China is a repressive country. Perversely, it’s also a laboratory for democracy in the digital age.

In 2010, Google pulled out of China amid pressure from the Chinese Government. In the West, the story was about a backward looking authoritarian state rejecting innovation and strangling freedom of expression.

Then Edward Snowden showed the world that Google was facilitating the NSA’s mass surveillance, and it started to look like China might have had some legitimate concerns about letting a US corporate collect vast amounts of data about its citizens. Now we’ve seen Russia using a sock puppet army to manipulate public opinion in the US, another very good reason why a country might want to regulate it’s own digital sphere. Did China get it right? You certainly don’t see many newspaper stories about China’s vindication.

I’m not naive enough to think that the Chinese government was only motivated by a benign intent to protect its society: it’s also a authoritarian state strangling freedom of expression. But repression is not the only lesson to draw from the Google story. In China, the government controls the Internet; in the West governments tell us the digital sphere must be left to market forces —  which in practice has meant a handful of monopolies —while covertly monitoring social media, largely without democratic consent, to keep a lid on the worst excesses.

China is a country where you can disappear for sharing the wrong opinion, but we have so few data points on how society should respond to digital technologies we need to take empirical evidence from where ever we can get it.

Here are two ‘good ideas’ from China.

Measuring non-monetary value
How about a society that rewards people for the good they do, taking into account not only their labour in the office or factory, but their hard work as a mother; not just the day rate they can command as a consultant but also the emotional labour of supporting a friend with depression.

China’s system of scoring citizens is …kind of… this — combining educational achievements, traffic infractions, financial behaviour and social media activity into one number that it publicly assigns to every citizen. It’s not clear what other activities it will influence the number, but, as a piece of infrastructure, it has the potential to nudge your rating up for helping an old lady across the road, or, for example, contributing to the public sphere a helpful blogpost that deftly justifies it’s apparently clickbaity title.

Sounds a bit authoritarian? Well, if you live in the West, you also have a score. The government secretly monitors your digital activity and assigns every citizen a number which indicates how likely you are to be a terrorist. Except this process is — was—secret. You also have a credit score, which is extremely analogous to the social credit system. Except, rather than being delivered by a government, it’s a kangaroo court run by big banks who are institutionally indifferent to ethics.

In China, the social score policy is public and transparent (one idea is that your score might appear on your dating site profile); though you can obviously make a strong case that the social scoring system is illegitimate because it’s done by an unelected government. In the West, you can make a roughly equivalent case that scoring is illegitimate because it’s undertaken by incumbent monopolies, or in secret by the government. You have a vote, but in practice its unlikely to give society control over such activities.

Social scoring is a version of ideas like alternative currencies and the need to value affective labour that are prevalent in the civic tech sector — if China’s social scoring system goes ahead its could  provide valuable insights for similar schemes in the West.

Deliberative democracy
If you are worried about an increasingly polarised society driven by filter bubble effects, again, China may have an answer. Deliberative democracy: where a group of citizens are invited to feedback to local officials on policy. Details vary, but normally a demographically representative group of people are selected to meet up and spend some time ‘deliberating’, discussing issues among themselves and with access to impartial experts, before making their views known to those in power.

The principal that everyone gets to vote is the core of Western democracy. At the momenth though, it’s undeniable that the electoral cycle is become an alarmingly centrifugal force, chaotically cartwheeling opinions to the extremes and tribalising the electorate. Deliberative democracy fixes a number of problems. Firstly, in deliberative democracy voters are selected to be truly demographically representative, rather than just those that turn up to the polling booth, which inevitably tends to be the better off. Secondly, in deliberative democracy, participants have a chance to become informed and discuss issues in a structured way, bypassing the filter bubble. These are not features that are easy to ensure if you insist that everyone must vote, it would simply be too resource intensive to give every single voter access to a deliberative process (though it has been suggested). Deliberative democracy has been tested in the West too, leading, for example, to oil obsessed Texas making a significant investment in wind farms for electricity, after a deliberative process showed that consumers were less price sensitive and more eco-conscious than expected.

