Friday, September 17, 2021

The Fragmented Rubble of Quotations

One of the minor annoyances of the internet is the proliferation of misquotations, often presented in pretentiously designed panels. There are Twitter accounts dedicated to churning these out, with thousands of followers and hundreds of retweets for each quote.

I usually manage to ignore these, but sometimes it's difficult to resist the urge to correct them. Last week, I found myself arguing with one of these stupid bots.

Other examples

Thursday, September 16, 2021

The Aim of Human Society

To what extent is the aim of human society to maintain its equilibrium, as the POSIWID principle would suggest? There is a line of French thinkers who resist the universalism to which some schools of cybernetics aspire, and see the construction of social norms as political rather than teleological or quasi-biological. Xavier Guchet traces the position of Canguilhem and Simondon back to Bergson’s The Two Sources of Morality and Religion

where it is argued that closed morality and religion are without a doubt morality and religion of conservation. Their function is to preserve the stability of the existing social order. On the contrary, open moralities and religions have the function of returning human societies to the élan of creation, of unmaking the existing social order, inventing another order and becoming something else. Guchet 2012

Whereas for Foucault and others, social norms are constructed to protect society from pathological variations that might threaten it, Simondon focused on invention and the creation of new norms.

(I am more familiar with Popper's notion of Open Society than with Bergson's. There appears to be some difference between the two notions, but I haven't done enough reading at this point to be able to explain the difference.) 

One way of talking about these questions is in terms of programming. Simon Mills quotes from a book by James Beniger, distinguishing between control (purposive influence toward a predetermined goal) and programming (setting of the goal to be achieved). Mills carries out a close reading of one technology advocate (Sandy Pentland), showing that the success stories of big data are largely based on relatively closed or autopoietic systems, delivering some degree of technocratic efficiency and resilience, but failing to answer the more fundamental question - what is the purpose of society as a whole. Where do the goals come from?

Another way of talking about these questions is in terms of organizational learning. Chris Argyris introduced the distinction between single-loop learning and double-loop learning, which very roughly corresponds to Beniger's distinction between control and programming. While single-loop learning uses simple feedback to improve the performance of a system relative to a fixed goal, double-loop learning allows for the modification of goals in the light of experience. Advanced technologies such as machine learning are not limited to single-loop learning, and may be able to do some limited double-loop learning, in suitably controlled environments. (To go beyond this, we may need some notion of triple-loop learning. But see article by Tosey Visser and Saunders problematizing such labels.)

Sometimes, technologies and sociotechnical innovations are spoken of as ethically and politically neutral instruments, which can simply be used to maintain established socioeconomic and cultural goals. So that falls naturally into the "closed" model of society identified by Bergson. But if technologies and innovations (sometimes the same ones) are described as disruptive, this seems to imply a more "open" model of society.

Obviously there are ethical issues both ways - whom does the disruption serve, but also whom does the preservation of the status quo serve?

Henri Bergson, The Two Sources of Morality and Religion (1932)

Geoffrey Bowker, How to be universal: some cybernetic strategies, 1943-1970 (Social Studies of Science 23, 1993) pp 107-127 

Philip Boxer, Triple-Loop Learning (Asymmetric Leadership, 8 January 2007)

Xavier Guchet, Technology, Sociology, Humanism: Simondon and the Problem of the Human Sciences (SubStance #129, Vol. 41, no. 3, 2012)

Simon Mills, Simondon and Big Data (Platform Journal of Media and Communication, Vol 6, 2015) 59-72. 

Alex "Sandy" Pentland, Reinventing Society in the Wake of Big Data (30 August 2012). Professor Pentland is also mentioned in John Thornhill, Trustworthy data will transform the world (FT, 5 March 2018, paywall)

Karl Popper, The Open Society and its Enemies (Routledge 1945)

Paul Tosey, Max Visser and Mark NK Saunders, The origins and conceptualizations of triple-loop learning: A critical review (Management Learning 2012 43: 291 originally published online 2 December 2011)

Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy: A cybernetic view of human nature, Henri Bergson, Karl Popper

Related posts: Three wishes (May 2009), A cybernetics view of data-driven (August 2020)

Thursday, September 09, 2021

This is not who we are

@jesslynnrose offers an allegory for an unnamed technology company with dubious ethics.


You might try to guess whether there is any particular technology company she is talking about. People from at least three different companies thought she might be referring to them.

A common form of defensive denial takes the form This is not who we are, which @AlexGraul describes as an oxymoron. @ayourtch reinforces this point by quoting from Donella Meadows: Purposes are deduced from behaviour, not from rhetoric or stated goals

In other words, POSIWID.


