Monday 29 June 2015

Husserl and the Perceptual mystery of Melody

For Husserl, the relationship between time and perception was of fundamental importance. He knew that time was the Achilles heel of most theories of consciousness. Today, I think we are more ignorant of the problem than ever before: our computer technology compensates with rich reductionist models of how we think perception might work, all the time overlooking the obvious ontological assumption of the 'ticking clock' by which any "mechanism" must coordinate itself. Many cyberneticians have at least acknowledged the problem - although few solutions are proposed: the best, I think, it an argument for a kind of temporal immanence which mathematician Louis Kauffman has been exploring using category theory. Interestingly, there are many parallels between Kauffman's work and Husserl's - particularly in the essentially transcendental model of perception that they both subscribe to (which in cybernetics was originally developed by Heinz von Foerster)

For Husserl, the problem of time reveals itself most acutely in the question of how it is we perceive a melody. He says (quoted in Blattner, 1999)
The matter seems very simple at first: we hear the melody, that is, we perceive it, for hearing is indeed perceiving. However, the first tone sounds, then comes the second tone, then the third, and so on. Must we not say: When the second tone sounds, I hear it,  but I no longer hear the first tone, etc.? In truth, then, I do not hear the melody but only the single present tone. That the elapsed part of the melody is something objective for me, I owe - or so one will be inclined to say - to memory; and that I do not presuppose, with the appearance of the currently intended tone, that this is all, I owe to anticipatory expectation. But we cannot be content with this explanation, for everything we have said carries over to the individual tone. Each tone has a temporal extension itself. When it begins to sound, I hear it as now; but while it continues to sound it has an ever new now,and the now that immediately precedes it changes into a past. Therefore at any given time I hear only the actually present phase of the tone, and the objectivity of the whole enduring tone is constituted in an act-continuum that is in part memory, in smallest punctual part perception, and in further part expectation. This seems to lead back top Brentano's theory. Here, then, a deeper analysis must begin.
I remember thinking like this when I was a teenager (I was an odd teenager). I wish I had known then that truly great minds also think these thoughts. Unfortunately, the education system often fails in the business of making sure important knowledge gets passed on. Most shocking for me was that nobody in the music department in Manchester University (where I studied) has the slightest time for this kind of thinking - apart from the professor, Ian Kemp. I think this may still be true, although there has recently been a resurgence of work in 'Music and Philosophy'.

Elsewhere, Husserl elaborates (Blattner, p201)
But the apprehending regard is not directed toward the phase actually sounding now, as if the sound which is apprehended were purely and simply the sound taken in this strictly momentary now. To lay hold of such a now, such a phase of duration, as a moment and to make it an object for itself is rather the function of a specific act of apprehension of another kind. If we apprehend the sound as enduring, in short, as "this sound" we are now turned toward the momentary and yet continuously changing present (the phase sounding now) but through and beyond this present, in its change, toward the sound as a unity which by its essence presents itself in this change, in this flux of appearances. 
To me, Husserl seems very close to Bergson here. Alfred Schutz, who developed Husserl's work, made some important connections with Bergson's philosophy. Schutz's contribution to music theory (which I've written about previously) succeeds I think because Schutz sees the problem of perception and time in the same breath as the problem of intersubjectivity: perceiving time, and indeed, perceiving melody, is fundamentally about knowing one another. It is tuning-in to one another.

This is why I think this stuff, though so difficult, is so important. We have become rather skilled at tuning-out from each other. It's a catastrophic path.  Even musicologists are guilty of this. Most of them don't get the way Husserl (or Schutz) thinks. I think the reason is because it means music isn't "about" sound. It is simply being.

Tuesday 23 June 2015

Fun with coding live: First stab at Improvisation with Overtone and Clojure

For many people, the really exciting thing about the Live Coding community (see is the stuff they are doing in Virtual Reality in the Oculus Rift (like this)

But for me the real fascination with the Live Coding environment is what we can do with music. Ever since I first started using computers this was something of an obsession: algorithmic music on a ZX Spectrum had a peculiar quality to it! But Overtone and Clojure bring a new empirical immediacy to the whole thing.

I'm just learning the language, playing with code examples, but really PLAYING (I should be writing about Heidegger... but sod Heidegger... actually, he might be interested...). Even simple things like this are great fun, and I find myself excited by new possibilities which immediately open up in front of me as I play. I find some interesting code on the web, paste into Emacs (yes, Emacs!) and run it ... and it sounds cool.

There's something deep about this. I'll write about it later. But it's reminding me of the electro-chemical computers that Pask was playing with, alongside Beer's pond daphnia which he'd fed on iron filings: what were they doing? What was their rationale? It was something to do with harnessing complexity for new kinds of computer. For me, music is the most complex thing I know - apart from myself that is: and myself and music are tied up in this playing. It's an analysable ecology. And my feelings get tied up in the machine. I become the computer.

So I'd better concentrate on doing more interesting music with it.. but this is a start....

Monday 22 June 2015

Past, Future and detachment

As I move into a new phase of my professional life, I'm conscious of the challenge of detaching from the past. It seems to me, however, that leaving things behind is really a matter of projecting them into the future. People say "The past catches up with us", but actually, we catch up with the past. In fact, it occurs to me that this is very similar to the concepts of "credit" and "debt" in economics: there too is detachment from present responsibilities and and past commitments projecting them into the future - where we eventually catch-up with them (think of Greece today!) However, there is a further distinction. Some detachments are "just" and some are cruel or unjust. Just detachments are organic. They arise out of love and knowledge of the necessity of detachment: the need for children to grow up and step into the world on their own is a classic example. What is projected into the future in this case is love, acknowledgement, gratitude. So what about cruel detachments?

These seem sudden, inexplicable (although sometimes anticipated), and usually the result of a power imbalance (unlike "just" detachments). The injustice is projected into the future like a lie. And there it lies in wait for us to catch up with it! Each of us, I believe, experiences and is responsible for both types of detachment. Each of us catches up with the past-projected-as-future. Encountering the past-in-the-future is a profound moment of truth in life. However, things can get out of balance. Projecting the past into the future can become a pathological habit. Like a lie, it simply gets bigger and bigger: the necessity to avoid the moment of truth, to project it up until the point of death becomes ever more urgent. This is what it is to live in fear.

Saturday 20 June 2015

The Tim Hunt Debacle highlights the fundamental errors of STEM and the Problem of Fear

There's an excellent letter in the Times Higher this week concerning Tim Hunt's silly comments: see Ottoline Leyser, Professor of Plant Development at Cambridge, points out the scientific error with Hunt's comment, and both points she makes articulate an important position regarding the inseparability between scientists with sentient bodies, emotions and hangups on the one hand, and cold matter, equations and computers on the other. Her first point makes it most precisely:
"he argued that romantic relationships in the lab (which are not always heterosexual) are a distraction, and thus damaging to science. This plays to the curious idea that the best scientists are robots. Progress in science depends on creativity, imagination, inspiration, serendipity, obsession, distraction and all the things that make us human. The best science happens in precisely the environments where people fall in and out of love. You can’t have one without the other."
Yes! And, from what she's says about Hunt as a teacher, I wouldn't be at all surprised if, on reflection, he would also say she was right. Of course I might be wrong, but that would be to reflect her second point (about the obstinacy of the male ego!).

Gregory Bateson made the point many years ago that "when you stick a probe into a system, the other end of the probe is sticking in you". More recently, scientists and science-studies scholars like Karen Barad and Joseph Rouse, together with other philosophers and sociologists have been articulating a more refined approach to science working around the fundamental problem that Bateson identifies. Barad talks about the "entanglement" between matter, values, meaning, and so on. Whilst the 'socio-materiality' which she has played a role in promoting may have a tendency to slip into a very wordy post-modern  discourse (which I must confess to losing patience with), there is a hard-edge to this work which deserves much closer empirical inspection.

