Brazilian Jiu Jitsu (BJJ) and the sociology of martial knowledge

Maybe 15 months ago, I started training in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu (BJJ), a martial art that focuses on grappling and ground-fighting. Matches are won through points based on position (e.g., “mount”, where you are sitting on somebody else) and through submission, when a player taps out due to hyperextension under a joint lock or asphyxiation by choking. I recommend it heartily to anybody as a fascinating, smart workout that also has a vibrant and supportive community around it.

One of the impressive aspects of BJJ, which differentiates it from many other martial arts, is its emphasis on live drilling and sparring (“rolling”), which can offer a third or more of a training session. In the context of sparring, there is opportunity for experimentation and rapid feedback about technique. In addition to being good fun and practice, regular sparring continually reaffirms the hierarchical ranking of skill. As in some other martial arts, rank is awarded as different colored “belts”–white, blue, purple, brown, black. Intermediary progress is given as “stripes” on the belt. White belts can spar with higher belts; more often than not, when they do so they get submitted.

BJJ also has tournaments, which allow players from different dojos to compete against each other. I attended my first tournament in August and thought it was a great experience. There is nothing like meeting a stranger for the first time and then engage them in single combat to kindle a profound respect for the value of sportsmanship. Off the mat, I’ve had some of the most courteous encounters with anybody I have ever met in New York City.

At tournaments, hundreds of contestants are divided into brackets. The brackets are determined by belt (white, blue, etc.), weight (up to 155 lbs, up to 170 lbs, etc.), sex (men and women), and age (kids age groups, adult, 30+ adult). There is an “absolute” bracket for those who would rise above the division of weight classes. There are “gi” and “no gi” variants of BJJ; the former requires wearing special uniform of jacket and pants, which are used in many techniques.

Overall, it is an efficient system for training a skill.

The few readers of this blog will recall that for some time I studied sociology of science and engineering, especially through the lens of Bourdieu’s Science of Science and Reflexivity. This was in turn a reaction to a somewhat startling exposure to sociology of science and education, and intellectual encounter that I never intended to have. I have been interested for a long time in the foundations of science. It was a rude shock, and one that I mostly regret, to have gone to grad school to become a better data scientist and find myself having to engage with the work of Bruno Latour. I did not know how to respond intellectually to the attack on scientific legitimacy on the basis that its self-understanding is insufficiently sociological until encountering Bourdieu, who refuted the Latourian critique and provides a clear-sighted view of how social structure under-girds scientific objectivity, when it works. Better was my encounter with Jean Lave, who introduced me to more phenomenological methods for understanding education through her class and works (Chaiklin and Lave, 1996). This made me more aware of the role of apprenticeship as well as the nuances of culture, framing, context, and purpose in education. Had I not encountered this work, I would likely never have found my way to Contextual Integrity, which draws more abstract themes about privacy from such subtle observations.

Now it’s impossible for me to do something as productive and enjoyable as BJJ without considering it through these kinds of lenses. One day I would like to do more formal work along these lines, but as has been my habit I have a few notes to jot down at the moment.

The first point, which is a minor one, is that there is something objectively known by experienced BJJ players, and that this knowledge is quintessentially grounded in intersubjective experience. The sparring encounter is the site at which technique is tested and knowledge is confirmed. Sparring simulates conditions of a fight for survival; indeed, if a choke is allowed to progress, a combatant can lose consciousness on the mat. This recalls Hegel’s observation that it is in single combat that a human being is forced to see the limits of their own solipsism. When the Other can kill you, that is an Other that you must see as, in some sense, equivalent in metaphysical status to oneself. This is a sadly forgotten truth in almost every formal academic environment I’ve found myself in, and that, I would argue, is why there is so much bullshit in academia. But now I digress.

The second point, which is perhaps more significant, is that BJJ has figured out how to be an inclusive field of knowledge despite the pervasive and ongoing politics of what I have called in another post body agonism. We are at a point where political conflict in the United States and elsewhere seems to be at root about the fact that people have different kinds of bodies, and these differences are upsetting for liberalism. How can we have functioning liberal society when, for example, some people have male bodies and other people have female bodies? It’s an absurd question, perhaps, but nevertheless it seems to be the question of the day. It is certainly a question that plagues academic politics.

BJJ provides a wealth of interesting case studies in how to deal productively with body agonism. BJJ is an unarmed martial art. The fact that there are different body types is an instrinsic aspect of the sport. Interestingly, in the dojo practices I’ve seen, trainings are co-ed and all body types (e.g., weight classes) train together. This leads to a dynamic and irregular practice environment that perhaps is better for teaching BJJ as a practical form of self-defense. Anecdotally, self-defense is an important motivation for why especially women are interested in BJJ, and in the context of a gym, sparring with men is a way to safely gain practical skill in defending against male assailants. On the other hand, as far as ranking progress is concerned, different bodies are considered in relation to other similar bodies through the tournament bracket system. While I know a badass 40-year old who submitted two college kids in the last tournament, that was extra. For the purposes of measuring my improvement in the discipline, I will be in the 30+ men’s bracket, compared with other guys approximately my weight. The general sense within the community is that progress in BJJ is a function of time spent practicing (something like the mantra that it takes 10,000 hours to master something), not any other intrinsic talent. Some people who are more dedicated to their training advance faster, and others advance slower.

Training in BJJ has been a positive experience for me, and I often wonder whether other social systems could be more like BJJ. There are important lessons to be learned from it, as it is a mental discipline, full of subtlety and intellectual play, in its own right.


Bourdieu, Pierre. Science of science and reflexivity. Polity, 2004.

Chaiklin, Seth, and Jean Lave, eds. Understanding practice: Perspectives on activity and context. Cambridge University Press, 1996.

On Hill’s work on ‘Greater Male Variability Hypothesis’ (GMVH)

I’m writing in response to Ted Hill’s recent piece describe the acceptance and subsequent removal of a paper about the ‘Greater Male Variability Hypothesis’, the controversial idea that there is more variability in male intelligence than female intelligence, i.e. “that there are more idiots and more geniuses among men than among women.”

I have no reason to doubt Hill’s account of events–his collaboration, his acceptance to a journal, and the mysterious political barriers to publication–and assume them for the purposes of this post. If these are refuted by future controversy somehow, I’ll stand corrected.

