A few months ago, I recounted to a collaborator the details of a foolish mistake I made when planning a special occasion. Assuming the cake would be the easiest item on a long to do list, I left this till last, failing to recognise that cakes of this sort would require a lot of notice. It left me phoning round in a panic, until I eventually found someone who could do it at short notice. My collaborator remarked that he too could have seen himself making such an assumption, recognising aspects of himself in the assumption I had made and the problem it had created. ‘Easiest’ to me was coded as the most immediate and straightforward task, considered in terms of its internal logic, rather than being the  most predictable, quickest or controllable. I suspect this assumption reveals something quite deep about how I’m orientated towards the world, regardless of the counter-factual question of whether I might have planned this process more carefully had I been less stressed about the impending event.

This has left me thinking about the sociology of stupid assumptions. By this I don’t mean those occasions on which we make a mistake due to rushing, error or stress that could easily have been avoided. I mean those mistakes which result from deeply held, though flawed, assumptions running up against the reality of the world. These are assumptions we might not knowingly hold yet which find themselves revealed through our actions. They are the common threads which bind together persistent missteps as we make our way through the world, reflecting a subtle incongruity between the structures of our thought and the structure of the world. They can become things we are aware of and reflect upon, even things which we struggle against. But they are persistent and deep seated, raising the question of where they come from.

The obvious answer to this is the Bourdieusian one, finding the origins of these habits of thought in our original social context. The assumptions of our natal context get reproduced in the assumption we make about the world as adults, with contextual features sedimented into cognitive habits that reflect the world as we were brought up to exist within it rather than the way it is necessarily is. This is a brief sketch but I hope it’s not a facile one because I respect this line of argument and I believe I understand it, even if it’s not possible to convey its depth and sophistication in a short blog post.

Nonetheless I wonder if it can account for the feeling of recognition which my collaborator felt when recognising my stupid assumption as something akin to his own? Can it account for the recognition we come to in ourselves, often isolated from an awareness of class and upbringing because it relates to an assumption so specific that it can be claimed to be inherited only in the tautological sense that it must have come from somewhere? Can it account for the role of technologies in fermenting these assumptions? In my case, I suspect the problem is as much to do with the constraints of the to do list, something I rely upon to an immense degree (as does at least one of my parents), failing as it does to capture contingencies surrounding a task in the sequential logic it imposes upon our tasks. These aren’t really counter-arguments as much as requests for elaboration, reflecting my newfound belief that the sociology of stupid assumptions tracks some of the most interesting questions in social theory.

Why do people do what they do? It is a question at the heart of the human sciences but it is also one we ask in everyday life. However the way we ask it often tracks our prior feelings towards the people we ask it of. For instance, as Jana Bacevic has argued, many fail to grasp the agency of managers and consultants within the ‘neoliberal university’ and through doing so misdiagnose both the intentions of these managers and the system their actions are contributing to.

When people seem to embody systemic tendencies we are critical of, it inevitably slides into a disproval of the people themselves. They are reduced to vectors of these organisational processes, revealing a quotidian Althusserianism which is important to understand if we want to grasp how organisations and systems are imagined by participants within them.

There was an example I came across earlier today which made me think about the role of distance in this process. This is an observation which Richard Brooks makes on pg 14 of his Bean Counters: The Triumph of the Accountants and How They Broke Capitalism:

Few arrive with much sense of vocation or a passion for rooting out financial irregularity and making capitalism safe. They are motivated by good income prospects even for moderate performers, plus maybe a vague interest in the world of business. Many want to keep their options open, noticing the prevalence of qualified accountants at the top of the corporate world; one quarter of chief executives of the FTSE100 largest UK companies are chartered accountants.

The exercise of agency here is provisional and tentative. Rather than rapacious instrumentalists concerned only with maximising their income, we find people keen to keep their options open and seeking agreeable outcomes without hemming themselves in. It is similar to the claim made by Kevin Roose in his superb account of the everyday lives of young financiers on Wall Street:

As strange as it sounds, a big paycheck may not in fact be central to Wall Street’s allure for a certain cohort of young people. This possibility was explained to me several weeks before my Penn trip by a second-year Goldman Sachs analyst, who stopped me short when I posited that college students flock to Wall Street in order to cash in. “Money is part of it,” he said. “But mostly, they do it because it’s easy.” He proceeded to explain that by coming onto campus to recruit, by blitzing students with information and making the application process as simple as dropping a résumé into a box, by following up relentlessly and promising to inform applicants about job offers in the fall of their senior year—months before firms in most other industries—Wall Street banks had made themselves the obvious destinations for students at top-tier colleges who are confused about their careers, don’t want to lock themselves in to a narrow preprofessional track by going to law or medical school, and are looking to put off the big decisions for two years while they figure things out. Banks, in other words, have become extremely skilled at appealing to the anxieties of overachieving young people and inserting themselves as the solution to those worries. And the irony is that although we think of Wall Street as a risk-loving business, the recruiting process often appeals most to the terrified and insecure.

