“History is full of examples of the impotence of the strong and superior man who does not know how to enlist the help, the co-acting of his fellow men.”

— Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition

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Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash

I once worked for a not-for-profit that aspired to train leaders. The organisation made leadership central to every activity it undertook. We ran a “Leadership Development Program” and made much of the leadership capabilities of graduates, but I saw little in the curriculum that claimed to be leadership that wasn’t really just people management. Is being “a leader” really the same as being a manager…

The politics of “internet privacy”

Recently I decided to ‘de-google’. It’s the result of a few months of reading, writing, and thinking about Big Tech and Surveillance Capitalism, but all the theory didn’t really prepare me for the complexity of the process.

One of the first things I did was replace Chrome and Google with Firefox and DuckDuckGo, with an ad-blocker. The aim of this assemblage of apps was to defeat Surveillance Capitalism at the coalface — to stop the data flow generated by my browsing going out, and to stop the steady stream of advertising coming in.

It’s a good start, but it’s not…

How Big Tech governs our lives

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Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash

The State is not the only thing that governs our lives. There are plenty of other institutions that help to shape our day to day conduct, like the Church, or the workplace. But Big Tech is fast supplanting the State as the principal institution of government in our day to day lives with its constant surveillance of its users and its increasingly bold attempts at behavioural modification at scale.

In my last post, I outlined three methods through which the State governs as a first step in considering whether Big Tech was on the road to supplant or eclipse the…

What do Governments do?

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Image: George Tooker, “Government Bureau” (1956), The Metropolitan Museum of Art and DC Moore Gallery (source). Used without permission.

A few months after I started my career as a public servant, I attended a keynote session at a conference titled ‘Could Google run the Government?” The question caused a stir among the gathered public administrators; some soft noises of affirmation mingled with the agitated hubbub and groans of government employees distressed or bored by the question.

But the question stayed with me as I learned the ropes of government work. From outside the government, I’d always assumed it had a monopoly over knowledge and power within its domain, which is why everyone wanted to bend the ears of government…

Express Yourself

Get over your fear of other people if you really want creative success

A woman in a corner leaning her head against a wall, as seen from behind.
A woman in a corner leaning her head against a wall, as seen from behind.
Photo: Francesco Carta fotografo/Moment/Getty Images

I’ve lost track of how many people have told me that they’d never show the draft of their book to anyone. This admission is often accompanied by the qualifier that they’ll show it to someone “when it’s ready.” Another hindrance to creative work that I saw in my time as a history lecturer was from students who would tell me that they struggled to get work in on time because they thought of themselves as “perfectionists.”

Both of these varieties of perfectionism are about other people, not you or your work. …

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I mashed this up on my desktop in Paint. Please don’t sue me.

It wasn’t until I started reading up on the ‘Sharing Economy’ that I finally figured out what bothered me about dating apps.

I’ve realised something important about dating apps. They’re sharing economy platforms. It’s a big claim, I know — but stick with me here.

According to Tom Slee in What’s Yours is Mine: Against the Sharing Economy, there are basically four things that define something as a Sharing Economy platform:

  1. they are peer-to-peer platforms that do not provide a service to end users beyond connecting them,
  2. they have in-built rating systems that provide algorithmic regulation,
  3. they turn individuals into micro-entrepreneurs, and
  4. they take a non-market phenomenon powered by human relationships and turn them into a market exchange.

Tinder — and all…

Both ‘work’ and ‘job’ are key words today. Neither had its prominence three hundred years ago. Both are still untranslatable from European languages into many others. Most languages never have one single word to designate all activities that are considered useful. Some languages happen to have a word for activities demanding pay. This word usually connotes graft, bribery, tax or extortion of interest payments. None of these words would comprehend what we call ‘work’.

– Ivan Illich, Shadow Work

The idea of ‘work’ or ‘a job’ is a relatively new concept. Unlike pre-modern labour, which was carried out as diverse…

Gender and power at work

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image: “An IBM 704 Computer at NACA in 1957”, NASA via Wikimedia Commons, here.

A close friend of mine recently went through a restructure at work. It was a harrowing and anxiety-inducing experience for her. The restructure seemed to be aimed at removing one particularly difficult employee, who constantly needled his female manager, and argued behind her back that he ought to be the one in charge. He did his job slowly, but delivered his work late and full of errors. He had a completely inflated sense of his own worth to the company, but still seemed to be on a career-spanning go-slow.

Another female friend told me how they had started to use…

Choosing a historical methodology to write about work, and why it matters

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“Painting depicting the activities of the National Youth Administration,” Alden Krider, Kansas National Youth Administration, 1936, Oil on canvas. Held by FDR Library, Source.

When I used to teach history, the thing I’d struggle with was getting my students to realise that history was an interpretational practice. I’d ask them to consider the contested nature of current affairs, and then compare it to the sources they were reading about the 1950s, or the 1860s. Invariably they would see that people in the past were just as argumentative as people are today. I’d then ask them why they thought that there was one historical 'truth' that could somehow be uncovered, or why they…

Discipline and Governance in the Neoliberal Workplace

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Photo by Alex Kotliarskyi on Unsplash

My boss recently told me that in order to do my job I’d need to take work home with me. I work in sales, and what he was trying to tell me was that to generate leads I needed to look in unlikely places. For this reason, I ought to remain open to opportunities I encountered outside of work. In this case it not only meant probing my social network — my friends and family — for the possibility of a sale, but also restructuring my social time so that I would always be on the lookout for opportunities relating…

Nick Irving

PhD in Modern History and government functionary. One-time historian of peace and protest, now researching and writing about work.

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