Category Archives: power

Excellent Event: Ambiguous Transformations: Governance, Democracy, #Climate Transitions

Here’s the gist of a very long blog post. A senior academic  (Professor Karin Bäckstrand) gave a very clear summation of the relative importance of the Paris Agreement, the distinctions between ecological democracy and environmental democracy and the (possible) path of transformation that Swedish society is undergoing. She did this in the context of an academic workshop in Vienna called ‘Transition Impossible.” What follows is a blow-by-blow account of her talk, the panel discussion afterwards and the questions from the floor (which were, on the whole, skeptical about the likelihood of a “deep” transformation. My comments – with minimum snark – are in [square brackets and coloured highlighting.] Then my editorialising is at the end of this very long blog post. A disclaimer – In no way am I doing this blog post at top speed to demonstrate my ability to absorb, synthesise and assess information while seeking out additional sources to show that I would be an excellent post-doctoral candidate. Cough. Cough. Especially given that my PhD has been about the under-studied politics of socio-technical transitions, a lack noticed during the talk and the Q and a.. Cough. Cough.

Professor Bäckstrand began her talk, titled “Ambiguous Transformations: Governance, Democracy, Climate Transitions” with a thanks to the organisers for “a very timely conference”. The workshop, entitled “Transition Impossible? Ambiguous Transformations and the Resilience of Unsustainability” was, she said, “at the heart of what I and many colleagues are researching.”

Bäckstrand admitted that – based on what she’d seen of the conference so far (it’s the end of the first day) – admitted that she was more optimistic than the average participant about the possibilities for transition, but admitted that being from Sweden may have shaped that.  [The author of this blog is ever-so-slightly more pessimistic. Being from Australia/UK, he is shaped by that]

Bäckstrand said that ecological democracy etc is the key question – (how) we can bring radical societal transformation towards decarbonisation and make them compatible with principles of green ecological democracy.

Admitting to being a ‘COP junkie’ she began with a Paris Agreement (PA) recap. While admitting that PA will by no means transform the world, she said that it nonetheless sets out a framework… 179 countries, each with “Nationally Determined Contributions” and climate plans [Very very few industrialised countries are on track, and Paris would lead to 3.4 degrees of warming in any case. As for Australia, do not talk to me about Australia. As for Paris, see my cod-psychology explanation of the hype/hope]

She also mentioned having been at the recent Global Climate Action Summit, 13-14 September in San Francisco. Planning for it started with Governor Jerry Brown and Michael Bloomberg back in November 2016 after Trump won the election (with 3 million less votes than Clinton. Some would say a lot of greenwashing, but also a reaction whereby cities and regions take on commitments, new alliances shaped, which is critical for transformation.

Bäckstrand then turned to Sweden, which aims to become one of the world’s first nations to go 100% fossil fuel free  [See a blog post by me and my brilliant colleague Joe Blakey on the ‘meaning of zero carbon’]

This, Bäckstrand said, will be done in a deliberative and democratic way, and is a far reaching societal transformation and decarbonisation in line with Paris towards a carbon neutral society compatible with principles of ecological or environmental democracy (of which more later).

The key questions are – how can democracy or values of democracy (participation, inclusion, transparency) be secured in governance towards low carbon society? Is democracy fit for the task to secure sustainability in the large scale transformation and decarbonisation of society and economy?

Bäckstrand then supplied a bullet pointed list of what she would cover..

  • Politics, power, democracy are missing in the narratives on transformative shifts, which are dominated by techno-centric and market-oriented strategies of transformation
  • Multiple, multi-directional and contested transformations
  • Decarbonisastion reinforces dilemma of strong environmental outcome versus democratic procedure
  • Democratic values of transparency, fairness, inclusion, representation and accountability are needed in large-scale transformative action called for to implement the Paris Agreement and Agenda 2030 [but then, who remembers Local Agenda 21?]
  • Tensions between democracy and sustainability, and the ideal of ecological democracy and practice of environmental democracy
  • What transitions: from ST transition towards a politics of green transformation: Four strategies of transformation
  • Resolving the tension between democracy and decarbonisation.
  • Arguments of green authoritarianism (Lovelock etc) are returning. Planetary emergency calling for extraordinary measures…
  • Sweden combines ambitious transformative action with participatory and democratic process [Ah, the books that Per Wahloo would write now!]
  • Public trust is at low point, populist on rise, Swedish Democrats got 17 per cent. Previously said wanted to pull out of Paris. Called for a “Swexit”…
  • Withdraw from multilateralism – enormous challenge…

The Background

  • challenge of democracy in post-democratic era
  • Paris paved way aspirational goal settings for states to be carbon free by 2050
  • Unleashed low carbon roadmaps by 2020, 2030 and 2050.
  • Disjuncture between a radical goal of green transformation and our existing political institutions
  • Polycentrism and networked governance emphasizes, decentralisation, local embedding, self-governance experimentation networking, giving up ‘big politics’ by states and governments. (Voss and Schroth, 2018)

Ecological democracy versus eco-authoritarianism

  • Liberal democracies well positioned to address climate change as they are open for public and popular demands for public good provisions
  • Positive relationship between green values and green democracy
  • Deliberative democracy model for connecting democracy with green or sustainable outcomes. Dryzek, Smith 2003, Bäckstrand et al 2010


  • Liberal democracies with free choice generates individualism, profit seeking and over-consumption colliding with sustainability values (Heilbroner, 1977))
  • Democracy too slow, cumbersome, captured by interest groups
  • Central authority needed to steer society toward large-scale transformation within planetary boundaries.
  • Veto actors, incumbents can slow decision making

Implication that we need technocracy or global panel of experts. [Or, in the words of one rising academic star, we need avivocracy]

For Bäckstrand, the rise of eco-authoritarianism is very problematic.  Together with Jonathan Pickering she has acted as co-editor in Journal of Environmental Public Planning (special issue)  Here below, stolen from her slides, is a table comparing ecological and environmental democracy…

Ecological Democracy Environmental Democracy
Value orientation ecocentric anthropocentric
Ideological orientation critical of liberalism Compatible with liberalism
Discursive orientation green transformation/radicalism critical of states and multilateral system sustainable development and ecological modernisation
Role of state critical of states and multilateral system versus working within state and multilateral system
Role of capitalism/markets critical of capitalism reconciled with capitalism
Role of civil society civil society as resistance/opposition/critique civil society as active partner.

In summary – Environmental democracy advocates say modifying existing institutions of liberal democracy and capitalism is the best way forward. Ecological democracy proponents have instead a “fundamental transformation required” message.

Backstrand then showed a graph, from showing the emissions gap between what we have and what we need to hit 2 degrees or 1.5 degrees

cat emissions gap

Clearly needs transformation of economy and society.

NB Paris in and of itself cannot be transformative,  In a way Paris domesticizes (down to national level) the international system.

