Wednesday, 17 December 2014

The Gleichschaltung of Institutional Statistics and Death in the University

I've been reading a lot of Everett Hughes's work recently. His most significant work is contained in a collection called "The Sociological Eye" (see http://www.amazon.co.uk/Sociological-Eye-Selected-Science-Classics/dp/0878559590/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1418834691&sr=8-1&keywords=sociological+eye). Hughes's principal focus is, I believe, very important: the ecology of institutions and society - very much forming the cornerstone of what is now termed the "Chicago school of sociology" (not to be confused with the Chicago school of economics which of course is practically its opposite!) I brought this up at the SRHE conference in Sue Clegg's keynote on social inequality and the role of education. I asked whether the focus was too much on identifying 'species' in society when we talk about inequality, rather than studying relationships. The question really was first asked by Hughes in the 1930s.

Ecological understanding of society was an interesting subject in the 1930s. Hughes took a particularly keen interest in the rise of Nazism, asking about what it was that distorted the relations between 'good people' which then led them to behave appallingly. Without wanting to be too hyperbolic, I think this is an important question now when we look at the behaviour of managements of all institutions, including universities. Under the "regime of scarcity" that calls itself 'austerity', managements have sacked people in large numbers, putting others under increasing pressure, driving them to extreme levels of anxiety and stress and rising rates of absence (which has consequent effects on everyone else) - mostly in pursuit of statistical proof of the effectiveness of the management, not scholars.

In September, Professor Stephan Grimm from Imperial College, London, was found dead in his home after apparently gassing himself. He had been 'under review' by the college authorities for not bringing in enough funding. In a reported 'posthumous' email, reported in the press (see http://felixonline.co.uk/news/4984/publish-and-perish-professor-sends-posthumous-email-on-how-professors-are-treated-at-imperial/), Grimm commented "What these guys don’t know is that they destroy lives. Well, they certainly destroyed mine [...] This is not a university anymore but a business, with a very few, up in the hierarchy, profiteering, and the rest of us milked for money." Imperial's comment on the 4th December (see http://www3.imperial.ac.uk/newsandeventspggrp/imperialcollege/newssummary/news_4-12-2014-18-0-17) looks like a somewhat desperate exercise in arse-covering.

Something seems to be going wrong with the ecology of our institutions. Much of what Grimm complains is patently true: salaries for senior managers have shot up in recent years, bringing insecurity for everyone else. We're told there's no 'job for life' any more... except for the 'job for life' of the person who tells everyone else that there's no 'job for life'! People's deaths can be the trigger for real revolt: Universities are fundamentally oriented towards truth, and the distortions of management can only be a temporary pathology before there's some corrective mechanism that kicks in. How much will it take?

In Nazi Germany, of course, it took a lot. Hughes's question is fundamentally, How did they get away with it? The statistician, in Hughes's view, provides both a clue and a possible cause. "Gleichschaltung" means "bringing into line", and is the name the Nazis gave to the process of gradually distorting the democratic mechanisms of Germany which gradually gave them absolute power (see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gleichschaltung) The Wikipedia article covers the Nazi moves between 1933 and 1934. Hughes's interest is in the German statistician over this period. He points out that subtle changes resulted in the presentation of the German population having 'religion' but not 'race' in 1932, and by 1935, they had 'race' but not 'religion'. This was a statistical shift accompanied with growing hyperbole in the introduction to the statistical reports extolling the virtues of the regime, and gradually tending to show progress of the ethnic cleansing that was underway (in 1935, a new section detailing figures for "glaubenjuden" people following a 1933 census). Some of it is obscured in the statistician's gaze: Hughes argues "one has to dig the facts out from many tables. In 1910 there were 538,909 people of 'Israelite religion' in the Reich; 564,379 in 1925; 499,682 in 1933"

The Gleichschaltung was a subtle process of renormalising peoples' expectations. I think this is going in education. Where universities engaged in scholarship of various kinds, now they have impact factors, REF scores, citations, H-indices, journal rankings, student satisfaction, subject groupings, retention statistics and workload analysis. Our learning analytics identify different types of "pedagogies" (how are they identified exactly?), indicating their relative effectiveness, but more importantly the relative effectiveness of individual staff. What joy for the statisticians in HESA! Where scholarship was perhaps more akin to 'religion' - a set of practices, or a habit of mind - now it becomes a statistical trait, whose possession you are either blessed or burdened with, but whose possession may have little bearing on one's practices or habits of mind. Indeed, those most effective with their statistical labels will acquire the habits of mind geared towards feeding the statistics, not the business of scholarship. We kid ourselves with a 'mereological fallacy' - the confusion of parts for wholes - if we believe the habits of mind and practice of scholars can be broken-down into the aggregation of statistical metrics.

But this is Gleichschaltung. It is the bringing of the scholars into line. For who? Certainly not for Stephan Grimm, for whom it is tragically too late.

Saturday, 13 December 2014

Queer Education, Powerful Knowledge and the big "YES!": Some thoughts on #SRHE2014

I'm slightly embarrassed to say that the most profound experience I had at the fantastic #SRHE2014 conference was catching a symposium at the very end when all the papers had almost all been delivered and there was a discussion going on. The session was a 'first' for the SRHE on Queer theory and Education recommended to me by Catherine Cronin (Thanks!). The atmosphere in the room was completely different from anything else I had seen in the conference (all of which had been of an exceptionally high level of academic engagement) - indeed different from anything else I have seen in any conference.

Throughout the conference, there'd been quite a lot of talk about about Michael Young's idea of 'powerful knowledge'. Sue Clegg's brilliant keynote (see http://www.srhe.ac.uk/conference2014/downloads/SRHE_Conf_2014_System_diversity_and_inequality.pdf) mentioned Morrow's work on "Epistemic access", and Ray Land talked about "ontological shift" (it was Land's presentation on the relationship between threshold concepts, Perkins's "troublesome knowledge" and ontological shift which really helped me to get to grips with the intellectual territory). All of these are important concepts in determining what it is we might mean by "higher learning" - a question of great significance at a time of market-driven widening participation, educational consumerism, fetishism, etc. Yet I was slightly troubled by Land's presentation of "troublesome knowledge": wasn't this reinforcing the division between the institution and the rest of society? Wasn't it simply feeding back to academics the cosy message that they were the purveyors of the powerful/troublesome knowledge, and their role in that power relation ought to be defended? Land argued that the knowledge existed in communities which traversed institutional structures reaching out into society through other institutions like hospitals, professional bodies, etc. I wasn't entirely convinced. It still seemed that the "powerful knowledge"/"troublesome knowledge" argument was upholding a function of education as the maintainer of what Illich calls the "scarcity of education".

Illich's battle was against what he saw as 'regimes of scarcity' - whether it was in education, health, energy, transport and even gender. I agree. Working for the University of Bolton (and there are many institutions like it), the regime of scarcity of knowledge is always the principle ontological barrier that academics face on a daily basis: the fact that perverse institutional structures (not really Bolton's fault - everyone's fallen into this), regulations, ridiculous learning outcomes come into head-on conflict with real lives and real experiences, difficult educational histories, social disadvantage and lack of employment. The function of those structures is too often to uphold scarcity: it is too often to say "no" when students submit their assignments, when the institution was only too happy to say "yes" when they enrolled not on the basis of any deep educational mission, but on the basis of market forces and managerial pathology.

I don't really buy the "Powerful knowledge" argument, nor do I accept "troublesome knowledge": indeed I think it may be pernicious. "Ontological shifts" do happen - but they are not scarce: they happen everywhere. I think what matters are "powerful conversations". It's the social dynamic between people, whether teachers and learners, or learners and learners, which changes lives, not knowledge (what is that, anyway?!). Institutions serve as the hosts of powerful conversations, and traditionally have been good at this. Powerful conversations are always fearless and always intellectually honest. As market forces erode institutional governance, fear takes over the institution, accountability compromised and core mission forgotten, the space for powerful conversations, troubling conversations, challenging conversations is also eroded (witness the Thomas Docherty case at Warwick). This erosion is not an erosion of some abstract "knowledge"; it is a real material erosion: removal of people who "don't fit" (another declaration of scarcity - again see Warwick's current round of redundancies); deprivation of funding to areas of the curriculum where critical challenge might emerge (the arts and humanities) and concentration of funding on fetish areas (sports cars, etc) or STEM areas where political critique is virtually impossible: STEM declares scarcity of 'technical knowledge' when that too is all around us.

