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facebook’s data scandal won’t make much of a difference: a comment on interpersonal vs. structural privacy

Right now, Facebook is under tremendous criticism because the firm inappropriately allowed a third party to use their data. There is much consternation and even Facebook’s stock price has taken a hit. But from my view, I don’t think much will change. Why? People are very comfortable with a lack of “structural privacy.” In contrast, they deeply resent the violation of “interpersonal privacy.”

These discussions assume that there is a single thing called “privacy” and that people will get upset when they don’t have privacy. This assumption comes from the nature of human interaction pre-industrial revolution. Before the rise of modern information systems, whether they be Census documents or Facebook meta-data, privacy meant that people in your immediate environment did not have access to all the information about you. This even applied to families. Many of us, for example, have diaries that we don’t want other family members to read.

Why do we value “interpersonal” privacy? There are many reasons. We may not want our immediately relations to know that we are critical of what they do. Maybe we don’t want our neighbors to know that we like strange food. Or maybe we don’t want our employer to know that we don’t like them so much. What these reasons and others share in common is that the possession of knowledge prevents inter-personal conflict. Without privacy, we wouldn’t be free to form opinions and we would likely be in constant conflict with each other.

The Cambridge Analytica scandal and the Snowden revelations are about a different flavor of privacy – one that I call “structural privacy.” In the modern age, all kinds of institutions collect data on us. It could be the phone company, or the Internal Revenue Service, or Facebook. However, the data is often summarized so that it doesn’t involve a single person. When people access it, they rarely have any personal relationship to the people in the data base. Thus, people don’t usually experience interpersonal conflict when they loose “structural privacy,” the privacy that is maintained when information is collected by institutions for collective purposes. The IRS agent who peeks at your return or the Facebook employee who looks at your friendship list almost never know you and they don’t care.

This suggests that Facebook will probably be fine in the long term. People, in general, seem to be ok with the fact that firms and states routinely violate their structural privacy. The Snowden revelations barely elicited any push back from the public and almost no change in public policy. Here, I think the same process will play out. As long as Facebook can maintain privacy at the interpersonal level, they can carry on as usual.

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Written by fabiorojas

April 9, 2018 at 4:45 am

my visits to wellesley college

Last week, controversy broke out over Wellesley College’s Freedom Project, a program designed to have students discuss the meaning of freedom through various activities. The program is run by sociologist Tom Cushman and receives much of its funding from the Charles Koch Foundation.

The controversy has a few parts. For example, there is the accusation that Cushman and his staff “silenced” Koch critics. Josh McCabe, a sociologist and assistant dean at Endicott College, pointed out this is simply incorrect. As one of the staff at the Freedom Project, he was directly responsible for the academic programming. For example, in a response to critics in National Review, McCabe points out that he invited a political scientist whose research is highly critical of the Kochs. He also invited a number of sociologists, almost all of whom are political liberal and very likely to be critics of the Koch’s politics. This includes Elizabeth Popp Berman, who writes for this blog, and Cornell sociologist Kim Weeden.

Now, I want to talk about my experience. Twice, I was invited to speak at the Freedom Project. The first time, I spoke about whether social movements promote freedom. I argued that it’s mixed – some do and some don’t. The second time, I gave a talk about the “common grounds” argument for open borders. This is the idea that conservatives and liberals should both be in favor of free migration.

Each time I visited, I came during the winter “intersession.” For about a week, fifteen undergraduates read together, debated, and listen to outside speakers, including myself. When I visited the class, the students were engaged. When I asked about their political leanings, the average would probably be described as “Hillary Clinton” democrat. Of course, I wanted them to agree with my views – but many didn’t and there was much active debate.

I also got to meet other speakers. I did meet many who were conservative and libertarian. But I also sat in on a lecture by one of Wellesley’s philosophy professors, who actually produced arguments *against* unrestricted free speech. I also met Nadya Hajj, who gave an incredibly engaging talk about how people maintain Palestinian economy and community in the occupied territories.

During my last trip, I set aside some time to interview one of the staff at Wellesley’s art museum because I am working on a project about the careers of visual artists. During my interview, I was told that Tom Cushman was one of the faculty members who defended some controversial art that had been brought to the campus a few years back. That is important to know because Professor Cushman is not merely defending his free speech rights, but he defends the rights of others.

That was my experience. The Freedom Project is one professor’s attempt to bring a discussion of freedom to one of America’s greatest colleges. People of many different views and academic disciplines were brought in, the students vigorously debated the issues. It is funded by conservative and libertarians donors. That, by itself, is not a problem as long as donors do not direct the academic content of the unit.

50+ chapters of grad skool advice goodness: Grad Skool Rulz ($4.44 – cheap!!!!)/Theory for the Working Sociologist (discount code: ROJAS – 30% off!!)/From Black Power/Party in the Street / Read Contexts Magazine– It’s Awesome! 

