The Internet: Bureaucracy or Fiefdom?

From the Bayeux Tapestry

Bruce Schneier declares:

It’s a feudal world out there.
Some of us have pledged our allegiance to Google: We have Gmail accounts, we use Google Calendar and Google Docs, and we have Android phones. Others have pledged allegiance to Apple: We have Macintosh laptops, iPhones, and iPads; and we let iCloud automatically synchronize and back up everything. Still others of us let Microsoft do it all. Or we buy our music and e-books from Amazon, which keeps records of what we own and allows downloading to a Kindle, computer, or phone. Some of us have pretty much abandoned e-mail altogether … for Facebook.

These vendors are becoming our feudal lords, and we are becoming their vassals. We might refuse to pledge allegiance to all of them — or to a particular one we don’t like. Or we can spread our allegiance around. But either way, it’s becoming increasingly difficult to not pledge allegiance to at least one of them.

The whole piece is worth reading.  For my part, I’ve often wondered if the Internet doesn’t fit Max Weber’s conception of a bureaucracy.  Weber described six major characteristics of bureaucracy (here‘s a handy summary of his views.)  First and most familiar in the popular use of the word, a bureaucracy has a formal hierarchical structure.  While there is no group of people who are the president and board of directors of the Internet, the machines that make up the Internet do in fact relate to each other according

Max Weber, by ludilozezanje

Max Weber, by ludilozezanje

to set routines.  Weber described bureaucracies staffed by human officials, but parts of his description still apply where, as in the functioning of the Internet, the officials are replaced by machines.

The second characteristic of bureaucracy in Weber’s description is a set of rules that consistently transform particular decisions made in one part of the structure into particular actions taken in other parts of the structure.  In this regard every bureaucracy aspires to the condition of a machine; as a bureaucracy composed of machines, the Internet would in a sense represent the ultimate bureaucracy. Along with these rules comes a heavy emphasis on written documents and permanent records, to ensure that decisions are communicated from one part of the structure to another accurately and that they are converted into action appropriately.  Here again, the Internet’s tendency to preserve data makes it the ideal form of bureaucracy.

Third, Weber says that bureaucracies are organized by functional specialty.   Here we see two levels of organization taking place independently of each other.  Of course, the machines are sorted together by their functions.  At the same time, the people who use the Internet develop specializations in their ways of relating to it.  Those who resist specialization remain on the fringes of the Internet.  So, a general-interest blog like this one toddles along for years with a handful of readers; start a tumblr site devoted entirely to eighteenth-century cocktail recipes, and you might  draw a thousand followers in a week.  Through them, you can learn more about your topic than you had imagined possible.  Because of the efficiency that results from the Internet’s specialization and consistency, users have strong incentives to specialize their own use of the system and to respect its rules.  Thus, the Internet’s human users behave as they would if they were clients of a bureaucracy staffed by human officials.

Fourth, Weber’s bureaucracies have missions.  These missions are not simply tasks for which groups might be established ad hoc, but are the overarching goals that justify the organization’s continued existence.  Because so many people have stakes in the continued existence of large bureaucracies, their missions tend to become rather broad and ill-focused over time; the last thing anyone wants is for the bureaucracy that provides his or her livelihood to have completed its mission.  A phrase like “the distribution of information,” precisely because it is so vague, is therefore a perfectly apt mission statement for a major bureaucracy.

Fifth, bureaucracies are impersonal structures, in which the relationship of one person to another is restricted to the roles that those people are playing.  So, if Alice is a sales agent for her company and Bob is a purchasing agent for his, their business discussions are between vendor and client, not between Alice and Bob.  When Internet cafes first appeared, nearly twenty years ago, a huge percentage of them had Peter Steiner’s cartoon from 5 July 1993 The New Yorker taped to the wall:

Now we’re living in the age of Facebook, and on the Internet everyone knows that you’re a dog, what you had for breakfast, where you like to do your business, etc.  Still, there is an element of impersonality built into online interactions.  So online political discussions, even on Facebook itself, quickly become interactions between supporter of Party X and supporter of Party Y, even when those supporters are close friends in other settings.  Obviously people can turn each other into symbols of opinions they dislike in any social environment, but I don’t think it’s controversial to say that online discussions are particularly prone to this sort of reduction.  Moreover, the most pleasant online relationships tend to be the simplest, those in which participants change their personas least often.  If Alice and Bob meet at a site devoted to eighteenth-century cocktail recipes and interact simply as devotees of those recipes, I suspect they are likelier to look forward to hearing from each other than they will be if they start talking about other topics and expecting other kinds of emotional and intellectual support from each other.  Offline, I would think it would be the opposite, that people who discuss only one topic and present themselves to each other in only one way are unlikely to become close.  I’d be interested to see studies on this hypotheses, a quick Google Scholar search hasn’t shown me any but if you know of such, please enlighten me.

