This makes me want to learn code.

Aside from being a jealous parent of a daughter, I’m struck by how powerful it looks to have a childhood staple re-articulated to reflect more egalitarian norms.

HT: Cory Doctrow

A Harlem Shake video reportedly in from of the Muslim Brotherhood headquarters in Egypt.

HT: Andrew Sullivan

Pet rocks, drive-in theaters, 8-track players and Senate filibusters. One of these four things made a triumphant return to the Senate yesterday. Rand Paul and friends engaged in an ol’ school debate over the Obama administration’s drone policy — for 13 hours!

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Whether you agree with Paul or not, actual Senators using the filibuster to actually deliberate about actual policy is a beautiful thing. You almost get a glimpse of what representative democracy is supposed to be. I’m not getting to used to the idea of Senators actually stepping up and actually debating ideas through the filibuster. I recognize that few people in the Senate want to be on their feet for hours on end to oppose legislation. But for at least one day, we got a look into how the filibuster could be used as a mechanism to draw out policy distinctions and grab the public’s attention as to the seriousness of the issues at hand.

I just took part in the first Western Political Science Association brown bag meeting with Mobilizing Inclusion authors Lisa Garcia Bedolla and Melissa Michelson. Aside from being a wonderful talk, this blog post is a testimonial to how you can actually learn something useful for your own work when you take part in discussions of this nature.

For me, the most intriguing part of the talk was the discussion of Arjun Appadurai’s idea of governmentality from below. Appadurai is inverting Foucalt’s view of governmentality as a process by which citizens are identified and counted and thereby subject to control. While Foucault is wary of this identification process, Appadurai is interested in how, in a world of unmanageable global flows, some people’s become engaged in a process of self-counting or self-identification. His conclusion is that for those without voice, autonomy is less important than becoming voiced and empowered.

To those familiar with Foucault’s ideas, this may seem to be a worrisome form of auto governmentality, a combination of self-surveillance and self-enumeration, truly insidious in its capillary reach. But my own view is that this sort of governmentality from below, in the world of the urban poor, is a kind of counter-governmentality, animated by the social relations of shared poverty, by the excitement of active participation in the politics of knowledge, and by its own openness to correction through other forms of intimate knowledge and spontaneous everyday politics. In short, this is governmentality turned against itself (Appadurai 2001, 37).

While Garcia-bedolla and Michelson use it in referenced to sustained voter mobilization, I find this to be a useful distinction in my own emerging work on civic hacking, or the use of new technologies to gain access to and productively use government data. I think those engaged in advocacy of civic hacking see it as “governmentality from below” while it’s critics are more prone to see it as an extension of self-surveilance. Appadurai’s framing helps reorient our thinking from whether civic hacking is or isn’t governmentality from below to “when is it governmentality from below”? I tend to think that this is the rub on the democratizing effects of technology. Are there instances where elected officials in city governments freely give away information that can be used to eventually reduce their power? or is it always an exercise in managing the perception of openness and solidifying power through the expansion of governmentality.

Here is the talk. Give it a listen 🙂

I’m only 10 pages into it and I can see the profound influence this idea of a division of labor has, not only on understanding economic development, but understanding social/power relations. For Adam Smith, specialization is the unique characteristic that differentiates the enlightened West from its “savage” neighbors. The “peasant” in places where there is a pronounced division of labor is made better off the by accumulation of “things” he/she is able to acquire through being able to sell the labor that is made valuable through his/her own specialization. He even extends this to philosophers and scientists, but that’s for another day….

The extent to which specialization is employed to reinforce superiority along cultural lines is startling, but not unexpected for the times. This is a particularly instructive passage:

It may be true perhaps that the accommodation of a European prince does not always so much exceed that of an industrious and frugal peasant as the accommodation of the latter exceeds that of many an African king, the absolute master of the lives and liberties of ten thousand naked savages (117)

Because the “industrious” and “frugal” peasant trades his specialized labor for “things,” he is better accommodated than the leader of “ten thousand naked savages.” What an dismissal of the synthetic knowledge those “naked savages” had and have about how to organize a meaningful and rewarding life. This is the great crime (and perhaps virtue?) of colonialism — the arrogance to employ a specific frame about how the world should be upon those who did not seek it. Applying this logic to today, you wonder how societies can be integrative (e.g. having the ability to specialize in ways Smith discusses while having the ability to cultivate more integrated ways of knowing necessary for the development of full human beings). Can we specialize and synthesize at the same time?

The following announcement is from my colleague Jessica Feezell:

On Tuesday, March 5th at 1:00 PST, the Western Political Science Association will launch their new bi-monthly “Virtual Brown Bag” series where we will discuss a new book written by authors affiliated with the WPSA. This Virtual Brown Bag will be hosted on a social video platform, Spreecast, where you can submit questions to the authors, “chat” with others in the audience, go on camera to engage “face to face” in the discussion, or simply sit back and watch.
The first Virtual Brown Bag discussion will feature Dr. Lisa Garcia Bedolla & Dr. Melissa R. Michelson, authors of Mobilizing Inclusion: Transforming the Electorate Through Get-Out-The-Vote Campaigns. You can find out more about their new book here.

On March 5th, please join us! Better yet, if you are one of the first 10 people to RSVP to the Virtual Brown Bag and “follow” the WPSA on Spreecast, the WPSA Social Media Task Force will send you a free copy of their new book compliments of the publisher. To RSVP, simply go to the event page, establish a free account and click “RSVP.”

