Sunday, 24 June 2012

Attachment, Security and Conservative Policy

The Conservative government in the UK is producing some eye-watering policy statements at the moment, the most striking one of which appeared today in the form of a proposal to prevent under 25 year-olds from accessing housing benefit. The press speculation is that this is a political move within the Conservative party designed to appeal to hard-core Tory voters (the ones who bemoan scrounging youths who have babies to get council housing).

I don't want to criticise the policy in this post. I want to think how something which appears so oblivious and cavalier regarding the stresses bearing on young people, can be considered by the Conservative party and their supporters as a good idea. I think that in explaining this, we might get a clearer picture on the  real effects of the policy, rather than simply mud-slinging at the government.

Family attachments are complicated. Whether you are wealthy or whether you are poor, the meaningfulness of your life depends on the well-being and success of those closest to you.  Consider that you are a banker, Peter, with two children (Jonathan, 10 and Rebecca, 12) living in a large house in the suburbs (say Harpenden). You have about £1m in investments, some of it in property which you have purchased in London. Your children are at private school, because you passionately believe that anything less will damage their chances of doing well in life. Your wife looks after the children and doesn't work (her zero income is useful for balancing out the tax burden of property income!). You love your children, and your marriage ticks along in a orderly manner without too much undue stress (of course, the healthy financial situation helps with that). You work very hard, rarely getting home before 9 or 10pm.

You are obviously worried about the economic situation. The government being broke and the ensuing recession will threaten your business. Losing your job (which is highly paid) is a possibility. If that happened, then those you love will be affected. The children will have to leave their schools, the houses may have to be sold, the children will not inherit them and get that precious foot-on-the-ladder in the property market. And your marriage, whilst ticking along fine in times of abundance, will be much heavier-going if times are hard ("did she really only marry me for my money?" you think). In short, there is a dark fear lurking in the background. How to avert this?

With the same clarity that  you apply in your professional dealings, the answer is obvious. The government cannot continue to go overdrawn by an additional £2bn a month. The country must live within its means. Where does the money get spent? Housing benefit? For the young? Why can't they live with their parents (everyone should do their bit)?

But the motivation is a fear for security. In fact, the security which has been built up, and which now is protected probably has its roots deep in the childhoods of the bankers themselves. The fears of loss, the memories of their own parents' struggles, of the desire "not to repeat their mistakes" all play in the minds of those who would gladly rip into the public sector in a cleansing ritual of 'financial responsibility'. Jonathan and Rebecca themselves are only the latest in the production-line of this kind of biological programming.

But Brian,21, is the butt of this particular social experiment. He's not worked for 6 months (an apprenticeship in a local garage finished recently - badly). He grew up with a mother who was barely in control of her life. Numerous men passed through the family, some nice, others not. She herself struggled to give Brian her attention - there was too much to deal with; she was too tired. Brian has struggled to maintain relationships, either romantically or socially.

He still sleeps at home. Although he doesn't really sleep - it's unbearable. He longs to get out. But he can't. There is nothing he can do. If he is thrown out, he will be on the streets (he has spent a few nights on the streets in the past). Nobody seems able to help him.

With damaged attachments like this, it is hard to see what is meaningful in Brian's life. Yet there are things which cheer him up. He sees pretty girls - they cheer him up; he watches the football in the pub; and a packet of cigarettes or a spliff will do the trick. He dreams, as anyone else dreams, of love and security. Yet when he wakes, the dream only feeds the frustration of the disconnect between fantasy and reality. There used to be people to help him (that's where the apprenticeship came from). But those support programmes have been cut. Everyone around him, like his mother, has no time, is too tired.

The point about this is that the malaise the Brian suffers from is the same as the malaise that drives Peter to want to make Brian's life even less bearable. Peter's worries have led to the  cuts to the services that might have helped Brian. Yet the similarity between the situations is lost in the political rhetoric.

What it is to be human is precisely what it is to live together. We know this from our own families and those we love. The question about government expenditure and Conservative policy is a question about where we draw the line between those we care for immediately near us, and those whose fates have a causal bearing on our own. David Cameron, and Peter, would like to draw the line around their immediate family. Yet the security they crave cannot arise from exacerbating cruel circumstances of those who are not in the immediate circle. Seeing the connected attachment situation makes this clear.