The few of you who have followed this blog for some time will know that I’ve devoted some energy to understanding the controversy around gender and STEM. One post, criticizing how Donna Haraway, widely used in Science and Technology Studies, can be read as implying that women should not become ‘hard scientists’ in the mathematical mode, has gotten a lot of hits (and some pushback). Hill’s piece makes me revisit the issue.

The paper itself is quite dry and the following quote is its main thesis:

SELECTIVITY-VARIABILITY PRINCIPLE. In a species with two sexes A and B, both of which are needed for reproduction, suppose that sex A is relatively selective, i.e., will mate only with a top tier (less than half ) of B candidates. Then from one generation to the next, among subpopulations of B with comparable average attributes, those with greater variability will tend to prevail over those with lesser variability. Conversely, if A is relatively non-selective, accepting all but a bottom fraction (less than half ) of the opposite sex, then subpopulations of B with lesser variability will tend to prevail over those with comparable means and greater variability.

This mathematical thesis is supported in the paper by computational simulations and mathematical proofs. From this, one can get the GMVH if one assumes that: (a) (human) males are less selective in their choice of (human) females when choosing to mate, and (b) traits that drive variability in intelligence are intergenerationally heritable, whether biologically or culturally. While not uncontroversial, neither of these are crazy ideas. In fact, if they weren’t both widely accepted, then we wouldn’t be having this conversation.

Is this the kind of result that should be published? This is the controversy. I am less interested in the truth or falsehood of broad implications of the mathematical work than I am in the arguments for why the mathematical work should not be published (in a mathematics journal).

As far as I can tell from Hill’s account and also from conversations and cultural osmosis on the matter, there are a number of reasons why research of this kind should not be published.

The first reason might be that there are errors in the mathematical or simulation work. In other words, the Selectivity-Variability Principle may be false, and falsely supported. If that is the case, then the reviewers should have rejected the paper on those grounds. However, the principle is intuitively plausible and the reviewers accepted it. Few of Hill’s critics (though some) attacked the piece on mathematical grounds. Rather, the objections were of a social and political nature. I want to focus on these latter objections, though if there is a mathematical refutation of the Selectivity-Variability Principle I’m not aware of, I’ll stand corrected.

The crux of the problem seems to be this: the two assumptions (a) and (b) are both so plausible that publishing a defense of (c) the Selectivity-Variability Principle would imply (d) the Greater Male Variability Hypothesis (GMVH). And if GMVH is true, then (e) there is a reason why more of the celebrated high-end of the STEM professions are male. It is because at the high-end, we’re looking at the thin tails of the human distribution, and the male tail is longer. (It is also longer at the low end, but nobody cares about the low end.)

The argument goes that if this claim (e) were widely known by aspiring females in STEM fields, then they will be discouraged from pursuing these promising careers, because “women have a lesser chance to succeed in mathematics at the very top end”, which would be a biased, sexist view. (e) could be used to defend the idea that (f) normatively, there’s nothing wrong with men having most success at the top end of mathematics, though there is a big is/ought distinction there.

My concern with this argument is that it assumes, at its heart, the idea that women aspiring to be STEM professionals are emotionally vulnerable to being dissuaded by this kind of mathematical argument, even when it is neither an empirical case (it is a mathematical model, not empirically confirmed within the paper) nor does it reflect on the capacity of any particular woman, and especially not after she has been selected for by the myriad social sorting mechanisms available. The argument that GMVH is professionally discouraging assumes many other hypotheses about human professional motivation, for example, the idea that it is only worth taking on a profession if one can expect to have a higher-than-average chance of achieving extremely high relative standing in that field. Given that extremely high relative standing in any field is going to be rare, it’s hard to say this is a good motivation for any profession, for men or for women, in the long run. In general, those that extrapolate from population level gender tendencies to individual cases are committing the ecological fallacy. It is ironic that under the assumption of the critics, potential female entrants into STEM might be screened out precisely because of their inability to understand a mathematical abstraction, along with its limitations and questionable applicability, through a cloud of political tension. Whereas if one were really interested in reaching mathematics in an equitable way, that would require teaching the capacity to see through political tension to the precise form of a mathematical abstraction. That is precisely what top performance in the STEM field should be about, and that it should be unflinchingly encouraged as part of the educational process for both men and women.

My point, really, is this: the argument that publishing and discussing GMVH is detrimental to the career aspirations of women, because of how individual women will internalize the result, depends on a host of sexist assumptions that are as if not more pernicious than GMVH. It is based on the idea that women as a whole need special protection from mathematical ideas in order to pursue careers in mathematics, which is self-defeating crazy talk if I’ve ever heard it. The whole point of academic publication is to enable a debate of defeasible positions on their intellectual merits. In the case of mathematics research, the standards of merit are especially clear. If there’s a problem with Hill’s model, that’s a great opportunity for another, better model, on a topic that is clearly politically and socially relevant. (If the reviewers ignored a lot prior work that settled the scientific relevance of the question, then that’s a different story. One gathers that is not what happened.)

As a caveat, there are other vectors through which GMVH could lead to bias against women pursuing STEM careers. For example, it could bias their less smart families or colleagues into believing less in their potential on the basis of their sex. But GMVH is about the variance, not the mean, of mathematical ability. So the only population that it’s relevant to is that in the very top tier of performers. That nuance is itself probably beyond the reach of most people who do not have at least some training in STEM, and indeed if somebody is reasoning from GMVH to an assumption about women’s competency in math then they are almost certainly conflating it with a dumber hypothesis about population means which is otherwise irrelevant.

This is perhaps the most baffling thing about this debate: that it boils down to a very rarefied form of elite conflict. “Should a respected mathematics journal publish a paper that implies that there is greater variance in mathematical ability between sexes based on their selectivity and therefore…” is a sentence that already selects for a very small segment of the population, a population that should know better than to censor a mathematical proof rather than to take the opportunity to engage it as an opportunity to educate people in STEM and why it is an interesting field. Nobody is objecting to the publication of support for GMVH on the grounds that it implies that more men are grossly incompetent and stupid than women, and it’s worth considering why that is. If our first reaction to GMVH is “but can no one woman never be the best off?”, we are showing that our concerns lie with who gets to be on top, not the welfare of those on bottom.

