I’ve picked up a Slavoj Žižek book for the first time in a while and found the characteristics which led me to take a break from his writing have only grown over time. He links Me Too to victimhood early in Like A Thief In Broad Daylight: Power in the Era of Post-Humanity. From pg 6:

As in every revolutionary upheaval, there will be numerous ‘injustices’, ironies, and so on. (For example, I doubt that the American comedian Louis CK’s acts, deplorable and lewd as they are, could be put on the same level as direct sexual violence.) But, again, none of this should distract us; rather, we should focus on the problems that lie ahead. Although some countries are already experiencing a new post-patriarchal sexual culture (look at Iceland, where two thirds of children are born out of a wedlock, and where women occupy more posts in public institutions than men), one of the most urgent tasks is to explore what we are gaining and losing in the upheaval of traditional courtship procedures. New rules will have to be established in order to avoid a sterile culture of fear and uncertainty –plus, of course, we must make sure that this awakening does not turn into just another case where political legitimization is based on the subject’s victimhood status.

He reads victimhood in terms of the “weird combination of the free subject who experiences himself as being ultimately responsible for his fate, and the subject who grounds the authority of his speech on his status as a victim of circumstances beyond his control” (pg 6). It reflects an “extreme narcissistic perspective in which every encounter with the Other appears as a potential threat to the subject’s precarious imaginary balance; as such, it is not the opposite of, but rather the inherent supplement to, the liberal free subject” (pg 7). I don’t think there’s anything inherently rightward about exploring this thesis, though it being offered as the truth of any social movement or cultural moment is self-evidently absurd.

If we read him charitably though it is clear this is not what he is doing, rather his point is one of collective agency. How do we ensure a “post-patriarchal sexual culture’ can be built? Will trading narratives of victimisation contribute to this project or make it more difficult? But even this most charitable reading seems spectacularly tone deaf, as does his need to qualify the status of Louis CK’s acts. It’s difficult not to perceive a slide here, as a contrarian objection to ‘political correctness’ (something which he clearly misreads to begin with, failing to recognise the profoundly agentive character of it: far from being a diffuse culture of self-censorship, it begins with people making demands) leads to something darker. It’s a more thought provoking read than I expected but there a distinctly alt-light (not alt-right) themes prominent amongst the familiar features of a Žižek text. It remains to be seen where he is going in the longer term.

This observation from loc 785 of The Left Hemisphere: Mapping Contemporary Theory by Razmig Keucheyan caught my eye. His concern is with the intellectual implications of a generation’s dominance within critical thought:

The new critical theories have not been developed by ‘new’ theorists, if by that is meant biologically young intellectuals. There are, of course, young authors producing innovative critical thinking today, but the critical thinkers recognized in the public sphere are in most cases over 60 years of age and often over 70. The implications of this are not insignificant. However ‘contemporary’, these authors’ analyses are mainly the fruit of political experiences belonging to a previous political cycle –that of the 1960s and 70s.

But what about these young authors and their innovative critical thinking? How is its reception influenced by the prominence of these towering figures in their 60s and 70s? It seems obvious to me there are Matthew effects at work here, with it being easier for the already visible to accumulate visibility for their work. Furthermore, the crisis in monographs means that established intellectual brands are immensely appealing to publishers.

It would be a crass overstatement to accuse ageing critical theorists of squeezing out the younger generation through their frantic rate of publication, something which younger scholars are unable to match for all sorts of reasons. But rejecting this argument as a form of intellectual populism shouldn’t lead us to retreat from the underlying observation. There is a dynamic here which is of great significance for the character and influence of critical thought today.

November 29th and 30th
Faculty of Education, University of Cambridge

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.

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.

It links with preceding events in Accelerated Academy, an international interdisciplinary network assembled to develop new approaches to the analysis of higher education around critical interrogation of the concept of ‘acceleration’. The first event (Prague, December 2015) focused on metricisation and power in the academy; the second, smaller symposium (Warwick, September 2016), was dedicated to theories and experiences of anxiety and work in relation to acceleration; the third (Leiden, December 2016) to the politics and sociology of evaluation in universities; the fourth (Prague, May 2018) explored academic timescapes and the challenges posed by their complexity; the fifth (Cambridge, June 2018) reflected on the role of agency in the transformation of the academy.

This conference engages with and responds to the growing interest in scholarship on trans- and post-humanism, and its impact on understanding change in the context of knowledge production. It also has wider theoretical significance, as the intellectual dichotomy of the human and non-human is confronted in any attempt to understand socio-technical changes unfolding in digital(ised) capitalism. In this sense, we aim to address broader questions of social ontology and explanatory methodology posed by the imbrication of the social and the technical, and, not less importantly, the questions this raises for conceptualising agency and resistance in the ‘accelerated’ academy.

We invite contributions for 30 minute talks which speak to any of these themes. If you would like to submit a proposal then please contact mac228@cam.ac.uk with a 500 word abstract and short biographical note by 10th October.

There will be no charge to attend the conference. If you would like to attend as a non-speaker then please e-mail the address above to be added to the list. 

There’s a fascinating and honest account in Daniel Drezner’s The Ideas Industry, reflecting on his own growing celebrity and the lethal challenges which have come with it. This is something I’ve often wondered about, particularly in relation to how widely one reads and the circle of people one engages with. From pg 247:

Furthermore, there have been times when my own critical faculties have been blunted a bit. I still critique other foreign affairs pundits, but perhaps not quite as much as before. This might be due to my growing appreciation for how hard it is to craft interesting, original arguments on a regular basis. But it might be due to a simple human failing; it is harder to publicly criticize writers whom one knows. 50 And the more successful one is as an intellectual, the more people one meets. As my career has progressed, I have experienced the benefits of greater intellectual success, and the effects frankly scare the hell out of me. My intellectual style has evolved, and not always in a good way. With success has come confidence, and a large dollop of arrogance. I have said “yes” to writing assignments that, in retrospect, I should have declined because I lacked the time or expertise to do them justice. As I write and speak more, I read less. It has become more difficult to replenish my intellectual capital beyond listening to others speak at conferences. The more international business class flights I take, the more impatient I become with quotidian responsibilities on the ground. As a graduate student, I would get irked when I contacted a senior scholar and failed to get a response. Now I am that senior scholar.

Earlier in the book he considers how scholars might circumvent these challenges, through teams of assistants, as well as how this might contribute to their eventual downfall. The detail which this leaves us pondering about those who are in a meaningful sense celebrities can leave this analysis feeling lurid. But I think it’s a crucial if we want to understand the contemporary reality of knowledge production. It is a crucial mechanism through which Matthew effects occur, as the already prestigious enjoy seemingly countless opportunities to accumulate yet further prestige, while also gaining access to the resources necessary to do this. As he observes on pg 184 these intellectual elites “garner an outsized fraction of opportunities in which superstars are asked to speak and write a lot more than anyone else”. He is surely correct that this creates a pressure to accept but I suspect refusals only have consequences for their status in the case of the most prestigious events, leaving the tendency to overstretch he identifies being inflected through the top rung of the ideas industry. This matters because refusal surely has a relationship to one’s academic prestige, even if it as a complex one. Would the speaker who accepts any invitation be perceived as a member of the intellectual elite even if they regarded themselves as one?

