Visualizing The World Risk Society

That is the worthy goal of the report – World Risk 2013 – published by the World Economic Forum, (yes, the Davos guys). It is a pretty dense report, so, before I go into the visualization aspect, check out this handy video (there is a whole videos page) explaining how the report works:

Here is my exploration of this visualization:

Global Risks 2013 from SocProf on Vimeo.

The report also contains static images for each specific sub-sections. So, here are a few snapshots.

The overall survey results:

It is a bit hard to read but you can still spot the areas of concentration in the mini-scatterplots for each risk probability of occurrence and impact. For instance, for “severe income disparity”, you can tell this is one of the highest ranked economic risk, with a darker dot at the top right of the scatterplot. Similarly, in the societal category (red), “water supply crisis” ranks high on both axes as well.

In the video, the year-to-year scatterplot was not very useful, but this static image is:

In this case, you can clearly identify which risk perception have increased or decreased over time.

The overall network map is also pretty impressive but the animated / interactive version is more useful and readable:

The top 10 risks:

The centers of gravity (you need to click on the image for a larger view):

The impact of global warming:

And last but not least, one that is a bit scary:

Check out the whole website for a lot more material on all of this.

40 Years

Via The Economist, this is why the only “pro-life” position is to be pro-choice, that blue line below:

Also note that the abortion trend was upward before Roe (I wonder if the graph includes back-alley abortions, if not, then the pre-Roe level of abortion would be higher, invalidating somewhat the claim that Roe increased abortion rates. Roe might have instead increased legal abortion rates), went higher after Roe for about a decade, then plateaued in the early 80s, followed by a slow but steady decline.

Let anti-choice advocates argue against the blue line.

As With Guns, The Remedy for Inequalities is More Inequalities

So, by now, you have all probably read, or at least heard of, Joseph Stiglitz’s column in the New York Times as to how inequalities are stalling economic recovery:

“With inequality at its highest level since before the Depression, a robust recovery will be difficult in the short term, and the American dream — a good life in exchange for hard work — is slowly dying.”

In case you have forgotten how true this is, just remember this:

Stiglitz offers four main reasons for why inequalities are a threat to recovery:

“There are four major reasons inequality is squelching our recovery. The most immediate is that our middle class is too weak to support the consumer spending that has historically driven our economic growth. While the top 1 percent of income earners took home 93 percent of the growth in incomes in 2010, the households in the middle — who are most likely to spend their incomes rather than save them and who are, in a sense, the true job creators — have lower household incomes, adjusted for inflation, than they did in 1996. The growth in the decade before the crisis was unsustainable — it was reliant on the bottom 80 percent consuming about 110 percent of their income.

Second, the hollowing out of the middle class since the 1970s, a phenomenon interrupted only briefly in the 1990s, means that they are unable to invest in their future, by educating themselves and their children and by starting or improving businesses.

Third, the weakness of the middle class is holding back tax receipts, especially because those at the top are so adroit in avoiding taxes and in getting Washington to give them tax breaks. The recent modest agreement to restore Clinton-level marginal income-tax rates for individuals making more than $400,000 and households making more than $450,000 did nothing to change this. Returns from Wall Street speculation are taxed at a far lower rate than other forms of income. Low tax receipts mean that the government cannot make the vital investments in infrastructure, education, research and health that are crucial for restoring long-term economic strength.

Fourth, inequality is associated with more frequent and more severe boom-and-bust cycles that make our economy more volatile and vulnerable. Though inequality did not directly cause the crisis, it is no coincidence that the 1920s — the last time inequality of income and wealth in the United States was so high — ended with the Great Crash and the Depression. The International Monetary Fund has noted the systematic relationship between economic instability and economic inequality, but American leaders haven’t absorbed the lesson.”

And yes, lower mobility:

“Our skyrocketing inequality — so contrary to our meritocratic ideal of America as a place where anyone with hard work and talent can “make it” — means that those who are born to parents of limited means are likely never to live up to their potential. Children in other rich countries like Canada, France, Germany and Sweden have a better chance of doing better than their parents did than American kids have. More than a fifth of our children live in poverty — the second worst of all the advanced economies, putting us behind countries like Bulgaria, Latvia and Greece.”

And I especially like how Stiglitz points out the obvious: what is happening is the product not of impersonal market forces, but of very real, human and ideological decisions:

“There are all kinds of excuses for inequality. Some say it’s beyond our control, pointing to market forces like globalization, trade liberalization, the technological revolution, the “rise of the rest.” Others assert that doing anything about it would make us all worse off, by stifling our already sputtering economic engine. These are self-serving, ignorant falsehoods.

Market forces don’t exist in a vacuum — we shape them. Other countries, like fast-growing Brazil, have shaped them in ways that have lowered inequality while creating more opportunity and higher growth. Countries far poorer than ours have decided that all young people should have access to food, education and health care so they can fulfill their aspirations.

Our legal framework and the way we enforce it has provided more scope here for abuses by the financial sector; for perverse compensation for chief executives; for monopolies’ ability to take unjust advantage of their concentrated power.

Yes, the market values some skills more highly than others, and those who have those skills will do well. Yes, globalization and technological advances have led to the loss of good manufacturing jobs, which are not likely ever to come back. Global manufacturing employment is shrinking, simply because of enormous increases in productivity, and America is likely to get a shrinking share of the shrinking number of new jobs. If we do succeed in “saving” these jobs, it may be only by converting higher-paid jobs to lower-paid ones — hardly a long-term strategy.

Globalization, and the unbalanced way it has been pursued, has shifted bargaining power away from workers: firms can threaten to move elsewhere, especially when tax laws treat such overseas investments so favorably. This in turn has weakened unions, and though unions have sometimes been a source of rigidity, the countries that responded most effectively to the global financial crisis, like Germany and Sweden, have strong unions and strong systems of social protection.”

[I love how these rationalization mirror those about guns I debunked in an earlier post.]

Are things going to get better? According to three analysts that I like, the answer seems to be a resounding “NO!” because nothing has changed since the Depression of 2008.

George Monbiot:

“How they must bleed for us. In 2012, the world’s 100 richest people became $241 billion richer. They are now worth $1.9 trillion: just a little less than the entire output of the United Kingdom.

This is not the result of chance. The rise in the fortunes of the super-rich is the direct result of policies. Here are a few: the reduction of tax rates and tax enforcement; governments’ refusal to recoup a decent share of revenues from minerals and land; the privatisation of public assets and the creation of a toll-booth economy; wage liberalisation and the destruction of collective bargaining.

The policies that made the global monarchs so rich are the policies squeezing everyone else. This is not what the theory predicted. Friedrich HayekMilton Friedman and their disciples – in a thousand business schools, the IMF, the World Bank, the OECD and just about every modern government – have argued that the less governments tax the rich, defend workers and redistribute wealth, the more prosperous everyone will be. Any attempt to reduce inequality would damage the efficiency of the market, impeding the rising tide that lifts all boats. The apostles have conducted a 30-year global experiment, and the results are now in. Total failure.

(…)

The neoliberals also insisted that unrestrained inequality in incomes and flexible wages would reduce unemployment. But throughout the rich world both inequality and unemployment have soared. The recent jump in unemployment in most developed countries – worse than in any previous recession of the past three decades – was preceded by the lowest level of wages as a share of GDP since the second world war. Bang goes the theory. It failed for the same obvious reason: low wages suppress demand, which suppresses employment.

