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What do we mean by ‘the economy’?

Some research I did during the Black Lives Matter protests pointed me towards Seeing White, which is Season 2 of the amazing Scene On Radio. I’ve been catching up with other series of the podcast since then, and the third series about toxic masculinity is also excellent.

However, it’s an episode of the most recent season which I want to focus on here. Season 4 concentrates on the origins of American democracy and, towards the end of March 2020, the hosts recorded a special bonus episode.

I listened to the episode this morning and it put into words something I’ve really been feeling about references to ‘the economy’. Thankfully, Scene On Radio provides audio transcripts.

Here’s the main host, John Biewen, talking to his co-host and collaborator, the academic and activist Chenjerai Kumanyika. They’re discussing the tension between the economy and democracy.

John Biewen: So in those cases from our series, and in others that we’ve looked at, it seems clear that building a healthy economy, as the ownership class understands that, is usually not the same as achieving wellbeing for most people. And here we are today, this argument still seems to be very much with us.

Chenjerai Kumanyika: So, you look at what we’re dealing with right now with this crisis, there’s a lot of evidence suggesting that this thing of prioritizing profit has a lot to do with why our disaster preparedness is so far from what we need right now. Most of y’all have probably heard that Trump dismantled a pandemic preparedness team inside his administration that had been created during the Obama administration. But what you really have to look at is how he explains hisreasoning for this. In a press conference where he was describing why he cut thepandemic team and other things, he said, “I’m a business person….”

BONUS EPISODE: Pandemic America, Scene On Radio, Season 4: The Land That Never Has Been Yet

They play a clip from Trump where he says he doesn’t want people ‘standing around’ being unproductive. But of course that only makes sense if you think countries should be run like businesses.

Chenjerai Kumanyika: And so there’s all these ideas circulating that everythingin the world should operate like a business and that somehow businesspeople are the best equipped to do everything. But in this case what you see is that business instinct was incredibly shortsighted. When we’ve actually known about these kinds of flus for decades, and people have been warning about just this kind of global pandemic — including Dr. Anthony Fauci, who’s playing such a prominent role right now. He’s the head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and you’ve probably seen him talking about this. He’s been warning about flu pandemics at least since the 1990s. But with that government pandemic unit cut from the budget, the decision of whether or not to develop and mass-produce vaccines and tests was an economic decision left in the hands of people figuring out, like, are we gonna profit from this?

BONUS EPISODE: Pandemic America, Scene On Radio, Season 4: The Land That Never Has Been Yet

So there we have it. By ‘the economy’, what politicians and others mean is ‘profits for wealthy people’. This is why, with a straight face, they will talk about the ‘balance’ to be struck between the economy and the number of deaths caused by the pandemic.

Put like that, as profits for wealthy people, I don’t particularly care about getting the economy restarted. I care about human lives. Trickle-down economics has, after all, been debunked as bogus.


This post is Day 42 of my #100DaysToOffload challenge. Want to get involved? Find out more at 100daystooffload.com

What’s the purpose of Philosophy?

When I was 18 years of age, I left my home in an ex-mining town, and went to university. This in and of itself was nothing unusual, especially given that my parents are both graduates, and my father has a postgraduate degree.

What was unusual was that, having been to, let’s say, not the best school, I felt that this would be a good use of the next three years of my life. After all, I wasn’t sure what I was going to do afterwards.

Even more unusual, especially given the patriarchal culture of the north east of England at the time, was that my father fully supported me in this. Even now, he says it was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made.

Perhaps it was the influence of my mother, a graduate in Theology, but I’ve always been interested in life’s big questions. We’re here on Earth for too short a time not to wonder about everything and everyone around us.

Still, some people look at my CV and wonder how my academic history has led to my job history. They wonder about the value and purpose of Philosophy. What’s it for, they ask?

To ask what philosophy is for is to ask, implicitly or otherwise, about its value. The anxious parents asking what their child could ‘do’ with a philosophy degree are really asking what value that degree will bring to their child’s life and career. But as soon as you ask about value, you’re only one or two well-placed questions away from falling into philosophical inquiry. If philosophy is useless or a waste of time, what things are useful, or a good use of time? What makes those things preferable to philosophy? What measure of value are we using to compare these things? Are there other types of value? Which is the right one, and why? Don’t look now, but we’re doing philosophy.

