Tuesday, 29 October 2013

Socio-technical Evaluation in the ITEC project

The ITEC project has one year to run. In the last 3 years, it has done many good things in stimulating technical engagement in schools across Europe. There have been some very heartening and enthusiastic engagements with the project coming from places ranging from Turkey and Portugal to Norway and Finland with talented teachers finding a voice and a platform for experimenting with technology and doing 'cool things with the kids' - even if it's simply using video (the most powerful and easy-to-use technology) to boost confidence and encourage reflection...

ITEC has a technical vision whereby it aims to bring technologies closer to-hand for teachers across Europe. As part of this vision, it has created a 'Widget store' where teachers can upload and organise small tools (which can be easily found on the web) and bring them into their teaching platforms. As with all technical visions, however, this is more easily said than done!

The Widget Store exists as an entity (see it at http://itec-moodle.eun.org where you can log-in with Facebook or Google) although usage is more sporadic amongst teachers than those who envisaged and designed the technology might have wished. Does this mean that it's not very good?

This is a question I've been asking myself quite a lot (partly because the Widget Store is something my own University has played a big role in). The problem is that when we design technologies in all hopefulness and expectation of how people will react to them, we don't really have "real" people in mind: we have 'abstract' people who tend to be little versions of ourselves: our "abstract people" get excited about our technology because we are excited about our technology. There is a kind of delusion that sets in with any technical design. In a project, this is a collective delusion!

What's interesting is that sometimes, despite delusions, things really do catch on. Whilst the delusion or abstract users will rarely be correct, something does set the public imagination alight. Nobody who originally designed Twitter, or many other  social software services would have imagined what they might become. Even YouTube's early ambition would not have dared to reach the extent of its business model now. But without the initial delusion, we'd get nowhere. Delusions are important.

But perhaps we shouldn't feel so bad if our ambitions are thwarted by 'real people' - or at least, we shouldn't feel so bad if that happens and we LEARN FROM IT. That is the real purpose of evaluation. (It would of course be dumb to not only be delusional in our design and idealism but to not learn from what happens!) Many brave technical experiments have gone this way: Apple have made many technical interventions far more expensive than ITEC's Widget Store before it caught onto something which grabbed the imagination of everyone: the Newton was ahead of its time; OpenDoc was a remarkable technical development. Google too are continually creating and discarding developments. We ought to be doing this in education, and it's work that ought to be funded properly. (Or we could let Google and Apple do it for us - but that takes us in dangerous water, I think)

The value of a technical development is complex. ITEC is a large project with many strands of intervention, from technical to pedagogical. Telling a simple story about the project has been much facilitated by the tools it has produced. The simple fact is that when explaining the project to a group of teachers, rather than ramble on about concepts of pan-european integrated education, ITEC could talk about its tools, and it can demonstrate them. Teachers can use those tools, and through using them, understand the deeper aims of the project. Tools like the Widget Store are particularly valuable in this regard because they are heterogeneous in their embrace of technology. That means that it is not just one technology that might be introduced to teachers (say, making a video), but also Etherpad, or a Shared drawing tool, or Prezi, or Poplet. Any one of these could be introduced individually, but that would concentrate the discussion on one tool. The Widget Store maintains an overview of possible technologies, whilst situating all of those technologies within the broader narrative and vision of the project. Even if people don't go on to use it in their daily practice, its discursive intervention can be significant in inspiring and changing practice in line with the aims of the project.

The way I'm beginning to think about this is through understanding the different discourses that interact when doing e-learning projects. There is always a group of technologists talking about technology. There is always a group of teachers who the technologists want to get to use their technology. There is always some kind of project management. These discourses are quite separate from one another, and the big challenge in ITEC has been to connect them. Sometimes it has been possible: but only under one particular set of circumstances: Where there is coherence in an identified 'need' or absence within one community with an identified absences in the other two communities. So when a pedagogic need coheres with a technical requirement which coheres with a project objective, then things work. If this isn't the case, they don't.

What I have learnt in the technical evaluation of ITEC is that absences really matter. Our challenge in evaluation (and project management) is to find better ways of identifying them. The delusions of software developers are, in a deep way, driven by absences. The better we get at orienting those technical absences to the real needs (also absences) of real people, the more virtuous the circle between design, implementation and management will become.

Friday, 25 October 2013

Excuses, Explanations and Social Ontology in E-learning and Economics

The Cambridge Realist Workshop (see http://www.econ.cam.ac.uk/events/seminars/realist/workshop_programme.htm) has been very important to me over the years. When I realised as a fledgling educational technologist about 10 years ago, that most attempts to evaluate educational technology were ridiculous, and that 'ontology' was the thing that mattered, I signed up to the group - simply because they were the only people who appeared to be thinking similar thoughts (they had a conference on 'technology and ontology' that year - although I didn't go). Most of what they talked about in the workshop was economics and, undaunted by the  fact that I knew nothing of economics, I started reading the papers that (then) were sent to me at Bolton by post (the first one was by Amartya Sen - which was a good start!). Only within the last few years have I mustered the energy to do the 3 hour drive to Cambridge to attend - but I learnt an enormous amount anyway. It was a kind of MOOC I guess - but this one really worked because it was driven by passionate commitment on the part of all who engaged with it to get to grips with fundamentally difficult problems.

I was there on Monday for Tony Lawson's talk which was a brilliant analysis of Thorstein Veblen's coinage of the term 'neo-classical economics' - a term generally used abusively but without definition by economists, but which fundamentally according to Veblen (and to Lawson) referred to that group of economists who were progressive in their thinking, but whose methods contradicted their ontology. But after the talk, the topic of 'explanation' arose. "We all want to explain away the things we don't like," I argued. It's not the what an explanation that is interesting, but how it does its explaining.