Note on Austin’s “Cyber Policy in China”: on the emphasis on ‘ethics’

I’ve had recommended to me Greg Austin’s “Cyber Policy in China” (2014) as a good, recent work. I am not sure what I was expecting–something about facts and numbers, how companies are being regulated, etc. Just looking at the preface, it looks like this book is about something else.

The preface frames the book in the discourse, beginning in the 20th century, about the “information society”. It explicitly mentions the UN’s World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) as a touchstone of international consensus about what the information society is, as society “where everyone can create, access, utilise and share information and knowledge’ to ‘achieve their full potential’ in ‘improving their quality of life’. It is ‘people-centered’.

In Chinese, the word for information society is xinxi shehui (Please forgive me: I’ve got little to know understanding of the Chinese language and that includes not knowing how to put the appropriate diacritics into transliterations of Chinese terms.) It is related to a term “informatization” (xinxihua) that is compared to industrialization. It means the historical process by which information technology is fully used, information resources are developed and utilized, the exchange of information and knowledge sharing are promoted, the quality of economic growth is improved, and the transformation of economic and social development is promoted”. Austin’s interesting point is that this is “less people-centered than the UN vision and more in the mould of the materialist and technocratic traditions that Chinese Communists have preferred.”

This is an interesting statement on the difference between policy articulations by the United Nations and the CCP. It does not come as a surprise.

What did come as a surprise is how Austin chooses to orient his book.

On the assumption that outcomes in the information society are ethically determined, the analytical framework used in the book revolves around ideal policy values for achieving an advanced information society. This framework is derived from a study of ethics. Thus, the analysis is not presented as a work of social science (be that political science, industry policy or strategic studies). It is more an effort to situate the values of China’s leaders within an ethical framework implied by their acceptance of the ambition to become and advanced information society.

This comes as a surprise to me because what I was expected from a book titled “Cyber Policy in China” is really something more like industry policy or strategic studies. I was not ready for, and am frankly a bit disappointed by, the idea that this is really a work of applied philosophy.

Why? I do love philosophy as a discipline and have studied it carefully for many years. I’ve written and published about ethics and technological design. But my conclusion after so much study is that “the assumption that outcomes in the information society are ethically determined” is totally incorrect. I have been situated for some time in discussions of “technology ethics” and my main conclusion from them is that (a) “ethics” in this space are more often than not an attempt to universalize what are more narrow political and economic interests, and that (b) “ethics” are constantly getting compromised by economic motivations as well as the mundane difficulty of getting information technology to work as it is intended to in a narrow, functionally defined way. The real world is much bigger and more complex than any particular ethical lens can take in. Attempt to define technological change in terms of “ethics” are almost always a political maneuver, for good or for ill, of some kind that is reducing the real complexity of technological development into a soundbite. A true ethical analysis of cyber policy would need to address industrial policy and strategic aspects, as this is what drives the “cyber” part of it.

The irony is that there is something terribly un-emic about this approach. By Austin’s own admission, the CCP cyber policy is motivated by material concerns about the distribution of technology and economic growth. Austin could have approached China’s cyber policy in the technocratic terms they see themselves in. But instead Austin’s approach is “human-centered”, with a focus on leaders and their values. I already doubt the research on anthropological grounds because of the distance between the researcher and the subjects.

So I’m not sure what to do about this book. The preface makes it sound like it belongs to a genre of scholarship that reads well, and maybe does important ideological translation work, but does provide something like scientific knowledge of China’s cyber policy, which is what I’m most interested in. Perhaps I should move on, or take other recommendations for reading on this topic.

How trade protection can increase labor wages (the Stolper-Samuelson theorem)

I’m continuing a look into trade policy 8/08/30/trade-policy-and-income-distribution-effects/”>using Corden’s (1997) book on the topic.

Picking up where the last post left off, I’m operating on the assumption that any reader is familiar with the arguments for free trade that are an extension of those arguments of laissez-faire markets. I will assume that these arguments are true as far as they go: that the economy grows with free trade, that tariffs create a dead weight loss, that subsidies are expensive, but that both tariffs and subsidies do shift the market towards imports.

The question raised by Corden is why, despite its deleterious effects on the economy as a whole, protectionism enjoys political support by some sectors of the economy. He hints, earlier in Chapter 5, that this may be due to income distribution effects. He clarifies this with reference to an answer to this question that was given as early as 1941 by Stolper and Samuelson; their result is now celebrated as the Stolper-Samuelson theorem.

The mathematics of the theorem can be read in many places. Like any economic model, it depends on some assumptions that may or may not be the case. Its main advantage is that it articulates how it is possible for protectionism to benefit a class of the population, and not just in relative but in absolute terms. It does this by modeling the returns to different factors of production, which classically have been labor, land, and capital.

Roughly, the argument goes like this. Suppose and economy has two commodities, one for import and one for export. Suppose that the imported good is produced with a higher labor to land ratio than the export good. Suppose a protectionist policy increases the amount of the import good produced relative to the export good. Then the return on labor will increase (because more labor is used in supply), and the return on land will decrease (because less land is used in supply). Wages will increase and rent on land will decrease.

These breakdowns of the economy into “factors of production” feels very old school. You rarely read economists discuss the economy in these terms now, which is itself interesting. One reason why (and I am only speculating here) is that these models clarify how laborers, land-owners, and capital-owners have different political interests in economic intervention, and that can lead to the kind of thinking that was flushed out of the American academy during the McCarthy era. Another reason may be that “capital” has changed meaning from being about ownership of machine goods into being about having liquid funds available for financial investment.

I’m interested in these kinds of models today partly because I’m interested in the political interests in various policies, and also because I’m interested in particular in the economics of supply chain logistics. The “factors of production” approach is a crude way to model the ‘supply chain’ in a broad sense, but one that has proven to be an effective source of insights in the past.


Corden, W. Max. “Trade policy and economic welfare.” OUP Catalogue (1997).

Stolper, Wolfgang F., and Paul A. Samuelson. “Protection and real wages.” The Review of Economic Studies 9.1 (1941): 58-73.

trade policy and income distribution effects

And now for something completely different

I am going to start researching trade policy, meaning policies around trade between different countries; imports and exports. Why?