I’m not suggesting we should take people’s accounts of why they do what they do at face value. If we did, the space to be critical of power and hierarchy would soon collapse in the face of an endless succession of people with apparently good intentions of varying degrees of systematicity. But it does seem important that we also avoid taking our attributions of agency at face value, interrogating what we are imputing to people and the reasons why we might be imputing them.

I’ve been curious for a while about the Bullet Journal system. As an obsessive practitioner of Getting Things Done, I can’t see myself starting a Bullet Journal but its framing as ‘the analogue system for a digital age’ has intrigued me since I first encountered it. The video below provides an overview of how to keep a bullet journal:

The basic ontology of a bullet journal incorporates tasks, events and notes. These are incorporated into an organisational structure built around four core modules: index, future log, monthly log and the daily log. The bullet journal enables you to “track the past, organise the present and plan for the future” by providing a framework through which future plans become present commitments and past actions. If I understand correctly, it’s basically a funnel through which your plans over a six-month window get cashed out as monthly and daily priorities. The importance accorded to reflection ensures that commitments can be dropped along the way. It is a “customizable and forgiving” system for self-organisation, built around a hybrid journal which is a combination of “to-do list, sketchbook, notebook, and diary”.

I find it hard not to wonder if some of the appeal rests on paper-fetishism. This certainly plays a role in how Bullet Journal markets itself. For instance this video frames notebooks as a “creative playground” through which we “breath life into ideas”:

I can see the appeal of having an artefact like this. Externalising your commitments into an application like Omnifocus can be a hugely effective way to organise your time, once it has become a habitual process. It can be enormously practical as well, if you’re liable to lose your bullet journal, write indecipherably or otherwise fail to exercise the physical care in relation to an artefact which a system like Bullet Journal requires. But you can’t hold your Omnifocus. You can’t flick through it. Much of this lack is aesthetic. Reliance on a digital system precludes certain experiences which an analogue system facilitates.

I wonder if there are also practical losses as well. Could some modes of reflection be foreclosed by the insubstantiality of the system? Getting Things Done as a system relies on the series: “a number of events, objects, or people of a similar or related kind coming one after another”It reduces all our projects to the same basic ontology: an interlinked series of actionable steps through which we cumulatively bring about a substantial outcome. This reduction is what makes it so powerful. The value of Omnifocus lies in it giving us powerful tools through which to calibrate this reduction. But it also carries the risk of eviscerating the lived meaning of these projects, particularly when enacted through a digital system. This problem is inherent to the moral psychology of the to-do list:

This is the mentality that cognitive triage generates: things are conceived as obstacles to be eliminated rather than activities to be enjoyed. As the list gets bigger, it becomes harder to see the individual ‘to do’ items as activities in their own right. They are reduced to uniform list items and nothing more. Things you enjoy and things you despise are given equal weight. The logic of the to-do list is one of commensurability and this is the problem with it. The process of triaging combined with the logic of the to-do list can lead to an evisceration of value: the potential goods internal to activities, those experiences of value that can only be found through doing, get obliterated by the need to cross items off a list.

https://markcarrigan.net/2015/01/29/productivity-culture-cognitive-triage-and-the-pseudo-commensurability-of-the-to-do-list/

Might Bullet Journals help preserve the relational richness of our projects, opening out powerful modes of engaging with them while closing down the conveniences which digital systems afford? I’d be curious to hear what others think. Particularly anyone who has used Omnifocus and/or GTD before moving to a Bullet JournalMy hunch is there’s a basic trade-off here between convenience and reflection. It’s easy to slip into using Omnifocus/GTD in an unreflective way but the brute physicality of the Bullet Journal renders that largely impossible. Many might stop using their notebook as a Bullet Journal but if you stick to the practice itself, it more or less ensures you use it in a reflective way.

Does social media lead to a devaluation of introspection? This is what Nick Couldry and Andreas Hepp claim on loc 4098 of their The Mediated Construction of Reality:

The selfie stamps the marker of ‘the self’ onto whatever things a person wants to record as a way of increasing its value. But why should that have become so important recently? There are no doubt many overlapping factors at work here including the changing affordances of smartphones, but one background factor, we want to suggest, is the increasing devaluation of introspection: that is, reflecting, comparing, building the basis of a memory through organized thought that remains ‘internal’ (still unshared). Introspection, in the habit of taking selfies, gets overridden by the ‘higher’ value of generating an exchangeable trace of one’s ‘experience’ whose form is tailored exactly to the data-based needs of social media platforms.

This is an example of why I think Margaret Archer’s work on reflexivity might prove extremely powerful in making sense of how social media is reconfiguring subjectivity. Couldry and Hepp assume here a zero-sum relation between interiority and exteriority, as if the disposition to share (cultivated through repeated exposure to the incentives of the platform) necessarily implies the diminution of introspection. There is certainly a tension between these internal and external moments: it is a matter of the time available to the agent and the duration of their subsequent mental activity if nothing else. However, there are many ways in which this tension could be negotiated, reflecting characteristics of the people concerned and the situation they find themselves in.

