Sunday 30 November 2014

Social Ecology and Soviet Cybernetics

I came across a fascinating presentation by Vladimir Kitov of the Russian Plenhanov University of Economics on the history of Russian cybernetics and the Russian computer industry. You can view his presentation here: It's an extraordinary story. There's also an excellent paper on Soviet Cybernetics by Ben Peters at This is really fascinating stuff.

I'd always understood Russian cybernetics to have taken an independent direction from cybernetics in the West. Kitov (and Peters) suggests that the truth is more complex. After the Macy conferences of the late 1940s, it seems that cybernetics was seen by the Soviet hierarchy as a kind of bourgeois plot. Peter's quotes from the Russian Journal Literaturnaya gazeta  which accuses Norbert Wiener of belonging to a group of "charlatans and obscurantists, whom capitalists substitute for genuine scientists". It later carried an article: "Cybernetics—an American Pseudoscience". Those Soviet Scientists who actually read Wiener's book (which was marked 'Top Secret') took a different view. It took Stalin's death and the Khrushchev thaw for Sergei Sobolov, Anatoly Kitov and Alaksei Lyapanov (Russia's equivalent of Von Neumann) to write an article called "The main features of cybernetics" in 1955.

More importantly, the ideas of the soviet cyberneticians were particularly focused on the social and economic use of cybernetics. In 1959, Anatoly Kitov proposed to the Kremlin that a computer system was developed to manage the whole Russian economy providing real-time feedback on production. This ambitious request was rejected, although it remained a long-held dream of Kitov and other scientists: a programming language called ALGEM (a variant of ALGOL-60) was developed to assist in the realisation of this economic management system. It is fascinating to think that the project which Stafford Beer managed to realise in Chile in the early 70s was already conceived years earlier. What did Salvadore Allende know about this earlier Soviet work, I wonder?

More importantly, however, is the role of theory in these plans. Although it is relatively easy to find cursory descriptions of the ALGEM language, there is little on what the theoretical understanding for implementing a feedback system in the Russian economy would look like. Beer's intervention in Chile was based on his concept of 'viable systems'. Using the Viable System Model, Beer wasn't simply trawling data in the hope that something meaningful would come up (this is very much the approach of today's big data people). My guess is that the Soviet scientists too had theories about how their real-time economic system would work: the history of science in the Soviet Union, and the particularly social trend in scientific thinking, including Vygotsky (who had been disowned by the hierarchy - a factor which contributed to his suicide) and Leontiev, whose work on networks is only now beginning to be taken seriously by ecologists. Peters tells us that the close potential association between communism and cybernetics was not lost on American observers. When Aksel Berg published a series entitled " Cybernetics—in the Service of Communism", one american observer noted that "if any country were to achieve a completely integrated and controlled economy in which ‘cybernetic’ principles were applied to achieve various goals, the Soviet Union would
be ahead of the United States in reaching such a state." But this wasn't to be.

According to Peters, Soviet cybernetics disintegrated in a way which mirrors a similar collapse of cybernetics in the West: a process of disciplinary bifurcation helped to dilute and distort the main thrusts of what it was about. Nothing new there. But what interests me is Kitov's account of the demise of the Soviet computer industry. This came about when the Kremlin decided that their independent computer science programme was falling behind the US, and that  they might as well copy the IBM 360 architecture, consigning their existing research department to the dustbin. Kitov's analysis of this is that this might have been "one the most successful operations against the USSR by the CIA" Sadly, it was probably self-inflicted. What was lost was the diversity, flexibility and adaptability within the ecology of the Soviet scientific community.  It could no longer grow new ideas for itself; instead it began on a path of slavishly copying US corporations: a process which it has tragically continued to this day!

There's some fascinating history to trawl here. But I think there is also a warning. Globalisation, the copying of an idea from one place to the next, is not necessarily the best way that societies can make themselves adaptable. Indeed, it risks making them very brittle. The Soviet cybernetic and computer science programme effectively operated as a parallel universe to the US and UK programmes, and it was no worse for that. The rich diversity of approaches made for a fertile time where ideology and technics combined. When we look at the world today, how much flexibility are we making for ourselves? How much are we simply following each other, running after the whirling banners of global corporatism in the name of profit? What role are our universities playing in this dance? 