  • It is politically relevant in the U.S. today.
  • It is a key component to national cybersecurity strategy, both defensive and offensive, which hinges in many cases on supply chain issues.
  • It maybe ought to be a component of national tech regulation and privacy policy, if e-commerce is seen as a trade activity. (This could be see as ‘cybersecurity’ policy, more broadly writ).
  • Formal models from trade policy may be informative in other domains as well.

In general, years of life experience and study have taught me that economics, however much it is maligned, is a wise and fundamental social science without which any other understanding of politics and society is incomplete, especially when considering the role of technology in society.

Plenty of good reasons! Onward!

As a starting point, I’m working through Max Corden’s Trade policy and social welfare (1997), which appears to be a well regarded text on the subject. In it, he sets out to describe a normative theory of trade policy. Here are two notable points based on a first perusal.

1. (from Chapter 1, “Introduction”) Corden identifies three “stages of thought” about trade policy. The first is the discovery of the benefits of free trade with the great original economists Adam Smith and David Ricardo. Here, the new appreciation of free trade was simultaneous with the new appreciation of the free market in general. “Indeed, the case for free trade was really a special case of the argument for laissez-faire.”

In the second phase, laissez-faire policies came into question. These policies may not lead to full employment, and the income distribution effects (which Corden takes seriously throughout the book, by the way) may not be desirable. Parallel to this, the argument for free trade was challenged. Some of these challenges were endorsed by John Stuart Mill. One argument is that tariffs might be necessary to protect “infant industries”.

As time went on, the favorability of free trade more or less tracked the favorability of laissez-faire. Both were popular in Western Europe and failed to get traction in most other countries (almost all of which were ‘developing’).

Corden traces the third stage of thought to Meade’s (1955) Trade and welfare. “In the third stage the link between the case for free trade and the case for laissez-faire was broken.“. The normative case for free trade, in this stage, did not depend on a normative case for laissez-faire, but existed despite normative reasons for government intervention in the economy. The point made in this approach, called the theory of domestic distortions, is that it is generally better for the kinds of government intervention made to solve domestic problems to be domestic interventions, not trade interventions.

This third stage came with a much more sophisticated toolkit for comparing the effects of different kinds of policies, which is the subject of exposition for a large part of Corden’s book.

2. (from Chapter 5, “Protection and Income Distribution) Corden devotes at least one whole chapter to an aspect of the trade policy discussion that is very rarely addressed in, say, the mainstream business press. This is the fact that trade policy can have an effect on internal income distribution, and that this has been throughout history a major source of the political momentum for protectionist policies. This explains why the domestic politics of protectionism and free trade can be so heated and are really often independent from arguments about the effect of trade policy on the economy as a whole, which, it must be said, few people realize they have a real stake in.

Corden’s examples involve the creation of fledgling industries under the conditions of war, which often cut off foreign supplies. When the war ends, those businesses that flourished during war exert political pressure to protect themselves from erosion from market forces. “Thus the Napoleonic Wars cut off supplies of corn (wheat) to Britain from the Continent and led to expansion of acreage and higher prices of corn. When the war was over, the Corn Law of 1815 was designed to maintain prices, with an import prohibition as long as the domestic price was below a certain level.” It goes almost without saying that this served the interests of a section of the community, the domestic corn farmers, and not of others. This is what Corden means by an “income distribution effect”.

“Any history book will show that these income distribution effects are the very stuff of politics. The great free trade versus protection controversies of the nineteenth century in Great Britain and in the United States brought out the conflicting interests of different sections of the community. It was the debate about the effects of the Corn Laws which really stimulated the beginnings of the modern theory of international trade.”

Extending this argument a bit, one might say that a major reason why economics gets such a bad rap as a social science is that nobody really cares about Pareto optimality except for those sections of the economy that are well served by a policy that can be justified as being Pareto optimal (in practice, this would seem to be correlated with how much somebody has invested in mutual funds, as these track economic growth). The “stuff of politics” is people using political institutions to change their income outcomes, and the potential for this makes trade policy a very divisive topic.

Implication for future research:

The two key takeaways for trade policy in cybersecurity are:

1) The trade policy discussion need not remain within the narrow frame of free trade versus protectionism, but rather a more nuanced set of policy analysis tools should be brought to bear on the problem, and

2) An outcome of these policy analyses should be the identification not just of total effects on the economy, or security posture, or what have you, but on the particular effects on different sections of the economy and population.


Corden, W. Max. “Trade policy and economic welfare.” OUP Catalogue (1997).

Meade, James Edward. Trade and welfare. Vol. 2. Oxford University Press, 1955.

“the politicization of the social” and “politics of identity” in Omi and Winant, Cha. 6

A confusing debate in my corner of the intellectual Internet is about (a) whether the progressive left has a coherent intellectual stance that can be articulated, (b) what to call this stance, (c) whether the right-wing critics of this stance have the intellectual credentials to refer to it and thereby land any kind of rhetorical punch. What may be true is that both “sides” reflect social movements more than they reflect coherent philosophies as such, and so trying to bridge between them intellectually is fruitless.

Happily, reading through Omi and Winant, which among other things outlines a history of what I think of as the progressive left, or the “social justice”, “identity politics” movement in the United States. They address this in their Chapter 6: “The Great Transformation”. They use “the Great Transformation” to refer to “racial upsurges” in the 1950’s and 1960’s.

They are, as far as I can tell, the only people who ever use “The Great Transformation” to refer to this period. I don’t think it is going to stick. They name it this because they see this period as a great victorious period for democracy in the United States. Omi and Winant refer to previous periods in the United States as “racial despotism”, meaning that the state was actively treating nonwhites as second class citizens and preventing them from engaging in democracy in a real way. “Racial democracy”, which would involve true integration across race lines, is an ideal future or political trajectory that was approached during the Great Transformation but not realized fully.

The story of the civil rights movements in the mid-20th century are textbook material and I won’t repeat Omi and Winant’s account, which is interesting for a lot of reasons. One reason why it is interesting is how explicitly influenced by Gramsci their analysis is. As the “despotic” elements of United States power structures fade, the racial order is maintained less by coercion and more by consent. A power disparity in social order maintained by consent is a hegemony, in Gramscian theory.

They explain the Great Transformation as being due to two factors. One was the decline of the ethnicity paradigm of race, which had perhaps naively assumed that racial conflicts could be resolved through assimilation and recognition of ethnic differences without addressing the politically entrenched mechanisms of racial stratification.