Patrick Stokes, ‘What’s philosophy for?’, New Philosopher #29

The latest issue of New Philosopher, a magazine to which I subscribe and eagerly anticipate every quarter, focuses on ‘the purpose of life’. For me, philosophy, or at least a philosophical approach to life, helps me figure out that purpose.

One common, incomplete definition of philosophy is that it deals with certain types of problems that other disciplines generate but do not solve themselves. Mathematicians or doctors might run into questions like ‘Do numbers exist independently of human thought?’ or ‘Do people have a moral right to refuse medical treatment?’, but these are not, strictly speaking, mathematical or medical science questions. They’re problems for philosophers of mathematics and medical ethicists, respectively.

Patrick Stokes, ‘What’s philosophy for?’, New Philosopher #29

I’d agree with my father in saying that my Philosophy degree was a great decision. It comes with lots of upsides, including a resistance to the hedonic treadmill, and clarity of thought.

There are downsides, though. The main one is that you can’t just switch all of this off. The questions and analysis keep on coming no matter where you are or what situation you’re in. That’s more useful in my professional than my personal life, I’d say.

But for anyone thinking about studying Philosophy, in any form, I’d strongly endorse the idea. Anything which gets us question why we do the things we do is alright by me.

Where to start? I’d point you to the work.of Alain de Botton, and in particular The School of Life. Many of their books are excellent. It’s far too easy to get stuck in the ‘history of ideas’ approach to Philosophy, which, while interesting, isn’t always immediately applicable to your own life.


This post is Day 41 of my #100DaysToOffload challenge. Want to get involved? Find out more at 100daystooffload.com

Weeknote 35/2020

Road being resurfaced with lorry

I’ve spent this week looking forward to this Bank Holiday weekend. I’m not employed as such, so there’s no particular reason I have to take Monday off, but not only do I want to, I feel like I should. After all, public holidays were fought for by previous generations.

I spent the majority of Sunday afternoon with my neighbours at a pot luck on the back lane behind our terrace of houses. Thankfully, the sun came out after the wind and rain earlier in the week!

On the work front, we had the final deliverable meeting for the work we’ve been doing for Catalyst and the Social Mobility Commission. It’s a series of linked resources relating to charities taking their programmes online: a quality framework, benchmarking survey, and toolkit of resources.

For Outlandish, I’ve continued with the productisation work, thinking particularly about the product manager role in a co-operative, and about upcoming products and services around Sociocracy.

I had a chat with a couple of large tech companies this week about roles with them. One flat out told me I was over-qualified for the role I’d applied for, but it looks like we might get some consultancy through the co-op with them. The other is a work in progress.

I made the decision yesterday, after much deliberation, to delete my Patreon account. This means I’m no longer supporting a bunch of creators, and also means I’ve told the ~50 patrons of Thought Shrapnel that I’m taking it in a slightly different direction.

Other than that, I’ve been playing quite a bit of FIFA 20, going for a run and on our exercise bike, and hanging out with the family. One thing that’s had quite a big impact on my life over recent days is workmen re-doing the road surface right next to my home office. The noise!

Next week will be a four-day working week due to the Bank Holiday. I’ve got a couple of days lined up for Outlandish, and then will be applying for a couple of pots of funding and doing some business development. Let me know if you see anything Doug-shaped!


Image shows road being resurfaced next to my house.

Deleting my Patreon account

After building up 50+ supporters via Patreon over the past couple of years, I’ve decided to delete my account. While it’s been a nice way to have a fund of money to then pay out to some of my favourite creators, that’s no longer enough reason to keep open my account.

What does this mean for Thought Shrapnel? I’m not sure. I want to keep something there, perhaps in a similar format to Aaron Davis’ Read Write Collect, or Tom Armitage’s Infovore. We’ll see.

I think I’ll continue sending out the newsletter, but probably in a slightly different format. Readership hasn’t been growing of late, which is usually a sign that either I haven’t been putting enough effort in, it’s not quite good enough for people to share, or both.


