Decolonize the lifeworld

How old institutions are dealing with new media

Some fragments:

  • The WHO has renamed some Covid variants, hoping to replace the “British variant” by the “alpha variant”, the Indian variant by delta, and so on. The idea is to reduce stigmatization of particular places. The public still needs to understand what is being talked about, though, so news websites have been using “the delta variant (originally detected in India)” and other ponderous locutions.

  • My university has a push to decolonize the curriculum. You’re asked how you have been decolonizing it on the application form for promotion. Yes, this also applies to the maths department. A friend in political philosophy has found a neat solution: he argues — I think sincerely — that given the antisemitism of the 19th century, Marx was not a white person. Thus, he can teach Marx. Hearing this, I glowed with pride that in 1868 Britain elected its first non-white Prime Minister.

  • Another friend has a business idea. Can’t we use AI to detect bias in people’s emails? And offer suggestions for improvement? Maybe send them on an implicit bias course?

Back in the nineties when people did theory, Jürgen Habermas wrote about the system versus the lifeworld. The lifeworld is, more or less, the ordinary way people get things done together: they talk about things and agree a plan.1 (Karl Polanyi might call it the embedded economy; microeconomists might think about repeated games.) Opposed to the lifeworld is the system, that is, the formal world of business or bureaucracy, guided by means-end rationality. Habermas worried about the colonization of the lifeworld by the system, when the world of talk is manipulated and subverted by means-end reasoning. Think of advertising or PR in business, or New Labour’s obsession with “controlling the narrative”.

The anecdotes above are all attempts to control the lifeworld of human talk, and they justify themselves by the flaws in human judgment. So, if we talk about the “India variant”, we’ll end up hating Indians. The underlying logic is that while the official organs of society can do proper thinking, outside these spheres people have a simple connectionist psychology. The “India variant” associates a harmful disease with India, so now India is harmful. Computer models that detect speech bias literally use this connectionism: words that occur together are mapped to near each other in a multidimensional space. The push to decolonize the curriculum — an attempt to exert centralized control over what academics teach, which is unprecedented in my experience — assumes that we’ll be unconsciously colonialist if we are left to ourselves.

And like all such power grabs, they have their own mixture of motives. Some people truly believe in decolonizing the curriculum, but it’s also useful if you are seeking a global customer base for your university. Want to keep Chinese students coming? Why not tell them what they’ve already been taught about Western bias? It can’t harm your relations with the Communist party, either, which is pushing this angle.

The difference between now and the nineties is that the lifeworld has bounced back. Social media has expanded ordinary communication to planetary scale. The human speech organ, evolved for group decisions by hunter-gatherer bands, is now trying to shape the decisions of powerful corporations and whole countries. Twitter, Reddit, the Mail Online… it didn’t quite turn out like Habermas’s Ideal Speech Situation. But it kind of is that, no? In theory, anyone can get themselves listened to. And formal organizations are falling over themselves to keep up.

It would be nice to think of this as an apocalyptic, world-spanning conflict, and it does have elements of that. But history suggests that the old and the new will find ways to live with each other. Newspapers are working out their online strategy. Academia is seeking different evolutions of the learned journal. Ambassadors try their hand at Twitter snark. On the other hand, social media itself is not just a great big conversation: underneath that appearance, our feeds are dictated by the algorithms of powerful companies, which tweak them as part of their political manoeuvring.

We can’t go back to the days of centralized mass media, and we also don’t want the worst horrors of undiluted social media, so we have to find a balance. Picking a side in any particular fight is a matter of judgment. But on average, we may lean towards one side or the other. Personally, I tend to trust human judgment, and to mistrust people in power telling me how to talk. So I like the slogan Decolonize the Lifeworld!

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The original cite is Theory of Communicative Action, 1981. Obviously this isn’t serious intellectual history. Peace to you if you’re still doing theory, or you want to tell me Habermas is much more complicated than that.