In his Imagined Futures, Jens Beckert suggests four ways in which fictional expectations make an impact on the social world:

  1. They coordinate actors by providing a common focus to their action
  2. They are able to shape the future by conditioning what action happens
  3. The freedom involved in fiction means they are not constrained by reality and are thus capable of stimulating innovation
  4. They motivate real decisions which have consequences on the distribution of resources and the projects which actors have to pursue and contest them, including the attempts to influence expectations because of the consequences they have.

In his Imagined Futures, Jens Beckert offers a sociology of expectations which reconstructs the role of imagination in how people orientate themselves to the future. From pg 9:

If actors are orientated toward the future and outcomes are uncertain, then how can expectations be define? What are expectations under conditions of uncertainty? That is the central question to which this book seeks an answer. If we take uncertainty seriously instead of conflating it with risk, it becomes evident that expectations cannot be probabilistic assessments of future states of the world. Under genuine uncertainty, expectations become interpretative frames that structure situations through imaginaries of future states of the world and of causal relations.

There are a few reasons I’m reading this. But I’m particularly interested in making sense of how users imagine platforms and what this means for their expectations of how their use of the platform will bring about certain ends. The role of the future in platform imaginaries might not seem self-evidently important but Beckert’s analysis can be used to make sense of how possibility is conveyed to users and how this in turn shapes their use.

The trope of ‘taking back control’ has become ever more prominent within political life, explicitly in the case of the Brexit movement but implicitly in a whole range of other movements from Trumpism to Corbynism. In their thought provoking, if at times unpersuasive, critique of Corbynism (Corbynism: A Critical Approach) Frederick Harry Pitts and Matt Bolton argue that the promise Labour have made to take back control over capitalism is fundamentally illusory. From loc 2441:

The inevitable failure of such a model in an irreversibly global society just sets up yet another narrative of betrayal, one greatly intensified by the faith in Corbyn’s personal integrity and the self-regard of the broader movement as being the ‘community of the good.’ This is in common with all such demands for the taking back of control in a world where we are all out of control.

Leaving aside the question of whether such a promise has been made, as opposed to a more nuanced message being reduced by Pitts and Bolton to fit the argument of homology between populist right and populist left which they were inclined to make, it raises an obvious question: if control is impossible then what should we do? Their argument as far as I can see is to preserve the forces of liberal multinationalism as a means to mitigate the excesses of global capitalism. Or at least that’s the only positive case I’ve seen 2/3 of the way into the book and it remains a bit weak. But where I think they are making an important point is their concern about where a perceived betrayal of the promise of control, might lead. From loc 2445:

This is particularly risky if the institutional structures of liberal capitalism –the impersonal laws and rights which ameliorate, however unsatisfactorily, the inherent conflicts and contradictions of a system of ‘social labour’ –are conflated with that self-same system of socially mediated labour, and thus recklessly cast aside in the name of ‘taking back’ an elusive and impossible ‘control.’

This concern that Corbynism is harassing energies which, in the event of its failure, might not be contained within a left project, immediately made me think back to this gloomy Richard Seymour piece about the betray narratives taking shape on the British right. I find it easy to imagine how a narrative of betrayal could emerge among a renewed left, not directed at the leadership of a failed Corbyn project but rather at the ‘establishment’ which has destroyed it in order to serve their narrow interests. How might this entangle with the myth of national betrayal currently emerging on the right? It is admittedly one in which Corbyn himself is frequently cited, as Seymour makes clear, but the main thrust is again with the ‘establishment’. Where could this lead? Après moi le déluge.

I thought this was a fascinating aside on loc 999 of Joshua Cohen’s Not Working about Andy Warhol’s reliance on a tape recorder to distance himself from his feelings. This is something many people do, thinking around the troubles rather than feeling them, but rarely so explicitly and with an apparatus:

According to his account in The Philosophy, by the late 1950s, television had begun to take the place of close relationships. But it was only in 1964, with the purchase of his tape recorder (which he called ‘My wife’), that he renounced emotional life altogether. ‘The acquisition of my tape recorder really finished whatever emotional life I might have had, but I was glad to see it go. Nothing was ever a problem again, because a problem just meant a good tape, and when a problem transforms itself into a good tape it’s not a problem any more.’ ‘Problems’ are personal; when they are externalized and reproduced, they are rendered impersonal, things to be dispassionately examined, rather than experiences to be felt.

My notes on Breakstone, J., McGrew, S., Smith, M., Ortega, T., & Wineburg, S. (2018). Why we need a new approach to teaching digital literacy. Phi Delta Kappan, 99(6), 27-32.

The upset of the 2016 American election was immediately followed by a rush to provide guidance on how to negotiate what was widely regarded as a dangerous proliferation of ‘fake news’. However Joel Breakstone et al found the problem was much wider than this in 7,804 responses to tasks which required students to evaluate online content that they collected over 18 months. Media literacy has been widely invoked as the solution to this problem and Google and Facebook have been involved respectively in funding the development of a curriculum in Canada and guidance for students in schools in Italy.

