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.”

Our opening talk at the second Accelerated Academy conference in Leiden in December:

Some two years ago the two of us started discussing Hartmut Rosa’s theory of social acceleration and how it manifests in the present condition. Though we found his theory fascinating and provocative we also noted important conceptual and empirical problems with his account, namely the incomplete notion of agency in his conceptual scheme and Rosa’s overall tendency of treating acceleration as some sort of a sweeping mega-force colonising human lifeworld in its entirety and irreducible complexity. We were compelled to explore such Rosa’s theory and intuitively felt that not only individuals might step back and reflect upon accelerating modernity, but also that many embrace it without necssarily associating it with neither capitalist forces nor with what is now labelled as ‘accelerationism’. We begun thus to think about acceleration in a more nuanced way and concentrated on our own environment – the academy. 

For both us the phrase ‘accelerated academy’ signifies a research trajectory, one we’re pursuing collectively but also through our own independent projects. Filip’s research concern encompass sociology of time and specifically then ‘hidden rhythms’ in and of academia. In his current project he examines the causes and manifestations of temporal pressure in the lives of scientists in the Czech Republic and its personal and epistemic consequences. Focusing on theoretical, experimental and applied physics he and his colleagues investigate what ‘lost time’ means for scientists and how scientific institutions ‘trade’ (with) time. Mark’s particular interest is in digital technology within the university, particularly the implications of social media for the future of intellectual life. Too often framed in terms of the personal gains to be accrued for individual careers, the full significance of social media has often been missed. This encompasses positive dimensions (such as new forms of solidarity and new capacities for political mobilisation) as well as more negative ones, such as the intensification of labour and the possibilities for expanded surveillance by university managers. Building on his book Social Media for Academics, his current project seeks to develop a broader theoretical framework within which the digitalisation of the university can be understood. 

But we also saw ‘accelerated academy’ as an assembly device, a provocative way of bringing together researchers from different disciplines and traditions in order to find new ways of understanding and intervening in the transformations going on around us. This could be seen in the diversity of the participants at last year’s conference in Prague, encompassing scholars of education, time, political economy, labour, science, organisations and metrics as well as natural scientists. But it could also be found in the sheer range and quality of the papers themselves, as well as the dialogues they gave rise to before, during and after the event itself. 

The phrase has indeed seemed to resonate with many. There is an apparently pervasive sense in the contemporary scientific world that things are speeding-up incessantly – scientists report chronic busyness, psychological discomfort, anxieties and insufficient time for research-related activities. They are expected to publish more papers, read more texts, meet strict deadlines, ‘fundraise’, engage in science administration, press ahead. Similarly as the Red Queen in Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking-Glass it seems that scientists simply need to run ever-faster but only remain where they are. This widespread experience in the contemporary academy needs to be nonetheless contextualised with rapid other important trends in science organisation, administration, evaluation and culture. However, we also note that recent propositions offered by slow science movement and similar initiatives are rather problematic and that acceleration in/of academic life cannot be reduced solely to the aforementioned pathologies and differs significantly across disciplines, institutions and national contexts.  

We hope that the ‘accelerated academy’ can continue to be a useful device to facilitate interdisciplinary conversations about the transformation of the university. Ones that link the psychological and the social, connect technical systems to lived experience and couple a critique of managerial power with an analysis of how the affectivity and concerns of academics leave them entangled and sometimes complicit within these power structures.

In September this year Milena Kremakova organised one-day symposium on acceleration and anxiety in academic life. The papers and discussion addressed how contemporary ‘accelerated academy’ induces anxiety environment and how careers, working lives and identities of scholars and academic institutions are affected. We’re hoping to have one or even two events in the UK next year, subject to success with funding. Hopefully there can be further events beyond this and we can sustain these conversations on an ongoing basis.

This isn’t solely a matter of face to face meetings. We are extending last year’s series of blog posts on the popular LSE Impact Blog and we’re inviting everyone here to contribute to these discussions. There are many podcasts and videocasts from last year’s conference, hosted on The Sociological Review’s website. We’re hoping that the Accelerated Academy website and Twitter feed can provide a platform for further projects and events going forward, using the affordances of social media to facilitate ‘accelerated’ conversations in the best sense of the term.

