Updates from February, 2017 Toggle Comment Threads | Keyboard Shortcuts

  • Mark 11:18 pm on February 27, 2017 Permalink | Reply
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    Speculative thoughts about the phenomenology of digitalisation 

    A few weeks ago, I found myself on a late night train to Manchester from London. After a long day, I was longing to arrive home, a prospect that seemed imminent as the train approached Stockport. Then it stopped. Eventually, we were told that there was someone on the tracks ahead and that the police were on the scene. We waited. After another ten minutes, we were told that the police were still trying to apprehend the person on the tracks. I checked Twitter and saw this incident had been unfolding for a while, seemingly disrupting all the trains going into and through Stockport train station. We waited some more. The train manager announced that the police had told trains they could proceed… a few minutes later the finally moving train came to an abrupt halt, apparently because the person who, it turned out was still on the tracks, had almost been hit. The train staff seemed surprised and mildly shaken up, unable to explain why the police had given the order to move.

    I eventually made it to Manchester, albeit after the last tram to the north had departed. As a naturally curious person, I wanted to find out more about what had happened, not least of all to clarify the slightly weird Benny Hill-esque images I was left with following these repeated invocations of police “in pursuit of” this mysterious “woman on the tracks” over half an hour. Plus what the hell were the police doing telling the train to proceed when she was still on the tracks? If it was a mistake, I was curious about why exactly they thought their pursuit had ended when they hadn’t arrested her. If it wasn’t a mistake, it seemed an inexcusable and possibly illegal action, both in terms of harm to the woman and the psychological violence potentially inflicted on a train driver.

    But I couldn’t find anything. I searched local newspapers but nothing. I searched social media but could only find my own tweet and the blandly descriptive disruption update on national rail enquiries. My point in recounting this story is not to stress the intrinsic interest of the situation itself. It’s not particularly interesting and you likely had to be there to have any concern. Rather, I’m interested in understanding the character of my frustration at being unable to find what I was looking for through digital means. It’s something I thought back to yesterday, when I was looking for a particular clip from the Simpsons to make a point in a conversation I was having with someone, but could not find it no matter how hard I looked.

    In both cases, my behaviour revealed an implicit expectation concerning the extent of digitalisation. In the first case, that an incident which presumably delayed hundreds of people under (vaguely) mysterious circumstances would inevitably generate some digital record. In the second case, a memorable incident from a popular tv show would surely have been uploaded to a video sharing site. My frustration, though mild, stems from an encounter with the incompleteness of digitalisation.

    These thoughts are extremely provisional but I’d really welcome feedback.

    • Benito Teehankee 10:48 am on February 1, 2018 Permalink

      This happens to me more now and I worry that I’ve become almost dependent on digital sourcing in this way. I publicly advocate that people spend less time in front of computer screens and more in live conversation with people around them but in practice, especially when I write or am reflecting on an issue, I constantly expect and am shaped by digital accounts. And when I do find such accounts, do I give them too much credence? A form of epistemic fallacy? I wonder…

    • Mark 9:12 am on February 9, 2018 Permalink

      Sorry I missed this. Interesting to hear other people having the same experience. My fear is something big is happening here, which we’re unlikely to name or notice, simply because by its nature we’re barely aware of it.

  • Mark 8:31 am on February 27, 2017 Permalink | Reply
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    CFP: Alternative Facts: Constructing Truth in Civil Societies 

    As the workings of civil society are being disrupted by the challenges of ‘alternative facts’, ‘fake news’ and notions of post-truth, Cosmopolitan Civil Societies Journal has decided to devote a special issue to this topic. Our approach is broad; the flow of information is fundamental to civil society and that flow and its interactions with the structures of society and the individuals in society takes many forms. The following list is by no means exhaustive: Journalism (and fact checking); Cultural Studies and the World of Make-Believe; the scientific record and predatory publishing; climate change and climate deniers; Civic literacy and democracy; Public Relations and Spin; social media, experience and opinion; state strategy and astro-turfing; the new right and post-facts; dramaturgy of post-factoids …
    We are calling for papers between 4,000 and 8,000 words which reflect in some way on the concepts of alternative facts/fake news/post truth either on our understandings of civil society or on professional practices within civil society.

    Our deadline for submission is Friday 31 March. Decisions on acceptance will be communicated by 28 April. The issue will be published in July 2017.

    See the journal at:


    For more information please contact Hilary Yerby at: Hilary.yerby@uts.edu.au

  • Mark 8:13 pm on February 26, 2017 Permalink | Reply
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    The ambivalent promise of higher education 

    In the latest collection of talks from Audrey Watters, The Curse of the Monsters of Educational Technology, she addresses an uncomfortable issue in higher education: the unrealistic claims made about the transformative aspect of university attendance. From loc 397-413:

    These questions get at what is an uncomfortable and largely unspoken truth about education. That is, education, for its own part, makes all sorts of claims—sometimes, let’s be honest, fairly wild and unsubstantiated claims—about amazement, achievement, and transformation. These promises may well reveal that our field is full of Sea Monkeys—colorful promises of becoming that we might not actually be able to or even intend to honor. As we reconstitute technology-enhanced learning, are we simply reconstituting Sea Monkeys?

