Gender and danger: the ‘good girl persona’ in institutional fieldwork

By Ines Bolaños Somoano

I have spent hours formulating my questions, over and over again, so that they are precise but cannot be interpreted as provocative or too critical. Despite my intensive preparation, we reach a crucial point in the interview and I am nervous. I want to confront my interviewee, ask him why he says X thing happened, when official memos quite clearly state Y event was key instead. The look in his face tells me he doesn’t think I know about it, nor that I am likely to put him in a sore spot.

I ask him an easy question first, let him paint a pretty picture, before I move on to the meaty stuff. Then I aim my metaphorical weapon. I make sure my posture, face expression and voice all reflect an adequate sense of gratefulness and respect for his time and knowledge. My efforts are rewarded as I get a somewhat honest answer, if one that also vastly underestimates my knowledge in the subject.

When I exit the office, however, I do not feel exultant or accomplished; I am actually angry with myself and with my interviewee for the charade. For having had to feign ignorance and slow thinking in front of officials I have researched. I know, however, that others approaches (confident assertiveness or jovial camaraderie) would have not worked. As a female researcher, the ‘good girl persona’ is my only realistic approach to interviewing powerful institutional elites.

Of course, even using the ‘good girl persona’ hinges on me being a young, middle-class, female Spaniard with good command of English. If we travelled away from this positionality to a, say, black gay male German researcher, we would find other strategies for protection. While this piece is rooted in my experience as a woman, I hope it will motivate other minority researchers to come forward and discuss the “personas” they use in their fieldwork.

The ‘good girl persona’ introduced

As the name indicates, the ‘good girl persona’ is a performance, on the part of the researcher, of a predetermined set of traits: class, education, and most importantly, a gendered attitude that panders to traditional power dynamics. The ‘good girl persona’ is receptive, and changes according to the values of those attributes in your interviewee and surroundings. Its performativity, however, travels very well across a multitude of fieldwork and identity perspectives. The purpose of the persona is to allow the researcher to pursue gender unfriendly areas of research, and to protect her from the backlash of standing up to well-established power structures.

It presents female researchers as professional, well informed (“homework done”) individuals. Educated enough to be competent, but not so much so that they come across as intimidating or overly intelligent. It shows a diligent female academic, collected and with just the right touch of naiveté (a favoured trait in women), so that the interviewer will feel at ease, willing to talk and impress, and will not fear intellectual or professional competition from her.

The main advantage of the ‘good girl persona’ is perhaps the same thing that annoys most of us who have to use it. It shields the researcher using it from being seen in certain ways. It projects a very specific and gendered attitude, so that female researchers employing it might come across as harmless, respectful and deferential to the interviewee’s knowledge and position of power. The “adulating inquiry” mood that the ‘good girl persona’ performs, though, is not an easy on the ego. As a woman in academia, you will have already learned how to phrase your intelligence correctly, so that men (particularly older men in positions of power) won’t feel intimidated. In institutional settings, this is also an invaluable tool, for it ensures access to actors and knowledge that would be closed to an assertive, better informed woman.

It might seem that playing the ‘good girl persona’ is a simple choice not to make, if researchers want to avoid the dangers outlined. This is, however, a lie. Most working women, be it academics or professionals, have had to perform a certain degree of ‘good girl persona’ attitudes in order to be successful, navigate office politics and achieve their goals. It is not as simple as being, instead, forward, self-assured and unapologetic. Such an attitude, as a woman or other minority, is not likely to get you anywhere in most institutional environments, where unjust power hierarchies and gender gaps abound. This is, therefore, not a choice to be punished for, but instead a technique, with advantages and disadvantages.

Health and safety implications

So, we may wonder, what are the disadvantages? And what is the link between the ‘good girl persona’ and institutional research risks? Institutional fieldwork tends to take place in official, generally safe locations; furthermore, access to policy and political figures is highly regulated and guarded, so you are very likely to secure interviews weeks in advance, and be screened upon arrival to the premises. Some physical risks, then, can be avoided, such as open violent assault. Instead, researchers in institutional settings will be most seriously affected by mental health issues and sexual assault.

