Updates from November, 2019 Toggle Comment Threads | Keyboard Shortcuts

  • Mark 9:11 pm on November 30, 2019 Permalink | Reply  

    Why I’ve deleted my Twitter account #exhaustionrebellion 

    I wrote two years ago about my desire to escape what Richard Seymour calls The Twittering Machine. It’s a term which Seymour used in a series of blog posts, invoking a painting of Paul Klee. As Dominic Pettman describes it in his book Infinite Distraction:

    This painting depicts largely featherless avian creatures, attached to a thin wire, which is itself connected to a hand crank. The legs and torsos of these highly abstract birds are as thin as the wire they are perched upon, and could even conceivably be extensions of it. Their provenance seems neither entirely organic nor completely mechanical. These are cyborg creatures that apparently sing at the turning of a handle (although no guiding hand comes into the picture). Some kind of pit or coffin, lit soft pink from within, seems to await beneath them, patient for the moment they drop off the perch. One art critic has described the painting as allegorically depicting mechanically captured animals, “their heads flopping in exhaustion and pathos.” Furthermore, “one bird’s tongue flies up out of its beak, an exclamation point punctuating its grim fate—to chirp under compulsion.”


    I’ve been haunted by this image since first encountering it, plagued by the sense of capture it represents. I was once a Twitter enthusiast, profoundly believing in its capacity to democratise the academy. Pretty much everything I’ve done as a researcher since my PhD has been concerned with subjecting that optimism to sociological scrutiny, as well as understanding the assumptions from which it originated.

    This has left me with a clearer sense of why I think social media is so exciting from an academic perspective. The mass character of commercial social media platforms breaks down the stable boundaries between the university and wider society, opening up a liminal space in which new ways of working can thrive. The interaction orientated assumptions built into their architecture furthermore enables a much broader range of interactions than would otherwise be possible, destabilising the relatively enduring networks through which privilege is conducted and reproduced. Furthermore I was convinced that a number of scholarly dispositions tended to follow from these engineering decisions: open-mindedness, curiosity, creativity and (sometimes) collegiality.

    (More …)

  • Mark 10:56 am on November 23, 2019 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , ,   

    The promise of the populist president 

    From this extremely astute essay by Isaac Reed:

    A widespread ideational feature of monarchical societies (variably realized) is the investment of the common people in a king or queen as their protector against the predations of the aristocracy. The peasant, immediately subject to his lord, reaches to the monarch—the ultimate location of the sacred, the place where the body politic meets the body natural—as a shield against the unfairness and violence of the world, and in particular as a shield against the exploitation of the poor by the rich. In modernity, one may hazard, it is society itself, and its complex institutional environment, that embodies this promise of protection. This was articulated and felt, in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, through belief in the nation in a way that is not obviously available today for those who seek an institutionally well-developed version of an open and fair society.

    However, we should be clear that the crisis is not only the crisis of “the nation,” but also—and perhaps more urgently—the crisis of all of the institutional developments that replaced the image of the king as the defender of the weak against the strong, and, in their very development, made social life not only about the strong and the weak, but also about justice as fairness, and equality as the precondition for the pursuit of distinction.

  • Mark 11:23 am on November 21, 2019 Permalink | Reply  

    Some screenshots from Social Media for Academics 2 

    To type the word ‘scholar’ into Google Image search leaves you immediately presented with images of bearded white men toiling away in obscurity. It has often struck me how apt this is in terms of the cultural connotations which remain attached to the idea of scholarship, even if most people realise these stereotypes aren’t representations of the modern academy. But the reclusive scholar so easily stereotyped by this image and memorably described by Patrick Dunleavy as the academic hermit “sitting alone on top of a pillar somewhere in academia and doing their level best to not communicate in any way with the outside world, or let any information about their work leak out”, risks being replaced by an equally extreme character: the celebrity academic.