Issues of accountability, transparency, inclusion are therefore very important.

Civil society, citizens, other states can review how on track or not nations are [see the recent Australia versus Pacific islands moment as an example of how (in)effective the moral complaints of small actors are, and have been over the last 30 years…]

For Bäckstrand, it is crucially important for states to be held accountable for action/lack of action.

In transition management field (Kemp and Rotmans 2009) need to focus on conflicting interests, asymmetrical power relationships, incumbent power, veto players.  Transitions literature overly focuses on governance of transitions, transformative pathways and planetary management, rather than the POLITICS of transformation [btw, did I mention I have just written an entire thesis on this?]

Multiple and contested transformations are occurring/would need to occur at local, national, multilateral and transnational sites, i.e, not one linear transformative path.

Drawing on the seminal book edited by Scoones, Leach, Newell 2015, (and also citing Clapp and Daveurgne 2011) Bäckstrand identified four strategies for green transformation

  • Technoscientific transformation = clean and green techs, renewables, CCS etc
  • Marketised transformation = green growth, green economy, carbon markets,CDM, payment for ecosystem services
  • Government-led transformation = top down, green state is the facilitator of transformation to sustainability or carbon neutrality (Duit 2014, Meadowcroft 2011, Eckersley 2004, Bäckstrand and Kronsel 2015, UNEP, global green deal.
  • Citizen-led transformation = bottom-up, degrowth, citizen science, lifestyle politics, climate justice, just transitions

[Track record of first three lousy. Fourth is just Naomi Klein’s so-called “blockadia”, no?]

Techno scientific and marketised strategies are very dominant (#understatement)

At all the summits enormous mobilisation and protest (e.g de Moor article on the ‘efficacy dilemma of transnational climate activism’).  However, as Dryzek has written, these radical climate justice movement types are very separated from the decision making powers.

Having laid out this conceptual landscape, Professor Bäckstrand then turned to her empirical case – Sweden

  • It is the most advanced green state, alongside the Nordics (see Ecksrley 2004; Bäckstrand and Kronsell 2015)
  • It has the goal to be first fossil free welfare state in the world, by 2045
  • Fossil free Sweden” government led stakeholder mechanism with 300 municipalities, companies, civil society actors (now 400 actors)
  • Led by chair of Swedish Conservation Society (was ‘co-optation’ critique)
  • Since January 1 2018, Sweden has a Climate Law, the Climate Policy Council – should every year scrutinise governments every year

So, can Sweden escape the carbon lock-in [Unruh] while keeping its democratic values?  Former deputy PM (Green) said at Paris that Sweden should be first fossil- free by 2045. Cynics would say just rhetoric, but it’s being backed up:  Every four years an extended review. Independent council with scientific experts.

This is a State-led transformation – collective visions of climate just world building on ideas of Green People’s Home

It is primarily Techno-centric transformation as evident in goals to produce fossil-free steel production, bio-CCS and, yes, nuclear energy,  Alongside this, it is also a Market-oriented transformation: Sweden was a first state with carbon tax and green tax shift with bipartisan support (was idea of Green Party, in practice lib and conservative alliance that did this – shift from income tax to green taxes)

There was consensus among 7 parliamentary parties (after 2 years parliamentary commission) along left-liberal-green conservative continuum (except for the Swedish Democrats) for the Climate Law, Climate Policy Council and the goals of 2030 and 2045. There have been new coalitions between different actors – municipalities, trade unions, companies, investors, as illustrated by government led Fossil Fee Sweden civil society led Climate Sweden and business—led Haga Initiative.  So we can see the following –

  •  State as an orchestrator or facilitator for climate action – government led Fossil Fuel  Sweden gathering
  • Framing climate change narratives towards justice: Just Transition by trade unions
  • Climate change co-benefits; energy security, (not to be dependent on Russian gas!) health, biodiversity, clean air, sustainable cities

This is environmental democracy rather than ecological democracy ideals, i.e. a [putative] transformation within capitalism. So far, Sweden has decreased greenhouse gas emissions by 26 per cent since 1990 [as was later clarified, this – importantly – was on production-based metrics] and the economy has grown.

The largest challenge is Sweden’s transport sector. It is currently reducing by 2 to 3 per cent per year. However, to hit the targets, it would need to increase that to 4, 5 or even 7 per cent per annum: This would need (costly) high speed trains, electrification…


Sociotechnical transition literature does not pay enough attention to politics, power and contestation of transformative shifts  [Ah, Chapter 2 of my PhD thesis! In case you hadn’t heard me say that before…]

  • Democracy has been downplayed in the scholarship and practice of decarbonization and transition studies
  • We need to open up for public dialogue, reframing and deliberation as part of the process of knowledge production for transformation
  • Polcyentrism emphaizes decentraliztion (Backstrand admits to being increasingly skeptical on the usefulness of this)
  • Paris Agreement has precipitated national target setting and time-tables, but this is very uneven
  • Low-carbon transformations are currently dominated by techno-scientific and market-orientated strategies
  • Swedish case underlines importance of state-led transformations
  • Accountability, deliberation and representation along environmental democracy ideals need to be secured for meaningful green transformation and decarbonisation
  • Sweden on track to be green decarbonised state

But there are of course many challenges,  Broad pubic civil society and parliamentary support for transformation to a fossil-free state.

The Panel discussion

At this point, the chair Fred Luks of the Competence Centre for Sustainability, thanked her for “an optimistic, even patriotic, speech” and introduced the panel. This was made up of economist Professor Sigrid Stagl, political scientist etc Professor James Meadowcroft, and Michael Deflorian of the Institute for Social Change and Sustainability.

Luks began to Professor Bäckstrand;  “What is the ambiguity in your title?”

Bäckstrand – daily politics. The difficult moment after the recent Swedish election… Largest nationalist anti-immigrant party that has wanting to leave EU, climate denialism. We have our Trump moment. If they gain more strength and power we will definitely have an ambiguous transformation. Of course we have enormous challenges, above all with transformation… especially transport. And more than climate change, also Sweden is far from reaching its biodiversity goals. Very contested around forest policy – (many argue that commercial interests too powerful).