On one hand, researchers’ mental health can very seriously degrade in stressful fieldwork scenarios. This is especially true for female and minority researchers, who might feel even more pressured to make a good impression on interviewees and “prove” themselves. This leads to the first serious drawback of the playing the ‘good girl persona’: performance pressure. Doing fieldwork, being away and isolated, is already a stressful and alienating experience for the researcher.

In a way, the ‘good girl persona’ implies actively undermining your own intelligence and assertiveness. This display may seriously damage a researcher’s mental health, for it too often conflates with the all-too-prevalent “impostor syndrome” that plagues female researchers in academia (Bahn, 2014). These factors, combined, drown researchers’ self-esteem and can lead to abandoning fieldwork or suffering from depression.

On the other hand, the ‘good girl persona’ exposes researchers to the uninvited guest of every social gathering: sexual harassment and assault. There is a very real risk that one of your interviewees takes your ‘good girl persona’ (and it’s soft, appeasing air) as permission to openly flirt with you; tell sexist jokes; ask you out; corner you in an office; and any and every variation of sexual misconduct.

The fact that you are in an institutional setting doesn´t mean its actors aren’t part of the same patriarchal system perpetuating gender stereotypes and gender violence. In fact, given the hierarchical nature of intra-institutional power dynamics, you might find yourself in rather conservative and inflexible power environments. If you interview policy making and political elites, you are likely to deal mostly with men, far older than you, who are used to exercising authority and occupying prestigious or powerful positions.

We should remember that even when experiencing outright assault or harassment, it can be very difficult for victims to report or openly admit it. It may also seem impossible to confront the perpetrators if they are protected by their own power. Importantly, it is often the perception of our own powerlessness in contrast to the perpetrator’s power, which stops researchers from reporting sexual misconduct. 

Mitigating Risk and Handling Aggression

So where does this leave us? I hope the answer is on the path to change.
As a necessary first step, we must stop fetishizing fieldwork in general as a necessarily painful and lonely experience. Fieldwork is not a rite of passage, it is our work, and it should not be peppered with sexual harassment and feelings of uselessness. At the end of the day, such a change demands an active effort at the university level. We need to provide researchers with things like fieldwork preparation sessions, pre and post fieldwork counselling, and peer-to-peer exchanges on the realities of fieldwork in various scenarios.

That’s not all, however. We must also explore and discuss the specific hurdles of institutional fieldwork, mental health and sexual harassment, and find better ways to overcome them. I find that reflexivity and preparation help a bit. Researchers have to become aware of their boundaries, their willingness to endure or not certain discriminatory attitudes. This is, do you want to use the ‘good girl persona’ or not? Academics engaging in institutions need to talk and write about their experiences, encouraging other researchers to be forthright and honest about it too. No longer can we afford to tiptoe around these issues in university classrooms.

It also generally helps to thoroughly research your institution prior to your fieldwork. Identify their Anti-harassment Committee or Human Resources equivalent, so in case of sexual misconduct you will immediately know who you can go to for support and next steps. Almost every government or NGO has, at least on paper, a set of guidelines to communicate sexual harassment, and now it is the time to remind them why they were put into place.

Finally, I think the easiest way to survive the performance anxiety and burn out of the ‘good girl persona’ is to maintain a network of support. For a start, you can find a liaison/mentor person in your target institution. They will constitute an invaluable ally within the institution, to navigate institutional conduct and etiquette, facilitate access to difficult interviewees, etc. Additionally, institutional liaison figures can and should be your first point of contact for reporting sexual misconducts and other discriminatory incidents. The difficulty of communicating sexual assault can be made easier by having an intra-institutional ally, a person with whom you can drop your ‘good girl persona’ act and demand help and respect.

Another good way of building a network of emotional is to maintain regular counselling sessions. Preferably with someone you have worked with before and who can counsel you remotely during your fieldwork. Many universities nowadays offer counselling services, and in the current pandemic, conducting therapy over Skype has become common practice for counsellors. A therapist can help you navigate the feelings of anxiety, worthlessness and insecurity associated with institutional fieldwork, whilst providing an extra source of emotional support in case of more intense negative experiences.

