Text Patterns - by Alan Jacobs

Friday, February 10, 2017

platforms and institutions

In the new edition of his book on the modern Left, which I review here, Roger Scruton writes,

Occasional lip service is paid to a future state of ‘emancipation’, ‘equality’ or ‘social justice’. But those terms are seldom lifted out of the realm of abstractions, or subjected to serious examination. They are not, as a rule, used to describe an imagined social order that their advocates are prepared to justify. Instead they are given a purely negative application. They are used to condemn every mediating institution, every imperfect association, every flawed attempt that human beings might have made, to live together without violence and with due respect for law.

Like Scruton and most other old-school conservatives, I believe that healthy mediating institutions are essential to a healthy society. And I think he is right in noting how relentlessly the Left attacks such institutions. But international capitalism does too, because every healthy mediating institution, by providing security and fellowship and belonging to its members, reduces its members’ dependence for their flourishing on what can be bought and sold. Neither the Left nor the Market want to see such institutions flourish, though their hostility sometimes stems from different agendas.

I'm usually allergic to generalizations in these matters, but let me risk a big generalization: I think what we have seen and will continue to see in our social order is the fragmentation of institutions and their effective replacement by platforms.

Let’s take education as an example: for much of American history people were educated in a wide range of (often highly eccentric) ways. This was generally perceived as a problem, and efforts at standardization kicked in, reaching their peak in the Sixties. Since then we have seen increasing fragmentation, with ordinary public schools, charter schools, magnet schools, various kinds of private schools, homeschooling, unschooling ... but all of these work on the same platforms, that is, they rely on the same communications technologies, using either the open web or walled gardens like Facebook in order to promote interaction and accomplish goals (e.g., the completion of projects and other assignments, remedial tutoring, etc.). We will more and more be asking technological platforms to do the kind of unifying work that educational institutions can clearly no longer do, which, I believe, is asking platforms to do things that by their nature they're unsuited to do.

They’re unsuited to do it becasuse platforms are unresponsive to their users, and unresponsive by design (design that emerges from their desire to be universal in scope). It is virtually impossible to contact anyone at Google or Facebook or Twitter or Instagram, and that is so that those platforms can train us to do what they want us to do, rather than be accountable to our desires and needs. A model of education tied to platforms rather than institutions may seem liberating at first — “I can learn everything I need to know at Khan Academy!” — but that sense of liberation will continue only insofar as users train themselves to ask the questions the platforms already know how to answer, and think the thoughts that the platforms are prepared to transmit.

Very few people will see any of this as problematic, and only those very few will look to work outside the shaping power of the dominant platforms. This means that such institution-building as they manage will have to happen on a small scale and within limited geographical areas. As far as I’m concerned that’s not the worst thing that could happen.

But the majority will accommodate themselves to the faceless inflexibility of platforms, and will become less and less capable of seeing the virtues of institutions, on any scale. One consequence of that accommodation, I believe, will be an increasing impatience with representative democracy, and an accompanying desire to replace political institutions with platform-based decision-making: referendums and plebiscites, conducted at as high a level as possible (national, or in the case of the EU, transnational). Which will bring, among other things, the exploitation of communities and natural resources by people who will never see or know anything about what they are exploiting. The scope of local action will therefore be diminished, and will come under increasing threat of what we might call, borrowing a phrase from Einstein, spooky action at a distance.

I for one don't welcome our new algorithmic overlords.


  • “What is institutional must exclude all that is personal, casual or sporadic.” “On the Source of the Authority of the State.” The Collected Philosophical Papers of G. E. M. Anscombe Vol. III: Ethics, Religion and Politics p. 131.

  • I hesitate to play old-lefty Tweedledum to your old-conservative Tweedledee, but I really do disagree with the Scruton passage you quote. There are, of course, people on the left who pledge allegiance to abstractions at the cost of living breathing humans; but there are people on the right who do the same thing (as it might be: ‘liberty!’ ‘States’ rights!’ ‘the white race!’). In the middle ground are lots of people of both political persuasions aiming to work practical, rather than abstract, good in the world. So the lefty position would be: Rosa Parks should be allowed to sit on the same bus as white people. This might be rationalised in terms of abstractions (equality, anti-racism and so on) but the battle is fought so that real people can enjoy actual benefits hitherto denied them. Countering that, as per Scruton, with: ‘the Jim Crow laws, though imperfect, are a valuable mediating institution, a flawed but necessary human-made mechanism so that we all can live together without violence and with due respect for law’ would surely be to miss the point.

