Slow Work in Progress

I have been on leave the last couple of weeks, though not quite on holiday. I’ve been decorating various rooms of our house, sanding walls, filling holes, painting. So I have been in the house for two weeks, apart from forays to Swindon’s enormous B&Q for supplies. I have ended up listening to an awful lot of radio as a result, which has become a project in itself. There is BBC Radio 6 of course, thankfully saved, but actually quite difficult to listen to all day – too much ‘mortgage indie’. Oddly, I did end up listening to 4 days of county championship cricket, an unexpectedly exciting end of season round of games – I can’t ever remember first class county cricket being broadcast on the radio, but digital radio makes is possible. I suppose, when I think of it, this wasn’t really broadcasting, not even narrowcasting, rather something like sliver-casting.

Between these delights, I have been catching up with some favourite podcasts, or experimenting with some new ones. I usually only listen to these in the car on the way to work, and over the summer haven’t really kept up the habit. I first started listening to podcasts regularly in 2008, during the US Presidential election, and it’s election time again in the US, so I have been listening to various things to keep up – Slate’s weekly Political Gabfest is fun in an anguished liberal sort of way, and there are now a couple of podcasts which provide regular highlights from progressive/liberal radio and TV in the US – the Best of the Left podcast, and Democracy Now! I have also discovered Stephanie Miller, who is a bit like John Stewart on speed, without the pretence of exasperated moderation. More soberly, The New Yorker has a great weekly podcast The Political Scene, and The Nation’s Chris Hayes has a regular podcast The Breakdown. These provide my sources for up to date analysis of the currently ever more bizarre world of US politics. There isn’t anything I know of which does the same sort of thing in the UK – The Guardian’s Politics Weekly is very good, but in general this medium of public debate doesn’t seem well developed in the UK. Maybe because we don’t have a madly partisan media scene. Yet.

These sorts of podcasts work well because they have a regular rhythm to them, updated daily or weekly, and none of them is too long – an hour or so at most, for the ‘magazine’ style podcasts. The other podcasts I have been listening to these last couple of weeks, and which I sometimes listen to in the car, are more resolutely academic. I feel I should listen to these ones more often than I do, but actually after two weeks of trying, I have decided that many of them do not really suit the ‘medium’ of the podcast as well as they might. There are some exceptions, but these prove the rule – Philosophy Bites, which consists of short, 15 minutes or so of interviews with philosophers talking big philosophy – Pat Churchland on ‘eliminative materialism’ , Galen Strawson on conceptions of the self. Nigel Warburton and David Edmonds, who host Philosophy Bites,  have an interesting podcast about podcasting here. The OU also has a great list of podcasts, some of which are bespoke course materials, some of which are ready-made for iTunesU. These shows work because they are relatively short, and often take the form of the interview or round-table discussion. There are some longer ones – Canadian educational broadcaster TVO has Big Ideas, which seems to be mainly lectures by academics – I listened this week to a great talk by the late Gerry Cohen, using Olivia Newton-John to elaborate on his distinctively radical understanding of conserving existing values, and Toby Miller laying out a great agenda for studying the environmental impacts of cultural practices. Australian public radio has The Philosopher’s Zone, which is more interview based. And Julian Baggini, editor of The Philosopher’s Magazine, has a magazine style monthly podcast as well.

These podcasts all work well. I’m not so sure about all of the stuff you can access on iTunes mind. Lots of the content available on iTunesU seems to be there for promotional or recruitment purposes, without a lot of thought being put in to making material interesting. The OU has a big presence on iTunesU [I’m even on it], but this material is well produced with an eye to the nature of the medium being used. On the other hand, while you can download lots of famous people talking and lecturing from UC Berkeley or Oxford, much of this material is just recordings of seminars or lectures, which means that you don’t get the benefit of any visual aids people might be using, and the overall lesson I learnt from two weeks of trying to listen to these sorts of podcasts was that the academic lecture, as a communication form, really is pretty dysfunctional.

One of the first things I listened to over the course of my two weeks of decorating was David Byrne on TEDTalks, reflecting on how far different styles of music are generated in symbiotic relationship with the architectural spaces of performance, recording, and listening. I think you might extend the same sort of idea to thinking about how well different styles of talk-heavy analysis – of news, cinema, or philosophical concepts – translate to platforms that are beyond-radio, as it were. Lectures work in so far as they literally have a captive and immobile audience. But the academic podcasts which work are shorter, less analytical, and tend to work more as ‘tasters’ than substitutes for reading – they are better attuned to the spaces and rhythms in which one might find oneself listening to them, in the car, or standing on a ladder with a paint brush in your hand.

