Updates from June, 2018 Toggle Comment Threads | Keyboard Shortcuts

  • Mark 7:32 am on June 30, 2018 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , , , imaginary, instrumental rationality, , , ,   

    Understanding the agency of people we disapprove of 

    Why do people do what they do? It is a question at the heart of the human sciences but it is also one we ask in everyday life. However the way we ask it often tracks our prior feelings towards the people we ask it of. For instance, as Jana Bacevic has argued, many fail to grasp the agency of managers and consultants within the ‘neoliberal university’ and through doing so misdiagnose both the intentions of these managers and the system their actions are contributing to.

    When people seem to embody systemic tendencies we are critical of, it inevitably slides into a disproval of the people themselves. They are reduced to vectors of these organisational processes, revealing a quotidian Althusserianism which is important to understand if we want to grasp how organisations and systems are imagined by participants within them.

    There was an example I came across earlier today which made me think about the role of distance in this process. This is an observation which Richard Brooks makes on pg 14 of his Bean Counters: The Triumph of the Accountants and How They Broke Capitalism:

    Few arrive with much sense of vocation or a passion for rooting out financial irregularity and making capitalism safe. They are motivated by good income prospects even for moderate performers, plus maybe a vague interest in the world of business. Many want to keep their options open, noticing the prevalence of qualified accountants at the top of the corporate world; one quarter of chief executives of the FTSE100 largest UK companies are chartered accountants.

    The exercise of agency here is provisional and tentative. Rather than rapacious instrumentalists concerned only with maximising their income, we find people keen to keep their options open and seeking agreeable outcomes without hemming themselves in. It is similar to the claim made by Kevin Roose in his superb account of the everyday lives of young financiers on Wall Street:

    As strange as it sounds, a big paycheck may not in fact be central to Wall Street’s allure for a certain cohort of young people. This possibility was explained to me several weeks before my Penn trip by a second-year Goldman Sachs analyst, who stopped me short when I posited that college students flock to Wall Street in order to cash in. “Money is part of it,” he said. “But mostly, they do it because it’s easy.” He proceeded to explain that by coming onto campus to recruit, by blitzing students with information and making the application process as simple as dropping a résumé into a box, by following up relentlessly and promising to inform applicants about job offers in the fall of their senior year—months before firms in most other industries—Wall Street banks had made themselves the obvious destinations for students at top-tier colleges who are confused about their careers, don’t want to lock themselves in to a narrow preprofessional track by going to law or medical school, and are looking to put off the big decisions for two years while they figure things out. Banks, in other words, have become extremely skilled at appealing to the anxieties of overachieving young people and inserting themselves as the solution to those worries. And the irony is that although we think of Wall Street as a risk-loving business, the recruiting process often appeals most to the terrified and insecure.

    I’m not suggesting we should take people’s accounts of why they do what they do at face value. If we did, the space to be critical of power and hierarchy would soon collapse in the face of an endless succession of people with apparently good intentions of varying degrees of systematicity. But it does seem important that we also avoid taking our attributions of agency at face value, interrogating what we are imputing to people and the reasons why we might be imputing them.

  • Mark 10:08 am on June 25, 2018 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , , , , , , ,   

    The #Undisciplining Meta-Conference 

    Now that I’ve recovered from last week, it seemed the right moment to do a round up of the live blogging project Pat Thomson and myself initiated at The Sociological Review’s Undisciplining conference. There were 43 posts from 13 live bloggers over four days. This is a pretty substantial outpouring of thought and reflection over a relatively short period of time:

    1. #Undisciplining Day Zero: Preparing From The Cat Cafe – Mark Carrigan
    2. Live From Breakfast – Pat Thomson
    3. The Hive Begins To Form at #Undisciplining – Mark Carrigan
    4. Landing – Kate Carruthers Thomas
    5. What does it mean to reflect in real time? – Mark Carrigan
    6. Trying to Say Something Clever – Michael Toze
    7. the person/al and the structural? – Pat Thomson
    8. un-mining, (under-mining?) disciplinarity – Anna Davidson
    9. I am NOT a sociologist, get me out of here! – Julia Molinari
    10. sociology of art as a powerful way to reveal the social – Janna Klostermann
    11. making a sociological board game – Pat Thomson
    12. Being alone at conferences – Mark Carrigan
    13. Structure and Undisciplining – Catherine Price
    14. Questions from the geographical edges – Rosemary Hancock
    15. The Missing Links – interdisciplinary in sociological inquiry – Donna Carmichael
    16. A sociological walk of contrasts – Julia Molinari
    17. The Future versus Bureaucracy – Michael Toze
    18. Live blogging and the cinema experience – Catherine Price
    19. Time to Write – Kate Carruthers Thomas
    20. The dreaded conference dinner – Julia Molinari
    21. When a conference has a meta-conference – Mark Carrigan
    22. Care and the conference – Michaela Benson
    23. Echoes from Beyond the Edges of #Undisciplining – Jill Jameson
    24. Conference as home – Pat Thomson
    25. Beyoncé Vs Bev Skeggs – Donna Carmichael
    26. Knowledge production outside the university at #undisciplining – Mark Carrigan
    27. Why should anyone get paid to do sociology? – Mark Carrigan
    28. The feminist walk of the city – Catherine Price
    29. Making friends and changing the world – Rosemary Hancock
    30. The Rising Emotions of Asking the Panel A Question – Julia Molinari
    31. Too Too – Pat Thomson
    32. Not Knowing Why We Do What We Do – Michael Toze
    33. Time Out – Pat Thomson
    34. Outside/In Place – Kate Carruthers Thomas
    35. Undisciplining like a moth to a flame – Janna Klostermann
    36. Re-Sounding Edges: #Undisciplining – Jill Jameson
    37. A Fireside Chat: Defending the Social – Julia Molinari
    38. How does the sociological speak to/with/from the earth? – Anna Davidson
    39. Going Live? – Katy Vigurs
    40. Art! – Janna Klostermann
    41. Beyond the conference – Michael Toze
    42. Reflections on Live Blogging – Catherine Price
    43. Ending Where I Began #Undisciplining – Mark Carrigan

    To what extent does this constitute a meta-conference? It was an organised process of asynchronous dialogue with a remit as wide as the conference itself, with the choice of topics being left to live bloggers as they made their way through the conference. To the extent live bloggers were reading each other and in some cases responding to each other, either directly in a substantive way or indirectly through riffing off themes such as awkwardness or isolation, it is clear the above is more than the sum of its parts.

    It wasn’t simply individuals responding individually, with the live blog being an aggregate of these individual responses. It wasn’t a collective either but rather something in between the two. What is this in between and what can it tell us about conference sociality and how it can be extended and deepened using social media?

  • Mark 7:01 pm on June 24, 2018 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , , quote tweeting, , ,   

    Why quote tweeting as a form of reply is creepy 

    I’ve edited the final two paragraphs of this post for clarity because an awful lot of people read it and thought I was criticising quote tweeting rather than one particular use of it. 

    Imagine you were sitting in a cafe having a conversation with a friend. You greeted each other warmly when they arrived, you ordered coffees and sat down to catch up. But something immediately began to feel a little off. Your friend appeared distracted, not quite there and continually looking at their phone. Worse than that, every time they said something to you they began frantically typing on the device. When you eventually questioned their distraction, the friend calmly explained to you that they are perfectly engaged in the conversation but they are transcribing it via e-mail for hundreds of people, many of whom you don’t know.

