Not A Meritocracy

Social Justice

So, I’m done with the social justice world.

I always had more time for the really complex and nuanced arguments of the heavyweight writers anyway and I had the privilege of working with smart and level-headed activists when it came to actions.

But, in the last few years I lost my certainty about every cause I was involved with and now I feel much more interested in studying all sides, watching how things play out and to a certain extent having a go at predicting outcomes, without feeling particular alleigence to any “side” in a debate because almost everything has merit and almost no-one is interested in measuring actual outcomes. When outcomes are played out, things are normally good for some people and bad for others, appropriate in some circumstances and irrelevant in others.

Im interested in that fact, but openly sympathising with the problems faced by men’s rights activists gets you pushed out of the feminist activist club fairly quickly, and rightly so, because passionate outrage is the fuel needed to act there.

Anyway, excellent activism is more drowned out these days by tribe-signalling meme warfare and I generally ignore it.

But I still have thoughts and critiques when particular examples float my way and here is one of them.

Intro

A friend invited me to a talk by a woman of color about the difficulties she has experienced in the media industry. It set me to thinking about the media industry and how this is a known industry for being extremely difficult to get into. It also strikes me that the media industry is one of those industries that is most obviously based on nepotism (powerful people promoting their friends) than based on merit (fair interview processes for all job openings).

In this talk I wonder if the person will be calling for less racism in a meritocratic sense or in a personal relations sense.

Systematic lies

I certainly used to be a highly systematic and individual person who believed in rules and fairness. My understanding of feminism moved through the following cycle:

Believing that the world was fair to the genders -> angrily realising it was not -> advocating for more fairness ->seriously thinking about how to educate others to be fair -> realising you partly have to tell the next generation to behave better than you do ->telling kids that the world already allows boys in pink skirts ->those kids believe the world is fair ->angry realisation that it’s not…. etc.

In this way we are iterating over the generations since the 60s telling little lies that everything is fair.

Relationships

I recently spent some time working on my skills when it comes to relationships, being dissolved in a web of humans, forgetting the rules and so on.

A pertinent example of this is moving to London. I had always been too scared to move to London since the barriers to entry are so formidable. When I decided to make the move, I had no money, no previous address and no (current) skills. I knew that the “correct” way to move to London, use an agency to rent a property at market rates, would be impossible for me. I knew it was impossible for others too, and yet people managed to get there. It seemed obvious that it was important to meet some people who had found some sweet deal, some cheaper niche of their own, by luck and rule-bending and circumstance. It was important to personally meet these people because any spare rooms would be a closely guarded secret that would never leak out onto “official” channels, reserved only for friends by word of mouth. This strategy would take time and luck, but was my only way in.

It worked, and that is exactly how I moved to London.

This is nepotism, the epitome of “it’s not what you know, it’s who you know”. The catch-22 of “networking” is that human networks is one of the only ways things get done but articifially trying to build those networks at networking sessions is exactly the wrong way to forge those connections. It must be done in a way that feels natural and inspires trust.

More Lies

Back to lies we tell our kids. Adults claim that their institutions are based on a meritocracy, which is not really the truth. There is a sliding scale of truth to that claim, with most universities and boring companies on the meritocratic end and Oxbridge, government and the arts industries on the nepotism end.

When I was a feminist activist, I took fair, meritocratic systems as a given and was trying to eliminate unfair practices between genders in what I perceived should be a fair system.

I wonder if this woman of color is making the same assumption: that unfair racist practices are occuring in what should be a fair, meritocratic system. If so, I don’t think she will get very far. Not because of the resistence to equal treatment of race and gender (though that is likely present), but because protecting the facade of merit over the reality of nepotism is something people will fiercely defend and lie about (and do it well, this is the media we are talking about).

My advice to this woman would be to use race and gender as a tool in this nepotistic setup. Go find the people of color who are already there and if they won’t help you (likely) they might indicate who in power likes having black friends. Gender is an even more unpalatable option, since other women may not help (they might, find that one feminist who works in TV), so one might have to resort to feminine attractiveness or, more likely if its TV and theatre, one could do well by butching up for all the gay guys that find women a bit scary.

This all sounds like a social justice nightmare, but if you’re not willing to be realistic about these strategies a career in the media may not be for you. It also does not preclude activism. Someone’s personal climb through the nepotisitc ranks may lead those friends on the way up to regard a person of a colour as a good bet in the relations stakes, whereas before they were prejudiced/ blind to it. I genuinely believe that that outcome would be a big win that does a lot of good.

