SJSU Social Sciences

SJSU Political Science Professor Lawrence Quill has co-written a provocative essay about universal basic income with Hasmet Uluorta, an Assistant Professor of Political Studies and International Development Studies at Trent University. They discuss how technology might enable a system of universal basic income and transform the function of government. For example:

Turning welfare provision into an app that tracks and monitors behavior means you can do away with many of the bureaucratic elements of the state. Of course, this would mean giving technology companies access to the entire database of citizens within a given territory, along with other data such as immigration records. This would arguably swap one form of paternalism for another. But where some observers see Big Brother, the tech entrepreneurs who wish to alter the behavior of people for the common good see “captology” or “persuasive technologies,” and substitute “surveillance” for “using apps to change the behavior of people for the better.” Thanks to phones and other wearable technologies, such “intimate surveillance” is now so pervasive that this participatory panopticon is the norm for a generation who have grown up knowing only the reality of Internet life.

Quill and Uluorta conclude, “The idea that poverty, like other social and political problems, can be solved by turning to technology and reducing the power of the state is a potent one with deep philosophical roots. We should keep this fresh in our minds when debating policies that herald privately owned technologies as the solution to complex social problems.” Well said!

Last week faculty and staff returned to SJSU for the fall semester. Classes started on Wednesday (August 23, 2017), and the next day the President gave her annual Fall Welcome Address. She started the address by discussing the August 11-12, 2017 violence at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville surrounding marches and rallies by White supremacists. I also discussed the protests and counter-protests at the conclusion of the College of Social Sciences welcome event, on Monday, August 21, 2017. See below for the transcript.


To close, let me read two brief items to you.

(1) The first is a note I sent to the college the day after the November 8, 2016 U.S. elections:

Dear Social Sciences Family-

Many of us are shocked and saddened by yesterday’s election and our nation’s deep divisions. It seems that across all aspects of the political spectrum many actions were driven by ignorance and fear instead of knowledge and hope. As we process these results two social media posts by colleagues may be good to keep in mind: 

 “Out of touch. Like me, you are out of touch with the majority of our country if you did not vote for Trump. (I am not a Hillary supporter either….so I am even more out of touch than most.) Whether or not you are right, does not change that we are out of touch. That said, the best route forward is not to vilify those who don’t think like us, nor condemn them as stupid or ignorant, but instead to understand how and why the majority came to be so different from us.”

 “Being a teacher/writer/advocate has never been more important. Let’s fight for the next generation. I’m fired up and ready to go.”

 In these challenging times let’s remind ourselves of our mission to help our students and the broader community create more complex and nuanced understandings of their social worlds. Our work matters more than ever now.

 Warmest Regards, Walt

(2) The second was the start of an article from last week in The Chronicle of Higher Education (“Teaching Newsletter, August 17, 2017”):

The violent demonstrations by white nationalists this past weekend at the University of Virginia have brought renewed attention to one of higher education’s biggest challenges: fostering civil dialogue in class. 

There’s no shortage of guidance available. Groups like Project Pericles, the Association of American Colleges & Universities, and the American Association of State Colleges and Universities’ American Democracy Project have been working to help students engage in constructive conversations, especially during fraught times.

 

When the students return on Wednesday many will be extremely anxious about the futures. From undocumented students worried about their ability to stay in school and study, to students of color wondering if they are safe when formerly closeted bigots are emboldened to openly express their hate, to the increased unease of all students about their economic futures in the midst of worldwide upheaval, the next few weeks will be difficult times.

I know that many of you are already making changes to engage the challenges we will face. For instance, at least two Assistant Professors rewrote their syllabi after the atrocities in Charlottesville. And the SJSU  Fall 2017 Faculty Professional Development Series on Whiteness and Race is more timely than ever. I applaud and thank all who have already thought deeply about how we can move forward to build a better society.

I know that many more instructors will use tools such as those listed in the Chronicle article. Others will develop and powerfully implement new ideas over the semester. In the development I encourage you to draw on the collective experience and wisdom of your colleagues. Together we are stronger.

Earlier in this event we discussed new investments in our Ethnic Studies programs. There are also other social justice proposals in development that will help us create more democratic societies. Our work as social scientists is crucial in that endeavor.

So, on the one hand this concluding note could dampen a traditionally celebratory event, but on the other it is a testament to our vibrancy. When I started as CoSS dean two years ago one of the Chairs remarked, “Collaboration is in your DNA!” Well, I was drawn here because collaboration is an essential component of the college as a whole; collaboration is in our DNA. Tough times are ahead, but we will collectively generate ideas that will get us through the current mess as we build better places on the other side. I look forward to the journey with you all. Have a good semester!

