Archive for the ‘current events’ Category
I’m kind of obsessed with the REF, considering that it has zero direct impact on my life. It’s sort of like watching a train wreck in progress, and every time there’s big REF news I thank my lucky stars I’m in the U.S. and not the U.K.
For those who might not have been paying attention, the REF is the Research Excellence Framework, Britain’s homegrown academic homage to governmentality. Apologies in advance for any incorrect details here; to an outsider, the system’s a bit complex.
Every six years or so, U.K. universities have to submit samples of faculty members’ work – four “research outputs” per person – to a panel of disciplinary experts for evaluation. The panel ranks the outputs from 4* (world leading) to 1* (nationally recognized), although work can also be given no stars. Universities submit the work of most, but not all, of their faculty members; not being submitted to the REF is not, shall we say, a good sign for your career. “Impact” and “environment,” as well as research outputs, are also evaluated at the department level. Oh, and there’s £2 billion of research funding riding on the thing.
The whole system is arcane, and every academic I’ve talked to seems to hate it. Of course, it’s not meant to make academics happy, but to “provide…accountability for public investment in research and produce…evidence of the benefits of this investment.” Well, I don’t know that it’s doing that, but it’s certainly changing the culture of academia. I’d actually be very interested to hear a solid defense of the REF from someone who’s sympathetic to universities, so if you have one, by all means share.
Anyway, 2014 REF results were announced on Friday, to the usual hoopla. (If you’re curious but haven’t been following this, here are the results by field, including Sociology and Business and Management Studies; here are a few pieces of commentary.)
In its current form, outputs are “reviewed” by a panel of scholars in one’s discipline. This was strongly fought for by academics on the grounds that only expert review could be a legitimate way to evaluate research. This peer review, however, has become something of a farce, as panelists are expected to “review” massive quantities of research. (I can’t now find the figure, but I think it’s on the order of 1000 articles per person.)
At the same time, the peer-review element of the process (along with the complex case-study measurement of “impact”) has helped to create an increasingly elaborate, expensive, and energy-consuming infrastructure within universities around the management of the REF process. For example, universities conduct their own large-scale internal review of outputs to try to guess how REF panels will assess them, and to determine which faculty will be included in the REF submission.
All this has led to a renewed conversation about using metrics to distribute the money instead. The LSE Impact of Social Sciences blog has been particularly articulate on this front. The general argument is, “Sure, metrics aren’t great, but neither is the current system, and metrics are a lot simpler and cheaper.”
If I had to place money on it, I would bet that this metrics approach, despite all its limitations, will actually win out in the not-too-distant future. Which is awful, but no more awful than the current version of the REF. Of course metrics can be valuable tools. But as folks who know a thing or two about metrics have pointed out, they’re useful for “facilitating deliberation,” not “substitut[ing] for judgment.” It seems unlikely that any conceivable version of the REF would use metrics as anything other than a substitute for judgment.
In the U.S., this kind of extreme disciplining of the research process does not appear to be just around the corner, although Australia has partially copied the British model. But it is worth paying attention to nonetheless. The current British system took nearly thirty years to evolve into its present shape. One is reminded of the old story about the frog placed in the pot of cool water who, not noticing until too late that it was heating up, inadvertently found himself boiled.
From the Washington Post article on the “insanely confusing” path to citizenship.
Last night, President Obama announced new policies that would allow approximately five million persons to live in peace without fear of deportation. If you have lived in the United States for five years and have no crimes, you can obtain a status that allows you to be a legal resident. A similar rule applies to people brought as children and those with family members who are here legally. All I can say is “bravo.”
As much I applaud this action, it leaves serious problems unresolved. Currently, immigration to the United States is extremely difficult unless you are highly skilled or come from a country that has favored status. If you want to come to America because you want to escape poverty, political persecution, or organized crime, you have to pay thousands of dollars in fees, wait years, and hope that your number will be called. The chart above summarizes the complex and confusing immigration system. It’s not designed to facilitate legal migration. It’s designed to prevent migration.
