sociologists study still obtain: how was the situational logic, which Varoufakis alleges his former colleague has now internalised, enforced and enacted through a perverse sort of peer pressure in the meeting itself?

Superb and worrying article in the LRB. I’d like to know more about international parallels to this trend in the UK, as it strikes me this is a very important dimension to the emergence of post-democracy:

Unlike most other litigation costs, these fees must be paid up front; if you can’t pay, your claim won’t be heard. But not everyone with a claim to a large sum of money has £10,000 lying idle. Indeed, they might not have the money precisely because they have a good claim. If a builder works on a project for six months but goes unpaid, his cash reserves will start to run dry. And his bargaining position is weakened by the changes: the high price of issuing a claim creates an incentive to settle for less than he is owed. Employment tribunals are a stark illustration of the risks. Since July 2013, employees have had to pay as much as £1200 to bring a claim. Applications fell by 70 per cent, allegations of sex discrimination by 91 per cent. The explanation given by the minister for the courts and legal aid, Shailesh Vara, was that employees – objecting, for instance, to discrimination or to their employer’s failure to pay the minimum wage – are no longer ‘simply trying it on’. He gave no evidence to support this inference; nor did Gove when, in his evidence to the Commons Justice Committee on 15 July, he implied that claimants had been ‘too promiscuous’ in their use of tribunals. These assertions, it turns out, can be tested: if fewer people are now ‘trying it on’, fewer people should be losing cases; in fact, the proportion of cases won at employment tribunals versus cases lost has remained the same, which means that as many good claims are being abandoned because of cost as weak ones.

As the article suggests, this initiative may be the result of the threat posed by Apple music. What interests me is how totally open-ended this is: how do we perceive and evaluate risks when policies take such a form?

Sections 3.3 and 3.4 of Spotify’s privacy policy say that the app will now collected much more data about its users.

The section ‘Information Stored on Your Mobile Device’ says that: “With your permission, we may collect information stored on your mobile device, such as contacts, photos or media files.”

In the next section, it says: “We may also collect information about your location based on, for example, your phone’s GPS location or other forms of locating mobile devices (e.g Bluetooth).”

HT to Marcus Gilroy-Ware for telling me about this disturbing concept. This description by Arlie Hochschild is quoted in Bauman’s Consuming Life on pg 9:

Since 1997, a new term – ‘zero drag’ – has begun quietly circulating in Silicon Valley, the heartland of the computer revolution in America. Originally it meant the frictionless movement of a physical object like a skate or bicycle. Then it was applied to employees who, regardless of financial incentives, easily gave up one job for another. More recently, it has come to mean ‘unattached’ or ‘unobligated’. A employer might comment approvingly of an employee, ‘He’s zero drag’, meaning that he’s available to take on extra assignments, respond to emergency calls, or relocate any time. According to Po Bronson, a researcher of Silicon Valley culture, ‘Zero drag is optimal. For a while, new applicants would jokingly be asked about their ‘drag coefficient’.

I guess one’s drag coefficient is a way of making sense of constraints upon ‘discretionary effort’.

From Plutocrats: The Rise of the New Global Super-Rich pg 57-58. I’m very interested in how social expectations are generated amongst elites, how these in turn shape competitive pressures and the implications these have for how they orientate themselves towards non-elites. I’ve been looking through journalistic sources for examples of the super-rich complaining about their money not going far enough, as well as cases where this led to corporate malfeasance in an attempt to sustain a lavish lifestyle.

