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  • Mark 4:09 pm on April 29, 2018 Permalink | Reply
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    Who owns Digital Capitalism? Notes for the Platform Capitalism reading group 

    Notes for week 1 of the CPGJ Platform Capitalism reading group. The notes below relate to Evgeny Morozov’s lecture below: 

    The question of ‘who owns digital capitalism?’ was posed for the conference but it was one which Morozov felt uncomfortable with because it implied a separation between ‘digital capitalism’ and financialised capitalism. To illustrate the problem with this assumption, he cites Apple’s status as the largest trader of private corporate bonds in the world, currently with $180 billion of privately issued corporate bonds. They are not seen as a finance company but they have their own financial trading firm. In parallel to this, we can see public stock and private investments in technology firms coming primarily from financial institutions, particularly sovereign wealth funds. Some of the largest owners of tech firms are sovereign wealth funds of countries such as Norway, the country most exposed to the technology industry in the United States.

    These firms are now central to capitalism. The total increase of stock value in the big five (Apple, Microsoft, Google, Amazon and Facebook) from January 1st 2017 to November 2017 has been $950 billion. That’s bigger than the GDP of Norway, Denmark and Sweden combined. In China, two big firms have added around $450 billion to their valuations over a similar timescale. Every single sovereign wealth fund on the planet is trying to get in on the act, both established companies through the stock markets and unlisted companies through private investment. Investment funds are now raising money from governments, with the intention of channeling this money into new ventures which are far from being listed on public markets. These investments sometimes involve national collaboration, such as the Russia-China investment fund, lending this activity a geopolitical significance. Morozov stresses the importance of understanding these flows of capital because of the corporate possibilities entailed by them. He cites the example of Uber’s valuation of $60 billion and the freedom which comes from being able to attract such huge investments without going to capital markets. For this reason, firms themselves are increasingly disinterested in going public any more, representing a significant transformation in the financial system. Underlying this trend is the lack of returns which are viable through investments in other domains, representing a mechanism through which we can begin to recover the political economy of digital capitalism which has been suppressed by epochal thinking and technological hype:

    Morozov argues there are three deficiencies in how we understand digital capitalism at present:

    1. We are quick to imagine digital capitalism as something recent, unique, exceptional and driven primarily by technological change. In contrast, Morozov argues that the capacity of platform organisations to scale to a global level, extracting value from all corners of the world, without significant capital investment has to be traced back to two previous crises of capitalism: the crisis of profitability in the 1970s and the financial crisis of 2007/8. Previous crises have invited a solution  (financialisation: a move from an economy based on manufacturing and production) which has led to accumulating problems of its own, leading to the present predicament following from 2007/8. Asset-based welfare or asset Keynesianism has sought to compensate for welfare retrenchment and stagnant wages by inflating private assets. It’s in this context that something like AirBnb can operate as a lifeline to generate stable income for many in Southern Europe. Digital technology has introduced savings in consumer expenses (facilitating the enjoyment of services without paying their full costs, because vast influxes of capital represent a near-term subsidy by institutional investors) while also offering people ways to seek to make a living, often leveraging assets like homes and cars. Our entire digital infrastructure is underwritten by firms which use advertising to underwrite the delivery of free services which would otherwise be costed. How would things look if we could add these costs into our national accounting?
    2. We have a very hard time periodising the history of digital capitalism. We tend to think of it as driven by trends that are permanent, driven by factors such as advertising which are then projected forward into our expectations of how the corporation will make money in future. However this model is a vulnerable one, susceptible to disruptions through ad blockers, national regulation or global stagnation. Given the centrality of advertising based services to digital capitalism in its current form, we can expect such a transition in business models. Morozov makes as plausible case that this will pivot on the deployment of the data created for advertising to the development of artificial intelligence which can be offered to there other sectors of the economy. The competitive advantage these companies have in artificial intelligence is pretty much unassailable on a number of levels, as well as their obvious capacity to hoover up artificial intelligence researchers and startups. This has geopolitical implications.There are far higher profit margins on these services than there are on advertising. We can see a precursor to this movement in IBM’s transition into providing consultancy services. The consequences of this for the public sphere are enormous.
    3. We need a much more ambitious approach to political and policy interventions. How do we address the ownership of the data collected for purposes of advertising? How do we address who owns artificial intelligence services that have been built with this data? This involves moving beyond simply thinking about privacy concerns, important though they are. Likewise banning firms, which misses the structural dependence which has been inculcated on platforms like AirBnb. We need to move beyond city level regulation. What is it that we can do if we move beyond this? Given the centrality to data to the future model of tech firms, getting the regulatory regime right for data becomes more crucial than ever. Might this involve collective rights to data? Municipal ownership of data?

    Questions for discussion:

    • Should we talk about digital capitalism or platform capitalism? Does it matter?
    • When did platform capitalism start? How do we contextualise it in terms of a longer history of capitalism?
    • Is advertising the primary business model of platform capitalism? What other business models are there? Under what conditions might they be superseded and what might replace them?
    • What might a political agenda for regulating platform capitalism look like? How might this vary regionally and why? What are the geopolitical implications of this?
  • Mark 9:20 am on April 29, 2018 Permalink | Reply
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    things I’ve been reading recently #41 

    • Troublemakers by Leslie Berlin
    • How To Turn Down a Billion Dollars by Billie Gallagher
    • Conspiracy by Ryan Holiday
    • Out of the Wreckage by George Monbiot
    • The Know It Alls by Noam Cohen
    • Troll by D.B. Thorne
    • Saturday by Ian McEwan
    • Between the Sheets by Ian McEwan
    • The Girl Who Takes An Eye For An Eye by David Lagercrantz
    • Who Cooked Adam Smith’s Dinner? by Katrine Marçal
  • Mark 11:46 am on April 28, 2018 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , , , economic man, , ,   

    From homo economicus to homo digitalis 

    In a recent paper, I’ve argued we find a cultural project underpinning ‘big data’: a commitment to reducing human being, in all its embodied affective complexity, stripping it of any reality beyond the behavioural traces which register through digital infrastructure. Underlying method, methodology and theory there is a vision of how human beings are constituted, as well as how they can be influenced. In some cases, this is explicitly argued but it is often simply implicit, lurking beneath the surface of careful choices which nonetheless exceed their own stated criteria.

