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Is capitalism dissolving around us?

19 Jul

Paul Mason in The Guardian:

Capitalism, it turns out, will not be abolished by forced-march techniques. It will be abolished by creating something more dynamic that exists, at first, almost unseen within the old system, but which will break through, reshaping the economy around new values and behaviours. I call this postcapitalism.

As with the end of feudalism 500 years ago, capitalism’s replacement by postcapitalism will be accelerated by external shocks and shaped by the emergence of a new kind of human being. And it has started.

Postcapitalism is possible because of three major changes information technology has brought about in the past 25 years. First, it has reduced the need for work, blurred the edges between work and free time and loosened the relationship between work and wages. The coming wave of automation, currently stalled because our social infrastructure cannot bear the consequences, will hugely diminish the amount of work needed – not just to subsist but to provide a decent life for all.

Second, information is corroding the market’s ability to form prices correctly. That is because markets are based on scarcity while information is abundant. The system’s defence mechanism is to form monopolies – the giant tech companies – on a scale not seen in the past 200 years, yet they cannot last. By building business models and share valuations based on the capture and privatisation of all socially produced information, such firms are constructing a fragile corporate edifice at odds with the most basic need of humanity, which is to use ideas freely.

Third, we’re seeing the spontaneous rise of collaborative production: goods, services and organisations are appearing that no longer respond to the dictates of the market and the managerial hierarchy. The biggest information product in the world – Wikipedia – is made by volunteers for free, abolishing the encyclopedia business and depriving the advertising industry of an estimated $3bn a year in revenue.

Almost unnoticed, in the niches and hollows of the market system, whole swaths of economic life are beginning to move to a different rhythm. Parallel currencies, time banks, cooperatives and self-managed spaces have proliferated, barely noticed by the economics profession, and often as a direct result of the shattering of the old structures in the post-2008 crisis.

Beyond the left: Continue reading

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Are we ruining our children by micromanaging their lives?

20 Mar
Clemens Wergin and his family had just moved from Germany to America, where he’d taken a new job. On the family’s first day here his 8 year-old daughter slipped out to explore the neighborhood. Writing in The New York Times, he tells us that, when she’d returned, “Beaming with pride, she told us and her older sister how she had discovered the little park around the corner, and had made friends with a few local dog owners.” It seems, though, that their new American friends “are horrified by the idea that their children might roam around without adult supervision.” He goes on to point out that:
In Berlin, where we lived in the center of town, our girls would ride the Metro on their own — a no-no in Washington. Or they’d go alone to the playground, or walk a mile to a piano lesson. Here in quiet and traffic-safe suburban Washington, they don’t even find other kids on the street to play with. On Halloween, when everybody was out to trick or treat, we were surprised by how many children actually lived here whom we had never seen.
A study by the University of California, Los Angeles, has found that American kids spend 90 percent of their leisure time at home, often in front of the TV or playing video games. Even when kids are physically active, they are watched closely by adults, either in school, at home, at afternoon activities or in the car, shuttling them from place to place.
Such narrowing of the child’s world has happened across the developed world. But Germany is generally much more accepting of letting children take some risks. To this German parent, it seems that America’s middle class has taken overprotective parenting to a new level, with the government acting as a super nanny.
Just take the case of 10-year-old Rafi and 6-year-old Dvora Meitiv, siblings in Silver Spring, Md., who were picked up in December by the police because their parents had dared to allow them to walk home from the park alone. For trying to make them more independent, their parents were found guilty by the state’s Child Protective Services of “unsubstantiated child neglect.” What had been the norm a generation ago, that kids would enjoy a measure of autonomy after school, is now seen as almost a crime.
Danah boyd discusses the same phenomenon in It’s Complicated: The Social Lives of Networked Teens (Yale UP 2014), where it’s the flip side of intense use of social media by teens.

Is that where the modern world is headed, to lives controlled by authority where action is limited to choosing which media channel to consume? Are we preparing to turn ourselves over to our computer overlords?

Software Mysteries: Roll over Beethoven, let Satchmo come over!

9 Mar

I spent a fair amount of time in the last decade of the previous century working in the software industry (see this post for example) and reading popular prescriptions for improving America’s management style, many of those inspired by Japan. Somewhere along the line I got the idea that these new organizational ideas were more like an improvising jazz quintet and basketball than like the classical symphony and football. That is to say, that, stylistically, high-tech owes a debt to African-America even if African-Americans are not widely employed in the high tech world.