The other side of this is that popular conceptions of science - particular those conceptions of science held by politicians like Nicky Morgan (who recently told kids not to study arts subjects) makes precisely the same mistake that Tim Hunt made: they think scientists work like robots. These same people also seem to believe that the function of education is to turn complex machines like children (what Von Foerster calls 'non-trivial machines') into "trivial machines" - where, given a set of inputs, the output is predictable. Exam systems are excellent at testing the qualities of trivial machines!

Politicians like this because it isn't politically challenging. STEM is supported - to the utter devastation of arts education - because it is apolitical. Children being programmed to do functional things in predictable ways must be good for the economy, mustn't it?! Unfortunately, this is bad science, bad economics, and produces a situation where too many scientists have become robotic number-crunchers, whilst the people doing the deep critical scientific (and economically valuable) work are often artists (think of Cornelia Parker, for example)! At least they are allowed to show their feelings - although the best of them display a remarkable coolness faced with the enormous complexities they have to manage.

Scientific discovery, like artistic creation, emerges from complexity. We clearly are part of the complexity we seek to describe. Unfortunately we also posses the mindless capacity to suppress our own complexity rather than use it imaginatively: it makes us fearful. This is what our current crop of University managers are doing. Making occasional silly remarks is an expression of complexity. Sacking people instantly because they say something silly is an expression of fear and untrammelled power. We must learn to tell the difference between expressing complexity and expressing fear.

More importantly, we must deal with the corrosive, corrupting fear that is endemic in the management of our institutions.

Friday 19 June 2015

Husserl's Phenomenology and its Significance for Thinking about Education and Technology

Although the intellectual history of thinking about experience and consciousness really begins with Husserl, Kant had prepared the foundations for considering the mind’s role in constituting the world. More importantly, Brentano had drawn attention to the inner ‘intentional’ nature of human experience by casting back to the medieval philosophy of mind of Augustine and Aquinas:
“Every mental phenomenon is characterized by what the Scholastics of the Middle Ages called the intentional (or mental) inexistence of an object, and what we might call, though not wholly unambiguously, reference to a content, direction toward an object (which is not to be understood here as meaning a thing), or immanent objectivity. Every mental phenomenon includes something as object within itself”

However, it is Husserl who argued that consciousness was structured, and that its structure could be the object of scientific inquiry. The challenge was to explore methods for doing this. The reductive methods proposed by Husserl and the insights and challenges they presented spawned a new intellectual current in 20th century thought that led from Husserl’s immediate circle which included Heidegger, Scheler and Schutz, through to French philosophy of Merleau-Ponty, Sartre and Derrida. Although diverse in its various incarnations, the thread of phenomenology hangs together in the idea that a reflexive philosophy of consciousness must strip away philosophical foundations: phenomenology is presuppositionless.

The desire to eschew foundations makes phenomenology a powerful countervailing force against those ways of thinking about the world which are grounded in some conception of materiality (the foundations of Marxist thought, for example), or the presuppositions of scientistic measurement of functionalism. However, eschewing foundations introduces very profound problems, and phenomenology remains one of the most difficult domains of philosophy where simple presentations of ideas like “phenomenological reduction” can obscure the subtlety and nuance of the thinking of phenomenologists. Fundamentally, phenomenology entails an endless process of critique as thinking constantly turns in on itself continually guarding against the inevitable manifestation of foundational thought. Husserl himself epitomised this attitude. Morgan argues that Husserl was continually “struggling to clarify his insights and to articulate the method by which he arrived at them and which he thought justified them”.

Husserl’s relentless self-criticism and pursuit of intellectual objectives is in stark contrast to the facile way in which “experience” is treated today as a marker of ‘evidence’ in support of a policy. Today, when educational leaders talk about the ‘learning experience’ they hope to point to the aggregated questionnaire responses of learners which will demonstrate a rising line in accordance with the policy interventions for which they wish to claim credit! The gap between these cultures of “experience” provides one reason why Husserl’s intellectual struggles are worth getting to grips with. However, a more concerning problem is the fact that the shallow capturing of “experience” through questionnaires, data analysis and evidence-based policy has evolved through a series of misinterpretations of the phenomenology project that Husserl established, where Husserl himself accused some of his closest followers (including Heidegger) of misunderstanding him. Understanding Husserl and how his ideas have been interpreted means understanding how it is we have arrived at such shallow research practices in education.

Although Husserl’s work is highly complex, and the evolution of phenomenology after him can appear as a series disparate yet profound propositions concerning consciousness with tenuous connections to one another, understanding Husserl’s starting point, the problems he faced and the solutions he proposed can provide a way of approaching the topic which sees a clearer intellectual thread that runs through from the work of Heidegger to Derrida.  This inquiry began with a critique of Frege’s mathematically-oriented distinction between sense (Sinn) and reference (Bedeutung).

On the face of it, Frege’s concerns mirrored those of Husserl. Like Husserl, Frege opposed the psychologism that pervaded much intellectual thought at the time. This made Frege antipathetic towards any kind of epistemological account of being, and more inclined to defend an objectivist account. Husserl, by contrast, distrusted objectivism, and argued for a deeper and more scientific epistemology. In pursuing a scientific epistemology, Husserl was ahead of his time: this was an objective shared by cybernetics in in the late 1940s, and Husserl’s concept of phenomenological reduction bears strong similarities to Von Foerster’s ideas concerning recursion in perception.

Frege’s solution to the problem of sense and reference made a distinction between the presentation of things and their meaning. In Husserl’s view, the separation between modes of presentation (sense) and meaning masked a set of assumptions about the workings of consciousness by which meaning was determined. Frege’s objectivist account of meaning might be compared to the arguments presented by ‘big data’ analysts today, who argue that meaning can be mathematically deduced through the analysis of communications on the internet, or the articulation of (many instances of) “sense”. Husserl objected to Frege as he would probably have objected to ‘big data’. For Husserl, underlying the structures of logical connections between appearances and meanings were the structures and operations of consciousness.

Behind Frege’s objectivist ‘appearances’ lie “essences” where process by which meaning is attached to appearances is a process whereby consciousness structures itself around essences. To understand the workings of consciousness is to understand the relationship between thought processes and the essences those processes are directed towards. However, Husserl did not present an individualised account of consciousness: thinking happens in a world which humans share. As his work progressed (over many years) the methods of identifying the structure and workings of consciousness became richer and more socialised, with Husserl articulating a theory of subjectivity and reality that placed human relations centre-stage (again, an intellectual move consistent with later cybernetics).

For most people who know something of Husserl’s work, the concept most commonly apprehended is that of the ‘bracketing’ the everyday appearances so as to reveal distilled essences of experiences underneath. Today, students in the social sciences are introduced to bracketing and phenomenological reduction in a melange of techniques which are intended to provide grounding for practical research techniques that can produce findings from raw data. On the surface it seems that Husserl’s phenomenological reductions (there are a number of different types) fit well with the “coding” of interview questionnaire responses and the identification of “themes”. However, to defend ‘coding’ as consistent with phenomenological reduction is to misrepresent Husserl. The extent of the misrepresentation can be seen in the contemporary obsession with surveying the learning experience of students. The results of questionnaires and surveys produce information in the form of rankings and bar graphs. Where Husserl would question the relationship between the “experiences” recounted in learning experience surveys and deeper issues of consciousness, today such techniques simply are used to generate ‘evidence’ for good or bad institutional practice. Yet such information today becomes part of the shared environment of education: what Husserl calls the “lifeworld”.