“ There’s an interaction between the global elite , as you call them, and the media, as follows, which has to do with sort of the, for lack of a term, sexiness of it all,” Eric Schmidt told me in his Google office in Mountain View. “Magazines are now publishing the destinations that everyone goes to. So, there’s a list, okay? So let me tell you what the list is. There’s Davos. There’s the Oscars. There’s the Cannes Film Festival. There’s Sun Valley. There’s the TED conference. There’s Teddy Forstmann’s conference. There’s UN Week, Fashion Week. In London, there is Wimbledon Week, which is the last week of June. “These have become global events, when they were local events,” Schmidt explained. “They’re not nearly as much fun as they were when I was reading about them in the paper. Because the pictures were much better than the reality. But because I see myself as a global citizen, I go anyway. … The math is that people want to be where other smart and interesting people are. … There’s a perception you have to be there. And globalization, air travel, allows you to do this. So, the people that you’re describing travel a lot. And they also have multiple homes, right? So, the rigors of travel are not so bad if you have a home in London. I don’t have these things, by the way.”

From Plutocrats: The Rise of the New Global Super-Rich pg 54-55:

Carnegie asserted that knights of capitalism like himself “ and the law of competition between these” were “not only beneficial, but essential to the future progress of the race.” No one would talk like that today, but our champions of capital do like to describe their work in strikingly moral terms. Google’s company motto is “Don’t be evil,” and at a recent company conference, Larry Page, Google’s cofounder and now its CEO, said earnestly that one of Google’s greatest accomplishments was to save lives— thanks to the search engine, for instance, people can type in their symptoms, learn immediately they are having a heart attack, and get life- saving help sooner than they would have otherwise. The self- driving car, one of Page’s pet projects, would eventually, he argued, save more lives than any political, social, or humanitarian effort. “ It’s not possible in tech to frame your ambitions aside from those who are making the world a better place,” Eric Schmidt, former CEO of Google, told me. “I think it has a lot to do with the way Silicon Valley was formed and the university culture. The egalitarian culture. The liberal culture there. People are often surprised by that. … And I always try to explain to people that people actually came to Google not to get wealthy, but to change the world. And I genuinely believe that.”

Getting rich and solving wicked problems. What more could you want in life?

Another remarkably revealing statement from a man who once likened himself to a giant digestive tract, taking in money at one end and expelling it at the other. From Plutocrats: the Rise of the New Global Super-Rich pg 53:

George Soros told the gathered academics that “the markets are a machine for destroying the ego.” Popular culture has taught us to imagine the chiefs of Wall Street as strutting masters of the universe. That’s partly true. But they are also chronically exhausted men terrified that their latest trade will turn out to be a multimillion- dollar mistake that costs them their job. Soros, secular to his fingertips, describes investing mistakes as “sins” when he talks about them with his team.

From Plutocrats: The Rise of the New Global Super-Rich pg 52-53:

One badge of membership in the super- elite is jet lag. Novelist Scott Turow calls this the “flying class” and describes its members as “the orphans of capital” for whom it is a “badge of status to be away from home four nights a week.” The CEO of one of the most prestigious multinationals recently climbed Mount Kilimanjaro with his daughter to celebrate her graduation from college. He told a friend the two- week expedition was the longest they had ever been together. “They make a lot of money and they work incredibly hard and the husbands never see their children,” Holly Peterson said of the financiers of the Upper East Side. Their lives are driven not by culture or seasons or family tradition, but by the requirements of the latest deal or the mood of the markets. When Mark Zuckerberg rebuffed Yuri Milner’s first approach, the Russian investor, who was already a multimillionaire, turned up at the Internet boy wonder’s office in Palo Alto the next day, a round- trip journey of twelve thousand miles. In November 2010, the number two and heir apparent of one of the top private equity firms told me he was about to make a similar journey. I was a having a drink with him near Madison Park on a Wednesday night. He told me he needed to leave by eight p.m., because he had to fly to Seoul that evening. He planned to make the fourteen- thousand- mile roundtrip for a ninety- minute meeting. His putative partners had invited him to Korea just forty- eight hours before, on the Monday of that week. It was, he told me, “a test of our commitment.” When the European sovereign debt crisis came to dominate the markets in 2011, New York traders started to set their alarm clocks for two thirty a.m., in time for the opening bell in Frankfurt. Some investors in California didn’t bother going to bed at all. Wall Street e- mail in- boxes give you a flavor of the working lives of financiers, at least as they perceive them. In the spring of 2010, when the Obama administration first proposed a millionaires’ tax, an anonymous screed pinged its way around trading desks and into the electronic mail of a few journalists. It begins with the declaration “ We are Wall Street ,” and goes on to describe the intense workdays of traders: “We get up at 5 a.m. and work till 10 p.m. or later. We’re used to not getting up to pee when we have a position. We don’t take an hour or more for a lunch break. We don’t demand a union. We don’t retire at 50 with a pension. We eat what we kill.”

