Thursday, 31 March 2011

OER and Riskless informal learning

I've been at the OER Hackday today. I wasn't intending to go as OER isn't really my thing, but I found it useful anyway. Before I went, I started to think about how OER might link into my thoughts recently on the Risk society, and how Education relates to the societal manufacture of Risk that Beck describes.

There are many use-case models of OER. One is its use in 'informal learning'. I'm a little uneasy about the definition of 'informal learning', but I guess in comparison to 'formal learning' there is a difference in the risk that learners are subjected to by institutions. Formal learning imposes a risk of failure which is absent in informal learning, although informal learning may still carry an imperative related to the context within which the learning occurs.

This leads me to think that one of the questions I've been thinking about, "what is the risk produced by education" can be answered by saying that education creates artificial risk situations which are intended beneficently to aid learning (without the risk of failure, would students do anything?). (it's interesting to compare beneficent risk production with malevolent risk production: Ryanair's risks are intended to catch people out!)

How might this work? Possibly, it could go like this:

which produces more risk, etc.
Informal learning might then look like:

If the latter is a use-case for OER, then OER must fit into the final stage. However, there is a problem and it relates to what the ANXIETY actually does. If the learner reaches for OER in response to societally-induced RISK, fine. But my reckoning is that this is probably not going to be the first thing they reach for.

If they reach for education at all, then I think it will be through formal learning in institutions. In assessing how the risks of the institution might affect them, there may well be a case for OER ("this is the sort of experience you will have as a student... look! here's a lecture..."). The fact that education carries RISK in response to RISK may be significant.. I'll have to think about that!

OER in itself is essentially RISK-less (at least for learners; not for teachers!), and I think there is a question as to whether a riskless resource can be useful for education (but I'm not sure..).

On looking for ways of dealing with anxiety induced by Risk, the most common thing people do is to reach for palliatives: entertainment. OER might fit here.. but on the whole, it is pretty un-entertaining. Maybe we should give a bottle of whisky to every learner who actually spends a couple of hours with an OER resource! That would be to balance the boredom of watching with the chance of pleasure in the outcome (i.e. getting drunk!). Of course, the risk would be terminal boredom...

Wednesday, 30 March 2011

The purpose of education in the Risk Society?

There is a central question: in an economy that manufactures risk, what sort of education is required and what is its purpose?
"Everywhere educational reform is accompanied by a dependence on education. More and more groups get caught up in the race for educational credentials. As a result there emerge new internal differentiations. Whilst these may still respond to traditional differences between groups, the impact of education makes them fundamentally different from traditional ones. [...] In conjunction with novel patterns of upward and downward mobility and increasing local labour mobility as well, new hierarchies and differentiations develop which are internal to social classes. They presuppose the expansion of the service sector and the creation of new occupations."(Ulrich Beck, "The Risk Society")
Beck suggests that Berstein's distinction about linguistic performances is central.  How would we teach that? Would that be sufficient for education to meet the needs of the risk society?

Monday, 28 March 2011

Envy and the Feeling of Fairness

We feel things to be unfair. Within the social dynamic of a society, a business, even a family, we might see others gaining opportunities or advantages that we feel are barred to us. Saying "it isn't fair" is perhaps the first response to dealing with the disappointment.

We might say "how do they manage to have such lovely houses/cars/partners/children when I have to struggle?" At the same time, we know that the means by which others have achieved their advantage is not illegal (on the whole, although this might be insinuated) or even unjust: they are not necessarily subject to 'special treatment', or "one law for them, another for the rest of us!". And the perception of fairness or unfairness can be tinged with envy which has little to do with any objective state of social affairs, but rather a psychological state.

