A great analysis of a hugely important case being heard in the near future:

The immediate threat takes the form of an antitrust class action lawsuit against its co-founder and CEO, Travis Kalanick, which will be litigated in the Manhattan courtroom of Federal District Judge Jed Rakoff starting on November 1. At issue is Uber’s mobile app, through which customers order on-demand car rides, and which customer Spencer Meyer alleges amounts to a price-fixing conspiracy. The question is whether independent Uber drivers using the app, all charging the same price and implementing “surge pricing” at the same time, are violating the Sherman Antitrust Act’s prohibition against any “combination … or conspiracy … in restraint of trade.”

The lawsuit puts Uber and other companies in the online economy on a collision course with antitrust law. It also raises fundamental questions about how American companies treat their workers. It’s not surprising that tech companies can make a great deal of money by skirting employment, antitrust, and even anti-discrimination laws. But do we want them to? Some argue that the Uber conundrum calls for the creation of a third “independent worker” category of employment that gives it the control it needs to make its business model work, while safeguarding the flexibility its drivers prize. If courts and policymakers agree, it would effectively carve out a tech-sector exception to the regulatory principles governing the economy since the New Deal and the Gilded Age.

http://prospect.org/article/uber’s-antitrust-problem

The questions asked at the end are precisely the ones currently preoccupying me:

 Are the new behemoths of the tech sector innovators that make the economy more efficient by “disrupting” antiquated business models? Or are they just the trusts of a second Gilded Age, their new-fangled apps the equivalent of the railroad networks that monopolized commerce and access to markets 126 years ago, when the Sherman Act first took effect?

http://prospect.org/article/uber’s-antitrust-problem

One final snippet from The Boy Kings, by Katherine Losse, that I can’t resist posting. It seems that Mark Zuckerberg has a secret back room in his private Facebook office, allowing him to retreat into opacity while sustaining the glass fronted and open plan layout of the corporate offices:

Mark’s office sat adjacent to our pod, with its secret back room (for especially important meetings, because the front room of his office had a glass window onto the hallway that made meetings transparent) hidden behind a wallpapered door and a single table illuminated by a Mad Men –style modern lamp, receiving a constant stream of celebrities and tech luminaries and wealthy Russians in silk suits. (Pg 196)

This is the same Zuckerberg who bought four homes adjacent to his in order to ensure his own privacy. His own power dramatically illustrates the politics of transparency and opacity in digital capitalism. We can see this even more dramatically in the private retreats of the digital elites: if transparency gets tiring, why not just head off to your super yacht or Hawaii estate for a while? As Zuckerberg describes it, quoted on pg 198: “We are pushing the world in the direction of making it a more open and transparent place, this is where the world is going and at Facebook we need to lead in that direction.” The key terms here are pushing and lead. The pushers and the leaders are able to take a break when they’d like, without worrying about someone else perpetually trying to push and lead them.

I think this could be analysed in a similar way to how Bauman explored mobility in his work on globalisation: those at the bottom of the hierarchy are transparent because they lack the resources to escape the filter bubble, while those at the top of the hierarchy are usually transparent as a function of their own commercial success. But one condition is forced, leaving the people in question susceptible to manipulation, while the latter is chosen and can be voluntarily withdrawn from in private life.

 Zygmunt Bauman in Liquid Surveillance, pg 64:

By definition, the idea of ‘transition’ stands for a finite process, a time- span with clearly drawn starting and finishing lines – a passage from a spatial, temporal, or spatial and temporal, ‘here’ to a ‘there’; but these are precisely the attributes denied to the condition of ‘being a refugee’, which is defined and set apart from and in opposition to the ‘norms’ by their absence. A ‘camp’ is not a mid- station, or a road inn, or a motel on a voyage from here to there. It is the terminal station, where all mapped roads peter out and all movement grinds to a halt – with little prospect of parole or of the sentence being completed: more and more people are born in camps and die there, visiting no other places in their lifetime. Camps ooze finality; not the finality of destination, though, but of the state of transition petrified into a state of permanence.

From Liar’s Poker by Michael Lewis, pg 302-303

One of the managing directors from London, who happened to be in New York, actually took me aside to practise an argument he planned to put to the Bank of England. He had calculated the sum of the losses of the banks underwriting BP to be 700 million dollars. He said that the world financial system might not withstand this drain of capital from the system. Another panic could ensue. Right? Amazing. He was so desperate to avoid the loss that I think he actually believed his lie. Sure, why not? I said; it’s worth a try. Basically, it was an old ploy. My boss wanted to threaten the British Government with another stock market crash if they didn’t take back their oil company. * (Note to members of all governments: be wary of Wall Streeters threatening crashes. They are tempted to do this whenever you encroach on their turf. But they can’t cause a crash any more than they can prevent one.)