The £2bn deficit is a sign of a regulatory problem. But in order to identify the causal relations that underly this  regulatory problem, the deeper mechanisms of human living and loving must be inspected. Greater realism about attachments at all levels of society may shed a new light on these problems. 

Friday, 22 June 2012

Accountancy and Accountability

The scourge of many educational institutions at the present time is the dominance of University accountants. Budgets are slashed, staff laid-off, students short-changed and the essence of what it is to be a University reduced to a balance sheet (which in many cases shows a healthy surplus!). A kind of "econometrics of the University" drives morale ever deeper into a depression from where the strength and will required to treat students and each other decently becomes harder and harder to muster. Wounds are inflicted upon wounds and the desensitization of those who are left to the barbarity of it all is the only available survival strategy. This must be madness: but what kind of madness?

Socrates has four kinds of divine madness, as Plato describes in Phaedrus: erotic (madness of Aphrodite), prophetic (madness of Apollo), telestic (madness of Dionysus, ritualistic madness) and the madness of the muses. I'm sure the madness of the accountants isn't erotic (I might be tempted to be rude about the prerequisite imagination for that... but I shall avoid casting aspersions). On the same grounds, I do not believe that the madness of Universities has anything to do with the muses. Whilst there may be one or two Nero-like VCs out there who have heard voices about what their institutions should do, I think on the whole that the situation is the result of the absence of any muses.

Is it prophetic madness? Well, there may be an element of that - after all, there is some doomsday scenario (where the University runs out of money) that the accountants are trying to forestall. But the prophecy is only a narrow vision: the world is much richer than the balance sheet shows, although of course the balance sheet is important. But there are also a variety of ways of dealing with that - if only there was the imagination (back to the muses) to deal with it.

What about telestic madness? I think this is closest to the mark. What the accountants (and many VCs) are caught in is the ritual of accountancy. These are the rituals of the balance sheet. They involve extravagant human sacrifice through which managers are purged of their sins. Irrespective of the havoc caused to morale, academic credibility, individual lives, student experience or reputation, the extravagance of slashing, of building surpluses, etc, serves the needs of the money God. It's a bit like Harvest Festival, but with student fees instead of potatoes. But whilst the institution is caught in its telestic spell, there is little to be done. For it is not only the Universities which are caught in this, but right now, the whole world. In the absence of any coordinating principle, confusion and disorder produce only expediency.

We've been here before. Socrates knew this kind of madness well. So did Shakespeare. He has Ulysses utter these remarkable lines on the subject of order, or 'degree', and the chaos that ensues when degree is suffocated. This is where we are now: "the general is not like the hive", "The unworthiest shows as fairly in the mask.", "Everything includes itself in Power; Power into will, will into apetite; and apetite, an universal wolf [..] must make perforce an universal prey, and eat himself up.":
The specialty of rule hath been neglected: 
And, look, how many Grecian tents do stand 
Hollow upon this plain, so many hollow factions. 
When that the general is not like the hive 
To whom the foragers shall all repair, 
What honey is expected? 
Degree being vizarded, 
The unworthiest shows as fairly in the mask. 
The heavens themselves, the planets and this centre 
Observe degree, priority and place, 
Insisture, course, proportion, season, form, 
Office and custom, in all line of order; 
And therefore is the glorious planet Sol 
In noble eminence enthroned and sphered 
Amidst the other; whose medicinable eye 
Corrects the ill aspects of planets evil, 
And posts, like the commandment of a king, 
Sans cheque to good and bad: but when the planets 
In evil mixture to disorder wander, 
What plagues and what portents! what mutiny! 
What raging of the sea! shaking of earth! 
Commotion in the winds! frights, changes, horrors, 
Divert and crack, rend and deracinate 
The unity and married calm of states 
Quite from their fixure! 
O, when degree is shaked, 
Which is the ladder to all high designs, 
Then enterprise is sick! 
How could communities, 
Degrees in schools and brotherhoods in cities, 
Peaceful commerce from dividable shores, 
The primogenitive and due of birth, 
Prerogative of age, crowns, sceptres, laurels, 
But by degree, stand in authentic place? 
Take but degree away, untune that string, 
And, hark, what discord follows! each thing meets 
In mere oppugnancy: the bounded waters 
Should lift their bosoms higher than the shores 
And make a sop of all this solid globe: 
Strength should be lord of imbecility, 
And the rude son should strike his father dead: 
Force should be right; or rather, right and wrong, 
Between whose endless jar justice resides, 
Should lose their names, and so should justice too. 
Then every thing includes itself in power, 
Power into will, will into appetite; 
And appetite, an universal wolf, 
So doubly seconded with will and power, 
Must make perforce an universal prey, 
And last eat up himself. 
Great Agamemnon, 
This chaos, when degree is suffocate, 
Follows the choking. 
And this neglection of degree it is 
That by a pace goes backward, with a purpose 
It hath to climb. 
The general's disdain'd 
By him one step below, he by the next, 
That next by him beneath; so every step, 
Exampled by the first pace that is sick 
Of his superior, grows to an envious fever 
Of pale and bloodless emulation: 
And 'tis this fever that keeps Troy on foot, 
Not her own sinews. 
To end a tale of length, 
Troy in our weakness stands, not in her strength.
Shakespeare had been where we are now. What we must ask is how they got out of it.  I believe the only way out is the re-establishment of our principles: of decency to one another, of honourable conduct towards future generations, as to past generations, and more than anything else, a love and respect for life, not to balance sheets, or any other less worthy fabrication. 

