Put simply, the purpose of insurance is to shift risk from the individual to the collective. When an individual cannot afford to bear a given risk, the individual purchases some risk cover from an organization - typically an insurance company or mutual - which spreads the risk over many individuals and is supposedly better able to bear these risks.
Individuals are sometimes obliged to purchase insurance - for example, car insurance before driving on the public roads, or house insurance before getting a mortgage. In some countries, there may be legal requirements to have some form of health insurance.
Insurance companies typically charge different premiums to different individuals depending on the perceived risk and the available statistics. For example, if young inexperienced drivers and very elderly drivers have more accidents, it would seem fair for these drivers to pay a higher premium.
Insurance companies therefore try to obtain as much information about the individual as possible, in order to calculate the correct premium, or even to decide whether to offer cover at all. But this is problematic for two reasons.
The first problem is about fairness, as these calculations may embed various forms of deliberate or inadvertent discrimination. As Joi Ito
The original idea of risk spreading and the principle of solidarity was based on the notion that sharing risk bound people together, encouraging a spirit of mutual aid and interdependence. By the final decades of the 20th century, however, this vision had given way to the so-called actuarial fairness promoted by insurance companies to justify discrimination.
The second problem is about knowledge and what Foucault calls biopower. Just suppose your insurance company is monitoring your driving habits through sensors in the vehicle or cameras in the street, knows how much red meat you are eating, knows your drinking habits through the motion and location sensors on your phone, is inferring your psychological state from your Facebook profile, and has complete access to your fitness tracker and your DNA. If the insurance company now has so much data about you that it can accurately predict car accidents, ill-health and death, the amount of risk actually taken by the insurance company is minimized, and the risk is thrown back onto the individual who is perceived (fairly or unfairly) as a high-risk.
In her latest book, Shoshana Zuboff describes how insurance companies are using the latest technologies, including the Internet of Things, not only to monitor drivers but also to control them.
Telematics are not intended merely to know but also to do (economics of action). They are hammers; they are muscular; they enforce. Behavioral underwriting promises to reduce risk through machine processes designed to modify behavior in the direction of maximum profitability. Behavioral surplus is used to trigger punishments, such as real-time rate hikes, financial penalties, curfews, and engine lockdowns, or rewards, such as rate discounts, coupons, and gold stars to redeem for future benefits. The consultancy firm AT Kearney anticipates 'IoT enriched relationships' to connect 'more holistically' with customers 'to influence their behaviors'. (p215)
So much for risk sharing then. Surely this undermines the whole point of insurance?
Sami Coll, Consumption as Biopower: Governing Bodies with Loyalty Cards
, (Journal of Consumer Culture 13(3) 2013) pp 210-220
Caley Horan, Actuarial age: insurance and the emergence of neoliberalism in the postwar United States
(PhD Thesis 2011)
, Supposedly ‘Fair’ Algorithms Can Perpetuate Discrimination
(Wired Magazine, 5 February 2019) HT @WolfieChristl
AT Kearney, The Internet of Things: Opportunity for Insurers
Cathy O'Neil, How algorithms rule our working lives
(The Guardian, 1 September 2016)
Jathan Sadowski, Alarmed by Admiral's data grab? Wait until insurers can see the contents of your fridge
(The Guardian, 2 November 2016)
Shoshana Zuboff, The Age of Surveillance Capitalism (Profile Books 2019) esp pages 212-218
Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy: Foucault
Related posts: The Transparency of Algorithms
(October 2016) Pay as you Share
(November 2016), Shoshana Zuboff on Surveillance Capitalism
(Book Review, February 2019)
Some of my posts recently have mentioned the work of @zeynep and others on the polarizing effects of social media platforms, especially YouTube.
But this phenomenon is not restricted to the Internet: traditional mass media is subject to similar effects. Following an extraordinary confrontation between CNN and the White House, Michael Massing reviews CNN's political coverage and finds it to be extremely one-sided. It appears that Trump and CNN each benefits from constantly attacking the other. Massing calls this codependency
, but I believe a more accurate term would be symmetrical schismogenesis
. This concept, originally developed by Bateson and elaborated by some of his followers including Jackson and Watzlawick, refers to the situation where two parties mirror each other, the behaviour of each serving to reinforce the behaviour of the other.
