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  • Mark 5:00 pm on August 30, 2018 Permalink | Reply
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    CfP: Post-H(uman) index? Politics, metrics, and agency in the accelerated academy 

    November 29th and 30th
    Faculty of Education, University of Cambridge

    Organised by Jana Bacevic, Mark Carrigan and Filip Vostal 

    Keynote: Liberalism Must Be Defeated: The Obsolescence of Bourgeois Theory in the Anthropocene by Gary Hall, Director of Centre for Postdigital Cultures at Coventry University, UK.

    The conference seeks to conceptualise change in contemporary knowledge production in a way that transcends the dichotomy between theoretical frameworks that emphasise the role of humans (e.g. pragmatism, cultural sociology, critical realism, Bourdieusian sociology) and those that seek to dissolve the human and/or focus on non-human actors (actor-network theory, poststructuralism, STS, new materialism, transhumanism). Bringing together scholars in social sciences and humanities whose work engages with relationships between the human, post-human, metrics, and agency in the ‘neoliberal’ university, the conference addresses the methodological implications of how we theorise human agency, the agency of technical systems, and the relationships between them, in order to foster and support critical scholarship and engagement the current (and future) socio-political environment requires.

    It is by now widely accepted that the transformation of the structures of governance and funding of higher education and research – including pressures to produce more and faster, and the associated proliferation of instruments of measurement such as citation (‘H’) indexes and rankings – pose serious challenges to the future of the academia. The critique of these trends has mostly taken the form of calls to ‘slow down’, or assertion of the intrinsic value/unquantifiable character of scholarship, particularly in the social sciences and humanities. While these narratives highlight important aspects of academics’ experience of neoliberal restructuring, they often end up reproducing the inter- and intra-disciplinary division between theoretical and interpretative frameworks that foreground human agency (focusing on student movements, working experiences of academics, or decision-making) and those that foreground the performativity of non-human agents (focusing on the role of metrics, indexes, analytics or institutions).

    This intellectual fragmentation constrains attempts to study these processes in genuinely interdisciplinary ways. On the rare occasions when meaningful exchange does happen, conceptual, ideological, and institutional fault lines hinder sustained dialogue, often leading to the reassertion of old certainties in lieu of engagement with complex relational, institutional, socio-technical, and political/policy realities of transformation. The conference aims to provide an intellectual and institutional framework that challenges this dichotomy, and seeks to develop ways of thinking that are mutually reinforcing, rather than exclusive. It focuses on the issue of the (post)human as the ontological underpinning to the descriptive and explanatory work needed, as well as the normative horizon for resistance.

    It links with preceding events in Accelerated Academy, an international interdisciplinary network assembled to develop new approaches to the analysis of higher education around critical interrogation of the concept of ‘acceleration’. The first event (Prague, December 2015) focused on metricisation and power in the academy; the second, smaller symposium (Warwick, September 2016), was dedicated to theories and experiences of anxiety and work in relation to acceleration; the third (Leiden, December 2016) to the politics and sociology of evaluation in universities; the fourth (Prague, May 2018) explored academic timescapes and the challenges posed by their complexity; the fifth (Cambridge, June 2018) reflected on the role of agency in the transformation of the academy.

    This conference engages with and responds to the growing interest in scholarship on trans- and post-humanism, and its impact on understanding change in the context of knowledge production. It also has wider theoretical significance, as the intellectual dichotomy of the human and non-human is confronted in any attempt to understand socio-technical changes unfolding in digital(ised) capitalism. In this sense, we aim to address broader questions of social ontology and explanatory methodology posed by the imbrication of the social and the technical, and, not less importantly, the questions this raises for conceptualising agency and resistance in the ‘accelerated’ academy.

    We invite contributions for 30 minute talks which speak to any of these themes. If you would like to submit a proposal then please contact mac228@cam.ac.uk with a 500 word abstract and short biographical note by 10th October.

    There will be no charge to attend the conference. If you would like to attend as a non-speaker then please e-mail the address above to be added to the list. 

     
  • Mark 10:53 am on August 30, 2018 Permalink | Reply
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    The Foundations of British Sociology 

    This one-day event intends to raise awareness of the Foundations of British Sociology archive maintained by Keele University. This remarkable resource collects a diverse array of materials from the 1880s to the 1950s, gifted to the university when the Institute of Sociology was dissolved in 1955.

    ‘Members of the societies founded The Sociological Review, contributed to early University teaching of Sociology, published many books and papers and collected survey material from the UK and Europe. The archive comprises personal papers, business records, newspaper cuttings, lectures, reports, plans, surveys, lantern slides and an extensive collection of books from the LePlay House Library. It includes material relating to key activists and opinion-shapers such as Victor Branford, Francis Galton, Patrick Geddes, H. G. Wells, Lewis Mumford and Alexander Farquharson on themes such as the responsibilities of the state and the citizen, planning urban development, the position of women, the role of technical education, local government reform, regionalism, the co-operative movement, rural society and the family. Researchers will find valuable materials on the origins of modern British sociology, and related social sciences such as social psychology, cultural geography, town planning and demography’ (Source, Keele University).

    Here are some of the materials I looked at on a recent visit:

    It’s a fascinating resource with relevance to people working on a whole range of research topics. If you’re interested in attending our workshop on October 11th at the University of Keele then please apply online here. If you’re interested in the archive but can’t make the event then feel free to get in touch.