Support

I won’t be going to the talk. I’m bored with all that. My advice above would not be taken well, and I can see why. But my friend is definitely showing signs that she takes my lack of support for her talks as a rejection of her friendship. Is it possible to show support for someone in this part of their life without resorting to totally faking it?

Advertisements

The Accountant – how to deal with clients

I instantly fell in love with Ben Affleck’s character Christian Wolff from the film The Accountant. Something about being awkward, fit and hot, plus having the exact same delay between shots he fires with his anti-aircraft rifle. But best of all, his client meetings. He is my new hero when it comes to dealing with new clients.

Here, have some memes:

imontheclock

 

clientbusiness

Books of 2016

I use Goodreads. My Reading Challenge goal was 20 books (an increase on the 17[?] that I read last year). I in fact read 15, including just one graphic novel. For me graphic novels count as cheating because they are so short, but I also often read 300 pages of a book before abandoning it as rubbish. Last year had around 3 graphic novels I think…

Here’s a screenshot:

screen-shot-2017-01-04-at-23-33-03

Books I’ve abandoned this year:

  • ‘Bodily Harm’ by Margret Atwood
  • ‘The Girl Who Saved The King Of Sweden’ by Jonas Jonasson

My reading challenge goal this year it back to 17.

Britain’s unequal cities and the magnetic force of London’s social norms

EDIT: Please note that the philosophy portions of my blog can now be found at TheoryEngine.org

City Size and Stability

An acquaintance once told me that Germany experiences political stability in part due to the fact that all of its cities are roughly of equal size. I have no way to validate this claim, but Germany’s cities do seem to be noticeably uniform in their population and population density after the top 4. Among the top 4, the largest city, the capital, is double the size of the next largest, while 2,3 and 4 are similar in size to each other.

At some point I became aware of Britain’s “top ten” city sizes and this is the kind of information that my brain likes to keep around. I lived in rank number 8 at the time: Bristol, and now I live in number 1: London.

What is interesting about the U.K.’s city sizes is that the capital, London, is four times larger than the next contender: 8.3 million vs. 2.3 million in Birmingham. After that the city sizes decrease sharply among the top ten. Manchester is 1.7 million, Liverpool 0.8 and so on. My home city of Bristol in rank 8 is only 0.4 and these numbers include a “greater urban area” so they are on the generous side.

This interesting table also lists the “Large Urban Zone” EU rank of these areas. London is number 1, while the next largest area, Birmingham, is rank 21.

On hearing my friend’s anecdote about political stability in Germany, I started to wonder if regions with unequal size cities have more social/political upheaval or strife.

It is sort of common knowledge in the U.K. that London dominates the political and financial landscape of the country, meaning that politicians are unduly influenced by the needs of London and are liable to ignore the needs of the rest of the population. But aside from politicians wearing London-tinted glasses, are there other mechanisms also in play?

Advertising as Signalling

This interesting article about advertising proposes a mechanism for how advertising works. Its thesis is that adverts probably do not overtly or covertly make a consumer have emotions related to a product (“emotional inception”), rather they create a shared social environment where the product is associated with a sign or signal of certain social messages. I recommend reading the article for specific examples, such as Corona being associated with being chill on the beach, so that’s the beer you’ll bring to the barbeque to signal “we are all chill here”.

The article stresses the fact that advertising has to create a potent and enduring social milieu within which to present a consistent social message. This milieu only works if everyone has seen the message, and everyone knows that everyone else has seen the message. Thus, signalling by means of products can begin.

London’s Impact on Advertising

London’s supermassive size has the effect of pulling everything into its orbit. If a company would like to use some kind of creative agency to make an advert, the people they call will be in London.

Now that I’ve lived in London for a while, I noticed that much of UK-produced media is made by people who live in London, using London locations. I recently watched an advert that showed a variety of people in a variety of settings. The urban scenes were in different parts of London with different types of background architecture, but the “rural” or “park” scenes were also in London – the hexagonal black bins and other street furniture were instantly recognisable.

Clearly some London agency had taken the client’s money and shot a “diverse” advert with diverse locations without going any further than Hampstead Heath.

London’s Social Norms

Crucially, I recently noticed that London people also project London social values in their output. The advert mentioned above was quite diverse in terms of the people in the advert: a white same sex couple, an older sikh gentleman jogging, a black family. The ad was trying so hard it was almost painful.

However, for a Londoner, a same sex couple in Trafalgar square, a black family on an urban road and an older sikh man jogging in Hampstead Heath is just normal life. The hammy diversity is only hammy for a Londoner because of trying to jam in different examples of normal people into a short time frame.

