Category Archives: Ask Is A Verb

Ask as Ideological Blinder

I started the Asking Project several years ago, out of irritation. The nominative use of the verb “ask” grates on my ears and, in organizations, it presents an illocutionary act of bad faith: an attempt by superiors to disguise orders or commands as requests. There is no negotiating an order issued in this form. You might talk about how you’re going to accomplish the task set for you, but not whether you are going to do it. No bids counter the ask, as they do on the trading floor, and refusal would amount to insubordination. 

In Private Government, Elizabeth Anderson finds the same bad faith gesture — and denial of an unwelcome truth — in the theory of the firm (here, as set out by Alchian and Demsetz in 1972). 

The question the theory is supposed to answer is why production is not handled entirely by market transactions among independent, self-employed people, but rather by authority relations. That is, it is supposed to explain why the hope of pro-market pre-Industrial Revolution egalitarians did not pan out. Alchian and Demsetz cannot bear the full authoritarian implications of recognizing the boundary between the market and the firm, even in a paper devoted to explaining it. So they attempt to extend the metaphor of the market to the internal relations of the firm and pretend that every interaction at work is mediated by negotiation between managers and workers. Yet the whole point of the firm, according to the theory, is to eliminate the costs of markets — of setting internal prices via negotiation over every transaction among workers and between workers and managers. 

Instead of allowing for negotiation, asks and bids, which it (rightly) sees as inefficient, the theory of the firm offers a hierarchy where managers have open-ended authority, or what Anderson sometimes calls “ incompletely specified authority.” Anderson herself muddles things a bit when she introduces this point: 

The key to the superior efficiency of hierarchy is the open-ended authority of managers. It is impossible to specify in advance all of the contingencies that may require an alternation in an initial understanding of what a worker must do. Efficient employment contracts are therefore necessarily incomplete: they do not specify precisely everything a worker might be asked to do. 

The larger point here is that presenting orders as requests — the ask —  is another “ideological blinder,” to use Anderson’s term: it borrows the jargon of the stock trader and market relations to describe (authoritarian) governance relations. Instead of the republican freedom that pre-industrial market advocates envisioned, workers are managed, or governed, as teams: 

The theory of the firm explains why [market relations among equals, or “anarchy”] cannot preserve the productive advantages of large-scale production. Some kind of incompletely specified authority over groups of workers is needed to replace market relations within the firm….in the great contest between individualism and collectivism regarding the mode of production, collectivism won, decisively. Now nearly all production is undertaken by teams of workers using large, indivisible forms of capital equipment held in common. The activities of those teams are governed by managers according to a centralized production plan. This was an outcome of the Industrial Revolution, and equally much embraced by capitalists and socialists. That advocates of capitalism continue to speak as if their preferred system of production upholds “individualism” is simply a symptom of institutional hemiagnosia, the misdeployment of a hopeful preindustrial vision of what market society would deliver as if it described our current reality, which replaces market relations with governance relations across wide domains of production.

 

Debate without demand? A Note on Project Debater

Harish Natarajan takes on Project Debater at an IBM event.

Debate without demand is shorthand for a set of qualms, concerns, and questions I have about the autonomous debating system — an AI called Project Debater that can engage in debate challenges with human beings — developed by researchers at IBM and discussed most recently in a March 17 article in Nature. A non-paywalled write up by Chris Reed and other press coverage of Project Debater does not settle these concerns.

I am unsure about nearly everything I want to say here (which is, by the way, something Project Debater cannot be), but the one thing I am prepared to say is that Project Debater looks like another AI parlor trick or corporate dog and pony show. To their credit, the IBM researchers recognize the problem. Here’s how they sum it up in their abstract:

We also highlight the fundamental differences between debating with humans as opposed to challenging humans in game competitions, the latter being the focus of classical ‘grand challenges’ pursued by the AI research community over the past few decades. We suggest that such challenges lie in the ‘comfort zone’ of AI, whereas debating with humans lies in a different territory, in which humans still prevail, and for which novel paradigms are required to make substantial progress.

While one writer claims Project Debater “is capable of arguing against humans in a meaningful way,” that seems like a real stretch, and it’s good to see the researchers behind the project do not seem ready to go that far.

I’d hold off for other reasons. Project Debater can argue for the proposition assigned to it in a structured debate game, but AI does not care about the argument it’s advancing; it has no reason to argue. And even more importantly it is not jointly committed with us to the activity of arguing. How could it be?

AI still has nothing to ask of us, nothing to demand, nothing we can recognize as a legitimate complaint. Those moral coordinations are reserved for persons. So the outcome of the debate does not matter to the AI debater; there are no life stakes for it. For this reason, the debate game looks morally empty. This is how Reed describes it:

Backed by its argumentation techniques and fuelled by its processed data sets, the system creates a 4-minute speech that opens a debate about a topic from its repertoire, to which a human opponent responds. It then reacts to its opponent’s points by producing a second 4-minute speech. The opponent replies with their own 4-minute rebuttal, and the debate concludes with both participants giving a 2-minute closing statement.