 

Two years ago today (July 6, 2015) two new deans joined seven others at San José State U. As of July 1 this year Mary Schutten (Dean of the College of Applied Sciences and Arts) and I are now the senior academic deans as we start our third year here, and we are just one year behind the most senior dean (Ruth Huard of the College of International and Extended Education). Wow! In terms of total dean experience, I believe that I’m the most senior of the nine of us here at SJSU, as I’m starting my fifth year overall as a dean (third year here following two years at the University of Wisconsin-Parkside). Oh wait, the new dean of the College of Business (Dan Moshavi) was also previously a dean before joining SJSU, so he might have more total experience. Whatever the case, it’s weird to be a “senior” after just two years!

Although not in the College of Social Sciences (CoSS), I’d like to highlight a project by Journalism and Mass Communication Associate Professor Michael Cheers: his recently completed Simple Gifts: A Portrait Series Celebrating SJSU’s Black Faculty. Professor Cheers notes, “The Black faculty at San José State University were given a homework assignment. They were asked to choose a personal keepsake, and pose with that item for a formal portrait. Then explain how that item influenced their teaching careers.” Several CoSS faculty are featured! I am too. My keepsake is Racial Formation in the United States, Second Edition, and here was my narrative: “I entered graduate school in the fall of 1993. I chose sociology as my field of study based on being drawn to books on the subject, even though I had never taken a sociology class. I was a bit unsure about my choice initially, as none of the books that semester really appealed to me as was the case in the past. That changed in the spring of 1994 when I read Racial Formation in the United States. Not only did it remind me of how much I loved sociology, it provided key ideas for my first publication, which was accepted in the fall of 1994. It was frequently cited in future publications for years to come. In 2008 I met one of the authors, and he signed my copy! I still occasionally thumb through it now, 22 years later.” I have not yet read the third edition from 2014. I’ll have to correct that soon….

My previous blog post was about Convocation Season. Last year I attended eight department convocations, and one for African American students from around the university. This year I also attend the African American student convocation and eight department events (although the mix of departments was different than last year; my associate dean attended events I could not make). Last year I shared a few brief remarks from memory at most of the events; this year I decided to write out remarks beforehand in order to give longer greetings. [I wish that I had the skill of being about to remember short speeches without notes!] Here is the one that was the most fun to deliver, to the Department of Sociology and Interdisciplinary Social Sciences:

Good morning! As Professor Bahkru noted, I’m the Dean of the College of Social Sciences. I am also a faculty member, in sociology. It’s always great to say a few words to members of my home department.

I’m under strict orders to truly give just a few words. In this case, 3 sentences (!). That’s going to be difficult, as you all know how hard it is for professors to contain ourselves when we are passionate about something! My apologies for not following instructions, Dr. Rudy, but I think I can do it in 3 paragraphs:

  1. Welcome students, and congratulations on your forthcoming graduation. The faculty and I are proud of you! Your hard work has paid off.
  2. As sociologists, you know that individual effort alone didn’t get you here. Many, many others helped you; some you know, but you never met others who worked tirelessly on your behalf behind the scenes. Many of your family and friends are here today to celebrate your day. Please join me now in thanking them for all the support the provided to you over the years!
  3. Finally: we live in very challenging times, when our faith in our democratic institutions has been shaken. Please keep your sociological imaginations active. Each and every one of you has an important role in strengthening the social structures in which we are enmeshed.

Thank you, and congratulations!

This time last year I wrote an entry called Commencement Season is Here, which discussed both pleasant and stressful aspects of graduation ceremonies. That entry noted that here at SJSU there is one big graduation ceremony for the entire campus, and many smaller department ceremonies, usually called convocations. Last year I left a few early in order to hustle to drop in at others. This year I’ve decided to sit through entire ceremonies; if there are two conflicting ceremonies the associate dean would attend one of them. This year he’ll be attending two, and I have eight, plus the main all-university commencement ceremony this Saturday, May 27. Next week I’ll have to find a place that dry cleans regalia…

It’s always a pleasure to highlight outstanding faculty. Last month I shared a Political Science professor’s thoughts on augmented reality technology. Today I want to highlight History Professor Ruma Chopra, whose article on past and present refugees to Canada — “Refugees Fit For Rescue” — was recently featured on the Early Canadian History website. Read more about Professor Chopra’s projects on her rumachopra.com website.

Shortly after President Trump took office Amazon reported that it was sold out of the book Nineteen Eighty-Four, as many wondered if his election signaled that the dystopian society depicted in that work of fiction was now reality in the United States in 2017. However, another mid 20th Century dystopian novel – Brave New World – may be the more accurate reference. For example, in a seminal work of media culture the Chair of New York University’s Department of Culture and Communication argued,

There were two landmark dystopian novels written by brilliant British cultural critics – Brave New World by Aldous Huxley and Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell – and we Americans had mistakenly feared and obsessed over the vision portrayed in the latter book (an information-censoring, movement-restricting, individuality-emaciating state) rather than the former (a technology-sedating, consumption-engorging, instant-gratifying bubble)…. What Orwell feared were those who would ban books. What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one. Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information. Huxley feared those who would give us so much that we would be reduced to passivity and egoism. Orwell feared that the truth would be concealed from us. Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance. Orwell feared we would become a captive culture. Huxley feared we would become a trivial culture.”
–Neil Postman, Amusing Ourselves to Death, p. vii.