Thinking about it, and following another discussion that occurred among friends a bit earlier in the evening, I have been thinking about the relationship between an explanation and an excuse. Much of Lawson's argument against formalism in modern economics is that it brings inappropriate tools (mathematical models) to a reality which it doesn't understand, has no ambition to critique, and yet seeks to explain it through the use of these tools. Its explanatory power is dreadful and we all live with the consequences. There is basically an intellectual laziness to engage with reality born out of reliance on tools and maintaining the professional identity of individual economists. To what extent is this laziness the result of using tools to make excuses for the status quo? To what extent is the excuse-making habitual?

An excuse is a kind of explanation: religion is an excuse for war; austerity is an excuse for maintaining inequality; national security is an excuse for surveillance. The distinction between an excuse and an explanation can be difficult to pinpoint in the statement itself: the distinction lies in the orientation of the observer. I asked my 13 year-old daughter what fear is the other week: "it's an excuse!" she said (she kicked off my thinking on this whole topic!) To call something an excuse is be oriented to do something about it: to reject the explanation and move out of the cycle where the explanation (or excuse) does its explaining. To call something an excuse summons up passion, anger and a determination to challenge: it is to wake up.

When might an explanation not be an excuse? This is difficult because it depends on one's orientation: one person's explanation is another person's excuse. What matters is the underpinning value system. Where does that come from? Most likely from life experiences - childhood attachments, etc. That's where the how of an explanation really matters more than the what. 

This is where I think we have to be careful in recognising the nature of the challenges that identifying an excuse can present. It's not enough to say "you're just making excuses!" - because we will have our own excuses for making the challenge. But the question "what are you wanting to excuse?" is more powerful. Any excuse carries within it imminent traces of the mind that wishes to hold on to it. "Why are you wanting to excuse the status quo? What is in you that wishes to believe this explanation? What is in me that wishes to challenge you?" - this is a more constructive way of moving forwards. It is where we can see the layers of excuse-making in each other. We might hope that by exposing this, there might be a deeper meeting point that is therapeutic rather than confrontational.

Thursday, 24 October 2013

No Excuses: Double Binds and Academic Pay

My post about student employability gave me some worries after I'd published it. Maybe, I thought, to suggest that people are 'addicted' to excuses is too strong: after all, we all need excuses as ways of explaining the things that we don't do: I feel a need to excuse my addiction to excuses! There are many things I should have done two or three weeks ago that I haven't done that I need to make excuses for (and why am I blogging rather than getting them done??). Having said this, I recognise the pattern in myself: the excuse deals with the pain of guilt (guilt is not only a "Catholic" thing!)

There is something static and almost grounded about this cycle of feeling inadequacy and making excuses for it. Is there a comforting feel to going round the cycle. Which makes me wonder what happens if I genuinely break out of it.

Of course, what I have to do to break out of the cycle is to actually do the thing that I was making excuses for not doing. How do I put myself on that trajectory? Perhaps one of the main things that happens is that I see a way out of the cycle; I start to feel a sense of recognition about the cycle I am in, and at the same time know what to do about it (is the feeling of recognition also the feeling of knowing what to do?)

Deciding to enter an educational institution with some purpose of achievement is the kind of act that is designed to move people out of the cycles they are stuck in. Education promises (but doesn't always deliver) the required impetus to 'move on'. But if education reinforces feelings of inadequacy in students, it can make things worse. If my intellectual commitment and determination lies principally in education, it is because I believe this ought not to happen. Indeed, I think its dubious morality implicates those involved in a social ill for which nobody taking money from students (which those students will be repaying for the next 20 years) ought to be able to shy away from. My (overlarge) salary is part paid for by the European tax-payer and part by students (approximately 3 students yearly fees are needed to pay the remainder of my annual salary, which those students will be repaying for up to the next 20 years). Vice Chancellors typically require the "souls" of two students per month to pay their salaries. This makes me feel sick.

The rule is 'no excuses'. Vice Chancellors excuse their pay in the context of the 'global market' of higher education: bollocks, isn't it?? Most lecturers will defend theirs in terms of the cost of living. But our intellectual job, the purpose of our lives in education, is to think hard and well, not to become wealthy. Thinking carries its own rewards which do not require the subjugation of the future generation. Great thinking more often than not arises from positions of material hardship.

The problem is that we will continue to make excuses. We will even make excuses for not fighting the gross injustices and imbalances of pay within our own institutions. We will make excuses for not challenging people who are 'in charge' but clearly incompetent. But worst of all, we will make excuses for the status quo which increasingly will enslave students to alienating experiences for which many of them will still be paying for after we are dead.

Friday, 18 October 2013

Music. Information. Learning.

I think that Information is the most important phenomenon that urgently requires a coherent scientific understanding. Currently we only have fragments of 'information theory' and the fragments don't fit together: information as communication between machines (Shannon's theory) which has been so important in technology; information in meaningful human communication processes (i.e. not machines); information in biology - particularly information in DNA (but enzymes? or proteins?); information as experience (the experience of becoming informed); information in learning; information as qualia; information 'flows'; information overload... and so on.

Information is, before we make any kind of distinction about it, fundamentally an aspect of experience. My eyes pass over the spreadsheet in the way that they might pass over a painting or my ear might latch onto a piece of music. At some point, things draw my attention. But at what point? What has happened for one particular number (a patch of black on the white screen) to draw my attention?

