Old states, new technologies

April 24, 2014 by · 2 Comments
Filed under: The RSA 

I agree with Adam Lent. There is no fundamental reason why the accelerating capacity of new technology to undertake tasks previously the domain of skilled humans should lead us to be pessimistic about the prospects for social progress. All things being equal, rising productivity driven by technological advance provides the basis for sustained economic growth and sustained economic growth (especially if that growth is focussed on the quality not the quantity of production) should mean more people being able to pay each other to have their needs met and desires fulfilled.

But, of course, all things are not equal. As Andrew McAfee and Erik Brynjolfsson recognise in ‘The Second Machine Age’ the impact of technological change both reflects and reinforces aspects of the social arrangements in which it appears. Neither economic nor technological determinists are right, as Evgeny Morozov has argued, different technologies interact with social reality in ways which reflect specific aspects of each. For example, email is functional for bureaucracies while social media tends to be disruptive and Twitter can be effective both as a way of mobilising protest and as a means to monitor dissent.

Thus the biggest danger of the coming third industrial revolution/second machine age (or whatever we choose to call it) is that it has the potential to map onto and further widen inequality in an era when national Governments seem particularly powerless to intervene on behalf of the greater good. Imagine if Google had been invented in the 1950s (yes, I know that was before the internet but stick with me): It would have been assumed that such a ubiquitous and essential service which makes its money largely out of expropriating other people’s labour (content) would have been at the very least highly regulated and taxed and more likely brought into public ownership.

Among the characteristics which lead McAfee and Brynjolfsson to believe that intelligent computing power will further widen inequality are these: it is only the most creative and ‘special’ people who will still have something to offer than robots don’t; and digitally based innovations can spread very quickly making huge monopoly profits for inventors and investors until another innovation comes along to make another killing for another group of super clever or super rich individuals.

Another related factor concentrating power and wealth are network effects which mean that the bigger the market share achieved by a platform, the more effective it is and the more able it is to withstand and buy out competition (think of the respective dominance and scope for rent-seeking profits of Google, Facebook, Amazon, Twitter and Kickstarter).

Without action technological change will reinforce already wide inequality. Compare this with the middle of the last century: the inventions of the first machine age – domestic electricity, motor cars and white goods – achieved ubiquity among Western consumers at a time when a much higher proportion of economic growth was recycled into the income of ordinary workers. Now – as Thomas Piketty eloquently argues – the proceeds of growth are being grabbed and hoarded by the already wealthy.

So, whilst Adam is right that we should reform education and pursue other policies to prepare our populations for the challenges and opportunities of the second machine age, these challenges will be much harder, and opportunities much fewer, unless Governments (working at home and internationally) can develop the legitimacy, confidence and know-how to ensure the benefits of the next technological revolution are fairly and wisely distributed.

Which reminds me of another of Adam’s blogs, this one on Moses Naim’s analysis of the decline of big power, particularly that of the state. The American sociologist Daniel Bell once argued that in the modern world the nation state would come to be seen as ‘too big for the small things in life and too small for the big things’. I have tended to think of this as being about the spatial dimension of governance; the need for greater devolution to localities, on the one hand, and greater international collaboration, on the other, but it is more deeply a point about power.

I have repeatedly argued that central Government and its traditional policy tools are becoming ever more blunt and dysfunctional when it comes to social policy. Yet we desperately need the unique democratic authority of Government to tackle some of the biggest problems we face; on climate, inequality, infrastructure, regulating finance, and global security. When Piketty argues for a global wealth tax or McAfee and Brynjolfsson join the ranks of those who support a minimum income guarantee, it is not so much that people object to the proposals as that they have little faith in Government to be able to enact them successfully.

All of which leads to me to conclude that part of the RSA’s pursuit of what we call the ‘Power to Create’ (releasing the creativity inherent in all of us) must be about 21st century statecraft. Technology is the most powerful single force in the modern world but its impact depends to a large degree on the choices we have made and the choices we will make. Democracy is the way we make those choices at a collective level. Unless democracy works better in twenty-first century conditions then there is no guarantee that technological progress will beget human progress.


