Saturday 29 April 2017

@TedXUoBolton, Science and the Managerial Craving for Academic Celebrity

What has actually happened to Universities in the last 20 years? We only see indicators that things aren't what they used to be, but since those whose job it is to commentate on how things are changing are themselves enmeshed in Universities which are in the throws of these transformations, there appears to be no position from which one can gauge how far our institutions are straying from their historic origins.

So here's the latest sign: the second TEDx event to be held at the University of Bolton. For those students and some of the more junior academic staff taking part in this, it is a great opportunity, and on the face of it, a great idea. But the weird thing is that three senior managers plus a couple of professors from Bolton have been instrumental in creating a platform for themselves.

Heading the bill -  (which is here: is Bolton esteemed Vice-chancellor Professor George Holmes DL - cue dancing girls!. If that's not enough of senior management (he's enough for most, including the former UCU rep -, then you can listen to the Deputy Vice-Chancellor, Professor Patrick McGhee! Wait... Yes! I know you want more! So, here's what you've been waiting for - the University's one-and-only Pro-Vice Chancellor, Kondal Reddy Khandadi (cue lots of whooping and cheers)

These illustrious speakers are mixed with academics from other institutions, including Steve Fuller - who gave a nice talk about democratising HE and science, which is something he's been on about for some time (see

What is this? It looks like a kind of 'academic washing': a way of manufacturing academic credibility and bestowing it upon members of the management team. It runs alongside the 'Royal washing' which Bolton has also been engaged in recently:, and the seriously odd "political washing" of the "Centre for Opposition Studies" - (I find the picture of the House of Commons curious - there's something they don't understand about opposition... this is entirely sanitised! No reference to struggle, peaceful or violent, whatsoever!)

Then, I'm reminded about TED itself, and the particularly unfortunate episode with Rupert Sheldrake whose talk at TEDx Whitechapel on the "The Science Delusion" was banned. Sheldrake is one of my favourite scientists because he has the courage to ask difficult questions of people who call themselves scientists but chose to ignore those questions because it would make peer review more troublesome. 

Why, then, does TED ban Sheldrake and willingly host Vice Chancellors, Pro-Vice chancellors, and Deputy Vice Chancellors who haven't got anything remotely as interesting to talk about?

So this is the barometer of where things have got to. Most scientists find Sheldrake's "morphogenetic field" idea too esoteric an explanation for the phenomenon of the simultaneous formation of new crystal structures at different points in the world. But even physics used to be more inquiring and accepting of weird ideas.

The first Vice-Chancellor of Birmingham University was Oliver Lodge, who did pioneering work in electromagnetic radiation in the early 20th century, and was also a passionate communicator of science. Fuller's appeal for democratised science is not new, and we should examine those who did it long before. (I'm deeply grateful to physicist Peter Rowlands (see for pointing me towards this). The football at the beginning of this video is a curious distraction!

What Lodge says in this video is not a million miles away from what Sheldrake says. Lodge was not only a physicist, but a spiritualist. It's the kind of combination that would get you sacked from Universities these days. But instead of getting sacked, Lodge went on to become Vice Chancellor of the University of Birmingham.

So here's the barometer. Lodge exemplifies what scientific inquiry looks and sounds like. He epitomises the spirit of inquiry and communication which suffused the university of his time. Charles Sherrington was nearby exploring the neural structures in monkeys' brains (in the attic above my office!); He was a contemporary of and studied alongside William Bateson, who invented the term "genetics" and was father to Gregory Bateson; He worked with other key thinkers in philosophy including Whitehead, with whom he no doubt found much in common.

This simply doesn't happen any more, and we are all the poorer for it. Instead we have managers parading themselves as academic celebrities, making pronouncements about education - about which they understand very little (as we all do). Why? Because we have turned education into a business, where status is money, and money gives status.

There are still people like Lodge around. Sheldrake is one, and so is Peter Rowlands. But they are on the fringes, many clinging to the academy in adjunct positions which save the managers money, and help to fund their yachts, and (no doubt) TedXBolton 2018!

Wednesday 26 April 2017

Educational Content and Quantum Physics

One the most difficult issues to understand in education is the role of content and its relation to conversation. There are the material aspects of content - physical books, e-books, webpages, interactive apps and tools... What's the difference? There are the many different ways in which teachers can coordinate conversations around the content. And there are the fundamental differences between disciplines. Tools like Maple or Matlab are great for getting students to do virtual empirical work in Maths or Physics. But in sociology and philosophy?