Why is that session on Queer theory so important? Because it was a big "YES" rather than a "NO". I don't know the Queer literature (I've got a lot of reading to do!). But (and I don't know if this fits at all with the literature - I'm bound to upset somebody!) I have long thought that George Bataille's critique of rationality as a veneer over deeply irrational taboos resonated with what I heard Vicky Gunn describing as the problem of binary oppositions in our educational thinking. "YES" I thought. More importantly, Bataille's analysis of those deep, erotic impulses in human life was that they were simply a big "YES" - "assenting to life even in death". This is fearlessness. This is what makes us thirsty for knowledge; the "NO" only comes from fear. It's not that we all want to get laid (although most of us probably do), it's that this is the fire that makes us human. Isn't it the wellspring of knowledge?

Isn't it everywhere?

Sunday, 7 December 2014

Objects, Evolution and E-learning

The topic of 'objects' in education seems rather abstruse. My point in this draft book chapter is that we've got so used to the "objects" of education we forget to notice the way they shape our educational thinking. Yet, educational thinking revolves around transforming objects whose nature and causal power are poorly understood. What is a textbook? What is a Learning Environment (Virtual, Real, Managed or whatever!). What is our relation to "tools" for learning? What about our objectification of institutional structures? Of courses? Of pedagogies? And so on.

Part of this chapter deals with evolution: the transformations of educations objects are aimed at their improvement - or the improvement of education through the improvement of the object. This translates into the evolution, recombination and development of objects in the educational infrastructure. Think of the electronic whiteboard, or tablets, or the VLE, or e-portfolios. The evolutionary metaphor is closely related to McLuhan's metaphor of 'extension'. The inspection of 'objects' in education has to grapple with Darwin and evolutionary metaphors of technological change.

The evolutionary picture needs to be situated against ways of characterising the nature of objects themselves. There's both a practical methodological aspect to this (a different view of objects entails a different approach to researching and improving them), and a deeper philosophical view. What is at stake is the status of 'matter': more precisely the distinction between 'matter' and 'mattering'. Here I compare 5 different characterisations drawing on cybernetics, constructivism, realism, Badiou's idealism and linguistic reductionism. Each takes a position about the nature of objects, and in the light of each position, different methodologies and approaches to educational development follow. These are worth spelling out because it challenges each of us to think "What am I trying to do in education? What ought to be done?"

Abstract

This chapter explores the way that objects are considered to be causal in learning processes. Objects are important because much educational thinking assumes that the manipulation and transformation of objects is the key variable that can make the difference in the quality of learning, whether it is the textbook, the VLE, the curriculum design, the communications tools or whether it is the shift to different kinds of technology (mobile, tablet or pen and paper). Clearly some object transformations and evolutions make a difference to the ability of groups of users to negotiate them – screen readers help blind learners, video subtitles help the deaf, and so on. However, the assertions of instructional designers insisting upon the independent variables of learning success to lie with the physical artefacts around which teaching and learning takes place is questionable.

Educational objects are seen to evolve in the light of new technologies. Arguments for object evolution are difficult to defend, and whilst thinking about learning and its causal relation to objects remains unclear, object transformations are effected by management of institutions whose effects are often to manufacture situations of increasing control. Beginning with the essential confusion concerning objects and education, I focus on the evolutionary histories that unite them. This exposition highlight the contrast in object thinking between "matter" and "mattering" and I present 5 different paradigms for exploring this. I argue that contrasting ontological pathways are more commensurable than they first appear. In particular, their relational focus opens the door to bigger questions about educational ecology.

Introduction

Most interventions in education involve transformation of its objects. This can be as simple as writing a new textbook, or putting files on the learning system, or making changes to the way things might be assessed. Each transformation builds on a previous state, or recombines existing objects in new ways. The driving purpose for these recombinations and evolutions is almost always presented as being “to increase student learning”. Such developments have tended to insist on causal relationships between human development and educational resources, supported by cognitivist methodologies which identify in those material interventions the independent variables upon which learning develops. That the instructional designer’s books, webpages, online services or learning designs all become independent variables is perhaps understandable: the objects of education are 'there' - we can all see them, and we can't see learning. Yet objects also constitute dependent variables: the work that students do, for example. But the possibility that this kind of 'variable-ism' might be deeply mistaken (as wiser heads in phenomenology like Merleau-Ponty would have told us) and that nothing is independent, remains invisible: the causal relationship between matter and the 'mattering' of education is unthinkable to many psychologists. Even if the appetite for instructionalist thinking with regard to learning resources and 'instructional design' has dissipated slightly (in the wake of emerging socio-material insights like Actor Network Theory or Orlikowski's work), attention shifts to new kinds of objects in education such as those produced through 'learning analytics'. Once again, it's the same problem: identifying the independent variables in the material analysis and then inspecting causal relationships.

Critique of this position is nuanced by the fact that some resources appear to be more successful in engaging learners than others, or that some pedagogical approaches are more successful than others, or even that data analytics are useful in speculating on what might be going on in learners' heads. But can we separate the 'powerful objects' of the learning process from the people involved in using those objects to teach? Surely, however wonderful a resource might appear to be, in the hands of a poor teacher, the educational results will be always be dreadful.

The problem of trying to identify the independent objects of education in material resources is a problem of theorising of objects in general. The question is about 'matter'. Objects are matter. But do objects matter? Educational processes privilege matter as mattering. The failure to produce the artefact that was stipulated in the assignment will cause the learner to fail. The failure to deliver the tool, book, website or system that was promised in the project bid will cause project funders to withdraw the funding. To what extent does the matter of objects matter? Under the imperialism of the object in education, everything becomes objectified: learners and teachers become objects moving through metaphysically misconceived processes of learning and attainment within the education system. As Karen Barad has pointed out, it is not just a semantic trick that 'matter' and 'mattering' appear to be related: what "matters" to us has a bearing on the way we think about "matter". When we see calls for educational technology to be ‘evidence-driven’, the question we are faced with is the relationship between the causal efficacy of "matter" (our interventions) and "what matters". 

Learning, Objects and Relations

What is it that drives the process that accords to objects the independent causal force that is responsible for learning?  A process of 'evolution' is laid over the narrative of the object in education. However, this evolutionary narrative is frequently frustrated by those who point out the obvious similarities between educational practice today and educational practice over 100 years ago. On the one hand, the objects of education appear to have changed: many classrooms now have ‘interactive whiteboards’, and the internet has transformed the acquisition of resources including textbooks, simulations, online quizzes. Yet structurally, the whiteboard remains at the front of the class, students typically still sit in rows, and teachers’ mark books are much the same as they ever were, even if now they use a spreadsheet rather than paper. Objects evolve, but form and function remain constant, and society appears not to “evolve”. This is not an educational utopia to give assurance that our object evolutions are moving in the right direction. It is, in many ways, more regressive: objects evolve to become more powerful; learners and teachers have less autonomy to use them as they will; technologies as “services” may provide useful instruments to users (teachers and learners) but at the same time instrumentalises users to provide surveillance data to managers. The modern world of online objects in education has become a surveillance activity.

By what standards does this evolution of objects situate itself as science? Evolutionary theory helps to found narratives which say “once we had textbooks, now we will have e-textbooks which will transform the accessibility of resources for students”, and that this transformation of the object will be causal on the transformation of the learning of individuals. Darwinian thinking itself has many parallels to thinking about learning. Evolution, like learning, cannot be seen. Evolution is an explanatory principle which overlays scientific observations of the diversity of species. What did Darwin actually see? He saw relations between species and relations between evidence of historical species and current situations. The explanatory principle of evolution does not explain objects; it explains relations between objects through a mechanism whereby objects have agency in determining their relations to one another. Important, relations between objects are identified as being of two types: homologies and analogies. But why is this important to education?

In education, the picture is a bit more complicated. Teachers see relations of ability, and relations between different aspects of human beings. They also see relations between past abilities and present abilities, just as they see relations between the different things that are done to learners. It is apparently easy to make connections between the relations between the things that are done and the relations of past abilities and present abilities, and the relations between abilities among a population. But how is the connection between the adaptation and transformation of the objects of education and the adaptation and transformation of learners then made?

