Twitter, Facebook, and social activism: newyorker.com

Twitter, Facebook, and social activism: newyorker.com.

This article by Malcolm Gladwell makes a useful distinction between strong ties activism and weak ties activism. The former was always possible, the latter only really viable with the coming of the social web. Activists with strong ties have real, face to face friends. Online activism has to make do with the weak ties of friends on Facebook. Gladwell disparages weak ties activism as, effectively, activism for people who can’t be bothered to actually do it. He claims that rumours of the Twitter revolution in places like Iran have been greatly exaggerated.

I’d agree about the exaggeration. One cause of this which he doesn’t mention is the incentive journalists and editors have to add current buzzwords to well-established reporting tropes. Thus for example ‘crack addicts stole my iPad’ breathes new life into an otherwise dying formula. In the case of civil unrest in far-flung nations there is a great temptation to add the words Facebook or Twitter to the headline.I’d also agree that weak ties are, well, weak. There’s a danger of them being expected to accomplish more than they can reasonably be expected to.

Much of what passes as media comment on internet activism is little more than star-struck boosterism. But I think Gladwell is a little too negative about the potential for the social web to ‘change the world’. There are two areas in particular where worthwhile things seem to be happening.

First, in the area of activism, organisations like GetUp in Australia and Moveon in the US have had a fairly large impact on the political landscape. Certainly GetUp has filled a gap that would otherwise not have been filled in engaging dynamically with political issues and making it possible for groups of people to do things they never could have done prior to Web 2.0. For instance it is now common for GetUp to run political TV ads in prime time, flash-funded by its members all chipping in small amounts of cash to create a big effect. These microdonors don’t need to be best buddies with one another. They don’t need strong ties. They just need to be able to leverage the aggregated power their web-enabled weak ties give them. Weak ties do some political things very well. Interestingly these weak ties can also lead to the strengthening of strong ties. There is a deliberate strategy of encouraging local face to face meet ups, and it was claimed that before the last federal election 1 in 30 residents of Canberra, the national capital, was a GetUp member.

This brings us to the second way the social web can reasonably claim to be  changing the world. This is the use of weak ties to connect otherwise disconnected people to make practical differences collectively. Micro-credit organisations such as Kiva are linking lenders and borrowers in mutually beneficial ways and thus empowering the otherwise disempowered. The Ushahidi mapping platform is being used to monitor elections in Egypt, Brazil and Venezuela.  In these ways the social web helps committed people to do their activist work more effectively. Erik Hersman, the organisation’s operations director, says:

I don’t see too many governments being displaced or replaced by online cooperation alone. Trust, reputation and resources are just a few of the hurdles to overcome before that happens. Instead, I think we’re seeing the continuation of the refinement of mass movements, brought about by the inefficiencies in the system, which catch on faster and are enabled better online and then move offline for impact.

My own guess is that these new kinds of social movement and the new kinds of public association – enabled by internet and mobile phone technology –  are going to become ever more important. If this is so, the current views of Malcolm Gladwell may come to look an awful lot like the second stage of the time-honoured  method of assimilating ideas whose time has come. To paraphrase the trade unionist Nicholas Klein:

First they ignore you, then they ridicule you, then they fight you, then you win.

BP Oil Spill – why we care

A beach after an oil spill.

Image via Wikipedia

Behavioural psychologist Dan Ariely’s interesting website has a question about why we seem to care so much about the Gulf of Mexico oil spill, when we don’t seem to care as much about other big environmental disasters such as the ongoing destruction of the Amazonian rainforest.

Some good points are raised, including some fairly obvious ones

  • the Gulf is nearer to the US,
  • there was a definite starting point for the oil spill,
  • there are clearly defined bad guys,
  • etc.

All of these kinds of explanation lend themselves very well to analysis on the basis of bounded rationality – we make use of cognitive biases to organise ourselves and these biases aren’t very rational, or are rational only in a limited way. For example, it is somewhat rational to be concerned about environmental problems close to home, but it would be more rational (if that’s possible) to be concerned also about distant problems since they may still have a local impact. Indeed, even for a resident of Louisiana it’s possible that the destruction of the Amazon could be more significant than the oil spill – not in terms of column inches perhaps but in many other ways.

But here I want to put concern about the oil spill in anthropological context and suggest it’s about pollution. Continue reading

It’s OK if you don’t know everything

“We rarely know an explicit formula that tells us what to do in a complex situation. We have to work out what to do by thinking through the possibilities in ways that are simultaneously imaginative and realistic, and not less imaginative when more realistic. Knowledge, far from limiting imagination, enables it to serve its central function.”

“Sometimes the only honest response to a question is “I don’t know.” In recognizing that, one may rely just as much on imagination, because one needs it to determine that several competing hypotheses are equally compatible with one’s evidence.”
– Timothy Williamson, Reclaiming the Imagination

It’s OK if you don’t know everything…

Now read: how do we know what we think we know?

L’analyse culturelle de Mary Douglas

- une contribution à la sociologie des institutions.

Here’s a good summary of Mary Douglas‘s Cultural Theory written in French (with an English abstract). It was published in SociologieS in 2006.

Marcel Calvez, « L’analyse culturelle de Mary Douglas : une contribution à la sociologie des institutions », SociologieS [En ligne], Théories et recherches, mis en ligne le 22 octobre 2006, Consulté le 07 septembre 2010. URL : http://sociologies.revues.org/index522.html

Is God a blank slate?

chicken egg and hand

Image via Wikipedia

Dan Ariely, behavioural psychologist, reports on research that concludes that we select our view of God’s opinions to fit with our own. It seems that as our own opinions change so does our description of God’s opinions. The conclusion then is that God is a blank slate, onto which we project our opinions.