Universities are on a sticky wicket with an obeisance to the balance sheet. Because University is by definition Universal. Balance sheets are not universal, and the religion that surrounds them is false. For those working in Universities today, however, there must be a moment of conscience. Principles have to be campaigned and fought for. Econometics, which has played a leading role in the development of our current crisis, emerged in the US universities under a McCarthyite regime which would only trust an economics grounded in equations and an idealised and ineffective model of  the world, rather than a critical economics which was fundamentally politcal (and by implication, Communist). Economists caved in. They wanted to keep their comfortable academic jobs. And this is where it's got us. 

How corrupt do Universities have to become before those who want to do the thinking that Universities are meant to support have to abandon them? And if we don't abandon them and instead serve the Money-God, what will be the consequences for future generations?

Thursday, 21 June 2012

Togetherness, Technology and "Tools for Conviviality"

I have recently focused on issues of 'togetherness' and 'conviviality' in my posts, highlighting problems in current conceptions of technology which talk of 'social networks' or 'online communities' which are not social and certainly not communities (see But it is not just a cosy idea of people being together that I am after. I see it really as a re-awakening of the realities of human experience, and an acknowledgement of what we find most meaningful in life. I am most interested in those issues which are foremost at the end of life: what do people worry about? How do they make sense of the briefness of life and the inevitability of its end? My experience (and the experience of many other people) tells me that it is love and relationships which are foremost in the thoughts of those for whom death is an imminent prospect. But (to exploit a play on words), death,I believe, is also immanent in life. It is the fundamental constraint or absence that weighs on us all.

But really we have to consider what is meaningful in the first place, and what might be in meaningfulness to make it meaningful. Here, I have considered the view of meaning as a "structuring of anticipations", and that when we find something meaningful it is because at the moment of perceiving something meaningful, we perceive a change in our possibilities to act which is determined by the extent to which we have confidence in the consequences of our action. It is precisely at the moment that two people declare their love for each other and have some confidence in the consequences of touching each other that the meaning is most intense. But it may be a mistake to think of this horizon of expectations (as Husserl calls it - I'm very grateful to Leydesdorff for making me aware of this literature) as some sort of logical network of possibilities. It is more like a logical realisation of the form of something.

A work of art may be meaningful to us because it makes us aware of its form, and in so doing, reveals a relationship of possibilities that allows us to anticipate our experiences as we look upon it. Whilst we may be surprised by what we see (and the greater the art, the greater the surprise), we are nonetheless ready for the surprise because we understand the form of the territory that we are inhabiting. This is, I think, because what we become aware of are the shared constraints between the artist's intention and our own: anticipation comes from a realisation of shared constraint, and by implication, so does meaning.

It is the same in love as it is in shared activity like musical performances. The score, for example, operates as a shared constraint - each person knows the limitations within which they act. That means they know the limitations of everyone else they act with. That means they can anticipate the actions of  those around them. This is where I think such performances become deeply meaningful to us.

One of the problems with technology is that it is difficult to establish shared constraints among a large group of people. They might look at the learning system or the social network, but then again, they might browse somewhere else, or do something else. Nobody is going to say "that's not within the rules"..  they are free to do what they want. But with this freedom comes atomisation of the individual - each individual operates in their own universe. Consequently the world is difficult to anticipate and can appear meaningless. Shallow forms of anticipation take over - expedient action which through manipulation of existing social structures can at least be guaranteed some predictable outcome. (So when I post this post, I will get an increase in hits on my blog). But such things are only superficial and skate over deeper issues of human existence.