The advert lacked poor people, because no-one is very poor in London. London takes racial diversity for granted, as well as sexuality. Engagement in a capitalist economy is also taken for granted in London, because everyone is there to make money, and everyone is succeeding in that. Making money is not inherently bad, since it supports taxes which in turn support infrastructure which supports making more money.

London is ethnically very diverse. London is 49% white British, 58% white (all groups). 37% of London residents were born outside of the UK. This compares to 95% white in the rest of the UK population.

Being a diverse mega-city, politeness in London is an interesting game. There is no way to know which custom should take precedent among diverse people. For example, getting on the bus politely. Whom should you defer to when entering the vehicle? Older people? Women? Men? Children? It amuses me to think that even in say, patriarchal cultures there is no consistency. One culture might deem that women should go first, while another says that women should be at the back of the queue. Most people will defer to elders, but tellingly, only if they have their shit together to board. This shows London’s default social norm: efficiency and speed (which = money).

The only way to keep this city going is with speed and efficiency. If an older person is faffing, it is culturally polite in London to get on before that person, because in the time we’ve wasted deferring to our elders, ten people could have boarded the bus and we’d be underway.

The older person is never left behind, because Londoners are also culturally aware that each person adds more wealth to the whole. This wealth is both cultural and fiscal at the same time. London is so big that it has (paid) roles and niches for absolutely everyone. London understands that diversity is good, not through strength, but through money.

Social Pressure

And these are the values that are translated into advertising. These values make sense in London, but for the rest of the population, which is 95% white, with no financial incentives, they may be having a very negative effect.

If advertising creates a social signalling environment, then a person in a small town or village is being forced to feel that they should welcome and tolerate people who, for them, display disruptive, frightening and dangerous characteristics.

When someone from another culture shows up in a small(ish) community, it is probably better for everyone involved if that person is integrated into community life, ie they are asked to change their behaviours to match their new surroundings (and a link to this idea now eludes me).

However, the opposite message is being broadcast by London-based advertising producers. Cultures should apparently be tolerated and celebrated, not integrated and if a local person thinks that the new person should be restricted or compelled to integrate, they are made to feel racist.

If advertising sets the tone of social interaction, a large part of the UK population is being made to feel social shame. Shame often leads to anger and defiance. Perhaps it has led to backlash voting.

I’m not sure if unequal city sizes generally contributes to social tension rather than harmony, but the mechanism described above could be one more explanation for London’s black hole effect on the rest of the U.K.

End Of Nations: Stage 5 Geography?

EDIT: Please note that the philosophy portions of my blog can now be found at TheoryEngine.org

The State Of Nations

Now

This post will be engaging with an article in New Scientist called End Of Nations by Debora MacKenzie. The featured image is also copyright New Scientist. The article suggests that nation states are currently ubiquitous, they also seem timeless and inevitable. However nation states are neither natural, nor inevitable. Instead, they  arise from the demand for increasingly complex social behaviours/increasingly complex activities.

“The key factor driving this ideological process, [of creating nations] was an underlying structural one: the development of far-reaching bureaucracies needed to run complex industrialised societies.”

This tallies well with the pages in Meaningness relating to Modernity and the rise of the systemic/stage 4 society. David’s pages state (and I agree) that these notions are academic common knowledge. This article by Mackenzie is an excellent read in terms of demonstrating the academic literature in an easy to digest way. So… go read it.

Still here? Well one takeway from the article is that Nations are currently the largest “container” we have for power. This is not useful when trying to solve global problems.

“… there is a growing feeling among economists, political scientists and even national governments that the nation state is not necessarily the best scale on which to run our affairs. We must manage vital matters like food supply and climate on a global scale, yet national agendas repeatedly trump the global good. At a smaller scale, city and regional administrations often seem to serve people better than national governments.”

So, what is the future?

The article discusses the European Union’s strengths and weaknesses.  The integration of European states to benefit from economies of scale is very positive. However Europe has a problem, because it is just another layer of heirarchy on top of heirarchical nations, and heirarchy might be a bad thing. Nations are a new and uncomfortable idea, so they have to preserve themselves with patriotic fanfare, sports teams and the like, but Europe’s heirarchy layer does not use all the patriotic tricks that nations themselves use to promote national identity, which is probably why everyone hates it, even though the principles of the EU are pretty solid.

The article also points out the global meetings of nations exist but have varying degrees of effectiveness – eg NATO, the UN. However,  the more informal, variable and goal-oriented groups such as the G-numbers (G8, G12) might actually be more effective.

The remainder of the article describes a proposed answer: evolving from heirarchies to networks. “Networks of regions, states and even non-governmental organisations”. Proponents call this neo-medievalism (because the medieval model was much more fuzzy around the edges). “Networked problems require a networked solution” says Anne Marie Slaughter. The article also talks about the possiblity of collapse as a crucible for new things.