I want my final words to be an exhortation to the academic community in general. We need to acknowledge how gender discrimination affects researchers’ experiences and ability to gather information and progress in their careers. Not only in renown dangerous or “exotic” areas, but in our everyday routines, governments and institutions. Gender discrimination is perhaps the biggest risk to female researchers’ careers, and there are no methodology manuals to help us with it.

References

Bahn, K. (2014, March 27). Faking It: Women, Academia, and Impostor Syndrome. The Chronicle of Higher Education. https://community.chronicle.com/news/412-faking-it-women-academia-and-impostor-syndrome

Kirby, Vicky (1994) ‘Response to Jane Gallop’s “The Teacher’s Breasts”: Bad Form’, in J. J. Matthews (ed.) Jane Gallop Seminar Papers: Proceedings of the Jane Gallop Seminar and Public Lecture ‘The Teacher’s Breasts’, June 1993. Canberra: Humanities Research Centre.

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About the author
Ines Bolaños Somoano is a former Euroculture Student who is now a PhD researcher at the Social and Political Sciences Department of the European University Institute in Fiesole, Italy. This article was initially published in the online magazine The New Ethnographer.

About The New Ethnographer
The New Ethnographer is an academic project about making fieldwork safer, healthier and more ethical. For more information visit www.thenewethnographer.org

Photo Credits
Article: CoWomen, Pexel
Ines’ photo: personal file

The Roots of Racism: Understanding today’s protests through yesterday’s lens

By Ana Alhoud

On May 25th an innocent man was killed by an unrelenting knee.
That knee belonged to a man who saw only what he wanted to see.
He held him there on the asphalt and ignored his pleas for mercy.
“Please,” said the man on the ground. “I can’t breathe.”
While one man’s knee crushed life from the other, people watched.
Cell phones held like nets so the day’s injustice could be caught.
Horrified faces and traumatized eyes saw this same terror, but weren’t that surprised.
The deepest stares were those of the man’s peers, in silent agreement with the execution taking place at their feet.
The people cried, they screamed and shrieked
For another life lost on this “colorblind” street.
A few days later a police station was set ablaze by a group of people hurt to the point of fury.
This latest reminder that their skin is a sin took its place as the people’s jury.
The kindling of 400 years of terror and sub-standard citizenship finally caught flame,
And that flame roars with the wails of millions wrongfully slain.
The pot has boiled over and the world stops to see
What happens when the people remember how to be
Together, fighting for each one to be free…
George Floyd looks on, finally able to breathe. Continue reading “The Roots of Racism: Understanding today’s protests through yesterday’s lens”

Covid-19 also spreads hoaxes: How the pandemic became the stage for a war on (dis)information

By Richard Blais

In a time of global pandemic where a global war is fought against the newest form of coronavirus, another battle regarding information and its usage is at stake. Conspiracy theories and controversial figures flourish throughout the internet and other media, contributing to the overall chaotic situation and possibly serving the interests of some people. This interest of mine for disinformation in time of a pandemic started about a month ago when a classmate sent on a WhatsApp group a message the following information: “According to a friend, a leak from the official Czech government has revealed that when 1,000 cases of coronavirus will be reported in the country, tighter restrictions will be imposed. If you are a smart person you should rush to supermarkets to gather food.” This rumour was proven false in the days that followed, yet this message managed to trigger some fear and added to the overall uncomfortable situation of being a stranger in a country whose culture you’re not completely familiar with. Continue reading “Covid-19 also spreads hoaxes: How the pandemic became the stage for a war on (dis)information”

What do Covid-19 conspiracy theories say about our society?

By Nemanja Milosevic

We are seeing many conspiracy theories spreading online about the novel virus that are either very vague (this is a preparation for something bigger, the exercise of larger population control), put specific blame for the virus (some country created it in a laboratory) or present a large ploy that is behind it (implementation of a larger idea, like 5G). I will not try to debunk those stories, as there are already many attempts to do so, but rather to provide a reading of some of their elements.

