Power, Acceleration and Metrics in Academic Life
2nd-4th December 2015, Prague (Vila Lanna)

Organised by the Institute of Philosophy of the Czech Academy of Sciences and supported by the Strategy AV21.

Register and get more information at

There is little doubt that science and knowledge production are presently undergoing dramatic and multi-layered transformations accompanied by new imperatives reflecting broader socio-economic and technological developments. The unprecedented proliferation of audit cultures preoccupied with digitally mediated measurement, quantification of scholarship and the consolidation of business-driven managerialism and governance modes are commonplace in the contemporary academy. Concurently, the ever-increasing rate of institutional change, (the need for) intensification of scientific and scholarly production/communication and diverse academic processes seem to characterize the overall acceleration of academic life. Quantification and metrics have emerged not only as navigating instruments paradoxically exacerbating the general dynamization of academic life but also as barely questioned proxies for scientific quality, career progression and job prospects, and as parameters redrawing what it means to be/work as a scholar nowadays. Metrification now seems to be an important interface between labour and surveillance within academic life, with manifold affective implications.

This three-day conference investigates the techniques of auditing and their attendant practices and effects and will also probe into scholars’ complicity in reproduction of such practices. It will consider processes of social acceleration within the academy and their implications for the management of everyday activity by those working within it. This will include:

  •  empirical and theoretical engagements with the acceleration of higher education
  •  the origins of metrification of higher education
  •  metrification as a form of social control
  •  the challenges of self-management posed by metrification and/or acceleration
  •  common strategic responses to these challenges
  •  the relationship between metrification and acceleration
  •  how metrification and acceleration relate to a broader social crisis

Keynote Speakers

Roger Burrows (Goldsmiths, University of London) – Ancient Cultures of Conceit Reloaded

In 1990 the sociologist Ian Carter published Ancient Cultures of Conceit – a brilliant analysis of campus fiction. It provides a wonderful rendering of a world we have lost – a world where academic life was slower paced and where spreadsheets, metrics, business plans and impact agendas were largely unknown. This paper attempts to carry forward Carter’s analysis over the last 25 years examining more recent examples of the campus fiction genre but also including fictional representations of campus life to be found on social media.

Philip Moriarty (University of Nottingham) – The Power, Perils and Pitfalls of Peer Review in Public

There are major deficiencies in traditional peer review. Not only can clearly flawed papers easily  pass ‘scrutiny’ with flying colours,  but the idea that a study is accepted into the scientific literature on the basis of a handful – or, not infrequently, one – set of anonymous reviewer comments seems quaint and archaic in a Twitter-, blogoshere-, and BuzzFeed-enabled world. Post-publication peer review, enabled by sites such as PubPeer, is an exceptionally important tool for online critique, analysis, and scrutiny of published papers. For the next generation of researchers, PPPR will almost certainly be de rigueur. Before we get to that point, however, there are quite a number of teething problems that need to be addressed. These include, in particular, the key issue of the role of anonymity and moderation in online commentary.

Susan Robertson (University of Bristol) – Vertigo: Time and space in the contemporary university

One of Henri Lefebvre’s great intellectual contribution was not only how we think about the spatiality and temporality of social life but that lived/in spaces and their social relations are the outcome of ongoing cultural, political and economic projects and their dynamics. In this lecture I explore the changing nature of the contemporary university, and the ways in which recalibrations of time and space are also simultaneously the medium, object, and outcome of these projects and dynamics.  I invoke the idea of ‘vertigo’ – the sensation of the world moving, and profound anxieties about the potential for a loss of height – as a way of exploring the complex ways in which governing the university through temporal and spatial strategies mediates the ongoing experiences of living, learning, and working, in the university.

James Wilsdon (University of Sussex) – The Metric Tide: Reflections on the UK’s Independent Review of Metrics in Research Assessment and Management 

There are powerful currents whipping up the metric tide. These include growing pressures for audit and evaluation of public spending on higher education and research; demands by policymakers for more strategic intelligence on research quality and impact; the need for institutions to manage and develop their strategies for research; competition within and between institutions for prestige, students, staff and resources; and increases in the availability of real-time ‘big data’ on research uptake, and the capacity of tools for analysing it. Citations, journal impact factors, H-indices, even tweets and Facebook likes – there are no end of quantitative measures that can now be used to assess the quality and wider impacts of research. But how robust and reliable are such indicators, and what weight – if any – should we give them in the management of the UK’s research system? Over the past year, the UK’s Independent Review of the Role of Metrics in Research Assessment and Management has looked in detail at these questions. The review has explored the use of metrics across the full range of academic disciplines, and assessed their potential contribution to processes of research assessment like the Research Excellence Framework (REF). It has looked at how universities themselves use metrics, at the rise of league tables and rankings, at the relationship between metrics and issues of equality and diversity, and at the potential for ‘gaming’ that can arise from the use of particular indicators in the funding system. The review’s final report, The Metric Tide, was published on 9 July 2015. In his talk, James Wilsdon will reflect on the review process, outline its main findings, and consider the opportunities and obstacles to more responsible uses of metrics in the research system.