Sixth, employment in a bureaucracy is based on technical qualifications.  Civil service exams, educational requirements, efficiency ratings, and other devices for measuring competence are not necessary if the best person for the job is the person who has inherited it as a matter of right.  They are necessary if the best person is the ablest.  Of course, every human bureaucracy exists within a society where there are laws, institutions, and ethical ideas that predate the rise of bureaucracy and survive independently of it.  So one does not expect a certifying authority to require the person who owns a business to prove that s/he is the ablest person to oversee its operations.  Nor does one expect anyone to require potential parents to demonstrate any particular abilities in order to earn a license authorizing them to produce children, or to raise the children they have produced.  If all social life were subject to the demands of a single bureaucracy, we would expect to see such requirements.  Indeed, as bureaucratization proceeds apace, we see ever more footprints of bureaucracy in areas which were once matters of right.  In many parts of the USA, for example, voters are routinely required to produce identification before they are allowed to take ballots, even though there is no evidence that anyone has ever impersonated a voter, and absolutely no way to affect the outcome of an election by impersonating voters.  These laws are accepted, not because they serve any legitimate purpose, but simply because it seems natural to the residents of a social world dominated by bureaucracy to be called on to produce one’s papers.

As for the Internet, there are technical specifications devices must meet in order to be connected.  This automated bureaucracy rarely sorts its human users by technical qualifications, though they do sort themselves in much the way that the clients of bureaucracies staffed by humans sort themselves.  And, as they do when interacting with bureaucracies staffed by humans, Internet users do tend to see themselves as clients receiving services rather than as citizens asserting their rights.  Zach Weiner expressed that point very effectively in February, with his now-classic cartoon about the so-called “Stop Online Piracy Act” that was then before the US Congress:

Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal, 2 February 2012

Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal, 2 February 2012

So you can see why I have thought it made sense to look at the Internet as a bureaucracy in Max Weber’s sense.  Perhaps, though, it makes more sense to follow Mr Schneier and look at it as a feudal realm.  While every element of a bureaucracy is, at least in theory, accountable to some overall authority that regulates that bureaucracy, the elements to which we trust our online security are accountable to no one.  As Mr Schneier writes:

In this new world of computing, we give up a certain amount of control, and in exchange we trust that our lords will both treat us well and protect us from harm. Not only will our software be continually updated with the newest and coolest functionality, but we trust it will happen without our being overtaxed by fees and required upgrades. We trust that our data and devices won’t be exposed to hackers, criminals, and malware. We trust that governments won’t be allowed to illegally spy on us.

Trust is our only option. In this system, we have no control over the security provided by our feudal lords. We don’t know what sort of security methods they’re using, or how they’re configured. We mostly can’t install our own security products on iPhones or Android phones; we certainly can’t install them on Facebook, Gmail, or Twitter. Sometimes we have control over whether or not to accept the automatically flagged updates — iPhone, for example — but we rarely know what they’re about or whether they’ll break anything else. (On the Kindle, we don’t even have that freedom.)

The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

I’m not saying that feudal security is all bad. For the average user, giving up control is largely a good thing. These software vendors and cloud providers do a lot better job of security than the average computer user would. Automatic cloud backup saves a lot of data; automatic updates prevent a lot of malware. The network security at any of these providers is better than that of most home users.

Feudalism is good for the individual, for small startups, and for medium-sized businesses that can’t afford to hire their own in-house or specialized expertise. Being a vassal has its advantages, after all.

For large organizations, however, it’s more of a mixed bag. These organizations are used to trusting other companies with critical corporate functions: They’ve been outsourcing their payroll, tax preparation, and legal services for decades. But IT regulations often require audits. Our lords don’t allow vassals to audit them, even if those vassals are themselves large and powerful.