Many of the media literacy initiatives which ensued have relied on checklists, such as the wonderfully named CRAAP Test, inviting students to ask questions such as whether the site is a ‘.com’ and whether a contact person is listed. However this guidance conflicts with what fact checkers do, who immediately begin to read laterally rather than drilling down vertically into the details of the specific site they are looking at. As they describe on pg 28:

When confronted by new information on an unfamiliar web-site, fact-checkers almost instantaneously left the site and read laterally — opening up new browser tabs and searching across the web to see what they could fnd about the trustworthiness of the source of informa-tion. Only after examining other sites did they return to read the material on the original site more closely.

Vertical interrogation leaves an individual easily fooled by simple procedures such as using official-looking logos and buying top level domain names. As they put it, “By focusing on features of websites that are easy to manipulate, checklists are not just ineffective but misleading.” (pg 30). Furthermore, the length of these checklists (e.g. CRAAP has 25 questions) make them unfeasible as practical everyday tools for assessing unfamiliar content online.

In contrast lateral reading involves leaving the site to try and find external sources which offer information about it which can be used to assess its credibility. It is a practical strategy rather than a panacea, taught as part of a broader array of lessons about careful evaluation of online material. Teaching this requires reinforcement across the curriculum rather than a one off class taught by a librarian. This necessitates avoiding “mistaking students’ fluency with digital devices for sophistication at judging the information such devices yield” (pg 31). Teachers need training in these techniques, as well as the time and support needed to apply them across the curriculum.

Does Corbynism have a future beyond Jeremy Corbyn? In their Corbynism: A Critical Approach, Frederick Harry Pitts and Matt Bolton argue strongly that it does not because the figure of Corbyn is essential to sustaining the Corbyn coalition. From loc 1882:

there can be no Corbynism without Corbyn, or, at least, not without rendering the project incapable of containing its internal contradictions. Corbyn is not only a vehicle for a set of ideas quite apart from his own, but their alibi –giving cover for political positions even the adherents of which would otherwise recoil from, but which guarantee in the short term the construction of a relatively successful electoral coalition.

But surely this is true of any political coalition? To rely on an imaginary element to sustain a sense of collective identity between millions of people with divergent viewpoints and interests could easily be framed as part of what a coalition is. What matters is the efficacy or otherwise of that imaginary in holding together that coalition through the inevitable compromises and disappointments which mark the parliamentary road to power.

Their account is thought provoking in its analysis of the particular discursive work which the figure of Corbyn himself enacts, even if they setup their argument in a circular way which trades off the aforementioned constitutive function i.e. as long as the coalition holds together they assume their argument must be correct.

But I can’t see how one infers from this that Corbynism must necessarily fragment without Corbyn, unless we are talking about his overnight disappearance in an unchanged political context. Not least of all because the management of those internal contradictions becomes a radically different challenge once power is assumed.

My notes on Hall, N. (2014). The Kardashian index: a measure of discrepant social media profile for scientists. Genome biology, 15(7), 424.

The link between scholarly activity and scholarly reputation used to be more straight forward. A scholar would publish journal articles, gaining standing amongst their peers through the quality of those articles or the lack thereof. That at least was the idea, even if the reality was often messier. In this short paper, Neil Hall seeks to analyse a trend which has undermined this predictable relation, namely the rise of the social media celebrity within the academy:

I am concerned that phenomena similar to that of Kim Kardashian may also exist in the scientific community. I think it is possible that there are individuals who are famous for being famous (or, to put it in science jargon, renowned for being renowned). We are all aware that certain people are seemingly invited as keynote speakers, not because of their contributions to the published literature but because of who they are. In the age of social media there are people who have high-profile scientific blogs or twitter feeds but have not actually published many peer-reviewed papers of significance; in essence, scientists who are seen as leaders in their field simply because of their notoriety. I was recently involved in a discussion where it was suggested that someone should be invited to speak at a meeting ‘because they will tweet about it and more people will come’. If that is not the research community equivalent of buying a Kardashian endorsement I don’t know what is.

To construct what he calls the Kardashian index, Hall compared the number of followers which research scientists have on Twitter with the number of their cited publications. He picked a ‘randomish’ selection of 40 scientists and gathered citation data through web of science. He tried to exclude early adopters whose Twitter following would reflect this and those who were named on foundational papers which inflated their score. Their Twitter followers were taken as a measure of celebrity and their citations as a measure of scientific value. He uses this to propose the Kardashian index, which I’m not sure how to convey properly without reproducing half a page of the paper:

A high K-index suggests a scientist who is over-celebrated, whereas a low K-index suggests one who is undervalued. His proposal is that those with a K-index over 5 are scientific Kardashians. What matters is less the details of this largely facetious paper and more the point he’s trying to make:

Social media makes it very easy for people to build a seemingly impressive persona by essentially ‘shouting louder’ than others. Having an opinion on something does not make one an expert. But on Twitter, for example, the ‘top tweet’ on any given subject will not necessarily come from an expert, it will come from the most followed person. If Kim Kardashian commented on the value of the ENCODE project, her tweet would get more retweets and favorites than the rest of the scientific community combined. Experts on the Syrian conflict will tell you how frustrating that can be.

I propose that all scientists calculate their own K-index on an annual basis and include it in their Twitter profile. Not only does this help others decide how much weight they should give to someone’s 140 character wisdom, it can also be an incentive – if your K-index gets above 5, then it’s time to get off Twitter and write those papers.

