Wednesday, 30 July 2014

The Ordering of Institutional Fear

There is a limit between the true and false. In many aspects of everyday life, we fear traversing this limit: fear is the emotion we associate with encountering the limit between the true and the false. There are other limits which we experience emotionally: for example, the limit between absence and unity (between 0 and 1) is, I suspect, the experience of climax: music and sex are where this is most apparent. This is where the real power of category theory lies: it provides a unified way of talking about rational experience (between truth and fasehood) and those experiences which are nuanced, flowing, emotional - what we might otherwise call irrational. In education, both matter. Badiou presents this as the difference between classical logic (excluded middle logic) and non-classical, dialectical logic.


In category theory, truth and falsehood are defined with relation to a 'sub-object classifier' (typically in the literature, this is written as Ω, although Badiou prefers to call it 'C'). In determining truth functions, the sub-object classifier is fundamentally the object which helps us determine order among the objects and transformations in a category. Ordering means some things are more important than others. It means that the experience of limits between truth and falsehood, ie. fear, which are everywhere present (because limits are everywhere present) have a hierarchy. Some fears are more constraining than others; some people are more frightened than others; the fear of one person depending on their ordering in the social scheme can impact on the fears of everyone else. Category theory gives us a way of ordering fear within an institution. This is both fascinating and important, given the amount of fear within our institutions (universities in particular), and the managerial belief that fear can be ramped up and oppression increased without consequences (many vice-chancellors apparently believe that fear within the institution has no effect on teaching and learning.)

What are the consequences of ramping-up institutional fear? There are two sides to it. On the one hand, there is the limit of fear within the person implementing a ramping-up of fear (say, a VC). VCs are among the most constrained actors in a University - 'clear' in their vision about what must be done, yet only clear because of what they do not admit into their picture of the world: clarity exists against the force of a limit. Here both the limits of fear and the limits associated with emotion (climaxes, excitement, enthusiasms) can be in play: a VC's enthusiasm for a particular 'pet-project' is as much the exposure of limit as their fear relating to pursuing a particular policy or not. The VC's limits determine differences throughout the structure of the institution. It is these differences which bear upon everyone else, to which everyone else's limits are subordinated. The question is, How do everyone else's fears (awareness of limits) become subordinated to the leader's fear? And what are the effects on the organisation?

The interplay between emotional limits concerning enthusiasms, climaxes, achievements, and (fundamentally) meaning, and the limits of fear between the true and the false can create conflicts and split within individuals. These conflicts can distort the limits of fear to the point that what is feared at one level presents emotional limits of a different and opposing kind at another. Here we may find the classic signs of Bateson's 'double-bind': for example, the alcoholic's calculation that  'alcohol is bad for you' which is between the true and the false, whilst the pleasure that alcohol brings (and the converse misery of acknowledgement of true/false distinction) serves to maintain individuals in a cycle of oscillating dependency. This is how people can be manipulated. Most of the logic concerning money is of this sort: on the one hand, money exists on a true-false distinction concerning the limits of financial viability, whilst on the other hand, money brings degrees of security and compensatory pleasure which leads to the a kind of economic slavery.

The boss as paymaster is the figure who is in control of determining the rational bargain with employees. For employees, the bargain carries an element of security providing the rational true/false distinction is appropriately met. The boss's assertion of this bargain is also subject to their own emotional limits: whims, enthusiasms, etc. It is not beyond possibility that some whims and enthusiasms are in some way sadistic or victimising. The enthusiasm may not be shared with the employees, who nevertheless have to comply to satisfy the pay (truth) bargain. At some point, the boss might demand compliance and enthusiasm as part of the pay bargain. At this point, the employees, who will have their own emotional limits, will find themselves split in an emotional tangle where the rational (or cynical) compliance and real emotional needs cannot be reconciled. Here we find (I think) the difference between Habermas's "communicative action" and "strategic action". It begins to mark out the logical structure of the double-bind situation. The double-bind situation bearing upon employees becomes more marked the more the whims of the boss are reinforced in the institutional structure: 'cronies' are appointed whose rational bargain reinforces the boss's whims (because there is rational gain in the form of higher status or pay). The example of such people is illustrative of the fact that the boss relies on employees for their status: the status functions concerning the boss ultimately come from the employees; this status declaration can be reinforced through the double-bind people are placed in - so in a University, as Senate and Governors are stuffed with yes-people, whims are reinforced, alienation increased and the double-bind exacerbated. Greater alienation may equal greater reinforcement for the boss's position: those VC's who believe fear is good appear to have justification at first glance! But it only works to a point.