Marx, motivation and the Power to Create

April 11, 2014 by · 8 Comments
Filed under: Social brain, The RSA 

It was more than slightly intimidating earlier this week to host an event with David Harvey, one of the world’s leading Marxist thinkers. Nevertheless listening to the great man and reading his book I was reminded of why – although there are many powerful aspects of Marxist analysis – I have never been attracted by the whole world view.

It comes down to human motivation: In essence Marxists tend to blame what they see as the most regrettable aspects of human behaviour on the capitalist system. So, for Harvey, capitalism relies upon and inculcates blind greed among the capitalist class (exhibited, for example, by the efforts made by the very rich to avoid their tax obligations) while fostering a combination of mob consumerism and bovine acquiescence among most of the rest of us. Conversely, Harvey’s happy, enlightened post capitalist society seems to rely upon the emergence or a much more benign human psychology. Indeed Harvey is explicit about the importance to his case of a belief in the perfectibility of the human spirit – it is why he abhors the depredations of capitalism and why he believes in a radical alternative.

In contrast, I believe human motivation is both more constant, in that the same features and vulnerabilities express themselves – albeit in different forms – whatever the social context, and more complex in that – with Freud – I see inherent tensions playing out in the human psyche.

Crudely superimposing very basic elements of cultural theory and the Freudian account of the personality, I suggest we have three core drives: the pursuit of pleasure (roughly cognate with id, freedom, individualism), the pursuit of power (roughly cognate with ego, progress, hierarchism); the fulfilment of duty (roughly cognate with super-ego, universalism, solidarity).

While I am only too ready to believe that consumer capitalism encourages an idea of pleasure which is both insatiable and narrowly materialistic and that it therefore tilts the balance of human nature in a particular, problematic, direction, I neither think the inherent conflict between our core motivations is a characteristic of capitalism alone nor that this conflict will ever be fully transcended.

This takes me beyond a fairly well-rehearsed and probably simplistic critique of the Marxist account of human nature to the debate in the RSA about the set of ideas we call the Power to Create; ideas which might ultimately frame the major part of our work.

A concern in our internal discussions (soon we aim to open that discussion much wider) has been that the focus on creativity can seem individualistic and ethically empty. This is why we stress inclusion (releasing the creativity in everyone) and responsibility (creativity for the common good) alongside creativity per se.

Going back to my triptych of human impulses, creativity can be seen to reflect two impulses – the pursuit of pleasure and power – but not the third – duty and responsibility. For example, does a focus on creating new things imply complacency about environmental sustainability or is it incompatible with the idea that human beings should prize a capacity for stoicism, quiet reflection and humility?

There are two responses to this concern: First, creativity can certainly be applied to questions of ethics and duty (this is the inspiration for much social enterprise); second, creativity can be about how we achieve a higher trade off point in the eternal tensions between our desire for the good life, for achievement and status, and to be virtuous. Creativity can thus be linked to Robert Kegan’s idea of self authorship as the highest stage of human development.

It may indeed be the ideology of consumerism that leads us sometime to conflate the idea of enhanced human agency with a narrow idea of self interest and personal ambition. Yet far from greater self mastery (a belief that we can create the future we choose) being seen as a way for the individual to free themselves from their natural and social context, the ideal should be that it leads to a deeper awareness of our essentially social nature our relationship with the natural environment and to more fulfilling and benign ways of managing the inherent tensions between our different human needs.


Devouring the future?

April 2, 2014 by · 4 Comments
Filed under: Uncategorized 

How should we carry the past into the future? This important question lies, often opaquely, behind personal, political and cultural dilemmas.  Without the past we have no identity, we are not human; but the past can also be an invading army colonising our future and mercilessly wiping out the people we might have chosen to become.

