what you get here

This is not a blog which expresses instant opinions on current events. It rather uses incidents, books (old and new), links and papers as jumping-off points for some reflections about our social endeavours.
So old posts are as good as new! And lots of useful links!
The Bucegi mountains - the range I see from the front balcony of my mountain house - are almost 120 kms from Bucharest and cannot normally be seen from the capital but some extraordinary weather conditions allowed this pic to be taken from the top of the Intercontinental Hotel in late Feb 2020

Friday, November 29, 2019

Networks, networks everywhere....

In “The Square and the Tower”, Niall Ferguson admits that, as an historian, his focus had been written archives and that official documents rarely mention the informal processes. The “operating system” in which he operated was the world of power and of hierarchy. It was his work on biographies of people like Warburg the banker and diplomat Henry Kissinger which alerted him to the significance of networks. The book is therefore an act of contrition – to make amends for his failure to pay proper tribute in his earlier books to the importance of networks.
It’s an easy read – with none of its 60 chapters being longer than 5-6 pages.

It reminded me of my reaction, in the early 1990s, when a new word entered our vocabulary – “governance”. I remember very vividly the scorn I poured on the word at the time. Why, I muttered, did we need a new word when “government” had served us well for at least a couple of centuries. And, if there was something new around, it was clear that most people didn’t appreciate the difference and were using the words interchangeably.
But that didn’t prevent me from using the phrase “good governance” in 1999 in the subtitle of my little book about public administration reform In Transit – notes on good governance

So let me take you on a tour of an intellectual idea whose origin, I would argue, can be traced back to the 1960s. an earlier post referred to the community action of that period first in America and then the UK – which led to the new fashion in the 1970s for “participatory democracy”. This may have been a manipulative tool for government but it led to the notion that citizens were not just bundles of trouble and expense but also sources of ideas - from whom organisations could learn, if they cared to.

Indeed the thesis of the part-time MSc I did in the early 1980s was on “organisational learning” – anticipating (in a sense!) the work of Peter Senge.
That, of course, was the decade of Thatcherite managerialism and privatisation when the private sector’s energies, skills and insights were also sought inside government for wicked issues such as urban regeneration and training 

Whatever happened to public administration? Governance, governance everywhere was a famous article by H George Frederickson which appeared in 2004 and traced the first use of the word to Harlan Cleveland who argued as far back as 1972 that -

The organisations that get things done will no longer be hierarchical pyramids with most of the real control at the top. They will be systems – interlaced webs of tension in which control is loose, power diffused and centres of decision-making plural

“Governance” in other words is “networked government” – best exemplified in Rod Rhodes’ 1996 article “The new governance – governing without government.
Rhodes is the British political scientist who first noticed that western government were being “hollowed out” – although privatisation in some ways has replaced what were previously state functions with new regulatory ones. But for the “policy networks” of this new political science  literature, we might read also “lobbying” and commercial penetration of the state..   

That was also when another article appeared which isn’t referenced in Ferguson’s copious notes but which helps place the idea of networks in a far more insightful context than Ferguson’s book – namely Tribes, institutions, markets, networks – a framework for societal evolution by David Ronfeldt (RAND Corporation 1996). It's an important article which argues that each form is necessary – one does not replace the other….With a great table of which I have selected some excerpts -

Comparison of the 4 models

Key realm
Civil society
Essential feature
Give sense of identity
Exercise authority
Allow free transactions
Share knowledge
Key Value
Key risk
Group think
Group empowerment

All this reminds me of some other typologies - 
In the early 20th Century, Max Weber had considered that the fundamental question of our time was why people were prepared to obey those with power and suggested that we granted legitimacy to those endowed with “traditional”, “charismatic” or “rational-legal” authority.

Etzioni (1975) also identifies three types of organizational power: coercive, utilitarian, and normative, and relates these to three types of involvement: alienative, calculative, and moral

Charles Handy and Roger Harrison had a 4 part typology – but as it focused only on different types of managerial system (or cultures) it will not detain us here.