    It’s an argument I’m keen to take further than I have at present and reading Who Cooked Adam Smith’s Dinner by Katrine Marçal  has left me interested in exploring the parallels between homo economicus (and why we are invested in him) and the emerging homo digitalis. Marçal writes on pg 162 of the allure of the former, misunderstood if we see it as nothing more than an implausible theoretical construct or a mechanism to exercise influence over political decision-making:

    Many have criticized economic man’s one-dimensional perspective. He lacks depth, emotions, psychology and complexity, we think. He’s a simple, selfish calculator. A caricature. Why do we keep dragging this paper doll around? It’s ridiculous. What does he have to do with us? But his critics are missing something essential. He isn’t like us, but he clearly has emotions, depth, fears and dreams that we can completely identify with. Economic man can’t just be a simple paper doll, a run-of-the-mill psychopath or a random hallucination. Why, if he were, would we be so enchanted? Why would we so desperately try to align every part of existence with his view of the world, even though collected research shows that this model of human behaviour doesn’t cohere with reality? The desperation with which we want to align all parts of our lives with the fantasy says something about who we are. And what we are afraid of. This is what we have a hard time admitting to ourselves. Economic man’s parodically simple behaviour doesn’t mean that he isn’t conjured from deep inner conflicts

    What makes homo economicus so compelling? This allure has its roots in a denial of human dependence, describing on pg 155 how our fascination with “his self-sufficiency, his reason and the predictable universe that he inhabits” reflect discomfort with our once having been utterly dependent on others, “at the mercy of their hopes, demands, love, neuroses, traumas, disappointments and unrealized lives”, as well as the inevitability that we will be so again at the other end of the life-course. But he also embodies a vision of what life should be like between the two poles of dependency, as she writes on pg 163:

    His identity is said to be completely independent of other people. No man is an island, we say, and think that economic man’s total self-sufficiency is laughable. But then we haven’t understood his nature. You can’t construct a human identity except in relation to others. And whether economic man likes it or not –this applies to him as well. Because competition is central to his nature, his is an identity that is totally dependent on other people. Economic man is very much bound to others. But bound to them in a new way. Bound to them. Downright chained to them. In competition. If economic man doesn’t compete, he is nothing, and to compete he needs other people. He doesn’t live in a world without relationships. He lives in a world where all relationships are reduced to competition. He is aggressive and narcissistic. And he lives in conflict with himself. With nature and with other people. He thinks that conflict is the only thing that creates movement. Movement without risk. This is his life: filled with trials, tribulations and intense longing. He is a man on the run.

    If I’m right about the existence of homo digitalis, a clear vision of human constitution underpinning ‘big data’*, we can ask similar questions about this truncated, eviscerated, predictable monad. So complex when we look up close, so simple when we gaze down from on high. Our individuality melts away in the aggregate, leaving us no longer overwhelming but simply overwhelmed. Manageable, knowable, stripped back. Why might this be an appealing vision of human kind? Who might it be appealing to? I’m sure many can guess where I’m going with this, but it’s a topic for another post.

    *A term I use to encompass digital social science, commercial and academic, as well as the organisations and infrastructures which it facilitates.

  • Mark 2:30 pm on April 25, 2018 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: A quiet place, , family, It comes at night, , , , terror,   

    Who are we if we can’t protect them? 

    The title of this post comes from A Quiet Place, a civilisational collapse horror thriller currently winning critical acclaim for its deployment of silence to produce a film which is genuinely terrifying in a way few others are. It tells the story of a family struggling to survive, amidst the social collapse which has ensued from the arrival of murderous creatures prior to the start of the film. Blind and deadly, the creatures stalk the ruins of America, using their acute hearing to detect their pray before dispatching them with terrifying alacrity. The film takes place almost entirely without dialogue, as the family use sign language to communicate while they carve out a continued existence in spite of the desolation surrounding them.

    It was starkly reminiscent of It Comes At Night, exhibiting the same preoccupation with domesticity after civilisation has collapsed. In this case, the eponymous creatures stalk the woods at night, transformed by an infection which has ravaged the world. Both films adopt a rural frame for their dramas, telling stories about sustaining existence on a remote farm or in the woods. Self-restraint takes on a ritualistic dimension in each. Through careful discipline, control and quarantine it becomes possible to ward off the dangers lurking beyond the confines of the house. Or rather that is what is hoped. Failures of restraint, or the inability of even the best laid plans to prepare oneself for contingencies, serve as crucial dramatic devices in both cases.

    Both families are patriarchal, even if more warmly so in A Quiet Place. As well as the shared labour of family life, this father seeks to instruct his son in survival skills so he can protect his mother and sister. Away from the family, he tinkers with devices to better equip his children while systematically working through radio frequencies in the hope of finding some authority remaining somewhere who can help make things right. Befitting the near-millennial status of lead actor and director John Krasinski, the farm is wired with Home Alone-esque devices ingeniously crafted to facilitate the possibility of escape. If only we plan ahead, we can cope with what is to come. So we have been raised to believe.

