Hey! Teacher! Leave Them Kids Alone!

The Case Against Education

Bryan Caplan claims that most of the public and individual spending on education is wasted. I mostly agree with him. And I say this as someone with undergraduate and postgraduate degrees that teaches at a university as a hobby.

Much of the book is taken up with the technical justification of Caplan’s claim that the bulk of the value from college degrees accrues to the individuals taking them rather than society and that this value is not in the form of actual skills development but rather signaling. Signaling means that possession of a degree signals to employers that you are smart, conscientious, and conformist (characteristics that employers prize). So employers hire people with degrees and therefore those that seek jobs need to get degrees. Those degrees may well be a waste of time and money for the students but nevertheless, they need them.

This seems obvious to me. Where the dialogue gets tougher is in the policy recommendations that follow.

Let me tackle those policy recommendations with some commentary:

  • An emphasis on vocational education. I think vocational education is great. The masters degree that I teach on is vocational (and if I had the power, it would be even more so) – as is my own masters degree. I also think that the pipeline that spits school students into universities is unhelpful. I think everyone should work prior to doing a degree (I did not and regret it).
  • The flipside of this is fewer people should be funneled into the world of degrees. This I also agree with. This does not mean that all universities should be shuttered – rather that they should change the mix of what they teach.
  • Employers need to get over the degree criteria and focus on other things. I have never hired anyone based on their academic transcript – but then I have never worked in graduate recruitment.
  • Keeping teenagers in school who have no desire to be there seems to counterproductive. Now I hated school – but I loved the lessons. Many did not. Frankly they would be better off getting a job with the option of returning the education system as and when they chose.

So far, so boring. Where do I disagree with Caplan?

He sees some value in primary education but believes that it should be completely privatized. Now I see a great deal of value in primary education. If the bulk of the money spent on tertiary education was switched to 4-11 year olds, I would have no problem with that. However I remain skeptical about handing it over unreservedly into the hands of the private sector. Evidence from within the charter school system within the US indicates that this only works with strong regulatory oversight. Caplan seems as naive about private charity as he is cynical about public government. Food and beverage companies have been very keen to fund education – provided their products are heavily promoted. Australia’s own experience of pumping public money (and student debt) into a poorly regulated vocational education sector is an example of worst practice.

I also think that Caplan’s curt dismissal of the apprenticeship model (yes it’s good but it is hard to do well) seems overly fatalistic. It can be done. Lots of things in the education world are hard to do. I agree with Caplan that changing people on a fundamental level is hard. But while changing institutions is not easy, it is something that we know we can do.

An aside: Unlike Caplan, I think history is important (and based on a misleading comment of his about the 19th century British education system on p. 217, he’d want to take history more seriously). History is less about memorizing particular facts and more about forming a group identity. The “History Wars” in Australia were, and are, real. The continuing battle over what is in and out of the history curriculum is about more than ideological games – it matters.

There are two further political implications of Caplan’s position that he briefly touches on.

The first is that Western society is increasingly stratified by educational experience. This cuts across traditional left-right divides and we face not simply different political interests but different values and methods of expression.

The second is that the most proffered answer to the social disruptions of technological change is “education”. If education is the answer then we are ill-equipped to offer it in useful and usable forms. If it is not then we had better come up with something else (and UBI will probably be insufficient).

[UPDATE: Caplan is keen on STEM. Some of the research on automation (see here and here) indicates that many of the jobs of the future will be in domains that are hard to automate. Typically these involve interaction with humans – which are often outside the STEM domain]

In short, I think that Caplan is not cynical enough nor do I share his libertarian fatalism (which is a wonderful luxury for the successful). But we are due a change.


Realin’ In The Years

“Far from being an aberrant expression  of some political extreme or a product of gross misinformation, a conspiratorial view of politics is a widespread tendency across the entire ideological spectrum.”
“I take my desires for reality because I believe in the reality of my desires.” 