     
  • Mark 12:39 pm on August 20, 2018 Permalink | Reply
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    Films I’ve seen recently 

    Since I keep forgetting which films I’ve seen, here’s a list for my own purposes, starting in late July 2018:

    1. Hotel Artemis
    2. Generation Wealth
    3. Annihilation
    4. Under the Tree
    5. Ant Man and the Wasp
    6. The Escape
    7. The Heiresses
    8. Mad to be Normal
    9. Moneyball
    10. BlackKklansman
    11. Apostasy
    12. Cold War
    13. Searching
    14. American Animals
    15. A Simple Favour
    16. The Big Lebowski
    17. The Wife
    18. Harlan County, USA
    19. Venom
    20. Tehran Taboo
    21. The Godfather
    22. Bad Times at the El Royale
    23. A Star is Born
    24. Dogman
    25. The Hate U Give
    26. All the President’s Men
    27. The Waldheim Waltz
    28. The Marriage
    29. Nancy
    30. More Human Than Human
    31. Border
    32. You Go To My Head
    33. Peterloo
    34. Widows
    35. The Other Side of Everything
    36. This is Home: A Refugee Story
    37. The Girl in the Spider’s Web
    38. Shoplifters
    39. The Ides of March
    40. Creed 2
    41. Roman J. Israel, Esq.
    42. Cosmopolis
    43. Wildlife
    44. Disobedience
    45. Map to the Stars
    46. Mortal Engines
    47. Sorry to Bother You
    48. Bumblebee
    49. Casino Royale
    50. Quantum of Solace
    51. Aqua Man
    52. The Hours
    53. Brexit: An Uncivil War
    54. The Favourite
    55. The Frontrunner
    56. Colette
    57. Mary Queen of Scots
    58. Charlie Wilson’s War
    59. Beautiful Boy
    60. Vice
    61. The Mule
    62. Green Book
    63. Inside Man
    64. Can You Ever Forgive Me?
    65. If Beal Street Could Talk
    66. On The Basis of Sex
    67. A Private War
     
  • Mark 12:38 pm on August 20, 2018 Permalink | Reply
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    Books I’ve been reading 

    A list of the books I’ve finished since August 20th 2018, replacing my older blog posts. I’m increasingly using these lists as a way to jog my memory and the fragmented blog posts aren’t very useful for that.

    1. Bobos in Paradise: The New Upper Class And How They Got There by David Brooks
    2. Frenemies: The Epic Disruption of the Advertising Industry by Ken Auletta
    3. The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt
    4. The Ideas Industry: How Pessimists, Partisans, and Plutocrats are Transforming the Marketplace of Ideas by Daniel Drezner
    5. Amsterdam by Ian McEwan
    6. Seduction: Men, Masculinity and Mediated Intimacy by Rachel O’Neill
    7. The Road by Cormack McCarthy
    8. The Four: The Hidden DNA of Amazon, Apple, Facebook, and Google by Scott Galloway
    9. Fear: Trump in the Whitehouse by Bob Woodward
    10. Nervous States: How Feeling Took Over The World by Will Davies
    11. Crudo: A Novel by Olivia Laing
    12. The Fifth Risk by Michael Lewis
    13. Uneasy Street: The Anxieties of Affluence by Rachel Sherman
    14. Left Hemisphere: Mapping Contemporary Theory by Razmig Keucheyan
    15. Stand Out Of Our Light by James Williams
    16. Like A Thief In Broad Daylight by Slavoj Zizek
    17. Stars and Bars by William Boyd
    18. He Died With His Eyes Open by Derek Raymond
    19. Moneyland by Oliver Bullough
    20. How Proust Can Change Your Life by Alain de Botton
    21. Internet Celebrity: Understanding Fame Online by Crystal Abidin
    22. Conversations with Friends by Sally Rooney
    23. Becoming by Michelle Obama (to the bewilderment of some in my life)
    24. Normal People by Sally Rooney
    25. The Future That Never Happened by Richard Power Sayeed
    26. The Comfort of Strangers by Ian McEwan
    27. Never Mind by Edward St Aubyn
     
  • Mark 8:58 am on August 19, 2018 Permalink | Reply
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    Social ontology amidst the wreckage of techno-progressive orthodoxy 

    I found this review of Trump and the Media by Nicholas Carr in the LA Review of Books immensely thought-provoking. His focus is on the book’s historical contribution, contextualising the enthusiasm with which social media was greeted in terms of long term concerns about the centralisation of mass media. We can’t understand the ideal of a radically decentralised media without understanding the anxieties provoked by its initial centralisation:

    Trump’s twitter stream may be without precedent, but the controversy surrounding social media’s political impact has a history stretching back nearly a century. During the 1930s, the spread of mass media was accompanied by the rise of fascism. To many observers at the time, the former helped explain the latter. By consolidating control over news and other information, radio networks, movie studios, and publishing houses enabled a single voice to address and even command the multitudes. The very structure of mass media seemed to reflect and reinforce the political structure of the authoritarian state.

