Against a bill of rights and principles for learning in the digital age

It is interesting that the drive to MOOC-ify both the forms of (higher) education and the idea of pedagogy, has quickly forked to the idea of a Bill of Rights for Learners. Downes has already noted that “if you ask me it’s pretty top-down and manipulative”. I know that in this brave new world, we are all defined as learners, but I find it intriguing that there is the idea of a Bill of Rights for learners that is not written by learners, in the traditional sense. It is written by people that I would define as educators with more/different social and cultural capital than, say, the 18-year old historians that I have had the privilege to work with. Thus, the preamble notes that this is produced by those who are “passionate about serving today’s students”; this is education-as-service industry, which leaves it ripe for co-option by those with an agenda of student-as-customer or consumer, rather than as co-producer. I also find it intriguing that there is an open invitation to help redraft/improve this Bill of Rights on the P2P site. I’m wondering how that will engage with those institutional learners across the globe, rather than engage specific groups in technologically-rich countries/educational settings.

Anyway, the draft made me think about the following issues.

  1. For whom does this declaration speak? Whom does it give power? Whom does it give a voice? Who is silenced and why?
  2. There is a specific presumption about what globalisation means. How a group of educators from the Global North are drafting/writing a Bill of Rights and Principles for Learning in the Digital Age, witha cursory mention of globalisation and no focus on politics or disenfranchisement in the global South or even inside countries in the North. The idea that access is ubiquitous is developed alongside a depoliticised notion that equality of opportunity is enough, when inside the iniquities of an education system designed around capitalist work, this is never enough. A starting point might be the work of Glen Rikowski on the relationships between education, training and capitalism.
  3. How techno-determinism drives a view of constant, specific innovation, of emancipation achieved through access to capitalist work (embedded in the draft), and the underpinning idea of education for individual entrepreneurialism. The draft is almost solely focused on the flowering of the individual and how that has historically been denied institutionally through outmoded educational practices (whatever they are). In this way it resonates with the neoliberal ideal of the production of the entrepreneurial subject, separated or atomised out but given equality of opportunity to access the technological tools and debt-driven opportunities that signal the possibility of entering that productive process. Technology is merely an enabler or reinforcer of those possibilities, and yet here it is reified so that the ideals claimed for leaning are subsumed under its “potentially awe-inspiring opportunity”.
  4. How the focus on the learner, rather than communities of scholarly practice, is almost a disciplinary tool. For who can deny that empowering the learner is the aim of education? Who would dare say that #learnersrights should not drive this agenda? Yet this risks becoming a form of tyranny that dispossesses the voices of those who commit their lifetime to educating. Whither dissent when this is claimed as a unifying bill of rights for learners? Moreover, it risks separating out learners and teachers, for instance as opposed to the Social Science Centre’s focus on teachers and students as scholars as a community of shared educational practice and inquiry. The teacher appears forgotten in this Bill of Rights other than having responsibilities, of which the learner appears to have none, for s/he has only #learnersrights.
  5. Downes makes the point that History is forgotten in the Bill of Rights, that he authored a ‘Cyberspace Charter of Rights‘ in 1999. Before that we have: communiqués from occupied California that featured student/teacher manifestos for education and society; a whole history of redefining education as a social and socialised good back to 1968 and of redefining the relationships between education, educational forms and society; a raft of work on critical pedagogy as transformational, democratic praxis which emerges from the work of bell hooks, Henry Giroux and others; and the outpouring of what “learners” demand from education in the face of the discipline of austerity. Any Bill of Rights needs to understand its historical moment. At issue is whether this one does in any way that isn’t deterministic and presentist.
  6. The Bill cannot escape the structuring logic of capitalism. Work, value, money, the place and role of employers, and affordability are written throughout its DNA, and yet these come loaded with issues of power and politics that are at best hidden from view in the document. In this way its claims for emancipation are tied to problem-solving the worst excesses of capitalism, through affordable access, or transparency of data-mining and privacy, licensing laws and commodifying personal data etc. It is also interesting that financial transparency appears ahead of pedagogical transparency, and that money/work is a critical factor throughout. Where is the politics? Where is the power? Is financial transparency and the meaningful payment of educators really a defining moment of emancipatory education? Really?
  7. There is no mention of the implications and impact of crises of austerity, climate change, and liquid fuel availability here. All that is offered is “there is no alternative”. How does this Bill of Rights helps learners, teachers, or society manage disruption and become resilient in the face of crisis? How does it enable us to solve problems communally, beyond being the individual becoming fit-for-work?

The Bill of Rights reminded me that in being “inside”, we are able to be/define “against” and move “beyond”; to define meaningful alteratives. I take that as the important outcome of this Bill.

Thus, the Bill of Rights reminded me ofthe University of Utopia’s anti-curricula and the Third University’s precepts for alternative teacher training.