It is completely normal for people to move to pursue jobs, be with friends, or simply to be in a place that they like better. Thus, let’s abolish this monstrosity of an immigration system. I’d advocate completely open borders, but there are other humane systems. For example, much migration is linked to jobs. Having a program of guest worker permits with unlimited renewals would be one such system. Let’s think of others. This country was founded on open borders, let’s make it that way again.
On Thursday, President Obama is scheduled to make a speech where he will likely announce an executive order that curtails some of the worst aspects of our immigration system, such as deportation of individuals who were brought to our country as children. I fully understand that Obama is a politician, not a magician. Even if he agreed that migration restrictions are unwise, he probably won’t act to pardon every undocumented immigrant.
However, I do hope that tomorrow’s actions won’t be an excuse to restrict migration even more. Instead, I hope that amnesty, or deferral of action, will allow Americans to reassess immigration. I want Americans to realize that travelling from Mexico to Arizona is no different that travelling between North and South Carolina. As long as someone travels peacefully, leave them alone. Preventing someone from taking a job, or owning a home, or enrolling in school, based on their nationality is no different than preventing someone from taking a job because they are Jewish, Black, or female. It’s simply wrong.
So tomorrow, I will cheer for every person who can now sleep without the fear that they will be forcefully moved to another country. But at the same time, I ask my fellow Americans to think seriously about the morality of immigration restrictions and I hope that they see that is simply an unjust law. We need a new world, a world of open borders.
When I teach my sociology of organizations courses, I always include an underrecognized org theorist, Mary Parker Follett,* who advocated for “power-with” instead of “power over.” Follett argued that voting and other more conventional decision-making approaches generate dissatisfactory outcomes, in which one or more parties lose. She suggested that groups engage in a consensus-oriented decision-making process to identify what parties really want and thus generate novel solutions. However, providing real-life examples of this process is not easy, particularly since many decisions are made hierarchically or when one party tires of the decision-making process.
But, thanks to the Internet, here is one light-hearted example, starring an improbable combination of lasers, Mr. Bigglesworth the cat, and a Chihuahua:
Party A: High school student Draven Rodriguez wanted a memorable photo for the school yearbook. His desired portrait is definitely awesome:
Party B: However, the school wanted uniformity in its yearbook’s senior student photos, so the school said no to Rodriguez’s request.
However, both parties continued to talk. What’s the outcome? Click here for the answer.
This is not a post about Ello. Because Ello is so last Friday. But the rapid rise of and backlash against upstart social media network Ello (if you haven’t been paying attention, see here, here, here) reminded me of something I was wondering a while back.
Lots of people are dissatisfied with Facebook — ad-heavy, curated in a way the user has little control over, privacy-poor. And it looks like Twitter, which really needs bring in more revenue, is taking steps to move in the same direction: algorithmic display of tweets, with the ultimate goal of making users more valuable to advertisers.
The question is, what’s the alternative? There have been a lot of social network flavors of the month, built on a variety of business models. Some of them, like Google Plus, are owned by already-large companies that would be subject to similar business pressures as Facebook and Twitter. Others, like Diaspora (remember Diaspora?), were startups with an anti-Facebook mission (privacy, decentralization), but collapsed under the weight of their own hype.
I can’t imagine that a public utility model would work for a social network — I just don’t see “government-owned” and “fast-moving technological change” going together successfully. But I keep wondering why a Wikipedia model couldn’t work. Make it a 501(c)3. Attract some foundation funding — it’s a pro-democracy project. Solicit gifts from pro-privacy people in the tech industry — there are lots of those. Then once it’s off the ground, ask users for donations.
Sure, there is the huge, huge hurdle of getting enough of a network base to attract new users. But it seems like the costs should not be insane. If it only takes 200 employees to run Wikipedia, as large as it is, how many would it take to get a big social network off the ground? Facebook employs 7000, but a lot of them have to be in the business of figuring out how to sell Facebook.
