An absolutely fascinating 4S panel from Ana Vara and David Tyfield:

4S CONFERENCE OPEN PANEL
2019 New Orleans Sept 4-7

Open Panel 69: How Should STS Address Inequality? As a Subject, a (Dis)Value)? Theoretical and Empirical Perspectives

In technoscientific times of huge and increasing inequalities that involve almost all aspects of social life, both within and between countries, questions regarding inequality seem unavoidable to STS scholars, both from an analytical and an ethical standpoint. Specifically, the roles of technoscience in conditioning how inequality is created and augmented, and the (possibly novel) nature of its impacts on trajectories of innovation and vice versa emerge as central concerns.

STS has a long history of engagement with such issues. Since the early days of the field, the study of controversies (e.g. Nelkin) has highlighted the unequal distribution of risks and benefits in the development and implementation of many technologies, contributing to entire new fields of research such as environmental justice. Other topics related to inequality addressed by STS include working conditions, race, access to health, and gender. The study of the production of knowledge has also taken into account the differential status of knowledge according to its origin. While the study of ignorance is a relatively newer focus, with categories such as “undone science” by David Hess et al. targeting inequality quite specifically.

However, in spite of its sustained concern, STS has not developed specific theoretical frameworks on inequality. This panel invites discussion of the possibility and desirability of the development of specific theoretical frameworks on inequality in STS, as well as how contributions from other disciplines can be accommodated. From an empirical perspective, this Panel encourages contributions on cases where this problematic issue is central in different ways.

Organizers
Ana Vara, National University of San Martín, Argentina
David Tyfield, Lancaster University, UK

Submissions

The deadline for submissions at the conference website (https://convention2.allacademic.com/one/ssss/4s19/ or via https://www.4s2019.org/call-for-submissions/) is February 1st, 2019

*Call for Papers – (In)Equalities and Social (In)Visibilities in the
Digital Age – Journal Interações*

The influence of new technologies in public and private spheres of society,
rather than a reformulation, has given rise to a new social field and
directly interferes with how we perceive the world, relate to it and
others. In Pierre Bourdieu’s (2001) theory, field arises as a configuration
of socially distributed relations.

Progressively, a universe of socialisation has emerged and consolidated:
cyberspace. Although virtual, it exists and produces effects. It can be
defined as the space boosted by the different digital communication
platforms and assumes itself as an individual communication model, allowing
the receiver to be simultaneously emitter. Space of flows (Castells, 1996),
cyberspace translates the social dimension of the Internet enabling the
diffusion of communication/information on a global scale. This causes an
intense process of inclusion and exclusion of people in the network.

The reference to info-inclusive and info-excluded societies of the digital
scenario is imperative when it is reflected in the geography of the new
socio-technological spaces. The dynamics of these territories are directly
associated with the way social, demographic, economic and technological
variables condition each other, revealing the potential for dissemination
of information and knowledge through technologies.

In this special issue of the journal Interações we propose a reflection on
(In)Equalities and Social (In)Visibilities in the Digital Age. Unpublished
works that present research results and/or theoretical reflection on this
theme are accepted (although this special issue is not limited to these
topics):

– Digital and social and economic inequalities in different geographical
contexts;
– Promoting equality by digital;
– Visibilities and social invisible created by movements of exclusion or
social inclusion, digital, media, economic, etc.;
– Invisible social groups in the digital age;
– Digital literacy and vulnerable social groups;
– Digital as a geographical barrier;
– Conditioning created by technology to the individual in a social context.

Deadline for submission of articles: June 25
Notification of acceptance: July 10
Publication: July 31

The articles must be sent via email: interacoes@ismt.pt

Any questions should be addressed to the same email.

Guidelines and other instructions for authors can be found on the journal’s
website: http://www.interacoes-ismt.com/index.php/revista

One of the most pressing issues we confront when analysing the digital economy is a pronounced tendency towards oligopoly which makes a lie of an earlier generation’s utopian embrace of the Internet as a sphere of free competition and a driver of disintermediation. There are important lessons we can learn from platform studies about the reasons for this, concerning the architecture of platforms and the logic of their growth. But it’s important we don’t lose sight of how these dynamics are reliant upon existing legal and economic processes which predate the ‘digital revolution’. As Jonathan Taplin points out in Move Fast and Break Things, their competitive advantage was reliant upon a specific regulatory environment that was far from inevitable. From pg 79:

The economist Dean Baker has estimated that Amazon’s tax-free status amounted to a $ 20 billion tax savings to Bezos’s business. Baker notes, “In a state like New York, where combined state and local sales taxes average over 8.0 percent, Amazon could charge a price that was 1.0 percent below its brick and mortar competition, and still have an additional profit of 7 percent on everything it sold. That is a huge deal in an industry where profits are often just 2–3 percent of revenue.” Bezos, eager to preserve this subsidy, went to work in Washington, DC, and got Republican congressman Christopher Cox and Democratic senator Ron Wyden to author the Internet Tax Freedom Act. The bill passed and was signed by President Bill Clinton on October 21, 1998. Although not barring states from imposing sales taxes on ecommerce, it does prevent any government body from imposing Internet-specific taxes.

This is only one example. An adequate understanding of the digital economy requires that we identify the regulatory environments within which each category of tech firm operates and how this has contributed to their thriving or  struggling. When we combine this institutional analysis with platform dynamics, we can begin to account for the level of market concentration which Taplin summarises on pg 119-120:

In antitrust law, an HHI score —according to the Herfindahl-Hirschman Index, a commonly accepted measure of market concentration —is calculated by squaring the market share of each firm competing in a given market and then adding the resulting numbers. The antitrust agencies generally consider markets in which the HHI is between 1,500 and 2,500 to be moderately concentrated; markets in which the HHI is in excess of 2,500 are highly concentrated. The HHI in the Internet search market is 7,402. Off the charts.