Kate Bowles over on Music for Deckchairs has written the most eloquent critique of the original draft, based upon her view that the idea and forms of higher education are worth fighting for, and that democratic accountability isn’t just the province of the open web.

For me, there are two gaps. The first is a failure to understand or include what it takes for public education institutions to operate within the legislative constraints that are the ultimate protection for student rights, including student diversity. These can’t just be upturned because we want to, and to be honest, I don’t want to. There’s a whole lot wrong with higher education, but at some point we have to say that the work of making it possible is serious, complicated and driven by people who really mind about equity.

The second is a failure to recognise that it’s going to take a whole lot more than a motherhood statement to deal with the emerging problem of missionary zeal in North American higher education circles. I am really so tired of hearing that MOOCs will parachute in global superstar professors to save the world’s unserved populations.

In a separate comment, she made the point that “More and more it looks like offloading cheap copies in markets where we think proper educational credentials won’t really matter anyway.” Back in January 2010 I tried to make a case that educational institutions, publishers, tech-firms etc. operating inside global capitalism were using HE internationalisation agendas to open-up global markets for cheap commodities/for commodity dumping, both in order to overcome under-consumption in domestic markets and to maintain an increase in the rate of profit. With domestic demand falling for traditional, institutional HE places, especially for UK Russell Sector universities, the move to offshore/outsource and open-up new markets becomes paramount. With DBIS amongst others recalibrating the form of the traditional university as a business this is the logic of the structuring dynamics of capitalism applied to education and it flows through capital’s circuits into the spaces in which MOOCs/tech innovations operate. This is exactly why any Bill of Rights has to start with a deep critique of political economy and education’s place inside that structure.

So my final word for the moment has to be about the way in which this current debate has opened-up a debate about internationalisation, power, technology for entrepreneurialism etc.. What I would hope we can address is the extent to which declarations or bills of rights are a form of cultural hegemony or enculturation that reveal the ways in which civil society is restructured in the name of the individual rather than in the name of society. It is interesting that the original Draft contained no mention of “politics”, one of “society” and four of “community”/”communities”. The key is to address that restructuring process and the ways in which power-to make the world is co-opted by others power-over the spaces in which we operate. As Kate Bowles notes:

Reading the coverage that this has been given, here’s what I keep coming back to: the inestimable Henry Jenkins (just to show that I don’t have a problem with Americans), in his Border Crossings: Cultural Workers and The Politics of Education:

Visions always belong to someone, and to the degree that they translate into curricula and pedagogical practices, they not only denote a struggle over forms of political authority and orders of representation, but also weigh heavily in regulating the moral identities, collective voices and the futures of others.

The great Higher Education prediction league 2013

I was asked to provide a prediction for HE policy in 2013. Then nothing happened. So I thought I’d post my predictions here. This is what I wrote…

“I know nothing about policy. All I know is activism as a kind of non-policy; as the negation of policy.

“So all I can offer you is a list of not-policy predictions, of things that I wish would happen in 2013 that would not form policy. It is a list of solidarity-driven hopes that are underpinned by courage. Perhaps they coalesce as an informal policy of developing collective, solidarity struggles.

“Please note that I learn so much from people involved in developing and implementing policy, and I am not for an instant arguing that policy wonks are not courageous. Anyway…

  • VCs and UUK demonstrate leadership in fighting the Coalition’s HE agenda;
  • academics push back against private equity and the financialisation of the sector;
  • academics develop a concerted campaign against REF2014 and go into occupation of “impact”;
  • academics and students demonstrate solidarity with global anti-austerity movements as a means of re-politicising university life;
  • those engaged in educational technology push back against their active involvement in the privatisation of individual universities and the sector;
  • Million+, in association with collectives like edufactory, is recognised as a voice of resistance;
  • commentators stop chasing the next MOOC-like innovation and recognise that their chase is in the name of the rate of profit [and that the chase dehumanises];
  • academics and students critique the ways in which big data is used to monitor and surveil;
  • we re-evaluate the relationships between academia and the military, for instance in drone-related research;
  • academics and students fight for a publically-funded, regulated and governed higher education sector.”

On student debt, big data and academic alienation


 Mike Neary, in a recent article on Teaching Politically, quotes the Joint Declaration of the Knowledge Liberation Front that emerged from a meeting in Paris in 2011. The Declaration points out the struggle against the financialisation and corporatisation of the University and of academic labour, and then points towards exodus from the restructuring of higher education that is taking place globally.

Since the state and private interests collaborate in the corporatisation process of the university, our struggles don’t have the aim of defending the status quo. Governments bail out banks and cut education. We want to make our own university. A university that lives in our experiences of autonomous education, alternative research and free schools. It is a free university, run by students, precarious workers and migrants, a university without borders.

This weekend we have shared and discussed our different languages and common practices of conflict: demonstrations, occupations and metropolitan strikes. We have created and improved our common claims: free access to the university against increasing fees and costs of education, new welfare and common rights against debt and the financialisation of our lives, and for an education based on co-operation against competition and hierarchies.

