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a side-trip to the human park

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Mass Mobilisation as an Instrument of Political Coercion

Mass mobilisation refers to mobilisation of civilian population as part of contentious politics. Contentious politics is the use of disruptive techniques to make a political point, or to change government policy. Examples of such techniques are actions that disturb the normal activities of society such as demonstrations, general strike action, riot, terrorism, civil disobedience, and even revolution or insurrection. Social movements often engage in contentious politics.

Mass mobilisation is often used by grassroots-based social movements, including revolutionary movements, but can also become a tool of elites and the state itself — as seen during the corona “crisis” by the heavy concerted use of mass media by some governments (and vice versa — today’s forms of political engineering in Western civilisation).

Media coverage of coronavirus disease: Abysmal journalism (image source: ? wallpaperhd.wiki)

Media tend to link mass mobilisation and democracy. However, it risks obscuring the character of mass mobilisation, the (most likely diverse) goals of the population and the potential impact of contentious politics on future power dynamics and democratic processes. Journalism would serve the population better by separating the analysis of mass mobilisation from democratisation, and by not engaging in contentious politics through their biased reporting. Howard and Walters (2015) wrote about overcoming key misconceptions and about how the two phenomena of mass mobilisation from democratisation are supposedly linked:

  1. “Mass mobilisation leads to democracy”
    Historically, democracy has been a rare outcome of mass mobilisation. Mass mobilisation often supports anti-democratic regimes.
  2. “Mobilisation is an expression of democratic norms”
    This kind of media narrative has more to do with the hopes and normative commitments of the writers than the character of the movements themselves. Media frame the study of mass movements more in terms of their own hopes and normative visions than empirical realities (—> see last post about framing).
  3. “Mass movements are democratic by definition”
    Journalists often assume that in order to successfully mobilise, masses must be unified around a pro-democratic ideology articulated by prominent intellectuals (the “democratizing bias”). However, prominent intellectuals have historically supported various forms of governance ranging from communism to liberal democracy to fascism. While some intellectuals have played a key role in supporting democratisation (for example, Vaclav Havel in post-communist Czechoslovakia), others have embraced non-democratic regimes (for example, Carl Schmitt in Nazi Germany). In short, intellectuals are not inherently democratic, and neither are protesters.
  4. The concept of “pro-democratic” movements
    This ignores the inherent complexity of mass movements and the latent tensions that often arise in their wake. It also tends to ignore the role of non-participants, who are generally the overwhelming majority. Mobilisation does not naturally lead to — and often works against — democratisation.

Mass media have long been recognised as powerful forces shaping how we experience the world and ourselves. Media coverage and political instrumentalisation in the wake of the outbreak of coronavirus disease (COVID-19) has not only supported mismanagement of the issue, but also created an economic downturn and loss of democracy (dedemocratisation) not seen for decades.? The instrumentalisation of the media for political purposes and the unholy alliance between media and governments for mass manipulation continues, and this becomes increasingly evident in Western civilisation in the case of public service broadcasters (e.g. Switzerland, Germany, Austria).

Further Reading:

  • Hobbes, T. (2016) Leviathan: Or, The Matter, Forme and Power of Commonwealth, Ecclesiasticall and Civill. Longman Library of Primary Sources in Philosophy. Routledge
  • Tilly, Ch. (2004) Social Movements, 1768—2004. Paradigm Publishers
  • Tarrow, S. (2015) War, states, and contention: A comparative historical study. Cornell University Press
  • Howard, M. M., & Walters, M. R. (2015) Mass mobilization and the democracy bias. Middle East Policy, 22(2), 145-155
  • Ilpyong, K. J. (1996) Mass Mobilization Politics and Techniques Developed in the Period of the Chinese Soviet Republic. University of Washington

Climate Change

In the last half century, some sociologists (e.g. Giddens, 1990; Beck, 1992) have suggested that our concerns with risk have shifted largely from what nature does to us to what we do to nature. Rather than being concerned with natural risks, we are increasingly concerned with manufactured risks.

Unlike natural risks, the risks that we manufacture are affected by how we perceive them. For example, consider the following apparent paradox. Road traffic increased thirtyfold in the last century, and common perceptions of the dangers of roads changed from roads as relatively safe places to roads as dangerous places. Yet the road-death figure per motor vehicle fell by about 100% (Adams 1995, p. 11, and statistics below).

The ‘objective’ measure of road safety is in contrast to perceptions of roads as unsafe. As social perceptions of road risk have changed, so too has our behaviour. Parents no longer allow their children to play in the road and they teach them to exercise greater vigilance when crossing the road. The risks we construct as a society are changed by our beliefs about them.

Stomach cancer causes more deaths than motor accidents by a ratio of more than two to one. Yet most people believe motor accidents cause more deaths. The news media are more likely to carry vivid accounts of motor accidents. Hence, we tend to overweight the incidence of motor accidents.

