Lepore on disruption

by Eric on June 24, 2014

Jill Lepore deserves an award for her New Yorker essay against the gospel of disruption. The last paragraph alone is a sufficiently fine piece of writing to warrant reading the whole thing.

For those of you blessedly unfamiliar with the theory of disruptive innovation, it goes like this: Everyone, every institution that is superb at providing a product or service is in truth a Goliath, merely waiting for a little innovative David to topple him with a better way to do his job. Why work up your muscles to carry a cudgel if you can deal death with a slingshot?

Amazon has disrupted book-selling. Online commentary has disrupted journalism. MOOCs will disrupt the university (people swear).

You who are merely doing your job exceptionally well and profitably – you are a complacent fool.

In her essay, Lepore beats the tar out of the scholarship that gave rise to this preaching. Apart from pointing the article out to you, I want to comment briefly on how she says what she says. In truth, Lepore gives two arguments for the price of one, and it’s the second that I find more fetching and worth a little extra remark.

Mainly, and entertainingly, she points out the entire theory of disruptive innovation is bunk on its own terms. It neither explains what it’s meant to explain, nor predicts what it’s meant to predict. It’s a fable that comforts the comfortable, by depicting their rapacious waste as the inevitable manner of capitalism’s progress. I won’t try to summarize what Lepore says about the embarrassing failures of the theory, because she already says it well.

But Lepore makes a secondary argument you could almost miss. She notes that even if the theory of disruption were sound, there are certain human activities to which it should not be applied.

Innovation and disruption are ideas that originated in the arena of business but which have since been applied to arenas whose values and goals are remote from the values and goals of business. People aren’t disk drives. Public schools, colleges and universities, churches, museums, and many hospitals, all of which have been subjected to disruptive innovation, have revenues and expenses and infrastructures, but they aren’t industries in the same way that manufacturers of hard-disk drives or truck engines or drygoods are industries. Journalism isn’t an industry in that sense, either.

Lepore says all this, but spends little time on it; having noted that people aren’t disk drives, she spends most of her essay observing that the theory of disruptive innovation doesn’t really apply to disk drives anyway.

I’d hazard a guess Lepore knows her essay works better this way. A significant portion of her readership would find it tedious to be told less briefly that we need to remember, or revive, the language of public trust, public interest, public service.

Lepore’s choice of emphasis reminds me of the origins of American liberalism in a different age. Back in the early 1900s, Charles Beard noted that merely to tell Americans that their factories were injuring workers more wantonly than those of any other country would fail to move a nation so fixated on profit. You had, he said (and I’m paraphrasing, because I’m not able to look it up at the moment), to tell the American people that it was inefficient to keep killing workers – that it was a waste of human capital, an unproductive use of resources.

This rhetorical tactic aims at moral ends by appealing to a venal calculus. Like the commuter who rescued his fellow-citizen from a train track because he didn’t want to be late to work, maybe we will rescue our public goods from disruption – not because it’s the right thing to do, but because we won’t profit if we don’t.

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Sunday photoblogging: Refugee Week

by Chris Bertram on June 22, 2014

It is the end of Refugee Week, a week of campaigning for and celebrating the rights of refugees and asylum seekers. In Bristol there’s an event in Queen Square every year, with music, food, stalls for the campaigning groups and so on. These are the Tan Teddy Singers, a Jamaican women’s singing group. Very fine they were too.

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My apologies for the delay in posting the second half of my reply to the symposium. I was traveling. Let me repeat at the outset my deep appreciation for the insightful comments provided by the contributors to this symposium. This is the sort of exchange that makes intellectual life rewarding. Given the delay since the original postings, I did not want to assume that readers of this post would remember what was said in the earlier ones, and I’ve tried to write this in a way that will be intelligible on its own. I take up here the six contributions that I did not discuss in the previous post. I’ll begin with David Owen, Michael Blake, Kieran Oberman and Ryan Pevnick, all of whom have related concerns. At the end, I’ll discuss the posts by Brian Weatherson and Patti Lenard.

