Monday, 7 May 2018

Open Watters

Audrey Watters gave an interesting talk about "Openness" the other day, the text of which you can read here It's a timely contribution to a critical question about openness concerning how openness and identity can be compatible. The logic of "openness", as I have argued elsewhere (see, leads to non-identity (something which has a long tradition from Buddhism to Marxism, physics to the philosophy of science). The recent assertion of political identity among those who champion openness seems to tend in the opposite direction where groups who champion "open" appear to become more closed in seeking to represent the interests of particular groups. In claiming "open" as a means of "access" to education for under-represented groups, they often unintentionally reassert the very mechanisms of closure within the academy and within which corporate entities offer "platforms for openness" (Mark Carrigan's discussion group on Platform Capitalism is really interesting: Audrey has been one of the leading critical voices who have asserted the freedoms of individuals against corporations - many of whom champion technology in education, and this has led her to a surprising stance with regard to openness which runs counter to the position of many of its advocates.

Audrey is having second thoughts about open and is removing the "creative commons" licensing from her work. I like people who change their mind - and this at least clears things up - although I think she's mistaken (I'm about to publish a book with CC, together with its code on GitHub, so I have some interest in this). Partly in reaction to the utopianism of educational technology, she seems to be saying that openness is not compatible with identity, and that in the end, the critical issue is identity, which must be a political fight, and that "openness" is an aspect of corporate conspiracy against the individual.

Often the things that get talked about a lot in education are the things that are most confusing (actually I think that's the reason why "education" gets talked about a lot). There's a kind of law to this: those things with the greatest number of possible descriptions require the greatest conversational coordination to negotiate differences in those descriptions. If I think nothing else of Niklas Luhmann, I believe he saw this most clearly! "Openness" is incredibly confusing. But it's particularly confusing because it doesn't fit the other categories which we use to describe processes of learning. To talk of "openness" and not to talk of "education" or "learning" or "science" or "human flourishing" is to mire oneself in double-binds within which it is impossible to escape the tangled mess of conflicting categories.

Coupled with that, we have things called "open" which appear to really work: like "open source" software. Here I think Audrey has a point about corporations. The "open" in open source is a rational response to the organisational problems of writing reliable code. By opening development to a broad community of people, the transaction cost of creating good software comes down. That means that the business opportunities for corporate activity which uses this software are increased at the expense of those who give their labour often for nothing. The issue of transaction costs and corporations is a more useful category to explore this stuff than to simply talk about "open".

So what about "creative commons"? If we look at the transactions which keep universities and publishers afloat (not just afloat of course - incredibly profitable), we see that the lock-in to high-status publications in order to maintain the prestige of academics (and give them job security) is a toxic mechanism which produces "status", on the part of individual academics, universities and publishers. Well-published academics command the highest salaries, go to the best institutions; prestigious universities can afford the best journals while lower ranking ones can't; prestigious journals ramp up the price of their journals and raise the bar for publication which excludes those outside the elite universities. Also there is the inexplicable fact that the transactions within the university - its recruitment and assessment processes particularly - remain extremely slow and inflexible, when in every other industry, technology has transformed the way transactions are coordinated. It's a racket - and really, completely against the spirit of the Royal Society, which established one of the first journals at the beginning of the scientific revolution: the point of peer review, etc., was to exploit the technology of printing to democratise science!

Scholars should really boycott this game and do their thing on blogs, self-publish books, etc. Indeed, I'm suspicious about how the "journal article" acquired the status it does in the social sciences in the first place. It fits an experiment in physics where there is an account of a concrete result. In education or social science? The journal article renders everything to small-scale statements about components of experience: nowhere can it articulate new cosmologies. Moreover, it encourages people to hide the true complexity and uncertainty of what they are dealing with. The medium is wrong for communicating uncertainty and complexity.

Which brings me on to science. The computer in the academy has had its biggest impact in the way we do science. It has transformed the enlightenment laboratory into a sea of contingencies and statistical uncertainties. If you want to communicate uncertainty, you have to be open - not just open in the media through which we publish, but open in the manner in which we defend what we think and admit what we don't know. And we have to be open to everyone: nobody has a monopoly on uncertainty - not even Audrey Watters.

As far as I can see, in education, and particularly in educational technology, we know very little for certain - and that's where we need to open ourselves out.  


Scott said...

One quibble:

"That means that the business opportunities for corporate activity which uses this software are increased at the expense of those who give their labour often for nothing. "

I don't think thats an accurate description. For the most part, people contribute their labour to producing software that they use, usually for a commercial purpose, and usually this labour is being paid for by their employer. So I don't think its "something for nothing", its very much "something for something"; specifically the earlier point about the transactional costs is correct; open source provides an efficient mechanism by which companies can collaborate and reduce costs in a win-win fashion without triggering "antitrust" lawsuits.

(As a side effect, or possibly the main effect, it has also tended to push value and uniqueness away from the development of software and more towards the operation of services and brands.)

As for higher education ... open is a big risk when everyone involved benefits - to a lesser or greater extent - from the current "racket" of institutions, tenure, publishing and so on. Maybe preserving these bastions of elite privilege is better in the long run given the likely costs and uncertain benefits of "disrupting" it? I can certainly see where Audrey is coming from here.

Mark Johnson said...

Yes, I accept that it may be something for something... But we should look at the transactions carefully. I'm particularly interested in the uncertainty that's introduced with open source libraries, where we have to choose to expend the effort in working out how it works (and making a contribution), or writing something afresh which does what we want. Software frameworks have led to complexification as they aim at increasing transactions with a framework!

The critical point is about science. The elite bastions are no longer fit for purpose where science is concerned. Audrey has always been a bit conservative here...

Scott said...

The libraries and frameworks thing is interesting. Its not just software where we add layers to transform one type of complexity into another - things like modularisation, tariff points, semesters and the like play a similar role.

Also I think the "something for something" is one of the problems when transposing the model into education: software has utility and value outside of its brand, but does educational content? (However, both OSS and HE are supply-side models, so there is the temptation to try. The alternative paradigm is free software/software freedom, which is probably even more problematic for education, as "user freedom" - and freedom to operate - in this case would translate to "student freedom"!)

Maybe with science and the humanities we're seeing the academic model exhibit a "leaky abstraction" problem; an abstraction that works well for one doesn't necessarily perform well for both, and the shaky underpinnings of the system start to show through.

Mark Johnson said...

All the more reason to create better models of how things actually work. Abstractions result from interconnected processes. Those processes can be tweaked... Transactions are a sign of a process going on. The word is similar to 'transduction' which is much more interesting: it is how our categories are made. To make education better we have to know which processes to change... Which transducers to tweak! It's never the obvious candidate. CC is a tweak to a transducer.