Sunday, 29 September 2013

Emotional Computing

With the coming of virtual reality comes the possibility for collecting enormous amounts of data about human responses in very realistic situations. With that comes the real possibility of creating remarkably rich corpuses of data about normative human behaviour. This, together with increased efficiencies in the searching of these corpuses, might change the world.

Could a computer identify how a person feels? If it could, I think the way that feelings are structured as different 'levels of expectation' is an important prerequisite for any algorithm. Expectations may be structural at a deep level (a yearning for something is a kind of deep structural expectation), or immediate (for example, an instinctive reaction to something). Immediate expectations can mask deep level expectations. For example, the demand for instant gratification almost always masks a deep seated fear (a deep expectation of something dire). Whatever feeling might be present at any particular moment, an individual produces signs in their behaviour. If an instant of behaviour is capturable and comparable to a corpus of an individual's emergent behaviour, and if the corpus of emergent behaviour is comparable to a corpus of normative behaviour, then why might computer not be able to identify how a person feels?

Different moments of behaviour have different structural properties. Whatever corpus techniques are used, it is necessary to be able to inspect a corpus at different 'depths' - probably with different analytical 'grains'. These might be thought of as at different levels of recursion. So the prerequisites for an emotion-identifying machine would be:

  1. a normative schema of patterns of emotion presented at many levels of recursion
  2. a mechanism for analysing at different levels of recursion signs of behaviour
If this really worked, what would be the political implications? How would the world be different? 

One would expect the first people to jump on it would be the advertising executives and politicians. That's not a good start! But this kind of technology is not necessarily a one-way street. Just as a politician might be able to see how a potential voter might feel, so a potential voter might see how a politician feels. The slick manipulation by spin-doctors become exposed for its vacuous corruption of the public sphere. One hopes.

Educationally, emotional recognition like this might have an enormous impact. Most learning difficulties (at all levels) can be analysed in terms of emotional difficulties. Might it be that if emotional blockages can be spotted and dealt with, then most things become learnable by most people? Who controls this technology? Where does this leave institutions?

When we get to the level of emotions, the question we ask are questions about the our relationship to each other. Feelings as expectations are expectations about  the behaviour of those we love. Fear may be fear of a loss of control over other peoples feelings (that they might cease to love us). Excitement is confident anticipation of other people's feelings. Shifting expectations and shifting feelings go hand-in-hand with shifting attachments.

Institutions are instruments of attachment. Our current institutional crises stem from the fact that the trust placed in institutions to maintain the attachments we thought they were there for is betrayed. Jimmy Savile represents this most powerfully. After something like that, institutions are in deep trouble. They may well react to the trouble they are in by making things worse. Austerity is an example of this: the institution of government is no different from any other.

Does technology "want" to replace institutions?; do institutions (like Universities for example) fight back by 'taming' technology?  Will "emotional computing" be the moment when the technology wins? What then?

Wednesday, 25 September 2013

Towards Corpus-based Aesthetics?

I'm writing a paper on music at the moment in which I'm using the (fantastic) Music21 analytical tools from MIT (see together with R text-mining. Having a tool like Music21 is a bit of a revelation: now we have musical scores encoded in XML (through Musicxml) and we have libraries for processing that XML (for example, to perform harmonic reductions, etc) it becomes possible to dig into aspects of musical experience methodically in ways which have previously relied on subjective judgement. The challenge it presents us is to understand the nature of what we might be able to do, and the meaning of any results we might gain from it.

The first challenge is the challenge of the 'corpus'. It does appear that corpus techniques work. Where the AI specialists have tried for years to establish sophisticated grammars for text translation, Google's brute-force corpus-based techniques continue to transform the world of linguistic translation. Related techniques like discrete wavelet transforms applied to continuous data like audio waves and video have meant that the openness of the web has been accompanied by new means of protecting copyright (not such a great outcome, but a technical achievement nonetheless!). Such techniques open themselves up to increasingly rich and sophisticated corpus-oriented algorithms. Might we be able to identify the patterns of communication in the optic nerve? or brain waves in deep sleep? is mind reading possible? Where I would be firmly sat at the skeptics end of the spectrum with regard to these topics a few years ago, I can now see that this is, after all, simply continuous data. And if our analytical techniques are delivering results with the continuous data of video streams, why not with brain waves? It would be reasonable to expect significant advances in the next decade.

The central question in this, however, is "what does it mean?" When we are looking at music, there is a corpus of documents (scores). These represent the collective identity of a musical culture. Music21 comes with a variety of corpuses, so for example, we can look over a range of different Bach chorales. What's the point in knowing that 50% of those chorales are in the major key? or that 2% contain a melodic leap of a minor 6th downwards? (I made the figures up of course!). One way of thinking about this is to say that the corpus represents a kind of 'cultural expectation'. It is an indication of established norms.

But music isn't about conforming to norms. If it was it would never have developed. Music is about expression, and that requires a somewhat elastic relationship with norms. Swinging far from the norm can either be a recipe for obscurity or revolution. But there are different levels of 'matching' that we can examine. Schoenberg's example is instructive. In his serial music, he still wrote notes - which are, on their own, the same notes that Bach wrote - just not in the 'right order' as Eric Morcambe would say! The emerging experience of listening to Schoenberg is one of feeling oneself pulled away from norms, from the sounds that would match the corpus of established music. But we are not left high-and-dry. We are pulled into a different world. The different world has a deep level 'aesthetic' matching to the corpus of established music. It appears to us in a new way. That is the nature of revolutions that catch-on (and Schoenberg's did - at least for 50 years or so).

In musical experience, there isn't just a normative corpus to which experiences can be matched. There is also the emerging corpus of the unfolding work itself. At the opening of a new piece (or an improvisation) there is nothing in the corpus of the work to compare with the broader corpus of music. So matching will take place with what is known outside the piece. But as the piece evolves, it establishes its own patterns, and the corpus of the piece may well become the equal of the broader corpus.