However what’s more interesting is how the intellectual elite respond to their outsized share of opportunities to accumulate further intellectual status. If you are constantly bombarded with invitations to right and speak then how do you handle them? Even assuming many are turned down, it entails a time pressure as what are traditionally seen as dissemination activities take over ever increasing swathes of working life. If much of your life is spent disseminating your analysis them how do you develop this and ensure it stays current? One possibility is to simply pretend that nothing has changed, producing work in the familiar way without recognition of the fundamental change in the conditions of that work, as well as the implications of these changes for its quality:

If the intellectual continues past practices, then he or she will inevitably become overworked from mounting obligations. In this situation, the superstar continues to write and research everything as if nothing has changed. The increased demand, however, can cause the intellectual to self-plagiarize or slack off as a survival tactic. Ferguson has admitted to this in interviews, telling the Washington Monthly that his books on empire could be described as “edutainment at best.” He told me, “I think overstretch is good.”

For many people the overstretch will feel obviously unsustainable though, creating a pressure to do things differently at precisely the time when the options available seem wider than ever. Drezner offers a powerful description on pg 186 of the peculiarly hierarchical form of collaboration this is likely to give rise to, as well as citing examples of superstar intellectuals and the teams they have working for them:

The other outcome is that a solitary intellectual becomes a brand manager with subordinates. To be sure, professors, think tank fellows, and management consultants frequently rely on research assistants. Nevertheless, a brand-name intellectual can require a staff—and most people who are good at being intellectuals are lousy at managing subordinates. It becomes all too easy for a superstar to outsource research to assistants. To run his show and to write his column, for example, Zakaria has a staff of eight people—and he takes great pride in doing most of the research for his column himself. 53 Ferguson hired a full-time researcher, as well as a “cottage industry” of bright undergraduates, to assist him with his research. Comparable superstars can choose to delegate research and writing tasks to coauthors or research assistants.

However this merely postpones the problem for these teams need management and the research assistants need direction. He offers a compelling account of how these managerial challenges are likely to lead to further overstretch, with standards slipping as research becomes an endeavour split between subordinates liable to be managed at a distance. The risks involved in this might be the eventual reason or the downfall of the intellectual, as their celebrity brand collapsed into scandal. As goes on to describe it on pg 186:

Outsourcing research and writing tasks is a natural shortcut for intellectual superstars to meet the Ideas Industry’s demands. But such delegation increases the probability of errors seeping into published work. If small shortcuts or errors are not caught the first time a writer uses them, they become crutches that pave the way for bigger shortcuts, which then become cheats. It is rare for a public intellectual or a thought leader to willfully commit plagiarism or fraud. But there have been enough intellectual scandals in this century for a familiar narrative to emerge: a confusion of notes, or a miscommunication between assistants and writers. 54 Corners are not cut, but perhaps they are rounded.

For a thought-leader this might prove unproblematic, as someone like Ferguson has found a freedom in his move from the academic world to think tanks, embracing polemic in a way that allows him to bluster through the exposure of mistakes and fallacies. Whereas for intellectuals it is liable to prove more costly, as the exposure of failings which have crept in as a consequence of the intensity of work which their status now demands can pose an existential threat to that very status, with the worst possibility in the world being that people would no longer take them seriously.

What is it like to be an celebrity intellectual? I thought this was an admirably honest answer by Yuval Noah Harari to the question of how fame has changed his life. It seems obvious he would be far from alone in this experience, suggesting we could reflect on it as symptomatic of knowledge production by celebrity intellectuals rather than solely a biographical fact about an individual author. It is an important feature of knowledge production that acquiring a large audience often involves losing time to undertake research:

Well I have much less time. I find myself travelling around the world and going to conferences and giving interviews, basically repeating what I think I already know, and having less and less time to research new stuff. Just a few years ago I was an anonymous professor of history specialising in medieval history and my audience was about five people around the world who read my articles. So it’s quite shocking to be now in a position that I write something and there is a potential of millions of people will read it. Overall I’m happy with what’s happened. You don’t want to just speak up, you also want to be heard. It’s a privilege that I now have such an audience.

I found it striking when reading Harari’s work how much of it depended on existing popular(ish) summaries of research combined with an esoteric selection of direct citations to the research literatures he is a specialist in. Observing this isn’t a critique of Harari, as much as an attempt to underscore how this citational thinness is necessary if you intend to write at this level of generality. How on earth could you write avowedly comprehensive books “about the long-term past of humankind and the long-term future” without engaging with existing literature in this way?

If your instinct is to encourage these broad conversations, as mine is, what matters is how these trade offs are negotiated and the implications this has for the work in question. It becomes more tricky when we consider how these broad treatments are better placed than specialised texts to capture the attention of a wide audience, with implications for how status is accrued by their authors. Those who do this well find themselves catapulted into a global strata of jet setting celebrity intellectuals with less time to spend on the inevitably thin research which went into addressing such vast topics in the first place. This might be mitigated by the availability of teams of research assistants to be accessed through your newfound wealth but they require intellectual leadership and doing this across such broad topics brings you right back to the original problem.

So what do you do? There’s an argument to be made for riffing impressionistically on what you read on your flights and see as you travel the globe, interspersing new material with established favourites. One variant on this is to produce your new material “in conversation with the public” with topics “decided largely by the kinds of questions I was asked in interviews and public appearances”. This ensures a dialogue with your fans but risks a filter bubble, as your interests are shaped by their interests which were in turn shaped by your original books. There are many other potential tactics but the underlying problem is an intractable one, as the intellectual thinness of the celebrity intellectual becomes ever more so as their fame accumulates, until their main function is to provide a target for a new generation of upwardly mobile global thinkers to practice supplanting their by now empirically anaemic elders.

The Idealist by Nina Monk, cited by Daniel Drezner in the Ideas Industry, presents a vivid account of the frantic pace at which the economist Jeffery Sachs has tended to work. This intensified work, fitting as much action as possible into each day, will appear to his detractors as a desperate lust for influence. His fans might accept his protestation that “If you haven’t noticed, people are dying – it’s an emergency” as he told Monk. But what each would be responding to is the quantity of his activity:

Day after day, without pausing for air, it seemed, Sachs was making one speech after another, as many as three in one day. At the same time he lobbied heads of state, testified before Congress, held press conferences, attended symposiums, advised government officials and legislators, participated in panel discussions, gave interviews, published papers in academic journals, wrote opinion pieces for newspapers and magazines, and sought out anyone, anyone at all, who might help him spread the word. The only time he seemed to slow down was when he was sleeping, never more than four or five hours a night.

For anyone interested in Sachs, this is a fascinating book looking at his politics throughout his career, speculating about how his early failures as the architect of neoliberal shock therapy might have motivated his later turn to developmental economics. What interests me here however is what his life says about the possibilities of academic labour. He was tenured at the age of 28, published hundreds of journal articles and has been cited 118,231 times. He has published 9 books, a number of which were New York Times best sellers. He has raised tens of millions of dollars of research funding, as well as hundreds of millions in funding for projects based on his research. He writes endless op-eds in high profile publications and has 257,00 Twitter followers.