Written by fabiorojas

April 2, 2018 at 4:01 am

the iraq war, a forever war

 

On September 10, 2001, I never imagined that the US would be involved in an endless war in Iraq, a conflict that still takes thousands of lives each year. Even after the terrorist attacks in New York and Washington, I did not imagine that the US would be involved in Iraq fifteen years later, sending money and advisers in a nearly endless stream.

What horrifies me is the human cost. When I was doing the research for Party in the Street, I met people who had lived in Iraq or served in Iraq. Meeting and talking to them showed me the immediate cost of the war. Families lost. Lives shattered. Faces disfigured. Children who committed suicide.

What now? The Iraq War is a “Keynesian war,” to used a phrase coined by sociologist Sidney Tarrow. Modern wars are often fought with borrowed money and volunteer armies. They are kept out of the public view. They are pursued in ways that prevent scrutiny and public input. That means that the war in Iraq, and Afghanistan, can continue in one way or another for quite a while.

I am not a pessimist. But I am a realist, this will continue for a while before it gets better. My hope is that Iraq follows the path of the Philippines after it was occupied by the US in the early 20th century. They had a long insurrection but then a period of modernization and integration into the global economy. Sadly, we’ve already had the violence, and it’s time to move on.

50+ chapters of grad skool advice goodness: Grad Skool Rulz ($4.44 – cheap!!!!)/Theory for the Working Sociologist (discount code: ROJAS – 30% off!!)/From Black Power/Party in the Street / Read Contexts Magazine– It’s Awesome! 

 

Written by fabiorojas

March 22, 2018 at 4:22 am

consumerism: what’s the big deal?

People will often use “consumerism” in a pejorative way and, recently, I got into a discussion of why intellectuals are often so obsessed with critiquing consumerism. First, a definition, then a discussion of reasons why people criticize consumerism.

Online, I found two definitions. One is not relevant to this post – consumerism as a defense of consumer rights. The second definition is the one most intellectuals have in mind when they discuss or critique consumerism – an obsession with the purchase or acquisition of consumer goods.

Let’s get into critiques:

  1. Consumerism is bad because it is wasteful.
  2. Consumerism is bad because it is a status signal.
  3. Consumerism is bad because it is anti-spiritual.
  4. Consumerism is bad because it is inauthentic.

A few responses:

  1. Consumerism can only be viewed as wasteful if you have a concrete idea of what is and is not wasteful and this is much harder than it seems. In modern society, people have a relatively high amount of surplus wealth. Should people not spend money on anything beyond shelter, food, and medicine? If so, when is it enough? Arguments about wastefulness and consumerism appear to me to be about what the critic values (e.g., if I like books, they are not “consumerism”). This criticism strikes me as weak.
  2. This is one criticism that I have sympathy for. If people are buying tons of stuff just to socially compete, it is a poor use of one’s time and resources. Consider how diverse the modern world is, how many things in it can make you happy. To spend money on things just to display status is a tragic waste. A cessation of buying things probably won’t solve the underlying problem, as people will probably signal status though non-pecuniary means. Thus, the criticism identifies a genuine issue, but consumerism is a symptom of a deeper problem that being anti-consumerist may not stop.
  3. A lot of religions slam the consumption of material goods. It’s been that way for millennia. So one’s response to this depends on one’s religious views. Personally, I lead a happy secular life that’s deeply enriched by material goods, so the criticism doesn’t work for me on a personal level.
  4. The gist is that you need some sort of real connection or appreciation of the world. So passively consuming things or being obsessed with the latest material goods is an inauthentic life. This strikes me as a reasonable criticism and it resonates with me once you consider the opportunity costs of consumerism. By obsessing over cars, or wine, or computer, you pass up the opportunity to do more enriching things. Fortunately, there are solutions. One is hipsterism – you consume things but only in hyper-aware ways that emphasize your knowledge and relation to the produce. Or, you can follow that advice that you should work on experiences rather than things. I suppose that could turn into a version of consumerism, but it’s less likely than getting into wine or Justin Bieber merchandise.

Do you live a consumerist lifestyle? If so, tell me what you think.

50+ chapters of grad skool advice goodness: Grad Skool Rulz ($4.44 – cheap!!!!)/Theory for the Working Sociologist (discount code: ROJAS – 30% off!!)/From Black Power/Party in the Street / Read Contexts Magazine– It’s Awesome! 

Written by fabiorojas

March 20, 2018 at 4:01 am

Posted in culture, ethics, fabio

open borders day 2018

Every year, I like to draw attention to Open Borders Day (March 16), the moment when we take time to think about legalizing all forms of peaceful movement. This year, you might want to take a moment to consider the Open Borders position. A few of my thoughts on the topic:

In the next few months, I hope to have more news on open borders events. Until then, I want you to imagine a world were deportations are a thing of the past and it is just as easy to move between Mexico and the United States as it is to move between Indiana and Illinois. It’s a good world and I hope we can make it happen.