What matters in this process of matching the piece with the broader corpus is the examination and generation of possibilities. These are the redundancies that associate with a particular moment in music: the many different ways in which the same thing might be said. There are moments where there are thousands of ways in which the same thing might be said; there are other moments where there are only a few. We move from one to the other continuously. Music, ultimately, moves towards the moment where only one possibility is there. Then it stops.

My algorithms run slow at the moment. But the basics are there. I need a much faster machine. But there will be much much faster machines. What will they be able to do? This isn't just about music. It is about aesthetic experience. It is about emotion. And I cannot think of anything more important in the world (particularly the world of education) than emotion. If we could really analyse aesthetics, if we could probe emotion... what might the world be like?

Saturday, 21 September 2013

The Identity Crisis in Cybernetics

At my University over the summer, we hosted the annual conference of the American Society for Cybernetics. It was really good - despite some worries I had beforehand. It seems that Cybernetics provides a space for people to play with and break the ordinary rules of disciplinary discourse. That's refreshing and good fun. But Cybernetics has an identity crisis. This can be boiled down to a question: "Can something which sees itself as transdisciplinary establish itself within the disciplinary context of the academy?"

There are a number of responses one might have to this. But judging from a rather fierce online argument currently underway, I would say the answer is "no". At our conference, there was an implicit anti-academic thread which presented cybernetics as in some way divorced from conventional discourse. This caused many of the problems that blew up before the event started. The difficulty is that the provenance of cybernetics is clearly academic: it came from physics, biology, psychology, philosophy, education, economics, mathematics, computer science and management studies. It would seem reasonable that any advances in the discipline would emerge from those discourses. And indeed they do, but (the problem for the 'subject' of cybernetics) is that as cybernetic ideas are advanced in each area, nobody refers to them as cybernetic ideas! They are now ideas in computer science, mathematics, physics, etc. Which leaves the cyberneticians sulking in a corner, feeling unloved and (frankly) short of funding.

The problem with cyberneticians is that they cannot not be cyberneticians. Cybernetics isn't a school which can process novices into experts. There is a way of thinking about the world which those who call themselves cyberneticians find within themselves and recognise in the patterns of others like them. Reading cybernetic thinkers like Bateson, Beer or Maturana (everyone has their favourites, and will defend them with fanatical passion) is a process of looking into a rather distorted mirror. Of course, that's where its weakness lies too. Cybernetics is, at root, narcissistic. There is an aspect of inwardness, of self-directed fascination, of conceitedness, of hubris and self-righteousness that also goes with the territory. And of course, with this goes the desire to establish the outward signs of a personal way of thinking as a 'subject'. As with all education, this helps people to cite chapter and verse, to show off knowledge and to make everyone else feel inferior. It is to join the priesthood.

But this attempt to establish a priesthood only serves to accentuate the most negative traits of being a cybernetician. Ferocious egos fly around frantically trying to eliminate the competition. It's not a good idea - although its the kind of idea much loved by the person who suffers from 'cybernetics'.

I am like this. I cannot not be a cybernetician, and what I see is diaspora of people like me (who I often don't like!). Perhaps we might be better off treating cybernetics as an ailment rather than a subject! I try to keep my distance from the worst excesses of being like this by becoming repentant for the sins that this dreadful condition afflicts me with! But (says my sneaky cybernetic brain) maybe THEN we'll get somewhere...

oh dear - there's no escape!

Thursday, 19 September 2013

I used to be an educational technologist. Now what am I about?

I have a fairly ridiculous job title: Reader in Applied Research in Educational Technology and Systems. To be fair, it's descriptive of what I have done over the last 5 years or so. I have written software (applied research) and papers (academic research) for educational technology projects funded by the EU and JISC. Now the funding from JISC is largely gone; EU funding is harder to find. Many people who I would see at conferences no longer have jobs. Even some of the people who funded my projects worry about their future. The party's definitely over (as I knew it would be a while ago:

Fortunately for me, I still have a job. For the time being. Like all UK institutions, my University is a changed place after radical restructuring following the change in University funding and the financial crisis. It's been a triple whammy for learning technologists: the discourse runs out of steam, the government runs out of money, and we worry about students running away from institutions. Fortunately, it appears that market readjustments are taking hold; student recruitment has been ok this year.

But there isn't much room for being a learning technologist any more. At least, not the kind of curious, exploratory technologist that I used to be. So what am I about? What do I think needs to be done? How should I go about it? Who pays for it?

Right now, it feels like everything's been 'done'. Moodle works well in our institution, as VLEs do in most places. (The PLE has never really taken off, has it?!) We haven't got any MOOCs yet, and perhaps it might be worth waiting a while before we decide whether to enter that space. But a noticeable development has been the increasing information-oriented management of the operations of the University. Register systems, early warning systems, quality management systems, student satisfaction systems are all growing. Each of them addresses the problems of managers in trying to control institutions. Often they introduce new problems for teachers, but that is an inevitable sign of the power imbalances in most institutions these days.

But this leads me to the thing that I'm most interested in. Whatever we think 'information' is (and that is an enormous question), it is clearly there and growing. Somehow, it is having a deep effect on the decisions that managers (particularly) and teachers make. It might be that people behave in ways to make the information fit the targets they've been given; it might be that managers select the data to justify the policies they wish to pursue; it might be that active pedagogical interventions are designed specifically to target students who appear to be failing by the databases - whatever it is, there is an interface between information and decision which is poorly understood.

It's not just the manager in the institution, or the teacher in the classroom. The explosion of the 'information environment' has presented learners themselves with challenges too. Decisions of how to approach assignments are now taken in the light of the need to negotiate systems like Turnitin. Decisions as to which course to choose or which institution to attend may be taken in the light of consultation of statistics on student satisfaction or 'key information sets'. Everywhere there is information, and information appears to be at the heart of David Willetts's policy of marketisation, whereby he hopes to establish greater diversity in the system. If he achieves the opposite and reduces diversity (which I think he will) it will be because he misunderstood information in the fundamental way that Friedrich Hayek warned us about over 50 years ago.