The principal issue is the way that redundancies can become codified discourse.When redundancies of expectations are shared between people then communication arises and redundancies effectively become foreground and not background (in fact they are no longer redundancies). With an asserted policy which clearly doesn't work it will not be long before the individual disjunction between rational limits and emotional limits results in the emergence of codifications of emotional expectations which will become part of the fabric of rational limits: at this point there is a risk that rational challenge in the form of reorganising status functions - particularly those status functions which relate to the boss - might result in criticism and direct challenge. Such are the dialectics of the institution, and managers have to react appropriately in the light of this.

Empirically, we can measure status declarations between individuals. Every declaration of change to practice, every new professional mandate, every new technology, every new procedure is a status declaration. Some of these come from the top and filters to the bottom; others relate to experience on the ground (engagements with learners). There can sometimes be a strong conflict either between the commitments and other status declarations that staff are involved in, and therefore not all mandated changes to practice will actually occur (however much the boss might wish it). Conflicts in status declarations can be measured simply by ascertaining the status declarations surrounding existing practices, technologies and so on. Emotional factors have a bearing on this, but the emotional factors are establishable not through status declarations, but through redundancies of practice. Redundancies reflect the absences bearing upon individuals in their practice. What do they think about? What do they worry about most? What do they do most often?

Of course, the empirical investigation of redundancies may itself be a catalyst to change. But perhaps this wouldn't be a bad thing!!

Saturday, 26 July 2014

Mathematical Quantification and the Order of Education

We have grown accustomed to almost all empirical investigations in either the physical or the social sciences as involving some level of quantification: x% this, y% that, and so on. The foundation for the fiduciary qualities of this kind of work sits on an ontology of numbers where the truth becomes associated with the higher number (100%!). Behind this lies the view that numbers exist on a continuous scale. Yet mathematical work in analysis and number theory questions this. From Dedekind to Cantor, the fundamental issue with number is not continuity and quantity, but ordering and the way that numbers exist within limits. Indeed, quality is something that may lie within the mathematical ontology, rather than something to be deduced through processes of quantification. There's so much that's troubling with qualitative research: not least that almost always, qualities apparently only make themselves amenable for analysis through quantification; indeed, technologies have become instrumental in the industry of the transformation of qualities into quantities. Work done in this way - for the benefit of evidence-based policy (which as Hugh Willmott pointed out today is really 'policy-based evidence') - has real and often negative impacts on the lives of real people. Mathematics is beautiful, and its distortion which produces these effects demands that for all these reasons, it may be important to look again at number and mathematical ontology.

I've found myself studying the Category Theory of MacLane, Goldblatt, Badiou (who's taken much from Goldblatt) and Lawvere (who writes particularly beautifully for the uninitiated). Category theory is a development of set theory which works on the principle of describing processes of transformation between different states of constitution (my term - basically it's a set), where a "state of constitution" might be called an 'object', and a transformation might be called a 'mapping'. Most importantly, Category Theory gives us a way of describing ordering without numbers.

My educational empiricism is a concerted effort to study the ordering of education. That means looking at the logical structure of the relations between people, objects, institutional structures and so on. The relations between people, objects structures are (as John Searle and Tony Lawson independently insist upon) networks of rights, responsibilities, obligations, commitments, and duties. We can empirically discover some aspects of the structure simply by asking people questions like "who tells you to do x?", "who are you doing it for?", "what happens if you don't do it?", and so on. At the same time, a structure ought to make the distinction between what a 'right' is, what a 'responsibility' is, what an 'obligation' is, and so on. In each case we see a different form or geometry of the ordering, but where for each form, there is a central idea of a 'limit' with which a particular obligation or commitment might be identified.

