Books On How To Organize Society

A couple of “radical” books on “the future” of work and society. These are better than average, talking about earnest, practical, community oriented “movements”, based in sound understanding of humans, and employing the digital tools of the early twenty first century. Quite interesting, and challenging. See also my earlier remarks about “Getting a Grip 2” by Frances Moore Lappé.

The Freelancer’s Bible by Sara Horowitz

 In this digitally enabled brave new world, everyone is interested in “The New Way We Work”. My own motto is, if you care about “work” you need to care about “workers”—how do we make a decent life when there are no permanent jobs?

A vigorous and positive approach to this question can be seen in Sara Horowitz’s book, and the Freelancer’s Union she heads. If we’re left to our own devices, then by gum let’s build ‘em our own darn way.

If we are going to build a good system based on “freelancing”, there are many things that need to be tackled: working conditions, benefits, contracts, accounting, and so on are now the responsibility of the worker, in addition to actually knowing how to produce stuff.

Horowitz is well aware of these challenges, and presents a positive and optimistic attitude, along with models for success. She promulgates the life of a freelancer, along with a view of a “new mutualism”.

One of the biggest implications of the permanent temp-hood economy is the loss of the personal identity that used to accrue to having a career. My employment in the software industry was not just a job, it validated my own identity as a valuable participant in a world changing program.

Horowitz is well aware of this, too, so much of her writing is about personal goals and identity. Indeed, the Freelancer’s Union is as much about self-identity as mutual help (not that these are mutually exclusive).

What I find in this book is some “self help”, some practical business advice, the ghost of old line trade union mutualism, and a big dollop of digital new agey vibe. Where my grandfather’s union meeting might feature a pledge of allegiance and group singing of repurposed hymns, this union is mostly digital, and features social media, meet ups, self-improvement and positive psychology.

John L. Lewis crossed with Oprah.  Don’t mess with us!

This is particularly clear in the sections about “The New Mutualism” which is also expounded upon in the Freelancers Union web pages.  This idea  goes far beyond “success” in your own business, or a general professional organization.The broader socio-politco-cultural vision calls for voluntary collaboration, sharing, gift giving, and what she calls the “love bank account”.

Fundamentally, this is about creating and sustaining community, “working together for problem solving and profit” (p.300). Teach. Mentor. Do good works. Barter (exchange gifts). Form groups. Co-work. Join the Union. . (As she jokes, “The Union Makes Us…Not So Weak.”)

If nothing else, this stuff is sound social psychology: whatever you are doing, you are going to be happier if you feel connected to other people, and give to others. Odds are, you will profit, too, but that’s not the reason to do it.

At the same time, she has a lot to say about balancing work and other demands, and about having time to have fun, too. In fact, everyone could benefit from some of the advice in this line, freelancers or not.

I can’t say if this is only or best way to go, or who it may suit best, but it seems to be working at least for some. I’m certainly watching carefully to see how this whole trend unfolds over time. I’m not only watching, but I’m a member. (Double disclosure: I’m a member of the Freelancer’s Union, and I’m also trying to study the “future of work”.)

At the moment, I don’t quite fit into the Freelancer mold as generally told. I’m not young, I’m not “a creative”. My economic circumstances are far different from typical Freelancers.

And, being an old fart, I worry about the long-term sustainability of this approach. Freelancing can be exciting, but, just as in the perpetual grind for grant money in academia, what happens after a few years? And in the “sharing” economy, who will buy houses, cars, and so on—to employ workers in these key sectors. How can people raise a family without at least one stable career?

But we all have a stake in this working out. At a personal level, I feel a tremendous personal stake in the success of this generation here in my local community. I also feel a deep personal responsibility to help work out the social messes created by the technologies I helped create.

I would like to see the FU and the kinds of “new mutualism” Horowitz talks about succeed, or fail elegantly, or morph into something better.

 

The Talking Point by Thomas R. Flanagan and Alexander N. Christakis

This is an interesting book, if a bit off the main path. They are interested in problem solving, specifically, via group dialog. Specifically, they are interested in democratic, but large scale, working together to tackle big, often “wicked” problems. (Personally, I’m at least as worried about everyday non-wicked problems, such as sustaining crucial public services.) This book documents the methodology used by their global “Institute for 21st Century Agoras”, which is “dedicated to cultivating authentic democracy through effective social systems design”.

There are plenty of challenges, but they focus on the interesting and hard problem of understanding each other. This often boils down to figuring out a common understanding of key concepts and the words we use to talk about them. Without this, no real dialog is possible, and the authors argue that merely by achieving a common framework, people are happier, have more confidence, and generally get better results, just because the group understands each other.

This book is about a process they call “Structured Dialogic Design”, and it is based on cognitive psychological theories with a certain amount of empirical support. I.e., it’s not prima facia stupid or crazy. Much of the theory is decades old, and much of the practice is based on considerable experience—not in any way a sudden bolt from the blue.

Part of what makes this interesting is that the procedures are quite amenable to digitization. In fact, digital tools make some steps much more feasible. For example, walking through a series of small “decisions” (e.g., about meanings of terms, or order of lists), and constructing a relational graph are quite laborious, but could be helped a lot with a good digital tool. Software also can help visualize networks and other complex data structures, quickly and flexibly.

This stuff is also interesting because it is all about developing “collective wisdom”, which many people imagine can be done with fairly trivial digital systems, e.g., mindless “mechanical turk” programs, or shared wikis. This book serves as a bright warning light that there is a lot more to successful collaboration than voting. Whether they are right about everything, or whether you disagree with the approach, it would be wise to consider what they are saying if you want to create effective “collaborative” software or get wisdom rather than bullying from the Internet crowd.

This method assumes that the participants actually want to search for consensus (which is certainly not always the case), but is designed to not require huge buy in at the beginning, so participants can ease in and decide for themselves if the process is valid in each case.

The ideas are quite interesting, and the authors are super, super earnest about authentic democratic decision making. In the end, this means a lot of care to make the process completely fair and honest—not driven by the “leadership” or sponsor’s ideas. Very “occupy-ish”.

It is sad and agonizing to look at their “Obamavision” effort. A wonderful open, “bottoms up” exercise as Barak Obama entered the presidency in 2009.  But neither world events nor the political opposition (nor his own party nor his own administration) was playing by these rules, so this vision was stillborn.

I found the language stilted and hard to read, a surprising flaw in a book about communication!

Worst of all, the software is not readily available for inspection, and there is no public documentation of what it does or how it works. This is inexplicable to me: how could they not want me to understand and potentially contribute to their software? I’m assuming this is a matter of lack of expertise—they are not really software folks. But still, some of their users surely know how to set up an open source project. Very disappointing to me, and it makes me wonder how “real” the software part is.


 

  1. Horowitz, Sara, The Freelancer’s Bible, New York, Workman Publishing, 2012.
  2. Thomas R. Flanagan, Alexander N. Christakis, The Talking Point: Creating an Environment for Exploring Complex Meaning, Charlotte, Information Age Publishing, 2010.

 

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