Where we used to talk about technology, we now have to talk about information and decision. Politics has always been the domain of decision. The critical arguments about policy demand a deep grasp on the way that individuals reach decisions. Clearly we are more irrational than game theorists, cognitive psychologists and bad philosophers would ever like to believe. But we know that decisions are taken in the light of constraints. Some constraints lie in our personal histories, childhood, relationships and education. Other constraints lie in our information environment, the politics we are immersed in, our economic situation, the dreams that we harbour and the people we love.

We used to think that computer tools were a means for individuals to organise themselves. We now see the informational context for personal organisation transform itself in the light of the emerging practices of everybody who flicks through the address books, webpages, apps and calendars of their smartphones. For a brief moment, we might have been right. But now the world looks different. Heidegger talked about the use of tools as 'reorganising the standing reserve': in other words, transforming one's personal environment to reveal new opportunities. But online tools are different, and Heidegger couldn't possibly have seen this. Online tools are transactional: they may well reorganise the standing reserve for the individual, but they also reorganise a different standing reserve for the tool supplier. Moreover, that standing reserve is made-up from the tool users! Every individual use of a tool affects the environment for decision of a tool provider. Under these circumstances, what price technology? Heidegger's bleak assessment of technology as 'enframing' may well have been right when he says: "Enframing means the gathering together of the setting-upon that sets upon man"

Tool suppliers embody this. They bank information harvested from their users. That is the way they manipulate their standing reserve. The end-user has no knowledge of the standing reserve of the supplier, and they certainly have no knowledge of the mechanisms of information banking. The profits of the supplier are insidious and appear to do no harm. Yet economies crash, global corporations pay no tax and nations undergo enormous political upheaval.

We need to know more about this. Technology can help in the process of understanding the process we are caught in. People need to own their own tools; they should have access to the kind of analytical power that currently only the big data giants have. But to understand what is happening is to understand how our decisions are shaped by our information environment. It is to understand how tools have become almost "parasitical" on users; how 'servitisation', whilst appearing to democratise access to technology, actually is a one-sided bargain which maintains the hegemony of the global elite at huge cost to the poor.

What this is really about is freedom, and what is needed above all is a pedagogical intervention supported by technology. Just as in the early days of the Labour movement, the drive was to educate the working classes about economics and socialism, now we need to educate everyone about information and its relationship to decision and (ultimately) political economy.

New technologies and new techniques can help us. Virtual Reality (for example) will be really cool for a while (until the corporate wonks get their teeth into it). Personal analytical tools could be empowering in ways that we might have always hoped for in education. But now is the time for a movement to step back from where we are and where we've been and ask where we want to go. Ours is not the only technological world that is possible. We must explore the alternatives and we must ask of technology how we might realise them.

Wednesday, 18 September 2013

Truth and Power

Napoleon would probably not have cared that Beethoven scrubbed his name from the dedication of the Eroica Symphony on hearing that the 'great leader' had crowned himself 'emporer'. But it was nevertheless important that Beethoven did this. It was an expression of outrage, and a realisation of the abuse of power in the face of truth. Beethoven might have hoped that Napoleon represented a better way forward, a herald of truth. The self-aggrandizing gesture confirmed perhaps what Beethoven had always suspected: nothing, and nobody, is that good.

I've been thinking about this in reflecting about Universities. They are fundamentally about the search for truth:  if their ambitions were less lofty, they wouldn't have risen to the extraordinarily stratospheric status that they now have. Yet power lurks in the University as in any human institution. The history of universities, of academic careers, and of new discoveries from Galileo to Lovelock has been a story of how power relates to truth.

It is inevitable that the status afforded to professors in universities will attract the wrong kind of people: people whose ambition is to acquire status, rather than seek truth. There have always been professors like this: plenty of charlatans with more charisma than talent. There have also been great professors whose powerful status has had a corrupting influence: Heidegger and Hegel were both rather unpleasant ambitious creatures of the institution.

But now we are in a marketised education system, we can expect to see something else. This is when raw power, without any kind of attitude towards the search for truth, covets the trappings of the "priesthood" of academics for personal aggrandizement, and to increase their own power. With an increasingly "professionalised" elite of highly paid academic managers ('elite' and 'professional' simply refers to their power, not ability), the door to academic status is wide open. Who can possibly stand in their way? All the professors whose acknowledgement is a necessary condition for such an academic promotion are dependent upon the powerful for their jobs! They acquiesce, choosing to ignore what they know to be the fundamental incompatibility between power and truth.

Where are we then? Perhaps it's no different... the powerful are still powerful. Perhaps more so. But the Professoriat is humiliated in the face of power, reduced to a group of people too frightened to lose their jobs to stand up and say why the powerful should not be admitted to their ranks; too intimidated to express what they really think about the stench around them. Most damning, they are too frightened to defend the fundamental distinction between the nature of truth (for which, one hopes, they stand) and power. They trudge from their meeting with the words "This will be great for the University!" ringing in their ears.

Sunday, 15 September 2013


I am experimenting with new ways of improvising at the moment. What I am interested in is if there are ways of communicating musically through improvisation whose expressive power can compare with the depth of a Beethoven piano sonata (say). What is in the Beethoven that makes it great? Is it the sheer astonishment that all that complexity could, through some extraordinary labour, be notated? Or is there something else... something that the Beethoven says through his notated medium that, in improvising, we find it harder to say.

What there is in Beethoven is the revealing of a mind whose knowledge of the human condition is vast, and who understands how sound can express that knowledge. It is the combination of the analytical and the expressive, the spontaneous with the calculated, the formal with the flourish, which all give an indication of what's going on. Some sort of analytical communication about the music which gives the listener a sense of what is being explored, how it is being explored, what the structure is, and so on. The structure of the music is not something imposed by abstract creative processes; it is revealed through biological processes.