The College of Social Sciences recently hosted the first Dean’s Office Book Club, and we discussed these books and Postman’s analysis. We asked folks for their thoughts on which book is the more accurate reflection of the U.S. today? Both books? Neither? Professor and Anthropology Chair Roberto Gonzalez and I co-facilitated the discussion; Professor Gonzalez assigned both books to his ANTH 136: Thought Control in Contemporary Society class this semester. We had a great discussion!

 

“Remember when Luke’s running the trench in the Death Star, and he’s about to fire his fateful shot, and at the last minute he decides to turn off the targeting computer and use the Force instead?” So begins an article that references a scene from the movie Star Wars: A New Hope to argue that “machines can now see into the future, and we ignore them at our peril.” The article continues, “We romanticize that moment—not just because it represents Luke’s coming into his own as a Jedi, but because to us, the decision to trust an intuition born deep in nature and honed over billions of lifetimes instead of some newfangled tech seems somehow right and good. The irony, of course, is that in our galaxy, technology is the Force. Increasingly, it’s computers that train our intuition. It’s computers that help us perceive beyond our senses.”

The article provides several examples of technology enhancing human intuition and performance, such as chess players using software to expand their abilities, and doctors using CT scans, ultrasounds, and MRIs instead of knives to explore the innards of patients. The article concludes with this prediction: “we’ll use computers to explore possible futures, and over time we’ll learn how to see those futures for ourselves, almost to feel them, to the point where it’ll seem to those not in the know that we have command of an arcane force.” That may be a bit far-fetched…I hope.

Dr. Lawrence Quill is an SJSU Professor of Political Science who often provides commentary on technology news (such as in a recent Financial Times op-ed: “Tech companies are doing what oil and steel companies have been doing for decades, but they have a halo around them.”). I asked him for his take on the article. He notes:

That article, it seems to me, is talking about augmented reality. Pokemon Go was an app that applied that in a trivial fashion. But Google Glass was a more sophisticated version.

Economists suggest that this way of thinking about the relationships between computer and human labor is the best version of a future that will be dominated by machines and information. Work with machines, they say, rather than against them.

I guess we’ll see.

But if we return to ‘the Force’ in Star Wars and Luke, I think the author of the Atlantic piece has omitted something important. For Luke, and the audience, the force was something without and within. A person looked inside in order to harness the power of the Force all around them. Technology is not the Force. Technology is always external and never ‘within’ – unless we take Elon Musk’s advice and become cyborgs, of course!

The ‘inside’ to which I’m referring is that ‘spiritual’ inside, the West’s inheritance from Christianity. Augustine’s interior space provided the foundation for Western concepts like free will and, more broadly, free agency; concepts that are fundamental to how we have come to understand politics and what it means to be human.

It is that space that is collapsing (and freedom with it). There are a few reasons for this:

1) The assault on religious thinking especially since Darwin but more broadly as a result of Modernity
2) The twentieth century equivalence (post-Turing) of mind and machine (and information)
3) Paradoxically, the quasi-religious desire to free ourselves from the body in order to download consciousness so that we may become immortal – you never really escape from Christianity’s influence. It just becomes a mash up!

Elon Musk’s comment should be taken against the background of the ideas (1-3) above. His cyborg future, which may become reality, is a kind of protest against an uncontrolled future of AI where human agency disappears. The message is simple: become a cyborg or be a human slave. Augmented reality or bust.

The Atlantic article channels the same message. Those who use The Force (technology) will leave the rest behind in their wake. How curious that the author would use a modern myth of techno-spirituality (Star Wars) to make the point.

This sounds like technological determinism and it is. But while the myth of human freedom remains, I will probably keep on saying that the present, and the future, could be different. It could be more humane (?). We could imagine a future where AI and robotics serves human (?) ends, rather than the other way around.

I am not especially hopeful, however, as neither policy-makers, nor the public, nor any other group are providing us with the key ideas of a human future that embraces technology for human ends. Instead, we must turn to William Gibson (of Neuromancer fame) style corporations and Hollywood which, for now at least, seems obsessed with a dystopian eventuality.

I am a little bit more hopeful that we can escape dystopian ends. Keeping Professor Quill’s commentary in mind can help us to try to journey in a more positive direction.

I have recently discovered a great podcast series, Social Sciences Bites. Here’s the series description:

The social world is a world we create, that we all have in common. In this series of illuminating podcasts, hear leading social scientists present their perspectives on how our social world is created, and how social science can help us understand people and how they behave. Each podcast includes a downloadable written transcript of the conversation.

An article on the Pacific Standard website provides additional information. This podcast series will be very valuable in the Unites States if expected significant policy changes occur in President Trump’s administration. One future podcast could be with SJSU sociology professor Scott Myers-Lipton, who argues that President Trump should launch a civic works program.