I’ve been thinking a lot recently about escalation effects, by which I mean the tendency of some courses of action to escalate beyond our initial expectations or capacity to control. My favourite examples involve information overload. An active reader will often follow up references from books they are reading, with an interesting book usually yielding at least a few more books to read. Thus reading one book will lead to a desire to read a cluster of books, each of which will in turn likely prompt a similar escalation in your intended reading. Escalation effects are interesting because they exist in an ontological gray zone, reflecting our capacities as agents while underscoring our limitations. They are not strictly speaking structural constraints, as much as they are unintended consequences of reflexive project formation.
What is awkwardness? It’s something we recognise. It’s something which is everywhere. Yet when we do think about it, it’s often seen as something trivial and mundane, representing an interruption of decorum or a warp in the texture of micro-social interaction. It’s something that can be intensely felt but is soon forgotten and, where it is not, we see this inability to forget as something pathological. In this sense awkwardness tends to be relegated to the periphery of social life when in fact it is something constitutive of it. There could be no social interaction without awkwardness because its possibility is inherent in the coming together of individuals in social situations. As Erving Goffman describes this:
Whatever his other concerns, then, whatever his merely-situated interests, the individual is obliged to ‘come into play’ upon entering the situation and to stay ‘in play’ while in the situation, sustaining this diffuse orientation at least until he can officially take himself beyond range of the situation. (Goffman 1963: 25)
The potential for awkwardness is inherent in ‘coming into play’ and sustaining an expected orientation while ‘in play’ before exiting in a manner equally congruent with the expectations within a situation. What’s important to grasp though is that awkwardness is not just a subjective response to an objective situation. As Adam Kotsko argues,
First there is what I will call everyday awkwardness, which seems to originate with particular individuals. It combines aspects of my gracelessness and the singer’s uncomfortable performance. It’s difficult to deny that there are people for whom awkwardness is a kind of perverse skill, who bring it with them wherever they go. We are only able to identify someone as awkward, however, because the person does something that is inappropriate for a given context. Most often, these violations do not involve an official written law — instead, the grace that’s in question is the skillful navigation of the mostly unspoken norms of a community … Even when personal deficits make certain individuals seem extremely awkward by nature, however, awkwardness remains a social phenomenon, and therefore the analysis of awkwardness should focus not on awkward individuals but on the entire social situation in which awkwardness makes itself felt. (Kotsko 2010: 7)
His point is that awkwardness emerges relationally. It arises situationally in relation to norms concerning ‘coming into play’ and ‘staying in play’ which are endorsed and enforced by others within the situation. However what I really like about Kotsko’s analysis is his attentiveness to the way in which “awkwardness moves through social network, it spreads” because “you can’t observe an awkward situation without being drawn in: you are made to feel awkward as well, even if it is probably to a lesser degree than the people directly involved” (Kotsko 2010: 8). One claim he makes on the basis of this is that comedy relies on this ‘drawing on’. Another more counter-intuitive claim is that awkwardness “actually creates a weird kind of social bond” through “in the moment of awkwardness” being “forced to share to varying degrees in the experience of awkwardness” (Kotsko 2010: 9). He seeks to place this intrinsically social character of awkwardness in historical perspective:
Following the pattern, one could say that the tension of awkwardness indicates that no social order is self-evident and no social order accounts for every possibility. Awkwardness shows us that humans are fundamentally social, but that they have no built-in norms: the norms that we develop help us to ‘get by,’ with some proving more helpful than others. We might say, then, that awkwardness is what prompts us to set up social norms in the first place — and what prompts us to transform them. (Kotsko 2010: 16)
This seems an implausibly strong claim but it’s one rooted in a interesting Heideggerian analysis of awkwardness. He suggests it as a counterpart to Heidegger’s understanding of anxiety and boredom. But unlike these experiences which isolate the individual, awkwardness unites them, albeit through the creation of a peculiar and perverse sort of social bond. His claim is that awkwardness drives the structuring of sociality through its perpetual tendency to emerge, as well as to spread, in the absence of such structure. Awkwardness (stemming from the provisionality of social normativity) in interaction is analogous to anxiety (stemming from the finitude of existence) in individuals. But Kotsko argues that we live in an inherently awkward age:
Everyday awkwardness happens in a context where the social order seems more or less adequate and comfortable, but the provisional nature of every social order indicates that it’s not an all-or-nothing question of either having a social order or none, as in the opposition between everyday and radical awkwardness, between awkwardness in violation of a social norm and awkwardness in the absence of a social norm. I propose that there is a particularly awkward kind of awkwardness in between the two, which I will cultural awkwardness. It arises when there seems to be a set of norms in force, but it feels somehow impossible to follow them or even fully know them. Just as it is easier to criticize than to create something, a social order in decline maintain its ability to tell you what you’re doing wrong even as it is losing its ability to provide a convincing account of what it would look like to do things right … Contemporary mainstream middle-class social norms are not remotely up to the task of minimizing awkwardness, but at the same time, there seems to be no real possibility of developing a convincing positive alternative. (Kotsko 2010: 16-17).
He makes a convincing case that the role of awkwardness in comedy is not simply a matter of playing upon the familiarity of everyday awkwardness. Instead there is an elaboration within some recognisable genres of the broader cultural malaise and its attendant anxieties. He takes Judd Apatow films as representative of a sense that “the order of adulthood somehow doesn’t work, that it needs the awkward supplement of the male bonding it supposedly overcomes”. In the absence of new traditions, which is the only cultural condition in which the phrase ‘new traditions’ could be coherent, we are left with a “pervasive sense that despite the fact that we can never fully embrace the traditional norms, we are somehow hardwired to head in that direction and will do so immediately once our attempts to do something else fail” (Kotsko 2010: 65). These films not only represent friendships which are ‘structurally awkward’, in that they are grounded in opposition to cultural conventions, but they are ones which are eventually cast off in an unreflexive embrace of a circumscribed normativity. In contrast to this resist and then do it anyway approach to negotiating cultural awkwardness, Kotsko finds inspiration in the writings of St. Paul’s on the possibility of cultural assimilation, imagining communities where,
Awkwardness is no longer a way of escaping social norms, and social norms are no longer a way of escaping awkwardness: instead, people simply meet each other, without the mediation of a defined cultural order, and figure out how to live together on a case by case basis. (Kotsko 2010: 80).
From this perspective the problem of cultural awkwardness becomes one of our response to it. Rather than “trying to come up with some permanent way of overcoming awkwardness, one should go with it” (Kotsko 2010: 79). In this way he inverts the notion of awkwardness, leading us “beyond the common sense notion of awkwardness as a disturbance in the social fabric and toward something like utopia” (Kotsko 2010: 86). Far from being something to be overcome, awkwardness in fact represents an opening towards a more fully human mode of being-with each other. It is a possibility we are forced to confront, however inchoately, because “opportunities to enjoy the community of awkwardness are always there, always available, always ready to erupt, because awkwardness is undefeatable”. Under such conditions it becomes imperative for us to cultivate “the peculiar kind of grace that allows us to break down and admit that we are finally nothing more or less than human beings who will always be stuck with each other and, more importantly, to admit that we are glad of it” (Kotsko 2010: 89).
It’s in these terms that we can begin to argue for the incipient universality underpinning some of the most ephemeral and seemingly trivial examples of internet culture. Whatever we think of the humour or its enactment, the evident virality of these cultural products is susceptible to explanation. Why are they so popular? Why are people so prone to sharing them? In asking questions like this we shouldn’t lose sight of the brutally hierarchical ecosystem governing the dissemination of ‘viral content’:
He describes an Internet food chain, a series of tiers of websites that disseminate viral content. The highest-performing, most visible websites — BuzzFeed, Boing Boing, Gawker, Reddit — often graze on content discovered by lower-visibility sites. The lower-tier sites are often the ones to lift TV news bloopers or funny Facebook photos from obscurity. But they depend on their mainstream predators/enablers to elevate something to meme status.