He is the limit condition for what Liz Morrish calls The Trump Academic, anchoring the horizon of possibilities an upwardly mobile aspiring thought leader (or what Linsey McGoey calls a TED Head) confronts at the start of their academic career. The co-ordinates of what Drezner calls the marketplace of ideas and the possibilities for academics to participate are expressed in the trajectory of Sachs, as well as the trail he has left behind him. What sort of scaffolding is necessary to enable this pace of activity? How much of the funding he receives goes on keeping the Sachs show on the road? When does he have time to think? He is the counter-point to the familiar stress of those running through the academic year in order to carve out time to think over the summer without interruption.

I confess a prurient fascination with the working routines of people like Sachs because they seem to repudiate the notion that thought requires withdrawal from the world, even if we can make the argument that the single-minded devotion of Sachs to his cause at any moment suggests there is at least a certain kind of thought he rarely engages in. But if he is the apotheosis of a worldly scholarship, always on the move and always seeking ways to implement his ideas, it surely cautions us against an uncritical embrace of such an orientation towards the scholarly vocation.

Now that I’ve recovered from last week, it seemed the right moment to do a round up of the live blogging project Pat Thomson and myself initiated at The Sociological Review’s Undisciplining conference. There were 43 posts from 13 live bloggers over four days. This is a pretty substantial outpouring of thought and reflection over a relatively short period of time:

  1. #Undisciplining Day Zero: Preparing From The Cat Cafe – Mark Carrigan
  2. Live From Breakfast – Pat Thomson
  3. The Hive Begins To Form at #Undisciplining – Mark Carrigan
  4. Landing – Kate Carruthers Thomas
  5. What does it mean to reflect in real time? – Mark Carrigan
  6. Trying to Say Something Clever – Michael Toze
  7. the person/al and the structural? – Pat Thomson
  8. un-mining, (under-mining?) disciplinarity – Anna Davidson
  9. I am NOT a sociologist, get me out of here! – Julia Molinari
  10. sociology of art as a powerful way to reveal the social – Janna Klostermann
  11. making a sociological board game – Pat Thomson
  12. Being alone at conferences – Mark Carrigan
  13. Structure and Undisciplining – Catherine Price
  14. Questions from the geographical edges – Rosemary Hancock
  15. The Missing Links – interdisciplinary in sociological inquiry – Donna Carmichael
  16. A sociological walk of contrasts – Julia Molinari
  17. The Future versus Bureaucracy – Michael Toze
  18. Live blogging and the cinema experience – Catherine Price
  19. Time to Write – Kate Carruthers Thomas
  20. The dreaded conference dinner – Julia Molinari
  21. When a conference has a meta-conference – Mark Carrigan
  22. Care and the conference – Michaela Benson
  23. Echoes from Beyond the Edges of #Undisciplining – Jill Jameson
  24. Conference as home – Pat Thomson
  25. Beyoncé Vs Bev Skeggs – Donna Carmichael
  26. Knowledge production outside the university at #undisciplining – Mark Carrigan
  27. Why should anyone get paid to do sociology? – Mark Carrigan
  28. The feminist walk of the city – Catherine Price
  29. Making friends and changing the world – Rosemary Hancock
  30. The Rising Emotions of Asking the Panel A Question – Julia Molinari
  31. Too Too – Pat Thomson
  32. Not Knowing Why We Do What We Do – Michael Toze
  33. Time Out – Pat Thomson
  34. Outside/In Place – Kate Carruthers Thomas
  35. Undisciplining like a moth to a flame – Janna Klostermann
  36. Re-Sounding Edges: #Undisciplining – Jill Jameson
  37. A Fireside Chat: Defending the Social – Julia Molinari
  38. How does the sociological speak to/with/from the earth? – Anna Davidson
  39. Going Live? – Katy Vigurs
  40. Art! – Janna Klostermann
  41. Beyond the conference – Michael Toze
  42. Reflections on Live Blogging – Catherine Price
  43. Ending Where I Began #Undisciplining – Mark Carrigan

To what extent does this constitute a meta-conference? It was an organised process of asynchronous dialogue with a remit as wide as the conference itself, with the choice of topics being left to live bloggers as they made their way through the conference. To the extent live bloggers were reading each other and in some cases responding to each other, either directly in a substantive way or indirectly through riffing off themes such as awkwardness or isolation, it is clear the above is more than the sum of its parts.

It wasn’t simply individuals responding individually, with the live blog being an aggregate of these individual responses. It wasn’t a collective either but rather something in between the two. What is this in between and what can it tell us about conference sociality and how it can be extended and deepened using social media?

I’ve edited the final two paragraphs of this post for clarity because an awful lot of people read it and thought I was criticising quote tweeting rather than one particular use of it. 

Imagine you were sitting in a cafe having a conversation with a friend. You greeted each other warmly when they arrived, you ordered coffees and sat down to catch up. But something immediately began to feel a little off. Your friend appeared distracted, not quite there and continually looking at their phone. Worse than that, every time they said something to you they began frantically typing on the device. When you eventually questioned their distraction, the friend calmly explained to you that they are perfectly engaged in the conversation but they are transcribing it via e-mail for hundreds of people, many of whom you don’t know.

What would you think if this happened? Now imagine this was not a friend but a perfect stranger. Imagine you’d been having a conversation with someone you know, this stranger had overheard it and immediately sat next to you and inserted themselves into the dialogue. If this took place at an event designed to encourage mingling between people who don’t know each other then this might seem overly forward but not out of the ordinary. The problem would be the lack of introduction, their immediately jumping into the conversation, rather than that you didn’t know them.

But imagine they began transcribing the conversation via e-mail for an unknown audience. What would be irritating in the case of the person you know and like becomes unnerving and off-putting in the case of the stranger. This is what I suggest quote tweeting as a form of reply amounts to and I’m bewildered by people who do it.

For avoidance of doubt: I’m talking about people who consistently use quote tweets in lieu of the reply function, broadcasting their conversation to every single one of their followers. This isn’t an attack on quote tweeting but rather a query as to why some people persistently choose to use it rather than using the familiar reply functionality which has been part of the platform for a long time. Replies are only seen by people who follow both of you whereas quote tweets are seen by everyone follows you. It therefore increases the visibility of the exchange to the maximum possible extent, regardless of the context or intentions of the conversational partner. 

I find it unsettling to be on the receiving end of this behaviour and this short post is an attempt to think through and explain why it feels problematic to me. I find myself increasingly suspicious of people who persistently do this and in some instances, it strikes me as a red flag for some really unpleasant habits which can be found far too readily within the academic Twittersphere. 

What does it mean to write? For a long time, it carried a sense of total immersion for me, letting the world recede in order to lose yourself in the production of a text. This is ‘binge writing’ and it was my standard mode for the six years I spent doing a part-time PhD. I wrote my first paper in a weekend. I wrote my first chapter in a couple of days. I wrote a disturbingly large amount of the thesis in the final few months. Without preparation, it is not possible to write like this. The thoughts have to germinate, ideas have to take shape before words can flow in this way. Binge writing entails a form of life, incorporating an orientation to continuous thinking as well as extended periods of time for writing intensively. It is demanding on a number of levels and it is something I have found decreasingly possible since then.