Writing back in the 1950s Alan Watts’s ‘The Wisdom of Insecurity’ drew on eastern philosophical traditions and modern psychological insights to issue a rallying call for living in the present:

‘There are, then, two ways of understanding an experience. The first is to compare it with the memories of other experiences, and so to name and define it. This is to interpret it in accordance with the dead and the past. The second is to be aware of it as it is, as when in the intensity of joy, we forget past and future, let the present be all, and thus do not even stop to think, ‘I am happy’

Watts does not advocate forgetting or ignoring the past but that we should be mindful of the way in which, in the very act of meaning-making, we give the past dominion over the present and preclude the power and joy of unmediated experience.

While the feeling of transcendent ‘nowness’ may be rare to those of us who have not chosen the path of committed meditation we can more prosaically perhaps agree that in life’s journey the past should be a guide book of useful information, suggestions and stories rather than a rucksack of rocks.

Think also of heritage and place. There is a drive to build more new towns but whatever benefits starting from scratch might bestow our ambivalence about the concept reflects the sense that for a place to have identity it must have a past.

An RSA project is looking at the role of heritage in local social and economy strategy. It suggets civic leaders are aware of how the past provides identity and distinctiveness (dare I say ‘brand’) and in a nexus for civic engagement and social connection. Yet, too often, the heritage sector defines itself in terms of the protection of old stuff, forgetting that if heritage has no resonance beyond the historical it may survive but be inert.

The best way to protect the past is to think deeply and creatively about its contribution to the construction of a future sense of place. By choosing to be a site of contestation about identities and choices, heritage can secure its place as a social asset.

Then to politics: Thomas Piketty’s monumental work ‘Capital in the in the 21st century’ is rightly being seen on the left as one those rare debate-changing works. In it, the French economist argues that with the exception of the early and middle part of the twentieth century (when war, population growth and social democratic policies combined in a very particular way), earnings from assets have outstripped economic growth and thus earned income. Growing inequality between those who have assets, and are able not only to enjoy their fruits but grow them further, and those who do not is endemic to market economies. We mistook the exceptional cycle of the twentieth century as a trend but now we seem set back on the road to nineteenth century levels of profound inequality. Combine this with modest levels of long term growth and the prospects for those without assets are grim.

Piketty’s work raises many provocative questions and left of centre blogs are buzzing with them but one of the most important concerns time:

‘ …inequality expresses  a fundamental logical contradiction. The entrepreneur inevitably tends to become a rentier, more and more dominant over those who own nothing but their labour. Once constituted, capital reproduces itself faster than output increases. The past devours the future’    

And so to David Cameron’s apparent commitment to make a major cut in inheritance tax a priority for a Government in the middle of a deep austerity programme. What is it that we want to pass onto future generations? Surely love, self-worth, some sense of the responsibility and honour of standing on the shoulders of past generations. There is no reason why part of this legacy should not be expressed materially.

That parents do all they can to help their children thrive, that adult children strive to provide dignity and care to older generations, and that at death we pass on – if we can – assets which might provide our loved ones with opportunities or some resilience to misfortune; these are parts of the familial world we should honour and protect. But should the opportunity to succeed become a passport to entrenched privilege, should something to fall back on become a feather bed for the failed or feckless? Most of all do we want the result of yesterday’s races to become an insurmountable handicap system for tomorrow’s?

How does the past live in the future? It turns out this question is everywhere. Perhaps we should think about it more deeply and more consistently.


‘But you really need to want to change …’

March 27, 2014 by · 3 Comments
Filed under: Public policy, The RSA 

In a brilliant RSA lecture earlier this week, criminologist Shadd Maruna offers reasons why the idea of rehabilitation has gone in and out of fashion over the decades. He suggests, for example, that the sheer cost of incarceration makes alternatives to custody more attractive in times of austerity. But the Professor also makes a deeper philosophical point about evidence, values and public policy choices.

