Tuesday, April 28, 2020

The democratic dilemma of trust


In 2007 Chuck Tilly published an intriguing historical and theoretical study of the politics of equality and voice, Democracy. The book is a study of the historical movements towards greater democracy -- and likewise, the forces that lead to de-democratization. The threat currently posed to western democracies by the rise of radical populism makes it worthwhile thinking once more about some of these theories.

Here is the definition that Tilly offers for democracy throughout the book: "In this simplified perspective, a regime is democratic to the degree that political relations between the state and its citizens feature broad, equal, protected and mutually binding consultation" (13-14).

And here is how he defines these four crucial features of democratic institutions:

The terms broad, equal, protected, and mutually binding identify four partly independent dimensions of variation among regimes. Here are rough descriptions of the four dimensions:
  1. Breadth: From only a small segment of the population enjoying extensive rights, the rest being largely excluded from public politics, to very wide political inclusion of people under the state’s jurisdiction (at one extreme, every household has its own distinctive relation to the state, but only a few households have full rights of citizenship; at the other, all adult citizens belong to the same homogeneous category of citizenship)
  2. Equality: From great inequality among and within categories of citizens to extensive equality in both regards (at one extreme, ethnic categories fall into a well-defined rank order with very unequal rights and obligations; at the other, ethnicity has no significant connection with political rights or obligations and largely equal rights prevail between native-born and naturalized citizens)
  3. Protection: From little to much protection against the state’s arbitrary action (at one extreme, state agents constantly use their power to punish personal enemies and reward their friends; at the other, all citizens enjoy publicly visible due process)
  4. Mutually binding consultation: From non-binding and/or extremely asymmetrical to mutually binding (at one extreme, seekers of state benefits must bribe, cajole, threaten, or use third-party influence to get anything at all; at the other, state agents have clear, enforceable obligations to deliver benefits by category of recipient) (14-15)
It is interesting to observe that this definition of democracy gives all of its attention to the behavior of government and the relationship of government to its citizenry. But twentieth-century history, and the early decades of the twenty-first century, make it clear that anti-democracy dwells in citizens as well as authoritarian wielders of state power. The use of coercion and violence is not the monopoly of the state. In Fascists Michael Mann emphasizes the role of fascist paramilitary organizations in the rise of fascism in Germany, Italy, and other organizations, and their brutal use of violence against their "enemies". And his treatment of ethnic cleansing in The Dark Side of Democracy: Explaining Ethnic Cleansing likewise makes it clear that the impulses of right-wing organizations in civil society can lead to murderous violence in contemporary settings as well. This appears to be relevant in India today, with the blending of BJP party organizations and extremist nationalist organizations in civil society in the fomenting of anti-Muslim violence. So anti-democratic impulses are by no means the terrain of authoritarian states only. Contemporary white supremacist organizations in the United States seem to represent exactly this kind of danger.

The definition and explications that Tilly offers here can be understood in a normative way. Higher scores in these four dimensions mean a better society -- a more democratic society. But they can also be understood as contributing to a political psychology of democracy: "This is what it will take for a democracy to be stable and enduring." Citizens need to have rights of participation; these rights need to be genuinely equal; citizens need to be protected from arbitrary state action; and important decisions of public policy need to be decided through institutions and rules that bind state actors. And they need to be confident in each of these conditions in their existing political institutions.

One of the factors that Tilly emphasizes in his account of political democracy is the role of trust -- trust between rulers and citizens, and of course, between citizens and rulers. There is an intimate connection between trust and that crucial idea of democratic theory, "consent of the governed". Paying taxes, obeying local laws, accepting conscription -- these are all democratic duties; but they are also largely voluntary, in the sense that enforcement is sporadic and only partially effective. Participants need to trust that these duties apply to all citizens, and that everyone is, roughly speaking, accepting his or her share of the burdens. If the governed have lost trust in the political institutions that govern them, then their continuing consent is in question.

Here and elsewhere (Trust and Rule) Tilly puts a lot of his chips on his idea of "trust networks" as a primary vehicle of social trust. But here Tilly seems to miss the boat a bit. He does not address the broad question of institutional trust; rather, his trust concepts all fall at the more local and individual-to-individual end of the spectrum. He characterizes trust as a relationship (81), which is fair enough; but the terms of the relationship are other individuals, not institutions or practices.
Trust networks, to put it more formally, contain ramified interpersonal connections, consisting mainly of strong ties, within which people set valued, consequential, long-term resources and enterprises at risk to the malfeasance, mistakes, or failures of others. (81)
Trust networks gain political importance when they intersect with patron-client relationships with governing elites; groups are able to secure benefits when their network is able to negotiate a favorable settlement of a policy issue, and then deliver the behavior (voting, demonstrations, public support) of the individuals within the trust network in question. This might be an ethnic or racial group, a regional association (farmers, small business owners), or a political advocacy movement (environmentalists, anti-tax activists). So trust is involved in making government work in these circumstances; but it is not trust between citizen and government, but rather among citizens within their own trust networks, and between the powerful and the spokespersons of these networks (link).

In fact, current mistrust in government seems to rest heavily on trust networks within the right: trust in Fox News, trust in Breitbart, trust in the organizations and leaders of the right, trust in the extended network represented by the Tea Party, trust in fellow members of various right-wing organizations who may be neighbors or Twitter sources.

