politics psychology systems

Collective intelligence in twitter discussions

The UCU strike has shown how effective twitter can be. University staff from around the country have shared support, information and analysis . There has been a palpable feeling of collective intelligence at work. When the first negotiated agreement was released (at 7.15 on a Monday evening) my impression was that most people didn’t know what to make of it. I didn’t know what to make of it. Pensions are complex, and the headline feature – retention of a Defined Benefit scheme seemed positive. Overnight on twitter sentiment coalesced around the hashtag #NoCapitulation and at 10am on the Tuesday union members around the country held branch meetings – all 64 of which resoundingly rejected the agreement. The subsequent – substantially improved – offer suggests that this was the right thing for union members to do, and the speed and unanimity with which they did it wouldn’t have been possible without the twitter discussion that happened over night.

So why, on this occasion, does twitter work as a platform for collective intelligence? Often enough twitter seems to be a platform which supports idiocy, narcissism and partisan bickering. The case of UCU strike twitter contrasts with other high volume / high urgency discussions, such as the aftermath of disasters, where twitter is as likely to be used to spread fake news and political point scoring as it is for useful information and insightful analysis.

Collective intelligence: what helps, what hurts

There is a literature on collective decision making, which highlights a few things which need to hold for a group discussion to be more productive than individuals just making up their own mind.

  • Arguments must be exchanged . First off, and a factor which should hearten committed rationalist everywhere, the exchange of arguments – not just information – seems to be key to productive groups (“studies that have manipulated the amount of interaction or that have examined the content of interactions have found that the exchange of arguments is critical for these improvements to occur”, Mercier, 2016 ).

  • Agreed purpose . Productive groups need to have a shared idea of what they are trying to achieve. If, for example, half of a group like solving problems and half like having arguments, their contributions to the discussion will, sooner or later, push in different directions ( van Veelen & Ufkes, 2017 , Sperber & Mercier, 2017 )

  • Diversity, in viewpoints . The literature on the effect of diversity on collective intelligence is mixed. Too much diversity between participants may hinder group discussions ( Wooley et al, 2015 ) and demographic diversity alone certainly isn’t sufficient for the wisdom of crowds to emerge ( de Oliveira & Nisbett, 2018 ). Instead enough ‘ view point diversity ‘ to produce a cognitive division of labour without impairing group cohesion. A corollary is that the more group cohesion you have the higher your opportunity to harness group diversity.

Bang & Frith’s fantastic 2017 review on group decision making also highlights some traps which successful group decision must avoid:

  • Herding Herding is excessive agreement. This can happen when group members lack independent information or suffer overly similar viewpoints. It can also be caused by group members having the desire to align to the group for its own sake, or if they believe that others have better knowledge. The result is the same: an information cascade where a popular viewpoint attracts adherents because it is popular, and so appears more correct because it is popular, and on in a vicious circle.

  • Group decision biases One of these, according to Bang & Frith, is ‘shared information bias’ which is a bias to discuss the things everyone knows about rather than share information or discuss aspects of the decision which aren’t yet common to the group

  • Competing sub-goals As well as lacking shared a shared purpose in discussion, group decision making can be derailed by status issues(think showing off, excessive pride preventing admission of error, etc), accountability issues (such as people avoiding unpopular opinions if they will be punished if that position turns out to be in error) and ‘social loafing’ (this is the textbook phenomenon whereby people try less hard in larger groups, effectively free-riding on others’ contributions)

The #USSstrike discussion on twitter

Before trying to apply the factors identified from the literature on collective intelligence / group decision making to the #USSstrike, let’s throw up a quick list factors which seem plausible candidates for why twitter was the site of a productive conversation this time. Once we have a list of candidates, we can see how they map to the features identified in the literature as necessary conditions for useful group decision making.

So, the #USSstrike twitter conversation may have been productive because:

  • twitter discussion built on top of existing networks (academics have local connections to colleagues at their own institutions, as well as disciplinary connections at other institutions across the country.)

  • twitter discussion built on top of IRL discussions on picket lines (lots of opportunity to chat on picket lines).

  • common interest (participants in the conversation are invested in understanding the issue, and want to same thing – a positive outcome to the dispute – even if they don’t agree on what that actually means).

  • niche interest (most of the population is not that interested in academic pensions, which means fewer trolls, troublemakers and idle speculators).

  • participants have training in critically evaluating sources (i.e. hopefully have good filters for unreliable information, recognise important facts)

  • participants have experience discussing substantive issues in public, daily using twitter -as it is at its best – as a platform for information synthesis and recommendation

Combining these lists we get some traction on why academic twitter was suddenly able to transform into a vehicle for productive collective intelligence on pensions (and maybe how we can help keep it that way).

In short, our three criteria for productive group decisions were met:

  • Arguments were exchanged: arguments are the daily tools of academics, of course we exchanged arguments, not just information

  • Our purpose was agreed: the nature of the dispute did that for us. Those in the discussion had a common purpose to understand an issue with high stakes . Not only do we face the same pension cuts, but the logic of collective bargaining and action puts us all on the same side

  • Diverse viewpoints were represented: maybe it is less clear this criteria was met, but perhaps we can thank the fact that academics from all disciplines have been discussing the dispute for at least some boost in the diversity of backgrounds and assumptions that participants bring t the discussion.

The three decision traps – herding, bias and competing sub-goals – are all warnings for the future. We seem to have avoided them for the moment. but there are plenty of individual behaviours which can encourage them. Most of us, with notable exceptions, are guilty of some social loafing. Blindly following others (leading to herding) seems a particular risk given that the logic of collective action is an important part of Union identity. I also note that bad manners, such as abusing people who make mistakes or adopt alternative viewpoints, as well as being bad manners, also works to effectively punish viewpoint diversity, with a corresponding decrement in our capacity for collective intelligence.

As a student of decision making the dispute has been exhilarating to take part in and I’ll watch with interest the next rounds (and the corresponding twitter discussion).

My quick primer on the UCU strike action is here .


Bang, D., & Frith, C. D. (2017). Making better decisions in groups . Royal Society Open Science, 4 (8), 170193.

Mercier, H. (2016). The argumentative theory: Predictions and empirical evidence . Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 20 (9), 689-700.

de Oliveira, S., & Nisbett, R. E. (2018). Demographically diverse crowds are typically not much wiser than homogeneous crowds . Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 115 (9), 2066-2071.

Woolley, A. W., Aggarwal, I., & Malone, T. W. (2015). Collective intelligence and group performance . Current Directions in Psychological Science, 24 (6), 420-424.


Facebook and democracy, reasons to be fearful

M said “facebook is ending democracy”. It’s a common fear. But how, exactly, could this be happening? Let’s try and breakdown the possibilities:

Because facebook somehow over-rides our free will? Engineer and former Facebook VP of user growth, Chamath Palihapitiya, says this (video, report), as do others, but it is not a coherent accusation.

Because facebook creates echo-chambers?. The evidence on this is ambiguous. One study found that people are more likely to connect with people with dissimilar views over facebook than offline.

