This is the memorable phrase which James Williams uses on pg 114 of Stand Out of Our Light to describe proposals that platforms find technical solutions to the problem of ‘fake news’. It punchily conveys the ironic predicament that treating problems of ‘fakeness’ technically, as engineering challenges to be addressed by better calibrating information flow, kicks the can down the road. The only way to do this is to infer standards of reliability from user behaviour when it is the inability of those users to generate binding standards which generates the problem in the first place. Finding technical solutions to ‘fake news’ inevitably operationalises ‘fakeness’ in precisely the consensual terms that prophets of post-truth fulminate against.
A faith in dialogue pervades the academy, sometimes knowingly framed in terms of the potential of dialogue if only we could get it right. This seems obviously misplaced to me and I’d suggest two examples to justify this:
- Online dialogue often gets worse with time rather than improving. Misunderstandings multiply, sides get taken and participants polarise. Some dialogues need to be cut short and others shouldn’t have happened in the first place.
- Specialised dialogues often get exclusionary with time, trading a collective focus for public marginality. An arcane vocabulary develops to manage interaction, enabling epistem gains while undermining attempts to translate insights into public action.
A workshop with Mark Johnson
5pm-6pm, November 12th, Faculty of Education, Cambridge
Register here: https://www.eventbrite.com/e/education-beyond-dispute-the-work-of-stafford-beer-for-teaching-and-learning-tickets-52277496399 (all welcome!)
Stafford Beer was a leading figure in management cybernetics whose life and work spans a period of intellectual inquiry which draws in the leading figures from the origin of cybernetics through to practical interventions in organisations as diverse as British steel, Warburtons, the Canadian national health system and the Chilean economy under Salvadore Allende. Beer’s work is both polymathic and practical – he was an artist and poet who created machines, wrote childrens’ books and devised new graphical modelling techniques. The work gives us a way of addressing fundamental and ambitious questions about education: How do education systems work? What is teaching? What is conversation? What is the relationship between consciousness and learning?
In this session I will demonstrate the core principles of his approach to cybernetic modelling, from the concepts of “variety management”, “transduction” and “viable systems” to his later experiments with organisational decision-making which he called “syntegration” (documented in his 1994 book “Beyond Dispute”). This will be a practical session where participants will be invited to draw diagrams and explore his ideas using sound, pictures, multimedia and conversation.
Earlier today I visited the Stafford Beer archive at Liverpool John Moores University. I had been curious about it for some time after talking to Mark Johnson who has been exploring the archive for a number of years. For those unfamiliar with him, I should start by pointing out how Beer was a fascinating and contradictory figure. He was a management guru before gurus. A consultant and a scholar. A scientist and an artist. A man who lived in abstractions yet was immensely practical. A cybernetician and a yoga teacher. He was polymathic in a way which is hard to imagine from our contemporary vantage point, traversing an immense range of fields in which he made significant intellectual and practical contributions. Therefore the range of the materials contained in the archive wasn’t a surprise.
What did shock me was the variety of his outputs. He wrote books, papers, essays, reports and letters. He produced endless diagrams which have been as much a source of inspiration for artists as they have for systems analysts. He produced artefacts to convey his ideas and to serve practical purposes in his consultancy. He painted and his work was exhibited in a ground breaking exhibition at Liverpool Metropolitan Cathedral. He published two books of poetry. He wrote a number of children’s books which he tried to publish. He produced a book of aphorisms which I suspect could have been published if he had tried. His astonishing repertoire of communication blew me away. Can we point to any contemporary figure with the same range? He wasn’t just prolific, he was prolific in so many ways it is hard to conceive of how he structured his time to facilitate this outpouring of work. Furthermore, he did so while deeply engaged in the world, travelling regularly and tied up with all manner of diverse commitments. His scholarship didn’t involve a withdrawal from the world but rather an energetic embrace of it and the creative possibilities it opened up. His was a profoundly worldly intellectualism and I find it enormously inspiring.
This theme of the worldliness or otherwise of intellectuals keeps coming to mind recently and I’m hoping to explore it further in relation to the long term implications of social media for the university.
This argument is made by Razmig Keucheyan in Left Hemisphere: Mapping Contemporary Theory at loc 6004-6028. It’s a thought provoking conclusion to an impressively broad text, even if it leaves me no more enthusiastic about critical social theory than I was at the outset.
