There’s an intriguing argument in The Mediated Construction of Social Reality, by Nick Couldry and Andreas Hepp, concerning our dependence upon digital media and how we respond to its failure. From loc 5527:

We feel the costs viscerally: when ‘our’ media break down –we lose internet connection, our password stops working, we are unable to download the latest version of software required by the device or function we want to use –it is as if the social infrastructure were itself, in some respect, breaking down: recursivity has been interrupted, ontological security becomes threatened.

I take their point to be that our reliance upon digital media isn’t simply about specific purposes. For digital media to fail does not frustrate us because it impedes a particular purpose. In an important sense, our purposiveness as such, has come to rely upon digital media. For this reason, there is a latent trauma inherent in its breakdown. We experience its failure in terms of a impeded capacity to act within the world, as opposed to simply frustrating specific actions.

The argument is underdeveloped, as can be seen by the “in some respect” clause within it. It’s nonetheless an important and provocative one. It left me wondering if anyone has done qualitative research about experiences of wifi breaking down in terms of the affective fallout from such a failure? My experience of this has tended to be one of whole categories of action being foreclosed when this happens, as in a real sense I lose the ability to proceed with my work, rather  than it simply being a contingent impediment to particular tasks. I imagine there’s a great deal of variability in how people respond to such a situation but I nonetheless think Couldry and Hepp are pointing towards something very interesting.

An exercise in free-writing, undertaken at a writing workshop at the Becoming Academic conference at the University of Sussex.

I write to eliminate the clutter in my head, the accumulated debris which emerges within me as I make my way through the world, trying to understand my experiences as I go. If I am free to write, I am free to be within the world and my experience feels most full and most thick when I am externalising my internal reactions to the world. What C Wright mills called ‘the feel of an idea’ preoccupies me and my orientation to the world feels changed in those times when I seize upon that feeling, run with it it and make something new ‘out there’ from a reaction I had ‘in here’ to the world. But what can be difficult is when I can’t run with that feeling, when nascent ideas bubble up inside of me but circumstances preclude my running with them. Contingencies intervene and prevent my exploration of these things I feel moved to explore. If I don’t write, I feel in partial motion, stuck in the early stages of a range I cannot complete. If I can’t write, I feel somehow incomplete, as if my capacity to react to the world is subtly mutilated. I write to eliminate the clutter in my head and without writing I am inundated by mess.

I wonder if there is something performative about my writing, as if I bring myself into being through the process of doing it. I wonder why I feel so compelled to share my writing, as if it somehow isn’t real or can’t become real unless it is out there in the world. It’s a repeated exercise, conducted thousands of times, which has left me feeling extremely comfortable with the prospect of sharing my writing. But I’m still not entirely sure why I do it and at times it feels like a compulsion.

That’s the question I’ve been asking myself when reading through two books by Nick Couldry in which he develops a materialist phenomenological approach to understanding social reality. The first is The Mediated Construction of Social Reality (with Andreas Hepp) and the second is Media, Society, World. It’s in the latter book that he considers the representational power of media. From loc 683:

Media institutions, indeed all media producers, make representations: they re-present worlds (possible, imaginary, desirable, actual). Media make truth claims, explicit or implicit: the gaps and repetitions in media representations, if systematic enough, can distort people’s sense of what there is to see in the social and political domains.

There is a political economy underpinning this, in terms of the capacity to make such representations and the gains accruing from this capacity. The common reference points which accumulate as a consequence serve a broader economic purpose. From loc 701:

However, if basic consumer demand –for fashion, music, sport –is to be sustained at all, it requires ‘the media’ to provide common reference points towards which we turn to see what’s going on, what’s cool.

The interests and influence in play here have been crucial to the unfolding of late modernity. Media has been a site through which power has consolidated. What we are seeing with ‘post-truth’ is a deconsolidatiob of this apparatus, taking place at a number of different levels. From loc 886:

Representations matter. Representations are a material site for the exercise of, and struggle over, power. Put most simply, our sense of ‘what there is’ is always the result of social and political struggle, always a site where power has been at work. 150 But fully grasping this in relation to media is difficult: because the role of media institutions is to tell us ‘what there is’ –or at least what there is that is ‘new’ –media’s work involves covering over its daily entanglement in that site of power. Media aim to focus populations’ attention in a particular direction, on common sites of social and political knowledge. Media institutions’ embedding as the central focus of modern societies is the result of a history of institutional struggle that is becoming more, not less, intense in the digital media era. It is essential to deconstruct the apparently natural media ‘order’ of contemporary societies.