This is why I think, as an experience, information is 'musical'. It is hard to study the movements of my eye over a painting, but the sensation of my ear during music can be inspected at some depth. There are moments which 'strike' me - moments at which I have a sensation of revelation or discovery. There are also moments when the tedium of it all causes it to wash over my attention without me taking notice. I think if we can understand this in musical experience, our understanding of information as experience will be increased.

What I am interested in, which underpins information as experience, are human expectations. These shift when we witness an 'information flow', and they change when we listen to music. They also change during learning processes: indeed, our expectations are always shifting. I think that our emotional responses are closely aligned to shifts in expectation. We anticipate with eagerness when we are certain about something that is about to happen: the result of a calculation, or the resolution of a cadence. We feel satisfaction when the resolution occurs or the equation is solved. We become anxious and disorientated when we don't know what to expect.

I think expectations are formed within constraints. An expectation is the 'thinkable' part within a context which is largely unthinkable. What we conventionally think of as 'information' is bounded by what we cannot think. There is much more to any 'information' but it is not thinkable. This is certainly the case with music: the absences are bigger than the presences.

What is 'unthinkable' is effectively redundant. Yet whilst it is redundant, it is also causal as a constraint on what we can think. Redundancies may be analysable. Music is full of redundancies: repetitions of motifs, accompanimental patterns, etc. With information (say on the internet) there is also huge amounts of redundancy. There is a job  to do in analysing this redundancy and understanding how it is causal as a constraint on what is thinkable.

The 'topic' of any piece of information is the thinkable part that is sustained in a sea of redundancy that maintains it. The topic of any piece of information is a kind of expectation. The topic of a piece of music is a deep level structure within which successive events can be situated (like, for example, a deep Schenkerian structure).

In learning, expectations of both teachers and learners change. In their conversations there are huge amounts of redundancy (this is why Pask's conversational model is mistaken, because it only looks at the thinking part of utterances). The redundancies constrain the expectations of each. By having knowledge, the teacher is able to generate more redundancies which can further constrain the learner's expectations. With this constraint, the learner can be led to feel safe in first making utterances that they feel secure in anticipating the outcome of. This is basically 'play'.

Which then raises the question about the role of redundancy in play. Most games operate with simple rules which are applicable in a variety of ways. Is this also redundancy? Cyberneticians talk of 'reducing variety' with things like rules. But I'm beginning to think that this is better understood as 'increasing redundancy' - effectively it amounts to the same thing: variety is reduced if the constraints are amplified. Then the difference between play fighting and real fighting becomes one where in play fighting the redundancies are always maximised, whereas in actual fighting there is absolutely no redundancy in a real punch!!

Thursday, 17 October 2013

Employability, Student Confidence and the Double Bind

I was in a meeting about student employability today. My institution is one that gives opportunities to students who would not otherwise have the opportunity of getting a degree, and who have often had difficult experiences with education in the past. I believe this is the most important group of students in education - it's where we can really make a difference. But it's very difficult.

The moment of transition when the course stops, the students gain their qualification and they have to turn and face the 'world outside' to get a job can present particular challenges. Student confidence, the ability to be flexible about expectations of employment, the resilience to 'keep going' if initial applications are unsuccessful, the restlessness that is necessary to keep students anxious to carry on learning new skills, the continual monitoring of what's available, the sense of how to position oneself... these are all things which tend not to get taught on degree programmes which, naturally enough, tend to focus on "how to get a degree". Sometimes, student confidence can be hit if their experiences of trying to get a degree have reinforced expectations of failure repeated from previous experiences of education: the cycle of 'referrals', 'repeats', 'change of module pathway', etc can be demoralising. From that position it is very hard to turn to face the world with the necessary vigour which will fight the competition.

All this has led me to think about 'student confidence'. We had a rather authentic meeting today where both staff and students were encouraged to share their hopes and fears about their employability situation (the elephant in the room with employability in HE today is that staff often have worse prospects of employment than students!). It seemed to be a good thing for students to see the vulnerabilities in their teachers. The message is "it's not just you!". It was almost like "Employability Anonymous".

Which has got me thinking...

Gregory Bateson wrote what I think is his best paper about Alchoholics Anonymous (see "Steps to an Ecology of Mind"). What he identified was a self-defeating cycle whereby the individual was caught in a trap: feeling terrible that they were an alcholic while they were sober that they would drink to alleviate the depression. Is this feeling of helplessness so different from (or not part of) low self-esteem? Then, Bateson describes what he thinks AA does: it helps individuals to see the trap they are in. On becoming aware of the dynamic, they are able to step outside it.

The pattern when talking to troubled employment-seekers about the positive action they might take to find work tends to be "could you could do something to make your work more visible so others can see what you can do?", being met with reasons why the individual can't do that. Or the employment-seeker might grudgingly agree that there is something they can do, agree to do it, and then not do it. Is the intransigent employment-seeker like the alchoholic and the bottle? Is their modus operandi one of:

  1. feeling bad about not wanting to look for work
  2. addressing the badness of their feelings by reinforcing excuses for not doing anything
This would mean that the "empoyability problem" is a problem of addiction to "excuse-making" for not doing anything about employability.

If this is true, how can we treat it?

Following Bateson's example, helping people see the cycle they are trapped in is very important. The only way they can see this is by seeing it in operation in other people. The AA-style meeting is essential. 

