Algorithms of Change

Algorithms of Change
Kristen Lyons*

June 30 2017

It all feels very strange, different, threatening: Trump, Brexit, rising nationalism, growing social and economic divisions, widespread disenchantment with democratic institutions. On the other hand, there’s mass global opposition to corporate capitalism, and huge momentum for a more peaceful, equitable and sustainable world.

But what sort of change is happening right now, or are we simply waiting for something to happen? What sort of change do we want? How can we bring this about?

It’s strange and threatening …

There is plenty about the state of politics and social trends in Australia, and around the world, that feels both strange and threatening. I start here by naming what I see as demonstrative of these dark times we are living through. This is by no means an exhaustive list, nor is it meant to create a despondence about the future. Rather, I want to back the urgent call many now make for coherent strategic and tactical responses to these multiple crises. Also, and enlivened by my ever-challenging development studies’ students, I want to point to those places that are always in the making, where justice and fairness exist, reminding us there is always good reason to hold onto hope.

What we are seeing in Australia, and elsewhere, is part of what Bob Nixon in his powerful book Slow Violence and Environmentalism of the Poor, describes as the roll out of violent policy making by violent states. While the impacts of violent policies are sometimes direct and easily seen, they are also often insidious and slow, and hidden behind rhetoric of ‘jobs and growth’, ‘clean coal’ and other impossibly dubious mantras.

Violence is embodied in our abhorrent treatment of refugees in offshore detention centres – despite being declared illegal and unconstitutional – and our inaction on climate change, alongside our sustained infatuation with destructive big coal. Violence also manifests alongside the apparent rise of a parochial and racist fueled nationalism that wants to ‘close down borders’, at a time when border crossing – in terms of crossing disciplines, ideas and ways of thinking – has perhaps never been more important. Indeed, ecological thinking tells us that it is in the spaces where diversity comes together – the ecotones, otherwise known as borderlands – where abundance is able to flourish.

The result of violent policy making is growing income (and other forms of) inequality, with Oxfam reporting earlier this year that the richest 2 billionaires own as much as the poorest 20 percent of the Australian population. Such inequality is also manifest along gender lines, with the Workplace Gender Equality Agency calculating the gap between women and men’s wages at around 16.2 percent (or $261/week), but with some sectors (including finance and insurance) closer to double that figure in terms of wage inequality. The gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians is even more stark, with life expectancy, literacy, education, health and other indicators all a living legacy of our violent settler colonial history.

And as I write, Cory Bernadi and his cronies are seeking to further erode democratic processes in Australia – calling for a halt to international funding for environmental and other activist organisations (including GetUp) – creating a further basis for violent policy making. Such grandstanding about due process misses the point – that the manufacturing, property and resources industries have directly fuelled the policy making process over many years, by providing big donations directly to political parties. Even Prime Minister Turnbull has shown he is willing to throw his own fortune into the political coffers, chipping in $1.75 million to his Federal election campaign in 2016.

But you can’t buy your way to democracy, it happens when diverse actors with diverse views are able to actually engage in meaningful ways, and with outcomes that are directly tied to the policy making process.

But what might it mean to combat neoliberalism?

Like a breath of fresh air, the Ngara Institute’s Politics in the Pub 2017 series is moving on from talking about these and other problems. It is committed to garnering ideas around a change agenda (and as a tired and cranky person, for that I am very grateful). Yet as a precursor to doing this, there is a need to understand both the structural causes of the fundamental challenges we face, the values and beliefs underpinning  those structural forces, as well as their consequences.

As Canadian scholar Simon Springer so eloquently articulates in his provocatively titled piece, Fuck Neoliberalism: “…as a political maneuver, it is potentially quite dangerous to simply stick our heads in the sand and collectively ignore a phenomenon that has had such devastating and debilitating effects on our shared world”.

In other words, at least as I read it, Simon (and many others) are calling upon us to understand those structural forces at work – those violent policies, the collusion between mining, property development and government interests, for example – that create disadvantage and destruction. But, and at the same time, we should not be defined or constrained by these forces in our responses. Indeed, we should not simply respond, but rather reimagine. In the face of such inequalities, sometimes the best thing we might do is throw stones at it all, and start afresh, somewhere new and different, not simply responding to the latest so-called alt right lunatic, but instead creating our own visions of the future world we are all part of bringing into being.

Algorithm as metaphor for change?

In the spirit of moving beyond critiques of violent neoliberalism, and instead imagining the world we want, and living like its already here (because in some cases it is), the Ngara Institute provocatively named the first 2017 Politics in the Pub talk on which this article is based, Algorithms of Change - Unfolding realities of a new world order. I’m aware that ‘new world order’ is something that the alt right talks about, but its meaning from a progressive perspective is very different. At the very least, it signifies not the greed and rapaciousness of neoliberal capitalism, but a more cooperative, peaceful and sustainable view of life.

Being asked to reflect on this topic, my first (yes, I will admit ignorant) question, was “what exactly is an algorithm?” This was closely followed by “how might an algorithm as metaphor assist us to think about responses to the current challenges we face?”

According to Wikipedia (a source I tell my students never to cite), an algorithm is a procedure, or a formula, for solving a problem, and is based on conducting a sequence of specified actions. Algorithms, it turns out, are in use all around us, and are widely used to predict disease outbreaks, anticipate criminal activities, stock market crashes, our spending patterns, the basis for happy workplaces, and even the next hit album.