Anthropologist Mary Douglas developed what she called the “grid-group” typology, consisting of four very different “world views” – what she calls hierarchist, egalitarian, individualist and fatalist. This came to be known as “Cultural Theory”
I came across Mary Douglas’ theory only in 2000, thanks to public admin theorist Chris Hood’s “The Art of the State” which uses her typology brilliantly to help us understand the strengths, weaknesses and risks of the various world views. I was delighted just now to find his book now fully accessible on the internet – just click the title and then click the appropriate button again. 
I am aware of only one book-length study which compares and contrasts these various models “Way of life theory– the underlying structure of world views, social relations and lifestyles – a rather disjointed dissertation by one, Michael Edward Pepperday (2009) which I was able to download a year or so ago but whose introduction is here.

I can't quite explain the fascination this sort of analysis has for me....It clearly has something to do with needing to tie things up in neat packages.....
Those wanting to know more can read this post which might encourage them to have a look at this short article “A Cultural Theory of Politics” which shows how the approach has affected a range of disciplines.
Grid, group and grade – challenges in operationalising cultural theory for cross-national research (2014) is a longer and, be warned, very academic article although its comparative diagrams are instructive

Thursday, November 28, 2019

Clive James RIP

For the past decade we have known that Clive James was living on borrowed time…his life since then has been one long tribute to the books he had read - in so many languages...

He first made an impact on me in the 1970s – with the poetic lyrics he wrote to Pete Atkin’s lovely melodies.
But his real fame came with his journalism, his television commentaries and his hilarious multi-volume memoirs.

He was Erasmus, Rabelais, Proust and Dorothy Parker rolled all together - an epigrammist supreme...

Only an outsider could write sentences like his - you could almost feel the intelligence subjecting every half-drafted sentence to intense scrutiny to see how it could be crafted better, with a twist to make the reader explode...

Saturday, November 23, 2019

My role in the Networking of society

Niall Ferguson is not normally an author whose imperialist histories would interest me but I hadn’t heard of his latest (?) title The Square and the Tower – networks and power from the Freemasons to Facebook (2018) and was intrigued to find out what a historian had to say about networks – particularly when its intro brought back memories of my own involvement in the early days of the “networked society”.

“The Square and the Tower” claims to present “a new historical narrative, in which major changes—dating back to the Age of Discovery and the Reformation, if not earlier—can be understood, in essence, as disruptive challenges to established hierarchies by networks.”
Social networks “have always been much more important in history than most historians, fixated as they have been on hierarchical organizations such as states, have allowed,” and never more so than in modern times.

The first “networked era” followed the introduction of the printing press in Europe in the late fifteenth century.

The intervening period, from the late 1790s until the late 1960s, saw the opposite trend: hierarchical institutions re-established their control and successfully shut down or co-opted networks. The zenith of hierarchically organized power was in fact the mid-twentieth century—the era of totalitarian regimes and total wars.

And, we might add, of large corporations such as General Motors…
The second such era—our own—dates, according to Ferguson, from the 1970s, and the pace of change has accelerated along with new communication technologies. A review in the New York Review of Books tells us that -

Niall Ferguson believes that until recently networks have been neglected by historians, who prefer to study institutions that leave well-preserved and accessible archives. He confesses that he has only recently come to appreciate that his own books “were also books about
For many years the British-born financial historian, chronicler of the Rothschild banks, television broadcaster, and prolific journalist had been “casual” in the way he thought about networks. When writing about the career of Sigmund Warburg, he had in his mind’s eye “a vague diagram that connected Warburg to other members of the German-Jewish business elite through various ties of kinship, business and ‘elective affinity.’”

Yet it did not occur to Ferguson to “think in a rigorous way about that network.” He had yet to adopt “formal network analysis.” This book, he writes, “is an attempt to atone for those sins of omission.”

Alvin Toffler’s Future Shock was amazingly prescient in 1970 about what the winds of technical change were about to bring; and Marilyn Ferguson’s The Aquarian Conspiracy (1981) confirmed this. Both books repay close study…..