 In an earlier posting on exodus and the process of struggle I argued for “way(s) of re-framing the relationships between academics and the public in an age of crisis.” This seems more relevant after the publishing of FBI documents obtained by the Partnership for Civil Justice Fund (PCJF) relating to the Occupy movement. These documents bear analysis in the context of higher education for three reasons.

ONE. They reveal the Occupy movement being seen as a potential criminal and terrorist threat even though the FBI acknowledges in documents that organizers explicitly called for peaceful protest and did “not condone the use of violence” at occupy protests.

TWO. They link law enforcement, and governmental agencies to corporate strategy and demands, clearly articulating the kinds of geographies of neoliberalism that Stephen Ball has described in Global Education Inc., and which form hierarchies of power inside global capitalism. Thus, Mara Verheyden-Hilliard, Executive Director of the PCJF argued that “These documents show that the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security are treating protests against the corporate and banking structure of America as potential criminal and terrorist activity. These documents also show these federal agencies functioning as a de facto intelligence arm of Wall Street and Corporate America.”

THIRD. They tie the University, academic labour and student-life clearly into this discourse. “Documents show the spying abuses of the FBI’s “Campus Liaison Program” in which the FBI in Albany and the Syracuse Joint Terrorism Task Force disseminated information to “sixteen (16) different campus police officials,” and then “six (6) additional campus police officials.” Campus officials were in contact with the FBI for information on OWS. A representative of the State University of New York at Oswego contacted the FBI for information on the OWS protests and reported to the FBI on the SUNY-Oswego Occupy encampment made up of students and professors.”

One outcome of this process is that forms of protest against, for example, the marketisation of higher education need to be viewed in light of how they threaten global corporate identities and strategies for profit that are being opened-up by the State. In this, the mechanisms by which established hierarchies maintain their power through financialisation and information-sharing need to be described, and alternative positions developed.


Developing alternative narratives is critical because the hegemonic description of what higher education is for is being destabilised. In particular we are witnessing a polarisation of higher education around universities as competing capitals. Thus, in a recent Novara discussion on Finance, Financialisation and English Higher Education, Andrew McGettigan made a series of points that illuminate this argument.

ONE. The formal, higher education system will become increasingly polarised and stratified over time. This will then increasingly make higher education a positional good for individual students-as-entrepreneurs as a differential market develops, with certain HEI brands having more social capital for individual students as they compete in a job/wage market that is increasingly squeezed.

TWO. As the fee cap is lifted, the student debt loan book becomes increasingly important. The new polarity across the sector, with top-tier universities agitating for an unrestricted market, will have the most profound effect. In particular, as the data around the loan book develops this will impact fee structures as some universities will be able to articulate their present value (by demonstrating how students are able to repay outstanding loan balances) and their relationship to future graduate earnings. The £9,000 fee cap is important in securing the State’s overall liabilities but the use of data related to earnings and efficiencies in repayments will be stressed by certain universities to enable them to agitate for an exemption from a fee cap. The importance of this as a strategy can already be seen in the expansion of Russell Group (see the expansion of the Russell Group reported in the THE). Thus we have a diminishing sense of higher education as a publicly-funded, regulated and governed good, with it instead forming a space inside which universities become competing capitals inside a market.

THIRD. We are witnessing the secular transformation of universities into new kinds of corporation that are commercial and financial, rather than having charitable status that provides tuition or research. Where generating revenue is the fundamental corporate strategy, and as public funds dry up in face of private finance, at root the internal functions of the University are changed.

FOUR. Data around the state-backed student loan company/book becomes critical. Loans unlike grants generate information via HRMC. Pattern-matching that links UCAS tariffs to retention data to loans and loan repayments will enable actuarial tables to be produced that in-turn differentiate HEIs and courses and entry grades. This will form the performance metric par excellence because it will have a present and future pound sign attached. Such information means that Government can monitor the spend of public money and possibly remove access to the loan book for certain HEIs or courses. The use of data linked to profitability is therefore disciplinary. As the PCJF analysis of linked FBI files showed, federal agencies were functioning as a de facto intelligence arm of Wall Street and Corporate America. There is reason, therefore, to suspect that data about student repayment and university performance will be shared across geographies-of-neoliberalism in the same way to discipline behaviour.

FIVE. These data are increasingly problematic because modelling on graduate salaries uses historic data, and we lack complete datasets. Modelling suggests that there is no uniform premium but a polarisation/hierarchy of graduate classes based on social capital accrued. Moreover, our basic assumptions about employability and wages are under threat, and predictability of repayments is a problem.

SIX. The involvement of global private finance is key to the expansion of the sector and the competitiveness of individual universities as competing capitals. Thus, we see Goldman Sachs and the Ontario Teachers Pension scheme lobbying for investment with universities in for-profit joint ventures in foreign markets, funded by bonds or equity. Investment is not for efficiencies in-country (e.g. the UK), but to take the established UK HE model abroad and to monetise degree-awarding powers.