But why does this count as an oxymoron? Because it seems to be openly acknowledging the behaviour that contradicts the espoused identity. 

In some cases, the contradiction appears to be resolved if we believe that the behaviour of a minority is not characteristic of the majority - as if the minority were not fully part of the "we". Bill Clinton used the phrase in 1995 following the verdict in the O.J. Simpson trial, and Barack Obama used the phrase many times. It has also been used on the Republican side. Christopher Scalia calls this a rhetorical sleight-of-hand.

In a corporate setting, executives use this kind of language to blame bad things on the actions of individual rogue employees rather than the corporation as a whole. Yeah, right.


Donella Meadows, Thinking in Systems (2008). The quote is on page 14 of my copy.

Christopher J. Scalia, Why Obama says That's not who we are (USA Today, 8 February 2016)

See also The Fallacy of Rotten Apples (July 2004)

Bad Sorting

A few days after my post on The Corporate Sorting Hat, I found myself arguing on Twitter about the ethics of using the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI). 

@swardley and @Jon_Ayre argued that MBTI was not merely unscientific, based on dubious theory, but positively harmful. Jon made the following points.

1. Using the instrument to select people for management positions results in incompetent managers being appointed.

2. If candidates know which MBTI type is preferred, they have an incentive to lie in order to improve their chances of selection.


As I see it, bad candidates can lie through their teeth, and bad managers can be appointed, regardless of what selection process is used. And there are undoubtedly organizations whose management is dominated by liars and cheats, without having used MBTI at all. So these arguments seem to depend on MBTI producing significantly worse results than any of the commonly used alternatives.

However, if MBTI is so unreliable, it may occasionally be capable of producing better results than any alternative. It's worth noting that good candidates sometimes fail to present themselves in the best possible light, and a process of this kind might conceivably give them a second chance.

Jon also argued that it was unethical to make important decisions about people based on an unscientific and unreliable instrument.

If you have a scientifically credible and reliable alternative, then perhaps it would be unethical to use anything else. But the reality is that most selection processes are just as unfair and unreliable as this one, if not worse, so how much difference does it actually make?


And then there's Facebook.

Rory Cellan-Jones, Facebook accused of allowing sexist job advertising (BBC News, 9 September 2021)

Victor Lipman, The Disturbing Link Between Psychopathy And Leadership (Forbes, 25 April 2013)

David Robson, How narcissists climb the career ladder quickly (BBC Worklife, 1 September 2021)


Wednesday, September 01, 2021

The Corporate Sorting Hat

Katharine Cook Briggs and her daughter Isabel Briggs Myers are known as the inventors of a personality instrument known as the Myers Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI). It's not a test, its supporters insist, because you can't fail.

Briggs Myers argued that everyone was good at something. The point of the instrument was not only to recognize and value your own strengths, but to appreciate that other people had different strengths and styles. She thought this knowledge would help people work together more efficiently and effectively. During the Second World War, this also meant enabling people of all types to contribute productively to the war effort.

And not complaining, accepting one's rightful position in life, which is perhaps why so many corporations like it. The MBTI combines a simplistic version of Jungian type theory with an immutable division of labour. You are born with one of these sixteen personality types, and this supposedly determines your path. 

Merve Emre notes how MBTI rhetorically intertwines "the fiction of the complete self with the fiction of the happy, hard-working team". Instead of using the instrument (it's not a test) for self-development, it becomes a way of labelling yourself and others, helping to define and reinforce your identity.

If you have difficulties with a partner or colleague, it is probably useful to remind yourself from time to time that they don't have the same view of the world as you do. A fictional explanation, whether it is based on MBTI or astrology, is probably better than no explanation at all, and may allow you to accept that they mean well ("positive intent") rather than assuming they are being deliberately difficult.

And if you believe that these labels are fixed through life, which is what MBTI theory claims, then you should work with the personality you have been given rather than trying to change it.

So why do so many organizations use this instrument? The first answer is perhaps - because it's there. Briggs Myers worked with Edward Hay, the founder of a management consulting firm specializing in personnel management, and this kind of instrument is popular with consulting firms because it allows them to generate apparently value-adding work for their junior consultants.

Perhaps another reason is that bureaucratic organizations like sorting people at all stages in the employment cycle, selecting people for recruitment, promotion and redundancy. Selection by gender or race is no longer acceptable, but selection by personality type apparently is. If you have the idea that people of a particular type tend to be good at sales, then this becomes an enabling prejudice.

