The university is not ‘shut’

Of the many things the COVID-19 crisis has highlighted about higher education, two have become very apparent to me over the last couple of weeks: 

  1. The notion of ‘university’ is still, for the most part, linked to a set of buildings.
  2. Language is largely embodied – we struggle to express how we interact online in a non deficit manner.

This thinking was sparked by my vexation at theCoronavirus: Students to pay full tuition fees even if universities are shut headline in a recent article in the Times. The full article is behind a paywall so I can’t comment on that. The headline, however, rather negates all the hard work of staff and students who are actively working together online. At my institution the majority of us are busier than ever and we have plenty of examples of attendance and engagement improving as compared to a ‘normal’ term.  

It’s not the same experience but it’s not ‘shut’

Clearly, for those students expecting campus-based activities the experience has become limited. My eldest son ‘took issue’ (he’s a first-year History and Politics student at Sheffield University) with my critical retweet of the Times story. His point was that even though his course is online he is missing out on student life, so for him university is ‘shut’ as a cultural experience (I also can’t go to the pub but I do understand what he means :). Those institutions that were not already operating online had quite a task just moving a viable curriculum online. The social, cultural and ‘ambient’ aspects of university don’t automatically appear as a side effect of curriculum online – they have to be designed in.  

Similarly, many of the students at my institution rightly expected to be able to undertake all manner of tactile and embodied making and performance practices. While some of the learning around these practices can be undertaken online there is no digital equivalence for the tactile, for the feel of different materials or the experience of various spaces. It is also difficult to create those moments of serendipity and inspiration which come from wandering around a building which is full of creative ideas and work. I miss all of that, but I don’t think my university is ‘shut’.

The need for non-deficit language

We have to start finding better ways of talking about online teaching and learning which are not poor echos of physical paradigms if we are ever to break the ‘deficit-by-default’ conceptualisation of digital in education. This is going to be crucial as the Times headline suggests that students will not be willing to pay full fees while universities are thought of as ‘shut’. At a teaching focused university a significant portion of fees goes on paying teaching and support staff who will be working just as many hours online as they would have been in a normal term. If we can’t acknowledge this just because we aren’t in the same building then the whole sector is going to struggle during COVID-19 and beyond.

The Global (viral) Village

Back in the day, when the internet was a place of hope, upbeat phrases abounded such as: Information SuperHighway and Web Surfing. The Coronavirus has illuminated the fruition and implications of one of these classic West Coast style phrases, The Global Village.

Thought experiment

To explore this idea I’m not going to claim any solid evidence or analysis but would like to pose a question: “How has access to the Web influenced the UK population’s response to the Coronavirus?”

I suggest that without access to an abundance of information on the spread of the virus and national responses beyond the UK we would not be ahead of Public Health England’s timings on social distancing and the closing of institutions. I also suspect we would be seeing less panic buying and less anxiety about a ‘lack of action’. 

To be clear, I’m not commenting on the rights and wrongs of any course of action. I only wish to explore the influence of the Web as a global network. 

By https://www.pixilart.com/santaclawswolf

It’s a big heap of everything – like a village.

One of the aspects of the Web which makes it so difficult to make sense of is that it’s always operating in multiple, intersecting modes. For example, what we see on a daily basis online is a chaotic mix of official announcements and total speculation. We see complex data next to pure antidote – published ‘fact’ interwoven with conversation and gossip. The traditional demarcation of ‘information’ and ‘speculation’ by notions of public and private has dissolved. Just like a village, word travels fast and the community decides how to respond whatever the leaders might be saying. 

If we wind back around 20 years then we would be receiving news of the virus mainly through broadcast and print media.There were news websites back then but they tended to operate in a broadcast mode. In 2000 around 26% of the UK had a connection compared to over 96% today and, of course, there was no Social Media to speak of. The information environment was largely as it had been for the preceding 60 years or so with institutions we trusted conveying the ‘truth’ of events. 

While broadcast media would have given us a sense of what was happening ‘abroad’ it would have seemed more remote and any scare mongering would have been done by outlets which were known to do this as a matter of course. Even as the virus appeared in the UK it’s difficult to imagine mass panic buying of toilet paper before any state of emergency had been called.