Category theory has a number of basic forms which might map onto different kinds of relations.
The picture above is the Category Theoretical 'epi-morphism' which is characterised by the two arrows from B to C. I look at this and think of those situations where people seem to acknowledge that 'C is the case', although they might do so for different reasons (hence the separate arrows). In each case, the two arrows stem from an initial single arrow f which is the beginning for each of h and i. But you can also stand outside the whole situation with arrow from a position that 'sees' A, B and C (although I haven't drawn the arrow to C in this case). An obligation, in this sense, appears to me to be a limit where the arrows h and i are acknowledged to be the same and that the declaration of equality between them is a statement of compliance with each others norms. This limit, a unique position of balance, is indicated by arrow k. This might be the politician's stance: the obligation to coordinate education that conforms to the norms of stakeholders in society.

Turning this diagram around, we get the category theoretical 'monomorphism' which starts from a diverse position to become a single point. The starting point of arrow g  indicates the viewpoint of being able to 'see everything (B, C and A). The limit line here, k, might be seen to be the point at which an identification of the difference between h  and i must be made. Is this a moment of 'responsibility taking' - the moment at which someone has to make a judgement the things that matter bearing in mind the different perspectives feeding into it?

There are also structures where two lines focus on a particular object (like the lines from D and C lead to E), where there is a point B that can see these relationships, but where is a point A that sees the whole situation including the observer B, and where A determines a limit on B. Category theory allows us to move up hierarchies like this (the diagram above is called a 'pull-back'), at each point challenging us to think about the limits imposed. Maybe 'rights' are limits imposed by the super-structure on the sub-structure? But then again, there is a difference between 'you have a right..." and "we demand our rights!". But to demand rights is to demand that A changes its limits. 

Perhaps that will do for now. The point here is that behind each of these diagrams is an inherent logic and ordering. The strength of category theory is that within this inherent logic are particular orientations towards truth, falsity and absence where in each case, the structural relationship between absence (say) and limits may be explored.

The absence bit really interests me because in addition to asking people about their rights, obligations, commitments, and so on, we can also observe their redundancies. I only have a hunch that absence is the same as redundancy (I gather Lacan - Badiou's teacher - held a similar view), or that Hume's regularity theory is really a redundancy theory (Tony Lawson rightly challenged me on this today), but I am also mindful of the work on pattern, figure and ground which people like Ernst Gombrich conducted in his "A Sense of Order": we are so 'figure oriented' in our approach to empiricism across all the sciences.

There is a discoverable order to education. There are practical steps we can take to unpicking it. This is not learning analytics! That (analytics), along with all our technologies, must now be considered as part of the contemporary "order of education".

Sunday, 20 July 2014

Empiricism and Education

What happens between understanding the logical structure of something and the usage of techniques for measuring reality? In Hume’s theory of causation, he deployed an implicit ontology of event regularity together with a constructivist (he wouldn’t have used the term, but that’s what it was), communication-oriented logic of understanding and theory-building about causes. Critical Realists and others argue that this can’t be right because many of the theories which are constructed (e.g. gravity, relativity, etc) predict regularities where none have been investigated, implying that there must be something ‘real’ that is discovered in a theory rather than simply something constructed through the communications of scientists. But maybe there is a question about how logic and measurement relate to one another? After all, Hume’s idea of scientists’ conversation carries an implicit logic of communication which has successively been shown to be more and more complex in its relations to reality (Kuhn’s paradigms, Popper’s falsification, etc, etc).

What appears to emerge from the work of those philosophers of science who have explored the discourse of science is a kind of ‘ordering’ of that discourse – the way that paradigms shift and interact, the way that institutional structures and other social forces come into play, the way that technologies change the picture. In effect, what seems to occur is the negotiation of a lot of ‘status functions’ as Searle would call them – “x says ‘this is the way the world is’ producing evidence z to support it; x is backed up by institution a and academic community u; x is opposed by counter-examples from scientist y in institution b and academic community v” … and so on. The logic of the ordering of a discourse relates in some way to the measurements that might actually be made of the phenomena in question.