In cultural anthropology, stories such as urban legends, fables and myths are seen as narratives that fill provide a culture with a set of meanings that they can use to understand the cosmology they belong to, how things function morally, politically, culturally, etc. Their veracity is not important and individuals who share them might be well aware of that fact. Here, I am suggesting that we try to understand conspiracy theories in such a way: as a narrative that responds to a certain need of people who are emotionally invested in them and spread them further. Continue reading “What do Covid-19 conspiracy theories say about our society?”

The true millennium bug

By Guilherme Becker

We were not expecting this. We were not prepared for this. The year was 1999 and the world was faced with one of its greatest expectations ever: the 2000s. The new millennium. A new era. A time forged from the previous decades, especially in the 1990s, but then also completely different. From the 2000’s on, kids would grow up connected to computers and electronic devices with limitless potential. There was the Internet, with a whole new way of communication. Worldwide. Connection. There were cableless tools. There were Nokia’s, Motorolas, Sony Ericsson’s, and then the IPhone, and Android. A beautiful picture.

Those were only some of the expectations of that time. And you could say that indeed we live in this world today. But back then, blocking the door to that new period, there was a possibly huge problem. A problem that could actually stop the development of this beautifully cybernetic world or maybe postpone it for a couple of years: the so-called millennium bug. Continue reading “The true millennium bug”

Quarantine and consumption withdrawal: will the coronavirus teach us how to enjoy life without being consumers?

By Charlotte Culine

There is more to life than our purchasing power. Beyond the lack of social contact, the quarantine measures set in most European countries have worried more than one about its repercussions on the economy. The coronavirus has indeed, and will, in the coming months, put the neoliberal capitalist system under pressure. One of the main reasons is that middle classes are stuck at home. It means that large part of the population in most European cities has sufficient purchasing power to sustain the capitalistic system and are, therefore, the main target for multinational companies’ advertisement strategies.

Quarantined, this cherished target-group is not able to consume as much as they usually would. In a world where overstimulating advertisements are omnipresent in the urban landscape, it has become difficult to step outside without ending up consuming anything, be it to get yet another pair of jeans, or to try the new vegan Starbucks triple caramel latte – two milks, one sugar. Continue reading “Quarantine and consumption withdrawal: will the coronavirus teach us how to enjoy life without being consumers?”

Covid-19: how will Europe get back up?

By Hannah Bieber

Disclaimer: this article was written on March 18th, 2020. Due to the instability of the situation, some of the information it contains might be subject to changes.

A lot of people were expecting it, and it finally happened: the world we live in has been challenged. Not the way we imagined it, not in the circumstances we expected, but it did. Europe is now facing one of its major crises since the day the European Union was created. And all the flaws that we knew that existed blew up in our faces. The demography of an old continent getting older and older, the weariness of our welfare states system, the instability of our financial organizations, the limits of a space without borders and the emergence of nationalism have now all been crystalized by a microscopic organism.

The recent Covid-19 outbreak and confinement measures will give us plenty of time to reflect on the consequences it will have on our societies, especially in Europe. Indeed, this virus is almost harmless for the majority of the population, but can be very harmful for the elderly, for instance. In 2016, one EU citizen out of five was over the age of 65. This is why the virus poses Europe an immense challenge today. But what about tomorrow? What will be the consequences of this crisis for the EU?
Continue reading “Covid-19: how will Europe get back up?”

All that glitters is not gold

By Vhiktoria Siva

Europe will always be defined by its colonial past in the same way that its former colonies will never be able to deny theirs. Even now, hundreds of years after Europe’s “golden period”, its effects still echo loud and clear in all aspects of life all over the globe, and any discourse with a colonial tenor remains a delicate topic for both sides. One would think that after all these years, we as a society would be so much better at addressing this matter, that we could finally talk about these things with sensitivity, but this is not the case at all. Colonialism is still the elephant in the room that everyone tries to skirt around whenever history is being discussed in a multicultural room.

It is a topic that requires a certain tenderness that only comes from the understanding that colonialism touched different countries in different ways, some more positively than others. The insensitivity swirling around colonial rhetoric only proves the majority’s extremely shallow understanding of it and that we should have stopped this ignorant cycle a long time ago.

