Bleak but plausible predictions from Nick Srniceck and Alex Williams in their Inventing the Future. From loc 2020-2035:

1. The precarity of the developed economies’ working class will intensify due to the surplus global labour supply (resulting from both globalisation and automation). 

2. Jobless recoveries will continue to deepen and lengthen, predominantly affecting those whose jobs can be automated at the time. 

3. Slum populations will continue to grow due to the automation of low-skilled service work, and will be exacerbated by premature deindustrialisation. 

4. Urban marginality in the developed economies will grow in size as low-skilled, low-wage jobs are automated. 

5. The transformation of higher education into job training will be hastened in a desperate attempt to increase the supply of high-skilled workers. 

6. Growth will remain slow and make the expansion of replacement jobs unlikely. 

7. The changes to workfare, immigration controls and mass incarceration will deepen as those without jobs are increasingly subjected to coercive controls and survival economies.

This leaves us with a profound contradiction of “a future in which the global economy is increasingly unable to produce enough jobs (let alone good jobs), yet where we remain dependent upon jobs for our living.”

In the Hard Thing About Hard Things, Ben Horowitz recounts his experiences of his company Loudcloud coming close to failure. At a climatic moment, he makes a speech to his staff declaring the commitment they will have to show over the coming months. From pg 48:

“I have some bad news. We are getting our asses kicked by BladeLogic and it’s a product problem. If this continues, I am going to have to sell the company for cheap. There is no way for us to survive if we don’t have the winning product. So, I am going to need every one of you to do something. I need you to go home tonight and have a serious conversation with your wife, husband, significant other, or whoever cares most about you and tell them, ‘Ben needs me for the next six months.’ I need you to come in early and stay late. I will buy you dinner, and I will stay here with you. Make no mistake, we have one bullet left in the gun and we must hit the target

He initially feels guilty about asking them to entirely subordinate their lives to the company during this difficult time. But years later, he discovers that perhaps his staff enjoyed the experience when one says this. From pg 48-49:

Of all the times I think of at Loudcloud and Opsware, the Darwin Project was the most fun and the most hard. I worked seven days a week 8 a.m.–10 p.m. for six months straight. It was full on. Once a week I had a date night with my wife where I gave her my undivided attention from 6 p.m. until midnight. And the next day, even if it was Saturday, I’d be back in the office at 8 a.m. and stay through dinner. I would come home between 10–11 p.m. Every night. And it wasn’t just me. It was everybody in the office. The technical things asked of us were great. We had to brainstorm how to do things and translate those things into an actual product. It was hard, but fun. I don’t remember losing anyone during that time. It was like, “Hey, we gotta get this done, or we will not be here, we’ll have to get another job.” It was a tight-knit group of people. A lot of the really junior people really stepped up. It was a great growing experience for them to be thrown into the middle of the ocean and told, “Okay, swim.” Six months later we suddenly started winning proofs of concepts we hadn’t before. Ben did a great job, he’d give us feedback, and pat people on the back when we were done.

Can we see this as the pleasures and challenges of acceleration? While it’s important not to assume that because one relatively senior figure enjoyed the experience then all did, it’s nonetheless an experience which I think ought to be treated seriously. As I’ve argued here, there are pleasures to be found in acceleration:

  1. Time-pressure can be a symbol of status and flaunting it can represent one of the few socially acceptable forms of conspicuous self-aggrandisement available.
  2. Time-pressure can reduce the time available for reflexivity, ‘blotting out’ difficult questions in a way analogous to drink and drugs.
  3. Time-pressure can facilitate a unique kind of focus in the face of a multiplicity of distractions. If we accept that priorities are invested with normative significance (i.e. they matter to us in direct and indirect ways) then prioritisation can be pleasurable. This can take the form of people who rely on deadlines to ensure things get done. More prosaically, it can undercut procrastination by leaving one with finite temporal resources to utilise for non-negotiable obligations.
  4. Time-pressure can leave us feeling that we are living life most fully. If the good life is now seen as the full life then living fast feels like living fully.

http://blogs.lse.ac.uk/impactofsocialsciences/2015/04/07/life-in-the-accelerated-academy-carrigan/

Periods of collective crisis within an organisation represent acceleration of a particular sort: temporally bounded and intensely sociable. I think something of this is conveyed in the way Horowitz elsewhere talks of the distinction between being a ‘wartime CEO’ and ‘peacetime CEO’.

