Against Commodification: The University, Cognitive Capitalism and Emergent Technologies

Two edited collections, “Marx in the Age of Digital Capitalism” and “Marx and the Political Economy of the Media“, have just been published by Brill.

With Bernd Stahl, I have a chapter in the latter called: Against Commodification: The University, Cognitive Capitalism and Emergent Technologies.

This is an updated version of an article that was published in 2012 in Triple-C.

Under the licence agreement, authors are allowed to put the final pdf of their chapter on their own websites but not into institutional repositories. So if there is something you like, hit the author’s (s’) site(s).

NOTE: paperback editions of the 2 books will be published in a year by Haymarket Press.

The abstract for mine and Bernd Stahl’s chapter is as follows.

This paper investigates how four specific emergent technologies, namely affective computing, augmented reality, cloud-based systems, and human machine symbiosis, demonstrate how technological innovation nurtured inside the University is commodified and fetishised under cognitive capitalism or immaterial labour, and how it thereby further enables capital to reproduce itself across the social factory. Marx’s critique of technologies, through their connection to nature, production, social relations and mental conceptions, and in direct relation to the labour process, demonstrates how capital utilises emergent technologies to incorporate labour further into its self-valorisation process as labour-power. The University life-world that includes research and development is a critical domain in which to site Marx’s structural technological critique, and it is argued that this enables a critique of the public development and deployment of these technologies to reveal them as a fetishised force of production, in order to re-politicise activity between students, teachers and the public.

#educationalrepair: what is to be done?

I was asked two questions at Bishop Grosseteste University after I spoke on crisis and educational repair earlier today, which made me reflect on “what is to be done?” I interpreted these questions as follows.

  1. Given the crises of sociability that I described, what decisions do I make on a daily basis to do/be/create something different?
  2. Given the crises of sociability that I described, what decisions might educators make to do/be/create something different?

In processing these questions, I realised two things.

If I had my time today again, I would have tried to situate my argument (reprised here) against the room’s position on the pressures that are defining and redefining higher education. Uncovering those pressures and our interpretation of them, might then have more usefully formed the centre-point of how I might address the two questions given above.

I would then have centred my talking against those themes, but with a focus on “what is to be done?” from my own perspective. Increasingly my thinking is about voice, including mine, and in listening/finding voice, my practice is about moving from a critique of the dominant and alienating system, to a sense of how it might be resisted/refused/pushed back against.

Note to self: next time, before the session develop the slides as themes; then blog/publish the argument with the structure of what would have been said if this were a lecture; then in the session ask/listen to the room for their themes; then look for how those themes align/contract with the proposed argument; then develop the themes that matter to the room; then point to the other stuff that has been produced; then ask the room for comment; then go home to write some more reflections. After all, a keynote should be a dialogue between presenter and source material, then presenter and audience, then audience and source material, then presenter and her/his reflective self.

So in answering these two questions, I am reminded of one of the key connections I have been considering between the socio-environmental, adaptation work of the Inter-Governmental Panel on Climate Change, and the critical/political, social justice agenda of those students calling for #educationalrepair, #rhodesmustfall, #whyismycurriculumwhite, #dtmh. This connection is that the hegemonic thinking that catalysed these crises of sociability isn’t the kind of practice that will help us to alleviate them. Educators need to be able to theorise positions and social relationships, and to create possibilities for concrete action, and to recognise context, and to be attuned to a diversity of voices, and to be willing to work against re-producing structures of domination and power. Moreover they need to see this work as not simply rooted in the University and its curriculum, but located inside the social factory.

However, engaging with that is problematic, when there are mortgages to be paid and food to be put on the table, and when our labour-power is under threat and made precarious, and when we are asked to implement more and more tactics to militate against attrition rates. This is the moment when rage must be transformed into courage and faith in ourselves and our ability to work collectively to do/be/create something different. I think that this is why the work of those students working on Dismantling the Master’s House is so important. It extends this idea of courage and faith into the realm of justice, and in finding forms of justice that are pedagogically and epistemologically grounded in voice and negotiation and contribution and difference.

Therefore, if I collapse the two questions I was asked into a sense of what is to be done, then I need to consider this in terms of courage, faith and justice at a range of levels (individual, curriculum design, curriculum delivery team, school/department, institution, civil society). This is not prescriptive. It is not a prescription. It is an emergent set of things that I might do.

Association and solidarity: looking for spaces inside which I might associate, not for commercialisation or impact or excellence, but for solidarity is critical. This is not just between curriculum delivery team members, but is between staff and students, staff across institutions, staff in different sectors of education, and between educators and others who are organising for a different world. It also emerges, where labour-power and labour relations are concerned, inside an alliance of trade unions, which includes those unions that represent academics, professional services and students. It is in this way that the tenured can support those who are casualised, precarious and indentured, in order to push-back against the marketization and financialisation of our educational existences.

Theory and practice: enabling people who are attempting to come to terms with precarity or privatisation or commercialisation or social justice, demands that I work to help people to theorise those processes that are dismantling their existence through marketization and financialisation. Those processes might be an extension of individual and institutional debt, or the development of a future earning and employability record, or the framing of pedagogy as entrepreneurialism. In this view, liberation emerges is situated against the ability to move from critique to concrete action. How do we generate a flow of alternative ideas, which might be classed as the public good or commoning or citizen engagement or research-engaged practice? Here one of the issues is the way in which curricula can be constructed to support alternatives, and the ways in which teacher education scaffolds the ability to challenge dominant narratives/structures.