The same of course cannot be said for the real world consequences such debate games might have, or the efforts by these researchers and others to produce an argumentative AI. These experiments are fraught with moral complexity, peril, and maybe even some promise.

More Meaningful Consultations: A Comment on the Biden-Harris Plan for Tribal Nations

The incoming administration promises to reinstate the tribal consultation mandate. More can be done to meet the standard set by the RESPECT Act and make consultations more meaningful.

Federal agencies are required to consult with Native American tribes (and with Alaska Native Corporations) on infrastructure projects — highways, dams, or railways, for instance — and on permits for mines, pipelines, and other industrial development projects when they affect tribal lands and interests. Consultation policies and practices vary from agency to agency, but in all cases these consultations are supposed to be “meaningful.” What makes them so needs to be carefully spelled out.

“To promote robust and meaningful consultation,” the Biden-Harris Plan for Tribal Nations promises to reinstate the Consultation mandate put in place by the Obama administration and “ensure that tribal consultations adopt best practices consistent with principles reflected in the RESPECT Act.” The Act in question is H.R. 2689, which languished in the House after being introduced by Representative Raul M. Grijalva of Arizona in the 115th Congress. The Act sought to establish, among other things, this Sense of Congress:

effective, meaningful consultation requires a two-way exchange of information, a willingness to listen, an attempt to understand and genuinely consider each other’s opinions, beliefs, and desired outcomes, and a seeking of agreement on how to proceed concerning the issues at hand; and consultation can be considered effective and meaningful when each party demonstrates a genuine commitment to learn, acknowledge, and respect the positions, perspectives, and concerns of the other parties.

The Act sets the bar for everyone involved. It describes meaningful consultation as deliberation among equals, a good faith undertaking to seek (but not necessarily reach) agreement together. It places more emphasis on recognizing different perspectives and positions than on reconciling them. It highlights a genuine and joint commitment to listen and develop understanding of each party and of the issues. Meaningful consultation will go well beyond mere transaction — or information exchange — to encompass learning and collaboration. Rooted in mutual respect, consultation can be both a dignifying encounter and an adventure.

The standard the RESPECT Act sets for meaningful consultation is worth reaching for right now, even if it remains to be seen whether Representative Grijalva will reintroduce the bill and whether the 117th Congress will make it law. Here are a few areas where work might begin.

  • Information ethics should develop with information systems.

A 2019 Government Accountability Office study of 21 Federal agencies discovered an information gap: agencies simply do not have accurate contact information for the appropriate tribal representatives. To remedy the situation, the GAO recommends that the Federal Permitting Improvement Steering Council develop a plan for establishing a central federal information system. While centralization might serve the FPISC goal of administrative efficiency, it can also raise significant issues around security and trust. Sharing control of data and data governance with tribes might help alleviate such concerns.

Information systems are already evolving to accommodate new collaboration technologies (like channel-based messaging and videoconferencing) to support consultation. Best practices still need to be identified and shared; and, just as importantly, inequities need to be addressed. As noted in the Biden-Harris plan, rural areas and reservations are disproportionately underserved by high-speed internet. It will take significant investment in broadband and 5G before new applications can be brought into the mix.

Where information technology can help consultation in other ways — with topological, geological, and archaeological reviews — other ethical considerations arise. Centering the discussion on shared data and published scientific information can help temper conversation and prevent powerful outside groups from exercising undue influence, but the model also has its limits. When scientific understanding appears to be incommensurate with tribal knowledge of the land, waters, and regional history, respectful consultation will strive to give both due consideration.

  • Dialogue will determine the value of information.

The text of the RESPECT Act itself could be amended to reflect its own sense of what makes consultation meaningful. The Act aims to “ensure that meaningful Tribal input is an integral part of the Federal decision-making process.” In this caption and throughout the Bill, the effect of the word “input” is to cast tribes as information sources, not full-fledged participants. Gathering or recording tribal input is only the first step at building dialogue, where information acquires meaning.

The colorless, technocratic term “input” appears to have found its way into the legislative lexicon via the Unfunded Mandates Reform Act of 1995 (Section 204), which calls upon agencies to “permit elected officers of State, local, and tribal governments…to provide meaningful and timely input.” Five years later, Executive Order 13175, still the touchstone for tribal consultation policies, moves beyond granting tribes permission to mandating “an accountable process to ensure meaningful and timely input.” This order does not, however, contemplate ways federal agencies might be accountable to their tribal counterparts, as they would be in a cooperative undertaking.