How do we envisage our future? To ask this question usually invites reflections upon personal biography. More rarely does it address ‘our’ in a civilizational sense – I use the term loosely here to refer to the totality of organised human social life which, in contemporary circumstances I would take to be unitary (in the sense of global capitalism rather than an underlying species bond) but would not assume this has always been true. In this sense, speaking of ‘civilizational collapse’ does not entail the extinction of the human species (though neither does it rule this out) but rather the unravelling of the existing social order: not a change in its state but the collapse of its capacity to change states. I’m using a processual term because in the absence of a discrete event bringing about the extinction of the species this collapse would inevitably be a process and potentially an extremely slow one. I’m very interested in the constraints upon our capacity to envisage such a collapse and suggested a few points in a blog post earlier this year:

  • We tend towards a generic assumption of the durability of social structures.
  • We tend even more strongly towards a generic assumption of the durability of social formations (i.e. assemblages of social structures)
  • We tend to miss the origins of social formations in the intended and unintended consequences of deliberate action, as well as the interactions between them.
  • We tend to reason inductively and, in doing so, miss the possibility that the future will be radically distinct from the past.
  • Even if we deny it intellectually, we tend towards exceptionalism in how we see social formations which are deeply familiar to us.

https://markcarrigan.net/2014/03/20/the-epistemology-of-civilizational-collapse/

Reading Tony Benn’s diaries I was intrigued to find that he was plagued by thoughts of impending collapse towards the end of his life. As he records on the 2nd November 2011:

I happened to see a television programme, when I was having my meal in the evening, about the Maya culture in Mexico. I had absolutely no idea that the temples they built were bigger than the pyramids; 1,500 years ago there was the most tremendously civilised society in Latin America, which simply disappeared, went under the jungle, and it does make you wonder whether ours might not do the same. There’s no absolute law to say that our civilisation will survive for ever.

That final line is a very succinct statement of what I was trying to get at with the notion of ‘the epistemology of civilizational collapse’: there’s nothing certain about the sustained survival of a civilisation and yet we assume that there is. A few years from his death (20th November 2008) Tony Benn described the nightmares that plagued him:

I have nightmares every morning. I am overwhelmed by the feeling that the world – Britain and the world – is going to collapse through shortage of oil. I visualise circumstances where people at the top of tower blocks would find that the lift couldn’t be run because there was no energy; doctors couldn’t climb twenty-four flights to stairs to look after them if they were ill; and the whole of society comes to an end.

There’s something interesting about a state of affairs where these ideas are largely confined to nightmares or to fiction. I’m sure there are people studying this (I’d be fascinated to find that there aren’t) but its relative absence from public discourse is surely susceptible to both sociological and psychoanalytical explanation. To clarify, I don’t think that much of the discourse surrounding climate change reaches the level of ‘collapse discourse’ of the sort I’m proposing: it’s technocratic on the one hand and individualised on the other.

I’m interested in exploring cultural representations of collapse as a means to understand the epistemology and sociology of collapse. I think that cultural representations of collapse are often post-hoc, elaborating a vision of the rebuilding of human society after a collapse has taken place. Whereas I’m fascinated by what the process itself would be like and how it would be understood by those within the collapsing social order. In spite of its many flaws, this was what I loved about the film Interstellar:

In fact I would have much preferred this film if it hadn’t had any of the science fiction and had just explored the transformed social order in which a “caretaker generation” seek to sustain the viability of an ever more inhospitable earth: I was gripped by the representations of a social order in which ascriptive identity had returned, agriculture dominated the American economy and the intellectual horizons of the society were narrowing into survival. I’m currently gripped by The Massive – a sociologically rich exploration of life post-collapse:

the massive

Perhaps when I talk about ‘collapse’ what I really mean are the conditions leading to dystopias? In a post earlier this year, Dan Hirschman put forward the idea for a course on real dystopias as a grim parallel to Erik Olin Wright’s work on real utopias. He suggested that “Each week or sub-unit would cover a different real dystopia, ideally with a guest lecturer who could speak to the underlying science or politics of the particular kind of dystopia.” These are the topics he suggested:

  1. Antibiotic resistant infections
  2. Widespread droughts and massive disruptions of the food supply connected to climate change
  3. The dominance of the patrimonial super-rich
  4. The Player Piano dystopia (“a relatively small clique of engineers built and maintained the machines, while a large class of unemployed workers lived lives of aimless poverty”)
  5. The Surveillance state dystopia

However I think it’s important to distinguish between states of collapse and dystopias. Representations of dystopias often presuppose the ecological viability of the underlying context, projecting it forward so as to conceive the future as a product of solely social processes. Representations of ecologically induced collapse often have a converse absence of substantive social content:

Whereas I’m interested in the relationship between the two. Ecological decline doesn’t necessitate collapse in the sense in which I’m using the concept but it does make it ever more likely. I’m wondering if some general philosophical propositions (the epistemology of civilizational collapse) could be explored through an analysis of fictional representations (the representation of civilizational collapse) to shed more light on the character of social processes (the sociology of civilizational collapse)?