    It is against this backdrop that social scientists began to “imagine a decentralized, multimedia communication network that would encourage the development of a ‘democratic personality,’ providing a bulwark against fascist movements and their charismatic leaders”. Fred Turner traces these initial speculations from their originators, through the 1960s counterculture and the incipient computer industry, before it became an article of faith within present day Silicon Valley:

    In the early years of this century, as the internet subsumed traditional media, the ideal became a pillar of Silicon Valley ideology. The founders of companies like Google and Facebook, Twitter and Reddit, promoted their networks as tools for overthrowing mass-media “gatekeepers” and giving individuals control over the exchange of information. They promised, as Turner writes, that social media would “allow us to present our authentic selves to one another” and connect those diverse selves into a more harmonious, pluralistic, and democratic society.

    Carr frames Trump and the Media as “orbiting” around “the wreckage of techno-progressive orthodoxy”. These are the terms in which I’ve recently tried to analyse ‘fake news’ and ‘post-truth’, as solutionist framings by technological, media and political elites which circumscribe a much broader set of transformations and shape likely responses to them. It’s often struck me that these represent a peculiarly populist form of reasoning in their own right: isolating an incoming element which is seen to undermine a previously stable system, whether this is ‘populism’ or ‘social media’ itself. In the process, the claims of populists and social media firms are taken at face value, vastly inflating the power they have:

    One contentious question is whether social media in general and Twitter in particular actually changed the outcome of the vote. Keith N. Hampton, of Michigan State University, finds “no evidence” that any of the widely acknowledged malignancies of social media, from fake news to filter bubbles, “worked in favor of a particular presidential candidate.” Drawing on exit polls, he shows that most demographic groups voted pretty much the same in 2016 as they had in the Obama-Romney race of 2012. The one group that exhibited a large and possibly decisive shift from the Democratic to the Republican candidate were white voters without college degrees. Yet these voters, surveys reveal, are also the least likely to spend a lot of time online or to be active on social media. It’s unfair to blame Twitter or Facebook for Trump’s victory, Hampton suggests, if the swing voters weren’t on Twitter or Facebook.

    This is not to say that social media doesn’t exercise influence, only to dispute the assumption that it works through one-to-many communication. The media elites bemoaning the rise of fake news and filter bubbles in the dawning post-truth age are themselves complicit in the dynamic they see as being ‘out there’:

    What Hampton overlooks are the indirect effects of social media, particularly its influence on press coverage and public attention. As the University of Oxford’s Josh Cowls and Ralph Schroeder write, Trump’s Twitter account may have been monitored by only a small portion of the public, but it was followed, religiously, by journalists, pundits, and policymakers. The novelty and frequent abrasiveness of the tweets — they broke all the rules of decorum for presidential campaigns — mesmerized the chattering class throughout the primaries and the general election campaign, fueling a frenzy of retweets, replies, and hashtags. Social media’s biggest echo chamber turned out to be the traditional media elite.

    What this short review suggested to me is the necessity of revisiting basic concepts (such as centralisation, gatekeepers, publics and influence) in response to the wreckage of techno-progressive orthodoxy. We need a bleak social theory for bleak times and if it doesn’t begin by examining the assumptions inherited in core concepts, as well as their implications for making sense of the present conjuncture, it is unlikely to get very far.

     
  • Mark 12:24 pm on August 16, 2018 Permalink | Reply
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    Will I survive a nine mile walk and make it home to Molly? 

    Cousins are childhood playmateswho become lifetime friends..png

    On September 8th I’m going to walk nine miles from the top of my street in Cambridge to Chittering in Cambridgeshire. Will I survive walking without an experienced navigator or a reliable 3G signal? Will I slip out of exhaustion and fall into the Cam? Will I ever make it home to Molly?

    The only way to find out is to sponsor me, as much or as little as you can, before I set out in one month’s time. You can donate online here: https://www.justgiving.com/fundraising/mark-carrigan2

     
  • Mark 10:58 am on August 16, 2018 Permalink | Reply
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    Workshop: The Foundations of British Sociology 

    This one-day event intends to raise awareness of the Foundations of British Sociology archive maintained by Keele University. This remarkable resource collects a diverse array of materials from the 1880s to the 1950s, gifted to the university when the Institute of Sociology was dissolved in 1955.

    ‘Members of the societies founded The Sociological Review, contributed to early University teaching of Sociology, published many books and papers and collected survey material from the UK and Europe. The archive comprises personal papers, business records, newspaper cuttings, lectures, reports, plans, surveys, lantern slides and an extensive collection of books from the LePlay House Library. It includes material relating to key activists and opinion-shapers such as Victor Branford, Francis Galton, Patrick Geddes, H. G. Wells, Lewis Mumford and Alexander Farquharson on themes such as the responsibilities of the state and the citizen, planning urban development, the position of women, the role of technical education, local government reform, regionalism, the co-operative movement, rural society and the family. Researchers will find valuable materials on the origins of modern British sociology, and related social sciences such as social psychology, cultural geography, town planning and demography’ (Source, Keele University).

    We look forward to welcoming delegates to Keele University where they will have a chance to explore this rich resource and discuss the enduring cultural, historical and evidentiary value of this archive for British Sociology.

    Confirmed Speakers:

    David Amigoni (Keele University), Helen Burton (Keele University), Gordon Fyfe (Keele University), Rachel Hurdley (Cardiff University), Rebecca Leach (Keele University), Chantelle Lewis (Goldsmiths).