    What would you think if this happened? Now imagine this was not a friend but a perfect stranger. Imagine you’d been having a conversation with someone you know, this stranger had overheard it and immediately sat next to you and inserted themselves into the dialogue. If this took place at an event designed to encourage mingling between people who don’t know each other then this might seem overly forward but not out of the ordinary. The problem would be the lack of introduction, their immediately jumping into the conversation, rather than that you didn’t know them.

    But imagine they began transcribing the conversation via e-mail for an unknown audience. What would be irritating in the case of the person you know and like becomes unnerving and off-putting in the case of the stranger. This is what I suggest quote tweeting as a form of reply amounts to and I’m bewildered by people who do it.

    For avoidance of doubt: I’m talking about people who consistently use quote tweets in lieu of the reply function, broadcasting their conversation to every single one of their followers. This isn’t an attack on quote tweeting but rather a query as to why some people persistently choose to use it rather than using the familiar reply functionality which has been part of the platform for a long time. Replies are only seen by people who follow both of you whereas quote tweets are seen by everyone follows you. It therefore increases the visibility of the exchange to the maximum possible extent, regardless of the context or intentions of the conversational partner. 

    I find it unsettling to be on the receiving end of this behaviour and this short post is an attempt to think through and explain why it feels problematic to me. I find myself increasingly suspicious of people who persistently do this and in some instances, it strikes me as a red flag for some really unpleasant habits which can be found far too readily within the academic Twittersphere. 

    • landzek 7:53 pm on June 24, 2018 Permalink

      How bout: where is the internet self-destruct bottom? Lol.

    • landzek 7:53 pm on June 24, 2018 Permalink

      Button 😆

    • Glenyan 7:02 pm on July 11, 2018 Permalink

      Thoughtful post, although the main point I get from it is that conversations at a cafe with a fiend are a very different medium than conversations on twitter. My expectations should adjust accordingly.

  • Mark 6:16 pm on June 23, 2018 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , , changing tempo, pace, tempo, ,   

    The existential challenge of changing tempo 

    After the busiest few months of my life, I’ve spent the last couple of days doing what feels like nothing. I’ve been for a shave, bought a graphic novel, seen a (crap) film, had a walk, been out for dinner and had a massage. But otherwise I’ve just read, slept and watched tv. It’s obviously not the case that I have done nothing because I have just listed a sequence of activities which I’ve undertaken. But these have been chosen haphazardly, reflecting little more than my fleeting whims and my ready-to-hand preferences as I intentionally refrain from doing anything even remotely challenging.

    This has left me reflecting on changing tempo in existential terms. What happens when we move between two periods of time with distinct and different rates of motion? The last few days have been a striking example of that for me, as I’ve moved from a crescendo of activity over the last four weeks (six trips in three countries, doing lots of work while I go) culminating in the Undisciplining conference in Gateshead last week before suddenly embracing nothing. My days have been increasingly defined by rhythms outside my immediate control, leading up to four days in which the closest I had to self-directed time was reading before bed. By changing tempo I refer to the pacing of activities (what do I have to do each day?) and their self-directedness or otherwise (to what extent am I choosing to do it?) but there are other ways in which we could characterise these temporal shifts.

    The sudden transition into deliberate inactivity strikes me as interesting. Though it does occur to me that intellectualising the experience could easily be read as part of a pathological flight from rest which I’m prone to. I often feel strange when I change tempo. Many people do and I think this is at the heart of what people mean when they talk about coming down from events. The drug analogy works because it tracks what can meaningfully be called a different state of consciousness resulting from an (over) abundance of stimuli, a sudden increase in the quantity of interaction, an absence of time alone, a spatio-temporal break from normal routine or some combination thereof. But these experiences, returning to normal life after a specific intense event, should be understand as a particular instance of a more general trend. Put it this way: what do we mean when we say an event was ‘intense’? It conveys that much went on within a particular period of time. We understand these judgements because we recognise the intensivity of our days varies in patterned ways which are susceptible to analysis, even if sociologists of time are the only people who would use language like this to make sense of these patterns.

    The opposite tendency for me is one particularly associated with when I lived alone. An extended period of working from home would often leave me failing to converse with anyone for up to a few days, beyond perhaps talking on the phone. When I’d then enter a period of more intense obligations, it would often be hard to get into the swing of things.  Certainly, the fact most of these were on the other side of the country from where I then lived imposed a spatio-temporal logic on the sequences which accentuated the change tempo. But I still get similar feelings now, even though my life is ordered in a way which makes the contrast between phases less stark and sharp than it would otherwise be.

    If social synchronisation is unwinding then changing tempo will become an ever more common experience. If we can’t take temporal regimes for granted, as collective realities grounded in shared institutions, temporal heterogeneity within a life will become increasingly normal. Therefore I think it’s important we understand experiences like changing tempo, as well as the mechanisms underlying them and accounting for commonalities and differences in how we experience them.

  • Mark 8:44 pm on June 19, 2018 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , collective reflexivity, , , , , , ,   

    When a conference has a meta-conference: reflections on the first day of live blogging at #undisciplining 

    Though Pat, Kate Thomas and I made initial contributions to the live blogging project yesterday, it really kicked off today when the main Undisciplining conference began. The day started with a short meeting for our co-researchers, before we all set off on our way through the conference. These are the results of day one:

    1. Trying to Say Something Clever – Michael Toze
    2. the person/al and the structural? – Pat Thomson
    3. un-mining, (under-mining?) disciplinarity – Anna Davidson
    4. I am NOT a sociologist, get me out of here! – Julia Molinari
    5. sociology of art as a powerful way to reveal the social – Janna Klostermann
    6. making a sociological board game – Pat Thomson
    7. Being alone at conferences – Mark Carrigan
    8. Structure and Undisciplining – Catherine Price
    9. Questions from the geographical edges – Rosemary Hancock
    10. The Missing Links – interdisciplinary in sociological inquiry – Donna Carmichael
    11. A sociological walk of contrasts – Julia Molinari
    12. The Future versus Bureaucracy – Michael Toze
    13. Live blogging and the cinema experience – Catherine Price
    14. Time to Write – Kate Carruthers Thomas
    15. The dreaded conference dinner – Julia Molinari
    16. When a conference has a meta-conference: reflections on the first day of live blogging at #undisciplining – Mark Carrigan (you didn’t think I was going to miss this off the list did you?)

    What an incredible outpouring of creative energy. I hadn’t realised quite how much was written today because I retreated a bit, having my will to engage sapped by being tied up with a seemingly never ending series of tedious technical tasks. It goes without saying that I incorporated this into a blog, itself in part a response to someone who perfectly articulated what I was feeling (and a practical proposal relating to) on Twitter. Plus I found myself interpreting my later mood in relation to later responses. The whole thing is becoming chronically and almost overwhelmingly meta, compounding my own exhaustion but helping me interpret that and relate it to the conference as a whole.

    There is a thread of reflectivity winding its way through the conference, increasingly showing signs of spiralling in upon itself as themes percolate outwards and onwards, across platforms and through the face-to-face. It has seemed increasingly obvious to me over the course of the day that the project needs more curation to feed back in on itself. It needs care and effort to frame the blogs and (re)present them undisciplining in a way that invites further responses. This might be through Twitter but it could also be face-to-face. I’ve struggled to do that during the day, with this project slipping to the back of my mind for long periods, though it should be a bit easier to focus tomorrow. But in a way that makes it more interesting because my fluctuating attention highlights the objectivity of what we’re doing, as something uncertainly begins to emerge from the aggregated iteration of the research team.

