When Education Becomes a Social Game

I have written in a previous blog about our modern world’s propensity to rank and monetise all that is of human interest (https://johnhtfrancis.wordpress.com/2014/03/08/capitalism-and-social-information). Equating intangibles with money is no modern invention; even barbaric societies in Europe around two thousand years ago used to price life and settle blood feuds with money. Nevertheless, the degree of practice across cultures in our days is quite clearly a by-product of ubiquitous modern consumerism. Education, which association with higher purpose is enshrined in the minds of most of us, is not immune to this trend. Capitalism on the whole is an effective economic system, or rather family of economic systems; there are however areas where raw capitalism should not belong, and one of them is, in my opinion, education. Education’s first mission, above any other, is the advancement of knowledge, technology, and understanding.

In theory, education provides individuals and groups with knowledge and skills, and educated people employ in practice some of what they have acquired in order to derive various benefits, including monetary ones. Only, there has been a growing twist: education has been increasingly used as a way to rank both people and institutions and then distribute income accordingly, often in a quite detached manner from actual utility. In other words, an implicit ranking through education is being used to entitle people and institutions to a certain slice of the economic pie. Now this fact may not matter much for those blessed with inherited wealth and are therefore financially independent, but for most people, it is a consequential mechanism. Worse still, social ranking happens among ones who have the same vested interest, giving all of them a false sense of importance. There is nothing wrong in having a selection process and in attributing merit based on selection, but it all depends on how the selection is made and on the nature of the merit given.

The long-term damage from practices and perceptions centred on social ranking, and behind it money, can be great. Bluntly put, when the purpose of those giving and seeking education becomes just that of acquiring higher social status in order to make money out of it or obtain larger grants than the next institution in line, then the long-term effect can be terrible. It is the typical case of short-term, complacent and self-serving behaviour leading to long-term degeneration of general utility. The malpractice in education, so to say, is both at the institutional and broader social levels. It concerns the modes by which many academic institutions operate; the ways by which societies interpret educational curriculums and ‘brands’; and the transmitted attitudes to young minds. I am not attempting to bash some prestigious institutions to which I was not able to have access – on the contrary, I was there.

Universities and research centres compete based on number of publications, rankings in journals, and calibre of professors, among others. I dare say that such metrics all have questionable relation to actual epistemological and technological merits. Research centres equally aim to attract certain economic benefactors; it does not take much to reckon the type of publications that they may favour in such a setup. The practice of appealing to particular third party interests is well utilised in business schools (most of them split hairs to get differentiated), but the situation is far from being limited to business education. Even when there are technological benefits from institutional publications, they often focus on ‘low-hanging fruit’ type of technologies rather than ambitious and risky long-cycle ones. And in educational systems where money prevails or where student selection is less meritocratic, these types of practices are arguably worse.

Is education primarily for the betterment of the individual or is it for chasing bigger money? For most people, the answer seems to be the second one. The ironic fact is that while traditional education provides on aggregate those who have it with above-average money, it is rarely the right path towards the ‘big money’ for which they long. Moreover, curriculums and schools become, based on some vague generalisations, brands to use when suitable for the purpose of more income. The media and entertainment industries add their own perceptions too; we see movie stars wearing the jerseys of a handful of Ivy League schools and reporters quoting some university as if it holds the monopoly of knowledge. As a result, flocks of students travel every year from aspiring nations to American and European universities, with their parents’ hard earned savings, principally to add these brands to their resume. Learning from professors with more knowledge and experience; building a network of mutually synergistic relationships among colleagues; and striving to be among the few who make the cut in a certain field, all are commendable objectives. Only, they are the beginnings of an educated life and not an eternal guarantee of economic entitlement. Rare are the people who follow through with consistent and continued effort.

It is no surprise that many of the inventors of new business and financial paradigms have been school dropouts or individuals who have taken distance from the educational establishment. Some of such inventors are in fact plain anarchists. Societies like to praise high risk & return behaviour, but the reality is that, with a few exceptions, social structures force most traditionally educated individuals into low-to-medium risk & return. Masses are sorted into income distribution systems based on their type of education; it is a vision comparable to the socioeconomic model that the old barons of industries, who were incidentally founders and benefactors to many of today’s reputed institutions in the US, had imagined.

