I’ve picked up a Slavoj Žižek book for the first time in a while and found the characteristics which led me to take a break from his writing have only grown over time. He links Me Too to victimhood early in Like A Thief In Broad Daylight: Power in the Era of Post-Humanity. From pg 6:

As in every revolutionary upheaval, there will be numerous ‘injustices’, ironies, and so on. (For example, I doubt that the American comedian Louis CK’s acts, deplorable and lewd as they are, could be put on the same level as direct sexual violence.) But, again, none of this should distract us; rather, we should focus on the problems that lie ahead. Although some countries are already experiencing a new post-patriarchal sexual culture (look at Iceland, where two thirds of children are born out of a wedlock, and where women occupy more posts in public institutions than men), one of the most urgent tasks is to explore what we are gaining and losing in the upheaval of traditional courtship procedures. New rules will have to be established in order to avoid a sterile culture of fear and uncertainty –plus, of course, we must make sure that this awakening does not turn into just another case where political legitimization is based on the subject’s victimhood status.

He reads victimhood in terms of the “weird combination of the free subject who experiences himself as being ultimately responsible for his fate, and the subject who grounds the authority of his speech on his status as a victim of circumstances beyond his control” (pg 6). It reflects an “extreme narcissistic perspective in which every encounter with the Other appears as a potential threat to the subject’s precarious imaginary balance; as such, it is not the opposite of, but rather the inherent supplement to, the liberal free subject” (pg 7). I don’t think there’s anything inherently rightward about exploring this thesis, though it being offered as the truth of any social movement or cultural moment is self-evidently absurd.

If we read him charitably though it is clear this is not what he is doing, rather his point is one of collective agency. How do we ensure a “post-patriarchal sexual culture’ can be built? Will trading narratives of victimisation contribute to this project or make it more difficult? But even this most charitable reading seems spectacularly tone deaf, as does his need to qualify the status of Louis CK’s acts. It’s difficult not to perceive a slide here, as a contrarian objection to ‘political correctness’ (something which he clearly misreads to begin with, failing to recognise the profoundly agentive character of it: far from being a diffuse culture of self-censorship, it begins with people making demands) leads to something darker. It’s a more thought provoking read than I expected but there a distinctly alt-light (not alt-right) themes prominent amongst the familiar features of a Žižek text. It remains to be seen where he is going in the longer term.

I thought these reflections by Mariano Zukerfeld on pg 4 of his Knowledge in the Age of Digital Capitalism were absolutely spot on. It would unfair to present this as a characteristic of poststructuralism as such, but there can be a dogmatism to poststructuralist thinkers which is all the more frustrating for their own obliviousness to it:

On the one hand, much of its indisputable publishing success has been based on concepts that, even though they seem attractive initially, are ultimately beautiful but of little use. On the other hand, many of these critical philosophical initiatives, when they engage with discussions about the capitalist economy, adopt concepts from orthodox economics in a completely naturalised and acritical way. Thus, they ascend to their concepts upon the scaffolding provided by the dominant ideology. More generally, I do not share these approaches’ rejection of the categories of totality, contradiction, negativity, and I believe that much of their blithe positivity makes them functional to the dominant ideology of informational capitalism. Finally, this tradition brandishes the banners of difference, otherness, multiplicity. However, in practice it is no more adept at dialogue with difference (in other words with those viewpoints that do not echo its mantras) than any other dogmatism. This intolerance in the face of plurality, debate, and constitutive contradictions, that for Marxism, scientism, or any religion can be explained (disagreeably but with coherence) by the belief that there is one truth, which they are in possession of, is completely unsustainable when observed in these ‘philosophies of difference’ .

This expression used by Alain de Botton in his How Proust Can Change Your Life (pg 42) stood out to me. He uses it in relation to the morning news, reflecting on how reporting inevitably strips away from the reality of what is reported on. This is an example of a broader tendency for human experience to “be stripped of the more obvious signposts by which we guide ourselves when ascribing importance”. To use the language of Andrew Sayer, factual reporting strips away what matters to people about what is being reported on. The distillation involved in reporting on the facts of a case unavoidably subtract how those state of affairs move people and motivate them, leaving us with an arid picture susceptible to wide circulation when so many other accounts compete for our attention. The abbreviation of human experience is a practical necessity which detracts from our understanding of others and the world around us, even as it contributes to our knowledge of those conditions.

