A Critique of “Why Nations Fail,” by Acemoglu and Robinson (2012)
I called up my cellphone carrier to ask a question.
I was a bit reluctant in making the call to begin with, because I’ve been wondering about the idea, starting even to give up on the idea, that many of the goods or services I get are provided by actual people. Especially at a phone company.
It’s increasingly rare for me to go to the mailbox and find a letter that’s ever been touched by a human hand. And I don’t even bother answering my home phone anymore—it won’t be a human. The major goods and services we have—phones, school systems, health care, banking, airlines, you name it—seem to be managed by automated phone prompts or “chat” boxes that pop up on the internet (which I don’t count as real people). From a profit and efficiency standpoint, it must be too risky to put a person on there, and too expensive unless they are a person from a third world country, mainly India …
…whose real goal is probably to be on the other end of the phone call—the American end—some day.
(Which might be way more frustrating than a third world telemarketer could imagine.)
So, I called the cellphone carrier to ask a question, which happened to be about using my cellphone in Mexico, and the subject of “why nations fail” was not on my mind. I got through, and the interactive auto-response default reply asked in a tinny virtual-female voice if I was over 50. She/it/they wanted to offer me a great deal on a medical alert system. No. I didn’t, so I tapped “2” on my phone. I was shuttled over to a whole new auto-response that I had won a Caribbean cruise, washed away in a virtual techno-undertow.
I knew I didn’t want a Caribbean cruise, but while I was thinking about that, maybe feeling distracted for a sec, the auto-response pseudo-voice said, “Thank you very much, good bye,” and hung up on me. To be clear, I did not hang up on the machine, it hung up on me. I still have no idea what to do about cellphone service in Mexico.
I only daydreamed for a second or two on that call, just like almost everyone is doing these days when they are attending to important business on their “smartphones,” but this is a risk of what psychologists and educators call automaticity: “the human ability to do things without occupying the mind, allowing it to become an automatic response pattern.” In other words, just for a moment there, my brain was on autopilot. And the computer auto-response system nailed me on it.
A similar thing happened yesterday calling the Ford dealer about my car. Rather than reach the service department, I somehow got routed hopelessly into a “special promotion” regarding Medicare. What did Medicare have to do with my Ford? This is another example of what experts call automaticity, “an act or process performed by automatic equipment.” No matter what I tapped into the phone, I could not get out of this promotion. Ford was absolutely going to survey me on Medicare, and I put in a dogged three-plus minutes being washed out again in the undertow, then madly swam out.
You may have noticed what I noticed about word automaticity: it has two rival meanings. I hadn’t seen that since California surfers reinvented the word “bad” in the 60s. This discovery enabled me to coin a new phrase, for that increasingly occurring instant when human automaticity becomes aware of its encounter with computer-programmed automaticity. I am calling this: double loop automaticity, and I think it’s ready for Wikipedia and for the psych journals.
To clarify this emergent concept further, let us imagine someone actually screaming into the phone: screaming into their smartphone at what is in actuality a computer on the other end—a pathetic thing we have all witnessed. Those people are experiencing single loop automaticity. This column, this new concept, is intended to create awareness so as to move those people beyond that desperate state. With awareness, we can move from single to double loop automaticity. We awaken to the reality that our own intelligence is being redefined, but only if we let it be. We awaken to the reality that our consciousness is being drawn out into that undertow of automaticity, first so that we can engage as expected with artificial intelligence—and then so that we can refuse to. And we hang up. No.
As you also may have noticed, the two areas for artificial intelligence mentioned above pertain to advancing technology and medical care. We, as a society, make huge sacrifices for advancing medicine and technology and all those entail: longer work days, urbanization, and economic hegemony. Most of us automatically presume that all this is worth it because it leads to longer lives, globalization, and more “advanced” living. No matter that we now sleep two hours less on average than we did 100 years ago or that three-quarters of all teens no longer get the 8 ½ hours of sleep that they need. (“The Sleep Cure,” Alice Park, Time Magazine, Feb.22, 2017). No matter that societies that get enough sleep experience very little depression and we now have it at epidemic levels.