In some of my darker moments, I’ve wondered if the USA is undergoing a revival of feudalism.  Mr Schneier makes a strong case that it is, at least in this area.

A sensible emptiness

Ever since Alexander Cockburn died in July, Counterpunch, the newsletter he founded and co-edited, has tended to let in more and more academic leftism.  Where a pungent, demotic style once prevailed, the pedantic jargon of reheated Marxism now roams wild.

Despite this sad falling-off, Counterpunch still carries news and comment worth reading.  I’d mention a piece that appeared today on Counterpunch’s website, “Atheism and the Class Problem,” by David Hoelscher.   True, it exhibits several academic vices that would never have survived Cockburn’s blue pencil, but it’s well worth reading nonetheless.

Here’s an interesting paragraph from Mr Hoelscher’s piece:

It is too often overlooked that economics is inextricably mixed up with religion. David Eller, an atheist and anthropologist, helpfully reminds us that the realistic view on this point is the holistic perspective. It sees religion as a component of culture, and as such “integrated” with and “interdependent” on all the other “aspect[s] of culture—its economic system, its kinship practices, its politics, its language, its gender roles, and so on.” It was not for nothing that Max Weber insisted that, in the words of Joel Schalit “the economic order is a reflection of the religious order.” It is no accident, then, that in the face of massive public debt and a wretchedly inadequate social safety net, various levels of ostensibly secular government in the U.S. grant 71 billion dollars in subsidies annually to religious organizations (as calculated by Professor Ryan T. Cragun and his students Stephanie Yeager and Desmond Vega.)

That sounds a bit like Irving Babbitt, who started his 1924 book Democracy and Leadership thus:

According to Mr. Lloyd George, the future will be even more exclusively taken up than is the present with the economic problem, especially with the re­lations between capital and labor. In that case, one is tempted to reply, the future will be very superficial. When studied with any degree of thorough­ness, the economic problem will be found to run into the politi­cal problem, the political prob­lem in turn into the philosophi­cal problem, and the philosophi­cal problem itself to be almost indissolubly bound up at last with the religious problem.

Of course, Babbitt’s point was the opposite of Mr Hoelscher’s.  For Babbitt, the most important questions were ethical questions, and the most important function of a social system was the formation of moral character.  Some virtues are best cultivated in conditions of prosperity; for that reason, Babbitt is prepared to grant that economics is worthy of some concern.  For Mr Hoelscher, however, economic inequality is the greatest of evils, and religious institutions are among the forces that sustain that evil.

I’d like to quote another bit of Mr Hoelscher’s, this one consisting of two rather long paragraphs:

Take for instance Noam Chomsky. The New Atheist message, he once told an interviewer, “is old hat, and irrelevant, at least for those whose religious affiliations are a way of finding some sort of community and mutual support in an atomized society lacking social bonds.” If “it is to be even minimally serious” he continued, “the ‘new atheism’ should focus its concerns on the virulent secular religions of state worship” such as capitalism, imperialism and militarism. Shortly after the death of New Atheist polemicist Christopher Hitchens in December 2011, Chomsky’s longtime friend, radical scholar Norman Finkelstein, derided Hitchens’ anti-theist provocateuring as “pissing on other people’s mostly innocuous beliefs.” (emphasis mine) Brothers and doctoral psychology students Ben and Bo Winegard, in an erudite article effusively praising Chomsky, argue that the so-called New Atheists are directing their prodigious intellectual firepower at the wrong target. They believe, correctly in my view, that today in the U.S. “The most potent mythology [“even among believers”] is neoliberal nationalism and the most powerful institution is the corporation.” The church, they assert “is no longer an inordinately powerful institution” and thus the New Atheists have “mistakenly dragged a 200 year old corpse into the modern world.”