Absence is the most fundamental feature in the ordering of anything: whatever position we take, it will always include (as a background) the possibility of “no position”; positivists might wish to deny absence as an element of their thought, but the denial of absence is itself an absence and ultimately this weakens the status of any positivist argument. Positions are subsets of other positions; positions vary in the network of status functions that operate around them. The logical structure of a theoretical position relates to the deontic powers it deploys and to those deontic powers which bear upon it. It may be that this logical structure is similar to the logical structure of number as we find in Badiou’s mathematical theory and Conway’s concept of “surreal” numbers. To argue this is to start to expose the “logic” of Hume’s scientific discourse.

What then of measurement? It seems to me that the most important thing we must grasp in our measurement is what is “not there”; this is much more significant that what “is there”. Of course, most measurement concentrates on the ‘present’, so there is a question about how we might measure the absent. Really it is about measuring the ground rather than the figure, or at least inferring the ground from the figure. I could be wrong about this, but I think that Shannon’s information theory is important in allowing us to think about the ‘message’ (the present) but also the ‘redundancy’ (the absent).

My reinterpretation of Hume suggests that science proceeds through the coming together of logic and measurement (isn’t Euclidian geometry like this?) Indeed, looked at this way, ‘regularity’ (which plays such an important role for Hume) is reinterpreted as ‘redundancy’. So what we see is a mapping of measured redundancies (which are absences) with the logical structures of status functions declared by scientists.

Am I stretching things too far to suggest that this holds out a possibility of educational empiricism? Our educational theories have a logical ordering determined by the networks of status functions that they declare. Institutional structures and patterns of usage also have a logical structure. These seem mappable to me as networks of commitments and obligations. But in addition to this logical structure, there is an empirical structure of measurable redundancies. Can we bring them together? Can we move forwards if we do? Maybe we should have a go…


Saturday, 19 July 2014

Some Reflections on the #pleconf and 'cool technology' : What Software or Hardware isn't Social?

I very much enjoyed the #pleconf in Tallinn. I wish I had attended these conferences in the past, but I sense that this year’s conference has brought a kind of sobriety around the educational idealism (which I gather typified earlier conferences) and which has surrounded the PLE more generally up to this point. Sobriety contains elements of disappointment, realism and a kind of ‘growing up’: I think e-learning in general is having to ’grow up’ – which means thinking harder. I suspect for some participants, the conversations this year have been too philosophical (although we were treated to a demonstration of a superb inquiry-based learning tool called “wespot” – http://inquiry.wespot.net – great to see new cool tools!), the questions “what do we mean by ‘learning’? ‘environment’? ‘personal’?” are inescapable and demanding: it is not difficult to point to the deficiency of any attempt to answer them.

My personal realisation at the conference is the sense in which the PLE has become so closely associated to social software tools: the birth of the PLE was roughly synchronous with the birth of Facebook, Twitter, etc. We may need to rethink this. At the PLE’s inception, social software was cool, innovative, exciting and generally unknown in the wider population. Now social software is rather old, everyone knows about (even if they don’t use it), and not particularly exciting. The question is whether the PLE became associated with social software because social software was cool and exciting when the PLE was born, or whether there was something intrinsically important about “social” software irrespective of its one-time “coolness”. Up to this point, the PLE (and the MOOC) has seized upon something intrinsic in social software, identifying in the analytics and connections of online discussion some deeper psychological import. I think this was a mistake, and has resulted in the PLE becoming associated with an ‘idea of learning’ which is constrained, reified and fundamentally indefensible in the light of real human experience.

What software (or indeed, hardware) isn’t social? There’s no question in my mind that the Oculus Rift causes powerful social interactions – it’s just that not all of them are amenable to data analysis (which probably makes them more powerful!). What about Flappy Bird? What about 360-degree video cameras like http://bublcam.com? What about amazing Ableton Live? What about R? One way or another there are networks of practice evolving around new cool things that manifest in various ways in online social networks (Facebook, Twitter), developer networks (GitHub, SourceForge), academic networks (journals), blogs, etc, etc. If there is (as @srmpbi argued for at the conference) a socio-material entanglement going on, to draw the boundary of the PLE simply around social software and text exchanges and to ignore the new ‘cool stuff’ as somehow not ‘personal’ seems short-sighted.