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  • Mark 6:17 pm on November 19, 2019 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , influencers   

    The logic of co-operation in the influencer economy 

    An ‘opportunity’ which was e-mailed to me earlier today…  🙄

  • Mark 8:09 am on November 19, 2019 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: andrew chadwick, dichotomies, new media, old media   

    Thinking with dichotomies: ‘old’ and ‘new’ media 

    This section from Andrew Chadwick’s The Hybrid Media System reminds me of a discussion about ‘slow’ and ‘fast’ we’ve been having at the Accelerated Academy. Even obviously problematic dichotomies should not easily be dispensed with because they can be used to capture interactions between changing elements,  as opposed to tracking a linear substitution of one element by another. As he writes on pg 4 of the deep interaction between old and new media:

    We require a holistic approach to the role of information and communication in politics, one that avoids exclusively focusing either on supposedly “new” or supposedly “old” media, but instead maps where the distinctions between newer and older media matter, and where those distinctions might be dissolving. Older and newer are relative terms. We need to understand how newer media practices in the interpenetrated fields of media and politics adapt and integrate the logics of older media practices in those fields. We also need to understand how older media practices in the interpenetrated fields of media and politics adapt and integrate the logics of newer media practices. This requires a perspective that discusses the systemic characteristics of political communication, but such a perspective must, I believe, be firmly rooted not in abstract structural prejudgments, but in empirical evidence and specific illustrations of these forces in flow. This task is all the more important because it is clear that media systems in Britain, the United States, and around the world are in the middle of a chaotic transition period induced by the rise of digital media.

    On pg 31 he elaborates upon this with the example of how television produced a complex interaction with ‘older’ forms of media rather than straight forwardly replacing them:

    While the evolution of media has most often been presented as a linear history in which one medium replaces another, only to be replaced by another, and then another that better jells with societal demand (see for example Levinson, 1998), this linearity does not adequately capture the messiness, complexity, and long duration of the transitions. Older media practices can renew themselves in response to the new. Technologies may possess socially useful affordances that enable their persistence. It is often noted that as television diffused in the United States during the 1950s, cinema attendance declined massively, halving in less than a decade (Briggs & Burke, 2009: 212). But despite the threat from television, radio, with the help of the new electronic transistor, underwent a significant period of adaptation and expansion. Stations proliferated and advertising revenues increased, with the result that the U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC) decided to restrict the granting of fresh radio licenses in 1962 (Briggs & Burke, 2009: 209). It became apparent that radio’s affordances were different from those of television, cinema, and newspapers. Like television, radio was a monitorial, real-time medium, but listening to radio was a more intimate and individual experience than viewing, and it was cheaper to produce content for the radio than for television.

  • Mark 8:13 pm on November 18, 2019 Permalink | Reply

    How to take a social media sabbatical as an academic 

    This is an extract from Social Media for Academics 2. I’m posting it to coincide with my own social media sabbatical.

    The social media sabbatical is an increasingly common occurrence for academics, even if many would see a name like this for what they’re doing as somewhat cringeworthy. Obviously the name doesn’t matter though. What’s important is recognising when a break from social media would be beneficial to you and developing techniques for ensuring you see out the intended sabbatical period, even if returning to social media might prove tempting to you. I say this as someone who has intermittently announced an intention to leave Twitter for a period of time (more than once during the unexpectedly difficult process of preparing this second edition) only to return a few days later, as the experience of stress has subsided and the lure of social media has begun to reassert itself in my life. There have nonetheless been periods of time when I’ve left social media for weeks, in the hope it will help me focus on a project that I’m struggling with; sometimes this has been the case (the end of my PhD) and on other occasions it hasn’t worked at all (the second edition you’re reading, for example). At times I’ve made the decision to stop blogging for a period of time, including points when it has just crept up on me rather than being something deliberate which takes shape in my mind; I just don’t feel like doing it and this solidifies into a sense that I’m on a break from blogging for a while. There’s nothing intrinsically interesting about when I post on social media and when I don’t. I’m sharing this here to illustrate the rhythms of engagement, even on the part of someone who most would perceive as an extremely intensive user of these platforms. At risk of stating the obvious, the fact you’re engaging online doesn’t mean you have to sustain this 365 days a year. In fact, you’re likely to enjoy it much more if you don’t.

