My notes on Woodcock, J. (2018). Digital labour in the university: understanding the transformations of academic work in the UK. TripleC, 16(1), 129-142.

This important paper by Jamie Woodcock sees to rectify the lack of application of ways of analysing work to the work conducted within the university. His main focus is on the introduction of new management techniques and the introduction of digital technologies, exploring the entanglement between the two. This requires taking the role of information in Labour seriously, acknowledging it predates contemporary digital technologies, as can be seen for instance in Taylorism. If we recognise how information is used for control and production, it becomes easier to see how the emancipatory potential apparently found in digital technology actually gives rise to its opposite:

New technologies have reduced paperwork and increased the pace of tasks, in effect augmenting the labour process by automating parts of it, and there have been increasing applications of technology for supervision and control. For example, Bain et al. (2002, 3) previously noted that it is now ‘feasible to attain total knowledge, in “real time”, of how every employee’s time was being deployed, through the application of electronic monitoring equipment.’

Woodcock goes on to consider the two functions universities have served: knowledge production and teaching/training. In the UK these institutions are formally at a distance from the state yet dependent on state funding, as well as increasingly under pressure to collaborate with the private sector. We must understand the imperative for “control over and improving the effectiveness of academic labor” against this background. Academic work lacks the measurability on which information-led control depends but this is a problem which digital technology can solve, “creating more opportunities for the generation, capture, and analysis of data” and allowing the kids of ‘quantified control’ described by Roger Burrows et al.

This is most apparent in citations leading to a situation in which it is “not enough to simply produce an academic output – for example, a journal article – but that output itself has to be measured along a variety of metrics: the quality of the journal in which it was published, the number of times it has been cited (in where the citing paper was published), and so on”. But the rankings produced through such a process extend beyond matters of ‘outputs’. These metrics function in place of the “dictatorial and electronically enabled forms of control and surveillance” which can be found in other work places, with the “creative dimensions of academic work (the need to produce new and meaningful ideas, or to provide up to date and relevant teaching), along with the classic problem of the indeterminacy of labour” making these more direct forms of control unfeasible.

Social media is changing the orientation academics have to their ‘outputs’/, as it promises to be a vehicle for attaining the wider audience (outside of the discipline and/or outside of the university) which has often been an ambition of academic authors. But in doing so, it leaves them bound into an increasingly well understood attention economy. Digital technologies more broadly are coming to mediate between students and teachers, from the intensified communication which e-mail engenders through to the pressure to create supplementary learning materials to share online and the implications which lecture capture has for face-to-face interaction with students. Finally the instruments used by academics are changing. As Woodcock describes it, “The historical image of the academic working in dusty offices or libraries is increasingly giving way to that of a person typing away on a laptop, whether at home, an office (possibly shared), or a coffee shop with wifi.” He suggests this is giving rise to a platform university:

One of the interesting dynamics that this introduces, as opposed to the analogue resources of the physical library, is a physical decoupling of the instruments of academic work from a geography of the university. In this sense, the university becomes more like a platform – allowing access to institutional subscriptions, email accounts, and other online resources, that do not require a worker to physically be present within the university itself.

What’s important to grasp is the ambivalent character of these tools, how the “relative freedom of being able to use digital tools to engage with teaching, research, and administration to engage with the university from wherever” also goes hand-in-hand with the “the possibility of greater precarisation and outsourcing via a platform mode of organisation”. He includes a useful table discussing the impact of digitalisation on different aspects of academic work:

He suggests Operaismo provides useful resources for making sense of how we can resist these changes, relying on the distinction between technical composition (“the labour process, the application of technology, management strategies, and the conditions of the reproduction of labour power”) and class composition (“the practices, traditions, and forms of struggle, something that is itself continually in a process of re-composition”). He cites Roggero’s notion of ‘blockages’ created by the pressures attendant upon the technical composition. This is a similar argument to the one Filip Vostal and I have tried to make about acceleration and the difficulties it creates for collective action. Their result is that “sustained struggle within the university has become limited, giving the impression that not much is currently happening on the terrain of workplace struggle”.

He suggests that workers inquiry can provide a response to this, observing that rather “than watching the new digital tools being used to further the precariousness and alienation of academic work, they can be adapted and modified to fit a project for a very different kind of university”. Collaborative inquiry into shared conditions can provides a means to better understand their contours, suggest new ideas and experiment with new forms of organisation. I wasn’t entirely sure whether he’s suggesting this as a method of inquiry with precarious workers outside the university, other workers within the university, entirely by academics or all three. But it’s an exciting idea nonetheless.

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

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?

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.