Looking back, I don’t think the PLE was really about "social" software as we have come to understand it; it was about “cool technology”. What made social software appear important was the fact that it was cool and exciting; what gives the PLE a problem now is that social software is no longer exciting nor particularly cool. But what makes something ‘cool’? Here is where I think the real essence of the PLE lies. When people discover or make something cool and exciting, their instinct is to ‘give’ it to other people. The euphoria of the early PLE was the euphoria of ‘giving’. As Marcel Mauss, Claude Levi-Strauss, Roger Caillois, George Bataille and others have studied, ‘giving’ is of fundamental human significance - it unites economics, love, war, art, religion, sex and play: those things we repeatedly see throughout human history in all cultures. So much of technological activity has the form of the ‘potlatch’ (see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Potlatch) and there is a curious logic to it. What seems to emerge, through a complex variety of social mechanisms, are enhancements to social status: I do something cool and ‘give’ it on YouTube; an audience finds it, likes it, expects more; the social relation between myself and my audience – which incorporates both rights and commitments begins to become a formal recognition of status (which I can put on a CV); by continuing to uphold the commitments and obligations, status can be enhanced further, and so on.

The question for the PLE concerns how the ‘giving with regard to technology’ relates to the acts of giving within educational institutions (the best professors always ‘give’), and the giving of everyday life. In particular, the question concerns the nature of the ‘new’ and the ‘cool’ and the ways that individuals make their way through the world through the giving of novelty. The priority is to embrace and understand emerging technology, and to avoid getting trapped in what was once new and cool, but now isn’t. 

Monday, 14 July 2014

Stephen Downes on the Personal Learning Environment at the LSE

There's an irony in Stephen Downes giving a talk on the "Personal Learning Environment" - that discourse about shifting the locus of control of learning and technology from institutions to the individual - at one of the great institutions of the social sciences (from whom control might be wrested) - see http://www.downes.ca/presentation/343. But the LSE is prestigious, and association with it (particularly a keynote) tends to impress most people. Perhaps we all crave this kind of opportunity - but it's a curious symptom of the tug-of-war between technology and institutions that the advocates of technology find a platform to spread their message and enhance their personal reputations from the institution! Somehow, YouTube and Twitter isn't enough; but the LSE will do nicely (although the  Oxford Union would be better!) Something in me really finds the whole thing a bit distasteful...

I should say that Downes was quite supportive of our PLE work in Bolton. He even came to a special 'experts day' which we organised as part of the JISC PLE project in 2006 (see http://www.jisc.ac.uk/whatwedo/programmes/elearningframework/cetisple.aspx and http://zope.cetis.ac.uk/members/ple/). At that time (which is 8 years ago now!!), the PLE was the next "big thing" in e-learning. Social software was only just beginning to happen, driven by the technologies of XML webservices (consequently, the interoperability issue was also very important). But it's interesting that it's still around: I'm currently in Tallinn about to give a paper (see http://dailyimprovisation.blogspot.com/2014/07/the-personal-learning-environment-and.html) at the PLE conference (http://pleconf.org/2014/). My paper frames the questions I would now ask Downes about the PLE (since he too hasn't given up on it - perhaps because his thinking about MOOCs owes a lot to it).

At a fundamental educational level, the PLE didn't work. We thought that technology would challenge institutional hegemony. It hasn't. We thought that learners would prefer to use their own tools for learning. Mostly, they didn't. Institutions seem more powerful than ever- even the weaker ones are getting stronger. Which is OK if you work for one (actually it might not be because of the way they are managed and the technologies available to managers for making bad decisions) In another way, I think many of the arguments about personal technological organisation that we put forward in the JISC PLE project have proved to be correct. Our proof-of-concept environment, PLEX, bears strong similarities to the App-store driven approaches of Apple and Google: a simple set of 'technical dispositions' to connect and integrate a vast range of services (perhaps the integration isn't what it could be, although most mobile providers aggregate messaging from different service providers, for example).

