Five Star

One star ratings, AI futures, social theory pasts.

It's hard to escape the logic of the ranking. They are never very far away. Not only are we ranked ourselves, but we are frequently asked to rate things so that they might be ranked for us. The issue this creates is how the ranking can take on a life of its own and distort behaviours.

When you judge things through crude ratings, it shouldn’t be a surprise when people start trying to play the system to their advantage. If metrics shape the horizons of possibility, then those metrics will be bent by those seeking to alter those possibilities. Rankings are designed to create winners and losers - in the case of Amazon this translates onto visibility and heightened chances of purchases. If it is tricky to improve your own rating in order to improve your ranking, then the alternative is to try to reduce the rating of your competitors.

This BBC article looks directly at the use of one star reviews on Amazon to do just this. Repeated one star reviews, it is reported, were being used to drag down review ratings for products. I seem to remember the case of an author doing this to a rival author several years ago, but I can't quite recall the case. The gaming of the system isn't a surprise, but these examples do tell us something about how rating based systems can contort behaviour in destructive ways. A clear case of what Wendy Espeland and Michael Sauder have described as the ‘reactivity’ that occurs in response to rankings.

Liquid biography…

Written by Izabella Wagner, a biography of Zygmunt Bauman has been published by Polity. There is a nice review of the book that also outlines some of Bauman's lifestory by Sheila Fitzpatrick in the LRB.

I still teach Bauman's work. There is stunning aside at the start of the book Consuming Life where Bauman sets out what is at stake in social media. It's not entirely right, but it was an amazing and provocative attempt to anticipate these media and the issues at stake. I've tried to leave it behind, but even though social media change the ideas he offers in those early days still get discussion going.

I always found Bauman to be an engaging and thought provoking writer. His books were usually panoramic, mixing observation with sweeping reflection. There was an ambition to them. It also seemed like he just kept continuallh writing, pausing occasionally to release the most recent pages as a book. Really it was like a continuous flow that had to be almost artificially separated out into volumes. It's easy to pull on the threads, but the point, it seemed to me, was that the rumbling ideas were there to be responded to and reflected on.

AI futures…

As part of a project on the future of artifical intelligence Jenn Chubb has posted these initial reflections on some of the findings. Based on interviews with experts in AI, the piece looks at how AI are defined and understood through to potential implementation and the type of AI narratives that are being used. The project is still underway, but these early reflections suggest how competing visions of the future of AI are playing out and are directly confronting one another in the discourse and framing of what is possible.

Still post…

The above brought to mind the work of Katherine Hayles. In this talk she explains why we are still posthuman (20 years after her classic book How We Became Posthuman)

In turn that made me think of Rosi Braidotti’s recent book Posthuman Knowledge, which she talks about in this lecture.


In a considered and reflective piece, Scott Rodgers has written about what is going on with platforms in 2020.

What remains?

Thinking about the history of social thought has provided an angle of distraction recently. From a few years ago, here is an audio interview with Tom Kemple talking about his book on Max Weber and intellectual work.

Too quick…

I was going to post something about the stories of the banning and ownership of TikTok, but things are moving a little too rapidly on it and things are dating quickly - this may be for a future newsletter. But it reminded me of Carl Miller’s book The Death of the Gods, which explores how decentralised media can bring with them a concentration of ownership.