    Lunch and refreshments will be provided.

    Application to Attend

    TSRF have 20 places available to attend this workshop. As places are limited they will be allocated through a competitive application process. Applications will close 17th August, 17.00 BST. Decisions will be communicated early September 2018.

    The application form can be found here: https://docs.google.com/forms/d/1r8RhiHsBI-vR4s-XHgxpJA28pD08Sos1MHsejdUT724/edit

    Applications will be peer reviewed by Sociological Review editorial board members. Consideration will be given to research interests as related to the event, as well as distribution of career trajectory and institutions.

    This event is free and lunch and refreshments will be provided. Places are limited and allocated via the application process. There are also a number of bursaries available for unfunded PGRs and ECRs.

    *Please note, TSRF will not accept late applications under any circumstances.

    Room Location and Accessibility Information

    The event will take place in the Campus Library Training Room located on the top floor of Keele University library, Keele, Staffordshire ST5 5BG

    Visitors can report to the Library counter on arrival and staff will direct you to the room. The main entrance to the Library is on the second floor, up an external staircase. The accessible entrance is on ground level. Non Keele card holders should press the intercom and a Library porter will give assistance. The library has an accessible lift to all three floors of the Library and the training room is wheelchair accessible.

    All toilets, including the wheelchair accessible toilet, are on the ground floor.

    For more details on accessibility to the library, please see here https://www.disabledgo.com/access-guide/keele-university/library-and-information-services-building

    There are a number of disabled parking bays in front of the Library. If these aren’t available, any other space outside or near the Library can be used as long as a valid badge is displayed. A campus map and guide can be found here: https://www.keele.ac.uk/connect/howtofindus/maps/keele-campus-guide-colour.pdf

    Bursaries

    We have a limited number of bursaries for this workshop – including childcare bursaries. You can apply for a bursary if you meet TSRF criteria for funding. I.e. (1) unfunded postgraduate research students, (2) Early Career Researchers (ECR) within 3 years of completion of PhD and not in receipt of a full-time wage, and (3) others on the grounds of need (e.g. those in casual employment and not in receipt of a full-time wage).

    Travel bursaries are limited at £100.00, childcare bursaries are limited to £50.00 per day of the event and day before if needing to travel and stay overnight. Accommodation will be organised by TSRF.

    Please note, that if you have been awarded a place at The Sociological Review’s ECR writing retreat this year (2018) or a full bursary (travel and accommodation) at the Undisciplining conference or the ECR day, then you are not eligible to apply for event bursaries until next year (2019).

    Contact Details

    For academic enquiries related to this workshop, please contact Mark Carrigan: mark@markcarrigan.net

    For enquiries related to applications, please contact Jenny Thatcher

     
  • Mark 9:57 am on August 12, 2018 Permalink | Reply
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    I’m slightly embarrassed to admit how much I think I would enjoy this job 

    From loc 1171-1189 of Frenemies, Ken Auletta’s new book about the declining fortunes of the advertising industry:

    Then as vice chair heading Business Innovations, Comstock became the company’s chief futurist, attending digital confabs, planting herself in Silicon Valley, scouting and making it her business to know cutting-edge agencies and entrepreneurs, seeking out partners for unusual ways to market. A marketing challenge for GE, enunciated at every monthly marketing meeting chaired by CMO Linda Boff, with their agencies in attendance, is to shift the brand ID of GE from an old industrial to a cool digital company. Cool digital companies are more attractive to Wall Street because they are perceived as growth stocks, and are seen as welcoming to the young engineers that shape digital companies. A way to advance this goal was for GE to establish under the auspices of the CMO a four-person office, the Disruption Lab, directed by Sam Olstein, thirty-three, who comes to work with his hair spiked and wearing jeans and sneakers. His foremost task, he says, is to “have a good perspective of trends and technology; of where we see activity of new start-ups forming around, say, messaging, around content creation.” He says they search “for what people think is cool and interesting and primed for growth.” He scans Apple’s App Store to check on new apps that break into the top 100. Encouraged by Comstock and Boff, he pushed, he says, to make GE “a publisher, a content creator. What our brand represents is science and technology and the awe around science and technology, and that’s a very focused perspective. It’s the same focused perspective that HBO has, that Discovery channels have, that the Walt Disney Company has. We want to build a platform with the reach of any other media and entertainment platform out there.” It need not be branded like Disney, but he believes GE can create content and distribute it over its own Web site, over Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Snapchat, National Geographic channels, or online publications like Slate.

     
  • Mark 9:56 am on August 12, 2018 Permalink | Reply
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    When the populists inspire the ad men 