The other factor was the rise of new social movements characterized by, in alliance with second-wave feminism, the politicization of the social, whereby social identity and demographic categories were made part of the public political discourse, rather than something private. This is the birth of “politics of identity”, or “identity politics”, for short. These were the original social justice warriors. And they attained some real political victories.

The reason why these social movements are not exactly normalized today is that there was a conservative reaction to resist changes in the 70’s. The way Omi and Winant tell it, the “colorblind ideology” of the early 00’s was culmination of a kind of political truce between “racial despotism” and “racial democracy”–a “racial hegemony”. Gilman has called this “racial liberalism”.

So what does this mean for identity politics today? It means it has its roots in political activism which was once very radical. It really is influenced by Marxism, as these movements were. It means that its co-option by the right is not actually new, as “reverse racism” was one of the inventions of the groups that originally resisted the Civil Rights movement in the 70’s. What’s new is the crisis of hegemony, not the constituent political elements that were its polar extremes, which have been around for decades.

What it also means is that identity politics has been, from its start, a tool for political mobilization. It is not a philosophy of knowledge or about how to live the good life or a world view in a richer sense. It serves a particular instrumental purpose. Omi and Winant talk about the politics of identity is “attractive”, that it is a contagion. These are positive terms for them; they are impressed at how anti-racism spreads. These days I am often referred to Phillips’ report, “The Oxygen of Amplification”, which is about preventing the spread of extremist views by reducing the amount of reporting on them in ‘disgust’. It must be fair to point out that identity politics as a left-wing innovation were at one point an “extremist” view, and that proponents of that view do use media effectively to spread it. This is just how media-based organizing tactics work, now.

Racial projects and racism (Omi and Winant, 2014; Jeong case study)

Following up on earlier posts on Omi and Winant, I’ve gotten to the part where they discuss racial projects and racism.

Because I use Twitter, I have not been able to avoid the discussion of Sarah Jeong’s tweets. I think it provides a useful case study in Omi and Winant’s terminology. I am not a journalist or particularly with-it person, so I have encountered this media event mainly through articles about it. Here are some.

To recap, for Omi and Winant, race is a “master category” of social organization, but nevertheless one that is unstable and politically contested. The continuity of racial classification is due to a historical, mutually reinforcing process that includes both social structures that control the distribution of resources and social meanings and identities that have been acquired by properties of people’s bodies. The fact that race is sustained through this historical and semiotically rich structuration (to adopt a term from Giddens), means that

“To identify an individual or group racially is to locate them within a socially and historically demarcated set of demographic and cultural boundaries, state activities, “life-chances”, and tropes of identity/difference/(in)equality.

“We cannot understand how racial representations set up patterns of residential segregation, for example, without considering how segregation reciprocally shapes and reinforces the meaning of race itself.”

This is totally plausible. Identifying the way that racial classification depends on a relationship between meaning and social structure opens the possibility of human political agency in the (re)definition of race. Omi and Winant’s term for these racial acts is racial projects.

A racial project is simultaneously an interpretation, representation, or explanation of racial identities and meanings, and an effort to organize and distribute resources (economic, political, cultural) along particular racial lines.
… Racial projects connect the meaning of race in discourse and ideology with the way that social structures are racially organized.

“Racial project” is a broad category that can include both large state and institutional interventions and individual actions. “even the decision to wear dreadlocks”. What makes them racial projects is how they reflect and respond to broader patterns of race, whether to reproduce it or to subvert it. Prevailing stereotypes are one of the main ways we can “read” the racial meanings of society, and so the perpetuation of subversion of stereotypes is a form of “racial project”. Racial projects are often in contest with each other; the racial formation process is the interaction and accumulation of these projects.

Racial project is a useful category partly because it is key to Omi and Winant’s definition of racism. They acknowledge that the term itself is subject to “enormous debate”, at times inflated to be meaningless and at other times deflated to be too narrow. They believe the definition of racism as “racial hate” is too narrow, though it has gain legal traction as a category, as in when “hate crimes” are considered an offense with enhanced sentencing, or universities institute codes against “hate speech”. I’ve read “racial animus” as another term that means something similar, though perhaps more subtle, than ‘racial hate’.

The narrow definition of racism as racial hate is rejected due to an argument O&W attribute to David Theo Goldberg (1997), which is that by narrowly focusing on “crimes of passion” (I would gloss this more broadly to ‘psychological states’), the interpretation of racism misses the ideologies, policies, and practices that “normalize and reproduce racial inequality and domination”. In other words, racism, as a term, has to reference the social structure that is race in order to adequate.

Omi and Winant define racism thus:

A racial project can be defined as racist if it creates or reproduces structures of domination based on racial significance and identities.

A key implication of their argument is that not all racial projects are racist. Recall that Omi and Winant are very critical of colorblindness as (they allege) a political hegemony. They want to make room for racial solidarity and agency despite the hierarchical nature of race as a social fact. This allows them to answer two important questions.

Are there anti-racist projects? Yes. “[w]e define anti-racist projects as those that undo or resist structures of domination based on racial significations and identities.

Note that the two definitions are not exactly parallel in construction. To “create and reproduce structure” is not entirely the opposite of “undo or resist structure”. Given O&W’s ontology, and the fact that racial structure is always the accumulation of a long history of racial projects, projects that have been performed by (bluntly) both the right and the left, and given that social structure is not homogeneous across location (consider how race is different in the United States and in Brazil, or different in New York City and in Dallas), and given that an act of resistance is also an act of creation, implicitly, one could easily get confused trying to apply these definitions. The key word, “domination”, is not defined precisely, and everything hinges on this. It’s clear from the writing that Omi and Winant subscribe to the “left” view of how racial domination works; this orients their definition of racism concretely. But they also not that the political agency of people of color in the United States over the past hundred years or so has gained them political power. Isn’t the key to being racist having power? This leads O&W to the second question, which is

Can Group of Color Advance Racist Projects? O&W’s answer is, yes, they can. There are exceptions to the hierarchy of white supremacy, and in these exceptions there can be racial conflicts where a group of color is racist. Their example is in cases where blacks and Latinos are in contest over resources. O&W do not go so far as to say that it is possible to be racist against white people, because they believe all racial relations are shaped by the overarching power of white supremacy.

