Tag: society (page 1 of 4)

Why It’s Time to Let Go of ‘Meritocracy’ [DML Central]

My latest post for DML Central was published yesterday. Entitled Why It’s Time to Let Go of ‘Meritocracy’, it’s an attempt to explain why a belief in something most people see as unproblematic can actually lead to unforeseen issues.

A sample:

Building an education system around ‘meritocracy’ as it is commonly used post-Thatcher may be a function of those in power being so privileged that they are not in a position to see their own privilege. Those who have never witnessed people having to work three jobs to keep their family afloat may not understand why parents can’t do more to coach their children through an entrance examination.

Click here to read the post in full.

I’ve closed comments here so that you can add yours to the original post. I’d be keen to hear your thoughts!

Cashing in on your privilege

Earlier this week I came across Seth Godin writing on the truth about admissions to elite universities. I’m not sure where he got his data, but it would be difficult to argue against his central point:

What would happen if we spent more time on carefully assembling the pool of ‘good enough’ and then randomly picking the 5%?

[…]

It’s difficult for the picked, for the pickers and for the institutions to admit, but if you don’t have proof that picking actually works, then let’s announce the randomness and spend our time (and self-esteem) on something worthwhile instead.

Entrance to many professions and walks of life is far from being the result of a strict meritocracy. I think we’d all accept that.

Thinking about this further, I remembered a Twitter conversation I’d had with Mozilla contributor Stefan Bohacek. Over a series of tweets he took issue with a short post I’d written entitled $1 for the X, $9,999 for the expertise. In it, I’d quoted a (probably apocryphal) story about Tesla and Edison.

Well I just totally disagree with what the person is saying. Just because you cashed in on your privilege and spent a few years in college, it doesn’t necessarily mean you should make more than people who didn’t. Salaries need to be completely rethought. Do sports player and actors deserve vastly more money than teachers? If I want to have a comfortable life, I have to become a brain surgeon or start my own company? Who is going to bag our groceries and cut our hair once everyone is a lawyer? I agree — value is hard to measure. But the way it’s usually measured nowadays is completely wrong.

I still have reservations about salaries being centrally controlled via some kind of planned economy. However, the phrase ‘cashing in on your privilege’ has haunted me these past few months.

The phrase has stuck with me and been nagging at the back of my mind as it explains a lot of what I’ve seen as a teacher, as a parent, and as an participant-observer in our society. It’s the reason why, even as a political ‘centrist’  I oppose private schooling and believe that inheritance tax should pretty much be set at 100%. Like the proverbial goldfish noticing ‘water,’ privilege is something that’s not usually observed by those enjoying it.

But the thing is, we’re all privileged in the West / global north. I was struck this week by some research Mozilla has been doing in Africa about mobile phone usage. There’s many excellent (scary) points in that report, but something that stands out is how careful people have to be about their data plans. Yet here I am walking down my local high street, able to get a free wifi connection via around 40% of shops I walk past. I don’t think twice about some of the things that people have to obsess over.

It begs the question: what would it like to do the opposite, to divest oneself of privilege? Would it be a life similar to elf Pavlik, someone (intentionally) moneyless and stateless for the past five years, working for the good of the world (and most certainly not profit)? Would it be to spend as much time as one is able volunteering to help those least fortunate in society? What about reverse-tithing your salary?

I have no answers here, only questions. In my head I’m a lot more radical, consistent in my views, and morally upstanding than I actually must appear to others. Perhaps we’re all like that, I don’t know. What I think we all need to do is to think carefully about what constitutes privilege. We’re always going to be less well off – financially, socially, emotionally – than others, but then to another group of people, we’re the ones who are well off.

Final point: it’s easy to give money. What’s really missing in the world is time, attention and care. There are thousands and thousands of people out there who didn’t have the parents or the education to build networks of people they can rely on and use reciprocally to build cultural capital.* That’s why I was so impressed with Bryan Mathers when I interviewed him recently. He’s providing a bridge for young people to do things they’re good at but otherwise wouldn’t have been able to achieve due to the obstacles unwittingly placed in their way by society.