As collateral to all this advanced technology and longer lives through medical care, our culture is washing photonic light signals into our eyes all day and half the night. As Dr. Michael J. Breus explains about cellphone light, “Blue runs in about the 460 nanometer range, in terms of the spectrum of light. That particular spectrum of light hits these cells and makes them send a signal to an area of the brain known as the suprachiasmatic nucleus and tells it to turn off melatonin production. Melatonin is the key that starts the engine for sleep.” (http://www.digitaltrends.com/mobile/does-blue-light-ruin-sleep-we-ask-an-expert/#ixzz4ZimIbJHT). Likewise, the percentage of things we are ingesting that are not food have increased for the past century as all manner of chemicals course into our bodies and brains. It’s toxic brain and we don’t even know it because:
Our brains are adapting and the concept of human intelligence is changing in concert with all of it.
The augmented brain has become the normal one, and the urban environment the normal one. The study of the role of emotional intelligence has fallen into disarray (Emotional Intelligence in the Workplace: A Critical Review, Zeidner, 2004). Ecological intelligence is obviously losing relevance.
If you don’t believe me, tune into the YouTube series called “Primitive Technology” and experience how bizarre and distant it seems to peer into the life of someone who, until recently, was just doing what humans naturally do: using tools, making shelters and fire. Finding plants to eat.
There was a folktale I read to my class once that, long ago in China, there were plants you wore in your belt and then you would have children and grandchildren. These are ancient and basic forms of intelligence that are becoming lost on most of us.
I watch YouTube and remember how much I love the sound of wood being split, and I long for the sound.
Once I read to my class of a mythical turtle in China, now extinct, that made that same sound. And that is why I wanted to stay in this work, to stay as a teacher. So that I might read that story aloud again. I know that is illogical.
In China just recently, they have moved 250 million people—that’s 250 million—out of their villages and into high-rises in new cities. 250 million people (“China’s Great Uprooting: Moving 250 Million Into Cities,” NY Times)— that is almost the population of the United States. Here is the way big governments and data manipulators and hyper-intellectual macroeconomists explain this movement and its logic: “Rapid Chinese growth has lifted hundreds of millions out of poverty.”
But those aren’t real people being lifted, are they? They are cost units, poster families for the new “economic success” that the primacy and greatness institutionalization brings to non-failing nations, if I read Acemoglu and Robinson correctly.
There is a force known as institutionalization, and I read all about its ascent last week in “Why Nations Fail,” by Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson, from MIT and U. of Chicago, respectively.
The Romans in ancient times really put institutionalization on the map, but that was institution-lite. Despite institutionalization of their military, civics and utilities, the entire Roman economy was still based upon small-scale agriculture. In ancient Rome, as in early United States, institutions were set up to serve people, not vice versa.
Aside from institutionalization, the phenomenon here might more simply be called, “bigness.” It is just as prevalent in schooling (where essays are read by computers) as it is in media (where “unlimited storage” is the greatest offer a service provider can make), automobiles (which are driving themselves), and tourist cruise ship lines. Bigness has overwhelmed our schools and cyberschools.
According to research, one of the top reasons people select a large public school, even move to a town for a school, is: big team sports. These are not sports that can be played in normal outdoor spaces where animals might be found: they are regulated and watched over by adult supervisors, measured out in seconds, and governed by rule books hundreds of pages long. One local school team was disqualified not long ago when it was found out that their field was three inches too short. It’s institutional sports. And as a sacrifice for all that, for the comprehensive school, you get larger classes, more crime, less connection, less (or no) playtime, and lower scores. I know, for some kids that’s the only way out. But what of the two-thirds of all students who never participate or who are cut from the team. Or the play, or …? Is it worth the sacrifice?