But religion as a cultural force is not nearly as moribund as the Winegards suggest. Earlier this month, the Pew Research Center released its latest survey of religious belief, which found that 80 percent of American adults “said they never doubt the existence of God.” How is that possible if religion is so weak? Diane Arellano, program coordinator for the Women’s Leadership Project in Los Angeles (and former student of Sikivu Hutchinson), writes compellingly about how most of the African American and Latina students she works with “come from highly religious backgrounds that discourage any form of questioning about gender roles” and about how it is not particularly unusual for her to learn of a pregnant teen who eschews the option of abortion “because she can’t ‘kill’ God’s creation.” On the political front, Christian “conservatives” are largely devoted to the fascist Republican Party while most liberal religionists are devoted to the plutocratic Democratic Party. In his perceptive book What’s the Matter with Kansas?: How Conservatives Won the Heart of America, Thomas Frank offers a convincing explanation for why large numbers of poor and working class people vote Republican and therefore against their own economic self-interest. The basic dynamic is that right-wing political leaders and spokespeople succeed in achieving a “systematic erasure of the economic” from discussions about class and replace it with messages that warn of liberal “elites” bent on undermining mid-American Christian cultural values. Frank’s argument is not a comprehensive explanation for the success of radical corporatism across a wide swath of the country—other important factors, including moral rot inside the Democratic Party, widespread anti-intellectualism (itself in large part an effect of religion), and the sophistication of state propaganda are a large part of the mix as well—but it does capture a substantial part of our political reality.

How is it possible that 80 percent of American adults claim never to doubt the existence of God if religion is so weak?  I can think of an explanation.  In the USA, participation in religious groups has been declining steadily for forty years; for much of that time, so much publicity was given to the growth of the fundamentalist Christian groups that many people seemed not to notice that the mainline Protestant churches were losing more followers than those groups were gaining.  Now the fundamentalists are declining too, and the mainline is still shrinking.  This is not because some atheist campaign has persuaded millions to deny the existence of God; if anything, larger majorities now express agreement with theistic statements than did back in the early 1970s, when over 60% of Americans attended church on a weekly basis.  There is no paradox here; it is easy to say the words that go along with an orthodox belief if you know that no one will ever expect you to adjust your behavior to exemplify that belief.  Mr Hoelscher makes much of the fact that the poor are likelier to say that they hold conservative religious beliefs than are the rich; a fact he does not mention is that the likelihood that a person will participate in a religious group generally varies in direct proportion with that person’s income.  Again, it’s easy to say that you’re orthodox if there’s no one around to hold you to it.

T. C. Frank’s phrase, “systematic erasure of the economic,” got me thinking.  It certainly is true that political discourse in the USA is strangely disengaged from economics and class realities.  I’d say it’s giving the right-wing too much credit to say that they are solely responsible for emptying politics of any direct expression of these concerns.  The various left wings that have come and gone throughout American history have succeeded in convincing virtually everyone in the USA that class divisions are a very bad thing, and that their existence is a reproach to society.  Since the liquidation of class divisions does not seem to be an imminent prospect, that leaves Americans with few options beside denialism and despair.  Among those who are interested, not so much in liquidating all class distinctions, but in countering the worst effects of them and building a sustainable social compact, there might be considerable social activism, as there was in the mid-twentieth century when organized labor was a power on the land.  But those days are past.  Unions are marginal players in American politics today, and nothing has grown up to take their place.  As Mr Hoelscher notes, the Democratic Party and other institutions that are supposed to be vehicles of the center-right are as silent about class division as are their counterparts on the right, and offer the public no means to resist the demands of the super-rich.  Where we might expect conflict, we find a strange absence.

As much as American life has emptied politics of challenges to the power of the financial oligarchy, so too has it emptied religion of challenges to individual moral character.  Theology, doctrine, and myth still waft about in people’s speech and in their minds.  These abstractions are surely the least valuable parts of any religious tradition.  Absent the human connections sustained by common worship, absent the presence of admirable people whose good examples can form the character of those around them, absent the sense of purpose that comes from the feeling that one is a participant in a vast multigenerational enterprise upon which inconceivably important matters depend, it is difficult to see what can come of theology, doctrine, and myth except conflict and needless confusion.  That’s what brought Richard Wilbur’s “A World Without Objects is a Sensible Emptiness” to my mind; in that poem, its title a quote from mystic Thomas Traherne, Mr Wilbur rejects the idea of a placeless sanctity, of a spirit that lives in isolation from the flesh.  It is “the steam of beasts” that is “the spirit’s right oasis,” not the “land of sheer horizon” where “prosperous islands” “shimmer on the brink of absence.”  American life has become too much a matter of absences, its politics a contest of absences, its religion an organized absence, its art a proclamation of eternal, everlasting absence.  It’s high time we turn to presence again.