As wages stagnated, people supplemented their income with debt. Rising debt fed the deregulated banks, with consequences of which we are all aware. The greater inequality becomes, the UN report finds, the less stable the economy and the lower its rates of growth. The policies with which neoliberal governments seek to reduce their deficits and stimulate their economies are counter-productive.

(…)

Staring dumbfounded at the lessons unlearned in Britain, Europe and the US, it strikes me that the entire structure of neoliberal thought is a fraud. The demands of the ultra-rich have been dressed up as sophisticated economic theory and applied regardless of the outcome. The complete failure of this world-scale experiment is no impediment to its repetition. This has nothing to do with economics. It has everything to do with power.”

[Emphasis mine]

Will Hutton:

“In any case, for most of the business leaders attending Davos, the economic malaise is an abstraction. Profits as a share of GDP in almost all western countries are at record highs, along with executive pay. Meanwhile, real wages for the majority are stagnating, if not falling, justified by our economic leaders in Davos as the proper if sad consequence of “structural adjustment”. Goldman Sachs, for example, shamed from deferring its bonus payments into the next financial year so that its staff could enjoy the lower tax rate, has just enjoyed a bumper year. Davos men and women are prospering. No structural adjustment for them.

There will doubtless be the usual appeals for more free trade, more scientific research and more investment in skills as the expensively clad executives move from seminar and sonorous keynote speech to reception and back to the dinner table. But what there will not be at Davos is a willingness to countenance a sea change in the way capitalism is organised. It can do what it will and that is to continue to confer fortunes on those at the top, with little risk, while directing pain on to others.

The paradox is that the chief reason capitalism is in crisis is that without such challenges it has undermined its own dynamism and capacity for innovation. Instead, it merely offers enormous and unjustified self-enrichment for those at the top.

Nor does the malign impact of inequality stop there. I was stunned to read in a recent IMF working paper, with the hardly catchy title Income Inequality and Current Account Imbalances, that the whole – yes the whole – of the deterioration of the British current account deficit between the early 1970s and 2007 could be explained by the rise in British inequality. It is a similar, if less acute, story across the rest of the industrialised or, rather, deindustrialising west.

What the IMF team shows is that as the share of national income devoted to profits and top pay rises to its current levels, so a noxious economic dynamic is created. By definition, there is less of the pie available to the mass of wage earners, whose real wages become squeezed. To sustain their living standards, they borrow, which has been easier than ever over the past 40 years as banks take advantage of financial deregulation. Overall demand thus carries on growing, but at the price of sucking in imports and ever higher personal debt levels for ordinary wage earners.

Finally, the music stops, as it has now, as both debt and import levels become unsustainable. The state of play in Britain – crazy levels of private sector debt and a record trade deficit – can thus be explained by the rise of inequality. And one of the chief causes of that, the IMF believes, is the decline in trade union bargaining power!

I would argue there is a further twist to the story. Inequality driven by weaker unions and labour market deregulation hits investment and innovation. Executive teams do not need to invest and innovate dynamically to earn rich personal rewards. They just need to be in post, squeezing the workforces’ real wages to lift profits, now the fast and easy route to apparent better performance, and thus to increase their own remuneration. And even if they do invest and innovate, the capacity to scale up production fast is hit because there are ever fewer consumers with rising real wages to buy the new products. Inequality is a recipe for stagnation.  If Davos wants “resilient dynamism”, the delegates should be discussing how to reduce profits as a share of GDP to more normal levels, while boosting the real incomes of the mass of their workforces. Be sure this will not be on the agenda. For what it implies – better wage bargaining, new arrangements to share profits across the whole workforce, smarter labour market regulation and executive pay keyed to long-term innovation rather than annual profits growth – is the antithesis of all that Davos and the international consensus believe.”

What is to be done?

“Davos is intellectually bankrupt. But the ideology it champions won’t fall just by itself. Capitalism’s dead end requires intellectual challengers, social movements and trade union leaders prepared to dare to reimagine their role. We need ferment and protest in civil society. Social democratic parties will move, but only when they can sense a change of popular mood. This is everyone’s problem – and the responsibility of us all to act as we can.”

Last but not least, Aditya Chakrabortty:

“I have an idea for a particularly mediocre film. The plot runs thus: a bunch of rich white men gather in an Alpine hamlet. There’s a schlubby bald Chicagoan, a Parisian banker in a suit lush enough to eat, and the obligatory Belarusian with a PhD in physics and a dentist keen on gold crowns. It’s an odd set-up, but apparently innocuous. With this much cash flying about, busted film stars and semi-retired pop singers swoop in. Journalists write amusing sketches about the post-prandial piano-man who plays Billy Joel for tipsy millionaires.

But away from the gluhwein and the gabfest, the real action is slowly revealed. The businessmen summon prime ministers and presidents to secret meetings in tiny rooms, where they order the lives of the billions consigned to the plains below – and so make themselves even richer. The title for this not-so-thriller? Well, I rather fancy Plutocrats’ Paradise.

Perhaps you think my scenario is too crass to be credible, yet a far cruder version is about to unfold: it’s called Davos.”

Read the whole rather snarky piece.

That’s the macro and ideological side of things. Then, there is the reality of what increased inequalities mean to people in the trenches (that is, the non-Cloud-Minders… I know I have used that reference before but I like it so much). First, this:

“The average Manhattan apartment, at $3,973 a month, costs almost $2,800 more than the average rental nationwide. The average sale price of a home in Manhattan last year was $1.46 million, according to a recent Douglas Elliman report, while the average sale price for a new home in the United States was just under $230,000. The middle class makes up a smaller proportion of the population in New York than elsewhere in the nation. New Yorkers also live in a notably unequal place. Household incomes in Manhattan are about as evenly distributed as they are in Bolivia or Sierra Leone — the wealthiest fifth of Manhattanites make 40 times more than the lowest fifth, according to 2010 census data.”

But class divisions and their markers are visible in every markets:

“In the 1970s, the receipt of a Fisher Price farm set on Christmas Day would have conferred nothing terribly distinctive about class, having come from a department store and having appeared just as probably under the tree of a white-shoe lawyer as it would have under the tree of a brick layer. But toys, like lettuces or chocolate, have long since become another manifestation of difference. (And this is even before we arrive at an absurdity like the $1,499.99 Etch-a-Sketch encased in Swarovski crystals, currently at F. A. O. Schwarz, something that would appear to have been created as an engagement offering for an 8-year-old Trump to give a 6 ½-year-old Kardashian.)

What finds its way off the shelves of the chains is not what disappears from stores like Boomerang in TriBeCa, or Mary Arnold, the 81-year-old toy store on the Upper East Side. At those stores, the best-selling product of recent years has been something called Magna-Tiles, geometrically shaped magnetic tiles that allow children to imaginatively build virtually anything but what, in my experience, often turns out looking like the Crystal Cathedral in Southern California. Last Christmas, a flood near the factory where the tiles are made in Asia caused a shortage and a rise in price, with boxes of tiles, which usually retail for roughly $1 a tile, going for hundreds of dollars on eBay. By Dec. 12 last year, Ezra Ishayik, the owner of Mary Arnold, told me, he’d sold $20,000 worth of tiles and had run out.