Thursday 27 November 2014

#design4learning, ProtScience and Empirical Integrity in Education

While I've been attending the #design4learning event at the Open University, I've been continuing to reflect on Steve Fuller's presentation at the Russian Academy of Science the other week where he characterised the position of science today as 'ProtScience'. At the end of the Open University event, Alejandro Armellini from Northampton University drew attention to the nonsense that is "pedagogical innovation", whilst Terese Bird from Leicester University presented a dystopian University of the future called PearBucksCity University (a delightful corporate combination of Pearson, Starbucks and Udacity). Armellini's criticism was well-made, although I expect it made some of the audience (who consider themselves 'pedagogic innovators') uncomfortable. Bird was entertaining about the dangers facing education in the kind of way that Audrey Watters also does so well. Nobody however was prepared to talk seriously about "The Management". "That's one for the economists and political scientists" said Armellini, batting away the awkward fact that for all the lack of any "pedagogical innovation" (whatever on earth that would look like!), there clearly has been 'managerial innovation' which has transformed beyond recognition the power relations and social structures of our institutions, much of it achieved with the help of new technologies developed under the guise of "pedagogical innovation".

On top of this, there were two keynotes at the design4learning conference, both of which reported on apparently successful attempts to 'transform learning', but neither of which successfully identified (as far as I could see) any 'independent variables' (although the first keynote from Edinburgh did identify 'trust' - but what's that??). Taken together with various presentations about Learning Analytics (which increasingly seems to be simply about "working out ways of keeping the kids on the course paying their fees"), which through various statistical jiggery-pokery ended with vague conclusions about ill-founded distinctions in 'types' of pedagogy (constructivist vs. explanatory, etc), I was again left thinking - where are the independent variables?

Are we condemned to this in education? Or in the social sciences in general? What are the implications if we are? What might we do about it if we're not?

First of all, the implications of woolly thinking, uncritical methodologies and bad learning analytics:

  • It creates false power relations within the research fabric of education which makes it harder to do any serious critical work on education: if the majority of researchers are uncritical of their methods, and are rewarded for doing so, then it becomes increasingly difficult for anybody who is critical to get published.
  • Consequently, this is another example (like so many others including the STEM agenda, econometrics, etc) of depoliticising education
  • This works to the advantage of institutional management who see no penetrating critique (but lots of confusing and meaningless statistics) and continue unchallenged to do what they want amidst the conveniently confused haze around them
  • Management keep the intelligentsia at bay by either trapping them in a circle of hell which they orbit forever chasing banners reading 'pedagogy', 'e-learning', etc or by excluding them from the discussion altogether. Research becomes political 'chaff'
Reflecting on this makes me think about why I am uncomfortable with Fuller's idea of 'ProtScience'. 

Fuller explains that "ProtScience" is short for "Protestant Science", which is his way of saying that science today has reached it's Protestant Reformation: that moment when people no longer believe they have to bow to the authority of the science high priests, but can learn things for themselves and make up their own minds. Fuller presents people like Ben Goldacre as a good example of a Martin Luther figure debunking the scientist's status. All fine - and at some level true. (Actually, as Oleg pointed out to me the other day, Goldacre found life a lot less comfortable when he took on 'Big Pharma')

Fuller wasn't uncritical of the ProtScience position (the l'Aquila earthquake is a striking example of its pathology), but what struck me at the design4learning conference was the extent to which ProtScience throws empirical practice out of the window, and the deeper extent to which this then works to the advantage of corporatist, managerial and functionalist elites who exploit the 'anything goes' zeitgeist and govern their institutions through adhoc quackery all the time appealing to meaningless statistics and groundless ontologies. There's a reason why scientists had authority - and it's not because science is authoritarian. It's because it's honest in its claim to truth. 

Truth has become rather unpopular in recent years. Fuller's 'truth', it seemed to me, was a kind of 'network theory of account' as Luciano Floridi puts it - a normative, networked invariance within a society, where somewhere between the opinions, differences, limits and capabilities of a population, a consensus is somehow arrived at. Scientific truth in the world of ProtScience only requires that the internet increase the bandwidth of information for the masses to coordinate more and more reliable truthful judgements. If Amazon and Google can do it, so can science. I don't believe it. It would all be fine if the world was flat. But it isn't: power, social structures, personal histories, the uneven distribution of capability, money, the means of production and information all skew the normative view. 