Case Study: Jeong’s tweets

That is the setup. So what about Sarah Jeong? Well, she wrote some tweets mocking white people, and specifically white men, in 2014, which was by the way the heyday of obscene group conflict on Twitter. That was the year of Gamergate. A whole year of tweets that are probably best forgotten. She compared white people to goblins, she compared them the dogs. She said she wished ill on white men. As has been pointed out, if any other group besides white men were talked about, her tweets would be seen as undeniably racist, etc. They are, truth be told, similar rhetorically to the kinds of tweets that the left media have been so appalled at for some time.

They have surfaced again because Jeong was hired by the New York Times, and right wing activists (or maybe just trolls, I’m a little unclear about which) surfaced the old tweets. In the political climate of 2018, when Internet racism feels like it’s gotten terribly real, these struck a chord and triggered some reflection.

What should we make of these tweets, in light of racial formation theory?

First, we should acknowledge that the New York Times has some really great lawyers working for it. Their statement was the at the time, (a) Jeong was being harassed, (b) that she responded to them in the same rhetorical manner of the harassment, that (c) that’s regrettable, but also, it’s long past and not so bad. Sarah Jeong’s own statement makes this point, acknowledges that the tweets may be hurtful out of context, and that she didn’t mean them the way others could take them. “Harassment” is actually a relatively neutral term; you can harass somebody, legally speaking, on the basis of their race without invoking a reaction from anti-racist sociologists. This is all perfectly sensible, IMO, and the case is pretty much closed.

But that’s not where the discussion on the Internet ended. Why? Because the online media is where the contest of racial formation is happening.

We can ask: Were Sarah Jeong’s tweets a racial project? The answer seems to be, yes, they were. It was a representation of racial identity (whiteness) “to organize and distribute resources (economic, political, cultural) along particular racial lines”. Jeong is a journalist and scholar, and these arguments are happening in social media, which are always-already part of the capitalist attention economy. Jeong’s success is partly due to her confrontation of on-line harassers and responses to right-wing media figures. And her activity is the kind that rallies attention along racial lines–anti-racist, racist, etc.

Confusingly, the language she used in these tweets reads as hateful. “Dumbass fucking white people marking up the internet with their opinions like dogs pissing on fire hydrants” does, reasonably, sound like it expresses some racial animus. If we were to accept the definition of racism as merely the possession of ill will towards a race, which seems to be Andrew Sullivan’s definition, then we would have to say those were racist tweets.

We could invoke a defense here. Were the tweets satire? Did Jeong not actually have any ill will towards white people? One might wonder, similarly, whether 4chan anti-Semites are actually anti-Semitic or just trolling. The whole question of who is just trolling and who should be taken seriously on the Internet is such an interesting one. But it’s one I had to walk away from long ago after the heat got turned up on me one time. So it goes.

What everyone knows is at stake, though, is the contention that the ‘racial animus’ definition is not the real definition of racism, but rather that something like O&W’s definition is. By their account, (a) a racial project is only racist if it aligns with structures of racial domination, and (b) the structure of racial domination is a white supremacist one. Ergo, by this account, Jeong’s tweets are not racist, because insulting white people does not create or reproduce structures of white supremacist domination.

It’s worth pointing out that there are two different definitions of a word here and that neither one is inherently more correct of a definition. I’m hesitant to label the former definition “right” and the latter definition “left” because there’s nothing about the former definition that would make you, say, not want to abolish the cradle-to-prison system or any number of other real, institutional reforms. But the latter definition is favored by progressives, who have a fairly coherent world view. O&W’s theorizing is consistent with it. The helpful thing about this worldview is that it makes it difficult to complain about progressive rhetorical tactics without getting mired into a theoretical debate about their definitions, which makes it an excellent ideology for getting into fights on the Internet. This is largely what Andrew Sullivan was getting at in his critique.

what Jeong and the NYT seem to get, which some others don’t, is that comments that insult an entire race can be hurtful and bothersome even if they are not racist in the progressive sense of the term. It is not clear what we should call a racial project that is hurtful and bothersome to white people if we do not call it racist. A difficulty with the progressive definition of racism is that agreement on the application of the term is going to depend on agreement about what the dominate racial structures are. What we’ve learned in the past few years is that the left-wing view of what these racial structures are is not as widely shared as it was believed to be. Example, there are far more people who believe in anti-Semitic conspiracies, in which the dominant race is the Jews, active in American political life than was supposed. Given O&W’s definition of racism, if it were, factually, the case that Jews ran the world, then anti-Semitic comments would not be racist in the meaningful sense.

Which means that the progressive definition of racism, to be effective, depends on widespread agreement about white supremacist hegemony, which is a much, much more complicated thing to try to persuade somebody of than a particular person’s racial animus.

A number of people have been dismissing any negative reaction to the resurfacing of Jeong’s tweets, taking the opportunity to disparage that reaction as misguided and backwards. As far as I can tell, there is an argument that Jeong’s tweets are actually anti-racist. This article argues that casually disparaging white men is just something anti-racists do lightly to call attention to the dominant social structures and also the despicable behavior of some white men. Naturally, these comments are meant humorously, and not intended to refer to all white men (to assume it does it to distract from the structural issues at stake). They are jokes that should be celebrated, because the the progressives have already won this argument over #notallmen, also in 2014. Understood properly as progressive, anti-racist, social justice idiom, there is nothing offensive about Jeong’s tweets.

I am probably in a minority on this one, but I do not agree with this assessment, for a number of reasons.

First, the idea that you can have a private, in-group conversation on Twitter is absurd.

Second, the idea that a whole community of people casually expresses racial animus because of representative examples of wrongdoing by members of a social class can be alarming whether or not it’s Trump voters talking about Mexicans or anti-racists talking about white people. That alarm, as an emotional reaction, is a reality whether or not the dominant racial structures are being reproduced or challenged.