From Liar’s Poker by Michael Lewis, pg 302-303

One of the managing directors from London, who happened to be in New York, actually took me aside to practise an argument he planned to put to the Bank of England. He had calculated the sum of the losses of the banks underwriting BP to be 700 million dollars. He said that the world financial system might not withstand this drain of capital from the system. Another panic could ensue. Right? Amazing. He was so desperate to avoid the loss that I think he actually believed his lie. Sure, why not? I said; it’s worth a try. Basically, it was an old ploy. My boss wanted to threaten the British Government with another stock market crash if they didn’t take back their oil company. * (Note to members of all governments: be wary of Wall Streeters threatening crashes. They are tempted to do this whenever you encroach on their turf. But they can’t cause a crash any more than they can prevent one.)

Sometimes the noise other people make bothers me. I mean really pisses me off. The kind of irritation which makes it impossible to ignore the noise, leaving your attention locked in and your perceptual field narrowed until there is only you and that noise. On those occasions where I talk myself out of it, I often realise there’s nothing particularly egregious about the noise in question. It’s just that a particular confluence of circumstances has conspired to make the noise enormously disruptive to me. The problem of the noise is both relational and emergent. It’s not a problem in and of itself. This is reflected by the fact that on other occasions, similar noise barely registers, maybe eventually prompting me to wonder “has that been audible for a while?”

This is a useful thing to register when learning to live with noise. But there are limits to personal adaptation. It doesn’t follow that disruptive noise is subjective, simply because our experience of it as subjects has an obvious range that is in turn modulated through our responses as subjects. I used to live in between two pubs, literally in between them, one of which attracted what, to me at least, was the most obnoxious clientèle imaginable. It’s in Earlsdon in Coventry, for those who know the area and are wondering. There were particular characteristics of the venue, as well as the area itself, which contributed to the production of disruptive noise on the weekends. I might be able to modulate my response to that noise but the circumstances were generative of it, not my own perceptual capacities. Likewise the cockerel who lived in my neighbour’s back garden at the same flat. I didn’t get much sleep that year.

I find ‘disruptive noise’ ontologically interesting because it’s hard to have a substantive discussion about how to regulate it which doesn’t fall into an objective/subjective dichotomy. Subjective prescriptions are inadequate (“why do you let it bother you so much? just try and put it out of your head”) when there’s drunken fights outside your door at midnight and a cockerel crowing outside your window at 5am. I’m very glad I don’t live there any more. Objective prescriptions also seem inadequate to me because of the potentially open-ended character that’s lent to the problem by the subjective dimension, for lack of a better word. If noise becomes disruptive whenever any particular person at any particular time finds it disruptive then interventions become rather disturbingly authoritarian, allowing fleeting whims of irritated (and sometimes irritating) people to lead to the suppression of activities which most people would find reasonable.

If you google for stories of noise complaints, it soon becomes obvious quite what a range of circumstances councils are called upon to deal with. In some cases, people’s lives are literally destroyed by the noise of others. A couple of minutes down my ex-partner’s street was a house which, for 6 months, had (bad) techno playing constantly at high volume whenever I passed. Living so close to each other, yet not together, I passed that house at all hours of the day and night. The music was always playing. It must have destroyed the lives of the people living next door. On the other end of the spectrum, I’ve found people online complaining that they can hear their neighbours talking after 10pm. From the report, it seems their neighbours are talking at normal volume in their house in the evening. But for whatever reason, the complainers are unable to tune this out and become fixated on this utterly everyday life noise at the expense of their own lives.

This raises the question for me of whether this inability to live with the noise of others, something which I’ve occasionally recognised in myself but learnt to dismiss as unreasonable through my internal conversation, might be on the rise? If we conceive of ourselves as bounded and autonomous, experiencing life through the constraining prism of our own imagined independence and isolation, involuntary exposure to noise takes on an ambivalent status. It both undercuts our imagined atomism, revealing the interdependencies through which sociality is constituted, as well as appears as an attack upon it. It feels like an intrusion of other isolated individuals upon our own isolation, while leaving us inclined to fight it off in order to restore the hermetic seal which perceptually props up our imagined a-relational nature.