In the 30+ talks I have done about social media in the last year, I have discussed many things. But the one theme that has been most prominent is the extrinsic, rather than intrinsic, complexity of the subject matter. There is nothing inherently challenging about how to use social media. Any practical or technical difficulties are well within the realm of what has become habitual for most within late modernity. What creates the challenge is negotiating the novelty of its enablements and constraints within a particular context.

However it is this novelty which also makes it difficult to exercise our reflexivity in the way we would about any comparable matter. This novelty gives rise to a species of what Jacob Silverman describes as ‘internet exceptionalism’:

What we call the Internet—and what web writers so lazily draw on for their work—is less a hive mind or a throng or a gathering place and more a personalized set of online maneuvers guided by algorithmic recommendations. When we look at our browser windows, we see our own particular interests, social networks, and purchasing histories scrambled up to stare back at us. But because we haven’t found a shared discourse to talk about this complex arrangement of competing influences and relationships, we reach for a term to contain it all. Enter “the Internet.”

The Internet is a linguistic trope but also an ideology and even a business plan. If your job is to create content out of (mostly) nothing, then you can always turn to something/someone that “the Internet” is mad or excited about. And you don’t have to worry about alienating readers because “the Internet” is so general, so vast and all-encompassing, that it always has room. This form of writing is widely adaptable. Now it’s common to see stories where “Facebook” or “Twitter” stands in for the Internet, offering approval or judgment on the latest viral schlock. Choose your (anec)data carefully, and Twitter can tell any story you want.

Much as “the Internet” gives us “a rhetorical life raft to hang onto” when discussing a subject that is vastly overhyped and invested with all manner of hopes and fears, so too does “social media” become a semantic crutch when making sense of the complex changes being brought about by digital communications within a particular institutional sphere. It’s similarly “easy, a convenient reference point” through which we gloss a complex set of changes in which technological possibilities are only one causal factor. By exceptionalising social media in this way, we “fail to relate this communication system, and everything that happens through it, to the society around us”.

This tendency seems even more pronounced when we talk about something as specific as the academy. The more we talk about “social media” as something which all academics should (or shouldn’t do) the more we obscure the changes it entails for academic labour and the organisations which academics work within. My ambition as someone who has written a book called Social Media for Academics? To get academics to stop talking about social media.

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. 

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:

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).

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?

This excellent essay by Jan-Werner Müller in the London Review of Books raises an important issue about the forms of political mobilisation facilitated by social media: 

Trump has called himself the Hemingway of the 140 characters. He has ‘the best words’. He loves Twitter, he says, because it’s like having one’s own newspaper, but without the losses. Twitter shares something of the echo-chamber effect of Facebook, but it also makes possible a form of direct identification between the individual citizen and the supposedly sole authentic representative of the people. It is hard to see how this might have been possible before, at least as a matter of daily experience: perhaps going to a party rally and feeling a direct connection with the leader while surrounded by others who feel exactly the same thing. Now, that sense of a direct link is just a click away, day and night: ‘Hey, I’m up at 3 a.m., and so is he, and he’s thinking exactly what I was just thinking!’

This is an illusion, but it is a powerful one. Media-savvy politicians can exploit it in unprecedented ways. For instance, in Italy the anti-establishment Five Star movement emerged from Beppe Grillo’s blog. ‘Hey folks, it works like this: you tell me what’s going on and I will play the amplifier,’ he’d written to his followers. Grillo had been a well-known comedian before entering politics. He has never merely amplified the concerns of ordinary people; the way il popolo speaks is decisively shaped by his leadership even though he has no official position of authority. Trump of course had also been a TV star, someone partly famous for being famous. But the peculiarity of Trump is that he seems the equivalent of Grillo and Silvio Berlusconi merged into one person. Whenever he was accused during the campaign of being just an entertainer, he could point to his competence as a businessman; whenever it was pointed out that his ventures mostly went bankrupt, he could respond that he was primarily a media star.