Just as with social scoring, but to a lesser extent, there are arguments about legitimacy in both directions — obviously, China isn’t a democracy. On the other hand, if your public sphere is in the hands of a few newspaper barons, Russian trolls and social networks that algorithmically deepen polarisation, then citizen’s ability to vote in their best interests will inevitably be undermined by the flow of manipulative information.

China can provide evidence for all kinds of alternative approaches, for example, its intellectual property laws; or it’s app ecosystem, which is sometimes described as a digital Madagascar because it’s been cut off from the rest of the world so long it’s evolved it’s own solutions to common problems.

Transport for London (TfL), the institution responsible for regulating taxis in London, recently questioned Uber’s fitness to operate a taxi company. A lot of civic tech people suggested that TfL should run it’s own Uber alternative. The other camp said that if London wasn’t open to Uber, it was against innovation, the free market and the future — the tribalising echo chamber working as effectively as ever. When Uber tried to set up in China, the government had no compunctions about setting up a local alternative, Didi Chuxing, which is doing very nicely. Unlike Uber, which mobilises its PR and legal teams to frustrate local democracy in the cities in which it operates, you can bet that Didi will act if the Chinese government tells it to sort out its safety record.

So even though China fails to provide legitimate governance, it is another society struggling to work out how to make digital technology work better. If you believe that society is going to have to change radically in the face of technological innovation, its helpful to have somewhere radically different to draw lessons from.

[Apologies for typos. It’s a bit of a rush job, but wanted to get some thoughts down to clear my head…  ]

If you think this is grim, wait until you see Brexit. via @alldaycreative.

I am not just cooking up this story up because I’m a crazed ultra-remainer. I’d want to remain in the EU even if a great Brexit deal was on the table. At the same time, if I thought that the EU was a colossal affront to democracy, as many people do, then I would want to leave even if it meant a bad Brexit deal. I’d like to see lots of policy that isn’t GDP maximising, so I’m not complaining that Brexit might knock a few points off annual GDP growth. Even so, it seems to me the EU has every reason to annihilate the UK in the Brexit negotiation. The UK might be in for a shock – a shock that could set off a paroxysm of nationalism and unpleasantness.

The Brexit deal is going to be signed off by the parliaments of the 27 non-UK states in the EU. That means the deal is going to have to serve the incentives of those politicians. By proxy, that ought to mean it will serve the citizens of the EU, but it’s probably worth remembering in Europe Brexit doesn’t get saturation coverage like it does in the UK, so the pressure on politicians from voters is reduced. That’s the first of many asymmetries that seem to make it likely the Brexit deal – if there is one – will be nasty in a way that I’m not sure the British press is articulating.

For many European politicians, surely the breakup of the EU is the greatest fear. Right now the EU seems to be getting stronger, but there are plenty of reasons to think its future is still much less than certain. Many European politicians believe in the EU, but, from a less altruistic perspective, the political turmoil caused by a breakup might easily cause a shift in power away from the existing elite – so they will resist. What would do more to secure the future of the EU than a Brexit deal so bad the UK is forced to remain, demonstrating the impossibility of leaving, or – more likely – to leave and suffer traumatically, again serving as a warning to other potential leavers.

Leavers often point out that a bad Brexit would make the EU suffer too, and it would. But much less than the UK, and in less politically painful ways. If trade between the UK and EU dropped 10%, than would be a close to 5% of total trade for the UK, and 1.5% for the EU. So under ‘hard’ Brexit (or no deal at all), EU politicians win on stability of the EU and probably get to pick off a few strategic UK industries like finance, at the cost of a tiny drop in exports resulting from a negotiation that most Europeans didn’t really care about anyway. If you are the negotiator that gets the City to decamp to Frankfurt, you’ll be a hero forever. If it goes wrong and EU exports drop by some unmeasurable amount, who cares? The trade economics seem obvious – the EU wins by being aggressive.

