that time they buried Talcott Parsons

Continuing with what seems like a never-ending side project to get a handle on computational social science methods, I’m doing a literature review on ‘big data’ sociological methods papers. Recent reading has led to two striking revelations.

The first is that Tufekci’s 2014 critique of Big Data methodologies is the best thing on the subject I’ve ever read. What it does is very clearly and precisely lay out the methodological pitfalls of sourcing the data from social media platforms: use of a platform as a model organism; selecting on a dependent variable; not taking into account exogenous, ecological, or field factors; and so on. I suspect this is old news to people who have more rigorously surveyed the literature on this in the past. But I’ve been exposed to and distracted by literature that seems aimed mainly to discredit social scientists who want to work with this data, rather than helpfully engaging them on the promises and limitations of their methods.

The second striking revelation is that for the second time in my literature survey, I’ve found a reference to that time when the field of cultural sociology decided they’d had enough of Talcott Parsons. From (Bail, 2014):

The capacity to capture all – or nearly all – relevant text on a given topic opens exciting new lines of meso- and macro-level inquiry into what environments (Bail forthcoming). Ecological or functionalist interpretations of culture have been unpopular with cultural sociologists for some time – most likely because the subfield defined itself as an alternative to the general theory proposed by Talcott Parsons (Alexander 2006). Yet many cultural sociologists also draw inspiration from Mary Douglas (e.g., Alexander 2006; Lamont 1992; Zelizer 1985), who – like Swidler – insists upon the need for our subfield to engage broader levels of analysis. “For sociology to accept that no functionalist arguments work,” writes Douglas (1986, p. 43), “is like cutting off one’s nose to spite one’s face.” To be fair, cultural sociologists have recently made several programmatic statements about the need to engage functional or ecological theories of culture. Abbott (1995), for example, explains the formation of boundaries between professional fields as the result of an evolutionary process. Similarly, Lieberson (2000), presents an ecological model of fashion trends in child-naming practices. In a review essay, Kaufman (2004) describes such ecological approaches to cultural sociology as one of the three most promising directions for the future of the subfield.

I’m not sure what’s going on with all these references to Talcott Parsons. I gather that at one time he was a giant in sociology, but that then a generation of sociologists tried to bury him. Then the next generation of sociologists reinvented structural functionalism with new language–“ecological approaches”, “field theory”?

One wonder what Talcott Parsons did or didn’t do to inspire such a rebellion.


Bail, Christopher A. “The cultural environment: measuring culture with big data.” Theory and Society 43.3-4 (2014): 465-482.

Tufekci, Zeynep. “Big Questions for Social Media Big Data: Representativeness, Validity and Other Methodological Pitfalls.” ICWSM 14 (2014): 505-514.


What happens if we lose the prior for sparse representations?

Noting this nice paper by Giannone et al., “Economic predictions with big data: The illusion of sparsity.” It concludes:

Summing up, strong prior beliefs favouring low-dimensional models appear to be necessary to support sparse representations. In most cases, the idea that the data are informative enough to identify sparse predictive models might be an illusion.

This is refreshing honesty.

In my experience, most disciplinary social sciences have a strong prior bias towards pithy explanatory theses. In a normal social science paper, what you want is a single research question, a single hypothesis. This thesis expresses the narrative of the paper. It’s what makes the paper compelling.

In mathematical model fitting, the term for such a simply hypothesis is a sparse predictive model. These models will have relatively few independent variables predicting the dependent variable. In machine learning, this sparsity is often accomplished by a regularization step. While generally well-motivate, regularization for sparsity can be done for reasons that are more aesthetic or reflect a stronger prior than is warranted.

A consequence of this preference for sparsity, in my opinion, is the prevalence of literature on power law distributions vs. log normal explanations. (See this note on disorganized heavy tail distributions.) A dense model on a log linear regression will predict a heavy tail dependent variable without great error. But it will be unsatisfying from the perspective of scientific explanation.

What seems to be an open question in the social sciences today is whether the culture of social science will change as a result of the robust statistical analysis of new data sets. As I’ve argued elsewhere (Benthall, 2016), if the culture does change, it will mean that narrative explanation will be less highly valued.


Benthall, Sebastian. “Philosophy of computational social science.” Cosmos and History: The Journal of Natural and Social Philosophy 12.2 (2016): 13-30.

Giannone, Domenico, Michele Lenza, and Giorgio E. Primiceri. “Economic predictions with big data: The illusion of sparsity.” (2017).

The therapeutic ethos in progressive neoliberalism (Fraser and Furedi)

I’ve read two pieces recently that I found helpful in understanding today’s politics, especially today’s identity politics, in a larger context.

