What I’ll be working on over the next five years

This post is a professional/intellectual counterpart to this reflection. It’s been deeply therapeutic to write these after an exhausting year and it affirms why I’ve kept a personal blog over the last 12 years.

Here’s an extract from chapter 7 of Platform and Agency: Becoming Who We Are In A Digital World which conveys the basic orientation of the book. I’m interested in how the parameters of existential questions are being retuned by these socio-technical and political economic transformations:

These powerful visions of socio-technical change have littered the analytical landscape with conceptual detritus which too easily lingers on in otherwise sophisticated discussions. Given we are now working amidst “the wreckage of techno-progressive orthodoxy”, to use Carr’s (2018) memorable phrase, it can be helpful to understand a little more about the genealogies of these orientations towards the technological. Turner (2006) traces the origins of contemporary techno-utopianism to a strand within the American counterculture which came to see technology as a counter-cultural force with the potential to establish a more authentic mode of existence freed from the stultifying realities of post-war bureaucracies. What were once the emblems of the military industrial complex came to be cast as the disruptive forces which could overturn it, reflecting a transition from a limited number of supercomputers sited within corporate, government and academic compounds to individualised microcomputers orientated towards networked interaction. He credits a hugely influential network of San Francisco Bay area technologists, entrepreneurs and journalists with crafting a radical vision of digital technologies at the intersection between San Francisco’s bohemian culture and the emerging Silicon Valley economic hub. 

Their sense of the revolutionary potential of technological change gifted the world a questionable orthodoxy which imagines these developments would overturn existing hierarchies. John Perry Barlow’s infamous attack on “weary giants of flesh and steel” imagined an independent ‘cyberspace’ which could be roamed freely with individuals unmarked by the injustices and inequalities of the physical world. It was imagined that ‘virtual worlds’ constituted places for development which had yet to be spoiled by the corrupting influence of post-war capitalism, offering an opportunity to build a new society untouched by the sins of the twentieth century. Even if these portentous statements of techno-utopianism rapidly appeared dated, the underlying orientation had a wider cultural salience which persisted long after Barlow’s sense of ‘cyberspace’ had faded from public discourse.  As Boyd (2017) points out, “A decade ago, academics that I adore were celebrating participatory culture as emancipatory, noting that technology allowed people to engage with culture in unprecedented ways” while “Radical leftists were celebrating the possibilities of decentralized technologies as a form of resisting corporate power”. What unites these positions is an expectation that digital networks would disempower the gatekeepers who hovered over late twentieth century capitalism like hungry predators, trading access to scarce networked goods (visibility, recognition, reach) to cement their socioeconomic role. Far from the disintermediation which was promised, the role of digital technology in contemporary capitalism has involved platform intermediaries operating at a planetary scale being violently inserted into all aspects of social life, taking activities which were once locally bound and instead mediating through distant firms with a rapacious hunger for rapid growth necessitated by the impatience of the capital flows they have drawn upon to fund often unprofitable activities. 

There is an obvious role for social theory in making sense of this mismatch between what we were promised and what we have been left with. This would seem to involve critique in the relatively traditional sense of unveiling the ideological screen of disintermediation in order to reveal what underlies it: “a connective world where platforms have penetrated to the heart of societies – affecting institutions, economic transactions, and social and cultural practices – hence forcing governments and states to adjust their legal and democratic structures” (Van Dijck, pole and De Wall 2018: 2). Couldry (2020) draws attention to the near hegemonic status of Actor Network Theory (ANT) within critical treatments of digital technology, suggesting that it has played an important role in “radically free[ing] up our descriptive language so that we appreciate fully the actual plurality of the world”. It has supported a much greater empirical sensitivity towards, as well as theoretical curiosity about, the entanglements of social and technical elements which are increasingly transforming the character of social life. However it does so at the cost of decentering the distinctive position of the human within these assemblages, depriving us of a normative foundation for critique and a crucial node through which the social power of platform firms operates. While my engagement with the broader macro-sociological questions raised by Couldry (2014, 2016, 2020) is relatively limited, this book works towards a similar goal insofar as that it is orientated towards recovering the perspective of the human being entangled in platform infrastructures in order to critique the nascent social order rapidly consolidating around us (Zuboff 2018). 