The key to this is the identification of homology and analogy in the identification of relation. The bird's wing is analogous to the bat's wing, whilst the bird's wing is homologous to the shark's fin. In education, patterns of homology and analogy are perhaps less obvious - partly because the lens through which homology and analogies might be identified are so contaminated with the paraphernalia of the education system. The curriculum displays both: the music exam is homologous to the maths exam, for example, whilst the art show (whilst being examined) is also analogous to the artist's career (which involves putting on shows), in a way that the maths exam is not analogous to the work of the professional mathematician. When we talk about the diversity in performances of individual learners, and the ways in which their performances might be improved, we tend to talk in terms of 'levels'. Our learners are naturally ordered, and "get the basics right" is a typical mantra. Levels exist in relation to one another, and a level in one subject may be either (or both) homologous and analogous to a level in another subject.

Analogies between levels in different subjects are as problematic as the analogies across the curriculum. To convince ourselves that this isn't a problem is to subject education to a kind of abstract Darwinism. The failure to think critically about analogies is also a failure to think properly about homologies. The relations between the basic and the "advanced concepts" are extremely complex and varied across different fields, yet our analogies wash over the subtleties. There is little that's "basic" in music, for example - a single note can be as complex as Boulez's 1st piano sonata. Yet maths - certainly as we now regard it - is difficult without knowing multiplication tables. And it is not unusual for some subjects to effectively have to 'unlearn' their basic concepts in order to master the more sophisticated ones.

Therefore, there is confused relational thinking in education where objects are referred to rather than homologies and analogies. What is less clear is that this confused thinking in education directly affected Darwin’s evolutionary model in the first place. Richard Lewontin has argued that whilst sociologists talk of the outgrowth of Darwinism in 'social Darwinism', it was actually the other way round. Social Darwinism - or rather the varieties of thinking that saw atomised entities selecting particular favoured sets of properties in order to maximise chances of survival - was in fact endemic in social life from the early 19th century. This is an important point because it pulls the rug from those who criticise social Darwinism (for example, Hodgson's work on Darwinism in economics) as some sort of misrepresentation of Darwinian thinking: Darwinian thinking grew (evolved?!) from the social conditions of the time. It was these ideas which effectively drove the social, industrial, and political transformations of the period within which Darwin grew up. Here is the link to learning: the early 19th century was a time of remarkable transformation. Innovators, engineers, scientists were making discoveries which transformed the relations between themselves and the rest of the world in ways which hadn't been conceived before; industrial transformations disrupted social and political structures; the move from what Veblen calls 'handicraft' industries towards to the world of the 'captain of industry' (and eventually 'absentee ownership') was something that powerful families could see in their own personal histories. The question about agency, technology, development as transformations of relations was starkly present for the 19th century entrepreneur.

Darwinism as a contribution to natural history laid a scientific veneer over a pre-existing narrative. The issue was that through study and cataloguing of biological diversity, geography and natural history, the 19th century ethos was stretched in a procrustean way over scientific objectivity. Darwinism gave this old idea new content and scientific status which made it more powerful. Yet unlike any scientific theory before, evolution was never seen to act. The only process that could be seen to act were those social transformations of the period.

The Darwinian scientisation of the process had a number of effects, and one of them was in the direction of thinking about human development. The folk-theories which surrounded the transformation of social position could now become scientised. Piagetian theories of adaptation-assimilation, genetic co-adaptation and so on owe much to Darwin, not only in their application of systemic processual mechanisms that lead to transformations in relations between things, but also in the fundamental methodological move which starts with observed diversity and then seeks to explain it with a historical mechanism. 

The appreciation of the importance of educational thought on Darwinian evolution presents an opportunity to rethink the causal significance of objects in education. The arguments for the evolution of educational objects, and the granting of causal power of independent variables to educational objects looks insupportable. Educational objects evolve in the light of a prevailing narrative about human development which isn’t scientific, but which gained scientific credibility through Darwin’s application of it to natural objects. Given this fundamental problem, we are forced into identifying a deeper understanding of the nature of objects and a richer characterisation of their causal power.

Is or isn’t there a material world outside us? What causes it to change? Undecidable questions have plagued philosophy for centuries. Reasoned sets of commitments one way or the other are grounded on the consequences (as seen from the perspective of the person upholding it) of assuming that the answer is yes or no. In other words, the existence or non-existance of matter is predicated on “mattering”. Before inquiring into the relationship between the material of education and social processes, there are different paths from matter (or non-matter) to mattering to consider. There are different ways in which we consider the nature of objects. Often these different views on objects are characterised in the different methodologies we use when interventions in education are researched. Among major characterisations of objects, we can list:
  • Objects as mechanistic feedback process – the cybernetic view that objects arise as perceptual observer-oriented patterns which maintain stabilities;
  • Objects as aggregates of “powerful particulars” – the realist view of objects as an independently existing thing whose materiality relates to and underpins social forces;
  • Objects as actors – the socio-material view of objects as entwined entities with perceptual processes;
  • Objects as multiplicities (rather than singularities) – the view that objects are essentially contingent, and that their regularities and solidities emerge through the interaction of contingencies, ultimately resting on the perspective of the logic which forms around them; by this view, in the final analysis, matter manifests itself as mathematics;
  • Objects as declaration – the view that objects result from social declarations, and ultimately derive from speech acts.
Each of these positions requires some detailed elaboration which reflects back on previous arguments in the book. However, so as to not get too bogged-down in the different philosophical positions (each of which would require a book on its own!), it is important to make the point that the question to ask is always "Ok, so what should we do if we want to understand the object's relation to education?" Each position entails a different set of things that we might do, although no single position is entirely distinct from any other.

For example, for a cybernetic view, which fundamentally concerns itself with dynamic mechanisms, one of the obvious things to do is to create models. This has tended to underpin methodological approaches ranging from the instructional design model of Gange, to those of Pask and Von Foerster. Such models must account for the ways the objectness of the object perturbs the mechanisms of perception, or the mechanisms of expectation of an observer. In more recent years, Agent-Based modelling approaches have been used to explore some of the dynamic phenomena in education. However, in such a research program, we should ask as to how 'real' people are accounted for; how are emotions characterised in the process of engagement with objects?

To characterise objects as 'powerful particulars' with tendencies and powers, then the research program will avoid modelling (accusing it of idealism) and instead concentrate on observing behaviours between subjects and objects and identifying tendencies in different situations. This can address the cybernetician's idealism by at least trying to get at the root causes of emotional responses to objects. Mechanistic explanations accounting for the different things that might happen should gradually be able to pinpoint any more general causal mechanisms and tendencies exhibited by objects. Pawson and Tilley's "Realistic evaluation" is a popular technique which seeks to identify the powers and tendencies of an object in different circumstances. In particular it considers what kind of causal mechanisms relate to the object. Understanding the nature of a textbook is like understanding the nature of money, or the nature of a teacher. Here though we will face questions relating to the assumed facticity of the mechanisms identified: do not identified mechanisms then become part of the research fabric which they then transform thus undermining the conditions present when they were established? How do we situate meaning-making with the nature of the object? How does both the object's and subject's history affect any apparent tendencies?

If objects are understood as agents to be considered with equal status as that of human actors constituent of an Actor Network, our analysis might look at the inter-relationships between the functional transformations that each object makes. We might identify webs of human and non-human actors and deciding on the different things that different parts of the network do. Here, we might understand how certain attachment relations are established between objects and people, certain practices with objects become ritualised, and so on. We might understand how educational objects serve as substitutes for carers, and other important human figures. But it won't tell us how the objects got there in the first place, or the more general features of their tendencies in different situations. Nor will it separate the material being of an object and its relation to powerful mechanisms in societies which determine who is affected by that object. Objects do not act alone: there is always human agency behind them somewhere.  


The view of objects as mathematical formalism requires a more detailed examination of the underpinning theory. Since this view sits awkwardly with the view of Actor Network Theory, the view of realists (powerful particulars) and the view of the cyberneticians, I will describe this in more detail below. A central question emerging from the tension between these positions is the role of language and power. Here, I draw attention to Searle's recent social ontology as a way of thinking about how it is the educational objects that we surround ourselves with actually get there, and the mechanisms by which their usage is established. Searle's method and theory has the advantage of being relatively easy to grasp, but whose implications are deep and which might provide a way of carving a sensible path through these different presentations of the object since each perspective has something valuable to offer.