But the attribution of 'unfairness' is common in our society, and often identified by others observing a social relation who have not direct personal involvement. The problem centres around the fact that Justice makes no allowance for the differences in Capabilities between individuals. For the distinguishing feature between those that have the nice house/car/family etc and those that don't rests on their Capabilities. Furthermore, some of those Capabilities owe to capital wealth - either through money, or Social capital ("it's not what you know, it's who you know!"). But they also rest on individual Capabilities in being able to communicate effectively in establishing increased social capital (cultural capital is linked to this, but I think there are other aspects of individual make-up which contribute too).

The capabilities of individuals cannot necessarily be addressed through the increase in monetary wealth. It may be that monetary wealth can even reduce overall capacity as it overwhelms and introduces new complexities. It may be that the capabilities of individuals can only be addressed through education.

Is it correct that education is at the heart of a 'campaign' to combat unfairness? Is unfairness to be combatted, or merely to be managed? Does Ibn Khaldun's definition of government ("to prevent injustice other than that which it creates itself") also apply to unfairness? How does charging for education affect this picture?

Sunday, 27 March 2011

Sea Drift

Astrid and I went to a fantastic concert in Manchester last Thursday where we heard Delius's 'Sea Drift' which was a profound experience for me because it took me back to music which I was devoted to in my teens and have largely ignored since (partly through the snobbery about Delius in academic music circles). But it really is pure magic, and all the questions that buzzed through my head when I was a teenager came flooding back: how does he do it? Why does this sound so magical?

My first thought now is that the nature of a music is a caress. Musical caresses take a variety of forms. Much is achieved through texture: a suspended note which is then accompanied with a rich harmony a moment later. Suspensions in 16th century polyphony are of this sort... As are Bach fugues.

What about the melting harmonies of Delius? These are closely related to tritone substitution techniques of jazz (he learnt this when he was on the Florida cotton plantations). What do they do? How do they caress? I think they slow down the caressing motion by subtly disrupting expectations, and hovering between disruption and exhortation.

The caress is there, but it is distended. The technique is similar to Wagner's Tristan. But Delius does something Wagner doesn't... The climax isn't there... Just a continual seduction which suggests the possibility of a climax.  Wagner's prolongations are directed; Delius's prolongation is there for its own sake... Simply there to be magical.

Sunday, 20 March 2011

Coercion, Fairness and Conceptual art

With so many terrible things going on in the world at the moment, I'm not sure if it's the right time to think about aesthetics.. but I feel the need for it. And it relates to a discussion I had yesterday after I went to the Anish Kapoor exhibition in Manchester, and then onto the John Rylands Library exhibition.

I experienced different sensations in these two events. Kapoor's work left me cold and (frankly) a little bad tempered. The nature of this feeling has puzzled me.. it is, after all, like so much conceptual art... giant mirrors, blobs of wax... and huge amounts of money. I felt forced (or coerced) to accept, alongside a gawping public hypnotised in a similar way in which they would be in a circus side-show, the authenticity of the artist's work. I think the cause of my irritation was a moral objection at some level. In hindsight, it occured to me that the feeling might be similar to that of an artist desperate for funding on discovering that the European Commission has spent 10 million Euros on a my e-learning project! That would be a similar feeling of revulsion: somehow, it feels 'not fair'. But what's in that?

In the John Rylands Library, which is an extraordinary building to begin with, I poured over the various manuscripts that were on display. My sensations were quite different. I felt a sense of belonging, a deep connection with history. There was something profoundly rational within me which at the same time connected with the irrational sensuality of being there, of smelling it, of piercing the dim lighting to discover new gems. But my companion expressed the feeling that here too there was something that 'coerced' us... that some historical power narrative was at work, powers forcing us into a way of thinking, respecting, accepting the status quo. This may be right, but I didn't feel it like that. In the library, I was not compelled against my will. There was indeed a 'higher authority'... but it, to me, was a good one (unlike Kapoor).

Much of my thinking about sensual experience and rational experience places some role on 'coercion': that aspect of us which has to deal with the operational, has to direct, has to make the distinctions they everyone else sticks to. We feel this individually in the moments when we realise "now I must stop dreaming and do something", or "Stop worrying about the details.. this is how it looks and this is what you must now prioritise". The point about these moments is that they can be emancipatory: it is the moment of decision, leadership and coordination.