My experience of succesful binge writing suggests it is not simply a matter of making the time available. There is a degree of unpredictability because inspiration and writing time have to coincide. If you can get this to work, writing can be the most immersive and engaging activity in the world. It is certainly the purest experience of flow states I have ever known. There’s an extract from Neitzche’s Ecce Homo which has always captured this experience for me:

The notion of revelation – in the sense that suddenly, with ineffable assuredness and subtlety, something becomes visible, audible, something that shakes you to the core and bowls you over – provides a simple description of the facts of the matter. You hear, you don’t search; you take, you don’t ask who is giving; like a flash of lightening a thought flares up, with necessity, with no hesitation as to its form – I never had any choice.

– Friedrich Nietzsche, Ecce Homo, Pg 68 (Duncan Large translation)

Under these conditions, it is as if writing works through you. I’ve sometimes written as much as 4000 words in a day like this, often good words requiring minimal editing. It is physically and mentally draining but at no point do I find myself grasping for words. They flow until they do not anymore. Then I feel satisfied in the awareness that the idea which had welled up within me have been expressed onto the page and I move on from  them.

This is slow scholarship, even if the act of writing is intensified. It rests on synchronising your creative rhythms and your working routines, requiring a great deal of flexibility for it to operate. It isn’t simply a matter of autonomy because it necessitates being free from the constraints of your own choices, able to set aside time for intensive writing even when you have (freely) committed yourself to other things. It is something which I haven’t been able to do since my PhD. Even in the last year of my PhD, I could only do it out of necessity. In fact, I’ve been struggling to move away from this mode of writing since spending a year working full time at the LSE half way through my PhD. Other demands mean writing has to become more extensive, flowing beyond neatly defined periods of immersion into the gaps that inevitably spring up throughout one’s week.

It is so easy to fall into simplistic dichotomies concerning a matter as intensely personal and emotionally charged as writing. Binge writing versus writing routines is one of them. It is a distinction which fails to capture the difference which matters, reducing a rich spectrum of ways in which thought and writing knit together into brute differences of scheduling. But fast and slow scholarship is another, as I’ve written about on numerous occasions. I find myself increasingly bothered by the idea that fast writing is inevitably hasty writing, as propounded by the Slow Scholarship Manifesto amongst others. It isolates the act of writing from the life of which it is part, lending a singular quality to an act which is an expression of a mode of being in the world. Fast writing can be hasty writing, much as slow writing can be tedious writing. But the relationship is not a necessary one.

These dichotomies often confuse preparation, process and outputs. What is often seen as extremely fast writing (e.g. producing multiple blogs posts in an afternoon) can in fact be slow scholarship. If we dispense with the assumption of writing as teleological, orientated towards producing texts which ought to persevere and be preserved, it becomes easier to see writing as something iterative. When we write, we struggle to put things into words. Through that struggle we gain greater clarity concerning what we are trying to say. The act of writing is the crucial point in a much broader process of making sense of the world (or at least some particular aspects of it). On this view, slow writing is a recipe for a failure of intellectual development. Rather than being a reliable route towards profundity, it risks leaving one mired in intellectual immaturity because it denies a crucial mechanism through which we develop our thinking and elaborate our understanding. What happens to a thought when you put it on hold? When you suspend it and categorise it? When it goes from something which grips you in the moment, as if it were a force taking hold of you from outside? My experience has been that these moments give rise to the most profound feelings of creativity, lifting one out of the mundane realities of daily life and into the making of something. Whereas foreclosing that moment of inspiration by noting it down on a ‘to do’ list is just depressing.

My argument is not that temporalities of writing aren’t significant but rather that fast and slow fail to capture what is at stake in them. It’s something I’ve been thinking about a lot recently, as I’ve realised that my writing is more yet less successful than ever. I write everyday, easily meeting a 500 word goal across my blog and book projects. It has become a reflex, something I can sit down and do with little effort. But it is sometimes too easy and I no longer struggle with ideas, as much as merely express them. The automatic quality of my daily writing has begun to undermine the reflexivity of my writing practice. I can so quickly and easily meet my quota that I don’t sit with ideas as I write them, relying on reading and thinking outside the writing window to ensure they have fermented in the way I hope. They often have.

But the ease with which I tend to meet this target creates other problems, as it easily lends itself to the mentality of hitting the target on days when it would be a challenge to write immersively or expensively. It sometimes leaves me picking at low hanging fruit rather than pursuing a topic or theme because it grips me on a particular day. It often leaves me stopping at 500 words so I can move onto other things. This is when the fastness of the writing begins to undermine the slowness of the scholarship The problem is compounded by the impulse to slot writing into random windows in my life, ‘doing my 500 words’ on trains and planes, in hotel rooms and sitting on park benches. In building it into the fabric of my life, making it an unquestioned part of my daily existence, I’ve managed to devalue it. It is everywhere yet nowhere. Crucial yet never prioritised.

In the last month, I’ve been thinking a lot about how I can change this, building on the work I’ve done but opening it out so writing has a more respected place in my life. What initially prompted this was the difficulty in finishing things i.e. drawing the strands together and editing them into finished pieces. But I’m realising the problem is broader than this and it’s proving an interesting issue to reflect on.

It occurs to me when confronted with this that there are ever more contexts in which contemporary capitalism undermines the ability to plan ahead. This is striking because much of financialised capitalism is predicated on ensuring the calculability of the future through instruments like futures and securities which lock in certain expectations of future outcomes (and cause chaos when those outcomes can no longer be ensured, as happened in 07/08 when trust evaporated in the face of obviously untenable securities). If we accept the classical Weberian thesis about capitalism, its emergence was dependent upon an orientation which saw present actions as leading to future outcomes. But what happens when this relation to the future is broken? For those on zero hours contracts, each week becomes a unit unto itself, disconnected from the past and the future. For those on fixed term contracts, it will be a matter of years rather than weeks but it remains episodic. As consumers, flexibility about when we act is induced through apparent discounts against stagnant wages and declining purchasing power. Until we can’t even preserve predictably by paying more.

In the last few years, I’ve fallen into the habit of using the term chronopolitics without properly defining what I mean by it. But the sketchy thoughts above are at the nub of my concern. For instance the strategic planning of the rail company concerning their ‘operational complications’ curtails the strategic planning of their travellers. Or to give another example which often comes to my mind during the slow/fast scholarship debate, the desire of a senior professor to avoid spending their time on tedious paperwork leaves a junior colleague or a clerical assistant spending their time on a task. Power can operate through temporality, in the mundane sense of imposed tasks having temporal extension but also in the more subtle sense of imposing one party’s temporal horizon to the exclusion of the other’s. The exercise of temporal power is a powerful means through which existing social arrangements can be locked in (what we might call temporal hegemony) but it capitalism relies upon temporality for its own legitimation then this lock in might ultimately undercut itself and provide the conditions within which its demise could be fermented. However it might also simply lead to ever busier and more distracted people, dimly aware something is fundamentally wrong but too occupied by the intensity of their own lives to have the capacity to act on it.