But the challenge to our current democratic institutions seems to have to do with a loss of institutional trust -- trust, confidence, and reliance in our basic institutions.

So the question here is this: why have large segments of the populations of western democracies lost a substantial amount of trust in the institutions of governance in their democracies? Why does the idea of a social contract in which everyone benefits from cooperation and public policy no longer have the grip that it needs to have if democracy is to thrive?

One answer seems evident, but perhaps too superficial: there has been a concerted campaign for at least fifty years of cultivating mistrust of government in the United States and other countries that has led to cynicism in many, rejection of government policy and the legitimacy of taxation in others, and loony resistance in others. (Think of the 2016 Malheur National Wildlife Refuge occupation, for example, and the extremist anti-government ideologies expressed by its activists.) This is propaganda, a deliberate effort to shape political attitudes and beliefs through the techniques of Madison Avenue. Grover Norquist's explicit political goal was expressed in vivid terms: "My goal is to cut government in half in twenty-five years, to get it down to the size where we can drown it in the bathtub." This suggests that mistrust of government is due, in part anyway, to the results of a highly effective marketing campaign by conservatives aimed at producing exactly that mistrust in a significant portion of the population. The slogans and political language of extremist populism are chosen with exactly this effect in mind -- to lead followers to despise and mistrust the "elites" who govern them in Washington (or Lansing, Albany, and Sacramento). It is genuinely shocking to see conservative activists challenging the legitimacy of state action in support of maintaining public health in the Covid-19 pandemic; if this is not a legitimate role for government, one wonders, what ever would be?

What gave conservatives and now right-wing populists and white nationalists the ability to mobilize significant numbers of citizens in support of their anti-government rhetoric? In Deeply Divided: Racial Politics and Social Movements in Postwar America McAdam and Kloos offer the basis for explaining the decline of trust in US politics to two fundamental issues -- white resentment over the new politics of race from roughly 1960 forward (positioning some voters to believe they are no longer getting their fair share), and the rising levels of inequality of wealth, income, and quality of life in the United States (leading some voters to believe they have been left out of the prosperity of the late twentieth century). These general factors made political mobilization around a conservative, anti-government, and racialized politics feasible; and conservative GOP leaders eagerly stepped forward to make use of this political wedge. (McAdam and Kloos provide an astounding collection of quotes by Republican candidates for president against Barack Obama in vile, racist terms.) (Here are earlier discussions of McAdam and Kloos; link, link, link.)

So what features of political and social life are likely to enhance trust in basic social institutions? Tilly refers first to Robert Putnam's discussions of civic engagement and social capital, in Making Democracy Work: Civic Traditions in Modern Italy and Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community. But he is not satisfied with Putnam's basic hypothesis -- that greater civic engagement leads to greater trust in political institutions, and eventually to a broader level of consent among citizens. Instead, he turns to theorizing about the challenges of democratic governance by Mark Warren, which he summarizes as "the democratic dilemma of trust" (93), and the potential that deliberative democracy has for rekindling democratic trust.
The deliberative solution, which Warren himself prefers, bridges the gap by making democratic deliberation and trust mutually complementary: the very process of deliberation generates trust, but the existence of trust facilitates deliberation. (93)
But significantly, Tilly does not take this line of thought very far; and he doesn't explicitly recognize that the trust to which Warren refers is categorically different from that involved in Tilly's own concept of a trust network.

I am surprised to discover that I find Tilly's treatment of democracy to be deficient precisely because it is too much in the realist tradition of political science (link). Tilly's theories of politics and the state, and the relationship between state and citizen, are too much committed to the cost-benefit calculations of rulers and the governed. This places him in the middle of fairly standard "positive" theories of democracy that have dominated American political science for decades. Tilly pays no heed here -- and I cannot think of broader treatments elsewhere in his writings -- to the political importance of the "mystic chords of memory" and the "better angels of our nature". Those were the words of Abraham Lincoln in his first inaugural address, and they refer to the political emotions and commitments that secure us to a set of political institutions that we support, not because of the narrow shopping list of benefits and burdens that they offer, but because of their fundamental justice and their compatibility with our ideals of equality and personhood. But surely a democracy depends ultimately and its ability to cultivate that kind of trust and commitment among many of its citizens. Chuck, you've let us down!

#####

Here are Abraham Lincoln's closing words in his First Inaugural Address (March 4, 1861), expressing to his commitment to preserve the Union:
While the people retain their virtue, and vigilance, no administration, by any extreme of wickedness or folly, can very seriously injure the government, in the short space of four years. 
My countrymen, one and all, think calmly and well, upon this whole subject. Nothing valuable can be lost by taking time. If there be an object to hurry any of you, in hot haste, to a step which you would never take deliberately, that object will be frustrated by taking time; but no good object can be frustrated by it. Such of you as are now dissatisfied, still have the old Constitution unimpaired, and, on the sensitive point, the laws of your own framing under it; while the new administration will have no immediate power, if it would, to change either. If it were admitted that you who are dissatisfied, hold the right side in the dispute, there still is no single good reason for precipitate action. Intelligence, patriotism, Christianity, and a firm reliance on Him, who has never yet forsaken this favored land, are still competent to adjust, in the best way, all our present difficulty. 
In your hands, my dissatisfied fellow countrymen, and not in mine, is the momentous issue of civil war. The government will not assail you. You can have no conflict, without being yourselves the aggressors. You have no oath registered in Heaven to destroy the government, while I shall have the most solemn one to "preserve, protect and defend" it. 
I am loath to close. We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battle-field, and patriot grave, to every living heart and hearthstone, all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.