What forms of political organisation emerge from such a dynamic? Fleeting and fragile ones, predicated on imagined links with the leader rather than relational bonds between the followers. This gives reason to be hopeful but it also creates dangerous incentives for the leader, inviting them to escalate their rhetoric in order to mobilise a base over whom, at least as a collective, their hold remains unreliable. The problem is, as he puts it later in the essay, “The supply of enemies is inexhaustible.”

This is why it’s so important to refuse the story such populists tell about their own success. They ascribe an outcome with complex origins to their own quasi-magical powers to connect with ‘the people’:

Liberals have been wringing their hands at their seeming inability to reach citizens with ‘fact-checks’ and incontrovertible demonstrations of Trump’s continual self-contradictions. It’s curious that in their despair they have resurrected some of the clichés of 19th-century mass psychology. While disputing virtually every claim made by populists – especially their supposedly simplistic policy solutions – they buy without question the story that populists sell about their own successes. When Arron Banks proclaims that ‘Facts don’t work … You’ve got to connect with people emotionally,’ they just nod. But it isn’t true that ‘the masses’ are emotional basket-cases ready to be seduced by a charismatic demagogue. For a start, the neat distinction between reason and emotion is misleading. People are angry for a reason, and usually they can articulate that reason, as part of a larger story about what went wrong in their lives. Trump gained some trust as an outsider and, even more, as a credible exemplar of what it means to be unprofessional in politics. Some trusted him because he told it like it is; but in other cases the trust came first, and led them to believe that he was telling them the real story. 

From One Market Under God, by Thomas Frank, loc 2230:

For all the revulsion expressed by books like Liar’s Poker and Barbarians at the Gate, the dominant note was starstruck wonderment at these “masters of the universe,” at their millions and their manses, at their Gulfstream jets and Mercedes cars, at the high quality of the sex and luxuries they enjoyed. Occasional digressions to consider those shafted by the pros served only to heighten this sense, to establish just how satisfying it was to bring misfortune to some dope on the phone. The more monstrous the manipulation the merrier.

This was written almost two decades ago but the trend has only intensified since then. As someone who has spent a lot of time reading these books, I’ve become curious as to what exactly the appeal is. They’re the kind of thing I inevitably buy  when bored in airport and train station bookshops, before devouring in a couple of journeys and feeling vaguely guilty afterwards.

I wonder if these representations of financiers make finance itself more tractable. Narratives about individuals give shape to diffuse systems which influence all aspects of our lives in spite of their distance and abstraction. What has struck me as odd is the cultural prominence of the banker-hedonistic at precisely the time when such figures are in decline. Could there be something comforting about the wolf of Wall Street as we enter an era of algorithmic trading and flash crashes? 

In Zygmunt Bauman’s Legislators and Interpreters, he identifies two different contexts in which the role of the ‘intellectual’ is performed and two different strategies which develop in response to them:

  • The legislator makes “authoritative statements” which “arbitrate in controversies of opinions and which selects those opinions which, having been selected, become correct and binding”.
  • The interpreter work at “translation statements, made within one communally based tradition, so that they can be understood within the system of knowledge based on another tradition”.

Both inevitably rest on a conception of the intellectual’s authority in performing this role, with the legislator having universalistic ambitions which the interpreter has foresaken. This authority is grounded in access to “superior (objective) knowledge to which intellectuals have a better access than the non-intellectual part of society”. This epistemic privilege is ensured via “procedural rules which assure the attainment of truth, the arrival at valid moral judgement, and the selection of proper artistic taste”. The social place of the intellectual professions is ensured by the universal validity of these procedural rule. It grants the intellectuals a crucial role in the “maintenance and perfection of  the social order”, entailing a right and duty to intervene in society in protection of it. 

I’m going to write a lot more about this book at a later stage, but I wanted to record the key question it provoked in me: are we entering a new context in which the role of the intellectual is performed and what are the strategies developing in response to it? What Will Davies identifies as a declining efficacy of facts is a crucial part of this picture:

Facts hold a sacred place in Western liberal democracies. Whenever democracy seems to be going awry, when voters are manipulated or politicians are ducking questions, we turn to facts for salvation.

But they seem to be losing their ability to support consensus. PolitiFact has found that about 70 percent of Donald Trump’s “factual” statements actually fall into the categories of “mostly false,” “false” and “pants on fire” untruth.

For the Brexit referendum, Leave argued that European Union membership costs Britain 350 million pounds a week, but failed to account for the money received in return.