Scientists are driven to pursue the truth. That means critiquing methodology (rather than seeing it as a crank to turn in order to publish papers!). We barely know what makes us so thirsty for knowledge, but "truth" is not a bad word for something which as Bhaskar and Badiou seem to agree, is a dialectical process implicating societies, egos, institutions, experiments, theories and explanations.

If I've been mostly frustrated, irritated and astonished at the design4learning conference it is because I've largely witnessed lazy thinking which seems to me to be unwittingly complicit in the managerial pathology which is unfolding in front of us. I also think we should aspire to a better science of education. There is, unfortunately, no short-cut to this. Learning analytics certainly isn't it. What is required is new thinking about society and education's relationship to it. What is required are new ways of measuring the ecologies that connect us to each other (managers are destroying the social ecologies of our universities). And we should decide what we mean by 'Higher Learning' (perhaps it's no more than fearlessness and intellectual honesty).

I think I may be calling for a Counter-reformation to Fuller's ProtScience!

Monday 24 November 2014

Science and Social Ontology at the Russian Academy of Sciences

I recently attended a wonderful conference on “The Social Philosophy of Science” at the Russian Academy of Sciences in Moscow. Although this was entitled “Russian Perspectives”, there were contributions from a number of major players from the US and UK, including Steve Fuller, Rom HarrĂ© (who unfortunately couldn’t present his paper), Inanna Hatayi-Ataya and Sergio Sismondo. It was indeed fascinating to compare the Russian contribution to this field which was always more deeply committed to a social philosophy of science because of its Marxist foundation.

The conference opened with a Keynote from Steve Fuller about transformations in the relationship between the public and scientific knowledge in the light of the web. Fuller was announcing a revolution in the status of scientists, saying that now as the population could access knowledge and make their own minds up about things themselves, the authoritarian status of scientist's knowledge was in doubt. Using examples including the L’Aquila earthquake, he pointed out the difficulties that scientists have in communicating their science, and how the public will form its own opinion of science. My thoughts about this were that Fuller’s use of the term science and scientist needs further inspection. Often, I felt that Fuller was really referring to science teachers, not scientists. Science teachers are not generally scientists; they do not engage in inquiry; they are not producing new theories; they are, on the whole, teaching. However, science teachers often believe themselves to be scientists. However, they do not believe that the teaching activities they engage in – the dominant activity – is actually a science worthy of their attention also. The problem is that ‘authority’ tends to sit in the domain of the science teacher (indeed, they can often be authoritarian), and not the scientist. Authority is an aspect of positioning between individuals (HarrĂ©’s Positioning Theory is very valuable here): when one person establishes themselves as knowing the ‘truth’, there is a parallel process of denying the claim to legitimate viewpoints by others: “I am the science teacher and you don’t know anything yet!”. Real scientists, immersed in the cloudy confusion of the laboratory, tend not to be quite so keen of authority. Their work would see all participation as a question. So what idea of science is Fuller pursuing here? Is it the idea of science pertaining to the pursuer of knowledge, or the idea of science pertaining to the science teacher?

There were some parallels with Sergio Sismondo’s talk about ontology in Science and Technology studies. Pointing out the tension inherent in the ‘ontological turn’ in social science between the kind of Nietzschian perspectivism which denies any kind of objective truth, and the dogmatic and authoritarian viewpoint about things that are said to exist, Sismondo argued for a view of multiple ontologies as different ways in which understandings of reality (ontological perspectives) are enacted on objects and social structures. Arguing fundamentally that what we end up with is a form of constructivism, his examples pointed out the different ontological stances of people considered to be Key Opinion Leaders (KOLs). These people are basically gurus within professional fields who command high salaries for being experts and attend different conferences and stay close to a corporate script in promoting a scientific view in keeping with the corporate objects of their sponsors. Each enacts their understanding of reality in different ways according to the social situation they find themselves in.