Distraction? Social media as a cathartic substitute for political engagement? In Bowling Alone, Robert Putnam blames television and commuting for a large part of a loss of trust and participation in social organisations. Is Facebook displacing valuable social and political actions, rather than catalysing them?

Related, does social media’s excellence at bite-sized information mean that context, nuance and argument are now disadvantaged in a way they weren’t before?

Misinformation? Fake news, propaganda, weaponised hoaxes, the whole boatload of lies and half-truths. But surely this is not new. Something about the lack of transparency, and the ability to insert misinformation so it is transmitted along our social networks, the same kind of currency as news of their pets and holiday photos, adds a terrifying velocity to misinformation.

False consensus – creating the impression that something is universally viewed at true or important, when it isn’t. See also filter bubbles. Distinguished from echo chambers, but algorithmically curated blindness to counterpoints.

Erosion of common ground – loss of common knowledge and frames of reference. If we don’t know why other people believe what they believe, how can we start to engage them

Monopoly powers – facebook has 2 billion+ monthly users. That’s too much power for a single media entity to have without a truckload of regulatory oversight or democracy control.

Any evidence bearing on the factors I list? Any factors I missed? Comments are open!

intellectual self-deference politics psychology

Facebook’s persuasion architecture and human reason

Facebook is a specific, known, threat to democracy, not a general unknown threat to our capacity for rationality

Zeynep Tufekci has a TED talk ‘We’re building a dystopia just to make people click on ads’. In it she talks about the power of Facebook as a ‘persuasion architecture’ and she make several true, useful, points about why we should be worried about the influence of social media platforms, platforms which have as their raison-d’être the segmentation of audiences so they can be sold ads.

But there’s one thing I want to push back on. Tufeki’s argument draws some of its rhetorical power from a false model of how persuasion works. This is a model in which persuasion by technology or advertising somehow subverts normal rational processes, intervening on our free choice in some sinister way ‘without our permission’. I’m not saying she would explicitly endorse this model, but it seems latent in the way she describes Facebook, so I thought it worth bringing into the light, pausing just for a moment to look at what we really mean when we warn about persuasion by advertising.

Here’s Tufeki’s most worrying example: targeted Facebook ads aimed at mobilising, or demobilising voters, which are effective enough in changing voter turn out to swing an election. She reports an experiment which tested a fairly standard ‘social proof’ intervention, in which some people (the control group) saw a “get out and vote” message on Facebook, and others (the intervention group) saw the same message but with extra information about which of their friends had voted. People who saw this second message were likely to vote (0.4% more likely). Through the multiplier effect of the social networks they were embedded in, the researchers estimate that 340,000 extra people voted that otherwise wouldn’t have.

Now 340,000 votes is a lot, enough to swing an election, but it would be a mistake to think that these people were coerced or tricked into acting out of character by the advert. These were people who might have voted anyway, and the advert was a nudge.

Think of it like this. Imagine you offer someone an apple and they say yes. Did you trick them into desiring fruit? In what sense did you make them want an apple? If you offer apples to millions of people you may convert hundreds of thousands into apple-eaters, but you haven’t weaved any special magic. At one end, the people who really like apples will have one already. At the other, people who hate apples won’t ever say yes. For people who are in between something about your offer may speak to them and they’ll accept. A choice doesn’t have to originate entirely from within a person, completely without reference to the options presented to them, to be a reasonable, free, choice.

No model of human rationality is harmed by the offer of these apples.

Our choices are always codetermined by ourselves and our environment. Advertising is part of the environment, but it isn’t a privileged part — it doesn’t override our beliefs, habits or values. It affects them, but it no more so and in no different way than everything else which affects us. This is easy to see when it is offers of apples, but something about advertising obscures the issue.

Take the limit case — some political candidate figures out the perfect target audience for their message and converts 100% of that audience from non-voters into voters with a Facebook advert. Would we care? What would that advert — and those voters — look like? They would be people who might vote for the candidate anyway, and who could be persuaded to vote for someone else by all the normal methods of persuasion that we already admit into the marketplace of ideas / clubhouse of democracy. They wouldn’t vote for a candidate they didn’t sincerely believe in, and the advert wouldn’t mean that their vote couldn’t be changed at some later point, whether by another advert, by new information, by arguing with friend or whatever.
There are still plenty of reasons to worry about Facebook:

  • Misinformation —how it can embed and lend velocity to lies.
  • Lack of transparency — both in who is targeting, who is targeted and why.
  • Lack of common knowledge —consensus politics is hard if we don’t all live in the same informational worlds.

Tufeki covers these factors. My position is that it hasn’t been shown that there is anything special about Facebook as a ‘persuasion architecture’ beyond these. Yes, we should worry something with the size and influence of Facebook, but we already have frameworks for thinking about ‘persuasional harm’— falsehoods are not a legitimate basis for persuasion, for example, so we are particularly concerned to hunt down fake news; or, it is worrying when one interest group controls a particular media form, such as newspapers. Yes Facebook persuades, but it doesn’t do so in a way that is itself pernicious. Condemning it in general terms would be both misplaced, a harm to any coherent model of citizens as reasonable agents, and a distraction from the specific and novel threats that Facebook and related technologies constitute to democracy.

politics systems

Cognitive Democracy

This leads us to argue that democracy will be better able to solve complex problems than either markets or hierarchy, for two reasons. First, democracy embodies a commitment to political equality that the other two macro-institutions do not. Clearly, actual democracies achieve political equality more or less imperfectly. Yet if we are right, the better a democracy is at achieving political equality, the better it will be, ceteris paribus, at solving complex problems. Second, democratic argument, which people use either to ally with or to attack those with other points of view, is better suited to exposing different perspectives to each other, and hence capturing the benefits of diversity, than either markets or hierarchies.

From ‘Cognitive Democracy‘ by Henry Farrell and Cosma Shalizi (2012, ‘unpublished’ article in preparation)

politics sheffield

Privatisation – now a game the whole city can play

Sheffield City Council have made a 25 year contract with Amey PLC, in which tax money pays Amey and Amey maintain the roads. Part of road maintenance is looking after roadside trees, of which there are many, and many which are mature trees of all the character and hazards that trees many many decades old have. Amey has made plans to begin its contract period by cutting down 18% of the trees, which hasn’t been wildly popular. Some have suggested that Amey are responding to the simple economic logic of considering 25 years of tree care costs (vs the one-off cost of just cutting down as many as possible in the first few years).

Part of the Council-Amey contact is that both parties can fine the others for breaches of contract. Most of the contract has been redacted, which isn’t confidence inspiring. One rumour is that if, due to protests, Amey are not able to finish their planned tree felling they will be able to fine the Council. This would mean that protesters, through their taxes, would be paying more to the company they are protesting against.

Part of the aspect of this that interests me is that the contract moves the locus of political power from the Council to a multinational. Some opposition to privatisation is about profiteering by companies, but if you are worrying about roads being repaved and trees maintained then profits are less concerning than the fact that you now don’t have any influence as a citizen over the management of public property. Amey don’t need popular support in Sheffield, and however much people hate the Council, the Council’s hands are tied (seemingly).