Who benefits from this polarization? The media platforms (YouTube, CNN) are essentially selling eyeballs to companies that want to advertise stuff. This is not just about the number of eyeballs but the number of eyeballs in relevant demographic categories. Thus for example gender or socioeconomic polarization may be helpful to this mission if it helps produce an audience that is particularly receptive to whatever is being advertised. However, polarization can also produce effects that are unwelcome to risk-averse advertisers - for example, associating their brands with controversial content, or even exposing them to the risk of consumer boycotts.
Writing in 2013, Markus Prior notes the correlation between cable news consumption and political polarization, but also notes the way that increasing choice on cable networks allows non-partisan viewers to avoid watching cable news altogether. Thus the apparent polarization would appear to be a consequence of a self-selecting audience.
Massing regards CNN's coverage of Trump as "seeming uninformative, repetitive, and nakedly partisan". This echoes a more widespread complaint about 24 hour rolling news: that it fills the airwaves with endless chatter (which Heidegger called Gerede and the Lacanians call Empty Speech.)
On cable news, there are two feedback loops that reinforce this phenomenon. Firstly, the partisanship alienates non-partisan viewers, thus further concentrating the audience. Secondly, people with genuine knowledge and insight quickly discover that the platform doesn't give them a fair opportunity to communicate to an open-minded audience, and therefore abandon the platform in favour of those who are happy to spout dogma on a variety of topics.
On YouTube, these two feedback loops are less in evidence. There is a wealth of good content on YouTube if you know where to look, including Zeynep Tufekci herself talking about this very phenomenon. (But just compare the numbers of views of selected videos on different channels.)
(view numbers as shown on 10 November 2018)
Update (March 2019)
observes that even politicians aren't always immune to the polarizing effects of social media. He suggests that the closed WhatsApp groups now favoured by all political factions are radicalising their members "so they egg each other on to take more and more extreme positions", and notes that this kind of effect has been understood for a long time. He references Cass Sunstein's 1999 paper on the Law of Group Polarization.
Incidentally, Sunstein is also known for his work on Nudge Theory, which is usually described in terms of nudging people in a beneficial direction. But the psychological mechanisms of the nudge would appear to work in any direction.
Charles Arthur, Social media polarises and radicalises – and MPs aren’t immune to its effects
(Guardian 11 March 2019)
Gregory Bateson, Steps to an Ecology of Mind (1972)
Michael Massing, Trump and CNN: Case History of an Unhealthy Codependency
(NYR Daily, 9 November 2018)
Markus Prior, Media and Political Polarization
(Annu. Rev. Polit. Sci. 2013. 16:101–27)
Jeff Sorensen, 24 Hour News Killed Journalism
(HuffPost 20 August 2012)
Cass Sunstein, The Law of Group Polarization
(John M. Olin Program in Law and Economics Working Paper No. 91, 1999)
Paul Watzlawick, Janet Beavin Bavelas and Don D. Jackson, Pragmatics of Human Communication
Wikipedia: Nudge Theory
Additional references in the following posts
Ethical Communication in a Digital Age
YouTube Growth Hacking
"This is exactly what government is for" writes @BBCPhilipSim
, "the administration of a communal resource; a complex task which nobody seems to want to take responsibility for. It concerns property both public and private, involves taxation, and there are a myriad of disputes over who should have to pay and how much. This is precisely what elected representatives are for."
As he says, it's textbook stuff. Pity that all the politicians who read Politics or History at university didn't bother reading that particular textbook, as they seem more interested in "the thunder and fury of constitutional rammies and increasingly partisan rows" than taking care of things as dull as ditches. (Did someone say gutter politics?)
What has St Fillan got to do with this, I hear you cry? According to legend, the ditch in question was built by Robert the Bruce in gratitude for the miraculous appearance of St Fillan's arm-bone, which inspired the Scots to overcome the English at the battle of Bannockburn. (No humerus jokes, thank you.)