Maybe there have been (failed) efforts like this and I just haven’t noticed. Or maybe the getting-the-user-base issue is really insurmountable. But it seems like if a real Facebook alternative is to emerge, it can’t just be from a corporate competitor (e.g. Google), and the startup/VC model (e.g. Ello) is going to be susceptible to all the same problems as it grows. Why not a different model?
I’m in the Poconos this week with old college friends and only intermittently paying attention to the larger world. And I’m hesitant to opine about the latest in the world of online experimentation (see here, here, or here) because honestly, it’s not my issue. I don’t study social media. I don’t have deep answers to questions about the ethics of algorithms, or how we should live with, limit, or reshape digital practices. And plenty of virtual ink has already been spilled by people more knowledgeable about the details of these particular cases.
But I do want to make the case that it’s important to have this conversation at this particular moment. Here is why:
If there’s one thing the history of technology teaches us, it’s that technology is path-dependent, and as a particular technology becomes dominant, the social and material world develop along with it in ways that have a lasting impact.
The QWERTY story, in which an inefficient keyboard layout was created to slow down the users of jam-prone typewriters but long outlasted those machines, may be apocryphal. Perhaps a better example is streetcars.
Historian Kenneth Jackson, in the classic Crabgrass Frontier, showed how U.S. cities were first reshaped by streetcars. Streetcars made it possible to commute some distance from home to work, and helped give dense, well-bounded cities a hub-and-spokes shape, with the spokes made up of rail lines. This was made possible by new technology.
Early in the 20th century, another new technology became widely available: the automobile. The car made suburbanization, in the American sense involving sprawl and highways and a turn away from center cities, possible.
But the car alone was not enough to suburbanize the United States. Jackson’s real contribution was to show how technological developments intersected with 1) cultural responses to the crowded, dirty realities of urban life, and 2) government policies that encouraged both white homeownership and white flight, to create the diffuse, car-dependent American suburbs we know and love. The two evolve together: technological possibilities and social decisions about how to use the technologies. As they lock in, both become harder to change — until the next disruptive technology (((ducking))) comes along.
So what does all this have to do with OKCupid?
The lesson here is that technologies and their uses can evolve in multiple ways. European cities developed very differently from American cities, even though both had access to the same transportation technologies. But there are particular moments, periods of transition, when we start to lock in a set of institutions — normative, legal, organizational — around a developing new technology.
We’re never going to be able to predict all the effects that a particular social decision will have on how we use some technology. Government support of racist red-lining practices is one reason for the white flight that encouraged suburbanization. But even if the 1930s U.S. mortgage policy hadn’t been racist, other aspects of it — for example, making the globally uncommon fixed-rate mortgage the U.S. norm — still would have promoted decentralization and encouraged the car-based suburbs. Some of that was probably unforeseeable.*
But some of it wasn’t. And I can’t help but think that more loud and timely conversation about the decisions and nondecisions the U.S. was making in the early decades of the 20th century might have led the country down a less car-dependent path. Once the decisions are made, though, they become very difficult to change.
Right now, it is 1910. We have the technology to know more about individuals than it has ever been possible to know, and maybe to change their behavior. We don’t know how we’re going to govern that technology. We don’t really know what its effects will be. But this is the time to talk about the possibilities, loudly and repeatedly if necessary. Maybe the effects on online experimentation will turn out to be to be harmless. Maybe just trusting that Facebook and OKCupid aren’t setting us on the wrong path will work out. But I’d hate to think that we unintentionally create a new set of freedom-restricting, inequality-reproducing institutions that look pretty lousy in a few decades just because we didn’t talk enough about what might — or might not — be at stake.
* There is a story that GM drove the streetcars out of business by buying up streetcar companies and then dismantling the streetcars. There are a number of accounts purporting to debunk this story. This version, which splits the difference (GM tried, but it wasn’t a conspiracy, and it was only one of several causes) seems knowledgeable, but I’d love a pointer to an authoritative source on GM’s role.
This clip is full of rationality, sanity, and basic human decency. Reagan even proposes an essentially open US/Mexico border at the end. When Reagan is to the left of Obama, it shows our policies are in need of serious overhaul.