None for the money

September 28, 2006

Some interesting research on consumer behaviour published in the Sloan Review, taking as its starting point the case of Arla foods amba, a Danish food firm which [watched] their annual sales virtually vanish in the Middle East as a result of the “cartoon controversy”. The research concludes that high profile boycotts have only small long term effects, whereas boycotts arising from other societal pressures may have repercussions over the long term; the timescale for Arla’s recovery is being spoken of in terms years, rather than months.

Could these long term boycotts start to have an effect on the economy in general? The New Statesman paints a bleak picture of consumer need and rising debt, speaking of the way in which the casual, but constant, shopper can tell themselves that their actions have only benign, or even positive, consequences. Nevertheless, pressure not to consume seems to be rising, as evinced by articles such as that in the Statesman and an increasingly credible environmental lobby. Could this shift – in media, if not in any other perceptions – gain enough momentum to constitute the kind of moral boycott currently affecting Arla foods across a range of consumer goods?

Of Maps and Men

September 21, 2006

It seems to be difficult to produce a map without producing a biased view of the way the land lies. The map of the world as it is generally known is famously skewed in favour of the West; William Smith, obsessed with the strata he discovered, created the first geological map of Britain.

Importantly, he created his map by walking around the country, in 1799. This was a work of obsession, created by a man who wanted to show the world how he saw physical space to the point of sacrificing his own wealth and relationships. 88 years later, Charles Booth, likewise concerned with the poverty he saw everywhere, was to map poverty in London in the same way; by walking around the city and rating every street on a scale of one to eight, ranging from “wealthy” to “vicious, semi-criminal”.

Since that time, tracking poverty in Britain has grown more sophisticated; this Economist article compares Booth’s late Victorian maps to the current UK census data, concluding that London has – despite some changes – retained a remarkably similar social map. The Financial Times map of Britain linked in the previous post shows how each region in the UK has fared according to various metrics (inequality, unemployment and public expenditure per head, for example) since 1997.

This focus on concrete data, however, seems to underrate both the importance of mapping by walking around and the increasing power of mobile technology. OpenStreetMap aims to map all the world through the GPS units of everyone who owns one; every journey can be uploaded and the map produced is free of copyright. The whole of the Isle of Wight was mapped earlier this year in an OpenStreetMap workshop.

This, in itself, is exciting enough. But what if the data from a GPS could also include ratings much like the one Charles Booth used; if streets, like songs on an iPod, could be rated on a numerical scale from ‘like’ to ‘dislike’ and that data uploaded to the web and shown in aggregated form? The map produced would not only show an interesting set of data such as that shown on Booth’s and the Finiancial Times’ maps, but it could also have great practical applications. A person who was unhappy walking home after dark in an unfamiliar city could choose only routes that were rated three and above where possible; the tourist who wanted to take a scenic route could set similar criteria. Further, those who wished to contribute to the project could set their GPS to the equivalent of ‘Play All Unrated’ – with half an hour to spare in the city, many new streets could be found.

By showing these routes, such a map would render the unfamiliar familiar and the familiar, entirely new. A different route through the city in which one lives; a new way of considering the world around us; a new awareness of what other people think; a map such as the ones William Smith and Charles Booth made, by walking around and describing what they saw.

Mapping Inequality

September 20, 2006

A proper post on the Financial Times map of Britain under New Labour will be forthcoming; I’m in the middle of changing jobs, though, so have been extremely busy over the past week. The map is fascinating in terms of the main areas that have benefitted (notably London and Scotland) and those that have not thrived – especially the North-East, which lags behind the other regions despite relatively large public expenditure per head. A Flash rather than Macromedia version of the map can be found downpage here.

Education Links

September 12, 2006

Two interesting posts from Becker and Posner on their blog about the American education system. Also some interesting comments on the culural predication inherant in such tests. Overall I disagree that poor scores in mathematics do not effect the economy overall – when considered as a skill set rather than basic arithmetic, I can’t think of many areas of industry to which maths is not vital – but the articles are worth reading.

From the New York Times, Harvard are ending early admissions to college. Interesting to read about the interplay of being ‘elite’ and being ‘inclusive’, and the way the former may enable the latter.

A Tale of Two Princes

September 11, 2006

It is fair to say that Machiavelli – or to be more specific, the quality of being Machiavellian – has an ambivalent reputation in society today. This is largely based on his work The Prince, a short treatise on the way those who wield power who should behave. However, this book was written in a time of exile, rather than from a position of power. Niccolo Machiavelli had been exiled, having enjoyed power in Florentine society before the overthrow of the regime for which he had worked. He wrote to a friend of his misery in the countryside, and the joy he found in going to his library in the evening and reading his books; I make bold to speak to [the ancients] and ask the motives of their actions, and they, in their humanity reply to me. Although his treatise on The Prince was intended to restore him to favour with the new regime of the Medici family, he was never to return to Florence.

Both Machiavelli’s work, and his situation when he wrote it, are especially relevant to two politicians on either side of the Atlantic; Dick Cheney whose influence, the New York Times reports, is on the wane and Gordon Brown who is commonly expected to become British Prime Minister within a year.