When I talk about a-relational here, I mean it in the Thatcherite sense of ‘individuals and their families’. I’ve often wondered about the Tory fixation on council refuse policies and suspect there’s a similar mechanism at work. If an English Man’s home is his castle then what does that make the bins outside, the people who come to collect it each week and the organisational structure this routine presupposes? The politics of bins are a messy and quotidian instance of the politics of individuality.

I’m suggesting that changing policies for bin collection is threatening to this imagined individuality in the same way and for the same reasons that intrusive noise is experienced as an assault upon it. We imaginatively deny our inviolable being-with-others, the fact we are always already placed within a network of relations, such that recurrent reminders of it becomes fetish objects: they take on power and significance far beyond their literal meaning and consequences, challenging us to either fight off this threat to how we conceive of our place within the world or learn to live with it as something other than a threat. Crucially, I don’t think the challenge of being-with-others entails subjective adjustment. It might involve telling yourself that on this particular occasion you should let something lie but it might equally involve taking action, trying to establish a new common ground through which interdependency can be something conducive to flourishing rather than a threat to well-being.

An important argument by David Graeber in his new book. I’ve been thinking about this (particularly on university campuses) since events at Warwick last term and I find his analysis deeply persuasive:

And indeed, in this most recent phase of total bureaucratization, we’ve seen security cameras, police scooters, issuers of temporary ID cards, and men and women in a variety of uniforms acting in either public or private capacities, trained in tactics of menacing, intimidating and ultimately deploying physical violence, just about everywhere – even in places such as playgrounds, primary schools, college campuses, hospitals, libraries, parks, or beach resorts, where fifty years ago their presence would have been considered scandalous, or simply weird.

All this takes place as social theorists continue to insist that the direct appeal to force plays less and less of a factor in maintaining structures of social control. The more reports one reads, in fact, of university students being tasered for unauthorised library use, or English professors being jailed and charged with felonies after being caught jaywalking on campus, the louder the defiant insistent that the kinds of subtle symbolic power analysed by English professor are what’s really important. It begins to sound more and more like a desperate refusal to accept that the workings of power could really be so crude and simplistic as what daily evidence proves them to be.

The Utopia of rules: On Technology, Stupidity, and the Secret Joys of Bureaucracy,pg 32-33

It is curious how rarely citizens in industrial democracies actually think about this fact, or how instinctively we try to discount its importance. This is what makes it possible, for example, for graduate students to be able to spend days in the stacks of university libraries poring over Foucault-inspired theoretical tracts and the declining importance of coercion as a factor in modern life without ever reflecting on that fact that, had they insisted on their right to enter the stacks without showing a properly stamped and validating ID, armed men would have been summoned to physically remove them, using whatever force might be required. It’s almost as if the more we allow aspects of our everyday existence to fall under the purview of bureaucratic regulations, the more everyone concerned colludes to downplay the fact (perfectly obvious to those actually running the system) that all of it ultimately depends on the threat of physical force.

The Utopia of rules: On Technology, Stupidity, and the Secret Joys of Bureaucracy, pg 58

This expression by Will Davies has stuck with me since I read it a few months ago. Teaching is a disturbing example of the process Will is alluding to: ratcheting up demands on staff to the point where many are unwilling to continue. In fact increasing numbers seem unable to continue:

The BBC has also seen a survey of 3,500 members of the Nasuwt teaching union which shows more than two-thirds of respondents considered quitting the profession in the past year.

Workload was the top concern, with 89% citing this as a problem, followed by pay (45%), inspection (44%), curriculum reform (42%) and pupil behaviour (40%). In addition:

  • 83% had reported workplace stress
  • 67% said their job has adversely impacted their mental or physical health
  • Almost half of the three thousand respondents reported they had seen a doctor because of work-related mental or physical health problems
  • 5% had been hospitalised, and
  • 2% said they had self-harmed.

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/education-31921457

Much of the issue here stems from the demand for ‘excellence’: as David Cameron recently put it, “if you’re not good or outstanding, you have to change. If you can’t do it yourself, you have to let experts come in and help you”. For head teachers a bad Ofsted report can mean the end of their career and this tyranny of excellence mutates into something ever more brutal as it works its way down the hierarchy.