This is what I think of as reflexive variance: the variety of ways in which individuals orientate themselves to their situations, linking self and circumstances through the generation of action trajectories. Recognising reflexive variance is something which sociology has never been good at because it is a phenomenon which sits uneasily at the intersection between the domains of psychology and sociology. It is a matter of introspection, social action and environment: the relation which obtains between them in a particular situation. It’s much easier to leave the introspective to the psychologists (who circumscribe its objects by admitting only a limited range of social referents) or to subordinate it to social action or to the environment through various theoretical devices. But the diversity with which people orientate themselves to what are empirically similar experiences will tend to get lost in this case.

There are descriptive and explanatory problems which emerge from this. However, it also facilitates cultural critique of a rather irritating sort, with identifiable trends afflicting some within a group being assumed to hold true for all members of that group (or even all groups, if the critic in question is prone to overstatement). I’ve been thinking a lot in the last couple of months about the conceptual structure which is common to many of the most prominent critics of digital media for its postulated consequences for young people. It strikes me that it rests on a denial of reflexivity variance and repudiating these critics will involve recovering the range of ways in which people respond to social media.

In an interesting chapter Frederic Vandenberghe explores the role of the individual in Bourdieu’s Sociology, as well as the critiques which Margaret Archer and Bernard Lahire make of it. His intention is to respond to a sociology he sees as hegemonic by developing a post-Bourdieusian theory of the social world that is not anti-Bourdieusian. His project, as I understand it, derives from a sense that Bourdieu’s sheer influence is distortive, polarising debate in a way that steers it away from concern with better or worse sociology to more or less accurate interpretations of the master.

How accurate is Vandenberghe’s account of Bourdieu’s influence? His 536,230 citations certainly offer quantitative evidence of this influence, but the claim that Bourdieu’s sociology is hegemonic seems more contentious to me. Nonetheless, he’s surely correct that the combination of its influence, diffusion and systematicity make it a force to be reckoned with. Or rather a force that must be reckoned with, a reference point that is difficult, if not impossible, to ignore.

Both Archer and Lahire were deeply influenced by Bourdieu. My interview with her in here explores his influence on her thinking, as well as her time working with him as a post-doc in the early 60s. While, as Vandenberghe puts it, Lahire’s sociology is so “thoroughly Bourdieusian that he could well be considered the heterodox successor to the master (Loïc Wacquant being the official one)”. Both have worked at the intersection of sociology and psychology in recent years, with Lahire taking inspiration from Durkheim while Archer has looked to American pragmatism for intellectual resources. Vandenberghe argues that their work represents a social psychology of a new kind: orientated to “how groups, large and small, behave within in the individual mind” rather than “how individuals behave in small groups”. Their shared unit of analysis is the life, understood biographically, as a movement through the world constituted through choices. But the dissimilarity arises because Archer’s focus concerns how future projects shape present actions, whereas Lahire explains the present and the future in terms of past “dispositions and their activation in particular contexts in the present”. As he puts it, “His actors are pushed by their dispositions, while hers are pulled forward by their projects”.

From Vandenberghe’s exposition, it seems that Lahire’s critique of the concept of habitus resembles Archer’s in some ways: he “accuses Bourdieu of abusively generalising a particular model that only holds in exceptional situation (such as traditional societies and total institutions)”. But he make the same critique of the concept of field, “accusing Bourdieu of transforming a regional model into a general theory of the social world”. Instead he offers an account of the individual as “like a crumpled sheet or a rumpled rag”, with social space in all its dimensions unevenly folded up inside of them. Not unlike Archer, he sees what Bourdieu regarded as a marginal condition (the cleavage of the habitus) to instead be a general characteristic, at least under certain social and cultural conditions.

His exposition of Archer is excellent, rather unsurprisingly as one of the theorists most deeply conversant with her body of work as a whole. The slight exception to this is the latent teleology he reads into the concept of reflexivity, ignoring the extent to which we all practice each of these modes to varying degrees in everyday life. Oddly, he offers precisely this recognition as a suggestion of how her account of reflexivity can be improved, with his accusation of a “kind of disguised personality test” being an incisive critique of how her work on reflexivity is chronically misread, even by its advocates.

I agree with him however that Archer downplays the role of cultural structures, seeing them as something which “structures the situation from outside, not from inside in the form of subconscious schemes of perception, judgement and interpretation that prestructure the world and canalize action, excluding some options even before the actor becomes conscious of the situation”. His suggestion that we investigate empirically how the relative balance of reflexivity and disposition operates in particular action situations is one I find extremely plausible, perhaps demanding that we need methods other than the interview, as well as overcoming the relative neglect of situated embodied action within Archer’s work.

It’s an interesting chapter which I highly recommend. It’s left me wanting to return to my PhD, as well as investigating Lahire in greater depth. It strikes me that I’ve actually done something akin to what Vandenberghe advocates, synthesising Archer and Lahire, without actually having read Lahire. My curiosity demands that I establish whether or not this is the case.

In our discussion of metrics systems, it’s easy to treat subjectivity as a cipher, regarding people as passively moulded by algorithms or blindly governed by the incentives that operate through the institutionalisation of the metrics. My objection to the former is not the claim that people are shaped by metrics, but rather the assumption that this process is basically passive. My interest is in how metrics come to matter to us. How are people shaped over time? How do their biographically accumulating dispositions and concerns influence the actions they take over time? How do these feed back into the metrics system and the organisations within which they are institutionalised?