This post is Day 40 of my #100DaysToOffload challenge. Want to get involved? Find out more at 100daystooffload.com

Changing desktop environment in Pop!_OS

I’ve used many different distributions of GNU/Linux over the last (gosh!) 23 years, from Red Hat Linux as a 16 year-old through Mandrake, Fedora, Ubuntu, elementaryOS, and now Pop!_OS.

No matter which distribution you use, there are an infinite number of ways to customise Linux. One of the easiest ways to do this is to change desktop environment. The gallery at the Wikipedia page on desktop environments shows the sheer diversity of approaches in offer.

Not only do desktop environments change the look and feel of operating systems, they also affect the amount of resources being used, and therefore how responsive your system feels in practice.

I like the default desktop environment in Pop!_OS but I’m always experimenting with my setup to improve it. So when I stumbled across this page on the System76 website (the people behind Pop!_OS) I decided to give other desktop environments a try.

It’s important to inform those who have never tried this that all that’s happening here is a change in the final layer between you and the operating system. As such, your files remain untouched, and all of your browser settings (for example) remain the same. In fact, you could change desktop environments every time you logged on, should you wish.

I tried KDE Plasma again and Cinnamon, the latter being the default desktop environment from Linux Mint. I followed the instructions from System76 and everything was very straightforward. Next time I logged in the options were there at the bottom-right.

I’m sticking with Cinnamon for now, as it feels snappy and is aesthetically pleasing. The great thing is that, should I change my mind, I can just switch to another one without having to reinstall the whole operating system!


This post is Day 39 of my #100DaysToOffload challenge. Want to get involved? Find out more at 100daystooffload.com

3 advantages of consent-based decision making

Note: this builds on my earlier post about consent.

I’ve worked for a number of organisations over the years, in various different industries and sectors. Looking into an organisation as a consultant, though, is interesting because you begin to notice things that you’d perhaps miss if you’re trying to fit in and be there for the long-haul.

One of the things I notice is that there’s a direct correlation between how good an organisation is at making decisions, and how effective it is in achieving its goals. Organisations that have structures and processes for making good, timely decisions thrive. Others stutter and fail.

Many organisations default to hierarchical decision making: whoever is most senior in any given situation makes the final call. That can work, and it’s absolutely the quickest way of getting things done in an emergency. However, the downside is that it breeds resentment: do what you’re told or get out.

The opposite of the hierarchical approach is consensus-based decision making. This is usually seen as the ideal approach if your group has got time to mull things over and get everyone on board. It’s difficult to do well when you’ve got more than 10 people, though, and it’s easy for one or two people to derail the process.

In Sociocracy, groups (‘circles’) are encouraged to instead use consent as an approach to decision-making instead of the hierarchical or consensus-based approaches. In Many Voices, One Song, a book I’ve been reading recently, the authors explain why:

If we ask for unanimous decisions, we ask “do you agree?”, this question tends to focus people on their personal preferences. In consent, we ask “do you object?” and this question includes both the range of tolerance and the personal preference.

We don’t see consent as a watered-down version of consensus. In our experience, consent shifts the energy towards doing, instead of convincing others of our own viewpoint. To focus on the range of tolerance instead of personal preferences means to acknowledge that people’s experiences and perspectives are different and might remain different. With consent, we can still operate together, guided by a shared aim. (p.138)

Ted J. Rau & Jerry Koch-Gonzalez, Many Voices, One Song, p.138

The ‘range of tolerance’ is something which the authors explain as the difference between someone having a personal preference versus them objecting to something.

For example, let’s say there’s a vegetarian who doesn’t particularly like Brussels sprouts, so she never cooks them at home. However, she would eat them if served at a friend’s house for dinner. She has a personal preference rather than an objection.

Of course, business decisions tend to be bit more high-stakes than this, so let’s look at three advantages to consent-based decision making that the authors of Many Voices, One Song outline in their book:

1. Consent balances groups and individuals

With consent, individuals will not have as much power as they have in decisions requiring unanimity. On the other hand, with consent, a majority will not have power over a minority.

Ted J. Rau & Jerry Koch-Gonzalez, Many Voices, One Song, p.134

2. Consent allows for forward motion

It is easier to find common ground when working with the overlap of our ranges of tolerance. Once we have made a decision, we can carry out our plans and evaluate whether the changes bring improvement. Since we learn with every decision made (and we do not learn from decisions not made), every decision made gives us more options to learn and adapt to outside and inside changes. We use the slogan “good enough for now” to encourage groups to innovate and prototype quickly.