No surprise, then, that sixty-two percent of tribes surveyed by the GAO “identified concerns that agencies often do not adequately consider the tribal input they collect during consultation when making decisions about proposed infrastructure projects.” This finding appears to indicate that agencies cannot consider all by themselves the input they collect. Due consideration will take building “meaningful dialogue” — as a 2009 Presidential Memorandum on Tribal Consultation puts it — through “regular and meaningful consultation and collaboration.” It is best undertaken jointly.

  • Consultation still falls short of consent.

The 2007 UN Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples establishes that states “shall consult and cooperate with the indigenous peoples” to this clearly-stated end: “in order to obtain” Free, Prior, and Informed Consent. A 2010 State Department Announcement of US support for the Declaration fails to take into account the subordinating conjunction “in order to” and the purpose it unambiguously indicates, allowing only that the US understands the Declaration “to call for a process of meaningful consultation with tribal leaders, but not necessarily the agreement of those leaders.” Instead of securing informed consent, as required by UNDRIP, the consultation process becomes a way of reserving discretion.

From the tribes’ perspective, as summarized in a 2017 study, consultation is merely box-checking unless undertaken with the aim of obtaining free, prior, and informed consent or at least reaching compromise. The Biden-Harris plan takes a step in this direction, promising to “uphold leasing and right-of-way regulations that strengthen tribal sovereignty and ensure tribal consent on tribal lands.” The plan makes no mention of the UN Declaration, however, and it remains to be seen how far this deference will extend.

Consent places front and center issues of self-determination, of autonomy and, in the context of government-to-government relations, sovereignty. One test of respect for self-determination comes when tribal leaders withhold consent or say “no,” as the obligation to obtain consent clearly implies the right to withhold it. Efforts to overlook or sidestep that obligation altogether are bound to diminish confidence that consultations will be appropriately heeded and outcomes will be just.

This serious shortcoming — which cries out for remedy — need not be a fatal flaw. “No” might signal a standoff or it might offer an opportunity to articulate and explore alternative plans. Good faith, constructive disagreement can test unexamined assumptions, illuminate unseen risk, and bring new interlocutors to the table. Agreeing to disagree need not mark the end of negotiation; it can indicate that parties will acknowledge differences, respect the distance they establish, and rejoin the dialogue.

Though consultations do not satisfy the human rights obligation to secure free, prior, and informed consent and do not necessarily yield agreements, they can help agencies take tribal interests into account and help tribes gain better understanding of (and some say in) decisions that affect them.

On a practical level, starting consultations early and returning to them throughout the life of a project can prevent conflict and costly delay further down the road. Just as importantly, consultation can help agencies gain much-needed perspective on emerging risks and complex problems, from economic and energy policies to food security and environmental protection.  And taking steps to improve tribal consultations might also raise the bar for other public consultations, making government a little more responsive to all citizens.

Ultimately, however, consultation will be meaningful only to the extent that all parties so find it.

Update: On January 26, President Biden issued an Executive Memorandum on Tribal Consultation and Strengthening Nation-to-Nation Relationships, reinstating the consultation mandate. The Memorandum directs agency heads to consult with tribes before developing a detailed plan of actions the agency will take in this regard and to keep the OMB apprised of progress made against the plan.

Palmater on the Right to Say ‘No’

The very first post I wrote for The Asking Project set out always take no for an answer as a cardinal rule of asking, and I’ve revisited that rule a couple of times since, drawing connections with Margaret Gilbert’s ideas of joint commitment, looking at the way saying no turns the ethical spotlight back on the person doing the asking and — most important of all — sets conditions for new respectful relationship.

There’s a strong connection between this (ethical) rule of asking and (legal) considerations of consent. This is complex territory, so an illustration might be useful. Consider, for starters, this piece Pam Palmater wrote back in October on the indigenous “right to say ‘no’,” as enshrined in the doctrine of free, prior and informed consent.

A little background. After a Canadian court ruled against the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion, the Trudeau government announced that instead of appealing the decision, it would undertake a consultation process with First Nations. Palmater accused the government of conducting a charade, of “using” or abusing this process “to force the expansion of this pipeline.”

Regardless of whether the new consultations are led by a former Supreme Court justice or Trudeau himself, Canada has already decided that the pipeline will be built, before ever talking to any of the impacted First Nations, including those that have asserted Aboriginal title. This renders our constitutionally protected Aboriginal rights meaningless. What legal value is the federal government’s constitutional obligation to consult, accommodate and obtain the consent of First Nations before taking actions that would impact our rights and title, if “consent” is interpreted as the right to say yes but excludes the right to say no? It makes no logical sense to interpret the law in such a way, especially to a constitutionally protected right.