However we should also avoid the temptation to reduce it to this ecosystem, dismissing it as ephemera leveraged for the strategic advantage of these major players. This ecosystem has created an opening for viral content factories, as well as those intuitive curators particular able to locate many items and successfully gauge their potential virality, but it doesn’t seem tenable to suggest it has created the receptiveness to such content. Furthermore, there’s obviously much more to memes than awkwardness. But my claim is that this constitutes a clearly identifiable genre or category of web meme and, in so far as this is true, has obvious implications for how we see the kind of argument being made by Kotsko.
What explains the evident receptiveness of internet users to web memes concerning awkwardness? It is the cultural order leveraged to promote and circulate its own gaps and failings. We recognise ourselves in the dramatisation and staging of awkwardness. There’s something deeply human about some of this ephemera in spite of it being, well, ephemera… perhaps it points to an emerging democratisation of the instances of cultural awkwardness Kotsko identifies in TV and film. Or perhaps it’s just a way of wasting time on the internet. Either way I found myself oddly drawn to it and it’s this feeling of being drawn in, the appetite for content of this sort which can be so readily written off as mindless compulsion, which interests me as a qualitative sociologist.
How can we reconcile the psychoanalytical and the reflexive? One way is to deny there’s a tension and the work of someone like Ian Craib illustrates how this can be so, excavating reflexivity as a site of fantasy that is itself acted on reflexively. We find the image of a powerful and boundless self intoxicating but sustaining it necessitates reflexivity in defence of this object. Rather than scrutinising our assumption that life should be without disappointment (Craib’s catch all term for the negative emotions which inevitably emerge from our engagements with a recalcitrant reality) we move into the next job, the next partner, the next home in the earnest hope that this time we can elude the mess of life which has followed us up till now. In this case, reflexivity misidentifies itself, mistaking a fallible and constrained capacity to calibrate our becoming in the world for a powerful and boundless capacity to build the life we aspire to. There is no tension between the psychoanalytical and the reflexive because we can’t understand one without the other.
However what about our super ego? What about injunction we feel to behave a certain way and meet specific standards? I think someone like Adam Phillips can be read in a similar way to Craib, concerned with the space of freedom which is closed down through our misidentification of these demands; a freedom which can only be embraced by recognising our own limitations. But what about the pleasure we find in subordinating ourselves to these injunctions? This is something Žižek discusses on pg 195-196 of Like A Thief In Broad Daylight:
This, then, is what makes millions of us seek refuge in our opiums: not just new poverty and lack of prospects, but unbearable superego pressure in its two aspects –the pressure to succeed professionally and the pressure to enjoy life fully in all its intensity. Perhaps this second aspect is even more unsettling: what remains of our life when our retreat into private pleasure itself becomes the stuff of brutal injunction?
From a realist perspective on reflexivity (Archer, Donati, Sayer et al) these pressures arise from our concerns. It’s because facets of our world matter to us, unavoidably moving us to action, that the question of which action becomes so thorny and difficult. This pressure comes from a relation of concern to the world, even if this is inflected through the cultural coding which is situationally available to us. However for a figure like Žižek this would seem like an escape from the real issue, a lofty rationalisation which obscures the obsene core of ‘what matters to us’ . Even if we see ‘servitude to a cause’ (a phrase he uses later in the book) as a psychoanalytical reading of a reflexive commitment, there nonetheless seems to be a profound tension here.
Can these perspectives be reconciled? Is it possible to accept the existence of cultural injunctions which capture us on a psychic level while recognising the capacities of agents to (fallibly!) calibrate the relationship between themselves and their world? I suspect is isn’t and I’m not sure what this means for my broader interest in recognising the reflexive and the psychoanalytical.