The fictional portrayals that are starting to emerge of this – novels like Super Sad True Love Story, the Circle and Whiskey Tango Foxtrot, films like Nerve – often struggle to represent this engaged subjectivity because the imperatives of effective story telling militate against it. What we really need is a novel or film that explores metricisation through the internal monologue of what I imagine would turn out to be an unreliable narrator.

Notes for my talk for the Reflexivity Forum at Warwick on May 24th

What does it mean to be distracted? For the last year, I’ve been telling people that I’m working on a new project about digital distraction and everyone seems to immediately grasp what I mean by this. But conceptualising precisely what we should take ‘distraction’ to mean is slightly more complex than I realised at the outset of the project. The dictionary offers a good starting point, with two definitions:

  1. a thing that prevents someone from concentrating on something else.
  2. extreme agitation of the mind

Looking at these definitions, it’s easy to infer a causal relation between the phenomena they designate: we might assume that (1), if encountered to a sufficient degree under conducive circumstances, leads to (2) through sheer accumulation of distraction. In other words: lots of distractions lead to distractedness

In a recent piece of work, I tried to analyse the rise of (1) in terms of constant connectivity. Interruptions have always been part of human experience, in so far as that there are always contingencies which might emerge in order to disrupt an activity that’s in process. But the ‘triple revolution’ of mobile computing, wireless internet access and social networks have contributed to a proliferation of interruptions, as have the second order effects when this multiplication of communication channels lead to the qualitative and quantitative escalation of communication e.g. people trying multiple means to contact someone in the absence of governing norms about appropriateness, strategic communication that seek to shock and surprise in order to be heard above the din.

Analysed in this sense, talk of interruptions leads rather inevitably to the consideration of reflexivity. What does it mean to ‘prevent someone from concentrating on something else’? It means there was something else they were trying to do and the external event, which we label as a distraction (1), has interrupted their action towards this end. Distraction needs to be conceived of as relational: there is the distracting object, but it only has this power in relation to an existing activity undertaken under conditions that leave someone conducive to being distracted.

What we’re being distracted from might have been routine action, e.g. I get a phone call when making a cup of coffee, but the very act of interruption engenders an awareness of that from which we were interrupted. Consider a distraction (1) significant enough to completely disrupt our previous action: when we ask ourselves “now what was I doing before he phoned?”, this is an incitement to reflexivity, albeit one that reflects a prior failure thereof. So rather than seeing distraction (1) and reflexivity as antithetical, we have to recognise a more complex relationship between them. Distractions impede reflexivity but also highlight it. Persistent distractions engender reflexivity, when we recognise something as a ‘problem’ and begin to ask what it is we might do about it?

It’s for this reason that I don’t think we should consider distracted people as somehow a-reflexive people. Distracted people are those who live within a socio-technical environment sufficiently productive of distraction (1) that we might talk of them as being characterised by distraction (2): it’s an ‘agitation of the mind’, rather than an absence of reflexivity, a difficulty articulating and sustaining courses of action rather a lack of capacity to reach conclusions about what a desirable course might be. Distraction is something which operates on a number of levels simultaneously:

  1. A distracting environment renders time and space for reflexivity unlikely: the conditions for internal conversation are often not in place and where they are, they’re unlikely to last.
  2. A distracting environment supplies more stimuli about potential courses of action and potential projects: under these conditions, ‘bounding’ variety becomes increasingly difficult, rendering internal conversation more necessary than ever.
  3. A distracting environment militates against sustained trajectories of action, because interruptions to action become more likely (with the cognitive costs they entail) as do interruptions to reflexivity exercised about those actions.

Distracting environments are characterised by the proliferation of distractions but the causality of how this leads to distractedness is more complex than I initially realised & I’m still trying to clarify my views on this.

As you may know, executive coaching is an increasingly common phenomenon, particularly in some sectors like tech. This is how Eric Schmidt and his co-author describe the necessity of it in How Google Works loc 2440:

Whenever you watch a world-class athlete perform, you can be sure that there is a great coach behind her success. It’s not that the coach is better at playing the sport than the player, in fact that is almost never the case. But the coaches have a different skill: They can observe players in action and tell them how to be better. So why is it that in the business world coaches are so unusual? Are we all like Eric when he started at Google, so confident of ourselves that we can’t imagine someone helping us to be better? If so, this is a fallacy. 

As a business leader, you need a coach. The first ingredient of a successful coaching relationship is a student who is willing to listen and learn. Just like there are hard-to-coach athletes, there are hard-to-coach executives. But once they get past that initial reticence, they find there are always things to learn. Business coaches, like all coaches, are at heart teachers, and Bill Campbell, the best coach around, tells us he believes that management is a skill that is completely learnable.