Whether we like it or not private finance and the disciplinary nature of both the student loan book and big data are restructuring academic labour and the idea of the university as a public or socialised good. 


Zerohedge’s 75 Economic Numbers From 2012 That Are Almost Too Crazy To Believe, focuses on what the author calls “bubble(s) of debt-fueled [sic.] false prosperity that allows us to continue to consume far more wealth than we produce.” Just a handful of the 75 illuminate the argument made above that student debt is an insidious and inflationary attempt to use higher education reform to discipline our behaviours as consumers inside capitalism. They therefore demonstrate how education forms a single mechanism through which capital can continue to extract value from previously socialised goods. These numbers highlight the attrition of the myth of the growing middle class, empowered through a university education, that can maintain growth and accepted standards of living. They highlight the increasing immiseration of vast tranches of society in the face of debt.

17: According to the Pew Research Center, 61 percent of all Americans were “middle income” back in 1971. Today, only 51 percent of all Americans are.

18: The Pew Research Center has also found that 85 percent of all middle class Americans say that it is harder to maintain a middle class standard of living today than it was 10 years ago. 

19: 62 percent of all middle class Americans say that they have had to reduce household spending over the past year.

20: Right now, approximately 48 percent of all Americans are either considered to be “low income” or are living in poverty.

21: Approximately 57 percent of all children in the United States are living in homes that are either considered to be either “low income” or impoverished.

37: Recently it was announced that total student loan debt in the United States has passed the one trillion dollar mark.

43: 53 percent of all Americans with a bachelor’s degree under the age of 25 were either unemployed or underemployed last year.

44: The U.S. economy continues to trade good paying jobs for low paying jobs. 60 percent of the jobs lost during the last recession were mid-wage jobs, but 58 percent of the jobs created since then have been low wage jobs.

56: Corporate profits as a percentage of GDP are at an all-time high. Meanwhile, wages as a percentage of GDP are near an all-time low.

We might also want to view Lisa Scherzer’s piece on student debt and the bubble that is affecting older generations who are taking on debt to support family member’s in college, escalating college tuition costs, poor job prospects, and a collapse in real wages. However, the role of big data in maintaining this process is also critical.


I want to quote at length, Steve Lohr in the New York Times, writing about big data, precisely because it highlights how this corporatised technique becomes a mechanism for control. This is important for higher education because using data or information is likely to be used to discipline both universities who need to provide returns to private equity or bond markets, and to students with outstanding, individual tuition debts. Witness McGettigan’s point about the production of usable actuarial tables for repayments related to courses and HEIs. 

Lohr writes:

 These drumroll claims rest on the premise that data like Web-browsing trails, sensor signals, GPS tracking, and social network messages will open the door to measuring and monitoring people and machines as never before. And by setting clever computer algorithms loose on the data troves, you can predict behavior of all kinds: shopping, dating and voting, for example.

The results, according to technologists and business executives, will be a smarter world, with more efficient companies, better-served consumers and superior decisions guided by data and analysis.

Big Data proponents point to the Internet for examples of triumphant data businesses, notably Google. But many of the Big Data techniques of math modeling, predictive algorithms and artificial intelligence software were first widely applied on Wall Street.

Here we might wish to focus on Zerohedge’s analyses of Wall Street’s use of high frequency trading, and Karl Marx’s discussion, in Volume 2 of Capital, on Capital’s systemic need to reduce the circulation time of commodities. 

Lohr continues:

Big Data proponents point to the Internet for examples of triumphant data businesses, notably Google. But many of the Big Data techniques of math modeling, predictive algorithms and artificial intelligence software were first widely applied on Wall Street.

Models can create what data scientists call a behavioral loop. A person feeds in data, which is collected by an algorithm that then presents the user with choices, thus steering behavior.

We are thus returned to the use by the State and corporations of data to control and shape behaviour, including threats of protest and exodus.


Student debt becomes a key power source for this drive to privatise in the name of efficiencies, scale, value-for-money and impact, and in fact generates a pedagogic and structural view of student-as-consumer that further recalibrates higher education. In a separate posting on Goldman Sachs and the privatisation of the University I drew attention to how Goldman Sachs’ investment banking arm works to develop Higher Education and Nonprofit Institutions teams, by working

with public and private universities and nonprofit issuers nationwide to structure and execute tailored debt capital markets financings. The firm has a dedicated group of credit specialists whose primary responsibility is to assist the investment banking team and issuers or clients in evaluating and achieving their rating potential. They take an active role on the credit analysis, rating strategy and investor sales process. In addition, with specialty expertise in areas such as athletics risk management, royalty monetization, public-private partnerships and online learning technology implementation, our experts can provide advice and financing solutions tailored to the needs of our issuers or clients.

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.