The sense is widespread: We have entered an age of post-truth politics.

As politics becomes more adversarial and dominated by television performances, the status of facts in public debate rises too high. We place expectations on statistics and expert testimony that strains them to breaking point. Rather than sit coolly outside the fray of political argument, facts are now one of the main rhetorical weapons within it.

This over-production and weaponisation of facts, driven by the long term change in the intellectual marketplace represented by the emergence of the think tank system, would surely seem to be the final nail in the coffin of the legislator role. However as Susan Halford and Mike Savage point out in an upcoming paper, the most prominent public intellectuals at present are those whose work is profoundly and radically empirical. Are these a hold out of the legislator role? A mutation of it? Or something else entirely?

What Davies raises points to a broader problem facing the contemporary intellectual: in a fact-saturated environment, how can the authority of the facts offered by intellectuals be underwritten? Without facts, how can academic speech differentiate itself from conjecture, speculation or polemic? This question can be asked at a certain level of abstraction about ‘the intellectual’ as such, but it can also be asked much more mundanely about each and every instance of academic speech on societial matters made on social media. Should it be understood as a professional pronouncement? If so, is it authoritative and what is the basis for this authority?

I wonder if the prominence of Will’s own analysis of Brexit could be an interesting case study in addressing these questions. Its authority wasn’t grounded on facts but insight. A timely and well-articulated  intervention at a point where received wisdom had been overturned and there was a pervasive sense of “what just happened?”. Can speed, insight and articulacy provide a grounding for the intellectual role under contemporary conditions? 

What he says about the transition from facts to data is interesting:

The promise of facts is to settle arguments between warring perspectives and simplify the issues at stake. For instance, politicians might disagree over the right economic policy, but if they can agree that “the economy has grown by 2 percent” and “unemployment is 5 percent,” then there is at least a shared stable reality that they can argue over

The promise of data, by contrast, is to sense shifts in public sentiment. By analyzing Twitter using algorithms, for example, it is possible to get virtually real-time updates on how a given politician is perceived. This is what’s known as “sentiment analysis.”

But I find this most plausible as a statement about shifting epistemological  fashions amongst powerful groups. The endemic methodological limitations of these approaches will generate confusion, uncertainty and conflict as they come to be relied upon ever more. It is this resulting mess that provides an opening to intellectuals to, as it were, turn private confusion into public issues.

Will’s comment in response to this is really worth reading. I’ll blog more about this tomorrow:

Thanks for your generous comments, Mark. As far as my own Brexit writing was concerned (the wide citation/sharing of which was a shock to me), I think that a kind of interpretive pragmatism has its own useful role during times of upheaval. All I did in blogging about Brexit was to point out some things that were quite clearly the case, and had been clearly the case for some time before the crisis struck. I think part of what people valued about that was it offered reassurance that interpretation and understanding were possible, if we just remain reasonably calm. Obviously that’s not as politically energising as reports of emergency or conflict, but it’s no less so than the presentation of ‘facts’. In that respect it’s an ‘interpreter’ role, but one which partly seeks to remind people of things they already instinctively know, sense or can imagine. At times when the world seems to be changing very rapidly (engulfing methodology and epistemology with it), there is value in narrating the conditions of change, which themselves are likely to be quite long-standing and recognisable to many.

In the last few weeks, I’ve written a few times about the epistemological questions posed by post-democracy. This notion put forward by Colin Crouch sees transitions within mature democracies as involving a hollowing out of democratic  structures rather than a dramatic shift to non-democracy. As he described it in a recent interview I did with him:

I defined post-democracy as a situation where all the institutions of democracy – elections, changes of government, free debate, rule of law – continue, but they become a charade, because democratic institutions have been surpassed as major decision-making entities by small groups of financial and political elites. I argued, not that we had reached such a situation in most western countries – there is far too much lively politics for that – but that we were on the road towards it.

This runs contrary to many folk theories of democracy’s death, tending as they do to associate the end of democracy with a sudden seizure of power. It would be foolish to deny this as a possibility, not least of all because political scientists have ably theorised this as ‘authoritarian reversion’:

We think that comparative experience demonstrates that there are two distinct forms of backsliding, each with its own mechanisms and modal end-states. We call these authoritarian reversion and constitutional retrogression. The basic difference between reversion and retrogression as we use the terms is how fast and how far backsliding goes. Authoritarian reversion is a wholesale, rapid collapse into authoritarianism. Such a wholesale movement away from democracy most often occurs through the mechanism of a military coup d’état or via the use of emergency powers.