However, when we feel coerced it is, I think, a different matter. For to feel coerced is to feel imprisoned. It is to feel placed in a position where we have 'no alternative' to conform to the environment we find ourselves in, whilst at the same time feeling that our identity would be fundamentally sacrificed if we did conform. In cybernetic VSM terms, this is probably in the region of the '3-4 homeostat': where dreaming and doing are in conflict.

But what of my reaction to Anish Kapoor, or for that matter, the reaction of the artist on seeing 10million euros being spent on a project? In the presence of something like this, we see the world taking a form, and ourselves being part of that form, which we feel we cannot live in or adapt to without sacrificing our identity. And yet, there seems no alternative: the powers of pursuasion around us seem to go against us; we seem unable to stand up to the wave. It's not fair. Importantly, I think this feeling can arise in different ways in different individuals. A lot depends on the narrative that an individual has within themselves about the 'meaning' of what they are seeing (this is a rational reaction); a lot depends on the willingness to open to different experiences (this is to do with flexibility of identity); a lot depends on the suspension of judgement (this is to do with an openness to irrationality). An inability to suspend judgement, or a personal narrative which takes some moral exception to what is done (as many have with Wagner for example), will all lead to the same feeling of 'being coerced'.

I think that becoming more aware of the mechanisms whereby these conflicts occur may be the first step towards understanding fairness in a more precise way. (But of course the challenge would be to ensure that such an understanding of fairness would be seen as 'fair'!)

Saturday, 12 March 2011


Once basic human needs (for shelter, food, clothing) have been satisfied with little human effort, the people of RISKWORLD find that they don't really have to do anything. Unfortunately, doing nothing is a sure route to madness. So what do they do?

They spend their time worrying. Worrying about their children, their future, their homes, climate change, car insurance, the pet cat and cancer. The world they see is full of RISK. Worry affects them directly and biologically. Their blood pressure rises, they don't sleep, they get into arguments, they get sick.

Many say that this worry within RISKWORLD people is a madness within each individual. But people worry together... and most interestingly, they start to trade their worries. Because they have found that the thing that the worry does to their biology can be allieviated with things that give them new possibilities.

Money is the thing they reach for first. It gives them all sorts of possibilities, but it also requires them to choose how to realise those possibilities. They worry about making the right choice. They tend to think that the more money they have and spend, the more likely the successful alleviation of their anxiety. Many spend their money on 'palliatives': drinking, dining, dancing, having a good time. Those who provide such palliatives (who are subject to the same forces of anxiety) are happy with this exchange! They know that the effects of a palliative won't last, and the customers will be back for more.

Some will spend their money on technologies: often as a means to provide easier (and to-hand) access to palliatives in the form of home entertainment and education.

For many, money will become an objective. They see how money can make money if they realise its possibilities in a certain way (through investments, property). They understand that money makes money by creating new RISK. Because if new RISK is created, new anxiety is created, and if new anxiety is created, there is increased demand for palliatives and other services which are used to manage anxiety. Those who control the manufacture of RISK chase money in a game that is played with those who are subject to worry in their exposure to risk. Those who control the manufacture of RISK also have a technique for creating new RISK: they take things that were seen as risk-free and create risk around them. They call this 'servitisation'.

Ironically, those that control the game of RISK rarely escape the anxiety that they believe money can help them escape.

Some will spend their money on education. They know that if education really 'works', they can escape their anxiety, and they can help those around them. But it's a big 'if': they know that education depends on them and on their teachers. But they might just succeed. Education sits in an environment of risk manufacture. RISK is manufactured in the form of blocks to employability without education. RISK is manufactured in the form of assessment and accreditation regimes. RISK is manufactured in the form of the removal of other aspects of possibility (particularly money, but also degrees of freedom whilst studying). The effect of some of these RISK-manufacture processes can be to increase and not decrease anxiety. Because of its tight-rope nature, education carries a particularly high price tag.

