Category Archives: Sociology

C̶h̶a̶r̶m̶ offensive

Will Davies on Bozo’s ascent:

Advertising, dating back to the late 19th century, brought a more scientific perspective to a similar challenge: how to produce an affective bond between a mass public and a product. A key difference is that advertising is primarily focused on the future (what will this product be like, what difference will it make to me and my life?) whereas nationalist communication is heavily focused on the past (great victories, sources of identity, origin myths). Nevertheless, the two became synthesised in the twentieth century with wartime efforts to boost ‘morale’, which aimed at increasing solidarity and enthusiasm (things that become increasingly important as warfare engages more non-combatants and involves aerial bombing).

[…]

The neoliberal era that followed the collapse of the Bretton Woods global monetary order generated additional types of psychological influence. The neoliberal political system and ideology emphasises that all situations are uncertain and competitive, and it is therefore up to all decision-makers – states, firms, investors, job-seekers, parents, students – to adopt a responsible, enterprising and flexible mentality, in approaching a fundamentally unknowable future. This makes impression management (especially impressions of the future) an essential technique at all scales of decision-making. Intuition and instinct become crucial cognitive tools, and targets for persuasion.

Worth reading the whole thing; not a cheerful piece, but then it’s a piece about the weaponisation of cheerfulness, so, yeah. The point about the futurity of advertising melding with the nostalgia of nationalism feels intuitively relevant to my own work, though I’m not quite sure yet where it fits; possibly as support for my minor-key riff about conservatism being distinguished by its utopias being located in the past rather than the future.

I’m still stunned by that Sun front page. Not that they’ve ever gone much beyond crude nursery-wall-mural appeals to a carefully nurtured demographic of subliterate manchildren… but even so it’s somehow shocking to be reminded of just how literally infantile the political discourse in this country still is.

Nudge, hold, spin

Via Andrew Curry, some sort-of-good news: if you’ve ever suspected, as I certainly have, that the marketing industry is locked into a perpetual arms race with our ability to realise when we’re being marketed at, then the news that “behavioural scientists” (also known as shills) are starting to worry that “nudges” (also known as dark patterns) baked into commercial website design strategies are actually becoming counterproductive. Turns out that cynically treating people as manipulable money-dispensers and/or metricised attention machines makes people cynical about your motives. Who could have foreseen etc etc? *eyeroll*

Bonus points for this closing paragraph, with its disharmonic mixture of aggrieved intellectual nobility and incipient panic:

We should also consider our responsibilities as we use behavioral interventions. Marketers should design nudges with more than the transaction in mind, not only because it is ethical or because they will be more effective over time but also because they bear responsibility toward the practitioner community as a whole. We owe an allegiance to the public, but also to each other.

Translation: guys, tone it the fuck down, you’re blowing our collective cover!

Thick skein

You can’t talk about every possible future in one work of science fiction—that would be crazy. But what you could do is tell a bunch of stories that are relatively plausible, that are set in the near future, and that describe a course of action that readers can imagine in a kind of “thick” texture. Where you really feel like you’re there. There’ll be some contingent events and some characters that are representative, but they are also individual characters with their own quirks. There’ll be a story, and yet the reader will also say: “Well, yeah—this could be one way forward.” This way, you have the utopian strand of describing things going right. Do we have a sense that things could go right? Even if it’s physically possible, the question is: Is it politically possible, and is it humanly possible?

[…]

I would invite everybody to think of the Green New Deal as it currently exists (a document which is quite impressive in its amount of detail and substance) as a science-fiction story. It’s a utopian science-fiction story written in the form of a proclamation or a blueprint for action. In my short-story collection, The Martians, I experimented with all kinds of formats, including a short story in the form of the Martian Constitution and a short story in the form of an abstract in a scientific journal. In the case of the Green New Deal, and in the best possible way, I want to suggest that seeing it as a kind of science-fiction story is what we need. We need that kind of vision.

Kim Stanley Robinson

Re: the upper paragraph of this quote, cf. my piece for The Sociological Review (originally posted back in 2016) in which I argued for sf as a tool for speculative ethnography, providing a “thick description” of reconfigured sociotechnicalities; that argument was extended in my (open-access) paper for Energy Research & Social Science from 2017.