In the HEA research and policy seminar series reported in the Guardian, Roger Brown has argued that in analysing the impact of debt on the student experience:

We also need an agency that is independent of the government that will take responsibility for addressing these issues on a continuing basis, he added, and “that will be prepared to raise its head above the parapet when necessary, rather than simply being an agency of an agency of the government. We must have some credible, authoritative means of monitoring what happens to the quality of student learning as marketisation proceeds.

However, the risk is that such monitoring merely becomes another form of evidence-based practice that seeks to tweak the internal functioning of a system that is alienating.

This idea of alienation in the face of indentured service and financialisation is highlighted by Gajo Petrović’s essay on Marx’s Theory of alienation. “According to Marx, the essence of self-alienation is that man at the same time alienates something from himself and himself from something; that he alienates himself from himself.” This breaks down into four aspects or characteristics of alienation. The first is the alienation of the results of human labour (the objects produced by human labour constitute a separate world of objects which is alien to us, which dominates us, and which enslaves. The second is the alienation of production itself through alienated labour activity, because our own activity does not affirm but denies and subjugates us. Third, by alienating our own activity from ourselves, we alienate ourselves from our very essence as creative, practical beings. Crucially, Petrović argues that “Transforming his generic essence into a means for the maintenance of his individual existence, man alienates himself from his humanity, he ceases to be man.” Fourth, as an immediate consequence of the alienation of humans from themselves in the face of the market, individuals are alienated from each other. For Petrović “As the worker alienates the products of his labor, his own activity and his generic essence from himself, so he alienates another man as his master from himself. The producer himself produces the power of those who do not produce over production.” So we are left with an element of a totalising system inside which humans are alienated from their humanity.

Our standard refrain in the face of debt is to seek our research opportunities to monitor outcomes and impact, which are themselves alienating. As Neary argues, this is not enough:

In this new financialised world foreign providers can intervene in domestic markets undermining regulatory national frameworks, with devastating consequences for academic labour in terms of insecure employment, increasing precariousness, as well a contravening academic, ethical and value aspirations. The outcome is that academic culture is replaced by an enterprise business culture so that universities come more and more to resemble multinational corporations, with student compliance enforced by a pedagogy of debt.

Thus, what is needed is to understand how we might intensify “the processes of militant/co-research and self-education in praxis”. One way might be to understand how the geographies-of-neoliberalism described by the PCJF’s FBI documents, are allied to the interrelationships between both the techniques of big data and finacialised commodities of higher education, and how they contribute to our alienation from ourselves and each other (as potential entrepreneurial threat or terrorists or whatever). We might then need to ask whether, by describing and analysing the ways in which the State and corporations use such techniques to discipline academic labour and student behaviour and thereby increase alienation, alternatives might be developed.

escaping the caduceus of technology-fuelled privatisation and student debt

When the culture’s drowning in a bad dream/Save myself, save myself and

When the old religion is the new greed/Save myself, save myself and

They sabotaged the levee, killed gris gris/Save myself, save myself and

When the vultures copyright the word free/Save myself, I got to save myself

Willy Mason. 2007. Save Myself.

I: assertion and the rate of profit

In a recent Blackboard Inc newsletter we were informed that:

Education is changing and universities face multiple challenges to remain competitive. Attracting students is only part of the challenge, retaining them requires engagement. With growing attention on course quality and higher student expectations, making sure that students are getting the most out of their education experience has become increasingly important.

It’s not enough to simply deliver great courses, they demand more. Students live in a world of social media, instant access to information and on-demand service. They expect faster responses to assignments, interactive course materials, grade tracking, and integrated learning resources.

This narrative has emerged from a relatively narrow set of evaluative spaces, that are not framed through significance testing or modelling, but rather on the structural need for capital to seek out rents or profits from new educational spaces, based on either the reduction in the circulation time of commodities or the creation of new services, applications or information flows.

This also underpins the cultural re-framing of education as a space from inside which efficiencies are required, and from where impact becomes a pivotal, abstract currency. Thus the JISC re-frames its newsletters around efficiency, effectiveness and impact. Cost reduction through a range of services and benefits realisation form the background noise of this new normal. Witness the supporting your institution pages at Witness this month’s jisc-announce message about e-infrastructure

The point here is not that evidence for investment should be divorced from an analysis of cost, but that it forms the dominating background noise, against which it becomes almost impossible to define a new form of value or to judge social worth. So we hear noise from Blackboard Inc. or Pearson Inc. about efficiencies/impact/value and our analysis is reduced to money, and then we forget to question why and how those corporations are lobbying in the USA over access to public schools. Witness this report from the Portland Press Herald that “Documents expose the flow of money and influence from corporations that stand to profit from state leaders’ efforts to expand and deregulate digital education.”