The curriculum: the curriculum is a critical commodity, through which we can develop collective (staff, students, civil society, the market) ideas about how the world is constructed and interpreted, and who is marginalised/heard. It serves as a pivot for rethinking how we address the world, and the issues of crisis that currently plague us. Finding ways to liberate the production, circulation and consumption of the curriculum from the market are key.

Crisis and sociability: I need to find ways in which I might use interpretations of the crises of sociability which I outlined (catastrophic climate change, liquid fuel availability, the politics of austerity) in my scholarship, administration and teaching. In part this is framing discussions about educational technology or employability or learning and teaching or internationalisation, in terms of these crises and who has power in defining new narratives and solutions. In part this is re-focusing those conversations on issues of voice. Who is heard? Who is ignored? What do indigenous or marginalised or racialized or gendered or othered voices offer us in education or social repair? It strikes me that in those narratives lies a focus on social justice, which helps us to break hegemonic positions that have brought societies to the verge of socio-environmental catastrophe, chronically indentured study and life, and in which solutions are increasingly outsourced to corporations or transnational groups vested in the political economy that brought us to this place. Part of this is about speaking truth-to-power, which is why solidarity and association are so important.

Co-operation: so much of this work is about the long and painful and joyful process of co-operation. How do I learn to co-operate? How do I co-operate to learn? How do I co-operate to teach? I don’t ask myself these questions enough in my daily work. However, we have examples of projects where educators and students are working co-operatively with civil society organisations and the private sector, and are doing so from the bottom-up. Supporting co-operation as a political and pedagogical process is a way of re-framing regulation and governance. That goes as much for the production of the curriculum as it does for the governance and daily life of research centres or institutions.

Occupation: how do I help people to go into occupation of terms like impact or of innovations like learning gain? How do we move beyond the commodification of our everyday academic experiences, through the obsession with producing and circulating data from which new services or financialised metrics can be generated? In this a revelation and critical discussion of the technologies and techniques that we deploy is central. Who benefits from their implementation? Is this a social good or a furthering of private goods? How might we define an approach to data and the creation of socio-technical systems, which support the relationships we wish to nurture? This is important if we are to wrest back pedagogic and epistemological agency from those who would reduce the academic project to inputs and outputs or outsourced, technological systems. If we are to resist new public management inside higher education, then we need a set of conversations with civil society and our publics/communities about what our curricula and institutions are for. We might then use the socio-technical systems that pivot around higher education for something different. For something that lies beyond the arbitration of the market.

Care: how do I act in ways that are true, necessary and kind? How do I work to amplify humane values rather than the labour theory of value? In this, much of my work has to be rooted in activities that are social and associational, rather than simply amplifying joint venturing or entrepreneurialism or outsourcing. This focus on care is situated inside a view of our metabolism as academics and students with nature, through our use and re-use of nature, and also in our approach to diverse and marginalised knowledges and cultural understandings and beliefs. Only then might we rethink and redefine how our social relations, in a way that encourage hope and peace. Hope that we might adapt to or avoid the worst excesses of our crises of sociability; peace in producing and re-producing humanity, rather than specific ways of imaging the world.

NOTE: much of the above is about values and practices. However, I might think about these in terms of the following concrete actions, which are simply a set of possibilities.

I work and live in Leicester, and engagement with local social justice/diversity projects/charities is critical in my liberating knowledge and practice from higher education into civil society. These include work in schools and agencies working with vulnerable groups. It also includes work with charities that have an educational agenda. This work is deeply co-operative and pedagogical, and it is rooted in care.

I am engaged beyond the university in projects like the Social Science Centre in Lincoln (rooted in co-operative organisation, governance, scholarship and pedagogy), and the Open Library of the Humanities (which is creating a new, co-operative model for associational and federated access to knowledge as a communal good).

I am working on academic writing projects rooted in the idea of mass intellectuality, or socially-useful knowledge, practices and literacies. These projects are co-operative in the way that they produce and write, and in the decision-making process around editing. They are about trying to develop and sustain alternative ways of producing academic knowledge.

I have been working with Leicester City Council on a knowledge exchange, digital literacy project that is grounded in and governed by educator-led narratives. The project produced a self-evaluation framework with educators, which is grounded in actual curriculum practices and the idea of radical collegiality in defining CPD strategies. It also developed a framework for open licensing across a City.

With my friend Owen Williams, I implemented an Academic Commons at DMU grounded in an open-source technology (WordPress) and an open source methodology, as a means of involving the academic community in reclaiming power over the technologies that define its work. In this way the academic community can be engaged in the production of the institutional, socio-technical systems.

With an organising committee, I have worked to frame a Centre for Pedagogic Research as a deliberately co-operative, self-critical scholarly community. This includes a focus on developing an open-form of publishing through open peer review, pivoting around an in-house journal.

I wonder if these form a kind of joint-venture of the soul?

Critically questioning educational innovation in economics and business: Human interaction in a virtualising world

I’m speaking at the Educational Innovation in Economics and Business (EdinEB) conference next Wednesday (3 June), in Brighton. The conference is focused on the interplay between theory and practice, with the focus on “Critically questioning educational innovation in economics and business: Human interaction in a virtualising world”. The abstract is here. The slides are below, followed by some key points.