What about migration? There are about 3.5 million EU citizens in the UK (5% of the UK population), and about 1.2 million UK citizens in the EU (0.2 % of the EU population). This situation is ambiguous in terms of negotiation. While Polish politicians will want to get a good deal for Polish people living in the UK, they will also know that the UK cannot possibly afford to send Polish people home exactly because there are so many of them and they are so important to the economy. Meanwhile, the EU can easily kick out Brits, who make up a tiny fraction of the workforce. The UK is also more constrained on this issue, with the Leave campaign strongly predicated on reducing migration – which surely must feature in the negotiation. Meanwhile, the EU could grant rights to Brits in Europe without it having a major impact. If the UK economy looks comparatively weak, economic migrants may leave anyway.

Theresa May is not playing her cards close to her chest, as many have been saying. She has no cards. There is virtually nothing she can do to control negotiations, even if they did find someone more competent that David Davies to run them.

The unknown variable is how the public will react. In my naiveté, I believed Tony Blair’s analysis that British people might turn against Brexit as the brutal reality becomes apparent. But the public might also turn against the EU for its bullying behaviour. As the government flounders in the negotiations, stoking up nationalism and evoking world wars might turn out to be the only viable PR strategy. If the negotiations become fiercely acrimonious, it is wrong to think the worst the EU can do to the UK is to end the two year negotiations without a deal. There’s a whole arsenal of humiliations for the EU to deploy, from expensive prosecco and long queues at airport immigration to sweetheart deals for Scotland and Northern Ireland to dismember the UK. Wait until the EU starts demanding an alternative to of the Permanent Security Council featuring the EU, US, China, India and Russia, or Germany starts spending 2% of GDP on defence, to see power really shifting around. Fun times!

I hope to have graduated by the time the proposed move to White City happens, for that reason I have not engaged much with the discussions around it. By total coincidence, while looking at the topic of social capital as part of my research, I realised a lot of the material I was finding could be relevant to the move. I thought I’d briefly write it up in case it’s of interest.

Much of what I’ve been reading confirms the obvious: people who work or study (spatially) close to one another form more social ties than those who are separated. I was surprised at how consistent and pronounced the effect is.

Reading Burt’s Brokerage and Closure1, my attention was piqued by his description of Festinger’s work. It shows that MIT students are predominately friends with people with whom they share dorm, and even within dorms location has a powerful influence2. Just being nearby one another was the single factor most important in determining friendships.

Why does that matter? Helliwell and Putnam suggest three possible sources value in university attendance3:

  • Higher education has the explicit goal of imparting skills to students (increasing their ‘human capital’).
  • University is also a place to meet people, thereby forming new networks that increase chances of finding others to productively collaborate with. Those networks can also convey information and norms that are not explicitly taught, especially information such as job offers4. These effects are together termed ‘social capital’.
  • Finally, higher education is thought to be a way of ‘signalling’5 – attending a prestigious university shows potential employers that you are committed, diligent and intelligent.

Social capital’s importance is traditionally captured in the phrases ‘old boys network’ (a similar phenomena apparently exists in Korea6), and ‘it’s not what you know, but who you know’. We have the idea of the ‘invisible college’7 to capture the value of social capital’s influence in academia. Whatever the ethical status of these elitist systems, the point remains that social connections are important. I think most people would intuitively agree, perhaps especially so in the arts.

If social capital is important, how do spatial factors change social capital formation? The literature is too copious to go through in detail (I’m already procrastinating by writing this), but some work stands out. By surveying 7 R&D labs, Alen and Fusfeld find that frequency of communication between researchers falls off strongly with distance, finding that working within 30 meters of another person greatly enhances the probability of frequent contact with them.

More recent research by Kabo et al compares two biomedical research labs with different spatial layouts to confirm that distance is a powerful factor when it comes to collaboration8. The research is able to go further and suggests that the critical factor is literally how often researchers’ paths cross. In this study, a 30m increase in distance between researchers reduced the probability of collaboration by 25%. Work at the Bartlett reaches similar conclusions9.