James Meadowcroft then made two observations. One, overall a positive picture of intentions and reductions over last few decades. So that’s a political accomplishment, but the political significance is enormous to move beyond fossil fuels “This energy source is dated,” is a message transmitted to all actors… Over the past two years a number of other countries have said similar things, albeit not economy-wide. E.g. UK’s “get rid of ICE by 2040 “. Within a few months of these announcements, the head of GM went to China and she had one objective – to stop China announcing end of ICE, given that GM strategy had been for hybrids for 20 yrs before a switch to electrics… Incumbents are aware the change is coming, trying to put it off 15 or 20 years, can make billions in the meantime. It’s not the infrastructure, its the patents etc…. Now seeing fightback in many countries around the world. Trump cancelling subsidies. Ontario – first thing new populist leader did was to scrap the cap and trade trading scheme, and also to end subsidy for buying of electric vehicles: ‘no subsidies for Tesla’… (Meadowcroft continued that this was of course thrown out by the courts because it was obviously discriminatory. But they hate Tesla!),  Sweden has best possible situation (but no fossil fuels). So , reality check from… Canada. – oil and gas crucial, alongside auto-parts. Canada a long way from making any pledge. Everyone knows tar sands not compatible even with two degrees of warming, can’t say it publicly, so worm around it. But no coincidence that leaders like Sweden and California not exporters of fossil fuels.

Luks then asked Stagl – is this too optimistic?

Stagl: There is more potential than in Austria, which had its environmental leadership moment decades ago. We have lost our way in terms of active climate policy… To Bäckstrand she observed “You were talking about ecological and environmental democracy. You referred mostly to environmental democracy though. You had ecocentric – there was a debate in ecological economics, which even that is anthropocentric. (Stagl said she was a fan of the Arne Naess deep ecology view).

Stagl then asked the crucial question (imho)- was the vaunted 26% reduction a production-based or consumption-based? Came the answer that it was is a production based one.

Stagke asked another corker – Is there a public debate in Sweden to go beyond growth?   Also, what  role of trade unions – are they reshaping the discourse? (In Austria for very long time TUs were obstructors)

Michael Deflorian began his comments by admitting that he had lived in Sweden for two years doing his masters, and had thought ‘Sweden is red-green utopia, so let’s go there,’ But of course, not as utopian as a lot of Germans and Austrians might think… [At this point the song Sweden by The Divine Comedy comes to mind…] Deflorian asked if Sweden is also planning to become extraction free, given that there is minerals mining in the North (Samis). He pointed to the notion of “cultural laboratories” with Sweden having strong potential for this.

Ex-climate activists going into this sort of ‘laboratory/prefigurative’ work, but the question remains whether people are trying to go beyond all parts of their life or just one arena, and this doesn’t happen in political vacuum. [In the radical environmental journal ‘Do or Die’, in the 1990s, there was discussion of this – permaculture as a retirement home project for burnt out anti-roads protestors]

Meanwhile, of course rightwing populists say ‘the boat is full’ and when RW Populitsts get in power their decisions have immediate effect [see Trump and EPA etc – though there is a limit to the wrecking he has been able to do].

At this point the chair (Fred Luks) pointed out that for all its plans, the Swedish state had recently issued a pamphlet to all citizens ‘if crisis or war comes’

Karin Bäckstrand thanked the panel for its questions and gave answers-

  • Extractive industries are indeed expanding. Contestation – court cases etc Also wind power siting (with Sami). And then there is the history of colonialism.
  • Is there a counter-movement?  Two trends. Hyper-individualist  (most single-occupancy housing in world; 300k Swedes fly to Thailand every year to get some sun) but also highest percentage of members in nature conservation organisations, This is very ‘double’ Meanwhile Swedish church are increasingly involved –
  • On trade unions – also double – the Central have taken forward ambitious plans, go to COPs etc, on the other hand, exodus of voters from trade unions to Swedish Democrats: More from unions went to Swedish Democrats than from conservatives
  • Is economic growth etc being debated/discussed? Green Party (close to losing their seats, having been in coalition government for 4 years). They used to have zero economic growth in manifesto. Then ‘realos’ took over (very contested) and deleted that part of the programme. It had been debated among the public… green inclusive growth is the dominant discourse.
  • Ecological democracy vs environmental democracy –well the idea of future generations, non-human animals etc is not a big thing in Sweden (compared to constitutional change in other countries – Costa Rica etc)
  • The panel came back with some further comments.

James Meadowcroft – why would we think everything has to change at once and everything has to go in one direction? In history we see bumps, reverses, movements splitting and reforming, huge opposition. Many movements go right down to the wire, to the last minute. Then the change comes and they can’t quite remember ten years later that it was in any way different [See Kathleen Blee’s excellent book on this Democracy in the Making]. Social change is like this – ‘where is it possible to make progress’ and focus attention on that. As the dialectic is, as the progress works, it will throw up side-effects etc.

e.g. if production emissions are coming down, great – but inevitably the debate will come onto consumption-based metrics. By the time that happens the countries that Sweden imports stuff from will have begun to dematerialise their production too…. We must get away from thinking can solve all problems at once.

Fred Luks then sought to move beyond Sweden – “We’re not talking about “reform” we’re talk about trasnformation (E.g. Polayni 1944 and coming of market society , after which nothing was the same). Is Sweden anywhere on the road to a great transformation? And where is the resistance?” He then cited Ulrich Brand and  Martin Wissen “The Limits of Capitalist Nature: Theorizing and Hierarchies of Belonging in Overcoming the Context The Imperial Way of Living” When you try to do anything, there is resistance. There are privileges…

Michael Deflorian  : We can see the resistance- rightwing populism.  E,g, Vice Chancellor in Austria openly denying climate change.  Also We have resistance within ourselves too. The EPA on formative mileux. The post-materialist ones have second highest carbon footprints… [See also Professor Kevin Anderson here – we see the high polluters when we shave in the morning…!] We could say, with Ingolfur Bluhdorn, that all this transformation talk is simulation…

James Meadowcroft :  The question makes me want to be contrarian. Which aspects exactly are you unhappy with?  Flying? Meat eating? Having kids? I’m not convinced that’s the way we’re going to solve the problem. If stop burning fossil fuels, solve energy problem, can use as much as we like. We need to remember different scales matter – local environmental problems often life-threatening. Great Transformation may take another century or two. Tackling local problems may give us breathing space… We’re going to have to grope our way forward over many decades…

[This reminds me of Michael Thompson’s talk of ‘clumsy institutions’. See also wicked problems. Of course, super-wicked problems are a different problem…]

Sigrid Stagl : On the biggest resistance (having spoken to investors this afternoon). Well, divestment rhetoric that works is powerful. For the rest, it’s still the game ‘why me? I’m busy writing reports, trying to be more efficient. We are x and y certified, we are doing a lot…. [compare Wright and Nyberg and corporate (in)activity and self-delusion].