    This is one of those issues that fascinates me because I can’t help but see it in ambivalent terms. On the one hand, the relative advantage of a university degree is manifestly in decline due to credential inflation and opportunity hoarding, such that to deny this would be fundamentally dishonest. On the other hand, this point is often made in a way that reduces the value of higher education to instrumental advantage accrued by individuals. On the one hand, the interventions of the Competition and Markets Authority within higher  education further the commodification of universities in a way which corrodes the intrinsic value that can be found through participating in them. On the other hand, it seems absurd to suggest that students don’t have a right to expect that the understanding upon which they took a university place is accurate, particularly as participation becomes ever more financially and personally onerous.

    The more diffuse promises of education are even more thorny. My PhD was a study of personal change (and stasis) in the lives of 18 undergraduate students across a range of disciplines, during their first two years of university. One of the most important findings I took from this research was how rapidly the evaluation of our own lives and aspirations can change, particularly as we enter a new environment into which we have invested our hopes. My point is not to say that ‘false promises’ made concerning the university experience is necessarily a problematic category, only that it becomes ontologically rather messy once we move beyond the straight-forward level of what students were told about courses, facilities and workload etc.

    But it is nonetheless crucial that we have these conversations. What is the value of an undergraduate degree? What expectations do students have of it?  What qualitative and quantitative evidence is there to support those expectations? If expectations are inflated, can we identify particular groups who are perpetuating these and the interests at work in their doing so? I can’t help but feel that Watters is correct, higher education is full of “colorful promises of becoming that we might not actually be able to or even intend to honor”. We urgently need to learn how to counteract this while still resisting the commodification and bureaucratisation which action taken in the interests of the consumer will likely entail.

  • Mark 4:18 pm on February 25, 2017 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , Benajmin, , pascalian meditations,   

    A conversation between myself and @benjamingeer about a Bourdieusian approach to understanding alt-academia 

    I thought others might find this interesting. I’d certainly be interested in hearing people’s perspectives on what we were discussing. I’m in bold, Benjamin is in italics. 

    Does the situation of skholè still obtain in the accelerated academy?

    This is a great question. Maybe an answer could go something like this, focusing on the distinction between scholastic thinking and practical sense: When I’m sitting at my desk, reading about bullfights (which I know only from books, having never seen one), I have considerable distance from the urgencies of the world of bullfights. Even if I only have ten minutes to read about bullfights while preparing a lecture I have to give in an hour, I’m still treating the bullfight as an object of scholastic contemplation. It’s not me fighting the bull. But if my colleague walks in and announces that he’s just published an article in that journal I’ve always wanted to publish in, and which has always rejected my submissions, and I’m overwhelmed with jealousy, I have no such distance. My reaction comes from my practical sense. The accelerated academy reduces the amount of time available for skholè, but that reduced time can still be time spent in a scholastic relation to the object of study. But how little time can we get away with? What happens to academics when they no longer have time to read?

    Thanks Ben, that responses makes a lot of sense to me in terms I’ve been writing about as cognitive triage. So we’re talking about objective conditions (a preponderance of time & a relative autonomy in its deployment) and subjective conditions (establishing a relation of attachment to the object of study), right? Your point is that an erosion of the former doesn’t necessarily preclude the latter. But is there a tipping point at which it starts to render it so peripheral that it largely becomes impossible?

    And does this preclude scholarship? Or are there other forms of engagement which can produce knowledge which are congruent with the temporalities of the accelerated academy? Take this brief exchange, which I’ve found illuminating, much as I found two hours of reading this afternoon illuminating. I’m not sure they can be compared or what the rubric for a comparison could even be. But they seem obviously distinct, even if I can’t specify the basis of the distinction.

    The question underlying this is whether social media by academics, in a context of institutional acceleration, necessarily erodes skholè. Or can social media also prove adaptive, offering faster & iterative forms of engagement which allow knowledge production without detachment. The ethos of the pirate sociologist perhaps: https://markcarrigan.net/2016/11/03/towards-a-pirate-sociology/

    “So we’re talking about objective conditions (a preponderance of time & a relative autonomy in its deployment) and subjective conditions (establishing a relation of attachment to the object of study), right?”

    Yes! Your habitus is adapted to the kinds of thinking that go on in your field. They’ve become second nature for you. So you can turn on that kind of thinking any time, even for a few minutes, just as a skilled pianist can sit down any time, at any piano that happens to be handy, and play. But to acquire that habitus, you have to go through a long, gradual process of adaptation and integration into a field, which in academia means spending a lot of time reading about and thinking through ideas and problems that are considered important in your field. I think that in the humanities and social sciences, the main time when people get to do this is during their PhD. But if time for reading and thinking becomes very scarce after the PhD, what happens? Perhaps people’s academic habitus is durable enough to allow them to keep repeating the same patterns in teaching and writing, year after year. But original thinking, or serious engagement with other people’s original thinking, must become very hard to do.

    “Take this brief exchange, which I’ve found illuminating, much as I found two hours of reading this afternoon illuminating. I’m not sure they can be compared or what the rubric for a comparison could even be…. The question underlying this is whether social media by academics, in a context of institutional acceleration, necessarily erodes skholè. Or can social media also prove adaptive….”