In the last few days, I’ve spent a lot of time reflecting on a remark Susan Halford made at this event about the difference between expertise and discipline. If I understand her correctly, her point was that capacities for knowing and acting in the world (expertise) can have their reproduction organised socially in different ways (discipline) and this is crucial for understanding how knowledge production responds to novel developments. In some cases, discipline might support expertise but in other cases it might hinder it. In either case, expertise is dependent upon it because it requires a social organisation through which existing knowledge is codified, new knowledge incorporated and knowledge practitioners trained. This means that we can’t ever have ‘pure expertise’ as a response to novelty because experts are embedded, even if loosely or unorthodoxly, within disciplines. This is the problem Susan identifies with the politics of discipline generated by big data:

How we define Big Data matters because it shapes our understanding of the expertise that is required to engage with it – to extract the value and deliver the promise. Is this the job for mathematicians and statisticians? Computer scientists? Or ‘domain experts’ – economists, sociologists or geographers – as appropriate to the real-world problems at hand? As the Big Data field forms we see the processes of occupational closure at play: who does this field belong to, who has the expertise, the right to practice? This is of observational interest for those of us who research professions, knowledge and the labour market, as we see how claims to expert knowledge are made by competing disciplines. But it is also of broader interest for those of us concerned with the future of Big Data: the outcome will shape the epistemological foundations of the field. Whether or not it is acknowledged, the disciplinary carve-up of big data will have profound consequences for the questions that are asked, the claims that are made and – ultimately – the value that is derived from this ‘new oil’ in the global economy.

One response to this upheaval is to retreat into disciplinary silos and there’s inevitably a comfort to this. But not only does it cede terrain in a way which might allow narrow forms of expertise to become hegemonic, doubling down on a form of discipline unlikely to survive this transformation of expertise in its current form will inevitably be short sighted. This is how Felicity Callard and Des Fitzgerald describe the shifting plate tectonics of the human sciences in their book on interdisciplinarity:

The more we wander down strange interdisciplinary tracks, the more apparent it becomes to us that being disciplined isn’t playing it safe: the truth is that staying within the narrow epistemological confines of –for example –mid-twentieth-century sociology, while it may produce short-term gains, is not, in fact, the best way to guarantee a career in the twenty-first century (and we mean ‘career’ in its most capacious sense here: we are not using it with the assumption that everyone wants a permanent post at a university, but to express an idea that many would like to find some way to advance their projects, ideas, and so on). The plate tectonics of the human sciences are shifting: we here describe our own forays into one small, circumscribed niche between the social and natural sciences, but expand this horizon to epigenetics, to the emergence of the human microbiome, to all kinds of translational research in mental health, to ‘big data’ and the devices that append it, to the breakdown of the barrier between creative practices and research, and to a whole host of other collapsing dichotomies, and it becomes apparent that ‘neuro-social science’ is only one local effect of a much broader reverberation.

But there’s also a great deal of creativity in this space. It just means we have to consider projects of expertise alongside projects of discipline, mapping out these issues as neither purely matters of expertise nor purely matters of discipline. This is what I hope we’ll manage to explore in my session at the TSR conference on defending the social. It’s a Fireside Chat with Val Gillies and Ros Edwards, as well as their co-author who couldn’t make it when we recorded the podcast below.

An interesting CfP I’m saving for my future reference

*Imagining Radical Futures: Anthropological Potentialities?*
Princeton Anthropology Graduate Conference
October 5th, 2018
Princeton University

*“The facts, alone, will not save us. Social change requires novel fictions
that reimagine and rework*
*all that is taken for granted about the current structure of society”
(Benjamin 2016)*

Anthropology has traditionally practiced restraint to speak only of what we know by virtue of “being there”. Anthropologists have embraced the limitations of knowledge while demonstrating the power of attention to the specific and the particular, to contest positivism and moralizing normativity. Increasingly, governments and corporations attempt to mobilize anthropological knowledge about social change, geopolitical events, sustainability and resilience as a predictive tool. Yet productive recognition of indeterminacy that anthropological theory and practice evokes opens doors to the imaginary, the hopeful, the potential, and the dreamed. This conference will explore the potential of non-predictive futures in anthropological thought and the methodological complexities of imagining futures from the present. The binary of “dark anthropology” and “anthropology of the good” (Ortner 2016) belies complexities and tensions in anthropological approaches to social change: anthropology can report, embody, employ, and open toward or against utopian ideals. What are the implications of imaginative fictions for interlocutors, ethnographers, and the discipline? What radical possibilities can anthropology’s fundamental questions about difference, relationality, and power open for us as we attempt to engage with futurity?

We seek contributions from graduate students in anthropology whose work contributes to understanding imagined futures and extends the anthropological imagination. How can anthropology treat the imaginary as both a heuristic and a space of futurity? What social role can anthropology play in voicing potential futures otherwise? How can ethnographers engage differently with interlocutors’ imagined futures?

Potential areas of inquiry include, but are not limited to, the following:
– New technologies
– Queering Progress
– Novel Fictions/Anthrofictions
– Nonhuman futures
– Creativity and imagination
– Climate and environment
– Hope at the margins
– Aging
– Temporality of Markets
– Policy

Interested applicants should submit an individual abstract (250-300 words) in addition to brief biographies on or before July 1st to antcon@princeton.edu. Limited travel funds may be available TBD.

*References*
Benjamin, Ruha. “Racial Fictions, Biological Facts: Expanding the
Sociological Imagination through Speculative Methods,” Catalyst:
Feminism, Theory, Technoscience: Vol 2, no. 2 (2016), 1-28.
Ortner, Sherry B. “Dark Anthropology and Its Others: Theory since the
Eighties.” HAU : Journal of Ethnographic Theory: Vol 6, no. 1
(2016): 47–73.

These notes are for the fifth and final week of the CPGJ platform capitalism intensive reading group. One of the themes running through the readings over the five weeks has been the political valence of platforms and its relationship to our analysis of them. My own instinct is that valorising platforms in an a priori way impedes our analysis of them but that an a political framing of platform capitalism is neither possible nor desirable. Rather than being an outright contradiction, I believe this leaves a small space for analysis which I hoped the readings for this week would help open up. The essay by Helen Margetts takes issue with the gloomy interpretations of recent developments with social media, contrasting to the now antiquated sense of excitement with which they were once greeted. As she put it in a lecture in Cambridge I helped organise in November, “social media have had a bad press recently”:

They are held responsible for pollution of the democratic environment through fake news, junk science, computational propaganda and aggressive micro-targeting. In turn, these phenomena have been blamed for the rise of populism, political polarization, far-right extremism and radicalisation, waves of hate against women and minorities, post-truth, the end of representative democracy, fake democracy and ultimately, the death of democracy. It feels like the tirade of relatives of the deceased at the trial of the murderer. It is extraordinary how much of this litany is taken almost as given, the most gloomy prognoses as certain visions of the future.

Her point is not to reassert tech-utopianism but simply to stress that “we know rather little about the relationship between social media and democracy”. After ten years in which the internet has challenged our previous assumptions about democracy, it is imperative that we do not rush to judgement in lieu of understanding how social media have “injected volatility and instability into political systems, bringing a continual cast of unpredictable events”. There is barely a feature of political life that has been untouched by these changes, posing profound questions for our conceptual, empirical and normative understanding of democracy. But as much as these platforms generate transactional data which could in principle help us to understand these changes, in reality “Most of this data is proprietary and inaccessible to researchers –  the revolution in big data and data science has passed by democracy research”.