Third, I’m not convinced that as a racial project, tweets simply insulting white people really counts as “anti-racist” in a substantive sense. Anti-racist projects are “those that undo or resist structures of domination based on racial significations and identities.” Is saying “white men are bullshit” undoing a structure of domination? I’m pretty sure any white supremacist structures of domination have survived that attack. Does it resist white supremacist domination? The thrust of wise sociology of race is that what’s more important than the social meanings are the institutional structures that maintain racial inequality. Even if this statement has a meaning that is degrading to white people, it doesn’t seem to be doing any work of reorganizing resources around (anti-)racial lines. It’s just a crass insult. It may well have actually backfired, or had an effect on the racial organization of attention that neither harmed nor supported white supremacy, but rather just made its manifestation on the Internet more toxic (in response to other, much greater, toxicity, of course).

I suppose what I’m arguing for is greater nuance than either the “left” or “right” position has offered on this case. I’m saying that it is possible to engage in a racial project that is neither racist nor anti-racist. You could have a racial project that is amusingly absurd, or toxic, or cleverly insightful. Moreover, there is a complex of ethical responsibilities and principles that intersects with racial projects but is not contained by the logic of race. There are greater standards of decency that can be invoked. These are not simply constraints on etiquette. They also are relevant to the contest of racial projects and their outcomes.

From social movements to business standards

Matt Levine has a recent piece discussing how discovering the history of sexual harassment complaints about a company’s leadership is becoming part of standard due diligence before an acquisition. Implicitly, the threat of liability, and presumably the costs of a public relations scandal, are material to the value of the company being acquired.

Perhaps relatedly, the National Venture Capital Association has added to its Model Legal Documents a slew of policies related to harassment and discrimination, codes of conduct, attracting and retaining diverse talent, and family friendly policies. Rumor has it that venture capitalists will now encourage companies they invest in to adopt these tested versions of the policies, much as an organization would adopt a tested and well-understood technical standard.

I have in various researcher roles studied social movements and political change, but these studies have left me with the conclusion that changes to culture are rarely self-propelled, but rather are often due to more fundamental changes in demographics or institutions. State legislation is very slow to move and limited in its range, and so often trails behind other amassing of power and will.

Corporate self-regulation, on the other hand, through standards, contracts, due diligence, and the like, seems to be quite adaptive. This is leading me to the conclusion that a best kept secret of cultural change is that some of the main drivers of it are actually deeply embedded in corporate law. Corporate law has the reputation of being a dry subject which sucks in recent law grads into soulless careers. But what if that wasn’t what corporate law was? What if corporate law was really where the action is?

In broader terms, the adaptivety of corporate policy to changing demographics and social needs perhaps explains the paradox of “progressive neoliberalism”, or the idea that the emerging professional business class seems to be socially liberal, whether or not it is fiscally conservative. Professional culture requires, due to antidiscrimination law and other policies, the compliance of its employees with a standard of ‘political correctness’. People can’t be hostile to each other in the workplace or else they will get fired, and they especially can’t be hostile to anybody on the basis of their being part of a protected category. This has been enshrined into law long ago. Part of the role of educational institutions is to teach students a coherent story about why these rules are what they are and how they are not just legally mandated, but morally compelling. So the professional class has an ideology of inclusivity because it must.

How the Internet changed everything: a grand theory of AI, etc.

I have read many a think piece and critical take about AI, the Internet, and so on. I offer a new theory of What Happened, the best I can come up with based on my research and observations to date.

Consider this article, “The death of Don Draper”, as a story that represents the changes that occur more broadly. In this story, advertising was once a creative field that any company with capital could hire out to increase their chances of getting noticed and purchased, albeit in a noisy way. Because everything was very uncertain, those that could afford it blew a lot of money on it (“Half of advertising is useless; the problem is knowing which half”).

A similar story could be told about access to the news–dominated by big budgets that hid quality–and political candidates–whose activities were largely not exposed to scrutiny and could follow a similarly noisy pattern of hype and success.

Then along came the Internet and targeted advertising, which did a number of things:

  • It reduced search costs for people looking for particular products, because Google searches the web and Amazon indexes all the products (and because of lots of smaller versions of Google and Amazon).
  • It reduced the uncertainty of advertising effectiveness because it allowed for fine-grained measurement of conversion metrics. This reduced the search costs of producers to advertisers, and from advertisers to audiences.
  • It reduced the search costs of people finding alternative media and political interest groups, leading to a reorganization of culture. The media and cultural landscape could more precisely reflect the exogenous factors of social difference.
  • It reduced the cost of finding people based on their wealth, social influence, and so on, implicitly creating a kind of ‘social credit system’ distributed across various web services. (Gandy, 1993; Fourcade and Healy, 2016)

What happens when you reduce search costs in markets? Robert Jensen’s (2007) study of the introduction of mobile phones to fish markets in Kerala is illustrative here. Fish prices were very noisy due to bad communication until mobile phones were introduced. After that, the prices stabilized, owing to swifter communication between fisherman and markets. Suddenly able to preempt prices rather than subject to the vagaries to them, fisherman could then choose to go to the market that would give them the best price.

Reducing search costs makes markets more efficient and larger. In doing so, it increases inequality, because whereas a lot of lower quality goods and services can survive in a noisy economy, when consumers are more informed and more efficient at searching, they can cut out less useful services. They can then standardize on “the best” option available, which can be produced with economies of scale. So inefficient, noisy parts of the economy were squeezed out and the surplus amassed in the hands of a big few intermediaries, who we now see as Big Tech leveraging AI.

Is AI an appropriate term? I have always liked this definition of AI: “Anything that humans still do better than computers.” Most recently I’ve seen this restated in an interview with Andrew Moore, quoted by Zachary Lipton:

Artificial intelligence is the science and engineering of making computers behave in ways that, until recently, we thought required human intelligence.

The use of technical platforms to dramatically reduce search costs. “Searching” for people, products, and information is something that used to require human intelligence. Now it is assisted by computers. And whether or not the average user knows that they are doing when they search (Mulligan and Griffin, 2018), as a commercial function, the panoply of search engines and recommendation systems and auctions that occupy the central places in the information economy outperform human intelligence largely by virtue of having access to more data–a broader perspective–than any individual human could ever accomplish.

The comparison between the Google search engine and a human’s intelligence is therefore ill-posed. The kinds of functions tech platforms are performing are things that have only every been solved by human organizations, especially bureaucratic ones. And while the digital user interfaces of these services hides the people “inside” the machines, we know that of course there’s an enormous amount of ongoing human labor involved in the creation and maintenance of any successful “AI” that’s in production.