    (I’m cross-posting this on my own blog first because I compulsively record everything that matters to me intellectually there and it’s dawning on me that I’m going to be thinking about this project a lot in the coming months, as much as my current focus is on the day-to-day of the conference. Plus I’m tired in a way that makes the familiarity of my own blog oddly comforting)

  • Mark 7:20 am on June 15, 2018 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , , , , , , , ,   

    Accelerating into the singularity  

    The singularity is a speculative notion referring to the point at which exponential innovation generates a fundamental transformation of human civilisation. As Murray Shanahan puts it in on loc 78 of his book The Technological Singularity:

    In physics, a singularity is a point in space or time, such as the center of a black hole or the instant of the Big Bang, where mathematics breaks down and our capacity for comprehension along with it. By analogy, a singularity in human history would occur if exponential technological progress brought about such dramatic change that human affairs as we understand them today came to an end. 1 The institutions we take for granted—the economy, the government, the law, the state—these would not survive in their present form. The most basic human values—the sanctity of life, the pursuit of happiness, the freedom to choose—these would be superseded. Our very understanding of what it means to be human—to be an individual, to be alive, to be conscious, to be part of the social order—all this would be thrown into question, not by detached philosophical reflection, but through force of circumstances, real and present.

    How we should interpret this notion remains controversial. My own instinct is to see this as a form of techno-religion, delineating the point at which we transcend through our technological creations. But it is also something I feel we need to take seriously in order to understand, particularly how it is a framework for the future shaped by the conditions of late capitalism. It is in this sense that I was intrigued to see acceleration so explicitly invoked as a force which could be harnessed in order to drive this innovation. From pg 44 of the same book:

    The last of these options raises the possibility of a whole virtual society of artificial intelligences living in a simulated environment. Liberated from the constraints of real biology and relieved of the need to compete for resources such as food and water, certain things become feasible for a virtual society that are not feasible for a society of agents who are confined to wetware. For example, given sufficient computing resources, a virtual society could operate at hyper-real speeds. Every millisecond that passed in the virtual world could be simulated in, say, one-tenth of a millisecond in the real world. 

    If a society of AIs inhabiting such a virtual world were to work on improving themselves or on creating even more intelligent successors, then from the standpoint of the real world their progress would be duly accelerated. And if they were able to direct their technological expertise back out to the real world and help improve the computational substrate on which they depended, then the rate of this acceleration would in turn be accelerated. This is one route to a singularity-like scenario. The result would be explosive technological change, and the consequences would be unpredictable.

    My point is not to dispute the scientific plausibility of this but rather to ask how the notions in play come to acquire the resonance they do for those advocating and exploring the prospect of the singularity. 

    • landzek 4:13 pm on June 15, 2018 Permalink

      Your question is right on point.

      It is a kind of religion, a kind of catastrophism. Like a day of reckoning or sort of Armageddon or something or the day after when Jesus comes or something. Lol

      Personally I don’t think human beings have a capacity to create something like Frankenstein‘s monster, which inadvertently suddenly turns on its maker and makes it it’s life mission to kill it’s creator.

      I think that’s a real religious theme. Because we have not killed God because God exists at every moment that we speculate about this end of the world kind of contradiction.

      I think the fact is that human beings are always there to regulate and ordinate, and if they aren’t or if this isn’t going on then by definition, by ontological mandate, human beings simply do not conceive it, it is completely outside of ability to bring into reality, and thus what happens is that is the reality that humans live in and continue to exist by.

  • Mark 2:53 pm on June 14, 2018 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , , , , , social media stats,   

    Why we shouldn’t take social media metrics too seriously 

    In the last year, I’ve become increasingly preoccupied by why we shouldn’t take social media metrics too seriously. In part, this preoccupation is analytical because following this thread has proven to be a useful way to move from my past focus on individual users of social media to a more expansive sociological account of platforms. The lifecycle of metrics from being a project of platform engineers, through to being a feature of platforms onto something which are meaningful and matter to users elucidates structure and agency as it pertains to platforms. As does the subsequent utilisation of these metrics, laden with meaning by users, in order to model these people and modulate the environment within which they act. By saying we shouldn’t take metrics too seriously, I’m drawing attention to the way they are used as a mechanism to mould the behaviour of users and the risk that uncritical embrace of them leaves us being enticed by platforms in a damaging way.

    However beyond this concern, we shouldn’t lose sight of how easily they can be fudged and how unreliable they are. This is a concern which Jaron Lanier powerfully puts forward on pg 67 of his new book:

    First, why believe the numbers? As discussed in the previous argument, much of the online world is fake. Fake readers, fake commenters, fake referrals. I note that news sites that are trying to woo advertisers directly often seem to show spectacularly greater numbers of readers for articles about products that might be advertised—like choosing your next gaming machine—than for articles about other topics. This doesn’t mean the site is fudging its numbers. Instead, a manager probably hired a consulting firm that used an algorithm to optimize the choice of metrics services to relate the kind of usage statistics the site could use to attract advertisers. In other words, the site’s owners didn’t consciously fudge, but they kinda-sorta know that their stats are part of a giant fudge cake.

    It’s not so much that they are meaningless as that their meaning is often unstable. There are occasions in which it might be necessary to engage with them but we have to do this carefully. One of my projects in the next year will be to try and produce guidelines about this interpretation which reflect what we know about the sociology of platforms while nonetheless recognising that metricising our activity on social media can sometimes serve as strategic purpose.

  • Mark 6:05 pm on June 11, 2018 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: alcohol, , , , drinking,   

    Things I’ve realised in 45 days of not drinking 

    I began a lifestyle experiment 45 days ago, cutting out alcohol from my life to see what happened. It’s been much more enjoyable than I thought it would be and here’s a few things I’ve realised:

    • Higher education runs on booze. It’s remarkable how many events involve free alcohol and how much socialising after other events involves alcohol. It’s much easier than I thought it would be to opt out but it’s hard not to feel left out sometimes.
    • Alcohol dims my awareness of my own energy levels. I’ve been struck when travelling during this time how physically and mentally tired I am by the evening. It was a jarring experience to go to bed in Prague at 10pm and wake up refreshed the next day without an alarm clock, as opposed to waking up with a hangover and feeling awful.
    • I’m newly acquainted with my own introversion, particularly how my energy depletes if I don’t get time to myself (preferably at home) during a day. This is particularly a problem when I travel, with this occasionally making up as much as half of my time. I find it exhausting to socialise with people after doing stuff with them all day and I’m starting to feel ok with that because if I’m still like this at 32, it’s probably not going to change.
    • I was aware going to the pub could function as stress-relief for me. I’d spend an evening drinking with friends and feel better about everything the next day. But I hadn’t realised how this stopped me dwelling on the nature of the stress, providing an outlet without addressing the underlying problem. It’s not so much that I think I over work, as much that I’ve failed to organise my working life in a way that’s kind to myself and that’s something I’m in the process of changing.
    • I often drink out of habit. I’ve found it remarkable how rarely I’ve actually wanted to drink in the last 45 days. Once was while stuck in an airport, once was with a friend who was visiting and once after doing a successful workshop on a sunny day. The rest of the time I’ve simply wanted to do something nice and refraining from alcohol has helped me disentangle how it can have a self-care component but when it’s habitual it probably won’t.
    • My energy levels as a whole have increased remarkably, probably because I sleep much better than I did previously. I want to live a full life and whatever absence refraining from alcohol entails (though it’s much less than I imagined) is counterbalanced by everything else in my slightly crammed life working much better than it did previously.