I’m confident I’ll have a first draft finished by the end of January 2023. It might take me much longer to edit it because I need to draw out the overarching threads over 12 chapters, as well as ensure stylistic consistency. The book brings together my PhD (written between 2008-2014), my postdoc on the social ontology of digital agency with the Centre for Social Ontology (2014-2017), my postdoc on platformisation at the University of Cambridge (2017-2020) and the philosophical & psychoanalytical reading and blogging I’ve been doing over the course of this year. I’ve been carrying around an enormous quantity of fully formed theoretical ideas in my mind for years now which I had basically given up on publishing systematically once my attempted monograph The Distracted People of Digital Capitalism collapsed under the weight of my self-doubt despite writing tens of thousands of words for it between 2016 and 2017. I’ve got a few other commitments which relate to the more applied side of my work as well as a few random interests that I’ll be working on over the course of 2023/24:

  • The Edward Elgar Handbook on Social Media and Education with Katy Jordan
  • A corpus analysis of the social media policies of UK universities with Katy Jordan
  • A handbook chapter on critical realism and the post-digital with Caroline Kuhn
  • An essay on the platform university after the Covid-19 pandemic
  • The paper on post-pandemic anxieties in post-horror with Milan Sturmer
  • A guidebook to digital labour in the post-pandemic university with Inger Mewburn and Tyler Shores (I’m really excited about this and I see it as a co-written follow up to Social Media for Academics in the sense we’re trying to write a deeply practical book which also seriously analyses the context of practice)
  • Some kind of follow up to my paper on platform literacy earlier this year with J.J. Sylvia IV
  • A paper under review for a special issue which explores the possibilities of post-Twitter digital infrastructure for higher education
  • An edited book celebrating the twentieth anniversary Margaret Archer’s Structure, Agency and the Internal Conversation and lays out an agenda for the realist approach to reflexivity
  • Hopefully a follow up to Building the Post-Pandemic University (coming out with Edward Elgar in 2023) mainly because I enjoy working with Susan Robertson, Hannah Moscovitz and Michele Martini so much. They’re such lovely people to collaborate with.
  • A review essay on Nick Cave and Sean O’Hagan as public philosophy though I have no idea where will publish it
  • A paper on the neglect of agency within the literature on the platform university and its roots in the two traditions of platform studies
  • A special section with Susan Brown and Juup Stelma collecting blog posts on sustainability in teaching and research, possibly leading to a special issue of a journal

I have a vague sense I might also want to an obscure Zero Book in the mould of Dominic Fox’s Cruel World which explores how existential questions are recast in a world trending towards chaos. It’s possibly slightly too personal in the sense that it’s motivated entirely by my own existential striving during a year in which my marriage has ended and my psychological defences against acknowledging climate breakdown have broken down. I’m not comfortable with making it into an autobiographical book (though I have toyed with that possibility) so if I can’t recast it a more analytical register and/or political register then I’m not going through it. But I feel there’s nonetheless something I want to say in this domain, even if it doesn’t end up being this shortish book. I’m excited about The Centre for Social Ontology’s new project on the metaverse and would like to edit the next volume we produce if my collaborators would be happy with me doing so. Furthermore I’d like to spend next year intervening in debates about a post-Twitter social media landscape in higher education with my policy and practice hat on. This will probably be op-eds and blog posts but any podcasts which would like to talk to me on these issues. In the longer term I would like to write a monograph on the Philosophy of Digital Education which outlines my approach to questions of policy & practice regarding technology in education in a systematic way. I’d also like to eventually turn the course on Digital Education Futures (which has evolved in to something more like Data Literacy and Academic Workplaces) I’ve been developing this year into an (idiosyncratic) textbook. If the rest of this post is about 2023 and 2024 then these are certainly projects for 2025 and 2026.