That’s what my current piece in 3 Quarks Daily is about: Cultural Styles in the 21st Century, or the High Tech Debt to Africa. This is the kind issue I’ve looked at elsewhere as well. Here’s a passage from Cultural Evolution: A Vehicle for Cooperative Interaction Between the Sciences and the Humanities:

During the 1960s the late Alan Lomax (1968) decided to investigate folk song styles against the background of cultural complexity. Lomax and his colleagues prepared a sample of over 3000 songs, representing 233 cultures from 5 continents plus the Pacific islands, and had judges code the songs on features of style — nature of the performing group, relationship between vocal part and instrumental parts, melodic style, rhythmic style, wordiness, tone quality, tempo, and so on. They correlated style traits with measures of social complexity and found that the simpler the society, the simpler its song lyrics. The simplest societies used a great deal of repetition and nonsense syllables. Similarly, the precision of enunciation varies with social complexity; the more complex the society, the more precise the enunciation. The prevalence of solo singers was also associated with complexity. In the simplest societies, everyone sang; no one was given or took a solo role. It is only in more complex societies, with permanent leaders and social stratification, that we see ensembles divided into a soloist and accompanists.

This is an empirical finding. And, while it may seem intuitively obvious that complex cultures create a collective ambiance that favors expressive forms that are different from those of less complex cultures, one would like an explanation for this “fit.” I would expect a robust account of cultural evolution to provide such an explanation.

In a similar vein, John Roberts, Brian Sutton-Smith, and Adam Kendon (1963) were interested in the relationship between child-rearing practices, community size, types of games, and folk tales. In particular, they were interested in what they have called the strategic mode. Strategy plays minor role in games of physical skill, but a dominant role in games such as chess and poker, which also has strong elements of chance. In folk tales, we can examine how the outcome is achieved, whether through physical skill, chance (guessing, casting lots, magic), or strategy (e.g. evaluating a situation, deception, out-witting an opponent). They discovered that games of strategy are likely to co-occur with folktales having a strong strategic element and that both are more likely in politically complex societies (chiefdoms and above).

The general point is simple: Expressive culture, how and what we sing, dance, and tell stories, is not just about entertainment. It pervades our society and all that we do. The cultural requirements of high tech industries are quite different from those of ‘classical’ industrial revolution. The fact that high tech culture evolved in a society pervaded by jazz, rock and roll, and hip-hop is not incidental. It is foundational.

Extra! Extra! Japanese Government Funds Distance Education on the Rez

1 Nov

No, it hasn’t happened yet. But who knows, stranger things have happened.

By “the rez” I mean, of course, the reservation. In this case I have no particular reservation in mind but rather am thinking of all 300+ of them as a collective entity that encompasses 2.3% of the landmass of the United States. While most of them are rather small, a few are quite large, with nine larger than the state of Delaware while the lands of the Navajo Nation are roughly the size of West Virginia.

What’s interesting about these Indian reservations is that the tribes possess tribal sovereignty, which means that in some respects these reservations are foreign nations. That’s why a few tribes have been able to get rich from gambling casinos on the rez. Federal and state laws don’t apply on the reservation, and if the reservation happens to be in the middle of are populated by people with money they’d like to gamble away, when then come on down!

But I’m not interested in gambling. I’m interested in poverty. Many reservations are, in effect, third world countries within the territorial United States. Over a quarter of Native Americans live in poverty as compared to 15% nationally. Poor people generally get lousy education and that, in turn, makes it difficult for them to work their way out of poverty.

And that’s where the Japanese come in. As I indicated in my post on Takeshi Utsumi, the Japanese government funds distance education in third world nations. Why not fund distance education in these third world nations that just happen to live within the territorial boundaries of the United States of America? Continue reading

Dr. Takeshi Utsumi: Globally Collaborative Environmental Peace Gaming

31 Oct

David Hays introduced me to Takeshi Utsumi sometime back in the 1980s. Both of them were members of an on-going seminar convened at Columbia University by Seth Neugroschel on the topic of Computers, Man, and Society. This was one in a series of seminars that Columbia has run since the middle of the 20th Century. The seminars are housed at and funded by Columbia University, but are open to participation by the general public.