    I’m not going to refrain from drinking forever. I like craft beer far too much for that to be feasible. But I can easily imagine myself doing this for a long time and only occasionally drinking, focusing on really special beer in a way that fully appreciates it. For the time being, I’m going to persist and see what happens. The very fact of committing to refraining from something that had been such a habitual part of my life has created a new orientation within me, shedding light on other things that were habitual and opaque beyond alcohol itself.

    • landzek 7:14 pm on June 11, 2018 Permalink

      Good for you. I have found through a similar experiment that alcohol is exteranneous to my happiness. I’ve found it clouds my mind in a way I hadn’t noticed before I stopped for a period. Now I just don’t even want it. But everyone is different, of course

    • landzek 7:33 pm on June 11, 2018 Permalink

      One might be compelled to ponder what the real outcome is for a consciousness to routinely enact breaks in cognition for itself. And then have to ‘reboot’ time after time. What could be an awareness that sees itself through a continence that is actually articulated by interruptions? What could that mean as a consciousness?

      Anyway. That’s what crosses my mind.

    • landzek 9:42 pm on June 11, 2018 Permalink

      A friend of mine was a professor of ethnic studies at a university. She was a recovered drug addict from her teens. her department would have welcome parties for new faculty and just general department dinners and parties. At 40 years old. 10 years tenure in the department, She became addicted again because of drugs that were present and offered at the occasions. She sued and won. And went to treatment and all on the school tab. But her department colleagues Ostracized her. She had to switch departments . It’s interesting it took You stopping to notice the prevalence of intoxicants.

    • TheSociologicalMail 12:15 pm on June 13, 2018 Permalink

      Funny how Academia can’t free itself from Britains booze culture.

    • Mark 2:59 pm on June 14, 2018 Permalink

      I’m pretty convinced it’s a diminution of reflexivity (i.e. it entails a loss of agency rather than an increase in it). But I totally see what you’re getting at, even if we might disagree about how to interpret it. This is partly what I’ve been trying to write about as ‘cognitive triage’.

    • Glenyan 3:28 pm on June 14, 2018 Permalink

      This is insightful and observant, thanks for posting it.

    • landzek 4:46 pm on June 14, 2018 Permalink

      Intoxicants indeed can have their benefits. For sure. But then along side of that. I’ve pondered why would I need it.

      I am sure you’ve heard a thing about pot. I used to smoke a lot of pot and I remember people would say or it would come up about being addicted to it, but alcohol could be said the same: they would say well if you’re not addicted then why don’t you stop. And the usual answer is well I don’t want to. And then they would say it’s because you’re addicted.

      But I definitely know some people who only drink alcohol very occasionally like when the occasion comes up where they’re particularly tired that evening or they go out or something but it’s not an every day thing.

      One has to ask one self if — someone who is otherwise functional, you know they’re not fully alcoholic or drug addict or something, —about someone who goes out or who drinks every single night.

      And if you would suggest to them hey why don’t you not drink one of those nights I would imagine that it might be difficult for a lot of people not to drink every night when they’re used to drinking every night.

      So, anyways. I’m interested in intoxicants and how they affect people and the possibilities around them so.

    • Mark 10:17 am on June 29, 2018 Permalink

      me too but I guess as a specific instance of a broader question about time, habit, routine and meaning etc

  • Mark 5:51 pm on June 11, 2018 Permalink | Reply
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    Carrying a book around inside your head 

    As any regular reader of this blog will know, I’ve been working on The Distracted People of Digital Capitalism for over three years. I’ve made little progress in that time and my reliable line “I’m working on a book about distraction but I keep getting distracted” has begun to be depressing. But for the last year, the argument of the book has seemed fully worked out to me.

    I’ve written about 20,000 words of long form writing for the book and I’ve posted 1721 blog posts in the various categories associated with the project. Even allowing for a high rate of cross-categorisation, suggesting 500 blog posts across the multiple categories, it’s still 250,000 words at an estimated average of 500 words per posts. Obviously there are some large block quotes amongst that but it still means I’ve written upwards of 150,000 words for a book which by this point I expect will only be 150-200 pages.

    Finishing it will be as much condensing what I have written as writing new material. Perhaps this is the problem. I am literally carrying this book around inside my mind and at this point I’m desperate to get it out.

    • Susan 4:13 pm on June 13, 2018 Permalink


      This sounds like the first year of doctoral studies when a decent and supportive supervisor would say, “Stop carrying it around in your head – you must start writing.” But you have. Perhaps talking about it with others is draining the impulse to pull together what you have written into a cohesive whole that ‘looks’ more like a tangible book.

      Good luck!

    • Mark 2:54 pm on June 14, 2018 Permalink

      Thanks, I think it’s definitely not helping but I think the main problem is lack of time coupled with agreeing to do papers and chapters which I’m really not committed to. I’ve finally realised I need to stop doing these things if I’m ever going to get the book finished :-/

  • Mark 8:50 am on June 11, 2018 Permalink | Reply
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    Social media as asshole amplification technology, or, the moral psychology of platform architecture 

    This is Jaron Lanier’s memorable description of social media in his new book Ten Arguments For Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now. Social media is a technology for asshole amplification. To be clearly seen in the fact that “since social media took off, assholes are having more of a say in the world” (pg 43). His point is not that social media is a haven for trolls because it’s “not helpful to think of the world as being divided into assholes and non-assholes or if you prefer trolls and victims”. On pg 44 he cautions that each of us has our own inner troll:

    It’s like an ugly alien living inside you that you long ago forgot about. Don’t let your inner troll take control! If it happens when you’re in a particular situation, avoid that situation! It doesn’t matter if it’s an online platform, a relationship, or a job. Your character is like your health, more valuable than anything you can buy. Don’t throw it away. But why, why is the inner troll there at all? It’s such a common problem that it must be a deep, primal business, a tragedy of our inheritance, a stupid flaw at the heart of the human condition. But saying that doesn’t get us anywhere. What exactly is the inner troll? Sometimes the inner troll takes charge, sometimes it doesn’t. My working hypothesis has long been that there’s a switch deep in every human personality that can be set in one of two modes. We’re like wolves. We can either be solitary or members of a pack of wolves. I call this switch the Solitary/ Pack switch. When we’re solitary wolves, we’re more free. We’re cautious, but also capable of more joy. We think for ourselves, improvise, create. We scavenge, hunt, hide. We howl once in a while out of pure exuberance. When we’re in a pack, interactions with others become the most important thing in the world. I don’t know how far that goes with wolves, but it’s dramatic in people. When people are locked in a competitive, hierarchical power structure, as in a corporation, they can lose sight of the reality of what they’re doing because the immediate power struggle looms larger than reality itself.

    The evolutionary language here can seem off-putting to a sociologist. But it can be recast in terms of internal and external goods. Sometimes we are driven by the rewards internal to what we are doing while at other times we are driven by rewards external to what we are doing. What makes social media platforms so insidious is their tendency to, as Lanier puts it, make “social status and intrigues become more than immediate than the larger reality” (pg 49). I don’t agree with his account of why this is so but I think the underlying direction of his argument is correct. Social media is asshole amplification technology because it lends such force and vivacity to external goods, particularly recognition and reputation, leaving internal goods hard to sustain.

    We often do sustain our relationship with these goods, as can be seen in the continued existence of thoughtful and intelligent exchange online. But we do so in spite of rather than because of the asshole amplification architecture of social media. It’s grasping the bivalent nature of this relationship, as internal and external goods co-mingle within platform architectures which are continually modulating in response to our (ambivalent) actions, which is crucial if we want to understand and perhaps even overcome the asshole amplification propensities of social media.