The first is Nancy Fraser’s “From Progressive Neoliberalism to Trump–and Beyond” (link). It portrays the present (American but also global) political moment as a “crisis of hegemony”, using Gramscian terms, for which the presidency of Donald Trump is a poster child. It’s main contribution is to point out that the hegemony that’s been in crisis is a hegemony of progressive neoliberalism, which sounds like an oxymoron but, Fraser argues, isn’t.

Rather, Fraser explains a two-dimensional political spectrum: there are politics of distribution, and there are politics of recognition.

To these ideas of Gramsci, we must add one more. Every hegemonic bloc embodies a set of assumptions about what is just and right and what is not. Since at least the mid-twentieth century in the United States and Europe, capitalist hegemony has been forged by combining two different aspects of right and justice—one focused on distribution, the other on recognition. he distributive aspect conveys a view about how society should allocate divisible goods, especially income. This aspect speaks to the economic structure of society and, however obliquely, to its class divisions. The recognition aspect expresses a sense of how society should apportion respect and esteem, the moral marks of membership and belonging. Focused on the status order of society, this aspect refers to its status hierarchies.

Fraser’s argument is that neoliberalism is a politics of distribution–it’s about using the market to distribute goods. I’m just going to assume that anybody reading this has a working knowledge of what neoliberalism means; if you don’t I recommend reading Fraser’s article about it. Progressivism is a politics of recognition that was advanced by the New Democrats. Part of its political potency been its consistency with neoliberalism:

At the core of this ethos were ideals of “diversity,” women’s “empowerment,” and LGBTQ rights; post-racialism, multiculturalism, and environmentalism. These ideals were interpreted in a specific, limited way that was fully compatible with the Goldman Sachsification of the U.S. economy…. The progressive-neoliberal program for a just status order did not aim to abolish social hierarchy but to “diversify” it, “empowering” “talented” women, people of color, and sexual minorities to rise to the top. And that ideal was inherently class specific: geared to ensuring that “deserving” individuals from “underrepresented groups” could attain positions and pay on a par with the straight white men of their own class.

A less academic, more Wall Street Journal reading member of the commentariat might be more comfortable with the terms “fiscal conservativism” and “social liberalism”. And indeed, Fraser’s argument seems mainly to be that the hegemony of the Obama era was fiscally conservatism but socially liberal. In a sense, it was the true libertarians that were winning, which is an interesting take I hadn’t heard before.

The problem, from Frasers perspective, is that neoliberalism concentrates wealth and carries the seeds of its own revolution, allowing for Trump to run on a combination of reactionary politics of recognition (social conservativism) with a populist politics of distribution (economic liberalism: big spending and protectionism). He won, and then sold out to neoliberalism, giving us the currently prevailing combination of neoliberalism and reactionary social policy. Which, by the way, we would be calling neoconservatism if it were 15 years ago. Maybe it’s time to resuscitate this term.

Fraser thinks the world would be a better place if progressive populists could establish themselves as an effective counterhegemonic bloc.

The second piece I’ve read on this recently is Frank Furedi’s “The hidden history of t identity politics” (link). Pairing Fraser with Furedi is perhaps unlikely because, to put it bluntly, Fraser is a feminist and Furedi, as far as I can tell from this one piece, isn’t. However, both are serious social historians and there’s a lot of overlap in the stories they tell. That is in itself interesting from a scholarly perspective of one trying to triangulate an accurate account of political history.

Furedi’s piece is about “identity politics” broadly, including both its right wing and left wing incarnations. So, we’re talking about what Fraser calls the politics of recognition here. On a first pass, Furedi’s point is that Enlightenment universalist values have been challenged by both right and left wing identity politics since the late 18th century Romantic nationalist movements in Europe, which led to World Wars and the holocaust. Maybe, Furedi’s piece suggests, abandoning Enlightenment universalist values was a bad idea.

Although expressed through a radical rhetoric of liberation and empowerment, the shift towards identity politics was conservative in impulse. It was a sensibility that celebrated the particular and which regarded the aspiration for universal values with suspicion. Hence the politics of identity focused on the consciousness of the self and on how the self was perceived. Identity politics was, and continues to be, the politics of ‘it’s all about me’.

Strikingly, Furedi’s argument is that the left took the “cultural turn” into recognition politics essentially because of its inability to maintain a left-wing politics of redistribution, and that this happened in the 70’s. But this in turn undermined the cause of the economic left. Why? Because economic populism requires social solidarity, while identity politics is necessarily a politics of difference. Solidarity within an identity group can cause gains for that identity group, but at the expense of political gains that could be won with an even more unified popular political force.

