Swarms and norms: refiguring the multitude

globalizationA few years ago, I published an essay in the journal Radical Philosophy titled, ‘Refiguring the multitude: from exodus to the production of norms’ (2005). It was about swarms, though I didn’t know it at the time. The publication was a coup for me. I was a struggling contract academic, vying for attention. Radical Philosophy was an ‘up there’ journal in political philosophy circles, edgy but respectable. My paper was one of the first academic responses to Multitude (2004), Michael Hardt and Toni Negri’s sequel to their best-selling book, Empire (1999).

The essay was a bit of dog’s breakfast. But the crux of the argument resonates today. I have pasted some paragraphs below. If you are into Deleuze and social movements, this one is for you.

Re-reading ‘Refiguring the multitude’ for the first time in years, I am struck by how much of this material has become part of my mental DNA. I didn’t realise at the time, but ‘Refiguring the multitude’ was crucial to my intellectual development. Multitude certainly resonates with the high-tech world of 2013. Empire and Multitude are books you should have on your shelf, whatever part of the political spectrum you inhabit. They are books about globalization. Hardt and Negri are essentially right. Of course, they are wrong in important respects too.

The paragraphs from ‘Refiguring the multitude’ that I’ve pasted below are the crux of a line of thought that I started developing in 2002 or 2003. It was a response to the failure of the anti-globalization movement that got started in the 1990s. I was looking for a theoretical trajectory that would enable me to continue on the line of flight that I’d experienced at the height of this movement (1999-2001), this time reflecting on how swarms and social movements could contribute to creating something, in the first case, a new set of norms.

In retrospect, it is easy to see how I stepped from this argument to write Coalition of the Willing.

[Read more…]

You got to give to get back: Amanda Palmer, crowdfunding, and the theatre of gifts

Amanda Parker @ TED

The talk began without a word. Alt-rock icon Amanda Palmer sauntered onto stage at TED Long Beach, a flower and hat in her hands, nudging a plastic crate along the floor before her. At centre stage, she upturned the crate and positioned the hat in front of it. Stepping up on the crate, she raised her arms to shoulder height and froze.

It was Palmer’s way of introducing the topic of her talk: ‘The Art of Asking’. Prior to finding success with the punk-cabaret outfit, The Dresden Dolls, Palmer had earned a living busking as human statue, the ‘Eight Foot Bride’. She claims in her talk that this provided her with the perfect education for the music business. Becoming a human statue was certainly a great way to capture the audience’s interest. Holding the pose, Palmer held the audience’s attention. She looked left, looked right. Not a word. The TEDsters shivered with anticipation.

Palmer’s talk has generated a great deal of discussion and debate online since TED uploaded the video in February. Two things have captured people’s interest: the fact that Palmer advocates crowdfunded file-sharing as a business model for musicians and artists (she claims: “I firmly believe in music being as free as possible. Unlocked. Shared and spread. In order for artists to survive and create, their audiences need to step up and directly support them”), and the fact that she has been so phenomenally successful at doing this herself. Last year, Palmer raised $1.2 million dollars through Kickstarter to fund ‘Theatre is Evil’, the first album by her band, The Grand Theft Orchestra. In the hit and miss world of crowdfunding, this makes her a guru. No doubt there were a smattering of dark cabaret fans in the audience at TED Long Beach that night. But the majority of people in the audience were there to learn how Palmer worked her money magic.

What they got was a human statue. For a moment. There was magic in that moment – and an important lesson for crowdfunders, too. [Read more…]

Epic change: Foucault on ‘today’ as a moment of vision

GenevaCrossing.Silhouette
We are living though remarkable times. Digital technologies are disrupting societies around the world, while our economies putter fitfully in and out of recession, and climate change sweeps whole suburbs into the sea. What is most remarkable about these times is how few people attend to their changing nature. Many people invest time and energy in distracting or shielding themselves from the changes that define the present. Even those who engage the present tend to treat it selectively, singling out those aspects of the historical moment that are relevant to their occupation and interests and zeroing in on them while ignoring the rest.

It’s time that we all took stock of the amazing times we live in. Because what we need today, more than anything else, are leaders – people that are capable of synthesising the chaos of the present, engaging with these changes and steering us through them. We need circuit-breakers, disruptors, people who look for opportunities in a crisis – people with the resilience to confront the present as a moment of crisis, the agility to mobilize multiple resources to deal with it, and the vision to mark new paths into the future. Today, our challenges are global in scope, yet so are our opportunities. The breakthrough initiatives that will define the coming decades will connect challenges and opportunities in unforeseen ways, putting us on paths towards goals that previous generations didn’t know existed. The great leaders of history have always been disruptive thinkers.