    I came across this extract on loc 1342-1360 of Frenemies, Ken Auletta’s new book about the declining fortunes of the advertising industry, detailing an intervention made by thought leader extraordinaire Rishad Tobaccowala, chief strategist at  Publicis groupe. It was in the context of a meeting between executives from a range of agencies and Bank of America to discuss the challenging climate facing the latter:

    the thoughts of soft-spoken Rishad Tobaccowala, their principal outside strategist, who she privately describes as “the smartest guy in the room.” They appear to have very different personalities. She wears oversized eyeglasses and is capable of commanding a conversation. He wears round, frameless eyeglasses and his slight frame conveys an almost professorial air, which is enhanced because he sits, Buddha-like, and does not rush to speak. In a voice so soft people craned forward or sideways, as if it would help them hear, he cautioned: “We are at the beginning of this journey.” When the bank talks about its environmental deeds, for example, it is not “a targeted, one-on-one message. It is a narrative, and it relies on emotion. Lou is right: We will know, increasingly, what people want because of their behavior. But the struggle is what does the consumer want from Bank of America. Successful companies realize we outsource the work to the customer. We do the listening and the responding. The reason Amazon in its deterministic form—or Facebook—can tell you everything is because you are creating your own bundle of what you want.” But don’t confuse a single product or purchase with what consumers want from a brand. “What Americans are asking for is, ‘Who is on my side?’ Sanders and Trump built surprising support because the message sent is: ‘They are on my side.’ If you think about a bank’s purposes, no one is as close to aligning with them as you are.”

    Has anyone encountered other instances of the advertising industry explicitly invoking populists in this way? I’d be really curious to see them if so.

     
  • Mark 12:53 pm on August 10, 2018 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , portfolio careers, , , time management   

    What I want to do in the next few years and how I plan to do it 

    In the last week, I’ve realised that I’ve made a fundamental error in how I’ve approached using Omnifocus over the last few years. What has always appealed to me is the flexibility it affords, enabling me to disentangle what I have to do from where and how I do it. If your working life consists of a whole range of different commitments (in my case a 3 day a week job, a 2.5 day a week job, a small freelance business and a whole range of projects) then this is really helpful because you can’t rely on the spatial and temporal organisation of a single workplace to structure your workflow.

    The problem I’m realising is that it creates a tendency to assume your work fits around your hard calendar. You leave gaps which Omnifocus fills with tasks, presenting you with the most useful suggestions of what you could do depending on where you are and the equipment you have with you, represented as contexts in the software. This is where GTD advocates stress the importance of the weekly review. You have to structure your hard calendar in order to ensure you have sufficient time in the right context, as opposed to simply responding to the context you happen to be in and the time you happen to have available to you.

    However this has rarely worked for me because of the weird time horizons involved in how my working life fits together. What I do is usually scheduled months in advance or days in advance, with little in between. This means that a great deal of coordination falls through the gaps of a weekly review, if indeed I manage to sustain the practice. The problem is not the brute availability of time in my life, as much as ensuring I leave enough time to get my core work done (recorded in the different Omnifocus contexts) while remaining open to scheduling social and work things at short notice. This is what a typical week in November now looks like for me:

    The contexts are now part of my hard calendar to ensure I spend a couple of days at home each week and at least two days in the office. This inevitably involves restricting how much travelling I can do but my sense of overwork recently has been because I can’t co-ordinate the role of travel in my life, leaving me committing to more moving around than I can sustain given the amount of time I need to spend each week in specific places focusing on specific categories of things. I’m quietly confident this will solve the problem of over-work for me because the issue I’ve been having is about scheduling, rather than the time and energy I have available for it. My plan is to try and steer clear of Twitter for a bit while I try and embed these new routines:

    https://twitter.com/mark_carrigan/status/1027880360229658624

    It’s been useful to reflect on this because it’s helped me define my current priorities. I’m co-developing a fascinating strand of research at CPGJ on the platform university, providing the theoretical context within which I can pursue other activities concerning the institutionalisation of digital technology within the university and the social sciences. I’m more committed than ever to The Sociological Review after Undisciplining, increasingly aware of the importance of what we’re doing in terms of securing Sociology’s place both inside and outside the academy. I’ve stepped back from journals and edited books, in order to focus on a number of books which are either partially written or being carried around in my head that I seriously need to finish: Social Media for Academics 2nd edition, The Distracted People of Digital Capitalism, the CSO volume I’m co-editing, The Public and Their Platforms (with Lambros Fatsis) and The Sociology of Big Data (with Hamish Robertson and Jo Travaglia). There’s such a huge amount of work here that I’m increasingly aware of the necessity that I organise my life around it, which I’ve failed to do thus far, with any other commitments being minimised, including  only doing freelance work if it’s particularly rewarding (in multiple senses of the term).

    It feels like I’ve been trying to sort this out in my mind for the last few months and that it finally seems clear to me. Though of course the real test will in the months and years ahead. But I’m now certain that I know what I want to do in the next few years and how I plan to do it. In the past, I’ve often been caught between so many interesting things that I was unable to choose between them, in the process doing far too few of them properly. That’s now changing and it’s a really pleasing feeling, even if it was quite tricky to get myself into this position.

     
    • Martha Bell 9:33 pm on August 10, 2018 Permalink

      Thanks, this is an awesome reflection, Mark, and good luck with your book.

    • Mark 9:42 am on August 12, 2018 Permalink

      much appreciated, thanks!