Karin Bäckstrand on the subject of resistance –

  • Swedish Democrats. They wanted Lower tax to cut EPA funding and withdraw from EU (all under anti-immigration umbrella). This withdrawal from the EU stance cost them votes – the EU is becoming steadily more popular with Swedish votters…
  • Aviation tax  as a potential point of conflict– Sweden had a uniilateral one. Many businesses have to fly – “we need domestic aviation”….
  • And the car industry – Volvo and Saab (previously) as potential intransigent actors…

Questions from the floor

The chair did something I’ve seen also done in Australia – and I think should be the norm – they kept hold of the microphone, and this – as in Australia – tended to reduce the speechifying element of the questions…

First question was from Ingoflur Bluhdorn  I like all this optimism, I like all this hope. Gives me injection of energy in both directions… Sweden as pioneer is one narrative, there are others. Sweden in a number of respects is a very exceptional set up, almost in an aquarium. In terms of “Lifeworld environmentalism” (as per Daniel Hausknost’s paper in the opening session of the conference) Sweden is a particularly good example. Sweden may follow the Germany and Austria trajectory (of previous environmental ‘leadership’ that runs into the sand. THAT is more likely – (Backstrand challenged to defend…)

Bäckstrand : Swedish Democrats hoped they’d be second largest party, they became third. Their mistake was to talk about Swexit, which scared Swedish public. Support for EU has increased every year… We see actually – via Gothenberg public opinion surveys- environment has risen on public salience. It was 8th, now 2nd. Yes, right now we have one of largest right-wing parties in Europe. And yes, Swedish is a deviant case. (carbon free electricity based on hydro, nuclear and renewables). Yes, an outlier.
James Meadowcroft :  It would indeed be a transformation if went in that direction, but not a great transformation. What would 30 years of right wing populism do? They are reactionary movements, which ultimately will be ground over, by innovation and change at many levels. Renewables, battery technologies will make many lower carbon options viable, just on convenience/cost grounds alone,

Question – Daniel Hausknost : It’s important that there are front runners like Sweden – those who can lead should lead- there is scope for change underneath glass ceiling. But it’s not, James, a stepladder of production decarbonisation and then consumption. Previous decarbonisations were based on moving production to elsewhere! Embodied emissions go up, [At this point, an hour and a half of typing in, the author began to think about games of ‘Step ladder or snakes and ladders’ and if someone will give him funding to develop that] And as per Karin, Sweden has lots of land, forests, low population. Energy density and area matters (as in the past). You need to lower consumption of meat etc, you can’t just substitute other energy sources for fossil fuels

James Meadowcroft:  I agree with Daniel – need to transform agro-food sector. But HOW? I want to deal with production and consumption together…. About half the emissions reductions in Europe were due to independent factors (Germany unifying and shutting down hopelessly inefficient East German industry, the UK and dash for gas) BUT the other half was due to deployment of renewables, more efficient homes etc.

Ingolfur Bluhdorn :  do you have carbon footprint on consumption side in Sweden?

Karin Bäckstrand : (after voicing agreement with Daniel and Ingoflur) Yes, Climate Council beginning to look at consumption based Sweden doesn’t come out very well “figures aren’t very good”, And bio-economy and biofuels were hyper optimistic (new generation of fuels for aviation). But even with lots of land, not feasible/realistic… In electoral campaign, this was debated. Greens always say ‘reduce air travel/need quotas on transatlantic travel’. Even conservatives saying ‘need to reduce (air) travel’, in context of those who want massive role out of biofuels.

Question to James – we’re used to critiising movements for big vision creation, but they’re crucial for mobilising… (example from 1900 given!) Isn’t ‘incremental steps’ harmful?

James Meadowcroft:  pie in the sky narratives, when they fail, mean activists drift away… I’m NOT saying ‘only little changes’… The problem with major social change is it grinds up people, it’s great for their great grandchildren, but individualss lose jobs, never work again etc… e,g Women in science -lots of sacrifice, only granddaughters benefit…

Question (from author of blog) : When will we know if Sweden is on the right path? HOW? Is it in two years, five years? What if the consumption-based metrics say you can’t have 300 thousand Swedes getting a Thai tan?

Karin Bäckstrand ; We will keep track every year – development of emissions reductions plans, what kind of policies they have implemented, (e.g., high speed trains). This will then scrutinised. Also a lengthy review every four years. Without that solid review, it will be very hard to predict, and it will be very much rhetoric. With emission reduction rate is not enough, it needs to be doubled at least….

Sigrid Stagl : –ongoing green growth orientation versus consumption based is problematic, I think. … Pathways Pick and Yasser 50 percent every ten years, frontloading the effort is a long way away.

Michael Deflorian : we get there if we do x y and z. What is the role of researchers/academics with this kind of council? We as researchers are supposed to tell publics and policymakers how we get there. But we also need diagnosis of why we haven’t reached those previous goals over last two decades. It’s not enough to only have present focus. We should also consider the role that we as researchers have.

Question from Margaret Haderer – women trying to enter science It did make a difference, took time. But at the moment, looking at this plan, it seems there’s little sacrifice for Swedes, just ‘’do as you have, only more efficient’… Is what we’re proposing morally/ethically the right thing? Are we the good guys/ It’s just the same ecological modernisation story (gets applause!)

James Meadowcroft – so ‘if they’re not suffering, they’re not contributing’? Not sure why you think that… – rich prosperous people not suffering? Swedes aren’t sacrificing enough?  [I have not captured the nuance of either the question or the reply on this one – I will admit that I was flagging]

After a question/comment about the availability of battery storage technologies, the last question came from an interesting freelance journo: We need trustworthy information for democracy. What does transition require from the mass media, implementing for example the Aarhus Declaration?

Michael Deflorian ;  What is happening in cyberspace (echo-chambers and filter bubbles) – are we not in one ourselves, about how good transformation will be… Digital democratic space is falling apart, and no way other than nationalising Facebook and Google to deal with this.

James Meadowcroft :– (in response to the battery question – technological change vs behavioural/social change is something I take very seriously. I do NOT say a tech gizmo will solve all our sustainability problems. But I do believe that can provide all energy services in rich world can come from sources that don’t pollute. That’s because 2/3rds of fossil energy goes up as heat! Present techs in battery does have problems, but LOTS of research and development (more in last 10 than in previous 50). Won’t always be stuck with polluting storage technologies. We won’t have to go back to living in caves, and it’s not true and it’s been propagated in part by fossil fuel lobby.

Sigrid Stagl – I agree with both scepticism about reenewables and also enthusiasm. Solar panels now a tenth of what they cost seven years ago. In response government of lower Austria has cut subsidies. Now householders would have to pay less (because of the price drop), but there is less uptake because of the lower subsidies!

Karin Bäckstrand – technology and behaviour are integrated.  Utmost importance of public access to information. Sweden has a far-reaching act on this. Civil society must be watchdogs for what governments are on track or not. There are now a lot of civil society review mechanisms Equity reviews too.- to what level including distributional justice etc. And yes, social media climate is extremely bifurcated in Europe. Climate denial viral there…

My summation.
A very good evening. Well chaired, very clear presentation (overly optimistic for my taste, but tbh anything short of ‘we’re all going to die horrible deaths in the grim meathook future much sooner than you think’ would get the same criticism from me!). Panellists did very well, as did the expert chair, who kept it flowing and brought it in on time.