Given their predictive power, might we be able to similarly generate an algorithm to predict pathways for positive social change? In other words, are there some general principles that can form a basis for a positive change agenda? And if there are, might we approach the application of such principles with the same caution we might come to think about any other algorithm, including their tendency to reify generalizable data and theories, thereby missing the flesh and blood of the here and now. And in recognizing some general principles for change, might we also stay open to grasping at moments of serendipity – including unpredictable relationships or political moments – where doors unexpectedly open in ways that can enable positive social change to happen?

What I am trying to say is while I think it is useful to identify ground rules for affecting change, prefigurative politics reminds us the world is always being made, and there is so much we cannot know. As such, any understanding of algorithms, or theories of change, must recognize that they are contingent, flexible, and always ready to be composted!

My work in international development as a space to think about algorithms

In seeking to make a very small contribution to this conversation about what principles might form the basis for positive change (a conversation I recognise has been going on a long time!), I want to draw from a few reflections based on around 12 years working in the international development space. In particular, I want to reflect on my praxis as a petri dish for charting an algorithm of change. As such, my views are partial and incomplete, but they are offered in the spirit of dialogue, between those of us committed to finding a way through the current times.

1.      We must start where people are at. In my work with organic farmers in Uganda, and communities engaged in agro-forestry in Solomon Islands, what is clear is the vital need to start from the ground, and build upon the assets and resources that communities have, and in ways that match up with local values, beliefs, and aspirations for the future. Part of doing this requires establishing trusting relationships based on mutual respect, and a commitment to supporting each other to flourish. It might sound simple, but good relationships and good conduct must be at the base for doing good (or at least avoiding harm).

2.      While neoliberal ideologies are driving individualism and competition, at the heart of positive social change are collectives and communities. Working collectively creates social solidarity, and it allows people – together – to take back control of their lives, their workplaces, their communities. George Monbiot makes the point powerfully: restoring community and collective life can also restore political life. Meanwhile, eco-philosopher Joanna Macy explains in her work, In the Dark, the Eye Learns to See, that we need to turn to each other, not away from each other. By (re)connecting, and even loving each other (instead of loving machines, or institutions, or banks … because sure as hell, they won’t love us back).

3.      Amongst the diversity of projects around the world that I have had some connections to – a health clinic in Uganda, organic farming in Ghana, bee keeping and women’s savings clubs in Solomon Islands, what underpins each of them – albeit in different ways – is an animating force that brings people together, and keeps them together, and inspires them to keep going. By this I mean there is a central place for vitality and love in our social change work.

4.      Effective projects (whatever that means), while often embedded in the local – including local politics and issues – are not just local. Rather, they are also connected to a broader, and often global, change agenda. In our studies of bee keeping projects in Choiseul Province, Solomon Islands, for example, while on the one hand these represent local livelihood projects, with families getting involved in farming bees, harvesting honey and generating a local income, they also tell a bigger story. Along with my friend and colleague Peter Walters, we can see that these bee keeping projects are also tied to the need for healthy and diverse environments, as well as recognition of the vital role of bees for pollination, and hence food security. In this context, we met many local honey farmers who were also actively engaged in conservation work, including working towards protection of high biodiversity forests from violent destruction by international logging companies. As Jenny Cameron and Jarra Hicks clearly explain, once we let go of scale – including a fixation with the local – we can see how local level changes are part of a much broader arrangements. The bee keeping projects in Solomon Islands we visited should be understood as being tied to a much bigger anti-logging and conservation agenda. They are working, at least in part, because they start with where people are at.

Concluding thoughts

What is clear to me, is that in the face of structural inequity and violence around the world – much of which feels monolithic and immutable – the future remains uncertain and up for grabs. Power is not always predetermined, and history does not determine the future. There are diverse places, sometimes unexpected, where change can emerge. And it is for these reasons, I understand there is a place for an ethos of hope.

I don’t mean that we should be grasping onto some false hope, just because we want to hope that something better should happen, or because otherwise we will feel too overwhelmed. I believe that we should hold onto hope, because all around the world – and despite all the inequality and violence – there is evidence of the eking out of new possibilities and openings for positive change. Our task is to focus attention on these cracks that are ever present, and to find ways – with or without our algorithms – to open these further, shining light onto the sorts of future we want to grow.

Simon Springer’s pointed call to “fuck neoliberalism” invites us to express our rage for its impacts, our disgust and our opposition. It also invites us to engage others in conversations about the failings of our violent brutal ways. We are also invited to engage in activities that are outside its reach.

Even if it comes to pass that we fail to address the fundamental challenges of our time – inequality, climate change and more – some non-human species from another planet might one day find the Ngara institute time capsule and say “Wow! That mob had some good talks in Mullumbimby’s Courthouse Hotel, there was nice music, and delicious food”. Surely this is the basis for an algorithm of change – where conviviality, joy, music and laughs are centered.

*Associate Professor Kristen Lyons at the University of Queensland, School of Social Science,  is an activist academic with over twenty years’ experience in the fields of environment and development. Kristen's work is focused on the political ecology of resource conflicts in the global south. She has collaborated with international NGOs in a number of countries to undertake work that increases understandings of the impacts and responses of international development interventions, including global resistance movements. Kristen is a Senior Research Fellow with the Oakland Institute.