An "excuse" is a particular kind of explanation. It addresses something that hurts by convincing the excuse-maker that the pain is a natural function and that nothing can be done about it. This is the easiest way of addressing the pain. By showing that excuse-maker that the explanation doesn't explain how they feel (and in fact reinforces it) forces the need for new explanations to be sought. This is the first step towards jumping outside the cycle. 

Is confidence where excuses are turned into opportunities? Maybe we should be treating "excuse addiction" (and not just to our students!)

Monday, 14 October 2013

Quick Oculus Rift development with Oculus Bridge

I'm very grateful to @paddytherabbit (David Sherlock) for showing me the easiest way to get started with Oculus Rift development. For David's post, see http://paddytherabbit.com/3d-worlds-web-using-oculus-rift-attempt-1/. From my perspective, this is almost as exciting as the Rift itself. It means that development can be placed in the hands of hacky programmers like me who are too lazy to use Unity (or pay for their license) or the SDK, but can get something rich and immersive up and running in 5 minutes with a bit of HTML.
David's video is here:

The Rift's main benefit is that it is a very simple bit of kit: basically it's a screen with a motion-sensing controller tied-in. All Oculus bridge has to do is to render to the screen in the 'barrel distortion' pattern that is required, and to relay signals from the USB port about the movement of the head.

But the ease with which the web can be integrated into this set-up means that developments in VR will, I think, be even quicker than I imagined. There are already a lot of games built with Unity and other platforms that are appearing. The problem with these tools is that they are geared for doing something far more complex and sophisticated than most people will want when exploring what might be possible.

With Oculus Bridge (and the associated threejs (http://threejs.org/) library which does the WebGL rendering) I can hack together all sorts of things in my virtual world and see what it's like. More to the point, I could get my daughter to have a go! Let's try something with sound in 3D sound positioning... let's try getting some unusual textures... let's try importing a 360 degree photo taken with a Ricoh Theta (see https://theta360.com/en/), or let's see about integration with Leap Motion (https://www.leapmotion.com/) or integrate graphical effects in a virtual world with the range of consumer EEG brain monitors. But it's all quick and easy.

This is also important for WebGL - that is a technology that's been in development for some time, and sometimes the rationale for it hasn't been entirely clear (particularly because the performance isn't quite as good as a native 3D rendering). But as a platform for creating quick virtual worlds, are we really going to worry about the details of rendering performance if all we want to do is to play around with things? Added to that, the performance of Web-based 3d will also only get better: the computers that matter now are our web browsers.

Someone said to me that with the Oculus Rift, it was like technology going back to CD-Rom authoring. It may be, but I'm beginning to sense that the development from CD-Rom to social tools is going to be extremely rapid. Indeed, by the time the Rift is released commercially next year, it might all be in place. And then I think things will look very different.

Saturday, 12 October 2013

Dominic Cummings Thesis on Education reported @patrickwintour in The @guardian: A response

I have a thesis about education ministers: if we connected the personal biographies of successive Secretaries of State for Education with their political actions in office we would be able to identify strong correlations between family circumstance (household income, emotional stability or upheaval, social capital, schooling, career development) and political orientation. (Actually, the same could be said of all of us who hold an opinion about education.) In defending my thesis, I would argue that it shows the difficulty in arriving at any kind of objectivity about education. It might also highlight the patterns of early attachments which give rise to politicians who are convinced that they are privileged with not only a unique objectivity about education, but also a sense of entitlement to lead the country's teachers and students along the right path towards the golden future - whatever the consequences. Political opinion about education has an ontogeny which we can inspect in hindsight and which we ought to be aware of in our challenge to ministers in office.

Dominic Cummings is a special adviser to the Secretary of State for Education. Shortly before his departure from Mr. Gove's office, he has written "Some thoughts on Education and Political Priorities". I haven't read this report - but I will rely on the account of it written in by Patrick Wintour in The Guardian.

According to Wintour, Mr. Cummings doesn't appear to like education very much. Cummings complains that "there is widespread dishonesty about standards in English schools and low aspirations" - a critique which drives his main point that we are letting the cleverest children down. "The block to higher performance is the management and quality of teaching in the school," he argues - the solution being the reduction of government regulation, reducing the Department for Education to "the employment of accountants and inspectors". He also complains about "useless" courses in "third-rate universities".

Cummings exhibits the rationalistic ingenuity of an engineer as he talks about militaristic reforms to the civil service which would make the firing of poorly performing civil servants much easier. But his engineering ambition is most eloquently expressed as he compares the UK to Apple Corp, arguing that Britain needs to reshape its product line. Bring on the iPhones (and let's not talk too loudly about the conditions under which they are manufactured). It's the kind of language that ought to make him ineligible for running any organisation (but apparently he wants to run a "Free School" - one wonders what sense of the word 'free' he has in mind!)

People like this are a problem - not just because they are powerful and many of us find these views objectionable, but because in objecting, we ourselves are caught in the same "objectivity" trap that debates in education and social policy expose. What ought to be a critical debate is reduced to journalist brickbats. The deep problem is that education ministers of all political colour treat the "education debate" as a vehicle for their own career ambitions and not as a genuine attempt to create the conditions for the cultivation of the future (to be fair to Cummings, he explicitly identifies this tendency in others - but chooses not to see it in himself!). It may be that our political system is to blame for this - after all, educational interventions are a slow-burn: an economic policy decision may see GDP rise or fall within a parliamentary term with electoral consequences. Educational interventions (for example, Comprehensive Schools) may take 20 years, and perhaps in the context of political careers, it is inevitable that there is merely a 'mock seriousness' about policy.