The New York Review of Books, 22 December 2011

I subscribed to The New York Review of Books for years and years.  I kept renewing because interesting pieces would appear in it just as my subscription was about to expire.  Then it would go back to its usual unrelieved tedium for another 11 1/2  months.  Anyway, I saw a copy of the 22 December 2011 issue in a magazine exchange rack the other day.  I picked it up.  I’m glad I don’t subscribe anymore, or it would have been the issue to lead me to renew.

Michael Tomasky reviews sometime presidential hopeful Herman Cain’s campaign autobiography.  This sentence intrigued me:  “While some of us may scoff at a man whose claims to fame include peddling Whoppers (Cain turned around the Philadelphia regional division of Burger King) and pizzas (he was for ten years CEO of Godfather’s Pizza, which he also made profitable) to an increasingly obese nation with less and less need of them, conservatives find virtually any form of private-sector achievement admirable.”  In the USA, academics, journalists, and others in the nonprofit world are routinely challenged to justify their existence in terms of the value of their services to society at large.  Success in business, by contrast, is generally accepted as self-justifying.  I’ve lived in the USA long enough to find it a bit jarring, in fact, to hear Tomasky step outside this paradigm and treat business as an activity like any other.

Ingrid Rowland reviews Robert Hughes’ Rome: A Cultural, Visual, and Personal History.  Rowland meditates on the coexistence of Rome’s historical patrimony and the dominance of mafia groups in the city’s business life.  I wonder if the two things can be separated.  The only cities I can think of that have decisively broken mafia control are Las Vegas and New York, and in each case the slayer of the mafia was the unfettered multinational corporation.  That’s hardly an entity that would be likely to preserve the signs of eternity in the Eternal City.

Freeman Dyson reviews Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow.  Kahneman’s theme, Dyson tells us, is the power of “cognitive illusions,” which he defines as “false belief[s] that we intuitively accept as true.”  Kahneman began his career by identifying what he calls the “illusion of validity,” the idea that the conclusions which people intuitively draw when faced with questions relating to topics about which they are well-informed are likely to be true.  As a very young researcher in the Israeli army in 1955, Kahneman was called upon to evaluate and, eventually, to replace the system the army was then using to place recruits in jobs.  That system was based on the opinions that experienced officers formed after brief, informal interviews with recruits.  Kahneman found that those opinions had no correlation with the recruits’ eventual performance.  He then designed a brief factual questionnaire for recruits to fill out and a mechanical method  of analyzing the results of that questionnaire, a method which turned out to be quite accurate at predicting recruits’ performance, and which has been the basis of assignments in the Israeli Defense Forces ever since.  Dyson follows this story with a story from his own experience in the Royal Air Force during World War Two, when changes that would have made bombers likelier to complete their missions were made impossible by the unwillingness of their crews to admit a fact which statistical analysis made achingly plain, that bombers carrying experienced crews were just as likely to be shot down as were bombers carrying inexperienced crews.  The illusion of validity was at work here as well; the idea that they were acquiring expertise that they would be able to use to save themselves gave the crews self-confidence that they would not exchange for safer planes.

Dyson explains the title of Kahneman’s book in terms of his thesis that cognition should be analyzed in terms of two systems, which Kahneman calls System One and System Two.  System One, our inheritance from our early primate ancestors, is fast and inaccurate; System Two, the product of our neocortex, is much more accurate but very slow.  In the fast-changing conditions of life in the arboreal canopies where our distant ancestors lived, it was far more important to be fast than it was to be right.  If a predator was coming, immediate movement in any direction was likelier to lead to safety than was long-delayed movement in the ideal direction.  Indeed, the RAF crews who resisted the changes Dyson and his fellow analysts could use statistics to recommend found themselves in a very similar environment to that in which our lemur-like forebears darted about, and so could hardly be blamed for favoring System One reasoning over System Two.