Wednesday, 9 March 2011

Possibility and Risk

Money, technology and education all deal with possibility.
They differ in terms of the nature of the risk they entail.

Money can be used to compensate for the loss of a 'property relation' by stimulating a person's identity with possibilities. Money is reliable in being able to deliver new possibilities ("I promise to pay the bearer..."), although the things that money is exchanged for are not necessarily 'reliable': in other words, they carry risk. This becomes interesting when money, as a form of possibility, is exchanged for something else which is also possibility - like technology, education or financial investments.

Technology, for example, only delivers if it works, or the person possessing has the skill to use it, or at least the desire to use it.

Financial investments only work if you are lucky and get good advice.

Education only delivers if the person purchasing it has the inclination and determination to succeed, and the providers of education equally have the determination to help learners succeed. The risks of failure are high.

The risks inherent in exchanging money for things like education or technology are increasingly being introduced to the purchase of material artefacts. I think this is what is happening with servitisation. A material artefact - like a house - with which I might establish an 'property relation', will often be delivered in conjunction with a service contract. The service contract will establish a legal framework within the terms of which the property relation will apply. A property relation with a servitised house is not the same as a property relation with a house without services. The difference is the degree of risk which enters the equation.

Is risk manufactured by society as a way of creating the need for services to manage that risk? New legal frameworks and legal conditions all impose risk on those property relations that were previously without risk (or the risk was much less). Thus, in waste disposal, risk is introduced in terms of fines for disposing of too much waste. Risk is manufactured by service providers as a way of demarcating the types and 'quality' of services which can be consumed. Thus, in travel, 'budget travel' incurs higher risk than premium travel.

In education, risk is introduced through greater reliance on self-motivation, organisation and attention to detail. Risks might be alleviated through higher service costs which might accompany personal tutoring, etc.

In technology, risk is introduced through usability or functionality, which can be constrained. The constraint of functionality in 'higher risk' products makes a greater reliance on individual flexibility.

In exchanging one form of possibility (money) for another (education or technology) involves realising the possibility inherent in what is exchanged for money, but balancing this 'realised possibility' for risk. To some extent, risk is traded against possibility. Society may 'manufacture' risk as a way of maintaining its viability. In post-industrialised societies, this may be the only thing we make!

Friday, 4 March 2011

Property relations, Positioning and Narrative

Is a "property relation" a feature of what Harre would call a person's narrative?

In a recent paper on music, I argued that 'Positioning' was effectively a steering mechanism which functioned to maintain the viability of a person by determining the types of communications, or sensory response they needed to make.

The paper dealt with the process of memory as a steered regulatory process with a material environment. A property relation, I think, is such a process.

A narrative is comprised partly of memories. In Harre's view, narrative emerges in a tri-partite relation between normative 'positioning' (what we might call conditioning), and the speech acts of individuals which are transformative of the normative situation as well as having a direct impact on other individuals.

Narratives involve property relations which will be partly determined in a normative context: for example, an economy.

I'm thinking the simplest way of sorting this stuff out is to bring Harre's triagular relationship together with Luhmann's distinction of psychic and social systems:

There are three nodes and three relationships.
'Position' relates to Luhmann's Social System: it is a normatively produced network of communications. Narrative and illocutionary force relate to Luhmann's Psychic system: they are predominantly psychological. The relationship between narrative and illocutionary acts is Luhmann's mechanism of information-utterance
The relationship between an illocutionary act and Position is meaning-making and understanding in Luhmann. The relationship, between narrative and position is a Property relation, which has a direct bearing on identity. I've labelled these 'sensual productions' because that's what I'm thinking a property relation really is....