Saturday, April 25, 2020

Social factors driving technology


In a recent post I addressed the question of how social and political circumstances influence the direction of technological change (link). There I considered Thomas Hughes's account of the development of electric power as a "socio-technological system". Robert Pool's 1997 book Beyond Engineering: How Society Shapes Technology is a synthetic study that likewise gives primary attention to the important question of how society shapes technology. He too highlights the importance of the "sociotechnical system" within which a technology emerges and develops:
Instead, I learned, one must look past the technology to the broader "sociotechnical system" -- the social, political, economic, and institutional environments in which the technology develops and operates. The United States, France, and Italy provided very different settings for their nuclear technologies, and it shows. (kl 86)
Any modern technology, I found, is the product of a complex interplay between its designers and the larger society in which it develops. (kl 98)
Furthermore, a complex technology generally demands a complex organization to develop, build, and operate it, and these complex organizations create yet more difficulties and uncertainty. As we'll see in chapter 8, organizational failures often underlie what at first seem to be failures of a technology. (kl 1890)
For all these reasons, modern technology is not simply the rational product of scientists and engineers that it is often advertised to be. Look closely at any technology today, from aircraft to the Internet, and you'll find that it truly makes sense only when seen as part of the society in which it grew up. (kl 153)
Pool emphasizes the importance of social organization and large systems in the processes of technological development:
Meanwhile, the developers of technology have also been changing. A century ago, most innovation was done by individuals or small groups. Today, technological development tends to take place inside large, hierarchical organizations. This is particularly true for complex, large-scale technologies, since they demand large investments and extensive, coordinated development efforts. But large organizations inject into the development process a host of considerations that have little or nothing to do with engineering. Any institution has its own goals and concerns, its own set of capabilities and weaknesses, and its own biases about the best ways to do things. Inevitably, the scientists and engineers inside an institution are influenced -- often quite unconsciously -- by its culture.
There are a number of obvious ways in which social circumstances influence the creation and development of various technologies. For example:
  1. the availability of technical expertise through the educational system
  2. the ways in which consumer tastes are created, shaped, and expressed in the economic system
  3. the ways in which political interests of government are expressed through research funding, legislation, and command
  4. the imperatives of national security and defense (World War II => radar, sonar, operations research, digital computers, cryptography, atomic bomb, rockets and jet aviation, ...)
  5. The needs of corporations and industry for technological change, supported by industry laboratories and government research funding
  6. The development of complex systems of organization of projects and efforts in pursuit of a goal including the efforts of thousands of participants
Factors like these influence the direction of technology in a variety of ways. The first factor mentioned here has to do with the infrastructure needed to create expertise and instrumentation in science and engineering. The discovery of radar would have been impossible without preexisting expertise in radio technology and materials at MIT and elsewhere; the rapid development of atomic fission for reactors and weapons depended crucially on the availability of advanced expertise in physics, chemistry, materials, and instrumentation; and so on for virtually all the technologies that have transformed the world in the past seventy years. We might describe this as defining the "supply" side of technological change. Along with manufacturing and fabrication expertise, the availability of advanced engineering knowledge and research is a necessary condition for the development of new advanced technology.

The demand side of technological development is represented by the next several bullets. Clearly, in a market society the consumer tastes and wants of the public have a great deal of effect on the development of technology. Smart phones were difficult to imagine prior to the launch of the iPhone in 2007; and if there had been only limited demand for a device that takes photos and videos, plays music, makes phone calls, surfs the internet, and maintains email communication, the device would not have undergone the intensive development that it actually experienced. Many apparently "useful" consumer devices never find a space in the development and marketing process that allow them to come to maturity.

The development of the Internet illustrates the third and fourth items listed here. ARPANET was originally devised as a system of military and government communication. Advanced research in computer science and information theory was taking place during the 1960s, but without the stimulus of the government-funded Advanced Projects Research Agency and sponsorship by the Defense Communications Agency it is doubtful that the Internet would have developed -- or would have developed with the characteristics it now possesses.

The fifth item, describing the needs and incentives experienced by industry and corporations guiding their efforts at technology innovation, has clearly played a major role in the development of technology in the past half century as well. Consider agribusiness and the pursuit by companies like Monsanto to gain exclusive intellectual property rights in seed lines and genetically engineered crops. These business interests stimulate research by companies in this industry towards discovery of intellectual property that can be applied to technological change in agriculture -- for the purpose of generating profits for the agribusiness corporation. Here is a brief description of this dynamic from the Guardian (link):
Monsanto, which has won its case against Bowman in lower courts, vociferously disagrees. It argues that it needs its patents in order to protect its business interests and provide a motivation for spending millions of dollars on research and development of hardier, disease-resistant seeds that can boost food yields.
Why are there no foot-pump devices for evacuating blood during surgery -- an urgent need in developing countries where electric power is uncertain and highly expensive devices are difficult to acquire? The answer is fairly obvious: no medical-device company has a profit-based incentive to produce a device which will yield a profit of pennies. Therefore "sustainable technology" in support of healthcare in poor countries does not get developed. (Here are examples of technology innovations that would be helpful in rural healthcare in high-poverty countries that market-driven forces are never likely to develop; link.)