The silver lining may be that an alternative is possible today. In older times, knowledge was indeed more centralised and localised; it is however more accessible now outside traditional systems, remotely and in a distributed manner. Gaining knowledge by those who wish to look for it can cost less than in previous times, and a great deal of it is in fact free. One is not required to pay hefty fees; sincere effort and motivation are that which is most needed. Indeed, people pay the hefty fees more for the social ranking and the branding rather than the actual knowledge.

The key question remains, if you had all the money and luxuries in the world, would you still think it worthy to seek an educated life?

JHTF

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On Happiness and the Environment

In our modern times, achieving happiness seems to be a priority. Only ego validation – in the form of career fulfilment, personal success, and fame, or their less flattering versions of vanity shows and chase for online followers, views, and ‘likes’ – can compete with individual happiness today to the top of the list. And although happiness has, quite understandably, always been an important human goal, there were times where promoting a certain idea or particular beliefs; where defending certain values; where furthering an institution, team, or nation; and, hopefully for some still, where achieving familial and group betterment, all were as or more important than individual happiness. Notwithstanding, great deal of recent talk and media are dedicated to the topic of happiness, as if it is the ultimate end goal of human existence. In societies where some of the religious beliefs have been shed, this has become an all the more important subject.

Without a doubt, happiness is a needed state of experience to all living beings, and the alleviation of suffering in particular is of primary importance. But happiness is the result of something else; it is not an enduring end goal that one finds and clings to like a gold chest. It is wrongly assumed that hedonism is simply the blind search for pleasure, and Epicurus’ advocacy of happiness is quite different from that which is commonly construed today. Moreover, what makes us happy at one stage of our lives is not necessarily the same at another stage; we are endowed with different characters that enable us to be happy differently; and of course, happiness cannot be equated with material prosperity, the latter being only a contributor, if at all.

Happiness is an emotional state that the agent experiences as the result of certain interactions with the outside world, other agents, and/or one’s own being (as with meditation or working out). It is limited in time and is actually quite rare. In fact, we spend most of our time not being overly happy, and it is a normal aspect of the human condition. Otherwise, happiness would cease to be that special thing to which we long. All else in the individual being equal, the type of happiness to which he aspires and which he ultimately realises, and all the consequences of this realisation, are factors of the environment in which he evolves. I have previously talked about the importance of the environment and its influence on the behaviour of any individual, no matter how strong or detached she can be; this is part of the reflection on the influence of the environment, only focused on the particular aspect of happiness, which has become a sort of pop culture torch.

Happiness is a somehow vague concept; it is common for two individuals to say that they are happy while experiencing slightly different feelings in the least. Happiness takes on different variants; it can resemble satisfaction; it can be a psychological state of peace and serenity; it can be an ego trip; it can be the excitement of action after restlessness; it can be tranquillity in cherished routine; it can be a feeling of reward after achieving a long sought objective (a case of dopamine rush); it can result from strong social bonding (a case of oxytocin rush); it can be sensual pleasure; and it can be relief from pain (a case of endorphin rush). There are different ways of reaching happiness; some are more ephemeral than others, and some are physical while others are cognitive. Nevertheless, it is rather clear that most of us need to experience on a not-too-rare of a basis one or several of those feelings, and that some of those ‘feel-good’ emotions can, temporarily or more permanently, compensate for the lack of others. When we lack one particular variant of happiness, we try to compensate for it by seeking more of another, even sometimes to the point of becoming addicted to such compensation.

The variants of happiness and the offsetting of one by another are central to the relation between the environment in which we live and the kind(s) of happiness that our environment favours. Consequently, some environments can be more constructive or pervasive in the manners in which they promote certain variants of happiness and limit others. The environment is the nation, the city, the neighbourhood, the media culture, the Internet, the workplace, and other. In some environments, the prevalent way of achieving happiness is through consumption and spending; in some, it can simply be family and human relations; and in others, it takes place through conflict, and even oddly through violence and warfare. Some people realise happiness through exploring the world of meaning, and some do so by probing truth and science. Prevalent variants of happiness can require increased consumption of particular resources or they can come with greater long-term cost. For instance, we say that inviting people to enjoy smoking leads to a society with higher cancer rates in the future.

