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Category: Political Economy

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The Daily You: A Mandatory Read

Over at the Business Insider, Doug Weaver has a terrific review of our guest blogger Joe Turow’s new book The Daily You, demonstrating its practical importance to people in the field like Weaver as well as to policymakers and scholars.Here’s the review:

Listening to the insider discussions and industry reporting about online marketing provides a numbing sense of false comfort.  But every so often, we go outside the bubble and hear civilians talking about what we do.  I’m sure most of us have had someone at a party or family gathering share their ‘creeped out’ moment;  that instance where they finally saw clearly that somehow they were being ‘followed’ online.   Other times, they offer us largely unformed general concerns about online privacy: they don’t really have a sense of what’s going on but they instinctively know they don’t like it.  And once in a great while you’ll hear from someone who’s really done their homework and brings crystal clarity to the issue from the consumer point of view.

That moment came for me when I stumbled on an NPR radio interview with Joseph Turow, author of “The Daily You: How the New Advertising Industry is Defining Your Identity and Your Worth.”  After using up my ten minute commute, I found myself sitting my car in the parking lot of my office for another 30 minutes just listening to this guy.  It was kind of like hearing someone talk about you in a bathroom when they don’t know you’re in one of the stalls.  Except they’re totally getting it right.  Turow, an associate dean at the Annenberg Communication school at Penn, has done a lot of homework.  The book is detailed and rigorous, but also extremely accessible to the curious consumer.  While it’s probably not going to sell millions of copies, I believe it’s going to be a hugely influential and important book for several reasons.

  • To my knowledge, it’s the first crossover book that’s attempted to explain in great detail our industry’s use of data to the consumer.  And while explaining it all to the consumer, Turow also explains it all to the business and consumer press.  Perhaps for the first time, they will really understand the digital marketing ecosystem.  And that understanding is almost certain to drive a lot more reporting.  Expect a lot more stories like the Wall Street Journal’s 2010 “What They Know” series, only better informed.
  • “The Daily You” is also clear eyed and inclusive.  Turow is not a wild eyed privacy crusader tilting at windmills.  A walk through his index and end notes is like thumbing through a digital marketing “who’s who” — you’ll recognize a lot of names, companies and concepts right off the bat.
  • And finally, the book builds an intellectual bridge that’s the link to a very powerful idea:  that on some level this is not just a privacy issue, but a human rights issue.  For Turow, the real issue is the digital caste system that’s being imposed on consumers without their knowledge or consent.  Over time, one consumer will enjoy better discounts and better access to quality brands and offers than his less fortunate counterpart.  Perhaps more important are the ways in which these two consumers content experiences will diverge as a result of all the profiling that’s been done.  Like it or not, each of us is getting an online data version of an invisible credit score.  Turow gets this and his readers will too.

For my money, “The Daily You” should be a mandatory read for anyone in our industry.  It’s the beginning of an important new conversation about sustainable and inclusive data practices, a conversation that will form much quicker than many of us might imagine.

Gamifying Control of the Scored Self

Social sorting is big business. Bosses and bankers crave “predictive analytics:” ways of deciding who will be the best worker, borrower, or customer. Our economy is less likely to reward someone who “builds a better mousetrap” than it is to fund a startup which will identify those most likely to buy a mousetrap. The critical resource here is data, the fossil fuel of the digital economy. Privacy advocates are digital environmentalists, worried that rapid exploitation of data either violates moral principles or sets in motion destructive processes we only vaguely understand now.*

Start-up fever fuels these concerns as new services debut and others grow in importance. For example, a leader at Lenddo, “the first credit scoring service that uses your online social network to assess credit,” has called for “thousands of engineers [to work] to assess creditworthiness.” We all know how well the “quants” have run Wall Street—but maybe this time will be different. His company aims to mine data derived from digital monitoring of relationships. ITWorld headlined the development: “How Facebook Can Hurt Your Credit Rating”–”It’s time to ditch those deadbeat friends.” It also brought up the disturbing prospect of redlined portions of the “social graph.”