The central issue here concerns truth. The problem is whether situations which enact multiple perspectives do not contain within them universal truths. Here, the practices of “the scientist” as a pursuer of truth is important, and I think distinguishable from the science teacher, and indeed from the ‘science guru’ of Sismodo’s KOLs. The KOL may pursue truth in their scientific work, but their engagement by corporations would lead one to wonder about their intellectual integrity: is empirical practice separable from social structures? The guru and the teacher have certain commonalities. The guru may indeed engage in some science, some kind of inquiry; but they will tend to have to place their inquiry in the back-stage to their public performances. The guru is beholden to the corporate world as the teacher is beholden to education. The teacher is bound by responsibilities to their students and to their institution. What distinguishes these people are networks of rights, responsibilities and obligations.

I can see two fundamentally different ways of addressing the issue of truth. There is an argument which articulates by transcendental reasoning that there must be natural necessity, and causal mechanisms in nature, where Humean reasoning about causes as constructs is basically wrong. The implications of this are a materialist and dialectical ontology that sees the purpose of science as the uncovering and discovery of mechanisms which in turn have a bearing on social structures. True work = true mechanisms. Alternatively, there is a view that Hume was right, that there is no natural necessity, that causes are not real, but that truth is real and revealed through the encounter between being and event. This is basically the position of Badiou and those subscribing to the loose school of “speculative realists”. This position also articulates a dialectical process whereby political action is directly connected to logical revelation of truth, and where science and mathematics serves truth by comprehending the natural ordering of the social. Whilst each position’s ontological stance is impossible to prove, both positions end up in the same place: with the political.

I found myself reflecting on this in Inanna Hamati-Ataya talk on the relationship between empirical practice and social structure. Inanna gave a talk about ontology and post-foundationalism in science studies. She argued for a position which situates empiricism in relation to politics and society to which I am sympathetic. However, I raised the question about the importance of not throwing out empiricism. She replied that she was after a more pluralistic conception of science and methodology. What interests me about this is for all the ontological belly-aching that goes on in social science (particularly arguing for natural necessity or contingency) the ontological position appears to oscillate around central principles:
  • Whether contingency of necessity of nature is the case or not cannot be established beyond doubt. It is not a matter that can be settled by transcendental argument (as I once thought, having pursued a critical realist path). Coherent transcendental arguments can present both necessity and contingency as possibilities (it is the difference between Bhaskar and Badiou) 
  • However, when we ask “what matters?” the answer always is simple: we have to look after each other. 
Inanna’s conclusion is right; however, I think this conclusion can be reached from a deeper engagement with empirical practice - particularly about what we consider to be empiricism as that practice which entwines expectation and explanation.

Moving on to more practical ground, I was very struck by a fascinating presentation by Maria Bereznyak on the transliteration and translation of scientific terminology between the west and Russia, and between Russia and China. "What about cybernetics?" I thought. Indeed, for the more practically useful aspects of scientific inquiry (and cybernetics is one of those), there are more immediate problems concerning communication amongst scientists than ontological concerns. Indeed, the fact of difficulties in communication between Chinese, Russian and Western scientists is perhaps more real than any of this stuff! What would the Chinese do with cybernetics if they knew the literature?

And finally, having been immersed in all this talk of ontology, I learnt on the way home of the death of Roy Bhaskar. That's perhaps a cause for deeper reflection on the issues of natural necessity, but also about the contribution of a philosopher who has had a bigger impact on my own development than anybody else. 

Monday 17 November 2014

Music and Science in Moscow

I'm preparing a presentation which I'm giving at a Philosophy of Science conference in Moscow tomorrow. I've never been to Moscow before - it's quite an extraordinary place, so rich in history and culture: there is a strong feeling of the 'alternative' story of the history of the world which might have been told had communism worked, had the Berlin wall not even been needed, let alone fallen. With this alternative ,story, there is also a very evident split in the consciousness of the place. The tyranny of Stalin has gone (the odd statue and the miraculous decoration in the Metro glorifying his achievements are ghostly reminders), but it seems to have been replaced with a new kind of tyranny imported in a peculiar way from the West: the tyranny of consumerism. In Red Square there is a huge department store called "Gum": how many handbags, diamond rings, phones, shoes and coats could anybody need? I guess to Russians this is a wonderland - after the communist years where there was nothing in the shops, suddenly there is more than they could possibly dream of. There it is, a glimmering monotony of sparkling things. People wander round pretty aimlessly, half looking at the stuff and half attending to their mobile phones.