Regular readers will know I’m not a fan of the blueprint utopia per se, but note that KSR is here advocating specifically for multiple such blueprints, rather than simply advancing a single vision; that plurality is one way of avoiding the pitfalls of the solutionist technotopia. But it’s interesting to hear a fiction writer arguing for the treatment of policy documents as fictional forms, even if only in part; that understanding of the transposability of narratological approaches into political imaginaries is something my colleagues and I are working to develop further, and it’s good to have someone with the profile (and, let’s be honest, the charm and candour) of KSR arguing the same case.

The secret theft of private experience

All these images are illusions of progress or spaces where progress can be hosted. Just as suburbs were sold to postwar America as an idea of living, the smart city is a vehicle to sell a focus-grouped future. But these marketing images aren’t selling smart cities to you and me—they’re made to demonstrate that the city is a place where profits stand to be made. The smart city isn’t a technological utopia, or an environmental lifeboat. It’s a few PowerPoint slides in a conference room demonstrating that there’s money to be made. And it’s coming to you soon.

Kevin Rogan at CityLab

Markets in human futures compete on the quality of predictions. This competition to sell certainty produces the economic imperatives that drive business practices. Ultimately, it has become clear that the most predictive data comes from intervening in our lives to tune and herd our behaviour towards the most profitable outcomes. Data scientists describe this as a shift from monitoring to actuation. The idea is not only to know our behaviour but also to shape it in ways that can turn predictions into guarantees. It is no longer enough to automate information flows about us; the goal now is to automate us. As one data scientist explained to me: “We can engineer the context around a particular behaviour and force change that way … We are learning how to write the music, and then we let the music make them dance.”

Shoshana Zuboff at Teh Graun

I’m not sure what there is left to say about “smart cities” and predictive algos that hasn’t been said a few thousand times already by people both wiser and better placed to say them than myself. But nonetheless: the “smart city” is a zombie paleofuture, the pinnacle of the Californian Ideology, a sterile dream of an impossible tomorrow that amplifies an already untenable present. By this point, the mere sight of the moniker causes in me the same dull rage engendered by the sight of Jehova’s Witnesses stood chatting piously by their rain-jacketed booklet stands, peddling their thrice-failed but durable eschatology.

The comparative mainstreaming of these critiques is some cause for hope, however, as is the high-profile resistance to the Toronto Sidewalk project. The “smart city” has always been a metonym for the very worst aspects of solutionism and computational thinking (see Bridle’s New Dark Age). That it is increasingly understood as such is encouraging, though the gravy train of funding attached to the term is sustaining the religion in consultancy and certain sections of the academia-policy interface — the same spaces in which the “driverless car” still commands a reverent and unquestioning obeisance, funnily enough (though there are signs to suggest that particular fetish is failing to deliver on its own hype to investors).

As for panopticon urbanism, if there’s any upside to the ugly and opportunistic (re)positioning of China as the West’s Big Other de siècle, that regime’s enthusiastic embrace of the “smart city” as a buildable project will likely provide some illustrative examples of the perils of authoritarian-solutionist governance… heck, if you’re paying attention (and haven’t already succumbed to the totalising dehumanisation-of-Muslims narrative), they already are.

Disimagination machine

We are repeatedly sold the same message: that individual action is the only real way to solve social problems, so we should take responsibility. We are trapped in a neoliberal trance by what the education scholar Henry Giroux calls a “disimagination machine”, because it stifles critical and radical thinking. We are admonished to look inward, and to manage ourselves. Disimagination impels us to abandon creative ideas about new possibilities. Instead of seeking to dismantle capitalism, or rein in its excesses, we should accept its demands and use self-discipline to be more effective in the market. To change the world, we are told to work on ourselves — to change our minds by being more mindful, nonjudgmental, and accepting of circumstances.

Extract from Ronald Purser’s new book, McMindfulness, at Teh Graun. It’s a hopeful sign that critiques of the neoliberal paradigm like this are creeping into more mainstream outlets — though it’s probably worth noting that Purser is published by Repeater, who also published the Mark Fisher collection, and the “privatisation of stress” thesis running through this piece is pretty much pure Fisher.