The whole Sweden thing sounds great. I hope it works and I especially hope I get a post-doc to watch how it unfolds (popcorn and the apocalypse- yum!).

I would say that we tried ‘Ecologically Sustainable Development’ in Australia in the late 80s and early 90s and it died a death. As Frank Turner sings

But it was worse when we turned to the kids on the left
And got let down again by some poor excuse for protest
Yeah by idiot fucking hippies in 50 different factions
Who are locked inside some kind of 60’s battle re-enactment
And I hung-up my banner in disgust and I head for the door

For me, then, as a quasi/proto/whatever academic, the research agenda/research questions are these:

Firstly, how do we have sustained social movement agitation that is constantly chivvying the state and business, forcing them to make promises and also watchdogging them relentlessly into keeping the promises? How are those social movements able to sustain themselves, without being co-opted and/or repressed? How can social movements avoid the smugosphere, the emotathons and the theme park of radical action?

Secondly, how can we expect the enemies of social movements (and as Pogo said, we have met the enemy and he is us) to monkey wrench those social movements and their activities?


On the importance of ignorance and empathy – #TBCtraining and swanning around

One of the ways we fail (and there are many) is when we don’t understand/contain our emotions around failure.  Yesterday at the training session for ‘Brilliant Club’ (a very cool charity which aims to get students who wouldn’t otherwise go to ‘top’ universities, the trainer said at one point ‘get a piece of A4 paper, make an origami swan. You have two minutes.’

Because Origami Swans are the deal-breaker for admissions tutors at Oxbridge and we’ll spend weeks at schools teaching this crucial skill?

Not quite.

It was, of course, a way of forcing us to think about how what is blindingly obvious and easy to someone who knows how to do summat, is basically impossible for a ‘newbie’.

And there was a mix of responses. Some diligently tried (there were some very odd swans/failures) while others pushed back, since the task was clearly impossible, and ‘stupid’  (explaining why we were being asked to do this “impossible” task – to then reflect on the emotions and behaviours it provoked – would have defeated its purpose of course).

Anyway, I have since found a youtube video that is about 90 seconds long. Origami swans are easy as, ONCE YOU KNOW WHAT YOU ARE DOING.

It put me in mind of other training I’ve had where (to a whole room) trainers have tried to get us to empathise with other people.

As a physiotherapy undergraduate we had an OT come in and do a session on what it’s like to be old.  She turned up the music (I think) faced away from us and quietly told us to do something, and most of us didn’t even hear her.

Then there was a CORKER when I was doing stewards training one time.  A group of us was all given a card, which with a part of a bigger picture. We could describe what was on the card, but not show anyone. The task was to figure out what the picture was.  I completely stuffed it up, because I didn’t listen to the right people (the trainer had deliberately given crucial cards to people who were not assertive, and I was even more full of myself then than I am now (shudders at thought of 35 year old self, would punch if had time machine).

There was even an episode of Happy Days where the Fonz is forced to confront his ageism. True story.

The point being: if you want to help people (and be helped by them, obvs), you need to see the world through their eyes.  Things that are ‘obvious’ are only obvious in hindsight.  You can say that all you like, but failure to make an origami swan in two minutes (where you only actually need about thirty seconds if you know what you’re doing), is a very very good way of bringing that point home…


#Brexit and #Climate Change – a painful epiphany #saddleworthmoorfire

Explaining why I haven’t yet done the paperwork to get my Irish citizenship (to which I am entitled through my mum’s mum), I found myself saying to a new colleague

‘it’s because I hope – and I know it won’t happen – but I am still hoping for it – that the ‘British Establishment’ will collectively say “yeah, 52% of you voted for it to be the 1950s again, but it CAN’T be the 1950s again, and keeping on this path will destroy everything that you unthinkingly expect to be ‘normal.’ So we’re not doing it. We’ll have another referendum and now enough old idiots have died, and the young can vote in greater numbers, it will come out 52% to 48% the other way.”

And as I said this, hearing how absurd my hopes of averting disaster were by saying them out loud, I simultaneously  realised that Brexit is simply climate change in microcosm.  It’s an impending disaster (in this case with a firmer deadline) that in theory could have been made slightly less intolerable.  But rather than preparing for it – our lords and masters (and mistresses, hullo Mrs May) have pissed away all the available time in ridiculous verbiage, blame games and frankly delusional thinking.  And that goes not just at the international level, the national level, but down unto the local, with the laughable ‘Manchester Climate Change Agency’ and similar spineless follies.

I cannot tell you how glad I am to be pushing fifty.  There is a monumental shit storm coming.  I keep saying it, but this – the second half of the twenty-first century is going to make the first half of the twentieth look like a golden age of peace, love and understanding.



Of Simmel, land yachts and sympathy for #climate denial

There’s a very old joke about a man driving a huge Cadillac through the sticks in the southern States. He stops at an ancient service station for ‘gas’ (to buy some, not because he has it). The young hick serving him has never seen such a vehicle – sorry – ‘vee-hickle’, and is awestruck.

He points to small plastic spikes with a flared and round end that are sitting on the dashboard.

“What are those?”

The man looks at the golf tees and says “they’re for putting my balls on when I’m driving.”

“Wow,” says the kid. “Those Cadillac-makers think of everything.”


Haven’t told that one for decades (ever?) But it came to mind tonight as I was trying to encapsulate my thoughts and feelings upon seeing a land yacht parked up opposite our house, of a type you only see in old episodes of Kojak, or as  a good sight gag in Serial.





I also got to thinking about what the sociologist Georg Simmel called “the hypertrophy of objective culture” – by which I understand him to mean that we humans are surrounded with so many damn THINGS (of our own making), that it affects how we think about the world (ask me some time about coming back from the ‘Third World’ and getting ‘supermarket shock’).

Cars this big are a very clear living fossil of the world when fossil fuels were ‘cheap’. Of a world before the 1973 Oil Shock, where oil prices quadrupled in six months, and the world economy – and society- changed for ever. Along came stagflation, (Nixon had already ended the tie of the US dollar to the Gold Standard). Along came talk of New International Economic Orders. Along came the belief that the old economic order might crumble. Along came neoliberalism.

Taking this back further though, the fetish for cars with distinctive features, – which would help you display your masculinity, prowess and disposable income – was created by clever marketeers for General Motors and Chrysler in the 1920s. They knew they could not compete on price or reliability against the Model T Ford. So instead they started marketing basically irrelevant stylistic changes. Ford fought back with price drops, but eventually conceded – thus the Model A

Meanwhile, I think what it must have been like to be young (and white and western. And male) in the petro-age, in that world between say 1950 and 1970, as the Western Economies grew at 5 or more per cent a year. Harley Earl and the Great Acceleration.  When we were going to have better living through technology, and when the women, the blacks, the homosexuals and Mother Nature all knew their place – in the kitchen, under the thumb, in the closet and under control. You know, the “Good Old Days”: if you happen to be…  a patriarchal, racist, homophobic…. human.

