The University and the Cloud: a health-warning

I spoke earlier today at the 26th UK Heads of e-Learning Forum meeting about Effectively navigating the cloud: The impact of externally hosted learning spaces.

My presentation on the University and the Cloud: a health-warning is on my slideshare.

There is also a theoretical article on emergent technology that includes the Cloud.

See also the recent book, Cloud Time, by Lockwood and Coley.

A note on technology and academic labour

Last week’s CERD conference on doing and undoing academic labour got me thinking about whether anything, once done, could be undone. Or whether, once our labour had transformed some thing or some place or some outlook or some one, there was no undoing. No going back. Shakespeare has Lady Macbeth tell Macbeth in Act 3, as he is consumed by guilt after the killing of King Duncan, “Things without all remedy Should be without regard: what’s done is done.” Later in Act 5, as she in-turn becomes haunted and has to regard those things have that have beeen done and for which there are deep and human consequences, Lady Macbeth laments that “What’s done cannot be undone.” Ambition, guilt, shame, humanity, each pivoting around action and reflection.

This had me wondering whether ravelling and unravelling was a better metaphor for academic work or labour than doing and undoing. And whether the ravelled or tangled or complicated nature of academic work inside and beyond the academy might be untangled or decomposed as a set of threads that might then be re-stiched into something else. Or whether by highlighting one of the tangles, in my case educational technology, we might be able to use that unravelled element for some other purpose. One of the ways in which those other purposes might be described is in understanding the neoliberal networks in which the threads are tangled, and as a result in situating educational technology in networks of power and resistance.

However, a series of increasingly complicated, contextual factors makes the process of unravelling a more tangled operation.

FIRSTLY: On political economy: Spain. The two visualisations noted by ZeroHedge in their Brussels… We Have A Problem posting, highlight that the risk-controlled, growth and employability-obsessed strategies that underpin the new normal in UK higher education take no account of the depth/accute-nature of the global crisis. ZeroHedge previously described this wider context in terms of European Bank solvency deficiency, which involves

very scary numbers that were noted in Zero Hedge yet which barely received any mention in the broader press. Because the numbers were all very, very large (think eyes glazing over 11-12 digits large), and because their existence meant that the long-term, chronic pain for Europe, which is and has been one of public (and selected private) sector deleveraging (which oddly enough is called “austerity” by everyone to no doubt habituate people to associate debt reduction with pain – where is “mean-reversionism” when you need it?), … were promptly buried.

Our political economic and sociological illiteracy makes me reflect more-and-more on the false consciousness endemic in our academic labour. Do we really reflect on the true nature/context of our work? This illiteracy does our students and our staff no favours, because if Spain goes, all bets are off. Our focus on participation, personal learning, employability, marketised skills development or whatever, is cast in the shadow of this crisis and our illiteracy.

SECONDLY: On political economy: the UK as a de-developing nation. Larry Elliot in the Guardian has amplified how our political economic illiteracy affects HE policy and practice, and what we are willing to discuss or fight for inside the academy. He notes that Britain is a de-developing nation, and this has huge ramifications for higher education policy and practice.

In the hundred years from 1914 to 2014, the century since the outbreak of the first world war, the UK will have declined from pre-eminent global superpower to developing country, or “emerging market”. The symptoms of this vertiginous plunge in the world’s rankings are already starkly apparent: a chronic balance of payments deficit, a looming shortage of energy and food, a dysfunctional labour market, volatility in economic growth and a painful vulnerability to external events.

Since the start of the crisis, the UK has borrowed more in seven years than in all its previous history. It has impoverished savers by pegging the bank rate well below the level of inflation, and indulged in the sort of money-creation policies normally associated with Germany in 1923, Latin American banana republics in the 1970s and, more latterly, Robert Mugabe’s Zimbabwe.

Then there is the large number of unproductive workers engaged in supervisory or “security” roles, on the streets, in public parks, on the railways and at airports. There are the wars fought without the proper resources to do so, and the awareness among military commanders that, in the absence of any military conflict, their forces will be shrunk further, there being no attempt objectively to assess the nation’s enduring defence needs. There is the ramshackle infrastructure existing in parallel with procurement contracts that run billions of pounds over budget and are then cancelled.

This is the actually existing world for which we claim we are preparing our graduates.

THIRDLY: on risk. Andrew Haldane of the Bank of England’s Financial Policy Committee has argued that the modelling and risk—management systems that we have used in econometrics and financial services/financialisation has not respected the non-linearities, the self-organised criticality of systems nor the widespread risk of contagion across systems that exist in the real-world. He argues that the real-world displays non-normality that makes the highly-organised tolerances imposed by new public management a recipe for crisis. Our models are, in a word, unresilient. He notes that

It is not difficult to imagine the economic and financial system exhibiting some, perhaps all, of these features – non-linearity, criticality, contagion. This is particularly so during crises. Where interactions are present, non-normalities are never far behind. Indeed, to the extent that financial and economic integration is strengthening these bonds, we might anticipate systems becoming more chaotic, more non-linear and fatter-tailed in the period ahead.

Normality has been an accepted wisdom in economics and finance for a century or more. Yet in real-world systems, nothing could be less normal than normality. Tails should not be unexpected, for they are the rule. As the world becomes increasingly integrated – financially, economically, socially – interactions among the moving parts may make for potentially fatter tails. Catastrophe risk may be on the rise. If public policy treats economic and financial systems as though they behave like a lottery – random, normal – then public policy risks itself becoming a lottery. Preventing public policy catastrophe requires that we better understand and plot the contours of systemic risk, fat tails and all. It also means putting in place robust fail-safes to stop chaos emerging.

We do not stop to consider what this means for academic labour or for the practices of higher education. In our subject-silos, chasing our latest technology, and focused on marketised metrics and performance indicators, our academic labour-in-capitalism reinforces our intellectual enclosure.

FOURTHLY: on the political economy of UK Universities. Andrew McGettigan has developed work on HE financing, including some recent work on bonds. He argued:

Last year, the economist David Blanchflower, a former member of the Bank of England’s Monetary Policy Committee, wrote in favour of universities issuing bonds.“In a recession, borrowing long term at low rates of interest is an eminently sensible thing to do— it is a classic Keynesian response,” he argued. “The public sector can utilise the savings of the nation. This is a time to invest at low, long-run rates of interest. Bonds could allow universities to borrow money for important projects cheaply.”

Universities have taken note. Many are now taking a closer look at bonds according to the British Universities Finance Directors Group, BUFDG… Banks say there is scope for universities to easily borrow another £4 billion whether through bonds or bank lending, much more even than the fabled cut in the Higher Education Funding Council for England’s teaching grant.

If the current upheaval in higher education does prompt a new wave of borrowing, then the consequences for universities could be equally huge. For borrowing on this scale comes with strings attached. Experience in the US, where bonds are more common, shows that those strings are capable eventually of transforming not only the daily life of a university but its very purpose.

McGettigan goes on to note how this then implicates Universities in the mechanics of the market through engagement with credit-ratings agencies or private finance initiatives/special purpose vehicles to leverage private investment. In this Universities are increasingly implicated inside neoliberal webs of practice, that include such special purpose vehicles, holding companies, joint venture companies, third party assurance companies and bondholders. These webs of complexity and risk are then formed inside the mess that is UK higher education policy where:

Some institutions may wish to avoid becoming trapped under what the University Alliance mission group has described as the £7,500 “cliff edge” defined by the level of tuition fees at which government quotas on student numbers start to bite. This could prompt them to start spending in a bid to justify higher fees to students… The common factor among all such strategies is that they are likely to require substantial up-front investment. Which is where bonds could come in.

Critical here is the extent to which University managers are willing to leverage institutions and the sector. McGettigan quotes Chris Hearn, head of education at Barclays Corporate, saying that “Time and time again we hear back from investors that they would desperately love to get their hands on anything to do with the university sector”. So academic labour is enmeshed within a world that is increasingly framed by credit ratings, leverage, private finance, hedge funds and private equity, with little space to critique the processes and lived reality of what is being done to the university system and individual institutions. This is important given the experience of “the University of California [which] has $13bn of bond debt and has pledged the tuition fees of generations of future students to maintain its AAA rating.”