Crisis and Social Change: Towards Alternative Horizons.
Call for Papers. Deadline Monday July 21st.
Organized by the Department of Sociology, Cambridge University
Date: Sep 26-27, 2014

Venue: Faculty of Human, Social, and Political Sciences, Free School Lane, Cambridge, CB2
3RQ

This conference moves beyond crisis as a category of diagnosis and critique to explore
alternative horizons, raising fundamental questions about the nature and extent of ruptures
and continuity in the contemporary social world.

Among the multiple horizons in view, we are motivated by the generational need to draw
upon the legacies of critique, while shifting toward the production of alternative futures.
From diagnosis to treatment. From deconstruction to reconstruction. From negation to vision.
From crisis to progress. Such is the responsibility of our Age, from which positive social
change might rise.

We welcome contributions from researchers, activists, artists, and professionals from across
the world on the following topics, though this list is by no means exhaustive, and we are keen
to receive contributions on other topics aligned with the conference theme:

CRITICAL AND EMPANCIPATORY THOUGHT AND ACTION
SOCIAL TRANSFORMATION AND CITIES
ALTERNATIVE ECONOMIC PRACTICES
WORK AND LIFE
MEDIA
EDUCATION
REVOLUTIONS AND SOCIAL PROTEST
(POST) DEMOCRACY
ENVIRONMENT
We have also introduced a soapbox session within the Conference programme and encourage
speakers to participate. For the natural orators out there, the soapbox session provides you
with the opportunity to stand up for 2 minutes and air your fiery, risky, extravagant and
controversial views on the following question: WHAT IS RADICALISM?

The conference is organized by PhD students from the Department of Sociology, University
of Cambridge. To give attendees time to explore the city’s history and socialise, the
conference will be held over two days.

KEYNOTE SPEAKERS:

We are pleased to announce our three distinguished keynote speakers
– Professor Greg Philo (School of Social and Political Sciences, University of Glasgow),
– Professor Emeritus Goran Therborn (Faculty of Human, Social and Political Sciences,
University of Cambridge)
– Professor Ted Benton (Faculty of Social Sciences, University of Essex)

PLENARY PANELS:

The conference will also host two plenary panels on the following themes:

Plenary panel 1: The Great Recession and Varieties of Social and Political Responses
Chair: Professor Andrew Gamble
Dr. Rowan Williams (tbc)(Master of Magdalene College, Cambridge), Professor Larry King
(Dept. of Sociology, Cambridge), Professor John Kelly (Dept. of Management, Birkbeck),
and Dr. Jeff Miley (Dept. of Sociology, Cambridge)

Plenary panel 2: Mobilisation, Social Change and Revolution
Chair: Barrister Dexter Dias QC
Professor P.G Klandermans (Dept. of Applied Psychology, University of Amsterdam),
Emeritus Reader in Sociology Dr. David Lane (Dept. of Sociology, Cambridge), Professor
Jane Wills (Dept. of Geography, Queen Mary University of London) and Dr. Manali Desai
(Dept. of Sociology, Cambridge)

HOW TO SUBMIT:
Paper presentation: abstract (300 word max.) and biography (100 word max.)
Poster presentation: abstract (300 word max.) and biography (100 word max.)
Soap box presentation: abstract (100 word max.) and biography (100 word max.)

SUBMISSION DEADLINE:

The deadline for the submission of abstracts is Monday, July 21st 2014. There is no
registration fee.

All abstracts must be submitted by visiting the Ex Ordo abstract submission system (you will
be required to setup an account first): http://csc2014.exordo.com/

Successful applicants will be informed by July 31st, 2014.

The selected applicants are expected to submit an outline of their presentation (or the power
point slides) by September 1st, 2014

PUBLICATION AND AWARDS:
Awards will be given for Best Paper, Best Poster and Best Soap Box Presentations at the end
of the Conference in recognition of originality and excellence. The Organising Committee
also plans to publish selected papers of the highest quality in a special issue of a UK journal
or as an edited volume.