Using technology to establish conviviality may provide a way of getting around this. On the whole, we do not have what Illich called "tools for conviviality". We have super-powerful tools for amplifying the individual, which in turn effectively atomise the individual. Tools for conviviality are tools for the sharing of absences, so that those using such tools are collectively aware of what is not there for each other. In so doing, they become more aware of the hidden absent forces which structure the form of hiuman engagements. In being aware of that, their  ability to anticipate, and their ability to identify meaning in the experience follows.

Most online tools concern themselves with presence. They positivise being. Convivial tools negate presence - they privilege non-being. Illich's argument was that convivial tools were very simple: a spade or a hammer. The point is that with such objects, what is absent is much more dominant than what is present. Yet it is the instinct of software developers (particularly) to throw everything into their tools: to positivise being in the usage of their tools. There is little acknowledgement of absence. But with simple tools, absences can be explored and shared. And it is in the sharing and being made aware of absences that convivial and meaningful experiences may be established.

Tuesday, 19 June 2012

Counterpoint and Absence

I was until fairly recently a skeptic regarding absence. How can something that's "not there" be causal? Indeed, if we think in terms of absences, surely the pinpointing of absence makes it non-absent? With regard to the 1st point, however, I'm become more keenly aware of the causal impact of what's 'not there'. Regarding the 2nd point, however, I think there are deep problems with trying to pinpoint absences. But that is for another time. Here, as with all my thinking about learning, education, etc, I want to test the abstraction of absence and the thinking about the causality of non-being on my understanding of music.

Here, I have begun to find some compelling reasons to take absence seriously. My last post was about the role of absences on patterns of thought, and how patterns of thought are shaped by an environment which cannot be properly determined. Certainly those patterns of thought are not merely the product of their own internal arguments.

This seems counter-intuitive until you consider that the pattern of thought of a supposedly 'logical' argument bears some resemblance to a counter-melody in counterpoint. The progress of the melody is only partly due to it's internal logic and motivation; it is also determined by its relationship with whatever else was there in the first place. So consider that the following in there in the first place...
Add caption
Now this provides the 'absence' or the 'constraint' for whatever might be laid on top of it.. So I might write:

I could continue the process by doing this...
and so on. 

What's going on here? Each part that is added is added against a context which constrains what it is it might do. Whilst there is an inner requirement for each part to move in a logical way, sometimes the counterpoint demands that certain movements are required (I was never very good at this kind of thing!)

But the philosophical point is one about how what isn't there is causal. Now we might say that an existing melody isn't absent, but clearly present. Yet I think only part of it is present. One of the key things about writing any kind of counterpoint is a process of revealing qualities in the melody against which one is writing the counterpoint. That 'revealing' suggests to me that there are qualities and phenomena present in the melody which are not immediately present when the melody is played. They are discovered on interacting with the melody.

Straight counterpoint like this, though, is only one way of revealing the absence in a melody. There are other ways of doing this.. For example, harmonic effects might be added like this..
What does that do? Well, once again, it changes the character of the 'absent' melody... it reveals something new. But the point is that all the time that these new 'moves' are made, new implications are realised, and those implications (psychological expectations, for example) carry with them new patterns of thought (new meanings?) which are shaped by what was there and what isn't there.

I think it is thinking about this that I am beginning to appreciate that there is something quite deep in the renaissance practice of 'species counterpoint'. It may be that this encounter with absence (within which the absence that is God is one factor), was very much in the minds of composers who composed with traditional counterpoint, and that this may have had a bearing of that particular style of music.

But having got to the point of starting to unpick this, I think I am searching for some technique for understanding it a bit more clearly and  (perhaps) a bit more analytically.. 

Monday, 18 June 2012

Forms of thought and conviviality

I've just returned from a conference on the topic of "How scientific can the study of society be in the context of economics and business studies" in Marseille which I have found fascinating and highly relevant to my thinking about technology and education. I had spent the first part of the week in Brussels at a meeting for the iTEC project, and putting these two events together has given me lots to think about.

The group in Marseille largely approach economics from heterodox positions. That means no simple assumptions about mainstream economic categories and certainly it means a critique of capitalism.  At the heart of this critique, Critical Realism has played a major role in driving a branch of inquiry into social ontology, which has been promoted by Tony Lawson and the Cambridge Social Ontology Group.