There are, of course, institutional and regional disparities, as this piece in the Times Higher demonstrates, and HEFCE’s announcement of recurrent grants and student number controls further highlights the disparities between Universities that will come to rely more on external sources of income, including philanthropy and business partnerships, that in-turn affect the purpose and practices of those Universities. At issue then are: what do we know of the political economy of universities? What can be fought for inside the academy? For what purpose is our academic labour? Inside our subject-driven, NSS/REF-enforced silos, do we have the literacies and the courage to unravel the reality of higher education and to fight for something different?

FIFTHLY: technology as a crack through which the University is corporatised. Both Andrew McGettigan and I drew attention to the formation of Pearson College, its technological underpinnings, and the partnerships that it has with established academic institutions. My point was to show how that corporation was leverage gains from the higher education market, through its College, its educational think-tank, partnerships with universities like Sunderland and Royal Holloway, the role of Edexcel and the development of accreditation for profit, and the role of military accreditation in the United States. Diane Ravitch writes eloquently about this in the USA on her blog [search for the Pearson tag].

As competition hots-up in the squeezed middle of universities, as the government uses secondary legislation to lever open the sector for privatization and the market, as other providers are encouraged into the sector often using the promises of study using technology as a catalyst, an architecture is opened-up that threatens any reality of higher education beyond the profit motive. Thus, Pearson can call upon proprietary technology/LMS, established and culturally-accepted systems thinking, access to content, and deep market capitalisation, in order to open-up the sector for wider marketisation.

Pearson College highlights how educational technology is a way-in both to the extraction of value from universities, and to the recalibration of the purpose of universities to catalyse such extraction further. The focus here is on efficiency and business process re-engineering, and of a view that as technology is neutral, and offers simple efficiencies, who could argue with public-private partnerships aimed at such developments? There is no alternative, and the inefficient, unproductive public sector is ripe for restructuring through the services of corporations. Partnerships and leverage are enforced, in-part, because academic labour is shackled inside the demands of performativity revealed in the REF or NSS scores.

Moreover, a surfeit of new providers cheapens the bulk of academic labour that is not developing proprietary knowledge or skills, and will drive down labour costs and increase precarious work. Flexibility, redundancy, productivity, privatisation, restructuring, value-for-money, all underpinned by technology, become the new normal. As the discipline of fear enters the market, the space to develop literacies for critiquing the take-over and recalibration of the University is enclosed and suffocating.

SIXTHLY: the power of academic labour. All this emerges within the context of a global economic crisis that has no promise of resolution. The question is how academic labour can subvert, dissent from or push-back against the contexts and realities outlined above, either inside or beyond the University? Can academics find collective forms that enable the development of discretionary power? Can academics use their labour to overcome how that labour inside capitalism overcomes all of human sociability, to the point where all we can discuss is driven by growth? Can we develop new forms of labour in new spaces? Can the complexity of higher education be unravelled and re-stitched against this new public management?

The University is a new front in the attempt by capital to further accumulation and the extraction of value. In that space technology reveals the conjuncture of forces that seek to catalyse and co-opt this process, in the services, technologies and applications that blind us to the social and economic realities. In that same moment technology enables to us to shine a light on what our academic labour might be for. What it might help us to defend, against its use for labour management, business-process re-engineering or the real subsumption of our labour for the valorisation of capital. Our uses of technology might usefully then be developed tactically and in public, where we identify how, in spite of their notionally free affordances many technologies are a back-door route for surveillance and militarisation, albeit sometimes non-consciously.

We might then ask, to what uses of technology did we say no? Where such uses are immanent to the institution were we able to say no? Are we able to identify possibilities for the use of technology that are precluded by new public management, and to identify why that is the case? How might cracking, hacking or modding the university, and doing so in public, help us to forge a new form of sociability or new spaces for higher learning?

Educational technology and the war on public education

I’m presenting at the University of Lincoln’s Centre for Educational Research and Development conference on Thursday June 7. I’ll be speaking about Educational technology and the war on public education. My slides are on my slideshare. There is a fuller blog post on the war on public education is here and on militarisation is here. Part of the argument about alienation/commodification is made in this paper published in triple-C.

I will ask these questions.

  1. How do technologies contribute to the alienation of academics from their labour inside the university?
  2. What might be learned from occupations/work-ins in other geographies or at other times or in other sectors or under other capitals? How did techniques or technologies affect those actions?
  3. What forms of academic labour are legitimised and how does technology affect that legitimation?
  4. With a focus on technologies for militarisation and techniques for control, how is academic labour co-opted?
  5. How and where might academics push back, in order to abolish alienated labour?

A note on technologies for control, systemic violence and the militarisation of higher education

In their review of militarism and education normal, Meiners and Quinn argue that there is a three-fold mechanism by which public education in the United States is shaped through hegemonic militarisation: by offering a perception of choice to those denied any such choice as a result of their socio-economic status – where enlisting is an institutionalised way out of poverty and is catalysed through connections between education and the military; by serving as a catalyst for innovation and change in the forms of education, through taking-over schools/colleges and militarising the curriculum; and by using the vast revenues devolved to the military for research inside education. This latter point is critical for these authors when they turn their gaze to higher education.

[M]ilitarization, according to researchers, asymmetrically shapes contemporary higher education, channeling resources to sub-fields within science, engineering, mathematics, and particular areas of linguistic and political inquiry, while the remaining disciplines—art and humanities, in particular—receive no military dollars.

The interaction between the military and the pedagogies of/curriculum for technology is not new. Beyond the neuroses of the battle for education inside the Cold War, Dyer Witheford and de Peuter have argued in Games of Empire that the production of games like America’s Army and the development of augmented/virtual spaces in partnerships between the military and university knowledge labs enable capital to leverage the power of the state to ‘reassert, rehearse and reinforce Empire’s twin vital subjectivities of worker-consumer and soldier-citizen’. With a focus on the marketing of the game Full Spectrum Warrior, they highlight how curricula designed around the cultures of game production, as well as the processes/relationships of modding and hacking, demand “the total obedience of the culture industry to the protocols of the War on Terror – its immediate ingestion and reproduction of the state’s paranoias”, and that“new kinds of militarized formats” fuse “technological innovation and the erotic charge of combat” in “renewed, compulsive militarization”. Such compulsive militarisation is made manifest in the connections that emerge between firstly the virtual frontline, secondly coding and narrative and design inside/beyond the classroom, and thirdly the living room as space for play.

The ways in which the interplay between formal/informal spaces for educational engagement and the neoliberal development of curricula enables societies of control to emerge, is also seen in the normalisation of technologies for the management of risk and in promoting the idea of acceptable, business-like performance/attitudes in students and teachers. Here the demand to maintain the duality of worker-consumer and soldier-citizen results in the development and use of technologies for systemic violence through control. Thus, in the physical campus we see the increased use of kettling and a para-militarised response to dissent, with little opposition offered by institutional senior managers or staff. The classic example in the global North lies in the student protests and occupations at UC-Berkeley in 2011, which highlighted the increased politicisation of young people, the increased militarisation of our campuses, and the increased bravery of people as co-operative social forces in the face of State authoritarianism. However, the global South has also born witness to widespread use of military force/technologies in the spaces around campuses and student life, as witnessed in Chile. The result is the enforcement of consent through coercion, and a diminution/marginalisation of the space for alternative narratives to develop.

In part, the use of force on campus enables corporations to overcome the attrition on the rate of profit that emerges from the unnecessary circulation time of immaterial commodities like credit default swaps realised as student loan debts, and in part it enables the State to discipline the thinking/actions of those citizens who feel that they might be anything other than those twin subjectivities. As the interplay between subject-identities and the system is normalised and structured through debt, those identities/attitudes/actions are controlled and managed through the mining of data and an obsession with analytics. Surveillance and monitoring become means by which technologies can be used to effect biopolitical power, or the subsumption of individual wills to the creation of value. Thus, the use of management data to normalise and marginalise, and therefore overcome the risk inherent in the use of debt/future earnings/labour to secure an increase in the rate of profit, is key. Debt-fuelled economic growth demands that the management of risk, including the risk that students might be other than businesslike, should be controlled. Anything that is seen as abnormal in this space is disciplined. Such discipline includes use of physical force by paramilitary police on campus, but it extends beyond this, to the increasing homogenisation of campus-based or institutional technologies through public/private partnerships, and the refusal to support marginalised innovations, often located in open source communities. The physical space is coerced and enclosed, in order that capital can legitimise the extraction of value from the virtual.