The Amsterdam Museum’s decision to stop using the term “golden age” pertaining to the 17th century, undoubtedly caught the attention of the public. The confused discourse surrounding this renaming shows the unaddressed tension that manifests itself when it comes to the topic of colonialism and post-colonialism. The world is divided between those who commend the museum for the renaming, and those whose reaction ranges from disapproving to being outright upset. The Amsterdam Museum took to its website to address its audience with an official statement, calling its re-evaluation of the term an important step in the name of inclusivity that gave room to different perspectives and narratives of that time.

The recognition of untold colonial stories is indeed a good step towards the evolution of colonial discourses. However, a lot remains to be done. Empathy and sensitivity are values that should stand as the foundation of respectful interactions in society, but are lacking in present-day colonial discourse. Admittedly, perspectives that have persisted for generations are not easy to change. How can we even begin to alter the enduring negative attitude towards colonialism when it is so deeply rooted in culture, history, even xenophobia? This is a question which is hard to think about and even harder to answer, but we cannot simply ignore it, as we have done for years.

The fact that this question remains unanswered in the 21st century shows how terrifyingly good we are in repressing issues that do not touch us directly. The first step towards remedying the xenophobia and sense of entitlement, which define colonial discourse, must come from addressing the fact that they do exist and still have concrete and real life consequences for millions of people around the world. We as a global society must be conscious and active in identifying as well as correcting the mistakes of our past. To continue ignoring the insensitivity in the colonial discourse means continuing to see the world through a narrow lens. Silence, in this case, is nothing short of being compliant to the repression of colonial voices and the burying of hundreds of untold colonial stories.

It is time for all of us as a united society to see our own countries’ histories in their entirety. We must recognize the good that our past has brought us, but at the same time be aware of the bloodshed and oppression that must have taken place in order to get what we have now. Realizing that we are a part of a bigger world that is hurting is the first step towards addressing the imbalance in colonial rhetoric. To be humbled by the truth is not admitting to weakness, it is surrendering to reality with the hope and potential of becoming better in the future.

The wounds of colonialism still run deep. This is evident in the quality of colonial discourse that we have today. The insensitivity that defines the colonial rhetoric proves how the majority still has an extremely shallow understanding of colonialism in general. It remains to be a topic that requires a certain delicacy that only comes from the understanding that colonialism touched different countries in different ways, some more positively than others.

The uproar that surrounded the Amsterdam Museum’s renaming of the “golden period” proves how divided we still are as a society when it comes to this. Acknowledging the unspoken colonial narratives is indeed a good step forward, however, there is still a lot that remains to be done. We as a society must stop denying pressing issues that do not touch us tangibly. We must be conscious and active in correcting the mistakes of the past. It is way past the time we realised that we are part of a world that is hurting and in need of empathy and sensitivity.

Picture: Aidan Whiteley, Flickr

The avalanche of Erfurt

By Guilherme Becker

In the mountains of Thüringen, the lack of snow points to a mild winter. On the ground floor of its capital Erfurt, however, an avalanche has been spread and felt all over Germany. For the first time a far-right populist party has helped electing a governor. At first, it may not look so serious, but in Germany it has been considered a completely unexpected, surprising, and worrisome taboo breaking. A blast that is hurting the political spectrum nation-wide.

What a time to be in Erfurt, from a journalistic point of view. When I started my internship at Thüringen Allgemeine, I could not imagine that I would live in such a vivid and turbulent period. Not at all. As I am currently working for the biggest newspaper of the state, in its capital city, I would like to explain what went on and what might go on regarding the state parliament leader election, its effects and the great repercussion that led even chancellor Angela Merkel (CDU) to respond directly from South Africa on February 6th.

Some weeks ago I spent the whole Friday (31.01) hanging out, watching sessions, interviews and keeping my eyes close to the work of the reporters at Thüringen Parliament. It is a kind of experience that fits really well into a journalist and Euroculture student’s life. I even got time for a joke when walking through the corridor reserved for politicians from far-right populist party AfD (Alternative für Deutschland/Alternative for Germany), well known for its xenophobic, racist and anti-immigration policies. “Am I allowed to be here? You know, I am a foreigner…”, I asked a journalist. He laughed and promptly joked back: “Yes, true, but you have German blood… So don’t worry…” We all laughed.