The emergence of different identity-based groups during the 1970s mirrored the lowering of expectations on the part of the left. This new sensibility was most strikingly expressed by the so-called ‘cultural turn’ of the left. The focus on the politics of culture, on image and representation, distracted the left from its traditional interest in social solidarity. And the most significant feature of the cultural turn was its sacralisation of identity. The ideals of difference and diversity had displaced those of human solidarity.

So far, Furedi is in agreement with Fraser that hegemonic neoliberalism has been the status quo since the 70’s, and that the main political battles have been over identity recognition. Furedi’s point, which I find interesting, is that these battles over identity recognition undermine the cause of economic populism. In short, neoliberals and neocons can use identity to divide and conquer their shared political opponents and keep things as neo- as possible.

This is all rather old news, though a nice schematic representation of it.

Where Furedi’s piece gets interesting is where it draws out the next movements in identity politics, which he describes as the shift from it being about political and economic conditions into a politics of first victimhood and then a specific therapeutic ethos.

The victimhood move grounded the politics of recognition in the authoritative status of the victim. While originally used for progresssive purposes, this move was adopted outside of the progressive movement as early as 1980’s.

A pervasive sense of victimisation was probably the most distinct cultural legacy of this era. The authority of the victim was ascendant. Sections of both the left and the right endorsed the legitimacy of the victim’s authoritative status. This meant that victimhood became an important cultural resource for identity construction. At times it seemed that everyone wanted to embrace the victim label. Competitive victimhood quickly led to attempts to create a hierarchy of victims. According to a study by an American sociologist, the different movements joined in an informal way to ‘generate a common mood of victimisation, moral indignation, and a self-righteous hostility against the common enemy – the white male’ (5). Not that the white male was excluded from the ambit of victimhood for long. In the 1980s, a new men’s movement emerged insisting that men, too, were an unrecognised and marginalised group of victims.

This is interesting in part because there’s a tendency today to see the “alt-right” of reactionary recognition politics as a very recent phenomenon. According to Furedi, it isn’t; it’s part of the history of identity politics in general. We just thought it was
dead because, as Fraser argues, progresssive neoliberalism had attained hegemony.

Buried deep into the piece is arguable Furedi’s most controversial and pointedly written point, which is about the “therapeutic ethos” of identity politics since the 1970’s that resonates quite deeply today. The idea here is that principles from psychotherapy have become part of repertoire of left-wing activism. A prescription against “blaming the victim” transformed into a prescription towards “believing the victim”, which in turn creates a culture where only those with lived experience of a human condition may speak with authority on it. This authority is ambiguous, because it is at once both the moral authority of the victim, but also the authority one must give a therapeutic patient in describing their own experiences for the sake of their mental health.

The obligation to believe and not criticise individuals claiming victim identity is justified on therapeutic grounds. Criticism is said to constitute a form of psychological re-victimisation and therefore causes psychic wounding and mental harm. This therapeutically informed argument against the exercise of critical judgement and free speech regards criticism as an attack not just on views and opinions, but also on the person holding them. The result is censorious and illiberal. That is why in society, and especially on university campuses, it is often impossible to debate certain issues.

Furedi is concerned with how the therapeutic ethos in identity politics shuts down liberal discourse, which further erodes social solidarity which would advance political populism. In therapy, your own individual self-satisfaction and validation is the most important thing. In the politics of solidarity, this is absolutely not the case. This is a subtle critique of Fraser’s argument, which argues that progressive populism is a potentially viable counterhegemonic bloc. We could imagine a synthetic point of view, which is that progressive populism is viable but only if progressives drop the therapeutic ethos. Or, to put it another way, if “[f]rom their standpoint, any criticism of the causes promoted by identitarians is a cultural crime”, then that criminalizes the kind of discourse that’s necessary for political solidarity. That serves to advantage the neoliberal or neoconservative agenda.

This is, Furedi points out, easier to see in light of history:

Outwardly, the latest version of identity politics – which is distinguished by a synthesis of victim consciousness and concern with therapeutic validation – appears to have little in common with its 19th-century predecessor. However, in one important respect it represents a continuation of the particularist outlook and epistemology of 19th-century identitarians. Both versions insist that only those who lived in and experienced the particular culture that underpins their identity can understand their reality. In this sense, identity provides a patent on who can have a say or a voice about matters pertaining to a particular culture.

While I think they do a lot to frame the present political conditions, I don’t agree with everything in either of these articles. There are a few points of tension which I wish I knew more about.