Magna-Tiles are not sold at Toys “R” Us. Uninterested in sharing company with licensed products rendered in offensive colors, manufacturers like these resist the taint of the mass market, selling instead in museum gift shops and small, aesthetically palatable shops that draw from a narrow slice of our demographics. At the same time, as Sean McGowan, a toy industry analyst at the investment bank Needham & Company explained it, the market for educational toys is never quite as big as we would like it to be. While a company like Toys “R” Us carries educational toys, over time its commitment to promoting them has eroded, he said.

In many parts of the city, though, beyond Manhattan and the various precincts of brownstone Brooklyn, something like Toys “R” Us is really all that exists. As I learned when I phoned recently, Castle Hill Toys and Games in the Bronx, for instance, doesn’t consider itself much of a toy store at all anymore, having transitioned into a focus on bikes and bike repairs when Toys “R” Us came to be common in the borough.

In the way that we have considered food deserts — those parts of the city in which stores seem to stock primarily the food groups Doritos and Pepsi — we might begin to think, in essence, about toy deserts and the implications of a commercial system in which the least-privileged children are choked off from the recreations most explicitly geared toward creativity and achievement.”

The Visual Du Jour – Where The Brown Shirts Are

Here is an interesting data visualization from Der Spiegel, on the rise of the Nationaldemokratische Partei Deutschlands (NPD), the German far-right party.

As you can see from the map and the post title, I don’t think the choice of brown dots as color scheme is random. It is a rather simple data visualization but it clearly shows the areas of greater influence of the NPD, as measured through voting rates. It shows rather clearly where the NPD has gotten some popularity (i.e.: the former East Germany).

That being said, I am not a big fan of dots because they make proportions / rates hard to tell. I know there is the legend on the left but once you start working on the map, can you really tell, beyond the areas of greater aggregations, exact percentages (when those are not given in the textual notations on the side?).

And if the brown is designed to underline some political ugliness, it succeeds.

It is a bit of a shame though that the article does not provide any explanation for this. Maybe the reasons are obvious to Germans, but I got this as part of the international, English-language edition, and not all readers (including me) may be aware of the subtleties of German party politics. Although I was aware that the former DDR is now the hotbed of far-right politics (for reasons of downward mobility, economic dislocations, and precarization), but I was hoping for more.

The Anti-Gay Marriage Crowd Makes a Category Mistake (Again)

1. Apologies to real philosophers for my butchering of Gilbert Ryle‘s concept.

2. Yay! Pierre Maura is blogging again! (He had better not raise our hopes only to crush them with a one-time thing).

Anyhoo, it is this brand new blog post over as Comprendre that led drew me back to Gilbert Ryle’s concept of category mistake. But first off, a  bit of context. The current French government has drafted a bill to legalize gay marriage. That bill was being considered in committee. It is now out and has to go before the National Assembly. Needless to say, the anti-gay crowd, led by that bastion of morality, the Catholic Church, is up in arms about it. They had a big demonstration last weekend. They want a referendum on the issue. And to support their view, they have put out the poster below:

Even if you do not understand French, it is not hard to see what is going on here. The top squares and the bottom left square refer to the Arab Spring and their overthrow of the regimes in Egypt, Tunisia and Libya. Each square is accompanied by some text, supposedly a quote attributed to French president François Hollande (no citations though) that is the same in all three squares “(name of dictator) must listen to his people”.

Then, the bottom right square has a crowd shot of the anti-gay marriage demonstration that reproduces the same quote “Mr Hollande must listen to his people”. they must be very proud of themselves for this, thinking they have a major zinger, right?

Not so fast. This is where the concept of category mistake comes in handy. The properties of the first three squares are not the same as that of the last one.

1. The events in the cases of Egypt, Tunisia and Libya, were triggered by economic woes combined with a major discontent with regimes that ranked from authoritarian to totalitarian. They demand for representation and vote was based precisely on the absence of such things in these countries, in any meaningful ways.

In France, people have had the opportunity to vote four times since last Spring: twice for the Presidential election, and twice for the general elections. Before these elections, there had been local elections. President Hollande is not the illegitimate dictator of an authoritarian or totalitarian regime. There is therefore no basis for the demand that President Hollande listen to his people since gay marriage was in his platform and he got elected. He is therefore actually listening to his people by implementing something he was elected to do.

On this point alone, the comparison fall through.

2. The demonstrations in Egypt, Tunisia and Libya involved a great deal of risk for physical safety of the participants. What they were doing was a direct challenge to repressive regimes that might strike back at them with violence, something which actually did happen.

In France, demonstrations are legal and usually authorized with some discussion with local police departments. An agreement is reached on schedule, itinerary, and security. Such demonstrations are safe. There is no risk to the participants beyond the demands of a long-ish walk.

3. It is a bit funny that the only apt comparison is that in all four cases, these demonstrations have involved reactionary, religious fundamentalist movements making somewhat of a comeback on the political scene, movements that would happily deny gays their basic rights. After all, homosexuality is illegal in these countries but has been decriminalized in France in the early 80s.

4. In the first three cases, the collective demand is for an extension of political rights. In the French case, the collective demand is that of denial of right to an entire category of people and the preservation of exclusive privilege to heterosexuals.

So, because I’m nice, let me provide the proper comparison here:

For those of you who read French, go read the entirety of Maura’s post as it is consistent with my own here.

Do We Need Sociology Binders Full of Women?

Based on Urban Demographics’s post, it would appear so:

The diversity, it is grossly lacking. Also, how many of them are still alive?

It may be related to this (also from Urban Demographics):

At the same time, it is expected that peer-reviewed publications to refer to the existing body of knowledge in each sub-field of the discipline and some “classical” concepts are bound to come up over and over (e.g.:  “strength of weak ties” hence the presence of Granovetter in the list above).  It is a bit distressing to see that even the few big women names don’t appear in the list (Sassen, Hochschild, etc.).

Unfortunately, I am not sure that us socbloggers have done such a bang up job in citing “out of the box”. We do touch upon a variety of topics, but do we actually cite or refer to more recent research by underrepresented categories? I don’t know but from my totally-unscientific readings, not all that much.

Book Review – The Googlization of Everything

I was initially suspicious of this book because of its title and how reminiscent it is of similarly coined words, like “McDonalization” or “Disneyification”. But, I finally picked up Siva Vaidhyanathan’s The Googlization of Everything (And Why We Should Worry) because, after all, we should all know more about Google. It has become such a major part of our Internet experience that it deserves some critical examination.

And critical it is, right off the bat:

“This book describes the nature of that devotion as well as a growing apostasy, and it suggests ways we might live better with Google once we see it as a mere company rather than as a force for good and enlightenment in the world.

We may see Google as a savior, but it rules like Caesar. The mythology of the Web leads us to assume that it is a wild, ungovernable, and thus ungoverned realm. This could not be further from the truth. There was a power vacuum in the Web not so long ago, but we have invited Google to fill it. Overwhelmingly, we now allow Google to determine what is important, relevant, and true on the Web and in the world. We trust and believe that Google acts in our best interest. But we have surrendered control over the values, methods, and processes that make sense of our information ecosystem.