The time for jokes ended soon after, precisely on Wednesday (05.02), when the election of the new Thüringen governor was about to happen. The predictions and expectations were all set for the reelection of leftist Bodo Ramelow (Die Linke). But then the most unlikely scenario led to the election of centrist-liberal candidate Thomas Kemmerich (FDP), at the last minute. Unexpectedly, instead of voting for their own candidate, AfD politicians decided to support Kemmerich to defeat the left. That is not the only problem: CDU (conservative right-wing) also supported Kemmerich, which means that two traditionally moderate parties made an unpredictable – if not unbelievable – “connection” with far-right extremists. A complete shock for Germany.

The impact was so huge that protests erupted – and keep happening – not only in Erfurt, but in many other cities of Germany. In the capital of Thüringen public transport was highly affected with delays not only on that Wednesday, but also on the following days given the demonstrations that followed the election.

Then on Thursday (06.02), only one day and 34 minutes after the election, the then newly-elected governor Kemmerich announced his resignation. On Monday (10.02) Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer resigned the CDU leadership. Therefore, she will not run next year in the national election as a possible substitute for Merkel. Some days earlier, Merkel had fired Christian Hirte, then minister for former East German states and secretary of state for the economy and energy. The reason? He greeted Kemmerich’s election on Twitter. One avalanche after another.

But why? Why so much anger and outrage over a vote? Well, let’s start from the beginning.

Thüringen state parliament is made up of six different parties: Die Linke (29 seats), followed by AfD (22), CDU (Christian Democratic Union, Angela Merkel’s party, conservative right, 21 seats), SPD (Social Democratic Party, socialist left-wing, 8), Grüne (environmentalist left-wing, 5) and FDP (Liberal Democratic Party, liberal centre-right, also 5).

The governor election is indirect. Therefore it is necessary to have a majority through the seats to elect the governor – and then have a future majority on approval or rejection of projects and laws. National conservative and liberal centre-right headquarters parties, such as CDU and FDP, have always claimed and made clear that any “connection” – even informal alliances – with AfD was not allowed and should not happen at all. But it did happen. Usually AfD does not give and does not get any support to or from any party. This time, though, they decided to vote for FDP instead of voting for their own candidate. A completely unexpected political trick.

I see this scenario as a sign that two traditional parties, by accepting AfD support – even not being allowed to do that -, may be ignoring national premises and acting independently to come to power. The point is that the parties’ headquarters strongly condemned the election primarily arguing that Kemmerich should not have accepted the outcome of it. But he accepted, and only later on decided to resign after seeing the pressure and the protests coming from all sides. CDU’s more conservative wings have already flirted with the possibility of approaching AfD. For the most part, however, it has been avoided at all. Moreover, the result of this election might be a message that AfD is gradually getting closer to the “political game” and attempting to gain power under any circumstances.

The reason for the shock in Germany is obvious: parties, politicians and civil society from all political backgrounds abominate the possibility of the far-right approaching power. They voted for and elected politicians precisely to not do what they just have done. In their minds, it is something completely unacceptable which I definitely agree with. When traditional right-wing and centre-right parties (such as the CDU and the FDP) accept AfD’s support, the ideology fades away, and the subsequent message is that what really matters is to come to power. A great offense, so to say.

Another great concern is that this “connection” among these parties leads people to question and consequently disregard even more the traditional parties, which in the last elections have significantly lost votes to extremists. As Kemmerich resigns and a new election is blinking, maybe CDU, for example, will connect to Die Linke, which, in my point of view, can make the electorate migrate even more to the extremists, namely AfD. In other words, it all means that there might be a huge loss of confidence in traditional parties and a vote of confidence for extremists.

The rise of AfD in Thüringen might have come along through many reasons, such as a strong conservatism, but also from some trauma left by DDR, and some subsequent economic reasons. Estearn German states have never got as industrialized as their Western neighbours, for instance. A study launched two weeks ago, for example, pointed out that only 22% of Eastern Germans are completely satisfied with democracy. The number is almost half of the 40% that said being satisfied with it in former Western German states.

At the same time, I see Die Linke as the current majority more as a result of the so-called utilitarian vote, in order to avoid a majority for AfD, although the region remains a traditionally working-class region, what might have led part of the electorate to migrate to the extremes, be right or left.