Ted J. Rau & Jerry Koch-Gonzalez, Many Voices, One Song, p.134

3. Consent is safe

Like a safety net, consent makes sure that no one can be ignored. If someone objects to a proposal, that person will be heard and the objection addressed. Thus, consent secures equivalence. The slogan here is “safe enough to try” which emphasizes that we only move when it seems safe – but then we don’t hold back.

Ted J. Rau & Jerry Koch-Gonzalez, Many Voices, One Song, p.135

I’m finding this approach increasingly valuable, and would encourage anyone interested in finding out more to come along to an introductory workshop run by Outlandish. They run them regularly, and beginners are very welcome!


This post is Day 38 of my #100DaysToOffload challenge. Want to get involved? Find out more at 100daystooffload.com

Letting go of my pre-pandemic self

Around 20 years ago, as part of my undergraduate degree in Philosophy, I took a module entitled Mind, Brain, and Personal Identity. The lecturer, George Botterill, a certified chess genius and extremely thoughtful guy, blew my mind by demonstrating via thought experiments that we can’t really be the same ‘person’ over a human lifetime.

We contain multitudes.

Ever since then, I’ve found this idea very liberating. I don’t have to be the same person I was when I was younger, I can choose to be different.

At the end of this year I turn 40. The worst of the pandemic will (hopefully) be over by then and I’ll also have finished most of my therapy sessions. As a result, it makes sense to think about how my pre-pandemic and post-pandemic life will differ.

For me, it’s worth remembering that Aristotle, perhaps one of the greatest thinkers ever to have lived, remained in Plato’s academy until he was almost 40 years of age. After this, he was tutor to Alexander the Great, and then wrote most of what he remembered for in the next 12 years.

I’m reminding myself of this, as there’s a tendency in our culture to think of people in their forties and later as being past their prime. That’s may be true in terms of physical prowess, but not in terms of things of lasting importance such as writing and thinking. Of course, I’m not putting myself in the same league as Aristotle(!) it’s just an illustrative example.

So I’m considering this time as a gestation period, as a time when I’m still in the chrysalis, waiting to emerge. I’m not sure what that’s going to look like in practice, but instead of looking back to being a caterpillar, I’m instead going to focus on turning into a butterfly.

Unlike the physical transformation that the caterpillar undergoes, my metamorphosis might be less obvious to those around me. Shifts in worldview and outlook sometimes are. But it’s an important thing to note for me: to give myself permission to let go of my pre-pandemic self.


This post is Day 37 of my #100DaysToOffload challenge. Want to get involved? Find out more at 100daystooffload.com

Weeknote 34/2020

This week has been another good week. Let’s start with last night’s wild camping in Northumberland National Park: it was windy.

My son and I, after walking a couple of hours from where we parked the car, and carrying everything in our backs, got soaked through by the rain and wind coming at us down the valley.

Mercifully, it stopped raining when we got to the place we’d decided to pitch, but the wind continued to howl. In the end, we we erected the tent behind a cow barn and then moved it into place carefully, being very careful not to become a human kite.

The wind howled all night, but we’d brought our headphones and each put on different variations of ‘sleep’ music to get some rest. I decided to sit in the entrance of our tent from 05:30 to watch the sun rise, which was pretty magical.

After some slightly disappointing tea and toast, we packed up the tent and walked back to the car. On the way, we stopped to have a look at a memorial to the servicemen killed in the planes that came down over the Cheviots during the Second World War.

I like mini-adventures, especially given we were back home by 10:00 on Saturday, giving us most of the weekend to spend with the rest of the family!

On the work front, it was again split between the work I’m doing with Outlandish, and that which I’m involved with as part of a team for the Social Mobility Commission and Catalyst. The latter is wrapping up now and looking great now that we’ve applied the official style guide.

For Outlandish, I led a ‘Theory of Change’ session for the new Products circle. We used Miro, including for the video conferencing aspect, which worked well! I’m hoping to stick around beyond my initial engagement with them to the end of September, and indeed have drafted OKRs taking me to Christmas.