FURTHER INFORMATION:
For further details on our distinguished keynote speakers and plenary panelists please visit
http://www.towardsalternativehorizons.wordpress.com, email the organising committee at
towardsalternativehorizons@gmail.com or visit our Facebook page
http://www.facebook.com/events/850509748311055

punkI actually liked the ‘punk’ bit of this book less than I expected to. I’m a big fan of Nick Crossley’s work – though I disagree with him on a lot of things, engaging with it was really important for developing the theoretical perspective in my PhD. I’ve read a lot of what he’s done and the punk research is by some margin the weakest element within it. It’s not my area of expertise by any means but some of the historical claims about punk seemed quite jarring to me, with the approving references to Crossley’s work being symptomatic of this. I sort of see what Beer means when he says that “the original punk movement was so short-lived and so self-destructive” but given I’ve regularly been going to punk gigs of one sort or another for well over a decade, it’s a counter-intuitive claim nonetheless. Obviously the crux here is the term ‘original’ but I think the extent of this sustained activity cannot be something marginal when discussing punk. It’s not my area of expertise by any means, but I suspect that sociologists of punk will find some of the cultural history here to be problematic.

However this doesn’t really matter. The book doesn’t purport to be a cultural history of any sort. It rather uses punk as a cultural resource to elaborate upon a sociological ethos in a time of institutional crisis. In this sense, it’s a wilfully provocative and undoubtedly thought-provoking contribution to a much broader tradition within sociological thought. There’s a pragmatic dimension to this which might attract some activist critique:

It is obvious that we are not going to reverse the apparent marketization and neoliberalization of higher education. Instead, we need to think about how we should respond. The best response, that is to say the best form of protection, is to shape a discipline that is attractive, lively, and exciting. A discipline that draws people in. This will ensure that sociology has a ready-made and substantial audience, and that it is able to attract those who will then go on to be the future of the discipline. It will also make it far more likely that value is seen to reside in the sociological project. This does not mean that we are ‘selling out’, it is not to go with the flow and to simply adopt the spirit of market-based competition into our lives. Rather it is to work towards a version of sociology that thrives under these conditions by offering an alternative voice and an engaging tone. Sociology will then thrive, because it will draw people into its debates, into its ideas, and into its findings, all of which are likely to provide alternative visions of the social world.

But I think this would be unfair. I think there’s a risk that such engagement could become normalising but the best way to avoid this is to be clear about the ethos underlying it: this is precisely what the book contributes. When we’re clear about what we’re trying to do, it becomes easier “to play along with the demands placed on us, but that at the same time we try to preserve a creative space”. What would make such a space ‘creative’ and how do we ‘preserve’ it? This is what the analysis of punk as a cultural form contributes:

It is about the drive of the individual to make a contribution and to sometimes look to subvert restrictive or oppressive social categories, norms, or conventions. This in turn leads punk to be open and eclectic. It is outward looking and is keen to respond, react against, or draw upon alternative cultural resources. The products of this background and approach are then often quite raw, stripped back, and fearless. A punk is not afraid of their own limitations and vulnerabilities. Nor do notions of legitimacy or authenticity inhibit them. Punk seeks to break down and transcend boundaries and obstacles and to erode the lines between the performer and the audience. Finally, we can see this form of communication operating in a terrain in which cultural expression is relatively unrestricted. The punk can then be bold and inventive in their work. Conventions do not hold them back, and the idea of playing it safe is discordant with its central motifs. The driving force here is a strong commitment to a pro-activism that is often expressed as the do-it-yourself or DIY ethic. The DIY ethic is an extension of the inventiveness of punk and affords an unbounded engagement with the cultural world. This leads punks to use the opportunities and materials that they encounter to express their creative forces. This is often highly opportunistic and is based upon the use of media and social networks in new and unpredictable ways. The punk finds a way to make things happen and finds a way to be unconventional in carving out pathways of expression and communication. The punk adapts to the terrain in which they are operating and refuses to be restricted by the limitations of access and funding. Punk is based on resourcefulness.