The purpose of Husserl’s phenomenological reduction methods was that thought could distil itself by transcending the manifest world, or what he called the ‘natural attitude’ to arrive at an assumed or transcendental root that was supposed to underpin it: he wished to render thought “an object for philosophical scrutiny and in order to account for its essential structure.” (Natanson, quoted by Burrell and Morgan, p233). In order to do this, he had to address some difficult questions about the nature of subjective experience. If subjectivity was conceived as individual, then the phenomenological reduction would lead to solipsism. However, subjective experience is experience of a world of others and their subjectivity and a shared environment. He termed this everyday world the ‘lifeworld’, arguing that the shared experience in the lifeworld played a fundamental role in the structure of consciousness, and that experience of each other’s experience – what he called “inter-subjectivity” was a fundamental part of the lifeworld. But how does the consciousness of each person structure itself with regard to the lifeworld?

Husserl argued that conscious experience was one of the continual construction and adaptation of a “horizon of meanings” or “epistemological horizon” - effectively a set of expectations and orientations towards the world. One of Husserl's followers, the mathematician Hermann Weyl, explained that the epistemological horizon amounted to a set of possibilities of not-necessarily realised things:
“Under the eidetic reduction in the epistemological horizon of pure consciousness, a potential for the coming-to-presence of one’s knowledge-of-something exists in pure subjectivity as perceptions of unarticulated sensory data [...] Furthermore, “the possibility of this potential for awareness is not itself a constituted object per se. Within its infinite range of likelihood, a possibility as such is not a thing to be known as actually real in a world of objective things, although the probability of something could usually be presumed as an idealized outcome of constitutive life.” (Weyl, 1940, 289-95).

Husserl’s ideas about ‘intersubjectivity’ stand in sharp contrast to contemporary efforts to understand consciousness. Today many neuroscientists operate with the view that consciousness is in individual heads as the product of the interactions of neurons. Husserl would have objected that this couldn’t be right and that the subjectivity of consciousness had to be relational. Husserl’s ideas about intersubjectivity were critiqued and developed by some of his followers – most notably Alfred Schutz. In considering Husserl’s view of intersubjectivity, Schutz noted that Husserl tends to concentrate of one-to-one relationships: “Husserl takes as the model of the social situation the case of the bodily presence of the participants in a community of time and space, so that the one find himself in the perceptual field and the range of the Other.” Schutz then argues that “the social world has near and far zones: the surrounding world […] in which you and I experience one another in spatial and temporal immediacy, may pass over into the world of my contemporaries, who are not given to me in spatial immediacy; and in multiple transitions, there are worlds of both predecessors and successors.” (Schutz, “The Problem of Transcendental Intersubjectivity in Husserl”, p81)

Schutz’s objection to Husserl’s account of intersubjectivity is important when we consider the different ways humans engage in communication – particularly in education. Husserl’s concentration on the one-to-one relationship does seem too narrow and tending to make the assumption of equivalence between what Schutz calls the ‘far zone’ communication and the ‘near zone’. This is an uninspected assumption which also is evident in among those educational technologists who have promoted technological means of communicating and acting as functionally equivalent to face-to-face interactions. In arguing that this is a mistake, Schutz identifies a gap in Husserl’s thought whilst making a distinction that helps us think about the differences between communicating with people face-to-face and communicating with them using the many technological means we now have for ‘far zone’ interaction.

One of the problems with difficult academic work is the scope that it presents for misinterpretation. Husserl failed to convince his followers that his idea of phenomenological reduction to reveal the transcendental essences of consciousness could be practical or indeed was the right path. He believed his failure was a failure of his students to properly understand him rather than the result of legitimate critique. In this, he was probably right. Husserl regarded Heidegger’s “Being and Time”, which was dedicated to Husserl, as a betrayal of his ideas. 

Thursday 18 June 2015

Improvisation and Performing Coding: What about Live-Coding Education?

I don't usually do 'hot tips' for things to watch out for in educational technology, but I recommend taking a close look at the practice of an increasing number of musicians who are 'live coding' musical performances, improvising the creation of algorithmic routines as a way of improvising music. This video of a TED performance by Andrew Sorensen is instructive:

I've thought for a long time that the next breakthroughs in science and technology will come from the arts, not the sciences directly: you always have to look where the passion is, and our STEM fetish is a miserable thing. It will pass (eventually) and a deeper (still technical) creativity, spontaneity and improvisation will take its place. (Of course, I tried to convince my former university of this before they closed my department...)

If you want to know about 'live coding', there is a fantastic website at, and for anyone who is in Leeds between the 13th and 15th of July, there is the first Live Coding conference taking place (unfortunately, I can't go) - see

The technologies this is built on have been around for years. There are a variety of tools, including Supercollider ( and a simplified Clojure-based language called Overtone which sits on top of Supercollider (see Some aspects of it are very retro-geeky, like the fact that Emacs appears to be the Live coding editor of choice! But really, I think the geekiness can be separated from the dynamics of what is actually happening. Blogs used to be geeky at one point.

What is happening? Well, this is performance. In the sociology literature for the last few years, 'performativity' has been a bit of a buzz-word around which notions of 'socio-materiality' and entanglement have become prominent. Andrew Pickering's "The mangle of practice" is a good touchstone example, although much deeper is the science studies work of people like Karen Barad (see her "Meeting the Universe Halfway"), and at a more philosophical level, Joseph Rouse's "How Scientific Practices matter". There's a lot of play on the word "mattering". The problem with a lot of this stuff is that for all the talk about performativity, there's not been a lot of performance. Just talk.

The Live Coding thing changes that. But it does a number of other things too. The most interesting thing for me is that this provides us with a trace of improvisatory listening-acting practice. The data of what's done, when, in what context and so on is all available for inspection. I think Sorensen's music here is interesting, but not very ambitious as music. So what if we were to be more musically ambitious? What would the algorithms look like? What would the emergence of new ideas look like?

The listening thing is important. When I was at the Far Eastern Federal University in Vladivostok a couple of weeks back, I gave a keynote presentation on the problems connected with technology's incapacity for listening. I started with a singing exercise borrowing one of Pauline Oliveros's Sonic Meditations (a good thing to do when few people can speak English). I then talked about how we implement 'social' tools, but they're not really social because we don't listen properly, and the technology does help us to listen properly. Straight after my presentation we participated in a slightly absurd video conference with a Chinese delegation where nobody could understand anybody else: more than one person suggested to me afterwards that this proved my point!

We need our technology more deeply-wired into our aesthetic senses and we need the capacity to express our feelings more directly by continually manipulating the technology. Bill Seaman calls this Neo-Sentience. Although the Live-coding is still crude, I think this is basically what these musicians (and incidentally, graphic artists, virtual reality artists, poets, playwrights, and so on) are doing. They are revealing their inner world of experience through direct manipulation and transformation of the technological-material context. It's a kind of meta-activity to traditional improvisation: so I improvise on the piano to express myself; the live coder improvises in the same way, but also can transform the technological context of the improvisation.

So here's the challenge: What about Live-Coding education? What would that look like? The most interesting thing about the question is that to Live-Code education is to make the improvisatory construction of the technological landscape multi-way with everybody doing it. That's exciting, isn't it?!

Tuesday 16 June 2015

Why don't dogs have Universities? Searle's social ontology talk in Cambridge

John Searle gave a great talk yesterday in Cambridge on his social ontology which is largely articulated in his book "Making the Social World". It's his second trip to Cambridge in a year - a relationship that's emerged from his friendship with Tony Lawson and the Social Ontology Group. Searle and Lawson don't agree with each other, but there is a very high degree of mutual respect in their respective efforts towards a common cause of accounting for social reality - a fundamental question that Searle pithily addresses by asking why animals don't have social institutions. For his part, Searle acknowledges that Lawson's work on social ontology in economics is "the best alternative theory to his own".

This is elegant work which I like a lot - I have used it to deepen understanding of the social dynamics we see in education and technology. However, I am uncomfortable with Searle's linguistic foundationalism - as is Lawson. In the discussion following the talk yesterday, Lawson pointed out the apparent absence of totalities in Searle's ontology. Whilst Searle responded that he did account for totalities, I think the difference lies in the fact that Searle and Lawson have different understandings of what a totality means.