    I’m guessing that it depends on the objective relation between the people involved. Today I got an email announcing the latest issue of a journal I’ve published in, and as usual I had absolutely no interest in any of the articles. Whereas when I saw the title of this blog post, I was immediately interested, and in the post you brought up a lot of things I care about. I’m guessing that these shared preoccupations reflect a homology between our positions in academic fields. Given that sort of objective relation, I think you can have a great interaction with someone, whether it’s in person, via email, or on social media. On the other hand, getting trolled, or just subjected to everyone’s relentless self-promotion, clearly isn’t going to do you any good. What I look for on social media is people who are exploring things I’m exploring, trying to go in directions that I want to go in. Then I think there really is value to an interaction that’s faster and less formal than academic publishing. In a format like this, we can compare possible ways of thinking about a problem, without having to wait three years for the peer-reviewed article or book.

    I feel like social media aren’t really designed to facilitate these kinds of connections. I’ve spent a lot of time figuring out who to follow on Twitter, and Twitter’s suggestions of academics for me to follow usually aren’t much help. I could imagine a social media platform that does something like the analysis in Homo Academicus, where Bourdieu identifies a whole group of scholars like himself who, at a particular historical moment, had similar positions and career trajectories. But then I’d worry about it selling my data…

    “What I look for on social media is people who are exploring things I’m exploring, trying to go in directions that I want to go in. Then I think there really is value to an interaction that’s faster and less formal than academic publishing. In a format like this, we can compare possible ways of thinking about a problem, without having to wait three years for the peer-reviewed article or book.”

    I couldn’t agree more with this but it’s a theoretical question that interests me. Do you see this as a matter of habitus? Because for me this seems archetypally a matter of reflexivity…

    “Do you see this as a matter of habitus? Because for me this seems archetypally a matter of reflexivity…”

    I think it’s both. In Homo Academicus, Bourdieu argues that in the 1960s, young academics whose professional aspirations were based on the old mode of academic recruitment were surprised and angry when it didn’t work for them. The shock of this hysteresis of habitus led them to question the previously taken-for-granted social structures of academia, and then those of society at large, and some of them then became leaders of the mass uprising of May 1968. I take this to mean that a person’s habitus and social trajectory can predispose them to become more reflexive.

    You and I both have unorthodox career trajectories. We occupy peripheral positions in the landscape of academic institutions, in sort of no-man’s-land between the worlds of research and of applied technology. Simultaneously insiders and outsiders, we have an intuitive feel for how academia works, but we lack the total investment (illusio) of those who occupy dominant positions. I think sort of position is ideal for developing reflexivity. Bourdieu studied at the Ecole Normale Supérieure, but as the son of a provincial postman, he felt like an outsider there. However successfully he adapted and gained access to the centres of academic power, his trajectory would never be the same as that of someone whose parents were normaliens. This experience of being different no doubt had a lasting effect on his habitus, helping him to gain the reflexivity needed for a study like The State Nobility.

    I see what you’re saying but the impression I’ve got from reading the Pascalian Meditations thus far is that Bourdieu conceived of the university as consistently solely of students and professors. He may have had conditions which were epistemically conducive to understanding the rules of the academic game, but does that necessarily entail a comparable insight into universities as organisations? I’m not sure if I’m being unfair, but it’s the thought I keep coming back to & relates to what you’re saying about our respective positions as people who are not students, professors or researchers in the straight-forwardly post-doctoral sense.

    “does that necessarily entail a comparable insight into universities as organisations?”

    I don’t think it does. Although I think Bourdieu’s initial trajectory has something in common with ours, his experience of universities was also very different, and not just because he ended up in a dominant position in his field. For one thing, I think French universities in the second half of the twentieth century enjoyed greater institutional autonomy, and were more firmly under the control of professors, than universities in most other parts of the world. Perhaps struggles between administration and professors weren’t as big a part of his experience as they are of ours. And France hadn’t (and still hasn’t) introduced precarious, low-wage academic employment on a large scale, as the US has, or subjected academics to anything like Britain’s REF.

    Bourdieu was definitely concerned with threats to the autonomy of academic fields, including ‘the more and more frequent recourse of university research to sponsorship, and of the creation of educational institutions directly subordinated to business’ (The Rules of Art, 344-45). He explored some of this in The State Nobility, but that book is mainly about individuals’ academic careers, and about the field of academic institutions, rather than about considering each institution as a field in itself. His response to these threats was to call for cultural producers to engage in a collective struggle for ‘power over the instruments of production and consecration’, and I think that’s more relevant than ever. In his day, that meant things like creating his own academic journal. Today I think we need to do much more, and I think projects that seek to transform the economics of academic publishing, like the Open Library of the Humanities, are part of that.

    I think it’s important not to limit Bourdieu’s theoretical tools to the ways in which he himself used them. It’s tempting to get frustrated with him for not being interested in some of the things we’re very interested in today. But it’s inevitable that his horizons were different from ours. We can ask a lot of questions about reflexivity and autonomy that he never asked, and that’s as it should be. It could be very interesting to try to find out what sorts of habitus and social trajectories are likely to give people insight into universities as organisations.

    So you think it’s a matter of focus in a given context? That fits very nicely with Margaret Archer’s critique of Bourdieu which I think is pretty much uniformly misunderstood. Her problem isn’t with the sociology as much as the unthinking transposition of it from a very particular kind of centralised and relatively stable structural context.

