Category: Culture

Is the Happiness Industry Creating Algorithmic Selves?

In a recent podcast called “Thinking Allowed,” host Laurie Taylor covered two fascinating books: The Wellness Syndrome, and The Happiness Industry. One author discussed a hedge fund that’s now managing what it calls “biorisk” by correlating traders’ eating, drinking, and sleeping habits, and their earnings for the firm. Will Davies, author of The Happiness Industry, discussed less intrusive, but more pervasive, efforts to assure that workers are fitter, happier, and therefore more productive. As he argues in the book,

[M]ood-tracking technologies, sentiment analysis algorithms and stress-busting meditation techniques are put to work in the service of certain political and economic interests. They are not simply gifted to us for our own Aristotelian flourishing. Positive psychology, which repeats the mantra that happiness is a personal ‘choice’, is as a result largely unable to provide the exit from consumerism and egocentricity that its gurus sense many people are seeking.

But this is only one element in the critique to be developed here. One of the ways in which happiness science operates ideologically is to present itself as radically new, ushering in a fresh start, through which the pains, politics and contradictions of the past can be overcome. In the early twenty-first century, the vehicle for this promise is the brain. ‘In the past, we had no clue about what made people happy – but now we know’, is how the offer is made. A hard science of subjective affect is available to us, which we would be crazy not to put to work via management, medicine, self-help, marketing and behaviour change policies.

The happiness industry thrives in a culture premised on an algorithmic model of the self. People (or “econs“) are seen a bundle of inputs (data collection), algorithmic processes (data analysis), and outputs (data use). Since the demands of affect can only be extirpated in robots, the challenge for the happiness industry is to optimize some quantum of satisfaction for its human subjects, compatible with their maximum productivity. Objectively, the algorithmic self is no more (nor less) than the goods and services it uses and creates; subjectively, it strives to convert inputs of resources into outputs of joy, contentment–name your positive affect. As “human resources,” it is simply raw material to be deployed to its most profitable use.

Audit culture, quantification (e.g., the quantified self), commensuration, and cost-benefit analysis all reflect and reinforce algorithmic selfhood. Both the Templeton Foundation and the Social Brain Centre in Britain are developing some intriguingly countercultural alternatives to big data-driven behaviorism. As he highlights the need for such alternatives, Davies deserves great credit for exposing the political economy behind corporate appropriations of positive psychology.


ROUNDUP: Law and Humanities 05.20.15


The Spring 2015 issue of the New Mexico Law Review is devoted to the TV show Breaking Bad. Here’s a link to the issue’s intriguing contents, which includes such articles as Max Minzer’s Breaking Bad in the Classroom, Elizabeth N. Jones’ The Good and (Breaking) Bad of Deceptive Police Practices, and Jennifer W. Reynolds’ Breaking BATNAS: Negotiation Lessons From Walter White. The Wall Street Journal took note here; law and pop culture seems to have gone decidedly media mainstream.



On May 11, Supreme Court Justice Ruth Ginsburg presided over the competency trial of Don Quixote at Washington, D.C.’s Shakespeare Theatre Company’s Sidney Harman Hall. Assisting her were her colleague Justice Stephen Breyer and Chief Judge Merrick Garland and Judge Patricia Millett of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit and Judge Amy Berman Jackson of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia.  Tony Mauro of the Blog of Legal Times provides coverage here.

The Quixote case is the latest in a series of law and humanities-inspired moot courts, beginning in 1994, that the Bard Association of the Shakespeare Theatre Company has hosted.  More here.





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Warren Buffett & Charlie Munger Annotated by Experts in Wall Street Journal

WB1996Warren Buffett’s latest letter to Berkshire Hathaway shareholders is annotated in The Wall Street Journal by 30 professors, authors, and investors.  Editors Erik Holm and Anupreeta Das assigned us each two sentences in the letter, and/or Charlie Munger’s addendum, to amplify.  Here are my two, followed by the list of contributors. Mine address the role Warren’s son Howard will play in succession and what Munger believes concerning what made Berkshire succeed.

Regarding Buffett’s reference to his son Howard (p. 36):   Buffett tries again to defend the choice of Howard to succeed him as board chairman. Many remain skeptical. But critics should appreciate the plan’s savviness. It deftly carves a niche for the son of a legend, as Howard will: (1) not be asked to perform any task his father has performed (like investing or capital allocation) and (2) be asked to perform only one task, which Warren has never performed (monitoring the CEO for adherence to Berkshire culture and dismissing any who fail). This shrewdly avoids the trap many children of legendary parents face of never being able to measure up.