  • Mark 6:46 pm on August 8, 2018 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , , the singularity, ,   

    The (creepy) spirit of digital capitalism 

    This is an accusation which Jaron Lanier makes strongly on pg 134 of his recent Ten Reasons To Delete Your Social Media Accounts Right Now. Coming from someone who was less of an insider, it might seem like a rather shrill and slightly paranoid reading of the culture of digital elites. However I find it hard not to take Lanier seriously, even if what he says here would benefit from being unpacked further:

    One of the reasons that BUMMER works the way it does is that the engineers working at BUMMER companies often believe that their top priority among top priorities isn’t serving present-day humans, but building the artificial intelligences that will inherit the earth. The constant surveillance and testing of behavior modification in multitudes of humans is supposedly gathering data that will evolve into the intelligence of future AIs. (One might wonder if AI engineers believe that manipulating people will be AI’s purpose.) The big tech companies are publicly committed to an extravagant “AI race” that they often prioritize above all else. It’s completely normal to hear an executive from one of the biggest companies in the world talk about the possibility of a coming singularity, when the AIs will take over. The singularity is the BUMMER religion’s answer to the evangelical Christian Rapture. The weirdness is normalized when BUMMER customers, who are often techies themselves, accept AI as a coherent and legitimate concept, and make spending decisions based on it.

    It strike me that there are two things going on here which we ought to distinguish, at least on an analytical level. Firstly, there are emerging forms of techno-religion within Silicon Valley concerning the significance of artificial intelligence for the future of humanity. If we don’t take these seriously as religious forms, we risk missing the causal influence they may exercise over the organisational life of technology forms. But we need to avoid taking them too seriously and imputing a singular character to what appear in reality to be multiple, fragmented and partial frameworks of belief. Secondly, as Evgeny Morozov has powerfully argued in the last year, the AI arms race at a corporate level needs to be understood in terms of overarching systemic trends within Silicon Valley. The advertising business has a shelf life, overheads on machine learning are much lower and these firms intend to use the data they have accumulated for advertising purposes in order to pivot into providing the infrastructure for machine learning to be woven into every aspect of the social fabric. These are two distinct trends, even if they may be reinforcing through the commitment they engender towards a corporate strategy. However where it becomes interesting is if the underlying methodological assumptions begin to be contested on a political level. If a vision of the singularity currently engenders commitment to the job and provides a lens through which organisational decisions are inflected, what happens if external groups seek to hold up such centrality?

     
    • landzek 4:51 pm on August 9, 2018 Permalink

      Mark, what is your area of expertise? You are professor of something no?

    • landzek 4:55 pm on August 9, 2018 Permalink

      ..oh lol. It says it right there:: Digital sociologist. Ah ha now it all makes sense!

  • Mark 6:45 pm on August 8, 2018 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , , , , ,   

    The disjointed temporality of political life 

    I’ve long been drawn to accounts of the everyday lives of politicians. This isn’t so much a matter of biographical curiosity, as much as a preoccupation with temporality. It is not that the temporal character of our lives moulds us but rather that the things which do are always inflected through temporality.

    I’m convinced you can learn a lot about why someone is the way that they are through understanding how time operates in their life. There’s a really rich description of the disjointed temporality encountered by senior American politicians in Joe Klein’s novel Primary Colours, a fictionalised account of Bill Clinton’s run for president in 1992. From pg 11:

    Politicians work—they do their public work, that is—when civilians don’t: mealtimes, evenings, weekends. The rest of the time, down time, is spent indoors, in hotel suites, worrying the phones, dialing for dollars, fighting over the next moves, living outside time; there are no weekdays or weekends; there is sleep but not much rest. Sometimes, and always at the oddest hours, you may break free: an afternoon movie, a midnight dinner. And there are those other, fleeting moments when your mind drifts from him, from the podium, and you fix on the father and son tossing a ball out past the back of the crowd, out in the park, and you suddenly realize, Hey, it’s Saturday; or you glance out a hotel window and spot an elderly couple walking hand in hand, still alive in each other’s mind (as opposed to merely sharing space, waiting it out). The campaign—with all its talk of destiny, crisis and mission—falls away and you remember: Other people just have lives. Their normality can seem a reproach. It hurts your eyes, like walking out of a matinee into bright sunlight. Then it passes. He screws up a line, it’s Q& A time, it’s time to move.

    What is it like to live like this? How would it shape you if large swathes of your life are lived in this way? How does it influence your sense of what is normal and what is not? It’s a fictionalised account, produced by a political journalist but imputing experiences on the basis of second hand experience, leaving it accuracy a rather ambiguous matter. But it such a rich description that it’s interesting to reflect on the significance of these experiences, if accurate.

     
    • Dave Ashelman 2:13 pm on August 9, 2018 Permalink

      I would have to disagree with the premise that temporality does not mould us. Everything that we learn about the social world from the time we are born is based on temporality to some degree. Reference: Barbara Adam (1995) “Timewatch: A Social Analysis of Time” where she points out that by considering how temporalities mould us socially, we can bridge the micro and the macro; we can connect the ideas of Symbolic Interaction of Goffman & Mead with the structural aspects of Marx & Durkheim. It’s a theory that gets little attention in Sociology.

      Also reference: Helga Nowotny (1989) “Time: The Modern and Postmodern Experience” where she points out that apparatuses of power, especially in neoliberalism is based temporal considerations. She makes the clearest case (on the macro side) of how temporalities (how we experience time) moulds us, especially from a hegemony viewpoint. If politicians are anything, they are supporters of neoliberal apparatuses of power.

      From my background in Economics, I can say that “time” poses serious challenges in Economic analysis. Economists love their math to explain the social. The most common problem in economic modeling is that time can never be accounted for in the math. People have “tastes & preferences” that drive markets, but they never have “time.” Time cannot be modeled. This problem in economic modeling supports Notwotly’s idea that the temporal is given too little attention in perpetuating neoliberal hegemony.