Now, some enterprising citizens of Sheffield are trying to streamline the process of raising road maintenance complaints. The Amey contract with the Council means that if they don’t adequate maintain the roads, including responding to complaints about their work, then the Council can fine them.


enough of experts

Michael Gove has become infamous for saying that we (the British) have “had enough of experts”. Here’s the context (FI= Faisal Islam, the interviewer):

FI: But let’s just look at this now, the leaders of the US, India, China, Australia, every single one of our allies, the Bank of England, the IFS, the IMF, the CBI, five former NATO Secretary-Generals, the Chief Exec of the NHS and most of the leaders of the trade unions in Britain all say that you, Boris and Nigel are wrong. Why should the public trust you over them?

MICHAEL GOVE: I’m not asking the public to trust me, I’m asking the public to trust themselves. I’m asking the British public to take back control of our destiny from those organisations which are distant, unaccountable, elitists and don’t have their own interests at heart.

FI: Elitist? Elitist? The Lord High Chancellor, a conspiracy of elites? It sounds like Wolf Hall.

MICHAEL GOVE: Well I haven’t seen Wolf Hall but the one thing that I would say is that the people who are backing the Remain campaign are people who have done very well thank you out of the European Union and the people increasingly … [Applause] … absolutely. The people who are arguing that we should get out are concerned to ensure that the working people of this country at last get a fair deal. I think the people of this country have had enough of experts with organisations from acronyms saying that …

FI: The people of this country have had enough of experts, what do you mean by that?

MICHAEL GOVE: … from organisations with acronyms saying that they know what is best and getting it consistently wrong because these people …

FI: The people of this country have had enough of experts?

MICHAEL GOVE: Because these people are the same ones who have got consistently wrong …

FI: This is [inaudible] politics this isn’t it? This is Oxbridge Trump.

MICHAEL GOVE: No, it’s a faith, Faisal, in the British people to make the right decision.

Full interview transcript here, video of the interview here.


Too smart for facebook?

It interests me how the generations younger than me have changed their social media habits.

Whilst the professional-age world seems happy with twitter and facebook, younger people have moved their attentions elsewhere (you can google for the evidence of this, here I am relying on a completely unsystematic sampling from biased personal experience).

Is this because they want to avoid the social media that their parents are on? Because they are driven by a relentless and fickle need novelty and illicit thrills? Maybe in part, but there’s also a logic to the specific social media networks which are in vogue.

  1. WhatsApp offers end-to-end encryption. As well as one-to-one messaging you can use group chat for the sort of thing you might use twitter @ messaging or facebook chat, with better privacy.
  2. YikYak offers anonymous location-based chat. Obviously they’ll bust you the moment the law wants your details, but if you are just after hook-ups or advice about embarrassing personal problems this is good enough anonymity to protect your identity from your employer (or partner, or friends).
  3. Snapchat messages disappear after a number of seconds, offering the illusion of impermanence for web-messaging. So different from message boards or most IM, where casual banter from years ago is stored for eternity.

So in this way new social media offers some sort of address to three of the big threats of life online: lack of privacy, irrevocable binding of your online actions to your offline identity, and permanent records of even your tiniest online actions.

Maybe The Youth aren’t so fickle and short sighted in their use of social media after all.

Cross-posted at Medium

books politics

Graeber on Pinker

David Graeber’s “Debt: The First 5,000 Years” tells the story of the erosion of social economies by market economies, fueled by a nexus of cash, war and slavery. The way Graeber tells it, the history of Western Civilisation is a history of incredible violence – both the actual violence of colonialism, slavery and debt enslavement, and the moral violence of the conceiving of the self as an isolated individual with ownership over her body and her rights.

I try and summarise the book here and have some commentary here.

Steven Pinker’s “The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined“, published the same year, presents a very different view of history. Pinker’s analysis supports the idea that 21st Century western society is a utopia of non-violence, in which deaths and physical harms by violence have been progressively contained and diminished over historical time. Part of this argument is the claim that per-agricultural societies are or were dangerous, homicidal places – he quotes statistics showing that something like 30% of male deaths in some foraging societies are murders. One ‘civilizing factor’ in Pinker’s account is the growth of the state and the state’s monopolising of violence.

Recently Graeber put out an “ask me anything” on twitter, so I asked him to comment on Pinker’s book, and the opposite reading of the history of violence and state power that it offers to “Debt”. He was kind enough to answer, and for convenience I concatenate his replies, made via twitter here (you can see them in the original form by starting with my original question).

Graeber: “He’s wrong [i.e. Pinker is] […] Almost anyone who’s ever had a choice of living under states & the “terrible violent” places he decries choose the latter.
take native americans & settler – captured settlers who had option of returning to their families often refused to; indigenous people who were offered right to stay in settler society, even adopted into families, invariably escaped the moment they could

same thing seems to happen with Amazonian societies today

so anyone who knows what life is like in both sorts of society, then has a choice which to live in, never chooses states


his argument that one social order was self-evidently superior is clearly false

This argument from choice doesn’t really seem to engage with Pinker’s argument: people might choose non-state societies AND they be more violent. Pinker’s account of violence in pre-state societies is contested in the scholarly literature, so it is hard for a non-anthropologist like me to judge. Plausibly, Pinker’s thesis can still hold if the historical span is restricted to the period from (horrifically violent) early state societies to now – but that leaves open a wide range of anthropological possibilities for how society could be organised and avoid violence. In other words, it leaves as distinctly more plausible the alternatives that Graeber’s anarchist thought supports.

books politics

More on Graeber’s Debt: The First 5,000 years

“The story of the origins of capitalism, then, is not the story of the gradual destruction of traditional communities by the impersonal power of the market. It is, rather, the story of how an economy of credit was converted into an economy of interest; of the gradual transformation of moral networks by the intrusion of the impersonal—and often vindictive—power of the state.” (p.332)

Our attitude to debt is a symptom of this erosion of social economies by currency economies. Mutually agreed, honour, credit is replaced by state-backed, economic credit. Loans which inexorably grow due to interest are enforced by brutal laws against debtors. This is the context for the rapacity of European colonialists – they were driven on by the tyranny of interest.

“All this helps explain why the church had been so uncompromising in its attitude toward usury. It was not just a philosophical question; it was a matter of moral rivalry. Money always has the potential to become a moral imperative unto itself. Allow it to expand and it can quickly become a morality so imperative that all others seem frivolous in comparison. For the debtor, the world is reduced to a collection of potential dangers, potential tools, and potential merchandise. Even human relations become a matter of cost-benefit calculation. Clearly, this is the way the conquistadors viewed the worlds they set out to conquer” (p. 319)

It is the secret scandal of capitalism that at no point has it been organized primarily around free labor. The conquest of the Americas began with mass enslavement, then gradually settled into various forms of debt peonage, African slavery, and “indentured service” (p.350)

This is a scandal not just because the system occasionally goes haywire, as it did in the Putumayo, but because it plays havoc with our most cherished assumptions about what capitalism really is—particularly that, in its basic nature, capitalism has something to do with freedom. For the capitalists, this means the freedom of the marketplace. For most workers, it means free labor. Marxists have questioned whether wage labor is ultimately free in any sense (since someone with nothing to sell but his or her body cannot in any sense be considered a genuinely free agent), but they still tend to assume that free wage labor is the basis of capitalism.