    The director and screenwriter of It Comes At Night, Trey Edward Shults, undoubtedly a millennial at 29, leaves me inclined to frame these films in generational terms. What can we find in the psyche of a generation which entered the adult world amidst the devastation of the financial crisis? By far the biggest threat in the films comes from the social order. Even the best prepared family can be undermined by the unpredictability of other people, interrupting domestic routines or neutralising careful preparation through their unexpected actions. Family life shrinks in both films, encompassing the nuclear family and their daily routines. Everything external to this enters in as threat and loss. A Quiet Place takes this to a disturbing extreme, with even life within the family presented as a threat to itself. A child playing with a toy, the everyday noise of a family and the birth of a child all become occasions to fear for one’s life. Still they soldier on, in a performance of stoicism tinged with an undercurrent of despair. They persist with surviving, investing their daily lives with the security of ritual and coping with the intrusions of dangers as effectively as they can.

    These are bleak films and I’m fascinated by their bleakness. They reflect a retreat from the world, collective horizons giving way to the all encompassing embrace of family life. Beyond which lurk terrors which defy our comprehension and capacities. If we do what we should do, working hard to protect our families, we might find our way through the storm. A possibility which A Quiet Place tantalisingly and ambiguously hints at towards the end, adopting a change of key which I read as an ironic play on the audience’s expectations of resolution. The spectre of safety lingers on while misery, decay and death mount up within the once safe confines of the home. Yet we continue onwards, putting one foot in front of the other, working hard and putting our faith in the power of self-discipline and careful planning. This is the only way we have been taught to keep the terrors at bay. Yet we can no longer relying on it working. But who are we if we can’t protect them?

  • Mark 9:51 am on April 25, 2018 Permalink | Reply
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    ALW2: 2nd Workshop on Abusive Language Online 

    ALW2: 2nd Workshop on Abusive Language Online
    EMNLP 2018 (Brussels, Belgium), October 31st or November 1st, 2018
    Submission deadline: July 20th, 2018
    Website: https://sites.google.com/view/alw2018 <https://sites.google.com/view/alw2018>
    Submission link: https://www.softconf.com/emnlp2018/ALW2/ <https://www.softconf.com/emnlp2018/ALW2/>

    Interaction amongst users on social networking platforms can enable constructive and insightful conversations and civic participation; however, on many sites that encourage user interaction, verbal abuse has become commonplace, leading to negative outcomes such as cyberbullying, hate speech, and scapegoating. In online contexts, aggressive behavior may be more frequent than in face-to-face interaction, which can poison the social climates within online communities. The last few years have seen a surge in such abusive online behavior, leaving governments, social media platforms, and individuals struggling to deal with the consequences.

    For instance, in 2015, Twitter’s CEO publicly admitted that online abuse on their platform was resulting in users leaving the platform, and in some cases even having to leave their homes. More recently, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and Microsoft pledged to remove hate speech from their platforms within 24 hours in accordance with the EU commission code of conduct and face fines of up to €50M in Germany if they systematically fail to remove abusive content within 24 hours. While governance demands the ability to respond quickly and at scale, we do not yet have effective human or technical processes that can address this need. Abusive language can often be extremely subtle and highly context dependent. Thus we are challenged to develop scalable computational methods that can reliably and efficiently detect and mitigate the use of abusive language online within variable and evolving contexts.

    As a field that works directly with computational analysis of language, NLP (Natural Language Processing) is in a unique position to address this problem. Recently there have been a greater number of papers dealing with abusive language in the computational linguistics community. Abusive language is not a stable or simple target: misclassification of regular conversation as abusive can severely impact users’ freedom of expression and reputation, while misclassification of abusive conversations as unproblematic on the other hand maintains the status quo of online communities as unsafe environments. Clearly, there is still a great deal of work to be done in this area. More practically, as research into detecting abusive language is still in its infancy, the research community has yet to agree upon a suitable typology of abusive content as well as upon standards and metrics for proper evaluation, where research in media studies, rhetorical analysis, and cultural analysis can offer many insights.

    In this second edition of this workshop, we continue to emphasize the computational detection of abusive language as informed by interdisciplinary scholarship and community experience. We invite paper submissions describing unpublished work from relevant fields including, but not limited to: natural language processing, law, psychology, network analysis, gender and women’s studies, and critical race theory.

    Paper Topics
    We invite long and short papers on any of the following general topics:
    related to developing computational models and systems:

    NLP models and methods for detecting abusive language online, including, but not limited to hate speech, cyberbullying etc.
    Application of NLP tools to analyze social media content and other large data sets
    NLP models for cross-lingual abusive language detection
    Computational models for multi-modal abuse detection
    Development of corpora and annotation guidelines
    Critical algorithm studies with a focus on abusive language moderation technology

    Human-Computer Interaction for abusive language detection systems
    Best practices for using NLP techniques in watchdog settings

    or related to legal, social, and policy considerations of abusive language online:

    The social and personal consequences of being the target of abusive language and targeting others with abusive language
    Assessment of current non-NLP methods of addressing abusive language
    Legal ramifications of measures taken against abusive language use
    Social implications of monitoring and moderating unacceptable content
    Considerations of implemented and proposed policies for dealing with abusive language online and the technological means of dealing with it.

    In addition, in this one-day workshop, we will have a multidisciplinary panel discussion and a forum for plenary discussion on the issues that researchers and practitioners face in efforts to work with abusive language detection. We are also looking into the possibility of publishing a special issue journal to this iteration of the workshop.

    We seek to have a greater focus on policy aspects of online abuse through invited speakers and panels.