      So when I put your quotes (and subequent questions) in the context of the Adam & Notwotny’s arguments, it makes perfect sense, and all of your questions are answered.

    • Mark 1:56 pm on August 10, 2018 Permalink

      That was a poor turn of phrase on my part. I agree with what you’re saying. I meant it more as a statement of how temporality moulds us; by shaping the conditions within which we choreograph our lives rather than being efficacious in and of itself. Though you have made me wonder if perhaps the latter is a straw man position and no one actually holds it. Have meant to read both books for ages, thanks!

  • Mark 8:07 pm on August 7, 2018 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: academic celebrities, accelerated work, , , , , , superstar intellectuals, ,   

    The intellectual sclerosis of the superstar intellectual 

    There’s a fascinating and honest account in Daniel Drezner’s The Ideas Industry, reflecting on his own growing celebrity and the lethal challenges which have come with it. This is something I’ve often wondered about, particularly in relation to how widely one reads and the circle of people one engages with. From pg 247:

    Furthermore, there have been times when my own critical faculties have been blunted a bit. I still critique other foreign affairs pundits, but perhaps not quite as much as before. This might be due to my growing appreciation for how hard it is to craft interesting, original arguments on a regular basis. But it might be due to a simple human failing; it is harder to publicly criticize writers whom one knows. 50 And the more successful one is as an intellectual, the more people one meets. As my career has progressed, I have experienced the benefits of greater intellectual success, and the effects frankly scare the hell out of me. My intellectual style has evolved, and not always in a good way. With success has come confidence, and a large dollop of arrogance. I have said “yes” to writing assignments that, in retrospect, I should have declined because I lacked the time or expertise to do them justice. As I write and speak more, I read less. It has become more difficult to replenish my intellectual capital beyond listening to others speak at conferences. The more international business class flights I take, the more impatient I become with quotidian responsibilities on the ground. As a graduate student, I would get irked when I contacted a senior scholar and failed to get a response. Now I am that senior scholar.

    Earlier in the book he considers how scholars might circumvent these challenges, through teams of assistants, as well as how this might contribute to their eventual downfall. The detail which this leaves us pondering about those who are in a meaningful sense celebrities can leave this analysis feeling lurid. But I think it’s a crucial if we want to understand the contemporary reality of knowledge production. It is a crucial mechanism through which Matthew effects occur, as the already prestigious enjoy seemingly countless opportunities to accumulate yet further prestige, while also gaining access to the resources necessary to do this. As he observes on pg 184 these intellectual elites “garner an outsized fraction of opportunities in which superstars are asked to speak and write a lot more than anyone else”. He is surely correct that this creates a pressure to accept but I suspect refusals only have consequences for their status in the case of the most prestigious events, leaving the tendency to overstretch he identifies being inflected through the top rung of the ideas industry. This matters because refusal surely has a relationship to one’s academic prestige, even if it as a complex one. Would the speaker who accepts any invitation be perceived as a member of the intellectual elite even if they regarded themselves as one?

    However what’s more interesting is how the intellectual elite respond to their outsized share of opportunities to accumulate further intellectual status. If you are constantly bombarded with invitations to right and speak then how do you handle them? Even assuming many are turned down, it entails a time pressure as what are traditionally seen as dissemination activities take over ever increasing swathes of working life. If much of your life is spent disseminating your analysis them how do you develop this and ensure it stays current? One possibility is to simply pretend that nothing has changed, producing work in the familiar way without recognition of the fundamental change in the conditions of that work, as well as the implications of these changes for its quality:

    If the intellectual continues past practices, then he or she will inevitably become overworked from mounting obligations. In this situation, the superstar continues to write and research everything as if nothing has changed. The increased demand, however, can cause the intellectual to self-plagiarize or slack off as a survival tactic. Ferguson has admitted to this in interviews, telling the Washington Monthly that his books on empire could be described as “edutainment at best.” He told me, “I think overstretch is good.”

    For many people the overstretch will feel obviously unsustainable though, creating a pressure to do things differently at precisely the time when the options available seem wider than ever. Drezner offers a powerful description on pg 186 of the peculiarly hierarchical form of collaboration this is likely to give rise to, as well as citing examples of superstar intellectuals and the teams they have working for them:

    The other outcome is that a solitary intellectual becomes a brand manager with subordinates. To be sure, professors, think tank fellows, and management consultants frequently rely on research assistants. Nevertheless, a brand-name intellectual can require a staff—and most people who are good at being intellectuals are lousy at managing subordinates. It becomes all too easy for a superstar to outsource research to assistants. To run his show and to write his column, for example, Zakaria has a staff of eight people—and he takes great pride in doing most of the research for his column himself. 53 Ferguson hired a full-time researcher, as well as a “cottage industry” of bright undergraduates, to assist him with his research. Comparable superstars can choose to delegate research and writing tasks to coauthors or research assistants.

