Random finds (2018, week 23) — On globalization’s new paths forward, why we should bulldoze the business school, and ‘Zucktown’ and failed utopias
“I have gathered a posy of other men’s flowers, and nothing but the thread that binds them is mine own.” — Michel de Montaigne
Random is a weekly curation of my tweets and, as such, a reflection of my curiosity.
Globalization’s new paths forward
“By many standard measures, globalization is in retreat,” Susan Lund and Laura Tyson write in an essay for Foreign Affairs (May/June 2018 Issue). But appearances are deceptive. “Even as its detractors erect new impediments and walk away from free-trade agreements, globalization is in fact continuing its forward march — but along new paths. In its previous incarnation, it was trade-based and Western-led. Today, globalization is being driven by digital technology and is increasingly led by China and other emerging economies.”
“In other words, globalization has not given way to deglobalization; it has simply entered a different phase. This new era will bring economic and societal benefits, boosting innovation and productivity, offering people unprecedented (and often free) access to information, and linking consumers and suppliers across the world. But it will also be disruptive. After certain sectors fade away, certain jobs will disappear, and new winners will emerge. The benefits will be tangible and significant, but the challenges will be considerable. Companies and governments must prepare for the coming disruption,” Lund and Tyson argue.
“The countries that led the world during the last era of globalization may not necessarily be the same ones that thrive in the new one. Consider Estonia, which has a population of just 1.3 million but has emerged as a giant in the digital era. Its pioneering e-government initiative allows Estonians to go online to vote, pay taxes, and appear in court, all with a digital identity card. Once an economy based heavily on logging, Estonia is now home to the founders of Skype and other technology start-ups, and it has historically been one of the fastest-growing economies in the EU.
Digital flows are also upending the corporate world. Giant multinational firms have long dominated the trade in goods and services, but digital platforms have made it easier for smaller firms to muscle their way in. So-called micro-multinationals can use online marketplaces to reach far more customers than ever before; Amazon hosts two million third-party sellers, and Alibaba hosts more than ten million. Some 50 million small and medium-sized enterprises use Facebook for marketing, and nearly 40 percent of their fans are foreign. Digital platforms and marketplaces such as these are creating vast new opportunities for small businesses, which form the bedrock of employment in most countries.”
“Although it will lead to countless new opportunities, the new era of globalization will also present considerable challenges to individuals, companies, and countries. For one thing, because openness will be so rewarded, developing countries now at the periphery of global connections risk falling further behind, especially if they lack the infrastructure and skills to benefit from digital trade. With global trade tensions mounting, it is essential to recognize that countries will reap economic gains not from export surpluses but from both inflows and outflows. In fact, as in the past, it is precisely the countries that open themselves up to foreign competition, foreign investment, and foreign talent that stand to benefit the most in the new era.
The new era of globalization will also prove disruptive, in that it will intensify competition; indeed, it already has. New ideas now flow around the world at an astonishing speed, allowing companies to react to demand faster than ever before. […] The flip side is that the period during which a company can profit from an innovation before competitors copy it has shrunk dramatically. As a result, product life cycles have become shorter — by 30 percent over the past 20 years in some industries. Meanwhile, the variety of products is exploding, and many industries are adopting ‘mass customization,’ using technology to produce built-to-order goods without sacrificing economies of scale.”
“In order to maintain political and societal support for digital globalization, governments will have to make sure that its benefits are distributed widely and that those who have been harmed are compensated. (Indeed, it was partly the failure to do this during the last era of globalization that led to the populist backlash rocking the United States and other countries today.) To help those displaced by globalization both old and new, governments should offer temporary income assistance and other social services to workers as they train for new jobs. Benefits should be made portable, ending the practice of tying health-care, retirement, and child-care benefits to a single employer and making it easier to change jobs. Finally, governments should expand and improve their worker-training programs to teach the skills needed to succeed in the digital era, a move that would reverse the decline in spending on worker training that has taken place over the past decade in nearly all advanced countries.”
