Tuesday, 8 March 2016

Searle's Status Functions and the Educational Block Chain

@dkernohan made an interesting blog post about blockchain yesterday (http://followersoftheapocalyp.se/the-chain/) which also contains some great links to current work and thinking. When new technologies come along, particularly in a time of great confusion in the world - not just about education, but about everything - it's exciting for some. I'm one of the people who gets excited about technology. This is partly because technical change is so often the herald of social change - and the prospect of change is a sign of hope that the world won't continue to be as terrible as it currently is. However, technology frequently disappoints. People either don't use it (which may in fact be the best outcome!), or if they do, managers will exploit the fact that the tools work to exert greater control on everyone else. In recent years, technologies which promised emancipation, disruption, subversion and autonomy appear to have accelerated and exacerbated inequality, surveillance, control and oppression. Yet I still find the prospect of technological transformation exciting.

I think this is partly due to the nature of the functionalism which surrounds any technological development. Functionalism is inherently positive - a can-do, "we can fix it" state of mind. Part of the problem with functionalism is that it loses sight of how power operates, and is often blind to the power inherent in its own propositions.

Recently, I've begun to see power through the perspective of John Searle's idea of 'status function'. A powerful person or organisation is something capable of making a assertion about the existence about other social entities, and to have that assertion supported by the general 'collective intentionality' (Searle's term for the common thoughts of a community) to support it. They have what Searle calls 'deontic power' to make a 'status function declaration' - in other words the assertion that a banknote is a banknote, a VLE is a VLE, a degree is a degree and so on. Technologists make status function declarations about technology. If nobody believes them then the technology doesn't take-off. If powerful institutions believe them, and support the status declaration about a technology, then the technology is more likely to be successful.

Entities in society which have the greatest deontic power tend to be institutions like governments, banks, universities, monarchs, priests and the media. It is interesting to reflect that in recent years, each of these institutions (apart from the universities - it's only a matter of time) has had its deontic power questioned by the exposure of scandals.

Interesting things happen when status function declarations get mixed up in unusual ways. That's basically what's happened with BitCoin. BitCoin plays with "collective intentionality" in a new kind of way. Technologists make a status function declaration about the trustworthiness of the "distributed ledger" which underpins BitCoin. There is a vested-interest among the investors in BitCoin to uphold this status function declaration. Not just because they like the idea of a currency without a central bank, but because in supporting the status function declaration about the ledger, they support the value of the BitCoin currency which they possess. The dynamic of trust (the collective intentionality), and the dynamic of reward is finely balanced - and the reward for the individual reinforces their desire to avoid the centralisation of institutions.

This point is very important when we consider the potential of BitCoin in areas like education.

It's not enough simply to declare the existence of what amounts to a kind of distributed database for educational transactions. Such a declaration alone will have no power, because no institution will support it, and there is no loop of self-interest by its users which can subvert institutional authority. It will be too difficult to get people to submit their data to it: what do they get out of it?

Somehow the loop has to be closed. What matters in education is the declaration of status of learners: the gradual acquisition of their own 'deontic power' (I am qualified to say such-and-such because I have a degree from...) So collecting transactional data is not enough. There needs also to be a mechanism for validating, comparing and ranking between individuals.

So what if we had a process whereby on the one hand, educational transactions are recorded, but alongside it, the emergent transaction ledgers are validated and ranked? And what if the process of validating and ranking educational transaction ledgers reinforced ones own educational transaction ledger (so a judgement about someone else is a transaction). Would that close the loop?

My incentive for recording transactions would be to enable me to make judgements about the transactions of others, which would enhance my own ledger of transactions. Is this a closed, self-organising non-institutional status-enhancing machine? Possibly. But one thing seems clear to me - the chain needs to be a loop. 


David K said...

If you want to "validate" a ledger you are bringing the idea of trust back into the system. Given that blockchain tech is designed to remove "trust" and resist revisions at all costs I am persuaded that the answer you are seeking is not a blockchain.

Mark Johnson said...

Blockchain doesn't remove trust. It appears to be a different kind of trusted entity.

Having said this, of course "trust" is a bit of a mystery. It has something to do with Searle's collective intentionality and its relation to deontic power. More deeply, trust is intersubjective at many levels. There can be trust and distrust in intimacy, and trust and distrust in the more abstract world of discourse. Economics and education both operate at all levels of intersubjective engagement.