Briggs Myers herself had some old-fashioned views on gender and race. The extreme racism in her second novel was considered unacceptable even in the 1930s, and early versions of her instrument differentiated between men and women. She presented Hay with two scoring keys - a "standard" key and a "female" key. It may astound readers of this blog to learn that this resulted in women being type-cast as nurses, teachers, and secretaries, rather than executives and managers. As Merve Emre remarks sardonically, "destiny wasn't biological; it was typological".


Dean Burnett, Nothing personal: The questionable Myers-Briggs test (Guardian, 19 March 2013)

Merve Emre, Uncovering The Secret History Of Myers-Briggs (Digg, 1 October 2015)

Elle Hunt, What personality are you? How the Myers-Briggs test took over the world (The Guardian, 30 August 2021)

Tim Lewis, Myers-Briggs personality tests: what kind of person are you? (Guardian, 15 September 2018)

Lisa Wong Macabasco, They become dangerous tools: the dark side of personality tests (Guardian, 4 March 2021)

Isabel Briggs Myers, Gifts Differing (1980)

Related posts: Are Best Practices Obsolete (September 2009), From Sedimented Principles to Enabling Prejudices (March 2013), Algorithms and Governmentality (July 2019), Bad Sorting (September 2021)

Friday, August 20, 2021

Metrication and Demetrication

Yesterday evening I travelled across London for the opening of Ben Grosser's latest exhibition at the Arebyte Gallery, entitled Software for Less. 

Grosser's agenda is to disrupt the surveillance economy - enabling, encouraging and empowering users of social media to disengage from the glue traps laid for them by big data tech. The title of the exhibition is an answer to Mark Zuckerberg's compulsive repetition of the word "more", of which Grosser has compiled a 47 minute montage of video clips ("Order of Magnitude") prominently displayed at the entrance. Meanwhile Rachel O'Dwyer describes the paradox of Facebook: "an economy based on exponential growth ... an economy based on less".

In his book Crossing the Postmodern Divide (1992) Albert Borgmann extends the concept of hyperactivity to society as a whole, and defines it as "a state of mobilization where the richness and variety of social and cultural pursuits, and the natural pace of daily life, have been suspended to serve a higher, urgent cause" (p. 14). Psychiatrist Anna Lembke links this state with an excess of dopamine, and describes the smartphone as "the equivalent of the hypodermic needle for a wired generation".

In my post on YouTube Growth Hacking (November 2018), I mentioned Sophie Bishop's work on the anxiety, panic and self-optimization promoted by social media, and the precarity of those whose identity and self-worth depends on the number of likes and follows from other users, as measured by the platform algorithms.

On display at the Software for Less exhibition are a series of disengagement tools, including a demetrication filter (to hide those anxiety-provoking numbers counting followers and likes) and a random emotion generator (mixing up reactions of anger, sadness and joy to confuse the big tech algorithms). There are also platforms that are designed for constraint rather than overabundance, limiting the total number of posts to force the user to think whether each post is really necessary.

Perhaps for some users, these tools will provide a valuable remedy for addiction, hyperactivity and other mental and social issues. But perhaps for many other users, the point is not to actually use these tools, but simply to become more aware of the design choices that the big platforms have made, and the ability of users to resist.


In other news ...

August 2021. The Chinese authorities have just announced a demetrication programme, which they say is necessary to tackle online bullying and protect children. Online lists ranking celebrities by popularity are banned, and cultural products (songs, films, TV shows, etc.) should be primarily ranked by quality rather than the number of likes and comments. I mentioned Stan Culture (fan quan) in my post on A Cybernetics View of Data-Driven (August 2020)

Tim Adams, How artist Ben Grosser is cutting Mark Zuckerberg down to size (Guardian/Observer, 15 August 2021)

Helen Davidson, China bans celebrity rankings in bid to rectify chaos in the fan community (The Guardian, 27 August 2021)

Rebecca Edwards, Leave Me Alone (Arebyte Gallery, 2021)

Ben Grosser, Order of Magnitude (2019), Software for Less (28 July 2021)

Anna Lembke, Digital Addictions Are Drowning Us in Dopamine (WSJ, 13 August 2021). See also Jamie Waters, Constant craving: how digital media turned us all into dopamine addicts (Guardian/Observer 22 August 2021)

Vincent Ni, China bans reality talent shows to curb behaviours of idol fandoms (Guardian, 2 September 2021)

Rachel O'Dwyer, More or Less (Arebyte Gallery, 2021)

Related posts: Tablets and Hyperactivity (February 2013), YouTube Growth Hacking (November 2018), A Cybernetics View of Data-Driven (August 2020)

Monday, August 16, 2021

Can predictions create their own reality?