However, even those more marginal spaces risk replicating the systemic inequalities and acts of violence that are catalysed by hegemonic positions. As Hoofdargues, all forms of activism/innovation risk their own subsumption inside structural regimes of domination. In fact

the current mode of [neo-liberal] late-capitalism relies on the continuous extension and validation of the infrastructure and the optimistic discourses of the new information technologies. Discourses that typically get repeated in favour of what I designate as the emerging speed-elite are those of connection, instantaneity, liberation, transformation, multiplicity and border crossing

Thus, even those educators who claim to be hacking or co-creating or accelerating ‘new spaces’, or personal learning environments/MOOCs as opposed to institutionalised systems, are operating inside structures which were created with the goal of facilitating global capitalism and its elites, and “that allow for the on-going perfection of military power through technologies of surveillance”. Whether such surveillance takes place in institutional or personal or massively-open learning environments is irrelevant when it is performed inside the totalising logic of capital. Thus, Hoofd argues that “The idea that subjectivities from social movements are in any way less produced by neo-liberal globalisation is highly problematic.” For Hoofd, these movements might form the collective opposition realised in the EduFactory, but her concerns might also be extended to those radical education projects discussing an exodus from formal higher education, or those communities and networks engaged in innovations against the grain of the institution. Without a structural critique that ‘outs power’ as decisions are made, the systemic violence and alienation enacted in the name of capital cannot be escaped. This makes the co-option of educational performance by the state for control or for violence or by the military a normalised outcome. 

Thus, education and educational innovation/transformation is folded inside a discourse that threatens alienation and violence, in the name of value and the reproduction of established, hegemonic positions of power. It is inside this connected set of spaces that the connections between the military, the market/corporations and public education needs to be discussed. If we are really for education as transformation there is no ignoring of the ramifications of:

  1. the recent discussion of the relationship between DARPA, hackerspaces and schools;

  2. the neoliberal networks that connect Blackboard to the Pentagon;

  3. the neoliberal networks that connect Pearson to the US Department of Defense through educational innovation and assessment, and then to its own policy think tanks that are setting an agenda for educational marketisation;

  4. the connections between hacking competitions, education departments and national security, and the co-option of hacking as a pedagogy of/curriculum for control;

  5. the use by Universities of drones, through which The Salon reports connections between the U.S. military, academic research, and defence contractors;

  6. public/private partnerships in the UK that focus upon wireless video surveillance;

  7. the deep connections between the military and research inside UK universities; and

  8. the disconnect between our activist promotion of technologies that are apparently transformative in the global North at the expense of their implication in war in the global South, like the Raspberry Pi.

Hersch, in her review of the ethics of university engagement with/research for the military, noted several preliminary conclusions.

  • Military research on offensive weapons is considerably more likely to contribute to reducing than increasing security.

  • By diverting resources from other areas, military research both distorts the research climate and balance between different subjects and reduces the resources available for creative holistic approaches to conflict resolution.

  • Banning military research is not counter to academic freedom, but such a ban would be difficult to achieve in the short term.

  • The resources associated with military research and the associated research climate may be impeding genuinely creative and innovative research, which often takes place at the boundaries.

  • Useful civilian spin-offs from military research is totally unfounded as a basis for justifying military research.

My contention is that we need to ask fundamental questions about the ways in which our educational spaces and the technologies we actively deploy inside them, contribute to: the normalised violence of coercion or control or marginalisation of students; or the militarisation of the physical spaces of our campuses; or the direct co-option of our own/our students’ immaterial labour in making stuff for the military. As the storify that describes one narrative of the connection between DARPA and Make notes, at issue is the possibility of creating non-militarised spaces that are not underpinned by systemic violence. As austerity bites and as the State, alongside transnational global capital, seeks to reinforce its control over the debt-fuelled obligations of its worker-consumers, the role of the University in applying a critique of the ways in which such control is engineered and our complicity in it has never been more necessary.

A note on humanity or ethics, mobiles and the Raspberry Pi

I have argued elsewhere about the resources for a critique of mobile learning and its relationship to notions of capital and what Hardt and Negri have termed Empire. I have just submitted a draft book chapter on this issue, in which I quote several passages from Peter Eichstaedt’s work on the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). This work highlights the issues of labour rights, resource accumulation, geographical dispossession and supply-chains that underpin the means of production and distribution of mobile technologies. Notably this focuses upon the production and distribution of coltan and tin, although it also connects to conflicts over other resources. An analysis of this work might be tied into the human and labour rights of those engaged both in mining the resources that enable technologies to scale efficiently and in the assembly of those products.

These abuses are connected through webs of transnational global finance, mining corporations and media firms to the educational practices that are increasingly common in the global North, and which underpin the active re-production of the imperatives of capital. Ware has argued that:

Coltan is increasingly exploited in the mountains in the conflict torn eastern part of the country. The Rwanda and Uganda backed rebels have primary control over the ore and are reaping huge profits which maintain and finance the protracted war. It is estimated that the Rwandan army made $20 million per month mining coltan in 2000. As coltan is necessary for the high-tech industry and as demand increases, motivation to pull out of the DRC by Rwanda, Uganda, and Burundi decreases.

Eichstaedt writes that despite the relatively small role that tin and coltan from the DRC play in the global market for rare earth metals, the revenues flowing from the control of mines in the east of the country is hugely significant in terms of local geo-politics. He notes

That significance can be counted in the millions of dollars and the millions of lives lost or damaged over the past sixty-five years in the worst human death toll since World War II.

Global Witness argued that

In their broader struggle to seize economic political and military power, all the main warring parties have carried out the most horrific human rights abuses, including widespread killings of unarmed civilians, rape, torture and looting, recruitment of child soldiers to fight in their ranks, and forced displacement of hundreds of thousands of people. The lure of eastern Congo’s mineral riches is one of the factors spurring them on. By the time these minerals reach their ultimate destinations – the international markets in Europe, Asia, North America and elsewhere – their origin, and the suffering caused by this trade, has long been forgotten.

In terms of the global supply of rare earth metals like coltan, a small amount comes from the DRC, which means that for transnational corporations, invoking due diligence policies for these mines is not worth the cost. Thus, there is little incentive for those corporations to invest in tracking systems or in maintaining the mines, and their withdrawal means that miners will be left without incomes or placed at the mercy of militias and less scrupulous governments. At issue then is the extent to which educators who are framing a demand for [mobile] learning are implicated, through their relationships as consumers or promoters of the hardware of multinational companies that may source conflict minerals.

For Eichstaedt it is here that the personal becomes political and might underpin action.

We all use and depend on all sorts of high-tech devices in our daily lives… We are all linked on our shrinking planet… Forming personal and lasting bonds with people is the most effective and powerful way to effect change… Feet on the ground, followed by time, toughness, and commitment to change is needed. Nothing less. 

Educators are nodes in networks of power that form circuits for accumulation and profit and the re-production of the structures and agency of capital. These structures cover all of human life, though marketing, game-play, work, privatisation of public assets, data mining, advertising, the constant renewal and upgrades of mobile technologies and so on. It is these networks that then underpin ‘immaterial labour’, through the commodification of our desire for play or for the latest cheap, powerful, miniaturised device.

Thus, for instance, the ‘Raspberry Pi‘ is connected to the desire to engage young people in programming through affordable, flexible, mobile devices that reveal the inner workings of the machine as it relates to programming. Yet, there has been little discussion of the component parts that make up the machinery, and how they are sourced. The machine uses a broadcom corporation bcm2835 SoC (system-on-a-chip). According to a company engagement report made by the Triodos ethical bank in 2011, broadcom was uneligible for ethical investment during that financial year because of their performance regarding conflict minerals, co-operation with repressive regimes and on human rights.

Recently, the <nettime> email list has focused a little on “Conflict minerals and radical impotence”. The original posting is here. The attempt to create a discussion on the ethics of the production practices on the Raspberry Pi site is here. It includes a site moderator declaring:

I will be keeping an eye on it [this discussion] and if it degenerates into outraged moral pouting, then closed it will be.  Oh btw, isn’t Ethics in Howondaland?