The new tyranny has put everyone to sleep.

What's the connection between this and my paper? Well, my paper is about music and social structure. It's about the fact that the structure of the content of an act - an artistic act - has a bearing on the social structures that emerge around it. Put another way, the aesthetics of the environment bear upon social structures. Understanding the social efficacy of aesthetic acts might help to understand exactly how the "being-put-to-sleepness" relates to the monotony of jewels in the windows, and the click-click-click monotony of continual smartphone addiction.

The deep question is for the people and for government. Something has happened to the ecology of our environment when all cities look the same and fill themselves with the same sparkly things. Government regulation (or lack of it) creates this situation. In Moscow it is probably because vast swathes of land were snatched up by the powerful who over-developed it very quickly with little regard to the overall effect. It's interesting to think that although London has the same kind of thing, it's not quite on this inhuman scale: layers of history and the law prevent such a sweepingly industrial transformation overnight.

What if we could see the deep social ecological effects of government action or inaction? Could we ask ourselves "Is this what we want?". Could we demand of our leaders that they safeguard the balances of social life, and monitor more effectively whether they actually do this or not? In order to do this, we have to understand nature of the structures of things that are actually made (arcades, jewellery shops, etc) and their effects on social experience and transformation of social structures. Maybe this is the goal to aim for. I suspect education is at the heart of it all...

Thursday 13 November 2014

Georges Bataille and Gregory Bateson: Two aspects of courageous thought

Bateson and Bataille might at first appear to be a strange combination. I bet there are few people who know of one of them who would know very much about the other. They are very different. And yet I think they share much between them. They were both outsiders: Bateson was a scientist largely ostracised by the scientific community, only to find friendship with Californian new-agers whose woolly earthmotherness he didn't have a lot of time for. Bateson's work carries powerful messages and has had widespread influence, but it doesn't quite nail the central problem he was dealing with, leaving it open to interpretation. Bataille really wanted to be seen as an economist - yet his economics work "The Accursed Share" is barely known by economists (and by few others), despite what I think are significant similarities between his work and the American institutionalism of people like Veblen. Where Veblen identifies the 'atavistic' qualities of institutional life, Bataille digs into the detail and lays its sexy dirty world out for us to gawp at. Of course, Bataille became famous not for economics but for his attention to sex and eroticism, and for all the misinterpretations of his work carried forward by lesser thinkers like Foucault and Baudrillard.

Both these thinkers displayed an intellectual courage that only total commitment to the truth brings. A wise friend of mine told me that there were basically two kinds of academic: those who relentlessly pursue the truth, and those who defend an intellectual position. There are sadly rather more of the latter than than the former in even our best universities! The former struggle to survive in the system - and increasingly so. I am continually astonished by the 'no-go' areas that so many academics exhibit. "That's not my field", is the typical response to the child-like question that asks "but what about...?" And there are so many "but.. but.. what about..?" questions to ask. So What about sex? Isn't that pretty important? How do you account for love? Your theory might say x or y chemicals in the brain, but your family's falling apart around you right now - how do x and y chemicals help in that situation? When you get excited about your theory, are you not just wanking? What is the experience of alienation? How do you make someone less alienated? What about fear? Your rational model is all fine but there are things which people think which they don't talk about, and yet it manifests in other (often destructive) ways... And, of course nobody can account for music.

What did Bataille say? In a nutshell, rational explanations are underpinned by irrational primeval forces. Moreover, critical analysis of those deep forces is possible (see his book on eroticism). I would say it's urgent. Maybe another way of saying this is to say that not-information underpins information. That's pretty much what Bateson says. Like Bataille he starts to articulate the critical analysis of the deep ecologies which connect us to each other and to our planet. At one level, it's not easy stuff. At the more childlike level it rings truer than most things you find in universities!

Sunday 9 November 2014

Martin Bean's Leaving Message from the OU: "Universities risk digital irrelevance": Is he right?

