Social butterflies?

When somebody is called a social butterfly, it isn’t usually a very positive evaluation. Social Butterflies: Reclaiming the Positive Power of Social Networks by Michael Sanders and Susannah Hume use the term in a neutral, descriptive way to characterise modern life: fluidity between social categories, more means of communication with more people, and above all amplified mutual influence – for good but also, very obviously, bad, whether that’s bank runs or fake news. As they write, “The rise of social media has sent our social instincts into overdrive.” Not so much butterflies as scorpions online, perhaps.

The book is a behavioural economics perspective on social capital – both the authors were previously┬áresearchers at the UK’s Behavioural Insights Team aka Nudge Unit. It starts with a section on group behaviour. looking at the ‘them and us’ instinct and resulting stereotyping and discrimination. It then moves on to social choice architecture – how can nudges be used to shape positive social interactions and outcomes. This includes questions such as how social norms shift, how habitual behaviours shift, how information moves through social networks, and shaping group dynamics. Then there’s a final part discussing policy interventions to build social capital: “Our aim with this book is to sketch out a roadmap to a society where there is more belonging, more trust and – we hope – less discrimination and confirmity.”

These days this seems like a forlorn hope. As the Conclusion observes, the authors started out writing in a mood of cheery optimism and then, well, stuff happened. It’s no coincidence that academic interest in social capital (including ours at the Bennett Institute) has revived after quite a long hiatus, given the state of the world and the polarisation evident in some may countries and political systems. Furthermore, they observe, social influence has negative connotations of pressure to confirm, for many people. I’m not wholly persuaded that nudge approaches are the answer to the apparent decline in social capital or trust; they turn the lens on individuals and the book is full of jolly examples of individual change. Although society is composed of individuals, perhaps collective outcomes are not best thought of as the sum of individual choices… is the solution to the problems inflicted by social media to be found in the choice architecture of Facebook and Twitter? For sure their engineering principles should take account of the social consequences but I wouldn’t want to rely on that.

Still, the book does have lots of interesting examples, relevant to people running teams or organisations as much as to policymakers. It’s engagingly written – and is for sure asking an important question.

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Cartographical, and ethical, literacy

I love books about data visualisation – the oeuvre of Edward Tufte especially The Visual Display of Quantitative Information, anything by Howard Wainer eg Picturing the Uncertain World. So I’ve very much enjoyed How to Lie With Maps by Mark Monmonier. This is an update of a classic tetbook and has been an eye-opener. Although I love maps, and althoug software means they are used far more often, I’d never really thought about them in the same mental bucket as other forms of data visualisation. The book covers everything from choice of symbols to use of colour and shade to the influence of culture and politics on maps. It’s fascinating, the interplay between the apparently technical choices made in making a 2D representation of reality and the social/political/cultural context of the mapmaker. The book will make me a far better prepared observer of the way maps are used in the media and online. Surely we could all do with some more cartographical literacy?

615hGVgBWPL._SX322_BO1,204,203,200_I also read Welfare, Happiness and Ethics by Wayne Sumner. Its aim is to defend a welfarist approach by constructing a version that addresses previous criticisms – consequentialism is out of fashion except in its everyday use in economics, although economists rearely ponder the philosophical foundations of social welfare. I’m not sure the book succeeds, but then I don’t know the answer to Anderson’s dilemma (in Value in Ethics and Economics) about the realism of ethical pluralism versus the realism of non-pluralist, consequentialist public decision-making: every actual decision implicitly makes a choice between plural values.

41YvT8kR1LL._SY346_The late, great Tony Atkinson (whose posthumous Measuring Poverty Around the World is recently out) published an article in 2001 on the Strange Disappearance of Welfare Economics. We haven’t yet answered his call to reopen welfare economics, but it’s really about time.