    However this merely postpones the problem for these teams need management and the research assistants need direction. He offers a compelling account of how these managerial challenges are likely to lead to further overstretch, with standards slipping as research becomes an endeavour split between subordinates liable to be managed at a distance. The risks involved in this might be the eventual reason or the downfall of the intellectual, as their celebrity brand collapsed into scandal. As goes on to describe it on pg 186:

    Outsourcing research and writing tasks is a natural shortcut for intellectual superstars to meet the Ideas Industry’s demands. But such delegation increases the probability of errors seeping into published work. If small shortcuts or errors are not caught the first time a writer uses them, they become crutches that pave the way for bigger shortcuts, which then become cheats. It is rare for a public intellectual or a thought leader to willfully commit plagiarism or fraud. But there have been enough intellectual scandals in this century for a familiar narrative to emerge: a confusion of notes, or a miscommunication between assistants and writers. 54 Corners are not cut, but perhaps they are rounded.

    For a thought-leader this might prove unproblematic, as someone like Ferguson has found a freedom in his move from the academic world to think tanks, embracing polemic in a way that allows him to bluster through the exposure of mistakes and fallacies. Whereas for intellectuals it is liable to prove more costly, as the exposure of failings which have crept in as a consequence of the intensity of work which their status now demands can pose an existential threat to that very status, with the worst possibility in the world being that people would no longer take them seriously.

     
  • Mark 8:41 pm on August 5, 2018 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , , , , imminence, the last man,   

    The claustrophobia of imminence 

    I woke up with this phrase stuck in my mind recently, after a strange and vivid dream. It involved a landscape somewhere between Deep Space Nine and Snowpiercer, dark corners filled with metallic pools and steam hissing across braying crowds. I can’t remember the narrative of the dream but a crucial idea from it remains clear in my mind.

    The Last Man is about the suffocation of growth rather than the end of the impulse to grow. It is the end of resonance rather than the cessation of our search for it. It is the loss of our capacity to give birth to stars and a forgetting that we ever had it:

    And thus spoke Zarathustra to the people: It is time for man to fix his goal.  It is time for man to plant the seed of his highest hope.  His soil is still rich enough for it.  But this soil will one day be poor and exhausted; no lofty tree will be able to grow from it.  Alas!  The time is coming when man will no longer shoot the arrow of his longing beyond mankind— and the string of his bow will have forgotten how to twang!  I tell you: one must have chaos in one, to give birth to a dancing star.  I tell you: you have still chaos in you.  Alas!  The time is coming when man will give birth to no more stars.  Alas!  The time of the most contemptible man is coming, the man who can no longer despise himself.

    The dream left me with a vivid sense of the claustrophobia of imminence which might still be felt after this forgetting. The sense of being hemmed in, aspiring to be something more while denied the conditions which would make this growth possible.  Many of the questions I’m interested in ultimately relate to this feeling, its sociology and psychology. It’s odd to realise that I’m only now coming to understand the final object of years of work.

     
  • Mark 3:37 pm on August 5, 2018 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , celebrity intellectuals, , , , , ,   

    The incredible shrinking scope of the celebrity intellectual 

    What is it like to be an celebrity intellectual? I thought this was an admirably honest answer by Yuval Noah Harari to the question of how fame has changed his life. It seems obvious he would be far from alone in this experience, suggesting we could reflect on it as symptomatic of knowledge production by celebrity intellectuals rather than solely a biographical fact about an individual author. It is an important feature of knowledge production that acquiring a large audience often involves losing time to undertake research:

    Well I have much less time. I find myself travelling around the world and going to conferences and giving interviews, basically repeating what I think I already know, and having less and less time to research new stuff. Just a few years ago I was an anonymous professor of history specialising in medieval history and my audience was about five people around the world who read my articles. So it’s quite shocking to be now in a position that I write something and there is a potential of millions of people will read it. Overall I’m happy with what’s happened. You don’t want to just speak up, you also want to be heard. It’s a privilege that I now have such an audience.

    I found it striking when reading Harari’s work how much of it depended on existing popular(ish) summaries of research combined with an esoteric selection of direct citations to the research literatures he is a specialist in. Observing this isn’t a critique of Harari, as much as an attempt to underscore how this citational thinness is necessary if you intend to write at this level of generality. How on earth could you write avowedly comprehensive books “about the long-term past of humankind and the long-term future” without engaging with existing literature in this way?

    If your instinct is to encourage these broad conversations, as mine is, what matters is how these trade offs are negotiated and the implications this has for the work in question. It becomes more tricky when we consider how these broad treatments are better placed than specialised texts to capture the attention of a wide audience, with implications for how status is accrued by their authors. Those who do this well find themselves catapulted into a global strata of jet setting celebrity intellectuals with less time to spend on the inevitably thin research which went into addressing such vast topics in the first place. This might be mitigated by the availability of teams of research assistants to be accessed through your newfound wealth but they require intellectual leadership and doing this across such broad topics brings you right back to the original problem.

    So what do you do? There’s an argument to be made for riffing impressionistically on what you read on your flights and see as you travel the globe, interspersing new material with established favourites. One variant on this is to produce your new material “in conversation with the public” with topics “decided largely by the kinds of questions I was asked in interviews and public appearances”. This ensures a dialogue with your fans but risks a filter bubble, as your interests are shaped by their interests which were in turn shaped by your original books. There are many other potential tactics but the underlying problem is an intractable one, as the intellectual thinness of the celebrity intellectual becomes ever more so as their fame accumulates, until their main function is to provide a target for a new generation of upwardly mobile global thinkers to practice supplanting their by now empirically anaemic elders.

     
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