On this account, punk sociology openly engages with the sociological ideas present in other cultural forms. It is unconcerned with hierarchy or convention, construing institutional environments in terms of their capacity to constraint or enable prior projects, resourcefully navigating these environments rather than letting them dictate the sort of work that is deemed worthwhile. It is risk taking and provisional. It rejects technical virtuosity as a end in itself, instead tending towards a ‘stripped-back’ aesthetic that nonetheless remains open to a diversity of forms. It is open towards experimentation and untroubled by the failure of any one experiment. In short, it’s a wonderfully appropriate ethos for social media, which was predictably enough, my favourite part of the book:

One day the punk sociologist is writing a blog post, the next they are working on an audio podcast, the next they are creating posters, the next they are making short films, the next they are curating content. They gather, uncover, and generate insights through their sociologically sensitive trawling of the social world, using the things they find to illustrate and enliven sociological topics (using anything from art, to film, to advertising, to photography, to web visualizations, to flyers they get through their front door, to guidebooks – the options are limitless). Books and journal articles will still matter; they are still likely to be the bedrock of academic communication. But the punk sociologist looks to use these traditional forms of communication in unusual and maybe even subversive ways, and then looks to build on this work through other forms of communication and through other media. The debates on open-access publication, escaping the paywalls that limit communication, create new questions for academic publishing and communication, the punk sociologist is likely to be working around the edges of what is possible and exploring the reach of their means of communication anyway

I think Dave Beer is really onto something here, in so far as that an ‘ethos’* helps people navigate the communicative possibilities opening up to them. Where I think this is strongest is as a discussion of how sociologists could and should approach the communication of sociological ideas, something which has long been marginalised for reasons which would constitute a book in their own right. I think it’s weaker when it comes to the structural pressures inculcating a great need for team-work and collaboration – I can see how punk sociologistwould collaborate on organising events or running websites. I find it harder to see what, if anything, the notion brings to the practical questions of working together in a sustained way. But this isn’t a critique as much as an awareness that the book asks more questions than it can answer given its length, something which speaks volumes about how genuinely provocative Beer has succeeded in making this short book. It’s almost pamphlet like in its intensity and brevity. It would clearly have been too short for a monograph but too long for a paper or chapter. The ‘pivot’ format fits well with the ethos advocated in the book itself. in this sense, the nature of the book itself resonates with the arguments about sociological writing contained within it:

The punk sociologist looks to communicate widely, with various audiences, and the work they produce is direct and incisive, whilst still being lively, nuanced, and layered. The stripped-back nature of the punk sociologist’s work means that there are few barriers to communication with audiences inside and outside of academia. Indeed, its instant form is likely to attract audiences. Different types of writings might be used and different forms of communication will enable this to occur. Sometimes these will be short and punchy, the equivalent of the single in music, on other occasions they will be album-length book works that are built out of collections of punchy chapters and phrases, they might even take the form of sociological gigs with lively talks and audio-visual stimulus. The punk sociologist does not need a list of possibilities because they will look to exploit the opportunities for communication that are available and will respond to these opportunities. They will find ways around the restrictions and limitations that are there, using the means and potentials that the remediation of everyday life might bring. The punk sociologist adapts their means of communication to suit the changing mediascape and materials with which they are faced.

This is very literally an attention-seeking vision for sociology. On this level, it will surely attract criticism from some quarters but the professional norms upon which such criticism are predicated have contributed to a growing marginality of sociological ideas within public life. I agree that “sociologists need to be bold, to be outspoken and daring, to take risks, and to, on occasion, be audacious” and don’t see any contradiction between this aim and the preservation of technical standards, though there may certainly sometimes be a tension. What the book reminded me of is how stultifying I find many of the conventions of academic writing and academic publishing. I don’t think ‘punk sociology’ offers a structural critique or structural solution, nor does it pretend to do so. But it does offer an appealing call for a cultural response to a set of cultural pathologies which have structural origins. The book strikes me as the start of a conversation rather than the conclusion of one:

A final note relating to this is that punk sociology should not be read as a need to simply speed up and be more responsive. In some cases this may be necessary, but we also need to protect long-term, careful, and meticulous work (such as editing, translation, longitudinal studies, reflective pieces of synthesis, retrospective books, historical and documentary studies, secondary analysis, contextual readings of conceptual ideas, reviewing, and the like). In fact, this type of work is more likely to be defended if we are to take on a more punk sensibility. This type of work is increasingly likely to be tantamount to an act of resistance or rebellion that goes against the grain of the systems of measurement of academic worth or value. Punk sociologists, by not playing it safe and by not being dominated by such systems, are likely to actually maintain the diversity of approaches in the discipline and to add new avenues and perspectives to supplement them.

*Interestingly, I don’t think he defines this term in the book. I have a clear idea of what ‘ethos’ means but I wonder how varied interpretations of this term might be.