I thought this was really interesting, particularly the focus on HCI for this strategy:

*HCI/UX researchers at Google’s Next Billion Users teamThe Google Next
Billion Users team is looking for HCI interns, post-docs, and
researchers-on-contract to work on exploratory research and product
initiatives. The team builds global products from the ground-up with new
Internet users, such as Google Station <https://station.google.com/> and
Tez <https://tez.google.com/>. You will work with an interdisciplinary team
of researchers and designers that explores new aspects of computing with
communities around the world. Roles are based in several countries. Some
travel within the country is required.   If you are excited about
understanding complex spaces, taking research insights to reality, and
working on technology products, fill out this form
to indicate your interest.Qualifications: – Passion for research in
non-western regions- Strong understanding of strengths and shortcomings of
different research methods, including when and how to apply them during
each product phase.- Mastery and rigor of research craft and ability to
think outside the box with research methods.- Experience with emerging
markets (worked in, extensively travelled, studied in depth, or originating
from) and ability to work with diverse communities in emerging markets.-
Experience conducting human-centered research for digital technology or
products.- Follow a collaborative work process.- Master’s degree/Ph.D. in
Human-computer Interaction, anthropology, information science, or
equivalent on-the-job experience, or related fields. Exceptional Bachelor’s
degree holders will be considered. – [Preferred] Track record of publishing
in academic and/or industry arenas, in top-tier conferences and journals.-
[Preferred] Experience in social justice or working with underrepresented

In the last few days, I’ve been reading Hilary Clinton’s What Happened and reflecting on it as an expression of a political centrism which I suspect is coming to an end. These self-defined ‘modernisers’ sought to adapt their respective political parties to what they saw as a new reality, necessitating that they be ‘change-makers’ while responding to change. The claims of the modernisers usually play out in two registers: the psephological and the epochal. The former is straight-forward as a case to adapt to shifts in the electorate themselves and their distribution across constituencies. These changes might be driven by other parties, necessitating adaptation to a changing political landscape. From loc 3544:

I came of age in an era when Republicans won election after election by peeling off formerly Democratic white working-class voters. Bill ran for President in 1992 determined to prove that Democrats could compete in blue-collar suburbs and rural small towns without giving up our values. By focusing on the economy, delivering results, and crafting compromises that defused hot-button issues such as crime and welfare, he became the first Democrat since World War II to win two full terms.

However, the epochal claims modernisers make are more ambiguous. As an empirical exercise, it is obvious that there are connections between social change and electoral change e.g. how post-industrialisation leads to a recomposition of the working class. There nonetheless tends to be a discursive separation between the two, in terms of how modernisers account for their strategy and tactics, which invites explanation. For instance, Tony Blair was prone to speaking in terms of epochal change, framing the new labour project in terms of globalisation and technology changing the landscape within which politics takes place. The influence of Anthony Giddens was undoubtedly key here, but this is nonetheless something which was drawn upon after the psephological case for new labour was already formulated.

This raises the question of the relationship between them: is the epochal language of modernisation merely a flowery idiom in which a basically psephological case is being made? I wonder if it serves a more subtle role, as switching between the two displaces the moment when political axioms confront empirical reality. If the psephological case is challenged, it’s possible to fall back on talk of modernity and globalisation. If the talk of modernity and globalisation is challenged, it’s possible to switch to a case framed in terms of electoral strategy. This ideology of moderation and empiricism postpones an encounter with its own empirical limitations, ensuring its adherents remain able to sustain their identity as pragmatists surrounded by fanatics.

In other words: the world ‘out there’ becomes oddly charged for modernisers, invoked continuously but in ways that distance themselves from it. It is a traumatic real which they avoid at all costs. It blinds them to their own role in creating the conditions to which they claim to be responding. Declining trust in politicians, disengagement from the political process and the subordination of politics to the media are presented as epochal shifts to which parties must respond strategically, as if this relationality plays no part in driving these political transformations. At one point in the book Clinton reminds me of Adorno, opining that “Solutions are going to matter again in politics” as she places her pragmatism in a bottle floating forward into an uncertain future (loc 3264). What Happened? The end of modernisation.