The necessity of notation for this element of calculation is something I've wrestled with for a long time. Notation is something whose necessity has changed over historical periods. This applies, I think, to most artefacts of creative expression. In the early days of notation there were practical problems of human coordination whereby any kind of performance could be possible: scores had to be big, often with different parts at top, bottom, left and right of the page. Notation also allowed greater sophistication of structure and compositional intention. This became part of the musical metaphysics - the score was a treatise as well as a coordinating device for performance. Medieval treatises (rather like 20th century serialism) could sometimes be rather dull and scholastic. Beethoven's treatises, on the other hand, were always completely riveting. Which leaves the puzzle that every student composer sets upon: how can something so visceral be so calculated? To what extent is the notation necessary as a device of calculation? Is it necessary as a device for visceral experience?

The answer to the latter question may at one level be 'no': we know of enough great visceral music in the 20th century which isn't notated conventionally (most notably Jazz, pop, etc, but also music from parts of the world untainted by the Western tradition). Study of the improvisation techniques and styles of India, China or Japan  (to name three) can reward with something other than simply a visceral experience: there, in those techniques, we see some contact with the 'calculated' heart of those musics. So, with study, the 'classical' music of India provides the same contact between calculation and experience that the Beethoven provides. Except that they don't use notation. Instead, what amount to heuristics for performance are used.

So my quest for improvisation which is deeply rewarding in a classical way may be a quest for new kinds of heuristics of performance which reveal deeper truths about musical experience. It is in exploring this space that the reframed 'necessity' for notation might emerge.

Technology is important in this quest. In terms of managing and realising heuristics, we have new means of coordination at our disposal. But we need technology that is capable both of coordinating events, and in applying rules to events that have already occurred. The 'subject' of music continually shifts in the light of events (or in the 'trace' of events). Bodies change and reorient themselves to a continually unfolding reality.

The difficulty is of course in the analytical part. This kind of music is a music that is continually "about" music. It is meta-music. The closest thing I can think of is something like Hans Keller's 'functional analysis' which was an attempt to make analytical statements about music through  music. But that's what I want to do, yet it would be a continually unfolding functional analysis about an improvisation (which is itself about itself!)

Why is this important to me? There's a simple answer to this, which is my "meta-meta-music": it's about information! It's about how we live through a world of fleeting appearances, are continually changed by them, are confused and then manipulated by them. If we are to be free, then we must understand what is happening.

As computer interfaces become more subtle, perhaps more like music, there are both opportunities and threats. My recent comments on Virtual Reality reflect my own excitement at seeing something really powerful. But perhaps I overplay it's benefits; we should fear the dystopias that will surely emerge unless we get to grips with how we are constrained by appearances, and then fight those who would constrain us.

Wednesday, 11 September 2013

Veblen on Education: From Shamanism to Widening Participation and Marketisation

The last chapter of Thorstein Veblen's "Theory of the Leisure Classes" is about education. Published in 1899, Veblen's analysis is stark and remarkably prescient. Veblen sees "education" as having not shaken off its sacramental origins, presenting itself to the "leisure classes" as a means of becoming 'priests'. His style is florid (to say the least), but what emerges is a powerful satire which rings very true today:
"The recondite element in learning is still, as it has been in all ages, a very attractive and effective element for the purpose of impressing, or even imposing upon, the unlearned; and the standing of the savant in the mind of the altogether unlettered is in great measure rated in terms of intimacy with the occult forces"
We may not see this today in the relationship between the graduates of education and the rest of society (unless those graduates come from 'elite' institutions, in which case such a provenance is I think still regarded as a kind of 'occult' connection) However, in the relationships between those who consider themselves 'lettered' and those who don't, there is I think, still an element of 'impressing' and 'imposing upon' that goes on. I was thinking this as I watched the opening of #ALTC2013 yesterday looking at a rather unimpressive bunch of (largely) old men (including a government minister) in whose dead hands one would never wish to leave education. They set themselves up (without often realising it), as so many do in education, as:
"The priestly servitor of the inscrutable powers that move in the external world [...] stand in the position of a mediator between these powers and the common run of  unrestricted humanity; for he was possessed of a knowledge of the supernatural etiquette which would admit him into the presence."
Veblen's point is not so much about what education does, but what the predilection of the 'leisure classes' is. To some extent, pretense at membership of the leisure classes is now not only desirable, but mandated  by society. But it only pretense. Yet in mandating this pretense, the engines of the education industry can be fired on the inauthentic dreams of students. With this, so the engines of social difference and inequality of risk distribution drive the value conflicts and networks of wants and desires that (fundamentally) keep the rich getting richer. It's not just education; the cult of 'celebrity' (to which many academics aspire as well as X-Factor hopefuls) is no less an aspect of the occult than high learning.

Veblen points to evidence for his association with priestliness and learning in the obsession with rituals  in the University: "the learned class in all primitive communities are great sticklers for form, precedent, graduations of rank, ritual, ceremonial vestments, and learned paraphernalia generally." Later he says "Even today there are such things in the usage of the learned community as the cap and gown, matriculation, initiation, and graduation ceremonies, and the conferring of scholastic degrees, dignities, and prerogatives in a way which suggests some sort of a scholarly apostolic succession." Of course, we all know graduation is bollocks. But the insight lies in understanding what kind of bollocks it is! [Should I say 'bollocks' there? - not very priestly, is it! Fuck it, I should say "bollocks"!] What's with the 'Mace'? What's the Harry Potter thing about conferring degrees? "These usages and the conceptions on which they rest belong to a stage in cultural development no later than that of the angekok and the rain-maker."