The critical realist ontology that grounds Lawson's work has a materialist-mechanistic foundation. Whilst Searle upholds the importance of language for human institutions, he too argues that it is emergent from matter. This places him in the camp of those information theorists like Deacon (who like Searle is at Berkeley), who articulate an evolutionary model of irreducible structures which emerge from the dynamics of matter. In Deacon's mechanism, absence plays a fundamental role, and within critical realist ontology, absences are part of totalities. Searle, despite being asked about it, didn't say very much about absences.

I've been wrestling recently with the foundationalism in critical realism: so much rests on arguing with Hume that there must be natural necessity. I can't see that the issue is decidable: there is a possibility that Hume was right about natural necessity (it doesn't exist), and Badiou, Meillassoux and others have been pursuing this. It leads to Platonism... but it can't be discounted.

Critical Realism has eschewed what Bhaskar calls the 'linguistic fallacy' - the reduction of the world to language - with Searle's earlier work on speech acts very much in mind. Instead, it sees language as part of the 'transitive domain' - those mechanisms that exist through human agency (Searle calls this "observer dependent"). The linguistic fallacy leads to a flattening of reality according to Bhaskar - what he calls ontological monovalence.

The effects of some of this flattening are evident in Searle's work, or rather what it doesn't account for. An interesting question was asked about "so where does power come from?" (the power to make declarations about the nature of the social world is an important aspect of his theory). He didn't really have an adequate explanation I thought. It seems to me that the ontogeny of human beings is very important: attachments and education together with the socioeconomic conditions within which children grow up mean that we see power in the playground. Then there is something important about the shared  context for language - particularly those aspects of experience that concern justice, security, fear, manipulation, exploitation and so on.  Searle doesn't really get this stuff - he's no Marxist, and quite enjoys goading them cheekily knowing where Lawson's sympathies lie!

I asked whether Searle's idea of a 'status function declaration' - which is the mechanism he articulates for how people determine the reality of things in the social world - has a negative image in a "scarcity declaration". His favourite examples of money, which in the US contains a "status function" of "This note is legal tender for all debts public and private" is also a scarcity declaration of "that note, which isn't a dollar, is not legal tender". University degrees also create scarcity in their declaration of status function: a degree from Oxford University is also the declaration of scarcity of a privileged education. Scarcity declarations create an environment of exclusion, inequality, injustice and fear. It seems to me that it is from these emotions which can create the conditions for the emergence of power and struggle. It's struggle which Searle doesn't acknowledge.

The idea of declaring scarcity appeals to me because it may avoid the problem of linguistic foundationalism. It also muddies the waters about the relationships between humans and animals. Arguably, one could say that the status function declaration "This is mine" is a universal one throughout the animal kingdom. Cats and dogs make this declaration all the time. Ants are perhaps more interesting in appearing to make the declaration "This is ours". Dogs might not have universities, but ants might for all we know...

Searle's statement about language's relationship to social reality is a strong claim which many struggle with. It can easily be taken to be a kind of deterministic relationship: reality is the product of declarative speech acts. But it is less contentious, I think, to say that language constrains reality, and to look at how speech acts constrain individuals and institutions is to ask about the ways in which scarcity is created. This would not be say that institutional behaviour is determined by command, but that the rich totality of the world is shaped by effectively blocking-off options to people. How people deal with these constraints is an issue which is much more ontologically rich than simply language: it involves practice, politics, education, biology, etc.

Practice has become one of key battlegrounds in thinking about foundationalism and post-foundationalism. Practice occurs within constraints. Ideas and languages are themselves aspects of practice: the relationship between practice and reality is one which may not depend on foundations at all. Understanding how constraints operate, and understanding how practice changes constraints is to place the whole human being on the stage, rather than a particular linguistic aspect of them. Furthermore, it is to soften the relationship between foundations and being human in a way which can encourage thinking which avoids dogma.

Wednesday 10 June 2015

What's the point of Critique of Education? Or why the wish for the one-handed Educationalist...

Ronald Reagan joked that he wished for a one-handed economist because "all my economists say 'on the one hand... on the other...'" Modern politicians care little for multi-handedness and yet the one-armed economists that Reagan surrounded himself with did a lot of damage to the economy. A similar political problem afflicts education. The politician's demand for simple solutions which often appear as little more than whims renders the many-handed and many-headed process of educational critique almost powerless. And yet the academic literature on education is full of critique. The debate over what education is for, what universities ought to be (but aren't), what is and isn't effective learning, what is and isn't effective learning technology, teaching practice, assessment methods or curriculum organisation have entertained scholars of education for centuries. Education academics will pick apart policies and innovations after they have arrived on the statute book declaring them to be in the interests of one privileged group or another and yet - irrespective of the merits of their argument - the target of their critique, the education system as determined by politicians, tends to be unchanged by critical attack. Social reproduction seems as much a function of the education system today as it seemed to Pierre Bourdieu's 1960s France; language remains as much a critical barrier which separates those students who study at elite institutions (ironically gaining powers of critique) and those who don't as it seemed to Basil Bernstein; vocational education remains education "for other peoples' children" as Alison Wolf observed in the early 2000s. Meanwhile comprehensive and mixed ability education is on the back foot, assailed by both right and left-wing (nominally!) governments, student satisfaction surveys make pleas for 'troublesome knowledge' difficult to defend to university marketing departments, and universities become ever more corporate. Moreover, the writing of critique enlists even those academics critical of the system into the very same system at the expense of those who are in the direct firing line of educational inequality. Radical academics play the "radical academic game" in such a way that they still manage to draw a salary from the University – itself increasingly a sign of privilege. The evidence is everywhere: soaring tuition fees, the fragmentation of the education sector, despotic vice-chancellors on huge salaries and governing councils stuffed full of corporate executives with little understanding of academic life (or even an active scepticism about it).

The rise and development of educational technology provides a powerful case-study in the powerlessness of critique. In recent years, plenty has been written about the Massive Open Online Courses (MOOC) - about who it serves, what it's for, why it does and doesn't work, why it might or might not be able to address the critical problems of education (for example, cost or flexibility). The problem is, simple questions like "Who are MOOCs for?" produces very complicated answers. We know that the vast majority of learners who pick them up drop them within a couple of weeks; that the few who complete them, and the many who drop them, have little need of extra education themselves; that curiosity as to "how I might run my own MOOC" is a motivator among those who explore them. On the face of it, MOOCs are for learners: yet the number of learners (many of whom already have degrees) willing to stay the course would make it not seem worth the effort. Despite this, the effort and expense of establishing MOOCs is justified to institutions: it represents the latest incarnation of a great project to transform education with technology, making it freely available to all. So who is it for? Various business models for this display of philanthropy have been speculated upon each of which situates the interested parties in the investment. For example, MOOCs are institutional marketing; MOOCs provide opportunities for data gathering about learner preferences; MOOCs benefit individual academics who raise their personal status by placing courses online. The question of “Who are MOOCs for?” or even the broader question “Who is online education for?” raises a broader analytic difficulty of determining the relationship between technology and power relations in education. Whilst technology presents itself as an emancipatory force in education, countless examples show how rhetoric of emancipation hides threats to emancipation through corporate domination, alienation, instrumentalisation and deskilling.