One of the reasons conversations about post-democracy have entered the mainstream is the number of unfolding cases we can see at present. The authors of the aforementioned blog post cite Hungary and Poland but we could just as easily point to Brazil or Turkey:

Examples of retrogression abound. In both Hungary and Poland, for example, elected governments have recently hastened to enact a suite of legal and institutional changes that simultaneously squeeze out electoral competition, undermine liberal rights of democratic participation, and emasculate legal stability and predictability. In Venezuela between 1999 and 2013, the regime established by Hugo Chávez has aggregated executive power, limited political opposition, attacked academia, and stifled independent media. Crucially, across these examples and others, democratic decay is catalyzed incrementally and under the “mask of law”: It is a death by a thousand cuts, rather than the clean slice of the coup maker.

The extent to which our democratic imaginary is dominated by examples of such authoritarian reversion works to squeeze out constitutional regression. This is further compounded by what I’ve argued are pronounced tendencies in how we conceive of social continuity:

  1. We tend towards a generic assumption of the durability of social structures.
  2. We tend even more strongly towards a generic assumption of the durability of social formations (i.e. assemblages of social structures)
  3. We tend to miss the origins of social formations in the intended and unintended consequences of deliberate action, as well as the interactions between them.
  4. We tend to reason inductively and, in doing so, miss the possibility that the future will be radically distinct from the past.
  5. Even if we deny it intellectually, we tend towards exceptionalism in how we see social formations which are deeply familiar to us.

What capacity we have to recognise the possibility of large scale change reduces it epochal transitions. We have one social formation then we have another, with a detailed conception of the process of change being subsumed into the (inflated sense of the) agency of some macro-actor  whose machinations account for the real or imagined transition. This is why a gradual process of retrogression struggles to register at the level of political experience:

Retrogression, on the other hand, is a more subtle and insidious process. It involves a more incremental, but still ultimately substantial, decay in the three basic predicates of democracy, namely competitive elections, liberal rights to speech and association, and the rule of law necessary for democratic choice to thrive.

One of our core claims is that scholars have largely focused on the possibility of swift autocratic reversions such as a coup d’etat (as in Thailand, Mali, and Mauritania) or via the use of emergency powers (most famously, in Weimar Germany). But we think that threat of constitutional retrogression—a more insidious form of institutional erosion—is more substantial.

The threat is indeed more substantial and our awareness of it is limited by many factors. But some of these, I wish argue, should be understood as epistemological. A process of this sort is harder to conceive of because many of the ways in which we tend to think of social change militate against it.

What I have written so far is prospective, concerning how we imaginatively orientate ourselves to a future possibility. But the same issue confronts attempts to conceive of what is ongoing because such a retrogression is, as these authors describe it, “a death by a thousand cuts, rather than the clean slice of the coup maker”:

Each of the individual changes may be innocuous (or even) defensible in isolation. But a sufficient quantity of even incremental derogations from the democratic baseline, in our view, can precipitate a qualitative change that merits a shift in regime classification. Understanding where, how, and whether that happens in the United States, we think, is furthered by a close study of experience of other countries.

A sufficient quantity of isolated occurrences across the system can cumulatively constitute a qualitative change in the system itself. Democracy can unravel around us, without any grand announcements of its death. Recognising the epistemological obstacles to acknowledging this unraveling can help us appreciate the urgency of the situation we are beginning to face.

In her superb The Monsters of Educational Technology, Audrey Watters makes a convincing case that innovation in educational technology has been dominated by the trope of ‘content delivery’. New technologies are seen to improve content delivery in a variety of ways: scale, speed, cost etc. But this is a limited and limiting conception of education, access and innovation.

Is there a risk that social media use by academics comes to be framed in these terms? What I’ve written about as the fallacy of amelioration is relevant here. The assumption that there are vast stores of untapped knowledge which could be used to straightforwardly fix social problems, if only people would listen to us. 