ONE. A framing of sorts [slides 2-4]

The idea of educational innovation is subsumed under the circuits of commodity production and money. We are sold the idea that such innovation is emancipatory for learners, freeing them as competitive and entrepreneurial in selling their labour-power and themselves. In the face of the politics of austerity, global socio-environmental crises, and the emotional crisis of sociability and anxiety, are the market and a financialised existence the only way?

TWO. Innovation as fetish [slides 5-11]

The global North is awash in educational innovation that is being driven by the law of value, and the motive desire to make previously socialised contexts like higher education productive. In particular, we see: the focus on families operating as private capitals, investing in their own, permanent re-skilling so that they are competitive; the disciplinary focus on the educator’s professional development and productivity, especially related to digital literacy; and an obsession with data as a means of prediction rooted in financialisation.

THREE. Innovation and the secular crisis [slides 12-21]

Educational innovation needs to be analysed in relation to hyper-financialisation, which itself sits inside the secular crisis of capitalism. Here the work of Marx is enlightening in enabling us to analyse our social forces of production and the relations of production that dominate our lives and our environment. The issue then is one of power and the mode of production of our everyday lives. Moreover, this is situated against the self-expansion of value, which then marginalises or co-opts our very humanity. The failure of self-expansion has catalysed what is called the secular crisis as a failure of monetary policy, or a failure of profitability, and has resulted increasingly in the delegitimisation of capitalism, and the very education innovations that are being forced upon us. Overwork, anxiety, depression, bewilderment are functions of this delegitimisation. Have we failed, or does the mode of production fail us? How therefore do we enable the self-expansion of quantitative pleasing rather than projecting our neuroses which are themselves forms of false consciousness?

FOUR. Innovation and the sociability of academic work [slides 22-40]

Higher educational innovation alters the sociability of academic work, as it drives exchange rather than use and performance management. In this way it becomes a fundamental element in a structural adjustment policy that reshapes the relationships between academics and students. There is a range of policy pronouncements [Willetts and Byrne via the Social Market Foundation, and Rizvi et al via the IPPR], policy tools [like the Future Earnings and Employability Record, and the Teaching Excellence Framework], and funding streams that drive innovation [like learning gain], which enable transnational associations of capitals to drive variable human capital investment, financialisation and marketization. Here we see the work of Pearson driving the joy of data, venture capital investment in MOOCs, and Bain and Company’s response to “a world awash in money”. Educational innovations are sold to higher education as personalisation, or retention, or employability, or whatever. However, they are developed: in response to the development of a world market; in order to make previously marginal sectors of the economy explicitly productive; as a way of leveraging the ratio of the total surplus-value produced in society to the total capital invested; and to revolutionise the means of production.

FIVE. What is to be done?

SIX. Innovation and the colonisation of the soul [slides 41-44]

This is just a note on who has power in a world where environmental and production costs have been outsourced to the global South, and where the compulsion for innovation is driven by specific groups of men. What is the relationship between hegemony and counter-hegemony, as revealed through educational innovation?

SEVEN. Abolishing educational innovation [slides 45-56]

The general intellect offers us a way of reframing educational innovation for alternative purposes beyond the market, at the level of society. The key here is how to define a different form of sociability, so that we are able to address global crises more appropriately. In this model there is a need to abolish the distinction between the University-as-factory and society, so that concrete collective work as a social force of production enables different ways of addressing problems. Here we have examples of innovative thinking and modelling from inside the University that focus upon the struggle for alternatives. These include The University of Manchester Post-Crash Economics Society and the Women’s Budget Group. We also have examples of innovative thinking and modelling from outside the University that focus upon the struggle for alternatives. These include People’s Political Economy and the Social Science Centre. We also have examples of the innovative thinking and modelling from inside-and-outside the University that focus upon the struggle for alternatives. These include the Manchester Open Data Project, the Telekommunist Manifesto, and the FLOK Society. The examples demonstrate that the process of innovation might be repurposed for outcomes that lie beyond the market, and which are shaped through critical pedagogy and co-operative practice.

EIGHT. Is it possible to innovate against the rule of money? Is it possible to innovate so that learning and teaching enable self-actualisation in a world that is framed by emergencies?

Critically questioning educational innovation in economics and business: human interaction in a virtualising world

I’m speaking at the Educational Innovation in Economics and Business (EdinEB) conference on 3 June, in Brighton. The conference is focused on the interplay between theory and practice, with the focus on “Critically questioning educational innovation in economics and business: Human interaction in a virtualising world”. I will be speaking about the following…


The global economic crisis of 2008 has been followed by a persistent recession, with low levels of growth, weak aggregate demand, and high levels of underemployment or unemployment. This forced an engagement with the idea that the global economy is witnessing a secular stagnation or crisis, which has in-turn recalibrated the landscape of English higher education, with implications for the idea of the University. This process has amplified the twin forces of marketization and financialisation that are reconstituting the higher education sector for the production, circulation and accumulation of value.

As a result of this restructuring for value, educational innovation has been subsumed under political economic realities, which stipulate that there is no alternative to the logic of choice and competition. This political economy is underscored culturally and pedagogically through an obsession with innovation that includes: redefining academic labour as entrepreneurial or for employment; enforcing a creative curriculum; amplifying the use of data to establish learning gain; co-opting the staff/student relationship as partnership; developing internationalisation strategies through open education.