I had become a community activist in the late 1960s - inspired by Saul Alinsky’s Reveille for Radicals which was, astonishingly, written in 1946 but became a bible for activists during the American War on Poverty of the 1960s.
My elevation in 1971 to the chair of a new social work agency which had been given an important preventive role by the Labour government of 1964-70 gave me a profile at a Scottish level – to which I owed my selection in 1974 to one of the top positions in the new Strathclyde Region covering half of Scotland’s 5 million people.  The “Born to Fail?” report exposing the scale of poverty in the West of Scotland had appeared the previous year - and a few of us managed to make this issue the central strategic one for the massive new Region.

The research project I referred to earlier was managed by a branch of the famous Tavistock Institute (one which, perhaps curiously, deal with operational research) and very much focused on the negotiations which took place as the Region initiated rounds of discussion not only with its own departments such as Police, Education and Social Work but the housing authorities, health boards and even universities and teacher training bodies – in an effort to try to gain support for a new social justice strategy which brought citizen activists together with officials and politicians (and local budgets) to determine a better future .
I’ve described this work in Case Study in Organisational Development and Political Amnesia – and am pleased to say that the Scottish government continues this work to this day…..

Networks have primarily been of interest to sociologists – with sociometrics mapping the influence of key individuals in systems and Manuel Castells being the guru of the subject with his writing about “the network society”. But economists such as Paul Ormerod have also been active – with his Positive Linking – how networks are revolutionising your world (2011)
Although the management of change became very popular in the 1980s and 1990s – as you can see from this Annotated Bibliography for change agents I did on the subject - it was 2000 before a little book The Tipping Point by journalist Malcolm Gladwell made everyone fully appreciate the significance of networks and the different roles played in the diffusion of fashionable products or ideas….You can read the book in full here

In the next post, I’ll have a look at how other intellectual disciplines such as political science have tried to deal with the idea of networks

Sunday, November 17, 2019

More surveillance - less capitalism

Shoshana Zuboff is a highly respected academic who has been investigating the effects of information technology on the worlds of work and, latterly, of our social being for at least 30 years – from a sociological/ethnographic perspective.
Her first book In the Age of the Smart Machine – the future of work and power (1988) made such an impact on me that I can actually remember where I read it (in my Glasgow office) all of 30 years ago.
The future of work had become an  issue of deep concern since Charles Handy’s book of that title, published in 1984 -  the year which gave many the opportunity to reflect on how  Orwell’s “1984” had panned out, compared, for example, with Huxley’s Brave New World - although it was the following year before the phrase “the surveillance society” was coined. And almost a decade later before we saw a proper study -  The Electronic Society – the rise of surveillance society; David Lyon (1994)

Zuboff’s next book was published in 2002, written with her husband J Maxmin (a progressive CEO of an engineering company) and carried the title The Support Economy – why corporations are failing individuals and the next version of capitalism (2002) whose purpose she explains here

So her new, large, sprawling and highly-acclaimed book The Age of Surveillance Capitalism – the fight for a human future at the new frontier of power completes a trilogy of books on this subject. She may not have invented the phrase “surveillance capitalism” (John Bellamy Foster had an important article with that title in July 2014) – but she has, in recent years, become one of the key “go-to” academics for journalists wanting to understand the sort of world being created by companies such as Google, Facebook and Amazon.

And the picture she paints is a pretty devastating one – all the more powerful because her patient note-taking exposes the business practices of companies which are highly secretive. Zuboff outlines, for example, six astonishing principles which Google famously let slip on one occasion to justify its strategy.

·       “We claim human experience as raw material free for the taking. On the basis of this claim, we can ignore considerations of individuals’ rights, interests, awareness, or comprehension.
·       On the basis of our claim, we assert the right to take an individual’s experience for translation into behavioural data.
·       Our right to take, based on our claim of free raw material, confers the right to own the behavioural data derived from human experience.
·       Our rights to take and to own confer the right to know what the data disclose.
·       Our rights to take, to own, and to know confer the right to decide how we use our knowledge.
·       Our rights to take, to own, to know, and to decide confer our rights to the conditions that preserve our rights to take, to own, to know, and to decide”

I’ve said enough, I think, to indicate that I have a very high respect for this academic who has devoted 30 years of her life to a painstaking analysis of the nature and effects of the new technologies.
But be warned that this latest book of hers suffers from several large flaws –
-       It is extraordinarily badly-written
-       It completely lacks a framework to warrant the claim in the title to be about “capitalism”