Imagine if consent was interpreted this way in both the ordinary and legal understanding of the word “consent.” When a school sends home a permission form seeking a parent’s consent to allow their child to take a field trip, if the parent does not give consent, the school cannot allow the child to participate. Similarly, if a patient refuses to give consent to an operation to have their hip replaced, then the doctor cannot perform the operation. The absence of consent means no — in other words, a veto that has real legal power and meaning. Imagine if consent was interpreted in this illogical and diminished manner for sexual relations as it is for Aboriginal rights. Imagine if sexual consent in law meant that a man could consult with a woman on whether she wanted sexual relations, and was even willing to accommodate (“where appropriate”) her wishes about how to have sexual relations, but she had no right to say no — no veto over whether or not sexual relations occurred? That is called sexual assault and it is a crime.

The greatest injustices that have ever been committed against First Nations in Canada have resulted from denying the sovereign right of our Nations to say no. The right to have a real veto over infecting our blankets with smallpox; from scalping our people; from stealing our children and raping, murdering and torturing them in residential schools; sterilizing our women and girls; from the forced adoptions of our children into white families during the Sixties Scoop; to the murders and disappearances of our women and girls; to forced human trafficking and now the destruction of our lands and waters for profit.

The right to say no is an inherent part of the legal concept of consent. To interpret this concept otherwise is racist, discriminatory and self-serving, not unlike the doctrines of discovery and terra nullius. Surely, even the Supreme Court would not interpret their own decisions in such an impoverished manner. To do so would render Section 35 [of the Constitution Act, protecting First Nations rights] an empty shell of a constitutional promise.

The Burgundy Ribbon Rule

BurgundyRibbonsCalPERS

Another rule, and for the time being, at least, I am happy* with the wording here: an abuse of asking almost always presents an abuse of power.

Take the case of burgundy affair at the public pension fund CalPERS, as documented by Yves Smith over at Naked Capitalism.

This past fall, documents obtained by Smith show, CalPERS CEO Marcie Frost “asked the CalPERS senior leadership team to wear burgundy to show their support for her” as she faced questions about representations she had made regarding her educational background before and after she was hired. Burgundy ribbons were set out in break rooms with messages urging the “Team” to wear one in a show of support. “No pressure and no problem if you do not want to do this,” the message reads, “it is completely voluntary.” Completely.

“This is obviously inappropriate,” writes Smith,

since a request made by a CEO is effectively an order. CalPERS executives and employees are civil servants, not Frost’s personal retainers. As an expert on managerial and political conduct reacted:

I don’t even know what category to put this in. A scandal-plagued boss orchestrating support by inventing gang colors and pressuring employees to wear them? What happens to the employees who don’t perform this ritual of fealty? Should they be polishing their resumés and practicing their swimming skills?

These incidents smack of underlying panic. Frost is working overtime to shore up her position as CEO in the face of fully deserved questions regarding her long history of misrepresentations about her background, which include committing perjury in Washington on a gubernatorial questionnaire. Not only is Frost pushing her subordinates far too hard to back her up, since they can only do so much for her and coercing them will diminish their good will, she is also showing a lack of a sense of professional boundaries….

Frost’s burgundy campaign may well have crossed the line into creating a hostile work environment. One senior staff member who came to the office and saw the “dress burgundy” request too late to comply issued a written apology. Similarly, when “asked” to wear burgundy to an offsite, one [employee] who wears only black and white felt compelled to buy a burgundy outfit to comply…

…word clearly got around quickly, including the notion that non-compliance was risky.

I am still fussing over the word “presents,” and I’ve considered “masks” and variations in that direction, as well as “declares,” “represents” or “signals.” That one abuse (presenting an order as a request) almost always carries the other with it — almost always, because I don’t want to get caught up right now in handling exceptions — is the essential thing.

You can read my other posts about asking here.

*Postscript: On reflection, I might prefer this much more straightforward and concrete formulation: when someone presents an order as a request, look for an abuse of power. That way, we don’t have to worry too much about motives, or figure out whether the person doing the asking is trying to get away with something. It falls to the person being asked to watch for abuse, and conduct herself accordingly. (Being asked for something, or to do something, turns the ethical spotlight on you, or at least requires you to share it with the person doing the asking. This is your moment.) In a case like the present one, and in most superior-subordinate relationships, calling out abuse may be impractical. Subordinates will bury grievances, reluctantly comply, or pretend not to have been aware of the request. The subordinate’s dilemma in this case registers a failure of governance; a failure of governance at the highest reaches makes itself manifest at even the lowest levels and in the most trivial matters (the wearing of a ribbon). More immediately, presenting orders as requests hijacks power, creates distrust (after all, we can’t help but wonder about motives), and makes people prone to dissemble. All this thwarts collaboration, or the power to do things (to act) together.