A couple of months ago, The New Statesman carried an interview with Tony Blair for the first time in a long time. Leaving aside how haunted the man looked in the portrait accompanying it, what stood out to me about it was how readily he had incorporated techno-speak into the language of the third way. Here are some examples:

One advantage of today’s social media is that you can build networks. Movements can begin at scale and build speed quickly. You’re not going to relate the answers to the challenges that we face by a Twitter exchange, so what I’m interested in doing is asking: what are the types of ideas that we should be taking forward? How do we provide a service to people who are in the front line of politics, so that we can provide some thinking and some ideas? The thing that’s really tragic about politics today is that the best ideas about politics aren’t in politics. I find the ideas are much more interesting in the technology sector, much more interesting ideas about how you change the world.-

I know we talk about this as a new thing, but many of us grew up with Enoch Powell. I mean, you remember the “rivers of blood” [speech], and black people were welcomed into the country and weren’t expelled, and that Britain was going to fall apart as a nation. I mean, these people are always on the wrong side of history, they always are, because that’s not the way the world is today. The world’s going to integrate more. It may integrate fast or slow, but it will integrate. Because technology, travel, migration, trade are bringing the world closer together. If you take a step back and you look at the broad sweep of history, this is actually a great time for humanity in many ways. You’ve had more people out of poverty than ever before in human history.-

I think what the Leave campaign created was a really interesting machine. You should learn from that. One of the things you have got to be able to do in modern politics is to build that platform of connections and networks. On the other hand, never ever forget that it starts with the right policies.

Open v closed is a really important debate today, because in a curious way the populism of the left and the populism of the right – at a certain point they meet each other. They tend to be isolationist. OK, the left is more anti-business, the right is more anti-immigrant, but they tend to be protectionist and they have an attitude to the process of globalisation that says this is a policy that is given by government and we can stop it and should stop it. Whereas my view about globalisation is that it’s a force essentially driven by people, by technological change, by the way the world has opened up. You’re not going to reverse that. The question is: how do we make that just and fair? That is the big question of our times. The centre left does not provide an answer to that, and we can and should.

This reflects something I’ve been noticing for some time: the similarity of 90s globalisation discourse to contemporary technology discourse. In fact, in many cases you can replace the word ‘globalisation’, from these 90s accounts, with ‘technology’ and there’s no semantic loss whatsoever. This is why we need to be deeply sceptical about, for instance, the automation debate. There’s clearly a real change underway, but it’s framed in a manner which sees the unfolding of technology as an inexorable process, one which offers the possibility of adaptation or displacement. What Morozov calls solutionism (“The belief that all difficulties have benign solutions, often of a technocratic nature”) can be seen as a particular kind of cultural response to this view of technology.

Amongst political actors, we should understand this rhetoric as emerging against a long-term trend towards depoliticisation. It discursively unites the ‘centre ground’ of career politicians, members of what George Osborne calls ‘the guild’, concerned with winning power in order to manage the unfolding of technological change. Amongst economic actors, we should understand this rhetoric as a way of legitimising one’s own work, deployed to win venture capital and to narrate the increasingly hegemonic character of the technology sector within capitalism as a whole. In the interaction between politics and economics, we should see this as a class project, as Thomas Frank argues in his Listen Liberal. From loc 2918-2934:

By that time, the place once filled by finance in the Democratic imagination had begun giving way to Silicon Valley, a different “creative-class” industry with billions to give in campaign contributions. Changes in the administration’s personnel paralleled the money story: at the beginning of the Obama years, the government’s revolving doors had all connected to Wall Street; within a few years, the people spinning them were either coming from or heading toward the West Coast. In 2014, David Plouffe, the architect of Obama’s inspiring first presidential campaign, began to work his political magic for Uber. Jay Carney, the president’s former press secretary, hired on at Amazon the following year. Larry Summers, for his part, became an adviser for an outfit called OpenGov. Back in Washington, meanwhile, the president established a special federal unit that used Silicon Valley techniques and personnel to revolutionize the government’s web presence; starstruck tech journalists call it “Obama’s stealth startup.”