This is something which suggests an obvious comparison to sports, not just in terms of the language used to describe this relationship. James Surowiecki, author of Wisdom of Crowds, draws out the connection in an interesting essay about the increasing competitive advantage accrued when performance is already at a top level:

The key part of the “performance revolution” in sports, then, is the story of how organizations, in a systematic way, set about making employees more effective and productive. This, as it happens, is something that other organizations started doing around the same timeline.

http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2014/11/10/better-time

But can managerial performance really be measured in these terms? I don’t think it can and the belief to the contrary strikes me as a really interesting conceit, reflecting interestingly on the culture of managerialism: a kind of moral athleticism amongst prominent CEOs in which they aspire to be all that they can be

If we look at the same phenomenon further down the organisational ladder, we get to enforced performance reviews and sanctions ensuing from a failure to meet imposed expectations. We get to sleepless night and diffuse anxiety saturating into everyday life, all generated by concerns over ‘performance’. Coaching still exists but it becomes a very different phenomenon, as this interview I did about the sociology of work-life coaching suggests:

Coaching usually consists of individual or group meetings that continue for a few months. In the beginning of these meetings, a goal is set for the whole coaching process, and then the process continues with for example personality tests or exercises that the clients do in order to achieve the set goal. The coaches that I interviewed were often a bit vague in their answers when I asked about the specific practices of coaching. They would rather talk about ‘realising the inner potential of the individual’, though what this means specifically is rather unclear.

In general, it seems that coaching is for most part about discussing one’s hopes and realities with the coach and getting feedback for both the exercises and tests and for the plans that one has and the actions that one takes. The focus on ‘potential’ is telling of how coaching is quite oriented towards the future but at the same time relies on something that is thought to already exist within the self. As it happens, coaching concentrates on the individual. This means that all the work that is done in coaching centers on changing oneself in order to achieve the goals that one wants to achieve. 

This is reflected in the practices of coaching in the sense that they demand self-reflexivity and focus on getting to know oneself and reflecting for instance on one’s personality with the help of tests and exercises. In terms of employment, this means that questions that concern wider social structures or even organisational structures are left outside the scope of the things one needs to change. It thus begins to seem that change always starts within the individual self – and also that if there is a need for change it is the self that is at fault. In the case of unemployment then, for example, the structural reasons for unemployment are not accounted for but rather it is thought that if the individual just works hard enough to change themselves then they will also find employment – and if one is unemployed it just means that one has not yet found the ‘true self’ and the right goals that would solve the problem. In other words, if one does not find work, it is implied that this just means that one has not worked hard enough on improving oneself.

http://www.thesociologicalreview.com/information/blog/working-life-coaching-and-the-individualization-of-class.html

As a relational technology of the self, work coaching has to be read against the background of metricisation. It naturalises metrics and their attendant apparatus of control, scrutiny and intervention. The issue becomes a narrow one of ‘performance’ rather than one’s place over time within an organisation.

I’ve nonetheless become a bit obsessed with Bill Campbell. He turns up time and time again in business books about Silicon Valley. It also turns out he was actually a football coach originally:

 Son of a local school official, Campbell was born and raised in Homestead, Pennsylvania, near Pittsburgh. He attended Columbia University where he played football under coach Buff Donelli from 1959 to 1961. In his senior year, he was named to the All-Ivy Team. He graduated in 1962 with a bachelor’s degree in economics. In 1964, he obtained a master’s degree in education from Teachers College, Columbia University.[2] He was head coach of Columbia’s football team, the Columbia Lions from 1974 to 1979. Prior to this he was an assistant at Boston College for six years. He met his first wife, the former Roberta Spagnola, while she was the assistant dean in charge of Columbia’s undergraduate dormitories.

He joined J. Walter Thompson, the advertising agency, then Kodak where he rose to run Kodak’s European film business. Hired by John Sculley he became Apple’s VP of Marketing, then ran Apple’s Claris software division. When Sculley refused to spin Claris off into an independent company, Campbell and much of the Claris leadership left. Since 1997, when Steve Jobs returned to Apple, Campbell has served as a corporate director on Apple’s board of directors.

Campbell became CEO of GO Corporation, a startup pioneering a tablet computer operating system. After successfully selling GO Eo to AT&T Corporation in 1993, Campbell was CEO of Intuit from 1994 to 1998. Campbell announced that he would be retiring as the Chairman of the Board of Directors at Intuit starting January 2016.[3]

Campbell is an adviser to a number of technology companies, and was elected Chairman of the Board of Trustees at Columbia in 2005.

According to CNN Money, he is worth $200 million.[4]
https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/William_Campbell_(business_executive)

To what extent is it a marker of prestige to be coached by Campbell? Is it still a status symbol for lesser executives to be coached by lesser coaches? Do these celebrity coaches and celebrity clients underwrite the demand elsewhere? Do all these coaches have top level business experience?

This idea from Daniel Little really chimes with what I’m arguing in my chapter for the 5th CSO book. Life planning as blueprint is becoming ever less sustainable as the continuity of a subject’s context becomes ever less assured. This disrupts instrumental rationality because contextual assumptions about means become unreliable, while social and cultural change also throws up new opportunities which invite us to reconsider our ends:

We might think of life planning as being less like a blueprint for action and more like a navigational guide. We might think of the problem of making intermediate life choices as being guided by a compass rather than a detailed plan — the idea that we do good work on living if we guide our actions by a set of directional signals rather than a detailed map. Life outcomes result from following a compass, not moving towards a specific GPS point on a map.