  • Mark 11:31 am on June 10, 2018 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , , , , ,   

    Our social media guidelines for @thesocreview #undisciplining conference 

    Undisciplining Social Media Guidelines
    @TheSocReview http://www.undisciplining.org #Undisciplining

    Social media has been central to our journal in recent years, helping us build a new relationship with our readers and expand beyond our traditional audience. We enthusiastically embrace it as a means to promote sociological thought, as well as a way to work towards a more engaged and open culture within the academy. But making good on this promise requires that it is treated carefully. For this reason, we have included this document in each delegate pack, offering some principles and guidelines to inform your use of social media at Undisciplining. We have a few non-negotiable requirements, included after careful deliberation within our team, but mostly what we have included are pointers we hope will improve everyone’s social media experience at the conference.

    General principles:

    Be clear about what you are doing and why. It can be easy to slip into using social media in a habitual way, particularly when you’re waiting for a coffee break. But the more concrete you can be about your aims, the easier it will be to ensure you are using social media effectively. The table below provides an overview of conference social media activities and common reasons why these might be undertaken. It is by no means exhaustive so please don’t worry if you intend to use these platforms in a way we haven’t listed here but please talk to us if you have any doubts about its appropriateness after reading these guidelines. There are possibilities we haven’t listed here, such as live streaming and recording audio-visual material, which we request that you don’t use at the conference for reasons explained below.

    Remember that people can have different interpretations and will bring different knowledge to the same situation. This might sound obvious but social media can make it hard to remember this by stripping interactions of context and presenting isolated units of communication in a way that is easy to misinterpret.

    Source: xkcd. Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 2.5 License

    We want people to be critical of the arguments they encounter but please try to be civil and give other conference goers the benefit of the doubt. People have a right to know what you are saying about them so please ensure you tag other users if you are talking about their contributions to the conference. Likewise please ensure you credit people appropriately, including relevant affiliations (most academic departments now have Twitter accounts) if the person in question does not have their own feed.  

    Social media can often magnify disagreements and multiply misunderstandings. To paraphrase our favourite xkcd cartoon, if it begins to matter to you that someone is wrong on the internet then that’s a sign you should put down your phone or tablet and engage with the conference without social media for a bit. We want to use social media to help people at Undisciplining connect with each other and the last thing we want is for people to spend the event falling out over social media. We’ve worked hard to create a friendly, engaging and welcoming event so please do your best to approach each other with that ethos when you interact through social media.


    • Please ensure you use the #undisciplining hashtag on Twitter and Instagram. This will allow us to keep track of what’s happening on social media and curate this material before, during and after the event. We are keen to help people connect with each other and connect to other conference goers, so if you’d like us to recirculate something to other participants at the conference please tweet the request to us or e-mail community@thesociologicalreview.com.
    • Please follow the instructions of chairs concerning social media. While we encourage social media at the conference as a whole, speakers and organisers establish what they are comfortable with in their sessions. Therefore please listen to the guidance of the chairs and respect any concerns or requests made by speakers to this end.
    • Please refrain from using live streaming services like Periscope or Facebook Live during the conference. Many people are uncomfortable with the idea of being live-streamed and its immediacy can create problems, even for those who might be comfortable with the idea in principle.
    • Please refrain from recording audio or video at the conference. We have put a lot of time and energy into planning the multimedia being produced at the event. We want to ensure that we capture the event in the most effective way and ensure everyone is comfortable with the finished outputs.
    • Please be considerate in your use of photography at the conference. Photography is ok in the main auditorium unless otherwise specified. Please aim for crowds and avoid foregrounding individuals when taking photography outside of sessions. Avoid photography in workshops unless told it is ok.

    If in doubt about something, please ask at any point. Tweet or DM us @thesocreview, e-mail our Digital Engagement Fellow directly at community@thesociologicalreview.com or speak to one of the conference team who can direct your query accordingly.

    Thanks to the many people on Twitter I talked to directly and indirectly about these while planning them. 

  • Mark 9:24 am on June 10, 2018 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , blue origin, , , , , , Jeff bezos, mining, , resources, , space travel, , ,   

    Platform capitalism and its interplanetary horizons 

    To frame the commercialisation of space as being somehow related to ‘platform capitalism’ risks misunderstanding. It is certainly the case that Jeff Bezos, owner of Blue Origin, owes his wealth to Amazon but this has become a platform over time rather than being founded as one. Elon Musk, owner of SpaceX, owes his early success to PayPal, a finance platform which was purchased at great expense by a peer-to-peer commerce platform, but he is far from the quintessential platform capitalist. Meanwhile, there are other players in the commercial space industry, such as Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen and brand-for-hire Richard Branson, who have little to do with what we talk about when we use a term like platform capitalism.

    Therefore what I mean when I talk about the interplanetary horizons of platform capitalism is not the commercial history of the founders of these companies, though they have accumulated their wealth over the period where platforms have become ubiquitous and tech firms have become the most highly valued commercial entities on the planet. This has certainly facilitated their development, with Bezos largely self-financing his company until recently and Musk cross-fertilising his reputation and leveraging the Silicon Valley cult of the founder to win attention, overcome incumbents and force his way into the lucrative field of state contracts. But we miss what is most interesting about the commercialisation of space if we focus exclusively on these figures.

    What interests me is how the platform, as an operable business model but also a heuristic working analogically to collapse the vast array of future opportunities into specifiable strategies, frames the new phase of space travel we are beginning to enter into. This is something Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen explicitly invokes on pg 266-267 of Christian Davenport’s The Space Barons:

    Allen also saw parallels between the space frontier and the Internet. “When such access to space is routine, innovation will accelerate in ways beyond what we can currently imagine,” he said. “That’s the thing about new platforms: when they become easily available, convenient, and affordable, they attract and enable other visionaries and entrepreneurs to realize more new concepts.… “Thirty years ago, the PC revolution put computing power into the hands of millions and unlocked incalculable human potential. Twenty years ago, the advent of the web and the subsequent proliferation of smartphones combined to enable billions of people to surmount the traditional limitations of geography and commerce. Today, expanding access to LEO [low Earth orbit] holds similar revolutionary potential.”

    The same case is made by Jeff Bezos is in terms of infrastructure. These firms are building the infrastructure which make commercial innovation in space feasible, creating facilitates and crafting pipelines which other players will be able to use. The ambition here is vast, seeking to save capitalism from itself by moving it into space. For Musk, hope lies with Mars and the extension of technological civilisation there to move beyond the confines of a dying earth. For Bezos, we must move industry beyond Earth and preserve our habitat as the place to live while commerce, mining and manufacturing expand outwards to the stars. There is a civilisational vision in both cases, necessary to recognise even if we don’t take it seriously.

    It is easy to dismiss this as hubris, the outsized dreams of billionaires with too few restraints on how they spend their vast wealth. It is perhaps more fair, even if inaccurate, if we see it as an ideological front to cover expansion into the largest area of state spending which until recently remained untouched by private commerce. But I’m increasingly convinced there’s more going on here than either explanation can recognise. Platform capitalism has interplanetary horizons which we should take seriously because they make a difference, even if they prove logistically or technologically unfeasible in the longer term. This is the frontier of how digital elites think about capitalism and its future, liable to exercise an enormous influence upon our collective world in which these figures have near untrammelled power.