He goes on to argue on pg 121-122 that this situation helps generate a cash glut with serious systemic consequences:

The problem is that the enormous productivity of these companies, coupled with their oligopolistic pricing, generates a huge and growing surplus of cash that goes beyond the capacity of the economy to absorb through the normal channels of consumption and investment. This is why Apple has $ 150 billion in cash on its balance sheet and Google has $ 75 billion. These enterprises cannot find sufficient opportunities to reinvest their cash because there is already overcapacity in many areas and because they are so productive that they are not creating new jobs and finding new consumers who might buy their products. As former treasury secretary Lawrence Summers has put it, “Lack of demand creates lack of supply.” Instead of making investments that could create new jobs, firms are now using their cash to buy back stock, which only increases economic inequality.

In other words: the inequality which digital capitalism generates is only contingently a function of technology.

Myself and Tom Brock are currently working on a paper in which we analyse the discourse of ‘intelligence’ in terms of the individualisation of structural advantage: a whole range of factors are wrapped up into the descriptor of someone as ‘intelligent’ which explains a complex outcome in terms of a somewhat mysterious and inevitably overloaded personal characteristic.

Reading Matthew Desmond’s superb Evicted, I was struck by the possibility of reversing the analysis. On loc 3108, he describes the extremely difficult circumstances one of his research participants faces:

Before she was evicted, Larraine had $ 164 left over after paying the rent. She could have put some of that away, shunning cable and Walmart. If Larraine somehow managed to save $ 50 a month, nearly one-third of her after-rent income, by the end of the year she would have $ 600 to show for it—enough to cover a single month’s rent. And that would have come at considerable sacrifice, since she would sometimes have had to forgo things like hot water and clothes. Larraine could have at least saved what she spent on cable. But to an older woman who lived in a trailer park isolated from the rest of the city, who had no car, who didn’t know how to use the Internet, who only sometimes had a phone, who no longer worked, and who sometimes was seized with fibromyalgia attacks and cluster migraines—cable was a valued friend.

But as he puts it, “People like Larraine lived with so many compounded limitations that it was difficult to imagine the amount of good behavior or self-control that would allow them to lift themselves out of poverty.” Much as the fortune of someone like Trump is explained, not least of all by themselves, in terms of their intrinsic talent, we see people like Larraine condemned for failing to exercise an imputed latent power that would be near magical in its presumed capacity to resolve the difficulties of her situation.

I just came across a stunning quote by Larry Summers, economic and policy doyen of the Democratic establishment, reflecting on the rise of inequality in America. It’s from The Confidence Men, by Ron Suskind, pg 363:

“One of the reasons that inequality has probably gone up in our society is that people are being treated closer to the way that they’re supposed to be treated.” 

I’ve rarely seen such a pure expression of the post-democratic tendency within market liberalism: a project to overcome the distorting constraints of social democracy and ‘treat people how they’re supposed to be treated’.

There’s a fascinating insight a few pages later from Alan Krueger, a friend and former graduate student of Summers, concerning the genesis of this ethos of ‘truthfulness’ through markets. From pg 368:

“Larry felt that it didn’t make sense that while he was being paid well by Harvard, some other professors were being paid in his ballpark. After all, he was Larry Summers, and who the hell were the rest of them? He began to study structures, like unions, that compressed wage distinctions in ways that went against the market. Of course, some of those compressions are meant to soften the blow of such distinctions, mindful of a complex array of factors, many uneconomic, that go into who gets paid what. But that’s part of the point. Larry believes that the goal is to make everything more brutally ‘truthful’—in terms of the market being basically right in how it values people and trying to make it more so—and that process shouldn’t be tampered with unless there is overwhelming, indisputable evidence that the market is not working. After a few decades, Larry has gotten very good at undercutting arguments for any government intervention into free markets. “If you’re the policymaker, you need to show overwhelming evidence that a market is not functioning, in a profound and disastrous way, to merit an intervention. The default is to go back to the first principle, of market efficiency, and to let matters mostly continue as they’ve been.”

I really wish I could be in London that day. I can’t wait to read more about this project:

Inaugural lecture by Prof Aeron Davis, Co-Director of PERC
5.30-7.30pm, 26th January

Over two decades Aeron Davis has interviewed some 350 elite subjects from the worlds of business, finance, politics and media: from Nigel Lawson to Jeremy Corbyn, Peter Oborne to Polly Toynbee, Martin Sorrell to Charlie Mayfield. He has simply asked them about their daily working lives, about how and why they do what they do. In this talk, he presents a mix of personal anecdotes and more generalised findings to explain how our leaders have become increasingly detached from their publics. He discusses these tendencies through four themes: the insularity of elite cultures; professionalism and precariousness in public life; risk-reward structures at the top, and; the mundane numbers game of leadership. In each of these discussions he explains how Britain’s leaders in their working lives, sustain power and contribute to inequality, social and political sclerosis.

In the Ian Gulland Lecture Theatre in Goldsmiths, University of London 

Refreshments will be served in the Foyer of the Whitehead Building.

Free event – all welcome – but please register your attendance on the Eventbrite link below so that we may know numbers for catering purposes.

Eventbrite: http://livesoftheonepercent.eventbrite.co.uk