Our dominant image of the origins of capitalism continues to be the English workingman toiling in the factories of the industrial revolution, and this image can be traced forward to Silicon Valley, with a straight line in between. All those millions of slaves and serfs and coolies and debt peons disappear, or if we must speak of them, we write them off as temporary bumps along the road. Like sweatshops, this is assumed to be a stage that industrializing nations had to pass through, just as it is still assumed that all those millions of debt peons and contract laborers and sweatshop workers who still exist, often in the same places, will surely live to see their children become regular wage laborers with health insurance and pensions, and their children, doctors and lawyers and entrepreneurs.”(p351)

With this framing, Graeber repaints Adam Smith’s economic account – “It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest.” etc – as a purely moral account, a utopia utterly unlike the actual economic conditions Smith lived in.

To understand the history of capitalism, however, we have to begin by realizing that the picture we have in our heads, of workers who dutifully punch the clock at 8:00 a.m. and receive regular remuneration every Friday, on the basis of a temporary contract that either party is free to break off at any time, began as a utopian vision, was only gradually put into effect even in England and North America, and has never, at any point, been the main way of organising the production for the market, ever, anywhere.
This is actually why Smith’s work is so important. He created the vision of an imaginary world almost entirely free of debt and credit, and therefore, free of guilt and sin; a world where men and women were free to simply calculate their interests in full knowledge that everything had been prearranged by God to ensure that it will serve the greater good. (p.354).

For some critical commentary see here:, the Crooked Timber seminar (ht Alex)

Update 30/12/12. There’s an important point about rights being conceptualised as property, which Gemma summarises well:

Our freedom is defined as a right, which we own, as opposed to Graeber’s view that rights are actually obligations on others (e.g. our right to free speech is actually others obligations to allow my free speech). Rights have been defined in this way to justify debt-peonage or even slavery – if we own our rights, like property, then we are free to give them away or even sell them (p206).

advertising politics psychology

Media Violence, Unconscious Imitation, and Freedom of Speech

I really enjoyed the ideas discussed in Susan Hurley’s 2006 article “Bypassing Conscious Control: Media Violence, Unconscious Imitation, and Freedom of Speech“. The basic argument is that if we realised that we tend to automatically and unconsciously absorb and imitate patterns of behaviour that we observe, then our views of freedom of expression would be quite different from what they are. Although the presentation of the empirical psychology is sophisticated, the language does tend to slip into conceding that there is a domain of unconscious, automatic influences on behaviour and a separate realm of conscious, deliberative, choice. This is a failure to recognise, in my opinion, that for all behaviour it is causation all the way down (or all the way through, perhaps). But this quibble aside, the article gives evidential and philosophical reasons for us to be more concerned than we appear to be about the mental environment our culture promotes.

I was sad to find out that we won’t be hearing any more from Prof Hurley: Obituary by Andy Clark.

Susan L. Hurley (2006). Bypassing Conscious Control: Media Violence, Unconscious Imitation, and Freedom of Speech. In S. Pockett, W. Banks & S. Gallagher (eds.), Does Consciousness Cause Behavior? MIT Press.

politics quotes

a site of struggle for control of the conditions of knowledge production

Whether in schools or in other public spheres, public intellectuals must struggle to create the conditions that enable students and others to become cultural producers who can rewrite their own experiences and perceptions by engaging with various texts, ideological positions, and theories. They must construct pedagogical relations in which students learn from each other, learn to theorize rather than simply ingest theories, and begin to address how to decenter the authoritarian power of the classroom. Students must also be given the opportunity to challenge disciplinary borders, create pluralized spaces from which hybridised identities might emerge, take up critically the relationship between language and experience, and appropriate knowledge as part of a broader effort at self-definition and ethical responsibility. What I am suggesting here is that public intellectuals move away from the rigid, ideological parameters of the debate about the curriculum or canon. What is needed is a new language for discussing knowledge and authority and the possibility of giving the students a role in deciding what is taught and how it is taught under specific circumstances. The question is not merely, who speaks and under what conditions? It is also about how to see universities (and public schools) as important sites of struggle over what is taught and for control of the conditions of knowledge production itself.

Giroux, H. A. (1997). Pedagogy and the politics of hope: Theory, culture, and schooling: a critical reader. WestviewPress (Boulder, Colo.), p263.


G. A. Cohen’s “Freedom and Money” (2001)

In which Cohen argues that lack of money is a lack of political freedom, and that the issue of private property (which is axiomatic to libertarians) cannot be determined independently of issues of political freedom. In other words, you can’t reasonably set aside the issue of distribution of property (i.e. wealth) from your consideration of freedom. This pervasive confusion, Cohen argues, arises because of a misperception of the nature of money, which appears as a real thing, like rocks or even like physical strength, but is actually “social power in the form of a thing” (Marx).

Anyway, it is a great read, lucid and mind expanding, and a great example of political philosophy . I can’t find a journal reference for it, but it is – apparently – reprinted in On the Currency of Egalitarian Justice, and Other Essays in Political Philosophy (2011)

Link to PDF (thanks Josie!)

intellectual self-defence politics

what the world needs: buyafuckingshovel for news

My worry is that there is so much news that that it is hard to keep attention on the things we think are important. Or, rather, the deluge of information means that we’re more likely to accept someone else’s prioritisation of what is important. (Did you notice how the Guardian’s liveblog of the financial crisis was dropped to make room for the liveblog of events in Libya?)

Similarly, there’s a dark thought I sometimes have, where everybody will know the truth about some of the great ills of our society but nobody will have time or will to do anything about them. Something like a cross between a “somebody else’s problem field” and a late-modernity version of 1984 (it won’t be that everybody knows we have always been at war with Oceania, or really does love big brother; instead everybody will know these are lies, but they will be lies we live by rather than fight). In this grim meathook future we’ll know we’re decimaiting non-human species, or that Tony Blair lied about Iraq, or that our government is eroding vital civil liberties and we’ll care, but we just won’t get round to doing anything for some reason (oh look at this!)

A small example would be the family served with an eviction notice by Wandsworth Council because the son was arrested in the recent London riots. Not even found guilty, just charged! Now I heard this, and I thought it was scandal and symptomatic of a deep problem with the way some of us think about justice. But apart from the excuse of writing this blog post, I never followed it up, never found out if the reported headline reflected the truth. I hoped, vaguely, that someone was fighting this decision. Thought it was probably illegal. Thought a bunch of things, but basically got on with my life. Wouldn’t it be nice if, once something in the news caught my attention, something I decided was important to me, there was an easy mechanism for bringing follow ups on that story to my attention.

What I think I want is something like for news stories. I want a personalised sidebar on the news website I use, and I want it filled with follow ups on the stories that I tag as important to me. This tagging should be as easy as ‘liking’ something on facebook. Now I can get joined up news, which will give me a more coherant and less vulnerable to bias view of the world, and also ensure that I can work with the media to focus on what really matters to me, rather than just the enless succession of the ten thousand things.