The final item mentioned above complements the first -- the development of business organization systems parallels the development of systems of expertise and training at universities. Engineering, operations research, and organizational theory all progressed dramatically in the twentieth century, and the ways that they took shape influenced the direction and characteristics of the technologies that were developed. Thomas Hughes describes these complex systems of government, university, and business organizations in Rescuing Prometheus, a book that emphasizes the systems requirements of both engineering as a profession and the large organizations through which technologies are developed and managed. Particularly interesting are the examples of the SAGE early warning system and the ARPANET; in each case Hughes argues that these technologies could not have been accomplished without the creation of new frameworks of systems engineering and systems organization.
MIT assumed this special responsibility [of public service] wholeheartedly when it became the system builder for the SAGE Project (Semiautomatic Ground Environment), a computer-and radar-based air defense system created in the 1950s. The SAGE Project presents an unusual example of a university working closely with the military on a large-scale technological project during its design and development, with industry active in a secondary role. SAGE also provides an outstanding instance of system builders synthesizing organizational and technical innovation. It is as well an instructive case of engineers, managers, and scientists taking a systems and transdisciplinary approach. (15)
It is clear from these considerations and examples, that technologies do not develop according to their own internal technical logic. Instead, they are invented, developed, and built out as the result of dozens of influences that are embodied in the social, economic, and political environment in which they emerge. And though neither Hughes nor Pool identifies directly with the researchers in the fields of the Social Construction of Technology (SCOT) and Science, Technology, and Society studies (STS), their findings converge to a substantial extent with the central ideas of those approaches. (Here are some earlier discussions of that approach; link, link, link). Technology is socially embedded.

Monday, April 20, 2020

The Malthusian problem for scientific research


It seems that there is a kind of inverse Malthusian structure to scientific research and knowledge. Topics for research and investigation multiply geometrically, while actual research and the creation of knowledge can only proceed in a selective and linear way. This is true in every field -- natural science, biology, social science, poetry. Take Darwin. He specialized in finches for a good while. But he could easily have taken up worms, beetles, or lizards, or he could have turned to conifers, oak trees, or cactuses. The evidence of speciation lies everywhere in the living world, and it is literally impossible for a generation of scientists of natural history to study them all.

Or consider a topic of current interest to me, the features that lead to dysfunctional performance in organizations large and small. Once we notice that the specific workings of an organization lead to harmful patterns that we care about a great deal, it makes sense to consider case studies of an unbounded number of organizations in every sector. How did the UAW work such that rampant corruption emerged? What features of the Chinese Communist Party led it to the profound secrecy tactics routinely practiced by its officials? What features of the Xerox Corporation made it unable to turn the mouse-based computer interface system into a commercial blockbuster? Each of these questions suggests the value of an organized case study, and surely we would learn a lot from each study. But each such study takes a person-year to complete, and a given scholar is unlikely to want to spend the rest of her career doing case studies like these. So the vast majority of such studies will never be undertaken. 

This observation has very intriguing implications for the nature of our knowledge about the world -- natural, biological, and social. It seems to imply that our knowledge of the world will always be radically incomplete, with vast volumes of research questions unaddressed and sources of empirical phenomena unexamined. We might take it as a premise that there is nothing in the world that cannot be understood if investigated scientifically; but these reflections suggest that we are still forced to conclude that there is a limitless range of phenomena that have not been investigated, and will never be.

It is possible that philosophers of physics would argue that this "incompleteness" result does not apply to the realm of physical phenomena, because physics is concerned to discover a small number of fundamental principles and laws about how the micro- and macro-worlds of physical phenomena work. The diversity of the physical world is then untroubling, because every domain of physics can be subsumed under these basic principles and theories. Theories of gravitation, subatomic particles and forces, space-time relativity, and the quantum nature of the world are obscure but general and simple, and there is at least the hope that we might arrive at a comprehensive physics with the resources needed to explain all physical phenomena, from black-hole pairs to the nature of dark matter.

Whatever the case with physics, the phenomena of the social world are plainly not regulated by a simple set of fundamental principles and laws. Rather, heterogeneity, exception, diversity, and human creativity are fundamental characteristics of the social world. And this implies the inherent incompleteness of social knowledge. Variation and heterogeneity are the rule; so novel cases are always available, and studying them always leads to new insights and knowledge. Therefore there are always domains of phenomena that have not yet been examined, understood, or explained. This conclusion is a bit like the diagonal proof of the existence of irrational numbers that drove Cantor mad: every number can be represented as an infinite decimal, and yet for every list of infinite decimals it is simple to generate another infinite decimal that is not on the list.

Further, in this respect it may seem that the biological realm resembles the social realm in these respects, so that biological science is inherently incomplete as well. Even granting that the theories of evolution and natural selection are fundamental and universal in biological systems, the principles specified in these theories guarantee diversification and variation in biological outcomes. As a result we might argue that the science of living systems too is inherently incomplete, with new areas of inquiry outstripping the ability of the scientific enterprise to investigate them. In a surprising way the uncertainties we confront in the Covid-19 crisis seem to illustrate this situation. We don't know whether this particular virus will stimulate an enduring immunity in individuals who have experienced the infection, and "first principles" in virology do not seem to afford a determinate answer to the question.