Amidst the different position, what is clear is that objects exist historically - both within the history of a society, and within a personal history. Their historical being has implications which carry influence in other aspects of social life, such as discourse. For example, objects like toys and dolls create ritualised practices which become embodied and which furthermore create values and later are transferred into adult behaviour and social change results. Values become codified in discourses. Discourses require paraphernalia in order to perpetuate themselves. Textbooks are instruments of discourse, and the means by which the values of a community may sustain itself. The meaning of a textbook is dependent on the expectations that people have of that object, which in part are codified by the practices which surround that textbook. The question is how do we arrive at a sensible research program which embraces these rich dynamics?


Objects, Mathematics and Mechanisms

Objects and Natural Necessity: The ideological battleground


The real question is “Is Hume right about the lack of foundation for natural necessity?”. Bhaskar and the Critical Realists say "no!", Badiou and the Speculative Realists say "yes!"; the cyberneticians and to some extent the actor network theorists say 'yes...' but at a deeper level of asserting the reality of mechanisms, say "no...". This presents the key battleground for the understanding of objects. If there isn't natural necessity, there must be something else which accounts for our perceptions of event regularities. Badiou and his followers have argued that there must be 'truth' expressed as logical ordering in the world rather than ontological mechanisms independent of humans, and that truth together with language and embodiment can explain the kind of regularities that scientists observe. Badiou's question for the Critical Realists on the one hand, and for the cyberneticians and actor-network theorists on the other, has to do with the nature of change, and the ontology of time. One cannot talk about natural necessity unless one exposes one's implicit assumptions about the ticking clock which sits behind the apprehension of regularity itself.

Badiou draws on Heidegger to help articulate a way of accounting for being which doesn't gloss over the problematic issue of time. Although famous for articulating a theory of technology and concernful action, Heidegger's "Sein und Zeit" at its root is a phenomenological theory about the relationship between subjectivity and the apparently 'objective' world around us. Every engagement with the material world, including with tools and textbooks offers a kind of ‘revealing’ of the world. Heidegger’s understanding of this results in some powerful descriptions of the everyday experience of objects and technologies – particularly those aspects of engagement with objects where the objects do not conform with expectations: where the objects apparently ‘break down’. The break down breaks our 'falleness' in the world. What has to happen is a re-evaluation of reality, and reconception of the relation between "being" and Dasein.


Heidegger's language throws a different light on the skepticism of Hume. The event of the billiard ball being struck creates the conditions for the revelation of "truth". It is not that a causal particular is in operation, but rather a deep principal that holds being together situated between language and events. Meillassoux argues that Hume’s regularity theory is a theory of expectation, and that the expectation of regularity in event successions is something which depends on a probabilistic awareness of the totality of all possible events that might follow the collision. The truth that is revealed through the perception of regularity has to be mathematical, since mathematics is implicated in the essential nature of surprise or expectancy. Since there is no possibility of knowing all the possible events, we must assume that the problem of regularity demands an inspection of the logic of probability. Against Bhaskar, the assertion is that scientific practice reveals truths, not causal powers. 


What this means in reality is that a textbook is implicated in a set of events which surround it, and within those events truths as natural orderings are revealed. Some natural orderings are well-known in the sociological literature. For example, the orderings pertaining to social class, the mechanisms of social reproduction, and so on. But there is more that is ordered and whose logical structure can be identified: the social practices of learning and teaching, of understanding or not understanding, of confusion, or alienation, or love, or discovery. Just as a musical work operates at many levels, so do the practices of education. Revealing those levels, the limits between individuals and the relations between different kinds of events become the central focus of this kind of inquiry.

The Cybernetics of Time

Cyberneticians have not been unaware of the problem of time: clearly it is central to their thinking. In trying to reconcile a mechanistic view of perception and reality with an inability to account for time n the process has led to various forms of "immanentist" accounts of time within mechanisms. Within its history, cybernetics has insisted on two views of an object. In the original cybernetic conception, there was an uncritical view of the object-as-mechanism which could be observed, modelled and experimented upon as a way of coming to know the world. This view typically is called ‘first-order cybernetics’. It recognised its limitations, but also presented itself as a practical way of coming to know the world. In the late 1960s and early 1970s this view was challenged, partly in response to a paper by Margaret Mead called “the cybernetics of Cybernetics” which appeared to call for an acknowledgement that the process of observation of objects was itself mechanistic, and that this meant that observation itself had to be problematized. Other thinkers in cybernetics shared this view: the ‘observer problem’ was wrestled with by Pask and others (see chapter 4) led to 2nd order cybernetic thought framing the  observation of objects within the overall biological process of perception. The inspiration for this was partly biological: the work of Maturana and Varela on frogs had suggested that mechanisms of perception and communication were no different from mechanisms of cellular replication and interaction. In taking this line, the perception of objects – or even the perception of the external world in general – was recast as a biologically-grounded process of cellular interaction. This biological idea inspired a number of other similar efforts to characterise process as a way of coming to understand understanding, perceive perceiving, and so on.


But to criticise observation was clearly to throw the door open to solipsistic nihilism. Some way of accounting for commonsense everyday experience of objects which was consistent with 2nd order cybernetic thinking was required. Here there were critiques of the various positions: Maturana’s biological cybernetics, whilst it called observation into question, seemed to be firmly based on observations down the biologist’s microscope. Luhmann’s attachment to Maturana’s ideas also threw doubt over his social system theory as a domain for the construction of objects. A logical analytic solution to the cybernetic problem of objects was required.

This was provided by both Von Foerster and Gordon Pask who worked on the idea of perceptual stabilities as objects – partly inspired by James Gibson’s ecological theory of perception. Von Foerster called these “eigenvalues” in perceptual fields. He argued that to perceive an object is to tune perceiving forces into stable patterns: in this way, an object becomes a pattern of stability in the perceiving subject, not an externally existing, causally potent entity outside the domain of the observer. The epistemology that stems from this insight defends an irrealist conception of the world, whilst avoiding the danger of solipsism by presenting a model where realities may be shared through communication processes. However, being grounded in biological models presents presents problems: as usual with such theories, the fault-line in their reasoning lies in their foundations. If people stand inside a virtual reality simulator, we may see some phenomena which might back this up. The regularities of the everyday world can be manipulated. So, by this logic, tables, chairs, books and blackboards aren’t “there” as such. What is “seen” is a patterning in perception. A similar view is expressed by Ernst von Glasersfeld who argues that with his radical constructivism, there is no “object”. All there are are processes of perception. Drawing on the work of Piaget, he considered how the learning of mathematics could be considered from this radical perspective.

There is little critique of the existence of biological cells, the role that instrumentation might play in the observation of those cells, nor is there any consideration of  the social context within which observation occurs. Such a view is ambivalent towards the throny problem of naturalism: whilst on the one hand it is in accordance with Hume that there is no natural necessity, the very essence of the cybernetic mechanism may necessitate natural necessity in order to become known. Furthermore, as we discussed in chapter 4, there is an implicit transcendental subject within these ideas which tends towards a “networked” model of society. Von Foerster’s conception of eigenforms, in presenting a logical model of interaction, may yet be useful in defining the conditions under which communication about the world occurs.

Mechanisms or Mathematics?

There is a curious point of contact between the imminentist accounts of time in cybernetics (particularly in the work of Von Foerster) and the work of Badiou. The cybernetic mechanisms rely on powerful recursive mathematical formalisms, which find expression within the branch of set theory called 'category theory'. This branch of mathematics interests Badiou too, and forms the foundation of his work on logic. In other words, an account of mechanistic process gives way to an account of logical ordering. If this is the case, what do we make of the apparently opposed ontological positions presented both by the  “Powerful Particulars” of Harré and Madden, or of the generative mechanisms of Bhaskar's Critical Realism?

On the face of it the naturalistic position defended by Bhaskar in talking of the “tendencies, properties and powers” of objects, i.e. to consider objects as “powerful particulars” is a way of characterising more broadly the position of discoverable causal mechanisms seems at odds with the anti-naturalism of Badiou and the speculative realists. When Hume argued that there was no reason why the natural world should exhibit the regular causal laws that physicists experience in the lab, he put the responsibility for such regularity firmly in the heads of human observers. Harré and Madden oppose this presenting the idea of a "powerful particular" as a way of characterising the tendencies of things to behave in certain ways in certain conditions. In this way they introduce the idea of generative causation, an idea which owes its origin to Aristotelian thinking about causation. Causes are not constructs; they lie inherent in the nature of things. In describing the conditions under which a causal power might exercise itself, Harré and Madden rephrase Aristotelian categories: whilst a causal power might be considered to be a material cause, Aristotle's idea of a formal cause is represented as an intrinsic condition for the exercise of a causal power; At the same time, in Harre and Madden's language, there are also extrinsic conditions for the exercise of a causal power - what Aristotle calls the efficient cause. Whilst causal powers cannot be directly perceived, they can be ascribed on the basis of perceiving the relation between the object and any action taken with it. In education, we might reinterpret this to account for the causal power of the textbook as the perception of the relation between the textbook's physical properties and the social situation within which it is used.  