    However, it’s necessary to be realistic about the sense of obligation you feel, if any, as well as the expectations which other might have of you. It might seem self-indulgent to announce your intention to leave social media. But if you don’t make clear you won’t be present on a platform, people might continue to contact you through it, whether publicly or through private messages. In itself this might be of little significance but it can lure you in. It’s easy to find yourself wondering whether anyone has sent you anything important, leading you to log in before finding yourself sucked into precisely what you were trying to avoid. It can also be an opportunity to face up to your relationship with social media. If it’s purely an obligation, undertaken for narrowly professional reasons apart from periods of time in which you need a holiday, it shouldn’t be an issue.

    Yet many people’s experiences of wanting to take a break from social media highlight the ambivalence they feel about it, as well as the difficulty they face in acting on this ambivalence. It’s not so much that they want to keep their distance from social media as that it often gets in the way, drawing them in despite their best intentions and displacing their intended object of focus. It can be enjoyable, yet feel like work. It can be freely engaged in, yet nonetheless be an obligation on some level. It can also sometimes be depressing, upsetting and dispiriting; it leaves us wired into a world which many of us intermittently feel the impulse to withdraw from. For all these reasons and more, we might feel we wish to take a break for a period of time and this raises the question of how such a break is conceived, acted on and announced. It can be useful to compare this to the well-established institution of a sabbatical, a period of time for study or travel in which the routine drudgery of working life is suspended to make room for professional development and self-exploration. It doesn’t necessarily mean a complete distance from your work or your colleagues, only that you might be prioritising different things for this distinct and recognised period of time. The fact you’re on sabbatical does not ensure you’ll never be seen in the office. But it does mean that when you’re there, people are unlikely to take it the wrong way if you come in for a specific purpose and immediately leave afterwards. They won’t find it rude if you seem to be going out of your way to avoid getting drawn into conversation, much as they’ll accept it if your responses to emails become slow or non-existent. The point of a sabbatical is as much to do with the recognition of this time as it is with the time itself. It’s a period in which you are relieved from standard duties but that relief itself has a significance which others are obliged to respect (perhaps unsurprisingly given the contemporary term derives from the Greek for ‘of the Sabbath’). It provides a relief from the day-to-day and marks out a special time in a way that one’s peers recognise.

    If social media has become a mainstream part of academic life then do we need comparable ways of providing relief from its day-to-day pressure? The notion of a social media sabbatical is only one suggestion to this end but my concern is that without ideas like this, people experiencing difficulties will simply find their stress levels mounting before they delete their accounts and head out into the night never to be seen (online) again. As I’m writing this, I can almost hear the sceptic screaming ‘why don’t you just delete your account if this bothers you so much?’ but this misses the point. In some cases this might be the right thing for people to do. For instance, the sociologist Roger Burrows described to me how social media was compounding the stress he felt about the state of the world and of the academy, leading him to a decision that he would prefer to stay away for a while. However, it’s important we find ways to ensure people have the control over the process so it’s not an all or nothing decision. If social media has become part of what academics do, it becomes something they will abstain from, to whatever degree, when they are inclined to take a break from what they do.The question is what form that break takes, how it is understood and how this understandings helps ensure we respect each other’s time.

  • Mark 4:55 pm on November 12, 2019 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , ,   

    Social media, attention economies and the future of the university 

    This is an extract from Social Media for Academics 2. If you like it please consider buying the book!

    Social media hasn’t created the celebrity academic but it has made it a category to which a greater number and range of people might aspire. It can be a gateway to the familiar markers of esteem associated with being a well-known scholar: paid speaking invitations, opportunities for media collaboration, requests for endorsements, extensive publication opportunities, paid reviewing work, invitations to join working groups, etc. These might be supplemented by requests which reflect popularity while nonetheless being less welcome, such as endless requests to peer review papers, assess monograph proposals or review grant applications. How these reinforce other forms of hierarchy remains to be established but we can speculate that they are unlikely to make the academy a more equal place. Even if social media expands the pool of celebrity academics, potentially making it more diverse than would otherwise be the case, it does so through the entrenchment of hierarchy: rewards flow to those who are known, valued and heard while those who are unknown, unvalued and unheard struggle to increase their standing.