So I’ve no real conclusion other than I’m going to try and find ways to help others in non-material ways. I’m not sure what that will look like but feel free to ask me in a few weeks/months what I’ve done to further that aim. Please.

Image CC BY-NC Dave Wild

* Listen to this excellent episode of BBC Radio 4’s Thinking Allowed.

Software with shareholders (or, the menace of private public spaces)

TL;DR: we’re using software with shareholders and interacting in private public spaces. We can do better than this.


Introduction

I live in Morpeth, Northumberland, a lovely market town in the north-east of England. It’s the kind of place that still has a vibrant high street and plenty of stuff going on. Somehow or other it’s survived the hollowing-out of places that seems to have accelerated since the 2008 economic crisis.

Offline private public spaces

Within Morpeth is a small shopping centre called Sanderson Arcade. It’s got shops like Marks & Spencer and Laura Ashley, piped music and a friendly, retro vibe. To help with this they employ men called Beadles, ostensibly to welcome people, give directions and lend an Edwardian air to the place. If you pay attention, however, the Beadles wear earpieces and both look and act a bit like bouncers. It’s then you begin to realise that one of the main reasons that they’re there is to keep out the riff-raff.

I’ve got no particular problem with Sanderson Arcade nor with the Beadles. I would be interested to see what would happen if a group wanted to stage a protest there. I guess they’d invoke the fact that it’s a private space pretty quickly. Still, there’s other places in Morpeth you could go to protest and still be seen and heard. Sanderson Arcade isn’t the only place people go, and the other spaces are owned communally. That’s what our taxes are for.

Online private public spaces

The problem comes when we apply what I’ve just described as a lens through which to understand what we do online. I suppose that, yes, we’re surveilled on CCTV within offline public private spaces. People can track what we purchase. We can answer survey questions about our shopping habits and lifestyle. But that’s where we hit the limits of the analogy. Online private public spaces are very different.

I came across this today. It’s the latest in a long list of examples demonstrating the amount of data Facebook collects on its users. And it’s not as if everyone is unaware that Facebook, at its very core, is a scary privacy-loathing service seeking to track as much about you as possible.  Once it has that information it sells it to the highest bidder. I like to think Google’s slightly better in this regard, but if I’m honest that’s only because I use Google’s services more than Facebook’s.

Almost every space in which we interact with other people online is a private public space. For me, Twitter and Google+ are prime examples. In the past we’ve been reassured by Google’s mantra of “don’t be evil” and how people in Iran and Egypt used Twitter to rise up against their oppressors. The reality is that both of these companies are now companies in which you can buy stock. They need to deliver shareholder value.

The problem

I’m increasingly leaning away from using software that has shareholders and leaning towards alternatives. I’m writing this on a Chromebook with Ubuntu 14.04 installed, for example. One of the things that’s great about non-profits making software is that they can innovate on behalf of users, rather than in ways that will increase market capitalization.

The problem we’ve got is that to interact with other people you need a means of communicating with them. When everyone’s physically co-located you can use your voice. If the place you’re in is unwelcoming or not to your liking then you can all decamp and move elsewhere. This is not the case when you’ve got a network of thousands of people distributed around the world. It’s quite likely that the only means you’ve got of contacting one another is through a single privately-owned platform.

I’ve toyed with the idea of closing my Twitter and Google+ accounts many times over the past few years. The problem with that is that it would affect me professionally. Not only are they spaces from which I gather a lot of information to do my job, but they’re spaces where other people find out about my work. You can’t do good in the world as a knowledge worker if no-one knows what you’ve been doing.

Our response

So what can we do? It’s not a problem for us to solve as individuals, but something for us to do collectively. And the call to action can’t be protect your privacy! because, to be quite honest, people don’t seem to care. Technically-minded people think that building a version of Twitter or Facebook or WhatsApp but with public-key encryption will see users flocking to their site. Well, here’s a newsflash for you: no they won’t. They’ll trade privacy for convenience.