    Submission Information
    We will be using the EMNLP 2018 Submission Guidelines. Authors are invited to submit a full paper of up to 8 pages of content with up to 2 additional pages for references. We also invite short papers of up to 4 pages of content, including 2 additional pages for references.

    Accepted papers will be given an additional page of content to address reviewer comments.  We also invite papers which describe systems. If you would like to present a demo in addition to presenting the paper, please make sure to select either “full paper + demo” or “short paper + demo” under “Submission Category” in the START submission page.

    Previously published papers cannot be accepted. The submissions will be reviewed by the program committee. As reviewing will be blind, please ensure that papers are anonymous. Self-references that reveal the author’s identity, e.g., “We previously showed (Smith, 1991) …”, should be avoided. Instead, use citations such as “Smith previously showed (Smith, 1991) …”.

    We have also included conflict of interest in the submission form. You should mark all potential reviewers who have been authors on the paper, are from the same research group or institution, or who have seen versions of this paper or discussed it with you.
    We will be using the START conference system to manage submissions.

    Important Dates
    Submission due: July 20, 2018
    Author Notification: August 18, 2018
    Camera Ready: August 31, 2018
    Workshop Date: Oct 31st or Nov 1st, 2018
    Submission link: https://www.softconf.com/emnlp2018/ALW2/ <https://www.softconf.com/emnlp2018/ALW2/>

  • Mark 2:01 pm on April 23, 2018 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , cpgj, cpgjcam, culture politics and global justice,   

    If you’re in or near Cambridge over the next couple of months 

    There’s a pretty brilliant programme of events we are running at Culture, Politics and Global Justice. I’m organising the platform capitalism reading group and the social media workshops. If you’re not already, follow us at @CPGJCam. We’ve got some really important stuff upcoming about both platform capitalism and social media for academics.

    Digital Engagement in the Faculty of Education
    26th April, 10:00-12:00, DMB GS1
    Social media workshop by Mark Carrigan and Tyler Shores 

    Theorising Race and Racism in Education Reading Group
    27th April, 14:00-16:00, DMB 2S3
    Full details: https://cpgjcam.net/reading-groups/theorising-race-and-racism-in-education/

    Social Media and Scholarship
    1st May, 12:00-13:00, DMB 1S3
    Social media workshop by Mark Carrigan and Tyler Shores 

    Platform Capitalism Reading Group (week 1)
    2nd May, 16:00 to 18:00, DMB 2S5
    Full details: https://cpgjcam.net/reading-groups/platform-capitalism-reading-group/

    International Education Strategies between internationalization and nation-building: exploring the Canadian case 
    4th May, 12:00-13:30, DMB 2S7
    CPGJ Work in Progress Seminar Series: Hannah Moskovics

    Social Media and Networking
    8th May, 12:00-13:00, DMB 1S3
    Social media workshop by Mark Carrigan and Tyler Shores 

    Platform Capitalism Reading Group (week 2)
    9th May, 16:00 to 18:00, DMB 2S5
    Full details: https://cpgjcam.net/reading-groups/platform-capitalism-reading-group/

    Theorising Race and Racism in Education Reading Group
    11th May, 14:00-16:00, DMB 2S3
    Full details: https://cpgjcam.net/reading-groups/theorising-race-and-racism-in-education/

    Social Media and Impact
    15th May, 12:00-13:00, DMB 1S3
    Social media workshop by Mark Carrigan and Tyler Shores 

    Platform Capitalism Reading Group (week 3)
    16th May, 16:00 to 18:00, DMB 2S5
    Full details: https://cpgjcam.net/reading-groups/platform-capitalism-reading-group/

    War on universities? Neoliberalism, critique, performativity
    18th May, 12:00-13:30, DMB 2S7
    CPGJ Work in Progress Seminar Series: Jana Bacevic

    Platform Capitalism Reading Group (week 4)
    23rd May, 16:00 to 18:00, DMB 2S5
    Full details: https://cpgjcam.net/reading-groups/platform-capitalism-reading-group/

    Theorising Race and Racism in Education Reading Group
    25th May, 14:00-16:00, DMB 2S3
    Full details: https://cpgjcam.net/reading-groups/theorising-race-and-racism-in-education/

    Platform Capitalism Reading Group (week 5)
    30th May, 16:00 to 18:00, DMB 2S5
    Full details: https://cpgjcam.net/reading-groups/platform-capitalism-reading-group/

    Looking the gift horse in the mouth:  a case study of philanthropy in (mathematics) education research & development
    1st June, 12:00-13:30, DMB 2S7
    CPGJ Work in Progress Seminar Series: Steve Watson

    Theorising Race and Racism in Education Reading Group
    8th June, 14:00-16:00, DMB 2S3
    Full details: https://cpgjcam.net/reading-groups/theorising-race-and-racism-in-education/

  • Mark 9:39 am on April 16, 2018 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , civic sociology, , ,   

    What does it mean to claim people were ‘doing sociology’? 

    What does it mean to claim a historical figure as a (proto)sociologist? What does it mean to claim people were ‘doing sociology’ under any rubric? Keneth MacDonald began this conference on the history of sociology in Britain by directing these questions towards Adam Ferguson and Adam Smith, kicking off with consideration of recent papers from the REF panel tasked with assessing the discipline in its contemporary form, finding little in these to suggest a unified discipline. He went on to consider programmatic visions of sociology, ranging from a population science, through to a discipline intended to interpret the ‘social’ as an efficacious and modifiable social structure and an activity which is defeasible, capable of being discomfited. He considered its dependence on tools, changing throughout its history and exercising a similarly changing influence over the way in which sociology was conducted. He identified features we associate with sociology now that could be found in Ferguson and Smith: a concern for summary statistics and an ability to collect data, use of government statistics, an awareness of experimental designs and a concern for regularities, even if they were construed in individual rather than collective ways. He finds sociological insights in Ferguson which are nonetheless passing remarks, undeveloped into systematic accounts. He finds a sociological sensibility underlying Smith’s frustration with political arithmetic as it was practiced in his day, concerned as he was to grasp the facts of the issues under discussion.