In the same way that changes to incentives influence people’s behaviour, changes to the environment can alter the sources from which humans draw most of their happiness. Simple as it is, I find this to be an important sociological fact that is seldom considered when addressing the subject of happiness. Happiness is ultimately shaped by human interactions, fulfilled values, the perimeter in which a human being operates, and the incentives and rewards to which he or she is subject. We can live in environments where all lead to temporary, hindering and resource-consuming forms of happiness; and we can live in environments with enduring, humane and synergistic forms of happiness. Environments change dynamically, and such changes come to impact the way people become and stay happy. And importantly, we often have partial power to alter an environment or take ourselves out of it. The way Buddhist disciples in the mountains draw their happiness from contemplation is different from the way winning gamblers draw their happiness in Las Vegas or Macau; both are at some point feeling happy and fulfilled, and both can feel the satisfaction of having achieved something, only in remarkably distinct ways. The archetypical story of the rich and famous person who ‘has it all’ ending up miserable, with substance abuse problems, and dead by suicide or overdose can be better understood through such environmental considerations.

Once we admit the environmental impact on happiness, then we can deduce two easy correlates: (1) Happiness in societies with different climate, geography, demographics, and cultural environments can be different in kind, and arguably some of it can be more sustainable than other; and (2) Material well being and technological development only favour certain variants of happiness by changing the environment. From personal experience, I am inclined to say that the most enduring forms of happiness in society are those that grow organically and measuredly with culture; in several newly formed or economically changing cities, if you probe, you tend to find human relations weaker, and people falling on consumption and maybe temporary vanity as a way to compensate – repletion is the sovereign source of melancholy, as William James said.

It also reminds me of something J. M. Roberts and Odd Arne Westad said in The Penguin History of the World, when talking about the great development of Ancient Greece while contrasting it with the limited means with which people there lived at the time, “That civilization was rooted still in relatively simple economic patterns; essentially, they were those of the preceding age. […] Such men were the typical Greeks. Some were rich, most of them were probably poor by modern standards, but even now the Mediterranean climate makes a relatively low income more tolerable than it would be elsewhere.” I suspect that, even today, many low-income people find life more tolerable, and even more enjoyable and happy, than the rich living in harsher environments.

JHTF

Five Trends and Their Impact on Today’s Geopolitics

A great deal is being said on the geopolitical and security fronts; they warrant this short piece. Terror attacks; migrant crisis; resurgence of extremes; demagogy and populism; isolationist tendencies and calls for trade barriers and secessions, the world’s public discourse is rife with them. We feel that we are in the midst of some major geopolitical transitions, and as it is often the case with geopolitics and the media, there are determining trends that are addressed only too little; they are, for the most part, of a socio-economic nature. Five trends underlie most of the current geopolitical rhetoric in my view.

The first one of those trends may seem at odds with the news: wealth is rising globally, mostly driven by the economic development and increased technological penetration in several populous countries in Asia and emerging markets. The world’s economic centre of gravity is moving back East, after having moved constantly West from the Renaissance to the Industrial Revolution and the economic rise of the USA. In fact, the largest part of this economic shift has already taken place and it explains the commodities super cycle that we had witnessed globally and which has come to a rather abrupt end 5-6 years ago. A slower continuation of this shift East will follow now, that is until India, if at all, undertakes the same type of economic breakout as China, at which point this centre of gravity will accelerate further East again. Given the large populations of Asia, all of it means that the world is, in general, getting less poor and less underdeveloped – and this is rather wonderful.

The second important trend is the dominance of the services sector in the economies of all developed nations. We live in a world where services constitute more than two-third of the economic output of developed countries, even those countries with reputed manufacturing sectors such as Germany and Japan; and with the continued automation, interconnectivity, and advancement of artificial intelligence, this trend towards more services is likely to continue. French farmers may pursue their protests, but it will not change much to the fact that agriculture is today only a small and decreasing percentage of the economies of all developed nations.