The terrain for corporate profits is further reinforced through state-subsidised infrastructural investments. Thus, in terms of our e-infrastructure, we are reassured that

The investment will build Janet6 the next generation of the UK’s national research and education network, adding value across the sector from high-end research to universities, colleges and schools. It will also enable research to stay competitive on both a national and international level, and support the £60bn contribution that higher education brings to the UK economy.

Value, competition, the UK economy: this is the background noise that drowns out everything else inside the need to crack new markets for new services to overcome the historical tendency of the rate of profit to fall. And this is important because we are told in this article on Pearson ‘Education’ – who are these people? that

The U.S. spends more than $500 billion a year to educate kids from ages five through 18. The entire education sector, including college and mid-career training, represents nearly 9 percent of U.S. gross domestic product, more than the energy or technology sectors.

Critical here is an understanding of who, exactly is trying to develop and sell services into this space, based on the rate of profit. The answer given is that public education is having policy developed and implemented based on evidence and a series of mythologies that form the background narrative of people less focused on education:

In other words, Pearson’s chief operating officers, who are also heavily invested in the company, are busy trading stocks and racking up dollars and pounds while the corporation’s financial situation is shaky. And their solution is to sell, sell, sell their products in the United States.

The current vogue for the private sector to use evidence to drive an allegedly neutral cultural and political space for policy, is amplified through analytics and big data. These tend to frame the expectations of the voiceless student as a cipher for an untheorised view of impact, efficiencies, personalisation, scaling, and service-led innovation. There is no space to discuss structural inequalities that amplify issues of autonomy or agency, or the ways in which consent is addressed. In this process, openness or transparency or accountability is no substitute for political engagement. Thus, this article on Lies, Damned Lies and Open Data argues that

Now we must renew the much larger battle over the role of evidence in public policy. On the surface, the open data movement was about who could access and use government data. It rested on the idea that data was as much a public asset as a highway, bridge, or park and so should be made available to those who paid for its creation and curation: taxpayers. But contrary to the hopes of some advocates, improving public access to data—that is, access to the evidence upon which public policy is going to be constructed—does not magically cause governments’, and politicians’, desire for control to evaporate. Quite the opposite. Open data will not depoliticize debate. It will force citizens, and governments, to realize how politicized data is, and always has been.

II: the fallacy of problem-solving

Thus, the issue becomes one of what, structurally, is that evidence/data to be used for? Is it to be used for problem-solving, or to tweak the ways in which, for example, higher education is to be structured, funded and governed, in the name of impact, efficiencies and extant value-forms? Is technology inside the academy to be used to drive privatisation agendas that are in the name of competition and profiteering, because privatisation and the free market is the only available lever for driving efficiencies inside a higher education that is recalibrated around money?

Or is it to be collected and used to question whether the free market, and technology-firms that sell solutions inside that market and for whom the bottom line is the bottom line, are the only possible ways of reconstructing higher education as a public good. Is it to be collected and used to question the funding, regulation and governance of public higher education, and to challenge the prevailing orthodoxy of the market and the corporation? In fact, are the power relationships and political positions that frame the space in which big data, learning analytics and evidence are collected and used for policy, our first reference point for a more meaningful definition of the use of technology inside higher education? This demands a critical approach to unravelling the neoliberal, transnational advocacy networks that make up so many of the private corporations now enmeshed inside our education systems.

In this we might ask whether it is possible to move beyond problem-solving analysis to a critique of the structural foundations upon which our evidence base emerges. This demands that we re-engage with the ways in which technology is used by corporations, non-governmental advocacy organisations, and governments, in order to re-frame cultural and educational positions, in the name of consumption and the rate of profit. In this, we are left with questions around: who consents to the adoption of technological solutions inside universities and why? On what basis are those assumptions taken as read? To what extent does money, in the form of value, efficiencies or impact, shape or coerce education and pedagogic practice, so that other social or co-operative forms of value are marginalised? How are technologies and allied services co-opted as allegedly neutral ciphers in this process?

III: the evidence and practice of student debt

The risk is that the background noise of the rule of money, which drives the recalibration of educational contexts, is amplified by the reality of student debt. Witness this recent New York Times piece on debt collectors cashing in on student debt, which is regarded as a new oil well:

With an outstanding balance of more than $1 trillion, student loans have become a silver lining for the debt collection industry at a time when its once-thriving business of credit card collection has diminished and the unemployment rate has made collection a challenge.

One student in the article highlights that “I will never have my head above water”, and recounts that she faced

a crushing reality: she still owes too much money and makes too little to pay it off. A marketing coordinator for a law firm, she filed for bankruptcy last year because she could not afford her mortgage, car payment and student loans. She lost the house, but still owes $115,000 in student loans, both private and federal. Under income-based repayment, she pays $325 a month on her federal loans; she also pays $250 a month on her private loans.