The originator of the discussion thread then posted a response that he received from Raspberry Pi, which can be read here. The manufacturers dismissed the issue because “it’s almost impossible to avoid conflict minerals, [and that’s why we ignore them]”. There are three issues that emerge here. Firstly, why do manufacturers ignore ethical or moral positions? Secondly, why do they seek to dismiss those who raise legitimate questions about the production practices that underpin those technologies? Thirdly, how are we as educators or users of technology in the Global North culpable in not asking questions or lobbying or refusing?

It isn’t especially difficult to ask questions, and the Enough project provides company rankings based on surveys of the 21 largest electronics companies to determine what progress they are making toward conflict-free supply chains and a conflict-free mining sector in the DRC. In the case of the Raspberry Pi, I recognise the desire to engage children in the process of making things and in understanding the craft of work with software or hardware, in all its forms. However, I am unnerved by the refrains of radical impotence that emerge when we [refuse to] discuss our [ethical/moral/humane] use of technologies, just as I am unsure about our engagement in defence-driven education projects, or our uncritical promotion of cyber security challenges. Each of these initiatives connects to wider spaces or networks or hegemonies that link education to issues of ethics or morality or humanity.

As one <nettime> contributor argued:

We used to evaluate our electronic devices on criteria such as price, computational power or interface design. Some of the more politically-inclined users prefer devices that support open source operating systems rather proprietary ones. But, given the state of the world, we should also consider ecological and social impacts of a company’s practices as important criteria.

Some, like the ETICA project, have made a start.

Some, like, have started to map out how our tech addiction hurts people.

We might continue to ask, what is to be done?

Educational technology and the war on public education

On Tuesday I am presenting at the University of Brighton’s Centre for Applied Philosophy, Politics and Ethics, at their conference, ‘The Problem of “Dirty Hands” in UK Universities‘.

I’ll be developing some ideas around the theme of educational technology and the war on public education. My slides for the event are at: My argument will be as follows.

ONE. Educational technology is a site of struggle inside the University, through which the relationships between management and (immaterial) labour are reinforced and re-produced. More broadly the deployment of educational technology is a form of state-subsidised privatisation and is a space through which the marketisation of education can be rooted.

TWO. Through educational technology, labour inside the University is at risk of coercion, measurement and surveillance, in order to meet the marketised demands of competition and profit-maximisation. Educational technology is a way in which hegemonic positions can be protected and developed inside education

THREE. Academics and educational technologists/staff developers are complicit in the ways that educational technologies are deployed at the heart of the University through teaching and research. At issue is whether these same groups have a critical (ethical) lens through which to critique the nature of the technologies that they re-sell beyond a focus on the student experience? How might critical insight about the ways in which educational technologies enable the co-option of University teaching, research and development for value formation and accumulation be catalysed?

FOUR. Uncritical, technologically-mediated behaviours inside the University are conditioned through the politics of education, which reproduces polyarchic governance through a form of the shock doctrine.

  • Polyarchy is an elitist form of democratic engagement that describes what is manageable/appropriate in a modern society, and what is acceptable and what can be fought for in terms of organisation and governance. It rests on universal, transhistorical norms based on the tenets of liberal democracy and capitalism, and which make it unacceptable to argue for other forms of value or organisation. Thus, it is not possible to address the structural dominance of elites within capitalism, or the limited procedural definitions of democracy or participation or power. This political enclosure is reinforced technologically and inside systems of education.
  • The Shock Doctrine focuses upon exacting political control by imposing economic shock therapy. In terms of higher education this focuses upon:

i.    structural re-adjustment through enforced competition and coercion (fee structures and student indenture; internationalisation; distance learning);

 ii.    a tightening/quickening of the dominant, economically-driven, anti-humanist ideology (student-as-consumer; HE-as-commodity);

iii.    the transfer of state/public assets to the private sector (consultancy; outsourced services);

iv.    the privatisation of state enterprises/elements in the name of consumer choice, economic efficiency or sustainability (state-subsidised privatisation)

FIVE. In response to this ideological or political enclosure, the space for the implementation of educational technologies is legitimised by organisations that support/influence universities. Thus, the HEFCE focuses on technological deployments for cost-reductions, business-process re-engineering and efficiency gains, which themselves might underpin radical transformation of the university as a “business”. HEFCE states that it works with key partners like JISC and the HEA in supporting institutions in technological transformation. The JISC’s Transitions Group has reported the importance of the HE/FE sector for economic growth, and it connects and relates changes in these sectors that are political, financial, technological and competitive. These changes mean that JISC must operate within “stringent new financial realities”, in order that it is “better geared to achieving a large impact”. Thus, recent JISC-Announce emails clearly connect technological innovations to a discourse of “cost savings”, “value for money”, “value and impact”, and organisational efficiency and effectiveness. This legitimation of a discourse that connects educational innovation to fiscal “realities” is also revealed in the HEA’s values, which highlight the importance of value for money and place it alongside the HEA’s other organisational values of student learning and institutional innovation.

SIX. The recent Coalition Government budget for 2012 further tightens control of the technological policy and practice of universities through its focus on: universities working in the “business” of education; on VAT and shared services, and the need to treat “commercial universities” “fairly”; and by creating a research investment fund that “will attract additional co-investment from the private sector”. This reinforcement of the deep connections between commercial and financial leverage, technology, and education-for-employment are part of an on-going governmental discourse about the value/purpose of education, outlined for instance by Michael Gove at BETT.

SEVEN. It is from inside this space that educational technology is implemented by educational technologists, staff developers and technicians, and then adopted by practitioners and students. Thus, the following serve as examples of how technology is often implemented based on problems of performance, efficiency and scale, without a broader, political, contextual analysis or questioning.

  • Cloud Computing is argued for from perspectives of scale and organisational/labour efficiency, with a limited critique of: the geo-political and legal issues that arise, in particular related to national security legislation; the ways in which the cloud enables the separation and surveillance of proletarianised work, and the re-production and redistribution of commodity- and leveraged-skills to low-wage societies through outsourcing (and cutting labour costs for in-house work); the attempts that are being made to commodify and sell the idea of cloud computing in terms of green IT or sustainability, despite the lack of evidence that the cloud is ‘greener’, with industry wrapping itself around this concept as a space for further service-led innovation; and the privatization of public, academic services through outsourcing/consultancy/rent.
  • Blackboard is utilised as a Learning Management System in particular across the global North, and, as with other providers in the marketplace, the Company provides services that are rented by/licensed to Universities that are funded in some cases by the State. In 2011 it was reported that Blackboard had an “expanding footprint in the defense sector”, and that as a result “The Pentagon gets a manageable software program that helps instructors in subjects like military logistics and infantry tactics get a handle on the coursework flow of thousands of occasionally far-flung active duty military personnel. Blackboard, on the other hand, has a neat little honeypot that has, in many ways, saved the company.” Moreover, in 2011 Blackboard was acquired by Providence Equity Partners, a private-equity company. Providence was advised by, amongst others Goldman Sachs, on its acquisition of SRA International, a company that “is dedicated to solving complex problems of global significance for government organizations serving the national security, civil government, health, and intelligence and space markets.” Should those links between the investment banking/finance, defence and education sectors be discussed in the context of a University’s mission or in the sector’s aim to work for the public good?
  • Mobile learning is championed across the sector and by various funding bodies in supporting personalisation and anytime/anywhere learning, with limited critique of this in relation to the human/labour rights abuses that have been revealed in the factories where mobile technologies are manufactured or the mines from where raw materials are produced, and in spite of the threat of the enclosure of content on the open web due to the commercial, competitive imperative to create a market for mobile applications. How should revelations around human/labour rights, especially in the global South, affect institutional policy?
  • The implementation of communications-solutions like MS Lync often underpins an integrated systems architecture that connects communications and information-management capabilities across an institution. However, the development of such architectures also makes possible institutional surveillance of academic practices and labour, and the disciplining of marginalised practices, like the utilisation of open source solutions like Linux, or of practices that are defined outside technocratic norms. Framing discussions about the implementation of specific technologies as politically-neutral instances of problem-solving removes the imperative, for instance, to engage with trades unions about the management and monitoring capabilities of such tools as an aggregated whole. How often do academics or educational technologist discuss labour rights and safeguards when deploying a technology or designing an architecture?
  • The coming fetishisation of learning analytics and data-mining, linked to diagnostic and summative assessment, alongside progression and retention agendas, is in-part technologically-driven, and connects academics to the daily measurement of their practices and to impact measures for teaching. Do educational developers or technologists or academic staff consider the means by which their everyday existence is incorporated inside the means of re-production of capital? Do they consider how technologies further objectify our social relationships as commodities from which value can be extracted through, for instance, the monitoring and harvesting of personal data, the enclosure and control of spaces or applications of consumption, the use of venture capitalism to support specific social networks, and the technological augmentation and capture of affectivity?