The Wachowskis have ruined paranoia for me. Although blaming them seems a little unfair. It’s all the idiots who watched their breakthrough movie that really bear the brunt of my displeasure. Thanks to the Blue Pill / Red Pill speech in the Matrix, any discussion of reality and its true nature have been rendered quotidian, even farcical. Any sense of epistemological vertigo has been earthed. On Reddit, the “Red Pill” means hating women – which not only abhorrent but also tediously unimaginative. Clive Palmer has started using Red Pill memes. And when Clive Palmer starts doing something (mining nickel, forming a political party), you know it’s over.

All this is a shame because paranoia is so hip right now.

Mark Pesce discusses the last days of reality in a Meanjin article and a Future Tense interview. For Pesce, as a result of Facebook’s algorithm-driven surveillance capitalism and the growing spread of augmented reality technologies, “we lose our moorings and become entirely post-real”. We become prey to ideological predators such as Cambridge Analytica. States form a pact with Facebook to give it free reign over our personal data while they get to stay in power forever. Feelies with a nice UX. Newspeak with Friends. To counter this, Pesce commends Tim Berners-Lee’s Solid as an initiative that will allow consumers / citizens / data producers / dumb fucks (delete as applicable) control over their own data and thus identity.

Now I share some of Pesce’s concerns but I wish to challenge him on three points: the past, the present, and the future.


The first point to make is that reality has always been soft around the edges. At some base level, human beings are creatures of fantasy. Yes our bodies root us in the world but we don’t experience it unmediated. Our reality is already augmented by the myths, dreams and delusions that enable us to get through the day. We are not passive recipients of sense data but rather active beings who impose our prejudices on the world.

Which is not to say that we are insane. We know are our immediate environments very well. But most of us have to take on trust everything else that happens in the world. This is why those who seek power have sought to control the flow of information – by banning books and printing, restricting travel or more subtly by monopolizing mass media channels. Certain institutions have been very effective over the centuries at controlling the flows of social information. The Catholic Church did not require machine learning and neuromarketing to control the hopes and dreams of millions of people – and make their flocks love the priests for doing so.

The Catholic Church is a prime example of a truth about our knowledge of the world, our connection to reality – it is social and communal. Our knowledge of world is co-created with others. It recreated through our collective action. We go mad when we go inside our own heads alone. Whereas the Facebook model of influence is both social and isolating. Facebook’s rhetoric is all about community but its advertising model is hyper-targeted niche marketing focused on the individual. The defining unit of Facebook is the individual account – which may be a member of multiple groups. It doesn’t sell to communities, it sells to individuals. The American Dream of 1-to-1 Marketing. With its bifurcating obsession with individual identity and group belonging, Facebook is a very American company (a nation whom Fukuyama labelled “Rugged Conformists”).

With all the bright, shiny apps, we risk losing sight of more traditional means of control. Old style mass media still matter. Putin in Russia and Orban in Hungary have put significant effort into controlling the mainstream media in those states. The first move of ZDF forces in the November 2017 Zimbabwe coup was to seize control of the Zimbabwe Broadcasting Corporation. People still watch a lot of TV. While everyone is losing their mind about Cambridge Analytica, fewer comment that Donald Trump built his reputation from 14 years of playing a business tycoon on reality TV and then heavy coverage from Fox.


Pesce references Orwell and Huxley as dystopian visionaries. However the 20th century provides another dystopian model through with to understand our predicament. Huxley’s is a world of control through technocracy and hedonism (a world where Travis Kalanick would feel comfortable partying). Orwell offers the 2 minute hate and the dull tang of Victory gin. But our world is a broken one. We spend hours on hold in call centre phone queues. We deal with labyrinthine tech company T&Cs and bank PDS documents. We are passed around functionaries who only know that they cannot help us – as much as they might personally want to. It is a world of petty prejudices rather than totalitarian. Our world is that of Franz Kafka.

