Monday, October 24, 2011

BOOK REVIEW: I'll have what she's having

Bentley et al, (Alex Bentley, Mark Earls and Michael O’Brien (2011) I’ll Have What She’s Having: Mapping social behaviour, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, pp. 146, $22.95/£15.95) in this short and accessible text, explore the phenomena surrounding social interaction and influence. Their question is how do we understand copying. More specifically, how do individuals learn from one another, influence one another and to what extent is man a rational independent actor or simply a follower. The discussion begins in the Pleistocene era, when man had to learn how to survive. Here not only do we observe social learning but understand how it was written into the human genes. The authors argue that the same mechanisms within human cognition exist; they have simply evolved from learning how to survive to how to survive within modern society. Therefore the rules of copying no longer simply follow a ‘copy if better’ norm, although this may help us to understand how technological innovations spread [think of the touch screen], but now relate to the creation of social norms. Social norms are often created through marketing communication, promoting a product as the ‘must have’ item, as well as political communication. The so-called ‘movement for change’ around Obama was a form of group think inculcated through the power of the campaign messages.

The power of a social cascade is thus highlighted as the way in which individuals believe they are acting independently but are actually being influenced. Influence in the 21st Century is likely to be from many sources simultaneously, those who are our friends or whom we follow on social media, the media we read but also the people we spend time with during our day to day lives. Our lives can be described as a rich collage of influences, each being processed and weighed in our minds prior to acceptance or rejection. What is less clear is how cascades start and, in particular, how unintended cascades occur across a society. Why, for example, might parents choose to give their child a name that ends up shared with a third of other children born at the same time? Surely this is not intentional, and may well be innovative in each particular case, or copying someone famous without realising that others would do the same, but why do people independently choose the same innovation? The authors explain four cognitive conditions. When there are few options and few sources of influence a process or rational choice occurs, possibly because the choice is actually a no-brainer. Where there are many options but few sources of influence, so everyone is behaving differently, the decision amounts to nothing but a random guess. If there are few options but many sources of influence this results in directed copying, individuals looking to those who they respect and copying their choice. It is when there are many options and many sources of influence, but yet copying is evidenced and a behaviour appears as the choice of the majority, that we have undirected copying. The challenge is identifying the reasons for the copying, something the authors cannot fully explain.

Political choice is often described as a rational choice, and perhaps following Bentley et al’s schematic there is a reason. Choices tend to be limited, in particular realistic choices for who would be president or party of government, and sources of influence tend to be polarised. However, does this always result in a rational and deliberative choice outcome? Those who are reliant on media with particular partisan biases, or adopt one during a contest, may well fall into directed copying. The choir of voices supporting one party, the UK Sun newspaper’s reporters’ backing of the Conservatives perhaps, can lead to a predisposition to adopt the ideas as your own. There may also be a range of random guesses taking place. While there may not be many similar options, the options may seem very similar and even overwhelming to those who have little political knowledge. Unless there is a clear direction from the media, peers or other respected sources of information, voter choices may amount to little but a random guess once in the ballot box. It is more difficult to consider how undirected copying takes place within a political environment. There may often be many sources of influence, given that most campaigns are dominated by marketing communication. Equally there may be the perception that there are many similar options, or at least an overwhelming choice may exist. Can a combination of influences, from peers, the media, opinion polls, lead to undirected copying? Can we explain the bandwagons that brought Tony Blair or Barack Obama to power in this way? The challenge here is would anyone admit to copying and if not how could we detect such behaviour?