EIGHT. These examples serve to highlight the risks in any uncritical, techno-determinist deployment of technology. So we might ask, what is to be done? This is important in the face of governmental/funding policies that are in-turn constricted by transnational global capital, and in particular by the compression and enclosure of time and space wrought by technologically-transformed, finance capital. It is natural that those who work inside universities would escape into problem-solving tactics like ‘social inclusion’ or ‘equality of opportunity’, which are liberal themes so often connected to discourses that emerge around emergent, assistive or participative technologies.

NINE. However, everyday scholarly activities are becoming increasingly folded into the logic of capital through, for instance, indentured study and debt, internationalisation, privatisation and outsourcing. As a result, the internal logic of the University is increasingly prescribed by the rule of money, which forecloses on the possibility of creating transformatory social relationships as against fetishised products and processes of valorisation.

TEN. Yet the University remains a symbol of those places where mass intellectuality can be consumed, produced and more importantly contributed to by all. Academics then have an important role in arguing against the conversion of intellectual activity into intellectual capital and hence private property, catalysed through processes of virtualisation that are driven by the commodification of research and teaching and the emergence of commercially-viable, proprietary products that can be marketised. The capitalist processes of deskilling and automation, fetishisation of products, and proletarianisation of labour are at the core of this process.

ELEVEN. This struggle is given life in the range of radical academic projects and occupations in the UK, which are an attempt to re-inscribe higher education as higher learning dissolved into the fabric of society. In some cases these projects are working politically to re-define issues of power. In most cases they see the institution of the school or the university as symbolically vital to a societal transformation. They form a process of re-imagination that risks fetishisation or reification of radical education, but which offers a glimpse of a different process that shines a light on the University as one node in a global web of social relations. This also focuses upon rethinking in public the role of academics in society, facilitated through educational technologies but realised in concrete experiences on solid ground.

TWELVE. Thus, in the mass of protests that form a politics of events against austerity academics need to consider their participatory traditions and positions, and how they actively contribute to the dissolution of their expertise as a commodity, in order to support other socially-constructed forms of production. In the critique of knowledge production, revealed through the production/consumption of specific educational technologies, the University can grow in excess of its symbolic role. Thus, students and teachers might reconsider how they engage with these technologies, in order to contribute to a re-formation of their webs of social interaction. How do students and teachers contribute to public dissent against marketisation, domination and foreclosure?

A note on the digital university and dislocated politics

In her latest post on the digital university, which focuses upon information literacy, Sheila MacNeill argues that “technological change in the production and consumption of information content” should “not allowed to obscure the importance of developing the educational, ethical and democratic dimension of the digital society”. Thus, information literacy “is portrayed in terms of improving the information behaviours required to access and search various information systems to extract and use information for social, economic and educational purposes.” What this means for our work or labour, and for the society that such work/labour reveals is not developed here beyond MacNeill’s identification of the key strands in UNESCO’s Alexandria Proclamation, which focus upon information for trade or as exchangeable commodity, and literacy for employment or democracy, which I assume is accepted, pre-defined forms of liberal democracy, as opposed to alternatives like communes or workers’ councils or general assemblies.

This begins then to re-inscribe the polyarchic limits to our discussion of the digital and the digital university. I have previously noted that polyarchy

is an attempt to define an elitist form of democracy that would be manageable in a modern society. It focuses upon normalising what can be fought for politically, in terms of: organisational contestation through free and fair elections; the right to participate and contest offices; and the right to freedom of speech and to form organisations. This forms a set of universal, transhistorical norms. It is simply not acceptable to argue for other forms of value or organisation without appearing to be a terrorist, communist, dissident or agitator. Within the structures of polyarchy it no longer becomes possible to address the structural dominance of elites within capitalism, or its limited procedural definition of democracy inside capitalism. Compounding this political enclosure is the control of the parameters of discussions about values or value-relationships like democracy and equality, or power and class, or as George Caffentzis argues over the morality of student loan debt refusal.

So whilst MacNeill and Johnston’s conceptual matrix highlight’s digital participation, it does not move to a critique of what participation is/might be, beyond the limits imposed by western, liberal democracy and the role of the University in that model. That role is framed by business-as-usual, employability, economic growth and the politics of austerity. Thus, it is noted that “Digital participation, in this context, can be seen as a fundamental part of any knowledge economy or information based democracy and therefore has substantial implications for educators. Digital participation needs to be optimized to ensure continued economic growth in parallel with the development of an informed, literate citizenship.” The boundaries of this enclosed debate over digital literacy or information literacy or the knowledge economy or the information society are further revealed in Lawrie Phipps‘ post about White and Le Cornu’s Visitor and Resident’s model, which is limited to enabling institutions “to understand [how] these staff behaviours, perceptions and motivations can help identify which technologies or artefacts can be deployed most effectively to support different types of staff”. There is no space here for a wider digital politics or critique of digital literacy/identity/university.

Our limited perspectives of the digital world inside the University, and what the University is for (business-as-usual because there is no alternative) amplifies the view that academia is locked into problem-solving theory, which is aimed at supporting, interacting with, and adjusting the dominant order. This leads us to the artificial organisation and construction of knowledge, which in turn closes off a revelation of how society works and alienates. It depoliticises and avoids, and it disempowers us in our attempts to transform the world, through a critique of how we experience our life, and how we accept the elite’s interpretive myths/their hegemony over us.

If we are to develop a meaningful engagement with digital/information literacy, connected to models of digital participation and the digital University, we need a critique of the established ideological or intellectual frameworks that enclose this debate. We need a critique of their legitimacy within/beyond higher education. This critique forms a set of political acts, which are also open to critique but which do not simply accept the strictures of neoliberal political economy. Our critiques of what digital participation is/might be within higher education are historically situated, and connected to capitalist work as our living history and our lived experiences.

The work sketched out in models like MacNeill’s/Johnson’s and White/Le Cornu’s becomes important where it offers a possible interface with the world beyond the University, the world in which the University is networked or digitised. Thus, critiques of these models offer ways to connect the work of the academy to the dislocated realities of the world beyond it, which are not simply about employability. Thus, the development of relationships that support participation in re-creating the world needs to connect our digital habitus to the altered realities of global politics, in terms of either the coercive policies of governments or the reaction of Anonymous or occupations or revolts to those policies.

Thus we might usefully re-connect/situate our models of the digital university/digital participation within a world that is:

In the face of this mass of events against extant models of citizen participation inside western, liberal democracy, I wonder whether we can connect our discussion of the digital university to a deeper, radicalised political critique.


There is a point to be made about the individal and the social here. So much of our discourse is about individuals/individualisation that is developed using limited, liberal education terms like personalisation and differentiation. As we talk about individual literacies and participation we tend to neglect the social construction and situation of these things. In fact, we tend to neglect the relational aspects of ourselves. In focusing on the personal or the individual, at the expense of our associations, we risk doing the market’s work for it. We commodify ourselves as wage-slaves who need to develop a competitive edge. Because there is no alternative. If there is one thing that Marx reveals to us it is to remember the social/associational/co-operative. This is why I become more interested in long-term co-operative endeavours that offer the possibility that we might re-frame our relationships using technology. And here I am not sure that I am looking at MOOCs or badges. I think I am looking at #ds106. Not as a fetishised solution. But as a shared sense of the possible and a shared set of relationships in which power might be outed/critiqued/contested, that has implications for participation (as labour-in-and-beyond capitalism) and learning/education/the university beyond the market and enabled, in-part, digitally.

Presentations about the assault on public education

I’m presenting two linked papers on higher education/the assault on public education in the UK.  I’ll blog what I plan to say here, and link to my slideshare.

The first presentation is at Brighton’s Centre for Applied Philosophy, Politics and Ethics, at their conference, ‘The Problem of “Dirty Hands” in UK Universities‘.

Title: Educational technology and the war on public education

Abstract: This paper will discuss the ways in which educational technologies reflect and amplify the commodification of the University as a set of spaces and practices, and how technological determinism and narratives of technology-as-progress reinforce academic complicity in the processes of marketisation and enclosure of higher education. Such complicity is determined by the uncritical manner in which educational technology is procured and deployed inside Universities, and the ways in which that deployment further commodifies our educational experiences.

