Sidewalk Labs and Indigenous Land Acknowledgement

Sidewalk labs is the Alphabet (Google) company who is tasked with developing Toronto’s Waterfront district. The first visit to the project’s website brings up a digital Indigenous land acknowledgement. This is the first time I’ve seen this practice.

Still, I’ve got to admit that I’m a little unsettled by this implementation, and not in the way that Indigenous activists generally intend. I can’t imagine that the district will have a real and substantive land restitution element. So isn’t what we are left with a hallow gesture that seeks to make the urban data gaze and the subsequent selling of that data more palatable. To my mind this is a great example of liberal politics: co-opt indigenous political iconography to sanitized surveillance.

Minimum Manning

Recently I was reading an article by Jerry Useem in The Atlantic on the future of work in the military, but really that standing in for complex multi-role workplaces. Most readers will be familiar with the nature of most of the discussion, although at least for me, some of the corporate language was new, phrases like ‘minimum manning.’ Roughly Useems writes that the US Navy is testing labour having multi-domains of practice. Practically this means sailors have some core responsibilities, but are also doing functional tasks as and when needed. I suppose I once knew this as cross-training, although labour in “fluid-task environments” was the newer description. One thing I found especially helpful about this article was how Useem points out how the ideas about labour in warships currently heading to sea were set in motion in the mid-1990s. So Useem gets points for showing how the design of workplaces  is a 25 year project.

But towards the end of the article there is a section detailing the psychology and personality suitable for this kind of arrangements of work. The short of it is that traits like “conscientiousness” hinder success in “fluid-task environments.” Rather, “distractibility” is the name of the game. From Useem: “people with this trait are less focused on doing things right, and more likely to wonder whether they’re doing the right things.” So ideal candidates are “High in fluid intelligence, low in experience, not terribly conscientious, open to potential distraction.” Useem then moves to a discussion about the bifurcation in work, with workers in stable workplaces needing perseverance, “grit,” and immersion, but fluid workplace needing the opposite.

There is something odd about this way of thinking about work that I can’t quite articulate yet. (I can’t even decide that when forming my thoughts I need more immersion or distraction.) But it seems to involve how Useem and the psychologists he conveys speaks about the psychological attributes of a worker rather than the group psychology within a team of workers. I suppose what I mean is that in attempt to praise “distractibility” and individual introspection there doesn’t seem to be a place for items like a willingness to partake in shared collective responsibility for tasks.

There is also the issue of the risks stemming from exhaustion and cognitive load. For instance, in 2017 there were been two separate incidents of US Navy ships crashing. The blame ultimately being attributed to a fleet operational cycle that leaves sailors under-trained, over-worked on extended tours. Doesn’t that sound like minimum manning? So I can’t help but think that this ‘minimum manning’ works when things aren’t too stressful, but that it courts mistakes and errors when the stress is really on in crunch time. Like deployments.

Some Thoughts on Educational Failure

Many years ago I was a TA for a class called Communication in Everyday Life. The course was taught by a long time sessional at Simon Fraser’s School of Communication. In some ways it was a good class to teach because I learnt a lot very quickly. But it was chaotic. The instructor was a genius, and perhaps one of the most captivating lecturers I have had the great pleasure to work for. We have become good friends since then. Still, his mind meant that the class was a whirlwind tour of deconstructivist linguistics and then its subsequent application to power and beliefs like sciences, medicines, religions and politics. The course hinged on Ricoeur’s masters of suspicion, Marx, Nietzsche, and Freud. It well-suited the instructor’s teaching personality.

Still, many of the students would come to this class thinking it was something altogether different. To the uninitiated, the apparently generic title certainly did not give any indication of post war French thought. (In fairness the course description was fairly clear, but then again most students don’t speak this theoretical vernacular, and because of its particular institutional designation the course was, and still is, a bridge which most undergrads had to cross to advance in the program.) These lectures about differance caused many students to lock down with fear. Indeed, the instructor enjoyed some confusion, because confusion and ambivalence was an indication of minds confronting the long chain of significant associations until they traced the apparent limits of action and agency. Against this background, I thought it my job to provide assurance to students that it ‘made sense,’ and give confidence that I could guide them through the mid-terms, exams, and essays.

At this stage I was hardly the best TA. I had moved from South African to Western Canada for graduate studies and was still learning the local educational culture, trying to figure out the discrepancy between what students did and did not know and what they were expected to know. In the meantime I had to rely upon the tradition I came from which was one of relative distance and formality, a tradition that was antithetical to my new location. So despite my efforts I came across as gruff, callous, indifferent: This hampered my self-set goals. And by the time I realized, it was too late for that term.

