Thursday 29 April 2021

Real "Digital" vs Education's idea of "digital": Some reflections of computational thinking

Digitalization is (once again) the hot topic in education. Amid concern that students leave university without digital skill, educational policy is focusing on "instilling digital skill" from primary school upwards. In Europe and the US, this is labelled "computational thinking", and is closely related to the (rapidly failing) drive to push computer science in schools.

Rather like the STEM agenda, to which it is of course related, there is a difference between education's idea of "digital" and the real-world of "digital" which is happening in institutions and companies, for which skills are definitely needed. 

What is the real world of digital? Perhaps the first thing to say is that there is no single "real world". There are dispositions which are shared by technical people working in a variety of different environments. And there are vast differences between the kinds of environments and the levels of skill involved. For example, Python programming to analyse data is one thing, using tools like Tableau is another. There are the hard-core software development skills involved in enterprise system development with various frameworks (I'm currently banging my head against Eclipse, Liferay and Docker at the moment), and then there are those areas of skill which relate to the sexier things in technology which grab headlines and make policymakers worry that there is a skills gap - AI particularly.

So what do governments and policy makers really mean when they urge everyone towards "digitalization"? After all, engineering is pretty important in the world, but we don't insist on everyone learning engineering. So why computational thinking? 

Part of the answer lies in the simple fact of the number of areas of work where "digital" dominates. The thinking is that "digital skill" is like "reading" - a form of literacy. But is digital skill like reading and writing? Reading, after all, isn't merely a function which enables people to work. It is embedded in culture as a source of pleasure, conviviality, and conversation. By contrast "digital skill" is very pale and overtly functionalist in a way that reading and writing isn't.  

The functionalism that sits behind computational thinking seems particularly hollow. These are, after all, digital skills to enable people to work. But to work where? Yes, there is a need for technically skilled people in organisations - but how many? How many software developers do we need? How many data analysts? Not a huge amount compared to the number of people, I would guess. So what does everyone else do? They click on buttons in tracker apps that monitor their work movements, they comply with surveillance requests, they complete mindless compulsory "training" so that their employers don't get sued, they sit on zoom, they submit ongoing logs of their activities on computers in their moments of rest, they post inane comments on social media and they end up emptied and dehumanized - the pushers of endless online transactions. Not exactly a sales pitch. Personally, I would be left wishing I'd done the engineering course!

A more fundamental problem is that most organisations have more technically-skilled people than they either know about, or choose to use effectively. This is a more serious and structural problem. It is because people who are really good at "digital" (whatever that means) are creative. And the last thing many organisations (or many senior managers in organisations) want is creativity. They want compliance, not creativity. They want someone who doesn't show them up as being less technically skilled. And often they act to suppress creativity and those with skills, giving them tasks that are well beneath their abilities. I don't think there's a single organisation anywhere where some of this isn't going on. Real digital skill is a threat to hierarchies, and hierarchies kick back.  

Educational agendas like computational thinking are metasystemic interventions. Other metasystemic interventions are things like quality controls and standards, curricula, monitoring and approved technical systems. The point of a metasystemic intervention is to manage the uncertainty of the system. Every system has uncertainty because every system draws a distinction between itself and the environment - and there is always a question as to where that boundary should be drawn, and how it can be maintained. The computational thinking agenda is an attempt to maintain an already-existing boundary.

Our deep problem is that the boundary between all institutions, companies and other social activities and their environments has been upheld and reinforced with the increasing use of technology. Technology in the environments for these institutions has been the root cause of why the institutional boundaries have been reinforced with technology in the first place. Technology is in the very fabric of the machine that maintains the institutions that we have, which themselves have used technology to avoid being reconstructed. The problem institutions have is that in order to maintain their traditional boundaries they must be able to maintain their technologies. Therefore they need everyone to comply with and operate their technologies, and a few to enhance them. But how does this not end in over-specialisation and slavery? How does it create rewarding work and nurture creativity?

No education system and no teacher should be in the business of preparing people for servitude. So what's to be done?

The question is certainly not about digital "literacy". It is about emancipation, individuation and conviviality in a technological environment. Our technologies are important here - particularly (I think) AI and quantum computing. But they are important because they can help us redesign our institutions, and in the process discover ourselves. That, I suspect, is not what the policy makers want because ultimately it will threaten their position. But it is what needs to happen. 