Consider these two patterns. The first is woven linen; the second is the pattern of habitat for invasive species across the United States. The weave of the linen is mechanical and regular; it covers all parts of the space with a grid of fiber. The second is the path-dependent result of invasion of habitat by multiple invasive species. Certain areas are intensively inhabited, while other areas are essentially free of invasive species. The regularity of the first image is a design feature of the process that created the fabric; the irregularity and variation of the second image is the consequence of multiple independent and somewhat stochastic yet opportunistic exploratory movements of the various species. Is scientific research more similar to the first pattern or the second?




I would suggest that scientific research more resembles the second process than the first. Researchers are guided by their scientific curiosity, the availability of research funding, and the assumptions about the importance of various topics embodied in their professions; and the result is a set of investigations and findings that are very intensive in some areas, while completely absent in other areas of the potential "knowledge space".

Is this a troubling finding? Only if one thought that the goal of science is to eventually provide an answer to every possible empirical question, and to provide a general basis for explaining everything. If, on the other hand, we believe that science is an open-ended process, and that the selection of research topics is subject to a great deal of social and personal contingency, then the incompleteness of science comes as no surprise. Science is always exploratory, and there is much to explore in human experience.

(Several earlier posts have addressed the question of defining the scope of the social sciences; link, link, link, link, link.)

Friday, April 17, 2020

Literature and memory


As a way of finding some interesting distraction in the social isolation of Covid-19 I have been reading Paul Fussell's The Great War and Modern Memory. The book primarily treats the way that literate English soldiers, educated in a certain way and immersed in a particular public school culture, found words and phrases to capture part of their horrendous experiences in trench warfare over the months or years that extended between the moment of enlistment and death. Pilgrim's Progress plays a central role in many depictions, and some of Britain's most striking poetry of the twentieth century comes from this time.

Fussell is primarily interested in exploring the ways that British poets who served during World War I chose to express their experience of war and the violence, fear, and chaos of the trenches. He captures the bitterness, irony, and cynicism created in this generation by the war in authors and poets like Robert Graves (Good-Bye to All That: An Autobiography), Siegfried Sassoon (Memoirs of a Fox-Hunting Man), Edmund Blunden (Undertones of War), and Wilfred Owen ("The Parable of the Old Man and the Young").

The book is interesting in part because of the particular moment that we are all enmeshed in right now, from Mumbai to Milan to Manchester to Detroit. The world of Covid-19 feels a bit apocalyptic -- even if there are no heavy artillery pieces thundering away in the distance. It seems certain that we will all have memories of this period that will be clear and sharp, and colored by the illness and deaths of so many people around the world and the country. Also similar is the pervasive sense of the utter incompetence and arrogance of the national government (in the United States, at least), in its lack of preparation and foresight and its continuing efforts to minimize the crisis. Just as the officers and soldiers of 1916 despaired at the complacent idiocy of the general staff, so we have come to despair at the moral and scientific buffoonery that emanates from 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

Reading Fussell led me to reread Robert Graves in his autobiography, Good-Bye to All That. Graves himself was seriously wounded by artillery fire during the battle of the Somme, at the age of twenty. His colonel mistakenly wrote a letter of condolence to his mother, saying "I very much regret to have to write and tell you your son has died of wounds. He was very gallant, and was doing so well and is a great loss" (Graves, 274). That turned out to be premature; Graves survived the war. But a pleasure he took with him throughout his life came from the words that were said about him when it was believed in London that he was dead: "The people with whom I had been on the worst terms during my life wrote the most enthusiastic condolences to my parents: my housemaster, for instance" (281). But there was a disadvantage in being dead: "The only inconvenience that my death caused me was that Cox's Bank stopped my pay and I had difficulty in persuading it to honour my cheques." An advantage was also possible, though; he was able to make changes to his own obituary. During recovery in Wales with his friend Siegfried Sassoon, he writes, "We made a number of changes in each other's verses; I remember that I proposed amendments which he accepted in his obituary poem 'To His Dead Body' -- written for me when he thought me dead." And he and Sassoon agreed about the idiocy of the war: "We no longer saw it as a war between trade-rivals; its continuance seemed merely a sacrifice of the idealistic younger generation to the stupidity and self-protective alarm of the elder."

The items that Graves took back with him to the front following his recovery are quite interesting -- the list makes one think of Tim O'Brien's Vietnam book, The Things They Carried.
I went back as an old soldier; my kit and baggage proved it. I had reduced the Christmas tree that I first brought out to a pocket-torch with a fourteen-day battery in it, and a pair of insulated wire-cutters strong enough to cut German wire (the ordinary British army issue would only cut British wire). Instead of a haversack I had a pack like the ones the men carried, but lighter and waterproof. I had lost my revolver when I was wounded and had not bought another; rifle and bayonet could always be got from the battalion. (Not carrying rifle and bayonet made officers conspicuous in an attack; in most divisions now they carried them, and also wore trousers rolled down over their puttees like the men, because the Germans had been taught to recognize them by their thin knees.) Instead of the heavy blankets that I had brought out before I now had an eiderdown sleeping-bag in an oiled silk cover. I also had Shakespeare and a Bible, both printed on india-paper, a Catullus and a Lucretius in Latin, and two light weight, folding, canvas arm-chairs, one as a present for Yates the quartermaster, the other for myself. I was wearing a very thick whipcord tunic with a neat patch above the second button and another between the shoulders; it was my only salvage from the last time out except the pair of ski-ing boots which I was wearing again, reasonably waterproof -- my breeches had been cut off me in hospital (293-294)
The whipcord tunic was the same clothing he wore when wounded by shrapnel at the Somme -- hence the neat patches in two places front and back.

