Public ideas

Insecurity as a design feature of our society

In his recent post Inheriting unhappiness Crispin Hull drew to our attention reports that showed “Australians are reasonably happy but are getting more miserable”. Most notably he finds that “young people are getting more miserable”.[1]

We can identify immediate concerns for young people, particularly unaffordable housing and high HECS debt. But Hull is referring to trends over a longer term, where most Australians, young and old, have become materially better off.

He notes that widening wealth inequality is associated with increasing unhappiness. That’s understandable – even more than income inequality, which can be subject to changes in fortune, wealth inequality, because it is enduring, conveys a strong message about unfairness. The recent ACOSS report Inequality in Australia 2024, who is affected and how? to which Hull refers, shows a trend in widening wealth inequality: the share of the very wealthiest has been holding steady, but the poorest 20 percent have been falling further behind.

We could regard inequality and resulting feelings of unfairness as an inevitable by-product of our economic arrangements. Even in a society that managed, somehow, to achieve perfect equality of opportunity, there would still be income and wealth inequality as some are inclined to work harder and to take more entrepreneurial risk than others. In such an idealized society inequality is unlikely to cause resentment, because people are unlikely to feel that the cards are stacked against them.

But perhaps the cards are stacked against the weakest in society, not as an accident, or even by the influence of lobbyists and rent seekers, but as a fundamental economic design feature.

That is the theme of the five 2023 Massey Lectures on our Age of Insecurity, delivered by Astra Taylor. In her first lecture, “Cura’s Gift”, she points out that insecurity is deliberately built into the arrangements that govern modern capitalist societies. One may quibble with her description of pre-capitalist society (even Marx gives capitalism better marks than feudalism), but it is hard to disagree with her assertion that enclosure of the commons, in its physical and allegorical sense, resulted in the insecurity of people having to bid for and to struggle for property rights. This is the dynamic of competition for jobs and for markets. Even if a society has the resources to provide for all, without insecurity as a motivating force it will stagnate.

For those who have enough it is necessary to sustain their insecurity by setting new expectations of what constitutes adequate standards. How could you possibly live in a home without a gym and an indoor theatre, or own a car without leather upholstery and Bang and Olufsen car speakers? Even for those down the income and wealth scale it is necessary to keep people anxious about their consumption: without anxiety the entire fashion industry would fizzle out.

Insecurity plays its strongest part in our work arrangements. She reminds us of Jack Welch’s dictum that a firm should sack the least productive ten percent of its workforce every year, in order to keep the other ninety percent on their toes. That’s an extreme example, but workers up and down the line are subject to performance metrics as technological developments allow for new forms of Taylorism (oppressive and simplified performance metrics) to be applied in distribution warehouses, call centres, and trucking businesses.

The starkest manifestation of designed insecurity is in monetary policy, which relies on the idea that it’s necessary to keep workers anxious about unemployment in order to stop inflation from breaking out. The gentlefolk on the board of the Reserve Bank would take offence at being compared with Jack Welch, a rough and crude businessman, but their concern with a NAIRU – the non-accelerating inflation rate of unemployment – differs only in scale from Welch’s metric. He used 10 percent, they use somewhere around 4 percent.

1. His sources included the UN Human Development Report, covered in the April 6 roundup, and the World Happiness Report, covered in the March 30 roundup..

A world without social media

The above post, drawing on Astra Taylor’s Massey Lectures, suggests that insecurity and anxiety are design features of our contemporary societies.

From a different direction social psychologist Jonathan Haidt suggests we are trying to use technologies to deal with our anxieties – not only the anxieties to which Astra Taylor refers, but also the anxieties associated with what we regard as normal social development. In doing so, paradoxically, we lose our capacity to deal with the normal uncertainties of life, and our anxiety levels become permanently elevated.

This is covered in a Conversation contribution by Hugh Breakey of Griffith University: Have smartphones created an ‘anxious generation’? Jonathan Haidt sounds the alarm. It’s a review of Haidt’s most recent book The anxious generation.

Breaky summarises Haidt’s idea that smartphones allow young people to avoid learning how to deal with the normal stresses in the real world.

The things that lead to human flourishing involve real world physical encounters with other people: family, close friends, romantic partners, neighbours, local community groups and members.

Haidt favours restrictions on children: no smartphones before high school and no social media before age 16.

Could we contemplate extending the restriction on social media to everyone, not just children? There is a Saturday Paper Exclusive by Rick Morton – Albanese fears Facebook will leave Australia – in the context of the conflict between our e-Safety Commissioner and Elon Musk’s X.

Would it really matter, particularly now that it seems the social media companies will be dropping or downgrading their news feeds (the main topic of Morton’s article)? Of course if Facebook were to go so too could Instagram and WhatsApp (which are also subsidiaries of Meta, Facebook’s parent comany). The Loss of X (formerly Twitter) would be less serious. We might learn that public policy issues are a little more complex and nuanced than can be expressed in 280 characters,

Although it isn’t a social media company, the loss of Alphabet’s stable of companies – Google, Google Maps, Gmail, YouTube among them – would have greater impact.

Search engine
Search engine

But there are many Email providers, and there are other search engines which would probably expand their offerings to fill the gap. If they were to become too biased politically or commercially, favouring certain sources, there is no reason the government could not set up an internet search engine, administered by an independent commission. Unprecedented? No. The publicly-owned and quaintly named Postmaster General’s Office published the search engine of the pre-internet days, the Telephone Directory, with its (now privatized) White and Yellow Pages.

All these companies would like us to think they are permanent and indespensible parts of the landscape, but that isn’t necessarily so. Technologies and markets are moving quickly, and governments are under strong pressure to counter these companies’ commercial power and to deal with content issues around pornography, violence and disinformation.