Educational technology’s ambition to make everything ‘freely available’ has been driven by a confused rhetoric. Firstly there is "education is broken" discourse described recently by Weller: technology was to come to the rescue of bored students imprisoned by an outdated system. Secondly, there were arguments about cost and the lack of necessity for the campus. Then there were arguments about shifting the locus of control for learning from the institution to the individual. Then there were arguments about efficiency and use of resources and efficient business process within the institution. The arguments slip from radical Marxism to Thatcherite corporatism almost imperceptibly. From open courses to open resources, from open tools to open access journals initiatives which have been characterised by Steve Fuller as a "nothing more but nothing less than a consumerist revolt: academic style” 

Fuller’s accusation is uncomfortable for the many champions of openness for whom the very idea that they represent a consumerist agenda is anathema to fundamental political motivations. There is little doubting that the internet has brought access to academic resources within easy reach of everyone: Wikipedia represents a revolution in the closed-practices of publishers which has forced a rethink of their business models, even if the reactionary criticisms of Wikipedia, its authors and its users, have at least some grain of truth. But ask “who is Wikipedia for?” and the apparently clear answer ("for its users") gradually gives way to more nuanced arguments. The founding principle of any wiki is that users control the means of production. Yet Wikipedia searches which are made through internet search engines provide search corporations with rich data about their users. Search for free resources provides a way of identifying markets for revenue-generating resources and activities which can then be more closely targeted. This may not be Wikipedia’s fault, but it is an indication of the tangled web of interests that dominate the internet.

The Wikipedia problem highlights a deeper problem for critical thinking about educational technology. For the Marxist to ask “who is it for?” and then to ask “who has control over the means of production?” entails an inquiry into human relations with material resources. Having identified these relations, and unpicked issues of control, labour, profit, wages and ultimately the social stratifications of class and political struggle provides the critical basis for challenging the status quo and transforming the system. However, this task is easier with the tangible commodities and means of production of textile mills and steel production than it is with slippery educational technology. Technologies masquerading as tools of emancipation providing control over the means of production the people mask largely uninspected corporate power structures behind the scenes. However much today's social software 'gives' to users, it extracts far more in terms of information about those users. Technology's “unseen hand” ultimately represents the interests of the elite high-tech corporatists. Critique of this is hardly new and pre-dates computers: Marcuse’s ‘one-dimensional man’ castigated the technological drive of communism as much as that of capitalism; Horkheimer worried that technology would render people incapable of political action; Fromm concerned himself with the pathology of “cybernetic man” where human individuality is lost to a kind of ‘wisdom of crowds’ (witness our current obsession with ‘crowd-sourcing’). However, despite these critiques, there has been little progress in realising a more critical and political grasp of technology. Even Wikileaks and Edward Snowden have done little to shake addictions to social software. Innovations in social media are now seen in such a way that exploitation of user data (and user labour) is seen as an inevitable consequence that provides a working business model for entrepreneurs.

The critical attack is an inquiry into the fundamental nature of existence and social order in the natural world. Critique is an ontological inquiry. Marx's critique of human relations with nature revealed the root causes of social ill and political struggle. Yet Marx’s materialism is challenged by the fundamental question about the materiality of communications technologies. Wikipedia, MOOCs, open educational resources, and so on, are in the final analysis merely lights on a screen. How can we grasp the ontology of that? Yet Marx's critique concerned itself with the assumptions of the capitalist about the nature of the world. Behind the lights on the screen, there lie social assertions about the nature of learning and social reality which can be inspected. For example there are:
  1. Assumptions about learning (as biological adaptation, as conversation, etc)
  2. Assumptions about communication (as the exchange of messages)
  3. Assumptions about communities (as networks of communication)
  4. Assumptions about "functional equivalence" between communication technologies and other means of achieving ends
  5. Assumptions about the separability of elements: the so-called "mereological fallacy" which divides whole things into components.

In each case, we might ask “Let’s say learning is biological adaptation as described by Piaget, or communities are networks of communication as described by Downes and Siemens. What would the world look like if this were universally true?” Sufficient rigour and honesty would reveal the modelled world to be very different from the real world. Yet the assumptions listed, even if they are critiqued by educational scholars, are hardly thought about by those who engage in educational practices with or without technologies on a daily basis. The inquiry into the nature of education falls on the deaf ears of politicians preferring one-handed educationalists. Yet this inquiry goes to the heart of scientific knowledge.

Causes, Knowledge and Foundations in Education research

In common with the rest of the social sciences, the study of education sits in an uneasy relationship to the philosophy of science that, ever since David Hume, has rested on "regular successions of events" as the criterion for the construction of scientific theory. From Hume's simple idea stemmed not only the primacy of scientific method, but also the sociological positivism inspired by Comte's desire to discover event regularities in the social world (Comte originally wanted to call his nascent sociology "Social Physics"). Regularity theory became associated with an approach to closed-system experiments that emphasised the objective nature of empirical knowledge and objectivism in the social sciences took the form of statistically-oriented methodological practices. The necessity for regularities blurred the distinction between methods and events. One has only to think about the method-blindness behind the problems of questionnaires and surveys in producing "evidence" for social facts: the asking of questions, the answering of questions, the statistical flattening of responses all can produce an abstract regularity, but one that is generated between the object under scrutiny and the method of inquiry. 

One approach to dealing with the poverty of knowledge and method in the social sciences has come from an attack on Hume by Roy Bhaskar, Rom Harre and others. They argue that the regularity theory cannot be right since knowledge constructed in closed system experiments remains valid in open-systems. How else could it be that we can use calculations gained through closed-system experiments and then send rockets to the moon? This would mean that Hume was wrong about causes, and that in fact scientists don't construct them, they discover them (as Aristotle had supposed). Bhaskar's work dealt with the nature of causes arguing that what was discovered were mechanisms and that mechanisms operated in different but inter-connected ways in the physical and social worlds (what Bhaskar calls the intransitive and transitive domains). The interesting point here is that Bhaskar's approach suggested that there were discoverable mechanisms in the social world (in the transitive domain) which connected deep down with the mechanisms of the physical world about which scientists know quite well already. This was not to say there are event regularities in the social world (clearly there are not), but partially regular successions of events (which there often are) could help social scientists understand the dynamics of the social world which could in turn lead to better polity. More importantly, it was to articulate an approach to ontology that developed and enriched Marx's critique with a methodological critique which opened the door to a deeper naturalistic inquiry into the social sciences.

Partial regularities in education can be instructive and Bhaskar's approach encourages researchers to speculate on possible mechanisms which might be responsible for them. However, educational theorists (and everyone else involved in education) are only able to observe changes in the capabilities of learners over time and distributions of capabilities across a sample: actual learning processes cannot be seen but can only be speculated upon. Yet speculated mechanisms of learning processes cannot be tested. Neither can observed changes be attributed to particular interventions: there are no independent variables in education. For all the strengths of Bhaskar's critique of Hume and his renewed approach to Marxist ontology, speculations about mechanisms which cannot be tested can only result in the building of new shaky foundations to knowledge. More recent critics have drawn attention to this foundationalism in the social sciences, its pathologies and ways in which attachment to foundations can be loosened.

Understanding the role of foundations in educational thought can help to unpick the tangible problems of the powerlessness of critique. Reagan's wish for the one-handed economist was a wish for unproblematic foundations. From the political perspective, the shallowest foundations can be the most resilient. In education, the cry for "evidence-based" approaches is a masked cry for one-handed educationalists bearing dividers like Blake's Urizen. At the same time, speculations about learning processes which are unprovable can be expedient for politicians wishing to sound as if they understand something about education. In this way, constructivism has established itself as an educational mantra which has had the effect of closing down further investigations and speculations about learning processes, teacher experimentation and (more importantly) educational organisation.

Science, Foundations and the Critique of Educational Constructivism

Constructivist thinking has dominated educational discourse since the 1960s. The materiality of education, its institutions and practices, lost out to the speculative immateriality of “learning”. From Piaget’s ‘genetic epistemology’, Von Glasersfeld’s ‘radical constructivism’, Augstien’s “learning conversations” to Pask’s conversation theory, the principal focus of educational theory has been on knowledge produced as a result of a foundationalist mechanisms. Recent developments in educational technology with the developments of the MOOC and the VLE ground themselves in pre-existing constructivist educational theories. Much of this thinking has been socially progressive in that it challenges the traditional power-relations between teachers and learners, with constructivist pedagogies privileging conversation, experiential learning and shared activities. They provide a platform for critiquing didactic practice which promotes the ‘sage on the stage’ teacher and ‘information transfer’ models of learning. By its very nature as an intellectual inquiry, constructivism engages minds and bodies in conversation, activity and exploration and the effects, when implemented by a skilled teacher, can be transformative.