It might be argued that social media highlights human experience in a new way, though I would suggest it is demotic in the sense of reality television rather than democratic in the sense of participatory. It foregrounds human experience through templates and incentivised interaction, increasing the flow of human experience in public consciousness but at the cost of its integrity. Abbreviation is intensified rather than attenuated, with so many shards of experience flying around that radically truncating our attention is the only way to cope. What gets through is what is spectacular, jarring or enraging. It is not a return to human experience but its last gasp, with meaning and mattering mangled by the machinery of abbreviation. Under these conditions, what de Botton calls the finger placing ability becomes important:

The value of a novel is not limited to its depiction of emotions and people akin to those in our own life, it stretches to an ability to describe these far better than we would have been able, to put a finger on perceptions that we recognise as our own, yet could not have formulated on our own.  (pg 28)

I’ve always been fascinated by these depths. The struggle within us to articulate something and the relief that comes when we find a way to say it. Often though we change in the process of saying it, as we suddenly recognise a state of affairs within us by virtue of being able to express it. The opposite of what de Botton calls abbreviation is what Charles Taylor calls articulation. Resources we can draw on in articulation are invaluable in an age of radical abbreviation, helping us become “newly attuned to pick up certain objects floating through consciousness” such that we are “drawn to the shades of the sky, to the changeability of a face, to the hypocrisy of a friend or to a submerged sadness about a situation which we had previously not even known we could feel sad about” (pg 29). Articulacy we develop expands outwards, sensitising us to the abbreviation we encounter around us and leaving us more adept at recovering the reality subsumed by its thin expression. This is not a call for slowness, as much as for elaboration. There’s a value in being long winded, even if it’s unlikely to get you read.

This observation from loc 785 of The Left Hemisphere: Mapping Contemporary Theory by Razmig Keucheyan caught my eye. His concern is with the intellectual implications of a generation’s dominance within critical thought:

The new critical theories have not been developed by ‘new’ theorists, if by that is meant biologically young intellectuals. There are, of course, young authors producing innovative critical thinking today, but the critical thinkers recognized in the public sphere are in most cases over 60 years of age and often over 70. The implications of this are not insignificant. However ‘contemporary’, these authors’ analyses are mainly the fruit of political experiences belonging to a previous political cycle –that of the 1960s and 70s.

But what about these young authors and their innovative critical thinking? How is its reception influenced by the prominence of these towering figures in their 60s and 70s? It seems obvious to me there are Matthew effects at work here, with it being easier for the already visible to accumulate visibility for their work. Furthermore, the crisis in monographs means that established intellectual brands are immensely appealing to publishers.

It would be a crass overstatement to accuse ageing critical theorists of squeezing out the younger generation through their frantic rate of publication, something which younger scholars are unable to match for all sorts of reasons. But rejecting this argument as a form of intellectual populism shouldn’t lead us to retreat from the underlying observation. There is a dynamic here which is of great significance for the character and influence of critical thought today.

As the SRA turns 40 we take stock and look ahead.  With the advent of innovative techniques, tools and technology, social research has transformed in recent decades. But with advancement has come data misuse, and widespread public scepticism – so the profession faces continuing rapid change and rising uncertainty.

The conference will explore how researchers can adapt to these changes, while also asking what are the enduring principles of research that will guide good practice and maintain public confidence for the next 40 years?

Keynote and plenary speakers

Our keynote speaker is Sir John Curtice, eminent and vastly knowledgeable political scientist, and the nation’s favourite polling expert.

Jennifer Rubin has a huge role as the ESRC’s new Executive Chair. She’ll report on how funding for research and innovation is changing and what to expect for social research from the new UKRI .

Internationally renowned qualitative expert Trish Greenhalgh OBE will explore why introducing technologies in the hope of driving change almost never works.

Extra breakout sessions

There are 2 breakouts in the day, with a choice of workshop presentations where researchers will describe their work on:

  • Impact and influence
  • The researched
  • Qualitative innovation
  • Policy evaluation
  • Survey developments
  • Adapting to change

And this year we’re adding extra sessions – single-topic workshops on:

  • An infographic 101 – Practical, step by step guidance on how to create a simple infographic, plus tips and pitfalls.
  • Semiotics for researchers – Using visible evidence and cultural information to better understand people, society and social problems.
  • Big data and social research – Exploring some essentials of big data, its application and the challenges it brings, with case studies.
  • Networking – A guided, semi-structured workshop to help you make new connections at the conference, in terms of research topics, methods, experiences and challenges.

Once you’ve registered we’ll be in touch later to ask for your breakout preferences, as places are limited.

Register here: http://the-sra.org.uk/event-registration/?ee=691

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. 

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

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

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.

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

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

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.

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.

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.

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?

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.

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.

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.