Me, myself and I


In my annual lecture last year I argued that a decline in the performance and legitimacy of institutions along side a weakening of social solidarity had led to individualism being the dominant way in which we think about and pursue change.  The problem is not so much individualism per se (like hierarchical authority and social solidarity, it has its weaknesses and strengths as a mode of operation) but that it is required to do too much work in terms of resolving hard problems. For example, as I have also argued, the political establishment continuously and erroneously maintains that the individualistic idea of social mobility is the most appropriate and effective way of addressing social injustice.

The dominance of individualism (which is accompanied by a muted but powerful social fatalism) influences the way we see the world. It becomes hard to know whether individualistic solutions are best or we have simply become more receptive to those solutions.

A few weeks ago David Halpern, head of the Government's Behavioural Insights Team spoke at an RSA seminar on social networks and values. He said he had gone into his job being interested both in 'nudge' based interventions which target individual behaviour - things like asking people to sign a commitment to look for work when they register with a job centre - and asset-based interventions which focussed on understanding and mobilising communities. However, as went on to say, the former had both been easier to measure - using the preferred methodology of randomised control trials - and more productive in terms of generating proven interventions.

I was reminded of David's comments when listening yesterday to Evgeny Morozov delivering an RSA lecture about his new book 'To save everything, click here'. For Morozov the capability offered by big data, used in combination with insights drawn from behavioural economics, social psychology and neuroscience, to offer individualistic solutions to problems ranging from obesity to criminality brings with it two major dangers.

The first concerns privacy and intrusion, do we really want Google to be using our smart phones and embedded sensors in day to day objects to learn a huge amount about our behaviour, including our various cognitive and behavioural quirks. By the way, I find it odd that while we would object strongly if a stranger came up to us and told they knew more about us than we know ourselves, most people seem relaxed about a private corporation having such an advantage.

Morozov's second objection chimes with Halpern's experience. He argues that the ability to analyse individual behaviour in granular detail and the enthusiasm of the tech community for behaviour-changing interventions based on incentives and 'gamification' leads policy makers to view all social problems as problems of individual modification not social change.

So the capacity of technology, the insights of behavioural science and the weakness of alternative world views interact to drive an ever more individualistic paradigm.

Another example is the tendency to blame the poor for being poor. The myth - peddled by politicians who should and do know better - that a high proportion of the millions who are out of work are inter-generationally long term unemployed and that by implication their problems are ones of character (maybe even genetics?) is not only objectionable but hampers sensible policy making.

On refection, we know that social problem are not all about the decisions and capabilities of individuals and we remain responsive to hierarchical and solidaristic analysis and solutions. Indeed there may be a connection here to the rise of so-called populist parties. As conventional leaders fail to reform institutions and provide new forms of authority, and as policy makers lose faith in social remedies, nationalist and extremist parties seem to offer the only route for our desire for visionary leadership and shared identity.

'It's not about you, it's about us' may sound like a terrible managerial cliche but it seem to be something we are finding it ever harder to believe about social problems. To tap the full scope for social power and to achieve progressives ends, means not only focussing on the future we might want but on the means we need to get there.





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