The first is the connection made in some media today between the therapeutic needs of society’s victims and economic distributional justice. Perhaps it’s the nexus of these two political flows that makes the topic of workplace harassment and culture in its most symbolic forms such a hot topic today. It is, in a sense, the quintessential progressive neoliberal problem, in that it aligns the politics of distribution with the politics of recognition while employing the therapeutic ethos. The argument goes: since market logic is fair (the neoliberal position), if there is unfair distribution it must be because the politics of recognition are unfair (progressivism). That’s because if there is inadequate recognition, then the societal victims will feel invalidated, preventing them from asserting themselves effectively in the workplace (therapeutic ethos). To put it another way, distributional inequality is being represented as a consequence of a market externality, which is the psychological difficulty imposed by social and economic inequality. A progressive politthiics of recognition are a therapeutic intervention designed to alleviate this psychological difficulty, which corrects the meritocratic market logic.

One valid reaction to this is: so what? Furedi and Fraser are both essentially card carrying socialists. If you’re a card-carrying socialist (maybe because you have a universalist sense of distributional justice), then you might see the emphasis on workplace harassment as a distraction from a broader socialist agenda. But most people aren’t card-carrying socialist academics; most people go to work and would prefer not to be harassed.

The other thing I would like to know more about is to what extent the demands of the therapeutic ethos are a political rhetorical convenience and to what extent it is a matter of ground truth. The sweeping therapeutic progressive narrative outlined pointed out by Furedi, wherein vast swathes of society (i.e, all women, all people of color, maybe all conservatives in liberal-dominant institutions, etc.) are so structurally victimized that therapy-grade levels of validation are necessary for them to function unharmed in universities and workplaces is truly a tough pill to swallow. On the other hand, a theory of justice that discounts the genuine therapeutic needs of half the population can hardly be described as a “universalist” one.

Is there a resolution to this epistemic and political crisis? If I had to drop everything and look for one, it would be in the clinical psychological literature. What I want to know is how grounded the therapeutic ethos is in (a) scientific clinical psychology, and (b) the epidemiology of mental illness. Is it the case that structural inequality is so traumatizing (either directly or indirectly) that the fragmentation of epistemic culture is necessary as a salve for it? Or is this a political fiction? I don’t know the answer.

Values, norms, and beliefs: units of analysis in research on culture

Much of the contemporary critical discussion about technology in society and ethical design hinges on the term “values”. Privacy is one such value, according to Mulligan, Koopman, and Doty (2016), drawing on Westin and Post. Contextual Integrity (Nissenbaum, 2009) argues that privacy is a function of norms, and that norms get their legitimacy from, among other sources, societal values. The Data and Society Research Institute lists “values” as one of the cross-cutting themes of its research. Richmond Wong (2017) has been working on eliciting values reflections as a tool in privacy by design. And so on.

As much as ‘values’ get emphasis in this literary corner, I have been unsatisfied with how these literatures represent values as either sociological or philosophical phenomena. How are values distributed in society? Are they stable under different methods of measurement? Do they really have ethical entailments, or are they really just a kind of emotive expression?

For only distantly related reasons, I’ve been looking into the literature on quantitative measurement of culture. I’m doing a bit of a literature review and need your recommendations! But an early hit is Marsden and Swingle’s is a “Conceptualizing and measuring culture in surveys: Values, strategies, and symbols” (1994), which is a straightforward social science methods piece apparently written before either rejections of positivism or Internet-based research became so destructively fashionable.

A useful passage comes early:

To frame our discussion of the content of the culture module, we have drawn on distinctions made in Peterson’s (1979: 137-138) review of cultural research in sociology. Peterson observes that sociological work published in the late 1940s and 1950s treated values – conceptualizations of desirable end-states – and the behavioral norms they specify as the principal explanatory elements of culture. Talcott Parsons (19.51) figured prominently in this school of thought, and more recent survey studies of culture and cultural change in both the United States (Rokeach, 1973) and Europe (Inglehart, 1977) continue the Parsonsian tradition of examining values as a core concept.

This was a surprise! Talcott Parsons is not a name you hear every day in the world of sociology of technology. That’s odd, because as far as I can tell he’s one of these robust and straightforwardly scientific sociologists. The main complaint against him, if I’ve heard any, is that he’s dry. I’ve never heard, despite his being tied to structural functionalism, that his ideas have been substantively empirically refuted (unlike Durkheim, say).

So the mystery is…whatever happened to the legacy of Talcott Parsons? And how is it represented, if at all, in contemporary sociological research today?

One reason why we don’t hear much about Parsons may be because the sociological community moved from measuring “values” to measuring “beliefs”. Marsden and Swingle go on:

Cultural sociologists writing since the late 1970s however, have accented other elements of culture. These include, especially, beliefs and expressive symbols. Peterson’s (1979: 138) usage of “beliefs” refers to “existential statements about how the world operates that often serve to justify value and norms”. As such, they are less to be understood as desirable end-states in and of themselves, but instead as habits or styles of thought that people draw upon, especially in unstructured situations (Swidler, 1986).