And I don’t know about you, but I can understand – without sharing – the desperate need of old white men for the days of their youth – when a Cadillac Coup de Ville was a magnet, a solution to existential anxieties and problems of where to go with a young lady while still living at home “The spacious back seat of your room mate’s beat up Chevrolet.

Different emissions at play now. These cars are a warning of our hubris. One, at least belongs in a museum. Well above sea-level.

Postscript: Literally as I finished this blog post, someone got in the thing and sailed it away. It growled.

Something fishy in the lake: of politics and power

Whose woods these are I think I know.
His house is in the village though;
He will not see me stopping here
To watch his woods fill up with snow.
Robert Frost, Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening

The old saw goes ‘give a man a fish and you have fed him for a day, teach a man to fish and you have fed him for life.’

The saw may help some hearts soar, but it makes mine sore.  It pisses meoff . It pissed me off when it was the basis of an Oxfam advertising campaign back in 1996/7, and it pissed me off still, two decades on, when I saw it in a discussion of empowerment.

Simply this – the man may well have known how to fish all along.  The problem might be that his fishing rod keeps getting stolen, or broken, or, worse, the lake is being over-fished by factory ships dragnetting and driftnetting and hoovering up every last scrap of protein and selling it to fat rich urbanites elsewhere.  And so the focus on teaching a man to fish enables us to feel both virtuous and competent (we know how to fish) without ever addressing the power relationships from which we very probably benefit (we’re not the ones worried about not being able to eat in this story).  And it is therefore our job to teach those to fish if they didn’t know how (for whatever reason), to help people sustain their ability to make a livelihood once they have the knowledge, but most of all ask the question – who has been fucking with the lake, and how do we stop them continuing to fuck with the lake ‘going forward’ as the bureaucrats and politicians like to say…

So, from now on, whenever someone uses that image, I will stick up my hand and politely ask two rude questions: so, in this analogy, who owns the lake? What is to stop them from strip-mining it?”

Generosity and conviviality in the age of algorithmic oppression: #Manchester #odmnoble

algorithms of oppressionThis was a superb event. A diverse audience of somewhere between 80 and 90 attended a truly excellent event on ‘algorithms of oppression’ yesterday in Manchester. The event, hosted by Open Data Manchester  with the support of The Federation and Manchester School of Art, was centred on a lecture and q and a with Dr Safiya Noble   of USC Annenberg. This blogpost is an attempt to appreciate the richness, breadth and generosity of her talk, and also provide links and ‘bookmarks’. It can’t be a blow-by-blow account, but the event WAS live streamed and the organisers hope to get it up on a video sharing platform soon enough. Comments on the blog welcome, especially if I have mangled something, their are tpyos and that sort of thing…  Stuff in [square brackets] is me editorialising/suggesting additional lines of enquiry/books – I wouldn’t want you to get the impression that Noble has arcane and weird taste in anecdotes.

The event began with generous amounts of alcohol, fruit (grapes! Nom nom. Apples! Nom nom nom) and nibbles, with time for people to catch up with old friends and make new ones.  Julian Tait of Open Data Manchester opened proceedings explaining that ODM, which has been going for about 8 years is a community-led organisation that tries to take a critical look at (open) data and what it might mean for democracy, participation, sustainability and all those Good Things.  (The tagline says it best – Supporting responsible and intelligent data practice in Greater Manchester and beyond). They have a bunch of events coming up, including the brilliantly named ‘Joy Diversion’  (scroll to the bottom) and he then asked if anyone else had events. There was on – this Thursday, 10 May Meet Amazing Data Women, open to anyone who identifies as a women.

A representative of the host building, The Federation gave a short talk, mentioning that it’s a newish community led business with free desk space for tech  businesses that are trying to do useful things around sustainability.  They also have events coming up, including something on May 30 on technology and slavery, with Mary Mazzio, the director of the documentary ‘I am Jane Doe’, and the launch of a report about images and disinformation/misinformation and the recent UK and French elections on June 5.

Then it was on to the main event. Professor Farida Vis, from Manchester School of Art, introduced the speaker Dr Safiya Noble.   She is (not yet) well-known to British audiences I suspect, but if tonight is anything to go by a) she should be and b) she will be. FT  readers may have read the article about her typing in ‘black girls’ to google while looking for things to take her niece to in New York and the results being, well, NSFW [that’s ‘not safe for work’, for any of reader who isn’t quite as down wiv da yoof as the 47 year old middle-class blogger who has to be told off by his wife for quoting The Wire as if it gives him urban(e) cred. Truedat.]

Noble works on the ways in which information technology, while seeming ‘neutral’ [the best trick the devil ever played…] actually perpetuates (intensifies) pre-existing prejudices. She’s been working on this for years and she knows a hell of a lot, but wears it lightly.  Noble has an engaging and charismatic stage presence. She clearly knows her stuff, knows why it matters and is keen to communicate it, but also to engage with questions and critiques.  She began with an anecdote about her new book.  When she first got the contract with NYU Press  her editor there (whom she praised – Noble is generous at giving ‘shout outs’ to colleagues) said that there was no way the word algorithm could be in the title – “nobody except you nerds knows what an algorithm is.”  Well, now, with bots crawling all over our minds like spiders hatching from an egg sac in a wound, everyone knows differently.  Noble said that even her father-in-law is saying “what’s up with those algorithms?” Noble then pointed out that while her research – and her talk – would be about the USA, what she is studying [warning about] is happening globally, at different speeds in different ways.

This of course is part of a broader ‘techlash’ – a backlash against the utopian promises and hype [see Gartner Hype Cycles for more on this].  As a Wired article Noble referenced put it “2017 was the year we fell out of love with algorithms.”

The next thing that happened was a recurring theme: Noble enthusiastically cited the work of another academic (in this case Wendy Chun, and her 2006 book “Control and Freedom: Power and Paranoia in the Age of Fibre Optics“.  Two things here – firstly this is a super-helpful habit, sharing your overview of an issue and its back history. Secondly , she wasn’t citing other scholars merely to say their work was incomplete and she had the missing pieces of the puzzle. This wasn’t an alpha (male) academic exercise in the swinging of, er, citations, of the type that those of us privileged to live in the ivory tower so often encounter.