My paper was about abstraction and time, and how even the best-intentioned economic critique employs abstractions which are far removed from the real experiences of those they relate to, and which have the greatest causal bearing on the types of decisions that are ultimately made. In short, the experience of individuals in committee meetings - whether they are bored, coerced, frightened, etc - have the greatest impact on the quality of policy decisions which emerge from those meetings. Critical abstraction may help in identifying the questions that need to be asked, but ultimately, critical abstractions are usually only shared among academics.

What I am particularly interested in is how absence plays a role in the formation both of critical thought and in the experience generally. Our thinking takes a form not just through the logical consistency of its arguments, but because of unspecifiable absences or constraints which operate on its development - for example, our personal histories, ambitions, politics, the room we meet in, and so on. Although of course, some of these might be identifiable, as soon as they are identified, then our thinking takes on a new direction, and absences also have a bearing on that. Reflecting after my presentation in response to a comment from one of the participants, Heidegger's language of 'enframing' sums this up rather well.  He says in "A question concerning technology":
Questioning builds a way. We would be advised, therefore, above all to pay heed to the way, and not to fix our attention on isolated sentences and topics. The way is one of thinking. All ways of thinking, more or less perceptibly, lead through language in a manner that is extraordinary.
I think this is what I am talking about. But I have tried to be more specific about this 'way' or the 'forming' of questioning by absence by using Von Foester's Eigenform idea (see In thinking about the recursive moments of the production of an eigenform, the way in which the motion of the eigenform may depend on absence in the environment is what is interesting me. In my presentation I started to draw this:

(I'm not sure that my audience understood this... and I'm still feeling my way... although feeling my way through recursion and absence!) What I didn't get as far as saying was that I think this 'forming' of thinking necessitates conviviality. I started my presentation by asking participants to draw their emotions in response to a piece of music (Debussy's 'Reflets dans l'Eau').. this was a way of highlighting the difference between abstraction and experience.

In fact I could have done more than that. Because what I think this kind of activity produces is a shared awareness of absence. The big problem with abstraction as I see it is that it can only occur within one head.. any other head that encounters an abstraction has to be taught.. and that process goes on against the context of its own absences: things get corrupted easily because each person has their own absences which shape their own ways of thinking.

When individuals do an activity together (like listening to music and drawing), they recognise a common absence. This combined with the rules of the activity mean that the form of their collective thought follows a coordinated pattern. In turn, that means that the positioning between one person and the next is more open, accepting and appreciative that it usually is when there is an 'expert' in the room. So this would look like:

It is this requirement for the co-emergence of eigenforms of thought and the appreciation of forms of experience which is where I would like to see management science moving. Transformative praxis, which is the goal of Critical Realism, cannot - I think - be achieved through abstraction alone. What needs to be changed in order to transform praxis is the positioning between people. For that to change, an awareness of the absences that are shared is important, so that forms of thought can be coordinated. Only in this way can many brains think as one brain. And I think that technology has an important role to play both in the establishment of meaningful activity for this to happen, and in the creation of absences which lead to the specific forms of thought which lead us to so much trouble at the moment.

Finally, there's something to say about meaning and ethics here. Meaning, I believe, relates to anticipation. Convivial experiences are meaningful precisely because the shared awareness of absence means that a mutual acknowledgement of the constraints of thinking and action lead to a shared sense of anticipation of the actions of one another. The meaningfulness of the environment creates the conditions for 'doing the right thing' which, under the conditions of pathological positioning, fear, and so on, is extremely difficult. But the very least we would hope for is that those in committee meetings 'do the right thing': but poor positioning, and a failure to appreciate the absences that are shared makes that frighteningly difficult.

Thursday, 7 June 2012

Alienation and Online Learning

I posted a while back about alienation in education (see In this post, I want to ask
"If we were determined to do something about alienation of both learners and teachers, what would we do?" 
In particular, I want to consider what we might do if we were to address the problem of alienation online. 