As a speculation about learning, constructivism cannot be falsified. Constructivist foundationalism establishes the causes for learning as lying inherent in the dynamics of conversation. The central bone of contention within the discourse is the precise nature of the causal mechanisms on the one hand, and the relationship between causation and natural necessity on the other. When varieties of constructivism emerge in educational technology (for example, the recent vogue for connectionism which underpinned the MOOC) defence rests on the supposition of actually existing causal mechanisms which connect individual subjectivity, whilst failing to critique the supposition of their own existence. If there has been an ‘anti-ontological’ move within constructivism, it has been driven by two forces: on the one hand, a sense of fear that engagement with ontology might undermine constructivism’s experientially-grounded opposition to instructionalism and didacticism. On the other hand, constructivism’s emphasis on conversation has tended to “flatten” the discourse such that distinctions between ethics, politics, knowledge and action which are fundamental to ontological thinking become intractable within constructivism’s discourse which tends to retreat towards varieties of relativism. A critical approach to this involves the inspection of the foundations behind the constructivist project (or the roots of the constructivist ontology); secondly it involves identifying the materialist dimension behind constructivism’s assertions: fundamentally, that for all the assertions of constructivism behind MOOCs or VLEs, the platforms themselves have a material existence coupled with a set of power relations all of which have causal impacts on the lives and experiences of learners and teachers.

The Naturalistic environment of education and the tendency towards Shallow Foundations

Teachers in Universities may be academic specialists in their individual disciplines, but few have specialised knowledge of the academic study of education itself: Education, as Everett Hughes noted in the 1930s, "is very bad at examining itself”. The everyday life within Universities, like everyday life in other ways, revolves around routines and rituals within the workplace. Timetables and modules to be taught, assignments and essays to mark, student problems to be dealt with: each creates tensions within individuals which require the social contact within discourse to unburden itself. As with any form of employment, the fundamental objective is to remain in employment, to remain being able to support one’s family, and so on. If the conditions can be created where the critique of education challenges employment, then fear will prevent the critique developing. Within universities, as the management has increasingly become separate from the scholarly activity, as academic performance is measured by publication statistics, fear culture takes over and the rituals of academic life compensate for the existential terror of becoming unemployable. As Durkheim was probably first to identify, adherence to the ritual of academic practice is also acquiescence to a social order. Critique of the material substrate of education requires an awareness of the rituals academics are caught in, and the necessity to step outside it – but if such a critique threatens livelihoods, academics will be unlikely to engage with it.

It is within this context that academic judgements about scholarship, academic colleagues, students, management and so on are made. Each individual will have different circumstances and a different life history. Consequently, different opinions about educational issues will form. These differences unfold in the deliberative committees of the departments and the broader university, its academic board, the senate and the University council. Given this diversity and difficulty in establishing any kind of consensus, it is perhaps remarkable that anything positive can occur. Yet improvements to academic performance, student experience, and so on can occur through careful observation and critique. For example, the ways in which disability and individual differences are catered for today is generally superior to what it was 20 years ago. The system organises itself better to deal with individual differences of all kinds.

Theoretical arguments frequently get bogged-down in difficult vocabulary, and this is vocabulary few teachers would engage with. Teachers make judgements about their learners continuously. The reasons for teacher judgements are complex: for example, it might be due to cultural reproduction – whether through mechanisms of Bourdieu, or through Bernstein’s linguistic deficit. Each explanation for the natural attitude of teachers to learners masks the fact that there are regularities in teacher’s engagements with students, that individual teachers will acquire habits for engaging with their students, that habitual and routinized aspects of communication underpin socialised behaviour in the classroom and in the staffroom. This means that whilst there are not regularities as there are regularities within scientific experiments, there are routines and rituals which serve to ground judgements in a very similar way to those which ground the establishment of knowledge in the physical sciences.

The ritualised environment for education also creates barriers for critical debate because within the ritualised environment lie educational diktats from government and other agencies which demand attention and compliance. This is the shared environment of education for teachers and for learners. Habits are established in complex relationships at many different levels. New policies introduce new kinds of instruments: typically targets are set, and the social system within which the defensible judgement was identified is changed to include other work. 'Evidence-based policy' is the result. This helps to explain why the critical attack of ontological shallowness regarding evidence-based policy has had little effect. "Evidence" creates a shared environment within which judgements can be made. All observers exist within a social context participate in the situation, and each - from students to teachers to ministers - constitute parts of mechanisms of reproduction and transformation of social rules, the reproduction of rights and responsibilities of different stakeholders and different role players. Ministers, like the rest of us, have their ideas about education deeply informed by their own experience of it. These ideas present different conceptions of the causal mechanisms involved in the education system.

Grounds for Decision

Decisions are declarations of intent: the taking of a decision is an attempt to determine a course of action or the direction of events. The taking of a decision demands that there is some expectation that the act of deciding, or declaring the decision, will actually have the effect that is intended. This means that decisions entail some appreciation of the social and material properties of the environment within which the decision is made. In other words, the context of a decision shapes it, or rather, constrains it. Education is a case-in-point where the naturalistic environment of education, the environment of the rituals of University life, the nature of other people, their personal being and professional practice, the nature of learners and their capabilities, and so on are all factors which bear upon the making of decisions by teachers. In order to understand the nature of decision in education, it is necessary to grasp the conditions within which decisions are made. The constraints within the education system exist at many levels in both concrete and material form (for example, classroom, blackboard, textbooks) and in social form through the normative regulative practices of teachers, professional expectations and so on. Furthermore, within the stratified power relations of Universities, there are different constraints operating on different actors: the constraints operating on managers are constraints imposed by government policy, the constraints operating on teachers are constraints imposed by managements and the constraints operating on learners are constraints imposed by teachers.

Decisions have real consequences, which in turn produce new constraints. Bad decisions result in constraints which disempower individuals, rendering them incapable of making decisions for themselves. The pathologies of university education reveal this most powerfully: teachers aim to create conditions which empower students to make their own decisions, yet the constraints of learning outcomes, assessment schedules and curriculum mean that learners are effectively funnelled into a game of box-ticking which alienates both them and their teachers from authentic self-discovery and empowerment. Whilst university aims to establish the conditions for scholarship, research, the preservation and development of knowledge, decisions from government ministers down create an environment which heavily constrains the agency of teachers and students to produce outputs that are easily measurable: whether they are degree certificates, journal citations, research funding, teaching hours or student satisfaction scores.

An easy way of thinking about constraint is to imagine what it is that people worry about in their professional practice. There are always aspects of threat in the environment that will cause individuals to fear for their jobs, and further to fear for the security of the people they love. In the time of Marx, threats were direct and material: no food and no shelter was not an uncommon fate for the working class. In most modern democracies such destitution is rare, although individuals will fear it as a consequence of being unable to pay the mortgage. However, loss of employment is at the end of a ‘chain of fear’ which has links that reach into the fabric of everyday practice and decision-making within the University. Whilst loss of employment can entail material loss (not to have no shelter, but certainly to lose one’s own shelter and with it a sense of dignity), the root of fear higher up the chain concerns information. Quite simply, if the performance statistics don’t look good, there is a threat of redundancy. And there are a variety of performance statistics to look out for. Anything from poor student satisfaction ratings, poor student achievement, no publications, no PhD, no research funding, poor recruitment on modules, or no modules to teach each work as a kind of academic ‘black spot’. As with all targets, the simple solution is to make the statistics look as best as they can: students that would once have failed miraculously pass (passing on the problem to other academic staff to deal with), students who wouldn’t have been admitted are admitted, PhDs are enrolled on internally with no time for scholarship and a motivation of fear for their completion, competition for external project funding becomes insanely intense leading inevitably to strategies for reducing that complexity that usually favours ‘usual suspects’ and publishers recognise the desperation of academics for publication by attempting to exploit it with offers of ‘paid-for’ publication.