Oili-Helena Ylijoki (University of Tampere) – ‘Projectification’ and conflicting time orders in academic knowledge production

Under the current conditions of academic capitalism and market-driven managerialism, university research is increasingly conducted in large projects on external, competitive funding from various national and international sources. The project format offers a fixed-term, fast and flexible organizational mode which fits together with constantly changing needs of the turbulent university environment. This paper argues that the ‘projectification’ of science creates a special project time which stands in conflict with process time. Project time, embedded in standardized and abstract clock time, is decontextualized, linear, cumulative and predictable, entailing a strictly defined timeframe with a fixed beginning and end. This is in a sharp contrast with nonlinear, context-dependent and unpredictable process time involving unforeseen periods of standstill, deceleration and acceleration. Furthermore, project time includes      1) commodification of time by translating research process into money, 2) control of time by dividing research into beforehand determined phases in which accountability of the use of time is required, 3) compression of time by speeding up research productivity, and 4) colonization of time by subordinating alternative temporalities in research. The paper discusses how the intensification of project time reshapes and remoulds research practices and academic subjectivity, and what possibilities for alternative temporalities can be created and sustained at the accelerated academy. This is done by distinguishing temporal dilemmas and ways to live with them: long-term commitment vs. short-term funding; fast pace vs. slow thinking; time efficiency vs. wasting time; linear career time vs. circular project rat race; and work time vs. existential time.

I had no idea how long this notion had been around for. Blair Newman was a notoriously drug addled technologist (who once tried to claim cocaine as a business expense) into whose failed venture Microsoft ploughed $50,000 in the late 70s. At the same time, he was also kicking around the idea of an architecture for the Internet of things, predicated upon overly optimistic assumptions that have only recently been proved correct. Quoted from Gates, by Stephen Manes and Paul Andrews, loc 3423-3442

The idea, as expressed in an early document, was that “by the end of the 1980s, experts predict microprocessors will be a part of almost every electrical consumer product selling for more than $20.” The logical extension of this prediction—which actually turned out to be more or less true—was that for virtually no additional cost, these microprocessors could be designed to communicate with each other, forming “a modular intelligent network . . . the central nervous system of the microcomputerized home of the future.” Shades of the 1962 Seattle World’s Fair! “Energy Conservation . . . Personal Safety . . . Convenience.” With Home Bus, you could remotely control everything from your blender to your hot tub. Newman’s Home Bus Standards Association, in conjunction with the research firm SRI International, would develop a single home bus standard that everyone could agree on, and chipmakers and home computer makers would jump gleefully on board. Bill Gates was one of the Association’s original three directors. An outfit called 3Com, masterminded by Robert Metcalfe, who had invented the seminal Ethernet computer network in his Xerox days, was doing Home Bus consulting for General Electric. The idea was that GE would produce its own computer—code name Homer—that could via some sort of network—Home Bus!—control all the GE toasters and blenders and dishwashers in the house. 

To celebrate their 10th birthday, Life Hacker have compiled the ten most popular posts to have featured on their site, as measured by unique visits. They’re actually much more practical and much less obscure than some of the stuff that I’ve seen on there over the years:

I sometimes overstate my case about life hacking. It’s important to remember that much of it is about how to do things rather than how to scrutinise minute aspects of your behaviour in order to make tiny gains in how quickly you do things.

Quoted from Gates, by Stephen Manes and Paul Andrews, loc 3012-3032:

Slaving over computers and shouting about them can be thirsty work. Gates eventually instructed Miriam Lubow to keep Microsoft supplied with Coca-Cola. When a six-pack disappeared inside of five minutes, Bill explained that he was thinking more in terms of a case. “I had no idea that a company would give employees free drinks,” Lubow said, but she began ordering directly from Coca-Cola anyway. Thus was instituted Microsoft’s free Coke policy, a cornerstone of corporate culture that evolved over the years to include virtually any soft drink short of labor-intensive espresso. Instead of running out of the office or hunting up change for vending machines, employees with a powerful thirst could hit the fridge with no more than a minor derailment of their train of thought. Soft-drink consumption kept escalating, but ironically, Miriam Lubow herself was unable to take advantage of the policy. After developing a mysterious skin rash, she received medical orders to cease her Coke-a-day habit.