The era of digital trade will also pose considerable challenges for the private sector, according to Lund and Tyson. “[C]ompanies will need to invest more in digital technologies, including automation, artificial intelligence, and advanced analytics, in order to remain competitive. That will mean developing their own digital capabilities and partnering with, or acquiring, digital players. Successful global companies, whether large or small, will also need to compete strenuously in the global battle for talent, especially for top managers who have both an understanding of technology and an international perspective [see also: Companies Say They Have to Hire New Leaders to Manage Digitization, The Wall Street Journal, June 2018]. Firms can gain an edge in this battle by spreading their research and development and other core functions across the world, a shift that would tap talent from different places, thus ensuring diversity of thinking.”
Furthermore, companies can no longer “rely on highly centralized approaches to producing and selling their goods now that consumers around the world expect customized products to meet their tastes. Increasingly, companies will need a strong local presence and a differentiated strategy in the markets where they compete. That will require strong relationships with governments and a commitment to corporate social responsibility,” Lund and Tyson write.
“Globalization is not in retreat. A revamped version of it, with digital underpinnings and shifting geopolitics, is already taking shape. In its last incarnation, globalization became a battleground for opposing forces: on one side stood the political and business elites who benefited the most, and on the other stood the workers and communities that suffered the most. But while debates raged between these two groups about the effects of globalization, globalization itself proceeded apace. Today, the same debates about globalization’s effects on employment and inequality continue, even as its new, digital form is gaining momentum. Rather than relitigating old debates, it is time to accept the reality of the new era of globalization and work to maximize its benefits, minimize its costs, and distribute the gains inclusively. Only then can its true promise be realized.”
Why we should bulldoze the business school
In Why we should bulldoze the business school, Martin Parker, who currently is a professor at the Department of Management at the University of Bristol, builds a compelling case against business schools. “There are 13,000 business schools on Earth. That’s 13,000 too many. And I should know — I’ve taught in them for 20 years,” he writes.
“Business schools have huge influence, yet they are also widely regarded to be intellectually fraudulent places, fostering a culture of short-termism and greed,” Parker writes. “Most solutions to the problem of the B-school shy away from radical restructuring, and instead tend to suggest a return to supposedly more traditional business practices, or a form of moral rearmament decorated with terms such as ‘responsibility’ and ‘ethics.’ All of these suggestions leave the basic problem untouched, that the business school only teaches one form of organising — market managerialism.
That’s why I think that we should call in the bulldozers and demand an entirely new way of thinking about management, business and markets. If we want those in power to become more responsible, then we must stop teaching students that heroic transformational leaders are the answer to every problem, or that the purpose of learning about taxation laws is to evade taxation, or that creating new desires is the purpose of marketing. In every case, the business school acts as an apologist, selling ideology as if it were science.”
Besides, what do business schools actually teach?
“This is a more complicated question than it first appears,” Parker says. From the 1970s, much has been done to tackle education’s ‘hidden curriculum.’ Researchers have explored how social class, gender, ethnicity, sexuality and so on were being implicitly taught in the classroom. But the hidden curriculum can be taught in other ways, by the ways in which teaching and assessment are practised, or through what is or isn’t included in the curriculum. It tells us what matters and who matters, which places are most important and what topics can be ignored, Parker writes.
And whereas in many countries, a lot of work has been done on trying to deal with these issues — “in many of the more enlightened educational systems, it is not now routinely assumed that there is one history, one set of actors, one way of telling the story” — in business schools, both the explicit and hidden curriculums continue to sing the same song. “The things taught and the way that they are taught generally mean that the virtues of capitalist market managerialism are told and sold as if there were no other ways of seeing the world,” Parker writes.