Rather than seeing social media as undermining the link between scholarly activity and scholarly reputation, I’d suggest it is a further complication of an already complicated relationship. It doesn’t seem clear to me that the genie can be put back into the bottle, though perhaps I have a vested interest in saying that as someone with a high K-index. But as much as this paper is facetious, the idea of trying to measure the links between collegial reputation, citational performance and social media popularity is one I’m increasingly fascinated by, even if doing it in so openly normative a way is a bit off putting.

I thought this was a wonderful anecdote, recounted by Anand Giridharadas on pg 77-78 of his Winners Take All. Edward Snowden was interviewed at Summit at Sea by the venture capitalist Chris Sacca who immediately looked straight past the politics of what his interviewee was saying once there was a fleeting mention of a startup emerging from it:

Perhaps in an effort to be courteous to his entrepreneurial audience, Snowden had tucked a mention of a start-up into his much grander vision of heresy, thereby destroying whatever chance he had for his ideas to be heard as they were intended. He had ensured that Sacca, and presumably many others, would now hear his revolutionary words and think only of investment.

“So I invest in founders for a living,” Sacca said, staring up at the giant screen. “And I gotta tell you, as I listen to you, I smell a founder here. You’re talking about these things that need to be built. Are you going to build any of them? Because there’s probably investors waiting for you here.”

Snowden seemed taken aback. Here he was talking about heresy and truth and freedom, and now he was being asked about a start-up. Flummoxed, he tried to let Sacca down politely: “I do have a number of projects that are actively in motion. But I take a little bit of a different view from a lot of people who need venture capital, who are trying to get investors. I don’t like to promote things. I don’t like to say I’m working on this particular system to solve this particular problem. I would rather simply do it, at the minimum expenditure of resources, and then be judged on the basis of results. If it works, if it expands, that’s wonderful. But ultimately, for me, I don’t tend to think that I’m going to be working in a commercial space. So I would rather say, ‘Let’s wait and see.’ ”

It was a kindly delivered rebuke to MarketWorld’s way of life. Here was a man who didn’t like to promote himself, who didn’t crave money, who was actually fighting the system, and willing to lose for the greater good to win.

Sympathy, this is my best disguise.
My skin stepped out for my bones to dry up
For the rest of the world outside to see.
You see I, bleed on the side.
It’s a part time thing, a private affair.
I try to keep it out of the light.
I must confess, I didn’t recognize you tonight
Dressed up like my love.
And I hate these things but I always attend
A little sip of something to take off the edge
And I make my way through the ghosts in the room
Trying to crack a smile
And who are you supposed to be?
You look like heaven tonight
Me, I’m a tomb, a corpse in a suit,
Trying to look a little alive
Are you alright?
‘Cause I worry sometimes
Are you dressed up to take my life?
Keep it coming, keep it coming.
Well I think I saw you for the flash of a moment
Your broken heart and the body that holds it
I lost your scent in the flash of the party
The big bright lights, baby, constantly haunt me
I’ve never been right, have you ever been lied to?
I think I just saw the same scars upon you
Is this a disguise? Or a masquerade for me?

In the last few years I’ve been struggling to make sense of optimism as a political factor. It struck me during the pre-refendum debate that the case being made by someone like Daniel Hannan, with his neo-mercantilist vision of a post-EU Britain, could be seen as considerably more optimistic than anything being offered by the remain camp. In their book Corbynism: A Critical Approach, Frederick Harry Pitts and Matt Bolton suggest the same was true of the left in the 2017 election. From loc 995:

On both left and right a deranged optimism prevailed, in which faith in the future was all that was needed to bring it into being. This wishful thinking, seemingly at odds with the cold reality of forthcoming political isolation and economic decline, was exemplified both in the credulous Brexiteers convinced that Empire 2.0 was on the horizon, as well as the Corbynists who held in their man expectations apparently so high as to never be met.

I think there’s overstatement here and a considerable contraction of reality involved in their claim of a symmetry between Brexit-ism (for lack of a better word) and Corbynism. Both reflect in their view a triumph of the cultural over the economic, to use the terms Will Davies did when making a similar(ish) point, with their competing visions of taking back control. In this sense, Mayism was the earliest attempt to build a coalition on a new political landscape, albeit one that faltered due to the weakness of May herself as a campaigner. From loc 966-980:

The distinct brand of ‘Erdington Conservativism’ developed by her close advisor Nick Timothy seemed perfectly primed for the post-austerity, post-Brexit era. 49 Inspired by the 19th century Birmingham industrialist Joseph Chamberlain, Timothy’s vision was founded upon an interventionist economic programme of infrastructure investment, the rejection of ‘globalist’ free trade in favour of protectionist tariffs to secure British industry, fierce Euroscepticism, a radical reduction in immigration, selective state education, and a laser-like focus on the apparently communal concerns of the so-called ‘white working class’ –traditional values, self-responsibility, patriotism, and law and order. There was an obvious overlap with both the message of the Leave campaign, as well as the creed of ‘faith, flag and family’ which had long been touted by the ‘Blue Labour’ wing of the opposition party-indeed, Lord Glasman took tea with Timothy in the early months of May’s premiership. 50 As May walked into Downing Street for the first time as Prime Minister it seemed that her programme of economic and cultural protectionism was destined for hegemonic status. On the steps of Number 10, she promised, in language clearly adopted from the anti-austerity wing of the Leave campaign, that her government would be ‘driven not by the interests of the privileged few, but by yours’ –the millions of ‘ordinary people’ who were ‘just about managing’.