This individuated, anti-social fear of debt, or of the disciplining of sections of our society through what is becoming known as “delinquent debt” is also witnessed in this article on the United States of student debt where “Just like mortgages and the housing industry, student debt has become an important condition for sales of the commodity higher education.” In part, this is less about intergenerational justice and the legacy of the baby boom, and more about class and the loading of an indentured future onto segments of the working population for whom access to services funded by the public purse is now closed. As Zerohedge recently argued

[there are huge numbers of] impressionable wannabe college grads for whom college is the only hope out there, no matter the cost. Sadly, the cost is rising exponentially, and as we showed recently, total Federally-funded student loan debt outstanding is now at all time highs. Luckily, the cost of the debt is at record lows. Sadly, the principal will still need repayment, as cohort after cohort of unemployed students will soon find out, and also find out that there is no discharge of student debt in bankruptcy: it is, indeed, the proverbial gift that keeps on taking.

Worse still, as this post from Zerohedge reminds us, it is private (rather than public) debt, and excessive leveraging of debt that tends to push capital into structural crises. The leveraging of private debt through excessive student loans, whilst giving a short-term financial fix for some leaves a deeper structural legacy related to crises of demand. So we end up with an inflated set of financial assets that bear no resemblance to the value of real assets in the real economy, and in the process of deleveraging the ponzi scheme leaves those individuals with high levels of debt at most risk. We are therefore reminded of the need for debt jubilees because

[We’re going into] a never-ending depression unless we repudiate the debt, which never should have been extended in the first place.

IV: escaping the caduceus of technology-fuelled privatisation and student debt

*caduceus (Ka-doo’-seus): originates from the Greek “karykeion”, itself derived from “karyx” meaning a herald’s badge or staff. The caduceus was worn or displayed by Roman surgeons, official messengers, and by military emissaries to signify a cessation of hostilities on the battlefield. It symbolized the herald of the gods, as well, Mercury in Rome and Hermes in Greece, who carried a winged wand on which were coiled two serpents, symbolizing male and female. Legend was that Hermes came upon two serpents at war and, in his beguiling manner placed a staff, which Aesculapius had given him (also a symbol used in Medicine), between them wereupon entwining with it, they ceased warring and began loving one another thus expressing unity, fertility, and peace. The caduceus is also a recognized symbol of commerce and negotiation, in which balanced exchange and reciprocity are recognized as ideals.

This is the world that we now enter. Where bailouts meet austerity, where the realities of a quadrillion dollars of debt underpin politics in the United States, where student debt and therefore student education forms part of a coming sub-prime crisis, and where in spite of the rhetoric about higher education and employability, the realities are youth unemployment and long-term falls in real wages, or precarious employment.

And I haven’t even mentioned a future framed by oil, rising oil prices, or carbon. Yet, these matter because as Roger Pielke Jr argues:

We can simplify these four factors even further. Population and income together are simply GDP, or aggregate economic activity, and the production and consumption of energy reflect the technologies of energy supply and demand. The resulting Kaya Identity — as his equation has come to be called — simply says:

Emissions = GDP x Technology

With this simple equation before us, we can see the fundamental challenge to reducing emissions: A rising GDP, all else equal, leads to more emissions. But if there is one ideological commitment that unites nations and people around the world in the early 21st century, it is that GDP growth is non-negotiable. Right now, leaders on six different continents are focused on efforts to grow GDP, and with it jobs and wealth. They’re not as worried about emissions.

The concern then is that these factors become reinforcing. That the drive for GDP and growth recalibrates the University around the rule of money. That inside this space an agenda of privatisation based on evidential assertion or problem-solving theory is presented as de-politicised and normative, and enables technology firms, working with private equity, transnational finance, think tanks and politicians to lever open public education for profit. That student debt becomes a key power source for this drive to privatise in the name of efficiencies, scale, value-for-money and impact, and in fact generates a pedagogic and structural view of student-as-consumer that further recalibrates higher education and the use of technologies inside that sector. That agency and autonomy are framed through consumption, revealed in-part through technology and technique. That these factors amplify the neoliberal feedback loops that target public education as a source of profit. That in our refusal to critique these loops, or question the background noise that forms our new normal, we consent to our own coercion inside techniques for further value extraction.

A starting point for pushing back or for dampening this background noise is the need to analyse the structural nature of the evidence that is presented to us, in order to question power and the political positions that technologically reinforce a student experience that is drive by debt. Debt and technology, entwining and beguiling education, like a caduceus.

So taking that Blackboard Inc. newsletter with which I started, we might ask the following questions, and begin the hard-work of defining more co-operative alternative solutions.

  • Why education is changing, and whether competition and the free market are really the best mechanisms for addressing the challenges that are faced by universities?
  • How attracting, retaining and engaging students might be geared to solving societal problems related to abundance and scarcity of resources as outlined by Pielke Jr., rather than preparing them as consumers for a debt-driven existence?
  • In the face of global, structural crises, and the prevalence of student debt as a mechanism for the accumulation of surplus value, how might we challenge the neoliberal ideas that underpin “course quality and higher student expectations”?
  • Do we really understand what students demand beyond their role as consumers of social media, instant access to information and on-demand services? How might we engage students in a world beyond faster responses to assignments, interactive course materials, grade tracking, and integrated learning resources geared solely for employability and servicing debt?
  • Is it possible to imagine a world that uses technology to be against-and-beyond the increasing velocity in which our educational experiences are circulated as commodities?