Bhaskar's Critical Realism takes a similar path to Harré and Madden's generative causation. However, for Bhaskar causes can be discovered through retroductive reasoning and observation: 'powerful particulars', 'tendencies', etc can be determined. Harre has been critical of this move as it inclines towards dogmatism which focuses only on the intrinsic causal properties rather than the extrinsic and intrinsic conditions under which a causal power might be expressed. However, in underpinning his account of causation in a critique of Hume, Bhaskar unleashes a dialectical materialist argument which has as its target methodological practice in the social sciences. Social entities too have generative causal power (albeit through what Bhaskar calls 'transitive' mechanisms) which too can be discovered, and whose power ultimately rests on the causal properties of matter. Through this intellectual move, the reality of 'powerful particulars' and causal powers leads to a process of methodological critique which ultimately places human emancipation at the heart of its argument.  Methodological critique lies at the heart of the relevance of the causal particulars argument in education. Bhaskar's emphasis on transcendental arguments encourages researchers to ask “if we think this is the way to research education, what do we assume the world must be like?”


Object as Actor


Whilst Bhaskar and Harré argue that objects have causal power, tendencies and so on, they do not suggest that objects have agency. Latour, however, does take this view: objects and humans are different kinds of ‘agents’; reality is a network of interacting agents which can be studied through understanding the agencies of people and objects. Latour’s theory embraces a constructivist ontology drawing from the philosophy of Giles Deleuze. It is consequently closely related to the cybernetic position of objecthood as a kind of emergent stability among interacting perceptual forces: it regards the realist attribution of causal power to objects as suspect, since it regards claims to causal power as inseparable from the network within which causal power is exercised: in this Actor Network Theory remains close to Hume's scepticism. Within ANT a particular stance is taken with regard to the status of objects and humans whereby both are seen to ‘act’ in the world. The actions of different agents (including objects) become entwined in processes which tie up human activities which the properties of objects. This entwining mesh comprises the 'network'.

Using Latour’s notion of Actor-Network Theory, the relations between the actions of humans and non-humans can provide ways in which the understanding of these positions may be considered. Latour’s position is interesting because it does attempt to address the ways that humans and things may be thought about together with technology. Of course, this begs the question of what an ‘actor’ is. Latour argues that it is a “An actor in ANT is a semiotic definition – an actant – that is something that acts or to which activity is granted by another…an actant can literally be anything provided it is granted to be the source of action.” But there is a problem here with ‘acting’. As we saw earlier, humans act in line with expectations about the world. Agency is ethical. Actor Network Theory presents a way of thinking about objects where they are imbued with a sense of their enaction within social contexts, and the latent political contexts that lie within them. However, the deeper ethical concerns about the status of objects remains a problem for understanding of the motivations for teachers, technologists and others to insist on the use of objects in the classroom. The perception of objects and their import becomes significant in the understanding of the impact of objects in the process of education.


The challenge with Latour's thought relates to peculiarities in his ontological commitment. The constructivist ontology that he embraces is one which privileges the existence of 'a network' of interactions. Persons, institutions, textbooks, curricula emerge from this network. But where is it? Does it exhibit regularity in its behaviour? Can we come to know it through observation? There is indeed much research by ANT theorists on these questions. The problem is that we cannot prove Hume's scepticism to be fundamentally wrong. Nor can we prove Bhaskar's (or Harre's) realism to be fundamentally right. Latour sits in between with the cyberneticians with another answer to the transcendental question "what must the world be like?" His answer is "there must be a network of agency! Bhaskar's answer is "There must be generative mechanisms"! The cybernetician's answer is "There must be stabilities in the mechanisms of perception!" But what if there is no natural regularity at all? Can an ontological position be produced which assumes this?

Object as Declarations

Perhaps the most important thing John Searle introduces into this debate is to remind us of the importance of the 'stories' we tell about objects and their function in society, rather than worrying about the nature of objects themselves. Where Heidegger talks of ‘expectations’, John Searle talks about subjectivity and collective intentionality. What matters about objectivity for Searle is the relationship between objects and the "status functions" which result in their causal power in society. One of the key differences between the perception of the physical environment and the perception of things like money, or webpages, or textbooks is the extent to which those latter objects exist in a social and political context. Around these objects, functions are performed, rights asserted, commitments  upheld and obligations obeyed. This is not perceptions of things as they are in the moving around a branch, the reaching out of the body, the fulfilment of an objective all seem to happen together. For the meanings of the object in the classroom – the textbooks, e-books, web-pages, and so on, we see that each of these objects are instituted by speech acts as they are by their physical constitution. Technologies (particularly) are social constructs.


Searle argues that it is particular kinds of speech act made by people which declare the ‘status’ of objects. The objects of the social life of the classroom, including the objects of technology, are effectively codified instances of practice. Their result from declarations by those around them that “this is the student record system”, “this is the Virtual Learning Environment”, “this is the textbook for Physics 101”, and so on. And what does such a declaration mean? It means “this is what you must read to pass physics 101”, “this is the system which you need to access in order to study this module”, “this is the system which you need to access to enter student grades”, and so on.
In upholding what appears to be a non-objectivist stance, Searle appears to be articulating a philosophy of what matters as it relates to matter. A banknote, whilst its physical presence is something that everyone can see has a constructed meaning determined by the social context within which it is carried (a dollar bill is merely a curiosity in London). It's the social context which renders the banknote meaningful in a way that matters to us. How we can come to know about the causal power of objects? Objects embody so much of the power relations which they inherit from society. An object carries signifiers of power and role. The teacher’s chalk is the marker of authority; the chair and desk the symbol of subservience: within these objects, there are encoded rights, responsibilities, positions, commitments of both teachers and learners. Software typically encodes roles and responsibilities, and more often than not, the roles and responsibilities encoded in the software are not the roles and responsibilities of those people for whom the software is intended. Objects are interventions in the social environment of a person. The hope behind many objects is that through intervening with the object, agency of the person will change. Yet it rarely does. Whilst the intervention of mobile phones and email might have caused gradual change in the behaviour of individuals over a long period of time (see for example the study of Minitel by Feenberg), these processes of change are caused by complex interactions between the expectations of individuals and the communication structures they inhabit. But how can we know these? And why does it matter?


Why Objects matter in Education

After all this philosophical agony about objects, one would be tempted to be highly sympathetic to the beleaguered teachers who throws their hands up and says "why does it matter?" In the very question question "why does it matter?" there is a question about the word "matter". In essence the different philosophical perspectives are views on matter: necessary or contingent; subjective or objective, and so on. How could we possibly know which is right? Is there such a thing as 'rightness' with regard to these questions?  Having said this, the path of inquiry into the nature of objects leads us to confront the fundamental relation between the subject and the object, and the relation between the social and the individual. In each case, questions of matter lead to questions of mattering.

What is at stake are different ways of coming to know education, different ways of researching it, different approaches to the rationale for making interventions in it. Objects evolve, but so too do the expectations that individuals have about those objects. Knowledge, understanding, wisdom and learning sit at the interface between objects, individuals and social structures. For example, when Newman argues that:
"The intellect of man [...] energizes as well as his eye or ear, and perceives in sights and sounds something beyond them. It seizes and unites what the senses present to it; it grasps and forms what need not have been seen or heard except in its constituent parts. It discerns in lines and colours, or in tones, what is beautiful and what is not. It gives them a meaning, and invests them with an idea. It gathers up a succession of notes into the expression of a whole, and calls it a melody; it has a keen sensibility towards angles and curves, lights and shadows, tints and contours. It distinguishes between rule and exception, between accident and design. It assigns phenomena to a general law, qualities to a subject, acts to a principle, and effects to a cause."
we have to ask about the process whereby 'energizing' takes place. What is it beyond sights and sounds lies beyond them? What are the sights and sounds of if not an objective world? In what way does the discerning of the beautiful relate to the nature of the object, or to the subject? Are the criteria for the distinction between accident and design inherent in the object, or in the subject or in society?