Dear, can you fix it for me?

academic politics science systems

Trust in science

I’ve been listening to the CBC series (2009) “How to Think about Science” (listen here, download here). The first episode starts with Simon Schaffer, co-author of the The Leviathan and the Air Pump. Schaffer argues that scientists are believed because they organise trust well, rather than because they organise skepticism well (which is more in line with the conventional image of science). Far from questioning everything, as we are told science teaches, scientists are successful as expects because of the extended network of organisations, techniques and individuals that allows scientists, in short, to know who to trust.

Schaffer also highlights the social context of the birth of science, focussing on the need for expertise —for something to place trust in — at a time of military, political and ideological conflict. Obviously, our need for certainty is as great in current times.

Understanding of the processes of science, Schaffer asserts, is required for a true understanding of the products of science, and public understanding of both is required for an informed and empowered citizenry.

This last point puts the debate about open access scientific journals in a larger and more urgent perspective. In this view, open access is far more than a merely internal matter to academia, or even merely a simple ethical question (the public fund scientists, the publications of scientists should be free to the public). Rather, open access is foundational to the institution of trusted knowledge that science (and academia more widely) purports to be. The success of early science was in establishing the credibility of mechanisms for ‘remote witnessing’ of phenomenon. The closed-access publishing system threatens to undermine the credibility of scientific knowledge. Once you recognise that scientific knowledge is not the inviolable product of angelic virtue on the part of science, you concede that there the truth of scientific propositions is not enough — we need to take seriously the institutions of trust that allow science to be believed. The status of expert who cannot be questioned is a flattering one, but it relies on short-term cache. If we care about science and the value of scholarship more widely then open access publishing is an urgent priority.

Update: Romanian translation of this web page (by Web Geek Science)

politics psychology

Human nature is back

This Prospect article by the RSA’s Matthew Taylor reviews an impressive amount of socially relevant psychology research. “Human nature is back”, announces Taylor, showing how the “useful shortcut” of the rational actor is now ready to be replaced by an empircally informed model of man as a social, emoitonal, being. Conclusions include

if we want to live an ethical life we do not have to pore over self-help books, but instead choose the social context that is most likely to prompt us to automatic altruism. Blinkered by the idea of humans as entirely driven by self-interest, we believe that altruistic acts must require conscious effort, perhaps as a result of exhortation from leaders. But if we are living balanced lives and enjoy mutual trust with people, behaving well comes naturally.


…susceptibility to social influence is hard-wired in us and not simply a characteristic of those lacking willpower. It may not be as catchy as the original slogan, but “tough on crime, even tougher on the causes of crime”is where the evidence points.


social institutions and cultural taboos are ways in which “generations hand down… vital tacit knowledge about human nature.”…[they] have developed to protect us from our psychological frailties, encouraging us to act long term and be socially responsible. These devices include the family, the church and civic organisations. As we become richer, we mistakenly think we do not need them.

It’s a rich brew of research evidence and political ideas. Perhaps even enough to give us hope, as Taylor claims that “new ideas about human nature can contribute to a more substantive meeting of minds between left and right”


The reality of culture

It’s been forty years since the first topless page 3 model in the Sun newspaper. There was a debate on Radio 4 between Bea Campbell and Jennie Bristow this morning, which I thought was illustrative of an important wider point.

Bea Campbell argued that the Sun’s page 3 sends the wrong message to men and women. In retort Jennie Bristow argued that if you didn’t like it you didn’t have to buy the Sun.

Now I think you can only make this argument if you don’t believe in culture.

My argument is not that “if you don’t like it don’t buy it” is an inherently ridiculous position (I don’t like aubergines, you say “don’t eat them”. Fair enough). My argument is that “if you don’t like it don’t buy it” is a ridiculous reply to arguments of the form made by Bea Campbell.

Ms Campbell offered a claim about the negative effect that the page 3 institution has on everybody, the men who see it, and the men who interact with those men, and the women who interact with those men. Now you could say “page 3 is liberating” or “page 3 celebrates women” or “page 3 is harmless” and although you would be wrong, you would at least be taking seriously the implication of Bea Campbell’s argument : that how we treat each other matters, that our idea of each other matters and that these things can be profoundly influenced by how individuals behave and what we collectively acknowledge as acceptable. In other words, it makes the assumption that beliefs and behaviours are communicable.

So it is interesting to me that Jennie Bristow sidesteps this debate and takes refuge in an argument borrowed from economic liberalism: you have a right to make free consumption choices without interference. Now this is an important position, but it does not preclude debate about the effects of individual consumption choices (nor about the systems of production and culture which determine individual consumption choices). I submit that this strategy of ignoring possible debate culture is particularly characteristic of my intellectual generation, and I think I know why.

Culture used to be a real thing, by which I mean part of the lingua franca of public discussion, but the theorisation of culture was commanded by post-modernists and critical-theorists who abdicated all responsibility for making arguments which were comprehensible to the rest of us, and who systematically degraded collective faith in truth and reality. Years of this have created a diminished intellectual public sphere, ripe for colonisation by fundamentalists (religious and economic) and scientism. Hence the current idolisation of ‘evidence-based’ policies and decisions, as if an ‘evidence-base’ will save you from the need to have ideological commitments, and the celebration of limp claims about society and human nature by those with a scientific background.

In the arena of religious debate, witness the shallowness of theology from the ongoing Dawkins vs the Fundamentalists sideshow. In my own field, Ben Goldacre wrote recently about the phenomena of adopting a posture of disbelief in psychological phenomena until neuroscientific correlates can be demonstrated (something I called elsewhere neuroessentialism). Similarly, the recent Common Cause report, while having many important things to say, displays an almost child-like awe for the “large body of evidence” supporting various claims it uses in its argument about charity campaigning.

Scientific evidence does not save you from having to think about situations for which we do not have direct evidence, nor does it save you from discussing values. Why would you act as if it did? Surely only because you thought you had nothing else to reply on. We let the post-modernists convince us that there are no forms of reasoned debate, no methods of mutual approach which are not entirely arbitrary. The scientists demonstrated that truth is not arbitrary in the realm of the measurable, and now we are inappropriately welcoming them in to fill the void left in the rest of our intellectual lives.

Culture exist, ideas exist, what we believe matters and can be discussed and changed. We have a collective responsibility to consider these things. This is not the age of “if you don’t like it, ignore it”, this is the age of “we are in this together”. All of us.

links politics

Quote #254: Democracy

Democracy is the theory that the common people know what they want, and deserve to get it good and hard.

H. L. Mencken

books intellectual self-defence politics psychology

Ad Nauseam

adnauseam I am reading Ad Nauseam: A Survivor’s Guide to American Consumer Culture, edited by Carried McLaren and Jason Torchinsky. The book is a funny, smart and sometimes shocking collection of articles from Stay Free Magazine and blog. I first came across Stay Free when I was researching the psychology of advertising and was impressed by their sophisticated take on how adverts affect consumers’ decision making. They discuss in Ad Nauseam how advertising is often misunderstood, with people relying on an intuitive ‘Advertising doesn’t effect me’ view or swinging to the opposite extreme of the ‘Sinister Advertisers Manipulate Consumers with their Mind Control Tricks’ position. Both positions distract from the very real, but not magical, power of advertising.