If the focus for policy evaluation – ‘what works’ as the phrase has it – is simply immediate crime reduction then the only proven intervention is large scale incarceration. This approach doesn’t try to change offenders – except by the blunt tool of deterrence – it just keeps them off the street for as long as possible. In a narrow cause and effect calculus (what Maruna refers to as the ‘Newtonian’ world view) prison works.

The case for rehabilitation relies on extending the argument in two directions. First, there needs to be a wider focus on social impacts of the criminal justice system and the underlying causes of crime: Maruna quotes evidence of the impact on families, poverty and inequality of high levels of incarceration among particular social groups. However, while this evidence is powerful it is by its nature less definitively causal.

Second, the case for rehabilitation has an essential normative dimension. Maruna quotes Roger Smith thus:

‘Unlike punishment which mobilises our sense of virtue and sets us apart from the transgressor, forgiveness arouses in us and depends upon, a sense of shared weakness. We are moved to forgive out of our own need to be forgiven for what we have done in the past and may do in the future. Forgiveness, unlike punishment, moreover depends upon a life of common values and concerns’

Both the wider focus on effects and the normative underpinning point to rehabilitation as a whole systems approach. If we expect rehabilitation to work merely as an instrumental device tacked on to a mechanistic system suffused with punitive values we are doomed to fail. Gratifyingly for the RSA, Maruna closes his talk by quoting from a forthcoming report on our excellent Transitions project :

‘Rehabilitation is something all of us want to see more of but it eludes us; it is a social benefit that requires a social response.’ 

Looking at public service reform more generally this analysis may go some way toward explaining the Hawthorne effect*. This describes the depressing but reliably predictable phenomenon by which closely evaluated social innovations undertaken by pioneers succeed but the same practice fails when replicated by others. While the pioneers are inspired by a reforming zeal and a profound critique of the status quo the replicators tend to see the reform as merely as a means to an end. The values and motivation that helped the innovation succeed as an experiment are absent when the idea is ‘rolled out’ across a rule bound ‘Newtonian’ bureaucracy.

The well-meaning letter written earlier this week to the Guardian by Labour reformers failed to get much purchase beyond being another story about the travails of Ed Miliband.  The letter calls for

‘ Accountability of all powerful institutions…..Devolution of state institutions…. where possible, directly to the people. Co-production of public services by workers, users and citizens, to make them more responsive and efficient…Empowerment of everybody, so they are equipped with the resources (time, money, support) to enable them to play a full role as active citizens’.

The problem isn’t just the jargon. As critics have pointed out, much of this stuff seems pretty irrelevant to the priorities of most working class voters; in relation to values, the list is reminiscent of Oscar Wilde’s comment that ‘the trouble with socialism is that it takes too many evenings’ – the implication is that the ideal society is one in which we all spend a lot of our time designing, running and holding to account our own public services.

As my colleagues Anthony Painter and Travis Wentworth argue, the RSA’s idea of ‘The Power to Create’ chimes with the case for the local and for devolving of power to individuals and communities. But – echoing the argument for rehabilitation – the Guardian letter writers’ case needs widening and deepening if it is to have a chance of success.

On the one hand, the nature of the problem has to be clarified. The point being that if one steps back more than a couple of paces from the narrow self-serving claims made by Government departments, it is clear that in more and more cases, traditional top down, central policy making and implementation simply doesn’t work, not because of the failings of politicians nor even the specific design of policy but because of the nature of the modern world. (By the way, among the many fallacies of central Government is the idea of rolling out best practice referred to above).  If we care about sustained social progress – rather than narrow, short term, policy effects- we have no choice but to think very differently about power and policy.

On the other hand, the normative case for citizen engagement is not just about service design or public sector accountability, much less a life of committee meetings, but a prizing of human autonomy, responsibility, collaboration  and creativity; the good life well lived.  Being able to create the lives we want and to contribute to developing a society in which such individual fulfilment is realistic is not a means to a progressive future; it is that future.