In a Kafka-esque world, Cambridge Analytica’s much-vaunted algorithm… isn’t very good. The first mass market attempt at augmented reality – Google Glass – was a dismal failure. For all the hype around Magic Leap, it has yet to magically leap anywhere. Gartner flagged up virtual reality has a technology just sliding down from its peak of inflated expectations – in 1995. Facebook’s sky-high stockmarket valuation may not be justified by its actual business potential. Neuromarketing is fMRI theatre.

I do not want to play the role of curmudgeon for too long. Technology does change who we are, how we relate to the world, how we relate to each other. It does offer new opportunities for both freedom and control. The machine learning algorithms that Pesce describes are having a negative impact – but that seems to be because they are too like us. They black box our bigotry and narrow-mindedness. They are Kafka’s bureaucrats, not Big Brother. I am aware that the narrative of World Facebook Domination probably appeared on slide 3 of their VC funding deck circa 2006 and I do not wish to be pulled into that narrative uncritically.


The solution that Pesce pins his hopes on is a technical one. I have my doubts about Solid. Tim Berners-Lee is the father of the World Wide Web and he has been sorely disappointed in his child since its birth. He has scolded it for its lack of structure – creating The Semantic Web to fix this. Despite some traction, The Semantic Web largely remains a set of standards rather than a core element of web infrastructure.

But more than the Semantic Web, Solid reminds me of Doc “Cluetrain” Searls Vendor Relationship Management (VRM) movement, based just across the way from MIT in Harvard. The goal of VRM (as opposed to CRM  / Customer Relationship Management) was to put the control of individuals’ data into their own hands. It has not had a significant impact. People just aren’t that interested in controlling their data. Personally, I think that absent a real disaster or significant money-making opportunity for someone, this is not going to happen. The EU’s GDPR regime is a welcome update of its data protection legislation but it certainly does not rein in Facebook and its data empire ambitions.

So where do I see a way forward? Well, I want to go back to danah boyd’s recent SXSW talk. As I have stated, I believe that the solution that boyd points to is not primarily technical but political. Our knowledge of world is communal. If we wish to hold onto reality, then we will do it together rather than apart. And the challenges to this are beyond technical. Divisions in the US are more physical than virtual. A viable future is one where we keep each other sane.

“The things that pass for knowledge
I can’t understand”

The End

We have always been a bit shaky at distinguishing reality from fiction – and that’s a feature not a bug. “Making the world a better place” and “global domination” are just flipsides of the same techno-supremacist story that currently circulates elite conversations. Authoritarianism is a real thing but it relies more on older mass media as newer social platforms. The way forward will probably happen more off- than on-line. The revolution will not be Liked.

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Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past. The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living.

I’ve spent the last 10 months making a series of notes, arguments and rants about politics. I feel like I’m done with that now. It’s not that I’ve solved the world’s problems nor have I fully mapped out everything about our predicament. There will be future posts – books reviews and analysis. But for now I am spent. I feel the satisfaction of a man who has completed a particularly rigorous bowel movement.

I am conscious that my posts can be read as fatalistic. I tend to focus on economic and social forces that act over decades as a contrast to the surface noise of personality politics. I mostly end with an injunction somewhere between Cassandra and Private Frazer. So it’s worth saying that I don’t think we are helpless. These social and economic trends consist of a myriad of individual choices and actions by people. We make our own worlds through action or inaction. This is not absolute. We have limited power over others. We have less power over ourselves than we proclaim.


Interesting times offer opportunities. the unthinkable becomes commonplace. The Overton Window fractures into a swarm of glass and steel shards. Never let a good crisis go to waste. I see a fecund vision of future fuck-ups some of which might actually work. Some of these will be big. And some will be small.

Some things I think are worth paying attention to:

  • The Parkland students in the US may or not change gun laws in the US but I am immensely heartened by their actions.
  • The work of the Open Australia Foundation.
  • The #MeToo movement.