“If we educate our graduates in the inevitability of tooth-and-claw capitalism, it is hardly surprising that we end up with justifications for massive salary payments to people who take huge risks with other people’s money. If we teach that there is nothing else below the bottom line, then ideas about sustainability, diversity, responsibility and so on become mere decoration. The message that management research and teaching often provides is that capitalism is inevitable, and that the financial and legal techniques for running capitalism are a form of science. This combination of ideology and technocracy is what has made the business school into such an effective, and dangerous, institution.”
By looking a bit more closely at the business-school curriculum of finance and human resource management (see below) and how both are being taught in business schools, Parker shows us how this works.
“[Human resource management] applies theories of rational egoism — roughly the idea that people act according to rational calculations about what will maximise their own interest — to the management of human beings in organisations. The name of the field is telling, since it implies that human beings are akin to technological or financial resources insofar as they are an element to be used by management in order to produce a successful organisation. Despite its use of the word, human resource management is not particularly interested in what it is like to be a human being. Its object of interest are categories — women, ethnic minorities, the underperforming employee — and their relationship to the functioning of the organisation. It is also the part of the business school most likely to be dealing with the problem of organised resistance to management strategies, usually in the form of trade unions. And in case it needs saying, human resource management is not on the side of the trade union. That would be partisan. It is a function which, in its most ambitious manifestation, seeks to become ‘strategic,’ to assist senior management in the formulation of their plans to open a factory here, or close a branch office there.”
A similar kind of lens could be applied to other modules, such as international business, marketing and innovation. Only business ethics and corporate social responsibility (CSR) have developed a sustained critique of the consequences of management education and practice, Parker says. However, “The problem is that business ethics and corporate social responsibility are subjects used as window dressing in the marketing of the business school, and as a fig leaf to cover the conscience of business school deans — as if talking about ethics and responsibility were the same as doing something about it. They almost never systematically address the simple idea that since current social and economic relations produce the problems that ethics and corporate social responsibility courses treat as subjects to be studied, it is those social and economic relations that need to be changed.”
Parker concludes his article by saying, “The sorts of doors to knowledge we find in universities are based on exclusions. […] We cannot study everything, all the time, which is why there are names of departments over the doors to buildings and corridors.” However, business schools are an extreme case. It not only separates commercial life from the rest of life, but also assumes that capitalism, corporations and managers are the default form of organisation. In terms of curriculum and research, everything else is peripheral.
“The sort of world that is being produced by the market managerialism that the business school sells is not a pleasant one. It’s a sort of utopia for the wealthy and powerful, a group that the students are encouraged to imagine themselves joining, but such privilege is bought at a very high cost, resulting in environmental catastrophe, resource wars and forced migration, inequality within and between countries, the encouragement of hyper-consumption as well as persistently anti-democratic practices at work.
Selling the business school works by ignoring these problems, or by mentioning them as challenges and then ignoring them in the practices of teaching and research. If we want to be able to respond to the challenges that face human life on this planet, then we need to research and teach about as many different forms of organising as we are able to collectively imagine. For us to assume that global capitalism can continue as it is means to assume a path to destruction. So if we are going to move away from business as usual, then we also need to radically reimagine the business school as usual. And this means more than pious murmurings about corporate social responsibility. It means doing away with what we have, and starting again.”
Shut Down the Business School: What’s Wrong with Management Education by Martin Parker is published by Pluto Press.
‘Zucktown’ and failed utopias
“Willow Village is a community planned for a 59-acre site in California’s Silicon Valley, between Menlo Park and East Palo Alto. It will have housing, offices, a grocery store, a pharmacy, and its developers say, maybe even its own cultural center. There’s one notable thing about Willow Village that makes it different from other new communities in America: It is being developed by Facebook,” Grant Bollmer writes in Will Silicon Valley’s new company towns end up as failed utopias?
“American history is filled with towns, conceived and built to realize specific theological worldviews, at times linked with faith in capitalism and the power of technology. Like these utopian communities, also Willow Village speaks of its founders’ desire to correct imagined social problems by reinventing social life.” But considering the many recent controversies Facebook has had with its social network, do we want them controlling our physical environments, too?