Thus, state-subsidised capitalism, revealed through the engagement of private technology providers, outsourced solutions, the enclosure of the web through locked-down technologies, and consultancy in educational technology, will be related to critiques of the neoliberal assault on the idea of the University. In uncovering this relationship, the power that academics have in defining how they can operate in the University, and the place of technology in that struggle, is important. Thus, in suggesting strategies for academic agency or activism, the paper will highlight how using open technologies in public might help to re-inscribe a different set of possibilities upon the University.

This might be viewed as a crack in the Coalition’s assault on education as a public good. At issue is whether students and teachers are able to recapture educational technologies in order to dissolve the symbolic power of the University into the actual, existing reality of protest and to develop alternatives. This might be seen as an attempt by capital to enter, control and enclose what has previously been seen as open source or as the terrain previously set-out and negotiated by hacktivists. However, it does open up a space for academic activists working with programmers and educationalists to challenge the dominant logic of how we construct and re-produce our educational worlds as commonly-defined, social goods, against state-subsidised capitalism and proletarianised work. We might then consider how to re-engage our actions and the technologies we deploy asymmetrically; to refuse and push-back against marketisation, to realise the possibilities of the hacker ethic, and to use technology to describe more social forms of value.

The second is at the Discourse, Power and Resistance: Impact conference, at the University of Plymouth. I will base my talk on this slideshare presentation.

Title: In, Against and Beyond the Neoliberal University

Abstract: This paper will briefly discuss the political possibilities for academic activism in the face of the shock doctrine, or neoliberal responses to socio-economic and environmental disruption, in the UK. The paper will argue that academic activism and occupation offer sanctuaries in which critiques of the idea of higher education can develop. It will be argued that they offer possibilities for academics and students, contributing as scholars to a shared process, to be against the foreclosure of the idea of higher education by the twin pedagogies of debt and the kettle. This process offers spaces in which such scholars can re-conceptualise and negate the alienation of their labour as capitalist work inside the academy. In the face of global disruptions in social access to both historic capitals and liquid energy resources, a radical critique of capitalist social relations inside the University holds the possibility of moving beyond this neoliberal foreclosure, towards revolutionary transformation enabled through processes of self-creation and praxis. It is intended that this brief paper will take 15 minutes and offer 20 minutes for discussion of possibilities for scholars to stand inside the neoliberal University, to be against its enclosure of the possibilities for higher learning, and to move beyond its foreclosure of resilient futures.

Against dispossession: a note on visitors, residents and proletarianised education


The threat of the increasing proletarianisation of our lives under austerity politics is increasingly invoked and folded into the debate over how we structure our social relations. Proletarianisation is an outcome of the materialist nature of our productive relations in an economy based on the commodity form, and where the drive to extract value from those relations is based on increased efficiency and productivity. Labour-power is the vital source of value creation, and one that is constantly being reinterpreted and threatened through its interplay with technique or technology. In its current form, the commodity economy, where labour-power is a commodity brought under the control of capital, all aspects of life are inside the imperative to extract value. In this social factory, our leisure time, our domestic life, our socialised goods held in common, our public/private spaces and places, are all bound by the realities of commodification.

In this commodification we experience a sense of loss because our labour is alienated from us, and is handed to capital, in return for the means of subsistence, or ways in which we can renew ourselves so that we can return to work/sell our labour in the market-place. Marx argues that under the logic of capitalism, labour:

Is then only the semblance of an activity, only a forced activity, imposed upon me only by an external and accidental necessity and not by an internal and determined necessity… My labour, therefore, is manifested as the objective, sensuous, perceptible, and indubitable expression of my self-loss and my powerlessness.

The argument is that under austerity politics, where access to socialised safety-nets or benefits is closed off, where there is an attack on common goods like pensions and education, and where policy discourse is limited to the Scylla and Charybdis of “there is no alternative” and of ”doing more with less”, we might ask how are we to obtain the means of subsistence? Whilst this is a world of precarity, both for labour and capital, and is one in which the politics of the production of our lives is central to our survival, it is also a world that Werner Bonefeld notes is reduced to an existence as labour-under-capitalism, so that our spaces, places, identities, and relationships are all means of extracting value or hoarding wealth. Bonefeld argues:

What does the fight against cuts entail? It is a struggle against the reduction of life time to labour time. The fight against cuts is in fact a fight for a life. For the dependent masses, wages and welfare benefits are the means with which to obtain the means of subsistence.

On Tsianos and Papadopoulos’ terms, austerity/precarity is the duality resulting from a crisis in our social systems when they are faced by the realities of what has been termed immaterial labour, or ”the power dynamics of living labour in post-Fordist societies”. In apolitical terms this is focused upon network governance, or cognitive capital, or the knowledge economy. However, once framed in terms ofpolitical economy we begin to address issues of a life-world “incorporated into non-labour time, [where] the exploitation of workforce happens beyond the boundaries of work, it is distributed across the whole time and space of life”.

Coercion is one central element by which this reduction of life time to labour time is maintained, and socio-technical solutions are a means by which order can be enforced through monitoring productivity or activity, alongside its use in developing the power of cultural norms and manipulation. However, Bonefeld argues that turning points are revealed as the crisis is renewed, in policy or in practice. Thus, it may be possible to move away from uncritical demands for the politics of jobs and wages, which in themselves merely reaffirm the alienating and corrosive relationships that catalysed austerity in the first place, towards questions of the production and distribution of value within global societies. So we might ask why the development of the productive forces at the disposal of society have become too powerful for this society, bringing financial disorder and requiring austerity to maintain it?

Žižek has further developed this articulation of the mechanics of precarity that underpin austerity, and the looming threat of proletarianisation that is etched into our social fabric. Thus, he re-states the classical, disciplining threat posed by surplus labour to those in work:

The category of the unemployed has thus expanded to encompass vast ranges of people, from the temporarily unemployed, the no longer employable and permanently unemployed, to the inhabitants of ghettos and slums (all those often dismissed by Marx himself as ‘lumpen-proletarians’), and finally to the whole populations and states excluded from the global capitalist process, like the blank spaces on ancient maps.

It is against becoming part of this forgotten or vilified mass of humanity that we are coerced into accepting that “there is no alternative”; or that if we occupy then it is for some trans-historical alternative under capitalism. Pace Bonefeld, Žižek argues that much of the occupy movement and rebellions against austerity measures “are not proletarian protests, but protests against the threat of being reduced to proletarians.” They are an attempt to maintain a lifestyle, or at least to sketch a space where the violation of that lifestyle by austerity politics might be minimised.

This is a central argument progressed by Schwartz in his deconstruction of the occupy movement and its 99 percent motif. Schwartz argues that our traditional identity politics, now morphed into the “them and us” narrative of the 99 percent, merely enables capital to reinscribe itself as the dominating reality of our lives. However, by acceding to the neoliberal ideology of austerity, we are culpable in describing and renewing its boundaries.

The 99%, acts as the loyal opposition within the capitalist society. It cannot even formulate a critique of the system let alone start a revolution. Incapable of understanding itself as a diverse collection of relations, it mistakes itself for a group of individuals bound together by a desire for reform. The least radical common denominator unites the 99%. Such a low level of consciousness is an immutable feature of mass movements within the contemporary biopolitical fabric, one perhaps more pronounced in mass movements inspired by marketing professionals with day jobs that rely on the demographic logic at the heart of biopoltical governance.

They behave as if the spectacle were determined by the production alternative images and narratives, rather than by sets of economic relations. Predictably, their tactics and goals reflect the assumption that groups of individuals rather than sets of relations determine economies. In short they live as if trapped in a reflection on the surface of death’s mirror.

Instead Schwartz calls for a negation of the space and place of capital as reinforced through the cries of the 99 percent for a fair capitalism, or for tax justice, or for more humane labour rights, or for an end to fracking, or for rights for aboriginal groups, inside a system that corrodes. Instead he calls for “0% movements” that in-turn disrupt the dominant logic of capital, and its imposition of precarious subsistence:

Their force increases along lines of affiance and separation based on concrete relations with others. Affiance and separation are anything but the growth associated with the 99%’s demographic counting. The constitutive disorganization and anarchistic fragmentation of 0% resistance has taught those involved that being too small to fail sometimes releases more power than being too big to fail. The lone warrior, the cell, the gang, the alliance that can shut down all the ports along a coast, the commune capable of occupying a whole city, collective sabotage, mass default: all of these 0% movements gain effectiveness from internal and external friendships and conflicts.