I’m more interested in experiments now. And these experiments will be local – because all politics is local. I may blog about them.

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There are three ancient Chinese curses.

  1. May you live in interesting times.
  2. May you be recognized by people in high places.
  3. May you get what you wish for.

Of course, these are not ancient. Or Chinese. But they are curses. And it seems that the curses have been cast. We do live in interesting times. That’s what this blog is mostly about. Why we live in times of political turmoil. Why our democracies are increasingly unstable. Why the solutions proffered by experts seem hopelessly inadequate. In understanding the reasons for our interesting times, it is worth contemplating the other two – esp. the third.

Most of human history has been brutal. Subsistence agriculture with its risks of famine and disease. Predation from other species – and your own. Skirmishes. Wars. Battles. Warlords and the extraction of wealth from those weaker or less fortunate than themselves. People dreamed of peace. Dreamed of food and fat bellies. For life to be pleasant. To be nice. To be boring. There were consolations. Those of religious belief. The protection of fellow believers. Religions offer a complex mix of gifts but the offer of a supernatural guardian above vouchsafed by communal protection in the here and now should not be underrated.

And then human beings invented machines and flocked to the cities that housed these machines. Living standards plummeted even further in harsh, exploitative environments. New forms of communal identity emerged. Labour unions offered workers protection from those who would use them. The 19th and early 20th centuries culminated in a global economic depression and two Industrial Wars in the US, European and their colonies. Millions of dead. And then, unexpectedly, all our wishes were granted.


In 1947, US real GDP per capita was $13,513. By 2017, it had quadrupled to $52,879. The USA in 1947 roughly equates to Serbia or Algeria or China today. Ordinary inhabitants of Western nations are wealthy beyond the dreams of our ancestors. We have running water and electricity and sanitation and ovens and TV and iPhones. Mass industrial employment after World War 2 offered lots of jobs. Economies grew through increased productivity, increased labour force participation as women joined the workforce and populations boomed. The welfare states established in many nations offered a better distribution of wealth than ever before. Let the good times roll.

The old institutions came into the new world. The mainstream political parties in the newly rebuilt Western Europe were linked to either the Churches (Christian democrats) or the Labour Unions (social democrats and communists). The membership of these parties was still a mass phenomenon with millions of members – an engagement that mostly peaked in the 1950s.

While economic growth continued, the collective institutions that had offered protection for decades and centuries did not. Participation in organized religion in the Western world declined from the 60s onward. This is sometimes positioned as Religion losing the Battle of Ideas to Science. This strikes me as unconvincing. Yes, literacy and education continued grow – esp. in the domain of higher education. But the decline of religion has not led to a rationalist mass movement. While 20-30% of Australians do not identify with a religion, the number of Australians who actively participate in organized religion on a regular basis is nearer 20%. Most the population live in the “Valley of Meh” – religion is at best a source of culture identity or entertainment. However, the number of self-identified atheists is very small – much less than 1%. Those living in the Valley of Meh have filled their lives with all sorts of beliefs but they see no value in committing to organized religion. The welfare state can offer the same protections as religious charities. As for the afterlife, there are many sources of consolation – and some of us now live long enough to see death as a welcome release rather than an unwanted interruption. We have no need of visions of paradise. It is notable to me that the Western country where religion has stood strongest is also the country with an unusually dysfunctional and fragmented welfare state (Although I think the relationship between religion and social order in the US is more complex than uni-directional causal and effect). As much as some might decry this state of affairs, if we needed the Churches then we would have them.

Meanwhile, union participation decreased. Now to some extent this is the result of anti-union policies deployed by conservative governments in the 1980s. The unions were already in decline. At their cores were men working in factories. The machines that had promoted the creation of factories in the first place continued to automate that work. Some of that work was outsourced overseas (but not as much as some people think). And the service sectors of Western economies expanded massively. Above all, the unions had won. Working people had a decent wages and social benefits. Now there are still very successful unions out there, but they are for middle class people and prefer to be called “professional associations”. As much as some might decry this state of affairs, if we needed the Unions then we would have them.