Dyson puts in a good word for two thinkers whom Kahneman does not mention, William James (whom Rowland also mentions, for his telling in The Varieties of Religious Experience of the story of how Alphonse Ratisbonne converted to Christianity) and Sigmund Freud.  Dyson argues that Freud anticipated many of Kahneman’s key concepts, notably availability bias (that is, “a biased judgment based on a memory that happens to be quickly available. It does not wait to examine a bigger sample of less cogent memories.”)  Here’s what Dyson says about James:

James was a contemporary of Freud and published his classic work, The Varieties of Religious Experience: A Study in Human Nature, in 1902. Religion is another large area of human behavior that Kahneman chooses to ignore. Like the Oedipus complex, religion does not lend itself to experimental study. Instead of doing experiments, James listens to people describing their experiences. He studies the minds of his witnesses from the inside rather than from the outside. He finds the religious temperament divided into two types that he calls once-born and twice-born, anticipating Kahneman’s division of our minds into System One and System Two. Since James turns to literature rather than to science for his evidence, the two chief witnesses that he examines are Walt Whitman for the once-born and Leo Tolstoy for the twice-born.

Freud and James were artists and not scientists. It is normal for artists who achieve great acclaim during their lifetimes to go into eclipse and become unfashionable after their deaths. Fifty or a hundred years later, they may enjoy a revival of their reputations, and they may then be admitted to the ranks of permanent greatness. Admirers of Freud and James may hope that the time may come when they will stand together with Kahneman as three great explorers of the human psyche, Freud and James as explorers of our deeper emotions, Kahneman as the explorer of our more humdrum cognitive processes. But that time has not yet come.

Lorrie Moore reviews Werner Herzog’s film Into the Abyss: A Tale of Death, a Tale of Life.  This bit, describing the death house ordinary, stuck in my mind:

The reverend is against the death penalty but in thinking of it before the camera he veers off onto an anecdote about a golf trip and almost hitting a squirrel that “had stopped in the middle of the cart path,” and we can see how when pressed to illuminate its own contradictions the human mind can go on the fritz.  This may really be Herzog’s theme.  There is much strain and helplessness felt by the functionaries asked to dole out this ritualized punishment.

I can’t help but wonder what Kahneman would make of these flailings of a mind “on the fritz.”  Moore describes another of Herzog’s interview subjects, a former executioner named Fred Allan, who had to quit his job and foreswear his pension because he couldn’t stop visualizing the faces of all the hundreds of condemned men whose lives he had ended in the death chamber at Huntsville prison.  That sounds like a cognitive illusion worth cultivating in everyone inclined to set up shop in the killing business.

Kwame Anthony Appiah reviews two new books about W. E. B. DuBois, Lawrie Balfour’s Democracy’s Reconstruction: Thinking Politically with W. E. B. DuBois and Robert Gooding-Williams’ In the Shadow of DuBois: Afro-Modern Political Thought in America.  Appiah notes two facts that impede a proper study of DuBois.  Again, I wonder what label Kahneman would put on these cognitive illusions.  The first is that DuBois’ great longevity tempts us to see him as a more nearly contemporary figure than he in fact was.  His death date, 27 August 1963, is in many ways less illuminating of his thought than is his birth date, 23 February 1868.  The second is that he still ranks as a sort of patron saint of intellectual achievement among African Americans, and so any attention to his limitations may be taken as an attack on all such achievement.  Appiah acclaims Goodling-Williams and Balfour for having the courage to venture into these sacred precincts and do scholarly work there.

According to Appiah, Goodling-Williams finds three ideas at the heart of DuBois’ political ideas: first, the idea that politics is in essence the exercise of command over a community.  Second, the idea that this command is rooted in and to some extent tempered by “political expressivism,” a process by which those who are to be led recognize as their leaders those individuals who best express what they regard as the essence of their common life, what DuBois meant by “soul” in the title of The Souls of Black Folk.  Third, the idea that the main political issue facing African Americans was social exclusion, which in turn resulted from the twin evils of racial prejudice among whites and “the cultural (economic, educational, and social) backwardness of the Negro.”

These three points set DuBois at odds with Frederick Douglass, who saw healthy politics as essentially a matter of collaboration among equals rather than a matter of command and control; who rejected nationalistic conceptions of leadership as collective self-expression; and who saw white supremacy, that negation of collaborative politics, as an evil quite apart from social exclusion of African Americans.  Goodling-Williams, Appiah argues, uses Douglass as a mouthpiece for his own democratic vision of politics, one in which leaders must listen to the actual voices of their followers, rather than to their collective soul.