“Company towns have never lived up to their mission of social perfection. Yet Facebook and Google, like many tech companies, say their purpose is socially beneficial. John Tenanes, Facebook’s vice president for real estate, told The New York Times, the apartments in Willow Village ‘are a starting point.’ He added, ‘I would hope we could do more. We’re solving a problem here.’
While this quote seems innocuous, it reflects what critic Evgeny Morozov has termed ‘solutionism.’ The goal of solving problems isn’t the problem. Rather, it’s that technological solutions circumvent governmental institutions,” says Bollmer. “Specifically, social media companies often frame social problems as a lack of connectivity, which can be solved with technologies designed to foster social interconnection.”
“In my research,” Bollmer writes, “I’ve argued that connecting via social media and circulating personal information is imagined as a means to achieve a kind of spiritual perfection today. Being connected to Facebook at all times, not just via their platforms, is imagined by those in Silicon Valley to have an intrinsic social benefit. Given how these visions are now shaping the planning of actual communities, this can be thought of as a reinvention of citizenship — and not metaphorically.
Facebook and Google are proposing, and occasionally entering into, partnerships with local governments, taking over numerous tasks once the responsibility of elected officials. This includes not only dictating housing policy, but also, for example, funding the police. Social media corporations are working to act in the roles once held by the state and government.
The threat is not that this is new. The legacy of company towns, for instance, tells us that corporations have often tried to subvert democracy with their own ‘governmental’ agencies. The problem is that this model now reflects a view popular in Silicon Valley that sees tech companies as progressive agents solving problems beyond governmental oversight. This worldview, in part, descends from the long history of utopian communities.
We will most likely see more of these projects and partnerships. But here’s the catch, and the threat: When they do this, elected officials cede power to companies that are not, like them, democratically accountable.”
And also this …
How often do we hear things like, “65% of children entering primary school today will be doing jobs that don’t yet exist”? But there is no source for this quote, says Donald Clark. “[I]t’s the touchstone of the charlatan.” The same applies to that other infamous claim, “47% of jobs will be automated,” which comes from a 2013 paper by Carl Benedikt Frey and Michael Osborne, titled The Future of Employment: How susceptible are jobs to computerisation? But according to Clark, both these claims suffer from basic flaws. ‘Human bias’ is one of them.
“Bias in analysis is all too common. Take just one example; the analysis of education. The people doing the analysis are often academics or people who have an academic bent. The Frey and Osborne paper conflates education into one group, as if kindergarden work was the same as academic research. The routine aspects of education, the fact that most teachers, trainers and lecturers do a lot of admin and work that is actually routine and repetitive, is conveniently ignored. Google, Wikipedia and online management and learning has already eaten into the employment of librarians and teachers. It is a displacement industry. Take one service — Google. As the task of finding things became super-fast, the process of learning, research and teaching became quicker. Library footfall falls, as we no longer have to troop off to the library to get the information. Amazon has commoditised the purchase of books. Commoditisation is what technology is good at and what Marx recognised as a driving force in market economies. Educators don’t like to hear this but they have a lot to gain here. Teaching is a means to and end not an end in itself. It has and will continue to be automated, not by robots but by smart, personalised, online learning.”