It would probably take another such miracle for the forces of common sense to overcome the British Conservative party at the battle of Brexit. Leaving the EU appears to be a complex task, with a myriad of disputes, that none of the Europhobes in the amusingly named "European Research Group" wants to take responsibility for.
Philip Sim, Dull as Ditchwater? Inside Holyrood's forgotten committee
(BBC News 24 October 2018)
Wikipedia: Saint Fillan
According to a new paper, "big data evidence suggests that the English language area was not capitalist between 1800 and 2000" (via @kvistgaard
The authors analyse the occurrence of "pertinent keywords" found in Google Books from the period in question. As far as I can see from the abstract, the keywords are selected on the assumption that capitalism can be associated "with any form of over-average importance or even dominance of the economy" .
The argument appears to be that an era is capitalist only if people are strongly conscious of the economy and of certain economic phenomena, and that this consciousness is reflected in the literature of the time.
This doesn't allow either for the possibility that people didn't talk about capitalism because they took it for granted, or for the possibility that they were suffering what Engels called "false consciousness". (Marx is often credited with this concept, but he never used the term himself.) Foucault showed how the Victorians thought differently about certain things (such as discipline and sexuality) but that doesn't mean those things didn't exist.
It is also worth noting that the literature that is preserved in Google Books may not fairly represent different social classes. As Ruth Livesey comments in relation to a different collection, "although there is much to be learned about middle-class life ... relative few that give central place to class".
What about the reverse argument? The religious authorities were obsessed with witchcraft between 1550 and 1700, particularly in Germany and Scotland, and King James VI of Scotland wrote a treatise on witchcraft. So if we analysed "pertinent keywords" (not to mention the "necessary hashtags"), we might be able to "prove" that witchcraft was more prevalent than capitalism in this period.
However, as @kvistgaard points out ...
Yasmeen Ahmad, How Much Of Data Science Is Witchcraft?
(Forbes 5 May 2016)
Jamie Doward, Why Europe’s wars of religion put 40,000 ‘witches’ to a terrible death
(Observer 7 January 2018)
Barbara Humphries, Nineteenth century pamphlets online
(The ephemerist, 153, Summer 2011).
Daniel Little, False Consciousness
(University of Michigan-Dearborn, undated)
Ruth Livesey, Class
(Oxford Bibliographies, March 2011)
Steffen Roth, Vladislav Valentinov, Arūnas Augustinaitis, Artur Mkrtichyan, Jari Kaivo-oja, Was that capitalism? A future-oriented big data analysis of the English language area in the 19th and 20th century
(Futures, Volume 94, November 2017, pages 1-84)
's current performance work, which I caught at the South Bank Centre in London this weekend, is called A Machine They're Secretly Building
. The title comes from a warning by Edward Snowden, as reported by Glen Greenwald.
"I can't in good conscience allow the US government to destroy privacy, internet freedom and basic liberties for people around the world with this massive surveillance machine they're secretly building."
As I filed out of the performance, I bought a copy of the script, paying with cash rather than credit card (as if that's going to stop THEM knowing I was there). In her introduction, Alwyn Walsh mentions Henry Giroux and the idea of disimagination. Henry Giroux credits this idea to Georges Didi-Huberman who, starting from four photographs taken by Jews at Auschwitz-Birkenau, had offered an extended and profound meditation on the status of the image as a means of historical analysis. Giroux's version of the politics of disimagination refers to images (and also institutions, discourses, and other modes of representation) "that undermine the capacity of individuals to bear witness to a different and critical sense of remembering, agency, ethics and collective resistance".
According to Giroux, therefore, the disimagination machine "functions primarily to undermine the ability of individuals to think critically, imagine the unimaginable, and engage in thoughtful and critical dialogue: put simply, to become critically informed citizens of the world". Thankfully, Walsh tells us, "this ... is what theatre and performance is so perfectly equipped to challenge".