Instead, we need to work at a meta level and do some systems thinking. Here’s a bad idea: try to get everyone to switch from Twitter to IRC. Here’s a good idea: work on creating a compelling way for users to bring their own data and authentication to services. Unhosted seems to be on the right track with that. Just because things have failed previously (OpenID!) doesn’t mean they’ll necessarily fail again.

Of course, the meta meta level problem centres around online business models that aren’t dependent upon advertising. Providing free services and selling user data is the high-fructose corn syrup of the internet. While we in the west might tolerate paying for services, many of those getting online for the first time in developing countries know nothing but Facebook Zero.

Conclusion

Things change. The tech world used to be full of people resisting The Man; the discourse was around connecting people and envisaging new possibilities. Now, however, we have a tech elite with control of the spaces in which we interact. If you don’t understand the potential implications of this, then you might want to dig a little deeper into the NSA revelations and read Dave Eggers’ The Circle. That will open your eyes.

Public spaces should be public and commonly-owned. Perhaps it’s time for governments to stop fawning over billionaires with technical skills and start providing services for all of us. Maybe instead of dismantling the state to allow for private profit, we can use technology to create a more egalitarian and just society. And could we, just for once, use technology in ways other than shoring up the privilege of the one per cent?

Image CC BY Nathan O’Nions

Some thoughts on time, performativity, and the State.

Whenever I come across a longer article via Twitter, Zite, Feedly, Google+ or the other places that I browse headlines, I add it to my Pocket account. The advantage of doing this is not only that I can read those articles at my leisure (such as when I’m on a train journey) but also that the app formats them in a way that’s actually readable.

........................................ .....................denbora berdea...

A while ago I added an article entitled Time Wars to my Pocket account. It’s by ‘leading radical blogger and professor Mark Fisher’ and is about the neo-liberal assault on time. I found it fascinating. You should go and read it.

In the UK at the moment we have the situation where the government has declared war on public sector pay and pensions. It’s dressed up to look like something different, of course, but even a quick peek behind the curtains reveals how ministers manipulate the levers in a futile attempt to make taxpayer-funded institutions cost the government less.

Unfortunately, the ideology of the Conservative government (let’s face it, the Liberals aren’t doing much despite their coalition) is predicated upon a lazy idea of the market as the solution to every problem facing society. Climate change? Carbon trading! NHS costs rising? Bring in private providers! Educational ‘standards’ not improving fast enough? De-regulate everything!

The logic of Capital is everywhere. One very prominent and obvious effect of this is the increasingly casualised and temporary jobs on offer. Who has a permanent job with a guaranteed final salary pension these days? Which of us spend more than five years with the same employer? Where are the ‘good’ jobs (the ones that my Grandmother talks about) for graduates?

At the most simple level, precarity is one consequence of the “post-Fordist” restructuring of work that began in the late 1970s: the turn away from fixed, permanent jobs to ways of working that are increasingly casualised. Yet even those within relatively stable forms of employment are not immune from precocity. Many workers now have to periodically revalidate their status via systems of “continuous professional development”; almost all work, no matter how menial, involves self-surveillance systems in which the worker is required to assess their own performance. Pay is increasingly correlated to output, albeit an output that is no longer easily measurable in material terms.

Of course, there are massive benefits to the casualisation of labour. For example, I now work variable hours from home as part of a team that spans at least five timezones. I get to choose when to take my holidays. My performance is based upon my output rather than the number of hours I spend at my desk.

But, there’s a creeping performative element to all of this. When you can work any time of the day, it’s tempting to work   more, not less – especially when you’re dealing with things you’re interested in. I’m fortunate in that I work for Mozilla, whose politics and communitarian approach correlate strongly with my own. But if I didn’t work for a non-profit (or a forward-thinking organisation such as Valve) then I think I’d be looking over my shoulder all the time. Self-regulation and censorship, as George Orwell showed in 1984 is regulation and censorship of the worst kind.

The casualisation of labour is great for those working in what is loosely (and imprecisely) defined as ‘the knowledge economy’. Give me a laptop and an internet connection and I can work anywhere. Others, however, depend upon being physically co-located with others to earn their money. Whilst the uncertainty that goes hand-in-hand with casualisation is great for those working in the knowledge economy, it’s a definite downside to those who can’t decide where and when they’re going to work. In fact, all they get is the downside, the uncertainty.