The book has a great discussion of Wilson Bryan Key’s Subliminal Seduction, the book that launched the idea that subliminal, and often sexual, figures are embedded in random features of adverts such as in ice cube shadows. The idea of these ’embeds’ is nonsense, of course, but great fun to look for and a great distraction from the real persuasive content of the advert. The book also has a chapter on the origins of modern advertising practice in 19th century pharmaceutical advertising (the manufacturing of ailments for which ready made ‘cures’ can be sold has been covered by Vaughan on before, in relation to the mental health). Packed with critical analysis of the advertising industry, more informative history and some shocking examples of how consumerism has worked its way into many aspects of our daily lives, this book is essential intellectual self-defense, managing to be critical and aware without ever being sanctimonious or hysterical.

Cross-posted at

politics psychology

The technology of our wiser, wider, selves

At the end of this summer I gave a talk in the Treehouse Gallery about technology and thinking. In particular, I told three stories about three pieces of technology which, I argued, fundamentally affect the way we think.

First, I told a personal story about a few months last year when I was without a mobile phone. I found, like others, that this frustration had unexpected benefits (‘Life became slower, and slightly more rewarding‘). I paid attention to what I was doing and who I was with more. I committed to plans easily, both socially and psychically – when I was somewhere I knew I wasn’t going to dial my way out to another arrangement. I made the best of where I was. If I was at a loose end I looked in my immediate environment for things to do and people to talk to, rather than using it as an opportunity to catch up on my email and text message conversations. I don’t know if it was a particularly profound change, but I felt different and acted different because of the lack of a piece of technology (now, of course, I have jumped with both feet back into the world of mobile telephony and the same piece of technology is making me feel and act differently again – its presence rather than its absence is making me feel connected to the wider world, alive with a constant stream of opportunities and messages).

The second story I told was of written language, and in particular some research done by an early twentieth century psychologist called Luria. My point here was to widen the idea of technology. It is easy to forget that written language is a human invention, something that didn’t need to exist but does. Spoken language is a human universal, and will arise where ever humans can communicate in groups. Written language is a historical event, something that was separately created three or four times in human history and which followed a contingent trajectory. Elements of written language we take for granted are no more inevitable than writing as a whole. We invented silent reading – in the medieval period the norm was to read aloud. We invented punctuation and even gaps between the words – early documents reveal their absence. These things had to arise and become embedded in the culture of writing.

In my talk I mentioned Walter Ong’s fantastic “Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word” in which he talks about the particular habits of thought that are associated with cultures which rely on oral tradition and with those which rely on written language. Writing frees thought from the heavy constraints of memory. Ong details the characteristics that oral language will tend to have, in the service of being memorable; characters will tend to be vivid and extreme, of high emotion and grand actions (think myths and legendary heroes), oral knowledge will be expressed with rhyme, repetition and cliche. In contrast, written language can be nuanced, detailed and even boring. Written language can service lengthy analysis and unstructured lists. Furthermore, because written language is separated in time and space from its audience it will tend to be explicit and comprehensive in its explanations, rather than able to rely on immediate audience feedback and common reference (“like this!”) that spoken language can. Literacy has a tendency towards the abstract, the objectively distanced and the divisive, where as orality will have a tendency towards the concrete, subjectively immediate, the holistic and the conservative (since patterns are hard to establish in memory and fragile once there, the rule is ‘don’t innovate unless you have to’).

Ong discusses Luria’s investigations with literate and illiterate farm workers in the Ukraine in the 1930s. Luria’s investigations showed that questions that seem simple to those from literate cultures involve a whole bundle of learnt habits of thought and ‘unnatural’ assumptions that come along with the acquisition of literacy. Luria asked one illiterate to name the ‘odd one out’ from “a hammer, a saw, a log and a hatchet” and was told “If one has to go, I’d throw out the hatchet, it does the same job as the saw”. The individual questioned saw the objects in terms of activities, not in terms of the abstract category “tools” (the obvious division for a literate). Explained to that three of the objects are tools, the individual still doesn’t find the desired answer “Yes, but we still need the wood”. The mind patterned by orality seeks functional wholes, not division, claims Ong.

Another question of Luria’s is a logical syllogism: “In the far north, where there is snow, all bears are white. Noraya Zembla is in the far north and there is always snow there. What colours are the bears there?”. A literate mind, which is used to answering such questions (indeed, used to being sat down and examined for hours at a time for no immediately apparent purpose) knows to seek the logical structure of the question and answer it within its own terms. Not so the illiterate mind. Luria receives answers such as “I don’t know, go and look” and “I’ve seen black bears, every locality has its own animals”. A question to give the definition of a tree receives similar replies: “Why should I? Everybody knows what a tree is”.

I offer this discussion of Ong and Luria to draw out how fundamental the changes brought about by literacy are for our thought, and how invisible they are in normal circumstances, how for-granted we take tendencies like the pretence of objectivity and abstraction from the immediate and concrete.

My third and final example continued the task of widening the idea of what technology is and can do. I told the story of a clinical case study of a man with memory loss known as S.S (I took this story from a chapter by Margaret O’Connor and colleagues in the book “Broken Memories” by Campbell and Conway). S.S. suffered from a form of brain damage that prevented him creating new memories for episodes in his life. Although he could remember who he was, and events from his pre-injury life, he had no memory for events that happened post-injury. The film Memento gives an extreme illustration of this condition, known as anterograde amnesia. I’ve told S.S’s story elsewhere, in a chapter I wrote for Christian Nold’s book ‘Emotional Cartography‘.

The question O’Connor and colleagues set out to investigate is that of S.S.’s emotional state. S.S. had a buoyant, upbeat, personality, and seemed friendly and cheerful, despite his injury. Conventional tests of mood, which are really formalised sets of direct questions (“Do you cry often?” etc), confirmed this impression. Indirect tests of personality and mental state sounded a warning though – they seemed to suggest that S.S. had profound underlying anxiety and a preoccupation with decay and his own helplessness. These wouldn’t be unusual feelings for someone to have in his position – a relatively young man reduced from being the president of a company and head of the family to being out of work and housebound. The authors ask “was S.S. really depressed or not?”. My interest in the case is around the way in which, it seems likely, S.S.’s deeper underlying anxieties failed to manifest in his moment to moment conscious. S.S., I argue, lacked a particular piece of cognitive technology which most of us take for granted – a reliable memory for the episodes of our life. We can use this episodic memory as a workspace to integrate weak or sometimes fleeting feelings, to store and work out thoughts which may be in contradiction to our momentary surroundings or immediate inclinations. S.S. didn’t have this memory, so his reasonable feelings of anxiety were prevented from ever getting a hold in his consciousness. As they arose they would be repeatedly swept away by his optimistic demeanour.

This example was offered, in part, to illustrate that technology isn’t just something we think about but something we think with (I am following the line of thought set out by Andy Clark in his Natural Born Cyborg‘s here).