An admirably concise definition by Trebor Scholz on loc 432 of Uberworked and Underpaid:

This term can be briefly described as follows:

First, it is about cloning the technological heart of Uber, Task Rabbit, Airbnb, or UpWork. Platform cooperativism creatively embraces, adapts, or reshapes technologies of the sharing economy, putting them to work with different ownership models. It is in this sense that platform cooperativism is about structural change, a transformation of ownership models.

Second, platform cooperativism is about solidarity, sorely missing in an economy driven by a distributed and mostly anonymous workforce: the interns, freelancers, temps, project-based workers, and independent contractors. Platforms can be owned and operated by inventive unions, cities, and various other forms of cooperatives such as worker-owned, produser-owned (producer-user –produser), multi-stakeholder, co-ops.

Third, platform cooperativism is built on reframing concepts like innovation and efficiency with an eye toward benefiting all, not just sucking up profits for the few. I propose ten principles of platform cooperativism that are sensitive to the critical problems facing the digital economy right now. Platform capitalism is amazingly ineffective in watching out for people.

I love this concise formulation by Trebor Scholz in Uberworked and Underpaid. From loc 338:

Every day, one billion people in advanced economies have between two billion and six billion spare hours among them. 13 Capturing and monetizing those hours is the goal of platform capitalism.

The emerging ideology of the tech-lords:

A subculture within the industry that brought you Angry Birds is forming: the techlord. Techlords are the special subset of the nouveau riche who see themselves above the petty restrictions that apply to lesser people. They might feel that they possess an identity which is singled out for hate crimes by virtue of existing, or that government regulation is stifling innovation by their superior minds. These are the start-up monarchs/dictators-for-life who become disillusioned with democracy and, like Thiel, find it incompatible with their work. When discussing capitalistic liberalism’s inherent dilemma of balancing freedom and equality, they will solve it by doing away with equality altogether. The most accessible individualistic ideology for techlords, then, is libertarianism. Their brand of  “cyberlibertarianism” is a pervasive ideology which is flexible enough to influence even the Democratic voters of Silicon Valley. Rather than serving as an ideological end, this libertarianism opens the door to more extreme far-right thought, with which it frequently aligns strategically and fundamentally.

A status grounded in hagiography: celebrating these visionary leaders, able to transcend the limits which bind the rest of us, offering us access to transcendence through our participation in the great disruptive project:

Thiel and his circle in Silicon Valley may be able to imagine a future that would never occur to other people precisely because they’ve refused to leave that stage of youthful wonder which life forces most human beings to outgrow. Everyone finds justification for his or her views in logic and analysis, but a personal philosophy often emerges from some archaic part of the mind, an early idea of how the world should be. Thiel is no different. He wants to live forever, have the option to escape to outer space or an oceanic city-state, and play chess against a robot that can discuss Tolkien, because these were the fantasies that filled his childhood imagination.

I came across the notion of Travis’s law in The Upstarts, by Brad Stone, loc 2950:

Kalanick had broken every rule in the advocacy handbook. Nevertheless, Uber’s lawyers and lobbyists, who had begged him, unsuccessfully, to seek compromise and testify with humility, began to whisper in reverent tones about a new political dictate that contravened all their old assumptions. Travis’s Law. It went something like this: Our product is so superior to the status quo that if we give people the opportunity to see it or try it, in any place in the world where government has to be at least somewhat responsive to the people, they will demand it and defend its right to exist.

From The Upstarts, by Brad Stone, Loc 1519-1533:

In late 2009, a few months after it had graduated from YC, Airbnb appeared to create a mechanism that automatically sent an e-mail to anyone who posted a property for rent on Craigslist, even if that person had specified that he did not want to receive unsolicited messages. If the apartment was listed in, say, Santa Barbara, the e-mail would read: “Hey, I am e-mailing because you have one of the nicest listings on Craigslist in Santa Barbara and I want to recommend you feature it on one of the largest Santa Barbara housing sites on the Web, Airbnb. The site already has 3,000,000 page views a month.” All these e-mails were identical except for the city, and they typically emanated from a Gmail account bearing a female name. Dave Gooden, another online real estate entrepreneur, recognized the soaring popularity of Airbnb in 2010 and became curious about it. Suspecting what was going on, he posted a few dummy listings on Craigslist and then wrote a blog post in May 2011 about his findings, concluding that Airbnb had registered Gmail accounts en masse and set up a system to spam everyone who posted on Craigslist. He described Airbnb’s activity as a nefarious, “black-hat” operation. “Craigslist is one of the few sites at massive scale that are still easily gamed,” he wrote. “When you scale a black hat operation like this you could easily reach tens of thousands of highly targeted people per day.” 8