It may not be so much any particular ontological standpoint which is important here, but rather the path of pursuing ontological thinking from any standpoint. What appears to be the case is that:
The question of natural necessity or not is undecidable. The ontologies which emerge from attempting to penetrate such issues appear to converge and overlap at various points which seem unlikely given the apparently radical differences in their starting points. The cybernetic engagement with the problem of time leads it to a logico-mathematical description of time consistent with the approaches of the speculative realists. The critical realist ontological position which appears directly opposed to  constructivist cybernetics finds itself converging on the point of generative mechanisms. But perhaps the most important convergence occurs around the subject of 'mattering'. It turns out that no serious attempt at material ontology can exist without account for social ontology. On social ontology, issues of power, freedom, identity, gender and the role of objects and material in supporting power relations appear to  unite perspectives. Given this level of agreement at a high level, it might be reasonable to ask why there is such ontological warfare at a lower level. This I will attempt to grapple with in the next chapter. Aside from worrying about this, it is worth pointing out that this coherence tends to be less well established among the various 'naive' methodological approaches to educational innovation. The message is, it doesn't matter what ontological path you take: ontologies end with the same emphasis on well-being and social ecology.

Varieties of Educational Object

Having considered the various ontological stances regarding objects, it is worth considering the types of object we can see in education. These fall into categories:

  1. Objects for specific pedagogical purpose
  2. Objects for the purpose of coordinating educational activity
  3. Objects for specific scientific purpose
  4. Objects for general scientific purpose
  5. Objects for identifying a field of activity
  6. Fetish objects
Textbooks, specific tools and models fall into category 1. These are objects which have grown with pedagogical thinking over history. The abacus is a good example of an object associated with specific pedagogical purpose in mathematics. More general tools under 2. include the blackboard (and the classroom), and more recently the Virtual Learning Environment. Within such tools, more specific tools in category 1 might reside, together with objects from category 3. Here we might list test tubes, bunsen burners together with the paraphernalia of the physical and biological sciences. In category 4, there are also the more general computational tools which increasingly are applied across the field of scientific endeavour: statistical analysis tools, blogs, speadsheets, databases, etc. In category 5, there are particular objects which signify a particular field of the curriculum. Under this heading, we might see 'industry standard' equipment including movie cameras (for media programmes), artist's studios, musical instruments and practice rooms. Objects from categories 3 and 5 can also become members of category 6. An object is a fetish object if its presence instils desire as well as offers functionality to those pursuing a course of study: fetish objects are sexy! A glance through most university prospectuses today reveals object fetishism put to the service of selling courses. Here we will find sports cars, complex medical instruments, elaborate computing machinery and exploding chemicals. Interestingly, we are unlikely to find objects for general institutional or pedagogical usage in this category. 


Conclusion: Darwin's Ontology and Educational Evolution

At this point we should return to the naive evolutionism of educational thinking. Objects can not be seen as independent variables in educational improvement. The number of ontological positions help provide a toolkit for unpicking naive arguments. Uniting each perspective are not objects but relations. Even a materialist ontology such as Bhaskar's which seeks to identify causal powers has to submit to the context within which those causal powers operate (and indeed, the context within which causal powers are investigated): Bhaskar talks about generative mechanisms in Marxist terms as 'relations of production'. To examine objects in education is to examine relations between people. The methodologies of ANT might also examine the relations between objects-as-actors but in the full analysis it doesn't matter since the relations between people and the relations between objects and people will be sufficient to counteract any naive interpretation. What emerges is a an order of people and things: the textbook, the class, the parents, the boss, and so on. Within the order there are tensions between individuals and objects, individuals and individuals, institutions, and governments. In Darwinian terms, there are relations between different species.

The problem with naive thinking about objects and evolution is that it is ignorant of relations, and instead is promoted as if object manipulations work in the interests of learning, without being able to identify how the object is the independent variable in improving the learning process, or indeed, what the learning process is. Naive objectification appears to sit behind unclear thinking about learning itself. Supported with weak methodologies, arguments are made for the transformation of objects, and policies pushed through almost on an ad-hoc basis whilst opportunities for meaningful critique are squashed. This only serves the interests of those in control of the process: in Searle's language, it only serves the interests of those with the deontic power to make the status function declarations. Ontological thinking is therefore not just about getting to the bottom of what an object is; it is about exposing and challenging the power structures which make declarations about objects with regard to self-interest and ignorance about the actual situation or effects that their policies might render. In such a way, academics can find themselves subject to managerial whims, courses deprived of funding which is diverted to pet projects with sexy fetish objects (for example, sports cars), and the rational basis for the organisation of the institution of education fundamentally destroyed by fear and corruption.

We face a choice of action. Do we try the evolutionary/historicist approach and attempt an explanation as to how all these relations between objects and people got there with a view to apprehending some underlying mechanism which would help us improve education? Or do we take an ecological view and look at how the relations between things and 'species' actually works, so as to help us create the conditions for it to work viably and protect it from threats? It is this second view which I want to propose as to how we should be thinking about education. Education is not to be 'improved' or (heaven forbid!) "disrupted". Rather it is to be cared for and handed down to the next generation and in order to do that, it nature as an ecological set of relations must be understood.

Darwin's importance in the history of science is to draw the scientist's attention to history. Until Darwin, science revolved around Newtonianism; after Darwin science included historical analysis (although Darwin considered himself a Newtonian!). But historicised mechanisms are essentially abstractions - they can never be complete in their account of social being. Indeed they can serve unpleasant purposes (eugenics never seems to be far away in educational discourse). History matters not because it contains clues as to the clockwork that makes the world go round, but because it is part of our present lived being. Darwin was perhaps insufficiently aware of how his own history affected his theorising, and our education ministers and politicians are too frequently unaware of how their histories affect not only their educational thinking, but their entire politics.

Educational objects are part of the lived being of our present ecology of education. Many histories - institutional, personal, technological - are enfolded in the being of the education system. At any one time there are parts of it which work well and there are parts of it which are struggling to survive. The benefit of the ontological perspective is to discover which parts are which, how they work, how they affect each other and how one or another part might not be working. More importantly, the educational ecologist through understanding the dynamics of the whole system can see new kinds of interventions which help create new connections. It might be a new textbook; it might be a new tool; but the point is it will only work if the conditions within which the intervention is made and the nature of the intervention itself are understood.

This raises the question as to the fundamental nature of the relationship between the different elements in an educational ecology. If an ecology of education has to account for not only present relations, but historical relations between parents, toys, discourses, institutions, and so on, in what kind of language might such an ecology be represented? If we are looking at people and objects, how do we account for what it is that connects them? How do we account for not only the stabilities in the relations between them (the homeostasis) but also the drive for expansion, growth and development? These are questions which have also faced the ecologists in the natural world. In the last chapter I will examine current developments in the ways that such questions might be approached. 

Sunday, 30 November 2014

Social Ecology and Soviet Cybernetics

I came across a fascinating presentation by Vladimir Kitov of the Russian Plenhanov University of Economics on the history of Russian cybernetics and the Russian computer industry. You can view his presentation here: https://njszt.hu/sites/default/files/Kitov.ppt. It's an extraordinary story. There's also an excellent paper on Soviet Cybernetics by Ben Peters at http://nevzlin.huji.ac.il/userfiles/files/47.2.peters.pdf. This is really fascinating stuff.

I'd always understood Russian cybernetics to have taken an independent direction from cybernetics in the West. Kitov (and Peters) suggests that the truth is more complex. After the Macy conferences of the late 1940s, it seems that cybernetics was seen by the Soviet hierarchy as a kind of bourgeois plot. Peter's quotes from the Russian Journal Literaturnaya gazeta  which accuses Norbert Wiener of belonging to a group of "charlatans and obscurantists, whom capitalists substitute for genuine scientists". It later carried an article: "Cybernetics—an American Pseudoscience". Those Soviet Scientists who actually read Wiener's book (which was marked 'Top Secret') took a different view. It took Stalin's death and the Khrushchev thaw for Sergei Sobolov, Anatoly Kitov and Alaksei Lyapanov (Russia's equivalent of Von Neumann) to write an article called "The main features of cybernetics" in 1955.