Rudolf Hausner, 1976, Adam objektiv, Novopanplatte mit Papier beklebt, Acryl, Harz?lfarben

For much of our evolution we have developed a range of cognitive mechanisms to cope with adverse environments in which resources are scarce. These include a range of simplifying and confidence-sustaining mental short cuts (heuristics) that help us to make quick decisions when pausing to undertake a full analysis would be unwise (Gigerenzer et al., 1999). However, these evolved modes of thinking also create some major traps:

  • Framing the problem
    • Medical decisions can be affected by whether outcomes are framed as likelihood of deaths or of saving patients.
  • Using information
    • First, we pay more attention to information that is easily available (availability heuristic).
    • Second, we overweight memories which are more easily retrievable – usually because they are emotionally vivid or have personal relevance (retrievability heuristic).
  • Problems of judgement
    • From birth, we start learning to filter information out and to prioritise, label and classify the phenomena we observe. This is a vital process. Without it we literally could not function in our day-to-day lives.
    • Many decisions need revisiting and updating as new information becomes available. However, most of us make insufficient anchoring adjustment: this is the tendency to fail to update one’s targets as the environment changes (Rutledge, 1993).
  • Post-decision evaluation
    • A common way in which we distort our understanding of events is to assume we have greater control of events than we really do. When we suffer from this illusion of control, we are likely to underestimate the risks of our actions and decisions and have problems in learning from experience as we discount information that suggests we are not in control (Fenton-O’Creevy et al., 2003).

While some risks can be quantified, many are unknown. In the face of such uncertainty our approach to risk depends on fundamental assumptions about the way the world works. Different social groups have different approaches to uncertainty. Schwarz and Thompson (1990) characterise these in terms of what they describe as four myths of nature. Adams (1995) has conceptualised them in terms of a ball on a surface. Imagine a ball on a surface. A small push on the ball has different effects depending on the shape of the surface.

Myths of nature (adapted from Adams, 1995, p. 34)

Those subscribing to the myth of nature as capricious see the world as essentially unpredictable. A small action could have entirely unpredictable consequences of unknown scale. Those who see nature as benign believe strongly in equilibrium. However strong the disturbance to the world, the status quo tends to be restored. Those who subscribe to the perverse/tolerant myth believe that, within limits, the world is predictable and tolerant of shocks to the system. However, pushing beyond those limits risks catastrophe. Those who see nature as ephemeral take a profoundly pessimistic view. Even small disturbances can lead to profound and potentially catastrophic changes. The world is fragile and precarious, and equilibrium can be overturned by even small actions.

For example, the different stances taken by different groups over climate change can be understood in these terms. Combined with some of the traps mentioned above, we can imagine why the topic is so hotly debated and with so little intelligence. Instead of taking heuristic shortcusts like the media, we should allow ourselves to consider more creative and effective soloutions, like birth control or new approaches to carbon-?neutral fuels. Actions against climate change need to be enforceable by reason and law – there is little point in blaming each other.

Swiss Law instead of Foreign Judiciary?

Is Swiss sovereignty being eroded by foreign judges? The promoters of the “Self-Determination Initiative” argue that Switzerland’s constitution and its laws should take precedence over international treaties. The People’s Party targets the bilateral treaties with the EU and the European Court of Justice in particular, according to political experts. Opponents of the initiative say the rightwing proposal would undermine Switzerland’s international reputation and its role as a reliable trading partner, as well as deal a blow to human rights.

The question of primacy between national and international law has been simmering for years in Switzerland and elsewhere. Human rights are of course international. We use the terminology that they are universal. This is obviously somewhat inconvenient for the government of nation-states, who have traditionally claimed absolute power over their citizens. The extent to which we have international human rights, or a court of international human rights, is necessarily going to interfere with the kind of claims that a national government can make. Additionally, these rights may be inconvenient in relation to what a nation state might intend to do. These rules and standards bestow upon the nation-state — one of the major violators of human rights — the responsibility of protecting human rights. It is called the “paradox of human rights”. International human rights rely on the nation-states to put rights into effect. And yet nation-states are often reluctant to countenance human rights because those human rights will necessarily put a limitation to the kind of power they have as national governments; their state sovereignty. These themes run through all human rights law. They run through the European Convention on Human Rights as much as through the Universal Declaration of Human Rights by the United Nations, or any other body of human rights.

It is worth stressing that with the European Convention on Human Rights we are looking at a system where individual petitions can be submitted to a court. As a citizen, I can take a case to the European Court of Human Rights, and the court may award remedies. Hoffman and Rowe (2010) argue that the Convention was an extremely radical innovation. Never before has there been a system of international law which holds states accountable to some superior court in respect of actions against their own citizens. Previous international courts and tribunals were constituted solely to settle disputes between states, or in the case of the Nuremberg tribunal, to try individuals for their own criminal responsibility. Coming back to the so-called Swiss “Self-Determination Initiative”: if my government violates my human rights and has no more obligation to protect them, where can I go?