Uncertainty is a negative side effect that some of us are willing to live with because of the positives on the flip side of the coin. But that flip side largely doesn’t exist for those who rely on physical co-location to do their jobs. I’m thinking teachers. I’m thinking doctors and nurses and hospital staff. I’m thinking pretty much every job in the public sector. These aren’t occupations that we should be looking to casualise: we should be making people in these positions feel more secure, not less:

The neoliberal attacks on public services, welfare programmes and trade unions mean that we are increasingly living in a world deprived of security or solidarity. The consequence of the normalisation of uncertainty is a permanent state of low-level panic. Fear, which attaches to particular objects, is replaced by a more generalised anxiety, a constant twitching, an inability to settle.

Everything that can be outsourced to the market in our brave new Big Society is packaged up and sold to the highest bidder. Witness the G4S Olympic security debacle, for example. At the same time, training and career development is also outsourced to the market. Instead of taxpayer-funded institutions such as hospitals and schools developing and keeping experienced, knowledgeable staff we’re increasingly faced with uncertain, temporary workers representing third-party organisations. Any ‘innovation’ within such organisations by necessity has to be top-down, as the mechanisms for grassroots innovation are stymied by HR practices:

The reality, however, is that innovation requires certain forms of stability. The disintegration of social democracy has had a dampening, rather than a dynamic, effect on culture in highly neoliberalized countries such as the UK. Frederic Jameson’s claims that late capitalist culture would be given over to pastiche and retrospection have turned out to be extraordinarily prophetic.

I’m not arguing for full communism now. Nor am I advocating a King Canute-style position against the incoming tide. What I am questioning, however, is whether the logic of Capital and private enterprise should be applied to the institutions of our state. Some things, after all, are public goods.

I’ll end where Mark Fisher’s article starts, commenting only that we live in an increasingly polarised society where the haves get to choose what the have-nots get to do with their time:

Time rather than money is the currency in the recent science fiction film In Time. At the age of 25, the citizens in the future world the film depicts are given only a year more to live. To survive any longer, they must earn extra time. The decadent rich have centuries of empty time available to fritter away, while the poor are always only days or hours away from death.

Go and read the article. It’s worth it, trust me. 🙂

Image CC BY-SA Mr. Theklan

Investing in infrastructure: does it work?

Chicago from the air

Yesterday the government announced a combination of public and private funding, a £30 billion investment in the UK’s infrastructure (transport, hospitals, schools, etc.) The private funding would probably come from pension funds and Chinese investment, and it’s anticipated that the public funding will come from cuts to the tax credits system. They’re hoping (and it is a hope) that this will stimulate the economy and provide economic growth.

Earlier this year James Paul Gee, a big advocate of games-based learning, wrote a post entitled 10 Truths About Books and What They Have to Do With Video Games. It included these nuggets:

 3. For good learning, books require talk and social interaction with others around interpretation and implications. 5.   Books can make you smart by supplying vicarious experience, new ideas, and something to debate and think about.

6. Books are often best used as tools for problem solving, not just in and for themselves.

8. Just giving people books does not make them smarter; it all depends on what they do with them and who they do it with. For young people, it depends, too, on how much and how well they get mentored. Mentoring is, in fact, crucial.

10. Books tend to make the “rich” richer and the poor “poorer” (those who read more in the right way get to be better and better readers and get more and more out of reading; those who don’t, get to be poorer and poorer readers and get less and less out of reading. The former get more successful, the latter, less). This is called “the Matthew Principle.”

What happens if instead of ‘books’ we talk about ‘infrastructure’ in the above examples? I’d argue that the following is true:

  • Infrastructure can give people new experiences.
  • Infrastructure can be used to help solve social problems (especially social justice issues)
  • Infrastructure does not to lead to improved quality and efficiency in and of itself. It depends what people do with it.
  • Infrastructure tends to make the “rich” richer and the poor “poorer”. Those who have the social and cultural capital to make the most of the infrastructure improve and entrench their position.