Renault’s Hedge

The Attorney General’s letter says that he is resigning at the president’s “request,” but that of course is a euphemism. He never had the choice of not complying, or negotiating a different outcome, as he would if this had been an authentic request. Reports say Sessions wanted to stay on at least until the end of the week, but John Kelly hustled him out the door.

It’s a common ruse to disguise orders or commands as requests. Turning the verb “ask” into a noun — “the ask,” “my ask” — is one form this abuse takes. The euphemistic use of “request” is another.  In my work on asking, I’ve given this euphemism a name: Renault’s Hedge, after Captain Louis Renault in the movie Casablanca.

Rick’s Cafe. Captain Renault, played by Claude Rains, tries to mediate between Major Strasser and the resistance leader Victor Laszlo.

The scene seems like a piece of stage business that brings together the film’s main characters for the first time, only to have them arrange to come together at a later date. But the whole scene is a carefully scripted and choreographed negotiation of “authority,” from the soldier’s salute (in recognition of Strasser’s rank) at its beginning to the polite bows at its end. Throughout, witticisms, pleasantries, good manners and the norms of Casablanca cafe society serve as a hedge against Strasser’s power of command. 

STRASSER : I should like to discuss some matters arising from your presence on French soil.

LASZLO: This is hardly the time or the place.

STRASSER: (hardening) Then we shall state another time and another place. Tomorrow at ten in the Prefect’s office, with Mademoiselle.

LASZLO: Captain Renault, I am under your authority. Is it your order that we come to your office?

RENAULT: (amiably)  Let us say that it is my request. That is a much more pleasant word.

LASZLO: Very well.

Renault and Strasser bow shortly.

The improbable thing, of course, is that Renault’s hedge works, at least well enough to end the standoff (and Laszlo is, at this point, no longer sitting but standing face-to-face with Strasser).

It works in part because the film presents Strasser satirically as a striver, a Nazi brute pretending to be a civilized European. It also works because Rick’s Cafe, like Casablanca itself, is a place where the authority of the occupiers can be contested (think only of the scene in which Laszlo leads the singing of “La Marseillaise”). Polite repartee is still possible here: Victor Laszlo can mock Nazi occupation and subjugation to German authority as a “privilege” he has never accepted, and take refuge in decorum (“this is hardly the time or the place”) when Strasser tells him he should like to question him.

At the same time, this recourse to civility is always fraught with jeopardy. Here, it allows Renault to soften Major Strasser’s order, and all but compel Laszlo’s appearance. Renault’s Hedge gives cover to a moral retreat.

The Last Ask — A Look Back At Obama’s Parting Request, One Year Ago Today

It came as no surprise that an outgoing president would make the obligatory noises about “the peaceful transfer of power from one freely elected president to the next,” as President Obama did in his final speech, delivered in Chicago one year ago today. It was a theme used to quell fears and stifle protest, to give Trump “a chance to govern,” as both President Obama and Vice President Biden put it after the election, and it was offered as the reason former presidents and other politicians would overcome their appreciable dismay at the election’s outcome and attend the inauguration ceremony on the 20th.

Remember? You could not turn on a television, open a newspaper, or click on a mainstream news site in mid-January of 2017 without being told that on inauguration day we were going to witness power’s peaceful transfer. Very few people making these presentations went much further, at least publicly, to distinguish succession from transition, or talk in a serious way about power, how it is peacefully transferred, or to raise the questions of legitimacy and political authority that attend the transfer of power.

Those questions were, however, hanging in the air, like the dark clouds that would gather over the Mall on inauguration day, and over the past year, with the Mueller investigation and the current president’s daily demonstrations of unfitness for office, they have only grown more urgent and important. Considerations of power that were once the preserve of political theorists are now millions of people’s daily, top-of-mind concerns — as they should have been all along.

Obama’s Chicago speech did little to dispel the doubts and fears people had, and still have, about his successor; and it did not directly address the big question on nearly everyone’s mind that day, and every day since the 2016 election: what is to be done? After the abortive and misguided recount effort in November, the shameful but predictable acquiescence of the electoral college in December, and the first signs of trouble on the Russian front, the hope in early January was that the president would say or do something (what?) to change the course events had taken, or he would make some kind — any kind! — of intervention or call to action.

But this is precisely what Obama did not do. He talked about the forces threatening American democracy (income inequality, racial division, political polarization) which had brought us to this ugly juncture. He celebrated “the power of ordinary Americans” to bring about change, “to get involved, get engaged, and come together to demand it,” and the “power” (the word echoes throughout the speech) “our participation, and the choices we make” give to the Constitution. All this talk about the power of the people might have amounted to a kind of preemptive bid, made before the upcoming official ceremony transferred executive power to the loser of the popular vote. But the president never made that bid explicit, and turned deliberately away from asking people to take action.