Appiah ends with an interesting question about DuBois archnemesis, Booker T. Washington:

Could it be right to act like Booker T. Washington, deferring a demand for justice for yourself if that would bring justice more swiftly for your descendants?  Or is there something so discreditable, so slavish, in acceding to these injustices that it is better to resist them, whether or not your resistance brings forward the date when they will cease?

My inclination is to ask how we could know that any given act of deferring a demand for justice would in fact bring justice more swiftly for our descendants.  From a God’s eye perspective in which we could know with certainty that this was so, then the question would be one we could analyze coolly, rationally, in what Kahneman might call a System Two manner.  But given the limitations on what we can in fact know about the future, surely the best course of action would be to set an example of resistance, however futile it might be in the short term, in the hope, however ill-founded, that our descendants might hear of it and be inspired to emulate it.  Both our own action and the action we would hope to inspire in our descendants under that scenario would be the results of System One reasoning, bold and drastic and very likely to be misguided, but I don’t see how under real world conditions a policy generated solely by System Two reasoning could lead us to anything other than a situation in which full equality between whites and African Americans will remain forever in the future.

Malise Ruthven reviews Hamid Dabashi’s Shi’ism: A Religion of Protest.  Ruthven talks a bit about the paradox that results when Westerners compare the Sunni/ Shia split to the Protestant/ Catholic split.  Shias, with their hierarchy, shrines, and veneration of saints, are often compared to Roman Catholics, while Sunnis, with their many sects, internationalist themes, and iconoclastic tendency, are often compared to Protestants.  Yet Shiism is at its heart a protest against Sunni ascendancy.  So at moments it is appealing to compare Shiism with Protestantism.

This discussion obviously doesn’t get one very far, since the very definition of an analogy is a comparison between things that are in other respects dissimilar.  In some ways the Shias are a bit like the Catholics, in other ways they are a bit like the Protestants, in a great many ways they aren’t much like either.

Interesting to me were a description of Dabashi’s rejection of Max Weber’s description of Muhammad (Appiah also mentions Weber, commenting on Weber’s admiration for DuBois and his skepticism about democracy.)  For Dabashi, Weber’s view of Muhammad as an “ethical prophet,” rather than an “exemplary prophet,” is too schematic and conceals the ideological difference at the heart of the Sunni/ Shia split.  Dabashi argues that the two branches have different ways of dealing with what Weber would call the exemplary character of the prophet.  Sunnis, says Dabashi, tend to believe that shari’ah law can absorb the prophet’s example and teach the community to cultivate virtue, while Shias favor the view that a living imam must embody his example in the presence of the community if its members are to know what is virtuous.

Dyson says that “religion does not lend itself to experimental study,” and so remains outside of Kahneman’s focus.  Nonetheless, I wonder how Kahneman might analyze this difference.  It sounds to me like the Sunni ideal is a System Two prophet, Muhammad converted from living man into the rational processes of the law.  The Shia ideal, by contrast, sounds like a System One prophet, Muhammad who gave us a line of successors who are not themselves prophets, but who share the prophet’s intuitive understandings of right conduct and arouse the same understandings in us by the influence of their example.

Ruthven mentions the political sociologist Sami Zubaida, who has written a number of things about the contradictions in the Iranian political system that stem from the fact that that country’s constitution defines sovereignty as stemming from God and also as stemming from the people.   He also mentions Dabashi’s admiration for Philip Rieff.

Tim Parks and Per Wästberg exchange views on the question, “Do We Need the Nobel?”  Considering the Nobel Prize for Literature, Mr Parks takes on a job that strikes me as absurdly easy, which is to prove that no group of eighteen people can be taken seriously as the judges of all the world’s contemporary literatures.  Mr  Wästberg can respond only by describing the lengths to which he and his fellow members of the Swedish Academy go in attempting the impossible task of giving fair consideration to all the living writers in all the languages of the world.  Mr Parks receives this description in good grace, but sees in it no rebuttal to his main point.

“The economic argument”

Last week there was an xkcd strip that bothered me for three reasons.  Here’s the strip:

Two of the three things that bothered me about it were raised in this comment in the forum, more forcefully than I likely would have done.  So I’ll take the liberty of quoting “woodrobin”:

1. Dowsing is used by oil prospectors, as well as people looking for places to dig water wells. Less often these days, but it’s still used. Does that mean it works? No. Does people not using it mean it doesn’t work? No. Very few people use horses to pull plows, except the Amish and people in developing countries. Does that mean that horses can’t pull plows?