The phenomenology of these tools is radically different. It's not simply about the rather shallow view on "affordances" which was popular a few years ago. It's a much deeper ecological process (which perhaps is where Gibson's original work on affordance should - but didn't - lead us). We can say books afford "flicking through" but in effect that is to reduce the richness of experience into a function. The problem is that the systems designers, with their functionalist bent, will then try to reproduce the function in another form. We only have as many functions as we can give names to them. Yet each function is implicitly dependent on any other function, and on aspects of the phenomenology which we cannot articulate.

I'm thinking about books a lot at the moment partly because I've been learning quantum mechanics using Leonard Susskind's "Theoretical Minimum" (see book in conjunction with the videos of his lectures he gave at Stanford. This is the first time I've found any kind of MOOC-like experience actually worth it: A book + online lectures. Of course the objection would be that it is so expensive and resource-hungry to produce a book that this isn't practical unless you are famous like Susskind. But this isn't true any longer.

Book printing machines are extraordinary things. Combined with high quality typesetting using Latex-based tools like Overleaf, the results are as good as anything that Penguin can produce for Susskind. And it's cheap - with most of the self-publishers, the equivalent of Susskind's book could be less than the £9.99 charged by Penguin. All universities can now do the Open University thing at a fraction of the cost.

But what about conversation? In my case, my interest in Quantum Physics is being driven by a conversation with one of the physicists in Liverpool about the use of ideas of 'entanglement' in the social sciences (i.e. sociomaterial stuff, Latour, Barad, etc). Without wanting to "do a Sokal" (, it does seem that quantum theoretical terms are being used without deep understanding of what they refer to. Equally, it may be the case that the physics and its mathematical techniques does indeed reflect a wider reality which is already known to our common sense. I think both propositions may be true, and that one way of exploring it is to make a deep and clear connection between the physicists and the social scientists.

Might I pursue the interest in Susskind without my physicist friend? Maybe... but there'll always a be a conversation I will have somewhere where I can process this stuff. But it may not be online.

That is the crucial point - that conversations about matters of curiosity do not necessarily happen online. The current online education model saw that conversation had to happen online because otherwise the education could not be coordinated. But with a good book, and a set of video resources, we can do our own coordination independently of any central authority.

The reason why the online education model forced conversation into forums was I think because it confused learning conversation with assessment processes. In order to assess learners, obviously there has to be some record of the transactions between learners and teachers which reveals their understanding. It might also indicate to teachers new kinds of interventions which might be necessary to steer student learning in particular ways. But if the learning is left to self-organisation processes, and free choice is given to use a variety of different resources (books, webpages, etc), then what needs to be focused on is a flexible and reliable method of tracking (or assessing) development.

But it's not as simple as separating assessment from learning. Assessment is a key moment of learning - it is the moment when somebody else reveals their understanding in relation to the learner's revealing of understanding. That is a key aspect of conversation. In formal education, it can also be a formal transaction - particularly where marks are involved.

This is perhaps where the interaction with online content can be developed. Could it be an explicitly formal interaction of exchanging different understandings of things, and passing judgements about each others' understanding? In the emerging world of learning analytics, there is already something like this going on - but its lack of focus and theoretical clarity are resulting in exacerbating the confusion rather than deepening understanding. 

Tuesday 25 April 2017

Revisiting Cybernetic Musical Analysis

I had a nice email yesterday from a composer who had seen a video of an analysis of music by Helmut Lachenmann which I did in 2009 using cybernetic modelling. I'd forgotten about it - partly embarrassed by what I thought of as a crude attempt to make sense of difficult music, but also because it was closely related to my PhD which I'm also slightly embarrassed by. In the intervening time, I became dissatisfied with some of the cybernetic underpinnings, and became more interested in critical aspects of theory. Being embarrassed about stuff can be a block to taking things further: I have so many almost-finished unpublished papers - often discouraged from publishing them because of the the frequent nastiness of peer review. So it's nice to receive an appreciative comment 8 years after something was done.

It's made me want to collate the set of music analysis videos that I made in 2009. They are on Schumann, Haydn, Ravel and Lachenmann. In each I pursue the same basic theory about "prolongation" - basically, what is it that creates the sense of coherence and continuity of experience in the listener. The basic theory was inspired by Beer's Viable System Model - that coherence and continuity is a combination of different kinds of manipulation of the sound as "disruptive" - sound that interrupts and surprises; "coercive" - sound that reinforces and confirms expectations; "exhortational" - sound that transforms one thing into another.