Without a hint of irony, here is how our nation’s schools measure their students’ proficiency in a basic intelligence we call “problem solving:” we seat them in chairs, remove any tools beyond a pencil or keyboard, and time them as they fill out black and white questionnaires. The score they get is considered to be their problem solving ability. (I have to wonder, with more than a hint of irony, how a student who walked out of there and spent the time exploring in the out of doors, on a green, would be rated.)
The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development’s triennial international Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) survey, 2015, makes a good read. It compares test scores from 65 countries and finds happier kids (or at least kids who felt more cared about and more engaged) at lower test scoring countries and countries with smaller, community schools. Students at small schools are more likely to play on sports teams than those at large schools, too. And they are more likely to experience the student diversity and cross-group interaction than their counterparts at large, “institutionalized” schools (High School Study of Student Engagement, 2016, U. of Indiana).
Never mind, because social and political institutions have been and will continue to be persistent in their growth, as they supposedly cause economic growth, all as documented meticulously by Acemoglu and Robinson in “Why Nations Fail.” School size, school district size, school class size have all grown steadily for over 100 years in non-failing nations despite the lack of any finding showing how the institutionalization of schooling makes people happier or more successful. But they are a cause of economic growth.
And of sleep deprivation.
We are exhausting ourselves. Over 60 percent of workers in America suffer from extreme fatigue. (“Burnout up among employees,” Sharon Jayson, USA Today)
Does it still need pointing out that humans serially confuse their net worths and the complexity and size of their systems with the quality of their lives? Acemoglu and Robinson hold as self evident that building nations, sustained by always-larger institutions, is a universal good. Does this presumption need any questioning? Might there be times when, if only a nation would fail, mercifully, some incredibly beautiful communities may survive—but this is a notion that would never get through customs (our nation’s largest law enforcement institution) at the airport.
Like schools and customs enforcement, colleges keep institutionalizing as well. As they grow, they are ranked less on student happiness, teacher satisfaction, alumni satisfaction, values, or any comprehensible definition of personal success. They are ranked more on institutional measures of success like retention rates, financial resources, and student selectivity (US News). What if we told the truth and changed the name of those rankings from “Top Rated Schools” to “Most Institutionalized Schools?” Would that sell magazines?
They all keep getting bigger. Automaticity is supposed to reflect economic growth and efficiency. And the bigger our institutions get, the more automaticity users experience, and the more automaticity those institutions program into their systems, like an infinite feedback loop. And we can try to adapt, some of us, maybe walk out on the green. It’s double loop automaticity, a new intelligence.
In education, a new definition of teaching is changing the world. For many, teaching has increasingly come to mean the delivery of a tightly controlled curriculum leading to a standardized exam used to evaluate the teacher and his/her cost units. If you don’t believe me, ask a university school of education dean, watching the rapid decline in teacher education candidates. (According to “Education Week,” teacher education enrollments have dropped one-third in the past decade.) The field of teaching is changing and fewer people are willing to do it, willing to be institutionalized—and they are replaced by artificial intelligence. Which becomes normalized and even expected. Double loop.
School funding formulas defending today’s large, institutional schools leave out or “hide” costs such as re-training teachers and lower wages for drop outs, not to mention the cost of depression. (“The Benefits of Small Schools on Student Motivation and Engagement,” Small Schools Coalition, 2016)
But for a steadfast few, real teaching still means a compassionate relationship between a live student and teacher. There are a precious few schools that do that (one of them being The Grauer School), and precious fewer teachers who have a system that even permits it, but you can find it (High School Study of Student Engagement, 2016, U. of Indiana). Hello there! There is nothing I feel more confident about and nothing that fills me more with optimism than this: nations that have real teachers will never fail.
If your family ever finds itself calling your school and a synth-voice advises you, “Hello and please listen carefully as our menu options have changed,” you might think about all this. Or you could book a cruise.
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