However Brexitism and Corbynism have come to thrive in this post-austerity climate. It is precisely because of the bleakness of the former that I’m so enthused about the latter, as the only way I can see to resist the creeping barbarism of the last few years. But Frederick Harry Pitts and Matt Bolton argue that “the optimism Project Corbyn sells its adherents proposes a false resolution of contradictions contemporary conditions cannot effect” and call for “a politics of pessimism can best match present realities and work with them practically” (loc 527).

I’m only a quarter of the way through the book but thus far I remain unconvinced, as thought provoking as I’m finding it. The obvious response to that last quotation is why? Why does a politics of pessimism help us ‘work’ with them ‘practically’? I can see an analytical argument to be made for a politics of pessimism but from the perspective of a pre-analytical commitment to a left project, I see nothing practical or desirable about it. Perhaps it will become clearer to me as I get further into the book.

My notes on Facer, K., & Sandford, R. (2010). The next 25 years?: future scenarios and future directions for education and technology. Journal of computer assisted learning, 26(1), 74-93.

“Education is a future-facing activity” as Facer and Sandford put it on pg 74. Its future orientation ranges from young people making choices on what to study, through to strategic planning in schools and national debates about curriculum reform and educational priorities that look towards equipping the population for a changing world. The future is mobilised as a resource to legitimate and incentivise reform, raising the question of what this future is imagined to be. From pg 75:

In many policy fields, for example, the ‘imaginary’ upon which future-oriented projects are premised often takes for granted the contemporary existence of and con- tinued progress towards a universal, technologically- rich, global ‘knowledge economy’, the so-called ‘flat world’ of neo-liberal rhetoric (Friedman 2005). It is towards this imminent world that governments and edu- cators are exhorted to propel students and citizens; and it is this imminent flat world that is used to mobilize support for funding allocations, to justify investment in new technologies or to rationalize curriculum decisions.

The focus is on ensuring that “specific individuals or countries are enabled to keep up” (pg 75) and alternative futures are ignored or foreclosed. Technology is widely presented as a crucial tool to facilitate this keeping up, essential for policy makers trying to modernise an education system and upgrade their population. It implicates an idea of the future as a singular, inevitable trajectory in the face of which educators and citizens have no agency” (pg 75).

Foresights activities have become increasingly prominent within education at many levels. The paper reports on the Beyond Current Horizons project, commissioned by the UK’s Department for Children, Schools and Families, which brought together 100 academics from a wide range of disciplines to understand what society might look like in 2025 and the education pressures flowing from this. It was based on four pricinples:

  • Principle 1: educational futures work should aim to challenge assumptions rather than present definitive predictions. Futures work explores the relationship between possible, probable, and preferable futures rather than making definitive predictions about what will happen.
  • Principle 2: the future is not determined by its technologies. Technological determinism pervades a lot of applied futures work but the insights of contemporary social theory illustrate how untenable this position is.
  • Principle 3: thinking about the future always involves values and politics. Visions of the future operate as rhetorical devices and political tools. Therefore accounts of the future need to up front about their commitments and values.
  • Principle 4: education has a range of responsibilities that need to be reflected in any inquiry into or visions of its future. This work has to begin with a clear statement of what the purpose of education is seen to be.

The project involved a mix of foresight work (map projections of developments into the future and examine their implications) and scenarios work (developing a set of future scenarios used to examine current strategies and their assumptions). These principles mean that the project will avoid  articulating “a trajectory of future technical developments and read off a set of deterministic social outcomes” and instead “explore how social and cultural contexts might shape the production of new technologies, and reciprocally, how the clusters of capabilities (Williams 2006) offered by scientific and techno- logical development might be amplified, resisted or modified by a range of social and cultural developments” (pg 77). It began with a statement of what the purpose of education was seen to be. From pg 79:

  1. “qualifying learners to take on certain roles (requiring the development of knowledge and competencies);”
  2. “socializing learners to participate in wider community, family and social contexts;”
  3. “equipping learners to develop their own sense of selves, identity and agency”

It involved the commissioning 84 literature reviews across 5 broad areas of inquiry, with a focus on current trends in the field, long-term projections and areas of uncertainty. These were summarised in reports which aimed to provide an overview of probable futures within each of the areas. These were the foundation for specialist stakeholder interviews and workshops, with a view to identifying possible futures which weren’t contained within them. Then a broader online and face-to-face consultation with parents, learners and educators was elucidate preferred futures.

There’s a detailed description of scenario planning here which I won’t summarise but want to come back to properly at a later date, as I’m always been interested in more detail about how this works. It analysed the reviews and stakeholder events to identify (a) common features of all futures (b) possible developments which could divert things towards radically different futures. These are the developments which they concluded would have a long term impact on educational policy. These are all direct quotes from pg 83-85:

  1. The information landscape gets denser, deeper and more diverse
  2. Creating the personal cloud
  3. Working and living alongside machines becomes increasingly normal and our understanding of what we mean by ‘machines’ may change
  4. Distance matters less, but geography still counts
  5. Digital Natives grow up and need to keep learning
  6. Weakening of institutional boundaries
  7. The decline of the knowledge economy as a utopian future
  8. ‘Silver bullets’ are not expected for complex educational problems

They concluded there were three significant challenges to the future of educational systems:

  1. Challenge 1: should education continue to be organized around the unit of the individual learner?
  2. Challenge 2: should ‘the school’ retain its dominant position in assumptions about educational futures?
  3. Challenge 3: should preparation for competition within a knowledge economy remain a primary goal for education?