But he also has something to say about what we call "Widening Participation".
"Ritualistic survivals and reversions come out in fullest vigor and with the freest air of spontaneity among those seminaries of learning which have to do primarily with the education of the priestly and leisure classes. Accordingly, it should appear, and it does pretty plainly appear, on a survey of recent developments in college an university life, that wherever schools founded for the instruction of the lower classes in the immediately useful branches of knowledge grow into institutions of higher learning, the growth of ritualistic ceremonial and paraphernalia and of elaborate scholastic 'functions' goes hand-in-hand with the transition of the schools in question from the field of homely practicality into the higher, classical sphere. The initial purpose of these schools, and the work with which they have chiefly had to do at the earlier of these two stages of their evolution, has been that of fitting the young of the industrious classes for work. On the higher, classical plane of learning to which they commonly tend, their dominant aim becomes the preparation of the youth of the priestly and the leisure classes - or of an incipient leisure class - for the consumption of goods, material and immaterial, according to a conventionally accepted, reputable scope and method."
Veblen's rather stark characterisation of class might strike us as a bit harsh, but broadly I think he's spot-on. What he then says is a powerful acknowledgement of we would call the 'marketisation' of education:
"it is also no doubt true that such a ritualistic reversion could not have been effected in the college scheme of life until the accumulation of wealth in the hands of the propertied class had gone far enough to afford the requisite pecuniary ground for a movement which should bring the colleges of the country up to the leisure-class requirements in the higher learning. The adoption of the cap and gown is one of the striking atavistic features of modern college life, and at the same time it marks the fact that these colleges have definitively become leisure class establishments, either in actual achievement or in aspiration."
This is why we should be worried about our current conception of Widening Participation and how it relates to the market. It looks like a trap!

Then we have something about Vice Chancellors as CEOs:
"it may be remarked that there is some tendency latterly to substitute the captain  of industry in place of the priest, as the head of seminaries of the higher learning. The substitution is by no means complete or unequivocal. Those heads of institutions are best accepted who combine the sacerdotal office with a high degree of pecuniary efficiency."
Blimey! We've got one of them! (says everyone in HE institutions up and down the country!)

"There is a similar but less pronounced tendency to intrust the work of instruction in the higher learning  to men of some pecuniary qualification." (Do the accountants run your institution??)

"Administrative ability and skill in advertising the enterprise count for rather more than they once did, as qualifications for the work of teaching. This applies  especially in those sciences that have most to do with the everyday facts of life, and it is particularly true of schools in the economically single-minded communities." (Do you want an MBA?)

Veblen goes on to discuss what this means for knowledge, and for science in particular. I will write about these aspects later because they contain, I think, the beginnings of something that might help us fix education. But the extraordinary thing about this work is that it was done over 100 years, and this is precisely what we see around us. Most of our 'Red Brick' Universities were less than a century old when Veblen wrote this (many were not much older than my own institution). Yet, now we regard education as a human right, sacred in some obscure way, etc. We worry that education is being 'destroyed' by marketeers, governments.

Exactly what are we talking about? Are we not playing the 'priestly game' of the leisure classes in even discussing it? Would we not be relieved to find ourselves transported out of  our troubled institutions into the Elysian fields of Cambridge?

Perhaps Veblen is right: we need to get a grasp on the occultish forces that have caught the 'education debate' from all sides.

Monday, 9 September 2013

What is a 'Knowledge economy'?

Perhaps the most valuable thing about the 'knowledge' economy is  that it leads us to ask what an economy is in the first place. 'Knowledge' suggests that learning is in some way central to economic life, and this indeed has been the driver for national investments in education as ways of producing 'knowledge workers'. A similar expansion of education occurred in the 19th century with the growth of technical colleges in creating workers for the burgeoning industrial society.

There is little doubt that our current society is post-industrial. Factories as places of mass employment, have gone. Where are the places of mass employment now? There are government offices, hospitals, schools, universities, banks, call centres, online retail distribution centres, gas and electric companies. There are still steel mills, coal mines (and fracking companies!), car factories and high tech manufacturing, although automation has reduced the need for mass labour, and certainly low-skilled mass labour. Then there are places of non-mass employment (by an individual employer), but mass public participation: shopping centres. There are new 'cottage industries' - small companies on industrial parks writing software or providing specialised services to larger industries, and there are sole traders who increasingly are contracted into larger organisations (but often not as full employees) - electricians, plumbers, etc; their ranks may soon be swelled by part-time lecturers on zero-hours contracts! Certification, accreditation and membership of professional organisations is becoming important is these processes of social organisation. Civil and professional "inspection" (which is a form of certification) also is a growing "sector" (that jargonistic term deserves critical inspection). Does this mean that the tangible features of mass industrial production of the early 20th century (the industrial society) has been replaced with something intangible like 'knowledge'?

The social history of the 19th century reveals dreadful hardships for those living in rural communities as industrialisation took root. The options for people were very limited. Either move to where industrial production was occurring or face starvation. What were the calculations made by families? What was the 'pillow talk'? One cannot underestimate the decision to up-sticks and move a family, particularly without the benefits of modern transportation into a world which was largely unknowable, and equally threatening.

Part of the problem here is that economics, and particularly classical economics, deals with the macroeconomic abstract patterns of capital. Although individual motivations are sometimes considered (Adam Smith famously wrote about the need of a man of a certain social standing for a linen shirt), these desires and motivations are contextualised within the context of economic equilibrium and mechanisms that supposedly maintain prices. Greater attention to what became known as microeconomics grew from critiques by Menger (whose particular concern was abstraction), Jevon's theory of utility (where the utility of a commodity is related to the degree of its production: i.e. more coal production = more consumption), and Walrus's 'marginalism' (see

Economic theory advances in concert with the socio-economics conditions of the time. Keynes's general theory belonged to the world of the Wall Street Crash ("We have a magneto [alternator] problem"). But a current theory is rarely used to recontextualise received understanding of a previous age. In this way, a previous economy becomes  ossified in the language of the economics of its time, and contrasted in a historicist narrative with the 'new economy' of the current time. This is where I think our conception of the 'Knowledge economy' comes from.