    If we see social media platforms as democratic spaces then we miss how unevenly attention is distributed across them. For instance as Veletsianos (2016: loc 1162–1708) found in a study of educational tweeters, the top 1% of scholars had an average follower count of 700 times scholars in the bottom 50% and 100 times scholars in the other 99%. If this online popularity can be converted into offline rewards in the manner suggested, it doesn’t matter whether these are established academics who leverage their existing prestige to build a following or new entrants who have accumulated visibility through their social media activity alone. Both are beneficiaries of a new hierarchy which supplements the existing hierarchies of academic life. Social media can play an important role in allowing more diverse voices to rise to prominence within academic life and this should be celebrated. But we should not confuse this with platforms making the academy less hierarchical. It is certainly true that social media allows everyone to have a voice, as its cheerleaders are prone to pointing it out. However, it does so at the cost of making it much more difficult for people to be heard, something which is crucial to grasp if we want to get to grips with the long-term effects of social media on higher education.

    Publishing projects creating platforms for academics to have access to established audiences have a crucial role to play here.There are examples which cross disciplines such asThe Conversation and the group of LSE blogs. But perhaps the most interesting examples have a smaller audience and/or a narrower focus than this. Examples from my own discipline include The Sociological Review, Discover Society, Everyday Sociology and The Society Pages. I read blogs like The Disorder of Things and Critical Legal Thinking from adjacent disciplines.There will be examples from your own disciplines which I am unfamiliar with.These multi-author spaces have different intentions and different audiences, reaching out beyond a narrowly academic readership to varying degrees. But they are examples of a proliferation of outlets which enable academics to publish online and ensure a readership.

    The fact these projects have built up their own readership, accessible to academics who want to write occasionally or even on a single occasion, means they can perform the function of redistributing visibility. This might not in itself mitigate the attention economy unfolding in academic life but it can nonetheless provide a corrective to it, as long as editors of projects like this recognise the important role they play as gatekeepers to online audiences and the implications for who gets heard and who doesn’t in an academy where social media is increasingly ubiquitous. These projects also have an important role to play in addressing the parochialism which pervades social media.

    The Global Social Theory project founded by Gurminder K. Bhambra is an inspiring example of the form this can take. It seeks to correct the narrow focus on European male authors which characterises many reading lists on social theory, building a library which profiles theorists from around the world and guides people about how to engage with their work and use it on reading lists. In this sense, it uses the affordances of social media to find ways to amplify voices outside of American and European intellectual currents.The site itself was created in WordPress and it was promoted, as well as contributions solicited, through Twitter and Facebook. The Global Dialogues newsletter produced by the International Sociological Association addresses parochialism in a slightly different way, with each newsletter being translated in 16 languages so updates from around the world can be read by people from around the world.

    Both projects feature contributions from around the world with the range of their contributors and the scope of their readership enhanced by social media even if their operations are not strictly dependent upon these platforms.They highlight the potential which social media offers for overcoming parochialism, if it is approached in the form of a practical project. Their necessity helps illustrate how social media can entrench Anglophone bias if unopposed, as multilingual academics find themselves nudged into engaging online in English if they want access to international audiences. Collective projects of this sort have a crucial role to play in mitigating the inequalities of visibility which social media is generating. But they can also play a role in ensuring that we can respond collectively to the problems of online harassment and political polarisation which increasingly pervade social media.

  • Mark 8:01 pm on November 11, 2019 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: anti-hermeneutic, , evisceration, , human agency, , platform epistemics   

    Humans as blackboxes, machines as transparent 

    From Automating Inequality by Virginia Eubanks pg 167:

    Parents in Allegheny County helped me articulate an inchoate idea that had been echoing in my head since I started my research. In Indiana, Los Angeles, and Allegheny County, technologists and administrators explained to me that new high-tech tools in public services increase transparency and decrease discrimination. They claimed that there is no way to know what is going on in the head of a welfare caseworker, a homeless service provider, or an intake call screener without using big data to identify patterns in their decision-making. I find the philosophy that sees human beings as unknowable black boxes and machines as transparent deeply troubling. It seems to me a worldview that surrenders any attempt at empathy and forecloses the possibility of ethical development. The presumption that human decision-making is opaque and inaccessible is an admission that we have abandoned a social commitment to try to understand each other. Poor and working-class people in Allegheny County want and deserve more: a recognition of their humanity, an understanding of their context, and the potential for connection and community.