They offer a number of recommendations in response to these challenges. I found the account of ‘networked learning’ particularly interesting on on pg 86:

Such a curriculum would enable individuals to learn to work effectively within social networks for educational, social and civic purposes, and to develop strategies to establish and mobilize social networks for their own purposes. Such a curriculum might comprise: for example, opportunities for learners to learn and work within meaningful socio-technical networks not wholly within single educational institutions; to be assessed in interac- tion with tools, resources and collaborators; to develop capacities to manage information and intellectual property, build reputation and trust, develop experience of working remotely and in mediated environments; to create new learning networks; to reflect upon how learning is connected with other areas of personal, social, and working lives and manage and negotiate these relationships; to explore the human–machine relationships involved in socio-technical networks.

They end with a discussion of how research communities can show practical and intellectual leadership in relation to these changes. This necessitates moving beyond traditional institutional barriers, recognising learning outside of traditional arenas and ensuring collaboration between those who study it in different areas. It also requires a move from pedagogy to curriculum: “the question of curriculum – of which educational goals should pertain in the context of socio- technical change” (pg 88) What does it mean to “become human and achieve agency” in a rapidly transformed socio-technical context? This necessitates resisting educational technologies entanglement in ‘educational modernisation’.

I thought this was an excellent account in Corbynism: A Critical Approach by Frederick Harry Pitts and Matt Bolton. From loc 627:

Austerity is often taken to have caused the contemporary rise of populism. In retrospect, however, it is abundantly clear that austerity itself was a populist project –both in Chantal Mouffe’s sense of the creation of a political frontier between ‘us’ and ‘them,’ and Jan-Werner Müller’s notion of the hyper-moralisation of political discourse. How else to explain the singularly odd way that Britain responded to the financial crisis? The Cameron government was far from the only one to react to the crash and their ballooning deficits by insisting on the need for a programme of austerity. But in no other country did the public don hairshirts with such gusto. As Owen Hatherley has noted, Britain was convulsed by a fit of ‘austerity nostalgia’ in the wake of the crisis – unleashing dark political energies Tom Whyman captured well in the coinage ‘cupcake fascism’.

The book was published in 2018 and presumably written in 2017. But it’s hard not to link this to Brexit when reading it in April 2019. If they are correct about austerity populism then did Cameron and Osborne sow the seeds of their own destruction in their strategic embrace of the austerity narrative? From loc 640:

It was as if the public actively welcomed the collapse of the economy, regarding it as an event which finally gave some meaning to a life waylaid by the cheap thrills of credit-fuelled consumerism and reality TV, a form of existence that suddenly felt as toxic as the junk bonds clogging up the balance sheets of banks around the world. The austerity narrative was founded on an opposition between a national community of ‘hardworking people’ and a feckless underclass who had brought Britain to its knees –namely the ‘scroungers’, the benefit cheats, those too lazy to work and choosing to live off the largesse of the state. In this telling, the financial crisis itself was essentially caused by the Labour government’s reckless decision to rack up monstrous debts in order to fund the lavish lifestyles of their shiftless clientele. In contrast to this rotten coalition of bloated state, corrupt liberal-left political elite, and workshy scroungers, the Tories would instead take the side of the ‘hardworkers’, those willing to take responsibility for their own lives and roll up their sleeves to ‘sort out Labour’s mess’. ‘We’re all in it together’ was the cry, deliberately evoking the Churchillian spirit of wartime. The ‘deficit’ –and those responsible for it –was turned into a national enemy

My notes on Facer, K., & Furlong, R. (2001). Beyond the myth of the’cyberkid’: Young people at the margins of the information revolution. Journal of youth studies, 4(4), 451-469.

In this paper from 2011, Facer and Furlong consider how the assumed digital competence of young people has led them to figure much less heavily in concerns about digital inequality. Schemes were emerging to ensure internet access through public terminals and subsidise computers for those who can’t afford them but these were aimed primarily at at an adult population that was underskilled and deprived of access. Even if the term ‘cyber kid’ they analyse may have passed from use, the series of associations expressed within it feel extremely familiar. From pg 452:

Young people, it is popularly assumed, are part of the new ‘digital generation of cyberkids’, ‘children are at the epicenter of the information revolution, ground zero of the digital world’ (Katz, 1996). The ‘cyberkid’ myth derives from diverse sources: in science ction, notably Gibson’s ‘Neuromancer’, the term ‘cyborg’ was originated to suggest the fusion between human and machine; more recently, commentators have argued that the ‘cyber’ derives from the Greek ‘kubernan’ or navigator, suggesting that the cyborg signi es full human mastery of technology (Oehlert, 2000). The term ‘cyberkid’, rather than cyborg, however, emphasizes the element of youth in the equation and derives from a long-stand- ing association between ‘youth’ and ‘the future’. Young people, like technolo- gies, are constructed within current popular discourse as the natural inheritors of future societies, and young people’s mastery of technologies is read off as inevitable through a process of con ation of these two ‘future trajectories’ (see Sefton-Green (1998) for a further discussion of this association). The cyberkid myth, then, derives both from future visions of technology–human relations and from long-standing discursive constructions of the role of children in society, generating a ‘shorthand’ for the relationship between children and technology. While the term ‘cyberkid’ is used predominantly within academic discourse, the associations between children, mastery of technology and the future in popular discussions of the ‘information revolution’ can be named the ‘cyberkid myth’.