To really unpick the roots of what we think might be the 'knowledge economy', the marketisation of education, the economic ideas of ministers and so forth, a broader testing of theory is required which not only examines the current historical period (and the narrative within which it is contextualised) but also revisits the data of a previous age and redescribes mechanisms understood from existing standpoints. Since the Lucas critique (see many economists consider that the exclusion of microeconomic concerns from macroeconomic theory is naive. But at the same time, our current economic situation has created the conditions for Lucas's critique in the first place: the role of the individual, subjective is more obviously pressing than it ever was in an age of ledgers of production output, sales and labour costs. Yet Lucas is right, and those microeconomic forces - even the forces of what we might call the 'knowledge economy' were always there. What was the information environment that 19th century workers made decisions in? How did they do it? What constrained them?

What I believe we see is shifting patterns of constraint. The extent to which information is, and always has been, constraint is becoming increasingly clear to us because this is what we live in. Exactly what its nature is, and how it works, is poorly understood. In particular, our responses to it currently involve creating more constraints within the education system, or relating previously unrelated constraints like "markets" and education. The relationship between information, confusion, anxiety and capability together with the impact of upbringing, opportunity and capital is the thing that I am most interested in.

There is no "Knowledge economy". There is only confusion in economics as it tries to look deeper at the ways people are living, and how and why we got here.

Saturday, 7 September 2013

So very VERY COOL: My Oculus Rift Developers Kit arrives!

Forgive the hyperbole. But it was an exciting day in the office yesterday. I took delivery of my Oculus Rift development kit ( I haven't been this excited about technology for years.

I needed a reasonably modern laptop to use it (the issue is the need for Digital Video output) - but that just meant that trying it out was a team effort (thank you @PaddytheRabbit). A bit of faffing with dongles and cables and we were away.

There's already quite a lot to try. There are websites keeping tracking of current developments, the best of which seems to be Basically the Rift is just an external screen. It simply requires a dual image, and each eye to get focused on each side of the screen. The genius of the design is the simple realisation that a VR headset didn't need to be more complicated than a mobile phone screen with a couple of lenses on top of it. That brainwave will make its inventors very rich.

Because of its simplicity, content will be quick to come. The experience is extraordinary. This video is not an exaggeration:

My experience was similar on that rollercoaster (I think it's this one The extraordinary thing is how something which is simply visual can have such a visceral effect. It may be that the early cinema audiences had this experience. The range of emotional responses are very broad (much more than I have ever experienced in anything 'virtual'). Entering a virtual city in Half Life 2 was pretty much like being there. The really amazing thing is when you look around, up, down. It's actually very easy to forget where you actually are physically (standing up, I tripped over chairs and cables a few times!). The only problem is finding the keyboard to control your movements. I now desperately want a VR glove.

I can relax in my VR world. I could, I imagine, even meditate. Scary stuff is really scary. Beautiful stuff is beautiful. Exciting stuff is exciting. This simply works.

Everybody who was in the office tried it. Even @stephenp 's external examiners (he gained his PhD yesterday - many congratulations!!!) got to try it. It's that kind of thing. You can grab anyone off the street and say "try this" and they will go "wow!". We don't get that opportunity very often, and Vice Chancellors should be the first port of call.

There's lots to think about. It's not just the experience inside the Rift. It's also the 'masking' of the user, the dynamics of conversation between players and non-players and the apparent removal of inhibitions. As I said in an earlier post, this is about changing one's psychological state (see and

Education will be changed by this. Maybe not to the extent that I want to feel it might be changed in the excitement of this moment. But it will be changed.

Thursday, 5 September 2013

Why is education (usually) crap?

I entered Manchester University in 1988 to read music. I was 19 and wanted to become a composer. Actually, I already was a composer: in the previous 2 years I had started to become quite productive - nothing completely earth-shatteringly brilliant, but not bad. Then I went to University. What happened? Well, by the end of it, I wasn't composing any more. I felt I had 'dried up'. Not that I didn't find some of my experiences enjoyable - I did (mostly social experiences), but now I look back, I think it did me some damage. I can't blame any individual for this - certainly not my professor who was an unforgettable inspiration (not least because he also had disdain for educational institutions and knew deeply the 'real thing' of a great composer (Tippett): "Composers don't learn anything in places like this, you know!"); but there was a lot of dulling of enthusiasm, of squeazing to fit a mould; of NOT LISTENING! (ironic for a music department)

I came out not composing, and actually thinking I'd wasted my time. Glad I didn't pay for it! (and I got a full grant - unthinkable today). As things have turned out, I've not done too bad. I had the benefits of being middle class, reasonably articulate, supportive (although not wealthy) parents and a family environment of 2 brothers and a sister which had taught me the value of compromise and flexibility. The latter I needed as I had to work out what I wanted to do for a job. An MSc in computer science followed at the University of Hertfordshire, funded by the Science and Engineering Research Council (I couldn't have done it if I had had to pay for it).

Compared to music in Manchester, the MSc was dreadful. Dull stuff to learn, no opportunity for creativity, and encroaching bureaucracy with regard to 'learning outcomes' which made the whole thing rather inauthentic. But it was always a means to end. It was a rather dull and miserable end too: as one of my better lecturers said "You know that most computing jobs are dreadfully boring, don't you". He was right.

Six rather unhappy years of trying to program computers, change jobs frequently, and keep hold of my withering soul followed. Eventually I followed the inevitable course of so many disgruntled and depressed professionals: I decided to become a teacher!

I wanted to be a music teacher, recover my soul, help children, make a better world. But my PGCE at Manchester Metropolitan University was even worse than my MSc, despite some good teaching. Those dreadful bureaucratic 'learning outcomes' had become endemic, and turned themselves into something even more sinister: competencies. And to 'hit' my competencies, I had to create a 'portfolio' (basically a folder full of rubbish with sticky labels saying which competency each piece of rubbish applied to). I also had to get my competencies 'signed off' by "mentors" (other teachers) who also clearly thought it was all a bit silly, but this is what the University (and the General Teaching Council) had asked them to do. Did I learn anything about teaching? The "baptism by fire" bit worked! I ended up as a teacher of IT: compromise kicked in again!