Schwartz locates transformation in these spaces inside the totality of capital, as a totalising negation of the real subsumption of our life time to labour time. The logic of zero percent is to move to the cracks that are formed in the circuits and cycles of capital, and away from a reproduction of its domination over our social lives, however humane the hopes for that reproduction may be. This logic of zero percent is for abolition rather than reinscription; it is for the negation of objectified identities as labour-in-capitalism, and for our ability to become subjects in our own life time.


One impact of this debate is on the politics of subject/object, and the possibility that subjectivities might emerge under capitalism. A second is on the place of technology or technique in defining oppositional spaces and connections, inside and across societies. For Žižek one place in which these two elements become entwined and are revealed is in the “privatisation of the general intellect”. He argues that the knowledge created, reproduced, reinforced and shared socially, and generalised at the level of society, which in-turn underpins our life experiences, is being privatised through the use of technology, so that we are witnessing “the gradual transformation of the profit generated by the exploitation of labour into rent appropriated through the privatisation of knowledge.”

This view connects the rent extracted from software licenses, to the extraction of value through patents generated from the opening of public data to private corporations, to the selling of personal data from adwords for profit-maximisation, to the clampdown on file-sharing and perceived piracy, to the enclosure of commonly-held goods or spaces through primary legislation. It incorporates our immaterial labour, created inside/outside work, within a commodity economy. Throughout these possibilities of en-closure and internet regulation, a rentier class is demarcating its power-over the productive forces of labour.

These foreclosures and enclosures are met, in part, by socially-constructed, ideological struggles over place, using technology to contest privatised control over what is/was held in common, or regarded as a commons. Much of this goes relatively unreported, but forms a vital set of skirmishes in the struggle for open digital space through which a politics of production, re-production and distribution can be affirmed. This affirmation is central to our ability to engage in a politics of zero percent, in order that we are able to imagine collectively a world beyond austerity and beyond the crisis of capital that it reveals.

These digital struggles for space are mirrored in, and map onto the real-world. Rachel Drummond eloquently highlights how austerity politics is being used to kettle, privatise and extract rent from previously socialised places, using tools/technologies of coercion. She states that the logic of public policy is based on long histories in which the accumulation of value and capital has been enabled through the dispossession of people from spaces. This has catalysed the subsequent enforced or coerced proletarianisation of a disposed population, by those in power. Thus, commodification, coercion and control are:

emblematic of a broad and diffuse logic of enclosure (privatizing and limiting access to space) that permeates the ongoing project of ‘regeneration’ in London and the UK. It is this that lies in the background of seemingly discrete issues such as long prison sentences for student protesters, evictions of ‘rioters’ and Traveller communities and the development of the London Olympic site. Just as the state seeks out new ways to criminalise and repress public protest, a new series of strategies and justifications to dispossess the people of any property and housing owned publicly or held in common continues apace. Yet what may be particularly novel in recent years is the specific ways these two strategies of enclosure have intersected with one another: repression and dispossession are increasingly employed together to produce a cleansed entrepreneurial city.

This bears repeating because it reinforces a new politics of place, facilitated by socio-technical tools: “repression and dispossession are increasingly employed together to produce a cleansed entrepreneurial city.” And so we witness techniques and technologies: for outsourcing our social relationships or abstracting them to control of private property and money, for increasing separation and individuation; for labelling individuals through ASBOs and the creation of dispersal zones; for criminalising squatting and occupation; for brutalising space through kettles; and for maintaining hierachies. All whilst we reinforce assertions as narratives of networked democracy.

What’s more, whether in concrete or digital spaces “Collective punishment (via eviction) opens the door to a new strategy of ‘dispossession by criminalisation’”. Whether you are subject to a dispersal order or are convicted of illegal file-sharing, our power to engage in activities using tools in a range of spaces is highly politicised and controlled. This is enforced both as those spaces are commodified and as our activity in them is reconstructed as labour time, in order to enable the extraction of value. For Drummond, this focus on dispossession of space connects to an idea of revolt in the face of the dispossession of a viable, social future, beyond the logic of austerity or the spectre of proletarianisation. She states:

It is perhaps within these twin fronts of dispossession on the one hand and repressive policing on the other, that we might view the recent explosion of occupations, despite all of their contradictions, as one appropriate form of resistance. For here we arrive at a tactic which seeks to transform the privately enclosed and the repressively policed space into something public and open to all.


One terrain in which the struggle against dispossession has played out is that of immaterial labour. This encompasses both intellectual labour, like the production of ideas, computer programs, mash-ups, visualisations, patents and so on, and affective labour, or work that is carried out inside the social factory and which commodifes affect or prepares intellectual labourers for productive labour. For Žižek, immaterial labour is seen by its proponents like Hardt, Negri, Lazzarato and Virno, as

hegemonic in the sense in which Marx proclaimed that, in 19th-century capitalism, large industrial production was hegemonic: it imposes itself not through force of numbers but by playing the key, emblematic structural role. What emerges is a vast new domain called the ‘common’: shared knowledge and new forms of communication and co-operation. The products of immaterial production aren’t objects but new social or interpersonal relations; immaterial production is bio-political, the production of social life.

This production of social life through the fusion or overlay of digital and concrete space is important because it reveals the ways in which the Commons, or digital communes are threatened with enclosure and commodification. One emergent field of contestation within this is then the possible subjectivity of the individual inside the network, the community or the society, and the reality of their objectivity in the face of the realities of power and hierarchy. In discussing the production of social life, the politics of place and space are central, and are amplified by the ways in which tools reveal and reinforce coercive practices. Networks and networked spaces are ideologically-framed and not trans-historical. They exist as spaces inside capitalism, framed by precarious or immaterial labour, and they reveal power.

It is in relation to this debate on immaterial labour, proletarianisation and dispossession that I wish to view models of action or identity inside/alongside digital networks. This is important because debates over educational models like White and Le Cornu’s Visitors and Residents reveal the deep, social interconnections of people, place and purpose inside capitalism, and the risks of transhistorical analysis. They also reinforce the importance of Marx’s note that:

Technology reveals the active relation of man to nature, the direct process of the production of his life, and thereby it also lays bare the process of the production of the social relations of his life, and of the mental conceptions that flow from those relations.

For White and Le Cornu, making some sense of a digital life is framed by the individual in place, and her/his ability subsequently to transform their existence. Thus, they argue:

social media platforms facilitate the construction, by the individual, of complex social networks not constrained by physical geography. These are critical shifts in the use of the internet which we suggest are transforming the nature of relationships, citizenship and learning.

It is this notion of transformation that demands a political critique precisely because the emergent duality of visitor/resident is socially constructed within capitalism, and reveals the logic of immaterial labour, framed by precarity and dispossession. Witness the description of Residents.

Residents: Residents see the Web primarily as a network of individuals or clusters of individuals who in turn generate content. Value online is assessed in terms of relationships as well as knowledge. Residents do not make a clear distinction between concepts of content and of persona. A blog post is as much an expression of identity as it is a discussion of particular ideas. The fact that Wikipedia has been authored collectively is not a concern, what is important is how relevant the information they find is to their particular needs.

The creation and extraction of value from relationships, networks and affects is central to the creation of productive relations and productive [value producing] labour. Inside a commodity economy people enter into direct production relations [capital/labour/rentier] as owners of things [commodities, property, cognitive capital, social capital, labour-power], and these things acquire specific social characteristics [they define our social relationships]. In Marx’s terms we see the emergence of “material relations between persons and social relations between things”, and so the commodification of our life time comes to define our existence. Moreover, this existence appears as the result of long socio-historical repetition/activity, which becomes enculturated and re-inscribed in the range of spaces/networks/communities where capitalist social relations dominate.

Thus, in the life time of identities that emerge from the fusion of concrete and digital spaces and networks, it is the ways in which the logic of labour time can be refused or negated that matters if we are to talk of transformation. In worlds where the emergence of modelled identities can be farmed or where affects can be accumulated, educators might work against transhistorical narratives that claim emancipatory possibilities beyond the daily realities of political economy. As a result, educational models like visitor/resident become important where they are historically-grounded, and where they offer the possibility that temporal critiques related to the life time of individuals, described on a continuum of forms, developed inside places/networks/hierarchies, and using tools that are shaped by digital media and education, might be socialised.