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Digital verbiage

There aren’t many books I give up on because they are literally unreadable. Shoshana Zuboff’s The Age of Surveillance Capitalism was one recent example, however. Joining this club is a book I saw recommended somewhere The Four-Dimensional Human: Ways of Being in the Digital World by Laurence Scott. I got three chapters in, and yet still have absolutely no idea what it’s about. Example: “Networked hive life has sensitised us to the many silent silences that this environment contains [which environment??]. We feel them [the silent silences??] when they last longer than we can bear, which is a wildly variable threshold. We understand their many vintages and provenances [?] We can smell them in the air [?? silences??], and sense them pushing against our thighs, or lying limply in our hands [!!]. We stare them in the face and they stare back.” This is after an extended bee hive metaphor so maybe the ‘them’ are bees and not silences, but I’m not sure that helps.Is it something about digital that encourages such verbiage

It was shortlisted for the Samuel Johnson prize and was a Sunday Times ‘thought book of the year’ and described as ‘a nourishing counterpoint to the ephemeraility of the digital gae by the Financial Times. So it’s probably me. Still, not recommended, I’m afraid.

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Trains and other illth

I thoroughly enjoyed reading Ruskinland: How John Ruskin Shapes Our World by Andrew Hill over the weekend. As the subtitle indicates, it isn’t a biography but rather an exploration of the influence Ruskin has had in a number of domains, from helping establish the National Trust as steward of the countryside – and encouraging the formation of the Sierra Club in the US – to shaping views about art, to influencing views about capitalism and the dignity of labour on the left of the political spectrum.

I’ve never read a biography of Ruskin, and he doesn’t emerge from this book as an obviously likeable character. In fact, pretty weird. The book I have read (bought at Brantwood, Ruskin’s home in the Lake District) is his famous anti-capitalism, anti-industrialism tract, Unto This Last. Ruskinland sent me back to it, and it still seems completely unconvincing and hyperbolic, for all that no sentient being would deny the horrors of the Industrial Revolution, or even modern capitalism.

Count me in on the need to ensure environmental sustainability, decent pay and working conditions, well-crafted homes etc. But it’s vacuous not to recognise the trade-offs involved in machine-enabled growth. Machines, mass production, raised standards of living, increasingly freed women from domestic drudgery. Trains – which Ruskin hated despite using them a lot – enabled people to escape the social constraints of village life and find urban anonimity. Unto This Last seems to me unadulterated romantic conservatism. Sustainability is easier for the rich. As Hill agrees, Ruskin was also an illiberal ultra-Tory. And adds: “Like today’s Twitterati and online opinionistas, he often adopted an extreme stance for effect.” Counterproductively so, in may case.

So Ruskinland hasn’t changed my views, but it’s a great read & the issues it raises are absolutely pertinent today as we survey the ‘illth’ (that handy Ruskinian neologism) being created by modern capitalism.

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The Technology Trap

Anybody interested in the economic impact of digital and AI, in particular on jobs, will want to read Carl Frey’s new book, The Technology Trap: Capital, Labor and Power in the Age of Automation. He is probably best known for his rather gloomy work with Michael Osborne (original pdf version here) highlighting the vulnerability of many jobs – almost half in the US – to automation in the next couple of decades. The book expands on the issues that will determine the actual outcomes, and is – as the title indicates – still quite pessimistic.

The structure of the book is historical, with sections on pre-industrial technologies, the Industrial Revolution (which saw widening inequalities), the mass production era (which reduced inequalities and created an affluent middle class), the recent polarization in the era of globalisation and digital, and future prospects. The key distinction Frey draws in between technologies which substitute for labour and those which complement it. Whereas the 19th century and the present seem to involve the replacement of people with machines, the 20th century innovations needed increasingly skilled labour to work with them.

Although I am probably not as gloomy about future prospects for work and incomes, I really enjoyed reading the book, which covers a wide range of technological applications in addition to the well-known historical examples. It leaves open two questions. One is about the present conjuncture: what explains the combination of seemingly rapid technological change and adoption with – in at least some OECD economies – very low unemployment rates? The answer might just be ‘long and variable lags’ but the question surely needs addressing.

The broader question, or set of questions, is really about the interaction between technology and labour market and other economic institutions. Although automation is likely to have the same general effects everywhere, the outcomes for workers will be refracted through very different national job markets, education systems, tax systems and so on. How much can any individual country lean successfully against the wind? Frey is not (unlike Robert Gordon) US-centric but does not get into these issues.

And beyond the response to technological change, what is it that determines the direction of technical change in the first place? The book treats the labour substitution or complementing as exogenous. But why were electric unit drives in auto plants and internal combustion engines created as complementary and yet automation in today’s car industry seems like it will substitute for labour? It seems to me this must be an institutional story too, but I don’t think it’s been told yet.

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