My argument is that we need to see the rhetoric of ‘disruption’ and ‘innovation’ in systemic terms. We need to historicise these cultural forms and link their claims to the core questions of sociology inquiry. We need to update our theories of social change to better take account of socio-technical ‘innovation’. For instance, if we accept the construct of ‘late modernity’, are we seeing a radicalisation of it or are we in the process of transcending it? Should we dispense with ‘modernity’ talk altogether, however qualified, instead moving to talk of ‘platform capitalism’ or ‘digital capitalism’? These are key questions for social theory and ones which I’m increasingly gripped by.

A useful way to approach these is to scale down from the system level and look at particular spheres of life in which innovation talk is at its most pronounced. I’m currently reading a book of keynotes by the education writer Audrey Watters which reflects on these issues in terms of educational technology. One of her foremost concerns is the tendency of educational technology start-ups to exhibit a studied ignorance of the history of educational technology. Each putative innovation is presented as ungrounded, emerging from outside education to disrupt a fundamentally broken system, with only the recalcitrance of educators standing in its way:

And okay, in fairness, these folks are not historians. They’re computer scientists, artificial intelligence experts, software engineers. They’re entrepreneurs. But their lack of knowledge about the history of education and the history of education technology matters. It matters because it supports a prevailing narrative about innovation – where innovation comes from (according to this narrative, it comes from private industry, and not from public institutions; from Silicon Valley, that is, not from elsewhere in the world) and when it comes (there’s this fiercely myopic fixation on the future). The lack of knowledge about history matters too because it reflects and even enables a powerful strain in American ideology and in the ideology of the technology industry: that the past is irrelevant, that the past is a monolithic block of brokenness –unchanged and unchanging until it’s disrupted by technological innovation, or by the promise of technological innovation, by the future itself. (loc 326)

However, as she argues, this isn’t simply a forgetting of the history of education or the history of educational technology. Rather “It’s a rewriting of history, whether you see it as activist or accidental” (loc 351) and one which serves private interests. When history is reluctantly allowed on stage, it is inevitably couched in narrowly technological terms. Reflecting on the failure of the largely forgotten AllLearn initiative, opened in 2001 and closed in 2006, the economist Richard Levin, ascribed the problem to a lack of bandwidth:

It was too early. Bandwidth wasn’t adequate to support the video. But we gained a lot of experience of how to create courses, and then we used it starting in 2007 to create very high quality videos, now supported by adequate bandwidth in many parts of the world, with the Open Yale courses. We’ve released over 40 of them, and they gained a wide audience. (loc 471)

The reality is that broadband penetration had only increased by 8% between the end of AllLearn and the time of this interview. It was also the case that AllLearn sought to distribute materials via CD, as well as allowing users to switch off streaming video content that might be overly-testing for their internet connections. Given he was now speaking as Coursera’s CEO, presiding over a comparable initiative which had failed under his stewardship as Chair, we could perhaps see this as simply self-serving. Not unlike the erasure from history of past educational technology initiatives by start-up founders eagerly touting the ‘next big thing’. But I think Watters is right that this reflects something deeper about contemporary ideologies of ‘innovation’ and ‘disruption’.

Could we build up a systemic account of ‘disruption’ and ‘innovation’ by looking at the particular discursive strategies used across a number of domains, as well as the material implications of their use. What would these other domains be?