Thursday, 3 March 2011

Money, Education and Freedom

I'm wondering if the principle of 'exchange' is a principle of regulation of personal viability, identity and the material and social world. Identity is established in a way where 'property relations' are established with material and social reality (or at least external material artefacts and other people). Individual adaptation and 'steering' entails the evolution of identity by relinquishing some property relations and establishing new ones. The loss of a property relation would be seen as a threat to identity (for example, in theft); however, by providing compensatory stimulation, the feeling of loss of identity is balanced. Money is a universal mechanism to provide a balancing compensation for the loss of a property relation and its general form of stimulation is to compensate with 'possibility'. Education also deals with 'possibility'.. But what does education compensate for? The sacrifice that learners make for educational possibility is an important question: we might think they sacrifice 'freedom' in some way.. but how can this work?

But then, by my definition "freedom is the measure of the robustness of control an individual has over their identity", freedom is not a commodity or a property relation. Freedom is not something which one has a direct property relation to. It pertains to the state and organisational structure of an individual. However, that state can be manipulated through environmental circumstances. What is it when this happens? I think the question revolves around the extent to which one person can be in a property relation to another. Our children are in a property relation to us; slaves are in a property relation to their masters; husbands and wives, etc. Producers and consumers may be in a mutual property relationship (are they?).

These inter-personal property relations involve material changes to the environment whereby material property relations as expressions of individual identity are partly used to manipulate the identity and property relations of others. I think I'm back on a familiar theme: transformations to the environment through property relations which have either intended or unintended consequences on the identity and property relations of others. Once again, Positioning Theory starts to appear as the most sensible way of thinking this through.

Using this formula, imprisonment is relatively easy to understand. The prisoner is the property of the gaoler (or indeed, Her Majesty!). The property relation with the prisoner is manipulated by exploiting the property relations with the material world, which happens to be the environment of the prisoner. This manipulation deprives the prisoner of the ability to form property relations with anything (even their cell can be manipulated). However, property relations between people are rarely so extreme. The parent may well exploit their property relation with the child's environment, but will often engage in some form of exchange with the child so that the child is able to establish their own property relations and their identity. The same applies to teachers, who once again manipulate the learners' environment, but exchange some property-relations (but of what?) for the learners to develop.

What about service providers and service consumers? Here it is interesting, because what is manipulated is not just a product or artefact (although there may well be a 'phone' for example) or a person, but also a legal framework. In submitting to a legal framework (like a service agreement), consumers exchange money (possibility) for  (say) technology (also possibility?). They also expose themselves to some risk (they cannot escape the contract until a certain time, for example). The property relation they have with their phone is conditional, so whilst they might realise the possibility entailed through establishing a property relation with a new phone, they also carry the risk that that particular property relation, and consequently that part of their identity, might collapse.

Risk characterises the engagement with education. Whilst educational processes might create identity and realise possibility, they might also crush it. In exchanging possibility in the form of money for possibility in the form of education, what enters the picture is a heightened risk. (So Ulrich Beck rears his head again!). What do learners give up when they enter education? Yes, they give up freedom in the sense of submitting to an environment (effectively a legal environment) determined by the property relations of their teachers and their educational institutions. If their teachers are good teachers, they will know how to relinquish some of their property relations for the benefit of the learners. If they are not, learners will find themselves not just alienated from the environment, but on the receiving end of the legal consequence of the risk that they took on: a bloody big bill!

Wednesday, 2 March 2011

Exchange, money and the process of property

Yesterday, I described how property might be conceived of as a process which relates individual viability and identity to external artefacts and people. I wondered about the effects of loss of property - not just theft - which has an immediate systemic reaction in the individual, but also those instances where property might be lost without the individual realising it. The latter can be achieved, I think, when other sensual stimuli are applied at the moment of the loss to compensate for the stimuli presented by the artefact itself. There are simple tricks and illusions that can demonstrate how this might work.