At the scale of communications between geographically separated offices, communication is also known to tail off exponentially as distance increases, including by electronically or by phone, a phenomena described by the Allen Curve10 11.

Further, it seems that the much of the cause of increasing collaboration with proximity is the increased chance of unplanned face-to-face conversation12 13, as opposed to convenience or some other factor. No matter how regular the bus service, unplanned meetings will occur less when students are split across campuses.

It could be argued that a small, isolated campus will generate a dense network within it, even if links to the wider university are diminished. Burt suggests that Ericsson’s famously innovative R&D lab benefited from such a dense network precisely because it was located in the small, isolated town of Lund in Sweden. Such dense networks may be good for innovation, unfortunately they are exactly opposite of the wide networks that are most effective for job hunting when you graduate14.

Spatial factors have such a profound effect on social networks that they show up everywhere from banks to disaster response teams15. Some spatial factors, such as the effects of open-plan offices are contested, but distance seems to reliably and strongly correlate with social tie formation; more specifically the probability of social ties between individuals correlates with the time they spend in a shared space.

I’m sure that excellent teaching will continue and ‘human capital’ aspect at RCA’s offer to students is assured. The question of the RCA’s standing, the ‘signal’ a degree from RCA sends, is a wider issue than a move to White City — one that many people have expressed anxiety over.

Empirical research confirms the common sense view: the social network of students will be profoundly influenced by the move to White City, and that the structure of your social network is the determinant of social capital, which is in turn a key aspect of attending university.

On this basis, as I’m sure many others have concluded, it seems only right that some mitigation ought to be put in place by the University. I’m aware the new campus will be adjacent to a satellite of Imperial University, but this hardly seems compensatory since RCA South Ken is already next to Imperial proper. I’m not sure if anyone has been able to estimate the value of proximity to the BBC R&D facility, it does seem unlikely that it could offset being separated from the wider student body.

Perhaps the move is itself could become a research opportunity, or in some other way could be turned to students’ advantage? Perhaps specific contingencies can be put into foster broader networks?

1 Burt, Ronald S. Brokerage and closure: An introduction to social capital. Oxford university press, 2005.

2 Festinger, Leon, Kurt W. Back, and Stanley Schachter. Social pressures in informal groups: A study of human factors in housing. Vol. 3. Stanford University Press, 1950.

3 Helliwell, John F., and Robert D. Putnam. Education and social capital. No. w7121. National Bureau of Economic Research, 1999.

4 Lin, Nan. “Social networks and status attainment.” Annual review of sociology(1999): 467-487.

5 Spence, Michael. “Competitive and optimal responses to signals: An analysis of efficiency and distribution.” Journal of Economic theory 7.3 (1974): 296-332.

6 Lee, Sunhwa, and Mary C. Brinton. “Elite education and social capital: The case of South Korea.” Sociology of education (1996): 177-192.

7 Crane, Diana. “Social structure in a group of scientists: A test of the” invisible college” hypothesis.” American Sociological Review (1969): 335-352.

8 Kabo, Felichism, et al. “Shared Paths to the Lab A Sociospatial Network Analysis of Collaboration.” Environment and Behavior 47.1 (2015): 57-84.

9 Sailer, Kerstin, and Ian McCulloh. “Social networks and spatial configuration—How office layouts drive social interaction.” Social networks 34.1 (2012): 47-58.

10 Allen, Thomas, and Gunter Henn. The organization and architecture of innovation. Routledge, 2007.

11 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Allen_curve

12Brown, Chloë, et al. “Tracking serendipitous interactions: how individual cultures shape the office.” Proceedings of the 17th ACM conference on Computer supported cooperative work & social computing. ACM, 2014.

13 Owen-Smith, Jason. “Workplace Design, Collaboration, and Discovery.” Ann Arbor 1001 (2013): 48109-1382.

14 Granovetter, Mark S. “The strength of weak ties.” American journal of sociology (1973): 1360-1380.

15 Doreian, Patrick, and Norman Conti. “Social context, spatial structure and social network structure.” Social networks 34.1 (2012): 32-46.