What is particularly interesting about The Great War and Modern Memory is the creative selectivity that it illustrates. Fussell chooses particular poets, particular poetic devices, and particular features of a subaltern's war experience to tell his story. But there is a limitless range of choice in all these features. Fussell could have told many different stories, using boundlessly different sources and perspectives. There is no final and comprehensive story for building out the title "The Great War and Modern Memory". Fussell's genius is his synthetic ability to take a handful of details from multiple sources and fuse them into a powerful, unified story. His development of the theme of euphemism in war is a brilliant example. But of course it is just one such story. And there are limitless materials that would add insight to the story but that have never been studied -- including countless military records of specific engagements, unpublished but archived memoirs and diaries of soldiers who served at the Somme or nameless corners in the trench system, or home-side newspaper accounts of life and war in France. Fussell makes use of materials like these, but his examples are only a small fraction of those available. 

Jay Winter's introduction to the book captures Fussell's perspective on his material very precisely: angry, disgusted at hypocrisy, and entirely cynical about the top officers. Part of what Fussell brought to this book in his own duffle bag of equipment was his own service in the US Army during the Battle of the Bulge, an experience he describes in Wartime: Understanding and Behavior in the Second World War. And of course he wrote this book during the final years of the war in Vietnam -- a war with similar futility, irony, and waste. Winter writes:
Fussell was a great historian, one who found a way to turn his deep, visceral knowledge of the horrors and stupidities of war into a vision of how to write about war. ... How did he do it? By using his emotion and his anger to frame his understanding of memory, and his insight into the way language frames memory, especially memories of war. War, he knew, is simply too frightful, too chaotic, too arbitrary, too bizarre, too uncanny a set of events and images to grasp directly. We need blinkers, spectacles, shades to glimpse war even indirectly.... The indelible imprint Paul Fussell left on our understanding of war was on how language frames what he termed "modern memory". (kl 102)
Paul Fussell was both an angry and a witty man. He was drawn to the poets and novelists of the Great War in Britain in part because they were, like him, truth-tellers about war. But his earlier work on Augustan poets of the eighteenth century predisposed him to the delights of irony and the savagery of words usefully applied to the cruel masters of the world. (kl 122)
This is sense-making -- both by the poets like Graves and Sassoon whom Fussell analyzes, and by Fussell himself, in trying to work out the relationships that exist between experience, language, and poetry in our efforts to make sense of the Yossarian-like things we are often subject to in the crises of modern life.

Friday, April 10, 2020

Thomas Hughes on electric power as a sociotechnical system


We have quite a few ideas about how technology affects us personally and socially. But we are less aware of the ways in which facts about the contemporary social world influences the development of technology -- at any given time in history. Technological change is a complex social process, and one that is influenced by multiple large social features -- population dynamics, the education system, the institutions of property and the market that are in effect, and even political ideology.

Thomas Hughes' important 1983 book Networks of Power: Electrification in Western Society, 1880-1930 drew out the social and political influences that shaped the development of one of the most important contemporary technologies, electric power. Hughes offers a detailed narrative leading from the important scientific discoveries and inventions in the 1880s that created the possibility of using electricity for power and light; through the creation of complex organizations by such systems builders as Thomas Edison and Elmer Sprague to solve the many technical problems that stood in the way of successful implementation of these technical possibilities; to the establishment of even larger social, political, and financial systems through which systems builders implemented the legal, financial, and physical infrastructure through which electricity could be adopted by large cities and regions. (Simon Winchester tells some of the same story in a less technical way in The Men Who United the States: America's Explorers, Inventors, Eccentrics, and Mavericks, and the Creation of One Nation, Indivisible.)

Along the way, Hughes demolishes several important ideas about the history of technology. First, he refutes the notion that there was an inevitable logic to the development of electric power. At many points in the story there were choices available that did not have unique technical solutions. (VHS or Betamax?) The battle of the systems (direct vs. alternating current) is one such example; Edison's work proceeded on the basis of the technology of direct current, whereas the industry eventually adopted Tesla's alternative technology of alternating current. Each choice posed technical hurdles which required solution; but there is good reason to believe that the alternative not taken could have been adopted with suitable breakthroughs along the other path. The path chosen depends on a set of social factors -- popular opinion, the press, the orientation of professional engineering schools, the availability of financing, and the intensity of the intellectual resources brought to bear on the technical problems that arise by the research community.