The word ‘infrastructure’ can also be applied to the ‘hard’ stuff in educational institutions and especially the kind of educational technology that occupies much of my thinking time.

Time and time again over my (albeit relative short) career I’ve seen investment in educational infrastructure without the associated, necessary investment in people. Not only do we need to provide the kit, we need to invest in skills. In fact, it’s more than that, we need to go beyond training and give people the space to be creative and innovative – job security and hope for the future being a good place to start with the latter. That’s why so many public sector workers are striking tomorrow.

I agree that investing in infrastructure is important. But investing in people, for all kinds of reasons, is crucial.

Image CC SA dsearls

Robots: the elephant(s) in the room?

Robots!Almost every sci-fi film you will ever see will feature some kind of robot. In some of these robots can be a force for good (WALL-E), in some a force for bad (I, Robot) and in some, just a fact of life in the future (Star Wars). The trouble is that the environments these cinematic robots inhabit seems distant from our present reality. The question I want to pose in this post is what happens to society when robots become part of the fabric?

One of the films I’ve already mentioned, I, Robot, is a dystopian vision of how things could go spectacularly wrong. Surrogates is another, potentially even more problematic, vision. In line with my previous post on growing inequalities in global society, I want to consider what would happen if robots became good enough to carry out more of the human jobs that currently attract the lowest levels of renumeration. In other words, what happens when the financial elite can obtain ‘efficiency savings’ by employing robots instead of paying minimum wage to some of the poorest in our society?

We have a historical precedent for people who violently oppose technological innovation. In the 19th century a loosely-organised group of people collectively known as Luddites smashed machines that made it easier, quicker and cheaper to produce textiles. Although I don’t condone their violence (they attempted to assassinate factory owners) I’m in full agreement that ‘efficiency’ is less important than human welfare. So who thinks it’s a safe bet that the first wave of robots to take (visible) jobs from humans will be set-upon and destroyed? I do. In countries like the USA where guns are a normal part of society this could lead to robot owners arguing that they should be able to arm them to protect their investment. If that happens, it’s armageddon time.

And what about education? If you consider learning to be akin to knowledge transfer, then before Matrix-style human brain ‘upgrades’ become commonplace, some states/countries will seriously consider using robots to teach children. Japan will be first, no doubt. Unless we undergo a transformation in our collective thinking, we will end up sending our children to institutions with high fences to drill-and-practice skills that are not needed now, never mind in 2020 and beyond. Sometimes it’s good to investigate the thick end of the wedge to test our intuitions.

Part of the problem is that our view of human flourishing is based on a scientific rationality that, at its logical extreme culminates in us ‘uprading’ ourselves to be functionally indistinguishable from robots. When I mentioned this to Louise Thomas from the RSA recently she said that something similar to this forms the basis of one of Iain M. Banks’ novels. I shall have to investigate. All in all, I think that not only do I think we need a conversation about the purpose(s) of education, but we also need a conversation about what it means to be human. People will do what they can get away with, what it is socially acceptable to do, what gives them a competitive advantage. Once robots become involved, things get serious on a whole new level. And I haven’t even mentioned robots for security, warfare and policing… 😮

Image CC BY-NC-SA STCroiss

Building a better future (despite the 1%)

Occupy Global

When I was in New York recently I didn’t attend the Occupy Wall Street demonstrations. Whilst I respect the ideas behind the movement, I’m just not sure it’s achieving anything. The protest inspired by #occupyws in my nearest city of Newcastle is certainly a bit forlorn and is gently ridiculed by the media. What’s far more effective, I think, is to infiltrate and convert the mass media to the cause. Not only does this mean a much wider representation of the ideas behind what’s going on, but (hopefully) retains the purity of the message.