What do I think about this 8 years later?

First of all, what do I now think about the Viable System Model which was the foundation for this music analysis? There is a tendency in the VSM to refer to the different regulating layers allegorically: this is kind-of what I have done with coercion, exhortation, etc. But now I think the VSM is more basic than this: it is simply a way in which a system might organise itself so as to maintain a critical level of diversity in the distinctions it makes. So it not that there is coercion, or disruption or exhortation per se... it is that the system can distinguish between them and can maintain the possibility that any of them might occur.

Furthermore, each distinction (coercion, exhortation, etc) results from a transduction. That it, the conversion of one set of signals into another. Particular transductions attenuate descriptions on one side to a particular type which the transduced system can deal with: so the environment is attenuated by the skin. But equally, any transducer is held in place by the descriptions which arise from the existence of the transducer on its other side. It's a bit like this:

Each transducer attenuates complexity from the left and generates it to the right. This is where Beer's regulating levels come from in the Viable System Model. 

The trick of a viable system - and any "viable music"  (if it makes sense to talk of that) - is to ensure that the richness of possible transductions and descriptions is maintained. In my music videos I call this richness "Coercion", "exhortation", "disruption" - but the point is not what each is, but that each is different from the others, and that they are maintained together.

Understanding transduction in this way gives scope for saying more about analysis. The precursor to a transducer forming is an emerging coherence between different descriptions of the world. A way of measuring this coherence is to use the Information Theoretical calculation of relative entropy.  I've become very curious about relative entropy since I learnt that it is the measure used in quantum mechanisms for measuring the entanglements between subatomic particles. Given that quantum computers are programmed using a kind of musical score (see IBM's Quantum Experience interface), this coherence between descriptions expressed as relative entropy makes a lot of sense to me. 

So in making the distinctions that I make in these music videos, I would now put more emphasis on the degrees of emerging relative entropy between descriptions. Effectively coherences can be seen in what I called "coercive" moments as repetition, and this produces descriptions of what isn't repeated - or what is surprising. Surprises on larger structural layers such as harmony or tonality amount to transformations - but this is also a higher-level transduction.  

The viable system which makes these distinctions is, of course, the listener (I was right about this in the Lachenmann analysis). The listener's system has to continually recalibrate itself in the light of events. It performs this recalibration so as to maintain the richness of the possible descriptions which it can generate. 

The world is fucked at the moment because our institutions cannot do this. They cannot recalibrate effectively and they lose overall complexity and variety - and consequently they lose the ability to adapt to changing environments. 

Here are the videos:





Saturday 22 April 2017

Porous Boundaries and the Constraints that separate the Education System and Society

I'm taking part in a conference on the "Porous University" early next month (, and all participants have to prepare a position statement about the conference theme. In my statement, I'm going to focus on the issue of the "boundary" and what the nature of "porosity" means in terms of a boundary between education and society.

We often think of formal education as a sieve: it filters out the wheat from the chaff in recognising the attainment and achievement of students. Sieves are porous boundaries - but they are the antithesis of the kind of porosity which is envisaged by the conference, which - to my understanding - is to make education more accessible, socially progressive, engaged in the community, focused on making practical interventions in the problems of daily life. The "education sieve" is a porous boundary which upholds and reinforces the boundary between education and society; many progressive thinkers in education want to dissolve those boundaries in some way - but how? More porosity in the sieve? Bigger holes? Is a sieve with enormous holes which lets anything through still a sieve? Is education still education without its boundary?

Part of the problem with these questions is that we focus on one boundary when there are many. The education system emerges through the interaction of multiple constraints within society - it's not just the need for disseminating knowledge and skill, but the need for keeping people off the streets (or the unemployment register, or out of their parents' houses!), or the need to maintain viable institutions of education and their local economies, or the need to be occupied in the early years of adult life, or the desire to pursue intellectual interests, or the need to gain status. These multiple constraints are constantly manipulated by government. The need to pay fees, the social exclusion which results from not having a degree (which is partly the consequence of everyone having them!), or the need for professionals like nurses to maintain accreditation are only recent examples of continual tweaking and political manipulation. Now we even have the prospect of official "chartered scientists" (! Much of this is highly destructive.