On the surface of the situation, Cheney appears to be the more Machiavellian of the two. His statement that “I believe in a strong, robust executive authority, and I think that the world we live in demands it” resonates with Machiavelli’s statement that a ruler should have no other objective… nor occupy himself with anything else except war and its methods and practices. His belief that such measures as the camp at Guantánamo Bay are necessary to maintain power would seem to accord with the belief that the ‘prince’ must act immorally where the situation calls for it.

Yet Cheney’s slide out of influence seems more reminiscent of Machiavelli’s personal struggles; his wry statement that “I give him the best advice I can. He doesn’t always agree. Sometimes he does, sometimes he doesn’t” seems to speak of a man who is not secure in his position from day to day. The New York Times indicates that Cheney’s power began to wane following the pictures of abuse at Abu Ghraib. This exemplifies one of the central tenets of The Prince; that cruel deeds are committed badly (and in a way that will cause the prince to lose power) when they begin as few, and then increase in number; when the ruler decides he can inflict cruelty as and when he chooses.

By contrast, Brown has generally been considered poor at public relations, or at least as cutting an unprepossessing figure. Frequent jokes are made about his meanness, and he is even more frequently accused of waiting for Tony Blair to resign power. Unlike Cheney, however, Brown could well be following the advice of The Prince to his advantage. His reputed meanness could work to his advantage as he will not have to rob his subjects; he will be able to defend himself; he will avoid being poor and despised and will not be forced to become rapacious. Indeed, meanness is one of those vices that enable him to rule. The job of Chancellor of the Exchequer in a parliamentary democracy is a very different role from that of the prince of an early modern city state, but the same arguments for frugality could still be used in either case.

However, his caginess about his policies may count against him. If it will always be better to intervene in favour of one side and fight strongly, Brown must start fighting strongly – or showing indications that he will do so – if he wishes to be considered as a potential strong leader.

Brown has the potential, therefore, to be a Machiavellian in the better sense of the word; a statesman who can use both his weaknesses and any given situation to his advantage. Cheney, by contrast, seems to have fallen foul of Machiavellianism in the popular sense of the word; assuming that the ends justify the means without considering either the morality of the situation or the best way of acheiving those ends. For this he seems to be suffering the fate which befell Machiavelli himself.

Daily Dissidence

September 9, 2006

One of the most interesting aspects of citizen media recently has been the reaction of totalitarian states – specifically China – to the way the citizens of that country are using the internet. Google and other companies have been widely criticised for agreeing to the demands made on them by the Chinese state with regard to the treatment of dissidents, and the internet as a tool for revolution is still being explored.

Equally interesting, however, are the self-created ‘stars’ of the internet – the people who create pages, videos or sites that, for one reason or another, become popular to an extent far greater than their creators could have expected. The state clearly cannot crack down on these people for dissidence, but is nevertheless unhappy with the fame they enjoy. The Economist links the state’s concern to the idea of voting; that ‘grassroots celebrities’ will lead to a desire for a politics that equally comes from the grassroots.

There is another aspect to this addressed by Susan Sontag in her essay The Image World in On Photography. In this essay she looks at contemporary Chinese criticism of Antonioni’s film Chung Kuo. The state’s issues with this film seemed to be centered on the fact that it showed things that were not fit to be photographed; peeling paint and children running out of the school gates rather than modern machinery and children working hard in the factory schools. It was not the act itself (children run out of school gates every day) but the image of the act that was the issue. In Sontag’s words, Photographs are supposed to display what has already been described.

This appears to be the Chinese problem with citizen media now; these ‘grassroots celebrities’ are not showing a ‘true’ image of themselves or their societies, but a skewed and a frivolous one. What is being shown is not the hardworking students the “Back Dormitory Boys” may well be, but the quotidian silliness that goes alongside hard work. Curiously, Sontag concludes at the end of The Image World that she sees a more limited future in [Chinese] society for the camera as a means of surveillance. In fact, the opposite seems to have happened. This surveillance of the everyday has not only become popular, but popular enough to become a concern to a state obsessed with image management.

Strictures of Revolutions

September 7, 2006

In the course of a degree in almost any liberal arts subject, students will be taught about the three Copernican Revolutions; Copernicus’ telling the world it is not the centre of the solar system, Darwin telling humanity they are not at the centre of the world, and Freud telling every individual they are not even at the centre of themselves. This Economist article seems to point to a fear of another, economic Copernican Revolution; the discovery that the citizens of a country are not necessarily the centre of their own countries economy.

This bears the hallmarks of the other Copernican revolutions; the main fear is that of being sidelined, of not being able to take part in a system in which dominance had seemed assured. Unlike the theories of Copernicus, Darwin and Freud, however, globalisation and immigration have a palpable effect on the employment of many workers in almost all industries.

Herminia Ibarra seems to have identified another such revolution, positing that changing jobs can cause professionals to feel powerless over their own lives; she found “a strong link between the kind of networks you build and your sense of who you are professionally”. Changing careers, even if the new career seemed to be the right step, could cause a major shift in the way individuals views themselves. Professor Ibarra’s solution to this problem is what, in the end, allayed fear of the other Copernican revolutions – to “ditch reflection and self-analysis in favour of action”. But the fears of economic migration and globablisation cannot, it seems, be untangled quite so glibly; the discontents of this Copernican Revolution are still to be solved.