From Spam, by Finn Brunton, pg 67-68:

The business of phone sex is structured around arbitraging the different settlement rates—how much it costs to call a given country from the United States. A company in the United States leases lines in another country to route the calls and takes a per-minute cut of the settlement rate, with most phone sex calls routed through places like São Tomé, Moldova, and the Republic of Armenia. These millions of minutes of pay-per-minute activity were a significant source of income for the leasing countries: foreign pay-per-call operations were an enormous part of the traffic on Guyana Telephone and Telegraph (GT& T) circuits, for instance, making up $ 91 million of GT& T’s $ 131 million of revenues in 1995, and São Tomé kept approximately $ 500,000 of the $ 5.2 million worth of phone sex calls Americans made via their country in 1993, using the money to start a new telecom system. It is one of those strange macro/ micro moments that will recur on the fringes of spam’s history as lonely, sexually frustrated Americans unintentionally built telephone infrastructure for an island they’d never heard of off the coast of central Africa. 10

From The Boy Kings, by Katherine Losse, pg 201. Losse was asked to write blog posts about Mark Zuckerberg’s philosophy, something which he outlined to her in general terms:

“It means that the best thing to do now, if you want to change the world, is to start a company. It’s the best model for getting things done and bringing your vision to the world.” He said this with what sounded like an interesting dismissal of the other models of changing the world. I could imagine, like he may have, that countries were archaic, small, confined to one area or charter. On the other hand, companies— in the age of globalization— can be everywhere, total, unregulated by any particular government constitution or an electorate. Companies can go where no single country has gone before. “I think we are moving to a world in which we all become cells in a single organism, where we can communicate automatically and can all work together seamlessly,” he said, by way of explaining the end goal of Facebook’s “big theory.”

My sense is this view of ‘companies over countries’ is a relatively common one amongst the digital elite. It’s also key to understanding philanthrocapitalism: the political complexity of the world melts away in the face of a single minded concern to discover the most efficient way of bringing your vision to the world.

But what are the political implications of this? As Losse goes on to write, “It sounded like he was arguing for a kind of nouveau totalitarianism, in which the world would become a technical, privately owned network run by young “technical” people who believe wholeheartedly in technology’s and their own inherent goodness, and in which every technical advancement is heralded as a step forward for humanity.” This is roughly speaking what I’m trying to explore with the techno-fascism idea: how will what is currently a vague musing on the part of digital elites develop as part of a broader set of social transformations currently underway? How will their own vested interests, against a background of growing social upheaval and threats to their accumulated wealth, shape the development of what is at present little more than a mystical faith in solutionism and the singularity?

The extent to which this idea is discursive can be overstated, as Losse explains, she told Zuckerberg that she struggled to articulate his philosophy for him in a coherent way:

The question was what did any of these values actually mean, and why should we want them? This was something only Mark could explain. I told him that I was having trouble coming up with satisfactory essays on the topics he’d assigned, and asked him to schedule time to explain his ideas in more detail, but he was too busy or wasn’t inclined to explain further— it was hard to tell. I came to the conclusion that perhaps he thought I could invent these arguments of whole cloth, or that we already were cells in a single organism and I should be attuned enough to intuit what he meant, but I couldn’t, and so the essays were never written or posted

I’ve been thinking recently about forms of moral self-understanding amongst elites and how they change over time. I’m particularly interested in how those in the tech sector make sense of their own actions. But there’s a broader background here, in which ‘globalisation’ is seen and justified in explicitly moral terms. For instance, this passage from Plutocrats: The Rise of the New Global Super-Rich pg 26-27:

The irony today is that the real internationalists are no longer the bleeding- heart liberals; they are the cutthroat titans of capital. Here, for instance, is what Steve Miller, the chairman of insurance giant AIG and one of Detroit’s legendary turnaround bosses (he wrote a bestselling memoir called The Turnaround Kid ), had to say to me at Davos about globalization and jobs: “ Well, first off, as a citizen of the world , I think everyone around the world, no matter what country they’re in, should have the opportunities that we have gotten used to in the United States. Globalization is here. It’s a fact of life; it’s not going away. And it does mean that for different levels of skill there’s going to be something of a leveling out of pay scales that go with it, particularly for jobs that are mobile, if the products can be moved, which is not everything.”