More importantly, the ideas of the soviet cyberneticians were particularly focused on the social and economic use of cybernetics. In 1959, Anatoly Kitov proposed to the Kremlin that a computer system was developed to manage the whole Russian economy providing real-time feedback on production. This ambitious request was rejected, although it remained a long-held dream of Kitov and other scientists: a programming language called ALGEM (a variant of ALGOL-60) was developed to assist in the realisation of this economic management system. It is fascinating to think that the project which Stafford Beer managed to realise in Chile in the early 70s was already conceived years earlier. What did Salvadore Allende know about this earlier Soviet work, I wonder?

More importantly, however, is the role of theory in these plans. Although it is relatively easy to find cursory descriptions of the ALGEM language, there is little on what the theoretical understanding for implementing a feedback system in the Russian economy would look like. Beer's intervention in Chile was based on his concept of 'viable systems'. Using the Viable System Model, Beer wasn't simply trawling data in the hope that something meaningful would come up (this is very much the approach of today's big data people). My guess is that the Soviet scientists too had theories about how their real-time economic system would work: the history of science in the Soviet Union, and the particularly social trend in scientific thinking, including Vygotsky (who had been disowned by the hierarchy - a factor which contributed to his suicide) and Leontiev, whose work on networks is only now beginning to be taken seriously by ecologists. Peters tells us that the close potential association between communism and cybernetics was not lost on American observers. When Aksel Berg published a series entitled " Cybernetics—in the Service of Communism", one american observer noted that "if any country were to achieve a completely integrated and controlled economy in which ‘cybernetic’ principles were applied to achieve various goals, the Soviet Union would
be ahead of the United States in reaching such a state." But this wasn't to be.

According to Peters, Soviet cybernetics disintegrated in a way which mirrors a similar collapse of cybernetics in the West: a process of disciplinary bifurcation helped to dilute and distort the main thrusts of what it was about. Nothing new there. But what interests me is Kitov's account of the demise of the Soviet computer industry. This came about when the Kremlin decided that their independent computer science programme was falling behind the US, and that  they might as well copy the IBM 360 architecture, consigning their existing research department to the dustbin. Kitov's analysis of this is that this might have been "one the most successful operations against the USSR by the CIA" Sadly, it was probably self-inflicted. What was lost was the diversity, flexibility and adaptability within the ecology of the Soviet scientific community.  It could no longer grow new ideas for itself; instead it began on a path of slavishly copying US corporations: a process which it has tragically continued to this day!

There's some fascinating history to trawl here. But I think there is also a warning. Globalisation, the copying of an idea from one place to the next, is not necessarily the best way that societies can make themselves adaptable. Indeed, it risks making them very brittle. The Soviet cybernetic and computer science programme effectively operated as a parallel universe to the US and UK programmes, and it was no worse for that. The rich diversity of approaches made for a fertile time where ideology and technics combined. When we look at the world today, how much flexibility are we making for ourselves? How much are we simply following each other, running after the whirling banners of global corporatism in the name of profit? What role are our universities playing in this dance? Can we be sure this isn't a dance of death?

Thursday, 27 November 2014

#design4learning, ProtScience and Empirical Integrity in Education

While I've been attending the #design4learning event at the Open University, I've been continuing to reflect on Steve Fuller's presentation at the Russian Academy of Science the other week where he characterised the position of science today as 'ProtScience'. At the end of the Open University event, Alejandro Armellini from Northampton University drew attention to the nonsense that is "pedagogical innovation", whilst Terese Bird from Leicester University presented a dystopian University of the future called PearBucksCity University (a delightful corporate combination of Pearson, Starbucks and Udacity). Armellini's criticism was well-made, although I expect it made some of the audience (who consider themselves 'pedagogic innovators') uncomfortable. Bird was entertaining about the dangers facing education in the kind of way that Audrey Watters also does so well. Nobody however was prepared to talk seriously about "The Management". "That's one for the economists and political scientists" said Armellini, batting away the awkward fact that for all the lack of any "pedagogical innovation" (whatever on earth that would look like!), there clearly has been 'managerial innovation' which has transformed beyond recognition the power relations and social structures of our institutions, much of it achieved with the help of new technologies developed under the guise of "pedagogical innovation".

On top of this, there were two keynotes at the design4learning conference, both of which reported on apparently successful attempts to 'transform learning', but neither of which successfully identified (as far as I could see) any 'independent variables' (although the first keynote from Edinburgh did identify 'trust' - but what's that??). Taken together with various presentations about Learning Analytics (which increasingly seems to be simply about "working out ways of keeping the kids on the course paying their fees"), which through various statistical jiggery-pokery ended with vague conclusions about ill-founded distinctions in 'types' of pedagogy (constructivist vs. explanatory, etc), I was again left thinking - where are the independent variables?

Are we condemned to this in education? Or in the social sciences in general? What are the implications if we are? What might we do about it if we're not?

First of all, the implications of woolly thinking, uncritical methodologies and bad learning analytics:

  • It creates false power relations within the research fabric of education which makes it harder to do any serious critical work on education: if the majority of researchers are uncritical of their methods, and are rewarded for doing so, then it becomes increasingly difficult for anybody who is critical to get published.
  • Consequently, this is another example (like so many others including the STEM agenda, econometrics, etc) of depoliticising education
  • This works to the advantage of institutional management who see no penetrating critique (but lots of confusing and meaningless statistics) and continue unchallenged to do what they want amidst the conveniently confused haze around them
  • Management keep the intelligentsia at bay by either trapping them in a circle of hell which they orbit forever chasing banners reading 'pedagogy', 'e-learning', etc or by excluding them from the discussion altogether. Research becomes political 'chaff'
Reflecting on this makes me think about why I am uncomfortable with Fuller's idea of 'ProtScience'. 

Fuller explains that "ProtScience" is short for "Protestant Science", which is his way of saying that science today has reached it's Protestant Reformation: that moment when people no longer believe they have to bow to the authority of the science high priests, but can learn things for themselves and make up their own minds. Fuller presents people like Ben Goldacre as a good example of a Martin Luther figure debunking the scientist's status. All fine - and at some level true. (Actually, as Oleg pointed out to me the other day, Goldacre found life a lot less comfortable when he took on 'Big Pharma')

Fuller wasn't uncritical of the ProtScience position (the l'Aquila earthquake is a striking example of its pathology), but what struck me at the design4learning conference was the extent to which ProtScience throws empirical practice out of the window, and the deeper extent to which this then works to the advantage of corporatist, managerial and functionalist elites who exploit the 'anything goes' zeitgeist and govern their institutions through adhoc quackery all the time appealing to meaningless statistics and groundless ontologies. There's a reason why scientists had authority - and it's not because science is authoritarian. It's because it's honest in its claim to truth. 

Truth has become rather unpopular in recent years. Fuller's 'truth', it seemed to me, was a kind of 'network theory of account' as Luciano Floridi puts it - a normative, networked invariance within a society, where somewhere between the opinions, differences, limits and capabilities of a population, a consensus is somehow arrived at. Scientific truth in the world of ProtScience only requires that the internet increase the bandwidth of information for the masses to coordinate more and more reliable truthful judgements. If Amazon and Google can do it, so can science. I don't believe it. It would all be fine if the world was flat. But it isn't: power, social structures, personal histories, the uneven distribution of capability, money, the means of production and information all skew the normative view. 

Scientists are driven to pursue the truth. That means critiquing methodology (rather than seeing it as a crank to turn in order to publish papers!). We barely know what makes us so thirsty for knowledge, but "truth" is not a bad word for something which as Bhaskar and Badiou seem to agree, is a dialectical process implicating societies, egos, institutions, experiments, theories and explanations.

If I've been mostly frustrated, irritated and astonished at the design4learning conference it is because I've largely witnessed lazy thinking which seems to me to be unwittingly complicit in the managerial pathology which is unfolding in front of us. I also think we should aspire to a better science of education. There is, unfortunately, no short-cut to this. Learning analytics certainly isn't it. What is required is new thinking about society and education's relationship to it. What is required are new ways of measuring the ecologies that connect us to each other (managers are destroying the social ecologies of our universities). And we should decide what we mean by 'Higher Learning' (perhaps it's no more than fearlessness and intellectual honesty).

I think I may be calling for a Counter-reformation to Fuller's ProtScience!