Since first encountering the notion of discretionary effort, I’ve been fascinated by it. This is a definition I found on page one of Google:

Discretionary effort is the level of effort people could give if they wanted to, but above and beyond the minimum required. Many organizations manage performance in such a way that motivates employees to do only enough to get by and avoid getting in trouble (negative reinforcement).

What renders discretionary effort so problematic is how difficult it is to verify the amount of effort people could give if they wanted to. Particularly if employees are conceived as rationally seeking to minimise their effort, it can license all sorts of performance related interventions in order to mine discretionary effort: heating up the floor to see who can keep hopping the longest, in the pithy phrase used by Will Davies which I’ve been obsessed by since coming across it.

But things looks rather different is arenas where passion dominates occupational self-understanding. This is something I’ve blogged about a lot before but it’s been on my mind recently since I interviewed the team behind The Sociological Review’s excellent Gender and Creative Labour monograph (podcast coming soon on @thesocreview). The invocation of passion offers an entirely new way to mine discretionary effort, one that is perhaps more congruent with the day-to-day necessitaties of knowledge work orientated towards creative production. This is how a programmer described the experience of being a new hire in the early days of Microsoft, a place renowned for the expectations of long working hours that were perceived to dominate the employment culture of the firm. Quoted from Gates, by Stephen Manes and Paul Andrews, loc 2993:

Fresh from academe, he loved the challenge. “It wasn’t like there was pressure to work twelve-hour days. It’s like you were an astronaut or something. You just kind of loved working so much.”
Loc 2993

Here we go, happy holidays

July 4th, 1981, candles of a Roman ilk
Unloaded from a chevy truck Into the home her folks had built
Patio was charcoals and extended fam in folding chairs
Safely arced around the yard to focus on the smoking flares
Couple cousins, uncles, aunts, mostly grown-ups, couple brats
Baby Ruby’s only two She’s too close to the jumping jacks
Mommy scoops her to the house/Buckles up the booster seat
Rolls her to the storm door
Let her long for all the lunacy
Telephone distracting Mom/Ruby wriggles out her strap
Fingers push the plexi-glass/She’s off into the sour patch
Past the pyrotechnics undetected and invisible
Woke the sleeping beagle skipping toward the kidney swimming pool
Off into the yawning blue/The splash would mum the rocket-ships
Ruby’s lungs were filling by the time her kin were cognizant
Many sprung and sprinted down All arrive belated but
The beast she had earlier bestirred had been alert since waking up
Canine let his gainer fly/Water top commotion grow
Howling guests assumed the cloven hooves had come to do-si-do
Frenzied and congested deck Part to let the elders see
Soggy beagle gently dragging Ruby in his yellow teeth
Laid the tiny body in the sun before her Father‘s feet
When she choked the liquid through her bluish lips he dropped his knee
Healthy air had reconvenedTowel his shaking Ruby off
EMT confirm the save,Everybody say “Good dog!”

I just came across this series of videos in which Aesop Rock explains the backstory to his album Skelethon. I’m struck by the thought that there’s no piece of creative work I care about that wouldn’t leave me interested to hear such a story about it. Particularly when it has this degree of granularity, offering an account of the work as a whole through stories about its component parts.

On a slightly mundane level, it gives context to the things I get stuck in my mind. As with this lyric from Crows 1, which I’ve had reveberating around my brain for the last few days for reasons I didn’t completely understand:

Now let me slow this whole shit down for all you half-goat cowards
I’ll even grit my teeth for you
I am so completely off the god-damn grid it’s not a question of addressing me
It’s “what do these symbols under the dresser mean

I still don’t completely understand the lyrics. But the account in the video has deepened my appreciation of them in a way I find interesting. It’s given them depth through providing a context that was lacking. I understand what Crows 1 is about as a whole and this fleshes out the song in a way which enhances rather than detracts from the resonance which has continually drawn my attention back to the lyrics in recent days.

25th November 2015, 11:00 to 17:00
WT0.05, University of Warwick 

This workshop and symposium will explore the, mostly implicit, conceptions of the human, humanity and human nature that underpin various contemporary conceptions of social life. In the context of much-publicised post-human futures, this is an invitation to reconsider the idea that social life itself is predicated on the fact that human beings are capable of such collective existence. Humans are beings who have a continuity of consciousness so that they see themselves as themselves throughout their life; human are beings who negotiate a multiplicity of sometimes contradictory identities and recognise each other as members of the same species, and they are also beings who can create and interpret cultural artefacts. Crucially, humans are beings who can deploy a sense of self-transcendence so that they are able to look at the world from somebody else’s point of view and thus conceive new social institutions.