I do not think that I need to explain the concepts and the political agenda preached by AfD. It is actually more than only conservative. It is racist and xenophobic. One need only to google Björn Höcke and will certainly soon realise what I am talking about.

In the end, what happened some days ago in Erfurt was actually a strong and unprecedented taboo breaking. Germans are aware of the weight of their own history. They know that it was in Thüringen that the country had the first state government with the involvement of the Nazis. Incidentally, it was also in February, 90 years ago, that Hitler’s party gained substantial power. In Erfurt. In Thüringen. That was the first taboo breaking that later led Europe to the ruins, and Germany to collapse. Hopefully a majority of people are not in the mood to repeat some obvious and terrible mistakes.

Picture: Links Unten Göttingen / Flickr

Leave no man behind: let’s talk about the fourth industrial revolution

By Jelmer Herms

It is probably a truism at this point, but we are not living the same way we did 20 years ago. Technology and innovation are changing our lives at a pace they have never really done before. CNBC News aptly put it in perspective like this: It took 75 years for 100 million people to adopt the telephone. The video game Pokémon GO reached that number of users in about one month.[1] The impact of technology is felt quicker and to a greater extent than ever before as a result of our globalized and interconnected world. But of course, more than just video games and telecommunications are developing at a rapid pace. Family Guy, at the end of its episode “The Peter Principal”, manages to point out in just a very short dialogue exchange how technology revolutionized the way we think about delivery services like Amazon, but also how hard it is to truly experience such change as remarkable or otherwise noteworthy:

Stewie: Oh, I bet he’s delivering those marmalade jars we ordered.

Brian: Doesn’t that feel like a million years ago? Yeah, we don’t need those anymore.

Stewie [To Delivery Guy]: Sorry, just send them back.

Brian: You can just do that?

Stewie: Oh, yeah, you can just refuse delivery.

Stewie: You’ve never done that?

Brian: I-I genuinely did not know you could do that.

Stewie: Well, you can. Anything you order. If you don’t sign for it, it has to go back. Everyone does it.

Stewie: Most of what America is now is just boxes going back and forth.[2]

As rapid innovation is becoming a new normal, it is also becoming a new kind of mundanity, and I think we should be wary of accepting the rapid pace of technological change as normal, even though you could make a strong case that almost nothing has changed in the ways that matter most. In fact, considering the quantity of global crises over the last years, I would expect nothing less than a sceptical view on our development, or the idea of a teleology of human progress. I agree that in most of the ways that matter, humans have not changed at all. Looking at the last 20 years or so, issues of social justice and socio-economic inequality remain, global terrorism has become more prevalent, man-made climate change is an unrelenting cause for distress, and civil war in the Middle East, famine in Africa, or the recent fires in the Amazon have traumatized, displaced or in the worst cases ravaged entire cultures. So of course, humans haven’t really changed as a species, but the technology we wield has. And this has had (and still can have into the future) undoubtedly positive effects as well.

Because over the last twenty years we have also, for better or for worse, connected billions of people to each other through the power of the internet, forging new transnational networks and alliances that have greatly contributed to the wellbeing of many across the planet. We now have entirely automated vehicles driving around, and they drive better than any human ever could. We have developed self-learning AI that can not only beat us at turn-based games like chess or checkers, but also at much more complex real time games, such as the classic RTS Starcraft II. [3] Computers can help us save lives and identify dangerous criminals, but they can also help us make entirely new forms of art, like this programme that writes (admittedly pretty bad) music by itself [4]. That is, in my view, nothing less than extraordinary: all of us here are alive in the period being called the Fourth Industrial Revolution.[5]

But can we say that as active citizens, we are asking ourselves the right questions on how to deal with the fact that we are in the middle of an Industrial Revolution? Are we directing our attention to making sure we are investing time and effort into the technologies that could help us the most? Are we structurally modernizing our democracies, our cultures, and our discourse to adapt to this revolutionary time? I’m not always so sure. It seems to me that the public sphere is not particularly on board with this idea of an Industrial Revolution, except for when Apple comes out with the ‘revolutionary’ new iPhone, which features a marginally improved camera and some new software updates.