    • marchudson 11:28 am on June 10, 2018 Permalink

      I will forward this on to my good friend Matt Bright, who I don’t think you’ve met, but you defo should. He has read insane quantities of near-future sci-fi, some of which will have interesting overlaps with this. When you next up north, btw?

    • Mark 9:49 am on June 11, 2018 Permalink

      not for a while unfortunately, things down here have become remarkably stressed recently (completely my own fault) and barely have breathing room for anything else until the summer….

  • Mark 3:04 pm on June 9, 2018 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , , , , fast writing, ,   

    Fast and slow writing in the accelerated academy 

    What does it mean to write? For a long time, it carried a sense of total immersion for me, letting the world recede in order to lose yourself in the production of a text. This is ‘binge writing’ and it was my standard mode for the six years I spent doing a part-time PhD. I wrote my first paper in a weekend. I wrote my first chapter in a couple of days. I wrote a disturbingly large amount of the thesis in the final few months. Without preparation, it is not possible to write like this. The thoughts have to germinate, ideas have to take shape before words can flow in this way. Binge writing entails a form of life, incorporating an orientation to continuous thinking as well as extended periods of time for writing intensively. It is demanding on a number of levels and it is something I have found decreasingly possible since then.

    My experience of succesful binge writing suggests it is not simply a matter of making the time available. There is a degree of unpredictability because inspiration and writing time have to coincide. If you can get this to work, writing can be the most immersive and engaging activity in the world. It is certainly the purest experience of flow states I have ever known. There’s an extract from Neitzche’s Ecce Homo which has always captured this experience for me:

    The notion of revelation – in the sense that suddenly, with ineffable assuredness and subtlety, something becomes visible, audible, something that shakes you to the core and bowls you over – provides a simple description of the facts of the matter. You hear, you don’t search; you take, you don’t ask who is giving; like a flash of lightening a thought flares up, with necessity, with no hesitation as to its form – I never had any choice.

    – Friedrich Nietzsche, Ecce Homo, Pg 68 (Duncan Large translation)

    Under these conditions, it is as if writing works through you. I’ve sometimes written as much as 4000 words in a day like this, often good words requiring minimal editing. It is physically and mentally draining but at no point do I find myself grasping for words. They flow until they do not anymore. Then I feel satisfied in the awareness that the idea which had welled up within me have been expressed onto the page and I move on from  them.

    This is slow scholarship, even if the act of writing is intensified. It rests on synchronising your creative rhythms and your working routines, requiring a great deal of flexibility for it to operate. It isn’t simply a matter of autonomy because it necessitates being free from the constraints of your own choices, able to set aside time for intensive writing even when you have (freely) committed yourself to other things. It is something which I haven’t been able to do since my PhD. Even in the last year of my PhD, I could only do it out of necessity. In fact, I’ve been struggling to move away from this mode of writing since spending a year working full time at the LSE half way through my PhD. Other demands mean writing has to become more extensive, flowing beyond neatly defined periods of immersion into the gaps that inevitably spring up throughout one’s week.

    It is so easy to fall into simplistic dichotomies concerning a matter as intensely personal and emotionally charged as writing. Binge writing versus writing routines is one of them. It is a distinction which fails to capture the difference which matters, reducing a rich spectrum of ways in which thought and writing knit together into brute differences of scheduling. But fast and slow scholarship is another, as I’ve written about on numerous occasions. I find myself increasingly bothered by the idea that fast writing is inevitably hasty writing, as propounded by the Slow Scholarship Manifesto amongst others. It isolates the act of writing from the life of which it is part, lending a singular quality to an act which is an expression of a mode of being in the world. Fast writing can be hasty writing, much as slow writing can be tedious writing. But the relationship is not a necessary one.

    These dichotomies often confuse preparation, process and outputs. What is often seen as extremely fast writing (e.g. producing multiple blogs posts in an afternoon) can in fact be slow scholarship. If we dispense with the assumption of writing as teleological, orientated towards producing texts which ought to persevere and be preserved, it becomes easier to see writing as something iterative. When we write, we struggle to put things into words. Through that struggle we gain greater clarity concerning what we are trying to say. The act of writing is the crucial point in a much broader process of making sense of the world (or at least some particular aspects of it). On this view, slow writing is a recipe for a failure of intellectual development. Rather than being a reliable route towards profundity, it risks leaving one mired in intellectual immaturity because it denies a crucial mechanism through which we develop our thinking and elaborate our understanding. What happens to a thought when you put it on hold? When you suspend it and categorise it? When it goes from something which grips you in the moment, as if it were a force taking hold of you from outside? My experience has been that these moments give rise to the most profound feelings of creativity, lifting one out of the mundane realities of daily life and into the making of something. Whereas foreclosing that moment of inspiration by noting it down on a ‘to do’ list is just depressing.

    My argument is not that temporalities of writing aren’t significant but rather that fast and slow fail to capture what is at stake in them. It’s something I’ve been thinking about a lot recently, as I’ve realised that my writing is more yet less successful than ever. I write everyday, easily meeting a 500 word goal across my blog and book projects. It has become a reflex, something I can sit down and do with little effort. But it is sometimes too easy and I no longer struggle with ideas, as much as merely express them. The automatic quality of my daily writing has begun to undermine the reflexivity of my writing practice. I can so quickly and easily meet my quota that I don’t sit with ideas as I write them, relying on reading and thinking outside the writing window to ensure they have fermented in the way I hope. They often have.

    But the ease with which I tend to meet this target creates other problems, as it easily lends itself to the mentality of hitting the target on days when it would be a challenge to write immersively or expensively. It sometimes leaves me picking at low hanging fruit rather than pursuing a topic or theme because it grips me on a particular day. It often leaves me stopping at 500 words so I can move onto other things. This is when the fastness of the writing begins to undermine the slowness of the scholarship The problem is compounded by the impulse to slot writing into random windows in my life, ‘doing my 500 words’ on trains and planes, in hotel rooms and sitting on park benches. In building it into the fabric of my life, making it an unquestioned part of my daily existence, I’ve managed to devalue it. It is everywhere yet nowhere. Crucial yet never prioritised.

    In the last month, I’ve been thinking a lot about how I can change this, building on the work I’ve done but opening it out so writing has a more respected place in my life. What initially prompted this was the difficulty in finishing things i.e. drawing the strands together and editing them into finished pieces. But I’m realising the problem is broader than this and it’s proving an interesting issue to reflect on.

    • tiwarisac 1:08 am on June 10, 2018 Permalink

      Loved reading this piece. That thought about having a more respected place for writing is identifiable. I do not write as prolifically as you and haven’t published either, but trying not to write during those windows of time (traveling on planes, trains etc) is often motivated by the same thought – of not making it commonplace and banal. And then this leads to very low amount of writing done. 🙂 I do not quite know when does my vest writing happen, although I agree that when it does it comes like a torrential rain.

    • anacanhoto 3:36 pm on June 10, 2018 Permalink

      Regarding finishing those various projects, someone recommended the book “Finish: Give Yourself the Gift of Done” by Jonathan Acuff. I haven’t actually read it, yet – it’s next on my non-fiction reading list.