There is an analogy with business planning here. Consider the actions and plans of a CEO of a company. His or her choices in concrete decision moments are guided by several important considerations: remain profitable; prepare the ground today for viable business activity tomorrow; create an environment of trust and respect among the employees of the company; make sure that company choices also take the wellbeing of the community into account; treat employees fairly; anticipate changes in the marketplace that might dictate change in process or product within the company. But there is no certainty, no fixed prescription for success, and no algorithm for balancing the goods that the firm’s leadership pursues. The successful firm will have built its success over a long series of decisions oriented towards the fundamental values of the business.

http://understandingsociety.blogspot.co.uk/2016/01/deliberation-rationality-and-reasoning.html

What I’m interested in is how it remains possible to shape a life under these conditions. One response is to embrace shapelessness. The other is to temporise, dividing planning up into manageable chunks which facilitate instrumental rationality no longer sustainable over the life course as a whole. But the one that seems most sustainable is what Daniel Little details here as life planning as navigational guide.

How companies institutionalise certain forms of (quantifiable) reflexivity. From Marissa Mayer and the Fight to Save Yahoo! pg 10:

Starting in 1999, Google management used a system called Objectives and Key Results, or OKRs, to measure the effectiveness of its employees, divisions, and the company overall. The idea for OKRs came from Google investor John Doerr, the famous venture capitalist. Doerr got it from Andy Grove, who developed a similar system called Management by Objective during his successful run at Intel. In the OKR system, every Google employee would come up with a list of quantifiable goals every quarter. The employee would present this list to a manager for sign-off, then the approved goals would be entered into Google’s internal network, where everyone in the entire company could see them. The next quarter, the employee would meet with the manager again, review their performance, and get a score on their OKRs. That score would determine the employee’s bonus payment and ability to get a raise, a transfer, or promotion within the company. Starting in September 2012, Mayer introduced a clone of OKRs to Yahoo. She called them Quarterly Performance Reviews, or QPRs. Employees from Mayer’s direct reports on down would get a score every quarter, from one to five. A one meant the employee consistently “misses” goals, a two meant the employee “occasionally misses,” a three, “achieves,” a four, “exceeds,” and a five, “greatly exceeds.”

In this case, it was used to support a ‘rank and yank’ system. Making it slightly more palatable by ranking employees in terms of goals they’ve formulated themselves. From pg 10-11:

In effect, a target distribution meant Mayer wanted managers to put a certain percentage of the employees they managed in each of the five buckets. Ten percent would go into “greatly exceeds,” 25 percent into “exceeds,” 50 percent into “achieves,” 10 percent into “occasionally misses,” and 5 percent into “misses.” Then Mayer rolled out new policies wherein employee eligibility for bonuses, promotions, and transfers within the company would be based on their average score for the past three quarters. Employees with low enough scores would be asked to leave the company.

As apparently happened at Microsoft as well (an interesting case study) this brought employees into direct competition with each other. What interests me here is the disjuncture between the supposedly transparent standards employees are subject to and the utterly opaque consequences of the grading curve. Someone has to fail. So how do you know if you’ve done enough? Meeting your goals isn’t enough to be safe. You have to try and ensure you surpass your peers in everything you do. This doesn’t necessarily lead to the acceleration of work but it does lead to its intensification

At an event in Liverpool last week, I was asked by Steve Fuller about what I understood responsibility to mean in a sociological sense. He was sceptical that I could support claims of responsibility given my understanding of human agency as situationally performative but biographically continuous. In essence I understood him to be asking: do I think there’s something about the human being in relation to which responsibility can be assigned? This is a question I’d never really thought about explicitly, though once I began to I’ve realised that it actually knits together the full range of my interests.

Part of my difficulty with the question is that I think ‘responsibility’ encompasses a number of different things which we need to unpack:

  1. Responsibility as moral agency: how an individual comes, through internal and/or external conversation, to assume a stance of responsibility towards their own actions. To me it seems obvious that this is a matter of what Charles Taylor calls disengaged agency. It’s a mode of engagement with the world that usually involves stepping back from social encounters in order to reflect on one’s own actions within them, though I do believe sometimes we confront these questions when in the flow of the social situation.
  2. Responsibility as interpersonal ascription: how an individual comes, through social interaction, to be held accountable for their actions. This can, but by no means necessarily does, lead to the first sense of responsibility as moral agency. This is about social judgement, holding someone to account in terms of putatively shared standards in relation to which their behaviour can be evaluated.
  3. Responsibility as structural enforcement: how an individual comes to be formally held responsible for their actions, in relation to codified rules and regulations which are sufficiently durable to be both enforceable and recognised as binding. Legal systems are the obvious example of this but I’d include disciplinary proceedings within workplaces within this category as well. The point is the process is formalised and the rules are codified. It’s not tied to the social situation, a term I use in Goffman’s sense, in the same way as the earlier forms of responsibility.