It’s never easy to prove bad writing but readers are helped when they can clearly see the subject and object of a sentence ie who does what to whom. Writing is bad when sentences are cluttered by long qualifying diversions; adjectives piled on one another; and unusual words introduced. Zuboff is guilty of all three.   
Her 525 pages of actual text could have been easily reduced in half with judicious editing – of the sort which Steven Pinker suggests in The Sense of Style – a thinking person’s guide to writing in the 21st century which I explored in this 2014 post

Even more serious is the charge made by this political economics blogger that the book lacks proper scholarship. The post refers to the book’s longest (at 22 pages) review – by enfant terrible Efgeny Morozov but concentrates its argument on an exposition of why scholarship is important -

Academic writing works on a formula. There are a certain number of things you have to do in order to prove that your work is legitimate and worthy of attention.
- You have to show how you connect with the larger, ongoing conversation in your area of interest.
- You have to present your evidence carefully.
- You have to show the framework you used to conduct your analysis.

Missing these steps is a signal that there are very likely problems with the work in question, but the steps are also important in their own right: they’re necessary in order to construct a sound argument, and not just a lawyer’s brief.
“The Age of Surveillance Capitalism” has problems on all three accounts. Taken together, they help to explain, or maybe contextualize, the blind spots that Morozov noted in his essay.

The post is worth reading in detail since it suggests that Zuboff’s book commits four serious sins against good scholarship –
-       Exaggerated claims to novelty
-       Absence of relevant literature references - particularly on "capitalism"!! A failing on which readers know I'm a bit of a pedant
-       Unclear framework
-       hyperbole

Certainly the 130 pages of detailed bibliographical references Zuboff offers simply alienates the average reader. What the book is crying out for is a short, annotated literature review…

Reviews of the Book (including interviews)
https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2019/jan/20/shoshana-zuboff-age-of-surveillance-capitalism-google-facebook; the Guardian’s IT correspondent explains the significance of the book and asks the author 10 questions
https://newleftreview.org/issues/II121/articles/rob-lucas-the-surveillance-business - a clear 10 page review (apart from the last couple of pages) which usefully shows how Zuboff’s perception of capitalism has dramatically changed over the past 30 years
https://www.nybooks.com/articles/2020/04/09/bigger-brother-surveillance-capitalism/ which makes my point about the book’s appalling style and jargon but forgives it for the emphasis it gives to power
https://bryanalexander.org/tag/zuboff/ book club assessment of most chapters
https://twit.tv/shows/triangulation/episodes/380 – hour long interview with editor of IT journal which allows Zuboff to explain the book
https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/epdf/10.1111/jacc.13051; helpful 10 pages summary of the key arguments presented in the book. Probably the most thorough and readable review – if a bit uncritical
https://ojs.library.queensu.ca/index.php/surveillance-and-society/article/view/13238/8503; great interview with the people from the Canadian Surveillance Centre people which helps us understand why Zuboff crafted the book the way she did.
https://ojs.library.queensu.ca/index.php/surveillance-and-society/article/view/13126/8502; a short critical review of the book which considers it adds little to what we already knew. Bit too academic and envious….
http://mediatheoryjournal.org/review-shoshana-zuboffs-the-age-of-surveillance-capitalism-by-william-morgan/; an academic communications journal offers a typically tortuously-written assessment which makes little sense
https://thebaffler.com/latest/capitalisms-new-clothes-morozov; the field’s enfant terrible puts the book in context and explores its gaps (20 pages)
https://lareviewofbooks.org/article/thieves-of-experience-how-google-and-facebook-corrupted-capitalism/; a very clear and jargon-free analysis (which also notes the stylistic infelicities) from one of the field’s specialists
http://www.michaeljkramer.net/fall-2016-course-the-computerized-society/; useful to see the list of recommended reading for a course on the “US digitised culture”
https://thoughtmaybe.com/topic/surveillance/; a documentary site shares its videos on the surveillance theme.
https://prospect.org/power/how-neoliberal-policy-shaped-internet-surveillance-monopoly/ good overview of key issues