    A further thought: in The State Nobility, the people who don’t succeed in their academic careers end up as schoolteachers. Bourdieu emphasises that the division between those who succeed and those who fail is often arbitrary, but he doesn’t envisage any academic future for the rejects. All they can do is try to convince themselves that they’re content not to do research anymore. But now there seems to be a greater variety of non-academic or quasi-academic positions in and around universities, occupied by people who, in one way or another, are turning their knowledge of academia to their advantage. A lot of this seems to involve various kinds of servile roles (such as selling advice about how to game the system in order to succeed as an academic). But I’m wondering whether it’s possible for such a position to lend itself to autonomous research. In particular, if nobody expects you to do research at all, you’re under no pressure to publish, and this might make it possible to do certain kinds of ‘slow’ research that would be more difficult for others to do. And getting back to your theoretical question, what would make someone in such a position want to do something like that, while others don’t?

    That’s exactly why I’ve been interested in alt-academic careers since I first came across them (as well as the practical concern of being fairly sure I wanted one) – what I’m now realising is how theoretically significant this is for academic labour and academic self-conception. An obvious empirical question: do alt-academics seek to consecrate their research as research? If so, how do they do this?

    ‘So you think it’s a matter of focus in a given context?’

    Yes, and I think that in general, as insiders in any context, we’ve internalised certain assumptions about what sorts of things are important in that context. That’s part of our insider’s habitus. For Bourdieu, reflexivity in social science requires a constant, conscious struggle against our habitus. We need all the objectifying tools that social science has to offer, such as ethnography and statistics, to make gains in that struggle. He used those tools to gain some reflexivity about the academic world he had been initiated into, but his reflexivity had limits.

    I think one striking example of this is his relative neglect of the topic of religion. Despite having developed field theory through an engagement with Weber’s ideas about religion, and despite using all sorts of religious metaphors (‘consecration’, ‘theodicy’, ‘prophecy’, ‘heresy’), he didn’t pay much attention to religion itself in his research. I have a suspicion (though no direct evidence) that this was because, like many French intellectuals of his generation, he assumed that religion was a spent force, one that had become nearly irrelevant. It must have been easier to hold that view in France than in many other parts of the world, especially at that time, and perhaps if he were alive today, he would see things differently.

    I used to read a lot of critiques of Bourdieu, but I ended up finding it a tiresome activity, because they nearly always turn out to be arguing against straw men, and usually it’s clear that the authors have read very little of what Bourdieu actually wrote. I suppose that many have read a bit of Bourdieu for the sole purpose of dismissing his ideas, ‘as a shortcut towards visibility more convenient than producing work of their own’, as he says in Pascalian Meditations (in the section ‘Digression: a critique of my critics’). I’ve just had a quick look at Archer’s critique in Making our Way Through the World, and it seems to be based on a common caricature of the concept of habitus, which Bourdieu rejects in that same passage, and which takes habitus to be a ‘monolithic’, ‘immutable’, ‘inexorable’, and ‘exclusive’ principle. I rather think Bourdieu saw habitus merely as a guide to improvisation, much as a song is a guide to a jazz musician’s improvisation. It makes certain things more likely and other things less likely, and provides ready-made categories that can be used to make sense of new situations, but in no way does it rigidly determine thought or action.

    About the consecration of the work of alt-academics, this just occurred to me: perhaps in the old days, academics whose work was too heterodox (e.g. because they didn’t fit neatly into any academic field) would simply be ejected from academia. Or if they were very lucky, like Bourdieu, they might be able to cross over from one field to another (from philosophy to sociology in his case). But nowadays, they might also get a ‘second chance’ in alt-ac jobs. If those jobs really tend to be populated by such individuals, and if they still want to do research and publish, it stands to reason that they would need to engage in a struggle over the means of consecration. The question of how they do it is a good empirical question.

    that’s very interesting, thanks. I’m certainly becoming much more open-minded since engaging with Pascalian Meditations.

    I wonder if the key problem is how to avoid the research being construed as effectively a hobby. the desire to avoid playing the game of seeking high-status journal publications is definitely one factor in the alt-academic discourse but, without this consecration, what’s the status of the work that’s not being written up? I wonder if it would be as straight forward as simply asking self-identified alt-academics about how they see their research & analysing their construction of the problem?

    ‘I wonder if it would be as straight forward as simply asking self-identified alt-academics about how they see their research & analysing their construction of the problem?’

    I think that would definitely be a place to start. Bourdieu placed a high value on understanding the author’s point of view: what were the alternatives the author faced? In his examples of revolutions in fields, he often talks about authors who were confronted with a field divided into two opposing camps, and who rejected both of them. I’m wondering whether a refusal to choose between ‘high-status journal publications’ and ‘work that’s not being written up’ could lead to new forms of research and consecration.

    Personally I want to keep publishing, but since I no longer need to care about how a publication looks on my CV, and since I don’t think aggressive peer review adds much value, I don’t care how high-status the journal is. It’s more important to me that it’s an open-access journal and doesn’t make me wait a year for a decision, and it’s even better if it’s interdisciplinary. My feeling is that the consecration that matters happens after publication in any case, if it happens at all.

    I would also like to reclaim the respectability of doing work as a hobby. In historical terms, all scientists did research as a hobby until very recently. Today, someone like Charles Darwin wouldn’t be able to spend thirty years working on the theory of evolution before publishing it, because no institution would fund him for that long. He was able to do it because he was independently wealthy, and science was a hobby for him. But perhaps alt-ac careers offer another way to do science as a hobby, and thus to escape the pressure to publish quickly.

    But I’ve had the argument put to me that the questions which can meaningfully be investigated as a hobby are not the meaningful questions. There’s something self serving and dismissive about this but I’m worried there’s also an element of truth to it.