In various, sometimes overlapping ways, David, Michael, Kieran and Ryan have raised questions about my theory of social membership. To recall (or, for those who have not read the book, to summarize), the central claim of that theory is that immigrants become members of society over time and their social membership gives them a moral claim to most of the legal rights that citizens enjoy and eventually to citizenship itself. It is important to note, however, that I do not start with a general theory of social membership that I try to justify on the basis of abstract principles and then apply to particular issues. Rather I start with the actual practices of democratic states and ask whether these practices seem to make moral sense. It is only after I have explored arguments about particular practices that I try to show that the idea of social membership is a common thread in many of these arguments. Moreover, my theory of social membership is not presented as a full account of why immigrants are morally entitled to legal rights. I contend that immigrants also have claims to legal rights based on the duty of every state to protect the human rights of anyone within the state’s jurisdiction and based on other considerations like reciprocity and proportionality as well. I think that this way of doing political theory “from the ground up” differs from the approach of some of my interlocutors, especially Kieran and Ryan. My approach is likely to be less systematic and involve more balancing of competing considerations, but I think that it is more closely connected to ordinary moral views, even when, as in the open borders chapters, it leads to radical conclusions.
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Over the last year, there’s been a lot of writing about Edward Snowden (I’ve contributed a fair amount to the genre myself). Most people have discussed either the question of (a) whether domestic NSA surveillance in the US is appropriate and whether it is breaking US law, or (b) the purely political consequences of international surveillance. There’s been relatively little discussion of whether there is a problem in principle with international surveillance, and most of what there has been has concerned the question of whether or not privacy is a universal human right. But the recent Der Spiegel revelations combined with some earlier material points to a narrower but very troubling set of problems for liberal democracies. Cross national cooperation between intelligence services has exploded post-September 11. This cooperation is not only outside the public space but, very often, isn’t well known to politicians either. Such cooperation in turn means that intelligence services are in practice able to evade national controls on the things that they do or do not do, directly weakening democracy. [click to continue...]

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The Rhetoric of Having Been Wrong

by John Holbo on June 19, 2014

There’s a meta-ish debate going on about who should and shouldn’t have rightful standing to opine about whether the US should do something about the horrible situation in Iraq. Meta-ish debates have a tendency to make things sound complicated, when this is pretty simple.

Either the neocons know they were wrong last time, or they don’t.

If you are The Boy Who Cried Wolf, and you don’t know it, you are useless, for wolf crying purposes.

If, on the other hand, you know you were wrong before, and you know everyone else knows, but you think you are right this time, and you want to warn everyone, you won’t say ‘now is not the time to re-litigate whether I was perfectly right in the past concerning each and every last wolf.’ No, you will say something reasonable, like: ‘I know you have no reason to trust me, given how wrong I was before in a case that looked an awful lot like this one. I am so sorry for the damage I have done, but I will be even sorrier if the fact that you can’t trust me means even more damage is done. That will be my fault, too, if it happens, so please …’

There is, after all, such a thing as common sense.

I was wrong about Iraq. I was one of those Kenneth Pollack-reading liberal queasyhawks, to my ongoing shame.

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When Presidents Get Bored

by Corey Robin on June 17, 2014

According to the Financial Times (h/t Doug Henwood), Obama is bored in the White House. The smallness of politics is tedious; he longs for more exalted pursuits:

“Just last night I was talking about life and art, big interesting things, and now we’re back to the minuscule things on politics,” Mr Obama complained after a dinner last month with Italian intellectuals in Rome. His cabin fever is tangible. On the plus side, there are only two-and-a-half years to go.


Reminds me of another thoughtful man in power. Alexis de Tocqueville served in the Chamber of Deputies throughout the July Monarchy. Despite his rhetorical support for liberal-ish democracy, the reality—parliaments, the rule of law, legislative haggling—bored him to tears. A “little democratic and bourgeois pot of soup” was how he described it to one of his closest friends. “Do you believe,” he wrote another of his correspondents, “that the political world will long remain as destitute of true passions as it is at this moment?” What is “most wanting,” he wrote another, is “political life itself.”