There’s a lot of value in such “news you can use” reporting. However, I think it misses some problematic aspects of a pervasively evaluated and scored digital world. Big data’s fans will always counter that, for every person hurt by surveillance, there’s someone else who is helped by it. Let’s leave aside, for the moment, whether the game of reputation-building is truly zero-sum, and the far more important question of whether these judgments are fair. The data-meisters’ analytics deserve scrutiny on other grounds.
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An Important Post on Egypt from Nagla Rizk

At a time of global economic crisis, the renewed centrality of two origin points of modern civilization (Greece and Egypt) is uncanny. Nagla Rizk, a professor and dean at the American University in Cairo, has courageously offered a nuanced and critical perspective on tomorrow’s elections there and the past 10 months of political turmoil. I was privileged to meet Prof. Rizk while at Yale’s Access to Knowledge Global Academy, and I highly recommend following her work and twitter feed. A few insights from her:

When we stormed the streets last January, we chanted “Aish, Horreya, Adala Egtema’eya” (“Bread, Freedom, Social Justice”). . . . Ten months down the road, yesterday we chanted in Tahrir, “Aish, Horreya, Adala Egtema’eya” (“Bread, Freedom, Social Justice”). Why? . . .

Rather than tackling the root of the problem or starting a dialogue with the protesters, [the post-Mubarak SCAF regime] chose to order them to go home. To add insult to injury, SCAF and its government portrayed them as the cause of instability, turning the rest of Egypt against them.

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Our Fractured Age

The disconnect between what seem to the common interests and needs of most of us – now the 99% of us – and how we think about ourselves collectively has fascinated and troubled me for quite some time. Daniel T. Rodgers, Henry Charles Lea Professor of History at Princeton, has recently published a very interesting book entitled, “Age of Fracture,” that explores the intellectual basis for that disconnect. Looking at a broad set of social, economic, philosophical and political intellectual traditions, Rodgers explains how the intellectual underpinnings of our thought processes have shifted from the idea of collective identity to one of individualized freedom, but freedom from reality.  Reviewing the intellectual history of the late twentieth century until now, his analysis crosses the left-right divide to show how all of these different disciplines can by synthesized because they all vector in the same direction, this idealized sense of individual freedom.

Rodgers starts by describing the political rhetoric Presidents have used in their speeches. Presidential speechwriters rely on tropes that resonate because that rhetoric helps bolster Presidential leadership: The better the rhetoric connects to the prevailing mindsets of the people, the more effective the “bully pulpit.” Presidential rhetoric has interested me ever since I read Gary Wills’ Pulitzer Prize winning book, “Lincoln at Gettysburg: The Words That Remade America.” In essence, Wills analyzed President Lincoln’s use of rhetoric to show that it both reflected but helped reify a change in the concept of the nature of our country: Our  concept of American changed from, “The United States are . . .” to, “The United States is.” Rather than going back that far, Rodgers begins with the rhetoric of our Cold War era Presidents – for example, Kennedy’s “Ask not what this country can do for you; ask what you can do for this country” – calling us to gird our loins and stand united to advance our collective national interest in order to better confront the menace we faced by the menace of Communis and the Soviet Union. With the ending of the Cold War, President Reagan’s rhetoric moved away from that sense of collective identity and obligation toward an idealized, almost dream-like, sense of individual “freedom,” including freedom from the actual conditions of our lives as well as our from much sense of collective obligation. That predominant mindset allows us to escape hard choices and to assume a perfected life will be easy to achieve. It is not as if a Reagan’s rhetoric by itself caused the shift. Rather, presidential rhetoric both reflects but also amplifies the ideas that are already settling into our unexamined background mindset.