From The Upstarts, by Brad Stone, loc 771-786:

On a separate night in Paris, the group went for drinks on the Champs-Élysées and then to an elegant late-night dinner that included wine and foie gras. At 2: 00 a.m., somewhat intoxicated after a night of revelry, they hailed a cab on the street. Apparently they were speaking too boisterously, because halfway through the ride home, the driver started yelling at them. McCloskey was sitting in the middle of the backseat, and, at five feet ten inches tall, she’d had to prop her high heels on the cushion between the two front seats. The driver cursed at them in French and threatened to kick them out of the car if they didn’t quiet down and if McCloskey didn’t move her feet. She spoke French and translated; Kalanick reacted furiously and suggested they get out of the car. The experience seemed to harden their resolve. “It definitely lit a fire,” McCloskey says. “When you are put in a situation where you feel like there’s an injustice, that pisses Travis off more than anything. He couldn’t get over it. People shouldn’t have to sit in urine-filled cabs after a wonderful night and be yelled at.” That cantankerous Paris taxicab driver may have left an indelible mark on transportation history.

Earlier in the book, Stone offers a clear account of how the original concept for Uber was grounded in the experience of being a young multi-millionaire in San Francisco, frustrated by the constraints of the city’s taxi industry.

Upstarts, by Brad Stone, loc 337-353 describes Airbnb co-founder Brian Chesky’s preoccupation with Silicon Valley as a dissatisfied recent graduate of design school: 

At the time he was obsessively following the story of the fantastically successful founders of the video-sharing site YouTube; he was spending hours on the site as well as watching Steve Jobs’s keynote presentations and the television film Pirates of Silicon Valley. This was a universe where new things really did change reality. “I got kind of obsessed,” he says. “I was living vicariously, escaping to a world where someone could build something and actually change something. I was not doing that. I was sitting in a dark office making stuff for closets and landfills.”

Interestingly, Chesky also describes being inspired by a biography of Walt Disney. This highlights how there have always been mechanisms through which people find inspiration in the lives of others. However does the mediation of Silicon Valley lend it a particular power, in so far as there are more cultural products in circulation which depict lives lived there?

From One Market Under God, by Thomas Frank, loc 1787:

It is worth examining the way business talk about itself, the fantasies it spins, the role it writes for itself in our lives. It is important to pay attention when CEOs tell the world they would rather surf than pray, show up at work in Speedos rather than suits, hang out in Goa rather than Newport, listen to Stone Temple Pilots rather than Sibelius. It is not important, however, in the way they imagine it is, and for many Americans it is understandably difficult to care very much whether the guy who owns their company is a defender of family values or a rave kid. But culture isn’t set off from life in a realm all its own, and the culture of business in particular has massive consequences for the way the rest of us live.

From One Market Under God, by Thomas Frank, loc 1395:

Friedman was in some ways the very embodiment of market populism at flood tide. As the intellectual life of the decade came to resemble a race among popular financial commentators to win for themselves, through a sort of cosmic optimism about all things dotcom, the title of most enthusiastic pundit, Friedman was the blue-ribbon boy. He wrote as though his thoughts were somehow pegged to the insanely rising Dow, as though each advance on Wall Street was a go-ahead for a new round of superlatives and hyperbole. Friedman topped them all: Yergin, Kelly, Schwartz, Wriston, or even the cyber-ecstatics at Wired magazine.

I’m a big advocate of the research journal as a key part of doing a PhD. I think blogs are wonderful for this but I realise this might not be for everyone. The important thing is uniting reflection and engagement as an habitual part of the research process. Patter has some great ideas here about topics and prompts to help get this process started in the early stages.