Intuitively, this makes sense. When we look at the contemporary seemingly mortal combat of partisan rhetoric and tribalist propaganda, a lot of what we encounter are beliefs and differences in beliefs. As suggested in this text, beliefs justify values and norms, meaning that even values (which you might have thought are the source of all justification) get their meaning from a kind of world-view, rather than being held in a simple way.

That makes a lot of sense. There’s often a lot more commonality in values than in ways those values should be interpreted or applied. Everybody cares about fairness, for example. What people disagree about, often vehemently, is what is fair, and that’s because (I’ll argue here) people have widely varying beliefs about the world and what’s important.

To put it another way, the Humean model where we have beliefs and values separately and then combine the two in an instrumental calculus is wrong, and we’ve known it’s wrong since the 70’s. Instead, we have complexes of normatively thick beliefs that reinforce each other into a worldview. When we we’re asked about our values, we are abstracting in a derivative way from this complex of frames, rather than getting at a more core feature of personality or culture.

A great book on this topic is Hilary Putnam’s The collapse of the fact/value dichotomy (2002), just for example. It would be nice if more of this metaethical theory and sociology of values surfaced in the values in design literature, despite it’s being distinctly off-trend.


Marsden, Peter V., and Joseph F. Swingle. “Conceptualizing and measuring culture in surveys: Values, strategies, and symbols.” Poetics 22.4 (1994): 269-289.

Mulligan, Deirdre K., Colin Koopman, and Nick Doty. “Privacy is an essentially contested concept: a multi-dimensional analytic for mapping privacy.” Phil. Trans. R. Soc. A 374.2083 (2016): 20160118.

Nissenbaum, Helen. Privacy in context: Technology, policy, and the integrity of social life. Stanford University Press, 2009.

Putnam, Hilary. The collapse of the fact/value dichotomy and other essays. Harvard University Press, 2002.

Wong, Richmond Y., et al. “Eliciting Values Reflections by Engaging Privacy Futures Using Design Workbooks.” (2017).

It’s just like what happened when they invented calculus…

I’ve picked up this delightful book again: David Foster Wallace’s Everything and More: A Compact History of Infinity (2003). It is the David Foster Wallace (the brilliant and sadly dead writer and novelist you’ve heard of) writing a history of mathematics, starting with the Ancient Greeks and building up to the discovery of infinity by Georg Cantor.

It’s a brilliantly written book written to educate its reader without any doctrinal baggage. Wallace doesn’t care if he’s a mathematician or a historian; he’s just a great writer. And what comes through in the book is truly a history of the idea of infinity, with all the ways that it was a reflection of the intellectual climate and preconceptions of the mathematicians working on it. The book is fully of mathematical proofs that are blended seamlessly into the casual prose. The whole idea is to build up the excitement and wonder of mathematical discover, just how hard it was to come to appreciate infinity in the way we understand it mathematically today. A lot of this development had to do with the way mathematicians and scientists thought about their relationship to abstraction.

It’s a wonderful book that, refreshingly, isn’t obsessed with how everything has been digitized. Rather (just as one gem), it offers a historical perspective on what was perhaps even a more profound change: that time in the 1700’s when suddenly everything started to be looked at as an expression of mathematical calculus.

To quote the relevant passage:

As has been at least implied and will now be exposited on, the math-historical consensus is that the late 1600s mark the start of a modern Golden Age in which there are far more significant mathematical advances than anytime else in world history. Now things start moving really fast, and we can do little more than try to build a sort of flagstone path from early work on functions to Cantor’s infinicopia.

Two large-scale changes in the world of math to note very quickly The first involves abstraction. Pretty much all math from the Greeks to Galileo is empirically based: math concepts are straightforward abstractions from real-world experience. This is one reason why geometry (along with Aristotle) dominated mathematical reasoning for so long. The modern transition from geometric to algebraic reasoning was itself a symptom of a larger shift. By 1600, entities like zero, negative integers, and irrationals are used routinely. Now start adding in the subsequent decades’ introductions of complex numbers, Napierian logarithms, higher-degree polynomials and literal coefficients in algebra–plus of course eventually the 1st and 2nd derivative and the integral–and it’s clear that as of some pre-Enlightenment date math has gotten so remote from any sort of real-world observation that we and Saussure can say verily it is now, as a system of symbols, “independent of the objects designated,” i.e. that math is now concerned much more with the logical relations between abstract concepts than with any particular correspondence between those concepts and physical reality. The point: It’s in the seventeenth century that math becomes primarily a system of abstractions from other abstractions instead of from the world.