Monday, 24 November 2014

Science and Social Ontology at the Russian Academy of Sciences

I recently attended a wonderful conference on “The Social Philosophy of Science” at the Russian Academy of Sciences in Moscow. Although this was entitled “Russian Perspectives”, there were contributions from a number of major players from the US and UK, including Steve Fuller, Rom Harré (who unfortunately couldn’t present his paper), Inanna Hatayi-Ataya and Sergio Sismondo. It was indeed fascinating to compare the Russian contribution to this field which was always more deeply committed to a social philosophy of science because of its Marxist foundation.

The conference opened with a Keynote from Steve Fuller about transformations in the relationship between the public and scientific knowledge in the light of the web. Fuller was announcing a revolution in the status of scientists, saying that now as the population could access knowledge and make their own minds up about things themselves, the authoritarian status of scientist's knowledge was in doubt. Using examples including the L’Aquila earthquake, he pointed out the difficulties that scientists have in communicating their science, and how the public will form its own opinion of science. My thoughts about this were that Fuller’s use of the term science and scientist needs further inspection. Often, I felt that Fuller was really referring to science teachers, not scientists. Science teachers are not generally scientists; they do not engage in inquiry; they are not producing new theories; they are, on the whole, teaching. However, science teachers often believe themselves to be scientists. However, they do not believe that the teaching activities they engage in – the dominant activity – is actually a science worthy of their attention also. The problem is that ‘authority’ tends to sit in the domain of the science teacher (indeed, they can often be authoritarian), and not the scientist. Authority is an aspect of positioning between individuals (Harré’s Positioning Theory is very valuable here): when one person establishes themselves as knowing the ‘truth’, there is a parallel process of denying the claim to legitimate viewpoints by others: “I am the science teacher and you don’t know anything yet!”. Real scientists, immersed in the cloudy confusion of the laboratory, tend not to be quite so keen of authority. Their work would see all participation as a question. So what idea of science is Fuller pursuing here? Is it the idea of science pertaining to the pursuer of knowledge, or the idea of science pertaining to the science teacher?

There were some parallels with Sergio Sismondo’s talk about ontology in Science and Technology studies. Pointing out the tension inherent in the ‘ontological turn’ in social science between the kind of Nietzschian perspectivism which denies any kind of objective truth, and the dogmatic and authoritarian viewpoint about things that are said to exist, Sismondo argued for a view of multiple ontologies as different ways in which understandings of reality (ontological perspectives) are enacted on objects and social structures. Arguing fundamentally that what we end up with is a form of constructivism, his examples pointed out the different ontological stances of people considered to be Key Opinion Leaders (KOLs). These people are basically gurus within professional fields who command high salaries for being experts and attend different conferences and stay close to a corporate script in promoting a scientific view in keeping with the corporate objects of their sponsors. Each enacts their understanding of reality in different ways according to the social situation they find themselves in.

The central issue here concerns truth. The problem is whether situations which enact multiple perspectives do not contain within them universal truths. Here, the practices of “the scientist” as a pursuer of truth is important, and I think distinguishable from the science teacher, and indeed from the ‘science guru’ of Sismodo’s KOLs. The KOL may pursue truth in their scientific work, but their engagement by corporations would lead one to wonder about their intellectual integrity: is empirical practice separable from social structures? The guru and the teacher have certain commonalities. The guru may indeed engage in some science, some kind of inquiry; but they will tend to have to place their inquiry in the back-stage to their public performances. The guru is beholden to the corporate world as the teacher is beholden to education. The teacher is bound by responsibilities to their students and to their institution. What distinguishes these people are networks of rights, responsibilities and obligations.

I can see two fundamentally different ways of addressing the issue of truth. There is an argument which articulates by transcendental reasoning that there must be natural necessity, and causal mechanisms in nature, where Humean reasoning about causes as constructs is basically wrong. The implications of this are a materialist and dialectical ontology that sees the purpose of science as the uncovering and discovery of mechanisms which in turn have a bearing on social structures. True work = true mechanisms. Alternatively, there is a view that Hume was right, that there is no natural necessity, that causes are not real, but that truth is real and revealed through the encounter between being and event. This is basically the position of Badiou and those subscribing to the loose school of “speculative realists”. This position also articulates a dialectical process whereby political action is directly connected to logical revelation of truth, and where science and mathematics serves truth by comprehending the natural ordering of the social. Whilst each position’s ontological stance is impossible to prove, both positions end up in the same place: with the political.

I found myself reflecting on this in Inanna Hamati-Ataya talk on the relationship between empirical practice and social structure. Inanna gave a talk about ontology and post-foundationalism in science studies. She argued for a position which situates empiricism in relation to politics and society to which I am sympathetic. However, I raised the question about the importance of not throwing out empiricism. She replied that she was after a more pluralistic conception of science and methodology. What interests me about this is for all the ontological belly-aching that goes on in social science (particularly arguing for natural necessity or contingency) the ontological position appears to oscillate around central principles:
  • Whether contingency of necessity of nature is the case or not cannot be established beyond doubt. It is not a matter that can be settled by transcendental argument (as I once thought, having pursued a critical realist path). Coherent transcendental arguments can present both necessity and contingency as possibilities (it is the difference between Bhaskar and Badiou) 
  • However, when we ask “what matters?” the answer always is simple: we have to look after each other. 
Inanna’s conclusion is right; however, I think this conclusion can be reached from a deeper engagement with empirical practice - particularly about what we consider to be empiricism as that practice which entwines expectation and explanation.

Moving on to more practical ground, I was very struck by a fascinating presentation by Maria Bereznyak on the transliteration and translation of scientific terminology between the west and Russia, and between Russia and China. "What about cybernetics?" I thought. Indeed, for the more practically useful aspects of scientific inquiry (and cybernetics is one of those), there are more immediate problems concerning communication amongst scientists than ontological concerns. Indeed, the fact of difficulties in communication between Chinese, Russian and Western scientists is perhaps more real than any of this stuff! What would the Chinese do with cybernetics if they knew the literature?

And finally, having been immersed in all this talk of ontology, I learnt on the way home of the death of Roy Bhaskar. That's perhaps a cause for deeper reflection on the issues of natural necessity, but also about the contribution of a philosopher who has had a bigger impact on my own development than anybody else. 

Monday, 17 November 2014

Music and Science in Moscow

I'm preparing a presentation which I'm giving at a Philosophy of Science conference in Moscow tomorrow. I've never been to Moscow before - it's quite an extraordinary place, so rich in history and culture: there is a strong feeling of the 'alternative' story of the history of the world which might have been told had communism worked, had the Berlin wall not even been needed, let alone fallen. With this alternative ,story, there is also a very evident split in the consciousness of the place. The tyranny of Stalin has gone (the odd statue and the miraculous decoration in the Metro glorifying his achievements are ghostly reminders), but it seems to have been replaced with a new kind of tyranny imported in a peculiar way from the West: the tyranny of consumerism. In Red Square there is a huge department store called "Gum": how many handbags, diamond rings, phones, shoes and coats could anybody need? I guess to Russians this is a wonderland - after the communist years where there was nothing in the shops, suddenly there is more than they could possibly dream of. There it is, a glimmering monotony of sparkling things. People wander round pretty aimlessly, half looking at the stuff and half attending to their mobile phones.

The new tyranny has put everyone to sleep.

What's the connection between this and my paper? Well, my paper is about music and social structure. It's about the fact that the structure of the content of an act - an artistic act - has a bearing on the social structures that emerge around it. Put another way, the aesthetics of the environment bear upon social structures. Understanding the social efficacy of aesthetic acts might help to understand exactly how the "being-put-to-sleepness" relates to the monotony of jewels in the windows, and the click-click-click monotony of continual smartphone addiction.

The deep question is for the people and for government. Something has happened to the ecology of our environment when all cities look the same and fill themselves with the same sparkly things. Government regulation (or lack of it) creates this situation. In Moscow it is probably because vast swathes of land were snatched up by the powerful who over-developed it very quickly with little regard to the overall effect. It's interesting to think that although London has the same kind of thing, it's not quite on this inhuman scale: layers of history and the law prevent such a sweepingly industrial transformation overnight.

What if we could see the deep social ecological effects of government action or inaction? Could we ask ourselves "Is this what we want?". Could we demand of our leaders that they safeguard the balances of social life, and monitor more effectively whether they actually do this or not? In order to do this, we have to understand nature of the structures of things that are actually made (arcades, jewellery shops, etc) and their effects on social experience and transformation of social structures. Maybe this is the goal to aim for. I suspect education is at the heart of it all...