By combining the first and the second trends, we can easily see that the West, Japan, and China, among others, are becoming less dependent on foreign commodities, in relative terms to their past, even if some of them still need to import a great deal of them for their economies to function properly. It explains the current economic struggle of many commodity-exporting countries, as well as the wish for a geopolitical ‘pivot’ of the USA and Europe out of the Middle East and Africa towards the Pacific region.

A substantial percentage of the population of advanced economies is getting older and retiring; this is the third important trend. As this generation of ‘baby boomers’ is both the holder of the greater part of the wealth in developed economies and the one that requires the most of the state benefits of pension and healthcare, the political landscape in developed countries has become divided and deadlocked; and should we add to this observation the job losses in low-skill sectors as a consequence of the first and second trends, we see how it all converges to lead to a rise in income and wealth disparities in developed nations, despite the global economic prosperity. Populism; tendencies to retrench; inability to reform social contracts on pension and healthcare; changes to taxation as a way of transferring wealth from one group to another; and blame games (e.g. against the rich, the bankers, or foreign migrants), all become effective political means for garnering votes. Many people want to change the system drastically; many people feel the need to blame or attack someone; but different social groups have, simply, contradictory views on how the economic systems should be changed, given their conflicting priorities. Opposing extremes emerge, and the traditional political parties see themselves stuck in the middle.

The Middle East, Central Asia, and Africa have high number of youth coming to the job market, and most societies in these regions are having great difficulty adjusting to the pace of demographic change, which is fuelling tensions, inequalities, and political disillusionment. Things are only made worse by the traditional reliance of these regions on the export of commodities at times where the developed world does not need them as much anymore and, therefore, is not as interested in intervening politically in these countries as much either. When a great number of young people are looking for subsistence without finding one, it almost always results in tectonic shifts within a country. Moreover, the failure of most countries in the Middle East at effective economic and political self-governance since the disintegration of the Ottoman Empire, the chaos of the Iraq war, and the missed chances at democracy following the Arab Spring, all add to the mix of political tension, which seems to be reaching its apex in our days. The result is a wide geography marred by 1848-like revolutions mixed with Thirty Year War-like sectarian strife. One ought to say that continental Europe also missed its chance at democracy immediately following its populous revolutions, and it is only in the late 19th century and early 20th century that democracy started to effectively take hold in it. As the problems worsen and the chaos endures, anarcho-nihilist and destructive movements start to attract more in the youth. Not finding their place in society, some in the youth start to wish only for the destruction of everything, including their own person; they are joined by some of the marginalised youth in the developed world. In this particular case, the anarcho-nihilist ideology is wrapped in religious cloth for further validation. Furthermore, given that most of the troubled countries belong to a religion distinct from that of the developed world and, we must admit, have a long legacy of conflict with it, the tension becomes quickly a global religious one. The US and Europe want to disinvest themselves from the Middle East and Africa towards the higher priority regions of East Asia, but, in an integrated world, the troubles coming from these regions will not allow them to easily escape from the challenges.

And finally, there is the salient fifth trend of rising expectations about what constitutes good lifestyle and good livelihood. With the fall of barriers of information and, hence, of barriers to social comparisons, there has been a sharp transformation of expectations about what constitutes a successful and worthy life. Something has outrun even our technological advancement and our economic prosperity, and it is our expectations about how easily and fast technology and economic prosperity should be delivered to us; they have become, simply, unachievable. We cannot all become billionaire tech entrepreneurs or multimillionaire fashion icons; we cannot all have the latest supercars and the finest luxury items; and we cannot all afford traveling the world constantly looking for new entertainment. And yet, this is what is being ‘sold’ to us everyday due to the fall of barriers of information. With the fast penetration of technology in our lives, we have witnessed great gains in productivity, but also certain complacency towards the ‘more… faster… now…’ I reckon that a large part of the economic malaise about which everybody seems to be talking – whether in the US, Europe, or China – can be explained not by economic figures, but by the run of material expectations of most people; it stands at odds with the wonderful prosperity and technological democratisation that the world has realised over the past decades. This run of expectations, mirrored by the incessant leveraging to meet them, is, in my view, the most alarming of all trends; it represents a dangerous potential of destruction from within. Often, we do not realise how good we have it until we lose it – ask any pre-war generation.