Which makes the second big change seem paradoxical: math’s new hyperabstractness turns out to work incredibly well in real-world applications. In science, engineering, physics, etc. Take, for one obvious example, calculus, which is exponentially more abstract than any sort of ‘practical’ math before (like, from what real-world observation does one dream up the idea than an object’s velocity and a curve’s subtending area have anything to do with each other?), and yet it is unprecedentedly good for representing/explaining motion and acceleration, gravity, planetary movements, heat–everything science tells us is real about the real world. Not at all for nothing does D. Berlinski call calculus “the story this world first told itself as it became the modern world.” Because what the modern world’s about, what it is, is science.And it’s in the seventeenth century that the marriage of math and science is consummated, the Scientific Revolution both causing and caused by the Math Explosion because science–increasingly freed of its Aristotelian hangups with substance v. matter and potentiality v. actuality–becomes now essentially a mathematical enterprise in which force, motion, mass, and law-as-formula compose the new template for understanding how reality works. By the late 1600s, serious math is part of astronomy, mechanics, geography, civil engineering, city planning, stonecutting, carpentry, metallurgy, chemistry, hyrdraulics, optics, lens-grinding, military strategy, gun- and cannon-design, winemaking, architecture, music, shipbuilding, timekeeping, calendar-reckoning; everything.

We take these changes for granted now.

But once, this was a scientific revolution that transformed, as Wallace observed, everything.

Maybe this is the best historical analogy for the digital transformation we’ve been experiencing in the past decade.

social structure and the private sector

The Human Cell

Academic social scientists leaning towards the public intellectual end of the spectrum love to talk about social norms.

This is perhaps motivated by the fact that these intellectual figures are prominent in the public sphere. The public sphere is where these norms are supposed to solidify, and these intellectuals would like to emphasize their own importance.

I don’t exclude myself from this category of persons. A lot of my work has been about social norms and technology design (Benthall, 2014; Benthall, Gürses and Nissenbaum, 2017)

But I also work in the private sector, and it’s striking how differently things look from that perspective. It’s natural for academics who participate more in the public sphere than the private sector to be biased in their view of social structure. From the perspective of being able to accurately understand what’s going on, you have to think about both at once.

That’s challenging for a lot of reasons, one of which is that the private sector is a lot less transparent than the public sphere. In general the internals of actors in the private sector are not open to the scrutiny of commentariat onlookers. Information is one of the many resources traded in pairwise interactions; when it is divulged, it is divulged strategically, introducing bias. So it’s hard to get a general picture of the private sector, even though accounts for a much larger proportion of the social structure that’s available than the public sphere. In other words, public spheres are highly over-represented in analysis of social structure due to the available of public data about them. That is worrisome from an analytic perspective.

It’s well worth making the point that the public/private dichotomy is problematic. Contextual integrity theory (Nissenbaum, 2009) argues that modern society is differentiated among many distinct spheres, each bound by its own social norms. Nissenbaum actually has a quite different notion of norm formation from, say, Habermas. For Nissenbaum, norms evolve over social history, but may be implicit. Contrast this with Habermas’s view that norms are the result of communicative rationality, which is an explicit and linguistically mediated process. The public sphere is a big deal for Habermas. Nissenbaum, a scholar of privacy, reject’s the idea of the ‘public sphere’ simpliciter. Rather, social spheres self-regulate and privacy, which she defines as appropriate information flow, is maintained when information flows according to these multiple self-regulatory regimes.

I believe Nissenbaum is correct on this point of societal differentiation and norm formation. This nuanced understanding of privacy as the differentiated management of information flow challenges any simplistic notion of the public sphere. Does it challenge a simplistic notion of the private sector?

Naturally, the private sector doesn’t exist in a vacuum. In the modern economy, companies are accountable to the law, especially contract law. They have to pay their taxes. They have to deal with public relations and are regulated as to how they manage information flows internally. Employees can sue their employers, etc. So just as the ‘public sphere’ doesn’t permit a total free-for-all of information flow (some kinds of information flow in public are against social norms!), so too does the ‘private sector’ not involve complete secrecy from the public.

As a hypothesis, we can posit that what makes the private sector different is that the relevant social structures are less open in their relations with each other than they are in the public sphere. We can imagine an autonomous social entity like a biological cell. Internally it may have a lot of interesting structure and organelles. Its membrane prevents this complexity leaking out into the aether, or plasma, or whatever it is that human cells float around in. Indeed, this membrane is necessary for the proper functioning of the organelles, which in turn allows the cell to interact properly with other cells to form a larger organism. Echoes of Francisco Varela.

