Saturday, 5 November 2016

1605 and all that: Gunpowder and the Advancement of Learning Technology

In 1605 some political radicals tried to blow up the houses of parliament and kill the king. It was also the year that Francis Bacon published his "On the Advancement of Learning" in which he attacked the old order of academia. In attacking the scholastic obsession with Aristotelian doctrine, Bacon argued:
"men began to hunt more after words than matter; and more after the choiceness of the phrase, and the round and clean composition of the sentence, and the sweet falling of the clauses, and the varying and illustration of their works with tropes and figures, than after the weight of matter, worth of subject, soundness of argument, life of invention, or depth of judgment"
Look at us now! Look at the scholasticism in management schools (but not just there) as people talk about sociomateriality, entanglement, critical realism, postmodernism, embodiment and all the other tropes of "blah blah sociology". Just as in 1605, the scholastic game upholds the old order - the esteemed "history men" whose "round and clean composition of sentence" fills our journals, revealing nothing of fundamental uncertainties, feeding bibliometric creditworthiness, assuring the position and status of the few, whilst - on the back of it all - education is financialised. Some of our Universities have been taken over by criminals whilst the majority of academics and thoughtful people are devalued and replaced by adjuncts on pauper wages.

We may criticise Bacon's empiricism today as naive, but he fired the starting gun on a the scientific revolution which also ushered in a political revolution. With a few decades, the English did kill their king - although not by gunpowder. After over 20 years of chaos (from the civil war), the restoration of 1660 was soon followed by a completely reformed academic world: the establishment of the Royal Society, and the transformation of the academic curriculum along Baconian lines. 

Today's science is not Baconian or Newtonian science. The enlightenment brought certainty and reproducible experiment - and academic journals in which to communicate it. Our new science is data-driven, probabilistic (although that in itself is a problem) and uncertain. The US military's acronym VUCA (Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity and Ambiguous) is not far off the mark in expressing where we are at. Today's 'old order' presents contingent and uncertain findings as certain and definite: big data, learning analytics, econometrics, most of education research, a lot of psychology - all do this. Every journal paper makes unreasonable claims for certainty on the back of dubious empiricism and unreasonable assumptions. Yet it gets published, and the fact that it gets published counts for more in today's academic world than what it actually says. But it doesn't matter, because few will read it!

More importantly, every journal paper utilises the communication medium of the old order to communicate something belonging to the new. This is inherently unstable. A science of uncertainty requires the embrace of rich means of communicating uncertainty, not the pretence of certainty in a restricted format. And all attempts to change the power dynamics of publishers merely represent more of the same: Open Access is simply "consumerism academic style" (as Steve Fuller says -; People publish in open access journals to buy citations, which feed the bibliometric machine. They do not communicate more effectively or honestly. 

Political revolution and scientific revolution are tied up together. It brings social chaos - and we must expect this. The Universities look unassailable right now - perhaps in the same way that the monarchy looked unassailable in the wake of 1605. Brexit and presidents Trump or Clinton (which is worse?!) will chip away at this. Our technologies of communication represent part of the new order - but we will look at them very differently in the wake of the unfolding chaos. Learning technologists should be looking ahead.

"New eras" always sound exciting: but history shows that the transition from one era to another is almost always horrible. 

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