Neugroschel’s seminar featured wide-ranging discussions of the social impact of computing technology. I often timed my visits to Hays so that I could attend the seminar. Those visits came to an end in the mid-1990s when Hays died. But I reconnected with Neugroschel’s seminar when I moved to Jersey City in late 1997 or 98.

Utsumi was born in Japan in, I believe, in the mid-1920s and immigrated to the United States in the mid-1950s. For the past several decades he has been traveling in South Asia, Africa, and the Middle East to meet with people and groups seeking funding for projects in distance learning, telemedicine and the like. He then directs them to an appropriate place in the Japanese government where they can obtain funding for their work.

All this is in service of his idea of a Global University System (GUS), “a worldwide initiative to create advanced telecom infrastructure for accessing educational resources around the world. The aim is to achieve ‘education and healthcare for all,’ anywhere, anytime and at any pace.” You can find a 2004 interview with Utsumi HERE.

He is particularly interested in peace gaming, and has included an essay on it in the collection, Global Peace Through The Global University System. Here is an abstract of and link to his contribution.

Globally Collaborative Environmental Peace Gaming
(A Personal Recollection on Its Inception and Development)

Abstract: As a computer simulationist, I conceived in 1972 an idea of establishing a Globally Collaborative Environmental Peace Gaming (GCEPG) with a globally distributed computer simulation system through a global grid computer network, with a focus on the issue of environment and sustainable development in developing countries. This is a computerized gaming/simulation to help decision makers construct a globally distributed decision-support system for positive sum/win-win alternatives to conflict and war. It can also be used to train would-be decision makers in crisis management, conflict resolution, and negotiation techniques. This gaming approach is to devise a way for conflict resolution with rational analysis and critical thinking basing on “facts and figures.”

Over the past three decades I played a major pioneering role in extending U.S. data communication networks to other countries, particularly to Japan, and deregulating Japanese telecommunication policies for the use of Internet e-mail. I also contributed by conducting innovative distance teaching trials with “Global Lecture Hall (GLH)”tm videoconferences using hybrid delivery technologies, which spanned from Korea, Japan, New Zealand, Finland, Italy, France, Russia, Turkey, Brazil, etc. 


Using this background, we are now creating a Global University System (GUS) with colleagues in major regions of the world, which will be interconnected with Global Broadband Internet (GBI). The GCEPG is one of the proposed ways to utilize the GUS and GBI in integrative fashion. A similar scheme with globally distributed computer simulation system can be applied to various subjects as creating a new paradigm of joint research and development on a global scale. This will foster not only wisdom by collaborative interaction on knowledge but also true friendship among people around the world with mutual understanding and lasting peace. 

This paper briefly describes the history of the GCEPG project since its inception in 1972 and its future direction. It is a companion to the opening chapter “Creating Global University System” of the book “Global Peace Through The Global University System.”

Does Jersey City have more Creative Potential than NYC?

21 Oct

Can Mana Contemporary make the transition from NYCArt in Jersey City to scene weaver?

It’s time to revisit a question I posed a couple of months ago in the wake of Steven Fulop’s ground-breaking election as Mayor of Jersey City: is Jersey City a 21st Century Florence?

A Time for New Institutions

First let’s once again review a crude little story I’ve been telling for years. It goes like this:

In the Medieval West the Catholic Church was the institutional center of intellectual life. Then the West underwent a massive cultural change, the Renaissance, and new life ways and new institutions emerged. A new system of colleges and universities supplanted the church as the central institution of intellectual life. That system served us well up through the end of the 19th Century and into the early 20th Century.

But the world is once again changing. And this time it’s not the West alone that’s undergoing a metamorphosis. It’s the whole world, kicking and screaming.

So, just what are the possibilities for new institutions? Are any emerging?

On the latter question, sure, I guess. But the basic institutions of life in the West, if not the rest, have been inherited from the 19Century and before. This is overlaid by large international corporations and various international treaties, pacts, and NGOs. And the web has emerged in the last 20 years as a vehicle of communication and dissemination, and it’s certainly changing the institutions of higher education.

But the deepest kind cultural work needs to be done face-to-face. What are the prospects there?

Well, of course, I don’t know. But let’s think about the three institutions I’ve been examining recently: Mana Contemporary, the MacArthur Fellows Program, and the SUNY Buffalo Department of English for roughly a decade or so in the 1970s. Can we make something new out of that? What? How? Continue reading

Cultural Factors in the Hunt for Genius

12 Oct

Here’s the main point of my previous post on The MacArthur Fellows Program: It is strongly biased by the social network in which it is situated. The simplest thing it can do to blunt that bias and thereby name more interesting and challenging classes of fellows is to stop giving awards to people on staff at elite institutions. Those institutions are too deeply rooted in the past to serve the future well.