But Cummings laying his cards on the table like this is an opportunity for which we should be grateful. But we have to engage in a different kind of political debate. Instead of objecting to his points, we need to ask the 'powerful questions' both of Cummings and ourselves that will expose the deep differences in how he and we think the world works. We should see Cummings as opening a debate about "social ontology". That sounds grander than it is: it simply means saying "Given that these things you say may be happening in education (e.g. poor schools, etc) what do you think the world is like?"

We all have a metaphysics sitting beneath our opinions of education. This is because the study of mind, of intellectual life, learning, teaching and daily experience (all of which belong to education) are not things which belong to the domain of naturalistic inquiry. Behind any educational opinion, one can find metaphysical ontologies ranging from religious fundamentalism, cognitivism to solipsism. The differences between these are fundamental and, one would hope, their exposure ought to encourage greater humility, practicality and humanity in our approach to the messy business of education. Cummings has a fashionable metaphysics that underpins his educational opinion: 'genetics'. Without articulating exactly how he believes specific genes exercise causal powers in the biological morphogenesis that turns cells into embryos and embryos into education ministers, Cummings says "it's all about the genes".

He should be challenged about this. He should be challenged to articulate his genetic metaphysics. He should be confronted with the logical consequences of the mechanisms he describes (if he can describe it). If he can't describe any mechanisms, he should be challenged to try. He should be challenged to explain the gaps between a logically-emerged social world from his abstract genetic principles and the real world he sees around him - even those aspects of that world which he likes. And perhaps, on seeing the explanatory deficiencies of his ontology which can be exposed for all to see, he might be given cause to think again.

Education is the domain where critical scientific inquiry, political discourse, democratic legitimation and practical operationalisation meet. We need clever people like Cummings (I'll stop short of saying we need Gove!). But we need them to think harder. But they will only do this if there is a space for them to be effectively challenged. The onus is on all of us to think better about education.

Friday, 11 October 2013

The Apotheosis of Improvisation?

What is a creative process? How does improvisation relate to the creative process? As I always wanted to be a composer (and never really managed it), these questions have troubled me for a long time. Sometimes, I would ascribe my creative frustration to the time I was living in: the telly, the computer (in 1982), school work and family were all madly distracting. "It was never this difficult for Beethoven, Mozart, etc.. they didn't have these kind of distractions!" I would say in my teens. Having said that, I would reflect that if it hadn't been 'that' difficult, then there would have been an awful lot of Mozarts and Beethovens around - and there aren't! So it must have been difficult.

I think there is something in the distraction argument though. There is something about the time that we live which envelopes us in a manner similar to Walter Benjamin's description of the arcades. 'Envelopment' is now part of the human condition, and its whole principle is the difficulty in stepping outside it and getting "back to ground". As I waited for my family in Starbucks in Manchester Arndale the other day, I was thinking about the envelopment of my situation.

Sonically, this environment has a rich composition. Music blares from loudspeakers everywhere. But there are different spectral qualities depending on the kind of loudspeaker, its position relative to me, etc. Playing with formants in the sound spectrum can reproduce these kinds of effects - it is a particular property of loudspeakers. On top of this, the amounts of redundancy in the sound environment are remarkable. What actually is perceived are different rhythmic pulses in different spectral regions. Personally, I enjoy the experience of being immersed in this. I feel it "empties my head" - which I find pleasurable. I have no reason to feel that I am any different from anyone else. We all have our heads emptied!

But I want to be a composer. That means I want to say something with sound. This is not the world of Beethoven, and the country walks won't do it for me (pleasant as they are). And my attempts to compose flounder on my attempts to be like Beethoven (or Stravinsky, or Berio, or Tippett, or...) It's never good enough.

At least when I improvise, I am able to be in control of my own sound world within which my mind can wander. Indeed, I am able to create my own atmosphere and 'empty my head' in the same way that I might to in Starbucks. But too often, my head emptying makes empty music. I am not in control of what I am doing. I am not saying anything except "I somehow have to do this".

But then I think, that's the point. I have to do this improvisation because of all the distractions. What I am doing is creating my own sound environment within which I can empty my head. Saying something is to acknowledge this to be the case. If I really want to say something, then I have to articulate my struggle to say something in sound.

I am thinking of ways of doing this. It's not altogether successful yet. Tools like Ableton allow for the reproduction of the kind of sonic environment of a shopping mall. It's continuous loops provide an environment for stimulating thought - empty headedness and creativity work well together. Music I have started to feel bad about can become part of a landscape (manipulated by spectral effects) within which I can think of new music which I might feel less bad about. I can continually recreate the environment of my own creativity.

The key to this process is the absence of getting rid of anything. I can recreate the sonic richness of many things going on at once, gradually bringing into focus those things that emerge as the most important.

But I don't know if this is composing or improvising. It's different from anything I might have hoped to have done before. But the idea of composing as a way of articulating the struggle of composing tickles me. I wonder how long it will last...

Thursday, 10 October 2013

Erasure and Experience

Something which struck me from yesterday's post was the whole business of 'deletion' with technology. The absenting of something through destruction (like a fire) usually leaves some kind of trace. Although one might inspect the magnetic bits on a disk after a file has been erased (and sometimes recover it), the whole principle of a computer is the obliteration of things without trace. Indeed, erasure is more fundamental to computing than storage: it is the principle of erasure that makes storage possible. It may be to do with the binary nature of the computer, the flipping of bits - but with a bit-flip, the 1 that was there is absolutely gone. Not "crossed-out", not smeared with an eraser, but completely gone. Might it be because of the complete obliteration of things that its opposite, the complete permanence of things, also becomes possible. These are the fundamental principles of 'data'.