However, the globalization of critical thinking possesses the following problematic feature: it is inseparable from its Americanization. The attractiveness of the United States (not merely financial, but also for the promotion and international circulation of oeuvres) is such that, whatever the provenance of thinkers –Latin America, India, China, Africa and so forth –it is difficult for them to resist it. Yet it is likely that the Americanization of critical thinking contains the seeds of its political neutralization.11 The United States is certainly not the political desert it is sometimes depicted as in Europe. Powerful social movements exist there, among them the movement of illegal immigrants of Hispanic origin that has emerged in the recent years. Rather, the problem lies in the situation of universities and their occupants, which tend on account of their elitist character to be socially and spatially cut off from the rest of society. This socio-spatial segregation of American universities renders the interaction between critical thinkers and political and social movements referred to above even less likely. In this respect, what is required is the emergence of a globalization of critical thinking uncoupled from its Americanization.
While there are objections which should be made to how he characterises the “globalization of critical thinking” as something which diffuses outwards from its American and European foundation, I’ve found myself ruminating on his underlying observation of how the wealth and influence of the US system draws the most celebrated representatives of these currents into its orbit. I had found myself wondering a similar thing about internationalisation and academic celebrity: to what extent does the desire to overcome provincialism entrench the intellectual star system and are there ways in which this can be avoided?
Organised by Jana Bacevic, Mark Carrigan and Filip Vostal
Keynote: Liberalism Must Be Defeated: The Obsolescence of Bourgeois Theory in the Anthropocene by Gary Hall, Director of Centre for Postdigital Cultures at Coventry University, UK.
Full schedule of speakers and talks:
- Jana Bacevic (University of Cambridge): TBC
- Garfield Benjamin (Solent University): The fractal knowledge machine
- Eleanor Dare (Royal College of Art): Normative validity and the quantified academic self
- Jason Eyre (De Montfort University): Learning as Seizure: Expressions and Implications in the Marketised Academy
- Lisa Jack (Portsmouth Business School) and Hanne Nørreklit (Aarhus University): Beyond the Post-Truth Turn: From Habitus Based to Digital Based Performance Management of University Scholars
- Zachary Kaiser (Michigan State University): Posthuman Oracles: Cybernetic Dreams and Capitalist Hallucinations in the Computationalist University
- Lai Ma (Univeristy College Dublin): My Metrics and I: The Flattened Self in Information Infrastructure
- Miriam Madsen (Aarhus School of Education): Intelligible Measurements: An Analytical Methodological and Ethical Approach of Shifts Between Knower and Known
- Susan Lee Robertson (University of Cambridge): Vertical Vision, Vertigo and Unhingement in the Accelerated Academy
- Filip Vostal (Czech Academy of Sciences): Maintaining Beamtime
- Steve Watson (University of Cambridge): The pre-and posthuman limbic system in the accelerated academy
The conference seeks to conceptualise change in contemporary knowledge production in a way that transcends the dichotomy between theoretical frameworks that emphasise the role of humans (e.g. pragmatism, cultural sociology, critical realism, Bourdieusian sociology) and those that seek to dissolve the human and/or focus on non-human actors (actor-network theory, poststructuralism, STS, new materialism, transhumanism). Bringing together scholars in social sciences and humanities whose work engages with relationships between the human, post-human, metrics, and agency in the ‘neoliberal’ university, the conference addresses the methodological implications of how we theorise human agency, the agency of technical systems, and the relationships between them, in order to foster and support critical scholarship and engagement the current (and future) socio-political environment requires.
It is by now widely accepted that the transformation of the structures of governance and funding of higher education and research – including pressures to produce more and faster, and the associated proliferation of instruments of measurement such as citation (‘H’) indexes and rankings – pose serious challenges to the future of the academia. The critique of these trends has mostly taken the form of calls to ‘slow down’, or assertion of the intrinsic value/unquantifiable character of scholarship, particularly in the social sciences and humanities. While these narratives highlight important aspects of academics’ experience of neoliberal restructuring, they often end up reproducing the inter- and intra-disciplinary division between theoretical and interpretative frameworks that foreground human agency (focusing on student movements, working experiences of academics, or decision-making) and those that foreground the performativity of non-human agents (focusing on the role of metrics, indexes, analytics or institutions).
This intellectual fragmentation constrains attempts to study these processes in genuinely interdisciplinary ways. On the rare occasions when meaningful exchange does happen, conceptual, ideological, and institutional fault lines hinder sustained dialogue, often leading to the reassertion of old certainties in lieu of engagement with complex relational, institutional, socio-technical, and political/policy realities of transformation. The conference aims to provide an intellectual and institutional framework that challenges this dichotomy, and seeks to develop ways of thinking that are mutually reinforcing, rather than exclusive. It focuses on the issue of the (post)human as the ontological underpinning to the descriptive and explanatory work needed, as well as the normative horizon for resistance.