What was wrong? My paper lays the blame on our approach to "learning". The PLE, in our conception, was a technological reification of an idea of learning. Our reification saw learning linked to personal organisation of technology, which was articulated through the cybernetic modelling of the Viable System Model. Downes continues to pursue his own reification of learning: connectivism, about which I have written here (http://dailyimprovisation.blogspot.com/2014/05/stephen-downes-defends-connectivism.html). In each case, the thing that goes on in each of our heads is presented as a diagram with boxes and lines - in other words, an object. Having made the diagram, someone goes off and makes some technology where the boxes and lines become processes, roles and communications. Of course, stuff still goes on in our heads. And it goes on in our heads in response to the diagrams with lines and boxes, and in response to the software with people and roles. And always the stuff going on in our heads is disjointed from the abstract representations of what somebody thinks is going on.

Technological reifications of "idealised learning" are quite common, and becoming increasingly common in education: we should be worried about this. Constructivism has been the principal culprit, as has the cybernetic modelling techniques which are associated with it. Yet, for all the cleverness of the Pasks, Von Glasersfelds, Piagets, Deweys, etc, the truth is, WE CAN'T SEE LEARNING. Yet, this metaphysical idea has implanted itself deep within the education system: what happens in education is that 'students learn'. Moreover, learning can be measured: most perniciously by meeting (?) 'learning outcomes' (what are they, exactly?). The whole thing is tied together with the institutional need to demonstrate 'quality', such that the place of 'measurable learning' in the institutional edifice is reinforced. But this is not unassailable: educational attitudes will change significantly in the coming years.

Downes is stuck because he's obsessed with learning. Yet, all around him he's confronted by evidence that his learning theories cannot be right (MOOCs). Indeed, lurking at the back of his mind might be the thought "can any learning theory be right?" That's a scary thought - because the answer is no, and the reason is to do with "theory" in the first place.

Bateson argued that science progresses in a pincer-movement. On the one hand, there is abstraction, and on the other, there is experiment. Another way of putting it is that on the one hand there is logic, and on the other experience: analytic and synthetic judgements, a prioi and a posteriori (given that a posteriori analytic judgement is a contradiction). Educational research tends to be a half-arsed pincer: the theory part stays put, and only the practical part moves (do it again, but this time try harder!). The deep problem we have is that we are not able to inspect the logic of our theories and to compare the logic of theory with the results of practice. There is no connection between theory and practice, and no way identifying how a theory might need to be adapted. The only way this can happen is through identifying regularities in practice and then seeking to explain them through theory. Since it appears there are limited regularities in education research (and even those are artificially created by statistics), opportunities for concrete explanation-building are rare. Downes and Siemens at least recognise the problem: they put their faith in 'learning analytics' as their empirical exercise. But learning analytics is no more an empirical exercise than theorising about learning (it's a different level of reification of learning): analytics provides fewer regularities to be explained than good old-fashioned statistics!

But there are regularities in education (not learning). There are textbooks, and classrooms, and teachers, and learners, and timetables, and institutions, and quality regimes, and Vice Chancellors (God Bless 'em!). And among the structures and communications produced by all of these people, there are regularities of role, commitment, obligations, positions, rights, responsibilities, etc. These regularities have a logical structure as well as empirical content. For example, the logic of a commitment from A to B infers that there is a C that can see the relationship (and make a statement about it)
What about C? Who's looking at them? And on it goes. A logical structure emerges quite easily with regard to the relations between people. What about the empirical side of things? To start with, there are the actual declarations between individual stakeholders; there are the objects that each individual engages with (textbooks, VLEs, etc), there are the relations between objects and people; there are the outcomes of peoples' engagement with objects and people (i.e. walking away from a MOOC, or using a PLE).

What's interesting is when the relation between A and B is where A awards B a grade in exchange for B honouring their commitments and responsibilities within the institutional assessment framework. Is that learning? Is it saying something about what's gone on in B's head? I don't think so. It's simply describing the systemic thing that institutions and teachers do to students, and the things that students have to do in order to win them.