To me, it seems that the actual revolution of innovation is being led by an exploding technocratic billionaire class. And many within this small group of people are mostly concerned with keeping their customers satisfied. But I think there is a massive difference between designing a product for a consumer, and designing a tool for a democratic citizen. I think it is fair to say that, as one example, social media has not been designed with the idea of existing within the framework of an inclusive liberal democracy: Facebook has caused extreme views getting disproportionate attention, and led to rampant misinformation that swayed election results because of its click-based monetization model, which rewards the loudest and most controversial voices.

In those cases where we design technology for the broader public, we should think more carefully about who benefits from innovation and technological advances, and to make sure that we don’t create systems that favour groups of people by design. And let me just add that my problem is not that people are getting rich by developing new technologies. I am not trying be some kind of neo-Marxist, urging you to eliminate class struggle by killing the wealthy, or to destroy any of the processes driving our technological innovation.

What I see is a technical operational challenge to the capitalist economy. Both innovators and citizens could play a much more active role in driving solutions to what I see is the major issue of this moment: the challenge of economic inclusivity. The problem as I see it, is that less and less people can participate on equal terms in this labour market. Of course, some skills or educations will always be more desirable than other kinds depending on the market and the environment, and I see no real issue with that dynamic continuing into the future. But we are reaching a point where technology is so efficient and innovation has accelerated so much, that it is very likely there will eventually not be enough labour to perform for entire segments of populations. Think of not only “low-skilled” labour, even though they will be hit the hardest, but also middle management positions, doctors, or all kinds of support staff eventually being overtaken by automation and artificial intelligence. The issue of keeping people included in the labour market cuts across class lines, and I think it is not central enough to our understanding of national politics.

While some answers to this issue have been presented in politics, they have come only from across the Atlantic, in the US. The American Democrat Andrew Yang is running for President of the United States on a platform attempting to tackle exactly the issue of automation and the increasingly exclusive labour market, and he has gathered a surprising amount of bipartisan support. [6] But his chances of winning are still minimal compared to mainstream top dogs like Elizabeth Warren, Joe Biden, Bernie Sanders, or the guaranteed Republican nominee, Donald Trump. Here in Europe, I have not heard of any running national public official looking to address the Fourth Industrial Revolution, or even mentioning the issues I have talked about here (and I hope, of course, that anyone can prove me wrong on this: I don’t speak every European language). This, I think, speaks for the need for a change in perspective more than anything else.

If we want to manifest political change that strives for a more inclusive society not only in terms of social justice, but also in terms of economic stability and employment, then framing that discussion in an accessible and appropriate manner should be considered essential. By popularizing the idea of the Fourth Industrial Revolution, by making people think about our current moment not as mundane, but as extraordinary, we can help make people aware that the neoliberal logic of radical personal responsibility with regards to your employment can be successfully contested or suspended. It could help us reframe how we view unemployment and eliminate the stigma on it, which in turn could help us think in more positive terms about how to find people new jobs, if we even want to continue with striving towards full employment at all. Talking about a new Industrial Revolution can also help us kickstart a broader conversation about new and exciting technologies that we could feasibly incorporate into our societal structures. Finally, talking about the Fourth Industrial Revolution as an explicit operational issue can help us become more willing to let go of the economic and political models of the past, and to instead embrace new and innovative technologies and models for organizing our society.

We need to do more than just reform: it’s about time we revolutionize.

Picture: joshsdh, Flickr

Sources:
[1] ‘’What is the Fourth Industrial Revolution?’’ CNBC News. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=v9rZOa3CUC8

[2] Family Guy S15E18, The Peter Principal.
https://www.springfieldspringfield.co.uk/view_episode_scripts.php?tv-show=family-guy&episode=s15e18

[3] RTS, Meaning Real-Time Strategy. For more on Starcraft II AI, see: https://deepmind.com/blog/article/alphastar-mastering-real-time-strategy-game-starcraft-ii

[4] http://computoser.com/

[5] https://www.weforum.org/about/the-fourth-industrial-revolution-by-klaus-schwab

[6] https://www.yang2020.com/