Back to work now – writing/reading/thinking work, that is, not painting/listening work.

Theorising the Crash

Now that I have finished, for now at least, with regular air travel, I have finally got round to reading a book published in the UK earlier this year by William Langewiesche (how exactly do you pronounce that?), called Fly by Wire – it’s about the US Airways plane which ditched in the Hudson River in New York in January 2009. I have not quite felt able to read this book in the midst of various flight-dependent speaking commitments (one thing which Langewiesche’s writing does, mind you, if you want it to, is make you feel a little safer about flying). Oddly enough, aeroplanes were quite important to my early reading experiences. I grew up in a household full of books, which was good, but an awful lot of them were about famous WW2 bombing raids – books by or about Guy Gibson, that sort of thing. And at school I had a subscription to one of those weekly magazines that built-up into a complete encyclopaedia of the history of military air warfare. So this post is partly about a guilty pleasure.

Anyway, so here I am, aware of the risk of seeming to be trying to pull off that most academic of conceits, which is to try to establish some intellectual sounding justification for one’s own personal interests, tastes, hang-ups – like arguing that baseball is ‘the best of all games’, or that all the best cricket writing (not much) is written by lefties – CLR James, er, er.., er…?

Langewiesche writes about why planes crash. I first remember reading something by him sometime last year, on a train, in Vanity Fair, about an accident in which two planes collided over the Amazon forest. The great thing about his writing about crashes is that, of course, you know from the start what is going to happen – the planes are going to crash. But he develops narrative tension by reconstructing the ‘why’ of crashes (think of a highly literate version of the TV programme Air Crash Investigation, which I should probably be ashamed to admit to watching, but hey, it’s sponsored by the National Geographic Channel, so it’s almost formally related to my professional world as a geographer…). The story of crash over the Amazon turns out to be about how attempts to programme safety into complex systems like international airline flight only generate unanticipated consequences of some sort – i.e. crashes.

This essay, ‘The Devil at 37,000 feet’, is reproduced in Aloft, an expanded collection of Langewiesche’s writings on the magic of human flight. Langewiesche is a moralist, of a sort, in so far as what he does in these essays is work-up a clear account of how the development of human flight has gone hand in hand with competing scientific and social scientific understandings of the degree to which complex systems are inevitably prone to ‘normal accidents’, or whether, as in the view of ‘high reliability’ theorists, the prevention of accidents is actually within human control – Langewiesche’s position seems to lean towards the former position. Anyway, I learned new things about social science from reading his books, about sociologists and political scientists like Charles Perrow, Scott Sagan, and Todd La Porte, and other exponents of ‘systems accident thinking’. Langewiesche uses plane crashes to elaborate on the relationships between technologies, organisational systems, and the idiosyncrasies of embodied, human skill and judgement. In the book about the plane landing on the Hudson, Langewiesche has this repeated theme of how the ‘heroism’ ascribed to the pilot, Chesley Sullenberger, in terms of his displaying ‘cool under pressure’, is not so much mistaken as mis-described – the theme he reiterates is that both pilots pulled of ‘a work of extraordinary concentration’.  The book is a brief history of fly-by-wire design technologies, pioneered by Airbus – the plane they were flying was an Airbus A320. To cut a long story short, these technologies surround pilots in ‘flight envelope systems’, which ensure that various parameters of flight are maintained automatically, not least in crisis situations. This is one of the feedback loops of perverse consequences which Langewiesche explores in the essays in Aloft, looking at the ways in which enhanced safety-oriented design features of modern commercial airlines can, under certain circumstances, combine with the routinization of the skill and fluency of pilots in flight “to inhibit their powers of self-assessment”. It turns out that the design features innovated to keep us poor folks back in Economy safe (Langewiesche is also very acute on the political economy of the airline business as it impacts on the performance of pilots in stressful situations), might inhibit the exercise of the very reflexive skills which pilots have at their disposal to negotiate unexpected situations when they arise.

When Fly by Wire was published in the US at the end of 2009, it was rather predictably spun in terms of a scandalous de-bunking of the media-created mythology around Pilot Sullenberger’s heroism – as if the implication was that the plane landed itself on the water. This is unfair – Langewiesche wants to give the built-in design features of the plane their due, for sure, but the point about the pilots being ‘concentrated’ is precisely about locating what it was that they did so well. This is the reason why Langewiesche’s writing is interesting – it is his concern with thinking through the distribution of ‘responsibility’, in good and bad senses, across technologies and humans, between systems and discretionary acts. It reminds me of early actor-networky theory, by Latour and Steve Woolgar for example, which made so much of re-describing social theories of agency in terms of the dynamics of attributions of responsibility. This emphasis seems to have been lost in the slippage of so much of the work inflected by these sorts of thinkers into making big claims about the ontological status of various sorts of ‘non-humans’, ‘actants’, and the like. So if you are ever worried by the challenge of that sort of social theory, I recommend reading something by William Langewiesche.