Political parties lie at the heart of representative democracy. Their influence runs in two directions. Firstly, they are conduits for popular desires and concerns into the structure of government. But they can also communicate the decisions and actions of government back to their members. They hold the political system together. However, they too are in decline. Their memberships have fallen 100-fold, from millions to tens of thousands. They have become associations for yet another profession – in this case, politicians. You can go from a degree in politics or law to a role as a researcher or a staffer to that of elected member without ever needing to work outside the political system. As with any insular coterie, they are bitchy and self-obsessed (along with the journalists who cover them and the lobbyists who try to influence them – each group validating the other). But despite the constant complaints, the system seems to kinda sorta work. Life goes on. Most of us make a dollar. As much as some might decry this state of affairs, if we needed engaged Political Parties then we would have them.

Breaking Point

We appear to have the same institutions that we had back in 1945 but we they are nothing like the churches and unions and political parties that we had. They are far smaller and far more withered. Those who manage them must shoulder some of the blame for this. They have often been selfish and short-sighted. But we must also acknowledge our role – or rather, our lack of one. Our apathy and complacency has led to this. But does any of this matter? Let the good times roll?

Provided our society was under no stresses then this mismanagement and complacency would be irrelevant. However, there are divisions opening up in our society that we can only solve with politics. And if our democratic systems are busted then we might have to solve them in more unrepresentative or even violent ways. The forces that will tear our corroded systems apart vary from society to society but the big four are:

  1. Inequality in Western societies dropped between World War 2 and the early 1970s. Then it started to rise again. Recently it has taken the form of a concern about economic opportunity. Basically, do most citizens expect their lives to get better or not? Or do they fear that others will benefit at their expense?
  2. National Identity. We do not live in a period of unparalleled migration. The ethnic cleansing that occurred at the end of World War 2 was ferocious. Global, inter-state migration peaked in the late 1980s. But we do live in a period of where continued migration into Western countries is causing anxiety among some existing citizens. Demagogues would protect
  3. The Generation Gap. Thanks to the developments of medicine and the welfare state, Western citizens now live longer than ever. And the elderly have moved from being a poor element in society to holding a disproportionate level of wealth. Bigger and richer, they wish to shape society to their desires (which may include security and nostalgia for a simpler time that never really existed). Meanwhile the young face a society in which they have limited influence and resources.
  4. The Education Gap. Higher education in Western societies exploded after World War 2. Holding a degree went from being an elite marker to something perfectly normal. And while university graduates do not make up the majority in Western societies, they are significant minority that control power and resources. Their aspirations and values may be different to those who have followed other educational paths. While they cannot dominate elections, they have significant economic advantages and tend to skew younger due to the timeframe of higher education explosion.

Obviously these four forces are interlinked. Obviously, they emerge in politics in different ways. They don’t always align neatly to existing political party divides (one can be an ethnic nationalist and favour either private markets or public ownership). There are oncoming forces that I don’t list here – environmental and technological change being the two most important that are obviously missing. These will create political stresses but they do not (as yet) form coherent political identities.

The Uncast Curse

So, we got what we wished for. And we live in interesting times. What of the middle curse? This remains, frustratingly, uncast. Many people in high places are aware of some or all of the things that I have mentioned here. They are not stupid. But it does not feel as if they are paying attention. Yet. We are still going through the motions with the institutions. We are still pretending that our existing political structures can absorb these new sources of tension. We are still painting over the cracks caused by our shifting foundations.

Things will go on. Until they cannot.


Kitchens of Extinction

Digital Darwinism by Tom Goodwin

I agree with a lot that’s in this book. But I left feeling uneasy by the extent to which I agree with it so I want to strike a contrarian note – where I hopefully succeed in offending everyone.

