The American dream is built on the notion that the U.S. is a meritocracy. Americans believe success in life and business can be earned by anyone willing to put in the hard work necessary to achieve it, or so they say.
Thus, Americans commonly believe that those who are successful deserve to be so and those who aren’t are equally deserving of their fate – despite growing evidence that widening inequalities in income, wealth, laborand genderplay a major role in who makes it and who doesn’t.
And this very fact – that Americans believe their society is a meritocracy – is the biggest threat to equality, particularly when it comes to gender, as research by myself and others shows.
Just a few decades ago it was unthinkable that a computer could ever be as smart as a human. But in 1996, the super-computer Deep Blue beat world champion Gary Kasparov in chess, and in early 2017 Google’s AlphaGo defeated the best human player in Go. In his fascinating new book Homo Deus, Yuval Harari argues that the combination of big data and self-improving algorithms will soon outsmart humans entirely and make human decision-making obsolete. Even today, it just takes 150 Facebook likes for psychometrics software such as Cambridge Analyticato know your needs, fears and hopes better than your parents do, and just over 300 likes for such software to know you better than you know yourself. All based on analyzing your likes against Millions of other likes and profiles. No wonder the Trump campaign made effective use of that software last year to better target their voters. But this is just the beginning: Recently, researchers from Wits University in Johannesburg, South Africa, were able for the first time to directly link a human brain to the Internet – creating the first ever ‘Brainternet’. Based on increased connectivity, smart algorithms may soon be able to monitor and analyze all our biological functions, thoughts, interactions, and purchases, and know much better what we want and what makes us happy than we do. Harari argues that in the end humans may delegate all important decisions – choices of careers, partners and places to live – to algorithms that exceed our brain capacity manifold. So will big data algorithms eventually control our lives?
Studies have also found that the rich exert far more influence over government than the rest of us. This imbalance means that wealthy people who do something about inequality may have more power to make an impact than everybody else. As scholars of social change, we wanted to learn more about how a small number of affluent Americans choose to spend their own time, clout and money fighting inequality.
We live in a world burdened by large-scale problems that refuse to go away: the refugee crisis; terrorism; rising sea levels; frequent floods, droughts and wildfires; not to mention persistent inequality and violation of basic human rights across the world.
What do these problems have in common? They resist any simple solution. In policy research they are called “wicked.” This is because cause-effect relations are complex and solutions unclear; many of these problems are urgent, yet there is no central authority to solve them; their magnitude is often hard to estimate; and those trying to solve them may even contribute to causing them.
“Socializing finance” has become shorthand to describe the research that several scholars (including me) are engaged in related to social studies of finance. This stream of work involves: bringing finance into the realm of social studies; but also making the industry aware of other ways of thinking and doing, beyond their current status quo; this also often has an element of (social) interaction with the industry thrown in. All these are consistent with various meanings of ‘socializing’ and are much needed efforts.
But there is a flip side to this aspect. How critically aware are we that finance is also on a mission to socialize us – in the sense of influencing our thinking – even as we may attempt to ‘socialize’ it?
In my work (in collaboration most prominently with Sean Buchanan, Trish Ruebottom, Madeline Toubiana) and that of a few other scholars, this seems to be a theme too powerful and important to ignore.
Finance is indeed at work to socialize us – to influence our ways of thinking about it through various means. At the peak of the financial crisis, various categories of elite actors seemed bounded by these ways of thinking about the financial industry resulting in configurations of positions often in favor of status quo (see Riaz et al., 2011). More specifically, financial industry leadership may well see it as their task to defend the institutional framework in which the current version of their industry thrives; and accordingly work to ‘socialize’ the rest of us – all stakeholders- to accept their view of finance and its role in society as the ultimate one by claiming epistemic authority in this domain (see Riaz et al., 2016). Continue reading →