These are interconnected in complex ways. But by analytically distinguishing between them, we’re able to recognise how they can vary independently. Under contemporary social conditions, I would argue that we have seen the following changes:

  1. People are more likely to over-actively exercise moral agency, often to the point of blaming themselves for personal outcomes that are systemically produced. This individualisation contributes to the fragmentation of normative consensus, as individual reasoning acts as a vector of deviance amplification: the more intensively people think about these things, through the filter provided by their own particularity, the less likely they are to straight forwardly reproduce ‘common sense’.
  2. The interpersonal ascription of responsibility is becoming more contentious because of this fragmentation of normative consensus. If we can’t take ‘common sense’ for granted, interventions of this sort will tend to be experienced as arbitrary impositions of power. This leave them experienced as something inherently contentious, which I’ve written about as the ‘paradox of incivility’: when consensus breaks down, attempts to enforce civility are actually experienced as rude and aggressive.
  3. ‘Common sense’ supplies the intuitions upon which enforcement is grounded. In its absence, normativity comes to seem less binding, incentivising alternative penalty-based enforcement that doesn’t attempt to seek grounding in moral agency. Margaret Archer describes this as ‘anormative regulation’ in an upcoming paper.

Having only recently grasped quite how interesting case law is, thanks to the conversation with Steve and Joseph, I’d now like to start to refine the outline I’ve sketched above and apply it to thinking through the challenges posed by emerging technologies.

What makes human beings distinctive amongst animals? This is an argument I found myself having a few times last week. I just came across a great passage by Martha Nussbaum, quoted on Brain Pickings, reflecting my own views on this. When I say ‘reflexivity is a defining characteristic of the human’, it’s a short hand for this broader proposition, expressed in this case more elegantly than I am able to:

Human beings appear to be the only mortal finite beings who wish to transcend their finitude. Thus they are the only emotional beings who wish not to be emotional, who wish to withhold these acknowledgments of neediness and to design for themselves a life in which these acknowledgments have no place. This means that they frequently learn to reject their own vulnerability and to suppress awareness of the attachments that entail it. We might also say … that they are the only animals for whom neediness is a source of shame, and who take pride in themselves to the extent to which they have allegedly gotten clear of vulnerability.

https://www.brainpickings.org/2015/11/23/martha-nussbaum-upheavals-of-thought-neediness/

Following from our successful workshop earlier this year, we’re organising the first of what will hopefully become a regular reflexivity forum at the University of Warwick on May 24th. The intention is to provide a space in which people conducting empirical research into human reflexivity will be able to present work in progress, discuss issues they’ve encountered and meet others working on similar issues.

If you’d like to attend could you let me know as as you can, as numbers will be limited for the event. If you’d like to present work in progress, please could you send a title and 100 word abstract. Hopefully we’ll have at least 20 minutes per speaker but this depends on the numbers who are keen to speak.

One of the most interesting aspects of Margaret Archer’s work on reflexivity is her interest in how people sometimes seek to ‘blot out’ their experience. Her overarching concern is with the variability of reflexivity, something which I think is hugely important against an intellectual background in which most   thinkers impute a uniform deliberative capacity to subjects, assuming they do recognise this capacity at all. 

For instance while some people, at least some of the time, reason autonomously in a confident and detached way, addressing the question “what should I do?” quickly and effectively, others find that attempts to deliberate intensify affect rather than provide answers. These are perhaps the people most likely to seek to ‘blot out’ experience, to evade reflexivity through deliberate distraction. But I’ve argued elsewhere that the competitive busyness of the self-striving utility maximiser can represent a comparable form of ‘blotting out’, avoiding difficult questions of what really matters to them by throwing themselves into the events of the day.

Before we have a fully developed sociology of reflexivity, we need a sociology of ‘blotting out’ experience: a systematic understanding of the different ways in which people can seek to evade reflexivity and why they might pursue them. I was thinking about this today after encountering the description of the ‘machine zone’ at the start of the stunning book Addiction By Design, by Natasha Dow Schüll, pg 2:

Mollie recounts how her play began, and how it escalated. It started soon after she moved to Las Vegas with her third husband in the 1980s, when he taught her to play video poker on a miniature, handheld machine. “I became hooked on that amazing little machine. And then I graduated to the real thing.” Short stints at video poker on weekend visits to casinos turned into sessions of hours and then days. Her financial expenditure grew in step with her play, to a point where she was spending entire paychecks over two- day binges at machines. “I even cashed in my life insurance for more money to play,” she tells me. When I ask Mollie if she is hoping for a big win, she gives a short laugh and a dismissive wave of her hand. “In the beginning there was excitement about winning,” she says, “but the more I gambled, the wiser I got about my chances. Wiser, but also weaker, less able to stop. Today when I win— and I do win, from time to time— I just put it back in the machines. The thing people never understand is that I’m not playing to win .” Why, then, does she play? “To keep playing— to stay in that machine zone where nothing else matters.” I ask Mollie to describe the machine zone. She looks out the window at the colorful movement of lights, her fingers playing on the tabletop between us. “It’s like being in the eye of a storm, is how I’d describe it. Your vision is clear on the machine in front of you but the whole world is spinning around you, and you can’t really hear anything. You aren’t really there— you’re with the machine and that’s all you’re with.”

When placed in this context, we can see how a concern with the experience of ‘blotting out’ takes us beyond psychology by placing this evasion, in which people seek the embrace of a zone in ‘which nothing else matters’, within the broader development of digital capitalism and the declining capacity of non-elite collective agency to shape long-term political and economic trends.