On Friday night I was travelling home after a few days in Zurich. Waiting for my plane in Zurich airport, Bats by Uncluded came up on the random playlist I was listening to. I hadn’t realised Aesop Rock and Kimya Dawson had collaborated. I was immediately gripped as what had been background listening suddenly grabbed my full attention, immersing me in the music in a way that was involuntary. I couldn’t help but listen to it a few times in quick succession, with the lines below gripping me in a way that is hard to get into words. As I often do, I looked up the lyrics and reading them alongside the music only added to the power of the song.
In times of death and disorder
You look for shooting stars
In the reflection of the water
And you open the gifts that you didn’t expect
On the birthdays of the dead friends that are stuck in your head
Like love, and hugs and songs and rage
And the keys that you needed to unlock your heart’s cage
The ability to put the pen back to the page
The heat beneath your feet to propel you on stage
The beat that completes your shit these days
Yeah the beat that completes your shit these days
(The beat that completes your shit these days)
I wasn’t able to download the track before getting on the plane so I was delighted to resume immersion once I arrived at Heathrow, listening to it multiple times on my journey home before my headphones ran out of battery. I couldn’t get the phrase “love, and hugs and songs and rage” out of my head and fleetingly wondered if this might be the second tattoo I’d been thinking about for a while. I continued listening the next day but the effect was subtly diminished, the song felt flatter and my attention was more deliberate and less voluntary.
Another 48 hours later and I realised when listening to it that these lines were no longer standing out to me, manifesting in little more than an awareness that I had missed something. But if I listened closely, I still missed it because ‘something’ was a response these lines provoked in me rather than the lines itself. It was what I’d call the resonance opened up within me by the music, the interplay of associations and responses that emerged from my immediate relationship with it. The music gripped me and moved me and changed me. But now it was gone. After 48 hours.
This isn’t an unusual experience. I’ve had many conversations with people about obsessively listening to the same track until it becomes flat. I suggest this is mining resonance to the point of exhaustion i.e. taking advantage of our immediate control over the resonant item to repeat the experience, with the cost of diminishing effect as the resonance evaporates in the fact of its instrumentalisation. It changes our relationship to what resonates and involves exercising subjective control over what is otherwise outside us, eviscerating resonance by turning an external relation to a piece of art into an internal relation to an experience we are choosing. If we have to wait until something is on the radio or on TV then we can’t exercise this control. If the resonance is generated through live music, it remains something with a transcendent dimension to which we have to open ourselves up. If it is something we can repeat on demand, we risk emptying out the experience and destroying precisely what brought us to it in the first place.
Reflecting on this has left me wondering about binge watching. It can be an experience in which we are gripped by what we are watching, immersed so completely in the narratives of an alternative universe that to leave it feels fleetingly impossible. It can also be something hollow and compulsive, repeated with a grim but unspoken awareness that we are being nudged into continued engagement by the architecture of Netflix. What makes the difference? I would suggest it is resonance and that what we call binge watching or immersion isn’t just about consuming a cultural production, it’s how we relate to that cultural consumption. The ontology of this relation is subtle and streaming platforms simultaneously treat us as sovereign decision makers and hollow selves to be moulded. The phenomenology of cultural bingeing is much more complex than either characterisation can grasp.
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.
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 Journal. My 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.