Online education is the big challenge for alienation: it can be just about the most alienating experience imaginable! There are so many seriously crappy online learning experiences out there. Yet they make money because students have little choice. And there, with that lack of choice, the alienation starts. But that's just the beginning... referring back to Marx's forms of alienation which I discussed in my post, we see:

  1. Alientation of students from their work - because online courses are often little more than face-to-face courses provided to an online audience, the assessed work that students do appears repetitive, mundane, utterly pointless if it were not for the fact that it might lead to a qualification, which itself only has a point because (so students are led to believe) the employment market requires it. 
  2. Alienation from study itself, whose only purpose is to pass assessments. Online courses are particularly bad at this because the 'content' is provided online, and often the 'assessment' is a test of how well learners have read and understood the  content. It only makes sense from a managerial perspective because it is relatively easily and cheaply organised. From every other perspective it is ghastly. 
  3. Alienation of student from him/herself as a social agent. This is the real 'killer' with many online courses. With alienation from work and alienation from study, notions of the student's work as being socially transformative, about making a difference, about personal development or about political commitment go flying out of the window. Even constructivist-style open courses (like MOOCs) this form of alienation is still prevalent: there, political commitment is flattened to linguistic exchanges, and individuals are atomised within a network of communication. 
  4. Alienation of the student from other students. This is where the web itself, as a network of communication, conspires with the deepest alienation of all: the atomisation of the individual.  There is no conviviality in a MOOC. At least conviviality was present in face-to-face exchanges, and students would all moan together in the pub about their terrible lectures. Online it's not like that. Indeed, the medium cannot support the sotto-voce mutter about experiences, because of the risks that their comments find their way into the forum or onto Twitter. The big brother technology has eyes everywhere.
So if we were seriously going to do something about this, about alienation, about mundane and meaningless assessment, about the pointlessness of study, about the depoliticisation of education and about deep social structuring in education, what would we do?

My starting point for thinking about this is "Conviviality" (see

But if the medium of the web atomises people, how can conviviality be possible? I believe the answer to this lies in the possibility of performance. Conviviality requires a shared purpose and a clear and simple division of labour, which is both intrinsically rewarding, and collectively meaningful. Performance can do this, but it requires skilful design and coordination. And whilst the asychronous aspects of the web are fantastically useful, the synchronous experience of online togetherness in performance can be just as memorable and powerful as real face-to-face performances. Indeed, online performance has many advantages over face-to-face performances, since it is more flexible and (potentially) easier to organise. It is this performative aspect of education which makes me passionately interested in open source hardware, the real-time web, Raspberry Pi, etc, etc. I want to see a future of performance online as a way of establishing conviviality in a society which is increasingly atomised.

So conviviality and performance may deal with alienation of the student from other students. But in dealing with this, we are already onto the alienation of the student from him/herself as a social agent. Togetherness is political. Performances can be hard-hitting, and powerful performances can be socially transformative. It requires creativity, imagination, courage. But it is achievable. 

But what then of the alienation from study itself? How can study serve a purpose? Paulo Freire started with the togetherness and conviviality, and then a recognition (conscientization) of oppressive forces. Emancipation comes through learning. Learning does not have to be the slave of mindless assessment; it can be discovered to be necessary if learners want to be free. But for this to happen, learners must explore and discover their political voices and the things that hold them back. So performance leads to politics which leads to conscientization which leads to the necessity for authentic learning.

But finally, what of the alienation of the student from their work? Is the student's work directed at assessment and certification? Here I have a less easy answer. For, conscientization might well lead to an awareness of the pointlessness of assessment and certification. But such a critical position would be subject to its own pathologies, being as it is an abstraction which potentially loses touch with the reality of the world around us. What is needed is careful and wise steering around assessment and certification. Here, the alienation of students is intrinsically linked with the alienation of teachers and managers. It is the case that rigid assessment processes would make it hard to address other forms of alienation; it is also true that some forms of assessment might encourage or reward more authentic educational practice. But whatever is done, assessment is the thing that Universities do; it is the only thing that they have to organise and certification is the only thing that they offer. Organising assessment and coordinating educational processes must lie at the heart of the institution's thinking about itself. What it must seek is the most effective, fair and efficient way to proceed. Effective so that what is assessed is authentic; fair so that learners feel supported in their individual needs; efficient so that undue costs are not incurred to be passed on to students.