And from page 29:

Mr. O’Neill concludes his book with a heartfelt rebuttal of the gloomsters, with their emphasis on rising national income inequality and the hollowing out of the Western middle class: This is an exciting story . It goes far beyond business and economics. We are in the early years of what is probably one of the biggest shifts of wealth and income disparity ever in history. It irritates me when I hear and read endless distorted stories of how only a few benefit and increase their wealth from the fruits of globalization, to the detriment of the marginalized masses. Globalization may widen inequality within certain national borders, but on a global basis it has been a huge force for good, narrowing inequality among people on an unprecedented scale. Tens of millions of people from the BRICs and beyond are being taken out of poverty by the growth of their economies. While it is easy to focus on the fact that China has created so many billionaires, it should not be forgotten that in the past fifteen or so years, 300 million or more Chinese have been lifted out of poverty. … We at Goldman Sachs estimate that 2 billion people are going to be brought into the global middle class between now and 2030 as the BRIC and N- 11 economies develop. … Rather than be worried by such developments, we should be both encouraged and hopeful. Vast swaths of mankind are having their chance to enjoy some of the fruits of wealth creation. This is the big story.

From pg 45:

The global capitalist boom has allowed some people at the bottom of even the most traditionally stratified societies to rise to the top. Consider the small but growing community of plutocratic Dalits, the Indian caste once known as the untouchables. In some parts of rural India, Dalits are still not allowed to drink from the village well, and Dalit children are segregated in a special corner of their schoolrooms, lest their spiritual taint contaminate their higher- caste classmates. But India now has Dalit multimillionaires, like Ashok Khade, owner of a company that builds and refurbishes offshore drilling rigs, and subject of a recent front- page profile in the New York Times . As one Dalit businessman told a reporter, “ We are fighting the caste system with capitalism .”

And a slightly different spin on this on pg 55-56:

Another way to believe our plutocrats are heroes battling for the collective good is to think of capitalism as a liberation theology— free markets equal free people, as the editorial page of the Wall Street Journal asserts. One of the most convincing settings for this vision is Moscow, where in October 2010 you could hear it ringingly delivered by Pitch Johnson, one of the founders of the venture capital business in Silicon Valley, in a public lecture to business school students about capitalism and innovation. Johnson, who was a fishing buddy of Hewlett- Packard cofounder Bill Hewlett, is a genial octogenarian with a thick white head of hair, glasses, and a Santa Claus waistline. He has made something of a project of Russia, having traveled there twenty times since 1990 (he got a particular kick out of flying his private jet into what was then still Soviet airspace). As Johnson tells it, capitalism is about more than making money for yourself— it is about liberating your country. “ Those of you who practice economic freedom will also cause your country to have more political freedom,” Johnson promised with great enthusiasm. “I would call you the revolutionaries of this era of your country.”

The thing I like most about Bourdieu is his conception of public sociology. It seems clear to me that Bourdieu was a public sociologist, though others are less certain about this and I suspect it’s not a term he would have chosen to use himself. For a whole host of reasons, I’ve never been massively interested in much of Bourdieu’s work, though am far from antipathetic towards it. However his talks on public sociology had a great impact on me when I read them during the first year of my PhD and I’m rereading them for the public sociology book proposal I’m writing. It might also be a good prompt for me to delve slightly deeper into Bourdieu’s body of work than I ever have in the past (Weight of the World has been sitting unfinished on my shelf for years).

There are a few key themes in these talks pertaining to public sociology. I’ve engaged with the political issues first because, as I understand the ethos underlying his arguments, it would be deeply misleading to abstract his statements about what public role sociology can and should play from the political challenges which define the context that sociologists inhabit. In this first post I’ll discuss his account of globalisation and advocacy of internationalism as a precursor to another post discussing his direct arguments about the need to challenge think tanks, the public role of social science and the personal challenges of academic activism. Bourdieu sees think tanks as deeply implicated in bringing about ‘globalisation’. He sees this as consisting of “hired thinkers and mercenary researchers … brought together with journalists and public relations experts” (pg 77) and this critique, which I largely share, brings something important to how we think about ‘public sociology’.