These are reinforced through the contrast between young people’s assumed enthusiasm for computers and old people’s assumed fear. But this is orientated towards compelling adults to learn and engage, with computers otherwise being framed as a threat to young people. To appropriate computing technology easily is seen as a potent means to accumulate cultural capital. But conversely there is a prevalent fear that to appropriate it too readily undermines the quarantine of childhood from adult life, exposing young people to all manner of threats. The spectre of the ‘cyber kid’ is “a double-edged sword, both the promise of the future and a threat to the security of young people” (pg 453). This is reinforced by academics trends preoccupied on the one hand with the confident adoption of digital technology by young people and their creative uses of it, on the other hand forms of addition, compulsion and harm which young people come to through their use of computing technology. This reflects a broader tendency for youth culture to be banished from public consciousness, described on pg 453:

Namely, that youth cultures are rarely represented within wider popular culture, that their emergence into popular consciousness occurs only when their presence ‘erupts’ into visibility through events such as riots, raves, criminality or other challenges to the stability of everyday life, or when the wider culture is undergoing a significant period of transformation and accordingly invests its hopes and aspirations into the promise of future stability, a future heavily dependent on the role of the children now growing up in its midst.

Unfortunately, researchers ask questions which entail “an engagement only with those children who are thought to be spearheading a spectacular information revolution” (pg 453). In this paper, the young people who are actively dissociating and/or struggling with digital technology are brought to the fore, as figures who tend to be rendered invisible in academic research and popular culture due to the trends described above. They describe this tendency in terms of a deficit or essentialist model, relating young people to a grand narrative of the digital revolution and erasing the meaning which digital technology has for them in their lives and the uses to which they seek to put it or don’t.

Defining a lack of access is more complex than it might seem to be. Having equipment at home doesn’t mean children meaningfully have access to it. It says nothing about the conditions in which confidence with technology can be acquired. Furthermore, competition within the family means what access and expertise is available may be unevenly distributed. The project their findings are from is described on pg 455:

The project included a large-scale survey of the computer use of 855 children in southwest England and South Wales in eight schools (all children were aged between 9 and 14 years at the start of the project), and 18 case studies over an 18-month period of children who were using computers on a regular basis at home [….] On the basis of analysis of 855 questionnaire responses, 46 children were asked to participate in group interviews lasting approximately 1 hour in school. Within this sample, children reporting that they ‘disliked’ computers formed 50 per cent of the interviewees (of whom one-half had access to a computer at home); children reporting that they ‘loved’ computers but did not have access at home formed the remaining 50 per cent of the interviewees.

Three themes emerged from the surveys and interviews: “issues of access”, “issues of relevance to day to day activities” and “the potential of formal educational contexts for reproducing anxieties and inequalities of access”. They found that while income was a significant factor in the likelihood of owning a computer, it was far from the sole determinant. The decision to buy a computer reflects a process of prioritisation which reflects a range of concerns of both adults and children, as well as past experiences and familiarity with computers e.g. if the primary focus was on entertaining the children, games consoles could do this more cheaply. Furthermore, those with access at home are more likely to take advantage of access elsewhere (e.g. at friends houses) while those without are less likely to do so.

Their findings were particularly interesting when it came to mismatches between the perceived functions of the computer and children’s own self conception e.g. it was perceived as indoor and sedentary in a way off putting for those who prioritised outdoor pursuits, or as a ‘friendship supplement’ necessary for those who had an active social life. This could even manifest as social sanction, with one girl describing being seen to voluntary use the library computer as ‘social suicide’. Competing discourses mean young people have to negotiate between their own pleasures, acceptable attitudes and adult interventions when it comes to computers.

Unstructured access to computers at lunchtime and in breaks seems to be taken up unevenly, with children who own computers being more likely to use them. This suggests computer access at school may be reflecting and amplifying inequalities, rather than mitigating them. The authors suggest that the ‘cyber kid’ myth may be reinforcing this by leaving teachers assuming that children’s natural enthusiasm will be sufficient to take advantage of unstructured time with the computer. It means those without access will feel excluded from the authoritative culture, those with inadequacies will feel they are not catered for within school and those who feel they are seen as outside the mainstream will construct themselves as such. The authors link these questions to the issue of what it means to be successfully young in an environment where digital technologies are increasingly ubiquitous. From pg 463:

Embedded at the heart of this debate is a debate on what it means to be ‘successfully young’ in the digital age. In exploring how low computer users express their attitudes towards computer use, it becomes clear that these competing constructions of the ‘cyberkid’ become a battleground on which they construct their de nitions of being ‘successfully young’.