Just wait ‘til after you have taken that long-planned plane journey. Better to read it on a train.

The politics of behaviour change

Another plug, this time for a Theme Issue of the journal Environment and Planning A, on the topic of Ethical Foodscapes. I was asked to write a short commentary on the papers in this collection, and ended up using this an excuse to try to say something coherent about ‘the politics of behaviour change’ – the papers in the collection all engage, in different ways, with ongoing attempts to influence individual patterns of consumption by fiddling with the backgrounds of food practices. This is just one field in which the issue of how and whether to influence people’s conduct to achieve various ‘public goods’ has become central to contemporary politics and governance. There is a great research project investigating this phenomenon, based at Aberystwyth, on the time-spaces of soft paternalism. Behaviour change is all over the place these days – in climate change debates, in obesity agendas, amongst the Research Councils who fund science and social science in the UK – it’s all the rage in policy circles, not just in government but also amongst think-tankers and NGOs. The House of Lords Select Committee has just announced an inquiry into how ideas about behaviour change are working in government. What I find most interesting about all this is the challenge this seems to present to styles of ‘critical’ social science analysis – Elizabeth Shove has an interesting reflection on this issue, also in Environment and Planning A earlier this year, which focusses on how ‘attitude-behaviour-change’ models of governance tend to marginalise insights of social theory. It is interesting, certainly, to track the ways in which certain scientific and social scientific fields are being ‘sourced’ for authoritative models of how to intervene to bring about social change – the most obvious example being the selective use of neuroscience, along with the popularisation of behavioural economics by Thaler and Sunstein’s Nudge. There is a cross-over here between academic research fields and popular discourse too; think of Malcolm Gladwell’s books, the success of Freakonomics, or my favourite, Simon Kuper and Stefan Szymanski’s Soccernomics – a book which uses simple statistical analysis to develop some interesting explanations and make some entertaining predictions about how success in national and international football is determined (interestingly, this book was published in the UK under the title Why England Lose: And other curious phenomena explained – the difference in the title between the UK and US version is indicative of the current popularity of this style of popular social science beyond any particular specialised interest).

There is an easy default position that this style of thinking about influencing people is inherently sinister, since it explicitly seeks to get at people through less-than-fully-rational means – by either designing change into infrastructures, or by deploying affective styles of communication. This seems to circumvent a basic principle of persuading people of the reasons to change through rational argument. Behaviour change initiatives are all about ‘manipulating’ the contexts in which people exercise choice and discretion. They seem to be designed to confirm the model of ‘governmentality’ developed by Michel Foucault, of a mode of power which works by shaping the contexts of individuals’ conduct without directly intervening in that conduct. Of course, the question that Foucault doesn’t  necessarily help us with is how to know when it is a problem that your conduct is being configured, ‘nudged’, in certain ways, and when it isn’t. There is a tendency of course to read Foucault as a theorist of social control, but I think the proliferation of behaviour change initiatives is one occasion to re-visit the ‘politics’ of using Foucault. The anthropologist James Ferguson has recently argued that  there is a real political stake at play in seemingly arcane differences between conceptualisations of neoliberalism as a hegemonic project of class-power, informed by Marxist theorists such as David Harvey, and  neoliberalization as a contingent assemblage of varied ‘arts of government’, informed by governmentality theory, in the work of Aihwa Ong for example. One reason not to reconcile these approaches – not to think that Foucault provides a nice micro-analysis of the ‘how’ of neoliberalism, while Marxism still holds the secrets to explaining the real interests driving the ‘why’ (an argument made by Bob Jessop) – is because the governmentality approach draws into view the ‘critical’ imperative to think through the possibilities of alternative ‘arts of government’. Quite a lot of sexy theory these days doesn’t like to do this, preferring stylized images of contestation and disruption.  This is why the default reading of behaviour change, as a sinister way of controlling people’s actions in the interests of more neoliberalism, more consumerism, more responsibilization, doesn’t seem convincing to me – it seems to close down the more difficult form of analysis which would ask about the possibility of using devices and discourses of ‘behaviour change’ for different purposes, or in more democratically accountable fashion.