In fact, when Obama presented the peaceful transfer of power as a “hallmark of our democracy,” and the remark elicited boos and shouts of “No!” — cries of resistance, threats of upheaval — he quieted them (“no, no, no, no, no”). By the fifth refusal, the crowd had backed down. What else could he have done? What would have happened had he assented, publicly, to that No!? Or if he had simply stepped back from the podium and let the tide of emotion roll over the crowd?

Over the past year I have often thought about how much hung in the balance at that moment, and how with a gentle reprimand the president took the crowd right back into the flow of his speech. He stumbled just a little after all those impromptu “nos,” but recovered balance by using his index finger to guide him through the phrase on the prompter: “the peaceful transfer of power.” Regaining his composure, he kept the crowd in check – and they applauded him. (We cannot imagine his successor doing the same, or even trying; it is much easier to imagine him inciting a riot.) He said he was stepping down to rejoin us as a citizen, but he had not yet let go of the reins. By the end of the speech, when the president issued his final charge or made what he called his “final ask,” the audience was roaring:

My fellow Americans, it has been the honor of my life to serve you. I won’t stop. In fact, I will be right there with you, as a citizen, for all my remaining days.
But for now whether you are young or whether you are young at heart, I do have one final ask of you as your president — the same thing I asked when you took a chance on me eight years ago.
I am asking you to believe. Not in my ability to bring about change — but in yours.
I am asking you to hold fast to that faith written into our founding documents; that idea whispered by slaves and abolitionists; that spirit sung by immigrants and homesteaders and those who marched for justice; that creed reaffirmed by those who planted flags from foreign battlefields to the surface of the moon; a creed at the core of every American whose story is not yet written:
Yes, we can.

The delivery was a little flatter than it had been in previous years. But who could not have been impressed, at the very least, by the rhetorical consistency the president had managed to achieve over the course of two terms in office? History rarely allows anyone — let alone a president — this measure of consistency, and the election in November of 2016 had marked nothing less than a violent historical rupture. This final ask didn’t acknowledge the cataclysm. It returned, instead, to familiar themes, central to Obama’s own biography, and situated the eight years of Obama’s presidency on the arc, or what he called “the long sweep,” of history that bends toward justice. This last ask was also a tell — one last public demonstration of President Obama’s leadership style. It took the form of a soft directive.

One year on, however, it’s difficult to say where this parting request, and the end of Obama’s presidency, left us. Was this last ask anything more than a feel-good exhortation? The president asked us not to do something, but simply to believe in our ability to do something. That might have been as far as he could go, there on that public platform, with emotions still raw from the election; and of course there’s a decent argument to be made that taking ourselves seriously as historical actors, people with the “ability” to bring about change, might be essential to disposing us to do anything at all.

At the same time, “Yes, we can” does not necessarily mean we will, or we ought, or even that we are doing what we can. There is a good distance to travel from believing in oneself as a person capable of doing to the doing itself. Setting intentions, planning projects, coordinating with others, anticipating consequences — all that still only takes us to the edge of action, as the Community Organizer in Chief must know. The great risk of political action comes when we apply power, when we move from can to will. Asking people to believe they can act, but not asking them to do anything in particular, might keep them temporarily from incurring that risk and rushing into the breach, but it also makes action seem like a distant possibility, not an urgent necessity.

We should hardly have expected the president to call for resistance, even if he shared the sense that something — but what, exactly? — had to be done. What he promised instead was redemption. The two could not be less different. If redemption assures us that We Shall Overcome, Someday, resistance plants its feet firmly in the present and declares, We Shall Not Be Moved. Resistance is mounted out of necessity. Strikes, sit downs, shutdowns, blockades, riots, raids — these actions were not always or primarily animated by some great faith in just outcomes, though that faith may have arisen in the course of the fight or helped sustain the fighters. People have made many gains by refusing and resisting power’s encroachments, by saying No, You Cannot long before they were able to believe in Yes, We Can. In many cases, things just become so intolerable, the long train of abuses and usurpations, as the Declaration has it, become so unbearable, that ordinary people feel they must stand their ground and resist.

We are living in that kind of moment. The current political crisis demands more than faith. We have to get to work. We should do so with the understanding that resistance, as the very word suggests, will help us push back against the forces intent on destroying the American democratic order, but it is not the extent or end of our power. It is, rather, the limit of theirs. This distinction matters, even though we are still in the thick of the fray. It invites us to think about near- and long-term commitments, and the nature of our power.

Our power is not at all like the power of command that was transferred — I won’t say peacefully, given all the damage that has already been done  — from one office holder to the other last January. It’s another kind of power. It’s the power we confer upon each other, not through official ceremonies but through the rituals of everyday life; it’s power we hold together, not just as individual rights holders with claims and grievances, but in the first person plural, as a “we.”