This book argues that we should influence—even regulate—search systems actively and intentionally, and thus take responsibility for how the Web delivers knowledge. We must build the sort of online ecosystem that can benefit the whole world over the long term, not one that serves the short-term interests of one powerful company, no matter how brilliant.” (Loc. 67).

Vaidhyanathan’s also acknowledges the great deal of good that Google has done to our Internet experience. We should just never forget that, despite its “Don’t Be Evil” motto, Google is a for-profit corporation that feeds on data that we provide.

But what is the Googlization of Everything?

“Googlization affects three large areas of human concern and conduct: “us” (through Google’s effects on our personal information, habits, opinions, and judgments); “the world” (through the globalization of a strange kind of surveillance and what I’ll call infrastructural imperialism); and “knowledge” (through its effects on the use of the great bodies of knowledge accumulated in books, online databases, and the Web).” (Loc. 141)

In that sense, Google is way more than a search engine. The multiplication of its applications means that one’s experience of the Internet may be completely inseparable and indistinguishable from Google if one uses Gmail for emails, Youtube as video service, Reader for aggregator, Google + for social networking, and Google Docs, as well as Nexus devices. Then you are thoroughly embedded in the Google universe.

The price to pay for access to all these goodies that truly do make our lives easier is our privacy, our surrendering to this private and corporate aspect of the surveillance society. And that is Vaidhyanathan’s main critique of Google, how it contributes to our loss of privacy and our invisible surrendering of our data if we want the ordered experience of the Internet rather than the chaotic mess it would be without Google. After all, we are not Google’s users. We are its product.

In effect, for Vaidhyanathan, Google is doing what should have been (and still could and should be) the job of an organization (or organizations) dedicated to the public good. But there was never much political will to establish that, so, Google stepped in and ordered the Internet for us. This public failure is a BIG problem.

But Google’s actions, algorithms and practices are far from neutral and that is something we should be concerned about considering how dominant it is:

“If Google is the dominant way we navigate the Internet, and thus the primary lens through which we experience both the local and the global, then it has remarkable power to set agendas and alter perceptions. Its biases (valuing popularity over accuracy, established sites over new, and rough rankings over more fluid or multidimensional models of presentation) are built into its algorithms.12 And those biases affect how we value things, perceive things, and navigate the worlds of culture and ideas.” (Loc. 233)

An interesting perspective that Vaidhyanathan uses to examine Google is what he calls the Technocultural Imagination (not coincidentally reminiscent of C. Wright Mills’s Sociological Imagination). The technocultural imagination strives to answer the following questions:

“Which members of a society get to decide which technologies are developed, bought, sold, and used? What sorts of historical factors influence why one technology “succeeds” and another fails? What are the cultural and economic assumptions that influence the ways a technology works in the world, and what unintended consequences can arise from such assumptions? Technology studies in general tend to address several core questions about technology and its effects on society (and vice versa): To what extent do technologies guide, influence, or determine history? To what extent do social conditions and phenomena mold technologies? Do technologies spark revolutions, or do concepts like revolution raise expectations and levels of effects of technologies?” (Loc. 247)

Those are indeed central questions and they are often ignored in the cyber-utopian literature.

And there is another rather ominous aspect to Google and its charismatic leaders:

“The company itself takes a technocratic approach to any larger ethical and social questions in its way. It is run by and for engineers, after all. Every potential problem is either a bug in the system, yet to be fixed, or a feature in its efforts to provide better service. This attitude masks the fact that Google is not a neutral tool or a nondistorting lens: it is an actor and a stakeholder in itself. And, more important, as a publicly traded company, it must act in its shareholders’ short-term interests, despite its altruistic proclamations.” (Loc. 256)

At the same time, Google and its leaders provide ideological cover for the fall of the idea of public good (replaced by the fuzzy concept of corporate responsibility).

“Of course Google is regulated, and Schmidt knows it. Google spends millions of dollars every year ensuring it adheres to copyright, patent, antitrust, financial disclosure, and national security regulations. Google is promoting stronger regulations to keep the Internet “neutral,” so that Internet service providers such as telecommunication companies cannot extort payments to deliver particular content at a more profitable rate. But we have become so allergic to the notion of regulation that we assume brilliant companies just arise because of the boldness and vision of investors and the talents of inventors. We actually think there is such a thing as a free market, and that we can liberate private firms and people from government influence. We forget that every modern corporation—especially every Internet business—was built on or with public resources. And every party that does business conforms to obvious policy restrictions.” (Loc. 923)

The other social issue relating to Google then is what Vaidhyanathan calls techno-fundamentalism: the belief that all social problems have technological solutions (an iPad for every pupil in the US!).

After these general framing comments, Vaidhyanathan goes into deeper details of Google’s activities whether it’s the search algorithms and monetization system, Streetview or Google Books as well as the Google Buzz fiasco related to a central aspect of Google’s way of doing things: the power of default (all systems are turned on by default and one has to actually opt out of those, but at the cost of degraded Internet experience). All of these relate to the massive issue of privacy.

For Vaidhyanathan, we have five privacy interfaces that we have to negotiate and maintain in order to preserve our privacy and reputation (among other things):

  1. Person to peer: our family and friends
  2. Person to power: our teachers, employers, professional superiors, administrators. There is information about us we generally don’t want to share with them.
  3. Person to firm / corporation: the information we agree / don’t agree to share with the businesses we patronize.
  4. Person to state: the state gets to know some things about us through our tax returns, car registration forms, census responses,  immigration information, etc.
  5. Person to public: this last one is the least understood but has become crucial as we live our lives online.

“At this interface, which is now located largely online, people have found their lives exposed, their names and faces ridiculed, and their well-being harmed immeasurably by the rapid proliferation of images, the asocial nature of much ostensibly “social” Web behavior, and the permanence of the digital record. Whereas in our real social lives we have learned to manage our reputations, the online environments in which we work and play have broken down the barriers that separate the different social contexts in which we move.” (Loc. 1806)

Of course, one of the issues is that data collected in one corner of the Internet usually does not stay there. It is not simply that the government can access it but also other “partners” of the companies we use. as a result, the Googlized subject, as Vaidhyanathan puts it, voluntarily surrenders her information – in bits and pieces – as she goes about her business (public and private) to a variety of public and private entities, each getting its relevant chunk of data. The Panopticon has become a public-private partnership on steroids. This segmented subject fits the needs of market segmentation where customization is essential.

Vaidhyanathan also goes into some details in the controversy related to Google and its Chinese adventure to demonstrate the uneasy relationship between such companies and non-democratic regimes and to renew his plea for a truly global civil society and a global public sphere (obligatory invocation of Habermas included) and the ways in which Google is not contributing to that.

“But the most significant gap separating potential citizens of the world is not necessarily access to Internet technologies and networks. It is the skills needed to participate in the emerging global conversation. Being able to use a search engine, click on a link, and even post to Facebook does not require much skill or investment, but producing video, running an influential blog, participating in the Wikipedia community, hosting a proxy server, and even navigating between links and information sources on the Internet demand much more  money and knowledge than most people in the world have. To acquire such skills, people need at least minimal free time and significant means, and many with disabilities are excluded regardless of education or means. The barriers to entry for such productions are lower than ever in human history, but they are far from free, open, and universal.