    It was a thought-provoking and informative talk. But it nonetheless didn’t address the underlying question as directly as I hoped: what is it to be a sociologist? What is it to do sociology? If we read disciplinarity in terms of professionalism, such that recognition by one’s professional peers is the sine qua non of being a disciplinary practioner, it becomes difficult to make sense of the origins of the discipline. Even in the most sophisticated account, we would be left with a vision of a discipline that wills itself into being through ever-expanding circles of reciprocal evaluation, evading the question of what it is to be a practitioner of that discipline. Making this claim isn’t a denial that professional custom plays a crucial part in disciplinary identity, it just insists there is inevitably much more to the question than this. It is interesting to consider this is the present context because the discipline is so professionalised, leaving its fortunes tethered its position within the university. My interest in clinical sociology, applied sociology, public sociology and civic sociology is animated by the belief that sociology will function most effectively as a plural discipline, distributed throughout sectors of society and learning from sociological work undertaken across them. Rather than search the past for sociologists in the sense in which we would recognise them in the present day, I’m interested in the exemplars we can find of what sociology could be today, as much as the circumstances in which they worked might differ from the present day. Many of the possibilities which excite me involve work outside the academy. For this reason, professionalism is an unhelpful criterion for looking for (proto)sociologists. This is why I found MacDonald’s talk so thought-provoking because he laid out so many other criteria which we might consider: the questions asked, the methods applied, the role of data and the technology used. But a more direct answer to the question still eludes me and it’s one which I’m keen to explore through my work in the Foundations of British Sociology archive.

    • landzek 4:46 pm on April 16, 2018 Permalink

      Lately I’ve been pondering how Theory tends to jump In magnitudefrom a quick marking of the individual, to the group. And then poses a gays about what the individual actually is. It seems like philosophy and in general academics on humanity side at least, often conveniently set aside actual individual for the sake of the real group. As if the individual is nothing more than a part of the group.

      In particular philosophy I’ve been noticing how it seems like a pre-ponderings of philosophy talks about subjectivity but then jumps exponentially into a different order magnitude in one sentence; often will talk about the subject of politics or the subject of ideology. I feel like everyone takes these discourses as if they were actually talking about the individual person.

      It seems no one recognizes this ; it seems like missing the actual person is just part and parcel of being modern society. I think your question of what is a sociologist could begin with a sociology of the individual but doesn’t reduce itself to an order that is so far removed from the individual that we almost have to deny it in order to have it become “actual”.

      Just something I’ve been pondering lately

    • Martyn Everett 5:38 pm on April 16, 2018 Permalink

      I’m impressed by the sociology implied in the work of Louise Michel who interviewd French prostitutes while she was in prison in order to identify the reasons why women became involved in prostitution, and the problems they faced as prostitutes. This seems to be an approach to sociological problems that is as valid means of enquiry as statistical methods.

  • Mark 2:14 pm on April 12, 2018 Permalink | Reply

    What does it mean to have a professional identity in an age of social media? 

    Notes for an upcoming talk: not yet proof read!

    By the time I sat down to write this talk, I began to regret the title which I’d given it. To speak of an ‘academic identity’ makes it sounds as if this is a singular thing undergoing change in a unified way, while the notion of an ‘age of social media’ is an egregious cliche. Therefore I thought I should start by clarifying what exactly it is I’m planning to talk about. To put it more straightforwardly, I want to talk today about social media becoming a mainstream part of university life in the UK and what this means for how academics understand what they do and present this understanding to others.

    In becoming mainstream, the academy is catching up to wider society, where social media has become ubiquitous in recent years. My favourite way to illustrate the ubiquity of social media is the Internet Live Stats: real time estimates of activity across a whole range of platforms, intended to convey the rhythm of its change over time. This is the context in which academics begin to use social media: 315 million tweets, 33 million Instagram photos uploaded and 2.5 million blog posts today. These numbers remind us that academic activity is a drop in the ocean compared to the activity taking place, something which the political scientist Gary King has described as “the largest increase in the expressive capacity of the human race in the history of the world”.

    It can be useful to reflect on this because academia tends to inculcate a sense of our own importance. It places us at the centre of knowledge production, undertaking research which we think is, or at least should, attract the interest and support of others. How could we see what we spend so much our lives working on as anything other than important? However social media will often force us to confront our relative peripherality and it’s helpful if we can recognise this from the outset. There is an important sense in which social media demands a change in how we understand what we do and how we present this understanding to others.

    This understanding is tied up with what I think of as academic exceptionalism: the notion that academic labour is somehow different from other forms of work. We are doing important things, concerned with lofty goals, moving knowledge forward. While the scholarly work undertaken with them often is important, the rhetoric of scholarship can often obscure the reality of universities as workplaces, reliant on precarious labour and demanding sacrifice in order to participate. In inviting a change in our academic identity, how we understand what we do as scholars and present this to others, social media furthermore encourages us to reflect on universities as workplace, overcoming what Marcus Morgan and Patrick Baert describe as the ‘black-boxing’ of the academy. However to understand the changes taking place, we need to consider social media’s changing role within universities.