Her essay responds to this epistemic void by laying out a concise thought systematic account of what we _do_ know about social media and its relationship to politics. The positive part of this account rests on the value of what she terms “tiny acts” such as “Following, liking, tweeting, retweeting, sharing text or images relating to a political issue or signing up to a digital campaign” which have no equivalent prior to social media and extend “below the bottom rung of the ladder of participation, which stretches from small acts such as signing a petition, through voting, to attending a political meeting, and donating money to a political cause, right up to political violence or armed struggle”. These tiny acts bring new people into politics but the same characteristics which enable political activity to take place outside of organised groups render the ensuing actions unstable and unpredictable. The resulting pattern is akin to that of earthquakes, argues Margetts, with many trivial eruptions and a few enormous ones. These patterns of engagement challenge two democratic features (political identity and institutions) and render politics more unpredictable than ever before. Drawing an analogy with the stages of grief, Margetts identifies Denial, Bargaining, Anger, Depression and Resistance as stages of response to the profound change which has been brought about in democratic politics. This includes the interesting contradiction that ‘clicktavism’ is disdained while social media is also claimed to have massive pathological effects upon organised politics. Which is it? The final stage of acceptance entails the recognition that social media are here to stay and the ensuing difficult work of institutionalising them:

There is an alternative response to the role of social media in politics – to accept that they are part of our democratic system, the political weather, and that political systems must accommodate the change, through a process of institutional catch up. Most social media platforms did not exist 10 years ago, and they have been at the heart of our political systems for far less than that. So it is understandable that political institutions have failed to adjust, and the new institutions of democracy – social media corporations – have proceeded unchecked and unregulated, particularly given the power of the original cyber-utopian dream.


We have been using the terminology of ‘platforms’ through this reading group but have we paid enough attention to the implications of this? A number of the readings we have used make a strong case about the analytical value of the term, identifying it as a mode of organisation with ramifications for capitalism as a whole. But what should we make of the readiness with which companies adopt the terminology to describe their own services. Should this make us suspicious? This is the argument Tarleton Gillespie makes in the politics of platforms. This is a term which, as Gillespie puts it, is “increasingly familiar term in the description of the online services of content intermediaries, both in their self- characterizations and in the broader public discourse of users, the press, and commentators”. Understood as a discursive strategy, it is a crucial part of how these firms “establish a long-term position in a fluctuating economic and cultural terrain”. Gillespie insists we must unpack these strategic considerations, in order to analyse how firms seek “to position themselves both to pursue current and future profits, to strike a regulatory sweet spot between legislative protections that benefit them and obligations that do not, and to lay out a cultural imaginary within which their service makes sense”. To put it crudely: it is part of the self-branding of platforms and this should surely give us pause for thought. Nonetheless, analysing this self-positioning can help us make sense of the how these firms understanding themselves, what they see as their interests and how they intend to develop their businesses over the coming years.

Platform is a structural metaphor akin to ‘network,’ ‘broadcast,’ or ‘channel’ which “depends on a semantic richness that, though it may go unnoticed by the casual listener or even the speaker, gives the term discursive resonance”. Gillespie identifies four senses in which the term platform is used, expressed through fifteen entries in the dictionary: computational (providing an infrastructure), architectural (surfaces upon which people can stand), figurative (a foundation upon which we can build) and political (a body of commitments upon which a party and/or individual seeks election). These sense intermingle, such that “being raised, level, and accessible are ideological features as much as physical ones” conveying certain qualities in the system or entity which is designated as a platform. The computational meaning of platform precedes the current preoccupation with social media. This tracks a shift in the meaning, such that the quality of being a platform is identified “not necessarily because they allow code to be written or run, but because they afford an opportunity to communicate, interact, or sell”. Reflecting on the case of YouTube, Gillespie explains how the increasingly dominant sense of platform uses the discursive force of the trope to politicisation the facilitation of user generated content:

This more conceptual use of ‘platform’ leans on all of the term’s connotations: computational, something to build upon and innovate from; political, a place from which to speak and be heard; figurative, in that the opportunity is an abstract promise as much as a practical one; and architectural, in that YouTube is designed as an open-armed, egalitarian facilitation of expression, not an elitist gatekeeper with normative and technical restrictions. This fits neatly with the long-standing rhetoric about the democratizing potential of the Internet, and with the more recent enthusiasm for user-generated content (UGC), amateur expertise, popular creativity, peer-level social networking, and robust online commentary.

This positions YouTube as “unlike the mainstream broadcasters, film studios, and publishers” and rejecting the “role of gatekeeper, not even curators: they would be mere facilitators, supporters, hosts”. In spite of the prominence of their advertising model, much of the user-generated content cannot be paired with ads because concern of being paired with the wrong content is so widespread while YouTube itself is concerned about accidentally profiting from copyright infringement. YouTube have therefore sought commercial partnerships from the outset, dominating the platform in spite of being a minority of the content to be found on it. This entails a delicate balancing act and the terminology of the platform can help unify what might otherwise be competing accounts of YouTube and its role:

The business of being a cultural intermediary is a complex and fragile one, oriented as it is to at least three constituencies: end users, advertisers, and professional content producers. This is where the discursive work is most vital. Intermediaries like YouTube must present themselves strategically to each of these audiences, carve out a role and a set of expectations that is acceptable to each and also serves their own financial interests, while resolving or at least eliding the contradictions between them.

In the case of YouTube, it allows them to “make a bid to be the new television, convincing media producers to provide their valuable content and advertisers to buy valuable consumer attention, on the back of user-generated content and all its democratic, egalitarian connotations, offered to them as television’s antidote“. 
These discursive strategies have a legal as well as marketing component. As Gillespie observe, “what we call such things, what precedents we see as most analogous, and how we characterize its technical workings drives how we set conditions for it”. Firms seek “a regulatory paradigm that gives them the most leeway to conduct their business, imposes the fewest restrictions on their service provision, protects them from liability for things they hope not to be liable for, and paints them in the best light in terms of the public interest” with self-characterisation being a potent means through which this can be pursued. He deftly illustrates how the terminology of the platform can be used to avoid responsibility by defining themselves as technical companies rather than publishers. This has crucial significance within US law because under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act as “long as you are a neutral distributor of information and are not aware of specific violations, you are not liable for the violations of users”. He draws an important comparison to the regulatory environment which the telephone companies used to be subject to:

For instance, before their deregulation the telephone companies were bound by two obligations: first, they must act as a ‘common carrier,’ agreeing to provide service to the entire public without discrimination. Second, they can avoid liability for the information activities of their users, to the extent that they serve as ‘conduit,’ rather than as producers of content themselves. Both metaphors, common carrier and conduit, make a similar (but not identical) semantic claim as does platform. Both suggest that the role of distributing information is a neutral one, where the function is merely the passage of any and all content without discrimination.