For those who continue to confuse ‘digital transformation’ with ‘digitisation,’ in The ten principles of digital work, Esko Kilpi sums up brilliantly what the former should actually be about:
“The human protocols of creating value in the post-industrial world
- informed free choice enabled by cognitive diversity and psychological safety, rather than compliance, is the basis for decisions
- active participation, rather than passively accepting instructions, is the basis of growth and development
- work is carried out within a framework of meaningfulness and self-direction, rather than direction from outside
- activities are performed in interaction, sharing the cognitive load of work, rather than based on reductionist organizing principles or social isolation. The focus shifts from tasks and roles to relations
- one is responsible for one’s own actions, rather than seeing someone else, somewhere else, responsible
- a worker is engaging in complex, responsive and open activities with others, in contrast with engaging in closed repetitions of the same activity. Work is creative interaction based on curiosity and exploration
- the network, rather than organizational units, processes or hierarchies, is the main architecture of work
- productivity is understood as creative learning and scaling up learning instead of more output with less input. Increasing the quality and speed of learning matter more than increasing the quantitative output of work
- knowledge work is investments of human capital following the same logic we have used to understand financial investments. Workers should share the responsibilities and future earnings potential that used to belong only to the investors of financial capital
- work is interaction between interdependent people. Competence and learning capability are less about the attributes of individuals, and more about the attributes of social interaction”
In response to Google’s internal video from 2016, The Selfish Ledger, which shows how total data collection could reshape society, Peter Vander Auwera wrote The Selfish Data. (The video was leaked and covered by The Verge in an excellent article by Vlad Savov, Google’s Selfish Ledger is an unsettling vision of Silicon Valley social engineering.)
“The key snippet from the video is where the human becomes the custodian — not the owner — of the data ledger, and can pass it on to next generations. The video suggests that data has [its] own intention, an intention to survive and pass on information to next generations,” Vander Auwera writes.
“The Google video is also inherent of Silicon Valley’s solutionism delusion; that if there is a problem to be solved, there is an app or an algorithm for it. This is finite game thinking as compared to infinite game thinking, as well described by James Carse.” Adding, “I like Nora Bateson’s quote here, ‘The problem with problem-solving is the idea that a solution is an endpoint.’”
In her most recent book, Small Arcs of Larger Circles: Framing through other patterns, Batseon writes, “I see a great deal of misunderstanding — a great deal of information floating around, and even more being generated in the form of big data, little data, medium data. But not much in the forms of the warm data of interrelationality.” According to her, ‘warm data’ is “information about the interrelationships that integrate elements of a complex system. Information without interrelationality is likely to lead us toward actions that are misinformed, thereby creating further destructive patterns.”
Vander Auwera likes the idea of ‘warm data.’ “I prefer that way more than selfish data,” he writes.
In The Unspoken, written in conjunction with The Selfish Data, he adds a list of “the data you take with you in your graveyard. They are not passed on to next generations like a selfish gene.” The list reads like a poem…
“The unspoken dreams
The unspoken frustrations
The unspoken fantasies
The unspoken weird thoughts
The unspoken desires
The unspoken memories
The unspoken secrets
The unspoken shadows
The unspoken wounds
The unspoken joys
The unspoken likes/unlikes
The unspoken emotions
The unspoken jealousies
The unspoken failures
The unspoken loves
The unspoken trusts/distrusts
The unspoken masks
The unspoken narratives
The unspoken journal notes
The unspoken games
The unspoken phobias
The unspoken fears
The unspoken spaces
The unspoken dominances/submissions
The unspoken psychotics
The unspoken obscenities
The unspoken forbidden areas
The unspoken losses
The unspoken hates
The unspoken skin problems
The unspoken pathologies
The unspoken pardons
The unspoken little physical pains
The unspoken disorders
The unspoken shames
The unspoken lusts
The unspoken bodies
The unspoken vanities
The unspoken delusions”
In Return of the Vikings: Nordic Leadership in Times of Extreme Change, the authors, Chris Shern and Henrik Jeberg with Richard Martin, who happens to be the co-author of The Neo-Generalist, explore how the ‘Nine Noble Virtues,’ which can be traced back to the Viking era and ancient Nordic literary sources such as The Poetic Edda, continue to form a set of moral and ethical standards for Nordic people to live and work by. One of those people is Claus Meyer, the Danish gastronomic entrepreneur, co-founder of the world-famous restaurant Noma, together with René Redzepi, and one of the driving force behind the New Nordic Cuisine movement.