  • Mark 7:57 pm on November 11, 2019 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , ,   

    The end of the opaque classroom 

    From The Idea of the Digital University by Frank Bryce McCluskey and Melanie Lynn Winter pg 6-7:

    What makes the online course so different? When the semester is finished, there is a record of every interaction, every question and every event that occurred in the digital course. There was no such record with the traditional classroom. For hundreds of years, a single professor would close the door; class would begin; and there was no oversight, record or map of what had happened. We did not have the tools to determine if a class was well taught. Many teachers never entered the classrooms where their colleagues taught. Professors taught in isolation. Comparisons between each other did not occur or if they did, it was a subjective interpretation. While there were occasional efforts at team-teaching and collaboration, teaching was an individual matter that was not recorded.

  • Mark 7:56 pm on November 11, 2019 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: automating inequality, , public administration,   

    A machinery for producing rationalisations 

    I thought this was extremely powerful by Virgina Eubanks in Automating Inequality. She explains on pg 121-122 how machinic learning systems can operate as a form of triage, sorting people in order to distribute scarce resources in a seemingly more rational fashion:

    COunter INTELligence PROgram of the FBI), for example, focused on civil rights activists for both their race and their political activism. But wiretaps, photography, tailing, and other techniques of old surveillance were individualized and focused. The target had to be identified before the watcher could surveil. In contrast, in new data-based surveillance, the target often emerges from the data. The targeting comes after the data collection, not before. Massive amounts of information are collected on a wide variety of individuals and groups. Then, the data is mined, analyzed, and searched in order to identify possible targets for more thorough scrutiny. Sometimes this involves old-school, in-person watching and tracking. But increasingly, it only requires finer sifting of data that already exists. If the old surveillance was an eye in the sky, the new surveillance is a spider in a digital web, testing each connected strand for suspicious vibrations. Surveillance is not only a means of watching or tracking, it is also a mechanism for social sorting. Coordinated entry collects data tied to individual behavior, assesses vulnerability, and assigns different interventions based on that valuation. “Coordinated entry is triage,” said Molly Rysman, the Housing and Homeless deputy for LA’s Third District. “All of us have thought about it like a natural disaster. We have extraordinary need and can’t meet all of that need at once. So you’ve got to figure out: How do we get folks who are going to bleed to death access to a doctor, and folks who have the flu to wait? It’s unfortunate to have to do that, but it is the reality of what we’re stuck with.” In his prescient 1993 book, The Panoptic Sort, communication scholar Oscar Gandy of the University of Pennsylvania also suggests that automated sorting of digital personal information is a kind of triage. But he pushes further, pointing out that the term is derived from the French trier, which means to pick over, cull, or grade marketable produce. “Although some metaphors speak for themselves, let me be clear,” he writes. In digital triage, “individuals and groups of people are being sorted according to their presumed economic or political value. The poor, especially poor people of color, are increasingly being treated as broken material or damaged goods to be discarded.”

    But as she goes on to write on pg 122, those systems support moral judgements which can operate as rationalisations for those we don’t help and actions we don’t take:

    But if homelessness is a human tragedy created by policy decisions and professional middle-class apathy, coordinated entry allows us to distance ourselves from the human impacts of our choice to not act decisively. As a system of moral valuation, coordinated entry is a machine for producing rationalization, for helping us convince ourselves that only the most deserving people are getting help. Those judged “too risky” are coded for criminalization. Those who fall through the cracks face prisons, institutions, or death.

    • landzek 12:51 am on November 13, 2019 Permalink

      Don’t people do that anyways without the assistance of machines?

      Couldn’t we even say that individual cultural groups are themselves a machine that’s sort out who is worthy and where they belong in a hierarchical organization of the group/not group?

      It’s interesting to me how some types of analysis speak to things as if it’s something new, just because it’s appearing differently.

      It’s like capitalism creating an antagonist that itself is capitalistic.