This keynote will argue that educational innovations might usefully be examined in light of the relationships between: technological and organisational innovation; the dominant political economy that is affecting competing educational providers; the disciplinary role of the State in shaping an educational space for further capital accumulation; and the subsumption of open networks to the realities of performativity and performance management. The argument will situate educational innovations inside-and-against Capital’s drive to subsume labour practices inside technologically-mediated forms of coercion, command and control, rather than to enable social mobility or emancipation.

It will be argued that the ways in which such educational innovations and the services that are derived from them are valorised might offer a glimpse of how the processes that drive capital accumulation might themselves be resisted. The argument will draw on the examples of The Post-Crash Economics Society (PCES) at the University of Manchester, the People Political Economy Project in Oxford, the International Student Initiative for Pluralism in Economics (ISIPE), and the Rethinking Economics conference, in order to examine the social relationships that emerge around notionally neutral, educational innovations. We might then ask, is it possible to reclaim human interaction and sociability in a virtualising world?

on educational technology and divestment

I spoke yesterday about the relationships between higher education institutions, the policy makers who frame the space inside which the University is being financialised and marketised, the technology companies which are attempting to leverage value from the education sector, and the finance/venture capitalists that are underwriting educational technologies. There is a slideshow on my slideshare, and a podcast of the session here.

I have written elsewhere about the implications of this transnational network, or association, of capitals both for higher education practice and for students and academics. I have also written elsewhere about the power of such a dominant network of merchants in higher education. I have also written elsewhere about how these networks amplify the militarisation of higher education. However, there is one specific point that I made yesterday, which I wish to reiterate here, which is connected to divestment. The recent occupation by students at the London School of Economics included in its list of demands divestment, stating:

We demand that the school cuts its ties to exploitative and destructive organisations, such as those involved in wars, military occupations and the destruction of the planet. This includes but is not limited to immediate divestment from the fossil fuel industry and from all companies which make a profit from the Israeli state’s occupation of Palestine.

This idea of questioning which firms, companies, products, whatever, universities invest in recomposes any discussion of educational technology. There are some fundamental questions here about the networks of hegemonic power that universities are folded into, which link technology and data mining firms, venture and finance capitalists, academics, and the military. So we might ask, for example:

Who supplies our virtual learning environment?

Is there a parent company?

What are the relationships of the parent company to finance or venture capital?

What other companies does this parent company own? What activities are they involved in? Securitisation? Training the military? Biotechnology?

What networks of power is the company that supplies our virtual learning environment mapped onto?

What networks of power is the University mapped onto through its connections rooted in educational technology?

Through its deployment of educational technologies, how is the University complicit in activities that reinforce and reproduce hegemonic power? How does it reinforce and reproduce unsustainable narratives of growth? Given the energy and carbon embedded in high technologies, how does such deployment map onto concerns voiced by the keep it in the ground campaign?

This final question is rooted in our academic engagement with high technology firms that are seeking to use education in order to expand the orbit for value accumulation and extraction, in particular where fundamental questions are being raised about the impact on the global climate of unrestricted models of economic growth. All of a sudden we are forced to ask fundamental questions of political economy about the educational technologies that we deploy.

Clearly inside a policy space that is being opened-up for-profit through competition, divesting from such webs is problematic, and demands a larger conversation about the idea of the University as a public good. In the UK, former Universities Minister, David Willetts argued “conventional universities no longer hold all the cards on how the higher education market develops.” Around the same time, the Institute for Public Policy Research noted in its report, Securing the future of higher education that there was a need to open the market-up through: first, access to open data (which would increase accountability and consumerism); second, the rule of money in underpinning efficiency and improving the student experience; and third, by encouraging competition from new providers who would bring innovation, entrepreneurialism and cost-efficiency.

As Will Davies notes in the limits of neoliberalism such entrepreneurial activity is enacted through new combinations of technologies and practices to inject novelty into the circuits of capitalism. These associations of capitals, or venture capitals, which are able to leverage value transnationally are rooted in competition and an idea of entrepreneurial activity that is rooted in a new productive environment that accommodates power: first in expanding the time-scale for returns; second in expanding the arena for competition.

Investment in educational technology is also a space which, as Audrey Watters notes in Men Still Explain, is dominated by men from the global North.

Culturally. Ideologically. There’s a problem with the Internet. Largely designed by men from the developed world, it is built for men of the developed world. Men of science. Men of industry. Military men. Venture capitalists. Despite all the hype and hope about revolution and access and opportunity that these new technologies will provide us, they do not negate hierarchy, history, privilege, power. They reflect those. They channel it. They concentrate it, in new ways and in old.

There are serious questions about whether academics and students are content with these hegemonic positions and whether we are able collectively to understand the role of educational technology inside our universities and colleges without developing a critique of its relationships to a transnational capitalist class. We might wish to use such a critique to question where academic labour is invested and from where is might be divested. Such a critique needs to be aligned with the realities of divestment from fossil fuels. This is a political issue that is in tension with the realities of the security state and the regimes of power that are maintained through transnational flows of capital, and which educational technology reveals. We should be seeking to discuss on campus whether we are content with our educational connections to educational technology products that are rooted in financialised and marketised responses to the secular crisis of capitalism. We should be seeking to discuss on campus how educational technology reinforces our implicit, academic links to venture capital, private equity, the military and security firms.

My presentation closed with two questions.

Inside the University, can educational technology be (ref)used politically to recompose the realities of global struggles, rather than for value?

What does divestment imply for the use of educational technology?