Replace ‘heads’ with ‘HoDs’ and ‘Ofsted’ with ‘REF’ and we can see the same trend at work in higher education. Meanwhile the VCs fly around the world, creating strategic partnerships to actualise latent synergies. Here on the ground, one in six universities refuse to answer freedom of information requests about their expenses.

Across both spheres, we can see people breaking the professions, one personal tragedy at a time, while rewarding themselves extravagantly for doing so.

Power, Acceleration and Metrics in Academic Life, 2nd-4th December 2015, Prague

Call for papers: Power, Acceleration and Metrics in Academic Life

There is little doubt that science and knowledge production are presently undergoing dramatic and multi-layered transformations accompanied by new imperatives reflecting broader socio-economic and technological developments. The unprecedented proliferation of audit cultures preoccupied with digitally mediated measurement and quantification of scholarship and the consolidation of business-driven managerialism and governance modes are commonplace in the contemporary academy. Concurrently, the ever-increasing rate of institutional change, (the need for) intensification of scientific and scholarly production/communication and diverse academic processes seem to characterize the overall acceleration of academic life (i.e., in many disciplines the new maxim ‘patent and prosper’ (Schachman) supplements the traditional ‘publish or perish’). Quantification and metrics have emerged not only as navigating instruments paradoxically exacerbating the general dynamization of academic life but also as barely questioned proxies for scientific quality, career progression and job prospects, and as parameters redrawing what it means to be/work as a scholar nowadays (i.e., the shifting parameters and patterns of academic subjectivity). Metrification now seems to be an important interface between labour and surveillance within academic life, with manifold affective implications.

This conference will inquire into the techniques of auditing and their attendant practices and effects and will also probe into scholars’ complicity in reproduction of such practices. It will consider processes of social acceleration within the academy and their implications for the management of everyday activity by those working within it. This will include:

• empirical and theoretical engagements with the acceleration of higher education
• the origins of metrification of higher education
• metrification as a form of social control
• the challenges of self-management posed by metrification and/or acceleration
• common strategic responses to these challenges
• the relationship between metrification and acceleration
• how metrification and acceleration relate to a broader social crisis

The workshop will take place from December 2nd to 4th 2015 in Prague.

Deadline for abstracts will be May 1st 2015. Please send 250 words and short biographical note to Mark Carrigan (mark@markcarrigan.net) and Filip Vostal (filip.vostal@gmail.com) by the deadline.

Keynote Speakers:

Roger Burrows – Ancient Cultures of Conceit Reloaded

Philip Moriarty – The Perils, Pitfalls, and Power of Peer Review in Public

Susan Robertson – Vertigo: Time and Space in the Contemporary University

James Wilsdon – In numbers we trust? Reflections on the UK’s independent review of the role of metrics in research assessment

Fee

50 Euros (standard) / 25 Euros (PhD/ECR)

Registration to open in summer 2015

Venue

Hosted by Institute of Philosophy of the Czech Academy of Sciences the event will take place in Vila Lanna, V Sadech 1, 160 00, Prague 6, Czech Republic (http://www.vila-lanna.cz/index.html)

Travel

Air: From Vaclav Havel Airport Prague take the bus no 119 to Dejvicka (which is the terminal stop). Vila Lanna is 5-6min walk from there.

Train: From Main Railway Station (Praha hlavni nadrazi, often abbreviated Praha hl. n.), take metro line C (red), change at Muzeum for line A (green) and get off at the terminal stop Dejvicka. Vila Lanna is 5-6min walk from there.

Hi, 

I’m helping to organise a conference stream at next year’s Discourse Power and Resistance. For more about the conference check the website out > http://dprconference.com/ 

There’s an attached description of the theme. As part of the ‘Space and Place in the Democracy Project’ conference stream at Discourse Power Resistance 2014, we are particularly interested in presentations on current and future scenarios that detail the interaction between digital technologies and the potentials for and threats to fully democratic communities.  There are a series of influential agendas in the form of smart cities, big data, the quantified self, and algorithmic culture that intertwined with the neoliberal capitalist project(s) raise concerns for the inclusion and exclusion of individuals and sections of society on the basis of undemocratic principles and practices. We hope to bring together a series of thought provoking discussions that explore these alignments within the context of space, place and democracy.

If you’re interested in presenting or would like to talk more about participating please email me.

Please forward this email to anyone you think might be interested in this event.

Best wishes,

Jame

Dr. James Duggan
Education and Social Research Institute
Manchester Metropolitan University
799 Wilmslow Road
Didsbury
M20 2RR