Now I want to think about exchange in this process. For the principle of exchange is precisely one of compensation, and I wonder about the extent to which that compensation is sensual and to what extent it is communicative. We exchange artefacts according to our individual needs and desires. Those needs and desires arise from particular states of viability within an individual where the preservation of identity is judged to be dependent on new sensual stimulation brought about through establishing new 'property relations' with new artefacts. A calculation as to the loss of existing 'property relations' through exchange is then made, this also taking into account the needs and desires of those who have established property relations with the artefact that we might desire - for whom there will similarly be a loss.

Direct exchange is the simplest case: a swap. But it is interesting to consider what money does. Money appears to be a universal mediator of exchange. What happens when a property relation is given up for money? What is the nature of the compensatory stimulation? I think money represents (within an economy) possibility - in other words, it represents the capacity to establish new identity relations without specifying immediately what they are. This is a high-level stimulation of a person's viable operation (in the VSM, it is at System 5 and 4). It would counter-balance operational and reactive activity. Typically, when operational issues get too hot to handle, a response is to "throw money at it". That means "try and stimulate the mechanisms of possibility". What does that mean with regard to the bail-out of the banks?

However, establishing property relations with money itself can not contribute to personal viability or the maintenance of identity. This may be because money is not material, and identity depends on the relation between a person and the material world... although I'm not sure about this. But in our society many people do exactly this, and it leads to personal and social pathology, usually in the form of greed.

Part of my interest in all this is because money and property is going to become a big factor in the future of education. This is a curious situation, because education is closely tied to the establishment of identity, which in my view, is also about the establishment of property relations. There is clearly a 'deal' that will be done between students and universities and that deal will be conceived in terms of money. However, this money does not relate to property relations that exist at the time the deal is struck, but potential of property relations in years to come. But education can also creates potential. Thus, where education 'works' the potential of property relations created by it will outweigh the potential of monetary exchange made for it.

The problem is that money is a bit more reliable than education in increasing the potential of property relations. But education and money would seem to be very similar entities in terms of their function.

Property as 'process'

My previous post started to explore thinking around irrationality, sensuality, rationality and economics. What dawned on me as I was writing it was the idea that our concept of property needs to be characterised as a process, rather than an attribution of artefacts or social relations. I've been thinking more about this.

Property is a process that relates personal identity to material artefacts or people. In the realm of a distributed cognition model, this is not hard to visualise: certain artefacts may provide sensual stimuli which compensate for a process of maintaining viability and identity. In addition, such artefacts also contribute to communications which also contribute to the viability of individuals and the maintenance of identity. Our families are perhaps the most telling aspect of this process. Whilst loved ones are not strictly 'property', they provide both a sensual contribution and a communicative contribution to our identity to such an extent that the loss of a loved one is in a very fundamental way a loss of identity. It's not uncommon to hear of people saying "part of me died when he/she died".

Something similar happens with material artefacts I think. They contribute both sensual stimuli which balance identity processes and individual viability, as well as supporting communications. Many material artefacts also have a social hinterland... they were given by people who are important to us, or have deeper significance. This is all part of their sensual import. Our possession of 'memories' becomes tied to those artefacts with which we do our remembering. In this way, those artefacts become an important part of a 'property process'.

But Marxists might argue that property is theft... But I don't think you can steal a process. What they mean is that the process of identity can be threatened by others who seek to maintain their identity with the same artefacts, and thus rob others of those artefacts, and consequently rob them of part of their identity.

Interestingly, seeing property as process raises the questions as to ways in which property may be taken away without a person realising it. Derren Brown does this! (there's a famous clip of him taking the wallet and watch of passer's-by) The trick is to replace the sensual stimulation of the property artefact with some other sensual stimulation... Of course this only needs to be done in the moment of the removal of the property to prevent conflict. After the event, a person might realise the lack of the artefact, but is powerless to do anything about it, and is simply left feeling bereft. At a societal level, I think this is what is going on with the march of servitisation.

Which raises questions about justice and freedom. I have arrived at two simple definitions (which may be completely wrong!).
Freedom is a measure of the robustness of control of an individual over their identity.
Justice is a measure of robustness of control of processes of identity in a society.