The business model of YouTube doesn’t leave them with the traditional interests of publishers but it does leave them with interests in what they publish. They unavoidably make choices which shape the production, circulation and reception of material accessible through the service and these choices have implications beyond the scope of the service itself. The terminology of platform obfuscates in the face of this responsibility and this is why we must recognises the strategic conduct underpinning it:

A term like ‘platform’ does not drop from the sky, or emerge in some organic, unfettered way from the public discussion. It is drawn from the available cultural vocabulary by stakeholders with specific aims, and carefully massaged so as to have particular resonance for particular audiences inside of particular discourses. These are efforts not only to sell, convince, persuade, protect, triumph, or condemn, but to make claims about what these technologies are and are not, and what should and should not be expected of them. In other words, they represent an attempt to establish the very criteria by which these technologies will be judged, built directly into the terms by which we know them.

If we do this, it becomes easier to recognise the similarities between platform businesses and traditional media, as well as the interest they have in obscuring this commonality. Gillespie’s argument is that the discourse of ‘platform’ actively works against us in trying to analyse their position and how they represent their actions.

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.

We invite papers which address the full range of questions posed by these considerations, including topics such as:

  • The ontology of platforms
  • The epistemology of platforms
  • Methodological challenges in studying platforms
  • The transformation of the social sciences
  • The politics and political economy of platforms
  • Platforms as evaluative infrastructures
  • Platform education and the platform university 

There will be a keynote by Ben Williamson on The expanding data infrastructure of higher education: public-private policy networks and platform plug-ins.

We welcome abstracts of 500 words or less by July 31st 2018, sent to mac228@cam.ac.uk. Please include a brief biographical note, as well as three key words to categorise your submission. We also plan to publish a select set of papers as a special issue or edited book and are in conversation with journal editors and publishers. We hope to have limited travel and accommodation funding available for unfunded PhD students and post-docs but cannot confirm this at present.

In preparation for next week’s Accelerated Academy, I found myself reading the Slow Scholarship Manifesto for the first time in a few years, as well as Heather Mendick’s brilliant critique of it. Taking explicit inspiration from the slow food movement, it calls for ‘slow scholarship’ as a response to ‘hasty scholarship’:

Slow scholarship, is thoughtful, reflective, and the product of rumination – a kind of field testing against other ideas. It is carefully prepared, with fresh ideas, local when possible, and is best enjoyed leisurely, on one’s own or as part of a dialogue around a table with friends, family and colleagues.

The author recognises how career pressure leads to hasty scholarship, encouraging scholars to “send a conference paper off to a journal which may still be half-baked, may only have a spark of originality, may be a slight variation on something they or others have published, may rely on data that is still preliminary”. The author cites their “own experience of taking 17 years from the start of a Ph.D. to the publication of the book which had its origins in the dissertation” to make the case for slow scholarship. It is a plea that others might see the “fruits of slow scholarship”, littered around us but often unrecognised because the academy rewards the quick, robbing the slow of prestige and financial reward.

The Manifesto for Slow Scholarship is explicitly negative about social media, framing it as “brim[ming] over with sometimes idle, sometimes angry, sometimes scurrilous, always hasty, first impressions”. This is a medium through which people inevitably offer “quick responses to a talk they have heard, an article they read, an email they have received” which are “off the cuff, fresh—but not the product of much cogitation, comparison, or contextualisation”. The manifesto calls for ‘slogs’ and ‘sleets’ in response to these pressures. These are “short, thoughtful essays, that have been carefully thought through” posted a few times a year or “carefully crafted sentences, that pack so much into them they can almost be read as a poem, or haiku on their own”. Such a sleet might “capture a complex thought, inspire such thoughts in others, and be worth preserving for posterity”. The impulse here is an almost aggressively traditional one: scholarly value is expressed through the creation of things which are lasting, self-standing and worthy of preservation. The work should be an end in itself, with anything which complicates this ambition or renders it ambiguous being seen as an unwelcome intrusion on the scholarly vocation.

Rather than being a repudiation of neoliberalism within the academy, as Mendick observesslowing down is often framed in terms of being a more efficient and effective scholar. We will do our work better if we slow down. We will be more successful if we slow down. Nonetheless, some are able to feel at home within slow, while others are not, reflecting “where you come from, which university you are at, which contract you are on and what other responsibilities you have”. This matters furthermore because the call to slowness involves a claim to prestige. The slow scholars are working carefully and creatively, in contrast to the hasty scholars who are hurriedly responding to the situational demands placed upon them. To be a slow scholar is an aspirational identity to which many will not have access because the brute realities of causal labour, documented by Mendick in her insightful paper. What might most accurately be seen as struggling is easily recast in the framework of slow scholarship as intellectual and creative failure. The way out of this failure lies in the exercise of temporal agency which is rarely feasible for those on fixed term contracts, concerned as they with successfully securing the next period of employment, let alone those on adjunct contracts who must piece together a working life from an array of desultory fragments.

In this week’s CPGJ platform capitalism reading group, we turn towards education for the first time with a paper by José van Dijck and Thomas Poell looking at the influence of social media platforms on education, particularly within schools. Much of the literature has addressed social media as tools, with varying interpretations offered about how these might harm or hinder teaching and learning. The ubiquity of social media is often cited as a reason to try and integrate their use into the curriculum, with some arguing they could play a crucial role in helping with particular tasks such as information retrieval. Others frame social media as a disruptive force within the classroom, undermining existing routines and creating problems for teachers. Optimists and pessimists are united in their “social media-as-tools approach: social media are considered as technical tools that may either enhance or disrupt learning experiences”. In contrast, van Dijck and Poell insist on framing these as platforms, which are “driven by a complex interplay between technical architectures, business models, and mass user activity” and “introduce new mechanisms in social life”.

This helps broaden the focus of our analysis, away from “student behaviour and teaching practices” towards “the organization of schools and universities and, one might argue, (public) education as such”. Their analysis rests upon two distinct mechanisms: datafication and commodification. In doing so, they draw on work which has explored social mediain terms of a transformation of the landscape within which young people become civic actors, creating a range of possibilities for how education might change. The development of this perspective by van Dijck and Poell involves seeing social media as “more than mere technical facilitators: they are simultaneously technological, economic, and socio-cultural frameworks for managing online social traffic”. The main focus of their paper is upon how ratification and commodification reshape the organisation of education at primary and secondary levels.

  • Datafication is “the tendency to quantify all aspects of social interaction and turn them into code”. This incorporates two aspects: quantification and digitisation. The affordances of digital technology facilitate quantification to an extent that would not otherwise be possible. This can have descriptive and predicative dimensions to it: tracking developments in real time but also producing predictions which feed back into practice. In a sector like education, “emerging digital policy instruments transfer the assessment of didactic and pedagogical values from teachers and classrooms to (commercial) online platforms deploying real-time and predictive analytics techniques”. But datafication will have a similar tendency in others sectors because it circumvents the situational judgement of professionals by creating an analytic apparatus which operates in the background. There might be a degree of variability in how much leeway the professional continues to enjoy (consider for instance the way data can be used to enhance the performance of elites) but the broader trend is towards the diminution of agential prerogative.In the educational context, mechanisms of datafication includes data trackers and dashboards, facilitating personalisation of a sort similar to that found in content-streaming platforms like Netflix. As they write of AltSchool, it “favors technology over teachers; online personalized learning takes over classroom instruction; and the primacy of predictive analytics downgrades teachers’ professional judgment”. Digitalising a process, rendering it data and quantitative, imposes epistemic constraints on the ensuing knowledge, creating a bias towards the immediate and the atomistic. The specificity of educational is eviscerated by a generic architecture of likes and upvotes.
  • Commodification involves the “monetization of online social traffic through business models and governance structures” and is closely connected to datification. A limited number of business models all revolve around how data can be used to generate profit, incentivising continual expansion of datafication and economies of scale giving rise to fewer and larger data actors. It is hoped that was is datafied can be commodified.Data-driven commodification facilitates the unbundling of education. As the authors write, “[t]he conventional business model reflects the ideology of higher education as a curriculum-based, comprehensive experience that offers an education at a price that includes not only lectures or course content but certification, advising, tutoring, and testing”. The market for educational data, coupled with the near-zero marginal costs of digital communications, means that the curriculum can (technically) be delivered purely as content and there is a (financial) motivation for doing so. The potential implications of this educational data have barely been recognised, with the authors plausibly suggesting they might in future replace CVs in the eyes of employers.