This initiative has emerged from a task force on social media convened by our regional association in Political Science. For us it is an exciting experiment in the possibilities of creating scholarly conversation using new media tools. We strongly encourage you to be part of the conversation!

So because I sometime blog from home and sometimes blog from my office, I decided to start a second book while I’m at home. So lucky for me, the first book on the top left corner of my shelf was Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nation (a book I never read in its entirety in grad school). So here I go.

Smith dives right in arguing about the productivity benefits to the division of labor, an argument so worked through in recent history that it almost bears ignoring, but does strike me as interesting the extent to which Smith attaches specialization to progress, claiming that:

in every improved society, the farmer is nothing but a farmer; the manufacturer nothing but a manufacturer.

He goes on to argue that productivity increases come from unique aspects connected to the division of labor:

1) increased skill/dexterity
2) time saving by not having to swtitch tasks (which apparently makes one indolent and lazy)
3) mechanization

I’ll read more, but initially I’m struck by how anachronistic this would seem to most students graduating from American colleges today. The idea that productivity would come from doing one thing for very long periods of time would strike many as drudgery. Most of use who are knowledge workers would probably fall into the category of task switchers. I’m no productivity expert but I wonder what the research literature says about whether actually leads to more productivity. Interestingly, Yahoo has recently mandated that it’s workers work at the office, presumably because the ability to “switch tasks” at home makes their workers “indolent and lazy.” I have to say, I’m apparently a bit of an advocate of indolence since I’d rather fill my day with a range of diverse tasks that need to be completed. I’m a big believer in the “write 20 minutes a day” philosophy.

As promied I’m reading the first book I plucked from my shelf, Toynbee’s Civilization on Trial and The World and the West, published in 1948 by Oxford University Press. In the early pages, the historial offers this proposition regarding how civilizations fail:

Briefly stated, the regular pattern of social disintegration is a schism of the disintegrating society into a recalcitrant proletariat and a less and less effectively dominant minority (23)

This seems almost tautological as it goes and doesn’t seem to offer much. What is more interesting is the presentation of history as inherently progressive towards a divine end. Rather than see civilization decline as inevitable circularity, he sides with the linear-progressive view of history.

When civilizations rise and fall and in falling give rise to others, some purposeful enterprise, higher than theirs, may all the time be making headway and in a divine plan the learning that comes through the suffering caused by the failures of civilizations may be the sovereign means of progress.

Rather than take issue with this assumption, I’d prefer to use it as a thought experiment. What learning can come from the suffering present in US civilization? Perhaps the lesson learned, if the US experiment fails, is to provide enough avenues for the dominated to become the dominant. We may have a system resilient enough to fend off decline. If the proletariat and the dominant minority interchange enough, then maybe you have no need for decline.

It gets me to thinking about race and class. If you can transition formerly marginalized groups into positions of power (e.g. racial and ethnic minorities, GLBTQ, and women) does that serve to fend off inevitable decline. Can you maintain class-based oppression/domination or do they become the recalcitrant proletariat?

Blogs are funny things. Many of us have a nagging sense that we should have one, but are unsure how to populate it. After all, the fact of ownership of a blog contains a bit of hubris. Why are my thoughts important? As we with Ph.D.’s already know, letters make us very knowledgeable in one subject but not necessarily able to synthesize across oceans of knowledge. I’ve tried to post about what’s I’m currently working on and while that has it’s merit, it’s not always the most edifying way to maintain this space. So I’m trying a different approach for a while. Starting tomorrow, I will be “blogging my books.”

I have a library full of books that I’ve acquired over the years but as a 43 year old academic 10 years into my career, I’ve slowly stopped reading them in favor of PDF files and blog posts. This progression from paper to screen hasn’t reduced the volume of what I read, but it has diminished it’s breadth. My library reflects the taste of a would-be omnivore, finding what seemed interested at the moment in a bookstore or used library sale and adding to my collection with the hopes of reading it some day. While some of these hopes were realized, many weren’t.

So here are the completely arbitrary rules I’ll go by.

1) I’ll exclude books in which I have absolutely no interest
2) I’ll be completely random, starting with my work library from top left to bottom right
3) I’ll read at least 10 pages a day
4) I’ll force myself to read the book and blog about it for at least a week
5) For now I’ll include non-academic books (e.g. novels, self-help, DIY) and try to put a social sciencey spin on them

I’ll start my own “omnivore’s dilemma” by reading Toynbee’s Civilization on Trial and the World and the West.

I’ve spent the last few weeks delving into the subject of civic hacking, specifically when local governments open their data to legions of “hackers” in the hopes of improving city services and enhnacing the connection between government and citizen.

This interesting nugget from Emily Badger shows an example of when civic hacking actually cuts against the interests of the government that has released the data. An app called Spot Agent uses city data on parking tickets to estimate the probability that a user will get a ticket for parking at a specific spot.

In Seeing Like a State, James Scott offers a brilliant thesis about statemaking as a process of reducing “illegibility.” In plain terms, the state gains of foothold on power when it “knows” those whom it aspires to govern. By being able to identify and understand norms, state’s can work to bring them under rational control.

This view of “legibility” as control is one that Internet activist are aware of and fear. On a small scale, this Spotagent app opens up the possibility that the state can become more legible and “known” in ways that allow citizens to elude their overtures at control. While increasing the chances of avoiding a parking ticket isn’t exactly a blockbuster movie plot, it does point to the cat and mouse game that emerges when city government make their data accessible.