But there are some simple things that could be done to address alienation of the student from their work. This has to do with innovations in feedback. Students want critical commentary and advice from the best minds who can guide them to improve their thinking and skills. Most of the time feedback (in the form of comments on a piece of work) is provided grudgingly by teachers, and often ignored or found not to be meaningful by learners. The problem here is that the positioning between the teacher and pupil is all-too-often a positioning of master-slave. Conventional 'feedback' merely emphasises this relation. But feedback needn't be like this. The innovative use of video can provide an opportunity for teachers to express themselves more fully and emotionally in the light of student's work. Such rich feedback can itself form video objects for students to study. Video and animation technology may provide a richer way of positioning communications between teachers and learners in ways where those communications are more deeply meaningful and more transformative than the grudging comment in red pen on the essay.

There is much more to say about assessment. I hope that one day the transparency of technology and the capacity to identify and share meanings in data gathered from learners will make rigid assessment regimes a thing of the past. But that day is not yet here. However, I do think that there are many innovative things that can be done to make online education a powerful solution to the fundamental questions of student alienation.

Saturday, 2 June 2012

Raspberry Pi: A computer that doesn't matter (a response to Donald Clark)

In a recent post, Donald Clark has laid into Raspberry Pi (see He claims that the mission to get kids programming with the Pi is ill-conceived pedagogically, aesthetically, organisationally and commercially. On these points of course, he may be right. But then again, despite the amateurish website and production delays, there's still quite a buzz around the Pi. Maybe it's nostalgia... but maybe it's because it's CHEAP.

Does the cost matter? In short, I think it does. A lot. The reasons have to do with what we think a computer is in the first place, and in particular in how we have grown up thinking about computers and how manufacturers have affected our thinking.

The nostalgia around the Pi is related to how we think about computers today, and certainly I feel a tinge of nostalgia when looking at the Pi. I was a proud owner of a ZX Spectrum at age 13 in 1982. I vividly remember my dad ordering it over the phone (and having to extend the credit limit on his "Access card" in order to do it - it was a serious moment!), and how I then waited... and waited... and waited for the thing to arrive. Weeks went by. No news. A couple of apology letters. But eventually it did arrive. And, I remember the smell on opening the box, and the excitement of plugging it in.

But what I was subject to at that early age was the impact of (albeit amateurish) commercialism in combination with technology. For me, Sinclair was just magic. Everything they did was magic... and although it was cheap enough to be affordable, it wasn't that cheap. The devices had to be treated with respect... (I managed to blow mine up 3 times, although I don't think it was my fault - I'm sure Manic Miner had something to do with it!).

But the technology+commercialism continued as I migrated first to the Commodore 64, then to Apple and finally to Microsoft. Each time, the technology was expensive, the devices treasured (although much abused!)

Donald Clark is right to stick his Pi in a draw if he doesn't like it. Because it doesn't really matter what he does with it. But that's the point. The not-caring and creative application go hand-in-hand. Personally, I agree with Clark that emphasis on Scratch and programming is unlikely to work. So a disappointed kid thinks "what the hell" and swaps his Pi for a Transformer. It doesn't matter. But this is a computer that doesn't matter - and that's new.

Not mattering becomes interesting when the Pi is freed of the necessity to be tethered to screens and power sockets. 4 AA batteries will do the job, and when the magic of portability for £20 becomes a reality and interesting things start to happen. I reckon the spy bug will be a popular application - after all, it would take some batteries and a cheap microphone or webcam in one of those USB sockets, and away you go (but careful you don't get arrested!). On a similar theme, environmental monitoring would also become very easy and very cheap.

But how about throwing in wireless network connectivity, and then things start to get even more fun. (This, incidentally, is why I've been so impressed with the JeeNode, which at £15 is the same price but is wireless-ready, although only a micro-controller). The integration of physical control with online engagement is something that is only just starting to be explored through the use of mobile apps, but iPads are expensive. Throw a few Pis around (or should that be Pies?), don't worry about them... some of them will work.

But beyond the idea of disposable technology, these kind of examples demonstrate what computers increasingly are to us. My ZX Spectrum was a data-processing machine. I was excited about data processing because that's what all the computers I saw on the TV did (I always remember the giant computer tapes in the 6 Million Dollar Man). My programs for the ZX Spectrum were about data processing (in a very simple way).