When we talk about the possibilities which digital media offer for rethinking scholarly communication, it’s easy to slip into the trap of thinking this ambition is a new one. We counterpoise the ‘new’ and the ‘old’, the innovative and the traditional, the digital and the analogue. In doing so, we obscure past projects which sought to rethink how scholarly ideas are disseminated. These are projects from which we could learn much. The Actes de la Recherche en Sciences Sociales, created by Pierre Bourdieu in 1975, is one such project:
We shall present here, side by side, texts differing very greatly in their style and function: ‘finished’ texts, on the one hand, as they are called by academics journals, but also short notes, accounts of oral presentations, work in progress such as interim research projects and reports, in which theoretical intentions, empirical procedures of verification, and the data on which these are based, are all that much more visible. The desire to provide access to the workshop, which has different rules from those of method, and to present archives of a work still under way, implies a rejection of the most clearly ritual formalisms: justified typography, standard rhetoric, articles and issues of similar length, and more generally, everything that leads to the standardisation and ‘normalisation’ of the products of scholarship. Recognising no other imperative than those imposed by the rigour of demonstration, and secondarily by the aim of visibility, will mean freedom from the censorships, artificial devices and perversions generated by a concern to conform to the established customs and good manners of the university field: a rhetoric of caution or false prediction, with the apparatus and panoply of celebrity discussion that is never more than self-celebration, the ostentatious displays of signs of belonging to the most selective and select groups in the intellectual universe.
Political Interventions: Social Science and Political Action, pg 90
The ambitions here are familiar ones from discussions about what social media means for scholarly communication:
- Diversifying the types of scholarly output in circulation.
- Sharing work-in-progress, revealing the scaffolding that lies behind the carefully crafted reality of journal articles and monographs.
- Rejecting scholarly formalities where these operate as rituals, marking inclusion and exclusion, rather than contributing to the intellectual endeavour.
- Rethinking the norms of scholarly communication with an aim of improving visibility, overcoming self-serving control of ideas (and the evaluative practices which constitute their proxies) in order to liberate scholarly communication.
The ambition was to “make visible, sometimes by a simple graphic effect, what is generally hidden” (p. 91) and doing this was seen to involve manifesting in its own representational activity the demystification which was its ambition in relation to the social world. If I’ve understood correctly, Bourdieu’s point was that sociological reflexivity has to extent to the communication of sociological knowledge, as well as to its production, if its critical value isn’t to be lost at the point of dissemination.
The value of social media lies in the tools it offers to these ends, understood in terms of their practical utility in specific organisational contexts, particularly in the absence of significant resources. But in overcoming the trite distinction between analogue and digital, between traditional publication and contemporary innovation, we need to be alive to the myths of social media which are in circulation, particularly as they manifest themselves in the academy.
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.
This section of The Black Box Society, by Frank Pasquale, expresses why it’s so crucial that practitioners of digital social science cultivate reflexivity. This issue cuts across methodology, research ethics and politics: it’s not simply a narrowly technical issue. From pg 41:
Continuing unease about black box scoring reflects long-standing anxiety about misapplications of natural science methods to the social realm. A civil engineer might use data from a thousand bridges to estimate which one might next collapse; now financial engineers scrutinize millions of transactions to predict consumer defaults. But unlikely he engineer, whose studies do nothing to the bridges she examines, a credit scoring system increases the chances of a consumer defaulting once it labels him a risk and prices a loan accordingly.
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:
- a thing that prevents someone from concentrating on something else.
- 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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
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.
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. 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.
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.
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.
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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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:
- 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’.
- 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.
- ‘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.
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.
Notes for a talk I’m doing at this event tomorrow
An obvious place to start is with what I take ‘images of the human’ to be and what I take ‘digital social science’ to be. Images of the human are fairly straight forward. I mean everything from the most explicit claims about human properties and powers to implicit assumptions that go unrecognised by those who can be claimed to hold them.
What do I mean by digital social science? There is digital social science being conducted within the boundaries of the academy, both in terms of an explicit tendency towards a digital focus (digital sociology, digital geography, digital anthropology and the digital humanities) and that which is digital in its methods and/or objects but does not designate itself as such. There are also newer entrants to the intellectual scene, such as the computational social sciences and data science, often though by no means always being lead by physicists and mathematicians seeking to understand the social as a complex system, fundamentally no different to any other found in the natural world. Crucially, much digital social science takes place outside the academy and it is through this that the images of the human explicit or implicit within it can exercise an influence upon the world (and the humans) which they represent.