    “the questions which can meaningfully be investigated as a hobby are not the meaningful questions”

    The history of science shows that this is not true. I’ve mentioned Charles Darwin, all of whose scientific work was done as a hobby. Some other examples are Francis Bacon, Robert Boyle, Benjamin Franklin, Joseph Priestley, Antoine Lavoisier, Henry Fox Talbot, and Ada Lovelace.

    “I wonder if consecration within the market place of ideas is (unfortunately) most likely to emerge under these circumstances.”

    One doesn’t need to be a salaried researcher to publish in scientific journals. Albert Einstein published his groundbreaking papers during his seven years as an employee of the Swiss patent office.

    But it’s telling that all those examples are historical: we might see professionalisation, disciplinary specialisation & the fragmentation of the knowledge system as regrettable. But they are, I think, all barriers to what you’re saying being possible now.

    I wonder if consecration within the market place of ideas is (unfortunately) most likely to emerge under these circumstances. Your work is taken seriously if it can garner engagement by others (particularly outside of the academy) even if it lacks formal consecration within it.

    “But it’s telling that all those examples are historical: we might see professionalisation, disciplinary specialisation & the fragmentation of the knowledge system as regrettable. But they are, I think, all barriers to what you’re saying being possible now.”

    I think it depends on what kind of research you want to do. If you need a particle accelerator, you probably have to be a professional scientist. But in the social sciences and humanities, a lot of research is done with nothing more than a PhD plus time, thought, publicly available data, and a bit of computing power. Time seems to be the scarcest resource for academics. I actually have more time for research now, with an alt-ac job, than I had when I was a Visiting Assistant Professor.

    I think it’s important to distinguish between academic fields and academic institutions. Perhaps the biggest barrier to what I’m suggesting is the illusion, promoted by academics and academic institutions themselves, that having an academic position equals participation in an academic field. I think this is a bit like when priests say that there is no salvation outside the Church.

  • Mark 9:21 pm on February 24, 2017 Permalink | Reply
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    Donald Trump: Everyday Tactics of Post-Truth 

    In The Making of Donald Trump, David Johnston identifies the tactics used by Trump to deflect inquiries into his many shady dealings and questionable decisions. Sometimes this is a matter of outright threats, with an enthusiasm for litigation (1,900 suits as plaintiffs coupled with an explicitly articulated philosophy of vengeance proving a dangerous combination for any who dare to cross him. But somewhat contrary to his public image as a blundering fool, he is often much more subtle than this, engaging in strategies of deflection and misdirection with all the deftness of the most accomplished public relations manager. In other cases, it just becomes weird, with Trump willing to publicly deny that a recording he had previously admitted to be of his own voice was anything other than a hoax:

    This combination of viciousness, skilfulness and brazenness has left him insulated from meaningful scrutiny. But what has he averted in this way? What might have happened but hasn’t? On page 154 Johnston offers a description which has caught my imagination:

    Together, these strategies – muddying the facts and deflecting inquiries into past conduct – help ensure that Trump’s carefully crafted public persona will not be unmade. He will not suffer the curtain to be pulled back to reveal a man who tricked society into thinking he was all wise and all powerful.

    This public persona which has been crafted, sometimes deliberately while at other times impulsively, remains intact. I’m interested in what such a ‘pulling back of the curtain’ requires to be effective: the sustained attention of an audience, a sufficient familiarity with the person(a) in question, a prolonged campaign to sort fact from fiction and a lack of contestation concerning this process of sorting.

    What is being framed somewhat unhelpfully as a ‘post-truth era’ are the conditions under which this ceases to be possible. There’s lots of ways in which we could try and explain them, not all of which are necessarily mutually exclusive. The collapse of authority in late modernity. The acceleration of communication. The weakening of journalism and the dominance of public relations. Theories of social change should be able to account for the specifics of such cases, rather than simply allowing them to be rendered thematically.

    In his InfoGlut, Mark Andrejevic takes issue with the assumption that fostering ‘disbelief’ or ‘challenge’ is necessarily subversive.  As he puts it, “strategies of debunkery and information proliferation can work to reinforce, rather than threaten, relations of power and control” (loc 293). Recognising this in the abstract is important but I intend to read more about the specific cases in which these tactics are used regressively, as I’m increasingly fascinated by the extent to which these tactics are informed (or not) by epistemological and ontological understandings (even if these words are not used).

    Under these conditions, what  Andrejevic describes as the ‘big data divide’ seems ever more prescient by the day. From loc 464:

    The dystopian version of information glut anticipates a world in which control over the tremendous amount of information generated by interactive devices is concentrated in the hands of the few who use it to sort, manage, and manipulate. Those without access to the database are left with the “poor person’s” strategies for cutting through the clutter: gut instinct, affective response, and “thin- slicing” (making a snap decision based on a tiny fraction of the evidence). The asymmetric strategies for using data highlight an all- too- often overlooked truth of the digital era: infrastructure matters. Behind the airy rhetoric of “the cloud,” the factories of the big data era are sprouting up across the landscape: huge server farms that consume as much energy as a small city. Here is where data is put to work – generating correlations and patterns, shaping decisions and sorting people into categories for marketers, employers, intelligence agencies, healthcare providers, financial institutions, the police, and so on. Herein resides an important dimension of the knowledge asymmetry of the big data era – the divide between those who generate the data and those who put it to use by turning it back upon the population. This divide is, at least in part, an infrastructural one shaped by ownership and control of the material resources for data storage and mining. But it is also an epistemological one –a difference in the forms of practical knowledge available to those with access to the database, in the way they think about and use information.