“Overall these results suggest that God is a blank slate onto which we project whatever we choose to. We join religious communities that argue for our viewpoint and we interpret religious readings to support our personal positions.”

You can read more at Creating God in our own image.

It’s a great research project, but the trouble with such conclusions is that personal opinions tend to suffer from chicken and egg syndrome. Which came first, the opinion or the opinion-holder?

Methodological individualism tends to isolate the individual from outside influences. On this model the opinion-holder is prior and somehow selects their opinions from some kind of smorgasbord of opinions. The opposite view seems more explanatory of people’s religious views: we are born into communities of opinion and our communities shape us in their image. We can, for sure, dissent, but then we are dissenters.

Americans tend to see religion as a choice, but this is unsurprising since that country has more religions than any other. American culture almost forbids a view of  religious affiliation as determined – and this is one of its determining features.  I don’t just have opinions: I was given them by my environment.The environment given – mandated –  by America is one of religious choice.

But I didn’t just come up with my views on xyz out of thin air. Rather I was educated, raised, trained, tutored. Heck, I even learnt a few things for myself by means of life experience. In other words there’s no such thing as me independently of my God-concept. There is only a me-God nexus and we mutually reinforce one another’s understanding of the world.

The locus of concepts such as God isn’t entirely within the individual but is supra-individual or trans-individual. I don’t deny the import of the research referred to. I recently re-read Anne Lamott’s great line in Bird by Bird:

“You can safely assume that you’ve created God in your own image, when it turns out that God hates all the same people you do.”

However, it’s reasonable to be sceptical of the  assumption that whereas God is supposedly a blank slate, we ourselves are not and never have been. There’s a clue in the title of Prof Ariely’s blog post, creating God in our own image: we collectively (somehow) create God in our own image.

We’re in it together, or as Hilary Clinton never said, it takes a village to raise a deity.

The original research, by Nicholas Epley, Benjamin Converse, Alexa Delbosc, George Monteleone and John Cacioppo, is here. http://www.pnas.org/content/106/51/21533.full.pdf+html?sid=c9b4ab06-bf09-439e-b53a-e409619de735

A Cultural Theory of Cricket?

Bat & Ball Inn near Hambledon Cricket Club, CC via WikipediaFascinating uses of Mary Douglas’s cultural theory pop up every so often.  The latest relates to the venerable game of cricket.

The hypothesis of cricket blogger downatthirdman is that as the culture of the English downlands shifted from strong grid – strong group Hierarchy towards a weaker grid- weaker group Individualism in the Eighteenth century, so the game of cricket became an ideal carrier of the new values.

Cricket’s mix of team work, rule formalism and recognition of individual prowess (earned status as opposed to ascribed status) was exactly suited for the times. It’s certainly an interesting idea.

“As the requirements of the social structure changed so the culture responded in the type of rituals (including games) needed to reinforce the system. Cricket with its mixture of team work and individualism exactly met the need. Its time had come.”

You can read more at Chalk and cheese: towards a cultural theory of cricket.

And there’s a second instalment here, with some great pictures: The cradle of cricket was an old fashioned car boot sale.

Given the recent match fixing scandal that has engulfed international cricket in recent weeks I can’t help wondering whether a similar analysis could be made of the current situation.  One way of looking at corruption in professional sport might be to see it as an over-emphasis on competitive Individualism, in which rule-following is a hindrance to financial success and the winners are the ones who get away with it.

The more things change…

Digging in permafrost.

Image via Wikipedia

A theory of change requires a set of assumptions about the status quo. These assumptions often go unnoticed and unquestioned. Sentences that include the words always and never are indicative of these assumptions hard at work in the background, demonstrating the unexamined existence of a worldview in which particular forms of stability are taken for granted.

The Russian leadership’s reluctance to ‘believe’ in climate change has undergone something of a shift recently because the assumptions about what is always the case or never the case in Russia have been shaken to the core by drought, massive forest fires and unprecedented (but not uncontested) melting of the permafrost. A recent article by Tony Wood in the LRB outlines these events.

One could be cynical at this point and note that a single extreme weather event is no more indicative of long term climate change than a single swallow is indicative of the arrival of Summer. For the Russian president to change his mind on climate change just because he can smell smoke in Moscow is as naïve as the previous position in which climate change was denied. Russian winters are pretty cold and anyway it’s all a plot invented by Al Gore’s business interests.

But here too the assumptions about stability which underpin our theories of change are under revision. The well established claim that you can’t read climate change from unique events is now itself being revised.

Two thirds of Russia is made up of Permafrost – vechnaya merzlota. Both in English and Russian this is ‘permanent’ or ‘eternal’. By very definition it cannot change and is therefore impervious to rising temperatures or any other supposed shift.

I am mentioning this here because the way things supposedly always are is a crucial mental category, one that organises and disorganises almost all our social relations. We take it for granted at our peril.

Biosemiotics and slime mould

many headed slime - physarum polycephalum

Image by randomtruth via Flickr

New Scientist has an interesting article on the ways in which it may make sense to talk about non-conscious entities creating meaning. Biosemiotics.

http://www.newscientist.com/article/mg20727741.200-biosemiotics-searching-for-meanings-in-a-meadow.html?full=true

Hat tip to Meika.

I had been thinking abut this when I came across a report on the slime mould’s ‘irrational’ decision-making process.It seems that like humans, Physarum polycephalum makes quick foraging decisions based on comparisons of what’s available. These decisions aren’t strictly rational.

http://dx.doi.org/10.1098/rspb.2010.1045

Canadian researcher Dr Tanya Latty of Sydney University said:

“If you are in a risky environment… it’s better to be able to make a quick decision that’s right most of the time rather than a perfect decision that takes too long and means you get eaten by something,”

There’s a radio interview on CBS.

…and another paper.