There's something a bit reassuringly old-fashioned about Martin Bean's plea for more technological innovation in Universities. It's as if the old-JISC (OJISC) is still with us (of course now we have New-JISC (NJISC) which doesn't even have access to an academic library: a rather more self-serving beast!). Bean cites the example of businesses which have failed to keep pace with technology (Jessops and Borders): his warning is "we risk the sector becoming irrelevant and even irresponsible." Heaven forbid! An irresponsible education sector!

A few years ago, I would have applauded Bean in his plea for innovation. Frankly I am grateful that this kind of ed-tech scaremongering prompted OJISC to fund things like #CETIS which provided me and others with academic thinking space in education. Now, I am not so sure. We've got to look at what's actually happened in education, and particularly what actually happened with the technologies in which we invested so much hope for a better future. We have seen a Illichian pathology cycle (Illich describes this in "Tools for Conviviality"). First we have the new innovation (the micro, web, Skype, the VLE, etc). These excite and liberate teachers to do new things. It allows them to slip under the radar of staid institutional processes: "liberty!" teachers shout!.. but then... "Hang on a minute..." says the manager, "we need to find a way of controlling this! (and maybe we can profit from it!)". It spells trouble. Remember all those liberating technologies... suddenly they become tools for institutional control and manipulation - introducing new 'efficiencies', restructuring, replacing face-to-face interactions with "functionally-equivalent" online tools.

And that's only the beginning.

What about the analytics?! Wham! We suddenly have the kind of naive Taylorist scientific management techniques which until this point have eluded education. Vice Chancellors think this is great and award themselves huge salary increases. The technology gives them Faustian knowledge of their institutions: they know how much everyone works, how much everyone is rated in research assessment exercises (just wait until we get to that!), when everyone comes in, goes home, eats lunch and what they do at the weekend (thanks Facebook!).

The information isn't the problem. It's the hubris it encourages in people who are not scholars but accountants and lawyers. Suddenly all those chips on the shoulders of the non-academic managerialista express themselves through the silicon chips and algorithms of the university's information machine. "We can make the educational sausage machine run more efficiently! Look! We could 'process' these kids with cheaper/fewer staff!" Suddenly all sorts of personal issues and psychological flaws express themselves in the managerial adhocery. "Who's running our institutions?" we must ask... "And what the fuck are they doing to them?!"

Institutions are in trouble. Accountability is compromised, boards of governors stuffed with the filthy rich, lawyers, lords and the clergy (for God's sake!!!) and dissent suppressed. If recent academic departures from the University of Essex are anything to go by, knowledge, culture and science are at risk. These people are on-the-make - if not financially, then through the status enhancement that close association to atavistic institutions grants them. Dammit, it's a wide open goal for corruption: so many institutions have student bodies full of kids not really knowing why they are in university - they've simply become victims of education - so they're compliant; and the staff? The employment prospects of many teachers in new universities (watch these particularly) was never fantastic, so these people are scared to lose their jobs: they will never speak out against the management. So the management can do what it likes; it can charge top-dollar; the students will continue to put up with it; the QAA can be satisfied with committee minutes which have no effect on the ground, and meanwhile the managerial high priests award themselves more pay, whilst squeazing the pay of those who the institutions are meant to be about (scholars).

Of course, the innovator's passion for statistics has had the most damaging effects with regard to government regulation of education and research. The masters of research assessment exercises like the REF are not scholars, but privately funded publishers and vested interests in leading academic departments (who tend to operate "research hegemonies"). Then of course, there are the online indexes like Scopus: the credit-rating agencies of research quality - all operating without having read a word of it, let alone understood any of it. Then we have the credit rating agencies of institutions themselves: the Time Higher Educational Supplement being the most dominant. They know their business and the value of their league tables, consultancy and other associated benefits of being the go-to place for assessing academic credit-worthiness.

And when defending all this indefensible managerial claptrap, what do Vice Chancellors say? "It's in the interests of increasing students' learning" Well, exactly what does that mean?  Where is this "student learning" you are increasing? How are you increasing it? What do you mean by "increasing"? Nobody can give an answer: its the essential obfuscating mystification at the heart of the corruption of institutions.