December 13th-14th, Faculty of Education, University of Cambridge
In recent discussions of capitalism, the notion of the ‘platform’ has come to play a prominent role in conceptualising our present circumstances and imagining our potential futures. There are criticisms which can be raised of the platform-as-metaphor, however we believe it provides a useful hook through which to make sense of how socio-technical innovations may be leading to a new phase of capitalist accumulation. To talk of ‘platform capitalism’ in this sense does not exclude consideration of parallel notions such as digital capitalism, data capitalism and surveillance capitalism but rather seeks to frame these considerations through a focus upon the platform as a novel assemblage.
While research into social media and the sharing economy is relatively advanced, the increasing centrality of platforms to the operation of the university remains understudied and undertheorised. Our conference seeks to rectify this, raising the possibility of the ‘platform university’ as a provocation to stimulate discussion concerning platforms, the commercial and academic science they depend upon and contribute to reshaping, as well as their implications for the future of the university. We see the university as a case study for inquiry into platforms, but also as a horizon of change within which the social sciences seek to address these processes.
Register here: https://www.eventbrite.com/e/capitalism-social-science-and-the-platform-university-tickets-51955542426
There will be a keynote by Ben Williamson on The expanding data infrastructure of higher education: public-private policy networks and platform plug-ins.
Full schedule of speakers and talks:
- Aliandra Lazzari Barlete and Mário de Azevedo – Higher education, platforms and the academic profession in Latin America: a case for platform academic capitalism
- Abdullah Ciftci – What is the role of YouTube for teaching profession?
- Armen Aramyan – Datafication as a Synonym for Efficiency: Neoliberal Policymaking in Russian Academia
- Eleanor Dare – Ontological platforms: deconstructing Moodle and the ideology of personalised learning
- Carly Foster and Peter Francis – Critical Reflections on Educational Analytics and the Platform Universit
- Morten Hansen – Black boxing the university
- Eva Hartmann – Degrees of deceptions: Faking of and in the credential society
- Martin Henry and Alba Henry – Quality teacher and digital student in the age of platform capitalism
- Marc Jacquinet – What we can learn about platform capitalism from past speculative bubbles
- Janja Komljenovic – Varieties of European universities’ engagement with social media platforms
- Anna Kosmützky – “There will be only 10 Universities left in the world in 50 years” – Market Dynamics of Massive Open Online Course Providers
- Chris Muellerleile – Wasting the University: The Costs of Competition
- Seppo Poutanen & Anne Kovalainen – Gig Science and the Platform University – the Future of Knowledge 2.0
- Annika Bergviken Rensfeldt – More than a blank Canvas – Platformization of Nordic universities
- Susan Robertson – The Production of Scientific Knowledge and Value in an Era of Platform Capitalism
- Richard Terry – ‘MOOCs are really a platform.’ Prefiguring platform capitalism in the case of online learning platforms
- Nikola Wachter – Platform capitalism and open educational resources
- Steve Watson – What we can learn about platform capitalism from past speculative bubbles
This glorious passage by the composer Nico Muhly, reflecting on the different ways in which listeners can engage with the same piece of music, works just as well to describe the possibilities opened up by other forms of cultural design:
What is key for me about creating this sort of emotional and sonic architecture is the possibility of listeners having simultaneous but radically different experiences. Picture a relatively famous church somewhere in Northern Europe: you’ll find tourists there, ticking it off a long list of important sites, being vaguely underwhelmed by the frescoes. You’ll have a local worshipper, lighting a candle for a long deceased relative, you’ll have a verger going about his weekly maintenance, you’ll have a couple whose lifelong fantasy was to see this space in the springtime, you’ll have a Dutch art historian with a spooky and potentially kinky relationship with 16th-century depictions of the Annunciation. The building’s architecture allows each of these simultaneous experiences, and no one of them is more ‘correct’ or well informed or meaningful than the others. With music, I want each listener to feel an intensity inside the music, and I only want to provide a few suggestions about where to look for it.
Agency is always underdetermined by architecture. If designers have the ambition of dictating responses to their work, it will produce unintended consequences as people evade and retreat from their diktats. My hunch is that the underlying logic of the structure and agency question is sound but it needs to be adapted for participatory cultural forms such as these.