Tuesday 27 April 2021

Spaceship Earth's Education System

Buckminster Fuller's account of "specialisation" in "An Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth" is fascinating me because he sets up an opposition between those who anticipate and those who can't, between those who think in systems terms and those who "specialise". In contrast to the majority of the specialised land-dwelling people of the pre-20th century planet who saw only a fraction of the earth and believed the world was flat and "thought its horizontally extended plane went circularly outward to infinity", Buckminster Fuller contrasts "the Pirates", who sailed the seas and

had high proficiency in dealing with celestial navigation, the storms, the sea, the men, the ship, economics, biology, geography, history, and science. The wider and more long distanced their anticipatory strategy, the more successful they became.

Anticipation counters specialism. "Leonardo da Vinci is the outstanding example of the comprehensively anticipatory design scientist." And then the Great Pirates who:

came to building steel steamships and blast furnaces and railroad tracks to handle the logistics, the Leonardos appeared momentarily again in such men as Telford who built the railroads, tunnels, and bridges of England, as well as the first great steamship. 

But this leads to imperialism. Fuller says imperialism was a new form of specialism in which the "Leonardos" were put to work by "sword-bearing patrons".

You may say, "Aren’t you talking about the British Empire?" I answer, No The so-called British Empire was a manifest of the world-around misconception of who ran things and a disclosure of the popular ignorance of the Great Pirates’ absolute world-controlling through their local-stooge sovereigns and their prime ministers, as only innocuously and locally modified here and there by the separate sovereignties’ internal democratic processes. As we soon shall see, the British Isles lying off the coast of Europe constituted in effect a fleet of unsinkable ships and naval bases commanding all the great harbours of Europe. Those islands were the possession of the topmost Pirates. Since the Great Pirates were building, maintaining, supplying their ships on those islands, they also logically made up their crews out of the native islanders who were simply seized or commanded aboard by imperial edict. Seeing these British Islanders aboard the top pirate ships the people around the world mistakenly assumed that the world conquest by the Great Pirates was a conquest by the will, ambition, and organization of the British people. Thus was the G. P.’s grand deception victorious. But the people of those islands never had the ambition to go out and conquer the world. As a people they were manipulated by the top pirates and learned to cheer as they were told of their nation’s world prowess. 

And from there we have the beginning of schools:

And this is the way schools began as the royal tutorial schools. You realize, I hope, that I am not being facetious. That is it. This is the beginning of schools and colleges and the beginning of intellectual specialization. Of course, it took great wealth to start schools, to have great teachers, and to house, clothe, feed, and cultivate both teachers and students. Only the GreatPirate-protected robber-barons and the Pirate-protected and secret intelligence-exploited international religious organizations could afford such scholarship investment. 

And the warning that we all know about: "But specialization is in fact only a fancy form of slavery wherein the "expert" is fooled into accepting his slavery by making him feel that in return he is in a socially and culturally preferred, ergo, highly secure, lifelong position"

Now the slavery of specialization is completely obvious to all who work for universities.

And we have become very much like the land-bound foolish specialists, duped by misconceptions of the powers of the mind by the trappings of grandeur of university life. We believe the horizon to the infinitely extended as our publications, impact, salaries, status (for some, at least) and citations increase - and we believe all of this is what matters. And we are caught in the gears of a machine of our own construction that is shredding everything of value that once existed in those institutions. 

Worse still, our anticipatory powers are fading as we are heralding a new era of anticipatory technology. Just when we should be asking of the next wave of technology where the boundary is between human anticipation and machine learning, or quantum computing, instead we seem destined to replace human anticipation altogether with machines. This is a new wave of specialisation. To put it mildly: it won't work. To put it more strongly: "Extinction is always the result of over-specialisation"

In formulating a new and positive vision, Buckminster Fuller argues that we need new ways of looking at our resources for organising. This he calls "wealth":

"Wealth is our organized capability to cope effectively with the environment in sustaining our healthy regeneration and decreasing both the physical and metaphysical restrictions of the forward days of our lives."