The book is aimed at the expert, though accessible due to its brevity it would be a challenge to newcomers to the topic and offers few signposts to further reading. However, the role of the book is to raise some important and interesting questions about individuality and its limitations. No human would want to think of themselves as having similar thought processes to those associated with sheep or lemmings. Few would ever admit to blind following. Yet we can see in the cases of suicide bombers, rioters on the streets of London, or participants in protests that escalate from peaceful marches to public insurrection, that blind following happens. If Bentley et al explain a significant percentage of human behaviour within their schematic then they demonstrate the amount of power that is held by social influentials. These influentials may be benign figures, or the creators of marketing communication or political propaganda; if it is the latter who predominate in our society we may not like what we find when we map social behaviour.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

No cracks in the consensus ...yet

The recent party conferences by the Conservative, Liberal-Democrats and Labour parties underscore what unites rather than divides the major political parties. All have now subscribed to the austerity agenda in response to the global financial and economic crisis, although there is some disagreement on the pace of cuts. All the parties have also completely abandoned any aspiration towards a return to the free higher education most of our MPs once enjoyed. Ed Miliband effectively (and probably prematurely) conceded the principle of the debate over tuition fees to the coalition government by arguing in his conference speech that Labour would lower the cap of tuition fees from £9,000 to £6,000.

Perhaps more significantly there still appears to be no serious public discussion of the reduction in corporation tax proposed by George Osborne last year from 28% to 24% over four years, although Miliband did suggest he would claw this back from the banks and private equity firms which were the whipping boys for much of the speech. By 2014 corporation tax in the UK will have more than halved since its highpoint in the post-war era of 50% in 1949 when Britain really was in an economic crisis. The 24% corporation tax will put us well below the US (at 39%) or Germany (at 33%) and closer to the tax rates of Saudi Arabia and Russia (20%). This reduction is of course being paid for by students and others at the sharp end of the various austerity measures, yet the opposition has failed to campaign on this slashing of corporation tax and so the mainstream media have maintained a polite silence on the topic.

From across the Atlantic however, comes a potential source of trouble for the major parties. The Occupy Wall Street movement has spread to 25 cities in the US and has had an unusual degree of support and understanding from a broad coalition of disgruntled voters and even sympathy from Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke and mainstream political figures like Nancy Pelosi. Should the success of the movement continue, building on an awareness of record rates of inequality, there is a chance it could spread to Britain. The possibility of copy-cat demonstrations gaining mass support in London as winter approaches seems remote, but much depends on the public mood of those sections of the population most affected by the cuts, including the 100,000 public sector employees expected to lose their jobs by early in the new year.

The mass protests in Greece and riots in England over the summer are further reminders that civil unrest is a real possibility. Demonstrations of the type seen in the US or Athens may not take place, but if the planned occupation of the London Stock Exchange for the 15th October or similar future protests gained significant support it could put all three parties on the back foot. Each has been accused of ‘collusion’ in enacting a corporate-sponsored political agenda (be it Labour’s promotion of costly PFI projects including hospitals); deregulation of banks and financial services (Labour and Conservative); rolling back planning restrictions in the interests of property developers (LibDem/Conservative) and so on.

The extent to which the three major parties are seen to be ‘in the pocket’ of big business and pushing a discredited neo-liberal agenda may in the end do real damage to British democracy and could lead to even higher levels of voter disengagement.

Reconnecting with voters might be regarded by political observers as essential for all three parties. However, the perception that powerful lobbyists, private and corporate donors and multinational threats to relocate production (and accompanying beggar-thy-neighbour tax policies) are the real drivers of party policy may yet produce a coalition of citizens who are disillusioned with this politics as usual. Should this coalition find a sustained collective voice (either on the streets of Wall Street, Athens or London) and if a coherent set of demands emerges there may be the first cracks in the current political consensus. When 20,000 veterans of the First World War marched on Washington in the spring and summer of 1932 and set up a tent city opposite the Capitol - President Herbert Hoover (whose austerity measures were so unpopular) sent in four troops of cavalry and four companies of infantry to clear the encampment, which was torched. The failure of Hoover’s austerity measures led to the massive election victory of Roosevelt in November 1932 on the promise of a programme of employment through the New Deal. The lessons of history seem blindingly clear as the satirical magazine the Onion recently noted.

Should a similar movement of civil disobedience provoke public sympathy either here or in the US there is a chance for the kind of movement that could make real demands on a system that has appeared deaf to alternative strategies for dealing with the current economic crisis. At that point real political differences between the parties could make a comeback and our democracy would be all the healthier for that.