One of the most provocative offerings comes in Dataclysm, a book by Christian Rudder, a mathematician by training who co-founded the popular online dating site OkCupid. Now with one million to thirty million users, depending on how one defines the level of activity that constitutes a ‘user’, it is the 425th highest ranked site on the internet. The subtitle of Dataclysm is Who We Are (When We Think No One’s Looking) and this captures the impulse of the book: as Rudder puts it, “instead of asking people survey questions or contribing small-scale experiments, which was how social science was often done in the past, I can actually go and look at what actually happens when, say, 100,000 white men and 100,000 black women interact in private” (loc 63). The new technological possibilities offered by transactional data are seen to both call into question ‘who we are’ and offer us ways of looking behind this veil to the underlying reality.
In this sense, I think we misunderstand such an approach if we describe it simply as empiricism. There’s a critical theory here, implicitly claiming to disrupt what Hubert Dreyfus and Charles Taylor call “our ordinary pre-critical view of ourselves and the world”. The impulse here is to reveal the reality of human behaviour at scale: the conditions of both our everyday and scientific knowledge claims are implicitly understood to offer only a limited perspective on what it is humans actually do. Through the data we can reveal what they really do, as opposed to what they tell social surveys and interviewers they do. The reality of behaviour can be read from the numbers: ‘let the data speak for themselves”, at least if we are talking about the right kind of data. I’m at a very early stage of this work and I don’t want to impose a uniformity on the objects of my (meta)-critique, but I’ve chosen Rudder’s example because it’s the most explicit articulation of something which I believe is much more pervasive: an image of the human in which reflection and articulation are seen as mere forth, concealing the reality of what lies beneath.
Mark Andrejevic does a superb job in his book InfoGlut of unpicking the variety of ways in which those beholden to this image struggle with the “recalcitrant mind” which disguises the reality of who we are and why we do what we do. Interiority is rendered as a problem, one struggled with through the identification of ever more diverse proxies and ever more sophisticated measuring instruments, but one which continually returns as a frustrating opacity that eludes conceptualisation. It’s hard to make sense of what is being studied if we deny reflexivity: why did people choose OkCupid other competing sites, why are they using online dating rather than other alternatives, why are some demographics so over-represented amongst those who use online data and others aren’t? Each of these questions can be met by ad-hoc hypotheses, propping up the assumed transparency of the self but doing so provides us with a truncated and flattened social world, devoid of reflexivity. Reasons for action are tacitly acknowledged but representations of those reasons is deemed methodologically illicit: the real things people do (and as a corollary the real reasons) are in fact the focus of inquiry but to seek to represent these leaves us tangled up in the thickets of representation that the project of the transparent self is trying so hard to avoid.
What fascinates me is the reflexivity of those so committed to denying reflexivity. Why do they choose these topics? Why do they write these papers? Why do they talk at these conferences? Their trajectories of social action become inexplicable without reference to precisely the human capacity which their intellectual projects so thoroughly empty out from the social world. We need what Nick Couldry calls a hermeneutic of the anti-hermenutic: what drives this impulse towards the dissolution of reasons and evaluations? How does it differ from and what does it share with similar projects to be found in postmodernism and behavioural science? Or indeed in something like phrenology, as Mark Andrejevic, Dan McQuillan and others have suggested. This investigation will be philosophical, recovering the implicit images of the human and engaging with the explicit ones, but it will also be sociological: looking at the designers, engineers and managers and data scientists and the intra-organisational and inter-organisation contexts within which they are embedded, as well as how digital capitalism as a whole is taking shape through their activity.