  • Mark 6:22 pm on February 23, 2017 Permalink | Reply
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    A Domain of One’s Own 

  • Mark 6:07 pm on February 23, 2017 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , , , stern review,   

    The Future of ‘Impact’ in the UK 

    I’m reading through the Stern review in preparation for various impact related things I’m doing in the next few weeks. It takes the view that the 6,975 impact case studies produced and £55 million estimated to have been spent on the impact element of the last REF has clearly contributed to “an evolving culture of wider engagement, enhancing delivery of the benefits arising from research”. These costs could be mitigated in future because “participating institutions now have processes in place to capture the information required”. Or perhaps they might expand, as the infrastructure surrounding the assessment described here by Les Back seems likely to grow, even if the number of case studies does not increase much as per Stern’s recommendations.

    Offering institutions more flexibility in the distribution of case studies (as opposed to requiring a certain number of case studies proportionally to the number of staff submitted to a unit of assessment) could have interesting results. As will the recommendation for ‘institutional level’ impact case studies, both in terms of identifying cross-disciplinary impacts which might otherwise fall between the cracks and perhaps justifying institutional level investments in impact capacity: 

    Some of these aspects of environment reflect the strategy, support and actions of the institution as a whole. This has not been assessed in REF2014 and we recommend that this should be captured in a new Institutional Environment Statement, which complements the Unit of Assessment Environment Statement.

    Environment and impact are mutually supportive and should be seen together. The strategy and support of impact are closely linked to the environment for research at both Unit of Assessment and institutional level. Therefore, it is also recommended that the aspects captured by the Impact template of REF2014 should be incorporated into both the Unit of Assessment and Institutional level Environment statement.

    This will involve recognising:

    • the features of the research environment that are the product of institutional level activity, including steps taken to promote interdisciplinary and other joint working internally and externally and to support engagement and impact, beyond that which is just the aggregate of individual units of assessment
    • the future research and knowledge exchange strategy of the HEI, as well as the individual Units of Assessment, and the extent to which both have delivered on the strategies set out in the previous REF
    • the individualism of the HEI and the eclecticism of academic life within it
    • the contribution that its academics make to the wider academy (‘academic citizenship’).

    Each statement would focus on how the institution or Unit of Assessment enhances the development of research capability within it, how it provides opportunities for high quality research and related activities, how it motivates and rewards researchers, and the contributions made to the wider academic community.

    Additionally, weakening the link between impact and research outputs could have interesting implications for social media activity, expanding the range of activity which can be measured and argued to lead to impact.

    The review suggests that the potential range of impacts possible to record was made narrower by the assessment process. It also advocates emphasising cultural impact and now recognising impact internal to higher education, including though hopefully not limited to teaching:

    We recommend that impacts on public engagement and understanding are emphasised and that impacts on cultural life be specifically included. Better to align the REF with the TEF, we also recommend that research leading to major impacts on curricula and /or pedagogy within or across disciplines should be included; and in order to encourage long-term, interdisciplinary research endeavours, we recommend that ground breaking academic impacts such as research leading to the creation of new disciplines should be included.

  • Mark 11:03 am on February 23, 2017 Permalink | Reply

    The Sociological Review Early Career Researcher Event: Senior Seminar with Rivke Jaffe 

    The Sociological Review Early Career Researcher Event: Senior Seminar with Rivke Jaffe

    The Manchester Museum
    Friday 28th April 2017

    The Sociological Review Foundation invite applicants to take part in a workshop with Rivke Jaffe (University of Amsterdam) taking place in advance of our Annual Lecture.

    If your research involves thinking and dealing with ethical, political, positionality issues in ethnographic writing while focusing on ‘sensational’ topics, such as crime, violence, homelessness, this workshop offers a fantastic opportunity to work through critical issues in your work with Rivke Jaffe.

    Rivke Jaffe is Professor of Cities, Politics and Culture in the Department of Human Geography, Planning and International Development Studies at the University of Amsterdam. Her research focuses primarily on intersections of the urban and the political, and includes an interest in topics such as organized crime, popular culture and environmental pollution, drawing on fieldwork in Jamaica, Curaçao and Suriname. She is currently leading a major research program on public-private security assemblages in Kingston, Jerusalem, Miami, Nairobi and Recife, studying transformations in governance and citizenship in relation to hybrid forms of security provision. Her publications include Concrete Jungles: Urban Pollution and the Politics of Difference in the Caribbean (Oxford, 2016) and Introducing Urban Anthropology (with Anouk de Koning, Routledge, 2016).

    Successful participants will also have the opportunity to talk about publishing from your thesis with our managing editor, Michaela Benson and senior commissioning editor for social sciences at Manchester University Press, Tom Dark is a senior commissioning editor at Manchester University Press (MUP).

    The day is organised so as to allow discussion between delegates and workshop leaders. All participants will be supplied with preparatory reading, and will be expected to contribute actively towards discussion and we expect successful applicants to attend the whole day. Places for delegates will also be reserved at our Annual Lecture following the workshop.