Beware politicians pining for “political life itself.” These men of ideas—what Theodore White called “action intellectuals”—tend to look for that life in the most deadly of places. [click to continue…]

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In search of a Father’s Day card

by Eszter Hargittai on June 15, 2014

I have never given my Dad a Father’s Day card until this year. I’m pretty sure the holiday didn’t exist when I was growing up in Hungary, certainly not in popular consciousness. But since I sent my Mom three really cute Mother’s Day cards this year, I thought I’d look for something for my Dad as well. I’m especially proud about having sent my Mom a card on time for once, by the way. Mother’s Day is a week earlier in Europe than in the US, which has gotten me in trouble more than once.

For my Mom, I was able to find some cute cards that were just cute, period. One was more gendered than I would have preferred with its focus on cooking, but given that my Mom is in fact a superb cook (having even published a cook book in addition to her lengthy list of scientific publications), it worked as one of three.

I fired up Etsy to look for something sweet for my Dad. The dog holding a wrench fixing the car made me laugh out loud. The card with all the sports paraphernalia resulted in the same reaction. Then there was the fishing theme and the lawn mower. Oh, and golf. None of these even come close to describing my experiences with my Dad in any way. The extent to which these cards in no way reflect anything I know of my father was at first amusing, but eventually disturbing. Is it really that hard to come up with something cute or funny, or gosh, perhaps even both that doesn’t play into such stereotypes? I can’t be the only person with a father for whom fixing a car or going fishing are not standard activities.

Thanks to some Etsy sellers’ flexibility in what they sell, I did get to ask a card maker to create something that was more about the bond than the activity. Happy Father’s Day to all caring and loving fathers, whether your preferred activity with your child is playing ball, baking a treat or solving the Rubik’s cube.

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My Dirty Little Secret: I Ride the Rails to Read

by Corey Robin on June 14, 2014

Like most academics, I read articles and books. Unlike most academics (maybe, I don’t really know), reading has become harder and harder for me. Not simply because of the distractions that come with department politics, administrative duties (come July 1, I’m chair of my department), advising grad students, and teaching. I wish it were as noble as that. No, the reason I find it so difficult to read these days, now years, is the internet.

Which is why I was so relieved to read this wonderful post by Tim Parks about how difficult it is now to read. [click to continue…]

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World Cup 2014: open thread

by Chris Bertram on June 14, 2014

Despite there being a post on this very page entitled “What’s the score?”, we haven’t yet had a World Cup thread. So let’s rectify that anomaly now, before the England-Italy game. What to say so far? Bad refereeing. If Croatia’s goal was disallowed then so should have been the third Dutch one against Spain. Brazil were lucky. And Mexico had two perfectly good goals disallowed, so if they go out on goal difference at the end of the group stages, they’ll have a justifiable grievance. The goal of the tournament so far: Van Persie’s header against Spain. But there’s a long way to go. England: my prediction, they won’t make it past the group.

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Genre Police, Arrest This Man

by John Holbo on June 14, 2014

More bits that came up, researching caricature. No chance in hell this is going to squeeze into the final piece, but Judith Wechsler, A Human Comedy: Physiognomy and Caricature in 19th Century Paris [amazon], tells a good story.

OK, just one detail. Wechsler makes the correct point that caricature goes with mime. She writes about the Théâtre des Funambules. Thus we learn:

The Funambules was a silent theatre. Legislation of 1806 obliged theatres to stay within their assigned genres: pantomimes were forbidden to use dialogue … The silence of this theatre became its trademark and strength. In the prolonged period of censorship until 1830 and from 1835 to its demolition in 1863, it was able to introduce subversive notes through ‘gait, glance, and gesture’. (44)

I love the idea of genre police. The idea that you would get arrested for violating genre rules. Genre jail. ‘What’re you in for?’ Also, I think someone should make a movie – possibly a silent movie – about ‘Mouthy the Mime’, a Parisian Pierrot who simply will not shut up, being chased all over Paris by the genre gendarmerie. I recommend he be played by Bobcat Goldthwait.