It’s interesting that this may actually be a quantifiable difference. One way of modeling the difference between the internal and external-facing complexity of an entity is using information theory. The more complex internal state of the entity has higher entropy than the membrane. The fact that the membrane causally mediates interactions between the internals and the environment prevents information flow between them; this is captured by the Data Processing Inequality. The lack of information flow between the system internals and externals is quantified as lower mutual information between the two domains. At zero mutual information, the two domains are statistically independent of each other.

I haven’t worked out all the implications of this.


Benthall, Sebastian. (2015) Designing Networked Publics for Communicative Action. Jenny Davis & Nathan Jurgenson (eds.) Theorizing the Web 2014 [Special Issue]. Interface 1.1. (link)

Sebastian Benthall, Seda Gürses and Helen Nissenbaum (2017), “Contextual Integrity through the Lens of Computer Science”, Foundations and Trends® in Privacy and Security: Vol. 2: No. 1, pp 1-69. http://dx.doi.org/10.1561/3300000016

Nissenbaum, H. (2009). Privacy in context: Technology, policy, and the integrity of social life. Stanford University Press.

The social value of an actually existing alternative — BLOCKCHAIN BLOCKCHAIN BLOCKCHAIN

When people get excited about something, they will often talk about it in hyberbolic terms. Some people will actually believe what they say, though this seems to drop off with age. The emotionally energetic framing of the point can be both factually wrong and contain a kernel of truth.

This general truth applies to hype about particular technologies. Does it apply to blockchain technologies and cryptocurrencies? Sure it does!

Blockchain boosters have offered utopian or radical visions about what this technology can achieve. We should be skeptical about these visions prima facie precisely in proportion to how utopian and radical they are. But that doesn’t mean that this technology isn’t accomplishing anything new or interesting.

Here is a summary of some dialectics around blockchain technology:

A: “Blockchains allow for fully decentralized, distributed, and anonymous applications. These can operate outside of the control of the law, and that’s exciting because it’s a new frontier of options!”

B1: “Blockchain technology isn’t really decentralized, distributed, or anonymous. It’s centralizing its own power into the hands of the few, and meanwhile traditional institutions have the power to crush it. Their anarchist mentality is naive and short-sighted.”

B2: “Blockchain technology enthusiasts will soon discover that they actually want all the legal institutions they designed their systems to escape. Their anarchist mentality is naive and short-sighted.”

While B1 and B2 are both critical of blockchain technology and see A as naive, it’s important to realize that they believe A is naive for contradictory reasons. B1 is arguing that it does not accomplish what it was purportedly designed to do, which is provide a foundation of distributed, autonomous systems that’s free from internal and external tyranny. B2 is arguing that nobody actually wants to be free of these kinds of tyrannies.

These are conservative attitudes that we would except from conservative (in the sense of conservation, or “inhibiting change”) voices in society. These are probably demographically different people from person A. And this makes all the difference.

If what differentiates people is their relationship to different kinds of social institutions or capital (in the Bourdieusian sense), then it would be natural for some people to be incumbents in old institutions who would argue for their preservation and others to be willing to “exit” older institutions and join new ones. However imperfect the affordances of blockchain technology may be, they are different affordances than those of other technologies, and so they promise the possibility of new kinds of institutions with an alternative information and communications substrate.

It may well be that the pioneers in the new substrate will find that they have political problems of their own and need to reinvent some of the societal controls that they were escaping. But the difference will be that in the old system, the pioneers were relative outsiders, whereas in the new system, they will be incumbents.

The social value of blockchain technology therefore comes in two waves. The first wave is the value it provides to early adopters who use it instead of other institutions that were failing them. These people have made the choice to invest in something new because the old options were not good enough for them. We can celebrate their successes as people who have invented quite literally a new form of social capital, quite possibly literally a new form of wealth. When a small group of people create a lot of new wealth this almost immediately creates a lot of resentment from others who did not get in on it.

But there’s a secondary social value to the creation of actually existing alternative institutions and forms of capital (which are in a sense the same thing). This is the value of competition. The marginal person, who can choose how to invest themselves, can exit from one failing institution to a fresh new one if they believe it’s worth the risk. When an alternative increases the amount of exit potential in society, that increases the competitive pressure on institutions to perform. That should benefit even those with low mobility.

So, in conclusion, blockchain technology is good because it increases institutional competition. At the end of the day that reduces the power of entrenched incumbents to collect rents and gives everybody else more flexibility.

Exit vs. Voice as Defecting vs. Cooperation as …

These dichotomies that are often thought of separately are actually the same.

Cooperation Defection
Voice (Hirschman) Exit (Hirschman)
Lifeworld (Habermas) System (Habermas)
Power (Arendt) Violence (Arendt)
Institutions Markets

Why I will blog more about math in 2018

One reason to study and write about political theory is what Habermas calls the emancipatory interest of human inquiry: to come to better understand the social world one lives in, unclouded by ideology, in order to be more free from those ideological expectations.