First of all, what do I agree with:

  • The author decries the “innovation theatre” that occurs in large organizations – where an innovation lab is founded, post-it notes are stuck to walls and bugger all changes.
  • He argues for a human-centered approach to design.
  • He calls for large organizations to both take more risks and to be more long term in their thinking and doing.
  • He looks back historically at previous technology transitions (e.g. electricity) to identify parallels with current digital trends.

That’s a gross oversimplification but if you want more then just read the damn thing. It’s affordable, well-written and it doesn’t overstay its welcome.

So what is the source of my unease?

I see a lot of claims that we are living through a period of unprecedented change or that the rate of change will only increase from today onwards. And those claims are true. It certainly feels like everything is speeding up – with new technologies being introduced ever more rapidly.

At the same time, some things feel like they are slowing down. Cultural critics like Simon Reynolds and the late Mark Fisher talk about the sense of stasis and retromania characterizing music, film, and TV. New business creation in the US actually decreased after the 2008 recession for longer than expected. Productivity has been stagnant since the turn of the millennium. All that new technology has not had the impact of electricity. Goodwin is not alone in looking to electricity (Mcafee and Brynjolfsson do something similar in Machine Platform Crowd).

Change is all around us but it’s happening at multiple speeds. And things go forward. And in reverse. And stand still. It bears more resemblance to rain storm than a Hyperloop. Going back to theories of evolution, species may change slowly over a period of time (gradualism) or in sudden spurts with lengthy periods of nothing much (punctuated equilibrium).

While is psychologically healthy to focus on what you can control, most corporations operate within broader structures that limit their effective course of action. The biggest limit is the stock market. The tech behemoths have circumvented this with ownership structures that mean they are effectively privately-controlled companies with access to a stock market valuation that makes it easier to acquire and hire. But for companies not structured in this way, profitability and predictability are prized. This situation is probably stable for now. But eventually the context (economic, social, regulatory, technology) will change this and it will no longer be stable. The calm passes and the storm comes. The apex predator dies and a new ecosystem emerges. We live in the Shareholder Value Period (just as Tyrannosaurus Rex and Velociraptors lived in the Cretaceous Period). This period began on August 12 1981 (but its roots go back far further). Nothing lasts forever.

There are three main beefs I have the book.

Goodwin deploys his metaphors too shallowly. The book is called Digital Darwinism but the term “natural selection” does not appear in it. “Evolution” appears a grand total of 7 times. He uses the metaphor of a skyscraper and refers to shearing layers briefly but then moves quickly on. We never stop and think through what it means to view an industry as a species under selective pressure. Or how time can move at different velocities and accelerations over the same site. The metaphors feel like platinum class airport lounges – a stopgap between connecting flights of fancy. The electricity chapter shows that he is capable of doing this. Such a book would be stranger and probably sell less but it would be more interesting and distinctive.

Chapter 7 implores us to “celebrate failure”. I don’t have a problem with that exhortation (although we should always be seeking new failures rather than familiar ones). But the book only features failure sporadically. If you increase the risks you take then you increase the number of failures that you experience. It feels like it could do with a big dose of Phil Rosenzweig – the grumpy management anti-guru. What does it look like when a firm tries to reinvent itself and it fails? And what can the rest of us learn from that?

The cliché is “write what you know”. If you spend your life at conferences and on planes, there is a risk that you turn into Thomas L Friedman. That’s fine if you are writing for those who live a similar lifestyle but it does not resonate with those who don’t.

Anyway. Things don’t change. Until they do. Stay alert.

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Gormenghast on Lake Burley Griffin

“How did you go bankrupt?”
“Two ways. Gradually, then suddenly.”

So the article by Lachlan Harris and Andrew Charlton in today’s SMH is heaps better than most of the political commentary that we normally get but it is still incomplete.

The things they get right:

  • The democratic breakdown is international.
  • There will be no return to politics as normal. This is not a temporary change.
  • The disconnection between electorates and the traditional major political parties is a key element of this dysfunction.
  • Collective activities as whole that used to support or intersect with political activity (e.g. unions, churches) are in decline.