[Btw- strangely many of the authors working on digital oppressions  are African-American or BME. Very odd that that African Americans might have the most acute and penetrating perceptions about the ways that power works. It’s almost as if they have been on the pointy end of oppression for centuries. But anyway…]

She also mentioned Ann Everett, but I can’t read my scrawl to get the context.  [Ah, the irony – google helps out-  In Digital Diaspora; A Race for Cyberspace – “Deftly interweaving history, culture, and critical theory, Anna Everett traces the rise of black participation in cyberspace, particularly during the early years of the Internet”.  Noble had by this point already reminded us just how revolutionary and useful Google was when it arrived in 2000, making it actually possible to find stuff…]

Anyway, Noble’s thesis, in her book – omfg I haven’t linked to her book yet-  is that black bodies are ‘data disposable’ , upon which technology is practiced and perfected  [And for those of you who think ‘conspiracy theory’/chip on shoulder, why don’t you check out the Tuskegee Study of Untreated Syphilis in the Negro Male  [the clue is in the name] and how the pill was tested on Puerto Ricans. To back this up she introduced Vilna Bashi Treitler and a book called The Ethnicity Project: Transforming Racial Fiction into Ethnic Factions, which says that there is a ‘core binary spectrum’ (white and non-white), with immigrants striving to become white (think the Irish and Italians)  [the same thing happened in Australia, – whiteness is such a freaking fiction].

Noble mentioned a backlash against talking about race since the 1990s, with the rise of so-called ‘colour-blind ideology’, a favoured phrase of venture capitalists looking to fund projects. It has the odd effect of rendering white and Asian men invisible [so ‘normal’ as to be unseeable]

Two more academics working on this got a shout out – Michael Brown [can’t find – perhaps a reference to Ferguson victim?] and Helen A. Neville.

In the one moment that, for me, was questionable Noble pointed out that the rise of ‘computer knows best’ ideology grew in the 1960s at the same time as Civil Rights legislation was being passed and participation in decision-making became at least thinkable for minorities [that said, the use of technology to deskill and suppress workers power is indisputable – see David Noble Forces of Production  I just think this was a slightly long bow to draw…]

What we are seeing now is analogous to ‘redlining’ (where banks refused loans to entire categories of people – a practice now outlawed).  Profiles of individuals are being built on a mass level – what does it mean to have a data profile about you that you can’t intervene on?  For Noble, AI is going to be a massive Human Rights issue in the 21st century, and it is one we don’t have the legal/political frameworks for yet.

More fellow academics and thinkers then got a shout out

[Noble says that this list is just ‘scratching the surface’, and that we need to mainstream the discussion of tech ethics)

Noble told an amusing story about having been on twitter for so long that she actually has the @safiya handle but can’t use it because it gets flooded with mis-tagging  (the same thing happens to a guy called @johnlewis, who has great fun with people’s mis-tagging while looking for the store).

Searching questions
Moving on to the question of how trusted search engines are, Noble pointed to a 2012  Pew Centre study which showed that most Americans are satisfied with search engines, most use Google (thus, Noble says, that’s what she studies!, and most use it often.  Search engines are therefore seen as a ‘trusted public good’, the people’s portal.  The cost of this is that we’ve lost the art of/respect for content curated by an expert.

Noble then shared the experience by which she might be known to a general UK audience – she googled ‘black girls’ (having been told by a colleague not to do it from a university computer.  And sure enough, it was pages and pages of porn.  Noble wrote an article on this for Bitch magazine, published in Spring 2012. By autumn Google had suppressed the porn in the search results [a pattern that would continue  – individual problems dealt with on an ad hoc reactive basis]

Noble then asked if anyone had heard of a UK band called Black Girls, which still appears in the searches. One of the 90ish present had, leading Noble to observethe band was better at search engine optimisation than it was at music distribution…

Next up Noble gave a shout out to an online collection of Jim Crow memorabilia at, before going on to recount how, in 2015,  DeRay Mckesson  (with leverage acquired from having been followed by Beyonce) showed that when you googled the ‘n-word’house Google Maps took you to the White House.

Again, Google’s response was to talk about ‘glitches’ (in otherwise perfect systems.

Another example – the following year chap called Kabir Ali was livestreamed by his friends googling ‘three black teenages’ and ‘three white teenagers’.  The former gave mugshots, the latter healthy non-threatening sportsballing folks

[This stuff matters. Somewhere (Malcolm Gladwell?) there’s an anecdote about someone regularly doing the Implicit Association Test, which furtles out the links you make ‘unintentionally’ and not being able to figure out why his results were improving –then realised he was watching the Olympics, where black athletes were doing well/being praised]

Anyway, the following day, it was tweaked.

Next up – googling “unprofessional hairstyles for work” came up with lots of black women, while “”professional hairstyles for work” came up with white women with pony tails.

See also Jessica Davis and Oscar Gandy 1999 Racial identity and media orientation: Exploring the Nature of Constraint. Journal of Black Studies, Vol. 29, (3), pp.367-397.

[I mentioned this to the brilliant Sarah Irving and she mentioned the ‘if anyone needs to know that orientalism is still a thing, google ‘sheikh’ – still loads of images of kidnappy/rapey men on camels and their insatiable appetites for white flesh]

So beyond being offensive and demoralising, what are the broader political implications, if any?  Noble pointed to a 2013 study that showed that the types of results which came up on the first page when someone googled a candidate could influence who people would vote for, and that search engines need to be regulated. [I haven’t got this totally]  This is the article I think – Viability, Information Seeking and Vote Choice.  (Of course, googlebombing is nowt new – see what Dan Savage did to Senator Santorum, way back in the day).

Skip forward- after the 2016 Presidential Election, if you googled ‘final election result’ in the US you got taken to a lying site, that said Trump won not only the Electoral College vote, but ALSO the popular vote.

Further links

Neoliberal co-optation

So, the response has been predictable, and probably effective.  Google has come up with ‘Black Girls Code’ – in this narrative the main problem is not structural racism but that 5 year old black girls haven’t been getting involved enough… Noble cited Heather Hiles as noting that less than one per cent of venture capital goes into projects led by black women.

Noble then moved on to the deeper question of who makes the tech, and what damage is done in the making  of it (the subject of her next work – following the production and value chains).  All these techs are “resting precariously on extraction in the Global South” with enormous amounts of hidden labour [and ecosystem devastation] “in I-phone 12 or whatever we’re going to be on in a week” – all part of the (story of) infinite linear progress of technology [ah, the hedonic treadmill, donchajustlove it]

This sense of technology as our (submissive because female) friend is there in the new personal digital assistants such as Microsoft’s Ms Dewey, Apple’s Siri and Amazon’s Alexa.  Noble mentioned that a few weeks ago she was talking with robotics professors at Stanford who had not thought through the implications of children learning to bark commands at women’s voices…

[There’s a great Onion story “Congress Demands to Know How Facebook Got people to Give Up their Civil Liberties without a Fight” in which they quiz Mark Zuckerberg on how he convinced people to let bugs/spies into their houses in a way the FBI could only dream of. ]

Other problems include so-called “predictive policing” and embodied software (Robocop Lives!!) Simone Browne and racialized policing.  A concrete (in every sense) example – in Champagne Illinois there are [were?], in the poor neighbourhoods, virtually no sidewalks.  So, what do kids do? They walk in the street. And what do the cops do? Write them up for jaywalking.  As the Violent Femmes once sang ‘this will go down on your permanent record’….   [A neat example of how, as per critical realism, we have to think about material constraints, not just ideologies and ‘rules’ – see Sorrell, 2018:  “Explaining sociotechnical transitions: A critical realist perspective]

Final example – even videos of atrocities (Eric Garner dying, saying ‘I can’t breath’) attract advertising revenues because, well – lots of people watch them.  [We monetise our own catastrophes, whether we like it or not…]

What is to be done?