It’s odd that I’m someone who perpetually feels my research agenda is pathologically disorganised. When I write it out it now feels increasingly systematic to me even if the principles of that systematicity are still not entirely clear to me. If I can take a by then overdue sabbatical in 2027 then working this out is how I want to spend it, whether that would lead to a ‘big book’ or a series of papers doesn’t really matter at this stage. During this time I’m aware I should throw myself into any viable funding project I get invited to be part of which interests me, largely to make my employer happy and I retain the anxiety this could sidetrack my core research agenda. I’m increasingly aware that I’ve got an endless pool of things I want to write which don’t require funding for empirical research. For this reason I’m reluctant to initiate funding projects (also because I’m objectively quite bad at it) but I will seek out possibilities to join them in increasingly active ways, if they speak to my broad sets of interests.

We’ll be moving into the next phase of Digital Education Manchester during this time through the DTCE Research and Scholarship Group (which I’m leading with Louis Major) and the significant redevelopment of the MA Digital Technologies, Communication and Education (particularly the distance learning programme with Felix Kwihangana, Heather Cockayne and Drew Whitworth) including developing a new unit on Social Media for Educational Leaders. We have an incredible team and it feels we’re getting to an exciting place where the department is supporting us in significant expansion of what to do. This includes a programme of online webinars addressing pressing issues in the field, a digital engagement workshop series, a social theory & technology reading group, work in progress seminars and a number of initiatives with our student-led research club. I’ll also be trying to get a Manchester Institute for Education blog going with the participation of the degree programmes and research & scholarship groups, as well as working to upgrade our web presence more generally. I’ll be working with Dave Elder-Vass and Jack Newman to move the Critical Realism Network into its next phase as a ‘network of networks’ as a supportive ecology for critical realism in a threatening institutional climate. I will make a decision about what to do with the Post-Pandemic University during this time, with my growing feeling being that it’s a project which should be archived in some way even if I’ll probably keep the @postpandemicuni feed for occasional tweeting. Hopefully Phil Brooker and I will have chance to launch the Programming as Social Science podcast which we’ve been talking about for a while. The BSA Digital Sociology group have a plenary proposal for the BSA conference in 2023 and I hope we’ll do something else if this gets rejected.

I’m really pleased with this year. It’s been a crap one personally but it’s been the best year of my life intellectual and professionally. This is the first year I’ve adopted the habit of specifying the number of hours I will do on work days (7 hours) and ensuring I do focused work during this period and then stop when it’s done. I’ve become far more productive as a consequence while only working 35-42 hours a week even if in practice there’s often still a degree of lag because that seven hours breaks up unevenly into chunks over the course of the day. As I get better at this way of working I’m hoping to get to a point where it feels like I’m only working for a chunk of each day (e.g. 7am to 3pm) to leave much more time in life for other things. It also sets an objective limit to my commitments because it acts a sort of funnel in which I see how much I get to and make decisions about what I’m willing to postpone. My experience is that the increasingly large quantities of administration I have to do (the urgent) doesn’t have to get in the way of creative work (the important) as long as I do a little admin on a daily basis and ensure I use the commute to keep my e-mails under control on my phone. This has created the unexpected situation in which I’ve discovered there’s a satisfaction to be found in administration; I’ve made a number of mistakes this year which I’ve learned from but I’ve also found that I’m capable of analysing/improving processes and that it’s oddly satisfying to do so. I’ve stopped doing consultancy during this time due to a lack of bandwidth, no interesting invites and not doing a great job of my last project due to it coinciding with stuff going wrong in my personal life. I would like to resume this at some point but probably not for a year or two, there’s too much writing to do first.

“Books and drafts mean something quite different for different thinkers. One collects in a book the lights he was able to steal and carry home swiftly out of the rays of some insight that suddenly dawned on him, while another thinker offers us nothing but shadows – images in black and grey of what had built up in his soul the day before.”

― Friedrich Nietzsche
The pen is stubborn, sputters – hell!
Am I condemned to scrawl?
Boldly I dip it in the well,
My writing flows, and all
I try succeeds. Of course, the spatter
Of this tormented night
Is quite illegible. No matter:
Who reads the stuff I write?

– Friedrich Nietzsche, The Gay Science, Prelude: 59

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