These questions matter at a political, as well as philosophical level, because as the legal theorist Frank Pasquale suggests, the causal power of the algorithms that now govern the dynamics of reputation and visibility increasingly lead to calls for us to self-reflect in these terms in order to negotiate a social world governed through them: leading to what Pasquale describes as an “algorithmic self”. But crucially the operation of the algorithms remains opaque, subject to review and revision in a way that is always stubbornly outside our purview. Pasquale cites the example of “the self-promoter whose status updates on Facebook or LinkedIn gradually tip from informative to annoying” or “the search engine−optimizing website whose tactics become a bit too aggressive, thereby causing it to run afoul of Google’s web spam team and consequently sink into obscurity”.
This isn’t a case of people being moulded into a new shape by technology, such that we eventually become what the algorithm assumes that we already are. Reflexivity doesn’t go away. In fact it becomes more imperative than ever, but the risk is that it’s a new form of reflexivity, anticipatory in its focus but orientated towards ubiqutuous algorithmic evaluation rather than our own projects and passions. A communicative reflexivity disciplined by the algorithmic environment rather than the evaluations of trusted interlocutors within a secure micro-context.
This is a peculiar kind of hyper reflexivity which becomes necessary under circumstances that are at least for now isolated within particular tracts of daily life for most (e.g. social media use): a hyper reflexivity which ensues when people are “constantly assessing how each word or deed will affect permanent reputational profiles”. Under such conditions, reflexivity becomes a matter of modulation, adjusting to a context within which the rules are both given and yet fluctuating. Crucially, as Pasquale observes, “we all sense that certain activities win the approval of assorted watchers and others do not”. Measurement is not new by any means but what’s new is its ubiquity, driven it should be noted by near entirely commerical concerns, facilitated by the sheer efficiency with which this is possible when digitally mediated action generates transactional data subject to scruinty.
Pasquale invokes the novel Super Sad True Love Story in which credit scores from 400 to 1600 are displayed publically on ‘credit poles’ at shops and on the streets, ‘personality’ and ‘sexiness’ are automatically ranked within any social space and ‘mood + stress indicators’ provide public heirarchical rankings within any work places. There are similar themes explored in The Circle by Dave Eggars, as well as Whiskey Tango Foxtrot by David Shafer. This increasingly rich vein of fiction, beginning to find parallel representation in television, reflects an incipient unease about the place of measurement within social life. As Pasquale describes Super Sad True Love Story, “In an anomic world where social mores are adrift, the characters in the novel scramble to ‘find their place’ in the social pecking order by desperately comparing themselves with each other”. It seems to me that this could equally be a description of digital capitalism in late 2015. The ‘near future’ world these novels explore seems very near indeed.
The risk here is that the a-reflexive human subject becomes something close to a self-fulfilling prophecy. Reflexivity is not dissolved but truncated, restricted in its scope to orientating oneself within hierarchies that become axiomatic: a metric driven neo-traditionalism in which even the most reflexive projects go no further than creative projects of self-optimization through the quantified self? When considered at the level of law and politics, we can see how reflexivity itself can become an object of suspicion in a way likely to become ever more common.
Predictive analytics function by inferring from past behaviour, licensing interventions in concrete fields (policing, education, health care) based on parameters of ‘normal behaviour’ elaborated in a profoundly opaque way: one’s own past behaviour is the most knowable thing about these emerging standards and retreat into what we know we have done in the past is likely to become a safety zone, sought in order to avoid what Kate Crawford has called ‘predictive privacy harms’. Elsewhere she identifies what might be a forbearer of the coming conservatism in the tendency towards ‘norm core’: a style of dress that celebrates bland ubiquity, an aesthetic affirmation of the value of not standing out in any way whatsoever. Predictive privacy harms are by their nature unpredictable and, which is worse, we’re often unlikely to realise we have been harmed in this way. As Frank Pasquale writes, “we risk freezing into place a future that rigidly reenacts the past, as individuals find that replicating the captured patterns of past behavior is the only safe way to avoid future suspicion, stigma, and disadvantage.” We retain our reflexivity but become something less than human, enthusiastically objectifying ourselves – in a paradoxically reflexive way – while becoming objects to which things happen in wider social life.