(…)

Despite its global and universalizing ambitions and cosmopolitan outlook, Google’s search functions are not effective in connecting and unifying a diverse world of Web users. Instead, its carefully customized services and search results reinforce the fragmentary state of knowledge that has marked global consciousness for centuries. Over time, as users in a diverse array of countries train Google’s algorithms to respond to specialized queries with localized results, each place in the world will have a different list of what is important, true, or “relevant” in response to any query.” (Loc. 2601)

Vaidhyanathan also spends a great deal of space discussing the controversy over Google Books and the legal intricacies that might lead to a settlement between publishers and Google in the context of the fear of the privatization of knowledge if Google were to replace public libraries. This leads Vaidhyanathan to the exposition of what seems clearly to be he thinks should be the public response to Google: the Human Knowledge Project.

This is a very pleasant read but my main issue with the book is this: it already feels dated. Google has already evolved since this book was published. As a result, some of the controversies mentioned by Vaidhyanathan are somewhat forgotten, and other issues are not mentioned: not much on the Buzz and Wave fiascos, nothing on G+, nothing on Vevo.  Things seem to be ever-changing for Google:

Google is abusing its dominant place in the search market, according to Europe’s antitrust chief Joaquin Almunia.

In an interview with the Financial Times of London, Google could be forced to change the way that it provides and displays search results or face antitrust charges for “diverting traffic,” in the words of Almunia, referring to Google’s self-serving treatment to its own search services.

Despite the U.S. Federal Trade Commission’s move earlier this month to let off Google with a slap on the wrist — albiet, a change to its business practices, a move that financially wouldn’t dent Google in the short term but something any company would seek to avoid — the European Commission is looking to take a somewhat different approach: take its time, and then hit the company hard.”

And last December (which kinda seems to prove Vaidhyanathan’s point:

“Google’s Eric Schmidt went all out yesterday, saying he was “very proud” of his company’s tax “structure”, and that “it’s called capitalism.”

Inevitably, this had led to calls for a boycott of Google until it starts to pay its fair share of corporation tax.

Of course, these calls have also marked out part of the folly of such boycotts. It’s easy to boycott Starbucks: within 30 seconds walk of most UK branches you’ll find more coffee. We are basically a nation of people selling coffee to each other with a bit of banking on the side.

Google is… harder. If you use any of its web services, you are likely to feel locked in (everyone knows your gmail address! Think how much work it would be to change your address books!); if you have an Android phone, you are probably contracted in without even a choice to leave; and if you use their web search, you’ll probably have finished the search and clicked on a link before you even remember that you were supposed to be boycotting in the first place.

On top of that, of course, a boycott doesn’t look like it would be as effective for Google as it was for Starbucks. Within days of the first allegations about the coffee company coming out, it had posted an open letter on its website; and then even before the big UK Uncut protests, it had already agreed to radically restructure the way it declares its taxes. Comparing that to Schmidt’s bombastic comments, we can infer that Google might put up a bit more of a fight.

The thing is, people ought to be boycotting Google, especially their main cash cow, web search. Not because of tax avoidance, but because it makes a terrible product used only through exactly the same inertia which will kill any political action.

Once upon a time, Google search was the unambiguous best. Its page-rank system, which replaced manually editing search results with an ingenious methodology which used links to a site as guarantors of that site’s quality, meant that it gave more accurate results than many of its now-defunct (or nearly so) competitors like Alta Vista or Yahoo! Search; its simple UI made it easier to use, as did its massive step up in speed, a fact reflected in its show-off display of how many hundredths of a second the search took.

Most importantly, Google refused to offer paid placement, a relatively common practice at the time which mixed advertising with editorial content: companies would literally pay to appear in the search results for a given keyword.

Those principles lasted a long time; even when Google started “personalising” searches, it was still aimed at reducing bad results. Someone who always clicks on cars after searching for “golf” probably wants different results than someone who clicks on sports sites.

Then came Google+. Terrified by Facebook, the company launched a rival social network, and in an attempt to catch up, decided to leverage its existing businesses. Personalised searches are no longer based just on what you have previously searched for. They’re also based on your Google+ contacts, and what they’ve posted about and discussed.”

So, as necessary as this book is, (1) there is too much reference to faith, (2) it is in dire need of an update, and (3) I’m not convinced about the Human Knowledge Project and this needs an update too. Has it stayed as Vaidhyanathan’s dream of a global civil society or have there been developments? Without a new edition soon, this book, which should be important, is in danger of losing relevance even though it makes important points beyond the specific case of Google.

The Walking Dead – Feral Season

I did not watch the new half season of the Walking Dead at the time it aired because (1) I can’t stand commercial breaks, and (2) I was saving it for the Holiday season and an 8-hour transatlantic flight. I have now watched the whole eight episodes back to back and I am pleased (and by pleased, I mean, disgusted) to report that this season is that of the feral misogyny. The same misogyny as the previous seasons, except without any of the social restraints (such as they were) from the previous seasons.

The unfaithful slut gets her comeuppance

… By dying in a bloody and painful childbirth, butchered by Maggie and with a coup de grâce administered by her son. I guess it was worth it not having this first-term abortion after all. The baby, of course, is fine (except infected, like everybody else).

Carl and his stupid hat. 

The young actor has obviously considerably grown up over season break (supposedly a Summer season in the show timeline), but somehow the ridiculous hat still looks way too big on him and somehow, this new found maturity (as materialized by his full ownership of a gun as well as protective attitude towards the females in the herd) has not made him realize the ridiculousness of the hat. Oh well. I’ll leave it up to you to get all Freudian on the mercy-killing one’s mother.

One old patriarch out, one old patriarch in

Out with Dale, in with Hershel. Since Andrea was left behind, there was no need for Dale to lecture and patronize her all the time. Hershel is still around although now that everybody has submitted to Rick’s alpha male status, he is relegated to subordinate patriarch. However, patriarchs still have their special relationships. After his amputation and near-death experience (saved by Lori), the first hand he squeezes his Rick’s (not his daughters’). The alpha male gets first recognition in the clan.

WTF did the writers do to Andrea? 

Good grief, Laurie Holden does not deserve this. Seems to me the writers have had it in for Andrea since the beginning, what with the character being constantly shown as the uppity woman, who wants to be like the guys, only she can’t because she’s got girl cooties, and everybody has to remind her of her lowly status (Dale, Lori, etc.).

So I initially had some hope when she was separated from – and left behind by – Grimes’s group. I even had higher hopes when she partnered with Michonne! Tough broads together! Ugh. No, as soon as they find the Potemkin village, Andrea falls under the spell of the other alpha male, The Governor. Her character goes all lame. Of course, he puts her in her place at the slightest trace of uppitiness.

Also, kudos for reducing Michonne to the stereotype of the angry black woman, barely socialized and fit for human company. Ugh.

Feral patriarchs

As I mentioned in the title, this season is the season where survivors go feral. Grimes is more advanced down that path than the Governor but he’s getting there. This first half season was especially bloody. Under the guise of saving ammunition, we get treated to a lot of hand-to-head bludgeoning, blood splattered all over people’s faces.

That is especially the case when Grimes (who had been a brooding dick to his wife) goes apes*it when he realizes she has died in childbirth. So, he disappears for a while and goes on a rampage, because, never mind the newborn that needs taken care of, that’s a woman’s job. And he’s gotta do a guy thing.