What drives decision-making in these circumstances is not a deep consideration of reality and personal self-determination, but rather a self-organising mechanism of maintaining balance with the various (and conflicting) sources of information. What emerges in the University is a technocratic apparatus for manipulating information, the dangers of which were apparent to Marxist scholars many years ago. Horkheimer, for example, argued in 1949 that:
“the individual's self-preservation presupposes his adjustment to the requirements for the preservation of the system. He no longer has room to evade the system. And just as the process of rationalization is no longer the result of the anonymous forces of the market, but is decided in the consciousness of a planning minority, so the mass of subjects must deliberately adjust themselves: the subject must, so to speak, devote all his energies to being 'in and of the movement of things' in the terms of the pragmatistic definition.”

Horkheimer’s insight arose from inspection of the technocratic apparatus of Nazi Germany and how the decision-making process in the world of information gradually disempowered and dehumanised an entire society. Horkheimer’s critique, and that of the other philosophers in the Frankfurt school, made a connection between the material and ideational context of decision-making wherein pathologies arose and the ideas that individuals had. From Marx’s materialist dialectic, there emerges a critical inspection concerning the way the world is thought about.

The way the world is thought about depends on the information that individuals have access to, and the meaning that individuals attach to information. If information concerning retention of students shows regular patterns according to a particular course or a particular member of staff, then it would be hard to imagine action not being taken against that particular course, or against that member of staff. As Meillassoux has observed, even in the physical sciences, Humean regularities can be seen as informational: a regularity is a confirmation of an expectation. Reframing Hume’s regularity theory helps to resituate his approach to scientific knowledge in the light of the reasoning within complex information-rich social enterprises like education. Informational regularities acquire the power of concrete empirical regularities in establishing the grounds for collective decisions. However, given the causal impact of decisions, and the constraining power they have on subsequent decisions, the need to understand the role of information as a constraining force, and the background to apparent informational regularities emerges as an important safety net to ensure that informational regularities don’t participate in a managerial positive-feedback situation.

In other words, the issue about the nature of information, the inquiry into its causal constraining power on decision sits as the basis of decision-making within educational institutions. The information constrains decision to the point that technologies which garner information from various sources start to feed themselves. Von Foerster argued in the early 1970s that
“we have, hopefully only temporarily, relinquished our responsibility to ask for a technology that will solve existent problems. Instead we have allowed existent technology to create problems it can solve.”
Is Von Foerster here saying that Horkheimer was right? The political debate over what kind of world we want to live in is clearly tied up with the destiny of technology. Von Foerster is not alone in highlighting the political deficit in technological advance. Illich expressed the wish “to focus on the new electronic management devices as a technical change of the human environment which, to be benign, must remain under political (and not exclusively expert) control." Feenberg similarly argues that “Technology can deliver more than one type of technological civilization. We have not yet exhausted its democratic potential”. And yet, despite a chorus of pleas for the politicisation and democratisation of technological development from scholars of technology, we continue to sleepwalk in a surveillance society, managed by information. Why?

Information and Decision

The lack of effectiveness of critical debate about technology is not necessarily a sign that the arguments are wrong, but rather a sign that something is missing in the understanding of the world where carefully considered academic critique is imagined to have political effects. The problem centres around an assumed power of abstract foundational knowledge and the power of educational mechanisms for the transmission of that knowledge into the everyday living attitudes and behaviours of people. The central paradox is that the political problem is an educational problem, whilst the articulation of the political problem in academic discourse upholds an educational pathology that neutralises the effect of the critique. Starting from the standpoint of the constraining factors behind decisions, we should first examine the decisions that are constrained by pronouncements about the nature of technology and society: who is affected by them? Who are they for? Why should they listen?

In addressing these questions, the role of information as a constraining force bearing upon decisions can be analysed. In the immediate case, academic pronouncements about technology and about education affect decisions within the academy: as journal articles are published, information about publications helps to make jobs more secure. The information that is produced as communications within the academic community turns into metrics of academic performance. Consequently, powerful arguments benefit the person making them. Collective decisions within universities occur with common points of reference in a shared environment. Abstract ideas alone are part of this, but more powerful (and more generic) is the information contained in citation statistics, indicators of impact, esteem indicators, and so on which together create a powerful set of referents that ground decisions about what to publish, what to fund (by research funders), what to bid for, and so on. 

Related to this phenomenon is the surprising power of the shallow foundationalism of evidence-based policy. The ‘evidence-base’ is an attempt to established a defensible shared object in the environment, which, despite its intellectual poverty can nevertheless carry considerable weight in political circles. Ideas and evidence can easily become “articles of faith” within particular communities then creates the conditions for shared action. The status of certain practices in the social sciences also bear out the causal power of the creation of the shared environment. Econometrics, for example, creates mathematical objects within the economic discourse which woefully misrepresent economic reality, and yet remains firmly embedded within the economic discourse. There are of course critical challenges to this, but they too (ultimately) have to play the same game. Lawson argues that his critical abstractions serve “to individuate one or more aspects, components, or attributes and their relationships in order to understand them better” but the risk is of forgetting that abstractions require teaching if decisions are going to be effective. Abstractions serve not the objectification of the world but rather create a framework for collective action: they provide the shared world wherein understanding can be generated. Abstract descriptions of reality cannot in themselves account for the necessity for learning about those abstractions, shared understanding and collective action – all of which are necessary if a mechanistic description is to have a transformative effect in the world. Understanding, it seems, is overrated: Von Foerster ruefully remarked
“The more profound the problem ignored, the greater the chances of fame and success”

Technologies are a special case of ‘shared environment’ because they manifest themselves in their concepts, their functions and in their materiality. They act as coordinators of discourse – objects around which concepts turn. Educational technologies are particularly important in this regard: the artefacts of e-portfolio, the Virtual Learning Environment, the Personal Learning Environment have together been subject to many funding calls, thousands of journal articles, conferences, and so on. The mass capital value of a technological artefact of this sort can be calculated. Much of the discourse around these tools extends far beyond the material reality of the technologies themselves: having read about Personal Learning Environment, E-portfolios, and so on, the reality can be somewhat deflating! Yet somehow, the creation of new pieces of software and hardware configure new expectations of possible communications: new ways to communicate through the tools, and new ways to communicate about the tools.

The phenomenological dimension of this – that dimension which concerns our experiences – not just of tools, but of the discourse about tools – is something which I will deal with in the next chapter where I consider technologies as codifications of expectations about communications. At the same time, the dominance of technological concepts whose funding and monitoring is easy to manage tends to take precedence over whether particular ‘easily managed’ projects will be successful. For example, significant funds have been expended in ‘curatorial’ projects: projects to establish bodies of resources, despite evidence that resource banks are under-used. In contributing to a shared environment technologies in education connect the social organisation of education with social structures and individual histories become entangled with discourse, abstract concepts, measurements and other aspect of the shared environment. The result is a situation where Von Foerster’s law appears to be correct: the shortest and quickest route to the shared environment is the one that carries the prevailing political power.

Injustice and boredom in education

There are of course conditions where profound ideas articulated in the right way can have a powerfully transformative social effects. Under conditions of mass injustice and hardship, abstract ideas which cut through to the causes of collective injustice can be the source of a political movement. These were the conditions within which Marx’s critique operated: a shared environment of injustice and a new story that everyone could believe. It is how campaigns for women’s rights, anti-racism, gay rights, and other liberal programmes have established themselves. The problem with education and technology is that it doesn’t starve people, or force them to work. Technologies do not directly enslave people or chain them to desks. For the most part, people enter into education and engage with technologies of their own free will. The experience of education and technology is not one of manifest injustice; if anything, it is one of boredom. Whilst being bored is not the same as starving and being at risk of dying, it is a way of manipulating people and neutralising opposition. Horkheimer worried that technocracy renders people politically inert.