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The rise of social reputation systems

Social media is driving a ‘gift shift’ through the cultural fabric of our societies. Social reputation systems are one expression of the shift. They have immense disruptive potential.

If you are new to reputation systems, check out this piece in Wired by Rachel Botsman, who is writing a book on the topic. You might also read this post for the In the Room blog.

Examples of reputation systems:

TrustCloud
ConnectMe
Legit
Scaffold
MiiCard
Briiefly

What do reputation systems measure?

1. Identity — is this person a real person? Are they are who they say they are?
2. Character — consistency of behaviour (for ex. reliability and helpfulness) over time
3. Trustworthiness — essential for the P2P economy

The neurological basis of ‘reputation capital’:

Botsman writes: ‘Norihiro Sadato, a researcher at the National Institute for Physiological Sciences in Aichi, Japan, along with a team of colleagues, wanted to determine whether we think about reputation and money in the same way, by mapping the neural response to different rewards.

Sadato devised an experiment: participants were told they were playing a simple gambling game, in which one of three cards would result in a cash payout. Using functional magnetic resonance imaging, the researchers monitored brain activity triggered when the subjects received a monetary reward. When the subjects returned on the second day, they were each shown a picture of their face, with a one-word descriptor underneath that a panel of strangers had supposedly written about them. Some of the descriptions were positive, such as “trustworthy”, others neutral, such as “patient”, and others negative. When participants heard they had a positive reputation, a part of the brain, the striatum, lit up.

The same part would also light up if they had won money. As Sadato puts it: “The implication of our study is that different types of reward are coded by the same currency system.” In other words, our brains neurologically compute personal reputation to be as valuable as money’.

[Read more…]

Smart data: towards a social change enlightenment

Three hundred years ago, the spread of science and liberal revolution inspired thinkers to claim that society was on the brink of an enlightened era. Today, as new data-driven technologies exponentially increase our ability to understand social problems, new strategies engaging the heart and the head boost the impact of social change programs, and tested techniques for evaluating impact reduce the cost of programs and ensure that funding flows in the right directions, there is reason to believe that we are nearing a new socio-technical threshold.

As David Bornstein claims, we are riding the verge of a social change enlightenment.

We can see it in the way that we are tackling social problems. For decades, social reformers labored under a vision of human beings as self-maximizing rational agents, a vision developed in the first enlightenment and perpetuated in the field of economics. Today, as Bornstein claims, we’re seeing the death of ‘homo economicus’. New research in neuroscience and behavioral psychology is showing that we’re not as rational as we thought. We certainly don’t respond rationally to social problems. Today’s generation of changemakers are taking this lesson to heart. Successful social change programs are targeting the heart as well as the head, effecting change by appealing to ‘non-rational’ factors such as emotion, group identity, and relationships. [Read more…]

The family history of Facebook: how social media will change the world


I’m fascinated by social media. My Gen X friends can’t understand it. Most of them are too busy struggling with families and careers to spend time glued to Facebook and Twitter. For them, social media is a time suck, at best, at worst a gross invasion of privacy. When I tell my friends that I’m teaching on social media, I get one of two reactions. Either they leer conspiratorially, as if to say: ‘Lucrative. Smart!’, or they smile sympathetically, as if say: ‘It must be tough being a philosopher, having to root around for trendy topics to keep people interested’.

Love them as I do, my Gen X friends don’t understand social media at all. They don’t understand social media, so they don’t understand what social media is doing to us in this moment in history. They don’t understand what social media is doing to us, so they don’t understand the historical importance of social media. They don’t understand the historical importance of social media, so they don’t understand why I am obsessed with the medium itself.

It is time that I laid my cards on the table. I am a social philosopher. I am interested in social and cultural change. I believe that social media is the catalyst for cultural change in the world today. As such, it is probably more important than anything else you could care to mention. [Read more…]

‘We are capable of incredible things’: Tim Rayner interviewed by Frederick Malouf on Bondi FM

I spoke with the indomitable Frederick Malouf on Bondi FM a few weeks back about philosophy, trust, collaboration and the meaning of life. I’ve transcribed some choice snippets below. You can listen to the whole interview here: Interview – Bondi Locals @ Bondi 88FM. [Read more…]

Foucault and social media: the call of the crowd

This is the final instalment in a three-part series on social media and ‘subjectivation’ (Michel Foucault’s term for the self-construction of identity). Part one discusses how the open commons ideal of social media creates a ‘virtual Panopticon’ effect that impacts on the psychology of users. I argue that the awareness of being watched and implicitly judged by the material we post online (including likes, shares, and comments) leads us to unconsciously aspire to please and/or impress a certain crowd, and to select content accordingly.

