What I read this year

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Photo by Tom Hermans on Unsplash

My thoughts on what I have read this year are two-fold. Firstly, I think I have read more work by female authors, which in my opinion is a good thing. Equally, I have not done the statistics to determine whether this is true or not, and I have only read 7 books written by women this year, compared to 20 by men. Surely a correction is in order? I could attribute this imbalance to myself, or the publishing industry and academia; it is probably a mixture of the two.

Secondly, I do not feel like my reading has been quite as varied as it has been in previous years. I have not read my one token fiction book this year, and a surveyor of this list will quickly notice a distinct technological theme involved, as well as good doses of political economy. I do not think this is especially out of fashion, but the occasional bit of weirdness is lacking, in my opinion. …

An alternative perspective on surveillance capitalism

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Photo by Tobias Tullius on Unsplash

In Capital, Marx makes a rather quick but firm observation regarding the role of the capitalist as a potential labourer:

Of course, he [the capitalist] can, like his labourer, take to work himself… but he is then only hybrid between capitalist and labourer, a ‘small master’. A certain stage of capitalist production necessitates that the capitalist be able to devote the whole of the time during which he functions as a capitalist, i.e., as personified capital, to the appropriation and therefore control of the labour of others, and to the selling of the products of this labour. (Capital, pp. 211–212)

Being a capitalist, this individual must be in a position to appropriate the surplus-value produced by other labourers, and in Marx’s description, we are to assume these other labourers are the capitalist’s direct employees. …

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Photo by Jose Aragones on Unsplash

The subject of paternalism in nudge theory remains a debated one, for the most part because paternalism remains an objectionable position in some circles. I do not offer a comprehensive dissection of what paternalism is. This article is far less ambitious: I merely wish to discuss the role of paternalism as it has classically be discussed and debated in nudge theory. I will assume, on occasion, some degree of background knowledge.

Two definitions of paternalism are given by Thaler and Sunstein. Thaler and Sunstein (2003, p. 175) write:

“In our understanding, a policy counts as “paternalistic” if it is selected with the goal of influencing the choices of affected parties in a way that will make those parties better off. …

Without a theory of change, the green transition will come too late.

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“Only a crisis — actual or perceived — produces real change.”

This is perhaps Milton Friedman’s foremost insight, and one which has shaped the world over the past five decades.

Friedman — the Nobel Prize winning economist whose free market ideology shaped the Reagan and Thatcher administrations as well as the Pinochet dictatorship — was the pioneer of what Naomi Klein calls the “shock doctrine.” The key insight of the shock doctrine is the parallel between the medical procedure and economic theory — a parallel which Klein illuminates brilliantly. …

Amazon’s use of behavioural nudges has changed in recent weeks — and Coronavirus explains why.

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Photo by Christian Wiediger on Unsplash

In a time of global pandemic, when many of us are stuck at home, Amazon is likely feeling a bit of a strain. In recent years, especially following the launch of their Prime service, the online retailer has done almost everything to make buying stuff faster and more convenient for customers.

Nudges have been one tool Amazon have utilised particularly well in this regard. Behavioural nudges are small changes in how a choice is framed which can have a significant influence on the decision that is made. …

(…and Chapo Trap House)

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Photo by Nijwam Swargiary on Unsplash

Some people don’t get Chapo Trap House. Some people don’t quite understand how people can, ‘meet on Twitter’ as the presenters of the podcast did, or how a left-wing show could spend more time mocking the Democratic party than crusading against the far-right. Most of all, some people don’t understand why many thousands of people — often younger, and hardly uneducated — would choose to listen to some guys from Twitter instead of, say, whatever plastic person resides amongst other studio lit plastic on mainstream news channels. This is perhaps a harsh use of language, but it is chosen for a purpose. …

From Capitalist Realism to Acid Communism, we shouldn’t overlook Fisher’s impact on political economy

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Source: We Are Plan C

I believe, in time, the vastness and significance of Mark Fisher’s contribution will permeate throughout the social sciences — and economics in particular — with the ferocity of a meteor impacting the Earth. Fisher is, in my opinion, a man whose work has done much for the study of political economy, though lacks that distinction as his work resembles little of the political economy we recognise today.

Indeed, political economy itself is a concept that is stretched thin through its misuse and is increasingly suffocated by the expansion of economics on the one hand, and cultural theory on the other. However, insofar as economics (and economic rationale via the concept of cost-benefit analysis) has been allowed to penetrate into every corner of modern society, I would suggest we economists, political or otherwise, should accept the insights of cultural critics — and Fisher in particular — and in doing so, may originate a new, or at least refreshed, political economy. …

Online political campaigns emphasise our differences, and offer few solutions — but what is the alternative?

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The Cutting of the Gordian Knot

The political beliefs of electorates are often a Gordian knot. Most people will attest to witnessing the apparent mess of contradictions that are the political views of their colleagues, their friends and their family. Some will even recognise that they themselves hold contradictory views, at least when push comes to shove (and some will even, if so inclined, take ownership of their contradictions and cite Machiavelli’s The Prince as justification…). Consider this example:

  1. Person A voted for the UK to leave the European Union because they feel the UK can benefit from the expanded trade opportunities. They run an agriculture business, and hire seasonal labour to pick their crop. …

You shouldn’t have to be a programmer to interrogate technology.

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Photo by Jeff Hardi on Unsplash

Does the YouTube recommendation algorithm radicalise people? On my review of the literature, the answer is: I don’t know. Popular opinion says it does, and some evidence seems to support this, though like with many things in the social sciences, there are contrasting voices.

It might be easier, then, to take this conversation out of the social sciences. For instance, wouldn’t we be able to answer this question quite quickly if we just looked at the recommendation algorithm? The difficulties of doing that aside, assuming we could, we might quickly identify something like a Markov chain, with a weight function indicating the likelihood of the recommended video being a far-right video, and weighting functions for alternative videos of different political persuasions. …

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Photo by Patrick Tomasso on Unsplash

As continuity from 2018, this is my 2019 reading list. Some of these books I will have more to comment on than others, and that should probably be taken as an indication of my (personal) assessment of them.

Inventing the Future — Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams

I’ve had this book for a while, and bought it mostly for the discussion on universal basic income (which is a topic I keep telling myself I’ll write something on eventually). My first attempt at this book failed because, near the beginning, the authors spend some time talking about protest strategies, which I found somewhat dull. I think, in hindsight, they are correct to be thinking about how movements are built, and it is simply the purposes for which I bought the book which made this part drag. …


Stuart Mills

Behavioural Science Fellow at the LSE. Personal Blog. twitter.com/stuart_mmills

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