My PhD at the University of Bolton was my most recent experience of education. Actually, this one bucked the trend. PhDs don't have learning outcomes: you have to be original. I did a PhD by publication and found it a liberating experience. I was able to find my voice by re-examining all the things I had written, and all the things I was interested in. I even had to invent my methodology (I was never going to buy one off-the-shelf anyway!). There was no agenda and I was very lucky in the way I was supported. Bolton was fantastic - the best, most academically challenging University I've experienced (and through my e-learning work, I've seen a lot of them). There were however bits of bureaucratic nonsense which seems to be par-for-the-course these days. But I didn't have to take them too seriously. But I was lucky - PhDs can be desperately miserable experiences too (see this:

Why am I thinking about this? Because I think there are some themes here. Not just that each educational experience (apart from Bolton) was worse than the  previous one, but because from 1988 until 2011, Universities have become increasingly technologised. They are now 'information organisations', driven by data, funded by data. Learning Outcomes are the mantras that guide the ship: they guide quality procedures, they guide pedagogical 'delivery' (whatever that is); they guide student assessment and even now, funding. But what nonsense they are!

I was browsing undergraduate courses in Business Studies the other day. I found a promoted link from Google to the OU's offering. "Business Studies Standard Pathway". Modules in Stage 1 (I guess the 1st year) are:

  • An introduction to retail management and marketing (B122) 
  • Discovering mathematics (MU123) 
  • Professional communication skills for business studies (LB160) 
  • Working and learning: developing effective performance at work (BU130) or the version of this module specifically designed for people working in delivering public services – BUXS130 
  • You and your money: personal finance in context (DB123).
Looking into the first module, I see:
"The retail industry is highly dynamic and innovative, which means it is very engaging to study . This course looks at how retailing has developed, how retail outlets operate and how retailers apply retail marketing techniques. During your studies you will consider contemporary factors that affect retailing: globalisation; the impact of ever-changing technology; and social and ethical issues. This course is designed for retail industry employees wishing to develop a career in management, and anyone interested in working in the retail sector, or simply wanting to know more about the world of retailing."
Now even as an 18 year old, I know enough about education to know that if someone tells me something is "engaging to study" that only means one thing! Why all these words? Because the institution, being an information-driven organisation, feels the need to inform students about modules. This text is not written for the benefit of students; it is for the benefit of the institution that wants to feel it is doing the job of informing. If I wanted more evidence of this, I might turn to a different pathway - how about "Business and economics"? But I find the same module there too! Who's  benefit is that for? It's not 'informing' me; it's oppressing me! Universities don't  know what 'informing' is. If they did, they wouldn't do it like this!

But as an 18 year old, I just want a degree. "Ethical, social... whatever!"; "that's education - I pretty much know what to expect. I'll probably get what I've always got before from education..."; "what modules? Oh, what the hell...!" Of course that's fine until you fail your assignment out of sheer lack of enthusiasm and are faced with the misery of refers, defers, mitigating circumstances, unfair means panels, and goodness knows what else. Of course you never find Universities 'informing' students about all that, do you?! Misconceiving information causes us to set our ambitions very low, and our practices can become rather cynical operations of institutional survival, not learner development.

If we really wanted to communicate to the next generation, we wouldn't start here. 

Tuesday, 3 September 2013

Virtual Reality and MOOCs: Have you got your headset ready?

I think Virtual Reality is about to change everything. I could be wrong, but the visceral reactions to the use of Oculus Rift are very real and powerful: it's a 'wow!' moment - and we haven't had one of those for some time. There will inevitably be similar devices going to market, but this is an experience which is about to become massive and mainstream. The experiential shift to VR is enormous, but within two years there will be a plethora of Universities offering VR-driven courses. Have you got your headsets ready?

An immersive educational experience is more than a bunch of resources. The whole problem with MOOCs as they stand is that nobody seems to think about the learner experience, which (for the most part) is terrible. VR is different. Exploration, simulation, experimentation are the key principles. Immersion also means that incredibly rich analytics that expose deep areas of human performance become accessible (for the first time) from a distance. Corpuses of patterns of human behaviour in different environments can be established. Pattern matching of behaviour becomes possible to establish predictive actions; unusual actions can be highlighted. Text becomes a thing of the past. Speech-driven interfaces for learner engagement become the norm.

In VR, divisions break down. The division between my living room and my computer screen is no longer there. I may be in a virtual living room with a virtual computer screen, but the whole experience is the learning environment. My reactions are fluid and immediate. The sound environment becomes as important as the visuals. My experience of boredom watching a videoed lecture on calculus becomes part of my own learning which the system can monitor (and adapt to). I do not have to say "I'm bored". I just turn away.

What might this all mean for assessment? With such rich analytics, are there ways of assessing automatically but non-invasively? What does this mean for our concept of 'information' and our relationship with 'the computer'? What might this mean for the management of our institutions? Imagine board meetings where managers don headsets. They look at the graphs of company performance. They look away. Every reaction is available for analysis. Would people be scared? Or would it encourage them to articulate what they really feel but rather not say?

What about emotion? Computers are cold machines. But might immersion provide ways in which people might form attachments? Are we looking at genuinely aesthetic interfaces? Those academics looking at Neo-Sentience think so. We will to wait and see. But if the emotional aspects of learning are made available through VR then I think this is the biggest game-changer. It will also change how we think about information.

Education is emotional. Love matters. We've convinced ourselves that emotion doesn't matter because it was too difficult to deal with, and it inconveniently got in the way of our moves toward massifying education online. If VR changes this then we will have to look again at all the cold, hard, bureaucratic nonsense we've built up around education over the last 20 years. Learning Outcomes? How do you feel about that?! Competency? Get lost!! But how do you feel? You don't have to write.. or even say...

Just shake you head...