    My sense, speaking from the left, is that the current, broad-based kick-back against left-wing politics is motivated by the accumulation of specificities like this, rather than by generalities. For example: the left pushes for decriminalisation of gay people, and, after a struggle, the law is changed, and it’s no longer illegal for consenting adults to have gay sex. The left then pushes for gay people to be allowed to marry. When that battle is won, they campaign for trans rights—and so on. I get the sense, from my conservative friends, that it is this succession that is objectionable: ‘we conceded the point on decriminalisation, but instead of being happy with this the left kept pushing for more and more concessions—they will never be happy until they have dismantled everything we hold dear!’ I wonder if a good heft of the recent political push-back from the right was motivated by something like this.

    Now I would say, as perhaps you’d expect me to say: this particular example is not about some purely abstracted ‘emancipation’; it’s about enabling actual, real-life gay people to live life with the same opportunities and dignities straight people have always taken for granted. Indeed, I’d go further and suggest that it is the right-wing opposition to this that is predicated upon depersonalised abstractions: ‘if gay people are allowed to marry then the institution of marriage itself will be destroyed!’ and the like.

    Still, I do find myself wondering if this widespread right-wing reaction we’re seeing nowadays across the globe is a function of the cumulative effect of various specific left-wing victories. It is a kind of backdated payment. A conservative might say: ‘we accept that it was the right thing to do to abolish slavery; we accept it was right to pass the fifteenth amendment; we accept that it was right to do away with Jim Crow; we are even prepared to tolerate, though we have issues with it, positive discrimination in the workplace; but the Black Lives Matter movement is a step too far …’ and then all the hostility stored up over that long sequence of concessions—of, in Scruton’s terms, erosions of all those imperfect but human laws and traditions—comes out in an explosive kick-back.

  • A brief coda to that, in agreement with the remainder of your actual post. Everything I say in the previous comment connects, I’d argue, with your broader point. What you say about the unresponsiveness of platforms is absolutely right, I think. In terms of human intermediation, facebook and twitter are radically, fundamentally ‘thin’ platforms, where things like the church or the family are deep-rooted and ‘thick’. FB/Twitter-etc are also transient—both relatively recent and already showing signs of obsolescence. The sorts of institutions we’re talking about need to endure if they’re to do any good at all. Doesn’t this very temporariness magnify the volume of the reaction? People have been living with quite profound changes to social and cultural mores for decades, much longer than there has been such a thing as social media. When they take to Twitter they are trying to express deep-seated and profoundly-contextualised beliefs in 140 characters. It’s not surprising that what emerges is often just a barbaric yawp.

  • "Platforms" seem similar to the technocratic instruments of think tanks in the 1960s. The original attraction of RAND Corp.'s methods was that it promised decision-making free of the usual political obstacles, like debates over ends and visions. A "platform" represents the same false neutrality that technocratic methods do, and it is falsely liberating in the same way that "systems analysis" empowered policy-makers to the extent that it was technologically capable of doing so. So while I agree that "platforms" pose a threat to representative democracy, it seems more likely that this results in further bureaucratization, more efficient systems of policy determination, rather than messier methods such as the referendum.

  • Adam, these are deep waters, and if you hesitated to play Mister Liberal, I hesitate still more to risk being sucked in by the undertow;. but I think I can risk a comment or two.

    First of all, since what mediating institutions mediate is the distance between the individual and the government, Jim Crow laws cannot, by definition, be mediating structures. A better example to make your case would be to ask whether privately owned establishments like restaurants can legally declare that they will serve whites only. (U.S. law now says no.) Or whether a baker who is a Christian can decline to bake a cake for a same-sex wedding. (Some states say no, but we still await final judgment on this matter.) Or whether restaurants can refuse to serve people who voted for Trump. (A good many are doing so right now, but they haven't yet been tested in court and may not.) The problem, here in the U.S. anyway, is that different laws point in different directions: freedom of association is one of the pillars of the Bill of Rights, but the Civil Rights Act emphasizes that that freedom, like all the others, has limits.

