I know I took the notion of optimising to heart as I learned it – implicitly – from my economist Dad. And there are those who might argue that the idea in economics came from the society around economists as the discipline came into being.
But now it seems optimising as the heart of life seems to have become ubiquitous. I just ran into a tweet which proudly displays the graphic to the left.
I also know that the advice, such as it is, embodied in the accompanying graphic is fair enough. A bit of prudence about life. One could do a lot worse. (Then again, is it not pretty obvious? Graphics induce a kind of ‘fake’ aha I’ve found – something I confess to exploiting in my own rhetorical tricks during presentations) But at the level of advice there’s also something strangely anodyne and sad about it as an embodiment of aspiration.
Traditional notions of how one might decide on one’s path in life or one’s career – at least since the rise of modern times and the idea of the self as a self-creation, it’s been pretty de rigueur to at least pay some lip service to following one’s heart or more recently, and more crassly, one’s dream. More dourly, Protestant ethics teach a kind of surrender to one’s ‘calling’. Each of these has the texture of life as an adventure and a story in which basic values are the foundation – one build’s on the rock to invoke Christian imagery – including bearing the burden of suffering in pursuit of one’s goal.
Even Maslow’s hierarchy suggests that, though one pays most attention to ‘the basics’, truth to oneself involves working up to ‘higher’ things. (I’ve always thought it wide of the mark by the way as things at the top of the hierarchy seem to turn up very early in human history and in many ways were more powerful influences in civilisations in which the vast bulk of people were pretty much at subsistence – but I digress).
In any event today alongside the hashtags “#Brand” and “#You” the tweet which brandished this insight into life, we lean in and regard our ultimate task as having it all. Even in the anodyne graphic, I’d have liked to see doing what one loves as being more important than being paid well, but there you go, though I’m all for it being important.
Above is my presentation to the Berkman Centre for Internet and Society – the background blurb of which is here. You’ll find the first half of the presentation on the fractal ecology of public and private goods is effectively the same content as the first half of this presentation from late last year. However where the first presentation takes the introductory framework as a basis for talking about social capital, the same framework is used as a basis for sketching out a terrain for public-private partnerships. Anyway, I mention this to save you time. I’m not much of a fan of watching videos, as it’s more efficient to read something but in case you’re OK with them – here’s another. But if you want to read the ideas presented you can read them in very summary form in the column here. But I’ve also completed a draft paper on the whole thing. If you’re interested, please email me at ngruen AT gmail and I’ll send you a copy on which I’d be grateful to receive comments and suggestions for improvement.
The excesses of ethics committees are a pet hate of mine, but I’d always thought that for instance the Stanley Milgram experiment was an example of the kind of experiment where genuine ethical issues arose that might justify not going ahead.
But now I read on Wikipedia that:
In Milgram’s defense, 84 percent of former participants surveyed later said they were “glad” or “very glad” to have participated, 15 percent chose neutral responses (92% of all former participants responding). Many later wrote expressing thanks. Milgram repeatedly received offers of assistance and requests to join his staff from former participants. Six years later (at the height of the Vietnam War), one of the participants in the experiment sent correspondence to Milgram, explaining why he was glad to have participated despite the stress:
While I was a subject in 1964, though I believed that I was hurting someone, I was totally unaware of why I was doing so. Few people ever realize when they are acting according to their own beliefs and when they are meekly submitting to authority… To permit myself to be drafted with the understanding that I am submitting to authority’s demand to do something very wrong would make me frightened of myself… I am fully prepared to go to jail if I am not granted Conscientious Objector status. Indeed, it is the only course I could take to be faithful to what I believe. My only hope is that members of my board act equally according to their conscience…
Milgram argued that the ethical criticism provoked by his experiments was because his findings were disturbing and revealed unwelcome truths about human nature.
In the last 5 years, I have made a point of giving clear predictions on complex socio-economic issues. I give predictions partially to improve my own understanding of humanity: nothing sharpens the thoughts as much as having to actually predict something. Another reason is as a means of helping my countries (Australia/the Netherlands) understand the world: predicting socio-economic events is what social scientists should do, even if they will often be wrong.