So the Proto-type show aims to bear witness about what is going on. As the audience files into the performance space, we see two women dressed in black, with pink balaclavas. And a large screen facing the audience. One of the women is facing a camera: her face (or what we can see of it) is shown on the screen. As the show progresses, the screen (which has equal billing with the human characters in the script) also displays text and documentary fragments, apparently offering "facts" to illustrate or substantiate the shifting subjective voices of the human characters - sometimes resigned acceptance, sometimes angry protest - exploring the conflict between the security narrative (normal, law-abiding citizens versus terrorists, "keeping you safe") and the privacy narrative (state surveillance versus private individuals with rich inner lives). At the climax of the show, the screen shows the audience, with random members marked with green and red rectangles as if indicating targets of suspicion, perhaps based on behaviour or backstory. (From a technology point of view this looked pretty unsophisticated, but from a dramatic point of view it was sufficient to provoke audience discomfort.)
But if THEY are secretly building a machine, who exactly is THEY?
For Edward Snowden and Proto-type, THEY means governments - mostly the British and American governments, although Pussy Riot is referenced both in the script and in the pink balaclavas. But of course the power behind the machine could also be Google or Facebook, which might possibly (but how would I know?) be much more powerful than those of mere governments.
And if the machine was so secret, how could such a machine affect "the ability of individuals to think critically, imagine the unimaginable, and engage in thoughtful and critical dialogue"? Surely a much more dangerous machine would be one that seduced people into suspending their critical imagination, a machine that presented us with apparently objective facts, a machine that persuaded us to think with the majority - or at least what it told us was the majority view. (Surely that couldn't happen here?)
In his essay on the relationship between coercion and consent, Walter Streek refers to
"a huge machinery of coercion, easily the largest and most expensive in history, maintained in readiness for the state of emergency that may one day have to be called"
and chimes with Proto-type in suggesting that cover for the growth of this machinery is provided by the "war on terror",
"waged to enable the masses to continue living their pressured lives of competitive production and consumption".
In his 2011 documentary, All Watched Over By Machines of Loving Grace
(#AWOBMOLG), Adam Curtis presented a powerful dialectic about technological capitalism. Although there were some logical flaws in his argument, as I pointed out at the time, I think Curtis was correct in identifying some of the key trends, as well as pointing at the multiple centres of power - for example, Madison Avenue, Silicon Valley, Wall Street and Washington. The multiple centres of power (media, technology, corporate, state) were also explored (with rather more academic rigour) at the Power Switch
conference in Cambridge in March 2017.
A Machine They're Secretly Building
is darker than Curtis (if that were possible) and more narrowly focused. But although one may be justifiably alarmed by state surveillance, the disimagination effect is arguably wreaked more by corporate surveillance, hashtag #YouAreTheProduct. So I'm looking forward to their next show, which I understand will be on economics.
Georges Didi-Huberman, Images in Spite of All: Four Photographs from Auschwitz (Trans. Shane B. Lillis. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2008) review by Paul B Jaskot in Journal of Jewish Identities Issue 3, Number 2, July 2010
Henry A. Giroux, The Politics of Disimagination and the Pathologies of Power
(Truth Out, 27 February 2013)
Glen Greenwald et al, Edward Snowden: the whistleblower behind the NSA surveillance revelations
(Guardian, 11 June 2013)
Laura James, Power Switch - Conference Report
(31 March 2017) - liveblog of CRASSH PowerSwitch Conference
Wolfgang Streeck, You need a gun
(London Review of Books, 14 December 2017) (subscribers only)
Richard Veryard, All Chewed Over By Machines
(26 May 2011) - review of Adam Curtis.
See also Pax Technica
(24 November 2017), IOT is coming to town
(3 December 2017)
Aylwyn Walsh, Staging the Radical Potential of the Imagination: A Critical Introduction to A Machine they’re Secretly Building
(via Academia.edu, undated)
Andrew Westerside and Proto-type Theatre, A Machine they’re Secretly Building (Oberon Modern Plays, 2017)
updated 18 December 2017
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