Animal experience is not naturally attuned to complete obliteration. Removal or absenting, always leaves a trace. It is through the trace that the passing of time can be marked, that the passage of events can be coordinated with. In the passing of events, and the destruction of things, we read the processes of each other, learn more about each other, and gradually learn to coordinate ourselves better with each other. In the computer, we have to remake this kind of passing of time through using storage, maintaining state, and presenting a consistent interface. In tracing the obliterations performed by others, we have to think in the way the machine 'thinks': we have to consider the behaviour at the machine that the person deleting something might have exhibited. But we know that this behaviour at the machine is something only somebody familiar with the machine would understand. Whilst the language of obliteration in the physical and animal worlds is a language immediately comprehensible to any other member of the species (think of a death), the language of the obliteration of data in a computer is a language comprehensible to those who know the software. We now live in a rarified and particular universe. It is remarkable how we have become accustomed to something so fundamental and yet so alien to our nature.

One of the major advances in computer technology is going to involve a transformation of this situation. I expect that the interfaces of the future will allow for the presentation of decay and "erasure with traces" in ways which we only yet know in the physical domain. When this is achieved, we will think about technology differently. Technology today is stressful - it leads us to commit to practices where we often feel hidebound to comply with (indeed, the managerial control of technology has largely turned it into a tool of corporate compliance!). The working-out, the process, the traces of thought, the sheer messiness is all gone. All we get are clean and sterilised forms to fill in. This is partly because we have a particular view on the causality of information: that decisions can be taken as a positive consequence of "being informed" (so the information is seen as a kind of billiard ball bouncing into a 'decision' ball).

But information isn't like this. What happens is more processual, and the causal relationship is one which involves the discovery of the nature of colleagues and others and their thinking. Decisions are forms of agency taken in the light of the likely impact on those who are important to us, and who we hope to know something about. Information causes decision through a negative process of constraint, not a positive process of deduction.

What is fascinating in this however, is that the future computers which do not erase, but allow for decay and "traces of destruction", may not even operate in a conventional way. With no erasure, what is also reconfigured is the very idea of storage. When storage and programs are separable entities in a Von Neumann architecture, storage and programs are one and the same structure. The kind of sophisticated weighted logics that we see in Neural Networks may well replace the binary logic of current technologies (this is not to say that neural networks will be the model - I have some reservations about that - but that the simple on-off will be replaced, possibly by something more analogue.)

More fascinating is the fact that the machine with decay is almost 'life-like'. This is not to say that this is AI. But it may be a kind of artificial life with which we become attached; not something which we simply "use". At the root of the attachment process will be greater coherence with primeval instincts for following the traces of destruction of a thing.

The computers we have today are like strange phantoms who fascinate us because they appear suddenly without warning and disappear equally suddenly. We have learnt a meta-language to describe their behaviour. But it is odd behaviour. Imagine if human beings were like that: that on dying, for example, people simply disappeared; There was no dead body to grieve over. It is hard to conceive of how we would relate to one another. But love and attachment would surely be changed in these circumstances.

But might  we love the computers of tomorrow?

Wednesday, 9 October 2013

A Composerly mind

I find composition very difficult. I start something in all enthusiasm and slowly I lose heart and can't get it to go anywhere. I usually benefit from the struggle though - I appear to need to try to compose! The problem, it seems to me, is that composing is such a slow process. I simply can't get it down quick enough. And computers get in the way rather than help. So I'm much fonder of improvising.

But lately I've become dissatisfied with improvising. Much of my improvising feels (and sounds) a bit 'lazy' (this is the improviser's curse). There isn't enough invention; not enough contrast; not enough grit; not enough structural coherence. Which brings me back to being 'composerly'.

A composer thinks more carefully than an improviser about what they want to say, and they plan carefully how they are going to say it. My experience is that I think about what I want to say, decide, but when I come to writing down my plans, my intentions change. I start to want to scrub initial plans and replace them. But then that changes the whole ball-game, and I spin out of control.

The emotional side of this is important. The spinning out of control is a process of disenchantment. That in turn might be a process of disorientation; a losing of one's way amongst the complex thoughts and ideas that emerge only slowly in the creative process, and which I can only turn to sporadically. What was enchanting (an initial inspiration) loses its enchantment through the drudgery of notation. So why notate?

Notation is a medium for working out intentions. It's not just the intentions concerning what other people (players) should do in one's piece. It's also the intention of what the piece is about.

Technology ought to be able to help. But I've really struggled with it. It has made things very difficult. Not least because using pen and paper for composing (which may still be the best thing) seems anachronistic when all my other creative work goes through the computer. Also, it requires peace and quiet, space and the kind of organisational skills which I've never possessed. Computer are much more effective as organising tools. But computer notation packages are still clumsy.

But composing is also about making sound. Finding ways of notating sound is a secondary practice (for me at least). Technology is good at creating new ways of making sound. Ableton Live, PD, MaxMSP, etc are all pieces of software which I have found powerful in this respect. The question is perhaps how one can go from notes on the page, initial intentions, to the making of sound in ways where the evolution of intention is captured, not erased.  That seems to be the real problem with the computer - its complete erasure.

So my notation now begins and I keep going. The technology can help me keep everything - like a continually growing corpus. Yet through this process of growth, I can find the final balance between intention and the content that I eventually decide to bring through, using the content that I might have otherwise discarded in the background but still make it present.

Obviously composers of the past weren't able to do this. But then again, ours is a very different world to write music for...

Monday, 7 October 2013

Towards 2023: Education rediscovered?