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It is an author’s dream for his or her work to receive the sort of wide-ranging, substantive, thoughtful and generous reactions that this symposium on my book has elicited. So, I want to begin by expressing my deep appreciation to Chris Bertram for organizing the symposium and to all of the contributors, including Chris, for their comments. Among other things, I felt that all of the contributors understood my project and discussed it in a fairminded way, whether they agreed with me or not. That is not always the case in these sorts of exchanges, and I feel fortunate to have had this set of interlocutors.

I am dividing my response into two posts. In this first post I will respond to Chris Bertram, Jo Shaw, Kenan Malik, Sarah Fine, Phil Cole and Speranta Dumitru. I choose these six because all of them are concerned in one way or another with the approach that I use in my book and several of them are concerned with the open borders issue. The next post will be concerned with the moral significance of social membership (David Owen, Michael Blake, Ryan Pevnick and Kieran Oberman) and with the reasons why free movement within a state should be seen as a human right (Patti Lenard and Brian Weatherson). Although I agreed with much of what the different contributors said (especially the nice things they said about my book, of course), I’ll devote most of my time to their challenges and disagreements.
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What’s The Score?

by John Holbo on June 11, 2014

Wow, Cantor out.

So I click over to see the joy at RedState. Erick Erickson is explaining that it’s less crazy than it seems for primary voters to boot a guy with a 95% rating from the American Conservative Union. “Heritage Action for America takes a more comprehensive approach to its scorecard, it does not try to help Republican leadership look good, and is a better barometer of a congressman’s conservativeness.” Cantor only got a 53% from Heritage.

Look at the comprehensive Heritage scoring, from top to bottom. Only Mike Lee gets 100%. A lot of Republicans don’t break 50%. McCain gets 51%. I’m not going to bother, but if you averaged it all out, I think it would turn out America is about 20% conservative, which seems barometrically low. How did they score this thing? There doesn’t seem to be any information on the site about how the scoring was done. (I appreciate that scoring every single vote means it’s pretty complicated, but still, shouldn’t they have guidelines about what ‘conservative’ means to them?) Anyone know?

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Rik Mayall is Dead

by Harry on June 9, 2014

Telegraph obit here. Kevin Turvey was the first I ever heard of him, and still my favourite. A kind of punk rock Ronnie Corbett.

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Gesture Drawing

by John Holbo on June 9, 2014

Good discussion for my caricature post. I ended up saying stuff in comments about the Carracci, who are sometimes thought to have been the first portrait caricaturists. They taught quick-draw caricature, as an exercise, in their academy.

I don’t really go for all that “The Loves of the Gods” jazz. (It’s nice and all … if you like that sort of thing.) So I was very pleasantly surprised to discover just how much I like Annibale’s drawings. This book – The Drawings of Annibale Carracci – is amazing!

In spite of Annibale’s meticulous care in drawing realistically described and articulated forms, what sets him apart and places him in the category of great graphic artists is his ability to set down a few strokes to imply an entire scene … No one before Annibale, and only Rembrandt after him surpassed his genius for subtle suggestion.

So very true! Here, for example, is a preliminary sketch for the “Triumph of Bacchus and Ariadne” panel.

annibale

I guess they told him he couldn’t include Batwoman like that. DC would have sued.

Anyway, I don’t think I’ve seen, earlier, such a loose, abstract style of gesture drawing, as a way of working out a composition. Probably that is just my ignorance of the history of drawing, but this book really got me interested in Baroque painting, in an archeological sense: all the different layers of cartoon behind it, from the very rough to the very tight. Neat stuff, I say.

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