This is perhaps counterintuitive since what is perhaps most seductive about political theory is that it is the articulation of so many ideologies. Indeed, one can turn to political theory because one is looking for an ideology that suits them. Having a secure world view is comforting and can provide a sense of purpose. I know that personally I’ve struggled with one after another.

Looking back on my philosophical ‘work’ over the decade years (as opposed to my technical and scientific work) I’d like to declare it an emancipatory success for at least one person, myself. I am happier for it, though at the cost that comes from learning the hard way.

A problem with this blog is that it is too esoteric. It has not been written with a particular academic discipline in mind. It draws rather too heavily from certain big name thinkers that not enough people have read. I don’t provide background material in these thinkers, and so many find this inaccessible.

One day I may try to edit this material into a more accessible version of its arguments. I’m not sure who would find this useful, because much of what I’ve been doing in this work is arriving at the conclusion that actually, truly, mathematical science is the finest way of going about understanding sociotechnical systems. I believe this follows even from deep philosophical engagement with notable critics of this view–and I have truly tried to engage with the best and most notable of these critics. There will always be more of them, but I think at this point I have to make a decision to not seek them out any more. I have tested these views enough to build on them as a secure foundation.

What follows then is a harder but I think more rewarding task of building out the mathematical theory that reflects my philosophical conclusions. This is necessary for, for example, building a technical implementation that expresses the political values that I’ve arrived at. Arguably, until I do this, I’ll have just been beating around the bush.

I will admit to being sheepish about blogging on technical and mathematical topics. This is because in my understanding technical and mathematical writing is held to a higher standard that normal writing. Errors are more clear, and more permanent.

I recognize this now as a personal inhibition and a destructive one. If this blog has been valuable to me as a tool for reading, writing, and developing fluency in obscure philosophical literature, why shouldn’t it also be a tool for reading, writing, and developing fluency in obscure mathematical and technical literature? And to do the latter, shouldn’t I have to take the risk of writing with the same courage, if not abandon?

This is my wish for 2018: to blog more math. It’s a riskier project, but I think I have to in order to keep developing these ideas.

technological determinism and economic determinism

If you are trying to explain society, politics, the history of the world, whatever, it’s a good idea to narrow the scope of what you are talking about to just the most important parts because there is literally only so much you could ever possibly say. Life is short. A principled way of choosing what to focus on is to discuss only those parts that are most significant in the sense that they played the most causally determinative role in the events in question. By widely accepted interventionist theories of causation, what makes something causally determinative of something else is the fact that in a counterfactual world in which the cause was made to be somehow different, the effect would have been different as well.

Since we basically never observe a counterfactual history, this leaves a wide open debate over the general theoretical principles one would use to predict the significance of certain phenomena over others.

One point of view on this is called technological determinism. It is the view that, for a given social phenomenon, what’s really most determinative of it is the technological substrate of it. Engineers-turned-thought-leaders love technological determinism because of course it implies that really the engineers shape society, because they are creating the technology.

Technological determinism is absolutely despised by academic social scientists who have to deal with technology and its role in society. I have a hard time understanding why. Sometimes it is framed as an objection to technologist who are avoiding responsibility for social problems they create because it’s the technology that did it, not them. But such a childish tactic really doesn’t seem to be what’s at stake if you’re critiquing technological determinism. Another way of framing the problem is the say that the way a technology affects society in San Francisco is going to be different from how it affects society in Beijing. Society has its role in a a dialectic.

So there is a grand debate of “politics” versus “technology” which reoccurs everywhere. This debate is rather one sided, since it is almost entirely constituted by political scientists or sociologists complaining that the engineers aren’t paying enough attention to politics, seeing how their work has political causes and effects. Meanwhile, engineers-turned-thought-leaders just keep spouting off whatever nonsense comes to their head and they do just fine because, unlike the social scientist critics, engineers-turned-thought-leaders tend to be rich. That’s why they are thought leaders: because their company was wildly successful.

What I find interesting is that economic determinism is never part of this conversation. It seems patently obvious that economics drives both politics and technology. You can be anywhere on the political spectrum and hold this view. Once it was called “dialectical materialism”, and it was the foundation for left-wing politics for generations.

So what has happened? Here are a few possible explanations.

The first explanation is that if you’re an economic determinist, maybe you are smart enough to do something more productive with your time than get into debates about whether technology or politics is more important. You would be doing something more productive, like starting a business to develop a technology that manipulates political opinion to favor the deregulation of your business. Or trying to get a socialist elected so the government will pay off student debts.

A second explanation is… actually, that’s it. That’s the only reason I can think of. Maybe there’s another one?