    This event is FREE but places are limited to 18 people. To apply for a place, please fill in this online application form by 17.00 on 24th February 2017: https://docs.google.com/a/thesociologicalreview.com/forms/d/e/1FAIpQLSde0IC_tAT-agCcApOE8_6c9_ckrNrYiEu6ia98i5ewwGYDyw/viewform

    Applicants will be notified by 13th March 2017.

    All inquiries about this event should be directed to Jenny Thatcher: events@thesociologicalreview.com

    This Early Career Researcher event will be followed by The Sociological Review Annual Public Lecture: ‘Cities and the Political Imagination’ which will be delivered by Rivke Jaffe. You can register for the Annual Lecture here: https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/cities-and-the-political-imagination-the-sociological-review-annual-lecture-2017-with-rivke-jaffe-tickets-31372245230

  • Mark 10:51 am on February 20, 2017 Permalink | Reply
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    The Silicon Valley Narrative 

    Another extract from Audrey Watters, this time from The Curse of the Monsters of Educational Technology, who analysis of the rhetoric of disruption has fast become one of my favourite examples of digital cultural critique. From loc 184:

    “The Silicon Valley Narrative,” as I call it, is the story that the technology industry tells about the world—not only the world-as-is but the world-as-Silicon-Valley-wants-it-to-be. This narrative has several commonly used tropes. It often features a hero: the technology entrepreneur. Smart. Independent. Bold. Risk-taking. White. Male. “The Silicon Valley narrative” invokes themes like “innovation” and “disruption.” It privileges the new; everything else that can be deemed “old” is viewed as obsolete. Things are perpetually in need of an upgrade. It contends that its workings are meritocratic: anyone who hustles can make it. “The Silicon Valley Narrative” has no memory, no history, although it can invent or invoke one to suit its purposes. (“ The factory model of education” is one such invented history that I’ve written about before.) “The Silicon Valley narrative” fosters a distrust of institutions—the government, the university. It is neoliberal. It hates paying taxes. “The Silicon Valley narrative” draws from the work of Ayn Rand; it privileges the individual at all costs; it calls this “personalization.”

  • Mark 10:26 am on February 20, 2017 Permalink | Reply
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    Call for AoIR Tartu panel participants on Algorithmic Agency 

    This looks like a very interesting panel:

    We are looking for a few additional people who might be interested in contributing to an AoIR panel exploring critical questions and issues surrounding algorithmic agency, power and publics.

    Researchers and media commentators alike are seemingly fascinated with the magic-like and opaque properties of algorithms. Algorithms are touted as responsible for, or implicated in, a range of diverse outcomes and opportunities – from the mundane to the transformative – for individuals, corporations and communities.

    Questions around how to critically frame and understand algorithmic agency in contemporary life and where and how to situate questions about power and accountability are raised. This panel is interested in addressing and reframing some of these issues, including the challenges in locating agency in the first place, the politics of making agential claims, and the possible social, political and ethical implications of algorithmic agency (however defined) within and towards publics.

    If you are interested in participating please send a 1200 word abstract following the AoIR template to Michele (m.willson@curtin.edu.au<mailto:m.willson@curtin.edu.au>) and Taina (wfg568@hum.ku.dk) by the 25th February outlining your specific contribution to a discussion of algorithmic agency, power and publics.  Short queries about the suitability of topic can be sent to either one of us before that date.

    Those contributors whose topic fits the panel mix will be contacted  by late 27th Feb. (given the impending deadlines, it is a tight turnaround). Depending on the range and mix of submissions,  we may also  explore a possible special issue publication. Please only submit should your attendance at the conference be a likely outcome.

    Apologies for this very short notice, we tried sending this message out a week ago but it somehow got stuck along the way.

  • Mark 6:12 pm on February 19, 2017 Permalink | Reply
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    Abundance and austerity  

    From The Revenge of the Monsters of Educational Technology, by Audrey Watters, loc 1187:

    Many of us in education technology talk about this being a moment of great abundance—information abundance—thanks to digital technologies. But I think we are actually/ also at a moment of great austerity. And when we talk about the future of education, we should question if we are serving a world of abundance or if we are serving a world of austerity. I believe that automation and algorithms, these utterly fundamental features of much of ed-tech, do serve austerity. And it isn’t simply that “robot tutors” (or robot keynote speakers) are coming to take our jobs; it’s that they could limit the possibilities for, the necessities of care and curiosity.

    Understanding this relationship between austerity and abundance strikes me as a crucial question of political theory. One which we evade if we reduce the former to the latter or vice versa, seeing abundance as negating austerity (as Tyler Cowen does, for instance) or austerity as negating abundance (by robbing it off its  social significance as a cultural change).

  • Mark 6:12 pm on February 19, 2017 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , academic work, , deprofessionalisation, , , , ,   

    The myths of academic life 

    This great post by Martin Weller takes issue with the recent click bait published by the Guardian Higher Education’s anonymous academics series. He argues that they perpetuate an outdated stereotype of academic labour which has no relationship to the reality:

    There are undoubtedly more, but when you piece these three together, what you get is a picture of an academic in the 1970s (Michael Caine in Educating Rita maybe) – shambolic, aloof, and unfettered by the concerns of normal working life. It’s a romantic image in a way, but also one that lends itself to the ‘ivory tower’ accusation. It is also about as representative now as the fearful matron in charge of a typing pool is to office life.