This was the last, and by far the briefest, section of Noble’s talk. She had five suggestions

  • Build repositories and platforms that belong to the public. (Noble noted that the convergence of states and multinational companies made it hard to imagine platforms that were not based on advertising revenues)
  • Resist colorblind/racist/sexist technology development (sex dolls got a mention)
  • Decrease technology over-development and e-waste
  • More info and research visualisation for the public
  • Never give up


Noble closed by observing that the prediction is that by 2030 1% of the population will own 2/3rds of the world’s wealth. There will be intensified datafication, more devices, with more promises of seamless and frictionless liberty.  But we can’t eat the digital. We can’t make an iPhone sandwich….


Question and Answer

There was time for some questions.  What was interesting here – besides the info itself – was that Noble gave quick and detailed answers, without waffle or using the Q and A as a chance for a thinly-veiled continuation of her lecture (we’ve all seen that happen, right?)

Please do NOT take anything I’ve ascribed to Noble as gospel. I may have got stuff wrong. I don’t do shorthand.  Check the recording!

Question 1: Is Capitalism an algorithm of oppression?

Noble: Yes, of course… goes on to point to the racialized element of this.  2008 financial crisis as the biggest wipe out of black wealth since the Reconstruction [e.g. here and here]

Cites Cathy O’Neil Weapons of Math Destruction: How Big Data increases Inequality and Threatens Democracy.

Question 2 Audre Lorde said that the master’s tools cannot dismantle the master’s house.  Does this mean that we should be encouraging people to ‘disconnect.?

Noble:  No. It’s cute to tell people to delete facebook, but we need collective solutions, not individual ones. If I stop paying my rent, I’m not taking down capitalism.We need to strengthen our position in the situation we are in.  For example “fair sourcing”, and design where nobody dies [a challenge she put to comp sci students who had to take her class recently.  We need a more powerful public response.  We used to have 80% unionisation after world war two.  Need that back.  That’s not easy.  In retrospect everyone was at the 1963 March on Washington, but  of course it was no more than 10 percent making the change at the time. We need to find that 10% again

[And keep them for the long haul.  Best book on the Civil Rights Struggle I ever read was ‘And We are Not Saved’ by Debbie Louis. Extraordinary.]

[I asked that question.  What I MEANT to say was ‘in your opinion, are there inherent properties within the technology that mean it will never be effective as a weapon of liberation. If so, what then?’ but I bollocksed it up.  I am sure there is a broader lesson in this – perhaps something about about letting smarter-than-me black women speak for themselves and staying out of the way, but I can’t quite see what it is….]

Question 3:  (from a biracial woman).  Was searching for home insurance with a white friend. They have same financial profile, and asked for two quotes on the same house.  Guess who was quoted the cheaper premium…

[At which point TV Smith’s ‘It’s expensive being poor’ sprang to mind.]

Noble:  That’s what we call code data discrimination, which we can’t see.  We have to have public policy on this.  And most discrimination laws are about proving intent – we should be looking at outputs and impacts.  There is this very powerful ‘tech is neutral’ idea which we have to contest.

Noble then gave the example of a (black?) guy who was the son of a financial planner, and a financial planner himself i.e. ‘responsible adult’ had his Amex card declined. Eventually, after multiple calls it emerged he’d once bought something in a Walmart in the Wrong Part of Town and the algorithm had ‘decided’ he was credit risk.

Question 4: to what extent are Silicon Valley executives oblivious to the problem?

Noble: They’re largely underprepared. If you’re designing tech for society and you don’t know anything about society, you’re underprepared.  The kind of people who end up in Silicon Valley mostly went to the top five universities and will have been able to transfer out of their humanities components early. For some the last humanities course they took will have been high school English.  But even if by some miracle they’d taken ethnic/women’s studies, that wouldn’t necessarily help, since they are coding/designing within a set of institutions/beliefs/paradigms [my paraphrase/word salad].

And there is defensiveness/hostility in some companies about all of this.

Question 5:  How much of this is unconscious bias?

Noble: I don’t like that phrase. UB let’s everyone off the hook.  Get’s us back into intent questions, where we need to look at outputs and impacts, and then use public policy, HR policies, hiring etc.

What kind of world do we want? One were people can’t afford to eat?  How do we do things differently.

Question 6: Thanks for opening my eyes about search engine bias: beyond moderation of search engines, what?

Noble: we must separate advertising content from knowledge. If you’re looking for somewhere to eat, fine, but if, as Dylan Roof (the 19 year old who murdered 9 black churchgoers in Virginia), well, he was doing ‘sense-making’ on Travyon Martin (murdered by George Zimmerman) and was led to lots of white supremacist sites.  There’s a chapter in the book on this.

We need to demarcate better, and realise that google should not be a ‘trusted public good’.


Further reading [my suggestions’


What I would have done differently

I have been to (and blogged) about some truly appalling events.  This, mercifully was not one of them.  Huzzah! Still, it’s usually possible to offer unsolicited advice. So here goes:

One of the (largely) false promises of social media is that it will decrease our sense of loneliness/anomie. When we organise “meatspace” events, we should take actions that reduce that loneliness. I would have had people turn to someone they don’t know at the outset and introduce themselves for a couple of minutes. Who are they? Why did they come? What are they hoping to get.  No wider feedback, just that. (It works- see here).

I would have challenged Noble to talk slightly less about the problems (though it was incredibly eye opening) and at greater length about the ‘solutions’ and how they might be implemented, and by who.

During Q and A mostly men’s hands (about 4 to 2, when actual gender balance in room was roughly 55/45 male to female).  (Fwiw, I think meetings are institutionally sexist). Have people turn to the person next to them to compare notes, and get help honing their question. Then ask for a show of hands and pick male and female hands-  or on other metrics- an obvious one in this case would be race)
Upcoming events

Sat May 19 Joy Diversion

“Calling all ramblers, explorers and meanderers. Surveyors, cartographers and inquisitors – people who look up to the rooftops and down into the culverts. Join us for an afternoon of mapping, exploring and wandering in Central Manchester and Salford.”