What’s missing from their analysis?

There’s no mention of the economic and social changes of the past 40 years:

  • As a nation, we are so much richer than we were in the 1940s or even the 1970s. Most of us have experienced some of that wealth.
  • At the same time, inequality has been growing since the early 70s. We are not as bad as the US but wage growth has started to flatten out.
  • We are aging as a population and wealth increasingly sits with the older generation.
  • We are more diverse. Since the end of the white Australia policy, our origins are more visibly non-European.
  • We are ever more urbanized and sorted – moving to locations where we mix with those demographically, economically and ideologically similar to us (again to some extent and not as much as the US).

We are not the same nation that elected Menzies, Whitlam or Hawke. That is the reason that we cannot go back to those times. We are no longer the people who made those decisions. Out decisions therefore must be new ones.

The article doesn’t talk about anxiety. For all its faults, Yascha Mounk’s recent book on a similar topic is right to focus on the appeal of populists to those worried about their economic well-being or their national identity. David Marr’s article on Pauline Hanson highlighted that her supporters have a profoundly pessimistic view of the future. Scared people do crazy things.

Like many articles about our political malaise, the recommendations are underwhelming.

“Major political parties will also need to adapt their structures. Over the last quarter century, they have allowed their membership to dwindle and their organisational wings to succumb to hyper-centralised control, opaque preselections, divvying out of political favours and dubious donations. In an increasingly ideological world, major parties can’t rely on compulsory voting to bring out their supporters. They will need to re-build their structures in ways that build respect, trust, authenticity, conviction and participation”

Too easy! If only someone had thought of that before. I suspect that political parties can’t just do some procedural spring cleaning and have a few outreach sessions at village fetes and surburban festivals. Their logics of operation are too engrained. The apathy of the general public is too far gone. They will only be reborn through a catastrophe, through trial by ordeal. Or they will be replaced by something different. Something that may be better, worse or both.

“Whoever they vote for, people will also have to adjust the way they assess and reward politicians if they want our national parliament to function more effectively. Rather than reward absolutism, voters will need to reward politicians, and political parties, who can cooperate and achieve agreement across political battle lines.”

Why would they do that? Because two gentlemen writing an article in broadsheet tell them to?

Why are the solutions to our current political predicament proffered so desultory? It is because no one really knows what to do. And that’s OK because there is unlikely to be one simple solution. This is a Super Wicked Problem. This is a complex problem that requires new ideas and new ways of doing things. Most of those new ideas will fail. That’s also OK. That’s what happens. But some will work. And the future will not look like the past.


Facebook – Signal / Noise

Cyberspace Anarchitecture as Jungle-War is the typically awesome title of a typically incomprehensible Nick Land article. It lurches out of my id as I contemplate the current Facebook* fiasco. Not so much a watershed as a tsunami, the aftermath of the 2016 US election exposed efforts by multiple US and non-US actors to influence the election. This should come as no surprise. Influencing elections is what groups try to do. That’s part of democracy. However the 2016 election was decided by a very small number of votes. The narrowness of victory means that the losing side feels that every action mattered. Rural whites abandoned by the Democrats. Hilary Clinton’s emails. FBI intransigence. The list goes on and on and on and… I’m sorry, were you saying something to me?

Anyway, it became increasingly clear that Russia attempted to influence the US election through social media targeting  – specifically buying ads on Facebook. There is a wonderfully detailed article was published in Wired about this in February. But that wasn’t the trigger for the outrage we have been experiencing. That was a series of exposes written about Cambridge Analytica and Facebook data that they obtained from academics to “psychographically” profile users and then target ads at them during both the UK Brexit referendum and the 2016 US election.