If we combine the third and the fifth trends, we explain a great deal of the anger at the domestic level; and if we combine the first, fourth and the fifth trends, we explain a great deal of the anger at the global level.

As these trends evolve or dissipate, and many factors can come to influence each, so will the doomy political rhetoric, the dissatisfaction, and the incessant promises of something unattainable. The reasons behind the current geopolitical trends are understandable, and their roots are less sensational, of a general conspiracy kind, or of a tribal/clash-of-cultures kind. Unfortunately, violence and the fear of other draw more interest than cool observation; too many in politics and the media take advantage of this fact without a shred of self-respect. But that is nothing new in human history either.

JHTF

Capitalism and Social Information

The 20th century witnessed the triumph of Capitalism as the standard of economic doing. With the fall of communism and the gradual transition of ‘socialist’ economies towards more ‘capitalist’ ones ended, in the mind of many, the era of economic experimentation. The victory of Capitalism was indeed a net one: it proved to be the most resilient of the ways of economic doing experimented with thanks to its dynamic, adaptive nature; a clearer accountability in it; and a special effectiveness in ultimately correcting complacency and inefficiency. We refer to Capitalism as a standard of economic doing more so than an economic system simply because, the common opinion to the contrary notwithstanding, there are many different capitalist systems possible, and the economic outputs of such capitalist systems can be distinctly different from each other. However, all capitalist systems include the following features: private ownership of society’s productive assets; a market-based exchange system for products and services with a large degree of freedom (although not a complete freedom); and, of course, the notion of capital itself, of equity and of debt, and the associated notions of money and interest.

Towards the end of the 20th century, the triumph of Capitalism was lauded by most. Its proponents, especially in the United States, went on further ‘colonising’ with it all possible social aspects; for most, almost everything in society became subject to Capitalism. Under this extended capitalism, every notion became a product or a service that is produced and can be traded. Only, this ‘over-colonisation’ of Capitalism poses grave risks in many areas, the most important of which is the transformation of ‘information’ into commodity. But before we continue further, it is important to clarify that we are talking here about information in the social context and not at a more fundamental level of nature. We are talking about information as received, emitted, and traded between different social agents in an economy or in a society. It is ‘social information’ that is becoming a commodity with this over-colonisation of Capitalism.

Today, social information suffers from the major ill of becoming a simple commodity. What we mean to say by this is that a piece of social information is not weighed any longer by its moral impact, but only by how much money it is capable of generating. The quality of social information faces a grave risk of erosion because of this. We live in a world where many news agencies and agents dealing with social information are unfortunately more interested in information that provides ephemeral crowd attention (and hence attracts advertisement money) or pleases certain political constituents (and hence attracts backers money). We also live in a world where websites are ranked and monetised not based on their social and moral utility, but simply based on their traffic numbers, regardless of the ultimate informational content behind. A reality program becomes more valued than stories of human rights abuses simply because they entertain more and are more ‘easy’ – this is what happens when social information becomes a simple commodity.

Capitalism can make us – as much – more stupid or more smart, more destructive or more constructive. The limits of Capitalism are typically decided outside it and are not made subject to it, and this is greatly done through attributing to social information the proper moral weight they deserve. Karl Marx considered that men became objects under Capitalism and that Capitalism dehumanises them. I do not agree with Marx as I do not see how we cannot say that every social science that considers humans in aggregates, including sociology, which Marx co-founded, does not somehow look at humans as units and so in a certain way dehumanises them. Capitalism is an effective way of economic doing provided that we are clear on the boundaries within which it should be allowed to operate. However, we do retain from Marxism this idea of Objectification but in a more limited manner: Capitalism should not be allowed to commoditise all types of information, to commoditise Morality. Moral ideas should not be transformed into objects that can be traded according to the capitalist way of doing, as this would ultimately lead to Capitalism destroying itself from within. As we know, Capitalism can itself lead to monopolies and to ultimate market failures if not properly governed by Law and Morality.

JHTF