Sunday 22 March 2020

Under the Skin of an Institution: Rethinking the Global University and Civil Society

An institution - whether it is a university, school, club, church, government, rock band or orchestra - is essentially a membrane between what an institution sees to be its "identity" and its environment - the world which isn't in the club. Every membrane that exists everywhere requires an active process to maintain it. This active process is the totality of work that institutions do. The coordinated work of maintaining an institution entails the division of labour into differentiated functions, the coordination of those functions with one another, the monitoring of the operation of those functions, the monitoring of the environment, the determining of possible threats or opportunities for maintaining the membrane and the directing of any change to internal organisation should something change in the environment. An institution is a "body" (from which we get "corporation"): functional differentiation applies to bodies too.

Among the most significant changes to the environment for social institutions revolve around getting resource to survive. In modern society, this means money. Money fuels growth in ways in which food fuels metabolism, but money is a socially-determined codification of expectation which means that the same codified techniques can be used to organise internal operations: institutions "restructure". At the root of the monetary codification is confidence in  other related institutions - banks and government - and the general belief that social stability can always be achieved through fiscal means - however drastic and painful those means might be. Since the financial crash, this assumption that social stability can always be delivered by fiscal means has been called into doubt.

A plague is not a typical environmental change. It destabilises the foundations of all institutions including banks and government. It permeates the membrane of cells which lie at the root of everything. Not only the institutional membrane is threatened, but of all the sub-divisions of labour within the institution, and of all the other institutions which exist within the ecology of that institution: few conventional methods of restructuring can help. Attempts to provide fiscal support can be made, but in the process the banks must defend their identity by defending money as a "codification of expectations". But if nobody really believes the bank's defence of the value of the money they issue, this money will carry little value. An economic firestorm may occur when we lose trust in government and the banks: all membranes collapse.

Given the current clutch of world leaders that we currently have, it would not be unreasonable to expect a loss of trust in government and banks.

In society, a loss of trust can be replaced with physical force to reinforce a particular institutional membrane (for example, a totalitarian government). This is basically what happened in China, and increasingly Italy and Spain seem to be heading in the same direction. There is nothing new in this development: it is basically a matter of the institution of government wanting to physically defend its membrane by threatening its people (its "environment"). It will appear to work - temporarily. Just as it has only worked temporarily in so many other parts of the world.

A more intelligent way to think is to reconsider the nature of institutions, bodies and cells as recursively inter-connected membranes. During a time of "lockdown", the primary institution is clearly the household or the family. Like all institutions, families have their membranes and functional differentiation: not just the walls of the house or flat keep things together, but within the family are deep mechanisms of coordinating expectations of one another. In dysfunctional families this is more noticeable than in happy ones (remember: "All happy families are the same..."). The stresses and strains of life together in close proximity with little freedom is the very process of the institution attempting to maintain its cohesion. In many families, as money becomes more scarce, other means of coordinating expectations will arise. Some of these new means of coordinating expectations will reveal things about the nature of all institutions.

While there will undoubtedly be an increase in crime and selfishness, we are likely to see an increase in neighbourly altruism. As internal stresses take their toll, external cooperation will attempt to reorganise social groups for the survival of all. But this can only happen if there is external signalling from groups who want to help or who need help. This signalling will happen online. Our small institutions will become rather like cells producing receptor proteins on the cell-wall facing the environment which interact with "proteins" in the environment in "cell signalling pathways". The cybernetic term is "transduction".

So what of larger institutions like institutions of education? All our educational institutions started small: groups of friends with shared interests would meet and talk. Gradually their discussions and the products of their discussions attracted attention from outside. Gradually that attention and demand for more from the institution provided a foundation upon which the nascent institution could grow.

As academics and students move online, are we going to see an eating-away of the membranes of the traditional university led by individual academics across the world who will find that the best place to meet and talk is online? The online world also provides other ingredients for the growth of new institutions. Most importantly, for an institution to grow it must produce things which its environment finds interesting and attractive. Whether it is the video summaries of conversations, open invitations to observe small group meetings, the creation of online artefacts like models or software, or the concentration of intellectual status and reputation, this is not going to happen within the walls of any particular institution. It is going to happen globally.

Why restrict intellectual discourse to the walls of the campus when everyone everywhere is in one big campus? Since the physical campus is now toxic, it doesn't matter how ancient or beautiful it is - beautiful buildings are not what institutions are about. They are about ideas and people and if new ways of organising ideas and people become possible then they should be embraced.

More importantly, the essence of the nascent online university is trust within the new institution and outside it. The bullshit about graduate premiums has gone and the university bondholders can go at stick their increasingly meaningless money elsewhere. We have something more tangible, more effective, more trustworthy but inherently low-cost.

When the physical threats and surveillance of the population no longer work, then what will matter will be trust, honesty and openness to uncertainty. These are the values that we must build into our online institutions now.

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