Now, where does that organized capability come from? It must come from communication. Drawing on another of Buckminster Fuller's ideas, he always drew the distinction between building by "compression" and building by "tension".  This I think is where our new anticipatory technologies might be very powerful. 

Our ability to communicate depends on anticipation: I cannot write these words if I do not have some idea of how they are likely to be read and understood. But I am communicating to a complex audience, and I would like to try some experiments, see how saying different kinds of things might "play out", and then choose the best form of utterance I can to achieve what I want to achieve. 

This is partly why students go to university - to try things out, to see how things might play out. But universities are increasingly bad at doing anticipation - partly because they've become divorced from their history - and anticipation without history cannot be any good. In place of real anticipation, we have empty promises, and a lot of young people with degrees who can't get jobs. 

A network of communication - a network of friends - is a complex system of inter-acting anticipations - what Husserl called "horizons of meaning". It holds its structure because people understand each other. It is very much like Bucky's icosahedron. That is a structure built from tension, not compression.

The early e-learning pioneers had hoped that the internet itself would create these forms of communicative tension. But what happened was that the networks quickly became new "empires" - indeed a new communicative "life form" which consumed human identities and desires. Rather like the British Empire. 

But the network is only half the story. We have had to wait for 30 years for the missing ingredient - the anticipatory technology. We're very close to having this now. It will soon be a fact of everyday life. Anticipation is the thing which tightens the strings, and gives new structures solidity. While we might one day celebrate the extra flexibility - the extra "wealth" as Buckminster Fuller puts it - that this brings, we will surely find that this is only a necessary adaptation for the survival of humankind.  

Saturday 24 April 2021

Computing with our Ears

Well, I'm in Copenhagen now - quite an adventure. Someone said to me the other day that men usually have midlife crises by buying sports cars and having an affairs. I've gone to do a post-doc in Copenhagen instead! What will it bring? I don't know - but that's what makes it interesting. 

Implementation research is the real focus of the work I am doing here, which is a off-shoot of the design-based research which now dominates a lot of methodology in education departments. Frankly, DBR has become the new "grounded theory" (that's not a good thing). I'm looking at implementation of digitalization in the curriculum. But implementation is a real issue, because what is the point of any research in education if it doesn't actually make things better? And that's both hard to do, and intellectually very challenging. After all, implementation is usually thought of as a journey from a present to an imagined future: but both the present and the future are constructs... and there is never a linear journey.

Its obvious that universities are getting left behind by technology. For some reason they've managed to keep on teaching the same old stuff with new fangled tools, patted themselves on the back for reluctantly bringing in a few digital platforms in a pandemic, but carried on doing the same old stuff. Technology, meanwhile, moves on - much of it completely under the radar of the universities.

AI provides a good example of what's happening. Universities are in a panic to "do" AI, and tech corporations are only too happy to give them simple tools like chatbots to help them tick the box. But none of this addresses what AI is, and what is happening to technology. 

AI is anticipatory technology. Indeed, all of the new technical developments we are seeing are anticipatory in one form or another: quantum computing is in many ways similar to our convolutional neural networks which can process images so effectively - they are both fractal and both anticipatory. New powerful simulation tools and visualisation tools, which make increasingly complex calculations on microscopic particle systems are also fractal and recursive in the same way. And with new hardware possibilities like Field Programmable Gate Arrays, and indeed the quantum computer programming environments, the specification of fractal and recursive hardware through software, is becoming a reality, which will mean physical artefacts with anticipatory powers.

But the really important point is that we, as biological systems, are also anticipatory. So where is the interface between artificial anticipation and biological anticipation. That is the real question facing education and its institutions. And this isn't a question that sits above any curriculum or topic. Increasingly, it will become the topic. 

Part of me feels a deep sense of hope in what is happening in technology. Anticipatory technology is not new - indeed it is ancient. Musical instruments are the most powerful anticipatory technologies we possess. We've never quite mastered how to harness their power to help us manage our society (although maybe the Greek theatre was precisely an attempt to do this). Stafford Beer intuited something like this in his experiments to use biological systems for management. But the musical world and the quantum world are very closely related. As the latter becomes manifest, the former will reveal itself it a new light. That might give us a fighting chance of organising ourselves differently.