First, while the search for genius, as conducted by the MacArthur Fellows Program for example, is conceptualized as a search for attributes of individuals, even an essence, that’s not how it works out in fact and in our world. If our world were culturally uniform and static, then, yes, the search for genius might properly be conceptualized as a search for essence. But that’s only because every individual would be surrounded by the same culture and thus the possibilities for a ‘fit’ between individual capabilities and accomplishments would be the same for all.

But that’s not the world we live in. In the first place, it is not culturally uniform. Culture varies by class, geographical region, and by ethnicity and religion. In such a world a search for genius will almost inevitably be biased by the interests and understanding for those conducting the search. In such a world the ONLY way to escape bias is to recognize the problem and take explicit steps to correct for it.

Just what those steps would be, I don’t know. Two obvious suggestions: 1) Make sure the selection process includes people from all sectors of society. 2) Conceive each class of awardees as a sampling of the cultural space.

And in the second place, our world is not culturally static. It’s changing rapidly for various reasons. Globalization is driving workforce changes that affect educational requirements and skillset distribution and needs. Computer technology has changed the media world and is itself making many jobs obsolete while creating new classes of jobs. Ideas in every sphere are changing and new expressive forms are emerging in the arts. And globalization is moving large numbers of people from one country to another. Continue reading

Work the Bottom Before You Work the Top

1 Oct

My father was an engineer who spent his life working for Bethlehem Mines, the mining subsidiary of Bethlehem Steel. He was a chemical engineer who was in charge of process design for coal cleaning plants, the plants that separated impurities from raw coal so that the clean coal could be used to make coke for heating blast furnaces.

In a word, he was a “suit.” Though he generally wore dress slacks and a sport coat to work rather than a suite. And he often wore a bow tie rather than a long one. A real bow tie, one of those where you had to tie the knot yourself.

Still, his job required that he go down into coal mines on a regular basis. I’m not sure just why this was, that is, I don’t know why he had to see where and how the coal was mined in order to clean it. But he did.

And that means he knew, first hand, that working in a coal mine was nasty, dirty work, and dangerous. On many occasions he told me that a man shouldn’t be given managerial responsibility for coal mines unless that man had had experience working in a coal mine.

That seems like a good principle to me. It’s not so much that working on the coalface down in a mine gives you knowledge you need in order to turn a profit but that working the coalface was necessary to secure empathy for the men who put their lives at risking working that kind of job year after year, and decade after decade.

Managers should be stewards, not simply of profits, but of the workers under their control.

An exercise to the reader: generalize the principle beyond coal mining.

What Really Ails Detroit – NYTimes.com

16 Aug

American manufacturing has been in trouble even since its heyday, in the 1950s and 1960s, when the United States was the global economic powerhouse and American assembly-line workers earned very decent middle-class wages.

That era of prosperity was not, as is so often claimed, the manifestation of the American dream. Rather, it was, or should have been, a warning sign that America was riding a fleeting wave of progress. Almost nobody was looking hard enough to the future and asking what it would take to sustain success.

The reason so many manufacturing-sector workers in the United States received such high pay at that time was not that they had exceptional skills or had received superior training; it was that the corporations for which they worked were unsurpassed in their dominance and generated huge revenues.

But that dominance was, to a considerable degree, a momentary quirk of history: the absence, in the wake of World War II, of any real competition from other nations.

via What Really Ails Detroit – NYTimes.com.

The Wrong Lesson From Detroit’s Bankruptcy – NYTimes.com

12 Aug

When I was growing up in Gary, Ind., nearly a quarter of American workers were employed in the manufacturing sector. There were plenty of jobs at the time that paid well enough for a single breadwinner, working one job, to fulfill the American dream for his family of four. He could earn a living on the sweat of his brow, afford to send his children to college and even see them rise to the professional class.

This is important, very important. It SHOULD NOT take 80 hours of work per week (a full-time job for each parent) to support a family. Families need more nurturing, and, frankly, most jobs destroy the soul.

via The Wrong Lesson From Detroit’s Bankruptcy – NYTimes.com.