Monday, 2 September 2013

Syria, Information and Statism

A nation that gasses its own people is very sick. The question is, "what's the cure?" If a sick nation was like a sick child, a parent would take the temperature, a doctor take blood samples, etc. Parents would examine their diet and get a feel for their mood. A parent and a doctor are in an intimate relationship and a position to act. They understand the consequences of the actions they might take. They understand the risks. Exactly how they understand consequences and risks, however, is a bit mysterious. Understanding themselves no doubt plays an important role. Recognition of sickness is a process of reflection on one's own sickness. Self knowledge gives parents (and maybe doctors) knowledge that they have flexibility to experiment. They are not without information: established knowledge of symptoms, established knowledge of the effects of medication, but this information provides the context for their decision-making. It doesn't determine it, it constrains it.

Nigel Howard was instrumental in the conflict in Bosnia, and in his theoretical work on 'drama theory' (which was used in this conflict) he points to the difference between 'confrontation' and 'conflict' (see  As the world confronts Syria over its sickness, I find Howard's work relevant not just in finding a way to understand the nature of the problem, but in shedding light on the relationships between decision (the decision to attack; the decisions of Assad, etc) and information more generally.Syria is grotesque. But many of the same patterns of social pathology afflict more civilised situations: this is what makes intervention so hard - how does the sickness behind the intervention relate to the sickness it seeks to address?

There are many things about the Syrian situation which are disturbing. But the role of 'information' is one of the most striking aspects of the crisis. There is a 'clamour' for evidence of who gassed the citizens of Damascus. "Evidence" must be provided by the UN inspectors, who now find themselves unwittingly in the role of potentially firing the starting pistol for a conflict. But what they will actually provide is not evidence, it is 'information'. "Evidence" is a subjective claim relating to blame in some form. "Information" is simply the stuff that constrains decisions. The claim of 'evidence' is really a decision taken in the light not just of the constraint of information, but the constraints of national politics and (probably the case with the 2nd Gulf War) personal agendas on the part of the decision-makers.

The sickness that can afflict nations is terrible because the people have no escape. This makes it unlike the sickness that can afflict a company or an institution. Although people might feel trapped in a sick institution, they can always leave - albeit with potentially dire consequences for their income, and their families. However, there are few social institutions that are not sick to some extent! We shouldn't suppose the Ministry of Defence as an institution is particularly healthy, or any of the other institutions of government. If people have problems of conscience in those institutions, they can of course leave. But it's scary, and indeed in a time of crisis, no doubt extra pressure is brought to bear to ensure compliance with particular dominant narratives. There are a few Malcolm Tuckers walking the corridors.

Institutions don't gas their own people. But in the past, when legal constraints were not in place, they have behaved in discriminatory ways which would seem shocking to us now. The process of establishing those constraints is the kind of regulatory process which it is argued is needed for sick regimes like Syria. That process is, on the one hand educational; on the other hand it is coercive. It takes time, and things still aren't perfect.

The nature of pathological sickness can present problems for any kind of intervention. Pride, politics and power with the ruthless willingness to inflict death and destruction on your own people is a terrible combination. The leader idealises their nation as being a subset of the nation they actually have. What lies outside is the 'enemy' and they seek to destroy it. As they do so, chaotic forces are unleashed which give the leader new information which leads them to further act. The leader's conception of their nation becomes increasingly detached from reality, because they cannot accept that their actions at any point were wrong, and surround themselves with generals who only tell the leader what he wants to hear. The majority of the people can see what's wrong, but are powerless to do anything. Fear takes over as the most powerful constraint on thought and action.

Other nations observing this suffer the same dynamics of pride, politics, and power. Their ideal doesn't include the 'rogue' leader and his state, and they set out to cure it, perceiving threat to themselves if they don't. Their leader's conception of the rogue state becomes increasingly detached from reality, because they cannot accept that their interventions at any point were wrong, and they surround themselves with generals who only tell the leader what he wants to hear. A lack of justice and disingenuous action can emerge. In a democracy, however, eventually those responsible get voted out of office. Injustice is a wound that must eventually be dealt with; but this fact often inspires undemocratic regimes to acts of oppression (think about the Chinese and Tienanmen Square)

A democratic politician wants to get re-elected. Their political instinct will naturally lead them to test the political temperature. The electorate, on the other hand, have access to more information about world events than ever before, and this information constrains their views which will be situated against the other concerns they have in their lives. The information a politician is privy to may lead them to wish to strike out for international justice; but this is tempered with the complexity of the effects of information their electorate is exposed to and the information they then provide about their own decision-making processes which forms part of the information environment for the politician. Past events form a key part of this information environment; the well that Iraq 'poisoned' is the well of information.

But what of the 'threat' that is perceived? Isn't it ultimately economic? We tend to perceive wealth in terms of "sovereign wealth": the wealth of nations. In Adam Smith's time, military force and sovereign wealth were inextricably tied up together. The use of force as a material constraint was the regulating sanction for economic cooperation. With recent wars, particularly Iraq, it seems that this principle was still in operation. But the consequences of it have been politically disastrous. Unlike in Adam Smith's time, physical coercion creates information as a bi-product which upsets the political balance.

An information-rich society is a society of plastic constraints; it is Bauman's 'liquid' modernity. Material constraints still matter, but they produce informational constraints in ways that are new which result from communications technology. The idea of "sovereign wealth" is is an abstraction based largely on information. The material aspects of sovereign wealth are related to historical forces of material coercion which are now translated into informational constraints of legal frameworks, etc. The recent issues in Gibraltar highlight the this forceful materiality behind sovereign wealth: threats to sovereignty are usually met with force, although in the case of Gibraltar, all parties will hope to address it with information.

The question with Syria is how the material constraint of force will give rise to informational constraints on politicians who commission force. The backfire of information can also negate the effectiveness of material force as a constraining power. Rarely has it served to topple unpleasant regimes. Indeed, it often serves to strengthen them. Only in Bosnia has the toppling of an unpleasant regime through coercion led to a civilised society.

But if the material constraint of force can no longer work,.where does that leave the foundation of the wealth of nations? The issue there may be that statism itself is called into question. Murray Bookchin's social ecological arguments against statism in favour of urbanism may be important here. What is 'Syria'? Is this really about 'Syria' or is it about the city of Damascus and a mad president?