In any case, between the instructor’s lecturing style, the material, and my TA abilities, the fear of failure was never far from students’ minds. This was doubly so when asked to write papers on self-selected topics without much direction from the stage. While the ‘A students’ always wrote ‘A papers,’ the vast majority of students were befuddled and some took to recycling papers from other courses just to try get by. We caught a fair number of those. (Once I was marking with a friend, and she read a paper that was so garbled and convoluted she couldn’t make heads or tails of it. An hour later I read her a paper that made no sense to me. She jumped up, rumbled through her stack, and pulled out the earlier paper. It was the same nonsensical paper submitted to two different classes.) Still, almost all the papers were sincerely concerned with and made vague allusions to technology as a general category being an accelerating force of social life. These papers walked a tightrope trying to exonerate the inventors and system which produced technology, while hand waving at the potential rate of social change. I spent a good portion of my time and energy trying to encourage students to consider the role of ideology. But sadly, for a course that spent so much time concerned with beliefs, there was little to be found in the papers themselves. Aside from a lack of passion, or desire to look beyond the given, there was little genuine understanding of class, politics, or larger overarching inter-generational projects. And indeed the instructor did little to clear the issue, for from his vantage social change to take one example was but another “grand narrative” that had to be binned, for as much as Marx bore the honorific ‘master of suspicion,’ substantive method was nevertheless replaced by iconoclastic cliché.

To be honest, I was a failure, most of those papers were failures, and the course was a failure. And in the instructor’s mind, this made it a success, apparently because the entire course was a performative exercise in deconstructing the educational institution and undermining traditional forms of authority, the lectern included. This didn’t sit well with me, and is still unsettling. This is not because of traces that have decentered my understanding of the classroom, but because I think of it specifically as an ethical lapse, where students’ good will is squandered. I saw the difference between students walking into and out of that class. Too many had become cynical with university and less interested in intellectual life. So as far as I was concerned, it was an unnecessary failure of our educational mission.

Initial Thoughts about the Mueller Report (Social Inequality Edition)

As I’m working my way through the Mueller Report a few things stand out to me. The first is how firmly our deep mediatization era is characterized by plutocrats like Prigozhim (of IRA fame) using their wealth to try shape discursive micro-realities.* Murdoch may have started this kind of process with broadcasting, but with platforms and personalized streams it seems clear now that in this iteration everyone who can afford to play will play.

Another is the extent to which transnational capitalists and their agents explicitly barter and bargain territory. (ex. Manafort and Kilimnik, Prince and Dmitriev,  Flynn and Kislyak meetings.)

* True, Sides, Vavreck, and Tesler (2018) do show that the IRA had little measurable impact on the 2016 US election, while Howard et el (2018) show that most of the IRA efforts were poorly executed memes and clickbait content. Still, my thinking here is that it may just a matter of time before someone ‘does get it right.’ Granted, depending on the kind of exercise the the chance of success doesn’t always always increase as the attempts accumulate, but at the moment I don’t think the shaping of discursive micro-realities is principally that kind of problem.

Sides, John, Vavreck, Lynn, and Tesler, Michael (2018) Identity Crisis: The 2016 Presidential Campaign and the Battle for the Meaning of America, Princeton: Princeton University Press

Howard, Philip N., Ganesh, Bharath, Liotsiou, Dimitra., Kelly, John, and François, Camille (2018) The IRA, Social Media and Political Polarization in the United States, 2012-2018. Working Paper 2018.2. Oxford, UK: Project on Computational Propaganda.


Making Friends

I am halfway through David Harvey’s Marx, Capital and The Madness of Economic Reason. It is really good. I don’t think I’ve encountered a better ‘advanced-introductory’ text, especially one that gives attention to all three volumes of Capital. He uses a motif of ‘valorization, realization, and distribution’ to explain the different books, and links that to class, race/gender, and factionalism respectfully. I think this is helpful, insofar that it is a text that wants to make friends with others, something I can certainly be better at doing. An added bonus is that periodically Harvey breaks from theory to explain/critique the successes and failures of recent left organizing, which helps support the case that Marx remains relevant.

In Memoriam: Peter Zuurbier

It is with great sadness that I learnt that one of my SFU grad school friends, Peter Zuubier passed away this weekend. Tragically he was 2 months away from completing his PhD. The above photo was taken at Malones, a pub near SFU Habour Centre we used to frequent, right after I defended my dissertation. As you can see, smiles came easy to him.

**As more details come through, so I will update this page.