We should be seeking to discuss on campus what our activities and our relationships help to legitimate, and whether a diversity of alternative positions is possible beyond the market and those who maintain the power of the market over everyday, public life.

against educational technology in the neoliberal University

On Wednesday I’m presenting at the University of Westminster’s Communication and Media Research Institute (CAMRI). The talk discussion is titled: against educational technology in the neoliberal University. There are details/an abstract here.

My slides are available from my slideshare.

For a political economy of Massive Open Online Courses

I have a new article out in Learning, Media and Technology, titled “For a political economy of Massive Open Online Courses”. The abstract and keywords are below.

There are 50 eprints available.


In understanding the changes that are impacting the global higher education sector, developing a critique of the relationships between technology and technological innovation, new managerialism and financialisation, and the impact of the secular crisis of global capitalism, is critical. Moreover, it is important to critique these changes historically and geographically, in order to understand how political economics shapes the space in which higher education policy and practice is recalibrated for capital accumulation and profitability.

This article will argue that educational innovations like MOOCs might usefully be examined in light of the relationships between: technological and organisational innovation; the historical tendency of the rate of profit to fall that is affecting competing educational providers; the disciplinary role of the State in shaping an educational space for further capital accumulation; and the subsumption of open networks to the neoliberal project of accumulation and profitability. Such an analysis then enables a critique of the claims that are made for open networks in delivering new forms of sociability that transcend structures of power and domination.

As a result of this political economic critique, the article will situate the emergence of MOOCs inside-and-against Capital’s drive to subsume labour practices inside technologically-mediated forms of coercion, command and control. It will argue that the ways in which MOOCs and the services that are derived from them are then valorised might offer a glimpse of how the neoliberal educational project is disciplining academic labour and how it might be resisted.

Keywords: academic labour; MOOC; rate of profit; sociability; technological innovation

Notes on Social Media for Researchers

The slides to accompany this presentation to DMU PGR students can be found here.

The session will focus on linking our individual use of social media to researcher development, through the Vitae RDF, and especially in terms of developing the following capabilities:

A1: Knowledge Base

B3: Professional and career development

C1: Professional conduct

D2: Communication and dissemination

The session will also demonstrate the potential of social media for academic practice/scholarship in public, and for co-operative, scholarly work. It will close with some considerations for future practice for PGR students.

Last week I emailed the 22 signed-up attendees with three questions. What follows are the responses from five DMU PGR students.

  • Which social media tools do you use?

RESPONSE: I currently use Facebook on a personal basis and LinkedIn on a professional basis.

RESPONSE: I don’t really use social media (except occasional work on Facebook and networking on LinkedIn).

RESPONSE: Mainly, I use social media (Facebook & Tumblr), but not for academic purposes.

RESPONSE: I use social media for personal use but intend to use Twitter mainly for my research to keep up to date with what other people in my field are doing and to promote my research.

NOTE: These responses made me consider issues of academic identity formation and boundaries between academic/professional practice and the Self/personal identity.

  • What do you use them to achieve in your academic work?

RESPONSE: I have been hearing about how I should be using twitter from a research/professional basis so am trying to increase my use of twitter now.

RESPONSE: I am connecting with other researchers, keeping an eye on hashtags such as #phdchat for useful information and contact with fellow phd students.

RESPONSE: I would really like to learn what platforms I should be using and how to use them best to engage for success in my phd. Am I doing the right things?

NOTE: These responses made me consider whether there are ever “right things” in research or in the use of specific tools for research? What are good enough approaches? They also made me consider the balance of time/investment and the development of social or cultural “capital” and what this means for practice.

  • What would you like to cover in the session or in a follow-up discussion?

RESPONSE: I’m very interested in how social media can contribute to participatory action research with young people and how it can be used to effectively disseminate research findings & recommendations in ways that can have an impact.

RESPONSE: Probably achieve some marketing of work/ideas and networking.

RESPONSE: I would be interested to understand how others successfully use social media for academic purposes. By successful, I mean more than just adding people into friends lists – for example: did they obtain research projects? did they enter networks that otherwise could not have taken part?

NOTE: These responses made me consider the relationships between social media and collective work across networks and research groups.

NOTE: In the session I will also ask participants to consider the following question.

  • What are the ramifications of your work being social?

The connections between the Vitae Researcher Development Framework and specific technologies are important.

For Knowledge Base (A1), which focuses on subject knowledge, research methods, academic literacy and so on, I will focus on the following.

For Professional and Career Development (B3), which focuses on career management, CPD, responsiveness, reputation and networking, I will focus on the following.

For Professional Conduct (C1), which focuses on Ethics, legal requirements, IPR and copyright, co-authorship, I will focus on the following.

For Communication and Dissemination (D2) I will focus on the following.

I will then look at some specific cases of how researchers have used social media and my interpretation of that use (or what I think is interesting/possible). These cses will include the following