Image credits: Stan Wayman, extracted from IPTC Photo

[Hoffman, D., & Rowe, J. J. (2010) Human Rights in the UK: An Introduction to the Human Rights Act 1998, Pearson Education]

Welcome to the Machine

“I kind of felt powerless… I do have extensive experience in terms of playing the game of Go, but there was never a case as this as such that I felt this amount of pressure.” (Lee Sedol, after playing against AlphaGo in March, 2016)

McAffee and Brynjolfsson (2017) describe phase two of the second machine age as the time “when science fiction technologies – the stuff of movies, books, and the controlled environments of elite research labs – started to appear in the real world”: winning at Go, diagnosing disease, interacting with people, engaging in creative work. The authors envision three great trends that are reshaping the business world:



including AI, boosted by:

      1. Moore’s law
      2. Cloud computing has opened relatively inexpensive computing power required to execute a machine learning project.
      3. An endless supply of data (and GPU‘s to process it). Machine learning systems need to be exposed to many examples in order to perform and improve in their tasks.
Human Mind
According to Kahneman and Egan (2011):

  • System 1: Evolutionary ancient, fast, automatic, intuitive
  • System 2: Evolutionary recent, slow, conscious, and a lot of work

“System 1 operates automatically and quickly, with little or no effort and no sense of voluntary control. System 2 allocates attention to the effortful mental activities that demand it, including complex computations. The operations of System 2 are often associated with the subjective experience of agency, choice, and concentration.” [Kahneman, D. and Egan, P. (2011) Thinking, fast and slow (Vol. 1), New York, Farrar, Straus and Giroux.]

that people use to access a product or service, like Uber or AirBnB, but don’t actually produce anything or provide the service to the end customer.
Products and Services
For example, the big gains of electrification (one of the most disruptive technologies ever) came not from simple substitution of steam engines, but from the redesign of the production process itself. The process lens typically reveals many tasks that can be eliminated, or as Hammer and Champy (1993) put it, obliterated. According to Grant (2010) a firm increases attention to process innovation as it seeks to reduce costs and improve product reliability. The tendency over time for product life cycles has become compressed (p. 275).
The Crowd
e.g. GE’s FirstBuild, a “co-creation community that is changing the way products come to market”.
Organisational Capabilities
Prahalad and Hamel (1990) coined the term “core competences” to distiguish those capabilities fundamental to a firm’s strategy and performance. They also criticised U.S. companies for emphasizing product management over competence management.

Now where does all this leave us? As Haidt (2006) argues, “judgment and justification are two separate processes” of the mind. Judging, performed by System 1, happens almost instantaneously. It is then justified in rational and plausible arguments delivered by System 2:

“This finding, that people will readily fabricate reasons to explain their own behavior, is called ‘confabulation’. Confabulation is so frequent in work with split-brain patients and other people suffering brain damage that Gazzinga refers to the language centers on the left side of the brain as the interpreter module, whose job is to give a running commentary on whatever the self is doing, even though the interpreter module has no access to the real causes or motives of the self’s behavior. For example, if the word ‘walk’ is flashed to the right hemisphere, the patient might stand up and walk away. When asked why he is getting up, he might say, ‘I’m going to get a Coke’. The interpreter module is good at making up explanations, but not at knowing that it has done so.”
[Haidt, J. (2006) The happiness hypothesis: Finding modern truth in ancient wisdom, Basic Books]

At Microsoft, the acronym HiPPO (“Highest-Paid Person’s Opinion”) was created to summarise the dominant decision-making style at most companies.It illustrates the example given above of System 1 and 2 at work. HiPPOs too often destroy value. In a decades-long assessment Tetlock (1984) found that “humanity barely bests chimp” at predicting possible outcomes of politics, economics, and international affair. Today, machine learning – the science of building systems that can detect patterns and formulate winning strategies after shown many examples – is starting to accomplish interesting results. The “science fiction stuff” is just starting now…

Decoding the Antikythera Mechanism, the First Computer

Over 2’000 years ago, the churning ocean below the cliffs of the Greek island Antikythera swallowed a massive ship loaded with a trove of luxuries — fine glassware, marble statues and, famously, a complex geared device identified to be the earliest computer. Three flat, misshapen pieces of bronze are all shades of green, from emerald to forest. The proverbial ‘contraption’ has astonished archaeologists and scientists alike, by virtue of not only its advanced workmanship but also its fascinating (and rather enigmatic) purpose. To that end, the artifact is often also stated as the world’s oldest gear ‘machine’ (based on the workings of the differential calculator) – crafted to predict various complex astronomical observances, including planetary positions and eclipses. Nothing else like this has ever been discovered from antiquity. Nothing as sophisticated, or even close, appears again for more than a thousand years.

[You may read the full Smithsonian article here…]