    These might be the myths non-academics affirm about academics. But what are the myths academics propound about themselves and their labour? To what extent are these myths entrench by an unwillingness to come to terms with the managerial denigration of academic labour and the curtailment of professional autonomy?

  • Mark 10:39 am on February 17, 2017 Permalink | Reply
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    The Good Intentions of Engineers 

    This important contrast is outlined powerfully by danah boyd:

    From the outside, companies like Facebook and Google seem pretty evil to many people. They’re situated in a capitalist logic that many advocates and progressives despise. They’re opaque and they don’t engage the public in their decision-making processes, even when those decisions have huge implications for what people read and think. They’re extremely powerful and they’ve made a lot of people rich in an environment where financial inequality and instability is front and center. Primarily located in one small part of the country, they also seem like a monolithic beast.

    As a result, it’s not surprising to me that many people assume that engineers and product designers have evil (or at least financially motivated) intentions. There’s an irony here because my experience is the opposite. Most product teams have painfully good intentions, shaped by utopic visions of how the ideal person would interact with the ideal system. Nothing is more painful than sitting through a product design session with design personae that have been plucked from a collection of clichés.

  • Mark 9:50 am on February 17, 2017 Permalink | Reply
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    An STS approach to ‘post-truth’ 

    This 4S panel looks fascinating:

    I’d like to invite you to consider submitting a paper abstract to the panel
    I’m co-convening for 4S in Boston this year.

    Abstracts are due March 1.

    It would be great to have critical internet/digital media studies folks
    working with STS to speak to the themes of this panel. Rich, timely topic!
    We need your good work!

    Thanks for your consideration ~

    Monika Sengul-Jones & Amanda Menking

    *89. Feelings and Doubt in Technoscience*

    *Organized by:* Monika Sengul-Jones, UC San Diego; Amanda Menking,
    University of Washington

    “Post-truth” was the Oxford Dictionary’s word of the year in 2016. This
    neologism refers to how appeals to emotion—and even deliberate
    deception—influence the ignorance of, or rejection of facts. Feelings, and
    subjectivities more generally, have long been a focus of STS work. STS
    scholars have sought to mete out the complex relationships between
    positionality, affects, and networks that lead to knowledge-making claims
    and their role in truth-regimes. This panel seeks to address our
    contemporary moment’s crises about “truth” in critical retrospective: to
    use the methodological tools of STS to offer a nuanced examination of the
    longstanding, complex relationships between feelings and doubts about
    technoscience historically and today. This panel invites papers that speak
    to a range of topics including: feelings of morality and postcolonialism
    (see Schiebinger 2004); the feelings that engender the spread of ignorance
    (see Proctor 2016); gender, feelings, and science (Harding 1991; Keller
    1983); entanglements of affects and biology (Wilson, 2015); commercial
    industries and doubt about scientific consensus (Oreskes and Conway 2011);
    and gender and attachments to personal beliefs, such as vaccinations (see
    Reich 2014). This panel will facilitate inter-generational conversations
    around an important topic harmonized with the theme of 4S in 2017.
    “Feelings and Doubt in Technoscience” will interrogate thoughtfully and
    reflectively the conference’s call to bring attention to “(in)sensibilities
    of contemporary technoscience,” by addressing the technological and
    cultural means by which feelings about technoscience lead to it being
    ridiculed as nonsense, marshaled to incense, and/or make sense.

    • Mark Wallace 10:08 am on February 17, 2017 Permalink

      What’s also interesting is the academic community’s return to the notion of “facts”, which went well out of fashion with postmodernism. Are facts once again straightforward empirical phenomena? Can we strip away “appeals to emotion” and “deception” to leave bare “facts”?

      I have no problem with such an approach, but it seems this paradigm shift has taken place recently with little acknowledgement that it goes against much of the most influential and fashionable academic thought of recent decades. Instead, post-truth is painted as a popular phenomenon, mostly found among uneducated Trump-voters.

    • Mark 9:44 pm on February 17, 2017 Permalink

      I agree!

  • Mark 2:56 pm on February 15, 2017 Permalink | Reply
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    Managing ‘us’ to preserve the myth 

    In his Uberworked and Underpaid, Trebor Scholz draws out an important parallel between the platform capitalism of YouTube and the near universally praised Wikipedia:

    Unsurprisingly, YouTube hires countless consultants to better understand how to trigger the participation of the crowd. They wonder how they can get unpaid producers to create value. But equally, on the not-for-profit site, Wikipedia is asking how they can draw in more female editors, for instance.

    Both involve an orientation to their users which sees them as objects of management, even if we might see the ends to which they are being managed in very different terms. This makes a lie of what Nick Couldry describes as the ‘myth of us’: the imaginary of platform capitalism which sees it as facilitating the free expression of natural sociability which older socio-technical systems had constrained

  • Mark 5:12 pm on February 14, 2017 Permalink | Reply
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    Platform capitalism or sharing economy? 

    From Uberworked and Underpaid, by Trebor Scholz, loc 1290:

    I am using the term “platform capitalism,” introduced by Sascha Lobo77 and Martin Kenney, to bypass the fraudulent togetherness of terms like “peer,” “sharing,” and “economy.” How can we talk about genuine sharing or innovation when a third party immediately monetizes your every interaction for the benefit of a small group of stockholders? Platforms are replacing firms, and subcontracting practices direct big payouts to small groups of people. Even occupations that previously could not be off-shored, the pet walkers or home cleaners, are becoming subsumed under platform capitalism.

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