It’s a two-way street

One of the main factors in the ‘it’s a big heap of everything’ effect is that anyone with a connection can publish. This means that the Web is a powerful communication network for ‘us’ as well as ‘them’ – however you want to ascribe that distinction. As such, if an institution wants to cancel events ahead of official advice then it can, and at negligible cost in terms of communication. 

We have access to an abundance of hybrid, village-like information. We also have the means to take mass action – a shout from the village green which can reach tens of thousands. There is no need to go through official channels, so we can both decide and respond without the nod from the institutions which used to control-the-message.

What is Rome? – Whatever it is, it has blurrier edges now.

My hope is that we will respond to the effects of the The Global Village coming to pass by collectively admitting that the biggest challenges we face do not respect national borders. So far, on a national level, our membership of this Global Village and the complex world it reveals has amplified our desire to run back to simple, often negatively defined, forms of identity. When the virus is past its peak and we have done all we can to keep people safe will we better understand that our planet is now more of a village than a collection of nations?


Digital-magic and Power

Finding ways to articulate the flow of political and personal power online is inherently complex because it takes place across numerous contexts and at the intersection of many conceptual territories. Identity, gender, culture, class, to name a few, which then have to be considered within, or through, the lens of networks, hierarchies, communities, factions, nations, and so on.

Nevertheless, it’s crucial that we don’t let this complexity obscure the actions of those that seek power through manipulation, fear and coercion. Recently we have seen these modes of power acquisition move into the public, some would say civic, spaces of the Web. This post introduces a paper I co-wrote with Richard Reynolds which explores the visible, or surface, aspects of manipulation and control via the network. It does not deal with the undertow of algorithms and bots but with ‘magical’ modes of rhetoric which the disintermediated orality of Social Media makes effective at a scale we haven’t previously witnessed.

Last year Richard invited me to speak at his ‘Politics and Social Media’ event at Central St Martins which is part of the University of the Arts London. Richard opened the day with a talk on ‘Politics, Social Media and the Practice of Ritual Magic’ focusing on Trump’s use of Twitter and I followed by discussing ‘Trust and Digital Politics’.

There was an obvious resonance between our talks, so after the event we put together a paper combining our positions. We have struggled to find a home for this paper through traditional academic or journalistic routes as it doesn’t sit well in either camp so we humbly offer it here in its current, tidy-but-not-peer-reviewed state:

Politics, Social Media and Practical Magic_Reynolds White 

We have attempted present some of the shifting relationships between reason, belief and power in the networked era without falling into hard definitions real or fake. We are simply exploring ways of understanding the complex interplay of politics, celebrity and power as they are played-out through Social Media.

https://www.flickr.com/photos/37709691@N05/8692494129

Recently I have been strolling around the fringes of the Engagement in a time of Polarization ‘pop-up MOOC’ course, facilited by Dr. Natalie Delia Deckard and Dr. Bonnie Stewart. Through this I have found some great readings, including The Problem with Facts by Tim Harford. His article is a good companion piece to our paper as also discusses the way we tend to respond to certain modes of language in a non-rational manner:

“Several studies have shown that repeating a false claim, even in the context of debunking that claim, can make it stick. The myth-busting seems to work but then our memories fade and we remember only the myth. The myth, after all, was the thing that kept being repeated. In trying to dispel the falsehood, the endless rebuttals simply make the enchantment stronger.”

I think it’s important to accept that we all respond to the mythical as some level and that, unchecked, this can lead to intolerance and polarisation. Personally, I celebrate faith-based forms of understanding, wonder and fellowship. I hope by acknowledging that I’m not especially rational I can be more conscious of the ideological and belief-based manner in which I construct my worldview.

For me, this isn’t about not holding a position, it’s about being aware of my position and respecting those that differ. Crucially, it’s also about being able to identify when you are being sold a line which allows you to negatively stoke your identity (I’m in the right because I’m not like them, for example) while simultaneously feeding the power of those doing the selling.   