Their analysis refuses to separate off education platforms from the wider ecosystem in which they emerge, dominated as it is by the major actors of Facebook, Google, Apple, Amazon and Microsoft. While education platforms might not threat existing institutions in the manner of Uber and taxi firms, Dijck and Poell identify three features which might lead to systemic change:

  1. Principles of social media architecture have primacy over pedagogical principles on educational platforms. When young people are “growing up immersed in the compelling social interaction these platforms offer in terms of connecting, liking, rating and following each other” and free education services (e.g. Google Scholar, Google Docs, Gmail) offered by major players like Google already play a prominent role in young people’s educational lives. This ubiquity is liable to be reinforced by continued growth in use amongst young people and funding shortfalls leaving organisation’s looking to free services which enables costs to be cut. The result is that “corporate platforms such as Google, Facebook, LinkedIn, and Microsoft are able to position themselves strategically, at the gateways of educational infrastructures such as libraries, administrative and communication systems”.
  2. The capacity of education platforms to solve what are perceived as endemic problems of education is widely assumed yet little demonstrated. This reflects the broader influence of ‘solutionism’ (seeing technical fixes to social problems) and the narrative of sustained failures within the education system. These platforms are presented as emerging from off-stage to solve the problem, riding to the rescue of something their own emergence is intimately bound up in the creation of as part of the political economy of late capitalism.
  3. The growth of online educational globally might lead to a cultural shift in the understanding of education as a public good. They suggest we can identify “how education is increasingly defined as a technological challenge developed by tech companies and decreasingly as a service carried out by dedicated teachers and funded by taxes”. The scaleable and free logic of digital education seems enticing against a backdrop of austerity politics and a drive towards the retrenchment of the welfare state.

The second paper analysis the platform as evaluative infrastructure. They are evaluative in the sense of deploying a wide array of ranking mechanisms to establish orders of worth. They are infrastructure because they provide the background conditions which makes interaction possible. An infrastructure consists of “technical artefacts, institutional arrangements, cultural habits and social conventions” (“people, language, numbers, categories, cultures, practices, artefacts but also pipes and hard-wired circuits”) to produce material forms which facilitate exchange over time and space. Power within them operates through protocols (rules and standards governing behaviour within networks) rather than familiar hierarchical forms of influence. Evaluative infrastructure “consists of an ecology of devices that disclose values of actions, events and objects in heterarchically organized systems (such as platforms) through the maintenance of protocol”. Their mechanisms co-ordinate and condition interaction which takes place between distributed parties, with the platform being the means through the platform owner facilitates the interaction and seeks to profit from it. Evaluative infrastructures facilitate platform owners to operate distinctive types of platform organisation. The evaluative infrastructure is what makes platform capitalism possible.

An immense amount of activity takes place on them: “as of 2014 eBay had 165 million active users,3 Uber was hosting over 1 million rides per day, and Airbnb was facilitating 155 million guest stays annually, surpassing the Hilton Worldwide by 22 percent”. The evaluative infrastructure establishes shared orders of worth which makes this interaction meaningful, stabilising expectations and generating trust between parties who do not stand in a prior relation to each other or have much context in common. In doing so, they “relate and recombine people, ideas, and things” through “the invisible infrastructures that coordinate and control platform activities”. Their operation rests on a “an ecology of accounting devices in the form of rankings, lists, classifications, stars and other symbols (‘likes, ‘links’, tags, and other traces left through clicks) which relate buyers, sellers, and objects”. The value creation this gives rise to takes place horizontally across the platform, defying any traditional vertical attempts to organise it by the platform-owner, necessitating a new accounting regime on the part of the platform owners and new concepts for social scientists to analyse their operation. Part of the challenge stems from the capacity of these infrastructures to bring new worlds into being rather than capturing the traces of what is already there.

Community plays a significant role in this, with the eBay founder once saying that “eBay’s success as a company de- pends upon the success of the community”. What I take them to be saying, in slightly different theoretical lingo to the one I’d used, concerns the capacity of platforms to generate relationality within groups. It produces thick relations through the mechanisms designed to counter the fact thin relations are the starting point. In doing so, the interests of the platform are effectively baked into the relational web, as much as it remains possible for its evaluative orientation to run counter to the problem in exceptional cases. Users can resist a platform but they do so in spite of their status as users. Recognising this will be crucial to understanding the lived experience of platform participation, generating thick descriptions of actions within and through infrastructures which “constantly link events, actions, behaviours, decisions (clicks), assessments and other traces left unintentionally and unconsciously (such as speed of typing, time of access, or browser used to access site) all of which are used to build a web of context around objects and subjects”. The power of platform owners operates under these conditions “through its infrastructural design, maintaining standards, imposing what counts and how to count, excluding users, and introducing rules” so as to structure the field of possibilities, rather than guiding actors within it.

Questions for discussion:

  1. What is at stake in whether we define social media as platforms or tools?
  2. What does it mean to say “All platforms are equally defined by a set of mechanisms”?
  3. Where are the agents behind evaluative infrastructures?

In the last couple of years, I’ve found myself returning repeatedly to the idea of platform literacy. By this I mean a capacity to understand how platforms shape the action which takes place through them, sometimes in observable and explicit ways but usually in unobservable and implicit ones. It concerns our own (inter)actions and how this context facilitates or frustrates them, as well as the unseen ways in which it subtly moulds them and the responses of others to them.

This understanding seems increasingly crucial to me because the alternative might otherwise be a diffuse paranoia. As knowledge of data brokerage and data politics expands throughout society, it generates a certainty that we are being manipulated but an unknowability about precisely who is doing the manipulation, how they are doing it and what the effects might be. Platform literacy helps ground this in a concrete understanding of specific processes and their implications for our agency.

Any recommendations for reading on this are much appreciated! Particularly those with a pedagogical focus. I’ll be working my way through the Digital Polarisation Intiative’s work and the Polarisation MOOC in the meantime.

Taking inspiration from Mark Reed’s e-mail signature:

I work two evenings a week, so if this email arrives outside office hours, please do not feel you have to reply until normal working hours.

I’ve added this to my own:

I often work unusual hours as my preferred way of balancing multiple roles. If this e-mail arrives outside of office hours, please do not feel obligated to respond until office hours have resumed.

Any thoughts?