    Social Media within the Academy 

    When I began a part-time PhD in 2008, social media was still in its infancy. Facebook was four years old and Twitter was two years old. Instagram, Snapchat and Pinterest hadn’t been invented yet. Blogging had been a widespread activity for years however, including being something I had done myself for at least half a decade. Yet at that stage it was something largely invisible within higher education. To introduce social media into a formal setting within higher education was seen as irrelevant at best and rather suspicious at worst. As one senior academic said in a meeting when someone suggested my professional association should get a blog: “why would we want to be associated with blogging?” This was a polite academic version of the sentiment which Andrew Marr expressed at the Cheltenham Literary Festival in 2010: “A lot of bloggers seem to be socially inadequate, pimpled, single, slightly seedy, bald, cauliflower-nosed young men sitting in their mother’s basements and ranting”. Who would want to be associated with blogging when that was how bloggers were so frequently seen?

    At risk of stating the obvious, these dismissals confused blogging as a platform with certain blogs as a product. They take a stereotype, become fixated on it and lose sight of the rich array of uses to which the underlying technology can be put. We can see a similar pattern in how critics responded to social media platforms, as they began to appear with greater frequency in the early years of this decade. But these reactions have, thankfully, started to fade away over the years, with the uses of social media becoming so apparent that simplistic stereotypes seem less plausible than they once did. They have come to occupy at least some role in most people’s lives outside the academy and can now be seen with ever greater frequency within the university.

    One place we can see this particularly clearly is in academic conferences. For instance, as some of you are probably aware, it’s currently the British Sociological Association annual conference. The first time I went to one in 2010, there was little social media to be seen anywhere. By 2012, there were people reflecting on the conference back channel that had emerged, sharing blog posts they had written and commenting on events. By 2018, there were reflections on every session providing a weirdly panoramic view of the conference as a whole. Perhaps not a substitute for attending in person but in many ways a useful window on events, quite unlike the distracted and over-stimulated state which has always characterised my experience of large conferences. It’s becoming increasingly difficult to attend a conference like this and not seen evidence of social media, ranging from social media profiles listed on presentation slides, live tweeting guidance for audience members, real time displays of hashtags and the ubiquitous site of people glued to smart phones and tablets while nonetheless being palpably focused on the events in the room.

    Social media: from peripheral to mainstream? 

    In spite of this increasing visibility, we still find some people for whom the use of social media itself is inherently unprofessional. In 2016, a particularly clickbaity instalment of the Guardian’s Academics Anonymous feature was published with the title ‘I’m a serious academic, not a professional Instagrammer‘. This anonymous PhD student took issue with how “using social media to impress people that you know – as well as those that you have never met – has now become a professional concern for many academics”. This grumpy piece takes issue with their fellow academics “live tweeting and hashtagging their way through events” and bemoans the feeling that it is necessary “to parade myself online to please my employer or to stake my claim as a good researcher”. In another example, Gabriel Egan explains ‘Why academics should NOT make time for social media’, claiming that social media feeds an innate craving for esteem and an obsession with how we are regarded by others. He calls on academics to resist these platforms in order that students might be “weaned off the social media that, like bad food, infantilises them by overfeeding their innate cravings”.

    It is easy to dismiss these critics as walking anachronisms, pontificating about matters they fail to understand. But it is worth stopping to consider what is at stake here. These are disputes about what it is to be a professional. They are disputes about how a professional role is changing as technologies which are still comparatively recent start to become feature as part of a workplace that is easily characterised in terms of its insularity. Social media is seen by these people as challenging a proper sense of professional comportment, incentivising triviality and encouraging self-promotion in lieu of serious research. The fact that in many cases they confuse the causality, attributing to the making influence of social media what in reality has it causes in the competitive individualism of the accelerated academy, doesn’t mean we should dismiss the gist of their complaint even if we take issue with how they have framed it.

    Underlying these accounts are a concern with how social media might change professional standards, as well as how this plays into powerful agendas elsewhere in society. The latter claim is one I absolutely share. We should be critical of social media firms, exercising an immensely powerful hold over social life while claiming to be neutral technology firms rather than media actors. We should also be immensely careful about how these platforms have been designed in order to facilitate ever greater ‘user engagement’: using real time experimental methods to tweak their interface and expand their functionality in order to keep us on the platform for ever greater lengths of time with the hope that human attention can be leveraged into advertising revenue. If we are not careful about things such as ‘likes’, ‘retweets’ and follower counts then we risk confusing popularity for value, caring about things which have no intrinsic worth and wasting our time pursuing them in exactly the way the platforms have been developed to encourage.

    What easily gets lost in these discussions is a sense of why academics might want to use social media in the first place. Endless debates about why academics should use social media and why academics shouldn’t use social media tend to obscure the actual motivations which lead academics to use these platforms. Not motivations in the sense of career goals. But motivations in the sense of the actual reasons why actually existing human beings choose to spend their time in this way, liable to be messy and contradictory in a way that resists an easy reduction to pursuing a career. Some of these might be relatively banal: blind habit, passing time when commuting, talking to friends. Others more strategic: connecting with people in your field, having a public profile, informing people about your work. Further motives might be more diffuse: a sense of wanting to make a difference with your research without being sure exactly what that difference would be or a feeling that being open about your research is important without a clear outcome in mind. Then there are the motives which might remain unsaid: a fear of missing out on opportunities, a sense this is what everyone is doing so you should to or a concern that potential employers expect it now.