The owner of a chain of toy shops has warned the Observer that demand for popular toys may outstrip supply this year. Thus parents who leave important purchases until shortly before Christmas may experience frustration and/or higher prices.

While there may be valid reasons why this year may be more difficult than usual, thus justifying the coverage that this warning has been granted in many other news channels, both in the UK and the USA, it is also worth noting that the sources quoted by the Observer (described as "seasoned figures in the toy industry") are not exactly disinterested observers, and clearly stand to benefit from the early purchasing behaviour that this warning is intended to stimulate.

The point I want to make here is that warnings of shortages can often result in the very shortages they are warning about, and this effect may not always be unintended.

But we have also seen the opposite effect. When "seasoned figures" announce that supply is robust and there is no danger of shortages, people often buy extra anyway, just in case the announcement is false. The paradox here is that under certain conditions two opposite statements may produce the same outcome. I mentioned this paradox in a talk I gave at a philosophy seminar over thirty years ago.



Louis Ashworth, Parents told to buy Christmas toys early to beat shortages (Telegraph 29 July 2021)

Michael Savage, Toys could be in short supply this Christmas, so get buying now, industry warns (Observer via Guardian website, 15 August 2021)

Joan Verdon, Shipping Container Crisis Could Derail Holiday Toy Sales (Forbes, 3 August 2021)

Richard Veryard, Speculation and Information: The Epistemology of Stock Market Fluctuations (Invited presentation, King's College London, 16 November 1988). Warning - the theory needs a complete overhaul, but the examples are interesting.

Related posts: Trolls are like ghosts (December 2020), On the performativity of data (August 2021)

Tuesday, July 06, 2021

Culture War - What Is It Good For?

Many commentators have noted the curious divergence between capitalism (as conventionally understood) and the British Conservative party, previously regarded as the party of capitalism.

David Edgerton sees globalization as a contributory cause of this divergence. 

Today there is no such thing as British national capitalism. London is a place where world capitalism does business – no longer one where British capitalism does the world’s business. Everywhere in the UK there are foreign-owned enterprises. October 2019

Thus the Conservative party is no longer stabilised by a powerful organic connection to capital, either nationally or locally.

Chris Dillow suggests that the Conservative (Tory) party positively benefits from the economic decline consequent on this divergence.

If economic stagnation promotes populism and reaction – and history shows that it does – then a lack of growth actually serves Tory interests, because it will further bolster social conservatism. In politics, failure can sometimes work better than success. There can be positive feedback loops. October 2020

Dillow is not convinced that the Tories are smart enough for this to be a deliberate policy: it could be simply that these behaviours are reinforced by something akin to Natural Selection. This would appear to be yet another example of the maxim to which this blog owes its name: POSIWID - Purpose Of System Is What It Does.

Dillow has noted this kind of effect on his blog before. 

What people (or the media?) want from politicians is not an ability to take decisions, which requires the recognition of uncertainty. Instead, they want is a false sense of certainty, a strong leader with a clear direction. And this demand favours macho politicians, even if they are poor decision-makers. September 2012

And if complicated global economic systems are not amenable to such clear political direction, it is tempting for politicians to offer false clarity about less complicated subjects. As Andrew Anthony notes

while it’s not easy to express an informed opinion about the effect of collateralised debt obligations on the American housing market, it doesn’t take a doctorate to decide whether a statue should be pulled down, or to work up an unbending judgment about the character of the Duchess of Sussex.

Hence the shift from economic argument to culture wars.


So what happened to capitalism? When I invoked POSIWID in the comments underneath his September 2012 post, Chris Dillow replied that the state exists to support capitalist hierarchies, which is very much a POSIWID kind of assertion. But which capitalist hierarchies does the British state support nowadays? 

Andrew Anthony, Everything you wanted to know about the culture wars – but were afraid to ask (The Guardian, 13 June 2021)

Chris Dillow, The Machismo Paradox (Stumbling and Mumbling, 11 September 2012)

Chris Dillow, The Economic Basis of Culture Wars (Stumbling and Mumbling, 24 October 2020) 

David Edgerton, Brexit is a necessary crisis – it reveals Britain’s true place in the world (The Guardian, 9 October 2019)

McKenzie Wark, The Long Counter-Revolution (Public Seminar, 29 October 2014)


See also Explaining Natural Selection (January 2021)

Sunday, June 27, 2021

Culture as a Lens on the Future

In my piece on the New Economics of Manufacturing (November 2015), I mentioned Jacques Attali's idea that culture can provide clues about the future.