From Plutocrats: The Rise of the New Global Super-Rich pg 46:

Carlos Slim, who studied engineering in college and taught algebra and linear programming as an undergraduate, attributes his fortune to his facility with numbers. So does Steve Schwarzman, who told me he owed his success to his “ability to see patterns that other people don’t see” in large collections of numbers. People inside the super- elite think the rise of the data geeks is just beginning. Elliot Schrage is a member of the tech aristocracy— he was the communications director for Google when it was the hottest company in the Valley and jumped to the same role at Facebook just as it was becoming a behemoth. At a 2009 talk he gave to an internal company meeting of education and publishing executives, Schrage was asked what field we should encourage our children to study. His instant answer was statistics, because the ability to understand data would be the most powerful skill in the twenty- first century.

How does this intersect with the (purported) rise of the data scientist as the ‘sexist job of the 21st century‘?

Following on from my previous post, I’m really interested in how this trend shapes how contemporary elites seek to make sense of their actions and circumstances in moral terms. From Plutocrats: The Rise of the New Global Super-Rich pg 44:

Forbes classifies 840 of the 1,226 people on its 2012 billionaire ranking as self- made. It’s true that few of today’s plutocrats were born into the sort of abject poverty that can close off opportunity altogether— a strong early education is pretty much a precondition, and it is very useful to have a father who is an affluent professional— but the bulk of their wealth is generally the fruit of hustle, intelligence, and a lot of luck. In a study of the Forbes 400 list of the four hundred richest Americans , economists Steven Kaplan and Joshua Rauh found that over the past three decades, the plutocracy has become more meritocratic: In 1982, 40 percent of the Forbes 400 were the first generation in their family to run their own businesses. By 2011, that figure had risen to 69 percent.

As the author goes on to argue on pg 45:

Being self- made is central to the self- image of today’s global plutocrats. It is how they justify their luxuries, status, and influence. One way to eavesdrop on the way plutocrats talk to each other is to read the glossy limited- edition magazines written just for them. An example is the rather unimaginatively titled Luxos , which calls itself “Your local guide to global luxury” and can be found in the rooms of very fancy European hotels. One recent issue included an interview with Torsten Müller- Ötvös, the CEO of Rolls- Royce. Here is what he had to say about his buyers: “ We have witnessed substantial changes over the last years. The Rolls- Royce generation of today has become much younger. Our youngest Rolls- Royce customer for example is a twenty- eight- year- old entrepreneur from India. We find that many of our customers have earned their success through their own work, and they want to reward themselves with a Rolls- Royce.”

I’ve been thinking recently about forms of moral self-understanding amongst elites and how they change over time. I’m particularly interested in how those in the tech sector make sense of their own actions. But there’s a broader background here, in which ‘globalisation’ is seen and justified in explicitly moral terms. For instance, this passage from Plutocrats: The Rise of the New Global Super-Rich pg 26-27:

The irony today is that the real internationalists are no longer the bleeding- heart liberals; they are the cutthroat titans of capital. Here, for instance, is what Steve Miller, the chairman of insurance giant AIG and one of Detroit’s legendary turnaround bosses (he wrote a bestselling memoir called The Turnaround Kid ), had to say to me at Davos about globalization and jobs: “ Well, first off, as a citizen of the world , I think everyone around the world, no matter what country they’re in, should have the opportunities that we have gotten used to in the United States. Globalization is here. It’s a fact of life; it’s not going away. And it does mean that for different levels of skill there’s going to be something of a leveling out of pay scales that go with it, particularly for jobs that are mobile, if the products can be moved, which is not everything.”