So I ended my talk with a question for the audience: ‘If we could invent any technology to help society deal with the future, what would we invent?’. The subsequent discussion never really cohered, I think, in part, because I’d been too successful (!) in broadening our conception of what technology could be. In these terms religions and cultures are technologies of thought too and discussion circuled around the idea that perhaps inventions of these kind are what we need in the future.

I realised, following this discussion, that I was interested in the effect of technology on thinking in a very different sense. The appeal of technology, for me, is that technology embodies in a physical object particular tendencies for thought, and, moreover, that the spread of technology offers a participatory, bottom up, model of how a kind of thinking can spread through the population without government policies, laws or other top-down corporate decisions. Episodic memory, written language and mobile phones spread without centralised control and worked their particular effects on our thinking on one person at a time (but have now had profound societal effects).

One example of a simple piece of technology which affects behaviour is given in Howard Rachlin’s book ‘The Science of Self-Control’. He discusses an experiment in which smokers were divided into three groups. One group was sent away to smoke as normal. The second was given an educational class about the health effects of smoking and encouraged in a number of ways to cut down. The third group, and the one that interests me most, was not told to cut down at all, but simply to record how much they smoked using a system in which, with each cigarette, they tore a tab off of a piece of card. Amazingly, the group that cut down smoking the most was not the group trying to cut down, but the group which was given an effective way of recording and monitoring their smoking. Rachlin offers the convincing analysis that the problem a smoker faces is one common to many situations – that of ‘complex ambivalence’ between single actions which are desirable in isolation, and larger patterns of actions which are undesirable in aggregate. Each cigarette is individually tempting, and carries no particularly large marginal cost, but overall ‘being a smoker’ has a large financial and health cost. You can see that the same pattern of temptation applies to many situations: having a drink verses being drunk or being ‘a drunk’, taking a single flight for a particular reason and being a frequent flyer, for example. The power of the card system is that it provides a mechanism by which people can integrate individual choices into a larger pattern, so that they may make decisions based on their preferences within a larger temporal window. In effect, the card system allows or encourages us to prioritise our longer term interests over the short-termist within all of us. In contrast most new technologies seem to prioritise the opposite self in us – the short-termist over the self that practices delay of gratification.

Another example of a simple piece of technology that can affect our day to day living is an energy meter which displays the momentary electricity consumption of your house (like this one). In theory there is already a mechanism for reducing household energy consumption (known as “your electricity bill”), but these energy meters have been shown to reduce consumption by 30%. Because the feedback between your actions and energy use is immediate – turn on a light and see the meter reading jump by 120 watts – it becomes clear how to effectively cut down your electricity consumption. This will be obvious to all well trained cyberneticists – ‘How can you have control without feedback?’

After the talk, Vinay pointed out to me that the environmental movement has never got to grips with the implications of Amdahl’s Law, a principle in computer programming for optimising the speed of your code by improving the part which causes the largest hold-up. In other words, the principle is a guide to how you should direct your efforts in trying to save a limited resource, in this case time. Without similar guidence – proper context for our energy use – the environmental moment is tempted to fall back on generalised hair-shirt ludditism (build nothing, do nothing, everything is bad). Without feedback our choice is between total rejection of consumption and total indulgence.

In keeping with this latent ludditism, technology and technological solutions are often seen as the enemy of the environmental movement. This is an understandable defence against a techno-utopianism which can be a form of denial about the seriousness of climate change, offering false promise of business as usual for the consumer society. In my talk I wanted to focus on how technology could be part of the solution in a positive way, to help us deal with energy-descent and the move to a sustainable global society, to be part of dealing with change, not of denying it. I wanted to ask the question of what kinds of technology should we be encouraging; energy meters? lifetime guaranteed products? reusable containers? what else?. And what kind of technology should we be discouraging; everything ‘disposable’? things which titillate and encourage our most superficial, immediate and grossly consumptive personalities? what else?

Technologies can encourage and reinforce elements of our selves. Because technological objects are solid things they can be anchors for behaviour which won’t be easily swept away by changes in mood or fashion. We need to find technologies which constraint our worst instincts and encourage our best. I have a liberal’s faith in human nature that, given the opportunity, we can be rational social creatures who recognise their best long term interests rather than being enslaved to momentary passions and immediate rewards. We can find technologies that encourage this long-view. Technology can help us realise our wiser, wider, better selves rather than our greedy, selfish, myoptic selves.

What would you invent?

politics quotes

Quote #247

‘I warn you not to be ordinary
I warn you not to be young
I warn you not to fall ill
I warn you not to get old.’

Neil Kinnock, in a speech at Bridgend, Glamorgan, on 7 June 1983.

advertising politics

A note from the underground

A poster on the London Underground March 2009

politics sheffield systems

Small Worlds, article in Now Then

Now Then is an independent Sheffield-based arts and community magazine. They are monthly, good chaps and have an out of date website. It is part of the Opus Productions media empire. For the first issue of the magazine, last year, I wrote them an article about something that has interested me for a long time: small worlds. Specifically I’d been thinking about social networks and what the Watts and Strogatz small-world result had to tell us about them. The article is now here, should you wish to read it. It is pretty upbeat. I think if I had more room and less inclination to try to be positive I would include something about how we tend to organise our social worlds so that it seems, from the ‘ground-level’, that we are talking to everyone important, but in actually fact we are ignoring — completely estranged from — most of the people we are physically close to, insulated in comforting small worlds.

See also bridging and bonding social capital, ‘60 Million People You’d Never Talk To Voting For Other Guy’, We Live in Small Worlds

politics quotes

Colonising the future

Sociological and political attention to what is actually happening on the ground has invariably located the causes of hunger not in an absolute scarcity but in socially-generated scarcity arising from imbalances of power that deny people access to food and water…However such is the power of “scarcity” to colonise the future that even those who, quite properly, locate today’s scarcities in political conflict, frequently crumble when confronted with projections of future population growth, setting aside the insights of political economy in favour of Malthusian metaphors that emphasise numbers over power relations as the explanation for future shortages. In doing so, they grant Malthusianism an explanatory power that they would actively deny it when applied to the present and the past. Instead of the past being a guide to
future action, the future (implausibly) becomes a guide to the present…Yet future crises are likely to be rooted in the same dynamics in which they are rooted today…If society wants to prepare for future resource crises, it would therefore be more prudent to look to the present rather than to some theoretical Malthusian model of the future. The future will grow out of the present, not out of society suddenly turning Malthusian. The better way of dealing with “future crisis” is not imagining a future Malthusian world which bears no relationship to what exists now or ever has existed, and then imagining how to stave off that hypothetical Malthusian world, but rather dealing with current scarcities now on the realistic assumption that what causes scarcity today is going to go on causing scarcity in the future

From “Scarcity” as Political Strategy Reflections on Three Hanging Children by Nicholas Hildyard, paper presented at “Scarcity and the Politics of Allocation” conference, Institute of Development Studies, University of Brighton, UK, 6-7 June 2005 (thanks Josie!)