2. Health care cost reduction. That was funnier, taken seriously, than the original joke. When was the last time you ran into a doctor, hospital or insurance company that was interested in cost reduction through treatment? Any treatment, scientific or otherwise? Doctors and hospitals want to make money, and insurance companies have figured out it’s easier to save money by denying coverage for treatment, either in whole by canceling coverage, or in part by excluding anything “experimental” or “unproven.” In other words, it’s cheaper to exclude entire types of health care than to consider or cover them, whether or not they’re quackery notwithstanding.

“woodrobin” goes on to make two more points, about irrational practices that are in fact quite common in financial planning and military operations.

I would add one thing to woodrobin’s point 1, that people who defend dowsing usually claim only that it is a good way of finding water that is near the surface.  Most oil prospecting these days is concerned with deposits that are deep underground, so no method of shallow surveying is going to “make a killing” for anyone in that area.

My third objection hinges on the word “eventually” in the caption.  In the long run, the caption seems to say, market competition tends to eliminate irrational practices.  That may well be true.  However, that long run can be very long indeed, and in the interval those irrational practices can be reinforced by any of a wide variety of social forces.

Moreover, the rationality that competitive markets enforce is not the rationality Plato talked about in The Republic, not a single process that must culminate in a vision of unmixed truth and untainted justice.  Rather, it is the rationality Max Weber had in mind when he said that modern society traps its members in an “iron cage of rationality.”  Economic agents respond to the incentives of the market and develop ever more efficient ways of meeting the demands of other economic agents who have purchasing power.  Whether those demands accord with the sort of truth and justice Plato hoped to discover has nothing to do with it.  The mouseover text on this strip reads “Not to be confused with ‘selling this stuff to OTHER people who think it works,’ which corporate accountants and actuaries have zero problems with.”  The distinction between making a killing selling financial advice based on astrology to suckers who think astrology works and making a killing selling financial advice based on astrology because astrology really works may have made perfect sense to Plato, but it seems awfully tenuous from the viewpoint of someone like Weber.


Reason, madness, and the like

Adam Phillips reviews Gary Greenberg’s Manufacturing Depression, along the way quoting some memorable remarks and making intriguing remarks of his own.  He mentions Alfred Adler’s practice of beginning a course of psychoanalysis by asking a patient, “What would you do if you were cured?”  Adler would listen to the patient’s response, then say, “Well, go and do it.”  Phillips points out that this practice suggests that mental illness is simply an obstacle to achieving goals that themselves need no explanation, simply a form of inefficiency.  If to you this sounds like Max Weber’s description of rationality as an instrument that moderns use to achieve goals which they cannot subject to rational  criticism, you’ll appreciate this quote from Weber:  “Science presupposes that what is produced by scientific work should be important in the sense of being ‘worth knowing.’ And it is obvious that all our problems lie here, for this presupposition cannot be proved by scientific means.”  Phillips tells us that Greenberg sees mental illness quite differently than Adler did; in the course of his explanation of Greenberg’s view, he mentions D. W. Winnicott’s definition of madness as “the need to be believed.”   

Phillips identifies Greenberg’s main interest as the way psychology and psychiatry have described depression and the economic interest this particular description serves.  Phillips summarizes Greenberg’s arguments on this point and contrasts them with the radical anti-psychiatry of earlier decades, but he himself seems more interested in deep questions about the philosophy of science.  For example, he writes:

Scientists sometimes want us to believe that the evidence speaks for itself, but evidence is never self-evident; people often disagree both about what counts as evidence and what evidence is evidence of. It is as though, now, the cult of evidence—of “evidence-based research”—is the only alternative to the cults of religion. But the sciences, like the arts, like religions, are forms of interpretation, of people making something out of their experience. And our ideas about health, mental or otherwise, are just another way of talking about what a good life is for us, what we can make of it and what we can’t.

The blurb for this review on the issue’s table of contents reads “Science can be disproved only by its own criteria; when it comes to mental illness, its own criteria are often insufficient.”  Which is a strange thing to say- if the criteria of science are insufficient to disprove theories about mental illness, then how can those theories be called scientific?  Be that as it may, the blurb is clearly not a fair summary of what Phillips is saying, or of the views he attributes to Greenberg.