Part two deepens the analysis by reflecting on author Peggy Orenstein’s experience of Twitter. Orenstein’s awareness of the crowd spurred her to work even harder to craft a positive identity. This reflects a common response on the part of social media prosumers. Users who are able to channel and utilize the anxiety produced by the virtual Panopticon seize on the positive aspects of their identity and amplify them to the nth degree. This is what I call ‘creative self-affirmation’.

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Forget Farmville and World of Warcraft. Creative self-affirmation is the most popular game online. We play this game whenever we select material to share with friends or craft messages to frame our posts. The name of the game is to present oneself, via one’s tweets, posts, likes, comments, and shares, in the light in which one aspires to be viewed. This essentially amounts to affirming the things that one loves in such a way that the love one brings to the world is reflected in one’s online activity. The rules of the game are simple: [1] share only what you love or what resonates with you; [2] pay attention to the feedback you receive from the crowd and modify your posts accordingly; [3] don’t stray too far from the truth. Be creative but don’t be phoney.

This last point is crucial. It is easy to fabricate an identity online. We do this when we create avatars on SecondLife or player characters in World of Warcraft. We create fictional personas drawn from our dreams and imaginings – personas that may have little or no connection with our real world self. Creative self-affirmation is different. Instead of fabricating an identity, it involves creatively affirming key aspects of your person – those aspects that you consider valuable, virtuous and beautiful – while editing out your weaknesses and deficiencies.

Creative self-affirmation is an artistic activity, it is true. But like all great art, it has as much to do with truth as with fiction. It starts with your sense of who you really are. If your posts, tweets, comments, shares, and likes do not reflect who you really are (or who you believe yourself to be, at least), you are playing the game incorrectly. The point is to affirm your singular potential. You need to seize on your inner awesome and put it before the crowd. [Read more…]

Back to the 60s: the power of collective imagination

Human beings have always forged their self-identities from the way that their tribe or community produces and exchanges goods. In industrial societies, people derived their sense of self-identity from their relationship to industrial labour and the social class system that was built upon it. With the rise of post-industrial societies at the end of the twentieth century, the economic system changed, and our way of creating ourselves changed too. Today, people forge their sense of self-identity and personal well-being from the products that they buy and consume. ‘I shop therefore I am’ is the mantra of twenty-first century consumer culture.

Shopping, today, is more than just a way of life. Shopping has become a means of self-creation. The discerning consumer knows that what’s important is not simply that you buy, it’s what you buy. We define ourselves with brands that reflect our personal lifestyle choices: Apple, Virgin, G-Star, Harley Davidson, etc. We kit ourselves out in tribal colours: Gucci, Converse, Adidas, Paul Smith, Yves Saint Laurent. Products are how post-industrial consumers express their personal style and identity. Products are how we tell the world who we are, or aspire to be, at least.

Studies show that brand consciousness is increasingly driving the way that people purchase and consume in the Asia-Pacific region and elsewhere in the developing world. This reflects a culture shift from traditionally-oriented collectivist societies to capitalist societies based in the values of self-actualization and individual expression. A similar shift took place in Western societies in the nineteen sixties at the twilight of the industrial age. The sixties countercultural revolutionaries rejected the mass-market society of their parents’ generation for a new ethos of individual self-expression. From the beats to the hippies, young people insisted on their right to determine their own identities and to freely decide their styles of life. [Read more…]

Flow and the 21st century canyon

James Martin, founder of the 21st Century School at Oxford University and author of The Meaning of the Twenty First Century (2006), has a powerful analogy for thinking about our situation today. We are like a group of canoeists paddling down a broad, deep river. For a long time, the current has been steady and slow. We have relaxed into the ride, hypnotized by the flow and the canopy of blue overhead. Suddenly the vessel quakes. We look up and see a bottleneck canyon ahead. The mighty river is being forced through the canyon. When a river runs through a canyon, things change quickly. The water turns to rapids – indeed it is already churning into foam about us.

No one knows how bad these rapids will become. We don’t know if we can make it through the canyon. Still there is only one way ahead. Into the rapids we go.

When the river of life gets rough, there is only one thing to do. Put on that helmet, strap on that life-preserver. It is time to get ready for change.

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This is an excerpt from my book Life Changing: A Philosophical Guide. Life Changing is available in Kindle and ebook versions. Paperbacks will be available on Amazon soon.

Check out the UK-based Philosophical Foundation, where I am June’s guest blogger.