Complaint response from BBC about DEC gaza appeal

To: tom [at]

Thank you for your e-mail.

We note your disappointment at our decision not to broadcast an appeal by the Disasters Emergency Committee to raise funds for Gaza.

We decided not to broadcast the DEC’s public appeal because we wished to avoid any risk of compromising public confidence in the BBC’s impartiality in the context of covering a continuing news story where issues of responsibility for civilian suffering and distress are intrinsic to the story and remain highly contentious. We also could not be confident that the aid resulting from audience donations could reach those it was intended for at a time of a fragile ceasefire and sporadic border access. We will of course continue to report the humanitarian story in Gaza.

The BBC’s director-general Mark Thompson has therefore explained the decision in more detail in a number of television and radio broadcasts and online at our Editors’ blog. Please follow the link to read his explanation in full:

Please be assured that we have registered your comments on our audience log. This is the internal report of audience feedback which we compile daily for all programme makers and commissioning executives within the BBC, and also their senior management. It ensures that your points, and all other comments we receive, are circulated and considered across the BBC.

Once again, thank you for taking the time to contact us.


BBC Complaints


If you’ve got nothing to hide you’ve got nothing to fear

Taking Liberties is an excellent documentary about the erosion of fundamental human rights under the Blair government. In the film, a surveillance systems sales person brings out the classic “If you’ve got nothing to hide you’ve got nothing to fear”. Now one of the many things wrong with this idea is that it focuses on the person about which things are known and obfuscates the entities that are doing the knowing. “nothing to hide” assumes that you are hiding your knowledge from a single, legitimate, authority, but the truth of the matter is that with privacy you will want to hide different things from different people. The problem with the “If you’ve got nothing to hide” argument is that it makes an assumption of guilt unless you can prove yourself innocent (by having nothing to hide), while simultaneously removing from the individual the ability to decide what defines guilt and innocence. It assumes a legitimate authority while simultaneously being part of dynamic that diminishes accountability, and thus legitimacy. There’s another form of this argument “If you’ve done nothing wrong you’ve nothing to fear”, which again sounds fair enough from the perspective of an authority, but if remember the history of crimes done by those in authority we need to see it from the perspective of the individual “If they do nothing wrong, you’ve nothing to fear!”. Why give government powers on the presumption that we can, and always, will be able to trust them not to abuse them? The recent history of these so called anti-terror laws shows that once powers these powers are given they will be used for quite different purposes from those which were invoked to justify their introduction.

Previously here: An open letter to Omar Deghayes, Why I want a charter for terrorists and criminals

Useful: no2id, Liberty


42 writers is “a powerful collection of essays, poems, and stories by 42 contemporary writers, including Ian Rankin, Philip Pullman and Ali Smith.”

We are relieved that the House of Lords have struck down the proposal to hold people without charge for 42 days, but the Home Secretary has made it clear that the Government may try to bring back this dangerous and unnecessary measure. Including new and published works, 42 Writers is a moving and thought-provoking anthology, and its themes of voicelessness, captivity and persecution will resonate with readers even after the political storm has passed

politics systems

The tragedy of the commons

The phrase ‘tragedy of the commons’ was first popularised in an article about population control.

The rebuttal to the invisible hand in population control is to be found in a scenario first sketched in a little-known pamphlet in 1833 by a mathematical amateur named William Forster Lloyd (1794–1852). We may well call it “the tragedy of the commons,” using the word “tragedy” as the philosopher Whitehead used it: “The essence of dramatic tragedy is not unhappiness. It resides in the solemnity of the remorseless working of things.” He then goes on to say, “This inevitableness of destiny can only be illustrated in terms of human life by incidents which in fact involve unhappiness. For it is only by them that the futility of escape can be made evident in the drama.”

Ruin is the destination toward which all men rush, each pursuing his own best interest in a society that believes in the freedom of the commons.

When men mutually agreed to pass laws against robbing, mankind became more free, not less so. Individuals locked into the logic of the commons are free only to bring on universal ruin once they see the necessity of mutual coercion, they become free to pursue other goals.

The most important aspect of necessity that we must now recognize, is the necessity of abandoning the commons in breeding. No technical solution can rescue us from he misery of overpopulation. Freedom to breed will bring ruin to all.

Hardin, G. (1968). The Tragedy of the Commons. Science, 162(3859), 1243-1248.


Why I want a charter for terrorists and criminals

The man on the radio said that the Human Rights Act (1998), which incorporates the EU Convention on Human Rights (1950) into English Law, is a ‘charter for terrorists and criminals’. Like that was a bad thing. The mistake here is to assume that human rights exist to look after people who obviously deserve it (you know, people like you and me, who listen to the radio and own sandals). Wrong. Human rights exist to look after everyone, and particularly those who are at risk of persecution. And we all know that the first thing the powerful do when they want to persecute an individual or a group is to redefine what they do as either criminal or (more recently) as terrorism. It’s as simple as that. Human rights laws that only looked after obedient and respectable members of society would be a sham. It is at the periphery of society that human rights are most important and where they should be least up for compromise.


capitalism and growth

Does anyone know if capitalism requires economic growth, and if so, why it does?


We live in small worlds

When I go to the kinds of places that I go to, I tend to see people I know. Sometimes I don’t know the people I meet in these places, but we find out we have mutual friends or acquiantances. Then we laugh and we say “Small world!”. Small worlds are nice. They make a large and sometimes hostile world seem friendly and controllable. Small worlds mean there is a handle on every person I meet — not a stranger, but a friend-of-a-friend I haven’t met yet. I like being surprised when I walk into a pub in a strange city and meet someone I know from university, or go on demonstration and meet someone I met at a party once. This kind of thing happens so often that it is sometimes really hard to believe that there are six billion individuals on the planet. If that was true, why do I keep bumping into the same five hundred or so?

There answer, of course, is one part our ability to ignore what we aren’t interested in (even people) and another part the ability to move in tremendously limited circles, circumscribed by habit, personality and class. The first factor means that we spend a lot of time not noticing the fifty people in a bar, say, who we don’t know, and far more noticing the one person we do. The second factor means that our choices of location are very very far from random. The shops we use, the evenings we spend, the paths we walk are patterned, always and pervasively, by the kind of person we are. Because of this patterning, we tend to run into a circuit of people who are like us — people with the same or overlapping orbits of habits, preferences and class.

The two factors combine when we manage to ignore our own influence in determining who we meet ‘by chance’. Even in foreign cities our habits, preferences and class will make selections on where we go, allowing us to almost unconsciously ignore certain options (“that restaurant looks tacky”, “that restaurant looks pretentious”, etc) so that when we arrive in a place that we tell ourselves was completely random, we are in fact already set up to bump into other people who are like ourselves, and hence have those small world meetings that we love so much.

The dark side of the small world is when we allow our choices to colour who we meet so strongly that we stop noticing that other kinds of people exist. If we never meet people with other attitudes or backgrounds then we lose a contrast against which we can gauge our own attitudes and background. Suddenly the whole world is full of people just like us (vegans, libertarians, motorist, whatever). From here it is hard to avoid self-righteousness and then irrelevance.