      For example war. Does it really matter, or does it have any significance at all if there were two groups of say 500,000 people who get in a war and 20,000 of them get killed, compared if there’s two groups of 2 million people and the same percentage die?

      Sometimes I wonder what the implicit morality or implicit messages in some of these analyses.

      I’m not sure what is so horrible about a machine designating and enforcing through intellectual capital what individuals are not valued or valuable beyond the fact that human beings do that all the time without machines, that is, deciding who is valuable and who is not?

      Sometimes I wonder what the world would look out like if everyone was valued equally and there was no war?

      The question itself seems to be never asked because the answer then goes back to kind of emphasize how many particular project is almost useless and basically generated just for the fact of the individual attempting to play some self in a society that itself is a machine that’s valuing and D valuing individuals and groups in particular ways.

      And I’m not being nihilistic nor pessimistic, but when I read some of these kinds of analyses, what strikes me is what implicit in the analysis that no one wants to talk about.

      So I guess I’m kind of asking you, since you posted the segment, what do you think is being left out? What is the implicit agenda, the endgame, what is the point of this segment? What, for example, are you trying to tell me?

  • Mark 7:51 pm on November 11, 2019 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: bias, ,   

    How machine learning veils human bias 

    The promise of introducing machine learning into public administration is that it can counteract human bias. The latent promise of bureaucracy can be realised by systems that won’t be up-ended by the messy imperfections of their human operators. However Virginia Eubanks makes clear in Automating Inequality that the reality is something much more worrying, as the operation of machinic systems does what Andrew Pickering calls ontological veiling: rendering them unrepresentable by taking us on a detour from those aspects of reality. As Eubanks recalls on pg 166:

    Human bias has been a problem in child welfare since the field’s inception. In its earliest days, Charles Loring Brace’s orphan trains carried away so many Catholic sons and daughters that the religious minority had to create an entirely parallel system of child welfare organizations. Scientific charity workers had religious biases that tended to skew their decision-making. They believed that the children of Protestants could be redeemed by their families, but Catholics were incorrigible and had to be sent to labor on (mostly Protestant) farms in the Midwest. Today, racial disproportionality shatters the bonds of too many Black and Native American families. Some of that disproportion can certainly be traced to human discretion in child welfare decision-making. But human bias is a built-in feature of the predictive risk model, too.

    Compare to the contemporary reality depicted on pg 167:

    Once the big blue button is clicked and the AFST runs, it manifests a thousand invisible human choices. But it does so under a cloak of evidence-based objectivity and infallibility. Intake screeners reflect a variety of experiences and life paths, from the suburban white Penn State postgraduate to an African American Pittsburgh native, like Pat Gordon, with over a decade of experience. The automated discretion of predictive models is the discretion of the few. Human discretion is the discretion of the many. Flawed and fallible, yes. But also fixable.

  • Mark 4:48 pm on November 10, 2019 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , , great disruptive project, , , , ,   

    The Great Disruptive Project of Uber 

    I’ve blogged in the past about The Great Disruptive Project. We should understand a company like Uber, at least in its earlier stages, as in part a moral project. By this I mean there is a vision underlying the company, a critique of the existing order associated with this vision and a commitment to changing the world in line with both. There are many other things going on here. For example it is easy to be enamoured by a vision which is also making you fabulously wealthy. But if we reduce the vision to a front for avarice then we miss an important element in why such a company comes to be the way that it is.

    Reading Super Pumped: The Battle for Uber has left me more convinced of this then ever. It charts the evolving corporate culture of Uber and how Travis Kalanick sought to build a company which reflected the hyper-competitiveness with which he approached the established transportation order from the outset. The author Mike Isaac deftly explores how the rapid growth of the company was dependent on giving regional managers a wide latitude in their mission to entrench Uber within a new municipality, as well as ensuring they backed staff and drivers to the hilt when it came to the inevitable pushback.

    Uber has been notorious for its willingness to flout the law, bulldozing its way through each new municipality. What Isaac conveys is how this had some of the characteristics of a movement, uniting intensely ambitious young (mostly male) staff in a project to change the world and get rich in the process. His book left me with such a vivid sense of how the pathologies of the company were incipient in its model of growth, as Kalanick’s libertarian impulses coupled with the glut of capital they had access to produce a lawless juggernaut enthusiastically seeking to destroy anything which got in its way.