The killing thing, of course, extends to other survivors (same for the Governor who massacres a bunch of soldiers for supplies). It is actually uncanny how the two groups resemble each other: one alpha male with BIG dominance issue, a black guy (interchangeable, in Grimes’s group… so long T-Dog, we hardly knew ya), one Asian guy, one lame female, one neo-nazi brother (from the same family), one creepy doctor experimenting / keeping walkers.

The Governor does not go on rampages as savagely as Grimes, but he does some pretty creepy stuff, like the zombie head collection he keeps in his man cave, along with his now-turned daughter (VERY creepy stuff there).

Where Grimes has crossed the line into savagery and feral clan protectiveness, even if it means killing other survivors, the Governor is not quite there yet, but I suspect he will in the second half of the season. We can expect a Big Confrontation with the Grimes group. I’m guessing it’s too much to hope for for both Grimes and The Governor to die.

This progressive turn to savagery for the whole Grimes group is materialized with their physical degradation. They’re all filthy, with dirty and torn clothes. There is not much left civilized in them and their solidarity does not extend past their limited (and dwindling) group.

Oh, and there’s another group showing up at the end of the last episode of the half season, and within five minutes of showing up, a woman is told to shut up as a grown man thinks a boy with a stupid hat has higher status.

But they’re black, so, don’t you all get too attached here because black people are disposable on this show.

The only saving grace: Glenn and Maggie, apparently, the only characters who care about diapers and baby formula.

Seriously.

The Only Argument Guns Advocates Should Have The Guts to Make (But Won’t)

Todd Krohn makes it for them:

“It’s a cultural thing, as they say. We live in a society that launches “wars” on everything from drugs and crime, to cancer and fat. If it’s an inanimate object, we’re going to war with it. We have the most militarized law enforcement in the world, and more people locked up per capita than any country on the planet. We cover our more base and primal urges under the Constitution, hiding there when someone takes the “freedom” to be wack too far. Do you have your 1st and 2nd amendment rights to own violent video games and as many guns as you can possibly buy? Damn right you do. Soak yourself in blood, real or imagined, 24/7.

But please, stop the weeping and faux sympathy and crocodile tears when the next round of school kids, one of your family members, or anyone for that matter (almost 700 people have been shot to death in the U.S. since Newtown; new research shows“Stand Yer Ground” laws have added 500-700 homicides every year), gets whacked.

That’s your “price of freedom” cultural argument, tough guy.”

That is the only “pro-gun” argument that actually fits the data and I wish gun advocates would make and defend that argument but they never do. Instead, they keep pursuing red herring to try to erase data that don’t fit their ideological view, in addition to actively suppressing research in the first place.

I wish they made and defended these arguments as well:

  • A gun arsenal of different types is a big part of American masculinity, which is culturally deeply associated with violence.
  • A gun makes injuring and killing easier than other weapons (knives, etc.).
  • A gun annihilates the potential strength and courage differential between people.
  • A gun reassures white men of their status in a country where their numbers are decreasing and non-white people numbers are increasing, and that is a source of anxiety.

Those are the only data-supported arguments. Have the guts to make them.

Book Review – Existence

Us science-fiction fans have been waiting for a long time for a new full-fledged novel by David Brin since Kiln People. It is finally here: Existence. I think Existence is on a par with the Uplift trilogy or Earth. It does indeed read like a more elaborate version of Earth. I remember re-reading Sundiver a few years ago and thinking how great it still is.

Existence is a big book. And by that, I don’t just mean that it’s long (although it is, clocking in at 553 pages on my Kindle) but that it aims at big ideas about… wait for it… existence. At the same time, it is an entertaining sci-fi work on the “first contact” theme starting when astronaut / space garbage cleaner Gerald Livingstone grabs a crystal out of orbit and brings it back to Earth, and it turns out that the crystal contains alien avatars and they are sending a message, “Join Us”. Somewhere in China, an impoverished salvage collector makes a similar discovery in an underwater abandoned mansion, except the alien in his crystal is calling the other liars.

But that is only one story line in a book that weaves many threads (and ends up with a lot of loose ends as a result). Brin has created a futuristic world that has obviously suffered massive environmental and social catastrophes (Awfulday, the Autism plague). Global warming has drowned big chunks of the world.

Not everything has been lost, the Mesh (the Internet) connects everybody. Most people have implants that constantly plug them in with AIs, information from the web, smart mobs, and varieties of overlays. Different social movements have emerged, the so-called God-makers (the technology makers and pushers), the Renunciation movement who wants to slow things down and rejects some technology advancements, various religious movements. It sometimes felt like Brin was more interested in the whole gadgetry than his characters or his “world”.

Overall, the world seems to be stratified according to a hierarchy of estates. The First estate is that a global caste of super-wealthy oligarchs who rule behind the scenes but are depicted as benevolent yet possessing a quite clear sense of entitlement. But Brin leaves this stratification system quite incomplete. Most of the characters are privileged people (except for the Chinese salvage collector). Even though it is mentioned in the book at some point that starvation has disappeared, this Chinese example shows that not to be true. And as global as the novel is, Africa is remarkably absent.

Somewhere, in there, one also finds the roots of Uplift, although that storyline is abruptly brought up, then abandoned, and does not do much for the whole book except give the Brin faithful the Origin story of Uplift. Abrupt changes of direction and loose ends left hanging abound in Existence. One such brutal change in direction is when the alien storyline really gets interesting, then, the book fastforwards decades out of nowhere… and then does it again until the end. I guess this last one is supposed to bring all the plotlines together but does not really and the book ends with no ending. Those last 30 pages were a bit of a slug for me.

Oh yeah, and there is a cloned Neanderthal child in there as well.

The cast of character is vast is it is not hard to keep track but one never knows if any of them will make another appearance once a chapter is over. And a lot of them don’t. Hence the loose ends impression. To add to the confusion, supposed “excerpts” from books, manifestos, etc. are interspersed between chapters.

Up until the abrupt fast-forward, I was really enjoying the book although never knowing whether a character would reappear or had been dropped was annoying. After the fast-forward, I confessed to losing interest and I really had to drag myself across the finish line.

The Visual Du Jour – GOOOOOOAAAAL

I love soccer, or as we Europeans call it, football. I also like network visualizations. So, how can I not love this network visualization of Ballon D’Or votes. If you don’t know what the Ballon D’Or is, check this out.

Quick explanation:

“The above visualization shows the network of votes of the Ballon d’Or 2012. Voters and voted for players make up the 524 nodes of the graph. Node size is based on indegree. The 1513 edges are based on the given votes, with each of the voters having three votes: 1st place 5 points (thickest line), 2nd place 3 points, and 3rd place 1 point (thinnest line). Node color indicates either being a captain (red), coach (violet), journalist (blue), or player who did not vote (green).”

There really seems to be two players and everybody else: Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo just dominates the whole thing.

Living The Guns Dream

There are places in the world where there are lots of guns, and not just by bad guys. So what does a country awash with guns look like? According to the pro-gun hypothesis, it should be a crime-free heaven, right? Let’s see:

“I recently visited some Latin American countries that mesh with the N.R.A.’s vision of the promised land, where guards with guns grace every office lobby, storefront, A.T.M., restaurant and gas station. It has not made those countries safer or saner.