“In Claus’s view, when you see people with your heart, it opens doors. By way of example, he recounts two frustrating meetings with an ambitious young chef who was seeking backing for a new venture. If Claus had relied solely on his eyes and ears, he might have concluded that he was dealing with a self-important, self-obsessed individual who spoke only about himself. Yet there was something else that Claus was able to latch on to, some invisible connection and understanding. He set aside what his other senses were telling him and went with his heart. Within three months of launching his new restaurant, that same young chef had earned recognition from the Michelin Guide, going from strength to strength in the subsequent period. Claus discovered that he could serve as an enabler but that, in a situation like this, the best form of leadership was to get out of the way. It is the aspiration of any transformational leader: to make yourself redundant.” — Return of the Vikings, Chapter 8: Hospitality, page 145–146
“In 1967, Associated Press foreign correspondent John Roderick and a young university student named Yoshihiro Takishita transported a ‘minka,’ a type of traditional farmhouse, from the Japanese Alps to the forested Tokyo suburb of Kamakura. The massive timber structure came to define both their lives. Filmed just following Roderick’s death at ninety-three, Minka uses the house to investigate the nature of love and memory, and what it means to make a home.” (source: Aeon)
“I had conceived ‘Minka’ as a film about memory. But after Mr. Roderick died, the tone changed. Mr. Takishita became the primary storyteller. The minka became an elegy, a story about loss and grief. The meaning of home has always been written into this film, but it naturally evolved along with the lives within it,” the film’s director and producer Davina Pardo wrote in In Japan, a Farmhouse Becomes a Journalist’s Elegy (The New York Times, 2015).
Danish-Icelandic artist Olafur Eliasson has completed his first ever building — Fjordenhus, a fortress-like office in the Vejle Fjord, Denmark, on which he has been working for almost eight years with the German architect Sebastian Behrendt. The two have been working together since 2001, which resulted in, amongst others, the celebrated 3D glass facade of the Harpa concert hall in Reykjavik.
Eliasson told the Guardian, they had been able “to turn years of experiments in physical movement, light, nature, perception and the experience of space into a building that is a ‘Gesamtkunstwerk’ as well as a fully functioning architectural structure.”
Built around a concrete structure, the building’s inner and outer walls are built from 970,000 bricks. The artist chose 15 different hues of unglazed brick, along with blue, green and silver glazed bricks.
“Each of the external facades has a different combination of bricks depending on the light that it will receive, with the glazed blue bricks used more frequently near the base and blue bricks more often at the top of the building. The internal spaces also have combinations of bricks specific to the room’s uses. For example, only grey and silver bricks are used in the stairwells,” Tom Ravenscroft writes in Olafur Eliasson’s first building is a castle-like office in a Danish fjord.
According to Kate Connolly in Disorientating and playful, Eliasson’s first building ‘grows’ from Danish fjord, Eliasson was driven by the idea of a building “which celebrates people’s presence, which says: ‘I’m holding you.’ It’s important for me to ask where does societal inclusion take place if not in architecture. The notion of the spaces we own together is shrinking — most extremely we see this in London.”
“Clearly, London is one of the capitals where both the private sector and the wealthy individual have been given the highest priority, giving large parts of the city centre the total crazy bonkers real estate inflammatory situation, with no regulatory effort from the politicians to try and maintain a civic diversity. The result, forcing people to live at the periphery, creates a very unharmonious, monotopic community. The public sector has simply forgotten what it is to actually be driven by the belief in its own people,” Eliasson told Connolly.
“I do digital consultancy for global pharmaceutical companies’ marketing departments. I often work with global PR agencies on this, and write reports with titles like ‘How to Improve Engagement Among Key Digital Health Care Stakeholders.’ It is pure, unadulterated bullshit, and serves no purpose beyond ticking boxes for marketing departments. … I was recently able to charge around twelve thousand pounds to write a two-page report for a pharmaceutical client to present during a global strategy meeting. The report wasn’t used in the end because they didn’t manage to get to that agenda point.” — One of the examples from David Graeber’s recent book, Bullshit Jobs, used by Nathan Heller in The Bullshit-Job Boom (The New Yorker, June 2018)