Another startlingly illuminating point in Retrieving Realism by Dreyfus and Taylor. At loc 665, they observe how Heidegger’s early work “undercuts another basic feature of the classical picture: that the primary input is neutral, and is only at a later stage attributed some meaning by the agent.” This is a familiar point but I’ve never encountered it stated so lucidly before. It has important connotations for how we conceive of digital distraction. Broadly, we could take two paths:

  1. Digital abundance presents agents with an overwhelming quantity of potentially relevant information to which they must attribute meaning, or forgo this with potential consequences 
  2. Digital abundance presents agents with an overwhelming quantity of potentially relevant information, which is already meaningful due to the relations of complementarity and contradiction which obtain between this novelty and already encountered variety (or forgo this with potential consequences)

The first view sees digital distraction as an information processing challenging. The second view sees digital distraction as an existential challenge. This has important implications for how we make sense of it sociologically.

Yesterday saw the news that ‘Infidelity site’ Ashley Madison had been hacked, with the attackers claiming 37 million records had been stolen. The site is an online forum for infidelity, a dating site explicitly designed to facilitate affairs, something which potentially provoked the ire of the hackers. Or it could be the fact that users are charged a fee of £15 to permanently delete their records from the site, the efficacy of which the hackers dispute. This seems to be indicative of a broader trend in which dating sites as a whole were found by the Electronic Freedom Foundation to have failed to implement basic security procedures and to be near uniformly vague or silent about whether user data was deleted after the closure of an account.

This is a specific instance of a much broader category of problem which I’ve been thinking a lot about recently: escaping the filter bubble. I use this concept in a much broader sense than Eli Pariser‘s original use in his (excellent) book. I see filter bubbles as being a matter of algorithmic enclosure but also of information security. In fact I would argue that the former inevitably poses questions for the latter, because filter bubbles rest upon the collection of personal information and intervention upon this basis. Filter bubbles always pose questions of information security because environments designed around them are always information-hungry and mechanisms of personalisation inevitably introduce opacity into interactions between users and a system in an asymmetric way. But I’d like to expand the concept of filter bubble to encompass the entire informational environment in which we find increasingly find ourselves deliberately enclosed through our use of digital technology. Not all of this is applied algorithmically but I would argue, somewhat crudely, we can talk about greater or lesser tracts of everyday life being lived via digital mediation in a filter bubble characterised by varying degrees of enclosure.

What interests me are experience where we don’t realise we’re in a filter bubble. The questions of information security don’t occur. We live with ontological security, sufficiently comfortable with this technology (something which personalisation can contribute to) in order to act ‘as-if’ the filter bubble doesn’t create risks for us. Will Davies offers an analogy which captures this effectively:

I have a memory from childhood, a happy memory — one of complete trust and comfort. It’s dark, and I’m kneeling in the tiny floor area of the back seat of a car, resting my head on the seat. I’m perhaps six years old. I look upward to the window, through which I can see streetlights and buildings rushing by in a foreign town whose name and location I’m completely unaware of. In the front seats sit my parents, and in front of them, the warm yellow and red glow of the dashboard, with my dad at the steering wheel.

Contrary to the sentiment of so many ads and products, this memory reminds me that dependence can be a source of deep, almost visceral pleasure: to know nothing of where one is going, to have no responsibility for how one gets there or the risks involved. I must have knelt on the floor of the car backward to further increase that feeling of powerlessness as I stared up at the passing lights.

http://thenewinquiry.com/essays/the-data-sublime/

But when this ontological security is punctured, we can see risks everywhere. What are people doing with our data? What could they be doing with our data? How are our online environments manipulating us? I’m interested in using ontological security as a conceptual frame through which to understand the urge to escape the filter bubble on a psychoanalytical level. As I develop this line of argument, I need to work on making the exact sense of the underlying concept clearer, but leaving that aside for now, I think it offers a really interesting frame for exploration. Here are the propositions I’m going to come back to in order to develop further:

  1. We are enmeshed within a filter bubble through our everyday use of digital technology
  2. The filter bubble is deliberately designed, indeed redesigned on a sometimes hour-to-hour basis, driven by complex and opaque interests
  3. Our orientation towards the filter bubble is extremely variable, even over time in one life, let alone between people

But for now what I’m interested in is how we escape the filter bubble. When we see the endemic risks, when the reassuring cocoon of ontological security recedes, what do we do? The problem is  that not everyone is equally well positioned to escape the filter bubble. It necessitates technical knowledge, time and energy. Some people don’t care but know what to do. Some people do care but don’t know what to do. Most people fall between these two poles at different points in relation to specific issues. What I’m interested in is how any definite attempt to escape the filter bubble leads to an intensification of cognitive burdens at a time of endemic acceleration. If everyone feels rushed, how does the urge to escape the filter bubble contribute to that experience, constituting just one more thing to worry about? How does this in turn contribute to the problem of what I’ve elsewhere described as cognitive triage? I can imagine an emerging profession, consultant digital escapologist, paid to help the cash-rich but time-poor manage their information security.