Despite the ubiquitous presence of “good guys” with guns, countries like Guatemala,Honduras, El Salvador, Colombia and Venezuela have some of the highest homicide rates in the world.

“A society that is relying on guys with guns to stop violence is a sign of a society where institutions have broken down,” said Rebecca Peters, former director of the International Action Network on Small Arms. “It’s shocking to hear anyone in the United States considering a solution that would make it seem more like Colombia.”

As guns proliferate, legally and illegally, innocent people often seem more terrorized than protected.”

There is a chicken-and-egg issue though: are more guns the product of institutional breakdown and failed state or do more guns trigger institutional breakdown and failed state? After all, if a lot of private people (whether gangs or private security personnel) have guns, one can see how that could have a destabilizing effect rather than a response to destabilization.

“Scientific studies have consistently found that places with more guns have more violent deaths, both homicides and suicides. Women and children are more likely to die if there’s a gun in the house. The more guns in an area, the higher the local suicide rates. “Generally, if you live in a civilized society, more guns mean more death,” said David Hemenway, director of the Harvard Injury Control Research Center. “There is no evidence that having more guns reduces crime. None at all.”

After a gruesome mass murder in 1996 provoked public outrage, Australia enacted stricter gun laws, including a 28-day waiting period before purchase and a ban on semiautomatic weapons. Before then, Australia had averaged one mass shooting a year. Since, rates of both homicide and suicide have dropped 50 percent, and there have been no mass killings, said Ms. Peters, who lobbied for the legislation.”

And these facts will not make one bit of difference.

Neither will those:

“Guatemala, with approximately 20,000 police officers, has 41,000 registered private security guards and an estimated  80,000 who are working without authorization. “To put people with guns who are not accountable or trained in places where there are lots of innocent people is just dangerous,” Ms. Peters said, noting that lethal force is used to deter minor crimes like shoplifting.

Indeed, even as some Americans propose expanding our gun culture into elementary schools, some Latin American cities are trying to rein in theirs. Bogotá’s new mayor, Gustavo Petro, has forbidden residents to carry weapons on streets, in cars or in any public space since last February, and the murder rate has dropped 50 percent to a 27-year low. He said, “Guns are not a defense, they are a risk.”

William Godnick, coordinator of the Public Security Program at the United Nations Regional Center for Peace, Disarmament and Development in Latin America and the Caribbean, said that United Nations studies in Central America showed that people who used a gun to defend against an armed assault were far more likely to be injured or killed than if they had no weapon.”

C. Wright Mills – Taking It Big and Speaking Truth To Power

The last parts of Stanley Aronowitz‘s Taking It Big – C. Wright Mills and The Making of Political Intellectuals deal with The Sociological Imagination and Mills’s overall impact as a public sociologist, his successes and failures as such.

“Mills’s refusal of psychoanalytic interpretations of history and politics and the absence of references to Nietzsche’s conceptions of power and history in his writings were by no means frivolous. His own idea of the politics of truth was anchored in a belief that reason could eventually govern human affairs if only beleaguered intellectuals stepped up to their moral responsibilities. In this sense, he exhibited an abiding faith in the Christian imperative to “speak truth to power,” although, in the end, Mills was less interested in taking power than in abolishing it. For Mills, it was not merely a matter of hectoring, although he did quite a bit of that. In the last years of his life, he was determined to live as a political and public intellectual. Or, to be more exact, he wanted to bring the political implications of critical social theory and commentary into the public sphere. And, perhaps more importantly, he assumed a mission to bring his writing and ideas into the mainstream as well as to audiences in and out of academia in the hopes of creating, despite the odds, a new public, which could be a catalyst for the emergence of a new Left from the shards of a confused and fragmented liberal center.” (196-197).

Public intellectuals, though, have always had a hard time in the US (as opposed to Europe where there are more of them, including quite a few hacks though).

“Mills held fast to the power of ideas to effect change, but he was not so naïve to believe that a relatively small band of intellectuals armed with a culture of critical discourse could by themselves be more than catalysts. Despite his critique of the massification of the public, he was still in Dewey’s camp and not Lippmann’s, insofar as he retained hope in the reemergence of a genuine public that could decisively affect the course of national politics from below.” (197).

This is especially interesting. because, after all, Mills missed the boat on the social movements of his time, such as the Civil Rights (Aronowitz states that Mills found the movement intellectually uninteresting but he supported it), the women’s movement (although he might have already been dead by the time Second Wave feminism really took off) as well as other community-based movements (and he had already pretty much given up on the labor movement).

“He regarded the American intelligentsia as totally lacking in “moral courage” and condemned intellectuals for their “moral cowardice” in the face of McCarthyite attacks on civil liberties and academic freedom and for their failure to grapple with the dark consequences of the permanent war psychosis.” (214-215)

Nothing really changed here.

But in addition to wanting to be a public intellectual, with The Sociological Imagination, Mills also engaged the social sciences in general and sociology in particular, in his own cranky way.

“The Sociological Imagination is nothing short of a program for a new social science. It was written in opposition to what Mills perceived as the two dominant tendencies in social science: what he called “abstracted empiricism” and “grand theory.” Even though his main targets are some of the most influential sociologists of the post–World War II era, they are, as he makes clear, representative of social science as a whole. But what is new for Mills is the imperative to return to the classical tradition of Marx, Simmel, Durkheim, and Weber, all of whom, despite their differences, wanted to understand the social structure, its relation to history, and to the individuals who inhabit it.” (216)

And Mill’s classical definition:

“No social study that does not come back to the problems of biography, of history and their intersections within a society has completed its intellectual journey.

What is the sociological imagination?

The sociological imagination enables its possessor to understand the larger historical scene in terms of its meaning for the inner life and the external career of a variety of individuals. It enables him to take into account how individuals, in the welter of their daily experience, often become falsely conscious of their social position.” (216).

Everybody is familiar with the concept of “false consciousness”:

““False Consciousness” is a category of the Marxist theory of ideology. Among other things, it connotes the inability of individuals and, perhaps, entire social formations to locate “their position” in the social structure or even their interests. It may mean, for example, that the poor identify with the rich rather than with their own class or that ordinary people patriotically follow their rulers in conducting brutal wars and genocidal annihilations against whole populations or, as Mills was wont to reiterate, to experience their public problems as private troubles.” (216-217)

But it is the practitioners of the discipline that bear the brunt of his critique:

“He critiques social scientists for their penchant for “abstraction,” for beginning with categories rather than social problems (i.e., grand theory), or for employing methodologies of research that have little or no substantive content (i.e., abstracted empiricism).

(…)

He is not concerned primarily with correcting these tendencies for the sake of merely reforming the discipline(s). True to the entirety of his writings—beginning with his study, almost twenty years earlier, of pragmatism in the context of the university—he is obsessed with the conditions under which the public can become vital participants in the political sphere. The manipulation of the public—its reduction to a mass of individuals who feel “trapped” in a welter of “private” troubles that for Mills must become public issues—remains the genuine object of the sociological imagination. But this transformation cannot be effected unless and until social studies—including journalism—begin with the premise that the task is to understand social structures in their historical context as the framework within which individuals experience everyday life, however falsely. The claim for “social studies” (we shall see why he wants to jettison the term “science” in this respect) is that they must go back to the future by resuming the world-historical project of classical social theory.