    So at this point I will speak as a kinda-sorta conservative — I struggle to achieve a political self-description, though more on that in a minute — and say that I think the Left today has an especially bad tendency to address these matters by the employment of a constricted and overdetermined set of abstractions, often only a single abstraction: inclusiveness. A commitment to inclusiveness is supposed to settle every question, and few people using it seem to notice that there's something a little odd about excluding people from your presence because those people aren't sufficiently inclusive. A great many complexities get occluded there.

    And to a lesser but still real extent, I think some of your comments occlude complexities too. For instance: "enabling actual, real-life gay people to live life with the same opportunities and dignities straight people have always taken for granted." Well, absolutely! Except I wonder if you'd say that a baker who won't bake a cake for a gay wedding is denying that couple's intrinsic dignity. I also wonder if it would affect your judgment if that baker also refused to bake wedding cakes for straight people who had been divorced, claiming in both cases to be bound by conscience not to participate, even tangentially, in ceremonies that she believes, on religious grounds, to be morally wrong.

    A good deal about that imaginary baker's point of view makes me uneasy, and I don't agree that the boundaries of religious conscience are best drawn where she draws them, but I am made more uneasy by the constriction of religious freedom that my friends on the left enthusiastically endorse here. What else that Christians believe might the state make illegal?

    There are significant social costs both ways here, which is why, though my temperament is conservative, the best description of my political position is tragic pluralism (which I learned from reading Leszek Kolakowski and Isaiah Berlin). The incompatibility of certain goods is a fact of political life that I think abstractions are almost always used to cover up — and yes, the right uses them too, but I think at this particular moment it is the left that is more greatly afflicted, intellectually, by habitual recourse to them. (The right's most profound diseases are a topic for another time.)

  • Connor, that's a very good comment and a useful clarification/corrective to what I wrote.

  • I should also add, for the record, that I don't think private institutions should be able to discriminate by race, whereas I do think that the baker should be allowed to decline to make cakes for same-sex weddings and that restaurants that want to exclude Trump supporters should be allowed that freedom also.

  • And one more thing: the debate that I'm having with Adam may seem to be rather distant from the topic of mediating institutions, but every such institution, if successful, will to some extent produce in its members dissent from the views of the majority, and the political institutions of the country will usually act instinctively to suppress such dissent -- as the U.S. government has done at various times with pacifists, socialists, and communists -- unless the boundaries set by the Bill of Rights prevent them from doing so.

  • "how relentlessly the Left attacks such institutions"

    Haven't read the Scruton, but I always wonder what conservatives think of labor unions in this story, since they seem to me paradigmatic mediating institutions. Unions, as well as certain professional organizations/guilds, of course play an important role as (relatively) little platoons in education.

  • You are exactly right, ENC, which is why I commented above that the free market is just as corrosive of mediating institutions as left-statism is. This is why the alliance between social conservatives and free marketers is such a fragile one — or, in my opinion, ought to be.

  • One other note, ENC: It's slightly comical to me when social conservatives are appalled at the power of labor unions but then sign nostalgically for the loss of the medieval guilds.

  • I concur with Dr. Jacobs reasoning and position about bakers declining to bake wedding-cakes for ceremonies they conscientiously object to on religious grounds--this would meet a type of religious exemption protected under a particular understanding of religious freedom--I'm not sure that this logic is applicable to restaurant owners denying Trump supporters (or supporters of Clinton or Warren or any politician) service. I can see a conscientious exemption for business owners denying service to customers wearing shirts with swastikas or similar symbols but, although the man has stated and promoted reprehensible ideas and flirted with bigotry,it isn't obvious that Trump merchandise warrants similar censorship. An argument distinguishing a business' discrimination toward potential patrons on political and discrimination on racial grounds--arguing why the first is acceptable and the latter isn't--might rely on the premise that political differences can reasonably be a source of conscientious conflict but race isn't or shouldn't be. And I know that Dr. Jacobs isn't arguing that a business owner should decline service to someone he politically disagrees with but I think the civil-rights argument for a Trump supporters right to eat at a restaurant is stronger than an outright swastika-displaying skinhead's right to eat at a Jewish deli. Of course, there are businesses that implicitly discriminate within constitutional bounds--gay bars, to take one example among numerous, have a particular target-demographic and purpose, and we'd expect legal protections for them to deny service to someone who barges in spouting slurs and still demands service. Perhaps politically-themed bars, similar to sports team-themed bars, will emerge and operate under similar presumptions--though, personally, the idea isn't the least bit apwpetizing. There could be a stronger case for owners of an ideologically/partisan-themed establishment to deny service to customers from opposing positions than for owners of a more generally marketed business--a plain ol' pizzeria to take one among numerous examples--to deny service to a customer wearing a shirt in support of this or that politician. I think this discussion/debate concerns what we choose to, and what we decide can legitimately, self-censor/discriminate against as much as it concerns constitutional/legal disputes. And of course a main question is who is the "we" that decides the answers to these questions and on what basis.