    The reasons an academic might have for using social media will vary immensely depending on factors such as their field, discipline, career stage, age and interests. For this reason, it’s helpful to get away from talking about academics in general using social media in general in order that we can have specific conversations about why particular academics might want to use particular platforms for particular purposes. The more specific we can be about why we want to use social media, the easier it becomes to negotiate questions of what we want to do and how are going to do it. This is why I want to argue that we have to be cautious about the language of professionalism. It makes it hard to be specific about our use of social media and restricts conversations about it the most general terms, revolving around appropriateness and inappropriateness rather than the many creative and empowering uses which we can individually and collectively make to if as academics.

    We are moving on from social media for academics being seen as something questionable to social being widely accepted, but the risk is that we shut down the creative possibilities which made it exciting in the first place. If we accept the language of professionalism uncritically, we risk social media becoming just another criteria through which academic gatekeeping takes place such that any upwardly mobile young academic will be aspiring towards a highly visible social media presence alongside their  publications in high impact journals, grant income and teaching evaluations.

    What does it mean to use social media professionally? 

    So if social media has come to be seen as something professionally necessary, how should we be using it? In preparation for this talk, I spent an afternoon looking through the advice universities offer their doctoral students and staff about social media. To given an illustrative example, the University of Manchester’s social media guidelines caution to be ‘be professional’:

    consider whether any posting may reflect poorly on you or the university. consider your audience and your message; remember once it is out there it is almost impossible to remove, and word spreads quickly, so think before posting content or joining groups that could be discriminatory or judgmental in nature and don’t post content that could be considered to be offensive, defamatory or derogatory, or which could cause someone to feel bullied or harassed, or could harm a reputation. don’t post anything online you wouldn’t feel comfortable seeing on our website or in our prospectus.

    My point is not that is bad advice as much as that it takes the notion of ‘professional’ as straight forward when it isn’t. It frames social media use as an exercise in impression management, taking advantage of “new and exciting opportunities” while avoiding anything we share ‘reflecting poorly’ on oneself or our university. It assumes social media is about branding, developing our own brand while protecting the corporate brand of the institution. It takes so many things as a given that should be the object of discussion about what it means to do scholarship with and through social media. These guidelines often include worthwhile advice about some of the objective risks entailed by social media (viral misinterpretation, reputational damage, possible plagiarism, online harassment, legal risks) but a concern to be ‘professional’ doesn’t help you negotiate them and I’m concerned it might sometimes make them more difficult to see.

    If it’s unclear what exactly it means to be professional, is it any easier to specify what it would mean to be ‘unprofessional’? If we talk about someone being unprofessional on social media, what sort of behaviour are we likely to be talking about? ‘Professional’ is often contrasted to ‘personal’ in these discussions and the dividing line between the two can seem clear. Professional encompasses your research, your teaching and events you take part in. Personal is cat pictures, political rants and music you like. But in practice these two categories often blur together in problematic ways, not least of all when your professional work is something which you are personally passionate about and people you personally care about share your professional life with you.

    If we take professionalism in its literal sense as “the competence or skill expected of a professional” then the question becomes clearer: who gets to define the competence or skill  expected of academics in an age of social media? It’s not unreasonable for the university to make a claim that doctoral students and staff should avoid getting the university in trouble, particularly if their online identity is tied to that of the institution. But this isn’t a conversation stopper and there’s so much more to say about the issue.

    A backlash against social media in the name of professionalism is something we can see in other sectors, ranging from doctors through to police and school teachers. Social media creates challenges for any job which involves relations with the public, holding out the possibility of new connections which unsettle existing expectations and call for revised understandings of propriety. But in many such cases, we have seen social media used in a critical way by frontline staff and stamped down upon for exactly that reason. Contained within what might seem like rather dry debates about ‘professionalism’ are some important issues about academic freedom.

    Why should we be careful about ‘professionalism’? 

    One of the most worrying aspects of this is how the language of professionalism easily slides into victim blaming. One of the most exciting possibilities which social media opens up is for public intellectualism, building on your scholarship to make interventions concerning the political events of the day. But for those who don’t intervene from a position of classed, raced or gendered privilege then these interventions sometimes provoke a backlash which the university can see as reputational damage. Does this count as ‘unprofessionalism’? If we think it does then the possibility that social media might enable academics to intervene in public debate rapidly starts to shut down, as we could never guarantee those interventions won’t generate a negative reaction in times of increasing political polarisation.

    To mandate professionalism too easily leads people to only share what is finished and finalised. This restricts the opportunities to enjoy what the philosopher Daniel Little describes as “ideas in motion”. Many of those most enthusiastic about social media, including myself, find it a wonderful place to think out loud and share ideas in the process of development. There are sometimes risks entailed in doing this but I would argue they tend to be overrated and the personal and collective gains can be huge. By sharing the backstage aspects of academic work, we overcomer the tendency towards what Howard Becker describes as ‘pluralistic ignorance’: assuming no one struggles because no one talks about struggling. My conviction is that sharing work in progress in this way helps make the academy a more dialogical, supportive and creative place in which we understand more of the ongoing intellectual work underlying the finished books and papers we see our colleagues produce. However it’s hard to feel confident doing this, if you’re concerned that you might be judged as being unprofessional for sharing what the radical sociologist C Wright Mills described as ‘fringe thoughts’.

    The language of professionalism also changes how we relate to others. It encourages us to see our online interactions as strategic opportunities, with better or worse outcomes depending on how much skill we exercise over them. For instance, consider ‘networking’: what does this mean to you? It’s a term I’ve always hated, inevitably making me remember occasions on which someone has networked me, looking over my shoulder to scan who else was entering the room while sustaining the pretence they had entered a meaningful dialogue with me. Networking in this sense is creepy and instrumental, treating other people as latent resources waiting to be mined to your own advantage through the efficient application of social skill. It frames people in terms of their utility to you, encouraging the networker to seek out people who might prove useful and maximise their potential advantage while investing the minimum quantity of effort.