And from page 29:

Mr. O’Neill concludes his book with a heartfelt rebuttal of the gloomsters, with their emphasis on rising national income inequality and the hollowing out of the Western middle class: This is an exciting story . It goes far beyond business and economics. We are in the early years of what is probably one of the biggest shifts of wealth and income disparity ever in history. It irritates me when I hear and read endless distorted stories of how only a few benefit and increase their wealth from the fruits of globalization, to the detriment of the marginalized masses. Globalization may widen inequality within certain national borders, but on a global basis it has been a huge force for good, narrowing inequality among people on an unprecedented scale. Tens of millions of people from the BRICs and beyond are being taken out of poverty by the growth of their economies. While it is easy to focus on the fact that China has created so many billionaires, it should not be forgotten that in the past fifteen or so years, 300 million or more Chinese have been lifted out of poverty. … We at Goldman Sachs estimate that 2 billion people are going to be brought into the global middle class between now and 2030 as the BRIC and N- 11 economies develop. … Rather than be worried by such developments, we should be both encouraged and hopeful. Vast swaths of mankind are having their chance to enjoy some of the fruits of wealth creation. This is the big story.

From pg 45:

The global capitalist boom has allowed some people at the bottom of even the most traditionally stratified societies to rise to the top. Consider the small but growing community of plutocratic Dalits, the Indian caste once known as the untouchables. In some parts of rural India, Dalits are still not allowed to drink from the village well, and Dalit children are segregated in a special corner of their schoolrooms, lest their spiritual taint contaminate their higher- caste classmates. But India now has Dalit multimillionaires, like Ashok Khade, owner of a company that builds and refurbishes offshore drilling rigs, and subject of a recent front- page profile in the New York Times . As one Dalit businessman told a reporter, “ We are fighting the caste system with capitalism .”

And a slightly different spin on this on pg 55-56:

Another way to believe our plutocrats are heroes battling for the collective good is to think of capitalism as a liberation theology— free markets equal free people, as the editorial page of the Wall Street Journal asserts. One of the most convincing settings for this vision is Moscow, where in October 2010 you could hear it ringingly delivered by Pitch Johnson, one of the founders of the venture capital business in Silicon Valley, in a public lecture to business school students about capitalism and innovation. Johnson, who was a fishing buddy of Hewlett- Packard cofounder Bill Hewlett, is a genial octogenarian with a thick white head of hair, glasses, and a Santa Claus waistline. He has made something of a project of Russia, having traveled there twenty times since 1990 (he got a particular kick out of flying his private jet into what was then still Soviet airspace). As Johnson tells it, capitalism is about more than making money for yourself— it is about liberating your country. “ Those of you who practice economic freedom will also cause your country to have more political freedom,” Johnson promised with great enthusiasm. “I would call you the revolutionaries of this era of your country.”

This snippet from an interview with the new Google CEO, Sundar Pichai, intrigued me:

Pichai has said that he’s attracted to computing because of its ability to do cheaply things that are useful to everyone, irrespective of class or background. “The thing which attracted me to Google and to the internet in general is that it’s a great equalizer,” he said in a video interview last year. “I’ve always been struck by the fact that Google search worked the same, as long as you had access to a computer with connectivity, if you’re a rural kid anywhere or a professor at Stanford or Harvard.”

I’m very interested in the moral self-understandings which are common within the tech industry: do other senior corporate figures think in these terms? To what extent does it motivate the work they do? Or is it simply a retrospective story which they tell to congratulate themselves on their disruption?