Have things changed that much in the last 10 years? In 2003, we had smartphones (although not iPhones). It was the year of the 2nd Gulf war. Mass broadband was on its way. VLEs were well-embedded in education. There's little, apart from tablets (although what were called 'tablets' - which we now call convertible laptops - were available), which we have now that we didn't have then. But we didn't have an economic crisis. We even had a great summer!

But decades are not even. The decade between 1993 and 2003 saw the worldwide-web, the dot-com boom, the millenium bug (or rather lots of computing jobs trying to deal with it!), the election of Tony Blair and 9/11. That's quite a lot. Having said that, the gap between 1993 and 1983 is perhaps even more astonishing! So is the trend to  less change? What will we say in 2023?

This kind of comparison is a bit misleading. Not all change is visible on the surface. Between 1983 and 1993, many superficial changes were in evidence (personal computing being the most obvious), but the organisational substructure of society was only changing slowly. As superficial changes become less noticeable, it may be the case that organisational substructure transforms itself more profoundly. Between 2003 and 2013, there has been a dramatic technocratization of the management of institutions which has sat on the back of the wiring of everyone into an electronic network. The multinational corporations who control our networks increasingly operate with the economic force of superstates. What has shifted are balances of power, means of control and the distribution of risks. Increasingly the political sphere has become inseparable from the unrelenting political self-legitimation of technology. This has provided rich pickings for the rich.

The economic crisis, which is really the defining event of this current period, is a symptom of the kind of stagnation that always accompanies gross imbalances of power. The last time the world saw something like this was in the 1930s when the US government vaults heaved with the weight of European gold as it made its way over the Atlantic either in reparations from Germany, or debt repayments from the rest of Europe. Now it is multinational corporations whose vaults (and their executive's pockets) are swollen. It's a dangerous and one fears an unsustainable situation.

So what about 2023? The comparison with the 1930s is chilling - is the kind of destruction of capital (which Marx argued that in such a situation was necessary) possible? We can only hope that the answer is no. One possibility is the creation of new forms of capital which disrupt the old and create a refreshed dynamic within the economy. We should be careful what we wish for, but I think this can come about through a step-change in technology. I think the step-change will be a transformed way of thinking about computers.

By 2023 we will probably have quantum computers which operate at speeds which are as unimaginable to us today as our current processing speeds would have been to the computer pioneers in the 1950s. But what are the implications of all this speed?

One of the important shifts in our networked society has been a fundamental transformation in the nature of "tools". Tools are no longer only artefacts which through their material constraints help individuals reorganise their worlds. Tools still do this, but they also constrain users in the service of tool-makers who really have the power. Increasingly the environment within which we live is made both through our attempts to organise ourselves in it, and through the manipulations of our constraints by those who learn how to control us through our use of their tools. As computer power increases, so they will even learn how we feel: the efficacy of the constraints applied to people become more and more effective. Whilst this appears remarkably unequal, it may equally be a stable situation. So maybe no war - but it does appear to be a kind of  'information feudalism'.

Education becomes crucially important in an 'information feudal' society. In order to maintain the dynamics of information flow which feed the controlling forces bearing upon the population, it is necessary to have a technically educated population whose behaviour can be continually stimulated into new patterns, and who can be continually manipulated by the constraints that are constructed for them. The flow of new patterns of tool-driven behaviour, stimulated by education, becomes the new dynamic of economic flow. "Education" will, by 2023 have transformed itself into something entirely complicit with the controlling multi-national forces.  The transformation will be so complete that it will be impossible to remember that education was ever anything else. In the same way that the pathological control of the Catholic Church governed all aspects of life in Europe in the Middle ages, so education will operate a similar "information monasticism". There will be a blind faith in education which delivers economic obeisance.

The spanner in the works will be, as always, authenticity and novelty. The patterns of behaviour which stem from love and attachments may become well-known to the tool-makers (as indeed they are beginning to be already), but most of this behaviour is based on fears (the loss of loved ones for example): it is possible to overcome this. The greatest threat to a controlling society is the divestment of fear. Whilst it might have been forgotten that the original mission of education was precisely this loss of fear, there is a hope that this might be rediscovered.

It is this rediscovered education that offers us hope. Maybe rediscovery will come from the realisation of the profundity of the human and mysterious connections that bind us together. It may be that the speed of computers contributes to an empowering of individuals in the face of controlling forces: after all, these are machines which now have the capacity to analyse how we feel. It may be that personal insight in the light of technological power assists in the divestment of fear. All these things are possible. But if the alternative is the destruction of capital, then perhaps we should be grateful that our technologies may steer us to a future that, whilst not being ideal or free any more (and perhaps a little less) than we are now, maintains the possibility of freedom.

Friday, 4 October 2013

Sub-Prime Academia: when the bibliometric myths collapse...

Bibliometrics now dominates the academic landscape. Government research resource allocation, measures of academic status and professional development all now depend on a bunch of statistical measures that supposedly track merit. It is an international game that has turned intellectual effort into paper production factories, publishers into 'credit rating agencies', and academic against academic in blind peer review processes.

Unsurprisingly, given the stakes for individual careers, people game the system. Rather than concentrating on the kind of deliberative self-critique and doubt that is ultimately necessary for intellectual progress, many academics now concentrate on strategies for publishing as soon as possible in the highest impact factor journals that they can. What matters is increasingly the badge of publication, supported by statistics for impact and citation, rather than the intellectual content of any contribution. There are some academics who exploit the peer review process by suggesting particular citations in submitted papers (with which they have a stake) as a condition of publication. Others simply try to push out as many papers as they can. The actual content of these papers is often terrible.