This linkage of computing competence and suggests leaves some young people engage in face saving activity, distancing themselves from computing through the deployment of negative stereotypes towards those who are confident and familiar with the technology. This might include appropriate adult discourses of eye strain, internet addiction and social fragmentation to legitimate their distance. If you assume that giving access is sufficient to ensure engagement then you completely obscure the complexity of who is interested, confident, competent and willing to use computers amongst young people.  They stress the importance of the banal in getting to grips with the complex reality of how young people orientate themselves towards technology. From pg 466:

The term ‘banality’ is used here to generate an engagement with the creative, productive, subversive and conformist day-to-day lives of young people, and to pre-empt a reactive and equally deterministic engagement only with young people who are seen to ‘reject’ the dominant values of digital youth cultures

This focus helps move beyond a focus on the creative achievements of early adopters on the one hand and the problems of the struggling and pathological on the other. It raises the question of how to conduct research with those who lack the spectacular aspects of technological use without merely assuming a deficit as a consequence. It also highlights how other modes of access to technologies (e.g. mobile consoles which those who avoided computers were often familiar with) might become important as points of access to the internet which should not be excluded from the classroom. This seems like a remarkably prescient point when read 18 years from publication when mobile phones have become ubiquitous. They argue that “debates on technological solutions to the digital divide need, therefore, to move away from generalizing statements about ‘access to technologies’ and towards more detailed engagement with the patterns of use of specified software environments” (pg 467) with the potential implications of the aforementioned desktop/mobile divide for capacity to produce and engage as well as to consume content being one such example.

My notes on Pacewicz, J. (2018) It’s The Political Economy, Stupid: ​A Polanyian Take On American Politics In The Longue Durée. Perspectives 40(2)

This short piece is a valuable reminder that Trump’s capacity to endure countless scandals while retaining the support of his party wouldn’t have been possible without a degree of political polarisation in which “Republicans oppose Democrats across the board”. Far from political polarisation being a deviation from the norm, it is the breakdown of a degree of consensus in American politics which was itself exceptional:

People say that partisan polarization has increased recently, which is true, but the short term perspective misses that we are regressing to levels of polarization reminiscent of the 19th and early 20th Century (McCarty, Poole and Rosenthal 2016). The 1930s to the late 1970s—roughly, the New Deal Period—was the real historical anomaly for politicians’ high rates of bipartisan policy commitments. Explanations that look primarily to voters put the cart before the horse. The polarization of politicians, which began in the 1980s, precedes the polarization of voters by two decades, and the latter has also not gone nearly as far. Contrary to conventional wisdom, a majority of Americans, 79% in 2014 according to Pew, hold some mix of Democratic and Republican views.

The distinctive character of the 1930s to the 1970s can be seen in “grassroots political parties that were dominated by community economic and social elites”. Party politics was embedded within and constrained by community politics. The control of community elites over what was politically visible and what was regarded as politically significant mean that focus was directed towards their own economic interests at stake in locally based conflicts. It left people committed to parties, with participation intimately tied to the fabric of their daily life, but with little engagement with political issues beyond those encountered in their local community.

The political economic transformations of the 1970s led to the deterioration of union membership but also to the decline of community elites whose local businesses increasingly struggled. They increasingly collaborated in pursuit of inward investment for their region and this left them decreasingly inclined to speak in partisan terms in the way their immediate predecessors would have. The result of both trends was that party politics was disembodied from community politics, creating the space for what followed. In different ways, both parties became vehicles for social movements in a way that wouldn’t have previously been feasible.

The author makes a powerful case for the importance of historical and economic perspectives in making sense of contemporary political developments:

To my eyes, political economic-perspectives are valuable primarily because they counter the presentist assumptions of liberal democratic narratives. The public is understandably hungry for research that promises to bridge the empathy gap, adjudicate whether Trump voters were driven by economic anxiety or racism, and otherwise reveal the true character of the politically dispossessed (to a limited extent, I’ve written some publicly-oriented stuff like this myself).

Social scientists can and should feed the public’s anthropological curiosity in the politically dispossessed, but it’d be nice if we could also lead the discussion by providing historical context.

Doing justice to these questions means looking beyond individual attitudes and instead offering narratives about  “institutions that either do or don’t increase people’s appreciation of social interdependence and engender meaningful representation”.

On the same topic as yesterday’s post on the moral theories of platform engineers, Anand Giridharadas recounts a speech by Uber and Airbnb investor Shervin Pishevar on pg 66 of his Winners Take All: 

“My biggest thing is existing structures and monopolies—one example is the taxi cartels—that is a very real thing,” he said. “I’ve been in meetings where I’ve been threatened by those types of characters from that world. I’ve seen them beating drivers in Italy. You see the riots in France, and flipping over cars and throwing stones. I took my daughter to Disney. We were in the middle of that. We had to drive our Uber away from basically the war zone that was happening. “So from a moral perspective, anything that’s fighting against morally corrupt, ingrained systems that are based on decades and decades of graft within cities, within city councils, with mayors, etcetera—all those things, they are real, actual things that are threatened by new technologies and innovations like Uber and other companies in that space. So from that perspective, bring it on. That is something we should be fighting.

Thinking on the Move: the possibilities and risks of walking sociologically

Date: Thursday 5th to Friday 6th September, 2019

Location: Goldsmiths, London: The event will take place primarily outside in Southeast London

What are the risks and the opportunities of thinking on our move? This two-day conference explores what it means to walk sociologically. The event will provide an opportunity to examine the potentials of using walking within sociology including; walking as method, walking as theorizing, walking as a way of knowing the city, walking as activism. Rather than talking about this in a conference room we will do this on the move exploring the practice of walking and its significance for the production and communication of sociological knowledge. The event draws on the success of the sociological walks and movement session at the Undisciplining conference by interrogating and providing space for critical reflection on sociological walking practices. All walks will take place in the environs of Southeast London near the conference base of Goldsmiths.