Time to have a look at my predictive successes and failures over the last few years, as well as the outstanding predictions yet to be decided. Let us start with what I consider my main failure.
The main area I feel I haven’t read quite right is the conflict in Syria, as part of the general change in the whole Middle East. I am still happy with my long-run predictions for that region, where I have predicted that urbanisation, more education, reduced fertility rates, and a running out of fossil fuels will lead to a normalisation of politics in a few decades time. But at the end of 2012 I was too quick in thinking the Syria conflict was done and dusted. To be fair, I was mainly following the ‘intrade political betting markets’ which was 90% certain Assad would no longer be president by the end of this year, but the prophesised take-over of the country by the Sunni majority has not quite happened. The place has become another Lebanon, with lots of armed groups defending their own turf and making war on the turf of others. The regime no longer controls the whole country, but is still the biggest militia around.
What did I fail to see? I mainly over-estimated the degree to which the West would become involved. Continue reading
Prologue to a blog post:
Gentle Troppodillians, as you know, we keep up with the times here at Troppo. Some people like to think just five minutes ahead. Here at Troppo we’re focused on the long-term – eons are seconds in TroppoTime – or seconds are eons depending on the way you look at it. So I know you want to get the latest on Bitcoin – and in that regard this post should not disappoint. It is indeed about bitcoin. But . . . there’s more. This post is also a meta on academic discourse – and how limited it is.
Academia is where one would hope to find a large proportion of the most insightful minds. But for some time I’ve been struck by how limited the academic genre is at engaging with the social and economic transformations that are going on around us. Thus Tim O’Reilly’s “What is Web 2.0” and Clay Shirky’s Here comes everybody, were far more insightful than anything in academia. Indeed I remember the articles on government and web 2.0 I first came across in around 2008 or so were particularly woeful.
Their methodology was often something like this:
- Interview some practitioners
- If it’s an article about government, interview some government practitioners
- Ask them some questions and then report their answers in wide-eyed form.
Voila, there’s your article – ready to be published by some worthy mid-level government administration or policy journal. And something you can present at seminars. The people you’ve interviewed may not have a the slightest clue what they’re talking about, but their ‘outputs’, give you ‘inputs’. They’re answers to your questions (they might not be the right questions either) will give you ‘data’. And you understand what that means. It means that in seminars you will be able to begin responses to questions with expressions like “According to our data”.
Your conclusions will contain such gems as “Make sure objectives are clearly specified”. “Be clear about who your stakeholders are, and what they are seeking from the project”. “Stay in close touch with stakeholders”. ”Ensure the project is flexible and responsive to feedback”. “Evaluate the success of your project when it’s complete and (if you’re feeling frisky or a little flamboyant, ensure that evaluation methodologies are considered throughout the process).” All deliciously useless, masking a total lack of insight in generalities. One could offer this advice about any and everything from building a bridge to toilet training your kids. Further elaboration can be had here.
Anyway, here’s another example of the . . . Continue reading
Last Monday I posted 4 questions to see who thought like a classic utilitarian and who adhered to a wider notion of ethics, suspecting that in the end we all subscribe to ‘more’ than classical utilitarianism. There are hence no ‘right’ answers, merely classic utilitarian ones and other ones.
The first question was to whom we should allocate a scarce supply of donor organs. Let us first briefly discuss the policy reality and then the classic utilitarian approach.
The policy reality is murky. Australia has guidelines on this that advocate taking various factors into account, including the expected benefit to the organ recipient (relevant to the utilitarian) but also the time spent on the waiting list (not so relevant). Because organs deteriorate quickly once removed, there are furthermore a lot of incidental factors important, such as which potential recipient is answering the phone (relevant to a utilitarian)? In terms of priorities though, the guidelines supposedly take no account of “race, religion, gender, social status, disability or age – unless age is relevant to the organ matching criteria.” To the utilitarian this form of equity is in fact inequity: the utilitarian does not care who receives an extra year of happy life, but by caring about the total number of additional happy years, the utilitarian would use any information that predicts those additional happy years, including race and gender.