Second, Hughes establishes that, even when the basic technology was settled, the social implementation of the technology, including the pace of adoption, was profoundly influenced by nontechnical factors. Most graphically, by comparing the proliferation of power stations and power grids in London, Berlin, and Chicago, Hughes demonstrates that differences in political structure (e.g., jurisdiction and local autonomy) and differences in cultural attitudes elicited markedly different patterns of implementation of municipal and residential electric power. Chicago shows a pattern of a few large power stations in the central city, London shows a pattern of myriad small stations throughout the metropolitan area, and Berlin shows a pattern of a few large stations in the center of the city. Hughes argues that these differences of configuration reflected factors including municipal jurisdiction and the economic interests of large potential users. Moreover, these differences in styles of implementation can lead to major differences in other sorts of social outcomes; for example, the failure of London to implement a large-scale and rational system of electric power distribution meant that its industrial development was impeded, whereas Chicago's industrial output increased rapidly during the same period.

 


Third, Hughes sheds much light on the social and individual characteristics of invention and refinement that exist internal to the process of technological change. He describes a world of inventors and businesses that was highly attuned to the current challenges that stood in the way of further progress for the technology at any given time. Major hurdles to further development constituted "reverse salients" which then received extensive attention from researchers, inventors, and businesses. The designs of generators, dynamos, transformers, light bulbs, and motors each presented critical, difficult problems that stood in the way of the next step; and the concentrated but independent energies of many inventors and scientists led frequently to independent and simultaneous solutions to these problems.

Fourth, Hughes makes the point that the development of the technology was inseparable from the establishment of “massive, extensive, vertically integrated production systems,” including banks, factories, and electric power companies (Hughes 1983, 5). “The rationale for undertaking this study of electric power systems was the assumption that the history of all large-scale technology—not only power systems—can be studied effectively as a history of systems” (p. 7). The technology does not drive itself, and it is not driven (exclusively) by the technical discoveries of the inventor and scientist. Rather, the eventual course of development and implementation is the complex result of social pulls and constraints, as well as the inherent possibilities of the scientific and technical material.

Finally, Hughes introduces the important concept of “technological momentum.” By this concept, he means to identify the point that a large technology—transportation, communication, power production—once implemented on a wide scale, acquires an inertia that is difficult to displace. Engineers and designers have acquired specialized knowledge and ways of approaching problems in the field, factories have been established to build the specialized machines and parts needed for the technology, and investors and banks have embedded their fortunes in the physical implementation of the technology. “Business concerns, government agencies, professional societies, educational institutions, and other organizations that shape and are shaped by the technical core of the system also add to the momentum” (p. 15). So VHS technology came to dominate Betamax, and the QWERTY keyboard has outlasted competitors such as the Dvorak keyboard arrangement.

Hughes demonstrates several important lessons for anyone interested in the development of modern technology systems. First, through his detailed account of a complex 50-year international process of design and implementation, he shows that the development of a large technological system like electric power is an example of a path-dependent and contingent process. Nonetheless, it is a process that can be explained through careful historical research, and a variety of large-scale social and institutional factors are pertinent to the outcomes. Second, he demonstrates the important scope of agency and choice within this story. Outcomes are contingent, and individuals and local agents are able to influence the stream of events at every point. And finally, through his concept of technological momentum, he provides a constructive way of thinking about the social influence of technology itself within the fabric of historical change—not as an ultimate determinant of outcomes but as a constraining and impelling set of limitations and opportunities within the context of which individuals strategize and choose.

Hughes gives further support for the point of plasticity of social change made frequently here by demonstrating the sensitivity of the course of technology development to the social and political environment. Technological possibilities and constraints do not by themselves determine historical outcomes—even the narrow case of a particular course of the development of a particular cluster of technologies. The technical and scientific setting of a particular invention serves to constrain but not to determine the ultimate course of development that the invention takes. A broad range of technical outcomes are accessible in the medium term. In place of a technological determinism, however, Hughes argues for technological momentum. Once a technology/ social system is embodied on the ground, other paths of development are significantly more difficult to reach. Thus, there are technological imperatives once a new set of technical possibilities come on the scene; but the development of these possibilities is sensitive to nontechnical environmental influences (e.g., the scope of local political jurisdiction, as we saw in the comparison of British, German, and American electric power systems).

Saturday, April 4, 2020

Gross inequalities in a time of pandemic


Here is a stunning juxtaposition in the April 2 print edition of the New York Times. Take a close look. The top panel updates readers on the fact that the city and the region are enduring unimaginable suffering and stress caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, with 63,300 victims and 2,624 deaths (as of April 4) — and with hundreds of thousands facing immediate, existential financial crisis because of the economic shutdown. And only eight miles away, as the Sotheby’s "Prominent Properties" half-page advertisement proclaims, home buyers can find secluded luxury, relaxation, and safety, for residential estates priced at $32.9 million and $21.5 million. In case the reader missed the exclusiveness of these properties, the advertisement mentions that they are "located in one of the nation's wealthiest zip codes". And, lest the prospective buyer be concerned about maintaining social isolation in these difficult times, the ad reminds prospective buyers that these are gated estates -- in fact, the $33M property is located on "the only guard gated street in Alpine".

Could Friedrich Engels have found a more compelling illustration of the fundamental inhumanity of the inequalities that exist in twenty-first century capitalism in the United States? And there is no need for rhetorical exaggeration — here it is in black and white in the nation’s "newspaper of record".

There are many compelling reasons that supported Elizabeth Warren’s proposal for a wealth tax. But here is one more: it is morally appalling, even gut-churning, to realize that $33 million for a home for one’s family (35,000 square feet, tennis court and indoor basketball court) is a reasonable “ask” for the super-wealthy in our country, the one-tenth of one percent who have ridden the crest of surging stock markets and finance and investment firms to a level of wealth that is literally unimaginable to at least 95% of the rest of the country.