    While Uber might be an extreme case, it nonetheless highlights characteristics of (successful) startups which render them different to other firms: they grow at a remarkable pace with huge implications for on-boarding processes and corporate culture, access to capital can give senior management an astonishing degree of latitude, the startup’s fundraising depends on a plausible account of how it will change the world and the key people involved stand to become fabulously wealthy if they succeed in this endeavour.

    It embodies the tensions of contemporary capitalism and, as Emily Chang observes in another book I’m enjoying at the moment, creates an environment in which an endeavour which involves a large amount of luck (particularly when it comes to the economic juncture in which Uber were able to raise such an astonishing amount of capital while being so far from profitability) comes to be coded as the alpha bros rising to the top. Given the persistence of the underlying conditions, it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that things will get worse before they get better.

  • Mark 3:19 pm on November 9, 2019 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , , exchange,   

    The economics of attention vs the sociology of attention 

    The Attention Economy and the Net is a remarkably prescient piece, widely seen to have coined the eponymous term and containing insights which are still relevant two decades later. The framing of the economy unsurprisingly shapes the approach he adopts and it creates a focus on exchange which I find problematic in some respects. This isn’t because there aren’t questions to be asked about the exchange of attention. There are many and this paper raises them in powerful ways. But exchange isn’t always the same thing and the ‘economy’ metaphor* flattens out these differences:

    1. He observes on pg 2 that attention “is an intrinsically scarce resource”. However it doesn’t follow from that we “have a certain stock of attention at [our] disposal” which can be allocated in different ways. This imputes a voluntarism to our capacity to attend which is phenomenologically, neurophysiologically and ontologically untenable. It helps draw attention to the role of competition in shaping what we attend to but it suggests we can simply exchange our attention qua commodity in relation to changing circumstances. But I don’t think this is the case. When a fire alarm goes off I can be said to reallocate attention from the task at hand but this fails to grasp the involuntary character of the apparent exchange. From the perspective of someone interested in distraction, thinking about allocation helps make sense of sources of distraction but obscures the question of how, why and to what degree these things distract us by leaving us describing these outcomes as reallocations of a uniform and fungible commodity. It loses the quality of attention in its focus on the quantity and how it is distributed.
    2. It’s hard to make sense of the lasting effects of attention if we see it as a matter of exchange. He writes on pg 6 that attentional wealth accrues through the enduring effects of past attention, creating mental traces which can be reactived at a later late. This is an important point about how the cumulative influence which can be achieved through attention but it speaks to the involuntary character of our allocation. It suggests over the life course people carry an increasing quantity of traces of past attending which can be activated at a later date, insightfully pointing to biographical dynamics which I can’t see how it’s possible to explain unless we dispense with the metaphor of allocation. The same is true of his point about the capacity to attention to enable us to exercise power over an audience.
    3. His point about money flowing with attention but not vice versa on pg 7 is an important one which speaks to current debates about organic vs paid advertising. But this further underscores the non-vountaristic nature of what we attend to because it highlights how attention has to be won, in a manner which prods the subject into expanding their energy, it can’t simply be stimulated in a mechanical fashion. It could be argued that I’m taking the notion of allocation too literally here but the point of a metaphor is that it opens up and closes down its object. I’m suggesting we lose an important part of the picture if we see it in these terms.

    *It’s not literally an economy, as much as a way of highlighting the increasing salience of attention as an economic factor and how this reflects an economic transformation. There is a literal aspect to this framing but it smuggles in a metaphorical aspect which I think is more dubious. It makes the transformation seem more epochal, drawing sharper boundaries than would otherwise be the case, as it becomes a matter of transitioning between the ‘old economy’ and the ‘new economy’. He acknowledges the problem with what Mike Savage calls epochal theorising at the start of the article but doesn’t really avoid the pitfalls associated with it.