For Attali, music is not simply a reflection of culture, but a harbinger of change, an anticipatory abstraction of the shape of things to come. from a review of Attali's 1985 book Noise

I have now been reading about a research project in Germany, which used literature, not to predict the future exactly, but to identify potential trouble-spots. The project was led by Jürgen Wertheimer, a professor of comparative literature at the University of Tübingen, and part-funded by the German Ministry of Defence.

The project was able to detect weak signals of sociopolitical and ethnic conflict, not only from contemporary novels but also from the cultural response they generated. For example, by analysing relevant fictional material, they were able to demonstrate worsening sentiment between the Albanian and Serbian communities more than ten years before the Kosovo crisis of 1998. Applying the same technique to Algeria, they picked up weak signals of impending crisis two years before the events of February 2019. They also provided advance warning of conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh.

If verbal conflict provides advance warning of real conflict, can literary action also be used to defuse conflict? Governments clearly think so, intervening with positive propaganda to promote the desired messages, as well as censorship, exile or worse for writers who touch a sensitive nerve. But not only is this intervention often counter-productive, it also helps amplify the warning signals for those such as Professor Wertheimer who are looking out for them.

There is a simplistic view that media and culture can cause social and political events - this is known as the media effects narrative. For this reason, political actors often wish to control media and culture, as a way of managing social and political change. Does the control then become the message?

Philipp Oltermann, ‘At first I thought, this is crazy’: the real-life plan to use novels to predict the next war (The Guardian, 26 June 2021)

Studienprojekt Cassandra - not to be confused with the US Project Cassandra (Wikipedia)

Monday, May 03, 2021

Ornamental Intersectionality

 The CIA has released a video featuring one of their officers, daughter of immigrants and proudly "intersectional". 

This video has raised consternation on social media. There seem to be at least two different lines of argument. 

The first line of argument is specific to the CIA, based on sweeping disapproval of the CIA and its history. As if to say "how dare an unenlightened organization have enlightened employment policies and practices".

The second line of argument would seem to apply to any large organization. It suggests that the language of emancipation and intersectionality should be reserved for struggles against what bell hooks calls a "culture of domination", and should not be coopted by the establishment.

For example, @zei_squirrel argues that 

CIA has coopted what was supposed to be the emancipatory language of intersectionality as practiced in niche segments of the academy 

quotes bell hooks 

MORE THAN THIRTY YEARS AGO, identity politics was the rage because so many exploited and oppressed people were growing in political consciousness and awareness. The hope of identity politics was that it would create a foundation for all of us to respect diversity. Unfortunately, identity politics gradually became more of a tool of separation and competitive one-upmanship. Positively, the struggle for voice, which was centered around identity politics, did foreground diverse perspectives even as it often obscured places of commonality and shared struggle. Within a culture of domination, all our political struggles risk commodification in ways that diffuse their radical intent. This was, and is, certainly the case with identity politics.

and references Bourdieu and Wacquant.

It is a screen discourse, whose intellectual status is the product of a gigantic effect of national and international allodoxia, which deceives both those who are party to it and those who are not.

(I had to look up the word allodoxia, which roughly means false beliefs resulting from faulty categorization.)

There have been many previous arguments against "appropriations of the concept of intersectionality that have watered it down and wrested it from its radical foundations" (Runyan). Sirma Bilge has called this ornamental intersectionality. This seems to be related to the distinction I have made earlier in this blog about imaginary, symbolic and real diversity.

Let's come back to the CIA video. The woman in the video is presenting herself at the intersection between several different categories - Latino woman, mother, daughter of immigrants, successful career, a reasonable level of self-confidence. There is perhaps a difference here between what the word intersectionality denotes (any intersection of categories, whether oppressed or otherwise) and what the word apparently connotes (intersection of specifically oppressed categories). And the CIA itself is also presenting itself as some kind of intersection. So perhaps not surprising that this can be read in many different ways.

Sirma Bilge, Intersectionality Undone (Du Bois Review Social Science Research on Race, January 2014)

Pierre Bourdieu and Loïc Wacquant, NewLiberalSpeak (Radical Philosophy 105, Jan/Feb 2001)

Gail Fine, False Belief in the Theaetetus (Phronesis, 1979, Vol. 24, No. 1 (1979), pp. 70-80

bell hooks and others, Artists and Identity (Art Forum, Summer 2016, Vol 54 No 10)

Anne Sisson Runyan, What Is Intersectionality and Why Is It Important? (Academe Nov/Dec 2018)

Related posts What is the Purpose of Diversity? (January 2010), More on the Purpose of Diversity (December 2014)