I’m sure you’re by now with me thinking that this sounds like grasping towards stage 5 fluidity.

The article concludes that everyone agrees we still need nations, as a “container” of power (you can’t just throw out stage 4) but no-one can really imagine how politics would work in a network. Given that the world is changing and we have global problems, “it’s time to start imagining”.

Imagination Fail

I find this sentiment at the end of an article frustrating.

It reminds me of my frustration with AI movies. They often end at the moment the AI steps out into the real world (Ex Machina) or fall back onto unfulfilling, unrealistic emotional crap (Transcendence). Some tech friends claim we are experiencing a “fiction singularity”, a place where we simply cannot imagine our way beyond a certain point with AIs.

It seems we have a similar block here, imagining our way beyond stage 4 politics, capitalism, etc. Postmodernism is the “stage 4 politics singularity”.

Failures of imagination irritate the shit out of me. It seems like a poor excuse for failing to do something, or for believing something is not possible. If you can’t imagine something, that doesn’t mean it’s impossible. Try harder! Find imaginative people and ask them! Grrrr.

12728480_1523556977940917_1322936434_n

I believe I am no more imaginative than average but we can’t all just throw our hands up in the air and hope someone else is dealing with it. So, here is an attempt at “imagining” how politics would work in a fluid network, rather than a heirarchy of discrete, nation-sized containers.

Imagine There’s No Countries

City Mayors

It seems obvious to me that large cities should work together in a global way. I imagine the mayors of London, New York and Tokyo could have a lot to say to each other. At the moment I think there is probably some borrowing of knowledge from one city to another, but a global network of cities creating shared goals (such as how to integrate travel between them more efficiently) for everyone’s mutual benefit seems like a good way forward. I think creating carbon emissions goals between major cities could also have as a big an impact as nations could. Luckily, mayors also already have some power.

Regional Networks & Tasks

The same idea could be applied to rural areas – in the UK Prince Charles is really into that sort of thing. I am imagining conferences on farming that are wider than just either: corporates or NGOs or charities or Government departments, but rather mix their participants based on topic, not polital unit.

This also implies the strength harnessed by Kickstarter: organise around tasks/goals. This is where the G-numbers have had success. It is important however that participants have the power to make changes. We could confer temporary task-force power on such people.

Some regions might want to hang out around “not feeling like they are part of their surrounding nation” like the Basque area of Spain and Massachusetts. They could chat about how to make free cities actually work.

Fuzzy boundaries

An idea to get our heads around might be that it is ok for some cities/regions to have more fuzzy boundaries. There are huge back and forth debates about country boundaries and visas, which I’ve only vaguely looked into, but I propose that boundaries can be more flexible than that.

They could be fuzzy for certain things or for certain people but solid for others, such as perhaps creating a global accord for academic visas, but still be more strict on tourist/working/immigration visas. Europe’s national boundaries now work in this way, with open borders for EU residents, while political borders remain in tact.

But boundaries could also be fuzzy only for certain times. Burning Man is an example of laws, cities, resources and boundaries that only exist at certain times of the year.

What are your ideas for stage 5 politics?

 

Money, part 2

This is a continuation of my previous post, describing my mission to actively move away from using money. This involved being homeless and discovering the opportunities of life without money.

Going back to money

I always knew I would be reintegrating with the “normal” world eventually. After a whole year of being homeless and surviving without money, I was ready to go back.

In discovering rationalism, I had come across some cool techniques for life. Using probabilities and a cost vs benefit analysis I decided to move to London and become a developer. This was calculated as a low-cost high reward strategy for maximum money in minimum time that had a good chance of success.

The ultimate goal was to make time for more philosophical activity in my life. The no-money route is an option to regain some time, but perhaps not enough. The costs are also high: poor physical health, lack of stability (high anxiety). In short, to reach my goals, I had to use money.

Emotional difficulties

Even though my feminist days gave me this advice: “we all are doing what we can to survive under unfair conditions, so it is wrong to criticise others who are performing along the expected lines of society”, I still suffered feelings of horrible guilt and of being a sell out.

I rationally knew that I had come up with a decent plan that might ultimately help me to do more of what I love, an activity which might help people and even contribute to changing the society I find myself in. However the feelings of being a sell-out, of “getting more right-wing as I got older” were strong. It took some years to be more at peace with my choices and even longer to find a framework that might help to describe them.