If by more innovation, Martin Bean means "more of the same" (and, with his support for MOOCs, he seems to), I think he's wrong. His message will only spell more power for the managerialists. It's a message which is designed to spell fear for those 'dusty' academics (particularly the sociologists, but also historians, ecologists, artists, philologists, philosophers) whose skills of thoughtful critique and challenge we need now more than ever. His innovative spirit has taken him to where he is. It's taken me and my colleagues to where we are. But now, the world's changed. The big story in education is not now technology; it's the hubris of managerialism and its relationship to knowledge and civil society. Technology is in the mix like a dusting of radioactive fallout. We need to understand what has happened to us, to academics, to knowledge and to our institutions. If innovation is required, it is innovation in technologies which help us to clear up the mess we've made and to hand institutional power back to teachers and students.

Friday 7 November 2014

Big Data, Social Ecology and the Surveillance of Management by the people

One of the most distasteful things about big data is top-down-ness. We all submit information through our social media habit, and the powerful aggregate it all with sophisticated algorithms and work out new ways of controlling us. There’s a kind of TINA spirit to the whole thing (which no doubt is manufactured by elites) – big data is the ‘science’ of the future; data presents the future path for government; surveillance is inevitable.

Technology is a threat to civil liberties. But it may also be our only hope for emancipation. In order to conceive of alternatives and to realise hope, we need to critique the extent to which big data analysis is indeed scientific. My contention is that the ‘big data’ graphs and pictures are not at all scientific because there are no regularities which are explained by it; big data operates rather more in accord with the principle of sympathetic magic than science. The images hypnotise and everybody becomes imprisoned by it.

We should learn from the ecologists. Statistical ecology is an important and growing field which studies the dynamics between different organisms, food chains and habitats. Ecological analysis is used to explore the factors that contribute to the health of an ecosystem, to warn of threats to ecological diversity and to help identify interventions which might be beneficial to the management of overall ecology.

Ecological thinking in the social sciences is not new. The American sociologist Everett Hughes wrote about the “Ecology of institutions” in 1936 - just before Western Europe would unleash forces that would destroy its ecology for a generation (Hughes was particularly interested in studying Nazi Germany). Hughes points out that it is absurd to concentrate measurements on particular activities or even particular institutions. What needs to be done is to explore relations between activities and institutions and understand the constitution of their diversity. Of course, in the 1930s the tools for doing this didn’t exist. Attempts to grapple with entireties and relations were however attempted. Perhaps one of the most celebrated examples is the Mass Observation project of the 1930s which focused on life in everyday Bolton (or Worktown as it was called).

If we see big data as mass observation of our social ecology we can start to ask powerful questions about the role of government. If governments destroy ecologies they are probably not doing a very good job and we should find other people who could do a better job.

But I want to start closer to home. Universities are ecologies. The different roles, responsibilities and personalities appear to constitute different ‘species’! How do they work together? In what ways do they not work together? What are the effects of managerial intervention?

Here we see the key problem with big data. Because big data results in analyses which are available to the elite, it results in decisions based on a particular elite interpretation. Consequently, decisions based on big data are attenuative according to the particular interpretation in operation. As a result, despite the potential richness of the data, social ecologies are effectively squeazed to conform to a particular ideal.

Robert Ulanowicz calls this squeazing “mutual information”, borrowing the term from Shannon. Mutual information is the coordination of the stuff which we all know about: the mission statement is a classic example of 'mutual information'. Some degree of mutual information is necessary in any ecology, because otherwise it lacks coherence. However, mutual information does not have to be imposed from the top to the bottom. It exists in teams, departments, and so on. Ulanowicz argues that we should consider the overall health and richness of an ecology by considering mutual information along with what he calls ‘flexibility’. Flexibility is ‘not information’ – or certainly it is ‘not mutual information’. It is the ‘redundant’ stuff that people do and think about which isn’t accounted for, which isn’t directly useful, which serves no apparent purpose - which drives the accountants mad or leads senior managers to accuse staff of being 'lazy' or 'unproductive'. All ecological systems exhibit both mutual information and flexibility. Without flexibility they become brittle and die as they become unable to adapt to shocks and changes in the environment.