Here is the heart of Warren's proposal for a wealth tax (link):

Rates and Revenue
  • Zero additional tax on any household with a net worth of less than $50 million (99.9% of American households)
  • 2% annual tax on household net worth between $50 million and $1 billion
  • 4% annual Billionaire Surtax (6% tax overall) on household net worth above $1 billion
  • 10-Year revenue total of $3.75 trillion
Are we all in this together, or not? If we are, let’s share the wealth. Let’s all pay our fair share. Let’s pay for the costs of fighting the pandemic and saving tens of millions of our fellow citizens from financial ruin, eviction, malnutrition, and family crisis with a wealth tax on billionaires. They can afford it. The "65' saltwater gunite pool" is not a life necessity. The revenue estimate of the Warren proposal is roughly proportionate to the current estimate of what it will cost the US economy to overcome the pandemic, protect the vulnerable, and restart the economy -- $3.75 trillion. Both equity and the current crisis support such a plan.

Here is some background on the rising wealth inequalities we have witnessed in recent decades in the United States. Leiserson, McGrew, and Kopparam provide an excellent and data-rich survey of the system of wealth inequalities in the United States in "The distribution of wealth in the United States and implications for a net worth tax" (link). Since 1989 the increase in wealth inequality is dramatic. The top 10% owned about 67% of all wealth in 1989; by 2016 this had risen to 77%.



The second graph is a snapshot for 2016 (link). Both income and wealth are severely unequal, but wealth is substantially more so. The top quintile owns almost 90% of the wealth in the United States, with the top 1% owning about 40% of all wealth.

The website Inequality.org provides an historical look at the growth of inequalities of wealth in the US (link). Consider this graph of the wealth shares over a century of the top 1%, .1%, and .01% of the US population; it is eye-popping. Beginning in roughly 1978 the shares of the very top segments of the US population began to rise, and the trend continued through 2012 -- with no end in sight. The top 1% in 2012 owned 41% of all wealth; the top 0.1% owned 21%; and the top 0.01% owned 11%.


We need a wealth tax, and Elizabeth Warren put together a pretty convincing and rational plan. This is not a question of “soaking the rich”. It is a question of basic fairness. Our economy and society have functioned as an express elevator for ever-greater fortunes for the few, with essentially no improvement for 60-80% of the rest of America. An economy is a system of social cooperation, requiring the efforts of all members of society. But the benefits of our economic system have gone ever-more disproportionately to the rich and the ultra-rich. That is fundamentally unfair. Now is the time to bring equity back into our society and politics. If Mr. Moneybags can afford a $33M home in New Jersey, he or she can afford to pay a small tax on his wealth.

It is interesting to note that social scientists and anthropologists are beginning to study the super-rich as a distinctive group. A fascinating source is Iain Hay and Jonathan Beaverstock, eds., Handbook on Wealth and the Super-Rich. Especially relevant is Chris Paris's contribution, "The residential spaces of the super-rich". Paris writes:
Prime residential real estate remains a key element in super-­rich investment portfolios, both for private use through luxury consumption and as investment items with anticipated long-­ term capital gain, often untaxed as properties are owned by companies rather than individuals. Most of the homes of the super-­rich are purchased using cash, specialized financial instruments and/or through companies, and ‘the higher the price of the property, the less likely buyers were to arrange traditional mortgage financing for the home acquisition. Whether buyers are foreign or domestic, cash transactions predominate at the higher end of the market’ (Christie’s, 2013, p. 14). Such transactions, therefore, never enter ‘national’ housing accounting systems and play no part in many accounts of aggregate ‘national’ house price trends. For example, the analysis of house price trends in the Joseph Rowntree Foundation UK Housing Review is based on data relating to transactions using mortgages or loans, and EU and OECD comparisons between countries are based on the same kinds of data (Paris, 2013b).
Also fascinating in the volume is Emma Spence's study of the super-rich when at sea in their super-yachts, "Performing wealth and status: observing super-­yachts and the super-­rich in Monaco":
In this chapter I focus upon the super-­yacht as a key tool for exploring how performances of wealth are made visible in Monaco. A super-­yacht is a privately owned and professionally crewed luxury vessel over 30 metres in length. An average super-­ yacht, at approximately 47 metres in length, costs around €30 million to buy new, operates with a permanent crew of ten, and costs around €1.8 million per year to run. Larger super-­yachts such as Motor Yacht (M/Y) Madame Gu (99 metres in length), or the current largest super-­yacht in the world M/Y Azzam (180 metres in length) cost substantially more to build and to run. The price to charter (rent) a super-­yacht also varies considerably with size, age and reputation of the shipyard in which it was built. For example, a typical 47-­metre yacht can range between €100 000 to €600 000 per week to charter, plus costs. At the most exclusive end of the super-­yacht charter industry costs are much higher. M/Y Solange, for example, is an 85-­metre newly built yacht (2013) from reputable German shipyard L├╝rssen, which operates with 29 full-­time crew, and is priced at €1 million plus costs to charter per week.  The super-­yacht industry is worth an estimated €24 billion globally (Rutherford, 2014, p. 51).