Our children were at athletics camp for three days this week, which is unremarkable in and of itself. What made a huge difference is that it was the first time since March that my wife and I have been in together by ourselves during the day. It was nice to be able to have lunch together and do the crossword as we used to.

Next week, I’m going to be writing a couple of bids for funding from Catalyst and the Ford Foundation. It’s the final week of the Social Mobility Commission work, and I’ll be continuing with my productisation activities at Outlandish.

It’s also the children’s last week before they start school a week on Wednesday. Due to the three-tier system in Northumberland, they’re both starting new schools, so I may work slightly less so I’m around for them.


Image of our tent in Northumberland National Park.

Temporarily embarrassed influencers

Socialism never took root in America because the poor see themselves not as an exploited proletariat but as temporarily embarrassed millionaires.

John Steinbeck

Twitter and other social networks provide a digital version of the American dream: you too can be an influencer if you work hard enough and believe in yourself!

As we’ve seen with TikTok, there are powerful algorithms at play beneath of the surface of mainstream social networks. These are valuable commodities, because they provide data which is monetised for the sake of company shareholders.

Even during the pandemic, Wall Street is booming. Why? Because more of our interactions are digital, and therefore can be mediated by networks which are owned by people selling your attention to advertisers.

Influencers are the enablers of social networks and adtech:

Enabler (n.) One who encourages a bad habit in another (typically drug addiction) by his or her behaviour.

Mainstream social networks like Twitter and Instagram are designed to fuel addictive behaviours. However, much like Steinbeck’s comments on the American dream, it is users’ feelings of being temporarily embarrassed influencers that enable them.


This post is Day 36 of my #100DaysToOffload challenge. Want to get involved? Find out more at 100daystooffload.com

Kettled by Big Tech?

Yesterday on Mastodon, I shared with dismay Facebook’s decision to impose ‘login via Facebook account’ on the Oculus range of products. If, like me, you have an Oculus VR headset, but don’t want a Facebook account, then your device is going to become pretty useless to you.

The subsequent discussion included a request not to share links to the Oculus blog due to the number of Facebook trackers on the page. Others replied talking about the need to visit such sites using Firefox multi-account containers, as well as ensuring you have adblockers and other privacy extensions installed. One person likened it to needing an “internet condom” because “it’s a red light district out there”.

I struggle to explain the need for privacy and my anti-Facebook stance to those who can’t just see the associated problems. Sexualised metaphors such as the above are illustrative but not helpful in this regard.

Perhaps a police tactic to contain and disperse protesters might serve as a better analogy?

Kettling (also known as containment or corralling) is a police tactic for controlling large crowds during demonstrations or protests. It involves the formation of large cordons of police officers who then move to contain a crowd within a limited area. Protesters either leave through an exit controlled by the police or are contained, prevented from leaving, and arrested.

Wikipedia

The analogy might seem a little strained. Who are the protesters? Do the police represent Big Tech? What’s a ‘demonstration’ in this context?

However, let’s go one step further…

[K]ettling is sometimes described as “corralling,” likening the tactic to the enclosure of livestock. Although large groups are difficult to control, this can be done by concentrations of police. The tactic prevents the large group breaking into smaller splinters that have to be individually chased down, thus requiring the policing to break into multiple groups. Once the kettle has been formed, the cordon is tightened, which may include the use of baton charges to restrict the territory occupied by the protesters.

Wikipedia

In this situation, the analogy is perhaps a little easier to see. Protesters, who in this case would be privacy advocates and anti-surveillance protesters, are ‘kettled’ by monopolistic practices that effectively force them to get with the program.

Whether it’s Facebook buying Oculus and forcing their data collections practices on users, or websites ‘breaking’ when privacy extensions are active, it all gets a bit tiring.

Which brings us back to kettling. The whole point of this tactic is to wear down protesters:

Peter Waddington, a sociologist and former police officer who helped develop the theory behind kettling, wrote: “I remain firmly of the view that containment succeeds in restoring order by using boredom as its principle weapon, rather than fear as people flee from on-rushing police wielding batons.

Wikipedia

It’s a difficult fight to win, but an important one. We do so through continuing to protests, but also through encouraging one another, communicating, and pushing for changes in laws around monopolies and surveillance.


This post is Day 35 of my #100DaysToOffload challenge. Want to get involved? Find out more at 100daystooffload.com

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