Today, the emphasis on user interaction, and the impact of game-like interfaces presents us with a different paradigm for thinking about computers. They are state-machines (of course, they always were state machines, but it wasn't visually apparent). We click a button, the state of the machine changes, giving us new options. In social software, we click a button, and the state of other peoples' machines changes, and the state of the other peoples' minds changes (didn't that feel like a remarkable thing?!). Today, computers are tools for manipulating the informational constraints that we all live with: we are all affected by the knowledge we each have of the world, and the computer allows us to continually modify our knowledge and make decisions accordingly.

iPads are very expensive state machines. Raspberry Pi is a very cheap state machine. With either software or hardware, both can do the same job of manipulating informational constraints. But, apart from its disposability, I think the Pi has other advantages over the iPads, phones and tablets. That is because it allows for hardware innovation as well as software. Now, I said that computers manipulate informational constraints. But we all still live with material constraints too - not just because we get tired or hungry, but because there's something shiny that we haven't seen before, or some peculiar event that occurs when we do something with an "ordinary" object. With a tablet and a screen, we would expect something unusual to happen (although nothing particularly remarkable apart from the screen changing!). But a sensor on a Pi triggering a robot somewhere? It is in this way that both the material and the informational aspects of technology can be exploited.

This is why I think Clark is wrong. The material aspect of technology has been tightly controlled by manufacturers since the beginning of computing. The Pi is the beginning of the end of that control. And with the flexibility to manipulate these complex state machines, and play with their physical form, the focus needs to be on looking forwards rather than back. Computers have given us an environment of too much information, which we are barely able to control, and which buffets us around in a whirlwind of Facebook posts, emails and tweets. The problem we have is we don't know what it all means; we don't know what matters; we cannot decide on what sort of a world we want to live in.

Maybe Raspberry Pi isn't the knight in shining armour, but I do think it is the beginning of something new. Just as the possibility was presented for us to do cool things with our ZX Spectrums in 1982, we now have a possibility for coming to terms with the information-rich world of the 21st century by care-free experimentation with the technologies which are largely to blame for the deep economic and social problems we now have.

Friday, 1 June 2012

Passion and Principle

It's not uncommon in the arts to find artists condemning critics. Here's Dr Johnson, for example
 "Criticism is a study by which men grow important and formidable at very small expense. He whom nature has made weak, and idleness keeps ignorant, may yet support his vanity by the name of a critic."
But Goethe got it just right..
"The person of analytic or critical intellect finds something ridiculous in everything. The person of synthetic or constructive intellect, in almost nothing."
Critics are usually borne of universities. Artists rarely are - and this has started me thinking about my own practice in writing papers, doing this blog, writing software, but failing artistically (on the whole) to express myself. It is my own failure which interests me most. Of that failure I can only be a critic... yet I would always rather be an artist.

There is something about passion here. Passion is a virtue for the artist, yet a failing for the critic. For the critic, the cold, analytical, rational tearing-apart, rendering ridiculous, dismissing (or sometimes valuing) of something is the principal modus operandi. If a critic isn't analytical, they aren't any good as a critic. An artist on the other hand, may be encouraged to be rational by critics and academics (and praised for being so), but if their work is devoid of passion, few good critics will find room to praise it. Critics seek a bridge between the cold world  of analysis and the warmth of passion, over which they might hope one day to pass. But raw passion many can't abide - where the style overflows with feeling and may be seen to lack structure or coherence (in their view). Such is the academic view of much 'outsider' art, or the music of some of my favourite composers (particularly Delius).

Recently, I blogged about the difference between improvising and composing (see I argued that the difference between the two was a difference in the approach to meaning: that improvising was an active search for something meaningful, whilst composing was a process of constructing a frame for something meaningful. This led me to think about why I find it relatively easy to write papers and improvise music, whilst I find it difficult to compose music, and fairly difficult to write larger things like my PhD.

I want to add something to this argument. I have composed in the past, and I managed to finish my PhD - but only when I unlocked a passionate involvement with what I was doing. It was only when my feelings in the process of doing this became rather 'unsafe' that it was possible to see the project through. Yet, the passionate side of creative action is frightening: with the passion goes vulnerability and something that borders insanity. Yet, and I think this is the main point, it is absolutely essential if anything of real beauty is to be achieved (not that my PhD had much beauty in it!). Whilst passion is locked away, all that will come out will be sterile.

This, I now think, is a principle: that the richest use of any life is to do something beautiful. This can only happen with the unlocking of passion, but the unlocking of passion presents the greatest dangers too. Some degree of temperance, even of some degree of criticism, is necessary if the world is not to fall into chaos. But we are in great danger of over-doing temperance in the form of 'expedient living'. That way lies a creative failure not only in not creating beauty, but in failing to appreciate it.