Notably, besides Munger, Howard is the only individual Buffett identifies by name among Berkshire personnel in his anniversary message and, besides Buffett, Munger only names Abel and Jain. In fact, while Munger and Buffett mutually credit the other for minting the Berkshire model, they never credit any other Berkshire personnel for its success. The omission contrasts with Buffett’s letters, which rightly herald specific executives who power Berkshire and animate its culture. The difference is that these messages, while in form historical, are really about the future, and all three people identified by name are referenced in discussions of succession.

Where Munger asserts (p. 39) that “The management system and policies of Berkshire . . . were fixed early”:   Munger’s statements about how Berkshire’s “system and policies” were “fixed early” is vague. In one sense, it sounds as if they were part of a master plan at the outset back in the 1960s.  But Buffett has often stressed that Berkshire never had a strategic plan nor any business plan. And through the 1980s, most of Berkshire’s “business” consisted of investments in securities for its insurance companies, not wholly owned operating subsidiaries. So it doesn’t seem likely that, in the 1970s or even as late as the 1980s, Buffett’s goal was to create “a diffuse conglomerate.”

On the other hand, Munger subsequently clarifies (p. 40) that Buffett “stumbled into some benefits [of these policies] through practice evolution” over his career. And Buffett sculpted much of Berkshire’s culture late in the company’s life as part of a process that is still ongoing and extends well beyond these policies. Therefore these passages should not obscure the fact that the “Berkshire system” looks sharper from today’s vantage point than from Buffett’s desk “early” on. That’s important to recognize lest observers commit errors associated with hindsight bias like believing that observed outcomes were predictable, a weakness of human psychology which Munger often lectures against.

Cunningham is the author of Berkshire Beyond Buffett: The Enduring Value of Values and editor and publisher, since 1997, of The Essays of Warren Buffett: Lessons for Corporate America. For more commentary on this topic, see today’s New York Times Dealbook column, here. Read More


Milton Hebald, RIP

The great sculptor, Milton Hebald, passed away at age 97.  May he rest in peace.  The NYT has a fine obituary here.  Accompanying this post are photos of three of his numerous sculptures gracing the grounds at Morefar, the Brewster, NY estate of the late Cornelius Vander Starr, founder of what Hank Greenberg turned into the American International Group.

Boy flying kite at Morefar (pp. 33-34)













Boy Flying Kite

Statue at Morefar (pp. 33-34)











2011-09-10 10.22.03










Tennis Anyone?


CIV!!! Or How Simulations May Help Government and Personal Choices

Could Civilization and the SIMs be part of a better informed future? I loved Civilization and played way too many hours of it in college. Turns out that the Colombian government has developed “computer games which are designed to teach pre-teenagers to make sensible choices about everything from nutrition to gang membership.” I wonder whether running a simulation of choices and outcomes over and over would shape behaviors or teach other gaming instincts. For example, most people might find that if they follow certain paths they end up in safe, but relatively happy middle class life and retirement. Heck, the game, Life, was a truly random version of what growing up is (then again maybe everything is so stochastic that Life is correct to rely on the spin of a wheel to see whether one is a doctor or teacher or has kids). Still, a game that reinforced the experience of putting money away now, not having it to play with, but having savings in retirement, i.e., the tradeoffs were more palpable, might sensitize people to choices. I never played SIMs, only Sim City, but if SIMs lets you smoke, take drugs, drink too much, have unsafe sex, etc. and gain near term rewards but then find that the long-term payoffs were poor, that would be interesting. Of course, some outcomes might be you’re a superstar who dies early or worse ends up on a horrid reality show. And, many may say “I was a wild child, had a blast, and ended up on T.V.? Cool!”


The 100 Year Bloom?: Wealth Inequality in the U.S.

The debates around Piketty’s analysis of wealth gaps will persist, but a recent paper by Emmanuel Saez (U.C. Berkeley) and Gabriel Zucman (London School of Economics) indicates that wealth disparity in the U.S. has hit the levels of about 100 years ago. As the Economist Espresso edition reports, the study finds that “In the late 1920s the bottom 90% held just 16% of America’s wealth; the top 0.1% had a quarter.” From the Depression until “well after” World War II, the middle class share went up. Since the go-go 1980s that tide reversed and now “The top 0.1% (160,000 families worth $73m on average) hold 22% of America’s wealth, just shy of the 1929 peak—and almost the same share as the bottom 90% of the population.” (The Economist link has a nice chart from the paper. The chart captures the trend well. I was unable to get the image from the paper, however.).