  1. Tressie McMillan Cottom’s site that acts as a pivot for other engagements. The structure of the site enables ready access to a wealth of public scholarship, with pointes to “most read” work. There are also links to speaking/engagement events, as well as external content/multimedia. The site enables an understanding of the relationship between the public, social media and personal academic formation.
  2. Lucy Atkins adventures in EdTech, is a representation of a journey through a PhD. Lucy uses PhD notes grounded in verbs to articulate the process of the PhD, using a standard open technology. It then links to her Twitter feed to enable a public face at low cost.
  3. The transition through a PhD can be analysed through on-line engagements like #phdchat, and also the updates to networks like the Guardian HE Network. However there are also therapeutic networks for PGR students, and other support networks that relate not just to PhD study, but also to the precarious nature of labour in academia.
  4. There is a wealth of useful material on academic writing using social media, including seven reasons why academic blogging is valuable. The DMU Commons is a space for open writing at DMU.
  5. Social media can be used effectively for collective work/co-operation. Joss Winn’s site acts as a blog and a site for notes, as well as pointing to his academic writing, and presentations, but it also highlights the scholars that he follows, and his networks. This has reputational consequences.
  6. The use of social media enables alignment with research nodes/centres/projects, as witnessed by the DMU Centre for Pedagogic Research and the Digital Building Heritage project, both on the DMU Commons.
  7. The use of social media enables participation with user communities, for instance: the DMU Square Mile project on the Academic Commons; the Galaxy Zoo; and the RunCoCo project.
  8. These tools enable public Scholarship. See, for example: Melonie A. Fullick interviews Raul Pacheco-Vega; Doug Belshaw’s Never Ending Thesis; and The Social Science Centre.

There are some follow-on resources for attendees about work at DMU.

DMU Commons:

DMU/CELT Guidelines when using Social Media Technologies for Teaching

See also DMU Email, Internet and Social Media Policy: briefing; policy

DMU Library Copyright pages:

There are also some matters arising for PGR students to consider.

  • What is the balance between the intensity of reading/research needed for a PhD, versus the intensity of networking that you are willing to commit?
  • How risk averse do you *need* to be when working with social media?
  • How open do you *need* to be when working with social media, and with other researchers, students, research stakeholders, participants, supervisors and so on?
  • What is the balance between soft and hard publishing?
  • How do you use your networks to challenge your own orthodoxy/previously held views and conceptions?
  • What permissions do you need to use public or published stuff?
  • What permissions do you want to give your public or published stuff?
  • Think about your identity across disparate platforms. How coherent do you need it to be?
  • Think about being true, necessary and kind on-line.
  • Think about your e-safety, especially in terms of your personal relationships with those you know or don’t know, the institution/your funder, the State.

Slides 8-12 in the presentation are amended from “Social Media for Researchers” by Tanya Williamson and Louise Tripp at Lancaster University Library.

The presentation is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

reflections on the post-digital

In June 2009 the ‘52group’ gathered from across the Higher Education sector to consider the confluence of education and the digital. The result was a position paper entitled ‘Preparing for the postdigital era’. At the time the paper was largely met with a mixture of scepticism and confusion, a common response being “The digital hasn’t been superseded?”. Despite this, over the intervening years the term has slowly gained traction in educational contexts.

To what extent our original paper influenced the recent proliferation of the term is of course not clear but we see the concept being employed in various locations including last year’s SEDA conference: “Opportunities and challenges for academic development in a post-digital age” and a forthcoming conference hosted by Greenwich university: Flipping the Institution: Higher Education in the Post Digital Age. There are also numerous examples of the term casually making its way into strategic rhetoric in and around our institutions.

To mark the shift from Digital to Post-digital thinking members of the original ‘52group’ have each revisited the term to consider its definition and relevance five years on. This is my perspective.

An upcoming conference on the flipped university declares that we are living in a post-digital age that is

characterised by transitions of practice and redefining of the individual’s relationships with technology.

The conference seeks to address the question of “What does it mean for higher education to be in engaging in a post digital age? What does it mean for the learner of the future and of today?”

Since we met as the 52 Group back in 2009 the politics of austerity continues to subsume academic and student labour. The realities of this labour are less post-digital and more focused on the interrelationships between first, lives that are subsumed under the dictates of the productive economy, and second, the use of digital technology to proletarianise work. Digital technologies are used to enforce competition and financialisation, and drive the disciplinary control of data and debt, and this enforces widening inequalities inside higher education.

The process of proletarianisation is global, and is influenced both by national educational policy like indentured study and using HE as an export strategy, and internationally through the role of trade partnerships and innovations like MOOCs. Thus, we witness reports of adjunct professors who “don’t even earn the federal minimum wage”; and we witness postgraduate researcher-led committees that “have been pushing the[ir] University to honour the essential role that teaching assistants play in University life in the form of fair pay and treatment.”; and we witness self-imposed overwork as a form of self-harm; and we witness a documenting of the processes and pains of casualisation. As students and adjuncts are forced to sell themselves piecemeal they are forced to contend and compete globally. These proletarianised labourers are forced to compete as technological, entrepreneurial, and impactful. Their productive reality points to the future of the learner becoming that of a self-exploiting entrepreneur, beguiled by the promise of autonomy and ever-increasing standards of living, whilst in reality working longer and harder for lower rewards, whilst inequality widens on a global terrain. This echoes of Marx and Engel’s argument in the Communist Manifesto that competition and the expansion of value, driven by space-time compression across an international market, would proletarianise increasing amounts of work.

Across globalised HE, we witness zero-hours contracts, outsourcing, the need for collective action like the 3cosas, and so on. In a competitive, transnational educational market, academic labour rights will be threatened by the equalising pressures of transnational competition and productivity, which includes new forms of competition from private providers These might be rival organisations with degree-awarding powers, partnerships of accrediting organisations operating through MOOCs, or hedge funds providing venture capital for technologically-driven innovations. Here Will Davies’ recent work on neoliberalism is useful enables us to analyse capitalist work inside the flipped University, in light of self-exploiting entrepreneurial activity that is.