I can’t claim to have read widely on the literature around #occupy and their message that it’s the 1% of the population that are screwing it up for everyone else but this article in the Guardian by George Monbiot certainly includes a few home truths. Here are what I consider to be the highlights (my emphases):

If wealth was the inevitable result of hard work and enterprise, every woman in Africa would be a millionaire. The claims that the ultra-rich 1% make for themselves – that they are possessed of unique intelligence or creativity or drive – are examples of the self-attribution fallacy. This means crediting yourself with outcomes for which you weren’t responsible. Many of those who are rich today got there because they were able to capture certain jobs. This capture owes less to talent and intelligence than to a combination of the rutheless exploitation of others and accidents of birth, as such jobs are taken disproportionately by people born in certain places and into certain classes.

In their book Snakes in Suits, Paul Babiak and Robert Hare point out that as the old corporate bureaucracies have been replaced by flexible, ever-changing structures, and as team players are deemed less valuable than competitive risk-takers, psychopathic traits are more likely to be selected and rewarded. Reading their work, it seems to me that if you have psychopathic tendencies and are born to a poor family, you’re likely to go to prison. If you have psychopathic tendencies and are born to a rich family, you’re likely to go to business school.

Chief executives now behave like dukes, extracting from their financial estates sums out of all proportion to the work they do or the value they generate, sums that sometimes exhaust the businesses they parasitise. They are no more deserving of the share of wealth they’ve captured than oil sheikhs.

Now they have almost bankrupted us. The wealth creators of neoliberal mythology are some of the most effective wealth destroyers the world has ever seen.

Whilst I agree with most of the ideas behind the above, one thing (perhaps because of space) that Monbiot doesn’t mention is that, financially, we in the west are pretty much all in the top 5% of the world’s richest people. I turn on a tap and water comes out. If I’m cold I turn up the heating. I can send my children to school for free. I don’t worry each day about violence to my family. I live in a democracy.

The trouble with messages such as ‘we are the 99%’ is that there exists huge disparity and diversity even within that figure. It comes across as mass individualistic protesting, with focus and definition provided by grouping around negative slogans rather than positive action. Whilst the 1% should be questioned and challenged, we all need to be doing more to create a fairer, more equitable society. Let’s not get carried away by political reductionism and slogans. We can do better than that. It’s trivially easy to retweet something or join a Facebook group, but what are we (myself included) actually doing over and above this to make this world a better place? I can’t help but think that marching and camping out isn’t enough any more. What (and where) are we building?

Image CC BY-NC Occupy Global

Bauman on inequality and the logic of capital.

Untitled

I’m going to present this without comment. It’s from Zygmunt Bauman’s recent interview that I quoted in a previous post.

Simon Dawes: And what do you make of the recent surge in interest in inequality, and the economic and environmental crises, that proposes de-growth, sustainable economies, post-capitalism or the continuing salience of communism as solutions to these problems?

Zygmunt Bauman: Poignantly and succinctly, the great Jose Saramago has already answered your question, pointing out that ‘people do not choose a government that will bring the market within their control; instead, the market in every way conditions government to bring the people within its control’ (2010).

I would say that the main, indeed ‘meta’, function of the goverment has become now to assure that is the meetings between commodities and the consumer, and credit issuers and the borrowers, that regularly take place (as with the government known to fight tooth and nail over every penny which the ‘underclass’, that is the ‘flawed (useless) consumers’, need to keep their bodies alive, but that now miraculously find hundred of billions of pounds or dollars to ‘re-capitalize the banks’, have recently proved; if proof were needed…)

Let me quote Saramago once more: ‘I would ask the political economists, the moralists, if they have already calculated the number of individuals who must be condemned to wretchedness, to overwork, to demoralization, to infantilization, to despicable ignorance, to insurmountable misfortune, to utter penury, in order to produce one rich person?

Image CC BY Francesco Fiondella

Zygmunt Bauman on Liquidity vs. Solidity

Liquidity vs. Solidity

A couple of years ago, as part of my research into my doctoral thesis, I commented on how Zygmunt Bauman’s concept of ‘liquid modernity’ captured succinctly the changing nature of knowledge in our society. Serendipitously, I came across a recent interview with Bauman via a tweet from Terry Wassall, ostensibly a colleague of his at the University of Leeds.