If I’m right about this conceit then there’s an obvious compatibility between it and the ‘content delivery’ trope. We can see the marginalisation of academic knowledge production as a failure of content delivery, susceptible to rectification through shiny new delivery mechanisms which we must all now embrace as a matter of urgency. In doing so, we would fundamentally mystify the implications of social media for the academy.

I love this expression from Peter Sloterdijk’s Selected Exaggerations loc 944:

Carrying the weight of the world is an art that can be practised in many different ways. I think it is right to say that it is fundamentally the same art. It consists of answers to the burdensome nature of life …

This is what I see as the core of an existential sociology: the predicament of life, the diversity of responses to it and the contexts which condition that unfolding. As he goes on to write on loc 951:

An idiot has different strategies for mastering life than the cleverest person in the same culture. I’m convinced we should look for the great gap that yawns between people on the level of individual strategies.

Do we have a sociology of these individual strategies? A key part of my book on distraction is an analysis of the novel strategies that are now emerging within the horizons of digital capitalism e.g. lifestyle minimalism, the 4 hour work week and self-quantification.

How do we live with theoretical pluralism? It’s too often a matter of ‘peace treaties’, avoiding fights by moving disagreements off-stage. But if we do this then are we really occupying the same argumentative space? I don’t think we are and the intellectual value of theoretical pluralism is lost if we find ourselves in such a situation.

But this intellectual value challenges us to engage across boundaries, recognising differences as a resource for dialogue rather than simply a constraint. It necessitates a sense of the other’s motivations, avoiding getting hung up on the wider network of disagreements by focusing only on those that are relevant to the topic at hand. Not objecting to the fact someone’s starting points are different to ours but rather trying to understand how our different routes to overlapping topics can be mutually enriching.

This requires a sensibility which seems far too rare in the academy. Pablo Boczkowski and Ignacio Siles describe the danger as “a sort of intellectual insularity (or provincialism) that privileges a certain inwards-looking commitment to a particular paradigm, set of ideas, or mode of inquiry without considering work done in other fields that might significantly enrich or transform it”. Instead they argue for an intellectual cosmopolitanism that “promotes the crossing of territorial scholarly quadrants in the study of media technologies to rethink assumptions and normalized processes” (pg. 58).

Social theory has generated widespread  intellectual provincialism and we urgently need to move beyond it. The poverty of meta-theory plays a role by robbing us of higher level languages in which disagreements could be negotiated. But there’s also a sensibility  engendered by the ensuing fragmentation which I find deeply  problematic.

30 November-2 December 2016, Leiden (Scheltema, Marktsteeg 1)

Conference organisers
Sarah de Rijcke, Centre for Science and Technology Studies, Leiden University

Björn Hammarfelt, University of Borås, Sweden | Leiden University

Alex Rushforth, Centre for Science and Technology Studies, Leiden University

Scientific committee

Mark Carrigan, University of Warwick

Tereza Stöckelová, Czech Academy of Sciences

Filip Vostal, Czech Academy of Sciences

Paul Wouters, Leiden University

Milena Kremakova, University of Warwick

From the 1980s onward, there has been an unprecedented growth of institutions and procedures for auditing and evaluating university research. Quantitative indicators are now widely used from the level of individual researchers to that of entire universities, serving to make academic activities more visible, accountable and amenable to university management and marketing. Further demands for accountability in academia can be related to general societal trends described under the heading of the audit society (Power 1997), and the evaluation society (Dahler-Larsen 2011). As part of broader transformations in research governance, indicators on publications and citations are now permeating academia: from global university rankings to journal-level bibliometrics such as the journal impact factor and individual measures like the h-index. Yet, it is only recently that considerable interest has been directed towards the effects that these measures might have on work practices and knowledge production (c.f. de Rijcke et al. 2015), and the role they might be playing in accelerating academic life more generally (c.f. Vostal 2016).

The Accelerated Academy draws together a number of cross-disciplinary conversations about the effects that acceleration towards metric forms of evaluation is having upon research, and the implications this holds for living and working in contemporary academia (Felt et al. 2009). Building on the successful maiden edition of the Accelerated Academy series in Prague in 2015, this year’s Leiden conference will be especially focussed towards the following questions:

What does acceleration mean in different research contexts?

What are the implications of digitally mediated measurement and tools for quantifying scholarly performance?

What are the knowledge gaps regarding the effects of metrics on scientific quality and societal relevance of research?