  • Mark 8:06 pm on November 8, 2019 Permalink | Reply

    The paradox of the liberal contrarian 

    From Emily Chang’s Brotopia pg 52:

    The beliefs of the PayPal founders—that individual merit is the most valuable metric of human potential and that creativity is deadened by groupthink—have deeply influenced the postcrash tech industry and are consistent with the ideas promoted by Thiel’s cohort at Stanford. There are many counterarguments to this thinking, but I’ll focus on one of its glaring flaws: Peter Thiel, who champions unbridled individuality, is in fact describing a groupthink of his own. From his Stanford days onward, Thiel has largely surrounded himself with Ivy League, antiestablishment contrarians whose opinions are similar to his own. The Review editors might not have been the most popular group at Stanford, but they were a group nonetheless. They took their particular brand of groupthink to PayPal and their subsequent companies, propagating it through Silicon Valley—with consequences far beyond the PayPal walls.

  • Mark 9:43 am on November 5, 2019 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: andrew chen, gig economy, ,   

    The promise of the ‘passion economy’ 

    This interesting piece from Li Jin suggests a transition from a gig economy to a passion economy. Both facilitate economic action by individuals but the former reduces their individuality to a single attribute (driving a car, delivering food) whereas the latter allows them to offer services premised on that individuality (teaching students, offering analysis). In practice it’s a case of knowledge-products being offered digitally in a way which scales beyond the local environment to which such people were formerly restricted. The platform facilitates these interactions while trying to ensure people remain on platform by offering additional value to the interaction through features like workflow and scheduling tools. There’s a huge hole in the argument which barely needs pointing out:

    The top-earning writer on the paid newsletter platform Substack earns more than $500,000 a year from reader subscriptions. The top content creator on Podia, a platform for video courses and digital memberships, makes more than $100,000 a month. And teachers across the US are bringing in thousands of dollars a month teaching live, virtual classes on Outschool and Juni Learning.

    It seems likely we’ll see a long tail distribution here in which these headline figures distract from the vast majority of users who earn next to nothing through the platforms, with the shiny novelty of the technology distracting from the broader context of underemployment in which people turn to platforms like this to top up their incomes. Nevertheless, it seems plausible that this trend is going to grow and Jin offers an industry-centric theorisation of it which I’m planning to come back to.

  • Mark 11:17 am on November 4, 2019 Permalink | Reply

    Upcoming Critical Realism webinars 

    Join Us Because “Critical Realism Matters”

    Webinars on Saturday 16th November, 2019 & Launch of The Bhaskar Memorial Fund

    Critical Realism Matters is a new series of webinar events held to showcase and celebrate the enormous potential of critical realism. The first pair of webinars, taking place on Saturday 16th November, 2019, have been planned to commemorate the 5th anniversary of the death of Roy Bhaskar, the key founder of critical realism (CR). With this very much in mind, we are delighted that the webinars will also mark the launch of The Bhaskar Memorial Fund, a new fund supporting the work of critical realist scholars.

    The webinars are designed both to share CR’s essential features and key ideas with new audiences (especially early career researchers and interested students), and to showcase just some of the ways in which CR is being applied. In the first hour of each webinar 3 speakers will present a pre-recorded talk and discussion, via the webinar platform Zoom. This is followed, in the second hour, by a fully interactive live discussion in which audience members are invited to participate. We have timed the release to make them as accessible as possible to a global audience. They will then be uploaded on YouTube and the Critical Realism Network website.

    The details are as follows:

    Critical Realism Matters: Essentials   10-12.00 GMT (click here for your local time)

    Critical Realism Matters: Applications   14-16.00 GMT (click here for your local time)

    Confirmed speakers include:

    • Ismael Al-Amoudi (France) [ontological realism]
    • Priscilla Alderson (UK) [studying health using critical realism]
    • Angela Dy (UK) [race, gender and intersectionality]
    • Johnny Go (Philippines) [judgemental rationality]
    • Wendy Olsen (UK) [epistemological relativism]
    • Chris Sarra (Australia) [inspiring indigenous students]

    Up to date details and links are also available at http://criticalrealismnetwork.org/criticalrealismmatters/

    We hope very much that you can join us!

    Organisation Committee, Centre for Critical Realism

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