In other countries, the practices vary. In some countries the allocation is more or less on the basis of expected benefit and in the other is it all about ‘medical criteria’ which in reality include the possibility that donor organs go to people with a high probability of a successful transplant but a very low number of expected additional years. Some leave the decision entirely up to individual doctors and hospitals, putting huge discretion on the side of an individual doctor, which raises the fear that their allocation is not purely on the grounds of societal gain.
What would the classic utilitarian do? Allocate organs where there is the highest expected number of additional happy lives. This thus involves a judgement on who is going to live long and who is going to live happy. Such things are not knowable with certainty, so a utilitarian would turn to statistical predictors of both, using whatever indicator could be administrated.
As to length of life, we generally know that rich young women have the highest life expectancy. And amongst rich young women in the West, white/Asian rich young women live even longer. According to some studies in the US, the difference with other ethnic groups (Black) can be up to 10 years (see the research links in this wikipedia page on the issue). As to whom is happy, again the general finding is that rich women are amongst the happiest groups. Hence the classic utilitarian would want to allocate the organs to rich white/Asian young women. Continue reading
In the middle of this year a friend who had decamped to CSIRO from government wrote to me and asked me to participate in an interview exploring the economic impact of next generation broadband in Australia. Towards the end of his email he wrote.
If you are willing to take part in an interview, you should understand that:
· Your participation in the project is entirely voluntary and you are free to withdraw from the study at any time, without penalty and without providing a reason for doing so.
· You will be asked whether you consent to having your answers to the interview questions recorded for transcription purposes.
· Your name and that of your organisation will not be included in any publications from these interviews unless you provide specific permission for us to identify you as a participant in the research.
· Prior to the reporting of the study findings, you can request that any of the information that you provide in the interview be excluded from the analysis.
· If you have any concerns about the study or the interview process, you can contact the CSIRO’s Manager of Social Responsibility and Ethics [on phone number provided].
I wrote back immediately saying “Very happy to participate so long as I can avoid the kind of red tape intimated in your long list of things I should understand.” I also indicated that I was happy to provide blanket consent for them to do whatever they liked with the interview with me – after all, that’s the standard I’m used to from frequent interaction with the media. My friend indicated his optimism that sense would be seen and the interview would go ahead.
This enterprise concluded with an email from the contact person mentioned at the end of the litany of consents above as follows: Continue reading
A Troppo community service:
As we wind down for Christmas I think we all need to reflect on our values. And as most Troppo readers would agree, values are like any other thing in life. Much better if they’re the product of a lot of talk and deliberation and if that’s by highly paid people then so much the better. That’s why I thought a good lead would be the core values of corporations with lots of highly paid people, like PWC. And since I’d recently visited PWC and saw in their . Still, it has not all been plain sailing, leading to this letter to Dr Troppo.
Dear Dr Troppo,
I have a problem. I have several million dollars to determine the appropriate course of action to take in a number of situations – this would concern policy and conduct both in a number of private sector corporations and some government agencies. I thought I would give the money to PriceWaterhouseCoopers because they seem to have their head screwed on.
But I don’t know too many people there. However it isn’t really who you know or what you know. I’ve always thought that it gets down to a question of values.
But that’s where my problems start. Because when I look up the values of PWC UK I find these values.
- Acting professionally.
- Doing business with integrity.
- Upholding our clients’ reputations as well as our own.
- Treating people and the environment with respect.
- Acting in a socially responsible manner.
- Working together and thinking about the way we work.
- Considering the ethical dimensions of our actions.
By contrast Australia’s PWC values are:
We value outcomes. We strive to achieve and to help others to do the same by trusting each other and teaming together; not micro-managing. We give responsibility, hold ourselves accountable and expect quality in everything we do.