And yet, as Drummond notes, our socialised identities forged in collective places/spaces are under attack. This attack frames White and Le Cornu’s argument that the “social dimension of computing has brought about a paradigm shift in many individuals’ experience of computer use as well as influenced their attitude and motivation towards the use and purpose of connected digital technologies”, and that in this connectivity, place is a pivotal field. In making sense of these possibilities we need a critique of place, related to issues of power and dispossession, and the social relationships that flow from our labour time, or our work-inside-capital. As the authors note, contextualisation is key if the metaphor of place is “to occupy centre stage in any discussion about how people interact with each other and with content when both are electronically mediated, and be linked to the metaphor of tool.” It might be argued that this context is historically-defined as labour-in-capital, for place anchors commodification, dispossession and coercion.


Without such a contextualisation of the place of education inside the sets of exploitative and corrosive relationships and spaces articulated as capitalism, our models of digital practices and our discussions of digital literacy, will merely reinscribe new forms of proletarianisation, through monitoring, control, efficiency, productivity and mundane work. This, as Bonefeld acknowledged, is the subsumption of our life time to labour time. It is about the extraction of surplus value from the range of places in which we exist, and that are increasingly privatised and commodified, or copyrighted and licensed/rented back to us, or enclosed and kettled, or monitored and taken-down, and in which we are expected to use tools/technologies that we are forced to rent. Whether we visit these spaces or are resident in them, the precarity of immaterial labour, revealed through the dispossessions, privations and privatisations of austerity, frames our existence. How is a transformatory existence possible without such a recognition?

We might usefully reframe our engagements with our digitised life time, through what Dmytri Kleiner calls venture communism, in which we

create our own institutions, our own alternative structures that move beyond the meagre choices offered by bourgeois society and prefigure the future society we are fighting for.

And that is right, that is also the main form of political struggle that Venture Communism proposes and explores mechanisms of realizing. Thus, the most important direct loss is not political influence, but rather mutual capital. Our capacity for investing in alternative structures comes from a single source: The amount of wealth that we, as workers, can consistently divert from consumption.

We transform our society as we build the means satisfy our needs outside the financial cycles of capitalism. When we take demand away from forms of consumption that reproduce capital and further concentrate wealth, and instead satisfy the needs and desires of our communities by other means. When we produce and share according to our mutual needs and desires, and not according to the logic of profit capture.

The desire then is to frame models/spaces/activities that exist for different value forms beyond money/capital, and that act against the coercive practices that enforce spatial dispossession in the name of austerity. This is a connection beyond the dichotemy of 99%/1% , for a politics of zero percent or the collective commons. It is for an exodus from the daily realities of venture capital. Here then educators and technicians might reframe their work politically, and recognise the ideologies that underpin their engagement with place and identity. Educators might then ask how digital literacies or models like visitor/resident are meaningful in the face of the on-going privatisation of our digital spaces/places? How do these digital practices recognise and reinforce the realities of commodity capitalism that in-turn reinscribe an objective existence? How might those practices/models be re-shaped mutually or co-operatively for alternative structures or value forms? How might they lead to a subjectivity beyond proletarianised work or a prescribed readiness for efficiency or productivity or the control/monitoring of others? How might they be co-opted to build the means to satisfy our needs outside the financial cycles of capitalism?

Tablets, blackouts, students and universities

I’ve written about mobiles before, and you can read that stuff here.

I’ve written about tech-determinism before, in particular in a post here.

The issues I am trying to reflect on are part of a critique of technology inside capitalist work, and the socio-environmental symptoms of its excesses, which in turn impact our world. And these excesses are our excesses, insofar as we might find the power or agency to act differently. As a result, these are issues that do not go away, because they are tied to the historically-defined and reinforced reality of our use of technology under capitalism. In this reality, our procurement and deployment of technologies implicates us in the proletarianisation of our lives, and in the monitoring of our experiences, and through discourses of profit and value and efficiency and productivity, and in the exploitation of other humans, and in the re-focusing of our work around money, and in the enclosure of our world for profit. Although we tell ourselves hopeful stories of how technology enables the possibility of redemption and enfranchisement and empowerment and “the student experience”. Because we can tolerate/justify almost anything in the name of “the student experience”.

And maybe technology can help us to be these hopeful things; but we cannot do these things without the recognition of the political content of our work with technology. And we cannot create these hopeful things without the recognition that the spaces in which we place and use technologies are highly politicised, and irrevocably ideological. The content of our discussions, over which tablet, or which virtual learning environment, or our mobile learning strategy, or our approach to the implementation of open content/data or social media, or whatever, is important. It is part of the lifeblood of our Universities. But it is also deeply political; for this content reinforces power and our existing social relationships; unless we have the courage to think and talk and act otherwise.

Which brings me to the things that have crossed my path this week and which have made me wonder, what is to be done?

The first thing. There has been and continues to be a vigorous discussion on the Association for Learning Technology members’ email-list about the utility of tablets, and specifically the iPad in higher education. The discussion has been very specifically tied to academic work within the University, and linked to both the student experience and what might be termed academic value, as is indirectly revealed through ideas of flexible learning and efficiency gains and productivity. Although one correspondent focused upon strategies for encouraging the democratisation and free accessibility of content across communities, rather than engaging with closed, proprietary software, the debate has been de-political (and therefore highly political, for this is the ideology of network democracy and participation that is central to neoliberal dogma and the cry of “there is no alternative”).

The second thing. There was a report from Business Insider about the employment conditions of employees working for companies who make Apple’s products, in particular in China. And there was also a transcript from This American Life, which reveals some of the evidence that underpins the former report, about the abuse of labour and human rights. And we are implicated in these abuses, and I wonder if our silence can ever be redeemed through our focus on the student experience?

The third thing. The blackout over SOPA and the fight for a free-and-open internet, has led to two interesting status updates in my Facebook newsfeed (even I’m fallible). The first from a student:

“Stupid wikipedia…It’s not even a British law. I know why your doing it, even agree to an extent but urgh!”

The second from someone who works in education and technology and strategy and planning:

“Ask yourself – why isn’t facebook blacked out?”

And this has made me think about those very items of content that are so dear to our hearts, like which tablet, or which virtual learning environment, or our mobile learning strategy, or our approach to the implementation of open content/data or social media. And it has made me think about the power of corporations within capitalism, and their desire for the separation, commodification and enclosure of our experiences. And how technology and network theory always brushes up against the market, and the power relations that are revealed though it.

And this has made me think about what is to be done? How might our use of technology inside the University be connected to the political struggles outside? How might we refashion our discussions away from the comfort of the UK student experience, in order to situate that experience globally – and I do not mean in terms of opening-up that experience for/to a global market. Instead I mean opening-up that space to a critique of that market. So how do we work on University procurement practices? How do we collectively lobby technology firms over human and labour rights? How do we engage students in a discussion of the open web? How do we enable them to discuss the labour and human rights, and the liquid resources and energy and carbon, which are embedded in our technologies?

Because it strikes me that we might usefully utilise technology, in order to reveal the reality of our labour-in-capitalism or our capitalist work, and to discuss possible alternatives. But we need to situate the discussion of the content of our technological lives politically. And as we do this, our alternatives might be a statement of “no! I will not be complicit in this activity”. And it might involve a deletion of accounts on social networks, or the equivalent of a strike through our refusal to use specific learning management systems or proprietary software/hardware that is implicated in human/labour rights abuses, or services that give away personal data to Governments. Or it might be finding the courage to raise these issues institutionally, or across the sector, or in public meetings. And it might be a way of pushing back against the enclosure of our lives for profit, by going into occupation of virtual learning and teaching spaces. Or by fleeing those enclosed worlds and setting-up rival spaces, using open software, as a way to define a new set of social relationships and new forms of value against money.

And in this we might redeem a part of ourselves; and we might do this socially and co-operatively; against our separation from each other; as we refuse to outsource our politics and our technologies and our relationships and our identities and our privacy and our data to corporations that have corporate interests at heart. In so doing I wonder whether we might also meaningfully describe what a University experience is for and what a student experience might be.