(…)

“The practice of social scientists has been and continues to be focused on discrete studies of a variety of social problems and phenomena. These studies fail to draw the implications of the results for an understanding of social structure and the “historical scene” within which they occur.

(…)

“Mills writes: “Specialists in method tend also to be specialists in one or another species of social philosophy. The important point about them, in sociology today, is that they are specialists, but that one of the results of their specialty is to further the process of specialization within social sciences as a whole.” A consequence of this specialization is that it tends to obscure the study of problems of social structure.” (221)

How many sections are there in the American Sociological Association these days?

“Sociological and political theory have been relegated to specialties within their respective disciplines and, for the most part, consist of histories and commentaries on past social and political thought. With only some exceptions, theorizing about the global present has migrated to Europe, Asia, and Latin America. The United States does not have its Pierre Bourdieu, Edgar Morin, Norbert Elias, Jürgen Habermas, or Anthony Giddens. But Polish, French, and British sociologies have their Mertons, Lazsarfelds, and Parsonses. American positivism and empiricism have become global phenomena in those societies where intellectuals wish to free themselves from the burdens associated with theories, particularly historical materialism, pointing to social transformation.” (221)

I find Aronowitz’s assessment a bit harsh here. What of Richard Sennett and Saskia Sassen? (Do they count as Americans or as fully global – highly privileged – intellectuals) I would add though Manuel Castells and Zygmunt Bauman to the list and be more skeptical of Edgar Morin. What of Southern theorists?

The general point, though, is still valid when one looks at the training future sociologists get not just in the US higher education system but in Europe as well (even though there is indeed greater tolerance for “taking it big”).

“Those who do not address problems of humans from the perspective of social structures and historical contexts that condition their troubles have tacitly or explicitly accepted the current setup and seek only to tinker with it to make it more just.

(…)

It means “taking it big,” by which Mills meant that social studies must be bold enough to grasp the whole social world.” (239)

The last part of Mills’ critical sociology involved culture and its apparatus of production.

“Mills left unfinished the project of a comprehensive study of the cultural apparatus. He was less interested in the aesthetic dimension of cultural production than its political salience. Specifically, he wanted to understand the relation of cultural products to political consciousness and the place of its producers to possible social and political transformations. Mills had come to the conclusion that it was not the economy or even self-interest in general that drove contemporary social agents to action or inaction. Mills concluded that in the epoch of what he termed “overdeveloped” capitalism, the masses were moved more broadly by “culture” than by reason. He had become convinced that the cultural apparatus played a central role in reproducing the entire “set-up.”

(…)

Mills’s invocation of the cultural apparatus, paralleling Horkheimer and Adorno’s idea of the culture industry, signaled that culture was no longer the spontaneous creation of the people but instead was an aspect of the organization and reproduction of social and political domination. If social transformation was at all possible, its protagonists were obliged to understand the process of the production and distribution of the key cultural forms, especially the mass media. Clearly, the implication of his projected study was to argue for a new counterhegemonic strategy of the Left that matched the force of the culture industry.” (242)

“However, a half-century after Mills outlined a project for the critical study of the cultural apparatus, dominant disciplines, even the relatively recent domain of cultural studies, lack the grandeur of Mills’s proposal to ask the crucial question of the relation of the cultural apparatus to political and social power. Perhaps the major exception was the Birmingham School—Stuart Hall, Raymond Williams, Dick Hebdidge, Judith Williamson, Paul Willis, and Richard Hoggart, among others—whose ethnographies of working-class youth subculture and television analysis were remarkably in sync with Mills. In contrast, many scholars of postmodernism have chosen to follow the broader tendency among the social sciences to confine their research to narrow topics and have failed to connect the implications of what they find to the larger questions of social theory. In fact, among the new generation of practitioners of cultural analysis there developed a suspicion of theory, relegating its main tenets to an outmoded modernism.” (243)

I’m willing to bet that Mills would have no patience of postmodernists. They would make him especially cranky.

But Aronowitz see a few signs of hope and more reason to stay cranky:

“For example, the ethnographer Michael Burowoy’s inaugural 2005 address as incoming president of the American Sociological Association was a plea for sociologists to become public intellectuals. Some listeners understood that the speech was a tribute to the almost forgotten legacy of C. Wright Mills, who exemplified the category. Burowoy neglected to mention Mills, but he did invoke Antonio Gramsci’s idea of the “organic” intellectual—whom he defined as a person closely tied to social movements. Although careful to avoid criticizing his interlocutors, Burowoy’s implicit message to the gathering was that sociologists should enter the public sphere not mainly as experts subservient to prevailing powers but as allies of the agents of change. He argued that sociologists should orient their intellectual work to questions of concern to social movements. Burowoy listed four categories of intellectuals: professional, policy, critical, and public. He called for the “hegemony” of the last two, a project that at best remains a Sisyphean endeavor.

Half a century after Mills’s death, public intellectuals dedicated to fundamental social transformation have become a rarity in American political life, along with the exclusion of a radical politics in the public discourse. Journalists are trained to believe they are ideologically neutral and are warned that reporting from a leftist standpoint is a violation of ethics (the right and center perspectives are far less proscribed, however). Despite Burowoy’s plea, the training of intellectuals in universities tends to discourage students from embarking on a dissident path if, in an ever-tightening academic employment market, they expect to obtain and hold academic jobs. Given these pressures, most academics are content to remain teachers and scholars or, if inclined to politics and other forms of public discourse, are obliged to confine their efforts to tweaking the existing setup.” (243-244)

This is far from speaking truth to power (and let’s not forget the fiasco of the APA dealing with torture):

“The knowledge generated by the policy intellectuals is, frankly, done in behalf of the national, state, and local power elites.

Sociologists are among the main sources of social-welfare knowledge, much of it funded by public and nonprofit agencies. Knowledge is dedicated to assisting the state to regulate, in the first place, the poor. Having forsaken theoretical explorations aimed at explaining social events, the disciplines of economics and political science have, with the exception of a small minority of practitioners, become policy sciences. Economists assist and advise governments and corporations to anticipate and regulate the “market,” raise and spend tax revenues, and help direct investments abroad as well as at home. Political science has virtually become an adjunct to the political parties and to the foreign policy establishment; its polling apparatuses are guides to candidates on how to shape their messages and to whom to target their appeals.” (248)

This seems to parallel Mills’s view of labor leaders.

“Mills spurned the temptation to tailor his skills to the powerful but chose to study them using some of the tools of social research. While many socially conscious colleagues studied “down”—the poor, single mothers, homelessness, for example—Mills insisted on looking power directly in the face.” (248)

I think French sociologists Monique Pinçon-Charlot and Michel Pinçon provide a good example of sociology of the elite that Mills would have approved of.

In the final analysis, Aronowitz sees Mills in 3D: (1) political intellectual, (2) a theorist of American social structure, and (3) a meta-theorist of the social sciences, especially sociology. Because he died so young, it is hard to tell how successful he truly was in all three respects. It is also hard to see who walks in his footsteps today. Anybody? In Mills’s (and Aronowitz’s) view, it could not be someone from academia.

So, where are the public sociologists today? Those trying to take it big? The stars of sociology of globalization? Castells? Bauman? Sennett? Sassen? Stephanie Coontz (albeit in a very specialized way, on marriage and families)?