This is sometimes written up as though Cambridge Analytica have data superpowers that won these democratic contests for their clients. That’s certainly what they would like their potential customers to think – as do most firms with the phrases “big data”, “machine learning”, or “artificial intelligence” in their pitch decks. But they probably didn’t – the model doesn’t actually work very well. However the Cambridge Analytica scandal has both highlighted and obscured a number of things.

It has highlighted that the Tech Behemoths hold a lot of data about you and they are not always careful with it**. Some of us have been aware of this for years. The message we were told was:

“Consumers will happily give up their data and privacy in exchange for a free service. Advertisers will pay for that data for advertising. Consumers get a free service AND better advertising. We make truckloads of money. Everyone is a winner!”

The mindset of Silicon Valley firms is that data is the new oil. The more oil you have the better. You want to be Saudi Arabia (more oil) not Basingstoke (less oil) – right? Now there’s a thing in economics called the “resource curse” that they might want to think about but for now, lets state that tech firms collect and hoard as much data as they can. Facebook is not alone here – this mass data harvesting is a norm (indeed a core value) for the Tech Behemoths. So why Facebook?

Well, one issue is that traditional media companies hate Facebook. Apple has given us new devices. Amazon has sold stuff in new ways. No one really cares about Twitter any more. Google comes close to Facebook in its co-domination of the online advertising market that has subverted the business traditional media companies. But Facebook’s combination of walled garden and continual changing of the game pisses off traditional media businesses like nothing else – that comes through in the Wired article.

It is easy to both overestimate and underestimate the power of Facebook. It dominates consumer entertainment / distraction to a huge degree but beyond that its ambitions are shallow. Google has a whole portfolio of projects (e.g. self-driving cars) based on its founders’ adolescent science fiction dreams. Facebook’s acquisitions have been focused on consumer communications. It is very profitable and its high market capitalization both indicates the future riches that investors expect it to deliver and also gives it power in acquisitions but it appears #393 on the 2017 Fortune Global 500 with a revenue of $27bn (sandwiched between Coop Group and Traveler Cos).

But it’s not just trad media sour grapes. Facebook does have a case to answer. It is now the world’s most powerful media company. It doesn’t want to be a media company – or at least it does not want to be regulated like one. But it is. And it should be. And this scandal may blow over and Facebook’s massive user base may go back to using it willy-nilly. Or they may not. And while the US government has shown itself to be unwilling to regulate these new markets, the EU has been far more activist. To say nothing of the Chinese (where the internet market is very different).

However all this noise has obscured other things. Just as the Facebook scandal was firing up, there was a smaller kerfuffle about a talk given by veteran internet researcher danah boyd @ SXSW 2018. You can:

Done that? OK. So part of the Cambridge Analytica narrative is that CA “stole” Brexit and the US presidency. That narrative is problematic because the real question is why such patently bad ideas as a Donald Trump presidency or a poorly thought through Brexit were popular enough to be viable in the first place***. If these things were “stolen” then they were left in plain sight with a massive sign saying “steal me” hanging over them, a bag on one side for the thief to carry them off in for maximum convenience, and a call placed at the local den of thieves advising them of this exciting opportunity.

danah’s point is a confronting one. Her talk is a bit of a mess. But I actually like that. I am watching someone trying to make sense of a messy, complex situation. If media literacy is simply telling people that Fox News is bad then it will fail. What danah is talking about here is politics. The messy politics of engaging with people that you disagree with. The need to rebuild community and connection with people with whom you can both disagree and get things done. What does it mean to create a community of understanding? Who knows. Even Facebook could be a part of this. But what she is talking about is not education or media literacy. Do not be mistaken. It is politics.

Meanwhile just under the smooth, frictionless UI surface of Facebook, we are still in the jungle, in the anarchitecture. We have met the enemy, Porkypine, and he is us.

*Takes, like revenge, are a dish best served cold.

**I combat this by lying a lot on social media. While I would like to pretend that I arrived at this through careful strategizing, it’s really just the fortuitous by-product of being a sociopath.

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