Having launched this project through the lens of presidential rhetoric, Rodgers then looks at developments across a wide swath of our intellectual life. He starts with economic theory and describes how the earlier macroeconomic Keynesian theory was supplanted – he quotes economist Robert Lucas, “The term ‘macroeconomics’ will simply disappear from use” — by microeconomic theory, the idealized world of individual rational actors motivated solely to maximize their profits. While he shows how disconnected this was from reality, Rodgers fits microeconomic theory within the broader conceptual view of the world of the individualized but unreal “freedom” reflected in President Reagan’s speeches. Rodger’s next chapter moves to politics and political theory. He traces the shift from Galbraith’s earlier view that the overwhelming  economic power of megacorporations gave them extraordinary political power to the microeconomic view that disconnects economic from political power by its focus on individual economic actors focused solely on their own economic agendas. In an interesting take, Rodgers shows how political theory moved toward rational choice analysis with its exclusive focus on the “power-seeking saturated world of politics” means that the problems of our powerless subordinated groups slip “out of the categories of analysis.” In a tour de force, he then describes how the divergent views of Gramsci, Genovese, Geertz and Foucault, nevertheless when taken together, conceptualize power as dispersed extremely broadly in “spheres of culture, ideas, everyday practices [and] science.” In sum, if microeconomic theory is all about individual economic gain disconnected from politics, political gain is all about special interest “rent seeking” divorce from collective needs and power is defined so broadly that it is so diffused as to exists everywhere, Rodgers asks whether power is in fact “nothing at all.” If power is nothing at all for us, that leaves most of us collectively powerless. Read More

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Science and Employment: You Must Remember This, The Fundamental Things Apply As Time Goes By

Here are some pointed questions about science, innovation, and technological progress:

First: What can be done, consistent with military security, and with the prior approval of the military authorities, to make known to the world as soon as possible the contributions which have been made during our war effort to scientific knowledge?

The diffusion of such knowledge should help us stimulate new enterprises, provide jobs for our returning servicemen and other workers, and make possible great strides for the improvement of the national well-being.

Second: With particular reference to the war of science against disease, what can be done now to organize a program for continuing in the future the work which has been done in medicine and related sciences?

The fact that the annual deaths in this country from one or two diseases alone are far in excess of the total number of lives lost by us in battle during this war should make us conscious of the duty we owe future generations.

Third: What can the Government do now and in the future to aid research activities by public and private organizations?

The proper roles of public and of private research, and their interrelation, should be carefully considered.

Fourth: Can an effective program be proposed for discovering and developing scientific talent in American youth so that the continuing future of scientific research in this country may be assured on a level comparable to what has been done during the war?

New frontiers of the mind are before us, and if they are pioneered with the same vision, boldness, and drive with which we have waged this war we can create a fuller and more fruitful employment and a fuller and more fruitful life.

War should be understood as the military actions in Asia and the war on terror.

By now you all may have wondered, “What the heck is Deven doing talking about war (good God, y’all, what is it good for)?” Or something like that. And some of you may have figured out that all of the above except “War should be understood as the military actions in Asia and the war on terror”, which I threw in to try and seem like the ideas are from today, is from President Roosevelt’s letter to Vannevar Bush.

Funny how little changes overtime. Jobs, medical progress, public/private collaboration, the future of science education are all on our minds today. They have been a core issue since at least 1944. The full history of Science the Endless Frontier is hosted by the NSF. It is a fun read. Well, if you are absurdly nerdy, it is a fun read.

There are many things to enjoy in the report. One part that jumped out at me is his idea about employment and science. I may write more as I digest the report in general. For now take a read:

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The Moral Authority of Occupy Wall Street

The Occupy Wall Street protests continue to grow, and to gain support from public intellectuals. Joe Stiglitz, Anne Marie Slaughter, and Paul Krugman are the latest luminaries to praise the cause. The movement has also provoked derision. Let’s consider the latest Norquist/Limbaugh memes as the protest nears the one-month mark:

1) “They’re just spoiled hippies who can’t get a job.” A quick glance at the “We are the 99%” tumblr could easily dispel this notion. The economic suffering in this country is deep and broad. As one news story put it, “one in three Americans would be unable to make their mortgage or rent payment beyond one month if they lost their job.” Even if the most down-and-out people are too poor or busy to get to Wall Street (or the hundreds of other actions now taking place), many of them think of the OWS crowd as speaking for them.

There is so much needless suffering going on now, and so much wealth accumulating at the very top. It is hard to understand how critics dismiss the protesters so cavalierly. I used to find the Biblical passage about God hardening Pharaoh’s heart one of the more mysterious parts of the Book of Exodus; now I feel like I’m witnessing it firsthand.
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