In conclusion, the Internet changed everything for a mundane reason that could have been predicted from neoclassical economic theory. It reduced search costs, creating economic efficiency and inequality, by allowing for new kinds of organizations based on broad digital connectivity. “AI” is a distraction from these accomplishments, as is most “critical” reaction to these developments, which do not do justice to the facts of the matter because by taking up a humanistic lens, they tend not to address how decisions by individual humans and changes to their experience experience are due to large-scale aggregate processes and strategic behaviors by businesses.


Gandy Jr, Oscar H. The Panoptic Sort: A Political Economy of Personal Information. Critical Studies in Communication and in the Cultural Industries. Westview Press, Inc., 5500 Central Avenue, Boulder, CO 80301-2877 (paperback: ISBN-0-8133-1657-X, $18.95; hardcover: ISBN-0-8133-1656-1, $61.50)., 1993.

Fourcade, Marion, and Kieran Healy. “Seeing like a market.” Socio-Economic Review 15.1 (2016): 9-29.

Jensen, Robert. “The digital provide: Information (technology), market performance, and welfare in the South Indian fisheries sector.” The quarterly journal of economics 122.3 (2007): 879-924.

Mulligan, Deirdre K. and Griffin, Daniel S. “Rescripting Search to Respect the Right to Truth.” 2 GEO. L. TECH. REV. 557 (2018)

search engines and authoritarian threats

I’ve been intrigued by Daniel Griffin’s tweets lately, which have been about situating some upcoming work of his an Deirdre Mulligan’s regarding the experience of using search engines. There is a lively discussion lately about the experience of those searching for information and the way they respond to misinformation or extremism that they discover through organic use of search engines and media recommendation systems. This is apparently how the concern around “fake news” has developed in the HCI and STS world since it became an issue shortly after the 2016 election.

I do not have much to add to this discussion directly. Consumer misuse of search engines is, to me, analogous to consumer misuse of other forms of print media. I would assume to best solution to it is education in the complete sense, and the problems with the U.S. education system are, despite all good intentions, not HCI problems.

Wearing my privacy researcher hat, however, I have become interested in a different aspect of search engines and the politics around them that is less obvious to the consumer and therefore less popularly discussed, but I fear is more pernicious precisely because it is not part of the general imaginary around search. This is the aspect that is around the tracking of search engine activity, and what it means for this activity to be in the hands of not just such benevolent organizations such as Google, but also such malevolent organizations such as Bizarro World Google*.

Here is the scenario, so to speak: for whatever reason, we begin to see ourselves in a more adversarial relationship with search engines. I mean “search engine” here in the broad sense, including Siri, Alexa, Google News, YouTube, Bing, Baidu, Yandex, and all the more minor search engines embedded in web services and appliances that do something more focused than crawl the whole web. By ‘search engine’ I mean entire UX paradigm of the query into the vast unknown of semantic and semiotic space that contemporary information access depends on. In all these cases, the user is at a systematic disadvantage in the sense that their query is a data point amount many others. The task of the search engine is to predict the desired response to the query and provide it. In return, the search engine gets the query, tied to the identity of the user. That is one piece of a larger mosaic; to be a search engine is to have a picture of a population and their interests and the mandate to categorize and understand those people.

In Western neoliberal political systems the central function of the search engine is realized as commercial transaction facilitating other commercial transactions. My “search” is a consumer service; I “pay” for this search by giving my query to the adjoined advertising function, which allows other commercial providers to “search” for me, indirectly, through the ad auction platform. It is a market with more than just two sides. There’s the consumer who wants information and may be tempted by other information. There are the primary content providers, who satisfy consumer content demand directly. And there are secondary content providers who want to intrude on consumer attention in a systematic and successful way. The commercial, ad-enabled search engine reduces transaction costs for the consumer’s search and sells a fraction of that attentional surplus to the advertisers. Striking the right balance, the consumer is happy enough with the trade.

Part of the success of commercial search engines is the promise of privacy in the sense that the consumer’s queries are entrusted secretly with the engine, and this data is not leaked or sold. Wise people know not to write into email things that they would not want in the worst case exposed to the public. Unwise people are more common than wise people, and ill-considered emails are written all the time. Most unwise people do not come to harm because of this because privacy in email is a de facto standard; it is the very security of email that makes the possibility of its being leaked alarming.

So to with search engine queries. “Ask me anything,” suggests the search engine, “I won’t tell”. “Well, I will reveal your data in an aggregate way; I’ll expose you to selective advertising. But I’m a trusted intermediary. You won’t come to any harms besides exposure to a few ads.”

That is all a safe assumption until it isn’t, at which point we must reconsider the role of the search engine. Suppose that, instead of living in a neoliberal democracy where the free search for information was sanctioned as necessary for the operation of a free market, we lived in an authoritarian country organized around the principle that disloyalty to the state should be crushed.

Under these conditions, the transition of a society into one that depends for its access to information on search engines is quite troubling. The act of looking for information is a political signal. Suppose you are looking for information about an extremist, subversive ideology. To do so is to flag yourself as a potential threat of the state. Suppose that you are looking for information about a morally dubious activity. To do so is to make yourself vulnerable to kompromat.

Under an authoritarian regime, curiosity and free thought are a problem, and a problem that are readily identified by ones search queries. Further, an authoritarian regime benefits if the risks of searching for the ‘wrong’ thing are widely known, since it suppresses inquiry. Hence, the very vaguely announced and, in fact, implausible to implement Social Credit System in China does not need to exist to be effective; people need only believe it exists for it to have a chilling and organizing effect on behavior. That is the lesson of the Foucouldean panopticon: it doesn’t need a guard sitting in it to function.

Do we have a word for this function of search engines in an authoritarian system? We haven’t needed one in our liberal democracy, which perhaps we take for granted. “Censorship” does not apply, because what’s at stake is not speech but the ability to listen and learn. “Surveillance” is too general. It doesn’t capture the specific constraints on acquiring information, on being curious. What is the right term for this threat? What is the term for the corresponding liberty?

I’ll conclude with a chilling thought: when at war, all states are authoritarian, to somebody. Every state has an extremist, subversive ideology that it watches out for and tries in one way or another to suppress. Our search queries are always of strategic or tactical interest to somebody. Search engine policies are always an issue of national security, in one way or another.