We realize and renew our power when we gather or assemble publicly. We may not have the power to issue directives or orders, but as the president reminded us, we can make demands – of those who hold political power (by voting, marching, practicing civil disobedience, and so on) and, just as importantly, of each other. We can deliberate what to do, coordinate efforts, and hold each other mutually accountable. There’s power in all of that – some power, maybe not enough all by itself to get us to the other side of this crisis, but some; and we have not done nearly enough to develop it, test its limits or discover its possibilities. (Instead, we have built and continue to prop up organizations and institutions that require its surrender.) Ultimately, it’s the power we need to govern ourselves responsibly and vigilantly, after we have put an end to current abuses and usurpations.

What should we do? This wasn’t the question for the outgoing president to put to us, but one for us to put to ourselves, and in this form: in the first person plural, and with that modal verb should (or ought) to highlight obligations and responsibilities, or right action. There’s not one answer to this question, or an end to its deliberation; nor will there be one solution to the crisis, such as the Mueller investigation, a medical diagnosis, the emoluments clause, the 25th Amendment. None of those things alone will do it, because “it” goes (way) beyond removing an abusive and corrupt authoritarian and his cronies from power. “ It” is up to us, because ultimately it comes down to reclaiming and realizing self-governance.

Every refusal, however small, to yield to authoritarian attention-stealing, rule-breaking and administrative sabotage will help safeguard our authority to govern ourselves, just as every act of decency and respect, no matter how small, will count as a victory against the moral coarsening we have undergone over the past year. Obama himself made this last point a couple of weeks ago in an end-of-year, schmaltzy Twitter thread of “stories that remind us what’s best about America” and demonstrate that “each of us can make a difference, and all of us ought to try.” Yes, we ought.

Six Questions about Asking and Sophia AI

103474429-Sophia_copy

The company that makes Sophia, Hanson Robotics, has become adept at linking different, highly-specific algorithms like image recognition and speech transcription in a way that mimics what humans might be doing when we hear a question and formulate a response.
qz.com

Sophia AI’s mimicry of “what humans might be doing when we hear a question and formulate a response” is mostly “theatrics,” Hanson Robotics CTO Ben Goertzel openly admits. That is probably why Sophia AI has so far found her most receptive audiences on TV talk shows and in corporate theater, where she won’t have to undergo too much scrutiny. But with the launch of singularityNET, which promises to put “Sophia’s entire mind…on the network,” Hanson says that “soon…the whole world will be able to talk to her.”

I would offer that talking “to” Sophia AI — or using Sophia’s chatbot function — is still a long way from conversation in any meaningful sense of the word, because it does not involve talking with a second person. This inconvenient truth about Sophia AI has not prevented the Saudi government from naming Sophia the first “robot citizen” of the Kingdom (and the grim irony of “a robot simulation of a woman [enjoying] freedoms that flesh-and-blood women in Saudi Arabia do not” was not lost on the Washington Post); nor has it prevented tabloids from screeching about Sophia stating she would like to have a family.

If personhood is setting the bar too high, I’m content to consider merely how Sophia AI handles asking. This would involve some of the considerations I’ve been exploring in my posts on The Asking Project: what we “might be doing” (as the writer in Quartz puts it) when we ask or hear a question; what’s involved, and what’s at stake, when we address others with a request or demand; and how these and other interrogative activities might be involved in our (moral) status as persons.

For starters, here are half a dozen questions about asking and Sophia AI that occurred to me after watching her video performances. I suspect there is a clear answer to the first, and the remaining five require some extended discussion.

1. What syntactic, grammatical or other cues (e.g., intonation) does Sophia AI use to recognize a question, and distinguish it from a declarative statement?

2. Can Sophia AI distinguish a request from a demand? A demand from an order? If so, how is this done? If not, what does this shortcoming indicate?

3. Will Sophia AI ever refuse to comply with a request? Leave a demand unmet? Defy an order? If not, how should these incapacities limit the role of Sophia or any AI?

4. Could a demand ever create in Sophia AI a sense of obligation? If so, what might this “sense” entail? Can we speak coherently of AI rights, or even place limits on AI’s role, without first developing this sense?

5. Will Sophia AI ever be capable of deliberating with others and reaching consensus or agreement?

6. What would be required for Sophia AI to deliberate internally? To be capable of asking herself?

Knotted Wrack

It was nearly high tide when I paddled out yesterday morning to the channel that lies just east of the cove. Harbor seals sometimes gather and sun on the big rocks that jut out of the water there. Golden brown beds of Knotted Wrack, or Ascophyllum nodosum, undulate and shimmy just beneath the surface. I glided straight into them, intending to skirt and circle the rocks, as I had done before, but instead — froomp! scrape! — my kayak ran aground on a big chunk of speckled granite just beneath the water’s surface (and partly hidden by the Knotted Wrack anchored to it). I was stuck, sitting atop a rock in the middle of the water, a good distance from shore. It felt a little absurd, or like something out of a cautionary tale.