Now we could draw a diagram of the commitments and obligations met between Stephen Downes and the LSE. What would that diagram represent?

Sunday, 6 July 2014

Debunking Big Data

One of the dangers of computer technology is that the facility in cranking vast calculations can lead to to a dulling of critical thought. Something like this is happening in the mass of 'big data' analytics which dominate the contemporary academic landscape. People produce pretty pictures, tables of key phrases and so on as if they were pulling bunnies from a hat: yet, like the bunnies, there is a sleight of hand going on - but one which most of us are struggling to fathom. It seems that abstract algorithmic calculations applied to the agglomerations of data that each of us has contributed to (through writing on social media, journalism, academic papers, etc) produce insights for us to gasp at and think "isn't it astonishing that Facebook knows so much!" or "well, now I know that, the next time I hear someone say..." But like any magic trick, the game is between the magician, their technique and the audience - and it works because the audience is led to believe they have seen something which they could not have expected to see. The debunkers of magic tricks show that the audience's perception that they could not have expected what they saw is in fact wrong: if the audience had thought logically, they would not have been at all surprised. The skill of the magician is to deflect the audience from logic. I'm sure this is why Heinz Von Foerster loved conjuring!

It is important to distinguish magic from science. Unfortunately, in our current academic landscape, there are many over-serious people who believe they are performing science, when they are in fact performing magic tricks. The nature of scientific discovery is, of course, disputed. For Hume, it is about regular successions of events and social construction of causes. "Obviously, this is wrong" says the wonderful Rom Harre, whose PhD student Roy Bhaskar went on to argue that the social constructivism in Hume's theory couldn't be right because beyond the closed-system conditions, the socially-constructed causes still operate: if they didn't, we wouldn't have got rockets to the moon! Bhaskar's solution is to argue that causes are real and discoverable. What scientists do is a process of 'retroduction' in the light of experience, but resulting explanations have efficacy within both the transitive (i.e. social) and intransitive (i.e. physical) realms of reality. Given this, in the physical and the social sciences, regularity is still fundamental. What Bhaskar argues is that the explanations for regularities (which are social) have nevertheless causal efficacy within the social realm because of their relation to the physical realm. Ultimately, this builds to a theory of science as critical, dialectical and emancipatory, and this is the really important thing that distinguishes magic from science: Science is underpinned by ethics and politics; magic isn't.

So what of social network analysis? There are many things to say about this, but the most obvious thing is the problem of any analysis: an analytical move is a power-move. The analyst's results inform decision and action. In computer-based data analytics, the ethics and politics of the decision are never computed: the algorithm is king, and with it, the inventor of the algorithm and the interpreter of the algorithm's results. But this is problematic when we look closely at what is represented. Firstly, there is the distinction between 'nodes' and 'arcs': a node is a node because it has an arc to another node. Whilst the diagrams give the impression that nodes and arcs are separate, really they are an 'expansion' of a single piece of information - the fact that X makes a declaration about Y; if X hadn't made a declaration about anyone, then X would not exist on the diagram, irrespective of whether X exists in reality or not. A node is an entity with declared relations to other entities with declared relations. Once we realise this, we might ask ourselves the extent to which we are already aware of these declarations: indeed, we ourselves are constituted by the existent declarations of others. That means the surprise we feel on seeing a diagram is the surprise of seeing something we already know, and that if we were logical, we would not be surprised about at all! If we become aware of this, then we would also become aware of the role of the analyst and the interpreter of the data and their own relations of declaration both to us, to the diagram, and to their arguments. The problem here is that the mere declaration of the power of social network analysis is itself a declaration which impacts us: we very soon get trapped in a web which we ourselves are spinning.

But this is not to say that there are not regularities in social network analysis. It is to say that the regularities exist between us (the audience), the technique (the algorithm) and the magician (the interpreter). Magic tricks may not be science, but a magic trick is itself a phenomenon which can be studied scientifically! Where are the regularities? Well, they exist in the ways people are confused. How can we investigate the ways people are confused? We can develop new ways of exposing the logic behind what is going on.