The problem is exacerbated by the fact that Universities, in their drive for increasing their own league table position, recruit staff on the basis of a quantitative measure of 'number of articles published' and 'impact factors' - this all done often without reading the work! Indeed, the advantage of bibliometrics (and the principal reason why it has caught on) is the fact that it empowers managers, not academics, to make decisions from a perspective which is not scholarly, but administrative: show me the score, and I'll make the decision. Consequently, good and thoughtful teachers with poor academic publication rates are sacked. More importantly, deeply thoughtful academics who are slow to produce output, or whose output doesn't fit the normative expectations of peer review (by virtue of the kind of originality that makes for transformative research) are also shown the door. Universities are becoming no longer places for thinking. Often, those recruited on the back of 'number of publications' are recruited to institutions where a good teacher, not a publication record, is necessary.Unfortunately, good teachers tend not to be made from being immersed in a publication factory; they are made through dedicated experience of teaching.

The deep problem is the fact that the statistical measures mask a way of making meaningful distinctions about real academic quality: not the kind of academic quality that a manager might see, but the kind of academic quality that other academics would recognise. This is very similar to the problem of the slicing-up of debts where traders could not tell the difference between good debt and bad. What happened? Eventually, there was a crisis of confidence. Institutions were shown to have been exposed to things which they thought were of approved high quality, only to find that in reality the quality was  poor, resulting from gaming the system which produced the measure of quality. We had it in banking, we had it in eggs: now we have it in academic papers!

When will the crisis of confidence come? My guess it will be disgruntled students. It will only take a mis-placed 'esteemed' academic to upset a cohort who will then express their anger through critiquing the quality of that academic's work. It won't be long before the press get hold of it. Then the questions will come... "did you not read their papers?", "how could a university be taken in?", etc.

As the current phase of reduction of diversity in the education sector takes hold in the UK and many institutions aim for 'Oxbridgification', the stage is being set for an embarrasing fall. Students will want great teaching. Oxbridgification is unlikely to deliver this. The ensuing disruption may be dangerous for many institutions. What follows it, however, may be a revaluation of what really matters in education.

The pursuit of truth matters to both great teachers and great thinkers.

Tuesday, 1 October 2013

A Hierarchy of problems and the problem of 'control' in Universities

Someone who leads a learning technology firm that has specialised in school-based technology asked me the other week how to break into the higher education market. I answered that one of the most important things is to understand institutional politics. Blackboard, for example, send their salespeople to sell to Vice-chancellors. They give the "big-spiel" about tracking students (and staff), about monitoring success rates, student engagement, etc. They know this is the kind of language Vice-chancellors want to hear. They absolutely DON'T want to talk to the IT people, because the IT people will know that all these 'solutions' are just flashes of light on a screen - like any other piece of software, with all their faults and miseries to be imposed on hard-pressed teachers.

That Vice-chancellors are so important in this kind of process tells us something about where things are in Universities, the challenges for technology and the deeper challenges for students and teachers. The marketing strategy of any software company is to solve the problems of the person buying the system. So Blackboard aims to solve the VC's problem. But (despite the fact that Blackboard is meant to be a learning system) the VCs problem is not a learning problem. It is a 'retention' problem, or a 'monitoring' problem - a control problem of one sort or another. So the 'learning' system inevitably becomes sold as a control system because the dominant problem of the person buying it is a control problem.

But where are the learners and teachers? They have different kinds of problems. Typically, both learners and teachers suffer from a 'constraint' problem: the 'right thing to do' often lies outside the range of permissable things that can be done. The permissible range of things that can be done are constrained in order to solve the control problem of managers. This is not to say that there shouldn't be constraints, but that the problems of teachers and learners take second place to the control problem of managers. There is a hierarchy of problems in institutions.

There are deep pathologies of positive feedback that kick-in here. Managerial attempts to solve a control problem produce new constraints on teachers and learners, which in turn can introduce new control problems. If a control system objectifies teachers, and functionalises what they do, it can become a barrier to authentic feedback of the organisational situation on the ground. Taken too far, the only feedback that is possible is the feedback that is capable of being carried by the system itself; all else is lost and authenticity goes out of the window.

Is technology to blame for this? After all, technologies allow for 'control' in the form of a centralisation of power on a large-scale. They encourage autocratic idealisation of the functions and roles of individuals in institutions, instrumentalising practice and introducing constraints in the name of technocratic procedures like 'quality'.

The reality is that this isn't control! Things are never under control in a centralised system. The person at the centre may enjoy their moment of power but this is a symptom of blindness or delusion. A hierarchy of problems that makes one person's problem more important than anybody else's will inevitably collapse for the simple reason that the person at the centre does not possess sufficient capacity to absorb the complexity of the institution and its operating environment. All is attenuated as operations, strategy and identity become confused. Only complexity can absorb complexity - and no individual is complex enough to do the whole thing on their own.

But like Icarus's chariot, technology lets people think that this can work. What is missing in our understanding of technology that we haven't learnt this? Or is it something missing in our understanding of ourselves? Is there a technology that we have yet to see which will not allow us to think like this? I hope so.

Ivan Illich called for 'tools for conviviality' after he called for 'deschooling society'. The deschooling arguments were at once arguments for personal autonomy and convivial action. It may be because we see 'information' as something possessed by an individual, rather than something emergent from a community that we have merely seen 'personal technologies' used in ways which serve to give tool providers greater power. But what are truly convivial personal tools? Maybe there is yet a revolution to come...