How can we harness the positive and minimize the adverse effects of performance measurement in universities?

Keynote Speakers

Ulrike Felt (University of Vienna) – Valuing time: Temporalities, regimes of worth and changing research cultures

How are the temporal reorderings of contemporary academic research cultures related to (e)valuative practices? This is the core question addressed in my key note. It will start from the diagnosis that many of the critiques and doubts raised about the quality and efficiency of our research systems have been frequently addressed through profoundly restructuring the temporal dimensions of academic lives, work, knowledge production and management. From there the presentation will invite a reflection on the effects of this re-timing of academic research environments and how it in turn supports and stabilizes specific valuation practices. It will invite to look beyond phenomena of acceleration and engage with the wider phenomenon of politics of time at work in academia. Looking into one exemplary field where we can observe chronopolitics at work, the talk will focus on the complex relations of temporalities and indicators (as one expression of worth).

Peter Dahler-Larsen (University of Copenhagen) – The Evaluation Society and Academia

In the evaluation society, evaluation machinery and infrastructure connect measurements and objects across time and space in unprecedented ways. Evaluation contributes to contingency and acceleration. The effects upon research and research quality are complex, including, potentially, the reconfiguration of the very meaning of research, relations among colleagues, the definitions of research fields, and relations between research and society. The impact of evaluation upon research is difficult to interpret. Our interpretations rest on assumptions. This key note offers three perspectives, roughly described as “the metrological perspective”, “the political perspective”, and the “constructivist perspective”. Each perspective is characterized by distinct assumptions, issues of interest, and orientations regarding what needs to be done.

I just spotted New Philosopher for the first time, in an airport newsagents. I’ve occasionally bought or subscribed to Philosopher’s Magazine and Philosophy Now in the past. That makes three popular magazines about philosophy aimed at a general audience. Why such an abundance of philosophy magazines and yet no comparable sociology publications? Is it because the public appetite couldn’t support a sociology magazine? Or is it because sociologists haven’t tried since New Society folded? Is it time for Discover Society to launch a print edition? Or something else entirely?

Some thoughts after yesterday’s public sociology day in Manchester:

  • The meaning of ‘public sociology’ is not always self-evident and the enthusiasm of the impulse expressed through the term can cloud its meaning yet further. We need to be clear about what we are doing and why.
  • This clarity can help us negotiate the ambivalent spaces for public sociology created within institutions that speak the language of ‘impact’, ‘public engagement’, ‘knowledge exchange’, ‘enterprise’ and ‘outreach’. There are opportunities for public sociology here but also dangers.
  • The competitive individualism of the academy risks being reproduced in a discourse of ‘public sociology’ dominated by white, male professorial public sociologists. We need to celebrate the practice of public sociology, rather than the academic brands of the most prominent public sociologists. [thanks to the res-sisters and Lambros Fatsis for making this point so clearly, in slightly different ways]
  • Our prevailing systems of scholarly communication risk canalising the impulse towards ‘public sociology’ into abstract reflection upon what should ultimately be a practical activity. Sustaining employment in the academy necessitates ‘outputs’ of a certain restricted kind but we must avoid letting these define what we take public sociology to be.
  • We can take these limitations of existing systems as an inspiration to build new systems. How do we create platforms for public sociology that facilitate and encourage it as a collective endeavour, rather than the lone pursuit of isolated individuals within an accelerated academy? 

My experience of watching the literature on asexuality spiral from a handful of papers ever through to new ones each month has left me fascinated by how quickly ‘the literature’ can become unmanageable. Within a relatively small and nascent field, it’s possible to grasp ‘the literature’ as a totality. But past a certain point, circumscribing it becomes an inevitability for purely practical reasons: focusing on this, ignoring that, excluding material from different disciplines.

At what point does it become impossible to represent ‘the literature’ as a totality? The impulse to do this doesn’t cease but with its growth these depictions are increasingly performative rather than representational. Demonstrating mastery of ‘the literature’ entails authoritatively circumscribing large chunks of the total knowledge stock within the field, naturalising these occlusion in a way liable to influence others. 

Furthermore, ‘the literature’ as a totality necessarily eludes depictions of it because each of these claimed attempts to represent the object in fact contribute  to that object’s spiralling complexity. 

The way we talk and think about ‘the literature’ is unsuited to the realities of publishing in the accelerated academy.