It’s a shame (and ironic given some of Bauman’s comments towards the end of the interview) that Theory, Culture & Society isn’t open access. Quotations will have to suffice, such as this one (my emphasis):

I did not and do not think of the solidity-liquidity conundrum as a dichotomy; I view those two conditions as a couple locked, inseperably, in a dialectical bond… After all, it was the quest for the solidity of things and states that most of the time triggered, kpt in motion and guided those things’ and states’ liquiefaction; liquidity was not an adversary, but an effect of that quest for solidity, having no other parenthood, even when (or if) the parent would deny the legitimacy of the offspring. in turn, it was the formless of the oozing/leaking/flowing liquid that prompted the efforts of cooling/damping/moulding. If there is something to permit the distinction between ‘solid’ and ‘liquid’ phases of modernity (that is, arranging them in an order of succession), it is the change in both the manifest and latent purpose behind the effort.

I think what Bauman is getting at here is that it very much depends on your worldview and context as to whether you see liquidity or solidity as desirable. The fact that people differ in similar ways over time (e.g. one group arguing for the status quo, one against) leads to the ‘dialectical bond’.

Bauman continues,

Originally, solids were melted not because of a distaste for solidity, but because of dissatisfaction with the degree of solidity of the extant/inherited solids: purely and simply, the bequeathed solids were foud to be not solid enough (insufficiently resistant/immunized to change) by the standards of the order-obsessed and compulsively order-building modern powers.

To cut a long story short: if in its ‘solid’ phase the heart of modernity was in controlling/fixing the future, the ‘liquid’ phase’s prime concern is with the avoidance of mortgaging it and in any otther way pre-empting the use of as yet undisclosed, unknown and unknowable opportunities the future is sure to bring.

Essentially, then, the left and the right of the political spectrum is a continuum of metaphorical viscosity. The conservative right tends towards solidity and the status quo, whilst the left looks towards liquidity and, in the words of Bauman, to avoid ‘mortgaging’ the future for the sake of the present.

As an educator, it’s difficult not to apply Bauman’s analysis to our current problems with the education system. As a citizen of the western world, it’s even harder not to apply his analysis to the crisis of Capitalism…

Image CC BY-NC whisperwolf

Of Bitcoin and Badges.

Over at the Scoop.it site for Badges for Lifelong Learning they were, until recently, using the Bitcoin image (shown above) to represent Badges. This got me thinking of the similarities and differences of the ideas behind the two systems.

Bitcoin is a peer-to-peer currency system that does away with the need for state-level control of the monetary system. It’s run into some issues but I think it’s promising, even if just as an alternative idea. Badges, or more particularly Mozilla’s Open Badges infrastructure and the result of the DML Badges competition, are (to me) even more interesting. Using badges to support lifelong learning sounds straightforward but it’s actually a fairly nuanced idea that takes some investigation to understand fully.

The problem with both Badges and Bitcoin is that adherents get carried away with the rhetoric, talking of their new system ‘destroying’ or ‘revolutionising’ an existing one. Many present it as either/or. On the other hand, critics are never satisfied unless a rigorous, comprehensive alternative to the status quo is presented in toto.*

Whilst as an historian I’m all-too-aware that almost every person in history has thought that they live in ‘important’ and ‘unprecedented’ times, I do think that the meltdown in our financial and educational systems is a rare occurrence. I certainly can’t think of too many civilisations who have gone through what we have experienced since 2008 and lived to tell the tale. 😮

We’re in the privileged position of resting upon the work of tireless advocates of civil society, the kind of people who have campaigned for a brighter future for their offspring. I think it’s time for us to do some building of our own. Occupying Wall Street and other financial centres is a good way to protest against the current system but it doesn’t (in itself) provide much in the way of an alternative. Similarly, instead of lamenting the state of our schools and universities, it’s time to do something about it. It’s time for and/and/and.

That’s why I’ve become involved in exploring Badges, and that’s why I’ll continue to keep an eye on the direction taken by advocates of Bitcoin. As they say, if you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem.**

*And on the odd occasion this does happen, they complain about the lack of consultation!

**An alternative phrasing is ‘if you’re not part of the solution, there’s a lot of money to be made prolonging the problem’.

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