  • As to the galactic struggle between Jacobs and Roberts, perhaps I might offer a thought or two. To the degree that you live under a system of law, you will always be trying to figure out which of your activities and relations will be governed by universal (or national) rules and which will operate in their own varied and diverse manners. I don't think there's any doubt that the Left at least philosophically is more interested in bringing all the various institutions and practices we inhabit under the rule of law in the name of justice. And for good reason - we should, I think, be happy to affirm that there are limits to what parents can choose to do vis-a-vis their children. But is there an analogue on the philosophical Right to folks on the Left who'd like to use the state's regulatory and taxing power to reconstruct the relations between spouses (ala Susan Okin), to direct the education of children (Macedo, et al), to change religious doctrines, etc.? Maybe there are, and certainly giving markets more leeway might do their own sort of reconstructions, but even there the comparison isn't quite apt, especially if you're offering up Scruton-style conservatism and not, I dunno, Heritage-style conservatism. But even there, I'm not sure it works. The market brings pressure and creates incentives, the law commands. One can, in some way, opt out of the market incentives, you can't opt out of law (again, for good reasons).

  • I worry that my first comment looks like trying to derail discussion, or worse, looks like me wanting to preach party-politics, which would indeed be unmannerly. I apologise, if so. Alan, you're quite right about 'deep waters', and their dangers. As it happens I agree with you about not compelling bakers to bake cakes for people they don't want to bake cakes for. Provided said people can get their cakes somewhere else, then any individual baker should of course be allowed to turn away custom if s/he wants to (and lose the money they would otherwise have made, which seems to me sanction enough). But it's a symbolic matter for (some) leftwingers, and that's the problem. I'd hazard that it's a symbolic matter for (some) right-wingers too -- as you say, if the State can overpower an individual over this, then in what other ways might they tyrannically trample over people's beliefs and values? I get that: and if it seems to me, well, maybe not at the front of the queue of things to be outraged over (so a baker has to bake another cake; it's hardly the end of the world. I've been reading recently about US police powers of civil forfeiture, and they, just for example, strike me as much more directly tyrannical) ... well, I daresay that's just me being tone-deaf. America was founded on the principle of freedom of worship; it's actually in the Constitution. I can see how the government interfering with that, in howsoever trivial a way, is going to strike people as attacking the root of something key to America itself.

    On reflection, my substantive response to the post was my second comment, and I should probably not have bloviated in a party-political manner of my first comment at all. So, in an effort to bring the thread back on topic, I'd say only this: a baker refusing to bake a gay marriage cake is a symbolic gesture, just as Rosa Parks changing her seat in the bus was a symbolic gesture. Symbolic gestures can be powerful; but they can only be genuinely powerful is they are symbolic of something deeper, more rooted and meaningful; as, in both cases here, I can see they are. The problem with the sorts of platforms we're talking about is that they trade almost wholly in symbols, and symbols of a flattened, deracinated kind. It's all memes, in-jokes, gestures, dog-whistles, calls to the in-group to gather, or indeed to swarm, all the time. These are platforms that simply do not provide the space, time or reader-attention for anything more considered. In that environment symbols lose their anchors, and that, I agree, is dangerous indeed.

  • Adam, no worries at all about your first comment, which was a perfectly reasonable response to my (tacit or explicit) endorsement of Scruton's complaints about Left Abstractionism. Your most recent response, and that of Andrew and the Unknown Commenter, all I think show just how strongly felt the competing goods are, and how powerfully they compete, which just goes to show that my "tragic pluralism" stance is the right one and that I had better double down on it rather than a more generally recognizable political profile.

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