The book of talks I’m basing these posts on is here. If anyone has suggestions for further work by Bourdieu that leads on directly from these themes, particularly the ones I’ll discuss in the second post, they’d be much appreciated. It’s not a big part of my planned project by any means but I would definitely like to read a bit further before I move on to some of the other people I’ll be engaging with.

The Challenge of ‘Globalisation’ 

The politics of these talks are rooted in the anti-globalisation movement of the late 90s and early 00s. As such, Bourdieu’s attentiveness to the political rhetoric of ‘globalisation’ is not a surprise. He draws attention to the double meaning of ‘globalisation’: the descriptive sense of a unification of the economic field and the normative sense of the desirability that these changes are supported through economic policy. The slight of hand arises because the former is often used to disguise the latter i.e. economic ‘reality’ is invoked to justify the pursuit of policies which are themselves responsible for the putative ‘reality’. The global market is a political creation, much as national markets had been, arising from “policy implemented by a set of agents and institutions, and the result of the application of rules deliberately created for specific ends, namely trade liberalisation (that is, the elimination of all national regulations restricting companies and their investments)” (pg 84). Bourdieu argues that ‘globalisation’ is a ‘pseudo-concept’, at once descriptive and prescriptive, which has replaced ‘modernization’ as the intellectualised trappings for the ideology of late capitalism.

However something real and momentous is taking place. Bourdieu is concerned with the capacity of international institutions to “invisibly govern” national governments, which are preoccupied by the management of “secondary matters” and form a “political smoke screen that effectively masks the true sites of decision-making” (pg 91). He describes a “veritable invisible world government” constituted from “the big multinational firms, and their international boards, the great international institutions, the WTO, the IMF, and the World Bank, with their many subsidiary bodies, designated by complicated and often unpronounceable acronyms, and all the corresponding commissions and committees of unelected technocrats little known to the wider world (pg 78). This is a state of affairs that national governments have been wilfully complicit in bringing about, most strikingly those of a putatively social democratic inclination, the conduct of whom has “by extending or adopting the policy of conservative governments” made “this policy appear as the only possible one” giving “regulation measures complicit with business demands the appearance of invaluable achievements of a genuine social policy” (pg 58).

The Internationalisation of Social Movements 

It is because of the depoliticisation which accompanies ‘globalisation’, as the arena of decision-making moves ever further from the demos, that social movements must develop the capacity to act at a European level. In making this case, Bourdieu is rejecting what he sees as a manipulative dichotomy drawn between being pro-Europe and anti-Europe, instead rejecting the deployment of the rhetoric of cosmopolitanism in defence of the neoliberal project in Europe. His concern is to develop a capacity to pursue agendas at the european level in order to avoid the tendency to get dragged down by particularistic disputes, given that national governments often act as a ‘smoke screen’ for processes of change which have their origins at an international level. He sees great hope in the multiplication of social movements but great challenges involved in the integration necessary to constitute them as collective actors on the international stage. He offers a lot of interesting suggestions about the practical organisational forms coordination of this sort could take, with the necessity being to “establish a coordination of demands and actions while excluding attempts of any kind to take these movements over” (pg 42). I find his argument here most compelling when he discusses cultural production by social movements:

There are currently many connections between movements and many shared undertakings, but these remain extremely dispersed within each country and even more so between countries. For example, there exist a great many critical newspapers, weeklies, or magazines in each country, not to mention internet sites, that are full of analyses, suggestions and proposals for the future of Europe and the world, but all this work is fragmented and no one reads it all. Those who produce these works are often in competition with one another; they criticise each other when their contributions are complementary and can be cumulated. (pg 43)

If you consider the number of radical presses currently operating, with their varying degrees of size and political engagement, it’s hard not to see his point here. The advent of multi-author blogging has intensified this existing process, as the reduction of entry costs to near zero has led to a proliferation of websites which are, individually, a natural response to the question of ‘what to do?’ faced by those hoping to promulgate a counter-hegemonic politics but, collectively, this perhaps serves to fragment the very cultural terrain upon which it is hoped that an alternative ‘common sense’ will begin to take root.