The main focus throughout the day will be on how questions about the human are encountered in social theory and social research and what are the various implications and challenges of taking these seriously in our work. The day of activities will be divided into two parts. During the morning, we will have a participatory workshop for PhD students and early-career researchers. The goal of the workshop is to help participants negotiate the sometimes abstruse scientific, philosophical, moral, and even theological underpinnings of asking questions about ‘the human’ in the context of their own research projects. Dr Daniel Chernilo (Loughborough University) will offer a general overview of this field of enquiry as well as reflect on its various implications. We will also invite participants to reflect on their own research projects by making a brief (10-minute) presentation of their research projects and how questions about the human have been or are expected to be encountered within them. We’d like to ask all participants to reflect in advance on conceptions of the human and how they pertain to their projects. Uncertainty here is not a problem, in fact it will be a useful contribution to discussions on the day! In the afternoon, we will have a symposium in which Dr Mark Carrigan, Professor Margaret Archer and Daniel Chernilo will engage with questions of the human as they unfold in their own work on digital sociology (Carrigan), the morphogenetic society (Archer), and philosophical sociology (Chernilo).

To register your interest, please contact and with a brief description (500 words or less) of your research and how questions of the human are relevant to it by October 31st, 2015. The event is free but places are limited. Travel bursaries are available for those in need of it, please ask for more details.

From Europe Entrapped by Claus Offe, pg 16-17. Recognition of this fact, as well as recognition of its recognition by non-financial agents, needs to underpin any adequate analysis of depoliticisation:

Financial institutions are first and foremost debtors , owing assets to myriads of private and public claimants. Therefore, if big banks go under, many other businesses (including other banks), households, employees, and possibly states will go under, too, as an inescapable consequence. Banks are a structural equivalent of hostage takers: if you want to save the life of the hostage, you had better do what banks request – a plain power relation. In order to prevent the catastrophic consequences of a major bank’s bankruptcy for depositors (potentially triggered by their “run” on the bank) and the entire economy, national governments and supranational institutions had no choice but to step in to rescue (“systemic”) banks, the business of which many of these same governments had just deregulated and liberalized in the early years of the century, thus enhancing the “hostage- taking capacity” of banks.

From Europe Entrapped by Clause Offe, pg 13. If this analysis is accepted then I find it difficult to see how a leftist commitment to the EU can be sustained:

(a) Competitive advantages can be expected from economies of scale, given the increase in market size and the reduction in transaction costs; 

(b) While regulation is by no means absent at the EU level (but is codified in tens of thousands of pages of legal text specifying standards of products and rules for the protection of consumers, workers, and the natural environment etc.), the advantage from the point of view of investors is the unitary mode of regulation that uniformly applies to all agents across all markets in the EU, thus excluding country- specific distortions and protectionist barriers. While the market is not deregulated, regulation is depoliticized.

(c) Since the EU is not a democratic polity with an elected and accountable government and parliamentary budget rights, the political sovereignty of member states is significantly reduced, as is the probability that regulations and programs contrary to business interests will be adopted at the supranational level. 

(d) With open borders allowing the mobility of capital and labor, goods and services, a rivalry (or political competition) among member states is institutionalized, which serves as a constant warning to the government of each of them (as well as national trade unions) to refrain from political demands, moves, and measures (such as tax increases or increases of labor costs and social expenditures) that run the risk of chasing investors out (or encouraging the inflow of “unemployable” or low- skilled migrants).

This is the debate which the Financial Times says has been prompted by Mark Carney’s intervention on climate change earlier in the week. His point seemed rather incisive to me, observing that “Since the 1980s the number of registered weather-related loss events has tripled” and that furthermore “Inflation-adjusted insurance losses from these events have increased from an annual average of around $10bn in the 1980s to around $50bn over the past decade”. Given the climatological evidence suggests that “challenges currently posed by climate change pale in significance compared with what might come”, it’s a systemic issue for insurance which needs to be addressed. His concern stems from what he terms the tragedy of the horizon:

We don’t need an army of actuaries to tell us that the catastrophic impacts of climate change will be felt beyond the traditional horizons of most actors – imposing a cost on future generations that the current generation has no direct incentive to fix.
That means beyond:
  • the business cycle; 9
  • the political cycle; and
  • the horizon of technocratic authorities, like central banks, who are bound by their mandates.
The horizon for monetary policy extends out to 2-3 years. For financial stability it is a bit longer, but typically only to the outer boundaries of the credit cycle – about a decade. 10
In other words, once climate change becomes a defining issue for financial stability, it may already be too late.