My personal view is that mathematical category theory is the best tool to do this. It allows for any diagram to be exposed for the nature of its relations with a set of observers each of whom can have a different perspective. It can then explore the logic of different observer perspectives.  (I'll elaborate on this in a future post.) Most importantly, it can provide a logic which situates the observer of the diagram within the diagram in the context of what they know from outside the diagram. When observers see this, it is surprising how surprise disappears! But that isn't magic. 

Saturday, 5 July 2014

A Dolls House University

It's graduation season! Cue the absurd paraphernalia of cap-and-gown, the parading of privilege and the fundamental declaration of difference between those of 'learning' and 'rank', and everyone else. Veblen (in 1899!) reminds us of the pernicious, class-ridden foundation of it all - even in modest institutions which aspire to grandeur - as this serves the interests of elites:
"it is also no doubt true that such a ritualistic reversion [in aspiring universities] could not have been effected in the college scheme of life until the accumulation of wealth in the hands of the propertied class had gone far enough to afford the requisite pecuniary ground for a movement which should bring the colleges of the country up to the leisure-class requirements in the higher learning. The adoption of the cap and gown is one of the striking atavistic features of modern college life, and at the same time it marks the fact that these colleges have definitively become leisure class establishments, either in actual achievement or in aspiration."
The parading of rank is now a cynical advertisement for lining pockets of the wealthy: "You too can join the priestly ranks - providing you pay your fees!"

Rank and privilege dominate not only the relation between the institution and society, but within institutions too. Nothing new here, except that scholars have now become functionaries (effectively 'assessment operatives') to be commanded by elites. At a University near me which suffers a particularly nasty case of managerialism, I understand that the VC lined up all academics in full garb in the centre of town (a three-line whip!). Having had them stand around for nearly an hour, he proceeded to inspect the troops. He would stop occasionally, picking on individuals who couldn't do much about their situation (there's only so much one can do lined up in fancy dress!) "Your cap is not quite straight," he said to one, reaching out in a deliberate invasion of personal space, to adjust it: "there it looks better like that!"; to another senior manager who was surrounded by his staff, "Oh! Hello - I didn't think you still worked for us!" This was followed by a ceremony where the de-facto honours system of 'honorary doctorates' saw awards made to political allies and celebrities (good for media coverage) followed by a gala dinner with semi-naked dancing girls, prompting at least one family to walk out in disgust: it all amounted to the VC saying to all assembled guests "I can do what I want".

This unfortunate institution appears to be a "Dolls House University".

In Ibsen's revolutionary play "A Dolls House", the fundamental pathology of the situation that Nora finds herself trapped in is the "sense of entitlement" expressed by her husband. In the Dolls House University, it is an appalling sense of entitlement that infects university management. But Ibsen's play is about hope: eventually, somebody tears up the rule-book, just as Nora does:
NORA [...] But our house has been nothing but a play-room. Here I have been your doll-wife, just as at home I used to be papa's doll-child. And the children, in their turn, have been my dolls. I thought it fun when you played with me, just as the children did when I played with them. That has been our marriage, Torvald.
HELMER. There is some truth in what you say, exaggerated and overstrained though it be. But henceforth it shall be different. Play-time is over; now comes the time for education.
NORA. Whose education? Mine, or the children's?
HELMER. Both, my dear Nora.
NORA. Oh, Torvald, you are not the man to teach me to be a fit wife for you.
HELMER. And you can say that?
NORA. And I- how have I prepared myself to educate the children?
There are still plenty of relationships like Nora's marriage. But the fundamental rules apply eventually: behind any abusing relationship is somebody's sense of entitlement, and eventually this leads to breakdown.

Education is all about relationships. As teachers, we believe we can change peoples' lives by talking to them. It's true - but only under circumstances of care, responsibility, courage, freedom and trust. The pursuit of knowledge is not something that can happen in a dolls house. When one person feels entitled to manipulate everyone else, any possibility for anything good to come out of it dies. The dolls house might attempt splendid looks, but the vacuity of the display, the shallowness of the dancing girls, the puffed-up men and women in ridiculous costumes, the manic organist and the discordant trumpets all signify something sordid and festering.

Nora's courage is an example to everyone.