    • Mark 9:48 am on June 11, 2018 Permalink

      Should probably finish off the other books first 😀

      (looks good though, thanks)

    • Mark 9:51 am on June 11, 2018 Permalink

      I think it’s definitely necessary to write during those windows (or at least not to wait for the perfect moment) but I’m increasingly seeing how easy it is to take this attitude too far once you start with it :-/

  • Mark 2:49 pm on June 9, 2018 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , , , , kitsch,   

    The consolation of kitsch 

    I’ve never completely understood my attraction to kitsch. As much as part of me would like to suggest otherwise, it’s not a knowing embrace of excessive sentimentality and contrived garishness, as much as these things genuinely appealing to me in a way that can prompt knowingness when I reflect upon it. For instance, I saw these gnomes and immediately imagined them populating my garden (alongside the ceramic pug, the metal cat, the Buddha, the snail etc).

    I find the infinite reproducibility of objects like this weirdly relaxing to be around, as if they can diffuse the anxieties of commodification by reminding us none of this really matters. Yet somehow they do matter. It made me sad when I discovered that the leg had fallen off my ceramic pug (as well as baffled by the fact I couldn’t find this leg anywhere). Not upset, just a little sad. These objects invite participation in a tamed emotional register, provoking trivial joys and fleeting feelings of loss. But they also repudiate established ideas of ‘good taste’ and provoke internal alienation in those who feel the need to aggressively enforce them.

    These kitsch objects are individualising in the sense of relativising our individual responses, leading us further into our own involvement with mass produced objects while also problematising the generic character of that involvement. They lead us to care, vaguely, while making care of that sort more visible to us than it would be in relation to more refined and distinctive commodities. Meanwhile they trouble the care of others, interrupting an evaluative order of good taste that for much of the time gets reproduced seamlessly. I find kitsch (vaguely) consoling and I feel a (fleeting) commitment to continuing to (occasionally) collect it.

  • Mark 9:15 pm on June 8, 2018 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , , cyber utopian, danah boyd, , digital utopian, , , , , , , utopian,   

    The original sin of the digital utopians 

    There’s a fascinating mea culpa in Jaron Lanier’s new book Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now. On loc 411 he describes how early design decisions, inspired by the libertarian ethos taking hold within the tech community, created the openings for the global monopolies we now see emerging:

    Originally, many of us who worked on scaling the internet hoped that the thing that would bring people together—that would gain network efect and lock-in—would be the internet itself. But there was a libertarian wind blowing, so we left out many key functions. The internet in itself didn’t include a mechanism for personal identity, for instance. Each computer has its own code number, but people aren’t represented at all. Similarly, the internet in itself doesn’t give you any place to store even a small amount of persistent information, any way to make or receive payments, or any way to find other people you might have something in common with. Everyone knew that these functions and many others would be needed. We figured it would be wiser to let entrepreneurs fill in the blanks than to leave that task to government. What we didn’t consider was that fundamental digital needs like the ones I just listed would lead to new kinds of massive monopolies because of network efects and lock-in. We foolishly laid the foundations for global monopolies. We did their hardest work for them. More precisely, since you’re the product, not the customer of social media, the proper word is “monopsonies.” Our early libertarian idealism resulted in gargantuan, global data monopsonies.

    If I understand him correctly, he is suggesting that these functions could have been built into the infrastructure of the internet itself rather than becoming services fulfilled by corporate providers. This passage reminded me of a recent keynote by danah boyd, reflecting on how utopian dreams concerning digital technology have come to seem untenable with time:

    A decade ago, academics that I adore were celebrating participatory culture as emancipatory, noting that technology allowed people to engage with culture in unprecedented ways. Radical leftists were celebrating the possibilities of decentralized technologies as a form of resisting corporate power. Smart mobs were being touted as the mechanism by which authoritarian regimes could come crashing down.

    Now, even the most hardened tech geek is quietly asking:

    What hath we wrought?

    This intellectual utopianism concerned the products of the original digital utopians themselves, innovators who sought to “disrupt the status quo, but weren’t at all prepared for what it would mean when they controlled the infrastructure underlying democracy, the economy, the media, and communication”. Recognising the role of dreams in shaping technology isn’t just a matter of how they inspire people to create but also recognising what happens when they go wrong. These aren’t just a froth of naiveté on the surface of a dark materiality lurking beneath. They are rather a force in their own right, changing the world they sought to improve as the ambitions underlying them curdle in the darkening reality they have contributed to.

  • Mark 11:01 am on June 7, 2018 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , , , , , , structuralism, , ,   

    Human agency beyond platform structuralism and platform voluntarism 

    In the last year, I find myself obsessing ever more fequently about agency and platforms. Given I spent six years writing a PhD about human agency, it is inevitable that this would be the lens I bring to the analysis of platforms. But it also reflects a sustained weakness in how the role of agency in platforms is conceptualised, as well as the political implications which are seen to flow from this. It is one which we can make sense of using Margaret Archer’s notion of conflation, developed to make sense of how different theorists have sought to solve the problem of structure and agency.

    I want to suggest we can find a fundamental ambiguity about platforms which plays out at both political and ontological levels. This ambiguity reflects a failure to make sense of how platforms exercise a causal influence over human beings and how human beings exercise a causal influence over platforms. Platform structuralism takes many forms but it fundamentally sees human behaviour as moulded by platforms, leveraging insights into the social, psychological and/or neuro constitution of human beings to condition their behaviour in predictable and explicable ways. It takes the platform as the horizon of human action, framing human beings as responding to the incentives and disincentives to be found within its architecture. It is often tied to a politics which sees platforms as generating pathological, even addictive, behaviours. It conflates downwards and takes agency as an epiphenomenon of (platform) structure.

    Critiques informed by platform structuralism often seem to have put their finger on something important, while remaining overstated in a way that is hard to pin down specifically. My suggestion is this overstatement is a failure to come to terms with the fundamental relation between the platform and the user. How do platforms exercise a causal influence over their users? Their interventions are individualised in a statistical way, rather than a substantive one. These are instruments which are simultaneously precise yet blunt. While they might be cumulatively influential, particular instances are liable to be crude and ineffective, often passing unnoticed in the life of the user. For this reason we have to treat the causal powers of platforms over their users extremely careful. It is also something which varies immensely between platforms and the ontology of platforms designed for multi-sided markets is a more complex issue for another post.

    Platform voluntarism is often a response to the overstatement of platform structuralism. Denying the capacity of platforms to mould their users, platforms are framed as simply providing incentives and disincentives, able to be ignored by users as readily as they are embraced. The platform is simply a stage upon which actors act, perhaps facilitating new categories of action but doing nothing to shape the characteristics of the agents themselves. It conflates upwards, treating platform (structure) as a straight forward expression of the aggregate intentions of their users. Both platform voluntarism and platform structuralism tend to reify platforms, cutting them off in different ways from both users and the wider social context in which they use. What gets lost is human agency and the ways in which these infrastructures shape and are shaped by human agents.

    Another reason it is so crucial to retain agency as a category is because these platforms are designed in purposive ways. Unless we have an account of how they have the characteristics they do because people have sought to develop them in specific ways, we risk lapsing into a form of platform structuralism which we take platforms as an a priori horizon within which human beings act. They are simply given. We might inquire into the characteristics of platforms in other capacities, including as business models, but we won’t link this to our account of how platforms conditions the social action of users taking place within and through them. We will miss the immediate reactivity of platforms to their users, as well as the many human, rather than merely algorithmic, mechanisms at work. But more broadly, we will take the conditioning influences as a given rather than as something to be explained. In such a case, we treat user agency and engineering agency as unrelated to each other and fragment a phenomenon which we need to treat in a unified way.