 

Richard, myself and others will be continuing our exploration of power in the digital era at ‘The Search for Privacy and Truth’ Steamhack event on 23th March. If you are near Central St Martins then do come along. (contact me for details)

Politics and Social Media

Recently I was invited to speak at a hack event on Politics and Social Media for our Culture and Enterprise Programme at Central Saint Martins (the description of the event is below). The event was designed and facilitated by Richard Reynolds the course leader of the MA Applied Imagination in the Creative Industries (one of my favourite course titles of all time). Richard opened the day with a talk entitled “Politics, Social Media and the Practice of Ritual Magic” in which he made the distressingly convincing argument that Trump operates much like a magician or tribal mystic and his Tweets are in the form of ritual incantations.

I followed Richard with a talk on Trust and Digital Politics, in which I started by stating:

Not Trump – How Trump?

It’s easy to critique or satirise an individual but, following on from Richard’s talk, much more interesting to explore the factors that allowed Trump to gain and maintain power – especially as unless these conditions change we will see a succession of Trump-like leaders emerging in the West.

In terms of Trust I argued that the Digital has allowed us to Disintermediate institutions. The Web allows Trump to pronounce directly to ‘the people’ via Twitter, circumventing the media, the government and his own party.

A disintermediating Tweet.

Our trust tended to be placed in institutions which resonated with our values and we’d have faith, to a certain extent, that those institutions had integrity. Until recently political leaders in the West would represent or embody those institutions. Increasingly we see the emergence of the celebrity, or media, politician who uses political institutions as a vehicle for their persona.This is an inevitable effect of the cult-of-the-individual that the Web amplifies so efficiently.  So we have lost the trust-mechanism of institutions which, for better or worse, represented identifiable ideologies and are now left with individuals whose primary aim is to seek power. (The struggles of Jeremy Corbyn in the UK are demonstrative of this shift away from ideologically focused politics towards new forms of political persona)

The video of my talk starts from this point so I won’t essay it all out here.

[embedyt] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AydoQtqM2Wg[/embedyt]

Ultimately, I agree with Paul Mason in his assertion that much of what we are experiencing can be understood as a “fight between network and hierarchy” which has been brought about by digital technology:

Paul Mason

I see this fight taking place in education as much as in politics as we respond to the all pervasiveness of the Web. This was writ large for me as I prepared a session on Networked Learning for our Postgraduate Certificate Academic Practice in Art, Design and Communication. In a description of Connectivism George Siemens’ highlights the same tension between networks and hierarchies.

Hierarchy imposed structure, while networks reflect structure.

The challenge for us is in negotiating the relationship between network and hierarchy. Institutions embed and petrify power in structures which privilege particular groups. Networks tend to generate ‘mystics’ and ‘high priests’  who could, if they wished, operate without the balance hierarchical democracy can, but often doesn’t, bring.  (A phenomenon I’ve seen occur within Connectivist courses). It’s complex, fascinating, and requires our immediate attention.

 

 


A WORLD OF OUR OWN: POLITICS and SOCIAL MEDIA

“The Future of Trust in Digital Politics”

(event description by Richard Reynolds)

Many of us are living in a post-truth world, a world defined by ‘alternative facts’. The Brexit referendum and its aftermath have been shaped by irrational trolling and online ranting. President Trump tweets his policy decisions. Terrorists and other outlawed groups use – or attempt to use – the same online platforms as government agencies. States wage hybrid warfare, and use online disinformation as a tool in their blended online/offline military strategies. Access to news is shaped and distorted by each individual’s known tastes and preferences. Citizens have uploaded their political life and identity, and sometimes struggle to make any connection back to the politics of the offline world.

It’s scarcely necessary to describe the impact that social media is having on politics. We only have to look at the outcomes of elections, referendums and other political conflicts around the world. More than simply a tool, Social Media has changed the way that politicians structure their careers, and the ways in which voters (and non-voters) engage with politics and respond to political debates. Social Media has become central to the ways in which governments articulate and impose the power of the state over its citizens.

On Friday 24 March and Saturday 25 March, the Culture and Enterprise Programme at Central Saint Martins will be hosting a two-day immersive conference and hackathon on the future of politics and social media. Expert guests will be sharing their views on the present and future role of Social Media in our political life. All delegates will have the opportunity to participate in a two-day interactive group project, which will attempt to answer the question: ‘What is the future of trust in digital politics?’