The principles implied by the Guardian letter ultimately rest on a Damascene conversion from the tools and logic of central control and a re-orientation of progressive goals away from metrical equality to a richer account of the good life in the good society. As such this platform could attract people from different parts of the existing faded political spectrum. It is journey I expect to be travelled by future political leaders, but not I fear any time soon.

*Not to be confused with the Hawthorns effect which involves paying £35 to join twenty five thousand other people on a Saturday afternoon in a collective process of turning belief and hope into disillusionment and anguish.


Only Connect

March 20, 2014 by · 2 Comments
Filed under: The RSA 

There is an argument I have made to progressives for many years and which I have since heard made more eloquently by Roberto Unger:greater equality should not be the end of progressive politics although it is almost certainly an important means. As Unger argues, the right’s focus on market based freedom and the left’s on social justice underwritten by the state fails to engage with what is both the ultimate goal of progress and the aspiration of people themselves – to live full and fulfilling lives.

The left might wish it was otherwise but not only are most people not particularly animated by the idea of social equality per se but the idea that people have of justice tends to be more about what political philosophers call procedural justice (fair application of rules, the balance of rights and entitlements) than substantive social justice. When pollsters ask people what is unfair in society they are as likely to mention welfare cheats and immigrants as the gap between rich and poor.

However, there is also a problem with identifying the goal of progress as lives that are ‘full and fulfilling’, or some other idealist description. It is hard to define the good life substantively. If we start with what people say matters right now we end up with a set of goals which seem rather prosaic and with only a tenuous link between individual aspirations and the requirements for a successful society. Yet if progressives claim that the good life is to be found in a certain set of universal attributes they open themselves to the claim of arbitrariness and arrogance and also seeming to be advocates of the dangerous idea that it is the business of social planners to help people create meaning in people’s lives.

Might there be an alternative end goal for progressivism? I would like to suggest connectedness or, at the risk of falling into jargon, ‘inclusive connectedness’. By the latter I mean being connected empathically and substantively to people from all parts of the society in which we live.

As Aristotle argued, being connected richly to other people is a vital element of living a good life. As social beings, the quality of our connections can be seen to be a direct correlate of the quality and value of our lives. Whilst the most reliable path to individual contentment may lie in a retreat from the social sphere into a world of contemplation, human fulfilment is an interpersonal phenomenon involving the effects we have on others.

More instrumentally, connectedness expands our horizons and opportunities can make us feel more valued and help us be more resilient to adversity. Being inclusively connected is not just a matter of personal preference or social co-incidence; prizing connectedness calls on us to be responsible for making and maintaining those connections beyond our own social tribe (something which requires us to transcend our evolved instincts).

Prizing connectedness also leads us to explore and value those attributes of society which give rise to connectedness; the balance of shared values with tolerance of difference, of freedom with social inclusion, of structure and tradition with spontaneity and experimentation.

The idea of inclusive connectedness as the goal of progressive politics gives rise to two big questions. The first involves understanding more deeply than we already do – from the work of Robert Putnam and many others – the relationship between connectedness and other aspects of the good life well lived. The RSA has explored aspects of this through our Connected Communities and Social Mirror projects. I spent a fascinating two hours a few days ago discussing a Participle innovation called Backr which is, so it seems, successfully exploring the importance of connectedness to gaining, and progressing in, employment.

The second set of issues concern the barriers to inclusive connectedness. I am excited to be chairing the Social Integration Commission which is looking at the degree of connectedness in British society, identifying the most glaring dimensions of disconnectedness and exploring how they might be overcome. It is early days for the Commission but already some fascinating, and sometimes counter-intuitive, findings are starting to emerge. For example, it turns out that even though people choose to live in a diverse area it doesn’t mean they choose diverse forms of connectedness.

Economic equality as the goal of progressivism offers clarity, measurability and a focus on the collective good. Aiming for a world of full and fulfilling lives offers texture, humanism and speaks to our personal ambitions. Might the goal of inclusive connectedness combine both?


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