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?

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?

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.

A note on academic activism, hyper-neoliberalism and the problem of power and consent

In her seminar on “Diagnosing the contemporary: prolific activism, hyper-neoliberalism and the problem of power and consent”, Janet Newman drew on her research into feminist critiques of the ideology and practices of neoliberalism, in order to challenge the realities of academic activism. I have blogged before about academic activism, in particular connected to the mass of protests that form a politics of events against austerity and the possibilities of exodus, and the types of radical spaces that the University might open up. However, Newman’s work demonstrated how, within the overarching re-formation of capital under neoliberal doctrine, it is the similarities across disparate positions that are in-and-against that re-formation, which offer spaces and possibilities to move beyond them.

In Holloway’s terms Newman’s work on critique and criticality from the perspective of gender politics is one of those cracks in the productive relations defined by capitalism, which itself needs to be connected to other stories or cracks that reveal the everyday and historical injustices of the politics of austerity and our polyarchic state apparatus. One of Newman’s key points was how to create spaces and places through which mappings between community activist and academic positions could emerge, and thereby lead to new analyses and actions. These spaces are crucial because they enable communities, or networks, or society to test what Stuart Price calls “truth claims in a story world”, like the idea that there is no alternative.

So, Newman highlighted a conceptual analysis of positions based on the experiences of women who have brought personal and political commitments into their working lives, in particular since the New Labour project. Her work highlighted the following themes/issues/possibilities that emerged on the boundaries between academic/activist positions.

  1. Mechanisms through which both academics and activists can confront power.
  2. Ways in which critical engagements, including knowledge work, could be developed.
  3. Spaces for close encounters with those who act as/for monitoring power (ostensibly based around financial power and efficiency).
  4. Revealing the mechanisms and strategies through which activist/minority/dissenting discourses are appropriated/incorporated by those in power, as a form of undoing. In this way radical or marginalised positions are neutralised in the process of co-option or are de-legitimised or even erased.
  5. The need for an on-going focus on relational positions or relationships, rather than transactions between groups or communities or individuals.

This final point seems to me critical in the approach of the occupy movement, or the flowering of oppositional, free education movements. It connects deeply to the edufactory collective’s tripartite strategy for opposing the restrictions and enclosure of academic practices imposed by neoliberal educational policy, namely: for a new educational politics based on the general assembly; for militant research strategies; and for activity in public. Newman also revealed a similar position in calling for a new constituency of activist academic positions that can hold politicians to account. She argued for: making our collective work visible; for engaging in public conversations; and for generative labour, or doing new things. This, for her, was a move to connect critique and criticality to our everyday practices.

I am left, therefore, with a deepening sense of the strands/cracks of continuity across stories. Moreover, there is the revelation that these strands/cracks are enabling us to recognise the ideological impact of austerity and neoliberal dogma on the possibility that we might become subjects in our own lives. There is the possibility that in the spaces opened up in occupation, we might form counter-narratives or counter-hegemonic positions. The stakes in this discussion are high: not only do we face socio-environmental crises, but the coercive state is being revealed on a daily basis, in the attacks on welfare, the militarisation of the police, in increasing authoritarianism around the Olympic Games etc..

However, we see in opposition to coercion more than simply hope; we see courage being revealed and the possibility that subject positions might be recuperated and that new spaces/places might be opened up across civil society. Richard Murphy reminds us of this in his work on the courageous state; and we are reminded of this courage in the worker/student actions of Tent City University, and the Space Project, and students at UC Berkeley, and Occupy Oakland, and student protests in Santiago, and Turin, and Dhaka, and at University College London, and Kent State University, and Manila, as well as in Venture Communes, and beyond. This mapping of political, scholarly, historical activism enables us to discuss what might be recuperated by us against the incorporation of dissent inside the dominant narrative. Moreover, this discussion enables us to keep each other’s narratives alive in the face of coercive power, and more importantly enables the legitimisation of our alternative narratives in the face of the de-politicisation imposed inside polyarchy.

So we might then ask how do we escalate dissent beyond the individual cracks shown by our own narratives? How do we join our dissenting narratives, our hopes for alternative possibilities, into something new? How do our local positions scale, so that the coercive power of the state can be critiqued and alternatives debated? And what is the role of academics as activists in that critique? In part, I think, this is a process of finding the courage to move beyond hope. To accept that there is no hope for/from a better capitalism, and that we need the courage to debate and try something new. This is what I take from a re-reading of the zero percent and the call to occupy everything, in the search for an alternative that is not simply in-and-against capital, but that wishes to move beyond it.

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?