Widening participation, outreach, open learning, open access resources are as much symptoms of the current pathology as they appear to be efforts to address it: it's something of an auto-immune response by a system in crisis. Widening participation? Find us more paying customers! Open Access Resources? Amplify our approved forms of communication so everyone can learn "how to fit the system" (whilst enabling academics to boost their citation statistics) - and then we can enrol them!

A deep problem lies within universities; a deeper problem lies within science. Universities are powerful and deeply confused institutions. They establish and maintain themselves on the reputations of scholars and scientists from the past - many of whom would no longer be employable in the modern institution (and many who had difficult careers in their own time!) - and make promises to students which, in many cases, they don't (and cannot possibly) keep. The University now sees itself as a business, run by business people, often behaving in irrational ways making decisions about future strategy on a whim, or behaving cruelly towards the people they employ. There is nobody who isn't confused by education. Yet the freedom one has to express this confusion disappears in the corridors of power.

Boundaries are made to maintain viability of an organism in its environment: the cell wall or the skin is created to maintain the cell or the animal. These boundaries can be seen as transducers: they convert one set of signals from one context into another for a different context. Education, like an organism, has to maintain its transducers.

Transduction can be seen as a process of attenuating and amplifying descriptions across a boundary. The environment presents many, many descriptions to us. Our skin only concerns itself with those descriptions are deemed to be of importance to our survival: these are presented as "information" to our biological systems. Equally a university department acquires its own building, a sign, courses (all transductions) when a particular kind of attenuation of signals from the environment can be distilled into a set of information which the department can deal with. Importantly, both the skin and the departmental identity is established from two sides: there is the distilling of information from the environment, and there are the sets of descriptions which arise from the boundary having been formed. The liver and kidneys require the skin as much as the skin attenuates the environment.

Pathology in organisations results where organisations reconfigure their transducers so that too much complexity is attenuated. Healthy organisations maintain a rich ecology of varied distinctions. Pathological organisations destroy this variety in the name of some simple metric (like money - this is what happens in financialisation). This is dangerous because if too much complexity is attenuated, the institution becomes too rigid to adapt to a changing environment: it loses overall complexity. Equally if no attenuation occurs, the institution loses the capability of making any distinctions - in biology, this is what happens in cancer.

If we want to address the pathology of the distinction between education and society, we must address the problem of boundaries in institutions and in society. Removing boundaries is not the answer. Becoming professionally and scientifically committed to monitoring the ecology of the educational and social system is the way forwards. Since this is a scientific job, Universities should lead the way.

Tuesday 11 April 2017

Scarcity and Abundance on Social Media and Formal Education

Education declares knowledge to be scarce. That it shouldn't do this is the fundamental message in Illich's work on education. Illich attacked "regimes of scarcity" wherever he saw them: in health, energy, employment, religion and in the relations between the sexes.

Illich's recipe for avoiding scarcity in education is what he calls "institutional inversion", where he (apparently presciently) visualised "learning webs". When we got Social media and wikipedia, it seemed to fit Illich's description. But does it?

I wrote about the passage in Deschooling Society a few years ago where Illich speaks of his "education webs" (see but then qualifies it with "which heighten the opportunity for each one to transform each moment of his living into one of learning, sharing, and caring". Learning, sharing and caring. Is this Facebook?

Despite Illich's ambivalent attitude towards the church, he remained on the one hand deeply catholic and on the other communitarian. Like other Catholic thinkers (Jaques Ellul, Marshal McLuhan, Jean Vanier) there is a deep sense of what it means for people to be together. It's the togetherness of the Mass which influences these people: the experience of being and acting together, singing together, sharing communion, and so on. The ontology of community is not reducible to the exchange of messages. It is the ontology which interests Illich, not the mechanics.

So really we have to go further and explore the ontology. Illich's "institutional inversion" needs unpacking. "Institution" is a problematic concept. The sociological definition typically sees it as a complex of norms and practices. New Institutionalism sees it as focus of transactions which are conducted through it by its members. At some level, these descriptions are related. But Facebook and Twitter are institutions, and the principal existential mechanisms whereby social media has come into being is through facilitating transactions with customers. The trick for social media corporations is to drive their mechanisms of maintaining and increasing transactions with customers by harvesting the transactions that customers have already made.

