Saturday 21 May 2016

Does the Knowledge Economy kill Knowledge?

The 'knowledge economy' is one of the principal ideologies of our time. The idea that the contents of one's head is the determiner of both personal and societal success is not new. But what is new is the process of putting a price on it. And the idea of the knowledge economy is not about ideas themselves, but on the price of ideas. It is a moment in a process of financialisation.

Financialisation works by identifying observable transactions in society - regularities of communication - which can have costs attached, companies created, and which can then be used as an institutional or corporate foundation for raising finance. Technologies have greatly assisted in the financialising process because they have taken large-scale social functions and carved them up into individual transactions supported by a kind of interconnecting logic. It is by this means that one might take the operation of a railway and identify common transactions with regard to the maintenance of the track, the scheduling of services, the selling of tickets and cups of coffee, and each pattern of transactions can then be identified with a separate financial entity, whose purpose is to make a profit, and each component become dependent on financial services to support its operation, and which eventually becomes driven by financial services in the manner of its operation. What happens in this process is that there are aspects to the original services which were not exposed in observable regularities of transactions. In the financialisation process, these hidden aspects of human engagement get left out. The result is social pathology where the functioning of the financial instruments becomes the paramount concern, blotting out insecurity, low wages, alienation, and the broader ecological and social impact of the financialised transformation. What is lost in the process of financialisation is knowledge. It is this fact which makes the knowledge economy so problematic.

The knowledge economy is the financialisation of the transactions of education. It involves the transactions of patents, policies, academic publishers, league tables of universities, student finance, modules, learning outcomes, and vast arrays of statistics which claim to measure the 'performance' of institutions, subjects, individuals, and governments. The key question is How does knowledge relate to the transactions of education? What is the relationship between the contents of peoples' heads and the semantic contents of academic papers?

Financialisation in education has produced a hunger for publication in education. This is become one of the principal means by which the status of academics and institutions is assessed. "Publish or perish" is produced by the financialisation of education. Consequently, the number of journals has increased, but the variety of papers has not increased. Coherent intellectual positions have been replaced with academics declaring numerous "turns": the ontological turn, the embodiment turn, the sociomaterial turn, and so on. Each hopes that their "turn" will be the one that everyone will follow. In short, everyone is trying to sell their ideas. Is this knowledge or madness?

The internal dynamics of universities beholden to financialisation help to explain the 'turn phenomenon'. Fundamentally, all university managements have become the same. It's a process which DiMaggio and Powell call "institutional isomorphism", and the rest of us call "managerialism". If all university management is the same, why do we have so many universities? Do we need so much redundancy of management function?

University managers understand the logic, and how the professionalisation of themselves ought to spell the end of most of them. So whilst there is institutional isomorphism at the top of institutions, each management must ensure that the productions of the university are distinct and diverse. This cannot be done in teaching: universities are generally the same in their pedagogic practices and methods of assessment. It might be done by their intake - some institutions are very exclusive, whilst other let anyone in - to the point that questions are asked about the value they provide. All institutions are able to declare the 'scarcity' of knowledge (and thus maintain the price of a degree) because they are the gatekeepers to degree certificates. But by maintaining distinction in the academic transactions of the institution, a claim can be made for the independent existence of a particular university above other institutions which do pretty much the same thing. So it is not the thoughts in individual minds that count - it is diverse production of measurable academic transactions.

However, the constraints of the market bear upon all functions within the institution. Unpopular courses - like philosophy or sociology - get closed and academics lose their jobs. As a result, tranches of intellectual territory are lost. It's like cutting down swathes of the rain forest. To make up for this loss of richness, new subject areas emerge more consistent with the popular courses that students study. But these new disciplines do not possess the intellectual richness of those which they replaced. Dumbing-down is a symptom of attempting to maintain the appearance of diversity of discourse whilst destroying substantive chunks of knowledge on economic grounds. More than this, full-time academics find themselves under pressure because of relatively high salaries. The commodification of educational delivery mean that they are eventually replaced with adjunct teachers whose function is merely to follow the institutional teaching regulations, and who have no remit or power to think for themselves.

So the  knowledge economy leads to the destruction of knowledge. There is a deeper question here about the role of knowledge in any economy. The rhetoric of the knowledge economy sees universities as the hub of innovation. This is rarely the case. The most fundamental innovations which have changed our lives - particularly in technology - emerged outside the university, or at least on its fringes. Innovation emerges at the interface between critique, technological playfulness, and reflection on individual experience. It emerges through reading Goethe whilst playing with a quantum computer. The tragedy of the knowledge economy is that its ideology is leading to an environment where this can no longer take place.

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