In most institutions since the economic crash, austerity has resulted in the ramping up of ‘mutual information’ and the elimination of flexibility. My own institution conducted what it called (horribly) a ‘delayering’ exercise, removing autonomy from departments and concentrating power at the top. The tests of health are simple. How many times do senior managers say “no” to the ideas of junior staff? How many times do they refuse resourcing or funding requests? How many times do they say “yes” to their own ideas? How many times do they say “no” to their own ideas? And my favourite: How many times do people throughout the institution utter (for whatever reason) “What the Fuck?!” to things that happen per week? The WTF count is very reliable: it seems to be quite high where I am!

If we use our data right, we can ask these questions. We can demand from our managers that they act as proper custodians of educational ecologies, and not as the self-important “CEO’s” that only hubris and covetousness delude them into believing themselves to be.

Saturday 1 November 2014

Learners as Objects

My recent posts about evolution, STEM and Learning Outcomes have all come from a book chapter I'm struggling with about 'objects' in education. I have argued for a long time now that we have become distracted away from looking at the 'stuff' of education - curricula, exams, textbooks, timetables, teachers, technologies, certificates and so on and instead focused on things we can't see like "learning". We will get (and have got) nowhere with "learning". Meanwhile managers of institutes basically screw up education by messing with its stuff, all the while rewarding themselves for it: publishers reap the rewards of textbooks, institutions parade certificates, gowns, and space-age laboratories like sweeties, teachers end up in the service of objects and objectives, not science, science itself becomes objectified, and technologies merely reinforce the power relations that maintain the stranglehold of managers. We are in trouble, and its partly because we have lost a critical grasp on real 'stuff' in education.

In pursuing this line of argument, and in thinking about the nature of objects, I have had to consider the extent to which learners are objects in education, or rather the extent to which learners have become objectified by the rigidity of the processes they are forced into. These processes, the learning outcomes, the assessment contracts, the timetables and subjects are all focused on maintaining the objectified learner as the essential value-bearing component of the educational apparatus. Suddenly, to say we are 'learner focused' becomes double-edged: we are "learner focused" because we don't see you as a human being, we see you as the essential component without which nobody gets paid. Therefore our processes must hook you, the object, into the institution in such a way that you find it difficult to escape, that you are confused enough not to ask too many difficult questions, that you are frightened enough of contravening the process rules that you stay compliant, and that you are maintained as an objectified unit to the point that you may be considered a 'success' and 'graduated' (processed to completion) by the system.

This is really shit, isn't it? Isn't this why education is usually terrible? Getting real about objects in education means taking this on and facing up to it. Having said this, objects are important; textbooks are useful things, and knowledge has a history compartmentalised in subjects which we at least have to acknowledge and negotiate. But objectifying learners is a bad thing. The "Learning objective" is learner objectification. It is the prescription of specific rules of engagement whereby learners are caught in the system and prevented from asking difficult questions which would break those rules.

How could it be different? The basic issue at stake in education is not learning but science. Scientific inquiry is a critical enterprise: not just critical of explanations emerging from empirical conditions, but critical of the empirical conditions themselves. Only through critique does knowledge advance. Students have the fresh ears, eyes, feelings and energy to see things as they are. Learner objectification knocks this out of them. Each learner, like each human being, is an ecology of sensations, perceptions, ideas, feelings and abilities, and each person's ecology is connected to everyone else's. Teachers engage in ecological projects, working within ridiculous institutional constraints that prevent them from doing sensible things. They should be free to act in ways with their learners which help the learner's inner ecology to thrive. That means not being bound by subjects; it means not being driven by assessment;  it means always remaining authentic and not suppressing any question however critical; it means challenging those in power. Could this work? Or is it simply educational anarchism?

My hope for a progressive education lies with the ecologists. There are ecologies of mind: some are monocultural and brittle; others are rich, diverse and flexible. There are probably parallels between mental ecology and personal virtue. The question is "Is there a way of measuring it?" This is not about IQ, or EQ or any other such nonsense. But it is about the different ways that minds operate, the extent to which they look on the world and perceive meaning, the way that ideas are picked apart and reassembled in dreams. It is about identifying that which makes us human and nurturing it. It is about seeing everybody as different, and yet part of a wider ecology. It is not about that specialism of education - creating failure. So my hope for a measurable ecology of mind is really for an education system which doesn't need to create failure to be viable.