In more traditional institutions, the work of attracting and maintaining transactions is separate from the transactions of customers. It is the marketing and manufacturing departments which create the opportunities for customer transactions. The marketing and manufacturing departments engage in their own kind of internal transaction, but this is separate from those produced by customers: one is a cost, the other is income.

The mechanism of driving up the number of transactions is a process of creating scarcity. Being on Twitter has to be seen to be better than not being on it; only by being on Facebook can one hope to remain "in the loop" (Dave Elder-Vass writes well about this in his recent book "Profit and Gift in the Digital Economy").  Formal education drives its customer transactions not only by declaring knowledge to be scarce, but by declaring status to be tied to certification from prestigious institutions. At the root of these mechanisms is the creation of the risk of not being on Twitter, not having a degree, and so. At the root of this risk is existential fear about the future. The other side of the risk equation is the supposed trust in institutional qualifications.

Illich didn't go this far. But we should now - partly because it's more obvious what is happening. The issue of scarcity is tied-up with risk and worries about a future which nobody can be sure about. That this has become a fundamental mechanism of capitalism is a pathology which should worry all of us.

Monday 3 April 2017

Lakatos on History and the Reconstruction and Analysis of Accidents

"Fake news" and Brexit has inspired a reaction from Universities, anxious that their status is threatened, that they must be the bastions of facts, truth and trust. The consequences of this are likely to reinforce the already conservative agenda in education. Universities have been post-truth for many years - particularly as they chased markets, closed unpopular departments (like philosophy), replaced full-time faculty with adjuncts, became status-focused and chased league table ranking, appointed business people to run them, became property developers, and reinforced the idea that knowledge is scarce. On top of that, they protected celebrity academics - even in the face of blatant abuse of privilege and power by some. The allegations against John Searle are shocking but not surprising - the scale of the sexual harassment/abuse problem (historical and present) in universities is frightening - just as the compensation claims will be crippling. Current students and society will pay for it.

What is true news? I picked up an interesting book on Lakatos by John Kadvany at the weekend (it was in the bookshop that I learnt of the Searle problem). Latakos was interested in rationality in science, maths and history. Along with Popper, Feyerabend and Kuhn, he was part of a intellectual movement in the philosophy of science in the 1960s and 70s from which few sacred cows escaped unscathed.

Kadavny quotes Lakatos's joke that:
"the history of science is frequently a caricature of its rational reconstructions; that rational reconstructions are frequently caricatures of actual history; and that some histories of science are caricatures both of actual history and of its rational reconstructions" ("The History of Science and its rational reconstructions")
In practical life we meet this problem with history directly in the analysis of risk and accidents in institutions. In the flow of time in a hospital, for example, things happen, none of which - in the moment in which they happen - appear untoward. A serious accident emerges as a crisis whose shock catches everyone out - suddenly the patient is dying, suddenly the catastrophic error, blame, etc is revealed when in the flow of time at which it happened, nothing was noticed.

The reconstruction is reinforced with the investigation process. The narrative of causal events establishes its own reality, scapegoats, etc. Processes are 'tightened up', management strategies are reinforced, and.... nothing changes.

Lakatos's position was that historical reconstruction was "theory-laden": "History without some theoretical bias is impossible. [...] History of science is a history of events which are selected and interpreted in a normative way"

In this way, all histories are "philosophies fabricating examples... equally, all physics or any kind of empirical assertion (i.e. theory) is 'philosophy fabricating examples'"

Is it just philosophy? In organisational risk, for example, there is a philosophy of naive causal successionism, and obscure selection processes which weed-out descriptions which don't fit the narrative. But the purpose of all of this is to reinforce institutional structures who themselves exist around historical narratives.

Where does Lakatos go with this? He wants to be able to distinguish "progressive" and "degenerative" research programmes. A research programme is the sequence of theories which arise within a domain (like the successive theories of physics): changes in theoretical standpoint are what he calls "problem shifts". The difference between progressive and regressive research programmes rests on the generative power of a theory. Theories generate descriptions of observable phenomena. In order to be progressive, each problem shift needs to be theoretically progressive (it generates more descriptions) and occasionally empirically progressive. If these conditions are not met, the research programme is regressive.

I agree with this to a point. However, the structure of institutions is an important element in the generative power of the institution's ideas about itself. Lakatos is really talking about "recalibration" of theory and practice. But recalibration is a structural change in the way things are organised.

That there is rarely any fundamental recalibration in the organisation and management of health in the light of accidents is the principal reason why their investigations are ineffective.