    If we want to draw out these connections, it becomes necessary to understand how engineers design platforms in ways encoding an understanding of users and seeking to influence their action. If we can provide thick descriptions of these projects, capturing the perspective of engineers as they go about their jobs, it becomes much easier to avoid the oscillation between platform structuralism and platform voluntarism. Central to this is the question of how platform engineers conceive of their users and how they act on these conceptions. What are the vocabularies through which they make sense of how their users act and how their actions can be influenced? Once we recover these considerations, it becomes harder to support the politics which often flows from platform structuralism. As Jaron Lanier writes on loc 282 of his Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now:

    There is no evil genius seated in a cubicle in a social media company performing calculations and deciding that making people feel bad is more “engaging” and therefore more profitable than making them feel good. Or at least, I’ve never met or heard of such a person. The prime directive to be engaging reinforces itself, and no one even notices that negative emotions are being amplified more than positive ones. Engagement is not meant to serve any particular purpose other than its own enhancement, and yet the result is an unnatural global amplification of the “easy” emotions, which happen to be the negative ones.

    He suggests we must replace terms like “engagement” with terms like “addiction” and “behavior modification”. Only then can we properly confront the political ramifications of this technology because our description of the problems will no longer be sanitised by the now familiar discourse of Silicon Valley. But this political vocabulary would be unhelpful for sociological analysis because it takes us further away from the lifeworld of big tech. It is only if we can establish a rich understanding of the agency underlying the reproduction and transformation of platforms that we can overcome the contrasting tendencies towards platform structuralism and platform voluntarism. But this political vocabulary would be unhelpful for sociological analysis because it takes us further away from the lifeworld of big tech. It is only if we can establish a rich understanding of the agency underlying the reproduction and transformation of platforms that we can overcome conflationism in our approach to platforms.

  • Mark 4:49 pm on June 6, 2018 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , , , ,   

    CfP: The Cultural Life of Machine Learning: An Incursion into Critical AI Studies 

    How good does this look? So much of this chimes with the paper I’m currently struggling to finish

    The Cultural Life of Machine Learning: An Incursion into Critical AI Studies
    Preconference Workshop, #AoIR2018 Montréal, Canada
    Urbanisation Culture Société Research Centre, INRS (Institut national de la recherche scientifique)
    Wednesday October 10th 2018

    Machine learning (ML), deep neural networks, differentiable programming and related contemporary novelties in artificial intelligence (AI) are all leading to the development of an ambiguous yet efficient narrative promoting the dominance of a scientific field—as well as a ubiquitous business model. Indeed, AI is very much in full hype mode. For its advocates, it represents a ‘tsunami’ (Manning, 2015) or ‘revolution’ (Sejnowski, 2018)—terms indicative of a very performative and promotional, if not self-fulfilling, discourse. The question, then, is: how are the social sciences and humanities to dissect such a discourse and make sense of all its practical implications? So far, the literature on algorithms and algorithmic cultures has been keen to explore both their broad socio-economic, political and cultural repercussions, and the ways they relate to different disciplines, from sociology to communication and Internet studies. The crucial task ahead is understanding the specific ways by which the new challenges raised by ML and AI technologies affect this wider framework. This would imply not only closer collaboration among disciplines—including those of STS for instance—but also the development of new critical insights and perspectives. Thus a helpful and precise pre-conference workshop question could be: what is the best way to develop a fine-grained yet encompassing field under the name of Critical AI Studies? We propose to explore three regimes in which ML and 21st-century AI crystallize and come to justify their existence: (1) epistemology, (2) agency, and (3) governmentality—each of which generates new challenges as well as new directions for inquiries.

    In terms of epistemology, it is important to recognize that ML and AI are situated forms of knowledge production, and thus worthy of empirical examination (Pinch and Bijker, 1987). At present, we only have internal accounts of the historical development of the machine learning field, which increasingly reproduce a teleological story of its rise (Rosenblatt, 1958) and fall (Minsky and Papert 1968; Vapnik 1998) and rise (Hinton 2006), concluding with the diverse if as-yet unproven applications of deep learning. Especially problematic in this regard is our understanding of how these techniques are increasingly hybridized with large-scale training datasets, specialized graphics-processing hardware, and algorithmic calculus. The rationale behind contemporary ML finds its expression in a very specific laboratory culture (Forsythe 1993), with a specific ethos or model of “open science”. Models trained on the largest datasets of private corporations are thus made freely available, and subsequently détourned for the new AI’s semiotic environs of image, speech, and text—promising to make the epistemically recalcitrant landscapes of unruly and ‘unstructured’ data newly “manageable”.

    As the knowledge-production techniques of ML and AI move further into the fabric of everyday life, it creates a particularly new form of agency. Unlike the static, rule-based systems critiqued in a previous generation by Dreyfus (1972), modern AI models pragmatically unfold as a temporal flow of decontextualized classifications. What then does agency mean for machine learners (Mackenzie, 2017)? Performance in this particular case relates to the power of inferring and predicting outcomes (Burell, 2016); new kinds of algorithmic control thus emerge at the junction of meaning-making and decision-making. The implications of this question are tangible, particularly as ML becomes more unsupervised and begins to impact on numerous aspects of daily life. Social media, for instance, are undergoing radical change, as insightful new actants come to populate the world: Echo translates your desires into Amazon purchases, and Facebook is now able to detect suicidal behaviours. In the general domain of work, too, these actants leave permanent traces—not only on repetitive tasks, but on the broader intellectual responsibility.

    Last but not least, the final regime to explore in this preconference workshop is governmentality. The politics of ML and AI are still largely to be outlined, and the question of power for these techniques remains largely unexplored. Governmentality refers specifically to how a field is organised—by whom, for what purposes, and through which means and discourses (Foucault, 1991). As stated above, ML and AI are based on a model of open science and innovation, in which public actors—such as governments and universities—are deeply implicated (Etzkowitz and Leydesdorff, 2000). One problem, however, is that while the algorithms themselves may be openly available, the datasets on which they rely for implementation are not—hence the massive advantages for private actors such as Google or Facebook who control the data, as well as the economic resources to attract the brightest students in the field. But there is more: this same open innovation model makes possible the manufacture of military AI with little regulatory oversight, as is the case for China, whose government is currently helping to fuel an AI arms race (Simonite 2017). What alternatives or counter-powers could be imagined in these circumstances? Could ethical considerations stand alone without a proper and fully developed critical approach to ML and AI? This workshop will try to address these pressing and interconnected issues.

    We welcome all submissions which might profitably connect with one or more of these three categories of epistemology, agency, and governmentality; but we welcome other theoretically and/or empirically rich contributions.

    Interested scholars should submit proposal abstracts, of approximately 250 words, by 11:59pm EDT on June 30th, 2018 to CriticalAI2018 [at] gmail [dot] com. Proposals may represent works in progress, short position papers, or more developed research. The format of the workshop will focus on paper presentations and keynotes, with additional opportunities for group discussion and reflection.

    This preconference workshop will be held at the Urbanisation Culture Société Research Centre of INRS (Institut national de la recherche scientifique). The Centre is located at 385 Sherbrooke St E, Montreal, QC, and is about a 20-minute train ride from the Centre Sheraton on the STM Orange Line (enter at the Bonaventure stop, exit at Sherbrooke), or about a 30-minute walk along Rue Sherbrooke.

    For information on the AoIR (Association of Internet Researchers) conference, see https://aoir.org/aoir2018/ ; for other preconference workshops at AoIR 2018, see https://aoir.org/aoir2018/preconfwrkshop/.

    Organizers: Jonathan Roberge (INRS), Michael Castelle (University of Warwick), and Thomas Crosbie (Royal Danish Defence College).

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