    However there’s another way of looking at networking. Rather than ‘useful’, we should think in terms of ‘interesting’: arousing curiosity or interest. Who do you find interesting? What do you share with them? What differences and commonalities are there in how you approach a shared interest? Setting out to build a network of people you hope might one day be useful to you is creepy and disturbing. Approaching academic life with the intention of having as many friendly conversations as you can with people who share your interests is incredibly rewarding. Social media is an incredibly powerful mechanism for building networks in this way. Share what you care about, what matters to you, what fascinates you and you will find your way to others who share these concerns. But doing this requires that you approach social media with an honesty and straight-forwardness which is unlikely if you are overly concerned with being perceived as ‘professional’.

    What’s the alternative to ‘professionalism’? 

    Suggesting we should be sceptical of the language of professionalism is not the same thing as advocating unprofessionalism. Many of the behaviours which might be labelled as such are ones we have other reasons for rejecting. They might be rude, careless, unhelpful, self-absorbed, discriminatory or abusive and we should regard them as such. I’m also not suggesting there’s something wrong with wanting to cultivate a professional identity that is good for your career. It would be naive to suggest we can escape any strategic considerations concerning our self-presentation. My point is that a preoccupation with ‘professionalism’ will allow you to do this more enjoyably and effectively than would otherwise be the case

    My suggestion is that professionalism is the wrong way to look at our online identity. It carries a great deal of baggage with it and leaves us enmeshed in a relationship with our institutions which leaves them defining standards managerially which should be the object of conversations which take place between us collegially. It encourages us to think of online identity in terms of impression management, with the aim of cultivating a successful brand through repeated encounters. An alternative approach is to consider what we do online in terms of autobiography. This is how the sociologist Ann Oakley describes the autobiographical dimensions to constructing an artefact like the CV:

    A c.v. is an autobiographical act, a life composed and presented according to certain conventions, a story designed to hide, exaggerate, downplay or boast about aspects selected from the immense and muddled curriculum of one’s whole life. Because I’ve mostly made my living as an academic, my c.v. is dominated by publications, presentations, lists of research grants, committees and so on. It doesn’t tell the story behind these lists. For example, behind each of the books is a story of why it came to be written and how, in what order its chapters got themselves assembled and juggled about, how much agonising and rethinking and reworking went on, whose advice was taken (or not taken) on the path to its final form.

    My experience has been that social media allows those untold stories to find public expression. To be an academic in an age of social media involves learning to overcome the restrictive conventions of the c.v. and publications list, building a broader identity which is composed iteratively across platforms. If we see academic identity in these terms then questions of ‘branding’ and ‘networking’ appear not so much wrong as irrelevant, akin to judging a novel by its sales figures rather than its artistic merit. It keeps us grounded in our scholarly craft: why we do what we do, why it matters to us, what we hope to achieve. This has always been at the root of academic identity and if we can remain connected to it, we’ll be in a strong position to use social media in a way that is rewarding and enjoyable.

  • Mark 7:22 pm on April 4, 2018 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , atari, , , , ,   

    Why would senior managers feel contemptuous of their expert staff? 

    At various points in the last few months, I’ve seen the claim made that the senior management of universities hold their staff in contempt. A claim like this can’t help but be polemic and I’m not sure how helpful it would be to examine the particular cases if we’re interested in addressing the broader question: why might managers come to feel contemptuous of their expert staff?

    From the perspective of higher education, it would be interesting to consider prima facie examples of such contempt in other sectors. This is one I stumbled across in Trouble Makers, by Leslie Berlin, describing the tensions in Atari after a new CEO took over the company and open hostilities broke out between developers and management. From pg 277:

    The programmers had asked Ray Kassar for a pay raise or a bonus, as well as recognition as the games’ authors on the cartridges. (Already some designers had taken to hiding their initials as “Easter eggs” in secret rooms that players could discover in the games themselves.) Kassar allegedly responded that the game programmer was no more essential to the company’s success than was the line worker who put the cartridge in a box.

    From pg 278:

    Even with the higher pay, many on the engineering side felt that Kassar and the managers he hired did not appreciate their ideas or their work. Kassar gave an interview in which he called the technical minds behind the games “superstars” but also “high-strung prima donnas.” Many programmers felt the jab was a closer approximation of Kassar’s real feelings.

    The case suggests a clear message to me: management can view the self-proclaimed expertise of staff as a ludicrous conceit on the part of a group who are just one feature of an organisational chart, with their capacity to exert themselves and demand respect provoking resentment on the part of a management who have their sense of autonomy challenged by this. How far away from higher education is this?

  • Mark 10:27 am on April 4, 2018 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , ,   

    Platform Capitalism Reading Group at the University of Cambridge 

    In recent discussions of capitalist transformation, the notion of the ‘platform’ has come to play a prominent role in conceptualising our present circumstances and imagining our potential futures. There are many criticisms which can be raised of the platform metaphor, however we believe it provides a useful hook through which to make sense of how social, economic, political, cultural and technological factors are collectively contributing to systemic transformation.

    This intensive five week reading group explores platform capitalism, the growing focus on the platform and its implications for sociological and educational research. Each session will be an informal discussion of two papers, chapters, essays or talks:

    The meetings will take place from 4pm to 6pm in DMB 2S5 in The Donald McIntyre Building in the Faculty of Education at the University of Cambridge. This is a fifteen minutes walk from Cambridge train station and we welcome all attendees. We would appreciate if you could e-mail your intention to attend to mac228@cam.ac.uk so we can update you with further details.

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