Alongside a series of guided sociological walks, exploring topics including the histories of anti-racist struggle and sound system cultures and an exploration of the relationship between material infrastructures and the urban form, we are also open for proposals for different short walks. Organisers are particularly keen for submissions of more experimental walks, for example, those that might involve, but are not limited to: situationist walking practices, taking a transect, walking as theorising, walks that follow a theme, sensory walking. If you would like to submit a proposal to facilitate a walk, please submit a title, rationale, route (if known) and assessment of accessibility via the submission site.

Proposals for walks should take in the following into consideration:

  • Walks will need to take place in the environs of Southeast London near the conference base of Goldsmiths.
  • Walks should last two hours, including walking time from conference base (Goldsmiths) and back again. Please also consider mobility issues. If the route is known beforehand and involves hills or long staircases, please state this on the proposal form. We hope to run one accessible walk at all times and particularly wish to receive submissions which reflect this.
  • Walks should not bypass into prohibited land and/or properties and should take place in public areas or venues that do not incur a charge to delegates.

Deadline for walk proposals is: April 30th 2019, 17.00 BST. Decisions will be communicated in late May to early June 2019. Please note we cannot accept late proposals.

For any queries about walk proposals please email: Emma Jackson <E.Jackson@gold.ac.uk>, Les Back <l.back@gold.ac.uk> and Mark Carrigan <mark@markcarrigan.net>, copying in events manager Jenny Thatcher events@thesociologicalreview.com

Bursaries 

As with all of our events, we are making a number of bursaries available on a competitive basis to facilitate the attendance of those who might otherwise struggle to meet the costs of attending.

Bursaries are available for unfunded postgraduate research students and early career research in precarious positions as well as others on the grounds of need. Bursary support available to apply for include; travel funds (limited to £100.00), 2-night overnight accommodation (organised by TSRF), and support with childcare (£50.00 per day).

Application for bursaries for walk proposal applicants are available via the call for walk form. Deadline for bursary application is April 30th 2019, 17.00 BST. Decisions will be communicated in at the same time proposal decisions are.

*Please note, applications for bursaries for attendees only will via the registration form to open in July.

For any queries about the bursaries events manager Jenny Thatcher events@thesociologicalreview.com

Registration

Registration to this 2-day conference will be free and there will be an option to attend one day only as well. For those interested in attending the conference, registration will open in Late June.

At all times during the walking section of this conference one walk (route) will be fully wheelchair accessible.

I’ve been writing this morning about how platform engineers and entrepreneurs justify what they do, as well as the assumptions implicit within these justifications. I then stumbled across this  example offered by Anand Giridharadas on pg 39 of his Winners Take All and it’s a really good one:

Guided by MarketWorld’s win-win values, Rosenstein decided to improve the world by starting a company, Asana, which sold work collaboration software to companies like Uber, Airbnb, and Dropbox. Like Asher, he was eager to help, but it was hard to step outside of the realm of his assumptions and tools. He believed that Asana’s software could be his most forceful way of improving the human condition. “When you think about the nature of human progress,” he said, “when you think about the nature of, like, whether it’s improving health care or improving government or making art or doing biotechnology or doing traditional philanthropy—whatever it is, all the things that can move the human condition forward, or maybe the world condition forward, all are about groups of people working together. And so we were, like, if we really could build a universal piece of software that could make everyone in the world who’s trying to do positive things 5 percent faster, right?—I guess we’ll also make terrorists 5 percent faster—but on the whole, we think that that’s going to be really, really net-positive.”

If anyone has other examples they could share, I’d be very grateful to receive them. I’m interested in cases where people are explicitly talking in abstract terms about why the platforms they’re building are good in a moral sense, above and beyond any expectations of economic return.

You were gone when we found you
You were practically surrounded, you were trapped
But the opposition stalled, their blood ran cold
When they saw the look of love in your eyes
Maybe the times we had, they weren’t that bad
And everything else was part of the plan
We sang: “I don’t know where we go from here”
This is the alpha, omega, beginning and the end
And we all just idolize the dead
So you were born, and that was a good day
Someday you’ll die, and that is a shame
But somewhere in the between was a life of which we all dream
And nothing and no one will ever take that away
You had a love and that love had you
And nothing mattered, you were fine
And some will complain, they’re just bitter, what a shame
They know that loving and losing is better than nothing at all
Maybe the times we had, they weren’t that bad
And everything else was part of our path
We sang: “I don’t know where we go from here”
This is the anthem, the slogan, the summary of events
And we all just idealize the past
So you were born, and that was a good day
Someday you’ll die, and that is a shame
But somewhere in the between was a life of which we all dream
And nothing and no one will ever take that away
Yeah the times we had, they weren’t that bad
And everything else was part of the plan
We sang: “I don’t know where we go from here”
This is the alpha, omega, beginning and the end
And we all just idolize the dead
So you were born, and that was a good day
Someday you’ll die, and that is a shame
But somewhere in the between was a life of which we all dream
And nothing and no one will ever take that away
And someday soon my friends, this ride will come to an end
But we can’t just get in line again