I have to wonder whether the intersection of wealth disparity, race and police tensions, health security, job prospects, lack of food, and perhaps other factors explain what seem to be larger examples of unrest and revolutionary impulses from all ranges of political interests all around the world. And, the general sense of rejecting all institutions (a millennial impulse if lack of joining a party is a signal) can still lead to the short term alliance of enough people to cause revolution (their cause is change and rage and unleashed energy against the unjust), the aftermath of which is rarely bloodless. Once the common enemy goes, the energies of the one truth turn on each other. The show Survivor is much more real: eliminate those who are strong and helped you win, for they may threaten your vision. In other words, I sense much anger out there (and it may be founded) on many fronts. I see lex talionis (eye for an eye), but that is not justice. The law is supposed to mediate our impulse to revenge, and yet the law lies behind the changing tides of wealth. The unarticulated sense of injustice and disenfranchisement can eat the system from the inside. And even those gaining the biggest benefit right now will not see that the bottom is falling out from under them.

Not all 100 year blooms are pretty or benign. Reorganizing a country or the world so that baseline well-being goes up and is shared by most, if not all, seems like a blip in historical terms (I am trying to think of an extended era, more than 100 years, when wealth disparity was not high). But it may be that if we don’t start to fix these problems, the desire for those blips will become real and travel with high costs: depressions, starvations, revolutions, and wars.

It may not take much to prevent the fall. Who knows? Maybe the Jam’s That’s Entertainment captures an odd, sad, equilibrium that barely satisfies.

Waking up at 6 A.M. on a cool warm morning
Opening the windows and breathing in petrol
An amateur band rehearsing in a nearby yard
Watching the telly and thinking ’bout your holidays

If that is gone, well…


Will The Nobel Committee Follow Oscar and Restrict Selling Medals?

Apparently Watson, of DNA discovery fame, is selling his Nobel Medal. Christie’s estimates the price at $2.2 million. I will go into the reasons for the sale below. But first, I wonder whether the Nobel Committee will put in a restriction on selling the medals. The Oscar folks, (aka the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences) placed a restriction on awards granted after 1950: the recipient or heirs had to offer it the the Academy for $1 before selling to anyone else. Unrestricted Oscars have been sold for $510,000 (1993, Vivien Leigh’s Oscar for “Gone with the Wind”) and $1,540,000 (1999 David O. Selznick’s Oscar for “Gone with the Wind”) among other prices. Whether the Nobel folks see the award as their key asset (as AMPAS does) or they have other objections to its sale will determine what they do.

For those wondering why sell the medal, Watson made some comments about race in 2007. According to Irish Central, in an interview with the Financial Times, Watson said he was “‘inherently gloomy about the prospect of Africa’ because ‘all our social policies are based on the fact that their intelligence is the same as ours – whereas all the testing says not really.'” That statement resulted in boards and other groups choosing not to work with him. In short, he needs the money.

Given that Watson has said he will give some of the money to science charities, I wonder whether he might set up fund in honor of Rosalind Franklin, the woman who took the picture that allowed the structure of DNA to be seen and died four years before the Nobel for DNA’s discovery was made. (The Nobel prize is awarded only when one is alive). Nonetheless, her credit has been lost. Then again if Ms. Franklin were alive, she might not be happy to have a fund created in her name by someone who has Watson’s current reputation, let alone the DNA discovery problem.

Correction: Earlier version mistakenly listed Crick as the Nobel medal seller.


Pew’s “Web IQ” Test Is Flawed

Pew Research does good work, but of late the surveys and claims give a “factoid” feeling. The latest report “What Internet Users Know about Technology and the Web” asks some rather silly questions. Why knowing the character limit on Twitter (140), which university was the first on Facebook (Harvard), or the year that the iPhone came out (2007) is indicative of useful knowledge is unclear. To me these points of trivia may matter as one tries to write about technology history and maybe policy. But the idea of Web IQ is murky. Heck, many of the questions are about the Internet, not the Web. Identifying the faces of tech leaders such as Gates or Sandberg is a curious feat but is this quiz in fact a game of tech Jeopardy!? (Yes, few knew Ms. Sandberg, but that is a different issue than Web IQ for me). The questions about tech policy seem to reveal more about problem areas. Guess what, net neutrality and privacy fared poorly. Knowing how wikis work might enable folks to think about the authority of content. Despite the irony of the quiz name, knowing the difference between the Web and the Internet also helps sort issues about many evolving technologies. Yet the overall thrust of the report reminds me of political, navel gazing junkies who, like Trekkers, thrill to their did you know who did what on some exact, obscure date knowledge and then act as if those who don’t know the answer somehow are stupid or “don’t get it.”