  • enacted through new combinations of technologies and practices to inject novelty into the circuits of capitalism;
  • operating through counter-acting norms that can never be stabilised;
  • rooted in a new productive environment that accommodates power: first in expanding the time-scale for returns; second in expanding the arena for competition; and
  • grounded in vision and desire.

The future of the learner is to be recalibrated as an entrepreneurial life, in order to widen the orbit of productive labour. In part, this is done through the individuated, technologised Self. It is also achieved through the entrepreneurial recalibration of the collective labourer. Critically, this means that universities as businesses are restructured for the production of surplus value, through organisational development, knowledge transfer, impact, technological innovation and so on. As the IT Consultancy Gartner notes:

Digitization is reducing labor content of services and products in an unprecedented way, thus fundamentally changing the way remuneration is allocated across labor and capital…. Mature economies will suffer most as they don’t have the population growth to increase autonomous demand nor powerful enough labor unions or political parties to (re-)allocate gains in what continues to be a global economy.

Those working in the University need to recover themselves from narratives of organising principles and curricula that are allegedly post-digital and flipped, in order to address the following.

  1. How might the notion of political decision-making or action be harnessed in ways that broaden the horizon of political possibility inside-and-beyond the University?
  2. How is it possible for individual agency and collective institutions to be criticized and re-imagined simultaneously, in order to overcome neoliberal narratives of technologised, self-exploiting entrepreneurial activity?

One possibility lies in the idea of the Commons and the praxis that emerges from commoning as a global idea of socialised solidarity, rooted in mass intellectuality and open co-operativism. This is a mechanism for framing a socially-useful higher education that recognises its own alienation. Refusing the post-digital, flipped proletarianisation of the University hinges on the creation of a ‘direct form of communal manifestations of life carried out in association with others – [that] are therefore an expression and confirmation of that social life’ (Marx on Private Property and Communism). This might be realised in spaces that incorporate increasingly alienated social forces in the global North, as well as those largely ignored in the global South. It demands a more mature discussion of the possibilities for pedagogic production as a social activity that are for-society rather than for-profit.

Further reflections on the Post-digital from members of the 52group:

Mark Childs:

Dave Cormier:

Lawrie Phipps:

David White:

Performance information and data-driven academic anxiety

ONE. Performance information: signalisation and dressage

Data is the bleeding edge. Follow the data to see where education is being cracked for value. Follow the data to see who is doing the cracking. Follow the data to see who is engaged in this process of enforced, public and open, educational data production. Follow the data to see who is then enclosing and commodifying that open and public data for profit. Follow the data to see who is selling and re-selling new services back into open and public spaces, and charging rents for them. Follow the data to see the transnational networks of dispossession that are using secondary policy, processes of entrepreneurialism, debt and indentured study, financialisation, and the assault on labour rights, to lever value.

And I am reminded of all this because Martin Eve pointed me to this University of Nottingham video on performance information. Not learning analytics. Not management information, but performance information. The disciplining of academic labour, where that labour is the work of both staff and students. Sold back to us as what students want, because their expectations have changed. Sold back to us in terms of progression and retention. Sold back to us as the new-normal.

Performance information sold back to us. The new normal. Dashboarding for success. For a moment I forgot myself and I read that as “waterboarding [academic labour] for success”.

TWO. I remember…

And I remember that I have thought about this in terms of student debt, big data and academic alienation, arguing that “the mechanisms by which established hierarchies maintain their power through financialisation and information-sharing need to be described, and alternative positions developed.”

And I remember that I have thought about this in terms of globalisation and the University, arguing that “the key is to understand how technology-driven innovations relate to the globally-hegemonic fraction of transnational, finance capital. This is critical because these innovations are not outside the circuits or cycles of globally mobile capital. Thus, these innovations further reduce the technical constraints or barriers to the reproduction of capital and its valorisation/accumulation processes, just as they revolutionise the transportation, interaction, production and consumption of individuals with (intellectual or cognitive) commodities/products.”

And I remember that I have thought about this in terms of circuits of affect and resistance, arguing that “social relations are increasingly structured by technically-mediated organisations like schools and the University, which then re-inscribe socio-political hierarchies that are increasingly technological, coercive and exploitative. This coercive and exploitative set of characteristics is driven by the competitive dynamics of capitalism, and especially the ways in which the socially necessary character of the labour-power expended in producing a particular commodity or innovation or technology is diminished over-time. This reduces the value of knowledge and specific immaterial skills in the market, resulting in a persistent demand to innovate, to become entrepreneurial or to hold and manage proprietary or creative skills.

And I remember that I have thought about this in terms of the domination of time and the liberation of a pedagogical alliance, arguing that “flows of management information like psychometric test outcomes and workload data, performance metrics like retention and progression data, and enriched use of technologies to manage research and teaching, attempt to reduce all academic activities to flows that take place in real-time, through structures that are always-on, with feedback and inputs that are “just in time”. As a result the University, like any other capitalist business, attempts to abolish time. Technologies and techniques are designed to accelerate production, to remove labour-related barriers, and to destroy the friction of circulation time.”