After trying and failing to push off the rock with my paddle, I gained a better appreciation of my precarious situation. Apply too much force, and the kayak would tip; a roll would probably subject me to a beating against the rock. The wrong move and I would end up in the water, most likely cut and bruised, struggling to right the boat. The seaweed would make the rocks slippery.

No need to exaggerate the peril I was in: I was wearing a life vest, and though the water is cold here in Maine, it’s not so cold that if for some reason I failed to recover the boat I could not swim to shore, which I reckoned would take about twenty minutes. Losing my glasses (which, this time out, I had not fastened to my head with a cord) was among my concerns. I understood that I might have to struggle for a short while in the water. I didn’t want to struggle blind.

Keeping calm was essential, and it was also the most instructive part of the experience. Having formed a mental picture of my situation, I had to keep it clearly in view but I could not let it rattle me. The granite and the Knotted Wrack could be my undoing, or I could do something. Acting was less a matter of mastering than of working through my fear: not retreating into panic, but taking stock of risks and understanding what steps I could take to get my kayak unstuck.

When I ran aground, I had been running with the current, east and slightly north, into the channel. With a slow, deliberate reverse paddle, I managed to turn the boat on the rock, pivoting counter-clockwise, so that the bow now pointed west and faced the oncoming current. It was gentle, but enough to help create a little play between the kayak and the rock. Grasping the paddle as a tightrope walker holds his pole to balance, I thrust forward with my hips, as I sometimes do to inch my way into the water when I am launching the boat from shore. I was then able to paddle safely away.

I’ve written before about standing on quicksand. This Knotted Wrack adventure seems to pose another kind of dilemma: the problem wasn’t that I was sinking. I had run aground on an unexpected chunk of terra firma, and I had to struggle alone to get unstuck, right myself and push off. But as I’ve reflected on my experience, it has led to some of the same considerations as the quicksand problem. Take this relatively simple dilemma of getting the boat off the rock and scale it up: imagine a two-person canoe, or a ship with many hands on deck, or another perilous situation involving two, three, or even hundreds, thousands, billions of people. Then you start dealing with questions of cooperation and power.

The last people in the world who should be responding to a situation like this are those who cannot acknowledge its reality or remain calm in the face of it; and it occurs to me that those may amount to the same thing. Denial might be nothing more than a reactive token of fear, and widespread denial — like climate-change denial — might be a reactionary kind of moral panic, even though deniers are quick to call others alarmist.

Levinson on primitive economies of information

Ndap y Ke Rossel

Rossel Island shell currency.

An excerpt from Stephen C. Levinson, “Interrogative Intimations: On A Possible Social Economics of Interrogatives” in Questions. Formal, Functional and Interactional Perspectives. ed. Jan P. de Ruiter. Cambridge: 2012.

Levinson sketches a model of conversation in which interlocutors measure both the semantic and the social value of information. In this scheme, the semantic measure would be apportioned in units called Carnaps (after philosopher Rudolf Carnap), the social in Goffman units (after sociologist Erving Goffman). The Goffman measure involves ongoing estimations of position relative to others, social costs (which might explain the reluctance, say, to ask a question), authority, expertise, and so on. It underwrites a “micropolitics” of conversation.

Levinson offers an analogy with the shell money system of Rossel Island, in Papua, New Guinea.

An economic model of social information transfer is not going to look like a modern market economy. It might perhaps have some passing resemblance to the “primitive” economics of pre-industrial societies, with multiple measures for specific goods (bushels and grosses, cords and cubits), and multiple barter and exchange systems. Take the so-called shell money system of Rossel Island…, which consists of twenty-odd denominations of shells, with no exact equivalences of value and a delimited arena in which they can be used — it offers only the faintest semblance of a market economy (the shells are usable, e.g., for bride price, the purchase of pigs, houses and canoes, but not for food or manual labour). Shells are stores not only of economic but of social value, and top shells have names, like the Koh-i-noor diamond. Gaining possession of an individually named shell is like being temporary owner of a Picasso: it is an individual, not a mass of multiple undifferentiated tokens, and it reflects glory on its owner. Large injustices and delicts can be atoned for by the assuaging properties of such shells, even if only on loan for a fortnight. Shells go in one direction in exchange for goods, services and immaterial benefits (like forgiveness) in the other; but because there is constant flow in both directions, and shells are borrowed from all and sundry with intended eventual repayment, the market is about as murky as subprime derivatives. Such a system, with a multitude of special factors, frictions and exuberant irrationalities, offers us a better picture of the economics of everyday social life than textbook market economics.

It also moves us well beyond the transactional “ask-bid” model of conversation I described, and found wanting, in an earlier post.