Raw knowledge and history are great and fun, but unless you can tie them together they are quite dead. Maybe if Pew had just called it a general tech knowledge test, it would have made more sense, but then maybe no one would read the report. Ah there it is. Pew’s IQ may be rather high after all.


She Blinded Me With Science – Redux

Scientists/musicians at Cambridge have made a cover of Thomas Dolby’s She Blinded Me With Science (video below). As Cambridge News explains, the “video features a number of young women scientists including a material scientist, laser physicists and an epidemiologist. All proceeds from the song will go to ScienceGrrl, an organisation dedicated to celebrating and supporting women in science.” Seems like a cool project. The video could be a start to featuring more women in science (By my count there are five women in the video, which may be a function of how many can be highlighted in a short format). I hope so. My reason is simple. Some of my favorite people at Google were super-smart, fun to work with, visionary, and taught me huge amounts about science and professionalism and oh yeah, they happened to be women. That they are not known for their excellence beyond a small group and that women think science and math options are not open for them saddens and baffles me. Maybe the fact that my mom is a doctor colors my world. Or maybe it is the fact that I studied with female peers in grade and high school on math and science (including Calc I and II) and they were as good as any male I studied with. Or maybe it’s because so many women in law school and academia impressed and continue to impress me by pushing me to think and speak better as well as teaching me about law, science, technology, and so much more. To me the idea that women are somehow less able to work in certain fields is just nutty, or better said, insane. So in the Thanksgiving spirit, I am thankful that some science folks with some musical skills have offered their update to Mr. Dolby.

Side note: Dolby is one of my favorite musicians . His Golden Age of Wireless has some great tracks (check One of Our Submarines if you want a haunting ode to technology and lost empire). That said, The Flat Earth is brilliant. I think of it as an album that I can listen to start to finish and enjoy each song. The title track is great. I prefer the studio version to this one, but you can get a feel for the song and the lyrics perhaps the best part:
“please remember…
the Earth can be any shape you want it
any shape at all
dark and cold or bright and warm
long or thin or small
but it’s home and all I ever had
and maybe why for me the Earth is flat”

In other words, we can make the world we want.

Plus the idea of the Flat Earth Society amuses me.


Oh Barbie, Not Again! Mattel’s View of Women and Science

Apparently, Barbie again thinks that women are limited when it comes to science. Mattel seems to be trying to get on board with with STEM and women. They commissioned a book Barbie: I Can Be A Computer Engineer. Unfortunately, according to The Sydney Morning Herald, the book has Barbie as only able to design and not code, and she seems not to have a sense of computer security. The online outrage has prompted a recall of the book. The writer claims that Mattel required Barbie to be “more polite.” Mattel has claimed the book, which came out in 2010, does not reflect current Barbie views. Nonetheless, The Herald points out that The book came out last year and there is evidence that the book was commissioned in 2011. Furthermore, the real point is that Mattel should be able to do better here. As the Herald points out that other offerings such as Rosie Revere Engineer and the Hello Ruby project manage to show females doing well with technology and gaining skills such as coding. So will Mattel and Barbie ever catch up to more modern ideas? After all, critical views of Barbie and Mattel’s views on women in math and science have been going on since at least the late 1990s.

Maybe the Internets and buying power will force a shift. As I argue in Speech, Citizenry, and the Market: A Corporate Public Figure Doctrine, people should take on Mattel and Barbie with online protests, boycotts, reworking of the brand image (which apparently happened with a remix app that lets “people [] make their own wry comments by rewriting the book”), and more. That might signal competitors that a market exists while also telling Mattel that they are losing the next generation of consumers. Plus The Herald notes that Barbie sales are down. That may present and opportunity for this sort of action to have force. As STEM grows in attention, and moms start to buy more toys that foster new views of femininity, maybe other toy and doll makers will take off and challenge Barbie. Given Mattel’s power, it may alter course and swamp those new entrants, or it may buy them. A more likely outcome is that a few new offerings emerge, but Barbie stays the course. Still, if some criticism spurs even niche options, today’s world of Internet sales and bespoke toys can support that niche until it maybe becomes more.