I also felt uncomfortable  earning (what felt like) an obscene amount of money in comparison to others. Coming from the local government sector gave me a strong sense that the people who do the hardest jobs get paid the least money. I also felt working class guilt, that I was being a traitor for accepting and using middle class salaries, buying myself middle class privileges.

Of course, it was harder for me to remember that my new salary was still below average, well below median and certainly not “obscene” by any measure.

 

I had to remind myself that it is ok to have money. Life is indeed much easier with money. I think the study about IQ drop when feeling anxiety over money has failed to replicate, like so many others, however the anxiety levels at the low-end of the money scale seem anecdotally extremely large, and are relieved entirely by a modest income. Having modest amounts of money allows for optimism for the future, enables regular excursions outside of the house, enables much easier social relations, allows freedom of travel and greatly improves physical health.

Another aspect of money relates to sharing your money. I can now be honest about my motivations for generosity, is it signalling, is it genuine concern? I now feel ok about exploring those ethics.

One thing is certain, being without money is an excellent way to understand and use it effectively.

Further Truths

It’s expensive to be poor.

This perverse rule was visible everywhere once I recognised it.

The ATMs in poor neighbourhoods always charge for withdrawals, because poor neighbourhoods don’t attract chain banks or other enterprises that provide free cash machines. It’s not worth it, because everyone there is poor.

The converse is also often true: it’s cheap to be rich. Rich people are often invited to free events in the random hope that someone will spend their money eventually on the host’s business. Art galleries have free private views. Overdrafts on wealthy client’s accounts are free, while poor people are penalised for even a £1 overdraft withdrawal. The richer you are, the more free things get offered to you. Of course, money makes more money if you just leave it alone, so the act of simply having some gives you an income on it as well.

Cheating on benefits is much harder than getting a job

Almost nobody does it, so get over it. Of the ones that do, it is our fault as a society for not providing more useful deception games that their skills could be applied to. Either way it is an acceptable loss.

 

Post-money

It doesn’t take very long to earn enough money such that survival is covered and all the questions about the meaning of life, and how to spend one’s time, return. For my freelance friends who really do earn obscene money, the problem of what to do every day becomes a real concern. Material benefits lose their charm alarmingly quickly. Boredom is the ultimate problem.

It leads me to wonder if there are groups of people with rich depression, whom we could leverage to do interesting things. It also makes me a proponent of universal benefit, which might be an interim step that will lead us to the idea that we should spend some time shunting around our shared, limited resources and the rest of the time getting together to do interesting things.

Money doesn’t need to be money

For some people (many?) their salary is much more to do with “numbers going up” – the dopamine reward system that video games harness so well, than it is to do with material goods or comfort. For those who are not too interested in the status that material goods bring, the motivation is more to do with the esteem a society holds them in (itself another kind of status).

This had led me to speculate about the possibility of divorcing “currency” – a phrase for the part of money that is a functional system of exchange rather than drag 2,000 eggs to market to swap for a cow – from the insane, imaginary mathematical games people play in financial markets that none the less cause ordinary people to lose their homes.

I recently spoke to a software developer in the finance industry who openly admitted that he engages in creating software that is deliberately difficult to use, so that financial investors feel as though they are actually doing something during their 90 hour work week, rather than admit that they do no better than random chance. His team actively re-writes old software with more complex navigation menus and deliberately obfuscatory usage procedures to supply the illusion that these people do something Very Hard that only Magic Skilled People can do.

I wonder how hard it would really be to round up the entire top several levels of the world financial system and quietly slide them all into an MMO or virtual world, where we tell them they are trading and have won and lost millions of “dollars” when actually we have disconnected them from the currency we use for basic goods, shelter and transport a long time ago.

Capitalism

I used to think capitalism was evil. Now I think it’s just a system.

I think it’s quite amenable to being hacked and changed, which is good. It might be the least bad system so far. It also doesn’t function in a vacuum. Capitalism so far has always operated with, alongside and within several other systems: nation states, governmental organisation systems, political systems, charity systems and particularly “welfare” systems. The welfare side is where we put lots of our human morals, and I now find it strange when people demand moral behaviour from capitalist systems.

There are some who believe that current systems would be improved if allowed to operate with the same rules as a “market”. I think they are correct in some cases, but it would be disastrous in others.

I do think there are aspects to markets/capitalism that mean it has never been a complete or functioning system. For example, natural resources are exploited at no cost, giving the illusion of eternal resources and thus eternal growth. I will be very interested to see how capitalism changes when this loop is closed, such as when governments give natural resource systems legal rights, or with carbon taxes.

I feel optimistic that since capitalism is subject to theories as engines, not as cameras, it will continuously evolve and will no doubt be a useful system in the system tool box for a long time.