As someone who is instinctively and reflectively hostile to technocrats, this strikes me as one of the strongest arguments it is possible to point to for the value of such figures. Their appointment frees them from narrowly political concerns, facilitating interventions which would be constrained by, among other things, the temporal horizons of other actors. This ‘freeing’ is both narrow and shallow. It is also a profoundly political act in its own right, representing a crucial strategy for placing increasing portions of economic questions beyond political scrutiny. But an adequate sociology of technocrats should recognize that insulating policy from politics will tend, all other things being equal, to grant a degree of freedom to the policy maker which is lacking for the politician (though indeed many other constraints may follow from the institutional arrangements in which the technocrat is embedded).

I find the reaction to Carney’s speech curious because I find his intervention itself so plausible. But some have argued that this ‘over-reach’ risks politicizing his role in a way that would lead appointees to be made on the basis of political criteria in future. The interesting question becomes whether such criteria might be applied to other technocrats whose role within contemporary Europe I find much less persuasive. Can we see a nascent elite cultural reaction against the encroachment of technocracy in Europe over recent years? Or is ‘over-reach’ simply what technocrats do when one disagrees with the views they are espousing?

I love this track by Aesop Rock. It occurred to me earlier how well it articulates the pleasure of doing what you love (the pastimes / That we have harbored based solely on the fact / That it makes us smile if it sounds dope) but potentially in a way which contributes to the mystification of doing what you love, something which leaves people ripe for exploitation within the creative industries.

We the American working population
Hate the fact that eight hours a day
Is wasted on chasing the dream of someone that isn’t us
And we may not hate our jobs
But we hate jobs in general
That don’t have to do with fighting our own causes
We the American working population
Hate the nine to five day-in day-out
But we’d rather be supporting ourselves
By being paid to perfect the pastimes
That we have harbored based solely on the fact
That it makes us smile if it sounds dope

This looks like a great special issue of tripleC. I’m going to get started on it as soon as I finish this special issue of The Sociological Review on Gender & Creative Labour. I did an interview with the editors of this issue & it left me aware that I’m even more interested in these questions than I thought I was previously.

Interrogating Internships: Unpaid Work, Creative Industries, and Higher Education
Special issue of tripleC: Communication, Capitalism & Critique
Edited by Greig de Peuter, Nicole S. Cohen, Enda Brophy
Vol. 13 (2): pp. 329-602

We are thrilled to announce the publication of “Interrogating Internships: Unpaid Work, Creative Industries, and Higher Education,” a special issue of the journal /tripleC: Communication, Capitalism & Critique/. The issue features 22 articles, 32 contributors, and a mix of academic and activist accounts.

The issue’s publication was preceded by a public forum in Toronto, “Interns, Connect! A Forum on Upsetting Unpaid Work”
A launch event in Vancouver is in the works. As an open-access journal, all of the articles are freely available.

The table of contents is available here:
The complete issue can be downloaded from here:

Here’s a link to the podcast of an invited talk I did at the Society for Research Into Higher Education last week: Surviving life in the accelerated academy: prospects and problems for digital scholarship

In recent years, increasing attention has been paid to the stress and anxiety of academic life. This developing discourse has an ambivalent relationship to digital technology: it has been facilitated by the uptake of blogging and micro-blogging amongst academics, yet social media and other digital technologies are involved in many of the facets of academic life that are seen as sources of stress and anxiety. This talk uses the notion of ‘social acceleration’ to address the changes taking place within higher education, as well as the role of digital technology in their emergence and the difficulties they create for academics. It considers the significance of digital scholarship within this context, arguing that its institutionalisation will profoundly shape the conditions under which people aspire to be academics and to do academic work. I make the case that there is an emancipatory possibility inherent in the uptake of digital scholarship by academics but that this risks being lost, as a narrower managerialist conception of digital scholarship begins to take root within higher education.

Joseph Stiglitz quoted in The Rich: a 2000 Year History by John Kampfner, pg 386:

Virtually all US senators, and most of the Representatives in the House, are members of the top 1 per cent when they arrive, are kept in office by money from the top 1 per cent, and know that if they serve the top 1 per cent well they will be rewarded by the top 1 per cent when they leave office.

Does the post-office elevation of Tony Blair into the economic stratosphere complicate this picture? Or is it simply an intensification of an existing trend? I’ll be curious to find out what Nick Clegg does with the rest of his life, as I’ve never quite been able to shake the suspicion that for him political office was always a self-conscious stepping stone. Whereas perhaps for Blair and Mandelson, it was more a case of opportunities presenting themselves as their careers unfolded.