For Marx, boredom was a manifestation of alienation. In education we see a radical split between the needs of human beings and their society and the actual functions performed by the education system. Where education ought to wake people up, it puts them to sleep. The four forms of alienation that Marx describes (1844) fit directly into contemporary educational experience.
  • the alienation of the worker from the work he/she produces.
  • alienation from working itself, where working becomes meaningless, mundane.
  • alienation of the worker from him/herself as a producer.
  • alienation of the worker from other workers.
Alienation in education concerns all its stakeholders: teachers, students and managers: each person is engaged in what Graeber calls a "bullshit job".

The problem of alienation is a problem of conflicting information. Messages at different levels of organisation contradict one another whilst any attempt to identify the contradictory dynamics is prohibited: this is what Bateson called a Double-bind. It produces precisely the kind of state of powerlessness and apathy that Horkheimer identified. Learners and teachers are unable to critique the assessment processes that they are forced to submit to, all the time feeling that their deep inquiries cannot be addressed by the education that is presented to them, at the same time as being told that their education is the path to enlightenment. The shallow foundationalism within education manifests as a double-bind simply by proclaiming itself to be foundational when it is apparent that it cannot possibly account for the whole phenomenon of education, whilst by virtue of it being unprovable, precludes the possibility of critique. The fundamental in-betweenness of people within which information sits forms a swamp from which foundations emerge. This is not to argue against foundations, but rather to appreciate the dynamics by which foundations emerge, and the ways in which they might be effectively challenged, developed and discarded.

Metrics, in-betweenness and Critique

Constructivism provides an example of how foundations, even when they are shallow, can be important in the development of progressive thinking. Constructivism's emphasis on activity and conversation helped codify some of the best practices of teachers: those practices more concerned with listening, activity, participation, discovery and inquiry. However, the apparent success of constructivist educational practices in the hands of skilled teachers does not mean that the successful practice of teachers does not indicate the correctness of constructivism. There has, unfortunately, been a deep need to believe that constructivism is the answer to effective educational practice. In believing educational practice had been ‘solved’ through constructivist theory created deep problems at other levels of education which now make the task of educational critique very difficult. The problems of asserting constructivism as a foundation of education:
  • ruled out the possibility that other theoretical explanations were possible, thus eliminating the need for pedagogical experimentation;
  • led to a codification of teaching activity with teaching performance measurable by management;
  • separated pedagogical practice from academic management within the university, effectively insulating management from criticism that managerial actions had pedagogical consequences;
  • created the conditions for metricising teaching performance through learning outcomes, assessment criteria and other devices;
  • created the conditions for the assertion that technological interventions in education were ‘functionally equivalent’ to face-to-face interaction because they both adhered to constructivist philosophy
  • created the conditions within which surveillance of teaching practice and technocratic means of organisation became more powerful
  • distracted attention from those aspects of the material environment of education which open to critique – notably, management power, casualization of staff, salary differentials, and so on.
  • Created the conditions within which teaching practices could be promoted by management which were conservative in nature, with the intention of fulfilling the obligations of statistics, of those upheld as the best examples of ‘constructivist’ teaching.

In effect, with spurious educational foundations, teachers were simply to instantiate teaching practices which were consistent with the theory. In other words, given a grounding in pedagogical theory, educational practice simply had to be managed.

So here we have the central problem: that a foundational assertion about learning created an environment where experimentation in education took second place. The world of online education is full of this sort of thing: Moodle, for example, was presented as an environment for ‘constructivist’ learning, by virtue of being a way in which conversations could be managed. E-Portfolio was constructivist because it allowed individuals to construct their own stories. PLEs were constructivist because they presented learners with the ability to manage their own tools. Constructivism became allied to a much more general and relativistic concept of 'assemblage'.

The fundamental contradiction lies in the fact that constructivism is about relationships, whilst assessment considers individual performances (whether of teachers or learners). While there are relationships between teachers and learners, there are also relationships between teachers and managers, between managers and government, and between government and society. Leaving aside foundational assertions about learning, focus shifts back onto the material constitution of the learning environment, its power relations, and some aspects of clear injustice and corruption which begin to surface.

Naturalism without Foundations

Teaching and learning are critical experiments. During these experiments, human experiences and emotions are the only guides we have as to whether our experiments are successful or not. Quite often, success is not visible from the outside, or rather what is interpreted as success by an outside observer is not what is felt by the person subject to the experiment. The experiential world of teachers and managers is very different from the experiential world of learners – particularly those from very different social backgrounds to their teachers. Bourdieu was right in articulating who had the power in these situations: that educational practice becomes a tool of oppression simply because the shared environment of teachers has been made tangible, whereas the experience of learners remains intangible. In the absence of concrete injustice, there is not only alienation and boredom, but expectations which are easily manipulated by mass media (including the internet) which too represent the interests of the elite.

The fundamental problem is that it is the individual’s performance that is measured, never their relationships. As Vygotsky realised, evaluation of the effectiveness of education depends on the recognition that learning occurs in a supportive context. The critical challenge is to understand the nature of that context and the power relations that constitute it. Educational radicals like Paulo Freire turned this upside-down: understanding the context was the means to engendering learning itself - that education was fundamentally emancipatory in addressing the constraints of the environment. Such approaches entail a more ecological approach to education - one that recognises the rich relationships inherent in the situation of education between all its stakeholders.

The lack of impact of educational critique rests on failing to address the underlying nature of the context of education, whilst an educational foundationalism situated in constructivism withdrew attention from the social and material context placing emphasis on the agency of teachers and learners. The approach to addressing the deep critical challenge is to accept the social and material realities of university education today. Given that:
  • Students now place themselves in astronomical debt to attend university
  • Vice-chancellors and other senior staff pay themselves large salaries exceeding those of national leaders
  • Universities are engaged in an arms-race of new capital building projects funded by student loans
  • There is increasing casualization of academic labour supported by technologies which are said to be ‘functionally equivalent’ to more traditional and expensive practices
  • Demand for degree certificates defies their effectiveness in helping graduates gain employment
  • Managers run universities as corporations accountable to governors who are largely business-people
  • Academics, managers and students crave the status of association with elite Universities
  • Managers manage academics on the basis of statistical performance indicators based on publication and citation
  • Publishers and funding agencies become the principal vehicle whereby academics maintain their status and job security
  • Publishers pursue strategies for maintaining knowledge
  • There is some evidence of institutional corruption
  • none of the above would be possible if stakeholders at all levels of the system didn’t support it at some level
...there is a need to unpick the dynamics that contribute to this situation, and to re-examine assumptions about the nature of reality which themselves have participated in the emergence of these problems. It is my contention that information is at the heart of these mechanisms.

The various critical charges addressed at the modern development of education including commodification, corporatisation, managerialism, causalisation and exploitation of staff, mis-selling, cronyism, and the capitalisation of student debt have at their heart fundamental issues concerning belief, aspiration, status, capital and economic exchange and within each of these must be information about potential benefits of education which generates its demand; it is information concerning teaching practice which creates the conditions for casualisation; it is information about the corporate success of education as a business which pacifies business-oriented governors and justifies high corporate salaries; it is misinformation about the benefits of education that drive artificially-maintain demand for education even from those who are unlikely to benefit from it. The modern information environment of education contributes to the maintenance of power structures and decision-making processes which are unequitable. At a different level, however, it is also information, which sits behind processes of cognition and development, the yearning for freedom, and the mechanisms whereby alienation arises in all the stakeholders of education. It is in reconciling these diverse and conflicting information dynamics that an effective critique of education must address itself.