And I remember that I have thought about this in terms of money, labour and academic co-operation, arguing that “This is a clear manifestation of the subsumption of academic research, in particular about progression into higher education and about pedagogic practice, for policy that is based on re-engineering society for market principles. Whilst networks exist (here from policy maker to think-tank) to promote those privatised principles in spaces that were/are publically-regulated, funded and governed, a critical question is whether it is possible to nurture networks that push-back against this hegemonic position? ”

And I remember that I have thought about this in terms of research and the circuit of impact, arguing that “Inside the University, impact signals compulsion that is itself self-harming behaviour, and then enforces dressage in the name of power. This point was made at Governing Academic Life by Michael Power, in his focus on the role of impact in acting as a form of governance over academic labour. He argued that impact was an open and public closure of what can be discussed and produced, in order that a governance/command structure for value production could be imposed. Here metrics and investment interact to forms a circuit of capital rooted in academic production, with that productive power of research being disciplined through signalisation that then imposes a form of dressage… we are witnessing the attempt by finance and commercial capital to synchronise production with their own circuits. This is an uncomfortable symbiosis, as those of us engaged in a higher education that is being restructured by the dictates of finance capital and a new market can attest.”

And I remember that I have thought about this in terms of the proletarianisation of the University, arguing that “This is the relationship between labour-power and subsumption/accumulation across areas of work that were previously regarded as beyond the market. What is revealed in this process is the dispossession of individual and collective autonomy and time. The autonomy that is dispossessed relates to what can be produced and the process of production. The time that is dispossessed is both the present and the future that is foreclosed as it is alienated. This alienated labour-power is scrubbed clean of its usefulness beyond that dictated in the market by metrics, impact and satisfaction. What emerges is the substitution of that alienated labour-power for that which was previously locally-bargained, with control over the means of production residing transnationally rather than at a local level.”

THREE. What a mess.

This matters because we are now being taught about innovation spillovers by HM Government, and the explicit value of education to the wider economy. We are told that:

the share of hours worked by highly skilled employees is positively linked to almost all of the measures of productivity, profits and trade performance. Expenditure on training is associated with increased labour productivity at the enterprise level. Purchases of goods and/or services from the Education sector (comprising schools, and further and higher education institutions) increases labour productivity at the sector level, total factor productivity at both the sector and enterprise level, and the ratio of exports to output at the sector level. Exposure to spillovers from education purchases is negatively correlated with labour productivity but positively and significantly correlated with all the other performance variables. (p. 15)

And we already know that we have transnational corporations working with HMG or HEFCE to open-up UK higher education in the name of efficiency, like Pearson or Goldman Sachs.

And we already know that Universities UK are driving data-driven change in the name of a smarter, stronger sector.

And we already know that RAND Europe and Ranmore consulting have been working with HEFCE and the Leadership Foundation for HE, for example on impact metrics and the REF.

And we already know of the work around Britain’s “Emergent Corporate Universities”: Academia in the Service of International Capital and the Military Industrial Complex.

Happy days.

FOUR. Data and anxiety: does it really have to be this way?

In her excellent essay on the anxieties of big data, Kate Crawford argues:

Already, the lived reality of big data is suffused with a kind ofsurveillant anxiety — the fear that all the data we are shedding every day is too revealing of our intimate selves but may also misrepresent us. Like a fluorescent light in a dark corridor, it can both show too much and not enough. Anxiety, as Sianne Ngai has written, has a temporality that is future oriented: it is an expectation emotion, and the expectation is generally of risk, exposure, and failure. British group Plan C in their blistering manifesto “We Are All Very Anxious” argue that anxiety is the dominant affect of our current phase of capitalism, engendering political hopelessness, insecurity, and social separation.

The current mythology of big data is that with more data comes greater accuracy and truth. This epistemological position is so seductive that many industries, from advertising to automobile manufacturing, are repositioning themselves for massive data gathering. The myth and the tools, as Donna Haraway once observed, mutually constitute each other, and the instruments of data gathering and analysis, too, act as agents that shape the social world. Bruno Latour put it this way: “Change the instruments, and you will change the entire social theory that goes with them.” The turn to big data is a political and cultural turn, and we are just beginning to see its scope.

Overcoming anxiety with anonymity then becomes the thing, as Tiqqun argue. This is the very ability to define a subjectivity beyond the hegemonic control of data as experience:

Establishing a zone of opacity where people can circulate and experiment freely without bringing in the Empire’s information flows, means producing “anonymous singularities,” recreating the conditions for a possible experience, an experience which will not be immediately flattened out by a binary machine assigning a meaning/direction to it, a dense experience that can transform desires and the moments where they manifest themselves into something beyond desire, into a narrative, into a filled-out body.

In her outstanding Ph.D. thesis on “The State Machine : politics, ideology, and computation in Chile, 1964-1973”, Jessica Miller Medina highlighted how the Allende Government in Chile attempted to utilize technology and data (through cybernetics) to create a new representation of society beyond the market, using different, co-operative organizing principles. The key for Miller Medina was to describe

not just a technological history but a history of the changing social networks that connected these technologies to the function of the state and its management (p. 17).

Moreover, her work reminds us to see the technological and technocratic ideas of Gartner and Willetts as means to “solidify a particular articulation of the state that was supported by new claims to legitimate power” (p. 96). Thus, she quotes Allende (p. 252) arguing for democratic renewal:

We set out courageously to build our own [cybernetic] system in our own spirit. What you will hear about today is revolutionary – not simply because this is the first time it has been done anywhere in the world. It is revolutionary because we are making a deliberate effort to hand to the people the power that science commands, in a form in which the people can themselves use it.

To use data beyond the market and beyond financialisation. To use data for co-operative performance beyond the market and beyond financialisation. To resist the co-option of data for impact and performance management. If you work in UK HE, good luck with that.