50+ chapters of grad skool advice goodness: Grad Skool Rulz ($4.44 – cheap!!!!)/Theory for the Working Sociologist (discount code: ROJAS – 30% off!!)/From Black Power/Party in the Street / Read Contexts Magazine– It’s Awesome! 

Written by fabiorojas

March 16, 2018 at 4:01 am

Posted in ethics, fabio, uncategorized

three cheers for libby schaaf – ICE has no right to pick up and deport peaceful people

Last week, news organizations reported that Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf tipped off immigrants in Oakland about an upcoming ICE raid. I approve of this action. Why? There is no moral obligation to obey unjust law. Why is immigration restriction unjust? Immigration law does not protect people from harming each other, as do laws against theft and assault. Rather, it gives permission to the state to forcibly remove people who happen to be born in another country. It is no more moral to demand the removal of Mexicans or Canadians from our country as it is to demand the removal of Blacks or Jews from one’s neighborhood.

I know that Schaaf is in a tough position. It is easy to defer to law enforcement and the mayor of a major American city must be facing a lot of pressure to tow the anti-immigration line. But I hope that she remains steadfast in her position. I also hope that Schaaf will become a model of peaceful non-compliance with the law. I hope more city officials across the country will refuse to enforce cruel anti-immigration laws.  And maybe, one day, they will be abolished.

50+ chapters of grad skool advice goodness: Grad Skool Rulz ($4.44 – cheap!!!!)/Theory for the Working Sociologist (discount code: ROJAS – 30% off!!)/From Black Power/Party in the Street / Read Contexts Magazine– It’s Awesome!

Written by fabiorojas

March 5, 2018 at 5:01 am

defending free speech the right way: three cheers for gabriel rossman

Recently, a UCLA conservative student group invited Milo Yiannopolous to speak at the campus. Then, UCLA sociologist (and former orgtheory guest) Gabriel Rossman wrote an open letter to the Bruin Republicans urging them to rescind the invitation, which they did. Excerpts from the letter, as published in The Weekly Standard:

The most important reason not to host such a talk is that it is evil on the merits. Your conscience should tell you that you never want anything to do with someone whose entire career is not reasoned argument, but shock jock performance art. In the 1980s conservatives made fun of “artists” who defecated on stage for the purpose of upsetting conservatives. Now apparently, conservatives are willing to embrace a man who says despicable things for the purpose of “triggering snowflakes.” The change in performance art from the fecal era to the present is yet another sign that no matter how low civilization goes, there is still room for further decline.

I want to be clear that my point here is not that some people will be offended, but that the speaker is purely malicious.

I could not agree more. Gabriel makes it clear that he is defending their right to have a speaker, but that it is unwise and unethical to invite this particular speaker. On Twitter, Gabriel also makes it clear that there was a lot of internal pressure to cancel this talk, and that the open letter was a secondary part of the story.

I want to add a few words about the defense of free speech, drawn from Gabriel’s letter. First, Gabriel avoids a common mistake – no where does he oppose the talk because he thinks that having the talk will somehow legitimize racism or undermine UCLA. Universities are hardy creatures and hosting a shock jock conservative will not have any appreciable effect on racism in the larger society.

Second, he focuses on wisdom – is this really the right thing to do? Does inviting Yiannopolous really promote truth seeking? This is the difference between hosting a “conservative performance art” event and a conservative intellectual with genuinely held beliefs that need to be debated. I think this is the difference between inviting Charles Murray – who provides evidence and is willing to debate – and Yiannopolous. One has controversial views, the other is a controversy machine. There is a huge difference.

Finally, this approach provides a broader defense of free speech and debate for all people. On a basic level, students and faculty have been given the privilege to invite who ever they want to campus. And that means some nasty people will be invited from time to time and we should support that right.

On a deeper level, we need a higher standard to decide which speech should be actively supported. If someone provides data and can treat others civilly in debate, we should be very tolerant. If someone shows a basic mastery of argument and analysis of evidence, they deserve a hearing. Conversely, if a faculty member is a scholar in good standing, we should be forgiving if they mis-speak in public.

We need to appreciate that the core of the university is not free speech.  Rather, free speech is a starting point. What real scholars do is select which speech merits a spotlight and an analysis and that’s a crucial activity.

50+ chapters of grad skool advice goodness: Grad Skool Rulz ($4.44 – cheap!!!!)/Theory for the Working Sociologist (discount code: ROJAS – 30% off!!)/From Black Power/Party in the Street / Read Contexts Magazine– It’s Awesome!

Written by fabiorojas

February 16, 2018 at 5:12 am